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There’s nothing quite like the sight of a group of holidaymakers let loose on their hotel’s evening buffet. Head off to the sun somewhere in mainland Europe courtesy of a full- or half-board package holiday this summer and you can be certain that wherever you go – from Croatia to the Costa del Sol – rarely will you see pork chops and boiled potatoes piled on plates with such enthusiasm.
My most recent experience of the hotel buffet was in Mallorca and, based on previous experience, it was an entirely typical one. Across the seven nights I was there, the food was a stodgy best of British circa 1978: chicken, mashed potato, assorted cold meats and cheeses, halves of jacket potatoes dripping in butter, burgers. Even on a day that reached 30C there was beef stew on offer, and to reassure diners that they had not strayed far gastronomically (even if they were 1,200 miles from home), there was plenty of tomato ketchup and HP sauce among the condiments.
I’m as much a fan of retro-tinged comfort food as the next short-hauler and I’ve probably never eaten so many outsize meals in a single week; buffets are, by their very nature, an invitation to gluttony. I saw the most bizarre combinations of food and the most indulgent selection of courses – although that was often just by looking at my own plate.
One day I eschewed pudding entirely (there is only so much black forest gateau, blancmange and sliced banana in chocolate sauce that a person can handle) in order to fit in a particularly large second main course. No one could possibly eat like this all the time but the general attitude seemed to be: if I can’t scoff what I want when I’m on holiday then there’s not much point in going on holiday in the first place. (At least, that was my attitude.)
Much as I enjoyed filling my face, the situation was hopeless for vegetarians, unless they are particular fans of watery soup and salad – even the stuffed peppers had some form of (unspecified) meat in them. The only hot veggie option each night, although not labelled as such, was an Italian dish such as pizza or pasta. Likewise, there was barely a nod towards local cuisine: paella (admittedly not really local, but at least Spanish) was a “special” one day, although it didn’t have many takers. Some of the hotel’s other concoctions were inedible, not least the chicken croquette, which consisted of what appeared to be lukewarm baby food piped into a tube of deep-fried breadcrumbs. (Strange when you consider the excellence of Spanish croquetas.)
It wasn’t only the occasional appearance of barely palatable items that mimicked the experience of a school dinner, albeit one with a bottle of house wine on the side. The cavernous dining hall with its dubious decor, the queuing and, as Oliver Thring has previously pointed out, jostling which characterise school meals are equally central to the buffet.
To be fair, producing an extensive buffet seven days a week for several hundred people with perceived conservative tastes is something of a no-win situation. That said, given how high many people’s plates were stacked with food, most diners seemed to be enjoying it – so hotels geared towards the British package holiday market must be doing something right.
After all, the point of the food on these holidays is not to undertake a culinary adventure which challenges and delights diners with exciting dishes characteristic of the region, but simply an opportunity to indulge in extra-large helpings of reassuringly familiar meals. When it comes to tourists’ eating habits, the staff have seen it all before and don’t pay the slightest bit of attention to how many repeat visits you make to the serving stations. So, like a moth to a heat lamp, there really is nothing else for it but to keep going back for more. I know I do.