A recipe from the past

An Irishwoman’s Diary: Making meringues with a Maltese ingredient

Tue, Nov 12, 2013, 19:47

It’s hard to read aloud when your shaking, shrieking laughter makes speech difficult. It’s impossible to breathe when part of your past takes the wind out of your sails. And it came out of the blue, close to the cerulean sea at the town of Sliema, on the north coast of Malta.

I was on a short holiday with my friend Rosita and one morning we went for a ramble down the honeycombed beauty of George Borg Olivier Street, whose grandeur is all the more gorgeous for its understatement: unusual balconies, stained-glass surprises, cut-stone details, chamfered corners . . . and a charity shop. Delighted, we dived in the door of Paws 4 a Cause.

I rummaged around for beads, buttons and bags to remodel, clambered through clothes rails, passed 50 copies of Fifty Shades of Grey, and eventually discovered Rosita in a burrow of bookshelves. I scanned the cookery section above her head, and a line of slender white A4 paperback spines caught my eye. They reminded me of a series Mam collected in the 1970s. And instinctively I pulled out a chapter of my childhood: the Cordon Bleu cookery course.

I used to share Mam’s delight every month when the course book was delivered; 64 pages of themed recipes, with strict step-by-steps set out in sans serif and illustrated with stern, starched aprons. My clearest recollection was of the cover of Number Three, with pale biscuit-coloured, cream-sandwiched meringues piled in a glass bowl.

In our house, meringues meant only one thing: puppies. They were weaned on baby rice mixed with milk and egg yolk; they paddled in the goo and washed it off each other, and we longed for the saved egg whites to fill the jam-jar in the fridge, because sweet, crumbly, sticky heaven was not far behind.

My mother, who died in 2009, was a clearer-outer, not a hoarder; I have kept a lot of her cookery and gardening library, but I hadn’t found that Cordon Bleu series. As Number Three trembled in my hand, Rosita put aside her own find and together we sifted through the high-1970s haute cuisine and giggled at the rules about the correct bread rolls to serve at cricket teas.

But when we encountered Chicken with Tunny Fish, Brains with Black Butter, and Iced Curry Soup, our shoulders started to shudder. “Number Six,” read Rosita. “Meat Miscellany.” She turned to “Lesson 23: How to Prepare Offal”, and we met the empty gaze of a halved pig’s head, its lip curled at the indignity. It was laid out with a selection of tails, trotters and tripe. We learned that half of a calf’s head, when boiled, “is usually sufficient for four people and should contain a portion of the tongue and brains”. In Number 12, one of the “Festive Christmas Dishes” (Lesson 45) is a Decorated Boar’s Head, which “makes a festive centre-piece”. Part of the method involves removing the eyes and reserving them “if using as decoration”, but leaving the ears on. We were already snorting uncontrollably when we noticed the camellia tucked into the pig’s ear. “Silk purse,” I squawked through my shrieks.

My mother would not have been amused. For when she and Dad lived in the northwest as newlyweds in the 1950s, their diet included an unfunny amount of affordable offal, which she cooked with the help of her Coláiste Mhuire Books of Household Cookery, All in the Cooking.

Nearly 30 years later, I make carbonara sauce with egg yolks and save the whites for meringues; my sons linger to lick the goo off the bowl. And little memories flicker as I read Lesson 11 now: I remember that Mam used a metal spoon to add the sugar; that she rotated the trays in the oven, for even cooking; that the insides were ever so slightly chewy; and that she pressed the flat undersides when they were cooked but still warm, so they dried with a hollow to hold the cream.

Occasionally, unthinkingly, I can’t wait to tell Mam something funny. And then I remember, but I tell her anyway. You won’t believe it, I said in my head. Remember those cookbooks that were thrown away by mistake, and that Dad tried to rescue from the dump? Well, I found them. In Malta. And the money I paid for them goes towards rescuing puppies.

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