I had met Isobel the first night my husband
and I arrived in England, and was so intimidated by her that I hardly
spoke. Isobel was the paradigm of the well-bred Englishwoman, possessed
of a reserve that wove her thoughts, feelings, opinions into a thick
damask curtain. The small, placid features of her face were noncommittal;
her thin eyebrows never lifted into a question, never came together
in disapproval. Even her smile was reserved - it hovered in the vague
lower area of her face, its sole purpose to shield a laugh from emerging.
She was a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu, had worked professionally as a
chef, and her reputation was as the greatest of great cooks. I was more
than intimidated: Isobel terrified me.
But in the heat of curiosity and hunger for
great food, my terror melted when she invited me to lunch, and I arrived
unfashionably early. Isobel met me at the door in a well stained apron,
and brought me straight to the kitchen.I paused at the door, slightly
breathless, for this was a real cook's work place. The main work area
was a large butcher block table, purchased, she told me, from a shop
that had closed. The table was so worn from use that it had formed a
well-like center which cradled the ingredients waiting to be chopped.
The larder was a room of its own in the back of the kitchen. With the
door partially open, I could see boxes and bottles with labels in many
languages, a mysterious glimpse into an alchemists closet. Some pots
and pans hung from pegs, others sat in collected piles, jostling each
other to be the one noticed. She even had that object I had read about,
but thought was for professionals only - a mandoline, used for making
the finest, most even slices of vegetables. This was not an ordinary
kitchen with tools lined up, this was the atelier of an artist, alive
with the disordered energy of creativity.
Isobel was different in her atelier. Surrounded
by pots and pans, her reserve had disappeared. She became a force of
nature, moving with speed, energy, efficiency. A woman who never spoke
an opinion, she acted them now, grabbing at utensils with confidence
and knowledge. She smiled at her foodstuffs, lifting them to her nose
to sniff them; she wiped her hands on her apron with the glee of a child
creating from mud. Today I would have trouble maintaining my own reserve,
I thought to myself.
Shyly, I proffered the crock of Stilton that
I had brought with me. "I discovered the food halls at Harrod's
yesterday," I told her, "so I brought us some Stilton."
"Oh, lovely. I have pears and we'll
have that as dessert. She took the crock in her hands and removed the
lid. "Aaaaah." She lifted the cheese to her nose, and inhaled
deeply. "The glory of mold."
"Mold is such a dear, dear friend,"
she said. "Look at those exquisite blue veins." She turned
to me with a serious face. "You do know to put your prime ribs
in the bottom of your refrigerator until a green mold grows on the ends,
"No," I said.
"When it's green it's ready. Not until
then. Then you trim it off. Voilà. The best prime ribs."
I didn't tell her that the thought of watching
prime ribs turn to slime horrified me, though I was so awed by her culinary
skills that much later I tried it, and achieved my own personal prime-rib
"Now, lovey, come and smell this. We
are doing French today," she said. "Poulet a l'estragon. That's
just chicken with tarragon, but it tastes far better in French, don't
you think?" She lifted the lid from the very large pot where two
chickens plumped in their tarragon bath.
"Two?" I commented. "That's
a good idea. Leftovers."
Isobel smiled and a laugh broke through the
smile. "Leftovers? You'll see," she said, bending into the
tarragon scented steam. She inhaled with her mouth slightly open, her
senses so attuned that I knew she was tasting the steam. She put down
the pot lid, picked up a spoon and dipped it in the sauce. Then she
blew on the hot sauce for a moment. Just when I thought she'd lift it
to her mouth to taste it, she poured the sauce into the palm of her
hand, tossed the spoon in the sink, and swirled three fingers into the
sauce. She rubbed her thumb into the sauced fingers feeling the texture
of the sauce. I had never seen anyone cook like this. Was this what
she had learned in cooking school? Her thin eyebrows still revealed
nothing, but the pink in her cheeks expressed delight.
And then, something happened to this paradigm
of British reserve. Overwhelmed by tarragon, she threw out her arms
with the abandon of an opera singer, and began to sing the French National
Anthem - the Marseillaise. "Allons enfants de la patrie-e-e-a,
le jour du gloire est arrivée," she sang directly over the
pot, her voice rising like a church soprano singing in praise of the
holy. Poking at the chicken with a wooden spoon,
she continued through the Marseillaise, ending with "Aux armes
citoyens! Formez vos bataillons," enlisting both the taste of the
herb and all patriotic Frenchmen in her culinary efforts.
As time went on and I got to know Isobel,
I discovered that the song she sang to the pot depended on the contents
therein. A pot of sauerbraten elicited 'Fur das Deutsche Vaterland';
a creamy risotto provoked 'Va Pensiero,' that plaintive chorus sung
by exiles in Verdi's Nabucco, and when curry was the order of the day,
she went through several rounds of 'hare krishna.' I never heard the
Star-Spangled Banner, but wondered if she sang "Oh, say, can you
see, by the dawn's early light," as she opened her corn flakes
in the morning.
When her husband finally appeared, he had
four friends with him. I had heard that Isobel's reputation as a cook
had been built in part on her husband's habit of arriving just at meal
time with any number of friends in tow, and that Isobel would cook a
gourmet meal whatever the number of guests, whatever the time limitation.
"Is there enough food?" I asked
"Not to worry, love," she said.
"We'll add a more filling dessert to the fruit, perhaps make crêpes
"You mean . . . oh, you mean set it
"Flambé," she corrected,
with a frown, "it's called flambé."
The baby kicked and turned within me, exciited
as I was at the thought of flames. But Isobel had abandoned flambé,
and moved on to gougere, that delicate ring of cream puff dough that
frames a savory filling.
I was assigned the filling, a mix of sautéed
chicken livers, onion, mushroom, while she made a cream puff dough as
if it were the simplest thing in the world. I watched her whisk the
dough to a satin finish, her wrist movements so strong that they seemed
athletic, then remembered that she had been a professional. Though I
feared overstepping myself, I asked her if she missed working in a restaurant.
"Yes. Then again, no. I don't know if
I could have done what I wanted. Only the men get to do that. I have
more freedom here."
When we sat to lunch, the restrained Englishwoman
returned, correct, appropriate, soft-spoken. I watched the eating ritual
with curiosity. We ate silently at first, six forks sliding across six
plates gently enough to be caresses. Once we had mellowed into the revelation
of Isobel's food, we all began to speak at once and what we spoke about
was the food, that you could tell this was fresh tarragon, was there
anything like a fresh herb, that the gougere was a brilliant use of
cream puff pastry, who said it has to be dessert, was it not amazing
that cooks had evolved to this? One guest brought glares from both Isobel
and me when he opined that it must have been a male chef who elevated
the basic dough to such greatness. Then, oh, ah, stilton and pears,
why Diana, you brought that? How very English of you, you are one of
us. The assembled guests spoke, then fell silent again to finish every
morsel of food.
I couldn't explain what made a cooked dish
turn into poetry. Like many other things of quality, I couldn't define
it, but I knew it when I tasted it. And this was it. Would I ever find
it for myself? I left Isobel's atelier determined to make discoveries.
These thoughts were interrupted by a sharp labor pain. Within a day
I would be a mother and he would be here, my first child, those few
pounds of potent flesh soon to be called Fredo.
* * * *
After Fredo was born, my friendship with
Isobel shifted. Now she began to come for tea in the afternoon, bringing
one of her extraordinary desserts.
"How do you do all this?" I asked
"Not a problem, lovey," she said.
"It's only a problem if you make it one."
On one visit to our house, she brought, not
a delicious dessert, but a pouch that would hang in front of me and
nestle a baby. "Time to see London," she said.
I was startled to think that I could actually
maneuver around town with a baby, but the pouch opened a whole new kind
of adventure. Isobel introduced me flea markets. With Fredo in pouch,
I bought antique silver serving pieces, and indulged in minor domestic
fantasy. Though the markets offered many lovely serving spoons which
would have created a beautiful table, I bought oddities. There
was the Victorian sterling grape cutter, a scissor whose sole function
was to cut small branches of grapes from a larger serving. There was
also a highly functional sterling silver cheese scoop, a flat spoon
designed to scoop cheese from a crock, an imaginative blending of earthenware
and sterling. And then there was the sugar shaker, an item used only
for sprinkling sugar over strawberries. Since I preferred my strawberries
unsweetened, I knew, even as I handed over my money, that I would not
part three -
the English countryside