Monday, 6 April 2015

A Culinary Memorial: Joan Gettins 1946-2015

by: Mr Robot

It's been quite a while since I last posted - at first just laziness and then, awfully, my Mother died suddenly in February. Not really conducive to light-hearted blithering, as you can probably imagine.

As I'm sure is the case for most people, Mum was my primary influence in all things foody, and with no father around I spent a lot of time hanging around the kitchen with her. So I was determined that my next post - whenever it came - should be a little tribute to her.

As it's turned out, there's a heavy Christmas influence here. Partly because that's when many of the family rituals got established but also, living 200 miles away, it was the time I saw her most consistently over the last 20 years or so.

So here we go, and forgive me if the keyboard gets a little soggy.

The Prawn Cocktail
Growing up in the late 70s and early 80s it's no surprise some of my fondest foods now fall into the naff-to-retro-chic category.

I'm never sure where on that spectrum prawn cocktail sits at any given point and, frankly, I couldn't care less.

This was Mum's go-to starter for any occasion  and never lost its appeal.

It very specifically requires frozen prawns (she couldn't abide handling fresh seafood) and iceberg lettuce, and must be served in these glass dishes - which I'm pretty sure have been around longer than I have - and the unwritten rule was that no matter how many were served, there must always be enough left over in the fridge for me to have two more helpings later on.

Beyond that, though, I couldn't tell you much about the making of it, and this is the first time I've ever made it. I never needed to before - it was always something Mum did. A Marie-Rose sauce is such a staple that everyone has their own tweaks to make it personal, but I'd never even asked about her recipe (I've riffed on a Delia here).

I guess it's testament to my childlike assumption that she'd always be there - despite her many health issues - that I never really expected to have to make things like this myself. And now I'll never know the true, home recipe. The best I can do is start working towards my own.

Eggs Benedict

Quite the opposite to a childhood tradition (in fact I have a feeling I introduced it to her), but eggs benedict became a little ritual over the last 10 years or so.

It is always to be had on Christmas morning while listening to Ed Stewart's Junior Choice on Radio 2 (I can't imagine how I'll cope with Puff the Magic Dragon this year) and just before opening presents.

The ham always comes from Walter Rose and the eggs are organic, but the muffins are supermarket standard, and I'm afraid the hollandaise is from a jar.

While I can and do make my own hollandaise at other times, Xmas Eggs need to be an easy, convivial start to the day, when there's enough kitchen nonsense going on already, and presents must never be delayed.

Eggs Benedict - a Christmas necessity

So our eggs benedict, like so many of these things, isn't the best in the world but it's the right one.

Gammon with pineapple, and peas and sweetcorn

Another much maligned dish and to be honest I veer towards egg and chips with my gammon but this was her standby.

A special occasion would pretty much always demand Duck a L'Orange (a significant project, as I remember it) but gammon with pineapple was more commonplace but always felt like a treat.

As often as not, it was what greeted us when we came to stay and was always served with new potatoes, and a massive dish of peas and sweetcorn - mixed together and well doused in butter.

Generally a bottle of three of chilled chardonnay or sauvingon blanc came alongside.

This is something we only ever had at Mum's. Actually when I was thinking about this post it was Mrs Robot who demanded I include it, just for the peas and sweetcorn which stand out as a uniquely Mum thing.

Peas and sweetcorn - so simple but distinctively her
Dated perhaps, but surely that's the point of nostalgia.

Christmas Pudding
Mum always made her own Christmas Pudding and I've shared it with many, many people over the years - it's always declared the best ever tried.

Mum's last Christmas pudding, getting a brandy wash
In this case I'm pleased to say I did pin the recipe down because Christmas without her pudding would be hard to bear.

It comes from an old Good Cooking magazine (a series she collected in its entirety), the page now well spattered with 30-odd years of goop and brandy drips. She typically made them a good year or so in advance, with regular doses of booze to keep them going. When she died it was horribly poignant to find two small puddings already prepared for this year.

April is obviously the wrong time to indulge in that kind of thing, so here I've taken one of the puddings and incorporated it into Tom Kerridge's Orange Cake with plum sauce and Christmas Pudding ice-cream. It's fantastic dessert and I think Mum would have loved it.

Tom Kerridge's Orange Cake, with Mum's Xmas pudding ice-cream

Chocolate Truffles
Another Christmas thing, but this going right back to my earliest memories. We lived in rural Norfolk but most of the extended family was in Lancashire so every year we would make the lengthy trek up north and west (this before the M62 was invented) with presents for my cousins and, for her siblings, home-made rum and brandy truffles.

They're from a loved and battered copy of Sonia Allison's A Pleasure to Cook and are incredibly rich, consisting purely of dark chocolate, butter, egg yolk and sugar. And alcohol of course, which, now I've made them myself, is severely understated in the book. I'd guess Mum was using 3 to 4 times as much booze, to the benefit of all.

I have distinct, unbearably warm memories of Truffle Day. Mum spends pretty much the whole day making them and I - maybe six years old - am hugely excited because a) this means Christmas is definitely on the way and b) there will probably be some treats coming my way later. It's grey and cold outside, warm and golden in the kitchen. She's wearing blue, and it's a day of laughter.

Nonsense of course, as I know she often found it hugely time consuming and I must've been a right pain in the arse, getting under her feet and demanding to lick the spoon every five minutes. But still, that's the picture in my mind and one I've had for a long time.

Just last Christmas, in fact, I'd talked to her about resurrecting the truffle tradition with the plan of making them for her this year. Appalling, then, that it can't happen - and how much more important they are to me now.

Rum and Brandy Chocolate Truffles. Need more rum. And brandy.

There are so many other things I could go on about: the wonderful seafood lasagne she made each Good Friday, the baked alaska and "chocolate mountain" (a pile of profiteroles a good 2ft high) that remain legendary within the family; pea and ham soup in the depths of winter; the travesty that was cold baked beans in a salad; her devotion to Ken Hom; the day Old El Paso reached East Anglia...

I'll finish with one of our best food memories, when the Icelandic volcano scuppered our planned flights and we ended up doing a last minute trip to Padstow instead. The weather was kind and we had a lovely week but the highlight for her was eating a Rick Stein's. The best food she'd ever had, she said, with possibly the biggest smile I'd ever seen on her face. For someone so reserved-to-cynical, the purity of her enjoyment was a treat to see, and I'm so glad we were able to give her that.

Food is a joy to me, and playing in the kitchen is one of my greatest pleasures. I owe all that happiness to Mum.


  1. This was an absolutely lovely tribute. I'm sure your mum is somewhere smiling.