I’m feeling a bit melancholic. It might be the time of year or it might be because I made a Boeuf Bourguignon at the weekend. The best and most perfect recipe for BB to my knowledge resides in “The Cooking of Provincial France” from a series of Time-Life publications that my dad subscribed to in the 70s. The recipe books, each focusing on the cuisine of a different country, have sat on my shelf since we cleared my parent’s house three years ago. They bought the books for me really: my mum wasn’t interested in cooking at all and had never followed a recipe in her life. She had a handful, maybe less, of dishes that she had mastered over the years – a pan of macaroni mixed with a tin of condensed mushroom soup would often made an appearance. I would like to be able say that the arrival of the volumes – one every month for a year – was greeted with much excitement but that would be a lie. The first one “The cooking of Scandinavia” predictably featured a lot of pickled fish, pickled vegetables and brown bread; it was a big disappointment. The photos were dreary - lots of Swedes on their way to church; a procession of Norwegians, on their way to church; harvest festival in church. Ooo err, hang-on, what’s this? ‘After their swim, the men eat pork-and-mutton sausages grilled over the sauna’ – and there they are, tucking in. Crikey!
With chapters titled “The Vigorous Diet of Finland” and “Geese and Eels” we put the book in the cupboard, forgot about it and hoped the next installment would be more up our street: “The Cooking of Russia” was followed in March by the “The Cooking of Germany” (steaming sauerkraut served in a pineapple anyone?). April brought “The Cooking of The Viennese Empire” which, needless to say didn’t prove to be an indispensable kitchen bible. May - The Cooking of Japan”– in Bromley? in 1975? And so it went on, until towards the end of the year, The French installment arrived.
"There MUST be something in here that you can make” my mum groaned. And so in an effort to prove that his investment wasn’t a daft waste of time and money my dad persuaded me to have a go at the BB. Later that afternoon he and I were in the kitchen crushing garlic, peeling shallots, chopping herbs and washing tiny button mushrooms. The radio was on. We were laughing. My sisters and brother sat round the kitchen table watching and waiting patiently while we carefully followed the instructions step by step…
What?!! Leave to marinade overnight!! Marinade? We had never encountered ‘marinade’ before. Wails of disappointment from my siblings and a lot of tutting from my mother as the bottle of burgundy was glugged over the meat and the whole lot put in the fridge until the following morning. But it was worth the wait. After years of rationing, followed by the grim gristle and two veg of the 50s and the tinned, frozen and dried convenience food of the 60s and 70s my parents had literally never tasted anything like it in their lives and nor, of course, had we. The meal was legendry and lingered in our memories forever.
Since then I have occasionally made other beef stews, mostly from memory, some times from a funny old cookbook I bought in the 80s. They’ve always been a luxury but it’s never been possible to recreate that original, overwhelming sensation of tasting the combination of brandy, wine, smoked bacon, garlic and thyme for the first time in your life.
On Saturday I had already bought all the ingredients for BB and was half-way through chopping the onion, carrot and celery when something made me reach up and take down the Cooking of Provincial France book. It fell open on the Boeuf Bourguignon page – it was spattered with red-wine sauce from the day back in 1970 something when my dad and I had giggled together in the kitchen making the best meal we’d ever had. It made me quite sad.
Oh, I know you think I've made up the sauerkraut in a pineapple. I'm going to photograph the page tomorrow and show you. And I'm also going to show you how to serve that deadly Japanese blow fish artistically arranged in the form of a flying crane.