Two and a half cups of flour, baking soda, baking powder, vanilla. Mayonnaise? 2 cups of mayonnaise. Cocoa. Different from how my mother made a cake weighing pounds and ounces, using a scale. The mix is luxuriant, spinning round and round in the bowl, like shiny velvet. Then the cup of water goes in. The mix becomes almost liquid. Liquid chocolate. I pour it into two heart shaped tins lined with paper. I remember how Mum would give me the spatula. A little freckled girl sitting in her knickers on the kitchen floor, licking the spatula.
I pop the cake in the oven and switch on the oven light. Sitting at the kitchen counter I watch the cake. First molten then more firm and rising. I watch as the air is permeated with the smell of hot baking cocoa. For a time the sunshine and birds outside are forgotten. The emptiness of the house envelopes me, the comfort from the warmth of the stove and my home baked cake.
I will sandwich the cake with whipped cream and strawberries and make a gooey icing to dribble down the sides. I will cut myself the most exquisite piece, a big piece and with a cake fork eat it all up, every bit of it, every crumb. Just like I used to when Mum made her chocolate cake.
I chop the shallots up small. On my favorite small chopping board. I pour a dribble of olive oil into the pan. Put the shallots in to sizzle. I close my eyes and listen to the sizzle, reminding me of when my mother would cook when I was a child. I would listen to the sizzle from the dining room where I did my homework. The promise of food to come. Next I pour in the Arborio rice. Fat plump grains of pudding rice, stirring it around in the oil to cover every grain, remembering how I used to think the grains looked like crystals. Mum would tell me stories of her childhood while I sat on the counter listening. She was a good cook. I always wanted to be a chef. Mum would say “wait till you have to cook three meals a day, every day, you’ll soon change your mind”. We grew our own vegetables and there was always at least three varieties on our plate. I would eat until I could barely move.
Add wine and stock and cook for 15 mins or until the rice is soft and most of the liquid absorbed. Add chopped ham and shaved fresh parmesan.
I take my bowl of risotto to the chair under the oak tree, and remember myself playing there while Mum knitted my sweater. “Pigola”, she would say, “not another cupcake.”
We would go to the market in town every Thursday. Market day. I always went straight to the bakery stall. I’d pick out a pack of cupcakes and eat them at one sitting. Mum would select her muesli, buying roasted hazelnuts separately to add to the crunch.
In the evening, watching TV, Mum didn’t eat much. She might have a cup of coffee and an apple. My favorite treat was digestive biscuits, buttered with marmite and grated cheese on top.
When I was twelve I wrote up a menu. Mum said she would give me a budget for the week. I would be responsible for all the food shopping and be in charge of making the pre assigned dishes she had chosen from my menu. It was theQueen's silver jubilee. I was grilling sausages. While staring through the hatch from the kitchen to see the television, my bangers bung and the grill caught fire. Another time I cracked an egg that ceremonially fell between the cooker and the counter. I watch incredulously as the egg white disappeared down the tiny crack followed shortly by the yolk. Kasplut and it was gone. We had to pull the cooker out to clean up the mess.
I decided I would make a cold soufflé. The recipe said to beat the egg whites until just beginning to thicken. What on earth did that mean? I poured my soufflé into a bowl and into the fridge. It was only one inch high. It didn’t make sense but was the soufflé supposed to rise? It didn’t.
After a spell in hospital I came home and put the packet of chocolate rabbits Mum had bought me back in the fridge. Being my favorite animal she thought they would cheer me up. But I wasn’t going to eat a rabbit. Four months later I opened the packet to check on the chocolates. One was gone. “Mum,” I asked in a panic ‘did you eat one of the rabbits?” She responded that she had had a yen for some chocolate and I wasn’t eating them. I made her eat 3 more right away to keep the one in her stomach company, and then I polished off the rest all in one fell swoop.
Food and childhood, like one big batter get beaten together and despite all the restaurants and culinary schools I have been to, I still copy my mother’s cooking the most. Her cheese on toast, grated cheese mixed with ketchup is better than any welsh rarebit. Her sausage and tomato plait, I crave but daren’t make too often for fear of becoming Pigola again. She would wrap the sausage meat around hard boiled eggs before covering it with the pastry. When you sliced into the loaf, you got a pretty piece of pie, first the yellow yolk, the egg white, sausage meat and pastry.
Sometimes Mum and I would buy the frozen puff pastry and cook it just the way it was then eat it peeling one layer off after the other. Sometimes she would buy herself a pot of Devon clotted cream or condensed milk and eat that. I never understood it.
There were these pancakes we would make. I think they were called pikelettes. They were best when the batter was made ahead of time and left to expand under a tea towel. “Is it ready yet Mum?” I would ask. Finally we got out the griddle pan and dribbled funny faces and animals onto the hot surface, then ate them hot with butter. Mum made the best Yorkshire puddings. The best. Big and hollow and spectacular.
When I was seven I had the mumps and was home from school for a few days. Mum seemed to love having me around. She sat down and wrote me a story about a minor bird and his adventures in the jungle. She did the illustrations as well, while I sat on my inflatable chair in front of the TV. I could smell the stew on the stove, simmering away to make tender ‘fall off your fork’morsels. At Halloween she made my costume. I sat on the bed in the spare bedroom where she had her sewing machine set up and watched her work. Chocolate bourbon biscuits were on a plate on the tray with her pot of tea. It was there she promised she would never send me to boarding school, a promise she couldn’t keep. Years later she made me my ball dress. Green silk it was. She stayed up all night so thrilled for me to be going to a hunt ball with my college friends. My date selected my mother to host our pre ball dinner stating she was the most classy of all the Mums and she didn’t let us down with her pork casserole and strawberry mousse.
On Saturdays we went to the antique market. We loved the racks of lace nighties and we loved the little café in the attic. A greasy spoon type place that served delicious quiche and salad. Mum fancied the two of us running a place like that. “Shall we Nick?” she’d ask, “shall we have a brownie too?”
Boarding school took a lot away from me. I was always homesick. It took away my personality, my love of life, my curiosity, my happy chubbiness, and returned to me, stoicism, independence and anorexia. I would sit on the window sill in the chapel at the top of the school and see the lights in all the houses on the hill, thinking how lucky they were to be home, where their mother was dishing up some steaming soup, with hot crusty bread, or passing out a meringue or two. I was always cold, and always studying, living for my few weekends at home where I would curl up next to Mum, now guiltily eating some treat I used to enjoy with gusto.
Searching always for that return to innocence I followed a career in food, until I was in my mid twenties and moved on to ventures new.
Tomorrow I think I will make myself some sandwiches and walk up to the chalk horse. Sit there and stare down at the village where mum is, in the cemetery. We came to this spot when she was so ill she was unable to get out of the car. We ate sandwiches while the wind blew through the heather. I remember being so choked up looking at her, so brave, despite us having to pull over for her to throw up, that I excused myself and went walking. The wind blew the tears from my eyes. There were blackberries abundant which I would normally have picked but this time they just triggered more grief, knowing it was one of our favorite things to do. We even picked so many once we attempted to make blackberry wine, the kitchen strewn with blopping jars of brew.
“If I have to come back as another animal in my next life”, Mum would say, “I’d be a seagull, they fly, they walk, they swim and no one hunts them. If I come back as a tree, I’d be a silver birch. Silver like my hair but delicate and graceful.’.
I remember all this while I eat my sandwich on the hillside and wonder why one lone seagull is flying so far inland, away from the coast riding the thermals and hoping for a crust from me.
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