Food: Breakfast with mine host: Anna Fleming used to cook massive meals for hungry miners. Now it's muesli and smoked salmon for guests at an AA-recommended hotel. Chris Arnot met her
Saturday 09 January 1993
At Coventry Colliery, where Mrs Fleming worked until the shutdown a year ago, that meant two rashers of short back bacon, two sausages, tomatoes, fried bread, fried potatoes, beans and at least one egg.
What would her old customers make of her present offerings? 'If I'd put that parsley on a miner's plate, he'd have said 'What's that? It's not cooked',' she says. Not only miners lose their jobs when a colliery closes - 1,300 men were laid off at Coventry in November 1991. 'It was devastating,' Mrs Fleming recalls. 'All we could do in the canteen was offer tea and sympathy.' And start looking for a new job.
Mrs Fleming, now 58, has found one, at the city's Brooklands Grange Hotel. Today she was taking a break from the hotel kitchen to have breakfast with me. In her case, this comprised several cups of tea and a Senior Service. Before lighting up, she waited until I had finished the home-made muesli followed by the scrambled egg, the smoked salmon, the croissant and the parsley - not the sort of breakfast that your typical miner would go to work on.
Mrs Fleming has happy memories of the colliery canteen, a vast feeding station with a stone floor, vinyl tables and a counter stretching into the middle distance like a gastronomic conveyor-belt.
It was open from before six in the morning until half an hour after midnight, catering for three shifts. The breakfast staff of four arrived for work at 4am, and the queues started forming at 5.45. Men from the night shift had worked up a serious appetite and those arriving for the morning shift needed plenty of sustenance.
'We all got a percentage of the bonuses they earned for digging coal,' Mrs Fleming confided, 'so it was in our interest to feed them up and get them down that pit. They were breaking production records all the time.'
The quantity of provisions required to fuel this mighty workforce was awesome. Dozens of eggs were cracked into a huge electric frying pan lined with lard. Weighty tins of tomatoes and baked beans had to be transferred into even bigger saucepans. Brown sauce was ladled into soup bowls. The first 10 large loaves had to be sliced up for fried bread and toast. No dinky jars of Baxter's Breakfast Marmalade there; indeed, no marmalade at all. 'Somebody asked me for jam once. I said, 'What do you think this is: the Ritz?'.'
Even the regular full breakfast, at pounds 1 a time, was not enough for some miners. 'We had one chap who insisted on having four of everything. I've never seen such a happy fellow. One of the girls brought him in one of those big oval meat plates and his face lit up like a Christmas tree.
'I used to say to him, 'God help your constitution'. But he was tall and quite slim. It was usually the scrawny ones who had the biggest appetites.'
After a morning spent burning up breakfast at the coal face, many of the miners would return for stew or steak-and-kidney pie - meals that Mrs Fleming calls 'rib-stickers'. To keep them going until lunchtime, they would chew a tobacco called 'screw' or 'pig-tail'. The canteen sold at least five boxes a day and each box held 100 packets.
The Brooklands Grange dining-room may be in the same city as the now-defunct canteen, but gastronomically it belongs to a different universe. Framed in the reception area is an AA rosette for, among other things, 'a high level of culinary skill'. Lesley Jackson and Charles Davis, who used to run the much-acclaimed Herbs vegetarian restaurant in Coventry city centre, have developed the hotel around the core of a 17th-century former farmhouse.
Mrs Fleming cooks the breakfasts near shelves that are stacked with silver toast racks and boxes of Earl Grey tea-bags. 'I felt at first as though I'd have to mind my Ps and Qs. I missed the banter of the canteen. There's not much scope for a giggle when there's just me cooking. But I like the job now. It's a lovely kitchen, beautifully clean.'
She brought to the job no formal qualifications but years of catering experience as a landlady in pubs all over the Midlands: she went to work at the colliery only after a tenancy row with the brewery had left her and husband, Clem, without a pub to run.
The traditional English breakfast at the Brooklands Grange includes pork-and-chive sausages from a local butcher which Mrs Fleming puts under the grill in a cast-iron frying pan. 'It stays hot at the bottom, which means they get brown all over and you don't get a pale strip down the middle.'
Only the eggs are fried, although some guests insist on variations. 'One chap wanted the full breakfast with a peeled boiled egg on the top. Have you ever tried taking the shell off a hot, soft-boiled egg?' I had to admit I had not. 'It's not easy, but I did it in the end. You have to be adaptable in this life. I'd only seen croissants in the supermarket before I came here. I'd never have dreamt of buying them. Now I quite like them.' But not as much as Senior Service.
Brooklands Grange Hotel, Holyhead Road, Coventry (0203 601601). Bed and breakfast pounds 75. Breakfast only: pounds 7.50.
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