In Sicily a few years ago, I had what my food-obsessed friend Kat and I call a Culinary Bliss Point. One of those moments when you taste something that is just so right. That perfect point of sweetness or saltiness or texture or all of the above. It’s like giant Alleluia Chorus going off in your brain.
I am pretty sure Kat coined the term. It was the precise expression of the title of a book I had read and one of its chapter names. The book was the 1993 classic Goodbye Culinary Cringe by Anglo-Aussie food writer and food activist Cherry Ripe (yes, that’s her name) and the chapter was ‘The Bliss Point’ and it discusses the bliss point factor, a phenomena studied and also written about by a Dr Robert McBride. So it must be scientific, right? “Whatever”, I say. Science or not, the Culinary Bliss Point feels like magic.
I devoured the book along with other writings on the new wave of food-conciousness. There were scores of reviews and criticism around in those days. I bought books of collected essays on food and I studied them. This was, of course, pre-internet!
I didn’t intend to become a foodie. In fact, the term ‘foodie’ may not have existed when I became one, but all of this talk of food tapped into something that was probably in me all along. With half Italian heritage and great cooks on my mother’s side and a husband at cooking school in the 90s, it was probably just my destiny to become food-obsessed.
My friend Kat hit on what must have been for me some food / linguistic G spot when I heard her utter the three words “Culinary Bliss Point” for the first time. I asked her just today and she reckons she was describing a stewed peach and homemade honeycomb ice-cream desert when she coined the term.
But getting back to the particular culinary bliss point that I had in Sicily in 2010. Surely, if you have been there, you will have had one. You’d have to be practically dead to not have one or two I am sure. Being a cross-road in the Mediterranean Sea, Sicily has been conquered and inhabited by people from the Moroccans to the Normans to the Greeks to the Phoenicians. Because of this diverse cultural history, it is blessed with a food history and flavour combos that set it apart from the rest of Italy. That’s probably partly why my Trapanese Style Fish Couscous at Ai Lumi Tavernetta, Trapani, was such a WOW moment.
It’s hard to remember exactly what flavour combined to make the fish couscous. I was able to identify firm white fleshed fish and a few nice sized langoustines. A shellfish or fishy taste didn’t dominate though, maybe because there was a bit of chilli or something hot, and a bit of the tang of tomato. And maybe some fennel seed or cumin or cardamom to soften it. Maybe all of them. I can’t be sure what it was, however my taste buds just danced. I love seafood, but this was like no seafood preparation I had ever had. I was blissed out!
So much of our memory of food, particularly when we travel, is tied up with the place we’re visiting, the company in which we dine, the service, the ambience. So I concede that perhaps my culinary bliss point was enhanced by the fact that I was nine weeks into a ten week trip around parts of Italy. At this point I was travelling with my husband, himself a great home cook, and we were doing a slow trip around Sicily. Sicily cannot be hurried and three weeks on public transport, in the off-season, is extremely relaxed.
We often try to recreate dishes we experience overseas, to attempt to recapture the spirit of a place or a special moment. This week, prompted by an unlikely tub of leftover soup (itself a fridge clearing exercise to use up veggies and some stock frozen a few weeks before) I lit on the idea of lightly poaching some firm white fish in the soup to infuse it with the flavours of the spices.
So we had some fillets of sea perch, the home-made spicy pumpkin and sweet potato soup with a few red lentils to thicken, in a base of home-made chicken stock, some couscous, flat leaf parsley from the garden and vegetables to steam. Husband Roo was a little sceptical. I am not the cook in the house usually. But occasionally I suggest something and let him run with it and improvise using his knowledge of techniques.
He started by simmering the fish in a little bit of sparkling wine that we had in the fridge (a non-vintage Arras from Tasmania). When the fish was about half-cooked he poured over the leftover soup. It needed thinning out after a few days in the fridge and the moisture from the wine and the fish gave just the right level of viscosity. Meanwhile I made the couscous and Roo steamed some broccoli and cauliflower to accompany the meal.
What can I say? It was beautiful. Not, exactly like the dish we ate in Trapani, but really delicious. It was light and fragrant and totally satisfying. Did it channel Trapani? Yes. It doesn’t take an exact replica. It certainly evoked the original, using fresh ingredients that we had at hand. And we spent considerable time reminiscing about the trip and viewed some of our photos of the original dish as well as others. Memories flooded back. Best of all, we created a simple and tasty new dish to add to our repertoire.
Now if only Roo had a recipe for that soup…