Back to my [French] roots

Pêche à Pied | Plage de Mousterlin Finistère| Pierre Guezingar /Flickr

In my early teens, I taught myself to cook using a battered copy of Julia Child’s Art of French Cooking then refined my techniques with Richard Olney’s Simple French Food as the children came along. I already had hundreds of American and Mexican cookbooks but some ancient prejudice inside me kept whispering that until I had mastered the basics of French country cooking, I had no business regarding myself as a formed -and informed- cook. I roped in the local librarian after she enquired why I had kept Child out on permanent loan and she began to recommend other, less well-known authors whilst encouraging me to read recipes in the original French. One of her recommendations found its way onto my own library of cookbooks when she decommissioned it from her shelves and sold the book to me for 20p. This was Geraldine Holt’s French Country Kitchen and it soon became part of my culinary motherboard. Holt’s ability to marry traditional regional French recipes with her own inventions, the latter inspired by the Midi and its ingredients and techniques, encouraged me to stray from the strict edicts of la cuisine Française but only after I had grasped its tenets.


I used to spend large parts of the summer in Brittany, either on holiday with my warring parents or staying as a houseguest of Caroline who I met on a Brittany Ferry crossing to St Malo and became firm friends with. Caroline lived near Paimpol, a small fishing town with its own fleet of boats and locals who gathered seafood from the nearby salt flats and marshes where we also learned to windsurf. The dark grey mud of the marshes teemed with oyster shells, tiny fish eye-sized cockles and turgid winkles, all of which we were instructed to gather after our planche á voile lessons finished. Watched by the sheep (known as agneau pré-salé) who grazed the halophytic grasses nearby, we’d plunge knee-deep into the sludgy, muddy rivulets and clean off the shells and our legs with bunches of samphire.

It was Caroline who introduced me to globe artichokes and tried not to laugh at the baffled expression on my face as her family sat around the table, small wicker baskets clamped between their knees for catching the discarded leaves, as they dragged off the soft lump of flesh that clung to the base of each leaf with their teeth.

So passionate about artichokes were they that their garden contained at least six varieties mulched with seaweed from the local saltmarsh, their tender new shoots banked with mounds of silky silt. Finest of all were the Fiesole artichokes with leaves of deepest wine which kept their colour and required only the lightest of steams to bring out their metallic fruitiness. Bred from the Violetta de Provence, a lighter purple variety native to southern France, the Fiesoles were delicate enough to be eaten whole either with butter, lemon juice and salt or a walnut and garlic sauce, similar to Holt’s extremely versatile aillade Toulousaine. How a sauce in the style of Toulouse got to NE Brittany I did not ask but when I first made Holt’s version, it transported me right back there.

These last few years have seen me drift away from French country food. I have always been a keen cook of regional American food and preparing Creole and Cajun feasts kept me in touch with my classical French roots, in a manner of speaking. Faites Simple! means eliminate the superfluous, that is all. The Louisianian insistence upon a mastery of the roux with its precise steps and equally passionate debates over rightness of technique and the importance of culinary building blocks fed my need for order in the kitchen and helped me cope when I spent three years working weekends and evenings in a rural pub as their cook as a post-graduate student.

The same  need for order and rule applies to my love of Mexican cuisine, forged from my years living there as a child and also from a keen observation of local cooks whenever I could escape school. In Holt’s French Country Kitchen can be found a recipe for dindonneau à l’ail en chemise (turkey with whole cloves of garlic) which on first reading has little in common with the Latin American turkey -based meals I ate as a kid. Where is the marigold-infused flesh, the layered and complex molés flavoured with ancho, pastilla and mulato chillies, chocolate, anise and lard? But Holt’s version and the stuffed turkey called pavo relleno I ate in Saltillo were both basted in butter and the picadillo stuffing was made with garlic-infused beef and funnily enough the Breton turkeys (and chickens) we ate were sometimes fed on spicy -scented marigold petals like they also do in Mexico. The flesh of these birds were tinted the colours of Kahlo’s hair in her Self Portrait In A Landscape With The Sun Going Down. The circle of my eating life continued.

Self Portrait In A Landscape With The Sun Going Down

| miss the precise adherence to rules as old as their families although I can recall their kitchen voices with their slightly nasalized Tregerieg-Breton vowels in an instant. Caroline’s family bought their Kouign Amann from the local patisserie because the French are sensible and have no embarrassment about not making their own cakes-although they retain the right to have lots of opinions about their technical execution. A patissière will be chosen according to something as fundamental as the angle of curve on a croissant and this choice will not be questioned, even two generations of custom later, but when you eat it, you can sense the rightness of their choice. “C’est decide’ you will be told should you dare to enquire.

Holt points out that the French have no need for the dizzying helter-skelter search for new flavour combinations (or culinary scalp hunting as I call it). This doesn’t mean that French cuisine is mired in the historical doldrums though, unable and unwilling to change. It does innovate and refine but these changes are considered and less driven by a desperate need to innovate for the sake of page views and instagram likes or to Be The First. Holt is confident in her experiments but is clear that progress and posterity can only be judged in hindsight which, to me, sounds terribly French. Her food respects terroir and local habits (courgettes served with sorrel grown in the same garden; a salpicon for roast lamb that is based upon a friend’s recipe which itself reflects a different regional store cupboard) but it is also glut-friendly and tolerant of other larders in other lands where the sunshine is less and the frost more frequent.


So…..Tête de veau, boeuf bourguignon, carbonade flammade, cassoulet, salade Lyonnaise, omelette Ardéchoise, and a glorious pintadeau aux figues are all chalked up on my imaginary menu de l’autumn et de l’ hiver. I want my kitchen filled with the scent of gentle braises as they putter away in their casserole dish and the fridge stocked with what my friend’s mother called ‘difficult cuts’; the cheeks, tails and muscled rumps of animals which all call for careful prep and low ‘n slow cooking.

Lastly- and funnily enough- tête de veau was threatened as a punishment meal for a wanton young man called Spider in another of my teenage reads, Scruples.  Its authorJudith Krantz, wrote of a young Parisienne transplanted to New York City in the seventies. It was one of those sex ‘n shopping airport novels which I devoured greedily, especially the descriptions of Valentine’s cooking because she too preferred French country-style food and frequently made it for her neighbour across the hall whose life of penury meant decent food was scarce. Spider baulked at the thought of tête de veau. I wouldn’t.


To pierce or not to pierce?

Is it wrong to pierce a babies ears? In this piece, I write about my experience of having my ears as a small child and the impact this had. 

As a small child,  I emigrated to Mexico and I lived there for a number of years, masquerading as a proper little Catholic school girl, attending nursery and then moving up into the school proper. I stood out like a English sore thumb when I arrived: I was pale and subdued with bone-blonde hair, blue eyes and un-pierced ears and wore a Ladybird dress and neat patent Mary Janes, neither of which coped very well with the dust and sand of the Chihuahuan Desert. My naked earlobes caused the local people the most concern though: they marked me out as a gringa far more than my blonde ringlets did.

The culture in Mexico both then and now is to pierce the ears of newborn girl babies, performed as soon as possible after birth because presumably it is easier than trying to catch and pin down an older, more mobile, and less compliant child. In most cases, babies actually leave the maternity clinic with pierced ears, the procedure carried out just days after their birth because a newborn will not tug at her sore ears nor interfere with the earrings. Once done and with screams quietened- sometimes after sucking on a honey-dipped finger- these baby girl children received their first gold in the form of tiny sleepers or gold studs and the giving of these in the months leading up to the birth is a common gift.

I was four when my parents decided to pierce my lobes, roping in a nun from my school to do it and I was understandably reluctant to have this nun grab me by the tender flesh of my ear and pin me face-down onto her black serge lap so she might push an ice-cold needle through my lobes. A cork from the freezer was held against the back of my ear, providing the necessary resistance for the needle to push against. The nun then threaded each hole with a length of black cotton and tied the ends of the threads into two small loops to keep them open. A few days later, the threads were replaced by plain gold studs because my parents probably  thought that earrings engraved with an image of the Virgin de Guadalupe were a bit too ‘Catholic’,  although these were a popular choice among my friends who called upon the saints to see them through the most unremarkable of life events.

This dour nun was far removed from the gentle Brides of Christ you might have watched in The Sound of Music and she demonstrated a firm grip and an even firmer countenance as she trapped me deftly between her knees to examine the shape of my ears whilst my parents held onto my thrashing arms. I briefly contemplated biting her plump little kneecap as she bent my head forwards then decided that the risk of Hell On Earth- as opposed to going to the real hell afterwards- was too much of a risk. I had already spent too much time locked in the dark and chalky art supplies cupboard for various minor classroom insubordinations (like being, um, four) and I wasn’t planning on spending more time in there with sore throbbing ears to boot.

Post-piercing, all I was allowed to wear was a tiny, uptight gold stud whilst my Mexican friends wore dramatic, passionate, ear jewelry that afforded them a bigger and more decorative space in the world. I was envious of my friend Susie’s black curls, brown skin and the chunky pair of carved gold arracadas hoops that danced in her ears: standing alongside her, I felt like a half-erased drawing. My discreet British-style studs rendered me a half-hearted participant in a rite much bigger than me and as a child, I squirmed over my competing cultural definition. My envy confused me, wrapped up as it was with resentment at my parents. I had failed to separate my feelings about the frightening method used to pierce my ears from the longer-term consequences and cultural significance of remaining the only un-pierced girl in my school. At times I hated my parents for forcing me to go through such an ordeal, I disliked the hassle of caring for my pierced ears yet I longed too, for something a little less waspy. Alone in my room at night, I would remove the studs and ‘lose’ the small gold ball that screwed onto the sharp post which threaded through my ear. The next morning, my mother, or Maria our housekeeper, would triumphantly produce one of many ‘spares’ and reinsert the earring, accompanied by scolding slaps and harsh words. It became a daily and unpleasant ritual until Maria sat me down and explained that when I was older it would be up to me but for now, I had to submit. She was sure that an extra cup of atole might be in line for little girls who weren’t put on earth to turn her waist-length black hair prematurely grey. Maria was just eighteen. 


Arracadas do “Tesouro Bedoya”, expostas no Museo de Pontevedra.

My early teenage years were marked by a nascent feminism and I began to consider the psychological implications of having ones pain rewarded by jewelry and a sugary finger.  I thought about the fact that I underwent the same procedure without ‘enjoying’ the benefit of being too young to consciously recall it: it was very hard to forget my feelings of terror at being held down without real explanation of what was to happen. I found it hard to shake off the fear I felt when I realised that I had absolutely no say in it. The fact that ear piercing was performed by a nun made it even odder.

I lost interest in my earrings in adulthood, refusing to wear them as I started to regain jurisdiction over my body and began to reject everything that reminded me of my powerlessness in the face of my parents’ actions. It was in defiance of all that came after the parental neglect and abuse; the ongoing disregard of me as a person separate from themselves which was heralded by their turning a deaf ear against my pleas to leave my own ears alone. Eventually, I let the holes close up until all that remained was a thickened piece of tissue, a minute bulls-eye in the centre of my lobes. Slightly darker in colour than the rest of my ear, these were a reminder of things done and it became apparent that they would not fade and the damage would never be completely invisible. I had my own daughter and left her ears alone although when she was twelve she went through her own push-me pull -me as she tried to decide of her own accord whether to pierce. Six years later I had my son and left his ears alone too.


Decades later, I’m attracted by the thought of the flash-trash clink of Creole gilt hoops as I shake my head. I imagine white-gold stars thickly clustered along the outer and upper part of my ear or Halston-fabulous slim needles made from silver and platinum which I imagine swinging and catching the light. The mysterious language of the ear piercer intrigues me too. There are piercings called the tragus and the anti-tragus which sound like a Greek myth on the scale of Perseus versus the Gorgon. The conch and the rook are embedded into the shell-like curves of the inner ear lobe whilst the daith sounds like something a nun might whisper in the stillness of her cell-like bedroom. I’m drawn to what some call the Chola style, from first- and second-generation Mexican and Mexican-American girls who wear gold chains, large hoops and stop-the-traffic red lipstick with an attitude that both reclaims and flips this formerly abusive term on its head. I like the Chola blend of strong femininity and toughness which spits in the face of the fact that these girls probably had little choice as to whether their ears were pierced or not. But I’m not Mexican or Mexican-American, no matter that I once lived there for a while and despite the fact that the Chola has evolved from a culture I am familiar with. There’s a line of authenticity to be drawn in the sand somewhere, probably starting with the fact that Chola abuelas (grandmothers) seem to be quite thin on the ground and I am nearer the abuela than I am her daughter or granddaughter.

I’m ready now. I am eyeing up the anatomy of my little ears and wondering what they can take. As I get older, I can see that a jeweled ear (or nose!) can defy time in unexpected ways, allowing me to retrace old paths with bigger, more sure-footed steps. This time it will be my decision.


Tamales are my home, girl…

A Smokin' Hot Tamale
A Smokin’ Hot Tamale

The last time I ate Maria’s tamales, I was sitting in the back of a petrol-blue VW as we rattled our way across corrugated cement roads to the local airport. I’d spent the best part of my early childhood living in north-east Mexico where Maria and her mother became my family and for my final journey back to the UK she gave me a brown grease-spotted paper bag full of tamales. They kept my hands warm as I gripped onto them for dear life, a tangible connection with the young woman who mothered me far better than my own did.

I loved tamales. Although they tended to be celebration food in the city of Saltillo because they are demanding time-wise to make and quite fiddly, Maria often made them and kept a stock of them in the frigidaire, ready to steam for my early morning breakfast trip to school and for lunch too. At their most basic, they consisted of a schmear of refried pinto beans and a few drops of rust-red mole inside the steamed masa dough but they could be a veritable fiesta, gasping out puffs of corn-breathed steam as they were unwrapped. Bundled up in corn husks and tied in the middle like a badly fitting housecoat, the masa bulged out, fluffy, palest yellow and leaking reddish chipotle-darkened juices of stewed pork.

Sometimes they’d be spiced with chicken or turkey mole enriched with shavings of the dark local chocolate made from toasted cacao, sugar, cinnamon, and ground almonds. The chocolate was but one of many many ingredients which were then mixed into this mole paste made by grinding ingredients together in a molcajete or communal mill.

Me, aged four or five in Saltillo with the family calf belonging to Maria.
Me, aged four or five in Saltillo with Maria’s calf.

Before making these rather elaborate tamales, Maria and her mother would clear out the kitchen, shooing hens, their children and even once, a recently born calf, out of their way and they’d execute their version of the French mise en place, Estate Listo, which saw many shallow clay pots lined up on the long Encino wood counter tops and punched-metal prep areas. The pots would be bright with fresh and smoked chiles: the bittersweet anchos, glossy pasillas, inky black mulatos and tan coloured chipotles. On occasions, I’d be allowed to assist and my tiny fingers made light work of dipping into tall pots of peanuts, allspice and peppercorns, the long-stemmed cloves, plumpish raisins and the orange coloured pumpkin seeds, the rivers of sesame, scooping out their contents to a soundtrack of Maria and her mother sucking the air between their teeth at my over-generous measures.

I’d help shave the cinnamon, sneezing at its acrid dustiness and leave the preparation of the thyme, Mexican majoram and coriander until last, escaping the kitchen where tiny dust motes of cinnamon flew through the air as the central ceiling fan traced a juddery circle. My fingers were stained yallery-orange from the marigold petals and stems I plucked from the plants growing around the tomatillo and tomato bushes; the sharp peppery juices from their torn, wet and squishy stems were brassy and demanded attention. These ingredients all went into the raw mole alongside garlic, onion, peppers and chunks of local bread, a Mexican version of the French baguette from the days of Maximilian. These loaves – known to us as bolillos and teleras – were baked every other day and the stale loaf ends used to thicken the mole. If it was a lucky day, I’d have Mexican ‘coffee’, made from hot milk and one pass of the coffee jug, thickened and tooth sweetened with a spoon of cajeta and if I was even luckier, I’d get to break off the nose of the loaf and soften it in my bowl of coffee. When Maria turned her back, I’d attempt a raid on the cajeta tin and if she caught me she’d scold, fiercely. Spilled cajeta was a siren song to the local red ants, a fierce and temperamental insect possessed of a gangland mentality: utterly determined to eat cajeta or die tryin’, under the toe of Maria’s heavy huarache, they died in their thousands, leaving splodges of formic acid from their smashed bodies on the terracotta tiles.

When you consider that some recipes call for all these ingredients (and there were often many more) to be separately charred or toasted on cast iron griddles before they all come together in one glorious whole, you can see why clusters of women also came together to make the hundreds of tamales needed to keep a family going. One of us was assigned the most important job: mixing the rivers of drinks; chopping and crushing the fresh fruits, flowers, and grains with sugar and water to make agua frescas, the light fizzy non-alcoholic drinks so craved by sugar loving Mexicans. From the backyard came the chop chop of the machete on large watermelon, coconuts and cactus paddles (nopales) and the clothes line was full of the bright teethlike squares of cheesecloth used to strain the juice before drinking. The ground was splattered with juice and stripe backed gophers,  lizards and other scaled, horned creatures would dart from rocks, attracted by the smell of the discarded date and tamarind pulp and scooped out triangles of melon rind. The rinds would rock backwards and forwards as the gophers curled up inside them to gnaw at the pulp left clinging to their insides. They looked for all the world like the worlds smallest, hairiest babies rocking themselves to sleep in a bizarre vegetal crib.

I’m paraphrasing Paul Auster when I tell you that growing old was a funny thing to happen to a young girl. I’m now more than double the age Maria was when she looked after us all. It’s forty odd years since I have seen Maria and her family and all I can visualise in my minds eye is a young woman with a thick waist-length hank of black hair, tied back with a red ribbon edged with white shirred-lace. Not the expensive stuff or even the heavy cream crocheted lace made by older women who sat with skeins of wool cradled in the tents made by their skirts, fingers firing away like neurons, crocheting away. Maria’s lace came from my own mothers sewing box brought from England and the lace was originally carded onto cardboard flats to be sold by the yard from a market stall in Suffolk. It was sixties lace, all nylon-fabulous and not a natural fibre in sight but against Maria’s hair, untouched as it was by dyes and the friable heat of a hairdryer, the lace was transformed into a ghostly white filigree.


Unusually, last weekend I ate a tamale in the rain. My tamale history more commonly involved the sun beating down on the back of my neck and a sear of chile acting as coolant in return. In Mexico I ate them on dusty street corners, sitting on petrol drums turned into tables. I walked down the street eating them trying to not drip juice on my cream school T shirt. I ate them at fiesta, near to cemeteries during Day of the Dead and in various cities: Mazatlan, Guadalajara, Acapulco, Mexico City, and even, once, across the border in Amarillo. They fed me as I watched glass blowers and divers and climbed the tallest pyramids and sat ravenous after my school swimming gala. They came from carts which used oil drums as giant steamers. They were made in private houses, occasionally at school or sold by older women sitting by the waterholes with a white cloth thrown across their lap and baskets full of little cornhusk parcels. We’d emerge dripping and seal-sleek from the water and hold them between fingers macerated and puffy from four-hour swims on the hottest of days. They were perennially there but I have no solid recollection of eating tamales in any weather other than under the hot Dahlia rays of the Mexican sun or the swift dark blanket of the desert nights which seemed to roll down the mountain slopes and onto our sprawling, shuttered house, leaving the odd chink through which poured starlight and the harsh yips of the slope coyotes.

We did have occasional rain in Mexico but it wasn’t the soft and damp woolly mizzle we have here in West Suffolk. In Saltillo we had rain that filled gullies, whirling and tumultuous, crested with dirty white foam and rippled with dust and sandstone from the mountains. It pounded down and dragged things away in its wake before disappearing itself, leaving a desert in bloom where cacti crowned themselves with flowers in magenta and orange and the deep purple of a bruise. Mountain and desert rain is an architect and landscape designer. It alters the familiar, creates new terrain, wipes away the unstable and anything lacking a firm grip upon the earth. Suffolk rain is the opposite- it seems to bed us in deeper, pushes roots and foundations further down into the earth and everything stays the same, no matter how dark the skies grow. Anyway, you couldn’t eat your tamale in the Mexican rain, that’s for sure.

Rows and rows of tamales: Eugene Kim 2007
Rows and rows of tamales: Eugene Kim 2007

So I sat on a slatted bench next to a wicker wolf on a hill called Angel and I unwrapped and ate the tamale which I had brought from a little food truck called Smokin Hot Tamales. The chef-owner had parents who had lived in Mexico and their housekeeper was called Marguerite which reassured me because I was scared that this tamale would not please and I was also scared that it would be too good and I would have une crise on one of the busiest shopping days of the year because of Maria- being reminded of Maria.

It did remind me of Maria and the reminding was good though. This was a real tamale with corn-breath and dragon-puffs of steam and hot sauce dribbled over it. The sauce allowed this tamale to be its own person as did the little cluster of onion and the coriander. There was pork inside and I also bought one with sweet potato, jalopeno and chicken. That one is in my freezer and I will try to be a better person and offer a bite to my own children instead of curling myself possessively around it and eating it all up with no care for anyone else, standing guard over my childhood and past.

“If we do not live now, then when”, asked Seneca. I can’t answer him because I am not a Greek philosopher or even an Anglo-Mexican one. Wiser writers than me have cautioned against trying to go back via the plate but what else can I do as I get older? I’m going to see Maria and her family I hope. I will go back but in the meantime, I am going to get out my bag of masa harina, my comale and steamer and I’m going to badger friends and family to save every last corn husk and I’m going to make my own tamales again- something I abandoned doing because it was too painful and lonely without the accompanying jabber of many many Mexican companions. Those little bundles track me back and forth across an ocean and link me to that other place where the marigolds grow and it is not considered unusual to shoo a calf out of a kitchen.