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Back - to basics and beginnings

It's been almost a week since I have created a post for this blog. Why?

Well all sorts of reasons, most of them being just that I have been busy. We have been doing the end of year Christmas parties and also catching up with people we haven't seen for ages. Then there is the jam crisis, and indeed I really should be inside now making jam. Perhaps later I'll start the next batch. The first tree is finished and done, now the next is ready to go and the next one needs to be picked. The birds are hovering.

But I admit I have also been a bit uninspired of late and that has shown up in the reduced number of people who have viewed my recent posts. Surprisingly perhaps, but then again perhaps not, I became downhearted by the apparent lack of interest. Vanity always creeps in doesn't it? After all I did not start this with the intention of becoming the most popular foodie blog in the world, or Australia, even Elham. No it was really for me, I was bored in my relatively new retirement and decided that I needed something creative to do. It was a way to discover new things about food, new ways of using technology and perhaps improving my writing skills. Of late those writing skills have waned though - hence the minor despair and the hiatus. I even considered giving he whole thing away but decided that this would leave me with no creative outlets in my life at all. Well not any that I could be sure of actually doing. I have all sorts of ideas, but rarely do anything about them - write my life story for my kids - for when they are old and interested - they won't be now; expand my family history website with more stories of the ancestors ... Besides, mostly writing the blog gives me an inordinate amount of pleasure and satisfaction. A tick for a daily achievement.

Today is the first day with nothing in particular to do for a while. I don't even have to cook dinner because it's a fasting day, and so here I am sitting outside on our terrace because it is also a beautiful day. I did my exercise walk this morning and now I can relax and revive myself.

As I said I have been somewhat uninspired of late. As an example both recent editions of the supermarket magazines have given me no ideas and also no recipes that I feel I must try. Is it me? Or is it them? Are they also becoming tired and repetitive? I feel a bit that if I see another recipe for a glaze for a ham, or 'how to make proper pork crackling' I'll feel I'm over the whole thing. I do have some ideas written down and I have marked a few pages in my Nigel Slater purchase that might be useful, but I have not felt like pursuing any of those.

So I am returning to basics and my writer's block terminators - in this case the first recipe trick. It's a kick starter. If you remember I am gradually making my way back through my cookbook shelves, finding the first recipe in each book and going from there. Part of my intention was to ponder on whether the first recipe was a good way to get you inspired or not, but I feel I have left this question aside a bit. Anyway, here I go with the book at the top of the page - The Robert Carrier Cookbook which is sort of a companion to his Great Dishes of the World. In his introduction he says that the recipes are largely garnered from all the articles he wrote for Harper's Bazaar, The Sunday Times Magazine and Vogue. As you can see my copy is falling apart, partly from overuse and partly because the binding is terrible. Well it's not bound, the pages are just stuck into the spine, and so they eventually come unstuck. It was given to me by the lovely David, who might have been hoping for new and exciting meals from Robert Carrier, and he dated it January 1969 Highgate. January? A late Christmas present. And just a few months before we left England for Australia - never to return - at least to live there.

The book itself is supposedly a manual to help you become a better cook. Mind you, unlike Jamie et al. who are trying to get complete novices to cook, Carrier expects you to have gone through a sort of apprenticeship first by eating:

"Odysseus made his voyages first and then Homer wrote about them. To discover and to reveal: that is the basis of all art. Until we have learned to explore, our tastes are so limited, our experience is so narrow, that we can make no valid comparisons, can found no true judgements. ... We must learn to eat first ... We have to admit it: the more sophisticated tastes have to be consciously acquired. ... Once you have adventured your palate long enough to have acquired real taste, real discrimination, the time has come when you yourself can cook." Robert Carrier

Which is actually a bit snobby I think, and not really how I think of Carrier, as on the whole he is much more encouraging. He himself credits his real food education with the lady shown here - Fifine - who had a bistro in St. Tropez. When young he stayed in St. Tropez for a whole year and learnt from her "the secrets and the skills of that age-old cuisine."

Later in his introduction he is a bit more optimistic about what we mere mortals might be able to achieve:

"You do not have to be a genius to cook. Take it slowly as you would any other branch of learning and you can reach the heights: not the summit itself, perhaps, but high enough to astound your friends and delight yourself."

Which I guess is what I have tried to do, and I definitely have not reached the heights of creation - indeed my finest moments have been those that have used the recipes of others.

As i did on Sunday. We had a group of old friends - long unseen - to lunch and I too decided to return to the basics - to a trio of classic masters of French, specifically Provençal food - Robert Carrier himself who contributed the main dish - La daube de Provence; Richard Olney who contributed the Pissaladière - my starter, and the Pommes paysannes (Provençal potato casserole) and Elizabeth David who gave us the carrots - NIvernaise, and dessert - Croûtes aux abricots.

Did I delight myself and astound my friends? Well yes and no perhaps. The picture of the Pissaladière is actually of my own effort. And I have to say it was pretty good. Also it is the only dish with which I tampered. If I had followed Richard Olney completely the anchovies would have been cooked with the onions - although I don't think that is the standard way of doing it. And I did half with strips of grilled capsicum for the non-anchovy eaters. Plus there were a few tomatoes cooked in with the tomatoes. But the pastry was Olney's - an olive oil pastry with an egg and it was really good. I had meant to meddle and bake it blind but discovered I had left it too late to do this, so followed his instructions and it did indeed work. It was beautifully crisp and flaky. The mains were tasty but both the daube and the potatoes had far too much liquid. I should have reduced the daube liquid and just strained the potatoes. Dessert though was pretty good and very, very simple - and yes as plain and rustic as the above version that I found online. You simply butter thin slices of day old bread, and place in a buttered tray. On top of each slice place three halved and stoned pieces of apricot. Fill the hollow with vanilla sugar and cook for around 40 minutes. I probably cooked mine a little too long, but they are very delicious - particularly with real cream.

So a meal that took me back to France, back to feasts with friends, and back to some of my oldest cookbooks. And it was a beginning too - celebrations after lockdown. A return to social interaction.

But back to Robert Carrier's first recipe, which is for one of the most basic of all things foodie - beef stock. You don't get to it until you reach page 67. Prior to that you are treated to advice on dinner parties, kitchens and equipment, ingredients, wine and and introduction to 'culinary terms'. All basic stuff. The first chapter is called Time to take stock and is all about stock and soup.

The picture is from Bon Appétit and yes it looks complicated - as is Carrier's recipe. His inspiration here though is not from France, but from his American grandmother:

"She used to make the stocks from trimmings and scraps of meat for which she had no other use, and from the extra bones she always made a point of asking the butcher to give her with each order. These she would slowly simmer in a large stockpot on the back of her wood-burning range with a few carrots and onions, a leek or two and some pot herbs, until all the flavours were extracted." Robert Carrier

By slowly, we discover when we come to his recipe, he means several hours. He also includes how to make a meat glaze from any stock that you might have left over. The resulting stock was turned into delicious soups:

"She was not a great cook, by any means, but she certainly could turn simple, homely soup into something more nearly approaching majestic than anyone that I have since met." Robert Carrier

Now I think I have only made beef stock about once in my life, and the way I make chicken stock is much less 'professional' as I simply throw a chicken carcass into a pot with a bit of carrot, onion and herbs, cook for an hour or so and strain. It's the way I was taught by my mother. Carrier's chicken stock uses a whole boiling fowl - a bird you cannot get these days. I also don't think you are likely to acquire 'free' bones from your butcher these days, although you can buy them, so maybe I should have another go at beef stock. It's hardly a cheap thing these days though - the bones and the meat are expensive, as are the leeks particular.

These days however, you can buy pretty reasonable beef stock in cartons - even gourmet ones from Maggie Beer and the like, although I'm afraid I just stick to Campbell's or even home brand versions. They are perfectly Ok, and cheap(ish).

My own personal soup revelation though was what I was fed virtually every evening in France on those long ago exchange holidays in the Loire valley. Whatever vegetables were to hand were braised gently in some butter, water - not stock - I don't think I ever saw Madame Coutant use stock - was poured over and the mixture was left to cook for a while - perhaps half an hour. This mixture was then poured through a Mouli - a truly wonderful implement to my eyes, so I bought one and only recently threw it out in favour of a new one. The resulting soup was served from a tureen into beautiful soup bowls topped with a dob of butter and served with sliced baguette - just wonderful. Now my mother also made wonderful soups but not in this way. Hers had whole bits of meat and vegetables in them.

The above picture by the way is from At Elizabeth David's Table, and is one of the many such soups that I made from her recipes - and Robert Carrier's too. Soup, beautiful soup. I could make one - or two - from the extra liquid from the daube and the potatoes.

So I'm back. I've revisited some old favourites, some new dishes from old favourites and regained contact with old friends. Hopefully with new - and old readers too. And become a little more inspired to try to cook something new/old and write something on this blog every day. Although doubtless Christmas will intrude.

I don't think I shall be making Carrier's beef stock though in spite of the very detailed tips and instructions that he gives - How to remove surplus fat for example:

"Skim fat off the surface of the stock with a perforated spoon. When as much as possible has been taken off, dip the end of a clean cloth into boiling water and wipe the stock with it until stock is free from grease."

Perhaps one day when I'm feeling more creative.

"cooking is a truly creative art, though an ephemeral one. It is also the most selfless of the arts because it is the least enduring. A bite or two, a quick swallow, and a beautiful work of thought and love and experience is no more. And yet the chef will cook again, with as much care, as much skill, for the very next meal." Robert Carrier

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