Terry Laybourne’s North East food memories

Jul 28, 2020

I guess that my first food memories are from visiting my Nana’s house in Elswick as a 4 – 5 year old in what must have been around 1960. It didn’t seem so at the time but when I reflect back now it’s clear that there wasn’t much money around; it was by no means a luxury household, with its outside ‘lavvy’ and no refrigeration. Life there seemed to revolve around the ‘kitchen’ which was in fact the ‘living room;’ the ‘kitchen’ as we know it now was called ‘the scullery’ The ‘front room’ was the posh room which never seemed to get any use other to store the likes of butter and milk on the marble mantlepiece. God that room was always so cold. I seem to recall there being a ‘washhouse’ somewhere too, the ‘washhouse’ became the ‘utility room’ in modern parlance. 

It was a house that always seemed to be busy; there always seemed to be a houseful; even though it was only my Nana and Pop who lived there. My Uncle Bill (really my great uncle) technically lived upstairs but in reality he only slept there, he lived in the ‘kitchen’ with everyone else. I remember my Nana as a fearsome woman who was always in a pinny; my Pop was a quiet man to the extent that I don’t ever remember having a conversation with him. He was a man who wore his flat cap in the house and I seem to remember spent endless hours studying the horses in the Sporting Life.

Central to the ‘kitchen’ was the table of course, today it would be a ‘dining’ table but I suspect the word dining didn’t enter the vocabulary at 4 Marsden St, I can’t imagine that anyone ever ‘dined’. On the table was always a loaf of bread; permanently, like all day long; the bread board comprised several thicknesses of the Daily Mirror and the breadknife worn down to a thin rapier-like blade through years of sharpening on the back step. For all the war had been over for some 15 or so years, the legacy still prevailed and often still dominated conversation. 

The kitchen fire/stove was the focal point; cast iron; magnificent; black and polished with a hearth, within which sat a wooden chair with the back sawn off, upon which sat my Pop! It was one of those magical appliances that defined a whole era. There was an open coal fire in the centre and to one side an oven. Above the oven was what could be loosely called a warming shelf. On the shelf there was generally a collection of three things, a tea pot which like the bread seemed to sit there all day; the tea was strong and dark and stewed and to a juvenile palate tasted damned nasty. Then I seem to remember there always being a custard tart, probably from the bakers at the Coop on Beaumont St. White and solid, with pastry that stuck to the roof of your mouth and with a dusting of nutmeg on top. Not the sort of luxurious custard tart I’m used to today, with all-butter pastry and filling of double cream. Then there was the third item; the black cat who used to hang out there all day long too, next to the tea pot, taking advantage of the warmth.

The other staple was the pan of broth, it always seemed to be there; with split peas swimming in it and potatoes and of course the ubiquitous ham shank, a wonderful source of cheap protein as I learned many years later. I wish I could wax lyrical about this stuff and tell romantic tales of how it inspired me and sparked a passion for food and cooking at such an early age. It didn’t. This wasn’t food for five year olds, it seemed coarse and brutal. Which of course it was; it was food designed as fuel for the manual workers in Vickers Armstrong just down the street on Scotswood Road or in Clelands Shipyard where my Pop worked as a cutter and caulker. What it did have however was integrity and authenticity. It was food with a clear sense of time and place; what it lacked in sophistication it more than made up for in character. Peasant food in its purest form. Not the sort of idyllic French or Italian peasant food which generally has its roots in the countryside but urban, industrial peasant food. Food that fuelled a nation at war, food with a heritage that reflects the warmth and generosity of its region and its people.

Terry Laybourne, 21 Hospitality Group

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