A taste of childhood

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MURIEL SPARK, in her recently published autobiography, Curriculum Vitae, writes about the Edinburgh food of her childhood, 60 years ago. She describes tea, and the stately graduation from daintily cut thin bread and butter - cut diagonally from a rectangular loaf - to cakes, scones and biscuits, or kippers, ham and sausages if it was high tea.

Since she has spent much of her adult life in Italy, pre-war Edinburgh must indeed seem a far cry from her current life. But as I read the passages in praise of teas long past, I wondered what all the fuss was about. In the Sixties I sat through tedious tea rituals, prepared by great aunts in Clifton, aching to escape. It turned one into a natural customer for the fast food era of McDonald's that was about to break upon us.

Nowadays, it is quite true that formal teas, give or take the odd staged encounter in hotels, have all but died out. But why the fuss, Ms Spark? After all, it is not hard to revive a traditional tea: all the ingredients are still at hand. Future generations can simply turn to one of Britain's greatest living writers, and follow the instructions on how to proceed. It takes patience and practice, I admit, to wield a sharp bread knife on an unsliced loaf of bread, and produce the paper-thin slices. But here is a tip. One of my relatives always buttered the end of the loaf first, to keep the crumbs together.

But Muriel Spark did set off a strange yearning for food long past, far tastier than formal teas. What I cannot reconstruct is the exquisite taste of food cooked on a coal-fired range. This is because no one, to my knowledge, still cooks on these antique elaborate grates, with ovens ranged around them. You would have to be a masochist to use one.

Food prepared on a range has its own taste and I know no one of my generation with whom I can share memories of its flavour. I was lucky, because I had a grandmother who lived in Wales, in what seemed like a hermetically sealed time warp, and kept to a pattern fundamentally unchanged from the 19th century. In her little house you slept on brass bedsteads, under bleached white covers.

A large, improving picture hung opposite, depicting two small children wearing Victorian sailor-style dresses and carrying nets, with which they were chasing a butterfly. The children were on the edge of a precipice, reaching out to catch the creature, innocently oblivious to danger. Behind them stood their guardian angels, poised to act. You were meant to go to sleep, after saying your prayers, feeling safe.

But back to the cooking ranges. You can still see some in traditional buildings, country restaurants or sensitively converted cottages. But they are always cold and drab: at best they hold the odd fir cone arrangement. At one time, though, they were the hub of the house.

There are three tastes of childhood I associate with range-style cooking. Steak and kidney pie, baked long and carefully, was the traditional welcoming supper when we came to visit; it could be warmed up on arrival. This was followed by a special gooseberry tart made from berries left on the bush until they were yellow and sweet. (The birds were more deferential then, they seemed to leave them on the branches, while my gooseberry bushes at home are stripped by pigeons before they are even ripe.)

And then on Sunday there was roast Welsh lamb, so succulent that it was sticky. It came with carrots, mashed up in a tasty way, quite unlike the carefully steamed, barely cooked products we now expect.

All this emerged from a little black metal oven, to the right- hand side of the narrow coal grate. It was a mystery how my grandmother could make the fire just so. If she was out, my mother made sandwiches.

Even at the time I knew this style of cooking was archaic, even primitive: it was part of the treat of visiting. Everyone else in the village cooked on electric stoves. My grandmother, widowed and living alone, rose early to make her fire in a kitchen that had home-made rag rugs on the slate slabs. The ancient sideboard was impregnated with the smell of tea. There was a huge black kettle for boiling water suspended on a massive chain over the fire.

All this makes me wonder what my children will remember, in later years, as the authentic taste of childhood. I may be a cynic, but I suspect it will be a toss-up between the snatched pleasures of illicit junk sweets, absolutely banned at home, and the adult treat that they muscled in on last year: mouthfuls of tiny woodcock, the tastiest game bird to be found in the British Isles, and found only near estuary shoots.