Well, I’m back from my travels – tired and broke but very very pleased with myself! I have met wonderful people, eaten great food and seen iconic sights and I am working on giving you a report on the delights of New York, Connecticut and Boston. But in the interim, it’s time to resume regular service!
A few weeks ago now, Neil of Food for Thought tagged me with the butterfly effect meme, and although I gave it a lot of thougth I never ended up finishing my post – until now. The premise of the meme is as follows: a list of food items/events/people that changed your foodie life. Not just "wow, that was a great burger", but things that affected you profoundly in some way; moments on which you can look back and say they were defining moments. In the words of Dan who originated this meme:
The questions are simple, the answers might be harder – an item, person, event, or place that had that effect on you, and why. They don’t have to be big splashy things – sometimes it’s something very small and simple that changes the way we view the world – the famed butterfly effect (and I’m not talking about the Aston Kutcher movie). So, to those who want to participate, copy this and pass it on (and, if you’re so inclined, do a trackback to the originating post). Here are your categories:
1. An ingredient
Foie gras. No question about it. As a child I didn’t like liver, so clearly foie gras or any other organ meat was out of the question. Then as I got older, I was horrified to read that these geese were being force-fed and put foie gras out of my mind just as I had put Queen’s "Another One Bites the Dust" out of my mind after I heard about the "secret messages" when the record is played backwards. I went through a very pious phase – my parents were very worried about me 😉 But I digress. All through my twenties, I had very rigorous ideas about what I would and would not eat. No organ meats. No chile. No curry (unless it was my mom’s super-mild stuff). No rabbit. Good grief. And clearly no foie gras.
But then my thirties dawned and I came to live in London and on a trip to Paris, I decided to try foie gras. One mouthful was all it took. Could it be possible to be eating something with the flavour of liver but the consistency of butter?? OMG!!! I was hooked. But more importantly, I learnt to suspend my disbelief and try eating things, even if they don’t sound like something I would like. You never know what you will discover like this 😉 I have subsequently started with korma curries and worked my way up from there. I found that you can cook carefully with chile so that the roof of your mouth does not have to peel off from the heat. I ate and enjoyed rabbit – hey, they have a happier life than chickens! I discovered the joy of liver and bacon. And when Heston Blumenthal serves up harissa ice cream, I taste it without hesitation 😉
2. A dish or recipe
From the sublime to the more mundane… One of the best and most useful things my mom ever taught me to make was a roux – the basis for almost every cheese sauce/creamy pasta sauce/soup I ever make. Yes, I know that sounds kinda lame, but it is the single most useful and versatile recipe I know. When I went home to South Africa for 18 months, I left Nick a list of hints and tips – like stuff to always have in the cupboard, stuff to buy on a weekly basis etc etc. And the only recipe I put on there was how to make a basic white sauce. I guess I could also mention tarka dal as being the dish that finally convinced me that lentils were not evil 😉
3. A meal (in a restaurant, a home, or elsewhere)
OK, I may cheat slightly with this one and mention two meals – but I justify that by pointing out that they occurred during the same 1983 family trip to France. It was the first time I had been abroad and my father had decided that at 13 and 10 respectively, my brother and I were old enough to appreciate three weeks travelling around France, Switzerland and Italy. In France we visited my half-sister Lucille in Brive-la-Gaillarde and stayed in one of the most magical places I have ever been – Chateau Castel Novel. One night, we drove into town to Lucille’s flat and my brother and I were parked there with her stepson (a slightly delinquent-looking and, to me, dangerously handsome 18-year old) and some tuna salad. My parents, on the other hand, were being whisked off to a special meal by Lucille and her husbband, at a local restaurant operated by a famous chef. Not that I knew it at the time, but of course we were in the culinary hotspot of Perigord, in truffle season, so this was a Big Deal. All I can rember was being annoyed – what did they mean "no children"?? We had always gone everywhere with my parents – no restaurant had ever turned us away before!
After many hours of trying vainly to make conversation with a boy who didn’t speak much English, the family FINALLY returtned. Oh, the stories my father had to tell. About how there were no menus! The chef cooks what he feels like that night – can you imagine?? And that they were served a dozen courses, each prettier and less substantial than the last (this was 1983 and the era of nouvelle cuisine, remember!). And that they were served fatty goose liver so raw my mom coudn’t eat it and then got into an argument with Lucile’s husband about whether nearly-raw is the only way to eat meat. And that the highlight of the meal was an exquisite small silver cup which contained (when the lid was lifted) "a raw egg, scattered with invisible little specks of truffle" (my father’s words). The story was a family joke for many years, often being told, retold and embellished, but the raw liver, the truffled egg and the lack of menus were always the showstoppers – all the stuff that I would look for in a fine-dining experience today!! I have no idea what the restaurant was called or who the famous chef was, but I think that this was the first time that I had an inkling of how food could be treated as something more than sustenance – it could be high art, accesible only to a select few, and I was’t on the list. Yet.
A meal that I WAS able to enjoy though was towards the end of the holiday, when we took a boat trip to Portofino. It was late summer, the Mediterranean was clear aquamarine and the village of Portofino was gorgeous in its ice-cream colours and terracotta roofs. We strolled around, shopped a bit and then found a table at one of the many waterfront restaurants. I had veal piccata, and for years afterwards I yearned for that taste. It was tender and perfectly flavoured and nicer than any piece of lamb or beef I had ever had in South Africa – a revelation. It was the first time that I had a favourite food that wasn’t just chicken a la king (made by anyone, anywhere) – it had to be that veal piccata, in that restaurant. I sometimes think I can still taste it.
4. A cookbook or other written work
Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries. Don’t get me wrong – I love Gordon Ramsay’s fabulous food, but I would prefer to eat it in his restaurants, made by other people. I love Nigella’s books (especially Feast), so full of information and cultural references and passion. But Nigel Slater’s recipes are the ones I fall in love with on first reading and turn out fantastically when I make them. There is an earthiness and lack of pretension about his writing that I love and every recipe of his that I’ve made has such tremendous flavours. And Kitchen Diaries is my favourite book of his. I think I’m just basically voyeuristic – I love the idea of peeping over somebody’s shoulder as they cook, day after day, so the diary format of the book works for me. I also love the fact that it combines the principle of seasonal eating with great recipes without ever getting preachy about it. But mostly I love the fact that the day after he makes risotto, he will make risotto cakes with the leftovers. That’s how the real world cooks 😉
5. A food personality (chef, writer, etc.)
I have to admit to my embarrassment that I had never heard of Elizabeth David until after I came to this country. But once I discovered her, it was as if a window on a whole new world had opened up. I read An Omelette and a Glass of Wine greedily, as if I couldn’t get enough of it, and I fell in love. Some of the things she said were thoughts that had knocked about in my own head, half-formed, for ages. She talks about mayonnaise and how English cooks thought they could "improve" it my making it eggless of oil-free or whatever. Her point was by all means mess with it, but then for heaven’s sake stop calling it mayonnaise! You have fundamentally altered it and bastardised it, so please don’t bring real mayonnaise into disrepute by keeping the name… This is exactly what I have always felt about Caesar salads. OK fine, so add shredded carrot or bacon bits or goat’s cheese if you must. But please call it something else!
Elizabeth’s respect for the integrity of dishes and the quality of produce is unparallelled, and her descriptions of French markets makes me long to board the Eurostar. Her philosophy that a good omelette and glass of wine can be just as satisfying as an evening of fine dining is an idea that I cherish, and it has led me to all sorts of little places off the beaten track. Sometimes with great results, sometimes less so, but always with a sense of adventure.
6. Another person in your life
I was going to say my mom, but I have already talked on a number of occasions about how she taught me to cook and laid the foundations for my culinary aspirations. So instead, I’ll talk about my sister-in-law Paola. Seeing as my brother’s personal life was always far more… settled than my own, I have had the benefit of knowing Paola for 17 years and she is probably the first girl I was friends with that shared my enthusiasm for food and cooking. I remember many holidays as students where we would go away with a huge group of friends and the only two people interested in cooking something more adventurous than hotdogs or a BBQ woudl be me and Paola – so naturally we ended up doing most of the mass catering! Being Italian, Paola introduced me to a whole new world of ingredients – for instance, the concept that Parmiggiano comes in blocks, not desiccated in little plastic shakers ;-). Every time I go home, she wows me with some new idea or recipe and if I am wondering how to duplicate something I ate in a restaurant, she is usually a good person to start bouncing ideas off. She is a constant source of culinary inspiration and one of my best friends. Grazie, Paola!
As far as tagging people goes, here are the five people to whom I’m passing the baton:
Gitit from Star Apple Cooking
Fahara from Souperior
Stephanie from Dispensing Happiness
Ilingc from Feed me I’m Hungry
Melissa from The Cooking Diva