The evening before her 90th birthday, my mother cooked dinner for 12 of us. There was full-bodied venison and chestnut stew followed her incomparable crème caramel and an orange salad, and a good deal to drink and the usual wall of sound that occurs when my family get together. She sat at the end of the table in her small kitchen smiling her tight-lipped smile, her eyes slightly narrowed.
My mother belonged to that generation of middle class English women who did little cooking before the war and a lot after it. It had been usual to have a cook, most of whom were not properly trained. This is probably the reason why so much of the food in private houses in this country was so bad. My mother was lucky in that her grand had a large house and employed an exceptional cook; and she traveled extensively through Europe before the war By the time she married my father, a greedy man with a wide-ranging culinary curiosity, towards the end of the war, and began to cook in earnest herself, at least she knew what good food should taste like.
She eventually gave up cooking altogether at 95. She rarely, if ever, cooked the menu twice. There were some landmark dishes that reappeared by popular demand. Her cold rice pudding is the standard by which all rice puddings, hot or cold, are judged. The same is true of her marmalade. Then there was a lamb stew with lamb’s kidneys in it, which is a particular favourite of mine; and tinned apricot halves, on buttered bread and sprinkled with sugar and baked in a hot oven; and her potato salad (new potatoes, preferably from the garden) dressed with vinaigrette when warm so that they absorbed some of it as they cooled, with snipped chives; and, as memory unspools, more and more dishes spring to mind.
We may believe that our generation (whichever that may be) was the first to have discovered global culinary exploration travels, but this is complete nonsense. Looking through Mother’s recipes cards under B, I find Beetroot Soup (Armenian) followed by Biscuit Tortoni (frozen), Bent Biscuits, Blackberry Granita followed by, best of all, Bloody Mary which includes a couple of dashes of Angostura batches. I knew that it made complete gastronomic sense. There are recipes for fennel a la Greque and hard-boiled eggs in soubise sauce, panoche stew that begins in uncompromising style ‘Mutton cutlets, cut in small pieces’ and kidneys Turbigo; pirozhki and tongue with almond and raisin sauce.
She was an adventurous cook, and she had a magpie’s eye for good recipes. Mastering the Art of French Cookery by Louise Bertholde, Julia Childe and Simone Beck was the cookery book to which she referred most frequently. But there was Fanny Farmer’s Boston School Cook Book was up there on the shelf in her kitchen, and Jane Grigson’s Pork Charcuterie, and Elizabeth David, of course, French Provincial Cooking and Italian Cooking, but she was forever purloining recipes she thought worth trying out from any source – ‘It’s a Katie Stewart recipe I got from The Times’. (She never read another newspaper; she was addicted to the crossword). Of ‘It’s by a cook called Jamie Oliver. I found it while I was waiting at the hairdressers.’
She wrote out her recipes neatly on cards, which she kept in a fire-engine red box, which I appropriated when she moved into a home two years ago. The first recipe I’ve tried out from the cards in her recipe box is credited to Katie Stewart, once the pillar of The Times cookery. It was one for red cabbage with the grated peel and juice of 2 oranges, 2 oz caster sugar, 3 tbs wine vinegar, 1 small, finely chopped onion, 1 clove garlic ditto and 1 oz butter. Shred the cabbage very finely and then marinade it in all the ingredients except the butter for 24 hours. ‘Melt the butter in casserole. Add cabbage. Bring to simmer and cook gently 1 ½ hours. Liquid should evaporate’ It was Ginger Rogers to a mallard’s Fred Astaire.
These recipes add up to a time-line of culinary experience. I can tell by her handwriting that some of them must date back 50 years or even further. Some are credited to the house her grandmother kept 80 years ago. She always claimed that the food there was amongst the best she ever ate. One or two must have been added in the last few years. I have just noticed that, with characteristic thrift, at the back of the recipe box are all the cards with recipes she either re-transcribed or discarded, still leaving one side of the card clear and ready to be filled up with fresh inspirations.
My mother died last week at the age of 97. She retained her engagement with food until almost the end. She was vigorous in her complaints: ‘They gave us what they called scampi. Completely inedible.’ ‘No one EATS pork pie and PICKLES in the evening.’ ‘They don’t know how to make a PROPER Irish stew.’ Nor was I exempt from her critical rasp. Last year I proudly awaited her verdict on my first ever batch of marmalade, which I had made according to her recipe. ‘Very nice darling, but it doesn’t taste like marmalade.’ “What do you mean?” ‘It’s too orangey.’ I have yet to recover.
But her mind was still open. Just a few weeks ago I went to see her. ‘They gave us something called jumbo garlic,’ she told me, ‘I’ve never had that before. Roasted. It was quite mild. Rather nice.’
It’s the marmalade season and I’m having another crack at it. Her recipe, of course, blurred and blotched from use. The house is full of that bitter-sweet, smokey fug, the sensory eiderdown of warm fruit and sugar. I’m sorry she won’t be here to deliver her verdict. Too orangey, indeed.