Thursday, November 24, 2011

Kitchens of My Childhood

Corey at Tongue in Cheek wrote about her Mum’s kitchen, still the same kitchen of her childhood, full of baking and constant comings and goings of family. She sent me back to recollecting the kitchens of my childhood.

The front of the school where I grew up - not me in the picture!
I say kitchens, because there were two. The small galley kitchen in our flat and the big bustling school kitchen below. I grew up in a school, a small, English boys’ boarding school. The buildings were an old manor house in warm honey stone built for the local squire and his family in the late Victorian era. Spacious and roomy but not too imposing. Our flat was the upper floor in the servants’ wing forming an L to the main house. Our kitchen was small, the end of the wing partitioned off, high counters put in by the first headmaster and his wife, who were both tall, big windows just a bit too high, but light and airy looking over the stable yard.

There wasn’t much counter space for spreading out on, but my mother had a trolley that we used as an extra surface when baking biscuits or cakes and it is there that I remember waiting to scrape out the cake mixture, hovering, one foot in the green carpeted corridor, as she scraped as much into the cake tin as she could, us willing her to stop before it was all gone. It was there I learned to make drop scones, proudly serving up a plateful to a party of visitors one tea-time (was it the school governors?).

Every corner was used, cunning turntables on the corner shelf just inside the sliding door held all the little pots of baking powder and such like, another turntable on the wide window ledge held jams and honeys, bottles of orange squash and Ribena lined the counter, cereal boxes lived high on top of the wall cupboard, with the sliding glass door that one of us broke trying to climb and reach something. Tupperware lived in the cupboard underneath the trolley that needed just the right pressure to open. A blue padded top stool with a retractable step sat next to the trolley to reach the high shelves over the cooker. The four of us could just fit in to do the washing up if we stepped around each other carefully.

The big school kitchen immediately below my bedroom was another domain. Three big Agas in an imposing row kept it warm year round. A huge table stood in the middle, big built-in wooden dressers on two sides. In the days before stainless steel regulations took over, it was little changed from the old manor house kitchen, with painted wood cupboards and linoleum floor. In term time it was a hive of activity presided over by the cook and housekeeper.

I would sidle in with a  bowl on a mission from my mother to fetch flour, dried fruit or eggs from the store room. A big old fashioned scales with weights sat on the dresser. Three big metal dustbins held the flour (self-raising and plain) and the sugar. A metal dipper sat on top of each, to scoop out from the white powdery mountain inside, and I’d carefully weigh out however much I needed, adjusting the metal weights in pounds and ounces, for whatever recipe my mother or I was baking up in the flat, before scuttling back upstairs to our little kitchen.

The dried fruit required more exciting fetching. The first drawer in the dresser held a heavy bunch of housekeeper’s keys. Above the drawer hung a clipboard with the school menus for the week pencilled in. I would check it out regularly, my heart quailing if it showed fish for lunch on Friday, or relieved if a favourite pudding was planned. All the larders were kept locked, but I had the entree and could help myself to the keys and go and fetch whatever was needed.

The dim housekeeper’s larder held shelves stacked with dry goods and tins, and smelled of spice and raisins, in my memory at least. Whatever I was fetching I would be tempted to open the dry fruit cupboard and lift the lid of the tin containing mixed dried fruit (the cake mix with candied peel) and grab an illicit handful... There were three other interlinking larders with wire mesh screened windows and stone slab counters, dating back from the days before refrigeration and between them all the food for the school was stored. Apart from that there was the potato shed in the back yard, dark and slightly damp where the potatoes were stored in a heap still covered with earth. Milk was delivered daily, as the fridge for the whole school in those days was only the size of an average large family fridge today.

In term time I slipped in and out of that kitchen shyly and surreptitiously, politely greeting and then escaping back up to the quiet upstairs, occasionally lingering if it looked like there might be enticing tastes offered. But in the Christmas holidays the school kitchen became ours. My aunt’s family, and great uncle and great aunt, joined us and we would cook meals for the extended family downstairs, expanding into the school as if it were once again a family home and manor house. Then we would stand around the big table, my aunt, mother cousin and I, icing the Christmas cake, mixing up brandy butter with frequent tastes, peeling potatoes, preparing big meals.

The tall cupboard that contained food colouring and baking supplies was at our disposal for making peppermint creams with all the fancy cookie cutters. The Agas always kept the kitchen warm and toasty, unlike the chilly winter corridors of the school in holiday time, with central heating turned right down. By now I knew that the wooden sloping lidded box on the window salt contained salt not sugar – my toddler brother and I had discovered that, tricked by laughing kitchen staff, who were then less than thrilled when we spat our mouthfuls out over the clean kitchen sink!

We’d use the rattling metal school trolleys to wheel the food up the stone flagged passageway to the smaller dining room, or to take tea things, always a proper afternoon tea with bread and butter, cake and biscuits, through to the wood panelled main hall which we transformed into a sitting room, grouping all the sofas and chairs around the huge fireplace, the school Christmas tree adapted for our own use.

After Christmas with the new school term, we shrank back into our little upstairs kitchen again.

Those tastes of a big warm kitchen with a central table stayed with me. My dream kitchen was formed by the descriptions in Rosemunde Pilcher novels of a kitchen stretching the width of a London basement, welcoming friends and family to sit around and chat, sofa at one end, room to stretch out and bask in the warmth of baking and cooking. And that is what I now have here.

A kitchen that stretches into sitting room, a big table where everyone can sit around, scents of baking bread and biscuits. And I almost never cook fish on Fridays!

What do you remember about your childhood kitchen?


  1. Speechless. What a great post, Kit. I feel like I was there with you.

    Growing up in a boys' school? Can't even imagine how much trouble I would have gotten into there...

    My childhood kitchen was dark brown wood cabinets above and below, U-shaped, small. A window over the sink looked out over the back yard. We had a "bread drawer" with a ventilated sliding metal cover, which later turned into the sweets drawer as we kept our bread in the refrigerator. A closet in the hall just outside the kitchen was the pantry. One side of the "U" was a peninsula that separated the kitchen from the dining room. We kids could lean on the counter from the dining room side and watch Mom's goings on without actually getting underfoot. We did this regularly when cookie or cake dough was in the offing. I recall she also used to feed us bits of raw ground beef spiced up for meatballs (this was before all the harouche by the FDA obviously).

    The floor was dark brown and orange linoleum tile. I baked my first homemade bread in that kitchen, and countless batches of cookies, Christmas and otherwise.

    Thanks for the trip back in time, Kit. You rock.

  2. Thanks for sharing your memories, Marcheline. It's great remembering all the details and hearing yours!
    The boys school was for ages 7-13, so perhaps not as exciting as you're imagining!

  3. Well, Kit... I got in trouble in 4th grade for kissing a 7th grade boy on the schoolbus, so... 8-)

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