Amongst those of us who have the wonderful luxury of being able to choose and enjoy what we eat, there are those who eat mostly because they have to, or to enhance health, and occasionally enjoy a favourite or comfort food and those for whom eating is often an aesthetic experience in the fullest sense. I am most definitely in the latter category!
HOW I EAT
Nigella Lawson wrote a book called ‘How to Eat’. Taking her title as inspiration, the following are little habits that allow me to obtain maximum aesthetic pleasure from food.
Though some foodies eat fast, I love to savour my food, especially a really great meal. I will try to get a little bit of each flavour, or element of the dish, that’s intended to go together into each mouthful. I also eat slowly and carefully, rather than making a complete mess out of something that is essentially an edible work of art and leaving half of it spread all over the plate. If the meal going cold or me getting full is unlikely to be an issue, I’ll also ‘save the best [mouthful] for last’. Some dinner companions find this carefully organized and very slow eating a tad painful to watch and endure, but it’s how I like to eat. If I’ve enjoyed a meal, the plate will barely need washing up!
If I’m expecting a great meal I’ll actually go somewhat hungry beforehand so that I have a good appetite and can appreciate it all the more. I’m small, so three or more courses are a stretch for me, but I think I do pretty well for my size. Anticipation can sometimes ruin an aesthetic experience, but I find that with food this only happens if either the food is a real letdown or one has insufficient appetite. I don’t often get opportunities to go to great restaurants – it’s definitely worth having a light breakfast and/or skipping lunch in order to be able to make the most of what’s on offer. And I’ll happily be rolled home afterwards :-)
I like to match good food with appropriate wines – or other drinks if that’s what’s called for – but I do love quality wine. And although it’s always good and healthy to have water handy for between courses, I think it dilutes the flavour of a good meal and is not an ideal accompaniment. I’d love to indulge in some more degustation meals with lots of small courses matched with complimentary wines. For instance, very rarely do I have the pleasure of enjoying a dessert wine, but when matched to a great dessert, this is heaven!
THE ORIGINS OF MY GASTRONOMY
I love to cook and experiment in the kitchen. But by and large, I find a meal more enjoyable when it’s been prepared for me. The long process of preparing a good meal actually seems to affect the palette somehow. Perhaps it’s the lengthy exposure to the aromas of the meal, or perhaps simply the effort involved. The one exception to this for me are homely comfort meals – or old family recipes – that have been perfected such that no-one else can make them quite right. Sometimes the slow preparation of such dishes becomes almost meditative and can be a great way to spend an evening, with a glass or two of wine and some music playing. Some examples of this for me are crepes, a roast dinner (the way my family always made them and including our vegetarian riceball roast alternative – a zen meal) and my Mum’s original cheese & spinach pie.
Actually, my Gran and Mum were/are such good cooks that I think this is explains the origin of my enhanced appreciation of food. My attempts at Mum’s recipes never taste quite as good as when she makes them! And she has always made such a wide variety of wonderful meals, including using home-grown meat and dairy, creating vegetarian, macrobiotic and economical family recipes, as well as cooking favourite meals from other cuisines to perfection.
In my late teens I visited London a couple of times, staying to work as a nanny for 6 months the second time. Most of my time there was in winter, so comfort food was most enjoyable. I was also a committed vegetarian at the time and enjoyed the greater variety of vegetarian foods on offer, as well as lots of sweet treats! I still remember an amazingly delicate and creamy leek & goat’s cheese tart, made by a family friend, and some delicious cheese & onion pasties I used to buy hot from a local bakery sometimes – so warming, tasty and yummy! I also enjoyed the richest, most chocolatey hot chocolate EVER at a gorgeous little place in Cambridge and had my introduction to Haagen Dasz Belgian chocolate icecream at their Leicester Square parlour.
Back in Australia, the only thing worth eating at the university cafe were some surprisingly sophisticated mushroom, shallot & neufchâtel cheese turnovers with caraway seeds. They were so good, I would count out my pennies and get lunch as early as possible before they ran out!
The other comfort foods I’ll never forget the taste of – and sadly can’t recreate properly, especially gluten free – are my Gran’s legendary sponge cake with homemade jam and fresh Jersey cream, and her apple sponge dessert. She used a lot of farm fresh eggs in her sponges and they were always yellow, moist and fluffy.
Ah, the food one grew up on, the dishes so eagerly anticipated and enjoyed with such pleasure week after week. Those of us who remember food this way are very, very lucky. Because my parents love good food, I was also fortunate enough to enjoy some exceptional meals out quite early on in life. Some highlights from when I was only about six or seven include regular dinners at the Good Earth Chinese restaurant in Esher, London where we always enjoyed the superb Peking Duck Banquet, including sesame prawn toast, fried seaweed and, of course, Peking duck with pancakes.
We had two summer holidays to the South of France, staying in a villa in the hills near La Garde-Freinet. One evening we drove to a nearby Bistro, where I had the most delightful meal of whole rainbow trout with frites, followed by a divine chocolate mousse; so good that I have never forgotten it after all these years. A year or two later, on a fabulous weekend trip to Paris with family and friends, I tried snails (in their shells with garlic butter) and marveled at the taste of real croissants and bread.
THE DINING EXPERIENCE
Of course, it is well acknowledged that the overall experience of a truly memorable meal can also be greatly affected by three factors external to the food itself: company, ambiance and entertainment. For example, a couple of years ago I enjoyed two separate tapas meals with old friends from home I rarely get to see lately. The first was in Melbourne at Movida Next Door, the second was in Perth at Pata Negra. (SO many great meals in Melbourne by the way; also really loved Bistrot d’Orsay!) In both instances we enjoyed fantastic food (wow, so that’s what chorizo is meant to taste like!) and my dear friends are like me in that they will order and eat a LOT of food and unlike me in that they can afford VERY fine wines. But, most importantly, they are terrific company and much loved friends and these were very special evenings I will never forget.
Family meals are also always like this for me, especially now that we all get together so rarely. A standout was a celebratory family meal at the sensational Gala Restaurant in Perth. My entree of foie gras (had to try it once) with truffle risotto was just insanely good. I also enjoyed a fabulous fish main course and an amazing dessert that looked too artistic to eat but then tasted even better. It included a creme brûlée, chocolate mousse and icecream. All courses were perfectly matched with excellent wines. This was probably my best meal out ever!
Dessert at Gala
Of course, a romantic context can also enhance the enjoyment of a meal. Generally speaking, since my OH usually falls into the ‘eat because I have to’ category, it’s not always easy for him to match the pleasure I take in fine food and, in turn, his disinterest can negatively impact upon my experience. However, we have had some wonderful meals together that he was able to appreciate too.
While staying at the serene and beautiful Bluey’s Retreat on the NSW coast, my then fiancé and I dined at the resort’s Kingfisher Cafe. When the special was described, we both had to have it. It was a truly remarkable thrice-cooked pork belly with a sweet soy glaze that was way better and more complex than I can adequately describe. How fortunate that one of us didn’t miss out due to that silly couple’s tradition of not both ordering the same dish. I’m not sure I would have shared ;-)
When we honeymooned in Hawaii, naturally there was some great fish on offer, some American junk food and the servings were all too big, but a surprise was the number of standout dining experiences we enjoyed. In Kauai, I tried fish tacos for lunch one day; I’d never tried them before and luckily these were awesome! I often think of them and wish I could get some for lunch. In Maui we shared some wonderfully flavoursome, crunchy truffle fries and a huge pineapple creme brûlée (served in a half pineapple), both wickedly good.
Pineapple Brûlée at the Hula Grill, Maui
At the Waikiki Sheraton’s Japanese restaurant, Yoshiya, we decided to try the Sukiyaki. It was spectacular! We had to go back and have it a second time before we left Hawaii. Everything, from the quality & quantity of ingredients to the balance of flavours in the broth and the raw egg for dipping, was delightful.
Entertainment is another extra that can enhance one’s gastronomic appreciation, especially when it is integrated with the meal itself rather than a distraction. For example, I have enjoyed many wonderful teppanyaki meals with my husband, family & friends. Teppanyaki, done well, is delicious, but the theatre of the performing chef and the general loud, jovial atmosphere is also so much fun … so long as you are in the mood for it. If not, best have some sake and loosen up! :-)
The chef preparing the omelette for throwing
My gallant husband protecting my hair with a serviette as I prepared to catch the omelette in my mouth
Ambiance is really important. A lovely view and/or location, well designed decor, appropriate music and so on, can greatly enhance one’s enjoyment of a meal. I frequented some Vietnamese restaurants when I lived in Perth that offered truly delicious food at a remarkably cheap price, but it is true that the plastic tables and fluorescent lighting (plus occasional vacuuming of the rather dingy carpet if you ate late in the evening) didn’t exactly make it a memorable occasion or make you want to stay awhile. On the other hand, the most spectacular outlook cannot make up for bad food. Furthermore, there is much more to ambiance than a good view; many restaurants with enviable locations would do well to bear this in mind. I will also add good service, so often neglected in Australia (perhaps because we don’t tip), as crucial to the overall ambiance. I really noticed a whole other level of service in Hawaii, even compared with our best restaurants, and it certainly enhanced the dining experience.
Dietary Restrictions & the Gourmand
In recent years I gave up being vegetarian, after discovering I was seriously gluten intolerant. Giving up gluten entirely was a big challenge, especially if you look at my earlier list of comfort foods. Going without meat and fish as well as gluten made eating out and cooking for two impossible, so I embraced meat and fish again. You would think that having big restrictions on what you can eat would ruin the experience of dining out, and sometimes it does; for instance, when places serve battered chips. This is a pet hate of mine because it rules out the only tasty starch I can eat at most places! Plus I’m a chip lover! My favourite are the golden crunchy chips at the Belgian Bier Cafe!
Grilled garlic mussels with fries and mayonnaise at the Belgian Bier Cafe, The Rocks, Sydney
Despite the difficulties of dining vegetarian for twelve years and now gluten free since 2005, I’ve still had many memorable dining experiences, where everything has come together perfectly.
If one is inclined to a truly aesthetic appreciation of food, as I am, the memory of a great meal will stay with one forever. All the meals and dishes I’ve mentioned, and many more, are great memories and when I think of them I can almost taste the more familiar meals, those I’ve eaten many times. The one-offs are memories of such ecstatic pleasure that I can only hope will one day be repeated. Bon appetite!!!