[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Saturday, 30 December 2006, 12:21 GMT
Dining around the world
From left to right: cutlery, vegetables in a cooking pot, two wine glasses

From dinner at the Elysee Palace, to spit-roast monkeys in the Brazilian rainforest, there are not many culinary experiences our BBC foreign correspondents have not had to grapple with.

In a special end-of-year edition of the BBC Radio 4 programme From Our Own Correspondent, reporters reflect on some of their more memorable meal times.

In her tiny kitchen in Vladikavkaz, Medina Salbiyev stood at the table kneading a large lump of dough.

As she pressed and squeezed the floury mix, Medina remained completely silent.

Standing in the corner, husband Tamir was doing all the talking.

"Only a woman has the privilege of making Ossetian pies," he lectured, "this isn't a man's work. And when the woman cooks, she's not allowed to talk."

In the Caucasus mountains, Ossetian women have been making their silent pies for thousands of years - large circular creations filled often with cheese, sometimes potato or even beetroot leaves.

For Ossetians the pies are more than just a food - they are an act of faith.

"Through these pies," Tamir explained, "we are making a sacrifice to God, and seeking His blessing."

He went on to tell me that when Ossetians have something to celebrate - a religious holiday, perhaps, or a wedding - they always bake three pies.

One represents the heaven, one the earth and the last pie, the underworld.

By partaking of all three, Ossetians try to re-enact the creation of the universe and give thanks to God. But when there is misfortune, tragedy or death, only two pies are baked and put on the table.

"Two is an unstable number," Tamir told me. "Two is a sign that we've lost a connection with loved ones who have passed into the next life, into another world."

Just 20 minutes' drive from Tamir and Medina's flat in Vladikavkaz is the town of Beslan - scene of that horrific school siege in 2004, which ended in bombs, bullets and unbelievable bloodshed - more than 330 parents, teachers and children lost their lives.

I'll never forget the day that Beslan began burying its dead.

The whole town echoed to the sound of wailing and uncontrollable hysteria and walking around Beslan that morning, there seemed to be a coffin and a wake in every yard.

And where grieving families had set out food on tables, there, too, were the Ossetian pies - just two pies per plate, of course, a numerical reminder of Beslan's loss.

There were so many scenes of suffering that day, but just catching sight of two pies on a plate really brought home to me how much our lives hang by a thread.

Three pies for happiness, two for woe: just one pie separating joy from tragedy.

For some reason, it was in a pink shampoo bottle.

The hand pouring it was grimy... and unsteady.

"Difficult to make," said the young Russian soldier, eyeing the cloudy liquid like a sommelier.

"You got any spare film we could use?"

We were standing at an army checkpoint on an icy morning somewhere in Chechnya.

The drink in question was a subtle blend of God-knows-what and whatever chemicals can be soaked out of an ordinary roll of camera film.

Judging by the cloudy eyes around me, something with quite a punch.

I found myself wrestling with the classic homebrew dilemma: which is more dangerous, drinking the stuff or offending your host?

Sometimes it is an easy choice.

Six months earlier, I had been sitting in a village cemetery high in the Caucasus mountains knocking back clean, crisp homemade potato vodka with a sprightly Georgian farmer.

Our picnic was laid out festively on his wife's grave.

The rest of the day is a blur, lots of singing.

Vague memories of horseback racing and swimming in a glacial stream.

And the following morning, not even a hint of a hangover.

Changaa is a different matter altogether.

I tried it once in a Nairobi brothel - on assignment, of course.

It is made from almost pure methanol with the occasional dash of solvent or anti-freeze for character.

Kenyan roulette.

It kills or blinds hundreds of people every year.

My friend John was showing me round the slums and insisted we sample a decent vintage.

I let him go first.

You don't taste Changaa... it tastes you, ripping out the roof of your mouth, tearing into your bloodstream and generally showing you who is boss.

Muratina, on the other hand, is a much gentler beast.

It is made from the fermented fruit of the sausage tree.

Some Kenyan friends treated our newborn son to a traditional Kikuyu ceremony and I was required to down a gourd-full of the stuff in one.

Imagine a porridge, Marmite and lager cocktail. Not bad, actually.

My last moonshine moment was a few weeks ago in Borneo.

My host was a member of the Dayak tribe - known for their occasional bouts of headhunting - and I do not mean corporate recruitment.

Suwido had been telling us in some detail how difficult it is to cut through vertebrae. And why he never ate the sliced raw hearts that his colleagues brought him.

Late in the evening, a bottle of grandma's rice spirit was produced from a corner. I sipped mine politely.

"How does it taste?" he asked.

I smiled and lied.

Jacques Chirac does not often invite me to dinner, so when the embossed invitation landed in my Paris post-box, I accepted eagerly.

Just President Chirac, the Queen, Prince Philip and a thousand or so of their closest friends were invited to the Elysee Palace.

Plus a handful of British journalists.

It was the Entente Cordiale, after all, a chance for old enemies to celebrate reconciliation and in the case of France and Britain, 100 years of cordiality, if not always uncritical friendship.

The evening started well, as the liveried footmen let in journalists through the imposing palace gates for once without quibble.

Dressed in my finest gown, I joined the unusually orderly French queue to be presented to the host and guests of honour.

In front of me, a famous French TV presenter was worrying about whether to curtsy or not.

"This is a republic," she pointed out.

I advised that a brief bend at the knees and incline of the head would probably do, wishing that I had studied my Debrett's book of etiquette rather more closely as a young woman.

Then it was my turn.

Jacques Chirac looked deep into my eyes, took my hand and never dropping his gaze, gently kissed it.

"Enchante[e]", we both murmured.

Then it was the Queen.

"And what do you do in Paris?" she asked, so I told her.

"How fascinating!" she said.

So I asked her how she was enjoying her visit, only to receive a sharp rebuke from Prince Philip.

"Damn fool question!" he barked, as the Queen gave him a mildly reproachful glance.

I never did get the chance to reply, as the queue moved on.

It was time to take my seat at the gala banquet.

The journalists were exiled to social Siberia, as far away from their hosts as was possible while remaining in the same room.

No chance for any more damn fool questions.

And then the intricate waltz of the waiters began - as 20 or so tried to serve 1,000 people without dropping a plate or spilling the soup.

At last, a lukewarm bowl of cream of broccoli soup arrived and we fell on it with gratitude.

"The food is always terrible at the Elysee," grumbled the grizzled French journalist beside me.

"But the wine is alright," he conceded, as a 1995 Dom Perignon champagne was followed by a 1988 Mouton Rothschild wine, and then a 1990 Chateau d'Yquem.

Nor did my neighbour complain as the foie gras arrived, or later the stuffed quail with mushrooms. Although he did disapprove heartily of the chocolate and mint gateau at the end.

"Very British," he sniffed.

I would have liked to have asked the Queen whether she found the cake reassuringly British, but with Prince Phillip firmly at her side as they left the banquet, I simply did not dare.

A few weeks ago the president of Argentina, Nestor Kirchner, urged his people not to buy meat in his efforts to force producers to keep their prices down.

It was a topic of discussion in the queue at the butcher's shop for a while before being thrown out with the leftover bones and gristle.

Meat is the main item on the Argentine menu and the government is again in dispute with the meat industry over ways to keep the prices down as part of their efforts to control inflation.

Argentines consume on average 68kg of beef a year - almost double that of the average American.

Eating beef is not just another option on the lunch menu here.

It is a passion, an art form and in some cases an obsession.

I had no idea what lay in store at my first asado, or meat barbecue.

A small, wiggly sausage sort of thing was placed on a large plate in front of me. It was part of the small intestine, but very tasty.

But that was only the beginning. One cut followed another of all shapes, textures and sizes.

Bife de chorizo, morcilla, chinchulin, entrana, asado de tira, vacio - that is black sausage, rib eye steak and many others which simply do not have foreign equivalents.

The list goes on and on and so did the servings.

Desperately in search of something with less blood in it, I reached for the salad in the middle of the table.

"No", said my host. "That's just for show, to add a little colour to the table."

No self-respecting macho Argentine male spends longer in the kitchen than it takes to ask what is for dinner.

But they will happily get up early on a Sunday morning to prepare the fire for the lunchtime parrilla, or barbeque grill, phoning their football friends to get that wonderful recipe for marinade.

The symbolic builder of the Argentine nation was the gaucho - the cowboy out on the inhospitable pampas - the wide, open plains.

He defied the elements to bring the cattle home, camping out under the stars as he cooked tender cuts of meat on his knife over the camp fire.

Most Argentines live in the cities these days, but stuck in a traffic jam or squashed into an underground train, they can dream about life on the pampas... or at the very least, a big, juicy rump steak when they get home.

You simply do not separate an Argentine from his meat.

President Kirchner realised that and will try different methods to resolve his difficulties with the meat producers this time.

An invitation to his country home for a barbecue grill might be a good place to start.

It was my last day in Sierra Leone, and with a few hours to spare before I went off to catch my plane, I had promised myself a treat - a walk out along the palm-fringed shoreline of Aberdeen to a beach cafe, and my favourite West African lunch, rice with a tasty stew of greens - preferably potato greens - seasoned with palm oil and pepper and a little meat and smoked fish.

An hour later and I was getting hot and cross, as one cafe after another produced their menus: fish and chips, pork chops, spaghetti... but never any Sierra Leone food.

More than 40 years after most of West Africa regained its independence, smart food still means foreign food in most of the region.

At the other end of the scale from the beach cafes, I have sat through excruciating state banquets of elaborate international-style cooking.

Sometimes it was just plain bad, cooked by chefs who clearly had no idea how it ought to taste.

At one banquet in Nigeria, they offered a selection of fine French wines which had clearly spent far too long in the tropics.

The white was dark yellow and tasted of sulphur, the red was brownish.

French speakers sitting next to me tut-tutted.

It was "madeirisee" they said - cooked like Madeira and certainly undrinkable.

But even when the food was good, it seemed a shame not to showcase the wonderful local dishes.

When Togo hosted the regional organisation Ecowas, which was actually founded to promote regional trade, everything on the menu at the state dinner was ostentatiously imported.

It started with not one but two courses of salmon - a fish that everyone could be sure was not local - one was fresh and one was smoked.

Then the menu went on to lamb, another imported delicacy.

After that, the doors at the end of the room burst open and in rushed a chorus of synchronised praise singers, President Eyadema's face printed on their bottoms, singing: "Welcome, welcome-o, welcome to Togo."

At that point I had had enough and fled. But I bet there were French cheeses and probably strawberries still to come.

To their credit, the Ivorians did things rather differently.

In the business district of Abidjan, the Restaurant Aboussouan - Specialites Africaines - was kept in business by hosting official events.

It was there that the minister of information used to take the foreign press when we complained that his government refused to talk to us, excluded us from press conferences and then sent us threatening letters when we got things wrong.

The restaurant was plush and very dark - what the French call "ambiance feutre" - and feeding us was not a substitute for talking to us, but the fried plantain and the guinea fowl stew were extremely good.

Meanwhile in Freetown, my quest for potato greens took me all the way to the last beach cafe of all.

When the menu came out... yes, pork chop, fish and chips and spaghetti... I was ready to burst into tears of frustration.

The owners - an English husband and Sierra Leonean wife - had a whispered conversation.

It turned out that the wife had just cooked potato greens for her own lunch with the children, would I like that?

I quickly suppressed a twinge of conscience. Let the children, just this once, eat the spaghetti.

Five minutes later I was installed under a palm tree, my toes digging into the fine white sand, with a plate of rice and potato leaf soup, and a cold beer.

And I cannot think of a greater treat!

The wind was picking up now coming in from the darkening surface of the lake and showering us with tiny particles of sand, sending sparks flying from the wood fire on which the pot was bubbling and carrying with it the smell of boiling fish.

Poking out of the pot above the foaming water was the tail of a Nile perch, one of several fish I had watched being gutted and filleted a few minutes earlier in the warm shallows of Lake Turkana.

The fishermen were exhausted now and we sprawled in a circle around the fire, all of us ravenous.

I had counted 50 fish being taken from the nets by our boat: silver, gold, green coloured fish and one spectacularly ugly beast which made a honking noise as if cursing us for seizing him from the depths.

For Dominic Alar and his friends, fish and maize are the staple foods eaten twice a day.

Now I should say that I have always been suspicious of the idea of boiled fish - it reeks of the grim Fridays of an Irish Catholic boyhood - rain, eternally grey skies, people complaining about their health, those Fridays when anything might have happened but never did.

But the fish served up by Dominic and the other fishermen of Turkana shore was delicious.

We ate from the pot.

Fifteen pairs of hands plunging in to grab still scorching lumps of fish, all of it accompanied by vigorous slurping.

I could see they had next to nothing in material terms.

They lived under trees in makeshift camps with their wives and children. Their boats were shared, as was the catch, but they assured me that this was all they wanted or needed.

So the food was good. So too, the surroundings, the changing colours of the lake as the fantastically huge red disc of the sun slowly vanished into the water, the warm wind and the sound of birds making their last sweeps in search of fish.

All were conducive to a feeling of well-being.

But what really left me feeling that this was one of the best meals I have ever eaten was the welcome I was shown.

The ease with which I was accepted into a group with whom I had no cultural affiliation, with whom I shared no common spoken language.

It was typical of the Africa I have known and loved for 25 years: the continent of generosity.

It was about 0600 and dawn was brightening over an avenue of palm trees between Karbala's two central mosques with their golden domes and golden minarets.

It was Arbayeen, the 40th day of mourning for the death in battle of the revered Shia Imam Hussein.

Thousands of pilgrims were still asleep on the sandy ground - old men under blankets, little boys curled up together, groups of women lying close for warmth.

And there was an enticing blend of smells, of strong tea and fresh bread.

And a man with a rugged face sitting crossed-legged next to two gas rings was cooking breakfast for pilgrims, and for me.

On one flame, the tea, in a huge battered pot, and on the other a saucepan full of eggs.

Next to them on a tin tray, sliced tomatoes and, roughly wrapped in a sheet of newspaper, a stack of hot fresh samoon - which is a bit like white pitta bread, but with pointed ends.

The breakfast man sliced a samoon, carefully peeled one of the eggs and filled the bread with a mix of the egg and some of the tomatoes, adding a flourish of salt.

I sat on a piece of cardboard drinking sweet tea from a glass and tucking into a beautiful meal.

The memory of that simple, nourishing, tasty breakfast evokes for me a time of hope before tragedy took hold in Iraq.

There were at least a million pilgrims sleeping rough in Karbala during that pilgrimage; many had come on foot from cities far away.

On the roads leading into Karbala, instead of the sound of cars, all you could hear was flip-flops as the pilgrims progressed and many walked bare-foot.

Late one evening, I had wandered the wide open space between the mosques, interviewing, and taking photographs.

As I walked towards a group of women sat in a semi-circle on the ground, they saw my camera and pushed their black chadors off their cheeks and smiled with delight as the flash illuminated their faces.

Several men came up to me to shake my hand, and say thank you.

Thank you for what? I wondered.

"Thank you for asking us questions on your own, without an official with you," they replied.

A free reporter without a minder was a new experience.

But in Karbala, some were already complaining that their new freedom was being undermined by crime and insecurity... and by hostility from American troops.

Their biggest mistake, one former prisoner of Saddam Hussein told me, was that US forces treated all Iraqis as the enemy, instead of as the allies they might have become with a different attitude.

I reported at the time: "Iraq is being patient for now. But the patience may run out, and then who knows what might happen."

Since then, hundreds have died in Karbala in bomb attacks by vengeful Baathist insurgents, almost certainly working in collusion with al-Qaeda in Iraq.

The infectious atmosphere of hope in Karbala that April day in 2003, and that fabulous breakfast, are now poignant and distant memories.

In the darkness, the surrounding trees pressed in on us.

A nearby river rushed past with a pleasant, hissing urgency.

It was not the Amazon, it was a tributary of a tributary of the Amazon, almost unknown - yet it was as wide as the Thames at Greenwich.

The Indians, who were our hosts, were a charming, generous lot, excited because they had never before seen anyone who was not an Indian.

So that night they had painted their faces and bodies with the rich red paint they get from the urucum seed.

Their sharp, intelligent, Asiatic faces registered pure enjoyment at the thought of the feast ahead.

I did not share this feeling.

Forty years of travelling have left me with a strong stomach.

I have eaten fried grubs in Zimbabwe and boiled eye-balls in Iraq, but I do have my limits, and the Campa Indians of western Brazil had already tested them on this trip.

Point out a charmingly coloured parrot in the forest and an Indian, anxious to please, would reach for his bow and bring it crashing down.

Half an hour later you would have to find excuses not to eat it.

I had endured the slithery white tasteless flesh of Caymans, like small alligators, too.

That would be on the menu tonight.

But there was worse.

Laughing with anticipation, the Indians carried three wooden poles forward out of the darkness and set what was on them down to cook.

The cameraman beside me drew in his breath sharply: three little babies were grilling on the spit.

Surely these people could not be cannibals, I thought.

Then I realised the babies were three medium-sized monkeys.

Well, neither of us ate them.

We felt we could not refuse the slimy gobbets of Cayman flesh, but even they were not as bad as chewing on a monkey leg.

We filled up on ground-up manioc, gritty and sour.

Later I crept over to the cameraman, who was looking up at the incomparable stars.

"Try a bit of this," I whispered, and put a plastic beaker of single malt whisky in his hand.

And as we sat there drinking in companionable silence, I passed him a good Havana cigar.

I lit another and we watched the peaceful smoke curl upwards into the forest.

I am afraid I did not offer the Indians anything.

We went to bed hungry that night but the whisky had warmed us and the cigars gave us a sense of bonhomie in the jungle... and we did not have to eat the monkeys.

My daughter Martha had befriended the daughter of an impossibly wealthy Washingtonian and he had asked us to dine with his family in their summer house.

Manicured lawns led down to a jetty where not one, not two, but three motorboats were moored.

The girls played happily in an air-conditioned Wendy house.

We all enjoyed ourselves enormously... and then came lunch.

From the barbecue our host retrieved those burgers that scientists warn us against: flat, grey, mean, and filled with the eyelids and entrails of unfortunate animals bred solely for the purpose of providing cheap meat for multimillionaires.

The buns looked every bit as appetising: flaccid and tasteless.

And to drink: I kid you not... cherry coke.

Cherry coke.

I thought they had stopped making it and maybe they had. Perhaps this was a vintage variety.

It was a magnificent moment - a truly American moment - in which good company and wonderful scenery were the focus: food was an add-on, a tiresome and trivial necessity.

This ordering of priorities was wholly un-European.

There was a horrible moment during the last presidential election where the Democratic candidate, John Kerry - a man subliminally associated by most Americans with foie gras - bought a cheeseburger in Philadelphia, where apparently they are proud of these things, and asked for Swiss cheese on it instead of muck out of a tube.

What Mr Kerry forgot is that being fabulously wealthy in America should not lead you to refinement in your eating habits.

The wealth offends no one here, but the Swiss cheese could get you shot.

And metaphorically, in his case, it did.

The simple fact is that democracy and good food are antithetical.

I used to live in snooty Brussels, home of the unelected European Commission, and a zillion bureaucrats.

The food was stunning.

Of course it was. Refined tastes do not have to be explained to anyone or defended to common folk.

But here in the land of the free, democracy is a part of life, it is in the DNA, and the kinds of tastes which seem to suggest elitism are just unacceptable.

Some can still be pursued privately of course - art collecting or investment in first editions - but eating tends to be done in public.

So here in the US it is cherry cokes all round.

And democracy forever.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 30 December, 2006 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific