William Skidelsky tries service-station food

Stag weekends have seldom been seen as opportunities for fine dining

Stag nights are not what they used to be. Once, they were low-key affairs, consisting of the groom's friends taking him out on the night before his wedding, plying him with alcohol, and tying him naked to a tree. Nowadays, they occur weeks before the wedding, last several days, and are just as likely to take place in Prague or Tallinn as in Birmingham or Blackpool. Rather than reflecting the increased sophistication of young British males, however, such exoticism merely demonstrates the increased opportunities for boorishness afforded by European integration. For all the talk of low-cost travel, there is one overriding reason why eastern Europe has proved so popular as a destination for stag parties - prostitution.

While stag weekends have long been associated with carnal excess, they have seldom been seen as opportunities for fine dining. In so far as eating takes place at all, it tends to be done hurriedly, before embarking on whatever ribald entertainment is next on the agenda. This is not an accident. Eating well, in the context of a stag do, would seem strangely indecent, a violation of the principle that what one eats should be in keeping with the salubriousness of the other activities. It would hardly seem right, before venturing into a tacky nightclub, to sit down to a meal of oysters and fine champagne.

The stag weekend I attended recently was, in many respects, the perfect illustration of this principle. We set off on Friday afternoon for the village of Tintagel, on the north coast of Cornwall. No sooner had we boarded the minibus than the stag, who is called Plum, announced that this was to be the English leg of an experiment he is conducting, an investigation into "The Worst Foods of Europe". Plum, who travels regularly on the Continent (partly because his bride-to-be is Austrian), is normally something of a gourmet, but this has never prevented him from indulging his liking for less pleasant foodstuffs.

I don't know whether the service stations that flank the M3 and M4 are unusually low grade, but they provided rich fodder for Plum's investigations. Our first stop, just outside London, was at Burger King, where we ordered double cheeseburgers all round. This was to be the culinary high point of our tour. Since being made sick by a McDonald's burger several years ago, I have strenuously avoided burger restaurants of all descriptions. Yet against expectations, my Whopper proved surprisingly inoffensive: it was not too mushy, had a moderately pleasant flavour, and bore at least a passing resemblance to something I might have prepared myself.

Things took a turn for the worse at a service station in Devon, where we avoided the burger outlet (this time a Wimpy) and headed straight for the general food shop, the shelves of which were groaning with a cornucopia of unappealing products. Finding something disgusting in this environment was not hard. Christian (who is vegetarian) opted for a pungent cheese and onion pasty; I chose a pork pie that claimed to be Melton Mowbray, but whose taste assured me it wasn't.

Plum, however, emerged with the two most offensive items. One, called a Buffet Bar, was a version of a Scotch egg, except that the sausage meat, rather than being wrapped round a hardboiled egg, encased what was described as a "crispy coleslaw and cheese filling". The other, an "All Day Breakfast Tortilla", was a disastrous attempt at fusion cooking. Served cold, the ingredients of a cooked breakfast are never an enticing prospect, but by juxtaposing them with something as inappropriate as a tortilla, the manufacturers had succeeded in making them far more vile than they would have been on their own.

Still, I must admit that the latter stages of the weekend did see a marked improvement. On Sunday, we roused ourselves from our beds and made our way to Rick Stein's Seafood Restaurant in Padstow. I would tell you about the superb scallops, lobsters and salmon we ate there, except that, in the context of what had gone on the rest of the weekend, it just wouldn't be appropriate - would it?

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