3 minute read
When I was a child in 1950s London, fruit was rationed. It wasn’t government rationing, but anything from abroad was scarce in our household. It was easier to find produce grown in England. And with five daughters, my parents found even English pears and plums could be expensive.
My grandfather had an enormous shed in his garden overlooking the sea. The building was almost a hangar, or so it seemed to me. Inside, in the autumn, rows of warm apples sat in the sunlight which streamed through the many windows, giving off the particular aroma only found with the variety he grew, Beauty of Bath. They’re hard to find now, unless you grow your own. But they were ready to pick when we visited on our summer holidays, and every time I bit into one, I could see the red of the skin had leaked inside, streaking it a pretty pink.
They tasted as good as they smelled. A mix of apple, strawberry, and perhaps even rose? I loved them.
My mother preferred the Cox’s Orange Pippin, another classic, which is only at its best in the winter, always announcing Christmas is coming. Its flesh is the color of beeswax and has its own unmistakable fragrance.
Back at home our own garden was a work in progress, so to speak, meaning that my four sisters and I played outside and ruined the lawn. But an old tree grew near the kitchen window and produced the traditional British cooker, as Mummy called it, the enormous but very sour, Bramley. She pared them for pies, stewing, or, stuffed with raisins, for baking. I would stand next to her, begging a slice, or a piece of the peel which tasted deliciously chewy and sharp – nothing like the flavor called sour apple you can find in some candy today. Sometimes, for fun, she would try to remove the whole skin without breaking it, and then hand it to one of us. The lucky one would toss it over her shoulder, onto the linoleum floor of the kitchen.
We would rush over to decipher the letter shown by this unlikely rune. Could it be an S, a P, or surely a J? Then we’d spend time thinking of boys’ names beginning with the initial, because this would be the name of a future husband.
But other than apples, pears and strawberries, fruit was in short supply. My father planted a blackcurrant bush and raspberry canes at the end of the garden, but since we’d pilfer them, sometimes before they were really ripe, there were rarely enough to make a dessert for the family. My mother would ask the greengrocer, Mr. Hester, for small ones, to make sure she had enough to go round. He came to the house once a week with his wagon, drawn by Peggy, the horse, whom we adored. We often begged a carrot to offer her on an outstretched palm.
Occasionally though, Mummy would buy some sort of exotic item – one orange or banana or a small bunch of grapes. And Daddy would organize the Fruit Plate. We spoke of it in capital letters, because this treat only happened every so often, and was much anticipated.
We had to be ready for bed, in our pajamas, before he would come upstairs, one of the blue and white dinner plates in his hand. On top sat the imported fruit, with maybe a plum or two in season.
Sitting on the side of the bed, still in his suit trousers, but without a jacket or tie, he would take his penknife from a trouser pocket, and expertly flip open the blade with a thumbnail.
My sisters and I would squeak like a bunch of baby starlings, competing for our favorite treat. Methodically, Daddy would start to prepare. The banana would be cut into five equal pieces, and, because he was scrupulously fair, each of us had a turn at choosing first.
After, might come the orange. He would slice off the top, then cut the rind into four identical parts and ease them carefully back. “This comes all the way from Israel,” he’d say. “It’s a Jaffa orange.” We had no idea who or what Israel was – we only cared that the segments were sweet.
Two, or perhaps three grapes each, which the Twins would stuff into their cheeks to make them look like chipmunks – an animal we had never seen, except in cartoons. They had to remove them when they started giggling, in order to savor them one by one.
And the Victoria plums. They were about the size of a baby’s fist, like a larger version of the Italian plum, with a reddish purple skin and surprising hue inside – the color of my father’s army uniform, which hung in the wardrobe. These were harder to divide into five, but he managed, somehow.
Reluctantly, seeing just a pile of multicolored peels and perhaps some pits or seeds, we’d brush our teeth and wash our sticky hands, before being tucked safely into bed.