Eating them words

shabnam minwalla | Updated on August 14, 2014 Published on January 31, 2014

Trick or treat? Dreams were once made of Blytonian teas Ruth Black/Shutterstock




Scones and pork pies, liquorice and sherbet powder… Childhood always tastes better between the pages of a book

I must have been around seven years old when I attended my first midnight feast. Almost 40 years later, I still remember the glorious spread. There was pork pie and chocolate cake, sardines and tins of sweetened milk, chocolate and peppermint cream, tinned pineapple and ginger beer.

This repast was held by torchlight in a dormitory at St Clare’s, the beloved boarding school featured in so many Enid Blyton books. And as truant schoolgirls tiptoed in with their hoarded goodies, trembling at the thought of discovery, they exclaimed in wonder “that food had never tasted quite so nice before”.

Curled up in an armchair in distant Mumbai — with The Twins at St Clare’s in my lap and a dreamy-drooly expression on my face — I agreed wholeheartedly. Nothing could ever equal the glory of those midnight feasts in that make-believe school in far-away England. Or the enormous picnics gobbled up by the Famous Five after an energetic tramp across windy moors. Or teetering piles of jammy buns and jugs of icy cold lemonade after a lacrosse match at Malory Towers.

Or, for that matter any of the other Blytonian treats and teas that made all actual meals a disappointment. For the very same tomato that was “gorgeous” when eaten near a clear, bubbling stream by the Secret Seven was, in the harsh light of reality, just a squishy fruit suffering from an identity crisis. The boiled eggs and jugs of creamy milk downed by George, Julian, Dick and Anne always seemed rather dull when they made their appearance at our table. So I pinned my hopes on the many tantalising goodies accessible to the lucky characters in those storybooks — but not to little girls in distant India. And I was convinced that I simply hadn’t lived till I sampled scones and steak pies, rock buns and blancmange, mince pies and macaroons. And, of course, Cookie’s tremendous steamed pudding “with lashings of treacle”. Not to mention the root beer that Dennis the Menace sucked up with such incredible relish. Or Pippi Longstocking’s hot chocolate topped with whipped cream. Or the colourful confections in the big glass jars of a traditional English village sweet shop — the sort that was decimated in the side-splittingly funny story William’s New Year’s Day.

William — the grubby, trouble-prone schoolboy created by Richmal Crompton — was a regular gawper at the window of his village sweet shop. There he often stood, torn between the rival attractions of Cokernut (sic) Kisses, Liquorice Allsorts, Nutty Footballs and Mixed Dew Drops. And on the rare occasion that he could actually produce a sixpence from his pocket and purchase his own stash of green Gooseberry Eyes, his legion of fans felt quite as smug as he did.

Often, thinking wistfully of dainty Pineapple Crisps and Pear Drops, I’d head to Modern Stores down the road from my house. But the tubes of multi-coloured Poppins and chalky, pastel peppermints were poor substitutes. One day, I promised myself, I’d find an old-fashioned English sweet shop and devour Toasted Crisps and Marble Eyes till I felt quite as stuffed and sticky as William.

Then, of course, the inevitable happened. I grew up — and the literary characters with whom I communed were more likely to sip a dry white wine or skinny latte than suck on a Fruity Bit. Of course, as a student in the US, I tried my first sip of root beer, and decided that it would be my last. In London, I bought liquorice sticks, and conveniently forgot them in the hotel room when we left. In Cambridge, I had my first proper scone with clotted cream and strawberry jam — and decided that I could gladly subsist on it for the rest of my life. But apart from this high-cal flirtation, I forgot all about my fascination with treacle tarts and potatoes baked in their jacket.

Till one day my three daughters discovered a certain Mr Pink Whistle and St Clare’s — and once again I found myself partaking in jolly midnight feasts and tea in Miss Lucy’s dear little cottage. “There were tongue sandwiches with lettuce,” Enid Blyton writes about a fabulous, celebratory tea by Clarissa’s old nanny in Upper Fourth at Malory Towers. “Hard-boiled eggs to eat with bread-and-butter, chunks of new-made cream cheese, potted meat, ripe tomatoes grown in Miss Lucy’s brother’s greenhouse, gingerbread cake fresh from the oven, shortbread, fruitcakes with almonds crowding the top, biscuits of all kinds and six jam sandwiches!”

Even better, I found that many new feasts had been conjured up in the realm of children’s fiction, while I had been busy with detectives and tragic queens. For example, the first banquet that Harry Potter attends at Hogwarts. “He had never seen so many things he liked to eat on one table: roast beef, roast chicken, pork chops and lamb chops, sausages, bacon and steak, boiled potatoes, roast potatoes, chips, Yorkshire pudding, peas, carrots, gravy, ketchup and, for some strange reason, mint humbugs.” “Gosh” my three girls exclaimed enviously, after poring over the description. “But what did the vegetarians eat? We’d love to taste all that.”

So it was a peckish and determined family that stumbled off the Mumbai-London flight last summer. Of course we wanted to see the Tower of London and the Millennium Bridge. But, quite as clearly, we wanted to linger over rainbow-hued jars of sherbet powder, nibble on iced fruitcakes and track down treats that beckoned from the pages of our favourite books.

But touristy London was too frenetic and multicultural. So it was only when we drove into the Cotswolds that we hit jackpot. In a village called Bourton-on-the-Water filled with thatched cottages and rambling roses, we crossed a quaint wooden bridge, and found ourselves in a sweet shop that could have come straight from one of The Wishing-Chair stories. After gasping and goggling, we got down to business — buying Flying Saucers (sherbet powder between papery discs), Lemon Drops, Dib Dabs (pink lollipops to be dipped in sherbet powder) and Chocolate Limes. Also the pale purple sweet called Parma Violets that smelt of talcum powder and flowers.

Over the next few days we sampled strawberries and clotted cream ice cream while strolling along the handsome Main Street of Broadway. We ate a sinful Sticky Toffee Pudding at a little village pub called The Bluebell in Ripple. And, of course, we tried out Yorkshire puddings, pies and glistening hams in little village tea shops. At the end of which we headed back home, feeling sugar-coated and bloated — but very pleased with our trip to storybook-land.

(This is the first part of a new series that follows a food trail through the realm of fiction.)

shabnam minwalla is a journalist and author of The Six Spellmakers of Dorabji Street

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Published on January 31, 2014
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