The author holds forth on his memories of dire boarding-school dinners, sentimental reveries of his native Switzerland and the citrus fruit that he considers to be worthy of devotion.
“The lemon is very important to me. If I were starting a religion it would be the sacred object that we would worship at an altar. There are certain foods that capture what I like at an intellectual level. The lemon has some external toughness, it’s very cheerful to look at and it’s a hopeful fruit. But at the same time it’s bitter and has a hint of sweetness. I’ve always liked ideas that are a little bit like that: a bit brutal but nice as well.
I think [food] bypasses our higher rational faculties. We enjoy it long before we know why; before we are able to think of why. Little children can enjoy food so, rather like music, it’s not dependent on intelligence, which means that it gets included in loads of very powerful emotions. In childhood it can become the ultimate reassurance, a symbol of home but also a symbol of the enemy and the foreign and the horrible.
Switzerland, where I grew up in the 1970s, had a very sophisticated dining culture. You’d get the best of German breads and Italian vegetables, with Italian traditions and French sophistication. I lived in Switzerland until I was 12 but I went to boarding school in the UK at the age of eight. I experienced the transition to the UK very much through food. It began for me with the flight on Swissair from Cointrin Airport [Geneva] to Heathrow – food was connected to home and I’d remember the last Swiss bread roll that I’d have for three months.
We weren’t allowed to bring treats with us and the school food was every bit as bad as you’d imagine. This was the 1970s in Oxford and everything was sort of Second World War-style: very overcooked vegetables and bleached meat. I had my first encounter with the baked bean, with kedgeree and with mackerel. And there were lots of things missing from the menu as well. English bread in the 1970s was squared; it was very, very white and I had never seen such a thing.
There wasn’t really an opportunity to enjoy food so I had to give up on it and ceased to get much pleasure from it. Like many people who spend a lot of time thinking, I thought, ‘I don’t want to be one of those people who gets upset over a bit of bread.’ Today, if you take me to a Swiss supermarket, my whole past emerges. My wife and I go back every summer and we’ve got small children who tease me for being ridiculously sentimental about all things Swiss. We have this joke that nothing bad happens in Switzerland. Well it does but that’s the myth. I never had to grow disillusioned with Switzerland. I never had to go through adolescence there. My rational side knows that it’s a made-up paradise.
I don’t drink alcohol, largely because I don’t like the taste. I remember as a child picking up a drink and thinking, ‘Oh, it’s horrible,’ and adults saying, ‘When you get older you’ll love it.’ That moment never came. My objection is that I don’t like my mind being altered. I pride myself on either being as relaxed as I ever will be with another human, or not needing that.
I think sometimes our enthusiasm for food is absorbing some of our ambition that we can no longer direct at some of the bigger bits of the world. It’s almost as though we’ve given up making beautiful cities. We don’t know how to sort out the economy. We don’t know how to make better, more equitable politics. When the wider world is uncontrollable you can create something that has a level of beauty, which may elude you in the bigger bits of your life and society in general. Your marriage will never be perfect, your children will never be perfect, your work will never be perfect – but for a few moments on the plate, the mushrooms are sublime.
My ‘last meal’ would be with my children and wife, my collaborator John [Armstrong], who’s also a very good friend, and then we’d have a stranger; somebody else who was dying. We’d have to share notes as we went down.”
Swiss-born author Alain de Botton arrived in the UK aged 12 and never left (despite not immediately adoring it). He read history at Cambridge and philosophy at King’s College London. He pursued a phd at Harvard before dropping out to concentrate on his thoughtful and bewitching books for the general public, often with the intention of bringing philosophical lessons to bear on the tribulations of everyday life. His 13 books examine topics from the work of Marcel Proust to themes of work, travel, art, love, architecture and religion, as well as the news. In 2008 he founded The School of Life, an organisation that offers classes, therapies and books, helping attendees to lead more fulfilling and better-adjusted lives. He lives in north London with his wife and two children – and is an exceedingly amiable dining companion.
Fischer’s has a meant-to-be-here feel in spite of the fact that it opened as recently as 2014. From the same Corbin & King team behind The Wolseley, The Delaunay and others, the Viennese-style café has an easy air despite all the wood panelling and grand surroundings. “I like the fact that this was completely made from scratch,” says De Botton. It looks like it’s been here for hundreds of years, as if some famous psychoanalyst sat over here and perhaps a famous architect had his first ideas over there. Of course, it is all made up but it is done very well. It shows that what’s wrong with pastiche is that it’s done badly.
50 Marylebone High Street
Brötchen (rye sourdough rolls) served respectively with artichoke and fried capers, herring roe caviar and saffron egg, and green asparagus and quail egg
Grilled Dover sole (served off the bone) with parsley oil and buttery mashed potato