Feedback with Pam Ayres
For over 40 (yes 40!) years, Pam Ayres has brought us her observational poems and stories.
Her skill with words means they shift seamlessly between nostalgia and sadness as she finds humour in the most unexpected; whether it's the suet puddings her mother made, soldiers going to fight in World War 1 or the perils of letting your husband build a barbecue! As well as several poetry books, appearences on television and radio, you'd be forgiven for thinking it's time for her to put her feet up, but no. Her latest book Who Are You Calling Vermin, A Country Conflict was released in September, she is working with composer George Fenton to turn the collection into a musical, and she continues to perfom her solo stage shows in theatres and festivals throughout the UK. See below for details.
What food always reminds you of your childhood?
Roast pheasant. Dad served in the Grenadier Guards before and during World War II. He was a skilled shot, a marksman, and after he came home and had a family of six children to feed, he didn’t let his skills gather dust. Some of my earliest memories are of him standing outside the back door on stormy nights, checking the wind direction and looking thoughtful. Then, gun folded in two and concealed down his sleeve, and with a big canvas bag worn across his chest, he would set out. Much later he would come home, often scratched and bloody, and the bag would be fat and full, with long pheasant tails slanting out of the top. I think he enjoyed the excitement of poaching, of using the stealth he had needed to employ in the war years. There were a lot of wealthy people in our village, with smart houses and land. I think Dad liked the idea of redressing the balance a little, of taking a little from the rich to provide his family with beautiful roast meals. We could never, ever say we’d eaten pheasant though. We always had to say we’d had pigeon, even for Christmas dinner, and every last one of the plucked feathers had to be conscientiously (and fragrantly) burnt.
Do you have a current favourite restaurant or type of restaurant?
A good village pub, especially for Sunday lunch. It’s demanding to produce a Sunday roast lunch at home, to time everything so all is hot and ready at the right moment, with sauces and rich gravy and all the accompaniments. And then there’s the clearing up to do. My preference would always be to produce such a lovely fragrant home-cooked meal myself, but the next best thing if I haven’t got the energy, is to visit a good pub in a nice village, with a fire and the Sunday papers and friendly staff. And a nap at home on the sofa afterwards!
What food or ingredient could you not do without?
Yeast, because I do love making bread. We were taught to do it at school, and from then on I was always fascinated by the stuff, so strange and grey and alive. Making bread is lovely, I throw in seeds or cheese or herbs, whatever I’ve got, and I know I’m not saying anything new, but the smell of baking bread makes a house smell like a home. We had basic cookery lessons at school, baking bread, simple cakes, and pastries. It has stood me in such good stead, and I wish all today’s children were taught the basic, crucial skill of cooking a nutritious meal.
Is there a particular memorable meal you can remember eating?
Yes, it was terrible. I joined the WRAF when I was eighteen because I hated my clerks’ job. At the age of nineteen, I was posted to RAF Seletar in Singapore which was beautifully tropical, and an extraordinary revelation to me. I acquired a boyfriend and he, in the hope of looking cool and urbane, booked a table for us to have dinner at an excruciatingly posh restaurant called The Troika in Singapore city. Clearly, we were not the clientele that The Troika wished to attract, and they were not slow in making this clear. My boyfriend ordered Chateaubriand for us; I had no clue what it was. I don’t think he did. The staff neglected to suggest that we might like to order vegetables to accompany the meat and in due course the large, blackened lump arrived, alone in the middle of a big white plate. Not a single pea or sprig of broccoli kept it company. We chewed our way miserably through it, paid the astronomical bill and then, red-faced and humiliated, fled.
When you are writing, do you eat anything to get your creative juices going?
Not especially. I like to write in the mornings, so I have some sort of eggy breakfast or sometimes smoked haddock which I love but not the dyed yellow stuff, and then I bash on. Food isn’t my friend if I’m trying to write. A big meal would sap my energy and rather than write a masterpiece, I would feel more inclined to have a nap.
In your book With These Hands, there is a whole chapter on suet puddings, and in particular your mum’s repertoire of recipes. Do you make any of them yourself?
No, I don’t. When I was a child, all the men I knew did hard manual work, few had cars and many of them biked miles in the day, so great stodgy suet puddings were good fuel, they provided the calories people had to have. Now we are much more sedentary, we swan around in our cars and sit at computers, our way of life has changed utterly. I remember being with Mum in the butchers in our village. She’d order “a bit of suet” and he would turn to the carcasses hanging on hooks behind him in the shop and rip a sheet of suet out of the body cavity of one. I can still hear the tearing sound. Mum used to give us pieces of it to eat, raw fat straight out of the carcass. We thought nothing of it. All the kids chewed it like chewing gum. Nowadays I use suet for herby or cheesy dumplings if I’m making a hearty stew to warm everyone in the winter. Otherwise, suet is consigned to the past. It made weird, grey, shiny pastry which Mum filled with jam, or apple slices and cloves, then wrapped in a cloth like a giant sausage and boiled. I devoured those puds in my childhood, but I don’t think I’ve got the digestion for them now.
What food would you find it hardest to give up?
Soups. I love soups. I have a basic approach which I use all the time. One quarter onion, one quarter potato, one half whatever you’ve got. It's simple but it never fails! I have always had a vegetable garden so I can whip up a soup from whatever is in season or whatever I have in the fridge. I often don’t have stock, but I use vegetable Oxo cubes. Everybody loves a bowl of homemade soup; it’s comforting and kindly and it uses things up in a helpful way.
In the introduction to Delia’s recipe for Wholemeal Loaf she quotes your description of homemade wholemeal bread. Do you still make your own?
Not always but I keep strong wholemeal flour and dried yeast in stock. I especially like making cheesy bread which is lovely toasted, with soup.
Is there something particular you always keep in the fridge?
Plain yogurt. I am suspicious of fruit yogurts in the shops, they always seem to have a ton of sugar in them. With plain yogurt I can use it as it is, or mix it with honey, or home made jam, or any good jam. I like to know what’s in our food. Yogurt is cold and fresh and immensely useful.
What would be your last supper if literally anything was available to you and where would you eat it?
Here, we have a marvelous fish and chip van called The Cotswold Chippy, which travels round the Cotswold villages and is the brainchild of Darren and Lisa. Their fish and chips are the best ever, and as for where I would eat it, well, in any old layby where they happen to be parked!
Pam Ayres 2022
Who Are You Calling Vermin? A Country Conflict, by Pam Ayres is out now, published by Ebury Spotlight. You can see Pam as she continues to tour the UK by clicking here