Saturday, February 10, 2007

Yummy, Or the Memory of Scent

Nobody owned a coffee perculator in suburban West Auckland in 1990, let alone an espresso machine. People drank instant with milk and sugar, or black gumboot tea, also with milk. In Holland, however, coffee was thick and dark, and taken from large bowls that were clasped in two hands and held up to the face. To a barely 18-year old Kiwi kid in Europe on student exchange this was the height of sophistication.

Joosje was my second host mother. She was a slight woman with long straight grey hair that she wore parted down the middle. She could speak English with a British or Chicago accent, depending on the occasion, and worked in a small literary bookstore. At home her living area was dominated by a large collection of modern English-language literature.

Some of my fondest memories will always be of cold winter afternoons nestled on Joosje's big, comfortable sofa with a stroop waffel warming on the radiator and a book on my lap. The coffee perculator would be quietly bubbling away nearby, and the scent permeated the entire living area. Now when I walk past one particular espresso bar on my way to work the smell of coffee wafting from the open doorway always takes me back to that time, and its associated memories of homeliness, literary companionship and calm.

Back in New Zealand home was a much more bustling affair, where my mother was always up to something in the kitchen that would invariably involve the extended use of a loud blender, a radio station playing continuously on a cheap transistor in the background. My memories of my childhood are tied up with the smell of a Sunday roast - chicken, leg of lamb or side of beef. Crisp potatoes sucked up artery clogging, delicious animal fats and salt as they cooked. Our plates would overflow with creamy gravy. We ate peas and cauliflower mushed up in a white sauce.

After Hamish and I moved in together I did what I could to spend as many Sunday dinners with my parents as possible. As we got out of the car and walked around the side of the house to the back door the smell of that roast would travel out on the cooling early-evening air. Even now a Sunday roast signifies family.

A year or so ago I walked into a fruit store and fell upon a display of old-fashioned table grapes. Their distinctive aroma took me back to the valley where I grew up. There, each autumn, row upon row of vines would ripen, releasing a sweet, distinctive cloud of fragrance that would settle over the neighbourhood.

Similarly, a bowl of Christmas plums brings forth memories of summer holidays spent bagging fruit and placing it at the front gate with an honesty box. The greasy smell of fish and chips recalls trips with my father each Thursday night to the local shop to fetch dinner.

Hamish accuses me of having an overly sensitive nose, and I do seem to rely on my sense of smell rather heavily. It's one of the reasons why I'm considering doing a Wine Master's course and following his father into the wine industry. Someone, after all, has to show an interest in the family business!


s said...

there's nothing on earth quite as heavenly as the smell of coffee brewing.

after i left welly, i realized how much i missed its cafes (which i'd taken for granted). i miss Fidel's so damn much.

Pip said...

I love Fidels. There's a great photo somewhere of a group of friends all dressed up in Mexican ponchos and sombreros (having just celebrated my husband's birthday and the Mexican day of the dead at Flying Burrito Brothers) sitting on the pavement like a bunch of gringos, waiting for Dial-a-Driver.

hundred and one said...

I love the smell of coffee brewing too! In fact, it's on my yummy list.

Janie Hickok Siess, Esq. said...

Oh, there's nothing like waking up on a Sunday morning to the smell of coffee brewing. Thanks for the imagery. Very effective!

gautami tripathy said...

I need coffee now! Simply great!

Do chk mine at:


Kelly said...

You write beautifully. Glad I found you today. K