My food memories started early.
The back door is open to let in the summer breeze. A cheap net curtain wafts in the window, sending dappled shadows across the floor. Outside there are children playing under a huge spreading apple tree with a large alsatian dog who seems to act as both friend and mother to unruly children.
Inside her small kitchen, Auntie Helen is cooking away as usual. The scent of mint and coriander fill the air, the wonderful aroma of lamb roasting in the oven teasing small stomachs who are waiting impatiently for dinner whilst maintaining the pretence of not really wanting to come inside.
I used to love to watch her cook, small and dark haired, with quick hands and kind eyes. She always used to call me agapi-mou…my love in Greek…that was all I really knew and I loved her dearly. Oh the food that would come out of that kitchen.
Wonderful soups and bean dishes always dressed with the sharpest of lemons and the fruitiest olive oil. Whole poached chickens with flesh like silk it was so tender, accompanied by fragrant rice or crispy potatoes. In summer she would use the fresh vine leaves from her garden to make stuffed vine leaves and we would get to try the grapes- so small and sweet and pale. Then Easter would come around. The whole place would be scented with toasted sesame seed smells, with the sight of Easter pastries fresh from the oven to delight us. The smell of these was amazing….a sweet dough filled with cheese and mint and egg and sultanas, topped with toasted sesame seeds and given to you still warm from the oven. Even now the smell of that cheese filling takes me straight back to her kitchen. Auntie always seemed to be able to get the plumpest sultanas and the freshest smelling mint. I think it was at her house that I had my first taste of black-eyed peas and greens together. Mmmm…still hooked on that one.
I remember watching Auntie get older, her hair turning silver at the temples, always dressed in black or navy blue, the mourning dress of small Greek women everywhere. After her husband died she moved away to the other side of London to be near her daughter. It was a nice little house but it didn’t have that smell – the imprints of years of cooking and different scents through the house. The smell of Uncle Paul’s oil paints was missing; his paintings of icons for the church were always hanging drying somewhere, the sad eyes of the Saints all watching me. I missed the apple tree and the vines, the long garden that we kids used to hide in and play with the dog. She was long gone too – the days of her carrying me and my two cousins on her back just a happy memory. Auntie still cooked but she seemed to be getting smaller, more birdlike, although if you were naughty you could still get a good telling off. I didn’t see much of her after my parents divorced and I still regret the passing of many years in which I didn’t see her. I still miss her. Every time I drive past that old house I wish I had the money to buy it outright and move myself back in there. I’d tend the trees and water the vines and maybe one day my niece will write something like this about me…