When we were first married we lived in the Punjab running a Christian conference centre – anything from 8 to 68 for a meal – and just once about 500 people.
The main problem we had in running such a centre was communication. Letters were sometimes months late or they could take just a few hours. Was that Christmas card 6 months late or very early. We only knew of one telephone in town that actually worked. So often people just turned up – in one case a coach full of 40 people whom we just sat under a shady tree with cold drinks while we sent out for takeaways. But mostly we managed.
Exotic food you might think – not likely. Our visitors were mainly ex-pats. They ate spicy local food every day and might have been away from home for several years or else had arrived so recently that they hadn’t got used to the local stuff. They wanted roast beef, Yorkshire puddings, apple pie and custard. And toast and marmalade for breakfast. And when local people came they wanted to try the food we ate at home – you’ve guessed it, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. And they all loved marmalade.
The Yorkshire puddings weren’t such a problem providing we could get gas, but the roast was usually buffalo, sometimes goat. Toast – local bread is usually flat bread cooked over an open fire. Shop bread is sweetened and has a texture like wallpaper paste as soon as it hits the tongue. We made our own. Apple pie – most of the country is far too hot for apple trees, but guavas make a good substitute.
When I was going out there for the first time I asked if there was anything I could usefully bring and was told Marmite, stock cubes and any dessert that comes in a packet and lasts for ages – so custard wasn’t a problem. Crème Anglais is fine on television, but this was for real.
Cheese and biscuits. I knew of two sources for cheese – both over 70 miles away, but everybody knew that so someone would bring some. I could get crackers from a little shop nearby that still had tins of Coronation tea on the shelves – this in 1985. Five minutes in a low oven and the biscuits would be fine.
So here is my recipe for lunch for 40. First send someone out to find the gas man and change the cylinder. If he can’t be found by mid morning it’s down to the river bank for driftwood. Someone else kills and butchers a goat. I start to make Yorkshire pudding batter but discover the eggs loose in a plastic bag and several are cracked. Just enough good ones left. I chop up guavas and hope that the market has vegetables other than blue carrots, spinach and squash. The temperature climbs up past 100 – but pastry made with oil and rolled out with a marble pin has been in the fridge since soon after dawn. I put the fan on full blast and set to to make pies, peel potatoes and all the other bits.
Soon after 1pm, in soaring temperatures, we sit down to a ‘traditional’ English roast with stock cube gravy followed by ‘apple’ pie and custard, the latter from a packet with a best by date that I’d rather not know about.
And they love it.
Tomorrow though. They are back on aloo sag and chapattis – but there will be toast and marmalade for breakfast!