Had you been an out-of-season fly on the wall on Thursday last you might have observed me sitting at the kitchen table crumbling bread. It had all begun with a foray into the cellar to unearth the winter curtains, a foray that ended with me staggering up the steps not only with Mathilde’s quilted draft excluders but also Eliza Smith’s The Compleat Housewife.

Its leather binding is faded and brittle; the spine, what’s left of it, is torn. I remember where it sat on Great Uncle Mole’s dresser between the cracked teapot containing the housekeeping kitty and volumes V to XI of The Practical Engineer’s Handbook. It was in no better condition then, but I suppose it had already graced one kitchen or another for over two hundred years.

In spite of the broken spine the binding is tight. The pages are thick and the type so firmly impressed you could read it with the pads of your paws. It is filled with advice on how to make liquid laudanum or concoctions to aid breeding or Battalia Pie (whose ingredients would do the beard of Edward Lear’s old man proud). But what I remember it being consulted for each summer was Gooseberry Cream, and Uncle Ratty laying the carving knife across its pages to keep them open.

A torn piece of flocked wallpaper still marks the page with the Gooseberry Fool recipe, but what seduced me was Bread and Butter Pudding. And so last Thursday or thereabouts, I was sitting in my kitchen at a table that was once my Mama’s with a loaf in front of me, just I once sat with my late Mama, crumbling bread to make bread sauce. We didn’t sit at the table I now have in my kitchen. It isĀ a kitchen table, but the kitchen in the parental burrow was so cramped, and the table so piled up with stuff, that we had to spread an oilcloth out on the walnut table in the dining room alcove to do our crumbling.

Somehow the crumbling and the wallpaper and thoughts of my late Mama began to sadden me. I was transported to a grim month I’d been farmed out to a mole so old she must have been an aunt of Great Uncle Mole’s rather than one of his many sisters. Her burrow was decrepit and ivy grew through cracks in gothic splendour. This ancient mole did not favour nippers. Mealtimes were silent and by way of avoiding contact she decreed two hour naps after lunch. The damp, mouldy mustiness made me so wheezy I couldn’t lie down. There was nothing to read, or play with, and so during those long hours I would entertain myself by tearing off samples of the layers and layers of wallpaper that had begun to peel away from the walls. Every afternoon I’d take these samples and lay them out in sequence as if I were dealing from a pack of cards. I imagined the life of each mole entrapped in this room, counting back generations as I moved from pattern to pattern.

There is something meditative about crumbling bread between you paws. The tactility and gentle motion slows time and allows the mind to wander. I had crumbed the whole loaf before I realised what I had done.

I was not supposed to crumble. I was supposed to take a pat of butter and spread it on a two penny loaf sliced very thin. I was supposed to layer those slices with scattered raisins and currants between, pour over it three pints of cream thickened with the yolks of ten eggs, scatter grated nutmeg and mix in half a pound of sugar.

Those poor eighteenth century arteries.

Perhaps it is as well that I crumbled. I can still make a pottage of sorts but can call it something else, hold back a little on the butter and cream and eggs, and bring myself into the here and now.


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