Nigel Slater is well known in the culinary world as a chef, food writer, critic and author. So important is food to this connoisseur that his memoir is entitled Toast, each chapter telling us something about his life through a particular food.
It is amazing how the smell, taste and texture of food can unlock memories, toast being one of the simplest to trigger a reaction, hence, I assume, the name of his autobiography which starts “My mother is scraping a piece of burned toast out of the kitchen window, a crease of annoyance across her forehead”, an opening line that immediately draws you in.
Another quote of his that I particularly enjoy is “You can’t smell a hug. You can’t hear a cuddle. But if you could, I reckon it would smell and sound of warm bread-and-butter pudding”. And that pure essence of a taste or smell triggering a memory is an important one.
As you can see from these pages the good lady takes a pretty good snapshot or two, when you view those you are immediately taken back to that time and place, the memories tripping over each other. Food has the same effect on me.
As I’m sure you’ve gathered I am passionate about food. Of course, there are many ways to enjoy a place apart from just the views and taking photos – the steal (not actual theft but a bargain which I’ll discuss more of at another time), the tat, the unexpected – but for me finding that local food is a must.
Many will wax lyrical of going to eat where the locals eat, that’s fine if you can find that seminal place but all food is about interpretation so it’s important to find the best example of it, however complex or simple it is.
I remember getting told off in Milan when I joked “Pizza is just Pizza”. This off the cuff remark resulted in me being marched around the town to sample a margherita pizza at various establishments. The simplest pizza possible made with just tomatoes, mozzarella, fresh basil, salt and extra-virgin olive oil, it tasted ever so slightly, but significantly, different at all the places I went. The growing realisation that the throwaway remark was so naïve came as I was taken from place to place and resulted in me putting on many kilos in an afternoon.
So do ask the locals where they recommend, but don’t assume that’s the best since that’s open to interpretation and their personal taste buds.
A simpler memory jogger for me is mint tea, the proper stuff you understand, not some teabag fruit tea abomination. I gave up smoking many years ago and don’t find I have a craving anymore, that is until I am served proper mint tea. I’m immediately a young man, transported to Marrakech in the early 90’s, sat outside a café where, as I smoked and drank quickly in order to get back to the sight-seeing, the place having captivated me so much, an old man chided me for the speed of consumption. “Life is to be taken slowly,” he said nodding sagely “and some delights savoured”. So what if I didn’t see everything he told me, there would always be next time. And if there isn’t a next time? Well, in that case, it’s better to have a few good memories than lots of ticked off hurried ones. So I relaxed, I watched the world go by, observed people, took in the smells and the sounds. I don’t know how much tea I drank that afternoon but I certainly established a strong connection with the place, stronger than if I had done the hurried tick list tourist impersonation, that has seen me return many times.
The name of this blog gives some clue as to that desire to find that lovely local dish or a local variant that adds another flavour stream to a memory. And it can be found in unexpected places too.
Austria, for example, is not particularly known for its cuisine, a fact borne out by the number (or lack thereof) of Austrian restaurants outside of Austria. But they have a dish called Tafelspitz. This really is the simplest of simple dishes – boiled veal or beef in broth, served with a mix of minced apples and horseradish with boiled or fried potato on the side. And in that simplicity, you have a sublime meal. So you can be surprised in the most unexpected of places.
So next time you are on an adventure (and all the trips are aren’t they) take a moment to hunt out that local dish or treat, and when you find it sit, relax and savour it. It’ll be time well spent, trust me, and another memory to cherish.
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