“Memory really matters…only if it binds together the imprint of the past and the project of the future, if it enables us to act without forgetting what we wanted to do, to become without ceasing to be, and to be without ceasing to become.”Italo Calvino
…there’s this rosemary bush in the Roquette. I mean, there are a lot of rosemary bushes in the quartier and around town – there’s a veritable rosemary bramble amongst the ruins of the old roman hippodrome; the patch over in the city jardin beneath the amphitheatre wall; one just around the corner from our house on rue des Matelots, though that one’s in a pot low enough for dogs so I tend to discount it…..but this rosemary bush, my rosemary bush, pinning down the corner of Place Genive, is my everyday rosemary. It stands potted sentry, basking in the sunlight, soaking up warmth from the paving stones, at exactly the right height such that as I round the corner I can casually filter fingers through its branches, feel the give and resistance of needles, capture a ghost of resin, raise hand to nose and flood my cortex with pine and earth, camphor and fall, sun and yesterday and tomorrow…
And Rosemarinus Officinalis does seem to (for me, at least) sort of hotwire the memory/recall button. Although I’m not precisely certain which avenue it directs the traffic down. It’s immediate, a rush of…..nostalgia. It calls to mind a life lived in a crisp autumn country. Maybe it’s that rosemary was the first herb I knew of as an herb, after the parsley and cinnamon of my mid-west upbringing. Maybe it’s heady and headlong days running 12-years old through wind-warmed pine forests. Or it could just be that it goes really well with lamb, or fig and black olive tapenade, or potatoes roasted with garlic in duck fat….
A litany of cultivars reads like poetry: Albus, Aureus, Beneden Blue, Prostratus, Gallipoli, Athens Blue Spires, Severn Sea, Rampant Boule, Lockwood de Forest, Spanish Snow, and possibly my favorite, Miss Jessop’s Upright. A bundle can anoint a room like a bishop with a censer. My wife regularly weaves it into floral arrangements, my children gleefully spot it on edge-of-forest walks, rolling the leaves between their palms and inhaling like we showed them, planting the seeds of their own future recall buttons.
Around the world it figures in rituals of remembrance – sprigs are worn (along with poppies) on ANZAC and Remembrance days in Australia and New Zealand; in several cultures it’s not uncommon for mourners to throw a branch or two into the grave, ‘sayonara, farewell…see you on the other side’. And tossing a few branches on the campfire, or skewering scallops to grill adds an underlying ghost of something just out of ken…and can stir the pot with staggering results. Odors and tastes, sometimes combined with a just right slanting sun or familiar breeze, can backflip you over years and miles and land you smack in the middle of a moment you thought was lost forever, but (for the moment at least) is very alive and present again. It happened to Proust, in “Remembrance of Things Past” – one nip of a biscuit dipped in tea and he’s back at his aunt’s house on a Sunday morning…
“When nothing else subsists from the past, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered…the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls…bearing resiliently, on tiny and almost impalpable drops of their essence, the immense edifice of memory.”
Proust had his madeleine; for me it’s rosemary (often), or the sometime smell of coming rain, a certain kind of not unpleasant mildew, dust motes rising through a shaft of sunlight. Or circus peanuts. It’s almost always wholly unexpected, you can’t call it up. It blindsides you, literally. Sometimes I’ve had to stop stock still and wait for the emotional vertigo to pass. Usually it’s extremely pleasant, a mini-vacation, something to make the rest of the day pass with a silly grin no one else can understand. We’ve all smelled pine needles or ginger and for an instant it’s home, and Christmas; charcoal, lighter fluid, the sizzle of steak and dad’s out back grilling. And sometimes, thankfully rarer, though no less essential, it can wollop you to your knees, stop your breath and hurt just like the first time. Perfume, a rain-drenched sweater, a cheap wine that you enjoyed all the same, and then didn’t.
In technical terms it’s less than romantic. The sense of smell is different from the other senses because the receptor cells in the nose are connected directly to the cerebral cortex (all the other senses send their signals to lower parts of the brain before sending them on to the cortex). From the cerebral cortex, the smell signals are sent on to the limbic system, which is largely responsible for feelings and memory. As a result, the perception of smell consists not only of the sensation of the odors themselves, but of the experiences and emotions associated with them. Simple, see?
Not that it really matters, of course. The moment passes, you do a sort of subtle scan to see if anyone noticed you went missing for a bit, and then…it’s time to make dinner.
Proust would approve…
Rosemary Lemon Madeleines
½ cup (115 grams) Butter
½ cup (100 grams) Sugar
1 Tblsp Brown Sugar
1 tsp Salt
2/3 cup (85 grams) Unbleached Flour
2 tsp Baking Powder
1 Tblsp chopped fresh Rosemary
2 tsp Lemon Zest
Special equipment – Madeleine Pan
Cream together the butter, sugar, brown sugar, and salt until light and fluffy. Whisk in the eggs. Sift the flour with the baking powder, and mix into the wet ingredients until just blended. Add the lemon zest and rosemary, stir to incorporate. Cover the bowl and chill for about an hour.
Preheat the oven to 375° Fahrenheit/190° Celsius. Butter and flour a madeleine pan. Fill the molds about 2/3 full with the batter. Bake for 6 – 7 minutes, until the madeleines spring back when poked lightly in the center.
This recipe makes about 2 ½ dozen, so you may have to bake in several batches unless you have several pans.
Rosemary Garlic Potatoes
Nothing could be simpler or more certain than potatoes, consecrated with garlic and rosemary, anointed with duck fat, roasted to a golden crisp exterior, a light and steaming core. A recipe is not really needed, but here’s how we do it chez nous…
1 kg (2 lbs) small/new potatoes (I like to use a mixture of red and white, called ‘pomme de terre grenaille’ in France)
3 Tblsp Duck Fat (heated enough so that it’s liquid – I have a cache in a jar in the back of the fridge reserved from whenever I cook up a magret/duck breast. You could use olive oil, but duck fat gives a crisper finish)
2-3 sprigs fresh Rosemary
3-4 cloves Garlic, peeled and minced fine
Black Pepper, freshly cracked, @ 1 tsp
1 Tblsp coarse salt/fleur de sel, or a little more – potatoes love salt
Preheat the oven to 400°Fahrenheit/204°Celsius. Wash the potatoes, dry with a towel, and cut in half on a diagonal. Strip the rosemary leaves from the sprigs, chop coarsely. Toss the potatoes, rosemary, minced garlic, salt, pepper, and duck fat in a large bowl. Spread the mixture onto a foil or parchment lined baking pan in a single layer – most of the time, I just pour it into a roasting pan around a whole chicken. Bake for about 45 minutes, (after 15 minutes or so, your kitchen will smell amazing) until all the potatoes are slightly golden, with edges beginning to darken. If you’re roasting with a chicken leave in the length of your roasting time, about an hour. If you use a large (14”) cast iron skillet instead of a baking pan, you’ll get rhapsodically tasty crustiness on the pan side.