Tag Archives: food

Tools for being human, part nine: Cooking and eating with others

Hostel eating

In my childhood, meals were consumed eye-to-eye. The family sitting, circling the table, forks and knives hovering under conversation. Even Friday-night fish and chips were elevated, the hot paper-bound bundle of deep-fried all-sorts steaming the glass table-top. Tomato sauce allocated in five small dollops. Buttered bread in a leaning tower. No TV, no radio, no tapping sly LOLs to mates under the table.

In the warmer parts of the Mediterranean, an evening meal with family might last for two, three hours. In our house it was usually forty-five minutes. Three-quarters of an hour of noisy retellings, prompting questions, and arguments over who had found the most chunks of toffee in their ice-cream. Then at around 6:48pm Mum or Dad would check a watch, and table clearing would begin, just in time for the marine weather forecast.

Food was the thing that unfailingly drew us together as a family, but in many ways it was the winds that were responsible for what ended up on the table. My father loves, loves, loves the sea. He worked any number of jobs, but his default workplace was between lapping waves and sandy seabed, hunting out the ocean’s bounty. So between 6:51 and 6:57 there was a communal silence as predictions were made. Light variables, Southerlies dying out overnight, squalls,  gusts and gales.

If the conditions were favourable, my brother, sister and I knew we’d be bundled up in the back tray of the Land Rover, sliding back and forth amongst the fish boxes and dive lungs. Most of the seafood limits were on a per person basis, so the three of us plus Dad meant twenty-four crayfish. I ate a lot of crayfish as a kid. Fortunately Dad knew a lot of the Greek and Italian families that had been drawn to Wellington’s rugged south coast. And seafood to them, was like cigarettes to the imprisoned. So after a day in the sand we’d park up outside garages and kitchens, having our cheeks pinched by enthusiastic Nonas as the trades were done. Prosciutto for cod, baklava for shellfish, wine for scallops.

If say an eighth of my early years were spent on beaches and bays, then another eighth must have been spent in the kitchen. My father was trained as a chef, in a fancy hotel, by men who ranted in French. It was only natural to him, to spend time with us in the kitchen, teaching us to make pastries, sauces and casoulets. He had a library of faded French cooking manuals, but he taught us that the best meals were made from simple ingredients, drawn by hand, from land and sea. Fresh mushrooms from an absent farmer’s fields, cooked in cream and thyme. Butterfish cooked on an open fire with a little butter and a few capers, as the tide creeps stealthily away.

My first experience cooking in a commercial kitchen was beneath an 800 year old church in Cambridgeshire. I worked, ate, drank and played with a mix of central Americans, Europeans, Australians and Brits. A delicious blend of accents, cooking traditions, and ways of interpreting the world. We all cycled Cambridge’s narrow, cobbled streets to work, our wheels juddering madly as we swept past colleges and chapels. We’d lock our bikes to the church gates, beside boxes of early morning produce, which we’d haul into the larder, flanked by hundreds of shelved ingredients.

There’s something visceral about catering. There is the short time-frames of production. Menus were clipped to stainless steel walls at 6:00am, the first batches of scones and breads lined the counter at 8am. There’s the physicality, the great dance, flashing knives, swooping trays, fast marching waiters, swinging doors. There is heat and cold, the spin up of enormous ovens, the gentle shudder of cheese fridges. And of course there is the end product, the gentle stacks and swirls on the plate, the scents and tastes and colours of the season.

I know I’ve never worked harder, but I’m also pretty sure I’ve never laughed more. The various roles are all so tightly interlinked: the baker, the dishwasher, the cake decorator. No failure is independent, no success singular. We’d picked each other up, wiped one another down, and limped across the finish line as one, coated in flour, drizzled in sweat and thirsty for a pint. It’s the sort of teamwork that can build great fellowship. And of course, produce the occasional drama.

After catering a wedding, or a bell-ringers dinner, we’d sometimes set off on our bikes, for a chef’s basement home. There we’d drink Suffolk ciders and Speyside Whiskey, while one of us cooked food from the homeland. Pierogi, Coca Cola pork, tea smokes mash. One of my greatest ever meals was wild boar sausages, in banana beer batter, at 2:00am, eaten to the sounds of our Welsh head chef playing Alice in Chains tunes on his jet-black guitar.

Since then I’ve cooked puddings at Scottish festivals, supported by spliff-rolling Spaniards. I’ve whipped up dishes from the gardens of an Irish castle, and I’ve woken in the early hours to help bake bagels in Jewish delis. But many of my favourite memories are set in my Sister’s kitchen, under her backpackers home in Derry. Whenever I spend time there we end up cooking a slow meal, maybe a course each, starting some time in the mid afternoon. By the time the hot trays are drawn from the stove, the heavy wooden table is surrounded by people from all nations, wine from New Zealand, and throaty laughter.

 

For me, cooking allows me an opportunity to create, to interpret, to participate in something universal, something which transcends linguistic borders. It is an endeavour of creation which always finds a grateful audience.

So thank you Dad, for teaching me that if I dedicate myself to my passions, then there are fewer gaps in my life. Thank you Mum, for being the one who taught us the value of communion and companionship, and for occasionally letting us eat our steak in slabs of soft, white bread. And thank you to all of you that I’ve shared a kitchen with. You helped me expand my creative boundaries, diversify my cultural understanding, and extend my range of curses.

Bon apetit!

Eating and cooking my way through and into Europe

Eat

It took me a while to realise that like music, food is a great way to integrate with other people when you’re travelling. I’d always been envious of those talented musicians that can bind a group of strangers through memorising a couple of dozen universally loved songs. My guitar playing though, was woeful. I once hosted a dozen Finnish music students in the hostel in Northern Ireland. The delightful elvish musicians would play traditional folk songs, interspersed with heavy metal classics. I was smitten. I used to join them at gigs, then we’d all head back to the hostel basement and play acoustic versions of Metallica and Skid Row classics. As we passed around a bottle of Bushmill’s after their last gig the drummer put his arm around me. ‘Karhu, (Finnish for bear)’ he said,  ‘you are very very bad with the guitar. But we love your enthusiasm.’ Ouch, another rock and roll dream trampled.

A couple of years after my musical defeat I was struggling to find work in Cambridge, England. My girlfriend and I had picked a city to live in based on a half day of lying beneath the trees along Jesus Green, eating cheese and onion sandwiches in the sun. Perhaps checking rent prices or employment opportunities would have made more sense, but I’ve always leaned more towards romance than practicality. I soon found that most job opportunities in the city involved teaching students at the university or tending to patients at the hospital. I decided hospitality work might be a safer option. I’d learnt a few culinary tricks from my father, I liked the idea of free coffee, and I found a cafe that didn’t need me to work evenings.

I’ve never worked so hard in my life. From the minute I put on an apron to the moment I peeled it off, I didn’t stop grafting. But along the way I learnt the formula behind a good dressing, the importance of a sharp knife, and the joy of creating a beautiful dish from obscure ingredients. I spent time with Steph, a gorgeous Costa Rican who introduced us to her grandmother’s tendency to cook almost anything with a bottle of coke. The last I heard, she was working in one of Jamie Oliver’s kitchens, hopefully he’s had a chance to sample her specialities before he found out the principal ingredient. I also got to work alongside Welshmen, Aussies, Canadians, Polish and Mexicans, and we all shared stories and samples of foods we grew up with and missed. So I received not just free lattes, but many new recipes,  and an understanding of the degree to which food can eliminate cultural barriers.

I’m now able to draw even more from my travels, by learning from everything I eat. I’m in Holland at the moment, a country that isn’t know for its cuisine. But unknown cuisines are often the most fun, you have no pre-conceptions and there’s something special about unexpected treats. I loved sharing ‘new herring’ and palling (smoked eel) with Francoise’ ruddy cheeked Uncle Han at a mobile fishmonger. As I licked the smokey oils from my fingers I imagined how great the eel would be blended with cream cheese and a little smoked paprika. I got to experience a traditional treat, and I had another inspiration for future dishes.

The Dutch have been all too happy to introduce me to foods ranging from traditional childhood treats, to deep-fried pub grub. I got to sample bitterballen (deep-fried gravy balls) in darkened pubs, and poffertjes (mini pancakes with stewed fruit and cream) at an antique-crammed farmhouse restaurant. The best Dutch meal so far though (in terms of both flavour and sheer effort) was a sweet and sour meaty treat called zuurvlees. Ivo (one of our Maastricht hosts) made us this well known southern dish from his mother’s recipe. Preparation began with marinating beef for 24 hours, and eventually ended with the addition of appelstroop (a sweet apple sauce) and ontbijtkoek (breakfast bread), which are stirred into the thickening stew. The enjoyment was as much about the stories around the dish, as it was about the deep, rich flavours.

Autumn has set in here in Northern Europe. Ripened apples and pears weigh down the branches of the trees we cycle under, as we coast between windmills and canals. My hosts have provided beds, bikes, and entertaining conversations. I can’t pay them for their kindness, but I can cook this fresh seasonal fruit with thyme and honey, and roll fresh sweet pastry over the top. The appreciative sounds that escape between mouthfuls later in the evening don’t need much translation. None of us needs to learn a new language to draw pleasure from sharing a meal. That being said I’m sure at least half my Dutch vocabulary is names for pastries and condiments. Much of the rest is made up of words I can use to communicate my appreciation for each new delicacy. Mooi (nice) isn’t usually enough, I have to stretch to prima (terrific) or even lekker (luscious).

Six years ago I sold my last guitar to help pay for a ticket to England, a trip which saw me end up working in kitchens. I like the idea that my failure to spread joy through music so easily leant itself towards learning a new way to bind people together.

Food and the middle class

Boulder Beer

When I was a nipper, my parents had the good sense to utilise my siblings and I as kitchen hands. My Da’ was a chef, back in the day when culinary training meant being taught to cook like the French. He was a pastry king, a seafood creative, and a master of invention. Essentially though, he was also a fisherman, and he knew that the best way to eat crayfish was on a fire on the beach, an hour after you caught it. No fooking about. And us kids learnt to appreciate how simple it could be to craft tasty food.

Food was pretty simple when I was growing up. There were two varieties of baked beans, one type of pasta, and the butcher gave you a free sausage piece of luncheon (sausage meat) when your Mum popped in to pick up lamb chops. When my olds were low on cash it was inventive ways with mincemeat, and we wouldn’t get fish and chips on a Friday night. Which as an eight year old meant the world had tipped on its axis. Whether food was bad for you was determined by whether it was a Brussels sprout (my opinion) or whether it was made of sugar (my Mum’s opinion thanks to my dentist). Simple.

As the years have charged on past me, I’ve found a number of food attitudes to rant at.

Ooh, sidetrack, if you ever feel you need to work in a great ranting environment, try working in a kitchen. When I spent time learning to bake in Cambridge I gained access to the “chef’s rant”. These were an early morning special, fuelled by triple lattes, a wall of knives and kick starting the day with an hour of heavy metal. Chris (hilarious lanky dreadlocked Essex hero) and Lownes (talented ginger Welsh head chef) were frequently on fine, vocal, spatula-wielding form. It was like a one-sided talkback radio version of karaoke.

Anyway, there’s one area that I’d like to set up a soap box for today, the deification of foodstuffs, aka what the feck’s the deal with Sea Salt Tastings? Olive oil debates, hummus festivals, coffee beans harvested from a toddycat’s faeces…I searched google for “exclusive sea salts” and found a forum where someone had posted a question titled “Potentially embarrassing question: Kosher salt vs Sea salt”. Embarrassing? Gak, what a petrifying potential social faux pas! There was me getting all anxious about whether my writing might be a positive way to help build understanding for the visually impaired. I realise now I should have been stressing about whether I should pickle my prosthetic-limb-harvested South East Nigerian kumquat with aged, long handle raked black lava Cypriot sea salt. And the social ramifications if a dinner guest called me up on it.

My rally against middle class angst began when I was in my twenties. At this time my Ma and Pa made a decision to set up a vineyard in a sunny chunk of New Zealand known as Marlborough. It is important to note at this point, that they’d raised my brother, sister and I in a wee suburb in Wellington called Newlands, and that as a results we were bogans. For those not familiar with the term, it indicates that we were all about Metallica, dressing from black wardrobes, and drinking bourbon. Or “bogan and coke”. But I’m proud to tell you that we were nothing if not flexible in our approach to new taste sensations. Or free piss. Our parents shift into wine making circles meant we understood what was involved in crafting bottles of Sauvignon Bonk, and just as importantly we knew that in the end it was just piss. After all the pontificating, swirling, deep snorts and staring at the ceiling (and that’s just the inelegant old school process of removal the cork), it was designed to get us drunk. I thought I’d undone the mystery behind the world’s only serious middle class focus point for consumption snobbery. How naive I was. Somehow the wealthy masses have managed to push this ridiculous social ranking scheme into whole new realms, even lowly condiments. And beer. Gulp.

And here I will outline my own near-miss, my almost-tumble into an obsession with a hand crafted product. For many years, beer was the drink of the hard workers who built my tiny home nation. It was a brilliant social equaliser, barristers drank next to labourers, bankers with harlots (no change there, then). The beers were dull, but they were cheap. But things changed. Just over two years ago I headed back to New Zealand from Cambridge, England, a cider drinking, real ale swilling paradise. I was heading back via the beer halls of Oktoberfest, and I feared the taste-free homogenised beer scene I would be returning to. But Lo! A scattering of people had woken up and smelt the hops. America’s successful rejuvenation of small batch brewing had inspired a new generation of beer lovers in Aotearoa. I dove into Earl Grey Tea beers, chilli beers, and Hop Zombies. I was impressed by the small community feel of the brewing community, most growing beer producers were constantly helping each other get established rather than protecting their fledgling business’. It was a cute, collaborative cottage industry. But the beer prices crept ever upward, and between tiny kiwi “pints” I started to notice a snobbery that many denied, but few actually avoided. A train-spotterish obsession with hop varieties, a curl of the lip at anyone enjoying a cold commercial lager, and far too many beards. Shudder. And hipsters. One bar in particular, Hashigo Zake, was like a dungeon of pseudo elitists, and it represented so much that I had always rallied against. I broke. It. Is. Just. Beer. It was a close call. I don’t have the stomach, nor the budget, for snobbery.

So here’s a call to all those of you with lots of free time, and only first world worries and concerns. Maybe it is time to start putting a chunk of that time and a wad of cash into setting up a community garden, or running classes teaching people to cook healthy meals on a budget. Surely more rewarding than blood pressure raising arguments with dinner guests over the origin of the hand stroked ginger in your “deconstructed Moscow Mule”.

I still love a good beer though…

 

On the first three days in Colorado

Dude ranch

I love the idea of the United States of America battling my expectations. It’s the country on which I have the most opinions on, from the least reliable sources, from The Dukes of Hazard, to anything written in New Zealand newspapers. I’ve found that from the few opportunities I’ve had to engage with wandering US citizens, I’ve been left with reassessed opinions and altered prejudices. So how will spending ten weeks based in Colorado, and the resulting experiences, chats and observations, affect my views of this rapidly changing empire? Well, three days in, let’s look at three areas: food, just how many places I recognise, and hospitality.

Until recently my understanding of food culture in the 50 states, was that in general, huge unhealthy meals, and bizarre sounding snacks were king. I imagined travellers would be hard-pressed to find alternatives to chicken wings done 50 ways, corn dogs, and anything where they ask if you’d “like fries with that”. And that when they needed something to stretch overfull bellies between meals, they’d have to order snickerdoodles or Ding Dongs with a straight face. But within hours of arriving in L.A. (and before I had a chance to eat) I had relocated to Boulder, Colorado. This state is an enormous, beautiful, natural playground, and has the lowest levels of obesity and sedentary lifestyle in the nation. I’m prepared to confront other sides to the “what American’s eat” story, but here I’ve been enchanted with the foods, and a passion for “good” eating. The edible options I’ve been tasting and cooking with so far are frequently organic, carefully selected, and genuinely delicious. Mexican ingredients seem to take centre stage (adventurous salsas are a favourite so far), and game foods are far more prevalent than back home. For those who decline flesh, there seems to be substantial vegetarian delights, indeed the predominant incisor despisers are reportedly vegans and raw food zealots. So for now, my US diet has been more healthy, more tasty and contained less high fructose corn syrup than expected. Prejudice adjusted, to be reviewed over my next hundred meals, and after a weigh-in.

We travelled from Boulder to a cabin in the woods near Mount Evans, over memorial weekend (think flags, flag pants, unrelenting patriotism). On the way we passed Red Rocks Ampitheatre (where U2 recorded “Under a Blood Red Sky”) and Dinosaur Ridge, an incredible mecca for Jurassic nerds around the world. The next day I was unexpectedly taken to South Park (the very same), where I walked a section of the Colorado Trail. All of this within a radius of under fifty miles (local slang for 80km). I had no idea just how packed with recognisable locations America would be. What are already entertaining road trips (trailers boasting 80 flavours of jerky, scenery out of Road Runner crossed with any John Wayne Western), become events in themselves, as reference packed as a wander through central London. I’m discovering that this ridiculously huge landscape is fair over flowing with must see, wouldn’t-mind-seeing, and funny-to-note destinations. Ten weeks is looking a little weak, for even one state.

I was warned by a number of people over the years, that Americans were friendly, welcoming and hospitable. So far this is an unadjusted notion. I’ve been humbled by the warmth with which people (three in three days) have welcomed me into their homes. My third and briefest host invited us up for a chat after spying us walking the trail under his mountain perched cabin. John and his friend Eve gave us the grand tour of his self built timber paradise, from the humid greenhouse, to a koi carp pond that frequently hosted bears and other wildlife (evidence provided via an always on “Game Cam” mounted above the fish filled pool). They then plied us with travel tales, local gossip, beer, and a feeling we’re not intruding on their privacy. We walk away not quite sober, with photos of the wild turkeys stalking his garden, slideshow CD’s, and a copy of Eve’s world beating photo of a “sad squirrel”. Bless.

My cautious optimism has been boosted to unbridled enthusiasm by a country which I hadn’t yet visited, because I didn’t know where to start. An opportunity to have my introduction led by Francoise has proven one of my life’s great decisions. She has a truly adventurous heart, and I have already been spoilt with daunting landscapes, fascinating commentaries, and the promise of brewing beer together. It’s always the people that make a country for me, and based on my experience so far America is a beautiful, eclectic country, hopefully finally taking steps towards self reflection. I’m glad I got to meet her now, and I am eager to explore further.