Nine brief encounters, nine wry smiles

Walking is a good way to meet people, though often these meetings are fleeting. Here is a mini-album of encounters Emmy and I had during our walks in Portugal-Spain and the UK. Each was ultra-brief but images of the personalities involved have somehow stuck in my memory.

The Scottish shopkeeper

We spent a couple of hours in Dumfries in southern Scotland. I wanted to visit the house where poet Robert Burns once lived. It was somewhere near the centre of town but I couldn’t work out exactly where. I noticed a sign in a shop window: Streetmaps of Dumfries, £2.50. Inside, money changed hands and I turned to leave with a map.

“Hoo long are y’heer foor?” the helpful gentleman behind the counter asked in a thick Scottish accent.

“Just a couple of hours.”

“Och, y’dinna need a map then. Gie it back.”

I handed over the map. The kindly Scot turned to a photocopy machine and photocopied the part of the map that covered the centre of town. He pushed the £2.50 back into my hand, and, spreading the photocopy out on the counter, explained in detail how we could get to Robert Burns’ house.

I tried to pay for the photocopy.

“Och,” he said, “no charge. If you save money I’m happy.”

In the sitting room of Robert Burns’ house, Dumfries. I found the house with the help of a thrifty Scot and a photocopied map.

The “funny” taxi driver

Taxi drivers are talkative and funny, right? Sometimes talkative… yes, but not always funny. We took a taxi from Stratford-upon-Avon to Chipping Campden. I walked from our apartment to a taxi stand in a nearby Stratford street. The driver greeted me with a smarmy cheesy grin. I explained that I was going to Chipping Campden – about 20 kilometres away – but first we had to pick up my wife and two bags from our apartment.

“You’ve got three women in your life? How do you do it!?”

When we arrived at the apartment the driver lifted our two suitcases into the boot of the taxi.

“One’s heavy, the other’s light. I bet I know which one belongs to the missus, eh?” (nudge nudge)

I sat in the front seat, Emmy sat in the back.

“I’ll have to be on my best behaviour,” said our hilarious driver, jerking his thumb towards the rear. “Back seat driver, eh?”

The waitress with a midlands accent

The restful view of sheep grazing outisde Bennet’s Restaurant, Wrightington, where I failed to understand the word “koof-fa”.

Driving down the M6 we stayed a night at the Wrightington Hotel and Country Club in the English midlands. Attached to the hotel, Bennet’s Restaurant has a restful view over a neighbouring meadow filled with grazing sheep. We enjoyed a very good meal there, pampered by an attractive and attentive young waitress. She was hovering over me as I finished my dessert.

“Would you like a koof-fa?”

“Excuse me… a what?”

“A koof-fa.”

I looked around bewildered hoping to see a koof-fa somewhere in the restaurant. Emmy (who is not a native speaker of English) intervened.

“She means a coffee,” she whispered.

The forgetful waiter

My dinner of fish steaks in Ponte de Lima. But where was the entree?

The restaurant in the Imperio do Minho Hotel in Ponte de Lima (northern Portugal) is not renowned for its food, so to attract customers they have installed a big TV screen tuned to a sports channel. We sat down not far from the screen. The waiter took our order.

“We’ll have soup first, please, followed by fish steaks with vegetables.”

The waiter was looking at the TV screen as he noted our order.

Fifteen minutes later the fish and vegetables arrived, but no soup. The restaurant staff were standing around the TV their backs to us.

“Excuse me! DESCULPE!”

The waiter turned, saw my waving arm and came to our table walking crab-like sideways so he could keep the football action in view from the corner of his eye.

“Where’s our soup?” I asked politely.

“Soup? Soup? Oh, sorry, sorry, sorry, I forgot the soup. But you have the fish, no? It’s enough.”

On the TV the crowd roared and the waiter hurried back to the game. As for Emmy and me, we ate an ordinary but very filling meal. The waiter was right… it was enough.

The know-it-all from Austria

At breakfast in the Ashton House B&B in Painswick we were joined by a couple from Austria. The husband looked remarkably like the composer Franz Schubert with small wire-frame glasses, pork chop sideburns and ruddy cheeks.

“You are from Australia? Australia is in the Far East, isn’t it. In fact the very word Australia means the land in the east.”

“Actually,” I said, “Australia comes from the Latin word australis meaning southern.”

“No! No!” he shouted excitedly in a heavy German accent. “You are wrong! Here’s proof. Austria is the English version of Österreich which means the land in the east. Austria and Australia are almost the same, so Australia must mean land in the east too!”

I was used to being the only know-it-all at the breakfast table and was about to defend my monopoly when I received a vigorous kick under the table from Emmy, so I kept quiet.

Jesus Christ

Tourists get a souvenir photograph with Jesus Christ in Santiago de Compostela.

In the Praza do Obradoiro, the main square in front of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, there are plenty of opportunities for pilgrims to part with their cash. For example, for a small “donation”, you can have your picture taken standing beside a meticulously costumed live figure of St.James. Even better, right beside him, Jesus Christ himself is waiting to be photographed (see pix).

Emmy took my picture receiving the benediction of St.James, but when I turned to Jesus Christ I found the Son of Man besieged by a long queue. I decided to come back later.

It was early evening when we returned to the Praza do Obradoiro. St.James was still there and still doing brisk business.

“Where is Jesus Christ?” I asked him.

St.James didn’t understand English, but a bystander helped me out.

“You’ll have to come back tomorrow,” she said. “Jesus Christ has gone home for dinner.”

I get the blessing of St.James (Santiago).

A meticulously costumed Jesus Christ (before he went home for dinner) and his apostle St.James.

Mark Webber’s Portuguese fan

As we negotiated the alleys of Fajozes Village north of Porto a four-wheel drive screeched to a halt beside me. The driver was a young man around twenty years old but already balding. He had seen the small Australian flag sewn to the side of my walking hat.

“You… from Australia?”


“You know Mark Webber?”

Mark Webber? The name rang a distant bell somewhere on the horizons of my memory. Wasn’t he a Formula One racing car driver?

“You mean the Formula One racing driver?”

The young man was overjoyed.

“Yes! Yes! You know him!”

“No, I don’t know him.”

Despair. Then his eyes lit up.

“You live in Queanbeyan?”

(Queanbeyan is the nondescript New South Wales town where Mark Webber grew up.)

“No, sorry.”

Gloom again. Then I added:

“But I live in Canberra which is just ten minutes from Queanbeyan.”

Joy. His hands shot out of the car window and he clasped mine in a warm handshake.

“You live near Queanbeyan!? Amazing! I so happy! Mark Webber best man!”

He revved the engine of his car, lowered his head, and shot away behind a cloud of dust and diesel. He was a happy man. He had come closer to his idol than he ever thought would be possible.

The crossword puzzle fanatic

In London Emmy and I did a guided walk through the Notting Hill area. It was an entertaining walk, taking us along historic streets, past the houses of celebrities and into the travel bookshop that was the main location for the famous movie Notting Hill.

I noticed a woman in our group carrying a newspaper. As we gaped at the house once owned by Madonna she opened the newspaper, folded it a few times and began filling in a crossword puzzle. We walked on and she followed, head bowed, frowning, doing the crossword as she walked. She muttered to one of her companions.

“What’s bygone. Seven letters with a ‘q’ in it.”

The walk culminated in the crush of the Portobello Road market. Our guide let us loose to browse.

“Fruit and vegetables that way,” he said pointing up the street, “and antiques that way,” pointing in the opposite direction.

“That’s it!” said the crossword lady pulling the newspaper from her handbag. “That’s the answer. Antique. I’m so glad I came on this walk!”

The plainspeaking publican

The ivy-covered Major’s Retreat is the only watering hole in the hamlet of Tormarton, a day’s walk short of Bath on the Cotswold Way. On the evening we visited, Emmy sat at a table examining the pub’s menu while I put my elbows on the bar and ordered a pint of cider (for me) and a small glass of apple juice (for Emmy). The publican was talkative. He spoke with a plummy accent and had a vaguely military bearing consistent with the name of the pub. He recognised my Australian accent and we exchanged banter about the fortunes of our respective national cricket teams. As I put my hands around the two glasses I asked:

“Should I pay for these now, or later, together with our meal?”

“Oh, we’ll put the drinks on the tab for the time being.”

“How long can they stay on the tab?” I said, making a weak attempt at a joke. “Until after we get out the door?”

The publican laughed.

“I’ve got a shotgun under the bar here.”

He pointed at the front door.

“Before you could reach that door…” his eyes narrowed, the smile faded, his voice hardened and rose a little, “I’d put a barrel-full of buckshot up your arse!”

And I don’t think he was joking.

Tormarton’s ivy-cloaked pub, The Major’s Retreat.


A walker’s review of English fish and chips

In 1950s Wellington (New Zealand), Monday was fish and chips day for my family and many other families. Shops and bakeries closed over the weekend so for two days it was not possible to replenish supplies of bread. Like countless other children, instead of carrying a cut lunch from home on Mondays, I headed for school clutching two shillings for a lunch of fish and chips. When the lunchtime bell rang at South Wellington Intermediate School a swarm of black shoes would burst through the school gates and clatter down the street to the fish and chip shop of Mr Jurkovich.

It was always crowded and hot in the shop, even in winter. Mr Jurkovich worked fast. With one hand he would lift a wire basket full of fish, or a basket of chips, from a tub of boiling oil. With his other hand he would pinch a single sheet of greased paper, slap it down on top of a big pile of newspapers on the counter and dump the steaming fish and chips on it. The pile was given a quick shake of salt and deftly wrapped up.

“I serve from the back!” Mr Jurkovich would shout in a fruitless attempt to stop children from pressing forward against his flimsy counter. On the end of his big nose a bead of sweat would form. Eventually the drop would shake off. As often as not, it would fall into a serving of fish and chips on the counter. If this happened a cheer would go up. Mr Jurkovich’s eyebrows would crinkle and he would look suspiciously around the crowd of upturned faces.

“I serve from the back!” was his only grim comment. He didn’t know much English.

But the children rejoiced. They had something to talk about and someone to tease.

“Mr Jurkovich gave you extra salt. Free… and straight out of his nose!”

The Monday lunchtime ritual of tearing open the wrapping around a serving of fish and chips… somehow it has stayed with me. It was special, it was a luxury. Walking through England I ate several meals of fish and chips, each time hoping, I suppose, to relive the intensity of this childhood memory. It never happened, of course, but nevertheless I enjoyed English fish and chips. Here are my notes on these meals, ranked from unforgettably tasty to unforgettably forgettable. I should add that it is not just the flavour of the meals that I wish to record, but equally, a glimpse of the place where the meal was eaten. Flavour is a function – at least in part – of environment. Memory of food and memory of place go together.

“The best fish and chips in the UK” so they say. The claim may well be true.

1. The Old Keswickian Restaurant, Keswick. August 7th

Emmy and I ate upstairs in the sit-down, table service section of the Old Keswickian Restaurant. (There is a take-away department downstairs at street level.) The Old Keswickian is especially proud of its reputation for fish and chips, but other dishes are available too. The chips were big, moderately crisp on the outside and fluffy on the inside. The fish tasted fresh. The batter on the fish was slightly oily but very crisp and not too thick. The dish came with an optional serving of “mushy peas” – a small bowl of peas, pureed to a thick consistency that tasted like pea soup. The whole meal was freshly cooked and served with a slice of lemon. Overall the meal was memorably tasty, though I’m still undecided about the merits of mushy peas.

Fish and chips at the Old Keswickian (bottom). Emmy’s meal of crumbed scampi and salad is at the top, and in the middle the serving of mushy peas.

The Kings Head Inn, Kings Stanley. The restaurant is on the first floor. The annex on the left is a cafe open during the day.

2. Kings Head Inn, Kings Stanley. August 22nd

The fillet of fish was not particularly fresh and it was a bit grey in colour. The batter was extremely crisp, in fact it was quite crunchy all through and all over. The chips were well coloured, crisp on the outside and fluffy on the inside. The meal came with a flavoursome salad that included cherry tomatoes and slices of cucumber. The salad was fresh and crisp and not smothered in dressing or mayonnaise. There was also a tasty serving of peas. The meal was a “Monday special” costing £5.00 (the regular price is £9.95).

King Head’s tasty fish and chips with crisply battered fish and fresh salad.

Mount Inn, Stanton, lit by the late evening summer sun.

3. Mount Inn, Stanton. August 17th

The blackboard menu identified the fish as haddock. It was cooked in crisp, locally-made beer batter but tasted rather bland. The chips were a bit limp but not too bad. The meal was unique for its extras. The basic fish and chips came with peas and tartare sauce garnished with capers and gherkins. The salt was sea salt and freshly ground pepper was sprinkled over the meal. The Mount Inn stands on a hill high over Stanton Village. The atmospheric summer evening view was a bonus that helped diners overlook the small shortcomings of the meal.

The view from Mount Inn.

Mount Inn’s fish and chips with caper and gherkin-flavoured tartare.

One of several kiosks selling fish and chips near the Tower of London. Salt and sauces are provided on the buffet to the left.

4. A fish and chips kiosk in the pedestrian plaza adjacent to the Tower of London. July 10th

This was no-frills fish and chips. The piece of fish was quite big with a nice fishy taste and reasonably fresh. The batter was medium thick. The chips were bright yellow in colour. The colour might have come from the variety of potatoes used, or it might have been because of the cooking oil or some additive. The chips were not freshly cooked, however. Clearly they had been lying in the glass display counter for some time, so the bigger chips were half limp and the smaller ones had dried out and had become hard and crackly. No lemon was provided with the meal but it could be salted to taste at a buffet table beside the serving point. The meal came in a cardboard box decorated with newspaper motifs – an inventively cute substitute for traditional newspaper wrapping.

No frills fish and chips at the Tower of London.

Newspaper motifs on the cardboard packaging of fish and chips at the Tower of London.

Inside the Royal George Hotel, Birdlip.

5. Royal George Hotel, Birdlip. August 20th

According to the menu the fish and chips came with “petit poids”. These were soggy and tasteless peas – no doubt from a long opened pack of frozen peas. The chips were reasonably crisp but also tasteless. The fish was cod, but it was not fresh. In fact the fish was bland, tasteless and a bit watery. The batter was thin and overcooked at the edges.The meal came with tartare sauce and lemon but these failed to impart a flavour boost. Over all, this was one of the most tasteless meals I have ever eaten.

Royal George’s less than impressive fish and chips.

The Soggy Chip awards for bad food (appeal pending)

Welcome to the Soggy Chip awards for bad food (known as “The Soggies”). This famous award is for dodgy food served to famished Australian walkers in restaurants and pubs across the UK. There were many nominations and the judges have had great difficulty narrowing them down to a short list, but after intensive discussion and very scientific scrutiny they have arrived at three outstanding nominations.

Griddle-cooked pancakes with bacon and (in jug at top right) sweet maple sauce.

1. Griddle-cooked pancakes with bacon and sweet maple syrup, The Pancake Place, Dumfries (Scotland).

When the judges saw this dish advertised in the window of a restaurant they were incredulous. Could it really be true that bacon was being eaten with sweet maple syrup? Sadly, it was true. The dish consisted of three big griddle-cooked pancakes (known locally as pikelets) interleaved with greasy rashers of bacon. A jug of very sweet, very dark maple syrup was also supplied to be tipped generously over the hot bacon and pancakes. The syrup came with two small packets of butter, though it was unclear whether the butter was to be added to the syrup or spread on the bacon.


Aromatic belly pork on a bed of mashed potato.

2. Belly pork on a bed of mashed potato, The Crown Inn, Coniston (Cumbria).

The thick slice of belly pork was intimidating. It consisted of extremely salty, rock-hard crackle, and several layers of glistening pork meat cooked to varying levels of done-ness. The meat lay across a mound of mashed spud next to half a dozen well-boiled but very emaciated runner beans. A thin gravy had been found somewhere and splashed over the plate. A unique feature of the dish was the farmyard smell of the pork… a whiff of… what could it be? Fodder pellets? Diesel? Dung?

Traditional roast dinner with (top) Yorkshire pudding.

3. Traditional roast beef dinner with Yorkshire pudding, The Oddfellows Arms, Caldbeck (Cumbria)

According to the menu the roast beef came from prime Cumbrian cattle. This may well have been the case but it was referring to a cow that lived several decades ago. The meat was not tender but crumbly. It disintegrated when the fork touched it and the fragments had to be scooped up with a teaspoon. The Yorkshire pudding was in fact a deep frozen pastry shell in disguise. It was rubbery and very resistant to the sawing motions of a knife. The roast potatoes were fine, and so were the boiled potatoes provided one overlooked the raw interior of the potato. There were no greens.

And the winner is…

… the belly pork on a bed of mashed potato. An unforgettable meal, the aroma of which clung to one’s clothes for several days afterwards.

And now for the special awards…

 Dodgy beverage service. A special Soggy Chip award goes to the Maharaja Indian Restaurant at the Volunteer Inn in Chipping Campden for its failure to satisfactorily serve a cup of tea. Chief Soggy Chip judge George Quinn reports:

The dining room at the Volunteer Inn lies right behind the front bar. In fact you can look from the dining room over a counter, through an archway, past shelves crammed with bottles, into the bar. In the morning the room serves as the Inn’s breakfast room. In the evening it becomes the Maharaja Indian Restaurant, operated by a small squad of stony-faced Indians who put long-stemmed glasses on the tables and carefully guard a small hoard of laminated menus stacked on a sideboard.

Emmy and I are fond of Indian food so we were looking forward to our meal on the evening of August 16th. Behind the counter one of the staff busied himself with administrative matters, frowning over bills and receipts, jabbing at a calculator, making entries in a ledger, and occasionally taking phone calls. His associate took orders from diners and served the food. He also steered carefully between the bar and the dining room carrying bottles of wine and glasses of cider. Neither of the staff cracked a smile. Not once.

I ordered a hybrid Euro-Indian dish: curried lamb shanks.

“And to drink, sir?”

“Just tea, thanks.”

There was a long moment of stunned silence. Then an incredulous squeak.


“Yes, tea.”

“You mean, black tea?”

“Yes please, black tea.”

Ten minutes later (I’m not exaggerating the time lapse here) a single cup of tea arrived. It was about two thirds full of water with a tea bag drifting in it. After I fished out the tea bag the water level dropped to less than half a cup. At a neighbouring table wine gushed from bottles and cider twinkled in huge glasses.

The dish of curried lamb shanks was tasty, but its gastronomic appeal was marred by the £1.80 (about $3.00 Australian) I had to fork out for a tea bag and half a cup of warm water.

‚ Dodgy hygiene in the dining room. A special Soggy Chip award goes to the Travellers Rest Restaurant in Talybont-on-Usk (Wales) for its failure to protect diners from the restaurant’s cats. Chief Soggy Chip judge George Quinn reports:

When we were shown to our room at The Travellers Rest – a B&B cum restaurant in the hamlet of Talybont-on-Usk – a black cat was curled up snoozing on the only chair.

“It’s his favourite place,” said our hostess giving him an indulgent pat. So we didn’t disturb him. We made ourselves as comfortable as we could sitting side-by-side on the bed. We learned that in total three cats lived permanently at The Travellers Rest. Their names were Maddie, Zuki and Quinn. Yes, I’m afraid so… Quinn, named, I believe, after Dr Quinn Medicine Woman, an American TV show.

All three cats appeared in the dining room that evening. They stalked the floor for a while, sharpening their claws on the rough wooden pillar that supported a ceiling beam in the middle of the room before disappearing out the back in the direction of the kitchen. They appeared again the following morning as we were having breakfast. I was about to put a fatty piece of sausage into my mouth when there was a sharp shout:

“Quinn! Stop it!”

I quickly lowered my fork and looked around. Two cats were facing each other on the dining room floor, growling and swishing their tails. Our hostess was looking at them fondly.

“They’re always irritable in the morning before they’ve had breakfast.”

Later there was the sound of loud hawking and retching. One of the cats coughed up a furball on the dining room floor. The front door was propped open to clear the sour odour and a clammy hand of morning chill reached in to touch us on the neck as we ate.

A hungry cat joins us for dinner in the Travellers Rest Restaurant.

That evening, as we enjoyed an excellent dinner of lamb cutlets with Welsh leeks, the cats again joined us. There was a scrabbling and hissing under the table as they fought for position. The winner seized the right to sit on a chair and peer up over the edge of the table. Its head nodded up and down as it followed the transfer of lamb cutlet from plate to mouth. When dessert arrived the cats disappeared.

“They’re not really interested in sugary food,” our hostess explained.

STOP PRESS! Appeal against Soggy Chip award

The organisers of the world famous Soggy Chip awards have received an appeal against their decision to award a Soggy to Coniston’s “belly pork on a bed of mashed potato”. It has come to their attention that the chief judge actually enjoyed the meal. He was observed crunching through the crackle with special relish. Apparently he was considering ordering a second helping. The plaintifs are arguing that enjoyment of a meal disqualifies it from a Soggy award. The organisers of the award are in a panic. They have now found out that the chief judge actually enjoyed all the nominated meals (including – perhaps especially – the griddle-cooked pancakes with bacon and maple sauce). A decision on the appeal is pending. The awards are in disarray.

[Next up: Encounters with animals and wildflowers along the Cotswold Way.]

From a mini masterpiece to a wallowing hippopotamus: The country cuisine of northern Portugal

If you are a vegetarian you will starve to death in the country areas of northern Portugal. Most dishes are built around meat. Pork is the most popular, followed by beef, but surprisingly chicken does not feature prominently on most menus and is often absent altogether. Teetotallers may also have a hard time. On the several occasions when we ate without ordering wine – choosing instead tea or Coca Cola or (horror of horrors) water – we were met with glances of polite incredulity.
When you sit down in a café or restaurant in Portugal a couvert instantly appears. This is a small basket containing chunks of fresh bread and floury, crispy-crusted rolls. Sometimes it is accompanied by butter, cheese and olives. You nibble on this while your meal is being prepared.

Here are some of the dishes we ate during our six days of hard walking through northern Portugal from Porto to Valenca. I have ranked them from best to worst.

Alheira sausage on a bed of spinach This wonderfully savoury dish was prepared by Teresa at the Quinta das Alfaias in Fajozes just north of Porto. It was a served as an entrée before the equally savoury but more conventional main course of grilled dourado fish and roast vegetables. The alheira is a large U-shaped smoked sausage that – Teresa told us – contains many different meats, but no pork. It was originally invented in the middle ages by the beleaguered Jews of Portugal. To protect themselves from the Inquisition they pretended to be good Christians. They convinced the Inquisition (who – being religious fanatics – were none too bright) that there was pork in the alheira sausage. It was a sausage-based, life-or-death, strategy for the Jews. By eating alheira they saved themselves from torture. They also enjoyed a fine delicacy, had a quiet laugh at the expense of the Catholic Church and ultimately made lots of money when alheira sausages became popular among the “real” Christian population. The interesting history of the delicacy gave it extra tang as we devoured it. Teresa served the alheira finely spiced and chopped on a bed of shredded, lightly blanched spinach. This dish would ornament the menu of any restaurant in the world. ✭✭✭✭✭

Melon and pork entree in Ponte de Lima

Melon with cured pork We encountered this surprising entrée at the otherwise totally undistinguished Restaurante Imperio do Minho in Ponte de Lima. The melon was of the pale-fleshed, honeydew variety, only much better than the honeydew melons of Australia: fresh, dense, juicy, sweet and smoothly textured. It was cut into chunks and surrounded on the plate by thin-cut slices of dark, slightly salty, cured pork. The combination of melon and pork in this dish was unusual and delicious. ✭✭✭✭✩

Cecilia's "pilgrim's menu" at 8.50 euros

A “pilgrim’s menu” Many restaurants and snack bars along the Camino offer what they call a “pilgrim’s menu” which is usually a bit cheaper than other main items on the menu. The components of a pilgrim’s meal vary from establishment to establishment. Here is one such meal that we ate at the spacious Casa Cecilia restaurant between Gaia and Arcos. The meal started with a bowl of thin and fairly tasteless vegetable soup. This was followed by a main course of chicken schnitzel served with rice. The chicken was rather oily but reasonably succulent. Its coating was batter rather than bread crumbs but the coating was neither soggy nor overly dry. The rice tasted hard or under-cooked by comparison with the norm in Asia, and it came mixed with sweet raisins. The raisins were not seeded, so from time to time the teeth grated and crunched on these small hard seeds. The meal concluded with a refreshingly delicious baked apple served whole and flavoured with sticks of cinnamon protruding from the core. This was straightforward, honest fare, and something of a bargain at 8.50 euros (about $13 Australian) including a Coke (for me) and a small bottle of apple juice (for Emmy). ✭✭✭✩✩

We begin our excavation of the Cozido a Portugueza

Cozido a Portugueza When we entered the small “Restaurante Pedra Furada” in the village of Pedra Furada south of Barcelos it was 1.00 p.m in the afternoon, we had walked around 10 kilometres, and we were hungry. We were given an effusive welcome by Antonio, the proprietor. After placing a basket of breads on the table he returned with a glass of chilled red wine for me. (Emmy – being more cautious and abstemious – stuck with apple juice.) Drinking red wine cold was a local tradition, Antonio told us, and so was the lunch dish he was about to serve. Half an hour later a platter of Cozido a Portugueza was carefully lowered onto the table. At first it looked innocuous… like an ancient burial mound that concealed a mysterious interior. Around its foothills there were jagged boulders of boiled potato and long ridges of boiled carrot. The slopes and summit were thickly clad in vegetation… it looked like boiled kale but is known locally as couve cabbage. When we cleared some of this away we found what was indeed a kind of burial ground, a jumble of pork chunks and slices of pork sausage. The chunks came from various parts of the pig: there was muscle meat with thick fat clinging to it, there were bony joints with meat to be winkled out from nooks and crannies, and there were bacon-like rashers. Some chunks were boiled, others seemed to be fried or roasted and were pretty greasy. Lurking among them there were diagonal slices of at least two kinds of pork sausage.
The couve kale disappeared quickly and we levelled quite a lot of the potato and carrot. But we did struggle with the meat, and when we rose from the table much of it was still awaiting excavation. The Restaurante Pedra Furada is described as “award winning” in John Brierly’s Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino Portugues. As we hoisted our backpacks on to our backs and stepped out onto the road, we wondered: who bestowed the award? ✭✭✩✩✩

Francezinha: it should be arrested and put on trial for endangering human health

Francezinha I saw Francezinhas on the menu in most of the snack bars and cafes we visited in Portugal and I was determined to try one. I got an opportunity at the “Churrascaria Maritone 2” restaurant and snack bar in Tuido, just south of Valenca, where francezinhas were a house special (labelled Francezinhas a casa on the menu).
This dish is an outrage. It makes the food at McDonalds or KFC or Red Rooster look like Michelin three-hats haute cuisine. It makes damper and billy tea look like a gourmet banquet. It is probably called francezinha so the Portuguese can blame the French for it. It is a crime against humanity and a gross violation of human rights.
I am going to describe the francezinha that I had for lunch as unemotively as I can, so you can rest assured every syllable of my description is accurate and unexaggerated.
A francezinha is a kind of steak sandwich, but to say it is a steak sandwich is a grave insult to steak sandwiches. Between the two slices of bread in my francezinha there was a (very tough) slice of roast beef. Under that there was a layer composed of sliced Portuguese chorisa sausage. Further down there was layer of sliced ham, and under this a layer of sliced pork sausage. At the very bottom there was a thick slice of cheddar-style cheese. There was no sign of any vegetable matter (apart from the bread, of course). An egg was cracked over the top of all this and it was covered with a thick tarpaulin of mozzarella-style cheese before being placed in a kiln (sorry… kitchen oven) to melt the cheese and fuse the egg to the top of the bread.
Stick with me, dear reader, I haven’t finished yet. When the stack emerged from the oven it was doused very liberally in a kind of thickish, mildly spicy, brown sauce, like a combination of tomato sauce, barbeque sauce and Lee and Perrins HP sauce. The whole lot was served in a high-sided, flat-bottomed bowl. The francezinha appeared like a yellow hippopotamus wallowing in a mud hole.
I worked very seriously on taste-testing this abomination but managed to eat less than a quarter before feeling slightly ill and giving up. I turned with gratitude to the big side dish of rather thin and soggy potato chips that came with the main dish, but this too remained 90% uneaten when we made our escape from the restaurant.
“Zero stars” is much too generous for the francezinha, but what rating can I give it below zero? Hmmm, after careful thought I have decided to award it five “black holes”. ●●●●●

24 hours of airline food

The advice was unanimous. If you are flying long distances, eat as little as possible and drink as much as possible. (The last part of this advice was spoiled by a caveat: no alcohol.)

I did the opposite. I ate everything that was put in front of me, and drank only the minimal ration of fluid that came with each meal. This was a mistake. I should have taken the advice. That’s why I arrived in London feeling less than sharp. Not ill exactly, but slightly queasy. And it wasn’t all jetlag and dehydration. More than anything, I think it was the food.

Here’s what I ate, with each meal and snack rated on a scale of one to five.

Chicken and brie focaccia sandwich (Canberra Airport snack bar, midday).  The two slices of focaccia bread were lightly toasted. Between them were pieces of roasted chicken, with brie that had melted under the heat of the toasting process, plus shredded basil leaves. The chicken retained some remnants of moistness. The brie was warm, bright yellow, and runny, but luckily there wasn’t too much of it. What lifted this snack was the sharp and delicious hint of basil. The toasting gave the bread a pleasantly fine veneer of crispness. This snack was well above the average, but from here it was all downhill. ★★★★✩

Ginger muffin (Qantas in-flight snack, mid afternoon between Canberra and Sydney) The flight from Canberra to Sydney takes 40 to 50 minutes, so there is scarcely time for the stewardess to drop a cardboard box in your lap before she is back again, hovering, ducking, leaning, trying to grab back what she has just given you, suggesting you stuff the remnants of your snack into a kind of sick-bag that comes with it. Inside the cardboard box lies a puffed-up tennis ball of cellophane with a brown object inside – a ginger muffin. The muffin is quite moist, very sweet, speckled with tiny currants and carries a strong, almost smellable, flavour of ginger. Edible, but only just. ★★✩✩✩

Vegetarian pasta (British Airways dinner, early evening between Sydney and Bangkok) The main course came with an entrée of coleslaw salad (not bad, fairly crunchy) and a dessert of white mousse (nice and light but ultra sweet). Peeling back the aluminium foil on top of the main dish revealed a mini-swamp of macaroni in white sauce. Green peas decorated the surface, like frogs talking a quick breath before diving, and fragments of red carrot floated here and there like discarded Coke cans. Inserting a plastic fork revealed that the sauce had congealed. You could lift the contents of the dish to your mouth in grainy lumps. The flavour was bland. ★★✩✩✩

Pastrami roll (British Airways snack, served around midnight prior to stopover in Bangkok) The slice of dark pastrami beef – wiped with a blackish mustard – lay between two halves of a bright white, floury-crusted, sourdough bread roll. The meat and mustard tasted OK, though neither looked very appetising. But the bread was a disaster: stale, tough and flaky. ★★✩✩✩

Braised pork with rice (British Airways dinner, served in the small hours of the morning after departure from Bangkok) The pork squirmed at the right hand end of the small dish, jostling with rice in the middle and vegetables to the left. The pork was truly horrible, almost unrecognisable as meat, with a kind of unpleasant, slightly bitter bite in its flavour. The rice was mushy. The vegies were grossly over-cooked. After eating this concoction I reached with gratitude for the dessert, a Kit Kat chocolate bar. And a small bottle of Spanish tempranillo wine was smooth and generous enough to erase the barbaric after-taste of the pork. No stars for the food though. ✩✩✩✩✩

“English breakfast” (British Airways, served at 4.30 a.m. on approach to Heathrow). Two kinds of breakfast were on offer, “Omelette” and “English”. I chose the latter, but glancing surreptitiously around I concluded that the two breakfasts weren’t much different. Mine had a chicken sausage, half a fried tomato and some rather slimy brown lumps which were probably champignons although they had no recognisable flavour. The main component of the meal was scrambled eggs between two slices of ham. The ham was excellent – lightly cooked and quite flavoursome – but the scrambled eggs had been pressed into a block that could be lifted en masse like a small brick. A tiny serving of diced fruit delivered some freshness to the mouth at the conclusion of the meal. ★★★✩✩

So… looking back over my nutritional intake during those long 24 hours, I think I know why I saw Heathrow swaying slightly through a filmy haze.

Morgan Spurlock’s film Super Size Me documents the drastic effects on his physical and psychological health of one month spent eating nothing but McDonald’s food. Morgan… for your next act, try 24 hours locked into an airline diet. The food wasn’t all bad news, but it was mostly bad news.