Western Morning News nostalgia writer David Hill never went hungry growing up in the productive Devon countryside in the 1950s. For Easter Monday, he shares some of his favourite foods.
I was always a well-fed little tacker in my farmhouse tree in the 1950s, with seasonal produce either dug up, or picked in garden and orchard.
At a certain time of the year a pork joint, sausages, brawn, bacon, hogs pudding and bath chaps graced our table from my Sunday School teacher great aunt’s paddock-reared pig. During the 12 festive days, a joint of beef from a great uncle’s fat-stock show prize-winning Red Ruby bullock was carved into slices the size of the dinner plate. One of our hens provided the Christmas Day dinner and the other hens laid our eggs throughout the year.
The cows gave us milk, cream and butter and my daily two pints gave me iron bones according to my aged aunt. When there was a glut of milk, mum made scrummy junkets on which she grated a nutmeg, and then she put on big dollops of separated cream. The butcher delivered weekly, and a grocer sat at the table, took mother’s order and delivered the provisions in a couple of days.
Working in total harmony, mum and my aunt, using the Calor gas stove, cooked and baked sumptuous delights which graced our cellar table, and after we had said Grace, graced our stomachs. “Good plain food. That’s the best,” said mum as she ladled out the stew and doughboys. My aunt nodded: “Spices are for meat that’s on the turn. Put in to hide the taste. Simple and moreish, that’s what we like.”
“And the more the better,” chuckled dad, “so that you can’t see the willow pattern on the plate.”
Stored in two tins – a large Bluebird toffee tin and a Huntley and Palmers biscuit tin, casket-shaped and embossed with elephants – mum and my aunt’s collection of recipes. School exercise books dating back to the early 1900s, the pages filled with their best copper-plate writing, together with loose pages cut from Woman’s Weekly and Woman’s Illustrated magazines. There were also small booklets collected from rare visits made to the Devon County and Bath and West agricultural shows. I darted, terrier-like, in and out of the trade stands, grabbing the free advertising pamphlets on offer. Back at the farmhouse tree in the evening, the spoils were tipped out on the table where mum and my aunt sorted out the recipe pamphlets I had gleaned.
“Shaking out the wheat from the chaff,” said my aunt as she passed me the brochures on the latest tractors and implements for my scrapbook.
Stork recipe booklets were much prized and were stored in the tins to be dipped into and poured over, on a winter’s night under the Calor gas mantle. The tins were kept on top of the baking cupboard, in which were stored bowls and baking utensils, including the stainless-steel hand whisk, together with the blue paper bags containing assorted dried fruit and bags of flour, Tate and Lyle sugar, a block of salt and two pots of glacé cherries and mixed peel.
Another tin completed the triumvirate. Again a Huntley and Palmers, with each of the four sides a representation of book shelves containing embossed classics through the ages. Inside the tin, buttons of all sizes, shapes and colours, shoelaces and leather boot laces, white garters for my stockings and a pack of Eagle elastic with the picture of a lady on the packet. A glimpse of her causing me to blush each time I climbed on a stool, to take out the packet of elastic. “Don’t go twanging it,” instructed my aunt. “Don’t want our under garments going slack. Nothing worse than loose elastic on your under garments.”
In the faded red and blue cover exercise books, recipes copied down from the blackboard, or gained at the village cookery and dairy classes, held for the girls and young ladies living in the parish. Recipes were also added to the tins which had been tried and tested by friends and relatives. These had been jotted down on scraps of paper, exercise book and writing pad pages and even on the back of an old calendar page. One of the latter contained a recipe for runner bean chutney which was the best we had ever eaten, and was to quote my aunt “moreish”.
Recipes could be found for a variety of succulent culinary delights including hams, mincemeat, drop cakes, lemonade, sweet pickles and chutneys for cold beef and pork. Tucked away were Aunt Esther’s recipts (mum always spelt recipes in this form) for pears preserved and dried apricot jam. These were moreish as well. From Kate Pester, the postman’s wife, recipes for rhubarb jam and apple chutney. Even more moreish.
On other sheets, recipes for “a good Christmas cake,” which mum made every year, “a nice sponge” made weekly and “very good chocolate macaroons,” made as treats. But best of all was my aunt’s secret recipe for that home-made butterscotch toffee. Melt in the mouth, made on a stormy autumn afternoon, when the rain was lashing down outside and my aunt wanted to cheer me up.
Cheer me up it did, the squares golden-brown reminding me of the summer treat Sunday school outing seaside golden beach of happiness.
Attached to the inside of the cover of my aunt’s recipe exercise book, a tiny booklet attached with a pin, bearing the title Instructions For The Preparations Of One Hundred Dainty Recipes. Within the thin paper pages, the “lady of the house” was told how to cook numerous dishes including two delicacies – a sheep’s head or a calf’s head. Sponsored by one Chas Forde, a manufacturer of amazing beans to cure all ills, each page contained headings such as “agencies of indigestion”. “Thirty years of biliousness and haemorrhoids”. “Doctor said ‘If she gets better it will be a miracle’, but Chas Forde’s beans cured not only her constipation, but also her insomnia”.
As to whether my aunt sent away for the free sample advertised on page 24, having read the little booklet while she was baking, I never plucked up the courage to ask her, but I never found one of the “magic beans” in either my breakfast porridge or my bowl of cornflakes and cream.
However, as a little tacker I went into the double seater little ’ouse, constructed over the stream, on a regular daily basis and I slept as soundly as one of my dad’s sawn-up logs. That’s how my aunt described my nocturnal inactivity.
I do know, however, that I was well fed for the whole of my young life on good, plain, moreish, country fare without the addition of spices. I never had to be a young Oliver Twist saying, “Please mum, please auntie, may I have some more.” Even though it was moreish. Marvellous meals, thanks to the two tins on the top of the comb-varnished cupboard, their contents and the culinary skills of mum and my aunt.