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August 17 2012

Family life

Readers' favourite photographs, songs and recipes

Snapshot: My dad's last step on Burmese land

My father, Wilfred Carroll, left his homeland of Burma twice. First in 1942, when the Japanese army forced a retreat of allied troops into India, and then in 1951 when, having retained his British nationality after independence, he made the momentous decision to emigrate to England.

This picture captures his very last step on Burmese land, as he boarded the SS Salween in Rangoon on 21 March, holding my brother Michael's hand and carrying me. Also with us were my mother, Norma, and two-month-old sister, Denise, ready to sail to Bristol and a new life.

I can only imagine the first culture shock, departing in tropical heat and disembarking, four weeks later, into the cold and damp of Avonmouth. My father was never to return, or to see his parents again, but he always believed he made the right choice for his family, despite the hardships endured in establishing a home and a career in postwar London. He worked at the head offices of the Co-operative Wholesale Society for 30 years, and helped to raise seven children, spending eight years of his retirement in Western Australia. He died in Sidcup, Kent in 2004.

I was two and a half when this picture was taken, so I have no memories of that day on the dockside.

As we grew up, my parents made us aware of our diverse ethnic background, which was half-Irish mixed with Burmese and southern European, frequently recounting stories of strict Catholic schooling and a hectic social life in prewar Rangoon, and keeping their Asian culinary skills very much alive in the kitchen of our council house in Essex.

The one thing my father did not speak of was his experiences as a Chindit in the jungles of Burma.

So it was with much excitement and fascination that in February 2012, 61 years after this photograph was taken that I returned for the first time to the street in which I was born in October 1948. We managed to deviate from our package holiday tour long enough to track down my parents' house, their schools, the church where they were married and the hospital where my older brother and sister were born.

Places had been renamed and there we saw some crumbling facades, but these were still the unmistakable edifices of my family's colonial past that I had seen in many a photograph album. At the docks in Rangoon, I conjured up a vivid image of my father taking that nervous step into the unknown, against the best advice of friends and relations.

When the aircraft wheels lifted off the Rangoon Tarmac, I had that sense of abandoning something that was dear to me, forever lost in the past. I knew then how my father had felt in 1951, and I cried. Patricia Perrin

Playlist: My grandad's financial dealings

Pop! goes the Weasel (nursery rhyme)

"Half a pound of tuppenny rice / Half a pound of treacle / That's the way the money goes / Pop! goes the weasel"

As a small child, whenever we visited (or were visited by) my nana and grandad, I could expect to be lifted up on to a knee and sung to. I am sure there were lots of songs, but the one that is clearest in my memory was a favourite of Grandad's.

I am unsure now, as I was then, what the song is all about, and a Google search hasn't enlightened me. Of one thing we can be sure though, "that's the way the money goes".

My grandad's financial dealings are something I wasn't aware of until later in life. As a nipper, when I was told he was popping out to the Salvation Army, I believed that was where he was headed. It would be many years until I found out that this was code for the bookies. One such trip, long before my time, resulted in a winning accumulator bet that eventually (after much debate with the company involved) came through and pretty much paid for their family home.

There is a photograph in my home of me as a toddler on Grandad's lap, and this song always drifts through my head when I see it – complete with index finger in cheek "pop" sound effect. I hope my little niece, Alice, will also treasure memories of having this sung to her by Great-Grandad.

My grandad would have been 100 this year, but sadly missed this landmark by a few years. To mark the occasion, the extended family is meeting on his birthday this month for a reunion. There will be lots of tales of Tom (or Thomas on Sundays) to be told and I suspect this tune will be sung. Ruth Goodwin

We love to eat: Fairy sandwiches

Ingredients

Sugar sprinkles/hundreds and thousands

Sliced white bread (sliced pan, preferably)

Soft butter

 

Butter the bread, cover with the sprinkles and cut into tiny, dainty triangles, fit for a fairy. Be sure to take the crusts off – neither fairies nor children like them!

I used to love fairies, especially the flower fairy books of Cicely Mary Barker. I would dress as a fairy and hide at the bottom of my grandparents' woodland garden in the hope of catching a glimpse of these magical creatures.

After one such adventure I asked my mother: What do fairies eat? Why, fairy sandwiches and flower tea, was her swift response, which she probably lived to regret. Soon I was demanding fairy sandwiches for birthday parties and afternoon teas on the lawn.

I have no idea if she got the recipe from somewhere or created them from her own imagination. The bread (sliced pan as we called it, according to Irish custom) was thickly buttered and sprinkled with multi-coloured hundreds and thousands. The soft, savoury bread, rich butter and crunchy sweetness of the sprinkles was magic itself.

I still get to enjoy fairies through my three young children. My seven-year-old son doesn't believe in fairies – but still requests these. And I am only too happy to sprinkle a little magic on them. Lucy Pearce

We'd love to hear your stories

We will pay £25 for every Letter to, Playlist, Snapshot or We love to eat we publish. Write to Family Life, The Guardian, Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9GU or email family@guardian.co.uk. Please include your address and phone number


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August 10 2012

Family life

Readers' favourite photographs, songs and recipes

Snapshot: Laura's wedding challenge

This is a picture of my daughter Laura and her husband Jamie about two hours after they had promised to love and cherish each other in 2006.

I am not keen on weddings. Having been happily unmarried to my partner Eileen for 33 years, I am not sure I see the point. The cheesy commercialism, extravagance and stupid cupidity surrounding many marriages these days does not endear me to the custom. So when my eldest daughter announced her intended nuptials, perhaps I was not as enthusiastic as I could have been; even less so when a small family affair escalated into an event for around 100 guests.

Fortunately, others involved saw it as an opportunity, a challenge even, to have a good old shindig without bankrupting families and friends alike. And so we all (even me) sat around a table with Maureen, Laura's mum, and made a plan.

It went like this: hire a beautiful but dilapidated castle on the banks of the River Tyne, usually used by youth groups, for three days. Spend a day cleaning and decorating it. Have enough food delivered from a supermarket to provide two breakfasts, lunch and an evening buffet. Prepare the food ourselves. Ask guests for a small contribution per night for basic dormitory accommodation and meals. Ask them to bring their own alcohol.

Book a local register office for the ceremony and use our own cars for transport. After the vows, arrange a mass game of football back at the castle. Do not hire a disco. The bride and groom will concoct a playlist.

Ask for volunteers among family and friends to help in the organisation.

What could go wrong? Er … that might have required another, much longer list! Fortunately, though, we pulled it off.

The football game was not that incongruous because the bride and groom had met while he was coach of her football team, who were all guests. One of my personal highlights was sneaking away from kitchen duties (briefly) to join in the football just long enough to nod in a cheeky far-post header. Other games, scenic riverside walks and fishing were available for footyphobes. Asking for help was also a masterstroke. People I had never met were clamouring to join in our collective effort.

At times we thought we had taken on too much, especially with the food, but when the weekend was over and the bleary-eyed guests made their various ways home, there was a definite feeling that we had all shared in something special, something personal, getting to know people in a way that wouldn't have happened at a "normal" wedding.

Oh, and I almost forgot, the last ingredient: a warm September weekend with cerulean skies, after a week of rain. Perfect. Anthony Peacock

Playlist: Now I can hear what I didn't before

Wow by Kate Bush

"Ooh, yeah, you're amazing! / We think you're incredible"

This song reminds me of visiting Crystal Palace park in south London during my early years. My childhood memories are of outings to parks and museums, and we often went to Crystal Palace park, with its fake dinosaurs and open spaces for riding bikes.  

My parents had a blue Vauxhall Astra estate and there was always a tape playing in it. Kate Bush is the soundtrack to my early childhood in the mid- to late 80s and this must be one of my earliest memories – in the car, staring out of the window at the tall south London terraces of Norwood and Beulah Hill while Kate shrieked in the background.

I have started listening to Kate Bush again and the memories come hurtling through time. The lyrics of Wow are about being "alone on the stage", the lone actor in your own story, the selfishness of the human condition.  

Music is a significant part of my life and listening to this again is also an exercise in reinterpretation. At four or five, I just heard the tune, but now that I'm 30 I hear the meaning of the words.   Frances Hawkins

We love to eat: Granny's chocolate pudding

Ingredients

2 tbsp cornflour

1 dessertspoonful cocoa

1 dessertspoonful sugar

1 pint full-fat milk

Place the cornflour, cocoa and sugar in a saucepan and add the cold milk a little at a time, stirring until it blends. When all the milk is added, put the pan on a medium heat. Stir slowly and continuously until the sauce thickens smoothly, making sure it doesn't catch on the bottom. As soon it starts to boil, take off the heat and pour into bowls. On a cold evening, eat straight away, like thick, hot chocolate, or wait until it cools and a delicious thick, rubbery skin appears on top.

Granny used to make this for my sister and me when we were children. We adored staying at her little cottage in a bleak coal-mining valley in County Durham. As Mum drove us over, we would watch for the smoke from her chimney and then chant, "I can see Granny's house! I can see Granny's house!" all the way down the fell until we arrived.

Her house was a ramshackle treasure trove of adventures. Mum despaired at the fact that she had no fridge, there were cobwebs in the larder, and she never brushed our hair, but my sister and I loved the wildness of it.

At Granny's house, preparing lunch involved a scramble up the bank to "South America" to dig up potatoes. Bread was toasted on a fork in front of the fire while we guzzled "pink drink", a homemade elderflower brew, which, looking back at the increased zest it gave us for handstands in the garden, must have had a bit of a poke to it.

I love to remember my special Granny by making her chocolate pudding for my small children now. These days you can buy a hundred varieties of chocolate pudding from the supermarket, but there is something special about putting a few store-cupboard ingredients together to make a simple teatime treat. Holly McEnaney

We'd love to hear your stories

We will pay £25 for every Letter to, Playlist, Snapshot or We love to eat we publish. Write to Family Life, The Guardian, Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9GU or email family@guardian.co.uk. Please include your address and phone number


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August 03 2012

Family life

Readers' favourite photographs, songs and recipes

Snapshot: My trip to the 1936 Olympics

In the summer of 1936, when I was nine, my grandfather, mother and I made a trip to eastern Europe that I will never forget. My grandfather, Aaron Schindler, was a member of numerous Jewish charities and followed the activities of European politics as he had quite a few relatives living in various European cities. He had been hearing about Germany's escalating campaign against its Jewish and minority populations, and felt he should see for himself what was happening and took my mother and me – much to my delight.

We crossed the Channel in July and headed by train to Vienna, Krakow and Warsaw, where we met lots of relatives. Getting them to understand me was quite difficult, but with the help of my grandfather translating from Yiddish to English, we managed. My grandfather, who could see signs of uncertainty and unrest throughout the region, was trying to persuade various members of the family to consider leaving their homes and businesses to start a new life in London. He could offer them jobs, as he owned a successful ladies clothing business in Bow, east London.

Our journey continued to Hamburg and then on to our final destination, Berlin, where we met more relatives. There, my grandfather surprised me. As a special treat, he asked me to accompany him to the XIth Olympiad as he had managed to get two tickets in the main stadium.

With my pocket money, I bought two Olympic brooches from one of the shops outside the stadium.

Inside, I saw a mass of people waving flags – more than 45 countries were taking part. I also saw quite a few men in uniform waving flags I did not recognise. Later, I found out that they were swastikas.

Almost opposite our seats was a row of boxes, and we could see a group of men sitting in them. The German couple beside us told my grandfather that some of the men were Olympic officials and the man seated next to them was Chancellor Adolf Hitler. I was too young to understand the importance of Hitler's presence at this great non-political sporting event with the sea of swastikas and military uniforms but, years later, the 1936 Games were often referred to as the "Nazi Olympics" and I realised that I had witnessed an historic occasion.

One of my most memorable recollections of that day was watching Jessie Owens, the great American athlete, win one of his four Olympic gold medals. I can't remember whether it was the 100m or 200m, but there was a lot of noise in the stadium. Owens made history as the first athlete to win four gold medals at the Olympic Games, a feat not equalled until 48 years later when Carl Lewis won gold in the same events at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. As Hitler had intended the Games to showcase his Aryan ideals and superiority, it is both ironic and poignant that Owens, a black athlete, turned out to be the most successful Olympian that year.

I wish I had been old enough to fully appreciate what took place that day in Berlin, but, still, I knew it was a very special occasion.

After our visit, my grandfather managed to get only one relative out of Vienna and another from Poland. Fortunately, some managed to get to the United States. Sadly, the others perished in the Holocaust.

Now the 30th Olympic Games are being held in London and it is bringing back many memories of that trip. I am so glad I was able to be a  part of history and to share my story now.

Anita Silberstein, nee Zerman

Playlist: In memory of my true love

Blow the Wind Southerly (traditional English folk song)

Blow the wind southerly, southerly, southerly/Blow the wind south o'er the bonny blue sea/Blow the wind southerly, southerly, southerly/Blow bonny breeze my lover to me

In 1957 I was filled with excitement at the thought of singing this folk song in a junior school choir festival at a Norfolk secondary school, which at the time seemed many miles away, although in reality it was just six miles. In the spirit of inclusion, all the class were to sing, although, as the teacher moved along the line to hear us, some were asked to mime. I was terrified at the thought that I would be one of them; in the event, not being chosen to mime gave me misplaced confidence in my singing voice. Since then, I have always felt free to sing loudly, despite comments from my unappreciative family.

We were dressed in our finest clothes and it was a day to savour. In later years, I could always remember the words to this song when other memories failed me.

My lover did come, although not by boat, and regrettably he died young. I think of him as I sing the song to rock my new grandson to sleep. When he is being particularly fractious, my daughter will phone up and ask me to sing it to him down the phone, in the knowledge that it calms him. When he has been in my charge, I have played him a better version on my phone. I regret that he will never know his wonderful granddad. If only his grandad could be blown over the horizon to meet the little soul and, of course, me. Any direction of wind would do.

Rosie Penna

We love to eat Ayrshire: tatties by theirsels

Ingredients

Ayrshire potatoes

Water to boil

A bunch of syboes

The cooking is simplicity itself. Scrub and boil for 20 minutes in their skins and serve with melted butter and syboes (spring onions)

A few weeks ago, I read the long-awaited notice in my local greengrocer's window: "Ayrshire tatties now in."

To all Scots, the arrival of this uniquely flavoured "pomme de terre" is greeted with as much gusto as the wine lover's first bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau.

In season for a matter of weeks, the crop is devoured by the nation as quickly as the potatoes are pulled from the ground. First batches are initially sold at a premium in suburban shops and local markets, prompting me to comment to my salesman that he balanced my produce as if trading in gold – to, which he replied, "I am, sir, I am."

I lived abroad for many years and invariably my trips back home were out of season, leaving my taste buds deprived of this national delicacy. My sister would invariably tease me by describing how she had savoured the current year's crop and telling me it was the best she had ever tasted.

One of the distinct summer memories I have of childhood is returning home after marathon games of football to enormous plates of butter-slicked Ayrshires heaped high and washed down with a glass of cold milk. My taste buds tingle as I write. With four hungry mouths to feed, my mother would buy a daily supply when stocks became plentiful and much cheaper, knowing there would be no complaints from her brood. "Is there any more Ayrshires, Ma, just by theirsels?" was the constant request in too short a season.

In 1990 I returned to the UK to live and work in London. On phoning my sister, I was told the Ayrshires were in season and, to my delight, she sent two pounds of the nuggets by parcel post. I don't think I have ever received a tastier welcome-home gift.

Now resident in my native land, there is no need to wait for the post. I just keep the pot boiling until, sadly, the season is over for another year.

John Bookless

We'd love to hear your stories

We will pay £25 for every Letter to, Playlist, Snapshot or We love to eat we publish. Write to Family Life, The Guardian, Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9GU or email family@guardian.co.uk. Please include your address and phone number


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Food as art: it looks almost too good to eat

Put away your recipe books. If you're wondering what to eat tonight, take inspiration from the world of design, art and literature instead

A few years ago, I wrote a cookery book called Cherry Cake And Ginger Beer that was inspired by the delicious food and treats enjoyed by the characters in children's classics. There were recipes for Mary Poppins' Raspberry Jam Cakes, Swallows and Amazons' Seed Cake, and Anne of Green Gables' Layer Cake. The idea emerged on a family holiday during a conversation with my then nine-year-old daughter, who at that point was engrossed in a marathon reading of Enid Blyton's Five Find-Outer series, which contains multiple references to macaroons and fry-ups. As I was also something of a greedy reader when young, together we decided to ransack the library to create a collection of recipes that could be made with and by children who wondered how the foodstuffs that are so avidly consumed on the page actually taste off the page.

As it now turns out, the book was an early example of a new phenomenon that sees adventurous cooks finding inspiration everywhere but in a recipe book. Today, there is a flourishing movement of food from art and food as art, with young food writers and stylists mining painting, design, literature, poetry and even Pantone charts for ideas, and using them to create strikingly original dishes and recipes.

Megan Fizell, an Australian based in Sydney, is an art historian who began her Feasting On Art blog in 2009 as a way of combining her interests in food and art. The results are rarely a direct recreation of the image, but more image-inspired. So Cézanne's Still Life With A Plate Of Cherries (1885-87) is the jumping-off point for a rich and fruity cherry and nectarine clafoutis, while a glorious vase of red poppies painted by Van Gogh is the basis for lemon and poppyseed bread.

The blog is richly creative and educational, with each post providing a very palatable side dish of art history. It's also refreshingly down to earth, as Fizell tells of the challenges, difficulties and mess. Unlike more professionally produced shoots and articles, there is no pretence of perfection.

While her savoury dishes are historically accurate and authentic, many will be wowed by the sweet things she creates, the fabulous geometric Mondrian pound cake, colourful, circular Hirst cineole cupcakes, and Warhol-esque tomato soup cake. A chicken is a chicken, but sponge, icing, chocolate and food colouring are the kitchen creator's media, just as clay, stone and paint are for the sculptor or painter. In fact, there is little in the artist's studio that cannot be substituted in the kitchen.

Take colour charts, for example. Emilie Griottes was inspired by the Pantone colour chart to create a range of Pantone tartes. Griottes is a French food stylist and, although she gives recipes, the tarts are really for looking at admiringly, wonderingly, while you ask yourself why you never thought a banana, marshmallow or apricot was an example of a Pantone reference rather than simply a food. Hers is a playful approach, the grown-up version of the food art created spontaneously by children who arrange alphabet spaghetti into words and draw faces with ketchup.

Equally creative, but more low-key and with a plain, contemporary, fashionably stark aesthetic is the series of Fictitious Dishes, by Dinah Fried, an American graphic designer and photographer who takes famous literary meals and turns them into artfully arranged pictures on her website. So Oliver Twist's bowl of gruel is suitably meagre and miserable, while the famous chapter on chowder in Moby Dick is distilled into a thick, pale, appetising clam chowder (for another take on this, as well as Jane Eyre cardamom seed buns and Toni Morrison tribute beloved blackberry tart, check out Cara Nicoletti's yummy-books.com).

Fried's photographs are shot from above, so that they look like paintings, with the food arrangement becoming a modern-day still life. Since there is no text to explain anything, the images have the reverse effect of sending you back to the classics to read and digest the food sections on the page. There are just five dishes in the series so far, but Fried is asking for suggestions, so perhaps we can look forward to her interpretation of Miss Havisham's wedding feast or the wonderful descriptions of food in Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar or George Orwell's Down And Out In Paris And London.

Fried's approach is to stay close to the inspiration but to give it a cool, modern twist, whereas Eat This Poem, a blog written by young American poet, Nicole Gulotta, has a more reverent tone. It offers up recipes inspired by the spirit and mood of her chosen poems, mostly by contemporary US poets but with a few by writers such as Elizabeth Bishop and William Carlos Williams. Gulotta's dishes and writing are more tangential and esoteric. She is at her best, and the connections most interesting, when she is inspired by a poem that contains a direct reference to a foodstuff, such as when she selects Pablo Neruda's Ode To An Onion to create a rich and comforting onion galette with blue cheese and honey.

It's vibrant, energetic and very modish, but this style of arty food also raises the question of "gastro porn". Some certainly give out a look-but-don't-eat message, but the most successful combine fun and inventiveness to produce something you know will taste great and – you hope – be eaten with relish.

Taking art and literature as inspiration means no rules, and the freedom to express your culinary creativity as you please, according to your vision and the contents of your cupboards. It's a far cry from the hand-holding of our usual kitchen guides. If you don't know what to make tonight, start by putting away those recipe books.

• Jane Brocket's new book, Vintage Cakes, is published by Jacqui Small in September at £25. To pre-order a copy for £20, including free UK mainland p&p, go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop, or call 0330 333 6846.


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Tea with Grayson Perry. Or is it dinner, or supper?

What you call the evening meal reveals a lot about where you come from – and maybe even where you're headed…

Grayson Perry

When I was 19, I went out with quite a posh girl. Not only did I lose my virginity with her while watching Life On Earth on the telly, but I also received a crash course in dining and class mobility. On evenings when I was to visit her, I would eat my tea with my family first. Tea, in this case, not being Earl Grey and cucumber sandwiches, but the working-class evening meal, served perhaps between six and seven o'clock. After tea, I would ride my motorbike over to her parents' Elizabethan manor house and there I would partake of supper. This was good news to a growing country lad who could easily eat five large meals a day.

Supper, as in "kitchen" or "country", is upper class. It implies that this is just a casual family meal, maybe with close friends. It may involve a simple starter, wine, and cheese and fruit to follow, but would probably not involve a white tablecloth and starched napkins. Supper is elegant sufficiency. It has overtones of Billy Bunter's midnight feasts, Hogarth prints or officers on campaign. The real significance of supper, I think, is that it implies the user is familiar with an altogether grander style of meal held in stately halls, the formal dinner with copperplate invitations, waiters, silverware, port and speeches. The word supper, I think, implies a subtle rebuke to the aspirational classes who are gauche enough to hold dinner parties at home.

Noel Gallagher

Me and my kids call it tea. My wife calls it dinner. She went to uni, I didn't. She's middle class, I'm not. As for supper? What is that, exactly? As a kid, I ate Irish stew. As unemployed teenagers, it was something with beans. After that, until I left home, it was, "Make it yourself!" That's when it started to get tricky. I still eat shit, to be honest. You can move the boy to London, but he'll always be a northerner.

Helen Fielding

Growing up in Yorkshire, breakfast was a fry-up at the start of the day, dinner was at lunchtime (often a cold collation of what, in hindsight, was probably slices of giant sausage made from BSE) and tea was at the end of the day – a lard-based feast of something like suet and mince roly-poly with gravy and carrots, followed by treacle sponge topped with cream, ice-cream and custard. Supper was Ovaltine and a biscuit at bedtime.

When I descended to the south and Oxford, in the first week my tutor invited me and my tutorial partner, who was also from the north, to dinner. We duly turned up in the middle of the day to be greeted by kindly astonishment and a gracious attempt to explain how things worked in the sophisticated world we were about to enter.

Emboldened by this new knowledge, the next time I was invited to dinner, this time by fellow students, I arrived at the appropriate time – the evening – but wearing a long gown, admittedly one from C&A, but somewhat in the style of pictures I'd seen of Oxford drinking clubs and summer balls. Unfortunately, my worldly-wise hosts were wearing jeans and serving spag bog on a kitchen table decorated with candles in old wine bottles.

Things got better for a while, but when I moved to Los Angeles, the whole nightmare started again. People wanted to have power breakfasts in the middle of the night – 6.30am! – meet for lunch before noon and the earliest I was ever invited to dinner was 5.30pm. Even then, it didn't seem to be quite acceptable actually to eat anything. The concept of "supper" doesn't really exist in LA, as far as I can make out. People don't seem to cook very much, so either it's dinner in a restaurant or a posh, carb-free dinner in someone's house done by a cook, but again, quite often ridiculously early and all over by 9pm. The closest thing to a Cameron supper is going round for "take-out" or "carry-out", which means you just hang out informally and eat something that arrived in a van.

Back in London, I find myself using the word "supper" quite a lot, usually to suggest the sort of informal, just-a-bunch-of-incredibly-cool-friends-round-the-kitchen-table soirée I aspire to, with something I've knocked up from the Ottolenghi cookbook. In reality, I'm more likely to spend the evening eating spoonfuls of odd things out of the fridge while watching telly in pyjamas. But at least you don't have to call that anything.

Rachel Johnson

I remember my parents giving dinner parties in Brussels, in the 1970s, during the tragic Ice Storm period of my childhood. My mother would cook. My father would carve, occasionally with an electric knife, like a baby buzzsaw. They divorced when I was 14. I learned from my mother that the best parties have nothing to do with "fine dining" – I have to this day a horror of hushed tones and chinking cutlery – but lots of wine, rowdy guests, and rough peasant food with plenty of things to pick at even after pudding. It's a model I try to follow myself, although for some reason even "kitchen supper" can take three days, not counting all the time one spends convening exactly the right cast, and clearing up. I still do "kitchen suppers", but have long banned "dinner parties" as both exhausting to give and to attend: they're like taking a four-hour exam in someone you don't know and may never see again. I've noticed a new trend, though: often, the host will ting a glass and want guests to sing for their supper, and get a "general conversation going". Being highly competitive and noisy, I enjoy that (the last dinner I went to, we had Stephen Hester talking about banking). If it's in Notting Hill, "kitchen supper, just locals" can be a £200-a-head catered dinner for which the whole mansion is transformed into a souk and there will be at least two household names present as trophy guests. A "country supper" is eight people, something killingly calorific and crumbly out of the Aga, followed by drunken driving through country lanes. No one gets invited to dinner parties any more: that's déclassé thanks to Come Dine With Me. It's always supper, sometimes even "sups", but only if you're really grand. It's at "sups", of course, that you're most likely to get the Lynch-Bages or the PM.

Joe Dunthorne

There was a constant war between my sisters and me for the best seat in front of the TV. This meant that dinner became, in essence, nothing more than a race to finish first, so that we could run from the dinner table and claim prime position. With the good seat came the remote control and with the remote control came dominion over one's destiny.

We always ate quite late, at eight or so, which was proof that we were authentically middle class. Sometimes, the names of the dishes my parents cooked sounded unsettlingly exotic – ratatouille, moussaka – and I would long for parents like those of my mate John, who lived on the hill. When I went to his, we ate tea early, at 6, sometimes even at 5.30, and had proper food: fish fingers, pizzas, crinkle-cut chips.

After school, knowing that I would have a long wait for our evening meal, I always put two chocolate muffins and half a tub of custard in the microwave. Then I'd eat them with a spoon in front of Neighbours. I didn't know it then but I was having high tea.

David Lammy

Breakfast was always rushed - a slice of toast and out of the door. Lunch was terrible – baked beans and two chicken nuggets from the school canteen. Dinner, however, was something to look forward to. This was always real Caribbean food: chicken rubbed with allspice and scotch bonnet peppers, rice and peas, yam dumplings and plantain. Sometimes, we'd set out the table, but more often than not we'd sit in front of the TV with our dinner trays (mine was a tacky metallic one commemorating Charles and Diana's wedding).

The first few weeks at university brought some culture clashes. Newly made northern friends talked about "tea", but to me "tea" was just a warm brown drink that my teachers enjoyed. My family never had it. The closest we got at home was Ovaltine, and that certainly wasn't a meal.

I was first introduced to "supper" at the inevitable visit-your-new-friends-at-their-homes that follows your first term at university. It was more ritualistic than our dinners ever were. Supper was something you anticipated, that you perhaps got changed for. Inevitably, it was a faux pas minefield: multiple courses, a plethora of cutlery and alcohol (which, until then, was something I had only ever had in a park or a pub, never in front of a consenting adult).

This was all new and novel, but it was mundane and stuffy, too. As I've grown older, friends who have "supper" make their children have "tea" with different food, at a different time and on a different table. I don't see the point. I find it hard enough to see my kids as it is, and even harder to make them aware of their Caribbean roots. That's why we have dinner. The four of us sit down at the table and we eat food their grandmother would approve of.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

There is no such thing as a "country supper" in culinary or sociological terms. Or at least there wasn't, until now. What there is, is "supper", the meal that posh(ish) people eat at home most days in the evening – when they are not going out to or hosting "dinner" – a meal of some formality designed to entertain and impress your social peer group. You can invite someone to "supper" and know they will not expect tablecloths or candles or more than perhaps half a dozen guests. They might expect to chat to you in your kitchen, though, while you prepare the meal in question.

Then there is "the country" – not to be confused with "the nation", but a posh shorthand for what might more generally be described as "the countryside". It means anywhere with more fields and hedges than streets and lamp-posts. It's a word used in such sentences as "I live in the country, but I have a flat in London", or "I live in London, but I have a cottage/farm/stately home in the country."

To me, therefore, the term "country supper" is specific. It can be meaningfully used only by and between people who regularly eat "supper" in each others' houses, and have (at least) two residences, one in a rural location. (Though, being a Devon man, I'd call Chipping Norton suburban. Or at best "home counties".) On that basis, although "country supper" is a hot buzz-phrase right now, I doubt it will permanently enter the lexicon of either gastronomy or class analysis.

I know all this, of course, because I am reasonably posh myself – and if there really was such a thing as a "country supper", I would expect to have been invited to one.

Bee Wilson

In 18th-century London, supper was posh: an insubstantial final snack eaten by the upper classes long after dinner – cold beef and punch, perhaps, nibbled to sate the appetite before bed. But growing up in the 1980s, supper wasn't grand. It was just what we called the seven o'clock meal, whether it was toad in the hole, cottage pie or that exciting new discovery, the M&S ready meal.

I'm not sure why we called it supper rather than dinner or tea. Our Oxford household was thoroughly middle class, but also eccentric, very bookish and Anglican; the Last Supper was much discussed. My mother was a Shakespeare scholar, so she may have been talking in Elizabethan English when she called us in for supper: "Men sit down to that Nourishment which is called Supper", as it says in Love's Labour's Lost. Or it could have been an affectation from my grandmother, who tried hard to shrug off her roots in a Devon post office, referring to "the drawing room" and going so far as to ennoble Marmite with a French pronunciation: to her it was always "Mar-meet". She would never have dreamed of calling the evening meal "tea", which meant small cakes and china cups at four.

Personally, I don't find "supper" snooty. It is only when you add an adjective that it becomes pretentious: country supper and kitchen supper are both phrases used by people like David Cameron, who normally eat dinner, but are slumming it. My husband's family, much posher than mine, always eats dinner, implying candles and several delicious courses at 8pm. The joy of supper, by contrast, is that it carries no particular expectations besides nourishment. It could be anything from fillet steak to poached eggs and Mar-meet toast. Supper is simply the comforting end point to which the whole day has been leading.

Tom Parker Bowles

Dinner party: two words to strike fear into even the most open-minded of hosts. It comes barded with sneers and marinated in petty snobbery, an event that seemed less about eating and more about a smug sense of belonging – Debrett's with fish knives and a par-frozen bun. They have tea, you have supper, I have dinner. Visions spring to mind of jellied tomato rings and overcooked soufflés, an excess of velvet and the degradation of a perfectly good meal.

But, really, it's a simple matter of semantics. There are few things more civilised than having friends over for supper or dinner. It matters not which word you use, so long as you don't go and call it a dinner party. I can think of nothing worse than asking people to clad themselves in black tie or, worse still, "smart casual" before coming over to eat. Or to subject them to the half-witted, smeared and foamed approximation of a three-star Michelin chef. Good food, well cooked, and plenty of grog, shared with people you love. That's not a dinner party, rather having dinner, at home, with mates.

As children, we had tea – sausages, fish fingers, whatever – at about 5pm. Then my parents had dinner at about 8.30. I was always rather jealous of those mums and dads who had "supper". It seemed far cooler and laid back, resolutely more modern. But whatever it was called, there was always comfort in falling asleep to the clatter of knives and forks, and the easy hubbub of well-watered good times.

So yes, the dinner party, with its forced dress code and fussy food, stilted conversation and whiff of self-satisfaction, is something to be feared. But then, so is any meal possessing these horrible qualities, regardless of whether it's branded "supper", "dinner" or "feast". All that matters is the shared pleasures of the table, time to eat, drink and be merry. The dinner party might be dead, but the fundaments of domestic edible pleasure will endure for ever and ever.

Peter York

I'm not a foodie, but I know foodies, and I find their dinner parties most alarming. I want meat and two veg spread in an orderly way on the plate. And a pudding that contains something nice like meringue.

Dinner parties have changed a lot since I wrote the Sloane Ranger Handbook with Ann Barr in 1982. There still exist in corners of the country meals of almost stunning simplicity, usually involving something I hate – game birds – produced with a certain amount of fanfare. Horribly red stringy things. But at least you know exactly where to start, which is the main course, and what's the end. And there is all sorts of silverware.

At a foodie supper, the sequence is disrupted, and it's done with the utmost of casualness. I remember eating at a foodie neighbour's house 25 years ago and thinking, which bit is which? What goes first? Is that a pudding or does it just look like one? For a person of conservative habits, it was very disconcerting.

Now you can see it in full bloom. There used to be five kinds of cheese from about three nations that one could take to a dinner party. Now there will be Colombian drug smuggler's cheese and something sourced from a farmers' market in Aberdeen.

Of course, I don't give dinner parties. Mostly I eat out, but when I'm at home I have kitchen suppers in the most literal sense: "This delicious thing I found in Tesco, let's just put it in the microwave." I'm not northern, so I don't call it tea. And I don't call it dinner, because it's not dinnery. So it's supper, I'm afraid.

Jeanette Winterson

Dinner parties make me feel like a desperate housewife on Come Dine With Me. I grew up in Lancashire in the 1960s. Dinner was eaten at 12 noon and it was pie and gravy. Except on Sundays, when we had a joint of beef or lamb, the remains of which would be put through the Spong mincer on Mondays for a week's worth of aforementioned pies. My first dinner party happened to me when I went to Oxford. I never wanted it to happen again. The real issue is that I like food and I like to eat my food, not try to shove it in my mouth while talking to someone I hope never to meet again. My girlfriend is Jewish, a great cook and seriously social. When we got together, I said, "I will do cocktail parties and I will do supper with friends. Never make me go to dinner." She tried, twice; the first time I refused to eat and the second time I refused to speak. We haven't tried since.

I love suppers with friends. Is there a class thing? Yes, for sure, but if you are a writer or an artist of any kind, you can avoid class. You can mix wherever you want to and say what you like. That helps. I have to say, though, that the best dinner party I ever went to was thrown by an eccentric member of the Guinness family in a crumbling house in Dublin. The dining room hadn't been decorated since 1840 and, as the room was colder than the fridge, we left the champagne out to chill. Food was cooked on a burner of the kind road-menders use to melt tarmac. I was sitting next to Neil Jordan and we both ate in silence until we had eaten enough to be able to speak.

Oliver Peyton

I'm rarely invited to dinner parties these days – being a judge on Great British Menu, as well as a restaurateur, people just assume I'm the guest from hell.

Maybe that's also why, when I have people over for dinner, they're often surprised by my food. They turn up expecting some sort of whizz-bang gastronomic experience, only for me to serve up a fish that's been covered in herbs and salt, and shoved in the oven. Dinner parties, to me, are about family, friendship and fun, not networking or spending all night in the kitchen.

That attitude's probably a throwback to my childhood in Mayo – mealtimes were extraordinarily important, and we wouldn't dream of not sitting down to dinner together. And it's "dinner" or "tea", by the way – I'd never even heard the term "supper" until I came to England.

When I was young, dinner parties didn't focus nearly so much on the food. They were more about staying up all night, and if there was any actual cooking involved, it usually got burned anyway. Perhaps it's just an age thing that the dinner parties I go to now aren't like that at all, but I kind of miss those days.

• Interviews: Charlotte Northedge, Bob Granleese, Becky Barnicoat.

The guidelines: Tea

When? 6.30pm, or whenever Dad gets home from work.
What are we eating? Fish fingers, chips, beans. And then a yoghurt.
Who's coming? You, your siblings, your parents, possibly a friend, so long as they've checked with their mum first.
Topics of conversation Shhh… Hollyoaks is on.
Tableware Not the good cutlery. That's for Christmas Day and Christmas Day alone.
Dress code Your school uniform, unless it's in the wash because you got it muddy at lunchtime.

The guidelines: Dinner

When? 7pm, or thereabouts.
What are we eating? One of those Marks & Spencer meal deals, bought on the way home from work.
Who's coming? Whoever's at home.
Topics of conversation Work, your journey home from work, that thing Joanna who sits opposite you at work does with her teeth that's really annoying.
Tableware A plate on your lap. Who has space for a table any more?
Dress code Whatever you worked in (although freelance writers may wear trousers as a point of etiquette).

The guidelines: Supper

When? 9pm, or later.
What are we eating? Something light and self-consciously rustic, usually cooked in a bloody Aga or something.
Who's coming? You, Rebekah Brooks, David Cameron and, indirectly, Robert Jay QC.
Topics of conversation Chipping Norton, NewsCorp's BSkyB takeover bid, whether or not Dave can lend you a horse.
Tableware Silver cutlery, ironed tablecloths, goblets full of children's blood.
Dress code Top hats left at the door. We're all in this together, remember.

By Stuart Heritage


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August 01 2012

Food photography: the tricks of the trade

Social networks are now full of pictures of people's lunches and dinners. But follow a few easy tips and you can produce truly mouthwatering images

Last week, I met my new neighbour for the first time, at 7am, over the garden fence. He was getting on his bicycle; I was squatting, in my pyjamas, photographing an ice cream sundae. It wasn't until later I realised he probably thought me strange. Barbecuing jerk chicken on a grey and chilly Monday to get a shot before the rain sets in, or crouching over a lone scotch egg in the local park is all in a day's work for me.

I never gave food photography much thought before joining the industry. My first food shoot, while on work experience with a BBC cookery magazine, was a shock. Not only was there a photographer and a food stylist, who cooked and groomed the dishes, I was making tea for the photographer's assistant, prop stylist, and art director. It took all day to take four photographs.

Nowadays, I take my own shots for my "Perfect" columns, although the picture editor offers gentle advice, usually a plea for "more natural light!" Hence the incident in the garden. Natural light is an obsession with photographers. As Hélène Dujardin, chef turned blogger and professional food photographer, writes in her book Plate to Pixel, the second thing people notice, after the food, "is how the light hits a certain part of the dish ... too much or too little, will make a viewer like or dislike a photograph.". And all light is not created equal – shot under the energy-saving bulb in my kitchen, food has a sickly yellowy cast.

You can use professional lighting kit, but Dujardin doesn't think it "natural to the human eye". And artifice is a definite no-no in modern food photography. Chris Terry, who has photographed cookbooks for the likes of Jamie Oliver and Anna Hansen, is quite clear. "Use daylight, not the crap light in the cooker hood ... don't use the flash on your compact camera or phone unless you work for forensics."

Easy. Except, it's not that clear-cut. Food and drink photographer Paul Winch-Furness, who runs photography courses in fashionably dim restaurants and busy markets, thinks every light has its place. If the photo is for "people who have to come home and bake in the evening, then you don't want natural light". It's more realistic, as far as they're concerned, to show your cake basking in the warm glow of a lamp instead.

Handily, things shouldn't look too perfect these days: a fingerprint in the icing, or a slightly wonky souffle helps people relate to the food: "People don't want a photo to make them feel stupid," says Winch-Furness. Jonathan Gregson, a photographer and director whose work has appeared in everything from Hovis ads to cookbooks agrees that details entice: "How frosty ice cream melts and runs down the side of a cone … these lovely foodie bits which, more often than not, people are tempted to clean up. Aiming for imperfection in an image is no bad thing"

Things were not always like this. Pictures from the 1950s, when cookbooks embraced photography in earnest, tended towards fussy presentation, but little attempt at scene setting, with dishes crammed into the frame. Cookbooks from the 1980s and 90s are all microscopic garnishes and towering cakes, rarely encouraging the home cook to have a go.

Stuart Ovenden, deputy art director at the BBC's Good Food magazine, says that this has changed recently: "Five years ago we'd agonise about the placement of herbs, or that, in a salad, everything was perfectly evenly distributed; nowadays, we're more likely to leave mistakes in for a more interesting picture." Perhaps that's why no food stylist I talk to admits to using the old mashed-potato ice-cream trick, or the infamous hidden tampon to create steam.

It's all down to what Winch-Furness calls the rhetoric of the image. "People know how to read a photograph these days," he says. The light, the crockery, the background, all tell their story. He is not wrong.

Everyone is a photographer now. (Except, perhaps, me.) I have received a bit of criticism from readers. My ginger cake looked like "something my dog regurgitated", while the summer pudding was described as "bloody".

But what amateurs can forget is Chris Terry's golden rule: "Unless the food is being photographed as evidence, the point is to make people want to grow, cook, eat, or even just enjoy looking at it." The briefest skim online will prove that it is all too easy to lose sight of this.

Smartphones, with their eight megapixel cameras and nifty apps for giving your fish and chips that sun-bleached look on a wet day in Widnes, or turning them into panoramas, have those with only the slightest interest in food snapping away at the table. And while natural is best, neglecting to remove the dirty paper napkin from the shot is enough to put the entire internet off its dinner. Bad food photography must have overtaken cute kittens and naked ladies as the scourge of the worldwide web. Uyen Luu, a Vietnamese cookery teacher, cook and food writer, takes gorgeous pictures of her dinners using the Instagram app, and says she likes using her phone because it's so easily accessible: "I love to quickly style a plate of food, a scene, snap and share."

On the flipside, not all fancy apps are a good idea. "Everyone will have seen beautiful cookbooks and magazines with lovely photography," Terry says. "They are beautiful for a reason, don't go way off-piste with the weird, cross-processed filters. They look shit. Just don't."

Armed with all this advice, I take a picture of this week's "perfect" - salade niçoise. It is a Mediterranean dish, and the sun is finally out, so I plate it on fishy crockery and take it outside, bearing in mind the sage advice of Delicious magazine's food editor Lizzie Kamenetzky, that salad is "all quite last-minute – it goes quite quickly, so work fast". I toss ingredients, take experimental shots, then artfully scatter olives and a drizzle of dressing, ensuring that all the ingredients are visible.

I send the results to Gregson. He approves of the overhead angle, observing that it "suits things which have a lot of top detail [or] are bitty, like chopped salads", and the wooden surface, which doesn't vie with the food for attention. He is not keen on my beloved crockery, which "fights with the food ... the eye finds it hard to know where to look". A simple muted glaze is his choice but, as I haven't yet built up my prop cupboard, I settle for plain white.

The bright sunlight, which I fondly imagined would evoke Nice in high summer, doesn't flatter the food – the salad looks sweaty. He suggests taking the dish into the shade to catch "the sky reflecting in the shiny surface of the olives", thus the colours look less harsh . I like his idea of including salad servers in the edge of the frame and, as it's a meal for two, he advises taking a serving away, "as though someone were just tucking in", to give the shot structure and a story.

The results? Well, you can judge for yourself. I wouldn't claim my photography is as perfect as my salad, but you know what they say about practice ...

Top tips

• Don't splash out on equipment: "limiting yourself can force you to be creative".

• Plan your picture and decide on the story you want to tell, but don't overcomplicate things.

• Plan composition and background: "Don't leave your can of Red Bull in the shot!"

• Experiment: Take pictures in different locations or lights to see what works.

• Get as much light as possible, and balance your camera on a tripod or a flat surface – "just hold it still!"

Inspirational food photography at paulwf.co.uk, christopherterry.com, leluu.com and jonathangregson.co.uk.


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July 27 2012

Family life

Readers' favourite photographs, songs and recipes

Snapshot: Why I'm lucky to be alive

I was born in Glasgow on 8 June 1942 and this photograph of me, with my 18-year-old mother, Bridget Devlin McIvor, was taken on 21 July. I feel duty bound to inform you – because it meant a lot to my mother, who lamented the fact every time she looked at this photograph – that we had been caught in a heavy downpour just before we reached the studio and the, "dead mean photographer" would not give her enough time to fix her hair.

A lot had happened between my birth and the day of this photograph. On 14 June, Glasgow's medical officer of health had sent a letter to all the city's GPs notifying them that six crewmen of the TSS Awatea, a troopship that had docked from Bombay, had been diagnosed with smallpox.

Just over a fortnight after I was born, Glasgow's first smallpox case was diagnosed. The following week, smallpox vaccination centres opened all over the city – but not in time for my mother's visit to Clackmannan, taking me to stay with her mother and grandmother for a few days. At the bus station, the Red Cross would not let her board the bus as I hadn't been vaccinated against the disease.

We returned home and I was duly vaccinated a day or so later, with the certificate to prove it. We set off again to Clackmannan. At the very beginning of our visit, I cried and cried. The vaccination site on my upper left arm had become swollen and inflamed and I had a slight fever. At her grandmother's urging, my mother rushed me back to Glasgow and I was admitted to our local general hospital.

My mother was told that I was not expected to live and there was nothing they could do. My father was given immediate compassionate leave from the Highland Light Infantry. I was dying of general septicaemia caused by a "dirty vaccination needle", as my mother later described it. Courtesy of the army, my father arrived in Glasgow in record time. By then I had been transferred to Yorkhill (Glasgow's Royal Hospital for Sick Children).

In all, 36 people caught smallpox during this outbreak, 11 ship cases, two of whom died, and 25 people in Glasgow cases, six of whom died. In August 2009, when I watched a BBC4 film, Breaking the Mould: the Story of Penicillin, I was astonished by what I learned. When I was a child my mother had told me that a consultant paediatrician at Yorkhill had arranged my rushed hospital transfer. He had a son – an army doctor – who had somehow got hold of penicillin and given it to his father to give to me. I loved this story and heard it many times as I was growing up. I also have a reminder – a large vaccination scar and slight muscle wasting of the upper left arm.

Until I saw that film three years ago, I never knew how very lucky I had been. I later discovered that in the summer of 1942 there was only enough penicillin in the world to treat a couple of hundred people or so. Penicillin was not mass-produced until 1943-44.

So how did an infant-sized course of the antibiotic become available to me, a child from a single-end in Lyon Street, just off the Garscube Road, Glasgow? Was I part of a clinical trial, I wondered?

As you can see from this photograph, by 21 July I was fully restored to health. I can imagine the awe that the experienced nurses and doctors caring for me in Yorkhill must have felt when, for the first time, they witnessed the power of penicillin.

For me, what was truly miraculous was that two Glasgow doctors, a father and son, cared enough to put themselves in the firing-line. I wish I knew who they were. I remember asking my mother, when I was about 14, what their name was – she thought it might have been Cowan but could not remember. I think that was the last time we ever discussed it.

I wish she could have been there to watch that documentary with me all those years later. Mary McIvor

Playlist: The day I found music

I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For by U2

"... But I still haven't found what I'm looking for"

It is an older brother's job to pass music down to his younger siblings. In his room, my brother hoarded dozens of plastic cassettes mysteriously marked in ink. The handwritten words were strange, words like Echo and the Bunnymen and The Sisters of Mercy. They made little sense to me as a nine-year-old, but Nick was obsessed with them – and with one cassette in particular. One with just two letters: U2.

When he heard U2 were coming to Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh, he began a relentless campaign to go to see them. He was 14 and my parents thought him too young, but there was no way he was going to miss out. After days of silences and bickering, a solution was reached – we would all go.

Early on in the day, none of it made much sense: queuing in the pouring rain for hours, flanked by smelly hamburger vans and strangers necking cans of Tennent's lager. As soon as we got there, I wanted to go home.

So I waited, moodily, as the sky darkened and the seats filled. Then the lights came on and the sound of a slow organ began to creep around the ground, followed by a jangly, building guitar and a tremendous, deafening cheer as Bono and The Edge walked out on stage. It was electric.

The sounds were the same as those that came from my brother's room, but much louder. My bad mood evaporated as thousands of people clapped, sang, cheered and climbed dangerously on to the thin plastic backs of the stadium seating to be just an inch higher, to see U2 play. Now I was one of them, albeit a very small one who couldn't see much. But I could see Nick, in awe, singing.

That moment, U2's Joshua Tree tour, August 1987, watching my brother sing "... But I still haven't found what I'm looking for" was when I began to love music. My brother did his job well. Adam Dewar

We love to eat: Avgolemoni soup

Ingredients (serves two to three)

3 oz rice

1½ pints chicken stock

2 eggs

Juice of ½ lemon

Gently boil the rice in the chicken stock until it is almost cooked. Beat the eggs and mix with the lemon juice and a ladleful of stock. Very slowly, add the egg mixture to the stock, stirring all the time over a low heat. Season and heat until slightly thick.

Avgolemoni is Greek for "egg and lemon," and this soup is the most traditional of Cypriot meals. When I taste and smell it – two senses so fragile yet so enduring and faithful – I am instantly transported to my childhood in Cyprus. Tearing up the stairs to my Cypriot grandmother's flat and running into her arms, as she hugs me with one and stirs with the other. Too short to see into the pot, I wait impatiently, leaning against her. Warmth, safety and soup.

Before she died, she taught my mother to make the soup. My mother is Welsh, lived in Cyprus for 54 years and knows how to cook only one Cypriot dish: avgolemoni soup. That's how important it is. It is there on cold nights, when I'm upset, when my team have lost. It's even become medicinal. Got a cough? Soup. Scratched your leg? Soup. My first night in England for university, staying with relatives, disorientated and nervous: guess what my Cypriot aunty cooked? "Everything's going to be fine."

When I cook avgolemoni now, often it is because I need to feel its restorative power. There is something beautiful in its simplicity, yet equally complex in the feelings it creates. It connects me to my past, giving continuity, redolent of my Cypriotness and youth, and in the present it binds me to a community that I live far away from.

Now, in full circle, when I serve it to my family I know exactly what is coming. The ritual I never tire of. The sharp intake of breath as it appears, hot and steaming: Dad will slurp, sister will tell him off. Mum will sip. I'll dive in, dipping mountains of bread. And then, always, a few seconds of complete silence – my favourite part – as minds drift and memories roll in. I really don't know where everyone is at that point, but I know we are bonded.

Proust famously recounts the moment he tasted a madeleine dipped in tea, and the profound memories it gave him. "Whence could it have come to me, this all powerful joy? … It is plain that the truth I am seeking lies not in the cup, but in myself …" He wrote seven volumes based on this experience. I can't do that, but I do know that avgolemoni is more than just a bowl of soup. It is identity, nation, tradition. It is home. Paris Christofides

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June 29 2012

Family life

Readers' favourite photographs, songs and recipes

Snapshot: Memories of Glasgow

We didn't have a camera when I was a child, so all my memories are stored in my mind. This picture is of me with my husband and two grandchildren, who are growing up in a very different world. I was a first-generation Asian Sikh, born and raised in the Oatlands area of Glasgow, an experience that still lives with me 50 years on.

Oatlands people were working-class, but with real hearts: we went shopping for the old women who lived alone, knocked on doors and ran away, and held concerts on the stair-landings where you paid with "wallies" – broken china. We lived opposite Richmond Park on the other side of Glasgow Green. To me, it was a magical place where each summer holiday the "shows" would arrive.

I was fascinated by the caravans, with their beautiful lace curtains and lanterns hanging outside. Looking up the steps, you could see inside to vases of flowers on the tables, bright rugs and cushions on the sofas. To a seven-year-old girl, it was magical, watching the Gypsy women with their big skirts and earrings, and the handsome Gypsy boys, who always winked when you walked past.

My parents would take us on one supervised visit to the shows and we were allowed on the safe rides, swings and roundabouts. Waltzers, motorbikes and the big wheel were forbidden because the Gypsy boys stood at the back of the waltzers and swung the cars round as they speeded up. They swaggered about, chatting up the girls.

We were warned not to go to the shows on our own and told the Gypsies would take us away and make us work like slaves in their camps. But we never listened and sneaked across through the park and over the bridge on to the green to explore the shows.

All the latest music blared out from the roundabouts, swings, waltzers, the big wheel and the helter-skelter. The sweet smell of candyfloss and toffee apples and the screams of the girls on the big wheel with their boyfriends made me want to be "white", too, like them – why couldn't I go on the big wheel and stay out late? I used to dream of being kidnapped by the Gypsies so I could work the stalls in big earrings and skirts that made me want to dance. But no one kidnapped me, and every year the shows would come and go. Trishna Singh

Playlist: Me, Dad and County Down

Coney Island by Van Morrison

"I look at the side of your face as the sunlight comes / Streaming through the window … / And all the time going to Coney Island I'm thinking, / Wouldn't it be great if it was like this all the time?"

I walked into the hospital ward and saw my father sitting in the chair, Yeats-like, "old and grey and full of sleep" – a few days short of his 90th birthday. "Dad, I've been on Desert Island Discs."

While I was growing up in the 60s and 70s, Radio 4 rang through our house: Just a Minute, Thought for the Day, The Archers and, my favourite, Desert Island Discs. I loved the music and the romance of the island – and had always wanted to be on the programme.

Years ago, long after I had moved from Northern Ireland to England, I discovered Van Morrison's poem-song Coney Island. As he sang about the places I had visited as a nipper, memories flooded back.

I sat on Dad's hospital bed, pulled out the CD player and pressed play. I wasn't a Desert Island celebrity – I had been invited to tell my story on Radio Derby in celebration of 70 years of Desert Island Discs. Coney Island was my song and this was my story. My dad worked long hours in his own grocery business, hauling heavy bags of flour, serving in his shop and delivering boxes of groceries along narrow, high-hedged lanes around the town where we lived. But come Saturday lunchtime, we would pack a few sandwiches, throw a rug into the Morris Minor and hit the road. Our stamping ground was mainly the coast of County Down.

We whiled away many a summer afternoon digging in the sand, playing cricket, roaming the sand dunes, climbing rocks, eating sandy sandwiches and swimming in the rain. Like Van Morrison, we too were charmed by Strangford Lough. Waiting for the little ferry to take our car across from Strangford to Portaferry was thrilling. Pleasures were simple in those days.

"On and on over the hill to Ardglass." Morrison bought "mussels and some potted herrings" there; we'd head over the hill from Tyrella to Ardglass so that Mum could buy whiting for tea. The fresh fish cooked in butter tasted delicious after a day out in the sea air.

I had told my story and the song was coming to an end. I looked at the side of my father's face as the sunlight came streaming through the hospital window: he had dozed off. It was with great poignancy that I listened to Van Morrison sing: "Wouldn't it be great if it was like this all the time?"

Time waits for no man and my father's days of roaming the County Down coast have probably come to an end. But the places and memories he gave me, captured in Coney Island, are locked inside my head. Helen Moat

We love to eat: Eliza's birthday cake

Ingredients

225g (8oz) butter

225g (8oz) sugar

170g (6oz) self-raising flour

57g (2oz) cocoa

Four medium eggs

Vanilla extract

Fresh cream and raspberries to fill

Weigh the ingredients and line two 21cm circular cake tins. Preheat the oven to 180C/gas mark four. Call the midwife.Cream the butter and sugar together between contractions. When the butter and sugar are light and fluffy, hand to your birth partner, who should gradually add the remaining ingredients and split the mixture between the two tins, baking for 20 minutes.

Early one Thursday morning, it was clear the new baby was coming. I woke my husband Neil and 19-month-old son, Wilfie, and together we walked the dog, then dropped Wilfie off with my mother-in-law. Once back at home, it took a while to get through to the midwife, but finally she was on her way.

As the contractions grew longer and more frequent, Neil filled the birth pool. Between contractions, I began weighing out ingredients for a cake. It would be a nice treat for after labour. I got as far as creaming the butter and sugar when the midwife arrived.

She checked me straight away and surprised me by saying I was 7cm-8cm dilated, so quite far along, but still many hours to go if my first labour was anything to go by. I got in the pool, which was bliss. Neil picked up the cake-making where I had left it, adding flour, cocoa, eggs and vanilla extract.

After a little while, he came in to say the cake had gone in the oven. It was 11.50. We calculated it would be ready at ten past. The midwife asked if he had set a timer, but we don't have one, and I laughed as I couldn't see much would happen in the next 20 minutes.

But it wasn't long before I felt a brief "pushy" sensation, which subsided quickly and was followed by a blissful few contraction-free minutes. As I floated in the pool, I could smell the cake and was suddenly starving. Neil leant over the edge to feed me two chocolate chip cookies, bought for the midwives.

Perhaps fuelled by the sugar, I suddenly had an urge to lean forward, and, with a big, quick contraction, the baby's head emerged. A few moments later, the rest of her followed ... Eliza arrived at 12.09 – just in time for cake. Dawn Todd

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June 27 2012

Does food photography make you hungry? Only when it's done very well | Oliver Thring

Food advertising is being blamed for obesity. But the wrong lighting or composition will kill an appetite not stimulate it

This just in from the no shit, Sherlock school of scientific research: pictures of food can make you feel hungry. Images of fatty foods "activated brain regions that control appetite and reward" in the participants of an American study. The Daily Mail wonders whether this means that fast food advertising is partly to blame for rising levels of obesity.

Food photography is always a kind of advertising: it tries to entice people into a lifestyle – to cook a dish or visit a restaurant. But it's extremely hard to do well. McDonald's recently released a film showing how much work goes into each of its shoots. The wrong lighting or composition, melting ice cream, leaky puddles of grease and even changes in aesthetics will all ruin a decent photograph.

Above is a picture of a deep-fried Mars bar. It's a fatty food, but as I looked at it my "appetite and reward" brain regions remained strangely unactivated.

The vomity chocolate dribble, the class A scattering of icing sugar, the super-close up money shot and the scorched and overexposed flash combined to make this less than appetising. Perhaps the photo is a homage to the food.

Cupcakes are the most photographed foods in the world. The unbearable faux-vintage iPhone hipster toss-app Instagram doubles as a kind of cupcake Grindr: its users eat nothing else.

The cupcakes here are slightly are out of focus, but the lighting and exposure are fine and you certainly know what you're looking at. In fact, these cupcakes are more appealing in a photograph than they would be in the spongy flesh, so whoever snapped them was a genius.

Last, a shot that someone has clearly spent time putting together, but what a disaster it is: the skin is wrinkled and flabby and unevenly cooked. It's also weirdly shiny: the lights make it look as though it's visiting the dentist. The yellow flowers clash with the orange-brown bird, the pubic tendrils of thyme add nothing, and it all looks dry and dated. You just know the food is cold.

The food photographer Paul Winch-Furness tells me that a little spraying with oil and water helps to make food look appetising. "There's a trend at the moment for 'aerial' shots," he says. "Everyone is hovering the camera over the table and shooting straight down. But that'll pass."

I've got a cookbook from a well-known food writer from the early 90s. Every dish in it is bright orange, because a vague notion of "warmth" was obviously in vogue back then. Reading it is like being on The Only Way is Essex. It takes more than a Polaroid of lard to make people hungry.

• Follow Comment is free on Twitter @commentisfree


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June 22 2012

Family life

Readers' favourite photographs, songs and recipes

Snapshot: Waving the red cloth on our roof

I moved away from home about five years ago to my wife's country, Denmark. After three tough years starting a new life, I finally managed to visit my family back on the Aegean island of Chios. in September 2010. It was a healing visit. I took many photos and this is one of my most cherished. This is my mother, Mary, on our roof, waving at my brother who was working on the passing ferry.

I have a Greek father and an Irish mother. After my little brother was born in the late 70s, we moved to Greece from Castlecomer, Kilkenny.

My dad was a seaman, the son of a seaman. He travelled all over the world and sometimes we joined him, but mostly not. He would be gone for 12 to 18 months at a time. It seemed an eternity to us. We were so sad every time he left, so happy on his return and anxious in between.

Luck had it that my dad sailed by the island just in front of our home, three times in his long career. He would call us on a satellite phone and let us know a month before. I can't describe how much we all looked forward to it and when he finally arrived, it was like winning the world cup!

Two of us would go up to the roof and wave to him with our red cloths – the most visible colour – while the third would be downstairs talking to him via satellite. Then we'd take turns.

He would blow the ship's loud horn, while the bells of nearby St Nicholas church were greeting him and wishing happy sailings. I said to him, "Make a circle, Dad" – and he did. Since then, that has become a custom for the island's large naval community.

The boat in the background is the Nissos Chios (Isle of Chios), which my brother was working on. It connects the island to the port of Piraeus, in Athens. He passed by every second day and my mother always went up to the roof and waved a red cloth to him.

My brother lost his job and is now unemployed – he has been for two years. The crisis is hard. But yesterday, I heard he could be sailing again by the end of this month – what great news! Now those red cloths might wave happily again. Michael Patronas

Playlist: Betty, they are playing our tune ...

God Bless our Native Land! (Sung to the tune of the national anthem)

"God bless our native land! / May heaven's protecting hand / Still guard her shore."

There was a television sketch many years ago in which the Queen, hearing the national anthem played, turned to her husband and said "Philip, they are playing our tune."

My wife, Betty, and I feel much the same about that very familiar tune, as it was played at our wedding 62 years ago. In fact, it was the same tune with different words. Betty and I were married on 14 September 1950 in Rothwell, a small boot-and-shoe town in Northamptonshire. We hadn't wanted a church wedding or anything fancy and would have been happy with a small, quiet ceremony in a register office. There certainly wasn't the money for anything big. But, after some debate, Betty's mother got her way, and we had the wedding in the Congregational chapel with the wedding breakfast in the Co-op Rooms.

We did get to choose our own hymns, rather unusual ones for a wedding, the minister thought. In addition to God Bless our Native Land!, we had The People's Anthem.

The hymn-singing over, we walked, man and wife, with our relatives and friends to the Co-op Rooms for lunch. We didn't run to champagne. In fact there was no alcohol at all, just cups of Co-op tea, as Betty's father and grandfather were leading lights in the local branch of the Sons of Temperance.

But we all enjoyed the meal and the speeches. There are no photographs of the happy day: we could not afford a professional photographer, and none of our guests had a camera. Betty and I have lived happily ever after. Chris Birch

We love to eat: Mum's spotted dog

Ingredients

Self-raising flour

Suet

Raisins or sultanas

White sugar

Milk or water to mix

Ingredients, quantities and cooking time are all approximate. Individual slices freeze really well and only need to be zapped in the microwave for a short time to make an instant dessert. Mix all the dry ingredients with the milk and form the dough into a chunky sausage shape. Wrap in greaseproof paper, with a pleat to allow for expansion, wrap the dough in a cloth (any piece of clean cotton will do) and tie each end with string. Place the spotted dog in a large pan of boiling water and simmer for at least two hours. Unwrap, slice and serve topped with butter and demerara sugar.

In our house, it was always spotted dog, never spotted dick. Why? My sister and I have no idea. Maybe it was something to do with our mother's sensibilities. (When we were growing up, she didn't think it was nice for girls and women to wear trousers with a zip opening at the front.)

Whatever the name, the pudding has always been greeted with delight, even if there are those who would rather it was served with custard.

Spotted dog was a significant part of our growing up, possibly because in the postwar austerity of the late 40s/early 50s the ingredients were inexpensive. Nearing retirement, my sister recently made her very first spotted dog and used this recipe. She reported that it tasted OK but was rather solid. It seems she had used plain flour by mistake, instead of self-raising. Her subsequent effort was successful: "Just like Mum made." Jane Clark

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June 08 2012

Family life

Readers' favourite photographs, songs and recipes

Snapshot: Dad and the coronation scarf

The handsome glossy-haired young man in the picture is my dad, Brian Nicholls. He is applying gold leaf to a silk coronation scarf designed by Oliver Messel, the stage designer. Dad worked for Cresta Silks (previously Crysede), mainly as a block printer, in St Ives, Cornwall in the early 1950s. Cresta Silks fabrics were sold to Liberty and others, from the 1920s to the 1960s, and the coronation scarf was a limited edition – the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret were each given one.

This image is from a photo session of crafts and artistic traditions of Cornwall, taken for an Australian magazine produced for homesick expats to remind them of good old Blighty. Asked why he had been chosen out of all the workers for the photograph, Dad replied, "I was the best-looking, of course."

Dad was taken on as a scholarship boy from the grammar school. His father had been a dyer under the manager, Tom Heron – father of the artist Patrick Heron.

The Cresta Silks factory was based in Hayle, a 14-mile return journey, which Dad made daily on his long saved for bike. Interviewed recently by textile artist Vivian Prideaux for a book on Cresta/Crysede, she asked what happened when he was late, dad was nonplussed and asked what she meant. "Well, if you were late for work," Vivian clarified.

I intervened: "Oh no, he would never be late – Dad is never late."

And he isn't. Dad is 80 this year and you can still set your watch by him. He loved his work and the connection with the great artists who designed for the company: Graham Sutherland, Paul Nash and Heron himself. His energy and enthusiasm for life is undimmed, he twinkles. His hair now a wispy white and a smile is perpetually breaking. At a recent dinner party, an old friend said he didn't know anyone who was truly happy, I said I did: my dad.

Dad worked at the Hayle factory until 1954. A year later, he met our mother to whom he was happily married until her death in 1986. Together they had three children: myself, my sister Karen and my brother Stephen. We were loved and adored. He remarried, again happily, to Jean and she suffers his competitiveness over Countdown, crosswords and sudoku with tolerance and good humour. I am now a fabric designer (I named the company Betty Boyns, after our mother) and Dad couldn't be more delighted. But that is his nature – he is proud of us all and lets us know.

During the interview, Vivien showed us the original Oliver Messel scarf. The design is stunning, embodying 1950s style, and the gold leaf sparkles even after 60 years, as does our dad. Happy coronation year, Brian. Paula Nicholls

Playlist: Uncle Jack, star of the Gaumont

La Vie en Rose, played on the cinema organ

Uncle Jack had taught himself to play the organ to a professional standard. When I was very young he lived in a flat opposite the Gaumont cinema and supplemented his pay from the electricity board by playing for the picture-goers in the interval. I often think that his life would have been perfect if those days had continued.

Like most cinemas, the Gaumont parted with its organ and Uncle Jack had to travel further for musical engagements. Once he appeared on television, accompanying the rollerskating at Alexandra Palace. He and Auntie Joan now lived in a small house with their two children and a cat called Tibia, the name of an organ stop. In pride of place in their sitting room was a cinema organ, and on visits we would listen to him playing popular tunes. "Play La Vie en Rose, Jack!" Auntie Joan would say, and we would listen contentedly to the sentimental tune.

But life was not always rosy for Jack and his family. The evening gigs were getting further away, in distant pubs, sometimes at seaside resorts. As the travelling increased he gave up his steady day job to concentrate on his music. There was a streak of extravagance in both aunt and uncle, and in his case it generally involved buying second-hand organs. Finally they separated and he settled in a seaside resort. We saw him less often, but a recording of a cinema organ or the tune La Vie en Rose would revive childhood memories. Uncle Jack died suddenly after a brief illness. At his funeral they played his own recording of popular tunes on the cinema organ. It was the way he would have wanted it. Rosemary Goodacre

We love to eat: Garage chicken

Ingredients

A roast chicken

Lots of crispy roast potatoes sprinkled with sea salt (Maris Pipers preferably)

Assorted salad items & dressings

A garage

When the days get longer and warmer, our Sunday-night roast gives way to Garage Chicken. Buying a dartboard last year inspired us to transform our garage into what we now call the social club. It is no glamorous affair, but complete with a couple of optics, makeshift bar area and soon to be installed woodburning stove, it is the ideal spot to sit and shelter from cool winds, enjoying the last few rays of the day's sun.

On evenings that are too sunny to eat inside, but slightly too chilly to warrant a barbecue, the four of us can be found running backwards and forwards from kitchen to garage, assembling our feast of a simple roast chicken, roast potatoes sprinkled liberally with sea salt and whatever salad and dressings we can pull together. We eat at an old garden table in mis-matched chairs, pulling every last scrap of chicken from the bones and licking our salty fingers. Who cares if food gets on the floor or if we spill wine on the table … as my nine-year-old son says: "I don't know why, but the food always tastes better out here." Sabia Morrison


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March 24 2012

Family life

Readers' favourite photographs, songs and recipes

Snapshot: Honeymoon in Scarborough

There's someone missing from this photograph – the second groom, Great Uncle Jack. He's probably on the other side of the camera capturing this image on Scarborough beach. This is a honeymoon snap of my nanna, Olive – she's the one on the right in the smart top, with her neat hair pulled back and white underskirt tucked between her knees, with her new husband, my grandad Stan, a proud Yorkshireman resplendent in flat cap.

On the left is Olive's sister Nora in billowing knickerbockers – Great Uncle Jack's new bride. It was August 1931 and there wasn't much money about. To save costs, Olive and Nora had a joint wedding in their village of Rillington, north Yorkshire. They carried matching bouquets and dresses to the church – no veils, just hats. The grooms also had hats – smart black bowlers.

The joint honeymoon in Scarborough would have been quite an occasion. Olive was one of 10 children, and day trips to the coast were limited to one a year when they were growing up. Olive left school at 14 to go into service with a wealthy family, cooking and cleaning. My grandad was a gardener at the same house. That's how they met. I love this photo – I especially like the way Stan, a massive grin on his face, has rolled his suit trousers up so high to protect them from the chilly North Sea. He was 30 when he finally tied the knot.

Sadly, I don't really remember Stan – I was only four when he died. But my dad, Richard, says Stan – his dad – was a kind, gentle, patient man, and he loved taking photographs, so the camera he's holding in his hand is probably his pride and joy.

You can't tell from this picture, but Olive was a very strong woman. She was quite formidable in later life, and fiercely independent – as children we grew up nearby and often stayed with her, and we knew she was not to be messed with! She lived alone for most of the two decades after Stan died and never remarried. I remember her sitting in her favourite armchair near the fire in her creaking old house, the Aga on in the kitchen and telling stories about the past. In true Yorkshire style, these always included some point about the value of money – how it was easily spent but hard earned. She only left that house when her mind started to fail towards the end of her life, and Alzheimer's took these memories away from her. When Olive died in 2001, aged 91, I was a student in Cardiff and there was an exam on the day of the funeral. In the end, I took the emotional decision to stay for the exam.

Missing Olive's funeral is one of the biggest regrets of my life. If I could turn back the clock, it's one of the first things I would change. I wish I could tell her how sorry I am.

Linda Harrison

Playlist: I wanted to hold Mum's hand

I Want To Hold Your Hand by the Beatles

"Oh yeah, I'll tell you something / I think you'll understand"

This record by the Beatles takes me back to spring 1964 and my second term at boarding school after the Christmas holidays, when I was 11.

On Saturday mornings after prep, we girls were permitted to play 45rpm vinyl records on a Dansette player in the small, unheated wooden hut that served as our assembly hall. Someone had a copy of I Want to Hold your Hand from home, and it was played over and over again.

"Oh yeah, I'll tell you something / I think you'll understand / When I say that something / I want to hold your hand."

Some of the older girls mooned about miserably, thinking of a boy they had liked over the holidays, but I knew nothing of such romantic pain. All I knew was how I desperately missed my mother and wanted to be with her and to hold her hand again.

"And when I touch you I feel happy inside / It's such a feeling that my love / I can't hide, I can't hide, I can't hide, I can't hide."

There was no one to hold your hand at boarding school in 1964. If you admitted to wanting your mother, you were considered a complete sissy. Homesickness and emotional pain were not mentioned in those days.

I invented a "boy" I had a crush on in case anyone noticed a tear on my cheek. It was infinitely more acceptable than saying I missed my mother and wanted to hold her hand. Perhaps I wasn't the only one.

Eve Morris

We love to eat: Beef and Guinness casserole

Ingredients

900g lean stewing beef, diced

3 tbsp oil

2 tbsp flour

Salt and freshly ground pepper

2 large onions, coarsely chopped

1 large clove garlic, crushed (optional)

2 tbsp tomato puree, dissolved in 4 tbsp water

¾ can Guinness

Sprig of thyme

Fry the onions and garlic in olive oil then transfer to a bowl. Coat the meat in seasoned flour and brown in the pan. Add the Guinness, followed by the rest of the ingredients and cook in a slow oven for three hours.

I've been pretty much a vegetarian since the early 80s, only suffering the occasional lapse when too inebriated to resist the lure of a late-night kebab. It's primarily for political reasons – initially health, too – and hasn't always gone down well. A boyfriend once called me a fascist vegetarian because I wouldn't let him eat his fish supper in my flat.

Since then, in the 18 years I've been married, I've seldom cooked as my loved one's culinary skills are absolutely outstanding. Pete can turn his hand to anything and is a legend among friends and family for his cooking, so I have just let him get on with it. Anything I attempted turned out poisonous, bland or burned, and I have always drawn the line at cooking any of his favourite meat dishes, so eventually I stopped trying. He has always been happy to cook for me, and has done so most nights during the years we have lived together.

Times change. He recently got a job on a farm and is out all day in all weathers, often coming home tired, freezing and starving. As I work at home a lot I have been happy to go out and buy meat for him, but never considered cooking it. However, on a particularly horrid afternoon recently, I envisioned Pete coming home cold and hungry. I knew he'd kept a recipe he liked the look of for beef and Guinness stew, which had come in a free booklet in the newspaper. So I decided to make the first meal I had made for 17 years. And with meat as the main ingredient.

It went well until I opened the packet of meat and laid the wobbly red slab on a chopping board. The texture was soft but firm and the fat on the side was sinewy – I couldn't believe I was doing this. With a mixture of fascination and horror I stripped the fat away, and began to chop the meat into chunks. But as the knife slid through the blood red steak I realised I didn't feel the slightest twinge of guilt, and was almost enjoying this new experience.

I coated the chunks in seasoned flour by hand and then fried them in the olive oil, browning as directed. Then it was time to add the Guinness, which sizzled and frothed. I obviously couldn't do a taste test, so considering the sorry-looking blobs of meat in their liquid bath, I began to wonder if I had done it right. Then it was into a slow oven for three hours.

I checked anxiously every hour or so, and after a while something began to change. The Guinness reduced until it reinvented itself as thick gravy. I began to feel quite excited and hoped it would taste as good as it looked.

When Pete arrived home, his first words were, "What is that amazing smell?"

When I presented the casserole from the oven, his jaw dropped. As he flaked a piece of molten beef on to a fork and into his mouth, his eyes closed and he said, "This is absolutely delicious. I can't believe you did this for me."

He gave me a huge hug.

Later, wiping his mouth, he said: "The other meal I really love is chicken in red wine with shallots and mushrooms."

Oh dear … I seem to have started something! Jeanie Lynch

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January 28 2012

Family life

Readers' favourite photographs, songs and recipes

Snapshot: Dad on a rare holiday in the 1930s

What a great time these young men are having. A group of lads sharing a rare holiday in the 30s, determined to have a ball. The rolled shirtsleeves and vests suggest hot weather. My father, Ben, is the one astride his motorcycle on the far left of the photograph, which I think may have been taken on the Isle of Man. I know Dad went there in his youth to watch the TT racing.

Ben was born in Birkenhead, Cheshire, in 1906, and worked for the co-operative movement until the 1930s when, after studying engineering at night school, he moved to Surrey to work for Vickers-Armstrongs, the aircraft manufacturer.

Dad was a quiet man, whose favourite pastimes were reading and walking in the woods. I love the way this photograph shows him in his youthful element, larking about with a group of fellow motorcycle fanatics. The guy on the right has dropped a piece of rag as though they are about to start a race, but the demeanour of the participants shows that nobody is going anywhere.

There are girls in the background, standing next to the barn. Only one large tent is visible, probably shared by all the lads, because a second photograph shows a smaller, round tent hidden behind the motorcyclists, which was most likely to have been the girls' tent.

For my father, a holiday meant camping and his only concession to my mother's lack of enthusiasm for his passion was to hire a caravan.

As his five children matured, he bought a motorbike and sidecar, which had to be a Royal Enfield. He and I travelled all the way to Birkenhead from Surrey for a family wedding with my 12-year-old self riding pillion. There were no motorways in 1957, so it took all day. I also remember being taken to watch the motorbike scrambles at Pirbright in Surrey.

It could be that Dad's first motorbike was a Royal Enfield as well, but I will let any motorbike enthusiasts among the readership decide. Erica Medcalf

Playlist: A knees up that might be costly

Uptown Girl by Billy Joel

"Uptown girl / She's been living in her uptown world"

I first heard Uptown Girl in the early 80s, playing on my sister's radio in our shared room – it was always tuned to Radio 1. But it was a while before it came to my dad's attention, being a man more inclined towards classical.

Every Saturday we sat down to watch children's television and in those early days the video, full of neon tones, seemed to catch all the family's attention. The song was a big hit in 1983 and hung around for weeks – whenever it came on, with its upbeat melody and catchy tune, my dad couldn't help but dance. And it was quite a sight – fingers clicking, knees bouncing and change jingling in his pockets. We laughed until we cried. I remember it vividly.

Years later in 2001, it was re-released for Comic Relief. In his mid-70s, my dad probably shouldn't have attempted such moves but yet again the bendy–knee dance came out. Again we laughed until the tears fell.

My dad is due for a knee operation soon. I hope his passion for bendy-knee dancing didn't contribute too much to his dodgy knees. And maybe once he has recovered he will dance again – though not necessarily to Uptown Girl. Caroline Russell

We love to eat: Bread and dripping

Ingredients

Good white bread, cut in thick slices

Beef dripping

Salt

When I was 12, my father left his office job in London and started a shop. My mother worked there too, part time. It was a huge change in our lives. Till then, my mother had always been at home when we came in from school, ready with food and questions about our day. We'd have a children's tea of eggs and bread, fruit and cake, and by the time my father came home from work we'd be in the bath and ready for him to read us a story. Then he and my mother would eat alone in comfort. For the past year or so, I'd been allowed to join them for this grown-up dinner, while my brothers had gone to bed early.

Now, though, my mum would be out most days. I was 12, and regarded as quite old enough to look after the two boys, so it was my task to get home from school first and make sure we all got something to eat to tide us over till the main meal, which we ate together. 

I also had other tasks: the fat old coke boiler in the kitchen would need to be fed and stoked, and possibly even relit. No hot water otherwise. I might also have to prepare vegetables. Quite often, too, I'd walk up to the bus stop to help my mum carry shopping she'd done in the lunch hour. But I didn't mind: I can still remember the huge pleasure of coming home to the empty house and being in charge, responsible for my brothers. Bossing them about, I expect they'd have said.

My mother cooked a big roast every Sunday, big enough for the five of us to have at least two meals: hot on Sunday, then cold on Monday with salad. Whatever was left over after that would be minced and added to the next meal, and my mum might make soup using the bone, if there was one. When it was beef, there was always a bowl of dripping: underneath there would be a rich brown meaty jelly, full of fragments of roast meat scraped from the tin, with a thick layer of salty fat on top. We'd spread slices of crusty white bread with it and settle down in front of the electric fire to eat it. You can sprinkle salt on the top, to make it even more delicious.

I don't often roast a big joint of beef now, but when I do I always take care to set aside a bowl of dripping, to enjoy on bread, and remember the warm comfort of our house after school and our snacks in front of the fire. Claire Bainbridge

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December 10 2011

Family life

Readers' favourite photographs, songs and recipes

Snapshot: My dad, who was 'disappeared'

If anyone asked me what was my most prized possession, I wouldn't hesitate: my family photos. This is one of the four I have of my dad and me together. Unfortunately, the digital revolution had not yet arrived when he was around, but maybe it is for this very reason that those pictures are more valuable than anything else.

This was taken in a park close to where my grandparents and my dad, Alfredo García, lived. He and my mum had recently separated after a short-lived and ill-fated marriage. They met in high school in Buenos Aires (where I'm from) – the same high school I would attend years later, known for its outstanding academic credentials but also, and especially in the 70s, as a hotbed of political dissent and communist activism. My parents were both peronistas (followers of Juan Domingo Perón, who, alongside Evita, had become the hero for the oppressed working classes), actively involved in youth movements with strong anti-military and anti-bourgeois ideals.

When the rightwing coup d'état took place (on March 1976, a month after my birth), the military junta began to carry out secret, undercover operations to kidnap, torture and murder anyone involved in any sort of political activity. My mother had decided to bow out, but my father continued.

Nobody knew at the time that those who "disappeared" would never return, and when my father was taken (minutes after dropping me off at my grandparents' house in July 1978), the fear of repercussions meant my mother and I had to keep it a secret for years, until democracy returned in 1983.

My beloved grandparents, who had lost their only child, devoted the rest of their lives to keeping his memory and legacy alive while running their grocery shop and looking after me every weekend. My grandma, Lola, was a madre de Plaza de Mayo marching every Thursday around the square, defying those in power and demanding justice for her son. I have no recollection of my dad apart from the picture I have pieced together from other people's memories and anecdotes. But somehow, I feel I know him very well and that he is a big part of who I am.

He was only 25 when he died and we don't know when or how, although investigations have determined that most of the 30,000 were tortured in concentration camps and thrown from planes into the ocean, dead or alive.

When I look at my face, I see his smiling back at me. He has left a big hole in my life, but a big sense of pride at the same time for what he did and the friendships he formed in his short life. Although I will always miss him, I take comfort in the fact that his ideals – and everything he fought for – have contributed to Argentina being a much more democratic and egalitarian place, where such atrocities would never be allowed to happen again. Paula García

Playlist: The very first single I bought

Honky Tonk Women by the Rolling Stones

"I met a gin-soaked bar-room queen in Memphis / She tried to take me upstairs for a ride"

I had no idea what a gin-soaked bar-room queen was, but as soon as I heard the cow bell and guitar opening bars I was hooked. I persuaded my dad to give me the money to buy my first single. I went to the Broadway Record Mart, handed over 8/6d and walked home feeling suddenly more grown up.

It went straight on to the radiogram, and I played it over and over again.

A few weeks later, at my cousin Ingrid's wedding, the DJ was asked to play it so many times that he started to pack away the rest of his records while the celebrations were still in full swing. I recall my uncle dancing to it too. It was a dance he did to all the tunes he liked, assuming a slightly crouched position while simultaneously hopping on one leg and clapping.

Fast forward 10 years and my first love was a lanky, scowling Mick Jagger lookalike. I was tall and slender with long dark hair and a penchant for Anna Belinda clothes, and fancifully thought our bohemian style set us apart in our particular pocket of south London. I had been seduced not just by the music but by the snakehipped gyrations and androgynous beauty of Mick.

Five years ago, when I got married, I made sure Honky Tonk Women was on the playlist at our reception, and all those years later it still had everyone up on the dancefloor. By now both my father and uncle were dead, and the Jagger lookalike was a happy but distant memory – but new memories are made all the time and Mum twirled her grandchildren round and round till they were giggly and exhausted.

I love the song and Keith and Mick remain the ultimate rock'n'roll reprobates who, despite often being parodied, have never lost their edge.

I have it on CD but get the biggest kick if it is played on the radio while I am driving – I turn the volume up full blast and sing the lyrics verbatim now knowing, at 50, what they mean. Diane Morgan

We love to eat: Kitty's sausage meat pie

Ingredients

12oz (340g) self-raising flour

1lb sausage meat

Pinch of salt

1 boiled egg

3oz (85g) margarine

1 or 2 sliced tomatoes

3oz (85g) lard

2 tbsp water

Rub in the flour, salt, margarine and lard until a breadcrumb consistency has formed. Add cold water and work into a soft dough. More water can be added if required. Set aside for 10-15 minutes to rest. Divide pastry in half. Roll out one half and line a shallow pie dish. Mash the sausage meat into the pie dish and cover with sliced boiled egg and tomatoes. Roll out the remainder of the pastry and cover the pie dish. Prick the top with a fork and bake in the middle of the oven for 50 minutes at gas mark 5, or 180C.

If you're feeling adventurous, add herbs or fried onions (or both) to the sausage meat.

None of us knew where our dearly loved mother got this recipe for sausage meat pie but it was one of her signature dishes. Every generation down to her great-grandchildren has fond memories of devouring large slices of this pie (hot or cold) with anything from salad to roast potatoes and veg. It is particularly effective for curing hangovers. Even now my sisters cook it to mark special celebrations, and on holidays we always take at least one pie with us.

Our lovely mum was born and raised in the Bermondsey docks in the 1920s in an Anglo-Irish family of 16, so she lived with grinding poverty for many years. By the 1950s she had a husband (our wonderful dad, Jack) and us six kids (four girls and two boys) in a three-bedroom council house on the Bellingham estate in south London.

Times were hard living on one wage, but in an era of coal fires, linoleum-covered floors and icy bedrooms, her cooking brightened the house with delicious aromas.

Even when her kids had flown the nest, we were never far away and she delighted in showing her love through her culinary skills (typically for her generation, she never said the L-word).

Last year, Mum passed away leaving an aching hole in our hearts. Eighteen months later, we visited a well-known spiritualist. Immediately, Mum pushed through, telling us that she was having a whale of a time with all her brothers and sisters but that her Yorkshires still beat Aunt Bessie's.

We all left that room with a smile on our faces and the knowledge that when we die, there would be the smell of baking wafting around the pearly gates. Jeremy Harrison

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November 26 2011

Family life

Readers' favourite photographs, songs and recipes

Snapshot: Our beach hut on the south coast

"What's a beach hut, Granny?" The question tugged me back to childhood holidays in the 50s, rekindling memories of a world that has changed beyond recognition, apart from rows of little wooden chalets marshaled along the promenade from Southbourne all the way to the west of Bournemouth. Our family took two days in Dad's pride and joy, an old Austin Seven, to travel from Wolverhampton to the south coast.

Our landlady laid down many rules: "No dinner for late arrivals" was one. There was no menu; you had what was on offer. You had to be out of the house by 9.30am and you weren't allowed back until 5.30pm. Smells of Ajax and rancid fat assaulted our nostrils when we breezed in from the fresh sea air. Those were the days. Well-behaved children could take it in turns to ring the gong for mealtimes.

"Try not to spill the potty when you get out in the night," was Dad's last command of the day. Four families of four competed for the bathroom. We once had the room at the front with a bay window; it had its own washbasin and crusty soap – luxury.

Each day started with the 8.30am non-negotiable breakfast of cornflakes followed by bacon, fried egg and baked beans. I loathe baked beans. Come rain or shine, we would trail down the cliff path to our beach hut, No 2,378, with a plastic beach bag stuffed with sliced white bread, margarine, meat paste, a couple of Lyons individual fruit pies and, on the last day, a pack of Kunzle cakes. My tastebuds tingle at the thought.

Once news got round our digs that we had a hut, other guests would often "just happen" to pass by. "Could we just dry our Jenny out of the wind?" A tricky one to refuse, so a cuppa would be offered, which generally extended into lunch. By the end of the week, our four-seater hut was accommodating a dozen interlopers most days.

"Look at the time!" my father would say each day at precisely 5.10pm, followed by a mad dash up the path to the digs, seconds after the hallowed 5.30pm unbolting of the front door.

After dinner, still hungry, we would stroll out to our favourite Forte's cafe and tuck into vanilla slices and mugs of Horlicks, waiting for the late August sky to darken before the Austin chugged along the seafront between Boscombe and Bournemouth piers, as we oohhed and aahed at fairy lights on lampposts and the moon shimmering on the sea.

Fifty years on, to celebrate my 60th birthday this spring, our children organised a short break in Southbourne. Huge bedrooms, two en suites, a kitchen with every luxury imaginable. At the end of our stay, the three grandchildren were asked what they had most enjoyed. Their answer? The beach hut. We had been nowhere else, done nothing else – no one had wanted to. Watching the little ones charging about on the beach while I brewed tea and made squashy sandwiches gave me a feeling of happiness and warmth beyond measure. Some things don't change to satisfy our 21st-century cravings – they don't need to. Trina Beckett

Playlist: When you no longer stood by me

Stand By Me by John Lennon

"If the sky that we look upon / Should tumble and fall / And the mountain should crumble to the sea …"

We were a joyous gang of four couples when we got together in Thames Ditton and sang along to this version of Stand By Me. It always followed an evening of lots of eating and, more pertinently, lots of drinking. Groups such as ours standing in the kitchen singing at the tops of our voices at midnight on a Saturday would not have been unusual, I'm sure, but we thought we were the best gang in town, if not beyond.

The gang's membership changed over time with divorces and remarriages, but I always felt that you and I could sing along to Lennon in the firm knowledge that we would indeed stand by each other.

That comfortable feeling was shaken when you announced that you didn't love me any more. With hindsight, it was rather astonishing that, for a few painful months, I held on to the belief that we could sort things out. Then the hope of standing by each other was shattered when you announced you had been having an affair for months.

The sky I looked upon did indeed tumble and fall as I fought to maintain some semblance of order – to no avail. In retrospect, you had always had a hard edge beneath the gentle surface. Your ability to move on to a new life despite the upheaval involved was as cold-hearted from where I was standing, as your lack of interest in developing any relationship with my children.

You didn't stand by me, but I'm now sure it was for the best. My new wife is a truly gentle soul and we are much better suited. Similarly, you are probably better off in your new relationship. Let's hope we are now all better able to stand by each other. Roger

We love to eat: Miss Bigwood's favourite

Ingredients

1 thick slice of white bread per person (do not be tempted to use the pre-sliced "plastic" variety)

1 rasher of bacon per round of bread, preferably back bacon

1-2 slices of red leicester or cheddar

Vegetable oil for frying

Worcestershire sauce for garnish

Place one or two slices of cheese, depending on thickness, on each slice of bread and press down hard – the cheese should cover the bread as far as possible. Cut the rasher of bacon in half and place on top of the cheese, ensuring the cheese is covered by the bacon, and again press down hard. Heat a small amount of vegetable oil in a frying pan and, when it is sizzling, invert the slice of bread into the pan, bacon side down.

Press hard with a spatula on to the back of the slice. Fry until the cheese has melted into the bacon and the bacon is cooked. Turn out on to a plate, sprinkle with Worcestershire sauce and tuck in to the succulent mix of crispy bacon, cheese and fried bread.

Miss Bigwood was a schoolfriend of my grandmother; she worked until she was 80 in a mill in Leeds and lived in a real one-up, one-down, back-to-back house in Leeds until the late 50s. When my grandmother died, my mother stayed in touch with Miss Bigwood and every year she would spend a week with us in Northamptonshire for her annual holiday. This was the only time she left Leeds and her job.

To us she was something of a curiosity, an old lady still working and still attached to the niceties and conventions of a life firmly rooted in the late-19th, early 20th century. I still have no idea of her first name; to us she was, and always will be, Miss Bigwood.

On one visit she showed me how to make what we now call Miss Bigwood's favourite. I do not recall her name for the dish, but I do remember that it was a special treat when her budget would allow. My mother told me that on occasions she had seen her prepare an evening meal consisting of flour mixed with a little milk and fried to make a fritter. Bacon and cheese were reserved for pay day.

The result, to my young palate, was delicious, and the dish immediately entered our household repertoire. It is still a special Saturday lunchtime treat for my two sons, now both in their 20s. They never had the pleasure of meeting Miss Bigwood, but have often asked who she was, and they both make her favourite.

As a postscript, on my first visit to France in the 60s I was introduced to a traditional French snack by my new pen friend. It was called Croque Monsieur, an upmarket ham and cheese sandwich, but – being French – supposedly far superior to anything we might have in England. Not so, I thought, this isn't a patch on Miss Bigwood's favourite, but how does one translate that into O-level French? Prue Huddleston

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October 30 2011

Best before 1960: British vintage food

Photographer James Kendall was rooting through his wife's 90-year-old grandmother's larder when he found something fascinating …

For many, sell-by dates are just a guide. For one nonagenarian from Brighton, they don't exist at all. Photographer James Kendall was rooting through his wife's 90-year-old grandmother's larder when he discovered packaged foods dating back to the 1950s. Some canned items were covered in rust.

"She doesn't really believe in sell-by dates," explains Kendall. "She holds on to everything, and sees it all as eventually having a use. I think it comes from her living through the war, and being used to rationing." Among the ageing items were dried onions, smoked cod liver, canned corn, a jar of tartare sauce, and a pack of KP nuts, complete with vintage logos.

Kendall's wife, Rosie, wasn't surprised, having grown used to her gran's eccentricities as a child. "Gran had some red glasses," says Kendall, "and one day she served Rosie some Ribena in them. Because of the red glasses, they didn't notice until they'd got halfway through that the Ribena was actually green."

But Kendall was so excited by the hoard that he took it back to his studio to be photographed – and hopes to exhibit the resulting series at next year's Brighton Photo Biennial.

"I still daren't open them," says Kendall. "They've been wrapped in cellophane over the summer, so they've had a bit of a baking. I'm not exactly sure what state they're in now. Probably worse than ever." Has your family got some vintage foodstuffs? Send in your photos to your.pictures@guardian.co.uk with "vintage food" as the subject line.


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October 14 2011

Family life

Readers' favourite photographs, songs and recipes

Snapshot: My mother, a very modern midwife

Here is my family on 17 June 1947 sitting in the sun in front of our home in Leicestershire. The large lady is my lovely grandmother, landlady of the White Hart, Nettleham, and known to all as "Ma". To the right is my uncle Geoff, recently returned from serving on HMS Cumberland during the second world war, and in front of him is his pretty Scottish bride, Jean. My parents, Arnold and Dora Greaves, are on the left and my little sister Linda and I sit on our mother's lap.

But this was no ordinary family house, for my mother was matron of a small private maternity hospital and this was our family home too.

During the early stages of the second world war, she was the nurse in charge of a first-aid post, Knighton, Leicester, where schoolboy Richard Attenborough was a volunteer, offering to run errands, including fetching baked beans on toast from the canteen in the hope that he would get a plateful too.

My parents met at a New Year's Eve party in 1941 and married the following September. But after the war, my mother was no longer content with being just a housewife and mother. So, being a single-minded woman, she decided to start her own maternity home and rented a large Victorian pile at Thurmaston near Leicester.

The building was dilapidated and the garden resembled a wilderness, but my mother was undaunted. While my father went off to his nine-to-five office job at the East Midland Electricity Board, she would set to work preparing for the arrival of the first patients, with aunties and cousins drafted in as cleaners and, later, nurses. Finally, after the severe winter of 1946-47, the staff were appointed and the first baby was born at Roundhill nursing home.

She was a conscientious midwife and often stayed up all night with a mum-to-be experiencing difficulties or bringing a baby, that appeared to have died, back to life. She could also be found in the kitchen preparing midday dinner for 40, or outside gardening, growing vegetables, apples and soft fruit. We also kept poultry and pigs, and even at one time a cow and a pony.

In many ways, she was a nurse before her time. Once a day, the gramophone played jolly music such as Let's All Sing Like the Birdies Sing while the women raised and lowered their legs, slowly doing their pelvic-floor exercises. Mums were also encouraged to get out of bed after childbirth rather than, as was common then, staying horizontal. She was advanced in her thinking, allowing fathers at the birth when in most hospitals it was forbidden. She often joked that they hadn't lost a father yet!

She was also sympathetic to unmarried women who came to stay and work until their babies were born; some remained for years joining the domestic workforce.

Eventually she sold out to the NHS in 1963, but remained as matron until 1970. Sometimes she may have delegated her role as a mother but her life was dedicated to her work, bringing babies into the world and improving the lives of many along the way. 

Mother celebrated her 90th birthday on 15 March 2003 with a big party. Family from around the world included two daughters, eight grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren. There was also a very special card from Lord Attenborough. She died a few months later, as she would have wanted, in her own home, having just enjoyed a bowl of raspberries ... grown in her own garden, of course. Helen Warren

Playlist: Celebrating Mum's Polish culture

Ach Spij, Kochanie (Oh, Sleep my Darling) – a lullaby, sort of

My mother sang this around the house in the 50s and 60s, and it passed into the limited repertoire I sang to my children. Even my grandchildren got to hear it, although the Polish words probably meant nothing to them. My mother sang a lot – which was nice – and went on about the songs and virtues of prewar Polish culture. My siblings and I would sooner have watched TV than listen to her reminiscing about the superior talents from her time and complaining about the devil's inventions that superseded prewar media.

You can now find Eugeniusz Bodo and friends performing Ach Spij, Kochanie (1938) on YouTube. Of course, I know the scenario: two would-be drunks trying to go out for the night sing to the daughter of the house but end up falling asleep themselves. The performances are superb. My mother died 30 years ago, but thanks to the devil's inventions, I can finally see where she was coming from. Janina Leitch

We love to eat: Knickerbocker glories

Ingredients

Vanilla ice-cream

Chopped fruit

Your favourite sauce

Sprinkles and paper umbrellas

Tall glasses to serve and long spoons to dive in with

It was my 31st birthday this summer, and in keeping with family tradition, I set the evening menu. For pudding we had knickerbocker glories and I got to tell my three children a little of their family history.

My grandad, a headteacher, retired on the day I was born to become a portrait artist. In the school holidays, he would whisk me off on the train to Liverpool to visit the galleries to share his new-found love of art, imparting an appreciation of it that remains with me. While I enjoyed looking at mysterious paintings, and the special time with Grandad, the real highlight of every trip was what followed.

Grandad would scout out a cafe serving magical knickerbocker glories, served in tall glasses with special long spoons and paper umbrellas on top. In those days, when I was barely able to see over the top of the table, these ices were the ultimate in pudding extravagance, and it seemed Grandad's enjoyment was equal to my own.

He died eight years ago, but his great-grandchildren, two of whom never had the privilege of knowing him, continue to be fascinated by stories about this amazing man. This year, his memory has been celebrated on my birthday – we are still sharing the ultimate ice-cream experience, 25 years after the tradition began. Emily Noble (known as Emilove to Grandad)

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September 21 2011

The guilty pleasure of Florentine food

The art in Florence evokes a world of decadence and indulgence. And so does the cuisine

Some people think Italian food is healthy. Those people have obviously never eaten lard crostini. I am sorry to say that I became an expert on this carnivorous speciality on research trips a few years ago when I was writing a book on Renaissance Florence. I am back in town to see a fascinating art exhibition called Money and Beauty, that has just opened at the Strozzi Palace. The exhibition is about the luxury of the Florentine Renaissance – and I can't wait to taste some decadence of my own in the shape of my favourite local dish, lardo di colonnata.

At Antico Fattore, a trattoria that skulks in the shadow of the Uffizi Gallery's grey pilasters in the heart of Florence, this dangerous delight of Tuscan cuisine is on the menu. In my experience, a perfect version turns to a mist of fat in your mouth and leaves a delicious salty aftertaste. The dish at Antico Fattore is nice, but doesn't quite melt. However, the plate of roast wild boar that follows, in a sweet sauce, accompanied by cannellini beans and a powerful Chianti, more than satisfies my yearning for a taste that evokes the days of Medici banquets.

Italian food conjures rich historical associations, and not just because you can eat in old restaurants like this one, a few steps from the Ponte Vecchio which, 500 years ago, was at the centre of Florentine sustenance. The famous shops that span this ancient bridge over the Arno were in those days all butchers, who chucked their unwanted cuts – the bits that could not even be pressed in a vat to make lardo – straight into the river beneath them.

The simple ingredients and no-nonsense presentation of Italian regional cooking link us to age-old traditions of "slow food", perhaps in Tuscany more than anywhere else. But how authentic are such antique echoes? Money and Beauty offers a provocative perspective, suggesting that Renaissance Florence was more about refined hedonistic high dining than the hearty home cooking we now associate with the city.

The Renaissance began in Florence in the 1400s. That defining epoch in the city's history was made by money – through the immense wealth of the Medici and other families who invented modern banking. If you were invited to one of Lorenzo de' Medici's banquets in 1480s Florence, you could be expected to drink wine served from a black marble jug with gold ornamentation, made by by Andrea Verrocchio – there's one in the exhibition.

Yet the most revolutionary aspect of these Renaissance banquets might escape us because we take it for granted: the tablecloth. In Renaissance paintings, including Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper, dishes are neatly laid out on a precisely folded cloth. The 16th-century Tuscan writer Aretino claimed it was "those clever little Florentine brains" that pioneered their use, putting flowers on the table, and delicately flavouring foods with herbs instead of gothic fistfuls of pepper.

As for the actual food, it included some treats that not even the bravest Florentine restaurant offers up today. Songbirds were a delicacy: larks, thrushes and other uccelli. In other ways, the Renaissance Florentine palette was more sophisticated than today. Experts on contemporary Tuscan food tell you it does not include fish – ordering seafood in Florence invites a defrosted disaster. Yet a painting in the Strozzi exhibition shows a young man carrying a fish for supper.

The various Tuscan varieties of Pecorino cheese are still arguably the region's finest product. When the Florentine artist Michelangelo lived in Rome it was cheese that friends used to send him as a reminder of home. Pork too is an enduring obsession. Da Vinci wrote a vivid description of how Tuscans slaughtered pigs by cutting their throats. A fresco of Florence under siege in 1529, in the Palazzo Vecchio, shows them being roasted in the open air by the attacking army, the aroma wafting over the walls to torment the inhabitants – 30,000 of whom were to die of starvation.

But is Florentine food now too hearty and rustic, too wedded to its ribollita – "reboiled", a warming compost of greens and bread – and its wild boar sausages? Some would like to revive the more refined tastes of the Renaissance court. The Strozzi Palace aims to "make Florence a dynamic contemporary city", and to accompany the exhibition has challenged seven restaurants to invent dishes that incorporate pure gold. So this autumn you can order squid ink and seafood cappellacci with pure gold and eggs garnished with gold leaf at experimental restaurants including Gastone and Ossi di Seppia. Gastone even flaunts the great taboo of modern Tuscan food – the shock is not the gold, but the seafood.

Still, Florence is not the place for futurismo. After a morning looking at paintings by Botticelli, I am more than content on the Uffizi cafe terrace on top of the Loggia on the city's great piazza, eating spicy, sweet-sour Tuscan salami. Long live the old masters of food.


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September 09 2011

Family life

Readers' favourite photographs, songs and recipes

Snapshot: The hop years of our lives

This photograph of hop-picking was taken in 1924 in Paddock Wood in the Weald of Kent, where my gran, Annie, (pictured, on the left) moved after her marriage. Like many generations before her, she was born near Cranbrook, deep in hop‑growing country. Her father and both grandfathers worked on hop farms, and probably their fathers and grandfathers did too.

This is the area where it is thought Flemish weavers first introduced hops to England in the 1300s, and I like to think that our family may have been involved even then. Sadly, the hop-picking tradition in our family finished with my sister and me in the 1960s, when mechanical harvesting was introduced, and there was a new fashion for lager, which needed fewer hops than traditional English beer.

My dad, Bert, at the time of posing for this photograph, wouldn't have known that later on, as a teenager selling sweets to hop-pickers, he would meet his future wife, my mum, as she was picking hops with friends. You could say that I owe my life to hops. Dad never left Paddock Wood, where he was born, and neither did his younger sister, Dorothy, also known as Babs, who is beside him in the photo. As well as hop-picking, one of the jobs she regularly did as an adult with other local women was hop-tying, done in May to train the new bines.

The other hop-picker, their cousin, Ethel, was probably dreaming of a new life as she picked. Not long after this picture was taken, she sailed for a new life in Australia, where she died in 2006, aged 100.

September was hopping month and schools didn't restart after the summer break until all the hops were harvested. My sister and I still refer to those times in late summer, when misty dawns develop into warm sunny days, as "hop-picking weather".

We remember the canvas-covered folding wooden bins, into which we put the picked hops, and the bushel baskets that measured them. We also recall hands blackened with picking, the call of "Pull no more bines!" at the end of the day, and the pay packets collected from the farmer's kitchen at the end of the harvest. It's well known that Londoners flocked to Kent every year at hopping time, crucial to the harvesting of hops, but the farm where we picked just employed local people, so we were surrounded by friends and neighbours. My first new bike was bought with hop-picking money.

I was born in Paddock Wood, too. Then a village, it is now a town, with houses built in the former hop fields. The only reminders of the past are a few roads named after varieties of hops, and oast houses, formerly used to dry hops and now converted into dwellings. Even the Hop Pocket pub, named after the large sacks in which the dried hops were stored, has now gone. My dad's work took him on a daily commute into London, but he remained a country boy at heart. In his last years, he and I made an annual pilgrimage to a hop field, even though it became increasingly hard to find one.

I now live by the Bristol Channel, but in my garden is a hop plant. I only have to crush a hop in my fingers for the familiar scent to transport me back to Kent, the hop gardens and my roots. Liz Youngs

Playlist: Easy money from the Seekers

I'll Never Find Another You by the Seekers

There's a new world somewhere / They call The Promised Land

Many years ago there was a wonderful theatre in Glasgow called the Alhambra. My mother, sister and I had the good fortune to run a snack bar backstage for three years – up until its closure in 1969. During our time there, we met many famous artists such as Frankie Vaughan, Max Bygraves, Marlene Dietrich, Betty Grable, the Shadows and my favourite group, the Seekers. Each night as they performed, I would stand at the back of the wings and listen to their music.

One night, the theatre housekeeper asked if I could help out. Apparently, the Seekers' manager was fogbound at the airport in London and wouldn't be able to get back to Glasgow. The manager usually helped Judith Durham, the lead singer, to change dresses halfway through the act. The housekeeper asked if I could lend a hand. I can remember how excited I felt. I was told to wait until the end of the song I'll Never Find Another You, and then rush along the corridor to the dressing room.

As Judith Durham came off stage, I followed her into the room and opened the wardrobe. There hung three or four beautiful, sparkling evening gowns. I can remember commenting that it must be wonderful to wear such glamorous clothes. She was such a lovely person and very friendly.

I did this for two nights and the housekeeper handed me an envelope with 15 shillings in it as a thank you from Judith. That was quite a lot of money in those days – but I would happily have done it for nothing.

Consequently, every time I hear that song, it brings back memories of the easiest money I ever earned. Elizabeth Nicholson

We love to eat: Doorstep elevenses

Ingredients

One doorstep

A tin of Brasso

Newspapers

Several old rags

Two soft yellow dusters

A good friend (most essential)

In the early 1950s, to get my weekly pocket-money, I had to clean my mother's brass collection – a job I loathed so much that I offered Kathleen from next door half my earnings if she would help me. As she didn't get any pocket money she jumped at the 6d.

The brass collection itself had begun, unwittingly, during the war, when we children one day gleefully picked up from the pavement shell-cases that had rained down from German planes, as we walked to Sunday school – the target was a bus factory opposite Garner's bakery, where we sheltered (a shop with little more than bread on sale in those days). Like a fool, I would go on to give my mother brass knick-knacks for birthdays, Christmases and even holiday souvenirs. There was far too much of it.

Our back doorstep faced Kathleen's, and dividing us was a low wire fence that dipped where Kathleen would climb over and join me once the brass was set out on opened newspapers. From the moment we dipped our rags into the Brasso, while all the time talking and sharing confidences over our week's happenings, this normally loathsome task was transformed into a really pleasant one.

We didn't rush, for we knew that by the time we'd rubbed and polished all the assorted brass objects until we could see our mirror images in them, my mother would return from shopping – her last port of call having been Garner's bakery.

As she pushed her laden bicycle up the path, we knew what was in the greaseproof bag she carried teasingly over our heads and into the kitchen. We heard the kettle boil and cups rattle. Mother then appeared and handed down to each of us a cup of tea and a tea-plate. Spread across the entire surface of the tea-plate was a huge choux pastry cream-filled bun topped with soft, sweet chocolate. One bite and we were in heaven as cream oozed and clung to our lips, cheeks and chin. Should Garner's be out of choux buns, we were just as happy with a many layered, jam and cream-filled vanilla slice topped with pink and white soft icing.

My mother's home-baked cakes were to die for, but these Saturday morning indulgences were actually bought! And somehow that made them special. There was as much pleasure in sharing the hated task with Kathleen as there was in sacrificing half of my one shilling for such a treat. Sheila Isherwood


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July 26 2011

Manchester should soon be eating fuit and veg from the UK's very first Vertical Farm

When you can't spread out, spread up. That's what growers of everything from broccoli to strawberries are doing in a disused office block in Wythenshawe

The 18-day international festival which has swept through Manchester has sadly come to an end, but one project is only just starting, with long-term implications for the future of the rainy city. On the very last day of the Manchester International festival, a two-year project to build a vertical farm in an disused office building in Wythenshawe was launched with the aim of encouraging cities to more grow fresh food in a sustainable way.

The problem with cities is that whilst they have big populations that need feeding, there is usually very little space to grow food. Consequently produce is flown in for all over the world and brought into cities by the lorry-load causing much environmental harm due to fossil fuels being burnt for transport. Indeed, a typical UK supermarket trolley of food will have travelled a distance of 3,000 km before making it to your shelves at home.

The solution? Dickson Despommier, a parasitologist at Columbia in New York City who spoke at the MIF event, thinks that vertical farming can help. Vertical farming is a relatively new concept developed by Despommier and his students back in 1999, where farms are built indoors and on levels rather than horizontally on land. Some of the benefits of this hi-tech way of growing food is that abandoned buildings are put to use whilst precious (and expensive) land is saved. This farming technique also requires up to 70% less water and less fertilizer than traditional farming as crops grow in a controlled and sheltered environment.

The team behind the Manchester vertical farm project, which includes URBED, a Manchester-based co-operative focused on sustainability, have already secured a lease on a disused five-storey building in Wythenshawe, one of the original garden cities, which will be turned to a vertical farm called 'Alpha Farm'.

Debbie Ellen, the lead researcher on the project and food expert explains:

By the year 2050 it is estimated that nearly 80% of the world's population will live in urban centres. Our current food system is very vulnerable to weather events as well as being unsustainable in terms of how food reaches us...Vertical farms, which use existing buildings offer the potential to become productive food hubs which will increase community's resilience by growing food locally.

Encouraging local people to engage with the project is very important, because by learning about food growing, people become much more aware of its value, the difference in taste of food that has only travelled a small distance and the possibilities that exist for them to grow food for their families."

There are currently vertical farms working in Japan and Holland but to date, there is no multi-storey, indoor farming in an urban building which I guess makes Wythenshawe's Alpha Farm a world first.

Manchester already boasts some interesting food projects such as Unicorn Grocery in Chortlton, a supermarket which grows food on its own land as well as Abundance Manchester, an organisation which makes the most of food growing in gardens, allotments and public trees by collecting gluts and distributing it for free to homeless shelters and destitute asylum seekers.

Alpha Farm will be attempting to grow fruit and veg such as broccoli, tomatoes, mushrooms, onions, carrots and strawberries. According to the organisers, by the time the next Manchester International Festival rolls around in 2013 they hope to be harvesting some of the goods for everyone to try.


guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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