The Things We cook for Love
Updated: 2 days ago
(Photo: Andrew, desperately seeking Marmite.)
In French, butter is what I call my ‘péché mignon’ - my ‘sweet sin’ or ‘harmless weakness’. Ever since my mother melted a little of it into my puréed vegetables as a baby, it has been omnipresent in my eating life, my 30 years of cooking French food, my 25 cookbooks and my fridge.
It’s one of those items for which just-in-time buying was nerve-wracking, simply not an option. I needed to hold stock - like milk, or coffee, or binbags, or toothpaste, or my favourite pens - or it will niggle me when insomnia sometimes comes calling at 4am. Often, my first waking thoughts would then be for hot toast, spread immediately with salty butter - so it would melt and soak in to the bread - followed by another, cooler layer, one I could taste properly. (And this, many years before THAT Nigella TV episode!) Alongside its accomplices, cream, cheese, sugar, bacon and chocolate, none of them used in moderation, it has become my cookbook trademark, my culinary calling card.
And then, just as 2020 started, when Covid was merely a tiny, if scary, whisper, and I was writing my latest French book ‘My Comfort Food’, packed with butter, cream, cheese and slow roasted, butter-browned meat, I met Andrew.
He is an Englishman who had grown up with all the same brands, culinary traditions and codes as I had. We both adored Branston pickle, Birds custard (albeit made with almond milk), After Eights, Liquorice Alsorts and Midget Gems. We applied the same near-religious attention to detail over Sunday lunch and all the trimmings, forgot all restraint when faced with a family-sized bag of Maltesers, binge-watching watching The Trip. He loved Marmite as much as I hate it, and neither of us could say no to a milk chocolate digestive for elevenses.
But the thing is, Andrew doesn’t eat butter. Nor can he stand even a whiff of cheese or cream and, unsurprisingly then, meat is also completely off the table. Although his conscientious motivations have been reinforced over the years, these aversions - repulsions in fact - stem from his childhood. He is a physical, much more than ethical, vegan.
When Emmanuel Macron grimly announced France’s lockdown in March, Andrew decided to stay and work remotely from my little house in la Sarthe. We both thought from day one that our relationship had a good chance of lasting, and locking down together might be an interesting risk worth taking. Ten months later, we were married and had bought a run-down old farmhouse, barn and orchard, on a hill, in the middle of fields of corn and sunflowers.
But suddenly, my weekend dabbling with meat and dairy free recipes for him, and his “why don’t I cook tonight?” (out of fear, or hunger, or both, I think) dishes for me, changed into 24/7 togetherness, and a complete overhaul of my kitchen cupboards, fridge, appetite, eating and cooking habits. I knew that cutting meat out completely was probably doable, but how could I ever give up cream, butter or cheese? And what about bacon?
But in the giddy first days of our romance, naturally I found every detail about this man fascinating, and nothing more so than the things he would and wouldn’t eat. I considered adapting to his requirements a timely lockdown experiment. A challenge to my own appetite and diet which, let’s face it, were both slightly out of synch with the foodie zeitgeist, not to mention very possibly detrimental to my health. A test which mirrored the one now suddenly facing both of us as we moved in together. How much compromise was possible? How long would it take to make new habits? What could we give up and what could we learn to love in time? What were the deal breakers?
Thankfully, as the weeks went by, there was very little preaching or judgemental looks from Andrew when maintenance therapy St Félicien cheese or duck and pork rillettes appeared in our fridge. After all, his choices, like mine, come from the most credible origins - his visceral likes and dislikes. And neither of us could argue with each other’s.
I’m lucky, I soon realised, in that the range of what I consider or could consider good to eat, was a great deal broader than his. Ultimately, in embracing only plant-based cooking, my repertoire would grow more through adopting Andrew’s diet than shrink due to the dishes and ingredients I would have to leave out, and I could always go back to them. And so, as we settled into our new circumstances, feeling relatively safe in deep France as the virus raged further north, I immersed myself in this strange, new, butter-less, Camembert-less and pork chop-less world.
Love made my cravings change as much as my cooking did. I consciously questioned everything that had previously spelled out ‘delicious’ to me in a recipe, as I discovered more about Indian, African and Persian recipes. I sought out new ways of baking, of incorporating sweetness, creaminess and meatiness into my dishes, using a new mental pantry of ingredients.
Even if my new partner’s diet is constrained in certain ways, he is a man who very much loves to cook, eat and drink. Who plans a meal for two meticulously and with glee, sometimes a week in advance, who likes flowers and candles on the table and will go the extra après-lockdown kilometre for the better baguette. Who can transcend his distaste for meat enough to make me an egg and bacon sandwich for breakfast in bed. Despite being practically Vegan (eggs are ok) he has (literally) the good taste to dislike all meat and dairy imitations – definitely a deal breaker for me, and I have tried them all.
Now after 18 months of experimentation and adaptation, my recipes and findings are being published in a new book for Hachette Cuisine. We're still looking for the French title. If it were English I would call it something like "The Reluctant Vegan" or perhaps, more romantically, "The Things We Cook for Love."
Photo: Andrew, desperately looking for Marmite.