When there was a dinner party, the main effort was certainly towards the main course. The starter might be oeufs en cocotte – baked eggs, that is, in little dishes. You put something savoury in the bottom of the ramekin, then broke the egg on top and baked it. When the white was set but the yolk still runny, you took it out of the oven (possibly, it had been baked in a bain marie) and added cream, which heated through by the time it was brought to the table. You seasoned the cream, you may even have baked it. I can’t remember. I do know that the yolk must be runny, though. The starter might be prawn cocktail or avocado vinaigrette – we were the first people in Oulton Broad to serve avocados, back in the early ’60s, my parents were ahead of the game then, being frequent visitors to London, which few of their friends were. A more time-consuming dish was pâté, made from scratch – you had to mince the liver twice, for goodness’ sake, mix it with various things including juniper berries, put it in a terrine lined with bacon and bake it, again in a bain marie and then press it so that it would firm up enough to slice. Simpler starters might be smoked salmon or caviare, or potted shrimps or eggs mayonnaise – the mayo was always home-made in those days of course, Hellman’s hadn’t been heard of.
If pâté was the starter then fish might be the main course. Living next to Lowestoft, the fish was always superb. Prime fish, such as sole, turbot or salmon (not farmed), cooked simply but perfectly to show off its quality. Or there might be a casserole or grilled meat – my mother was a really good cook and the ingredients were top quality. I can’t remember the specifics of food served to the family or to guests. Before I was about 14, I’d not have eaten with the guests as I’d have been considered too young. However, even as a child, wine was always on the table, both at lunch and dinner, and I was allowed to drink it from an early age. No concessions to my youth of course, and it was too dry for my young taste, so I rarely touched more than a few sips.
I do remember once, when I was too young to stay up, eyeing the cheeseboard and asking if I might eat some. “Help yourself!” said my mother, unwisely as it turned out, as I sliced into a piece of cheese, leaving little but the rind behind. “But you said I could help myself!” I protested, when she wailed – and she didn’t say another word.
Puddings were her weakest spot because she wasn’t interested in them and nor was my father. We had trifle twice a year, on his birthday in July and sometime around Christmas. Otherwise, he rarely touched them. I’ve mentioned lemon syllabub, and we might have fruit from the garden with ice cream. She often took a bought icecream and piped whipped cream over it. If the icecream was coffee, a Flake bar was crumbled over it, but if it was raspberry ripple or strawberry, it would be served with fresh fruit. Her heart wasn’t in it.
Bemusingly, nor was the preparation of the cream, and that was my job. I was given a pint of cream, a bowl and a fork. Yes, darlings, a fork. No, I’ve no idea. She had a Kenwood mixer as well as a hand-held rotating whisk. But I had to spend at least an hour whisking the bloody cream with a damn fork. I didn’t know there was another way, how could I? And she only died ten years ago, yet I never asked her. But she’d have taken it as criticism, so probably better not. All the same, I’m sure we used the electric mixer for the syllabub, so … well, it was a long time ago.
The butter was Rose of Torridge. I don’t think it’s still available. It was Cornish (I think, I’m a bit hazy on geography) butter, very prettily shaped in a double scroll, and we sliced it thinly to show off the swirls. We never used margarine, but used Anchor butter from New Zealand for cooking. We had Channel Island (gold top) milk for drinking and ordinary silver top for cooking – skimmed was unheard of. The top of the milk was poured off and kept for coffee.
As so often, the more I write the more I remember, so this might keep on running for a bit.