I opened a cupboard the other day

Go to your cupboards immediately… they are filled with buried treasure, not monetary, sorry!

Its all about who you are and where you come from. Its your life! Much of it stacked away in the back of a cupboard that has not even seen the light of day for a very long time. Maybe even in a box in the shed.

I opened a cupboard the other day, rummaged around a bit and then stood back, it was like taking a trip in history, most of what was in there was old detritus from both sides of my family. It all begs the question that I have asked many times, is it when you get older that looking back is better than what is ahead? Damned if I know, but it was great fun looking into the cupboard and dreaming of times past. For all that our family is simple and uncomplicated, don’t be too sure!! See what you can find out from the back of the cupboard…..

The Blessed Iris came from Mount Gambier, she was born there, when I was a kid lots of her family still lived there and it was there that I often went for school holidays. Feather Farm was the small farm of one of Mum’s sisters, Auntie Vi. Violet Watson had married Fred Smith and produced some four children. Auntie Vi had become the complete country woman, wore Fred’s old pants, dressed for work, hardly ever for fashion, except on Fridays when she and Fred would go into town for the weekly shop, banking and a bit of socialising. Mum’s sisters were in the main elegant women who adored fashion, dressed well and married ‘appropriate’ men. Although in my mother case, I think my very grounded, sports mad butchering father was a little at odds with the artistic, temperamental lady he married. I doubt he ever understood her. Auntie Vi on the other hand, embraced the fairly rugged lifestyle of the farm and simply set about making the best of what she had. Her often abrupt no nonsense nature was a bit scary for me and I would usually avoid too much contact for fear of being laughed at or scolded, I was treated just the same as her own children and no quarter given because I was a town boy.

Fred Smith ran the small farm, just a mile or two out of town, as a dairy property, Auntie Vi ran chooks for the eggs and to sell for eating at festive times. The chooks were mostly normal red, black, white chooks, but included in the mob were quite a number of Bantams and it was their eggs that the family used. Breakfast after the cows were milked was a magnificent affair by my standards, Auntie Vi would leave the milking shed when the last cow entered the bails, she stayed because she knew all the cows by name, she thought it was hilarious that I was amazed she knew their names. For her, they would remain placid and calm, her sons always anxious about not missing the school bus, often stirred up the cows to hurry them along. I was a town kid and just in the way. Besides I was afraid of stepping in the giant pats of pooh and slipping on the wet stones that would have just confirmed the belief of my cousins that I was a week and wimpy town kid who could not face the rigours of country living. While it may have been true, there was no way I was about to admit it, besides the initiation my cousin had planned for me was impossible and I refused to eat the barbecued rat he had caught and cooked. My refusal of course did nothing at all to raise my status with my cousins!

She would head for the house and there crank up the wood stove until it was glowing hot, she would start to toast the many slices of bread needed to feed her family, the ‘toaster’ was a number of toasting forks that were propped up on the open grate of the stove fire, all buttered as they cooked, Auntie Vi was ever vigilant with money and even though they made their own butter from a little cream that was kept back from the dairy truck, it was not something to be wasted, on Thursday it would be needed when she baked for the day to fill the biscuit and cake tins for the weekend. Besides churning the creamy milk by hand was not something that she enjoyed and the making of butter, even though she had a glass butter churn was laborious. Home made butter from freshly milked cows from good green pasture, simply mixed with a little salt, is an experience not to be missed, although in todays world of fear of contamination, the butter has become a repository for chemicals.

The large black metal frying pan that was always on the stove and rarely seemed to be out of use, was again put into action with a lick or two from the dripping pot that stood to one side of the stove to contain all the fats and juices that came from the many roasts and fried meats. Auntie Vi would then commence cooking the small bantam eggs that she collected from around the farm. She usually allowed three or four eggs per person and with five plus she and Fred, that meant frying twenty odd eggs, the old pan seemed to impart its own magic taste to the eggs which always came with a soft yellow middle and crispy outer edge and were delicious, they were never more than a day or two old and the bantams free ranged from morning to night. The big scrubbed pine kitchen table was always the venue for every meal, filled with plates of buttered toast, plates of fried egg, several jams left in their jars from the jam making sessions that took place all year as the various fruits ripened. Auntie Vi’s favourite jam was Apricot, that was ever present, homemade Apricot jam with a few slivers of almond is completely delicious and for me captures much of summer. Standing proud in the centre of the table was  a huge brown ceramic teapot with a knitted cover and a large jug of fresh milk for the many cups of tea the family would drink. The big black kettle would be on the side of the wood stove just sort of gurgling away waiting to top up the giant tea pot. The smell of the frying eggs and toast, the fresh milk and the chatter and often robust exchange that took place at the table were in stark contrast to my own home. My father would have long left for work, my sister would not be woken at the same time as me, so breakfast in out house was usually just Mum and I, a pot of tea, the old silver toaster and a few pots of Mums jams. Eggs in the morning were not something that was common in our house, although my father, who ate his breakfast at the family butcher shop, indulged, as did his brothers, in a fry up for breakfast. The school bus came to collect the four Smith children at 8.15 am on the dot, they would be waiting beside the big hedge at the front as the bus came rattling down the hill.

The Ven iris and I had journeyed from Port Fairy to Mount Gambier, along with my small sister, on the blue Ansett bus that seemed to me to roar and belch as it made its way long the highway to Portland and then on to Mount Gambier. This bus was by no means a direct non stop service, it was used by people living along its route as a commuter bus, people standing beside the road would signal as the bus approached and clamber on board, tell the driver their destination, pay the fare and settle into a seat, taking a good look around in case there was any fellow traveller they knew. You could even ask the bus driver to stop at some farm gate or other where you could dash out and buy some apples, potato or what ever was on offer. All in all it was a great experience. Conversations often started and even the occasional sing along instigated by a happy traveller. I loved these trips and looked forward to the whole journey, the stops for a cup of tea, lunch in Portland and the eventual arrival in the afternoon in the Mount, to be collected by one or other of Mum’s brothers or sisters. Until Nanna died mum would most likely stay with her Mother in the old family home and later with Auntie Mon, I suspect that the staying with her mother was not something that the Ven Iris enjoyed, Nanna was a trial at the best of times and rarely much fun, there would have been some joy as the house next door was occupied by Mum’s brother Lon. I would stay a day or two with them and then off to feather farm for a bit of romping about with the Smith kids. Getting me lost at the outer reaches of the paddocks was always great fun for the boys.

On one occasion the two boys decided that we had better explore a paddock across the road from feather farm, the object this day was to explore birds nests and if we were lucky, get an egg or two for their collection, this meant facing angry birds who would swoop and peck at us as we approached their nests. The boys knew of one hollow tree that was often the nesting place for parrots or cockatoos, its twisted and broken greyed trunk offering all sorts of cracks and crevices for bird life. As we climbed the trunk, my cousin put his foot through a particularly rotten section and to his amazement, unearthed a treasure trove of coins, bank notes and small silver items. We had become instantly wealthy, for a minute or two. Soon with great enthusiasm we were running to the house to let Auntie Vi know, in no time flat Uncle Fred was sent off to the phone down the road to call the police. In the end it was thought to be the ill gotten gains from a robbery that had occurred many years before and was quickly scooped up by the police and handed to the court. The family was all agog, it was said that if no one claimed the haul then it would be handed back to them. Wrong of course, but for a day or two the whole family dreamed of a life of richness and no hard work.

The bread that Auntie Vi sliced and cooked for breakfast and which appeared on the table at every meal, was made by Uncle Brick, husband to Auntie Mon… one of my food heroines. Uncle brick’s real name was Arthur, but called Brick by all, just why I don’t know, but his build was big and rugged and that may well have been the reason for the name. His family were bakers in Mount Gambier, they had a bakery and shop in the main street of town and to this day I can still recall the sight and smell of the shop and the delicious sugar buns that almost as we arrived in Mount Gambier, were my mothers first purchase and the supply of them was continuous during our stay. Uncle Brick and his brothers made some great breads based on the locally grown and milled flours of the region. Cooked in a wood fired oven that was never allowed to get cold, the bread although yeasted also contained the wild yeasts that permeated the bakery. There was only a choice of ‘white or brown’, in the white it was either high tin or sandwich loaf and in the brown, only ever a small high tin. I suspect that the brown had a percentage of stone ground flour, but that the colour and taste was helped along with the addition of some malt. It was great bread and I miss it today as I miss the bread of the Port Fairy bakers.

Uncle Brick was great friends with my dad and they would spend hours with their pipes alight and maybe sharing a beer. I think that they had both experienced the war and so shared a lot of memories. Auntie Mon was a woman of expansive and joyous nature and whilst she was a great cook and more than competent at keeping her household running, she, like all her family and perhaps because Nanna Watson was so upright and earnest (there is a story that tells of the time when at a tennis tournament in Mount  Gambier, my mother and her girlfriend had made a knee length pair of culottes for playing tennis, Nanna Watson was so horrified that a child of hers would be seen in such clothing that she forced the family to eat lunch at the back of the tennis shed in case anyone would see my mother and thus bring shame on to the family) enjoyed a riotous good time, loved a drink, loved a party and when the sisters were all together, flirted with men outrageously. Uncle Brick found himself unable to face all of this, together with the fact that his only child had been forced to marry, was too much for him, he took his own life by putting a gun to his head. My father was desperately sad and I recall at the funeral Auntie Mon was completely stunned by disbelief. I suspect that she was only ever ‘playing’ but that Brick was unable to accept that situation.

All this came about because a neighbour, knowing my love of things old and foodie was cleaning her cupboards had decided that the new kitchen and dining room she had installed was no longer a place that could house things that had no use. She loaded the whole lot and brought it to me. It was like a treasure trove.

Have you ever seen a TV show or movie set back in the days of the Edwardian era where dinner or lunch was taken with great aplomb and dignity not to mention a whole lot of style. The bits and pieces she generously gave me were all from that time. Not to say I was there in that time, but thanks for thinking that I was that old… but my mother was, the Ven Iris knew times like that and given a sherry or two would sit and regale you with memories of times past from her large family with lots of siblings and her mother and fathers many brothers and sisters.

The Edwardian era was a time when great style was still in demand, take a look at the clothing, the wonderful dresses, the amazing hats, the shoes… both for men and women, it was a stylish time. In many ways this style was also transferred to the lives of the people, they lived well and enjoyed foods and wines of often, great complexity, think of the work that the great French Chefs did, people like Escoffier see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auguste_Escoffier did. Yet strangely this style and taste often did not translate into the houses which may have been a hang over from the Victorian era, they were often dark and gloomy, frequently with overblown decoration. The furniture heavy and over dressed.

My mother also reminded me on one occasion that travel in that era was something that was done with as much style as possible, in the latter part of the era, (about 1900 to 1920) train travel (even the trains were for the most part very ‘woody and dark coloured) was the most frequently chosen means to get around the country and was done in overblown carriages with food on-board that matched, I recall the story of one occasion when my mother and her siblings went for a day trip to the beach from Mount Gambier to Port McDonnell, the train journey was a time of great socialising, great food and much fun. Those who enjoyed the trip, dressed with care and attention to detail and every effort was made to make the event a complete success. I have the photo’s.

On this particular trip, my mother’s brother Charle was home, he was without doubt the black sheep in the family and had run away to join the navy, he had of course neglected to also advise his family that he was, not to put to fine a point on it, gay as a goose! His visits home to Mount Gambier were much looked forward to by his sisters, he was by all accounts a mad cap personality who did not let his sexual predilections nor his mother’s profound disapproval, sway him in any way, his life was all about fun. A sad note: My Uncle Charle was also in time, a complete alcoholic and was found wandering beside some railway tracks in Sydney and was given into the care of an order of Catholic nuns where he died before his sisters could make it to Sydney to see him. I am not sure if this was ever told to his mother who was a very sour woman who essentially disapproved of everything and anything which did not fit within her narrow Christian parameters. Mind you, should she have known a lot more about her own children, including her daughters and her other son, she may well have had cause to reflect badly on the products of her own loins. But that’s stories for another time.

This is a great site for picnic fare… http://www.the-picnic-site.com/index.html

All this just to talk some more about Edwardian eating and using the fish knives and forks that my kind neighbour had bequeathed me in her clean out. Life has changed a lot, while its true that few these days can afford the high costs of servants and fewer still the massive houses and kitchens that were deemed as essential for every day living in that era. I recall my Maternal Grandmother’s house which had two stoves, one for solid fuel and a new fangled gas range, Grandmother apparently would not allow the removal of the much loved and proven solid fuel cooker just in case the gas supply, generated in fact very close to my Aunty Mons house and stored in a gigantic cylinder that floated on water and rose up and down as the amount of gas fluctuated. My Grandmother was not about to trust these modern appliances.

In Nanna Watsons house there was a route cellar. These have not completely disappeared from vogue and perhaps with good reason. I suspect that they were an Australian (or European peasant) version of the wet and dry pantries that were found in every large Edwardian home. Nanna Watson’s was under the tank stand and was more than half into the earth and for the fact that it was often warm and wet in Mount Gambia, this place remained cool and dry. Mum’s father was a keen gardener and grew most of the vegetable and fruit needs of the family and this is where they were stored, well protected from animals and insects. There is a secret to how, and perhaps this link will help anyone considering building one.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Root_cellar

Life has changed a lot, in a period of some fifty years, there has been the most amazing advances as well as some awful losses. Much fear has been generated by the obsessive concern for avoiding germs and possible contamination. This has caused us to be told to wash our hands even after handling bank notes, that foods now are so over processed and so much regulation surrounds them, that the production of natural or even organic foods is no longer something that you can take for granted or the label be accepted for what is written on it. Whole companies are dedicated to the art of writing a label that will fool the public into believing that’s which is simply untrue. It is interesting to contemplate the increase in some major illnesses that seem to be occurring… diabetes and our quite unbelievable intolerance to nuts and gluten, is an example… which did not seem to be so much in evidence fifty years ago. It will be argued that back then the technology did not exist to diagnose many of these complaints, which may be true. It is hard not to believe that because of our obsessive governance, we are in danger of having nothing internal to battle these new bacteria, that our young people who are now so entranced by the power of the internet and computer, no longer enjoy, understand or have any wish to be in, the outdoors, are forging new ground that may alter society for ever in the future. In the end we have no choice but to accept these changes, try hard to ensure that what is changed, continues in some way to be the best we can experience, to establish new norms for our ways of eating that will continue to see us only accepting the very best. I wonder why it is that many people today are eliminating many foods from their diets, on the basis that it is not good for you, when in the past people like my own Grandparents lived well into their eighties in rugged good health. My Father’s father, Poppie, drank, smoked and ate excessively all his life and lived till he was 94. How?

 

 

~ by peterwatsonfood on April 19, 2012.

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