My Most Memorable Meal
I don’t know what makes certain meals memorable. It’s not simply a question of elegance and expense. I’ve got as many, if not more, cheap, ugly looking meals committed to memory as lavish, well-presented dinners. Sometimes firsts stick out. My first Georgian dinner, with endless plates of hot breads and cheeses. The first time I drank real Czech Pilsener after a sticky bus ride. Sometimes I’ll eat something a thousand times before I remember it. I couldn’t tell you about the first time I ate eggplant, but I could tell you about the time I fell in love with it.
Even my own cooking, I’ve forgotten some meals I put real effort into. I remember some triumphs. The first time I properly braised a pork cheek or hit the perfect medium rare. I also remember failures. Funny times like when I cooked flatbreads so hard that my roommate and I decided they’d find a better use as frisbees. And humiliating moments, like an angry chef walking to the trash with a too-cold, mushy pan of polenta screaming, “David, this is shit!”
I remember some terrible meals with great company. Like the greasy, undercooked dining-hall hashbrowns I ate while the guy who would become my best friend told me about Victoria College. I’ve forgotten some dinner conversations entirely, and remember, distinctly how cool I thought the calamari’s cornmeal batter was.
I really don’t know why I remember some meals. But, I can tell you why I’ll always have a favourite.
My grandparents died while I was in first year. My granddad passed away in October, my granny in February. A year and a half earlier I stayed with them, in a tiny village in the Southwest of France, for six weeks making my first, and so far only, attempt at actual kitchen work. I dreamed of becoming a chef. My mum conspired with them to send me to France, to work as an apprentice cook.
I was seventeen, long-haired and angsty. I spent too much of that time watching TV, but my grandparents knew they could get me out of my room with food. We ate out, going to other villages and trying what made that part of France so special, and we ate even better at home. At dinnertime, I’d talk with my granddad about his old life as a hotelier, his war, and how he met my granny.
I cooked with my granny. We made simple meals, buttered broad beans and boiled potatoes, and we put on lavish feasts. For my Granddad’s 95th we put together something special. It was all hors d’oeuvres, including that classically English tinned sausage and gherkin on a toothpick. We also made choux pastry, baked normally for profiteroles, with Roquefort cream cheese, smoked salmon, and lumpfish caviar.
All the while, every morning, I worked prep and lunch service at La Pettite Auberge. I sucked. The Chef, Ludovic, somehow put up with my ineptitude. He yelled, sure, but he taught me patiently. How to make mayonnaise, crepes, and crème anglaise. He taught me to work harder than I knew I could, and he taught me to have fun doing it.
My most memorable meal happened in the summer after my first year. I spent the last ten days of the summer back in France, helping my cousins sort my grandparents things and, in a sense, saying goodbye to them. I can remember the first time I found their house empty, gate slightly ajar, my granny’s garden looked overgrown, but hadn’t lost her touch. The first thing I did there was cook. Raiding my granny’s spices to make curried pork.
My last night there, with all my cousins and almost a dozen of my Grandparents' friends from the village, French, English and Dutch, we went to the Auberge for dinner.
They had arranged a long table, in a raised portion of their patio where they sat us all under a canopy of burgundy sheets. Gerard, Ludovic’s father and the Auberge’s owner, came out at his gregarious best. Bellowing loud in Occitain-tinged French he asked us our wine choices. We had Pécharmant, my granddad’s favourite.
The amuse bouche was Gaspacho, which I’ve never enjoyed. Raw tomato isn’t my thing, especially when it’s cold and fresh. By all accounts though, it was lovely. I did enjoy the breadstick, wrapped in slices of smoked duck breast.
Entrée was a choice, their avocado-laden Salade du Crab, topped with tiny, cold shrimps. Their vegetable soup, rich and creamy, blended smooth and served from a tureen. Or the Salade du Pays. Built on the lettuce, tomato, and beetroot I washed, peeled, and chopped every morning at work. Dressed in Balsalmic it was topped with chestnuts, smoked duck breast, and confit duck gizzards, deglazed with a little raspberry vinegar. Two thin slices of fois gras terrine lay rolled beside the salad, like a pair of half-collapsed pillars.
After the entrées I stopped paying attention to what other people ate. My main was a duck breast, cooked perfectly pink, sitting beside a cauliflower gratin and Pommes Perigordine. Those potatoes, sliced on a mandolin, par-cooked in hot oil, and finished in a wok with duck fat, occupy a totally unique place in my memories of food.
Desert was a chocolate mousse cake. The same, impossibly light kind that Ludovic had made for my granddad’s 95th.
At that dinner, after a week trying to say goodbye to my grandparents, I sat with their friends and family. We ate and drank, we had the awkward exchanges of family dinners, and we laughed too much. We drank to my Grandparents, to Winne and George, and I knew I never had to say goodbye to them, because they would be in my memory of that meal, and so many others that followed.