Thursday, 12 May 2016

The Space beneath the Coat Rack

Dear Nigel,

Tonight we are having 'Lamb with tomato, ginger and basil' (page 123). It is a simple supper with thick juicy lamb steaks and a lovely fresh-tasting dressing on top. Just right for days like today when there are better things to be done in the garden than spending ages over a hot stove. I take the cherry tomatoes, fresh root ginger and basil and put them in the blender. The mustard seeds take little time in a hot pan to crackle and pop. With salt and olive oil it becomes a vibrant but balanced dressing. It tastes super fresh and reminds me, with a slap on the hand, that some things - usually all things - are better made fresh; when I take out the bottle of bought salad dressing from the fridge each time. I buy a good product, but tasting this I know there is simply no comparison whatsoever.

I go to the fridge to fetch the lamb steaks. It sits in the porch next to the coat rack, because the kitchen here at the cottage is tiny. As I close the fridge door I glance down to pat my old dog on the head and all I see are a line of wellies. The space beneath the Coat Rack is filled once more, and there is no nuzzling wet nose to greet me, no hopeful eyes wondering if it's time for a walk up the meadows.

It is two weeks now since I had to take Poppy to the vet for that last time. I'm getting slowly used to the sound of silence echoing around me. She was an old dog, supremely lively and healthy to the end; only her grey whiskers gave her away as being other than a lively pup. She loved to swim down in the river at Milldale and wander about with a stick the size of a gate post in her mouth, lolling happily in the sun until she had chewed it into twiglets for the crows to line their nests.

I knew her time had come when she suddenly came out covered in lumps all over, too many to operate on, even if that had been on the cards. When she stopped eating altogether I knew it was only time, yet still she woke each morning wagging her tail and wanting to be out in the fields. It's a fine line knowing where quality of life lies. I hoped each day I would know when the time was right - not too little and not too much. I hoped she would tell me herself with her eyes.

Animals teach you dignity, I think. They don't let emotion cloud their view of the world. As long as she could muster the strength she wanted to be out enjoying chasing the smells, reading the lie of the land - the hidden travellers, the unseen dramas.

And animals teach you humanity. I knew that the day had come when she came over to each one of us at breakfast to get a stroke. The girls said goodbye before they went off to school. Then she lay on the hearth rug with her chin on the floor and we talked; - about the dramas we'd seen through together; the pain and suffering that every family weathers at some stage of its existence. And through it all she'd always been there for me, helping me take one day at a time, building me up, bringing me back to life once more with courage and optimism and belief in the future. Molly's last words (and she's only eight) to Poppy were 'Thank You'. It says it all.

So I took her to the vet and lay down on the floor with my head on hers and stroked her ears as she drifted off into another world. The space beneath the coat rack catches me, now and then. Sometimes I go to open the door to let her out. And then I remember. The postman calls and I don't notice. There is no one to eat the scraps that the kids leave on their plates.

I take the lamb steaks and season them with sea salt and a hefty grinding of black pepper. I need the pepper, I think, right now. And wine to toast a good friend.

I am collecting together my recipes in a new book - a blank, unopened new book. Recipes for home use only which say 'This is the way we eat Now'. I'm fed up with deciding to cook something - a casserole I once made that was lovely, a particular pudding or cake, and then not being able to locate the recipe in my vast bookcase of cookery books, which I have a habit of accumulating. Not everything, but certainly favourites and ease of cooking.

I am looking for a recipe right now for a rhubarb crumble cake that contained both sour cream and ground almonds for density, but can I find it anywhere? No. So I am amalgamating several recipes to try and come up with the picture in my head. I have rhubarb in the garden threatening to take over and still bags of last year's sitting in the freezer awaiting a purpose in life. I think, perhaps, it would be nice to make a rhubarb cordial to have with something fizzy on a hot day, presuming there will be more hot days this year.

The garden is unfolding itself from its winter blanket and I have a promise of help that involves a spade and fork. The hostas are unscrewing themselves from their shoots and painted leaves are unfurling with every ray of sun. They sit happily in their pots, almost completely unbothered by slugs. I put this down to their hardiness in the face of adversity: I have cruelly left them pot-bound for some time and the lack of any moist soil, whatsoever, is probably the greatest deterrent. They sit by the back door only inches away from the stream. The slugs prefer to bypass the hostas and make straight for the cool of the kitchen. Sometimes, I come down in the morning and a crazy mad slug on speed has been in leaving a silvery trail on the dark carpet of the hall; then left by the way he came, with a contortionist's ease and a sneer that I might possibly catch him in the act. We're not done, that slug and I. I will be down one night and catch that contemptuous philanderer in the act, and then his days will be numbered.

Love Martha x

Monday, 18 April 2016

The Meaning of Cake

Dear Nigel,

I am busy making two separate cakes at the moment. Both of them are 'cakes with a message'. The first is a simple Birthday cake - the cake that says 'I remembered' and 'this is because you are special'. The second also says those things, but differently. It is for a friend who is going through a pretty rough time right now; for whom there is nothing I can do or say that would 'help'. This is the meaning of cake, I think. It says what's in your heart when there are no words that would do as well.

I remember reading a story once about a Mexican woman who cried tears of pain or passion into her cooking and the magical effect they had on the recipients of her meals. I think that if you cook with passion and feel the life inside you ebb towards your creation then there has to be a kind of energy that is transferred from one being to another. Just as an energetic, optimistic person can create waves around themselves, igniting thoughts and movement in others. And, just as the reverse can also happen: the flat, monotone words of the world-weary that can drive the life-blood out of you, switch you off or send you to sleep. We all have the power to create either effect. And to imagine that a cake is more than a cake, that it can stand for something, is to imagine that all things are possible. And to have hope.

Spring has been a long time coming this year. We get a single sunny day and everyone is out flying their Summer colours and basking in the glow; and then the cold returns to check the blossoms before they dare to open, restore the daffodils to their glory and drum the ground to warn the sleepers beneath. The only good side to this has been the grass, which hasn't needed cutting yet. I clear back the dead growth of winter to reveal small clumps of geranium and alchemilla mollis (or lady's mantle) preparing to face the world. I love the alchemilla with its sparkling beads of dew glistening on the leaves, like the finest evening dress laid out to wear. This dew was once considered by alchemists the purest form of water of all and they used it in their endeavour to turn base metal into gold; and which is also how it got its name.

Supper tonight is simple fare. I have some marinated anchovies and potatoes and am making your recipe for 'Potatoes, anchovies and dill' (page 115). As you know, anything with dill gets my vote. The dog isn't well and I need to stay close to home. She is an old dog; well-loved and a bit raggy at the edges now, but a large part of our life in this little cleft in the hillside.

 The potato slices are tossed in olive oil, seasoning and rosemary and baked in the oven. A wonderful scent of warm rosemary oil permeates the air as I take the tray out of the oven, and I breathe it in. Rosemary oil is good for clearing the head, and for memory. I keep some in the car to help me concentrate on driving, particularly late at night. The anchovies, capers and dill are added cold. It is a simple dish, full of flavour, which fits my mood and comforts. Potatoes are natures 'onesies'. As we sit down to eat I find I am drawn to dispense with a knife and fork and we pick as if with a tray of canapes. Dressed down living at its best.

I am noting with curiosity the rise in interest amongst my older children towards the EU referendum. I think it is because the vote will be closer and the whole thing seems somehow a bit more relevant to them than the general election did, which seemed to provoke a blanket of apathy amongst both them and their friends. My mother says she will ask each of her grandchildren how they will be voting and then vote with the majority. She says the responsibility for the future is theirs - whether it be a blessing or a curse. At present they are split, like much of the country it appears; their life choices - one working at the major European financial and diplomatic centre of Geneva, another of domestic Army life - have pulled them in different directions. It is interesting to see them developing their own ideas and thoughts. From the same pool of values and history and shared experience, life colours the water of each with the imprint of adult life. Imperceptibly at first, then through the teenage years - a bit more growth. Then branches, twigs and finally leaves appear. And the seed becomes a man: Not fashioned in anyone's own image, but their own.

A new village shop has opened up about three miles away at Hulme End. It is, never-the-less, our nearest shop. I have promised the children we will pop in for sweets. I hope it makes a go of it. If anything will, it should: It is on the 'main road' into Hartington, catching most of the passing traffic, and is in a wonderful little spot near the Manifold Inn - a popular camping area by the river. We are heavily dependent on the tourist trade around here, and, although our village doesn't suffer from it, several villages nearby are heavily dominated by holiday cottages - which has both its pros and cons, to be fair. The village shop in Hartington, which is our main port of call when we don't want to drive all the way into town, is probably only kept open because of the year-round holiday cottage Industry. Prices might be higher, but then so is the additional petrol needed to drive into town, and it allows us to shop. While some around here will moan about the number of holiday cottages, there are plenty of others whose work either in cleaning, or maintaining or catering for the cottages provides an income. Somewhere to pop into for that extra pint of milk and a few extras is always welcome as far as I'm concerned, and visiting regularly builds bonds and communities as well as keeping money in the local area.

With love from the shopping metropolis of the Peak District,

 Martha x

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Come up and see my Magnolias

Dear Nigel,

Just as little pipe cleaner lambs start stumbling around on unsteady legs in the fields behind the cottage and the sap begins to rise once more, I have an offer I can hardly refuse. OK, so he didn't quite say 'Come up and see my Magnolias', but he might as well have done.

We are standing in an old Greenhouse and my new friend The Gardener is showing me a tray of tiny fragile seedlings, each no bigger than my thumb nail. I marvel each time at how something so very small can possibly grow into the twenty foot trees we've just be wandering beneath. They are all coming into bud now. Some, with fuzzy coverings, like the skin of a kiwi fruit, and others smoother and tipped with blood. The blossoms emerging are white, or pink, and some have been spray-painted pink on the shell and white on the inside. Some pink hussies are already out and waving their knickers in the air twenty feet above our heads. Other cream ones are more reticent and compact and sit composed on smaller  trees like a flock of starlings, each on its own spot, nodding heads in different directions and discussing the weather, no doubt. Everyone discusses the weather. Those golf ball-sized hailstones that rammed down on us on Easter Sunday, spoiling many an Easter egg hunt and confusing small children.

I am in the kitchen making soup. It is a green soup for Spring: 'a lovely fresh-tasting soup for a winter-spring day', like today. It is 'A spring soup of young leeks and miso' (page 104). The leeks and celery are softened in butter and the spring greens added later to preserve the green colour. A lemon adds the final bit of zing to whet the palate. The miso paste gives you your 'umami fix' which you crave after returning from a trip abroad. It is good that it lasts and behaves well in the fridge, becoming a new staple ingredient 'just as Parmesan used to be.'  Oh no, what has happened to the old Parmesan? It still languishes in mine. But then again, I'm still knocking out the old favourites for family members who refuse to try anything new, or different. In the battle of wills, often I prefer to make a rod for my own back and have two sittings, rather than sit and seethe at untouched plates.

The miso soup 'sustains and sets you up for the day ahead'. Almost an essential part of every Japanese meal, it becomes a routine comfort. Like a blackened pool - 'shining, calm, untroubled. A bowl of quiet perfection,' of contemplation and reflection.

I have been contemplating and considering lately the increasing phenomenon that is the rise of  the obsessive documentation of our lives. Sherry Turkle, clinical psychologist and Professor at MIT, writes about the cost of this constant documentation - i.e photographing and texting - of our lives, and how these interruptions 'make it hard to settle into serious conversations with ourselves and with other people because emotionally, we keep ourselves available to be taken away from everything.' As Arianna Huffington notes: 'By so-obsessively documenting our experiences, we never truly have them.'

To stand and hold the flower of a last remaining snowdrop and compare it tone for tone with that of a newly-emerging snowflake flower head (which take over once the snowdrops are spent). One, with a green dot on the edge of the tepals of each bell shaped flower, (as if a small child has sought to embellish nature with a felt tip pen), and the other with the same green applied delicately to the inner three. The surge of electricity which courses from a single flower head, up through the capillaries and veins of your very own hand and liberates itself towards the sun through the top of your head cannot be captured on a smart phone. Even words scarcely do it justice. Being there is enough. If the memory of that feeling isn't enough to embed itself into your very consciousness then no amount of down-loaded photographs will every retrieve it from your memory.

I read my children's face book entries and feel devoid of emotion, because I wasn't there. Life is to be lived in the present, to be truly lived. And I would rather have the excited voice of my older daughter on the end of the phone telling me in gasping breaths about the wonders of the Alps, than read a diary of events, blow-by-blow.

And so we sit down to supper and your lovely miso soup. And this is exactly what I have been talking about: I am instantly reminded of a recipe I used to make, perhaps thirty years ago, the recipe of which has long since bit the dust. I can't even remember what it was or exactly what was in it but the underlying taste is a memory that lies buried in this soup, and comes from nowhere to remind me of a time, long past, in my careless youth.

Love Martha x

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

A Cold Spring

Dear Nigel,

Spring is coming slowly this year, dragging its feet as if it hasn't quite the heart in it yet to paint the hedgerows with fresh buds, scatter wild flowers in the meadows and slowly unfurl new feather-like leaves to dust the tips of bundles of bare sticks. Every day I pass my favourite flowering current. There are tiny beetroot-stained buds now and the beginnings of leaves, but only the beginnings. I note its progress - slow - and hope each day to see a little more life rearing its head above the parapet.

The only life in the garden is the rhubarb which carries on relentless. We had a fresh crop of heavy snow two weeks ago - enough to close the schools - and it still took its opportunity to push through the white blanket. It has the muscles of a body builder in training, forcing every sinew to maintain its dominance. Even the weeds are pale and weedy, nursing colds and pretending to be delicate. Their treacherous hearts are hidden from view, for now. It is probably a good time to make a start and clear the ground. I feel its time is coming. And getting in there quick before all hell breaks loose will get things off to a good start. Perhaps tomorrow...

Today I am making breakfast. It was a hard night at the pub last night - even harder if you didn't get a drink and were hard at work fiddling until well into the wee hours. I always seem to wake up with something akin to a hangover whether I've touched a drop or not, and quite whether it is the intensity of playing or simply dehydration, I don't know. I make a mental note to 'drink more' - water at the very least.

I spy your recipe for an all-day breakfast toad-in-the-hole and check whether the ingredients are in stock. I go out to the farm shop for some black pudding and the best herby sausages I can get and am back within the hour preparing the batter. It is 'Sunday breakfast toad-in-the-hole' (page 56), although today is Saturday. The batter with its grain mustard seems based on that from an old toad-in-the-hole recipe of yours that I have made time and time again. It is still my favourite way of making it after all these years, and a teatime favourite of ours. This recipe, though, is about Breakfast with a capitol B, and having it and eating it all. There are four of us today -thank goodness - as this is substantial stuff and definitely 'the sort of heroic breakfast you need the morning after the night before.' I note your essential point before I start that 'when making any batter get the fat truly hot and sizzling before you pour the batter in.'

Rehearsals for 'Oliver' are well under way now. Sophie replays the DVD endlessly of the old film version of it with Oliver Reed as Bill Sykes and I realise where I've seen him before:- Under the bottom of my car last week as it perched high up on the ramps, giving me a stern lecture on why this bearing and that joint needed removing/fixing/or whatever, and me agreeing meekly. You would agree to anything Bill Sykes said, wouldn't you?... or Oliver Reed come to that, under that stern fixed brow and firm gaze of his.  How much?? Of course, Oliver - a pleasure...

A spot of sunshine and the sight of so many joggers and cyclists out reminds me that my excuses are wearing thin. I've used the 'black ice on the ground...and I might twist an ankle' argument for long-enough. My clothes tell me that the winter has left it's toll and a little exercise is needed to remedy the situation. It's a fine line between eating what you want, persuading yourself to eat what you need, and not denying yourself anything in the process. I head off round the village on my usual beat for fifteen minutes or so. Quite enough for one day. It doesn't seem enough, somehow, if you believe what you read in the magazines, but a couple of weeks of this and I can feel changes happening; now that the weather is changing too and soon it will be time to come out of hibernation from under those huge over sized sweaters that hide so much.

My best friend comes over in a new outfit of citrine green and teal blue. She looks fabulous. I say, 'Oh, I couldn't wear a colour as bright as that.' She tells me - honestly - that my wardrobe is boring and that I like to fade into the background where no one can see me. And she's totally right. But I feel comfortable and at ease with myself in the background. Is this not allowed? I have no desire to show off or be centre of attention or need others to bolster my self-esteem. Can I not remain in my favourite navy v neck jumper and old jeans? She has plans to take me shopping. I think she's been watching too many programmes of people jumping out naked and annoying the neighbours.

I have been reconsidering my intention to eat less meat for health, for my budget, but mainly to help the ecology of the planet. I open my 'Meat free Monday' cookbook, which Paul McCartney and his children help set up. The first recipe is a good place to start. It is for a sweet potato gnocchi with rocket pesto. The idea behind the campaign seems a good one and a practical one. If we all make a few small changes it adds up to a lot. Amongst the arguments put in favour of making changes towards a vegetarian lifestyle in the book, my favourite statistic is the one that maintains that about 634 gallons of fresh water is required to produce one 5.2 ounce beefburger, which would be enough for a four-hour shower. On those grounds alone I'm happy to have an omelet once a week, if necessary.

Love Martha x

Sunday, 28 February 2016

'Sophie's Choice'

Dear Nigel,

The weather chills us to the bone, invading gloves and scarves and clipping ears raw and red...this way laddy, it pinches. But still the dog must be walked and she is eager-beavering away searching for smells that linger on the frost-hawed covering. It is ideal weather for snowdrops.They need the cold to make them stand tall and erect. Taking them into the house soon has them droopy and flaccid in their momentary show. But in the raw they bloom; their petals bursting with pride like small children desperate to get their words out. They don't seek to open any wider but relish their individual moment of perfection. This is what all those refrigerated trucks from Holland seek to emulate.

We travel 'up North' visiting the Grandparents in Northumberland. I take the chance to go for a stroll along the Snowdrop walk at Hawick Hall (home of Earl Grey - him of the nice bergamot-scented tea fame).
At this time of year it is a huge treat to be able to go and walk somewhere like this and witness the dazzling white blanket of flowers. I love to see the places where snowdrops show themselves. Often they mark the relic of old gardens from time long passed, like bits of history poking up through the soil for their temporary fleeting show. There is less of this where drifts have been created and new bulbs sown, but still, in the corner of a field, a strange outline near a garden path, a neglected garden, there is a memory laid out if you care to look.

I am making 'Pasta with dill and bacon' (page 48) for supper tonight. Dill is a favourite of mine and I am used to Scandinavian recipes and fish dishes using it, so I am intrigued. I have used fennel with pasta before to give that slight aniseed flavour, but never dill. I place the dill and Parmesan in the food processor and blitz as you suggest. The resulting green crumbs are then melted into the cream. I like this use of Parmesan as I have often thought that Parmesan gets a raw deal merely being used as a finishing grating on your mid-week spag bol, or whatever. And when I consider the myriad uses in cooking to which I put some of my favourite cheeses, like Comte and Gruyere, I think better use could be made of Parmesan. This sauce is a perfect example. The finished dish with its crispy bacon bits and toasted garlic and creamy sauce is full of flavour and salty-enough not to need any additional seasoning. The aniseed flavour of the dill is also a good temper for the salt. We sit and eat it all up without stopping for breath. You say that this 'might just be my favourite pasta dish of all' and I can see why.

I take some flowers over to my friends Anne and Anthony. I haven't seen them for a little while, and, truth be told it is my own fault. I have stayed away. Sometimes, when you are in the midst of emotional turbulence yourself it is difficult to be able to support friends in theirs. Sometimes you just don't have enough in you to be able to cope. And it is easier to stay away than come back each time feeling even lower than before. There is no shame in this. But it is a pity all the same. The flowers, though, are not to say sorry. They are to say the words that I can't possibly begin to articulate.

I used to take my little girls over to play with their adopted son, Stephen. He was five years old when he first came to live with them and they adopted him. He had had a very difficult start in life. Although a few years older than my two girls, he liked to play with younger children because they accepted him and didn't judge him like his peers. As the years went by the behavioural problems that came with him gradually got worse instead of better. We managed him in small doses. Anne and Anthony had it full time. In the end, it seems, they just couldn't cope as he grew more violent, and after nine years of adoption had to give him up. I meet them again nearly a year after this has happened and they are still looking haggard and bereft. I can't imagine the pain that they are going through. There are no words I can say. Only flowers and a hug.

The Ready Steady Cook challenge looms large. The team of three little cubs have a timed run through. Sophie is unimpressed at being made to hurry. It is not something that sits well with cooking to me either. I think perhaps there is a huge divide between the chefery element of knocking out meals swiftly and economically to order and the kind of cooking which can become almost a meditation, when you are lost in thought or just simply lost in the essence of beating a sauce smooth or peeling a pile of vegetables. This is my kind of cooking; therapeutic and life-enhancing. Sophie has never been made to hurry before and is unable to see why.

Being her usual argumentative self she also takes issue with the ingredients. Being made to pour vegetable oil into an omelet pan, she complains that at home we melt lots of butter and stir the melted butter back into the batter mixture. That way the pancakes don't stick. She gets her way. The cub leaders tell me they've never made pancakes before; only out of a packet. I suggest we send in our iron crepe pans for the final run through. I have struggled in the past to get a pancake out an omelet pan; and I'm a bit of a coward when it comes to flipping, preferring a palette knife and a swift flick. She says, 'have we got a squeezy lemon at home?' I say no, but we do have a real one, if that will do instead. Perhaps I'd better send in a lemon squeezer too.

Love Martha x

Monday, 8 February 2016

A touch of Snow

Dear Nigel,

At last the Winter has provided us with a bit of the real white stuff and there is a small window of opportunity, a blink of the eye, in which to sledge, throw snowballs, build a snowman and soak up the blinding light that is sunshine on snow under a solid blue sky. It is fleeting. Tomorrow it will all be gone, so every breath counts, every moment stretched and slowed and nailed down with photographs and smiles and footprints in the snow.

The dog enjoys it too; running and jumping like a puppy once more. But when it comes to crossing the stream to go and sledge she holds back and wants to go back to her bed; to her nice warm electric blanket that I have recently bought her; for she is an old dog now and her bones creak and stiffen when she gets up. She sleeps in a cold porch and the blanket has transformed her life. Now she lolls over the edge of the basket, stretched out with sunglasses on and reading the newspaper, a glass of pinot grigiot in her hand. She can scarcely summon up the energy these days to bark at the postman.

I am making a Roast Chicken tonight with your version of colcannon to accompany it. The recipe is 'Kale colcannon' (page 18). It is an altogether lighter dish than the traditional potato-based one, with a sweeter flavour, as it is a mix of kale and celeriac. It is simple and straightforward and warming but without some of the more off-putting virtues of the traditional dish. I like it very much, anyway, and I'm not a huge fan of the green stuff normally. The celeriac gives it a tasty edge. You use it with pig cheeks and apples and cider, but I have a chicken in want of some vegetables. It works just as well.

I am planning an expedition tomorrow - at least it feels that way. I am taking Sophie and Molly to see the Chinese New Year celebrations in Manchester. I have developed the art (very usefully) of turning almost any outing into a treat. When money is tight adding value to the mundane is like using a golden cheque book.

It is something I have got down to a fine art: The most sort after treat in our house right now is a single gold-wrapped toffee out of an ancient Farrah's Toffee tin which sits in the car. It is only available on a Tuesday after swimming lessons, and there is only ever one each. What started off as a distraction to get my children away from clamouring for stuff from those awful moving sweet and crisp machines you get at swimming pools (and which are such a huge rip-off), has become a much-sort-after event. The fact that it isn't ever offered at any other times somehow adds to its cachet - a technique that most advertising execs seem to employ with gusto. I must see if I can employ these tactics elsewhere as it could prove to be a huge money saver...

We are going by train, which to them is almost a treat in itself since the nearest train station from here is about half an hour away and we use it very rarely. We are meeting Hannah in Manchester and Tom is also coming over from his University in Sheffield. Nice to have four of my children in the same place at the same time. These things have to be engineered; they don't happen by themselves. Hopefully there will be some nice Chinese street food for them to try as getting a table at a restaurant is probably nigh on impossible during the New Year celebrations, even if my budget ran to it. We are going early so we can get a good position to see the traditional Dragon Parade. It is all under wraps, though, as there is nothing they like more than a surprise.

Sophie goes to a big Middle School now in a town about nine miles away. She is about the youngest and smallest in the school - perhaps that is partly why she has been offered the role of 'Oliver' in the forthcoming school production. She's pleased. I'm pleased; but I could see the ramifications playing out in my head. Both she and her best friend were up for the final audition for the part. Her best friend was excited and desperate for it. I tried to play it down, foreseeing the dangers ahead. Now there is tears and 'not talking'. I try and talk to Sophie about how her best friend might be feeling. It is not an easy thing for a child to do. All babies are egotists - they have to be in order to survive. A child's growth away from self-centeredness is slow and often painful. I sow the seeds and hope she will at least be tactful.

Tomorrow will be pancake day - a time for over-indulging and scoffing far too much, I suspect. Four pancakes doesn't really do it in our house, somehow. At no other time would my family expect endless pudding, but on pancake day tradition seems to dictate that people eat pancakes until they can eat no longer. Its biblical roots are fudged when it comes to the 'giving something up' bit and the lean times ahead between now and Easter: Convenient religion I call it. Sophie wants to fine-hone her cooking skills so we have agreed to share the cooking. There will be lemon and caster sugar, and maple syrup for those who prefer. I haven't heard from Will yet, but I'm expecting a phone call any time now...

Enjoy your pancakes,

Love Martha x

Sunday, 31 January 2016

The texture of antique leather

Dear Nigel,

I have been contemplating the simple dish of pasta and wondering why one dish has a certain cachet that makes me want to eat it and the other is shied away from swiftly. I'm not even aware that I'm making these choices on a day to day basis - but I am.

Once upon a time, pasta was a three times a week staple for two young marrieds in their first little two-bedroom terraced house. We were sitting on the floor (as we couldn't afford a sofa) and eating off a wallpapering table. All available cash was going on stripping the doors and damp proofing the walls. And pasta enabled us to eat.

Over the years it morphed into the once or twice a week family dish - usually a Lasagna or bolognaise - until eventually it became once a week, and then PERHAPS once a week. It is not that I particularly want to bring back pasta dominance into our weekly menu, but I wonder how it got to be so unimportant and forgotten.

Nowadays, if its pasta then there has to be a more exciting accompaniment or sauce to go with it: Something that works, something that has a certain wow factor to it. Sometimes, I am disappointed with what I produce, or just not very inspired. But lately I have come to realise that there is a reason for this; something that I have been missing, or hit and missing without realising its relevance - and that is the texture of the pasta itself.

Looking at the packets of pasta on the supermarket shelf, it is easy to miss this small detail. There are so many shapes and sizes to choose from. Why wouldn't you choose that packet of bright yellow linguine rather than the rather old, tired looking one next to it which looks frankly a bit dried out and possibly out-of-date? Surely the former has been made with free-range, organic eggs to achieve that colour, you might reason. Not so. Dried pasta is extruded through a machine using either a bronze or a silicon die. The bronze die extrudes pasta at a slower rate (hence it is more expensive to produce), but it leaves a rougher texture to the pasta - like that of an antique leather sofa - which allows the sauce to cling to it better. The silicon die leaves a smooth surface and a brighter yellow colour. How often have you eaten out and been given a dish of pasta only to find half the sauce remaining at the end of the meal? or perhaps they fudged things by using too thick a sauce?

It's a small thing, perhaps, but I am aware that pasta is making a come back in this house. I don't begrudge paying slightly more for it when the over-all cost of the dish is usually considerably less than some of the other meals I cook. We eat less pasta these days, quantity-wise. No longer is there a huge heap to be ploughed through. Sometimes the pasta is almost the accompaniment to the other ingredients, or at least an equal part.

Tonight, however, I am making 'food for a windy night.' I am making 'Artichoke "tartiflette"' (page 27) - 'Not just a hot meal to fatten and fill, but something that will warm our very souls'. It is inspired by the 'Alpine dish of tartiflette, whose layers of potatoes, onions, smoked bacon and Reblochon cheese help to thaw out skiers and snowboarders alike'. It is pertinent as number two son, Christopher, has just moved to Geneva with his Brazilian girlfriend, Beatriz. Only there a week and he sends me a photo of them skiing in the Alps. Lucky boy. Lovely to see him looking so happy and alive.

Your dish involves those lovely little knobbly vegetables - such a pain to peel - called Jerusalem artichokes. Their taste is so wonderfully earthy and deep that all is soon forgiven. We sit down to a large plate of melting softness. The cold is swiftly driven out. It is good; very good. The interplay between the stronger flavours of the Jerusalem artichokes, the Reblochon cheese and the lardons is well-balanced. The 'pale milky curds (of the Reblochon) melt into  a velvety blanket, and whose flavour softens upon heating.'
We feel complete as we curl up on the sofa.

(Small note: Although you say you have to rechristen this dish 'fartiflette' the next day....hence a windy night in your place....I have to say that it didn't have quite that effect over here! Thank goodness: It's a small house.)

Love Martha x