When I think of all of the foods and recipes available to us today, it seems mad to consider that this wasn’t always the case. In my kitchen, I am lucky enough to have access to a rich range of spices and ingredients, and the recipes to create something delicious. I grew up eating a variety of homecooked food that mum had lovingly prepared either from memory, or by dipping into the piles of books on the top of her kitchen cupboards, and by the time I left home to go to university, I could also cook a lot of them for myself.
By contrast, when mum got married and left home, it was a different story. Although she was competently cooking from around 11 years old, it was food strictly within the boundaries of ‘meat and two veg’, with the occasional cake thrown in. Restaurant trips were to steak houses or establishments that served ‘proper English food’ like fish and chips, and the first time she tasted pizza was at a work party. And so, what I really wondered was: what fuelled a complete turnaround from basic, fairly plain cooking to the variety of foods we cook and enjoy in my family today?
The story seems to start with a set of M&S St Michael cookery books that my parents received as a wedding present. ‘After such a limited experience of cooking up to that point’, mum said, ‘these recipes were a complete eye opener’, and it seems that while M&S was taking the country by storm with premade chicken kievs to enjoy at home for the first time, it was also helping to fuel a new era of home cooks. At a time when Delia Smith was everyone’s favourite TV cook, demonstrating how to make easy but impressive recipes at home, M&S’s St Michael recipe books were doing very much the same thing.
Mum immediately began to work her way through the books ‘quite literally page by page’, and that I believe, given that most of the pages are now either not attached to the rest of the book, or else taped back in. It’s easy to spot the favourite recipes used time and again: the lamb hot pot, bechamel sauce, Italian beef casserole and bourguignon beef pages are smeared with traces of previous ingredients. As it turns out, mum was so impressed with the first few books, that she continued to add to her collection over the years, and now boasts a set of 13 of the St Michael books.
Today, they sit proudly among the likes of Michel Roux, saint Delia and Rick Stein, and have definitely shaped our family’s love of food and the way we eat today. According to Mum, ‘even now if I am going to make a swiss roll with a whisked sponge, I still go back to the original recipe. I never would have made eclairs, profiteroles or even Victoria sponge before these books.’
At this point, Dad also chimed in, to confirm that he still uses the lamb hot pot recipe (probably explaining those particular cooking smears) because, in his words, ‘the quantities work’. And I think that’s the key point. Like all good family recipes, these books are easy to follow, and the recipes are reliable: perfect for building confidence in new cooks. And while they are typically ‘70’s recipes’, shown in the photos decorated with tomato wedges and other strange garnishes we wouldn’t bother with today, the resulting food tastes great. Ultimately, I think a good recipe is like a little black dress: timeless, and a great option for every occasion.