Siepmann Making Mince-pies
Hazel had been so proud of her baking, even if one of her parents was unimpressed!
HAZEL never stopped saying how much she loved school, although, if the truth were told, what she really liked was being in the classroom.
She always spent playtime standing close to the school building quietly chatting with her chums. Six years old, she was one of those children whose good behaviour and quiet diligence in the classroom was appreciated by teachers.
Her favourite lesson of the week was on Thursday afternoons, when the girls were taught how to look after a family home in an age when electricity was only for the rich and dishes were washed by the women of the house at an earthenware sink, in water boiled in a blackened kettle on a coal-fired range.
Years later Hazel would tell her grandchildren that those Thursday afternoons were the most useful lessons she ever had, and that her reputation as an excellent baker of cakes was all down to the kindly patience of her teacher, Miss Swallow.
It was less than a year since Harold and Ethel, Hazel’s parents, had left the stifling streets of London for a new life amidst the leafy lanes of Hertfordshire, running a small greengrocery business.
Harold plied their produce around the neighbouring villages with a horse and cart whilst his wife went around the village where they lived, selling vegetables and fruit from a handcart.
During school holidays and on Saturdays Hazel would join her father, and Rose, her elder sister, would help Ethel.
Hazel was not alone in liking Thursdays at school.
Carol Swallow, her teacher, also loved Thursday afternoon. Few, if any, of the children had ever felt the pleasure that cooking can bring.
It was true that girls were expected to help their mothers around the house and this included the preparation of meals. But, in the eyes of Carol Swallow, in most homes preparing meals was very different from her idea of how to cook.
To her, the kitchen stove was the heart of the home and a wife was the heart of the family. Putting tasty, mouth-watering food on the kitchen table was one of the most rewarding things that life could offer.
She was realistic enough to realise that bringing up a family on meagre wages allowed little opportunity for mothers to teach their children to bake cakes or experiment with ingredients.
For most, cooking in the family home was little more than a dreary drudge of peeling vegetables, boiling them in salted water and washing up.
Carol felt it was her duty to give her young learners the education that she had been trained to deliver, and also to show them, as best she could, a world
where cooking was a pleasure.
So strong was this conviction that she had persuaded the school governors to allow a small sum to be set aside to purchase supplies for her cookery lessons so that the poorer children would not miss out because they couldn’t afford to buy ingredients.
She taught the girls to make biscuits and scones, fairy cakes and rock cakes, tarts, buns and pies, with the older girls helping the younger girls.
Over the years it had become a tradition that, every Christmas, she made sure that the children were able to take home a few mince-pies that they had baked themselves.
There was only one rule in the school kitchen: no child was allowed to open the oven unsupervised by their teacher.
Hazel, from her very first experience of the school kitchen, was mesmerised with every aspect of cooking.
She especially loved the baking classes – the sound of forks and spoons scraping and clattering in earthenware mixing bowls, of pastry being slapped down on a pastry board, of brass weights clanking on the balance scales as the children weighed out the ingredients.
The heat from the oven during the cold months between November and March and the inviting smell of baking not only made cookery Hazel’s favourite lesson, but also left her with a love of baking that remained with her for the rest of her life.
It was a few days before Hazel’s first Christmas at the school and, supervised by the caring hands of Carol Swallow, the six-yearold placed into a paper bag four mince-pies that she had just baked.
The pies felt warm and comforting in her tiny hands as she carefully made her way home.
It was getting dark and she trod cautiously, anxious not to drop the treat that she had devoted the afternoon to preparing for her parents and sister.
She had no idea what caused her to trip. She had walked along the path between home and school many times since their arrival in the village.
There were no real hazards apart from the uneven path. She had never stumbled before.
Perhaps it was because she was being too careful.
Perhaps she was too excited.
Perhaps she was too careful and excited.
Whatever the cause, it was not the stumble that upset her but the result. She had instinctively stretched out her hands to save her fall, causing the bag of mince-pies to fall to the ground.
As she hit the ground, scraping her hands and knees on the gravel, the pain she felt came not from her grazed flesh but the mental anguish of what might have happened to her mince-pies.
She quickly got up, brushed the dirt and gravel from her hands and reached down to rescue the bag. She was relieved the pies had not fallen out on to the gravel.
Her relief, however, was momentary. As she looked into the bag her little heart sank.
She could see her pies were a mangled mess of pastry coated in mincemeat. Instead of four golden pies she had a bag of sticky pieces.
She folded the bag as carefully as she could, anxious not to mash them even further.
As she resumed her way homeward she began to cry. She went into the kitchen, still sobbing.
Her mother looked at her quizzically.
“What’s the matter, ducks?”
“They’re ruined!” Hazel blurted out.
“Ruined? What’s ruined? What on earth has happened to upset you?”
“I fell over. My pies got crushed when I fell on the bag. Look.”
Hazel showed the bag to her mother, who took it from her and, without looking at it, put it on the kitchen table.
“You should be more careful where you’re going. I bet you were daydreaming. The times I’ve told you about that!”
“I wasn’t daydreaming, Mummy. I made them for tea. Mrs Swallow said they looked very nice. She said well done.”
“She wants to spend her time teaching you how to run a home properly. People around here don’t want fancy baking.
“They need proper food, not fancy tarts. Your husband will want a proper dinner when he gets home.
“Don’t upset yourself about a few tarts. You can help me get your father’s dinner ready. That’ll take your mind off it.’’
“They’re not tarts, they’re mince-pies. Everyone eats mince-pies.”
Hazel gave her mother a look of defiance that did nothing to lighten her mother’s mood.
“Look at your hands, and your knees. Wipe that dirt and blood off before your father gets home. And when you’re done you get these potatoes peeled.
“Baking! Pity she hasn’t got anything better to do. Some of these teachers don’t know they’re born.”
Hazel looked at the bag on the kitchen table and, fearful of upsetting her mother further, went and washed her grazed hands and knees. The carbolic soap stung.
She returned to the kitchen and her mother gave her some potatoes and carrots to peel.
She was carefully cutting the carrots when her father got home.
He smiled at her.
“I missed you today, Hazel.” He gently ruffled her hair. “Could have done with a bit of company. The day goes quicker when you’re sitting up on the cart with me.”
As he hung his cap and coat on the kitchen door he was surprised that she did not respond with her usual smile. Then his eyes wandered down to her legs.
“Look at your knees! What have you been doing? That looks painful.” “I broke my pies, Daddy.” “What pies?”
“The pies I made at school. We all made them. I fell over and they got broken.”
She pointed to the bag which still lay on the kitchen table.
He crouched down beside her, put an arm around her shoulder and gave her a squeeze before taking her hands in his.
He looked at the grazed palms.
“My word, you have been in the wars, haven’t you? Who’s my brave little soldier? Those hands’ll heal up before you know it, and the same goes for those knees.
“Now, let’s have a peek at these pork pies.”
“They’re not pork pies, Daddy.” Hazel laughed. “They’re mince-pies.”
Pleased with himself for making his daughter laugh, Harold reached over to the table and picked up the bag. He opened it slightly to see what had happened to the pies.
“So your poor old daddy can’t tell the difference between a pork pie and a mince-pie? It’d be a funny Christmas if you’d made pork pies instead of mince ones. Oink! Oink!” They both laughed. “They may look like crumbly old pies now, but I bet they still taste as good as when they were prim and proper pies,” he went on. “Shall we try a bit and see what they’re like?” Hazel nodded. Harold carefully opened the bag of mangled pastry and mincemeat and, with exaggerated curiosity, peered into it.
“My, my! These pies have been in the wars.”
Harold inspected the broken pies, glad he had made Hazel laugh
He looked at Hazel and gave her another smile.
“Never mind, Hazel. Do you know something? All pies look like that once you have popped them in your mouth and you get those gnashers going. And they always taste good.
“Let’s see now, you little rascals. What have you got to say for yourselves?”
Hazel’s sadness was banished by the thought of pies being rascals and having anything to say.
Harold again looked into the bag, deliberating on what piece of pie to take.
“You look a tasty morsel, young man.”
He slowly put finger and thumb into the bag and, eyes fixed on Hazel, withdrew a piece and slowly put it into his mouth.
Hazel’s eyes, wide open, were transfixed on her father’s face.
“Yum, yum, Mr Pie,” he said as he slowly chewed on the piece of pastry. “These may not be the smartest pies I have ever seen, but I think they must be the tastiest pies ever. Well done, Hazel!” He patted her shoulder. “You are a clever girl.”
Hazel smiled for a moment, then a shadow fell across her face and her lips drooped a little.
“They looked so nice, Daddy. You didn’t see them.”
“It’s the taste that really matters, sweetheart; anyway, there’ll be plenty of chances to make some more. I bet Mummy would do some baking with you, wouldn’t you, Mummy?”
Ethel, who had carried on getting dinner ready, looked over at father and daughter.
“When have I got time to make mince-pies? Don’t you think I’ve got enough to do feeding you lot after walking round the village pushing that handcart? It’s blooming hard work!”
“All right, Ethel, there’s no need for that kind of language. I just thought it would be nice for Hazel and Rose to help you at Christmas. I bet they’d love that.”
“How do you think messing about with pies would be helping me? All I’d get is more work. I haven’t got time to stand around watching kids mess about, getting flour and sugar all over the place.”
“Put a sock in it, Ethel. I wish I hadn’t said anything.”
He smiled at Hazel. “They’re the tastiest mince-pies I’ve ever had, even if they’re not the prettiest. Don’t you upset yourself about breaking them. They were really delicious.”
“You never say anything like that about my cooking.” Ethel did not appear to be teasing.
“Come off it. The girl was upset, and I was just trying to cheer her up.”
“You mollycoddle her. You’re too soft, Harold. She has to learn life is not a bed of roses – there’s a lot of thorns as well.
“She’ll have to stand on her own feet one day. Life’s not about fancy baking; it’s hard work for a woman, what with kids and housework.
“It’s all right for teachers and their cosy jobs. They don’t know what hard work is. You’re too soft with those girls and you’re too soft with the customers.
“If you concentrated more on what you should be doing, we wouldn’t have to struggle like we do.”
Harold put his cap on. It seemed a good time to see to the horse.
That night he lay in bed watching Ethel brushing her hair. It was one of those simple, natural things that, by their very ordinariness, take away the tensions that build up during the day.
It also reminded him, as he watched Ethel’s hand move the brush through her hair, how much he adored her.
He had to admit she did have a point about the effort she had to put in to keeping house and home going.
He wanted to clear the air.
“Don’t you think you were a bit hard on Hazel, love?”
Ethel paused for a moment and looked at Harold’s reflection in the mirror. She gave a slight smile and then continued to brush her hair.
She admitted to herself that she had been a bit harsh, but was reluctant to say as much to Harold.
After all, she thought, life in the country was just as much hard work as in the city. If anything, it was harder.
Besides, she wanted to hear what else her husband would say.
He might have been a bit soft but, deep down, she knew it was his tenderness that made her love him so much.
Harold, sensing that this was the right moment, continued.
“She really was upset. I know it has been a bit of a struggle moving out here, but it’s not the girls’ fault.
“At least we’ve got food on the table and a roof over our heads. We’re a lot better off than we were before, even if it is hard.”
Ethel turned and looked at him. She gave a smile.
“I know. I shouldn’t have gone on like that. I don’t mean anything, really. It’s just that it has been getting me down lately – we hardly make ends meet.
“I sometimes wonder if we wouldn’t have been better off staying in London. At least you had a steady wage.”
“You’re probably right, Ethel. But there’s no end of folk been laid off, you know, and it could have easily been me. Then where would we have been?
“At least, here, we get some kind of income. People will always want fruit and veg. I know it’s not easy for you, helping me and running our home, but poor Hazel. She was upset.”
Ethel pulled back the covers on her side of the bed and got in beside Harold. She put her arm around his strong shoulders and leaned her head on his shoulder.
He gave her a gentle squeeze.
“Sorry, love,” she whispered.
He kissed her on the forehead.
“You’ll always be my number-one girl,” he said and leaned over to turn down the wick on the oil lamp.
On his last working day until after Christmas, Harold’s rounds took even longer than usual.
He had to fulfil all the Christmas orders and deal with last-minute requests, and nearly every call was prolonged by invitations to “share a glass” which he always politely refused.
It was, therefore, much later than usual when he got home and, as he put the horse away, he began to wonder what kind of reception he would get when he went into the house.
He opened the kitchen door, wondering if Ethel would be annoyed that he was back late. There was, to his surprise, no-one in the kitchen, but on the table was a plate of delicious-looking, golden pies.
He took off his coat and cap and hung them on the back of the kitchen door.
The door from the hall burst open and Hazel and her sister rushed up to their father and threw their arms around his legs.
He bent down and, putting his strong arms around them, gave them both a tight hug.
“Who’s been busy making mince-pies?”
“We have!” Hazel shouted.
“You have? Well, I must say I have got two very clever daughters.”
“Mummy helped as well!” Rose shouted.
Ethel was standing in the doorway, watching them. He smiled at her.
Although she was standing in the shadow, he could see there was a smile on her face and, he felt sure, a tear in her eye.
She looked at him with that kind smile of hers that always reminded him of the joyful day when he first saw her.
He knew it was going to be a lovely Christmas. ■