About Me
I'm a Melbourne boy, hailing from St Kilda with one ex, one current wife and four kids. Love the outdoors and making new discoveries. I cook a lot at home (cheers from wife) and do some preserving, mostly jams, pickles and fruit liqueurs. This is the diary of a cooking journey.

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Thursday, February 25, 2010
The Cooking Lesson
Our garden had just yielded up a bunch of basil, from which the leaves were stripped into a sink of cool water, to rid them of any clinging dirt and as it turned out, a chameleon like, basil coloured caterpillar.

As the leaves lay soaking, my youngest daughter padded into the kitchen.

'What's for dinner, Dad?', she quizzically asked.

'It's pesto tonight honey,' I replied, 'with basil,' as an afterthought.

'Thought so,' she rejoined, 'I could smell the basil from my bedroom.'

Before you think that she has some super nasal powers, I should point out that we live in an apartment and her bedroom isn't all that far from the kitchen, but still, it was impressive that she could sniff out basil leaves from her quarters, when they had in no way been sliced or diced.

It reminded me of my younger days, when my sense of smell was also really acute, but sadly, like my hair, this sense diminishes with age, also affecting its closest ally, taste.

That taste is so closely linked to smell is easily demonstrated.

One needs to only hold one's nose whilst eating something to realize that the flavours are not so easy to pick out, when you release your nose, these hidden tastes come flooding in. It's the same reason you can't taste anything while you have the flu.

No smell, no taste.

The other tricky thing with taste is it's the most ephemeral of our senses. Remembering flavours exactly is one of the hardest things to do and takes an awful lot of practice to master. Recalling the notes of a song you've heard is a snap by comparison, or visualising a scene in your memory from some time ago isn't all that difficult either.

In a food and wine club of which I was a member, in over twenty years, I've only ever got a wine completely right once; watching erudite members struggle with even the correct variety of grape makes you aware of the problem of recalling certain flavours, everyone has difficulties with it.

This ability to taste and recall flavours is what separates the greatest chefs from the cafe quality. Pierre Koffmann, the chef who had the greatest influence over 'enfant terrible', Marco Pierre White, had this to say regarding tasting.

'A true cook, who is aware of food, should sense these simple things almost instinctively. Nor do young cooks taste their food as carefully as they should. They seem to judge dishes by their looks rather than by their flavour. When they do remember to sample something, they do it much too superficially. They will taste a sauce just once, quickly, with the very tip of their finger, then completely forget to taste again.'

So when Magda asked 'Can I help you to cook, Dad?', what I wanted to teach her was beyond things like how to measure out the olive oil, or blitz everything in a blender, she needs to have an idea of what things taste like, singly, and how these ingredients interact with each other and cooking processes, to produce food we will have pleasure in eating.

It's something kids learn early when licking the scraps from a bowl of cake batter, then witnessing its transformation into a cake, which tastes entirely different.

So we set to, measuring pine nuts, olive oil, pre-chopping some garlic and placing everything in a blender with the now clean basil leaves and a pinch of salt, then gave the whole lot a good blitz.

'What do you think it needs?'

Magda's top lip curled ever so slightly, for the taste was slightly bitter and earthy at this point.

'I don't know'

'How about we add some cheese?'

When the finely grated parmesan was stirred in, I asked her to try it again.

'Mmm, that's good!', she exclaimed.

The cheese had mellowed the sauce, made it into a classic pesto; the important thing was that my daughter had tasted its evolution and it was now the first building block in her flavour memory.

That was the real cooking lesson.
  posted at 9:58 pm

At 9:46 am, Blogger Elliot and Sandra said...

Hi Neil
You make me wish I had a daughter.

At 8:52 am, Anonymous Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

Beautiful post. I've been cooking with my granddaughter more lately (she is 8 now), and it reminds me of those moments, so long ago, with our own kids.

At 10:36 pm, Blogger neil said...

Hi elliot, I know that your son makes you both very proud.

Hi lydia, I'm just so glad that my youngest daughter is starting to show some interest, however she's choosy, pasta or nothing!

At 9:00 am, Blogger George Erdosh said...

Wait a minute! Picking fresh basil in February? Where do you live? Nowhere in America.

Otherwise a good post and, yes, young children have excellent tasting and smelling organs and they are easily overwhelmed by too-strong foods like broccoli, heavy or hot spices. On the other hand, old folks need to have a heavy hand in spicing up their dishes so they can taste it.

George (excerpt from my book What Recipes Don't Tell You)


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