Food is evocative and a single ingredient can transport us back to a moment from our past in a whoosh of nostalgia. From conversations at the table, I've gathered a collection of memories from foodies, friends, chefs and critics. All personal, some poignant - it turns out the best memories don’t come from pristine white table cloths and fine dining meals (though nothing wrong with those), but real experiences from the home and from the heart. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed hearing them.
This one comes from Simon Dougan - chef, mentor, and the man responsible for my introduction to food, Simon's work championing Northern Irish produce and showcasing local talent has recently earned him an MBE. This week, as Simon collects his well-deserved Royal Appointment, it's an honour to have him share his story.
"One of my fondest memories of childhood and food is being left at my grandmothers when I was five years old to 'help' her make traditional Irish wheaten bread. Joy Hill was my mum's mum, and when my parents were busy I'd spend my days in her kitchen. Joy was a fantastic baker and rarely used weighing scales, she had a feel for bread and cakes which obviously came from practice as she baked every day of her life.
I have fond memories of her mixing the ingredients together by eye, and when I questioned her on the quantities she would say things like, "as much baking soda as will fit in the heart of your hand". The bread would come together in a rustic heavy brown bowl, and using an old metal spoon she would stir the mixture. Then it would be turned out onto the counter top in what she called the scullery, the bread would be kneaded lightly and formed into a long oval, and she'd always mark it with a cross using the back of a knife. Finally it would be baked in her Aga, filling the whole house with the delicious nutty smell of fresh, farmhouse bread.
Once baked, Joy would wrap the fresh loaf in a damp tea towel and allow it to cool. This was the worst time for me, because I was given strict instructions the bread had to cool before I could eat it... Being a very impatient child (some things never change) I could not resist the urge to break off a nice piece of crust from the corner for a nibble, hoping my grandmother wouldn't notice. Well, she alway did, and scolded me for being so impatient. But she did this with a smile and I knew she didn't really mean it. I used to say, "Sure I'm like a wee mouse." Later in life, as I filled out my chef's jacket, she joked I wasn't a wee mouse anymore.
My grandmother Joy received an MBE for her charity work selling tickets for raffles and selling her baked goods for her beloved charity, Craigavon Cardiac Care, who had helped my grandfather over the years until he died from a heart attack some years ago.
Sadly, Joy passed away last year at the grand old age of 83. My grandmother was not a rich woman, but in her will she left me a few items - her mixing bowl, her metal spoon, and the two old porcelain dogs that sat on a shelf above her Aga.
Priceless to me and priceless memories that sparked my interest in all things food and changed my life."
- Simon Dougan