Our plans for the Seychelles twice thwarted, we finally decide on Gozo, Malta. Afraid that the Insulate Britain brigade might have us miss our plane, we book a night at the Premier Inn next to Heathrow. We find it clad in scaffolding and the car park rammed. A row of cars stuffed with suitcases outside a hotel must be easy pickings for thieves, but we are too tired (lazy?) to lug the cases with us. Things look up inside: friendly receptionist, spotless room, nice cuppa in a comfy bed. We have a decent night’s sleep followed by breakfast at 5.30. Cheap hotels usually skimp on all-in breakfasts. But someone at the top of Premier Inn has decided quality counts, so the yoghurt is Yeo Valley, the muesli Kellogg’s, the ketchup Heinz, the jam Tiptree, the coffee Costa. I’m impressed that the machine which makes fresh toast will also warm a croissant without burning it or making it soggy. There’s lots of choice and no penalty for greed.
Torn between leaving in good time and not incurring penalties from the valet parking company for arriving early, we set off with half an hour for a ten-minute journey. Just as well. Finding the parking rendezvous at Terminal 5 is the usual nightmare: written instructions hopeless, guy on the phone incomprehensible, satnav losing the plot, tempers fraying all round. On our third circuit we are finally rescued by an employee of a rival parking company. We try to tip him, but he waves refusal. He says stressed customers, lost in the Heathrow maze and fearful of missing their flights, are the norm. ‘But some people are happy,’ he says. ‘Have a good holiday.’ What a saint.
Gozo is a tiny island with great views, neatly tilled terraces, pale sandstone villages of narrow alleyways, café-filled squares, domed churches and, by our standards anyway, little traffic. Life feels like 50 years ago — church bells chime, everyone says hello, no one locks their door, and fruit and veg is unwrapped, a bit bumpy and tastes amazing. Like most Mediterranean islands, Malta and Gozo are stuffed with history. Phoenicians, Romans, Greeks, Turks, Italians, Spaniards, Arabs and British have all had a go, but the dominant influence is the Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem, who were given the islands by the King of Spain and Sicily in 1530 on the understanding that they’d defend them from the Turks. They made a pretty poor fist of that but built themselves wonderful houses, palaces and refuges, one of which is our temporary holiday home, a mass of medieval passages, winding stairs and huge rooms.
Long ago, my husband John and I struck a deal: culture in the morning, lazing about by the pool in the afternoon. John is a culture addict who must see every library, museum, palace, monument and market, but he avoids Catholic churches with their opulence paid for by worshippers. I insist, and we visit the Cathedral in the Citadel, where the entire floor is covered with brightly coloured inlaid marble tombstones of Knights: German, French, Italian, English, all sorts. I think the pietra dura is beautiful. John, a lapsed Presbyterian, says it makes him feel sick.
We have excellent fish in a restaurant courtyard overhung with bougainvillea and cooled by a fan hidden in the branches. My foodie credentials are tested by the offering of the huge eye of the fish, the size of a large grape — the best part, we are told. I grit my teeth and dig it out with my fork. The hard white eyeball rolls out and I try that but reject it as chalky and tasteless. The rest of the eye is as you’d expect: slithery, gelatinous, a little bouncy and multi-coloured. Long strings of slime drip from the fork. I just can’t do it. Why, I wonder? I’ve often derided the British squeamishness about veal when they’ll happily eat a dear little lamb. I eat any kind of offal, including cockscombs and pig’s trotters; indeed I’m forever championing the nose-to-tail eating of every bit of a beast. I love oysters. I’ve eaten insects (though I prefer them deep fried — anything tastes good deep fried). So why not eyes?
Right now, I want to stay here for ever. I know I’ll feel differently in a week’s time, but I hate the thought of the inevitable: Covid not licked, the climate still warming, and Boris still not accepting the radical but vital recommendations of Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy. Incidentally, the NFS is the only government report I’ve ever read that’s written in plain English with no jargon or endless references to arcane research documents. He gives us, or rather the government, four clear strategic objectives: 1) To escape the junk-food cycle to protect the NHS; 2) To reduce diet-related inequality; 3) To make the best use of our land; and 4) To create a long-term shift in our food culture. Oh I wish!
So Boris ‘would love’ to be on Bake Off? God help the poor hair stylist. Then again, maybe the PM will level up a perfect Yorkshire Parkin.