Taste has the power to transport us somewhere magical. Sometimes even the sight of certain foods, the process of the preparation of a dish or a smell may awake memories and remind us people, occasions, even emotions. Taste is much more complex than smell, since includes the effects of heat, cooling and aroma. It is not strange then that the food can connect our past with present.
The connection of memories with taste is more apparent in childhood. Since kids tend to be seduced by the power of some tastes, the impact of a food that evokes our childhood is intense. I will never forget the summer evening I ate my first sea urchin roe straight from the shell. Every time I enjoy sea urchins their iodine taste reminds me of that summer I was 7 years old. The jasmine spoon sweet can also pictures me specific moments… my sister and me gathering the fresh jasmine flowers from my grandmothers garden, for making one of the most delicious spoon sweets. And I often recall the syruped orange flowers, one my grandmother’s specialities, arranged over a smooth and refreshing vanilla custard, the perfect dessert for me and my friends on warm summer days.
Blanched almonds remind me the preparation of sweets for feasts and my mother making delicate fingers with baklava phyllo and a filling of blanched almonds, lightly sweetened in syrup scented with bitter orange water. My childhood has also tastes of homemade ice cream, sweet watermelons and fresh greenish almonds served on a bed of fig leaves with ice cubes hidden underneath. My childhood’s tastes keep a place for small round pies filled with wild fennel, juicy grapes and tiny figs of late autumn, for snails gathered after the first rains of September, for winter cakes and warm freshly baked bread.
Region, social class, religion, culture and time may differentiate the foods that are linked with memorable events. Charcoal – grilled mushrooms, roasted chestnuts and figs dried in the sun were my father’s food highlights. Until the age of 11, my father had lived in a mountainous Cretan village built in an area full of ancient olive trees, chestnut trees, fig trees and wild mushrooms. Like many people born before 1940 he tended to recall the foods associated with nature more than people born in later decades. One of my mother’s most hated foods is cornmeal porridge, while my mother in law adores it. You see my mother comes from Crete where corn is eaten only boiled or charcoal – grilled. On the other hand my mother in law comes from Epirus where cornbread and corn porridge belong to the regional culinary tradition. Cornmeal porridge was consumed in Crete only during World War II, when my mother was 4 years old. This food recalls one of the worst memories of a child, that of a war. The foods that connect my mother with a calm childhood come after the War II. Fried slices of bread sprinkled with cinnamon and honey transport her to peaceful Sunday mornings. Acem pilafi, a complicated Ottoman lamb and rice dish, of iranian origin, which has been adopted by Greek cuisine, reminds of her mother’s big family dinners.
Childhood is the real home for all of us, apart from those who were unhappy as children. It is a magic land apart for those who have been lost in the forest. What taste can bring memories of a happy childhood to the children who starve not because dinner is late? What food can delete a child’s memories from a war? However, even under such conditions, most people draw inspiration from smells and tastes of what their childhood should have been. And whereas the smell and taste recall images of love, kindness, care and produce images of nostalgia and euphoria for these early years, there is also a bite of a little pity. We see ourselves in the distance of today the children we were, such innocent about the disappointments and enthusiasms, the troubles and pleasures of the adulthood.
So what is my strongest childhood food memory? I am going to tell you what is my favorite one. It is the almond cream that my mother used to make when my sister and I were sad. Until the age of 8 years old we both believed that this fine dessert had the magic power to drive the sorrow out of our lives.
Almond cream (Krema amigdalou)
5 cups milk
1/3 cup sugar
2/3 cup cornflour (cornstarch), diluted in 3/4 cup cold milk
1 cup finely ground blanched almonds
1/2 tsp. orange flower water (optional)
Put 4 1/4 cups milk into a heavy pan and add sugar. If you’re using a vanilla bean, split it in half lengthwise and scrape the seeds into milk, then add pod. Bring to a boil and lower the heat. Discard the pod from the pot.
Pour cornflour mixture into warm milk, turn the heat to medium and stir constantly until the mixture thickens. Add almonds and simmer very gently, stirring occasionally. Add the lemon zest and stir well. (If you like orange flower water it’s time to add it) Spoon cream into individuals bowls or sweet dishes and decorate it with lemon zest. Its better if you cool completely before serving.
This recipe is for TASTES TO REMEMBER blogging event hosted by Sarah from Homemade Experiences in the Kitchen.