I suppose I grew up with the understanding that British cuisine didn’t have the best reputation with other countries and that we were overshadowed by French cuisine. British cuisine was seen as a bit of a joke and somehow I grew up with that image. I now know that actually, here in the UK we have an abundance of fine seasonal produce from sky, land, rivers and sea and wonderful rich regional cooking traditions throughout our land. The British are blessed with a fine sense of humour and an ability to make fun of ourselves. I most definitely grew up with ‘British Rail‘ jokes of awful toast, tea and pork pies on board, combined with very late trains ! This story from the National Railway Museum’s blog made me smile: How British Rail limited the butter on its sandwiches, and other Station Stories ( https://blog.railwaymuseum.org.uk/how-british-rail-limited-the-butter-on-its-sandwiches/)
I also grew up watching Wimbledon tennis championships on the telly where the very best strawberries and cream were served up with a sense of decadence and pride. My mum and dad both grew up in working class families, my mum in Norfolk surrounded by farmlands of pigs and turkeys and my dad in the welsh hills and valleys surrounded by fields of sheep. Their war-time childhood, with limited provisions and simple cookery, influenced their attitude towards food and made them practice zero waste. Mum once told me that ‘bread and dripping‘ – which was fat from the meat cooled down and spread upon the bread – was a rare and sought after treat. One that sounded revolting to me as a child !
Both my parents aspired to become middle classed and they both gained an education to become teachers. They met teaching at a school in Lancashire in the north of England and worked hard to own their own home. My first home with my parents was in Glasgow in Scotland and my second home with them was in Weybridge in Surrey, a very affluent location. The food I grew up with was prepared by my mum. Many of the recipes came from a book given to her by my father when they first met ! It was simple British cuisine, generally meat and two vegs, almost always served with peeled boiled potatoes and always followed by a dessert, either homemade or from a packet. We used to have a dining room with a long slender oak table that had belonged to my father’s parents. My dad’s place was at the head of the table. My mum sat down to eat last long after we had started.
On weekdays, dinner would be served at 6pm. The plates were pre-warmed as my dad had to have his food piping hot. Meals often involved boiled potatoes as previously mentioned! Favourites were lamb chop casserole with carrots and herbs, grilled pork chops with apple sauce, shepherds pie with crispy mashed potato on top, fish fingers with home-made crinkle cut chips and peas with ketchup and minced beef casserole (Bolognese ) served yet again with boiled potatoes.
Salad was not a thing !!
On Saturday mornings I did gymnastics training. The Romanian Nadia Comaneci was my hero. Afterwards, we would go for lunch to a club associated with my dad’s work. They had a kind of canteen restaurant and I would always order a roast chicken breast, chips and cola followed by ice cream. Or sometimes we would go home instead and dad would bash some steak with a wooden meat tenderiser and mum would make chips to go with it .
On Sundays mum and dad went out in the morning: mum played tennis and dad played golf. We would always have a traditional Sunday lunch, each week a different meat was roasted and served with roast potatoes, seasonal veg and gravy as well as suitable accompaniments. For example:
Week 1 – roast chicken with bread sauce;
Week 2 – roast beef ( over cooked ) with horseradish sauce;
Week 3 – roast lamb with home-made mint sauce from the garden;
Week 4 – roast pork ( dry ) with apple sauce.
Pork was my least favourite. When the meat in question was ready and rested, my dad was summoned to the kitchen to carve the meat with the special carving knife and fork that had been passed down in his family. Food was plated in the kitchen on individual plates before being brought through to the table. As opposed to other cultures there was no communal serving at the table except the gravy and complements such as sauce, salt and pepper.
My brother and I didn’t really eat breakfast. Perhaps my brother Mark had a bowl of cereals or a slice of toast on the go, but nothing substantial. I have never really felt hungry before 11am and remained mostly the same today with the odd exception. I don’t remember breakfast ever being encouraged. Certainly never as a social sitting down at the table all together. For my parents, however, breakfast was a ritual. My dad would wake before mum and go downstairs to the kitchen. He would make a pot of English breakfast tea and carry a cup up the stairs to mum in bed every single day of their married life. Mum had hers with milk and a sugar lump! I believe it was a kind of condition of their marriage!! A deal maker if you ask me! So dad then returned to the kitchen and had tea and a bowl of cornflakes, followed by bacon, eggs, mushrooms and sometimes fried tomatoes or potatoes or toast and washed down with more tea. He ate it at the counter top in the kitchen.
At 7am he went off to catch the train up to London to work and I waved him goodbye from mum and dad’s bedroom window. Soon after he left for work, mum would go down to the kitchen in her dressing gown to have her breakfast, again alone. She would have an orange cut into quarters or a grapefruit sliced in half, followed by toast with butter and her wonderful home-made marmalade that she made once a year in January and kept in a little marmalade pot. Sometimes she would have bacon and eggs. She would then put heated rollers in her shoulder length glossy black hair and create an immaculate seventies hair style before going off to work as a secondary school teacher.
I occasionally had toast and marmalade and to this day it is a comfort I save for days when I’m feeling a bit down. On those kind of mornings, tea with toast and marmalade does the trick! Until recent years my mum gave me one jar a year in January which I savoured carefully until the following January. Mum would not share her recipe with me so now I make my own marmalade.
I didn’t drink tea until I became an adult although many children grow up drinking tea in the UK. Now I drink the occasional earl grey tea with milk and honey which is very unconventional but delicious!
I went to a kindergarten in Glasgow but have no memory of food relating to these times at the moment and I suspect I went home at lunch time. I didn’t like being there and so this may be a factor! However, from the age of four when we moved down to Surrey in the south of England, I had school lunches at the primary school. I remember jars of different shapes of pasta and spaghetti that were supposed to be learning tools in the classroom. My first friend Teresa and I would nibble on them! I also remember we used to bring a clementine or satsuma in for a break time snack and Teresa and I would peel them into segments and ‘cook’ them on the outside heat generator!! Grilled clementine!!! Yum!
I found primary school quite boring. The only good lesson was when we grew land cress in little tubs for a few weeks and then the magic day came when we got to snip the cress and make cress sandwiches in the classroom! I thought it was actually the most delicious thing I had ever eaten…I even think there was even butter spread on the gloopy white sliced bread ! In those days, school lunch was served over the road at a lunch hall with a serving hatch.
It was reported to my mum that I didn’t chose to eat much !!!
However, hot sponge puddings and custard were acceptable to me and I even remember losing my second tooth deep within the chocolate sponge and custard !
When I turned seven I went to junior school which was a catholic convent school ( although my parents were not catholic). With still no breakfast being consumed, I would take an apple or the fashionable beef oxo cube to school, in my pocket, to keep me going until lunch…Sticky and crumbly in my blazer pocket, the umami joy was heavenly comfort to lick direct from its silver wrapper at break time on cold days. And then, the vile smell of the convent dining room. Nuns served up a variety of horrors including soup, semolina and rice pudding hell served with strawberry jam dolloped on top.
Luckily for me there was a school gymnastics club in the gymnasium which nourished me way beyond these insipid lunches …There was also a tuck shop and for 7pm I could get a long slender bag of salt and vinegar flavoured potato sticks, so everything was ok. Plus the local sweet shop was a must stop for after school penny chews and sherbet dips.
At home, during the late seventies and early eighties, the dining table, particularly during special occasions with relatives or friends, were very much influenced by the latest food trends.
Starters would be prawn cocktails served in glass dishes or half a grapefruit toasted with brown sugar (most peculiar).There would be exotic dishes that my mum was by now experimenting with, such as Greek moussaka. (This was something I could really relate to, but only as an adult did I discovered my Mediterranean routes.) My mum has always had a sweet tooth and she specialised in puddings and desserts , perhaps influenced by the fashionable and very loved food writer with her own TV show, Delia Smith. Mum started experimenting in the kitchen particularly on Saturdays. There were baked Alaska’s , lemon meringue pies, gorgeous trifles which I would eat direct from the fridge with a spoon! Oh my mums trifle was so delicious … sponge soaked in Madeira wine with tinned peaches, layers of custard and chopped up raspberry jelly on top. Utterly scrumptious!
There was also chocolate refrigerator cake which was melted down milk chocolate mixed with crushed digestive biscuits and then set in the fridge
Those magical summer days of the 1970’s were some of the happiest days of my life. They were scorching and the air was filled with lady birds and pretty stag Beatles that landed in our garden.
We used to go to the local fruit picking farm and pluck and gorge blackberries, raspberries, strawberries and gooseberries. What was left un-eaten was weighed and paid for. At home mum would wash and carefully pick through the fruit and then lay it out to dry before freezing it for winter supplies. And oh the pies mum made with the blackberries and gooseberries … delicious hot apple and blackberry crumbles served with melting ice cream.
Pancake day or shrove Tuesday
Shrove Tuesday is a Christian celebration marking beginning of lent by using up the milk and eggs and is widely popular in England. Our home was no exception! We would eagerly return home from school and mum would prepare pancakes. My brother and I would sit at the table and mum would bring us pancake after pancake until we were stuffed and could eat no more. Mark holds the record, however he is my older brother! My record of four pancakes is pretty good going! We always ate them with freshly squeezed lemon juice and white sugar. We didn’t roll our pancakes, instead we ate them flat with knife and fork.
We were not a religious family. My parents were vaguely Christian but did follow the traditional holidays. Easter Sunday was a day to wake up to small baskets hung on our bedroom doors filled with chocolate eggs! Toffee filled ones were my favourites. Then a family meal with my aunt and uncle and cousin Peter, which would be so long and boring. It was probably served roast lamb which is the traditional. Children at these gatherings were expected to be “ seen and not heard “ and sit and tolerate the dull adult conversation.
Christmas was a little more lively and enjoyable for us as children. My mum prepared for Christmas time in a very organised way. She would knit a Christmas sweater for my dad long in advance. Each year a slightly different shade of blue! The Christmas tree was always decorated on my brothers birthday on 9th of December. Presents were wrapped and placed under the tree and cards hung upon the banisters.
Mum always made her own Christmas pudding filled with suet, alcohol and dried fruits. She also made and decorated an enormous square Christmas fruit cake with a marzipan layer and thick white piped icing finished with little winter figures and Xmas trees. She made home-made minced pies and brandy butter that you pop under the pie lid to melt in your mouth; home-made sausage rolls with delicious short pastry. As I write this I can see what a wonderful home cook my mum was.
However, the kitchen was very much her territory and her creative space and no place for me.
Occasionally, I could stir or lick a spatula stood upon the little orange stool.
On Christmas Eve we would have adult neighbours over for drinks and sherry, and mince pies would be passed around. In the morning of Christmas Day we would wake to discover a stocking hanging on our bedroom doors! The moment we had waited for a whole year !!! Tiny gifts and chocolates stuffed into the stocking. I would open mine in bed and then the ultimate prize…the clementine at the bottom. Sharp and sweet.
As I sat cosy in bed surrounded by wrapping paper and the aroma of orange peel, mum was already in the kitchen! It was 7am and she had a turkey to roast and a pudding to steam. Lunch was ceremoniously served at 1pm to the same aunty Jose, uncle Noel and cousin Peter. Mum went to town with dressing the table with red candles and holly. There were Christmas crackers to pull, filled with silly paper hats to wear and jokes to tell. Small enamel animals or other fascinating objects from the crackers began our feast together.
Most of the Christmas food was not to my liking as a child.
I never liked the stuffing nor the Brussels sprouts.
Nor did I like Christmas cake or minced pies or Christmas pudding!
However roast turkey, roast potatoes gravy and bread sauce were my favourite!
After lunch we all rolled about and played board games. We went for a brisk cold wintry walk. Then as if it hadn’t all been enough food, mum would set the table with pretty napkins and candles all over again !
Turkey and bread sauce sandwiches ( oh yes please )
Minced pies and the dreaded Christmas cake all appeared from somewhere .
The turkey and bread sauce sandwich was enough for me!
The relatives left and we thanked our parents for our toys and Christmas treats.
One year at Christmas time we had a Hanzel and Gretal cake making competition.
Here I am ( on the right ) with my school prefect badge winning 3rd prize !
And here I am sat upon our home dining table with my cake – a plain Madeira cake on the inside which was yummy …
When I was 10 years old I was prized away from my junior school and my beloved school gymnastics club and sent to a very academic all-girls secondary school. Not only did I have to trade my nice navy blue school uniform for a vile red and grey combination with large up to the waist grey pants, but could it be that school dinners could get even worse?
I will never forget my first school lunch. We were ushered into a huge echoey dining hall and given set round tables of eight girls and we were destined to share our lunch times together for the next five years ! The dinner ladies came around with trolleys and plonked a huge metal tray in the centre of our table. Grey, greasy beef burgers covered in oily fried onions glared back at me. Could this be true? Not a burger bun in sight. What ?…. Powdered mashed potato ?
But as our friendships formed and deepened, we grew to enjoy our lunch times spent together. Teenage giggles and jokes were shared in between the chocolate pudding and custard with its skin formed on top and the unfortunate roll mop salad that only Heidi would dare to eat! We each took turns to have the once a fortnight pleasure of being the one to pop the jelly in its giant glass bowl with the back of the metal serving spoon! Oh the joyous squelching sound it made! The fish and chip Friday was decent – particularly the chips. As we all turned 14 we were moved to an oblong table on the other side of the hall. Our appetites were vast now that we were growing so much. I used to take a sandwich for morning break time but it was never enough and my dear friend Julia Richards would generously share her snack with me. She used to bring two rye crisp breads ( ryvita) that were wedged together with either peanut butter or butter and marmite. Wrapped in cling film, by break time they had lost their crunch but were uniquely bendy and chewy. Oh the happiness!
Here is a photo of my last day at school .( I’m front right holding a chip !)
Our last meal together .…the beginning of summer…
And so the summer of 1986 came and went…In September 1986, just shy of 16 years old I moved to London to fulfil the scholarship at dance school in London I had been awarded.
New adventures coming up …
To be continued!