One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well. VIRGINIA WOOLF
I've mentioned food in passing on this blog, and have occasionally written some brief posts on the subject. But I don't think I've ever stressed how passionately interested I am in cookery and in different food cultures around the world. I'm not really sure how this interest came about but, like many things, I suspect it may have its origins in childhood.
As was the case with most traditional English country families in the 1950s and 60s, the food on our table was simple, wholesome, unvaried and home-sourced. What wasn't home-grown was usually bartered within the local village community. My unmarried aunt who lived across the field kept pigs and chickens. So we had a constant supply of fresh eggs and always had a stock of both the mentionable and the unmentionable parts of a pig in the freezer. The field itself, which we called the 'croft', yielded an abundant crop of mushrooms in the autumn. Unpasteurised milk came from my father's small herd of Jerseys; and peas, beans, raspberries and strawberries from my mother's vegetable garden.
The only serious weekly expense was the the joint of beef which took pride of place on our dining table each Sunday. My father made a big ritual out of carving it. He'd take an age over sharpening the knife and judging the best angle of attack. Finally the knife would plunge in, and he'd laboriously question each member of the family in turn. Do you want a little slice of the outside? (I never did - it wasn't exactly burnt, but it was always rather dry and well-done.) Do you want a little bit of fat? You know it's good for you! (Again I always declined, though later I grew to love the fat on meat.) In fact I often wouldn't eat anything at all those formal Sunday lunchtimes, repressed as I was, and tense as I felt the atmosphere to be. The steaming vegetables seemed to exude the stultifying, musty odour of the chapel we'd just left - and, anyway, they'd been overcooked almost to extinction, as was the custom in those days.
I existed on a diet of salads, warmed-up stews, fried eggs and cheese sandwiches. (Although I didn't think about it at the time, this was very healthy - far healthier than the burger, chips and coke diet of so many kids now.) If I did fancy something sweet - though I preferred savoury to sweet - there were tins of my mother's home-made cakes and biscuits in the pantry. I was stick-thin. If I expelled the air from the bottom of my lungs with my diaphragm, I swear my stomach would almost hit my backbone. But most of my friends were healthily slim too. These were the days when children roamed the countryside in perfect freedom, cycled the lanes, swam and fished in the old gravel pit lakes, made dens in the woods - expending a whole lot more energy than sitting in front of TVs and computers.
Quite honestly I didn't think very much about food then. It was just fuel, and it was also associated negatively in my mind with rather tense and awkward family mealtimes. But all that was to change ...