Food is quite important to me. It is one of the very few reasons I actually leave the house. If it wasn’t for the need to eat, and the desire to eat something brilliant, I would stay in bed all day. I have already written extensively on the subject of my need to plan meals even before I have finished the one I am currently eating. I am in this eating thing for the long haul, folks. But this time it’s canteens.
I love to pick up a tray and have a plate thrust at me, after a few ladles and scoops of various things I have chosen have been slopped upon it. I love the fact that everything comes in bulk, and that there is a sheen of grease on anything and everything. I love the fact that you can always get a fantastic cuppa in a place like this, regardless of the country of origin of the food you are buying that day.
A canteen should at least have started off as a form of mass catering from the local authority or the state, open to all of its citizens. It should be a cheap way to get fed hearty, salty food. It should comprise many Formica coated tables and easily stackable chairs, with racks to put one’s trays in after the food is finished, and the lingering taste of meaty fat has subsided from the licked lips.
Not the small, intimate “caff”, in which the staff can get your name, and then they can speak to you every time you come in. I know they’re just making the day more enjoyable for themselves, but they make me never want to go back to the place again, for fear of being recognised and engaged in conversation with someone I barely know, forcing me to be massively awkward for a few minutes.
Not the confusingly cyclical layout with various impenetrable “stations” – Omelette, Baguette, Hot Counter – and no identifiable point at which to pay. This corporate dispensary is all well and good if all you need is a lunchtime meal deal, replete with a bag of crisps and an apple. I want it rough, not ready. A faceless catering company is not about to cut it for me, with their average spend per head.
Not the clean and the clinical brushed steel surfaces and the bottles of anti-bac, hanging with their respective cleaning cloths. I don’t want to be offered a pair of choices of frozen lasagne or any oven baked chips: oven chips should be fried in this place. Cleanliness in a canteen is for people who do not actually want to eat: people who actively look forward to tuna mayonnaise and cottage cheese.
I get confused in places which are badly designed. I think we all do, if we’re being honest about it. I walk in to somewhere new, and I want to know instinctively where to go to achieve what I have come in to try and achieve. I’m not suggesting signs or attentive personnel, but either of those do make it far easier to get a plate of egg and chips. A lot of places I consider going in to eat fall at the first hurdle because they are not clearly signposted, so I panic at the lack of clarity and walk out.
Some people refuse to try new places to eat because they think that trying new food is the scariest thing in the world, and that they may not like it. I love scary new food; I’m put off by the social awkwardness of crossing the threshold and not having a clue what to do then. If there is no one there, I will look around hopelessly, before checking my watch, muttering to myself and bolting.
Canteens do not seem to have this issue: they are machines for feeding the faces of folk, and they operate in a linear fashion: walk in hungry, walk out with a tray of food in your hand, find a seat and eat the food. It makes sense to me, and it works: I wish more places were as easy as a good canteen.
I want to go up to a hole in a wall, staffed by an ancient Babushka, offer a few timid words of an eastern European language, perhaps one written in Cyrillic, and be presented with a set of plates of salads and dumplings, bowls of soups and stews, glasses of strong hot beverages and one of water. And I want all this for a scattering of pennies in my own currency. I have seen people doing it on the TV – either in Romania or the Baltics – and I felt my jaw drop with pure jealousy at the joy of it all.
My favourite restaurant in Norway is an old canteen in the lobby of a hotel in Oslo. You queue up, picking up a tray on your way, and then someone slops something hale and hearty on to some plates before you pay a cashier a small sum for a lot of food. The food is traditional Norwegian meat and potatoes with meat sauces and a dollop of fruity compote. It is always delicious, if heavy; filling and nourishing; warming and refreshing: perfect for a cold day of wandering around a lovely new city.
Ikea comes close in the canteen stakes, albeit with a greater attention to cleanliness and order. They offer great portions at good prices, and you are always guaranteed a great cuppa, often free in fact.
I once queued for a good hour at a vegan café in Dublin to have a canteen-like experience, and I still remember it to this day. The service of food does not have to be surrounded by the pomp and the splendour of silver service: simple service can lift the soul just as much. Just dump it all in a tray.
The communality of all sitting at similar looking cheap tables while eating fantastic food is as close to the buzz of living in a socialist utopia that any of us are ever likely to experience. The fact that the majority of this form of dining – at least that I have experienced it – is in the Nordic expanse should tell us all about the openness and the freedom of the peoples who live there. Pretentious it is not.
An old friend of mine once suggested setting up a late night beans on toast restaurant. I can see it in my mind’s eye now. Gastro tubs of beans, of cheeses, of various extras to go on top, a rotary toaster churning out a never-ending supply of beautiful carbs. I would eat there once a week, if I could.
As someone who is frequently scared by queuing complexities of bakeries selling delicious looking goods – to the extent that I run away – the ease of a well-placed set of signs lifts my spirits no end.