Coal Fires – some further thoughts

My old school friend Dave Marshall reminds me that we used to have a pair of tongs and a poker hanging from a metal holder, kept on the hearth. The hearth in my old house was tiled. A long (extending) toasting fork was also left ready to hand, leaning up against the fire surround. This was used when the fire had died down; it was best with no flickering flames in evidence. A slice of bread would be speared with the toasting fork and somebody, usually perched on a small wood and raffia foot stool (I made my Mum one at woodwork classes in school), holding the bread to the hot coals. Of course it was not unusual for the odd slice or two to get burnt. A bad burn meant scraping the burnt bits off with a knife in short sharp strokes, almost with a flick of the wrist. In most families, there would usually be one person who had a preference for the burnt slices and they would be earmarked accordingly.

Once the toast had been done on both sides, it was removed from the fork and put onto a plate for buttering. Yes, back then we used warmed full-fat butter, and lots of it. Absolutely gorgeous. Well, the bread was brilliant, too. We never ever bought sliced loaves; always white ‘tin’. They were so called because they took their shape from the baking tin in which they were cooked in the oven. Our baker’s shop was a short walk away at the end of the road. He got up early and baked for the day, each day. I grew up assuming that all bread was as delicious as what we routinely ate. It wasn’t until I moved away from home and started work that I realised that many people ate mass-produced sliced bread. By the way, our baker was called Mr. Shufflebottom and you can imagine what fun the young boys in the street had with that name!

My great aunt’s meat mincer

Before I leave the topic of toast, I have to say that occasionally my great aunt (who was a great cook in the old-fashioned English way) made a joint of roast beef for Sunday lunch. This was then sliced cold for the main meal on Monday. After this, the remaining scraps of meat were scraped off the bone and fed into her mincer. This was a strange metal object, made of steel, which had to be screwed to the wooden kitchen table. She would then feed the scraps of meat into the funnel at the top while turning the handle. As if by magic, mince-meat would emerge from an opening lower down. She would typically make a cottage pie which we ate with lashings of gravy and vegetables on Tuesday. Had the Sunday joint been a leg of lamb, she would have made a shepherd’s pie.

Things needed to be eaten fairly quickly since we, like most other folk, had no refrigerator (although we did have a shaded pantry with a cold tile floor, leading off from the kitchen at the back of the house).

Let me return to the topic of toast for a moment. On Sunday my great aunt would pour off the juices from the roasting pan into an earthen ware bowl and let it cool. The fat solidified into what effectively became an air-tight lid. This we would cut into and spread on our toast, taking a little of the browned juices from the roast lying beneath the fat. I have to say that this tasted heavenly. The only thing that might have surpassed such a delight would be her bread-and-butter pudding (to use up a stale loaf) into which she threw a liberal handful of sultanas.

My friend David also mentioned that he had a pot of wooden spills sitting atop the mantlepiece. His, like mine were multicoloured and were about 1/4 inch wide and 12 inches long (back then, that would have been abbreviated as 12″). And to return to weights and measures, there were 12 inches to one foot (typically written 1′ (with the single mark). Hence the spills were 1′ (or 12″) long. They were used by the cigarette smokers and any of the men who smoked a pipe (none of the women did so in my family). One simply took the spill, held it to a flame or a hot coal until it lighted, brought it up to the cigarette or pipe, and puffed away. There was no talk of cigarettes being linked to cancer. People coming back from overseas were allowed to bring 200 cigarettes through the English border customs free of tax duty and thus these cigarettes were very cheap indeed. I seem to remember my brother bringing the fiendishly strong Gauloises cigarettes back from France. Family get-togethers in the lounge sitting rooms quickly developed a dense fug of cigarette smoke. My mother did not smoke cigarettes and she did not drink alcohol. I sometimes wonder how she coped with it all. Well, I think this is enough on the topic of coal fires. In the next episode of these linked blogs, I shall come up-to-date and talk about central heating thermostats. Speak to you later, my dear blogophiles.

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