Almost six years ago to the day, I completed my graduate diploma in law. A month later, I secured pupillage at a fantastic set of chambers, and prepared myself for a lifetime of criminal law. I was absolutely certain that I wanted to be a criminal barrister for the rest of my working life. But, four months ago, I handed in my notice. And yesterday, I left the bar.
This is a tale of two books, and one pot of soup.
My mother’s kitchen smelt of leeks, frying gently in butter. So when I seek succour, I fry leeks, gently, in butter.
Earlier this month, I sat at a big farmhouse table, in a house none of us live in, drinking wine with my aunt and my sister and we talk of how my mum smelt. To my sister, she will always smell of Chanel Chance, the perfume she wore as we got older. To me it is Chance mixed with the Clarins facewash she used and the Silk Cut cigarettes she smoked.
Learning to cook will, for me, always be bound up with two other things: grieving for my mother, and my relationship with Sam. One death, one birth, both preceding my first foray into the kitchen by such a small margin that I struggle to unpick the different strands of my own narrative.
It was around this time of year, and it seems appropriate that, as I celebrate one and remember the other, I cook a dish that connotes limbo. Sadness and joy. Patience, and quiet triumphs. That dish is Shakshuka.
I know what you’re thinking, dear reader, but you’re wrong. Unexpectedly, gloriously, this vindaloo is honestly, truly the perfect hot summer night dish.
Before my mother died, she would regularly send me parcels in the post. Sometimes she would send gifts (‘love treats’, she called them), sometimes practical items (once a set of snow shoe grips without explanation, which took me a long time to identify; another time, a dressing gown enclosing a clipped-out article on the perils of dehydration); sometimes, it would just be a card.
My mother never taught me how to make a white sauce. I recognise that in the grand scheme of grief and mourning and the death of a parent, this does not at first sight appear to be a problem worth griping about, but bear with me.
Reader, I will be frank with you: in many ways, this bread is the antithesis of the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books that littered libraries when I was a child. But please don’t let that stop you.
For the uninitiated, these were books – inevitably ghost stories or quest books (the format never really suited Noel Streatfield or Dick King-Smith) – that would force you at the end of the page or chapter to nail your colours to the mast and follow a particular path, offering you two plot choices, and two associated page numbers. It made you implicit in the plot, in the conclusion. Inexplicably, these books were achingly cool. I had very bad instinct with these books; within three plot choices I was dead, the treasure was lost, the story ended prematurely. My choices failed me.
A confession, to begin with – appropriate, given the season. This is not a story of how I stopped worrying. It wouldn’t take a psychiatrist to determine that, in the last two years, I have used baking as a crutch, or a crude therapy. I have written previously about how pastries and breads and curds have helped me in times of mourning and misery and panic. I have been grounded by baking. But for a long time, I was scared of bread.
My intention to medicate all autumnal malaises and maladies with appropriate food has been… stalled somewhat.
I put my back out making meringues. Or rather, I thought I had put my back out making meringues. Last Sunday, I was making meringues and something very odd happened to my back and it hurt a lot.
Autumn is a funny old time. Throughout the rest of the year, I spend much of my time telling anyone who will listen (and many who won’t) that I adore Autumn, that it is my favourite time and, at some stage, will probably launch into an enthusiastic rendition of ‘Autumn Days when the Grass is Jewelled’. And yet.