Jean Fort, 1915-2012

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.

23 thoughts on “Jean Fort, 1915-2012

  1. What wonderful recollections of your mother; she sounds very special – and how lovely to have all those recipe cards of hers to cook by. I cooked Katie Stewart almost exclusively when I was first married and still get her books out from time to time.

  2. What a lovely eulogy, taking us through her culinary life and achievements, dish by dish, recipe by recipe. I shall consider myself fortunate indeed if I’m still able to appreciate, let alone create, great food into my 90s…
    My condolences on your loss.

  3. If only all of us could pass on such a wonderful legacy to our children – a lifelong love of food in its many glorious guises.

    A really lovely eulogy.

  4. Condolences are naturally in order Mr Fort … but what also transpires from your post is your love of your mother’s spirit and outlook, not just her wonderful attitude towards food and dining. And this must be a great comfort and example. Here’s raising a glass to the memory of Maman Fort….

  5. Condolences on the passing of your mother. The point that caught my eye in your piece was that most generations believe they have discovered “global culinary exploration”; As true for us “foodies” as it was for Philip Larkin in another sphere.

  6. Thank you for a beautiful eulogy. How wonderful that she was able to retain her passion for food into old age and was able to pass it that passion to you with such brilliant results

  7. One of the most lovely eulogies I have ever read and, more than than, one of the most wonderful articles about food. She sounds very much like my grandmother who would have been the same age and whose lack of tact was as funny as it was well-intentioned – although she read the Daily Mail and used a thesaurus while she did the crossword! Incidentally, we still make her famous stuffing every year for Christmas which ends up being the highlight of the festive season.

  8. So sorry about your Ma. My ma was of the same generation, but died fifty years ago. She was also a fine cook with an international repertoire. I have an exercise book with some of her recipes, but try as I might I cannot get them to taste the way hers did. My sons are now having the same problem, launched into independent life with exercise books full of my recipes, they complain that they can never get them to taste the way I make them. I wonder what it is that makes food so individual to the cook?

  9. What a wonderful way to remember your Mother. As a backward and ackward Australian child
    I remember meeting Great Aunt Jean.
    Please could you send me a contact.

  10. Dear Matt,
    May I offer my condolences on the loss of your mother, she was a wonderful lady. She was my headmistress for six years and I admired her enormously. What a shame she never had the chance to practise her culinary expertise at Roedean: the food there in the sixties was truly abominable!
    Jos Le Voi.

  11. Tricia Kiddle (Grand daughter of Peggy Bridges)
    A beautiful eulogy Matt.
    Aunt Jean is etched in my memories of my visit to UK in the 70’s.
    Late afternoon sunshine, a piano playing and Aunt Jean creating dinner in the kitchen, then an onslaught of ‘youngies’ where the conversation was both robust and hilarious. One needed a large and loud voice to compete!
    My thoughts to you Matt and the rest of the family.
    Tricia Kiddle

  12. Jean Fort is forever in my memory bank too. I never knew she was a foodie. She was too thin, too tall and too magnificent to ever cook.
    At Roedean she slightly detached from us Girls but I did have one unforgettable meeting before leaving school.
    I entered her study and Mrs Fort as she was known by us schoolgirls, just looked at me. “You have beautiful hands. I looked at her hands and saw three rings gracing her long fingers. She then said ” See you father is difficult. I suggest Zerbanoo you leave school and be great.” That was the last time we ever said anything to each other.
    I shall cook her red cabbage recipe at Christmas and raise a glass to someone who was “GREAT.” By the way my husband Richard is forever telling me that he married me because of my beautiful hands.

  13. I also never knew she was such a foodie (hello Zerbanoo)! She must have had a bit to say about the food at Roedean! I was listening to Tom Fort’s book being read on radio 4 – memories of school holidays spent in the school.
    She was so tall, slim & elegant – a real lady of her generation and a very fair headmistress.
    I shall also try the red cabbage – sounds delicious. Jenny Lebus OR (nee Harvey)

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