Wednesday, 30 September 2015

More haste, less speed

Dear Nigel,

There is a spider who lives in my car called Ariadne who is waging a small battle with me. Each morning when I get in I have to wipe away a web obscuring my vision out of the side window; and each night she replaces it with another one in exactly the same place. Were it not for the slightly pressing need to see out of the side window I might be happy to leave her in peace. She is an obstinate creature, my Ariadne. Perhaps we both are.

And they are everywhere at the moment. Spiders. Hanging out their washing in the morning dew, neatly pegged to the frames of seed heads and bare stemmed plants. Inside, they corner each window frame and take particular delight in lining each beam on a beamed ceiling. Me and my feather duster are waging war relentlessly inside so that we don't become a tableau like Miss Haversham's.

The mornings are misty, with a heavy fog down in the valley. It burns off by ten, but then returns in late afternoon. I am gazing at a particularly beautiful web today, hanging from a bush and outlined as if with liquid silver, showing off the weaver's intricate skill.

Back in the kitchen, I am cooking in too much haste. Supper tonight is 'Lamb steaks, creamed cannellini' (pg 375). The first mistake I make is to buy the steaks in the supermarket, I think. But I was shopping in a hurry today and there wasn't time to go to the farm shop on the way back.

I am looking at your steaks and then looking at mine, thinking 'yep, a poor do indeed'. These are the best lamb steaks the supermarket could come up with, but they are small and thin, and I would be most disappointed, were I eating out somewhere, to be served up a steak like this. Of course, the proof is in the eating. And, as it turns out, they taste fine. But all the same, if I make this again, I wouldn't want to feel that huge sense of disappointment.

The second mistake I make is entirely mine. I am rushing because there is homework and music practise and a hundred other things to be done. And so I fail to squeeze out the water from the spinach enough and the puree is a little too much on the runny side. It tastes fine, of course, and nothing that an end of bread can't mop up on the plate, but I am hearing my old home economics teacher saying 'could do better, girl', and I know it. So, a note to self in the book, a rap on the knuckles, but at least we eat well tonight.

I am particularly taken by the idea of pureeing the cannellini beans with the spinach. Never a huge fan of beans, this alters the texture completely. It tastes really good as the beans are cooked in a chicken stock before being pureed with the spinach. I can see that this one has a whole host of applications. You suggest butter beans as an alternative, and a rib eye steak. I think it might work well with sausages too. Cannellini beans have one of the highest protein content of any bean, and I can see it making a fine alternative to bangers and mash for those trying to cut down on carbs.

Sophie has started to learn the violin, and I had forgotten how excruciating it is to be in the proximity for anyone with 'an ear' for music. I can't imagine teaching the violin, myself. I grit my teeth and try not to show the 'pain' I'm feeling when things are just a fraction out of tune. Greatly out of tune I can cope with, but minutely, it's agony.

I think there is a good case to be made here to the old man upstairs for the mutation of genes to skip a generation, so that the parents of musical offspring are of the tone deaf variety. In this way, all would be satisfied. Tone deaf parents would obviously make the best audience as being endlessly appreciative and in awe of their children; and probably be the most encouraging to their offspring as well, delighting in a talent they themselves never had. Musical parents are also apt to be less patient when the penny doesn't sink in first time. This is why musicians always send their children to other musicians to learn. I am perfecting the encouraging grimace in Sophie's case.

There are about five violins knocking around in our family it seems, of various sizes, in lofts and under beds. Musical instruments are, strangely, one of those things that people don't like to get rid of. Charity shops are full of your old clothes, outmoded furniture and old Laura Ashley curtains, but rarely is there a decluttering of instruments. And luckily so for us right now as we are on a fairly tight budget.

Sophie collected some blackberries yesterday and we had them with apple for tea. Sometimes you can taste an individual berry and know that the time is just right. And that time it seems is now. They may be less juicy than the showy, cultivated, giant grenade-like things that the grocer sells, but they win hands-down on taste. They have an almost citrus fruitiness at times, in a truly ripe berry just before it turns and becomes watery and insipid. Gather them now and you have a feast in a handful.

The whole point about a blackberrying expedition is 'the journey', as they like to say these days. It is the day out, the getting scratched and prickled and hands covered in purple stain. Sometimes you come back loaded and other times, when someone else has got there first, you might find only a handful. And yet it fairly ceases to matter. The one tiny apple crumble with half a dozen carefully placed berries sitting on your table is a triumph to the hunter gatherer buried deep within your psyche. No matter if you have driven for over an hour to find a sodding bush.

Of course you could be lucky and your buckets and ice cream tubs will be laden. Don't sit back on your laurels, though, as I have done in the past: It's amazing how quickly a fruit mould will develop and ruin the whole lot in an instant. Less is probably more in this case, too. How many of us really have the time to knock out hundreds of jars of jam? Blackberries are too 'chewy' on their own. A shelf of jars is great to look at for a while; but after that while you must either eat them all yourself or find people to offload them onto. The two precious jars you might have eked out of your half-filled bowl is a more precious and treasured (and therefore savoured) thing than the third jar this month that you're still wading through come April.


Friday, 25 September 2015

Another year of good eating

Dear Nigel,

It was such a treat to receive the signed copy of your new book 'Kitchen Diaries 3 - a year of good eating' which you sent me the other day.

It was one of those perfect Autumn days with the sun gilding every leaf and glossing every hue, and we were out enjoying perhaps the last meal of the year in the garden when the post van called with your present. To be surrounded by the people I love, eating good food on a perfect day, was just heaven to me.

You seem to sense this too - that this is what life is all about - and yet there are still those who want to make 'eating' some kind of elitist pleasure, to be denied to those they regard as 'others'.

You say, 'with this book comes something of a plea for both good food and a love of cooking to be just part and parcel of our everyday lives. Thoughtful, considered, always delicious, but something to be quietly enjoyed rather than put on a pedestal.'

We were enjoying a simple fish soup which is a particular favourite of my daughter, Hannah, who was home for a couple of days. With bread, cheese, olives and whatever goodies I could find lurking in the fridge and which might need eating up.

You say, ' there is, I believe, too much pressure on us to "perform", to reach for perfection, instead of simply treating the art of making something to eat as the lifelong joy it should be'; and you 'worry that the competitive element currently prevalent in food and cooking is scaring people...from getting stuck in.'

Simple food, simple pleasure. The people you care about will love you for your care and effort on their behalf, not for your picture -perfect meringues.
'I think of good eating as something to enrich our daily lives,...Simple cooking that results in something unfussy, unshowy, understated. Something to bring pleasure to our own lives and to those of others.'

You have been experimenting in the kitchen again, and come up with 'Fig and red onion tartlets' (pg 411) which is a 'marriage of soft, buttery onion, cooked down to an amber marmalade, and dark figs....the result is so good I cannot imagine why it hasn't occurred to me before.'

As this uses two of my most favourite things in the whole world I immediately home in on this recipe. I am heartened by the fact that the supermarket is discounting figs on the grounds that they are supremely ripe, and therefore perfect for eating. I think a bowl of figs is a sculptural thing of great beauty. Your figs come from a tree in your garden, (lucky you) - one of the advantages of city living. Here it would not survive our harsh winter weather, I think.

There is a gradual drawing in of sap and goodness outside in the garden. The leaves are slowly changing colour and the occasional splash of red here and there, on leaves and the blooms of crocosmia and the wings of butterflies, reflects the pent up energy I feel all around me at this time of year.

The buddleia bushes are covered in Red Admirals airing their wings in a moment of brief sunshine. These butterflies are the offspring of migrants who came over from the Mediterranean as early as March and laid their eggs on nettles. The new caterpillars, eventually (by late September), become the adults who feed on the last nectar of Summer - the buddleia and ivy - before migrating further south to a warmer climate. A few will stay and try and hibernate but this is not often successful. They are as much a part of a late September garden as any bloom or showy tree display. They flit around us as we eat our lunch in the sunshine, careless almost to our presence as they too feast on plenty, building reserves up for their long flight south.

Back in the kitchen I find my first problem is a lack of six  loose-bottomed tart tins. Not one to be put off so early in a recipe I decide that my large loose-bottomed flan tin will work just as well (hopefully). You choose to use a food processor to make your pastry, which is about the only thing I seem to use mine for these days. I decide to use my ceramic baking beans which have been with me forever to bake blind the pastry. I like the indented pattern of marbles they leave behind them on the smooth pastry surface. I keep them in an old Fortnum's Stilton jar - a relic from my childhood days when companies used to send out hampers to various people at Christmas. (...I'm not sure how much of that still goes on, but I remember how much we appreciated the rich foodstuffs from shops too far away to ever visit, and too expensive to ever send from.)

The filling is both jammy and rich. I love the sweet and savoury marriage of this tart and the fact that it is eaten warm reminds me of the tasting spoon of a good jam making session. It is not often that you get to spoon the ribbon of warm jam straight into your mouth - not too hot to scald the tongue, nor too runny to crinkle on a plate- and this recipe perhaps comes closest to those times of pure and utter bliss. I think the individual tart tins probably win hands down here, giving a more filling mouthful of the crumbly sweet pastry, so maybe that's one for the Christmas list.

At long last the Autumn-fruiting raspberries are ripening up outside when I'd all but given up hope of them. I love the contrast of colour they make in a compote of mixed berries with their deep red hulled bodies tossed against the  purple/black clusters of the blackberries. It is a season of such truly beautiful colours. And right now, of memories too. Summer came and wiped away all past memories it seems, and now it feels like the time is right for gathering them all up again and 'coming home' once more in your mind.

I sink my teeth into an apple strudel and think, 'Apple. When did I last eat some wonderful slushy cooked apple?' I am sitting in the car park in Archie, (my ancient old Landrover) half way through my shopping trip to town, with an open box on the dashboard from the patisserie and a free cup of coffee (courtesy of Waitrose), and I'm contemplating the comfort of a warm baked apple bursting at the skin with plump soaked sultanas pouring out of its core. And the crunch of a crumble made with oats and a smattering of cinnamon and brown sugar on top of a sea of mushy fruit .

Already I am using one meal to plan another. For so much about eating is about memory and the creation of new ideas. If this tastes good, how would it be (you reason) if I added a few black currants or a lick of maple syrup or a handful of honeyed dates? and so it goes on.

Wishing you the best of luck with the new book as I tuck into my fig and red onion tart for supper and drink your good health,


Tuesday, 15 September 2015

New Pencils and a handful of nectarines

Dear Nigel,

This has always been one of my favourite times of year. I'm not sure why. There is an energy that whips through the branches and around the trunks, teasing the leaves only just tinged with umber and copper plate by some careless decorator. Summer is packing up its bags and heading South, leaving a last scattering of golden sugar cube hay bales on flat fields of golden stubble and lengthening shadows.

Sophie is heading off to Middle School in the nearby town of Leek nine miles away. Pencils are sharpened and endless name tags sewn into clothing. She seems so small to be heading off on the big bus, swamped by her over-stuffed back pack and shiny new shoes. The Honker bus comes a little while later for Molly so we are up and down the village twice in the morning; passing the goats waiting for their breakfast and stopping briefly to talk to the Indian runner ducks up by the pond. We get up at some ungodly hour just so we can enjoy the privilege of these few stolen moments. I wonder how much longer it will be before I am banned from accompanying them up the village and told to wait at some distance when coming to pick them up later.

The veg box in the porch is heaving. I come back loaded from the wholesalers where I get most of my fruit and veg, fired up to make more vegetarian meals in a bid to head off the over-indulgence of Summer from hanging around my waistline. It seems a good ploy to fill up on vegetables and juices. But I keep noting my skin. I have a (probably) quite irrational fear that the seemingly gallons of carrot juice which I'm imbibing - my current favourite juice being apple, carrot and red pepper - is turning me orange. OK, I'm sure this isn't probable or even possible....perhaps, but I'm not convinced that my fading suntan isn't without a hint of some dreadful San Tropez out-of-a-bottle look that I'm not over-endeared to. A quick glance on google and my niggling fears are confirmed. I am, in fact, turning orange and it has a name - it's called Carotenemia. Good old google - it can turn you into a hypochondriac in five minutes flat.

I am considering your Chickpea and nectarine couscous recipe in the Guardian. I am in a couscous mood and have inflicted it on various friends and family on several occasions this last fortnight or so, tweaking it in different ways with courgettes and feta with lemon myrtle salt (something I picked up with intrigue in Ottolenghi's wonderful deli in Notting Hill last year. I just want to be that child looking in through the window with my mouth hanging open).

So,here am I, experimenting with a little sumac on here, a scattering of za'atar on there - all very 'not allowed' in cooking circles, I'm sure, but I'm feeling with my tongue and the couscous is a fine blank canvas for all manner of lively spices. You are using this season's glut of nectarines which still seem to fill the shelves when I'm out shopping; spicing them up with ras el hanout and sweet paprika.

A few days catching the music in Dublin gave me a couple of new ideas to take to the pub in Foolow where I play my fiddle. A young red haired Irish girl was enlivening a well-worn classic with two-string melodies and a medley of more interesting bowing techniques.

'I can do that,' I thought, sinking in to my half of cider. And possibly I could; but good technique has a way of standing in your way. Time after time I come to the conclusion that a classical music education is a real hindrance to traditional fiddle playing. Whether it's holding the bow differently and building up speed or angling the neck with your other hand sliding the fingers over the strings, it could take a lifetime to undo a lifetime of good technique. So I do what I can with what I have, developing my own style. And sometimes, like the other night, the Season's energy whips through the pub and round the bar, picking up the fiddle and making it fly away with my fingers desperately trying to keep up with it.

I'm not aware what it is I'm playing - some sort of blues number I think - and time stands still as I watch from the side and someone is playing my fingers while my mind is elsewhere. The bow is bouncing and stopping, flying and returning to the heel, and the other hand is drifting over semitones, ad libbing wildly. But I'm not there. I'm standing next to me and these hands are no longer mine. The gap is longer than I expect it to be before we are reunited - hands, arms, fiddle and me. And I have no idea where I've been. The talking stops at times like these, and that is perhaps the thing that I like best of all: the ability to still a noisy pub for a moment in time. It is a real satisfying pleasure, better than the drink.


Saturday, 29 August 2015

A Child's Summer in Wales

Dear Nigel,

Summer came and went with the swallow. Blink and you missed it.  But we were lucky enough to catch its tail end in a campsite dropping off the end of the Llyn Peninsula in Wales. It is a magical spot we have been to for several years running now, set on a small farm overlooking Bardsey Island with nothing between you and the feint outlines of Ireland but a wide expanse of sea.

On a good day there is sky, and the sea is the colour of blue lace agate with its threads of greys and whites tacking over the surface like a tailor's dummy. The sea and sky meld and fold into one another in a seamless crease. On a bad day the mists are low and I am sitting there outside my tent in the early morning whiteness with my mug of hot tea waiting for the mist to rise. Then a sudden burst of hot sun on damp tent causes rising steam and an uncomfortable rainforest fug prevails that irks until it too finally disperses and the day can begin.

Most of the time the days are hottish and long (albeit with windbreaks on the beach) and the kids spend their time in wetsuits in the sea trying to adopt all the spare children they can lay their hands on. I am reading cheap trashy novels of the type my mum would definitely not approve of and unwinding to the pace of life which only a tent can command. Every little thing takes so long in a tent; you are constantly in a kind of slow meditative motion, like Tai Chi, froing between the camp cooker with its whistling kettle which takes about a week to boil, and the moving of drying towels and snakes and ladders and small piles of sand that threaten to invade your sleeping bag.

It is not for the feint-hearted, or anyone probably with any degree of sense, but it is extremely cheap if you make it so. Invariably we don't, as the next sea fret of an evening sends us down to the chip shop in Abadaron for piping hot crisp-battered haddock and chunky golden chips - always best eaten by the sea. Sophie and I share a haddock.

Molly, my ragamuffin daughter, is in her element running barefoot the whole time in cotton dresses with her long toffee-coloured hair unbrushed and flaring out behind her. She is a wild child, unkempt and smiling with shiny eyes and a forceful nature. I try and tame this wild child of mine with platted hair and white socks but she will have none of it. And in tentland she is free to be herself.

We make barbecues on long, calm evenings outside the tent. The sun has set and the sea is in sepia. The flames from the barbecue die down enough not to burn the lamb chops and burgers the kids prefer, with just enough over to toast marshmallows on skewers over the white embers. I have remembered a very  helpful idea of Annie Bell's and am also equipped with Tunnock's teacakes. These do not have that caramelised surface that real marshmallows in their gloop are famed for, but they have other interesting properties worth investigating, I think.

Gently piercing the surface chocolate and marshmallow, you anchor your spear in the biscuit base. The good thing about this is that the teacake can be rotated evenly over the heat without threatening to drip off the stick. Once there are tiny bubbles on the chocolate surface it is ready. The chocolate doesn't seem to move, and biting in the mallow is soft and unctuous. Only camp food can do this for you. When else would you be seen cramming your mouth with molten mallow and chocolate and still feel faintly virtuous, as if the cold air insisted that you needed an influx of calories to drive out the damp?

Round the campfire we tell stories of fairies and selkies (the seal people). Molly is animated in her telling, her eyes bright as the flames light up her face. Of all my seven children it is the last, my baby child, who has the gift to carry a story and the passion to make it burn and live.

I am reminded of another story telling session of my own childhood years. Not the romantic headland setting of this night but an ordinary little front room in an ordinary little 1930's house. My grandpa is sitting in his powder blue wing armchair and we children are perching on its uncomfortable arms. There is a three bar fire in the corner with orange glowing strips which stand out against the dark. We sit and listen intently to his lilting gentle voice recounting, perhaps the same tale yet again, of pixies, ghosts and Scottish glens, the scent of highly polished wood drifting over from the grand piano and the street lights trying to push in through the outlined edges of the heavy curtains. I feel safe inside.

A few days later there is an opportunity to go to a real Story Telling session set in a Roundhouse a few miles away. The buildings are based on ancient designs, set into the earth with straw and clay walls, and thatched with reed. There is a huge copper fire pit burning brightly in the middle and candles on sticks jammed into the earth between the stone slabs light up the outline of the Story Teller as he stands to begin his tale. An expectant hush descends on the gathering as the Story teller picks up his Welsh Harp and plays us into his magical world. His broad grin and smiling eyes scan the room taking us all into his world. He has fine lines carved into his face and tightly packed curls which bounce light from the fire. He carries us with him on his journey into the night. And all is silent and intent.

My two are mesmerised, their ears hanging on his every word as he recounts his tale. Molly is particularly taken by the Welsh Harp and, at the interval he lets her sit and play. I am surprised and intrigued to see that instead of taking a finger and drawing it across the strings, she has sat beside him watching intently. Plucking the stings with the thumb  and fourth fingers of each hand she starts to play a fairly tuneful melody from out of nowhere.She is as spellbound, I think, as I am and back home at the tent next day she decides she will make her own Welsh Harp. As you do. So we set to with a biscuit tin and elastic bands from the local post office and a wooden spoon to thread them on to make the acute angle for a range of different notes. She is pleased with our attempt, thank goodness, and demands that we go back to the next session so that she can join in and play.

The next session has a guest Story teller even bigger and bolder than the last. Eric the Brave with his mop of silver hair and sawn out cheekbones has giants to slay and a history of stories of the Llyn to tell. There are perhaps a hundred people gathered round the fire pit tonight, crammed into the alcoves around the edge, huddled on benches and on cushions on the floor.

My two are sleepy as the evening wanes and the tales drift around their heads like the swirls of smoke from the fire. Every now and then a swallow swoops down, wheeling in the smoke, rising with the heat, and roosts back down in the apex of the round thatched wheel above our heads. It is cosy and we have brought cushions and blankets of our own with us. The cushions are old, made from a long discarded worn out blanket from my own childhood, torn up and refashioned as cushions with blanket stitch edges. Time stands still. Past, future. All is still in the telling. Whirls of smoke take the fragments of story out into the ether. This is the skill of the Story Teller. It is one of those perfect evenings.


Thursday, 6 August 2015

The Secret Garden revisited

Dear Nigel,

Summer is raging on apace and Autumn weather beckons, it seems. And yet the Holidays have hardly begun for us. The garden has taken over once more and I have given it free rein to design itself this year. Flower begets flower in a passing parade of heady blooms peeping out from a tangle of weeds in the border. Over by the path there is a heavy crop of blackcurrants glimpsed through an undergrowth of dense green foliage. They should have been picked some time ago and yet I let them go, promising myself 'manyana', as always.

I return from town to find Kevin's cockerel and his harem have invaded our space. He takes one look in my direction, and, like a sulky teenager, does just what he always intended - swaggering over with his hands in his pockets and starts to eat the polished black fruit. I shoo him away and one of his giggling entourage makes a dash for the tiny cottage window (thinking it the entrance to a hen coup, no doubt), banging her head again and again against the glass to try and gain entry. Remind me please to source my eggs from responsible chickens with a higher IQ next time - no doubt the yolks will be darker and richer in iron than from this daft bird.

The other reminder, as if I needed one, that Summer is rocketing by at startling speed and leaving me in its wake, comes with a visit from a confident young surveyor. Having assessed the height of the stream and its likelihood of flooding (very unlikely on this gradient), he then turns his attention to my overgrown garden. In particular, the vegetable patch seems to catch his eye. Here, to be fair, it is more jungle than veg. at the moment, and I am a little embarrassed in its defence. There are, however, if you were to look really carefully, lines of carefully planted spinach, rhubarb chard and rocket, but these have bolted now and wave around at waist height looking slightly unseemly.

The surveyor informs me that I am harbouring a dangerous criminal in my midst and severe measures will have to be taken so that I can comply with whatever needs complying with. I frown. I am a little perplexed. I am the harbourer of Japanese knot weed, he claims, looking at the bolted rhubarb chard, and it will need the most potent chemicals to eradicate it ( and which will no doubt undermine my personal organic certification). Hmmm....

I look carefully at his Japanese knot weed which I have lovingly planted, seed by seed, from a packet of Unwins' finest; watered, grown, and tipped into endless stir fries and eaten; and smile back at him. Bless, he is only trying to justify his pay rise.

So, in a bid to prevent the thought police from hounding us out of the district on grounds of letting down the 'best kept village in bloom', or whatever, we start to attack the worst offenders. Will makes short work of the grass, mowing down weeds when the fancy takes him, and I collect in the soft fruit. Apart from the black, red and white currents there are bowls of Gooseberries for freezing. I like to save these for the very end of summer when a soft, tart bowl of whipped fool reminds me of 'Summer's lease', as we sit out, perhaps for the last time that year, and savour all that Summer has to offer.

There are pinkie, hairy gooseberries too - edible ones my mum calls 'the gardener's perk'. But these are fewer and far between. I eat them in passing every time I go up or down along the path. One is enough. Bursting with gelatinous seeds, like an English passion fruit in texture, it is a momentary treat.

They are still collecting in the last of the hay. The little old red tractors are out in force amongst their big green brothers, bringing in the smaller brick-shaped bales from the smaller fields, which horsey people find more convenient to carry. There is a constant to-ing and fro-ing to the barn beside me of these sweet golden parcels. I love the smell of this fresh hay before it is properly dried and make sure I always inhale when passing.

It has been an odd year this one, so far, for me. Much of it has been spent in a great deal of pain, wishing the days away and watching the clock for the release that the next lot of painkillers will bring me. Waiting in a queue for operations has taught me patience and to draw back. That my pain - however severe I feel it to be - is no more important that another person's pain. We are all so used to going out and getting things for ourselves - putting ourselves first at the expense of others without a second thought. And yet it surprised me that I would feel more in tune with others at the very point I should have wanted to put myself first, because of its severity. We should never lose the ability to surprise ourselves.

But it is done and dusted anyway now and life has returned to this old bird - lately turned fifty, and enjoying every minute of it. The garden is a metaphor for a life left to renew and replenish itself at will. Manicured lawns and mixed borders are all very well when life is in control and, like a newly spring cleaned kitchen, a small bit of effort here and there will keep things up to scratch and ticking over. But we all, from time to time, need to let the grass grow between our feet and feel the surge of nature which allows both growth and change and brings us back to ourselves once more, renewed.

Hoping that your Summer has been a more productive one,


Sunday, 15 March 2015

A guest at my table - Saffron

I saw Saffron as I left the Supermarket last week. She was helping her daughter load up groceries at the till, wearing shiny wellies and a tea cosy on her head, even though it was bone dry outside. I thought perhaps she was trying to ward off radon gases coming through the soles of her shoes or something. It was always something with Saffron.

So, I'm preparing lots of small dishes tonight; lots of raw, organic vegetables and a dip which she probably won't touch on the grounds that the organic,free range eggs might have come from a farm where 'live stock' was kept, destined for a short life and murdered.

I'd always assumed lentil-crushing extremists like Saffron had disappeared with the '70s. Even the happy hippies I know are quite happy to swallow their own principles when a few toxic air miles will take them away from their jobs to somewhere hot for a couple of weeks. But I think Saffron's principles stem largely from an almost OCD compulsion with cleanliness. The first time I met her, at a slightly run-down toddler group housed in an old church hall and run by a very lovely (and extremely unlikely) old man and his wife, she was discussing cows milk and how it was full of pus and hormones with another young mum. I was doing the rounds, offering her a cup of tea - with milk - from the no doubt tannin and limescale-coated old tea urn. It was not an auspicious start.

We met again because we are both of that generation of mothers who appear to have two families. I often think of mine this way because it suits the way I think now. And, that I have changed so much since I had my first baby nearly thirty years ago. We are not the same people, that young mum and I.

Saffron's older daughter was friends with one of my older sons, Tom. Often, Skyla would slope into our home with her floppy hair and dark-rimmed eyes; and she and Tom would reappear again at dinner time looking starved. And well she might be. Skyla loved nothing more than something out of a packet (rare) or a simple spaghetti bolognese. Her mum made something green which wasn't quite soup and wasn't quite stew. It sounded very healthy, though, and full of iron.

I have been making more juices myself, lately, in a bid to try and get well quicker. My current favourite is Red pepper, carrot and apple. I think Saffron will like this, anyway. I make it usually late afternoon when I'm starting to flag and it perks me up within minutes. The diet of pain killers and anti-biotics I'm on is making me constantly tired. But this helps.

Saffron is Canadian. Her accent is light and almost anglicised. She has dark, tightly-curled hair and that kind of pale white skin that is akin to the underbelly of a fish, I always think (though I'm sure there must be a more prosaic way of putting it. 'Shall I compare thee to the underbelly of a fish' is probably not what we're looking for here). She has small fine features and an almost impish prettiness.

Her family are diverse and scattered and don't seem to have the close, unspoken ties that mine do. Mine rarely claim to be each other's best friend but often seem to link up or meet with some end in mind - even if the motive is just to 'borrow' something from one another. I find it disconcerting to meet these scattered individuals of Saffron's who seem not to know what each other are doing, or even where they might be living. It bothers me.

Saffron is working in a health food shop. She makes soup for the cafe. I hope it isn't the green stuff that Skyla moans about. She tells me her father is very ill in Canada and she wants to go back to see him before he dies, even though they've been estranged for many years. She's started thinking about her roots, about the things she's losing. But she doesn't seem to notice the other things around her that are slipping out of her grasp. Skyla looks to me as if she's been taking something she shouldn't. Her eyes are hooded and sort of fixed. I worry about her. She's changing schools but the reasons seem all wrong somehow. It's as if Saffron is caught in the detail and she's missing the bigger picture. We've all been there at times; I know I have.

So tonight's dinner has an ulterior motive: I want to try and make her see the cards she's holding in her hand before they're blown away. Sometimes things are so very fragile. Perhaps there are many other things which I don't know about going on, but for Skyla's sake I have to try. Teenage angst is hard-enough when you live in a loving, secure environment.

I'm making a simple crumble for pudding. I need something heavy and weighty to count against all the raw stuff. The topping is mainly oats and the stewed apple beneath is as comforting as it gets. I taste a spoonful (...well, essential if you need to know how tart the apples are) and a couple more - obviously with a clean spoon - it is allowed. I've often thought that if you put your heart and soul into your cooking, to relay a message you can't say openly, that somehow it should get through and the answer would simply come back to you. 'Yes.' Don't you think?

Friday, 23 January 2015

V is for Velvet landscapes and Venn diagram logic

Dear Nigel,

I am cooking your 'Courgettes with Bacon Gemolata' (pg 95) for my guest tonight. I have some bacon which has been sitting in the fridge since Christmas which I feel needs using up. No doubt the supermarket would have chucked it long ago, but this one came with the turkey from Stanedge Grange Farm and it still looks and smells OK to me. I have left bacon to hang around too long in the past and I know the difference in smell - a far better pointer than some arbitrary date stamped on a plastic packet. Luckily for me this is one of those easy suppers where all the ingredients are things I seem to have to hand, and it's quick, simple, and cheap to boot.

The snow comes and goes as it pleases. The landscape stays gloriously white, but the roads are dependant on the local farmers and their tractors fitted with snow ploughs; and, further afield, the council gritters with their flashing yellow lights. On our lane, the snow compacts itself and is good for sledging. The three cottages that use it all have four-wheel drive so it stays white. I take my snow shovel and clear a path to the woodshed and up the steep drive so that the postman doesn't complain. I bring a wheelbarrow of salt from the pile that the council leave at the end of the road, to help with the steepest part.

When I see that heavy snow is due again this evening, I take the opportunity to get to the shops and stock up. I meet so many of my neighbours on my rounds - even though it is fifteen miles away from home - all with the same thought in mind. When you have the sort of weather we do round here it feels good to be stocked up, with enough diesel in the car and wood for the fire to be able to batten down the hatches and not feel obliged to be anywhere in particular.

It's all an attitude of mind, of course. If you come here and you feel trapped because you can't get out (as one of my sons did at Christmas) then you will never be happy. If you accept what IS, then you can simply relax and appreciate it for its specialness - and enjoy the unique silence that echoes all around you in the whiteness. It makes you realise how little in life is so important that it cannot be cancelled, changed or rearranged in some way. When there is no one to be angry with, you simply learn to be creative and think more widely around a problem than you might.

The children, of course, love it because they get to have a day off school. And there are snowmen to be built, sledges to be dragged up the meadow and snowballs to aim. The radiators are covered in mounds of soggy hats and gloves and the dog gets to have her bed brought into a warmer room by the wood burner. Outside, the birds are clamouring for their breakfast again, and getting through the sack of bird seed I bought at a rate of knots. Some days a couple of pheasants clear up under the bird table; on other days a magpie or two chases the others away, or a squirrel chances his luck. The snowman standing next to them all has a sweet potato for a nose and is sliding sideways as the sun rises once more.

The breadcrumbs in this recipe seem to be drinking up a lot of butter and I am a little unsure at first. But in hindsight I find that I am right to follow your advice to 'add more butter if the crumbs prove thirsty'. The taste tells all. The best bit of this dish by far for me are the buttery golden crumbs with their gentle hint of lemon, which offset the saltiness of the bacon nicely. It is substantial, yet light. In this post-Christmas daze when I have only just dared to take a peek at the damage on the bathroom scales, (whilst still polishing off all manner of Christmas leftovers of one sort or another), I can only say that this dish won't leave you feeling bloated. We ate it on its own, without any accompaniments, and it was good - very good, actually.

Tom seems to have been awarded a scholarship at University. It's very typical of him that he forget that he'd even applied for it, or that it had been awarded. To celebrate he seems to have dyed his hair blue and been made an Ambassador for the University. I say 'Microsoft will soon put an end to that': (they seem to have been back and forward to his course half a dozen times or more already, head-hunting). He is doing Computer Programming - one of the few courses I imagine where there seem to be more jobs than Graduates, apparently. His older siblings meanwhile didn't seem to find it quite as easy.

He also seems to have joined the 'Tea drinking Society' - whatever that's a front for - and spent a great deal of time on the phone today complaining about not having the right baking tins for all these cakes he seems to be making. His flatmates and he were complaining about how much 'batterie de cuisine' a student kitchen seems to need. (In my experience with his older brothers, two pans, a wooden spoon and a tin opener seemed to do the job.)  At the same time I am leafing through a kitchen catalogue wondering why some of these gadgets even exist and who might conceivably buy them. The ONLY good thing about having such a tiny kitchen, I find, is that it makes you consider each and every item and demand of each that they justify their place in existence. It has sharpened my awareness and ability to declutter. I look at each bag-load winging its way to the charity shop and say to myself, 'there's another cubic foot of space in which to breathe'. And in those terms it's easy.

It was lovely to hear from you again and to wish you a Happy New Year. Sometimes when the darkness draws in early and everyone seems to be suffering from some residue of SAD (or lack of sunlight), it feels hard to look for the hope of the year ahead. I find it as I go out into the garden again, in between snowfalls. Strong young stems of rhubarb are pushing up against the frost: a true triumph of hope over experience - and that's what we all need.