My grandmother lived in a small cottage next door to the house in which I grew up. When I was about four or five I used to visit her, there was always something to eat, ginger biscuits or a piece of cake. But it isn’t these dainties that I remember best, but the mug of hot chocolate she made to wash them down. A fat comma of whipped evaporated milk rested placidly on top, a slight curl of fragrant steam rising from its dark, glossy surface, carrying with it the promise of sweetness, rich, slightly husky, muskiness, a velvet that wrapped itself around tongue and taste buds, filling not just my mouth, but my entire being with warmth, comfort, cosiness and repletion. And that was – what? – over sixty years ago.
Some people dismiss food and flavour as temporary or fleeting pleasures, but that’s to miss the point. Food is as much about memory as it is about the immediate sensations of eating. Just as much as snatches of music or song, smells and their associated flavours, have the gift of transporting us back through time with a rare sweetness and intensity.
If I understand things correctly (never a sure guarantee), there are three stages or degrees of memory, it seems: sensory memory, that is broken down into iconic memory (visual); echoic memory (sound) and haptic memory, the initial, sensory sensation. Then there’s short term memory, a kind of temporary parking bay. And finally, there’s long term memory, when we store things for future retrieval.
Memory serves a double purpose. It allows us to relive the past, but it also gives us the tool to predict the future. Through memory we know which foods will gives us pleasure and which to avoid. We know that fennel will taste of aniseed because we remember that from the last time we ate it. We remember that the whiff of ammonia on a piece of chicken means that that piece of chicken is not fit for consumption. I know that this mug of hot chocolate will be warm and comforting because I can remember my grandmother’s. I know that I loathe peanut butter because I remember the last time it filled my mouth with unspeakable, gritty clag.
I was sorting out some old notebooks the other day, and I came across one in which I kept a record of a walk that my brother Tom and I made through the Pays d’Auge in Normandy in September 1974. Among various observations, I noticed that I’d kept pretty detailed notes on what we ate along the way, marking each dish out of five. Pintadeau a la reinette at the Hotellerie Normande in Dozulé only rated 2 1/2. ‘Soggy chips.’ was the severe judgement. Poulet Vallée d’Auge at the Acasias in Liseux got 3 1/2 and the observation ‘Shouldn’t it have button mushrooms?’
These aides memoire help bring back a cheery nostalgia, but I can remember without effort the dinner that Tom and I ate at Tom Au Caneton at Orbec – terrine foie de volatile and rillettes d’oie (as much as we could eat, which, in the light of what we ate after, was too much); brioche de langoustine au porto (me), écrevisse (Tom); caneton ‘Ma Pomme’ (me); caneton grillé au poivre vert (Tom); coté d’agneau (Tom), pate de foie (me); cheese; soufflé au calvados (Tom), vacherin cassis (me). For the record, we drank Quincy 1973 and Moulin å Vent 1972. I see from my notes that I suffered a liver attack of such severity that night that I thought I was dying that night. I’d quite forgotten. Not the last time I suffered a similar fate.
It’s curious that my haptic and long term memories seem to be in fine working order as far as food and its pleasures are concerned, but when it comes remembering their occasional consequences, the retrieval system is a touch faulty.
My latest book: Summer in the Islands – An Italian Odyssey (Unbound Books. £14.99 or thereabouts).