Once upon a time, many, many years ago, a young Junior Editor was called into her boss’s office and told they had to publish a Chinese cookery book that someone had bought while in US because it was a huge bestseller there, and since he couldn’t toast a piece of bread without burning it, she would have to deal with the cookbook. Soon this was followed by the announcement that they couldn’t publish just one solitary cookbook on the list, so it had been decided to start an international cookbook series and the young Junior Editor should go out and start researching what was already around and what gap there might be in the market.
The young editor was thrilled because she’d always loved everything to do with food: cooking, eating out and trying new dishes when on holiday abroad, buying lovely and unusual foods from delis in Soho, and reading many cookbooks. She thought she’d won the lottery … well, no not the lottery as it was well before the National Lottery arrived, but something like that; it was certainly a dream job.
She set off to Foyles in the Charing Cross Road, WH Smiths and Hatchards in Piccadilly, and scoured the cookery book shelves. This was the days before Waterstones. It was also the days before Celebrity Chefs who wrote cookbooks that sold millions, even though they were primarily chefs while the cookbook writers of these days were very much writers too. Think, Elizabeth David; think Jane Grigson. The editor wrote to Jane Grigson who wrote back a very nice letter saying she was too busy to write a book for the new series but wished her luck. She then discovered that one of the most prolific and successful cookery writers of the day was Robin Howe, so she wrote to Robin who had made a career of food writing while following her foreign correspondent husband around the world for over 40 years. And Robin said, Yes, she would love to write a book for the series and suggested it be on Middle Eastern food. When the manuscript finally arrived on the young editor’s desk, neatly typed on a manual typewriter because computers weren’t generally available then and even electric typewriters were only used by an elite class of super secretaries, she began to try out the recipes. Soon a wonderful Iranian fruit stuffed chicken was roasting in her oven; soaked bulgur wheat was drying on her kitchen worktop before being turned into a gorgeous Lebanese tabbouleh.
Around the same time the editor was holidaying in Italy where Robin had retired with her husband, on the Ligurian coast, in an apartment high in the hills with wonderful views over the Mediterranean Sea. She was invited to stay. As Robin cooked up a storm of fabulous dishes, the editor enjoyed some of the best and most exciting food she’d ever eaten, sitting on a warm balcony, the Med glistening in the not too far away distance, and rather a lot of local wine flowing.
Of all the gorgeous food that was put before her, one of the things the editor remembers most clearly is the ceremony and seriousness of the Dressing of the Salad. The large teak salad bowl was many years old and had, she was told, never been washed but always simply wiped clean. Also explained to her was the importance of not tossing the salad – although people often talked about tossing a salad – but gently turning over the salad to mix in the dressing. And the dressing was not pre-made; not carefully measured out with measuring jugs and tablespoons as the editor did at home, but seemingly randomly drizzled over the salad leaves: first the fruity local extra virgin olive oil, a little vinegar, some salt and pepper. There was a hushed time while the salad was reverently and carefully turned over, the oil and vinegar slowly mixing and coating the green leaves. Some was gently gathered between salad servers and lifted on to her plate. And when she tasted it, the young editor wondered how a salad dressing could be so perfect when no measuring had taken place.
The years went by: the editor became a wife and a mother and a freelance editor and no longer edited cookery books … she still bought them, however, and she still cooked passionately, and made fresh baby food rather buy jars for her children, but she continued to use the measuring jug and spoons to make her salad dressing. She checked in her Larousse Gastronomique bible, which told her the proportions should be – and how could she argue with Larousse? – 3 parts oil to 1 part vinegar. A recipe from Michael Smith’s New English Cookery became a favourite and the ingredients were taped to the back of one of her kitchen cupboards. Delia and Raymond and Marco and then Jamie arrived on her cookery book shelves, and she carefully measured out their different dressings.
Then one day, just over a year ago, she started writing a food and travel blog. She tested her old and favourite recipes carefully for her readers before she wrote them up; she tried out new recipes from books to share on the blog; and she started experimenting – ideas would come into her head and she’d head off to the kitchen to see how they’d work out. And as her confidence grew, the not-so-young-now editor remembered Robin. She remembered how Robin dressed her salad: with care and with a lot of love … but no measuring spoons. So the grown-older and more confident editor – and now food blogger – started dressing her salads the same way. She slowly poured the fruity olive oil over her salad; she carefully drizzled over some of the finest balsamic vinegar from Modena; she grated over some sea salt and black pepper … and then she carefully, gently – remembering Robin and sitting on her balcony overlooking the Mediterranean – turned the salad leaves over, and watched as the oil and vinegar came together and coated the salad beautifully. And when she sat down to eat her supper and lifted a forkful of the salad to her mouth, she thought happily to herself that the Dressing of the Salad had been just right.
Writing this reminds me that I enjoyed listening to Mary Berry on Desert Island Discs last Sunday and how Mary talked about the importance of measurements. She remarked that when people talk about their grandmothers or old aunts putting together perfect cakes with no measurements, things probably weren’t as they appeared: the older women most likely had a handleless cup and a particular spoon that they always used to collect the ingredients together. They were, in essence, measuring. And so, I suppose that my years of measuring salad dressings has taught me to be able to judge pretty accurately just the right amount of oil and vinegar to pour over my salad. But it’s also worth saying that like lots of things where food and cookery are concerned, personal preference is what matters in the end: a salad with too much vinegar or lemon juice for one person may be just right for another; a salad dressing sweetened with sugar may suit some but not others. When baking cakes, measurements really do matter. But when making dressings … well, guidelines like Larousse’s above, are useful … but they’re not the final word. Taste your dressing; taste your salad, and if it’s not quite as you like it, add a little more of whatever it needs to make it right for you. And, however you dress your salad, do it with love … it really does help you know.