Riz Au Lait

I have several food memories, good and bad, like everyone else… But the one that came to my head today is related to my grandfather. There was a rice dessert he used to make with such a unique flavour. He did it for the three of us, his grandchildren, Miguel, Filipa and me. He never wanted anyone around him while he was in the kitchen, but I would always find my way in there just to watch him cook. I would stay in the corner, almost invisible, so my presence would not bother him.

I remember the first time I sneaked into the kitchen… Everyone was busy preparing for the arrival of uncle Julio; I was about eight years old. I was paying attention to his movements when I caught his eye allowing me to stay if I was to remain quiet. Our little secretive cooking moments started then and made me feel special, his favourite girl maybe, since I was the only one who he shared his alchemic secret with.
He put the milk, the rice and sometimes an orange or lemon peel in a large pan to boil. He would stir for long minutes until the rice was cooked. The atmosphere was then filled with the sound and smell of boiling milk. When the rice was cooked he would add the sugar and stir just for a few moments more.

I often wondered what his thoughts were… He wouldn’t talk while cooking… He would sometimes sing or whistle and gave me a glance every once in a while. There was no need for words. We were together, he was cooking and I was watching… We had this bond between us and now it feels strangely stronger, as I grow older. I miss the long conversations we would have had if he were alive; his fantastic stories about the Air Force, and the years he spent in Africa; my dreams and aspirations of becoming a great journalist, our long walks on the beach in Santa Cruz at the end of a summer afternoon, laughing together while sharing memories of my childhood, recalling our secret treasure full of chocolates and candies on the left side of the desk at his office; we would make such a fuss when he gave us the key so we could indulge ourselves with fruity candies, caramels and bonbons filled with crème.

Finally, he would pour the rice into little bowls and let it cool. He would then take a bit of cinnamon in his fingertips and write our names on the top or make drawings of flowers for the girls and animals for the boy.
He died suddenly; he had a stroke by the end of the summer, eighteen years ago. He spent a long month in the Military Hospital. It was painful to watch him fade as days went by. I truly regret not satisfying his one last wish for food… He kept asking for chocolate ice cream, which we didn’t give to him because we were afraid it might make him worse. But he got worse anyway, and he went into a coma until he passed away…

Since he has gone, my grandmother and I have tried several times to make Riz au Lait (Rice Pudding) the same way he did – following the exact steps of the recipe – in order to get that special flavour. I think what made it unique was the love and care he put into cooking for his grandchildren.

Now when I cook, the scent of milk, sugar and cinnamon always reminds me of my dear grandfather and perhaps some day, when I become a grandmother myself I will be able to provide my grandchildren such magical moments…