Sunday, January 31

Lucky Dip Dinners

After my last post I thought about how I've often gone to countries not speaking the language at all and have simply pointed at parts of the text on the menu in the hope that I was choosing things that would end up resembling a meal.

This made me go and dig out the sketchbooks where I'd made notes in an attempt to try and learn from these experiences, a way to remember the words for 'cat giblets' or 'face of pig' for future reference. The page above was made during a typical 'point-and-shoot' dining experience. This was in Budapest in 1992, I had just got a degree in colouring-in from Brighton. Not knowing what else to do, I managed to get a grant to spend a term at the Hungarian College of Art and Design in Budapest, they didn't make me very welcome and refused to let me use the school facilities so I spent my days in the city's cheap eating and drinking places filling sketch books and taking photos. I dug them out this weekend and fell down a rabbit-hole of memories:

At the end of my residency, to fulfill the terms of my contract I had to put on an exhibition of my work, so I invited people to come to my room and look at these sketchbooks, one of the college tutors edited an arty magazine called Magyar Narancs and several months after I had left town he put a little feature in the magazine, a photocopy was posted to me along with a translation of the text to the left of the image

An Engish girl, taughened(sic) by the salty air of Brighton, drifted into the Trabant-smoked streets of Budapest. She sat into the low-flying bakelite, tiled Budapest; she was flying as a black butterfly between the battered houses. Her drawings, like the magazine illustrations of the thirties, are travel drafts about the magic. Metaphors, jotted down on mustard-stained grease-proof paper; cooked-sausage-sketches. Espresso-bar tables, Dobos-cake crumbs on them, are sweeped into the sketchbook.

Friday, January 29

The Tyranny of Choice

When I go to France, my favourite places to eat are the lunchtime Routier Cafés, frequented by truckers. A chalkboard outside states simply that there is a menu du jour, the price is chalked up and whether or not vin is inclus - no further details. I sit down, food appears, no looking at menus, no decisions, no effort – heaven!

I tried to get breakfast in a diner in America once and never did it again, the milk choice alone includes semi, demi, skinny, fatty, frothy, flat and not milk at all. By the time the waitress started on the bread list I just wanted to go home and put my own toast on.

Most people who hire me simply want the food to happen, fridge and freezer full and a lovely surprise on the table at dinner time – what’s not to like?

The Crazy White House Lady doesn’t see things this way, for her, endless choice is the point of money. Every day I make suggestions for her evening supper, all of which are rejected, then she leafs through recipe books, makes a decision and goes away - just for a while, I imagine her sitting on her bed all clenched and agonising;
mashed potatoes or roast or should we have rice ... do I really want my fish fried...?

after about half an hour has passed she comes back down and asks me to make a different menu.

CWH Lady likes the idea that she is empowering her five-year-old by asking him what he wants for his supper. This is a common scenario, when children are told they can have anything they want to eat they usually want the same thing day in day out, I make chicken and broccoli every day for this child but we still have to go through the ritual of his mother listing possible dishes and pleading with him to try something else, I watch the child during these performances and see that like his mother, he is torn by the anxiety of decision-making vs the enjoyment of all this power.

*I have agreed to stay another couple of weeks with CWH Lady, I fear that we have developed a sort of mutual Stockholm Syndrome

war poster found here

Tuesday, January 26

How Much Housework Is Too Much?

I thought I knew about obsessive housekeepery, I was raised in the sort of house where your coffee cup was whipped away for washing up the second you set it down - finished or not and we warned visitors not to stay too still if they didn't want to get dusted. My parents also like taking pre-emptive action against mess and wear, when I visited them over the weekend I admired my mother's ingenious Bacofoil candlestick protectors – no unsightly wax drips in that house!

I am serving out my final days at The Crazy White House (an average-sized 4-bedroom house, occupied by two adults and two children) which appears to exist solely for the purpose of being cleaned - I am wondering if it is, in fact an art piece or a scientific experiment that is secretly being filmed in timelapse to see how long it takes to polish, hoover and wash a house away. This is the regime:

Every day: at 7.30am Nadia arrives, she does breakfast and starts cleaning the house, she is there for 12 hours, by the time I arrive at 3pm she has started the second floor washing of the day.

Every Friday: a second cleaner arrives for the day and the house gets extra cleaning

Every Wednesday and Thursday afternoon:
someone comes to do laundry

One of the reasons I am leaving the CWH job is that I fear that I have either fallen into a hallucinatory parallel universe or gone snow blind; every night before I go home I look around the kitchen, I have cleaned and scrubbed and swept the floor - it looks, to my eyes, dazzlingly new. After my first week Nadia said to me

You must make the kitchen cleaner before you go at night, I only have an hour and a half to clean the kitchen in the mornings when I come in.

Friday, January 22

Living Conditions II

The Half A Pop Group living situation suits me very well. It is the front half of the band that I am living with, she is the Sexy Vixen who sings and is in charge of everything - he is the cerebral-looking one with the guitar. They have a 3-year-old child and a recording studio in the house and a top floor flat which is almost self-contained, Felicity is the other lodger with me in the flat, she is a voluptuous woman in big skirts who laughs often and loudly and we share the flat with The Child who sleeps here and comes into the kitchen to stare at me or into my room to show me how to operate the television.

I chose the Pop Flat partly for it’s lack of stuffed toys, overflowing ashtrays and mad people but mainly because of the art, the Vixen’s family are artists and the place is full of brilliant pictures. As a household we all seem to find similar things tragic/funny and our Squalor Tolerance Levels are compatible.

Actually Felicity is hugely messy and when I return from making supper for OCD Lady the Pop Flat kitchen  looks like a war zone but I find this strangely comforting after an evening at the Crazy White House*.

I haven’t done any cooking in the Pop Flat since I arrived, the kitchen cupboards are a repository for the stuff Half A Pop Group couldn’t quite bear to throw out; assorted bowls, novelty egg cups and mismatched items of Tupperware, but no plates or ovenware and only one saucepan. The cutlery drawer contains forks, a large spoon, some gaily coloured plastic feeding spoons and used toothbrushes. When I get in from work all I usually need is a stiff drink, but on Sunday I’m getting a visit from my cousin so I have just gone out and bought a pot to cook in.

*BREAKING NEWS So much to say about Life in the Crazy White House but it was all too repetitively grim to relive on the blog, however I have just tendered my resignation so now I might be able to find the whole thing entertaining – and tell you all about it.

Tuesday, January 19

Living Conditions I

Currently I spend my weekdays in London and go back home for the weekend. Last autumn I house-sat a friends art collection in her swishy pad in West London for a couple of months. This was sort of great but also a bit tense, the immaculateness of the pale carpets and the fragile and valuable Works of Art made me nervous, I wore latex gloves and a hairnet in the flat and put paper on the sofa before I sat on it.

At Christmas my friend returned to guard her own art so I needed to find alternative weekday accommodation. I placed a couple of very brief ads asking if anyone had a room to let. I’m a bit out of touch with this sort of thing, but is it normal to reply to 'Accommodation Wanted’ ads with full details of one’s divorce arrangements?

This person (who gave no name or other indication of identity) lives about as far away as one could get from the area I specified

I am living in canary wharf in a 1 bed apartment means 1 bed room and living room , if you need you can take my bedroom whereas I am happy to adjust in living room till march 1st week.

Amount will not be a problem , can talk about that if you like and see the apartment.

your comfort is my main concern

take care


I spent a weekend visiting the best of the proposals, all of them were astonishing in one way or another, one chain-smoking care worker showed me a tiny bedroom full of teddy bears, the rest of the house contained a lot of purple sculpted-pile carpet and was strewn with empty beer cans and overflowing ashtrays. The next flat had a large splashy bloodstain in the hallway which put me off a bit. And then there was Polly;

Polly sent me a very long response detailing the fabulousness of her Chelsea apartment, the 'spacious living room' with 'gorgeous soft furnishings', the 'outside patio for barbeques in the summer', the 'well-equipped kitchen' and the 'vast bath for sumptuous soaking after a hard day’s work'. I was suspicious but I had to see it.

I found the address and tinkled the wind chime by the door of a basement flat, the door opened onto a small grotto-like space partitioned into 'rooms’ with thin bits of board, the smells of cat wee and mould were overwhelming. To hide the mouldy areas Polly had recently glued bits of brightly-coloured fabric over the window sills and skirting boards.

To emphasise the lack of space, the flat was decorated with strings of Tibetan prayer flags and crammed with garage-sale scavenged items, including 2 washing machines and a tumble drier. Polly had rigged up some wobbly storage systems to accommodate bread makers, coffee makers, kettles and assorted broken pots.

My first step through the front door put me in the centre of the 'kitchen’ which consisted of doll-sized sink, the two-ring, Baby Belling hob was set on the drainer which I didn’t notice at first because both hob and sink were covered over with saucepans and plates,
Look! she pointed up at one of the perilously crammed shelves
there’s an ice cream-maker - we can make ice cream!

Polly has many cats, they peered at us as she insisted I went into the bathroom, squeeze my way between the bath and sink and inspect the 'designer’ loo seat, the front of the lavatory was right against the back of the bath - to use it one would have to sit sidesaddle.

I’d been there 5 minutes, I was feeling very queasy and said that I had to leave.

I went out of the door and Polly followed me, in the rain, wearing fat pink felt bootees, this pale pixie-like person bobbed alongside me keeping up a stream of information about her health problems as I tried not to break into a run towards the station as she grabbed my arm, telling me to look in the windows of the local restaurants and shops so I could see what a great neighbourhood we were in.

In the early hours of the next morning Polly sent me a text suggesting that I could stay for the first month for free.

I resisted this bargain and have chosen instead to move in with half a pop group for a little while...

Wednesday, January 13

Nose Job

Second week of the new job and I'm still finding the going tough. I won't bore you with the details, I did that to a friend last night over a bottle or two of red wine.

I staggered home and tried to get ready for bed but tripped myself up taking my jeans off. I dropped on my knees then nosedived into the bedroom carpet, there was a crunch, then blood. Pity there were no spectators because it would've been very funny to watch.

I look like I've been in a fight, which is not a good look for an exclusive private chef.

Monday, January 11

Home Visit

The best thing about my new job is that I don’t do it at weekends. On Friday night after the now familiar supper pantomime, I headed for the station and a train back home to Bristol.

My home contains my husband (The Director) and his film production company, I used to work there too and all through last week, apart from missing my husband, my books and clothes and my own kitchen, I have been dreadfully homesick for my former colleagues, Miss Whiplash, the Camera Boys and all the cake and gossip therein.

I arrived at midnight to find the house full of panic over an impending deadline - a couple of Camera Boys worked with The Director over the weekend to get file transfers completed and another stage of a film production delivered.

Whiplash is stuck in Scotland and has sent a message to say that it is so cold that there is no point in even trying to go out - she might as well stay there, in bed with a friend or two to keep her warm, until the thaw.

There have been changes in my absence, a new Camera Boy was taken on just before Christmas, these were the main reasons that he got the job;

a) We really liked his hair

b) He’s a very sharp dresser

c) He’s so skinny that he pretty much disappears when he turns sideways*

It turns out that Slim Boy makes decent tea and is also rather good at all the digital stuff that needs doing, but an additional bonus is that his sartorial elegance is having an effect on the other boys, some of whom are now experimenting with hair products and interesting hats, it seems they are now spending their days discussing the relative merits of various hair straighteners and having wax vs gel debates.

* fascinating to observe, but also, as the house is rather crowded these days, a body that doesn’t take up much space is quite handy.

Weekend Bake Off

To restore my equilibrium after a week at the Crazy White House I spent the weekend baking and gave myself a gold star for a spiced fig, nut and orange tart invention, I’m pretty sure that it’s the sort of thing that can tolerate variations, so here's what I did;

• get some packets/handfuls of soft dried figs snip off the stalks and put to soak in dark rum and the juice and fine zest of an orange.

next day

• line a standard sized quiche dish with pastry (I added a tablespoonful of sugar to a basic shortcrust recipe) leave in the fridge while you make the filling.

• purée or chop the marinated figs and blend with the rum/orange liquor

• get a big handful (or two) of roasted nuts, walnuts are good, I combined these with some almonds and hazels, chop them and add to the fig mix

• stir in 2 eggs, a couple of tablespoons of honey, a grating of lemon zest, a teaspoon of ground cinnamon and half a teaspoon each of nutmeg and ground cloves and a pinch of salt.

• taste the mixture and adjust for sweetness/spiciness/citricity, when you think it's lovely enough pour into the pastry-lined dish.

• cook in a moderate oven ( 180 degrees centigrade) for 30-40 mins. The top should start cracking but if you poke it, it should still be soft

• put tart to cool

• melt a bar of good dark chocolate with a tablespoon each of cream and butter and some more orange zest (if you fancy it) mix well and spread this on top of the tart.

• When you can wait no longer, eat tart.

Friday, January 8

Communication Issues

My new client and I have been having hilarious misunderstandings this week, it is as though each of us is speaking in a language that sounds like English but is unintellible to the other.

Everybody’s version of a dish is unique but the first dishes I served in the Crazy White House weren’t at all what Madame had in mind. After a couple of tense episodes I suggested that Madame bookmark some of her favourite recipes in a few of her many cookery books, I would make these and thus get an idea about what sort of food they like eating.

The first recipe she handed to me is for ‘Spinach, Parmesan and Potato Soufflé’, I follow the recipe, it is delicious, Madame walks into the kitchen as I am withdrawing it triumphantly from the oven, she looks horrified, then tastes a bit and says;

It tastes of Parmesan, and it is green, I usually half the quantities for those things when I make it.

Tuesday, January 5

New Year New Job

The year isn't starting well, I have a new contract to cook for a household in a posh bit of London and there's something a bit creepy about it.

The house is large and minimal, the kitchen glossy white and very blank, it is a sort of conceptual kitchen, no evidence of food to be seen.

The kitchen has a long central island topped with a huge slab of polished white marble, it is like an altar, a chic metal fruit bowl is in the centre of this island. On my first day I look longingly at this marble but sense that it is considered a holy place so I go instead to a corner where I can prepare the evening supper semi-clandestinely.

I was asked to prepare the supper, leave it in the oven, then tidy up and go away. I finished my day's work and left no apparent trace of having been there, just as I was about to leave my employer came into the kitchen and ran her hands over the pristine surface of the marble, saying
This needs cleaning I can feel things all over it
Related Posts with Thumbnails