A lot of water, and not a little wine, has gone into the stock pot which holds my thoughts, impressions and memories since I first became a ‘foodie’ or, at least, took an interest in what was going on on my plate!
Of course, things were a lot different back in the 60s, there had been fourteen years of food rationing, and, many British cooks had not yet ventured into trying out the, then, rare and often misunderstood ingredients found in Mediterranean countries, and beyond. As Food Writer, Elizabeth David tells us in her wonderful book; ‘An Omelette and a Glass of Wine’ – ‘”life, colour, guts, stimulous, bite, flavour and inviting smells were elements totally missing from English meals”
My oldest and rather fragile cookery book; ‘Practical Cookery for All’ was a present from my Grandmother to my Mother at Christmas 1949. Fascinating, but once I have got my head around all their recipe’s heads (and feet and other bits) – mostly boiled – my view is to pass on many of these dishes. I am sure others might feel differently and, fondly remember these dishes from their childhood. I did try making the Christmas puddings a few years ago, and they were delicious although perhaps heavier, and more suety than might be found in more modern recipes. I was fascinated by the curry recipe. My Grandfather had been a cook with White Star Line and brought back recipes from places he had visited – I think they were pretty much influenced by the English living out there and ‘Anglicising’ the dishes. Mother’s store cupboard contained tubs of ‘Madras Curry Powder’ – which transformed a mix of onions, apples, strawberry jam and raisins, topped with a tin of Crab Meat, into (surprisingly) a family favourite. Although it did put my husband off curry for a very long time, as he tried not to offend his future Mother-in-Law whilst mopping his brow in ‘pain’!
When a young teenager, I ate school dinners, and won’t forget the long tin containers with various stews followed the next day by what tasted like the same stew with a dollop of curry powder. Trays of roast meats the provenance of which you could only guess by whether it was mint sauce or something else served along side. Awfully leathery liver, much-boiled cabbage and lumpy mashed potatoes one day might be followed, usually on a Friday, by ‘fish au gratin’ and peas. I was always grateful for warmer days and the egg and grated cheese salads – difficult to spoil. Cheery dinner ladies, however, were very proud of the desserts! Coconut sponge with pink sauce, chocolate pudding with chocolate sauce, Bakewell tart, and, because we are in Kent, that incredibly sweet, gooey childhood favourite which is Gypsy Tart. I don’t think I ever ate a lot at lunchtime, and do remember my table-mates eating very fast whilst I laboured through my platefuls. I was pleased when I was Table Monitor and could ladle my leftovers back into the tins!
My father worked various shifts, but whenever we could, we sat down for a meal together. Mum was a good pastry cook and made delicious pies as well as casseroles and diverse tasty dishes such as her ‘Taffy’s pie’, made with ham, cheese, potatoes and leeks. Other days, I would eat a High Tea, and can remember such things as minced lambs’ kidneys on toast, or something called London Grill – tinned baked beans, sausage, bacon and kidneys in a tomato sauce. Even Spaghetti Bolognese came in a tin! Monday might be homemade rissoles using Sunday’s leftover roast beef. A favourite was sardines on toast and what my dad called ‘tomato butties’ but which was more of a rather soggy piece of fried bread drowned in juicy fried tomatoes. Then, of course, there was the chip butty. That huge chip-pan filled with lard deep-frying chips to perfection, soft and fluffy inside, and crisp and golden outside. No ketchup in sight, just salt and vinegar. Takes me back!
Mentioning Spaghetti Bolognese, I was the first person to cook a version of that at home – I still love those blue paper packs of long spaghetti – a job to curl up to fit in the saucepan. Then I made what I can only say, with hindsight, was beef mince (no tomatoes nor herbs) Authentic Italian it was not! Having later in life gone on to organise cookery holidays in Italy, I have never shared this secret with my Italian hosts – who would never serve spaghetti with a meat ragu sauce in any shape way or form!
I remember the first time I tasted sweetcorn (tinned) I thought it heavenly! – Then going to a friend’s house for tea, and thinking I was about to eat chopped tomato – I had my very first taste of a red pepper – This would have been in the early 70s. About the same time, I was invited to a luncheon, with work, and was seated by the host. The starter was avocado vinaigrette – A first! – oh dear, I so disliked it, but didn’t wish to be rude. I was grateful that he was called away for a moment so that I could dispense with it. I now love avocado in all its guises.
Italian restaurants became popular, and I spent more and more time travelling in France and Spain. A Spanish neighbour taught me her version of Paella Valenciana which has become a bit of a signature dish for me, along with Boeuf Bourguignon and Coq au Vin.
I have become more and more interested in locally produced food, and buying produce in the right seasons. Kent is known as the Garden of England, and home of The National Fruit Collection. I love to enjoy asparagus in spring, along with new potatoes and, later, peas and young beans as well as the wonderful fruits, cherries, apples and pears. Locally produced meats, game, cheeses and preserves all play their part.
However, my bookshelf is lined with recipe books from Italy, Spain, France, India, China and the Middle East. I love my colourful American cookbook and enjoy recipes from Texas/New Mexico, across the Plains, and from New Orleans to Maine
I hope if Elizabeth David visited today she would see the “colour, flavour, guts and taste”, and would appreciate that we have learned that quality ingredients, cooked simply and well have put England up there with the culinary greats. I love to lead ‘foodie’ tours here in Kent and explore all the wonderful flavours on offer, accompanied by some of the very best English wines. Contact Us for more details.