Winston Churchill was fond of saying that the Chinese ideogram for ‘crisis’ is composed of the two characters which separately mean ‘danger’ and ‘opportunity’.
Winter presents the cook with a similar combination of threat and chance. It is, perhaps, winter that is responsible for a certain brutalization of the British national palate, and a concomitant affection for riotous sweet-and-sour combinations, aggressive pickles, pungent sauces and ketchups. But the threat of winter is also, put simply, that of an over-reliance on stodge. Northern European readers will need no further elaboration; the stodge term, the stodge concept, cover a familiar universe of inept nursery food, hostile saturated fats and intentful carbohydrates. (There is a sinister genius in the very name Brown Windsor Soup.) It is a style of cooking which has attained its apotheosis in England’s public schools; and though I myself was spared the horrors of such an education–my parents, correctly judging my nature to be too fine-grained and sensitive, employed a succession of private tutors–I have vivid memories of my one or two visits to my brother during his incarceration in various gulags.
I remember the last of these safaris with particular clarity. I, little Tarquin Winot, was eleven years old. My brother, Bartholomew, then seventeen and on the brink of his final expulsion, was resident at a boarding school my father described as ‘towards the top of the second division’. I think my parents had gone to the school in an attempt to persuade the headmaster not to expel my brother, or perhaps he had won some dreary school art award. In any case, we had been invited to lunch. A long, low, panelled room, perfectly decent architecturally, housed a dozen trestle-tables, each of which held what seemed to be an impossibly large number of noisy boys. A gong was struck as we entered; the boys stood in a prurient, scrutinizing silence as my parents and I, attached to a straggling procession of staff members, progressed the length of the hall to the high table, set laterally across the room. My brother was embarrassedly in tow. I could feel sweat behind my knees. A hulking Aryan prefect figure, an obvious thug, bully and teacher’s favourite, spoke words of Latin benediction into the hush.
We then sat down to a meal which Dante would have hesitated to invent. I was seated opposite my parents, between a spherical house matron and a silent French assistant. The first course was a soup in which pieces of undisguised and unabashed gristle floated in a mud-coloured sauce whose texture and temperature were powerfully reminiscent of mucus. Then a steaming vat was placed in the middle of the table, where the jowly, watch-chained headmaster presided. He plunged his serving arm into the vessel and emerged with a ladleful of hot food, steaming like fresh horse dung on a cold morning. For a heady moment I thought I was going to be sick. A plate of alleged cottage pie–the mince grey, the potato beige–was set in front of me.
‘The boys call this mystery meat,’ confided Matron happily. I felt the assistant flinch.
There is an erotics of dislike. It can be (I am indebted to a young friend for the helpful phrase) ‘a physical thing’. Roland Barthes observes somewhere that the meaning of any list of likes and dislikes is to be found in its assertion of the fact that each of us has a body, and that this body is different from each other’s. This is tosh. The real meaning of our dislikes is that they define us by separating us from what is outside us; they separate the self from the world in a way that mere banal liking cannot. ‘Gourmandism is an act of judgement, by which we give preference to those things which are agreeable to our taste over those which are not.’ (Brillat-Savarin) To like something is to want to ingest it, and in that sense is to submit to the world; to like something is to succumb, in a small but contentful way, to death. But dislike hardens the perimeter between the self and the world, and brings a clarity to the object isolated in its light. Any dislike is in some measure a triumph of definition, distinction and discrimination–a triumph of life.
I am not exaggerating when I say that this visit to my brother at St Botolph’s (not its real name) was a defining moment in my development. The combination of human, aesthetic and culinary banality formed a negative revelation of great power, and hardened the already-burgeoning suspicion that my artist’s nature isolated and separated me from my alleged fellow men. France rather than England, art rather than society, separation rather than immersion, doubt and exile rather than yeomanly certainty, gigot à quarante gousses d’ail rather than roast lamb with mint sauce. ‘Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less travelled by–and that has made all the’ (important word coming up) ‘difference.’
This might seem a lot of biographical significance to attribute to a single bad experience with a shepherd’s pie. (I have sometimes tried to establish a distinction between cottage pie, made with beef leftovers, and shepherd’s pie, made with lamb, but it doesn’t seem to have caught on so I have abandoned it. They order these things differently in France.) Nevertheless I hope I have made my point about the importance of the cook’s maintaining a proactive stance vis-à-vis the problem of the winter diet. Winter should be seen as an opportunity for the cook to demonstrate, through the culinary arts, his mastery of balance and harmony and his oneness with the seasons; to express the deep concordances of his own and nature’s rhythms. The taste buds should be titillated, flirted with, provoked. The following menu is an example of how this may be done. The flavours in it are essentially straightforward, but they also possess a certain quality of intensity suitable for those months of the year when one’s taste buds feel swaddled.
Blinis with sour cream and caviar
Queen of Puddings
Of the many extant batter, pancake and waffle dishes– crêpes and galettes; Swedish krumkakor, plättar and sockerstruvor; Finnish tattorblinit; generic Scandinavian äggvåffla; Italian brigdini; Belgian gaufrettes; Polish nalesniki; Yorkshire pudding– blinis are my personal favourite. The distinguishing characteristics of the blini, as a member of the happy family of pancakes, are that it is thick (as opposed to thin), non-folding (as opposed to folding) and raised with yeast (as opposed to bicarbonate of soda); it is Russian; and like the Breton sarrasin pancake, it is made of buckwheat (as opposed to plain flour).
Buckwheat is not a grass, incidentally, and therefore does not fall under the protection of the goddess Ceres, the Roman deity who presided over agriculture. On her feast day, in a strangely evocative ceremony, foxes with their tails on fire were let loose in the Circus Maximus; nobody knows why. The Greek equivalent of Ceres was the goddess Demeter, mother of Persephone. It was in Demeter’s honour that the Eleusinian Mysteries were held, a legacy of the occasion when she was forced to reveal her divinity in order to explain why she was holding King Celeus’s baby in the fire–no doubt a genuinely embarrassing and difficult-to-explain moment, even for a goddess.
Blinis. Sift four ounces of buckwheat flour, mix with a teaspoon of yeast and half a pint of warm milk, leave for fifteen minutes. Mix more flour with more milk, two ounces and a quarter of a pint respectively, say; add a beaten egg and a pinch of salt, whisk the two blends together. Right. Now heat a heavy cast-iron frying pan of the type known in both classical languages as a placenta which is, as everybody knows, not at all the same thing as the caul or wrapping in which the foetus lives when it is inside the womb. To be born in the caul, as I was, is a traditional indication of good luck, conferring second sight and immunity from death by drowning; preserved cauls used to attract a premium price from superstitious sailors. Freud was born in the caul, as was the hero of his favourite novel, David Copperfield. Sometimes, if there is more than one sibling in the family, one of them born in the caul and the other not, the obvious difference between them in terms of luck, charm and talent can be woundingly great, and the fact of one of them having been born in the caul and the other not can cause intense jealousy and anger, particularly when that gift is accompanied by other personal and artistic distinctions. But one must remember that while it is unpleasant to be on the receiving end of such emotions it is of course far more degrading to be the person who experiences them; to claim that one’s five-year-old brother pushed one out of a tree house, for instance, and caused one to break one’s arm, when in fact one fell in the course of trying to climb higher up the tree in order to gain a vantage from which one could spy into the nanny’s room, is a despicable way of retaliating for that younger brother’s having charmed the nanny by capturing her likeness with five confident strokes of finger-paint and then shyly handing the artwork to her with a little dedicatory poem (This is for you, Mary-T,/Because you are the one for me) written across the top in yellow crayon.
When smoke starts to rise out of the pan, add the batter in assured dollops, bearing in mind that each little dollop is to become a blini when it grows up, and that the quantities given here are sufficient for six. Turn them over when bubbles appear on top.
Serve the pancakes with sour cream and caviar. Sour cream is completely straightforward, and if you need any advice or guidance about it then, for you, I feel only pity. Caviar, the cleaned and salted roe of the female sturgeon, is a little more complicated. The Wisconsin-born sociologist Thorstein Veblen formulated something he called ‘the scarcity theory of value’, whereby objects are seen to increase in value in direct proportion to their rarity, rather than to their intrinsic merit or interest. In other words, if Marmite was as rare as caviar, would it be as highly prized? (Of course, there is an experimentally determinable answer to this, because we know that among British expatriate communities commodities such as Marmite and baked beans have virtually the status of bankable currency. When my brother was living near Montpellier he once, in the course of a game of poker with an actor who had retired to run a shop targeting itself at nostalgic English people, won a year’s supply of chocolate digestive biscuits. In the ensuing twelve months he put on a stone which he was never to lose.) Lurking in this idea is the question of whether or not caviar is–not to put too fine a point on it–’worth it’. All I can do in response to that is to point to the magic of the sturgeon, producer of these delicate, exotic, rare, expensive eggs, and one of the oldest animals on the planet, in existence in something closely resembling its current form for about a hundred million years. The fish grows up to twelve feet in length and has a snout with which it roots for food underneath the seabed; when you eat caviar you are partaking of this mysterious juxtaposition of the exquisite and the atavistic. And spending a lot of money into the bargain, of course. Caviar is graded according to the size of its grains, which in turn vary according to the size of the fish from which they are taken, beluga being the biggest, then ozetur, then sevruga; ozetur, whose eggs span the range in colour between dirty battleship and occluded sunflower, is my roe of choice. Much of the highest-grade caviar is called malassol, which means ‘lightly salted’.
The process by which the correct level of salting is applied to Volga caviar is insufficiently well known. The master taster–a rough-and-ready-seeming fellow he is likely to be too, with a knitted cap on his head, a gleam in his eye and a dagger in his boot–takes a single egg into his mouth and rolls it around his palate. By applying his almost mystically fine amalgam of experience and talent, he straightaway knows how much salt to add to the sturgeon’s naked roe. The consequences of any inaccuracy are disastrous, gastronomically and economically (hence the dagger).
With liberal additions of sour cream and caviar, the above recipe–I prefer the old-fashioned spelling ‘receipt’, but it was pointed out to me that ‘if you call it that nobody will have a f***ing clue what you’re talking about’–represents perfectly adequate quantities for six people as a starter, providing a single blini each. Perhaps I have already said that. It is only sensible to construct an entire meal out of blinis if one is planning to spend the rest of the day out on the taiga, boasting about women and shooting bears.
Irish stew. This is forever associated in my mind (my heart, my palate) with my Cork-born, Skibbereen-raised nanny, Mary-Theresa. She was one of the few fixed points of a childhood that was for its first decade or so distinctly itinerant. My father’s business interests kept him on the move; my mother’s former profession–the stage–had given her a taste for travel and the sensation of movement; she liked to live not so much out of suitcases as out of trunks, creating a home that at the same time contained within it the knowledge that this was the illusion of home, a stage set or theatrical re-description of safety and embowering domesticity; her wall-hung carpets and portable bibelots (a lacquered Chinese screen; a lean, malignly upright Egyptian cat made of onyx) were a way of saying ‘let’s pretend’. She would, I think, have preferred to regard motherhood as merely another feat of impersonation; but it was as if an intermittently amusing cameo part had tiresomely protracted itself, and what was intended to be an experimental production (King Lear as a senile brewery magnate, Cordelia on roller skates) had turned into an inadvertent Mousetrap, with my mother stuck in a frumpy role she had taken on in the first place only as a favour to the hard-pressed director. To put it another way, she treated parenthood as analogous to parts forced on an actor past his prime, or of eccentric physique, who has been obliged to specialize in ‘characters’. She was ironic, distracted and self-pitying, with a way of implying that, now that the best things in life were over, she would take on this role. She would check one’s fingernails or take one to the circus with the air of someone bravely concealing an unfavourable medical prognosis: the children must never know! But she also had a public mode in which she played at being the mother in the way that a very very distinguished actress, caught overnight in the Australian outback (train derailed by dead wallaby or flash flood), is forced to put up at a tiny settlement where, she is half-appalled and half-charmed to discover, the feisty pioneers have been preparing for weeks to put on, this very same evening, under wind-powered electric lights, a production of Hamlet; discovering the identity of their newcomer (via a blurred photograph in a torn-out magazine clipping brandished by a stammering admirer) the locals insist that she take a, no the, starring role; she prettily demurs; they anguishedly insist; she becomingly surrenders, on the condition that she play the smallest and least likely of roles–the gravedigger, say. And gives a performance which, decades later, the descendants of the original cast still sometimes discuss as they rock on their porches to watch the only train of the day pass silhouetted against the huge ochres and impossibly elongated shadows of the desert sunset . . . That was the spirit in which my mother ‘did’ being a mother: to be her child during these public episodes was to be uplifted, irradiated, fortune’s darling. But if this, as has recently been observed to me, ‘makes her sound like a total nightmare’, then I am omitting the way in which one was encouraged to collude in her role-playing, and was also allowed great freedom of manoeuvre by it. With a part of oneself conscripted to act the other role in whatever production she was undertaking–duet or ensemble, Brecht or Pinter, Ibsen or Stoppard or Aeschylus–a considerable amount of one’s own emotional space was left vacant, thanks to her essential and liberating lack of interest.
So travel and the condition of itinerancy did not bother my mother, which is just as well as it was a fundamental aspect of my father’s business activities. I therefore had a mobile childhood in which the rites of passage were geographically as well as temporally distinct. Thus I have somewhere a maltreated red leather photograph album with a picture in it of me holding my mother’s hand; I am looking into the camera with an air of suppressed triumph as I proudly model my first-ever pair of long trousers. The proliferation of out-of-focus yacht masts in the background gives less of a clue than it should: Cowes? Portofino? East Looe? Another picture shows a view from the outside of the high-windowed, difficult-to-heat ground-floor flat in Bayswater (still in my possession) where my father provided the first external reflection of the inner vocational light I felt glimmering within me: he picked up a watercolour I had made that afternoon (hothouse mimosa and dried lavender in a glass jar) and said, ‘D’you know, I think the lad’s got something.’ That memory brings with it another, that of our flat in Paris, off the rue d’Assas in the Sixième, still vivid to me as the location for my first encounter with the death of a pet: a hamster called Hercule, who had been placed in my brother’s charge by the concierge’s grandson during their August visit to relatives in Normandy. My father wore a black tie when he went downstairs to break the news.
In these early years Mary-Theresa was a constant presence, in the first instance as a nanny and subsequently as a bonne or maid-of-all-work. Although cooking was not central to her function in the household, she would venture into the kitchen on those not-infrequent occasions when whoever was employed to be our cook–a Dostoevskyan procession of knaves, dreamers, drunkards, visionaries, bores and frauds, every man his own light, every man his own bushel–was absent; though she had left our employ by the most memorable of these occasions, when Mitthaug, our counter-stereotypically garrulous and optimistic Norwegian cook with an especial talent for pickling, failed to arrive in time to make the necessary preparations for an important dinner party because (as it turned out) he had been run over by a train.
In these circumstances Mary-Theresa would, with an attractive air of ceremonial determination, don the blue-fringed apron she kept for specifically this emergency, and advance purposefully into the kitchen to emerge later with one of the dishes which, after extensive intra-familial debates, she had been trained to cook: fish pie, omelette, roast chicken and steak-and-kidney pudding; or alternatively she would prepare her specialité, Irish stew. As a result the aroma of this last dish became something of a unifying theme in the disparate locations of my upbringing, a binding agent whose action in coalescing these various locales into a consistent, individuated, remembered narrative–into my story– is, I would propose, not unlike the binding action which is supplied in various recipes by cream, butter, flour, arrowroot, beurre manié, blood, ground almonds (a traditional English expedient, not to be despised) or, as in the recipe I am about to give, by the more dissolvable of two different kinds of potato. When Mary-Theresa had to be dismissed from our service, it was perhaps the smell and flavour of this dish that I missed most.
Assemble your ingredients. It should be admitted that authorities differ on the subject of which cut of meat to use in this dish. I have in front of me three sources who respectively prefer ‘boned lamb shanks or leftover lamb roast’, ‘middle end of neck of lamb’ and ‘best end of neck lamb chops’. My own view is that any of these cuts is acceptable in what is basically a peasant dish (a comment on its history rather than its flavour). Mutton is of course more flavoursome than lamb, although it has become virtually impossible to obtain. There used to be a butcher who sold mutton not far from our house in Norfolk, but he died. As for the preference expressed by some people for boned lamb in an Irish stew, I can only say that Mary-Theresa used to insist on the osseous variation, for its extra flavour as well as the beguiling hint of gelatinity provided by the marrow. Three pounds of lamb: scrag or middle of neck, or shank, ideally with the bone still in. One and a half pounds of firm-fleshed potatoes: Bishop or Pentland Javelin if using British varieties, otherwise interrogate your greengrocer. One and a half pounds of floury potatoes, intended to dissolve in the manner alluded to above. In Britain Maris Piper or King Edward. Or ask. (Science has not given us a full account of the difference between floury and waxy potatoes. If the reader is having a problem identifying to what category his potato belongs, he should drop it into a solution containing one part salt to eleven parts water: floury potatoes sink.) One and a half pounds of sliced onions. A selection of herbs to taste–oregano, bay, thyme, marjoram: about two teaspoons if using dry varieties. Salt. Trim the lamb into cutlets and procure a casserole that’s just big enough. Layer the ingredients as follows: layer hard potatoes; layer onions; layer lamb; layer soft potatoes; layer onions; layer lamb; repeat as necessary and finish with a thick layer of all remaining potatoes. Sprinkle each layer with salt and herbs. You will of course not be able to do that if you have been following this recipe without reading it through in advance. Let that be a lesson to you. Add cold water down the interstices of meat and vegetable until it insinuates up to the top. Cook for three hours in an oven at gas mark two. You will find that the soft potatoes have dissolved into the cooking liquid. Serves four trencherpersons. The ideological purity of this recipe is very moving.
The broad philosophical distinction between types of stew is between preparations which are given an initial cooking of some kind–frying or sautéing or whatever it may be–and those which are not. Irish stew is the paladin of the latter type of stew; other members of the family include the Lancashire hotpot, which is distinguishable from it only by the optional inclusion of kidneys, and the fact that in the latter stages of cooking the British version of the dish is browned with the lid off. The similarity between the two dishes testifies to the close cultural affinities between Lancashire and Ireland; it was in Manchester that my father ‘discovered’ Mary-Theresa working, as he put it, ‘in a blacking factory’–in reality through a business colleague who had hired her in advance of his wife’s parturition, going so far as to employ a private detective to check her references, and then dismissing her when it turned out that his wife was undergoing a phantom pregnancy. Boiled mutton is a cousin to these preparations, and an underrated dish in its own right, being especially good when eaten with its canonical accompaniment (It gives an epicure the vapours/To eat boiled mutton without capers: Ogden Nash); one should also take into account the hearty, Germano-Alsatian dish backaoffa, made with mutton, pork, beef and potatoes; soothing blanquette de veau, exempted from initial browning but thickened by cream at the last moment; and of course the twin classic daubes à la provençale and à l’avignonnaise. In France, indeed, the generic name for this type of stew–cooked from cold–is daube, after the daubière, a pot with a narrow neck and a bulging, swollen middle whose shape is reminiscent of the Buddha’s stomach.
In the other kind of stew, whose phylum might well be the sauté or braise, the ingredients are subjected to an initial cooking at high temperature, in order to encourage the processes of thickening and binding (where flour or another amalgamating agent is used) and also to promote a preliminary exchange of flavours. As Huckleberry Finn puts it: ‘In a barrel of odds and ends it is different; things get mixed up, and the juice kind of swaps around, and things go better.’ Notice that the initial cooking does not ‘seal in the juices’, or anything of the sort–science has shown us that no such action takes place. (I suspect that this canard derives from the fact that searing often provides a touch of browned, burnt flavour gratifying to the palate.) Stews of this sort include the endemic British beef stew, as well as the Belgian carbonnade flamande; the gibelottes, matelotes and estouffades of the French provinces; navarin of young lamb and baby vegetables, with its sly, rustic allusion to infanticide; the spicy, harrissa-enlivened tagines of North Africa; the warming broufado of the Rhône boatmen; the boeuf à la gardiane beloved of the Camargue cowboys, after whose job it is named; the homely international clichés of coq au vin and gulyas; surprisingly easy-to-prepare beef Stroganoff, so handy for unexpected visitors; all types of ragoût and ragù; stufatino alla Romana; stufado di manzo from northern Italy; estoufat de bou from proud Catalonia. I could go on. Notice the difference between the things for which French aristocrats are remembered–the Vicomte de Chateaubriand’s cut of fillet, the Marquis de Béchamel’s sauce–and the inventions for which Britain remembers its defunct eminences: the cardigan, the wellington, the sandwich.
One authority writes that: ‘Whereas the soul of a daube resides in a pervasive unity–the transformation of individual quantities into a single character, a sauté should comprehend an interplay among entities, each jealous of distinctive flavours and textures–but united in harmony by the common veil of sauce.’ That is magnificently said. One notes that in the United States of America the preferred metaphor to describe the assimilation of immigrants is that of the ‘salad bowl’, supplanting the old idea of the ‘melting pot’, the claim being that the older term is thought to imply a loss of original cultural identity. In other words, the ‘melting pot’ used to be regarded as a sauté (good thing), but has come to be seen as a daube (bad thing).
My choice of pudding is perhaps more controversial than either of the preceding two courses. Queen of Puddings is an appropriately wintry dish, and considerably easier to make than it looks. Mary-Theresa would always serve it after the Irish stew, and it was to become the first dish I was ever taught to make for myself. Breadcrumbs, vanilla sugar and the grated rind of a lemon; a pint of hot milk; leave to cool; beat in five egg yolks; pour into a greased shallow dish and bake until the custard is barely set. Gently smear two warmed tablespoonfuls of your favourite jam on top. Are you a strawberry person or a blackcurrant person? No matter. Now whisk the whites in a copper bowl until the peaks stand up on their own. Mix in sugar, whisk. Fold in more sugar with the distinctive wrist-turning motion of somebody turning the dial of a very big radio. Put this egg-white mixture on top of the jam. Sprinkle a little more sugar on top and bake for a quarter of an hour. One of the charms of Queen of Puddings is that it exploits both of the magical transformations which the egg can enact. On the one hand, the incorporation of air into the coagulating egg-white proteins, the ‘stiffening’ of egg whites up to eight times their original volume, as exploited in the soufflé and its associates. On the other hand, the coagulation of egg-yolk proteins involved in custard, as in mayonnaise, hollandaise and all related sauces. Always remember that the classical sauces of French cooking should be approached with respect but without fear.
The first time I made Queen of Puddings was in the cramped, elongated kitchen of our Paris appartement. The almost-untenable lateral constriction of space in the scullery (which is what it really was) was compensated for, or outwitted by, an ingenious system of folding compartments for storing crockery and utensils. Beyond this room was a small larder from which Mary-Theresa would emerge red-faced, carrying a gas canister lopsidedly, like a milkmaid struggling with a churn. She always insisted on installing a full canister before she began to cook, the legacy of an earlier incident in which she had run out of gas halfway through a stew and had to change canisters in the middle of the process. In the course of doing so she made some technical error, which led to a small explosion that left her temporarily without eyebrows. There was known to be a gremlin in that kitchen who specialized in emptying canisters which by all logic should have been full: the supply had a tendency to run out in the middle of elaborate culinary feats. My father once remarked that all you had to do to run out of gas was merely utter the word ‘koulibiac’.
‘It’s time for you to learn about cooking,’ Mary-Theresa said, pressing an unfamiliar metal instrument into my palm and holding my hand as we together enacted the motions of whisking, at first using my whole arm and then isolating the relevant movement of the wrist; I experienced for the first time the divinely comforting feeling of wire-on-copper-through-an-intervening-layer-of-egg, a sound to me which is in its effect the exact opposite (though like most ‘exact opposites’ in some sense generically similar) to the noise of nails on a blackboard, or of polystyrene blocks being rubbed together. (Does anybody know what evolutionary function is served by this peculiarly powerful and well-developed response? Some genetic memory of–what? The sound of a sabre-toothed tiger scrabbling up a rock face with unsheathed claws? Woolly mammoths, pawing the frozen earth as they prepare their halitotic and evilly tusked stampede?)
It was my mother, oddly, who was most upset by the revelation of Mary-Theresa’s criminality. I say ‘oddly’ because relations between them hadn’t been entirely without frictions between employer and employee, added to which were elements of the war (eternal, undeclared, like all the hardest-fought wars– those between the gifted and the ordinary, the old and the young, the short and the rest) between the beautiful and the plain, an extra dimension to this conflict being added by the fact that Mary-Theresa’s looks, slightly lumpy and large-pored, and the ovoid-faced sluggish solemnity of the natural mouth-breather, were perfectly calibrated to set off my mother’s hyacinthine looks: her eyelashes were as long and delicate as a young man’s; her subtle coloration was thrown into relief by the over-robust blossoming of Mary-Theresa’s country complexion; the expressive farouche beauty of her eyes (more than one admirer having blurtingly confessed that until meeting her he hadn’t understood the meaning of the term ‘lynx-eyed’) was only emphasized by the exophthalmic naivety of Mary-Theresa’s countenance, which had a look that never failed to be deeply bullyable; added to this was a tension of the type–mysterious and uncategorizable but immediately perceptible, as present and as indecipherable as an argument in a foreign language–that exists between two women who do not ‘get on’. This was apparent in the certain ad hominem crispness with which my mother gave Mary-Theresa instructions and issued reprimands, as well as Mary-Theresa’s demeanour, with just the faintest bat squeak of mimed reluctance as she acted on my mother’s ukases, her manner managing to impute an almost limitless degree of wilfulness, irrationality and ignorance of basic principles of domestic science on the part of the spoilt chatelaine of the chaise longue (perhaps I paraphrase slightly). All this was underscored by the contrast with Mary-Theresa’s attitude to what my mother would call ‘the boys’, meaning my father (never boyish, incidentally, not even in the blazered photographs of his youth, which admittedly record a period before most people felt entirely unselfconscious in front of a camera) and me and my brother: Mary-Theresa’s manner with us always having a friendly directness that my mother, with finer perceptive instruments than we possessed, I think saw as not being wholly free from all traces of flirtatiousness. (Has any work of art in any medium ever had a better title than Women Beware Women?) All this, of course, would be apparent (or not apparent) in dialogues which, if transcribed, would run, in full, as follows:
Mother: Mary-Theresa, would you please change the flower-water.
Mary-Theresa: Yes, Ma’am.
–the live flame of human psychology having flickered away through this exchange like the sparrow flitting through the hall in Bede’s history. (I think I have already said that there is an erotics of dislike.) Anyway, notwithstanding that, my mother reacted badly to what happened. It began one sharp morning in April. My mother was at her mirror.
‘Darling, have you seen my earrings?’
Remarks of this nature, usually addressed to my father but sometimes absent-mindedly to me or my brother, more, one felt, as local representatives of our gender than as full paternal surrogates, were a routine occurrence. My father was in the small dressing-room next door which opened off their bedroom, engaged in the mysteries of adult male grooming, so much more evolved and sophisticated than the knee-scrubbing, hair-combing and sock-straightening that my brother and I would quotidianly undertake: shaving (with a bowl and jug full of hot water, drawn from the noisy bathroom taps and then thoughtfully carried to his adjoining lair in order to make way for the full drama and complexity of my mother’s toilette); eau-de-cologning, tie-tying, hair-patting, cuff-shooting and collar-brushing.
The earrings in question were two single emeralds, each set off by a band of white gold, possessing in my view the unusual quality of being vulgar through understatement; they were the gift of a mysterious figure from my mother’s early life, the love-smitten scion of a Midlands industrial family, who (in the version that emerged through veils of ‘this weather reminds me of someone I was once very fond of’ and ‘I always wear them today because it was a special day for someone I’d prefer not to speak about’), had refused to accept the gift back when she attempted to return it, and had subsequently run away to join the Foreign Legion. His relatives only managed to catch him in time because he was struck down in Paris (in the course of what was supposed to be his last meal as a free man) by an infected moule. In later life he was knighted for services to industry before dying in a seaplane crash. The gleaming banks of seafood on display at the great Parisian brasseries are like certain politicians in that they manage to be impressive without necessarily inspiring absolute confidence.
‘No darling, Maman is busy’–this to me–’the emeralds.’
‘Not in the morning!’
‘I wasn’t going to wear them, darling–I’m looking in the box.’
‘Have you tried the box?’
The formulaic, litanie quality of these exchanges perhaps being perceptible in that reply of my father’s.
‘Of course I wouldn’t wear them now. I’m not an idiot,’ said my mother.
The discovery of the earrings hidden under Mary-Theresa’s mattress in the traditional little attic room of the bonne was, to my mother especially, a shock. It was the gendarmes who found the cherished jewellery–the gendarmes whom my father had called, reacting to my mother’s insistence at least partly in a spirit of exhausted retaliation, a cross between an attempt to show up my mother’s as-he-said hysteria and an après-moi-le-déluge desire to give up and let the worst happen (the worst being, in his imagination, I don’t know quite what; I think he thought either that the earrings would turn up somewhere they had been irrefutably left by my mother–beside the toothpaste, down the side of a chair–or that they would have been stolen by the concierge, an especially sinister Frenchwoman du troisième age, evil-looking even by the standards of the type, allegedly a widow though, as my father would say, ‘It’s very hard to imagine a husband for Mme Dupont, once one accepts that circumstances can be shown to rule out Dr Crippen’). But I think my father had underestimated the French seriousness about property and money. The young gendarme to whom he made the initial report, filling out a form of great complexity, was genuinely and visibly affected by news of the value of the missing item, and turned up at our flat the next day. He first sequestered himself in the drawing-room with my mother, who ordered tea. And then, before beginning his search, he spoke to my brother and me, first together with our mother present and then separately (this arrangement, and my mother’s scented departure, smiling and glancing reassuringly and perfect-motherishly backwards, being conveyed between the two of them with an apparently wordless arrangement that in another context would have seemed tanglingly adulterous.) The general overwhelmingness of the occasion was augmented by the feeling that the imputation of theft, once aired, had somehow taken on a life of its own–as if the allegation, when voiced, was, like magnesium, spontaneously combustible when exposed to oxygen. As indeed it turned out to be, though as so often happens with adult dramas that take place in front of children, the first stages were hidden, perceptible only in the form of noises off and in the distortions that affected our day. These began when, after potterings and meanderings around the flat on the part of the gendarme–while we sat in the drawing-room with Mary-Theresa and our mother, my brother as usual daubing away at an indoor easel and I reading, as I peculiarly happen to remember, Le Petit Prince–he came back into the room and, avoiding all our gazes, asked my mother if he could speak to her alone for a moment.
Time to draw back the curtains on the creative process. I have been dictating these reflections on winter food on board a ferry during an averagely rough crossing between Portsmouth and St Malo. With the aid of a seductively miniaturized Japanese dictaphone I have been murmuring excoriations of English cooking while sitting in the self-service canteen among microwaved bacon and congealing eggs; I have spoken to myself of our old flat in Bayswater while sitting on the deck and admiring the dowagerly carriage of a passing Panamanian supertanker; I have pushed through the jostling crowd in the video arcade while cudgelling myself to remember whether Mary-Theresa used jam or jelly in her Queen of Puddings, before it struck me (as I tripped over a heedlessly strewn rucksack outside the bureau de change) that she had in fact used jam but had insisted on its being sieved–a refinement which, as the reader will not have been slow to notice, I have decided to omit. In all memory there is a degree of fallenness; we are all exiles from our own pasts, just as, on looking up from a book, we discover anew our banishment from the bright worlds of imagination and fantasy.
And now, the prospect of arrival in St Malo is concentrating my mind on the possibility of visiting a restaurant to ‘put myself outside’ (as my brother used to say) a portion of fish soup. Perhaps, just as every love stands in some relationship to our first love affair–a relation which holds only if one extends the possible nature of the interdependency to include parody, inversion, quotation, pastiche, operatic recasting, as well as slavish and identical reduplication–no restaurant in later life comes entirely unaccompanied by some associations with our first restaurant. And just as one’s first love is not automatically or necessarily one’s first bed partner, and just as well, one’s first restaurant is not or need not be one’s literal first restaurant, the place where one ate in public for the first time and paid for the experience (the forgotten motorway service station on a trip north to Auntie’s, the first, good-behaviour-rewarding shopping expedition teashop scone), but rather the place where one first encountered the blinding, consoling hugeness of the restaurant idea. Stiff, authoritative napery; heavy, gravity-laden crockery; pristine wineglasses, erect and presentable as Guardsmen on parade; a crack regiment of pronged, edged and silent cutlery; the human furniture of the other diners and the uniformed waiters; above all, the awareness that one has finally arrived at a setting designed primarily to minister to one’s needs, a bright palace of rendered attention. Hence, perhaps the tug of the mythic which underlies restaurants, which are after all a comparatively recent institution, evolving out of the traveller’s inn, via the gradual urbanization of western man, and first appearing in their theatricalized modern lineaments comparatively late, in the last years of the eighteenth century, not long before the Romantic idea of genius. There are certain types of conversation, certain varieties of self-awareness, which take place only in restaurants, particularly those bearing on the psychodynamics of relationships between couples whom (frequent solitary diner-out that I am) I notice often eat out apparently with the specific purpose of monitoring the condition of their affair–as if breaking up, by fixed anthropological principle, could only be done by instalments and in public; as if it were reassuring to witness how many others were also precariously aboard the freighted craft of couplehood; as if all couples were by law compelled to take their place in a tableau of relationship conditions, with every state on display from the initial overextension of eye contact to one of those silences which can only be incubated by at least two decades of attritional intimacy.
I may have been sensitized to all this by my mother. It was with her that I underwent my own restaurant rite de passage, and she could be relied upon for very little else as confidently as she could for her sense of occasion. The town, Paris; the restaurant, La Coupole; the cast of characters, my mother and me and our Parisian public and an attendant chorus of bustling, solicitous waiters; the meal, a fish soup followed by the celebrated curry d’agneau for her, a simple steak-frites for little me, followed by a lemon tart split between the two of us; my mother’s dress, a deliciously expensive black scallop-backed item by a named designer, worn with no jewellery apart from the already mentioned pair of earrings; my own outfit, an entirely adorable little blue sailor suit with white neckings (many were the hot-eyed glances I had no doubt been unheedingly darted–though one was amused to come across, reproduced in a magazine article, a photograph of the original youth who had so affected Thomas Mann, and upon whom he had modelled Aschenbach’s visione amorosa: the child in question could honestly be described only as a lump. Art over life once again.) It may have been in those moments that food crystallized as a lifelong interest for me, through a combination of enjoyment at the spectacle, of the sensations of eating themselves, of the pleasures of demonstrating one’s proper public conduct as an ideal son of an ideal mother–the pleasure of appearances raised to the highest possible degree. A commitment to a particular kind of life was decided on for me that evening, as my mother smiled at me across the ruins of the tureened soup and devastated rouille and said: ‘One day, chéri, I am sure you will do great things.’
It will therefore surprise no one to learn that all fish soups and stews have always had an especially high place in my esteem and affections. I have a particularly strong identification with that recipe which fuses the base with the noble, the leftover catch at the bottom of the fisherman’s net (the primary source for the fish in this dish as in most fish stews and soups) with the highest degree of esculence, delicacy and artistry; that brings together the unsaleable minnows of the Mediterranean with the fabulous luxuriousness of saffron (almost as expensive, pound for pound, as gold, for which it can sometimes seem to be a kind of edible simile); a dish rooted in the solid traditions of peasant cookery–perfectly exemplified by the fact that the dish is prepared in a single pot, the totemic single pot of European and indeed global peasant cookery, from the subsistence farmer in Connemara to the muzhik of Omsk–but which also has its noble place in the ramifying, allusive grammar of French restaurant cooking, the cuisine which has in its home country reached the greatest degree of approximation to the full complexity of an articulated language; in short, I have always been especially keen on bouillabaisse. As the legendary eater Curnonsky said, ‘A great dish is the master achievement of countless generations.’ Bouillabaisse’s combination of luxuriousness and practicality, of romance and realism, is one that is positable as characteristic of the Marseillaises themselves, who possess in marked degree that habit of seeming to act up to a collective stereotype which is often to be found in the inhabitants of port towns–one thinks of the self-consciously abrasive and warm-hearted vitality of Naples, the self-consciously waggish sentimentality of Liverpool, the self-consciously romantic stevedores of Alexandria or even the self-consciously muscular, rude and truculent dock-workers of old New York: on this spectrum the Marseillaises take the place of being self-consciously romantic about how realistic they are, and just as it can seem as if the whole of Liverpool is constantly engaged in the description, celebration and praise of Scouseness, the Marseillaises can appear to be embarked on a permanent project to enumerate, categorize and enact their own particular brand of forcefully realistic méridionalité. Note that even the name of bouillabaisse–from bouille and abaisser, ‘boil and reduce’–strikes a note of swaggering, shrugging, stylized rough practicality, as if to say, it’s a soup–what else are you going to do? It is also present in the story underlying the myth that bouillabaisse was invented by the goddess Aphrodite herself, patron saint and founder of that characterful city; a fiction no doubt superimposed upon the historical truth that Marseilles was first settled by the Phoenicians, who were attracted by its conveniently near-rectangular natural harbour (the city’s heart is still the vieux port); they brought with them their mythology, their lighthouses and their talent for trading. Aphrodite is alleged to have invented the dish as a way of getting her husband Hephaestus–the crippled smith, patron of craftsmen and cuckolds–to ingest a large quantity of saffron, a then-famous soporific, and to fall asleep, thus permitting the goddess to set off for an assignation with her inamorata Arte (who has always struck me as being, of all the characters in the Greek pantheon, the most unattractively sweaty). One point in favour of the Greek myths, as of the Old Testament, is that they do have the virtue of describing the way people actually behave.
My researches have failed to confirm or deny the scientific basis of this folk belief about saffron, which is, by the way, a flower, consisting as it does of the stigmas (the pollen-trapping part) of Crocus sativus. It takes more than four thousand of the laboriously (manually) harvested stigmas to provide a single ounce of the spice, the popularity of which is confirmed by the name of the town Saffron Walden, now no doubt a rather dreary market town with the standard appurtenances of lounging skinheads swigging cider on the steps of the graffito-defaced war memorial, and a punitive one-way system. I have never bothered to visit Saffron Walden, notwithstanding the fact that it is not a big detour off the route I usually take from my pied-à-terre in Bayswater to the cottage in Norfolk. This part of England, I often think, must have been at its pleasantest during the period of Roman occupation, when toga’d Romano-Britons could stroll through properly laid-out paved streets past clean buildings to the baths, where they could relax with a leisurely dip, a gossip and perhaps a glass or two of locally grown wine, confident in the knowledge that they were protected from their own countrymen by handsome, polite and heavily armed legionaries. The important thing to remember about saffron from the cook’s point of view is that it is enough to use just one or two threads, and more will risk imparting a bitter, unpleasantly ‘socky’ flavour.
There is considerable debate about whether it is possible to make bouillabaisse away from the Mediterranean and the rocky coves which provide this once-humble dish with its delicious variety of what my father used to refer to as ‘little finny blighters’. My own view, which I relate after the consumption of many gloomy alleged bouillabaisses in northern climes, is that the dish does not travel or translate but that, when the basic principles are understood, it can be made to adapt.
Take two pounds of assorted rockfish, ideally bought somewhere on the Mediterranean in a quayside negotiation with a leathery grandfather-and-grandson team who have spent the long day hauling nets aboard in steep, baking coves, their tangible desire for the day’s first pastis in no way accelerating the speed or diminishing the complexity of the bargaining process. There must be at least five different kinds of fish including of course the canonical rascasse, an astonishingly ugly fish whose appearance always reminds me of our Norwegian cook, Mitthaug. Also necessary are gurnard; monkfish/angler fish/lotte/baudroie (the same thing, baudroie being the fish and lotte its tail as used in cooking; and another child-frightener it is too); and a wrasse or two, either the girelle or the wonderfully named vieille coquette, which I first ate in the company of my mother. Clean the fish and chop the big ones into chunks. Organize two glasses of Provençale olive oil and a tin of tomatoes; alternatively you can peel, seed and chop your own tomatoes. Personally, canned tomatoes seem to me to be one of the few unequivocal benefits of modern life (dentistry, the compact disc). Sweat two cloves of chopped garlic in one glass of the oil, add the tomatoes, add six pints of what in England would be chlorinated former effluent (also known as ‘water’) and boil furiously. Put in the firmer-textured of the fish and the second glass of oil and boil hard for fifteen minutes. Add the softer-textured fish and cook for five minutes. Serve whole fish and big chunks on large soup-plate-type plates and serve the broth separately with croutons and rouille. I can’t be bothered to go into details about the rouille.
Note that bouillabaisse is one of the only fish dishes to be boiled quickly. This is to compel the emulsification of the oil and water; it is in keeping with the Marseillaise origin of the dish that in it oil is not poured over troubled water but violently forced to amalgamate with it. Notice also that bouillabaisse is a controversial dish, a dish which provokes argument and dissent, canonical and non-canonical versions, focusing on issues such as the aforementioned geographically conditioned possibility of making the dish at all, the desirability or otherwise of adding a glass of white wine to the oil and water liaison, the importance or unthinkability of including in the dish fennel or orange peel or thyme or cuttlefish ink or severed horse’s heads. (On which my personal verdicts are respectively ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘why not’, ‘yes if you wish to make the bouillabaisse noir of Martigues’, and ‘only joking’.) Some dishes seem to be charged with a psychic energy, a mana, which makes them attract attention, generate interest, stimulate debate, inspire controversy and debates about authenticity. The same is true of certain artists. I am not thinking of my brother.
The discovery among Mary-Theresa’s possessions of my mother’s earrings (found hidden under the mattress by the gendarme already mentioned; it was as if Mary-Theresa had been acting out one of the failed impersonations in the legend of the princess and the pea) was a shock, of course, and the scene that ensued was very terrible, not least, one gathered, because of the vehemence and passion with which she categorically asserted her innocence. (But then, innocence is such a problematic quality, don’t you find?) The news was broken to us children in that way that adult scandals always are–mediated to one’s childish self by a sense of things unspoken, by small anomalies in the texture of the everyday, by a feeling of parental distractions and absences, by the knowledge that heated conversations are taking place just out of earshot. So one knew, from the time of one’s father’s arrival home in the early afternoon–’dropping in on the home front’ was what he reported himself as doing–that something was up. At about six o’clock, by which time my brother and I had been alerted by all sorts of major distortions to the daily routine (non-presentation of tea by Mary-Theresa, my mother instead distractedly and unalibiedly constructing sandwiches of, I remember noting, a startlingly irregular thickness of bread; non-presence of Mary-Theresa in her putting-the-boys-down-for-their-afternoon-nap role; non-presence of Mary-Theresa in a supervisory capacity during our afternoon rough-and-tumble; non-praising by Mary-Theresa of whatever my brother had got up to in the afternoon, her hysterical cry of ‘look at what Barry’s done now’ as she held up his latest daubing or smear being welcomely and conspicuously absent; and finally non-preparation of dinner by Mary-Theresa, what seemed like a slight delay in proceedings gradually extending into a bona fide gastric emergency), until my father intervened with his gravely radical tidings.
‘Boys, I have some bad news.’
The word ‘boys’ inevitably prefaced some announcement of more than usual import–’Boys, your mother is staying for a while in a sort of clinic.’ In this case:
‘Mary-Theresa has been rather naughty, and she has had to leave us.’
‘Please don’t ask any more questions, boys. Your mother is very upset, and it is important that you show you are strong for her.’
Needless to say it did not take too long to piece together the real story, not least because my parents’ official declaration of a wall of secrecy had to contend unsuccessfully with my mother’s histrionic impulses. She spent the next few days, as she was in certain circumstances prone to do, standing for minutes at a time gazing at the restored earrings in her ears (via a mirror), and was not above muttering, as if to herself, the single word ‘Betrayed . . . ‘ Uniquely, that evening, my father cooked, serving a surprisingly competent sorrel omelette that he must have learned somewhere on his travels, much as he had been taught to juggle by a Neapolitan aristocrat while waiting in a queue to clear customs during a government employees’ work-to-rule in Port Said.
Luckily that evening was not one of the times I had part-emptied the gas canister.
Photograph © Jermaine Ee