Since I started a new series on this blog called “This week I’m craving…” I’ve been thinking about cravings and the associations we have with food. Meals, just like songs or smells, can evoke strong memories. My childhood in particular calls forth a smorgasbord of ‘delicacies’ that are all associated in my mind with a time and a place.
I had quite a diverse upbringing. At 3 years old we moved from Germany to the UK. I don’t remember much about anything before the UK – I might as well have been born in the Midlands. My earliest memories of Germany are visiting my Polish grandparents and my grandma’s excellent food. So let me tell you the story of my childhood, through the meals that accompanied it.
The food I missed – Fleischsalat
Fleischsalat is a mixture of smooth processed pork sausage, sliced gherkins and mayonnaise. A healthy salad this is not! I would usually eat it piled atop thick slices of dark German bread. I don’t blame you if you think it sounds disgusting but this is one of the only German foods I would miss as a child growing up in the UK. Even as I proof this post, I can’t help wanting to pop down to Lidl and buy some for my lunch! My grandma always bought it for me when I’d come and visit her in Germany and if my dad ever went back on a business trip, I’d insist he bring me some. I suppose this proves that even as a child I was as much a fiend for gherkins and other vinegary condiments and pickles as I am now.
School breaks – Tuck shop sweets
We had a tuck shop in my primary school that would always open at break times. It was filled with the most delicious looking sweeties, chocolate bars and crisp packets, wrapped in brightly coloured packets that appealed to a child’s eye. My parents didn’t believe in break time snacks, so we always went without while all the other kids tore into their packet of Walkers crisps or penguin bar. That is until I asked my parents for our first pocket money. That £1 so eagerly anticipated each week wasn’t saved up (like I promised it would be), it was spent in the tuck shop on wagon wheels, tangy toms, chipsticks, terrific turtles, flying saucers and dolly bead necklaces, all the snacks that I craved as a child, but I could probably live without today.
Weeknight tea – Brussel sprouts with cheese
My mum has never been a great cook, I don’t think she has the patience for it. She has improved vastly in the last decade, but as children we had to endure torturous tea times after school due to her lack of culinary ambition or expertise. There was one incident in particular that I will remember forever – in fact we still wind my mum up about it today – the night she made us eat cheesy Brussel sprouts.
I’ve never been a picky eater but I’ve always had a massive aversion to Brussel sprouts that I’m only just beginning to recover from. My mum blanched and then baked them in the oven with a sprinkling of grated cheddar. I suppose nowadays I wouldn’t be completely horrified by this, but the worst of it was that while my brothers and I were made to eat this nastiness (or go hungry), my mum was eating our holy grail – oven chips! On other nights after school, we’d look forward to her heating up a tin of baked beans for the three of us. What a treat.
Friday family treat – Indian curry
Every Friday night I can remember as a child we’d religiously go for a curry at our local Indian restaurant. The staff were so used to us they’d ply us with boiled sweets and then let us explore the kitchen and watch them making naan breads. I suppose an early familiarity with curries allowed me to develop a palate that enjoys lots of spices and different cuisines. If I had to choose my childhood favourites it would have been a close call between a subtly spiced chicken biryani and a tomato-y rogan josh.
The Sunday staple – Fish any way you like
My dad is a keen angler and an enthusiastic cook. He really got into fishing when we moved to the UK. On the weekends, he’s take us to a reservoir or a river and we’d run around playing while he got into the water with his waders and fishing rods. We often had trout, salmon, grayling, sometimes even pike and other freshwater fish. Later on, when we had moved back to Germany, he’d go sea fishing for ling, wolf fish, haddock, cod or anything else that bit.
The fish he caught would be brought home and filleted for the freezer or the evening meal. On a Sunday, instead of the traditional roast dinner we’d usually have fish prepared in a variety of ways from a bouillabaisse soup, bread crumbed and fried fillets, poached in a creamy sauce or baked in the oven. As children we quickly learnt to de-bone the fish on our plates otherwise there’d be no dinner for us. Fish Sundays were a staple of growing up, from the age of 5 right up to when I left home for University. There’s still no one that can cook fish quite like my dad (no matter how much I try to emulate his recipes).
A sit-down family meal – Meat with spinach and dumplings
On our school holidays, we’d either go on road trips around the country or drive to Germany to visit my grandparents. I always loved going to visit my mum’s parents especially for the wonderful food. My grandma makes a delicious Polish cheesecake (there would always be a fresh cake ready for our visit) and a mean pizza (we considered it a real treat when she made it for us), but her staple will always be a variation on beef, spinach/red cabbage and potatoes/dumplings. Whether served as a meatloaf, goulash, casserole, mince, or roast I’ll never forget the rich gravy that would always accompany the meat. Her dumplings (Knödel in German) might have been made from a packet but we wolfed them down. And we always lapped up the creamed spinach, made from frozen because the only spinach we were ever able to find in the UK came in tins, which was disgusting.
I could make a fresher, possibly tastier, and definitely healthier roast dinner myself today, but my grandma’s home cooked Polish/German fusion food, which we would eat sat around the table as a family with all the noise and mess that went with it, was something I’d dream about and look forward to for days.
Are there any particular meals or foods that remind you of your childhood or produce other evocative memories?