Monday, June 25, 2012

The Food They Won’t Be Serving At The London Olympics

With the Olympics just a few weeks away, it appears every feature writer in the country has been hard at work trying to find ways to nose articles on London 2012.

We’ve had daily pieces on the stately homes, towns, former pit villages and rough estates the Olympic Torch has passed through on its 70-day journey around Britain. Nature writers penning columns on the 2,000 ash, alder, cherry, willow, birch and hazel trees planted in the Olympic Park. And history nuts casting their eyes back 64 years to the last London Olympics, when athletes apparently travelled by bus, stayed in shabby flats, and sewed their own kit.

Then, there was rationing. Now there are trendy food markets and pop ups on every corner, and a never ending appetite, it seems, for food and drink features with an Olympic theme, however desperately crowbarred in. I even spotted a journalist the other day on Twitter desperately asking whether anyone “could think of a way of linking a feature about drink with the Olympics”.

There have been endless, clichéd articles about how British food is trying to throw off its stodgy image of stringy beef and boiled, overcooked vegetables with everything. Apparently, according to some food writers, the world still sees us a culinary wasteland built on deep-fried Mars bars, instant mash and baked beans. Where have they been for the past 20 years?

Even David Cameron has got in on the act, espousing the virtues of sticky toffee pudding from Cartmel, oysters from Whitstable, salt marsh lamb from North Wales, and smoked salmon from Scotland, as the key to our cultural identity - showcasing “our heritage, openness, creativity and diversity". He didn’t mention what he plumps for at his country suppers.

We’re told spectators will be able to enjoy roast pork on a roll, Red Leicester cheese and apple chutney sandwiches, and, of course, fish and chips - as well as dishes from far away places like Asia, Africa, and the Malvinas. Roast penguin anyone? And if that wasn’t enough, the world's biggest McDonald's in the Olympic Park. Well, they had to do something for the sponsors I suppose.

But however ethnically diverse the offerings, thankfully you won’t find some of the foods I ate while covering the last Olympics in Beijing. In the weeks I spent there suffocating in smog, I wrote an article on the city’s Donghuamen night market, which the Chinese government had rebuilt to showcase 100 "dainty snacks" from all corners of China. Dainty wasn’t the word immediately on my lips when I conducted a Bushtucker trial with tourists in the market. Here it is, if you want a read...

I THREW up five minutes after visiting Donghuamen night market. It wasn't the snake, or the scorpion, the lamb's penis, testicles, bees, centipede, or the beer I downed trying to banish the taste. It was the silkworm.

It exploded in my mouth and it was everything I could do to stop myself instantly gagging on the musty, yellow gunk. I managed to last until the filming stopped - and then threw up in one of the bins.

All to the bemusement of the locals, who clearly found the array of creepy crawlies, and other things that go crunch in the night, delicious.

A sign in English said the people's government had rebuilt the market, off Beijing's central Wangfujing Street, to showcase 100 "dainty snacks" from all corners of China.

They said they wanted to "enhance the friendly exchanges with foreign countries."

But when I offered the delicacies to the hordes of Olympics fans who had descended on the infamous tourist spot, I think the most complimentary comment was "absolutely disgusting".

Only the French seemed to like it. A gaggle crowded round the scorpion stand and made pleasing, lip-smacking gestures in the way they would if they were tucking into a truffle or slice of foie gras, or a frog for that matter.

The whole thing was a dreadful experience, but the politburo was right: it did lead to some friendly - and hilarious - exchanges. I even found myself having a new-found respect for the likes of Peter Andre and Paul Burrell.

The Bushtucker Trials on TV show I'm A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here looks easy when you're munching crisps on the sofa.

But when you get that first stomach convulsion, and insect legs stick in your throat, and the deep-fried, rancid taste is with you for the next 12 hours, it takes a lot more guts than you think.

"What do you think of the silkworm then?" I ask Canadian Kim Warburton, who is on a fact-finding mission for the Vancouver Games in 2010.

"It's awful. It's definitely a local taste - and it's still in my teeth!"

Her colleague Sarah Triantafillou is having none of it. I offer her a bit of snake, or was it a baby seahorse? But the most adventurous she'll go is the noodles.

"What did you think of the baby eels?" I ask. "What! No way!" she shrieks, clutching her mouth.

A Mexican guy butts in, shaking his head with a hangdog expression. "The scorpion was interesting," he muses.

I eventually get an American, in obligatory baseball cap, to eat a three-inch centipede. "It looks horrible, what does it taste like?" he grimaces. "It tastes like centipede," I tell him.

He crunches away with a pained look. "It's terrible - it's as bad as it looks. Errr centipede!" I offer him a beer to remove the taste.

"No thanks," he says. "If I drink too much beer, I might eat another one."

:: My new book 'Down And Out In Padstow And London' about my disastrous attempt to train as a chef, including stints at Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck, Rick Stein's and other restaurants, is available as a paperback and eBook on Amazon CLICK HERE

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