The Joy of Taste Memories


(And recreating travel flavours at home.)

I made a pan of sweet bread the other day, a unique fougasse that I had eaten only once before, two years ago while on a family trip to the South of France. The orange–blossom–scented, sugar–topped bread called Fougasse d’Aigues Mortes, was long only available within the ancient walled town of Aigues Mortes but has since travelled farther afield through the Occitanie region as part of the traditional 13 desserts of Christmas celebrated in the South of France. I’ve been dreaming about it ever since and probably mentioned it at ad nauseam, because my brother found a recipe and passed it along so I could make it chez moi. It filled my home with the sweet scent of that happy holiday and tasted exactly like it did in the summer of 2019.

It got me thinking about other taste memories – we all have them – and the adventures, not to mention restaurant reservations, that get us there. Here are some of mine, to inspire you to start cooking some of yours. Until we meet again fougasse, France is just a sheet pan away.

March 30, 2021
Fresh oysters on ice with a sauce and lemon at Tyne Valley, Prince Edward Island
   Photo: Ben Stern

Oysters at Tyne Valley, Prince Edward Island

The best oysters I’ve ever had, and likely ever will have, were at Jeff Noye’s Valley Pearl Oysters in 2018 at the oyster bar he built by hand above his small processing plant overlooking the sparkling bay. A champion oyster shucker, Noye assembled a tray of the oysters that I had helped him pull from the shallows just 20 minutes earlier. I slurped them back just as fast as he could shuck them, which was very fast, indeed. (Little did he know I was a champion oyster eater.) I had never tasted oysters so fresh and full of briny liquor that they were breaching their shells. Every last one was a flawless bite, a reminder that so often the greatest taste memories come from pure, perfect ingredients.

Poularde de Bresse demi‑deuil at La Mere Brazier in Lyon, France
   Photo: La Mere Brazier

Poularde de Bresse Demi–Deuil at La Mere Brazier, Lyon

“You will not find this anywhere else,” said chef Mathieu Viannay, of his Michelin–starred restaurant’s 100–year–old recipe for poularde de Bresse demi–deuil as he rolled it beside me for the tableside presentation. A special appellation d’origine contrôlée–status chicken with slate blue legs from nearby Bresse, is cooked for four and a half hours at 162°F in a fragrant poaching liquid, sliced black truffles tucked under the skin, and then carved tableside and sauced in a white port cream.) It was by far the best chicken I had in 2013. After I finished the diabolically rich meal and found myself casually checking my pulse, I smiled as I imagined someone else enjoying this exact same chicken dish in this exact same room, more than a century ago.

A field of tea plants in Xiamei village, Fujian, China
   Photo: Virginia Hines

Tea in Xiamei village, Fujian

In the ancient village of Xiamei in China’s Fujian province, the tea business goes back 72 generations. Seventy–two! The specialties here are black and oolong teas, and the trade first started with the British winding their way down the Dangxi River (just three steps from where I visited in 2016), eventually making it all the way to England. At a squat table in an ancient room, the kind woman who owns this tea shop – with earthen floors and tin–lined shelves – guided me through an impromptu tasting. She warmed a handful of thimble–size teacups, discarding the first wash of black tea and then poured the second pot into our tiny cups. I was offered the first sips, “the queen of the tea,” she said, so–called for its finest of fragrances compared to the subsequent pours. Of all the tea in China, this was my favourite sip.

A deep-fried twinkie on a stick, drizzled with chocolate and powdered sugar at the State Fair of Texas, Dallas
   Photo: miscelaineously (Flickr)

Deep–Fried Twinkies at the State Fair of Texas, Dallas

There were two lines dedicated to the deep–fried Twinkies stand in the middle of the midway when I visited in 2004. Classic AC/DC blared from the more extreme rides, including the Human Sling (one of the world's tallest), whereby riders are catapulted more than 90 metres in the air at 150 kilometres an hour. I would have tried it, but I was in line for deep–fried Twinkies, you see. “I'll go with you later,” said the Twinkie guy, with a wink. He then took a Twinkie, skewered it, dipped it in thick batter, deep–fried till golden, removed the stick, sliced it in half, then drizzled it with chocolate sauce and a dose of icing sugar. It was at once sweet, hot, slightly salty – and obviously delicious.

A Muffuletta cut in half from Central Grocery, New Orleans
   Photo: Central Grocery

Muffulettas at Central Grocery, New Orleans

This is a gourmet food shop, with the best takeout Muffulettas in town. The shop, now in its third generation, was opened circa 1906 by a Sicilian immigrant named Salvatore Lupo, who invented the original over–the–top local sandwich. During a trip in 2002, our cab driver pointed us in the right direction. He said he eats these mammoth Italian sandwiches at least twice a week and has done so for decades: “I can’t help it, I’m addicted,” he admitted. We joined the lineup and 15 minutes later were rewarded with a sesame–topped round loaf of bread that had been stuffed with dozens of slices of cured meats and cheese, then slathered with oily olive salad before being cut in half and wrapped in paper. It was as big as my head. Sandwiches like this are why we travel.

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