Friday, 23 March 2012

Pickled owl heads

My elder brother has had an obsession with all things bonsai since he was six and my father brought a dwarf-rabbit home for him to play with.  I, being a little younger and more impetuous, was obliged to observe the rabbit only from a distance, and could only pet it under adult supervision, while my brother was allowed to hold it and giggle with shock as it tried to nibble on his nose, and then his ears.  His screams as my parents tried to remove the rabbit from his ears brought the neighbours round, and though I have no memories of this myself, my mother assures me (bad-temperedly) that I told them all we were feeding my brother to the pets because he'd been naughty.
How this inspired him to become interested in bonsai is a matter between him and his three therapists, but certainly while he was sticking to plants we had some beautiful miniature shrubs and trees arranged around the house, and he would spend hours with his tiny tools, snipping roots and buds and training tiny green branches to grow in odds shapes or along strange support beams.  My mother considered trying to get them exhibited as art when he was older and better able to handle the exposure to the adult world, and my father tried not to use them as impromptu door-stops or things to throw at the neighbours' cats.
The bonsai squirrel was a failure, but in hindsight made perfect sense: it would have belonged perfectly in his collection of trees and added to their intrinsic appeal.  When my parents found the baby squirrel lodged firmly in the pickle jar and my brother grinding up acorns in order to be able to feed it through a straw, they took everything but the trees and the simplest tools away from him and told him to concentrate on his schoolwork.  My brother threw a tantrum, then the trees away and, as far as I know, is still sulking today, living somewhere in the Cotswalds.
So when the waiter put a plate of soil in front of me with a bonsai tree on a side plate and a little beaker filled with what he claimed were bonsai owl heads, I immediately asked him who the chef was and if he'd ever been to the Cotswalds.
"She's called Letitia Peach," said the waiter sounding oddly cross. "And she's from Italy, Naples in fact and has never toured the country."
"So how do I eat this then?" I asked, only mildly reassured.
"A knife and fork is what the civilised people use," he sneered.  "But if they prove too hard to master, you might try your fingers, or possibly just licking the plate."
"Could I get another glass of water then, please?" I said, picking up my water glass and dropping it on the floor, where it smashed with a happy sound.  "Oops!  Butterfingers!"
The soil tasted faintly chocolately, and I couldn't decide if that was a good thing or not, but I was relieved that it was the Blonde's bridge-club evening and she wasn't there.  She would have had some choice words to say about being expected to eat a garden.  Literally.
The pickled owl heads were a revelation though, and I found myself ordering six jars to take away.  They had just the right amount of tangy crunch, and were deliciously juicy in a meaty way almost mushroom like in its intensity.  I'd been expecting the vinegar wrench of pickled onions, but I had to hunt for an acid undertone, and I rather liked it.
The second course was announced as mock-dolphin and it turned out I was expected to eat what looked like old plasticine.  The taste was marginally interesting, but the disgusting texture and unpleasant name for the dish overrode that good point, and I finally sent the dish back with the waiter.
Dessert was something immemorable with a strawberry inappropriately placed, and I barely noticed it.  When the bill came with my six bottles of pickled owl heads I was entirely ecstatic.
Go for the bonsai, but leave before the chef gets 'creative.'

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