Food was not a topic of much joy in my war-time childhood. Green ration books for us children, cream ones for adults. If you went shopping without them, it was a waste of time, and you had to get a bus back home to pick them up and start all over again, standing at the back of the queue at every shop.
The biggest foodie thrill I can remember back then was the one orange a year, stuffed in the bottom of my Christmas stocking. Things looked up slightly on my tenth birthday, the first I had ever spent with my father. (I was ten months old when he went to war in 1939, returning for two weeks leave in 1945, before finally coming home in 1947. But we only saw him for a month before he was posted to Belsen).We qualified for an army quarter by the time my birthday arrived, and joined him. To my parents’ horror it was the former home of the Beast of Belsen, the sadistic commandant of the concentration camp.
Knowing nothing of this, I concentrated on my birthday. My new parents took me for a treat to the Officers Club. The palace of the Princes of Hanover now served as the Officers Mess, where we children were allowed for the children’s Christmas party; it was held in the marbled, mirrored, chandeliered ballroom, with satin and gilt chairs to fall over during musical chairs. And the Prince’s hunting lodge deep in pine forests running with deer and wild boar, was now the Club.
The speciality of the German couple who ran it was their sugary doughnuts with butter cream and jam inside (Had the Hanoverian princelings also enjoyed these goodies before us?) I had never tasted anything like them -the nearest thing to heaven in my gastronomically deprived childhood. This may have been the moment when I became a foodie.
The next high point in my foodie career was staying in Vienne in central France a few years later. We were still on rationing in England at the time, and the rich French provincial food was a shock to my spartan system. But here I discovered real French bread. It was brought up from the village to the chateau by one of the maids every day, fresh and warm for breakfast. And in the afternoon a fresh supply was delivered to the kitchen by a boy on a bike. We children would gather illegally in the kitchen and annoy the maids by tearing into the warm bread and eating it with delectable runny confiture dripping onto the floor.
Malaya was another foodie milestone. We lived in a hotel on the edge of the sea in Penang for over a year, and ate in a dining room reminiscent of the forecourt of St Pauls Cathedral. Great pillars stretched the length of the ballroom. We walked this length between palms and pillars three times a day for every meal, and subsided at the end of it in the dining area, still pillared and palmed. We ate the same meals every week, in the same order and my favourite day was Friday when we had nasi goring, the only nod in the direction of the local cuisine.
I’ve tried to get Malayan friends to replicate it, I’ve tried myself, but nothing has ever had the same texture, tastes, variety and delicacy. I can copy most of the culinary joys of the past, but that one has proved impossible – it’s just a fragrant regretted memory.
In Majorca, when few people had even heard of it, at a little fishing village called Cala Ratjada, we stayed in the first hotel to be built there,( there are now over fifty) which they were just finishing, and the water for the shower came speeding through the bidet, and the hand basin only had water in short bursts. But down by the sea was a fish restaurant, and there I tasted two foodie classics, a genuine paella, and a lobster salad which is still fresh in my memory. I was beginning to sensitise my taste buds.
France a year later, this time a hamlet somewhere between San Tropez and Le Lavandou, where every meal eaten under the vine covered terrace was like ambrosia – never a dud. My lasting memories of this bliss were the fresh croissants for breakfast with unsalted butter and delicious homemade apricot jam, and aoli. Eating aoli was like discovering the secret of culinary life- the simplicity of it, the exquisiteness of it, the white china, the perfect egg, the salad and the aoli. I decided there and then that I’d learn to make it when I had my own kitchen. (Living in an officers mess didn’t give me much scope for cooking experiments at the time.)
Later, driving back from Bonn with a girlfriend, we stopped at Aix (shades of “How they brought the good news from Aix to Ghent!”) for a coffee. We ordered rum babas and though it was fifty years ago, I can still remember the shocked delight at the taste of the rum and the cream and the yeasty cake. They were a benchmark for all rum babas eaten since, and none of them have measured up to the rum babas of Aix. We sat by a river in the sun, with dappled leaves reflected in the water, tall, grey eighteenth century buildings lining the other side of the road.
The next foodie revelation was staying with an old school friend in Winchester, who had become a talented cook in one year of marriage. We started the meal with shrimps in mayonnaise in half a pear, a very 50’s thingie and followed this with roast duck and orange. By the time we got to the crème brulee poor Brenda had fled the room to cope with not morning sickness, but evening sickness.
Her husband and I somewhat unconcernedly tackled the heavenly crème brulee she had left behind. I’d never tasted it before, cream not having been freely available in my past, so this was another taste bud sensation. To this day I can’t go past crème brulee however much I may have eaten beforehand.
Hong Kong? Oh yes, lots of lovely Chinese dishes, but what I remember from those days was the bombe Alaska at a place called Jimmy’s Kitchen. A girl friend and I would skip out from the office at lunchtime and order a bombe Alaska each. Fortified by this self-indulgent mix of sponge and fruit and ice-cream, brandy and meringue, we would totter reluctantly back to our desks to resume writing our boring little stories about fashion parades and new cosmetics for the woman’s pages.
So now, after a lifetime of enjoying food, here in New Zealand, land of milk and manukau honey, what gluttonous delights light my fire? Well, there are two things I cannot live without these days. One is a nice cup of tea. And the other is a nice cup of coffee!
Food for Threadbare Gourmets
When the crusty Duke of Wellington came back from his campaigns in foreign parts, legend has it that all he wanted was a slice of hot buttered toast. What he was talking about was comfort food, and it’s different for each of us. Mine is cornflakes if I’m on my uppers, or creamy mashed potatoes, or scrambled egg. My husband believes that scrambled egg is the apex of my culinary skills, but others have been known to recoil in horror clutching their hearts, when they discover how many eggs and how much butter and cream have gone into them!
For your run of the mill ordinary breakfast scrambled egg, I use a generous sized walnut of butter, and about two tablespoons of milk. I melt them, and then break the eggs in and stir to mix. The trick is to have the buttered toast ready, and then stir the scrambled egg in the pan very gently so it forms large curds. Cook it very slowly, if it’s cooked too fast, it becomes stringy, tough and watery. As soon as the curds are almost cooked, I tip it onto the waiting toast, as it still goes on setting while it’s hot. For softer, creamier scrambled eggs, add more butter and use cream – delectable.
Food for Thought
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its labourers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.
From a speech in Washington in 1953, by President Dwight. D. Eisenhower 1890 -1969