My mum gave me her old recipe book a while ago.
She’s 85, and this padded vinyl object is A5 size, with a gold-embossed title and a luridly bright and very Seventies still life of a tropical fruit bowl and bunch of carnations on the cover. There are endpaper pockets and cuttings that she’s folded and slipped between the pages.
She doesn’t use it anymore. Now that her mobility is a bit iffy, it's too difficult to cook anything more complicated than an omelette or mince and tatties.
I hadn’t properly looked at this book until recently, when I suggested we revive her classic sherry trifle this Christmas, after a 20-odd-year hiatus.
Thus, I inadvertently volunteered myself to make it.
Just like my mum, I am more of an eater than a cook, though even I can manage this five ingredient dish. I just need to work out which type of sherry she used to get us Soutar children completely hooked on boozy desserts from a formative age.
I’ve already ruled out Harvey’s Bristol Cream.
However, sherry trifle included, this book is more than just a practical aide memoire. It’s an intimate time capsule of her life.
There are recipes from those long gone, including one from her friend who was killed in a car accident (‘sweetbreads, Sheila’), another from her younger sister and my auntie, who died in her early 50s (‘potato cakes, Annette’). Another from her late aunt (‘pancakes, Aunt Zina’s’) and her step-mother (‘mulled claret, Sybille’), who died in her mid 90s back in the Nineties.
Everything is jotted down in mum’s immaculately neat slanted handwriting, which is a bit less steady these days, but still unmistakeable.
There have been some other interesting findings in the book. These include a folded letter on festive forest green paper, which features a recipe for gluhwein from a Sheena, complete with note.
“For the book club I’d always make about three times the quantity of the above. I ALWAYS put a good slug of brandy in it - at least a wine glass for say two bottles of wine”.
The book club sounds excellent fun.
Then there are the amazing recipes that I remember my then middle-aged mum cooking for dinner parties - her vichyssoise, always with a chiffonade of chives on the top, and the artichoke and chicken stew, or venison and chestnut casserole, which features rosemary and red wine.
Although it was past the age of Abigail’s party and food safaris, dinner parties had a moment in the Eighties, and she and my dad loved to entertain. The yellowed clipping of an article on wine glasses, glued inside the front cover, attests to that. He would pour the drinks and tell the jokes, while she’d do all the cooking, aided by her heated hostess trolley in the dining room.
In the book, the best and most loved creations, including the venison, have the pages splattered and sealed together with a wine-coloured stock.
These impressive dishes are in contrast to the food that children were fed in the late Seventies and early Eighties. We’d be relegated to putting crisps in bowls at every dinner party. For the kids, the recipe book features tuna casserole, which someone has scribbled on a Clydesdale Bank slip. It was made from tuna, peas, tinned soup and crunched up ready salted crisps. I thought mum had invented it, but obviously not. My sister and I loved it, incredibly. There’s also another contribution, a dessert - mandarin fridge cake - which consisted of tinned mandarins in orange jelly, topped by Crunchy Nut Cornflakes and whipped cream. We also adored that. Proustian tastes have a lot to answer for.
So retro, as is the general use of condensed soup. Although the sole and lobster a la king sounds fancy, the tin of Campbell’s mushroom brings it down a notch.
The most idiosyncratic stuff is very evocative of the times.
I’ve never heard of raisin sauce (Alison’s, whoever she was), but it’s to be served with ham or salted tongue. There’s a dessert called Aunt Jane, with ingredients, but no instructions, cold egg souffle, and a sweetcorn soup that’s thickened with arrowroot. I’m intrigued by Gone with the Wind (Jean’s), which features condensed milk, pineapple and lime.
I felt very touched by the recipes she’d cut out of The Scotsman Magazine, as an avid reader for years. She kept one that I’d sent her back in 2005, for a hot cross bun bread and butter pudding, with the subject line “yum yum”.
There are quite a few exotic dishes too. I know, like me, she would have looked at them and said she really wanted to eat that, if only someone else could be bothered to cook it. These include easy rabbit stew with apricot pilaf, or blood orange jelly with passionfruit syllabub, both clipped out of the magazine.
I guess her and dad must have had a holiday in Ellon, back in the day, as she’d kept a printed recipe for sticky toffee pudding from The Udny Arms Hotel, now closed. There’s also a newspaper cutting for Hogmanay Harmony, which features oatmeal, whisky, lemon juice, honey, cream, egg white, and “7 Cadbury’s Flakes from the Family Pack”. It’s like cranachan meets a hot toddy via a selection box.
That brings me back to the festive season, and that trifle.
I will eventually work out the genre of sherry, and try to recreate the dessert that we loved as children. Also, next year, I plan to cook or assemble every single recipe in that book. Maybe not the cold egg souffle though, that’s a step too far.