I grew up in a big rambling weatherboard house on a quarter acre block in the Melbourne suburb of Surrey Hills. My mum, dad, brother and I lived in the old part of the house. I remember pine floor boards, high ceilings and fragile stained glass windows. My bedroom had an open fire place and outside the sash window was a lilac whose smell I vividly remember quarter of a century later.
My maternal grandparents lived in an extension to the original building. Their “wing” was joined to the old house by a lurid green sunroom that would be luminescent in spring when the old oak tree came to life outside. The sunroom was the link between the two parts of the house and the gateway to the working spaces. The most mysterious of these was the darkroom. It was an alchemical, magical place where dad’s exquisite black and white landscapes would be forged.
The more prosaic shared spaces of the house were the laundry and kitchen. Although I’m sure my mum would have cooked most of my meals, it is Nana and Grandad I remember in the kitchen. They come from County Durham in Northern England and it is this culinary heritage they passed on to me. Nana did the baking and in her prime consistently produced a short crust pastry that was quite simply without peer. Suet puddings (mainly jam and ginger) were regularly provided and her Shrove Tuesday crepes (paper thin) remain legendary. My own children are now having the pleasure of dousing her endless crepes in lemon juice and sugar.
Grandad would cook fried breakfasts on the weekend, the sort you simply never see any more: bacon fat dropped in to lubricate the pan before the bacon itself, black pudding, egg, fried apple and fried bread. When cooking his own breakfast he would pour the fat (the “juice”, as he called it) over the top at the end. Mum didn’t let him do that for us. He was also the man for making Yorkshire Puddings, which he still sometimes provides. Suet would be heated to blistering temperatures before the batter was poured in to create a golden pillow of dough, the perfect boat for beef gravy and horseradish cream.
The Sunday roasts of my childhood have assumed a fantastical quality in my mind, although I actually suspect my memory is not far from reality. Quite often they would be followed up by a “light” tea: little crustless sandwiches (salmon, cucmuber and egg) and fairy cakes pillowed with whipped cream and dusted with icing sugar. In winter, sometimes this was served as a picnic in my own room in front of the fire.
Some recipes and experiences do not benefit from modernisation. A roast dinner, for me, does not need re-imagining but there is no doubt that they are labour intensive to make. Timing has to be right and the use of lots of pots and pans is inevitable (never good in a dishwasher free household). So it is good to have an alternative for those times when you feel like a roast but can’t bring yourself to create the whole experience. This roast chicken is a quick and dirty version of a slightly more complicated French dish. There is nothing to it really, but the mixture of garlic, tarragon and roasted grapes makes for a truly bountiful experience and an amazing family meal that can easily be served on a weeknight.
- 4 Chicken Marylands
- 4 large potatoes, cut into half lengthways, each half cut into thirds lengthways
- 2 heads of garlic, cloves pulled apart and lightly bruised
- 10 sprigs tarragon
- 500gm red grapes, divided into about 5 bunches
- Salt and pepper
- Olive oil
Warm your oven to 220 Celsius. Place the potatoes in a pan of cold water and bring to the boil. Boil for about 3 minutes, then drain. Mix the potatoes, chicken pieces, garlic, tarragon, oil, salt and pepper together in a roasting dish. When all the ingredients have been mixed well, arrange the pan so that the Marylands are resting skin up on the potatoes. It might not hurt to sploosh on a little more oil and salt at this point. Roast for about 20 minutes, giving the pan the occasional shake. Drop the temperature to 200 and tuck the grapes around the chicken. Return to the oven and cook for a further 20 minutes, stirring once or twice, until the grapes are soft and the chicken juice runs clear. Looks pretty great served on a big platter in the middle of the table.