I have to say that my mum wasn’t a great cook. I don’t know if the nuns at the convent school in Ireland who educated her taught her any culinary skills, but if they did, she didn’t learn much.
Even so, she was willing to try new things, unlike my dad, who was never happier than when eating a plate of beans on burnt toast, which was the only meal I remember seeing him cook.
Maybe eating more exotic food was my mum’s way of trying to feel part of that glamorous world she saw in films and on TV and in the women’s magazines she used to buy each week, sitting up in bed at night flicking through the articles about clothes, being a good housewife, and new gadgets for the home.
One day, she arrived home from the shops and plonked her blue shopping bag down on the living room table.
“What’s for tea?” I asked as usual. I was always starving when I came home from school.
She pulled out a box and held it up. “This!”
“What’s that?” I said, peering at the photo of yellow rice flecked with red and green.
“It’s called paella. It’s a new thing,” she said, handing the box to me.
I examined it and saw that it had a small map of Spain on it. All I knew about Spain was that it was famous for oranges and that Leeds United under Don Revie had changed their kit to all white, like Real Madrid, to try and emulate their success.
Mum opened the box and there were two white sachets inside, one containing rice, the other a powdered mix with tiny pink prawns in it. After reading the instructions on the back of the box, she lopped off a chunk of Kerrygold butter into the frying pan and then tipped in the rice and began to fry it. As the grains sizzled, they started to brown. She then gingerly poured in a jug of water and, checking the instructions again, turned up the gas flame to bring the pan to the boil. Then she shook in the colourful powder, lowered the gas, and left it to simmer for twenty minutes.
When she put my plate in front of me and I took my first mouthful, I let out a long Mm sound. I’d never tasted anything like it before. I loved its creamy texture, the unfamiliar flavour, and the bite of the small prawns.
Remarkably Vesta still produces boxes of paella, although the map of Spain has been replaced by a flamenco dancer.
The fact that I can remember that paella all these years later tells me that it must have been a moment of some kind of significance. Perhaps that paella acted a signpost to a more exciting world than the small Midlands town that I was feeling trapped in. Food can do this. It can transport us to another place.