Coun­try Mouse Giles Wood

The Oldie - - CONTENTS - giles wood

Mary has per­suaded me, against my bet­ter judge­ment, to leave my gar­den and at­tend a house party in a sport­ing lodge on Mull.

She failed to heed my warn­ings that my Spe­cial Needs have ren­dered me no longer sortable as a house guest. I proved my point quite early on on the first day.

I asked her if, now that I am a celebrity, I could have a sep­a­rate ta­ble at break­fast away from the main group: this was so that the in­ces­sant chat­ter would not up­set my del­i­cate di­ges­tion – or even trig­ger a chok­ing in­ci­dent.

She rep­ri­manded me, say­ing that there would be plenty of op­por­tu­nity for me to have a sep­a­rate ta­ble in the nurs­ing home where I am surely bound and, in the mean­time, I should try to en­joy be­ing in the com­pany of ‘high­cal­i­bre fel­low guests’.

The idea of a silent re­li­gious or­der has been grow­ing on me. Break­fast, prob­lem­atic even in one’s own house, would cer­tainly ben­e­fit from a rule of si­lence in a house party where the main dan­ger comes from in­ap­pro­pri­ate hearti­ness at such an early hour.

Only this morn­ing, I was ap­proached, just as I sat down at the ta­ble for 20, by a baroness from the House of Lords hand­ing me three small slips of blank pa­per on which she re­quired me to write down my name, an ob­ject that could be found within the house, and a lo­ca­tion ei­ther within the house or on the es­tate.

This for a game, Hu­man Cluedo, that would be­gin, not even af­ter din­ner, but af­ter break­fast. More­over, a game which would never reach a res­o­lu­tion but would con­tinue through­out the length of our stay in a self-re­new­ing way. What if it would re­quire me to hide in a bothy for a day?

‘I bet­ter not sign up for this,’ I told the baroness. ‘My mother has al­ways said, “The thing about you, Giles, is that you’re not a team player.” ’

‘But this is the one game where you don’t have to be a team player,’ en­thused the baroness, adding that it was just about sur­vival of the fittest. This was even less of an in­cen­tive to join in.

Mary has seen fit to put me on a de­caf­feinated cof­fee regime to help quell the non-spe­cific, free-float­ing anx­i­ety that tends to af­fect me im­me­di­ately af­ter my usual in­ges­tion of half a litre of caf­feinated. An­tic­i­pat­ing my needs, she had thought­fully gone through to the kitchen and handed over a packet of de­caf­feinated she had sourced in the Ox­fam book­shop in Oban, re­quest­ing that a sin­gle cafetière with small ca­pac­ity be made up to preempt con­fu­sion.

Only what ar­rived on the ta­ble was a near firkin, ‘in case any­one else would like some de­caf’. Hence was used up half my week’s ra­tion, and we are many miles from a shop. I mouthed my dis­may across the ta­ble at Mary when­ever I could catch her eye.

But I am not alone in hav­ing spe­cial di­etary needs (let alone so­cial). A Worces­ter­shire farmer’s wife, whose com­pany even this mis­an­thrope al­ways en­joys, told me the last time we vis­ited that she had been moved to stop serv­ing break­fast to her guests. So many in­cum­bents now re­quire, as though it’s their birthright, the same be­spoke menu they en­joy at home, that she in­vites them to self-cater.

These days, some younger guests are fol­low­ing pa­leo and ve­gan di­ets. Some favour bowls of gra­nola with nuts or spelt flakes. Some want to ac­ces­sorise their ce­real with yo­gurt or fash­ion­able ke­fir, or even de­mand rice or al­mond milk un­der the mis­taken im­pres­sion that this is more di­gestible than the yield from good old or­ganic Duchy cows.

But then you also have to pro­vide blue­ber­ries or straw­ber­ries to liven up the hair­shirt of the an­cient grain.

I al­ways like to ask her if she hap­pens to have Golden Syrup. I like the chal­lenge of try­ing to prise off the top of the tin, which usu­ally in­volves a screw­driver and/or a 50p coin; even though I usu­ally re­ject the con­tents, for health rea­sons.

The vari­a­tions on a theme of break­fast are end­less and I haven’t even men­tioned the most tra­di­tional dish. As any be­dand-break­fast cook will tell you, the Full English is one of the most dif­fi­cult meals to ‘pull off’ be­cause the tim­ing and co­or­di­na­tion is so crit­i­cal.

Take toast – it goes soggy if done too early and, if left in the oven to keep warm, turns melba-like. Most so­phis­ti­cated folk like their ba­con streaky and crispy, not thick and limp and ooz­ing milky fluid. But if you turn your back on the crispy for a mo­ment, it turns to char­coal, just as fried eggs go too hard if left a few sec­onds too long in the pan. In a Scot­tish house party, a cook also has hag­gis, black pud­ding and potato cake to con­tend with.

We have all more or less grown out of in­stant cof­fee. But some guests now in­sist on grind­ing their own, from sin­gle­plan­ta­tion, fair-trade cof­fee beans with all the at­ten­dant din of the cof­fee grinder.

In short, break­fast seems to have be­come a night­mare all over the coun­try. Per­haps we should all take a tip from oldie Joanna Lum­ley, who has at­trib­uted her life­time of non-obe­sity to al­ways skip­ping it.

‘Don’t wake up the rav­en­ous beast,’ she warns.

‘If you turn your back on crispy ba­con for a mo­ment, it turns to char­coal’

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