I find it absolutely mind-boggling that on our high streets there are more than 214 branches of Nando's, a restaurant chain originally started in South Africa by ethnic Portuguese refugees from Mozambique - but then I suppose that says everything about my failure to grasp the following: capitalism, globalisation, the free market and the great British public's gnawing desire for chicken.
Yes, we're back in the chicken coop again - but in fairness, as this column treats of real meals that people really eat, we should probably never stray too far from the chicken wire. The Nando's website thoughtfully provides a map showing the distribution of its outlets that makes it look as if doughty Britannia is being pecked to death by sinister, strutting, stylised cockerels - the chain's logo. Using said map, you could quite easily complete a coast-to-coast walk, à la Wainwright, solely provisioned with the Nando's signature dish of peri-peri chicken.
This being noted, there seems to be a marked preponderance of Nando's in inner-city areas, and I would wager - although I haven't checked up on this personally, I do have a life you know - that many of these areas have high ethnic-minority populations. It could be that there's an awareness in the black community of the African roots of Nando's but, if so, it's pretty residual. Certainly, when I mentioned this to a black friend who eats there regularly, she didn't know about it, having just assumed the gaff was Portuguese.
Indeed, there's nothing obviously southern African about the Nando's decor, which is heavy on the faux-adobe, the faux-corrugated iron, the job lots of clay pots and plenty of cockerel-related tat - cages, feed bins and so on. There are also hokey signs on the walls bearing fowl sayings, which stick even in the human craw. Still, the overall feel is tastefully muted: the tables are dark wood, the floors are tiled and the lighting is angled down.
Marinade in heaven
Nando's is definitely a step up from a fast-food joint, so I wasn't surprised when the same friend told me that she mostly took her son there on healthy eating grounds. "The chicken's grilled," she observed, "rather than fried like at KFC." Grilled the chicken is, and moreover, Nando's proudly asseverates that they only serve fresh - never frozen - chicken, which has been immersed for a full 24 hours in their famed peri-peri marinade. You can select your own degree of piquancy from anodyne lemon and herb to extra hot, described as: "A real throat-scorcher. Spice savvy (or reckless bravado) required."
I had a quarter-chicken with the medium marinade, chips and Macho peas (basically mushy peas with a few herbs and spices). The meal deal came with unlimited Coca-Cola but when, as at this branch, the carbonating unit in the dispenser isn't working, this is a benison comparable to the one granted King Midas. I mean, what's the point of having unlimited flat Coke? It's a bit like having unlimited shit.
Still, I couldn't be arsed to make a fuss, so I just sat there in the sepia interior, dipping my cardboard chips in ketchup, sipping my flat shit and gnawing my chicken, which was spiced just enough to avoid it tasting too . . . chickeny. I couldn't complain. What can you expect if you're a middle-aged man eating lunch alone in a mid-priced chain restaurant? An entertaining gun battle?
Actually, in our family mythology, Nando's is very much associated with gun battles, because of the afternoon we went to eat at the branch on the Uxbridge Road and found it completely sealed off by police crime-scene tape, while crashed vehicles were strewn about outside. It transpired that an argument had flared up in the restaurant between two rival gangs of rude boys and they'd gone for their guns. One teenager had fled Nando's and leapt into a car, but he'd been shot several times and crashed through the window of a nearby estate agent's - Winkworth's, to be precise.
This was in 2002, and it seems unfair to Nando's to restate this boyz-in-da-hood rep. But then, looked at another way, I can't help thinking that the episode was a bizarre prefiguring of things to come. After all, what have the past eight years brought us, if not the spectacle of the British economy behaving like a gangster full of extra-hot chicken, riddled with bullets and crashing into the entire property market? Reckless bravado, indeed.