8 Sep 2009

Culinary Heritage – Mémé

My dear grandma, mémé Angèle (who sadly passed away in 2006), was my friend. She spent the first 36 years of her life on the island of Corsica, in the family village, before emigrating to the north of France after WWII (and would return to the island every Summer). Her cuisine, although embracing the best of north and south, always had a hint of sunshine, sweetness and generosity to me, whether this was achieved with a dash of garlic, a touch of basil, an extra helping of butter, indulgent simmering over the stove, or simply with a grandmother’s know-how.

She would take me back in time to a bygone era of kitsch, whizzing up those delightfully 1950s Tiki desserts: Savarin Délicieux (pineapple sponge cake), Baba au Rhum (rum-infused sponge cake), Cake aux Fruits Confits (glacé cherry cake), or a rich Crème Pâtissière (entremets which she would finish off with a twirl of liquid caramel) served with Langues de Chats biscuits.

She concocted the best tomato sauce that dreams are made of, using carefully-chosen seasonal Corsican tomatoes, wild Corsican marjoram picked up the very same day, bay leaf from a nearby bay leaf tree, onion, garlic, touch of salt, one sugar lump (the magic ingredient that takes away the bitterness from the tomatoes) and ounces of patience, keeping an eye over the gently simmering saucepan, stirring when needed, with poise and a glint of joy. The whole house would bathe in the comforting aroma, and you - as a young person - would feel instantly hugged by it into a sense of security. You believed that the glorious home cooking from nanas like mémé would put the world to rights, keeping adversity and hunger at bay.

Mémé would provide me with home-comfort meals, as only a grandmother like her could: Oeufs Mimosa (hard-boiled eggs cut in half and stuffed with homemade mayonnaise and crumbled solid yolk), assortment of selected cold-cuts from the charcuterie (deli), creamy polenta (so golden, fluid and buttery it looked and tasted like a rich potato mash) served with Escalope de Veau (veal), aubergine ratatouille (fragranced with the intoxicating aroma of wild Corsican marjoram), and for afters Clafoutis aux Cerises (cherry flan) or Far Breton (prunes flan, a Brittany speciality).

Her odd but trusted larder staples included tapioca, angel hair pasta, chestnut flour (annual Christmas shipment from her Corsican cousins), salsify, hearts of palm, artichoke hearts, tinned pineapple rings, Pain au Sésame (a sweet sesame bread), testimonies to post-war awakening to culinary indulgence and exotic influence. She also, like me but unlike my mum, had a penchant for tea.

Mémé was particular if not meticulous about her food shopping. Fruit and veg were always purchased from the local farmers’ market, while she was prepared to pay the price for the best Parma ham in town, from the Italian delicatessen, and would treat herself and immediate family to palate-pleasing delicacies from Pâtisserie Henri, an institution of indulgence back in the day! She would not suffer fools with sub-standard produce and her high standards certainly helped define my own.

Mémé would run her errands in style, wearing her trademark scarf, dainty low-heel court shoes and a matching millinery hat. Her attire made her look like a plumper shorter version of Marlene Dietrich (she would so disagree with me if she read this!), certainly a lady who took the best try-and-tested from a past era that suited her faultlessly. Mémé wasn’t rich but appearances and the way you present yourself to the outside world were everything to her, and I do respect this, especially in this age of slovenliness.

Mémé indeed is one of my main culinary influences: a lively and passionate people person, whose cooking delivered a twist of the exotic with gusto! She embraced life in style, her heart always in the right place. Her light-heartedness brightened the day, but behind those laughs stood one thoughtful and very sensitive woman. And although her values were steeped in tradition, they also had a tinge of modernity and quiet rebellion.

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