Michele Roberts reads a mother's message

Creme de cassis needs carefully prepared fruit - and a waning moon

The kitchenware stall in the market displays paddle-like wooden batons, nearly as long as punt poles, for stirring the rillettes in the cauldron. I longed to buy one but knew I would not use it. I could have done with one later on when I went to help Yvette shut up her turkeys, guinea fowl and chickens for the night. Her pointing stick, coaxing voice and determination usually ensure that the birds sort themselves neatly into their breeze-block dormitories. Disaster! The wretches had scooted free of the farmyard, and escaped under the barbed wire into the cornfield, where they ran to and fro, flattening the stalks. I herded from one side, arms outstretched, and Yvette from the other. Right, cocottes, she told them, as a punishment I'm not letting you out tomorrow. They slunk through the door like teenagers grounded for the weekend.

We drank an aperitif in my kitchen. Another neighbour had given me a bottle of home-made Pineau: cognac and grape must flavoured with orange peel. Yvette inspected my pot of blackcurrants steeping in the eau-de-vie she gave me last year (made from her own cider apples), waiting another two weeks before being turned into creme de cassis. I proudly presented her with a pot of redcurrant jelly. She tilted it back and forth. It's too liquid! It should be so firm that you can hold the open pot over your head and none will fall out.

The problem was twofold. First, I had made the jelly when the moon was still a crescent. That brings the sugar up and stops the jelly setting properly. Second, I should have first boiled the fruit to reduce some of the liquid, then let it cool, then added the sugar, left it for two hours, and then boiled it for precisely eight minutes. How much Yvette loves telling me I've got it wrong. She asked: but how else will you learn?

I showed her the two scraps of paper I had recently discovered slipped into my battered copy of Mme Evelyne Saint-Ange's peerless work La Bonne Cuisine. Squared paper, torn from an exercise book. Faded dark-blue ink. Old-fashioned handwriting. A fine nib had traced elaborate capitals wreathed with flourishes, twirled loops around consonants. A mother had written recipes for her daughter. One was for pumpkin jam. It ended: I am giving you the recipe such as it is but you can alter the proportions if you want. You can put in less sugar, and the oranges and tartaric acid are not crucial. It's just that the jam will taste better if you put them in. The recipe doubled as a letter.

The indigo ink inscribed separation and absence, marked loss and want, the return of nourishment, the giving of love. The other recipe was for Liqueur 44, featuring oranges pierced by 44 blows of a knife. A pinch of maternal ambivalence, perhaps? Very healthy, Yvette agreed.

This article first appeared in the 01 August 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Why Britain is great