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Confession from the kitchen: man can’t live by snails alone

Cooking, I must confess, is really not my bag. But since Charlotte was obliged to abandon the kitchen some four years ago, I have improved 100 percent. In all honesty, it has not been such a praiseworthy achievement as I started out from a very low threshold.

The sad fact of the matter is that I used to be a truly horrible cook. But, mirabile dictu, at the time I met Charlotte—lo, those many years ago—I was blissfully unaware of my deficiencies in the culinary department.

Oddly perhaps, I could—and still can—cook escargots like a Frenchman, thanks to coaching by a kindly French lady who lived in our village when I was a youth. (Actually, it isn’t a particularly complicated process. All you need, aside from the snails, is butter, garlic and parsley.)

But man cannot live by snails alone, and, aside from escargots, my repertoire in those days consisted of bacon and eggs, sausage and mash, and a variety of dishes I concocted by adding various herbs and spices to canned stew—for example, paprika for goulash, red wine for bœuf bourguignon, sour cream for beef stroganoff and the like.

In any event, on meeting a stunningly attractive American lady, namely Charlotte, I decided that the way to her heart would be to convince her that I was a thoroughly modern man—equally at home in the kitchen as I was in the workplace. To this end, I invited her to my apartment for dinner.

The menu I decided would consist of bœuf bourguignon and some sort of pie. It probably would not have been so disastrous had I resorted to one of my canned stew creations. In fit of hubris, however, I decided to make it from scratch.

Things seemed to be going quite well until, in a fit of exuberance, I dumped a trifle more red wine than necessary into the pot. The result was that the blessed thing refused to thicken. My stew stolidly remained an evil-looking, unappetizing mélange of gray lumps of flesh floating disconsolately in a thin red liquid.

It was at this point I discovered I had nothing on hand to thicken the mixture because I had absent- mindedly forgotten to buy flour to make my pie. In desperation, I hunted through the kitchen cupboards and discovered to my great relief a great white cauliflower.

Cauliflower, I decided, was the vegetable equivalent of flour and would have the same thickening effect.. My gamble paid off. By the time the entire head had disappeared into the pot, the stew was almost as thick as porridge, albeit with a curious red tinge to it.

It didn’t taste much like bœuf bourguignon. Indeed, it tasted overwhelmingly of cauliflower. It was certainly different I decided, but not entirely unpalatable.

How wrong could one be? After three or four mouthfuls, my guest dropped her knife and fork and made a dash for the rest room. Actually, I didn’t think it tasted so bad …

When she eventually returned from the restroom, I took her to dinner at her favorite French restaurant—a hideously expensive joint that seem to think one and a half quail was an adequate portion for a hungry man. Over the course of the meal, I begged for an opportunity to redeem myself. And to my great relief, she graciously agreed.

This time I decided I would cook a simple and typically English dish. Why I settled on Toad-in-the- Hole rather than sausage and mash I can’t recall. All I can say is that seemed a very good idea at the time.

Toad-in-the-Hole consists of English pork sausages cooked in a Yorkshire pudding batter. Quite delicious, when served with a hearty brown gravy. I’d never made it before, but it seem uncomplicated to make. So what could possibly go wrong?

Lamentably, my Toad-in-the-Hole looked nothing like the ones I had eaten at friends’ houses: Sad- looking shriveled sausages swam in little pools of fat, surrounded by low sea walls of flaccid, white, undercooked Yorkshire pudding batter. Gamely, Charlotte tucked into three or four mouthfuls before making the inevitable dash to the restroom.

When she returned, she took me gently by the hand, looked in to my eyes and said sweetly: “Look here, my dear. If this relationship is going to go anywhere, I had better do the cooking and you do the washing up.” I readily agreed.

Funnily enough, the first item of household equipment, we bought after we married was a dish washer. “The trouble with you,” Charlotte explained, “is that you have no bourgeois prejudice against dirt!” An unduly harsh judgement, I thought, but the dishwasher was definitely a boon.

Anyway, today things, by dint of both necessity and practice, are much improved. Though I say so myself, I make a very creditable rosemary ham, Swiss cheese and mushroom omelet,. I also make quite delicious sausage and peppers, as well as grilling a very decent steak.

In fact my cooking has improved so greatly, that a couple weeks ago—prompted by the discovery of a piece of steak languishing at the back of the freezer—I felt the time had come to revisit bœuf bourguignon. This time, however, I decided to limit my ambitions and work my way up to the great classical dish. Thus I started out by making a simple beef stew.

There’s nothing to it really—a few carrots, onions, turnips, beef and, naturally, pepper and salt. Dump it all in a pot with a pint or so of water and boil for an hour or so on top of the stove.

As it turns out, there seems to be nothing particularly simple about beef stew either. Maybe I got the proportions wrong, or perhaps beef that’s spent a good three years at the back of the freezer is unlikely to be in its prime, but whatever the cause, the stew was, to put it diplomatically, not all it should have been.

In fact, it was quite repulsive—a word I use advisedly because even the dogs rejected it. Actually, that’s not entirely true. Brox, the big Staffordshire Terrier, wolfed it down. But then he eats the awful dead things he unearths in the back forty with equal enthusiasm.

Casey, the larger of the Scottish terriers, sniffed it and licked it tentatively before turning her nose up at it. Chloe, her smaller sibling, prodded it with her forepaw before stalking off in disgust. I have no idea what

Charlotte would have said had I offered it her, but I doubt it would have been complimentary.

When the dogs don’t like your cooking, it’s time to go back to the drawing board, Perhaps I should use a recipe book next time. But, really, that seems just a bit too much like surrender. GPH✠

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