Mother was a very good cook…in the English tradition.
Her roasts were superb….her Yorkshire puddings rose like fairy castles…..her suet dumplings were light as feathers….and, recognising the innate viciousness of cabbage, she boiled it to death, its spirit haunting the house for an hour before lunch.
She could – and did – make strudel pastry; pulling gently at the ball of dough until it covered the sheet laid out on the dining room table.
Her boiled and baked puddings – spotted dick, jam roly poly, Sussex pond pudding, black cap, Saxon pudding, Bakewell tart – were a sheer delight.
Her cakes equalled those of her mother…her pastry was a dream, from shortcrust, sugar crust, to choux and hot water paste….
And then she discovered convenience foods.
It all started with a frozen turkey.
Normally we had had a goose from the farm…but the farm had been sold and mother had been seduced by the promises of the Irish milkman – the curse of Cromwell upon him – that the frozen turkey which he would deliver would be a revelation.
He delivered it on Christmas Eve in the afternoon – his round, you understand, having taken longer to complete thanks to the kindness of customers wishing to share the Christmas spirit whose aroma was thick about him.
By my reckoning that turkey had been on his milk float for at least ten hours but it showed no sign of defrosting…. on pulling off its coverings it resembled the glass mountain of the fairy tales of Andrew Lang – not just in its glossy appearance, but in its size.
In that period beef brisket joints were referred to as ‘oven buster’ as they tended to break loose from their ties and resume their original shape when cooked.
This was an oven buster of a different kind.
It was massive.
Father was out.
Luckily, as he had been decidedly sceptical about the delights promised by the milkman.
Mother and I looked at each other, at the turkey and at the oven.
Six hours to go until midnight when, by our calculations, the beast should enter the oven.
At all costs a meeting between father and the glass mountain was to be avoided.
We put the beast in the sink in the back kitchen and turned on the tap.
The water, while lapping the draining board, only came up to the turkey’s plimsoll line……this would never do.
The dog, arriving to investigate the turkey wrappings, gave us the inspiration.
Out in the shed we had the tin bath which we used for washing him…it was big enough to cover him once he had been wrestled to a sitting position, so it must be big enough for the turkey.
No sooner said than done.
Out to the shed, grab bath.
Drag bath into the back kitchen
Dog legs it to sanctuary under my bed.
Wash out bath with jugs of water and tip out into sink (turkey having been removed previously to glower from the groaning draining board.
Dump turkey in bath.
Fill bath with jugs of water.
Make cup of tea. Eye turkey.
By turning the thing every half hour we finally managed to extract the plastic bag containing the neck and giblets at a quarter to twelve: the oven was lit, goose pan found and the turkey dumped inside. It filled the oven completely, its parson’s nose touching the door.
Father returned in the early hours of Christmas Day having taken it upon himself to travel to the other side of London with friend to visit said friend’s cousins whom father had not met for years.
Doubtless drink had been taken at some point in his peregrinations.
We knew father had returned because – in an attempt not to raise the household – he entered via the door to the back kitchen and fell over the bath.
Somehow we escaped food poisoning that Christmas, and mother was on a roll.
Vesta dehydrated chow mien made its appearance.
Betty Crocker cake mixes leered from the cupboard.
And then she discovered frozen fish.
And tinned condensed soups.
And how to combine the two.
Supper time would be heralded by the a new aroma: that of a lump of indeterminate fish baked in the oven in a mix of milk and condensed mushroom soup.
Forget Proust and his blasted tisane de tilleul…..for years afterwards the whiff of cooked mushroom would bring back those days when food turned to ashes……
So when moving to France, shopping in the commercial sector of my local town – Chiottes la Gare – would often bring back those days….as there was a large factory on the edge of the sector turning fresh button mushrooms into canned sliced suede and on ‘cooking’ days the air was thick with the smell.
Mushrooms were relatively big business in the area, which was rich in the limestone caves ideal for the temperatures required in mushroom cultivation and the roads around were busy with lorries carrying mushrooms for processing and mushroom compost for improving the soil…..so much so in fact that the smell of mushrooms being cooked began to be identified with the town rather than with mother’s latter day cooking epiphany.
But alas….veni, vidi, vale….the mushroom factory is no more.
The parent company – Bonduelle – has shut it down leaving its one hundred and thirty eight employees out of work.
One hundred and thirty eight people – and the families who depend on their earnings – thrown on the heap.
A hard blow for a town which has just lost another major employer.
Jobs were initially offered at a plant in the neighbouring department – quite a commute, and no public transport, but people were willing to take it on. Anything is better than no job in modern day France because there aren’t any other jobs, search how you like.
But the jobs have not materialised, so the one hundred and thirty eight will have to fall back on the generous provision for those made unemployed.
Except it isn’t going to be generous.
The plant was owned by an agricultural co operative – France Champignon – before Bonduelle took a fifty three percent share in the co op and proudly placed a Bonduelle sign on the wall of the factory.
Now, the France Champignon sign is back because Bonduelle claims it is not responsible for the fate of France Champignon (despite its fifty three per cent holding).
What Bonduelle actually means that while compensation for sacked workers is generous in the industrial sector – Bonduelle – it is laughable in the agricultural sector – France Champignon.
Thus the changing of the sign.
A company which can swallow a fine of thirty million euros imposed by the European Union for rigging the mushroom market without blinking is content to fall back on a shabby device to cut compensation for employees sacked through no fault of their own and at the moment that is is refusing negotiations, its publicity air balloon sails over the factory: always a budget for publicity.
But where are the protests? Where the unions filling the streets with their members? Where are the politicians in their tricolour sashes, marching to support their townsmen and women?
There is only a minor union presence in France Champignon/Bonduelle. The mighty CGT doesn’t deign to offer support, local politicians shrug their shoulders.
That’s just the way it is these days.
And the way it is these days goes some way to explaining why ordinary people turn their backs on the traditional power bases in France – venal unions who only represent eight per cent of French workers and couldn’t give two penn’orth of cold gin for the rest: equally venal politicians combining as many elected posts as possible to touch the allowances and pensions which go with them…..is it any wonder people listen to the message of the Front National?
As people in England listened to that of UKIP.
Both parties present themselves as alternatives to the current major parties while in fact they have the same structure, the same fault lines.
But when you feel that the life you knew is going down the drain you don’t look too closely to see whether your lifeline is fraying.
You grab and hope.