The Cordon Bleu book, Memorable Meals was like a Bible and my mother was a believer, writes Sarah Daniell.
"Be honest," say Rosemary Hume and Muriel Downes in the introduction to Memorable Meals. "When does your cooking matter most?" The answer? "Of course, it's when you're entertaining."
Hume and Downes were the principal and co-principal, respectively, of the London Cordon Bleu Cookery School. The book was published in 1971. I was 6. And back then, it seemed to me, "entertaining" wasn't fun. It was terrifying. Be honest, Muriel and Rosemary.
My mother loved this book. She dreamed of going to the Cordon Bleu cooking school in France and being an opera singer. She did both in the end — but in the kitchen at home. She totally would've eye-rolled Muriel and Rosemary about that "entertaining, of course" statement. Mum treated every meal like it mattered. Even though she had to pinch and save. Even when she had a "night off", on Sundays, she'd make toast from Vogel bread, pile it with butter and tomatoes and sardines with lots of black pepper. Add 2 cups of flair to one cup of frugality. Fold gently.
In some ways, these were my most memorable meals. Formality abandoned, no sitting at the table, no piles of dishes.
I still have Mum's copy of Memorable Meals. The only clue to the recipes she followed are smudges on a page and fragments from my memory. When I look at the book, I am instantly back in that world with Mum and I feel her presence and her loss all at once.
The book is a real dichotomy — some of the recipes are terrifying (ballotine of duck, I'm looking at you) and some are simple: potage bonne femme or leek and potato soup. The pictures of the meat, particularly, really let it down. Capon a la creme looks like someone's placed a whole, unadorned raw chook on a plate. Baked gammon looks like one of those images of an organ they have on cigarette packets now. Warning: smoking may cause baked gammon. Turn the page: oranges in caramel with brandy snaps. I remember her making these and being intrigued by the technique — the "method" alone would take up the entire word count for this piece. And I know she made vegetable bortsch, because there are greasy smears on the page and also it would have appealed to her sense of using everything, leftovers and scraps. Nothing was wasted. How to make chicken stock? Use giblets, hearts, frame — but never the liver, as it adds a sharp, bitter taste. Plus, Muriel and Rosemary said so.
Each recipe has a timetable: "Assemble equipment for final cooking at 4.45pm for dinner around 8pm." But in the case of dessert, prepare a day earlier. Instead of a friendly "chef's tip" there is "Watchpoint", an ominous portent in bold, rather than a gentle suggestion to keep the tips of your asparagus above the water level.
In the glossary there is "sprue" — a thinner variety of asparagus, which you would need for cream of asparagus soup. There are macarons, relegated to the "Notes and basic recipes" at the back of the book, way before they ever became a towering cliche on MasterChef NZ.
Mum loved feeding people but the process for a dinner party was elaborate, tense and foreign. Foreign to us in that we were not invited. Different silverware and plates. Wine glasses. A white tablecloth. I was small and discovered that if I just stood by the doorway, I could watch the theatre of it in that small, basic kitchen.
Who were these people who came? Did they even know the effort she went to? Did they just get drunk (yes, definitely). I remember many people but mostly I just remember her and the elaborate, exacting and exhausting process.
I learned to cook close by my mother's side. I would read recipes. That's a good sign, I remember her saying. Not because that is where a woman belonged. To enjoy reading recipes, she said, indicated a real interest in food and cooking.
Mum was both a product of her time and she was sovereign. She cooked meals for her family and would hold down a job. She worked at the Chelsea Sugar Factory and she regularly delivered Meals on Wheels to old people. But the kitchen was no jail to which she was shackled; it was her sanctuary, her realm, and a place for thinking and creative freedom.
The French don't take shortcuts, say Rosemary and Muriel in their introduction. A stern warning, like a rap over the knuckles with a wooden spoon.
In the book there are few explanations or cook's notes and a lot of presumption of knowledge. Let them eat nusskuchen cake! The recipe's on page 148.
One dessert is so sharp in my memory I can almost taste it — coffee meringue cake. "Cut four strips of greaseproof 1-inch wide and lay across the top of the cake ... dust the top with icing sugar." Remove the paper, and you have stripes. A simple technique but watching it all unfold was like magic to me.
I told her so. At least I hope I did. But memories are often unreliable.