MY FATHER’S LITTLE BLACK BOOK MORE ABOUT LEARNING TO COOK FROM THE HEART
I learned to cook in the traditional way. At my Father’s knee; literally. I was seven or eight years old and I loved to get up early and work with my Dad in the kitchen. I wasn’t tall enough to work on the kitchen counter so he made me a pastry board on our children’s white and red nursery table. Just the right height to learn to make pastry.
In those very early days of leaning it was not recipes or cook books. It was all about techniques and the understanding of what you were doing and why you were doing it. Take this amount of flour, add this amount of lard (always the best for the flaky pie crusts), now sprinkle it with this bit of water and mix pushing aside the combined flour mixture. And while I struggled with the heavy rolling-pin to make one pie my Dad would have two dozen pie crusts rolled and waiting to be filled.
My Dad had a very clear idea of what food should taste like. When I asked him why he didn’t strain water from cooked vegetables into his gravy he asked me “are we making gravy for roast beef or are we making vegetable soup?”
He taught me how to buy beef. Not all nicely wrapped but chosen from great sides of beef hanging in the butcher’s cold room. We would walk back and forth between the sides looking for the most perfectly marbled side of beef. You learn a lot about beef when you stand beside someone cutting the meat into just the right sized steaks and roasts, and grinding the trim into hamburger.
My father was a renaissance man. He was an artist with sugar. He would decorate cakes with a delicate filigree of sugar lace, lush sugar roses and pagodas of dazzling white sugar. I still have the metal nozzles he used to create magic. When we opened our first restaurant, Bassett’s Fancy Desserts, the memories of Dad whispered in my ear – do this do that as I whipped gallons of French butter creams and decorated my beautiful cakes.
At nine years I told my Dad I wanted to be a chef. He said “it’s a difficult job for a woman, they can’t lift the big stock pots”. With all the wisdom of my nine years I told him “I’ll use smaller pots”.
And what of the famous little black book? It was a small notebook that just fitted into the pocket of my Father’ s chef jacket. It was his secret reference book filled with spidery handwriting; ingredients, notes, baking times of hundreds of recipes. He said it was foolish to expect to remember all the recipes one used.
My Father always cooked the Sunday dinner; a traditional English roast done in an enormous deep blue enamel roasting pan. It was surrounded by potatoes, carrots, turnips, parsnips roasted to a crusty golden brown in the rich beef fat. The fat was poured off into a baking pan for Yorkshire pudding; baked to impossible tender heights then deflated into tender morsels we would smother with the mahogany brown gravy. In the summer we would bundle our dinner into baskets and drive across the river to the Great Northern Forest. We would picnic beside the Little Red, a whisper of a stream. There were rustic tables we would cover with tablecloths and eat in style.
As the shadows lengthened we would explore, crossing the rickety swinging bridge looking for woodland treasures. A fire smelling of wonderful burning pine bark drew us back for the final treat of the evening; home-made marshmallows. Another treat from my Fathers “little black book”