It has taken many years and infinite patience, but I have at last persuaded my dear mother not to offer me the pallid brew she calls tea when I visit (it looks like pondwater and smells like newly-laid asphalt), but instead to break out the PG Tips she keeps for the gardener.
Naturally, she did not concede defeat in the beverage skirmish without a parting shot or two. “You’ll have to make it yourself, darling,” she said, fishing the key to the tea-caddy out of her reticule. “I’ve no idea what one does with a tea-bag.”
I compound my lamentable preference for the gardener’s tea by taking sugar in it. When I asked for the sugar it arrived in a silver bowl, accompanied by an implement I have hitherto encountered only as a weapon in the hostilities between Gwendolen Fairfax and Cicely Cardew in The Importance of Being Earnest: a teeny pair of scaly silver claws – possibly the last working set of sugar tongs in existence.
I thought of those sugar tongs when I saw a letter to the Sunday Telegraph from Janet Robb, whose father used to ask visitors to guess the purpose of a silver egg-topper. In decades to come, I look forward to perplexing my future grandchildren by asking them what they think the tongs were for. Then again, glancing around my own kitchen cupboards, I note plenty of scope for future satirists of obsolete kitchen equipment.
The shade of Isabella Beeton would recognise without difficulty my bone-handled marrow spoon, the nameless implement for taking the stones out of cherries, the hand mincer that you have to screw to a work surface before feeding it chunks of meat while cranking a handle that extrudes mince onto a strategically placed plate, and the elaborate but surprisingly functional chafing-dish – a tureen-shaped brass object with star-shaped cut-outs, twirly wooden handles and a couple of spirit-burners in its interior.
My partner, a late-onset cook with a keen interest in up-to-date kitchen technology, regards these objects with alarm. His own kitchen is a carefully curated showpiece of the culinary fads of the past few years. In one corner lurks a neglected NutriBullet which, after a few heady weeks of reducing eccentric combinations of fruit and veg to pastes of repulsive colour and objectionable flavour, fell into disuse.
Next to it are the electronic kitchen scales, a device with such a wealth of options that by the time it actually consents to weigh anything, you’ve lost the will to cook. And my particular bete noir – the pasta tongs. Eliizabeth David didn’t have pasta tongs, I say, flourishing my copy of Italian Food. She says that most of the kit in the 16th-century Vatican kitchens, illustrated in Bartolomeo Scappi’s 1598 Cuoco Secreto di Papa Pio Quinto, is identical to its modern equivalents.
While the NutriBullet, and its faddy chums, the spiraliser and knoblauchschaler or garlic peeler, will probably suffer the same fate as the turnspit, or underdog, consigned to the realms of kitchen history and metaphor, I have an idea that in a few centuries’ time, the egg topper and the sugar tongs will still be going strong. Bizarre, inexplicable, but strangely comforting in a world that has forgotten why you can’t bash your egg in with a spoon, or pick up your sugar-lumps with your fingers, but dimly recalls that, once upon a time, their ancestors invented an ingenious device to do those humble jobs.