They say that our sense of smell brings back the strongest memories. And that food smells can be a link back to our childhood. I only have to smell coffee beans roasting and, wham, I’m straight back in my pushchair with my mum wheeling me past the coffee shop on Golders Green Road where they used to roast their own coffee beans. Whenever we went past there smoke would be belching from a vent above the window, there would be a blue haze hanging above the pavement and a rich, slightly burnt smell of coffee in the air.
For The Italian it’s the smell of a cake baking in the oven. His mum worked three days of the week but on Thursdays she would always bake a cake. Walking in from school to the smell of a freshly-baked chocolate and vanilla marble cake always made him feel warm and fuzzy.
But for 86 year old May Martin it’s the tropical scent of a mango. May now lives in the wilds of Surrey but when she was a young girl in the 1930s she lived in one of the far-flung corners of the British Empire in Ceylon, as it was known then. In 1933 her father, who was serving with the Royal Artillery, was posted to Colombo. It was while she lived there that she learned to swim, in the pool at the rather grand Galle Face Hotel, an imposing great Empirical pile of a place built during the Victorian era.
May and her brother used to be able to enjoy as many mangoes as they liked when they were children. May can still picture Eggie in his white turban making his regular call at her parents’ house with his basket of mangoes for sale. Eggie was quite a character, and hard to miss, especially when he smiled – what with just one tooth in his head. Even today just a whiff of the scent from a mango’s skin as she’s about to bite into the sweet, fleshy fruit will remind May of those times when she was a little girl.
After a spell in Colombo her father was posted to Kohat, a fort on the North West Frontier, and to Jutogh, a military outpost in the foothills of the Himalayas. From Jutogh you could look across the hills to Simla, the British hill station built in the style of a small town in the Cotswolds. Being at a high altitude Simla was much cooler during the hot summers, the British would retreat there in order to escape the fierce heat of the plains below.
May recalls the precarious trek up to the town in the hills, with all the family’s possessions, and her and her brother, being carried by bearers up the side of the mountain along treacherously narrow, twisting paths. May had a best friend at the time, Dorothy Elford, they’re still good friends today. The two of them would play together, making little ladies from large exotic, cosmos flowers. May’s father would go to and from the fort on horseback but May would be driven to school by bullock cart, the driver occasionally stopping along the way to cut a cane of sugar for her to chew and suck the sweet juice from. One morning she arrived at school to find that morning assembly had been abandoned and all the children ushered out into the schoolyard. When the head teacher had lifted the lid of the piano that morning a cobra had reared its head from inside. May’s childhood world was a constant whirl of bright colours and spicy smells. And she remembers with particular fondness the highly decorated elephants that paraded the streets on festival days.
When it was hot, which it often was, she and her brother would sit out on the veranda of the family’s bungalow and their mother would give them a bowl of sliced limes smothered with sugar to share. She would take the children with her to the bazaar to shop for food, and May watched with fascination as the Indian butchers chopped up the meat by slicing it up on a sharp blade clenched between their feet. May’s mum tended to cook British dishes for the family, adapting the meat and exotic vegetables she found at the bazaar to her purpose. But she also learned to cook a good curry and passed that skill on to May who knocks up a pretty mean curry herself.
So we’ve included some authentic Sri Lankan recipes here for you to try out, let us know what you think of them.
And do you have any particular smells that remind you of childhood? Why not tell us about them here?