I can carbon-date my transition into the world of Fine Dining to the first time my mum put Ski Yogurt on the table at tea-time. This, to a palate trained to accept cling peaches and bile beans, was a gastronomic revelation. It tasted like nothing else, except maybe sugar and fruit flavouring with top notes of sour milk, and opened new horizons of gustatory adventure. I knew instinctively that this was not the food of the lumpen masses – it was even socially superior to Dairylea Cheese Triangles (my poshest pre-Ski foodstuff). Not only was it uniquely presented (eating something out of a plastic pot with a spoon was like heroin back then) and flatteringly associated with Switzerland and middle-class leisure sports, it was the full-of-fitness food. It actually made you fit! Not that I cared – I was in it for the glamour. It was my gateway comestible to the next step – Alpen Muesli. This, again, effortlessly evoked the snowy Alps, and tasted like nothing else, except maybe sugar and fruit flavouring and cold porridge. Goodbye, cornflakes!
My initiation into Fine Drinking came much later (I am pleased to recount). It was Rob Sheppard [<REAL NAME] who seduced me from my habitual half of lager – the lunchtime tipple of choice for the grammar school boy – to A Glass Of Dry White Wine. This was so so phucking phisticated it made my head swim. We drank white for the same reason we drank lager – in the charmingly naive belief its pale colour indicated it wasn’t as strong as red or bitter. So we wouldn’t be completely incapable of sitting through double geog. in the afternoon without being sick into our army surplus rucksacks. Which I once was.
When we left school (some of us having no choice) and started going to pubs legally, without the inconvenience of removing our school ties so people would think we were businessmen, it was again Rob (who by this time sported the ultimate in sartorial sophistication, the dark green velvet jacket) who set the pace by taking a bottle of Mateus Rosé (or sometimes Blue Nun) to parties. He was like Roger Moore in a crowd of Sidney Jameses, and his success with girls was legendary. His allure was diminished when his offer of a lift home turned out to be in his dad’s DIY shop van full of exhaust fumes and loose plywood, but his taste was impeccable, and I became a convert to both brands, and Hirondelle, the third in the wine-lovers’ holy trinity. I was a world above the oiks who turned up at social gatherings with a Watney’s Party Seven, and well prepared to woo the gorgeous and quite posh girl who became my first wife, with whom I deserted the smoky pub and the lowlifes who had been my greatest friends for the Wine Bar which had just opened up on the high street, as on high streets across the country.
The chalkboard menu (Plat Du Jour! That’s like Fr. for plate of the day), the drizzle-soaked chairs on the pavement where you could get stared at by the bus queue, the natural wood interior made of real wood – a brave new world of wine with real labels. And cheesecake – the now-baffling standard accompaniment to A Glass Of Dry White Wine. And baguettes! Which tasted like nothing else, except maybe sliced white bread that was unsliced and long instead of square. And “the cheeseboard” – rubbery stuff that came all the way from France! In a sense, I could never go home again.
Perhaps you are still on the bile beans and cling peaches diet, dear reader, but if not, what was your initiation into excellence in food and drink?