One of the poems that I studied for English O Level was Betjeman’s Summoned By Bells, an autobiographical narrative poem. The first part of the heading is a quotation from that, tastes is my addition.
My mother’s death was expected, though it happened more suddenly than we anticipated. A few weeks later, it hit me and the reason was the meal I prepared for dinner. I’d bought a lovely whole fish, which I baked with herbs and lemon and, with it, cooked asparagus, broad beans and potatoes from the garden. Mostly the first of the season – it was April – and every one of them was a great treat. But no one in the family but me appreciated what a treat it was. We all enjoyed it, but I had no-one to share ‘why’ it was special. Everything home-grown apart from the fish and lemon, nearly everything the first of the season. She’d have got it and I had no-one else in the world who’d feel the same.
I missed her again tonight, more than 17 years later. I’d taken an easy route, buying two little quiches from the deli – the pastry is way better than mine and the Aga is off anyway, so cooking is just a little more bother. I’d bought a lot of fruit and veg from the greengrocer and I’d said to Tim that we’d start with asparagus, then have the quiches with a salad. As simple as much of the best food is, I missed my mother for the entire time I prepared the meal.
I’d bought some tiny, local new potatoes and some broad beans, as well as the asparagus. So, instead of just the last as a starter, I decided to do a bit of them all. The potatoes must have been dug yesterday, the skins just rubbed off. Everything was local and fresh. The salad leaves, also locally grown, were strewn with flowers. Mostly little pansies, nasturtiums and marigold petals. I sliced a little spring carrot and a few radishes and that was it. Again, no one in the world would have ‘got’ it as I did, apart from her.
Some years ago, my friend Shirley had a couple of hundred envelopes to fill with a folded sheet of paper and all of them to stamp and to stick on address labels. I volunteered to help her and we spent a couple of hours in her conservatory, on a summer’s evening, sharing a bottle of wine. We chatted throughout, sharing a lot about each other in a relaxed way. She told me that she made nettle soup every year. Just once, as she didn’t actually like it.
Her mother spent the last few years of her life with Shirley and her husband. At the time, they owned a smallholding in the countryside. Mother was very keen on foraging and preserving and, every spring, she was out picking bags of young nettles, to make into soup. So, in her memory, Shirley made and ate it every year. Just for love.