Monday, 22 February 2010

Say cheese .... biscuits ... but are they Greek?

I have my cheese biscuit recipe but of course there is as much chance they are English as Greek. Not that it matters. These are the biscuits which Charlie and Mary's daughter, Georgina Anastasia, my Great-Aunt Teeny, used to make and they were delicious smothered in butter. Well, they were delicious even when they were not smothered in butter, rich as they were with cheese and butter and tangy with cayenne pepper. There was a time when people were simply grateful to have butter, as opposed to agonising about eating it. Not that I ever agonise. I am absolutely convinced that butter is good for you. Everything in moderation and if you enjoy it then it has to be good for you.

Auntie Teeny’s Cheese Biscuits need three cups of self raising flour; one teaspoon of salt; quarter teaspoon of cayenne pepper; 500grams of cold butter; four cups of grated cheese ( I am assuming tasty cheese or maybe a mix of tasty and parmesan); one egg and a little water. All of this is mixed together into a dough and then rolled out thinly and cut into shapes. My aunt made them as diamonds so when I buy my cheese I shall do the same. I have the Parmesan but we don’t generally eat sharp hard cheeses and that is what I suspect the recipe needs. Bake at 180 C for ten to fifteen minutes. Remove from oven and put small knife slits in the top ... with all that self raising flour they puff up .... and return to the oven for a few minutes to crisp. Do not allow to brown. Biscuits can be re-crisped in the often if they soften during storage.

I have yet to put the recipe to the test but have high hopes. My cousin Barb, Teeny's grand-daughter, has come up with the recipe. I have so often thought of these biscuits and have no idea why it has taken me more than 40 years to chase up the recipe. If nothing else, this makes the journey to find Charlie Ross worthwhile. I can only hope that I can make them as well as my aunt did and that, so many years on, they taste as good as I remember.

Memory can be a moveable feast and less reliable than we think although Proust would not agree with that, having written into fame of his transportation back through time and feeling with one bite of a madeleine dipped in tea. Or was it coffee? It probably does not matter because all that matters is the memories evoked by the taste.

We spent a lot of time with my Aunt Teeny when I was a child. She lived in Hamley Bridge, a small town, situated a couple of hours to the north of Adelaide in the State’s famed wine region, the Clare Valley. It was a long drive to Hamley Bridge in the 1960’s but we drove up regularly and usually stayed overnight. The white-dirt roads in high summer would almost move in the heat, so powerful was the reflected light. As children we wandered far and wide around the town and along the river which meandered beside it, with our cousins, Aileen (Barbara) and Wayne.

The town is draped across a pretty valley between the rivers Gilbert and Light. It was and is, quite literally a town of bridges. It was named by the government of the day, after the Acting Governor Colonel Francis Hamley, whose wife laid the foundation stone of the River Light Railway Bridge on July 25, 1868. Jacarandas were planted along the main street in remembrance of those who fought for their country and they blossom in an exuberant riot of colour. I don’t remember them from my childhood but I suspect my cousin and I were more interested in ice-creams and local boys than scenery.

A railway station was established in 1880 and is now a private residence. It and the Catholic church stand as examples of some of the finest architecture of the era. I do remember being struck by the beauty of some of the buildings, even at such a young age.

The cottage where my aunt lived was tiny, as such cottates are. How she managed to produce the trays of crisp, cheese biscuits and mountains of perfumed marmalade cakes in the tiny kitchen, crammed into a lean-to, never ceased to amaze me. There was barely room to get past the small table on which she worked, to open the oven door. In essence it was a four-room cottage with a lean-to kitchen and a corrugated iron extension built onto the back which housed the laundry and the toilet.

The dining room off the kitchen had a big table pushed up against the old fireplace with barely enough room for chairs around it. But we crammed in and we fitted... just. A miniscule sleep-out, with louvre windows on two sides, had been built on one side of the tiny front verandah and this was my cousin Wayne’s room. The single bed pretty much took up most of the space and what remained was fought over by Wayne and a family of enormous huntsman spiders. He didn’t seem to mind, but the thought of them crawling all over him as he slept always made me shudder.

Wayne always gave up his bed to my father when we stayed. My father did not seem to mind the spiders either. My mother shared the double bed with my aunt while I had the spare bed in Aileen’s room and my little brother, hardly more than a toddler, slept with one of us or with my mother. It was a case of sleep where you can for my two brothers, Wayne and Ken and cousin Wayne, whose first name was Adrian but who was always known by his second name, as with his twin sister, Aileen. The boys usually made up beds on the floor of the tiny sitting room although sometimes they begged to be allowed to sleep on the verandah which was barely a spit from the picket fence and the road. Space may have been in short supply but fun and laughter were not. In that tiny house, with all of us tucked into something approximating a bed and the moon shining on the dry, ashen roads, we would talk and joke and laugh until we fell asleep. We were fed, we were warm and we were together and nothing else mattered.

It was what life was like for many if not most people until the 1950’s. Even my grandparents, Charles Vangelios and Hilda Rose had brought up a family of four children in a cottage not much bigger than the one in Hamley Bridge. With modern homes we have much more space and much more privacy but perhaps we have much less connection. I doubt though, that anyone could not argue that living conditions have improved for the better in the main. One tiny bathroom for five, six or seven people was the norm .... as was the outside toilet ... until the 1950’s. Although I grew up in a house where seven people shared one small bathroom, fitted with a tiny gas hot water system which roared when lit with a match. It terrified me every time I did it.

Like my grandparents and my aunt we also had only lino on the floor and one source of heating from a small fire-place in the sitting room. But we did have an inside toilet! The strongest memory of childhood winters is the cold, acrid smell of ash in the morning and bare feet on freezing floors. It was always my job to clean the fireplace. The consolation was that before long, like phoenix rising from the ashes, the warm, embracing flames would return. I am still more than happy to play cinderella and sweep the ash each morning in order to have the beauty and pleasure of an open fire. There is a meditative dance to the flames and a soothing whisper in the spit and crack of burning logs which never ceases to delight.

To my mind, cleaning the fireplace is one of the few jobs from the past which is worth the effort. On most other counts life has improved dramatically. And no doubt it had improved dramatically for many even when I was growing up but change comes much more slowly for the poorer classes. We did not have a washing machine until the late 1950’s. Even with four children and my grandmother to care for, my mother had no choice but to wash by hand. Every Monday the gas copper in the lean-to laundry would be fired up. I will say, a copper was a very useful thing. It was perfect for boiling water into which chickens (or swans) could be dropped to be more easily de-feathered. Not that we did this often but I bet Charlie and Mary did.

By the time I was growing up coppers were pretty much for washing only. Sheets and towels would boil in the soapy water and smaller or dirtier things would be rubbed against a washboard , with corrugations made of either timber or a glass. Long lengths, or bricks of yellow Velvet soap would be cut with a knife and broken to use on the clothes. The washing would be rinsed a number of times in the concrete troughs, including a ‘blue’ rinse for the whites. Bluo it was called and you can still buy it today, but in liquid form. Does anyone use it? The small blue squares were fascinating to hold and to smell although poisonous I was often told. Dropped into the water they would dissolve in billows of almost violet colour. Standing on a stool I would help my mother to wash by ‘stirring’ the clothes with a long, wooden stick. And then she would wind them slowly through a mangle which screwed onto the.side of a trough... turning the handle around and around as the washing was fed through and most of the water pressed away. And then it would all be hauled outside in a cane basket and pegged onto the clothesline which my father had strung across the back yard on high, supporting, wooden sticks. It was all very hard work. No wonder she was exhausted in body as well as mind.

In many ways washday, usually on a Monday with Sunday’s leftover roast for tea, would not have been so different to my great-grandparents’ experiences except that the copper would have been wood-fired and they may not have had Bluo or Velvet Soap. The mangle was invented in 1850 but of course my great-grandparents would have had to be able to afford to buy one. There may have been similarities in my childhood but there is no doubt that life in general was certainly less of a struggle. Georgina Anastasia’s life had always been a struggle but in 1960, when she was 65, it became even harder. She had been widowed some eight years earlier and was never robust, but she was adamant that she would care for her grandchildren, Aileen and Wayne, who were eleven when their mother Betty Jean was killed in a car accident. It was the third daughter that she had lost. In the diphtheria epidemic of 1924 -25 she buried two little girls a few months apart. Three-year-old Mary Doreen died in November, 1924 and the baby, Barbara (after whom my cousin was named), died on New Years Day, 1925. Diptheria epidemics were common until vaccinations were developed. In fact my mother nearly died of diphtheria as a very young child. Such losses, which are so uncommon today, must have been heart-breakingly common in times past.

My great-aunt would have washed those tiny, lifeless bodies herself and laid them out on the dining table ready for their coffins. I do not know if it was the same table at which we ate but it may well have been. The dining room was a windowless, dark alcove off the kitchen and funereal enough without such tasks. But it would have been the only large, flat surface. Did Mary come down from Gladstone to help her? I am sure that she did. Such things were women’s work and she had no sister. Her brothers by this time had moved either to Adelaide or to Murray Bridge although the women in her husband Eli’s Hamley Bridge family, the Hillards, may well have arrived with tears and hugs and helping hands.

I have no idea how many tears she must have shed in the days, months and years after she kissed those smooth, cold little faces for the last time, but cry she would have done. How could one not? Did her faith give her comfort? I like to think it did. She often went to church when I knew her and urged her resisting grandchildren to go too. And she would have been busy with her remaining children and the demanding drudgery of life for the working classes in the early part of the 20th century.

Georgina Anastasia died at the age of 71, in 1966 and is buried in Gladstone Cemetery, not far from her parents, her husband and her three daughters.

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