Sitting in the train to London, having eaten my ‘not just any’ salmon salad, I’m struck how after a while all M&S food tastes the same. A familiar emulsive film of uniform tastelessness pervades. But I don’t complain. It beats train food, which has never got any better despite Pru Leith or whoever. And I had no time to make my own sandwich. It’s not always possible to be prepared and it is always by taking risks that we discover new things, particularly where eating is concerned. And doing it rough is often the best way.
In Portugal a few years ago, we happened upon a little town overlooking the salt flats near the Algarve, called Cacela Velha. There were huge forest fires blazing on the horizon, like war waging in Mordor. Black smoke filling the sky, the sun setting on land and sea. In the town square there’s a no frills seafood tavern called the Casa Velha. The rough benches and tables outside are almost always occupied. You’ll have to wait patiently. But be pushy. Sleek mercs full of affluent Portuguese park up and assume precedence. When you get a table, the owner just throws a tablecloth over it and loads it up with the catch of the day. Shrimp, lobster, razor clams, oysters, squid and whatever else crawled or jumped out of the sea. There’s something just heavenly about chowing down on a sea feast and coming up with greasy, fishy fingers, pungent with lemon. Without taking the risk and stopping, as our mate Bill says, ‘to smell the roses’, you miss these places.
The Belgian and I once stayed on the Greek island of Hydra. Our first romantic getaway at the Hotel Bratsera. It’s an old sponge factory scrubbed to hip chic. Laconic, white, cool and restrained. A haven where you never want to much move beyond poolside, room and restaurant, doing little more than alternating between linens and speedos. Hydra is an island refuge for rich Athenians. So there are some great restaurants. But there’s one, run by an old couple from their home at the top of the town. We were instructed to ring them in the morning. He asks you what you’d like to eat nd when you’ll come. So we turned up in the evening to find this old man, serving dinner in his front room. Fifty years ago, this was the main store and post office for the town. The fittings are all still there. His wife is next door in the kitchen, cooking on what looks like one ring. Octopus hang drying over the window, sea bass grilled with oregano and olive oil, stifado, salad, bread and wine from a barrel. There are signed photos of movie stars and royalty on the walls. Onassis, Jackie, Diana, Tom. Funny how simplicity with style is so often the preserve of the rich. Where the aspirational of us are faced with fuss and flourish everywhere we go.
When all you want to focus on is food, functional fish eating, with minimal embellishment, the urbane Kiosk Universal in the Boqueria market in Barcelona is sensational. A hard morning pounding the streets, laden down with elegantly wrapped shopping, feeling a million euros. Then fish and wine perched on a stool as the market bustles around you. As near perfection as I can imagine: razor clams, white wine, holiday treat.
I’ve always thought it an odd thing that despite having some of the best fish and seafood in the world, you have to really hunt to get it fresh from the quay in Scotland. With so much of it ferried off to the capitals of Europe, I’ve yet to find somewhere the fish is as fresh as any of these. As a child, we used to visit an old man who sold fish straight from the boats in a tiny cave in the ancient walls of Dunbar Castle. Long since gone. But a discussion like this wouldn’t be complete without a shameless plug for Clark Brothers in Musselburgh, just outside Edinburgh. It’s run by my old primary school friend Jeannie. When I was a kid it used to be a fish shed, full of the smell of smoking kippers. Now it’s simply the best for fish. But you’ll have to take it home to eat it.