Over recent months I have been spending a lot of my time fantasising and no, before you start thinking it, not naughty top shelf thoughts. My mind has been wandering to an entirely different kind of breast and thigh! Having been eating carefully on lean meat and vegetables for well over six months with barely a pudding in sight, I am missing some of the finer things in life, the sorts of thing that I used to have just for the sake of it. Without realising it, treats had become mundane and the exotic had become, well, common! Duck breast, with its crispy skin, stuffed chicken thighs, all plump and moist, lamb cutlets, eaten more for the fat than the lamb, steamed puddings, in fact any pudding full stop had all become standard, whereas now, now they are my top shelf and I am having a damn good read!!
I have started to dream in food, to cast my mind back to some of the great dishes I have experienced. I have been remembering some of the greats and I would like to share my memories with you. Now please do not read any food snobbery into this, great food does not by any means all have to be of Michelin quality, as my top ten food memories will prove. I am sure that if you do the same thing, your childhood favourites, that supper with friends round a table in student digs, a spontaneous picnic, a first date, in short, life, will be at the forefront of your list. Try it.
So, in no particular order, here goes.
1. I grew up in Australia, only coming back to England very occasionally. When we did, we used to stay with my Grandparents and my abiding memory was gold top milk. I was taught to never shake the bottle, just push my thumb into the gold foil and poured this thick and creamy elixir straight on to my cornflakes. Australian milk must have been OK as I have fairly good teeth and was well over six foot before I became a teenager, but I can’t actually remember it. All I know is that trips to England were made great by milk! And apparently, if I drank enough of it, I could play football for Accrington Stanley!
I recommend that you make rice pudding with gold top milk. Measure out the rice, sugar and the milk as per the recipe, add some vanilla, (essence, pod or flavouring) to the milk. Now comes the cunning part. Normally you would put it in an ovenproof dish with the lid on, pop it in the oven and return in an hour or so to find the liquid has gone and the rice has been welded to the bottom of the pan. Instead, put it all in a pan, put it on the hob, bring to the boil, turn down and stir occasionally until the rice is done. So much easier. The cream content of gold top makes this so thick and rich (a bit like a footballer) that you will never use anything else again!
|The legend at work
2. Twelve years ago, whilst working in the Caribbean, I had an epiphany. I have always known that pizza shouldn’t have a two inch thick base and cheese in the crust, however what I hadn’t realised is that proper pizza should be no thicker than a member of Mensa! You may say that Antigua is a strange place for such a moment and I would whole heartedly agree, however I was sitting in Famous Mauro’s Pizza Restaurant
with an Italian who told me I was about to experience the best pizza in the world. I assumed that the world in this context did not include Italy but he assured me it did. I was somewhat taken aback to hear him say that. Then I read the menu. Mauro is Italian, he bought his pizza oven in Italy, re-assembled it in Antigua and only uses Italian flour for the bases and Italian cheese on top. I don’t know if it was the best pizza in the world, but it was certainly the best I have ever had. I am off to Tuscany in six weeks so will have something similar to compare it to and you know what, I think it will still be the best. Mind you, Mauro’s is special to me for another reason, I took a friend there for dinner for the first time and now, as well as still being best of friends, she is also my wife!!
3. There are few things in life that fundamentally change you as a person. When I was fifteen, I worked for a fortnight in one of England’s finest Country House Hotels, Cliveden
. I was peeling countless potatoes, staring into space, when I was assaulted by a smell so alien that I actually snapped out of my daydream and took notice. It was a sort of “you’ve been Tango’d” moment! I asked what was being cooked and, upon discovering that I had never tasted it before, the chef handed me a plate of rather strange looking stuff. Browned on the outside, very soft in the middle and oozing with a deep golden fat, I must admit that it didn’t look hugely appetising, however, never one to turn my nose up at new tastes, I had a forkful. I was immediately transported to a far away place, lifted by angels and archangels, whilst at the same time being enveloped in a warm and fluffy duvet of culinary comfort. I knew then that my life would be spent around food. Cooking, serving, eating, it didn’t really matter. Most people will tell you that the greatest influence on their life was a person. Maybe it says something about me that the greatest influence on my life was foie gras!!
4. You may be forgiven for thinking that my top ten food memories would all be good. They certainly should be, I have enough to choose from. I have however decided to use one to warn you, the great public at large, about a grave danger that has crept into society. Shortly after returning from Australia I was given a sandwich, an innocent enough looking object so, being a permanently hungry youth, I took a huge bite. It was the culinary equivalent of finger nails down a chalkboard! Surely this was caustic, nothing that was sold for spreading on bread could ever taste this hideous!! It was mouldy, it had to be. I was going to lapse into a coma and rot from the inside out. My parents would never see me grow into the spaceman I was destined to become! And all because of Marmite!
5. When I was still a young chap in short trousers I was often asked what I would like for lunch on the occasions that I used to come home at the weekends. My answer was always the same. My mother used to make the most amazing chicken and mushroom pie. It was so simple and yet ticked all the boxes, proper comfort food.
As far as I can remember it was made like this:-
Roast a chicken or two. Pull all the meat off and if necessary, cut into good sized chunks.
Quarter and cook some large flat mushrooms in butter. Keep any juices that might appear.
Put the chicken and mushrooms in a flat pie dish. Put enough decent chicken stock in to come halfway up the dish. Add the mushroom juice as well.
Cover with a pastry lid, either puff or shortcrust, your choice.
Cook in the oven until piping hot and golden brown.
We always had buckets of mashed potato and white cabbage with it.
6. A few years ago my daughter was given a pack of recipe cards, full of the usual childhood favourites, great for holidays and rainy afternoons. I was flicking through them when I came across a recipe that has become my staple for a quick pudding when a yoghurt or satsuma just won’t cut it! We always have ice cream in the freezer and usually have some chocolate in the cupboard. Being so close to Easter, we now have enough chocolate to sink the proverbial battleship!
Weigh out 100g of whatever chocolate you have to hand. Anything will do, flavoured, plain, white, milk or dark.
Put it in a pan and add 10g butter, a tablespoon of water and one of golden syrup.
Heat it up until melted and warm.
Pour it on ice cream, meringues, profiteroles, your significant other, whatever takes your fancy.
I assure you this will become a firm favourite with the whole family.
7. Some years ago I had the obligatory coming of age travels around far flung parts of the globe. I spent all of my time in Australia, driving from Perth up the west coast, across to Cape Tribulation and down the east coast to Melbourne. During this time I became quite the expert on road house tucker. I always had the same thing, a ham, cheese and tomato toastie. You would be amazed at how many different experiences can be had with the same ingredients. Some were passable, some I wouldn’t have fed to a rabid dingo and sometimes, just occasionally, I would come across a real gem. The best I had was in a small town in Queensland called Mount Surprise. We placed our order and were was given a number, despite being the only people in the place, and told to take a seat by the very friendly lady behind the counter. About ten minutes later I was given my order. Sitting on a chipped plate, on a table that had four different legs, was the finest looking sandwich I had ever seen. Two large doorsteps of homemade white bread, a whole tomato, what seems in my memory to have been at least half a pound of home cured ham and enough cheese for a fondue, all steaming hot and crunchy. It was the most amazing thing I had laid eyes on since first discovering the drive through off licence! I can still remember the smell and taste nearly 20 years later.
We never actually saw the mount, a fact that caused us much angst until we realised that maybe that was the surprise!!
|Le Manoir – A living art gallery
8. I have always rated food using the most base of methods. If a dish or experience gives me a culinary orgasm, then it stays in the memory. I am fortunate enough to have a few of these, however only once have I experienced the truly elusive culinary multiple orgasm!! As part of the training that every member of staff was given when working at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons
, I, along with 9 other newbies, was given the Menu Gourmand, a seven course tasting extravaganza, in the main restaurant. We all knew that we were about to experience food that was going to re-write all future expectations, however, what followed was a four hour masterclass in just how to do serious food, in a serious setting, seriously well. Maybe it is because it was my first, maybe it is because I worked there, or maybe it is just because it was so damn good, but nothing since has come close to that meal, and a little part of me hopes nothing will.
9. When my wife and I first got married, we used some money that had been given by her beloved Grandmother to buy a Kenwood mixer. We didn’t use it too much for the first couple of years, however when children come along, birthday cakes are needed and baking for fun becomes part of the holiday ritual, when family come round and cakes and biscuits are needed and when the long summer days demand lots of meringues and pavlovas, it comes to the fore. I have always wanted a kitchen large enough to be able to keep it out on the surface, a sort of kitchen status symbol, look what we have and just imagine the goodies we can create with it, however it currently lives in a cupboard and strangely, I am actually happy about that. Having to get something out and ready so that you can do something else is surely part of the build up, part of the fun and excitement. Imagine if all the camping gear was permanently in the car, if that bottle of fizz was always in the fridge or if Barry White was always playing in the background! Our Kenwood is not so much one memory as a never ending string of them, those gone and those yet to come, however the first one I always think of is Victoria’s Granny and the memories that her present has allowed us to collect.
10. I recently had a dinner party to celebrate my fortieth birthday. The whole night was one of great food, great wine, sublime company and wonderful memories. I shall remember it until the day comes that I can no longer remember things! It summed up what food is all about, it is about sharing, about friendship, about love, about experiences, it is about having a list just like this one, to remind us to remember why life is for living.
A few weeks ago I wrote about two other fantastic memories, pudding wine and truffles. You can have these as a bonus on top of the others!
I hope you have a great weekend remembering all your own top tens!