Olive Grace Powell, one of thirteen children of Myrtle Constance Powell was my mothers step sister, trusted friend and confidante until she passed away in 1978. She was my favourite Aunt. On walking into her kitchen, there was always a welcoming smile and within minutes there was a strong cup of sweet milky Lan Choo tea for mum, homemade cordial for me and her famous dark fruit cake on the table. Her kitchen is indelibly etched in my memory. Within a moment, regardless of where I am, I can be transported back to a time and place rich in childhood memories. The black cast iron slow combustion stove always seemed to have a kettle on the point of boil and a fruit cake or sponge about to be ceremoniously removed from the oven. A red and white canister set sat on the mantle above the stove. It had a green and white flecked in-laid lino bench top, finished off with a metal strip, and a green and white lino floor.
It was a regular occurrence that after the school pick-up, Mum and I would visit for a couple of hours. Three women around a kitchen table; ensconced in their own world of stories that was only was broken by the creak of the back door as it announced the arrival of her husband, Uncle Clem or her daughter, Joannie. I say three women, as Aunty Ollie always made me feel welcome, special, worthy of being spoken to and old enough to be included. She always had time to ask the simple questions about my school, netball, Rusty - my ginger haired Australian Terrier - and my brothers.
After many years of the kitchen table ritual, I passed from a child, to girl and to a young adult. The initiation was complete when the conversations no longer contained any hushed tones.
Aunty Ollie was interesting. She was left – handed and her father died in a work accident. Her older brothers fought in the 2nd World War while she worked in a factory - assembling the wings for the war planes. She could knit and crochet and was a cross-word marvel. She would talk fondly about her brother and sisters and their extended family endlessly – Hazel Jean, Dorothy Joyce, Ethel Grace, Hilda Muriel, Lorna Myrtle, Clarence William, Stanley Herbert, Francis Wright, Sydney Ivan, Harold James and of course mum and dad. But most importantly she was a fabulous cook and she had a cook’s kitchen.
Just as Alice in Wonderland was lost in a timeless underground world, when I walked into her pantry I was lost, but in a timeless culinary world. With floor to ceiling shelving, it rivalled the slow combustion stove as the hub. It contained everything that was needed to roast, bake, boil and preserve. There was a Sunbeam mix master, large stock pots and baking trays, a pressure cooker, cake tins of every size and shape that could bake everything from date loaf, orange cake, lamingtons, swiss roll and fruit cakes to fairy cakes, biscuits and shortbread. It had decorative glass jelly moulds, ceramic containers for meat paste, jars of ingredients and empty jars waiting for the next harvest. A Fowlers preserving kit was surrounded by a colourful selection of preserved fruits and boxes of rings, lids and clips. There were cake and biscuit tins with scenery of far away places that were always full and a variety of cooling racks and fancy biscuit cutters. There was even a traditional cast metal meat mincer and apple corer that were bolted to the kitchen table when in use. Our pantry was nothing in comparison to this and somewhere, somehow there was always a surprise in Aunty Ollie’s kitchen.
It was just before Christmas on one of our visits that as we walked into the kitchen, a pig’s heads was sitting on the bench next to the door. Complete with its ears, eyes, teeth and tongue Uncle Clem was preparing it for the Christmas Brawn. He was painstakingly burning off the last of the facial bristles before it was to be relegated to hours of gently simmering. I enjoyed brawn with its cool clear jelly at hot Christmas family gatherings on many occasions, but I didn’t know what was in it until that day. Not only could she bake but she could transform the offal and extremities of a variety of different animals into delicious meals; steak and kidney pie, potted tongue, tripe, brains and lamb shanks or tongue in parsley sauce, lambs fry and bacon and devilled kidneys. Her culinary talents seemed endless. While she learnt to cook during the frugal war years, with her commitment to cooking and family, she was ordained never to be an ordinary cook.
Our relationship was further cemented during the 1960’s when Aunty Ollie and Uncle Clem looked after me and my brothers during the September school holidays. Left with a generous household budget, Aunty Ollie’s instructions were not to scrimp and save on the groceries. A new kitchen ritual evolved. This time in mum’s new 1960’s kitchen. It had the latest laminex bench tops, black and white vinyl tiles, family sized Westinghouse fridge and the latest St George electric stove with two ovens and a warming drawer. At first Aunty Ollie cooked and as her helper, I would get the cold milk from the fridge as she explained the importance of keeping the pastry dough cool, never overworking it and to never ever make pastry with warm hands. The next year I was old enough and tall enough to be able to work at the bench. Under her gentle and skilful instruction, love and patience I learned how to read recipes, measure ingredients without spillages, sift flour and spices, cream butter and sugar until it was light and fluffy and how to add eggs without curdling the mixture, how to prepare cake and pie tins, roll and shape pastry and apply an egg wash.
One day, while flipping through the recipe books, Aunty Ollie was inspired to make what today would be called pork en croute. How exotic. Mum’s food was never this fancy. Unbeknown to me a new adventure was to unfold and passion ignited. It required pork fillet (which I had never seen before) and a visit to a continental delicatessen (another first time experience), as this was not a standard butcher shop line. The whole fillet was enveloped in a rich pasty (another first as the cornish pasties and sausage rolls that we would make used minced meat). With the pastry edges dutifully sealed and egg and milk wash carefully applied, the pork en croute was ceremoniously removed from the oven when it was golden brown and baked to perfection. As each slice was cut, the pastry cracked to perfection. Then as the knife moved through the sage and mushroom duxelle mixture and pork fillet, my appetite was tantalised as the meat juices and earthy aromas were released. This adventure and experience opened a whole new world - international cuisine.
It has taken many years of practice and patience in the kitchen and cooking for my own loved ones for me to realise Aunty Ollie’s legacy. It’s not by chance that my pantry is pretty much the same and regardless of whether I’m preparing a gourmet Sunday lunch or simple family meal, her love of food and family lives on through my love of food and family. There are special days in the kitchen where I now pass on Aunty Ollie’s cooking tips and the love of family to yet another generation.