Food has always been an important part of my life’s journey from small child to now. I grew up in a family that loved and appreciated good food and my childhood was filled with trips to Soho food stores on Saturday mornings followed by breakfast at the famous Maison Bertaux in Greek Street. Birthdays and other important family celebrations were always an excuse to eat at a top London restaurant (and yes that’s me in the photo above, aged about 4 or 5). Thus it’s not surprising that certain foods can evoke strong memories from my earliest days.
I think my earliest memory has to be holding hands with my maternal grandmother and being taken to the market to buy live eels. She and my grandfather lived in the East End of London and in those days it wasn’t the trendy, gentrified place it’s largely become now. Nana looked after me while my mother worked, from the time I was two until four years old. I remember being taken into Sainsbury’s before it was a supermarket and you had to go to different counters to buy things, whether it was bread or the cheese counter or basic grocery supplies. But it’s the walk through the street market and buying those wriggly eels that I remember most. And then we’d take them home where she’d chop off their heads and then cut the bodies into chunks to make a stew. I remember it only as having a creamy, parsley sauce. Nana didn’t like eels herself but my granddad loved them. And so did I – a little surprisingly it seems to me now. So he and I would sit together with our bowls of eel stew and eat quietly together. I haven’t eaten eel stew since but I do occasionally have smoked eel when in Amsterdam, where it’s popular.
A slightly later memory comes from my first trip abroad when I was 8. In the days before motorways, it took 3 days to drive across France from London to a small seaside town just south of Barcelona in northern Spain. I don’t remember the town’s name, only that we rented an apartment from an old friend – I think an ex RAF colleague – of my dad’s that was right by the beach’s edge. It was September because I remember the elder of my two brothers having his birthday there and a Spanish birthday cake appearing. I remember the terrifying and violent late summer storms that raged at night and all the lights going out. But what brings a smile of pleasure to me, even to this day, is the memory of first tasting a sweet red pepper.
If they were yet to be found back at home in London, I hadn’t encountered them. I was only 8 but the taste was a revelation; I had never tasted anything like it, any food as wonderful. To this day, eating a red pepper reminds me of that trip to Spain..
Many childhood holidays involved driving across France and we’d just stop when the time seemed right and find a hotel to spend a night. But one year we planned a stop in Paris. My first trip to Paris. We arrived quite late at night. We were very central and it all seemed incredibly magical; the sparkling lights on the Eiffel Tower reaching towards the stars in the sky; the majestic Arc de Triomphe, a bold display of power. After checking into our hotel we went to a café right next door to find food – just a snack as it was late. My parents suggested a sandwich. Sandwiches at home were miserable affairs by today’s standards; this was definitely before the coming of artisan bakeries selling sourdough loaves! Instead we ate square white slices of processed bread filled sparingly with a mean slice of processed ham (or cheese, or whatever …). Imagine my surprise when half a baguette was handed to me, filled with the most delicious ham. It seemed so long; so alien in a wonderful way. I almost didn’t know what to do with it. Where did I start eating? It was another example of the delights of travelling and discovering glorious new foods.
It was at a similar age, maybe a bit older and around 10, that I tasted avocado for the first time.
My best friend from school in Blackheath had moved with her family – which included her 3 brothers – to Kent. Her father was a surgeon and my friend liked to show me some of his books with the most horrific (to a child!) photos of operations in them. They’d moved to a huge house in a small Kent village, with lots of land. They kept chickens and geese and I was terrified of the hissing geese who chased us as we came out of the kitchen door into the garden. We built little fires in hidden corners of the garden and heated small tins of Heinz baked beans to eat. But at meal times very sophisticated fare would appear. And this is when I was introduced to avocado, which was a rare thing indeed back in the 1960s. I was a very polite and shy child so I ate everything that was put before me – including the avocado, which I thoroughly disliked. My friend’s dad and two elder brothers would go hunting and sometimes I’d go into the kitchen to find a brace of pheasant or other game lying across the kitchen table, which was a new experience to me and while a little scary, it was undeniably a rather excitingly ‘romantic’ thing, like something out of a book or TV period drama. My friend’s mother would say how she loved me visiting because I always ate everything without complaint. What she didn’t know was that the avocado experience took me years to get over. I think I was working by that time, a young editorial assistant, invited back with some others by one of our fellow assistants to her London flat for supper – and enter the avocado again! This time I loved it and since then I’ve been unfailingly faithful to the wonderful avocado and eat one – or at least half – nearly every day!
We jump a few years to my next food memory. In fact to my honeymoon in 1977. We travelled by car around Italy for about 3 weeks and when we came to Florence, I wanted to go to the famous Vivoli gelateria (click here for my more recent trip), said then, and still now by some, to serve the best ice cream in the world.
In those days you could easily drive right up to it in central Florence. I remember jumping out of the car. My husband said he didn’t want any. I chose zabaglione. I got back into the car with my cup of gelato and carefully lifted a spoonful into my mouth – wow!! I was blown away; I had never ever tasted ice cream like this; it was ambrosia, food of the gods. I gave husband a taste. Of course he then wanted some of his own so back into the gelateria I went. That day my love affair with gelato began and it’s still going strong – click here.
Still in Italy for my next memory, but quite a few years on … in fact to around 2000 when I spent a month in Rome, studying Italian in the mornings and wandering around the great city in the afternoon. I went in search of good coffee one day and the place said to serve the best was Sant’Eustachio, near the Pantheon (one of my favourite buildings anywhere).
The caffè has been in existence since 1938 and still has a reputation for some of the best coffee in Rome, but coffee has become such big business in our world, it has a lot more competition than when I first visited. The artisan coffee houses that have thrived in London over recent years hadn’t yet arrived (except Monmouth Coffee) and so the cappuccino I had on my first visit to Sant’Eustachio was completely different to what I was used to and I was immediately hooked. I just hadn’t realised coffee could taste this good; this special. So great was it I still remember that first sip. Nowadays, I tend to drink a Kiwi flat white in the morning, though an Italian espresso later in the day. I believe it’s still hard to find a good Italian cappuccino in London – click here. It’s usually too big a cup; more like a flat white. Corto Deli do it well but in the main, I save cappuccino drinking for when I’m in Italy.
My last memory for today is of eating grouse at Rules in London many years ago.
This is less about delighting in food and more about the power of love in dads. My parents often took us for a family meal to Rules in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden. Established in 1798 by Thomas Rule, it is London’s oldest – and perhaps most famous – restaurant. It serves traditional British food with an emphasis on game and their signature dish of steak and kidney pudding is made with the addition of oysters if you wish. It must have been the ‘game’ season and I decided to branch out from my usual choices and try grouse; I’d never eaten grouse. Well, a couple of mouthfuls and I never wanted to eat it again. It’s a very ‘gamey’, strong tasting bird. An acquired taste, I think. My wonderful dad (who would have been 90 on the 22nd of this month, were he still with us), observing I clearly wasn’t enjoying it, even though I’d said not a word, quietly offered to swap dishes. I don’t remember what he had but I gratefully accepted the offer. And I’ve always remembered it because it’s what lovely dads do for their daughters. Even when they are grown-up daughters with two children of their own! And of course I’ve remembered to never order grouse again …
Well, this could possibly be a never-ending post … or turn into a book! And I should probably stop now. But it’s a lovely thing to have happy memories and food so often brings up such memories – or it does for me. What’s your best food memory? Do let me know.