I love food and I love films. One of my favourite food films is Toast, based on the chef and food writer Nigel Slater’s autobiography. In my past life as an English teacher I would show it to all my classes (ostensibly as an intro to a ‘food writing task’ but actually I just loved sharing it with them). I would say, ‘this is my childhood’ as the young Slater searched for a way to teleport himself out of the grim anti-sensuality of post-war British life. The class’s overwhelming response was always “GOD Miss, you are SO OLD!!!” as I pointed out the cars that were just like ours and Slater’s wallpaper and pyjamas which were exactly like my brother’s.
Nigel Slater’s world begins to come to life when he tastes spaghetti Bolognese for the first time, even though, this being the late 60’s, the sauce was inevitably tinned and the parmesan was the pre-grated vomit-smelling variety. This is where his food journey begins and I suspect many food-centred people can single out a similar life-changing moment. It marks the beginning of a lifelong subconscious yearning to re-experience the intensity of that shocking moment when the sky cracks and colour and possibility shine through and pierce your soul. If that moment never happens then, no matter. It’s been the driving force behind a lifetime of seeking out the best food experiences either as a cook or as a consumer. But it does happen. And those who have been lucky enough to experience it have had a ratatouille experience.
Anyone in the food industry who has missed this moment of genius in the film ‘Rataouille’ (when the jaded food critic tastes an interpretation of a simple rustic vegetable recipe and is transported to his mother’s kitchen) needs to watch it and file it in the ‘keep close’ file along with the photo album moment in ‘Up’. Here is proof that animations have the power to distil the most powerful fundamental human truths into the modern equivalent of cave paintings which transmit universal truths across the millennium. The pure lightning bolt of truth here is that simple fresh ingredients, when allowed to reveal their flavour with minimal interference, are all that is needed to create memorable food. No matter how artfully arranged on the plate, ratatouille is courgette, red pepper, tomato and aubergine combined. The moment the jaded food critique (drawn with an unmistakable likeness to Will Self) tastes the wafer-thin slices of those basic ingredients he is disarmed, literally and symbolically, as his critics’ pen falls to the floor.
My Ratatouille experience was a prawn ceviche tostada in Cabanna restaurant, Guadalajara, Mexico. It was like catching the line of a kite that had been just out of reach since my childhood. It was a direct line back to an open prawn sandwich on brown bread I had (many times) in Weeks department store, Tunbridge Wells, circa 1976.
Against the grey 1970s backdrop an open prawn sandwich was an explosion of colour and taste. A masterpiece of juxtaposition. Malty brown bread with a dense grainy texture, lightly buttered and topped with crispy, vivid green shredded lettuce. On top of this, a generous heap of juicy delicate pink prawns topped with a dollop of salmon pink seafood sauce. A sprinkle of dark orange paprika completes the colour. And these simple fresh ingredients layered together were replicated so perfectly in that tostada but with the additional benefits of a wheat free base (I am now Celiac) and top quality giant shrimp (although I still harbour a sneaking regard for the tiny north Atlantic variety which were the sole offering in supermarket freezer cabinets way back then).
I’ve wondered since what effect this closing of the circle has had on my lifelong food journey. My conclusion is that there are many other motivations behind my search for food inspiration, collected along the way and many years after this first catalyst. Finding out wheat was making me sick is a factor that has influenced my journey in an unexpectedly positive way. I have spent 15 years since this discovery travelling extensively and planning ahead, the key question being: where can I eat food that is fresh, clever, exciting and not heavily reliant on wheat-based products? So, basically food that is good by any standards. The best gluten free food, I have come to realise, is not a construct. A type of faux ‘normal’ food. It is naturally gluten free. Food that anyone would feel privileged to eat. The prawn tostada in Guadalajara was as much the result of that search as it was a connection back to something more fundamental.