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Food for thought

Two unsqueamish chefs adopt a very civilised approach to some unusual dishes

<strong>Could You Ea

Fergus Henderson and Jeremy Lee: I know both a little. I have interviewed Henderson, the chef at St John, and I once went stalking with Jeremy Lee. I was on assignment - kill the stag! - and Lee, who is chef at the Blueprint Cafe by Tower Bridge, was part of a group of cooks who were getting to know the provenance of their ingredients a little better. I took an immediate shine to him because, as we loitered outside our posh private hunting lodge - I knew it was posh because it was bloody cold, and running a bath took about eight hours - he smoked a fag. This gave me hope that I would not be the least fit person in our party. When the others left me behind to die on the black hill, Lee would be there, too, chewing on a last crumb of KitKat, crying for his mother.

And so it proved. I have a distinct memory of the pair of us, crouching miserably in the heather, giant raindrops hanging from the ends of our noses. We hunkered there until the gillie had done for the stag and then happily accepted a lift back down to the lodge in the Caterpillar mini-truck someone had sent up for the carcass. What wimps. Oh well. All of this, I'm afraid, very much added to my enjoyment of Could You Eat an Elephant? (14 January, 10pm), in which Lee and Henderson set out to eat strange animals in faraway places, though I am aware that others might have found it too Pooterish and polite to hold the attention. It was a little . . . restrained for modern tastes. Had it been in the hands of Channel 5, or presented by men less charming and more macho than these two, there would have been lots of repulsive retching and slobbering, and the whole thing would have soon descended into one, long Bushtucker Trial.

As it was, sometimes Henderson and Lee ate the taboo (to us) foods on offer, and sometimes they didn't. Songbirds and horse meat in Italy got the thumbs-up; so did cobra in Vietnam. But elephant in the Kalahari, where the animal is thought a pest, and rats and dogs in Vietnam, got the thumbs-down. I was mildly surprised by this. Both men are admirably practical and unsentimental about meat, especially Henderson, who likes to put squirrel on his menu. They care about the conditions in which animals are reared, on grounds of kindness and, ultimately, taste, but they are not squeamish. I began to be suspicious of their reasoning.

With the exception of elephant, which Henderson refused to eat because he'd had a thing for Babar as a boy, I wondered if they were influenced more by matters of aesthetics and hygiene than anything else. In Vietnam, snakes are skinned alive, yet the duo chowed down perfectly happily on the 13 dishes one reptile can produce. Why? It was clear that the restaurant where they were lunching had expert chefs. The dogs and rats, however, were served at somewhat more downmarket venues, and our heroes saw more behind-the-scenes stuff: the rats had their teeth pulled out so they would not bite those who would later cook them; the dogs were kept in cages the size of lobster pots.

Never mind. What I loved about this film was its lack of hysteria. The disconnect between the British and the animals we eat is tragic and tiresome; it enables us not to think about the conditions in which they are kept and killed, and it makes pathetic drips of us all, as we faff about with plastic and polystyrene and freak out at the mere sight of a feather. Not here, though. "We're a long, long way from the pony club," said Henderson as a horse was led into an Italian abattoir shortly before lunchtime. His commentaries were cherishable: arch and funny, but also unflinching and oddly beady. "This is a singular event," said Lee, as dog thighs appeared on his plate. "Hopefully," said Henderson. Cue laughter and, a little later, a contemplative smoke out back. I would like to see more of them: they are so very civilised. But that, of course, is precisely why they are unlikely to get a more permanent gig.

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Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Obama: What the world expects...