HomeStoriesBaked Custard by Fiona Sinclair

Baked Custard by Fiona Sinclair

This story is to remember Clara Morden who planted a Holly on 27 February, 1910


The meeting was arranged in Oxford towards the end of the war, when it had become clear that it would be won. The victors needed to deal with one of those awkward places that won’t fit peaceably on any map. Where borders wriggle like eels in a grand confluence of rivers. The winners of this war knew from experience of the last that these corners of the world could quite spoil their victory.

‘We might as well sit down and sort it out now,’ the British general said to his aide-de-camp, ‘whilst we’ve still got a common enemy to keep us together. Now, where shall we host?’

‘What about Oxford, the French general was there, wasn’t he?’ The aide-de-camp wasn’t sure about the Russian, but there was a sporting chance that the American general had won a Rhodes Scholarship or something. The general slapped him on the back, told him he was on his way to another stripe, and despatched him to Oxford.

The aide-de-camp was not an Oxford man. But his corporal was in the sense that he was born and raised there, the son of a confectioner in the north of the city. They found a college that was ancient and serious. The only hitch was the cook advising them she didn’t do pastry. So, the corporal seized his moment and said that he knew someone. Her name was Judith.




Judith sat at the long pine table in the college kitchen. She pushed her chair closer to the range. She was usually cold now. People said it was the war, but Judith couldn’t see how it could make the temperature plummet. She was a rationalist. The heat creeping through her grey tweed coat was welcome, as she sat ramrod still, facing the bursar and cook who were assessing her suitability to make pudding.

The bursar was a thin man who explained the importance of the dinner to her. The gathering of generals would bring Peace and Prosperity. He spoke of Service to the Nation and the Honour of the College. Both, it seemed, would be compromised if her pudding were to collapse. The bursar did not ask a single question, but the cook looked at Judith as though she would like her to list the ingredients of a chocolate ganache or explain the method for shortcrust pastry. Judith knew the answers to these things. She had worked each Saturday, since the age of fourteen, for a north city confectioner. But the bursar continued to tell her about secret negotiations and the distinguished men who would be conducting them. Eventually he looked at his watch and told her to report for duty the following Wednesday. The dinner would be held on Friday.

Judith walked through the narrow college corridors, trailing a hand along the wall, running her fingertips on the well-worn Cotswold stone. She sprung open the latch of the old oak door and admired the quad, fixing a grey wool beret tightly over her curly red hair. It was silent except for the Pigeon wings flapping around a fountain. She perched on its edge and admired the stonework. Her own college was modern and had always admitted women. Some of the ancient colleges had relaxed their rules and taken in women students when the supplies of young men had dwindled. Not this one. It had taken in the Ministry of Statistics. Judith watched officials walk across the quad, clutching manila folders marked ‘restricted’, their high heels sinking into the lawn. She laughed.




For the next few days, Judith buried herself in her college library, researching gastronomies. She made notes in her shorthand notebook, as few as possible to avoid wasting paper. On Wednesday morning, she breakfasted on toast and powdered egg and bicycled along the banks of the Isis, digesting what she had learned. The spring flowers, daffs mainly, were unfurling, but Judith barely saw them. She was considering custard.

The cook made a pot of tea and they sat at the long pine table. The cook was youngish, around thirty, a spinster and likely to remain one now.  ‘What if they ask me to cook snails, and without garlic, or even butter?’ she asked.

The bursar arrived. He seemed more human, Judith thought, as the cook poured him a cup of tea. Close up, she could see that he had reached an age where hair pushed out from his nose and ears. She could appreciate what a trial that would be for such a fastidious man. He placed an envelope on the table and withdrew a typed message on regimental note paper.

First course, Borscht, read the bursar, in honour of the Russian. Judith loathed warmed beetroot. It should be crunchy.

Second course, for the Frenchman, Quenelles de Brochet. Judith shuddered. She had once read that pikes ate each other when food was scarce. It had given her nightmares.

Main course, the bursar continued. Roast beef, Yorkshire pudding and horseradish. Judith’s mouth watered as she pictured the pink beef with that charred saltiness. She could feel the heat of the horseradish clearing her nasal passages, making her eyes water. Did the French have horseradish she wondered? Or the Russians?

‘Don’t you think?’ she asked the bursar, ‘that it would be better to have food that everybody likes.’

The bursar folded up the regimental notepaper and placed it back in its envelope. ‘The general may have a better idea about what is suitable for the occasion than you, Judith.’ He scraped back his chair and stood up.

Judith was slightly astounded to be called Judith again. At her college, she was always Miss Simpson. ‘Are there any instructions for my pudding?’ she called to the bursar’s departing back. ‘Or may I do as I wish?’

‘You may.’

Judith had expected this. The bursar did not look like a pudding man. He nodded towards the corporal who was lolling beside the dresser. ‘He will procure your ingredients. Within reason.’

The corporal ambled towards them. He accepted a cup of tea but stayed standing, ruffling his blond hair. ‘Yes ladies,’ he said, looking down at them. ‘I will do anything for you, within reason.’

The cook laughed, but skittishly, her eyes bobbing everywhere except his face, as though he made her nervous. He did not make Judith nervous. He had been a pest for years, hanging about as she dusted macaroons in his father’s shop, throwing the coconut at her as if it were confetti.  Nonetheless, Judith was broad-minded. The army may have improved him. She had already noted that he had both slimmed down and filled out and his teeth were certainly better than they had been when he lived above the sweetshop. So she looked him in the eye and gave him the sort of smile she had seen American actresses deploy in the cinema. She noted its positive effect. Judith was flirtatious. It was disappointing to her that the war had coincided with her courting years. With so few young men about, one had to accept the hand one was dealt, even if it was fair and rather silly. She preferred dark, serious young men who shared her love of literature.

Cook listed the ingredients she would need.  Judith thought of the tastes she hadn’t tasted for years. Citrus and spice, Marsala and vanilla; she wondered if the army had fought themselves into the places that grew these things. They were flavours she had missed.

‘What can I do for you, sweetheart?’ The corporal said, perching on the table and looking down at her.

‘Eggs, sugar and milk,’ said Judith, looking up at him with the film star’s gaze.

He wrote it down. She stood up.

‘What else?’ he asked.

‘Eggs, sugar and milk is all I need’. She buttoned up her coat.

It was not quite true. But she trusted her own ingenuity over his and besides, she must get going before he offered to walk her home. That would be unnecessary with her bicycle.




On Friday evening, the delegates sat in silence. The British general was pushing a dollop of horseradish onto his forkful of beef. Everything had started well. Oxford anecdotes had been exchanged. The American observed that dining in college made him feel young again. They had examined the maps in their dossiers. But the Borscht had been frightful. When the general saw the colour it turned the Frenchman’s mouth, he laid down his spoon. The pike was a little better but after the Russian pulled the third bone from his mouth, he had yelled at the cartographers to leave. Rather rude, but the general told himself that the beef would get them back on track.

The aide-de-camp, however, noticed the French general coughing and the Russian’s streaming eyes. He signalled to the bursar who removed the plates. This was rather below the bursar’s dignity, but the waiters were all at the front.

The only person who ate heartily was the representative of the country (if you could call it that, nobody was quite sure) whose borders were permanently disputed. The aide-de-camp didn’t know how to pronounce its name. His mother had taken a cruise along its coastline, before the war, where she had painted a cluster of its numerous islands, all now under the enemy’s grip. The aide-de-camp had been unable to find a single general from the country in the whole of London. The best he had managed was this suspiciously young-looking colonel who did not speak English with an Oxford accent. Nevertheless, the aide-de-camp found him a delightful fellow, dark and dapper; not only had he eaten like a trencherman, he also had a serious interest in literature, listening to the Russian’s views on Chekhov and encouraging the Frenchman’s unexpected interest in the avantgarde. The aide-de-camp reluctantly turned away from the young colonel and hissed at the bursar that he hoped dessert would do a better job of bucking everyone up.




Judith savoured each tap, smash and pour as she broke eggs one by one into her mixing bowl. She had missed eggs a great deal and was inclined to favour the corporal who had brought them back into her life. He was sitting across the table, a tea towel tied around his waist as he had been helping the cook. Now he was eating a bowl of Borscht. He raised his glass of claret to the cook, who was fiddling with the plate of quenelles.

Judith measured out sugar and added it to the eggs. Then she poured in the milk. She didn’t measure this. Naturally, she approved of precision, but eggs were all shapes and sizes and she preferred to judge by eye. She added drops of vanilla. She glanced at the corporal, bolting back the quenelles: foolhardy given he had been tasked with their deboning.

            She picked up her whisk and beat the mixture gently, watching the egg yolks lighten as they joined with the milk.. She changed hands, catching the corporal watching her breasts shake under her powder blue twinset. She hugged the bowl closer to her. It needed more milk. As she splashed some in, the corporal choked. It was, thought Judith, entirely his own fault for not being more careful deboning and she continued to whisk as cook rushed forward with a glass of water and sympathy. Judith slowed her wrist. It was ready. She turned it a few times to be sure, poured it carefully into ramekins and carried the tray to the oven. Then she sat down to wait.

‘Is that it,’ asked the cook. ‘Baked custard? How can that be fine enough to assist the negotiations?’

‘Look here Judith,’ pitched in the corporal. ‘I recommended you for this job, my girl. Don’t you know something fancier?’

She got up to stir her pan. As the sugar dissolved, she held a small piece of nutmeg to her nose. That would do for the British general, and the American too. She thought of eggnog as she placed it on a plate next to a fairy sized grater. The caramel hovered between golden and burnt. She poured half of it into a white jug and passed it to the bursar.

‘For the Frenchman.’  She placed a small jar on the bursar’s tray.

‘Honey?’ he asked.

‘For the Russian.’

There was one final accompaniment. She jostled the pan, adding a dash of liquid from a little glass bottle into the caramel. Her usual assurance was missing as she dipped a spoon in the mixture, blew and then licked it. It was like nothing she had tasted before. ‘For the young colonel,’ she said to the bursar. ‘The dark one.’

‘Whatever is this? ‘asked the cook, picking up the bottle.

 ‘Rosewater,’ she said to the cook. ‘They call the dish after it. Rožata.’

‘Wherever did you find rosewater?’ 

‘The Banbury bun factory. They put it in the buns.’

She had learned a great deal in the library. Russian custard contained honey. Portuguese tarts were flavoured with lemon, Spanish flan with cinnamon. Chinese custards with ginger. She had sat at her favourite desk, wedged in one of the bow windows, as the sun dipped into dusk. They all added their little touches, but essentially they were the same substance: baked custard. Her pencil ringed an account of a rose custard pudding which had ‘crowned the peace’ between Ottomans, Hungarians and Venetians. The scholar in her mingled with the cook before she understood. Everyone had eggs, sugar and milk—when they were at peace. Perhaps not the Russians — Judith was scrupulously honest—they had honey. But custard had a most distinctive taste: peacetime.




In the dining room, the English general sneezed as he grated nutmeg, thinking of the boxing day hunt. The Frenchman considered millefeuilles, good things he had forgotten existed. The American recalled how he and his brother would scour the street for dimes, then rush to the Horn and Hardart automat. The fun of working the mechanism, exchanging a coin for a cup of custard, and giggling because of the custard pies in the funnies. The Russian pushed aside his claret. He ignored the honey and let the custard slip down his throat unadorned. Smooth and silky, decadently rich after years of powdered food. He sat up and called for the cartographers to return.

The young colonel, one elbow resting on a map of the coastal city where he had grown up, thought of a Saturday under the pines. They had fed on custards tinct with roses and looked out at the waves breaking against the islands in the bay. She had been young, red-haired and, to him, beautiful. But her will was resolute and led her to the church, not his arms. He thought of the proximity of peace, how he would find another girl. Red hair remained non-negotiable, but perhaps the next one would be a little more flirtatious. He turned to the aide-de-camp.

‘May I thank the cook?’