It seems strange to say so now, but growing up in small town Southern Alberta in the 1970s and coming from a family of German and Norwegian heritage, there was a time for me when authentic Italian cooking was something that seemed indescribably exotic. I still remember going for dinner at the home of my friend Dina and being delighted by the pungent aroma of the tomato sauces and the steam from the enormous pot of boiling pasta that steamed up the kitchen windows.
I remember the plates of delicious antipasto comprised of amazing ingredients that I had never encountered before, such as artichokes, anchovies, and eggplant. To my fifteen year-old taste buds, mozzarella and ricotta cheeses tasted otherworldly, opening whole new flavour vistas for me. Not to mention the half glass of sweet red wine that we were allowed to drink with dinner.
Most of all, I remember watching with rapt attention as Dina’s mother prepared fresh sardines at the kitchen counter. With the swift precision of a neurosurgeon, she slit open the fish’s belly from mouth to tail, first exposing and then removing the delicate backbone. It was a process that took a matter of a few seconds for each fish. Up until that point in my life, sardines were just slimy creatures that existed only in a roll-top metal can, embedded in foul-tasting oil.
There is something about those moments in life when our culinary horizons, the sense of what we can expect from the food we eat, become joyfully expanded. Besides my afternoons in Dina’s kitchen, I will always remember the smoked meat from Schlotsky’s Delicatessen in Montreal; the first time I sat down at a sushi bar; and my first plate of raw oysters at the Acme Oyster Bar in New Orleans with each oyster chased with a dash of hot pepper sauce and washed down with a swig of ice cold Carib beer.
The French term amuse bouche refers to the practice of chefs presenting their patrons with enticing little taste sensations — unexpected combinations of flavours to make the jaded palate wake up and take notice. As much as there is a place in my life for the repertoire of comfort foods I grew up with (e.g., the reassuring taste of mashed potatoes and gravy, fried chicken and sweet-and-sour meatballs), there is another side to the enjoyment of food that is all about exploration — stepping into personally uncharted territory filled with exciting new sights, smells and tastes.
It’s the possibility of these new taste experiences that keeps me flipping through the pages of cookbooks and saving money for those occasional forays out to the latest new restaurant. Sometimes the best things in life are unexpected and waiting right around the next corner.