Not Another Bloody Chateau

'Don't be ridiculous. How do you know you don't like it unless you try?'

One of the best - at the time, worst - memories of my childhood is a fifteen course banquet in a crumbling French chateau at which, as a smallish boy, I was required to eat frogs legs, garlic snails, shaved truffle and foie gras, and a slab of clafoutis riddled with cherry stones. I have no idea what the meal cost or how my mother knew it was on offer, but I remember us being delivered through sun-lit French countryside, and persuading my sister to slide down a grass bank. (Into the moat.)

My relationship with my mother was non traditional. She found motherhood tiresome, and was driven by a need to keep moving and try things that were new. (She once persuaded my father to drive home from the Far East via Afghanistan because she was bored.) She also drank like a fish and had no trouble with us trying various wines and spirits so we would recognise the taste and be able to distinguish good from bad. There can't be many families where all three children have been stomach pumped by the age of ten.

Mostly she wanted us to ‘know things’. She taught me silver marks, how to tell Georgian glass from early Victorian, how to tell the quality of bone china by holding it up to the light, how to tell if supposedly antique ivory was real and whether a Regency table was original or had been restored. She explained that loving Limoges with its gilding and brightness was fine in a child but I'd grow out of it. And she made us eat. 

Roquefort as well as cheddar, quail as well as chicken, blood sausage as well as Walls. She fed us thousand year old eggs (actually 40 days and soaked in horse urine), and told me once I’d just eaten dog. She couldn't cook to save her life and regarded my forays into the kitchen with amusement, bemusement and occasional contempt, as if cooking should be left to those professionally trained. She would, however, happily taste anything and was ruthlessly determined we do the same.

(Family life was made easier by an aunt who renegotiated the food rules to the point that a hated taste or texture such as tapioca or aspic could be dismissed after one mouthful, new foods we genuinely disliked, asparagus and offal, after two, while tastes or textures we were simply uncertain about had to be finished. A better set than in my wife's childhood. Forced at an early age to remain at the table until she finished a gristly sausage, she vomited immediately afterwards, because a vegetarian as soon as she was old enough to get away with it, and still refuses to have sausage in the house.)

We ate our way round the world. Snake and who knows what cooked over converted oil drums at roadside stalls in the Far East, whale, fermented herring and reindeer in Scandinavia, frogs and snails and wild boar in France, rabbit stew, with the rabbits killed at our table, in Sicily. My sister, aged four, was appalled. At seven I simply wanted to watch them skinned. Later, I scored points for returning to school with a tin of ants in chocolate. It was a strange and nowadays impossible childhood, with little mothering and an emphasis on knowing the capitals of the world, the ten longest rivers and the wine districts of Germany and France. What we shared were not emotions but adventures, markets, tastes and a willingness to try the new. 

There was always a landmark to see, another thing to eat, somewhere else we should be. The 'not another bloody chateau' of the title was my comment, aged about nine, on being bundled into the car to go to the crumbling country house where we were to eat the fifteen course meal. Afterwards, exhausted, and feeling sick, we, the children, reluctantly agreed that it was probably worth it. 

Looking back I'm sure it was.


© Jonathan Grimwood