Sunday, 5 December 2010
Fanny Craddock, pickled onions and the Birdy Song
Earlier today, just idly channel hopping , I managed to catch 15 mins or so on the Food Channel of a clip of a Fanny Craddock at Christmas program - from 1975, I noticed on the end credits. It was mesmerizing. I know her high camp style,grotesquery, lurid creations, and pantomime dame get up are already well documented ( did you ever see the BBC drama with Mark Gatiss and Julia Davis ? Well worth seeking out if you haven't. Absorbing) and I have no fresh insightful observations to offer on her countenance or probable demons, but it unexpectedly made me come over all nostalgic. She was making a trifle - a billowing blousy Elsie Tanner of a dish, approachable and terrifying at the same time. It had bright yellow bouncy custard (not the refined ivory, vanilla pod seeded unctuous creme anglaise style stuff) and on top of this, she thickly piped cream in a sort of spider web design with great dollops of cream rosettes at each tapering point. And then she stuck chocolate rose leaves into each cream rosette . And then, along each strand of cream, she placed (with her chunkily ringed fingers) bright green, red and yellow glace cherries. It was a triumph. This was the trifle of my childhood. Its good natured largesse took me right back to all the Christmas parties (every Christmas eve my mum and dad held a kind of open house for friends and relatives), boxing days, high days and holidays there ever were in my childhood. My mum was (is!) a very good, skilled cook - growing up I thought it standard to have homemade rockbuns, cheese and onion pies, bakewell tarts, apple pies and chocolate cake (made with scotch block chocolate!) in the house. A bottled or jarred sauce was virtually unknown*. Meals were, 9.5 times out 10, made from scratch, fresh veg,fresh meat, fresh fruit, an emphasis without us knowing it on good eating. Meals were proper, and we sat at the table to have them (on our individual brown woven table mats, and we were directed without fail not to "fill up on pop" before every meal). And this is the trifle I remember - sherry soaked sponge fingers, strawberry jelly, bouncy custard, thick cream, bright coloured decorations ( I think this is where I first met bright green angelica) and it was spooned out, from the great wide and deep cut glass bowl, with a distinctive squelch and always greedily eaten. I suppose nowadays it'd be a parody of a trifle - in the same way that soft green floppy lettuce, tomato and cucumber are no longer a 'salad'. And the last trifle I considered making was to have lemon grass syrup, fresh raspberries and limoncello soaked savourade fingers in. Its like comparing the Carry On Films to The Office, bawdy or sophisticated, both have their charms. (And right now, the notion of prinking up such a brilliant nursery dish begins to strikes me as a bit gauche.) But at the time, it wasn't a hokey dish, and we didn't eat it ironically nodding and winking at each other. It was generous and celebratory. I remember excitedly asking for mums special pickled onions at Christmas - sliced white onions left to steep in malt vinegar and sugar for a couple of weeks. And eating a saucer of them, quietly sat on the stairs, watching, through the stair railings, the adults crash round merrily hooting to the Birdy Song, ignoring my stomach ache because the excitement of proximity to tiddly grown-ups, dancing, and special pickled onions was too good too give up on. This year, I have ready some balsamic pickled onions in the cupboard, and there's green and pink peppercorns suspended prettily in the jar amongst them. I'll be making my clementine sponge & cranberry jam bakewell tart, red wine and stilton gravy, rosemary focaccia, smoked salmon rotollos, hot spiced nuts, parmesan & proscuitto bites, reindeer and myrrh parfait (kidding) and I love them all, but I don't think any of them will ever be as rip snortingly exciting as those sliced malt vinegar pickled onions, or the yellow custard trifle.
*until my sister and I discovered Uncle Ben's Sweet and Sour sauce in a jar and begged to be able to dip (homemade) chips in it. From there it was a descent into microwaveable Chicago Town pizzas, frozen chicken kievs and Sara Lee defrost-able chocolate gateaux. Sorry mum, we must have broken your heart.