If music be the love of food, play on...

When I joined Electric Phoenix, I soon discovered that it had its priorities right. Arriving in a strange city we would typically check into our hotel, enquire about where we should make our post-concert dinner reservation, and then go have a look at the hall.

In our early years, if a tight schedule left us at concert’s end with our dining place still undetermined, we relied on Linda Hirst’s supernatural nose. After the equipment was packed away we would set out in a promising direction. We might walk for several blocks before Linda’s nose twitched and she set off firmly down an unlikely side street until we arrived at an inviting little bistro just in time for last orders.

In later years, lacking Linda’s olfactory divination, careful research was needed. When we were asked to participate in a music festival in Auch in 1988, the first thing I noted was that we would be free for Sunday lunch the day before our concert. That meant that we could dine at the Hotel de France, where the great M. André Daguin was reviving interest in the neglected goose-fat-centred cuisine of southwest France.

When we arrived, the maestro himself came out from the kitchen and consulted over our menus. My own choice was a menu degustation of Gascony specialties, but it didn’t fit with the others’ preferences and so M. Daguin generously offered to serve me a selection that included most of the dishes. Two of our company were vegetarians; instead of fobbing them off with the usual omelette-and-salad, he enquired in detail about their likes and dislikes. They later declared that they had never been treated to such careful consultation.

Our concert the following night began at eleven-thirty—during festivals in the south of France, no one seemed to go to bed! Long after midnight, oblivious to the hour, we were taken out for dinner. Our hosts led us in a procession down a back street to an ancient building with no sign to tell where we were or even if it were a restaurant, and then up an outdoor flight of stairs to a monastic room on an upper floor. Seated on benches along candle-lit trestle tables, we drank darkly dense red wine from dusty unlabeled bottles and waited for we knew not what. After a tummy-rumbling eternity, bubbling golden-crusted pots appeared on the table and something resembling Boston baked beans with generous hunks of meat and sausage was ladled out. It was very tasty, but it seemed primitive after the elegant repast of the previous day, served on fine china and rounded off with fifty-year-old Armagnac. Later I would realize that it was the legendary cassoulet—one of France’s greatest dishes, of which M. Daguin was himself a noted exponent. Up those worn wooden stairs in a darkly beamed refectory we had been initiated into a venerable tradition.

Our gastronomic adventures were frequently memorable, but not always to the same high standard. In Leningrad, also in 1988, we stayed in the city’s most expensive VIP hotel. In those early days of perestroika, that did not guarantee the hautest of cuisine; my memory of breakfast is that the only remotely edible item was a huge bowl of smetana, sour and watery and not in a class with what a family of Ukrainian refugees were turning out in England for the kosher community.

But the wooden spoon must go to our hosts in an upper New England college town which should out of charity remain nameless. Midway through a punishing tour we arrived late in the afternoon and were taken to the house where we were to be entertained and fed. Upon arrival we were met with a house full of boisterous kids. All the available chairs were piled high with books and papers, their outline softened by the patina of age. After we’d stood around for a while, enough were finally cleared and collected for us to sit around the empty dining table.

We were all dying for something alcoholic; even the cheapest, most watery of American beers would have been welcome. No way—this was a teetotal household. Waiting for the food, we were given a criminally thin glass of Kool-Aid—and another—and another. After an aeon a large dish arrived, full of an ambiguous vegetable stew whose watery broth could have come straight from the rain barrel. The meal was rounded out with a sloppy tasteless Jell-O. It was a foodie’s Room 101.

Those parsimonious New England Yankees would have given the Puritans a bad name. I was so ashamed that the next night in Portland, Maine I treated us all to a lobster dinner. We attacked it with the eager enthusiasm of the College of Cardinals breaking its Lenten fast.

My eagerness to sample every dish soon earned me an appropriate nickname, The Gannet. Whenever anyone’s portion remained unfinished it would be raised into the air, whereupon I would flap my elbows and emit the raucous cry of a circling sea scavenger. The plate was then passed along for me to polish it off. “This must be one of the five greatest restaurants in the world!” I would exclaim, smacking my lips. The list grew miraculously like the pieces of wood from the true cross.

Sometimes there was unexpected magic. After a concert in the Hague we were sent to an isolated Greek restaurant next to the river. It was a hangar-like space, large and empty of diners, with only the cooks and waiters eating together at the far end. We were gruffly ordered to take a table next to the door, where we waited for an eternity, wondering if they intended to feed us. And then the meze started arriving, a couple of dishes at a time. They proved to be like the tiny stones that precede an avalanche—the larders must have been emptied on our behalf. Course after course filled the groaning table, to be floated on a river of retsina; even the Gannet reached satiety. Outdoors again in the moonlight, the singers stood beside the river and sang Henri Pousseur’s four-part setting of Dowland’s ravishing “Flow My Teares”, while I followed the song’s instructions to the letter.

There were meals that were as remarkable for the occasion as for the cuisine, such as the all-night peripatetic party given us by Dublin’s United Artists Club. (At two a.m. I favoured them with a well-lubricated rendition of “They’re moving father’s grave to build a sewer.”). There were buffet banquets on the lawn, chez the irrepressible Neely Bruce. There were lunches at such Paris institutions as Le Hangar, Café Beaubourg, Trumilou and L’Ambassade d’Auvergne. For our two visits to the fabled Chez Panisse in Berkeley, I made the reservations months in advance.

The food could become an integral part of an extended residency. At the Abbey Royaumont north of Paris, where we spent a week learning Trevor Wishart’s fiendishly difficult Vox I & II, we had our own private dining room in which, for every lunch and dinner, our table was loaded with casseroles and platters containing an anthology of classic bourgeoise cuisine, together with local wine in bottomless bottles to rival the miraculous pitcher of Philemon and Baucis.

Certain moments remained etched on our collective memory:

What all these occasions had in common was the joy of good food and wine consumed in ebullient company. From Leningrad in the east to San Francisco in the west we would raise our glasses in a toast—sometimes silent, sometimes in the words of the little black boy in Philip Roth’s “Goodbye Columbus”, discovered in the library gallery leafing slowly through a huge art book of Gauguin’s tropical paradise: “Man! Ain’t it the f***in’ life!”

John Whiting