Breakfast at Finlaystone
This is the second in Jean McMillan’s series of stories about her long-ago adventures in Scotland. Read the first one here.
“We’re 14 for brekkers [breakfast] this morning,” Jenny explained as we set the massive dining room table with antique Blue Willow plates and ornate sterling silver flatware, “because we’ve six guests, plus the usual workers, slaves, Sir Gordon and Lady M.”
Already distressed by the prospect of frying 14 eggs, I suddenly realized that my presence might be an inconvenience rather than a help to the MacMillans. “So this wasn’t a good time for me to arrive here, was it?”
“No, no. Don’t worry. It’s just family. The MacMillans’ son John, his wife Belinda [pronounced “Bline-dah”] and their smalls [children], and Belinda’s parents. Lord Lumley-Webb was in the Army with Sir Gordon, and Belinda was once a slave. They’re all here for the Hunt.”
“Yes, it’s shooting season, you see, so if it goes well, we’ll soon be dining on pheasant. Do you like pheasant? I’m not very keen on it, but the MacMillans adore it.”
“I’ve never had pheasant before. What does it taste like? Chicken?”
Jenny frowned and said, “Not quite. You must try it and judge for yourself. But now we’ve got the table set, we must be off to the kitchen to fetch the food, so come along smart now.”
I could tell you lots of things about my life in the Scottish county of Renfrewshire. I could describe narrow, winding roads; old stone walls; fields of scampering sheep; heather on the hillsides; rhododendrons blooming in the spring; the cobbled streets of Port Greenock…but I am my mother’s daughter and food is almost always foremost in my mind.
Mom’s family was famous for describing all their travels only in terms of food. Where an ordinary person (whatever that is) might say, “We went to Newport and toured the Vanderbilt Estate,” Mom would say, “We went to Newport and had steamers for lunch and lobsters for dinner.” When I think about my own travels, I often find myself following her example. “I went to Valencia and had paella,” or “I went to Taipei but didn’t eat snake” (someday I’ll tell you about Taipei’s Snake Alley).
So I think again about my first morning at Finlaystone and want to tell you more about that first breakfast.
Every breakfast was served with ordinary, store-bought white bread cut in thin slices. We had no toaster, and making toast in the Esse coal stove’s oven was a slow business, so we fried the bread in the grease we saved from cooking just about any kind of meat – bacon, beef, chicken, lamb, whatever. I realize that may sound dubious (if only in a nutritional sense), but the toast fried in that grease was (unfortunately) delicious, as was any other food we cooked in it.
Along with eggs and toast, we cooked bacon or sausages. And every breakfast was served with Scottish oatcakes slathered with homemade butter that the downstairs maid, Margaret, had formed into wee balls with butter paddles [see note below], plus marmalade that we made ourselves using with tart, pectin-rich Seville oranges, rather than the sweet ones preferred across the pond [across the ocean, i.e. in the States]. Oatcakes are a flat bread made of oatmeal (which could be declared the national food of Scotland, as it’s essential to Scottish breakfast porridge), sort of a cross between a cracker and a cookie. I fell in love with them at first bite. When we made porridge it was so thick you could stand your spoon up in it, but I preferred the crunch of oatcakes.
Of course there was coffee, often bitter from being reheated several days in a row, served with sugar cubes and the cream Margaret had skimmed off the top of the milk pail that was delivered daily by one of the farmers who leased Finlaystone land, along with the freshly laid eggs that he collected from Annie the “Egg Lady” (another tenant who raised chickens) on his way to “the big house”. Every morning we made a gesture of healthy eating by drinking sour tinned [canned] white grapefruit juice before settling down to the real business of fueling up on tastier stuff for a busy day.
Jenny and I put all the breakfast foods in bowls and loaded them onto the Victorian wooden breakfast trolley we used to take the meal on the long journey from the kitchen through the back hallway to the formal dining room. I’m not sure of the exact distance that covered but can give you a rough visual of it in the form of this photograph of the rear of the house.
I admit that when the food finally arrived in the dining room, it was not piping hot. The trolley made that journey for breakfast at 8:00, lunch at 13.00 [1 p.m.], tea at 16:00 [4:00 p.m.] and dinner at 20:00 [8:00 p.m.] – a total of eight trips a day. No wonder its wheels were a bit wonky [unsteady] after some 130 years of service.
The plates, cups and saucers made extra trips, as the china was washed in the butler’s pantry beside the dining room after each meal, carried by hand back to the kitchen, and stacked on the side of the Esse coal stove to keep warm until the next meal time. Like most everything else at Finlaystone, the Blue Willow china was ancient and treated with reverence. When the dishes broke, they were sent off to be glued and stapled back together, then put back in service. No one seemed concerned about the potential accumulation of bacteria between the thick metal staples or about the lead content of the antique porcelain.
Blue Willow china is beautiful and often quite valuable, but the thought of it makes me cringe even today. When transferring it from the Esse to the trolley, I dropped the plates – 16 of them - and every one of them broke into a mess of shards on the kitchen floor. Jenny, Mummy H and I gazed at the shattered remains, then each other.
After a moment of horrified silence, Mummy H said briskly, “First we must warm up more plates for breakfast. Then you must sweet up the broken bits and tell Lady M what happened.”
Aghast, I cried, “I can’t tell her!”
When Lady M arrived in the kitchen five minutes later, Mummy H said, “Jeannie has something to tell you.”
Unable to meet Lady M’s stern gaze, I squeaked out my confession, ending with a deeply sincere, “I’m so sorry.”
Envisioning immediate exile, I wondered how I’d ever get home again (my ticket from New York to Prestwick was one-way). I was (and am) short and facing the sturdy, stout Lady M felt rather like facing down a bull. After a few minutes of ominous silence, Lady M said, “You must be more careful in the future. Very careful. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Lady M,” I squeaked.
“Right. Well, let’s get on with breakfast. Everyone’s waiting in the dining room by now.” She stomped out of the kitchen. The moment Lady M was gone, Mummy H gave me a quick hug, then turned to the Esse to transfer the rest of the meal onto the trolley. When it came time to move the newly warmed plates to the trolley, I gave them a look of fear and distrust.
“I’ll do that today,” Mummy H said, “But you must take your turn from now on. Just be extra careful.”
Needless to say, breakfast was not a jolly meal for me that day, but the clatter and chatter of the MacMillans and guests enabled me to keep a low profile. By teatime that day, the Hepworths (my coworkers) had inducted me into the Slaves’ Hall of Infamy. I still regretted dropping the Blue Willow china, but turning it into a funny story saved the day – and became a useful tool in dealing with trouble that has served me very well in the 50 years since that memorable breakfast at Finlaystone. I highly recommend it.
Note: To make butter balls, Margaret placed a “knob” of butter [a walnut-sized chunk of butter] on the grooved surface of a wooden butter paddle, placed another other paddle on top of it, and holding a paddle in each hand, moved the paddles in a staggered circular pattern to shape the knob into a ball.