What makes a happy meal? I’m not referring to the big yellow arches, though getting a small plastic present with your meal that you can play with is bound to put a smile on your face- look at Kinder Eggs. No, I mean, what makes a meal memorable, lifts your spirits and those of the people around the same table. Leaves you feeling not only sated but also elated.
Food features heavily in my life. Most of my time is spent either preparing, eating, writing, reading, watching it on tv or dreaming about it. When I go away on holiday with my family, I am not usually cooking. Instead, my focus shifts onto enjoying what is presented to me and savouring it with those whom I love.
On a recent holiday to Belgium and France, Gent and Ouistreham specifically - I am currently based in London - we had two very different meals which capture the essence of how food makes us happy. One was planned and booked ahead with a built in expectation (in the shape of a Michelin star) that it was going to be good and pricey, which carries with it some guilt too. The other, was one that we stumbled upon, had no idea what to expect and was cheap as chips (literally).
In Gent, I booked dinner at Souvenir, a one Michelin starred restaurant tucked away into the city’s recesses. Initially, we were somewhat overwhelmed by the menu which was short in terms of items but very wordy and only available in Flemish. Luckily, our waitress had the patience of a saint. She handled our repeated calls of “but what’s this again?” with grace and good humour. There were murmurs of disapproval from the table, primarily from my teenagers. But they voiced what we were all thinking. Very few of the options presented to us were familiar and the prices per dish could have financed our waffle habit throughout the holiday. At this point, I felt the ghost of disaster looming very close by.
Then the amuse bouches arrived. The effect was like waving a magic wand. I was speechless as my boys wolfed down the contents of a ramekin that was topped with kohlrabi foam floating over pieces of courgettes, garden peas and more kohlrabi in some ridiculously tasty dressing with shiitake mushroom powder on top. Their stubborn hatred of mushrooms seemed to be momentarily suspended.
Our fish mains were eaten in silent reverence. There were only fish mains to choose from. Their usual commentary on food oscillates between “I don’t like it, sorry” or “it’s good”. Here, I could see the nerve endings in their teenage brains sparking off as they voluntarily searched for new and interesting words to express how passionately they were enjoying what was on offer. My younger son fell deeply in love with the side of charred iceberg lettuce in a herby sauce and decided to ask the chef how to reproduce this at home. The friendly but heavily scientific explanation made us quickly realise it was just out of our reach. It was magical how it all seemed so simple, pared back but at the same time had involved hours of preparation, elite kitchen skills and a dedication to perfection.
The real joy of this meal for me was watching the transformation in my boys, caused entirely by the food, from suspicious to devout. They were not at all bothered whether it was Michelin starred or not - did not in fact know what the accolade meant. They judge food purely by its taste value according to their own. But when their taste buds started to dance, that prompted questions about the Michelin star and what it signifies.
A few days later, we were in Ouistreham, wandering around looking for a place to eat when we spotted posters in shop windows advertising “La Fête de la Coquille St. Jacques”. It’s a feast to celebrate scallops, I translated to my boys. To my surprise, they said that sounds interesting - I never put them down as scallops fans - so off we went towards the lighthouse in search of lunch.
The sun was out and the place was buzzing. It was one big party with Europop blaring from loudspeakers mixed with the soundtrack of scallops being shucked by the cartloads, like the rattling of castanets. Families milled around with grown ups drinking from plastic champagne flutes and kids tucking into see through bags of multi coloured sweets. It was so easy for us to get caught up in the exuberance. There were long queues for frites and sausage sandwiches so we decided to build up our hunger by playing a few games at the fairground on site before splitting up to join the line for lunch. Young or old, everyone had a licence to be a child again here. Even queuing felt like a party game. Cheerful and boisterous, we had made new friends by the time we were ready to order.
When we regrouped at the picnic tables, we too were full of good cheer. We were armed with wine and champagne at €2-4 a glass, a supersized portion of frites (with our favourite andalouse sauce) and the giant sausage and ham sandwiches. Sadly, the scallops didn’t have much of a chance competing with the smells of barbecued meat and frites. As we ate, we couldn’t stop smiling. This food, eaten al fresco under a bright blue sky with the freshness of the sea air breezing in, was happy food. Food with no pretences and no aim other than to be enjoyed.
These two meals, as different as they were, were equally joyful. They both involved discovery and surprise. The enjoyment of a meal rests heavily on the freshness of the ingredients and the skill in cooking it, but a memorable meal needs more. The stars have to be aligned so that you have the feeling that there is nowhere else you would rather be, and with nobody else. Meals like that sustain you with pure happiness.