Life Lessons in a Cookery Book

Comfort: chopping and cooking

©shutterstock

Comfort: chopping and cooking

Comfort: chopping and cooking

©shutterstock

How many of us turn to cooking as a comfort? And how many of us escape into cookery programmes and recipe books? Falstaff’s editor-in-chief Anne Krebiehl certainly did. But she found more than comfort – she found a nugget of wisdom.

Cookery Books or Novels?

There was a time when I read cookery books like other people read novels. It is easy to pinpoint when the habit started. I was in my late 20s when I had finally moved out of shared accommodation. Other needs were more pressing in my ramshackle Victorian flat in London’s suburbia, like fixing the damp proofing and rewiring the 1930s electric installation, but I decided to splurge on a proper stove. I did not mind that there were only camping chairs and a pull-out sofa bed. I had my stove, my sink, my chopping board and some decent knives. I also had a sizeable collection of recipe books, started when I was still a teenager.

A Distinctive Voice

But that year I had been given a Penguin paperback of Elizabeth David’s A Book of Mediterranean Food. I was then still ignorant of the fact that it had been written in a dank, grey and still rationed post-war England as a homage to the south. But even without knowing how seminal it was,I could read between the lines. There was a subtext of evocation, of life lived. There was that distinctly northern European sensibility of containing deeply felt experience under a sober, genteel veneer – this was a cookery book after all. Yet personality shone through the spare prose and I started cooking. Tomato splodges (on the paella page) and oil stains attest to those meals. I came to trust this no-nonsense voice. Then, one evening, I read something that really struck me and has stayed with me since.

The Nugget

Under the heading of Sauce Béarnaise David wrote: “Even experienced cooks get into a panic when béarnaise sauce is mentioned. It is not really so fearsome to make, but it does require the cook’s full attention.” There it was, a piece of wisdom I needed at that rather turbulent time of my life. Yes, sometimes things seem difficult and insurmountable but with my full attention they would turn out right. Why was I so struck? Because the sentiment made sense. Full attention means meeting things head-on, with open eyes, with understanding of the facts, with courage and awareness. And even if things don’t turn out alright, there is some comfort in knowing I did not shirk. I think of David’s words often and have always heeded them. Needless to say, emulsion sauces hold no fear for me, and I still cook from David’s recipes. I also still have that stove and have cooked countless memorable meals on it. And I still like to give things my full attention.