As we stepped into mum's apartment the other day, my senses were immediately struck by a smell that I knew so well yet also could not quite place. I'd been caught by a scent that was both heavy and heady, yet full of light and shade at the same time. Each pace I took along the hallway the stronger the scent became... until, as I passed the kitchen doorway, I saw some narcissus in a small glass vase and was instantly transported to another time and place; to a time some four decades ago and a place some 3 miles from where I stood...
When we lived as a family at Le Pignon, a home near the centre of the island in the parish of Castel, I would walk with friends to school; Castel Infant School. I guess I was around ten or eleven, with no cares in the world and a host of unknown hopes and dreams ahead.
Our journey to school would be along Rue des Varendes, which lead onto Le Villocq, up Le Neuve Rue, right into Rue des Cauvains (avoiding the electric shock treatments of the Castel Hospital!!), then passed the King Edward VII Hospital, and then, as we got to the T-junction with Les Vieux Beauchamps there they were, directly in front of us.... a field of golden daffodils dancing in all their sunshiney glory. Yet for me it was not the yellow beauties that caught my eye, it was the yellow-eyed white narcissus that did, and they caught my nose too... and my imagination. These cherished mutli-headed floral gems were called Avalanche, and dad told me that they were from the Scilly Isles, which I always thought a wonderful name for an amazing multi-headed cascading fall of blooms... yet a silly name for a group of islands.
As we'd walk home from another joy filled day of school - and I do mean that as my schooldays were full of the joys of learning, of numbers, of letters, of nature, of play, and of friends - we would pick a bunch or two of flowers on our way. Diving into the field, we would gently pick a handful with the billy-goat-gruff farmer looking on... "Don't take too many... I gots to make my livin'".
As we walked to the back doors of our homes, where comfort and love abounded, the hands of each of my friends was the glory of a bunch of golden daffodils for their mum; in mine a multi-headed magisterial mystery of name and of place enveloped in gold and white petalled flows for my mum, Mary.
Those few steps into mum's apartment a few days ago really took me back... more than four decades... to a heady scent of the past.
A Guernsey Gardener in London - Day 25
Gosh, it was a rather busy and unexpectedly emotional day yesterday!
I said to Richard on Saturday that I wanted to make a Christmas Pudding, as it was Stir-Up Sunday this weekend which is the traditional day that people in the UK would make their Christmas Puddings; families all coming together and giving the mix a stir, each making a wish as they did so. It's obviously one of those traditions that is dying out swiftly now that we can go to any supermarket or corner shop and buy the pasty, sweet, microwaveable, unrecognisable Christmas Puddings that they sell these days. However, I was absolutely sure there is nothing like the real thing that mum used to make, and I wanted to make it. So make it we did!!
Now, I haven't made mum's Christmas Puddings for many decades. In fact, I don't think I've made a traditional Christmas Pudding since I last made one with mum when I must have been in my very, very early 20s.
Mum had given me one of her old cookery books some years back. It's an old Hamlyn cookery book with a pale blue cloth-like cover. The dust sheet has long been lost, and various splodges of cake batter and gravy now sit comfortably alongside the jaded and faded fake gold lettering on the cover binding. It wasn't actually the recipe for Christmas Pudding in the book that I was looking for though. You see, I knew that mum's handwritten recipe of HER Christmas Pudding was on a piece of paper cradled between two of the leaves of the book. I took Cooking In Colour off of my cookery book shelves (note... MY cookery book shelves, not OUR cookery book shelves!). I found the slip of mottled paper with red writing, and then remembered what I had known all along... the list of ingredients used and their weights was for 16 puddings, and I certainly didn't want to make 16!! So I set to and converted all of the ounces into grams and millilitres and then divided all of the total amount of each ingredient by 16. In the end, looking at the full list of ingredients and their weights for one pudding, I decided that I would do one and a half times this reduced amount of mix. It turned out that this was perfect for making 8 individual puddings; it was Richard's idea to make individual puddings rather than one large one, and I think that he had the right idea.
It was in the first moments of stirring this scented mix that the initial sense of the past came back to me... Standing around the dining room table with mum at my side and a huge plastic Tupperware in front of us. We would stir the mixture thoroughly, ensuring that everything was incorporated; no pockets of dry flour here, and no clumps of gooey, squidgy chopped prunes there. Just one unctious flavourful dried fruit, almond, sugar, suet, rum and stout paste. We'd have to take turns in doing the stirring as the quantity of mixture was so large it was really quite tiring on the arms!
My second sense of the past was when I could smell the puddings steaming. The gentle spicy aroma filled the kitchen, then our middle room, the ground floor, then the upstairs until the whole house was engulfed in scented memories. And boy did that aroma take me back decades again! I've obviously smelt Christmas Puddings over the decades, though none have given me this sense of days of old.
And then we jump forward to the tasting, and wowsers... didn't that bang me right back to being a child!! Sitting around the table at Christmas, with family and friends and some people that I didn't even know who they were. Presents had been opened and played with and the turkey carcass was sitting under tinfoil on top of the fridge. There we all were with our coloured paper Christmas cracker hats on, all feeling slightly boozy (even us youngsters as we were allowed Babycham!), terrible jokes had been read aloud, useless cracker gifts were spread around the tablecloth, some gleeful choir was singing updated carols and festive songs on the radio... and then would come mum's Christmas Puddings. Glistening. Flaming. And beautiful. In my opinion, heavenly. 😊
If you've seen the video of us making the Christmas Puddings you will see how I got rather overwhelmed by emotion. It was simply because the taste of this pudding just sent me back decades to all the memories above - to the joys of those people, of which too many are sadly no longer in our lives today, though they will live forever in our hearts... dad, my brother Perri, Aunty Phil, Uncle Len, Aunty Betty and Uncle Mick. Life is so short, yet it can also be so joyous.
And I guess that's the wonderful thing about food, along with many other daily necessities and luxuries.
In the depths of our minds we have so many memories that are associated with a smell or a taste or a sight or a sound, and even a touch. It's in moments like these, sometimes decades later, when these special times are relived, most often unexpectedly, that we're just taken back to our childhood or back to special moments of remembrance. It can be quite overwhelming, though it can also be so enriching too. I for one am so pleased that we have these moments as they highlight time's gone by; for me many are wonderfully sweet and happy whilst some are more bittersweet. However, these memories and events are part of the person each of us is today, and hopefully even more memories can be made for us to fall back to as we get older, and wiser, and remember.
And... as I sat in our front room this morning quietly doing the final edit of this blog before posting it, something quite lovely, unexpected and extraordinary happened, though this story will have to wait for another day...
A Guernsey Gardener in London, Day 14
...long term partners.