Wednesday, January 17, 2007


Listening to Nigel Slater's 'Toast' whilst cooking (reheating) dinner. His delivery is somewhat flat and northern (like a diluted Alan Bennett) but the meals he mentions bring back memories....

Although I did not spend my childhood in the UK, I recognize many of the meals - Spaghetti Bolognese, with the spaghetti boiled for 20 minutes; Sherry Trifle with a thick layer of jelly (didn't Birds of Birds' Custard fame make a trifle pack that you just put together?), flapjacks (never cared for those a great deal), jam tarts (never made them but saw them in shops), Victoria sponges, his mother always burning the toast - no doubt he'll come on to macaroni cheese in a little while....This brings back a lot of memories! Although I spent my British formative years at Finlaystone, where not a tinned or frozen product would darken the door, I had my fair bit of exposure to the plastic food of the 70s, with the cooked breakfast at my agricultural college every morning, and two more heavy cooked meals for the starving farmer's boys; the salads which were naked except for salad cream (a lettuce leaf, a tomato, some cucumber, a boiled egg, and a stick of celery), later the digestive biscuits and the milk whilst pregnant, olive oil only bought in small bottles at the chemist's and to be applied to the skin, externally.

At Finlaystone most of the food was home produced; all vegetables bar potatoes were homegrown, in the winter the meat was often the result of going shooting; other meat was grown on the home farm and often home butchered (legal in those days). The Finlaystone breakfasts were out of this world, especially on chilly winter mornings, in a 'Big Hoose' with at the time rather limited heating; the grapefruit juice followed by hot and cold milk (cornflakes with hot milk and sugar are a particular delight), the fried or scrambled eggs on a small slice of fried bread with a slither of crisply done bacon, followed by toasted homebaked wholemeal bread, always a little on the dark side, with home-made Norfolk marmalade, made from Seville oranges, and in the winter with crystallised sugar. That really laid a sound basis for a morning working in a frost-ridden garden.

And for an extra dose of nostalgia I am listening now to the original Decca recording of 'Peter Grimes' which has just been reissued and which I picked up in Vienna. The recording was conducted by the composer, Benjamin Britten, with Peter Pears as 'Peter Grimes'. It's a tragic, tragic story of a fisherman who has problems with his young apprentices (keeps losing them overboard) and as a result is ostracised by his community. Based on the poem 'The Borough' by George Crabbe, and set in East Anglia, where Britten spent most of his life. It's probably the most successful opera by Britten, but he's written some other nice stuff as well, not least his 'Lachrymae' for viola with that sublime and extremely moving ending of the Dowland song.

I bought the LP version of this 'album' in Bournemouth in April 1971 when I was on my first English language course. It cost 14 pounds at the time (nothing much has changed then, last week I bought it for 22 Euros). Immediately prior to this course the then Royal Manchester College of Music had visited the town I grew up in, for a fortnight of rehearsing and producing this opera with multitudinous students - huge crowd scenes.... Unfortunately I cannot remember the names of any of the singers, at least one of which (the 'Peter Grimes' character) got an immediate engagement at a German opera house. It was an amazing fortnight, and I hung out at the theatre all the time - that's when my English language skills turned around....