When I was a small girl in London food was a big part of my life. I don’t mean eating, but shopping for food and cooking it – I’d made my first Christmas cake when I was four after all. It’s possible I had some help. And I certainly licked the bowl.
Because my mother taught all week, weekends meant a Saturday morning trip to Sainsbury’s in Victoria. I would watch as the shop girls reduced large yellow slabs of butter to half pound blocks using large wooden butter paddles – look, we still have some domestic-sized ones –
while others weighed sugar into dark blue paper bags. I looked on impressed as the man on the bacon counter turned the whining, shining wheel of his slicing machine – ‘Thick or thin madam?’. After she’d bought all we needed, my mother joined the queue for the cashier’s window and fumbled in her purse to find the right change.
It was the greengrocer’s stall on the market next. I liked collecting the decorated tissue squares that oranges and tangerines were wrapped in.
I liked helping to choose the weekly vegetables, and learnt when to expect the different apples coming into season. Discoveries came first, even before the autumn term started. Then James Grieve, Worcester Pearmain, Laxtons (Supreme and Superb), and round about Bonfire Night, the brown-skinned Russett. Oranges and tangerines were for Christmas time. I always hoped that there might be enough money left to buy a seasonal treat – perhaps a single peach.
Best of all was the delicatessen. This shop wasn’t at all the preserve of the moneyed middle classes, reviving holiday memories by buying exotic food stuffs. Instead it was a refuge for the stateless, rather rudderless foreign populations of shabby 1950s Britain. There were huge numbers of Poles who’d served out the war in the UK – my father was one; Italian ex POWs; Hungarian Jews – all the flotsam of Europe.
Here we’d buy Polish boiling ring, cooked simply in water and eaten with buttery mashed potatoes and sauerkraut or cabbage. I loved the wizened dried sticks of kabanos, a thin sausage that my school friends assured me was made from donkey meat. There was Polish rye bread, speckled with caraway. It was at the delicatessen that my mother learnt about pasta. We started eating spaghetti bolognese in about 1954, long before it became a British standard. We bought Samsoe from Denmark which makes the best toasted cheese in the whole world. My school friends found our food odd. That was alright. I found theirs odd too.
Very occasionally on Saturday afternoon we would catch the tube all the way to Trafalgar Square and walk into Soho and the Italian store there. Those impossibly long packets of spaghetti! Those solid piles of Italian sausage: pink fat-studded mortadella; Neapolitan salamis the colour of dried blood! A great wheel of parmesan from which some cheery Italian with lots of smiles but little English would hack crumbly fragrant slices with a seriously stout and heavy knife! Aromatic roasted coffee beans clattered into special scales used for nothing but weighing coffee! And Italian voices, laughing, chatting, shouting and thoroughly at home. I don’t think we ever bought a great deal here. We were there for a spot of sensory overload, and a few small treats.
Many of my childhood memories centre around preparing the food that we bought. But that’s a story for another day.