I’m Malcolm and I live on the South Coast of England. Although I was born and bred in the UK I’ve been fortunate enough to have seen quite a lot of the world. They say travel broadens the mind, in my experience it also broadens the waistline when you try all the new foods you’re exposed to!
One big influence on my palate was my maternal Grandfather who would share his afternoon tea with me when I visited every Tuesday after primary school; it always seemed to be something from the sea. He introduced me to winkles and whelks which I had to extract from the shell on my own with a little pin, other times we’d share a bloater or kipper, have a fresh crab. Watching how he opened a crab and discarded the ‘dead man’s fingers’ taught me all I needed to know. We also had fried sprats, herring, scallops and the most wonderful local fresh prawns which were quite different to the big pink North Atlantic prawns. I don’t think my Grandmother enjoyed these things, nor my mother, so ‘Thanks, Grandad’ for igniting what’s become a passion. Grandma’s cooking, however, was not such a pleasure my overriding memory of her cooking is the house being overwhelmed with the ‘farty’ smell of cabbage cooked long and hard in gallons of water!
As well as introducing me to seafood Grandad had an influence on my love of real bread and baking, he was a master baker (as was his father, my great-grandfather) with his own bakery. My recollections of the bakery are vague because he died when I was seven or eight but I recall the coke fired ovens, men who were white with flour handling long peels putting the bread into the ovens and taking out when baked. Apart from the smell of baking I can still conjure up the smell of the raw flour when the sacks were cut open. Flour doesn’t seem to smell so strongly of a field of ripe wheat being baked by the sun nowadays. Maybe my sense of smell is waning? Maybe flour isn’t what it was? In particular I loved the individual custard tarts with their sprinkling of nutmeg and the iced finger buns. I don’t recall ever leaving the bakehouse without having consumer tested one of these for Grandad.
My mother was an adventurous cook considering it was the 1950’s. Sometimes we had Vesta Chow Mein! Mum also made curry …… but not as we know it. Curry made from cold roast meat, packet curry powder with apple and raisins added. It was served in the middle of the plate surrounded by a ring of boiled rice. She was very good at traditional English food. Those were the days when it wasn’t illegal to sell pork chops with the kidney attached, usually my Dad got that one. Home-made faggots and rissoles, all offal as well as meat, terrific pies both sweet and savoury, and Spam Fritters! We weren’t Catholic but usually had fish on a Friday because that was the day ‘Fishy Long’ came round selling fish from his three wheeled motorbike with fish in boxes. We didn’t have a fridge so it had to be eaten that day. Meat was kept in a meat safe with perforated zinc door and was on an outside wall, in the shade, where the thatched roof of the house came down to within 3 feet of the ground. Lettuces were usually fresh cut but they could be made really crispy by putting them in a bucket and lowering them into the well in the garden. We had a dessert every day, a pie, a crumble, a steamed pudding, baked apple in pastry, rice pudding, banana custard etc. I’ll never forget her Sussex Pond Pudding! Sunday teas were pretty special too, most often the sandwiches were egg, tomato and salad cream (a sandwich I still love), usually a sherry trifle and homemade cakes, or scones with jam and thick cream. This was all before the tea bag became the norm, tea was leaf tea brewed in a warmed brown tea pot, poured through a strainer into the cup before the tea pot was cloaked again in it’s cosy. It was always cups and saucers, not only at teatime, but anytime. I don’t think I ever used a mug until well after I left home.
Food miles were more like food yards during my childhood. Milk came from the farm about 250 yards away, eggs from the hen house at the bottom of the garden which also provided a chicken to eat from time to time, I can’t ever remember my mother buying any fruit or vegetables as the garden provided everything. To keep a steady supply runner beans were preserved in salt, carrots buried in sand, onions tied up in strings and hung in the shed, potatoes stored in the dark and kept cool but frost free, eggs in isinglass in a large earthenware pot, fruits bottled and jams made.
Thanks to this upbringing there are few things that I wont eat, actually only two which I truly hate. Brocolli (Calabrese, not Purple Sprouting which is great) and Brussels sprouts (Sprout tops are a different matter, they’re fine). One food which I’m a bit picky over is chicken, not because I dislike it but because it doesn’t taste anything like chicken used to taste when I was younger. Also it’s one of the most cruelly produced meats so unless I know where it came from and how it lived I’d prefer to give it a miss.
For most of my life dinner without meat just wasn’t dinner. Now meat doesn’t have such a central role in my diet and a couple of times a week my main meal is vegetarian.