The smell of roasting chicken lured me downstairs and into the kitchen. My dad was stood at the stove, coddling his precious gravy, and my mum was sitting at the dining table peeling apples with a knife. I sat opposite her and picked at the swirls of peel on the chopping board.
My mum can peel an apple in one continuous spiral. She runs the knife round and round, using her thumb to guide the blade, whilst saying, “Don’t peel apples like this, you’ll cut yourself.” To be fair it does look precarious, but the peel inevitably pings off unbroken and bounces down to the table like a spring.
After the last apple was stripped bare, she chopped them up and tossed them into a pan for stewing. Then she measured out flour, sugar and butter to make a crumble. I watched as she moved around the kitchen and peered over my father’s shoulder to inspect the gravy. She wasn’t allowed to interfere though. The gravy was his speciality.
This had always been their arrangement when it came to cooking - my mum did the majority of the work and my dad tagged in when he fancied a go. He made the gravy every Sunday, for example, and never failed to offer his opinion on scrambling eggs. If there was a special meat that needed cooking just so, he would take charge of that too.
One summer we rented a house in France for a week-long holiday. It was out in the sticks, a fair drive from any shops or restaurants, and we arrived late in the evening after a long journey. Once the car was unpacked, we rooted around the kitchen for scraps of food to cobble together.
The only thing we found was a tall jar containing a mysterious white substance, and everyone, apart from my dad, turned their nose up at it. I suggested we do the owner of the house a favour and bin it, but my dad refused. He was convinced the jar held hidden treasure.
We watched, agast, as he scooped the white stuff into a frying pan and put it on the hob. I made retching noises behind my dad’s back, but nothing could deter him as he stood over the pan and shuffled the white lump from side to side. Within ten minutes the fat had cooked away to reveal four succulent breasts of duck.
Aside from these rare moments of glory, he was reluctant to get involved in the kitchen, and my mum was left to make us dinners of meat or fish with roasted potatoes and vegetables. Meals were always wholesome and delicious, but with one small drawback: The perennial disappointment of absent pudding.
“What’s for dessert?” we would ask, as I hoovered up any leftovers.
“There’s fruit,” my mum would reply. “Or some natural yogurt.”
We’d been expecting this. It was the typical response. Even so, we struggled to swallow our disappointment as we cleared the table in glum silence.
Sometimes I tried to concoct a dessert from what I could find in the cupboards. It must’ve been hard for my mum, having taken the time to cook us a decent meal, to then watch her son mix hot chocolate powder into yogurt and add a dollop of jam.
This didn’t happen on Sundays though. My mother and I were spared such indignity on Sundays because we had a roast, and you can’t have a roast without dessert.
I watched as my mum rubbed butter into flour with her fingertips, gradually turning two distinct ingredients into a mixture that resembled lumpy sand. She added sugar, oats and ground cinnamon, gave it a final stir, and sprinkled it over the stewed apples, ready to go in the oven.
It was relaxing to see this slow melding of simple ingredients, from the artful peeling of apples, to the smell of stewing fruit, to the gentle kneading of butter and flour. It all came together to create something tasty and nostalgic, a bastion of proper food.
Whenever I make apple crumble now, I’m reminded of those quiet weekends with my family. The four of us dawdling in the kitchen, nothing urgent or superficial. I just have to omit my mother’s perilous technique for skinning the fruit. Apples in my crumble will forever remain fully clothed.