Café Life and Ice Cream

Francesca looks at how growing up in cafés between the Fifties and Seventies has influenced her novels, as she continues the series inspired by The Great British Bake Off. And there’s ice cream!

After a day working at the cafe as a teen

All writers are bound to be influenced by their own upbringings, and it’s certainly true of me. The first novel I ever wrote was a YA called Sea Angel. The main character in it was fourteen-year-old Morwen. Although her fortunes and failures weren’t mine, and I didn’t have to live over the place like she did, we naturally had much in common. That included youthful resentment at having to work in the business in our spare time.

I pictured Morwen’s café to look much like our own, even if I did lift it out of Littlehampton and place it in an imaginary Sussex village called Littlebay. Recently it has featured again in both a 1970s pocket novel I’ve written and in a saga I’ve begun set in 1914, where it remains firmly in Littlehampton.

The Mediterranean in the early 60s, circled.

The business in Littlehampton (incongruously called The Mediterranean), was a seaside restaurant serving (in my humble opinion) some of the best fish and chips I’ve ever tasted. It also sold pork and lamb chops, sausages, ham, eggs, spam and spam fritters (remember those?) in different combinations with chips and a choice of beans or peas. There were also ham or cheese salads and roast beef and two veg. Over the years the menu changed little, being what the day trippers desired during the Sixties and Seventies.

View from the Mediterranean of the River Arun

The fish was delivered fresh every day from a local fishmonger. I recall a long-time chef we employed boning the cod and plaice with great skill. There was certainly nothing frozen. The kitchen housed two large fryers into which were melted huge blocks of lard. In the basement was a peeling machine that removed the skins before the potatoes were chipped. This was originally done by a type of guillotine hand slicer, then later on an electric chipper. They were then part fried and kept in an industrial sized fridge in the basement until needed. Twice fried chips before they were even a thing!

For dessert you could choose between peaches and/or ice cream, chocolate gateau, apple pie and cheesecake. We also served up a very nice frothy coffee (in the days before there were myriad variations) and strawberry, chocolate or pineapple milkshakes, made with ice cream.

The Criterion in the early 70s had a name change

Regrettably, there was never time to bake our own cakes, though we did get them delivered from a nice patisserie.  Further back, when my father had The Criterion café in Worthing, there was a time when he made his own ice cream. I never thought to ask Dad what his recipe was, though I do recall him saying it involved large cans of condensed milk.

Me, circa 1959, outside the Criterion.

This café, where I spent the first three years of my life (especially since we did live over this one), was more a snack based eating establishment. It used to open from nine in the morning till eleven at night, the evenings attracting the café youth culture of the Fifties.

The Criterion featured in a 1950s series I had published in The People’s Friend called Happy Days at the Criterion. It tells of the meeting and romance between Gwen and Renzo, based on how my own parents met and got together.

A busy evening at the Criterion, c1958

Back in the early 90s, I acquired an electric ice cream making machine. I think these days they’re much easier to use, but back then you had to keep adding combinations of salt and ice to the outside layer and the whole process was a real pain. It made me wonder what kind of effort Dad had expended in making it by hand. I persisted with the machine and made many different flavours of ice cream over the decade. One of my favourites has to be brown bread ice cream.

Brown bread ice cream originated in the Georgian era. It seems to have made a bit of a comeback recently, though I first tasted it in a restaurant in Lincoln over thirty years ago. It was this that prompted me to try making my own, once I took possession of my machine.

It’s been many years since I gave up on the contraption, but I still have the recipe for the brown bread ice cream, which I make occasionally now by hand.

Brown Bread Ice Cream

450ml milk
1 vanilla pod or 3 drops of essence
4 egg yolks
100g caster sugar
50g dry brown breadcrumbs
150ml double cream

Ice cream dishes and a tablecloth I kept from the Mediterranean

Put the milk and vanilla into a heavy-based saucepan and bring slowly to the boil. Remove from the heat, cover and stand for ten minutes. Remove vanilla pod and reheat to simmering.

Beat the egg yolks and sugar in a bowl until thick and pale yellow. Gradually pour the hot milk into the eggs, stirring continually. Strain into a heavy-based or double saucepan and stir over a gentle heat until the custard thickens enough to cover the back of a spoon. Do not boil. Allow the mixture to cool and place in a freezer for one-and-a-half hours, until mushy.

Gently toast the breadcrumbs under a low grill, turning them to ensure they toast evenly. Put aside to cool.

Beat the cream to form soft peaks. Fold the cream and breadcrumbs into the frozen custard and freeze. Beat the mixture after one hour, then seal and freeze.

Enjoy!

 

The Mediterranean was sold in 1981 and for a time became a  burger bar. It eventually returned to being a fish and chip restaurant called Osca’s. It looks very different to when we had it, but I’m pleased to report that their fish and chips, tried recently by Elaine and me, are excellent and I recommend a visit if you’re in Littlehampton.

 

Francesca’s latest novel, Heartbreak in the Valleys, a Great War saga set in Wales, will be published June 10th 2020 and is available for pre-order.

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Danger for Daisy

Back in Time For a Cup of Coffee at The Criterion

Francesca talks about the inspiration behind her 3-part serial, The Criterion, which begins in The People’s Friend this coming week. 

The Criterion in the 1970s, having gone through a name change

I know I’ve mentioned before on this blog how some of my writing has been inspired by my family history. The very first novel I wrote, a Young Adult called Sea Angel, came about because of my own experience working in the family cafe as a teenager. My short story Far From Home,  published in the anthology 7 Food Stories from Rome began as my attempt to imagine what it might be like to move to England from Italy as a young widow with a twelve-year-old son, as my grandmother did. The idea for the historical novel I’m currently working on came from a World War One document I found on Ancestry.co.uk detailing the discharge of a Welsh great-grandfather on medical grounds.

The Criterion today, now a hair salon

The first of those is a contemporary, while the latter two both take place in 1915. My serial for The People’s Friend, The Criterion shifts to a different time entirely: 1955. It’s the era of the Ten Pound Poms, and the story begins with my main female character, Gwen Hughes, talking to her disgruntled grandmother about her impending departure to Australia. Renzo Crolla, the male protagonist, owns a cafe in Worthing, The Criterion of the title.

Some of the characters in the serial are based on real people, some are an amalgam, while others are completely fictitious. The story is based only very loosely on that of my family (I might tell you the real story one day). The Criterion in Worthing, however, was a real cafe, owned by my grandmother and father, a kind of character in itself. My grandmother, a war widow, emigrated to England in 1927 with my father. Much of her family were already over here. In 1930 she bought

My mum behind the counter c1958

The Criterion from her brother. I was born in the cafe twenty-eight years later and lived there until I was nearly four-years-old. My father rented the cafe out for a further seven years. Finally he sold it in 1968. It went on being a cafe for a number of years afterwards, known as the Californian, but today it’s a hairdressing salon.

The building itself is Georgian, so what it was originally I have no idea, presumably not a cafe. Perhaps my next project will be to find out something of its history. If I gather enough material I might be able to use it for another story!

Evening trade, c1958

 

The Criterion, a 3-part serial, starts in The People’s Friend in the issue dated 27th May.

7 Food Stories from Rome is available here.

In the story, Renzo was interned on the Isle of Man during World War 2, as was my father. The piece I wrote for The Guardian about it can be viewed here

 

Me outside the cafe, 1959, with Worthing promenade in the background

Mum and Dad in 1955

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

@FCapaldiBurgess

Setting Out on a Journey

Francesca takes a journey around the settings she’s used so far

At the moment I’m working on a number of projects, and it got me thinking about the different settings I’m using. On the whole I’ve used known settings in my short stories, novels and novellas, though I’m likely to rename them and take liberties. Some of the locations are from my childhood, like Littlehampton, Worthing and Brighton (renamed Costerham, Ording and Telmstone respectively).

Brighton, taken from the Wheel.

Brighton, taken from the Wheel.

Worthing Pier.

Worthing Pier. Something I’m working on currently is set in Worthing, as Worthing, and I hope to have news of that soon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then there are the settings I’ve discovered through family research like the former mining town of Abertysswg (where my mother was born) and Castle Pill, near Milford Haven, where one of my great-great grandfathers was born. These settings gave me the idea for three short stories, one about someone researching her family (like me!) and two historicals set in 1908 and 1915.

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Some of my ancestors lived in Castle Pill, somewhere around this field, as far as I can tell.

Abertysswg, all evidence of the coal mines invisible these days. My mother was born in a house in the middle terrace on the hill.

Abertysswg, all evidence of the coal mines invisible these days. My mother was born in a house in the middle terrace on the hill.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A novella set in ‘Telmstone’ also has a section set in Rome. I’ve visited there three times and had longed to use it in my writing. And what could be a more passionate setting for a romance?

Newcastle: two of my characters stood on Gateshead Millennium Bridge.

Newcastle: two of my characters stood on Gateshead Millennium Bridge.

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Piazza della Rotunda in Rome, with the Pantheon in the background. A bustling setting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My stories have taken me on excursions to many other places, including Skye, Margate, Brixham, Newcastle and the coast of Ceridigion. Of all the settings I’ve used, the only one I haven’t known or visited, as far as I’m aware, is Brisbane, where I relied on Google and Google Earth for information. Having had a good look at it, I’d love to visit there some time in the future.

Brixham Miracles 2008

Brixham: my daughter and brother-in-law are on the dinghy. This inspired two stories

While I’m writing stories in different locations, I often feel I’m actually there. It’s a great way of visiting anywhere you like as you sit at your desk. Or is that just me?

Happy travels.

Do you use settings you’ve visited, or do you write outside of your experience?

@FCapaldiBurgess

 

Francesca Capaldi Burgess: It’s All Going in the Book…

Francesca finds fiction fodder in her own life

I can’t say my life has been remarkable, but many elements of it have served as starting points for my short stories and novels, even if the stories themselves have taken a different path.

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Outside the cafe in Worthing

So, what of my life? I was born above a café in Worthing in nineteen hundred and frozen to death (otherwise known as 1957), to an Italian father and Welsh mother. One of my first memories is standing on the tiny bedroom balcony, looking out to sea. When I was three we moved to Littlehampton, where my dad had a café facing the river. We lived in a house a mile away.

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How I wish I could grow my hair this long again.

My childhood was complicated as my mother, haunted by several demons in her life, descended into alcoholism. She regularly left me outside pubs for hours. To occupy myself, I used to make up stories. I guess it was the start of my writing life. For all her problems my mum, like many from the Celtic races, was a brilliant story teller, weaving tales that she sometimes taped for me on an old tape recorder.

Me and Mum

Me and Mum

When I was twelve, she got Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a kind of long term alcohol poisoning caused by the lack of vitamin B1. Ironically it saved her – and me, I think. She died at fifty of a heart attack when I was twenty-six. My father followed six weeks later, broken hearted.

Cafe in Littlehampton c1968. Great Gran is the little lady.

Cafe in Littlehampton c1968. Great Gran is the little lady.

Some of my happiest memories were spent in my Welsh great gran’s house. She was a no nonsense type of lady, but kind. I was twenty-nine when she died at the age of 97, so she filled much of my young adult life. I still miss her.

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Maxis the first time round.

Having an Italian name left me open to a fair amount of bullying at school, thanks to Mussolini’s antics twenty years earlier. It wasn’t only the pupils who were guilty. Despite that, I made good friends and did well at school. As a teen, I worked the summer holidays in the café. In winter, I’d get up at some godforsaken hour, catch the minibus in the damp pre-dawn and spend the morning in windowless sheds picking mushrooms. I left school at eighteen to attend Froebel College in Roehampton, where I did a degree in history and education, followed by a PGCE.

Young love at the disco.

Young love at the disco.

I met Andrew while we were still at uni. Froebel was 90% women, Imperial College, where he went, 90% men. It was a no-brainer that we should frequent each other’s discos. Quite a few of our friends married too. When we graduated, I became a primary school teacher in London. I did consider doing archive studies, but teaching won out. After we moved to Kent we started a family. Our four children are now 31, 29, 25 and 23, which I find totally shocking to think about!

Was I ever this thin?

Was I ever this thin?

While I was bringing them up, I found plenty of voluntary work to do. I was the supplies officer for the local nursery school. I joined the National Childbirth Trust and was a post natal support coordinator and chairman of the local branch. I also ran their toddler group in the village for several years. At the parish church, I was the magazine editor (and wrote many of the articles!), helped run the buggy service and was a junior church leader for ten years. In the local school I did an afternoon a week teaching library skills.

My interests, apart from writing, are Italian and family research. I attended an Italian class for over twenty years, gaining an A level and good friends. I’ve investigated much of my mother’s family. Despite being humble mining/farming folk, their lives, intrigues and tragedies make fascinating reading. I was amazed at how many shot gun weddings there were! Delving into my father’s Italian family is more difficult, though I’m lucky to have a lot of first hand information. My father’s story is begging to be adapted into a novel. One day I will learn Welsh (maybe!).

When the children were young.

Before my children had their own children

I decided to take my writing further in 2006, thanks to an Adult Education creative writing class run by Elaine Everest. Soon after, I also accepted a part time job as a lead exam invigilator at a nearby secondary school. If I wrote down those tales, nobody would believe them! I gave that up three years ago, the same time, coincidentally, as I became a ‘nonna’. I now have three gorgeous grandchildren and a blog about them I update occasionally called Nonna Blog.

Littlehampton today

Littlehampton today

I have never got used to living inland and would love to reside by the sea again. Having lived on the south coast, I find the Kentish north coast weird – the sun rises and sets in the wrong places! I dream of opening my curtains of a morning and spying the beach, much as I would have done as a toddler. It would be like coming full circle.

Aged 16

Aged 16

If I could time shift back to 1974 to talk to my teenage self, what would I say? Firstof all I’d tell her she’s tired all the time because she has an underactive thyroid and to get the doctor post haste!

I’d also tell her that it is possible to get published and not to put it on the back boiler for another thirty-two years.

@FCapaldiBurgess

 

Two of my stories based on incidents from my life or that of a family member can be found in these anthologies:

Diamonds and Pearls: A Sparkling Collection of Short Story Gems

7 Food Stories from Rome

Other true stories from my life published in The Guardian:

Dad’s lucky escape in the war

Dining room dancing with mum

A song for my daughter, Carmela