No, not that one. That was decades later.
The Sixties were definitely swinging, or so they said, when I moved to London at seventeen. I was accompanied by two large suitcases, a map of how to get to Queen’s Gate, South Kensington, and a fiver in my pocket. Progress was slow as I made my way, burdened down, along the Cromwell Road. The grey buildings towered above me, a small cog hoping to join the wheel of metropolitan life. It had been the urban grit, depicted in the 60s films of ‘Up the Junction’ and ‘Poor Cow’ that had enticed me away from the leafy suburbs of Salisbury. I was soon to start my career as a trainee banker, so my emotions at treading the city’s streets were one of anxiety and suppressed excitement.
My destination was a girls-only hostel, two or three doors down from the headquarters of the Scout Movement. I would get to know the knobbly-kneed boys with woggles that whistled at us residents; unfortunately, none of them were around to help me drag my suitcases up the stairs of the porticoed entrance. Five pounds a week had bought me a bed, a shared wardrobe and four other room-mates, all of whom were out to work when I arrived. My space was a bed, sufficiently raised off the floor to have room underneath to store the suitcases, a two drawer bedside table with utilitarian lamp and a share in dark wooden wardrobe that smelt of mothballs. There was one bathroom, one toilet, one phone and a tiny kitchen shared between us and the two other, smaller, twin-bedded rooms.
It was fortunate that first month, that breakfast was included in the rent. It quickly became my main meal of the day. For a couple of months I worked in a small branch of the bank in Northumberland Avenue. Here I was provided with luncheon vouchers which you were able to save for a blow-out once or twice a month at the Lyons Corner house. When working at head office, there was a subsidised canteen offering such delights as Spam fritters and slabs of darkly moist bread and butter pudding. On the days leading up to payday, when cash became a dwindling commodity, lunch was a dispensable meal and one could only hope for an invitation out from the more senior all male staff. In the evenings, nobody seemed to eat, never mind cook. The exceptions were the two Chinese girls, and we often went to sleep to the smell of strange pungent sauces. If we weren’t out nursing a half pint of something bought by prospective boyfriends in the local pub, we were in playing records, washing our hair and endlessly discussing boys we knew or would like to – mostly over mugs of Bovril or hot chocolate. Pot noodles hadn’t been invented and we were all very aware that 60s skirt lengths demanded hollow thighs and Jean Shrimpton cheek bones.
The weekend after my first pay day, I suggested to those not returning home, that we club together and cook a Sunday lunch. I volunteered to cook the joint, somebody else said they knew how to do roast potatoes and a jolly girl from Devon said she could make her mother’s apple pie. I had watched and helped my grandmother in our kitchen at home, so felt fairly secure that I could replicate her roast breast of lamb. Coming out of the small butchers on Gloucester Road carrying the joint wrapped up in brown paper, with the wolf whistle of the butcher’s assistant in my ears, I felt immensly grown up.
At that first lunch, there were eight of us sitting around the table in the middle of the room, surrounded by our beds. Lunch consisted of crisp rondelles of lamb, rolled with herb stuffing, roast potatoes and sliced runner beans. Then the pie was carried to the table in all its golden glory, stuffed with Bramleys, sultanas, spices, and bubbling with sticky juices. The Devonian had also produced a large bottle of Scrumpy contraband from underneath her bed to help wash the feast down. Quarrels about drying tights hanging over the bath, the phone being hogged and borrowed makeup, disappeared in a wave of good will and camaraderie. Even the Chinese girls delighted in this very British meal, despite being violently sick from their first introduction to alcohol.
Stuffed breast of lamb is still one of my favourite roasts. I buy my meat online from Turner & George. It’s still an easy, inexpensive supper to put on the table, with a side of home grown runner beans, but now with a bottle or two of Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon to replace the cider – at least some of the lessons from my youth have stuck.
Roast Breast of Lamb – serves four, takes two and a half hours.
Only slightly adapted from a recipe by the wonderful Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall at River Cottage
1 large breast of lamb, boned, any skin and surplus fat removed (from inside as per photo)
2-3 fennel bulbs, cut into 6 wedges each
2 large onions, peeled and cut into 4 wedges each, or 4 small ones, cut in half
2 lemons (the ones you’ve zested for the stuffing, see below), cut into quarters
A splash of white wine
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the stuffing:
A knob of butter
3 or 4 small shallots, chopped
3 garlic cloves, crushed
75g fresh breadcrumbs *
50g ground almonds
75g dried apricots, chopped
Grated zest of 3 lemons
1tbsp fresh thyme
1tbsp fresh oregano
1 medium egg, lightly beaten
* I rather despise white sliced bread, so I only buy it to make dishes such as summer pudding, bread and butter pudding and ajo blanco. Any leftover crusts are then ground and kept in the freezer for stuffing. If no fresh herbs are available, dried are fine too.
Preheat oven to 200°C/gas mark 6
To make the stuffing. Melt the butter in a pan, add the shallots and garlic and cook gently until soft but not coloured. Mix the breadcrumbs, ground almonds with the apricots, lemon zest, herbs, shallots, and season plentifully with ground salt and pepper. Stir in enough egg to bind the mixture.
Lay the breasts of lamb flat on a board and season well. Divide the stuffing between them and press it as evenly as possible. Leave a little space at the edges and at each end. Roll the breasts up tightly, starting at a pointed end, and tie each one in three or four places with string. If the stuffing is in danger of falling out, do one length ways first and then it is easier to tie the others.
Place the lamb roll in a roasting dish and put in oven for 30 mins
Remove and turn the temperature down to 150°C/gas mark 2.
Lift the lamb joint out on to a board. Scatter the fennel, onions and lemon wedges in the roasting tin, turn in the oily pan juices and season with salt and pepper.
Place the roast back on top of vegetables and return to the oven. Cook for about 1½ hours. Turn the fennel, onions and lemons occasionally, until both meat and veg are tender. Check from time to time and sprinkle the vegetables with a little white wine if they appear a little dry. Do cover dish with foil if it seems to be browning too much.
Transfer the lamb to a warm serving plate, cover with foil and leave to rest for about 15 mins. Remove the string and carve the lamb into thick slices and arrange on warm plates with the roasted vegetables and lemons. Spoon over some of the juices from the roasting tin. Modern lamb seems to be leaner, so the juices aren’t as fatty as they used to be, so I happily served this with baked sweet potatoes and a side of something green.