Nanny Mills was rather frightening (although not to Hugh apparently), spending a lot of time quizzing Ursula about her manners and inspecting Teddy’s ears for dirt. Her sister was nicer and plied them with glasses of elderflower cordial and slices of milk fadge spread with blackberry jelly. (September 1923, pages 198-99)
It is perhaps no surprise for a foodie like me that my memories and thoughts of people are so often bound up with food. Whether it be the delicious yeasted cherry buns my Mum used to make for tea, the generous hand with which a German friend at university used to ladle cream over the dishes she cooked or the dumplings and slow-braised pork belly which my Taiwanese sister-in-law has introduced me to, the person and the dish become inextricably entwined in my mind.
The same is true for Ursula in Life After Life. In this section of the novel the 13 year-old Ursula is dining in the famous London restaurant Simpson’s with her bohemian aunt Izzie – she of the Sole Veronique fame (http://frompagetoplate.com/2016/07/25/life-after-life-1-sole-veronique/) . An idle comment from Izzie about Ursula no longer seeing her psychiatrist, Dr Kellet, leads to the narrative shifting back and forth between the conversation over the meal at Simpson’s and Ursula’s memories of her first session with Dr Kellet three years previously. After Ursula pushes the family maid Bridget down the stairs – to prevent her going to the World War I victory celebrations, contracting influenza and dying from it as she did in a previous life Ursula lived – her mother, Sylvie, seeks professional help for her.
Ursula recalls Dr Kellet talking to her about the German philosopher, Nietzsche and the classical Greek poet, Pindar. However, the 10 year old Ursula mishears Pindar as Pinner, the small town in Middlesex. This mishearing then triggers a memory of a trip to Pinner that Ursula took with her father, Hugh, and younger brother, Teddy, to visit Hugh’s old nanny, Nanny Mills, who has moved to live there in her retirement with her sister.
Whilst Ursula’s memories of Nanny Mills are tainted by her strictness, those of her sister are dominated by food and drink: ‘glasses of elderflower cordial and slices of milk fadge spread with blackberry jelly‘.
I had never heard of milk fadge until I read Life after Life. It is in fact a quick bread – like soda bread – which requires no yeast and no proving time. The raising agent is found in the self-raising flour (or – if like me – you only have plain flour then just add baking powder to your plain flour, as in the ingredient list below). As its name indicates, milk is a key ingredient. It’s a loaf you can rustle up quickly if you have an overwhelming desire for home-made bread, and it really needs to be eaten on the day it is made. Rather than blackberry jelly, I served mine with home-made raspberry and redcurrant jam – which is also referred to in Life after Life: recipe to follow.
MILK FADGE (makes one loaf)
450g self-raising flour (or 430g plain flour plus 4 teaspoons baking powder)
1 teaspoon salt
50g butter, diced
Preheat the oven to 200C / Fan 180C / Gas mark 6.
Lightly grease and line a baking tray.
Mix the flour and salt in a large bowl. Rub in the diced butter using your fingertips until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
Add the milk and, using a wooden spoon, bring the dough together into a ball.
Knead the dough for 1-2 minutes on a floured surface until smooth. Then shape it into a round and place on the baking sheet.
Cut on a cross on the top of the loaf with a sharp knife and brush the surface with a little milk.
Bake the loaf for 30-45 minutes until well-risen and golden brown and the loaf sounds hollow when tapped underneath.
Cool on a wire rack – best eaten on the day of making or use for toast the next day.