I never met my Grandmothers. They died before I was born. Don’t get me wrong, my mother is one of the most beautiful people on the planet, but I often wonder what life would have been like with more matriarchy surrounding me. (Seriously, my mother is kind and helpful and sweet, and only because it’s the right thing to do. Not because she wants praise. I could only wish to be half the woman she is).
Anyway, this is a food blog so let me get on with it. My husband, Mark, had the opposite. He was surrounded by matriarchy. He was shaped by his great grandmother, his grandmother and his mother. He had maternal influence out the yazzoo – each with varying degrees of success, might I add. When Mark tells me a story about his childhood, it most likely involves one of these women and a coal range.
Every family has its schtick. Every family has a thing that generation after generation feels the need to follow. They feel the need to embrace this because it forms an identity to them. It sets them apart. This could be anything, from political office, sex and alcoholism, the creation of ventriloquist dummies or even a mere fondness for garden gnomes. With Mark’s family it is chicken broth.
Every great childhood story in his head begins and ends with chicken broth. From the immense Mona McCulloch, lovingly nicknamed ‘Fat Nana’, a woman with a love for rugby and a soft spot for great grandsons who wanted breakfast in bed, down through her daughter Margaret Walker, a delicate and loving lady with an immense epicurean talent, through to Mark’s own mother, Marguerite, each generation has put their own spin on the chicken broth recipe.
As a small boy cooking technique and gourmet flair didn’t interest him. The puppets on Stingray and The Lone Ranger where high on his list of things to pay attention to, but the recipes for broth didn’t figure. He knows the gist of it, of course. A good chicken broth took the whole day to prepare, A chicken was boiled until the meat fell off. The fat would separate and float high above the bulk of the soup. Vegetables – onions in particular – were added throughout the day along with barley and maybe even some rice. Barley was key.
But he doesn’t know the exact recipe. Now that he’s here, and his two grandmothers are gone, he realises the loss. We’ve been working to recreate this magical broth. It should be easy, because there’s not just one recipe. Each generation added their own special style to the mixture. Each generation added their spin. So, I think that Mark’s been working on his spin. His soup, like the soup of ancestors gone, is not a fixed affair. It varies. It changes due to seasonal availability, personal taste and even whimsy. Variety is the spice of life, and variety is also the taste of Gerald.
Gerald? What is this Gerald I speak of? Well, Mark kept making these chicken soups. He’d mix it up and feed it to me and I wouldn’t pay much attention. Chicken broth never interested me that much. Until one day. One day the concoction he fed me was amazing. It was delicious and full bodied and exciting and I wanted more. Excitedly, I shared this development with him. He’d finally invented a soup that even I, Picky-Bitch-Who-Can’t-Cook could get behind. We rejoiced. I asked him what it was called. He looked confused. Well, Mark, if you’re going to make an amazing dish it needs a name. I need to be able to order and request it. To distinguish it from all the other lacklustre soups in the world. He faltered. He didn’t know what to say. I told him in no uncertain terms that if he didn’t come up with a name in 30 seconds I would have to name it and it would be called Gerald. He didn’t and it is.
To this day Mark experiments with different bases and flavours. It’s fine to use a commercial base, from the Co-operative or Sainsburys perhaps. A vegetable soup base is best. He’ll cook it slowly and add his chicken and vegetables. He hasn’t been game enough to experiment with barley yet, but here have been a few interesting incidents with rice. The great barbecue soup fiasco of Spring Bank Holiday is one example. But usually Gerald triumphs over adversity.
He still claims that he’s never been able to replicate the wonderful taste of yesteryear. Maybe he needs Southland chickens. Maybe soup you cook yourself will never be as good as soup that’s cooked for you. But he is adamant that doctors used to prescribe this soup as a cure for many illnesses. Perhaps this is more indicative of the quackery of the day, rather than true medical knowledge.
While I currently enjoy this soup with a side of butter gently melting into toast, I’ve heard rumours about cheese rolls being a great accompaniment. For those who are uninitiated, cheese rolls amount to a cheesey onion spread on a slice of bread that’s been rolled up and toasted. It’s a southern New Zealand delicacy. If you had someone special visiting, like the Queen, or if you were just really desperate and cold because it was winter, you could team the soup with mousetraps. I suppose I should explain those too. Mousetraps are basically cheese on toast, but fancier because they usually involve bacon. He enjoyed both of these with his soup on a regular basis.
Mark must have been a total glutton as a child. Where normal people would devour one bowl of soup and smile politely, Mark would demand 6 bowls. When he couldn’t get his soup at the kitchen table he’d carry a flask or a thermos and take it out with his grandfather fishing. He especially looked forward to the breaking off the wishbone, which was clearly pure sorcery. Once, he won the wish bone and wished to receive a watch for Christmas. This came true soon enough and the whole mysticism of the chicken broth became set in stone for him.
Obviously this is total bollocks. The man has never been on time in his life, watch or no watch. But he does make a chicken soup that could save you if your life depended on it. Like, if Gordon Ramsay had an attack of the evils, took over the planet and forced everyone into a kind of reality TV battle of the soup makers with sudden death being the consequence for unworthy broths, then you’d be lucky to have Mark on your team. You’d probably get to watch most of the bloody destruction before your own head was brought to the chopping block.
And that is just one of the important reasons why I keep him around.