The Conservative leadership election, which, even since the 1922 Committee changed the rules, still has about eight gruelling years to run, is mitigated for me (admittedly, only slightly) by the prospect that we may yet get to nosy around a few more political kitchens. As I write, only Dominic “I am not a feminist” Raab has let us into his: an eerily pristine pastel number that brought to mind the set of a low-rent farce in a theatre where the budget is too small for decent props. But if the other candidates behave as politicians tend to do at these moments – from Thatcher on, they’ve never been able to resist the temptation to try and make themselves look “ordinary” (ie non-weird) by being seen to do a vigorous spot of washing up – it’s possible that by the time you read this, we will at last know whether Andrea Leadsom ever did splash out on her very own pizza oven (“Look, Laura, this mozzarella is actually from Hampshire …”).
The kitchen on which I most longed to feast my eyes in the run-up to the MPs’ vote was that of Rory Stewart, speaker of shopping-centre Dari and international adventurer extraordinaire. What can it be like, I wonder? I picture the kitchen-parlour at Dove Cottage in Grasmere: gloomy, low-ceilinged and all but dominated by the kind of temperamental range on which Dorothy Wordsworth once baked mutton pies (Stewart is the MP for Penrith and the Border, not far away; he’s also known for his fondness for memorising poetry by heart). But perhaps this isn’t hardcore enough. Maybe Rory likes to cook on a Primus stove when he’s up north – or maybe he has dug a fire pit, over which a whole lamb might be spit-roasted. Such a thing could come in handy should the members of the Penrith Conservative Association ever try to deselect him.
Or what about – my imagination’s really running wild now – the haybox, an improvised bit of kit that is both green and very gung-ho make-do-and-mend? (In case you’re wondering, preheated food is wrapped in hay, an insulating layer that enables it to continue slowly to cook). Stewart does bring to mind a certain kind of movie star – a little bit Valentino as Lawrence of Arabia; a little bit Richard E Grant as Withnail – and now I think about it, I recall that Alec Guinness was keen on hayboxes. His long-suffering wife Merula once revealed to a house guest that, unable to lay her hands on any hay, she’d used a load of Alec’s old underpants instead (the resulting osso bucco, according to the same guest, was somewhat underwhelming).
Either way, I don’t imagine there are great cairns of cookbooks round Rory’s place. According to a profile in the New Yorker, his critics regard him as someone who goes in for “flitting”; while his enemies have only plans, he has ideas. You can just see him wildly throwing the chilli, sumac and fennel seeds into the pan, only to return to a lump of moderately fragrant charcoal some time later, having been unhelpfully distracted by the TS Eliot he was rereading.
Beside such scenes, the possible delights of the Gove household, all “witty” mugs and pointless arguments over the dishwasher, seem so pale and boring. Ditto the McVey kitchen, a realm in which I struggle to imagine much more than kitchen roll, frozen peas and emergency fish fingers, for all that Esther gamely shares her life with the “men’s rights” campaigner Philip Davies. (Davies, the MP for Shipley, has said that feminist “zealots” want women to have their cake and eat it – but how can Esther possibly have time for baking when she’s busy giving so many car-crash interviews?)
Basically, I can’t stop thinking about Stewart’s un-abandoned ways with chicken legs, which is why the other week I wrote him a fan letter that I hope he will answer quite soon. Rory, whether you’re still in the race or not when you read it, I will take you for lunch at the Afghan Kitchen in newly Liberal Democrat Islington, where the dal is the colour of sunflowers and the pickles are sharp and sweet. While we eat, you can show me a picture of your oven, and tell me all about your ideas – whether for stew, or world domination.