Date and Walnut Loaf

The other day I made a date and walnut loaf from a recipe of my mother’s which must be sixty or seventy years old at least. I made one change, doubling the amount of walnuts, which seemed frugal by today’s standards. This loaf comes from a time when we were all at school, all five starving boys and me, and having our main meal in the evening rather than high tea at five o’clock. Every afternoon we would arrive home to some of Mum’s home baking – scones or pancakes, jam tarts, fruit cake, shortbread, variations on Victoria sponge – none of it very fancy, but infinitely preferable to the sort of cakes you get these days under the guise of home cooking. At least Mum’s didn’t cost an arm or a leg and they never went stale – they flew off the plate.

I have recently discovered the joys of eating again. A few months ago I could hardly eat anything, couldn’t even drink a glass of water. I lost two stone in a month. My doctor put me on anti-sickness pills and steroids, and now I have discovered the joys of eating again I eat like a starving donkey and every day is a treat. My tastes have reverted to childhood, with an emphasis on eating more healthily. I am preoccupied, by food, so after a long time unable to cook, I am cooking something every day, or at least supervising from my wheelchair. It’s so much easier to cook under Covid19 lockdown, experimenting, taking my time, accepting failures, eating cake with a spoon …

She was a very good cook, my stay at home Mum, a remarkable housekeeper, a brilliant juggler of last pennies at the end of the month, of store cupboard discoveries, a disguiser and coverer-up of cheap cuts of meats, making the most of anything left over, foraged, bruised: one hundred pounds of jam every year from brambles, second class jam fruit and pounds and pounds of sugar saved throughout the year. Her bible was the wonderful Glasgow Cookery Book. First published in 1910, the backbone of Scottish cookery, the fundament of what was known for many years as the “Dough School” of cooking. Mum was a born-again evangelist about it. My relationship with the Glasgow Cookery Book was rather more superficial as I hated housework and couldn’t relate to some of the more esoteric recipes. Rather like Mrs Beeton for Scots, it had detailed instructions on how to clean any household items, diagrams of cuts of meat, housekeeping hints, but above all recipes for such delights as Sheep’s Head Broth, Potted Hough, Brain Cakes, Pluck Soup, a pudding called Cornflour Mould. My favourite chapter heading is “Nondescript sauces”. Imagine any of our celebrity chefs including such a category in one of their glitzy books these days! There were of course no tricks, no shortcuts, no simplifications, no instructions on oven temperatures, as cooking on the range was the norm.

Mum was the Gordon Ramsay of housework. I could never do anything right. I didn’t get every speck of dust off the stairs, my hospital corners had a tendency to come undone, I didn’t fold the towels the right way round. But somehow this did not spill over into cooking. In the kitchen, I had the lightest hand for pastry and shortbread, chopped vegetables exactly the right size, folded in white of egg whipped to perfection. For someone who suffered from OCD, it was surprising that Mum was the opposite of Delia Smith as a cook. She cooked from instinct, from taste and feel, a soupçon of this, a sprinkle of that, one extra turn of the spoon. My relationship with my mother was doomed by jealousy on her side and hatred on mine, both attitudes we regretted late in life. But it was cemented by a love of cooking which she taught me from the time I was about four years old. By six I could cook a family roast dinner, a celebration cake, soups and stews. We cooked seamlessly together, hundreds and hundreds of meals, with reciprocity and respect, the satisfaction of a job well done and a shared understanding of the secret alchemy of the kitchen.

My mother would have made a terrific general, or quartermaster, as she demonstrated when we went on our camping holidays. Although we made a few “dry runs” in Wales and Northern England for weekends or once for a couple of weeks on Anglesey, our first real foray into Europe was the year I was 11, 1956, when we drove through France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Austria, Italy and Switzerland for five weeks, at a cost of £100 for seven of us. Every week for a year Mum saved a tin of food (and a toilet roll) which served as a kind of backbone to food we bought in markets and local shops. We learned a whole new vocabulary, discovering unexpected and delicious tastes, without ever eating out as a family except at Little Castleton just off the Great North Road where our first treat of the holiday was always egg and chips at a truck stop. Our only other eating out was at the Goldener Adler in Innsbruck for my brother’s birthday which was in August. We learned to love Spanish chips cooked in olive oil, Wienerschnitzel (Mum’s favourite), Italian ice cream, spicy sausage and goats cheese in Austria and Germany, oranges freshly picked off the trees, French bread and croissants, although at that time French food was not so good, since France, especially in the north, was still recovering from the war, and the French were very suspicious of the English.

When I was fifteen I went to France on my own as an exchange visitor with a girl my age whom we had met when sheltering from the mistral in a concrete toilet block in Marseillan Plage. I had a wonderful time, but not in the way you would expect. The mother of the family discovered my interest in cooking and in three weeks gave me a crash course in French cuisine. I learned how to make sauces, classic French stews, croissants, gnocci, petits pôts de crème, such a range of classic and peasant dishes that my whole repertoire for the rest of my cooking life was based on it. I discovered espresso coffee, garlic, stewed peas and lettuce, bread with butter and dark chocolate for a four o’clock snack. For several years I expected to be a professional cook until a short sharp shock woke me from my illusion. I discovered how people came to a vegetarian restaurant and expected to eat meat, how much food they wasted, how rude and critical they were. But by then I had converted Mum to a more European style of cooking and eating. Now she made quiche Lorraine instead of bacon and egg pie. Looking back I am astounded at her response to a fifteen-year-old daughter coming home insisting she changed her way of cooking: garlic instead of onions, coffee instead of tea, herbs and spices, exotic vegetables. I don’t remember any acrimony or resistance, just a willingness to have a go.

I was born allergic to my mother’s milk, so I was fed on National Dried Milk, I didn’t feel deprived. On the contrary, the idea of mother’s milk made me feel sick, and I hated seeing her feeding my younger brothers. Her health was not good and it always seemed to me that they were draining her dry, she seemed so tired and the baby so selfish. Perhaps this was the beginning of my complicated narrative with food.

I seem to have left out a whole side of this story. Perhaps it is even the story. My relationship with food has been as complicated as my relationship with my mother: I had an ulcer when I was fifteen, which was cured one camping holiday by Mum refusing to stick to the diet I had been ordered by the doctor; anorexia from 16 to 21; my role as sous chef was taken over by au pairs when it was decided that I should concentrate on my studies. This was never discussed with me. The boys didn’t even know I helped with the cooking. When Jane, our first au pair arrived, I was just pushed sideways so I didn’t have a role in the family any more except as the girl in the attic plugging away at her homework.

I don’t think any of us appreciated my mother. Meal times were not a place for family solidarity and were usually a misery for her. She was always tired and not hungry herself, having just cooked a meal for seven or people, which she watched them demolish in about five minutes. The boys ate so fast that they were onto second helpings before I, the last to be served, even got to my first. My father was merciless in his teasing, and I am ashamed to say that we all joined in. He could not pay her a compliment. The best he could manage was “it was nearly as good as a shop” which he knew incensed her, going against one of her strongest values that everything should be cooked from scratch. Many dinners ended with my mother in tears. I remember one time she made a summer pudding and when she turned it out the bowl the fruit had not quite soaked all the bread. My father made some crack about it looking like a war wound which we children found hilarious and the joke went on, and on, with our apparently humourless mum in tears. Years later, in another country, the same thing happened and Dad recalled the first occasion and we all laughed again, this time waiting at least until she left the room, but she sensed that we laughed behind her back. I felt so ashamed, thinking of all the times we had belittled her when she worked so hard. She didn’t get on with my father’s family and one of the main reasons was because his mother was a terrible tease, with my mother an easy target. I presume this is where his cruelty came from. I wish I hadn’t witnessed it. He told me once how cruel adults were to very young children, brought up in poverty as he had been. A favourite trick was with a child of about eighteen months old to offer food and as soon as the baby reached for it, to withhold it, until the baby was frantic and screaming. Everyone found this amusing, but it had a serious purpose, to teach the child that he/she had to fight for sustenance. I suppose those who didn’t have the right temperament failed to thrive.

We did not appreciate her. If I was to write a letter to her, this is what I would like to say: “Do you remember, Mum? All those cakes you used to bake for us to have as a snack when we came home from school? I just the other day baked date and walnut loaf and it was just as good as ever. It started me thinking though, a lot of not very happy thoughts, and I wish I had thought them loud enough to tell you while you were still alive, to acknowledge the huge debt I owe to you – to be grateful, as you wanted me to be for once and to try to make amends paltry as that can only be.”

I missed out on all the good immune stuff. But instead I got Irish stew, cherry pie, blackberry jam, summer pudding, cheese scones, date and walnut loaf. And best of all I can make them all myself.