A rather trifling matter

Custard has reared its head again.

I’d planned to write about the colour yellow. While glorious spring was rampant and the British newly friendly on the street. Daring to go out without umbrellas. And smiling at total strangers.

But that will have to wait. I need  to talk about a few things first. Starting with custard.

What do you mean by custard?

To me it’s Bird’s. Made with powder, from a tin. Two rounded tablespoonsful, with one of sugar, mixed to a paste with milk from a pint.

Like cornflour it has that wonderful ‘press it and it’s hard, stir it and it’s soft’, structure.

Ever since I was a child I’ve loved seeing it all turn yellow. And smelling the sweet scent of of vanilla (I add more).


Boiling milk (the rest of the pint) makes it unctuous and thick.

But custard purists only like the ‘real’ thing. Eggs and milk – or cream in these extravagant, obesity-rich times – with sugar and vanilla pod, stirred in a Pyrex bowl  over a pan of just-about-simmering water that’s not touching the bowl.

It’s a performance. An art form. A nightmare (depending on your point of view). Making ‘real’ custard.

I’ve never mastered (mistressed?) it.

The stubbornly thin liquid never goes ‘firm’. Even when left in the fridge for hours on end. Unlike the cold Bird’s version, which (bonus) tastes like ice cream as you scoff it out of the jug.

Sneakily. When mum’s not looking.

That great, sensible cook, Delia Smith, has a workable recipe for custard to use in ice cream. She adds …  custard powder, to stop the custard curdling.

So, really, it’s posh Bird’s Custard.

But there I must leave custard.

It was just one ingredient planned for this post. Which really concerns a much more important matter.

Bear with me while I meander towards it, from the Wiltshire/Dorset border …

There, for a while, we lived in the tiniest house in which you could imagine someone 6’4” living. Not me, him. He couldn’t stand up straight in the downstairs rooms – either of them.

The two upstairs rooms were conjoined twins. When guests stayed they had to sleep downstairs on our sofa bed.

The bathroom was beyond the back door in a slapdash lean-to extension. And that was in a small, cute, garden surrounded by a large, fat hedge. Beneath it, a septic tank.

Behind the house and garden were watercress beds and the stone ruins of a house where Thomas Hardy’s mistress lived. Locals said.

It was an odd little place, that village.

Next-door-but-two lived a witch. A nice witch. She saw the colour of our auras. And kept dogs, sensitive mongrel creatures, in a house even smaller than ours.

She had a penchant for strays of all kinds. A man with a long beard (or was he a goblin?), comes to mind. He spent his days leaning out of a thick hedgerow, higher up the hill, frightening strangers passing in their cars.

Either side of us, though, were second homes. One as small as ours and always empty. The other a large, thatched beast.

The thatched beast had stolen most of our back garden at some stage in the past, giving it a long grassy expanse leading down to a gurgling brook.

Two gay men belonged to the thatched beast. Frequent weekend visitors in their glamorous E-type Jag, one was a businessman, the other a lighting designer.

We socialised a lot. Cooked for each other a lot. Pretended (this is us) we weren’t jealous of the garden and the stream.

One day I said I would make a trifle.

‘With real custard?’ asked the businessman.

I said yes, without thinking. Because for me, of course, real custard was Bird’s, made from powder, sugar and milk. As opposed to Ambrosia Devon from a tin.

And that really wasn’t the divergence of opinion I’d anticipated when I mentioned ‘trifle’.

Because ‘trifle’ is no trifling matter, unlike ‘real’ or ‘unreal’ custard.

Trifle. Is. Serious.

If you think the debate over how to pronounce ‘scone’ is fierce (it rhymes with gone, not bone. This is the truth as all real British northerners know it. End of) …

Sorry, back to fierce.

Fierce isn’t in it when it comes to trifle.

The question of ratafia biscuits is neither here nor there. I don’t like them. Can’t stand anything almond flavoured. So, leave them out if I’m coming round, please.

No, the really big issue is much more fundamental than that.


Or no jelly.

Well, I think it’s obvious.

Jelly trifles are simply, I’m sorry [no I’m not], just horrid.

Squelchy sponge.

Grainy texture.


No, real trifle’s utterly simple – and scrumptiously, lusciously, fabulous.

A packet of trifle sponges (or home-made fatless sponge). Sliced and lavishly raspberry jammed. Cut into chunks, heaped in the trifle bowl. (What do you mean you don’t have one? Every home has one.)

Splodges of jam, dotted around. Liberally doused with medium sherry.

Custard – real, unreal or surreal [not sure about that last one, actually] – poured all over and left to ‘firm’ up.

Double cream whipped with a teaspoon of caster sugar slathered on that.

Left to sit for a while in the fridge.

Decorated with one, or any, or many of:

  • toasted blanched almond slivers (not my thing)
  • angelica cut into little leaf shapes (nice) to go with:
    • glace cherries (bleeurgh, not for me)
    • crystallised mimosa balls (quite nice)
    • crystallised rose petals (mmmm)
    • crystallised violets (oh, heaven sent, best ever, end of).

Then devoured as if you haven’t eaten for the last twenty years.

What’s that?

Hundreds and thousands?

Sorry, jelly trifles only need apply. The colours run. Which can, admittedly, be fun.

So, trust me, jelly-free it must be.

No trifling with the real thing, please.

Unless it’s custard 😉

A lovely article from the Black Country* Bugle about the fascinating story of Bird’s Custard (no, really):  http://www.blackcountrybugle.co.uk/story-bird146s-custard/story-20122291-detail/story.html

The Black Country is a hard-to-define area in the English Midlands – another interesting story: The Black Country http://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/midlands-news/21-things-you-not-know-7418256

This entry was posted in Britain now & then, Simple Food for Simple Folk (like me), Thinking, or ranting, or both and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to A rather trifling matter

  1. MELewis says:

    My mother (rest her soul!) loved trifle — well, all puddings really. It seems to me it’s all in the ingredients – I mean, really, how can you go wrong? But as for jelly – yuck. With you 100%!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good on your mum. I love puddings too 🙂 Friends seem to be plumping for custard made with cream and eggs – so I guess they only have it once a year! Or are extremely fat (which they aren’t). Thanks for reading this trifling piece!


  2. Christa says:

    Definitely with you on the Jelly Question, but I’m afraid my Granny turned up her (long and pointy) nose at Birds custard, always insisting you had to make your own. And I do, still, though usually only once a year, at Christmas, for the Trifle. Delia says somewhere that if your custard goes grainy, you just whisk it madly and all will be well. I have to say (though I say it myself), mine always seems to work…. My Granny’s trifles were legendary, but that may be because she tipped at least half a bottle of sherry into them. Hers always had slivers of almond on top, which wouldn’t have suited you, but I am sure you would have liked her homemade custard!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Liz ferguson says:

      Did you mention the sherry ….a must . Mummmy made lovely trifle and rice pudding to die for . Not had rice pudding since ,maybe try , got to have evaporated milk !

      Liked by 1 person

    • I do like ‘real’ custard but I also like Bird’s and frankly the ease of making it … and it goes nicely with apple pie too. Delia adds it to ensure her custard stays stable too sometimes – so there!!! Seriously, I don’t find it curdling, just not going at all thick. And it takes so long! And uses so many utensils. Anyway, never mind all that, if you look at the link to the Bugle, it seems Mr Bird’s (not his real name) had a chemist’s shop and Mrs Bird’s had allergies – to eggs and yeast. Hence the custard powder (she loved egg custard) and hence his other ‘invention – baking powder! What a man. Little did I know he also made a contribution to scones. The story also involves WWI and Crimea. Touching. Anyway, thanks for perusing my trifling post 🙂


  3. John Kemp says:

    My mother and her mother, old Cornish stock, rhymed scone with bone. Must be one of those south/north things. “Sconn” always sounded wrong to me. Been out of touch for a while, must catch up.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello John, good to hear from you, hope all is well.
      It’s just one of those things – neither is probably, if we’re honest, right or wrong – but the way we’ve grown up saying it remains the one that feels right.
      I have a couple of pictures you might like coming up in post inspired by a weekend trip to Penrith (if I ever have the opportunity to write it). Meanwhile, I hope spring is springing in your part of the EU as it is here in Brexiting Britain 😦


  4. Rosemary Reader and Writer says:

    Mary, I would eat at your house every time. Bird’s custard powder played an integral part of our lunch at home every afternoon, served, mostly, with pastry which my father could eat forever. My mother used to dissolve 1 dessertspoonful of custard powder and one dessertspoonful of white granulated sugar in a little milk in a pyrex pudding basin, then pour a pint of boiling milk on it. Worked every time. The custard itself never went near the pan.

    Regarding trifle, definitely no jelly ever. And also every household must have a trifle bowl, cut glass, heavy and difficult to get out the back of the cupboard where it lodges for 51 weeks of the year. Alas, no jam either. My mother-in-law used to make trifle with jam (and jelly) and she was north country too (a Scouser). This is my recipe for trifle:

    Leftover cake. (I hang on to unloved remains of cake as Christmas approaches.)
    Tin of fruit (preferably peaches).
    Sherry (about a glass, more if my husband has anything to do with it).
    Birds (or supermarket brand) Custard
    Whipping cream.
    A few reserved pieces of tinned fruit.

    My daughter eats my trifle for breakfast on Boxing Day!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I may quibble about the peaches – though not too much! I do like raspberries instead of or as well as the jam though 🙂 And now you’ve said it, I think there may have been one or two occasions when we had tinned mandarin orange segments decorating the trifle. Hmm. Dark memories!
      I’m with your husband on the sherry dousing though – and have even been known to add a tad to the custard when whipping.
      Ha – your description of the trifle bowl is absolutely perfect!
      You know, I checked the amount of powder on the tin – I also thought it was one rounded dessertspoon – but it def says 2 tbsps. I wonder what happened in the meantime? Do you think they added chalk 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I don’t remember eating trifle as a small child but we must have as I inherited my Nanna’s cut glass trifle bowl. The G.O. professes not to like trifle but he managed several bowls over several days, each soggier than the last, of my stepmother’s sizeable festive concoction of prefab carton custard, jelly & grog soaked supermarket jelly roll. I accepted a polite serving first time around because she made an effort. Usually I offer it deconstructed with homemade madelines & corn flour custard -the taste of which resonates with something in my long ago food me mory bank- plus the traditional Aeroplane Jelly embellished with fruit. Her mother, however, used to make my favourite Christmas treat, thick yellow custard made with powder but very much homemade and moriesh.
    Thanks for the memories ♡


Thanks for reading, please comment if it struck a chord

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.