The first thing I can clearly remember eating is home-made raspberry sorbet. I was three years old. We lived in an apartment block in Siberia and frozen foods were popular because you could leave them outside on your balcony to chill. I remember my grandmother coming over from England and my mother baking her a birthday cake; I remember the dancing light of the candles catching shadows on her smile-lit face in the tiny, darkened kitchen. Once, my brother and I snatched some cut green peppers from a chopping board, not realising that they were hot. The sudden, intense pain horrified and confused me; we downed glass after glass of water, crying, then stuffed our mouths with soft white bread.
We moved to England, and spent a few months living with that same grandmother. She taught me to make pastry. I stood at the table in the dining room, because I was too small to reach the counter in the kitchen, rubbing butter into flour. We made apple pies. As a treat, she’d give me Rich Tea biscuits, smeared with butter and jam. I couldn’t say ‘Maltesers’, so I called them ‘mouldy cheesers’, and begged for them from her special box kept on a high shelf. I discovered sausage rolls from packets. She taught me how to make a proper cup of tea, telling me to push the tea bag hard against the side of the cup with the back of a spoon to get all the flavour out. On Friday, we’d walk together to the little row of shops across the way, and buy fish and chips. I’d run around outside on the concrete parade for the interminably long time it took for our order to be ready, and then she’d let me sneak a chip, blistering hot and sharp with vinegar, before I raced back to the house. Later, when we moved to London, she would come and visit and bring us eggs at Easter, or cardboard stocking-shapes covered is plastic and housing different types of chocolate bars at Christmas. Crunchies were my favourite, and she’d find them for me specially. She died suddenly and unexpectedly when I was ten. Rich Tea biscuits still make me feel sad.
In London, I went to primary school. We ate potato smilies, turkey twizzlers, and baked beans from brightly coloured plastic trays partitioned into different sections. At break time we had milk and Nice biscuits, or sometimes Bourbons or Custard Creams on special Fridays. I went to children’s birthday parties and ate Party Rings and cocktail sausages and drank Fanta. At home, I loved Heinz chocolate pudding from a can, microwaved, with its glossy chocolate sauce. My mother once cut her hand badly opening a can of it for my brother and I, and I still remember the shock of the sudden blood on the chocolate. I loved ravioli in tomato sauce from a tin from Lidl. My friends and I would go down to the corner shop – alone, which felt so grown up – and spend our pocket money on sweets and chocolates for midnight feasts at sleepovers. We’d lay all the food out on the floor before eating it: Skittles; Dairy Milk Fruit and Nut; chocolate buttons. I discovered ice cream floats.
I became a teenager. At school, there was a vending machine, and we stopped at it most mornings to buy Twixes and packets of pickled onion Monster Munch. At break time, they served chocolate croissants – warm, doughy, and undercooked – and I loved them immoderately. My best friend and I started to cook for ourselves. We’d come home together after school and make Smush, which began as failed omelettes – scrambled eggs with peas and courgettes and cheese. She was a vegetarian. We’d make pesto pasta and cut apples into slices and dip them into Nutella, honey, peanut butter. We’d put veggie burgers in the oven for dinner, eat grapes from the freezer, scoff boxes of seashell-shaped pralines. My mother made spinach and lentil pie, and it became my favourite dish: I’d beg her for it every night, but my brother didn’t like it. We’d argue over whether to have apple pie – my choice – or crumble – my brother’s. My mother and I loved fish. I started to do the weekly food shop with my father, first at Lidl and then at Sainsburys. I began to develop food obsessions. I fell in love with dark jewelled pomegranate seeds, buying them by the pre-hulled pack, until my father told me they were too expensive and I started to buy the whole fruits, sitting at the kitchen table and ripping the seeds from the flesh with ruby juice running down my wrists. I wanted nothing else as much for weeks, until the obsession waned and I started on roule cheese instead. From my father, I inherited a taste for red grapefruit juice and bitter marmalade, canned sardines and crispy bacon sandwiches. From my mother, dark chocolate, whole fish and Thai flavourings: chilli; ginger; coriander.
I went to university. I lived in a student house and began to really cook entirely for myself and others for the first time. I made Christmas dinner for seventeen people, plates of turkey crammed on the lopsided laps of a jumble of students ornamenting our living room and hallway. We’d host pancake brunches, and I’d stand by the stove ladling and flipping for an hour. I made the mistake of trusting a rickety old gas oven for baking a torte: the mixture swelled and exploded, coating the inside of the oven and baking into charcoal. I got my own flat with a real kitchen and began to host dinner parties, dishing out lasagne and garlic bread, roast chickens with all the trimmings, chocolate fudge cake and lemon meringue pie. I took pride in making everything from scratch. I tried hummus and avocados for the first time: somehow, I had never come across them before. I taught myself to make meringues; friends of mine endured many failed experimental macarons. I started to buy cookbooks.
I graduated. Food was my constant. I became comfortable in the kitchen; happiest when feeding others. I became a hostess, had endless dinner parties, forced unwilling people to come over all the time. I experimented, sometimes failing, pushing myself: pan-fried scallops with roasted cauliflower purée, pancetta, and chive oil; home-made ravioli; beef Wellington. I taught myself to cook fish properly; learned what mirepoix actually is; read recipe books like novels. Cookery programmes left me awed and jealous and desperate. I had failures and disasters and simple, happy triumphs.
I quit my job, and enrolled at culinary school, like a massive idiot. What could possibly go wrong?