Spring cleaning… do I have to?

As it’s the vernal equinox, and I guess the first day of spring, and as I seem to have neglected housework in favour of writing maybe I should properly think about doing a traditional spring clean. The inner child in me whines ‘do I have to?’… and yes maybe I do, because our house really is lacking a bit of love and attention. I actually don’t remember my mum having a session of spring cleaning, she just did the housework as far as I recall, but maybe she did and just didn’t make a fuss of it!

Consulting Ruth Drew’s ‘The Happy Housewife’, I find pages and pages of helpful hints and instructions… ‘with spring cleaning on the map, it is necessary to sit down with a pencil and make a proper plan of campaign. it pays hand over fist, especially if you have other things to do beside housework…‘ Well, yes, I do have other things to do!

Luckily one of the first things Ruth suggests is that you ‘don’t try to do too much in a rush,’ and suggests its spread over several weeks – would several months be ok, Ruth?

She mentions chimney sweeps and clutter, comfortable shoes and handcream and of course, a dust-preserving handkerchief tied round the head! … and then has paragraphs on specific areas of spring clean need:

  • cupboards, selves and drawers
  • paintwork, carpets and rugs, upholstery and floors
  • turning out rooms, cornices, alabaster, glass, plastic, parchment, silk, rayon, nylon, paper buckram
  • general points including lampshades and lamps
  • curtains – brocades and damasks, chintz – both permanently and non-permanently glazed, cottons, Holland blinds, muslin and lace, net, rayon, terylene, velvet, washable velveteens and chenilles and similar

Only umpteen cooking days to Christmas…

My title is a quote from my dear Ruth Drew – I say ‘my dear’ although I never knew her, and even if she had not died so young I am sure I would never have met her anyway! I say ‘my dear’ because she just sounds such a delightful person, so full of enthusiasm, so practical, so jolly – she reminds me of a favourite aunty.

Her book The Happy Housewife, was published posthumously and is a collection of her broadcasts and writings; her personality leaps off the page, what a character she must have been. Here are her thoughts on preparations for the big event:

So make that cake and pudding now.
Passing a famous South Coast hostelry where noble hams and equally notable Christmas Puddings used to hang in conspicuous array under the beams of the ancient dining-room before the war, I was suddenly reminded that the time had come for thinking of Christmas Puddings and Cakes. Much of their quality, let us remember, lies in their early preparation. For both these essential concomitants of Christmastide, fruited and spiced and laced with spirit, certainly do improve with keeping, and although during the last fifty years I have been trying to find recipes which are an improvement on those used in my family when I was a child (and as my mother’s birthday was on Christmas Eve, we always enjoyed on that day a pudding made for the precious Christmas), I have never been able to discover anything better.
When i was young I cannot remember rum having ever been used in my home for Christmas puddings; it was always brandy, and I think that rum was considered not quite respectable. We know better now, however, and it remained for me to discover in later how very far superior rum is for this purpose, for its taste seems more suited to the dried fruits and its comparative sweetness imparts a greater depth of favour and richness to the whole. So today it is Jamaica rum for me every time, and I advise my readers to adopt the same excellent precept.

My featured picture is of a Christmas cake – my pudding pictures seem to have disappeared!


… and I wonder where the famous South Coast hostelry was, and if it still exists!

Steam pudding above…

I am a stout defender of British cooking, and have written a lot in defence of how cooks managed during the war when so much food was rationed, and for the years following the war, before the rationing finished.  However there is an occasional recipe I find that I not only think, ‘why?‘ but ‘how‘, and even if I work out the ‘how‘, ‘is it worth the bother?‘ and ‘would anyone really eat it?

Ruth Drew who died before her time in 1960 was a great food writer and broadcaster and I have her book ‘The Happy Housewife’ which a dear friend gave me. I love Ruth! She is so hilarious and sensible, and so interesting, and writes so well. I believe from what I read about her that she was slightly eccentric… but even so… stuffed turnip? Stuffed swede?

Turnips and swedes are delicious root vegetables, I love both of them, especially swede. However, peeling and chopping up a swede is hard because it is hard, really hard – I’ve had a few narrow escapes through knife/swede related incidents. So if peeling and cutting up a swede is difficult, I would have thought scooping put the centre was near impossible without severing an artery or losing a thumb or two… I mean, how can you hollow out a swede? I’m not even going to try! The turnips we get are only quite small, so hollowing them out, I would think, is impossible. The only way to do either vegetable would be to cook them whole first and render them soft enough to excavate.

Should you, despite my observations, be tempted, here is the recipe, with a mysterious postscript – I have to warn you, the stuffing is not very exciting, potato, ½ chopped onion and 1 oz chopped bacon per swede:

Stuffed turnip or swede

  • 2 small swedes, peeled and with a slice cut off for a lid
  • 1 lb mixed vegetables, carrot, swede, onion or leek, cut in pieces
  • 1½ pints water
  • 1 tsp meat extract
  • pepper and salt


  • 1 large potato grated
  • 1 oz chopped onion
  • 2 oz chopped bacon
  • salt and pepper
  1. scoop out the centre of the swede and fill with the  stuffing ingredients (well-mixed)
  2. put on the lid and tie in position (that will be fun to observe)
  3. put all the other ingredients in a pan and bring to the boil
  4. add the tied up swedes and cook for 1½ hours
  5. thicken with 1 oz flour blended with a little water

I have to say, Ruth, it sounds tasteless and disgusting, much as I love all the ingredients… why don’t you cook it in stock rather than 1½ pints of water and 1 titchy teaspoon of meat extract? Even when you were writing this in the 1940’s or 50’s, you could have used OXO cubes – you could have used a tablespoon of meat extract! You could have fried the onions first to give a bit of flavour! And the stuffing, potato onion and bacon – good grief how stodgy!

Now for the mysterious last message… the last three words of the recipe are ‘steam pudding above…‘ Now she obviously has a steamed suet  pudding in mind – is it a steak pudding? A steak and kidney pudding? What sort of pudding, Ruth? There is no recipe for it in the whole of the book, so we just don’t know… but I don’t think many people would eat a stuffed swede and a steamed pudding together!


Cheering up winter hats

It’s not yet winter, in fact it’s still early autumn, but Ruth Drew in The Happy Housewife, a book of her writings published after her untimely death, she believes in being prepared – so what should you do? Obvious, cheer up your winter hat. I don’t have any hats, and so it’s only a guess that she would have meant a heavy felt hat of some sort, with a brim to keep the rain away. here are her thoughts:

A felt hat’s better for the inevitable good brushing, and better still if you hold it in the steam from a boiling kettle. Treat the crown first, turning the hat slowly in the steam. Then give it a second brushing – with the nap of course, and with a smoothing sweep. The trick here is to avoid getting the felt too wet. If you over steam and make it sodden, there may be trouble with shrinkage.

I’m sure it is very good advice, but I couldn’t help smiling; ‘with the nap of course’ as if anyone should dram of doing it against the nap! … and then the problem of over steaming and trouble with shrinkage! I did have a little giggle!

She also considers how to tackle winter boots:

When winter comes, questions about cleaning the lambswool lining of boots are never far behind. Of course it is very snug to have lambswool making a neat little ruff at the top of one’s boots, but all too soon the wool gets dirty, and then comes the problem…

Ruth continues for nearly a page with how to tackle ‘the problem’; she suggests dry cleaning powder or carpet shampoo, in which she employs ‘the foam technique’…

We have so many chemical products for these problems these days, and the fabrics are often treated to make them resistant to wet and dirt, and we spend so little time actually out in the weather, and even when we do our streets and the air is cleaner… and we could always take the problem item to a dry cleaners! I think we are much lazier than we used to be!

St Clements

I’ve written a couple of times about oranges and lemons, and what, according to Ruth Drew in her 1960’s book The Happy Housewife suggests you can do with them – apart from eating them of course! There are many recipes called St Clement’s this or that because of the children’s nursery rhyme about the bells of London churches, ‘Oranges and lemons say the bells of St Clement’s; according to Ruth the origin of the little song is ‘probably military. Church bells were rung in old times to muster townsfolk for battle.’

Here are a few more of Ruth’s handy hints for the fruit:

  • a lemon will keep fresh for quite a time in a jar of cold water. Change the water every day.
  • the flavour of stewed prunes is improved by a squeeze of lemon juice. Add this after cooking to avoid destroying the vitamin in the lemon juice.
  • ‘lemon juice is one of the finest methods of adding pectin and acid in jam making.’ So says Mrs Arthur Webb. She adds ‘This is easily added in the proportion of 2 tablespoonfuls of lemon juice to 2 lbs of fruit for such things as marrow, pumpkin and rhubarb. Add before starting the cooking of the fruit.
  • ‘And every day when I’ve been good, I get an orange after food.’ So wrote Robert Louis Stevenson. But nowadays children bad as well as good ought to have plenty of orange juice because it’s so rich in Vitamin C. So is the juice of lemons. Vitamin C is the one which helps to give a clear complexion and healthy gums and teeth.
  • marks on marble can generally be shifted with lemon juice. Drop it on but leave it only a few minutes because it has a slightly solvent effect on the marble. Rinse with plenty of fresh water.
  • To renew the gloss on  lacquer surfaces, rub them with warm water containing a good squeeze of lemon juice. When dry finish by polishing with a chamois leather.
  • Very slight scorch marks on linen sometimes yield to treatment with lemon juice. Rub on the juice and put the linen to dry in the direct rays of the sun.

Mrs Arthur Webb was a cookery writer from the 1930’s and 40’s; ‘Preserving’, ‘Farmhouse Cookery’, ‘War-time Cookery’, ‘Invalid Cooking: The Doctor in the Kitchen’ and ‘Mrs Arthur Webb’s Economical Cooking’ are some of her books. Mrs Arthur Webb (who never used her own first name) toured the country in her car in the 1930’s, writing columns for ‘Farmer’s Weekly’.  At this time she also had a radio slot to give cookery talks, for example, ” Meat from Stove to Table ‘ by Mrs. Arthur Webb: ‘ Pot Roasts ”

There are so many healthy eating books around at the moment, so many suggesting that many ills can be ‘cured’ by eating the right food prepared in the right way, some people might think this a new idea. Mrs Arthur Webb was a head of the game with her ‘Invalid Cooking’ : “Food properly prepared and given to the invalid in the right quantities at the right time is of vital importance to build up strength and put the invalid on the road to health.”  She understood how importance appearance was to tempt the appetite, attractive presentation, including the dishes on which the food was offered; she also was very firm in promoting scrupulous hygiene in the kitchen and the home. her recipes included the good old standbys of Victorian cooking for invalids, beef tea, jelly, broth, fish, vegetable and ‘restorative cordials’.

During the war, like many cookery writers, Mrs Arthur Webb had advice on how to be economical and cope with rationing; she suggested using a pressure cooker or three-tiered streamer to cook several things at the same time and so save fuel. Vegetables, meat and a pudding could all be cooked at once, and even a cake could be steamed; covered in a double layer of grease-proof paper, tied securely and steamed for one hour per pound of mixture was her instruction.

Apparently in the 1940’s the BBC were finding people who could speak on the radio, such as Alistair Cook and Sir Malcolm Sergeant; of Mrs Arthur Webb, a BBC official said that ‘once she would start talking without notes, have to be stopped with a hammer’!

Here is an interesting post which mentions Mrs Arthur Webb, and gives a delicious recipe too:


Lemons and oranges

A few days ago I came across what actually was a useful list of things to do with lemons and oranges; in The Happy Housewife, a collection of Ruth Drew’s writing and broadcasts, published posthumously, I came across three pages of her hints and suggestions. I don’t know when she wrote about oranges and lemons, during and after the war I guess, and some of her suggestions must have been quite revolutionary for her readers, although commonplace now – orange with fish? really? How original! they might have thought, lemon juice in salad dressing? Sounds wonderful! Here are some more of her tips; some might sound quaint, some obsolete, some I might try myself!

  • to crisp a lettuce, add a squeeze of lemon juice to the rinsing water
  • when choosing a lemon at the greengrocer’s, go for one with a smooth-textured skin. Beware of one which feels spongy. Look out for decay at the stem end.
  • when bottling rhubarb, improve its flavour by adding 1 sliced blood orange to each bottle
  • a few drops of lemon juice added to one table jelly helps it set quickly
  • a tip for sandwich makers. Work a few drops of lemon juice into the butter before spreading. This helps to prevent the sandwiches from drying out. And it adds a little something to their flavour.
  • leather shoes can be given a tonic rub with the pithy side of a used lemon. Afterwards polish in the same way.
  • To whiten yellow piano keys, cove with a paste made of powdered whitening and lemon juice. leave for a few minutes. Then wash with a soft cloth well wrung out of warm water. (Beware of letting water dribble down between the keys.) Finish by polishing with a little sweet oil rubbed on with a soft duster.
  • Don’t throw squeezed lemons away until you’ve rubbed the skin on your hands. Some people keep a cut lemon by the sink for a quick after-washing-up beauty treatment to the hands.
  • When making flaky and puff pastry add a squeeze of lemon juice while you’re making your dough.
  • When boiling rice for a curry, add a squeeze of lemon juice to the water. This helps to keep the grains separate.
  • To treat iron mould stains, cover the mark with slat. Then squeeze a few drops of lemon juice over the salt. Leave for ½ hour. Rinse in warm water with a dash of household ammonia. Finish with a rinse in clear water.

When Ruth was writing very few people had even heard of bought lemon juice; if you wanted lemon juice you bought a lemon. perhaps the most famous brand here in the UK is Jif, and it was sold in a lemon shaped plastic container, which was a great novelty. It was developed by a man named Edward Hack in the 1950’s; there had been a lemon juice product, Realemon from the 1940’s, but the brilliant idea of having a plastic lemon, with dimpled skin and a little green paper leaf, was genius! I not sure I remember the marketing slogan, ‘Real lemon juice in a Jif’, but it and the plastic bottle not only ensured sales across the country, but a huge regeneration in the Sicilian lemon trade!

Ruth would have seen the beginnings of the Jif promotion, but she describes using real lemons. As with everything in those days, nothing was wasted; not only was the juice used but the outside skin and the white pith, and no doubt the empty lemon shells went onto the compost heap!

Last word on Ruth’s caravan

I’ve been reading some reminiscences of camping and caravaning in a bygone age, from the posthumous collection of the writings of Ruth drew. Ruth was born in 1908, and sadly died very much before her time, but her life seems one of happiness and adventure – adventure in the widest sense! She seems such a jolly person, and very endearing and wrote about things so vividly.

I can’t tell you about any startling adventures we had. I know we might have seen the famous white stag they told us about in the village… we might have glimpsed one of the huge wild cats which prowl the heathery heights inshore… we might have taken a boat and visited the dreamy islands which look so romantic jagging the distant skyline over the sea. But in fact we stayed for hours by our own sea loch, sniffing the salty flowery air, watching the heron or the tree creepers or the oyster catchers, swimming round the silver rocks in peachy sunshine and coming back to the caravan to cook a great dish of curry in the clear light of a June evening…

Ruth was camping in a different world… no-one these days would dig their own latrines, even if they were allowed to! Nor dig a hole as a rubbish pit, sprinkle it with  some sort of disinfecting powder, and use it to bury flattened tins and other rubbish, let alone burn it on a camp fire!