Every now and again a cry goes up urging us to go back to basics, a move trumpeted as the antidote to everything that ails us.
I must admit to a recent longing for some of the basic foodstuffs I remember from my young life; simple things like the joys of buttered scones, jam and brown sauce, not all in the same dish, I might add. These are among the tastes that graced my palette as a youngster and, of late, I’ve experienced an inexplicable longing to taste them again.
When I was growing up, mealtimes were the metronome that maintained the rhythm of the day. All things were scheduled around breakfast, dinner, tea and supper. There were also minor break times. In some households mid-morning was marked by what posh people called ‘elevenses’, whereas many rural homesteads regarded the ‘four o clock’ as sacrosanct. On farms with a dairy herd the afternoon collation was the important one, being the last bit, bite or sup one got until the cows were milked.
The ‘four-o-clock’ was the original rural take-away, transported from the kitchen to wherever the work was happening, be it in meadow, haggard, haybarn or potato field. Delivering the repast was the job of those not quite old enough to pike hay, sow spuds, drive a tractor or operate a chainsaw. Prior to being press-ganged into the world of ‘real men’s work’, one had to serve one’s time in the mobile catering department hauling the four-o-clock.
The light afternoon meal generally consisted of tea and home-made scones lathered in butter and topped off with jam. Sometimes there might be a few (buttered) slices of ‘spotted dog’, a type of soda bread speckled with raisins, (in some houses it was known as ‘spotted dick’, a name that fell out of favour for obvious reasons). The fare could also include fruitcake or barmbrack, depending on the time of year.
The tea was carried in whiskey bottles snuggled into thick woollen socks and corked with wedges of tightly rolled newspaper. The scones and cake were on a large dinner plate draped in a tea towel. It was no small feat for a pair of bony youngsters in short pants to carry all that food and drink, plus a few mugs, from one end of the farm to the other. There were no internal farm roads or sleek electric fences at that time. One had to haul the assortment of refreshments across cattle-poached fields and over stone walls, thick with profusions of briars and nettles at either side.
To add to the challenge, those of us selected for the fodder party were often late leaving the house and our mother would send us off with the injunction, “if ye fall don’t wait to get up.”
To sustain us on our odyssey to the outer reaches of the land, on occasion we found it necessary to commandeer some of the fare meant for the men. Depending on how far we were from our destination, there could be more than one raid mounted on the plate of goodies. We often arrived at our rendezvous with full bellies and a much depleted supply wagon. When my father and grandfather would see the meagre pickings remaining on the plate one of them would ask, “Does your mother think tis a pair of snipes she’s feeding?” We would try not to hiccup.
So, what took me on this journey back through the decades? Well, I was in the supermarket during the week and as I passed an array of baked goods my attention was drawn to a basket of scones. Although individually wrapped in cellophane, they looked delicious. Something rumbled deep in my gastronomic memory as I imagined one of them sliced in half, covered in butter and jam and smiling up at me.
As if possessed by some external force I picked up a pair of the soft, brown mounds of gorgeousness and made straight for the shelves containing the condiments and preserves. I quickly selected a pot of strawberry jam.
Still in a state of possession, as I passed a shelf lined with sauces and spices from Bangalore to Ballymaloe my nostalgia-stricken eyes spotted a simple bottle of Chef brown sauce. Remembering there was some cold beef in the fridge the ultimate supper began to take shape in my head; a few tomatoes, a few slices of brown bread, slivers of beef and a spoonful of brown sauce on the side - what more could a country boy ask for? Such feasting, I would enjoy the perfect supper within hours of luxuriating in the perfect four-o-clock. Grabbing the bottle of sauce by the neck I deposited it in the basket with the rest of my retro fare and headed for the checkout in full mid-twentieth century mode. I almost expected to pay for it in shillings and pence.
When I got home and set my purchases down on the kitchen table the current consort looked at them, looked at me and wondered if I had become stuck in existential reverse, “The next thing you’ll be wearing short pants,” she said.
“You wish,” I replied, “put on the kettle, my little cowslip, we’re going back to basics.”
First published in the Farming Independent on Tuesday, March 9th 2021