I was going to call this piece “My Cookery Heroes” but the more I pondered about it, the more I thought that those people to whom I am indebted for their ways with words, lifetimes of cookery knowhow, hands of magic and generosity of time and rations, wouldn’t consider themselves heroes (or heroines). These cooks have opened my eyes to new flavours, tastes and given me a wealth of memories. Those types of memories that flood back with the first taste of a particular food or the waft of a scent floating from a kitchen. They are my cooking inspiration.
Through this series of posts I’m going to share some of the people who have shaped my palette, honed my cooking skills and inspired me to create in the kitchen. This first one might sound cliché, but it’s dedicated to my Nans.
Some of my first and most cherished memories from childhood are in the respective kitchens of my grandparents and watching, helping (probably hindering), and tasting (the best bit) what was cooking or baking that day.
I loved visiting my grandparent’s (Nanna and Ganka) house on a weekend, we’d always do some sort of cooking. My Nannie used to sit me on the draining board while she made pastry on the worktop next to it. I used to watch with amazement at the lard being cut into small pieces and the flour added (measured using an old flour bag) before my Nan’s hardworking hands lifted the mix high above the bowl and back down again, rubbing it between her fingers. She’d tell me to add an egg when she said and then add little drops of water or milk until she was happy with the dough that had formed. She’d then get the wooden rolling pin out of the drawer and let me have a go at rolling and patting down the dough.
My Nannie made the most delicious pastry I’ve ever tasted, pale, light, and crisp with a slight crumble, and always heavily sugared, hiding sticky stewed apples and blackberries or rich fruit mincemeat at Christmas time. She’d cook the tarts on dinner plates and one of my favourite parts was watching her pick up the plate, spin it with one hand and trim the excess pasty using a sharp knife with the other, like a magician spinning plates.
Once the pies were in the oven creating the most delightfully indulgent aroma throughout the house, my Nan would wash up and clean the surfaces before helping me wash and dry my hands in the sink and then lift me to the floor with a kiss and a suggestion to go and play in the living room.
As I sit here typing, I can taste the warm apple tarts, and every time I taste flour in the air when baking I’m drawn back in my mind to my Nannie’s kitchen. I learned so much more than just pastry in that second home. I learned the secrets to a Sunday roast to feed a family including making gravy from the meat juices, and how to make Welsh cakes for the very first time.
Every Tuesday and Thursday I visited my other grandparents, Nanna and Poppa, and it was in that house that I learned to bake cakes and make pancakes and tip-top corned beef pies.
Nanna would say to my brother, my cousin and me to get our pinnies out of the drawer and she would put on her cooking jacket. I don’t know whether you can still buy these but it was a shortish apron jacket that had poppers to fasten it in the front. We’d help each other tie knots with the strings behind each other’s backs, while Nanna got the big creamy-coloured mixing bowl out of the cupboard.
She’d ask us to measure out the Stork (for Cakes) and sugar using a cup. The sugar was kept in a metal tin and the scoop inside was made by Poppa from an old tin can, shaped and filed down to form a smooth scoop. The tin used to wobble a little and I can hear even now the sound of the spilled sugar grains crushing lightly under it. My Nan believed in the all-in-one method as she only ever made fairy cakes (easier to store, share out, and for us to decorate). In would go the marg, sugar, flour, eggs, a drop of milk and the secret ingredient, a good splash of Jif lemon. We’d each take it in turns to mix until my Nan said stop, all eager to get our fingers in the bowl.
Nanna would ask us to get the tins out and put little paper cases in each one. I can see her wetting the ends of her fingers to prise apart the thin paper stuck firmly together. A dollop of mixture then went in each one. We’d watch with eagerness as the bowl emptied, worried than none would be left for us to eat. It’s not the done thing these days to eat the raw mixture, but boy did it taste good then.
Ask any of my family and they’ll tell you that no one made sponge like Nanna Lena and each one of us has our favourites of hers. Mine is butterfly cakes, made with Dream Topping, but hundreds and thousands were also popular and glacé cherries too. There was always laughter in my Nanna’s kitchen, be it spilled pancake batter (that’s another story) or making funny faces with Jelly Tots on top of the fairy cakes, or the argument that usually ensued between my brother and cousin about who was going to do what.
The main picture at the top of this post is of me, stood on my Nanna’s (she always had her camera to hand) back door with a tray of freshly-made fairy cakes. And yes, that is a paper bag on my head acting as a chef’s hat.