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Eating in the extreme

Danielle de Wolfe
14 November 2011

The acerbic restaurant critic momentarily suspends his annihilation of substandard eateries to regale ShortList with his travelling tales

Adrian Anthony Gill is best known for taking shoddy restaurants down a peg or two. But he’s also a keen traveller. In fact, having previously described the Welsh as “loquacious, dissemblers, immoral liars, stunted, bigoted, dark, ugly, pugnacious little trolls”, the English as “a lumpen and louty, coarse, unsubtle, beady-eyed, beefy-bummed herd”, and Norfolk as “the hernia on the end of England”, it is not surprising that he ventures overseas a lot. It’s that or get lynched. ShortList found time in Gordon Ramsay’s nemesis’s busy rant-writing schedule to find out exactly where his most treasured global culinary experiences have been…

1. Polar bear foot, Greenland

“A polar bear’s foot tastes pretty much like anyone’s foot. However, the taste of the foot itself isn’t important — it’s the location and who you’re eating your polar bear’s foot with that makes the moment. A friend of mine used to say, ‘If the food is the star of your dinner party, then you’re inviting the wrong people.’ Places such as Iceland and Greenland, they have stinky food, but they’ve got more Nobel Prize winners and Miss Worlds per capita than anywhere else on the planet. They’re incredibly literate, bright, funny, endearingly depressed, very drunk people. For me, north is the new south, cold is the new hot. Oh, that sounds so pretentious, doesn’t it?”

2. Alphonso mangos, Pakistan

“As soon as you get east of Turkey, you suddenly realise how good fruit is. I eat apples in England, and that’s it — barely any other fruit. You get out east and there’s snake fruit, mangosteins, you get fruit juice bars where you look at the menu and the first eight fruits you recognise, but the next 20 you’ve never heard of. To be fair, all of these fruits taste like vitamin C pills but still, it’s great. I love to eat alphonso mangos in Pakistan. They’re perfumed, and wonderful. Fruit is the one thing that restaurants never do well — you should always buy it off the back of a goat.”

3. Flat white coffee, New Zealand

“People moan that New Zealand is like England circa 1950, and there is a sense of that, but still I love the place. It reminds me of Midsomer Murders. Island nations always tend to develop, mad eccentric cultures, and New Zealand is not just an island [technically islands], but it’s hours from most of the world. So they’re really mad. They have this dangerous obsession with coffee. They’ve become obsessed with the stuff. Absolutely obsessed. Housewives go off on week-long barista training courses and think nothing of it. Grown men travel for hundreds of miles for a flat white. It’s a privilege just to witness it all.”

4. Steak, Botswana

“The best places for steak are New York, Brazil, Argentina and Botswana. Botswana being the best of the best — they produce simply the most amazing beef. The cows are left to wander off into the Kalahari Desert with the zebras and wildebeest. Most of them get eaten by lions, but the ones that escape the lions’ jaws are just fantastic. It’s funny, because I actually took a man from the Kalahari out for a meal in London, and he had one of the most enjoyable meals of his life in the UK. Not because of the food, but because we were dining in a basement. Being from the desert, he’d never seen a basement before. He loved it.”

5. Cold boiled dog, Vietnam

“Some of the most memorable travel and food experiences aren’t necessarily the finest, but this was actually pretty good. There’s something about dog that reminds me of boarding school mutton, but there’s also this other taste to it that I struggled for so long to put my finger on. I couldn’t work it out, but then it suddenly hit me — there’s a faint tang of dog breath. I don’t feel guilty about eating dog. I’ve never felt guilty about anything. I’ve been happily excused guilt. Sometimes I feel responsible, occasionally accountable, but never guilty.”

6. Buried shark, Iceland

“Because it’s so hard to grow anything in Iceland, they eat some odd things, such as sharks that they’ve buried in the ground for a whole year, before digging up to eat. The thing about this is that sharks have cartilage instead of bones so they’re lighter and can swim faster. This cartilage becomes ureic when it is left to fester. So what you get with this meal is little yellow cubes that taste exactly like very, very old truck stop lavatories. It sort of burns its way through you, wafting of p*ss. You can taste it behind your eyeballs. Oh, it’s so vicious.”

7. Street food, Mumbai

“The mark of a truly great city is, ‘Will you be sad if you never see it again?’ If I thought I was never going to see Mumbai again, I would get properly depressed. Oh my, that would be terrible. Don’t even say it. Why did I say it? The best thing you can eat in Mumbai is street food. The trick is to eat whatever is fried, and whatever is the hottest. Then you’re very unlikely to get food poisoning. The things that tend to give you the toilet troubles are the things that have a lot of water in them.”

8. Ice cream, Iraq

“The most surreal meal I’ve ever had was in a warzone — Iraq. I ate in this massive cafeteria that the Americans had installed in Saddam Hussein’s palace in the middle of Baghdad. You’d get tank crews driving their tanks up to the front door, all leaping out to get the new Ben & Jerry’s flavour. It’s not particularly an experience I’d ever like to relive, but it’s certainly a dining experience that will live long in the memory.”

9. Couture meat, Sydney

“Sydney used to be all about the seafood — that ‘stick another lobster on the barbie’ attitude — but recently it’s become more experimental and very grown-up. There’s a butcher’s that I love — can’t remember the name, but it’s worth your effort in painstakingly trying to find it [it’s Victor Churchill in Woollahra]. It’s like walking into a Bond Street clothes shop, but for meat. Couture meat. Chops in glass cases. Just completely brilliant. I love it when people take their food too seriously.”

10. Deli sandwiches, New York

“I used to live in New York in my 20s, and I realised quite recently that I have never been unhappy there. As a city it is infuriating, up itself in all sorts of ways, and nowhere near as good as it thinks it is. But still, it’s good enough for me. What I love so much about the place is the fact that it’s a city where you can eat very well, very cheaply — buy a slice of pizza from a man on the street and it’ll be the best slice of pizza you’ve ever had in your life. But what I really love to do is just wander into a random deli and get a sandwich that is bigger than my head.”

Here & There: Collected Travel Writing by AA Gill is out now, priced £12.99 (Hardie Grant)

Reviews to Sink Restaurants: AA Gill’s most devastating writing

“Grand hotels are the refugee camps for French haute cuisine. If you were thinking of giving to Oxfam, perhaps you might consider eating at The Connaught instead.” The Connaught, London, 3 August 2008

“It’s as forgettable as hundreds and hundreds of other restaurants with no sense of occasion, pleasure, anticipation or pride. Sort of culinary Rohypnol.” The Modern Pantry, London, 19 October 2008

“This must be the most depressing restaurant in London, the echoes of the tinkle and croon of the mournful pianist made it sound even more evocatively suicidal, like eating in an underpass at the end of the world.” Green’s, London, 27 September 2009

“The roast of the day was pork with apple sauce and gravy. It was like chewing the headmaster’s elbow patches, with some pale, sweet slime and a sauce that had the consistency of conditioner and smelt like Banquo’s vest.” Cawdor Tavern, Inverness, 11 October 2009

“The textures all rose from the autopsy bin, and the staff moved the barely touched dishes without apparent surprise or comment. I called a halt. Paid the bill. And went to The Wolseley for a croque monsieur.” Manchurian Legends, London, 6 November 2011

Image: Rex