There are foods which take me straight back to childhood: meat and potato pie, cheese and onion pie, shepherds' pie. Now I realise that these were foods for the poor, ways of making a small amount of protein go a long way, and not the treats I thought them as a child but these dishes are still to me redolent of comfort and good cooking. My mother made great pastry and loves to taste and stir and experiment. Sometimes I would go to a friend's house for tea and find that their version of meat and potato pie was all grey: grey cardboard pastry, grey meat with gristly lumps, grey potatoes, indistinguishable from the grey gravy. I would do my best to eat it, except for the gristly lumps which could be stealthily hidden under the knife, but always felt so sorry for my friend. How could she bear it, when the pastry should be crisp and golden, the meat cooked long and slow into tastiness, the potatoes just firm enough to be a distinct mouthful in the bubbling gravy.
I loved to come home from school to the smell of chicken soup filling the kitchen and steaming up the windows. This would be the fourth day that the chicken had fed a family of five and the broth heating the kitchen was full of onion and potato and carrot from my grandfather's garden, handfuls of pearl barley and chopped fresh herbs. I loved it with a thick slice of white bread from my grandparents' bakery thickly spread with butter. If my mother had been baking there would be Eccles cake for afters, the trimmings of pastry rolled together and filled with currants and sugar before being rolled flat and brushed with egg, or rhubarb and apple crumble, appearing as if by magic just when you had decided maybe it wasn't a pudding day today.
These foods never leave you. I can cook all of the foods of my childhood without a recipe. My mother loved cooking and had a massive Good Housekeeping cookery book which she had as a wedding present when she married in 1953. Smiling immaculate women in New Look skirts and high heels look out from its pages. Shiny formica and spindly legged chairs showed a world that certainly wasn't ours. This was for special occasion food but she didn't consult it for tea time cooking. That just happened somehow and I absorbed how to make everyday things through hanging around in the kitchen, peeling and chopping as I got older, being asked to taste and stir and decide if something needed more pepper. Some of the dishes have stayed with me for years and some I rarely cook now. I have added more staples of my own as I raised my own children: flapjack, chicken casserole, fish pie, things I can make on automatic pilot and stretch to feed five or fifteen.
I was surprised when staying at my younger daughter's the other week when she said she had made a Somerset apple cake, a long time favourite, without a recipe.
"How did you manage?" I asked her.
"Well I thought I probably knew it all" she said and out she came with the ingredients and the amounts, all just there in her head. The recipe is in an old and tatty book called Farmhouse Kitchen which I bought from a second hand bookstall at a primary school summer fair twenty years ago.
There is a Somerset apple cake in the oven now, the sugar covered top turning golden. We brought the last of the apples in from the workshop after lunch, discarding the ones which had gone over the top and dividing the others into two great shopping bags of "better do something with these now" and another two of "these will hang on for another week or two". It is amazing at the end of April still to be cooking with the huge apples from the Howgate Wonder tree, as big as a baby's head.
I should make more herb jellies and apple and ginger and jam. Ian has instructions from Maddy as to how to make dried apple slices so he will do that with some more and some of the "cook these now" will go with me this evening to Ian's father who will make cartons of stewed apple for his freezer. I like to see cooking and making things passing on down the generations. Let's hope there aren't too many people buying ready meals or deciding to be adventurous with Delia and buying frozen mashed potato (what for? how difficult is it and how long does it take to peel a potato?). Let's hope there are still children shaking a jam jar for their mother with the ingredients of a salad dressing in it, creaming butter and sugar together for a cake and pinching a bit before the egg goes in, making the toppings for their own pizza, just being around in the kitchen learning to love food and to make it, leaving home with some scruffy notes about to make their favourite things, becoming the next generation of cooks.