My old friend Volker, who readers of ‘Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper’ may remember as my original partner-in-crime at the Sichuan cooking school, came to stay at the weekend. I hadn’t seen him for over three years,Â mainly because until two weeks ago, he was on a Tibetan Buddhist retreat at the Lerab Ling Temple in the South of France, which lasted, in traditional Tibetan fashion, for three years, three months and three days. As you can imagine, we spent the weekend spinning a lovely web of memories of Chengdu, discussing Buddhist philosophy, and eating.
Volker, for the past three years, three months and three days, has been living on very wholesome but rather plain biodynamic food in the temple canteen, and he has been completely overwhelmed by the riot of flavours of the past few days. He arrived at lunchtime on Saturday, and I greeted him with a pheasant and apple stew, mashed potatoes, stir-fried mushrooms and a salad of lettuce, fennel and apple. Then we ate some magnificent Vacherin Mont d’Or cheese with some bread I’d made that morning. After a brisk walk in the darkening afternoon, we spent a few hours drinking oolong tea and eating gingerbread from the Stuttgart Christmas market (Volker had been visiting his parents nearby). And then, for supper, a bowlful of mapo doufu, which sent Volker into great flights of nostalgic rapture (!), with Chinese cabbage, stir-fried with dried shrimps and steamed rice.
On Sunday, we went for dim sum at Royal China in Bayswater, which was fabulous as always, and then walked around Hyde Park, from Kensington Palace to the Albert Memorial, to the Serpentine and finally Speakers’ Corner, where we listened to an obscene and hilarious black raconteur from the Bronx holding forth on women, sex,Â power and money.
Later, we jumped on a tube to the East End, where we drank fine coffee and ate brownies, and then visited a chef friend who offered us foie gras and Chablis in his kitchen. And then on to a bar for cocktails and snacks. ‘Oh no!’ said Volker, as we made our way home, ‘I’m being attacked by the daughters of Mara!’ (As Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree, on the brink of his enlightenment – Volker explained – the daughters of Mara, all the distractions and seductions of the impermanent world, attacked him, but the Buddha turned all their weapons into flowers. Volker, I fear, may not have the same powers of resistance: he sent me a text message today, while I was at work, that read ‘devouring leftovers and feeling bliss’.)
P.S. Susan, if you’re reading this post, Volker sends his regards. He’s still talking about that dim sum lunch in Hong Kong.