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Last week in The Times, there was article about recipes in verse. The author reckoned that rhyming recipes were once common, which he attributed to the need for a way of memorising ingredients and cooking directions in the days when few cooks could read or write. He also quoted some modern verse about cooking, including this piece below.

Risotto by Mary Woodward

I’d work from recipes, measure carefully, hover
anxiously. Be so bored by the craft and science
I’d then lose all interest in eating it.
So I cooked risotto every night for a month,
made it instinctive, natural, a simple habit,
as if I’d grown up in a red tiled Italian town
where emerald basil sprouts wildly in the gutters.

Rice, onion, garlic abandoned into hot butter
without a thought. Pepper. Bubbling white wine.
Stock, slipping from a jug, uncalculated.
Dared break the cardinal rule never to leave it.
Judged by eye. Knew by the soft heaving gloss
when to let saffron or prawns or asparagus
fall from my heedless hands. Got it so perfect
I can start from scratch, soon be piling plates,
like breathing, like walking, like humming Puccini,
as if another woman, olive eyed, laughing
like Sunday church bells all the while, has done it.

I thought that this hit a nail on the head. The best way to cook good food isn’t by following instructions in a recipe book. It’s better to absorb the rhythm of the recipe, know what you are aiming for and just do it. Of course, you also need a repertoire of techniques that by practice have become second nature. These techniques aren’t difficult or complicated but having them in your head – as opposed to reading them as you go along – makes all the difference. So, as Mary Woodward says, the way to end up with a good risotto is to make ten – and throw the first nine away.

Just like woodwork really. Cut a set of dovetails every day for a month and then you’ll be able to make a decent drawer. I highly recommend it as an approach. Because you’re not actually making anything, not working on a real project, mistakes don’t matter. Indeed, they’re to be welcomed as a way of learning what not to do. And it’s satisfying because you get better so quickly.

Here are some of my practice pieces. Most of them aren’t very good and a couple are really poor. But it’s instructive to see how strong the joint is, even when made badly. I’ve kept them because small right-angled brackets often come in handy: glueing up mitred frames or boxes with mitred corner joints, for example; or holding the bottom block of a guitar vertical while glueing it to the soundboard.


Although my technique still needed improving, I’d learnt enough about cutting dovetails to be able to enjoy making these drawers for a cabinet in English elm.


Talking of improvement, there’s an interesting article on Konrad Sauer’s blog about how, after making a stack of drawers for his kitchen, he reached the point where his dovetails fitted straight from the saw. As a famous golfer once remarked, ‘The more I practise, the luckier I get’.


One Comment

  1. I’m so glad you like the poem & thanks for using it in such an interesting way.I’m sure this approach is good for what you do. I know it works for lots of things. Though sadly not for poems themselves which seem to defy methodology ( well, they do for me…elusive and contrary. Hard work and practice seem often to make it more difficult to write good ones.)

    Best wishes


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