What are the dishes closest to your heart? Do you think of recipes you’ve followed to the letter from a cookbook, or TV celebrity chef dishes you’ve created? As far as I’m concerned, a dish can pull you in every direction the five flavour profiles of salty, sweet, sour, umami and bitter can offer, but the real magic happens when you add the incomparable sixth flavour: nostalgia.
Nostalgia puts the beating heart into a dish that no amount of Cordon Bleu training, Michelin stars or sheer alchemy can recreate. Through sentimentality and echoes of memories, nostalgia can bring you closer to ancestors or trigger pride of place. Nostalgic food can connect cultures, distances and time. When seasoned with nostalgia, dishes can evoke insuppressible emotion – make you laugh, reminisce, feel wistful, yearn for home or pine for summer.
Nostalgia takes its form in the comfort of Sunday roast, the plastic smell of a packed lunch box, the hiss and crackle of mussels popping on the rocks, the molten lava bite of a Findus crispy pancake, the sizzle of campfire sausages, drinking milk from the end of your cornflakes.
It’s the spell that makes dishes more than the sum of its parts. The first time I tasted chef Paul Ainsworth’s bread and butter pudding was in a kitchen in Derbyshire, as we prepared for a charity dinner. ‘Try this,’ he said, and eagerly awaited my reaction. On first taste, I knew life wouldn’t be the same again. The soft, yielding pudding covered in vanilla custard knocked me off my feet. With no pomp or pretence, this was the pudding of childhood dreams. True ambrosia – minus the can. This flavour epiphany was like seeing a new colour for the first time. Paul saw the fireworks taking place and said he created this pudding as a homage to Gary Rhodes where Paul first tasted his knock-out bread and butter pudding.
Paul Ainsworth’s food comes from the heart, enriched with his own nostalgia, and in my view, that’s what makes it unbeatable. Cooking is an act of love, as is eating food that has been lovingly prepared. A year after our trip to Derbyshire and now working at Paul Ainsworth’s restaurant, I got lost in conversation with a diner. I persuaded him to order the bread and butter pudding, knowing it would blow his mind. I largely credit this pudding to be one of the reasons we’re now married.
We taste and experience food in the part of the brain that came before language, which makes sense when we’re rendered speechless from good food. Even reading the words ‘bread and butter pudding’ on Paul Ainsworth’s menu has since brought my husband Nick and I to tears, lost in delicious reverie. And still when I recreate this pudding now, I can barely present the dish to the table without welling up.
The second dish close to my heart is a Caribbean chicken creole that comes from my own family archives. My uncle, Big Jase, was taught to make it when the family sailed over from Trinidad to Britain. He passed it on to me from his villa in the rural Andalusian mountains when I was 14. With opera blasting out over his lemon and avocado groves, my larger-than-life uncle directed me as I threw ingredients into a massive bowl. Full of doubt, I couldn’t see how these ingredients could come together in harmony. Bizarrely, the chicken is cooked in a vat of molten demerara sugar – yet the sauce is somehow balanced and complex. With its deep, rich brown colour there’s no benchmark to categorise the flavour for this dish, it’s like nothing you’ve tasted before. Putting my own stamp on it, I’d say it’s even better when prepared in a Dutch oven on our Kamado Joe, to which I think my Caribbean ancestors would approve.
I enjoy the cathartic process of preparing this dish even more than the pleasure of consuming it – the act of remembrance as I throw vibrant ingredients together. It connects me with my Guyanese-Trinidadian side of the family and I feed the spirits of my ancestors when I make it. My uncle isn’t around anymore, but he lives on in this dish. Like most Caribbean recipes kept alive from word-of-mouth, it varies every time, but that’s the beauty of it.
Now, looking to the future, I think about the food legacies I want to pass on to my own kids as I shape their food memories. As I lovingly prepare dishes from my own Norwegian-Trinidadian roots, I wonder which dishes will stand the test of time? Which begs the question, what dish will you pass on to your loved ones?
What dish would you give back to future generations
Michael Dart, co-owner of Darts Farm: It’s a no brainer – the dish that means the most to me has to be my mum’s Sunday roast beef. Complete with incredible crispy roast potatoes, parsnips, Devon swede and all the vegetables – and of course a crispy-cloud of Yorkshire pudding and mum’s amazing gravy. Of course it’s more than just the meal itself, it’s about family and friends and the tradition of everyone coming together around the table and special conversations. We’d have beef on the bone and as my youngest brother Jim was the best carver, he’d often get that prestigious role – the golden child! We could see the Ruby Red cattle grazing on the banks of the River Clyst from our window. It’s very moving to know your lunch has come primarily from your own farm. My grandfather farmed the land here, then my dad, and now us. Every blade of grass is special to us, as is the produce that comes from these fields.
Bill Clarke, Chairman of Trewithen Dairy: That is an easy question – apple pie made with shortcrust pastry. My father was the youngest of 10 children and when his mother was poorly with cancer, he had the job on Sunday to make seven apple pies for each day of the week using Bramleys from their orchard.
When I was growing up I remember helping with picking and storing large amounts of Bramley apples stored separately in multiple layers of straw which prevented frost damage and any rot passing between apples. This meant we routinely had Bramleys until early summer.
In spite of having apple pie relatively frequently, to this day I have never tired of the magnificent flavour. The only disappointment is that buying a portion of apple pie very rarely tastes as good as the real thing. What do I like with it? The ultimate is Cornish clotted cream but custard made with whole milk is a good alternative.