How to be a foreigner – and why MFK Fisher is such an inspirational food writer

The scorpion, by the way, was in our rented apartment in Uzès in Provence. Fortunately it was dead when we found it. But that’s another story.

I discovered MFK (Mary Frances Kennedy) Fisher by chance when I was reading about Julia Child, the famous American food writer and author of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking . This enormous 2 volume opus became hugely influential in the US after the first volume was published in 1961 but when it was later published in the UK, Elizabeth David had already pretty much seized the narrative. I’d never even heard of MFK Fisher until very recently, and if you share my abject ignorance on her work then I’d recommend the book “Provence 1970” written by her great nephew Luke Barr, who also directed an excellent biographical film which is available on YouTube. In his book he writes about one summer when Fisher, Julia Child, and James Beard were all in Provence at the same time and talked cooked and ate together regularly. Richard Olney and Elizabeth David were also in and out of France at the time but it seems that they thought that as a cookery writer, Fisher was a bit of an imposter – they were absolutely wrong in the sense that Fisher could write them both into a cocked hat. David, of course, introduced the whole mediterranean food culture to the UK and for that she claims the laurels, but she was by no means the only one. Before David, Patience Gray was the better selling food writer, and remains one of my favourites. Each one of them brought something important to the table, as it were, and between them they changed the course of culinary history of both America and the UK.

So how can these writers, publishing so long ago, ( Fisher was born in 1908) still seem so critically important? In my view that’s a daft thought because Fisher is every bit as alive and relevant today as RL Stevenson, whose “Travels with a Donkey in the Cevenne” is as fresh and modern today as it was when first published. They all have something to say about being human, and Fisher across 25 books and countless magazine and newspaper articles, not to mention television appearances seems set to become closer to my heart than any of the others. She writes like a 21st century woman; she’s a forensic analyst of human cultures and as always Richard Olney and Elizabeth David – in their rather bitchy way – had something of the truth. She wasn’t such a great cook but she was a brilliantly perceptive eater. When you read her accounts of living in Aix, Arles and Marseilles – especially if you’ve spent time there; and when you read about her youthful life in Dijon with her first husband you feel that even as a foreigner she managed to see behind the triumphs, evasions and stubborn conservatism of the French culinary scene of her day.

Her life wasn’t all wine and roses, and yes, she had money which enabled her extensive travels in Europe, but her first marriage ended when she met the love of her life who was suffering from a terrible illness that took him away after only very few years. A third long term relationship was distant and dwindled away after the birth of her two daughters; and so she brought them up as a single mother. There were other relationships about which she remained discreetly silent. As I said earlier a surprisingly modern life for a woman born in 1908.

And she wrote like an angel. Madame would tell you, if you met her, that my enthusiasm for a book can be measured in the amount of time I spend reading passages aloud to her. Reading together in bed at the Potwell Inn can be a surprisingly noisy and competitive business. “Two Towns in Provence” in the chapter “The Foreigner” would serve more than adequately as a set text for a graduate course in anthropology – it’s just laugh out loud funny as she deals with an arrogant French lunchtime host who wastes no opportunity to compare unfavourably American food with French cuisine. MFK’s response – sending a coffin shaped basket of flowers, ending the acquaintance forever with a funeral gift – is one I’ll treasure and perhaps even borrow if the need ever arises. Here’s another taster:

There are myriad facets to invisibility, and not all of them reflect comfort or security. Often I have been in pain, in my chosen role of The Stranger. Just as often I have counted on being so, and was not. Learning to be invisible has, of course, some moments worse than others. Perhaps I felt them most fiercely during the first months of my stay in Aix in 1954. I was alone in Europe for the first time in my life really; always before I had been the companion of some- one well loved, who knew more than I did about everything, even things like tickets and monies. I had been younger, too, and full of confidence. Now I was single, with two small daughters, and a world war and some private battles had come between the two women of myself, so that I felt fumbling and occasionally even frightened.

Perhaps it was a little like learning to walk again: I must try hard to trust my weakened muscles, my halting tongue, and most of all the dulled wits in my graying head, so that my children would not suspect me and lose confidence.

MFK Fisher “Two Towns in Provence”

Of the writers I’ve mentioned only Patience Gray comes close in her understanding of the whole culture through its food. Where Olney and David were always difficult and insecure in spite of their fame, Fisher was obviously a writer who didn’t need to be liked. “This is what I found” – I can imagine her saying – “and if you don’t like it you can shove it!”. Her editors must have despaired at her unashamed openness. She had an erotic connection to food and life and it perfuses all her writing. I beg you to explore this body of work. The only book I haven’t enjoyed is a bit of a potboiler called “How to feed a wolf” which was commissioned to meet a market for a severely rationed wartime food supply. I sensed her heart wasn’t in it but her celebrity never paid the bills and she was a proper writer!

Staunching pancheon expansion lust.

There – I thought that the headline would attract some small interest! The loaf, by the way, is a fifty fifty wholemeal/white sourdough mix that I made last year. As you see, it makes a lovely – if rather close textured loaf – but I rarely bake it because the flavour is so intense it tends to overwhelm whatever you eat it with. Our everyday recipe is a combination of rye starter with organic white flour which, over 36 hours, develops a lovely rich wheat flavour without shouting at you. Barely a week passes without me learning something new about baking and although occasionally when I’m in a tearing hurry I’ll use the bread machine (I’m not a fundamentalist Sourdough Savonarola), slow is always best, and if – through lousy organisation or sheer idleness – I resort to the supermarket, I invariably experience buyers’ remorse.

Any sort of food, but particularly bread, seems to embrace far more than calories and glycaemic index. It forms a cultural space where memories and experiences jostle with history; even sociology and anthropology. Hearth, home and heritage; journeys abroad or even unexpected food closer to the kitchen all combine in a cloud of metaphor, where cooking and eating become a performance that can wake you out of lethargy or melancholia and set you on your feet again.

Last night we watched a lovely Greek film called “Green Sea” which explains perfectly what I’m struggling to write. It concerns a woman who has completely lost her memory apart from being able to cook despite having no sense of taste. She washes up at a working peoples’ seaside cafe and cooks food so beautiful that it brings alive, occasionally to tears, the people who eat it. It not only recovers the memories of the customers but it eventually restores her own when she has an epiphanic experience with a teaspoon of honey!

You may have noticed that I read a lot of books. On my desk at the moment are MFK Fisher’s “The Gastronomical Me”; “Welsh Food Stories” by Carwyn Graces, “Welsh Fare” by S Minwel Tibbott; “Beard on Bread” by James Beard and the recently published “English Food” by Diane Purkiss. On the shelves there are many dozens more. These are all books that explore so much more than recipes – but express cultures too. Films, in many ways, have a unique part to play in this exploration. I could – off the tip of my tongue – name ‘Couscous’, ‘Chocolat’, and Stanley Tucci’s ‘Big Night’ in which there’s a wonderful single shot scene involving his character cooking an omelette from scratch whilst conducting an argument with his brother. There’s ‘Babette’s Feast’, ‘Julie and Julia’ also starring Stanley Tucci with Meryl Streep and more recently ‘Bear’. Then there’s ‘Bagdad Cafe‘ – I could go on for ages. One day when I’m in the mood I’ll make a list.

So now, finally, I get to the pancheon thing. For fifty five years to the month, every loaf I’ve baked was proved in a Pyrex bowl. It was a wedding present given to us by my mother’s closest wartime friend. It’s grown into an icon for me; scratched to the point where I can barely see through it. But I’ve recently become so paranoid about breaking it that I’m finding it increasingly hard to use. It’s the only object whose use spans our entire marriage and I’ve got this irrational fear that something terrible will happen if I drop it. I’ve written before about my mother’s “little sharp knife” – a unique piece of bone handled but otherwise inconsequential wartime utility ware – that does it too. The few dressmaking knick knacks I still have from her working years – thimble, pincushion and so on have the same quality – and the sound of a sewing machine in the next door flat send me into rapturous childhood memories.

I need a new proving bowl, but finding one has become faintly obsessive. Fifty years ago I visited one of the few surviving local slipware potteries in the country at Wrecklesham. It finally closed down about ten years later after the claypit was sold off for housing land and the market for traditional slipware collapsed under the competition of pyrex, melamine and more glamorous (?) kitchenware, oh and the complete absence of skilled throwers . I’ll write more about that visit another day. They were still – just about – making a few pancheons for trendy interior decorations but they were way above what we could afford.

I’ve looked on and off for years for one, but the problem is that they’re very expensive when bought from antique shops and – not knowing when they were made – there’s always the suspicion that they’re lead glazed. Any acidic food left in them could lead to lead poisoning. It’s a shame because that glorious amber coloured and unctuous glaze is quite difficult to replicate without lead flux. But then, miraculously and almost certainly due to the surge of interest in home baking during Covid, one or two potteries have seen the gap in the market and begun to produce hand thrown slipware pancheons once again. Why bother? Well, for all the reasons at the top of this piece. Of course you can prove your dough in any old container, but bread making occupies a cultural space as well as the usual culinary one; and those of us who bake get tremendous pleasure from working within that almost extinct culture using traditional tools and equipment, and of course I trained as a potter when I was young – which is why I visited Wrecclesham all those years ago. Buying a new pancheon joins two of the threads of my life together. Best of all I’ve found a pottery less than twenty miles away that’s making them and as soon as they reopen in January I’ll be down there to check them out (fussy customer!) and if they’re good – and they look very good online – I’ll retire the Pyrex bowl and start afresh. It won’t do anything for the bread but it’ll do a lot for me.

More recently we found a potter called Nathalie Hubert down in St Quentin la Poterie in Provence and we bought some of her lovely oven/tableware which radiates sunshine into our flat whenever we use it, and then we invariably begin to talk about our travels there. Cooking, eating and sharing memories over a few glasses is at the heart of human thriving – not an optional extra for the wealthy. In fact the wealthy always lose out because they don’t have to struggle to learn the skills and find the money, they just flash the wad and it all falls into their laps, and straight out again. Of course it’s hard work excavating history, reading, practising, watching, talking and learning from the people who really know. But as Aneurin Bevan once famously said to a heckler – “If you’d just shut up and listen you might leave this place slightly less stupid than when you came in”

Salted runner beans anyone?

img_4877I never for a single moment thought I would be writing this, but last summer, on the basis of no more than a mention in a biography, we salted some runner beans just to see what would happen. Here at the Potwell Inn we read a lot of books  – I mean a lot of them – and among them was the new biography of Patience Gray entitled Fasting and Feasting written by Adan Federman – and so when, in a passing remark, her son Philip said he actually preferred the taste of salted beans to their fresh counterparts, we were unable to resist.

On July 15th we were in the midst of a glut of beans, but all of our attempts to freeze them in the previous season had met with failure.  The result was always slimy and flavourless whether we blanched then first or just froze them in freezer bags or, indeed froze them in vacuum packs. Honestly, there was nothing to lose.

Patience Gray, if you haven’t read “Honey from a Weed” was one of the greatest and least remembered cookery writers of the 20th century, originally outselling even Elizabeth David. In mid-life she moved to Puglia in Southern Italy and lived, with her sculptor husband Norman Mommens and they lived as frugally as the local peasants lived, all the while collecting much more than recipes.  Her book is an exploration of a whole way of life and you really should read it.

So in July we salted a couple of pounds of beans and shoved them at the back of the larder. Until today.  I was cooking meat balls and feeling uninspired when suddenly the beans came to mind.  We’re a bit short of preserving jars and so I thought we’d try them and if they were no good we could throw them away and use the jar for something else.

So as per instructions in another book I rinsed them and soaked them in fresh water for a couple of hours and then cooked them (without salt) for ten minutes.  So what was the result?  Well they were not as good as fresh beans but – and this is important – if we were marooned, as they were, both in the UK during the War or in Puglia during the winter, then they would be more than acceptable.  I was amazed at the fact that they had kept their colour and texture and tasted, if not exactly as fresh beans would, they tasted good enough in a different way.

So there we are – a successful experiment at preserving without using the freezer.  From many points of view it makes sense and we shall certainly revisit the technique next season.  As for books, we’re both avid readers and collectors of books and I was wondering if there would be any mileage in adding a new category to the Potwell Inn site?  How about “The Potwell Inn Library”? – a chance to list and even review some of the books that have been most help to us on the allotment, in the kitchen or at just being human. Keep an eye open.

Quiet day at the Inn

IMG_4281So why is this blog called the Potwell Inn? I feel the question hovering, unspoken, in the air. Part of the answer is that (for me) it’s the equivalent of a keyboard shortcut that takes me immediately to where I need to be in order to write. The two words are analogous to a complex in psychological terms and so when I say ‘I’ve got a complex’ I mean it in the wholly positive sense that it’s the ‘madeleine’ that gets me going. John Masefield apparently liked to write with a box of rotting apples under his chair.  Stanley Spencer had an even more unpleasant olefactory shortcut it seems. For me it’s just those two words. Of course there’s nothing more obscure than someone else’s obsession and I realize that some potential readers turn away in bafflement.  A pub that doesn’t exist is a blog too far! But a good pub embodies all of the qualities I most treasure. It’s a place of welcome, of meeting, an escape.  It’s never judgemental, it sells good beer and good food. Any topic of conversation is permitted and it might even lead to a memorable evening from time to time. In my working life I spent ten years teaching in a prison and two old style mental institutions; ten years as a community worker on an outer fringe estate, and thirty years as a parish priest. All 50 years of experience taught me that the qualities needed to do that kind of work were exactly the same as those needed to run a good pub. Add to that the fact that HG Wells’ novel “The History of Mr Polly” has the Potwell Inn as a place of liberation and self-discovery and that seals the deal for me. I hope it might for you as well.

Not much happening at the Inn today, but the sun shone and drove away the frost and we siezed the opportunity to catch up with some household jobs. If I’m feeling particularly melancholic there’s nothing more therapeutic than making stock, filling the flat with the aroma of meals as yet uncooked. Making stock is like planting seeds, it insists that there will be another day. The other running project is to eat more veg, and so an hour in the bookshop sorting through endless possibles, I eventually invested £30 in the Leith Vegetable Bible. No breathless exuberance, no claims of everlasting life and best of all no photographs – like all the best cookery books. So the overcrowded space on my side of the bed now has four of the best vegetarian cookery books with barely a photograph between them. Apart from the Leith book, there are Nigel Slater’s veg book “Tender”, Jane Grigson’s magnificent “Vegetables” which has the best and most comprehensive research, and finally Rose Elliot of course.  There are many others in the bookshelves, but those are my personal favourites.

The asparagus bed is refusing to bow to winter, but tomorrow I’m going to cut all the fronds back so I can spread the seaweed we gatered in North Wales.  It was pretty ripe when we loaded it into the car, and we had to tie the sack tight to stop the copious wildlife escaping – so God knows what it’s like now.  Tomorrow will tell.

 

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