What do you call a cook without a kitchen?
I've always wanted to write about food, but I've sort of held off, pushed it to the back of my mind, persuading myself that I couldn't do it until I had my own kitchen to cook in. Virginia Woolf said the same sort of thing about writing. In order to cook and to write about food, a woman must have a room (a kitchen) in which to do so.
That's what I told myself, at least.
I've had plenty of professional kitchens to cook in but never my own. I've spent hours in my parents' and my grandmother's, I've lodged in people's houses and lived in flat-shares and used the kitchens there, but I've never had my own space in which to truly live.
Kitchen's are not just for cooking, they are for living. I think 'the living room' was misnamed. A kitchen is a room for living - an everything and an everywhere.
This is an excuse, of course, and an easy way of wheedling out of the business of cooking and writing. Essentially I've been putting things off. I'm a professional procrastinator. I've been waiting for the perfect kitchen to find me, with its copper pans and and high ceilings and spacious wooden/marble work-surfaces. Well, sonny, life doesn't work like that. He who awaits much can expect little, as my WH Smith diary told me this morning.
The kitchen of my dreams is just that, a dream. It doesn't exist. I can fantasise about huge airy spaces, windows, white wash walls, wicker baskets, marble pastry slabs, wood, copper, cast iron griddles, mixers, terracotta jars, vast larders brimming with preserves, knife blocks pierced with perfectly sharp knives, bowls overflowing with fresh produce picked from the garden, vases cascading with flowers. Yes I can dream all this, but the reality is somewhat different.
The kitchen that I find myself in, or the kitchen that has found me, belonged to Nonna Titina (The Italian's paternal grandma). It is the main room of her small flat in Su Pallosu, a little hamlet by the sea. Approaching from the back the terracotta roof is framed by a piercing blue sky, the shutters are painted egg-yolk yellow, and the walls are coated in flaking whitewash. It reminds me of childhood holidays in Cornwall. It's on the first floor, and tied to the yellow railings are strings of beach pebbles which sway in the breeze. Inside the walls are white, the floor a pale ash tile. The kitchen itself is tiny, about half a metre of work-surface, an oven and a double sink. There are skylights in the roof and it’s flooded with light. There’s a sort of happy peace about it. A quiet expectancy. Back outside you walk along an overgrown path to the front, and then you see the sea ahead of you, gem-clear and turquoise. An empty beach. Pale sand with mounds of silver-brown dried weed, and carpets of wild flowers as you approach. There’s no one about, only a handful of moored fishing boats for company. Occasionally a small dog comes to join me for my lunchtime swim. It’s blissfully quiet.
Back inside the kitchen I have a table to work on, and the kitchen to duck about in, like Gandalf in Bilbo’s hobbit home. It’s full of oddments, the remnants of Nonna Titi’s time. An old mouli which I salvage, pots patterned with strawberries and miniature espresso makers.
What is it, I wonder, that makes a kitchen a real kitchen? A real ‘heart and hub of the home’. Is it beauty, design, perfection, convenience? It is none of these things, really. It is comfort and a sense of home. A place of activity, sound and warmth.
Social media would have us believe 'perfection' existed, the perfect kitchen, the perfect family, the perfect body.
When I was younger I fell for this too. One of the best things about getting older is letting your crusted ideals peel away to reveal a fresher, more tender reality. God what a relief to finally realise it’s all bullshit. And to feel happy - rather than depressed - by the realisation. To realise that perfection doesn’t exist, and even if it did, you’d probably be bored by it.
There is no perfect kitchen, just as there is no perfect family, or body, or home or whatever else. The family analogy is key. The family is inseparable from the kitchen. The kitchen is where the family come together, where they go about the business of being a family.
Both a family and a kitchen are so much more than a sum of their parts. Families can be comprised of any old bunch of waifs and strays, and often they are far from perfect. What makes a family is not the labels; the brother, mother, son, daughter. A family is a choice. It is a doing. It is being together, talking to each other, loving (or hating) each other. It is a living thing, and a joint enterprise. A family is what you make of it. And what it makes of you.
And so it goes for a kitchen. A kitchen is not just a beautiful, immaculate space filled with wonderful and functional things. A kitchen is a choice. An enterprise, a living breathing thing. A kitchen is what you make of it. Put your heart and soul into a kitchen, and you will see your reward. It is a beating heart and a thudding head and a sweating brow and a tapping foot and a wagging tail and a whirring clock and a boiling pot. A kitchen is a home.
When I worked in professional kitchens, I always tried my best to make them a little more homely (even though that word is more twee than a doily). Less stark, clean and utilitarian. Needless to say my decorative efforts were not well received. I used to take the paper from fruit boxes, strawberry stained paper was my favourite, and turn it into wallpaper for the pastry section. Everyone thought I was mad. But I hated working in such a sterile, heartless environment.
Now I have my own kitchen. I can decorate, and arrange it, how I like. I can make it my own by breathing the fumes of a roasting chicken into it. I can bring it alive by boiling a coffee pot on the stove, by filling a bowl on the table with fruit. It’s not perfect, but it will do, it will do very well and there are no more excuses. Now I want to give it the life it deserves. This little nonna kitchen which has been gifted to me from a nonna I never met. I hope I do it - and her - justice.