November 25, 2014
It’s astonishing the way our memory works with flavours. Someone sitting next to me on the tube eating a packet of crackers – I can only smell the sweet, warm, slightly sickening aroma of the complex sugars being broken down by someone else’s saliva and yet, I know exactly what those crackers taste like, I can taste them in my mouth too.
We talked about it with Jesse the other night. He read an article, or perhaps it was a short story – did he say one on the New Yorker? NYT? I forget now – where at one point the character would arrive home from school and smell the pot roast bubbling away on the stove in the kitchen, cooking to perfection just in time for dinner. “I could see myself coming home and doing exactly those same gestures, smelling the same smell. I know exactly what that food tastes like, even though I haven’t eaten it in years."
The power of a smell, of a taste – the power of our memory. It’s bewildering sometimes. How does it work? I think someone won a Noble prize about that once, but maybe the experiment was with a dog? Also, of course, Proust. Everybody knows about the madeleine – and how one can write a seven-tome-long fictional trip starting from there. What’s your madeleine? Do you have a food you can picture in your mind and that can set you back in time, back into a specific place? Can you taste it in your mouth?
November 12, 2014
I am a great planner. In fact, I created a grandiose calendar where I wrote the days I was supposed to sit down and browse relevant, interesting seasonal recipes from the stash of cookbooks I have sitting next to the couch, with post-its between them hoping to be, one day, removed. I had planned the days I was meant to list the ingredients I needed, the day for the shopping, and finally, the day for the cooking. I wanted to cook something interesting every week to make dinners a bit more adventurous and exciting. I planned to cook and taste, then try again and finally decide if the recipe was worth mentioning here, or just ticking and moving on.
I had a plan for writing, too. I wanted to write every week, a little every evening, and to photograph every weekend – to be more disciplined with the bits of creativity that dot my daily life. I wanted to put down in words and visuals all the ideas that pass through my mind at the speed of light – all the food, recipes, stories and bits of life brought back by an event of a sudden connection of thoughts – and are gone before I can record them. I had grand plans to sit down and just pour down onto a physical or virtual page all the ideas that blur my mind during the day and that make me anxious at work.
I am as good a planner as I am a procrastinator. I am undisciplined. Tired. Lazy. My plans don't take into account these aspects as I fly high in hope and optimism. What happened instead was my shopping pattern returned to be casual, instinctual, dictated by habit and sudden fancies after only a week. My recipe research dropped, and I returned to cook the things I feel comfortable putting together without any recipe but rather pulling together flavours and ingredients from my pantry and assembling them in fashions I think might work. I struggled to write in the evening, to find inspiration or just the right set of mind, and quickly returned to my readings and series-watching habits.
Writing a little every day – that is my biggest goal, yet it feels so unachievable right now. My mornings are too early and too fast before I head out of the door to my whirlwind of events. My evenings are late, and the worst time of the day for me to write, unless I swallow that fifth cup of coffee and write all in one go through the small hours of the night. I usually come home tired and mentally drained – a cacophony of stimuli and a handful of fragmented sentences. Home to a husband that demands my attention and with whom I want to spend my little spare time. In the evening, I am the furthest away from a decent storyteller I can ever possibly be.
Still, I ache to be here. I have been sitting on this post for days, looking for a good angle and a good story to tell about this salad, and the more I thought about it, the less I could say. The less hard I tried, the more clear it became that this salad tells no other story than the story of myself, here and now: of me eating somehow healthily, using seasonal produce turned into a hopefully exciting salad that could come together as quickly as possible. A salad made with ingredients that didn't take any room in my shoebox size refrigerator; and that would keep my green cravings at stake after a long day under the fluorescent light bulbs of the office. It tells the story of someone who likes to cook and eat well, but who struggles with time and energy. Someone who would gladly eat leftover soup for three days in a row than cooking for one hour after dumping my bags on the floor and taking my shoes off.
Thankfully, little planning, time or energy is required for this salads – just a trip to the greengrocer to get some vibrant, fresh seasonal ingredients. Oddly, this is my favourite time of the year for salad because it is when fennel, bitter leaves (the love of radicchio is in my genes) and citrus are in season – a heavenly combination that is extremely versatile and rewarding. It all makes for a lovely dinner alongside some pan-fried trout, some chicken or just a piece of cheese and some bread (and wine).
October 28, 2014
Last week I turned 27. As for every birthday, my first thought goes to what I have done in the year that just passed, and to where I am now. The second goes to cake – to all the cakes I'd have in the previous years, and those I'd like to have in the future.
As I was eating my rustic, nutty birthday cake, these memories suddenly came to mind. I wrote them down as they came, following the stream of my thoughts. What came out of it is a story about a pastry shop and its cakes.
The recipe doesn't have much to do with any of those cakes, but it is one I have been making and that I love deeply, as it has everything I like, as an adult, about cakes: a subtle sweetness, rustic appearance, moist crumb and a warming feeling. It also contains three of my favourite ingredients: pumpkin, pistachios and almonds. Good for birthdays or for those lazy Sundays spent writing indoors with a cup of coffee on your side.
October 14, 2014
It wasn't my first time at Petersham Nurseries. Yet, the place seems to change its skin at every visit – an ever-evolving being, dancing along with the seasons and the weather and the moods.
We were there for a lunch and wine tasting event. Arriving early – something rather unusual for me – I went on exploring the nurseries of plants and flowers, unusually colourful for being early autumn. From every corner, I could hear the muffled noises coming from the tea house, serving light lunches and teas to people looking for a corner of peace and beauty in what is the London countryside; and the bustling cafe – a restaurant really – in full Saturday service swing, alive with the sound of plates and coutlery. For a good while, I got lost in thought among the outdoor patches, hiding behind tall flowers and vased trees, admiring the casually messy yet so elegant compositions of species and colours. Measured wilderness – almost impossible to reach when one tries so hard. Effortless beauty.
I could have spent hours in the shop nestled in one of the nurseries, browsing eclectic pieces of furniture mingled and morphed with elegant flatware and stoneware, shabby chic gardening tools, and fine cotton textiles. They all have been carefully picked in markets and artisan shops all over the world, creating unusual, well-thought pairings and contrasts. I saw myself falling in love with a set of white ceramic plates and bowls, and with the cupboard hosting them. One day, I thouhgt.
The first course arrived promptly: fresh 'paglia and fieno' (literally, hay and straws, the green given by the presence of spinach in the pasta dough) with mushrooms and zucchini flowers, a delicate start washed down by a fresh, crisp white Tocai Friulano. Braised rabbit followed, served on creamy polenta alongside sweet roasted heirloom carrots. Paired with a pale pink pinot grigio, this dish brought the meal to a whole different level. Cheese closed the lunch rather than dessert, in order to present the last red wine in the list of tastings. On the platter, moreish sweet muscat grapes and milky wet walnuts helped alternate the saltiness of a delicious ubriaco cheese, which I kept reaching for the ever last morsel.
More wine? Why not. Coffee? Sure. Lost in conversation, we stood up not earlier than 5pm. Light and sated, and with dusk fast approaching, we headed back to Richmond through the meadows, and along the Thames. The path was now silent. A fine autumn night upon us.
Disclaimer: Lara kindly invited us to take part to the wine tasting lunch organised by Petersham Cellars as her guests. All views are my own.