I recently finished reading Nigel Slater’s autobiography, Toast. I adored it as I knew I would.
Read this extract and then buy, borrow or cadge the book; you won’t regret it.
Pommes dauphinoise (pages 241-244)
When my father was alive our eating out had been confined to the Berni Inn in Hereford.
We usually skipped starters (I think we once had the honeydew melon, but Joan [his stepmother] said it wasn’t ripe) and went straight to steak, fat ones that came on an oval plate with grilled tomatoes, onion rings, fried mushrooms and wonderful, fat golden chips. We drank lemonade and lime except for Joan, who had a Tio Pepe, and then had ice cream for afters.
Sometimes my aunt would take me to the Gay Tray in Rackham’s store in Birmingham where we would queue up with our gay trays and choose something hot from the counter, poached egg on toast for her, Welsh rarebit and chips for me.
There had been the odd afternoon tea taken in seaside hotels (two-toasted-teacakes-and-a-pot-of-tea-for-two, please) and tea taken at garden centres (four-coffees-with-cream-and-four-slices-of-coffee-cake, if you would) and, once, a memorable tea eaten in Devon with slices of home-made ginger cake, scones, cream and little saucers of raspberry jam.
But that was it really. Eating out was something other people did.
My last year at catering college I met Andy Parffrey (boxer’s nose, public school, played rugby at weekends). He had a stunningly beautiful girlfriend called Lorella. ‘You can’t possibly marry,’ I pleaded one lunchtime over too much lager in the college pub. ‘Lorella Parffrey sounds like something you’d eat with a long-handled teaspoon.’
Andy was no more impressed with our syllabus of oeuf mayonnaise, sole véronique and sauce Espagnole than I was. We sat together, cooked together, cribbed together. We even took an evening job together at a Queen Anne country house where they served cheese soup, veal cutlet and ‘desserts from the trolley’.
But Andy knew about things I had never even dreamed of: restaurants where they baked salmon in pastry with currants and ginger, where pork was grilled and topped with melted Gruyère, and where they brought brick-red fish soup to the table with toasted croutes, grated cheese and rust-coloured rouille. He spoke of restaurants with names from another world: the Horn of Plenty and the Hole in the Wall, the Wife of Bath and the Carved Angel.
While Andy and I spent our weekdays together, his weekends and evenings were reserved strictly for Lorella. It took weeks of persuading to get him to go out for dinner, but when he did it became a regular thing. We clocked up visits to several of the better-known local restaurants, and would often drive for an hour or more to get to some place on which The Good Food Guide had bestowed its prestigious ‘pestle and mortar’.
Each meal was a gorgeous discovery: tongue with a verdant green sauce; crab tart with buttery pastry; fish soup brought to the table in a white-china tureen; quenelles of pike as big as meringues; rabbit with bacon and mustard sauce.
We had main dishes that reeked of garlic and basil and rosemary and lemon. Puddings flavoured with coffee and bitter chocolate, almonds and elderflowers. I had never imagined food like this, presented on simple white plates without tomatoes stuffed with peas or piped turrets of potato or roses made from tomato skins. This was food that was made simply to be enjoyed rather than to impress.
Thornbury Castle was surrounded by softly striped lawns and rows of Müller-Thurgau vines. As we drove through the arched gateway, we saw a woman approaching the back door with a wicker basket piled high with field mushrooms, and a young girl in jeans and a striped butcher’s apron sprinting back from the walled garden with a handful of dill fronds. Walking towards the front door, me in a rather dodgy sage-green jacket, Andy in blue pinstripe and a tie with a knot as big as my fist, we caught the faintest scent of garlic coming from the open kitchen window. The summer air was still and warm and dense, heavy with garlic, mown grass, lavender, tarragon, framboise and sudden wafts of aniseed.
White wine came in tall glasses with long, thin stems, tiny beads of condensation frosting the outside; little anchovy puffs arrived fresh from the oven with a dish of fat olives the colour of a bruise. We sat on chairs at either side of the fireplace, admiring the tapestries, the jugs of lilies and the polished panelling.
The handwritten menu offered familiar things – chicken-liver pâté and onion soup – but also things that were new to me: chicken baked with Pernod and cream, salmon with dill sauce, and lamb with rosemary and apricots. I chose chicken with tarragon sauce. Andy had the veal paupiette, which arrived the size of a Cornish pasty and with a dark, sticky sauce flecked with matchsticks of tongue, parsley and gherkins.
Then something came along that was to change everything. It was the simplest food imaginable, yet so perfect, so comforting, soothing and fragrant. The dish contained only two ingredients. Potatoes, which were thinly sliced and baked in cream. There was the subtlest hint of garlic, barely present, as if it had floated in on a breeze.
That pommes dauphinoise, or to give its correct title, pommes à la dauphinoise, was quite simply the most wonderful thing I had ever tasted in my life, more wonderful than Mum’s flapjacks, Joan’s lemon meringue, and a thousand miles away from anything I had made at college. Warm, soft and creamy, this wasn’t food that could be a kiss or hug, like marshmallows or Irish stew, this was food that was pure sex.
© Nigel Slater. Reproduced on The Guardian website.