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"Free Speech Puzzle", 2014, by Ai Weiwei, on show at the Royal Academy until December 13 (© Ai Weiwei)


In the space of 24 hours recently I ate two of the best meals I’ve ever had. The circumstances were somewhat festive, so the mood was heightened but, nevertheless, on both occasions the message got home: the simplest is the best. Just as a bed of white roses or a basket of purple pansies shows off the species at its purest, so a simple one- course dinner with exquisite ingredients beats any number of marinated quails stuffed with nuzzled truffles nestling in a coulis of sasparella and fenugreek foam with pomegranate-infused straws, delighting in their own insouciance.

My partner, my chap, my young swain as I like to call him, being as he’s not even in the second flush of youth, had an “all clear” on a biopsy. He drove over to my flat for a silent hug of relief, bringing a small packet of Sardinian bottarga and a lot of garlic. I supplied a French loaf, olive oil and lemons. We worked silently together, peeling the wax off the smoked grey mullet roe, chopping up the garlic, squeezing the lemon juice and measuring the oil. The breadstick warm from the oven went on the table with a bottle of good white wine. A candle may have been lit. We clinked glasses and made wide-mouthed frogs of ourselves for 20 minutes or so, saying little other than “mmmmohmygohmmmmoh”, sipped our wine, watched the news and turned in. As Tennessee Williams once wrote, “Sometimes, there is God so suddenly.”

The following day, we smelled of garlic so strongly that the dog curled her lip and backed away in search of a one-way ticket to Transylvania. We went out looking for parsley for the breath. When I was growing up in Hull, there was no such thing as garlic. Not in our house, nor the houses of my friends, As for herbs — well, we had mint growing in the garden specifically to make mint sauce for lamb and to sprinkle on new potatoes. That was it herb-wise. Sage, rosemary and thyme was a folk song not a condiment. Cardamom was a heart condition.

When I came to study drama at Lamda in 1964, there was a fellow student, Annabel, who had already graduated from Oxford and held dinner parties! Dinner parties, where you lingered at the table to a musical background, flaunting your garlic breath joking and talking till gone midnight. Revelation. 

Back home, unless relatives came or High Holy days beckoned, dinner was at lunchtime and tea was at dinner time. Soup, meat, potatoes and tinned fruit arrived at the table via Mum, who leapt up before each course was finished to avoid a gap in the proceedings, and food was bolted down while reading your comic in time to get back to Z Cars. Eating was something to be got through without incident. Dining out was unheard of except for a nice cup of tea in a “departmental” store after a row in the shoe department. Every house one visited had its own distinctive smell of fish or baking or onions — and we didn’t use “one” as a pronoun either.

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