Put a man in a kitchen, and there will be gadgets. Christopher Hirst speaks from experience ...
When a fuse blew in our house last weekend, I had considerable difficulty tracking down a screwdriver. Yet if I need to pit an olive, extract the pin bones from a salmon, pummel a fillet, spatchcock a chicken, shuck an oyster, probe a lobster or zest a lemon, I not only have the precise tool for the job but I also know where to find the olive-stoner, fish tweezers, meat mallet, poultry shears, oyster knife, lobster pick or citrus zester. Since eating is immeasurably more satisfying than DIY, at least for me, the humble spud-masher is more important than the flashiest of power drills.
Food obsessives persist in believing that a new tool or utensil will transform their culinary prowess. This can be the case. Many swear by the KitchenAid food mixer, a hefty lump of 1930s Americana that makes a doddle of cakes, pastry and dough-making. But my top gadget is the stick mixer. Vital for soups, it comes out of the cupboard at least two or three times a week. Sadly, the majority of my culinary acquisitions rarely emerge from their gloomy repository, but hope springs eternal.
In Portugal two years ago I became obsessed with the need to acquire acataplana. This is a utensil somewhat like a wok but with a high, hinged lid that is clasped shut during cooking to conserve flavour. It is used primarily for a stew of pork and clams. When I tracked one down, a companion on the trip predicted, “You’ll only use it once.” To prove her wrong, I made amêijoas na cataplana the instant I returned. Admittedly, I have not used the cataplana since, but its day will come. I believe the same applies to the large conical strainer I once lugged back from Spain, though the magnificent shellfish bisques I planned to produce have yet to fill a single bowl.
Worn down by the urgings of my wife, I occasionally agree to the dumping of an unused gadget, but I inevitably suffer anguish afterwards. I still regret the loss of a French chestnut pan (like a frying pan with lots of holes) when I weakly succumbed to her plea: “You haven’t used it in six years and it’s gone all rusty.” The same applies to a long-departed toasted-sandwich maker. True, we never eat toasted sandwiches, but I recently discovered that this gizmo is required if you want to make the anchovy toast that accompanies the excellent parmesan custard served by Rowley Leigh at Café Anglais in London.
Sometimes I want another version of a gadget we’ve already got. Though we have two kitchen blowtorches, both are impossibly weedy. It takes an age to singe a crème brulée. I want a far bigger one with a roaring flame, like professionals use. Similarly, our kitchen knives are less than adequate. This may be a common feeling among amateur cooks. The American gastronomic explorer Jeffrey Steingarten recently wrote an article explaining why he felt obliged to expand his collection of 58 blades (“too dull to cut butter”) with German and Japanese chefs’ knives made by Wüsthof and Suisin. Our lack of copper pans may be an equally significant hindrance to effective gastronomy. According to the kitchen shop Divertimenti, “Ask chefs what they couldn’t live without in their kitchens and you’ll probably hear copper pots and pans.” Their conductivity allows far greater heat control.
Chefs tend to like gadgetry, but Thomas Keller of the French Laundry in California and Per Se in New York takes this to an extreme. His huge new book “Under Pressure” (Artisan) is entirely devoted to the cooking technique known as sous vide, which requires a vacuum-packing machine and an immersion circulator. Though these bits of kit “offer unprecedented control over texture and flavour”, at £200-plus they do not come cheap. Still, it will be money well spent when you produce your first corned beef tongue pain perdu or tripe oreganata: Keller’s recipe serves 50.
A prodigious range of culinary items is waiting in cooks’ shops and catalogues. We have a rice boiler but not a couscousière, a cheese fondue set but not a raclette grill, a pasta machine but not an electric jam-maker. My wish list includes a fish kettle, a paella pan and a hinged mould for a raised pie, though there are limits. I can probably do without the stainless steel witch’s hat required for the towering cone of profiteroles known as croquembouche. Still, I remain haunted by the gadgets that got away. Rarely a day goes by without a pang of regret at my failure to buy a chunky iron disc attached to a long handle that I once saw in Languedoc. Its charming name—“salamander”—derives from its function. You heat it in a fire, then apply the glowing ring to caramelise the top of a crème Catalane. I pondered endlessly over this item in the shop but was dissuaded by my wife. Madness. What could be more vital?