Wednesday, 29 May 2013

The first French restaurant

When my parents first started taking us to the south of France in the mid nineteen seventies, they were doing something relatively unusual for the times. There was not a lot of money and - surprisingly, perhaps, for the daughter of an Italian - my mother would pack food from home which we took with us: packets of Shredded Wheat; those round flat tins containing Fray Bentos steak pies; and tins of meatballs. It might have had something to do with exchange controls.
Be that as it may, two tins of the meatballs got to the south of France. One was pronounced so disgusting that the other was shipped all the way back to London and given to harvest festival collectors who came to the door.
One year, we had arrived in northern France; the tent was up; and we were all hungry. I have a feeling that my aunt Christine was with us. For whatever reason, the idea of opening one of the tins of food was rejected and we headed out, destination unknown. It was to be my first meal in a French restaurant, indeed my first meal in any restaurant other than a Berni Inn.
I do not recall there being much choice about where we would eat. The restaurant was on a  square in a nondescript northern French town. It was dark. But the light coming from the restaurant was cheerful and the place bustled. There were probably white paper tablecloths. It was that kind of place.
In those days, my brother and I shared one adult portion between us. I can remember the menu very clearly. Cornets of ham, filled with "crudités"; stuffed tomatoes; Steak-frites. And, having said I can remember the menu, I have no recollection of what there was for pudding. If the place was anything like the dozens of other, similar restaurants we were to encounter over the years, there would have been a choice: Crème Caramel, Mousse au Chocolat, Tarte aux Pommes, Glaces, Flan. Or was "Flan" simply another term for "Crème Caramel"?
I suspect that if we had walked into such a restaurant thirty years later and been offered the same things, we would have spent the rest of the holiday reliving the appalling meal we had endured. Instead, on that August night in the nineteen seventies, we were all enchanted with cornets of plastic jambon de Paris with tinned Russian salad in thin mayonnaise; with tomatoes that were stuffed with some kind of mince; with steak that, according to my mother, was "probably horse".
So enchanted were we that a few years later, at my particular request, we returned. It was a mistake. None of us knew for certain even the name of the town, although I had a vague recollection that it was called Albans or something similar. My father only remembered roughly where we would have stopped on that first night. We spent some time fruitlessly searching for it as the night grew darker and ended up back at the campsite, hungrier than when we had left, forced once again into self-catering. A sarcastic remark I made ("Well that's great!") was misconstrued as being a criticism of others and it was not a happy evening.
The following day, we renewed our search and very quickly came upon the square in the town, to find the restaurant, and it was open. It was not usual for us to eat out at lunchtime but it would clearly have been rude not to have done so on this occasion. And my father suggested we did just that. It was perhaps an illustration of how one should never try to recreate the perfect meal. Unlike its forerunner, the menu has passed into oblivion, although my father documented the "foul mashed potato" in the holiday log. His conclusion about the meal was that it was "much less impressive (and more expensive!) than last time". Or had we simply grown more sophisticated in the intervening years?

Friday, 24 May 2013


I suppose that the plates, bowls and mugs from which we eat food can be as significant in inducing memories as the food itself. If not more so. Food is transitory. Yet we can eat off the same plate day after day, year after year. I think, for instance, of the light blue crockery which we used at my first boarding school. Of the white china plates at my secondary school...and the reassuring thud they made against the rubber rubbish chute as the remains of the food went into the pig bin: did pigs ever get it? And of the grey pottery plates my parents used for dinner parties.

But to go back even further, the first bowl I recall using depicted a nursery. On the floor of the nursery was a red train engine. That engine became totemic and a battleground with my brother: which of us would have the privilege of eating from the red train bowl? When we were eating porridge, our mother skilfully persuaded us to eat it quickly to see, by uncovering the engine, who had secured the prized bowl. Now my nephew eats from it.

But the time swiftly came when bowls were for babies and instead, the grownupness of using "ordinary plates" - light pastel shades, used everyday - became much more attractive.

How does it all work now? I enjoy eating off fine white china if the meal is stunning. For food eaten by myself, I will almost certainly eat from a bowl rather than a plate, or, for soup, from a mug. Is it that the bowl and mug, being more enclosed and smaller, are more comforting than the wide expanse of plate? Or is it just that there is less chance of the food spilling onto the floor?

Monday, 20 May 2013


The very name "Snitterfield" conjures up what it was and is: a quintessentially English place, in the heart of England - Warwickshire - and a place where childhood memories were forged without my even realising it.

Granny would take us, probably once each Summer. It was a pick-your-own fruit farm. Two white plastic punnets placed in the green cardboard metal handled basket, on the ground that if you only used a basket, there was a risk of the fruit tipping out. 

Then out to the fields. Raspberry hedges almost always. We tried strawberries once. But mostly it was raspberries. Long rows of hedges where we would separate and then try and work out, through sound, where the others were. The sun, always, beating down. Other families wandering past. Keeping a rather superior eye on my younger brother to ensure that he wasn't blithely gathering underripe raspberries.

Full punnets. The hut where the fruit was weighed and paid for. The baskets now stained purple. The repetitious joke in the queue: "They should weigh you when you go in and when you come out".

Back at home, fresh raspberries and cream, occasionally with meringues that made you cough. Some of the raspberries into the freezer to have when there was snow on the ground. We spent one afternoon over a saucepan making raspberry jam so thick you could hardly spread it.

Once, we were disloyal to Snitterfield. My mother and aunt Christine accompanied us and, on the way in the car, Granny spotted a new pick-your-own-fruit farm and a decision was made to try it out. We ventured into the fields but a few samplings later, my mother concluded that the raspberries were not worth eating. Granny was not entirely convinced but Christine agreed: "I'd rather eat a bowl of bread and butter". She also suggested an alternative use for one of their punnets and our minds were quickly made up. Before her threat could be put into action, we left and headed to Snitterfield.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013


It was rather a fine bell: heavy, metal, it rested on the table of whoever was on duty. Some of the more sympathetic of the masters would permit a pupil sitting next to him to take over the duty of ringing it. To do so required delicacy of touch. There was, in effect, a button on the top of the bell, attached to a short narrow shaft. If you pressed down for too long, no sound would emerge. A short, sharp strike was the preferred method and a surprisingly loud "Ting" would sound.

The bell was used throughout the meal for the purposes of silencing everyone so an announcement of some kind or another - "There are seconds" - could be made. Towards the end of the meal, the bell would sound twice: "The double bell means silence!" Presumably the logic behind this was to ensure speed in finishing our meals and clearing the tables.

The final bell was the signal for chairs and benches to scrape back and everyone to rise to their feet: "Benedictus benedicata per iesum christum dominum nostrum Amen." Curiously, the Latin master, John Herbert, never said the grace in Latin but went instead, briskly, for this considerably more austere form: "For what we have just received, we return thanks. Amen."

Saturday, 4 May 2013


This has nothing to do with the seafood but it does concern something I have only ever found in a fish and chip shop. I should be slightly more accurate: in fact, I have come across the scallop in a handful of fish and chip shops, but only in Coventry, where I was born, and York, where I went to university.

More chip than fish, the scallops I have in mind are discs of potato, dipped in batter and then deep-fried. Their shape, size and the addition of batter gives them, in my view, an utterly different taste and texture to chips. I would not wish to suggest that you replace "a portion of chips" with a scallop, but instead, have it as an extra item, like a gherkin or a pickled onion. And if that sounds excessive, what are you doing in a chip shop anyway?

Creme Fraiche

Somehow, I have gained the impression that Creme Fraiche from the Normandy town of Isigny is the best of all. The only other thing I know about that particular town, never having been there, is that Walt Disney's last name is derived from it. According to Ian Fleming, that fact interested James Bond when he was reading up on genealogy in order to infiltrate Blofeld's mountain lair in "On Her Majesty's Secret Service".

For a very long time, I viewed Creme Fraiche as something inferior. Perhaps this resulted from our inability in France to find fresh cream; instead, it was always soured.

It always seemed to me that its sourness made it inferior to ordinary cream. Now Creme Fraiche would be one of my trio of essential creams: the other two being double and clotted. All the others - single, whipping, extra thick double - have no virtues that the trio lack, and a number of weaknesses. As Nigel Slater points out, extra thick double cream comes with a disagreeable, slightly chemical flavour. He goes so far as to say he wouldn't feed it to his cat. I would agree, if I had one.

Creme fraiche then: excellent eaten with a spoon, its richness offsetting the sourness and vice versa. But its main purpose, in my view, is as a cooking ingredient. Nigel Slater suggests adding it to a pan of cooked chicken thighs for an instantaneous and rather wonderful sauce. I agree. The cream melts into the frying pan, merging with the meat juices. Maybe add a few capers or some of those green peppercorns in brine.