The Centaur’s Kitchen by Patience Gray

I am not a great one for The Telegraph but if I do pick it up then will usually try and make my way to the obituaries. There will normally be some Johnny or Jane with more than two barrels to their name who did their bit in the war and managed to continue to lead  an exotic life with exciting times.

This last Sunday it was the turn of Marshall Meek, who died aged 88. He was one of Britain’s leading naval architects and chief naval architect of the Liverpool-based Blue Funnel Line during the 1950’s.

Marshall Meek was born at Auchtermuchty, Fife, on April 22 1925, the son of a monumental sculptor. The family were Exclusive Brethren, a fellowship which brought Marshall friendships worldwide and into which, in 1957, he married. He broke with the sect soon after; it had barred his mother and sister from the wedding, and was demanding that its adherents leave professional bodies they belonged to. But he continued to worship with more tolerant Brethren.

The first ship he designed for Blue Funnel was Centaur, to carry passengers, livestock and cargo between Malaysia and Western Australia. 

One of versions on How to Kill a Mackerel compares, in the introduction, time spent in the Cottage being a bit like spending time on a boat. The quarters are cramped and the bedrooms run into each other and after a night in the pub the night can be picked over in bed shouting through to the other rooms. Having put out that thought and went on to say….

‘Every good boat should have a manual of instruction, a guide as to how it moves best through the water, how to handle its ropes and get the best out of idiosyncrasies; the instructions passed by word of mouth or on a few gathered, scribbled notes. Patience Gray’s A Centaur’s Kitchen, was composed as a manual of instruction to the cooks of The Blue Funnel Line’s latest addition to its fleet, The Centaur. The owners had appealed to Patience Gray to write them a set of recipes that their Chinese cooks could execute. As the dust jacket declares the consequence and will appeal to those who enjoy their food with bags of flavour and richness, and who respond to the firm yet inspired guidance of a writer who knows what’s what.

‘Of course I do not know what’s what. But leaf through the illustrated pages of the Centaur’s Kitchen and it is clearly something more than the words spelled out on its dust jacket. It is a collection of recipes pared down to the bare essentials. They are for eating outside, with friends, cooked with the ingredients at hand. You feel reading it that if you have grasped the fundamentals hinted at through its hundred or so pages you will know all you need to know. You may even know what’s what.

‘The pictures are line drawings of the food, the kitchens and rooms and people where and for whom it was cooked. All of the recipes are clearly bound up with where they were learnt and perfected. They are simple but really say all that they need to say. And in the almost implied connection between recipe, the cooking and history there is the memory and desire.

‘It would be nice to do it as seamlessly as Patience Gray but I am not up to that. But it provided a starting point for these rough notes and jottings.

‘Patience Grey wrote her book as a manual of instruction for the Chinese cooks of the Centaur Line and so this book is a manual of instruction, a guide to cooking in the Cottage. It is not about the measuring of ingredients but about the taking of what is available or on offer and making use of it and hopefully making something that will be good.’



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