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Wrong kind of lemon

Terence Conran and I have met in odd places down the decades, from my aunt’s house and shop to (a now closed) barber’s at the BBC site at White City where more than once we found ourselves side by side in front of the mirrors. I even had a bedroom furniture collection at the Conran Shop in Chelsea which he commissioned. The latest was at a talk by Conran for Bedales Arts at the Hampshire based school, with dinner before, where it was a great pleasure to see him again. He paid handsome tribute to Elizabeth David during the talk, seeing her as having a similar passion for bringing French food and design culture to our shores.

Conran does not need an introduction on a site like this. We all know that by bringing good design to a wide audience he changed the tone of British domestic life. His influence on food culture was also profound, with houses all over the country upgrading their batterie de cuisine to enable more ambitious and stylish cooking. The chicken brick is one example, its story including my aunt Elizabeth David who was another fan of this fashionable-in-the-’70s cook’s aid and wedding present – its history is here:

Interestingly, Conran and ED could not agree on whether the brick in its twentieth century form came from Spain or France. He reminded me the other night that its introduction to Britain suffered some hitches as customers struggled with the concept of a mini earthenware oven that did not need washing up after every use. In large numbers these were returned to Habitat impregnated with Fairy Liquid and other synthetic perfumes. His solution was to commission from his suppliers a modified British brick made from glazed stoneware.

We still use our version of the chicken brick, a lidded earthenware pot, originally from Elizabeth David’s kitchen shop, to simultaneously steam and roast potatoes. It’s only washed with hot water and over the years has built up a tarry patina that adds subtle but distinct flavour. It is flat bottomed with a narrow neck that allows steam to build up inside to produce a wonderful texture as well, with delicately crisped skins on smaller potatoes rather than the leathery effects of baking. Served with fine Italian butter, a pinch of Celtic sea salt and grind of pepper there is nothing better – for ultimate results, dig up your own potatoes from the garden or a large pot on the terrace.

Having been influenced myself by Conran’s ideas I was very happy at an early stage of my career to offer my own take on kitchens in a chapter of his Kitchen Book (Mitchell Beazley: 1977), ‘Elizabeth David’s dream kitchen’. This outlined the advantages of the kitchen made with freestanding furniture. He persuaded my aunt to write this piece, after she had refused permission to photograph, her main kitchen as it was ‘damp, dark and over photographed’ suggesting I should design it. I subsequently quoted it in my first book, The Art of Kitchen Design and remain highly indebted to his creative thinking.

Terence Conran’s great legacy was the dissemination of this, and the idea that the kitchen should be a living room, at the time a radical concept. I have since encountered his designs of kitchens based on furniture around the world, from Nuits St Georges to San Francisco. When I heard him talk last week at Bedales Arts, I released we had re-connected in spirit and in practice with the way we see kitchens.


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