Raised on goulash and gherkins

My German mum, that’s me on the right

I’ve always liked food, all sorts of food. From an early age I was eating all kinds of interesting stuff, considering what the norm was at the time. I’ve got my mum to thank for that. In our house the kitchen was the hub, the room that everyone gravitated towards. It was warm and welcoming, and always smelt of something delicious cooking on the stove.

We lived in one of the new towns that sprang up around London after the war, street after street of identical terraces of council houses, each home to a family with kids. There were kids everywhere you looked. At junior school there was always some kid whose lot it was to be picked on. The kid who wore wire-rimmed National Health glasses with one lens taped over with pink Elastoplast. The kid who smelt of wee. In my case it was being the only kid in school whose mum was German.

The war was still fresh in people’s minds and most kids at my school seemed to have a story about the day their aunt or granny had been bombed out of their house by the Luftwaffe. It wasn’t easy having a German mum when the most popular game at school was running around the playground with your arms extended like wings going ‘WAAAAAAAA NA-NA-NA-NA-NA-NA’ and pretending to be a Spitfire pilot shooting down Messerschmitt 109s. A cry of ‘Bundle’ from a far corner of the playground usually meant that there had been some objection to my German ancestry, or to my being the clever clogs who always stuck his hand up in class to answer teacher’s questions.

Our school summer holidays lasted six weeks but seemed to stretch on forever. There was a small green opposite our house and on most days of the holidays there would be a cricket match played there, or a game of rounders that involved just about every kid in the neighbourhood. The games would last all day, from just after breakfast until one by one everyone’s mum was yelling from the front doorstep that it was time for tea. Mealtimes were when I really appreciated my mum being German.

Although my father came from a traditionally working class English background, my mother cooked the way her mother cooked, hearty German food, well-seasoned with herbs and spices. When my mates were having sausage and chips I was tucking into a plate of goulash, cubes of beef cooked in a thick, rich sauce flavoured with bay leaves and cloves. Give me a bowl of goulash, with some boiled potatoes and a green salad simply dressed with vinaigrette and chopped chives, and I’m right back in short trousers and just home from school. I still love to pot roast a roll of brisket the way my mum cooked it, with oodles of sliced onions, bay leaves, cloves and a good pinch of salt, and left to gently cook slowly on top of the stove. Few pleasures beat mopping up the thick aromatic gravy from my plate with a hunk of crusty white bread.

My brother Richard, left, he's now a hairy biker!

Because of the cultural influences from my mother’s family, the food we ate was quite different to the food my school friends’ families ate.  English cooking at the time tended to be unadventurous and plain. It seemed that cooking was regarded as a way of ensuring that food was completely dead before it made it to the plate. Meat was usually fried or grilled until it resembled worn leather, or for some of my unluckier friends, whose mums wanted to make absolutely sure, totally incinerated. Vegetables were often boiled for ages until they became a stringy mush. Seasoning was seldom used. Ground white pepper and salt were considered risqué. Any flavour enhancement usually came from a bottle, tomato ketchup or brown sauce.

I guess the attitude to food was different in those days, people ate because they were hungry, food was fuel. But my mum taught me to really appreciate the taste of food. She cooked with paprika, cloves, garlic, bay leaves, chillies and whole peppercorns; they’re the basis of what I cook with today.  We ate potato salad made with mayonnaise that my mother made herself, and which she taught me to make when I was young. We ate it with garlicky, Polish boiling ring sausage and big, fat, sweet pickled gherkins. She made sauerkraut with pork ribs, red cabbage with bratwurst sausage. Green vegetables like cabbage or spinach were served mixed with a creamy roux, flavoured with onion or nutmeg. I was the only kid in my class whose sandwiches contained blutwurst, and whose breath smelt of salami. Even as children we were allowed to drink wine with dinner, I was having blackouts by the time I was eleven. (Joke, not true!) And as for my mum’s baking, and her apple sauce cake, well, that’s another story…

Both of my parents were inquisitive about food, and I’m grateful for it. We ate well; I think they probably spent more on food than most families. And I was lucky enough to be taken on holidays abroad where my parents were keen to ‘eat like the locals’. A whiff of ripe Camembert can bring back memories of following my parents round French markets while they shopped for cheeses and pates.  My reward would be a Breton buckwheat pancake filled with hot sausage, or a bag of warm, deep-fried doughnuts, smothered with sugar. I had my first plate of real Italian spaghetti Bolognese, doused with freshly grated Parmigiano, in a trattoria in Milan whilst on holiday with my parents. It was to be the beginning of a lifelong love affair with pasta. But hang on, writing this is making me feel faint with hunger, it’s time to fire up the hob, the next bit will have to wait until next time. See you then.

If you want to learn how to cook goulash and creamed cabbage like my grandmother here are the recipes.


  1. Vermilion says

    Is this you Peter, the happy eater?
    Very sweet and informative story about your early years, and the love you have for your Mum!
    Great photo too!!
    You’ve got yourself an “authentic East End of London-style pie and mash shop” online!
    I look forward to making that creamy cabbage and spinach dish! Maybe tonight!
    I’m sure I’ve eaten in the S&M Cafe in Islington.
    Love, V

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