Cookery Nook

War ended. Influence started. That lasted. Has it gone? Which war? That war. The Second War. Is it done?

Well, Yes – and No.

Major influences became words. “Don’t”. “No”. “Enough” (meaning “no more”). “Plenty” (meaning “no more”). “One” (as in “take one” – with the emphasis on “one”). “See” (meaning “no more”, “enough”). “Er” (meaning all of the above).

Some words became phrases.

“That’ll do you” (meaning “that’s enough” [see above]). No more to recall. No more to remember. No more to be remembered.

Restriction from these words in these forms is salutary. Such words breed appreciation. Appreciation betokens selection. Selection begets luxury. But what we want is ordinary. How can cooking be ordinary? Plain cookery. Now almost forgotten.

Recipes were unknown in our home. Our grandmother had learned from her mother. She learned the hard way. Now in English that phrase usually means to learn by making bad mistakes or by having unhappy experiences. Not in this case.

Cooking the hard way.

That meant to learn to cook without measures. To do everything by sight. By feel. To cook without tasting.

Modern Cooks

They tend to stir and taste. (Wooden spooning followed by fawning “mmmmm…delicious”). That is only for the television. It is done in a concocted kitchen. A fantasy kitchen. It makes the programme “better television”. Other cultures stir and taste. But not ours. Not really. Only for salt. (The only smell sought out was “Is it burning?” or “It’s not burning is it?”).

Nana cooked by touch. By look. By magic. It was no use to ask “How long does it stay in the oven?” The answer was always the same: “Until it’s done”. She was not unique. Thousands of people learned to cook like this. The only way to learn it was to watch. (“How long do you mix it?” “Until it’s ready”).

And watch your oven.

How hot should the oven be? “Hot enough”. “Not too hot”.

But when do you put it in the oven? “When the oven’s ready”.

So there you have it. How cooking was done.

One of the oddest recipes I ever read is for “Buns”. It goes: “Make some good dough. Let it prove. Take two spoons and make it up into buns”. That’s it. Well, what do you do with them? (I know you have to cook them but…)


Pinch! What is a “pinch” at all? (at all?)

I shudder at my grandmother’s learning the hard way. Wondering if – and hoping that – her mother was a kind teacher. I fancy maybe not always. Not to say that her mother was unkind. Just to think that learning was not a pleasure. But then again it was not a chore either. It was just a “thing to be done”.

I read delightful baking books too. One of the kindest is by Christopher Floris. His gentle writing style is that of somebody who learned a hard way too. He wishes to teach kindly and gently. To teach by encouragement. The change in teaching style marks the change in time. From Ancient to Modern. From Then to Now.

It seems that Nana would have only one chance. If it went wrong, it would still have to be eaten. Food was precious. Watch see and do.

We did not eat huge quantities. They were not made. They were not available. They were not affordable. If you were still hungry, you took bread. Sometimes with jam.

So what was cooked?

Nana cooked meat but not on Fridays and Saturdays. Friday was fish. Fish was fried. Saturday and the oven would be cleaned. The esshole emptied. She cooked bacon one day a week and Sunday. Sometimes she made broth. She made bread. She made a cake every week. She made mince pies at Christmas. She made a Christmas cake. In summer there were pies. There were vegetables. There were potatoes. Sometimes she made jam. Sometimes she made scones. But always with kindness. And with love. And while we had that love we knew we were loved. (“What’s the secret ingredient?” asked Bernard. He got no answer. Even if he did, he would never have recognised it. He wouldn’t have known what it was. And he wouldn’t have known what to do with it if he got it).

Any season’s Saturdays brought cold sliced cooked meats from the shop. Cooked meats in other countries are celebrated. France has Charcuterie. Italy has Salumi. Germany has Delikatessen. In England we are made to feel ashamed of our cold meats. Well, we were. We were made to feel they were inferior. (National turn your nose up at your own heritage day). And yet it was so tasty. We had cold slices of boiled ox-tongue. Slices of boiled ham. We had slices of corned beef. Later we had pressed beef from Jack Lomax in Accrington Market. He also sold cooked brisket. And was a thorough gentleman into the bargain.

Saturdays would also bring us salads – Blackpool tomatoes; London lettuce (and there can’t be many people left who know what a London lettuce is); onions sliced in vinegar; muffins from local bakers’ shops. And Hovis. And cake.

All of this I would say is cooking. Maybe you might regard it as assembly. But it is cooking.

We sometimes ate black puddings. We did not fry them in those times. We boiled them. Sometimes we ate tripe with vinegar, salt and pepper. Sometimes elder was available too. (Nowadays elder is nowhere to be had and that is a real shame).

But in the 1960s and 1970s, we were told by television people that our food was bland. It was not good. It was not exciting. Not enough sauce. (But the Welsh say that “Hunger is the best sauce”). We watched Graham Kerr and Fanny Cradock annoy us into submission. We stared at each other as they paraded slop and pickle smothered in what looked like emulsion paint in studios. For all we knew it probably tasted like that too. (I bet the Indian Brandee and Rhuaka and Compo merchants did well out of all that).

The Welsh have a single verb for it – cefnu. It means to turn one’s back on something. We were made to do it. Cefnu ar ein etyfeddiaeth. To turn our back on our inheritance. To abandon our legacy.

We have regional cookery. Well, we had it. Maybe not necessarily as rich as that from other parts of Europe. But we did have it. At my age I saw the beginning of the end of it. Now it is almost dead.

Reviving it they seem to want to reinvent it. They want to package it for television. Well it is not something that makes good televsion. (And anyway, we no longer know if our meals smell like Fanny’s or not).

Remember that it was only after the invention of television that ovens got see-through doors. Before that ovens were serious things. With doors that were not meant for looking through. (Television screens beget see-through oven doors beget washing machine glass doors beget beget beget). Oven doors were not for infants or lightweights. Oven doors were serious things too. Solid. Cast iron. Coal burning. And let me say now that nobody has ever not wanted to stand by the coal fire. And nobody has ever not wanted to eat what came out of the coal-fired oven.

In our peculiar modernity we find that our former ways of cooking are somehow unacceptable. Not because of the coal. Nor less the gas. Or even the electricity. (or paraffin – the Beatrice Stove [Lord Help Us]).

No we are not condemned by carbon.

Rather we are condemned by substance. Our substantial dinners were not about presentation. They were substance over style rather than style over substance. None of your wispy bits of pea-spit on the side of the plate. No plate merely stained with gravy smears (from a grey dish cloth). No feather-cut carrot. No assembly. No building the plate crap. Just dinner. Just tasty dinner. Isn’t that enough?

It is time for some proper recipes (“Put the oven on”; “cut the meat”; “add enough water”; “cook it till it is done…”)

I think I will write in the original way. I may convert it to modern thinking (everybody wants the measurements down to the last ounce, or decilitre, or tbsp, or pinch. Or an exact temperature in degrees or before that, regulo). But then again, maybe not… How about just “a slow oven” or “a quick oven”…make the mixture just right…shut the oven door and…

Maybe we can put plain cooking back on the table. But not on the menu. A menu after all, is only a matter of potential. A wishlist.

If that is true (and there is no reason to doubt whether it is or not) then whole streets are now full of wish lists (in white letters). As populations lurch from one wish-list to another, surely they deserve better?

Let us give it a whirl.

(And not a Viennese one either).


5 thoughts on “Cookery Nook

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this thought-provoking article! It appears, though, my being an “over the pond-er,”… I will need more time to “digest” your “presentation”. For the most part though, it is superb food for thought.

  2. I’m afraid that with my latest “measurements” to change the french “cuillères à soupe” in grams (for the far aux pruneaux recipe), I went “against the flow”.

    I would say that what we consider as a “no measurement” is indeed the result of tries and tries and tries, generation after generation, till arriving to the woman (or man) who, at last, found “the right dose”, and then transmitted it to her/his children, who transmitted it to their children, who transmitted….
    There were indeed measurements, by just touching, seeing, smelling, tasting…, and so often done that they had become as precise as grams (ounces, liters, or what you want).
    So I would not say that in the old times there were not measurements… Our mothers and grand-moythers SEEMED to make it “comme ça” (hop, a “saupoudrage” of suger here, hop, a bit of milk there…) but it was a real measurement.

    Once said that, it’s true that “la cuisine” (meat, vegetable, salads., gravies..) won’t suffer too much from some lack of measuring. But “la pâtisserie”, yes, may suffer a lot if 40 grams more flour, or one egg less. And we have to think of people who did not learn with an elder person…

    When I gave the far aux pruneaux recipe; I was exactly in the case you describe ; we could have said : look, in old times, they used cuillères à soupe, so let’s do the same, Except that for the old woman who gave me this recipe, each one of her cuillères à soupe was as exactly precise as a “grammage”. Her hand knew the right weight, her eyes too.
    But we, who did not see neither her mother nor her grand-mother cooking, have to say thankyou to the metrical, imperial or other measuring systems… 😉

    But a really beautiful text, as usual… Full of images, emotions… We enter Nana’s kitchen, and it smells so good…

    1. I appreciate everything that you say here. Yet in spite of the lack of definite measurement there never was any panic in the kitchen. Everything worked well and the food was really delicious. These learned assessment abilities were the way in which life was back then. Nana knitted socks without need of a pattern; she made pillowcases and aprons on her treadle sewing machine without a pattern. There never had been a pattern. There was “right” and “wrong”. “Wrong” – especially when it was wholly accidental – was the most difficult thing to deal with. I remember the days that she made bread. It was all eaten. There was nothing left over. Bread never tastes like that now…

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