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Where I’m coming from - and going to
I started cooking when I moved into my own little flat on the edge of Hampstead at the age of 21, way back in 1964. Because I ate a lot of expense-account lunches in Soho, I had high aspirations, but it was a long time before I began to fulfil them.
Among my friends were John and Nancy - far older than I - who were serious eaters and drinkers. They set my standards - the standard of cooking towards which I worked for years, and the standard of alcohol dependence which I’ve been struggling not to achieve ever since.
John was my boss and - briefly, when I changed jobs to increase my salary from £850 to £1250 a year at a stroke (that was when a thousand a year was serious money) - my client. I clearly remember the early stages of a lunch with him in The French Pub in Soho, in the course of which (he later told me) I drank six Ricards. They slipped down like mother’s milk, and I never made it back to the office. It’s taken me until my mid-50’s to start enjoying pastis.
And I remember the complicated system John and I had when drinking in Belgravia after work, when he was my boss again: I drank single gin-and-tonics while he drank double whiskies. We bought alternate rounds and he gave me half-a-crown every time it was my round. I still got drunker than him.
I still have the omelette pan that was bought for me from a professional cook’s shop in Victoria by the lady who became Wife Number One and the mother of my children. It’s made of thick, solid aluminium with a long iron handle, thickly encrusted on the outside with decades’ accumulation of burnt-on oil and more smoothly coated inside with the same stuff. Despite patches of bare metal, it still cooks omelettes and fried eggs better than anything else I’ve ever used. (Interestingly, Delia Smith recently discovered a similar kind of pan and it was heavily promoted by the likes of Lakeland Ltd.)
Len Deighton, spy-writer extraordinaire, published two trendy cookbooks based on his Observer ’cookstrips’ in the sixties. These were my culinary bibles for some time. Only when Wife Number One and I married and joined a cookery book club did we discover the more encyclopaedic resources of Constance Spry and the rich lore of Elizabeth David’s magnificent evocations of French life and gastronomy.
The French connection
In 1975, just after Wife Number One and I separated, I acquired a lodger. A 20-year-old half-French, one-quarter Vietnamese, one-quarter Chinese student teacher of English from the Auvergne, Phillippe lifted me to new heights in the appreciation of food and wine - though he failed utterly to convert me to his other grand passion: motorbikes. He is still one of my dearest friends - mon petit frère Français. At 42 and getting just a little thick round the middle (though less so than I) he was Monsieur le Président of the French Harley-Davidson Owner’s Club, Auvergne Chapter. His delightful partner, Nathalie, who comes from the paradise island of La Réunion, is a cook for whom I have immense respect.
Despite this contact, due partly to poverty and partly to cowardice, it wasn’t until 1990 that I finally crossed the Channel. Now you can’t keep me away from France. Provence is the only place I have ever been homesick for apart from home itself. Some years ago, a TV documentary?s footage of the area, seen a few weeks after a holiday there, actually reduced me to tears.
One of the things I love most about holidaying in France is shopping - food shopping, of course. While I’m staying wherever I’m staying - which is always some kind of self-catering accommodation unless I’m just overnighting - I spend an inordinate amount of time prowling markets. Then, on the way home, I always shop carefully for the essentials without which a return to Derby would be grim indeed - cheeses, bread, patisserie, coffee, jams, fruit nectars, pétoncles...
One of the great delights of recent years for me has been finding decent wines in France, buying them direct from the producers in bulk (by which I mean 10- or 20-litre containers, not road-tankers) and bottling them at home. I wouldn’t have dreamt of trying it if I hadn’t been shown how by good friends. Now, for the sake of an occasional bout of frenzied work in the kitchen, I can drink as much as I want of sound reds, whites and rosés every day at less (sometimes a lot less) than £1 a bottle. I get panic attacks if the stock of bottles bearing my own uninspired computer-printed labels drops below about three dozen. You can find out here how to join this exclusive club...
Quite miraculously, a few months after Wife Number Two left me (’To lose two, Mr Marsden, begins to look like carelessness!’), I met Patricia, who had lived in Normandy developing a chambres d’hôtes (B&B) business until her own marital disaster brought her back to England to become cook/house-manager to a successful hotelier and restaurateur. Despite being completely self-taught, she routinely catered single-handed for dinner-parties at which many of the guests were restaurateurs and chefs, and for buffets serving up to 30 guests. She was generous enough to tell everyone that I was a better cook than she is. It wasn’t true, of course - though I’m probably more inventive and adventurous (you can afford to be when you’re not catering for your employer and his guests!), and am certainly more scientific (just because that’s how I am) - but she seemed happy to eat what I produced and even borrowed some of my best tricks for work.
In August 1998, after 18 months of excessive caution, I persuaded her to give up her job before it killed her and we set out to develop a proper relationship (not easy when you’re both constantly tripping over the debris of previous ones). We developd small catering business specialising in dinner parties, buffets and drinks parties in clients’ own homes - no big weddings, funerals or bar-mitzvahs.
As part of our publicity, I wrote a booklet called The Fine Art of Feasting. Writing about food is great fun - I hope you’ll find reading what I write just as enjoyable. Eventually we decided that catering was just too physically and metally taxing for our ageing bodies and minds, so what?s on this site is all that remains of Partners in Your Kitchen.
Around the same time I had a brilliant idea for a book. It was to be a mixture of travel, wine and cookery book, and that’s probably why no less than fourteen publishers rejected it. Now most of the book is on this web site. You can read about my limited experience of European travel or stay with the Online Cookbook.
Personal site for Paul Marsden: frustrated writer; experimental cook and all-round foodie; amateur wine-importer; former copywriter and press-officer; former teacher, teacher-trainer, educational software developer and documenter; still a professional web-developer but mostly retired.
This site was transferred in June 2005 to the Sites4Doctors Site Management System, and has been developed and maintained there ever since.