Chapter V, “Food”, from The Gardens of Camelot (London, 1958), by Rupert Croft-Cooke [the first volume in The Sensual World series], pp. 87-108:
When I come to describe the food we ate it will seem, perhaps, that I am attempting to defend English cooking against that of other nations—France, for instance, or Italy. That would clearly be absurd and is not in the least my intention. But in recalling a household like ours in which my father really cared and knew about food and ate almost nothing but traditional English dishes, I realise that these had, and where they exist still have, real value.
It is fashionable to give a sort of shudder when English cooking is mentioned, and English people who have had a holiday in France and wish to show their cosmopolitanism will tell you that there is not and never has been an English cuisine. But they might remember that in England it is not so much the cooking and certainly not the raw materials that are poor, but public catering. Up and down the country you may search restaurants and hotels one after another for a decent meal, and although here and there by some miracle you may discover one at least edible, you will be forced to admit that the food offered to travellers, visitors, tourists, restaurant-goers of every kind is iniquitous. Every little dirty trick of shady catering is used, even in places of repute, as, for instance, half-boiling a joint of frozen beef, giving it a spell in the oven to produce the semblance of a roast, carving it cold so that the slices may be shaved off more thinly and smothering the result with boiling gravy to deceive the customer with the illusion of a hot meal. Every advantage is taken of the wholesalers’ offer to supply the catering trade with huge drums of this or that product, so that scarcely anything one eats has not been preserved in tin and, what little has escaped it, has been frozen, chilled, deep-frozen, dried, desiccated, dehydrated—in some way messed about until none of its pristine savour and nourishment remains. A composition like a stream of custard is used instead of eggs, another is called ‘mayonnaise’, there are cooking fats of unguessable origins and giant tins of a coloured mess made up of cereals, meat-flavoured, and called veal or beef or ham loaf. Almost all vegetables are tinned (‘We can’t get enough staff to prepare fresh ones’) and there are factory-made mixtures turned out for puddings and cakes. Tinned stews, tongue, ham, jam, butter, milk and fish are all found easier for the cook to handle.
Yet in houses near these hotels and restaurants many English families continue to enjoy English food, cooked as their parents and grandparents cooked it, and at its best it can be very good indeed.
There are several reasons why it has a bad name, apart from the degrading food offered by our caterers. One is that has been written about by arty and folk-lore-ish persons who have stressed regional dishes of quite uneatable primitiveness and at the drop of a hat will talk of Westmoreland wheat-puffs or Essex dunkles. Another is that it is so audaciously simple in method that it must have materials of the finest quality. The English way of cooking green peas, for instance, quite unmixed, unflavoured or uncomplicated, by boiling them in water in which there is nothing but a sprig of mint, is the best method in the world when the peas are young, bright green, full of flavour and gathered an hour before they are cooked. With any lesser, drier or yellower peas it produces something very nasty indeed. In the last twenty years materials for our kind of cookery have been unobtainable, or rare, and the results have been disastrous.
Yet another reason is the disappearance of domestic service. Although in some families cooking has become a hobby, in the majority it is a bore to be got over quickly for the sake of a television program.
Still, one way or another, the cooking in English homes is better than in public places, and there are still certain dishes, wholly of the British Isles, which bear comparison with anything anywhere. I once won a Concours Gastronomique in France by producing a steak-and-kidney pudding against twenty-eight other national and regional dishes. You will not find these things in restaurants in anything but a degraded form, but you will still find some of them in private homes. I want to write here of the food in my home before the First World War, partly from nostalgia, for I remember it so well, partly as an answer to rather wearisome nonsense about there being no English School of cooking—and no English cooking for that matter—partly as a small incentive to those who do not know some of these truly national dishes to try them, and partly because some of them are in danger of disappearing.
When we first came to Chipstead I had my meals in the nursery, but soon I was promoted to the dining-room for breakfast and lunch. Breakfast in a family like hours in the last years of King Edward’s reign was a large occasion. It was not the breakfast of country house parties, with game pie and grilled salmon and devilled beef at a side table. There would be no more than one cooked dish daily, but that dish was bounteous and excellent.
The English have been called barbarians for the habit of eating a large meal at the beginning of the day, and with time, I must own, I have almost lost the habit and prefer good coffee and croissants. But in childhood I would have thought myself cheated if I had not been able to feel curiosity about ‘what’s for breakfast’. My father was an early riser and came to the table after an hour in his garden and, barbaric or not, all of us enjoyed those noble meals. Certain English breakfast dishes are unmatched. Indeed I have heard gourmets abroad who have found nothing else in England to please them speak soulfully of them. ‘Ah, but your English breakfast. That is something!’ It certainly was when I was child.
‘Breakfast cereals’ were left behind in the nursery. Those paper-like flakes of this or that tasteless husk must have been created to absorb the glutted harvests of America, I feel, and serve no purpose but to distend the bellies of young children or persuade them to swallow a little milk and sugar. Apply some of the cantrips of today to them, talk of vitamins or calories, and you will find poor, earnest mothers spooning them into the mouths of their rebellious children, but what unholy rubbish all this bran and baking amounts to. Before I was seven, thank heaven, I was emancipated from the need to bloat myself with such stuff.
There was frequently fish and I must have been no more than five when I learned to dissect a kipper, which was still called a kippered herring. But it was kippered, it’s thick, luscious flesh rich from the wood smoke. It was not the emasculated, oily wretch wrapped in cellophane which is called a kipper today. Or, stronger, a bloater with its delicious hard roe intact. Or fresh herrings which we had plainly grilled at breakfast, though my father used to use a horse-radish sauce. Or smoked haddock—but again it was smoked haddock and not a piece of cod or dog-fish or some other tasteless thing coloured yellow and masquerading as haddock, such as one sees on fishmongers’ slabs today. Sometimes this is done without deceit and the stuff is labelled ‘smoked cod’. But quite often it is a deliberate fake and only by examining the skin of the fish can one tell when purchasing whether or not it is haddock. Once the fish is cooked the difference is instantly perceptible, for true haddock is the result of one of the finest of many curious treatments for fish which English have invented.
Yet for me the best fish dishes were none of these, but two composite ones—fish-cakes and kedgeree. Of fish-cakes it need only be said that they can be either delectable or odious, and at different times most of us have known both—a blob of bread-crumbed potato faintly flavoured with fish, or the real thing, a mixture of fish, potato, eggs, chopped parsley, carefully formed and proportioned and fried a golden brown.
Kedgeree as we knew it and as it is known today is an example of the way things have, in English kitchens, of growing stereotyped. Originally an Indian dish, khichri, of many variations, but with rice and dal as its basic ingredients, it was first considered in England as a way of preparing any once-cooked fish or meat with hard-boiled eggs and rice. Mrs. Beeton describes various kedgerees made with cold meat, paprika and salmon, while Eliza Acton in her Modern Cookery (1845), recommends it for cold turbot, brill, salmon, soles, John Dory and shrimps. By the time I was old enough to eat it, its ingredients were fixed and invariable—smoked haddock, egg and rice. How good it can be, and how simple to make. Cooked rice, drained and not soggy, mixed with broken-up, cooked smoked haddock and chopped-up hard-boiled eggs, with plenty of coarse black pepper and nothing more. It is not a thing to elaborate, and personally I frown even on parsley or nutmeg. Obviously some of the chopped egg is kept to sprinkle over it for sake of its appearance, and a few sprigs of bright green parsley look well on the dish beside the saffron yellow pile, otherwise it should be left to recommend itself.
Omelettes were unknown at our breakfast table. Perhaps my parents realised the strange but undeniable fact that whereas any French cook or housewife can make a delicious plain omelette, almost nobody else can. For eggs they were content with the three traditional methods, poaching, boiling, scrambling. My father insisted on cream being added when eggs were being scrambled, but cream in those days cost about 2s. a pint.
It was with bacon that we, like millions of our countrymen then and since, usually ate fried eggs. But the bacon would be carefully bought from a supplier whose product was known not to be too salt or too mild, and it was almost always prime back.
‘An economy,’ my father would say, for there was no waste with it. There would be streaky or gammon for the kitchen, according to their own preference.
Other accompaniments for bacon were rarer, and therefore more attractive. Sheep’s kidneys, cut with small cross slices so that they were neither too open or too underdone, were never devilled or prepared in any way which would rob them of their own delightful taste. Mushrooms, in those days before competitive mushroom-growing had produced at forbidding prices huge quantities of tasteless dry fungus, would have been gathered by us from the fields in the early morning or purchased at the back door by the cook from one of the boys of the village. They were simply fried and served with bacon, and I know nothing better.
I cannot resist crying a lament for that masterly creation of the English pork-butcher, the sausage. It has gone, long since, succeeded only by wan parodies, bilious with fat and swollen with old bread, whose proportions have to be controlled by law to ensure that the purchaser secures a little of the gristly flesh of heaven knows what animal. The sausage of my childhood was not a repository for the machine-minced skin and offal of a pork-butcher’s chopping block; it was made in competition with other sausage-makers and it sold on its own reputation. ‘Brown’s sausages are very good.’ ‘I like sausages from the Stores.’ Each his preference, but no maker would have survived on the rancid miscellany packed into skins today. Pork neither too fat nor too lean our sausages had, a little veal perhaps, lest they were too rich, breadcrumbs, but not too many, and flavourings with which they sought to characterise their own product—nutmeg, lemon-rind, cinnamon perhaps, certainly sage leaves and a few other herbs, none of them to potent for the delicate whole.
They will never come again and not all the advertising of the factory-owners, who now turn out sausages of a kind by the million, will ever convince my generation that they will. With a flick of mustard and a piece of bread fried in the unadulterated fat which had run from them, they made a food for gods and those lucky mortals born long enough ago to have known them.
Breakfasts were not always hot, for once or twice a year my father would buy a York ham, or a Stock Exchange acquaintance—‘I made a lot of money for that man’–would send him a ham as a gift. Or there would be a tongue pressed under my mother’s supervision, not pulled out of a tin smothered in gelatine and tasting of nothing at all. Or a bath chap, that excellent little pig’s cheek which could be bought whole, ready cured and may occasionally be found today. Or brawn, which my mother also made herself in a big, round press, a brawn large enough to last most families too long, but for our hungry household of eleven not too large to keep its interest to the end. Or cold pickled pork or cold bacon, on which each of us opened a boiled egg.
When that was eaten, there would be toast and home-made marmalade or for my father his favourite delicacy, smoked cod’s roe. Sometimes there was potted meat made from the last of the family joint by mincing the meat, adding salt, pepper, a little ground cloves and nutmeg and a touch of anchovy essence, then sealing the whole in a jar under melted butter. Two familiar white jars stood also on our breakfast table, one of anchovy paste made by the old and honourable firm of Burgess, a paste which has not degenerated even today, the other Patum Peperium, ‘the Gentleman’s Relish’, for the sake of which, last week, I made the crossing from Tangier, where my home is, to Gibraltar, in which it can be obtained.
Splendid, leisurely breakfast with natural but not noisy chatter, with time for my father to eat in peace before his walk to the station and for us to eat without heads full of plans for the day. The dining-room at Wayside overlooked the tennis court and the laurel hedge beyond it, so that as I sat at breakfast in the corner seat beside my father I could munch and think and look out to the garden, a very happy little boy.
Other meals in my home were as simple. There was occasionally soup, but more often a single dish of either fish or meat and always a number of vegetables. These would be followed by what my parents called a ‘sweet’ and sometimes there was cheese. But anything like a succession of courses would have been unthinkable—‘too much washing up for the servants’.
Soups at home were not make strictly to recipe any more than they are in the ordinary homes of France. With a kitchen range lighted before seven in the morning and kept going all day, it was easy to have a stock-pot in which bones, for instance, could have the five or six hours necessary to extract their nourishment. Our soups were characterised chiefly by their vegetable contents, which changed with the season—celery, tomatoes, peas or Jerusalem artichokes. Those dominated by meat were straightforward—oxtail, kidney, rabbit, hare, chicken. In vegetable soups, I remember, a good deal of barley was used, and for all cream soups there would be little croutons of fried bread.
In fact, the soups we had on occasion came as near to the classic form as soup usually does. Anywhere but in one of the eleven restaurants of France accredited by the compilers of the Michelin Guide with three roses, the terminology of soup is used loosely, so that such a name as Brunoise means very little to one ordering a meal. When in my home the last of the chicken was used to make a clear soup it was not called consommé de vollaille and, although the stock-pot and vegetable garden gave us what could perfectly well have borne the titles Jardinière, Julienne or Printanière, to us they were simply soup.
When I go on to claim that the sternest simplicity was used also in the treatment of fish and swear that because of the high quality of the fish my father chose and brought home it was effective, I shall be accused of carrying an argument to far. But it is not so. What English cooking had—and where it survives still has—is daring. It dismisses complicated flavours and the use of too many ingredients and concentrates on the principal one. It is less sophisticated and intricate than any other European system, not because the English have in the past been ignorant or lazy cooks, but because the superb quality of English meat, fish and vegetables enable it to be. Truly English sources, for instance can be numbered on the fingers of two—perhaps one—hands and stuffings only appear when they are essential and not whenever they are pleasant.
So, although my father knew a great deal about food, the fish we ate was prepared without unnecessary garnishes or sauces. Plaice and sole we always had à la Meunière, with only a piece of lemon to adorn them. Turbot and salmon were poached, and the salmon served with melted butter and sliced cucumber, the turbot with melted butter or hollandaise sauce. It would have seemed sacrilegious to my father to eat lobster in any way but cold, with a mayonnaise which my mother made herself of a deep yellow richness which I have not seen bettered since.
Other invariably used methods were ‘sousing’ for mackerel, frying in deep fat for whitebait, and baking for whiting—this last a dish I detested and have never liked since. But more variety had to be found for that dull brute the cod, which in any case was apt to appear, if at all, at lunch on weekdays when my father was in London. It had been in salt water overnight, an essential measure, and it would come to the table in steaks or poached with anchovies sauce or plenty of parsley butter. Its roe was pounded into a delicious fish-paste which lasted several days.
Scallops were a favourite of my father’s, and I’m grateful for it. Prime both in taste and consistency, they are less expensive than other shellfish and more satisfying. We used to have them cooked in several ways, not because they needed variation, but because they were so delectable in each that my father found it hard to make up his mind. ‘I think we will have those scallops stewed,’ he would suggest, but might change it to ‘in their shells’.
One of my mother’s gifts was for dressing a crab. ‘Are you going to do it yourself?’ my father would ask anxiously when he had brought down from London the largest crab he could find. Then my mother would dress it, patiently getting gathering all the fragments to return to the shell, mixed with a little vinegar, olive oil, salt and black and cayenne pepper. She would sprinkle it with chopped-up hard-boiled egg and find some garnish for its dish before it came to table. Again—completely simple and completely effective. Madame Prunier, in her splendid Fish Cookery Book, gives seven ways of presenting a crab, and her garnishes include lobster sauce and truffles. Yet I believe she would agree that nothing suits this elaborately flavoured shell-fish better than plain dressing.
Meat in my home was treated with the same confidence. My father bought only English or Scotch beef, and wanted it roast simply and in no way messed about. Canterbury lamb, which nowadays seems to be called New Zealand lamb, he maintained was excellent, but preferred English. These and joints of pork and veal were always roast and served with the traditional compliments: with beef a sauce made from horse-radish straight from the garden, with mutton mint sauce or red-currant jelly, with veal sage and onion and with pork a sharp apple sauce. My heart sinks a little when I remember what are too often served in place of these today—mass-manufactured horse-radish sauce, mint sauce made from dried mint and vinegar, ersatz red-currant jelly, desiccated sage shaken out of a packet onto bread pulp and shredded onion, even tinned apple compôte.
No less in the convention of the time and no less excellent were those other married couples of the kitchen—roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, boiled silverside and dumplings, calf’s head and parsley sauce, boiled pork and pease pudding, boiled mutton and caper sauce, liver and bacon, tripe and onions. They all sound rather heavy and Victorian, like an early edition of Mrs. Beeton, and one can imagine them being served in stuffy dining-rooms in Dickens’s day. But most of them go back farther than that, to the eighteenth century and farther, and some of them, at their best, are grand.
Clearly, if you parboil your beef to make more of it and produce a Yorkshire pudding that looks and tastes like rubber, if your dumplings are leaden and your calf’s head insipid for lack of flavouring, if your pease pudding is dry and solid and your boiled mutton tough and tired, your liver leathery and your tripe tasteless—obviously then nothing can be expected of these combinations but nausea. But a good cook with the right materials can make almost every one of them a splendid dish.
It was the same story with parts of the animal other than sirloin or ribs of beef, leg or shoulder or saddle of mutton, loin of pork or veal, which usually made our joints. Mutton chops and steak were both grilled, and the latter served with very finely shredded onion rings which had been fried in deep fat to give them a feathery crispness, and often with grilled tomatoes. With both these were always chipped potatoes, which would not shaved off as game chips or the salted, papery flakes sold in packets now, but cut in long, flat-sided sticks.
Sweetbreads appeared in a number of guises, for they were a favourite with my father, fried, braised, stewed, with only vegetables and herbs used and no elaborate sauce. Sheep’s hearts had a stuffing of sage and onion, grated lemon peel and spices. Ox-tail appeared in a rich gravy—one of the few meat dishes for which wine was used in our kitchen.
Two other dishes we had, which can be excellent or can be debased to a feeble mockery of food, were steak-and-kidney pudding and Irish stew. I have elsewhere written with enthusiasm, if not ecstasy, of that magnificent and wholly English dish, the steak-and-kidney pudding, in which the flavour is imprisoned by the suet pastry for the five hours during which it is steamed, giving to the resulting gravy and meat the richness of taste and consistency obtainable in no other way known to me. I was shocked the other day when a man of some discrimination and knowledge in food said that he preferred a steak-and-kidney pie, that more pretentious but infinitely less flavoursome cousin of the pudding. How can it achieve distinction except as a stew which has been covered with crisp or flaky pastry? The whole point of the pudding is the long hours in which the meat slowly softens and blends with the herbs and spices, which must be used lightly, so strongly does everything sealed inside the thick blanket of white suet pastry keep its flavour.
An Irish stew is more difficult to produce in perfection, for the ingredients allowable by tradition are so few that success depends wholly on the cook’s gift for timing and flavouring and the quality of the materials. Its basis, of course, is even today any English cook knows, is mutton (neck or cutlets or preferably both) stewed with potatoes. But it is uninteresting if onions, carrots, chopped herbs and just the right quantity of salt and pepper are not added, and it may have a leek or two, a head of celery, even mushrooms without wholly losing its good peasant character. Ours had dumplings dropped in after it had simmered for a while.
We ate roast chicken with bread sauce—a custom which has brought more derision than any other on the heads of English cooks. In another book [The Life for Me (London, 1953), p. 184)] I wrote of it: ‘Foreigners have asked plaintively why we serve this tasteless pap with roast chicken or pheasant, but that is chiefly because bread sauce is often badly made. Carefully done, the bread rubbed through a sieve to ensure fineness, a thin white stock used, a grating each of onion and nutmeg, clothes, some butter and enough of salt and pepper, and you have something that may justly be called a relish, while a little cream will give it distinction.’ But it was a more serious fault in my home that we never had chicken and any other way but roast with bread sauce, or, as invalid food, boiled with white sauce. This, I think was not because other ways were unknown—after all Mrs. Beeton was in the house and could provide more than seventy—but because my father liked it best. At least it was never written rechauffé, and never appeared in fragments. Plainly roast also were duck, goose and turkey, though stuffing and sauces for the last two were various and good.
Game was rarer and limited to roast pheasant and partridge. I remember no venison, grouse or quail, for instance, and only once or twice young pigeons en casserole.
But a crowning glory of that long mahogany table in our dining room at Chipstead was one of our sovereign national dishes—jugged hare. This I maintain is the finest way of cooking hare in the world, and nothing that France or Hungary can produce compares with it, though these are the other two countries in which the hare is appreciated most and cooked best.
It brought out all the skill and flair in my home, for whatever cook we happened to have it was my mother who gave precise instructions. If it is to be successfully jugged, a hare must be kept hung by its hind legs and a receptacle tied under its head to keep the blood. This was done and the little vinegar and water put in to prevent the blood from coagulating.
The hare was skinned and drawn in my mother’s presence and the liver and heart retained. Then it was cut up and put into a marinade of wine, bay-leaves, thyme, cloves, sliced onion, chopped garlic, vinegar and water and left for a night, or longer if it was an old hare. The pieces were browned in a frying pan and cooked in a casserole in stock and red wine with the chopped heart and liver, browned onions, shallots, chopped bacon, cloves, lemon-juice, cinnamon and bay-leaves. When it was about to be served, a couple of glasses of port went in, and the dish was served with forcemeat balls and red-current jelly. It was magnificent.
Our vegetables were always straight from the garden. Gardeners are notoriously difficult to keep out of the kitchen garden; countrymen themselves, they understand and care for vegetables more than rare plants. My father’s gardener at Chipstead was like that. He produced vegetables of superlative quality in great abundance, and these came to the table in almost pristine state, boiling in water being all the preparation given to most of them. On the whole, I think they justified this
A few of them were allowed a Béchamel sauce, notably Jerusalem artichokes, broad beans, vegetable marrow, salsify, cauliflowers and leeks. A few of them really needed a clever sauce or more cunning preparation—French beans, for instance, cabbage and spinach. But young peas, brussels sprouts, tender scarlet runner beans, broccoli, new potatoes—how could these have been improved? A little butter was all they had or needed.
In winter potatoes for always roasted with the joint, and this gave my parents are sort of testing-ground for any cook they employed. If she could send them in crisp and brown with a crust a quarter of an inch thick and the interior floury and dry she was a treasure. If they came in moist and desolate-looking she was no good. My father would look at these pale potatoes disgustedly.
‘Waxy brutes,’ he would say.
I think he was right to be a little exigent about this. It is one of the best ways of cooking any but new potatoes, but it requires a little trouble and frequent basting.
Root vegetables were by no means treated contemptuously, as one finds them so often treated nowadays. Parsnips of pale saffron colour, creamed turnip, that delicious things salsify, the vegetable oyster as it is rightly called, Jerusalem artichokes with their own nutty flavour—all these I remember well. Carrots we used only in stews and soups, I think, but braised onions and braised celery were popular.
Celery was and for most of us will always be one of our compensations for the English winter. It grows better in the British Isles than anywhere, and to the English belonged credit of discovering that God created it to be eaten with cheese. The French have not yet realised this simple truth and use it only in hors d’oeuvres and as a vegetable braised. The ambrosial combination of a scoop of fine ripe Stilton with crisp sticks of celery has not yet occurred to them.
If it is the most attractive vegetable of winter, then asparagus is its summer counterpart. But not the inch-thick, flabby, candle-white muck out of tins which appears in most restaurants. It should be purple-tipped, dark green asparagus of medium thickness just cut in the garden. It can only be dipped in melted butter and eaten with the fingers as we were taught to eat as children after we had firmly tucked our table napkins into our collars for the purpose. (We called them serviettes, by the way, and still seems to me a more correct and less pretentious name than any other.)
My father took special care of the things he grew for summer salads. Lettuces, both cos and cabbage, were cut before the sun was on them and came into the house crisp and cool. Tomatoes from the greenhouse or the open ground were not picked until they were ripe, never ripened in the dark. I can hear my father now calling me over to help him lift the glazed top of the frame in which he grew cucumbers of great length and beauty. Mustard and cress from a dark place in the greenhouse had long what stems. Oval radishes and thick spring onions were timed to appear throughout the summer season. But the most important thing for my father was chive.
‘It’s the making of a salad,’ he used to say as he cut a handful with a pair of scissors for my mother to snip over the other things when she had mixed them. . .
She always made the salads herself and they contained the things I have mentioned and nothing else. None of those repulsive American miscellanies was ever put before us, salads in which fruit and vegetables and heaven knows what nuts and flower petals or, for all I know, jam and cheese have been mixed. In a modern cookery book I have seen advocated apples, bananas, walnuts, grated cheese, honey and sour cream is elements to harmonise with lettuce, cucumber and watercress. Well, if you like that sort of thing I suppose you should be free to eat it, but why call it salad, which the Concise Oxford Dictionary defines has ‘a cold dish of uncooked usually sliced vegetables, such as lettuce or endive seasoned with oil, vinegar, etc.’
My mother kept within that definition, adding only a hard-boiled egg cut in thin slices as a garnish. She would mix the whole in a huge glass dish which with a pair of oddly shaped ‘salad-servers’ had been one of the less useless of her wedding presents. And she would mix the salad-dressing herself, using eggs and oil, vinegar, mustard, salt, pepper and cream.
“Eat plenty of green stuff, my boy,’ said my father. ‘It’s so good for you.’
Only when I came to live in warm climates did I realise the good fortune of the English and French, whose climate and soil give them the finest vegetables in the world. In India, for instance, one sees in the vegetable bazaar the most enticing display, great, deep-coloured tomatoes, clean-looking new potatoes, pale, swollen lettuces, bright, crisp cucumbers—yet when one eats them, remembering their fellows in our harsher climate, one finds them almost tasteless. Around the Mediterranean the same thing is noticeable, and even South Africa and Argentina, which produce glorious fruit and vegetables, cannot infuse into them that delicate yet persistent flavour which is in English green peas and new potatoes. I am glad to have been brought up on them.
To us as children I need hardly say it was ‘the sweet’, ‘the pudding’ or ‘the dessert’ that was of most interest. This term has been counted a gastronomical sin against English, that we excel in an art which in most civilised countries is considered more the confectioner’s than the cook’s. Moreover, I admit that for most of my adult life I rebelled against such lack of proportion in planning a meal and never thought of anything but cheese or fruit as its tailpiece. But now at fifty odd I find myself returning to at least a mild interest in such things and certainly remembering kindly the puddings of my childhood.
This is no place to list or describe them, for they at least in no danger of disappearing even if, too often, they made from packets of ready-mixed ingredients. However ‘plain’ a cook might be, however lacking in finesse in other things, at least she was adept at these, and sent them to the table under the rather grand names which Mrs. Beeton gave them: Queen of Pudding, Apple Charlotte, Almond Castles, Cabinet Pudding, Baroness Pudding, Charlotte Russe, Kaiser Pudding, Empress Pudding, Windsor Pudding and so on—names which recall to me inverted pudding-basin shapes which appeared under their sauces and the taste of sultanas, raisins, almonds, ginger, lemon and the rest which went into them. There were more plebeian names, Apple Dumplings, Batter Pudding, Semolina, Betsy, Bread-and-Butter, Roly-poly, Cottage, Hasty and Omnibus puddings, but I cannot remember that they were any less highly thought of, at least by me.
There were also many stewed fruits—never called compôtes—with jellies made in curiously shaped moulds, detestable blancmange and delicious nutmeg-strewn junket.
Only two things seem to me worth recalling from the sweet catalogue, a Sherry trifle and a fruit salad. In the book I wrote on Sherry [Sherry, by Rupert Croft-Cooke (London, 1955), p. 195.] I eulogised the former: ‘It was made with sponge cake made in the house. The sponge cake was made with eggs—and I mean eggs which have recently been laid by a hen, not some thick, yellow liquid poured from a tin in the modern machine bakery. The jam that was between the layers of sponge-cake was also home-made, not a compound of chemical pulps in saccharine, coloured and sprinkled with manufactured pips. These were covered with cream which, again, was not a sweet, white paste, but the result of hard work with an egg-whisk in a bowl of cream from a local dairy, unpasteurised, unhygienic perhaps, but quite delicious. The whole was stuck with split almonds to give it a hedgehog appearance, somebody troubling to skin and split the almonds with a knife. But before the cream was added, the Sherry was poured over, and it was a Sherry which the cook could, and probably did, drink.’
A good fruit salad is no chancy collection of fruit haphazardly jumbled. It would take my mother an hour or two on the day before we were to have one of these to assemble and prepare it. It was made entirely from summer fruits from the garden, except for one pleasantly conflicting ingredient, thick slices of banana. Strawberries, raspberries, red, white and black currants, stoned cherries, grapes, peaches, apricots, nothing pulpy and nothing that needed cooking. These were mixed in a large earthenware bowl, smothered with sugar and left for the night so the juice formed itself. They were eaten next day with cream. Now go out and buy yourself a tin of fruit salad of yellow Californian peaches, slices of pineapple and pear and a couple of Maraschino cherries.
Cheese appeared with guests, for the most part, and came to the table in another odd utensil which had been a wedding present, a silver basket in three divisions, one each for cheese, butter and biscuits. A ripe Camembert, Pommel, Gorgonzola and Gruyère were the only foreign cheeses we ever had, for my father swore by English cheese and would ‘order from the Stores’ double Gloucester or Cheddar loaf, and at Christmastime always an entire Stilton.
Coffee after a meal was also reserved for days on which there were guests, and we would have been ‘allowed to get down’ before it was served.
But there was another meal for us children—tea. Not for some years yet did I have dinner with my parents, and in the meantime ate at half-past four in the nursery a meal of bread and butter, jam and cake.
The jam was always home-made. I remember the days in summer and autumn when the big copper preserving pan appeared and jam was made by my mother and Ninna. They both enjoyed it and made only a feeble protest about the cook having enough to do already. They would sit on the lawn preparing the fruit, removing stalks or stones, then leave it under sugar for the required time and boil it. I remember the anxious moments when some was put on a plate to see if it would ‘set’. I remember the jam itself in the jam cupboard upstairs to which I would be taken when I was going back to school to choose two pots of whichever kind I liked. I do not suppose it was better than jam made in countless English homes then and today, but it was incomparably better than the manufactured jams even of those days before the factory-owners had learnt half the tricks of mass production they know today. I simply cannot understand how anyone, in whose household it is eaten, accepts as jam the ready-made mixture of vegetable pulp and pectin, tartaric acid, starch, glucose and beet sugar, coloured by aniline dyes and called wistfully after some fruit or other, when it is possible to make real jam at home. I suppose it is because there is ‘no time’. There was time in Edward VII’s reign, however, and no mass-manufactured jam, marmalade or jelly was given to us.
Cakes, too, were made at home, and there was usually a solid and fruity monster on the nursery table.
Sometimes I would be called by my mother to hand round cakes and sandwiches to the guests at an afternoon tea-party, for in those days ladies in a place like Chipstead found pleasure in dressing carefully, walking to the house of the hostess, sitting in the drawing-room or in summer on the lawn, balancing pretty china tea-cups, chatting vigorously for an hour or two while the best that could be offered them in bread and butter, sandwiches and cakes, was handed round on three-tiered cake-stands. Next week it would be for one of them to be hostess and while they exchanged kindly gossip they noted the new chair-covers and the fillings of sandwiches.
A ladies’ tea-party must sound dull to the present inhabitants of those same houses at Chipstead, who certainly cannot spare the time to such feeble diversions. Even if they have not got jobs, they have a thousand things to do and a car to do them in. Besides, they are not acquainted with people merely because they happen to live in the same village, and no one has paid an ‘afternoon call’ for twenty years or more. Then they have no servants in shining white caps and aprons to open the door and bring in the silver tray, if they are going to entertain at all would rather ask people for a drink.
When I think of my mother’s ‘at homes’ it seems truly that they must have happened centuries ago in a place more resembling Cranford than our world. Yet there are people still living in Chipstead who came to them, and to me they are more vivid than last night’s cocktail party.
What delicious things I used to carry around. Bread and butter cleverly cut and spread to be rolled into little tubular shapes, brown and white. Cucumber sandwiches lightly peppered, anchovy paste or smoked cod’s roe sandwiches, mustard-and-cress sandwiches, all of them cut that afternoon by a cook who expected the ‘extra work’ of a tea-party from time to time. In winter hot things appeared from under silver lids, crumpets, toast, muffins, tea-cakes. And winter and summer there were ‘fancy cakes’, which were required to be delicate and light in appearance because the convention was that none of the ladies was hungry.
They were baked in things call patty-pans, and I do not suppose that many young housewives today would know what the word means. The batter, made with half a dozen eggs, no doubt, would be mixed and variously flavoured, some with almond, some lemon, some coconut, then dabbed into the six convex circles in each tin and baked. Sometimes they were still warm from the oven when my mother’s guests arrived, but in that case though are forbidden to me as ‘indigestible’.
The ladies would nibble them appreciatively, but there would always be plenty of them for nursery tea later. There would always be plenty of everything in Surrey before the First World War—plenty to eat and drink, plenty to do and above all plenty of time. For the prosperous middle classes it was an age of plenty.
[Textual note: a comma was added after “its basic ingredients”; an “and” was inserted between “black” and “cayenne” in “black cayenne pepper”; a comma was added after “boiled pork and pease pudding”; “Bechamel” was corrected to “Béchamel”; “aften” in “so aften treated” was corrected to “often”; and the word “Sherry” was capitalised (as it was in the original text quoted—with a couple of minor differences—from Sherry).]