Other people’s kitchens are a bit like other people’s wardrobes, full of surprises and fascinating.
Mine is at the rear of a typical Victorian two-up, two-down terrace house with a back extension and postage stamp London garden. I bought the house as a wreck after my marriage broke down and have subsequently lived through all sorts of ups and downs — some good, some bad — but my one constant has been my kitchen. Twenty years later I have brought up two sons, fed and watered their friends and entertained according to the vicissitudes of a freelance lifestyle, keeping afloat by writing about food, first as a restaurant critic and then as a cook.
Even though the original room, then gloomy and unloved, has evolved over the years, essentially it’s the same.
Walls have come down and more space created but this kitchen has always been more than a place to cook. As I glance around it now, taking in its custard and cream colour scheme and black and white chequered tile floor, I see everything more or less as I like it. Like all kitchens, there is never enough work surface but my pride and joy is two thick marble worktops — rescued from Le Coq D’Or before it became Langan’s Brasserie in Mayfair — on which chefs rolled pastry and pummelled bread dough. Overall, I love this sunny L-shaped room. The way it is dressed with food is constantly changing but it is my extensive collection of bowls and platters, knives and kitchen tools that makes it feel like home.
I sometimes think I could live in this room. Everything I need is here, even a sofa to sleep on. I feel enriched by what I see around me and can conjure up evocative memories as I cook. It’s the paraphernalia of cooking, the favourite and often random items I chose to cook with, that often inspire the menu.
There is much to see in this fusion of life and work and my eyes flit over an idiosyncratic treasure trove.
A collection of well-used tequila sunrise-coloured Le Creuset pans is lined up on a shelf above my cooker, many are in loco parentis and really belong to my best friend Tessa, now living in Sydney. Each is a favourite for particular soups and stews. Next to them sit my extra large casserole dishes for party daube, fish pie and moussaka. The top shelves of a deceptively authentic-looking faux kitchen dresser are lined with platters; one, a blue and white Chinese plate with an old man with sleeves that cover his hands, used to reside on the oak dresser that belonged to my maternal grandmother. It makes me think of Energen rolls (which she kept in their big box in her kitchen pantry) and Jacob’s high bake biscuits piled with grated Cheddar laid out for one of her teas.
Various big white platters are a favourite way of presenting food, particularly when there are lots of people around the table or for parties. There is a teetering tower of shells ready for the scallop season. A pasta machine waits patiently for its next outing. Certain ceramics prompt certain dishes. My mother’s cut glass trifle bowl is only used for one thing (plus the occasional fool and fruit salad) while my Greek earthenware soup bowls with a hole for your thumb are the perfect depth for pâté and two-person hachis parmentier. I always serve Moroccan tagines in a large earthenware cazuela, preferring my collection of different-sized white ceramic gratin dishes for pommes Dauphinoise, cauliflower cheese and fruit crumbles.
When I look at my distinctively dark, oblong bread board, I can almost see my father standing tall and erect as he sliced our daily wholemeal loaf in thick, neat slices. Its horizons have broadened since living with me: pugliese, pitta, campaillou, fougasse, rye bread, pain de campagne, challah and bagels, this bread board has seen it all. It sits next to my Dualit toaster, the last in a long line of catastrophes. Every time I reach for a jar of spices, I think of my former husband. He, an accomplished cook, fond of claiming he taught me “everything”, made my spice rack from old wine crates not long before he died.
Over there hangs my first paella pan, a gift many years ago from my older brother who lived in Spain. On the window ledge sits a Cornishware jug stuffed with wooden spoons. My favourite, one edge worn as straight and sharp as a knife, is one of a bunch I bought in Tabarka, on the north-west coast of Tunisia, where I worked on an arts festival 30-odd years ago. They were carved as I watched.
While my sons were growing up there was a long period when they wouldn’t eat anything called stew. Give the dish a foreign name such as Moroccan tagine and serve it with couscous, rice or polenta and they’d wolf it down. I’m embarrassed to admit that the tagine I lugged back from Morocco some years ago is now in the garden. Almost the first time I used it, the earthenware bowl cracked so I cook most of my tagines in a regular, lidded casserole. My sons, now accomplished cooks, were selective about what they learnt to cook. When Henry was about six or seven, he loved going to Chinatown. I taught him to make egg fried rice and the Chinese bowls he ate it from are still on the dresser. There are lemon-shaped yellow labels Zach made for their attempts at making limoncello. Whenever the kitchen floor is sticky after some cooking disaster, I remember limoncello sticky floor.
It was very clever of my sons to work out that one bit of kitchen kit I didn’t own was a mezzaluna. They got in touch with Henry’s old art master who has etching materials, drove to his studio and etched a birthday message on the blade. I keep it close to the kettle, and my eyes slide over their hand writing every day as I wait for it to boil, and I think of them as I rock its blade from side to side.
My kitchen is full of memories such as these. The food we eat and the kit we use to make and serve it, are far more of a repository of emotion than we give them credit for, easily on a par with music. So next time you are stirring a stew or toasting some bread, take a look around your kitchen. You may be surprised where you end up.