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Mary talks to Saga: “I love my kitchen. From a purely practical point of view, it is the room I spend the most time in”
Modern convenience meets French country chic in Mary Balfour’s kitchen – the heart of her West London home.

mary-kitchen-2
Picture by Caroline Arber

Words by Alice Hart-Davis

I love my kitchen. From a purely practical point of view, it is the room I spend the most time in, whether I’m cooking, eating or watching TV, but also, it’s the heart of the home. We had all the work done on the kitchen about three years ago. There used to be a small extension at the back of the house and for planning reasons, the upper storey of that had to be retained, so building a bigger kitchen underneath it was quite a challenge.

We had a brilliant local architect, Gennaro Picardi, who did an amazing job with sprayed silver joists, so it looks a bit like a Twenties aircraft and makes me laugh because the fulcrum for each beam is one tiny pin called a Jesus bolt. Each is no bigger than a darning needle but they hold up whole of the first floor.

It is a very modern structure, but we chose a colour scheme that evokes the French country kitchen that my husband Sebastian knew from his childhood — he’s half French — with lots of French country blue paintwork and antique terracotta tiles, which we bought in Normandy. They look wonderful. We have long since stopped trying to shine them and they look all the better for it. A very clever designer, Mats Lindroth, gave the kitchen a wonderful look, with clean lines and masses of cupboards for all the kitchen gadgets.

One thing I had built specially was a draining rack over the sink with doors in front of it. Spanish kitchens always have them and it’s a brilliant idea because you can stick saucepans up there to drain then just shut the doors. My favourite item here is a ceramic sculpture made by my mother, Kathleen Cox, who was fairly well known as a ceramic artist in the Thirties.

It’s of three “Shawlies”, Dublin women who wrapped themselves in oversized shawls, one of whom is carrying a basket of flowers. It’s one of my most treasured possessions.

Thanks to all the glass in the ceiling, it’s very light but it’s east-facing. We get the sun for much of the day, but it doesn’t get too hot. From here, we look out on to our lovely little garden; in the summer, when the leaves are out, you can see just the garden, rather than neighbouring houses.

We used to eat out a lot with friends, but the new kitchen has transformed the house. It is the place where I really like to be — both on our own, and with friends. I love those moments when we come back from work — Sebastian is a professor of Contemporary Spanish Studies at the LSE — and sit down with a glass of wine to ask how each other’s day has gone. Sebastian and I prepare the evening meal together and we eat at the oak, fold-out drawer-leaf table I bought for ?150 on eBay. It can easily seat eight.

I don’t like big parties but I’m gregarious with close friends and love cooking and entertaining. I enjoy making my own pasta, pesto and bread. I feel that preparing and sharing food is a very important bonding process, whether you are a couple getting to know each other or whether you are entertaining others. I run personal introductions agencies, which suits me down to the ground.

Drawing Down the Moon was the original agency, and was meant for thinking people. It started in 1984 “and I took it over in 1986. I wanted a job which meant I never had to retire and I thought, “I can can carry on doing this until I’m 102. I have three agencies now. And no, I didn’t meet my husband through an agency. He was a neighbour, and I met him up a ladder, long before I took over the agencies.

With thanks to Saga Magazine, February 2006