Many years ago, I must have been still in my twenties, I bought my mother ‘Secrets of the Great French Restaurants’, billed as ‘Nearly 400 recipes from famous restaurants starred in the Michelin Guide,’ selected by Louisette Bertholle. I doubt if my mother ever used it, and some years later, when I was married with young children, she gave it back to me, saying that Eileen and I were more likely to put it to work. And we did – over the years, when we were looking for that special dish for Christmas or a birthday, an anniversary or some special event, we would turn to ‘Great French Restaurants’ – a kind of up-market version of our favourite Robert Carrier ‘Great Dishes of the World.’
Over the years the spine cracked and pages came loose; we kept them in order somehow, and had the book rebound, but then it fell apart again. It was one of the few things I took with me when I moved out of the family home in 2005, and I’m sure I must have cooked one or two things from it for Rob, at our little place in Brookwood. And, when the divorce was finally through, this February, it was to Louisette Bertholle’s homard a l’americaine that we turned for a celebration – except that, instead of lobster, we did the dish with sweet langoustines and giant Mozambique prawns. It is one of those very simple dishes, perfect in its simplicity: the shellfish are done in a rich broth of tomato, onions, shallots, with a handful of fresh tarragon and parsley and a dash of cayenne pepper. When the shellfish are done you reduce the sauce and thicken with butter; a squeeze of lemon, a little more cayenne, and you are good to go.
I did it for the kids yesterday, not homard but langoustine a l’americaine; they came over around three, and stayed till after eight. Langoustines and prawns. After our plates were piled up with shells, we mopped up the rich broth with good ciabatta, licking our fingers clean. It was a feast in every sense – warm, happy, family time: so straightforward and easy as to be taken for granted and yet, as we know, so often families are conflicted, parents and children don’t speak, and relationships go off the rails. My dear Australian friend Margie wrote to me just this morning, saying that her own children still, years later, disown her for leaving her unhappy marriage for the man she loves….. The love and support of my own children has been truly wonderful, a gift, in fact.
Just before she left, Rob and I went round to our little shopping street in Emmarentia, and Rob slipped away while I was in the greens shop, picking out a few things for salad. When she came back, she had under her arm, from the book binders across the way, a red hard-cover book, with a red silk bookmark: it was Louisette Bertholle’s ‘Secrets of the Great French Restaurants,’ rebound.