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A Shout From The Attic: Cuisine à la Wray Castle

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but she can also be the mother of disaster as Ronnie Bray reveals in this account of a monumental culinary catastrophy.

To read earlier chapters of Ronnie's sparkling autobiography please click on A Shout From The Attic in the menu on this page.

It has been said that “Necessity is the mother of invention,” and I am confident that it is true. But, under what I call the “First Law of Necessity” is the neglected but equally veritable “Second Law of Necessity,” which decrees that “Necessity is often the mother of disaster.”

That this is true is clear from the exploits of those who while inventively responding to dire necessity did not benefit mankind, but fell injuriously, sometimes fatally, under the awfulness of their innovation, assisted by the discomfiture of those whom insolent destiny decreed should fall under the ægis of their ghastly ministrations.

Haute Cuisine is replete with names that have supplied something invaluable to good eating, thereby guaranteeing recognition for ingenious luminaries as long as the rain shall fall, as long as the rivers run, and as long as the grass shall grow.

Notable examples are Béchamel Sauce, named for Louis de Béchamel. Pêche à la Melba is named for soprano Dame Nellie Melba, who is also responsible for crispy Toast Melba, sippets of which provide succour to the feebly languid of middle class and above, and Philippe de Mornay gave his illustrious name to delicious breakfast eggs.

Although I have personally and to my cost sampled ‘Cuisine à la Wray Castle,’ that style does not recommend itself and has not disturbed the general population despite the fact that at its inception upwards of thirty hungry Boy Scouts, of whose company I made one, fell victim to it.

Yet, in spite of my own experience with it, considering the bizarre appetites of some young fellows, I am bewildered that cookery books do not contain at least one recipe in this mode.

In the case of ‘Cuisine à la Wray Castle’ the responsible person – I hesitate to name him ‘chef or even ‘cook’ – is Peter Coletta. Peter has now gone to the place where eldritch cooks go or, if he yet survives, he is too old to care about the truth being shared with an unadoring public.

Peter lived just down the street from me in Huddersfield in the big detached house above the cellar factory where his family made ice cream. Although a couple of years older than most of our crowd, Peter joined in with our fun with gusto and good humour. He was a pleasant and likeable boy, educated, witty, charming, and had the keys to the ice cream fridge, and frequently took us through its portals to sample the delightful substance.

Peter worked at the family business, testing, mixing, testing, apportioning, testing, cleaning up, testing, being a general good help to his father, Dominic, who was a fighter pilot during World War Two, flying many sorties against the Japanese, and testing, sometimes with our help on the testing.

Peter’s sister, Marie, was too grown up to mess about with ice cream and busied herself looking for a “Millionaire or Best Offer.” Whether she managed to seize a plutocrat by the wallet we did not discover, but we knew her well enough to know that if one came within hailing distance of her Mediterranean beauty, he would be the one doing the chasing, and she would probably not run away too fast.

His stint as ‘kitchen person’ came when our Scout troop camped in one of the fields belonging to Wray Castle on the shore of Lake Windermere. Our tents were large enough for four thirteen year olds to take a huge quarter each.

The amenities in the Castle grounds included a full-length zinc-plated tin bath that the bravest souls paddled on the Lake until the big steamer’s wake overturned it beyond the shelf from which watery grave our best swimmers failed in their courageous efforts to raise it.

We bought postcards of the Lake and stamps bearing the King’s likeness and posted them in the red pillar box outside the little shop and Post Office in the village of Ambleside, when we were permitted by our captors to visit, writing more or less sincere words of endearment to our parents to smooth the way for a prodigal’s welcome when our six-night punishment ended.

The camp setting was idyllic, the tents kept out the rain, the leaders busied us with tying knots, cutting wood, stalking quarry, and playing wide games, so beloved of young undisciplined tearaways. Our feeding arrangement was the only thing not realistically organised. We were in the remote countryside, so descending like Tiglath-Pileser III’s Assyrian horde on an unsuspecting local eatery was out.

Besides being hungry and impecunious, a condition known to lead men to desperation, none of our fraternity had any experience in cooking, and that included the ‘Skipper’ and his lieutenants.

In a flash of stupidity on the part of the devisers of our camping project, the notion that we lads would cook for ourselves cropped up. It was summarily poured into a saucer, saluted, gilded, run up the flagpole, lapped up by the cat, and was unanimously resolved by the committee, whose collective intellectual tide had ebbed, to be a stroke of genius. Incidentally, this same board was recently reported to be in their seventh month of daily meetings to plan a drinking party in a distillery.

Genius, like beauty, is as genius does, and these geniuses failed to do their market research into the culinary skills of our al fresco fellowship. Had they done so, they would have abandoned the idea of boys cooking for boys, and instructed each of us to bring a week’s stock of sandwiches. We were a bunch whose accumulated kitchen talents stretched no further than burning crumpets under the toasting grill. To imagine that we could go from solitary victualling to mass catering was a grand delusion.

I have, on reflection, entertained a suspicion that the chieftains brought their own rations because they never ate with the herd. During the weeklong affair, this was their only demonstration of sagacity.

Everyone appointed in his course to tend the sacred flame made burnt offerings at the shrine of ignorance, and quickly became so proficient at burning sausages, eggs, bacon, and everything else in smoking beef dripping, that they could leave it sizzling for long periods of time and return at the critical moment when everything was reduced to cinders. What a talent! And how odd that so many of us shared it!

They say that charcoal is good for the blood. The lack of haematological disorders in members of the troop is due to the diet of charcoal from which we secured a lifetime’s immunity.

Ah, I hear your interjected question: “Why weren’t all the burned offerings of that memorable week labelled ‘Cuisine à la Wray Castle’?” The reason is simple. The Spring Grove Scout Troop was not the originator of burned food. That distinction belongs to an unknown in the generations much earlier than my own day, even before King Alfred. The first ‘Chef de cuisine de Nourriture Brûlée’ is either lost in the swirling mists of pristine time, or enveloped by smoke from his own fire. But what was created by Peter C was novel, and his style alone is worthy of the title.

The one meal that came from Peter’s hand was not burned. Yet how oft in the bleakness of a sleepless night when memory provokes my soul I have cried, “Would that it had been burned!” Peter’s meal was not charred, but was by stages, boiled, fried, and baked! But that was not all.

Whatever it ended up as, ‘IT’ set out on the journey of life to be chocolate pudding. Not an enterprise requiring much in the way of soaring intellect or formal schooling. This was a scratch venture because add-water-and-an-egg-light-blue-touch-paper-and-stand-well-back pudding mixes had not then been introduced into Her Britannic Majesty’s Realm.

Peter, who discovered nothing in a field kitchen that faintly resembled the ice cream factory, made frequent references to a formula that had been hastily scribbled on a piece of shiny toilet paper. The author of the monograph was unknown, but when their culinary expertise was put to the test it failed catastrophically.

Peter was commissioned to cook the dessert by direct decree from Olympus’ top because he was “Used to working with mixtures” in his family’s Gelato plant, where he was reputed to “Make it perfect every time.” Whether anyone was there ‘every time’ young Peter did the weigh-mix-and-freeze, whether the amount of ice cream produced was equal to the weight of ingredients missing from the store, or whether the big floor drain showed signs of having had incriminating evidence of ‘summat gone wrong’ dumped down it, no one can say. But, he accepted his duty with enthusiastic willingness.

Standing above the flames like mighty Vulcan in his celestial forge, Peter with exactitude measured into containers suspiciously resembling industrial slop buckets, vast quantities of flour, butter, cocoa powder, and several other esoteric components, the exact nature of which he was forbidden, he said, on pain of the Indian Burn on both wrists, to reveal. He poured in copious amounts water, and mixed the whole melange vigorously with a rod he liberated from an ancient oak whose best days had long since passed. Unlike the previous parade of cooks-cum-charcoal burners, Peter stayed watchfully by the vats and looked as if he knew what he was doing.

Two hours after he started, our man at the inferno scratched his raven wing curls and expressed mystification that the chocolate pudding was not setting as it should, even after extra cooking time. We heard his complaint but were too ignorant to provide any assistance other than a few, “Oh”s, and a lot of looking nonchalantly in directions other than that in which he laboured.

Our former friend, who for his failure to feed us we now regarded as a pyromaniac alchemist, still stirred the pudding-yet-to-come and could not enjoy the luxury of casting his eyes about the now-gloomy greensward and woods, nor of sweeping them across the misty lake, because he was determined that his repast would not become just another burnt offering on the altar of misfortune and, therefore, he remained sharply focused on his employment.

When we cook at home and things don’t work out very well, we go to the larder, the pantry; or else we slip out to the shop and get some means of remedying the farrago.

Wray Castle cooks were not afforded such indulgence, because the folks at the castle did not like scruffy urchins knocking to borrow a cup of this or that, there were no close neighbours, and the shop at Ambleside was a two-hour’s trot there and back, and would be longer if the shop was full.

Here, then, is the situation at this point. Dinner is cooking but uncooked in the pot. Nearby, a throng of hungry boys waits with impatience that is not inexhaustible. Out of their sight and earshot, their supervising patricians tuck into crypto-comestibles, apparently unconcerned for the fate of the discontented who, in response to what they see as institutional neglect, are rapidly heading for the ranks of the Lumpen Proletariat.

In such circumstances exigency decrees that doing something is preferable to doing nothing, and it is then that the “Second Law of Necessity” kicks in reflexively. Peter felt the kick and received the oracle that the week’s supply of porridge oats would be a suitable thickening agent.

His singular foresightedness is brought into sharp relief considering that flavoured porridge had not at that time yet made its tooth-decaying way into the market place, and this stuff was nothing more than that concerning which Johnson remarked, accurately if acerbically, that, “It feeds horses, but in Scotland it feeds the population.” Quite, and in England too, but with Tate and Lyle’s Golden Syrup on it instead of Jock’s Salt. Yet nowhere does Johnson make mention that it is a suitable replacement for corn flour!

With the introduction of the oats, the chocolate pudding was transmogrified and took on the guise of quicksand on the Yorkshire Moors. But it did not set!

More fire, more stirring, more stirring, more fire. Although our aberrant cook had not achieved his primary goal, his progress in its general direction was marked by the fact that he had worn a good twelve inches from the end of his stirring stick.

The mix was still too runny to be called ‘pudding’ by all but the misinformed and there was no more porridge to stick in it. “Well,” said Peter, unwilling to admit defeat, “There is still something I can do.” We wondered tacitly not what it was, but why he hadn’t done it a couple of hours before. As it turned out it would not have helped then, and it did not help now.

With a cheerful, “There goes breakfast!” he emptied the contents of the giant sized catering pack of corn flakes into the foaming brew. Despite a gnawing need for food, I admired his verve, his command, and his refusal to let the situation get him down or wipe the smile from his face.

We waved farewell to the corn flakes. The compound didn’t ‘snap,’ crackle,’ or ‘pop.’ It just lay there and groaned! Its groan was such as you might expect a dying whale to utter with its last gasp before it plummeted to its grave in the depths of the ocean. There is something eerily pathetic about food that groans. As it fell on our ears an other-worldly manifestation reached down inside us, touched our souls, and obliterated all vestiges of confidence that our supper would be palatable.

Time, the enemy of the schemes of humanity, forced us with manifest timidity to allow a still-smiling Peter to plop the gloop onto our platters. In silence we sat cross-legged on the darkening grass to dine. For the longest time we surveyed the contents of our plates, pregnantly poised between flight and submission. Brute hunger forced us to cram into our mouths and chew that which we would normally eschew.

Even as the quivering masses of unearthly hued jelly sat mockingly on our tin plates, the dying day spread fingers of light across the western horizon over the gently lapping lake. As the light failed, the luminescent extremities raised themselves like a giant hand, the thumb pressing against the nose of a grave-purple cloud, its fingers fanned, and from far away in the rushing gloom a chorus of malevolent spirits blew a spectral raspberry, and then we knew – we just knew! Our spoons rattled onto our plates, our jaws went slack, and our chins hit our belt buckles with a single ‘thud!’

Some say it was the spirits of departed chefs, or a group of the revenants of departed cuisiniers who hang around Kitchen-Earth keeping watch on what is happening in our pots, pans, casseroles, Dutchies, ramekins, and vats, perhaps even taking possession of spoiled banquets.

I cannot say whether phantoms were the source of Peter’s culinary vision. If they were, then it is hoped that on future occasions they will interfere in more helpful ways, with more panache, and more pragmatic proposals than the chuck-it-all-in métier de cuisine that is recognised by its surviving casualties as ‘Cuisine à la Wray Castle.’

The dessert lay deserted on our plates as we imagined what malignant deity might even now be struggling to free itself from the gloop eating away at the enamel on them. Dispirited by thoughts of spirits, we let them slide to the floor and wandered off en masse to sit in the light of the campfire to cheer ourselves singing “The shades of night were falling fast. Upidee, Upida.” That didn’t work so we switched to “Green grow the rushes-O” which terrified the Banshees and we didn't hear from them again that night.

We wrote a song to mark our time at Wray Castle. It broke the Scout Law in several places, bent two of the Ten commandments, and seriously fractured a goodly portion of the Code of Hammurabi, so it cannot be reproduced here in its entirety. It is sung to the tune of ‘The Song of the Vagabonds,’ from the ‘Vagabond King,’ which opens:

“Glory and love to the men of Old,
Our sons may copy their virtues bold.”

Our born-of-suffering version began:

“Wray Castle campers,
Never get owt to eat,
Dry bread and water
Four times a week.”

After which it gets ridiculous and rapidly worsens to a standard that is contrary to good order and Boy Scout discipline, half a dozen Cumbrian by-laws, two Manx Statutes dating from the time of Beowulf, two paragraphs and seven sub-sections of Management policy of the Grand Ole Opry, and several Papal Bulls.

In its defence, ‘The National Enquirer’ said that the song matched their criteria, and it is as certainly as good as ‘Cuisine a la Wray Castle!’

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