Relish and Burma! A heady combination

What a month! I have always egotistically enjoyed my book launches. Lots of interviews and radio or telly and an excuse for an excess of bubbly.  But the publication of my memoirRelish has been less than delightful.  I should have known that journalists, being journalists, would not be interested in my long career in food, the disasters of the catering trade, my restaurant and business concerns, interests in modern art, the charities I helped found, battles with government over food policy, the many companies on whose boards I have served, my obsessions with gardening and salmon fishing, even the adoption of my Cambodian daughter, and certainly not in my novels or writing.  All they want to talk about is my love life and “rackety sixties existence”. To read the reviews or articles you’d think it had all been drugs, sex and rock and roll. 

So I fear many a reader will be disappointed. But I’m glad to say the books are flying out into the shops – the hardback was reprinted before the official launch – but whether they fly out of again is another story. Am holding breath, thumbs and toes.

The other excitement has been the new T.V. Great British Menu competition. As I write, I’m on the train to London on my way to do an interview for Steve Wright in the Afternoon with Oliver and Matthew, my fellow judges.  We finished filming the actual competition several weeks ago, but we still have the main banquet to come. It will be cooked by the winners (still a secret) in May.

This year (which is, I can hardly believe, our seventh) the winners will be cooking for Olympian athletes, who will take a break from training and their strict performance diet, to see if our chefs can match their dedication and determination in sport, by theirs in cooking. The concept this year has to be to find dishes and techniques which break new ground, which are absolute winners, which reach heights of gastronomy not before dreamt of!  A tall order, but, you know what? Some of the winning food was just astonishing, truly Olympian. Let’s hope they cook as well on the night.

Once my autobiog had been delivered and there was no way I could change a comma, I went off to the Far East to take a look at a few of Orient Express properties. It was the holiday of a lifetime, probably only affordable because, as a director, I don’t have to pay full whack. We went steerage on Malaysian airlines and it was really good with roomy seats, good food and delightful staff.  When we got to Bali it was like stepping into a movie.  First to the Ubid Hanging Gardens hotel, in the centre of the island.  Palm trees, clinging to the side of a gorge with a floodlit temple seeming to dance in the jungle across the river. Then on to the famous Jimburan Puri Bali:  miles of white sand, blue sky, little boats in the bay, five star everything. We stayed in a private walled villa, with a pool in the garden. Heaven. Best of all was an evening at a beach restaurant with seafood caught that day, barbecued to order. No three- star Michelin chef can ever be beat that. Just amazing.

Then on to Burma, via Singapore and the Eastern Oriental Express train which trundled up the peninsula to Bangkok. Then a short hop to Yangon to stay in Orient Express’s Governor’s Residence hotel. Unabashedly colonial in feel, it provided a real insight into the Burmese character, which is generous and forgiving to a fault. Nothing too much trouble and no tips ever solicited. They are accepted with apparent embarrassment and reluctance. Further up country, it is sometimes impossible to give a Burmese anything. The Buddhist culture of generosity and good works is astonishing to our acquisitive Western eyes. Even the poor give 20% of their income to charity or good works.  This used to mostly go on sticking squares of gold leaf on pagodas and images of Buddha, but increasingly goes on education and health projects.

The town of Bagan, half way up the Irrawaddy, has 3,000 temples, some of them covered in gold. We spent three days there, and it wasn’t enough to scratch the surface. But it was wonderful – days exploring temples and pagodas, and nights on The Road to Mandalay, the river cruiser that sails up and down the Irrawaddy like a five star hotel.

Burma, or Myanmar (even the Burmese seem to use both terms) is, for me the more interesting than even Thailand, Cambodia, Laos or Vietnam. It is much less Westernised and, as yet, more authentic. I felt strangely guilty at being part of the tourist invasion which will inevitably change all that. But, as Aung San Sui Kyi has at last agreed, they need the money. Her party is, has just won a clutch of seats in the by-elections, but that won’t mean instant democracy. But who knows? It’s a 6% start and from tiny acorns.

The one disappointment was the food. I suspect years of the British (who regarded the country as a province of India) has something to do with that. It has none of the fragrance of Thai cooking, not of the lightness of Vietnamese, none of the delicate spicing of Indian.  It is pretty boring, frankly.  But, (and I never thought I would say this) food isn’t everything. And they have very good beer.