Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Auntie Bessie's Beef Stew

Mine came first, honestly she did. Before Tryton Foods  thought up the idea of producing fare from a bygone era, plumping it up with unsustainable  fats, sealing and freezing it and sending it to our supermarkets and urging us to buy it with Aunt Bessie’s promise of good old fashioned flavour. This roly-poly pastry-faced aunt, arms cradling an earthenware mixing-bowl - grinning with a mix of gentle mirth and culinary competence - from the red and blue packaging. Hers is a sweet guise to lure us into believing that what’s inside is a much sought-after family recipe passed on through generations of food-loving relatives; a secret so treasured that it would have taken endless hours of persuasion over buttered scones and pots of good strong tea before rising from its warm fleshy lair and slipping into our ovens at 200°. A perfect accompaniment to our Sunday roast, glistening (no, it’s not palm oil - honestly) with the moistness of the bosom from whence it, so grudgingly, yet so considerately, came. Beware that lady - who delights with her deep-welled Yorkshire puddings and boasts with her (short-lived) fame of starring in Delia’s How to Cheat at Cooking - she is an imposter, a lying interloper. I should know, the real Auntie Bessie belonged to me – yes she did – and she made the best beef stew in Bolton.

Auntie Bessie circa 1950s
This stew was prepared in the tiniest of galley kitchens; a shoebox-like addendum to a two-up two-down terraced house nestled alongside the cosily situated Burnden Park - home of Bolton Wanderers' Football Club on Manchester Road, Bolton. Although miniscule, the kitchen was never dingy on account of it containing a wall of un-curtained windows. And through one of these you got a good view of the fuel bunker always freshly laden with an amorphous mass of glittering blue-black, headily-scented coal. On our visits I always demanded the job of hauling in these heavy jewels – I suppose having four brothers had made me competitive and would generate a whole lifetime of proving that women could be as strong as men. Auntie Bessie understood and didn’t bat her eyelid when she witnessed her diminutive, yet muscle-bound great niece struggle through the backdoor, shovel overflowing, wavering slightly, but moving determinedly toward the fireplace. It didn’t matter that I’d left a trail of dust and coal behind me, her scolding was as gentle as her cheek and the grin she wore beneath it: “Watch her, Audrey,” she would say to my mother, “she’s as strong as an ox.” My mother became relaxed at Auntie Bessie’s – comforted in the knowledge that her young children would be fed well and able to be themselves instead of freakish mutes who craved meat and mushrooms and hid behind living room doors. Mum and her aunt were able to squeeze free from their pointy shoes and warm their stocking-clad hereditary bunions (indeed compare bunions) by the cheering glow of a Lancashire hearth, man-less but whole.

I would keep my shoes on long enough to perform a snappy sounding mini tap-dance routine on the faux pebble encrusted linoleum – a pathway that led you heavenwards and beyond and into the aromatic warmth of that tiny kitchen.

Auntie Bessie circa late 1960s
The chunkily cubed steak simmered in the oven extremely slowly along with a chopped onion and ladlefuls of water in a tray covered with a dinner plate masquerading as a lid. The liquid transformed into the tastiest gravy as the meat and onion released their respective juices. Auntie Bessie would not use any thickening agent, what she served us were tender melting-moments of beef paddling in a pool of trickle-thin jus that would surely be the envy of any Michelin starred restaurant kitchen. Envious they would also be of the accompanying chips, stocky and un-stacked yet somehow suggesting that a bold culinary dexterity had been at work as their crisped and gilded edges sopped up the meaty stock. Occasionally, if she felt like it, Auntie Bessie would open a tin of garden peas: dull khaki-clad gate-crashers – they certainly had no business showing up at all.

Another aid for soaking up those precious juices were wedges of doorstep-sized white bread - hand hacked by Auntie Bessie from a freshly baked loaf bought that morning from Sutton’s Bakery. To pile chips onto this platform of soft, doughy bread thickly spread with real butter and then attempt to make the two ends meet was some challenge. But I was always satisfied with my docker’s butty and would then drench the crusty edges with gravy and cram bread, chips, drips and all into my gaping mouth. As I write this I can’t think of any other gastronomic experience that has ever come close to biting into that clumsily constructed yet exquisite mass of moist bread and butter-greasy chips.
Auntie Bessie circa 1975
After our dinner plates had been cleared, we were ready for our dessert. Auntie Bessie took out her best glassware from a display cabinet in the room she referred to as ‘the parlour’. Small ruby red fruit bowls which lit up with reflected firelight before being filled with tinned fruit salad and a generous pouring from a tilted can of Carnation milk. It was easy to believe that God had smiled down on me, one of his little children, on those late Saturday afternoons, for it must have been His benevolent hand that threw the solitary glacé cherry my way. Feeling quite special, I would save this waxy, yet softly disintegrating crimson-red bead until last, and then with a sly grin for my cherry-starved baby brother, I would pop the fruit onto my tongue, clamp my mouth tight shut and savour its momentary perfumed sweetness. In later years the cherry seemed to disappear from this syrupy concoction of fruit cubes: perhaps it was due to a lackadaisical attitude at the canning factory? Or had the manufacturers been bombarded with letters of complaint from angry mothers accusing them of inciting sibling disharmony? Maybe my little brother had developed a degree of wiliness and sneaked out the cherry without me knowing.  Whatever the reason was, the remaining medley of fruit, by then, had certainly begun to lose its appeal. And on reflection - it was probably no coincidence that around that time I started to question the existence of God.
There is no recipe to accompany this posting. I know that whatever I produce in imitation of what I tasted on those magical childhood Saturdays would, like the ‘Aunt Bessie’ products from our supermarket freezers, be an inferior copy of its original. I prefer to retrieve the essence of those wholesome filling meals from the packed store that has now become my memory. But, of course, I am saddened that I will never taste such food again.

Me, Auntie Bessie's backyard circa 1975