Nostalgia for the beautiful world outside has made a collector of me | Rachel Cooke

A stash of the finest cigarette cards is helping to keep my mind at peace

Miniature delights

Trapped indoors, we’re all overcome with nostalgia, the past being one way to escape the present. Butterscotch Angel Delight is now strangely hard to come by. Meanwhile, Stanley Gibbons reports a “gratifying” increase in customers as people remember how they once loved stamp collecting.

This may explain why last month I spent more money than I should have on a large collection of old cigarette cards. These are not, however, any old cigarette cards: they are the silk flower cards given away with Kensitas in the 1930s – and so lovely you can hardly believe they were once just a free gift (“Why do we give you these inserts? Because tobacco is a plant, and we want you to realise that only the finest Virginia tobacco is used in Kensitas”). Each one is a tiny envelope. Inside is a piece of ribbon on to which has been woven a flower: violets and stocks, roses and lupins, pansies and nasturtiums. Having laid them all out on the kitchen table (I’m like a teenager with his Panini stickers, weeding out duplicates), I can gaze at them for minutes at a time. The past is another country or, in this case perhaps, another market garden.


A lesson from Maugham

Somerset Maugham
Acutely drawn characters: Somerset Maugham. Photograph: Alfred Eisenstaedt./Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image

In all the lists I’ve seen of books about epidemics, one seems to have gone missing: Somerset Maugham’s novel of 1925, The Painted Veil, in which a shallow woman is brought to her senses by an outbreak of cholera in a remote part of China. I can’t account for its disappearance thus far. Maugham has such an instinct for psychology; he writes women so well; he looks at the expat and understands that his grating superiority is more than likely just a cover for the fact that he has basically run away from home. And then there’s its uncommonly gripping and queasy-making plot. This was inspired, he tells us in a preface, by Book V of Dante’s Purgatorio, in which appears the story of a gentlewoman from Siena, whose husband, suspecting her of adultery, takes her to his castle in Maremma, hoping that the noxious vapours from the marshes will kill her…


More cheese, please

a cheese counter at a Berlin market
Cheese, glorious cheese: a cheese counter at a Berlin market. Photograph: Annegret Hilse/Reuters

Thanks in large part to a rallying cry issued by the food writer Jenny Linford, some of us have been buying quite a lot of cheese, the better to support the nation’s artisan makers during this crisis. Luckily, I’m all for cheese; given a choice, I’ll always take a slice of Mrs Kirkham’s Lancashire over a bag of Maltesers. But even so, what might a person do should they happen to end up with – whisper it – too much cheese?

Pondering this, I remembered the potted cheese of which my father was fond and out of which I used to take the piss as a child, on the grounds that it sounded (and looked) like something Fungus the Bogeyman would regard as a treat.

If this has not put you off – my nod to Fungus and his horrible habits, I mean – you can find several recipes for the using up of ancient fromage in Elisabeth Luard’s timely new book Preserving, Potting and Pickling, including one with marc (though any white spirit – vodka? – would do just as well). It’s so easy. Simply grate your leftover hard cheese, pound it together with your soft, work in the booze and then stick the whole pungent ensemble in a ramekin. Seal with a layer of clarified butter. But be warned: this is not for the faint-hearted. It gets whiffier every day. After a fortnight, you’ll need to bury it under concrete.

• Rachel Cooke is an Observer columnist

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