Picnics are usually imagined as being sunny and cheery with potato salad and pink lemonade. But they don’t have to be. If you’re feeling up to it, grab a wicker basket and a plaid blanket, find a grassy spot in your favourite park, and vicariously indulge in forbidden food with Taras Grescoe by reading The Devil’s Picnic: Travels Through the Underworld of Food and Drink (Harper Perennial, 2005, $22.95). A journalist from Montreal, Grescoe visits seven countries over twelve months, sampling cultural delicacies that could get you in trouble with the law if you possess them, or harm your health if you consume them. This is a picnic not for the faint of heart, easily-offended, puritan-minded, or health-conscious.
He starts with hjemmebrent, a moonshine from Norway known for giving a hangover like no other. After his second cup, Grescoe was “sufficiently anaesthetized,” certain the end result was more important than the taste. He writes: “All of the aesthetic pleasures one might experience in sharing a good Scotch or burgundy were absent with hjemmebrent. You were sober then you were drunk.” It is paradoxical that Norway has liquor with such a sinful reputation, while the country is very strict with alcoholic laws. However, one of Grescoe’s contentions is that the more something is denied, the more likely the public will want it, latching on to the notion that the forbidden fruit of the Garden of Eden was eaten largely because it was forbidden. His experiences with absinthe in Spain, France, and Switzerland have similar debilitating effects as Grescoe learns centuries-old recipes and rituals from subcultures that consume it. Grescoe discovers that absinthe, known affectionately as the Green Mist, also comes with the not-so-affectionate reputation of driving many famous artists and writers insane.
Cheeses forbidden in the United States are those made with raw, unpasteurized milk aged for less than 60 days. It is the idea of the raw milk not going through the pasteurization process to kill disease-causing pathogens that irks people, although critics of pasteurization argue it kills all the good enzymes necessary for flavour. Grescoe tracks down the famous Epoisses cheese originally made by 16th Century Cistercian monks in a fromagerie in a French village. This is the type of cheese that is both appetizing and putrid at the same time. Grescoe informs us that Canadian cheese shops don’t seem to have the same legal issues with importing these varieties as the U.S.A. Interestingly, in Paris it is illegal to carry Epoisses on the metro because of its offensive odour.
Grescoe writes, “Almost every European nation boasts some abstruse gastronomic tradition that its neighbors find unsanitary, incomprehensible, or just plain disgusting.” In Spain, he tracks down secretive dishes in out-of-the-way restaurants, like criadillas, cooked bull’s testicles considered a delicacy during bull-fighting season. Also from Spain, Iberico ham is rated the best in the world by many chefs, yet is banned from the U.S.A., punishable by up to ten years in prison or a $10,000 fine, because the Department of Agriculture felt that a swine epidemic in the 1970s tainted Spanish slaughterhouses. Spanish chefs have countered with a 4,000-member strong association called Euro-Toques which defends artisanal cooking techniques, arguing that bureaucrats in an office cranking out policies don’t know more about handling food than the chefs who have been doing it for centuries.
Several of Grescoe’s forays involve the versatile and stimulating ingredient of coca in several varieties: pure chocolate in France; coca leaves chewed to alleviate altitude sickness in the Andes; mate de coca tea to soothe the mind in Bolivia. Cocoa beans used for making chocolate have been used as currency in certain cultures, a sure sign of their value, but have also been banned at certain times in history for their addictive qualities.
Although cigars are not edible, they are consumed by those who love them with the same gusto as good food, and often as an after-meal indulgence. But they are a Communist product marked with an evil stigma by the U.S. trade embargo. Canadians have been entrepreneurial about importing Cuban cigars, especially in border towns like Windsor, where smoke shops advertising Cubans line the downtown core across the river from Detroit, enticing Americans to cross the border for the forbidden fruit in tobacco form.
These are just a few of the illicit items Grescoe consumes on his year-long picnic. But were these health-damaging, law-breaking things worth it? Strictly for taste, some of them, like the chocolate and cheese, seem to be. For those who indulge in tobacco, the Cohiba Esplendidos from Cuba are considered the best in the world. The coca tea, Norwegian moonshine, and absinthe were potent for all the right (or wrong) reasons. Grescoe writes, “The most exquisite of pleasures always come served with a dollop of risk.” Whether that risk is flirting with the law or consuming foods with potential food-borne illnesses, when obtained legally and properly treated, these foods go from risky to pleasurable because of the element of the forbidden.
DARIN COOK is a freelance writer who works and plays in Chatham-Kent, and keeps himself well-read and well-fed by visiting the bookstores and restaurants of London.