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Madeleine Moments

If Proust had become a father I doubt his children would have shared his enthusiasm for the madeleine. As he dipped the dainty cake into his tea, his teenage sons (I imagine them as boys) would have raised an eyebrow to one another, a non verbal gesture that speaks volumes, conveying their mutual exasperation with a dad who was slightly eccentric and hence an utter embarrassment. As their father sighed deeply with longing for the lost pleasures of a childhood cosseted by his mother, his boys would have shrugged and muttered ‘whatever’. Nowadays they would have returned their gaze to their iPads where the world of the future beckons.

Madeleine Moments from Kitchen Journeys

That our children are not captivated by our memories might have perplexed the middle aged Marcel, but it is an experience all parents have when they begin to meander back to earlier times. Aside from stories told about their birth – a birthday ritual in many households I suspect – children often glaze over when we begin to extol the virtues of the days before technology ruled our every waking moment.

I like to think that I have a special portal through which to transport my boys back to my childhood. I share with them the foods I ate and loved, dishes suffused with memory and comfort. As we eat together, we time travel to a place that is nourishing for my soul and tastes good to them. As we eat, I slip in my stories. Sometimes I teach them to cook. I hope a recipe cannot be lost in translation.

When I was a child, my parents employed a housekeeper. This disenfranchised woman, lacking influence in the world outside our home, ruled the kitchen as her domain. We were all slightly afraid of her and although my parents paid her salary, they were undoubtedly her minions. Her moods were dark and brooding but her soufflés were light. She was a wonderful cook and she knew full well that this was where her power lay.

Soup Ingredients Kitchen Journeys

She was a self-taught chef de famille. I never once saw her open a cookbook. I wish she had written one. As I grew older and my interest in cooking began to show green shoots, I hung about in the kitchen trying to see how she created her magic. She showed no interest in sharing anything with me. Once I boldly asked for the recipe of her aubergine tart and received a frosty brush off. Eventually pressed to do so, she rattled off the details but when I tried my hand at it, she had evidently been sparing with the truth. In fact she resented my presence in the kitchen and doubly so any attempt I made to play sous chef.

I sadly left home with no cooking skills but with a well-developed palate and my memories. One of these was of her speciality, akin to an addiction in my family who ate a variant almost every day of the year: soup.

Elaine was the queen of soups. She turned pulses and a few vegetables into a vast potage on which we would dine for a week. The following day a new vat of soup would begin to bubble and we gathered at the dinner table eagerly anticipating another bowl of her broth.  The family favourite was her leek soup. Looking back now, I suppose it was a vichyssoise but her version had no pretensions of being served at a dinner party. This was thick and hearty to help us through cold winter nights when we gathered in a chilly dining room, swaddled in jumpers.

My happiest memories of the leek soup were captured through my niece, then a toddler, who loved this dish. She would sit on my lap, while the spoon alternatively fed her and then me, and declare ‘more soup, more soup’. It might have been her first two-word sentence.

Leek Soup Kitchen Journeys

So it is no surprise that I have tried to recreate this experience in my own home, with nothing to guide me but my own cooking skills and my memory. I have tried many a vichyssoise, my favourite flavoured with lemon grass, but none has come close to Elaine’s version. Eventually I managed to find my way back to what tastes as close as I will get to the holy grail. I serve it up to my sons and wait to see if we apparate together into my childhood home. I am there with my niece on my lap but they remain firmly rooted in the present, heads held low while they ladle leek soup into their mouths. As I begin to reminisce I see a flicker of eyebrows pass between them and I know that I am alone with my madeleine moment.


Elaine’s Leek Soup

For 4 people:

2 bunches of leeks, trimmed and sliced into rounds and washed well to remove any grit
1 medium onion, chopped
2 large potatoes, peeled and chopped
2 large carrots, peeled and chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 ½ – 2 litres chicken or vegetable stock
Salt and pepper

Gently heat the olive oil in a large pot. Add the onions and the leeks and sauté at a low heat with the lid on until soft but not brown. Leeks become bitter when browned so keep an eye on the pot and add a little bit of stock if it looks too dry.

In the meantime, boil the stock in a separate pot and add the potatoes and carrots.  Add the onion and leek mixture and boil for 30 minutes. Add some ground black pepper and a bit of salt if you think it needs some. The salt in the stock should be enough .

You now need to puree the soup. If you want a chunky soup them you can use a food processor but for a smoother soup you should use a blender.