I have been making a lot of chicken broth. Boiling up the bones and doing a lot of skimming and straining so that all that’s left is the clear liquid to which I add a few choice vegetables. There is a lot of condensation during this process and all our windows steam up. I feel soothed. It reminds me of Ella. Ella was my landlady in Kilburn, north-west London, who took me in at a moment’s notice the night before starting my three-year stint at RADA. I had nowhere else to go. I found her notice advertising a room pinned on the board somewhere and went to a phone box and called her. She immediately invited me over and there she was, diminutive and smiling, and we sat at her table in the kitchen and she offered me food and we decided that I would move in the following day.
I stayed there nearly a year and regretted leaving and wish to this day I hadn’t. I reminded her of Doris Day, she said. It was a modern, modest house and it was always warm and I seem to remember quite red. There were photos everywhere – of Jazz bands, of singers, of the American pianist George Sheering who she had known in Chicago where she’d lived for a time as a singer.
But it was her kitchen I remember most. It was small but well-stocked. I had never seen a fridge as full. Stewed fruit in black juice; prunes and apricots, a few curling lemon rinds. I never remember there not being a bowl of her stewed fruit in the fridge covered in clingfilm. And chicken soup with matzo balls that reminded me of school dumplings. I remember the blue box of matzo meal always in the cupboard and the practiced way she said the word, which was new to me; it sort of flew out of her mouth. There were beads of fat that floated like sequins on the surface of the soup, and endless chicken. I was fed. Sometimes I would get out of bed, and open the door to find her holding a plate of toast or a bowl of porridge for me and then she’d collect all her teaspoons. Or I’d come home to find the hushed quiet of a bridge evening and glistening noodles for me in the kitchen. I had no money and everything went on rent but feeding me was not officially part of the deal.
Sometimes we sat at the kitchen table and talked: she told me about her love of Las Vegas, of her life in Chicago before coming back to London with her two young sons and starting from scratch alone. We talked about performing. She loved Bette Midler and sometimes she’d play the video of her on Parkinson or we’d listen to George Sheering who she couldn’t believe I’d never heard of. Or she’d tell me jokes or sometimes sing with her microphone along to a favourite piece of music.
I think she found me surprisingly dull. I was an actor but not, like her, an entertainer. I was just finding out what that was: there were entertainers, there were performers and there were actors. I was an actor. I was a little grey. I wasn’t as good as her at anecdotes, at the knack of turning your life into a skit. She got one joke out of me, which she made me tell whenever she had her family to dinner. I would dread it because the humour lay precisely in my delivery and my timing, in getting the pause just right. Having grown up adept at silly voices and mimicry I was having my funny rammed out of me at drama school, I was being deconstructed. But Ella made me do it.
It’s the last supper and Jesus is with his disciples. He decides to speak to them. “I know that one of you will betray me”, he says. There is consternation amongst the group and a stunned silence. One of them, Matthew, finally asks “Is it me, Lord?” “No, Matthew, be assured. It is not you”, Jesus replies gently. After a brief silence Luke asks the same question: “Is it me, Lord?” Jesus smiles and rests his hand on his shoulder. “Luke, fear not. It is not you.” One after the other the same question is asked. Finally, it is Judas who speaks: “Is it me, Lord?”
And Jesus looks at him and says (mimicking him viciously): “Is it ME, Lord?….Is it ME, Lord?“
Actually it was me. I did the Judas thing and left her for a yellow room under the flight path in Fulham to look after a small French boy and was never offered anything to eat except once when I was given a soft-boiled egg in aspic. It meant I could live rent-free and stay at drama school where I was investigating my breathing, amongst other things. She was the nicest person who’d ever looked after me. She died last year at the age of 87. This recipe is for her and I wish I’d stayed.
Adapted from my mother-in-law, Susan Travers
This version requires the chicken broth to be cooked twice; once for 2-3 hours on day one, then the next day for around four hours with a sleep overnight to help all the flavours concentrate. Having made chicken broth many times, cooking it for four hours ‘only’, I can say this twice-cooked method (cooked for me and lovingly) surpasses all my efforts: it takes the broth beyond the flavourful brown water stage into deeply rich bovine jelly. It is worth the wait.
1 medium free-range chicken
2 large leeks, washed and chopped in half
4 carrots, peeled and left whole
1 whole head of celery, trimmed
1 large onion (red is sweeter)
1 small bunch of parsley
1-2 sprigs of thyme, rosemary or 2 bay leaves
1 tsp of sea salt (also season later to taste)
1 tsp of black peppercorns (optional)
Put everything into the largest saucepan you have and cover generously with water (it should be about 2 inches above the bird), and bring to the boil. Then turn down the heat, skimming off any scum as it appears (and keeping the ‘schmaltz’ – chicken fat – for your matzo balls if you want to make them) and simmer very gently for about 2-3 hours, partially covered. There should be the odd bubble but nothing more.
Turn it off and let it sit overnight. Keep it covered. This pause in the cooking helps concentrate the flavours. The following day, bring to the boil once more, then simmer gently for around four hours, partially covered again.
There are two methods for serving: You can strain the soup using the biggest sieve or colander you have, into another pan. Add whatever vegetables that have kept their shape. When the chicken has cooled slightly pull off what you like and add it to the broth. Add some more parsley. This method will give the broth the appearance of a consommé – clear and rather elegant. Or you can simply ladle straight from the pot into a soup bowl; mucky but good.