Home baking

Week 10 of lockdown and there are still gaps on the shelves of the supermarkets. The stock of toilet rolls has been replenished; antiseptic wipes and bleach can be easily bought; there is a good supply of dried pasta; tinned food supply seems to be improving, but among the baking shelves shortages remain. Flour disappears quickly, sugar for cooking seems in sparse supply, and baking powder seemed unavailable until last week.

Any idea that the crisis might have created a “new normal” is contradicted by the traffic jams at beauty spots and holiday resorts and by the overwhelming evidence of people ignoring the guidelines, but it does seem to have prompted culinary changes.

Perhaps the purchase of supplies for home baking was initially a panic reaction to fears of food shortages, but the persisting popularity of bags of flour and other cookery ingredients does seem to suggest that people are cooking more. Perhaps it is just that people have more time.

Someone working from home, instead of spending two unproductive hours a day travelling to and from an office, has time to prepare food from scratch. Fresh produce, home made dishes, kitchen-baked bread, pies, cakes and puddings come onto the menu in place of things grabbed at a supermarket and taken out of a packet.

Perhaps among the process, among the home baking revival, there is still space for a small boy who wants to scrape out the mixing bowl.

One of the clearest memories from childhood years is my grandmother’s home baking on Sunday mornings. A big roast dinner was prepared, along with pudding and cakes for Sunday teatime. Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, rice pudding, rock cakes and butterfly cakes, the kitchen was filled with aromas. But lingering long enough meant that there would be the opportunity to lick the big wooden spoon that was used for mixing the cakes and to scrape out any mixture that might remain in the bowl.

Home baking meant having ingredients at home. In my grandmother’s larder there were round white tins with lids that had scenes of London on the front. In these tins, the dried fruit was stored, raisins, sultanas, mixed fruit. Providing he wasn’t too greedy, and carefully smoothed over the surface of the fruit, a boy might escape unnoticed with a handful of raisins or sultanas (the mixed fruit was not as nice).

Hopefully, the home baking revival will bring to children fifty years younger than me a similar degree of happiness.

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When you’re going to live forever

Of course, we knew about death. It was the 1960s, the Second World War was only a generation previously. In our own small community, there were people whose sons and husbands and brothers had not come home. War deaths were not just among those who had died in the forces, the bombing of the milk factory in Somerton had added a list of civilians to the war memorial in the town square.

Within my family, Uncle Bill, a great uncle, was the first death I remember. Uncle Bill drove a big black Humber car and brought Aunt Ella from their home at Hedge End in Southampton. Hedge End seemed a magical name for a place, it seemed like something from a story book. When Uncle Bill and Aunt Ella came to visit the farm, they always brought comics with them. The death of Uncle Bill seemed, to a small child, to threaten the supply of Jack and Jill and The Beano. What the death of Uncle Bill did not do was to suggest that death had anything to do with us.

Death was to do with wars or to do with older people who had lived a very long time.

The only exception to the rule, the only young person I knew who died, was Trudi, who lived next door to my grandmother. Trudi went on a school trip to France and fell from a bicycle suffering a head injury that was to prove fatal. Yet there was a feeling that this was something that happened in another country, it wasn’t something that affected us.

There was a policeman who went around the schools telling stories of the danger of riding bicycles without lights, not having brakes that worked, and not observing the Highway Code, but he did not live in our village where cars were few and far between.

In plain terms, death was not part of our life. It existed, but it did not exist in a way that threatened us. We could ride our bicycles as recklessly as we chose, we could climb trees, we could go where we wanted, we could do as we liked. One day we would get old, but that day was so remote we didn’t need to think about it.

Watching young people becoming restive at the lockdown, meeting their friends for chats, sitting in groups in the sunshine, there is a realisation that warnings to them have little impact. There are ages in life when you are going to live forever.

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White goods

Moving to a council house when I was six years old was a step up in the world. We still had an outside toilet, but we did have a bathroom, with an enamel bath and a wall-mounted washbasin, instead of a tin bath that was hung on the wall when not in use.

We also had a kitchen with a scullery to the rear. In the farm cottage, the kitchen had been a galley with a wooden wall separating it from the living room. Saucepans hung on hooks on the wall and would fall to the floor each time a jet from the local naval air station broke the sound barrier. In the council house, the kitchen was a room with its own fireplace, with cupboards, with space.

In 1967, electrical goods were not plentiful, there were still houses that had none at all because they still had no electricity supply. Our kitchen had a three ringed electric cooker with a grill and an oven. We had a chrome plated kettle. And we had a fridge that was taller than the small boy who would open the door to look for drinks of milk.

The fridge looms large in the memory. It was white with a yellow trim. One day a woman called at our house and sat in the kitchen and talked with my mother. Before she left, she put a sticker on the side of the fridge, “Approved by Good Housekeeping Institute,” it said.

I never knew why the woman had called or why she had left a sticker on the side of our fridge. The sticker was there years later and I always thought it showed that we had a good fridge, but that did not explain the purpose of the sticker. Who was being told it was a good fridge? Did we need to know that somewhere we kept our milk and butter and cheese and meat was approved by an organisation I had never heard of? (Not that I would have known what the word “organisation” meant, anyway).

Perhaps the fridge was regarded by some as a status symbol. I remember an American writer recounting a story from a community in the Mid West where a church invited members to submit recipes for a cookbook. Many of the recipes included “jello,” the clear intention was that readers who had submitted the recipe had a refrigerator.

Had there been no white goods, memories of that kitchen would still remain happy ones. It was always a place of warmth, full plates and a family around the table.


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Bring back the traffic jams!

The Friday evening of the spring bank holiday weekend, the beginning of the school half-term holiday, in normal times there would be a flood of traffic into the West Country. On the M5 motorway, there would be tailbacks at Bristol, at Weston-Super-Mare, and at a succession of other spots where breakdowns, collisions, or sheer volume of traffic brought progress to a standstill.

The M5 might seem a prosaic six lanes of tarmac but for millions of people who travel it at this time of the year, the motorway is a route that is travelled with optimism and anticipation.

There were many summertimes when crossing the M5 on the way to Bridgwater or to Taunton, when I pondered those who travelled it, the constant lines of those bound south-west, what had they thought on their slow progress to the next point where the traffic came to a complete halt? There must have been something special that drew them onto this road year after year. On weekends such as this, their journey times would have been very long.

Until last weekend, I had imagined that few of them left the motorway in Somerset, I had assumed that it was the seaside resorts of Devon and Cornwall that they wanted to reach. Our county was beautiful and historic and filled with unexpected delights, but I had thought that such things could not compete with beaches and boats. Then, reading a news article on breaches of the lockdown, there was a startling statistic: the local authority area of North Somerset receives seven million visitors a year.

North Somerset has a population of 200,000 people, 80,000 of them live in Weston-Super-Mare, the town where most of those seven million visitors would head. It was a statistic that explained the 1,000 car parking spaces on the seafront. It was a statistic that explained why the local authority spent £51 million on restoring the promenade and £34 million on the restoration of the pier. The income from that number of visitors must run into hundreds of millions.

Weston will have visitors this weekend, but there will be little that is open. Until the lockdown is lifted, the town remains in hibernation. The cost to local businesses is such that many will not reopen.

To see the M5 motorway jammed again would gladden the heart. It would mean jobs saved, businesses surviving, and hopefully it it will bring a bit of excitement and romance to those who travel the road.

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It has to be acknowledged, Somerset is not an easy place for road maintenance. Country roads are frequently narrow, bounded by high hedges or deep ditches. Roads crossing Sedgemoor are built on peat, they subside easily creating roller coaster routes, at bridges the tarmac becomes disconnected from concrete and steel. Towns and villages that have stood since medieval times are a challenge for those who have to facilitate access by Twenty-First Century vehicles. However, there do seem to be times when the engineers of the county roads department appear to be conspiring to confound unwitting drivers.

Trying to drive from the M5 motorway to get home, the main road towards Glastonbury was barricaded. Signs announced that it was closed for roadworks and diverted traffic toward Bridgwater. At Bridgwater, Google Maps said the diversion was to the left, which then brought another barricade, another diversion and a drive through a speed-bumped housing estate. Would it have demanded too much of the engineers to have asked each other when they were planning their work? Perhaps it is the lockdown, perhaps there is a backlog, perhaps it is possible that entire sections of the county will be enclosed by barricades.

Roadworks are not just an inconvenience, they arouse childhood fears. Passing the heavy machinery used to carry out the work, recalls childhood memories of the tarmac machine itself, the noise, the flames, the steam.

Perhaps to a pre-school boy the machine seemed like some mechanical dragon. It looms menacingly in a very specific memory.  A clear and dry day, probably in springtime, for tar melts in high summer, at my grandparents’ farmhouse between Langport and Long Sutton. The A372 that passed the farm was being resurfaced.  There must have been notification that this was about to happen, for I was filled with apprehension at the coming of the tarmac machine. When the time came for the tarmac machine to pass the front of the house, I hid behind the settee in my grandmother’s front room. It is probably fifty-five years ago, but I can still recall the fear of the moment and I can still feel the texture of the fabric against my hand.

Perhaps the health and safety concerns that lead to road closures bring an unexpected benefit. The barricades mean that there is no possibility of passing in close proximity of the road repair machinery. There is no possibility of an encounter with dragons.

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