Charles


I’ve met a man called Charles in The Loose Box Wine Bar and offered to go round to his flat to cook him dinner.

All week my mind has been distracted, planning a menu choice which may lead to a new partnership and much needed seduction. At the Hotel and Catering Exhibition in London’s Olympia I found a stand called Alveston Kitchens with their range of readymade French dishes for hotels, restaurants and wine bars. A wine bar will only need a large fridge and freezer full of Alveston’s dishes, which must be made in a food factory, and they can behave like a restaurant. Chefs are no longer cooking in the kitchen! We’ll see if that catches on but I really doubt it. Surely the British public wants to eat fresh food, cooked on the premises, not heated up chilled or frozen meals?

But their dishes are delicious. The company makes French country pate which looks so authentic in brown earthenware pots, and there’s Duckling a l’orange and chocolate mousse. All the ‘chef’ needs to do is add some garnish and creamy mashed potato. 

I’m going to copy their ideas but since my bedsit Baby Belling is not up to this dinner party task I’m cooking the meal at school. French country pate with chicken livers fits into my Awful Offal and at break time I chop up chunks of beef shin, carrots, garlic and peel tiny onions for Robert Carrier’s recipe for Beef Bourguignon. Everything, along with a bottle of red wine, goes into my orange Le Creuset casserole, to cook in the oven for three hours. Gradually my cookery room fills with the fragrance of a fine Parisian restaurant and I just hope the nourishing smells do not attract the headmaster to pop in and ask what’s cooking. For pudding, which I’m sure Charles would call dessert, it’s profiteroles with chocolate sauce which I’ll make after school ends. Charles is going to be bedazzled.

Friday night is a busy drive across London to Earls Court and I arrive late. Charles may live at a smart address but his shared flat is a shambles and no-one seems to have tidied up for years. As he helps me unload the dishes from the car into his kitchen, a pale, thin girl with straggly blonde hair props up the kitchen door.

‘This is Amy, Jenny. She rents a room here and she’s been stood up tonight so I said she could share our meal.’

Amy bristles as she bangs open the kitchen cupboards and lays the Formica table with three settings of chipped plates and mismatched cutlery, while Charles scoots down to the off licence to get some red wine. I’m beginning to understand why Amy has been stood up. It’s just a pity she doesn’t need an early night.

I scoop a spoonful of liver pate onto each of our plates and pass round the thin, crispy Melba toast with some perfect curls of butter. The pate hints of cognac and garlic, and I wonder if Charles is well travelled and can appreciate the flavours.  Next is the beef, soft and succulent from its slow cooking, served with Dauphinoise potatoes and peas. Amy pushes her food around her plate and piles most of it, mashed up and uneaten on the side like an unwelcome snow drift. No wonder she’s so thin. I notice how she touches Charle’s arm as he clears the table.

Finally, da da! There’s a triumphant stack of whipped cream filled golden, crispy, profiteroles filled served with a jug of hot, glistening chocolate sauce.

This meal couldn’t have been more spectacular and at any moment Charles will reward me with a moment alone. But no, Amy is stuck to her chair. There’s no chance here for me. We pack up and load my car with my dirty dishes and uneaten food.

‘Wonderful meal.’ says Charles. ‘I’ll give you a call.’ 

With Amy glowering from the dimly lit hallway, I somehow doubt it.

Tomorrow I have to get up early and head the Mini Traveller up the M1 on its familiar journey to visit my parents and grandmother, to go shopping and cobble together some clothes on my mother’s sewing machine.

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Filed under cooking in the 1970s, Jenny Ridgwell

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