When the pandemic hit, we took note of the early shortages: toilet rolls, flour and gravel (some recipe; goodness knows what the cakes tasted like but I doubt they rose much). We planted veg and we made our own yoghurt though actually we merely reconstituted a powder that is pretty good. As I was preparing the holder for another load I was taken back to my childhood and the times when mum and dad went off on different self sufficiency kicks…
My mother loved an idea that might save money. Dad too, but mum was a zealot to his enthusiastic amateur. Sometime in the late 1960s we acquired a ginger beer plant. All I recall of mum’s experiment is (a) how fiery her brew was (b) how it never stopped and eventually dad had to beg her to throw it out because he just couldn’t drink any more with risking some intestinal contrafabulation and (c) the countless times the corks blew off or the bottles exploded covering her pantry in a sticky film.
This urge to grow something that paid for itself took hold. She did much the same with yoghurt only I don’t think she really mastered it because rather than providing us with good bacteria, as all the adverts promise, my recollection is of a stomach acid build up. I could be mythologising this and the truth could be that her product was just sour and not to a child’s taste. At that time the only yoghurts I had experienced were the French ‘Ski’ brand which were strawberry flavoured and sweet. Mum’s answer to any complaint was to add sugar to hers and mash up some fruit and say it was just as good because the ingredients were the same. Bollocks, of course, but one didn’t challenge mum.
And it’s good to find out early how shallow and duplicitous a parent can be because it avoids deep and long term disappointment. That was my wake up call.
Into this mix I must add yeast. Mum didn’t ask for much by way of birthday or Christmas presents – it was always about others – save there were two things she wanted and asked to be put on a list. One was a Black and Decker workmate – a sort of all purpose workbench – and the other was a Kenwood food processor. This came with a dough hook attachment which it took mum a while to master. When she did the Chelsea buns, the Bath buns, the bread and rolls, they were all fabulous though, as with the ginger beer, dad did plead that she stop making them as he was getting fat. The Archaeologist and I would have had her continue ad infinitum but she listened to dad, much to our chagrin.
For her experiments in baking she grew her own yeast. I can recall the smell – not unpleasant but very rich and sort of beery – and some occasions when she allowed something to prove too long and it swamped wherever she had put it, on one occasion a ripe dough ending up behind a radiator where it slowly hardened. It might still be there for all I know. She was proud of her baking, too, making things for the various WI shows and winning prizes – though out-doing some of her peers probably counted for more than the prize itself.
All these experiments were mere precursors to my parents developing their fruit and vegetable growing and the preserving of the produce that the garden increasingly provided. By the end of the 1970s the garden was producing so much that my parents invested in a second freezer to store it. These days two chest freezers would be seen as the signature of a serial killer; back then it was an excess of beans and tomatoes. Mind you, there were times when we felt we were being killed with fibre; mum and dad as some kind of Hampshire cereal killers…
Anyway, Dad’s husbandry improved, the quality of the soil increased and we knew that, come May we were going to be overwhelmed with vegetable fecundity until the year end; had the grow ‘n’ store approach continued my parents would have been faced with a dilemma: either throw some away or become vegans. Neither was at all likely.
Enter stage right, my mother’s mother, my gran. She was a fiercely independent woman who, aged 80 found coping with her enormous Georgian house on the north Kent coast too much and moved in with my parents. A few months later, and so as not to be outdone, my father’s mother, my nana, moved in too. This menage à quatre continued for some five years until nana died in the late 1980s. But while it continued my gran tried to differentiate herself by being ‘helpful’.
This often led to conflict but not much daunted her. So it was one day that mum and dad were out and gran in the garden peeling runner beans so they could be salted and stored, when a man appeared round the side of the house – no locked gates then.
‘I was walking down the lane,’ he began – our house adjoined a quiet lane though there was no pavement so not many pedestrians – ‘and I couldn’t help noticing your magnificent sweet peas. I wondered what the variety was?’
If gran suspected he was a conman she didn’t show it because she offered to find out – dad kept the seed packet on a stick at the end of any row of seeds he planted and gran knew it would probably still be there even if covered by the by now huge sweet peas. Dad might have focused on veg, but he loved sweet peas and grew fabulously scented monsters.
The man was suitably impressed and, chatting to my gran, asked to buy a bunch – it seemed he knew with sweet peas the more you cut the more you get.
If there was one thing my gran liked better than nearly anything else it was making a sale – retailing was in her blood. She persuaded the man to buy a huge bunch and no doubt priced it very competitively.
When mum and dad returned both were delighted until gran suggested putting a notice by the gate, offering them for sale on a regular basis. Dad was horrified and had numerous excuses: even though the lane at the side was quiet we actually lived on a fast busy road so no one would see the sign; no one else would want them anyway; who would sell them; we’d be the victim of theft. And on and on.
Gran, knowing her, didn’t argue. She let him think he’d won. Then when he next went out for the day, she made a sign, pulled her deck chair to the front gate and waited.
Once again dad returned unaware of what had happened. He found his sweet pea rows devoid of blooms and, indeed a fair few runner beans picked too. Gran, meanwhile, had a wooden box full of change. Enough to pay for the seeds for all the sweet peas, the beans and a fair bit beside.
He was won over but the battles didn’t end. Often gran would happily sell that evening’s dinner if not restrained. It was an addiction. She had mum drive her round to see what other places were charging and made sure we just undercut them. Once we had a grocer turn up having heard about some success and wondering if dad grew enough to supply them. No, was dad’s probably correct answer to gran’s disappointment.
Over time the produce paid for two greenhouses – something dad had wanted – and people came from miles around. His leek plants became something of his speciality. He knew his were better than anyone else’s, especially the garden centres. He had a technique which he wouldn’t share with anyone which led to the most awesome prize winning beauties.
Maybe, had gran been about during the yoghurt and ginger beer phases we would have gone on a different direction as a family, but the pleasure all three got from the growing and selling eased any friction there might have been. It didn’t stop the arguments mind you….