BY VALENTINE WARNER
Fred, my father, once got lost with a group of friends on a walking holiday in the French Pyrenees. They were, he told me, “lost in mists as thick as theatre curtains, with likely a long fall but a feet away”. “Listen, all of you,” he said boldly to the group, “sit tight and I’ll soon be back.” And he disappeared into the swirling fog.
A few hours later he returned. He looked at his huddled band of weary septuagenarians and said, “Follow me.”
Thirty minutes later they arrived at a small farm where they were greeted by an elderly woman. “A little, aproned Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, hunched like a croissant,” as Fred put it.
She led the bedraggled party to her barn. Set within was a long table laden with cutlery, bottles of wine, boards of cheese, cured meats, pots of beans, and large bowls of garbure – a local dish of soup made from cabbage and duck.
Mrs Tiggy-Winkle was surprised to find herself nourishing this group of anoraked Brits. And doubtless similarly startled a few hours previously when my dad had emerged from the mist and knocked on her wooden door to explain the situation. But his French was always impeccable. And how clever he was to root out such comfort for him and his friends – the warm embrace of hospitality from a stranger; rescued from misadventure and shivering cold.
I truly cherish experiences like this, and perhaps I’ve inherited Fred’s talent to find or at least relish such moments – and the cuisine of international grandmothers. With it comes that sense of place. I would always wish to be dining in a barn in the forest of the Pyrenees rather than enveloped in rich fabric in a restaurant that shimmers beneath the glimmer of Michelin stars.
Such lofty food, memorable for its painstaking fiddling, might be tasty, edible art, but it is so often joyless. Ponder instead the aftermath of a lunch in a town square in France; a paper tablecloth stained by a lunch of delicious, gutsy simplicity. Under the shade of plane trees, the warm breeze carries those curious scents of a French town; of Pernod, tobacco, cooking, and dust. And that lunch: There was fish soup, egg mayonnaise, pâtés and cornichons, fresh goat’s cheese rolled in ash, and quails roasted with garlic and Armagnac. Then there’s the unceremonious delivery; that plonking down of dishes onto the table that only amplifies the deliciousness. The delivery is casual because of the confidence in how good the food is. And the curing therapy of such an experience is that each mouthful in pushes one worry out.
I eat, I drape my arms across the back of my chair, and the waiter pours me another glass of wine. This is “à la ficelle” – you pay for what you drink. Perfect for when you’re on your own and might want more than a small carafe but less than a bottle.
In Greece I’ve gobbled crude sausage with beet tops cured in vinegar; in Mexico, by the sea, simple crab tacos with a crate of beer. In Norway I ate waffles with fresh cloudberries.
As for talking to chefs – those smart London restaurants where the waiter ushers in a privileged few for an audience with the genius at the pass… Give me broken conversation with a Greek widow about her octopus and chickpeas or an unkempt fat guy in a dirty T-shirt in Assam gesticulating wildly about his fiery curry in a language I don’t understand.
In fact, let me question a cook rather than chef any day. Perhaps it’s because I’m also a cook, not a chef. And I’m old-fashioned European in my shopping habits. I shop every day to cook every day. The very gathering or purchasing from shops or my wild surrounds means I need to understand my countryside, my geography, and my moods. My life is a cookbook. I look back through the chapters where every bite is a moment; some happy, some sad, but all vivid in my mind because they are enveloped by food. I hear the clatter and scraping of chairs, the smell of charcoal, the noise of cafés and trattorias, the bustle of food stalls and road-side stop-offs.
In Europe I seek out remoter places; towns, villages, or tiny hamlets where there is still a strong sense of one’s community and roots. And there I find a deep joy of food and cooking. Eat locally with locals and, as you look for ingredients, you gather an integral understanding of the flora and fauna.
Where there is economy by necessity there is depth. Dishes that are born of poverty become an affirmation of life; their gathering, cooking, and their care make a meal so much more meaningful. When life is tough, good taste is almost a spiritual experience. Especially when people eat together, often in a series of celebrations; a whole village sharing particular treats of a season.
And so the happy chapters of my cookbook are filled with paper plates of cep omelettes or chestnut pancakes. Or a bowl filled with Garonne lampreys that were cooked in an old bath. Then, Ah!, for those moments when I’m cooking in new surroundings, in the vicinity of a market where I’ve set eyes on piles of beans and artichokes, mountains of crevettes, and then raced home with baskets of oysters, red mullets, and sausage. And then cooking where I’m lost in a fizz of excitement. Second nature kicks in and, at last, I’m as happy as I can possibly be.
Congrats to the chef profferring the “sincerity of a celeriac” in a single teaspoon, but give me a pile of sea urchins and some scissors. I’m thrilled he’s tweezering tiny edible flowers onto some fish-skin crackling, but pass me the donkey and walnut salami.
Recently I was a few hours north of Barcelona, where my children live with their mother, growing up to the sound of goat bells. So I can be close but independent on my visits, I have a tiny rental with thick granite walls and postage stamp-sized windows. It’s furnished with locally-bought carpets and lamps. And there’s a restaurant next door. I’ve spent the day with my darling children and now I’m alone. I sit down and drink a Mahou beer from Madrid, and then another. I’m in a small square with a fountain, and some local kids are racing around it. It’s February but it’s warm. A plate of cardoons cooked with salt cod in a white sauce arrives with a basket of bread; very basic and very delicious. Then comes a sharp little salad with walnuts and poached quince, and a board of meat cured by the proprietress. Almost undone by all this, I still accept a small platter of roast rabbit and chips with aioli. The meal ends with coffee.
Deadlines, maintenance, mortgage, a dying car, ambition: I couldn’t care less about any of it. My lonely lunch has been a joy, the food generous and delicious. I’m simply happy. My life without such occasions would mean losing untold companionship, fun, surprise, adventure, and misadventure.
Yes, in food lies all my interest and consuming joy. In this mad, violent world of instant everything, it is my medicine. To sit at a simple table and be handed a small dish of tiny lilac olives with a bowl of rustic ribollita soup by an old, arthritic hand, my faith in humanity is restored. My mind calmed. My life saved.
Valentine Warner’s latest book, ‘The Consolation of Food’, is out now (Pavilion Books, £20)