Living with a world class chef had its disadvantages. All the skills I ever learned evaporated, the pitying looks became too much and most of the time I just stood and watched like a guppy fish as the hands moved at lightning speed, performing what looked like three or four culinary miracles at the same time. One wonders what she might have done with the loaves and fishes. But, autres temps, autres mœurs and one finds oneself between the Scylla of the restaurant, which even here, on a daily basis can work out expensive, or the Charybdis of ankling down to the supermarché to purchase whatever one can immediately recognise from its well-stocked shelves, labelled with an impenetrable language and taking pot luck to see whether I can make something, at least if not altogether edible, will not give me salmonella. Cheeses are a problem – they all seem to look alike and taste like pencil eraser. Bacon in the proper British form, fat-laden and thinly sliced is, it seems, not on the Bulgarian menu, so after a couple of false starts involving unspecified cuts of pork, if I want bacon, I just overcook a pork chop instead.
Fortunately, I know an onion when I see one, together with the familiar white florets of what look like quite good quality cauliflower which will form the basis of this evening’s plat. A disastrous attempt to cook stroganoff the other night left me with half a tub of crème fraiche which I felt I ought to try to find a use for, lest my refrigerator turn into a seething biohazard.
My apartment did not appear to be equipped with appropriate armamentaria – pots and pans – for advanced culinary enterprise, but the shop down the road has a few bits and pieces and since I am unlikely to metamorphose overnight into Paul Bocuse, I have been slowly equipping myself with a survivalist guide to cooking – or at least, staying alive – chez moi. A proper Bain-Marie would be nice, but I’ll have to get by with a saucepan and strainer. My cooker is brand new – I turned it on somewhat experimentally the other day for the first time, navigating the little dials that tell you whether you’re using the fan or not. When heated it actually smelled new, a virgin grill exuded a newer-been-touched kind of odour and the oven compartment was as clean as a well-scrubbed face, which I now intend to dirty up.
To whom should one turn for advice? There are a multitude of possibilities and the Internet is stuffed to the gills with expert opinion. Given that simple is best, who else should I turn to but dear old Auntie Delia, who taught me how not to burn chicken à la King to a cindered frazzle over twenty years ago. Apart from a slight tendency to exotica, she is the thinking man’s culinary crumpet and what is more if instructions are followed more or less precisely, the result is frequently quite edible. Liberal interpretation is de rigueur, on the grounds that if Gruyère cheese is demanded, one just has to find an appropriate substitute. I am going with Emmental, since it is the only other cheese I know with holes in it. Failing that there’s some blue, crumbly stuff resembling Roquefort which might be worth a tumble.
By now, you have so cleverly divined that I’m gonna make cauliflower cheese. I suppose I ought to try to find a bay leaf or two – I wonder if I could pinch one from somebody’s garden – together with freshly ground nutmeg. That looks like being dead in the water, since I have no mechanism for grating the stuff apart from rubbing it on a paving stone, and besides which, I don’t like it much. The same goes for cayenne pepper.
At only 4pm, this is all dangerously theoretical. By dinner time, I may have produced something fit for the servants’ hall if not for High Table. Should you not hear from me, assume the worst.