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 cheese shops, butchers and fishmongers. We have to make do with super-markets, which for me removes one of the principal delights in the preparation of food. Chicken carcasses for stock are available, but only three miles north of my attic, as is an excellent fish- monger; properly stored cheeses, with knowledgeable assistants to advise, are cut off by the Congestion Charge zone; exceptionally the butcher is at hand. In Paris, in my area of Fontenay-sous-Bois, the locals slipped out in their nightwear for their breakfast baguette and shopped every morning in the local market.
I had been used to years of food rationing when I settled in Paris. If you lived in a town in England (it was different in the country), you were lucky not to go hungry, and food was regarded merely as fuel. I have no memory of markets. Anyhow, we had to ‘register’ with a particular shop to which we had to give our ration card. There was guilt about striving to find anything beyond our exiguous rations, for only ‘spivs’ bought and sold on the black market. At the same time, in Paris, the most despised vegetable was being attractively displayed and cooked with loving care; food was affordable and plentiful, meals were lingered over, ingredients discussed and respected. Everyone bought bread twice a day and ground their coffee in the home, for it was expected that both would be fresh at every sitting. No outing was complete without the consumption of some small pastry or drink, for enjoyment was not a charge against morality. I wanted all that for myself, as a foundation stone of my new life.
My Paris attic had a cold-water tap, two gas rings but no fridge, larder, hand-mixer or blender. There was no money to spend on buying equipment or installing improvements. I learned to cook by placing one saucepan on top of another to steam vegetables and fish, and to ‘roast’ by plunging meat into vegetable oil in a deep saucepan. I adopted the French habit of buying food daily, of using herbs and spices, making stock and sauces, and drinking rough wine. I discovered that salad was not a lettuce leaf and a couple of slices of beetroot and cucumber, that half a grapefruit with a cherry at its centre was not a starter, and that noodles and rice can be transformed by a herb butter or a home-made sauce. This was four years before Elizabeth David started to educate us in paperback.
In 1962, I found myself in an attic in London without gas and electricity, but this time I was in a position to have services installed. My husband encouraged me to respect the craft of cookery with the best tools I could afford: stainless steel, ceramic and cast-iron, and knives for the different purposes for which they had been forged. I was in thrall to attic life: no basement, even with access to a garden, could have enticed me from my eyrie. My kitchen, where the slope of the roof reduced leg room to a mere 6 by 4 foot 6, must provide for a dining-table which seated eight. I papered the walls in a red and orange French design in homage to Vuillard, my favourite painter of the domestic scene. I have always regretted that my attic was not in Paris.
However, whether in London or Paris, attics share disadvantages: mine has 63 steps to ascend from street level. Unlike some Northern European cities, neither London nor Paris has made provision for pulleys. Eccentric residents have been known to tie a basket to a very long rope and let their cat out once or twice a day, but otherwise everything has to be carted by hand up and down the stairs. But attics share advantages, too, and my view over London is one such. In winter, as I lie in bed, St Paul’s crouches between my feet; in summer a huge ash, in florid leaf, protects my view from architecturally uninspired flats usurping the space once filled by beautiful old stables.
I have planted a cottage garden on a balcony (10 by 6 feet) leading from my bedroom, and another on a wide ledge outside the living-room window facing south-west. Both surfaces rest below the highest branches of the tree, as if suspended in air. And being at dif- ferent heights, the jasmine, the roses, the everlasting sweet peas and akebia climb and tumble between the two, over the roof, around the pipes and the window frames. There is space for a table and two chairs and when I am neither reading there nor working at my plants, song birds, woodpeckers, jays and parakeets visit to feed from the nut cage. Rachel Khoo’s The Little Paris Kitchen encourages me to make of a fantasy a reality again, to bring into my eighties what enchanted me when I was in my twenties.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 36 © Elisabeth Russell Taylor 2012