The thing about me, my mother and kitchens is that we’ve spent a lot of time in them together. If not in her kitchen at home, in her restaurant kitchen, where I learnt how to work. And I do mean work. Commercial kitchens are in no way glamorous. Mascara melts off your face, you go home every day smelling of cooking oil, spices and fish. Your hands seem embalmed in garlic and you can say goodbye to manicures forever. Restaurant kitchens are noisy, hot and sweaty. There’s no place for hothouse flowers or timid fieldmice. If you can’t make yourself heard you will be lost, and if you can’t earn your team’s respect you will be dead and buried.
Despite the fact that it was my mother’s kitchen I started out by washing dishes and worked my way through slicing and dicing to cleaning meat and fish. Picking up all sorts of things in the process. It’s a wonderful thing – osmosis.
I still remember the first time I learnt to clean prawns. Our Mozambique prawns from Lorenco Marques are not the prissy little things you get in a margharita glass as a starter here in England. Our prawns are big and luscious, like crevettes or langoustines, and quite beautiful in an alien ballet dancer sort of way. By the end of the second box, with a myriad of tiny nicks and cuts on my hands that stung like hell when I scrubbed them with lemon juice to get rid of the smell, I still found the prawns beautiful and I could clean one perfectly without damaging it unduly.
My mother taught me to cook every dish on her vast and ever changing menu, and she taught me to cook things that were not on the menu. We loved to experiment and her alchemical approach, equal parts science and magic is now an indelible part of my signature too.
In her kitchen she taught me how to shop. For a lunch, a dinner, a party, a good price. For a wedding of 50 and and a busy Sunday service of 500. She taught me how to make something from nothing, how to fix something when it went wrong, how to step up and apologise when you couldn’t fix it. She taught me how to run a business, how to stand up to people who called me girlie, how to run a shift, and how to run a team.
She couldn’t teach me how to earn respect, except by example, but somewhere along the way I grew up, and the wonderful women who worked in her kitchen and helped her build her business went from calling me sisi ( a term of affection towards a younger woman, or a colleague) to calling me mama ( a term accorded with respect). My mother and her kitchen moulded me into who I am today, and for that I thank her.
I also thank her for teaching me how to eat. Even when the cupboard is almost bare, it’s late and I am ravenous, she taught me to make the most of what I have, and to plate and serve it as if I was making it for someone else. So this meal pictured above is a tribute not to what she taught me to cook, but to how she taught me to cook. And if I didn’t know that this scant handful of organic cherry tomatoes and mushrooms (that I quick roasted with a bit of Camargue Fleur de Sel, some virgin olive oil and a clove of garlic) were the last remnants of a drastically depleted salad drawer, I would have thought they were just perfect with the only surviving ciabatta roll gently toasted with a few lonely gratings of mature Somerset cheddar. In fact, so perfect that a clump of fresh washed purslane from the garden, and a sprinkling of aged sweet balsamic vinegar is all that it needed for me to sigh with hedonistic pleasure. But I REALLY must go food shopping tomorrow.
I know I have been conspicuously absent from the blogosphere for most of this month, but I would like to thank Pasticerra of Bella Baita View for taking in hand April’s Apples & Thyme event. Check out her roundup for other tributes celebrating time in the kitchen with mother’s and grandmothers. It will be the last Apples & Thyme for a while as Jeni and I both have quite a lot on our plates at the moment, but thank you to all who have participated and shared their wonderful stories and memories with us all. If you would like to read some of the fantastic past roundups click on my Apples & Thyme page above.