My mother was 90 the other day. I don't know what they fed them when she was growing up, but someone should look into it, because her mind still has more snap to it than most people half her age, let alone her children, can manage. And she is one of the younger inhabitants of the terrace where she lives. Who needs the Mediterranean diet?
She cracked out a classy, rich venison and chestnut stew for dinner on Friday night, but the principal celebrations took place on Saturday lunchtime. There were 27 adoring children, grandchildren, daughters- and sons-in-law, a girlfriend and a brace of nieces. The oldest, after my mother, was 60. The youngest, two. Things got off to a grand start with several bottles of Grandma's Extra Special Birthday Bitter, brewed by Grandson George. He said it was a combination of his grandfather's brew and traditional English ale. I thought it reminiscent of the alt beers of Düsseldorf. Either way, it was terrific.
And there was food, of course. Mother had laid down the law on that, as on so many things. "I don't want anything cooked or hot," she said. "Too much trouble. I want some cold beef, ham, smoked salmon, salads and cheese. And a pudding or two if people want them." It was generally agreed that a woman has the right to choose her own birthday menu when she's 90. Anyway, none of us had the energy to suggest anything else.
So beef it was: four ribs of Aberdeen Angus-Simmental cross, hung for three weeks and cooked to pink perfection by my brother Tom. There was ham from Emmet's Stores, Essex, black on the outside from the sweet pickling brine, and fine-grained meat the colour of coral beneath. There was high-toned smoked salmon from Italy, brought by brother Johnny. There was a potato salad, a bean and chickpea salad, a salad of chicory, fennel and prosciutto. There were cheeses, too: Lancashire from Graham Kirkham, a craggy block of Parmesan and an assortment of French masterpieces - Reblochon, Vacherin, St Marcellin and an unpasteurised Camembert unearthed by sister Elizabeth in a Lourmarin market. All in all, it was a model of how simplicity can be next to gastronomic godliness.
Of course, there were puddings, too - "a six-course pudding menu", as someone put it - a selection of which follow.
I've said it before and I'll say it again - my sister-in-law, Marie-Odile, aka Dilou, is the finest amateur pastry cook I've come across.
100g chilled butter
Salt, if you are using unsalted butter
Put the flour in a bowl. Grate in the butter. Mix lightly with your fingertips (add a little salt if the butter is unsalted). Beat the eggs, add them to the bowl and mix in thoroughly. Add enough water to make a dough. Form into a ball and work it hard for about 10 minutes. It should be quite smooth and silky. Cover the dough and chill for two hours.
Cut into quarters, then roll out each piece as thinly as possible - lightness is the hallmark of a great oreillette, and lightness comes from thinness. Cut each thin piece of pastry into strips 15cm x 5cm across. Make a light slash or slit in the middle of each.
Heat 2cm-3cm vegetable oil in a frying pan until the oil is almost smoking. Fry a few oreillettes at a time for 10 seconds or so, until golden brown. Drain on kitchen towel. Sprinkle with granulated sugar, then leave to cool.
Lawrence's mum's chocolate truffles
What I loved about these, aside from their taste, was that they really looked like truffles - lumpy and oddly shaped, as if they'd been dug out of the ground. Use another liqueur in the mix, if you're not that keen on Grand Marnier.
200g finest dark chocolate
75ml double cream
25ml Grand Marnier
25g Madeira cake crumbs
25g ground almonds
Put the chocolate and cream into a bain-marie. Bring the water slowly up to the boil and, stirring occasionally, wait for the chocolate to melt. Add the butter, then whisk for two minutes until creamy. Gradually add the liqueur, then the cake crumbs and the ground almonds. Refrigerate the mixture for at least four hours.
Form the truffle mix into irregular small balls. Or irregular large balls. The number you make will depend on how big you make them. Roll in cocoa and chill again, preferably overnight.
Ilaria's mum's cantuccini
Ilaria is from Emilia, northern Italy. She is grandson George's girlfriend. She is as calm as she is beautiful and as fine a cook as she is calm. That's what George says.
250g unpeeled almonds
150g caster sugar
100g vanilla sugar
250g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
Preheat the oven to 160C/325F/gas mark 3. Roughly chop or crush the almonds. Beat together the eggs and all the sugar. Sift in the flour. Mix well. Add the almonds and baking powder. Turn the mixture out on to a lightly floured surface and roll into a sausage shape about 4cm across. Cut into six equal parts.
On a nonstick sheet, press each piece with your hand into a flat, round circle. Each disc should be about 1cm thick. Bake the discs for 15 minutes, then turn up the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4 for a further 10 minutes. Remove the discs from the oven and, while they are still hot, cut them into 1cm-wide strips. Leave to cool in a dry room until crunchy. The longer you leave them, the crunchier they'll be. Serve with vin santo, although they were also very good with the beer, believe it or not.
Mother Fort's brandy snaps
There's no mystery to these. This is the classic format. But my mother does make them, and then she fills them with whipped cream. There are never enough. This makes about 16 brandy snaps.
50g golden syrup
50g caster sugar
50g plain flour
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp brandy
Preheat the oven to 160C/325F/gas mark 3. Put the golden syrup, butter and sugar into a saucepan. Place over a moderate heat and stir gently until all the ingredients have melted together. Off the heat, sift in the flour and ginger, and mix well. Add the brandy.
Place separate teaspoonsful of the mixture on to a well-buttered baking tray or oven tray lined with silicone paper or, best of all, one of those wonderful nonstick space-age sheets. Make sure that each blob has plenty of space around it, because it will melt and spread 10cm or more in all directions. Bake for eight to 10 minutes, then leave to cool for a couple of minutes.
Use a little extra butter to grease the handles of several wooden spoons. One by one, lift the biscuits off the tray with a palette knife, then roll around a greased wooden spoon handle. Hold the brandy snap until cool, just a minute or so, and then put it to rest on a wire rack.
It takes a little practice to get this right, so it might be a good idea to make double the quantity of the mix - if you get it right first time, you'll just have more biscuits; there is no such thing as too many brandy snaps. If the biscuits become difficult to roll, warm them again ever so slightly until they soften.