April 4, 2014 12:10 pm

Jonathan Meades: kitchen-sink dreamer

The writer recollects the far-from-impoverished cuisine of his 1950s childhood – and the technologists’ vision of a culinary revolution
©Marcel George

The paper was battledress brown; thick, matt, absorbent, coarse wood pulp. Touching it made me shiver, the way that felt and flour did. My ration book was liberally stamped. The rubber stamp, the jobsworth’s tool of choice, was emblematic of those slow postwar years: everything had to be stamped or franked or cancelled. In Mr Batten’s shop across Harnham Bridge I would be handed the horrible book so that I, to whom it was issued, might enjoy the important responsibility of passing it personally to the ancient grocer. He stamped with the deliberation of a surgeon or horologist. I enjoyed the ritual as much as I enjoyed my allotted portion of ham, which seemed to me sufficient. I didn’t want for ham, didn’t knowingly want for anything. Rationing was normal. It did not occur to me that there might once have existed a time without rationing. We were already New Elizabethans by the time rationing was finally repealed in the summer of 1954. Not that it actually came to an end then. Shortages persisted for several years. However, the inadequacies of the English table of the 1950s have been much exaggerated just as its current prowess is much exaggerated.

Nonetheless, it is undeniable that privations – six years of war plus a further dozen provoked initially by Stafford Cripps’s smug vegetarian asceticism and subsequently by an agriculture founded in economies of scale – were one of the reasons that many English people lost touch with their indigenous cooking. A culture can be carelessly dissipated with extraordinary haste. Memories that witness better times are eliminated. One generation forgets. A second never knows. England’s cooking was obliterated by a kind of revolution – vandalistic, governmental, philistine, boorish. It was a victim of the same mentality which sanctioned the destruction of thousands of buildings.

©Marcel George

When, after quarter of a century’s research, Dorothy Hartley published Food In England in 1954 it was already an historical document, something from a distant era, like cars with mudguards. It quite lacked the allure of Elizabeth David’s early books, which, although their influence is retrospectively overestimated, were a further incitement to the English middle-classes to break with their dimly recalled past or pasts (whatever they had been).

Nothing, though, dissolved that link so wholly as the promise of the dawn of the advent of future-food, neo-food, spacecraft-food, non-food. A rational, labour-saving regime of pills, gels, capsules, suppositories, injections, drips and powders which would omit gastronomic pleasure. An omission which would hardly be noticed in circumstances where that pleasure was unknown, that is to say much of postwar England. The notion that food might be anything beyond crude fuel was abhorrent to hairshirted creatures such as Cripps and incomprehensible to the downtrodden who were obliged to eat filth in order to live, just about. Food was a resented necessity, a chore to prepare, a chore to consume.

©Marcel George

I knew for certain that this ancient form of corporeal succour would soon be replaced by non-food. Plastics were replacing wood; cotton and wool were not needed in the age of terylene, nylon and tergal; open nibs were yesterday’s nibs – today’s nibs were hooded; transistors would soon vanquish valves.

Chemists’ boundless researches into algae’s proteins would have boundless ramifications. What had, for half a century, been wishfulness was now, according to excitable magazine articles, making its way from lab to consumer. In the new world just over the horizon there would be no school food, which was an unspoken punishment, a further means devised by adults to torment children. There would be no reeking farms and silos, no animals bred for death, no gristle, no ammoniac fish, no boiled fish, no ointment-pink sausages in Bowyers’ window, no gravy like diarrhoea with a skin on it, no windowless long houses for pigs and chickens, no chickens that tasted of cod liver oil, no tapioca, no flour, no fart-flavoured cabbage, no spotted dick, no marmalade, no foul turnips, no jaundiced fat lagging round bleeding meat, no mincemeat pies, no Christmas pudding, no dining tables.

©Marcel George

There were of course countless foods which I’d miss: I had been privy to gastronomic pleasure. But sacrifices had to be made in the name of irresistible modernity.

. . .

I would miss my mother’s cooking.

It was, when I was little, still based specifically in her mother’s cooking, more generally in prewar practice. In pre-Boer war practice: her disintegrating copy of Mrs Beeton’s Household Management was published in 1888. Farmhouse Fare: A Cookery Book of Country Dishes (third impression), was published by The Farmers Weekly in 1936. Her copy, which cost one shilling, is dated July 12 1939, seven weeks after she married. Secrets of Some Wiltshire Housewives, published in 1927, also one shilling, was compiled by the novelist and folklorist Edith Olivier who lived at the Daye (dairy) House in the Earl of Pembroke’s park at Wilton. David Herbert described her as “a fidgety, dynamic rodent with mulberry coloured hair”. The recipe book quite lacks the bitter whimsy of her fiction. It is an earthy reminder that an essentially peasant culture existed in England well into the 20th century, thrifty, resourceful, unpampered.

©Marcel George

My mother was thrifty and energetic. She salted, simmered and pressed beef tongue. She brined beef – brisket or silverside – till it was saltpetre scarlet, simmered it with dumplings and carrots. A weekly ham hock was delivered by Tom Oke, grocer of Milford Street whose business would be taken over by his nephew from far off Weymouth, ginger Roy Osmond, who turned out not to have inherited the grocery gene. There were demarcation lines, specialisations. Bacon, ham and Bath chaps were grocers’ victuals rather than butchers’. Sid the Butcher duly didn’t sell them. The hock was boiled and served with buttered greens and mash. She made steak and kidney pie and steak and kidney pudding. The pastry and the suet crust were her own, ready-made were not yet available: “homemade” was a banal statement of fact not a Luddite boast. Tripe and onions simmered in peppery milk was a dish Grandma Hogg often served when we had Saturday lunch in Shakespeare Avenue; my mother’s version avoided the creamy excess which Grandma, a devotee of all things lactic, including near-rancid farm butter, strove for. Faggots and brawn came from Pritchett’s, they were perhaps beyond Sid the Butcher’s capabilities. Brown trout were fried in butter till their skin was crisp yet their white flesh still moist. Herring roes on toast were sprinkled with paprika (apparently its only use). Crab was a treat. Lobster was a treat for the highest of high days; the gratinated combination of Gruyère, cream, mustard and white wine outdid the flesh. We would eat salmon at suppertime for days on end after my father had caught one: grilled with herb butter or hollandaise, in salad, incorporated in a pie with hard-boiled eggs, mashed and fried as “cakes”. Plaice was fried in butter. Battered fish and chips were deep-fried in beef dripping. So were eggs: in seconds slithery viscosity was magically transformed into a frilly rococo gewgaw. These disappeared from her repertoire after the second incident. She already had form as a chip-pan incendiarist when she put several pounds of dripping on to heat and popped out for a sharpener at The Rose and Crown where she fell in with Sid the Butcher on his lunch break: the house, remember, had a thatched roof.

©Marcel George

. . .

Due to its expense we seldom had steak. When we did it was served with garlic butter. Chicken was a Sunday rarity. Even then the bird was an old boiler, simmered then finished by roasting. After that it provided first meat for a pilaf then stock and soup, with vermicelli. She made scones, drop scones, cheese scones, macaroni cheese, cauliflower cheese, cheese soufflés. The cheese was mousetrap, maybe Gruyère, there was little choice: 40 or 50 English cheeses had disappeared since the beginning of the war. Stilton, Gorgonzola and Danish blue were available but doubtless deemed inappropriate for cooking. She roasted pork with crackling, beef with Yorkshire pudding and (very rarely) lamb. Veal was beaten to wafer thinness, egged and breadcrumbed. Lamb’s breads were blanched and fried. Lamb’s liver, heart and kidneys were staples, pig’s kidneys too, and pork chops which had an ear of kidney attached to them. At Christmas there was turkey, tooth-scraping cranberry sauce, chipolatas, bacon rolls, loathsome sprouts, loathsome parsnips – all the trimmings, three words that cause the heart to sink. Even though I disliked the flavour of its meat I was disappointed the year that turkey was replaced by a Polish goose from Green’s, a butcher with the only art nouveau frontage in Salisbury. The point being that turkey spelt Christmas and goose didn’t – I was ignorant of how recent a tradition turkey was and obstinately refused to believe my mother. Christmas pudding repulsed me. Mince pies were sheerly foul.

©Marcel George

Pheasants were hung in the kitchen to the point of putrefaction and filled the room with their odour: The First German Girl said that they reminded her of the halitotic stench in Leipzig’s air raid shelters, ascribable to the wartime lack of dentists. I learnt to assume that the pheasants tasted delicious. The tongue, like any other sensory organ, is not autonomous, is susceptible to outside influence, to appreciating what it is invited to appreciate.

In the last couple of years of the 1950s my mother’s cooking changed. The availability of new produce introduced the notion of fashion, of choice, into the English kitchen for the first time since 1939. Her copy of Elizabeth David’s A Book of Mediterranean Food was the first reprint of the first Penguin edition, 1956. That author’s French Country Cooking, a 1959 edition. Plats du Jour by Patience Gray (a woman whom Mrs David detested even more than she detested Peter Mayle) and Primrose Boyd is of 1957. The latter looks as though it was rarely used, the same goes for The Continental Flavour by Nika Standen Hazelton (“author of Reminiscence and Ravioli ... she loves to travel to different and exotic places”).

©Marcel George

Paella! Paella of a sort. Smorrebrod! Daube! Pasta! Zabaglione! Avocado vinaigrette! Snails! Artichokes! Breton onions! From the Breton beret with an onion-strewn bike and a smile who pitched up every year having taken the ferry to Southampton. Chicken Kiev! A marvel of ingenuity and engineering. Cooked by her for dinner parties in high heels and reeking of Piguet’s Bandit or, in times of hardship, Ma Griffe. Chicken à la King! A fricassee of chicken, mushrooms and peppers. I sucked up to Barry Still, my French teacher and headmaster, suggesting that it should be called au King. No, he replied, it is an abbreviation of à la façon de King – whoever King was, he added, testily. My parents had invited him to dinner with Honor Wigfall, a widow. He seemed to believe he was being paired off.

©Marcel George

I would miss my father’s cooking. The twice-weekly curries ended when the spices from Iraq were finally exhausted. His taste was for anything that he himself had caught or gathered. Eels from the eel trap, pheasants, hares, salmon, trout – but not pike, never pike. They were, according to the footling English classification, coarse fish, in his words “hot cotton wool full of needles”: no doubt they are if clumsily cooked. It was not until I had learnt in my late teens how to make quenelles and beurre blanc that he came to enjoy them. Given his habitually obstinate unwillingness to try foods which he had disliked at first taste this was a minor triumph. He had a particular antipathy to lamb’s breads, which I adored. He refused to eat cèpes, which he reckoned slimy. Field mushrooms were different. At dawn we’d drive over the Ebble, past the Yew Tree and up the long hill to Odstock Woods where we’d park beside a track that led eventually to an isolated (and, most probably, suspicious) house in a bosky clearing. Sometimes the downland fields were so white with mushrooms that they might have been attacked by a hail of golfballs. This was where the sheep who sprung over hurdles in an attempt to lull me to sleep, lived. The mushrooms were a prized component of what was not yet called “Full English”, which he’d prepare when we returned to the sound of St Thomas’s bells across the misty meadows: pork sausages (not Bowyers), back bacon which he incomprehensibly preferred to streaky and refused to crisp, sauté potatoes, kidneys, fried bread. He enjoyed making dishes from leftovers: bubble and squeak; Sunday night sandwiches of chicken oysters and scraps which were always accompanied by whisky (dilute and sugared for me); shepherd’s pie with meat put through a primitive mincer attached to a kitchen shelf, with Guinness, Angostura bitters, Worcester sauce, sweated onions and raw onions. He furrowed the potato top so that when it came out of the oven it looked like heatwave plough. His omelettes were perfectly yellow: it was a point of honour not to let them brown. His everyday breakfast was egg beaten in milk. At weekends he would add a shot of brandy or rum. The latter came in handy at Christmas. He was wedded to tradition but disliked its flavour. So Christmas pudding would be crumbled and immersed in half a bottle of Lamb’s Navy and not set light to.

©Marcel George

. . .

I would miss: Mary Longmire’s bacon and eggs, her thick soups and steak and kidney puddings; Beryl Lush’s rusks, cooked overnight at the bottom of the Aga beside which Brack lay for warmth; Maureen Slater’s confection which I later came to know as pan bagna; Honor Wigfall’s jugged hare derived from Big-Boned Brigitte’s recipe for lièvre à la royale; The First German Girl’s stuffed cabbage; the prix fixe at l’Hotel du Louvre; the staff’s equine lunch at l’Hotel des Voyageurs; the Marine Café’s deep fried eggs; the Haven Café’s crab sandwiches; Bismarck herring with cream and apple followed by Fuller’s cake at the Lyons Corner House in Coventry Street; gratinated chicken risotto in a tiny Italian restaurant in Carlisle Street off Soho Square; my own TV Toastwich (a toasted bacon and tomato sandwich whose “recipe” I had found in TV Times).

I would have missed all of this and more had non-food come to pass. It didn’t. It failed because so much of it sought to replicate past food and was found wanting. Energen rolls were airy bread. Coffee-mate tried to emulate cream, no one was fooled. This tastes like apple, that tastes like lamb, here’s a potion to remind you of tomato. So it went on. It was analogous to Linda McCartney’s horrible industrially produced vegetarian products which, many years later, aped horrible industrially produced meat products.

There would be no new foods. There are no new foods. There will be no new foods. There are only rediscovered foods. Save for those from the Midi and the Midi Moins Quart, many of the recipes collected by Mrs David and Jane Grigson throughout France are uncannily akin, in all but name and minor detail, to those in Farmhouse Fare and Secrets of Some Wiltshire Housewives. Lancashire Hotpot is baeckoff, faggots are gayettes and caillettes; “A Very Good Supper Dish” – the recipe is from Mrs F Roberts of Winterslow, a downland village east of Salisbury – is gratin dauphinois. And so on. Recipes that the English forgot or merely abjured in the collective conviction that what came from elsewhere was necessarily superior.

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Extract from “An Encyclopaedia of Myself” by Jonathan Meades, published in May by Fourth Estate (£18.99)

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