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The kitchen of small things: tools, pots and surfaces

I was recently lucky enough to receive a new cookery book by Lindsay Bareham structured around the pots and pans in her kitchen, The Trifle Bowl and Other Stories. Lindsey posts recipes on her own website,, as well as every day at The Times on-line. Her choices are wide ranging, multi-ethnic sources and very doable: Martin Haake’s illustrations in the new book make you want to try her recipes right away. Her insight that the bowls, utensils and cooking vessels we use act as key to our enjoyment and ownership of the cooking process struck a chord with me.

Martin Haake’s frying pans from The Trifle Bowl and other stories

Much consideration is (rightly) given to the value of good design – the style of cabinets and furniture and the quality of appliances – in making our kitchens. In contrast, little is said about our relationship with the things we use to cook, serve and eat, however much these affect our enjoyment of our kitchens. I think of our batterie de cuisine as a kind of private or inner kitchen. It is obligingly portable and at the ready, its components not so much accessories as major players in making a kitchen work; so, rather than a boring thing to be scrubbed, a frying pan is an active assistant in bringing about the next frittata. Incidentally, iittala (Hackman Tools) make the best cast-iron frying pans, their solid bases made with a thick layer of sandwiched copper saving many a burn.

When not in a hurry, the essence of cooking is the process of converting fresh ingredients into something differently delicious, and this activity is greatly enhanced by knives, pots, pans and small tools that do their job well. Over time, through repeated use, these tools shift from just being extensions to your hands and accrue significance beyond familiarity and function – especially if they’re made with real manufacturing quality or fine craftsmanship. I also think of my mother when I use a certain oval platter with neoclassical patterns. Kitchen vessels are emotional heirlooms, returning us to a safe place of childhood. Handmade drinking rummers likewise produce happy thoughts of my father. I am aware that small objects, tools and utensils play a surprising role in our daily existence, acting as repositories of memory.

Slightly differently but in a comparable way, surfaces affect how we feel. I would not be without end-grain chopping blocks that grip a knife blade without blunting it and resist scratching, but it is the objects and materials our hands touch are key in the experience of cooking. The weight, shape, smoothness, temperature and texture of each trigger many mental processes, apart from having their own sensual qualities. Perhaps there intelligence in the hands? Think of a musician’s relationship with his or her instrument. After 10,000 hours of practice it is said that an independent intelligence springs up as the brain lets the hands do their work independently. Over a lifetime cooks must catch up and indeed exceed the figure of 10,000 hours. In The Craftsman Richard Sennett discusses how the hand made us human. This complements the core idea of Richard Wrangham, author of Catching Fire, whose thesis is that cooking made us human. Food for thought there, excuse the pun.

Finally, the value of cookery tools above their practical use was demonstrated at the auction of my aunt’s household effects. Bidders after a bit of Elizabeth David’s magic with food offered up to £150 for old battered beech wooden cooking spoons, burns included. Cookery tools became icons, and why not? They mean more to some of us than cars, watches or graphic symbols of brands. Philippe Starck’s lemon squeezer is a case in point. Eye catching, weirdly like a tall spider, tricky to use, its absurd shape questions the role of fashion-driven design in the kitchen, but the principle of having eye-catching witty things to use is good. I would rather have many of my utensils handmade, closer to the way we prepare our food. Undoubtedly though, our assembly of small kitchen objects means more than the sum of their physical parts, jokingly I might describe this as be getting in touch with my inner kitchen. More of this in my next blog.


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