The other day I was discussing food – for some reason an ever recurring topic – with among others Clew foodie Alison. Oddly enough on a heatwave warm summer night, we talked about soup.
“Nettle soup with boiled egg!” I exlaimed enthusiastically.
Whereupon the other soup talkers all looked like they were about to puke. Clearly they did not share my enthusiasm neither for nettle soup, nor for picking those young nettles in order to make it, nor for boiled egg – especially the latter and especially in soup. Granted, it’s not gourmet, we’re talking good old fashioned staple food here – so why exactly was I that enthusiastic?
Because – with the subtle taste of nettles and the yellow of the egg yolk come other tastes and colours, added generously and withouth measuring from my own private pantry, of wild strawberries on a straw, of rhubarb dipped in sugar and of forget-me-nots, of running in the forest and of kitchen shelves clad with flowery wax paper. Maybe even of the nettle bushes I would inevitably fall into as I jumped from our garage roof (it wasn’t high!), and which as inevitably resulted in a behind covered in a red, itchy rash.
You add those very personal and sometimes secret childhood flavours and seasonings, and of course nettle soup with boiled egg is incomparably delicious.
In the July/August issue of the excellent magazine Intelligent Life, seven authors write about their favourite sense. Taste doesn’t happen to be among them, but I think that’s just a coincidence. I wouldn’t dream of taking on masters of words such as Julian Barnes (a sense of self), but reading about how they see the senses made me think about how you can expand each and every sense, and the concept of senses itself.
So, taste is more than the taste of food and drink that we most commonly associate it with, even though that alone makes taste a marvellous sense, allowing us to enjoy fully the uncountable pleasures of eating and drinking well. Like nettle soup with boiled egg.
It is also intriguing how our taste buds work: What some love makes others cringe. Until recently I wasn’t too keen on mustard, but then one day I woke up and was mad about it. During my first pregnancy I could eat a kilo of plums a day (of a particular kind mind you), and my second one was all about avocados (it never went away by the way). Other pregnant women have more bizarre cravings, such as chalk, sponges or coal. And just think about how babies explore the world by putting everything in their tiny mouths.
And then there’s taste as a warning system; I’m allergic to peppers – hélas, it’s a very inconvenient allergy – so to me they have a strong taste that I cannot stand and nobody understands why. And when you’re sick, tastes you usually love can make you feel even sicker. Fits with the caveman theory – they had to live off what they could collect from nature and had to know what was poisonous or bad for them.
Taste depends on the situation. Most things taste better outdoors. We wouldn’t dream of having a hot, creamy soup on a warm summer’s day. You just l o v e the burger at your favourite burger place but would be deeply disappointed to taste the same burger at a Michelin star restaurant. Those simple student meals you happily shared with your flat mates now only taste good when you once again share it with them.
Because we taste memories. Our student days. Our childhood summers. Sometimes a taste awakens a dormant memory, or even just the thought of a taste. Like nettle soup with boiled egg. Sometimes taste is in memory of someone. You drink to a lost loved one, you take out your grandma’s old recipe book. We taste other things as well – air and nature, the skin of our loved ones («I could just eat you up!»), home – especially when you’re an expat – and colours.
Julie Myerson picked a sense of colour for Intelligent Life, and links it to the other, basic senses. She smells, hears and tastes colours. When she writes, her words have colours. For her, sadness is pale yellow and sorrow darkish green.
«With colour around, nothing is fixed, everything is alive. Yes, it will fade – colour reminds you that everything is seasonal.»
And colours too bring back memories, like the yellow of an egg yolk and the blue of a childhood summer.
And all this is why nettle soup with boiled egg is so delicious.
By Unni Holtedahl, July 2015