Mumbai, Chakrapatti Shivajii airport lounge.
I’ve spent the last few days sick—nauseous, that is—in the Sofitel, Mumbai, ejecting all solids and fluids and suffering the very worst symptom: sobriety.
Now, the first glass of Côtes du Rhône, an indifferent blend with an overdose of Bombay, hits my empty stomach like novocaine on a raw gum. My level of awareness starts to settle back to short-range and three-quarters of my consciousness returns to a comfortable astral.
This is good, because I have quickly achieved enough distance from my physical status to be unperturbed by my situation. I’m about to fly from Mumbai to Tokyo on an airline nobody has heard of, having had my details checked by a gentleman of fascinating rather than reassuring appearance, who did this by rooting through a bucket of letters marked “MIAL”. My aspirations have been reduced to a hope that dinner is served before we crash, rather than after.
Food is required, you see, one cannot ignore it. Food and drink are like the reds and blues of early ’70s drug abuse. They are the two axes of a drink-taker’s coordinates. Constantly shifting variables that must be kept in careful balance in pursuit of the optimum contentment curve.
Too much drink (x) and not enough food (y) and you’re in for a fast burn, the initial brilliance quickly disintegrating into ashes. No such flame ignites in the opposite case of too much y without enough x—instead there is a languid state of bloated ennui.
The professional drinker lives with a firm belief in the golden ratio. That the perfect combination can lead to a consequence-free alcohol high, which lasts forever. Perpetual motion.
I have a friend, not unknown to the Alderman, who is a master of this equation. He receives calls and text messages at ungodly hours of the morning, with hastily submitted lists of consumed items and is expected to advise on the spot. A real life example…
“Ice wine, tequila, a burro, two pints of Guinness, meat pie, sake, Pernod.”
(I was on a solo drinking mission at a Disney park’s Around the World place.)
Within five minutes, the reply came back:
“Liqueur coffee. Fried chicken. Gin.”
The man is a savant. He’s the world’s first consulting defective. The Moriarty of booze. An hour later I was feeling absolutely spiffing, directing a warm, life-affirming smile at a passing young mother and her child—the child stared at me in terror, while the mother hurriedly looked away.
Rarely have I been served better in pursuit of the perfect balance than through a personalised consultation such as this, however, there are chefs to be appreciated who understand the importance of this question. Much has been written about the Fat Duck in Bray, but I have to commend their tasting menu as the most perfect matching of wine to food I have ever experienced. Much better than its neighbour, the Waterside. Four hours and twelve courses of food and wine at Blumenthal’s place and he hit the golden ratio so perfectly that I returned home only half-cut and still hungry. God knows how you match wine so well to dishes like snail porridge, perhaps he had help from Moriarty.
Get this equation wrong, on the other hand, and the consequences can be fantastically bad. One New Year’s Eve, I set about a duel to the death with Captain Morgan, which I would have won had I not forgotten to eat before and during this lengthy battle. That meant a New Year’s Day for me of walking slowly round a tiny kitchen island at a friend’s house because nothing else, even sitting down, felt bearable. This, my friends decided, was like watching exercise time at a Turkish prison.
There are other ways, though, that food can hurt you.
In a restaurant in the La Plagne area of the French Alps, my friend and I once spotted a menu item described as “meat fondue”. Well soused and ready for adventure, we ordered the dish and it turned out to be a cast-iron pan full of boiling oil, with raw meats to be cooked therein. This provided marvellous sport for us as we tinkered with the butane stove that powered it. We got it nicely to the point where the oil was placid at rest but boiled vigorously when meat was introduced, which we declared in the voice of David Attenborough, meant there were “piranhas in the water”.
Two bottles of Mâcon-Villages red had already raced down our necks by this time. This was fine wine for winter. It brought more warmth to our cheeks than a woollen scarf and a lazy liquidity to our movements, like fat men basking in the sun. That said, it was surprising how quickly we moved when we were set on fire.
The butane, you see, had been leaking invisibly under our tablecloth.
A table-sized fireball went up. We were inside. I pushed my chair backwards at a speed that could only be achieved whilst deeply in my cups, and somehow completely avoided damage. My friend, however, caught light. As he began to shed eyebrows and hair, a man to our left did something we all wish we could do one day. He yanked his tablecloth off, scattering plates and glasses over the floor and his girlfriend, and then cast it over my friend, extinguishing his flames.
At this point, the restaurant was hastily evacuated, leaving only restaurant staff, my friend and me. The head waiter, possibly owner, had a terrified look, the clearly recognizable fear of litigation. “It’s alright, it’s alright,” he kept saying in a thick accent.
My friend was sent upstairs to douse his burnt parts in the bathroom, leaving the head man and I to pick over the crime scene. The boiling oil was removed to the kitchen, leaving the two of us leaning over a melted butane stove. We fussed over it, the waiter and I, cooing in unison for a few seconds. The plastic casing had completely warped over the aerosol can that powered it.
“It’s alright, it’s alright,” muttered my companion.
A rather pretty lady came out of the kitchen and offered me burn cream just then, which was a good time for me to turn away, as it was at this moment that the butane can exploded.
The sound made by a butane can exploding in a restaurant is bang. Nothing more complicated than that, just loud, very loud. I was rendered deaf in my left ear for two days afterwards. My friend upstairs heard it and came racing down to find me. I was stunned and standing next to a wooden column that we later found was bristling with shrapnel.
The waiter/owner was lying on the floor, legs akimbo, and I was staring wide eyed at his right inside thigh, which was sending out a strong arc of blood to the tempo of his pulse. His eyes met mine, followed them slowly down to his thigh and then he slapped his hand over the jet and he said, “It’s alright. It’s alright.” He stumbled to his feet and into the kitchen out of sight, leaving a single bloody handprint on the door, which rocked back and forth, back and forth, until it eventually came to a stop.
“Fuck me,” exclaimed my friend helpfully and, with some difficulty, got me to sit down. He poured some more of that delicious red and we sipped in silence, listening to the sound of an ambulance slaloming up the mountain road. Eventually, two paramedics entered, fussed around in the kitchen, and then wheeled out the waiter, lying prone on a stretcher. As he passed, his wild eyes stared at me and I began to realize the gravity of the situation; he exited without once saying, “It’s alright.”
My eyebrowless friend leaned conspiratorially towards me and murmured, “If we play our cards right here, I reckon I could get us a free bottle out of this.” At which point he turned to the waitress and I went into shock.
Back in Mumbai airport and there is a surprise.
I called home and my stomach problems turn out to be completely unrelated to my location, they are more likely from a virus currently ravaging the English Home Counties. Nice to think I’ve brought it over here. I expect the locals will call it Waitrose Deli belly.
Death by fondue is beginning to feel like an easy way out in comparison to the stomach-churning reality starting to puncture through the Côtes du Rhône. A 48-seater does not seem the right size of plane for an eight-hour flight and my fellow lounge occupants all have the countenance of pirates. In case of emergency, I’ve sent this report out before my flight. By e-MIAL.