For most of my childhood I was brought up by my maternal grandmother, Nanna. She lived to 92, and right to the end of her life was still catching the bus down to the local market in St Peter Port. Ten inches shorter than me, Nanna had a ramrod straight back, a round face, peachy complexion and blue eyes that never dimmed with age. My parents couldn’t settle after their war years and together with Nanna we lived all over the United Kingdom. I soaked in the smell of tomatoes in my grandfather’s greenhouses in Guernsey; munched Peter Rabbit style, salad leaves and asparagus shoots from vegetable beds in Essex and Wiltshire; scavenged pails of winkles and limpets for supper off the beach in Cornwall; and was introduced to hot, salted popcorn in a theatre in Dublin.
As children we ate what was put in front of us. There was never a choice. Rationing after the war didn’t end until I was nearly three, therefore meat was served only once or twice a week and the portion size was small. We grew all the vegetables and fruit we could manage, and ate only those that were in season. Folklore has it I didn’t see an orange until I was five, and that early conditioning must have stayed with me as still to this day they don’t feature as part of my diet. Any excess from our garden was stored or bottled for winter months. The menu for the week hardly varied. Sunday roasts became Monday’s, if not Tuesday’s leftovers, turned into pies, stews or thick soups eked out by vegetables. Fresh fish was reserved for Friday’s but tinned sardines and pilchards were regularly served whilst red salmon was only served as a treat.
As my parents’ work took them regularly to France our diet was more varied than most – cheeses, pates and saucissons were flown across the Channel. We were made to try every new food at least once. For a while, my father’s Gurkha batman, who had served with him in Burma, lived with us and Sunday roasts were replaced with mouth-searing curries and lip-pursing pickles. For a time, my mother also worked in London and when guests came to stay she brought back ribbon-wrapped boxes of exotic looking canapés from Fortnum & Mason. Long lengths of blue-wrapped spaghetti also made it home on the train, but I can’t remember Bolognese sauce being made and mince seemed to be rather despised, even Shepherd’s pie being made with Sunday’s left-over lamb.
Nanna liked to bake. Fruit laden desserts, tea time cakes, and biscuits for elevenses were all made at home. Chelsea buns were coiled, eclairs piped and pastry for cream horns twirled around small metal cones. On occasions we even made our own sweets. I can still smell the black treacle toffee as it cooled in its tin, and remember the creaminess of walnut fudge and the crunch of golden honeycomb.
As a result of all this home-grown and home-cooked food, I grew up strong and healthy. Which was just as well as I travelled around the world living in Africa, Asia, America and the Caribbean for the next thirteen years. At first, Nanna cut out recipes from Woman’s Own and sent them to me tucked into blue airmail envelopes. But then supported by cook boys in Africa, amah’s in Hong Kong and an Indian aiyah in Bahrain, my knowledge of cooking and food improved – although my ability to clean, wash up and do general housework certainly didn’t.
Returning divorced to London in my mid-thirties, I had to adjust to working full-time, whilst juggling with bringing up four children of differing ages on a much smaller budget. Super Mum, I was not. Food life was segmented into large weekly supermarket shops, supper party cooking at weekends and making sure that the supply of fish fingers, or sweetcorn and tuna pasta didn’t run out. I did, and still do, have an aversion to fast food and as the budget didn’t run to take-aways, the meals, however simple, were cooked from scratch.
The yo-yoing weight effect of having four children always had me scrambling to get back into my jeans. I tried many diets over the years, but none really worked. Deprivation can make you hungry! It wasn’t until I was in my forties, after a brief brush with cancer, that I started to consider my life style, eating habits and lack of proper exercise. I began to research what little was known about the effect that nutrition can have on the body. I went through a ‘supplement’ stage, knocking down 10-12 tablets every morning. Apart from it having little effect, it wasn’t an enjoyable experience! Back at the drawing board it was time to consider whether my grandmother’s regime of seasonal cooking and consuming ‘everything in moderation’ was the answer to many of my ‘ills’.
Now the children no longer live at home. Catering for just my husband, myself and a lively cocker spaniel with occasional visitors from overseas and suppers for friends, preparing meals is no longer a chore. In London supermarkets and convenience stores keep open late. With the advent of online shopping, I order my meat, fish and wine from specialist providers, so that I can choose not only what I want to eat, but also try new things. Any ingredient that is difficult to source is only a Google-away, and Amazon hasn’t failed me yet. Even Dog has his food delivered. Nearby I’ve found a Turkish greengrocer that knows his seasons and where his produce has come from but I will also trek across town to buy good cheese.
But whether it’s a winter meal sat in front of a roaring log fire with a bowl of creamy polenta, chorizo and cabbage or a balmy summers’ night on the deck, turning sweetcorn and ribs on the barbecue, the most important elements always are the quality of the ingredients, the enjoyment of eating and good company to share it with