In the first of a new series featuring a different guest writer each month, food blogger Chris Pople tells us about the most memorable meal of his life
What's your favourite restaurant? This is often the first thing I'm asked when people learn I write a restaurant blog. But how about this - what is your favourite ever meal? I'd be surprised if the two overlap. Our favourite restaurants are grounded in reality - great food certainly, but consistency, reliability, a 'Sure Thing' you can count on to always make you happy. Great meals on the other hand are one-offs, flukes or accidents; exciting discoveries or momentous events, gold-plated over time with a sense of occasion and the soft glow of nostalgia. You can revisit a great restaurant; you can never revisit a great meal.
Never go back
And you should never try. It's a strangely dispiriting experience going back to the site of a spine-tingling meal and attempting to recreate it; you can order exactly the same food at exactly the same time of day, drink exactly the same wines with exactly the same people, and it will never be the same. At best, you'll have an enjoyable but vaguely emotionally empty time; at worst, the repeat will obscure and irreparably damage the original. And it's never worth the risk.
A great meal, then, is really only great if enough time has passed for you to reflect upon it properly. Many times I've come out of a restaurant or dinner party high on good food and company (and booze) and convinced it's an evening that will live long in memory. And yet how many times does that actually happen? Not often. This is a good thing of course, because it makes the ones that do all the more special, but it makes the components that actually go into making it "great" all the more difficult to pin down. If perfect food, scintillating company and the finest wines available to humanity aren't enough in themselves, what is?
A family holiday
I've been talking in very flowery abstracts so far, so maybe it's time I gave a specific example. A family holiday in France, in 1996. We found ourselves in a place called Rocamadour, an ancient monastic town clinging to the side of a rocky gorge overlooking the Dordogne river. It's a place so dramatically rugged it feels like it was designed by JRR Tolkien, which made for some great views but some exhausting near-vertical treks to see the sights under the baking Limousin midsummer sun.
At the end of the day, then, too tired to travel far for our dinner, we collapsed into the hotel restaurant, an alfresco affair under olive trees hung with fairy lights overlooking the gorge. We weren't expecting much - we'd done no research, we were tired, hungry, and in an unfamiliar town.
I'm sure you know where this is going - the meal was wonderful. A starter of local goat's cheese, just a disc of fluffy, citrusy unpasteurised cheese on a plate, unadorned and undressed, was the kind of thing you'd travel across continents to eat; local foie gras terrine not only looked stunning but melted in the mouth like liquid gold; and a deceptively simple dessert of rich, buttery ice cream with blackberry confit was concentrated essence of summer holidays - a hike through a dairy farm and foraging in bramble.
It wasn't just the food, either, of course; this quite large terrace, containing I'm guessing fifteen or twenty tables, was served by just one waiter, who dashed around at an astonishing pace, refilling glasses, bringing new dishes and removing plates, never missing a beat. As well as the sight of him careering around the place like a penguin on steroids, he also provided additional entertainment in the form of enthusiastic mistranslations - blackberry turned into "black curry", I specifically remember. We giggled and coo'ed our way through the whole magical evening.
What a memory
And yet, I would never go back. The food probably wasn't quite as perfect as I remember it now all these years later, or the setting as beautiful. We're all older now, harder to please, more world-weary and cynical. And anyway, I doubt they still have the same chef, the same owners, the same waiter with that exquisite sideline in physical comedy.
But in a way, it doesn't matter - the meal is perfect precisely because it can never happen again; if it did, it wouldn't be so special. It's simultaneously hugely thrilling and terribly sad - you can never tell yourself to really enjoy it at the time, and as soon as you realise how good it was, it's gone. That's life, I guess. But wow, what a memory.
A decade or so later, I sat down at my computer and started a food blog. I wouldn't want to suggest anything as pompous as that one meal in Rocamadour changed the course of my life, but clearly enough magical moments elsewhere have, over the years, convinced me of the power of a good meal to be a significant, and significantly happy, event, whilst also turning me into somewhat of a hopeless restaurant addict.
To sit down and enjoy a dinner, in good company and comfortable surroundings, is to experience one of life's greatest pleasures, and call me shallow (possibly), over-privileged (probably) and a glutton (definitely) but there aren't many other things make me happier.
What are your most memorable meals and what made them special? Tell us in the comments below.
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