The Last Outpost

by Chris Ellis

The Art of Menu Reading

One of my great delights is going out to restaurants. It is not only the night out but the whole occasion, with the ritual of the waving of menus and the eloquent recitation of the specials.

I have always been fascinated by food- and wine-speak, and avidly read the menu to see if the food has been extravagantly described with wanton poetic abandon. You know the sort of thing that goes "lightly dusted with a hint of . . ." or "garnished with fresh mountain herbs" or "nestling in a bed of aromatic tarragon". My favourite is something along the lines of "dew-soaked wild mushrooms picked before dawn by virgins from the northern slopes".

At the meal I find that, suddenly, I am being asked what I want to order and have no idea as I have being carried away by the thoughts of the chefs gaily skipping around the kitchen dusting meringues and drizzling things over the salad.

What is also fascinating, on menus, is the translations of foreign language terms into English. I have recently been to Spain and we collected some interesting examples. In the Don Julian Restaurante in Seville the breakfast menu was inclusive of coffee, tea, milk or beer. I had an idle subversive thought of asking for a selection of the breakfast wines but managed to suppress it. I might have been surprised because it was only

9.30 am and some of the customers were already drinking beer. We put this down to the fact that it was Wednesday morning, which is the beginning of the Spanish weekend.

Some translations are rather encouraging, for instance, starters, which is entradas in Spanish, was nicely translated on one menu as "incoming", which always gives one hope. Another translation of a main course was "deep fried chicken in the moment". I imagined the chef waiting for what the French call "la moment juste", or just the right moment, to plunge the chicken in. Perhaps it should have been called "Inspirational Chicken".

Another menu had "rolls but not available in rush hours". As the restaurant was not busy and we were not exactly sure if there ever was a rush hour in Spain, we ordered them and were successful. Eating in Spain, as in most Mediterranean countries, is a leisurely business and the Spanish have still the wonderful concept of manana, which is a slow pace of life and postponing things until tomorrow. It is very similar to Ireland and you will remember the Irish professor of linguistics who was asked if there was an equivalent of the word, manana, in Irish and he replied that, yes, there was but that it did not convey the same degree of urgency.

Our best menu was at the Taberna Almendro in a small seaside village in the province of Murcia in the south of Spain. An item under pescados (fish) had been translated as "battered John Dory". I had this vision of poor old John Dory staggering in after being beaten up on the quay side, so out of compassion we thought we would give him a miss. There was also a dish called Revuelto de Setas. This is chopped or scrambled mushrooms that had been magnificently translated as "a mess of untidy mushrooms", which sounded, well, rather revoltas so we left that one too and found another item called tigres.

This is actually stuffed mussels but had been translated as "tigers". Now I don't know about you but I can't remember ever having had tiger on the menu before and I certainly didn't want more than one anyway. After an in-depth discussion, we thought we could manage one small one between the two of us served, of course, with the tail and, as one always does with tiger, a bottle of chilled white wine from the north end of the vineyard.

Copyright © 2005 - 2014 Chris Ellis.