Meher Mirza writes about the timeless magic of Mary Poppins, the wonderful world she conjures out of thin air, and the fantastic food that fuels it.
Years and years ago, I fell deeply in love with Mary Poppins.
To specify, I mean P L Travers' books, glutted with thrilling tales, a stern but magical nanny ‘who never wasted time in being nice’ and her wayward wards. The stories read like this. Talking, tormenting, sussurating cats slouch through the children's dreams; young princes rush out of their storybooks into the local park, limned in sunshine; the sun becomes the ringmaster of a celestial circus; the children finger a magic compass that yo-yos them across the corners of the world in a few seconds; a concertina of shadows gather for revelry on Halloween night when the walls between worlds thin; the children meet the primordial terrapin, wiser, older than all living beings, living deep within the silver-tongued seas; Spring is painted on the walls of the world on a night with the barest shaving of a moon. And on Christmas, a flickering, laughing Maia of the Pleiades (a cluster of stars), wrapped in only a ‘light, wispy strip of blue stuff’ drops to Earth to do her Christmas shopping.
All the magic is yoked in some way to Mary Poppins, stalking through it all with hat and hair firmly in place. The children slapdash their way into each adventure with wind-bussed cheeks. But it is always Poppins, sharp-tongued and respectable as ever, who sets order to chaos, returning them to regular life like clockwork, unscathed, back to the comforting clink of cups of milk in their warm nursery on Number 17, Cherry Tree Lane.
The books unspool over several decades, offering plenty of dichotomies — Mary Poppins is as disturbing as she is fascinating, as archaic as she is modern. She is equally at home in an English parlour as she is swooping through the air with her parrot-handled umbrella, chatting with animals and shadows and stars, respected by everything that sees the Bacchanalian world as it truly is.
Similarly, the food the children eat comes from a typically stodgy English larder; the escapades wrapped round the food are anything but. It is these double realms that make the stories so alluring.
We read about a delirious tea in which Michael and Jane, eddying with laughter, are lifted off the ground, while affable, apricot-faced Uncle Wigg hands out cups of tea and slices of bread and butter, crumpets, coconut cake and a plum cake with pink icing. Peppermint hobby horses whisk the children through the air to Cherry Tree Lane. Wizened, wily Mrs Corry snaps off her gnarled fingers and offers them to the children to eat (they turn out to be made of barley sugar, of course). Bert, the Match Man and Mary Poppins leap into a painting to enjoy a tea of whelks and raspberry jam cakes.
Then there is Mr Mo's wedding breakfast, a meal crafted out of plasticine that came to life, ‘a meal so tempting that a king might have envied it. In the centre stood a two-tiered cake and around it were bowls piled high with fruit — peaches, cherries, bananas, oranges. One end of the table bore an apple pie and the other a chicken with a pink frill. There were sausages, and currant buns, and a pat of butter on a little green platter. Each place was set with a plate and a mug and a bottle of ginger wine. The buttercup-tree spread over the feast.’
Although most of the meals featured in the books aren’t specifically Christmas-related, the pages are peppered with references to dishes that would easily be at home on a table filled with Christmas fare — foods that are simple, yet never fail to delight. An apple pie made from ruddy-skinned apples, boiled eggs stained pink, gingerbread men, and of course, a plum cake.
Hard Boiled Eggs
Place unshelled eggs in a saucepan. Cover them with cold water, and bring to a boil while on medium heat. Once the water is at boiling point, reduce the heat and let the water simmer. Leave your eggs in for fifteen minutes, then take them out of the water and plunge them immediately into cold water.
To colour them, fill half a bowl with warm water, then stained it with a few drops of food colouring and 1 tbsp of vinegar. Then drop in the eggs, turning occasionally to ensure an even dye. After about five minutes, when the colour deepens, gently scoop them out with a fork and lay on a wire rack to dry.
This is a riff on my mum's time-honoured recipe for Christmas cake, which she makes months in advance. This version however, requires no pre-soaking, and comes together in a matter of hours. Into a saucepan, I poured dried fruit, thick and intensely sweet with musky ginger and wisps of lime zest, embalmed it all in alcohol and sugar, poured the lot into the flour mixture and baked. You can adjust the quantity of fruit as you go; just make sure you don't use sugared fruit, or the cake will sting your teeth with its treacly-sweetness.
Find the recipe here.
The secret to a crumbly pie crust is of course, to keep everything as cold as possible, including the spoons which I keep in the freezer as long as I can. The other secret is to use a mixer or food processor to minimise the contact with warm hands.
Find the recipe here.
The first time I ever heard of gingerbread was when I read about it in a Mary Poppins story, in which rows and rows of dark gingerbread were studded with gilt stars that gleamed through Mrs Corry's curious sweet shop. I have been captivated ever since.
Find the recipe here.
Meher Mirza is an independent writer and editor, with a focus on food and travel. Photograph by Aashim Tyagi.
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