I am reading my birthday presents, two books by Nigel Slater. A big, fat, beautifully illustrated hardback called The Kitchen Diaries and a slim paperback called Toast. The former is about seasonal foods in a combination of diary entries and recipes, the latter a biographical sketch of the author’s childhood in the 60s told by reference to his memories of food.
Both books are wonderful and inspirational, in terms of the foods they discuss and in terms of the writing style.
The Kitchen Diaries describe meals Nigel Slater makes with fresh vegetables or fruit from his own garden or with (mostly) locally produced fresh ingredients bought at shops and markets near where he lives. The food is seasonal and that means I have a hope of emulating some of the recipes here in Sweden (something my sister, the giver, had in mind I suspect) if I allow for the spring-time lag and the autumn acceleration. Slater seems to live in the south of England – London – so especially his spring and autumn are longer, more drawn out. Gothenburg lies on the same parallel as Aberdeen, but tends to have more continental-style winters: longer and colder.
Toast (sub-title: The story of a boy’s hunger) is broken into short, evocative chapters. Mostly these have titles like “Christmas Cake”, “Rice Pudding”, “Butterscotch Flavour Angel Delight”, but occasionally there is a title that is not the name of a food. “The Lunch Box” is about Josh the gardener, “Percy Salt” turns out to be the name of the grocer’s where Nigel’s mother does her shopping. Each chapter encapsulates a food-related memory and opens a glimpse into a boy’s childhood in the 1960s, which bears close comparison to my own childhood memories also from the 60s. Very satisfying.
I am so captivated by both these books that I have to read sections of them aloud over the dinner table. We are eating a spaghetti carbonara with a typically Swedish salad of grated carrot and thinly sliced summer cabbage which I have enlivened with rounds of a red spring onion and a simple vinaigrette dressing. (Nigel Slater: His influence!) So I read Slater’s account of his family’s first and only attempt to make spaghetti bolognese. This sets us off remembering.
I too remember the long blue packets of spaghetti, “for all the world like a great long firework” and the way the strands, dumped into a pan of boiling water “splay out like one of those fibre-optic lights”. But my Mum had had an Italian boyfriend before she married Dad, so she knew how to cook spaghetti, and to make a bolognese sauce that didn’t come from a can. Like Slater’s family, though, we also had powdered parmesan shaken from a cardboard drum, and I also remember thinking “this cheese smells like sick”.
We put away a bottle of red wine between us (this is still the lag of celebrating my birthday) and I think how much fun we’re having with these memories and how easy it would be to emulate Nigel Slater and write a book about Swedish food as a memory trigger. About how it would be popular on both sides of the North Sea.
The following morning, sitting here at my keyboard, I can’t remember clearly a single anecdote or incident. Curse that red, red wine!