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September 28, 2009 | by  | in Features |
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Lessons I have learned from my mother

Sarah Robson talks to her mum about a number of domestic tasks

My mum has taught me a number of useful things throughout my 21 years. I know that scrunched-up newspaper will leave glass and mirrors streak-free—none of that fancy window cleaner stuff required. I can bake a pretty mean banana cake. I can sew on a button, and I know that a bit of elbow grease goes a long way when it comes to removing stubborn stains from clothes.

In this modern age of fancy cleaning products, Wishbone, and a proliferation of over-priced clothing stores, we sometimes forget the lessons and skills passed down to us through the generations. The lessons that my mum has taught me, and that she continues to teach me down the phone or via email, have frequently opened with the line “Now your grandmother always said…” I know that when that line is pulled out, Mum means business. Cue: find a paper and pen, and take notes. My gran was one resourceful lady. She knew what she was talking about.

I endeavour to pass on to you, dear readers, some of this wisdom that has been passed through the generations of my family.

Growing rhurbarb

“Rhubarb thrives on copious quantities of sheep poo and rain just as it’s starting to come away again in the spring,” Mum says. This means there are many rhubarb-related delights in store such as stewed rhubarb, rhubarb and apple crumble, and rhubarb ginger pudding.

Making jam

“Edmond’s has pretty good instructions,” Mum told me. She advises that you need to be careful not to use really ripe fruit. Ripe fruit has some sort of thing in it which can make the jam go mouldy. To make jam, you need to boil the fruit (raspberries, strawberries, plums or whatever takes your fancy) until it’s cooked, then add the sugar and boil it quickly. “Jam takes a lot of sugar,” Mum says. She warns that you need to be careful to make sure the jam doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pot you’re cooking it in.

Mum tells me there’s a bit of an art in determining when the jam is set. To test if it’s set, you need to take a spoonful of the jam, put it on a saucer and put it aside in the fridge. Once the jam has formed a skin over the top of it, tip the saucer to determine if it’s ready. Set jam will stay put on the saucer. Now it’s time to put the jam into sterilised jars.

How do I sterilise a jar?

Firstly, you need to wash the jars in warm, soapy water. Place the jars in the oven at about 120-130 degrees, for at least ten minutes. If the oven is too hot, you’ll crack the jars. Once you’ve got the jars out of the oven, stand them on a wooden board to cool down. If you put a jar straight onto a stainless steel bench, it’ll crack.

Preserving fruit

There are always jars of fruit in the cupboard at home. Peaches, plums, apricots, pears. Canned fruit is a foreign concept to me. It also tasted heinous the few times I tried it. Nothing compares to preserved fruit of the mum variety. “You know exactly what you’ve put in the jar, there’s no other additives,” Mum says. “It’s one way of capturing the essence of the summer season.” Preserving fruit is a mildly labour-intensive process. “Your grandmother always used the overflow method,” Mum explained. Of course, I had no idea what this entailed.

You need to peel and slice the fruit, and cook it one jar at a time. The fruit is cooked in a watery, sugary syrup. The hot fruit then needs to be placed in the sterilised and warmed jar. “Then you pour the syrup over that fruit until the jar overflows and then you place a seal on top,” Mum says, establishing the reason why it’s called the overflow method. The seal needs to be sterilised too before you pop in on the top of the jar and screw down the band. The jar has been successfully sealed if you hear a ‘pop’ noise, and the seal is concave.

Starch, wtf?

I’m fairly sure my mum is one of only a very small number of people who still make starch. Starch makes things like table linen, of the high quality end of the spectrum, nice and crisp. My mum starches a high-quality large white tablecloth prior to Christmas Day. The process of starching makes the table cloth quite stiff, and it looks much nicer on the table.

Mum has experimented with her starch recipe over a number of years, with mixed success.

She has, however, finally acquired the starch recipe from the back of the “Robin’s” starch packet. Mum recited this recipe to me over the phone: “Cream two heaped table spoons of cornflour with a little cold water, add about four pints of absolutely boiling water, stirring well all the time and then add an equal quantity of cold water.” I’ll leave it to you to do the metric conversion.

Before you begin the starch process, wash the table linen (your table cloth, serviettes and the like) and spin or wring it out. Soak it in the starch, and once you’ve done that you need to spin or wring out the linen again and hang it on the line to dry. This is not the end of the process. It needs to be ironed, and it needs to be damp when you do this. Sprinkle the linen with water and then roll it up “so the dampness permeates through it,” says Mum. To finish off the job, a reasonably hot iron is required, and Mum tells me you need to “apply a lot of pressure.” If you get the recipe right, and iron accordingly, you too will have nice, crisp linen for Christmas Day dinner.

How to get stains out of clothes

My mum swears by glass washing boards: “Those wrinkly bits on washing tubs don’t do a hell of a lot.” I’ve seen a couple of glass washing boards in my time. They have a tendency to crack and break, as was the case with at least two washing boards that have graced the presence of the laundry back in Feilding. Currently, Nana Robson’s glass washing board is “still doing sterling service”, and with the help of some modern-day stain remover, my mum’s getting stains out of clothes left, right and centre.

How to make Mr Jam’s Top Hat Steamed Pudding

This is the pudding that defines my childhood. My sisters and I changed its name to the one above, and we still refer to it by its full title. It’s actually called ‘Dominion Steam Pudding’, and it’s a recipe that has been passed down the generations. Mum usually doubles the mixture, “otherwise it’s not worth it.” She claims it’s easy to make, but I have to admit, I’ve never tried. But here is the recipe (remember to double it!):

1 cup flour
1 tsp baking powder
2 oz butter
4 oz sugar
One egg
Half a cup of milk

Cream the butter and sugar, add the egg and beat well.

Add the flour, baking powder and milk. Mix it all together.

Grease the bowl you’re going to cook it in really well. Put some delicious plum jam that you’ve made at the bottom of the bowl, and then put in the pudding mixture.

Cover the bowl with foil, and steam it in a big saucepan (put water in the saucepan, place the bowl with the pudding in it in the saucepan) for about an hour.

You should have delicious pudding, best served with French vanilla ice cream.

Why knitting is ace

Mum tried to teach me how to knit once. I failed. Miserably. Mum tells me that knitting is a relatively easy skill to learn. I disagree. It’s hard. It requires vast amounts of concentration on all sorts of levels. Perhaps I fail at coordination. Perhaps I need to practise more. Apparently, once you get so good that you don’t even need to look at what you’re knitting, you can knit and read, or knit and watch TV. I aspire to this level of knitting competence. I’m going to be knitting all over summer. At least by the time winter comes, I might have a scarf that way.

Listen to your mum, your gran, or your nana. Take heed of their advice, for they are much wiser than you realise. Scrunched-up newspaper is not only cost-effective, but it’s guaranteed to leave a streak-free shine every time.

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About the Author ()

Editor for 2010, politics nerd, panda fan and three-time award-winning student journalist.

Comments (4)

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  1. Barbara Beckford says:

    Did you know that Mum’s wisdom & modern technology can produce your steam pudd within 6 mins in a microwave on high. For variations, omit the jam and add 1 tsp mixed spice and 1 cup of mixed fruit(even wrinkly apples hiding in the fruit bowl can be chopped up & thrown in – but newts & toads are not PC any more.)

  2. Guy says:

    It must be that thyme of year, my mumsie just made a whole pile of jam and preserves for me, yum yum that’s xmas taken care of eh? Better than a hangover I say. The elderberry jam is just out of this world

  3. Sue Hine says:

    What you always wanted to know about rhubarb: Aeons ago it was a plant that migrated to China, along with other seeds, vegetables, fruit, animals, glass-making, Islam and a heap of other stuff, transmitted eastwards along the Silk Road. China turned this rhubarb into a major 19th century export to Britain – as a purgative you understand. Clean healthy bowels was a preoccupation of the populous, along with getting a political and commercial foothold to the riches of China, introducing opium and taking the tea trade away to plantations in India. To the point where a Chinese dignatory wrote to Queen Victoria to advise all exports of rhubarb would cease forthwith if Britain did not cease its incursions, “and imagine what this would do to the well-being of citizens” the letter concluded. There is no information about a reply received from the Queen, and the rest, as they say is history.

    Oh, and if you are interested in old-time domesticity I could give you an ancient (by your terms) recipe for marmalade. I don’t know much about its purgative qualities but it’s sure good on a piece of toast with a morning coffee.

  4. Jemima says:

    I love rhubarb, opium and marmelade. Can we be bffs?

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