Saturday, 14 November 2015

To begin with.....

Ha! Not the most original title for a blog, but I was reading about some foodie blogs recently which sort of planted the seed to do one of my own. Now I’m no Ella Woodward or Ruth Clemens, but I do have a passion for food that goes back to my childhood and I’ve had an urge for a while to get into a little writing.  I’m an inveterate diarist, I have been for more years than I care to remember, but it’s not really something that would satisfy any aspirations to really write. I’m not even sure that my writing will always be food related, but it’s a starting point as I love baking and cooking is something I really enjoy (eating too). It’s something that I always get to do whereas other hobbies have fallen by the wayside as I realise there really aren’t enough hours in the day.

People who know me know that I spend a reasonable amount of time running, which is something that is bound to get more that a passing mention, I also love being creative - knitting is something I’ve done since my rudimentary efforts at the grand old age of three and a half.  At one time in my life, I knitted every single day; now I just do it when I can.  Sewing is something I’d like to get back to - I remember sewing quite a lot when I lived in an appalling bed-sit years ago – the rent ate up a chunk of my wages, leaving little for anything else - material was cheap, so I could buy a metre of material for under a £1, spending the wee small hours running up something to wear. I’ve dabbled in jewellery making, painting, drawing – I think when I eventually retire I won’t worry about filling my time!  I may even get back to playing a musical instrument again – who knows. Anyway, I digress, back to food. 

The first item of food I remember was on my second birthday – my father worked as a driver for Whittakers the bakers and presented me with one of their cakes in the shape of a house.  I don’t remember actually eating any of it – though I must have – but I remember it having a roof and windows made of chocolate, with mint green and white butter icing.  I remember Rowntree’s confections were very much part of my childhood as my family had a background of working in the factory in York. 
My parents met working in there, the house I was born into was one built for the workers in the factory and my paternal grandmother had worked there. It was funny that when I watched “Who Do You Think You Are” with Una Stubbs about a year or so ago, she was in York talking about her relations who had lived in a certain street, long gone, that housed the chocolate factory workers.  I said “Beaconsfield Street” before the words were out of her mouth – the very same street I lived in for the first three and half years of my life.  The smell of chocolate permeated my life up to the age of sixteen when I left home and York – living so close to the Rowntree’s factory, then, when we moved to Bishopthorpe Road in 1966, the Terry’s chocolate factory was in the same road.  If the wind was blowing in a different direction though, there was quite a distinctive roasting small from the sugar factory, but to me, it still had a chocolaty aroma. Small wonder that I love the stuff!

 My first forays into the kitchen were putting the jam in the jam tarts my mother baked when I was a child. There always seemed to be some baking in the house – cakes always a perfect teatime filler for four hungry children – though I never felt my mum actually enjoyed being in the kitchen.  I recall eating things like Fray Bentos pies with their strange pastry, Instant Whip, Vesta meals – some food was good, some awful – being made to eat strangely pink tinned luncheon meat, which sometimes came with a liberal coating of lard round it, eating tepid mashed potato as my mum never seemed to quite manage to keep it hot before it was served.  I remember on more than one occasion my sister, the baby of the family,  protesting by refusing to swallow her food, sitting at the table gradually becoming more hamster-like as her checks filled with mashed potato and peas. I was never sure how that was resolved as my brothers and I were told to leave the table before my sister spontaneously combusted!

As a Brownie, I discovered the joys of toasting marshmallows over a campfire and squishing them between two chocolate digestives – ah, heaven! I liked mixing things – I was fascinated how the introduction of milk to the powder of Angel Delight or Instant Whip could make such a tasty dessert, how a similar process, a packet of powder and milk, but with the application of heat, could produce a cheese sauce.  My mum did make some things from scratch, but there were a lot of tins and packets involved.  Spaghetti was served largely as it came once cooked, with the sauce sitting in the middle – parmesan was an unheard of addition. Pork ribs with sweet and sour sauce on a bed of rice were good, but the recipe would probably be regarded as an oddity today. My mum only possessed a couple of cook books – the Be-Ro book and the Carnation recipe book – the latter having all manner of pictures of lurid coloured food made with evaporated milk.  I suspect that Fanny Craddock was behind more than a few of the recipes.  Other recipes were cuttings from Woman and Woman’s Own magazines – a scary food article in one was responsible for my mother going back to war-time recipes.  You’ve never lived until you’ve had a cake made with liquid paraffin!  Much of this was to the bemusement of my father, who had different tastes.  I remember him telling me not to be so ridiculous when I told him that mum had made sausage meat meatballs containing peanuts and all manner of odd ingredients – I knew this because I had helped/hindered. When my father bit into the said meatballs, there were shades of Sid James in “Carry On Cruising” when he has a piece of the cake baked by the ships chef (Lance Percival). 

Not to be confused with Sir Alan Sugar!



In 1975 I became friends with Jyoti, who was eighteen months older, a friendship which was responsible for changing my tastes in food and led me to become more curious about ingredients that weren’t always readily available. Joy and her family were among those Ugandan Asians stripped of their businesses and thrown out of their country in 1972. Originally bound for Italy, they were put on a plane to Britain at the last moment and ended up in York, while most of their British-bound relations ended up in Derby. Joy and I did play together but the bulk of our time was spent in the kitchen - two skinny little schoolgirls cooking and baking for her family of five brothers, plus various cousins who came to stay at their house from time to time.  I spent so much time there, I was treated as one of the family, even going to various Hindu celebrations dressed in a sari – her mother presented me with a sari when I was about fourteen which I still possess to this day. Her family were a godsend to me as my father had left the family the previous year and I was starting to suffer from the depression that dogged me through much of my teens (I still know how easy it is to fall into a big black hole), so being part of the life of her family and being busy helped. I loved the food we cooked and ate, I was fascinated how Joy cooked by instinct – no recipes books in the house – how she used so many different spices, so colourful and aromatic, how she never considered that something might not work out. We must have made and cooked thousands of chapattis. Such a staple of every meal, Joy could roll them to a near-perfect round, I would cook them on an iron tava, flip them over with my (asbestos) fingers, and give them a light coating of ghee to stop them sticking together.  A huge stack was made to accompany whatever else we cooked - Joy’s father would eat first, followed by her brothers and any male cousins, then the females last. I always panicked as the chapatti pile diminished rapidly, but, somehow, there were always enough left for us. I remember a couple of times being joined by Joy’s cousin Ansuya, a couple of years younger than me, who was generally quite impatient but always fun and mischievous which often led her into trouble. One day Ansuya had been left to her own devices in the kitchen and had received lavish praise from Joy’s mum, for a change, as her chapattis were so perfectly round.  Out of ear-shot of anyone else, Joy questioned Ansuya how she had managed this feat – Ansuya gave a knowing wink, having cut them out with a saucepan lid! 

Joy and I baked cakes for parties, again, trusting to judgement as there were no scales in the house.  My mother was less than happy when I adopted the same method of baking at home - the cakes I baked by eye worked beautifully, or that is what I remember. Mum was probably also unimpressed that I wanted to have the spicy things I had eaten at Joy’s as the ingredients were not easy to get. Cereal was never the same after breakfasting on roti with chilli/garlic relish and fish fingers and beans for tea just seemed to bland.

With my burgeoning interest in food, my mother started buying me 'Supercook' - a Marshall Cavendish weekly publication. I poured over the recipes, and marvelled at some of the ingredients I had never heard of before and soon I had my poor mother trailing round York trying to find chorizo when I wanted to try an egg dish with it among the list of ingredients, along with red and green peppers - the peppers were hard enough to come by in 70's York - the herby pork sausages my mum bought meant the dish was nothing like it should have been, but tasted reasonable to me. When I, at 13 or 14, cooked the family meals during the October half-term holiday  (where every dish began with 'a' as the recipes were in alphabetical order and it was early days in the life of the magazine), it was my mum who had the quest to source whole allspice to go with orange slices as the filling for a rolled joint of pork, and my long-suffering mum was the one doing the rounds of all the newsagents to make sure I got every edition of the publication as general interest in the magazine waned and many places stopped stocking it - she made sure I got all 112 of then! Sometimes my mother, unsurprisingly, went for the cheaper option with some ingredients. My eyes were drawn to the photo above the recipe of something I'd never been seen before - a Black Forest gateau!  This was a thing of beauty, multi-layered, with the sides covered in fresh cream and chocolate curls, cream piped on top with glorious red cherries, stalks still attached, to finish. I just had to make that! Unfortunately, the finished article was a different beast. The chocolate sponge was nowhere near as deep as in the picture, mum thought 'dream topping' was as good as fresh cream, and cherries were too expensive being substituted by 'chellies' (a jelly confection masquerading as a glace cherry). The cake wasn’t a disaster and still got eaten, but I did wonder what the real thing would taste like.

I enjoyed cooking at school – and managed to produce some more adventurous dishes, which made me think that I wanted to go in to some form of catering when I left school.  To this end I bought what is now the oldest cookery book I possess – The Modern Patissier by William Barker, a book useful to working towards a City and Guilds qualification.  It is funny to look at that book now – naturally all the recipes are for large quantities of baking and sugar-work – I do wonder if anyone still creates centre pieces in pastillage – a type of sugar-work. 
The book shows how to make a model of St Paul’s Cathedral – just the sort of thing anyone would want to attempt on a rainy Sunday afternoon!  Sadly, all hopes of catering college went out of the window when I left home two weeks after leaving school at sixteen, and moving over two hundred miles away – I needed a job to pay the rent!  My hopes were raised when I was interviewed for a job as a commis chef shortly after arriving in Edinburgh, a job which offered appropriate training – those hopes were dashed when the couple who ran the restaurant decided that they wanted someone qualified who they didn’t have to train. So, the first full-time job turned into a split-shift, six day a week dishwashing job, until I got an office job and never looked back.  I did have a while at the end of the eighties teaching vegetarian cookery and healthy eating at night school – a diversion from the day job, and something I enjoyed, even though I was as nervous as hell demonstrating recipes in front of a class of people, then advising them as they then cooked whatever I had demonstrated. It was a shame when that came to an end, but I don’t know if it would have ruined my enjoyment of cooking and baking if I had being able to make a profession out of it.

So, from that first cookery book by Mr Barker, to the most recent acquisition – Quinntessential Baking by Frances Quinn (2013 GBBO winner) – with I hate to think of how many in between! Even with the range of books on my book shelves, I still make up things as I go along, substitute ingredients in some recipes, and borrow from two of three recipes to create a cake or a dish. Some things do go wrong for different reasons, but the results usually still taste good.  I will post some recipes and give some alternatives to recipes I’ve tried and tested – along with some other food-related tales (I promise future postings won't be as long).


  1. Hurray! New blogger on the block! I really enjoyed this Anne, looking forwards to future postings.

  2. Thanks. Hopefully I'll find enough to write about.