The letter C has many good connotations, some of which Nigella has allegedly tried, but this normally optimistic initial is wasted on such a lumpen sauce as traditional custard. There is an element of the English psyche that is firmly linked to “nursery” food together with “bottom” and “knob” jokes. In our class ridden society, “nursery” food acts as an unlikely unifier demanding that Marmite, bacon, P.G Tips and custard should always be available to help wash the taste of “foreign muck” from the peripatetic English palate during conquest or holiday alike. Throughout the blogosphere, newspapers, magazines and book stores hourly trumpet the arrival of yet another vaunted volume of creative ingredient mixing which will be greedily gobbled up a public ceaselessly on the qui vive for new tastes and recipes . There lies beneath this thin veneer of sophistication a heart that beats like a whisk, pumping custard through the veins and arteries of British Everyman, whilst insidiously filling the mind with sensual dreams of steamed puddings with custard following a roast leg of something or other with all the trimmings.
Custard and I were never good bedfellows: I’m glad of that as I wouldn’t like to be known as easy or even as someone who welcomed custard into his bed. From the first time my spoon forced an opening in its thick, jaundiced skin to reveal the gelatinous, sweetish mess beneath I was torn between whether I should believe that my parents had no idea what was being fed to me or that they disliked me enough to pay people to feed me with this dreadfulness. Custard was my Little Big Horn…I sat alone before it, knowing that if I did not consume it, it would consume me….which translates as I had to sit there until I had eaten it. That was no way to start a loving relationship and so it has proved. Yet in the back of my mind I was sure that the amalgamation of sugar, egg yolks, vanilla and milk must be able to produce something delicious.
My epiphany occurred in exalted company. It should have been the best of times, but it was the worst of times as it was a time of looking gift horses directly in mouth and telling them to fuck off. This was 1973, and as luck would have it I had been taking pictures in Prue Leith’s country house for Terence Conran’s “House Book”, and she had very kindly prepared lunch for us all. The main constituents of the lunch were no doubt delicious but their exact natures are lost in the mists of time and failing memory, save for the dessert which she announced as the plates were being cleared from the previous course. “Jelly and custard” were the exact words and I took it badly. A sharp kick to my shins prevented the mocking words, that were already half formed, from escaping my lips. “Try it, Roger, you’ll be surprised” was Terence the Kicker’s sage advice. It was love at first mouthful. I had found a C word worthy of the letter; Creme Anglaise, and it was paired with the most delicious, home made, bitter orange jelly. This was pudding and certainly not as I had known it.
There will be those amongst you who say “Ah, but you haven’t tried my custard” or “someone’s custard” and you’d be right: I haven’t …..and that’s how it will remain. I will stay faithful to my French mistress and you must stay faithful to your English Bird…and never the twain shall meet.
The picture shows a simple, but delicious, apple crumble with creme anglaise.