A decade and some time ago I was an art student in Guangzhou when the academy relocated to a distant suburb. Instead of shifting along I found myself a studio apartment in my favourite part of old town and commuted. In the morning I would go to the academy studio and afternoon to my part time job back in the city, before returning to my apartment to work on odd illustration jobs and later my graduation piece. The teachers didn’t like my diverting from “pursuing the path of fine art” and the landlady was not impressed with her wall being temporarily lined with newspaper and set up as an oil painting station. Busy and fun days those were; the future was unknown, we believed we knew what love was and understood true loss. Like the old Chinese poem sings: “the youth knows not the taste of sorrow but feigns sadness all for a new verse”. (為賦新詞強說愁)
By night my role of “suffering artist” played in my favourite neighborhood bar. It tucked behind modern high rises in the financial district, most of the buildings within the vicinity looked like they were built in the 60s or 70s, of a dull Bauhaus “function before form” style. Back then this was a hip residential area dotted with boutiques, cafes, local food joints as well as a good deli and a Cantonese wet market. The owner was an Italian and for most of the time there was no sign above his vintage wooden doors. Those doors were later replaced by a industrial looking metal one and the name of the bar remained known only to the ones who frequented. The best cocktails in town (and to my experience, in many towns) were served there, I drank so many of them during my days that after it closed I almost completely lost interest in cocktails.
Sophie and I were both “resident guests”. We would smile and nod at each other as we took our “regular postings”. Occasionally we would converse. We never took the opportunity to become close with each other but we were always both there, sharing the same space and sometimes same friends, making mutual memories of this mutual fraction of our lives. A year or two later we both moved on from Guangzhou on separate occasions, and for years I did not think our paths would cross again.
But at some point in our later lives we had both picked up a strong interest in cooking, and started blogging about it. The difference being she persistently kept at it and today has a great blog and a cookbook; while I have butterflied back and forth between various things (in this way not unlike those Guangzhou days), only managing to keep up with a couple of inputs every six months or so. Indeed I did not start blogging expecting much audience, but the effort I have put in is a pathetic shame.
A couple of days ago I stumbled upon her story of growing up in Nice and the taste of Pissaladiere Nicoise. A combination between thoughts of the Mediterranean sun and my love for caramelized onions lead me into the kitchen reaching for the onion bag. We took it to our favourite site by lake Pukaki and washed it down with some French sparklings. The simplicity and depth of flavours were familiar and refreshing at the same time. To put it in brutal words it was like having French Onion Soup on a pizza – Sophie warned not to mention “pizza” and “Pissaladiere” in the same sentence while in Nice.
Later in the afternoon bathing in our high country sun, I felt somewhat amazed that her childhood memory from Nice is forming new memories for me half a world away, and possibly forming childhood memories for my children. I caught myself picking up and nibbling at deep caramelized onion bits the kids dropped on our picnic mat, and remembered Sophie recommending I make enough to save some for tasting the next day, and the day after, as the flavours develop.
Good chance for that. Not.