Monday, 7 February 2011

Time to get nostalgic

This coming weekend sees the start of the rugby league’s top flight season in the UK and France: I can’t forget the Catalan Dragons; watching matches in Perpignan is the root of my love affair with that country.

But it so happens that this season’s entire opening weekend of fixtures is to take place in Cardiff, at the Millennium Stadium – and thus The Other Half is set to be away for three nights.

So, what is a girl to do with three nights and two days to herself?

This one is starting to plan. And, as is so often the way with these things, first ideas are giving way to something rather different.

I had been considering trying to recreate the scallop bisque from the other week in Glasgow – or one with lobster or crab. And then some other rather posh stuff.

That was, however, until some little memory triggered in my mind while I was organising an online order for basics (cat food etc).

Like Nigel Slater in Toast, I started musing over culinary pleasures from years gone by. For some time, I’ve made occasional efforts to look in shops for Bird’s Angel Delight in butterscotch flavour. Today I found it online. The Other Half also remembers it fondly. I ordered some.

Then the site came up with one of those jaunty little suggestions – in this case, for malt loaf. I remember malt loaf with great pleasure: dense, fruity and slathered in butter. I ordered one.

Thinking of Slater’s experience, as he tried to find the foods he remembered from his childhood, and then eating them all over again, I contemplated a frozen Bird’s Eye steak & kidney pie.

I was saved from this by the fact that only boxes of four were available and this isn’t a multi-pack path that I’m aiming to tread.

Although it strikes me that perhaps the reason I liked them so much was that they always seemed to have a higher ratio of kidney to steak than any other steak & kidney dish. Okay, it will have been cheaper for the company that way, but as I’ve loved kidney for as long as I can remember, it was absolutely what I liked.

Then another idea took shape: why not try to recreate my mother’s pork pie?

She would take pork – quite lean, as I remember – and cut it finely, add a small amount of dried onion that she would have soaked in boiling water for a few minutes, together with some grated potato (which would hold some moisture).

This, with seasoning (although she wasn’t much of a one for pepper, if memory serves) would go into a shortcrust-lined, shallow enamel dish to be topped with further pastry and then baked.

She always made two at a time and served them with the freshest bread we had – this wasn’t France, but if memory serves me correctly, the bread (during the time this memory really comes from) would be from a little baker called Cakebread in Mossley.

It might not sound special, but it’s one of the stand-out food memories of my childhood and adolescence. I loved it. I remember the texture and the saltiness and the crisp thinness of the pastry.

Oddly – in retrospect – I remember it as the meat being minced: you know – those strings of meat? Not blitzed. Yet that doesn’t accord with my memories of not having it as often as I’d have wanted because it was such a labour-intensive thing for her to cut the meat.

Memory is a funny old thing.

I hadn’t thought about it for some time, but in Michel Roux’s book, Pastry there’s a recipe for a potato pie. That hardly sounds like French haute cuisine, does it? But it brought memories of my mother’s pork pie flooding back.

Some years ago, I tried it myself, after taking basic notes from Mother. It was dry and bland. Memory is such a funny thing, but I remain convinced that it should be as I remember – if only can I just work out the key.

I say “the key”, but my tastes have changed – been educated by experience – by the years. You can never really hope to recreate the past (and would we really want to?), but how odd that I have such strong memories of such a dish, cooked by a mother who worked hard at it, seeing it as a duty etc, but who has never allowed herself to really relish food freely.

There are other things I remember too. She never made a steak and kidney pie (that I can recall), but did cook steak and kidney (plenty of kidney!) and serve it with a beautifully crisp quarter of a pastry circle that’s she’d bake.

However, partly because that pre-Christmas experience at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese was just so disappointing, I’ve decided that steak and kidney pud is what I’m going to make. Possibly to be followed by butterscotch whip, served in a big bowl, on top of boudoir biscuits (soaked with sweet sherry?) and topped with some smashed Maltesers, to be consumed while curled up on the sofa in me jimjams, watching something trashy on TV.

And who cares – as long as I enjoy it? And okay – as long as it isn’t also denuding some developing world country of water in the quest to produce out-of-season grub for the West.

I have also ordered clotted cream from Cornwall. I remember it as seasonal, but that was only because we only got it if we visited Cornwall for a holiday or if someone else did and had some sent to us.

I do remember my mother buttering white bread, then spreading it with Golden Syrup and adding clotted cream on top.

Dear god – for a woman who believed that: ‘we eat to live, not live to eat’, she had her moments of understanding that 100% culinary pleasure was the order of the hour.

I do sometimes wonder how much that was really her default position, and how much she forced herself to behave otherwise. These days, as I’ve mentioned before, she seems so much more relaxed: not that she enjoys cooking herself, but certainly food has become a common ground (to a degree) that we have and can therefore talk about.

When I visited last week, one of the first things she wanted to hear about was the food at Bistrot Bruno Loubet, for instance, which query hardly suggests a saintly denial of pleasure.

But back to the clotted cream: the purpose I have in mind is scones. Real ones – home made, crumbling and warm enough to melt butter and cream (if not jam). Just as I enjoyed in Glasgow.

I make enough to freeze a couple and leave them in the freezer for The Other Half for when he gets home in the early afternoon on Monday. All he’ll need to do is cook them through and scoff.

I do also want to make bread again – I have the kMix now, and the Raymond Blanc book that I’m reading has a recipe for bread that looks easy but spot on.

I do have some girly films to watch – but the only question now is whether I’ll have the time!

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