My fondest food memory is of coming home from school to sit with my mother at the kitchen table to drink tea and eat cake. Sometimes she listened as I told her about my day, sometimes I knew to sit quietly with her as she drew on her cigarette. It is this time with her I miss most of all, this grounding time of quiet reflection over hot tea, covertly watching her cut her already tiny cake in to five or six morsels and eat one or two, watching her hands, laden with rings, delicately clasp her mug of tea. I can go to this place in my mind so easily, the memory sometimes seems more tangible than reality. Wherever I am in the world I can be at that table with my complicated mother, I can feel the comfort of the chintz cushions on the kitchen chairs, see the pattern on the china mugs, feel the varnished pine table top under my palms and taste the silence – all but the ticking kitchen clock and puff and exhale and tap-tap at the ashtray.
We had twenty minutes, and then my mother would return to the garden, put on her wellies at the door and disappear into the greenhouse. She wouldn’t be one to pay a compliment, but she knew that I loved melons most of all, so grew me melons in her greenhouse – plump and proud and incongruous among the tomatoes. She grew us everything out there in her silence, all the fruit and vegetables we could ever need and all the flowers we could ever want. To this day I have never been in a place more beautiful than our garden, her labour of love to us.
Often I would find her with our neighbour Jean, both chatting over the fence and drinking tea together, mugs passed back and forth. As a child I would be sent over to Jean’s to help her pull up her rhubarb or sent down to Mrs. Fox’s at number 14 to swap excess potatoes for leeks. My childhood had a wartime feel to it – my parents had me very late in life and we lived on a street of old people whose children were grown and flown from the nests. Our street was like a time capsule, a place of old values and antiquated ways, of wartime stories and swapped food and conkers and Angel Delight.
My father, a military man, had joined the navy just after the Second World War and served as a helicopter engineer on an aircraft carrier for many years before becoming a washing machine salesman and marrying my mother. Our house ran to a military precision in many ways, little was spontaneous and routine was king. Although a military man he was not harsh, in fact he was the gentlest man I ever knew, and in many ways very modern. He loved to see me eat, a stark contrast to my mother’s minute appetite, and would encourage me to try as many new things as possible. That is not to say there wasn’t an inverted snobbery around food. On returning home one summer after leaving for university I was thrilled with myself for bringing home a box of Earl Grey tea which I had first tried when a professor had given me a cup during a tutorial. I still remember the first taste of it, so exotic and tantalizingly unusual. I had been offered either Earl Grey or darjeeling – having never had either I chose entirely by the sound of the nouns. I love the names of teas – the drawn-out extravagance – lapsang, oolong, darjeeling – each syllable promising a sensory escapade to a far-away land. My parents immediately took the presence of the ‘fancy tea’ as an affront to our way of life and a sure sign of me getting airs and graces, and the drinking of it was discouraged ardently.
Not as lavish as a Japanese tea ceremony but as full of significance was my daily tea ritual with my mother. Even as an adult, tea and cake signifies for me all the happiness of a loved child, the intimacy of being able to sit in comfortable silence and share the sweet comfort of tea time. It is the ultimate pleasure, that charm of joy in the most ordinary of days, a homely secular sacrament. It has informed my every approach to the way I cook. I love tea. I love builders’ tea. I love that it comforts me, refreshes me, reminds me. I also love fancy tea – an affront to no one. I love the way the flavours make me feel transported. When I make cake, I have no interest in making run-of-the-mill cake; I want to make something wonderful – something wondrous , something worthy of the delight of that twenty minutes of joy that elevate a moment in an ordinary day in an ordinary life to something precious.
Today, like everyday, I miss my mother. Today I drink tea and eat cake and I am at home again, sitting quietly at my kitchen table, with my Mum.