It seems obvious to initiate the conversation of ‘kitchen memories’ with my very early kitchen experiences. It’s a cloudy Saturday afternoon and I’m in my Grandmother’s kitchen. Lunch has happened and my Granddad has cleared the plates away and disappeared off to tinker with gadgets somewhere. I’m most likely wheedling to my Granny that I’m bored. The kitchen is a portal to another time, to the 1970’s, with lurid, orange and red flowery wallpaper and a brick-red aga glowing against the far wall. The view out of the paned windows is green and willowy and distinctly English; swans are wiggling along the riverbank and the neighbours are playing croquet. It still smells faintly like lunch; my Grandmother’s house usually had the lingering toasty, salty, sweet aroma of breakfast mingled with the lemony scent of furniture polish.
My Granny herself is a blur of efficiency and perfumed, brusque, motherly affection. She’s already pulled the tart tins down from the cupboard with an unceremonious clatter and is telling me to get my little apron out of the draw. I remember that pastry, when I was young, was always made with margarine. It came in a huge, square tub and had to be scooped out with a tablespoon like slick, fatty ice cream and placed into the brass bowl of the scales. The scales were magnificent; black and brass with weights that had to be piled together according to size and made the most satisfying sound when stacked. I would always overshoot the weighing of flour and cause the scales to tip suddenly too far with a mechanical clunk. Flour would have to be levelled off with a spoon until balance was cautiously attained and both sides hovered in perfect equilibrium; a lesson in physics.
Learning to rub fat into flour was a difficult concept for me to grasp as a young child, it required a lightness of touch and an instinctive reading of textures that I didn’t yet possess, my Granny would inevitably finish the job for me and roll out the pastry with a speed and strength that I marvelled at. I’m sure there was a flour shaker, a lovely red thing that made snow on the worktop (though I may be remembering my Mother’s flour shaker, or perhaps both Grandmother and Mother had the same flour shaker). I loved pressing the ripple-edged metal cutters into the pastry, having next to no spatial awareness I would have started cutting in the middle and the pastry would need to be scrunched together and re-rolled several times before the tart tin was full. My favourite task was undoubtedly scooping the jam from the big Robinsons jam tub and distributing it over-zealously into the tart shells; ensuring it would boil over in its liquid state and adhere to the tin.
It takes perhaps ten minutes for jam tarts to cook and it felt like an age. As a child I would need another activity to occupy this acre of empty time, probably looking through my Granny’s button collection or sitting on the swing in the garden. The additional time spent waiting for the tarts to cool was always a cruel, unanticipated setback that threatened to darken my mood. The tarts would be placed to cool on a metal rack and I would sniff them from the edge of the counter, the cases were a pale, golden brown and the jam would be dark and treacly around the spilt edges. Despite my generous filling I always preferred the tarts that were more pastry than jam; I think I could have happily eaten plain, cooked pastry for every meal, it really satisfied my childhood passion for beige foods. I hated the centre bite of the tart, where it was all jam and only a thin layer of pastry; I would pucker my mouth at the overbearing sweetness and bite desperately on a pastry-dominant edge. The tarts were best when they were almost too hot to eat, when they were sticky and dangerous. They were then presented at teatime (an immovable tradition) and my Granddad would pick one from the plate, eat it with relish and twinkle his eyes at me. My Grandmother was never keen on jam tarts but I failed to observe that she didn’t eat them, by then I was most likely somewhere else in the house, my little hands freshly scrubbed of flour, high on sugar and indulging in elaborate imaginary games.