(The next installment of our Easter trip to Luxembourg, via France and Belgium, with a quick dip into Germany too)
Recovering from climbing up (and down) the 408 steps from the Belgian town of Dinant to the citadel that looms over this small riverside town, we head to a cafe to rehydrate.
Perusing the menu, my daughter plumps for Coca-Cola Light (that’s Belgian for Diet Coke). I favour the fizzy mineral water Apollinaris, to echo the Roman theme of the engaging thriller I’m reading – Inceptio by Alison Morton. My husband, not being female and therefore not just glowing from our recent ascent, homes in on a drink to replenish lost salts: an Oxo.
Although this menu does have an international aura, I’m surprised to see Oxo listed. Rightly or wrongly, I associate it inextricably with my home country, having grown up just a few miles from the famous Oxo Tower in London.
OXO & ME
The Oxo Tower, now a fancy restaurant with panoramic views across London, was a familiar landmark on the commuter railway from our suburban home in Sidcup to Charing Cross. At secondary school, tasked with painting a city skyline, I incorporated a meticulous rendition of the Oxo Tower. I was incredulous when my elderly art teacher, Miss Barbara Snook, objected. What was not to love about the Oxo Tower? Not only was the architecture Art Deco, but the lettering was pleasingly palindromic.
Miss Snook admitted that she loved the Oxo Tower; I suspected they’d shared their heyday. But then she memorably explained her reasoning:
“In any painting, try not to include words, because the eye is automatically drawn to the text to read it and is diverted from the rest of your picture.”
She was right. I’ve often recalled her advice in art galleries, distracted by labels, and wished I’d shown more respect for her wise words at the time. It was only after leaving school that I discovered that she was also a world authority on embroidery. Years later, as a belated tribute to her wisdom, I bought from a secondhand shop a book that she’d written about needlework; I treasure it still.
And again, decades later in a cafe in Belgium, I sit recalling her sagacity as we wait for the waiter to bring our unlikely assortment of drinks.
I realise that the only other setting in which I’ve come across people drinking Oxo as a beverage rather than adding it to a casserole or gravy is my grandmother’s house (in Sidcup again), where she and my Great Auntie Nellie favoured it as a fortifying mid-morning pick-me-up. This was the same Auntie Nellie who enjoyed salt-and-pepper sandwiches, so I’d assumed her Oxo habit to be a measure of frugality, acquired during war-time rationing, rather than a treat meriting this menu’s price of 2 Euros 30 cents.
AN OXO EXTRAVAGANZA
When our drinks finally arrive, my Apollinaris is pleasingly labelled “The Queen of Table Waters” . Despite its Romanesque name, it is served in true Belgian style with a tiny dish of bar snacks. But if my drink is the Queen, my husband’s is surely King. Presented in a glass on its own silver platter, it is accompanied by a plastic-wrapped melba toast, a grinder of mixed spices and a bottle of Lea and Perrin’s Worcester Sauce. Getting as close as he ever does to cooking, my husband assembles all the components (they really should serve this drink in Ikea cafes). After the first sip, he breathes out a big steamy sigh of contentment.
“Aah, this is nice!” he declares emphatically. “I ought to drink this more often.”
I’m about as likely to drink a mug of Oxo as a cup of Bisto, but being the dutiful wife that I am, I buy a box of it at the supermarket on the way back to our camper van. The irony is not lost on me that our next destination will be the picturesque riverside town of Bouillon. Better not mention the Oxo.