For a nation that doesn’t do cold weather particularly well, this time of year really does bring out the best in UK cuisine. Chilly out? Bring on the hearty stews. Dark and drizzly? That’s what Sunday roasts were made for - or how about a warm, comforting toad in the hole?
Ok, that last one isn't as common as it once was, but the home-grown classic surely brings back fond food memories for many of us, and was pretty standard winter fare growing up in the 80s. Three decades on and I can still picture my siblings and I sat round my nan’s kitchen table, fists clenched eagerly around cutlery in anticipation of the hilariously-named supper.
Toad in the hole, for anyone unfamiliar, is sausages baked in a bed of batter. Usually served with veg and gravy, it is basic bliss for anyone who loves a good Yorkshire pud. Just picture all that batter, crisp and golden on top, soft and springy on the inside.
Not that my nan’s toad in the hole was really anything like that. In fact, ‘lizard in the crater’ would have been a more apt name for it: A tray of leather-like batter with a few wrinkly sausages rattling around in its cavernous hollows.
There is a very familiar narrative about a nan's cooking. Grandma's are gastronomy gurus, generational gatekeepers of treasured family recipes. Our nanas inspire a lifelong love of good food, bake cakes that bring sugary comfort to childhood Sunday afternoons then get fondly reminisced about years later. That's how the story goes, isn't it? It’s a rare event to stumble across an interview with a chef – and they don’t mention somehow owing their love of food to their nan.
Well, it seems my nan missed the memo. Her lemon meringue was so bitter, you had to hold your breath before swallowing it, and her jam tarts could crack a tooth if you weren't careful.
Waiting for my nan’s toad in the hole to be dished up was always a giggle-filled few minutes. But the eating, well that was a pretty underwhelming affair (especially when she skipped the gravy). It was always an event for something to be pulled out of the oven though – quite often lunch at nan’s was a sugar sandwich (yes, sugar sprinkled on two slices of buttered white bread) and a Custard Cream. That was a balanced meal those days.
Even as a five-year-old, I knew my nan's cooking wasn't exactly good. Surely I can't be the only one - yet you never hear anyone talking about it. Was everyone else's nan really a gastro goddess? Who knows.
Have I felt the odd pang of perfect-nan-baking envy once or twice over the years? Maybe. Would I swap memories of my nan's canine-cracking jam tarts for someone else's fluffy, restaurant-quality treacle sponges and homemade custard (ours was the instant stuff, naturally). Not for a moment.
Because childhood food nostalgia is rarely really about the food. It’s about the love it’s dished up with. The laughs you shared. The memories it made.
And we had lots of those – especially watching nan sneakily stash sachets of condiments into her handbag whenever we went to a café or restaurant. She always had a bulging jar of little ketchups and sugar cubes at home.
Nan’s house meant fizzy pop (joy of joys). It meant creeping into the kitchen to sneak a biscuit. It meant dropping sugar cubes into milky tea, purely for the fun of the splash. And those jaw-breaking jam tarts were as ready and reliable as her hugs and laughing fits.
My nan was an awful cook. And it still makes me smile.