Or, alternatively, learning to love molecular gastronomy.
If you’re the sort of person who, in culinary terms, likes and dislikes exactly the same things you enjoyed as a child, stop reading. This will be meaningless. On the other hand, if your palate has evolved over the years, then you might want to try this little exercise yourself.
It was prompted by a couple of comments on facebook from friends who knew me when I was growing up. One was surprised at images of art on a plate I’d been waxing lyrical about, pointing out I was the spring chicken and chips guy; meaning whenever we went to the Chinese restaurant after the pub I ordered the least adventurous dish on the menu. The other questioned whether I’d joined the ranks of the ‘sophistocracy’.
Fair comment. I was Mr Unadventurous. There was a long list of things I wouldn’t eat. I wasn’t even keen on bacon. My mum didn’t know that though as the bacon in my bacon butties was secretly fed to the dog.
When I thought about it I realised, when it came to culinary preferences, I bore little resemblance to the person they’d known years ago. When I thought about it more, key moments in my gastronomic evolution enthusiastically put their hands up in my thoughts, shouting “remember me, I helped with the transition”.
Step 1: the Student’s Cookbook
Swapping being cosseted in Bute for inner city Manchester when I was 23 meant having to learn to cook. I had a decent job but very little money, so cooking using cheap ingredients bought in Leveshulme’s multicultural shops seemed the sensible way to prevent starvation. The most basic cookbook I could find was the Student’s Cookbook which spoke to me like the gastronomic idiot I was. I learned how to make pies, stews, pizza, and chilli con carne. What’s more, I loved doing so. I’ve still got the book with its stained, tattered and battered pages.
Step 2: Moving in with vegetarians
Moving in with Andy changed my life in multitudinous ways, one being in relation to my perception of food and labels. Both her and housemate Jo were veggies and exceptionally good cooks, introducing me to a new wave of surprising gourmet nosh courtesy of recipes from the likes of Paul Southey. Their revelatory dishes proved the awakening of my taste-buds. Nothing I had eaten before could match the intense flavours of offerings which included parsi eggs and black-eyed bean croquettes. I didn’t initially stop eating meat, but I did dump my deep fat fryer.
Step 3: That Cafe
That Cafe in Levenshulme was the coolest restaurant I’d ever been to. The menu, like the restaurant itself, was small, featuring only a couple each of what I viewed then as inventive meat, fish and vegetarian options; it was the first place I tried rabbit. The atmosphere was lively and, to a lad from a Scottish island, bohemian. It was the first time I realised dining out was fun to the extent I wasn’t in a rush to finish the meal to get to the pub before closing time. That Cafe became our ‘go to’ place for special occasions, we held our wedding dinner there.
Step 4: Breakfast in Hay on Wye
In the late 80s and early 90s, many weekends were spent unwinding from work in Hay on Wye, where Jo’s parents owned a house. The downside was we had to eat what I saw as a ‘middle class’ breakfast (it didn’t include anything fried) whenever Jo’s parents were staying as well. It took a few visits before I managed to park tantrums at not getting to munch a bacon buttie (I liked bacon by this point) and to open my mind an mouth to an alternative which didn’t include lots of grease. When I finally did, I realised the mix of fresh fruits, muesli, cheeses, savoury dips, warm local breads etc. were actually pretty good. Additionally, as a couple of our Hay friends were chefs I regularly found myself engrossed by their foodie conversation and picked up a love of venison from one.
Step 5: Sri Lanka and the Mumfords
A pivotal moment happened during lunch whilst on a coach trip through Yala National Park in Sri Lanka on our honeymoon. Our group was offered roast beef and Yorkshire pudding which, in the jungle setting, just seemed ridiculous. Sri Lankans at one end of the table were tucking into a colourful melange of dishes which looked far more interesting. “Can we have what they’re eating?” we asked. The waiter seemed delighted to plonk down a similar tray in front of us. In fact it prompted our guide to offer some to other members of our group. “I’m not eating any of that muck,” rudely remarked Mr Mumford (his name has remained lodged in my mind) who went on to complain about how bad the roast beef was. From that point I knew I didn’t want to be a Mumford.
Step 6: Sardines and squid
Travel and being exposed to other country’s cuisines was a huge key which unlocked the culinary curiosity box. The next stage of gastro evolution was almost subliminally becoming interested enough in food to start asking questions about dishes I particularly liked. As we ended up on one Greek Island or another each spring, this invariably involved Grecian cuisine. As a result, we picked up tips in various restaurants on Lesbos, Samos, and Symi on making tzatziki; the technique for eating sardines without having to spit out bones; and how to cook tender calamari. Being nosy about new dishes we encountered in different locations became a habit.
Step 7: Hot air balloons and Ferran Adrià
We thought we were taking a hot air balloon trip across the Garrotxa volcanoes, but that was just a cover for a surprise visit to El Bulli restaurant to meet one of the world’s most renowned chefs, Ferran Adrià. I was miffed at missing a balloon trip in order to meet a chef whose boundary-breaking creations sounded über pretentious. We were presented with a selection of appetisers, the first being no bigger than a chocolate. But it completely changed my culinary world. One bite of the tiny offering and a tsunami of flavours unlocked childhood memories. I was transported back to dipping my toes in the water on a hot summer day at the beach. It was pure alchemy. At that euphoric, eureka moment I suddenly understood what the fuss regarding this genre of gastronomy was all about, and I was hooked.
I realise these personal musings down memory lane have limited interest for anyone else, but if you’re a foodie you might enjoy taking a similar trip.