Housekeeping at Sea

From Ngaire’s Journal, 13th May 1958
Onboard RMS Rangitane II, En route for Southampton, England

The sea today is indigo, just like a tub of Reckitts washing blue water.
I have noticed the deck hands use electric scrubbers. Rangitane

In 1958, a time when travel was still something of a novelty,  my grandparents went on a ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe. They sailed out on the Rangitane, and my mother remembers them leaving, dressed to the nines with an extraordinary amount of luggage. Ngaire had a small suitcase just for hats (I have it now, and it’s not the hatbox you might be imagining; it’s a proper suitcase.) It was a glamorous time.

Reckitts blueBut while you can take a girl away from the housekeeping, you can’t stop her thinking about laundry. Not in Ngaire’s case anyway.

My grandmother was a very proud (and very competent) housekeeper. I remember her telling me, in her bustling sort of way, that all she had ever wanted was to ‘keep her own house.’ Privately, she considered that she had been dangerously late to marry (she was 28), and had worried she wouldn’t have the chance to be a ‘proper housewife’. I was a teenager at the time she told me this and was probably studiously disinterested (in my defence, you did have to be on your toes around Ngaire –  she was like a one-woman marriage agency). But now, as I read through her diaries, I can see what the rituals of housekeeping meant to her – how for her, the cooking and the cleaning, the making and the caring was so much more than a job.

I plan to write more about Ngaire and Gerald’s ‘grand tour’, but in the meantime you might be interested in these posts:

Battle of the Bulge

Over the Edge

Acknowledgement: I found the postcard of the Rangitane on Reuben Goossens’ site I suspect it’s the wrong ship (they were on the Rangitane II), but the water is such a perfect colour in this picture.

It’s Beginning to Feel a bit Like Panic

From Ngaire’s journal, 21st November 1950
Made the Christmas Mince and Puddings and cleaned all the windows.

Good grief,  I turn my back on this blog for 5 minutes and she’s gone ahead and made the Christmas mince and puddings and cleaned the bloody windows. And made three Christmas Cakes.

3rd November 1953
Made 3 Christmas cakes today. One for Christmas Day. One for Christmas Eve and to give pieces away, and a small one to take with us to Akaroa.

The last five weeks have vanished in a blur of deadlines (I work as a freelance corporate writer), assignments (I’m studying professional writing and editing), celebrations (Max turned 13 and things got a bit out of hand), farewells (my husband’s lovely Uncle Guyse died), very early mornings (rowing season has started again) and a spot of genuine housekeeping (last weekend I was overwhelmed by the need to sort and archive all the winter clothes which may have been a form of procrastination or just a genetic thing I really can’t fight).

None of this would have made any difference to Ngaire of course (possibly because of the amphetamine-based diet pills she was almost certainly taking) so tomorrow I’m getting back on track and heading out to buy dried fruit and nuts. If not tomorrow, definitely the next day – there’s still 33 and a bit days until Christmas.

Biscuits by Force

From Ngaire’s joural, 1st October 1957
I spring cleaned the sitting room today”

I didn’t. Spring clean that is. Instead, I cleared a little spot on the kitchen bench and made forcer biscuits. You might remember that it was my grandmother Ngaire’s birthday last week, and that in 1950, for her 45th birthday, she was given a biscuit forcer.

My mother passed her own biscuit forcer on to me years ago. She said it would be handy for school lunches but I never quite got the hang of it. I remember Mum producing tins full of them, some plain and some iced, but I could never get the consistency of the dough right. Apparently, that’s because I wasn’t using Auntie Verna’s Forcer Biscuit recipe.

Auntie Verna, my father’s aunt, was one of those extraordinary country cooks who could produce miracles with only a wood stove and an egg beater. Verna and Jim produced their own milk and cream on their farm at Banyena – the separating room was just across the veranda from the kitchen – so she was especially famous for her cream cakes. Mum says that while most farmers’ wives fed shearers fruit cake and buns, Verna produced elaborate morning and afternoon ‘lunches’ with  cream horns, chocolate éclairs, sponges and tarts. With their mutual love of cooking, Ngaire and Verna got on well, and I can imagine them swapping recipes. I think they’d both approve of me passing this one on.

Verna May’s Forcer Biscuits

4 oz (110 gms) sugar, 6 oz (170 gms) butter, 1 egg, 10 oz (280 gms)  plain flour, 2 1/2 tspn baking powder.

Cream the butter and sugar, add the egg then the dry ingredients.
Using the biscuit forcer, squeeze directly onto a lightly greased biscuit tray. Don’t use baking paper as the biscuits won’t come away from the forcer cleanly.
If the mixture seems too soft, wrap in cling film and put in the freezer for 10 mins or add another tablespoon of flour.
Bake biscuits in a hot oven (190 C) for 10 minutes or until golden.
Can be joined with icing if you’d like.
Serve smugly – they do look very smart.

Inefficient Housekeeping

From Ngaire’s journal, 30th July 1949
Carol spent the day at a school friend’s house. It was Carol’s first experience of inefficient housekeeping and by the time she arrived home she had ‘had it’.”

I’m so pleased that my children have been able to experience inefficient housekeeping in the privacy of their own home. I wouldn’t want them to get a nasty shock when they go out into the world.

My grandparents’ beautiful orchard, Prestons Road, Christchurch. (Photo probably taken in the 60s.)

What is giving them a nasty shock is all this cold, wet rain (‘can you drive me to school?‘) After years of drought here in Melbourne, it’s odd to be needing rain coats and umbrellas (and amazing how quickly we’ve learnt to complain about it again).

Ngaire was well used to contending with wet weather. Christchurch is a spectacularly beautiful place, especially on a clear day.
I remember on the orchard at Prestons Road, sometimes the Port Hills seemed to be so close you could touch them. Still, it does know how to put on a cold, wet day, which is why Ngaire had this incredibly toxic recipe for waterproofing clothes which you absolutely MUST NOT try at home.

Better wet than dead I think.

Time Poor

From Ngaire’s journal, 24th July 1952
Today I thoroughly cleaned the kitchen and bathroom and Gerald painted the saucepan cupboard.”

I wish I had time to thoroughly clean the kitchen and bathroom. With that sort of time on my hands I could finish sewing the dress I cut out last winter, crochet some more squares for the afghan rug I’m making with a group of friends, trawl the streets for discarded wooden pallets to build boxes for the vegetable garden I’ve been planning forever or…go to bed and read my book in time for book club.

The truth is I seem to have lost the art of being idle (damn that Protestant work ethic) so, finding myself with a couple of spare hours, decide to make Cousin Dorrie’s marmalade.

Dorrie Coe was Ngaire’s first cousin on her father’s side (and later, also her step-first cousin on her step-mother’s side, but that’s another, convoluted story). Dorrie and her sister Vera were both accomplished cooks, and their recipes appear throughout Ngaire’s book. Anyway, Dorrie’s marmalade recipe calls for four Poorman oranges which, outside of Ruth Park’s novel Poorman’s Orange, I’ve never heard of. As it turns out there’s a link.

The Poorman orange is also known as ‘New Zealand Grapefruit’, and although we claim Ruth Park as an Australian, she was born in Auckland, NZ. Poorman oranges (which are probably a pomelo hybrid) are thought to have been brought to Australia from Shanghai in the early 1800s, and then sent to New Zealand around 1855. Poormans ripen in much cooler climates than ‘real’ grapefruit (or oranges), so it makes sense that they became popular in the South Island of New Zealand, where citrus can be difficult to grow. (My mother recalls Ngaire buying jars of home-made marmalade from a man in Akaroa, where the family often holidayed. The warm valleys on the Bank’s Peninsula were one of the few places citrus could be grown in Canterbury.)

Poormans are supposed to have particularly good rind for marmalade making, so it’s a bit disappointing that I can’t put my hands on any. I’m sure that, given a little time, I’ll be able to track some down, but for this batch I settled on a substitute of one ‘real’ grapefruit, two mandarins and two Seville oranges.

The second interesting ingredient in Dorrie’s recipe is brewer’s crystals which, after much searching, I’ve decided simply means sugar. I found a gorgeous article about marmalade in the Sydney Mail from June 1922 which says ‘there are some women who like to use brewer’s crystals for all their jam making. Personally I have used it, and found the brand very good. Still, I have made great successes with what we usually term ‘soft’ or cooking sugar, and for everyday use this is nice enough for anything.’ An article titled ‘Jam and Jelly Making‘ in a 1935 edition of the New Zealand Railway Magazine also mentions crystals, saying ‘use pure white sugar — brewers’ crystals for preference.’ If anyone can tell me anything more about brewer’s crystals (or Poorman oranges) I’d love to hear from you.

Dorrie’s Marmalade

Ingredients: 4 Poorman oranges (or substitute a mixture of grapefruit, oranges and mandarins), 2 sweet oranges, 2 lemons, water, white sugar.

  1. Wash and peel the fruit. Slice the peel into very thin matchsticks then put to one side. (Dorrie’s recipe simply says ‘cut fine’ but this is what I did.)
  2. Peel off and discard as much of the white pith as you can from the flesh. Also discard pips then put the fruit into a food processor and pulse until pulp.
  3. Collect the juice by pushing the pulp through a sieve. (You’ll need to weigh the juice so use a suitable bowl.) Put the pulp into a muslin bag, or tie in a clean tea towel that you’re not very attached to. (Dorrie’s recipe doesn’t mention separating the pulp, but doing this will give you a very clear jelly.)
  4. Add the peel to the juice and weigh. For each 1 kg add 500 mls of water. Write down the weight – you’ll need the figure again.
  5. Add the bag of pulp (you need this for the pectin) to the juice/peel and let stand for 24 hours.
  6. The next day, boil until the rind is tender (approximately 1 hour). Once cool, squueze all juice from the bag of pulp then discard. Let the mixture stand for another 24 hours.
  7. The following day, sterilize jam jars and lids (I put them through the dishwasher on hot).
  8. Bring mixture to the boil again. Add 1.25 kg of sugar for every 1 kg of juice/peel (i.e. the original weight) and stir until dissolved.
  9. Boil hard until the marmalade reaches setting point (test by spooning onto a cool saucer and putting in the fridge for 5 minutes). Allow to cool a little then pour into jars.

Delicious on toast for breakfast, in a steamed pudding, as a glaze on pork or slathered on fresh bread and eaten in bed while you finish your book club book.

Jam and Jelly Making: NZETC,, citrus pages