Tag Archives: Saxa salt

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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Toad in the hole


Now we’ve made pancakes it’s onto Toad in the hole, a thrifty dish made from cheap pork sausages and pancake batter.  The batter  bakes to a crisp, golden crust encasing sizzling sausages. If you get the recipe wrong, the pudding becomes a gloopy, glutinous glob of indigestible dough that should be scraped into the bin, but is often served by people in the south with their roast dinners.

Growing up in the Midlands, Yorkshire pudding is a staple food. My mother served our family with Yorkshire pudding as a first course when we returned home from school. At sixteen I was sick of the sight of it.

‘Why do we have to have Yorkshire with salad? Please no more Yorkshire!’

Deeply offended, she stopped for a few days during the hot summer, but soon resumed her old habits. Yorkshire pudding was a cheap way to fill us up before our main meal. Our household didn’t do snacks so we were hungry when we sat down to eat. Yorkshire was served with gravy made from meat and vegetable juices and thickened with flour. Never Bisto for gravy. She’d been told it was coloured with caramel and didn’t want to encourage us to eat sugar. The meal was followed by stew or lamb chops in winter or ham salad in summer.

‘It’s very nutritious. I’ve used four eggs to make it.’

My mother knew about nutrition but she never enjoyed cooking. My father would take a huge slice of cold, left over Yorkshire for his lunch. He sat and ate it on a park bench below my posh Northampton school. One day I saw him as I walked  to a tennis lesson.

‘Look at that old tramp on the bench’ muttered my friend, Anna.

Wearing his old shabby raincoat, my father was eating his lunch from a battered metal sandwich tin. Beside him was a flask of tea. I did not wave as I passed in the distance, but quietly appreciated his thriftiness so I could benefit from this elite educational opportunity.

How to make a Yorkshire pudding is the great cook’s debate. My grandmother believed in the outside method and she would take her mixing bowl, eggs, flour, milk and salt and sit outside and beat them together with a large wooden spoon till the batter plopped. Grandma sat outside in sunshine, rain and freezing weather.

‘It’s the fresh air that makes it rise, you know.’

It was other things too. She had the best Be-ro flour , the finest Saxa salt, the freshest eggs and the creamiest Jersey milk. And a  large lump of tasty dripping which was melting in the roasting tin in the hot oven.

She poured the batter into the sizzling fat and closed the oven door. The Yorkshire puffed from the creamy batter to golden crispness and the oven door could not be opened until it was ready. We cut the Yorkshire into quarters and ate it hot from the oven with meaty gravy. A taste of childhood deliciousness.

My class is eager to get cooking.

‘Light the ovens, put a knob of lard in your roasting tin and pop it in the oven to heat up. It’s best to use dripping but the butcher didn’t have any.’

The boys exchange grins. They’ve already smirked about making Turd in the hole, but so far I’ve heard no mutterings about knobs and dripping.

I use my grandmother’s method of making Yorkshire pudding but we stay indoors. Wandering students beating their bowls of batter outside my room might raise alarms in the headmaster’s office.

Irene Finch, a progressive home economist with a passion for science, has been trying to introduce some science and comparative cooking into our teaching.

Which flour should we use? Plain, strong or self raising?

Which fat – dripping, lard or vegetable oil?

We don’t care about saturated fats. It’s the quality of the end result that matters. But the greatest debate is whether to make and bake the batter or leave it to stand. In London they seem to like the soggy dough, but I’m not teaching it this way.

For me it’s beat, bake and eat.

‘Sieve the flour and salt in the bowl and make a well in the middle then crack in the egg, add a little milk and beat with a WOODEN SPOON.’

I march round and check as the batter flip flops in the bowls.

‘Use an oven glove to take the roasting pan out. One mark lost if you don’t.’

Our oven gloves are thick woven cotton cloth with pockets for each hand. Years of use have worn away the edges and it’s easy to burn your fingers through the holes.

We put four bright pink sausages in the roasting tin, pour over the batter then it’s back in the oven with the doors tightly closed. There is always a scramble to be first and get your cooking on the top shelf as this means you can finish first too. Hot air rises and the top shelf cooks fast.

‘Don’t open the doors till I tell you!’

I crouch and peer through the glass oven doors to check on the baking and hold onto the back of my nylon overall so the tops of my tights don’t show. A passing member of staff might think the cooking teacher has left the room and been replaced by a moving pink hump.

Now we are ready. Out come pans of golden, crusty Toads waiting for their marks. Not a pale, solid, leaden, doughy southern pudding in sight. Grandma is right. Beat it, bake it and eat it. We sit down and share our lunch with some caramel coloured Bisto gravy.

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Filed under Cookery exams in the 1970s, Home Economics in 1970, Retro recipes