The Blue Book
There are spell books. And grimoires. And Books of Shadows. All of these available and being maintained and added to and passed down by witches and practitioners everywhere.
In my family we have The Blue Book.
It must be said that this particular tome does not contain any love potions or incantations for the summoning of faeries. It does however, contain the best ever recipe for ‘Fruitcake’. I was going to say that there is no alchemy in this volume, but there is. The alchemy of egg and flour and butter.
The Blue Book has fed and nourished my family for fifty years and its true and proper title is ‘Exciting Cooking’ by Jean Balfour. This book, with its beautiful blue cloth cover, has an owl logo that declares ‘In Knowledge, Lies Wisdom’ and was published by the Literary Press in 1960. My sister, Jane, and I grew up with this book, it was always open on the worktop as my mum weighed out flour on the balance scale. No digital nonsense here, this scale was something like the ones they use to weigh babies and had ‘Property of Mrs Beeton’ scratched onto the baseplate. Many and luscious were the fruitcakes that materialised from the pages of the Blue Book, via flour and currants and glace cherries and my mum’s slapdash kitchen wizardry.
Slapdash. Yes. My mum was a woman who cooked with a recipe in one hand and her emotions in the other. A pinch might be larger or smaller dependent upon how stressed or busy she was. Her units of measurement were a spill and a splash, a dollop and a wodge. These are the most Imperial of all measures. A pound is a cold thing given heat by the love and intention of the person cooking. Take, for instance, my mum’s spaghetti bolognese one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten. This was the epitome of comfort food, meaty, tomatoey and savoury, looped with the longest strands of spaghetti from a blue paper Buitoni packet. It was a hug on the end of your fork.
This dish was not authentic to Bologna. It was authentic to Lancashire and the ragu that my mum threw together was not called ‘ragu’ back then, well, not in Heywood at any rate. It was tomato sauce. It contained onions and celery and carrots and I think an Oxo stock cube. There was minced beef that had been minced in an actual butcher shop, The Stafford Brothers, who had a little shed style shop on Summit with sawdust on the floor. The herbs that this concoction contained were dried and titled simply ‘Mixed’. Another magic jar in the stark 70s cupboard.
The Blue Book recipes always work even though some of them are rather odd seeming these days. Prune Sponge anyone? Or possibly a nibble at a Highland Tartlet? I learnt to cook via my mum and The Blue Book and although today I sling basil and garlic around like a proper Nonna the basic skills came from that book and my mum’s tutelage. This is not to say that she was a sixties housewife in a pinny with bouffant hair, she was a full-time primary school teacher. When she didn’t have her head in The Blue Book she was peering through her reading glasses at a foxed paperback Austen or a dog-eared volume of Trollope.
I can see how I am dancing around the real truth about The Blue Book, I am dancing quite fast and trying not to see, but it is dancing after me. This blog is not about cooking. Or 70s food.
Each year my dad must repair The Blue Book as its pages yellow and brown. The cover of his copy, the original and best, is now white sticky back plastic, holding it together so that he can find that recipe for fruitcake and mix one up once or twice a year. He cannot throw away The Blue Book.
A few years ago my sister actually trawled the internet to find vintage copies for us both. There is a simple wish in this. The Blue Book has been a link back to my mum and all that she meant to us. It is about the fact that my sister and I are able to reach for the Blue Book and reconnect to those childhood times in kitchen and garden when we were allowed to run around in the rain and think that we could be fairies.
Just looking at the Blue Book whisks me back in time and taste, it locks onto memory and holds it fast because it cannot be let go.