The cosy, comforting appeal of ‘home-made and traditional’

Can you imagine a hand-painted sign outside a garage saying, ‘Home made vehicles; made with all British parts’. The pedals might be in the wrong order and the wheels all different sizes but hey! That’s the charm of home-made!

Or your new gadget arrives in a recycled Jiffy bag and a comp slip which reads, ‘Home made tablet’. Might be made of MDF and be four feet by six (‘didn’t have the right tools to cut it any smaller I’m afraid…’) but how very characterful.

We forget that making anything well needs skill, care and experience. Even cooking.

So why does food advertised as home-made still make us swoon?

At every UK market, school fair, fundraising event and village fete you’ll find a stall with home-made cakes. Some might even add the boast of being ‘traditional.’

I’ve sampled many. Mainly because I’ve been taken in by their appearance. My adventures have been full of heartbreak.

The flapjacks that are far too sweet, the cornflake cakes which have been made by smothering the cereal in melted milk chocolate (I want to vomit) or the fairy cakes which taste of nothing at all.

Do we forget that home-made doesn’t equate to the talent of a patissière with a professionally equipped kitchen and a high-quality, tried and tested recipe? What is it about the phrase ‘home-made’ that makes us go weak at the knees (and then the stomach)?

I think I know what it is. The fantasy that we’re going to be indulged with a fictitious mother-love via the product. Some buxom, aproned lady who calls you ‘dear’ and can offer tips on stain removal and caring for sheep. It will be infused with the kind of her ‘I’ve-got-all-the-time-in-the-world’ attitude. We’ll feel cared for and nurtured by eating that pale-coloured thing in a fluted cake case.

Or even more than that. We’ll be transported to a bygone era where (we think) food was unadulterated and things tasted good. I’m guessing.

There have always been bad cooks. Most the world probably live off poorly prepared food.

My advice? If you crave home-made, make it yourself.



ImageMost cultures have a way of wishing you a good meal. Now, in England we’ve settled for, ‘Enjoy!’

It all started while watching Jason and the Argonauts (original). The blind man feeds heartily for the first time and good Jason shouts, ‘Good appetite!’ Translated from the Greek I assume. Is this what the Greeks say?

I began thinking of Spain, France and Italy; their wish revolves around the food, your appetite, even exploiting what’s on offer (‘Que aproveches!’) There’s not a hint of having to enjoy anything. The implications of this are so far reaching I feel like throwing my lemon-scented, steamy facecloths at the waiter. Enjoy that!

My problems is that it requires some sort of specific personality trait. More than filling up on food. More than satisfying your appetite. It suggests a mood, a cheerful, smiling attitude while chewing; a smiley disposition, eyes dilated with happiness, a sort of frenzied joy. Can’t I just chew and swallow in my own humble way?

And then the terror that they might ask if I enjoyed my meal. What happens if I just feel quietly pleased with the experience, if I didn’t enjoy it in the way they mean? It’ll give the impression that I’m a sour sod who just wants to be miserable.

My complaint is that it reflects on my character. It has such far-reaching implications about the way I lead my life. Such as, do I enjoy laughter or loving relationships? Do I enjoy any hobbies? Am I even lad to be alive? You don’t need to bring personality into it when you eat. Caveman didn’t. He ripped his mammoth meat from the bone, drooled and slavered and felt fortified and lucky if anything.

Let’s not pretend that wishing companions well before they eat is any sort of tradition in this country. Let’s accept that for millennia suede, bread and ale were got rid of as quickly as possible. (interestingly, we have ‘Cheers’ or ‘Bottoms up’ for drink…)

Maybe that’s how such an unreasonable command came to precede eating here. To take our minds off the taste. To help us forget that we were eating bread and dripping or sparrow (beak intact).

OK that’s unfair. The upper echelons of English society probably did enjoy every mouthful of venison, spit-roast hog, fruit, pie and julienne carrots. The rest might well have dreaded mealtimes. ‘What’s for dinner?’ ‘Bread and dripping…’

So the fake-established order to enjoy is out of place and for me unwanted.

Maybe I’m being awkward and impossible to please. Isn’t it nice that we now have some sort of food-enjoyment-related quip from staff? No.

You can wish me, ‘Good appetite’ or tell me to ‘Eat hearty’ (White Christmas, ahhh) Once you start demanding that I enjoy, my meal’s ruined. I instantly feel I have the wrong personality for that establishment. They’d rather have bouncy, witty customers who can tell charming anecdotes and leave monumental tips.

I’m interested to know if most countries say something before eating. Or do most just hope to be satisfied and not poisoned by their meal?

So far, I haven’t succumbed to this annoying phrase. Even at Christmas, we’ll just probably wish each other well and tuck in. Seems a civilised thing to do in the face no tradition of anything better.

Coffee. Quick!

…Well, that’s not going to happen is it?

Not in the faux-continental joints dominating our high streets. We go in, don’t we, in search of a coffee and chat? What happens once we’re in there is the Theatre of Coffee-Making.

The young men serving in my local Costa look vaguely like those chivalrous Parisian garçons with their aprons and important keys hanging from their waists.

The girls are the same. How efficient they look in their smart shirts with their hair pinned up in rough-looking buns made to look like it’s come loose as they’ve been running from cup stack to banquettes to kitchen to customer in a committed, ambitious work frenzy.  No, they came in to work like that.

I could excuse them if in between frothing milk and counting marshmallows they also had to change tyres or diagnose a queue of ailing patients. But these people have one thing to do: make hot drinks.

So, how long does it take, in a Buckinghamshire Costa, to produce a hot chocolate and cortado? It took four ‘team members’ two minutes fifteen seconds today.

One took the order and my money; he shouted the order to the chap standing next to him at the coffee machine; someone else got a tray and the other girl I think fetched the spoons. While half-heartedly seeing to my drinks, the money-taker was moving to the person behind me in the queue taking their money, shouting their orders… Mt drinks weren’t anywhere near ready.

I wonder who gets the order-shouting job? It’s pretty cuhy. The coffee machine operator’s job isn’t one I’d fancy. ‘Two lattes and a spiced milk!’ ‘Three espressos, one decaf and one Americano!’ ‘Ten take out coffees…!’ ‘Hang on yeller, leave your friggin’ till and clean this milk nozzle you lazy git.’

At Palma airport earlier this year, I stopped for a coffee. With the loud, perspiring waiter swearing to his colleagues (in that cut-off-at-the-end Andalucian Spanish I could listen to all day and night), it was thirty seconds from order to coffee. Good coffee too.

I didn’t have to be a captive audience watching the spectacle of work: the staff dramatizing the Making of Coffee. Is that part of the company’s brand? That customers witness the important act of making my drink?

Like award ceremonies, they aim to establish the importance of the industry by… well… rewarding those in the industry. If staff look serious and shout your order and give it all a feel of  pre-op complexity, it gives coffee gravitas and significance.

It could have something to do with the loving, British Ceremony  of Tea-Making. Warming the pot, laying out of cups, a tray… Now that is worthy of award when done well.

So maybe the English haven’t got the hang of coffee. They approach it as they do Tea Making. This is where cultures collide.

A cup of tea is had for comfort, after your work is done, easing into a chintz covered armchair and with a biscuit or two.

Coffee (in this country) is had before or while you work with a colleague and a muffin (how these two got put together I don’t know) while talking furiously.

Me? Once and for all I’m abandoning the stripped wood locations with their black and white framed prints; messy buns and keys on curly cables; bitter (burnt I suspect) coffee and professionals (or students) sipping the stuff while sharing laptops.

My inner hot drink voice tells me to stick to what people do best. Tea in England, coffee abroad.

Aaaaagh… Now I’m ready for a good cup of tea. Join me?