Previously I mentioned that sometimes, during the week when I’m on my own, I don’t enjoy spending the evenings alone. A friend, who also lives away from his partner, commented that he also finds that the evenings can be lonely, especially when he is cooking supper. I know exactly what he means. Often when I used to prepare supper, Peter, Kiera or visiting friends would perch at our kitchen counter and keep me company, inevitably with a glass of wine in hand and lively conversation. It’s not quite the same when you’re on your own.
As a family we had few rules (Kiera always used to say that she never went through a rebellious phase because there was nothing to rebel against) but there were some codes of conduct concerning dinner time that were so ingrained that we didn’t think twice about them. These involved eating together at the dining table (except on rare occasions when there was something that we all wanted to watch on the telly), not taking calls during the meal, and waiting until everyone had finished eating before leaving the table, unless one asked to be excused, and then it had to be for a good reason. I suppose that this was how I was brought up and I’ve always thought that it really is about good manners and showing some respect for the person who has taken the trouble to prepare the meal.
A friend of Kiera’s came to live with us for a few years while he finished his studies at the technikon. At first, he would leave the table as soon as he had finished eating his supper and bugger off without a word, leaving us all sitting at the table a bit stunned. Kiera then found out that in his home, food was put out on the kitchen counter (there was no dining table) and each family member would help themselves to a plate of food and take it to wherever they wanted to eat. There was no family mealtime. After Kiera explained our mealtime habits to him, he became a convert and, like any convert, he became a stickler for the rules; heaven help any one of us who forgot to excuse ourselves from the table after that!
I think these family rituals contributed to making dinner times in our home quite a sociable occasion; we’ve laughed, cried, argued, commiserated, celebrated, hatched wild schemes, sung and even attempted an Irish jig (a long story!) at our dinner table, and I really miss that. But I now need to accept that my home here in the country is very different to the old one but it is a home nonetheless. There may not be a family gathered around the dining room table every night but there is a sense of belonging developing and with that will come new traditions and stories to tell.
In 1998 I resigned from the University of Natal as the principal of their pre-school. Peter’s company then contracted me to help out here and there. Because I was freelance and worked from home, I was able to work flexitime and, for the first time, I started to become interested in domestic pursuits, like cooking. My mother, Edna, is a competent, but not very creative, cook. Her philosophy is simple; meat, potato and two veg and as for anything else, if it comes out of a jar, tin or packet, why make it yourself? The advent of frozen meals was an absolute godsend to her. She used to, however, make a mean roast beef & Yorkshire puddings, cottage pie, bangers & mash and Lancashire hotpot, but vegetables, except for roast potatoes and pumpkin, were always just boiled, and salads were unheard of. We also never had anything like olive oil, garlic or other herbs and spices at home. So, as you can imagine, when I left home my culinary repertoire was somewhat limited.
Back in 1998 the only cookbook I had was a Reader’s Digest book called The Cookery Year, published in 1973, which was really of no use to anyone. I was browsing in Adam’s Bookstore one day when I came across a set of Delia Smith videos. I splashed out and bought the videos and two of her books (the summer and winter collections) and suddenly I was plunged into a whole new world of food: red peppers, anchovies, extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, fresh (not tinned) asparagus, parmesan, pesto, rocket, couscous, crème fraîche and so on. I was hooked; Jamie followed Delia and since then I have acquired quite a collection of cookbooks, in what I think is an attempt to recreate that initial buzz of excitement that I felt when I discovered Delia! I may have gotten slightly carried away from time to time with all the herbs and spices and “exotic” foods because I remember Alex once asking me rather plaintively why I couldn’t cook more like Edna. All he wanted was oven baked frozen crumbed chicken breast and chips (from Woolies) with boiled frozen mixed veg! He has a much more discerning palate now, I’m pleased to say.
I have a theory that food tastes so much better in the country because the taste buds are not contaminated by pollution. And of course, veggies picked and eaten straight from the garden taste nothing like those you buy in a shop. This makes the simplest meal fit for a king. There is no need for elaborate sauces or fancy recipes. I buy free-range beef, chicken and duck (for special occasions) from Greenfields Butchery in Nottingham Road (their beef burger patties are fantastic, by the way), hormone-free pork from the Dargle and, believe it or not, the most fantastic fresh fish from Bartho’s Fish Co. in the village. The only thing I can’t get here is good lamb, but Peter buys free-range Karoo lamb in Durban and brings it up. Fresh jersey cream, milk and butter is available from a nearby dairy and there is a fantastic French bakery in Howick. On the foodie front, we’re doing okay.
I have to admit though, for all the cookbooks I’ve read and all the cooking courses I’ve attended, the meal that I still do best is roast beef with Yorkshire puddings, roast potatoes and pumpkin, go figure. And the gravy, on which I am often complimented, still comes out of a Bisto packet (please don’t tell anyone)! Delia would not be impressed but Edna would.