Anne shares how she started cooking.
I feel really tempted to say I was passionate about food as a child, but I was not. Of course, I used to watch my mother and grandmother in the kitchen and, amazed by the wonderful flavours they achieved, I tried my hand at cooking. My mother was willing to explain a little as she worked. However, she was not very patient. Having to cook for a large family, she did not wish to expend a minute more than strictly necessary in the kitchen. Most of the time, I could only count with the only cookbook at home, which had great recipes but was very inaccurate on ingredients, quantities, or procedures. Not the starting point I would recommend for any young aspiring chef, especially one doggedly following the steps convinced that cooking greatness meant sticking to the recipe.
Most of my first attempts flopped and I soon gave up, reaching university age with barely the skills to prepare a French omelette.
The summer before going to college, I decided to stay at home with my father while my mother took brothers and sisters to my grandparents for the long school summer break. The plan was to get a summer job and take some extra lessons. My father welcomed the company and the idea or not returning to an empty home. We would join the family later.
There was never any doubt I would be in charge of cooking. I could do an omelette after al. Unhappily, my cooking skills took some time to come up to standard, and Dad, the most capricious taster, who would usually lose his appetite if the meal was ten minutes late, tried his way through a host of rotten gazpachos and salads, unpalatable rice dishes, tough meats, and late meals. Suffered without a single complaint, the only words I heard from him were “it needs more salt,” “I would add vinegar,” or “try extra garlic next time.” He would often say the food was not that bad, eating things I was not able to eat.
We were aware of my shortcomings from day one. We knew we had a food problem. Dad’s solution was an ongoing raid over bookshops in search of better cookbooks and to get our hands on every magazine with recipes. I studied the material with the same zeal I employed on my advanced mathematics assignments. I cooked every day, though most of my homework in the kitchen would end in disaster, while my father would bring in the ingredients which would influence my cooking the most, small game.
The year of the Rabbit
My father’s summer working hours left him plenty of time to practice his favourite hobby, hunting for game. He spent most of the summer afternoons shooting unsuspecting targets. He would come back with a couple of rabbits one day, a hare or two another one, mostly rabbit. As there was only the two of us, and plenty of game to eat, rabbit meat become our only source of protein. There was the unpleasant business of getting the game ready for cooking, which I will not describe here, enough to say we shared the task, after a few days practice, I became very skilled at it.
Initially, I did not know how to prepare other dish than rabbit with garlic. That was all we ate for the first week, dinner and supper, with different –and not always edible- sides and appetizers. We were utterly bored of rabbit with garlic by midweek, unfortunately, it took me another four days to polish my next recipe, rabbit in tomato sauce. I prepared the first hare with beans, cassoulet style, as I did not know what else to do with it, never mind the scorching heat.
After a failed attempt at rabbit paella and a decent stewed rabbit hunter style, I had tried all rabbit recipes in my cookbooks and we still had fifty days to go. It was a matter of adapting or dying, so I started to transform other game or chicken recipes into recipes for rabbit. It did not take long to start making a new rabbit dish out of any recipe that caught my eye. Marinated rabbit, civet of hare, rabbit olives, hare pie, rabbit with prunes stewed in beer, rabbit a l’orange, and many more made it through our table -with different grades of success- during those last six weeks. By the end of the summer, all food I prepared was edible, to say the least, and my rabbit with garlic flawless. I almost felt disappointed I would not have time to try the curried rabbit I had been planning to.
My father would come often into the kitchen and give his advice about seasoning, herbs and doneness, when it could still make a difference –probably he thought that learning only from my mistakes would take too long. He taught me how to cook during that summer despite not being able to boil an egg -the same way he taught me how to swim when I was four, even if he could not do it himself either. I discovered that cooking is an art, regardless of recipes and formulas, and relies more in trained instinct and technique than cookbooks, the latter are just guidelines. I became skilled in the use of herbs, spices and other condiments to change the flavour as I could not change the meat. I learnt patience and self-control as experience taught me that opening the oven door every ten minutes to check for doneness does not produce a good roasted rabbit, or that some dishes need constant stirring, while others, only occasional care and cook best left alone. I stopped becoming flustered because I was missing one ingredient in the recipe and became skilled at substituting ingredients or adapting recipes. I discovered the value of advanced planning for menus or shopping trips. How good was reading the whole recipe before having actually started the job. I was quickly convinced that the preparation jobs are key to cooking success. I found out how good it is to measure, wash, and chop all ingredients and have them ready the first time the garlic burned because I had not prepared the rabbit beforehand; disaster is only a step away for the unprepared cook.
Since then, we always referred to that time as the summer of the rabbit because rabbit and hare were all the meat we ate. I had a master course and a PhD in cooking as we repeated the experience for the following two years. After the year of the rabbit came the year of the venison, when we started having occasional guests for dinner, and the year of the wild boar, when we felt confident enough to entertain often. Many years have gone, however former guests still mention that fillet mignon (of venison) au poivre or the (wild boar) raviolis. As some of them do not particularly like game and I never told them what they were eating, I merely smile and change topic.