One of the most frustrating things found when I was learning to cook was that so many recipes depended either on specialised bits of kit that I didn’t have and couldn’t afford to buy, or on the immediate availability of things like “a light chicken stock” or “a tablespoon of pesto”. This could turn what was billed as a ‘quickly prepared light supper” into a prolongued campaign spread over several days and involving a great deal of improvisation. There were no glossy photographs to show what the dish was meant to look like and so there was always an element of doubt as to whether I’d nailed it or failed it. Well-travelled friends always seemed to know what to do with a scallop or what ‘al dente’ meant, but being entirely self taught was fraught with dangers. With Elizabeth David’s recipes for instance all you had to go on was a rough guide of the ingredients and method accompanied by a wonderfully evocative John Minton line drawing which, taken together, made you feel as if you were sitting on a shady terrace in Avignon. When, decades later, we could finally afford to get there we disovered that French cafes were a very mixed bag indeed, and that often the dishes I’d improvised at home were rather better. There’s an ocean of difference betwen a cook and a chef.
That said, I remained faithful to Miss David and her ‘battery de cuisine’ and over fifty years I’ve managed to acquire most of the really useful bits of kit, and by buying the best quality I can afford, they’ll mostly see me out. Knives are one exception to the rule that you get what you pay for. You can spend an absolute fortune on them, but I’ve discovered that the top of the range cooks knives sold by Ikea are more than equal to some fancy knives sold at ten times the price.
As for staples, having the allotment is obviously the best way of growing exactly what you need and cooking it at peak freshness – it really does make a perceptible difference. The stock has evolved over the decades but there’s always some in the fridge, condensed down so that a tablespoon will transform a litre of water and a teaspoon will lift an ordinary dish into something special. Cooking is an act of love and skimping on the ingredients sends a message to to those you cook for, that you don’t care very much about them. And reading that sentence back to myself, I can say that very few people – in fact only the ones who should really matter – will appreciate the care you’ve put in and reciprocate the feelings.
So there are mornings when I wake up and go into the kitchen and I know there are routine but essential jobs that have to be done. Check the stock in the fridge – is there enough or is it time to make more? Does it need simmering for five minutes to make sure it doesn’t go off? – it doesn’t keep for ever! How about the sourdough starter? does it need feeding? Is there bread or should I bake more? In an emergency I can bake some Scottish morning rolls and get them on the table in 90 minutes, but if it’s sourdough then it will need 24 hours at least. Check the fridge – it isn’t just professional kitchens that need to keep an eye out for the mouldy monsters lurking at the back. Make a list of ingredients in the cupboards that need replacing- there’s nothing more frustrating than going for the plain flour and realizing there’s none left.
Then, this is the month when the jamming, pickling and preserving move to the top of the agenda. Last year’s experiments with dill pickles were a bit of a mixed bag. Although nothing went off, some of the textures and flavours left a lot to be desired and so this year we’ve grown special variety of gherkins intended for pickling. The three plants are incredibly prolific, why wouldn’t they be? they’re growing on the remains of the hotbed and they’ve got their roots into about 300lbs of horse manure! So the sheer quantity makes more experiments possible. Of the recipes we tried last year the most successful – ie the ones we ate – came from Diana Henrys book “Salt, Sugar, Smoke” – so this morning I sorted a pile of similar sized gherkins and once we’ve been up to the allotment to dig some horseradish and collect dill – lots of it – we’ll start this year’s pickles. It’s all too easy with preserving to make much more than you’re ever likely to need, and we give lots away to our hungry and delightfully greedy family. This is an area of preserving I’m not very familiar with, but for sure you need lots of flavour, lots of herbs and such like. Rather like making pâté it seems that what feels like overseasoning works best.
I think there must be something in the air because today I had my very first thoughts about Christmas: must be those Boxing Day pickles! Autumn is around the corner and we’re feasting now. My head is full of thoughts of pâtés and confits and now the potatoes are in full spate I might have a go at aligot again. We first came cross it at a summer fête in South East France. People were queueing for dollops of almost indecently rich potatoes creamed with cheese, butter cream and garlic served with a lump of sausage. It was clearly a local favourite but a single plateful was probably a day’s worth of calories for anyone except a manual labourer. I cooked it years ago for our son and his girlfriend who was obviously more figure concious than any of us. She ate one delicate mouthful and pushed the plate away – too rich!
I know I ‘go on’ a bit but this blog is all about being human and although I range over a lot of topics, I keep coming back to the fact that growing food, cooking and eating it is at the very heart of the Potwell Inn philosophy. Gathering, sharing, eating, talking, having fun, telling stories, sharing troubles aren’t luxuries or extras, they’re it, they’re the point of being human.