We value your privacy
The broadcaster recalls childhood poverty, an empty larder and an adventurous supper solution
I had brilliant adventures with my brother in the Wicklow countryside. Our house backed onto a burned-out hotel, and we’d crawl through a hole in the wall of our garden into the grounds. There were acres of what had been an extraordinary garden, with a lake and an abandoned summer house. A river ran through it, and there were amazing redwood trees with branches you could live under.
It was our playground and we spent all our time there, often returning by torchlight. We had incredible freedom, but we also had brushes with extreme poverty. One night that’s seared on my memory is when there was nothing to eat except spaghetti and golden syrup. It was 1970, and my parents had recently split up.
That was the beginning of our period of intense penury, because my father was an alcoholic and he struggled to send regular maintenance money. I was eight at the time and Aksel was six, so we weren’t really aware of that – but we were aware of the end result, which was the empty larder. It’s an understatement to say that it was a difficult time for my mum.
That evening, when she was trying to make supper, she burst into tears. Aksel, in an effort to help, extracted from the cupboard what was left in it, which was this packet of dried spaghetti and this tin of golden syrup, and decided that putting the two together would be an excellent dinner for us all. He put his arm around my mum and said: ‘Look, this is going to be delicious! They’re two of my favourite things!’ This was so indicative of the sort of person Aksel was, and is. He’s always tried to make everything better, and I think this was a relief to my mum, who managed to turn it into an adventure rather than a crisis.
So we sat down at the table and treated it as a proper dinner. Psychologically, I think that was important, because when things are really bad there isn’t room to make a fuss. So with forced enthusiasm, we accompanied my mother on this food adventure, which I think all of us found completely inedible.
It was, without question, one of the most disgusting combinations I’ve ever come across, and I’ve eaten weird things on my travels. In Iceland, I ate putrefied shark, which is rotted shark meat. It was hard not to gag, and the taste was still there three days later. I would put spaghetti and golden syrup on a par with that. I can’t touch golden syrup now – the minute I taste it, it plunges me back to that meal.
Luckily, I was introduced to Italian food by my best friend in my late teens, and we spent summers in Italy eating the most spectacular spaghetti aglio e olio. It was delicious – and definitely food for princes and princesses, not for paupers.
Aksel and I have both turned into food obsessives. He lives down the road from me in Somerset, bakes bread and makes a mean pizza, whereas I’m obsessed about foisting healthy things on my kids. They’re incredibly fussy, and I remind them that’s a privileged position to be in, because for a lot of people accessing enough is a challenge, particularly in the pandemic.
When you’ve lived food poverty, you understand how it makes everything difficult – from concentrating at school to keeping yourself mentally buoyant. When you’ve tasted poverty like that, you don’t forget it. That’s why I urge people to give to food banks and organisations like The Trussell Trust. Anyone who has the luxury of being extravagant with food is really lucky – it’s important to remember that.
Mariella Frostrup presents Mon-Thurs at 1-4pm on Times Radio. Tune in via DAB, online, smart speaker or the Times Radio app