What's the first food we remember? Milk, I suppose. My mother tells the tale of valiantly trying to breastfeed twins, both at once, on a trip home to her parents in Normandy, with all the local farmers' wives coming in to marvel at the feat. Twins: a beast with two heads. Two big mouths. Feeding us was hard work. No wonder she adopted the no-nonsense rules of Dr Truby King and left us to scream with hunger for hours at a time. No wonder we grew up passionately interested in food.
Summer holidays in the Pays de Caux involved fetching the milk every morning from the nearest farm. The farmer's wife, who milked her cows by hand, poured the frothy stream into our two empty wine bottles and corked them with plastic. The white milk gleamed through the green glass. Once, in the cowshed, she dipped her ladle into her bucket of fresh milk, held it out and insisted we taste it. Warm and fatty: I hated it. Back in the house, my grandmother boiled the milk then let it cool. She skimmed off the cream, which she stored in a covered bowl in the fridge. When she had enough, she made a special sponge cake with it: gâteau à la peau de lait - golden and crusty.
Milk works powerful magic. The milk of human kindness suggests the allegorical figure of Charity, often depicted as a curvy goddess feeding babies from her breast. She tilts her tit at mankind to remind us that love should flow as easily as mother's milk is cosily supposed to do. Mothers are expected to empty themselves out, to give and give.
I still shudder at the milk puddings of my childhood, those swills of rice, tapioca, semolina, macaroni. When I cook with milk the dishes must be savoury ones. Sauces made with milk are not fashionable, but I like making béchamel for oeufs mornay. I like making the base, bay-scented, for soufflés. A cousin of this dish is savoury egg custard, found in cuisines all round the world. A southern French version, timbale, takes its name from the wide earthenware dish in which it cooks. Now is the season for timbale of asparagus.
When we lack comfort, the milk of pleasure, we may turn to comfort foods. British stalwarts include cauliflower or macaroni cheese. Good old white sauce. As children, shivering in wintry playgrounds, we felt comforted by the crates of milk waiting for us at break time. On really cold days the milk froze, ejected itself, tipped with yellow cream, from the thick-lipped bottles, so that we crunched ice splinters. Just like the Indian ice creams, made from condensed milk, that I later grew to love. Condensed milk. Evaporated milk. They have vanished from shop shelves. No good crying over spilt milk. I am sad, though, because this is my last column. Goodbye; and happy eating.