Grandma in the 1970s
My grandmother is the only person that showed me how to cook, and her recipes are trapped in a time warp of the Be-ro Home Recipe Book with its battered, grease stained pages.
Born in 1883, she lives frugally on her small state pension in the terraced house in Kettering which her husband bought in 1920 after coming back from the war. Before her marriage she worked as a laundry maid in a large house in Wimbledon, and once went on a day trip to France with the family, where she learnt her one French word, fromage. She only travelled abroad the once, and is proud that she still remembers a foreign word.
My grandmother’s large garden is the joy of her life, and I spend many childhood hours with her when my mother cycles off to her job as a needlework teacher in the local secondary modern school. Together we gather, prepare and cook her fruit and vegetables. Grandma has no refrigerator, and stores perishable things like milk and butter in the cool of a lead-lined cabinet on the marble shelf in her larder. Spare fruit is made into jams, chutneys and pickles and in autumn we peel her hard, green Conference pears, stack the long slices in large glass Kilner jars then top up with hot sugar syrup spiced with dark brown cloves. They stand proudly in her larder next to jars of pink Victoria plums, waiting to be made into puddings when the garden is winter quiet. Her cooking apples make chutney which join pots of glowing-red crabapple jelly and strawberry and raspberry jam. A feast ready to tide us through winter until the garden comes to life in spring.
We pick the first leafy shoots of the mint in springtime, chop them finely with sugar, then mix them with pungent Sarson’s vinegar. Grandma only uses cooking ingredients with the best trade names. Be-ro flour, Saxa salt, Lion brand white pepper, Colman’s mustard, Tate and Lyle sugar, Bisto gravy powder, Borwick’s baking powder and Bird’s custard.
Spring brings her delicate pink rhubarb, forced under metal buckets, so that it grows sweet and tender. We pick, chop and stew it with sugar and eat it with bowls of thick, yellow Bird’s custard.
Spears of asparagus poke through the ground in early May and Grandma cuts the stems from deep in the soil with her sharp knife and pops them in a pan of boiling water. We hold them in our fingers and rudely dip the stalks in melted butter. For several days my wee smells but I never ask Grandma if hers is the same. Most of her spears remain uncut and bolt into golden ferny fronds that she uses for flower arrangements.
By mid-summer her garden fills with ripening gooseberries and blackcurrants. We sit in the sunshine on her wooden kitchen chairs gently ‘topping and tailing’ the spiky ends into an aluminium bowl. The fruit is stewed for pies and crumbles or made into jam ready for winter toast and butter around her fire.
In high summer there’s strawberries, grown through layers of dry, yellow straw, and covered with black cotton net.
‘Tread carefully and don’t squash them, Jenny. Pick only the red ones and put that net back and peg it down. We don’t want that blackbird pecking our fruit.’
Birds and cats get shouted, stoned and clapped out of her garden. She keeps a pile of stones by her back door just for this purpose.
Strawberries only grow for a few weeks and we hull, slice, and sprinkle them with fine sugar mixed with thick Jersey cream, to eat from special cut glass bowls.
Raspberries grow in a cage covered in a fine green net, which still traps the birds inside, making Grandma jump around clapping her hands in fury. Grandma’s raspberries are full of tiny white maggots which I squish under my seat.
‘They won’t harm you Jenny – they’ve only been eating raspberries.’
September 1966 is a date for Grandma to remember. I bring my friend Peter to help me gather her fruit. He climbs up the ladder propped against her giant Conference pear tree as she gazes up after him.
‘I’ve never had a black man pick my pears before’ she whispers as we fill baskets with hard, dark green pears which we will bottle later. Grandma has never seen a black man in Kettering and she really likes Peter.
When I leave to go to university and then onto London, Grandma rarely leaves the house and leans on her front gate nodding to passing neighbours. She has many tales to tell and I wish I had listened more.
‘ I had three London children to stay here during the war as evacuees. We had to manage on food rations then so my garden was really useful. I know London children can be cheeky but you’ll get the better of them soon and they love to cook! They drove up once to visit me and bring their own children. I hadn’t realised how many years had passed.’
On my regular trips home I fill my Mini Traveller with her apples, pears and rhubarb for my lessons and it seems funny that we Londoners are still sharing the fruits from her garden.