Last week, we went to Sean’s grandmother’s funeral. There is a strange symmetry to someone who was born on 11/12/13 being laid to rest on 07/08/09. There’s a neatness to it which I am sure would have appealed to her steel-trap mind.
Sheila had a quintessentially Edwardian childhood and went on to live a thoroughly modern life. Her father was an eminent Harley Street ophthalmologist . The family lived in a Marylebone mansion block, Mr and Mrs Mayou occupying one flat and Sheila, her sisters and their nanny living in the flat next door. It was a case of the children being not seen and not heard. She was bright and destined for medical school when a bout of pleurisy derailed her plans. Still, a life of genteel indolence was not for her. Her father encouraged her to go into the family eye business.
At 19, along with another young woman, Mary Maddox, Sheila set up the Maddox-Mayou Orthoptic Training School in Devonshire Street. At 20, she was invited to deliver two papers at a medical conference in Melbourne and she made the 14,000 mile trip by boat to America, by train across it and then boarded another boat to Australia. When she arrived, the medical establishment was astonished to see this girl before them. The conference was taking place in licensed premises and she was too young to speak there, so another hall was hastily arranged and she delivered her papers, and an impromptu third as an encore. She put British orthoptics on the medical map and students from Australia began coming to London for training. After the war, she ran the Orthoptic Department of Moorfields Eye Hospital and became the first chairman of the British Orthoptic Society. She retired, reluctantly, at 70. Still, it gave her more time for her other great passions, golf and gardening.
Sean and I spent the first year of our married life in the flat at the top of her London house which had once been the nursery floor for his mother Sue and her sister Carol. When Sheila sold the house seven years ago to live permanently in the country, lots of the furniture was distributed amongst the family. Each afternoon, I sit down to read on her cane-backed bergère. When we have dinner in the dining room, I reach into the mahogany linen press that was once in her bedroom to grab tablecloths and wine glasses. The richly patterned Chinese silk rug in my study was once in the hallway at Hallam Street. Much as I love all of these things and the stories attached to them, there is one possession of Sheila’s which I treasure and use at least once a week, more in the winter.
It’s her potato masher. Compared to the other lovely pieces, it’s a rather humble thing, but I love it. It is perfect. Chefs will tell you that to make perfect mash, you need to pass the potatoes through a mouli or ricer – and then perhaps through a tamis, in the most obsessive-compulsive kitchens. This is true, but who has the time? Particularly if you’re making mash for a crowd as we often are. Sheila’s little masher has round holes in it like a mouli and its surface is slightly concave so it rocks in the pan, delivering perfect mash every time. If I ever go into the kitchen equipment business, replicas of this great piece of kit will be my first product.
How to make perfect mashed potato
You know why restaurant mashed potato tastes so good? Because it’s essentially a butter sauce held together with the odd potato. Delicious though this is, it’s not something for everyday, though butter and whole milk are essential to creamy, dreamy mash.
I was once on the judging panel of a mashed potato competition – yes, I know, my life is unutterably glamorous. Plates of mash were presented to us made with crème fraîche, olive oil, Greek yoghurt, with the addition of garlic and other fripperies. But the best one, the lightest and fluffiest one, was the simplest. It’s the one I present to you here.
1kg floury potatoes such as Desiree or Wilja, peeled and halved
100g unsalted butter
120-150ml whole milk
Salt and a grind or two of nutmeg and black pepper
Heat a large pan of salted water until it’s almost boiling and add the potatoes. Bring back to the boil and cook until tender, about 20 minutes. Drain in a colander and leave to steam for a couple of minutes. While they’re steaming, heat the butter and milk in a pan with some nutmeg. It’s very important that the milk is hot. If it’s not, your mash will be gluey – fine, if you’re planning on a little light wallpapering, not so good if you’re intending them for dinner. Tip the potatoes back into the pan and mash the bejesus out of them. Pour in the hot milk mixture, some black pepper and a bit more salt if you like and beat them with a wooden spoon until smooth. Serve immediately.
If you want to make your mash a little ahead of serving, spoon it into a heatproof bowl, cover it with cling film and place it over a pan of barely simmering water. It will keep quite well like this for about an hour.