Food & Drink: Sweet memories of Muriel

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The Independent Online
Christmas 1936 I remember because mademoiselle had just been sacked for allowing herself to be seduced in the bath tub by my older brother. From which I learnt that mesdemoiselles may be dismissed, but flesh and blood you are stuck with.

My father was down-in-the-mouth from having struck and killed a man when driving out of London: he in a 16-cylinder supercharged Lancia, the unfortunate traveller in a thick fog.

We - that is, the family plus Muriel the cordon bleu cook, Catherine the parlour-maid (both good Irish Catholic girls), Miss Crossan the governess and Mr Semple the tutor - were by the sea, which was thought good for my frail lungs. And when the wind blew, a smell of cabbages from the dank Kentish fields filled the garden in which, fine weather or foul, my brother and I were put out to play.

Apart from my father, who was agnostic, we were a religious family and Christmas was a double festival: one of piety and one of festivity. Its order remained unchanged until the war: the dressing of the tree on Christmas Eve (a few of the glass decorations survive); bed; midnight Mass; the survey of the presents that had mysteriously appeared at the foot of the tree; the ''midnight'' feast that was closer to half-two (Masses tended to be high and sermons long), a glazed ham on the sideboard, kedgeree and eggs for us, and a single glass of sweet wine; bed; awakening to stockings stuffed with Japanese toys that did not work, the bits of stationers' stuff that I loved (paper-clips were a relative novelty and letters about overdrafts appeared with a pin stuck through the bank manager's compliments card), tangerines and sweets for which my brother bartered seductively; breakfast, gigantic and taken in pyjamas (the one time in the year); the presents; and, after a spell in that cold, mouldy, muddy garden, lunch.

All these memories are overlaid with the preparations. These particularly involved Muriel and whatever scullery girl happened to be with us. The puddings had, of course, been made the year before, and this required a special trip to the bank by my father, for none but the freshest-minted coins would do. These included one gold sovereign (which I never got in my slice, but of which my brother infallibly knew the location), half-crowns, silver shillings and sixpences, and threepenny bits. Since my pocket money was threepence a week, Christmas, fattened with donations from relations in distant places, was a financial bonanza.

Puddings may have been made previously, but tarts and tartlets had not, and in Muriel's domain mince and fruit and sultanas and oily figs, babas au rhum (my mother's only tipple) and prodigious shortcakes were in preparation. Muriel liked to say she could always use an extra hand, and one of my first gastronomic memories is of mixing bowls of sweet and sticky stuff, tasting as I went along.

There were the trips to the butcher - for game and poultry, which my mother favoured, and beef, my father's true love. The former had to be scorched, plucked, gutted, larded and trussed; the latter, uncooked, a vast sanguinary slab still on its great ribs, lay gently ageing.

It is from all these anticipations that I derive my theory that cooking is an imaginary art, made up largely of developing specific appetites for specific things, without which most food loses its poetry and becomes merely a meal.

In that kitchen, too, I learnt that domestic strife can extend to cuisine.

My parents were modest and abstemious eaters; none the less, they had radically different tastes. My father liked his food dry, my mother hers wet; he liked his meat bloody, she (like any good Italian) was squeamish; he disliked anything green; she loved salads and fruit.

We usually had guests at the Christmas board - never fewer than one priest, often one lonely, local (unmarried), tennis or golf partner of my father's, and our ''staff'': Mr Semple, as a Cambridge graduate, was as near a gentleman as could be; and Miss Crossan, who stayed with us for nigh on a decade, who was Australian, jolly and quickly flushed with wine.

The fare was fine, Muriel a splendid cook - but only in London. In the country, she was somehow melancholy, as though she felt the wet winds of her native western Ireland blowing through her young bones. It took me many years to realise that she was simply frustrated. In London, my mother ran a smart house and my father was not there to intrude his simpler American tastes.

Christmas was, thus, one of the year's pains for her. She loved to see us demolish the food, but she had not applied the usual art to it.

A rib roast was a fairly untouchable dish; there was no Dover sole to bring out her skills; and my mother's menu book (which also recorded what she wore) showed how rarely a dish was repeated during a given social season. But Christmas was ineluctable.

Needless to say, we young ones, year-round fed on nursery fare, destroyed everything, right down to the pudding and its duff. But I retain from that particular Christmas a memory of the loneliness of the long-distance cook: it was only in her kitchen, when we were safely upstairs playing with Meccano and the staff were eating, sometimes with invited local tradesmen, that jollity prevailed.

She was, I suspect, known far and wide in that corner of Kent: not only as a pretty girl, but as the one who did ''all that French and Italian stuff''. What is more, she did not have to do supper.