My grandmother taught me to cook

Grandma in the 1970s

My grandmother is the only person that really showed me how to cook, and her recipes were trapped in a time warp and taken from the Bero Home Recipe book with its battered cover

Born in 1883, she lives very frugally on her small state pension in the terraced house in Kingsley Avenue, 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 only French word, fromage.  This was the only time in her life that she travelled abroad and she is proud that she can still remember that one foreign word.

The great joy of my grandmother’s life is her large garden, and as a child I spent many hours with her when she looked after me while my mother cycled off to her busy job as the needlework teacher in the local secondary modern school. Together we’d gather, prepare and cook the fruit and vegetables that she grows.  Grandma has no fridge and no freezer, and stores perishable things like milk and butter in the cool of a lead cabinet on the marble shelf in her larder. Her spare fruit and vegetables must be made into jams, chutneys and pickles if they are to last more than a few days. In the autumn we’d peel her hard, green Conference pears, stack the

long slices tidily in large glass Kilner jars then top up with hot sugar syrup spiced with dark brown cloves. They stood proudly in her larder next to the jars of bottled pink Victoria plums, waiting to be made into puddings when the garden is quiet. Her cooking apples were made into chutney which joined the glowing pots of crab apple jelly, raspberry jam and pickled onions. A feast ready for the winter to tide us over until the garden comes to life in the spring.

In early March we pick the first leafy shoots of the mint, 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 baking powder and Bird’s custard. She never trusts anything else, especially not the new own label products sold in our supermarkets. Perhaps it’s her wartime memories when the quality of ingredients such as National flour plummeted.

We make fresh mint sauce just before her soft, succulent, slow roasted shoulder of lamb is lifted from the oven, and the banquet is complete with crispy roast potatoes and Bisto gravy and boiled cabbage.

March also brings delicate pink rhubarb, forced under large flower pots and old 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 with her sharp knife and pops them in a pot of boiling water. We hold them rudely in our fingers and dip the stalks in melted butter. For several days my wee smells of asparagus but I never ask grandma if she suffers too. I wonder if grandma really likes asparagus as most of it remains uncut and bolts into ferny fronds that she uses for flower arrangements.

By mid-summer her garden fills with ripening gooseberries, red and blackcurrants. We sit together in the sunshine on her wooden kitchen chairs ‘topping and tailing’ the spiky ends into an aluminium bowl. A task which takes many hours. The fruit is stewed for pies and crumbles or made into dark purple blackcurrant jam ready for winter toast and butter around her fire.

In high summer there’s strawberries, which grow through layers of dry, yellow straw, and are covered with black cotton net.

‘Tread carefully and don’t squash them, Jenny. Pick only the red ones and put that bird net back and peg it down. We don’t want that blackbird pecking our fruit.’

Birds and cats get shouted and clapped out of her garden. Persistent cats are targeted by hurling the small stones that she keeps for this purpose piled by her back door.

Strawberries are a summer treat and only grow for a few weeks and we hull, slice, and sprinkle them with fine sugar mixed with thick Jersey cream, then eat them in the sunshine.

Next to arrive are the raspberries, grown in a cage covered in a fine green net, which still traps the birds inside, who feast on the fruit, making Grandma jump around clapping her hands in fury. Grandma’s raspberries are full of tiny white maggots but she believes that pests on plants are harmless food. The delicious raspberries served with sugar and the top of the creamy milk often come with a garnish of greenfly and assorted crawling things.

‘They won’t harm you – they’ve only been eating raspberries, and they’ve got extra protein’ she’d say kindly.

I squish them under my seat rather than pop them in my mouth.

In early autumn, before school starts, grandma’s trees hang with pink, wasp infested Victoria plums, and her ancient variety of mottled cooking apple which cooks to its creamy pulp which she makes into buttery apple charlotte.

October 1966 is a date for Grandma to remember. I bring my friend Tony, the only black man in Kettering, 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 such a big black man pick my pears before’ she confides as we help fill baskets with hard, dark green pears which we will bottle later.

I discover later that grandma has never met a black man before.

When I leave to go to university and then onto London, grandma is sad. She rarely leaves the house now, but is always happy to see me when I visit.

‘ 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 they can be cheeky but you’ll get the better of them soon and they love to cook! They came up from London once to visit me and bring their own children here. I hadn’t realized how many years had passed.’

On my regular trips home as I fill my Mini Traveller with her apples, pears and rhubarb for my lessons it seems funny that we Londoners are still sharing the fruits from her garden.

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