I sometimes think that my adult obsession with flavour is a direct result of my childhood obsession with beige. As a child I was very much flavour averse, finding the sharp, the sour, the new and the unusual to be quite offensive. I liked plain cous cous with butter, rice crispies and lots of milk, rich tea biscuits and packets of hula hoops. I found the flavour of red meat reminded me too much of the taste when I bit my lips and drew blood, I found any cheese beyond cheap cheddar would burn my tongue and I couldn’t understand how my Grandmother could eat Summer Pudding with creme fraiche without pulling a face. Vegetables were certainly out of the question and I was just as infuriated at being fed ‘sweet’ vegetables like sugar snap peas, carrots and sweet corn as I was at being dished up bitter-tinged spinach and cauliflower. It’s a wonder I didn’t suffer from Scurvy but clearly I managed enough nutritionally to graduate into an adult with a curious palate.
Now I relish the strength of taste; the pungent tang of blue cheese, the salty meat of an olive, the beautiful complexities of Asian flavours, chilli, spices, coconut milk, coriander. Sourdough bread piques my interest with its strange, yeasty fizz and a well-considered flavour pairing can send me into a eye rolling state of joy; basil and strawberry, fennel and rhubarb, lavender and vanilla.
It is interesting how much of my food behaviour is a directresult of my emotional state. When I am tired and vulnerable I retreat back to childlike insecurity and I reach for plain biscuits, I crave shortbread, buttered toast and bowls of semolina. I take solace in glasses of milk, plenty of butter and cheesy mashed potatoes. When I am exhausted I cannot seem to bring myself to find the joy in an avocado with lemon juice, or an aromatic curry. Somehow strong flavours and textures are slightly repulsive when I am anxious. This means that when I am flying high, full of energy and inspiration I throw myself into taste, relishing a content state of mind and basking in being alive through new tastes and aromas.
When I was a child I hated two particular flavours in relation to sweet cooking. One was coconut, which was more of a textural issue, and the other was lemon. I hated lemon on anything else but pancakes. Lemon was just too strong and I was endlessly disappointed to be told that a white-iced loaf cake was, in fact, lemon drizzle cake. It was easy enough to avoid but it always baffled others when I rejected my nemisis, Tarte Au Citron. How could I not enjoy the contrasts of creamy texture and tart, mouth puckering flavour, that short, sweet, thin pastry crust.
Just as my interest in olives, wine and blue cheese has surfaced throughout my twenties as has my adoration of all things lemon and coconut. I sometimes consider what other wonders could await me; the flavours I hated have become the flavours I relish, they are still new. This week I had some egg whites spare from a creme pat and I had an interest in learning to make an American-style meringue frosting. To fail to pair a meringue frosting with lemon would an offence. Meringue needs a sharp counterpart.
I have made many a cupcake and chose, for this tangy lemon variety, to use thick Greek yoghurt and olive oil as fats instead of butter. This involved no creaming of butter and sugar, just the blending of yoghurt, oil, sugar and lemon zest to create a kind of sweet mayonnaise. The result was light, moist and unlike the crusty cupcakes reminiscent of school cake sales. These pale, lemon-scented bites were the perfect vehicle for a spoonful of lemon curd, a sip or two of lemon syrup and a topping of silky, light-as-air meringue. A cloud on top of a cloud.