Monday, 23 November 2009

Treat this place like a hotel!

When I first arrived at my former rented bed-sit, I was weighed down with my mother’s French cast-iron pots and pans and two suitcases. The taxi had inadvertently dropped me off at the wrong house, a single family home. The owners must have had a shock seeing me arrive outside their door, struggling to carry all my worldly chattels down their front path.

People entering my bed-sit for the first time would invariably comment that it was cosy, a more diplomatic way of saying: Blimey, it’s small! I think it must have been the original box room of the Edwardian house. Despite its cramped nature, it had a splendid view over the mature and generously proportioned garden at the back. Instead of having fairies, we had a railway track at the bottom of our garden, meaning that it had escaped being built on. Besides, the bed-sit suited my needs at the time. I could have friends around for a meal and sometimes to stay. Being not long out of university, nobody minded sleeping on the divan on the floor or crowding around my small dining table to eat; one person perched precariously on the end of the bed, one person seated at the other end on a chair and two people seated side by side on the remaining chairs. The latter were wedged together so tightly, I recall one male friend gallantly and discreetly adjusting the sides of my wrap skirt, whenever they slipped apart to reveal rather too much thigh. I only had two gas rings and a grill to begin with. I discovered I could bake an open tart case if I carefully cooked the underneath of the pastry, by placing the tin on top of the naked flame of the gas hob, and then placing it under the grill to cook it through. I later bought an electric saucepan which allowed me to progress to roasting and baking dishes.

My interest in cooking began as a schoolgirl. Whenever my mother was out of the country, I would invite friends over for a meal. On one occasion the five of us prepared a roast chicken. The table was laid with the rather grand Wedgwood china my mother had received as a wedding present and had kept wrapped up in a box ever since, other than when I made the occasional secret foray to retrieve it. As the roast chicken was being placed on to a serving plate, someone thought to enquire where the giblets were in order to make the gravy. In those days, supermarket chickens came complete with their giblets, stored in a plastic bag in the cavity. We were forced to jettison the chicken and fry some sausages instead. Despite our school’s renown for its academic prowess, girls were still taught domestic science. I remember bringing home risotto I had made one day, in an empty coffee jar and obliging some unsuspecting relative to eat it all.

When we were in self catering accommodation at university, my friend Lynda and I took it in turn to cook ourselves a new dish each week, to expand our repertoire. I seem to recall we ate rather a lot of cooked liver, as it was nutritious and, more importantly, within out very limited budget. I was also exposed to Asian and Indian cuisine for the first time as foreign student friends cooked us their regional dishes. Until I went to university I had never had yoghurt or seen an aubergine or bell pepper, let alone tasted garlic. The range of exotic food available in Finchley was very different from the traditional English palate of my childhood. It made attempting the sophisticated recipes in cookbooks a real possibility, as opposed to a complete non starter with the realisation that key ingredients were unavailable.

In addition to cooking for friends, I began to bake fruit cakes for office parties. I found the trick to getting people to start eating a fruit cake was to ensure a few slices had already been cut for them. No-one wanted to be the first to cut a slice off lest they be thought greedy if the slice was too large, or else risk cutting off too small a slice and then having to wait impatiently until everyone else had helped themselves before taking another. One male colleague, whilst eating my cake, pinned me up against the library stacks as he recited all the dishes I had served over the years to a mutual friend. He was a strange man. Rumour had it that he had once lived and worked in a lighthouse, something he always vehemently denied. I later discovered that he had indeed worked in a light-house. I never understood why he should want to hide such an intriguing and romantic facet of his past.

Then as now, to make the most of the limited space available, I always endeavoured to ensure my home was tidy whenever I had guests around. Before she began to enjoy the high life as an advertising executive, May used my rented bed-sit as a base whenever she returned to England. As the pictures show, my efforts to maintain a reasonable semblance of order proved impossible if May came to stay.