So much of the pleasure derived from food – and eating – is dependent on the setting. Even the most committed foodie will be hard pressed to remember every detail of a gourmet meal in a stuffy, antiquated dining room, yet they could describe a fairground hotdog down to the last succulent sliver of translucent onion. Food is all about the consummate eating experience. A risotto, made simply from the freshest ruby-red tomatoes, eaten beneath the gentle rustling of trees groaning under the weight of buxom Tuscan lemons, will live long in the memory. So will a paper parcel of crisply battered fish and chips, consumed on a blistering summer’s day as the molten, vinegar-laden chips burn your mouth and fingertips. And who doesn’t remember their first ice cream? The eagerly awaited, day-glo wrapped package, passed down from the depths of that mysterious ice-cream van with its bottomless freezer of goodies and its ephemeral tune. Food is synonymous with memories: it feeds our souls as well as our bodies, and it connects us to cherished moments.
I remember baking apple scones alongside my great-grandmother, perched on a high paisley-patterned stool so that I could reach the worktop, my tongue poking out in concentration as I measured each ingredient with painstaking care, using a teaspoon to remove a smidgen of flour here, a speck of sugar there, until the number on the scales was perfect. We would shape and cut out the scones together, then pop them in the oven and crouch by the door, mouths watering in anticipation as the puffy clouds of dough expanded into majestic, golden-crusted scones. They were eaten still steaming from the oven, creamy butter spread liberally over the juicy chunks of apple and the moist, crumbly cake. Even now, the smell of freshly baked scones takes me back to that kitchen, and the love that was there: the love of good food, and of sharing it with family. Everybody needs a dollop of love once in a while, and what better way to serve it up than atop a scone?
It was my nana that first put a wooden spoon into my hand, almost before I could walk, and by the age of three I had made my first cupcakes. They were a true labour of love, charmingly wonky, the decorative hundreds and thousands flung liberally upon their snowy, butter-creamed tops with a toddler’s panache. Next came the jam tarts, made from nana’s memory; I was instructed to handle the pastry with infinite care until it came together in a gloriously golden ball. Then which jam to use? Strawberry for me, and apricot for nana. The little tarts were whipped out of the oven perfectly bronzed, their iridescent centres gleaming, and we sampled them from the tray, lips and fingers rendered sinfully sticky by the oozing jam. Through baking, it was my nana that taught me not to be afraid to try things, to experiment with ingredients and to respect the humble components that, with care and thought, could produce something sensational. Everything had to be done by hand, and today I still baulk at the thought of using a food processor. I like to feel the cake batter thicken against my wooden spoon, to experience the thrill of knowing when bread dough has reached the perfect point of elasticity beneath my hands. I remember the time when those hands were nana’s, showing me the skills that I now replicate when I bake for her. Nothing makes me happier than producing a cake for my nana, because it is something that will always link us together, a product of all that she has instilled in me. It is not just a cake.