The first time I went to Rome, I ate pasta with nettle sauce in an unassuming trattoria in an area of the city that I’ve never passed since. There’s a picture of me that I can no longer find; I’m grinning excitedly, holding cutlery over an almost finished plate of farfalle with a creamy mint green nettle sauce. I remember its subtle flavours, the lightness of the sauce and the delight of trying something I’d never heard of; it’s the only time I’ve ever eaten this dish.
There are some meals I had the pleasure of eating many times; Nandos’ veggie burger was perfect; it hurts that they replaced this delicious processed mystery protein burger with 'superfood' alternatives. From one of Reading’s three Cornish Pasty Co shops, I loved the defiantly untraditional cheese, tomato and basil pasty on my way to work - I still glance at the counter every time I pass one of their stands, but it's been missing for years. The now discredited Jamie’s Italian once served my a truffle risotto that I ordered as a tagliatelle dish (I'm a little less shameless now) which I chose for my birthday meal for several years.
We tried several times to recreate them but nothing ever came close.
The original McDonald's veggie burger used to be a patty made from a salty mash of vegetables and potatoes, deep fried in a crispy breadcrumb coating. When they started thinking about vegetarians a bit more, this was initially swapped for a salad, before being reintroduced as a bland chickpea patty. It was the original (best) burger which tempted us as kids to the Madejski Stadium, where we concentrated on the treat of McDonalds so that Dad and Grandad could focus on the rugby together, sneaking out for a smoke at half-time as we finished our chips.
With little culinary knowledge but a lot of confidence, my best friend and I at fifteen made the best chips we’d ever tasted. We fried skinny cuts of potato and threw in an undocumented mix of spices from her mum’s kitchen; they were oily but crunchy enough, smokey and sweet. We tried several times to recreate them but nothing ever came close. The first time I remember enjoying chunky chips was in a pub by the river in Reading town centre about 15 years ago; they were triple-cooked, fluffy in the middle, perfect. No one other than me remembers these chips, or the reason we were at that pub. The pub no longer exists, but I still remember those chips.
Homemade food, made with thought and made to share is always the most important; intrinsically impossible to recreate without the original cook. I'm extremely grateful for friends who’ve chosen to cook a vegetarian alternative for me: in primary school my oldest friend’s mum cooked me my first lasagne, there was an unorthodox gooey cheese and tomato pie made by a friend's girlfriend, a housemate I knew for a short time made me many delicious meals, the most memorable being when she made a butternut squash mac & cheese for us to share when I got home. My grandma was not remembered as a great cook, but it’s with longing that I think about her too-thin gravy and the golden syrup sandwiches she secretly fed my sisters and I. It's not only the lost foods I crave, it's the occasions that came with the food too.