Back in the day

At the weekend we were invited by a friend to a local event. It wasn’t clear exactly what the purpose of the event was, but it had a distinctly Napoleonic flavour. The venue was a country house with an attached riding school, where small children in large helmets clutched at the saddles of short fat ponies.

When we arrived there was an evil icy wind blowing and I envied the soldiers their warm uniforms. Then came a shower of exceedingly cold rain, but luckily it was ousted fairly quickly by warm sunshine. It really was a delightful low-key event, old-fashioned and uncommercial, tucked away in a tiny hamlet that you wouldn’t find if you hadn’t expressly been looking for it. There was, naturally, a small tent dispensing red wine in plastic glasses, and some ladies selling biscuits made to an 18th century recipe, while two whole pigs with silver foil folded over their ears were turning on spits over open fires for a feast later in the evening.

There was much marching and drum beating, and a demonstration of decapitation by sabre. The ‘heads’ were plastic bags stuffed with straw, mounted on wooden posts, and the sabres were wielded by galloping horsemen. They were accompanied by a young lad on a pony, and although he had neither a uniform nor a sabre, he proudly galloped around the field to great applause and with a huge smile on his face.

I didn’t see one person with a mobile phone; neither were there any cans of fizzy drinks, and no disco, raffle tickets or fast food. What a pleasant, dreamy afternoon watching families and friends strolling around laughing and chatting. It felt very much like being back in the 1950s.

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#AllAboutFrance

Turbot poached in pink champagne

Ah yes, I remember it well!

It was one Christmas day in the late 1980s, at what was then Flambards Restaurant in Berkhamsted. We had been seduced by the idea of eating a decadent meal cooked for us, rather than our usual home-cooked Christmas lunch with its attendant shopping, preparation and clearing-up marathons.

It was during the pampered years, when we worked in  ‘Financial Services’  a euphemism for the Life Assurance industry. Success brought with it vast privilege, and we enjoyed luxury holidays – called conventions for tax purposes – in exotic parts of the world. We stayed in the best hotels and ate at the best restaurants, all at the company’s (or more accurately the clients’) expense.

Money was no object – we had loads! Enough to own a small private aircraft and two horses. An additional perk for branch managers involved taking the top salesmen out for a meal once a month. The budget per person was generous enough to allow us eat at the very best establishments, which we did. Responsible for selecting the restaurants, I admit that my choice seldom coincided with the tastes of the salesmen, many of whom were young people whose preferred meal was a burger and chips or a Sunday roast. They would stare in bafflement at a menu offering elaborate dishes made up of ingredients they couldn’t pronounce and had never heard of. I always hoped that it would open their eyes and taste buds to the world of gastronomy, but I don’t really believe that it ever did.

During that period, which lasted for some ten years we nonchalantly ate our way through hundreds of exquisite and expensive meals, but the only one I can remember in detail is the turbot and pink champagne. It was just that: a generous portion of turbot, bathing in a warm sauce of pink champagne. There were some vegetables to the side, I recall, and warm, freshly baked bread rolls. It was our children’s first experience of ‘formal’ dining, and they behaved impeccably. Even our monstrously fussy daughter put aside her prejudices and tucked in. The restaurant was subtly decorated with sprays of holly and ivy, gold ribbons and white candles. There was a crackling log fire, and pretty chintz curtains and cheerful conversation. It was luxurious, but at the same time comfortable, comforting and homely and has stuck in my mind ever since.

When our lifestyle changed abruptly, due to a number of uncontrollable events including a recession and mortgage rates rocketing to 17%, it was farewell to the plane and farewell to free holidays and luxury meals, and ultimately farewell to our home. Our horses survived thanks to the generosity of friends who ‘adopted’ them. The well-being of our five dogs was our priority. What little money we could scrape together went first to their food, and what was left to ours.

My best friend was Smash instant mashed potato. Although it was more expensive than buying fresh potatoes, it could be ready in a few moments, saving on electricity because we were on an electric meter that swallowed coins at a fearsome rate. So we had Smash for lunch, and Smash for supper. It didn’t seem to do us any harm. Sometimes we added brown sauce, sometimes a small knob of butter, and on special occasions grated cheese. I can still remember the sheer pleasure and comfort of a steaming bowl of creamy mashed potato. I discovered you could make very drinkable wines from tinned fruit or jam; the lemon verbena wine rendered the visiting tax inspector legless. 🙂

But that’s another story.

I’ve always been fascinated by food, and devour all the television cookery programmes, with boundless admiration for those who spend hours producing divine creations decorated with emulsions and mists and floating bubbles. I’m a Masterchef addict, in awe of those displays of true passion, dedication and creativity. Sometimes, though, I think it not only looks too good to eat, it doesn’t really look like food. And I don’t understand why they are always constrained to an almost impossible time limit so that they have to panic and run around as if their lives depended upon being plated up at the exact moment. Well, I suppose that’s television for you.

And the stress they put themselves through! I couldn’t do it. I find cooking a way of relaxing, and to be relaxed I have to know that whatever I’m preparing stands a reasonable chance of succeeding, and that I’ve plenty of time to do it. No stress in my  kitchen, please! Mess, yes, stress, no.

Unlike the long forgotten fancy restaurant meals, the ones I remember are inextricably connected to people and places.

A Marmite sandwich instantly takes me back to a Pony Club picnic when I was 14. We are sitting beneath a tree drinking cherry-flavoured Vimto, our ponies hitched behind us on head collars, nodding in the afternoon heat. There’s a sudden rustling noise, and there’s my pony Cinderella chomping on a couple of Marmite sandwiches wrapped in greaseproof paper, which she has somehow extracted from the plastic string bag in which they were hanging from a tree branch. The apple, a treat for her, is untouched. She munches her way contentedly until there is not a fragment of paper, nor a crumb of bread left, just a brown sticky mark on the tip of her muzzle. That’s what Marmite means to me.

A fried egg sandwich reminds me of sitting in a slightly seedy café in the backstreets of Nairobi, having run away from home when I was twelve, due to a row with my step-mother over an undercooked omelette. If there is one thing I cannot eat, it’s uncooked egg white. It was a tiny quantity, maybe one quarter of a teaspoon, but I couldn’t eat it. She insisted I must. I couldn’t. She ran from the room crying and cursing, and I walked the two miles from our house to the centre of town with no idea what to do next. As darkness began to fall, as it does so suddenly so close the Equator, I was sitting in the doorway of the local cinema feeling very worried and rather frightened. Along came a Cameronian soldier. The Cameronian Scottish Rifles who were based in Kenya at the time had a fearsome reputation for drinking and fighting and smashing up bars. My Cameronian persuaded me away from the doorway, and into the aforesaid dingy dive, where we ate soft baps filled with fried eggs, with brown sauce, and drank milky coffee. He left briefly to ‘wash his hands’, but it wasn’t long before a police car arrived and bundled me into it, and led him into another, and I realised my new friend had shopped me.

Every dish I love contains memories, mostly happy, some bittersweet. Smoked salmon, chocolate mousse and Lambrusco was ‘the suicide meal’  I ate before metaphorically jumping off a cliff, and being caught in a safety net just in time. Omelette – well, maybe you can work out what that reminds me of.

There are shelves of cookery books around the house. I used to collect them fanatically, until the day I recognised that I very seldom used them. Once in a while I enjoy trying a new recipe; often they don’t live up to expectations, either because of some fault on my part or some fault with the recipe. The food I cook most often is based on meals I’ve eaten with friends and family. The recipe has to be quick and simple, more Tom Kerridge than Heston Blumenthal, and it has to taste good.

Over the decades pages torn from exercise books, scribbled notes on the back of envelopes or receipts, screwed up pieces of paper and vague memories have been my source of inspiration. I decided to collect them and make them into a book so I could find them easily. If you’d like to share them, the first book (savoury recipes) will be published on 22nd June by Blackbird Books in digital and paperback formats. Book 2, sweet recipes, shortly after. The recipes are interspersed with tales of where they came from.

I’m more delighted than I know how to say that David Lewis, cartoonist and caricaturist extraordinaire, was gracious enough to find time to create the fabulous cover, and I can confirm that the stirring mechanism really does work as shown. 🙂

All the recipes are written in simple ‘free form’, i.e. no long lists of ingredients or numbered instructions, because I’m hopeless at remembering lists, but if something is written like a short story, it sinks in.

I like to think of these recipes as ‘quick and easy’, but I’m told that they’re more ‘lazy’. 🙂

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