Spectator – Carla Carlisle

Summertime, birdsong and sunshine, and then the telephone. Jorn calls to tell me that Robert died in the early hours of the morning.

When someone dies aged 82 maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it does. Especially when he is one of those bigger-than-life people who’s packed more lives, careers, rooms and countries into his years than most people dream of. But Robert Carrier wasn’t ‘most’ people. An American who came to Europe during the Second World War he survived the Battle of the Bulge Robert never shook off the Emersonian notion that the high prize of life is to be born with a bias to some pursuit which finds you in employment and happiness. After the war, he stayed in Europe, mainly France. Then, in 1953, he came to England. Over the next 30 years he changed the way the English cooked and ate. When The Great Dishes of the World appeared in 1963, garlic was sold by only one company in London. The book became the manifesto for a revolution that went deeper and lasted longer than the post-war dreams of radical politicians.

By the time I came to live in Suffolk, Robert had sold his restaurant at Hintlesham Hall which he saw in Country Life and bought for £32,000, spending 10 times that to convert it into the luxurious hotel and restaurant that triggered the movement of the country-house hotel. But like many creative people, Robert found administration rather dull. In the early Eighties, he suddenly decided to sell up and move to Marrakech. His way of writing love letters to a place was to create a sumptuous cookbook, and his Taste of Morocco (and later, Feasts of Provence) were just that: passionate, poetic, beautiful books that find the spirit of a place through its culinary soul.

But Robert was too restless for the ex-patriot life in Morocco. In 1994, aged 70, he returned to England and rented our cottage in the vineyard. He transformed the kitchen, installed a Lacanche stove, and filmed five television series and wrote six new books. Cream, butter, brandy and truffles were replaced by olive oil, lime juice, ginger as he simplified, lightened and embraced the 21st century.

On his 75th birthday, he told his friends that he missed the south of France. A year later, he moved to Isle-sur-la-Sorgue in Provence. When Jorn and I visited him last spring, Robert looked more like 60 than 80 as he showed us his studio. He’d begun painting, and he brought to his new calling his usual iron discipline. Mornings he painted, afternoons and evenings he read in his garden room. Like Goethe’s Faust (‘Two souls dwell, alas, within my breast’) Robert was a contradiction: a culinary populist who was a closet intellectual; a perfectionist who thrived on chaos; a gregarious performer who craved solitude.

Robert taught me how to interview a chef and how to make Mrs Moxon’s lemon posset. And he taught me something else. Youth is prolonged by the exaltation of creative effort but, when evening comes, take time to enjoy the surrender to peacefulness. For Robert, that meant living within walking distance of a good charcuterie, boulangerie and wine shop. It meant reading Marcus Aurelius, Montaigne and Seneca, as well as Donna Leon’s Venetian thrillers, while listening to Yo-Yo Ma’s Bach cello suites. It meant gently filling the hour, and leaving no crevice for repentance or approval. Merci, dearest Robert. Au revoir.

This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on July 6, 2006.