by Ferne Arfin, 3 April 2020
My first taste of…
Defining moments in my life as a foodie
The memory of tastes can have surprising power to bring the past to life. If you doubt that, consider Marcel Proust for whom the taste of a madeleine unleashed “Remembrance of Things Past”, a tidal wave of words.
Recently I was disappointed, yet again, by a dish I keep ordering in different restaurants and in different cities. It would seem I’m always searching in vain for the surprise of the first time I tried it in a London cafe. That started me thinking about the memory of tastes.
My first taste of pizza; the first few grains of caviar that ever passed my lips; a perfect tart of greengages. In each case, those first wonderful tastes grow in memory, setting impossible standards that can never be matched.
These are some of the favorites I always seem to be trying – and failing – to re-experience.
Pizza in Brooklyn
On my seventh birthday, I was finally allowed to walk to school on my own (with a small gang of friends). In honor of the occasion, my mother suggested I invite my three walking pals out for pizza.
I’d never eaten out in a restaurant without my parents. And I had never tasted pizza.
Pizzas were bigger in those days, and it wasn’t just because we were smaller. When it arrived, on its shiny metal platter, the pizza covered nearly the whole table – more than enough to feed four hungry little girls. A delicious cloud of aroma – of tomatoes, onions, basil, oregano, garlic and cheese – quickly enveloped us.
My mother stayed long enough to show us how to eat the slice, folding the triangle along its length and tucking the pointy end in. Then she disappeared (to a darkened corner of the restaurant to keep an eye on us, no doubt).
That first bite
The pizza was covered with pools of molten melted cheese. Somehow I managed to get a mouthful without burning the roof of my mouth. The stringy, slightly rubbery sensation of the warm cheese was surprising and delightful. But I had an overbite and, try as I might, I couldn’t bite off the ever-lengthening string. My cheeks filled with an expanding wodge of mozzarella; I chewed and chewed. To my seven-year-old brain, the only logical solution was simply to swallow. Once the cheese was on the way down to my stomach, it couldn’t also be on the slice of pizza, could it?
Well, yes it could.
It all ended well, though I honestly can’t remember how. I probably kept swallowing until there was no cheese left on the slice. To this day, that particular aroma of tomatoes, onions, basil, oregano, garlic and cheese still reminds me of that pizzeria in Brooklyn. And I always order extra cheese on my pizza in hopes of re-experiencing that first bite. So far, I haven’t succeeded.
The little parade of shops on Glenwood Road in Canarsie is gone and the pizzeria with it. But I’m reliably informed if you’re in Brooklyn, the real deal can be sampled at Totonno’s Pizzeria Napolitano, in Coney Island, where the same family has been making award-winning Neapolitan pizza for more than 90 years.
French fries at Nathan’s
Nathan’s, or as the business now likes to be called, Nathan’s Famous, began as a hot dog stand in Coney Island, New York, in 1916. Founded by a Polish immigrant, it served all-beef hot dogs, fries, roasted corn on the cob and other day-at-the-beach fast-food treats. The garlicky hot dogs were seasoned with a secret recipe of spices concocted by Nathan’s wife.
But it’s the memory of the tastes, especially of the French fries of my childhood that is most vivid. Served liberally sprinkled with salt and so hot you had to blow on them before taking a bite, they were crunchy and crinkle-cut with a steamy fluffy interior. And the aroma seemed to be the very essence of potato perfection. No French fries, or chips as the British call them, ever tasted the same. Until…
…about three decades later, while traveling in Normandy, I stopped for a lunch of steak frîtes at a roadside cafe. The frîtes were typically French – a mountain of skinny fries. But the aroma that rose from my plate transported me back to Brooklyn.
Pure Coney Island
Pure peanut oil actually. Peanut oil – or huile d’arachide – is not widely used in France. But that, the cook assured me, is what it was. And though I tried frying potatoes in peanut oil myself, I was never able to reproduce that scent.
More than 100 years on, Nathan’s Famous is now a fast-food franchise empire. I see that in 2019 they even opened two shops on England’s South Coast. But, if you want to taste the real deal, you have to go to one of the two original restaurants in Coney Island (at 1310 Surf Avenue) or nearby Oceanside (2807 Long Beach Road).
Concord grapes – a memory of tastes from a Massachusetts vineyard
They were small, perfectly round and dark purple, almost black. Their thin skin, covered in a frosty looking, bloom, held the juicy flesh so tightly that the slightest pressure released a flood of cool, sweet flavor.
We’d been out for a drive in the country. We stopped at a farmstand in Marlboro, to buy fresh produce to take home to the city. Instead, we sat by the side of the road, staining our fingers and lips purple, basking in September sunshine and polishing off the lot.
Concord grapes were developed in the 1840s by a farmer in (where else?) Concord, Massachusetts. They’re not easy to find during their short season since most of the commercial crop goes into popular brands of grape jelly. But true to their origins, you are most likely to find them in Massachusetts stores from mid-September. Look for them At Boston Hill Farm in Andover, MA.
Tennessee barbecue on the night Elvis died
After spending the fated morning in Memphis interviewing a women’s baseball team, I was out of touch with the day’s news. We headed for Nashville and dinner in the home of a local manager and locally celebrated home cook. Later, we’d planned to watch the Grand Ole Opry from a privileged backstage position.
In the middle of the meal, another company manager burst in shouting, “Ehyel’s daid! Ehyel’s daid!” When it was clear I had no idea what he was talking about, he clarified. “The King’s daid. Ehyelvis is done gone an dahd.”
Keep cooking and carry on
Despite the pall that then settled over the room, and despite her personal grief at the news, the woman who’d cooked the meal was determined to get her recipes into print. She gamely carried on, loading the table with dish after dish. Most of it was too sweet, too salty or too fatty for my prim Yankee tastebuds. Until, that is, she served her showstopper – melting, tangy, rich Tennesse barbecue. There was pulled pork, pork chunks and slices all slowly cooked in a spicy, oniony, molasses-dark tomato sauce until spoon tender. It was her best recipe and the only one she wouldn’t share.
Online recipes for Tennessee barbecue usually involve simmering the ingredients for up to twelve hours so I’m very unlikely to ever make it myself. But every now and then, when traveling in the south, I catch a random whiff of that aroma. It never fails to make my mouth water and the memory of those tastes takes me back to that strange night in Nashville when Elvis died.
Polenta and sundried tomatoes near the base of Mt Blanc
Do you remember the first time you tasted a sundried tomato?
Nowadays it is just another one of many savory Italian antipasti that we take for granted. You can buy them in jars in any supermarket.
But that’s now. This was then – a lunch break at an Alpine lodge in the Val Ferret on the Italian base of Mt. Blanc. I’d been cross country skiing by myself. My travel companion on this Easter ski trip, a downhill junkie, had abandoned me for the thrill of the black runs of Courmayeur. Nevermind. The other skiers on the woodland trail were friendly and the woodland valley was beautiful. Light sparkled through icicle garlanded evergreens. A clear, dark stream, dotted with snow-frosted boulders, paralleled the piste.
In a clearing, skiers gathered around a rustic lodge. They basked in the early spring sunshine, drinking hot chocolate and mulled wine, their temporarily discarded skis and poles poking out of the snowbanks. I stabbed my skis and poles into the snow and headed in for lunch.
A steaming cauldron
Inside, a cook leaning over a huge caldron, stirred polenta with a spoon as big as a canoe paddle. Polenta, garnished with different things, made up the entire menu. A steaming bowl of it duly arrived, layered with fontina cheese and topped with a ragout of porcini mushrooms. A tray 0f antipasti came with it.
The tray had all the usual bits and pieces – artichoke hearts, olives, pickled peppers, fat anchovies, plus some mysterious, shriveled, blood-red, leathery strips dressed with olive oil. They looked like dried salami but their taste and texture were indefinable. Pomodori secchi, the waitress explained. I guessed that meant some kind of tomatoes but I nothing prepared me for the intense, sweet tomatoey flavor and the chewy, almost meaty texture. I emptied the dish and was hooked.
The restaurant, Lavachey, is still there, in Val Ferret, outside Courmayeur. I don’t know if the big cauldron is still there, but they still serve polenta with a list of different toppings. And, in winter, the only way to get there is on skis or snowshoes.
Caviar and oysters in Normandy
I had my first and most memorable encounter with caviar at a restaurant in Bénouville, France, near the Normandy coast. I don’t exactly travel in caviar circles. I have a wary approach to slippery things and fishy innards in general. But on this occasion, a first trip to France, I jumped in at the deep end.
The restaurant, Le Manoir ‘Hastings , had a Michelin star back then (another first for me) and an ambitious menu for my unsophisticated palate. Starters of rognons (kidneys) and ris d’agneau (lamb pancreas) – deep end or not – were jumps too deep for me. Huîtres pochées aux quatre saveurs – poached oysters with four flavors – seemed safer. One of the saveurs was oscietra caviar. I decided to be game.
Eight, barely cooked, oysters arrived, two of them sporting a few grains each of shiny black sturgeon eggs. I took a little bit on my tongue and crushed it against the roof of my mouth. There was a pleasant popping sensation followed by a flood of buttery flavor.
I learned later that connoisseurs eat caviar by crushing it against their palates. I only did that because there wasn’t enough to chew. But the memory of tastes and sensations that have stayed with me to this day were the pleasant popping sensation and the surprising flood of buttery, salty flavor.
And more memories of tastes
Mirabelle tartlets in France
In Trouville, on the way to somewhere, I stopped to pick up munchies for the road and dashed into the food shop closest to my illegally parked car. At le Fournil de la Touques, I bought a magnificent tartelette aux mirabelles. The mirabelles – tiny green plums from northeastern France, similar to greengages – were so lightly cooked in their pastry and custard case that they hardly seemed baked at all. In the years since, I’ve tried many likely looking green plum tarts. Not one even comes close. (le Fournil de la Touques, 7 Place Fernand Moureaux,Trouville-sur-Mer, France)
Pork belly at the Sportsman
This Michelin-starred pub in Seasalter, Kent, near Whitstable, makes a dish that melts in your mouth. But it’s the crackling that is so astonishing it will spoil your appreciation of this dish served anywhere else. Unlike some British pork crackling that can be hard enough to dislodge fillings, this is crunchy yet bubbly and as yielding as a good prawn cracker. Rumor has it that it is confit (very slowly poached in fat), but the chef-patron isn’t saying. Celebrity chef Tom Kerridge makes a pork rind nibble that comes close at The Hand and Flowers, his two-Michelin-star pub in Marlow.
Butter chicken at Punjab
I ducked into Punjab in Covent Garden to get out of the rain one wintry London afternoon and accidently discovered one of London’s oldest Indian Restaurants. Their butter chicken – fat, succulent joints in a lightly spiced, creamy, buttery tomato sauce set the standard against which I’ve measured every Punjabi takeaway since. If you happen to be in London during the lockdown, they deliver in the city center and have contact-free collection as well.
Sun-warmed September peaches
And finally, sun-warmed September peaches from a New England farm stand. After a Sunday drive to look at the autumn foliage, we came upon a roadside stand down a wooded lane. Bright yellow maples and aspens filtered the light. We bought perfectly ripe, tender peaches, each one as big as a baby’s head. We couldn’t wait to take them home so we ate them on the spot, under those golden leaves, the sweet peach juice dripping down our chins and through our fingers. They were perfection, paragons of peaches, never to be equaled.
What about you?
Do you cherish the memory of tastes you’ve enjoyed? Are you always trying – and failing – to find them again? Please do share them with us in the comments below.
The best sandwich I ever had (not to insult the pastrami at the 2nd Ave Deli in NYC) was the Ferdie Special at Mother’s on Tchoupitoulas St in New Orleans. A large hero roll with an inch of debris (the shavings and drippings of brisket andEd.Note – A Mother’s speciality,named for a local merchant and regular customer). This was topped by a half-inch slice of their special homemade baked ham. Add lettuce and tomatoes and a smear of cajun mustard on one side and cajun mayo on the other and…and…
What a wonderful and interesting piece, one I’m sure Proust himself would approve of. I especially liked your description of the fresh mirabelles, which have always surprised me for their fresh, frank flavor and the way, as you point out, they tend to be just lightly baked when added to tarts.
For me, one recent tasting that will leave an imprint for a long time was a fresh mozzarella, basil, olive oil and tomato sandwich on focaccia, devoured in the Italian city of Amalfi during a rainstorm. Rain was already threatening when we ordered the sandwiches from a deli along the main drag (unfortunately I can’t remember the name). It started pouring and we took cover in one of the covered corridors outside Amalfi Cathedral, periodically coming up for breaths between bites to exclaim that this was possibly the best sandwich we’d ever eaten. It was the platonic ideal of a Caprese sandwich. And I will forever be searching for one that matches it. We’ll probably just have to go back to that deli in Amalfi.