my memoirs: unclassified

good, good, food

an essay
Where and when did my interest in food and cooking start? Was it 30 years ago when I did my first spaghetti bolognese, which has now developed into a bit of a classic (amongst a few friends anyway); or maybe 40 years ago when I made a just-about-eatable ‘Sunday Roast’ – for one; or 60 years ago when, one school holiday, and suddenly hungry and alone in the house, I cooked some bloody good pancakes for myself– and it wasn’t even Shrove Tuesday.

Or does it go right back to when I was very young? We had good food when I was a child - alright, it was bread and hot milk for breakfast in the winter, but it was good bread and milk! I never saw a red or a green pepper but we did have roast beef, Yorkshire pudding and good fresh vegetables every Sunday. Chicken we had at Christmas, because, unbelievably, it was quite expensive and a treat. Occasionally a friend of my granddad’s would call round with a freshly caught rabbit – which was roasted with sage and onion stuffing – and from the garden we had tomatoes, runner beans, potatoes and sprouts, loganberries, gooseberries (an old-fashioned, plum-coloured dessert gooseberry, plump and sweet) and rhubarb; and following on, as night follows day, was loganberry jam, gooseberry jam and green tomato chutney.

But paradoxically it may also have something to do with the really foul food I had to endure when I went away to school. I went hungry rather than eat spam fritters – well, you would, wouldn’t you – and I stayed behind in the dining room, alone, with staff standing over me, and still refused to eat. (But, to be fair, school did give me a life-long love of coffee, toast and marmalade for breakfast.)

And then there are all those memories, some small and some huge and resonating still, of food tasted, meals eaten, drinks drunk in places far and wide, and conversations enjoyed well into the night, yea until the sun cometh up again…
… freshly caught pollack fried over a fire outside my tent in Alderney so many, many years ago; driving through Scotland on the way home from Skye and stopping for a lunch that was so bad we drove on, expecting to go hungry, but then found ourselves driving along the shore of a shining loch and suddenly seeing the Loch Fyne Oyster Company … “a half-dozen oysters and a bottle of white wine, please and … oh go on then, we’ll have another half-dozen”; the best cheese omelettes I’ve ever eaten, in a Lyon’s Corner House in London when I was on the way home at the end of term; a ploughman’s lunch in The Lamb at Burford with a cheddar so strong it burned the roof of my mouth (and after something like that doesn’t beer taste good?); the Savernake Forest Hotel and a glorious steak and kidney pie, cooked with port, and served to the Crown Commissioners on their annual visit to collect the rent from the tenant farmers; moules mariniere in Banyuls sur Mer near the Spanish border, the first time I had ever eaten them and hooked ever since; swimming in the sea in Paxos and seeing the owner of the taverna emerging from under the water at my side with an octopus which she bashed on the rocks – and which my wife ate not very long afterwards in a traditional Greek stew, a stifado; a tiny restaurant in a mountain-top village in Samos serving the most delicate baked kid it’s possible to have, along with a bottle (or two) of Samoan white wine, revered since classical times and really very nice (a lunch that lasted all afternoon, for some reason); cataplana in one restaurant, and crayfish in another, in Burgau in Portugal; and many years later, back in Alderney but this time in a guest house, mackerel for breakfast an hour after it was caught just off the rocks nearby, and coated in the landlady’s special - and secret – oatmeal mixture.

And now, we live in a part of southern England which seems just a little bit forgotten by the rest of the country, where the Romans came for the iron and the hunting dogs, and brought with them vines and olive oil and no doubt spices from the East, and they had their saltpans on the coast and probably hunted the wild boar which have now returned to roam the woods and frighten unwary dog-walkers.

I am given freshly shot mallard and pheasant in our local pub, and we get venison and pigeon from the game dealer. There are smokeries and dairies and cheese-makers, fish - and our famous scallops - straight from the quayside, freshly cut asparagus in late springtime, a spice company, vineyards and small breweries, the famous Romney Marsh sheep, and a friend who brings eggs every Friday, eggs that are dark-yolked and strong and sometimes still warm from the nest.