My Welsh grandmother, not my Irish one, taught me how to cook. At the time, I was the only grandchild. Whenever she cooked and I was in the house, she would take me into the kitchen, stand me on a stool by the gas stove, and encourage me to stir as the mixtures swirled and bubbled in pan or pot. I also helped her shell the peas, slice the carrots, whatever. When the preparation was ready, she would set aside a small portion that was mine. This might be a cake in the oven, a pair of biscuits shaped awkwardly by my own hand, or a small side pot of soup. “There’s nobody else,” she would whisper to me. “The old ways will die if I don’t teach you.” She was the one who taught me the exact moment when Welsh Cakes were ready to be molded, and there’s only one way to learn: place your hands in the mix. The right texture, as they say in the cookbooks, is ‘fine grain sand’ but you have to experience it to be certain what those words really mean.
I was a latch-key kid, as they now call them. Both my parents worked all day, leaving the house at 7:30 in the morning and not returning until 4 or 5 at night. Being able to cook meant that I never starved and I remember cooking soups, Cawl Mamgu among others, at a very early age. When I started traveling to France and Spain, I often ended up in various kitchens where I listened to the women as they prepared the food. Language and cooking went hand in hand and I learned how to roast coffee beans in a cast-iron frying pan, how to vary my range of soups, how to prepare casseroles, how to scramble eggs the continental way.
When I studied in Santander, Spain, my landlady left me, every night, one onion, one potato, and one egg. This was for the Spanish omelette that I ate most evenings. She cooked the first one for me, supervised me as I cooked the second one, and then abandoned me to my own devices. I often heard her snoring as I lit the gas, warmed the pan, and started to prepare my tortilla española. I still make Spanish omelettes, and they are delicious, but here in Canada they are never quite the same as they were in Spain. The ingredients look the same, olive oil, egg, salt and pepper, potatoes and onions … but the eggs are not Spanish free-range eggs from country hens and the oil, the potatoes, the onions, the salt … everything looks the same, but tastes vastly different.
Two days ago I bought a pound of fresh hake, merluza in Spanish. I cooked it in butter, half poached, half-sautéed. We ate half that night. Next day, I struggled with my thoughts: should I make fish cakes from the rest of the fish, or should I make a fish soup / sopa de pescado? Fish soup won. I put some truffle flavored olive oil into the frying pan, sliced small a tomato fresh from the garden, added a finely chopped onion, spiced it with sea salt, and added a small pinch of pimentón picante / hot Spanish paprika from La Vega in Spain. I let this simmer for a few minutes, then added some sherry. Into this mixture I put the rest of the hake together with the butter sauce that remained from the night before. The dish looked inviting, was very colorful, but appeared to be small and insufficient for the hungry eyes that followed the process. I added four large shrimp, sliced into four pieces each, a large scallop, thinly sliced, and sufficient water to thin the gathered liquids. Then I chopped up some sugar peas and added them as well. My sopa de pescado had undergone a sea change and become a sopa de mariscos / a sea food soup. The colors amazed: reds, yellows, oranges, and touches of green. On the spur of the moment, I named it New Brunswick Autumn Foliage. I tested it regularly as it simmered and it was ready when the sea food was done. Delicious.
I don’t know when my grandmother was born, or where, other than somewhere in Wales. I celebrate her birthday every time I cook something special, and my last two meals were very special. I don’t know where you are, Nana. You left us a long time ago. But wherever you are, thank you so much for the gifts you gave me. And Nana, I love you. You have traveled with me from Wales to Canada, and I celebrate you and your birthday every time I cook.