Paul Vallely: Beyond the bodily-spiritual divide

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I WENT out for a meal on my birthday — somewhere special, and very expensive. The bill for two came to more than some families spend on food for the entire week. Yet this singular extravagance brought few pangs of guilt. Babette’s Feast cured me of that.

Isak Dinesen’s 1958 novella tells the story of a severe Lutheran sect where two charitable sisters take in a refugee who has fled post-revolutionary violence in France. They make her their cook. Babette watches, expressionless, as the sisters instruct her how to prepare their standard fare: split cod and ale-and-bread soup. They do not know that Babette, formerly a chef in Paris, has been hailed as “the greatest culinary genius of the age”.

At first, Babette merely makes subtle improvements to the sisters’ plain dishes. But then she gets a letter from France saying that she has won 10,000 francs in a lottery, and decides to blow the lot on the celebratory meal that the sisters ask her to prepare to mark the 100th birthday of their late father.

The 1987 film version of the story is a favourite of both Rowan Williams and Pope Francis. The tale speaks of the huge prodigality with which God showers grace upon the world. But it is also a eucharistic parable of how we need the sacramental to celebrate the numinosity at the core of religion. Babette’s cooking erases “the distinction between bodily and spiritual appetites”. It is an epiphany for the crabbed and sour puritans who are transfigured by “a heavenly light, as if a number of small halos had blended into one glorious radiance”.

My birthday meal was at a restaurant in Stockport, Where The Light Gets In. It is in an austere bare-bricked warehouse rescued from dereliction by a local chef, Sam Buckley, who has returned home after working in England’s most innovative kitchens under Michelin stars such as Simon Rogan, Paul Kitching, and Gary Rhodes. He conjures something extraordinary out of unpromising surroundings.

There is no menu. You get what you are given. In my case, that included a dried cabbage leaf with emulsified oyster, gently smoked eel, beeswaxed carrot with yogurt with finely roasted seeds and nuts, a delicate bone broth, an exquisite cream made from sweet chestnuts gathered by the chef in Delamere Forest, rare mutton with beetroot purée, sticky lamb rib, and two desserts: apple granita with condensed-milky celeriac, followed by cake topped with a cream elusively flavoured with the pounded kernel from the inside of a plum stone.

You sit at a table next to the worktops from which the chefs serve you themselves. The atmosphere is informal, friendly, and calm. The restaurant manager is immensely skilled.

It is not perfect. The consommé with the mussels was too salty. But then the title of the restaurant celebrates the inspiration that comes from imperfection. “There is a crack in everything,” Leonard Cohen sang. “That’s how the light gets in.” Even so, as Dinesen puts it, with the finest cooking even “taciturn old people receive the gift of tongues”; so that by the end of the evening they have “seen the universe as it really is”.

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