Raining Sideways is ten years old; it is ten years since Tom e-mailed me from Tokyo saying “get Techy, Mum, and start a blog”. Needless to say I had no idea what he was talking about, I had never heard the word “blog” and even miss-read techy for tetchy which caused a lot of laughter on both sides of the world!
Blogs were brand new in 2004, so new in fact most people had no idea what I was talking about either. But Tom was adamant; “start a blog about your everyday life, about the farm, the food you grow and, above all, the food you cook. Most of the stuff written about food and farming is put together by someone in an office in a city, inaccurate and romanticised.” Maybe things have improved a little since then but at that time he was right. And, oh my goodness, what a response I have received over the years. I hear from people from all over the world. So here is how it all began:
I grew up in post war London; a world of bomb craters, ration books and smog. I was to be the only child of professional actors both of whom had abandoned the stage in 1939 to do their bit for King and Country. After the war my grandfather summonsed my father back to the world of “real work”. My mother was frequently in and out of hospital so I was sent to boarding school just a few weeks after my seventh birthday and spent many holidays with grandparents.
Cooking was not high on my mother’s agenda but fortunately there was dear Percy. She came in daily from her home somewhere in Portobello Road. I’ve no idea how long she stayed or what she cooked; I just remember that I adored her. She taught me to make pastry on the kitchen chair, grey and slippery and streaky. Why, I wondered, did it look so different to the silky white dough that she produced on the kitchen table and then transformed into such deliciousness? She was round and warm and kind; we had such fun together.
My father had lived in France as a young man and had developed a passion for good food. So my solitary childhood was punctuated with memorable visits to the theatre and delicious meals in wonderful restaurants.
In 1964 I left school with plans of my own. But alas, my mother was once more in hospital and my father had other ideas for me. The day I filled the house with smoke, in an effort to feed him, sealed my destiny. I was to go to Winkfield Place to learn to cook and be “finished off”. I put up a good fight but to no avail. September found me gloomily driving father’s mini through the lanes of Berkshire to learn, oh horror, for one whole year, how to cook and be a lady!
I was furious with him for sending me somewhere I considered, with teenage pomposity, so frivolous, so light weight! After all those years at my earnest Methodist Girls Boarding school I had been taught the world was a serious place. My duty was to play my part by doing something worthy; wave the flag, be a missionary, help the needy. I wasn’t at all sure what all that meant but, whatever it was, it needed doing and it was my duty to do it! Alas, within weeks, I’m ashamed to say, I found I loved this other world!
Constance Spry had died after a tragic accident in 1960 but the formidable Rosemary Hume was still in charge. The house and garden were beautiful, the regime very strict and the time table relentless. The cookery lessons were quite different from the dreary domestic science lessons I had hated at school. Each one was an adventure; and, of course, we did have to eat the food we’d cooked; a huge greedy incentive to do it well! I still have my crumbling box file of recipe cards.
Dressmaking lessons were even more terrifying than cooking. Our fierce Austrian teacher brooked no nonsense and frequently induced tears of frustration with her high standard. Flower arranging and floristry sounded so feeble to me when I arrived but in fact it was doing these things that first introduced me to my lifelong love of gardening.
And best of all I made some wonderful friends; a bonus I hadn’t expected.
From Winkfield it was back to London to my first job. I worked for a fierce young woman cooking meals in a minute kitchen above a garage in a mews. We delivered to private houses every day in a pre-war Morris Minor with a divided windscreen and wobbly wipers. One day, car loaded with freshly cooked meals, I dropped the ignition key down the drain in Marylebone High Street. Quite unperturbed Susan lifted the bonnet, magically put two wires together and the little old thing juddered into life, I was forgiven and the customers fed.
We delivered all over London to the famous and not so famous. Little did he know it, but I unceremoniously scraped Sir Malcolm Sergeants’ soup back into the pot having sloshed it across the back seat of the afore said Morris Minor as we trundled down to Albert Hall Mansions. We delivered supper to him every night before the Proms but never ever set eyes on him.
The Sixties were in full swing, or so I’m told. Somehow I always seemed to be on the outside looking in. And so it was when I went to work at Nick’s Diner. Nick, a flamboyant retired Guards Officer, started the restaurant to feed his fashionable friends. Everything about it seemed to my nineteen year old eyes utterly exotic and quite eccentric. The exquisite Seraphina ran the office. Chefs came and went from all over the world. One worked all night in a gambling club and all day for Nick. I remember peering at him in wonder; how on earth could he live without sleep? Another, whose cooking skills were very suspect, his piece de résistance being Belgian pomme frites, turned out indeed to be an impostor. We were all rather thrillingly interviewed by Interpol. The Ghanaian washer-up, a very small highly educated young man, held us spellbound each day with his plans for a government coup d’état.
I had absolutely no idea just how fortunate I was to be given such a job aged just nineteen. It would be years before I realised just how privileged I had been. I worked in Nick’s Moveable Feasts with the wonderful Kem Bennet who had trained together with Joyce Molineux at The Hole in the Wall in Bath owned by the legendary George Perry Smith.
How kindly and patiently Kem trained me; with his help I entered a new realm of cooking. I loved what I was doing. I cooked all day, ate delicious lunches with hilarious, entertaining, international staff and went back to my grotty flat and good friends in the evening. I was learning from the best and having huge fun, more fun than I’d ever had in my life!
Oh how modern the food was. We were all entering a new post war era of cooking. Gone were the dry lamb cutlets and rice pudding, the half raw chicken and tinned peaches of childhood. Gone was the nightmare food of school; Dead man’s arm and lumpy custard, dreadful leaden Spotted Dick, bright yellow dried egg powder mixed with water masquerading as scrambled eggs, plastic fried eggs glued to aluminium trays cooked for hours, the grey cabbage floating in water and slugs, the axel grease Echo marg on gondola slices of stale bread. Gone, the brown slithers of grey “roast” meat winking with little keyholes of sinew served with mauve and yellow sprouts and leather potatoes. Gone was the fish on Friday, oh dread, dry on the outside and smelly and grey within. And best of all, gone were, oh, oh, my most hated of all; warm pork pies.
In the evenings after work I read cookery books. I devoured all of Elisabeth David, particularly the wonderful French Provincial Cooking. I still have that dear old book, completely in tatters and held together by an elastic band. Sentimentality forbids me to buy a new edition!
Kem taught me to make Fish soup with sauce Rouille, Terrine de Gibier, Duck Liver en Brioche, Paella, Steak Kidney and Oyster pies by the dozen,
Mediterranean Fish Pie, Civet de Lievre de Diane de Chateaumorand. That is to say, jugged hare the way Diane de Chateaumorand used to do it! I hated cutting up the hare and always pretended I’d forgotten how. Patiently he showed me again and again tactfully ignoring my youthful squeamishness!
We cooked Pigeon breasts au Porto, Daube of lamb a l’Ardennaise, oh so modern; slices of leg of lamb cooked slowly with haricot beans, mushrooms, black olives and bacon. And then of course there was some sort of Gumbo, Kem’s speciality from Louisiana! I was in heaven!
When he wasn’t teaching me I was seconded to the Bermudan pastry chef, a dear, patient man nicknamed, unkindly by my fellow workers, the Black Queen in those homophobic days. Rumour had it that he was the son of a high ranking government minister, who knows, I loved him. He taught me to make brandy snaps by the gross, Mont Blancs of meringue and candied chestnuts, Pears a la Bourguignonne, and chocolate mousse to die for. I adored his poodle too.
I have the Moveable Feast menu still. Luncheon and dinner was between 25/- and 35/- shilling per head (£1.25p-£1.75p in new money!) with a delivery charge of 10/- (50p) per meal irrespective of numbers. These were the days before Takeaways when busy hostesses picked up the phone, had their dinner party food delivered to the door and, often as not, pretended they had thrown it all together themselves!
But not always, sometimes I was sent with the food and found myself in some amazingly bizarre settings. I cooked for Edna O’Brian, while her sons raced round the kitchen full of beans after school. Rita Tushingham popped in for a chat while I dished up dinner. “The Girl with Green Eyes” had just been released
I was sent to a party in Kensington, all titles and glitterati, with an out of work actor to “wait”. He instantly cut his hand badly and insisted on serving dinner to the great and the good one handed. The other, swathed in a bloody napkin, he held high above his head; high camp indeed.
After the “small” dinner for twenty, others guests arrived and the party moved to the huge studio upstairs. The bath really was full of ice and champagne! The guest list was startling even to me who had mixed with debs, “done” Queen Charlottes Ball while at Winkfield Place and who had a boyfriend who was an up and coming TV type in the thick of “Ready Steady Go” used to holding back the screaming hordes from a new rock star called Mick Jagger!
A tall man approached me in the hall as I raced frantically back and forth between kitchen and guests. He asked me to hide his coat. Slightly irritated and without looking at him I snatched it and stuffed it unceremoniously under a chair. I looked up into the laughing eyes of David Niven.
Having finished the washing up, I was invited by my delightful employers to join the revellers. Hot and dishevelled and smelling of cooking, I managed to smile graciously and slide out quietly without being noticed and go home on the bus to my boyfriend.
I married the boyfriend and soon I found myself with a new challenge: a small screaming affair needing attention day and night. My Nick’s Diner days came to an abrupt end. Soon we had another baby and I began to learn what huge fun childhood could be after all. But even then I simply couldn’t stop cooking!
Cooking for “Flat”
Each term at Winkfield we all took it in turns to do two extra duties. One was called Drudge which simply meant clearing plates, laying tables, washing up, serving and, well, general drudge!
The other duty was far more terrifying: we had to cook for the senior staff in “Flat” Constance Spry’s private part of the house. This meant producing perfect meals to order for her widower, Mr Spry, the great Rosemary Hume herself and a selection of senior staff and guests. It was nerve wracking. We dreaded it. Here is a précis of one menu and you’ll see why!
“Hostess Cooking” 25th &26th January, 1965
Eggs “Poche Aurore”
Freshly made little pastry tartlets were filled with tinned crab seasoned with lemon juice and Tabasco and a cold poached egg. Each was then topped with a mixture of homemade tomato puree, shallot, sherry, béchamel sauce, gelatine and cream.
First poach skinned fillets of sole in a well-buttered dish. Cook chopped mushrooms in butter and add to a béchamel sauce and spread down the centre of a serving dish. Place the fish on top and coat with a Morney sauce seasoned with cheese and mustard. Sprinkle Parmesan on the top, glaze under a hot grill and serve with croutes of French bread fried in butter.
Shoulder of Lamb Dauphinois
The shoulder of lamb was boned and stuffed with a mixture of parsley, green pepper, thyme, oregano, rosemary, and bay all bound together with a small egg. The meat was securely sewn up and spread with butter. A glass of wine was poured over the top. It then went into a hot oven for 1-1 ¼ hours and was frequently basted. Gravy was made with a good stock made from the bone and the whole was served with creamed butter beans.
Brown three young pigeons in butter. Remove from the pan and brown chopped onion and bacon. Replace pigeon, season, add stock, put on a lid and cook for 30-40minutes. Add raisins soaked in brandy 10 minutes before the end of cooking.
Take out the pigeon, split in half and trim. Thicken gravy with kneaded butter, reboil. Serve with Brussel sprouts
Pineapple Mousse “en Surprise”
Prepare a 6 inch soufflé case and set an oiled jam jar in the centre. Make a mousse with 3 eggs, 2 egg yolks, 2 oz. caster sugar,1/4 pint pineapple juice, ½ oz. gelatine, 1 lemon , ¼ pint stiffly whipped cream and 2 stiffly whisked egg whites. . Pour into the soufflé case and leave to set. Meanwhile peel and slice a pineapple and sprinkle with sugar. Soak ratafia biscuits in Kirsch. When the mousse is set remove the jam jar and fill the centre with the pineapple and ratafia biscuits. Decorate with whipped cream.
Can you wonder we were scared !