I lent my cherished copy of Marnie Woodrow’s short stories, In the Spice House, to my daughter. Now I want it back for rereading purposes, reminded of its resonances by a visit to that aromatic Kensington Market emporium known as House of Spice. I was looking for powdered bay, needed for a particular recipe that I’ll be reviving in a couple of weeks. I described it once in Outlook magazine, but even that public exposure failed to mitigate the private, emotional pungency of the flavours. The dish slipped into our kitchen more than 20 years ago, when our children were toddlers and we were living on Corfu. It was the gift of our nearest neighbour, Kleopatra, the village wise woman, and I cooked it once or twice under her critical eye. When we moved back to Canada, the recipe came with us and eventually found its own place on our calendar, settling there like a cat on a comfortable pillow, as part of a secular Eastertide dinner.
Whole onions braised for hours in white wine and a little good olive oil, with raisins, powdered bay leaves, pepper, parsley and thyme… Salt, too, of course, but the teaspoon of powdered bay is the spark that gives the dish life. Its scent fills the house as the onions slowly soften in their casserole, a pungent green fragrance a little like eucalyptus but earthier and more subtle. Powdered bay can be hard to find, but for this recipe it is essential. That is why my first step in making the Easter onions is a step up onto a chair for a ritual excavation of the small, high kitchen cupboard I call the spice attic.
No one but me ever goes there: the everyday spices and herbs have a more accessible place. Nobody else could explain why the attic exists at all, for most of the things inside are too old to use for cooking, flavours once sharp and vivid, bittersweet or so hot they brought tears to the eye now faded by the passing years. Here are whole nutmegs, still wrapped in their hard orange web of mace, a souvenir of the Caribbean; here, bags of cardamom, fenugreek and kalonji, bought for the beauty of their names. The pouch of counterfeit saffron came from the spice market in Istanbul, irresistibly cheap. The dark blue glass bottle of rosewater was sold to me by a gang of barefooted boys who jumped out in front of the car in the high Atlas Mountains. Its false perfume vanished in hours.
The farther back in the cupboard, the further in time. I draw out the box of bay leaves, some stiff as leather, some brittle and crumbling, the colour of bronze. Bay grows wild in the mountains above our village, on the yellow peaks high above the olive tree line. One silent, sun-scorched afternoon, Kleopatra led me and my children up there and showed us the bushes she favoured, cutting each bough with a few muttered words I did not understand. Back at her house, we watched as she hung up the herbs in her dark, frugal kitchen, save for six leaves that she dropped into simmering water. The freshening fragrance soon spread about us, curling into the thick, stale darkness of the unfurnished upstairs rooms.
Kleopatra is gone now, buried not far from the graves of others we held more dear. But when we return to the island in summertime and open up our own house, throwing the shutters wide, unpacking cupboards, airing memories, I set a pan of water and evergreen bay leaves to boil as part of our intricate, private ritual of remembrances.
Tucked away at the back of the spice attic lurks the small jar of powdered bay. Olive green and soft as flour, it retains something of its aroma, but not enough for making Easter onions. This year, once again, I must nip down to Kensington Market and buy some more. The old jar is quietly put back where it came from, no longer fresh but still of a certain value in the spice attic, storehouse of the untouched capital of the past.