A long time ago I was a lectrice in Nantes; what that means in practice is that you teach French university students how to speak English. In as far as we knew how to teach anything, being barely more than students ourselves, we did our best. But what we spent most of our time doing was enjoying having a first proper, and rather ridiculous, salary, drinking lots of Muscadet and eating rather too much food. It was the second year of my life spent in France, and my second, as someone used to being naturally skinny up to this point, learning how to deal with being a tad overweight, never a pleasant task in the land of the fascist-look-you-up-and-down-and-dismiss-you-for-being-more-than-size-6-and-not-wearing-bleu marin. But God it was fun; every minute of it. Nantes, unlike Paris, is a relatively friendly (relatively because, well, it’s still France) and accessible city about two hours west of Paris and about an hour or so from the Atlantic which prides itself on its fish, its white wines and its crêpes. I was naively hoping that I might learn to cook more than leek and potato soup and pasta bake but there were just too many restaurants to try and too many vineyards to visit.
Only two of our band of ten ever really cooked: Natalya, a very competent and confident Canadian woman and Dawn, an equally competent but rather more reticent Englishwoman. Unlike the rest of us they were in their late twenties, in long-term relationships and already used to having their own domestic routines. Of the two women, at the beginning of the year, I would have said that Natalya was the more settled since her boyfriend was another Canadian, into food like her, cycling like her, very funny like her. Dawn, on the other hand, a pale, freckly and unexpectedly witty postgrad and devout Christian was engaged to a Muslim postgrad from North Africa. In order to help their marriage work, she was converting in every sense. Most of us, British, North American and Irish, had absolutely no belief and no sense of what being a Christian meant, let alone a Muslim. Dawn would explain it, patiently, but I doubt many of us remembered the details. All I remember thinking was that it was bonkers that she was living in this foodie paradise yet rarely went out (they were saving for their wedding) and, when she did, she didn’t drink. The relationship, as far as I was concerned, was doomed.
And yet, in terms of food, Dawn and her partner (whose name escapes me) taught me more than most of my other experiences that year. Dawn, you see, had learnt how to make couscous, harira and rafisa, three very traditional and now very popular North African dishes. I had never heard of any of them and, when she invited us round to try them, I was a) instantly converted myself, at least to this new and unknown cuisine and b) completely surprised to discover that her beloved was a charming, clever and handsome man instead of the hick desperate for a visa which, I am ashamed to say, was all my 22-year-old self could at first envisage.
I wrote her, or rather his, recipes down in my then notebook and, for several years, made the vegetable couscous all the time. It was, is, very easy, bar the rather eye-watering task of grating the onion (try it; it creates a much finer result than chopping) and for parties and gatherings it was always my contribution. For some reason, today, working from home, I decided to make the harira which is a lentil soup, made with or without some lamb, and I realised that my notes were really not up to the task. Not one measurement, not one time, not one suggestion of how to work out if it was done or not. In short, a completely useless set of instructions. I ploughed on though, vaguely remembering how easy Dawn had made it seem, how simple the couscous was, how I didn’t need lamb or chick peas but could make do with vegetables and lentils. It would be comforting, warm and more nutritious than yet another sandwich.
Just as I was wrong about Natalya and Dawn (the first relationship was over within months, the second going strong at least two years later), so I was wrong to think that making a quick soup from a bunch of words, not measurements, was somehow going to work. Instead of feeling the glow of warm success as I ate a proper lunch instead of more toast, I felt the frustration of a tasteless pile of vegetables and lentils, the sense of having wasted far too much time for very little result. I don’t think there is anything worse in a kitchen than that; what’s worse, because I can’t bear to throw good food away, I still forced myself to eat some of the bloody stuff. I managed to improve it a little, with the addition of some yogurt and fresh mint (an idea I got from here) but it was fuel not food. Sometimes it’s best to keep things simple. Tomorrow, you know, I think I’ll just have some cheese and an apple.