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Equipment/ In My Kitchen


My somewhat characterful grandmother was a great one for proverbs, none more so than that a bad worker blames their tools. Inculcation of this attitude from early age meant that anything that went wrong for me in life was my fault. It took me a while to learn that actually, rubbish knives were a bad thing in the kitchen and it was OK to sometimes blame ones tools.

No more was this tested than when I inverted the amount of time I spend in Italy rather than London. This meant I actually had to start cooking meals here and not just getting away with a pasta or a salad meal, or even eating out which is a lot more affordable here than in London.

So I had to get to grips with the rather elderly cooker. Do you remember the stove that featured in the Wallace and Gromit’s A Grand Day Out? I have its meaner (much) older sister here. The first thing that took me aback was that it was a gas oven. Who has gas ovens any more? Do they still make them? I last remember my mother having one in our kitchen for when it was too hot for the range to be on and that was a temperamental creature, too. Can I just point out that we weren’t smart middle class Aga owners; we lived in a draughty Victorian farm cottage and the range was the only thing that stood between us (including the dog and cats) and death by hypothermia for nine months of the year.

The first panic was whether I could still remember Regulos. Remember them? I am not even sure recipes still give gas oven temperatures now. Must check. Anyway, I was a little mollified when I could finally discern on the very worn oven gauge that the temperatures were shown in Centigrade. OK, getting better. Now to light the oven…

Gawd, what a to-do that was. First of all I nearly gassed us both by turning the switch and not realising it wasn’t automatic ignition. So why is it plugged into the electricity? So the light in the oven works. Oh. 

Right, OK, I wasn’t a Queen’s Guide for nothing…I didn’t actually get as far as rubbing two sticks together but I quickly learned that matches wouldn’t work. Did you know that nail varnish can actually ignite? While it is on your finger, I mean.

It then dawned on my still-being-gassed-brain that I probably needed to use the igniter thingy I have to use for the hob (if you can dignify it with that name). I hate it; it is malevolent to its plastic bones and just as temperamental. It finally deigned to spark and ignited not only the oven but all the gas I had left on while I faffed about. It wasn’t exactly an explosion but I did end up on the floor and there was a strange smell of burning hair. My eyebrows are doing nicely now, thank you. 

Getting the damn thing lit was just the first step in wrestling this oven into submission. I thought the dial seemed a bit loose but it transpires that it’s just reflective of the oven’s casual approach to any thermostatic control I might reasonably expect it to have. Putting something in at 180C produces pale, pallid food that after an hour might have some heat in it. Ramp it up to 200C and spitefully, it burns like an incinerator. Sometimes. Other times, it might produce the same pallid response.

I have often wondered why so many Italian cookery books direct food to be cooked on the hob, even long, slow cooked dishes. In my ignorance, I thought it was perhaps because fuel was (and is) more expensive than in the UK. No. It is because previous generations of cookers were mean, spiteful beasts that drive you mad if you are not constantly attending to their petty needs: “ooh turn me up a bit more; oh no that’s way too much, turn me down. Don’t open my door – what am I – a barn?” 

My oven and I have have these conversations nearly every day and I have developed a new found respect for generations of Italian (still mostly) women who have coaxed, bullied and deceived these wretched ovens into producing superb food. I have no idea how anyone successfully bakes a cake in them. The one and only time I have done pastry, I sat and watched over it like an anxious new mother.

On reflection, I have been immensely lucky hitherto with ovens I’ve had. Before I was married, I never cooked so didn’t learn the trick of my mother’s gas oven, although was an occasional witness to an outburst of abuse she would give it. My first cooker when married was a Belling double oven with those spiral electric hobs that look like giant liquorice allsorts and take three weeks to heat up, then stay heated for another three weeks. 

Since then, I have always had Neff gas hobs and electric fan ovens, so have had it easy really. Electric fan ovens for me are easily controllable and produce perfect results (which is not to say that I always do). The later generations, which have pyrolitic cleaning capabilities are wonderful and all the racks go in the dishwasher – bliss. 

So here in Milan I have achieved an uneasy truce with this obstreperous heap of soon-to-be-scrap metal but it has taught me a lesson. As a modern cook, I have it easy and if I make mistakes when I cook in London, I can’t blame my tools. In Milan, it’s different; just hope Grandma isn’t listening. 

Books & Blogs/ Equipment/ In My Kitchen/ My Favourites


Desert Island Discs is, as I’m sure you know, an almost mythical BBC Radio 4 programme and I adore it. I tend to listen to it irrespective of the guest, so consequently have learned about all kinds of things that I would not otherwise have heard. I am not keen when it’s what I would call trashy celebrities but even then one can be surprised, and I do love a good scientist!

Listening to this past weekend’s edition got me pondering the concept of Desert Island items and I began to wonder what eight kitchen items I would want to take to a desert island, which food or cookery book I’d take and what would my luxury kitchen item be? Yes, I know, there might not be means to cook on a desert island but can we play by my rules and assume there is a source of fire with matches, twigs and timber for the fire?

This has taken me quite a while to even begin to firm up on, and if you were to confront me with this list in a month or a year’s time, I might change it completely. So, for what it’s worth, here’s my list:

  1. A Henckels knife or can I cheat and say my whole knife block? That’s one item isn’t it? I bought my first one in Düsseldorf when I was working there in 1996 and one knife transformed my whole way of preparing food. I understood suddenly how important a knife – used well – is in a kitchen and how it can replace dozens of useless gadgets that live for a day and then fester unloved in a dusty drawer. I went on to do Knife Skills courses at Leith’s which an investment I have never regretted. It does mean, however, that I find some TV cooks all too hair raising to watch and I sometimes hide behind a cushion when they are chopping.
  2. A tablespoon. I have a silver one, hallmarked for 1764, all worn away on one side and I love it. Wish it could talk.
  3. A teaspoon. Another old piece although a young gun at 1823.
  4. A wooden spoon. I have one that dates back to 1976 (how I know that is a whole other story) and it’s acquired a patina that for me represents years of stirring, scraping and prodding. I will never discard it.
  5. A fork. Again I have an old silver one, a bit big for everyday eating but on this island, it will do double duty as a kitchen fork.
  6. A Le Creuset casserole, not a huge one; I have a 20cm round one which I was given in 1979 and I have cooked pretty much anything and everything in it: soups, stews, puddings, bread, I could go on but you get the picture
  7. My huge steel pasta cooking pot with internal drainer – they would serve many purposes: drawing water, draining stuff, heating water…
  8. A jug; I have a old Spode Blue Italian one and again it has history with me and would fulfil multiple uses in my rudimentary Desert Island kitchen; my other half has pointed out that a metal jug would be more practical as I could use it on the fire but I am sticking with my bit of history

It was interesting to me that many of these items are old friends in my kitchen and perhaps I have chosen them as much as friends as utility items. I will miss companionship on this island, although if I end up talking to a spoon, perhaps I should be left there.

Luxury Item

Please may I have an endless supply of Illy Espresso Dark Roast coffee? No sugar, no milk, just the hard stuff.

The Book(s)

On Desert Island Discs proper, the castaways are allowed The Bible, the Complete Works of Shakespeare and a book of their choice. So, playing this game by my rules when I am washed ashore, Leith’s Cookery Bible and the collected works of Nigel Slater (whose writing about food is every bit as lyrical as Mr Shakespeare) will already be sitting there waiting for me. Actually in the spirit of full disclosure, Nigel’s works are not yet collected into one tome but this is fantasy land, right? So that leaves me one further book to choose…

Oh my, how terribly difficult this was. I have well over 100 food/cookery books in English, French and Italian and while I may not cook from all of them, I read most of them regularly. Over the years, I have learned that not only do recipes have to work for me, but I also need to have good writing in order to really enjoy the book. In modern times, we are lucky enough to have Nigel Slater, Felicity Cloake, Sybil Kapoor, Diana Henry, Rachel Roddy, Anna del Conte, Nigella Lawson…not an exhaustive list by any means.

If we look at departed writers, I become even more confused: Elizabeth David, Richard Olney, Jane Grigson, Margaret Costa, Patience Gray, Marcella Hazan, Florence White, Dorothy Hartley. I give up. I couldn’t even make a choice after half a bottle of a very good Barbera and I have to say, I have usually formulated world peace after that, let alone chosen a book.

So stone cold sober, I have surprised myself by choosing Patience Gray’s Honey From a Weed. She writes so well about having to fashion kitchens in difficult circumstances so will be an endless source of inspiration. Those who know me well may be surprised that I have not chosen Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking; it is a masterwork and I refer to it frequently but Mrs David would not, I fear, be a congenial companion for me in these isolated circumstances. Yes, I will have Nigel for company but I don’t want to live with what I feel would be Mrs David’s frowning disapproval of my efforts.

So, there we are, my Desert Island Kit; I would love to know what yours is?
PS I have just remembered about my subscription to La Cucina Italiana; what about seagull post?