”An abiding love of the daily symphony of dinner and its endless possibilities”
Debora Robertson is an award-winning writer who contributes regularly to broadsheet newspapers and to delicious. magazine. She has written three books, the latest of which is Dogs’ Dinners and her pets are never far from her side.
I’ve been obsessed with France since my first language class at eight years old with Mrs Snow (Madame la Neige, to you and me). I loved the feel of the words in my mouth, the look of them on the page. I read Paris Match and listened to Jacques Brel and – while my classmates were all sporting feather cuts or curly perms – even had my hair cut into a sharp bob. I would have worn a beret if I thought I could have got away with it in small-town County Durham of the 1970s.
That spring when I was 13 I was giddy with excitement about spending three weeks in the Lot-et-Garonne region of the south west of France. I had been to France before, on short trips, with my school and my family, staying in hotels, strictly on the tourist route. This time I would be on my own, staying with the family of my exchange, Laure.
I grew up in a household where food was something to managed, to be got out of the way as quickly as possible, to be burnt into submission. So the daily rhythm of Laure’s house was strange and magical music to me. I loved being sent to the bakery to collect the daily baguettes, which I would carry home, still warm, under my arm. I felt honoured to be asked to whisk the salad dressing in the evening or to help fold the batter for the family’s favourite chocolate cake into the tin.
''But these domestic douceurs de la vie did not prepare me for Easter Sunday lunch at Laure’s grandmother’s house''
But these domestic douceurs de la vie did not prepare me for Easter Sunday lunch at Laure’s grandmother’s house. A short, neat woman with short, neat hair dyed that plummy shade of brown favoured by some French women of a certain age, she bustled about her neat house, bringing us drinks and little cheese biscuits.
She put a pan of water on to boil and went out into the garden with a sharp little knife to cut pencil-thin spears of asparagus which she served as a starter with an ambrosial hollandaise.
''Feet. Beaks. Eyes. I was a long way from potato waffles''
But then the main event. To the table came eight individual plates, each one with a single roasted pigeon atop nests of wilted spinach and roast potatoes. Feet. Beaks. Eyes. I was a long way from potato waffles, but if my family hadn’t instilled in me a sophisticated love of food, they had drilled into me the importance of good manners, so I just followed along with what everyone else was doing and tucked in. I even did my best to tackle the tiny fork and spoon provided for the special task of scooping out the brains.
This is the part where I am supposed to tell you it was the most delicious thing I’d ever tasted. In truth, I can’t remember what it tasted like (too distracted by Feet. Beaks. Eyes). But this Easter meal when I was 13 left me with an abiding impression of what food can be, how it can take you into the heart of a family, and into the heart of a culture, in the way that nothing other than art and music can.
And to this day, whether it’s something simple for two or a gastronomic blow-out for 10, it has helped instil in me an abiding love of the daily symphony of dinner and its endless possibilities.