Belfast Telegraph

What’s for dinner, darling? Don’t tell me it’s seal again

By Philip Hensher

What a nightmare. You're asked out to dinner by some new friends. You really want to be a good guest — they're nice people, you want the evening to be a cheerful one.

They take your coat, sit you down, give you a drink and a peanut. And then you notice that there's a slightly strange smell permeating everything.

You don't say anything just yet, but they must have noticed something. “We're cooking you our favourite dish,” they say. “It's a family favourite.”

“How lovely. What is it?” you say. “Boiled seal,” they reply. “The kiddies clamour for it.”

This unfortunate scenario happened the other day to our own Chancellor, Alistair Darling.

He was at a G7 summit of finance ministers. It was Canada's turn to host and, in the interests of supporting minorities, they were holding it in the far north, in Iqaluit on Baffin Island.

The waitresses at the dinner wore sealskin hairpieces; the chairs were covered with sealskin; the goodie bags were made out of seals; and the main course of the dinner . . . “I'll have the Arctic Char instead,” Mr Darling said, going for a bland, but blameless fish.

Me, I'd have leapt at the chance of eating seal. I mean, when else are you going to be offered it?

I've read that seal blubber tastes like hazelnut ice cream, which sounds unlikely, but at the very least worth a try.

Given that his Inuit hosts were offering their national dish, it might have been only polite for Mr Darling to accept it even if he had to push it round the plate and hide it under the accompanying seaweed.

But the world is divided into people who say: “I'll have the chicken, thanks”, and those, like me, to whom an unknown word, or a frankly unlikely meat on a menu, are irresistible temptations.

Kangaroo, ostrich and crocodile — yum. Having run out of new game birds some time ago, it's a great regret to me that ortolan is now so illegal.

The last person publicly recorded as eating it is François Mitterrand, on his deathbed, so I guess I've missed my chance.

Similarly endangered are dolphins, but I have often wondered to myself about that Ligurian speciality, mosciamme, formerly made out of dried and reconstituted dolphin meat, but nowadays out of tuna.

On the other hand, I did yield to the temptation, in Norway, of eating whale — I know, but it was just the once, it was very interestingly nasty and I don't see it catching on.

Fussy eaters are clearly winning, and running the world. It may be sensible for the Queen to refuse anything with garlic in it if she's going to meet people after lunch.

On the other hand, the reported refusal of President Obama to eat asparagus at a Downing Street dinner seems not just rude, but very childish.

It used to be dinned into children that you eat what your hosts give you, without complaint. I draw the line only at desiccated coconut.

Once, I even managed to eat dinner after my host had remarked: “Do you know, I've been boiling this spaghetti for half-an-hour, but it doesn't seem to be getting any softer.”

And memories of enjoyable past atrocities on the plate are happy ones: in the south of France, I've eaten not only horse, but donkey, turned into a saucisson d'ane. Delicious.

I don't think Mr Darling thought this through.

He may wish to host a G7 dinner in Scotland, and we all know what their national dishes are made of.

When the Inuit delegates turn their noses up at haggis, we can only say he asked for it.

Belfast Telegraph


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