The once-smart red and white gingham oilskin cover is battered and shabby now, with splotches and mysterious old stains on many pages. Mum’s treasured recipe book has a special spot in my early memories and has been a constant companion all of my life. The pages are covered with recipes dating from the early fifties, carefully hand-written in Mum’s distinctive scrawl, or with typed scraps and newspaper pages pasted in place.
As I read the recipe for Grandma Wallace’s scones, I recalled learning the art of scone-making at Grandma’s scrubbed kitchen table at the farm at Beachmere as a three year old. With an apron tied under my armpits, standing on a stool, Grannie instructed, “Lift your hands out of the bowl to let the air into the mix; don’t overwork the butter; just do it until it looks like breadcrumbs, that’s a good girl!” Using a blunt ended knife, the added eggs and buttermilk were quickly cut into a thick gooey mess which Grandma deftly patted flat and cut into rounds with an old sherry glass.
When they were rising in the hot oven, we quickly put the crockery and small bowls with clotted cream and homemade jams on to a tray, while the kettle hissed on the Aga. Once the hot, fragrant scones were piled on to a rose-patterned plate and the tea was brewing in the silver pot, our family or friends gathered together for the time honoured ritual of morning tea.
Shirley’s Asparagus Rolls, written in my aunt’s loopy handwriting caught my eye as I turned the pages, and the memory of an afternoon tea party, a monthly event in our home, flooded into my mind. Aged about eight, I remember standing at the kitchen bench with a large pile of thinly sliced bread, the green, corrugated glass butter dish and a colander of draining asparagus spears. “Just spread the butter thinly,” snapped Mum as she busily piped cream into Brandy Snaps.
I had cut the crusts off each bread slice, flattened them with the rolling pin and loaded the knife with a lump of butter, which I pulled towards me, across the bread. The granite-like butter adhered to the knife, tearing a large hole in the bread. After the fifth such catastrophe, Mum had placed the butter dish over a pan of hot water. The miraculous steam converted the rock-hard butter into a golden spread which smeared easily over the slices of bread. A sprinkle of grated cheese, the asparagus spear and a quick twist of the bread before the whole roll was fastened with a tooth pick - hey presto! Piled on to the polished silver tray, alongside the Melting Moments, Chocolate Cake and Brandy Snaps, my Asparagus Rolls were the highlight of Mum’s afternoon tea table.
Flicking through the much-thumbed pages, my eyes fixed on a recipe for ‘Crispy Almond Chicken’ from Ethel Rowell, our neighbour in Reade Park, in Adelaide. The Rowell children, Margaret and Hugh were my best friends during the 1950’s, and Ethel was considered an adventurous cook as she often served ‘continental’ dishes such as Weiner Schnitzel and Hungarian Goulash.
“Come on, girls, just try a mouthful of this Chinese almond chicken and rice dish,” Mrs Rowell urged Margaret and me, tempting us with a large spoon of the aromatic mixture. Hugh, like his father, was always most suspicious of his mother’s ‘cooking adventures’ and impending dinner parties usually required lots of tasting and ooohing and aaahing from the guinea pigs. “Perhaps a touch more soy sauce? What do you think? Annie, here’s some for Lorna (my mother) and the recipe, as I’m sure she’ll love it.” Mum did enjoy this dish and it became a favourite in our home for some years, often replacing the traditional roast for Sunday lunch.
Nestled alongside such glamorous modern authors as Rick Stein, Jamie Oliver and Maggie Beer, the old battered book looks forlorn and tired in the bookshelf. Food has evolved through many changes during the lifetime of Mum’s old recipe book and some of her old ‘special’ recipes are back in vogue again. However the spirit of expressing love and friendship for kith and kin, by producing a dish you have made yourself from scratch, will never be out-dated or old fashioned.