The French Kitchen Project - Prologue
The last year has been terrible. I suffer from anxiety which brings on depression, or is it the other way round, I am still not sure. Anxiety and depression are evil siblings enough, but there’s another member of that family that follows me around, and that’s Panic Attacks.
If you’ve never had a PA, you probably won’t understand, and you might think if you see someone having one that they are having a heart attack, but I’m not, I’m so anxious that I have begun to hyperventilate, and if PA really gets going I can lose my hearing and my sight goes fuzzy, like a video camera moving too fast. My first instinct because I am totally freaked out and afraid is to try to get up and run, but if all of that is accompanied by a sense of pins and needles in my legs and arms, this is unlikely to happen. You might even speak to me, but I probably can only hear your voice like I am at the bottom of a well. And for now I am.
There’s a great trick to try and change the breathing and that’s a paper-bag held over the nose and mouth into which I breathe in and out slowly, and it re-balances the amount of oxygen I am getting. Imagine having to do this, yes it is very embarrassing. There have been people who thought I was sniffing glue, me sniffing glue, please get a grip.
So why am I putting this out there? Well it is really helpful to know that I am not alone, and maybe there is someone out there who like me suffered in silence for a long time, finding it hard to out myself to doctors and therapists, and hoping it would go away.
So let me take my head out of the sand now, I realise that this will not go away without help, and I am getting some. Currently I am having CBT Therapy (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) and my CBT Counsellor is very supportive and encouraging. Though she threw me slightly off balance when she declared that the paper-bag idea is “old hat”, well it may be old, but it works, and as that saying goes if it aint broke why fix it? Or in this case change it to – Breathe in Blue, Breathe out Green. I told her it’s a lovely idea, and I assured her I’ll do just that, whilst holding my paper bag over my nose and mouth, so, I should have double help.
And hopefully if there are others out there who experience Depression, Anxiety and Panic Attacks, maybe we can share experiences, good days, bad days, days I think I’d like to head to bed and pull the duvet over my head and remain there. Because I find it really difficult to talk to people who haven’t experienced these things. But mostly people’s eyes seem to glaze over and I think if you dump a load of sympathy on me now, or say something like – it’s a lovely day what is there to panic about – I’ll just crawl into my shell and not come out again. I’m not a big fan of those who say think only positive thoughts. If they could see a movie of what goes through my mind sometimes they’d probably run screaming from the building.
So in order to regain some balance in my life, and have a project that takes me through the year, I’ve decided to attempt to cook all the recipes in Joanne Harris and Fran Warde’s - The French Kitchen. There will be some omissions however and that’s anything of a shell-fish nature, Prof Yaffle is allergic and I’ve had a very head over the loo bowl experience after an oysters and mussels party that has put me off the little critters for life. And Rabbit may be off the menu too… oh and pigeon…. Oooh gotta stop myself there or there’ll be nothing left to cook, but I’m going to be very Scarlet O’Hara about that, I’ll ponder about that later. For now I will cook a minimum of one recipe from the book per week and blog about it.
And yes I am inspired by Julie Powell’s - Julie/Julia My Year of Cooking Dangerously. (As I type this I am saying these words to myself and a voice behind me – Prof Yaffle my other half can be heard muttering – “It’s always dangerous in the kitchen when you are cooking, dear”). Cue cushion thrown over my head in his direction.
I am not setting out to cook all of the recipes in a year, I’m setting out to enjoy cooking what I choose and learn about French cooking. Simpler French cooking. I have seen the two volumes of Julia Childs, The Art of Mastering French Cooking, and believe me that’s enough to stimulate a PA.
Along my way I will share recipes for some of my dishes from from my favourite cuisines, Chinese, Malaysian, Indian and Italian. My favourite Chinese foods are Bean Curd, Congee/Chuk (Chuk is prounounced Chook) that’s Chinese Savoury Rice porridge, and Steamed Chicken Feet – now that’s a delicacy that not everyone shares my taste for, but it is delicious and I recommend you roll up to a Chinese Restaurant near you that serves Dim Sum and order yourself a portion of delightful little steamed chicken’s feet, on the other hand, maybe not!
So for someone who left home with a tiny amount of cooking ability; eggs boiled, scrambled, it’s taken me years to learn to fry an egg properly, I don’t like the pan spitting at me! Can make a mean chicken soup though. And could probably if asked reproduce my Father's favourite dish, Boiled Pigs Trotters with Liquorice. Which he always cooked himself. But, as you can imagine no-one asked. I learned to cook Irish Stew courtesy of my one-eyed Domestic Science teacher, Sr Enda (whom I adored, she is the only one of my teachers I remember fondly); forays into my Mother's kitchen were minimal, she liked to just get on with it. There were the times I tried to cook Chocolate Eclairs, that was a pantomime and a half, though we did produce a dozen or so. And my Mothers Apple Tart on a plate, and Madelaines, sponge cake covered in Jam and with a Cherry on top. And my Mothers famous Brown Stew, where she augmented the meat with her own dumplings, pastry balls we used to call them.
Which reminds me of growing up in a little village on the East Coast of Ireland, and my mother buying fish from the fishermen and bringing it home and cleaning it. I used to stand by the sink and watch her as she scaled and gutted the fish. It was almost like doing surgery.
Most people I encountered were amazed that I could clean and gut a fish. So when in Switzerland, I went to buy fish for the family I lived with, took it home and proceeded to clean and gut it, the lady of the house was amazed. Maybe I thought ok, so these people don’t gut their own fish, they are obviously a more advanced society than mine!
Apparently she usually asked the fishmonger to do the deed, so I wasn't sure whether she was pleased or appalled at what I had done. But she decided that a girl from an island on the western reaches of Europe who could clean and gut fish was an asset and she set too teaching me a lot more about cooking. She had taken a Cordon Bleu course! So I learned lots of pasta dishes and amazing ways with salad. Unfortunately my first attempt with beef steaks was a bit of a disaster, she had taken a telephone call and I took the term cooking steak, to mean just that, turned the fire up under it to give it a good blast, and oh heavens.... we had to start again. But we did laugh about it, in fact we had a lot of laughs as she sought to teach me the minimum amount of cooking ability, she said every girl should have, if she were ever to entice a husband!!
Years later it occurred to me that Switzerland is a landlocked country, so maybe there is less acquaintance with the cleaning and gutting of fish. Speaking of Switzerland being a landlocked country, every year there is a cultural festival in Zurich, and Dublin’s Abbey Theatre were there in 1970 with their production of Sean O’Casey's, The Hostage. A friend and I went to see it. There we are, and onstage one character says something like, “tomorrow he’ll be hanged as high as Kilie-manjaro”. The other character asks, “Where’s Kilie-manjaro?” First character obviously is a know-it-all who doesn’t want to let on he really doesn’t know, so he says, I kid you not, “Oh somewhere on the south coast of Switzerland!” My friend and I laughed out loud and were still laughing when we realised that we were the only ones in the theatre laughing, because they just didn’t get the joke. We went backstage afterwards and met the cast and asked them if this line is really in the play? Oh said they laughing, we just throw things in sometimes to test the level of understanding. We knew there were some Irish people in when we heard your laughter. Typical Irish humour, treat everything irreverently. Even the sacred words of Sean O’Casey, though I’m sure he would have enjoyed that.
And if you love food and like to read about it, there’s quite a lot of food themed fiction out there. Joanne Harris’s Chocolat, Laura Esquivel’s –Like Water for Chocolate, and my favourite, because the books are by an Iranian author, and set in the West of Ireland, Marsha Mehran’s – Pomegranate Soup, Rosewater and Soda Bread, and the third in the series is due for publication this year, Pistachio Rain.
So that’s the background to my project. I am now going to take myself and anxious woman (AW) on a journey through Joanne Harris and Fran Warde’s -The French Kitchen. My first recipe, Bouef en Daube will be cooked tomorrow. Wish me luck!