On a drizzly, grey day in South Queensferry there’s a sudden beam of childhood sunshine in the sheltered housing common room. Over coffee and biscuits we’re flicking through ideas for a new recipe book of old family favourites and it stirs a powerful pot of memories: scrumping for apples in the gardens of big houses, clambering over dykes in search of brambles, fishing for watercress in cold, clear streams, pulling turnips from a farmer’s field on the way home for tea.
The past was a different place and it’s coming vividly to life in stories told by residents of Shore Road Sheltered Housing. For an hour or more Iris, Catherine, Betty, Sheila and Anne conjure up images of a time when city kids played in the streets after school while country boys and girls were free to roam across the fields and into the woods, away from home from breakfast until bedtime.
“We made our own games,” says Margaret, joining the circle towards the end of the morning’s chat. “When it came to the holidays we packed our bags and went away for the day. I took a bottle of water with the concentrated orange juice you got from the chemist, and Maggie Anne (margerine) sandwiches with sugar. I sat on the banks above Loch Lomond and felt I was the only person there. We were having the best time of our lives.”
Those were the days, around the end of the Second World War, when (Anne remembers) Juniper Green was a village separated by fields from Edinburgh and (Sheila recalls) Glasgow’s Easterhouse was still mainly farmland. Children played peevers in the streets, made Mickey Mouse phones out of match boxes, and slept four to a bed in one-roomed cottages. Times were tough in the mining villages of Fife, South Ayrshire, and South Wales, as members of this well-travelled group can tell you, and no easier for many city families.
But as they talk you can almost smell the savoury stews and soups simmering on coal-fired ranges. Tattie soup with sheep’s tails and girdle scones to dip in it, clootie dumpling fried for breakfast, fish cakes made with pike. Rice puddings creamy beneath thick black skin. But let’s stay clear of the sheep’s held. “That was one thing I couldn’t tolerate,” says Catherine, “I tried to cook it once in a big witches pot I had but I couldn’t stand the smell, and the sound of the mouth shutting when the water boiled.”
Pause for a shudder.
Perhaps I should explain what I am doing here in a warm and welcoming red brick building beneath the Forth Road Bridge. The short answer is that, through Leith Open Space, our friends World Kitchen in Leith are taking part in an imaginative project which involves food (growing, cooking and eating it), oral history, lots of social gathering …and hen keeping.
Sitting beside me this morning is Rosie Harrison, Scottish co-ordinator of HenPower, a creative project for older people, which has grown out of the Gateside-based charity Equal Arts.
Now Equal Arts has won Lottery funding to develop HenPower across the UK and residents of Shore Road have agreed to act as Scottish pioneers for an ambitious project which aims to reduce isolation and increase health and wellbeing.
The project needs a garden big enough to grow food and keep hens, and – though not everyone liked the idea at first – there was enough support at a lively residents’ meeting to get the go ahead. Shore Road already has a varied programme of social activities including coffee mornings, music nights, Scrabble groups and events in South Queensferry. But HenPower offers an interesting new opportunity to bring people together and make good use of the garden too.
With four members of the social committee at this morning’s discussion, there is clearly a determination to make the project work. So although the hens won’t arrive until March next year, Dougie, one of the male residents, is drawing up plans for the henhouse, and cookery demonstrations have begun.
Why is World Kitchen in Leith involved? Interestingly, one of the residents had heard about the voluntary group with a growing reputation for multicultural catering so Rosie contacted Leith Open Space asking how to get in touch with World Kitchen in Leith (disclosure: we are founder members).
Now WKiL cooks, Mark, Meena and Naseem, are stirring up spicy smells and stimulating discussion with a selection of multicultural dishes – Kerala curry in coconut milk, home-made pasta with oxtail stew, panacotta and blueberry. Though curry is not to everyone’s taste, the food is going down so well WKiL has been asked to contribute to the recipe book, another creative aspect of the project.
The book will combine oral history with recipes, food stories and poems, illustrated with paintings and drawings. Betty is contributing watercolours inspired by views of the Forth – and the recipe for sheep’s tail soup, which is a story in itself.
In fact, there are many more stories to tell. About childhood games, about foraging for food and being sent for Co-op ‘messages’ of yesterday’s bread and cracked eggs, about favourite meals and the great treasure of family memories they stir.
Not to mention the hens, though we want to do that too. Leith Open Space is very much looking forward to going back to find how HenPower is growing at Shore Road. With luck we will arrive in time to sample some of the food. Take a look at this message from Meena describing her menu and you will see why.
Kerala egg in coconut milk finished with black pepper, spiced pumpkin with garam masala, cashew coriander rice and Leith mess (meringue, cream and pomegranate).