As Catherine Cawood well knows, sometimes a cup of tea is all that’s needed to say ‘I love you’
In my family, a Sunday roast is a happier alternative to mushy verbal outpourings. And, goodness knows, we all need a bit of kindness on a plate these days
Remember the saffron and garlic mousse with mussels? If you read this column last month, you’ll know that in the final days of 2022, I went to Henry Harris's new restaurant, Bouchon Racine, hoping these never-to-be-forgotten wobbly pyramids, for which I’d often longed since he closed his old place eight years ago, might be on the menu. In fact, they weren't. But, as you’ll also know, any sense of disappointment on my part was fleeting: a pin prick that lasted only as long as it took to order my (delicious) rabbit in mustard sauce.
I try not to abuse the very small amount of power that comes with writing a column like this, but when Harris emailed me after that one appeared, joking about how he’d better get practising, saffron mousse-wise, I was shameless. I wrote back, telling him the date on which I’d booked another table (bagging one, incidentally, isn't easy these days; his restaurant, above a pub in Clerkenwell, is now more popular than Harry Styles). No pressure, I said, but if your moulds and bain-maries happen to be handy … I mean, come on! As Nancy Friday and many other heroines of the 1970s taught us, sometimes a girl must ask for what she wants.
The weeks ticked by, and eventually the big night arrived – and yes, the mousse was chalked on the blackboard. Actually, this isn't quite true. It had sold out earlier, but four had been kept back for us (I was with three extremely greedy men, hand picked to make myself look less so). What was it like? Frankly, it was more amazing even than I remembered; I could have eaten two, no problem. But my point today hasn't really to do with this dish's way with butter and eggs, but rather with an ingredient that cannot be bought in any market, farmer's or otherwise: magnanimity. There was, it seemed to me, something so generous of spirit in the making of these mousses, a feeling that only grew whenever I saw Harris emerging from the kitchen to talk to people (his manner, I should say, is the polar opposite of that of the overbearing man-in-a-white-jacket desperately in search of praise). All restaurants hope to make money. Not all restaurants care fervently – or even very much at all – about making people truly happy.
I associate food strongly with care, and even with love. Like Catherine and her sister, Clare, in Happy Valley – "there's tea, still, in that pot" – I grew up in a family where to make someone their favourite meal was the preferred means of expressing embarrassing fond feelings. A cake or a Sunday roast were – and still are – happier alternatives to mushy verbal outpourings for all involved. My brother Ben and I are not, outwardly at least, excessively sentimental, but when I go to Sheffield to see my family, as I did the other week, he always gets up early to bake me a loaf to take back to London. For every day that it lasts, I think of him as I toast it – and if I’m feeling really mawkish, I might be moved to send him a WhatsApp (thumb emoji, bread emoji, a kiss, if he's lucky).
But perhaps, in the present moment, this kind of thing – the culinary embrace – feels more important to all of us. Everyone is feeling the pinch. Things are hard and uncertain. In a restaurant, should we be lucky enough to be in one, we want warmth and a tilt at perfection; at home, we want comfort, and to share our table with others if we possibly can. The cold, bare minimum won't do, unless absolutely unavoidable. I’m in a meatloaf phase right now and, in the spirit of this column, here's how I make it. In a bowl, put 500g of minced beef, some fried onion, garlic and pancetta (or bacon), a sprinkle of dried herbs and lemon zest, a tablespoon each of parmesan and ricotta (or soft cheese), a beaten egg, and seasoning. Mix together, add to an oiled tin, and bake for about 50 minutes at 180C. It's not as good – or as good-looking – as a Henry Harris saffron mousse, but with roast potatoes, green beans and gravy it is, I guarantee, kindness on a plate.