I grew up on a working arable farm in the southeast of England. The farm wasn’t owned or run by my family but that didn’t mean I wasn’t involved in the daily goings-on around there. My sister and I would often scoot around the tracks on our bikes, play in the mounds of harvested grain (which looking back, seems a little dangerous), rode with the farmers in their combine harvesters and ran through the neat tram lines on the fields. I like to think that being surrounded by golden fields of grain informed my career as a baker. Perhaps it did subconsciously but it’s more likely that it was spurred on by my healthy appetite – the good food I was constantly surrounded by and that I was always encouraged to cook.
Luckily enough, my parents both love to eat well. My mum is a brilliant cook and my dad, well, my dad can make a mean cheese on toast and order a great curry. Growing up, our home was always full of people coming and going and they’d never be without a full belly. There were people in our ‘granny flat’ BnB and musicians dining in the kitchen or in the recording studio in our garden. A very fortunate and unique childhood setup to say the least! Now that I think back, there are many dishes that remind me of ‘home’. These are (in no particular order) as follows:
If you know me, then you’ll know I’m a big snacker and I can’t live without Branston pickle. I think it has to be my favourite condiment. Sometimes I eat spoonfuls from the jar or with a big hunk of cheese. Luckily enough, my former housemate also shares the same passion as me and last year we got into a bad (or pretty good) routine of having a small cheese board while we watched TV, with a cup of tea and even before serving up a big meal to friends. You name it, if there was an opportunity to eat cheese, pickle and crackers, we’d do it! I can’t speak for her, but for me this obsession started when watching Wallace and Gromit as a kid. The infamous duo, from the British stop-motion animated films, are synonymous with Yorkshire Wensleydale cheese. Their love for it knows no bounds. In fact, they even travelled to the moon to get a slice of the good stuff. Sticking on the VHS of A Grand Day Out became a ritual for me on any given wild and wet day and of course, the experience wouldn’t be the same if I wasn’t doing what Wallace and Gromit were. So, I’d shuffle to the kitchen and make myself a plate of Bath Oliver crackers topped with dollops of Branston pickle and thick slices of cheddar cheese, before settling in for the film.
The famous chocolate cake
On the weekends, when there wasn’t much else to do (well, there isn’t much to do in the middle of the countryside most days) I’d be in the kitchen baking something. For a while I became obsessed with a chocolate cake recipe. I probably made it at least once a month. The ingredients were weighed up on my mum’s vintage weighing scales that used brass weights (a very annoying endeavour for me, as I wasn’t able to weigh the ingredients as precisely as I’d like to). Once everything was weighed, I’d mix all the ingredients with the electric handheld mixer, which would inevitably flick clumps of butter and sugar up the walls. After a while the mix would be homogenous and I could pour it into the tins and bake.
For me, the best part was always licking the beaters clean and seeing the cakes rise in the oven. Once cool, the two sponges were sandwiched with a thick layer of whipped cream and topped with a thick chocolate ganache. The cake never lasted that long and has become known in my family as ‘Cissy’s famous chocolate cake’ and is made for all birthday celebrations.
With people coming and going in the house, my mum was always playing ‘Mum’ not just to us kids but to everyone else too. This mainly involved making sure everyone was always fed and watered. In the evenings she would prepare a big dinner and everyone was invited over to dine around the table. In an effort to keep me entertained I was always involved in the daily meal prep, which usually involved at least one recipe from a Delia Smith cookbook, from chicken with tarragon sauce to pork wrapped in parma ham. Pudding was served too and this was where I would help out (surprise, surprise). This required rubbing the dariole moulds with butter before pouring in a walnut sticky toffee pudding or soaking the ladyfingers in coffee for tiramisu or getting my little hands on the blow torch so I could caramelise the sugar for crème brulée. I still think about that sticky toffee pudding recipe. Recently enough, I even asked my mum to trawl all of her books and magazine cuttings to find it. Sadly, it was never found.
Ben’s Cookies and Häagen-Dazs Ice Cream
On the weekends, my sister and I would get picked up by our dad and driven to his home in London. As we got into the car we were always presented with some sort of sweet treat (a bribe to be quiet for the journey I think) whether that be a lollipop from Pret or a big box of cookies from Ben’s cookies. At the time, these cookies were the first cakey style cookie I’d eaten and boy, did I love them. In a box, you’d get a mixed selection of cookies. My favourite were the triple chocolate chunks – white and milk chocolate chunks suspended through a chocolate dough. On occasion I was known for eating an entire box in one sitting!
Once we reached the big smoke, we’d sometimes walk along the river’s edge from Wapping to Tower Bridge. The reward most definitely wasn’t seeing the bridge breaking open, lifting up and letting tall ships through, but getting a scoop of ice cream from the Häagen-Dazs shop which conveniently sat at the mouth of the bridge. We’d lick up the frozen custard, feeling chuffed that we’d reached the ice cream summit, before scuttling back home with sticky fingers.
As you can tell, my childhood was full of sweet things, much like my life is now. These particular bites are tied up by the context in which they were eaten. Most often, I don’t remember how an item tasted but who I was with and what it felt like. Eating the knobbly end of a baguette as you walk round the supermarket or smelling buttery flapjacks in the delicatessen has the potential to unlock past memories and often invites us to look at the past with gooey, rose-tinted glasses (or perhaps sometimes with aversion). This particular feeling was famously described by Marcel Proust in his novel In Search of Lost Time (1913). In this, Proust recounts how the taste of a warm cup of tea and little ‘crumbs’ of a madeleine captured his attention and transported him back to his childhood, where his aunt would sit dipping madeleines in her tea on Sundays. For the author, the moment is so potent because the sensory experience is anchored by the past and brought only to consciousness through the senses. I think we can all say we’ve experienced this similar ‘involuntary memory’, or what is now known as the ‘Proustian moment’. Without realising, these memories are weighted by symbolic meanings connected to the place, the people or the age we were when we first ate, smelt or touched them. I wonder what yours are and how they shaped you?
Cissy Difford is a pastry chef. You can subscribe to monthly tales, fails and recipes – rollwithit.substack.com