1 FEBRUARY 1963, Page 30

Consuming Interest

How It All Began


It was the winter of 1946-47. In the late summer of 1946 I had returned to England after some years spent in the Middle East and a brief period in the Farther one.

After years of enjoying comparative plenty, rationing was a challenge. Everyone else had hoards of things like powdered soups and packets of dehydrated egg to which they were con- ditioned. 1 started off untrammelled; an empty cupboard was an advantage. With whatever I could get I cooked like one possessed. The frus- trations were great. All the same, one managed some entertainment. Nobody ever came to a meal without bringing contributions. Unexpected ones sometimes. A wild goose. Snails from Paris. Mock liver pat6 from Fortnum's. British Gov- ernment-bought Algerian wine. One of my sisters turned up from Vienna with a hare which she claimed had been caught by hand outside the State Opera House.

Game was plentiful everywhere that year. Even if one didn't actually catch pheasants in Ken- sington High Street, one could buy them very cheaply in the shops. Wild duck, although dis- tinctly fishy some of them, were not more than a shilling apiece. My landlady, living in the house in which she had let me a flat, was saintly. Not once did she complain about the cooking smells,

the garlic, the onions, those eternal bacon bones simmering in the stock. . . . About the heating

she was; with the best will in the world, power-

less. Literally. And gas-less. By mid-January of that year the fire in my sitting-room was reduced

to a candle-splutter. Impossible to heat the water.

My wardrobe, after so long in -warm climates, was inadequate. Clothes coupons went nowhere.

At this moment somebody put into my head the idea of going to stay, at reduced all-in rates, in a hotel at Ross-on-Wye. You may well ask . . . I didn't. I just went.

I knew little in those days of English hotels. It was many years since I had been exposed to them. This one was adequately warm, and that was miracle enough. There was a fine coal fire in the public sitting-room, a maid to bring hot- water bottles and breakfast in bed. I had friends near by.

In Ross-on-Wye, I was told, there are more public-houses to the square yard than in any other town in these islands. There seemed to be some truth in the claim. Many of them were cider pubs. Up and down that steep hill I went, sampling every kind and degree of Hereford cider, most of it rough, some very rough indeed.

On one of these outings I came on an interest- ing-looking antique shop. A very large shop. with immense windows. These were filled from floor to ceiling with a fantastic jumble of every con- ceivable kind of antique. Lamps. china, glass, chairs, bedsteads, curtains, Sheffield candlesticks, desks, pictures, books, bookshelves, bronzes, Georgian silver coffee pots, horse brasses, cor- ner cupboards, whole services of dinner plates, soup tureens, sauce boats, statuary. The lady inside the shop was as unusual as her windows. I shall call her Miss D. If you asked to look at something. she pulled it out from amid the morass, regardless. A chandelier would come rippling to the ground. A Biedermeier sofa stand- ing on end would topple, upsetting a pile of Wedgwood.

'May I look at that Leeds ,dish?'

Miss D extracted it from underneath a ship's decanter and an early Peter Jones painted-waste- paper basket. 'There's a pair to it somewhere. Do you want it?'

'If you can find it.'

'Oh, here it is. Broken with that lot that just came down. Can't be helped.'

11 took the bereaved Leeds dish and put it in my basket before Miss D had a chance to knock it flying. The friend I was with rescued from under the lady's foot, and gave to me, a frail white jug with black transfers of John Wesley's head and a building called the Centenary Hall, dated 1839. As Miss D took my cheque her elbow jogged the tap of a copper tea-urn perched on top of a model four-masted barque in a heavy box frame. It knocked over a solid silver clock representing General Gordon sitting on a horse, which fell against a scrap screen, a japanned tray and a tortoiseshell and silver-inlaid musical box. The guts of the little musical box cracked out on to the floor. Miss D was un- shaken. 'Take care how you go out,' she said.

Visiting Miss D's shop became a compulsive occupation. Before I should myself acquire an abominable taste for cool, passionless destruc- tion, I decided to be gone from Ross-on-Wye. Not so easy. By this time the West Country was devastated by floods. Ross was in the Wye rather than on it. The BBC news announcements had a Shakespearean ring. 'Hereford's under water, Ludlow and Monmouth cut off, Gloucester flooded.' I was intending to go toward Bristol rather than back to London, so I stuck it out. It was an effort. By this time I was finding it very difficult indeed to swallow the food provided in the hotel. It was worse than unpardonable, even for those days of desperation; and, oddly, considering the kindly efforts made in other re- spects, produced with a bleak kind of triumph which amounted almost to a hatred of humanity

and humanity's needs. There was flour-and-water soup seasoned solely with pepper; bread-and- gristle rissoles; dehydrated onions and carrots; corned beef toad-in-the-hole. I need not go on. We all know that kind of cooking. It still exists. War-time food made with 1963 ingredients, as it was genially put to me by a friend lately re- turned from a scarring experience in an East- bourne residential establishment.

It was not feasible, in 1947, to go out and buy food as nowadays I would. When you stayed more than a night or two in a hotel you gave them your ration book, retaining only coupons for things like chocolate and sweets. Those didn't get you far. And, of course, all that rough cider was inconveniently appetite-rousing.

Hardly knowing what I was doing, 1 who had scarcely ever put pen to paper except to write memos to the heads of departments in the Ministry which employed me during the war, I sat down and, watched over by John Wesley, started to work out my agony for the sun and my furious revolt against that terrible, cheerless, heartless food by writing descriptions of Mediter- ranean and Middle Eastern cooking. Even to write words like apricot, olives and butter, rice and lemons, oil and almonds, produced assuage- ment. Years later, it dawned on me that in the England of 1947 those were dirty words that I was putting down.

To people who have sometimes asked how it was that in 1949. when such words were still very dubious, I came to be writing them so freely, this is at least partly the answer. Any publisher less perceptive that mine (he was John Lehmann) would have asked me to take them all out v;hen in that year he accepted the cookery book of which those original notes had become a part.