Sunday, 21 September 2008

The Journey So Far...

This entry does not set the tone for what is to follow. Read it, don't read it - it's much more about me than food in general, and may be very boring. There are no recipes here!

I want to be clear, right from the start - I was not born a foodie. If, indeed, that's what I am now - I wouldn't use that word unselfconsciously, as I think it infers a snobbery that I do not espouse. In fact, I come from a very (gastronomically) humble, I might even hazard, typical, background. I grew up in the 80s, a time before (at least in my homeland) an understanding of 'foreign', 'modern', or 'ethical' food had spread to the masses, i.e. people like my family. We happily ate fried food, deep-frozen food (as we called it - is there a difference between 'deep-frozen' and just plain frozen?), ready-prepared food (though not so much ready meals, as we would call them now, chilled versions of popular dishes that you reheat - we didn't have a microwave back then), and lots of full-sugar fizzy drinks, with no sense of guilt or irony. Olive oil was still mostly sold in chemists' shops for treating ear wax, garlic was still exotic, and the only kind of vinegar you used was malt, sprinkled liberally over chips (served with battered fish). I am barely exaggerating.

Without wanting to overemphasise this contrast, I can't think back (just 20 years) to my childhood without boggling at the change in habits and attitudes when it comes to food. Much has been written by far cooks far more knowledgable than me about this phenomenon, but the point here is, my love of food, or at least, of good food, and my fascination with what might still be considered arcane aspects of gastronomy, have developed much more recently - and more important still, this means that anyone, however indifferent towards, inept at, or ill-at-ease with, cooking, can change. I don't expect everyone to devote as much time and effort, and indeed, money, to food and drink as I do, but on the other hand, even if the closest you've ever come to cooking is ordering a pizza, all is not lost. Times change, and people change too. Food, I guess, can be a bewildering subject - but the more I cook, and the more I read about cooking, the more I believe that it needn't be. It's a matter of taking a few things, and combining them, maybe adding heat, and enjoying the consequences. Clearly, something like a soufflé is a bit trickier, but the vast majority of dishes most people would eat day-to-day can be simple, cheap, healthy, and delicious. I'm not polemical about this, though - if you like, your food can be complicated, expensive, and terribly fattening - so long as it's delicious and, hopefully, worth the effort of making, then it's just as good.

So, when I was young, we ate a very limited range of foods, most of which were processed, and not prepared at home. My mother can cook, so we didn't always eat Findus Crispy Pancakes, or those slabs of unidentifiable meat, slathered in barbecue sauce, we knew as "spare ribs" (no bones, but plenty of gristle). In fact, my parents even opened a restaurant, and my mum ended up cooking half the food herself. Still, there was rather a fixed idea of what food should be - a main meal consisted of meat, or rarely fish, with some starch (potato, rice, rarely pasta), and maybe a vegetable. Freshness was not important, seasonality ditto, and nobody had heard of 'organic' food, let alone food miles.

There was, in my hometown that now boasts a large Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury's, Booths (a regional chain, similar to Waitrose), and Morrisons, just one supermarket - which belonged to the Co-operative group (this being Northern England), and we got a lot of our shopping from a much smaller establishment round the corner from our house. The range of food, especially fresh produce, available was far smaller than today, and our family budget was much less, too. I was not brought up to cook, with the honourable exception of baking - which is still a great thing to do with young children. My mother sold cakes for a while, which probably explains the amount of sponge I helped make, but in any case, apart from buns (I'll use the term 'cup cakes' from now on, to prevent confusion - as the word 'bun' can be rather imprecise), I cooked very little. I suppose, essentially, I was born too late to have enjoyed 'home cooking', such as the wartime generation experienced, too early for the reawakening of British cuisine, and in too urban and poor a community to have known farmers' markets and the like.

We were taught cookery at school, for a while, but it seemed impractical to do that sort of thing every week, let alone every day. By then, Italian, Indian, and Chinese food had become more or less mainstream, and choice had broadened in the shops. Still, I didn't do much cooking that didn't take the formula "pasta + sauce = meal".

In fact, it was only at university that I was exposed to cooking, or perhaps more importantly, it was only once I was looking after myself that I felt the need and then the desire to cook, and to vary what I made. In the first year we were catered for every day, but in the second year I moved into a house with seven friends, and there began a great adventure - the one I'm still embarked upon.

Dinner parties! The idea of this was strange, but I soon learned that the more people you were catering for, the more interesting and expensive the food that could be served. We budgeted £2 per head, which for one person limits you to a largely vegetarian diet, but when cooking for a dozen or more (as I was occasionally lucky enough to do), you could stretch the ingredients and justify much more elaborate dishes.

It helped that many of my housemates were interested in food, though we all had our foibles. In fact, we had a list above the fireplace in our sitting room, detailing what each person liked and hated, in order that meals could be prepared that pleased everyone. Don't imagine it was tightly structured - we didn't have a rota, or anything like that. If somebody wanted to cook, however, they would see who was interested, and come up with something. Inviting friends would inevitably bring gifts of wine, which was all the more reason to make the effort.

It was there that I first tasted mussels - in fact, that was the first shellfish I ever had. At the age of 20! That should tell you something about my upbringing. My sister gave me a book on bread, and that sent me into a spiral of baking - I spent the whole Christmas holiday systematically trying one recipe after another, and made myself quite ill in the process (one day I prepared and ate a whole pan of onion soup, a loaf of cheese and onion bread, and goodness knows how many bread rolls - I'm a glutton, remember). I developed an interest in Indian food, bought a book, stocked up on spices, and made some interesting discoveries. There, too, I started on the path to oenophilia - I'd always drunk wine, but only then did I start to care what wine I drank, although it was a few years yet before I started noting it down.

Since then, my love of food and drink has grown exponentially - a cliché, but true. Buying books, trying recipes, improvising, entertaining, and above all learning - that's been a big part of my life, and I can't see it changing any time soon. I've made sushi from scratch, scones, countless risottos, casseroles, cocktails, and too many others to name. I've also consciously tried to like everything. Here's something that has set me apart from my friends and family, many of whom also like food and take an interest in it. On that list back at university, I was more conscientious than most about my loved and hated foodstuffs, and that earned me a reputation for fussiness. Since then, I have treated this as a list of things to conquer - in order to master myself, and to maximise my flexibility. I was always concerned that my dislike of coffee and beer, my squeamishness about seafood, and so on, could prevent me from fully enjoying my life ('fancy a coffee?', 'let's go for a beer', etc), and so I have tackled each of these things. Last year, I got it down to three particular dislikes - avocado, fresh coriander, and celery. Now the only foods I do not eat are ones I have intellectual reservations about (like insects and offal). This, too, I feel is a valuable self-taught lesson I can tell people about - no matter how much you dislike a food, you can learn to love it. And that's the important thing - I haven't just done this as a test of will. As I incorporated formerly-hated things into my regular cuisine, I realised that it was often the case that something I recently couldn't stand was the one thing I craved. Possibly, this is a consequence of novelty, but I would hate to live without coffee, or prawns, or the occasional lager - and this drives me on. Who knows, maybe in a decade, I will feel the same way about liver, or maybe wasps? Never say never, at least in theory...