Friday, July 4, 2014

And Food You Can't Bring Home . . .

 In yesterday's post, I detailed the Fava Bean Salad that we enjoyed several times in Bordeaux and will now be reproducing as closely as possible back home on our West Coast Island. But some foods enjoyed while travelling simply cannot be duplicated outside their specific contexts. Our prime example, Paul's and mine?  the olives we enjoy every other year or so, on our visits to London's Tate Modern.

This year, the show that drew us to the Tate Modern was the exhibition of Matisse's Cut-Outs. These are magical, many of them monumental, works, produced by an invalid artist in his last years, stunningly vibrant for all that. Matisse created these now-iconic images by cutting shapes out of paper he'd painted, then having assistants (female, for the most part, if my memory serves) place them to his satisfaction on the wall, the assistants often up on a ladder or chair, the aged artist gesturing from a bed. (I know, there is clearly something here about the gender politics of the art world, particularly at that period -- but that's an argument for another day.).

If you saw this show, you'd surely recognize the play of strong colours -- that blue, particularly, but also a striking cerise, the way it dances with a red or a paler pink or an orange or, again, that blue. But seeing each piece "in person," up close, you'd be thrilled to spot the scissor marks around the edges of the cut-out figures. Certainly, those of us who made our way around the long display arranged, under glass, in the room that held the pages of Matisse's Jazz book, were captivated. Frustrated, too, with the physics of a crowd pushing us on before we were quite ready, but keen just to be here.

And amused by that part of the crowd comprised of school groups. The children, some as young as 5 or 6, in their green felt ball-caps, yellow safety vests, sitting on the floor earnestly drawing their own version of what Matisse had cut out decades ago. Many of these little ones already showed familiarity with the principle of contour drawing, looking up at the work intently as they moved their pencil on their own page. One or two were so absorbed in their efforts that they had to be urged onto the next room by their teachers, Their resignation, I hoped, wouldn't harden too quickly into a cynicism about a system of education designed for the many rather than the few gifted. . . .

I have pages of notes about the exhibition in my tiny Moleskine notebook, reminding me of colours or of scale, or speculating on links with other artists, other works, notes to myself about what to research later (I felt a link, for example, between Les Abeilles/The Bees and some of Keith Haring's figures, farfetched as that connection might seem).

Eventually, though, we'd taken in as much as we could profitably enjoy in one visit, and it was time to head upstairs. The Tate has a very nice cafeteria, but we've been splurging on its restaurant -- one of the only galleries where we indulge ourselves this way. Should you go, I can assure you that the splurge will be very worthwhile. We enjoyed a lovely Bordeaux Rosé, that beautiful pale apricot I can almost taste even in memory. . . . My starter of three perfect asparagus spears, enhanced delicately by a light vinegar, were topped by a poached duck egg, hollandaise sauce, and a shaving of Parmesan -- brilliant! Paul meanwhile was enjoying scallops paired with bacon and watercress. His main of cod he pronounced perfectly cooked, and he's very particular about fish not being overdone. The simplicity of the accompanying boiled small potatoes and grilled asparagus had him smiling as well, while across the table I was equally pleased with my rabit on its bed of veggies -- baby artichokes, tomatoes, onions, fava beans and tiny, thin green beans.

And yet, with all that succulent goodness, what is it that he and I consistently return to The Tate Modern for? Why, the olives that we order as we sit down, enjoying them with our first glass of wine before even considering the menu. We've never found their like (although for the first time, we came very, very close at the restaurant Alyson of That's Not My Age met us at -- Pizarro). They're a meaty green olive, but not too chewy, a mellow, full flavour, very little bitterness, salty enough but not too, with a citrus accent, but of orange more than lemon. We've found crude attempts, in various places, at the ideal these represent, but after bringing home countless varieties in various containers from many markets in numerous cities. . . . we're doomed to returning to The Tate for our fix.

It's a sad fate. . . .




And yes, this is the view from our table that day. St. Paul's directly opposite, the Millennial Bridge an eye-drift to the right. . . .




















When I joke that it's a sad fate that these olives must be eaten in this splendid setting, I'm not minimizing the reality that we can thus only enjoy our treat once every few years, at best. But that they have taken all this splendour, all this sensory memory, and rolled it into our tastebuds? I can't be sad that the taste is thus so heightened, so concentrated, in its preciousness. Like the grilled sardines we loved in Lisbon, whose remembered taste recalls to both of us the gritty feel of a narrow alley brightened by the classic blue-and-white Moorish tiles splashing on a graffitied, dirty pastel wall . . . Not everything can be brought back home in its material form. Some tastes belong in the places they were experienced, and remembering them together enhances our shared connection to those places, those recollections. . . .

Do you agree? Do you also have some elusive memories of foods you'd love to taste again, if only. . . ? Do some foods, for you, signal particular places? I'd love to read your thoughts on this -- you might also want to extend the conversation by reading Kristin's mouth-watering descriptions of the food she's enjoying in Arles. Custard flan, anyone?

10 comments:

  1. Welcome home - I've been reading along but unable to comment due to life having landed at full speed on my doorstep - grandchildren here for the month, working, selling the house (fingers crossed that all conditions are soon lifted) etc etc in a boring flood. Food memories - ah yes. Burnt sugar, vanilla and coffee will never smell quite like they do on a cold winter day just inside a cafe in Freiburg. Fried onion and Weiss Wurst and the yeasty aroma of fresh buns on the square in Dusseldorf - the smell of coffee (again!) and ginger outside a cafe in Aachen......if I close my eyes I can be transported.

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    1. That's a busy, busy month! I'll keep my fingers crossed the sale goes through. Meanwhile, yours are great examples of food that won't be transported easily, yet transports us. . . I love the other senses your description pull in: I feel the cold, along with the smells in Freiburg, and my inner eye starts to discern a square in Dusseldorf. . . So many ways to travel.

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  2. A belated thank-you for your reports of your travels - they were greatly enjoyed. Like you, I have come home from foreign climes and successfully duplicated (well, very nearly) some delightful dishes, yet there remain some things that can only be enjoyed in situ - the croissants from the local Parisian bakery, still warm 20 in their bag minutes after their purchase and the ascension of six flights of stairs; the oysters guzzled a few yards from the bay, samosas from the jolly vendor at the seasonal farmers market . . . even coffee in the summer on my own back deck! One of my great pleasures is reminiscing with my daughter about childhood adventures we shared, and how much she enjoyed the mushroom pastries at the Renaissance Faire, or the nutella crepes (again, Paris), or even the perfectly hideous (imho) churros and slushies from a now-defunct department store that she begged for whenever we were there. Thanks for reminding me of these . . .

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    1. Oh Marsha, you're very welcome. Thank you for reading! And thanks for adding to the inventory of foods better enjoyed in their original context. Those warm croissants! And the oysters, slurp, slurp!... Lovely to be able to reminisce with your daughter and to know those memories you helped lay down have taken firm hold. . .

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  3. Isn't it strange how some foods can be copied at home and others can't. Like the hot milk punch served in a little café tucked away next to the cathedral in Cuzco/Peru. The perfect way to spend the latter half of the afternoon, when the sun has set behind the mountains and it is it is too cold to stay outside but still too early for dinner. Or the café in ghiaccio served by my sister in law at her place in Lecce: a bit of sugar and a perfect espresso poured over an ice cube. I've tried to copy that many times on hot days, but it never tastes the same as it did there and then...

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    1. It is strange, although perhaps it makes more sense than we first realize. We tend to assume that food is about the taste, a reproducible molecular phenomenon. But of course taste is influenced by smell, for one thing, and our noses take in so much more of the immediate environment than we recognize at the moment. We can't take back home the air from Cuzco or Lecce. And then the sounds that sharpen that taste (swallows shrieking nearby) or the sight or the temperature on our skin. . . .Your mention of Lecce again coincides with my reading a chapter about the city in Tim Parks' Italian Ways, and lamenting to my husband that we didn't make it there this visit. There will have to be other visits to Puglia. . .

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  4. My contribution to the conversation is not quite so romantic as olives and art in London or croissants in Paris. My husband and I have a time share in a tiny Quebec village called L'Anse-Saint-Jean on the Saguenay River. We visit every second year which gives us an excuse to stop for a night in Quebec City and browse the galleries in Baie-Saint-Paul in the Charlevoix area the next day. L'Anse-Saint-Jean is tiny and beautiful, with historic homes that still have the old outdoor bread ovens. We cycle, hike and try to speak French. And we visit the Caisse Croute which in my opinion has THE best hot dogs in the world. Grilled dog, grilled bun topped with the works..cabbage slaw, fried onions mayo, ketchup, etc etc. My inner fast food loving child is in heaven! Then after our definitely NOT heart healthy lunch we get back on our bikes and pedal our derrieres off!

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    1. Are you kidding? This is a very romantic contribution. . . .And if I mention the hot dogs to Paul, he'll be wanting to get back to the Saguenay. . . .

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  5. Welcome Back! I too have been reading, but not commenting although my excuses were more due to my own mental pathways than any real-world occupations. There are certain things that I associate with certain places, and your olives sound exactly like the kind of thing we would have gone back for, and treasured with each repeat trip...

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    1. Thanks for commenting, Mardel, and no need for excuses about not. . . .I can imagine that reminiscences about foods shared on travels will be rich for you at the moment, but also melancholic, even painful. Those layers of shared history, I treasure them at the moment, but they make me feel vulnerable as well . . .

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I'd love to hear your response to my post. Agree, disagree, even go off on a tangent, I love to know you're out there, readers. Let's chat, shall we? I apologize, though, for the temporary necessity of the Word Verification -- spam comments have been tiresomely numerous lately, and I'm hoping to break that pattern.

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