I have been cooking for a couple who live in Belgravia, and who spent twenty years in France and pronounce words – certain cheeses – with a proper French accent and when I was younger I found ths deeply unsettling until a friend told me how much she hated the way her Dutch friend pronounced the word Gouda. I am also cooking food from another time, when everyone ate cream daily. They are both slim and energetic older people who think nothing of eating a pudding every day, a gratin, cheese, bread, strong small coffee. Perhaps small is the key here, because occasionally they’ll remark on my portions and intimate that perhaps this is because of Joe’s rather gargantuan needs but in fact he is also a dainty eater. They like ice cream, tarts, pies, but in small amounts and eaten with style – at a highly decorative table in a room that I have seen but not yet entered.
“You can’t get food like this anymore”, the man said, as he passed me my ’empties’ from the previous days’s dishes – fish pie and lemon posset. “You can’t get it in a restaurant. Nobody makes this kind of food nowadays.” Dressed crab. Bisque. Onion tart. It’s true that no one quite eats like this. We are more timid perhaps. Shy of milk, the presence of Parmesan, nothing too florid, too lavish. “We love soufflés, Shepherd’s pie, sticky toffee pudding. No couscous.” These were my instructions delivered by phone and every day my journey takes me past that old London; Harrods with the bottle green awnings, the gold lettering, the Natural History Museum, the black railings everywhere, the white window boxes and lurid flowers. Big red buses. It’s hard not to feel a child again on the approach to Hyde Park Corner. You can imagine never seeing the same person twice. The doormen at the Wellesley. European women in varying shades of caramel, hair the same colour as their coats.
And then doing battle with that enormous roundabout. It’s probably not called a roundabout, but if you’re not already in the right lane, you find yourself going to Victoria station. Right in the centre is a bizarre series of enclosures impossible to navigate on foot. I’ve done it many times in the past and on every occasion have resorted to asking a stranger how to get across and together we have had a meltdown. I have never not had some sort of panic attack here. In fact it was while stranded under the Wellington Arch seven years ago that I decided to give up coffee. And always leave the house with at least ten pounds cash so I can hail a cab.
There’s possibly some Freudian impulse that has brought me back here, to a lilac mews seconds away. That and the money. I dropped off my portions today – smoked haddock in a mustard and Parmesan cream, homemade ice cream, chocolate sauce, ‘mocha-d up’, they said, approvingly. They love potatoes, so there’s them, new. And as I was leaving we talked about potted shrimp. He told me about his favourite butter only available in France. Jean-Yves Bordier. They both said it in a way I wouldn’t dare, with the breathful ease of two people who eat beurre and cheese every day of their lives. Who knew their French builders’ elegant coffee habits. And the life of weekly markets.
Occasionally I imagine that this is me – with my own favourite butter, for example. A liking for a specific farmer or greengrocer, someone who knows his peaches. I do actually: his name is Paul from Twickenham and he told me the other day about his grandma who made amazing rhubarb and strawberry crumbles for everyone and died sitting up, right there in the street on her stool, next to the fruit & veg. She was given a proper costermonger’s funeral with standing room only. But I wonder if that is sufficiently singular – whether it’s enough. It’ll have to do for now. I’m off to buy three tubs of cream and a tranche of Parmesan.