A few Christmases ago, my father was standing next to me at the stove as I was preparing the traditional Christmas lunch which I’ve been cooking pretty much since I met my wife in 2000. He asked me a very simple question. Where did your love for food and for cooking come from?
And while that might look like a very simple question, my relationship with food, as Facebook would say, is complicated.
It is a question I’ve often been asked and the best answer is probably centred around the key people in my life, that is my wife, my parents and my parents-in-law. This is maybe the closest that I’ll get to answering this question for the time being. The story is much longer and includes many twists and turns and stories along the way but you’ll get the gist below.
A few weeks ago, as readers of the Food and Wine Gazette newsletter know, I lost my mother-in-law. For my wife who lost a mother and for me who lost a second mother, it was hard, very hard, made more complicated and difficult by distance.
On a personal level, it was a very sad loss because maybe without knowing she had a huge impact on me when it came to food. While my mother instilled in me the love for food and helped to expand my palate with her cooking, Rosalie, my mother in law opened her kitchen for my cooking at a time when I could barely crack open an egg.
She loved and enjoyed good food but she did not necessarily enjoy the cooking also because she did not particularly like the summer heat (which in Malta can extend from May to late October). Her kitchen was a dream to work in but cooking in the hot and long summer months in Malta was not easy especially in the afternoons when the sun was at its strongest and the kitchen bore the brunt of the scorching sun.
While she did not love cooking what she prepared she did exceptionally well. She would follow a recipe religiously even if she was repeating it many times. The red notebook she used to jot down the recipes was always beside her when she would be cooking. That was the reason why it was worn out though I would search in it for recipes like the mushroom soup which we loved and which we repeat for our children who can be picky eaters though we cannot really complain. There were many dishes she prepared extremely well but none was more exquisite than her rabbit with garlic, a simple and humble dish that perhaps reflected best her personality.
She had recently cooked it for our children. Alas, it was the last time she would prepare it for them. At first our daughter did not like the idea and being outspoken told her ‘we don’t eat rabbit’ which was of course not true since they had eaten it before both at our house and also at her place and they loved it. It only required the first mouthful for them to ask her to make it for them again.
The first interest in food came from my mother who loved cooking and still loves it to this day but rarely allowed my sister or I to try anything in the kitchen maybe afraid that we would not meet her standards or else afraid that we would mess up everything.
It was my mother in law who opened her kitchen for me to be able to cook at a time when I was growing an interest in food. During my university days, I would cook during exam times as an excuse to kill time rather than study. They were humble beginnings even if I always seemed to have the cheek to invite people to taste ‘my creations’ even when they would probably have been barely edible if I were to be honest with myself.
I had cooked a few times before for friends (simple plates of pasta) and while I was starting to read about food and wine from books and also devour food magazines like the Gambero Rosso, Wine Spectator and Decanter to mention just a few, these were very humble beginnings.
A simple plate of fish ravioli with tomato sauce could have killed my hobby cook career before I started. Cooked in Rosalie’s kitchen, the tomato sauce was overpowered with chili that is was impossible to eat on a hot summer’s day. My girlfriend, now wife wanted to kill me it was so spicy. I pulled a straight face and ate it even though sweat started to pour like a flood after a summer storm. Luckily I had the audacity to persist even though I cannot remember Giulia ever being angrier.
The cooking became more ambitious as I read more recipe books (I am a hoarder of books) and had more time in the kitchen particularly on weekends. From elaborate pasta dishes which reminded us of our trips and love of Sicily (like a spaghetti with prawns, pistachio and tomatoes, to spaghetti with sea urchin or bottarga, fish always seemed to take centre stage in those first forays in Rosalie’s kitchen.
Then came a recipe from the el Bulli cookbook which required dehydrating black olives at a low temperature in the oven for 8 hours. It was probably the only recipe that I could replicate in a home kitchen at the time. And it was pure madness to try in summer. We did it and surprised our friends with our first white chocolate with black olives, an unusual but intriguing dish which surprisingly worked well. That must have been the summer of 2003 or 2004. There was no iPhone at the time to document everything and the term foodie was not yet one of the most common food hashtags on Instagram.
Rosalie particularly loved the garden and would spend hours there both in her house and in ours. I could walk out of the kitchen and choose all the herbs I needed from rosemary to mint, basil to sage and thyme. And when we finally had our house in Malta, every summer she would ask me a few weeks before we arrived in Malta what herbs I needed and pot them for us. (This summer we are using mint that she had potted for us last year, another small memory that lingers on).
She loved my cooking whether she came to Belgium or when I cooked at her house or at our house in Malta and in particular she loved the decadence of the pork belly that is slow cooked with honey which I have been preparing every Christmas for the past years. It reminded her of childhood and it was a dish I would happily cook for her every year even though I always change the entire menu each year. That pork belly will remain a permanent fixture on our Christmas table in her memory.
Many years later, I felt the need to introduce creativity into my life. I took to writing again (a passion that I owe to my father). That eventually led to Food and Wine Gazette. But this journey would not have been possible without those humble beginnings in Rosalie’s kitchen.
Words can never replace the feeling of loss. But memories help to soften the pain. Luckily there are plenty.
Rabbit stew cooked in garlic
By popular request from readers of my newsletter this is Rosalie’s recipe for rabbit in garlic.
6 cloves of garlic
1 bottle of red wine
Salt and pepper
Extra-virgin olive oil
Marinate the chopped rabbit or legs of rabbit (depending on your preference) in the red wine overnight with pepper corns and a pinch of salt. You can add a bay leaf if you like.
When the rabbit is marinated and you are ready to cook the rabbit bring it out of the refrigerator and let it reach room temperature. Warm up the extra virgin olive oil and fry the garlic. Once it is cooked, remove it from the oil and fry the rabbit in the oil that has been flavoured with garlic until it is browned. (You can use more garlic if you want depending on your preference). Remove the pepper corns from the marinade and then add it to the pan with the olive oil. Bring to a boil and then put back the rabbit and garlic back into the pan and cook at a gentle simmer for around 50 minutes or until the rabbit is tender.
Serving suggestion: She used to serve this dish with peas and mashed potatoes. You can use any left over rabbit with the sauce to make spaghetti with rabbit sauce which is a great way to finish off the exceptional flavour of the red wine sauce. Otherwise mop the sauce with fresh bread.