'The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there,' writes L.P. Hartley in The Go-Between. I’ve been visiting the foreign country of my past a lot lately – mining old diaries, poring over faded photographs, and cooking long-lost recipes from my childhood – all so as to write Afternoons in Ithaka, a memoir due for release in a few short weeks.
My publisher and I were at the blissful final stages of tweaking and proofing the manuscript a few months back, when some more images were called for – and so photographer husband George Mifsud and I decided to revisit a delicacy from my childhood: sweetbreads, or glykathakia in Greek. Sweetbreads look like cute little clouds; their similarly cute name belies the fact that they are the thymus or the pancreas of a calf or lamb. When I ate them as a child (along with livers, brains and other offal), I fondly remember them having a subtle, sweet flavour. They were generally eaten as an appetizer. They were often accompanied by an aperitif such as ouzo or cognac, and mainly eaten by men (and curious little girls). Was this one-time vegetarian game to go there again?
The expedition started at George’s Meats at Preston Market. Owner George was to be my guide back to the exotic land of the sweetbread. He tells me that his mostly older Greek and Italian customers buy sweetbreads – they come in one-kilo packs and he has some in the freezer out the back. I hand over the cash and they are mine.
When I bring them home, the kids inspect the pink package. I ask if they will try them, ever hopeful that their tastebuds might be as adventurous as mine were at their age. 'No thanks,' they chorus.
Next, I call Mum.
’I’m cooking the sweetmeats. Come over so we can eat them together.’
‘I’m fasting, so I can't,’ she says. 'Remember to remove any little hairs and par boil them to get rid of any impurities,’ she adds.
I’m starting to feel distinctly alone and a little bit queasy; there is no one to accompany me in this journey to the past. Still, I like to think of myself as a traveller, not a tourist, so I press on. Soon the sweetbreads are bubbling away in a pan with olive oil, wine and oregano. The smell that wafts up is heady, but not unpleasant. When they are firm and plump, I give then a squeeze of lemon and present them on a dainty plate – a cheap trick to convince myself that I am not about to consumer the thymus of a small animal. For good measure, I get out a bottle of ouzo and two shot glasses. Perhaps George will join me.
George duly takes a few photos but politely refuses to taste the sweetbreads.The moment of reckoning has arrived: I have to go it alone. I put one of the plump morsels into my mouth. The texture is tender, the flavour has a familiar sweetness; it draws me back to sitting with my father on a green vinyl couch, watching late-night John Wayne movies. I take a second, but this time I am overwhelmed by the rich, meaty undertones of the sweetbread. I need the viscous aniseed ouzo to help it go down.
I went. I saw. I ate. Now it’s well and truly time to come back home.
Afternoons in Ithaka will be released on February 1, 2014. To pre-order your copy, visit the Australian online bookseller Booktopia.