My first food memory. Fried egg on toast cut into squares with streaky bacon. A dinner staple in my home with a single mother who was often loathe to cook. A habit to this day, I would eat around the egg yolk, saving it for last with a side of crispy fat. Then, as now, eating was a business of hierarchical order. My mother loved to tease me, casually walking by and picking that coveted piece of bacon fat from my plate, popping it into her mouth before I had a moment to protest. “Don’t you like this? It’s my favourite part!” she’d say, leaving her five year old with a scowl and egg yolk sans any bacon.
But who knows where it all really began. Perhaps food is in my blood. My father is a chef after all. And a good one at that. Can a love of food be genetic? All I know for certain is that from the very first day I had any say in the matter, flavour had to be celebrated. No one taught me that. I simply took to it like a new born takes to that first breath. Odd for someone who has barely any sense of smell. Could that be why I dedicated myself so single-mindedly to my sense of taste? And, while we’re at it, the very reason that powerful flavours are usually the ones I crave the most? The pungent smell of garlic on the fingertips after it’s hit the chopping block nothing short of pure seduction… The tingle of fresh chilli on the tongue so life-affirming… No matter really. Whatever the underlying cause may or may not have been, I was never flippant when it came to food.
Sleepovers at my house demanded serious attention to the menu. Much time was spent at the frozen yoghurt shop. The advent of frozen yoghurt had been something of a revelation for my younger self. Sampling one flavour to the next, I would agonise over the perfect selection for the night in question. Binge eating and binge movie watching went hand in hand, and my friends deserved nothing short of a feast. Breakfast the next day would be yet another matter. It usually involved a spread of caramel popcorn, chocolate covered pretzels, a brew of dark roast and a fine selection of teas in pretty packaging. I was nothing if not a sophisticated child.
My fervour for flavour continued well into my varsity days. While most of my compatriots were away from home for the first time and living on a steady diet of 2 Minute Noodles or take-out from the nearest Steers or Nando’s, I had returned from my gap year in London, my hand luggage laden with CDs and cookbooks. Ruminating over their pages and soaking up all they had to offer like a sponge, I would spend the better part of my days off cooking up a storm for friends. They, in turn, were given the simple and singular instruction to come bearing a bottle of wine. We’d save the cheapest bottle for last, too drunk to care if it tasted of vinegar. It was 3a.m. and we were young and dining like kings. So what if the wine wasn’t supposed to be fizzy? Sleepy eyed and satiated, we couldn’t have cared less.
By my mid-twenties, the obsession was only gaining momentum. I was never without my monthly copy of Food and Home Entertaining. I even imagined a place of my own one day, a café that would set out long tables on Sundays welcoming one and all to come and share in good food and festivities. Thankfully, after years of working in the industry front-of-house for my father, I decided the restaurant trade could be a cruel mistress at the best of times. Hearth and home would ultimately be the place for my culinary adventures. The humble, average kitchen was good enough for me. What mattered most was the food and the act of sharing. We all have our ways of telling those we hold dear that we love them. And in my world, a meal is simply a love-letter, a gift, if you will, of my deepest affections.
My family has always teased me for this preference of the finer things in life when it comes to food. I’d like to think them a touch unfair. Admittedly, as a tot, I was infamous for asking new acquaintances if they happened to have any smoked salmon in their larder. If not, I would console them that smoked beef would do just as well. Needless to say I left a number of adults somewhat befuddled. Truth be told though, a soft-poached egg can be just as decadent as a fresh oyster. But in giving of ourselves to others, so too must we be giving with ourselves. When the freelancing world is being a little unkind, I will merrily forego a loaf of bread and a carton of milk for a dinner of Sangiovese and dark, salted chocolate any day. (That is, unless I have been struck by one of my desperate cravings for German mustard and rye!) Would I call this self-love? Let’s just say I might go so far as to call it self-preservation… Perhaps even an act of rebellion in these sobering times of self-denial. Coup, anyone?
And so it is, that a single scent can conjure up thoughts of an ex-lover or summon the rains, while a simple melody can vividly transport us to a time that was… In this, flavour is no different. I confess, of course, that I’m no chef. The food I prepare at home can be unfussy at the best of times, more often than not little more than the blending of two ingredients seamlessly together as if they were made for each other. Besides, there is no exact science when it comes to the flavours that awaken something in us. And yet, in spite of a world bursting at the seams with tastes of elsewhere and everywhere, we can all too easily forget to nourish ourselves and the ones we love. Life can be frantic and so it goes. All the same, I wished to share a little something in my musings on a lifetime of flavour, touched as I was like a virgin for the very first time. (Thanks, Madonna. Your Best of cassette tape served me well.) And if, by chance, you find that you have fallen out of love with flavour, my greatest hope is to reignite that flame. Time is too swift for a tasteless life.