I am sometimes asked which writers have changed my life. Next time I shall not answer ‘Proust’ but ‘Rachel Khoo’. For five years, since the death of my husband, I had all but given up cooking and eating, all but forgotten what I had valued before my personal doomsday. Rachel Khoo has re-engaged my taste-buds and my enthusiasm. I may even convert my fantasy dinner parties into real ones. I am already making lists.
In 1951, I exchanged a comfortable flat in London for an uncomfortable attic in Paris. I was young, I was making a statement in the face of bourgeois values – those of money, privilege and entitlement: I was choosing slender means. As a result, every aspect of my new life revealed to me a different version of myself from the one imposed by my background.
The word ‘attic’ is loaded with ambiguity. One has only to look to literature, where it can stand variously for the romantic and the corrupt – for a mouse-infested eyrie with creaking floorboards, filled with the dust and dirt of centuries, but also for a haven of warmth, privacy and creativity. When Fanny Price is consigned to bed in the attic at Mansfield Park by the horrid Mrs Norris, it is to degrade her; yet when the Brontë children needed somewhere private to compose their stories, they chose the attic. Charlotte Brontë’s Mr Rochester keeps his mad wife Bertha prisoner in the attic; but when Jo March is fighting against the life of marriage and domesticity proposed for her in Little Women, it is to the attic that she escapes.
On a daily basis, life in an attic is challenging: the roof can leak, delivery men refuse the stairs like horses refusing a jump, and if the entry-phone is out of order and one is ill, there is nothing for it but to hurl the key from the window into the road and risk it disappear- ing down a drain – but if one’s leg is in plaster and one is on crutches, how can one manage the stairs?
My recent reflections on attic life were prompted by an ineluctable force which drove me to buy The Little Paris Kitchen (2012) by Rachel Khoo, a young Englishwoman who decamped to France to learn to cook. I tend not to buy cookery books nowadays, I borrow them from the library instead. But Rachel Khoo, producing exemplary French cuisine in a confined space, struck a chord at the back of my mind which seemed to re-awaken in me the acknowledgement that difficulty in the creation of anything worth striving for is important. From a tiny kitchen with standing space for one, Rachel Khoo simplifies classic French cooking without losing anything of its reliance on first-class ingredients and home-made stocks, sauces and pâtisserie. She pursues her passion in order to share it with friends and strangers alike. She can only seat two at a time in her miniscule dining area but she puts into what she serves the same passion as she would for a gathering of gourmets. She has built up relationships with independent suppliers; she has made her daily round in the market, at the pâtisserie and boucherie, a way of life – the French way. She is Cordon Bleu-trained and understands the chemistry of cookery, but she chooses to adopt a casual style to encourage readers to follow her recipes; her quenelles de volailles are prepared in a blender in a single minute and her sabayon aux Saint-Jacques in ten. She understands the place of food in French life and sees no reason why it should not find similar status in the English-speaking world. Eating is for her a social activity; I notice that her balcony has no planting: she needs every square centimetre free for her guests to stand, one hand round an apéritif, an arm around a friend.
Markets in London are not as enticing as those in Paris. It would seem that neither the beauty of our countryside, nor that of other countries where produce is grown, affects those who display it in London. And there are few independent c
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