The Great Semolina Shortage of 1957

Clinging to Life

Jasper is “clinging to life by a thread”. Or so he tells me. He has, by skilful self diagnosis, “a dose of the Asian flu”. This is as a result of  reading the M.O.H. for Glasgow’s Report in The Herald that deaths from the virus are up in the city.

Jasper like most Glaswegians is given if not entirely to hypochondria at least to exaggeration. You have to remember that here, in what Defoe called “the dear green place”, even the simplest thing that goes wrong like the non appearance of a tram or an overdone roll and sausage is a “catastrophe” and many mild inconveniences are considered to be events that are “ pure dead devastating”.

the Tunnocks’ teacake – a popular teatime treat

I suppose there has to be a down side to the city that produces the greatest ships in the world as well as Creamola Foam and the Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer and Teacake.

Don’t Go Rambling Around Kirkyards in Winter

The local graveyard – spooky and damp at any time of day

I would say that Jasper has a bad cold brought on by his rambling around the Kirkyard with his Hysterical Society chums trying to find the grave of a villager who served in the Napoleonic Wars. Even Jasper’s famous tweed suits do let in a modicum of damp and that is where the rot sets in.

Jasper in his favourite tweed suit

Typically he has managed to have everyone running around after him, plumping pillows and preparing steam inhalations. Anyone would think he was deep sea diving as this requires, in addition to the towel-covered basin and chair (“in case I faint from want of sustenance Muriel”) two additional helpers, one to add the boiling water from the copper kettle (kept for incapacity) and another to put the towel (must be white and fluffy) over his head to ensure minimum steam escape.

While I am not prepared to indulge him Mrs Travers always is and now she has a deputy in the form of Grace Cambell, a lady from the Caribbean, who has recently joined what I believe some refer to as “Kelvinside’s Royal Household” – too funny for words, but I can understand it – we have standards in common and good bag management.

A Prejudice Against Nurses

Grace has been engaged, for a trial period understandably, to take the place of Hilda, the missing German vuman vat did zee heavy vork. Grace it turns out is ideally suited for Jasper’s current indisposition as she trained as a nurse in the West Indies. Mrs Travers seems to be getting on well with her. Grace is a willing worker and, like Mr Travers, Mr Cambell it seems, is rather difficult. He is a chimney sweep and according to what Grace told Mrs Travers there are few flues this side of Anniesland Cross that have not experienced his rod and brush. Of course I myself prefer my flue to be swept with a holly brush, which is far more traditional in Scotland. My neighbour across the road, Mrs Lottie Macaulay, seems to have taken an instant dislike to Grace. I cannot think why; perhaps she has something against nurses?

I Know What He is Up To

Actually I am a little suspicious that Jasper is dragging this whole cold thing out a little too much. I have a feeling he is trying to avoid the extra Scottish Country Dancing Lessons that I have been sending him to in order to prepare for the festive season. Jasper has two left feet where Scottish country dancing is concerned and I for one would like to correct that which I am sure must be possible without callipers.

Of course coming from The Gorbals he can do the basic Ceilidh dances – the Gay Gordons, Dashing White Sergeant and even, if push come to shove, an Orcadian Strip the Willow.  However, in our society if one might be permitted to sound a little pretentious which I know is so unlike moi, I have to say something with a little more finesse is required. One might for example consider the Duke of Perth or Lord Maclay’s Reel, something which shows off a finally turned ankle in a pas de basque or a well angled shoulder in a dos-à-dos.  For as I am sure you know country dancing is really the wrong name, for these are far from the jigs of rustics; they are really court dances which are derived from European influence on Scottish society with the arrival of Marie De Guise in the 16th century. The dances are elegant and gracious, however they are also quite challenging.

It’s For His Own Good

Quite frankly if one can master the Duke of Hamilton , then one is quite able to spend a weekend at Balmoral, which in truth I never have, but one never knows when the call might come, they certainly could do with some new carpeting. Too much tartan is not a good thing.

Jasper has tried quoting Lord Chesterfield’s advice to his son that “Dancing is a very trifling and silly thing”, to which I have countered his argument by finishing the quotation and that “it is one of the follies to which people of sense are sometimes obliged to conform and then they should be able to do it well…” As I have said to Jasper between inhalations of menthol crystals, “remember the graceful motions of the arms, the giving of your hand and the putting on and off of your hat genteelly, are parts of a gentleman’s dancing”. It is also a fact that dancing “teaches you how to present yourself, to sit, stand and move genteelly”. I suppose he has a point when he says there was not much call for gentility in Hospital Street, where running was the key to survival. Still one can try.

Senseless Whirling

Of course Scottish Country Dancing was part of the curriculum when I was at The Westbourne School for Young Ladies, it was very much an accomplishment. As I said graceful movement is the aim and as my dear Grandmamma said to me, “Muriel dancing is not about senseless whirling and getting so dizzy that one ends up falling into a hay bale and losing one’s virtue. Dancing is a measured thing and a lady would do well to remember that in a reel or Strathspey one’s pearls never leave one’s chest.”

The uttering the word “chest” usually left her breathless and reaching for the sal volatile (smelling salts to the uninitiated). I have to admit that at the time I wondered how Grandmamma managed to ground her pearls as her chest was a not inconsiderable structure and it would not have surprised me to know that an ill timed pousette or an over hasty “Postie’s Jig” may well have given her a bruised nose. Her pearls it has to be said were like pigeons eggs. So the weight may explain a great deal.

Enhanced Cake Production

fruit cake

Dancing aside there have been more practical considerations this week, many of them centred on the preparations for the festive season in the kitchen. As you can imagine domestic cake baking approaches a feverish pitch at this time of year as the women of Scotland service the glue of society that is provided by sales of produce at Church and Village hall sales by Women’s Guilds and the S.W.R.I..

Proper Scottish soup – with bits!

We had our Guild Christmas soup and pudding lunch last weekend at our church in the Rural Bolthole. In case you are wondering soup and pudding at midday is a custom in Scottish rural areas, lying between “ma 10 o’clocks” and “ma 3 o’clocks” which are snack times. This forms part of the rhythm of country life providing sustenance to hard working farmers who “have been up at the beasts” since 5am and are hungry. The main course of meat and potatoes is served in the evening. Church lunches are rounded off with endless tea and a traybake or at this time of year a piece of shortbread.

An Understanding 

My simply marvellous shortbread

Now shortbread is a very competitive business and I am famous for my shortbread with my secret crunch ingredient semolina. Indeed it is often the recipient of first prize at F.A.F.S. (The Flower and Fête Show) in the late summer.

Of course it is understood that the entrants like myself with a certain position in society have not actually baked anything themselves. That is what one has staff for. I can of course cook when required, for I am after all S.O.E. trained.

The Annual Kitchen Visit

It would require a considerable leap of imagination to think that those and such as those have actually got their hands in the mixing bowl. My Grandmamma only saw the kitchen once a year when she came down to present the staff with their Christmas presents. It was an event which filled her so full of dread that the preceding days took on the manner of a missionary about to depart for the South Seas.

It was not uncommon for her lower limbs to give way at the very sight of the green baize door and an uncarpeted stairway. There were in fact several years when she had to be conveyed below stairs in a sort of litter carried by two footmen. I remember one year in particular when on arrival and gasping her lavender soaked handkerchief to her nose she caught site of cook taking the skin off a pork link for the servants’ toad-in-the-hole and fell backwards into the arms of one of the valets. This would have been fine had she not come too and seen that he not only had his liveried jacket off, revealing a shapely torso but his shirt sleeves rolled up beyond his elbows. Grandmamma, who had insisted that her husband keep his coat on even on their wedding night, had never seen a man’s elbow and the kitchen maid was accordingly sent to fetch the doctor who proposed bed rest in a darkened room and a tonic wine.

Grandmamma and the Semolina Breakthrough


Despite her difficult relationship with the kitchen my Grandmother’s shortbread was in a class of its own. It was she who first introduced the semolina element into this favourite sweet bite. This was probably because she was friendly with the Marshall family who pioneered wheat based foodstuffs in Ibrox on the south side of the city. It was here that James Marshall set about producing “farinaceous substances widely known as Marshall’s Preparations of Wheat”. His crowning glory was semolina, a fine nutritious substance high in protein and carbohydrate, which The Lancet described as “a highly valuable form of food”. Of course others produced it but Marshall was better at marketing. He and his brother also produced Farola, a more refined product which they marketed for invalids and “the most fastidious”. Grandmamma, who was the most fastidious person she knew, ate it by the bucket.

In 1886 they won gold medals for their products in Edinburgh and Liverpool. The two brothers did not get on and split and formed two separate companies and involved themselves in what can only be described as the “Great Semolina wars of Glasgow”. James stayed at Ibrox and Thomas set up in Morrison Street in Kingston. It was all rather unedifying and our family tried to steer a course between the two, even on Bridge nights and were avid users of their various products.

Jasper as you can well imagine is a great fan of semolina cooked with milk and served as a pudding with cream and jam. He is a simple soul.  As you will have gathered I and many other ladies use it in “our” shortbread recipes but, it is also useful for giving roast potatoes a little extra oomff on Christmas day or if you prefer your “Ne’er Day dinner”. After the par boiling and shake, sprinkle enough semolina on the potatoes to lightly dust them in semolina and pop then in to roast.

Devastated by a Lack of Semolina

You can imagine then the commotion at the end of last week when Mrs Travers emerged from the kitchen at the Rural Bolthole, where we are spending a few days, proclaiming “Help! Polis! Murder”” and “I am pure dead devastated”, and “it’s a cat-at- tros-folk”. “There’s nae any semolina in the pantry.”

It seems that as Mrs Travers was about to start making my special shortbread for the Church Lunch, she discovered that the semolina stores were nowhere to be found along with an absence of several other forms of dried goods and an obvious invasion of mice. Now Mrs Travers is many things but disorganised is not one of them and I have to agree with her that somehow it was further evidence of Hilda sewing disharmony in the household – just as her masters behind the Iron Curtain sew disharmony everywhere else using I imagine far more dangerous means than semolina. “Mrs Wylie what will the Christmas Soup and Pudding lunch be without your perfect circles of melt in the mouth happiness with the secret ingredient that everyone else uses too?” “We should be able to get some from the grocer’s” I replied, “But it is early closing, Mrs Wylie.”

Help from My Purveyor

I decided to take matters into my own hands and telephoned Mrs Graham who said that her husband was in the Pentland Firth Arms playing gramophone records at The Old Folks Christmas Party. When I arrived Mr Graham, Licensed Grocer and Purveyor of Foods of Distinction, was just putting on Jimmy Shand’s Bluebell Polka for the fifth time and said he would open up as they were about to play pass the parcel which always became quite violent so he would be glad to be out of the way for 15 minutes or so.

I must say he made me feel quite nervous as he said there was something of a shortage of semolina this year due to unspecific distribution difficulties with greater demand, for some reason, from behind the Iron Curtain and increased shortbread making (“not that anyone’s recipe comes close to yours Mrs Wylie”) not to mention its use as an invalid food, during the present Asian ‘flu epidemic.

Fortunately we found one remaining packet nestling between the macaroni and Brown and Polson’s blancmange powders. The day, or rather the shortbread, was saved.

Muriel’s Tactical Approach to Illness

Well the shortbread got made and what was left after lunch I sold for the Home for Fallen Women and made a tidy sum. It’s surprising how popular unmarried mothers can be at Christmas. So all is fair in love and semolina wars. Now just to show willing I am going to take Jasper an invalid tray up with a bowl of semolina and homemade raspberry jam. I have also bought him one of the new Biros which seems quite common so will have an appeal, especially as they advertise it as useful for doing the pools, or in Jasper’s case the racing at Nottingham which he does not think I know about. I am hoping he feels better as we have been invited to the Scottish premier of Around the World in 80 days at The Gaumont in Glasgow.

A Tray for Jasper

“Oh  goody Muriel, semolina and jam. Can I mix it in and make it go all pink?”

“If you must Jasper, and in keeping with your predilections for the lower end of civilisation, here is something new – a Biro. It does away with bottles of ink which to me sounds like the beginning of the end but I thought it might appeal.

“Thank you Darling; how thoughtful.”

“How are you feeling?”

“Oh, better; for a while it was touch and go but a lot better. Any cream? Good. I might come downstairs to watch some television, I could do with some fresh air, but I am too weak for country dancing. So very weak Darling.”

“I realise that Jasper, what about the cinema tomorrow? It’s David Niven.”

“Oh with the right care, I might just pull through. What time does it start?”

à bientôt

Muriel Wylie

December 1957


Grandmamma’s rather indecipherable writing

Muriel’s Marvellous Shortbread Recipe – I suggest you make it as a round and then cut into petticoat tails, but it can equally be baked in a rectangular tray and cut into fingers.

  • 1lb plain flour
  • 1 tablesp S.R. flour
  • 1 teaspoon semolina
  • 1 oz lard
  • 8 oz butter (or butter and marg is you must)
  • 5 oz castor sugar

Mix butter and fat to a cream. Gradually add the dry ingredients and knead well. Put in whatever tray you decide on and prick. Bake in a slow oven for about an hour. Cut into your selected shape on taking out of the oven.




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4 Responses to The Great Semolina Shortage of 1957

  1. Moira Taylor says:

    Asian Flu? I suspect Jasper believes he has this because it sounds exotic and that would appeal to the adventurer in him! I’m afraid that if he belonged to me and I felt he was in any way malingering, he would be wearing the copper kettle by now. Yes, I know I’m not a natural nurse …. I sincerely hope Grace is not mollycoddling him. At least Mrs T has not taken against her as she did with Hilda. Mind you, as it turns out she was quite right to take ‘agin’ her.
    Mama, who hailed from the dear green place often referred to a catastrophe but dear papa would amuse us kiddiewinks by changing it to ‘cat’s ar*e for tea’. Naughty papa.
    I must admit to being very shocked at the semolina disaster Muriel.How can such a marvellous and well organised hostess such as yourself allow such a thing to happen?? Of course Mrs T is responsible for the actual cooking & baking but really, Muriel, you should have been on top of supplies dear. Thank goodness for that Mr Graham. He saved the day. A man of many talents I believe.
    Meanwhile, thank you so much for sharing your recipe, I shall pass it to my woman, Consuela.

  2. Matthew Bate says:

    ‪Foreign flu, the taxonomy of Scottish dances and making it go pink. ‬

    ‪I wonder if naming diseases after the place they are said to originate has any bearing on xenophobia? It’s certainly a thought. As someone actively catastrophising the destruction of my country at the hands of a small group of xenophobes I can certainly sympathise.‬

    ‪There remains a great deal of sympathy for tweed, and in fact wool, in the twenty first century. It is said to be proof against damp, cold, heat and brambles. It’s none of those things. It’s the reason we have so few trees. Yes I am in a mood.‬

    ‪Jasper is a very fortunate man. It’s deserved, of course. I have seldom seen a life so well lived. I should pattern my life after his.‬

    ‪This talk of sweeping chimneys. I think I’m missing something. There’s something going on that I can’t quite put my finger on it. I’m sure it will come up later.‬

    ‪Mrs. Macaulay needs to understand that if you go in for building bungalows you build them for all. Some things are bad for business as well as being wrong, and being prejudiced against nurses seems especially foolish. We emerge from the swamp together.‬

    ‪I’m convinced that there is a hidden meaning in the names of these country dances. Possibly some crude word play. Duke of Perth indeed. We should stick with names with no other connotations such as Prince Albert.‬

    ‪Scottish food sounds lovely and disagree with the need to rebuild Hadrian’s Wall even though I ate school dinners in the 1970s.‬

    ‪I’m glad Jasper got to mix it in and make it go pink. Such simple pleasures.‬


  3. Louise Lewis (Lady from the right side of Carlisle) says:

    Chérie Muriel,

    Quelle catastrophe! Save the semolina, I say!! Thank goodness your dear Grocer, Mr Graham, was able to service you between Jimmy Shand polkas. Otherwise, I fear Mrs T would never recover from her devastation at the lack of semolina for her shortbread……..standards must always be upheld at rural Church Lunches.

    Although, as you know, Muriel my dwaaling, I, like your dear Grandmama have an aversion to the kitchen so strong that even the merest mention of the word makes one come over completely unnecessary. One is compelled to grasp the Sherry decanter in one hand and clutch at one’s pearls with the other, then take a long lie-down on the chaise until the feeling of panic has passed over moi. Mais non, la cuisine is not pour moi! I believe I was put on this earth for higher pursuits: le théâtre, la danse et la Champagne! Closely followed by all things ‘very theatrical’, elocution, Italian vowels and Scottish Country Dancing naturellement……..

    Speaking of devastation, I, like dear Jasper, have succumbed and am in a state that can only be described as verging on consumptive. I am need of semolina by the bucket load! What with the Christmas season barely underway, one is devastated, in fact, ‘pure deed devastated’, as Mrs T would say. I am on the Hot Toddys and Matron is popping round regularly to apply her invigorating goose grease and brown paper poultice. One may even have to go under the doctor. One simply must pull round for the highlight of the Christmas season: one’s Nativity Tableau Vivant in the School Chapel. One simply cannot let down one’s public nor one’s little darlings, come what may…….!

    Yours feeling weak and wan……
    Lulu xxxx

    P.S. Please send help immediately!

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