Saturday, May 31, 2008

A Taste of My Life

I watched a week’s worth of the Taste of My Life reruns today and as well as really enjoying some of the reminiscences and the ensuing dishes (I am completely in love with Jane Horrocks’ tomato-free Vincigrassi Lasagne); it also got me thinking how I would concoct a similar résumé. Don’t get me wrong I am never going to be in the hallowed presence of one of my food heroes Nigel Slater whilst he recreates some of the seminal foodie moments in my life, but just in case the completely impossible happens, I thought I should put some serious preparation in.
A Taste of Childhood
They always start off at the beginning, lots of sepia-tinged flashbacks of standing on stools carefully stirring large simmering pots, chubby fingers helping mother/grandmother or even a linen clad nanny roll meatballs and pod broad beans, or squabbling with all the other little chubby fingers over who should lick the last vestiges of the butter cream off a wooden spoon. Being entirely sibling free and fairly sure that the vegetable-dodging M would not have ever podded a broad bean or engaged my services in this manner my little vignettes would be entirely different to those I’ve been watching on screen. The following montage of random images mostly tasty, occasionally not quite so delicious, form my fond childhood food memories. There’s the cosy meat and potato pies from the local chippie and kept warm on little gran’s Rayburn and then many years later rushing back from the Grove chippie clutching a plump greased-spotted paper parcel with a meat and potato pie and proper fat chips nestling within. Once home they’d be plates warming by the fire and couple of slices of white bread slathered with butter waited to have the salted and malt vinegar drenched chips thrust between then. I am not supposed to make references to Findus Crispy Pancakes, Goblin meat puddings and similarly Fray Bentos steak & kidney pudding, Angel Delight, and Smash mash potatoes as this list hints of a epicureally deprived upbringing. I should instead wax lyrical about big gran’s fresh baked custard tarts heavily laced with nutmeg, little gran’s fallen Lancashire Hotpot cooked for hours until the potatoes ‘fell’ and melded with the thin meaty juices to thicken them and M’s classic cheesy pastry enrobed Quiche Lorraine, Fish Pie with a delectable and extremely covetable cheesy topped mash potato and that cheesecake topped with tinned mandarin slices (very Family Circle circa 1975). And being a picky child there was a long list of foods I couldn’t abide, some I grew to really enjoy, and some remained on the black list forever like my much documented aversion to all tomato based products. One of the things I really couldn’t face back then was peas, however I would be forced to maybe eat three or four in a single meal. And of course I would exercise every effort to avoid this purgatory. I now will eat peas, but only ever petits pois, I still have to be a traitor to my northern roots and eschew both mushy peas and marrow fat peas – the latter don’t even sound nice!

I think I was feeling nostalgic a few weeks ago, the weather was a little grey around the edges and I craved a little culinary comfort and instead of the usual ‘old reliable’ of sausages and mash I really fancied a steak & kidney pudding. Goblin puddings have thankfully, I believe, disappeared from the face of the earth but I'm fairly sure Fray Bentos are still going strong. But in deference to more grownup taste buds I plumped for the Waitrose version instead, with an enticing butter enriched suet pastry. And it was rather lovely, it didn’t have the slightly San Tropezed colour of a Fray Bentos and even more delightful, I seem the recall the inevitable slight indentation in the top would host a pool of greasy liquid, probably exacerbated by the process of steaming in a punctured can and this Waitrose one is still steamed (either on the hob or in the microwave) but thankfully entirely devoid of this fatty residue. So my memory of steamed steak & kidney pudding has been revitalised with a rather tasty and pleasantly stodge-free exponent and to also prove that I have been reformed, I ate it with sautéed peas and lettuce.

Another distinct barometer of my shifting tastes has been scrambled egg. As a baby apparently I was a huge fan, but then after discovering new foods I wouldn’t touch it with a bargepole, dry and tasteless and occasionally rubbery I decided (I've been told to say it wasn't M's scrambled egg that I considered rubbery, as if you were in any doubt that I could remember how it tasted as a baby!). I used to whip it up quite frequently for friends visiting however, and I thought it looked nice but would never eat it myself. And then I had a revelation in Paris at a lovely brunch place. The side order to all the other gorgeous brunchy items, was the tiniest cup of scrambled egg topped with chopped egg and a scatter of chives so then I realised I may have been wrong and decided to revisit it. I then became a huge fan of scrambled egg, but really just my version. I pop a little pat of butter into a small non-stick saucepan. As it melts I crack two eggs directly in the pan (who needs extra washing up?), whip vigorously with a silicon whisk and then douse with a good slug of double cream. As soon as the soft curds begin to form I top with any additions I may have to hand – salmon slivers, shards of smoky bacon and once crab meat or leave 'au natural' like this morning's and tip straight onto a hot plate then dredge with the finest chopped chives and a few whirrs from the electronic black pepper mill. I have since discovered that this is very Bill Granger, but I have always made mine like this. And of course never any toast, I love toast but not made soggy with scrambled egg.

A First Taste for Travelling
I don’t think I’ve ever seen this category on the show but I think it should be included in my little culinary “This is Your Life”. I think my first foodie holiday memory is whilst on a Greek island and being somewhat suspicious of the local fare (what 8 year old wouldn’t be) opted to eat only egg and chips and drink lemonade at every meal. Quite odd because I don’t think I ate egg and chips for many years after that, perhaps a two week stint of relying solely on the ‘egg & chips’ food group had saturated me.

Having a parent in the travel industry gave me a wonderfully different view on holidays, whilst my school friends might have been slurping sticks of rock bundled up on a typically British summer blustery beach within a stones throw of their caravan I was fortunate to be eating Christmas Day turkey sandwiches on a very sunny beach in Perth, Australia. When not on the beach we were drinking Orange Fanta bought from petrol stations and spotting Hungry Jack’s, the Australian equivalent to Burger King. I can’t recall if we ever ate there but I suspect not because we gorged ourselves on fabulously meaty barbecues where even the dogs couldn’t get through the ample leftovers but we liked the name. I also seem to recollect our pre-beach Christmas lunch was my first experience of the eclectic meal of beef, crayfish and garlic snails (the latter due to our French hostess).

We didn’t have many holidays but when we did they were always pretty exotic and far flung. A few years after our forays to Australia I had my first taste of the U.S. And that was diners with a multitude of egg serving choices, the largest sandwiches in the world that M would turn into a moveable picnic and nibble at during the day and a revelation - hamburgers topped with curiously orange squares of cheese. The processed cheese I was familiar with – Dairylea, was considerably more anaemic so American cheese seemed rather racy.

Another special trip was the surprise visit to Amsterdam to celebrate my then upcoming sixteenth birthday, it was such a surprise that I didn’t even know we were leaving the country. You could be on your parents’ passports until you were sixteen then so it was easier to organise such a stealthy mission. Curiously, I didn’t seem to have cottoned on to the fact that picking me up from school to go out for a meal was a little early in the day to go dining. But we did go out for a meal, it was in Amsterdam and it was Italian! Nobody at school on Monday really believed me about our Dutch adventure and even the tulip-shaped lollipops that I bought back didn’t entirely convince them.

A Taste of Success
Obviously the premise of the programme is that the interviewee is successful and well known – often as an actor, sometimes a comedian and very rarely a cookery writer. But I think success is more the moment you feel you’ve made it, suddenly feel very grown-up if you will. You’re earning a wage and the world is literally your oyster. Though I didn’t choose oysters, if I recall, as my first taste of the crazy life of haute cuisine was M&S tuna pâté (M&S being the pinnacle of upmarket food shopping in my mind). And when in those fancy Italian trattorias, which would be my initial experiences of restaurant life, it would always be Pollo alla Valdostana – chicken stuffed with ham and melting cheese, probably fontina (aka Chicken Cordon Bleu if is was actually a French bistro instead). I didn’t really like garlic then; it was a taste I grew to enjoy so Chicken Kiev, the other bistro/trattoria stalwart, wasn’t for me. As you may be aware, I never grew to enjoy tomatoes though and I remember that every time I ordered my beloved Valdostana I would have to verify if it was one of those with the unnecessary tomato sauce suffocating it! And then either ask for this stage to be omitted, or move to plan B.

For my twenty-first birthday I was working very far from home and my then boss and wife took me out to a local fish restaurants and I tasted my first ever whitebait. I was convinced I'd hate the little fishes but actually really enjoyed them. Oh yes, very grown-up now!

A couple of years earlier when I'd just left home I first hosted my own dinner parties and for reasons slightly lost in the mists of time I didn’t have a cooker in my first flat. Instead, I relied solely on my versatile Rima Grill, a precursor to the George Foreman Lean & Mean grilling machine. The plates were interchangeable, you could have the flat ones that I would top with a saucepan or two and use as a hob, ridged for the tiger-striped sandwiches and you could even raise the top plate and slip a baking tray between the two plates. In that well-used baking tray, I would bake pies, chocolates cakes and sausage casseroles. But for my dinner parties I developed a rather curious dish, before the heady tastes of that first M&S tuna pâté, I formulated my own version. This was a béchamel sauce cooked on top of the Rima Grill, thickened with copious mounds of grated cheese and then well-drained tinned tuna. I would then spoon the ensuing mixture in to individual ramekins and serve with French baguette for dunking. And if I didn’t conjure up this ‘treat’, it would be a cheese fondue in my bright red fondue set, clearly I believed that fine dining entertaining was all about melted cheese!

A Taste of Family
This idea of cheese fondues was a bit of a family tradition, I learnt all about the importance of Gruyère and Kirsch from the original D. I may have avoided his gravy (artificially browned sprout water mixed with beef dripping and cornflour anyone?), hated the bananas but he did a mean fondue!

The slideshow of family meals would definitely include fighting for the best parts of the cheesy topping from the cottage pie or fish pie, being showered by flaky pastry eating Gregg’s sausage rolls whilst shopping on a Saturday, the customary lentil soup and loaf in front of Saturday evening television, bacon sandwiches dripping with butter and the incredibly unfair sharing out of the now infamous chocolate gingers. And with a not unexpected lump in my throat as I write this, I now realise that the act of me successfully wheedling more than my allotted portion was all part of the ritual and I was supposed to hone my feminine guile on my ability to snaffle an extra one… or two of these hallowed biscuits – thank you D!

I guess there are shades of little Gran pretending (at least to me) to sneak some Cadbury’s Chocolate Fingers into my bag under the eye of M & D. And later when visiting, her bringing me out a slice of fruit cake whilst I was still locking up my bike – as if I could get hungry on the short distance to her sitting room!

But that’s where my inherent feeder tendencies cloaked in the respectability of northern hospitality comes from. Never knowingly under-catered, I can’t bear to think of guests leaving hungry!

And that also goes for the now annual tradition of the extended family ‘around Christmas’ party – where the canapés flow and flow and then there’s the main event of some sort of meat with more vegetables than M ever wants to be in the presence of.

Christmas lunch was another memorable occasion, often held at unusual hours (!) and generally featuring beef as D couldn’t really fathom poultry. I think one of my most requested, which has been recreated more than once, was the hunk of beef fillet spread with pâté and then slices of Parma ham. I first saw this on one of the earlier Jamie Oliver shows fortunately getting the accompanying DVD for Christmas; I could reacquaint myself with how many ‘pukkas’ that dish required before tackling it!

The Final Feast
The finale of the Taste of My Life show is a table generally groaning with the dishes making up your ‘just before you die’ meal. There’s often a huge amount probably because a) like me they find it difficult to narrow it down to a couple dishes and then b) if you’re going to expire tomorrow, who on earth is going to bother about the calories? I am just so torn; I’d have to start with a Kir Imperial (made with my beloved black raspberry liqueur, Chambord) to prepare me for the gluttony ahead. And this photograph depicts a special coordinated with the room raspberry concoction from the bar above Joël Robuchon delicious restaurant - L’Atelier

For a starter I couldn’t choose between a few dream dishes so I’d have to a small spoonful of each. There would have to be some exquisitely perfumed white truffle loaded fresh pasta like that I enjoyed at the now sadly defunct Neal Street Restaurant.

But somewhat controversially I am also a huge fan of foie gras and was in complete hog (or should that be in 'truffle pig') heaven at Divertimenti’s Taste of Perigold evening when amongst many other earth shattering delights we tucked into foie gras filled pasta with a truffle and mascarpone sauce. Simply phénoménal, superbe, formidable and magnifique!

But I also adore a starter topped with a sunshine yolked egg emitting its golden wonder over the rest of the dish. There are so many to choose from but this fabulous crisp soft egg, morel duxelle and Roquefort truffle toasts from Gary Rhodes W1 is a stunner so can represent all those I've enjoyed.

Oh then there's also scallops, asparagus, risotto, globe artichokes and maybe the odd Lobster Thermidor - no I think I will have to draw the line somewhere.

For the main course, they’d have to be rare beef, ideally topped with more foie gras and accompanied by some sublime mash and various bits of greenery. Here’s a perfect example from Addendum of the beef fillet and fat foie gras, though the rösti was lost a little and I said at the time that I fancied more vegetables.

Of course considering a dazzling beef dish, Gary would have to feature again. This would be due to two reasons, firstly I have been lucky enough to dine the most number of times at both Gary Rhodes’ various restaurants and also Blueprint Café. Though I am sorry Jeremy, but as tasty as your food is, and it really is, Gary’s looks a little more beautiful and photographs so very well!

So here is the stunning roast beef fillet with red wine onions, oxtail hash, and poached egg béarnaise that I ate at my last visit. This deserves a special mention as it also had the oozy egg that I adore plus the my favourite béarnaise sauce. And of course, Gary is pretty damned good in the dark art of mash potatoes.

Though really it is my final meal so I am only going to allow some of Joël Robuchon mash nirvana to adorn my plate, I will accept no substitutes!

But one final possibility for the beef dish is Gordon Ramsay’s recipe for beef fillet with a gratin of mushrooms and sautéed new potatoes, which has crowned a few occasion meals at home, and is not too shabby either. But I still want Joël’s mash and whilst I am at it why not go for the whole hog and demand his truffle mash potatoes, oh yes, that is truly the pinnacle of mash mimosa. His ‘everyday’ mash is already like no other and the truffle mash – well when I first tasted this I am sure I heard angels sing!

If I’ve been able to stagger through the truffles, foie gras, pasta, gooey egg, beef fillet and truffled mash without keeling over from a heart attack, I might be able to squeeze in a little dessert. This is a hard choice as I would just probably go for the ooziest chocolate fondant ever but particularly after a rich meal a slice of a tart lemon tart (especially if my favourite raspberries are embellishing it) might be a wise idea. No cream for me though, I'm not savinf on the richness I just don't like it that way.

But perhaps I could have my cake (or tart even) and eat it as these are the tiniest and most lovely chocolate fondants I have ever experienced and yes, it’s at the hands of Gary again but he served them as petits fours so I could have them AND the tart!

I also think I should have little something from our seminal Heston’s Fat Duck theatrical meal and it was a hard, hard decision as it was all so indescribably unique but the hot and cold tea would perhaps aid digestion and take me right back to that very special evening. Though I'd be pretty keen to have Heston recreate that amazing Christmas meal he concocted last year with the gold, frankincense and myrrh etcetera. But I think that was a one-off!

And somehow I'd have to save a small corner for a magnificent gooey cheese board, perhaps another slice of that fabulous ripe truffled Brie and some shards of Grana Padano from Harvey Nix or some 'so difficult to get hold of' Flower Marie from the Cambridge cheese shop or just a fondue made from a whole Camembert baked in the oven. I am being to suspect that my foodie tastes are just all about melted cheese, rare beef and it seems truffles - how very revealing!

I can see why the guests on the Taste of My Life enjoy themselves so, it’s not just about eating all that delicious food (though of course that helps) but it’s been so fabulous tripping down my culinary memory lane and maybe a tad cathartic. Perhaps today being today, I am extra reflective and even though I’ll never get to relive it all again for Nigel Slater, at least I am primed. However now I’m really hungry, I wonder if I can lay my hand on a bit of foie gras and truffle oh and yes, some potatoes and cheese. Hmmmm, sorry it was rather a ‘long’ taste of my life once I'd started it was hard to curtail my deliberations, aren’t you glad I didn’t go for the sixteen courses tasting menu version? Maybe I could have a sudden reprieve from my imminent death that supposedly precipitates all these ponderings and then go for seconds! Well maybe!

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