Today was the day I wanted to start Christmas shopping...and then I looked at my bank balance. By the time the shock and despair lifted my afternoon off had all but disappeared, and by the time I’d had a restorative glass of wine courtesy of a kind wine shop keeping friend the afternoon and part of the evening was gone too. Getting home to a cold flat – it’s definitely time to put the heating on – wasn’t the most welcoming experience but now I have a nice cup of tea (in a beautiful mug) and a cake in the oven courtesy of things found at the back of the cupboard. It’s chunky spicy fruit cake from and if it turns out well I’ll let you know.
Thinking about things domestic, or at least thinking about the domestic things I like rather than the things I probably should be doing, has reminded me that I’ve got a book I should have written about an age ago. Patience Gray’s ‘The Centaur’s Kitchen’ from the incomparable Prospect Books has been my tea break book for a while now and I’m going to try and tell you how good it is. I knew of Patience Gray from the Persephone Books edition of ‘Plats du Jour’ (which I’ve got and should have a proper look at) but know very little about her. The introduction to this little book has made me want to seek out the rest of her work because she sounds fascinating. It seems she upped and left her life in Hampstead and North London, which included two children and a career in journalism, to run off to Carrara with the artist and sculptor Norman Mommens. I think it must be quite a story because the voice that comes across in ‘The Centaur’s Kitchen’ is an uncompromising no nonsense one and I want to reconcile the different impressions I’ve gathered of Patience Gray.
‘The Centaur’s Kitchen’ is one of the jobs she took on to make ends meet and fund an expedition to the Greek Cyclades. It’s a cooking manual that only appeared in typescript designed for the use of the Chinese chefs on board the Blue Funnel Line ship ‘Centaur’ as she plied her trade between Freemantle and Singapore. The theme is basically Mediterranean, the recipes are to serve 8, and forget Delia Smith this should have been the first cookbook I ever got because everything in it is useful and everything is explained. For example on butter:
I have made no extravagant recommendation for the use of butter, but would like to remind chefs that only unsalted butter should be used in sauté-ing or cooking fish in the oven. Salted butter inevitably burns in the pan. And nor do I think in any circumstances that margarine can be substituted in these recipes for butter.
These are the sort of instructions I like – explicit with no room for doubt. The kind of kitchen equipment to use is discussed, essential storeroom ingredients are covered, basic sauces and salad dressings essayed, and a full repertoire of recipes for five courses and side dishes are naturally included. All of this fits into 124 pages with room for illustrations. Amazing.
The recipes are (very) good, but for me the best thing about ‘The Centaur’s Kitchen’ are the instructions and the Why’s. Why to add dressing to warm potatoes when making salad and then cool them, why to use copper or enamelled cast iron pans, why it’s better to use coarse rather than refined salt, why salad should be dressed in the bowl... These are things I’ve picked up along the way but I can’t help thinking how useful it would have been to have understood them properly when I first learned to cook in the bad old days of assuming margarine and butter were interchangeable.
Oh and please do have a quick look at Prospect Books, they have a great offer on and the books are brilliant.