In this country, there are but two things that intoxicate us all. Our summer, and our varied cuisine. I suggest we take advantage of both while we still can.
It’s a strange thing, food in summer. Finally, you’ve got time to properly cook, but you can’t be bothered because it’s too hot to eat. Bread and cheese, a bit of fruit, cold prawns. It’s like Christmas on the beach. We would like to focus on Jesus and carols, but we are really more interested in ice cream and going for a swim. Lovely weather does strange things to people: it is so much more difficult to be serious about anything when the sun is shining. Still, cooking is one of my happy places. So now, after bingeing on television and books for two weeks, I’m itching to get off the couch and into the kitchen. When I was a child, summer meant that my mother made her famous potato salad. It came on an enormous platter and contained everything and the kitchen sink. It was an exceptional meal in more ways than one. First of all, there were eggs on top of the mountain and you could have as many as you wanted. That never happened otherwise, maybe apart from Easter, and eggs were my favourite food, so I could look forward to the occasion for weeks. The other reason why this wasn’t a regular occurrence was that for my father, a meal wasn’t a meal if it didn’t contain boiled potatoes and gravy. Even if we had something exotic like pasta (this was the 1960s, and yes, pasta then was only for those weird Italians) he had potatoes and gravy on the side.
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Maybe that was the reason my mother wasn’t an enthusiastic cook. Although, perhaps it was because cooking wasn’t hip and cool yet and she was busy going to university and writing French essays. But I was about ten when she left a lot of it to me. First with instructions, then without. I had no real clue what I was doing, but my siblings were easy customers. The only thing my little brother wanted was chocolate mousse and that came out of a packet (only add milk), and my sister preferred things cold anyway, so no pressure there. Nevertheless, when I figured out that cooking meant you could turn one thing (a boring mushroom, for instance) into something completely different (soup, risotto, pizza) I was hooked. I started tearing recipes out of newspapers and reading cookbooks in the library. I was lucky, because in the 1970s Holland suddenly opened up to strange and mysterious foodstuffs. Kiwis, pineapples, mandarins, passion fruit, proper coffee, wine even. There was cheese fondue, and little things on toothpicks and roulade of everything. I was mesmerised and started experimenting, first for my family, then in grotty kitchens in share houses. I cooked my way through journalism school and during writing jobs in other countries I developed a new hobby: going into unfamiliar supermarkets and shops and buying strange ingredients to try out at home.
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Australia, of course, was a bit of a challenge, as the Americans call it. Living in a small seaside village is great, but it isn’t the height of culinary excitement. Especially in the beginning, there was a lot I missed. Good bread, nice cheese, raw herring, salty liquorice, leaf gelatin, celeriac, gooseberries and witlof, white asparagus, bitterballen. And there were things I had no idea what to do with. In Holland, beetroot and pumpkin are food for pigs, fresh prawns, scallops and lamb are prohibitively expensive and mangoes and avocados usually rock hard. So now, especially in summer, when there is time, I try out recipes again. I delight in barbecuing whole chickens, use wattle seed and finger lime, pig face and sea weed. I love the fact that I can pick wild fennel and ask my Lebanese green grocer what to do with it. There are mulberries on the tree at the back of our little complex and they turned out great as ice cream and in a sauce with lightly grilled kangaroo. After years of killing every plant in my backyard, I now managed to grow some tomatoes, chillies and zucchini. Last week, a Maltese neighbour showed me how to turn them into lovely pastries. I have to get back to work soon, but have promised myself one last hurrah in the kitchen today. I’m thinking a spinach, roasted pumpkin and blue cheese pie, maybe. Home-made short crust pastry, and mango semifreddo for afters. Or a side of salmon cured in beetroot and dill. Or Vietnamese spring rolls. Sorry, have to go now. Talk to you later.