The Word page on August 14 was about soap and its origins as well as derivative idioms and phrases. I mentioned that at the height of a Majorcan summer I liked to shower with Wright’s Coal Tar soap.
I loved its clean crisp smell and found it got my day off to a brisk and bracing start. Wright’s was never on sale here that I know of, but family and friends used to bring it with them when they came on holiday, although it has been donkey’s years since I last used it. However, this week I was back to showering with Wright’s.
Thanks to the ubiquity of internet, my long-time friend and former Bulletin columnist Carolyn Martin saw the soap page and when she arrived in Palma last Sunday to go on a Nordic walking holiday in the Sóller area with her friend Maggie, she produced from her hand luggage a bar of Wright’s Coal tar soap.
It was the biggest surprise of the year and to make it last as long as possible I’ll use it only for showering — I’ll wash my hands with a glycerine soap from Mercadona. It’s amazing how little things can make such a huge difference to one’s daily life.
Carolyn has finally done something she has wanted to do since she went back to England from Majorca some 50 years ago — an album with some of the columns she wrote from the East Coast. This was the late Sixties when places like Cala Millor, Cala Bona, S’Illot and Playa de Muro were opening up to tourism.
Carolyn did mainly short interviews with English holidaymakers but she also wrote about Majorcans and Spaniards involved in tourism. On one occasion she joined a group of taxi drivers at the Hotel Sabina rank for breakfast. She ordered bacon, eggs and fried bread and they had pamboli and big sandwiches stuffed with ham and tomatoes.
The album was a reminder of the low prices we had in those days. A trip to Sóller on the train cost 58 ptas first class and 42 second class. A small advert read: “FOR SALE: Fully furnished beautiful semi-detached house in Cala Millor. Three bedrooms, bathroom, large living room, separate toilet, garage and garden. £5,500.” Were those the good old days?
When Carolyn returned to England she had various jobs. One year when I was on a visit she was the sales rep for a greetings card company for which she covered the south coast. I went out with her every day and got to visit places like Bournemouth and Brighton. She was eventually doing voluntary work in Winchester and started the Citizens Advice Witness Service, which now has offshoots in several parts of England. She was awarded an MBE for this pioneering work in offering advice and support to victims and witnesses who give evidence in criminal court cases.
Other gifts included a box of West Country tea, one I had never heard of. The bags are larger than usual, the tea is strong and it has a most penetrating aroma. I have three cups at breakfast and another three when I’m reading the papers at the Bulletin. It’s so much better than my usual PG tips.
Carolyn also brought a big tin of Marks and Spencers shortbread. It has a ‘best by’ date of next January 4, so I’ll be keeping it for the New Year. Every New Year table in Scotland has a platter of shortbread and I always aim to have one. It’s usually Walkers, the only one I know of in Palma.
She also gave me a flat piece of porcelain in the shape of an angel with the words ‘Feathers appear when angels are near’. There’s a very good reason for that little angel, but to explain it now would be too much of a digression. I’ll save it for another time.
I had mentioned to Maggie a couple of years ago that the last thing I needed was another cookbook, but even so I intended to buy Alan Davidson’s The Oxford Companion to Food. When she returned she brought me the book as a gift. It’s a 900-page mammoth and, being of encylopedia format and printed on thickish glossy paper, it weighs half a ton. Every time I look at it, which is about three times a week, I think of Maggie trundling it all the way from Winchester to Southampton airport and then to the flat they had rented in Palma. Only our best friends would be so considerate.
This time Maggie brought a large format book of 700 pages but on light book print paper and therefore easier to carry about and handle. It’s by Dorothy Hartley and is called Food in England (A Complete Guide to the Food that Makes Us Who We Are). A endorsement by Delia Smith on the cover says: “A classic book…a must for any keen English cook.”
This book isn’t just for cooks. It is of tremendous interest to anyone wanting to discover how the British lived in early times, what they cultivated, hunted and fished, what they cooked and how they ate it. I want to read it all at once but we can’t do that so I’ve been dipping into it, opening it at the beginning, the middle and the end and learning so much.
I’ve come across words that aren’t in my two-volume Shorter Oxford English Dictionary or in the full-sized Webster’s. One of them was ‘panshon’, an earthenware container for proving bread dough. The ‘panshon’ is left near the open fire and its gentle heat raises the dough at a uniform rate.
Before ‘mumble’ meant to say something indistinctly and quietly, its meaning was to chew something with toothless gums or without making much use of the teeth. A mumbled rabbit was a tough old one cooked until the meat fell off the bones. It was then finely chopped so it could be eaten with toothless gums.
The term ‘by hook or by crook’, meaning to do something by one means or another, or by fair means or foul, dates back to the days when country workmen weren’t allowed to cut wood from trees but could gather any dead wood that was attainable ‘by hook or by crook’ — that is with the use of a shepherd’s crook or a farm labourer’s weeding hook.
The word ‘crone’ is nowadays a cantankerous old woman or man but in the 16th century it was mainly an old ewe no longer able to breed and which was fattened up for its mutton.
Another word I have never seen before is ‘braxy’, as in ‘braxy mutton’, but this one was in the Shorter Oxford: it means meat from a diseased or a naturally dead sheep.
This led to an incomprehensible sentence: “Si une berlyz murge sudeynement il mettent la chas en ewe aulant de dure com entre mydi e noune. Et pus le pendent sus e Kant le ewe escule le fount saler e pus ben secher.”
The translation is: “If a sheep dies suddenly you must put it in water during the hours between midday and noon (in other words, all day) and then after you have drained the water away you can salt it then you can eat it.”
The author then adds, somewhat unnecessarily, “Note. We do not recommend this.” I’ll be referring to this incredible book on historical English food during the coming winter months.