We finally watched Julie and Julia a couple of weeks ago and loved the story of Julia Child. Meryl Streep portrayed all her quirks, warmth and life so fantastically that we were left wanting to know more. I was left with no desire at all to emulate Julie and blog through a seminal cookery book, but the movie did push me to explore some of the long neglected books on my kitchen shelf.
I was given the Constance Spry Cookery Book when, in my early twenties, I asked for a proper cookery book. I’d outgrown Delia’s One is Fun and wanted a point of reference. In the end I dipped into it but rarely, its old-fashioned insistence on doing things properly and cordon bleu methodology sending me thankfully into the arms of Nigel Slater who promised a good meal in 30 minutes.
On Sunday I found myself leafing through its pristine pages, unsplattered by flour and sauce, not so much for the recipes themselves, but reading all the introductions and prefaces. Her voice was so reminiscent of Julia Child’s, that I realised they were probably contemporaries, Constance Spry grappling with the shortages of everything after the Second World War in an England only just letting go of rationing, at the same time as Julia explored the cuisine of a France that seemed far less worried about lavish use of butter, eggs and cream than dreary old post-war England.
Constance was a flower arranger with a renowned school before the war – her knowledge of cooking was limited to the domestic, but after the war she teamed up with Rosemary Hume, who headed the Cordon Bleu cookery school, to write this book and she took on the role of making the recipes and methods accessible to the British domestic cook, just as Julia did for American cooks. Their book is an encyclopedia of the British take on cordon bleu, with over 1000 pages of recipes and advice all aimed at de-mystifying good food after many years of palates dulled by war-time austerity.
One thing that must have lodged in my subconscious was a passage about fridges quoted from a letter from a Frenchwoman to a new chef entering the service of friends of hers:
“A good cook is economical. He goes to endless trouble to turn out his best efforts without wasting a crumb… To make sure of using up everything to good effect it is absolutely essential for him to plan ahead.
As soon as the washing up is done each evening he should run his eye over his provisions. Opening the door of his Frigidaire, he stands in front of it and thinks. He thinks rapidly, but that moment’s reflection is absolutely necessary…. His kitchen companions should be made to understand that he is the absolute master of the Frigidaire, and he must insist that everything in it shall be kept in absolute order. A chef proves his worth by the scrupulous order in which he keeps his refrigerator, for which he is solely responsible…”
Today I opened the fridge and was dismayed at the state of my sole domain. Usually the week’s shopping fills it to capacity: five or six 2 litre bottles of milk cram the top shelf, yoghurt crowds into another, bowls of leftovers tussle with half filled jars of olives for the best place on the shelf. It is only when the next weekly shop looms that the true state of the realm is revealed. Thriftily saved butter papers crammed in corners, out-of date medicines stuffed in the door, build-ups of gunge threatening the condensation drain thing… nothing was actually threatening to walk out by itself, no blue fluffiness breeding new strains of antibiotic, but still way short of the chef’s nirvana pictured above.
So instead of making bread and doing the laundry, as planned in my self-inflicted hour of housework before approaching the computer, I micro-cleaned the fridge, and realized that never in its life had I actually removed the shelves to clean properly, they were still firmly attached with sticky tape, just as when it was delivered.
Slightly horrified by this proof of neglect, I did manage to conjure up some memories of cleaning it in the past, just not in quite such saintly detail as I was now attempting. I wielded the vinegar spray liberally and made sure my husband was aware of these unprecedented goings on, so that my halo could be acknowledged. Not to be outdone, he got out the gaffer tape (duct tape - fixer of all things, from tents to fridges) and stuck together the plastic shelf in the door that is threatening to resign its position as holder of full milk and juice bottles.
So now I have righted my fridge in the eyes of Constance Spry’s French friend, I wonder if I dare approach some of her recipes. Flipping through now I see a recipe for croissants that looks manageable… mmmm… tempting.