When I was a child, my mother must have spent most of her days planning meals and cooking them. No quick bowl of muesli in the morning or lunchtime sandwiches. We had three square meals a day.
A proper breakfast, of course. We didn’t start the meal with cereal in our family. Straight into the bacon and eggs. Sometimes kedgeree or sausages. Grilled tomatoes and mushrooms. Or just eggs, poached, scrambled or boiled. A piece of toast perhaps, but my mother watched her figure and didn’t eat much bread. My father made fantastic marmalade, so he might have that on toast. At Christmas, we had a turkey and a whole ham, so breakfast for a week afterwards might be cold ham. Then there were kippers, of course, always served in pairs. Or bloaters, which she served whole (nowadays, I gut bloaters before cooking them).
That kept us going for the morning. My mother made coffee for herself, the gardener, the daily and anyone else around at 11 o’clock, but nothing to eat. I might have had a glass of milk – there was certainly milk at school, little bottles containing one third of a pint. No one liked it, as it wasn’t refrigerated during the morning and was slightly warm and, in the summer, borderline off, but we had to drink it.
School lunch was ghastly, on the whole. Stews were strangely gelatinous, gristly and had no vegetables in them at all. I was used to plenty of vegetables and longed for a bit of onion and carrot to give it some interest. The pies made with minced beef were all right – good pastry – but the scrambled eggs were horrible. They were served out of great stainless steel vats and the top half was dry and crumbly and the rest damp curds scooped out of water with a slotted spoon. We believed they were made from powdered egg and we may have been right. Sausages were mostly fat and gristle and the cheese and potato pie was disgusting. Lumpy mash with sour cheese mixed in and baked. On Friday, it being a Catholic school, we had fish. My mind has blanked a description of the pieces of fish we were served and we hoped for fish fingers instead, although one day a boarder told us that she had lifted the breadcrumbs off her fish finger and found mould underneath. Vegetables were overcooked, of course. There was always soup, though I never took it. It was made from a packet and I didn’t see much point in it.
At home, my mother might have made a shepherd’s pie with the leftovers from the Sunday roast. Or fishcakes, a casserole, an omelette, cold meat and salad with a baked potato, lamb chops – quite straightforward dishes, but always beautifully cooked and served with several (never overcooked) vegetables. We had more than our daily five fruit and veg in those days, there were always lots of home-grown vegetables on the table. She made wonderful vegetable soups with home-made stock.
Our main meal was normally in the evening, except on Sundays, when we had a traditional roast, usually beef. Sirloin, on the bone, with the undercut (fillet) left on. My mother made wonderful Yorkshire pudding and roast potatoes. The beef was served rare. In the evening, we had it cold, as well as any other cold meat left from a previous day, with several different salads and pickles – she pickled red cabbage and walnuts and made chutney. We also had cheese – Cheddar, Stilton, Brie, Camembert, Edam – and biscuits. It was served on a trolley in the drawing room – all other meals were eaten in the dining room.
Dinner during the week was usually meaty. We had at least one other roast and often a chicken. We sometimes had a mixed grill – does anyone eat mixed grill now? So much food on the plate – a small piece of steak, a lamb chop, a sausage, some liver, a kidney, tomatoes, mushrooms, fried potatoes, sometimes an egg or a rasher of bacon too. We often ate fish – grilled usually, sole or turbot or trout – or baked cod with onion and tomato, or fish pie with mashed potato. Our next door neighbours owned a fishing fleet and almost lived on fish – my mother was a bit taken aback to find that they considered kippers suitable for an evening meal, when to her they were, however delicious, certainly a breakfast or lunch dish.
At the weekend, they often had dinner parties and went to a lot of trouble with the food. They were followers of Elizabeth David and made cassoulet, ratatouille, daubes and carbonades. My mother had no interest at all in sweet food and, apart from lemon syllabub (I use her recipe still, except that I have changed it*), puddings were simple in the extreme. For example, a bought coffee icecream, smothered in whipped cream and sprinkled with a crumbled Flake chocolate bar was, she considered, perfectly acceptable for a dinner party pudding. A starter might be oeuf en cocotte (cooked perfectly so that the white was set but the yolk runny) or home-made pâté. In the 60s, they were always the first with the new foods, which they had sent up from London if necessary – avocado, for example. They grew aubergines, okra, melons – we had eight greenhouses, two of them hothouses.
Once in a while, my father fried fish and chips. He started by filleting the fish, which would have been cod, plaice or haddock. Then he peeled the potatoes, sliced them, soaked them, dried them, fried them to cook through. He made the batter and battered the fish. Then he gave the chips their final fry and fried the fish. They were served with frozen peas and home-made tartare sauce and lemon. He used almost all the dishes and pans in the kitchen and my mother would spend the afternoon cleaning up. He was a marvellous cook, but each meal he prepared was an Event and he used every utensil he could find and never even thought about the clearing away.
At home, unless there were guests, we never had puddings. My mother didn’t encourage a sweet tooth, though she did not disapprove of ice cream. This was the only shining light of school meals. The school cooks made lovely puddings, jam or chocolate sponges, rice pudding served with a dob of dark brown sugar, apple pies. In the summer, sometimes, jelly and ice cream, which was all right but not as nice as the dairy ice cream my mother bought.
Wine was always on the table. Everyday wine was bought in half-gallons. I can’t remember at what age I was first allowed to drink it but after that I always could if I wished. I rarely did, maybe the occasional half-glass when I was in my teens. Because it was not forbidden or ‘special’, I didn’t think of drinking alcohol as something to aspire to or hide from my parents. Sometimes we went to Sunday pre-lunch drinks parties. From the age of about 14, I was given sherry and, looking back, I must have sometimes become pretty drunk. Sherry is a fairly heavy drink for a youngster and I was freely offered refills.
We didn’t eat between meals, although fruit was not counted as snacking and was always available in large quantities. My mother did not bake cakes or biscuits, though we might have a biscuit at (afternoon) tea time. Lunch was at 1 and dinner 7.30 – later at a party of course. From a fairly early age, we ate dinner with our parents rather than early high tea.
Remarkably enough, I was tiny. I had a very small appetite, although I was not fussy about food at all. My mother was sympathetic, as she knew I simply could not eat much. “Try to finish the meat,” she would say. “It’s expensive and it’s protein.” I would be asked what vegetables I wanted with my sliver of meat and small potato. “Five peas and half a sprout, please” I would say, and that’s what I’d be given. My parents understood how discouraging it was to be confronted with a plateful I couldn’t finish.
*Less sugar, more alcohol. She did the juice of a lemon and half the grated rind, 4 ounces of sugar, a glass of sherry and half a pint of cream. I use the juice and all the rind, 2 ounces of sugar (a little more if needed), a glass of sherry and a slug of brandy, to a half-pint of cream.