Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Heston takes me back - Italian Mama's and burying your mistakes....

Last night I had the absolute joy of sitting in the sumptuous surroundings of The State Theatre, listening to my culinary idol Heston Blumenthal talking about the multi sensory experience of food and in particular, how it relates to memory and nostalgia. As I listened to the childhood recollection of his own formative food experiences, I could not help but reflect on my own. Heston spoke about the importance of employing all of the senses when it comes to the food we eat and how each of us has our own “library” of food experiences that shape our tastes. Certain colours, shapes, textures and aromas act as powerful neurological triggers to our brain, calling to mind particular moments or experiences in our lives, for good or ill. At one point in the evening, we were treated to a wonderful experiement, in which the whole audience was transported into the interior of a childhood sweet shop.

Sitting in the dark, with all manner of sounds and smells - created by spaying atomisers of specially created “sweet shop” aroma into the air- my mouth watered and I felt the excitement rise in the pit of my stomach. I was a kid again with 20c to spend and all manner of sweet treats to choose from. The atomisers were amazing – managing to evoke the dry scent of clean wooden candy shop floors, striped peppermints and glossy chocolates, sherbet, musk, lollipops and jubes like pieces of stained glass, chewy caramels and crinkly wrappers and small paper bags. It was so happy making.

Heston discovers his inner child

We all have “trigger” foods that have the power to take us back to our childhoods, or to pivotal moments that shaped who we are and our tastes as adults. Since my evening with Heston I started to think about what made up important parts of my own culinary history. What were the things that evoke the strongest response in me, so long after they were experienced.

Probably one of my earliest food memories are of being very small and being in the kitchen of the restaurant of family friends, the Bertollini’s. They ran a home style, family Italian restaurant and they would regularly babysit me. The kitchen was always a hive of activity, and I remember the sweet aroma of home made passata (tomato sauce) simmering on the stove, the rich nutty smell of roasting garlic and Nonna, always with an apron on, that was dusted with a thin veil of flour from making pasta. I have never forgotten the incredible, lip smacking, herbaceous aroma as the lid was removed from a wild rabbit casserole, flavoured strongly with garlic and lots and lots of rosemary. Every time I smell rosemary, I still think of this. The Bertollini’s made everything from scratch, which was what made their food so beautiful. Especially the pasta.

This was created on a massive table and laid out to dry before serving. It was at this table that I think I learned my first culinary skill – rolling gnocchi. Too small to reach the table, I was given my very own milk crate to stand on and Nonna set to work, patiently showing me how to roll the gnocchi off the fork with just the right amount of pressure and the flourish of a thumb. I have never forgotten Nonna’s lesson and to this day, every time I make gnocchi I become that child on the milk crate again, surrounded by the heat of the kitchen and Nonna’s warm presence. To me, gnocchi will always equal comfort.

Gnocchi = Comfort

Another strong childhood food memory is of experimenting in the kitchen when my mother was at work. Whilst most of my experiments seemed to be quite successful, there were the inevitable disasters, as I learned my way around ingredients and the mysteries of the stove. One such disaster comes to mind whenever I smell honeycomb. Making honeycomb was always so much fun as a kid - adding the cream of tartar to the molten caramelised sugar mixture (kids and copious potentially scalding, lava like liquids – what could possibly go wrong?) watching the mixture fizz and expand, making that wonderful golden bubbly honeycomb. On one particular occasion however, I remember being distracted (I was probably thwacking my sister George with an egg slice at the time) and my honeycomb started to burn. Burning sugar must be one of the worst kitchen smells in the world. I quickly moved the pot to the sink and turned on the cold tap – rendering the honeycomb in the pot into a rock solid lump. Knowing that my mother was due home from her nursing shift at the hospital any minute, I manically hacked away at the pot, attempting to dislodge the burnt honeycomb. It didn’t even make a dent in it. Time was running out – what to do?!

 Well, to solve the problem, I did what any sensible kid would do. I dug a hole in the back yard with a shovel and buried the pan in the back yard near the woodheap. Yes, somewhere in the southern suburbs of Perth lie the cremated remains of my honeycomb circa 1981 – and my mother’s good saucepan. Pretty sure that after I was done, I made myself scarce and holed up in my bedroom listening to Duran Duran - and for the sound of my mother’s car in the drive - hoping that the pot would not be missed when mum got home from work. When mum later turned the pot cupboard upside down looking for the missing piece (“Where is that bloody pot?”) I just shrugged my shoulders and tried not to act guilty. Until today, I have never actually revealed my shameful secret to my mother - so Mum, I know it’s been 30 years coming – but, sorry about the pan *winces*

To this day, the smell of honeycomb makes me think about the afternoon I buried my kitchen mistake!


No comments:

Post a Comment