Last weekend Kris turned 40. When he turned 30, we needed a minivan to get us from Southall to Central London and Mum and I got rather ‘merry’ on the way there drinking sips of vodka that was being passed round Jeff and Kris’ west-side mates. This time it was just me, Jeff and Kris and some close friends.
Whenever there’s a birthday or wedding, Mum would make kebabs. It’s been a while since I last made them but thought 40 would be a nice present for Kris. I’d forgotten how long they take! I was going to surprise the birthday boy with them but thought they might spoil, or get eaten, before he got to enjoy them so they are currently in the freezer until the remaining Southall Griffithses assemble later this month.
Remaining Griffithses. It’s been over two months since Dad died. He was never a party person unless it was at home or at a familiar local venue or with friends or family he’s known forever. Even though it was rare to see him at our birthday drinks, his absence was definitely felt. Kris gave a toast to him and there were some pictures on the wall of him in happier times.
I’ve not really fancied big meals or spice in recent months but weirdly I’ve taken to some old school comfort classics like cheese on toast or bowls of cereal for dinner. My favourite Dad meal was cheese on crumpets, cooked to perfection with slightly burnished edges and crunchiness. In the last year I introduced Dad to the delights of a scraping of marmite before adding the cheese and he, skeptical at first, thoroughly enjoyed it. He used to make cheese on toast for us when we were kids with a layer of Branston pickle or brown sauce. I can’t remember why he stopped making it.
Another Dad classic is perfectly soft boiled eggs. His trick was to bring the eggs to a boil and immediately take them off the heat and leave them for 3 minutes. Mum and I liked to smoosh the eggs up with ripped up toast in a bowl and gobble it up like infants. Dad would then quickly discard all the shells and start to wipe up all our mess, often before we were finished. He’d moan benevolently about the mess on the floor but we all knew he loved sweeping with his special brush and long-handled dustpan.
Probably my favourite memory of him serving me food is when Pip was two or three days old and I was glued to the sofa looking like a crash victim, Dad would appear with a tea towel over his arm, a small table in one hand and a quarter plate with chocolate biscuits cut up into bite sizes in the other. He didn’t say anything before coming back with a cup of strong tea and a coaster and then he would settle on his own sofa and we would watch hours of Judge Judy. He liked half a cup of black coffee with half a teaspoon of sugar about 10 times a day.
When Pip was older, from about 2 years old, she’d wake up early (about 7am!) and wander into the living room where Papa would be waiting with arms outstretched and breakfast served on the little coffee table in front of Cbeebies. Her little pink armchair was positioned at an angle so she could comfortably get behind the table. Breakfast was a fixed menu of a bowl of cereal, rice krispies, cornflakes or hoops, a glass filled with blueberries, raspberries and strawberries, a glass of milk or juice and three jellybeans. Sometimes smarties. I would wander in between 9 and 11am to find Mr Tumble blaring, Dad on his fifth cup of coffee, Mum on her computer and Pip redecorating the living room. When Lara came along, the two of them would launch themselves off the tops of the sofas onto a prepared springboard of cushions, bedding and teddies and Dad would sit tranquilly amid the chaos.
Over the past 8 years, visits to Stowmarket would always include a day trip to either the seaside or a quaint Suffolk village where we would have an extravagant lunch. Mersea Island for oysters, Felixstowe Regal for fish and chips or the Ferryboat Inn for trout, sea bass, seafood and pies. Bury St Edmunds for teashop jacket potatoes and cake, a range of gastropubs for steaks, fine wines and fancy puddings or the local Shepherd and Dog for German schnitzel and lately the Magpie for English pub grub and pints. On market days we’d get fresh bread, olives and pastries, cheeses and fudge. Mum loved savoury nibbles, Dad loved chocolate and sweets. When clearing out the house, I found jellybeans stuck to the inside of drawers and tupperware shoved to the back of cupboards still filled with hot gram and old crackers.
When Mum died, Dad courageously invested in a rice cooker and a halogen oven in order to keep the hot dinners rolling. He only used them once each. He did buy and use a big frying pan for the stir fries he got into and the freezer was stocked with dubious looking ready meals, choc ices and unopened bags of veg. Every day he’d tell me on the phone what he was having for dinner. Brussels sprouts and carrots always got a mention but judging from the size of his belly, I doubt many greens made it onto the menu. The carefully stacked Fray Bentos pies told a different story; blocks of cheese dwindled every day and slabs of chocolate wrapped with an elastic band was a feature of his snack drawer. When he died, I found receipts in his car of the daily trips to Tesco for milk, and impulse fruit pies or other sweetmeat in packages of two and, on his last trip, a tub of ice cream. He also loved a McDonald’s breakfast muffin and black coffee, receipts for which there were many. The last few months were definitely characterised by fast and delicious food and, judging from the ancient burnishings in the oven, not much was home cooked by himself. When I visited, I made old school Mum style lasagnes, shepherds pies and chops with mash and apple sauce. Dad loved his spuds with a sprinkle of salt in a sea of beef gravy which was mopped up with a slice of white bread.
When in Holland recently I was reminded of our holiday frites when we used to drive down to Italy. Dad used to stop once on the way down and once on the way back if we were lucky at a French frites wagon on the side of the road. We’d dunk the crisp salty chips in ketchup (never mayonnaise!) and sometimes we’d be allowed a fizzy drink – once Kris was relegated to the ‘punishment area’ at the back of our estate car for biting the glass and bloodying his lip. Ah the memories…
In Italy, market day in the town square in Garessio meant hot rotisserie chicken, salty olive oil fried French fries and cans or bottles of Chinotto. Dad would be in charge of holding the bag of food and you never saw chips disappear so quickly. Once a week we’d have a pizza. Dad always had ‘Quattro Stagioni’ with artichokes, mushrooms, prosciutto and olives, Mum had prosciutto e funghi and I would have something plain and not too cheesy. There was a sweet shop in town that made a range of local specialties including Garessini – a hazelnut chocolatey truffle piped squidge that tasted boozy and decadent. There were nutty biscuits with chocolate jam and viennese butter swirls with fruity gems. You’d ask for a pick and mix selection but the Garessinis always went first.
Going out for dinner in Italy was the best of times and sometimes the worst for us kids. Dad would be uptight that we would do something wrong but only we could see this – to anyone else he looked serene and jovial smoking his Benson and Hedges and drinking red wine or a cold bottle of beer. We’d eat lashings of tomatoey or pesto gnocchi, slivers of roasted meats in herby gravy, tiny roasted potatoes and green beans or calzones, spaghetti with langoustines and clams, stuffed peppers and aubergines or juicy Florentine steaks. On feast days there would be apple dumplings served hot from bubbling oil drums on the bridge and plastic compartmentalised plates loaded with unctious polenta mash and rabbit stew. Or you could have a platter of meats: local pork sausages with fennel and garlic, lamb arrosticini and different cuts of salami and cured meats.
Our longstanding friends in the campsite famously introduced themselves to Mum and Dad in the early 80s with a hollowed out watermelon filled with Sangria (or whatever it’s called in Italy) and they became firm friends. A group would assemble in the evenings around the barbecue where Dad would be cooking Mum’s tandoori chicken, skewered lamb kebabs and marinated beef steaks and she herself would draw a crowd when the curry smells would fill the campsite on rainy days. She was the only Mum I knew who would pack sunflower oil, Pataks curry pastes and tins of spices to go camping. The Italian nonnas on the other hand would make fresh pasta in their caravans and the table tops so recently strewn with lego would be replaced with pearls of gnocchi drying out before a quick boil in a salty pan. Dad brought along plastic disposable cups from his factory that made morning cups of tea and the ubiquitous Piemontese table wine taste even more delicious. He introduced us to breakfast beer (at that time not consumed in the morning) thanks to the French hypermarkets en route where we stocked up on those glorious cheap French stubbies, perfect for al fresco living.
In later years when Mum needed to dialyse three times a week on holiday, Dad, Pip and I would go sightseeing and find roadside eateries in the mountains and along the coast serving fixed daily menus of veal steaks, risottos, pasta with homemade ragus, seafood platters, antipasti with olives stuffed with meat, freshly baked focaccia and pickled vegetables and that sparkling red table wine you can only get in Piemonte. In their dotage, Mum and Dad liked staying in half-board villas where the evening meal would comprise various small courses of local cheeses, delicate soups, regional pasta such as trofie with genovese pesto, stews and meat, always too much for small appetites but never the same thing twice. Divine. Desserts would always be overkill but a strong espresso and mayhap some local grappa would finish things perfectly.
Mum and Dad gave us so many unforgettable culinary memories and yet the ones that stand out are the meals and experiences that were oft repeated – Mum’s biriani, Dad’s regular ‘snails and duck’ at Biggles and Paulo’s, cheese on crumpets, the Saturday morning fresh bread when bakeries still existed at our local shops, the Fray Bentos pies that Nana Griffiths would use to eke out a Sunday roast if we all descended unannounced and the glass of cointreu or amaretto at the end of a meal.
All of these memories flood back now that the summer is over and a new working year has begun. It’s the time when we normally start thinking about Christmas and booking holidays for next year. It’s sad to think that this year we are missing such lovers of food and family. I hope as we go on we will do them justice.