Now, I know it sounds a bit sad … the single gourmet traveller … but before the violins start up let me assure you that mostly when I’m out, I’m with friends or family, and I’m often cooking for them too … but what I want to show is that being on your own – either out or in – doesn’t mean you have to compromise the gourmet in you.
A friend was only last weekend recounting dire tales of single women having bad experiences in restaurants – we were talking Italy at the time. But it shouldn’t be like that … is a lone man in a restaurant the subject of suspicion (and let’s be honest here, we know what some people are thinking … but in the 21st century!!!) I’ve had lots of good experiences eating alone, not only in London and locally but in Italy, Spain, Greece … For me, food is the thing, part of my very being and no one is going to frighten me off, make me feel uncomfortable about enjoying a good meal. So, I thought, let’s share the best of places to eat alone … and some of the attempts to re-create the best meals at home.
Good food has always been part of my life. I spent the first two years of my life living in a pub in the Charing Cross road which my parents ran; at that time in the fifties the haunt of some of the jazz greats like Cleo Laine, Johnny Dankworth and Ronnie Scott – and the subject of many of my late dad’s fond tales. Pubs shut early then and on Sundays after lunch, so my parents would often go out to eat after they closed and their favourite places became restaurants or cafes I was also taken to. We moved out of London to Kent but there was always the weekly ritual – right up to my dad’s death a couple of years ago – of Saturday morning in Soho, Covent Garden or later on Knightbridge for breakfast at Patisserie Valerie’s when it just existed in Old Compton Street or Maison Bertaux in Greek Street. I can still vividly recall the heady delight of choosing a cake from Bertaux’s window and then heading up the steep narrow stairs to find a table and wait for the treat and some wonderful coffee to arrive. This would be followed by a trip to an Italian deli where my dad and I would choose creamy Gorgonzola and buy the most amazing Italian bread long before M&S or any other supermarket has heard of ciabatta.
Even as a small child, a ‘treat’ for me wasn’t a packet of sweets but a croissant from Patisserie Valerie; when there was a birthday to celebrate – or one time when I was upset at a break-up with a boyfriend – it was to Wheeler’s we went to celebrate or console, for sole meuniere or oysters. It wasn’t that we had loads of money, we certainly didn’t, but it was because food, in all its glorious sensual pleasures – sight, taste, smell – was our god.
So, if I’m home alone, it’s not a ready-made meal from the freezer. People say – surprisingly if they know me – that it must be too much trouble to cook just for myself. But cooking is my pleasure – definitely for others, but for myself too. There’s nothing comforting or gourmet about even the best ready-made meal. Can anything beat standing at the cooker, slowly stirring hot stock into a risotto to bring out its creaminess, a glass of wine in hand, and then gently spooning it on to a plate when it’s just al dente, and dribbling over some fruity olive oil and grating some parmesan on top.
So … back to the now and my wonderful holiday in beautiful Kardamyli, Greece, where I ate a lot on my own and discovered the delightful friendliness of the Greeks who would call out in the street to me, stop and chat, and enriched my stay there. On my first night I headed out of the village half a mile or so to Kastro Taverna, owned by the same people as my B&B. As I climbed the steps, Petros, sitting at a table with a cigarette and paper greeted me. I explained I was a friend of Anna’s who had booked a room at their B&B for me. ‘Sit down, sit down,’ he smiled, ‘have a drink.’ And soon I was sipping a delicious white wine and talking politics and life … well, I was in Greece! When I was ready to eat, Petros showed me to a table on the terrace overlooking their olive grove and the sea just beyond. He told me what food they had … there was no menu … and to start, I chose an aubergine salad. I imagined it would be something like an Italian caponata but instead it was aubergine in Greek yogurt – I was to discover that Greek yogurt came with all meals in some form! So, last Sunday I decided to re-create this when Jonathan and Lyndsey came round (not on my own, I know, but I have been finishing it up on my own!).
Greek Aubergine Salad
I cubed an aubergine and sprinkled it with salt and left in a colander for half an hour so all the bitter juices could drain away; patted it dry and gently fried it in lots of Kalamata olive oil. Meanwhile, I pounded a large garlic clove with salt in my mortar and pestle and then mixed this into some Total Greek yogurt (the best and genuine) with a heaped teaspoon of dried mint (the Greek use a lot of dried herbs), a little red wine vinegar (a tip from Jamie Oliver) – and then when the aubergine was cool, I stirred that in gently, put on a plate and left in the fridge for a while. When ready to eat, dribble over some fruity Kalamata olive oil and serve with some crusty bread (I had an olive fougasse from Paul).