You can’t improve upon the design of a pestle and mortar. It’s totally utilitarian but also an object of beauty, comforting in its curved shape. If you visit the British Museum or the V&A you’ll see antique vessels, which are really rather wonderful. They’re ancient and yet fit the modern lifestyle.
My pestle and mortar is always out and ready to use on the kitchen counter. It’s big and really heavy – definitely not suited to being tucked away as my drawers would not withstand the weight. I have had three in my lifetime. I inherited my first from my grandmother. It was a small wooden design, which I loved because it belonged to her and I thought myself a real cook when using it. I got my second – the one I still use every day – when living in Shepherd’s Bush. Stevie Parle, who is the chef-owner at Dock Kitchen, was my flatmate at the time and he discovered this wonderful Thai shop on Shepherd’s Bush Road that sold these amazing granite designs [a similar pestle and mortar from Souschef is £42.50]. He was not impressed by my grandmother’s heirloom. ‘Tommi, it’s useless for two reasons,’ he’d say. ‘It’s not heavy enough and certainly not big enough – what can you fit in there?’ That’s when I decided to copy him and purchase one of the really large, very heavy Thai ones.
I was 18 when I first visited Mexico but I returned to explore the food in greater depth when I was 28. I found a job opening a cocktail bar but travelled around a lot. I cooked with home cooks – with women in the markets as well as in restaurants – and there was a definite snobbery about salsa made in a food processor. The traditional way to make salsa or grind corn is to use tools made from volcanic stone. There’s the molcajete [similar pieces, £34.95 at Souschef], Mexico’s version of the pestle and mortar and the metate, which is a flatter stone used for corn. You’ll see molcajetes everywhere in the markets of Oaxaca. Some are really garish and touristy but the lovely volcanic stone pestles and mortars can still be found. I brought one of the plain ones back to London in my suitcase. That was a great friend. I don’t have it any more – I suspect one of my restaurants purloined it at some stage.
One could argue that a food processor is preferable as it will whizz something up in a couple of minutes – but then you’ve got to wash it up. My pestle and mortar doesn’t take that much longer and the bashing and pounding is very satisfying. That thing of rapid cooking – always asking, ‘How long is it going to take me?’ – means you forget that the process of making something like a marinade is enjoyable. Pounding up garlic or rosemary and releasing the flavour – the whole physicality of it really centres you. I use the pestle and mortar to develop recipes for work, I use it when I write and almost daily for family meals. The girls love it. They [Tatiana, seven, Ottilie, five, and two-year old Isadora] were making guacamole only this morning for their picnic. I even have a rather nice photograph of my youngest clutching the pestle and mortar. It really is a tool someone quite young can use – they love to smash.