Thursday, November 22, 2012

Sniffing the spice rack


The bay leaves reminded me to do this.  I can recommend it, as pure immediate pleasure but also as a mnemonic way down at the limbic level.  Some draw surprise memories, yet some draw blanks, are simply what they are, among these were some of my favourites, coriander, cumin and cardomon.  With others it's hard to know whether the smell is genuinely provoking the response or if a more complex and intellectual series of associations is taking place.  Not that it matters too much, it's just fun.

Open each jar, place nose over, inhale deeply, catch the memory. If you've forgotten what was in the jar already, so much the better. This is more or less the order mine come in.


  • Garam masala: R's house, winter afternoons, c. 1984, her cauliflower curry and sweet rice. Having no idea how to teach English.
  • Ground ginger: one year, my mum made some home-made ginger beer.  She used ground ginger and yeast. It fermented wildly - it wasn't meant to - and was fairly horrid.  Many of the bottles exploded violently at the top of the cellar stairs, we kept finding bits of the broken glass for ages after.
  • Juniper berries:  (You have to crush one) Gin, of course. It's hard to separate it from the associated flavour of tonic.  I had my first sip from my sister-in-law's tumbler on the banks of Llangorse Lake in Wales, when I was maybe eleven or twelve and my brother was sailing there.  It was sunny and the glass was pretty. I've never been a great gin enthusiast, and went off it later; I could probably drink it again now, but don't, preferring to macerate sloes in it .  Now it reminds me of Doug, who died last year, and his dry Martinis.
  • Paprika - oddly reminds me of big pans of chilli at the veggie restaurant in Cardiff. This is good stuff, warm and fruity, which B the German doctor brings back for me when she visits her sister in Hungary.
  • Turmeric - again, the veggie restaurant, sesame potatoes, sautéed in the big iron woks, served with yoghurt and cucumber.
  • Almond essence - marzipan, which in turn reminds me of Tom, who loves it. The smell creates the sensation of the ground almonds in the mouth, in the same way that a convincing peach aroma provokes the feel of peach-fuzz on the lips.
  • Caraway - seed cake, my dad's funeral.
  • Cinnamon - cinnamon toast, visiting my GI bride auntie in Pennsylvania, when I was thirteen.  Also a strange red translucent toothpaste also from my teen years, I forget its name, when there was a notion that toothpaste could taste of anything but mint.
  • Fennel - Greece.  Ouzo, perhaps, but also the smell of the warm air when you got off the plane.
  • Five spice - simply of stir fries.
  • Nutmeg - old larders, twilighty and cool, somewhat fusty.
  • Oregano - pizzas, of course.  Perhaps the the take-away in Belsize Park where Fire Bird sometimes worked when we were students. Or is that just an association with the idea of pizzas? Perhaps the oregano just reminds me of pizza-flavoured things...
  • Sumac - a relatively recent acquisition, and elusive in cooking; unexpectedly, the smell makes me think of some kind of powdered drink mix from childhood.
  • Tarragon - Bearnaise sauce, steak restaurants.
  • Vanilla pods - every ice cream ever. 
  • White pepper - as a child, white pepper was the only kind I knew, on the table with school dinner.  I didn't like it, and though I have come to appreciate it as different from black but of quite serviceable flavour, it still smells a bit yuk.
  • Black pepper (in a large pot in the corner) - this is such a commonplace that I didn't really expect it to have any particular associations, yet it was one of the most vivid surprises, as it took me back to the summer of the cabbages. When I was sixteen, my parents moved to a house in Brighton with a pretty and productive garden around it.  The old boy who had lived there before had planted a number of magnificent, heraldic cabbages.  They were full of juicy green cabbage white caterpillars, but were so substantial that there seemed to be plenty left for us, but you had to pick them over really carefully. This was my job and I took pride in it.  Lightly boiled, with butter and a good twist of black pepper, it was the first time I realised quite how good both cabbage and black pepper could be.  Once we were out and asked my dad to prepare the cabbage, he simply quartered, rinsed and boiled it.  I lifted the lid of the pan and saw a shoal of fat caterpillars bobbing and bubbling on the surface of the water.
Try it yourselves, see what comes up.  It's a whole world of travel without leaving your kitchen.



7 comments:

Rouchswalwe said...

♪♫ Sage and Thyme = Thanksgiving,
Clove and Juniper Berries = Sauerkraut, Black Pepper and a pinch of Caraway Seed = Cabbage ♪♫

Zhoen said...

Walking through Eastern Market on Christmas Eve morning, buying cheeses and teas, Lebanese pastries and cookies.

Bruce Taylor, a.k.a. Catalyst said...

What a wonderful experiment!

Fire Bird said...

oh wow this sounds like fun. I'll try it... oh yes, the Perfect Pizza where I could make myself any pizza I wanted for my lunch

Anonymous said...

Goodness, I love this. What a wonderful exercise. (Was the translucent red toothpaste Colgate?)
- alison

Joe Hyam said...

Those spice shelves speak of wonderfully ordered world. Ours are in cupboard all jumbled up. But none the less evocative. Cardamom is in use quite a lot at the moment. The little black seeds are cracked out of the pods and pounded with pestle and mortar before adding to tomato soup. Just at the moment a favourite.

Ellena said...

Great idea.
I am doing an exercise where I can say that Nabucco reminds me of the smell of Sauerbraten.
Most of the times though, the memory appears and I can't name the piece of music.