My great-aunt, May Murray, spent World II running the Arundell Arms on the River Tamar in Devon. It has always been one of the great fishing hotels of England and Aunty May brought the same standards home to her 'private hotel', as she called it, just off Fitzwilliam Square in Dublin.
Actually, it was what most of us would call a guest house. She ran this establishment, divided over five Georgian floors, from her bed and she depended on the elderly Frances, a dour housekeeper from Wexford and William, "my butler," as she would explain.
William was usually attired in a white mess jacket and was frequently the worse for wear, being exceptionally keen on the Crested Ten.
I used to visit Aunty May once a week, after school, usually on Wednesday afternoons. I associate her particularly with a peculiarly Irish sweet, the iced caramel. This was, and still is, a shockingly sweet confection being, essentially, a combination of butter and sugar in the form of chewy toffee, encased in a crisp coating of...er...sugar. They still come, as they always did, in two kinds, pink and white. And if you can discern any difference in taste, you're a better man than I am gunga din. In those far-off days iced caramels were made by a company called Clarnico and they came in boxes. Nowadays they seem to be softer in the centre than before, and they come in bags.
Aunty May was also keen on violet creams. These were small chocolates containing a fondant which was both flavoured with and coloured violet. On top of the dark chocolate shell was a single crystalised violet petal. The taste was, well very strongly violety and the sweetness of the fondant was only just cut by the darkness of the chocolate.
I have an idea that Aunty May's violet creams came from Fuller's, which was a shop and cafe in Grafton Street in those days. I have since rediscovered them in Charbonnel et Walker's in London where they go one further and do pink rose creams. They are very good indeed in a slightly decadent kind of way, but nothing comes close to the haunting, ethereal fragrance of violet creams.
My great-aunt's palate was probably pretty blunted by constant exposure to untipped cigarettes. Her room was littered with empty red Benson & Hedges tins, the occasional pack of Senior Service and Churchman's No. 1. So it's probably not surprising that her favourite restorative was sweet, red Cinzano a bottle of which she used to keep close to the radiator which pumped out heat all the year round.
She would occasionally offer me a taste of this vile and tepid liquid and I occasionally felt it only polite to accept. It nearly put me off drink for life.
When dining with her, a bottle of wine would be produced, always rather dusty and venerable, hauled up from the cellar by the often unsteady William. By the time I was tweleve, I would be allowed a small glass and I know now that it must have been good stuff.
The wine, I later discovered, was a legacy from some strange Belgian, allegedy a viscount, with whom Aunty May had been on imtimate terms during the War. He disappeared one day, leaving her a lot of claret. This means that I got to drink pre-War claret on a regular basis during my most formative years and I have to say when I first tasted great old Bordeaux as a grown-up, it seemed spookily familiar.
The wine I took for granted and I wasn't terribly keen on it in those days. No, what I really enjoyed about these diners a deux with my great aunt was the fact that dessert was invariably Epicure tinned cherries with pouring cream. This, for a long time in my young life, was my idea of heaven. But I would have found it just as hard to persuade my parents of it as to get them to start buying pre-War claret.