Fanny Cradock: The pleasure of cooking is listening and looking…

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Much derided and mocked for years, Fanny Cradock continues to enjoy a certain notoriety: her spidery eyelashes and gash of a mouth have quite a following on YouTube. She has also garnered a grudging admiration. Rude, hectoring and often offensive Fanny certainly is; but her brash and breezy confidence is stimulating and there is something very appealing in the way she has evidently no fear of food and will stand for none from her audience as she barks out orders in that husky actressy voice.

Dated and repellent some of her recipes may be – the green fish, blue mashed potato and morsels of buttered stale cake dolled up (Daniel Farson’s phrase) to look like roses – but she bashes her materials around with bravura. There is none of the fear that is used as a weapon by many modern cookery exemplars: chefs justifying their status by stressing the perils of cuisine. Beating up her liberal requirements of cream, eggs and butter – “softened – which I hope this is…” – you cannot imagine Fanny having truck with allergies, eating disorders or diets.

Watching these ancient morsels of film (many of them recorded “live”) you can sometimes detect signs of an inner tension but this is more, I think, a surge of adrenalin, a determination to beat the clock, the rage of a winner than any doubt of her talent. Sometimes, as with Julia Child, you suspect she’s had a couple before going on, but it’s more probable she is only high on her own personality and sense of style. A rich sillage of Femme, Miss Dior, Joy – not to mention Elnett hair spray – is almost visibly coming off her in waves as she vigorously beats her roux – “think about that woman next door who you’ve never really liked…”.

Like Mildred Pierce, Fanny Cradock puts her pies in the oven by the clock, and takes them out by the clock. What cake would defy her? I don’t think she had much actual liking for food: she seems herself to have eaten for necessity rather than pleasure. Food she dished up as a status symbol: as she once explained, she liked to have it do her Regency dining room justice. I have done a certain amount of cooking all my life, privately and professionally and like Fanny I like to have a tip up my sleeve if ever asked for advice – something to say if the cameras ever come round.

And here it is for what it’s worth. When you cook, use all your senses: sight, touch, smell, hearing all count as much as taste. Any or all five will let you know when a dish is ready for table. Listen for the cake whistle like a dying lobster as it rises; and hear the roll of the water as it boils. Watch for the pasta and fish become opaque, the onions transparent and the cabbage change from churlish green to a lime emerald like dry seaweed returned to ocean; or the mushrooms become slippery black like black pearls. Feel the cream, choux pastry or scrambled egg thicken under your touch; or judge the heat of the oven with your hand to size it up for slow-cook meringues, lightning souffles and medium roasts. Ice cold hands do not merely indicate a warm heart. They also raise the best pastry.

One might say the sense of smell was invented by the Good Lord primarily to keep us away from danger. However complex and elusive some of us may find perfume, nearly everyone is quick to smell burning, smoke, gas, rotten eggs or that piece of meat that’s been too long at the back of the fridge. But learn to develop the nose in a more positive way – can you smell when a jacket potato is baked or a fowl is roasted without opening the oven door? All it takes is a little practice and observation; as with choosing a fragrance, just relax and be guided by instinct. Meanwhile, at El Celler de Can Roca in Catalonia, officially voted finest restaurant in the world, you may delight your senses with an edible interpretation of Guerlain’s Shalimar – blood orange, roses, vanilla, mango and cream. A charming nod to the days when colognes were taken internally and the prevalence of the belief that what smells good must do you good. Bouffe bien!”

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