Gilding the lily – on a pie!

My Dad had a simple repertoire of basic food – it was grilled bacon. Aside from that he couldn’t cook at all. I went to see him one day and he said “Thank goodness you’ve come, I just offered to make my friend a coffee but I don’t know how to do it”. “Just add boiling water, Dad”. My Mum on the other hand was a plain cook, largely I think due to my Dad’s culinary conservatism; but – although I never realized this until recently – she broke all the stereotypes and not only taught my sister to cook but me too. I was only thinking about her the other day when I was coating a piece of fish with flour, egg and breadcrumbs. I have no idea how old I was but after she taught me how to do it, I clearly remember tipping the leftover flour back into the tin complete with the fishbones I’d removed from the fish. Why I did that I’ve no idea, but my Mum was a fierce complainer and so later, when she discovered the bones, she sent the bag back to Henry Jones on Stapleton Road and demanded a refund. I was too scared to tell her that I was the culprit but the flour mill sent three bags by way of compensation without questioning the likelihood of their product being contaminated by fishbones. The first home baked loaf of bread I ever encountered was made by her. In those days flour came in two sorts – plain and self raising both white and over refined, The plain was a soft flour, low in protein, and really only suited to cakes and so her bread never tasted as good as the loaves from the bakery at the top of the road. The process, though, was fascinating and has always stayed with me.

Today I was making a chicken and ham pie and as I rolled and cut out some decorative leaves I remembered that was another of the tricks she taught me. On another occasion I asked how she knew that the Yorkshire pudding batter was thick enough she didn’t say a word, but swished a spoon back and forth in the bowl making a distinctive plopping sound that I’ve never forgotten. I still use the same test today.

So I do realize that expecting young people to cook these days is a counsel of perfection however powerful the arguments in favour. I still think it’s worth a nag, though, because in these straitened times cooking is an act of resistance as well as a deeply satisfying and therapeutic (yes, that word again) way of spending some time. There’s a kind of alchemy to cooking; taking basic ingredients and by combining them creating something with depth and complexity. The combination of chicken, leeks and tarragon with good stock transcends its ingredients. All power, then, to the charities that are working so hard to teach young people how to do it. Two of our sons are professional chefs and the other is a more than competent cook too, but so many 18-30’s have grown up without any exposure to what I’d like to call real food which introduces the skill of making lovely meals from the cheapest raw ingredients and might even lead to a job eventually. Eating together creates powerful bonds too. Junk food makes us ill and in extreme cases even kills.

I’m profoundly grateful for my Mum’s departure from the 1950’s norm. Of course, at school, my sister learned dressmaking and home economics while I did some wood work and engineering – skills which should never have become gendered, but we both escaped with the cookery basics on which we could build and, in case you’re wondering, I could also sew a patch on my jeans or stitch on a button. At school one of our sons did at least get a chance to cook, but when he made a bechamel sauce properly his teacher said she’d never seen one that wasn’t lumpy before – oh dear! Just think – most of us can’t afford to eat out except for rare special occasions – but if you can cook you can eat like the rich; better in fact because they’re completely dependent on other people to feed them.

At the Potwell Inn we make five meals from a medium sized chicken with some lovely chicken stock, using up even the leftovers. A simple rolled breast of lamb or piece of pork belly makes the most fabulous and inexpensive meal, and ironically a piece of unpasteurised handmade Cheddar turns out to be far more economical than the cheaper industrial product because the flavour is so much better. Our waste is greatly diminished too, with all our paper, cardboard and peelings going straight to the compost heap.

Being hard up is tough going and our hearts go out to the young people who are struggling. This culture sucks the life out of us if we let it, but we don’t have to accept the King’s Shilling and become dependent. Being just that bit independent with the allotment and the kitchen lets us lift two fingers to the bailiff and the beadle.

A quiet start to the day in the kitchen does more for the soul than a week of mattins

I was padding around the kitchen until a moment ago, rehearsing a kind of ritual. It’s enormously comforting – especially when the nights are dark and long – to spend a while in a fixed routine as the day cranks into life. I’m always up early, long before Madame surfaces. Those two hours in the kitchen are the anchor; the point of departure and the landing stage for everything that happens later. I make builder’s tea for both of us before I start and take a mug in to Madame who may or may not wake up. Later I’ll make strong coffee, empty the dishwasher, make up muesli or sometimes a smoothie, strain the kefir, add the second batch of flour to the overnight starter if it’s an everyday bread day, sort out a pile of tablets, capsules and supplements ready for breakfast. Every day I wonder if I really need to be taking them all but when I asked our GP neighbour if I could stop taking them he replied “only if you want to die” – OK point taken. Although most of me is extremely healthy but there are parts that need propping up; so I swallow the pills so I can pretend to myself that I’m still 35. Madame reads while I shuffle things around in the kitchen – at this time of the day it’s my kitchen – occasionally she’ll call me and we’ll talk about the book she’s reading, or the latest covid figures, or today a recipe for arancini that evoked memories of hot summers and cicadas and we stopped talking and were quiet for a while, remembering. Sometimes in a burst of energy I’ll start a stock on the stove or prep something for lunch. There’s something comforting about wrestling the uncertainties of the day in the dark; clearing a space and a structure – a palisade against the phone, the post and emails.

A kitchen is more than a small room with a cooker in it. It’s a place of contemplation, a laboratory, a library, a scene of triumph and disaster. It’s the tap root of the household conjuring nourishment from cupboards, fridges, baskets, boxes and shelves. It’s an alchemist’s den and in our case an indoor greenhouse. The pots, pans and tools were accumulated over decades but they’re not merely functional because I can remember exactly where and when I bought each piece of kit – like the day I winced when I saw the price of the chinois I’d unhooked from the display above the stairs in Kitchens; the blue cast iron patė mould I bought one Christmas for the big family meal. The cazuelas I found in the remotest corner of a shop in Bath – cheap as chips. There’s nothing extravagant in the kitchen but everything is the best quality we could afford at that moment – not that there’s ever any danger of saying “I’ve got everything I need”. Having the right tools is the difference between easy success and a failed struggle against the ingredients. I’ve even got a barding needle for goodness sake! -how outrė is that?

Cooking is a kind of ascetic discipline. I mentioned a couple of days ago that we were holding the prevailing covid gloom at bay by watching cookery programmes. There’s a particularly good series on Netflix called “The Chef’s Table” – we binge watched three of them last week and like all the best programmes it made me want to cook. Coincidentally I’m reading the second of two biographies of Elizabeth David at the moment – when I read the first I had to entirely recast my image of her, and this newer volume has done little to change my mind. There is almost no point of contact or similarity between our two lives, so I am profoundly grateful for her books which introduced me to an integrated understanding of cooking within its cultures; but I know that if we’d ever met we would have hated one another.

the soft underbelly of fine dining is its complete dependence on wealthy patrons

But the TV documentaries, while they were inspirational in the way they presented the work of the chefs, drove home the point that the soft underbelly of fine dining is its complete dependence on wealthy patrons. We could never in our wildest imaginings have been able to afford to eat in their restaurants. Later, after watching Michel Troisgros at work I searched for the cost of a meal in his restaurant and it was just over £500 per person; part of which expense must be accounted for by the fact that at one point a dish of salmon and sorrel was being plated up by no less than four chefs working in choreographed harmony without tripping over one another.

When our son was looking for a commis chef’s job after catering college, his head of department said to us – “He should go to Stephen Markwick – he puts all his profit on the plate.” Cooking at that level is inherently expensive but my goodness it was in another league from anything I’d ever managed. I’ve never dared to make Markwick’s lovely fish soup, although the recipe is there in one of his books; mainly because I’d almost certainly be disappointed with my efforts. So much of cooking is instinctive, built into the fingers and the reward of constant practice. Our son spent a couple of years in that kitchen and he’s shared a great deal of what he learned there with me – little things like how to push a tomato puree through a chinois with the back of a spoon. There are techniques in the kitchen that it’s all but impossible to learn without being shown – then they’re often blindingly obvious.

Now our youngest son too is a chef who’s worked all over Europe and occasionally we cook together as well. It’s always a joyful experience, especially when he calls me ‘chef’. We often land up cooking Italian because it’s so much fun, and it gives us the chance to let the allotment vegetables shine. Cooking makes me feel human, and yet professional kitchens can be the most dehumanising places on earth. Bullying, shouting and intimidation, tantrums, low pay and impossible hours are all too common; and don’t even mention the drinking and drugs. Our youngest was shouted at so much by one well known chef that he shaved his hair off and had “I’m the boss” tattooed on the back of his head. That didn’t go well.

And so, like our oldest son, I became a cook and not a chef. After many years of practice, and with the culinary gods behind me, I can put food on the table day by day that we could never afford to eat in restaurants. One of my favourite challenges is to try to recreate something we once ate on holiday. Occasionally I get a picture in my mind of something I’ve never tried to do. At the moment I’m trying to work out how I might make a single leaf of savoy cabbage into a wrap for a vegetable stuffing – like a vegetarian faggot. I mentioned this on the phone to my son earlier and he waved away my enthusiasm with “oh yes we used to do that at college”. I just love the way that Massimo Bottura made a whole dish out of the crunchy bits at the edges of a lasagne. I was inspired by his sense of fun – like a dish that looks exactly like a painting by Jackson Pollock.

– even a miss is something of a triumph

So doesn’t that make me presumptuous – to put myself and the three star greats in the same sentence? Well who cares? you might as well aim high and then – well – even a miss is something of a triumph; after all I’m not expecting anyone to pay for my food, and too much of the emphasis in mid level restaurants is on presentation rather than substance. Not only that, it seems that almost all of the great chefs learned their love of cooking from their mothers or grandmothers – who didn’t learn their skills from Escoffier!

We diminish cooking by dismissing it as a domestic art, and anyone who disdainfully uses the term amateur to describe those of us who cook for love has entirely missed the point. Baking bread, making preserves and pickles, putting good food on the table using produce from the allotment has a kind of earthy completeness. It can be life affirming; a way of caring for the people you love – but it can also be dreadful. I remember someone who mistook a grim attachment to peasant food for style, by boiling a sheep’s head with a bayleaf and presenting it to us unadorned on a plate as an hommage to simple values. Her partner begged us to eat as much as we could to save him from a week of sheep’s head sandwiches. When she’d picked off all the bits that wouldn’t make you gag she smoked a cigarette and flicked the ash on to her plate as if she’d somehow penetrated the heart of regional cooking. Not so easy I fear!

Sitting here now as the sounds of the day intensify, car doors slam down in the car park; cyclists and pedestrians pass the flat and we can hear the house waking up through the resonant concrete floors; I reflect that quiet start in the kitchen does more for the soul than a week of mattins – is that some kind of secular proverb?

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Where’s the little sharp knife?

 

Squash the juniper berries roughly , maybe with the flat of a heavy knife blade or a pestle. You don’t want them so much a powder, simply well bruised.

I was reading Nigel Slater’s vegetable cookbook “Tender” when that phrase suddenly struck me.  One of the reasons his books are such a pleasure to read is that they so often capture the sense of what it feels like to cook. Cooking is a truly multi-sensory experience involving taste and smell, colour, sound and texture but also memory of meals eaten, lessons learned, friends who were deeply appreciative and meals cooked and swallowed rather than savoured by those who could not recognise a love letter unless it was written down. Some food writers are a bit cerebral; some assume you’ve got skills you never learned, some assume that the pleasure is all in the eating, and that the cooking is no more than the warm-up for the main event.

My mother taught me how to make Yorkshire puddings one Sunday morning when the condensation was running down the kitchen windows. “How do you know when it’s thick enough?” I asked. The answer came in an action; she moved the spoon rapidly back and forth in the bowl causing the mixture to flop back making an utterly distinctive sound that I’ve never forgotten. It’s a formidably accurate measure that works every time but I couldn’t describe it in words.  The old cookbook standby “like cream” is too vague. The sound, on the other hand, never lets you down.

And in that contemplative moment I remembered her little sharp knife. She wouldn’t have known what ‘mise en place’ was all about but she knew that it was always kept in the right hand drawer of the cupboard in the kitchen, and she also knew that she was the only person in the house who understood why that was important. Other people would take it out to cut string, or whatever, and then it would be left lying around somewhere else, not close at hand.  It was everything to her, although it was probably second hand when she acquired it from her mother. Sharpened to the point where there was little of the original shape or length left, in truth it wasn’t that sharp at all but just sharper than the others. Carbon steel, slightly flexible and stained by what might have been generations of use: it came to represent her. It was her peeler, her tester her filleting knife

That was the knife I used when I first learned to trim shin of beef. I thought you had to remove all the connective tissue so I landed up with some very small shreds of meat and threw all the flavour and texture away. I used it clumsily to core kidneys with much the same results, but in doing so I learned something about the tactile pleasures of cooking. It’s hands-on and hands-in alchemy that takes the most unpromising or even faintly disgusting, and transforms it into something beautiful. Every day the ugly duckling in the larder becomes a swan. She had a tiny repertoire of meals that marked the seasons year by year. The day she made a curry for the first time, the day she added a single chilli to a stew were memorable days because her menus revolved like the stars in the sky. Innovations were like comets hinting at disasters to come.

The sensual pleasures of cooking are not talked or written about nearly as much as those of eating and yet they’re the foundation of good cooking. It’s in the hands, between the fingers, even with the whole body when kneading dough. The difference between right and not quite right are better inscribed in tactile memory than they can ever be described in words.  But Nigel Slater sometimes gets close.

 

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