There is a much-touted theory that as long as you take a good sharp knife, you can cook a decent meal in any holiday let kitchen. I suspect whoever first said this was thinking of the kind of holiday let that does not site the sink, cooker and fridge in three different rooms. And anyway, a last-minute change of travel plans meant I forgot the sharp knife. This was not helpful.
To be fair, and however much I like cooking, location location location is still my first concern when choosing a holiday let. The one we stayed in last week was perfect from that angle. We were almost on the seafront; I could stroll out of the house wrapped in a beach towel, down the steps, and be swimming in the gloriously-cold North Sea in a couple of minutes: then out, wrapped up and back in the house to dry off. In addition, we were just yards away from the pub, the chippie, the Co-op – and the gelateria. Yes, this was Southwold, land of Adnams and spiritual home of the armour-clad-in-Boden-and-Jack-Wills, wouldn’t-be-caught-dead-with-a-Mr-Whippy tribe.
The house we were staying in is Grade II listed, and this has clearly dictated some of its more characterful qualities. As well as the eccentric cooking arrangements, the (conventional) radiator in the bathroom is cited high on the wall (Husband: “that’d be a nightmare to bleed”), as is the towel rail which was clearly designed for a six-footer plus with very long arms. The cooker is tucked into what would presumably have once been the kitchen hearth in what is now the dining room, and the sink is in what was probably once the scullery. The distance between those two is slightly annoying but the crowner was the fridge, stuck behind a door in the spidery cupboard under the stairs, for no apparent good reason at all as there was certainly space elsewhere. Perhaps the house owner is fridgophobic and just couldn’t bear to see it.
It was in the contents of the kitchen cupboards and drawers that the house really revealed its eccentricities though. For a house that slept six, there was an extraordinary amount of crockery and cutlery (including dozens of cups and plates and thirty-three dessertpoons) but no bottle opener. I found four cheese graters and five bread knives, but no ordinary sharp knife. There was a julienne cutter and a runner bean slicer, in case one felt the need to prepare a garnish or slice vast quantities of runner beans while on holiday.
Despite these shortcomings, we ate damn well. We only ate out once, at a properly traditional fish and chip cafe, and had one takeaway. Mostly we took advantage of the fact that Southwold is one of those rare towns that still has proper butchers, greengrocers, bakeries, and a fishmonger selling locally caught and smoked fish. We ate local, and we mostly ate simple: beautiful steaks and amazing smoked fish that needed little or nothing done to them; fresh sourdough bread with local cheeses and tomatoes brought from home for lunch; Victoria plums from the greengrocers and old-fashioned cakes from the bakery for pudding; and of course the odd sausage roll (apparently Southwold’s speciality as they were everywhere – Adnams’ cafe had my faves).
This strategy doesn’t chime with some of the advice given by cookery writers. I read two articles recently about cooking while on holiday. The Guardian’s article on stress-free-holiday cooking made me actively furious: fried egg plus greens on toast? New potatoes with sauce? Not so much a meal, more some sort of weird punishment eating. And stuffed tomatoes, easy holiday cooking? Surely that’s been comprehensively covered by the great Shirley Conran.
The Pool ran a better article by Kate Young which included the excellent advice to keep the ingredients list short (to avoid half-used packets of stuff). However even this good article included such Pseuds Corner gems as making your own ravioli on a houseboat (using a wine bottle to roll out the pasta). If I was still going on holiday in the UK with small children, I *might* consider making pasta as a way of occupying them in bad weather. But I wouldn’t eat homemade pasta out of choice on holiday unless I had a pasta machine and half a bag of ’00’ flour left by the last guests in the kitchen cupboards. Why bother when you can buy perfectly good fresh egg pasta even in a corner shop now? Or just use dried pasta and get over yourself.
The best thing I’ve ever cooked on any holiday was a crab tagliatelle. Delicious fresh crab from the Dungeness Fish Hut, heated through in a frying pan with a little butter, grated lemon rind (lemons are my must-have holiday food buy), chilli flakes I brought from home, and wild fennel picked on a walk. I bought creme fraiche and added a couple of spoonfuls at the end, and poured it over a pack of fresh tagliatelle. It was beyond delicious. We tried to recreate it when we got home, but it was the super-fresh crab that made it. That’s one very good reason to cook on holiday – fish caught that day tastes like nothing else.
Being a feeder by nature, I don’t like to be without the makings for a quick dinner, so I do take the odd thing with me. I am not usually a fan of ready-made sauces (too sweet, not enough flavour, never spicy enough), but I have discovered that a good trick is to buy them from an ethnic foodstore. Check the dates, but they usually keep for quite a while, so they’re good to take with you and bring back if you don’t use them. Also perfect for camping trips (unlike me). A pouch of sauce, couple of chicken breasts, red pepper, tin of peas and ready-cooked pilau rice, and we had a damn good curry night – a fraction of the takeaway price, took 15 minutes. What’s not to love?
The big lesson for us was that somewhere like Southwold has two faces as far as food is concerned. There’s a place for the gelato, the sourdough bread, the macarons, the Ginger Pig sausage rolls and single estate olive oil. But there’s also a place for proper fish and chips, served with cups of tea, mushy peas, and white bread and butter. And old-fashioned almond macaroons, bread pudding, and Belgian buns the size of your head. Above all, there is a place for genuine Mr Whippy ice cream, swirly soft white stuff that comes in a tub with a Flake and red sauce. These are the things proper seaside holidays are made of.