Do you remember eating gipsy tart in your childhood? If so, then you probably went to school in Kent, home of the stickiest, sweetest pudding imaginable - so sickly sweet that the dinner ladies used to serve it up with
a slice of apple to give at least the impression of Tooth Care.
I ask because the other day on The Great British Menu - yet another of those TV cookery programmes
much beloved of Mr B and me, armchair cooks that we are - one of the chefs from the South-East decided to make gipsy tart for his dessert course as a homage (he asserted) to his home county of Kent. The fact that he was preparing a heart attack on a plate
in a bid to have it chosen for a banquet celebrating fifty years of the NHS seemed to be lost on him.
Gipsy tart is made from just three ingredients - pastry,
full fat evaporated milk and muscovado sugar. It is quite stupendously sugarific. My Foursome - all of whom went to Kent schools for at least part of their schooling - either loved it or loathed it. It’s like Marmite in that respect except that, as far
as taste is concerned, there can be few dishes that resemble Marmite so little.
Apparently gipsy tart originated when a kind woman, seeing undernourished gipsy
children playing in a field next to her house, made them a tart to eat. Presumably the only ingredients she had in her larder at the time were sugar, tins of evaporated milk and the wherewithal to rustle up short crust pastry. Imagine what Kent school-children
would have been eating for their school dinners if her cupboard had contained altogether healthier, more Jamie Oliver-type food items.
I was twelve when my family
moved to Kent, Home of the Gipsy Tart, and had my first taste of the famous dish. Before that I went to school in Essex where the school puds were so lacking in novelty that I can’t remember a single one of them.
What I do remember is my absolute dread of Monday mornings at my Junior School when our teacher would call out the number of pupils staying for school dinners that week with an instruction to tax our
mental arithmetic skills by coming up with the total of money he should have collected. In those days a week’s school dinners cost three shillings and nine pence in old money (yes, indeed, I have reached A Great Age) which amounts to something like 18
pence in today’s decimal age. Oh, dear, I can hear some of you weeping at the thought...
I used to dread Monday mornings so much, knowing our teacher would
stand before us and bellow “Twenty-two times three and ninepence!” gazing around at us, cowering at our desks, with a wicked grin on his face. So worried was I that I took to secreting one of my mother’s gloves in my pocket, taking some comfort
in squeezing its slightly rough woolliness between my fingers to calm myself down. I made the mistake of telling my mother and she didn’t approve at all (possibly she had been wondering what on earth had happened to her glove) and suggested I should
say a prayer instead.
I didn’t, however, think the Almighty would be all that interested in my Trial by Mental Arithmetic as I reckoned He must have
so many other things to worry about, the world being what it was. Not that I knew too much, at the age of nine, about World Problems - global warming hadn’t been invented and the main concern my mother seemed to have was the worrying insurgence of “Teddy
Boys”, in their drainpipe trousers, greased quiffs and nonchalant disregard for what my mother would call good manners.
In the end I hit upon my own
solution when I realised that the number of pupils in our class staying for school dinners was invariably between seventeen and twenty-two. All I needed to do was to work out, in advance, six sums and memorise the answers in readiness for Monday’s test,
come what may. You might say it was a case of the Lord helping those who help themselves...
You have probably been wondering, while I have been waffling on about
mental arithmetic and Teddy Boys, what happened to the TV chef cooking gipsy tart in the hope of taking this Kent Culinary Delight all the way to the celebratory banquet? Sadly he failed to earn sufficient points to cook for Friday’s panel of judges
- so, alas, there will be no gipsy tart bringing the banquet to the very sweetest of conclusions.
Not even with a healthy slice of apple on the side.