Marcel Proust knew a thing or two about the role that food can play in invoking powerful reminiscences. His insight into the fact that a present day sensory experience could, seemingly out of the blue, evoke a vivid recollection of a past event is well documented. Mind you, he set the bar on the documentation front by crafting the world’s longest novel around the central theme of, as he coined it, ‘involuntary memory’ – non drug induced flashbacks in layman’s terms.
Just as Marcel didn’t devote all 1.5 million words of ‘A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu’ to dunking a bit of cake into a cup of tea, I’m not going to devote all of my relatively miserly output to my Proustian moment – bread and marmalade.
Bread on its own doesn’t do it, which is a bit of a godsend really. If it did I’d come across as a twitching acid casualty every time I walked along the bakery aisle in Sainsbury’s. Neither marmalade on its own nor images of Paddington Bear, let alone Labelle, All Saints and several other attractive women asking me if I wish to sleep with them later on in the evening, pushes any buttons. Toasted bread and Golden Shred? – forget it. No, it has to be that precise combination of orange preserve and the staff of life. The funny thing is I can’t remember the last time I ate it. Oh hang on, everything’s gone wobbly and someone seems to playing a discrete glissando on a harp….
It’s 9am, there’s sand beneath my feet, the Med is shimmering and Mohammed is sorting breakfast. Cast aside any thoughts you may have of the private beach of a 5 Star Agadir hotel and a white liveried servant cooking an ersatz Full English. The sand, the hut we’re living in and, presumably, some of the sea in front of us, belongs to the chap rustling up a fish tagine.
There were three of us, all on the 70’s hippy trail, living in Mohammed’s hut at a cost of around 10p per night. Built of driftwood, plastic sacking and corrugated iron, it was warm, dry and cheap. It sat on a half mile stretch of shoreline between his house and the headland. Adjacent to the beach was a terraced field where our landlord’s wife and daughters spent much of the day weeding and watering. It looked like hard work to us and I for one would rather have had Mohammed’s job. Despite my reservations about fishing I think I could have coped with his working day. At around 6pm his son, little Mohammed, would row away from the shore and back in a small boat as his father paid out a fishing net. It took about an hour, as it did to haul in the catch the next morning. He spent the rest of the day pottering about, doing bits of DIY and sharing kif pipes with his tenants.
We did most of our own cooking, buying vegetables from our hosts and borrowing their donkey to carry further supplies from the market in the nearby village. What we never bought, or made ourselves, was bread. Mohammed’s wife baked that for us every morning and he delivered it warm, straight from the earth oven in their courtyard, on his way to work.
When he offered one evening to cook us breakfast the following day we didn’t haggle over the price. At 10p a pop it would have been churlish. We woke up at around 7am to the smell of garlic and onions gently frying. Mohammed had landed his fish, built a fire on the beach and sorted his mise en place. We stood and watched as he added ingredient after ingredient to his big old tagine. There were tomatoes, potatoes, pimento and other assorted peppers, ginger, olives and celery as I recall. Several large Mediterranean tuna had been cleaned, filleted and coated in a pungent marinade.
I remember marvelling at the fact that virtually everything in the cooking pot had originated within a 50 metre radius. I forget whether or not I considered copyrighting the phrase “Fresh, Organic, Seasonal, Local.
After a couple of hours we tucked in. Needless to say it was a stunning meal. No knives or forks required, just hunks of sublime fresh bread and plenty of seconds. We were sated, stuffed to the gills and unable to manage another morsel. That was until Mohammed’s wife bought out another batch of bread and a big tin of marmalade. I managed about a loaf and a half, and enough of the sweet, sticky Seville confection, to induce instant diabetes. But that was the clincher. The tagine may have been stunning, and rightly up there with the best meals I’ve ever eaten, but it is bread and marmalade that is the stuff that memories are made of.