Welcoming paying foreign guests to your home is an interesting, yet fraught experience, especially when confronted with their prejudices about English cooking. Still nothing that extreme gastronomic diplomacy and a date and walnut cake can’t over come.
‘What do you think of English food?’ asked the newly arrived Italian.
‘Disgusting’, replied the Russian with his mouth full of one of my homemade flapjacks.
I’d decided to fill my house with English language students over the summer to ward of the excesses of the credit crunch. This meant cooking ‘English’ food to a rolling cohort of five to eight youngish foreigners – Turkish, Serbs, Japanese and Chinese as well as the aforementioned Italians and Russians – every evening.
‘Do you really mean that?’ I asked. ‘Do you understand what disgusting means? Do you think my cooking is disgusting?’
‘Yes, yes. Everybody knows it,’ the Italian plunged on. ‘English food is like English weather,’ he gestured towards the rain outside. ‘It is very bad.’
I wanted to be a good hostess, after all there people were paying to stay in my house, but there are limits and being casually insulted at my own dinner table is definitely beyond acceptable.
‘Ok that’s it. Dinner is over. You can all leave.’
They looked at me astonished, then all trooped off to their bedrooms crest fallen and confused. I hoped they were still hungry.
When I had calmed down a little, (three glasses of wine and a rant to my good friend Chris helped) I started to think about food and culture shock. The Russian didn’t really think that English food was disgusting, or at least not my food, after all he had been with me for a week and had eaten with increasing appetite. His wife had also tucked in – providing she could douse everything with tomato ketchup. And the Italians had only just arrived so they couldn’t make any sort of real judgement; they were just lashing out at a host country where they were trying to find their feet. (Irrational anger and/or prejudice, a common sign of culture shock: as any guidebook will tell you.)
And angry as I was, I still couldn’t pretend that I am such a seasoned world traveller that I too haven’t experienced food culture shock. My first samosa, newly arrived in Mumbai airport, caused me to panic. I became convinced, post-ingestion, that some virulent form of amoebic dysentery had lurked in its greasy corners and was now spreading through my body so I was seconds away from disintegrating into a pool of slurry.
Less dramatically, but more pertinently, I know how the basic things: oil, rice, flour and bread, can taste peculiar when grown/produced in a different country and how easy it is to criticise that difference.
So although I am aware of what it is to look at food with a mind full of fear and an empty belly full of butterflies, I still had to deliver an ultimatum to the students: move out; cook your own food or sit at my table and damn well enjoy it. They chose the latter with mumbled apologies and we all blamed the usual international whipping boy, cultural misunderstandings, for the mishap.
So the evenings rolled on, and I did my best to accommodate everybody’s habits. There were the obvious things like not serving pork or giving a choice of cutlery or chopsticks. But also putting everything on the table together so those who like to pile their plates high with meat, salad, potatoes etc could mix and match as they wished, while those who prefer to eat in a series of courses, not mixing hot and cold or protein and starch, could also eat as they preferred.
And I did my best to adopt a largesse d’esprit towards the food-habits of all peoples. I found myself unfazed by the Japanese guy who ate cornflakes and vanilla ice-cream for breakfast or a different Italian who piled chocolate digestive biscuits in a bowl, poured coffee over them and ate the resultant mush with a spoon.
I also did what English people have done for centuries when confronted with insults about our cooking. I brought out the cakes and puddings: date and walnut, apple crumble, summer pudding… and I watched my visitors experience sweets that are not just frivolous bagatelles of cream and sugar but nutritious and filling.
‘Thank God for your hands,’ said the Turkish women as they ate queen of puddings. The Japanese guy just slurped and beamed and helped himself to another slice of ginger bread. As for the Russians? Well the food war melted. We chatted. We found common ground. We broke bread.
And the Italian guy? Never have I seen anyone make so much effort to sing for his supper. He could not have turned into a more considerate and charming guest. Just before he left, his wife asked me for my carrot cake recipe. So I am delighted to say that now, back in Italy, they can enjoy the pleasures of English food in the comfort of their own home. All they’ll need is a shower of rain and they might even feel nostalgia for their two weeks eating in England. Buono appetito!