The summer has disappeared under a growing pile of books; loose pages of notes filed under the ‘free-flow’ system have formed a giant trip-hazard…my dissertation has become a living creature, haunting me night and day.
The walks to physically break away and escape currently involve passing blackberry tangles, their ripening fruit serving as the markers of time. Always a beautiful sight, the hard green to pink to soft midnight inkiness demonstrate nature’s ability to transform white blossoms into edible goodness. Every year I’m transported back to my first memory of Kentish abundance and free food; our brief stopover in Rolvenden in 1966 was a glorious treat in an old country house with a beautiful garden. Entering down a long drive the house belonged to a picture book whilst the garden was a true manifestation of paradise…at least to my 5 year-old eyes.
Rolvenden Manor was our temporary home in between two postings; from the age of three I had been living in Malaysia where my first memories of life are set amongst the tropical heat and wet. My previous life had been illustrated with landscapes of tea shrubs, rainforest walks, rubber trees revealing their silvery sap and jungle waterfalls crashing into secret pools. Unusual knobbly and spiky fruits from vibrant markets offered sweet and sickly smells; Seremban shopping street was my first encounter with the intoxicating draw of roasting coffee although my only taste at that time was a sugar cube dipped into my father’s instant, enjoyed on our Sunday picnics under the palms at Port Dickson.
The month-long voyage from Singapore had returned us wearily to Southampton; London involved several weeks living in a Salvation Army Hostel. Thus, arriving at this pretty place was as good as any moment in a fairy story. We were due to start a new life in Cold-War West Germany but these weeks represented my father’s moment of ‘leave’. How we ever got to rent this house will remain a mystery; my father’s sudden death at the age of 60 brought an abrupt end to his memories…but I know he loved Kent and Rolvenden was near enough to Ashford to assume some link with military life. So our family settled into a half-chapter of English country life with walks across the fields which bordered the garden; I seem to recall a gate and metal fence, probably to keep the cows out.
Knowing my parents I’m certain that their philosophy was to get us children as worn out as possible with fresh air and exercise. Of the many details I can recall I certainly do not remember ever lying awake unable to sleep, despite suffering a broken arm at the time. My memory is punctuated with the delicious smell of cooking blackberries; when I recreate that dish of wild fruit and apples I’m always taken straight back to that country kitchen, but more especially to the process of picking the berries. How they shone like jewels and tasted as fabulous when heated; a perfume released which seemed to rival every one of our former tropical fruit bowl.
One of my favourite walks was across a field punctuated by an oast house; its door was slightly open and we entered…my father was in charge so he obviously thought it acceptable behaviour to step inside…It felt warm and smelt clean; I learnt of the hops being dried there and what we needed hops for. He may well have picked hops as part of his childhood…I know I took his love of these buildings with me and have never let go.
Today’s blackberries evoke my life 48 years ago…now I need to re-walk that field and find the abandoned oast house.
Researching old recipes I came across one for ‘Oast Cakes’ which were, apparently, produced in frying pans over the cooking fires of the hop pickers.
8oz flour, half teaspoon baking powder, 2oz lard*, 2oz caster sugar, 3oz currants, 1 teaspoon lemon juice, water or parsnip wine (or mixture of both).
Sift the flour and baking powder, then add the fat. Rub in until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add the sugar and currants, stir and then mix in the lemon juice and water or parsnip wine until the dough is soft but not wet. Roll out thinly and cut into rounds. Fry in shallow oil until golden brown on both sides.
*lard may be replaced by butter or vegetable fat; lard or dripping would have been the cheapest option available to the hop pickers.
A teaspoon of mixed spice may be added to the dry ingredients.
I haven’t tried making these yet but I shall, with some adjustments; the lard will go and I shall bake them rather than frying, although they might do well on a hot griddle too. Frying in fat would have been the only option for hop pickers; their cooking facilities were basic, as was the choice of ingredients. Energy was required to tackle the hard physical labour required of the job, but I’m not sure whether they brought the parsnip wine from home? As with all research projects it’s wise to dig deep; I’ve discovered recipes for Oast Cakes mixed with ale, an ingredient which makes sense given that there may well have been some to hand, leftover from the previous night’s relaxation. Whatever, there is some experimenting to do…but first some blackberry-picking.