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Wednesday, 4 September 2013

La Cuisine de ma Mère et la cabane de mon Père. (Mum's kitchen – dad's shed)

Mama et Papa Lowe weren't French and our family didn't live a beautiful, turn of the 20th century, Provençal style existence romanticised by Marcel Pagnol, writer of books with a similar title to mine above. Cicadas never ever clicked charmingly away over the summer evening landscape of 1970s Chaddesden, near Derby. Olive oil never graced our food. In fact, the only oil to fragrance the air would have been the liberally applied Ambre Soleil sun cream oil basting the adult sunbathers in our petit jardin, the adults all determined to reach a level of incinerated brown tan achieved by BBCs popular 1970s 'Holiday Programme' presenters, Judith Chalmers, Cliff Mitchelmore or Frank Bough.Whereas for our early 1970s Derby folk, olive oil was reserved for ear aches and purchased from the chemist, not for a piquant salad dressing, for goodness sake. Pourtant, the title I have chosen does refer to a romantic notion of the place my step mum liked to inhabit and the place my dad could most likely be found, apart from the bookies or the toilet - picking his horses.

Yes, I refer to the domestic kitchen and the garden shed. Both of these were within shouting distance of each other, barring selective deafness or next door's ultra loud Alsatian dog, the unfortunately named, Nigger, having a barking fit at Misty the Russian Blue cat, traversing their dog poo encrusted lawn, delicately.

The kitchen at Redcar Gardens was tiny, as were many bijou kitchens across the vast Council housing estate. So tiny you would have a hard job swinging the proverbial cat around. The small back window opened to permit the interminable rubber hosepipe gain access to the cold tap and also, to allow both the adventurous feline Misty, and various unwanted insects, free entrance and, sudden death by fly swatter or rolled up newspaper. The insects that is, not Misty.

The kitchen cupboards were rammed full of kitchen paraphernalia such as: baking trays of various sizes, bun tins, cake tins, casseroles, flan tins, loaf tins, ramekins, pie dishes ceramic or otherwise, mixing bowls and pudding basins, milk jugs, jelly moulds, ring moulds and pie moulds. Not forgetting all that was needed to make jam and preserves such as clean jam jars, rubber bands, paper lids, labels, jam thermometers, two large, battle scarred, stainless steel preserving pans and a brown paper bagful of circular inserts to place on the surface of the cooked jam. I believe we also had something called a Charlotte mould too. What that did I don't know. On the kitchen side itself was a green coloured metallic bread bin (BREAD emblazoned in Army white across the curved cover) and a tea caddy and fancy tea spoon and a brown tea pot suitable for six.

Delve into the myriad of drawers in this 1970s kitchen and you were likely to find all sorts of treasures that would be a veritable boon for today's collectors of 'quaint' vintage collectables. Here would reside the: apple corer, ball scoop, cheese slicer, egg slicer doubling as a childhood mini harp instrument, various relatively blunt knifes with bone handles passed down from granny Lowe and granny Hanson, a rusty potato peeler, a knife steel with finger guard, an old fashioned can opener, a host of pastry cutters all collected together in the order of size, a bottle opener, a bizarre screw top jar opener that no-one could fathom out how to use, a fish slice or two and other assorted cutlery items fashioned in Sheffield stainless steel.

Pots and pans would be stored nearest the gas oven for easy access. The chip pan had permanent pride of residence on top of the cooker itself and later on a new fangled pressure cooker fought for cooker top dominance. The chip pan spat dangerously and bubbled away in unbridled temperament, the pressure cooker hissed back, violently and threatened to have a mega hissy fit. Misty, the terrified cat, ran for cover. The chip pan won and after a short trial period the pressure cooker was brought out only for special occasions. A certain smugness came from the pressure cooker however as it came with its own special booklet - albeit in code more devious than any used in World War Two espionages.

Some things have a certain je ne sais quoi about them and a fondness felt towards them by the family, based, perhaps, on good times or lean times or both. The extendible toasting fork was the main benefactor of this loving notion of  'family goodwill towards certain kitchen tools'. It had been with the Lowe family way before my step mum and her two daughters arrived mid 1960s and I have fond memories of toasting bread with it on the warming coal fire in the otherwise chilly front room of my previous childhood home on Perth Street in Chaddesden. This was with my dad after my birth mother, Marjorie, had passed away from a brain tumour. I was about nine years old and my dad and me sat toasting bread to have spread with lard and salt as a treat one Christmas Eve. Lettuce sandwiches with salt were another favourite. Yes folks – just lettuce and table salt. The lettuce was likely to have been grown in my dad's cold frame at the bottom of the garden on Perth Street. Any slug trails would have been removed by the application of water from the tap in the kitchen before eating. Did I tell you about the freshly dropped horse dung we collected to encourage the roses to grow? Mention that to a few of the cosseted young people I know and they would drop their precious mobile phones in horror! Another world...

And so time goes by in a proverbial dusting of flour; the kitchen clock spins frantically towards the future and in the cramped kitchen of our fast forwarding history lesson, the garish, Nouveau Domestique aspirant - late 1960s - wallpaper at number four Redcar Gardens saw many a cake made and the vinyl work top cluttered with aspic cutters, biscuit cutters, injured gingerbread characters – some maimed for life, flour sifters, damp forcing bags, nutcrackers redolent of Christmas and floury pastry boards, wooden rolling pins and sharp pastry cutters, tongs and jelly bags and a plethora of plastic icing nozzles parading like miniature Pierrot clown hats.

                                                      Egg slicer and mini harp style instrument

There would have been many a Tupperware bowl or re-seal-able container to house all the things that needed housing and kept dry including, much to my step mum's chagrin, some rusty old nails that had escaped from my dad's shed. Elsewhere, storage room was found for all the major pots and pans, the well used and greased roasting tins, the dilapidated, battered and reluctantly flaking white-green colander, an even more battered selection of various gauge sieves, the ubiquitous frying pans and rolls of grease proof paper and silver foil as well as stacks of paper, sit up and beg nicely, cases for all the potential fairy cakes. And finally the cat food bowls for Misty the cat and dog food bowls for his friendly dog amis, Mick the dog. Even Mick the dog had a connection with food as he was of the variety known as Heinz 57 – of unknown parentage.

And so to la cabine de mon père, namely the garden shed that sat at the end of the garden path that my father made – yes he made a garden path from concrete as well as fancy bricks to create garden boarders. The bricks were made with moulds and he made hundreds of them to grace our garden and the garden at Perth Street. If ever I pass the Perth Street garden (which is rare these days) I always smile to myself that those bricks are still there fifty-three years on. I would love to knock of the door of the present owner and tell them but would hate to think they don't care.

Le histoire la cabine de mon père. The story of the shed of my father. (lit trans)

                                                      The shed she looked a bit like zis

The flat roofed shed would have been purchased not long after we all moved into number four as a family – somewhere about 1967. It was needed to house all the gardening stuff but also as a repository for a large Victorian chest of drawers that belonged to my dad's deceased foster parents  – the Lowes. The chest of drawers took up a large part of the floor space of the shed and my dad being somewhat one who loved to hoard (“It'll come in useful one day son - mark my words.”), the formerly fine chest of drawers began to deteriorate and slum it and became the space all the junk got put into. Rusty nails, old screws, old tools, embittered bits of string, sad decaying rubber bands, unknown items 'borrowed' from Rolls Royce, measures, rules, compasses, new bits of twine and string, Donald Duck memorabilia, rough rasping files and practical trowels with fine turned wooden handles and so on all got stored in and around the accepting chest of drawers. Hammers and saws and screw drivers all hung expectantly on hooks or doubled up nails on a large piece of hardboard at the back of the shed. Each tool had its outline transcribed in felt pen so that that it knew its place on the board. The six family push bikes vied for extremely limited floor space in front of the chest of drawers plus my new little brother's scooter and pedal car. Every morning as I went to work in my job at Bosworths aged sixteen it would take me at least ten  minutes just to get at my bike and untangle the rest. Even the spiders who liked to live in the shed and spin undisturbed grey brown webs were fighting for space.

My dad would collect anything and hoard it away in the confines of the Tardis-like shed. Hundreds of canes would be suspended from the ceiling along with strips of 'apparently' re-usual scraps of timber and the bloody creaking shed only measured about six feet by six with a maximum height of eight feet. He also collected old coins and had biscuit tins full of them in the recesses of the shed. They turned out to be worthless financially but an interesting look back on old coinage. Yes that shed was very cramped. In fact a U boat full of skinny sailors would be less cramped.

One winter in the late 1970s there was a night of terrible wind. Not the baked beans I assure you but wind like in a mini tornado. It was very dramatic I tell you. The manic fury of the tornedo attempted to tear the roof off the shed but my dad and me managed to strap it down with rope and secure it in order for it to live another day. Cruelly we laughed as the neighbour's greenhouse twisted and shattered in the storm.

If there was an identifiable smell that came from the shed it would be a combination of oil, fresh cut grass from the push along lawn mower and that of just cut timber. In the summer the heat from the sun penetrating the shed would accentuate the combined male smell.

My dad would spend hours tinkering in his beloved shed and greenhouse and as he grew older (before and after his retirement) he started making wooden models and renewed his interest in crocheted pictures, something he had enjoyed doing and learning about in his National Service years as a younger man.



Christopher Frost said...

Your younger days sound fun, or you make them sound fun. My mum was a good cook. She always had to make an apple pie on a Sunday, to go with the usual meat & two veg; usually peas and carrots. Broccoli was unheard of until about 1998. I'm not sure how it was introduced into our diet. Maybe she couldn't get any cauliflower that week.

philip lowe said...

Christopher: Mostly fun I guess, early death of Mother as an exception to that rule. I think you'll find that broccoli did exist before 1998. lol Saying that I don't think went for any Italian sounding veg either. Plain old cauliflower and cabbage. Cauliflower cheese!!! I'd forgotten that dish in my blog and we had it a lot.