Perfect meals

The post the other day got me thinking about food. Then again, this time of year it’s hard not to think about food, as in our Mediterranean climate the cornucopia opens in June and keeps on flowing until the first frost in October. A drive to the Freedom post office to pick up my mail (the PO box is on the web site, by the way, if you want to write me) takes me past the following: a vineyard, orchards growing persimmons, walnuts, and various kinds of apples, strawberry fields (forever), bush berries (raspberries, the local specialty olallieberries, and blackberries), cut-flowers, flower bulbs, rose bushes, the startlingly fragrant celery, various oddities the farmer wants to experiment with, and always, various patches of organic leafs—chard or kale, they’re too small to tell yet, along with lettuce. All in five miles.

So it’s hard not to think about food, growing, fixing, and consuming.

The other day I was reflecting on the perfect meal, what I would serve if I wanted to say, well, everything. I may have been thinking about it because I’m going to be doing a family celebration here in October, with new family, old family, and far-spread family, and with that kind of thing, you want precisely the right balance of formal and fun: something easy, but not so easy it says you didn’t want to do it yourself so you had the thing catered. I once had a hundred writers/editors/etc at the house for a buffet dinner, when BoucherCon was happening in nearby Monterey, and achieved that balance by laying out the makings for burritos and allowing everyone to make their own.

But perfect meals? Looking back, I’ve found those depend on variables out of control of the kitchen.

Two perfect eating experiences come to mind. The first was with a friend, in London, back in the late Eighties. She and I were staying in Oxford, but went down to London for a day of wandering and a night of theatre (a Sherlock Holmes play, in fact, with Brett and Hardwick) and beforehand, we went to dinner at an upstairs place overlooking Covent Garden. I ordered the most gorgeous appetizer I’ve ever had: Pear baked with Stilton cheese. Absolutely simple, incredibly balanced, smooth and textured (a Bosc-type pear), the sweet wrapping itself around the powerful cheese—God, to die for.

The other perfect meal involves fruit, too, come to think of it, although I don’t know if it counts as a meal. My two kids and I had taken the Chunnel train to Paris for a few days, and the morning before we were to return, we went to Fauchon. Fauchon is a series of shops that sells various foodstuffs, one shop dedicated to cheeses, one a fruits-and-vegetables, the sort of fruiterer where the customer is not permitted to touch, merely gesture royally at the white raspberries or the starfruit, and the staff swaddles the produce as if they were nurses in a newborn nursery, and offers the package to the customer. The kind of place that normally makes me want to poke things with a brutal forefinger just so see the faces turn pale, but for some reason this time just amused me.

So off we trundle with our precious packets, fight our way across town to the fast train and settle in with the countryside flying past in a blur. And we unwrap our packets, and have our picnic on the plastic Eurostar table: strawberries, but not the sort of berries the size of a baby’s fist and just as pale that are sold here, but fraise de bois, tiny red gems no bigger than your little fingernail, that explode in the mouth with essence of strawberry, sweet and musky and hinting of the nurtured ground they were grown in. And then the peaches: flat peaches, such as we’re beginning to see around here (called, for some odd reason, galaxy peaches, or the rather off-putting doughnut peach.) Soft skin, parting easily with the fragrant white flesh (because they’re ripe, and when was the last time you bought a ripe peach, one that wasn’t covered with bruises? Oh, I see the point of the salesmen…) and a tiny round pit at the center.

They probably had to scrub the tables to get our drool off them.

Perfect meals.

Any of yours come to mind?

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  1. Kerry on July 17, 2007 at 4:12 pm

    Another fruit meal. I had taken my then-15-year-old daughter to Europe: first to Spain (for a professional conference), then on to England and Scotland (for fun). Although she loved the local Spanish shrimp (served in a little brown crockery bowl, sizzling in butter and garlic), we still wax poetic about our favorite meal there: a gorgeous mild, white cheese (in the shape of an overgrown Hershey’s kiss), fresh crusty bread, and fresh fruit, eaten in a very special moment of mother-daughter harmony, al fresco in a pocket-sized park.

  2. corgimom on July 17, 2007 at 4:15 pm

    Mary McBride’s pub in Cushendon, N. Ireland after a brisk morning’s hike along the coast. Freshly caught seafood in whole cream chowder, and fresh prawns so rich that I never let them touch the melted butter. Plus the most perfect pint of Guinness known on this earth. At least twice a year I check the cost of journeying back there just for that meal.

    Your fruit feasts sound marvelous!

  3. nkk1969 on July 17, 2007 at 4:59 pm

    The place was the Frueh brewery in Koeln, Germany. My girlfriend had just marched us up to the top of the Koelner Dom and afterward we went to the brewery to do a little rehydrating. Monika kept pointing to the menu, saying I should get this certain item. I knew there must be some kind of joke because the name in German means half chicken and Monika was wearing a grin like something on the face of a jolly gargoyle. “Half chicken” turned out to be a small platter of wonderful crusty bread, strong cheese (I forgot the name), and a creamy herb spread. This mini feast was washed down with the local brew, Koelsch, which is a light-colored beer with a slightly bitter aftertaste.

    This turned out to be one of the best meals I’ve ever had in my life. Of course, the fact that I was hot, exhausted, and would’ve gladly stuck my head in a urinal to get a drink (if that was the only available source of wetness) might have had something to do with it. You know what they say about hunger being the best spice.

  4. Geri on July 17, 2007 at 8:30 pm

    Plums we just purchased at the local farmers market! Gorgeous, organic, sweet and firm – made the plums I just bought at the grocery taste like nothing.

  5. 2maple on July 18, 2007 at 3:59 pm

    My family was in Italy recently for vacation (Italy …food, mmmmmmm …goes without saying) – and the meals that were most memorable to me had a combination of two things, the setting and, of course – obiviously, the food. Two specific meals/days come to mind… somedays, we would find a local grocery and pick-up lunch stuff, fresh rolls, mouth-watering cold cuts and fresh fruit (strawberries for me!) and whatever else struck people’s fancy that morning (my husband like the pickled artichoke hearts) and we would find a place to picnic…my favorite was sitting in a small piazza on a sunny spring day with a local band playing, feet dangling over the side of a canal in the Island of Murano (a small Island near Venice that is a beautiful scaled down version of the bigger city) watching the boats and the clouds drift by.

    The other is hiking along in the Cinque Terre on the Italian rivera north of Pizza. The whole area is a marine and national park with 5 ancient little villages clinging to the cliffside amidst vinyards and olive trees. The slopes are too steep for cars so you hike from village to village (or take hop the local train if hiking’s too much), the views are breathtaking and you stop for a gelato here, a beer there, check out the little village shops, watch the local fisherman and take a million pictures. We had this amazing seafood salad with tiny clams, mussels and octopus and cold veggies…excellent with crusty fresh bread and a glass of the local vino!

  6. Erika on July 19, 2007 at 2:18 am

    It was in Minnesota, or perhaps Canada, the wilderness up there looks the same on either side of the border, which is only a line drawn on a map. I was midway through a backpacking/canoe trip, and we had been traveling pretty far each day, and eating some terrible portable food, mostly consisting of dried scrambled eggs and texturized vegetable protein. But, since there was nothing else and the blueberries weren’t yet ripe…

    But then one of the guides pulls out some ingredients that she had secretly brought along, as a treat. Flour, soda, salt, cheese, salami, and a packet of sauce. Even though we used a flat rock and a peanut butter jar to roll out the dough and even though we burned the things over an open fire, I believe those were the best mini-pizzas I’ve ever had.

  7. monxa on July 19, 2007 at 7:59 am

    Tell you what we will do here in a family reunion.
    You fill the pork’s belly with guava leaves and cumin (I think this is the word) and prepare aside a mojo (this does not translate) with bitter orange and garlic with salt. Roast the pork whole, head, skin and everything on a stick on a fire of guava branches and make sure to keep it wet with the mojo all the time. Make sure you start early; the smell will drive everybody crazy, and watch for the tail, it’s a treat and everyone will go for it as soon as it’s done. Ohh, you will need some voluntaries to turn around the pork, it takes s a bit muscle but beer and voluntaries usually go on well together.
    This we will serve with yucca con mojo, a mojo as same as before but you could add more stuff, everyone does it differently and some people like to fry all this, depends. Congrí, this is rice made with black beans, and chatinos, which is green banana stomped and fried with salt, or the ripe version which is very greased but wonderful. To keep the hungry people out of the cooking pork you must make chicharrones, that is pork skin fried with salt, and its great, not healthy at all though.
    Umm, desert will probably be dulce de guayaba o casquitos o mango o coco with cheese, whatever of this will work.

    Afterwards you will probably have to put everybody in cholesterol watch, but it’s worth the trouble!

    You could prepare some salad, but there usually no space left, just don’t forget the rum.

  8. Kerry on July 20, 2007 at 9:35 am

    Erika, you reminded me of another perfect meal. Three of my undergraduate students and I had been working in the mountains of West Virginia, doing surveys of small mammals on a new tract of national forest land. This involved early mornings, lots of hiking, and long days spent preparing specimens, all while camped in gorgeous surroundings. We had cooking facilities, so we had decent food the whole time.

    But one night was especially memorable. It was “end of the line” night, which meant we had pulled our traps and didn’t have to get up early the next morning. That evening, we hooked up with the guy who had been doing the botanical surveys. He prepared the most fabulous corn bread I’ve ever had, cooked in a cast-iron skillet over an open fire. Meanwhile, one of the students had brought a big pot of beans, cooked with bacon, and new potatoes and onions fresh from her garden. Corn bread, beans, and potatoes-and-onions, spiced with hunger and washed down with lots of cold beer while we chatted and watched the stars come out. Fantastic!

  9. adyktd2thewrttnwrd on July 23, 2007 at 6:54 pm

    Sadly, I have not traveled to any exotic place for a meal, unless you count my Grandmother’s cellar exotic. And let’s face it, what little kid DOESN”T want to go into the cellar? (Of course, after one such visit, I was subesequently banned for ALL ETERNITY when I left one of the freezer doors open and half the food melted. Ooops.)

    My favorite meal is my grandmother’s biscuits and gravy. I don’t really celebrate Thanksgiving on principle, but I did grow up celebrating it and chicken with bisuits and gravy were always demanded. I think everyone of my mother’s husbands loved that dish. : /

    Although, now that I really think on it, I DID go to Mater’s Resturant in Milwaukee and I had this stuffed portabello Muchroom the size of a small softball, (no, NOT a baseball) that was covered in five cheeses and some other veggies. There was also this DELECTABLE (to DIE for) German brown nut bread that made me cry almost when you put melted butter on it.

    Ahhhh. THAT was a wonderful meal too.

  10. Clair on July 25, 2007 at 7:54 am

    Walking my dog yesterday, I passed a neighbor’s house and he pressed something into my hand before I realized what he was giving me.

    It was an early cucumber, six inches long and curled into a gentle C. I took it home, sliced it very thin, and marinated it in cider vinegar with a few shavings of Vidalia onion. I had some for dinner last night, but it will be even better tonight.

  11. Zhenusik on July 30, 2007 at 1:54 pm

    As it happens, my most memorable meal is also fruit. My father, sister and I were in Bulgaria for a two-week vacation. We stayed at the dinkiest hotel on the beach. The hotel served neither breakfast nor dinner, so we foraged at local farmers markets. One night, we bought a giant watermelon, some peaches – the round, yellow with a mauve side kind – and some gloriously warm white bread from the bakery. It was the best dinner, made more so by the absolute absence of any dinner-like foods … it’s been more than 15 years and I still remember this.

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