You know how the French are always going on about "la cuisine de ma grand-mère" or giving recipes "à la façon de grand-mère Tatou", and it all has a whiff of Proustian nostalgie about it? We British are more reticent about declaring such ancestor worship, and anyway, "Granny's cooking" and "done Granny's way" don't have quite the same ring to them. All the same, I was thinking the other day about the part my grandmother's culinary excursions had to play in forming my sense of pleasure in food.
The first memory that causes saliva to gather at the corners of my mouth is that of hot chocolate the colour of mahogany and glossy, with a fat comma of whipped evaporated milk on its surface. Then there were wet afternoons spent making fudge and toffee and peppermint creams, the kitchen saturated with the smells of hot sugar, butter and the clean whiff of mint. It is all idyllic through the prism of memory, but a consultation with my brothers reveals that we squabbled over who scraped the bowls and over whose was the best, and then got sick from eating too much of the end product. It doesn't do to get too misty-eyed.
With Granny's help, we graduated to kidneys, pigs' trotters, brains, home-made ginger beer and elderflower champagne, oysters and so many of the delicacies that have run like golden threads through my eating life. Here are three dishes that I remember with, ah yes, Proustian clarity, although I have had to recreate them from taste memory. Sadly, Granny never wrote down her recipes.
Recipes serve four.
Granny's touch of genius was to sprinkle bits of crispy bacon over the surface of her pie before serving. It adds a wonderful, savoury crunch to this supper dish.
225g smoked haddock
300ml full-cream milk
225g fresh haddock, skinned
150g shell-on Atlantic prawns, peeled
25g plain flour
Salt and pepper
For the topping
150ml full-cream milk
1 bunch spring onions
200g thin-cut bacon (or pancetta)
Salt and pepper
Hard-boil the eggs, cool in cold water, peel and set aside. Poach the smoked haddock gently in the milk with the bayleaves for five to six minutes. Lift out the fish, sieve the milk into a bowl and set aside. Skin the smoked haddock and break up the flesh. Cut the fresh haddock into chunks. Put all the fish into a buttered baking dish and add the prawns. Cut up the egg and scatter on top. Heat the butter in a pan. When it is foaming, add the flour and cook for a minute. Add the reserved milk and cook over a high heat until the sauce thickens. Season, then pour over the fish.
Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/gas mark 6. Peel, boil and mash the potatoes. Bring the milk to boiling point, then beat into the potatoes. Finely chop the spring onions, including the green bits, and stir in. Dollop the potato over the fish and spread out evenly (which is not the same as smoothly - a touch of unevenness is essential in a fish pie). Bake for 20 minutes. Just before it's ready, fry the bacon until crisp, drain on kitchen towel, break into bits and scatter over the pie before serving.
There was no part of an animal my granny wouldn't eat. Had they been widely available, I am sure calves' sweetbreads would have been her gland of choice, but she made do with sheep's sweetbreads, as I have here. She braised them in Madeira, but that is expensive so I've used marsala, which gives a wonderfully rich gravy; you could turn as effectively to white wine, vermouth or cider. Granny ate these with buttered rice and peas. I can't think of anything better.
800g sheep's sweetbreads
3 shallots, finely diced
200g bacon, cut into thin strips
Salt and pepper
150ml marsala (or other booze)
Blanch the sweetbreads in lightly salted boiling water for two to three minutes. Drain and leave to cool. Use a small, sharp knife to peel away the membrane and any bloody bits. Melt the butter in a pan. Add the sweetbreads and carefully brown all over. Add the shallots and fry over a gentle heat until soft. Add the bacon and fry for three minutes. Season lightly, pour in the marsala and simmer for 10 minutes. Your sweetbreads are ready.
I can't find a recipe that bears any resemblance to my Granny's airy creation. According to an 18th-century dish quoted by Dorothy Hartley in Food In England, you start off making a flummery with oatmeal. This was not my Granny's way - no oatmeal for her. And where's the cream and evaporated milk? Anyway, after lots of experimentation I came up with this. As an evoker of my youth, it kind of hits the spot.
1kg gooseberries, topped and tailed
225g caster sugar
Juice of ½ lemon
2 level tsp powdered gelatine
75ml evaporated milk
75ml whipping cream
Put the gooseberries into a pan with the sugar and a little water. Simmer until the skins burst and the berries go pulpy. Take off the heat, add the lemon and push through a sieve or mouli.
Add 150ml cold water to the gelatine and leave to stand for two minutes. Pop it into a microwave, give it a few bursts until the gelatine has dissolved, then stir into the fruit purée. Heat the evaporated milk to boiling point, whip it to make it as frothy as possible, then stir it into the purée. Leave to cool, during which time it will start to set. Whip the cream, fold it in, decant the lot into a clean bowl and chill until set.