Dinky jars of harissa, rice wines and things with furry moulds: all stood as testimony to my lack of commitment as an adventurous cookRecently, the Yorkshire based herb-and-spice company Steenbergs held a competition to find the oldest unused packet of spices in anybody’s cupboard. The winner: a pot of Sainsbury’s pickling spices bought in 1975 for 19p. Clearly we should celebrate such Olympic standard procrastination. I’m sure they were planning to get round to their brilliant home-pickling project, just as soon as they had rearranged the cutlery drawer. But for me that response was overlaid by something else: recognition.
For, purely by coincidence, while Steenbergs was encouraging the nation to excavate their kitchen cabinets, we were also giving our own walk-in larder a clean out. I say “we”. It was entirely my wife’s doing. I was minded to let sleeping condiments lie. Two of my unbending rules for a happy life: never look under a teenager’s bed and never, ever mess with the kitchen cupboards.
But she was determined. And so the great work began. I stood by and watched as the kitchen surfaces were quickly covered with a Manhattan of bottles and jars of ancient vintage. This brought me face to face with all my unrealised ambitions as a domestic cook. My desire to be an endlessly inventive kitchen warrior with a seemingly boundless repertoire, piled up unceremoniously before me.
There were the jars of buttercup-yellow preserved lemons, and the dinky pots of harissa paste, the colour of coagulating blood, from the period when I was determined to explore the wilder shores of the Levantine culinary tradition. There were things called “marmalade” which didn’t involve oranges, and pitch-black pastes made from damsons which I seem to recall needing for my home experiments in neo-rustic British nose-to-tail eating. And don’t get me started on the Asian stuff: the fermented bean pastes with endless permutations of chilli and dried shrimp; the misos of ever darkening shades; the rice wines and soys and vinegars.
Some of these had been opened. I peered inside to find a few with a deep dimple where I had sampled this new genius purchase, and then realised I didn’t have a clue what to do with it. Others had developed furry moulds so thick I didn’t know whether to scoop them out or stroke them and get them baptised. And then there were those – oh the shame – where the seal hadn’t even broken.
I should beat myself up here over the disgusting waste, and I do. It doesn’t matter how long it takes to throw something away: waste is still waste. But even more than that I mourn all those dishes that could have been. They were not undermined by lack of ingredients. I reckon I had even accumulated the makings for a couple of Yotam Ottolenghi’s simpler recipes. They were undermined by lack of commitment.
I’m sure when I bought the myriad jars I meant it. I really was going to become a different kind of cook. I really was going to stop making the same old things. But I was going to become that different cook tomorrow. Or perhaps the day after that. Or next week. And all of a sudden it’s six years later and you can’t find the Marmite for the tubs of ras el hanout spice mix. But this has stiffened my resolve. I will do better. I will be a more adventurous cook. And I will start all this a week next Thursday.
What’s the oldest product you’ve found in the back of your cupboards? Let us know in the comments below“All of a sudden you can’t find the Marmite for the tubs of ras el hanout “. Photograph: Bon Appetit/Alamy