Notes from a small kitchen

I’ve just come back from holiday. Two weeks in a French gîte, reliant on the as usual slightly random batterie de cuisine. Having gîted before, I am in the habit of taking a fair sized box of extra equipment with me, but this time sleasyjet was involved, so taking anything extra was Not On. All I could manage to fit in was a couple of knives, a digital thermometer and a not completely grim chopping board. Also, for once, there was no food at all in the gîte, not even the split bag of pasta, half a veal stock cube, and five different types of salt, which I thought were obligatory. So it was back to basics: cooking with strictly limited ingredients, buying in as little as possible unless we were guaranteed to be able to eat it before we went home, and relying on someone else’s version of necessary cooking equipment. All screaming out to me to make like a Victorian, and channel my inner thrifty historic cook. Except…

Requirements for a cottage kitchen, from Warne's Model Cookery, 1890s. (authored by Mary Jewry).
Requirements for a cottage kitchen, from Warne’s Model Cookery, 1890s. (authored by Mary Jewry)

This is Mary Jewry’s suggested list of vital equipment for a cottage kitchen in the 1890s. My cottage kitchen didn’t exactly have the full list. I had 4 frying pans, 6 stew pans of different sizes (2 lids), 2 mixing bowls, a whisk, a wooden spoon, two ladles, a slotted spoon, a nutcracker, a bloody awful corkscrew, and even worse tin opener, 3 fluted flan tins, 2 Pyrex dishes, a lemon juicer, a food processor and the inevitable elderly pressure cooker. There were two blunt knives, which I sharpened and then ignored, and a bread knife. Kit-wise, an oven, 3 gas hobs and an electric hob, a kettle, a coffee percolator, a microwave and a toaster….at least we had a dishwasher, or I’d’ve gone home.

It makes. I think, for an interesting comparison. It also highlights graphically the difference in what constitutes a meal now and then. Patent digester? That’s the pressure cooker which I ignored, as I usually do – but it would have been useful for stock. Bread grater? food processor. (I suspect many people would just buy breadcrumbs, but I actually saved all the bread and zapped it). After that it’s not so much substitutions as just not needing things. Skewers? Useful, but I bought my meat ready cut, and didn’t need to truss whole beasts. Fish kettle? Impressive, but I tend to fry fish and crunch on the skin. Actually, I fry a LOT more than my hypothetical inner cottage-dwelling Victorian would have done. Modern hobs and ovens are a wonderful thing. Much of this list is roasting kit, and that was all covered by the oven (and I didn’t roast a thing, though I did bake veg). Then we’ve got all those saucepans – I think I used about 4, which was all I could fit on the aforementioned hobs – less wonderful when you want to cook 5 things and you only have 4 hobs. At that point solid fuel ranges win. I didn’t make pastry, either, so all the pastry kit was unnecessary.

Of course, it’s not a fair comparison. Had I been there for longer than two weeks, I’d’ve been clamouring for full pastry kit, including the marble board. But it made me wonder what things we’d deem vital in a small kitchen today. Today’s version probably wouldn’t be a cottage kitchen, but student digs, or a cramped studio flat. I managed 3 years of increasingly stupidly ambitious cooking at uni with 1 saucepan, a frying pan, an electric wok, a toastie maker which doubled as a full English breakfast making machine, and a Pyrex dish and some decent knives. I accidentally acquired a massive stockpot in my final year, and I stole all of M’s unused pans when we got together around the same time. Still, compared to the stuff I have now, it was pretty limited.

What do people think of as must-have in their own kitchens? We cook, it can seem, a wider variety of cuisines now, but most surveys suggest people don’t actually cook that many dishes on a regular basis. I suspect the range of equipment we use regularly is pretty limited – a favourite frying pan, a couple of saucepans, a baking sheet…the microwave. How many of you have a tagine gathering dust on top of a cupboard? Jewry’s list suggests a cuisine heavy on roasting and boiling with a bit of grilling thrown in. Pies and puddings can be done without special equipment, so I’d assume they were also included – but there’re no moulds or cake tins. The bread grater shows the importance of not wasting anything – the statistics on the amount of bread we throw away today are truly scary when there are so many used for breadcrumbs and leftover white sliced. I could certainly cook most of my day-to-day repertoire with the list here. But – longer than two weeks, and I’d start to hanker after a pudding basin, and my massive Le Creuset pan. But times, and cooking preferences, change. Some people probably couldn’t imagine life without a cupcake pan.