A mental map of the world in meals
Having read my TDPC fellow bloggers introductions I realized that, while we grew up all over the world, we have one thing in common: our love of food; that along with the memory of shared mealtimes has been important to us since our childhoods.
Family legend has it, that I orchestrated my first tea party at the age of 3, when, while my mum was trying to fob off an unwanted caller at the front door, I appeared from the kitchen bearing a tray with tea and biscuits – the caller stayed……
I vividly remember chasing poplar fluff in the school playground, being amazed at the size of poplar moths, assembling rat skeletons in my free time and monitoring the flower buds on our rhododendron as they developed. I remember being bitten by a mouse, I was attempting to rescue, in a flower shop, the first time iron filings showed me a magnetic field and the first bacteria colonies I ever saw in a petri dish. But mostly I remember food – the colours, the tastes, the texture, the contrasts, the setting and, yes, the company, the scents, and where school dining rooms are concerned, the smells.
I remember the tastes of England – spam and mushy peas, deep fried fish and malt vinegar, treacle tart, spotted dick and rivers and rivers of yellow birds-eye custard. I remember scones and clotted cream, home-made strawberry jam, my mother’s bread fresh from the AGA, blackberry and apple pie, loganberry crumble and millionaire’s shortbread served by our nanny, who in an unguarded moment told me her nipples were the size of the inside of a saucer….
I remember the tastes of Switzerland at my grandmother’s house, ham, paprika crisps, meringues with whipped cream and fresh berries. I remember sorting through redcurrants, and big bowls of enormously large cherries, fresh green beans and pine-forest honey with fresh, rich, creamery butter served on the Bernese plaited bread known as “zopf”. I remember my mother’s dinner party dish of veal in a sherry and cream sauce with button mushrooms served with skinny noodles.
Bulgaria is soups with fatty meat and copious amounts of grated feta on salads and French fries, the Italy of my youth is olives and tomatoes, a stand in Cagliari selling oily focaccia to be filled with any manner of grilled vegetables, prosciutto and cheese you can imagine, tiny cups of strong espressso and pan forte in Siena. And I will never forget the rich, silkiness of my first grilled eel in Sardinia.
Paris as a student is, in my memory, an orgy of ethnic restaurants, sushi and coconut cream tarts at Paul’s bakery, Berlin – a terrible, “mayonnaise-poisoned”shrimp cocktail, Helsinki in winter – an amazing, spiced honey-vodka in Russian restaurant Troikka, Kerala is dosas and coconut, Spain molletes and tomatoes, and Moscow in winter is Georgian chicken with roasted walnuts, spicy Georgian foods such as carrot, chili and coriander salad and spicy eggplant, and small mushroom turnovers in the local fast-food place. Moscow is also shashlik, served with freezing cold vodka in cold glasses of course, standing outside in the snow wearing a North Face jacket as the thermometer registered temperatures of -30°C (-22°F). Moscow is also lovely, creamy cold sirok (Сырок) and hot chocolate so thick your spoon stands upright.
Iran’s food, a labour of love, – fesenjoon, daspic, kabab koobideh, kookoo sabzi and that most wonderful, wonderful thing – tah dig, also my favourite Khoresh Gheimeh. Iran is also wonderful bread, limu omani and sumac, saffron ice-cream and Moby Dick in Washington DC. Egypt is ful mesdames and parsley-speckled falafel speckled with parsley and tahini salad, Israel is falafel, pickled vegetables, hummus, pita and halva and not to forget lachuach eaten during a 2 week stay with a family in the West Bank. Washington DC introduced me to soft-shelled crab and California rolls and later, through divine intervention by way of Japanese post-docs, sashimi and sushi in Japanese run restaurants, my first, umami, “uni” and of course, fajitas and frozen margaritas. DC also introduced me to Ethiopian food, like injera, and Tej – honey wine as well as South American fried plantains with lime salsa. USA beyond DC: enormous steaks, apple butter, shoo fly pie, lobster and BBQ ribs; all manner of fusion food and macaroni and cheese served with fruit salad…… Happy hour is represented by that time honoured combo of US Miller lite – which tastes of not very much at all, sorry guys, with scrawny Buffalo chicken-wings. Morocco is deep fried filo pastry triangles filled with cinnamon scented rice served cold at breakfast, spicy lamb tagines and fragrant, juicy oranges. And delving deeper there is Brazil: sweet avocado cream with lime for dessert, Greece: tzaziki and grilled fish, Turkey – home to one of my favourite spices: deep purple Pul Biber and of course modern-day Italy, with delights too numerous to list here and so may grannies in small kitchens. Argentina – grilled beef and of course, fresh fruit and maté……China – Szechuanese dishes and fish-fragrant eggplant, eaten in a small restaurant, a local Chinese business-woman took us to, when we asked for directions.
Food, for me, is living history, enjoying it enables me to connect to the past and to better understand a country and a people. I like to talk to the locals about their cooking, what they eat to celebrate local holidays and their memories of loved foods. I take joy in jotting down time-tested recipes. I enjoy watching old ladies cook and will ask lots of questions, take copious notes and photographs (see “how to make crostata with Nonna di Giulia”, or how to make simply the world’s most satisfying, and possibly largest, meat-ball: “Polpettone the great Italian meatball”, notes on foragine “Erba di Mare”) or the ultimate chocolate-covered “spice-biscuit” – Lucetta’s mustazzoli pugliese. . Learning from the locals, and bringing home a cook-book, is the best holiday souvenir: Long after you have thrown that sombrero (toy-donkey, painted horse, mate-straw) out, you can still celebrate memories at home.
Apart from experiencing individual ingredients I remember sharing meals – I recall how I felt when I served the first meal I ever remember making: spinach with potatoes and curry and tomato paste and lots of curry – aged around 8 – both my parents were in bed sick and I concocted something I thought would make them feel better, I remember how grateful they were, the power of food for healing and I still remember the taste of that dish concocted of left-overs.
Beyond discovering new foods, I most enjoy, planning a meal for friends, remembering their likes and dislikes, thinking about that perfect dish that will make them happy and surprise them, to let them discover something new.
Too often, I think, food is classified as good or bad, reduced kcal counts, sugar content, “good fats” and “bad fats”, brain-healthy, heart-healthy etc. when meals, I am convinced, should really be about sharing love, emotion, experiences and pleasure. Dinners, are about spending time with friends, and preparing for them, about creating memories and showing you care. I know which of my friends hates anchovies, who loves chocolate, who dislikes olives and what types of wines they like and I will plan my meals for them to reflect that, because doing so makes me happy. The meal itself doesn’t need to be overly complex, you don’t need to slave away in your kitchen, you just need some food, something to drink and time.
In cooking I like every aspect of the process from selecting, to buying. cooking to serving: I will unashamedly peruse the wares at a farmer’s market, walking round all the stands first to see what looks freshest… and sometimes, noting this, the farmer will open a box behind the counter and offer me the perfect vegetable – making me feel a conspiratorial bond between expert producer and food-loving customer. Similarly I’ll happily spend an hour discussing cheese with the cheese monger (to the frustration of anyone in the queue behind me).
Once I have great ingredients I like to experiment. There are so many limits on daily life that the kitchen is one of the areas where you can be creative.
When Margot invited me to be a part of The Dinner Party Collective, I was honoured, a teensy bit apprehensive but also, mostly, extremely excited to create global menus with other bloggers, whose blogs have inspired me in the past.
Dinner parties are like a large boulder strategically placed in a furiously raging river, a stepping-stone to the calm of the other side, or if the river is wide and the path treacherous, maybe just a welcome spot where you can sit and rest, while you map the path ahead. At their best, they offer an oasis of calm, respite from the furies of the day and stay in your memory as a stolen, golden moment, where you were able to be all that you are, celebrating your life journey with your loved ones. Beyond that, a truly great dinner party has the power to fortify you spiritually for the journey ahead.
If you doubt me, I challenge you to get some food in, invite your closest most loved friends over, prepare a simple meal with love, and then sit and talk (obviously with the television switched off..)
Please join us on our TDPC journey, hopefully you will be inspired to spend time in your kitchen, to have friends over, to contemplate cooking from scratch, to enjoy the sensual pleasures of selecting fruits and vegetables and to celebrate the long-lost art of the dinner party with us!
Bien-venue and Bon appetit!