Most Memorable Meal: Chris Coulman

1 Feb

When I started the most memorable meal guest posts, I knew I would get a wide range of responses, but I had no idea when I asked my Dad to write that his would succeed in making me cry.

Reading how hard it was for my family back when he was young was a pretty emotional experience, but after the tears and snot had cleared away, a beautiful realisation came to pass. My love for food and its bonding qualities is strongly rooted in my family, in no small part because of my lovely Nana, some woman that she is, who has always showered us with food and love.

My Dad couldn’t have put it any better.

A Pasty

Lauren rang and said “Dad, would you write a piece about your most memeorable meal as a guest blog”. It took about a nanosecond to recover the memory and I agreed. Although I have been privileged enough to eat in some fabulous restaurants across the world, not once did they come close to my favourite meal.

However, I need to give you some context first, and take you back to the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.

My father had decided to absolve himself of all responsibilities in childcare, and took himself off to the French Foreign Legion. Whilst this may make us look more windswept and interesting, it left my mother up shit creek without any means of propulsion and five young children clinging to her, all demanding to be fed.

My mother, despite being advised by Social Services to let her children be taken into care as she was on her own, (she politely explained that there wasn’t a chance that that was going to happen), promptly started working three jobs to support us. To this day, I still have no meaningful concept of how hard things were to raise five children whilst holding three jobs down and cooking everything from scratch.

We had a larder, not a fridge, which consisted of a large stone shelf in the pantry that sat above the coal bunker. We also had a coal fireplace that contained a cooking range which my mother used extensively. The skill and timing involved in using the range to cook was nothing short of a logistical nightmare. My only concern at that time was how long to leave my pyjamas on it to warm before they set on fire.

Against this backdrop of poverty, my mother set out to master the art of cooking for two sons and three daughters with a budget that would have shamed Mother Theresa into realising that she need to address her extravagances.

To make things that bit more difficult, my mother had rescued a terrier of mixed breed that we loved dearly but turned out to be a complete lunatic. It would let anyone in the house but savaged you if you tried to leave. Every morning we ran the gauntlet of trying to retain some of our socks whilst clubbing the crazed animal into submission with a satchel.

The only payback that dog had was when we gave it the porridge that my mother made every morning to fuel us through the winter. The porridge was always left to soak overnight before being cooked in the morning. If you didn’t eat it sharpish, it began to take on the properties of epoxy resin. We waited until this process had begun before giving the dog a bowlful. I can’t begin to tell you the joy of watching the dog frantically trying to prise its jaw open, which was now glued firmly shut. We kept our socks on those days.

I digress.

My favourite meal ever was a pasty.

You’d be forgiven for thinking ‘is that it, a pasty?’, but it wasn’t just any pasty.

My mother bought skirt beef which was not known as the finest cut of meat back then, but it was cheap. My mother bought a pound of skirt beef (some of which went on to form the main ingredient in another meal because everything had to be stretched), plus potatoes, carrots and onions, along with all the things need to make short crust pastry.

Preparation for our meals was always well in advance of the actual event, and the beef was braised very slowly in the oven until the smells filled the house. At a certain point in time, the potatoes, carrots and onions would be cooked separately, which joined the smells of the braising meat and made our mouths water.

Whilst my brother and sisters took pity on the dog and freed his jaw from the porridge with a cold chisel, I went into the kitchen to watch the master class of pastry making. There were no recipe books in evidence as my mum just knew how to make everything. The pastry was kneaded, rolled and floured until my mother nodded at it in satisfaction when it had acquired the perfect consistency.

On many occasions, the pastry had been made earlier and was left to rest in the pantry. As the pastry was brought out and placed on a light dusting of flour, I would put my arms on the edge of the kitchen top and rest my chin on it whilst my mum brought together all the tools required to complete the next critical phase.

The pastry was rolled and re-rolled and rolled again until the thickness was uniform across its entire surface, at which point a side plate was placed on top. My mum then cut around it leaving a perfect pastry circle. This was repeated until numerous pastry circles were stacked awaiting the filling.

The peas that had been steeped overnight were bubbling away in a big pan next to the bigger pan of potatoes, onions and carrots.

But then, my mother got a dinner plate.

I could barely contain myself as I knew that the dinner plate was used as the template for my pasties. As the eldest son with an appetite to rival a champion hog, I would lean in a little closer as the off cuts from the first cuttings were re-rolled. The dinner plate was used until there was no pastry left.

We didn’t speak during all this, I just watched in anticipation.

The meat was taken out of the oven and the potatoes, carrots and onion were taken off the heat. Both were drained and the meat was added to the vegetables which were then gently turned over and over until the meat was spread evenly. I watched in fascination as each pastry circle was then filled with this heavenly smelling concoction that had been prepared over the last 24 hours.

The sides of the pastry were brought together and with a sprinkling of water were then pinched together to form that traditional pasty shape. When I say they were filled, I mean filled. You couldn’t have got another gram of filling in there without it bursting.

The oven had been on for some time and as I watched, rosy cheeked from the warmth of the kitchen, my mother filled and formed each pasty and laid them out on a baking tray. My dinner plate pasties sat magnificently amongst its smaller side plate brethren waiting for the final act in the whole process… the baking.

As the pasties went into the oven, it was time to set the table. My mother had always insisted that we ate at the table which in many homes today appears to have been lost. Usually, a loaf of bread had been sliced and buttered in case we hadn’t had enough to eat, along with the instruction to fill up with jam and bread. However, when pasties were on the menu, no bread was needed.

As the pasties were on the final approach in the oven, my mother would take the combined meat and vegetable juices to make the gravy.

We took it for granted that everything would be ready together without realising that this was an art form in itself. I don’t know how she did it. As we sat at the table with our knives and forks in hand, my mother would serve us all in age order. Deborah first as she was the eldest – small pasty. The properly cooked mushy peas were added and you were allowed to help yourself to gravy.

Me next.

“Here is yours Christopher” she would say, as she scooped my mushy peas onto my plate to accompany my giant pasty.

I couldn’t tell you what the three younger ones had, as I could now only concentrate on my pasty. I tried to be patient whilst Deborah poured her gravy but it was never quick enough. Once I got hold of the gravy jug, I only covered half of my pasty as I wanted to taste the pastry on its own.

As Rachel, Timothy and Rebecca were served their smaller pasties, I took in the combined smells of my mother’s labour and felt profoundly grateful.

My mouth was always watering before I took my first mouthful.

The pastry got you first which didn’t so much melt in your mouth, but dissolved, leaving you with a yearning to repeat the experience again and again. Then the filling kicked in with a taste that just said ‘you’re home’. Combined with slowly cooked peas and gravy that should be used to anoint the religious, I could weep at the memory.

We often spoke throughout mealtimes but on the occasions where pasties were involved, the family ate in complete silence enveloped in a cocoon of warmth and taste. Every bit of those pasties was sensational and nothing was ever left. The peas and the gravy went around until it had all gone.

I could eat two of those huge pasties and often did, and at the end of the meal we just looked at our mother and one by one said thank you.

It didn’t really occur to me at the time how much time and effort had gone into making those pasties and I often wondered how my Mother made them to such perfection. I thought she was sneaking in a secret ingredient, and she was. It was love.

So, my most memorable meal isn’t just about the pasty. It’s about the preparation, the time taken, the love given, the family and the sheer joy of sitting down together and sharing an experience, brought together by a food experience that left me speechless.

It still does.

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6 Responses to “Most Memorable Meal: Chris Coulman”

  1. skodatronic April 1, 2013 at 5:20 pm #

    Great read…. Made my fiancé cry!

  2. helenfrancesca March 7, 2013 at 4:30 pm #

    Gorgeous read. Real sentiment and a real feeling of gratitude and appreciation. Loved it. x

  3. Cam Woodhouse March 6, 2013 at 6:55 pm #

    Brilliantly written. I’m hungry now!

  4. Robyn March 6, 2013 at 6:26 pm #

    I forgot to say when you originally posted this that I LOVE it – what a wonderful post. I feel warm and happy inside just reading it. And I want a pasty…

  5. najimoss February 3, 2013 at 5:22 pm #

    wow – made me shed a little tear too!! Great post and I hope one of my boys tells a similar story one day….

  6. Ricardo Gândara (@rmcgandara) February 1, 2013 at 11:41 am #

    Great Post! I feel the same, best food is about the prep and the love and family sitting together.

    🙂

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