Yes, you eat a raw oyster alive – and other unforgettable food facts

The colour orange was named after the fruit, not the other way around.

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We’re in peak silly season, that glorious period when politicians fall silent and the country goes crazy for crack-addled squirrels, crop circles and whatever else will fill a couple of pages when most of the media is on holiday.

No summer story, however, could compete with my surprise on recently learning that the Queen owns a drive-through McDonald’s, which can be glimpsed from the royal apartments at Windsor Castle. (Sadly there are no reports of her taking the Land Rover there for a Filet-O-Fish, though – I checked.) And if that fact doesn’t raise your eyebrows, what about this lot?

1) Science still hasn’t worked out why asparagus gives urine that distinctive smell – but if you’ve never experienced this phenomenon, it’s more likely that you’re one of the roughly 60 per cent of people who simply can’t detect the scent.

2) Italians don’t tend to eat pizza at lunchtime. This is because the wood-fired ovens take hours to get to temperature. Though these works of Neapolitan art should be hot when they arrive, it’s perfectly polite to finish the job with your hands. (After all, pizzas topped with chips and even tinned hot dogs are surprisingly common in this great gastronomic nation.)

3) The colour orange was named after the fruit, not the other way around – before then, the shade was known in English as “red-yellow” or “yellow-red”, which is not as odd as it may sound: relatively few other languages have a specific word to describe it.

4) Raw oysters are still alive when you eat them (if they aren’t, you should be worried).

5) Our ape and monkey cousins peel bananas from the non-stalk end. Pinch the nub between your thumb and forefinger to split the skin, then peel it back – works every time.

6) The widespread idea that the more chilli you eat, the less it burns is a myth; research suggests that you just learn to enjoy the sensation more. The offending capsaicin component is concentrated in the pale membranes that attach the seeds to the flesh: the heat increases with proximity to the stalk, so to test the strength of a chilli, bite – gingerly! – into the pointed end.

7) Honey never goes off; perfectly preserved pots have been unearthed from Ancient Egyptian tombs. This longevity is thanks to a very low moisture content, which few bacteria can survive, high acidity, and small amounts of hydrogen peroxide created in the production process. These same sterile properties make it an effective dressing for wounds (try not to think of this next time you spread it on toast).

8) The Vatican does not consider gluten-free communion wafers “valid” for the celebration of the Eucharist, although low-gluten versions are apparently just about acceptable for people who cannot consume bread “for varying and grave reasons”. Gluten-free matzo occupy a similarly dubious place at the Jewish festival of Passover.

9) Calabrese, the vegetable we know as broccoli, now found in even the humblest of corner shops, is a relatively new addition to the British plate – a novelty in the 1930s, it didn’t supersede the older sprouting kind of broccoli until the 1970s.

10) More than half of Britons eat a sandwich every single day, with Leeds taking the title for the epicentre of consumption at an average of 20 sarnies per person a month. Ham and cheese is the most popular filling, and 77 per cent of people claim to have eaten the same lunch for nine months straight.

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article appears in the 31 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The decline of the American empire