I've got mixed feelings about old Sir Terence. I still can't make up my mind about the rather empty, sparse Design Museum; loathed Mezzo (a formulaic joint for raucous Essex Girls up for a Night on the Town) and Quaglino's, although back in 1993 an exciting place for a liaison dangereuse, became a shadow of its former self. Conran's take-over of Heals, the famous furniture shop in the Tottenham Court Road, was also iffy, I think. I seem to remember that half of the amazing Art Deco convex (or is it converse?) shop windows were ripped out, a commerical decision, I'm sure (difficult to display stock), but not exactly a reassuring move from one of Britain's leading design gurus. And a half-hearted act, too.
And I've never been entirely convinced by the conranisation of his classic redbrick Georgian house in Berkshire either, as featured in the Sunday colour supplements and the old House and Gardens lying around at the bottom of my wardrobe. Not that I don't like it, it's all very lovely, but...but... it's as if the history of the house- the very essence of what the house is all about- no longer exists.
And then along comes the marvellous Boundary, a grown-up, civilised restaurant of the old school serving Anglo-French food with mâitre d's in pin-stripe trousers; a recent-ish enterprise located in the modish East End, a stone's throw from the former haunt of Jack the Ripper. It's all very confusing.
But then maybe I am missing the point. How exciting Conran must have seemed in the late 50's and early 60's! The man has had a huge and massive influence on post-war British culture. And for the better. If you wind back in time to the late 50's and 60's, Conran's sophisticated designs must have seemed like a breath of fresh air in a world of smog, lukewarm Brown Windsor Soup and grimy flock wallpaper.
For the young, aspirational couple, strapped for cash, newly in love with the colour supplement lifestyle as championed by Elizabeth David, Arabella Boxer and Robert Carrier; and attempting to convert a shabby tenement block back into an elegant and fashionable town house, the affordable but stylish Habitat catalogue must have come as a godsend. Especially as everything was paid for by the newly launched Barclaycard. It's bizarre now to think of a society where credit cards didn't exist, but until 1966 that was exactly the state of the union.
And the middle classes were travelling for the first time on a regular basis, to civilised places like France, Spain and Italy. Habitat led the charge, re-creating (successfully, I think) the imagined ambiance of a French ironmongers, with kitchen utensils piled high on scrubbed pine tables, white painted brick walls, terracotta chicken bricks, Cornishware, red enamel oil lamps, Victorian scales in iron, and colourful posters of Toulouse-Lautrec and the Belle Epoque. Classless too. Conran was more interested in the Quaker simplicity of the downstairs scullery than in the Great Exhibition fripperies of the upstairs Drawing Room.
And I had forgotten about Terence and Vicki Conran's recent cookbook, Classic Conran. This is a fantastic book, very much along the lines of our he-who-can-do-no-wrong-foodie-god, Simon Hopkinson, but with a practical edge, more suited to domestic cooks with less time to spare.
There's an emphasis on the classics of Anglo-French cookery, simple dishes made with good ingredients and cooked properly: kedgeree (they use the preferable curried pilaf Grigson method); Jambon Persillée, Eton Mess, Soup à l' Oignon, Poached Chicken with Tarragon Sauce, Chocolate Mousse, Steak and Kidney Pudding, Entrecôte Béarnaise, Roast Grouse, Toulouse Sausages with Lentils, Braised Oxtail, Leeks Viniagrette, Irish Soda Bread. This is Greasy Spoon food. This is what The Greasy Spoon is all about. The book's so darned good it's currently got pride of place in my top ten "cookbooks of all time" list.
I came across the Conran recipe for that old classic, Scotch Broth. I don't know what the weather's like where you are, but here in London it's cold and wet with that English dampness that chills you to the bone. The Greasy Spoon herb garden is sodden. My tarragon plant seems to have vanished and I've lost hope. And this weather is making me hungry, very hungry. Ravenous in fact.
I've got a craving for Scotch Broth. It's a British Classic. I used to hoard this in my tuck box at school. Tins of Baxter's "Scotch Broth". Or was it "Cock-a-Leekie"? There are numerous recipes on the net, many seem to be similar, some are identical. All seem to agree on the following ingredients: carrots, a turnip or two, onions, celery, leek, pre-soaked dried peas, cabbage (or kale) and pearl barley.
In the Conran version you simmer a neck of lamb for an hour or two until tender, leave overnight, skim off the fat, breaking up the meat into small pieces and then cook gently with the vegetables and lamb stock for a further hour, adding the cabbage towards the end. The soup is finished off with a garnish of chopped parsley. The BBC version is very similar but leaves out the lamb. Marguerite Patten's version in her Classic British Dishes, is almost identical in method to the Conran's except she refines it by blanching the barley in boiling water, which, apparently 'whitens' the barley and 'gives it a better texture'.
I'll leave you to experiment. Bon Courage.