Teenage rebellions come in different shapes and sizes. Mine was to use my fifteenth birthday money to buy Peggy Hutchinson’s ‘Old English Cookery’. My mother was baffled and - yes - not a little pained. The fascination with cookery wasn’t the surprise. Good lord, no: my mother was an excellent cook. She adored Elizabeth David and was just a little bit proud of the fact that it was she who had brought the cheese and wine party to Lincolnshire in the 1960s (“What would you like to drink, Colin?” “Oo, a gin and tonic, please,” “Colin, this is a cheese and wine party!”), so a daughter who looked to follow in her footsteps was only to be expected. What was the problem?
It can’t have been much fun being the illegitimate daughter of a domestic cook, growing up in the 1930s, but Mum was clever and charming and had the backing of some strong women behind her. Given her mother’s absences working away from home, firstly in domestic service and later in hotels, she was brought up in large measure by her grandmother. But there was Aunty Vi as well, a barmaid in Holborn (who was once chatted up by Augustus John!) and the softly terrifying Aunty Jess, who was a parlourmaid, and who laid down her law in an unanswerable gentle Welsh lilt. Mum’s mum, Bronwen, was a wonderful cook, by all accounts, her apple soup being what we would now call her ‘signature dish’. Once Mum won a scholarship to high school the Evans women dedicated themselves to the cause of Elvira’s future. All must be silence for her to do her homework. Her school plays were attended in force. And, naturally, there was no need to teach her to cook; she was destined for much higher things.
Elvira won a scholarship to Girton College, Cambridge in 1942. She chose Girton, over RADA and Somerville, Oxford, because Girton provided bed linen and the others didn’t. Her teachers at Southend-on-Sea High School for Girls clubbed together to buy her a bicycle. She threw herself into university life, all the more so, I imagine, in her final year, when the university was invaded by returning servicemen. One of them was my father, Donald, who had seen Elvira act (as had John Gielgud, as it happens, who had said she ‘spoke verse beautifully’) and had worshipped from afar. He must have been delighted to have been introduced to her by mutual friends in the queue in Fitzbillies cake shop one afternoon. Family legend has it that, as she was further forward in the queue than he, and the shop was running low on supplies, he said that if she would buy him a Chelsea bun he would take her out to tea the following day. Decades later I told this story to a rather grumpy assistant there who said that no Chelsea buns were made during rationing and that it must have been a bread cake. So there.
Donald was the son of a Buckinghamshire chair maker, also at Cambridge on a scholarship. The two married and set up home in a furnished room in Hampstead as Donald took up teaching posts, first at Dulwich College and then at Haberdashers Askes. Mum’s situation must have been a strange one indeed. She had no job and there were no domestic tasks to speak of, until children arrived five years later. Cleaning was included in the rent of the first bedsit and cleaning was something they continued to pay for, even when funds were tight. Perhaps, therefore, it is no surprise that cookery became a focus for Mum’s creative energies. What was she to do, then? Dad’s mother was a hard act to follow, if you loved stews and cherry pies and Buckinghamshire stirred pudding and gooseberry crumble and Donald did. At this point Elizabeth David came to Mum’s rescue, with Mediterranean glamour and an intellectual superiority over all things culinary. I firmly believe we were the first family in the whole of the east of England to eat spaghetti Bolognese, although we thought it had to be made from chopped cold lamb from Sunday lunch rather than mince.
The 1960s and 1970s brought camping holidays to France, from which we brought home the exotic trophies of garlic and olive oil and aubergines. I found it all fascinating, of course. Whether it was shyly accepting a present of a bowl of red currants from an elderly Belgian across the campsite fence or trotting out my carefully rehearsed, “Une baguette s’il vous plait,” in the village boulangerie, I loved it all. Even that very smelly French cheese which was relegated to the caravan tow bar and which clung on all the way back to Blighty…
And yet it was Peggy’s book I bought with that birthday postal order and none of Elizabeth’s, thereby provoking my mother’s faintly curling lip. It was a long and hugely enjoyable journey back into my culinary home. There are some activities which connect us to those who have gone before. We can never meet them, but we can hear their music, read their words and, of course, eat their food. And so I feel I have come to know, through hotpots and cakes and a wonderful variety of pickles, the women from whom I spring.
I’m still working on the apple soup recipe, though...