Name just one other thing in this world that is as evocative as food. I tend to voraciously devour almost any book I can find and spend far too many hours watching films; but nothing, absolutely nothing is as immediate, all-encompassing and deeply fundamental as the memories that can be unlocked in just one bite.
The wonderful American writer, director and die-hard foodie Nora Ephron had a special way of writing about food in the context of a rich, full, complex life. In her famous bittersweet collection of essays I Feel Bad about My Neck (2006) she included an op-ed piece she wrote for the New York Times about the regret of not eating more of a particular food that ended up vanishing out of her life. In “The Lost Strudel or Strudel le Perdu” she elaborates thus:
“Food vanishes. I don’t mean food as love, food as habit, food as memory, food as biography, food as metaphor, food as regret, or food as in those famous madeleines people like me are constantly referring to as if they’ve read Proust, which in most cases they haven’t. I mean food as food. Food vanishes.”
The cabbage strudel Nora longed for was made at a Hungarian bakery called Mrs Herbst’s and disappeared from Manhattan in 1982. “It has a buttery, flaky, crispy strudel crust made of phyllo with a moist filling of sautéed cabbage that’s simultaneously sweet, savoury and completely unexpected, like all good things.”
I can imagine it perfectly, even though I have never eaten anything like it. And that is what life is, we run around getting all distracted when we should be paying attention to how absolutely lovely cabbage strudel can be.
“Once upon a time I ate quite a lot of cabbage strudel, and then I sort of forgot about it for a while. I think of that period as my own personal temps perdu, and I feel bad about it for many reasons, not the least of which is that it never crossed my mind that my beloved cabbage strudel would not be waiting for me when I was ready to remember it again.”
The years went by. She scours the internet for recipes, falls upon anyone with the surname of Herbst at cocktail parties until finally she tracks down the number of a Hungarian baker who can bake it as a special order. But he briskly informs her that he’s too busy making other kinds of strudel, especially monotonous old apple. So that was that.
Until a friend finally tracks down another bakery serving it, just like that, over the counter. Nora Ephron and her husband Nicholas Paleggi, the love of her life, walk there on a sunny winter’s day and order it. It arrives. Everyone (including us, reading this) holds their breath and… the strudel is every bit as amazing as she remembered.
“Tasting it again as like being able to turn back the clock, like having the consequences of a mistake erased; it was better than getting a blouse back that the dry cleaners had lost, or a cell phone returned that had been left in taxi; it was a validation of never-giving-up and hope-springing-eternal; it was many things, it was all things, it was nothing at all; but mostly it was cabbage strudel.”
I mean the odds of that are so slim. We all have things we adored eating as children and as we know all too well, you can’t go back. It tastes too sweet, too strange, too flat. But sometimes you get cabbage strudel and it makes it all worth it. I don’t really have the equivalent of cabbage strudel but I do have the one-taste-only temps perdu dilemma. There are so many things I only had the fortune of experiencing once yet will never eat again.
Cocoa de loco
When I was nine years old my mother and I visited my uncle and aunt in Paris. It was the only time we ever went. I was in heaven, running around the streets, learning snatches of French, eating bacon quiche and roasted chestnuts. Even hot chocolate from a vending machine was a novelty. We visited the hall of mirrors at Versailles and I felt like a princess in a fairy tale. A week later we took the overnight train to Catalonia in Spain where they have an amazing large stone house in a tiny village. On our first day there my uncle and I took a drive to the village to the café for some groceries. On the way we stopped at a bar. It was dingy, the floor sticky with beer. He motioned for me to follow him to a hidden bar counter. This place is famous for its hot chocolate he said.
An enormous mug was set before me, topped with a plume of whipped cream. As I lifted the spoon to stir it, I noticed how thick it was, it wasn’t milky like ordinary powdered hot chocolate. It was as if a mound of the very best dark chocolate had been melted down into a rich velvety ooze. There were spices in there too but I was too young to identify them. It certainly kicked my formerly exotic Parisian hot chocolate up its butt. It was exactly like that part in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory where Charlie could feel the chocolate giving him strength, warming him up from the inside, right down to his toes. This is what that mug of chocolate did for me, it changed my life.
Again, this one has become legendary for the brief moment it had in my life. For just plain ol’ fruit juice (which we are lucky to have a lot of here in sunny South Africa) it certainly made a lasting impact. This was a limited edition LiquiFruit Amazon series of the early 90s. There were a couple of flavours they were trying out but my all-time favourite was green apple and lemon, complete with a green Amazon parrot grinning from some exotic foliage on the box. It was so refreshing: cloudy green apple juice cut through with a lemony lime sparkle. Also only around for a year at most. I will mourn it forever.
As a child, when I visited my dad and his family on the farm we ate gloriously fresh vegetables and herbs from the garden, venison that was hunted on the land and seeing as it was dairy farm, fresh milk and imasi (sour milk). Butter was churned by hand, then rolled between two little wooden paddles so that it formed perfect little balls with a cross-hatched texture. We ate this spread thickly on seed loaf that was baked in a pot-bellied wood-fired oven at the kitchen door of the big house. My stepmom’s mother made delicious ice cream from the farm cream flavoured with store-bought granadilla yogurt. But my favourite dessert at her house was junket served with preserved whole fruit. Now that is a post WWII classic that doesn’t exist anymore. It was amazing, deeply comforting, bland, very slightly sour, a little like custard, blancmange and milk tart combined yet like neither of these. You dropped a rennet tablet (which you could get at pharmacies) into whole milk and then it just set into a bowl of splendidly delicious dessert, simply perfect in summer.
Top of the morning
Country Morning. Just saying the words out loud is like invoking a magic spell that fills me with awe. I was very young when I ate this breakfast cereal, in the mid 1980s I believe. I didn’t usually eat cereal for breakfast, it was a treat that my mother gave into once in a while. (No complaints here, I love a hearty breakfast) but it does mean that I hardly ever ate it. And it was discontinued after a year or two, of course. So my memory of it is even more diaphanous and therefore more exalted.
This cereal was indescribably delicious. Hearty, crunchy and caramelly but not overly sweet. It stained the milk in your bowl a rich brown yet it never became soggy. It was like magic. All breakfast cereals, as crisp as they may start out as, always soak up milk but not this one. It was all about the texture, similar to coarsely chopped cornflakes with but with added caramel and a delicious nuttiness, baked to a deep mahogany richness. The first bite would overwhelm you with the caramel flavour, so as you crunch away you are left with a hearty, deeply satisfying granola without any of the health benefits. It is truly the best cereal that has ever existed.
My guy remembers it with as much fondness as I do. There is a five-year difference in our ages so he remembers it much clearer and he ate more of it, the miserable bastard. We remember the taste yet we cannot agree on what the box looked like. He recalls a picturesque Swiss woodland cottage bathed in sunshine. I remember bees that looked like children’s cartoons, flying in a beeline with fluttery wings and candy striped bodies. No one will ever know as it is lost in the mists of pre-internet times. This low res photo of the box is the only evidence I could find.
Mighty Nice milkshake. It came in a cardboard tetra-pak that folded into a flap you can stick your straw in. This was a limited edition one hit wonder, discontinued after less than a year. There were four flavours: strawberry, boring old vanilla, Chocolate Dream and Toffee Fantasy- which was the unforgettable one. I have never tasted anything like it since, ice cold molten butterscotch toffee with smoky burnt caramel flavours… thick, rich and delicious. The first time I tasted it was at a snack bar adjacent to my favourite cinema, during the Wednesday matinee. It was expensive so I had to save up my pocket money to get it. The Curry Den was the only shop that stocked it so I must have only had it three times in total. Oh if only I could go back and make the most of it.
These are the tastes that mark my formative years. As frustrating as it is, we will never know what will haunt us in the future.
Hungarian Cabbage Strudel
250 g or 2 sticks (9 oz.) unsalted butter, pls extra for greasing
1 very small head cabbage or half a medium cabbage, cored and shredded
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp caraway seeds
1 T apple cider vinegar
10 sheets phyllo pastry, defrosted
1. Heat oven to 160 degrees C or 350 degrees F. Lightly butter a large baking pan and spread cabbage evenly in pan. Add other items if using: shredded carrots, chopped onions, potatoes. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, apple cider vinegar and caraway seeds. Cut up 125 g (1 stick) butter into small pieces, and sprinkle over cabbage. Cover with foil, sealing edges. Bake until tender and golden, 45 minutes to 60 minutes, occasionally lifting foil to mix cabbage, then reseal.
2. Remove from heat, uncover and allow to cool to room temperature. The cabbage may be stored, covered and refrigerated, for up to 24 hours but use chilled.
3. Set oven temperature to 200 degrees C or 400 F. In a small saucepan, melt remaining 125g (2 oz.) butter. Place a sheet of parchment paper on a work surface with the narrow end closest to you, and top with a sheet of phyllo. Brush lengthwise (up and down) with a little butter. Top with another sheet of phyllo, and brush again with butter. Repeat until all 10 sheets are buttered and stacked.
4. Arrange cabbage on top sheet, at the end that is closest to you, in a thick layer 5cm deep. Spread evenly to side edges. With the help of the parchment paper (and rolling as if for sushi in a bamboo roller), roll phyllo starting at the end with the cabbage. As you work, adjust parchment paper so that phyllo is rolled, enclosing cabbage, without the paper. Brush top of roll with butter, place on baking sheet and bake until golden, about 40 minutes. Serve hot or warm. Serves 4.