Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Bootiful


The Ragged Rambler's photo tour of a church is his home county of Norfolk has put me in mind of that place, and got me wondering how it is that I have not spent more time there. It really is my kind of place, being stuck as it is in a 1950s post-war attitude, in much the same way I find myself when day-dreaming or thinking of nothing in particular.

There are two reasons why I have not visited Norfolk more than once - I drifted (after a brief spell in Cambridgeshire) westward with age, and Norfolk is in the east. Also, essentially there is only one road into Norfolk and one road out (it's the same road) hunched up as it is on the proudly jutting arse of England. I like old black and white road signs, and I like crab sandwiches, so I really should make the effort and visit more often.

The Queen Mother did for Norfolk what the Prince of Wales has done for Gloucestershire - i.e. raise the property prices to a reassuringly exclusive level by simply choosing the counties as places to live. I spent a mad Christmas just south of Cromer once, and on Boxing Day, we visited some households within a few miles radius, for sherry and mince pies. Every single house we called at had a photograph on the mantle-piece showing the residents standing next to the Queen Mother, smiling and drinking sherry. I was even invited to tea with the Queen's mum before I left, but couldn't make it - much to my regret.

My host lived in a kitsch, Palladian style country house, dominated by a vast cupola, the inside of which was decorated with a massive fresco depicting gods and cherubs - one of which had six toes, it was discovered, when someone lay drunk on their backs looking up from the carpet.

The house was built by her second husband who was by then dead, but had been an architect and 'Keeper of the Fabric' of St. Paul's Cathedral, which may go some way to explain the cupola. It was original named after the area which, I seem to remember, had the word 'Bottom' in it (perhaps Eloise could put me right about this), so for the sake of this story, I will call it 'Crinkly Bottom'. Then the original owner found out that he was about to be created a Lord, so he changed the name to 'Templewood' so that he would not forever after be known as 'Lord Crinkly Bottom'.

The Christmas I spent there (mentioned in previous posts...) was also shared with an American woman who arrived alone and became more and more mentally unbalanced as the days wore on toward the big day. The rest of them - being hopeless aristocrats - were utterly unable to cook anything other than lumpy porridge, so it was decided that I would cook the massive goose that had been sitting in the freezer for a few years, waiting to be eaten. I could see a twitch developing in the mad eyes of the American, and smelt trouble ahead. She was obviously trying extremely hard to fit into what - in her mad eyes - must have been the quintessentially English, 'Gosford Park' situation (but without the servants), and the poor woman was beginning to come apart at the seams.

My elderly host drifted in and out of the living room and became more drunk with each entrance. She was barking mad even when sober, but whatever she was consuming in the privacy of her study was steadily shaving the little reason she had left away from her, and she began to break up the fun and jollity purely in order to issue decrees that she had dreamt up in her den.

"I have decided," she would say, "that from henceforth there will be no more smoking in the house."

I - cigarette in hand - would watch her disappear through the green-beize servant's door, then ask her daughter if I should throw my fag into the roaring log fire that I was seated next to, but she just answered, "Oh just ignore her. She will have forgotten all about it by the morning." And so she had.

On Christmas Eve, we hauled the massive, solid carcass of the goose from the freezer to defrost, and when I unwrapped it, discovered a few black spots of mould on parts of the breast, acquired from it's sojourn in several perpetual winters.

The American had hysterics and began screaming that Christmas was ruined, and how the hell were we going to get another bird at this time of year in this part of the country?! She had obviously never heard of Bernard Matthews.

I soon saved the day by consulting a copy of Mrs Beaton and discovering the 'remedy for taint in goose'. This - like most other British recipes of the era - involved salt and vinegar.

The next day I found the American in the kitchen, bright and early, fussing about with ingredients and utensils and obviously in the final stages of a full-blown nervous-breakdown. She had evidently never cooked a goose before, but refused to take any advice from me as to how it should be done. Eventually, she slammed a large knife down on a work surface, and pretty much ordered me out of her kitchen. Fearing for my life, I crept out and began telling the others in hushed whispers, what was about to occur - the production of an inedible Christmas dinner and the inevitable and unspeakable scene that would follow.

We sat at the large table and I braced myself for what I knew was coming, and the American woman began bringing it in - plate by steaming plate. She had concocted some sort of chestnut stuffing which looked and tasted like porridge, the sauce was a dirty brown and looked and tasted like Marmite and the goose was so tough that you could have soled your shoes with it.

Our elderly host began hacking away at her portion and the room filled with a hush as the American stared at us in anticipation. Soon, the lady of the house gave her opinion.

"This is absolutely disgusting!"

The American let out a harrowing and drawn-out scream as she flung her knife and fork down on the table, then ran sobbing from the room as the rest of stared at each other in horror and amusement. (She left the next day in the deranged belief that we were all conspiring against her.)

"What's the matter with her?" asked our host, then forgot about it and continued chewing away on the other old bird.



20 comments:

  1. I spent some years in Norfolk myself before heading further and further west in several hops, still clutching onto my imaginary photo of me and the Queen Mother having a merry sherry. There was a lot of madness there, I thought, but it was a dull madness. Mind you, I guess I never met the American.

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  2. Hello Tom:
    Tales from a country house....this could be replicated across many houses/hosts/ hostesses we have known the length and breadth of this idiosyncratic country we call England. And, indeed we have had some pretty scary events in Wales and Scotland come to think of it!

    We can readily identify with the comfort of living perpetually in the 1950s. Believe us when we tell you that C21 living in Budapest is precisely that [just a few people speaking Hungarian makes the difference from 1950s Blighty].

    Food we feel, but then again we may be wrong here, does seem in our albeit limited experience to bring out the worst in Americans. Why is this, we ask?!!

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  3. I have never been to Norfolk Tom, although I have always wanted to. My great grandfather was a Minister there. I have the front page of the Langtree newspaper that says "Langtree Rector's Daughter weds, with photos of my Granny's wedding.....My great aunt also had an estate there that was comandeered by the army during the war....I would love to go there to places where some of family stories took place.

    I hope you all had enough alcohol to soothe your frustrations about the spoiled Christmas dinner.

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  4. The menopausal mother of an old girlfriend once threw our complete roast beef sunday lunch from the kitchen window. We simply went outside into the garden, collected up all the roast potatoes, beef, etc, and had lunch whilst the mad mother sat and wept.... Very funny.

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  5. p.s. The above was even more amusing as it did not occur in any of the six-finger counties; it happened in Sussex.

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  6. My menopausal mother once rubbed an ice cream into my face when I was 9

    but thats another story

    Just read your title and thought it was funny that I am going to see the spanish movie BIUTIFUL
    tonight

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  7. message to self:-
    get out more

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  8. Perhaps the American woman had heard about "British Cuisine", which to many is an oxymoran. We love the British and anything about your country, just not the food.

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  9. Waste not, want not Cro.

    You probably deserved it, John.

    Yes, quite right, Starting - most of it is shit, derived from Northern Germany. Having said that, it's difficult to go wrong with a good old roast, so I don't know how the mad American managed. That's what I call true genius.

    The British are now extremely good at copying other European country's staple dishes, and quite often we import nationals from those countries to cook it for us. These do not - however - include American or German nationals. I can honestly say that I make a much better hamburger than MacDonalds, and my KFC is better than Colonel Sanders. I do a mean 'Taffelsptiz' too.

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  10. I've never been to Norfolk, but I enjoyed reading that. On the other hand I've cooked many a goose and dressed quite a few in my time. It was a shame she didn't let you carry on with the cooking, Tom.

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  11. True Moll - there again, it might have been me to scream and hide in my room afterwards, so maybe it worked out alright after all.

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  12. KFC, finger-licken-good. Actually, American cuisine is a combination of all nationalities, just like we are. We do favor Italian, French and Junk though the most.

    Have you ever had a hoagie or a cheesesteak made with cheese wiz (fake cheese), nothing like it.

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  13. I've eaten the best junk food ever when in the USA, Starting. and I've eaten some of the best French food in England too.

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  14. Oh and by the way - I have eaten a hamburger in the very same greasy joint that they were invented in for sailors - in Hamburg, Germany - and it was so disgusting that I threw it away.

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  15. I once had a 'steak sandwich' at Miami airport that was a huge steak between two slices of bread. Could I have sued for false representation?

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  16. Er... no, Cro.

    I had good seafood in Florida, but there again, all they had to do was open the oysters. The crab was nice too, but just... well... cooked, like they do in Cromer. The best crab I have eaten was in a Thai restaurant, and the spiced up the meat before putting it back in the shell. I once ordered crab in a Chinese restaurant in Cambridge, and they gave me a pair of chopsticks to crack the claws with. I ended up putting them under the leg of the chair and sitting down hard.

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  17. Absolutely, Cro. Good legal representation should swing that for you. The 'steak sandwich' would probably countersue on grounds of slander.

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  18. It wouldn't have a leg to stand on.

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