David Mellor’s shop lives at No.4 Sloane Square in London, yards from the Royal Court Theatre. I suppose it’s interesting that I would now far rather go into a kitchen shop and buy a chopping board than go and see a play, or indeed audition for one. In fact, I steer well clear, scared (or should I say trepidatious) of bumping into someone from my former life, the theatre bar at the Royal Court witness to a handful of intense, deeply felt humiliations. A theatre bar is not in and of itself a relaxing place to be anyway; everyone is subtly networking or nervous for a friend or relative about to perform (or jealous), everyone is sweeping the room, status – yours and theirs – is being constantly, silently re-negotiated.
You can’t, or rarely can you, just go up to someone. Which is what I used to do before I realized it was not done. There’s Tom Stoppard! Why, he gave me a small but not insignificant cheque at the beginning of my drama school career, based on his friendship with my dad that went back to the Sixties. I shall go over and thank him in person. Why not? He looked at me as though I were a flying insect hovering near, but not directly in, his sight-line. I’m not sure exactly what I said, but it was probably fairly anodyne, inoffensive stuff. In the end, he simply turned away.
I never developed the right persona – some people do and it’s like armour, I suppose. I know them – charming, robust, flirtatious when needed, personal and then oddly impersonal. After my theatre bar exchanges, after auditions, and meetings, I always felt as if I’d just emerged from a car crash. Or a beheading. An agent once said to me that I ‘cared too much.’
I think that’s when I started going into kitchen shops and reading cookbooks; the balm at the end of a day of commercial castings, speaking my name and my agent’s into a camera before pretending to have road rage or candida (sometimes both). At David Mellor’s I headed straight for the chopping boards, past the sparkling glasses and his signature cutlery. And there it was; the smooth, rounded rectangular board with the hole in it. I had been admiring it at my cousin’s. New it was planed smooth of any imperfections, a plain, pale ash wood, but I knew what it would become with time.
I have always had a thing about chopping boards – I notice them in the same way people notice shoes or jewellry or mood swings. A chopping board is a living thing and the more it lives with you the more it absorbs all the things you chop on it, leave on it, put it on, and it develops its own worn character, lines and all. I love the way Becky’s board has those little serrations all round the edge, which makes me wonder what they were for and why the centre is relatively empty.
I suppose you could call it a character study. And although I am a fan of pummelling and pounding – the vivifying effects of a pestle and mortar – there’s something to be said for smashing something, breaking it, or chopping it, or creaming it with a knife. You know the way that garlic can be chopped into a paste, the knife swishing this way and that like a paintbrush until the garlic is practically emollient; I like that.
So I bought the chopping board, and the beautiful, slightly MI5 assistant wrapped it in blank white paper and slipped it into a black paper bag, and we emerged into the Sunday sunlight and walked to the Tate. All the way there and all the way back, (and during) I thought about the board; what I would anoint it with. Garlic. Lemon zest. Parsley or basil. Splat, Chop, chop, scrape, crunch, chop, chop, chop, chop, swipe, swipe, bang. Smile. Repeat to fade.
You can make a pesto (basil, garlic, pine nuts, parmesan) or a picada (Catalan version with parsley and almonds) or a pistou (Provencal version using garlic, basil and oil) on a chopping board, as long as you transfer everything to a bowl before adding the oil (though olive oil is the perfect way to replenish your board – rub it in with a soft, lint-free rag if you have any spillage). Gremolata is a ‘dry’ sauce usually served with osso buco (braised veal shank) and uses garlic and parsley and lots of lemon zest. Try two large handfuls of parsley, the zest of two lemons and two cloves of garlic, reducing them all to a thick slurry. The board, the kitchen, your hands and you will smell intensely of these things afterwards.
More on David Mellor here.