Arriving in West Africa, one of the first stories I heard was a second-hand version of a tale about a group of people who landed somewhere along the Coast after being blown off course when sailing between the Canary Islands and Senegal.

They made landfall at a tiny fishing village. The locals helped them beach their boat, then indicated they wanted to be compensated. The voyagers offered them whatever food remained in the gallery lockers. The Africans gobbled the stale bread as if it was cake and swigged down the Coca-Cola as if it was mothers milk.

But they took one whiff of the block of Romano and promptly threw it in the surf with cries of disgust.

The second story I heard (this one third- or fourth-hand) concerned a group of British bachelors who manned isolated trading posts along a river.

Whenever one of them received a shipment of goodies he would invite the others to share in the feast. His friends would arrive at that particular trading post by pirogue, each accompanied by his head boy, change into their best bib and tucker, and spend the evening à table.

On one occasion the host had received a particularly fine Stilton which was presented to the guests as a heap of pale, creamy crumbs on the serving platter. The host's head boy had very carefully removed all the "spoiled" bits!

The third story is my own.

Shortly after arriving at a new post in a West African country, my husband and I hosted a dinner for a group from the French Embassy. Protocol dictated that whenever entertaining embassy personnel it was polite to show the colors. I decided to do this with the cheese course and managed to find a Bleu de Bresse, a brie (white), and an Edam (red), those being the colors of the French flag.

The dinner proceeded beautifully. Course after course arrived from the kitchen: le potage, le poisson, l'entrée principale, la salade. Everything was perfect. Finalement, le fromage!

There were only two cheeses on the serving plate, the Edam with its red rind and the white wedge of brie. After the platter circulated around the table and was carried back into the kitchen I excused myself and followed it.

"Where be number three cheese?", I demanded.

"Oh, Madam," said the cook sadly, "he be bad, bad. He smell too much. I go waste him."

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