It’s 6.15am, and with the gusto of an inebriated sloth I have crawled out of bed, pre-kids waking up, to write the first blog post of what I hope will be an adventure that will transform not only my world, but also enhance your taste buds and little grey cells. Today I get the culinary ball rolling. However, as I write the kettle on the stove is whistling and English breakfast tea beckons, of course with a nuage de lait – what a wonderful and descriptive language French is; a cloud of milk – or maybe a demi-nuage as I do like to see the intensity of the tannin in the tea…
I was reading somewhere that an ‘About’ part of a blog is a great thing to have. It should be something that provides an insight in to the blog author so as to endear them to the blog audience. Well, I thought I might give it a go. And as I wrote the title and started to think about what I could write about me I couldn’t think of anything, so I started to write about how I had read somewhere that an ‘About’ part of a blog is great to have. Which I have done – twice now.
I guess I should start again…before I write about who I am, or something to that accord, I think I’d like to tell you about food and what it means to me. Firstly, no matter how elegant, elaborate or enticing food is, it should be remembered that it’s required for us to live. So, what is in that food, how it has been prepared and how fresh it is, is paramount to determining our health. For me that’s one of the factors that drives me to cook as much as I can from scratch. Secondly, I am a person that is now driven by excitement; that is I want excitement in my life, and am not just content with being ‘happy’. For example, when I go to an Asian grocers and I smell the many spices and see the weird and wonderful ingredients there is a feeling inside me that just wants to burst out – it’s the overwhelming excitement at the prospect of taking the ingredients in to a kitchen and creating and eating. I can get equally excited about preparing a kick-ass tomato sauce for freshly made squid ink fettuccine as I can for spending a month creating and preparing a 4-course dinner for friends. There are just some things that come naturally and endear themselves to humans that warrant no real explanation – it’s just a state of being, or ‘how it is’. Some get excitement from playing sport (I am a keen mountain biker also – not great, just keen), building things, creating art, gardening etc.. For me cooking is that. It’s not a passion, or some other vague descriptive that is used in attempt at saying why we do something – it is a natural occurrence that for some reason excites me…and I can live with that.
So, now the difficult bit: what about me, and why am I writing this blog?
I was born to a peasant mother and father in the back of a barn, with nothing but the hay and vermin for warmth. Food was gathered from the left-overs of the travellers that would pass through the deserted village on their way to Valhalla. Times were hard – especially in the great winters that we would endure for months; snow upon snow upon snow, ice-cold blizzards and hail storms that would batter and bruise. At the age of three I was sent out to work, out on a journey to bring bread back for the starving family. I crossed hill and mountain, endured the ferocity of the wild and was pulled and pushed from pillar to post by the stampede of older humans, in similar catatonic states searching for work. Life had shown no excitement. As toddlerhood transcended to boyhood and then to manhood life progressed so slowly to the point of regression…Maybe there was some poetic license there, or maybe it was complete falsification. Let’s try again.
I was born in a principality of wealth, power and salubriousness to…yes this ‘About Me’ section is really tough to write. OK I will try one more time. Here goes. I was born in Leeds, in the north of England. I progressed steadily through school; never really maximising my potential, but I did well nonetheless. My love during my younger years was for anything chemistry; I would spend hours in the kitchen with chemistry sets creating weird and wonderful sights, smells and explosions. Chemistry really excited me, and I was very inquisitive in wanting to find out why and how things worked. The idea of using the kitchen for cooking never occurred to me, probably because food was not a major part of my childhood, other than for the practical reasons of being fed. However, thinking back I do have fond recollections of my grandma’s cooking, especially the roast dinners which were smothered in her to-die-for gravy. She cooked very simple food, but it was food that I found much pleasure and particular comfort in. She used to make apple pie on a plate which just used to make me smile. I remember her taking out rice pudding from the modest oven, with its darkened and crunchy skin. I used to love breaking the skin as the steam from the sweet pudding would fill the room. I would then have the pudding with a big dollop of strawberry jam. My grandma on my mum’s side was an exquisite cake maker, and I used to marvel at the intricate and creative icing that adorned the equally beautiful sponge or fruit cakes.
One miracle of truly epic proportions also happened in the kitchen, as a youngster. My mum was never truly at ease in the kitchen, however was a good cook, and responsible for feeding yours truly. A traditional dish of a Yorkshire family is of course Yorkshire pudding – a speciality that is well-risen, brown and crisp and unctuous when served with a rich gravy. Unfortunately, as hard as my mum tried Yorkshire puddings became the bane of the kitchen – flat, very dark and lead like in consistency. I remember on numerous occasions them being thrown on to our garage roof, straight from the oven, for the local birds to ‘feast’ on; birds that would attempt to fly from the roof after eating them and merely gravitate to the ground. However, one Sunday the miracle occurred and the historical moment was captured on camera.
But even with the phenomenon of the rising puds I still didn’t have any inclination to cook, or not that I remember any way.
I do recall a rather embarrassing moment at school when the home economics (cooking in layman’s terms) results were announced to the class; I think I was about 14 at the time. As per usual all the boys’ results were in the bottom half and the girls’ in the top half. So having read out the girls’ results the teacher read out those of the boys. As she finished I realised that my name had not been read out, and wondered if I’d really done that bad that the teacher was saving me from embarrassment. Well what came next was both shocking and embarrassing. The teacher then said that she would like to highlight a special occurrence, an occurrence that in the history of her teaching home economics she had never come across.
“I am staggered but very pleased to announce that a boy has come top of the Home Economics class. Well done Nicholas!”
I should have been really proud, but those were the days when boys were good at woodwork and metalwork and girls were top at home economics and needlework, so the teasing from the boys and look of disgust from the girls was pretty much what I had to endure for the rest of that lesson. I put the success down to my chemistry, and that food was essentially chemistry that you ate. But really it was maybe the first sign that cooking was going to be part of my life, some day.
It was not long after this spectacular home economics result that I had a culinary awakening. The spark that ignited the interest in consuming tasty comestibles started on a trip to London. There were three experiences, each that fired life into the near-dormant flavour and aroma receptors: a wedding reception in a Cantonese restaurant, the home-cooked Indian food of our host and eating a Turkish Kebab. What happened was an awakening of the soul which caused my tongue, nose, stomach and head to giggle in unison – what was this: delicate crab with Szechuan spices; South-Indian Chicken with the intensity of cardamom, cumin and cinnamon; and garlic and lemon macerated lamb with the punch of chilli sauce. The memories of these experiences carried with me until many years later as I returned to London to study, and the senses were re-awakened.
The chemistry followed me through my teen years and consequently, along with business, it is what I studied at university. University was a real eye opener, in terms of every aspect of life; from relationship building, both with humans and beer, to being that air of independence. For me it was enlightenment and one that initiated many desires, in particular to travel and to expand my experience of eating great food. I still, until reaching university, had never had any drive or motivation to cook; it was more the experience of eating. However, as a poor student that liked to eat out, it became quite apparent that poverty and London restaurants were not the best of friends, and it was at that point I decided that if I wanted to continue to experience the pleasures of food, I must learn to cook. And one of the catalysts for this wanting to cook was when I had my first Thai Green Curry (The Thai Castle in Windsor, London – I went back to England recently and sadly the restaurant is no more). I was blown away by the flavours and presentation. I desperately wanted to be able to replicate it, so set about trying to learn how to make it.
My third year of university was out in industry, where I ended up being a development chemist for a company that created and manufactured household products, SC Johnson Wax. I was working on a number of products, primarily in the air freshener development team. This position exposed me to the perfume industry and in particular the study and creation of fragrance. I remember having a training day at one of the perfume houses, and how I was completely magnetised by the masses of raw materials and their individual characters – from the sweet and floral to the fresh and spicy – and how with careful and skilled preparation a wonderful harmonious fragrance could be created. I loved this, and as the idea of a chemist was beginning to lose its appeal, the introduction of fragrance to my life was exciting. I think what excited me about fragrance is that it could transform a situation; one smell of a great fragrance and no matter what the situation I was in I would feel fantastic, as if floating in air. Also, I was captivated by fragrance’s power to transport me to an instance in time, such as the memory of the smell of roasted chestnuts at Christmas time as a child. What I didn’t realise at the time was that I was developing a truly wonderful skill that would go on to influence how I cook.
As I graduated from university, and passed through a career which started in development and then transgressed to account management in the perfume industry, I became irritable, both to myself and those around, and knew that I had to fulfil another desire – to travel. As university was enlightenment, travelling gave me a chance to assess my life as well as experience what was happening in the world outside the cocoon of my ‘career’. I have a recollection of sipping tea whilst in view of Mount Everest and being able, for the first time in many many years, to think clearly without the pressures of daily life, and I recommend it to anybody – to be able to just think with clarity. I could feel within me a creative person that wanted to surface, and the idea of returning to a career was now fading. But food always remained, and as I travelled through India and South East Asia I was truly excited by the flavours, techniques, produce, spices and camaraderie and friendships developed around food: my first masala dosa in Bangalore, eating fried fish and coconut rice from a banana leaf in the backwaters of Kerala, the aroma of pungent spices in Old Delhi, Fragrant Green Curry and crisp Singha beer in Koh Pee Pee, Magnificent Street Food in the suburbs of Singapore, succulent steak in Kathmandhu – there were so many experiences and memories that I banked in that memorable time travelling.
As my travels took me to Australia I discovered the multi-cultural food of Sydney and Melbourne, and in particular great great seafood. Australia ended up being the place I settled, after meeting a beautiful girl, who is now my beautiful wife (brownie points anyone?). I ended up re-joining the working race, this time in Melbourne, but the irritations started again. So, about 3 years ago I quit my then career – for some bizarre reason I had ended up as a System Engineer writing requirements for Air Traffic Control Systems…go figure – and started to pursue the development of a creative website (Mudboard), as well as look after my young daughter for two days per week. It was during this time that I found that I had more time to spend in the kitchen, and the more time I spent the more time I wanted to spend. I decided that this was growing in to something greater than a hobby, and with that in mind I started to study food in a more organised way e.g. meat, fish and poultry preparation, making sauces, vegetable preparation and pastry work, as well as thinking more about experiences with flavour combinations. Then I started to look into the science of food, using Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adria as references (maybe the clue was in the blog title, Duck and Roses). Along the way all those skills and memories from London to Delhi were beginning to shape how and what I cooked. Using my trained sense of smell I was cooking by aroma as well as taste (Taste and Aroma was going to be the original name of this blog), whilst being influenced by all of the things I had eaten around the world.
So, as I write now, I still have an incredible amount to learn, but as I replicate and create, I wanted to share recipes, experiences, some science, interesting ingredients and general ramblings and musings with you, in the hope that there are cooks/ chefs out there that would be willing to share their experiences with me. I also have a few ‘projects’ in mind; some will be experiences in other locations and some will be interactive with you, the cook, chef or inquisitive reader. Ultimately, this is about somebody that is excited about cooking, eating and experiencing food and who wants to share his journey from cook to chef. Just to leave you with a pearl of wisdom about the delicacies of food creation:
“When I ask for a watercress sandwich, I do not mean a loaf with a field in it”, Oscar Wilde