Family food radiates joy and memories far beyond the making of each meal

One of my kids’ favourite meals is our family’s traditional “fishie pie”. It’s a simple dish of tuna, celery, onions, boiled eggs in a bechamel sauce, with a crusty roast mashed potato top. It’s best served hot out of the oven with no fuss and a touch of tomato sauce.

My kids have eaten it their whole lives, often made as a Sunday night gift by one of their grandparents.

It radiates joy, but not only because it tastes good. Recently my daughter was unwell so my octogenarian father whipped up a giant pie. With an extra flourish, he pureed the mashed potato in a food processor to make it extra smooth.

It was made and eaten with love.

Like so many families, food has been a big theme connecting us: the traditional Sunday-night get-together; a meal out to celebrate a special occasion; a simple picnic by the beach.

When I was about 20 I applied to run a ski chalet in the Portes du Soleil, a vast ski region straddling the French-Swiss border. It meant cooking a three-course meal each night to a high standard for a dozen guests, as well as cooking their breakfast and taking them skiing.

The breakfast and skiing I could do. A three-course meal was going to be a stretch.

But my mum said she would teach me. So we went to our local supermarket in west London where I was living and bought the ingredients for seven three-course meals that I could rotate in the chalet each week (and pray that no guests stayed for two weeks).

This too was a gift on more than one level. Not only did mum tell me what to buy (and how to say it in French) but I’m pretty sure she paid as well. Sorry, Mum.

She had a keen interest in all sorts of cooking: French, Chinese, Italian, to name a few. I never remember her making the same meal twice in a week when I was a child. One of her all-time classics was chicken cacciatore, a slow-cooked Italian classic with a rustic sauce of tomatoes, capsicum, garlic, mushrooms and rosemary, and a parsley garnish.

When she died suddenly a decade ago, my sister and I scrambled to get to our dad, who, ironically, was with her on a skiing holiday. They had taken a number of meals to the ski lodge and that night we ate the last chicken cacciatore she ever made. I don’t think any of us missed its significance.

The “chalet cookbook” she helped me write for my French adventure had some of her more upmarket classics: chicken Calvados, coq au vin, beef medallions in béarnaise sauce. It still sits with my other recipe books above my fridge.

But there was one crucial page I would have been lost without: rescues. If you burn something, serve it with a sauce or puree, she said. It can cover all number of disasters. If you mess up a dessert, use whipped cream as the final flourish.

As the ski season wore on, I developed a few tricks of my own. Banoffee pie (careful not to squirt the boiling caramelised milk into your eye); and caramelised pears. My cooking instructions for the latter were not as sophisticated as anything she had written for me: “Cover in heaps of butter and sugar and put in the oven at fucking hot for 40 mins.”

I also became a dab hand at fondue, a celebrated regional dish.

One week my boss told me I was having a tricky group in the chalet who included two vegetarians, someone who didn’t eat mushrooms and another who didn’t eat tomatoes. I was dreading it as my chalet cookbook contained no vegetarian recipes and the internet was not yet widely available.

But it turned out the group loved fondue and asked me to buy Kirsch, a strong, clear cherry brandy, to mix into the cheese to make it “a little more interesting”.

As this group of friends, who had known each other through college, sat around laughing and joking over the rather powerful fondue, it dawned on me that, for those moments, they were each other’s family, sharing a connection over the meal.

They included me in their dinner with a generosity that many other groups hadn’t. One of the vegetarians remains one of my closest friends and is still a great lover of cheese.

Although I skied with her a few times in France, my mum never visited my chalet. I hope she would have been proud of her meals that I passed off as my own. In hindsight I should have dished up her famous chicken cacciatore or a fishie pie to the guests – comfort food of the greatest kind.