Wednesday, 15 February 2017

February Blues and Red Raw Knuckles

Dear Nigel,

Everyone's least favourite month, February is blowing true to form, rolling out huge clouds of fog like polyester wadding bursting from a badly-made soft toy. It lines the base of the valleys, seeping into your very bones as you make your way up the damp hillsides. It chaps knuckles raw and seers pain against the delicate whites of your eyes as you struggle to focus on a 'view'.

'Here comes the Sun', I mutter, reminding myself of the old Beatles song and the much-drooled-over 'Holiday' programmes on the tele, when all my childhood holidays were spent in windy Whitley Bay on the east coast, pressing for sugar cones from my Dad from 'The Rendezvous Cafe' on the promenade; carrying a sticky, sandy bucket and spade made of rainbow-swirled rubber (not like the plastic ones that came later). I wore an aqua and chocolate striped towelling bathing costume that soaked up water like a sponge and sagged glaringly as I pretended not to notice, dripping a trail that could be wee behind me. I flicked my too short boys' haircut and ran away from my embarrassment across the hard ridges of sand, which jarred my feet with every footfall ; telling myself that only sissies cry. I always was more of a tomboy in those days. I remember my life in cine film; soundless, with the accompanying whirring/flapping noise that only those who remember cine film will know instantly.

I am perfecting another soup at home for the soup empire I aspire to make. Today we will be eating a sweet potato and orange soup. The thought spurs me on though the damp tears at my lungs and makes me wheeze as I walk. I am collecting all my best soup recipes together. My notes against them are so numerous now that I am quite severe in my criticism of even my own cooking. Last week's Roasted butternut squash soup, which took ages to make, was bland and boring, and I ended up pepping it up with some smoked paprika. It has been consigned to the back end of history together with the others that fell along the way. I am copying out the recipes from here, there and everywhere in a cookery journal dedicated only to soups. It appeals to my sense of order. I have another entitled 'suppers', and another for 'sweet things and puddings': It is not very scientific, but it seems to work for me.

My bookcases of cookery books have now reached the echelons of the far landing and I am in danger of losing Lindsey Bareham and Claudia Roden to the back bedroom. You are safe, though, on the main rungs of the kitchen bookcase, which takes the place of what probably ought to be useful cupboards in this pint-sized kitchen of mine. But we all have our priorities and books and a place to read them in is more important to me than where to store the food processor (which only comes out to make pastry, I've noticed). Even my new toy, a cordless hand blender, a Christmas present from my parents (to replace the much-loved old Braun one which lasted 30 years and was died orange with the sheer quantity of pureed carrot needed to feed seven hungry babies), has had to find a place in the other room under the DVD player in some pointless niche which I have yet to excavate. This one comes with a surgeon's battery of tools and lights up and speeds up to whisk and froth and chop nuts.

Right now, I just need it to blend soups without causing a huge fuss and demanding privileges it is not yet entitled to, like a place on the limited worktop where I like to put flowers because they cheer me up; and I can always chop underneath them and hoick them up to use the microwave, whose only use appears to be in softening butter these days. I hate to make my kitchen staff redundant, but it's a very large space for an employee who only softens butter, and occasionally reheats my cold coffee when I'm feeling especially lazy. I could consign it to the top of the fridge in the porch, except that the girls would probably require a small stepladder to make their hot chocolate, and that would have to live somewhere, I suppose. I never did like the idea of a 'work triangle'. It seemed to imply to me the idea that I would choose to walk back and forth in the same lines, wearing black rubber marks into the crinkles of the kitchen tiles, like some demented weather person in one of those little wooden alpine chalets  that predict the sun and rain.

Supper tonight is 'Aubergine Fesenjan'. David and I are working at being part-time vegetarians. We keep resorting to meat, usually when we are eating out, and the Sunday Roast (which seems an almost impossible mountain to get around - and one which I'm not sure we want to venture: What would we do with all those trees of brussel sprouts which he keeps inflicting on me? I have one, to show support and to try and educate my uncompromising taste buds). The resulting dish is basically slices of roast aubergine in a lovely sauce and handful of pomegranate seeds on top. We love it. It tastes good and it's Persian background takes my cooking in a different direction. Then I sit down and read in Jane Baxter and Henry Dimbleby's 'Leon - fast vegetarian' that 'people often go one of two ways with vegetables. They either try to make them more approachable - more meat-like -...or they turn to the exotic, relying on specialist ingredients and fistful of pomegranate seeds.' I feel my hand slapped for daring to leave the leeks and kale in the ground today and wishing to be transported to a warmer, sunnier place. I like the tiny jewel-like pomegranate seeds that I have only recently learnt to liberate with ease (turn half a pomegranate over a large bowl and simply bang hard on the back with a wooden spoon). It saves the 'rivers of blood' look that used to be an afternoon feature in my kitchen on these occasions.

Sometimes, when the glumness outside chases you all the way back home to toast your toes by a warm fire and sit in over-large jumpers and ridiculous large 'home-knit' donegal socks drinking some 'winter tonic', you are looking for transportation of the senses. At least until the sun does deign to shine on us once more.

Love Martha x

Aubergine Fesenjan

120g walnuts
4 medium sized aubergines
rapeseed oil
1 pomegranate (seeded)
250ml vegetable stock
2tblsp pomegranate molasses
1tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp chilli powder
11/2tblsp honey
3 cloves of garlic
2 large red onions
Fresh coriander

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C.
Line a baking tray with baking parchment. Cut the aubergines into slices, toss with the oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast on the baking tray for 25 mins until soft.
In a frying pan put 3tblsp. of oil, heat and add the the sliced red onions. Fry for about 15 mins, stirring regularly. Add the crushed garlic and fry for another couple of minutes.
Add the honey, chilli powder, cinnamon, salt and pepper, walnuts (blitzed) and the pomegranate molasses. Stir well . Add the vegetable stock and cook for around 10 minutes until it 'comes together' nicely.
When the aubergines are cooked, pour the sauce into a serving dish, put the aubergines on top and scatter with the pomegranate seeds and fresh coriander. Serve with rice.

(Your dish will come out looking much better than mine - I used a brown-looking vegetable stock I'd made and the result makes it look a bit sludgy. However, it still tasted wonderful, and that's the main thing.
The pomegranate molasses, which I'd never heard of before, I found in Waitrose. Hopefully, your supermarket will sell it too.)

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

To go on with courage and hope

Dear Nigel,

There has been a blip in our communication of late, I know. Christmas took the lion's share, with all its associated comings and goings, lots of people to feed and bedding to wash. But added to that a tragedy - for me, anyway. My dear Dad died the week before. I felt as if the whole thing were somehow on hold until after Christmas. I couldn't even let myself think about him.

Writing the eulogy which I read at his funeral and organising a film show of family snaps from over the years brought it all firmly back home again. David was amazing and stopped me falling apart. I wasn't sure whether I would be strong-enough to read at my own father's funeral, but I did. I miss my Dad so much and yet there is a feeling of acceptance there too. My dear wonderful Dad died because he simply didn't want to be here anymore. He gave up the struggle - as many do - and simply faded away. It's easy to cast around to lay the blame but ultimately he was in a place mentally where no one could reach him and he simply made a choice. I don't think he ever really came to terms with my brother's death eight years ago. So how can I blame him for choosing what he wanted? He's at peace now and no one can take the wonderful memories away that I have of him. I wish he could be here now to share the present and the future with us, but he can't.

And oddly, it's not the memories of the last couple of years which I have of him, when he was only a shell of a man. It is memories of a vibrant, happy man with vivre and life coursing through his veins. When I sat there trying to compose his eulogy I found myself banging against a brick wall mentally. I wanted to tell the truth, and the truth was the wrong thing to say. I could hardly stand up at my own Dad's funeral and tell people that he wanted to die, could I? And yet it is no less true. But then the memories started flooding out of tear ducts - happy things, important things, tiny moments and fragments in time unnoticed by anyone else. It is these truly deep connections - a squeeze of a hand, a pointed comment, a look for you and you alone - that keeps us bound to each other. And no mere thing like death will ever tear that from us.

And so I do what I always do when times are hard: I make soup - that comfort food that nourishes and protects like no other. I make a Jerusalem artichoke and spinach soup which manages to be both grounding and light. Perhaps there are less artichokes in than normal and a better balance with the spinach for lightness in this recipe than in the soup I normally make. Anyway, it does the trick.

We go to Sherwood Forest to protest. They want to frack under Robin Hood's tree. They want to dig deep below the roots of the oldest oak trees in England, a preserved forest, an S.S.S.I, to start fracking. It seems that all the things that we hold dear are suddenly up for grabs. But there at Sherwood we encounter other families, old couples hand-in-hand in padded jackets, middle aged women with dogs, young lads in combat trousers. It feels safe to be there with the girls; everyone with a kind of shared horror. Hamish McRae, the economist, once made this rather telling statement: 'Enduring prosperity requires societies which are stable, ordered and honest....Put bluntly, if countries wish to continue becoming richer, their people will have to learn to behave better.' There is no more apt a time to apply this than now.

Life in The Park is the normal grimy kind of January you might expect to see. There is more mud than vehicles and fog hangs around heavily most mornings. We did have a brief flurry of snow last Friday. And, everything in extremes, a few hours blocked the roads and gave the children delight as all school buses were cancelled and they were able to sledge and build snowmen. But it was soon gone, dropping from the tall forbidding pine trees opposite like batter from a whisk.

We braved the meadows, taking delight at being the first footprints on a new landscape. The sun was out but winds had blown drifts several feet deep. It doesn't take much around here. We are on the point where the Peak District meets the Moorlands and strong winds drive quick and fast. I am snug in my Canadian snow boots which I love for their sheer impracticability for any other situation. The children seem ringed by some far-off readybrek glow and stay out for hours. It is good to see them away from all things electric and behaving like children once more. The carrot for the snowman's nose soon falls to the ground and by the time I get back from the weekend at David's there is but a tiny heap of snow and a knitted burgundy scarf to remind me.

Fat cat lies along the top of the sofa, spreading her fur out like honey on toast and flexing her claws as if yawning. She basks in the warmth of the extra heat. The wood burner is stocked with drying split logs and outside the woodshed is replenished. I don't want to be caught short. Being cut off in the snow is a wonderful, magical thing but only if you are prepared for it and have nowhere especially that you need to go.Then, I like nothing more than walking around the village listening keenly to the silence and seeing tiny spirals of woodsmoke drifting upwards from chimneys everywhere in the valley.

Happy New Year,

Love Martha x

Jerusalem artichoke and Spinach Soup:

200g spinach leaves
25g butter
1 onion (chopped)
350g Jerusalem artichokes, sliced finely
275ml milk
570ml chicken stock
4tblsp double cream

Melt the butter in a large pan. Add the onion and cook gently, covered, until soft.
Add the artichokes and cook for 15 mins, stirring occasionally.
Add the chicken stock and season with salt, pepper and grated nutmeg.
Bring to the boil and simmer, covered, for 20 minutes until the artichokes are tender.
Add the spinach leaves and let them wilt. Blend the soup and add the milk and double cream.
Reheat and adjust seasoning, if necessary.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Yesterday's Tomatoes

Dear Nigel,

The change in the hour has left the evenings blacker than ink. The few street lamps in our village are up the other end and angled down to keep light pollution to a minimum. Nature sucks back its goodness and crisp and crackly leaves are left to tumble and fall in heaps on the ground just asking to be kicked. I decide to clear the greenhouse where skeleton strings of mainly green tomatoes hang suspended in mid air. It is always a satisfying job to see - order restored and decay removed. It is part of the ritual I enjoy of putting the garden to bed for the winter; like drawing out flannelette sheets and old hot water bottles from the depths of the blanket chest to mark the change in tempo as the year draws slowly to an end.

It is the hard structure of a garden that frames the view in winter. Over at the farm the willow arch needs pruning back and shaping once more. We started pruning the willow hedge that rings the front boundary the other week - a job that looked like it might take quite some time - when Les came by with his large machinery heading for the fields and polished the job off for us in minutes. It is good to know there are still corners of good neighbourliness around that come free and without expectation. All the more welcome and noted when the world feels as if it is heading into a new kind of dark age: The blackness of men's souls on show everywhere you turn in print and on screen. It makes you want to look inward for the good and create something that is real and nourishing.

In the kitchen I am 'doing something with mince' - an economy meal in lean times with Christmas just around the corner. It is your 'Lamb kofka' (page 393) but I am using minced beef, an alternative you suggest, because I am interested to know whether this will really work. Not that I doubt you, mind, but 'meals with mince' is usually enough to make me groan and I will go a long way to try and avoid its too frequent occurrence on the menu, if I can.

The anchovies are roughly chopped and added to the mince along with the ground ginger and coriander, the chopped thyme, rosemary and parsley, and a couple of tablespoons of toasted sesame seeds. I am not naturally a 'hands-in-there' kind of cook when it comes to mixtures of this kind, but there simply isn't a better way to amalgamate and shape the meat to thread on wooden skewers.

The taste is a revelation as we were both expecting that unmistakable taste of mince-dressed-as-mince; and instead it is interesting and quite pleasing. I think the saltiness of the anchovies and the spices carried the day. We think it is something that we will make again sometime, anyway. Not perhaps a show-stopper, but a good mid-week special that doesn't require too much hard work. However, I would just say that I had to remove my kofka from their skewers after they came out of the fridge. Maybe it is simply the shape of my raised-sided griddle pan but cooking was going to become an issue if I persisted.

We go for a walk around a nearby lake with the girls. It still feels funny to be walking without a dog out front. Never happy on a lead, our Poppy was always in and out of the water, carrying impossible-sized sticks and wagging her tail with the energy of a troupe of cheerleaders egging you on. I've hardly been without a doggy companion for the last twenty three years and it stil feels strange especially when we are out. Dogs provide the energy you wished you still had, a reason to walk alone, and an upbeat face when the gloom starts to settle like the mist. It is hard to match.

A flock of Canada geese graze on a nearby grassy bank, but as the light starts to fade and the walkers become more sparse they make their way back noisily towards the edge of the lake. The country park is closing, cars are leaving and nature is crawling back to take charge once more. The noise from the jet skier is silenced as he packs away his kit. Model boats on the far lake and a miniature railway are put to bed. There is a welcome hush though the light is low and distant runners look like washing on a line with only dayglo t-shirts and arms heading towards you. I feel the damp hitting my lungs. It is not a good time to be out if you are prone to wheezing. But the sudden silence is intoxicating; more so because of the contrast.

We are all so unaware of the background noises in our environment. Even when we come out for a bit of peace and a country walk, there is sound. I relish the two ends of the day and find myself listening intently to the silence. If there is a radio on I switch it off. Even the heating has to go. The washing machine can wait till later. The fan in the bathroom that is linked to the light is left in darkness. A kettle - too loud. The cat snores gently beside me on the sofa. This is the extent of noise pollution I will allow in that small piece of time that I claim as my own when the house is empty and my hearing is super-charged to hear a pin drop if drop it would. I love this time. It is mine.

Love Martha x

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

A Butterfly on the Other Side of the World

Dear Nigel,

Change is in the air again and so I am making Comfort food for the table. It helps ground me and provide comfort against the Autumn winds and energy of red leaves and restlessness around me. I am preparing your 'Split peas and coriander' dal (page 355), whilst you are preparing a more recent version yourself at home. We both have comfort in mind. For me it is the never-ending butterfly effect in my own life. How we deal with the constant changes in our lives is a marker of our own resilience. And there is always change.

The Clever North Wind is blowing again and my daughter Hannah is picking up her Chinese visa as I write to go and teach English in Southern China for a year or so. It will be a long time until I see her again. Although only newly returned from America and Summer Camp she is keen to be off again, spreading her wings and seeing life on the other side of the world. I marvel at her courage and zest for life and wish her the best of luck whilst keeping my darker feelings under wraps.

You are in a poetic  mood I see, saying (of dal),'you heal more rapidly than arnica. You put the world to rights even before you reach the table.' This is what we want, right now. Whilst others are knocking up elaborate cakes and impossibly complicated puddings in the name of comfort food, we are making simple pared down honest foods, to eat.

The book I am reading at the moment about 'Mindless Eating' echoes these sentiments, showing how our comfort foods can be changed and engineered to include healthier foods in our diet. The big gender divide - women turning to sweet foods and chocolate and men to meat and veg - is partly all in the mind. We each add our own associations and memories to foods and so are also capable of introducing new memories and associations to improve our diet. Soup is a great example of a healthy food with comfort associations attached. Perhaps that is why it is such a mainstay in this house.

We pick the last of the tomatoes in the greenhouse and I turn them into Fennel, Tomato and Feta soup. The potatoes are lifted and there is an abundance of pink fir apple potatoes to enjoy. The onions are huge unwieldy globes which we lay in boxes of newspaper in the barn. Leeks and Greens are coming into their own right now and we are centering meals around vegetables with meat (rather than the other way round) and exploring vegetarian options to make the most of the season's bounty.

I am laying down dishes in the freezer to feed an army at Christmas, and trying to include as many home-grown ingredients as possible - like the Apple and Blackcurrant crumble I part-cooked on Tuesday. It feels good to be adding this kind of value to our celebration meals. And the meals themselves have become an extension of the best of Comfort food. I think anything cooked and prepared by hand at home is about providing love and comfort. And the food most requested by family are the old favourites, not the new and untried or novelty factor ingredients. Perhaps a bit more game or alcohol in the dinner, but often it is a recipe that last saw the light of day at a previous Christmas. I try to add a slightly new twist or take on things without risking a full mutiny.

The split pea dal has a kind of herb paste made with cashew and coriander and basil and lime juice. It adds interest to comfort and an element of 'dazzle'. The turmeric has many ayurvedic benefits including purifying the blood and helping arthritis. I like to think of food as medicine as well as for health. It feels in tune with the rest of my life. If it is commonplace to regard alcohol as relaxing and coffee as a pick-me-up then it should not be such a huge leap to regard individual ingredients for their health benefits when we consider what we want to cook. How do we make those choices anyway? Flicking through the latest recipe book? Eating seasonally? Whim? How in tune with Comfort eating would it be to prepare and cook the sort food that supports the health of those we care about right now - using ginger root perhaps in a stir fry to aid someone fighting the onset of a cold, or chilli and garlic in a spicy curry to clear a stuffy nose.

Halloween fare is everywhere in the shopping isles at the moment. There are cupcakes with pumpkins on, expensive chocolate heads and eyeballs for trick or treaters. I am taking the children to the same ghostly castle of Chillingham in Northumberland, near their grandparents, which was such a hit last year. I dig out last year's skeleton outfit for Sophie and Molly and I patch together old witch and devil outfits to make a girl vampire costume which is more to her sophisticated taste this year. Out shopping during the day I stop to fiddle with a singing/dancing hand in the supermarket and soon have a following of old age pensioners all keen to play with the toys and make jokes - it's like Christmas in Hamleys.

The American tradition of trick or treating doesn't really work in a small rural community like this where the few old people lock up their doors, turn out the lights and go to bed as soon as it gets dark, and wouldn't dream of answering the doorbell this late at night. So this year I am taking the girls and a few of their village friends into the town eight miles away so they can have the opportunity to knock on doors and wave a cauldron around. It is not really within my comfort zone but neither is the endless moaning of 'we never get to go round trick or treating..'which endures for some time before being rekindled the following year. So, in order to save my gentle village neighbours any kind of ordeal I'll dress in green and black and shiver and cringe for an hour or two. I hope my children will appreciate the sacrifices I make for them when they're older.

Love Martha x

Monday, 26 September 2016

How to Melt an Iceberg

Dear Nigel,

I read recently that when a piece of Iceberg starts to melt it makes a kind of fizzing sound known as 'Bergie Seltzer', as tiny air bubbles trapped since it's early formation (and pressurised) become liberated into the atmosphere.

This is happening to me. Right now. The Iceberg that has been floating in my life for almost twenty years, largely unnoticed and avoided (and mainly below the surface), has started to melt.

We all like to think that our lives are straight forward and laid out plain to see, but that is rarely entirely the case. Many, if not most of us, have small icebergs of one size or another displacing the water around them. Their lack of colour aides our obliviousness to them and it is entirely possible to get through a whole lifetime circumventing these icebergs without ever having to consider them at all. But now, all of a sudden, the largest iceberg in my life story is starting to melt.

Google tells me that the largest iceberg on record was sighted off Scott Island in the South Pacific Ocean in 1956  and was larger than the whole of Belgium. My Iceberg has similar gargantuan proportions. It stems from a piece of my history which I've long since put to rest and dealt with emotionally as best as I am able.

Nearly twenty years ago now I was living what for me seemed to be the perfect life in Cornwall, and the roses in the garden were blooming. I was happier than I have ever been before or since and this joy spilled over into the lives around me. I remember one particular morning when I was sitting there in my garden with a cup of coffee and chatting to my best friend Marian. I became totally conscious of every single dew drop sparkling on every single blade of grass, every insect beating its wings nearby. Time slowed down an hour or more between each heartbeat and I could contain within myself everything that I could see or hear or fathom within that instant. Some say that they understand what it means to be 'in flow' and that it happens regularly to them when focussing on sport, or the wonders or nature, or whatever. But I would question that. This was a far deeper moment, encompassing far more that a single focused trait. Perhaps something only witnessed once within a single lifetime, at best. And never ever forgotten.

Within six months of that particular February morning (and yes, in parts of Cornwall it is sometimes hot enough even in February to sit outside in shorts) my life had fallen apart, my then-husband had left me to bring up five small children on my own, and suddenly nearly everything about my world which I held dear were like the ashes of a book trickling through my fingers. It was time to leave.

We moved on quickly to an almost derelict railway station in Northumberland - a strange choice some might say (including my parents) - but it was the change that was needed to rebuild a new life. And life has moved on and on so much since those days and the past is indeed another lifetime.

So earlier this Summer when David suggested we go down and visit the Cornwall that I knew and loved, and hadn't been back to visit for seventeen years, I did my usual making of excuses - all very laudable reasons why it just wasn't possible this year, perhaps next year. And when he suggested the same thing again I realised that the excuses were passed and that it was the right time and the right person to go down with; to face my demons and unlock the past.

And it turned out to be just fine after all. The house was just a house I used to live in, the village just a village I used to know. The friends I obliquely mentioned to that I might be passing and could I possibly drop in - only if they were not busy...all got together and threw a wonderful celebration meal for me. And they all came. And I felt loved and honoured.

As I travelled around watching the seals playing by Godrevy lighthouse and the unseasonably-strong winds whip the surf at Kynance Cove, I saw my older children playing on the beach in their padded Clothkits' jackets and wellies and home-knitted fairisle hats made by Grandma (- we always seemed to go to the beach in Winter when it was deserted). And the shape of my Iceberg started to emerge, silhouetted against a pure blue untroubled sky. Memories started drifting back, sometimes in drips and drabs, sometimes flooding. I know that there are four large red plastic boxes underneath my bed full of photographs encompassing the best part of twenty years. I've barely looked at them in all that time. Couldn't. I think now is the time, and I feel strong-enough to look and assimilate and remember. Then the Iceberg which is slowly shedding it's outer clothing will start and truly melt.

All this may somehow seem something of nothing to you - and perhaps it is; all just nothing but a glass of water in its many forms. But in my mind it has taken on its solid state and there are whole periods of time - years even - that have almost completely disappeared from my memory. And it is not just the bad things that have been unconsciously blocked out; the worst thing is that it is the good times and the best memories which I have greatest difficulty in locating. I'm sure I'm not alone in this. And it is frightening when you are so desperate to recapture a particular time and place and it is simply not there. At least the constant photography that is most parents' way of hanging on to a fleeting childhood, is there to draw me in. When I'm ready.

I have been immersing myself in the Danish art of Hygge and donning an over-sized jumper and thick wool house socks and making your 'Stuffed summer squash with tomatoes and butter beans' (page 352). Summer has well and truly ended here and a nip in the air has brought the first leaves tumbling from the trees. It is still fairly green outside but it is not Summer here anymore. The hawthorn leaves curl back to reveal their scarlet berries and the bank opposite my kitchen window is covered in flushed rosehips and glossy blackberries. Someone has hammered details of the annual 'Pea and Pie Supper' to the notice board and there is talk about the new funding for the church bells - something I assumed was but a local myth but is, it appears, about to happen within the next year. Butterton will get its peal of bells back. An over-enthusiastic mobile campanologist with an eye for the ladies gave me a very detailed tutorial at the recent village Wakes Day. When I eventually escaped I felt I knew all there is to know about pulling a rope with a 'Sally' on it (you can look that one up for yourself).

The local Brass band arrived and left on a large trailer, still playing, all the way down the road pulled by a tractor to the local pub. The only pub - 'The Black Lion.' The village W.I, always game for a laugh, appeared to be dressed as waddling penguins. Apparently they were actually swans doing their 'swan song', so I felt quite relieved that I hadn't referred to Pingu before finding out. But anyone who is prepared to laugh at themselves and have fun in the name of village continuity - or "keeping the event going" in a small rural village - gets my vote; and last year's rendition of 'Cats' in black leotards was certainly a sight to behold.

The Supper is ready. It is cosy comfort food to suit my mood - all very hyggelig. I had my doubts about including butter beans - they are not really favourites of mine - but here I find they take on the taste of the juicy cherry tomatoes and a little heat from the chilli. I am pleasantly surprised. The dumpling squashes took a little while locating but they look so sweet, like little Danish Elves in their hats, and there is something a bit more of an occasion about this too. Time to light some beeswax candles and draw the blinds against the early falling darkness.

Love Martha x

Friday, 29 July 2016

Is every village fete a Festival these days?

Dear Nigel,

We went to a Festival last weekend. Everyone goes to Festivals these days, it seems. Once upon a time it was a handful of hippies behind a hedge with a couple of guitars and peace signs on their faces; these days its three dogs in a field and a beer tent and suddenly it's 'a Festival'. Looking through a leaflet recently of Festivals in our area, there appeared to be at least one that was just a retail opportunity at a Mill with slightly longer opening hours than normal.

Stainsby Folk Festival in Derbyshire, however, is different. It is a long-standing event, now in its 48th year, and older than Glastonbury if you're comparing notes. It is small and pretty and rural and everything about it tells me that perhaps many moons ago Glastonbury was once like this when it started out. There is one phrase hidden in the festival literature which sums it up for me - 'Not for Profit'. If only Glastonbury and all the other profit-making Festival machines would choose to emulate Stainsby and move back to something that more embodies what festivals were meant to be about instead of being just another branch of relentless consumerism.

We camped in a small tent (remembering the essentials like the unbreakable cafetiere and the insect repellent) with David's teenage children in pop-up tents nearby. It is a long time since I camped at an event like this and I was a little apprehensive; but Stainsby is small-enough to not get lost in or feel claustrophobic.

The best music all weekend came from small and middle-sized bands, overshadowing the main act of the weekend with their intense vibrancy.
'Seize the day', with their protest songs and green political ideals seemed to me to have far more in common with the original idea behind festivals than perhaps Adele singing 'Someone like you' at Glastonbury. And the audience bought into this in droves, catching the lyrics as they filed away their rubbish, helping others move their sinking camper vans and lending chairs and wheelbarrows so that everyone had a good time. There was an atmosphere of goodwill and helpfulness on the site that was enchanting and compulsive. All the staff were volunteers; and the idea of a sliding scale of payment for the artists meant that no one got paid too much and no one too little to cover their costs. How many other festivals can say that about themselves?

I find these ideas echoed back to me in a book I am currently reading by Tim Freke, from which Ali takes her inspiration to write the song 'Big Love'. It is about awareness and watching the dream of life unfold as well as being part of it. It is surreal. I feel like this as I float along in my long dress and alcoholic haze in the sunshine. Life is good and it feels great to be alive. Every day I try and look a little closer, pulling myself into the Now, and noticing the detail I often miss when I try to hurry.

I buy a hat for Molly (who seems to be into hats at the moment) from a quiet man in an orange canvas tent. It is made of pure wool, hand-knitted in Nepal and costs me £3. I go back later and tell the man he has undercharged me and give him some more money: it seems like the sort of place where you would do that, somehow.

The promise of Summer has made me rather lax in the kitchen. Meals are throw together affairs - lots of artisan breads and cheeses and salads with olives and tomatoes. Cherry tomatoes are ripening in the greenhouse and they are sweet and moreish. I pick punnets of raspberries to eat now and blackcurrants to freeze. Summer's glut has arrived and we are making the most of it.

In the kitchen I want to cook simple things. I have mozzarella and aubergines and a basil plant on the window sill that it threatening to flower - all the ingredients I need to make tonight's supper which is your 'Aubergine and mozzarella (page 247). It is just an excuse really to gorge on toasted mozzarella; melted rather than cooked so that it remains long and stringy, without the chance to toughen up. The basil dressing retains all the flavour of the fresh basil. It seems an ideal recipe for pizza addicts who have read the calorie content on the side of their pizza boxes with horror. (My favourite bought pizza appears to contain almost half my entire daily intake of calories, if such things are to be believed, and I don't even feel full afterwards.)

We are in the garden at the farm looking at Sun dogs in the sky. This is a new one on me and I am fascinated. The sun dogs are two phantom suns which appear on either side of the sun and are most obvious when the sun is nearing the horizon. They are caused by the refraction of light through hexagonal ice crystals in cirrus and cirrostratus clouds and are red on the side nearest the sun, graduating through orange to blue. Often these colours are indistinct, appearing mainly like mirror suns, but today they are clearly striated.

Shakespeare, in Henry VI part three (dramatising the Battle of Mortimer's Cross in the War of the Roses), has the would-be King Edward decry: 'Dazzle mine eyes, or do I see three suns.' He reassures his army that victory is foretold and that the three suns represent himself and his two brothers, the three sons of the Duke of York, who have been  recently killed. The belief that victory was predetermined, which perhaps aided his army in battle, caused Edward IV to incorporate the sunburst as part of his personal badge.

It is a lazy warm evening and light until almost ten. It is pleasant to lie on the grass and contemplate life and the universe. The sky remains unchanged through the ages however we defile and destroy the landscape around us.

Love Martha x

Thursday, 14 July 2016

A modern day 'Oliver Twist'

Dear Nigel,

When Oliver launched into 'Where-er-er is love' - all small, blond-haired, blue-eyed, rosy-cheeked and suitable Dickensian...- I remembered that he (she) was suitably attired in off-the-internet-peg shabbery (it being cheaper than the charity shops around here) and shoes with holes in that would have made Dickens proud. I had, of course, been trying to make the school shoes last until the new term, without success, and the idea of buying new winter shoes at the end of the Summer term simply went against the grain. It was only when she came in complaining that her socks were wet and that she could see right through the bottom of her shoes that I thought I really ought perhaps to do something about the situation in the interests of good mothering.

Sophie did splendidly in the role and I was touched deep inside as you are at these special moments. I remembered her older brother Chris playing the same part nearly twenty years ago, and feeling the same way. He, of course, looked a remarkably well-fed little orphan. I toyed with the idea of putting him on a bread-and-gruel diet and keeping him out of the sun, so he could get a little more 'in character' (as so many Hollywood superstars do to extreme these days), but he had the rather distressing habit of bursting into tears if dinner was half an hour late  - always the am-dram, our Chris.

I am reading a very interesting book at the minute: 'First Bite - How we learn to eat' by Bee Wilson. Apart from showing how our food habits take hold in the first place, it is interesting to see how food habits might be consciously changed to include new or previously hated foods - such as your boiled eggs and my cooked carrots (both throw backs from an era of forced feeding). I am considering the options as David is growing all kinds of things which fill me with horror - such as Brussel sprouts. I have been wondering whether it would be sacrilege to try and stir fry them or something.

The idea behind Bee Wilson's theory (well, distinguished scientists' and nutritionists' theory anyway) seems to be the sustained practise of eating tiny tastes of the offending food, carrot, boiled egg, or whatever. When you have overcome your fear of confronting the said carrot, and taken one tiny bite for perhaps thirty days in a row, then you may come to love or at least tolerate the little blighter sitting next to the potatoes on your plate, without having to make a space between the two in case of contamination: One can spend a  whole lifetime not entirely growing up, it seems.

Living inside a pocket well of hills - or so the Peak District often feels - means that there are quaint little cast iron telephone boxes being preserved all over the place, whereas elsewhere in the country they are being ripped out, taken to salvage yards and sold to smug city dwellers to plant in their gardens as 'features'. The reason for this is, as every distressed Duke of Edinburgh student will tell you, that there is virtually no mobile phone signal around here for miles and miles. Often when I am out, sprinting down the main road through Longnor (which serves as motorway for this area of the Peaks), I encounter two tractors going in opposite directions with young lads in them both illegally holding mobile phones to their ears at just the right point when a break in the hills makes reception viable.

They are cutting and tossing hay at present. The last couple of weeks every farm was at it flat-out, all hours, and fields tinged with the haze of wild red grasses were scythed and rolled into rapidly-covered polythene cylinders. The gardens and hedges are as lush as I have ever seen them. Chlorophyll oozes from every branch or stem but there is rain damage to the roses (though their water-coloured petals still look beautiful to me) and the peonies have been weighted down until they can no longer hold out and admit defeat. I crunch into fat raw gooseberries claiming to be eaters. They have not turned pink as yet but they are sweet-enough for me. Perhaps they will make their way into a fool before long. Gooseberry fool is perhaps my most favourite of all. A strange fruit, the gooseberry. You rarely see it for sale in shops, yet it grows well and is plentiful. It freezes well too, if time is short. I am leaving mine on a little longer to see if they will turn pink. Perhaps I am just in a hurry for them. The days have been rather dull of late. Perhaps they need the promise of sun to ripen.

I am making your 'Currant buns' (page 236), which are more like little pastries containing fresh blackcurrants, served warm and slathered in cream (any excuse is good). My main reason for turning to this particular recipe is actually the wealth of blackcurrants from last year still lurking in the freezer when this year's crop is virtually ripe for picking now. Somehow there is always rhubarb and blackcurrants left in bags each year. In years gone by I made lots of jam and it would have gone then. But as we eat more healthier these days and jam consumption has plummeted, I found I was making it just to give away - which is fine - but ultimately there are many more mushrooms I'd rather stuff.

Full-fat cream cheese is added to the pastry to enrich it and the pastry is glazed with egg and dusted with caster sugar. It is a Summer treat and I have two little girls on their way back from school who might appreciate such a treat on this 'unseasonally' sunny day (or so it seems this rather wet Summer we've been having).

Broken into; the midnight berries gleam in their coat of syrup and the tide-line of purple haze against the wave of cream, is just begging to be played with and swirled, like the edges on the shore.

Ah, Summer; a time for relaxing and contemplating the essential things in life...

Love Martha x