Category Archives: Memories

Soup, tea, hot toddies and Grandads – Notes on a cold

Image taken from Smabs Sputzer's Flickr photostrea and used under Creative Commons license

Image taken from Smabs Sputzer’s Flickr photostream and used under Creative Commons license

It started with a tickle.

Just an innocuous little tickle at the back of my throat.  Nothing to be all that worried about. I blamed it on hayfever. Or allergies. Or a minor sniffle due to being a bit run-down. But over the course of the next few days, it grew and grew. I spent most of (the always amazing) Supersonic festival attempting to ignore it by pouring industrial amounts of whiskey, Jamaican ginger beer and jerk chicken laced with a fiery peppery sauce down my throat. But it was to no avail. By the time I called my Dad on Monday evening and spent five minutes convincing him that yes, this woman who did sound like a third rate Deirdre Barlow impersonator was indeed his eldest child, I knew the jig was up. I had a cold.

I hate being ill. As someone who spends most of their life flitting from city to city, the thought of spending days confined in bed doing nothing makes me itchy. I regress to being a child – one who wants someone to tuck them up, make them tea and fetch them Beecham’s Powders. I get lonely. I think about how much fun being ill was when I was a kid. I miss my Grandad.

My Grandad John came to live with us when I was twelve. My Nana June had just died, my Mum wanted to return to the workplace, and it seemed a good fit. He was a man unlike any other I’ve ever met before or since – one who once painted the inside of an oven (My Nana attempted to cook a pie in it, and it blew up, causing her to fly across the kitchen before repeatedly belting him around the head) and whose favourite post-work snack was a block of Stork Margarine dipped in strawberry jam. He resided in our conservatory like a wise old owl who always had a mug of tea in one hand, and a John Player’s Special in the other. During his time in our household, he acted as teacher, study aide, relationships counsellor, human alarm clock, and the World’s Worst Cook. (His ‘signature dish’ was a concoction of chicken breast smothered in Homepride curry sauce, served over half boil-in-the-bag rice, half oven chips. He also once infamously gave my ex-boyfriend food poisoning from some undercooked sausages.) However, where he really came into his own was a Nurse.

Whenever I had the flu, or tonsillitis or any of the other myriad nasty childhood illnesses we carry with us from the playground, he’d make my parents living room our plague battleground. Duvets would be whipped off beds, and the downstairs sofa would be turned into a sumptuous recliner fit for a Empress, full of cushions, pillows and blankets. He’d always make me Cream of Tomato soup with white bread soldiers (always Warburton’s Toastie –  usually a banned substance in my parents household), and – if circumstances were exceedingly dire – a Hot Toddy with perhaps just a smidgen more whisky than was really necessary.  Together we’d watch Watercolour Challenge and Countdown hudded together in that overheated living room like a pair of thieves.

My Grandad has been dead for four years now, but I still try and conjure up the memory of those days spent together whenever I’m ill. Heinz Cream of Tomato soup and tea, hot toddies and Countdown… all these comforting little things which make the past feel as though it’s within touching distance, but at the same time, so incredibly far away.

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Comfort and Joy

All of the warning signs were there on Sunday morning when I woke up. Sore throat. Sore eyes. Sore limbs. Even a sore nose. At the time I just put it down to the fact I’d necked a bottle of red wine with a couple of whisky chasers the night before. But as the day progressed and every part of me grew progressively more achy, I knew I couldn’t avoid the truth any longer. I had a cold. Usually I can fight my way through colds and sniffles with aid of Lemsip and Day Nurse cocktails, but this appeared to be a slightly more insidious creature. Every time I opened my mouth to speak, my bunged-up sinuses made me sound like a man. The cries of next door’s baby coming through our living room walls made my head ache to the point of tears. It was time to make like a Victorian heroine, and head to my bed.

As a rule, I hate being ill. Gone are the days where, as a child, I’d use my Winter chills as an excuse to stay off school and watch daytime TV on the sofa, all wrapped up in my Care Bears duvet like a large snotty worm. Years of crap jobs where you’d have to be dying before you didn’t come in have managed to put the fear of God into me when it comes to sickness. I remember how – on one memorable occasion – my boss accused me of trying to bunk off with a hangover when I actually had  a very severe respiratory infection. She only believed me when I came into work and coughed so hard that I threw up all over my desk. Amidst the excruciating shame I felt at making such a tit of myself in public, I also felt a certain pride. “There you go. I TOLD you I was ill.’

Illness makes me regress. As soon I start sniffling, I immediately gravitate towards the things which are guaranteed to bring me comfort. Huge, steaming hot mugs of tea. My old teddy bear, Ru-Ru who I’ve had since I was five, and who I squeezed tightly whilst in the grips of numerous childhood ailments. Cream of Tomato soup with thick, gummy slices of Warburtons white ‘Toasty’ bread. Egg and Chips with extra ketchup. It’s as though all of my adult desires decide to go on holiday for a few days whilst I sit around in my pyjamas feeling sorry for myself. I even caught myself having a little cry for my Mum yesterday. I am 28 years old, and more than capable of taking care of myself. I’d have called my Mum, but I’m scared she would have laughed at me. Besides, the poor cow has a broken ankle at the moment. She can barely hobble down the road, let alone get on a train to Liverpool to come and nurse her eldest daughter who really should know better.

The only adult culinary desires I crave when I’m ill are (unsurprisingly) alcoholic ones. Whilst I’m not the kind of girl who attempts to chase her blues away with a couple of pints of Stella, I will never turn down a Hot Toddy – surely the best cure for the common cold ever created. As I’ve mentioned here before, my Grandad John made the best Hot Toddies I’ve ever tasted. I think it’s because he used to put slightly more whisky in them than was strictly necessary. I always miss him when I’m ill. I miss his wisdom, the mad stories about what he used to get up to when my Nana June was alive, and he had nine kids to look after. He’s still the only man I’ve ever met who once painted the inside of an oven, and who used to snack on bars of Stork Margarine smothered in strawberry jam and dipped in tea (which always, always had six sugars in it). No wonder he lost all his teeth by the age of 40.

Another thing I crave when I’m ill is my Bubbie’s infamous Chicken Soup. Jewish penicillin she calls it. Every girl with a Jewish grandmother will always deem their Bubbie’s Chicken soup to be the best. However, I’m different in that I know that my Bubbie’s Chicken Soup is the best. To me, she will always be the best and most fearless cook I know  – a woman who can work an eight hour day, whip up a three course meal and wash it all down with a gallon of booze. I’d like to think I take after her in some ways.

Making chicken soup might to you seem like the easiest thing in the world. But somehow, I can never get mine to taste as good as my Bubbies. My matzo ball dumplings never taste right, although I always follow her recipe to the letter (adding sparkling water to the matzo dumplings and just the right amount of schmaltz). My broth always lacks that certain something. Whilst it tastes good on the spoon, it lacks that sensory whirl which always takes me back to being five years old, stood in my Grandparents apartment in Florida, learning to tie my shoelaces and watching Teddy Ruxpin. I crave my Bubbie at times like this. I’d ask her to FedEx some over to me, but somehow I doubt that U.S. Homeland Security would be too keen on huge vats of soup coming through customs. Also, knowing my luck they’d probably end up blowing it sky high thinking it was a peculiarly archaic form of germ warfare.

So, I’m on my own. This cold will pass, and before I know it, I’ll be back in my kitchen, up to my eyeballs in exotic sauces and balls of dough. But until then, I’ll rejoice in regression. In comfort food. In Boiled Eggs and Soldiers and cups of tea. Just until the sneezing stops.

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So I didn’t get my dream job.  After over a month of leaping out of my seat every time an “Unknown Number” flashed up on my mobile,  and gnawing my fingers to the bone with a mixture of fear, excitement and anxiety, it appears as though I’m not going to be packing up my belongings to go and work for Rupert Murdoch’s evil empire after all. Oh well. Who wants to live in London anyway? I did it once, and all I got out of it was debt and heartbreak (oh yes, and a degree if we’re being pedantic).

I’m trying to make myself feel better about the whole debacle by reminding myself  I wasn’t really over the moon at  the prospect of moving to the other end of the country.  For one thing, it would have meant that I’d have had to enter into a long distance relationship with Mr. Cay, something I wasn’t particularly looking forward to.  Every time I thought of not being able to see him for weeks at a time, all of my emotions heaved and curdled inside me.  And I know for a fact I would have been dreadfully homesick for the North West – this golden vista of fine misty rain, post industrial landscapes and the heart pangs that a girl experiences when her train lurches around a corner on a train to Oxford Road station, and she  sees the neon red Granada Television sign looming out of the evening gloom. If I’d taken a job in the big city, I would have missed both Liverpool and Manchester something chronic, and no doubt become one of those professional ex-pat Northerners my father is  always so derisive of when he sees them on TV.  After all, who needs the Thames when you’ve got the Mersey on your doorstep?

But still. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t shed a tear or two when I found out. At first, I hid them by shoving the right sleeve of  my Primark cardigan into my eyesockets and pretending to no one and everyone that I didn’t really give a hoot. And then Mr. Cay came home, and it all came out in one horrible messy gush – my annoyance that they’d taken so long to tell me, and that I had to contact them in order to find out.  My sadness at the thought that it’s going to take me just a little bit longer to become a full time food journalist. My (irrational) fears of failure.  And after ten minutes of me sobbing into his shoulder, he suggested the best remedy for a malady such as mine.  Tea.

Ahh tea. It truly is the cure to all known ills – be it served from a teapot into a dainty china cup, or made in an old chipped mug.  Ever since my Dad taught me how to brew the perfect cuppa when I was seven years old,  I have been a firm advocate of the benefits of tea. Which is an excellent thing since I drink around seven cups of the stuff per day.  My preferred beverage is Earl Grey – preferably with the merest whisper of semi skimmed milk added to it, although I won’t baulk if it’s served with a nice slice of lemon on the side as well.

Tea has gotten me through all of the major incidents of my life.  It’s guided me through GCSEs, A Levels and a History degree. It’s helped me get through numerous shitty temp jobs, and allowed me bond with my peers over communal pints of semi skimmed in office kitchens.  It’s seen me through heartbreak, rejection, family crisis’s galore and hundreds of hangovers.  I’ve even been known to pack boxes of Yorkshire Tea into my suitcase when travelling to America to see my family. Sod blood. Tea is the elixir which runs through these veins.

Being a purist about my tea, it has to be prepared in a certain way. It could be said that I’m almost ritualistic about it. You boil your kettle. You warm your pot. You pop in two teabags – always Yorkshire, Tetley has never been quite able to cut the mustard in our house – then pour the hot, but not boiling water onto them.  Allow it to steep for five minutes. Pour, and add just a dash of milk until it’s the colour of Jordan’s latest shade of fake tan, before serving it with a large slab of cake.

I’ve drunk tea in many places. In grotty East London kitchens at 4am after all nighters. In Harrods, on a date, chainsmoking Marlboro Lights,  coming down off numerous substances and shuddering behind large sunglasses.  Chai sweetened with condensed milk in a Somerset field at sunset. PG Tips steeped in a saucepan of a lovers bedsit in Chorlton. But somehow it never tastes as good as it does when it’s made by the person I love as means of telling me that I’m not as crap as I think I am.  Sometimes the best gestures don’t need words.

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I’ve always been a sucker for a good cafe.  Somewhere I can set up shop for an afternoo with my notebook and a never ending supply of coffee whilst I check out cute boys and watch the world go by. Over the years, there’s been many a coffee bar which has held the key to my heart. When I lived in London, I’d regularly haunt the New Piccadilly Café, where I’d chainsmoke and pretend that I was the character in a kitchen sink drama like A Taste of Honey. In my wild formative years when I used to hang around Glasgow, a night out wasn’t complete without a 4am visit to Café Insomnia in the West End for  a sobering Mint Aero Cappucino. But above everywhere else, possibly my favourite café of all time is Manchester’s Café Pop.

I was first taken to Café Pop on a date when I was fourteen years old, and seeing an older bloke who should really have known better. He smoked, and like Suede, and studied Philosophy and to my sheltered surburban eyes seemed like the coolest, most glamorous man in the world. We were wandering around the Northern Quarter one day when he took me to this little place situated at the end of Oldham Street. When I walked through the door that first day, my eyes nearly popped out of my skull.  It was like stepping back in time to the 1960s – complete with old fashioned formica tables, a wall papered in old Top of the Pops compilation sleeves, timelessly stylish clear plastic cappuccino cups and waitresses who looked like Twiggy.  Add to this the fact that was a vintage boutique and hairdressers situated in the basement and  it’s not really surprising that I fell head over heels in love with the place on the spot.  At that moment, I decided upon two things. One, that I was going to become a mod, and two Café Pop was going to become my home from home.

And for many years, it was as well. In fact, I developed a bit of a routine. Every Saturday,  after I’d tidied the bedroom I shared with my younger sister, I’d collect my £5 from my Dad,  put on my best fake fur coat  and jump on the number 50 bus heading into Manchester City Centre to meet my best friends Lis, Kate and Becca – always making sure to apply lots of Rimmel Black Cherry lipstick on the way there (I idolised Marie Du Santiago from Kenickie at the time, and after reading an interview with her in Just 17 where she said that it was her preferred shade of lippy, it immediately became mine as well). Then we’d head to Oldham Street, where we’d buy the latest singles of the day from Vinyl Exchange or Piccadilly Records before setting up shop in Café Pop to compare our purchases, flirt with cute older men and pretend that we were much older and sophisticated than we really were.  We’d stay there for hours as well – I lost count of the amount of times we were chucked out by Mike, the Geordie owner of the place because we’d been there for four hours and only bought one cheap filter coffee between us.

As I grew older, sat my GCSEs and entered the world of work, I begged them to take me on as a waitress so I could avoid the Summer job in a printers my Dad had arranged for me, but to no avail.  Fortunately, the office was only based in Strangeways – a fifteen minute walk away from the Northern Quarter (well, if you nipped through the now bricked-over Cannon Street that is), so every lunch time I’d hurredly rush there to down a bowl of soup and a can of coke, praying all the while that no one would notice the stench of industrial ink which had permeated all of my clothes. When I entered sixth form, my college demanded that we either do work to help the community or sport on a Wednesday afternoon, so I got a volunteer job at Oxfam Originals on Oldham Street which allowed me to think I was saving the earth with an added frisson of cool. I dyed my hair black, acquired a Vidal Sassoon bob from Barbarella, the hairdressers located in the basement and walked and talked like I’d just stepped out of 1968 – something which amused my teachers no end.  The Café Pop regulars who’d gotten to know me over the years would pop into the shop and ply me with free sandwiches so I’d provide them with discounts on clobber they had their eye on. Looking back at it now, it was probably one of the best times of my life.

But sooner or later it all had to end, and it did in 2001 when I got my A Level results and left Manchester for the bright lights of London.  When I came home for Christmas, Café Pop had moved to the basement of the building they were situated in, and the boutique had moved upstairs. The wall of record sleeves had been taken down, and all of the quirky little nick-nacks situated on the shelves in each corner of the room had been lovingly packaged away. In its place was something which looked like the place I’d always known and loved, but somehow wasn’t the same.  It felt the end of an era somehow.

I’ve been back a few times since then, and whilst it’s never been especially bad, it’s not a patch on the place I knew and loved when I was a precocious whippersnapper.  Apparently it’s also changed hands over the last few years as well, so perhaps it’s to be expected that its new owners would like to put their own stamp on the place.  But still. Whenever I walk down Oldham Street, it’s difficult not to feel just a small pang of nostalgia for the Saturday afternoons of my youth, and the girl I was then – one who always wanted to be serious and glamorous, who always wore too much make-up, and who I know I’ll never be again.

RECIPE: CARROT & CORIANDER SOUP (always one of my favourite things to order because it was cheap, filling and tasted really bloody good)

You will need:

  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 onion, sliced
  • 450g/1lb carrots, sliced
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 1.2 litresl/2 pints vegetable stock
  • large bunch fresh coriander, roughly chopped
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper

Make It:

1. Heat the oil in a large pan and add the onions and the carrots. Cook for 3-4 minutes until they start to soften.
2. Stir in the ground coriander and season well. Cook for 1 minute.
3. Add the vegetable stock and bring to the boil. Simmer until the vegetables are tender.
4. Whizz with a hand blender or in a blender until smooth.  Make sure you taste it at this point to check if it needs more seasoning. If you feel like being adventurous, add a little fresh orange juice to bring out the taste of the carrots.  Stir in the fresh coriander and serve with fresh homemade bread.

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