It is said that you should never discuss politics or religion at the table. Well, it is almost impossible to avoid the latter of these topics if you go out for lunch after listening to Alain de Botton talk about his new book, Religion for Atheists.
In his book, de Botton begins with the premise that there is no God, but that even so, our society could learn a lot from religion. He discusses the value of rituals, (purposeful) art and community, amongst other things, which are plentiful in organised religion and which all have benefits that non-believers may be missing out on. He believes that there might be ways in which people can enjoy aspects of religion without having to sign up to God as well; he calls it ‘cherry-picking’.
Whatever you call it (and his book has invited some strong reactions) it made a lot of sense to me. Raised as a Catholic, I am now a questioning and uncertain adult. I find it hard to swallow much of what the religion of my childhood dictates - especially the way it regards women and seeks to give easy answers to difficult questions.
But, I still get the shivers when I go into a church and I still go into churches, especially when I am seeking solace; I just make sure they are empty. I also love religious art. And there is a part of me that misses the ritual of going to church with my family (though I suspect that may be as much about lunch that followed).
That Sunday in London’s Conway Hall (a place which has seen much debate and discussion of ideas over the years) De Botton made sense of all of this for me. And, as with his writing, listening to him speak is a bit like being in the company of your wisest friend.
Have a look here for an intervew with Alain de Botton from The Guardian and more on Religion for Atheists.
After the talk we wove our way through the streets of the city until we found ourselves in the seedy backstreets of Soho, looking out for a place that I’d been reading a lot about recently.
Polpo calls itself a ‘bacaro’ (think Venetian style tapas). It is the brainchild of Russell Norman, ‘pioneer of the recession-era restaurant’ who I think might just be the smartest man on the London restaurant scene today.
My very first post for this blog was after a trip to Venice and in it I describe our struggle to find genuine Italian food. I would have been overjoyed to find somewhere like Polpo in Venice, and looking back now, the best place we ate in Venice reminds me of Polpo.
As we approached, we spotted a blue plaque high on the outside wall, commemorating the fact that the Venetian artist Canaletto once lived in this building. Design or happy accident, this was a blessing from above if ever there was one.
With low lighting, exposed brickwork, and lots of raw wood Polpo feels a little dark, a little edgy, supremely confident. But not so much that it was awkward. Lots of different people were eating from the cool kids to a couple with a baby to whole families. We sat at the bar, drank red wine out of little glasses. The menus were on brown paper, the font faded. Like a treasure map.
And the food…
Cuttlefish and squid ink risotto, which managed to distill the essence of the streets of Soho and of Venice: complex, musty and intense.
Moscardini, tiny little squid marinated in olive oil, red chilli, fennel seeds, whole peppercorns, garlic and fresh oregano. The oil was so good that we panicked at the thought of leaving any and ordered some grilled focaccia so we could mop up every last bit.
We tried the chiceti: mozzarella, proscuitto and basil on grilled bread, arancini, and fennel salami and pickled radicchio grissino. I couldn’t be too impressed by the grissino wrapped in salami; my sisters and I used to do the same thing with salami and prosciutto when we were kids. We thought it was our invention!
For dessert, a tiramisu, small and perfectly formed.
It wasn’t perfect – a couple of dishes had things missing (no gremolata with the risotto, no pickled radicchio with the grissino) but it’s a measure of the taste and presentation of the food that we didn’t notice until we’d cleared our plates and I looked at the menu again.
While prosciutto and red wine goes some way in making me feel that all is right in the world, lunch at Polpo left me with yet another existential question: when are we coming back?