During the Second World War my father joined the AFS (Auxiliary Fire Service). Slow to engage and derided by some neighbours for not leaving for the ‘front’, his role as a domestic fireman had yet to be tested. The Blitz, which was soon to kill so many of his comrades on the streets of London, had yet to fall into common parlance. His reward was to endure dreadful injuries sustained under the nightly barrage of German bombers, as well as receipt of one of the first George Medals for courage. Like so many, I was only told of his exploits many years later. He was one of a generation that didn’t ‘talk about it’. After service he stayed in the newly dubbed London Fire Brigade, and rose through its ranks.

My understanding of his career is limited as he was a man of very few words. One abiding recollection of his post war activities was his insistence on home cooked food. Not as you may imagine because my mother was an exciting cook, my early years at home can clearly attest to this, or because my father was a burgeoning epicurean, but along the way he had managed to generate a lifelong distrust of restaurant, bakery and cafeteria cooking. This was not because he loathed processed foods or expensive cooking, but because he had extinguished so many fires in industrial kitchens – the conditions under which post-war food was prepared, appalled him. Of the many tales of fleeing mice and scooting cockroaches, one tale above all highlighted his stance. A fire had broken out in the former restaurant in Selfridges on Oxford Street, and he described in great detail the plague of rats scuttling away from the kitchens and down the stairwell, the same smoke-filled structure he was trying to ascend to confront the blaze. To his spellbound son he could have been describing London’s plague-stricken streets in 1665.

So cooking and baking of family meals were only to be undertaken in our tiny kitchen at home. Shops may supply vegetables, meat or fish, but preparation and cooking was strictly an in-house affair. One memorable exception to this otherwise unchallenged rule, was my father’s love of freshly boiled prawns. In his day, live, convulsing prawns, wriggling in buckets at our local fishmongers, were promptly sluiced into a cauldron of boiling water where they quickly turned from translucent grey to bright pink. They were measured out in pint and half-pint pewter tankards and were often still warm on arrival at home.

My mother hated what she called the ‘fiddly nature’ required to disrobe prawns, but I was reluctantly weaned onto the task. I cannot recall any distinct pleasure in the Saturday tea ceremony as a young boy, but my addiction to fresh, unshelled prawns grew in direct proportion to the growing scarcity of wet fishmongers. Now we are fortunate in commanding the weekly village attendance of a knowledgeable fishmonger in a repurposed, refrigerated vehicle. In spite of the fact that the catching, boiling and freezing of prawns tends to be done far out to sea, prawns have become a weekly tea-time treat once again, creating a much more enthusiastic family response than before.

Strictly speaking, as the limited task of cooking has been undertaken, a recipe is unnecessary. This is a simple dish that needs assembly rather than process. The best wholemeal loaf you can buy (or make), some sweet, chilled, unsalted butter to spread and a pint of prawns per head. As so often in these blogs, wine becomes a desirable necessity.

 Wine Thoughts

The Loire,  France’s longest river, exits to the west and flows beneath the sea spray from the mighty Atlantic. It is here that Muscadet, a wine not a grape variety, is produced. Under the auspices of early Dutch settlers the vines of the Melon de Bourgogne were widely planted alongside the Loire, near Nantes, selected in response to the demanding oceanic conditions they encountered.

The Melon grape has a vibrant fresh style, but without help, it’s a little vapid. By way of enhancement local winemakers leave the fermented wine on the dead yeast cells, sur lie, for several quiet months in order to bring some additional character to this bracing white. Best examples come from an area between two small tributaries, the rivers Sèvre and Maine, hence the most exciting styles are labelled as Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine, sur lie. Bone dry yet with a rich, often creamy flavour, these wines can be elegant, refreshing and delightfully crisp. A delicious foil to our simply presented, tea-time prawns.