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Winning dinners for one

Preparing for her nest to empty, Diana considers the power of going all-out when you’re alone

Diana Henry Stella’s award-winning food writer

ONE OF THE GOOD things about life is that it changes so much, and one of the bad things about life is that it changes so much. Looking at my life, I’ve already been about 10 different people, some of whom I don’t even recognise now. I have a few quotations in my head – like any good English literature graduate – that come to mind when appropriate. TS Eliot’s ‘Humankind cannot bear very much reality’ is always useful. When I consider the different people I’ve been at different times, Christopher Marlowe pops up: ‘But that was in another country. And besides, the wench is dead.’ For most of us there have been a lot of ‘other countries’.

In 18 months my life is going to change and I’m dreading it. You’ll think I’m crazy – it’s not happening tomorrow – but both my sons will leave home at the same time. I’m lucky to have had them for so long. The eldest is doing a long degree and living at home was the only affordable option. The other has his eyes on his own ‘other countries’ once A-levels are over. I can’t remember what my life was like before them. Every stage of their lives has brought different demands and, despite a full-time job and long hours, they have always been the focus.

When I was a new mum, I despaired at ever finding time to myself again. ‘Read all the novels you can now,’ I would advise pregnant friends. ‘Once your baby arrives it will be years before you have the time again.’ Now I’m used to how children shape my days, coming in and emptying games kit on the kitchen floor, dragging bikes through the hall, drinking gallons of milk, incessantly shouting, ‘Bye, mum,’ and slamming the front door. I love the coming and going, the slight chaos, the loud meals (loud even though there’s only three of us). And, of course, I love the clatter of forks and spoons (the chef Richard Corrigan used this phrase for the title of one of his books and it brilliantly sums up messy, greedy, happy togetherness). Even cooks who famously love solitude, such as Nigel Slater, talk about eating ‘round’ a table. They don’t often visualise themselves eating alone. However many clichés are applied to the table – it’s a place to connect, it’s a form of altar – I believe them all. A full and busy table has been my life. I have rarely lived alone.

I do cook for myself when my sons aren’t here and relish it. It’s a chance to have whatever they dislike (creamy gratins and baked potatoes), or what usually seems expensive (scallops). I can drink viognier and eat toast with melting reblochon in bed at two in the morning and nobody stops me. But they were always coming back.

Most of my friends haven’t felt the ‘empty nest’ thing. One lives on cheese on toast – her favourite meal, and one of mine too – and eating out and glories in the freedom. Another is still high on the intoxicating novelty of M&S ready meals (they’re too expensive for a family, but fine for one). I wonder if I will become a different kind of cook and what I will look at, in the absence of people, as I eat dinner (please God, not Netflix). I think the answer is to anticipate indulgence, so I offer three dishes I already like cooking for myself. I’ve also decided that, when the time comes, I will eat a different cheese every week.

When I interviewed Claudia Roden recently, I asked her why she was starting work on a new cookbook at the age of 85. ‘Books are a motivation. When you test recipes you invite your friends to dinner. Your table fills up,’ she smiled. I think some indulgent solitary meals and some Claudia meals sound like a good balance. I’ll report back in 18 months. Find Diana Henry in Telegraph Magazine from 5 February

Will I become a different kind of cook? I think the answer is to

anticipate indulgence





Daily Telegraph