Food is notorious for evoking memories, with particular dishes or flavours producing strong feelings and flashbacks.
I recently read an interview with Gary Barlow in April’s BBC Good Food magazine which got me thinking. He talked about two favourite dishes from his childhood – Cheshire potatoes and his Mum’s chicken pie – both of which he still makes for his own family.
There are a few rather random dishes that stand out from my childhood. The first is soup and chips. Not so strange you might think, but the way we enjoyed it was with the chips served in the bowl of soup. They were deep-fried in a proper northern lard chip pan and became mushy, soaking up the soup which was usually Heinz Cream of Tomato – an absolute classic.
The next that comes to mind is my Mum’s meat pie, something I always request when I visit. She makes the filling for this beauty in the pressure cooker and uses thin short crust pastry for the base and topping. The ‘meat’ is minced beef and the flavour of this and the veg is intensified by the pressured method of cooking, plus the splash of Worcestershire Sauce that Mum adds. I can taste it now…
For dessert, along with a good old choc ice and a bowl of ‘Angel Delight‘ (a flavoured powder to which you add milk and whisk into a mousse…highly nutritional!), chopped bananas in custard was a firm favourite in our house. The best bit was the chocolate sprinkles on top which melted into the custard. Simple, yet tasty and most definitely comforting.
Thinking about my three dishes, I smile and savour the memory of both the taste of the food and that particular time in my life. Like Gary Barlow, I hold those dishes dear and just the thought of them can transport me back in time.
Food nostalgia is a fascinating subject, especially how something we eat, drink or smell can have such an emotional impact on us. Interested to hear the food stories of others and with the 2017 competition looming, I spoke to some of the winners from last year’s South West Chef of the Year contest about their food memories.
Sue Stoneman, 2016 Home Cook of the Year winner
As she prepares to enter the competition again this year, Sue shared memories of cooking with her Mum, which felt remarkably similar to my own.
I have many fond memories of my Mum’s cooking as she was the person who taught me how to cook. She would cook at the weekend to make meals for the week. Sundays were spent making stews in the pressure cooker, making pastry for pies (fruit & meat), baking cakes and biscuits as well as cooking the Sunday roast. I would help with the chopping up of the fruit and vegetables and I would be given the left-over pieces of pastry to make jam tarts and to cut out shapes for the top of the pies.
My mum made the best pies. Her pastry was light and crispy, not a soggy bottom in sight! My favourite would be her beef pie, the gravy or sauce was full of flavour. Her secret ingredient was Bovril. She also made a very tasty chicken and ham pie with the roast leftovers.
Clearly Sue’s Mum had quite an influence on her culinary talents today. She still makes pies for her family and when her sons were younger, she would decorate the pies with shapes as she did with her Mum. Her sons would each choose which slice of the pie they wanted, depending on the decoration on top. Evolving the recipes that had been passed down, Sue’s favourite pie to make today is chicken and ham, to which she adds a little dollop of mustard and fresh tarragon to give extra flavour.
Pies are a great comfort food, best served with mash potato and fresh vegetables. You need the mash potato to soak up the sauce/gravy. So for me, a pie is full of memories and the baking and sharing of it with your family gives you a wonderful warm feeling. The best bit about cooking with my mum was licking out the bowl and the whisks from the cake mixture, although she scraped the bowl so clean with that bendy spatula there wasn’t much to lick!
Ethan MacDonald, 2016 Junior Chef of the Year
In contrast to the childhood memories of myself and Sue, Ethan chose to tell me about a particular ingredient which he often uses because of its adaptability, even though he is not such a fan of it himself.
I think I would have to say white chocolate because it is so versatile you can do so much with it…from a pastry chef point of view you can use it in a chocolate mousse or something like a fruit ganache. To be honest I don’t really like chocolate but I love the fact that you can do so much with it. I make raspberry and white chocolate all the time as it’s great for filling macaroons. I also make white chocolate Chantilly which is a very different taste to the raspberry, but it still has the white chocolate in it.
What makes a young chef pick out an ingredient which he doesn’t really care for himself as a stand out food moment? The visual memory of a stunning dessert from a significant time in his life.
I will always remember when I was 14 and the head chefs made a cherry and white chocolate ganache which was very, very bright and something I will not forget.
It would seem that it’s not just the taste of food which carves a memory in the mind, but its appearance too. For both Sue and Ethan, food plays a big part in their lives and although they are from different generations, it’s clear that significant moments with food have remained with them and influence the way they cook today.
If you share this same passion for food, why not use a culinary memory of your own to inspire a menu to enter South West Chef of the Year 2017? With a number of different categories to choose from, the experience has been designed to support those with a passion for South West food and give them a platform to progress in the industry. There is a month to go until the closing date – plenty of time to dig out those edible memories and turn them into an impressive competition menu.
Food hall of fame
So why does food recreate moments in time so clearly for us, conjuring the exact same feelings for a small moment when we enjoy those flavours again? Perhaps it’s because of the involvement of all the senses when we eat – the sight and smell of the dish before it even passes our lips, then the texture and taste as we devour it. Even though we eat food every day, it can still have a lasting impression on us, especially if we are involved in the creation of it.
Which reinforces my thoughts that food is something to be enjoyed and treasured. Perhaps that’s not always possible or realistic, but there’s a lot to be said for mindful eating in today’s busy life.
So as I begin to introduce my young son to new flavours and eating experiences, I will aspire to create special edible memories that he can treasure and look back on with fond food nostalgia.