There are those who claim that this column is idiosyncratic. They have seen nothing yet. I am about to mention a subject which has never previously appeared in any drink column, ever. Tapioca. That must be the acme of idiosyncrasy.
I was staying with my friends Eyzie and Ro in Somerset. Especially if you have no weight issues, they are the perfect hosts, for they both love cooking. My duties are limited to bottle–opening, saucisson-slicing and, of course, supervision. They also have an abundant kitchen garden, a deep freeze full of the trophies of the game season and excellent local suppliers for all the victuals they themselves cannot provide. A long room connects the kitchen and the dining table, with a constant traffic of boys, dogs and bottles. At its epicentre is a lesser but dual-capability dining table which began life as a butcher’s block and is still used as such, especially for preparing steak tartare.
That was on the menu, as were gulls’ eggs, sundry fishy dishes and — -tapioca: Ro’s idea for a pudding. At first I assumed that this was a joke. Hadn’t they been made to eat it at school? My generation was, called it ‘frogspawn’ and tried every possible way of avoiding actually consuming it. Even more so than liver with tubes, it was one of the horrors of the antediluvian school diet. But Ro and Eyzie had no such traumatised memories. I asked Ned and Louis whether they had tapioca at school. ‘No, what is it?’ ‘Comes from the root of a Latin American plant. Used as a pudding.’ Then, casually, not wanting to put them off: ‘Sometimes nicknamed frogspawn.’ All that meant nothing to them. ‘What’s the food like at school?’ I inquired. ‘So-so,’ came the answer, from which I drew the obvious conclusion. Generations of boys were served disgusting food, ate all of it — including the tubular liver — except for the frogspawn, complained noisily, and scoffed up any second helpings. If boys think that the food is as good as so-so, the school kitchen should put in for a Michelin rosette.
The tasting hour approached. There was at least a consolation. More than 50 years on, consumption would be voluntary. If I found it inedible, it could always go on the compost-heap, in the labrador or in the boys. I can report that tapioca consists of yellow balls. When Arthur Miller was squiring Marilyn Monroe, he took her to a Friday evening dinner at his mother’s. She was in a tizzy about catering for the great actress. Arthur calmed her down. ‘Just cook what you do best, Mom. Everyone loves your cooking.’ Old Mrs Miller served matzo balls. They were well received, so when Marilyn came back, Mom stuck to the same menu, as she did on the third occasion. ‘Still enjoying Mom’s cooking?’ asked Arthur. ‘It’s great — but don’t you guys eat other bits of the matzo?’
Tapioca does not taste testicular. Nor is there a hint of frog. The truth is that it does not taste of anything much. Unless it was prepared in some especially noxious fashion, I do not know why we schoolboys made such a fuss. I do not feel any desire to revisit the dish, but I would rather eat -tapioca than a goat’s eye. When I had my encounter with that latter treat, we were drinking ’82 Margaux, which was surely a unique pairing.
What to drink with tapioca? Do I hear ‘mouthwash’? That would be unfair. The correct answer is anything that comes to hand.
With the gulls’ eggs, we did rather better than that. I produced -another bottle of the ’91 Viña Tondonia Gran Riserva, bianco, keeping it away from the celery salt. I have already praised it in this column and it is beyond praise. It was like a beautiful old ballerina at a ball: just a hint of age to begin with, but then it dominated the dancefloor.
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