Greetings from Somerset
05 May 2020
Rosemary Barron is author of Flavours of Greece (Grub Street), and a contributor to Gourmet Traveller, Food & Travel magazine.
‘I know I'm lucky here, surrounded by countryside and with local stores selling clotted cream, free-range meats, chickens and eggs. But, as I've lost work, and have no enthusiasm at all for shopping online, my “lockdown food choices” have had to change. So I've turned for inspiration to other occasions in my life when I've been “without”.
‘I found none in my memory of the post-World War II food rationing that I endured as a child. I remember being happy – after all, I didn't have to wait in queues, nor try to make appetising dishes with margarine and powdered egg – but also that meals generally comprised stodgy food and few sweet treats. Ten years later, as a penniless student in Crete, I ate weeds (khorta) for the first time (still one of my favourite dishes, with Cretan olive oil, sea salt and fresh lemon juice), and discovered how to make dandelion-leaf bread. However, I quickly buried this idea, too, for, unlike in Crete, our dandelion-rich lanes are, in these times, host to many dogs.
‘Fast-forward another ten years, and I arrive in San Francisco with a partner after a three-month road-trip from New York via Mississippi and Louisiana. We had only enough money left, we figured, for either a two-course meal at Le Trianon, home to talented and delightful René Verdon, the “French chef” of Kennedy's White House, or a week's worth of groceries. We called Le Trianon. The next day, dolled up in our London-style finery – but with my high heels in my bag, as we guessed we'd have to walk, not cab, the few miles back from the Tenderloin, the restaurant's inauspicious location – we were greeted at Le Trianon's door by Madame. Our memorable meal – eventually, seven courses, with wine and a substantial quantity of very fine eau de vie to finish – began with a delicious dish of salsify in beurre blanc. We had quickly forgotten our budget.
‘It was our good fortune, then, to have dressed up for the occasion. For Madame's previous job had been as “chaperone” to Dior models on their working visits to the US. In the mid-1970s, although San Francisco's Haight Ashbury was home to the hippies, the city itself was otherwise rather conservative, clothes-wise. Madame much appreciated the arrival of “70s London-colour” in her elegantly-draped (curtained) dining room. She heavily discounted our bill, and we didn't have to walk home.
‘So, with this exceedingly pleasant memory, I've decided that the best way today is to seek inspiration from others who, too, favour the “grand moment” in times of “without”. Which is why I've taken The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook* off my shelf. While the chapter, “Servants in France” (lack of, during the war) is a problem I can't sympathise with, it is, like the rest of the book, alive with vivid imagery. The writing is sparse, fine and often very funny, the tone sympathetique (even, on occasion, for the servants, as long as they could cook), especially of life and people during the Occupation; Toklas and her partner, Gertrude Stein, both Americans, lived in Vichy France. I wonder if my local mayor would do the same as the author's, when the Resistance derailed a train full of wine bound for Switzerland: “Fearing that he (the mayor) couldn't protect the wine (from vandals), he requisitioned it and divided it between the town's 1,500 inhabitants and the 250 Local Occupation forces.” Toklas and Stein received 12 quarts.
‘But are the recipes usable for us now, I hear you ask. Most are not, due to the work required by the aforementioned servants, or because of the author's ability to find truffles, liqueurs and other enviable French ingredients on occasion, war or no war. But a few are, such as Salad Port Royal (potatoes, apples, green beans and mayonnaise) and Truffles de Chambery (simple to make, and delicious).
‘What this delightful book does do though is give us opportunity to indulge in the sheer joy a cook has for her ingredients – Toklas' love for a perfectly ripe fruit, a wartime soldier's generous gift of canned peaches, or an intricate dish that has taken her a day to prepare, is the same – and in her acceptance that, even in times of catastrophe, she is able to create moments of great happiness for everyone at the table.
‘So, in these unfortunate times, here's wishing you all many happy gastronomic moments, however simple they might be.’
* Published in many editions; one of the best, with added recipes and an Introduction by Paul Levy, is published by Brilliance Books, London 1983, reprinted 1987