Below is a further chapter from A Kerridge Childhood written by Enid Simpson. For a full introduction and index to all the stories please see the head page.
Food plays such an important part of our life and there is so much variety from which to choose. It’s possible to eat in luxurious surroundings and equally as pleasant to sit in the car outside a fast food shop and enjoy hamburgers and cokes; breakfast at the pancake and waffle houses; partake of pizza; eat a Chinese meal; choose a taco or enchilada at the Mexican restaurant, pick up doughnuts and coffee just about anywhere.
This is in sharp contrast to my childhood when eating was strictly undertaken in the home. No doubt there were hotels and fine restaurants where a good meal was available, but not for the people of our class. There were a few tea shops where afternoon tea was served and this was mainly tea, toasted tea cakes and fancy cakes. For the most part we ate at home.
We had plain food but it was good and wholesome. Twice each week Mother baked a stone (14 lbs) of flour. This made about 11 or 12 loaves and, as bread was one of our staple foods we ate it all. She mixed her bread in a large earthenware bowl kept for this purpose called the bread steen. It was glazed yellow inside and the original red colour outside. This was always put on the floor in front of the fire, before the flour was tipped in, whilst she mixed and kneaded it, kneeling down. We had a cat called Billy who loved to walk in and out of the flour bag until his fur looked as though the snow had fallen on it. In and out he went leaving little white paw prints all over the floor. Mother always tried to send him outside when she was baking, but Billy was too clever to be caught this way, and always hid until the paper flour bag was empty. Then off he went again.
Mother would kneel down to knead all this flour and she kept a jug of warm water on the hearth in case the dough got too hard. When it was all ready, the dough stayed in the bowl covered with a clean tea towel, with another cloth over it to keep it warm until it had risen. It then had to be put into tins, covered and allowed to rise again, before being put into the oven to come out as delicious smelling, golden brown loaves.
When Pat was small (she didn’t go to school at such an early age as we did) she always sat opposite Mother and absorbed all the rituals. One day, Pat and Margaret, a little friend of hers, were in their usual places when Mother was called to the door, and these two naughty little girls gathered up handfuls of cinders scooped from the hearth and decorated the top of the dough with them. They looked rather nice, they thought and so they put on more and more until the whole of the dough was covered in cold dirty cinders. To say Mother was furious was the understatement of the year! She sent Margaret home post haste, spanked Pat and then proceeded to try to get out all those horrible cinders. She pulled and poked, doing the best she could, but it was a hopeless task and inevitably some of the bread ended up with little gritty bits in it. Mother told us in no uncertain terms that it was good for us, and there was to be no grumbling.
There was always plenty of good farm butter to spread on the bread and Mother was lavish with it. Maybe that’s why I like to see my teeth marks in bread and butter to this day! We ate rich farmhouse cheese and though salads were not the popular food they are today, I, recall tomato and beetroot (previously pickled in vinegar) and eaten with plenty of seasoning. Chip butties were one of our favourites and when the hot chips melted the butter on the bread, it was a feast to us all.
Though we ate plain food during the week, with little meat, Sunday was the day that we, and everyone else then, ate a good and satisfying meal at dinner time – noon. It was usually beef or lamb, slowly roasted in the oven with either roast or new potatoes, according to the season, garden peas or mashed carrots and turnips, served with lots of butter.
This was always followed with a rice pudding which, too, had been allowed to cook slowly in the oven. It came to the table in the large enamel dish in which it had been cooked, with a thick brown skin on top that we all fought over. The top had been sprinkled with nutmeg, freshly grated with the large nut kept specially for the purpose. The nutmeg grater wasn’t used for anything else so as to retain the flavour, and the nut was kept in a little drawer at the top of the grater. Milk was drunk or used then straight from the cow, and it was rich in cream – this made the milk puddings full of goodness.
When a cow had calved her first milk was called ‘beastings’ (I don’t know why) and this was even richer than the ordinary milk. Mrs. Jackson, the farmer’s wife, always saw to it that we had some and it made puddings that were like Ambrosia.
No doubt we had our share of cow hairs – milking was done by hand and the cows were not T.T. tested. I’ve never tasted milk like that rich farm milk – none of your homogenised or 2% stuff!
Mother occasionally sent us over to Jackson’s farm, which was called Swanscoe, for cream. We had to walk over Kerridge, through Thunderwood, past the bluebells, stopping at the spring to cup our hands and drink the cold crystal water. Mrs. Jackson always let us go with her into the cold room, with it’s flagstone floors, and deep windows, set well away from the sun. Here on a large table were the large shallow steins (yellow crockery) in which the milk had been poured to ‘set’. The cream, when it had formed, was about two inches thick and was skimmed off the top to make the butter and famous Cheshire cheese. The milk which remained – today’s Low Fat, or Skim – was fed to the pigs.
Mrs. Jackson took a large, flat, saucer like utensil and carefully skimmed it along the surface of the cream leaving a wake of ‘creases’, and then put the cream into a jug which we had taken for the purpose, and charged us 6d for about a pint. Maybe she covered it, I can’t remember, but I do know that a few non-too-clean fingers went into the jug to taste this nectar. Often she would gather a few raspberries and put them on a rhubarb leaf and send these “for your Mother”. No-one bothered about paper then, I doubt if we had any. So off home we would go, ready to feast on the fruit and cream we loved so well.
On Mother’s baking days she always made what she called flour cakes which were like barm cakes. They were baked last of all and for a special treat she would split one or two open, butter them and slice a huge piece of mellow Cheshire cheese on top, pop it back into the oven until the butter and cheese melted in the hot bread. These were always for Dad’s tea. We never had them, she told us they were indigestible – she probably only had enough cheese for Dad – as I’ve said before, she could make us believe anything!
On her hard-up days (and there were plenty), she would slice up new bread, buttering it and then liberally shake pepper and salt on top. These, she made us believe, were a special treat and we were fortunate to be able to have such good things. Of course, we enjoyed these ‘pepper and salt butties’ and they DID taste specially nice.
Sometimes on Saturdays, Mother would go to Macclesfield on the bus, returning in time for Dad’s dinner. Me, like everyone else, worked until noon on Saturday. She always brought home some sausages that she bought from a little shop in Waters Green. This tiny shop sold only home boiled or roast ham, tongue, sausage and their own home made potted meat. All the ham was cooked ‘on the bone’ and the proprietor had a good selection of knives that were sharpened to a razor like edge. Carefully with long years of practice, he would slice the amount of ham, pink with a border of creamy fat, just as thin or thick as you wanted. The tongue was equally delicious and both were foods fit for a king.
The sausages, which were unadulterated in the way of bread or other fillers, hung in long links on a spotless rail above the counter. There was little decision to be made, pork or beef, thick or thin, and you left the shop knowing full well that you were taking home something that would make a tasty dish.
Mother would cook these succulent sausages slowly over a low heat, taking care that they did not burst open. Whilst these were cooking she would cut up some cheese on to an enamel plate, add a few drops of milk and pop this into the oven to toast. It came out hot and bubbling with a rich brown topping ready to go on to the plates and with all this we would eat oatcakes, another Cheshire delicacy. Always this was served with coffee – the only time I can remember drinking it. Maybe it was that when Mother passed Burgon’s shop in Macclesfield, she couldn’t resist the tempting aroma of fresh coffee that came wafting out.
So much of our food was home made that the ready baked bread and cakes that were sold in shops were looked on rather contemptuously. Anyone who bought bread was immediately judged to be a poor housekeeper. Village people had little room for sympathy, and the fact that bread may have been bought because of varying circumstances was never entertained. All was either black or white in those days – there were no gentle shades of gray.
One Spring Dad took us to Ashton-under-Lyne on Whit Friday to visit his cousins. The Ashton family were such a jolly crowd. I still am bemused as to who were family and who were in-laws. The head of the house, Uncle William, was Granny Oldfield’s brother but he had died before I came to know them. Aunt Fanny was a tiny lady, full of fun. Then came the family who were all around Mother and Dad’s age and who all seemed to live together or near to each other. There was a girl around my age whose name, Ennis, fascinated me.
On the appointed day we made the excursion by train, which was another pleasure. I know Mother didn’t go, but the reason escapes me now. The visit was to give us the opportunity to see the Whit walks, a great feature of the north of England. There were several schools taking part in the processions and we dodged from one vantage point to another. One thing which I couldn’t understand was why, in one crossing over from one part of town to another we saw another procession and I was amazed to see that all the little girls were wearing veils. We were hastily whisked away and told that they were ‘the Catholics’. I can’t think that we would have been corrupted had we stood to watch them, but at that time people were very biased and anything not ‘Church’ or ‘Chapel’ was viewed with great suspicion.
We went back to the house and ate a lavish lunch, then spent the afternoon in Stamford Park where the great treat was a ride on the motor boat around the lake. At lunch or tea our meal consisted of tinnedsalmon, followed by fruit lavishly garnished with Carnation Cream*. This, plus all the excitement of a good day’s outing had been, alas, my undoing. During the night I was violently sick. Of course Mother wanted to know what we had eaten and when she learnt that it was tinned salmon and Carnation cream, she was very scathing indeed. “No wonder you are sick; eating all that bought stuff” was her comment. The fact that only I was sick didn’t seem to count – probably I had made a pig of myself so fierce was her condemnation of Carnation cream that she turned me against it for a long time.
* evaporated milk
© 1985 Enid Simpson