Michele Roberts argues that food is the great healer

To restore an ill person to health, you need infusions of herbs and lots of love , writes Michele Ro

What, if anything, does an ill person want to eat? Depends on the illness, I suppose. Depends on the person. When I was a child, frequently ill with tonsillitis, I did not want food so much as my mother, who was busy downstairs. Long winter afternoons passed. I read voraciously, listened to scary plays on the radio. The bedroom, normally shared with my two sisters, got bigger and lonelier as the shadows drew in. In hospital, the tonsils having been removed, I was given jelly and ice cream, which were supposed to slip down a treat. The loneliness taught me to fall back on my imagination, probably helped turn me into a writer, made me determined not to get ill again but to bite at life, if I possibly could, with all my strength.

Once you're a convalescent, you get given special nourishment. Something light enough not to overtax your newly delicate digestion, but sustaining enough to keep you from relapsing. Studying for my Girl Guides sick-nurse badge, aged 12, I learned about the virtues of weak tea, morsels of thin toast, scraps of chicken breast. In 19th-century novels, women approach your bedside bearing basins of thin gruel, or calf's-foot jelly. Jane Eyre, rescued from starvation on the moor

after she has run away from Mr Rochester's bigamous intentions,

may be desperate to eat, but is allowed just a few morsels of cake by the stern St John Rivers. Georgette Heyer's Regency romances, famed for their swashbuckling adventures featuring cross-dressing, mention panada - the governesses bear this in when the heroes engage in too many duels and have to retire to their four-poster beds. My Jewish friends, more robustly, swear by chicken soup. It doesn't so much heal you once you've fallen ill as prevent illness from coming anywhere near you.

I looked up panada in my French grandmother's cookery book, La Bonne Cuisine by Madame Evelyne Saint-Ange. You soak 125 grams of stale bread in a litre and a half of water, which you then bring to the boil and simmer for half an hour. Just before serving, you whisk in two egg yolks, a small piece of butter and a pinch of salt. That's cuisine maigre, all right. It would cure malingering if nothing else.

What you need when you're ill is not just sensible infusions of healthy herbs, but love and attention and pleasure. Over the winter, many of my friends have been ill. Stephen got it right at New Year. He was afflicted by flu and bronchitis, but partied with the aid of copious doses of raw garlic, a few cloves scooped up every hour or so in between opening bottles of Burgundy. I went to visit another friend, recovering from a gall bladder operation, taking her lunch. Tiny green Puy lentils, earthy and nutty, cooked in chicken broth, with chestnuts, apricots, coriander and parsley. Actually, she healed me: with her love.