Every now and then a boring afternoon of manual drudgery is salvaged by an unexpected encounter. Languishing at the bottom of a box, or forgotten in a hidden drawer, you can sometimes come across a treasure that makes all the mundane effort of a house clearance a thing to be savoured. For me it’s books, the older the better. But not just any kind of books. These have to be little windows onto a long forgotten past; to a time before the words “political” and “correctness” ever made it together in the same sentence.
Whilst rooting through a barn last weekend I came across two such tomes. One was an illustrated dictionary that would seem to predate the formation of Pakistan, Palestine and, apparently, homosexuality! It did include the word “Lesbian” amongst its faded and age-spotted pages, but the definition had it as…“pertaining to the island of Lesbos, the birthplace of the lyric poets Alcaeus and Sappho.”
Its pages though were filled with tiny line illustrations of dugongs and pangolins and full colour plates emblazoned with the flags of Siam and Persia. At the back it even had a whole section on how to formally address royalty, baronets and archbishops. Yes, it lacked any sort of storyline, plot or characters, but I could have spent hours leafing through its musty smelling pages!
The other book I almost missed, so small and insignificant did it look. It was a handbook of expedition safety, filled with all manner of warnings and advice on how to survive travelling through an uncertain world. The author was a man well travelled and obviously used to the trials of life on the road. And, whilst much of the advice was actually very sound, some of the language was obviously born of another era.
I knew I was in for an interesting read when I came across the following bit of advice on team selection. “Picking of the expedition members is an important factor…I would advise that Commonwealth Nationals do not share an expedition with Continental Nationals.” He then went on to suggest that you always check local jam for flies and insects, never tell the authorities in Nigeria when you find a body and not to eat fish in India (which had something to do with the local habit of disposing of bodies in the Ganges).
One of his most useful pearls of wisdom though came in the section relating to spending time amongst the villagers of western Africa where, apparently, “…you may be offered a woman as a welcoming gesture. Be cautious about this…” The problems apparently lie, not just in the possibility of contracting an embarrassing disease, but also from the fact that rejection or acceptance could result in an equally embarrassing, and potentially far more fatal, lynching by the local male population.
My favourite section was the preparation of native foods, which included recipes on how to cook Cow’s stomach and banana, toasted grubs and fungi and snail soup. The one dish that stood out above the rest though was the graphically effusive preparation of Jungle Rat. The size of a domestic cat, these jungle rodents are eaten in their entirety including heads, tails and skin.
And the good news is that the following recipe can also be used for monkeys, cats and porcupines…
Ingredients (for four persons)
1 large jungle rat
2 medium smoked fish
2 snail (if available)
1 1/2 teaspoons of salt
6 hot green peppers
4 small tomatoes
Mixture of herbs and spices to taste
Freshwater crabs (optional)
Banana Foutou (Cassava and smoked dried bananas)
The rat is placed on the fire whole and turned continuously to singe off the fur and whiskers. The fur is then scraped off with a knife, along with the foot pads. When all the fur has been completely scraped off, the bloated rat is then washed in cold water to remove any excess particles. It is then cut open from the throat to the tail, with the heart, liver, kidneys and testicles being taken by the children to eat.
The rat is then cut into sections and left in a bowl of water to soak for about an hour. A pot of water is then brought to the boil and, when ready, the sections of the rat are dropped in. The head is crushed open with a stone, to allow the juices from the brain to thicken the soup.
Salt is then added to taste. (I love that bit!!)
A mixture of herbs, spices, roots and hot peppers are then added to the stock, along with the odd snail if available. Fish and sometimes freshwater crabs are added towards the end of the cooking process and the finished dish is then served up with a side order of Banana Foutou and a lemon sorbet.
OK, I lied about the sorbet.