An occasional series of domestic advice

Shirley Conran - My kind of domestic goddess.

Shirley Conran – My kind of domestic goddess.

#1. Sometimes, fabulousness is as simple as not polishing your silver.

BY JOHN CORBETT. When you cook, think and write a lot about food, you pick up some cheffy habits. One of mine is the practice of keeping tablespoons, teaspoons and other utensils in containers on the windowsill above my kitchen workbench. I got the idea some time ago from the Food Channel, noting how Mario Batali and Rachel Allen (to cover the full spectrum of chefly avoirdupois) reached effortlessly for things in the middle of their cooking patter. The idea really works. So there my utensils stand, all on their tails and ready to hand.

It’s quite crowded on the sill because there’s also a container of wooden spoons, forks and citrus reamers; another one of plastic and silicone spatulas and tongs; a third holding a mallet and mashers, and a fourth very assorted one comprising an apple corer, an ice cream scoop, two vegetable peelers and a kinky-looking buzzer whisk thingy for making patterns on coffee crema. Its battery is dead.

The choice of containers for utensils is important. They have to be large enough to hold a worthwhile number of things, tall enough to keep them securely inside, but not so high that you can’t instantly see what you need to reach for. Most container collections are therefore motley. Mine includes a dark wooden pot from a Chinese antiques store, a Pyrex jug with measurement markings that sometimes gets pressed into use, and a fine glass jug bought on Trade Me. My tablespoons and teaspoons live in a sturdy glass beer mug and a smaller tumbler respectively. If I had my way, all of my windowsill utensils would be in glass containers because they catch the light, but of course it’s hard to find just the right ones.

Which brings me particularly to my spoons. Except for a new tablespoon, which I somehow acquired a few months ago, they aren’t shiny, and I take a pleasure in what some people might consider to be their disreputable dullness. (My knives and forks, by the way, are in the same condition.) I have had most of my cutlery for decades, having bought a rather curlicued set of silver-plated Rodd cutlery in my extravagant youth.

Spoons on a sill

Spoons on my kitchen windowsill

As anyone who knows me will attest, I try to be a good housekeeper. I really try. I mean, my place has Martha Stewart-type cleaning schedules drawn up for every week, month and season. (Whether I actually adhere to them is another question). But when I started keeping house back in the 19-mumblies, the only domestic oracle I had was Shirley Conran’s Superwoman, of “Life is too short to stuff a mushroom” fame. I still have a copy of the book, which is now dog-eared and discoloured by age; the authoress of Lace and Savages on the other hand, should you look her up on Google Images, remains preternaturally youthful-looking.

Early in the piece the regular task of keeping my cutlery bright and shiny (as was then the vogue) proved daunting, and the chief advice that Shirley offered on the matter was to use Goddard’s Long Term or Silver-Dip. The fact that I can’t stand the smell of silver polish or the thought of noxious chemicals going on to things that I put in my mouth quickly hardened my non-polishing resolve. My cutlery predictably entered a downward spiral in terms of looks and for a time became a source of social embarrassment – I even caught one ex-friend surreptitiously wiping a spoon in case it was dirty. For a while I kept my slatternly silver in the cutlery drawer as much as possible and almost ceased entertaining.

But then I stopped being embarrassed. In a glossy magazine I read an article about an international chef who had immigrated to New Zealand with a treasured collection of engraved and crested spoons he had, um, souvenired from some very posh establishments he had worked in. There was only a small photograph of the spoons and the article mentioned them only in passing, but I was transfixed. It looked like the chef hadn’t polished his spoons much either and they had acquired a lovely patina of use and age.

Here was vindication! My spoons, I realised, looked just like his. They were, in fact, practically eighteenth-century! As I washed up the cutlery after dinner that evening I thought about the article, which led to one of those Carrie Bradshaw-type moments when you realise the significance of a past event that you were too young and callow to appreciate at the time.

In my case it was a discomfiting winter weekend spent in the clapped-out family pile of another ex-friend, deep in the wilds of Gloucestershire. I’m sure you can fill in the gaps… Barely functioning heating, worse plumbing, salons presided over by cloudy ancestral portraits and collections of dusty ethnic gewgaws gathered by closeted bachelor uncles from the furthest reaches of the Empire.

I remembered the cutlery at dinner very clearly. It was so heavy and grey that I thought it was pewter. When I remarked upon it I was told, with the faintest of condescending sneers, that it was Georgian silver, specially struck as a family set and of a value that would make Sotheby’s thrilled to get their hands on it. (The way that particular family’s fortunes were going, they probably did). The silver hadn’t been polished since the downstairs assistant maid decamped to the local pub for better wages a couple of years before, but its decrepitude was deeply and aristocratically posh.

Not mine, but what mine look like.

What my silver looks like.

And just like that, I stopped worrying. I continue to wash my cutlery in the sink in warm soapy water (never the dishwasher), rinse it (because I don’t like the idea of eating detergent any more than I do silver polish), and wipe it gently dry with a soft clean tea towel. The style resurrection of my cutlery now comes with the added bonus of environmental cred, and the spoons rest dully but unashamedly in their containers on the windowsill. Sometimes, fabulousness is as simple as not polishing your silver.

Care of silver cutlery
This is a bit of a minefield so I’m not going to venture too far into it. If you have proper sterling silverware and cutlery, treat it like gold. With careful use it will last forever. Get advice from a silverware specialist or get on the Internet and note carefully what is said about using commercial silver cleaning preparations.

For your very best silver cutlery, you could invest in a bag with divisions for implements or make your own. For the rest, care is the operative word. Never let bleach get near silver. Never leave sauce, gravy, mayonnaise or vinaigrette in any silver container, or on spoons, and wash the relevant item as soon as possible. Similarly, vinegar, lemon juice, egg and salt can all mark cutlery so wash it as soon as possible. Dishwashers are too fierce for good silverware so always wash it by hand with a gentle detergent. (Thank you, Shirley.)

Photos: Daily Mail, UK; John Corbett;