Friday, 11 October 2013
Food Glorious Food
Watching this week’s episode of Whitechapel, the cannibal theme reminded me of the curious story of the late Lancelot Phipps, leader of the secretive Mayfair dining club, the Grosvenor Square Gourmands. In the late nineteen sixties this happy little band of guzzlers and slurpers gathered to masticate their way through the finest and most exotic provender the planet could provide.
Soon the delights imported to this sceptred isle were of insufficient singularity to satisfy the subtle appetites of the more inquisitive members of the group; Lancelot foremost among them. When they tired of whole smoked saffron wren and grew weary of kangaroo twizzlers, locust crunch and mealworm mêlée; when mere exotic meats paled on the palate and the whole gamut of tagines, casseroles, flambés, roasts, pickles, tatins and compotes failed to tickle their fancy, they took their jaded taste buds abroad to find the sources (or should that be sauces?) of their culinary Niles.
Thus did Lancelot and his motley band devour the rotting-flesh-smelling durian fruit straight from the tree in Malaysia. They consumed the fresh blood and still-beating heart of cobras in Indonesia, as much for the ritual and spiritual as for the culinary experience. They tracked down and ate live huhu grubs with the Maori in New Zealand. And on one triumphant day they were led to a seedy alley in Bintulu, Sarawak where they feasted on sautéed strips of long pig in a piquant local sauce. Human flesh; nothing could be more exotic than that.
Satisfied at last Lancelot and his band returned to London where they boasted to their wider dining circle about the sights they had seen, the aromas they had smelled and the delicious things they had tasted, chewed and swallowed… and in some cases regurgitated. Basking in the glory these modern day dandies strutted around London, heroes of the fashionable eatery scene and welcomed with some trepidation by every restaurateur in the capital. Until one day…
One day, in the early nineteen-seventies, while holding court at The Ivy and sniffing desultorily at its unexcitingly sturdy fare, a whisper spread around the room. A shambolic ragged figure was ushered into his presence and Lancelot demanded he speak out. Clutching at a tattered tweed cap the stranger said,
“We was just talking about you, in The Two Brewers… Just round the corner like. All I said to my mate…” he indicated his companion, “All I said was ‘I bet he’s never tasted Lhasa Poi.’ and the next thing, we’re being bundled along here, begging yer pardon, Sir.” He cringed as if bracing himself for a beating.
Lancelot rose to his feet, his face alight. A new challenge. After a few minutes of interrogation he gleaned all he needed to know. He would eat this unique dish if it was the last thing he would do on Earth. “Bring me,” he demanded, “John Blashford-Snell!”
As luck would have it the ascendant explorer was newly returned from his crossing of The Darién Gap in search of the missing link of the Pan-American Highway and a meeting was quickly convened. Ever in search of adventure an expedition to the high Himalayas was mounted and Lancelot and Bashers set out for Tibet.
The only known source of this rare dish was an ancient monastery, many miles from the nearest road. Winter was fast approaching and the straggling line of Sherpas struggled to haul the equipment along the rocky bed of a freezing cold mountain stream. The mules had been released to fend for themselves after three of them had died and the men who were left were in a race against time and cold and possible starvation.
Eventually, only Bashford-Snell, Lancelot and one wiry Sherpa remained as they made the final ascent to a rocky outcrop in the teeth of a frigid gale that threatened to strip the flesh from their bones. As they neared the monastery a lone bell rang out and an old, wizened monk came out to greet them. Through cracked and wind-burned lips Lancelot Phipps made the entreaty which has passed into history alongside “Doctor Livingstone, I presume?”. He steadied himself and asked:
“Oh holy father, we have travelled far and journeyed hard to find this place. Along the way we have suffered hardship and lost many men. We have but one thing to ask.”
The old man smiled, bowed and asked, “What is it you wish, my son?”
Lancelot drew himself up and spoke clearly, “We wish to taste the Lhasa Poi, whose closely guarded secret only you hold.”
“Of course,” replied the monk, “we eat little else. But I have one question for you before we sit down to eat. What type do you seek?”
Lancelot paused, thrown; he hadn’t expected this. He was lost for words and his throat tightened as he struggled to formulate a reply.
The ancient monk continued. “Steak and kidney poi, or chicken and mushroom poi?”
(PS: I'm here all week, folks!)