When I was a little girl I used to stay at my nana’s house. She owned a haberdashery shop in Brunswick, Victoria, an area that now teams with the café society. In the 1950s and ’60s, it was a derelict and scary place to be, especially for a six-year-old girl.
Nana and Grandad, former darlings of the Moonee Ponds Racing Club and high society, apparently fell on hard times, subsequently buying the business and moving into the attached residence. Not long after, Grandad passed away, and Mum and Dad decided I should spend every second weekend with Nana at the shop ‘to keep her company’.
On the Sundays when Nan was at our place, she quite often cooked lunch — the weekend’s main meal. She was, using the terminology of the day, ‘a good plain cook’ and there was nothing better that Nan’s corned silverside infused with bay leaves, Skipping Girl brown vinegar, black peppercorns and cloves. Even though I was just a small child, she’d always chat to me like I was a grown-up.
“Unless you’ve got a good butcher, darling, and they’re as rare as hen’s teeth these days gawd only knows,” she’d say, rolling her eyes to the heavens, “always corn it yourself!”
Her wonderful apple cake reeking of vanilla and nutmeg was divine. “Only ever use Granny Smiths,” she’d admonish.
In those days when dripping on toast with lots of salt was a Saturday morning staple for us, on Sundays Nan used to make roast pork with crackling and apple sauce, and wonderful roast potatoes. I hated the pork, but absolutely adored the crackling!
Nana used to cook a ‘good’ Irish stew — with ‘best end neck chops’. Or two of Dad’s favourites, lambs fry and bacon, and tripe with white parsley sauce. Blergh … I still shudder.
Then there was corned brisket with mashed potatoes (“only use old ones for mashing”) and boiled carrots. A ‘nice’ mixed grill — one lamb loin chop, one sausage and a rasher of bacon, a grilled tomato, plus poached eggs from those little metal dishes that sat inside a special poaching pan of boiling water. And brown bread, unsliced, with butter, never margarine.
Of course, always desserts like bread and butter custard, golden syrup dumplings, or apple cake. Plus tea, tea, tea.
The house behind my grandmother’s shop sported a huge kitchen with large black and white squares of linoleum on the floor and a tiny, sickly yellow-coloured stove with big black knobs. The kitchen also sported a ‘larder’, a great walk-in affair that contained all kinds of intriguing things to the modern 1950s child.
There were large sacks of flour and sugar on the floor plus many preserving jars, as Nan loved to make marmalade. I remember lots of thick cream-coloured mixing bowls all in different sizes, and pudding basins, and huge wooden spoons. And a pyramid of different sized carving plates! I never figured out why so many… we had only one at home and for our family of four, that seemed to be enough.
Nan had a rose-patterned dinner setting for 12, which included things we never had at home, like a gravy boat, and a mustard jar with its own tiny little spoon. All the cups had saucers, not a mug in sight!
Special dishes for certain things like butter and asparagus. (We used margarine out of the paper, and Mum bought asparagus in cans.) A cruet set. Lots of different sized jugs and a fine piece of net with beads hanging off the edges — “keeps the flies out of the milk, darling”.
There were some devilishly-sharp carving knives that had been so honed over the years they brought to mind a pirate’s dagger. Jelly moulds, aspic moulds, and muslin for ‘straining’. Straining what I wondered? Mum uses a sieve for spaghetti. I don’t think Nana ever made spaghetti in her whole life.
There was a complete set of tin canisters with pictures on the front of English country scenes. Nana only ever used Lan Choo tea leaves and there was a swag of tea packet labels in a brown paper bag ‘to be sent off’.
Next to that were tea strainers of various sizes, some silver, some with wooden handles and wire inserts. Teapots in various sizes, silver, China, one in ‘modern anodised aluminium’ with its orange lid. Pot holders by the dozen, some crocheted, some knitted, some material with lace edges. Glass and silver sugar bowls — with lids! Then rolls of grease-proof paper, brown paper, and neatly folded Western Star butter papers.
Graduated measuring scoops on a large iron ring. China, silver and pewter egg cups. Tea towels and table cloths for every imaginable setting. Vases of all different shapes and heights, and small China discs with holes in them — obviously to assist in serious flower arranging. Of course, an assortment of ‘pinnies’ (aprons), two of which were ‘for best’ when there were visitors.
It’s interesting looking back because at that time I was seemingly caught between two worlds — to say nothing of my grandmother’s love of the pressure cooker versus Mum’s fascination with the new-fangled electric frying pan. Whenever these two were in the kitchen together, sparks would fly! Yes, definitely too many cooks spoiling the broth.
It wasn’t until many years later when I was married that I thought about all of Nan’s possessions and what happened to them. I know Mum would have eschewed most, probably donating them to a worthy op shop, I guess.
From Nan to Mum to me, the best family recipes came from both of these amazing women, and today, the dish that my daughter loves cooking during winter, is her great-grandmother’s steak and kidney pie.