Lunch with the Golden Girl of Ashtead
Thankfully that’s not remotely how it is in my life. My mother-in-law is the queen that raised her son to treat me like a princess. Aside from that, she is also great fun company, clever, charming and altogether delightful as well as a Sudoku and Bridge fiend with a busy social life, a devout Christian but not a zealot, and a passionate dog lover too.. Her sprightliness belies her 86 years and every January, she packs her suitcase and visits her best friend in Tasmania for two months. She’s an absolute marvel and I count myself lucky to have her as my friend and inspiration.
Every few weeks or so I shoot down the A3 to Ashtead village, where she lives, and we meet at the local deli cafe to chew the fat, so to speak. Until recently this place right in the centre of the village was called Palmer’s. It was quite perfect for the purpose, old fashioned, pleasantly dated around the edges with an extended sandwich bar kind of menu: quiches, baked potatoes with different fillings, steak and kidney pies, sausages and beans, basic salads, home made muffins and lemon cake, occasionally a bit of exotica like brie or smoked salmon, that kind of thing. And they did a good cuppa too. A genteel version of a greasy spoon caf, really, with everything on offer reliably predictable and no outlandish newfangled fancy food . You knew where you were, at Palmer’s. The clientele too was sensibly tweed skirted with pastel coloured twinsets, snap shut handbags and neat perms, gently acknowledging acquaintances as they passed by, and served by broad hipped waitresses of the motherly type, who called everyone ‘love’.
Then, a metamorphosis. I came back from living abroad and all of a sudden, the little sandwich bar cafe on sleepy Ashtead High Street, so beloved by elderly ladies, had turned itself into this mildly trendy coffee (and wine!) bar with urbane black aproned staff wielding panini at groups of local yummy mummies. Good old Palmer’s had now become edgy (well for the Leatherhead area, anyway) Handley’s!
Here they offer Bambaccinos for the babies and, for their mothers, gingerbread flavoured syrup in their cappuccino. They have Rooibos Tea Pigs and elderflower fizz, falafel wraps and breakfast burritos! It’s all a brave new world and there’s not a single Miss Marple in sight.
Alas, alongside the newfound sophistication comes an increased level of background noise; coffee machines hissing, babies grizzling, mummies giving each other a squealy welcome, their active wear trainers squeaking in tune on the floor.
The staff these days are well meaning, smiley and friendly but they just can’t compete with the matrons of yore. For a start, they stand with their backs towards their guests, chatting away merrily to each other and, after ten minutes, need a polite prod to come and take an order. They negotiate the buggies like the pros that they are but have difficulty accommodating a walking stick. Still, the coffee they bring is just as good as back in the day, so no complaints there.
We have an accepted little ritual, my mother-in-law and I. Whenever we meet for lunch, she orders a baked potato with whichever filling she fancies that day and I have a poached or scrambled egg on toast. Her favourite at Palmer’s was always a baked potato with crispy skin, properly done in the oven, with plenty of melty butter, grated cheese on top and a couple of slices of ham by the side with a salad garnish. At Handley’s, her favourite order comes as a salad with ham and brie. Much healthier no doubt, and she does like salad very much, but the potato is pretty dry with tough skin, the salad has small fat chunks of ham among its chopped up leaves, and evidence of the promised brie is minimal. My m-i-l, like her son, is lovely and would never dream of complaining. Like the trooper that she is, she eats up and puts a happy face on it. After all, we’re here to enjoy each other’s company, so much more than to fill our bellies.
My scrambled egg with smoked salmon is anaemic looking, uninteresting, watery. It sits on two chewy undertoasted English muffin halves, the smoked salmon slices just about enough to lie in a decorative swirl on top. I too miss the warm buttery and crunchy wholemeal toast triangles with the creamy yellow scrambled egg of Palmer’s days. For once, we don’t order a slice of lemon cake to share but pay our £13.75 and head back to her house, where we settle down to a nice cup of tea and a good piece of moist fruit cake.
Handley’s Deli, 27 The Street, Ashtead Village KT21 1AA, Tel.: 01372 279537, www.handleysdelicatessen.com