Friday, 1 June 2018

'One Swallow does not a Summer make'....but three might...

Dear Nigel,

There is a particularly noisy bird standing on the top of a huge pine tree opposite, as I sit here and write, giving his speech of almost Churchillian proportions to the unimpressed masses below. But no one could doubt his sincerity. He claims that Summer is here, and it's true: bursting from every hedgerow, dripping from every hawthorn tree, this abundance of flower and blossom.

Summer has come for me too, at last. Like swallows migrating north for the Summer, my little birds have come back home. First my daughter Hannah, from eighteen months in China and East Asia, followed swiftly by my second son, Chris and his fiancee Beatriz, from Germany (where they have been living these past few years). My third little swallow will be my first grandchild, due to arrive at the end of June, dropped by a stork.

Suddenly there is life and laughter and an abundance of all that is good in this world. Day by day the rhubarb patch is getting out of control as it sucks the richness out of the earth. I like to deal with it outside, partly because the large leaves are unwieldy in my tiny kitchen, but mainly because it is too nice to be stuck indoors in the kitchen. It is time for the kitchen to come outside to play. There is something therapeutic about sticking your hands in a bowl of ice cold water to rub any lingering soil from the pink and green striped chunks. This first lot is to be bagged and off to the freezer for future crumbles and fools.

I have a mind to start a Children's cookery book - of real food, not just endless sweet cakes - and a willing cook to test it out for me. Sophie has already spied the rhubarb, lurking behind the oil tank, and staked her claim. I will look out my pie dish and give her free rein in the kitchen. Children love to cook; most of them. I never met a child who didn't want to cook something that they particularly wanted to eat. And maybe that is the answer. I am particularly uninspired by the kind of children's cookbooks (usually with overly-vivid photographs of sweets pretending to be food) of the kind my children usually receive at Christmas. And I want to take my little cooks out into the garden and show them how it grows, and when it is just right to harvest, and have them see it as part of nature and of the season and cycle of the year. I want them to taste the onion in a chive blade as they throw it in a simple omelet before the pretty purple flowers make the blades woody and inedible. And down in the woods, where the ransomes grow, I want them to smell the dankness and picture the white flower heads about to carpet the hillside like an over-exuberant Axminster.

It is salad season here. Nearly every day I am tempted to 'do the healthy thing' and plate up with a huge mound of salad to go with whatever we are eating. I have taken to experimenting with making different salad dressings to see which I prefer and with what. These are simple things to make and take minutes to prepare.

My two current favourites are a traditional french walnut oil dressing with balsamic vinegar and a cider vinegar and olive oil one with shallots in it. The cider vinegar one is sharper and cuts through things, and the walnut oil one is thicker and richer and more subtle, and I can't seem to get enough of it. Walnut oil is also incredibly good for you, with its antioxidants, omega 3, melatonin to promote a good night's sleep and seems to promote weight loss (although probably not in the amounts I'm anointing my salads with!)

Walnut Oil Vinaigrette

6 tblsp. Walnut Oil
2 tblsp. Balsamic vinegar
2 tsp. Dijon mustard
1/2 tsp. salt

Simply add all the ingredients to a screw top jar and shake well. Or add to a mixing jug and stir with a small whisk until the mixture thickens and 'comes together'.

Cider vinegar and shallot dressing

80 ml Olive oil (need I say extra-virgin these days?)
60 ml Cider vinegar
2 tsp Honey
2 tsp Dijon mustard
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
1 shallot (finely chopped)

Add all the ingredients to a mixing jug and stir well. Pour carefully into an empty dressing bottle.
(Don't use a funnel, as I did, as the chopped shallot just gets stuck, and don't attempt to make this in the salad dressing bottle as the Dijon mustard just gets all over the place and sticks to the side of the bottle instead of combining.)

I have been using an organic raw and unfiltered cider vinegar which rather poetically claims to 'contain(s) the mother'. The health benefits of cider vinegar are huge, including lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, but I have been taking it daily for some years to help with arthritis. I'm not going to lay any extravagant claims for it here, but all I can say is that the daily pain I was experiencing in my hands has now completely gone. So who's to know?

I am always happy when I can get two different meals out of something. I made this Goats Cheese, Tomato and Basil Tart the other day to serve warm with the lovely new Jersey potatoes that are around at the moment; and then served it cold as part of a picnic another day. It works well under either guise, and is solid-enough to transport wrapped in foil.

Goats Cheese, Tomato and Basil Tart

200g Strong flour
100g Butter, cubed
1 egg
1/2 tsp salt
1 tblsp water

2 eggs
100g Greek yogurt
100g Goats Cheese
1 tsp Baking powder
50g plain flour
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
2 tblsp finely chopped fresh basil

400g Cherry Tomatoes
50g Goats Cheese
Olive Oil, to drizzle
A few Basil leaves.

1. Put the flour, butter, egg and salt in a processor and blitz until it forms a ball.
2. Roll out and line a greased 23cm fluted flan tin.
3. Place in the fridge for 20 mins.
4. Place all the filling ingredients in a mixing bowl and stir well until thoroughly  combined and a soft consistency.
5. Spoon the mixture into the tart shell and spread evenly.
6. Cut the cherry tomatoes in half cross ways and arrange cut side up over the filling.
7. Scatter the remaining goats cheese, crumbled, over the filling and drizzle with olive oil and scatter over the remaining  basil leaves.
8. Bake at 170 degrees centigrade for 30 minutes.

There is something rather lovely about serving up something a little out of the ordinary for a picnic on a day out. My childhood was spent growing up in the Lake District, and every weekend, week in, week out, whatever the weather, we spent picnicking in Wasdale or Ennerdale or one of our favourite hidden 'family' spots, amongst the jungle of bracken.

My mum had an old washing hamper that my dad's mum had given them, which she filled with tiny blue Tupperware boxes with circles on their transparent lids - hundreds of them, it seemed - and our greatest joy was to unpack them all and peel back the little lids to discover the little treasures held inside. A few slices of hard-boiled egg with cress and mayonnaise or a piece of gingerbread was like Christmas all over again to a starving child with icy wet legs from clambering in the stream in towelling shorts and soaking wet plimsolls.

Love Martha x

Monday, 30 April 2018

Where to Start....

Dear Nigel,

March 2018:
Sometimes life just comes, grabbing you by the scruff of the neck, leaving you dangling helplessly in the air, your feet still moving but the ground beneath them somehow missing. Sometimes life is simply like that and it is alright to just hibernate for a while and sit out the winter. But time always turns again. Rhubarb and snowdrops thrust their heads above ground and you are ripped from slumber and stand there naked and shivering in the late Winter sun, wondering where on earth to start again.

The bright sun here is melting the recent arctic weather; deeper here, I suppose, than most. Last Saturday a friend (another Nigel) dug me out of a deep snow drift with his tractor, only yards from the cottage. Like most folk around here we were prepared for a bad winter, with a well-stocked freezer and plenty of logs in the woodshed; and I was just thankful that we were all home and together while the schools closed and the farmers waited for a break in the weather to start clearing the roads. Nigel took time out from carrying bales of hay to his cows to dig us out and I am very grateful to him for his kindness.

I start by making some soup. It is always my fallback mechanism; my comfort food of choice, my invitation to the dance. I make a 'Thai Coconut, Sweet Potato and Lemongrass Soup' to remind me of my wayward daughter, Hannah, who is "living the dream", as they say, and travelling around Thailand at present. The soup is dense and thick, something to wallow in and provide that 'readybrek' glow we once knew as small children, when the cold never seemed to touch us and coats were something you threw discarded in a heap as soon as an adult was out of sight.

Thai Coconut, Sweet Potato and Lemongrass Soup

2 onions
3 cloves of garlic
2 carrots
2 red chillies
1" piece of root ginger
1kg sweet potatoes
3tblsp olive oil
3 stalks of lemongrass
2tsp salt
1/2tsp black pepper
2 limes (juiced)
1.5 litres vegetable stock
1 x 400ml tin of coconut milk

Heat the oil in a large soup pan.
Chop the onions and carrots and add. Cover and cook gently for 10 mins, stirring occasionally.
Bruise the lemongrass with the back of a knife.
Add to the pan with the garlic (chopped), ginger (grated) and chillies (chopped).
Cook for 5 mins.
Add the sweet potatoes (peeled and chopped into 2cm cubes).
Stir well. Add the salt and pepper and lime juice.
Add the stock and coconut milk and turn up the heat.
Bring to the boil and simmer for 20 mins.
Remove the lemongrass stalks and blend until smooth.

I take food round to Nigel's to thank him for digging me out and his wife, Melanie, invites me in for tea. She shows me photos on her laptop of the new bells which have been recast or replaced and hung in the steeple of the village church. A new floor had to be made and there are engravings on the bells and on the cradles they sit in marking local bequeaths. The heritage lottery came up trumps although the giant thermometer marking the progress of funds says there is still further to go. I smile each time we drive past it in the churchyard because someone with a wicked sense of humour has drawn the thermometer, with its two bells, to look a little obscene. It would appeal to the sense of humour of some of the old farmers around here, I think.

So the church is looking for bell ringers and soon there will be a peel of six echoing down the Manifold Valley once more. I wonder when that was last heard. There are many older folk here who have lived here all their lives who would surely remember.

Apparently, we are in demand now for outings of visiting bell ringing groups. They go on pub crawls, of a type, filling out their eye spy books and ticking off all the churches rung at, one by one. I had no idea that campanology was such a competitive sport.

April 2018:
Sunshine comes in fits and bursts between the cold spells, the winds and the mist on the moor. It is time to cut the grass for the first time, and look at the poor old Buddleia bush that didn't survive the heavy snows. Every year there are a few casualties to the winter months, a few replacements and holes to fill.
As in life.

My travel-hungry daughter is set to come home in a couple of weeks, if only for a while. It is over a year and a half since I waved her off to China and I wonder how her travels will have changed her. One thing is certain, she has learnt how to eat. After all these years of being a picky eater and living on pasta and pizza she has had no choice. I remember her ringing to tell me there was no bread to be had in China. But, once she had got over the initial shock, she adapted and thrived.

Suddenly, all my chicks are coming home at once. Chris and Bea, who have been living in Frankfurt for several years, have decided to return home to be near family as they bring their firstborn into the world next month. Moving day looks set to be a family affair with all hands on deck - like an episode of 'The Waltons'. It will be wonderful to have them living nearby and to watch my first Grandchild grow: the next generation entering the world to replace the last.

Minds don't really age unless we want them to. Children help us look at the world with new eyes and regard the familiar as a puzzle to solve. They see things that we have become blind to. Colours intensify. A child sees each and every thing with inquisitiveness - a reaction we can no longer find. How wonderful to be allowed to open the door and enter the secret garden once more where all is discovery and things are not lost, only sleeping. Only a child can bring those things to life. Only a child can see the magic that was never lost, only hidden beneath the brambles and the mossy undergrowth. I am looking forward to being Super Granny - curlers and wrinkly stockings aside, this Granny intends to be getting down and dirty in the sandpit at every opportunity.

Love Martha x

Monday, 16 October 2017

Pilfering from the Duchess and Stew in the Rain

Dear Nigel,

It is a beautiful Autumn day and my friend Jules and I decide to go to Chatsworth to see a display of Sculptures dotted around the gardens. The golds and reds of the Autumn leaves as we approach the bridge over the river in front of the house are simply stunning, gilded in hue by a touch of sunshine which has bathed the whole landscape in a warm and restful repose. There is a huge horse chestnut tree by the river which is all skirt and no blouse; the leaves having completely fallen from the top half, yet full on the bottom, as if someone has imposed two photographs in a scrapbook, the half of one, the half of another.

In the gardens there is movement everywhere. The house, itself, is still partly covered in a veil of scaffolding, with workers all over the place. Further in the gardens there is a huge digger moving boulders to create a 'natural' garden. It reminds me of the Highland Garden at Biddulph Grange, nearby, which was created by one of the great Victorian Plant Hunters over a hundred years ago. But this one is being made today by young lads with beards and top knots and a large JCB.

We decide to walk through the coal tunnel which goes quite some distance under the grounds, built so that a previous Duke wouldn't have to see his workers. There is a sign designed, it seems, to put people off at present. It says that the tunnel is flooded, which is true, but it is only a couple of inches deep. It seems a good opportunity to put my waterproof leather boots to the test.

The tunnel is arced by small white lights all the way along. And, because it is flooded there is a still plate of deep reflection along the whole length of the tunnel, giving the appearance of walking through a series of hoops. It is cool and silent, not a popular place at present, and that makes it all the more magical.

As we come out of the tunnel we bump into the present Duke and Duchess coming the opposite way. The Duchess in a vivid green skirt and wellies. She says Hello and glances down to see what I am holding in my hands. As it happens I am caught red-handed, pilfering from the Duke's Estate. I am holding a large bundle of coloured leaves and the prickly casings of sweet chestnuts, cracking open to reveal the smooth-skinned nuts inside. I am taken by the two-tone colours of lime green and bronze of the prickly casings which have been lying discarded on the ground beneath the imposing boughs of the Chestnut tree. Like a bag of Chocolate and Lime sweets from the Old-fashioned Sweet shop in Tissington. Or the fine writing, I remember once, on an exquisite Patisserie Box from Laduree. The prickles dig deep into my palms and I bite my lip. The Duchess says nothing. They go to see the progress the men with diggers have been making. As we sit on a bench later, admiring the view, I consider the irony of a situation in which the coal tunnel, built by one Duke to avoid having to see ordinary workers is, perhaps, being used by another Duke to avoid the plethora of ordinary tourists.

It starts to rain, quite heavily now. And, although there is brilliant sunshine illuminating the landscape, we are sitting in the dry on a bench under a large tree watching a townscape of people with black umbrellas going hurriedly from left to right and right to left along the paths in all directions. I expect to see bowler hats appearing any minute now. It is quite surreal. I am presuming the umbrellas have been handed out by staff in the grounds. But we are dry, in our own little summerhouse beneath the tree, and supping on mugs of Sweet Potato and Black Bean Stew. And a 'creative' Salad (if I say so myself) made of all the left overs in the fridge and on the Dresser - pomegranates and goats cheese, avocado and toasted pumpkin seeds. Sometimes, recipes simply make themselves).

It has been a lovely day and we have caught the best of the Autumn colour, before the winds come to whip the leaves away and pile them into heaps for small children to run through, kicking high into the air and shrieking as they go. What is it with this slick of red leaves, brushed across the grass; thin laces of lacerating wind that whips and taunts? What is it with the dazzle that quickens the blood, makes children shriek; that busies the gardener, the squirrel, the returning Robin? Autumn in all her finery paints magic across the landscape wherever you turn. Fleeting, temporary, like Sotheby's visiting statues of sword hilts seemingly dug into the fine lawns of Chatsworth. Tomorrow there will be change. But just for today there is something to savour. Just as it is in the kitchen: Today's meal is tomorrow's memory.

Love Martha

Saturday, 23 September 2017

On the Trail of The Homity Pie

Dear Nigel,

I am on the Trail of The Homity Pie. This is a simple pastry case filled with potatoes, leek, onion, cheese and herbs which originated with the Land Girls during the second world war.

I come across it first whilst writing a chapter for a book on days out in the Peak District. I am sitting in a cafe in a bookshop in the small village of Cromford eating Homity Pie and writing about it. From there I decide that it would be nice to work at said bookshop, Scarthin Books, and serve this Homity Pie.

And so I start to work in the cafe, serving and cooking. But not The Homity Pie. This, it seems, comes in from outside - from the cold, as it were; like a spy melding into the background seamlessly. And so I am off again, hunting down the origin of The Homity Pie. I trace it back to its source - 'Peak Feast', in the nearby village of Youlgreave.

So, here I am; working in this small craft bakery in the pretty little village of Youlgreave, making cakes and vegetarian ready-meals for nearby cafes and delis. And making The Homity Pie.

Some days I am 'onioned out' with crying. And I am working on the principle that such quantities of onions must surely result in a cast iron immune system over the coming season of colds and sniffles. I hope so.

It is nice to be involved in the therapeutic process of cooking and baking. There is a rhythm to it and it is a pleasant place to work and the people are friendly. There are tables outside and passing walkers come in for a coffee and a slice. Some don't seem quite to understand that this is not a cafe but a working bakery and I am doing several jobs at once. They may like to chat and linger as they choose their cakes to takeaway, but I may be half-way through a batch of six large Gooseberry and Elderflower cakes which cannot wait, and need to get into the oven.

Autumn has arrived without a doubt, and I have put away all sign of Summer. As I pass down the valley towards Hartington on my way to work I see the leaves are already turning to red and gold. There is a natural frost pocket at the base of the hill and over in the field a large horse chestnut tree which is always the first to change colour. It has become for me a kind of marker of the season.

The Blackberries are picked and in the freezer now awaiting the day I make the Apple and Blackberry crumbles. I pick them early before the birds get them all, and before they become watery and tasteless. I like to have a reminder of the Autumn over the Christmas season, just as I like to have a reminder of Summer with a Summer Pudding filled with redcurrants and raspberries from the garden.

School is back with sharpened pencils and new books. And this term there has been a complete change of uniform for the whole school. There are blazers and shirts and clip-on ties to replace the sweatshirts and polo shirts of last year. I am up for hours with needle and thread sewing in name tags.

Sophie and Molly look very smart, though, as I walk them to the end of the lane to catch the bus. We catch sight of the work of a busy spider amongst the brambles, its webs dew-laden and sparkling in the early morning sunlight. There is a low-lying mist and the cows on the other bank of the stream are ghostly beings from the underworld looking menacingly at us from out of their shroud.

The bakery I work in is a vegetarian bakery and the dishes I have been making for home have mainly been vegetarian too of late. I see this trait being described as flexitarianism. I just seem to eat a lot less meat. Perhaps it is the bakery. Perhaps it is the yoga practise which has become a part of my life. I don't know. It's not intentional; I just notice it and ponder on what is guiding the choices inside me. But I'm with Gandhi on this one, who very pointedly said that if he was at the house of someone who had made a dinner of meat then he would eat it. As was the case when visiting my mum a few weeks ago. Why should I make it hard for her to do what she has always done and whose concept of vegetarian cooking is vegetables missing the important meat bit. She doesn't need to learn new tricks and as I am not ethically stuck in this matter, I don't need to make a fuss.

My favourite dish at the moment is a recipe for a casserole of 'Spiced Sweet Potato, Spinach and black beans'. I make large quantities and freeze it in individual ready-meals, because when I come in on the days I work, from cooking all day, I can barely summon the energy to lift a can opener. And I can see foodie principles going out of the window faster than a badly behaved Tabby cat who doesn't want to get caught.

I heave a large pan onto the stove and chop sweet potatoes and red pepper into small chunks. The vegetables cook in the liquid from the tins of tomatoes, along with a mixture of warm spices and miso paste. The black beans and spinach are added at the end of the cooking process. It is a wonderfully warming dish that brings life back into the body after having been on your feet all day. It is the sort of dish to come home to after a damp walk in the park, or having been caught in the rain and arriving miserably home with soaking wet trousers and the heating not yet on.

We are working our way through the wood pile at a rate of knots and it will soon be time to get Stuart to deliver another load of logs. Last year we read a book on Scandinavian woodpiles - a work of Art - and it was fascinating. I have no such pretensions for my own woodshed, but I do find find it very satisfying to lay the wood up in layers and to look out upon our stored bounty. I am like a squirrel laying in provisions for the cruel winter months ahead.

And should the power fail us, perhaps under a heavy load of snow, then we will not be caught out. There is nothing finer than walking through the village on a silent snow-bound day and seeing straight plumes of wood smoke coming from almost every cottage in the village. It is like the scene from an old tea-stained oil painting, caught as a bad 1970s place mat in a charity shop - Olde England as it never was, and yet somehow is, at times.

To Autumn, then, and to looking forward to sitting in front of the fire with a copy of your new book, 'The Christmas Chronicles', which you are kindly sending me. Thank you, Nigel.

Love Martha x

Spiced Sweet Potato, Spinach and Black Beans.

600g Sweet Potatoes
1 Red Pepper
2x400g cans of chopped tomatoes
2 garlic cloves, crushed
2 tsp coriander
2 tsp chilli powder
2 tsp cumin
1 tblsp miso paste
salt and pepper
400g tin of Black Beans, drained and rinsed
200g Spinach

Peel and chop the sweet potatoes into small 2cm pieces
Chop the red pepper into similar sized pieces
Place them both in a large pan with the chopped tomatoes and 600ml boiling water.
Bring to the boil.
Add garlic, chilli, cumin, coriander, miso paste, salt and black pepper.
Simmer for an hour (stirring every 5 minutes or so).
Add the black beans and spinach.
Serve with rice, or quinoa (which is higher in protein).

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Gooseberries for a Fool

Dear Nigel,

Summer has taken a sideways slant and the dull cool days send me back in to the kitchen to cook. I have been making soup in a vegetarian cafe in a quirky little bookshop in Cromford. It is a lovely place to work and has a great feel about it. Everyone who works in the kitchen seems to be a writer. The other staff all pop in for their lunch and to discuss the book group, or the Bob Dylan Society, or the Philosophy group. It's an interesting place to be.

Back home I'm working on more vegetarian recipes. We eat less meat these days - flexitarian, I'm told, by my new friends from Friends of the Earth. Partly, it is an initiative to do my bit to help the planet: Friends of the Earth tell me that livestock production causes almost 15% of all climate changing gases. Every meal in which you substitute vegetables for meat counts. It's not an either/or approach - just as every plastic bottle recycled instead of binned makes a difference. The world is made of small things and small deeds, but collectively we are strong and we are many. And partly, too, it is because vegetarian food is healthier and I generally feel better for it. But I am interested in taste, primarily, and new flavours, and am not interested in meat substitutes - I would rather eat meat.

Today I am making a salad of 'Bean, Fennel and Feta'. There are toasted pine nuts to add crunch and more protein and a zingy fresh dressing made of lemon juice, Dijon mustard and olive oil. I am doing what we do in the cafe and keeping the salads in plastic boxes in the fridge - so much nicer to be able to have three different types on one plate, along with salad leaves, tomatoes and pepper slices. The salad keeps well for a few days.

Bean, Fennel and Feta Salad.

200g french beans
1 head of fennel
1 bunch of flat-leaved parsley
100g feta cheese
100g toasted pine nuts

11/2tsp Dijon mustard
50ml lemon juice
100ml olive oil
salt and pepper

1. Boil a large pan of water. Add the beans (topped and tailed first) and blanch for 4 mins.
2. Set aside to cool.
3.Finely shred the fennel using a mandolin, or sharp knife.
4.Whisk the dressing ingredients together.
5. Put the beans, fennel, chopped parsley, crumbled feta cheese and toasted pine nuts in a bowl.
6. Toss with the dressing and season well.

The Gooseberries are swollen and plentiful on their prickly stems outside. I pick and pick (studding my thumbs with pricks of blood) and still there is more to come. They freeze well, top and tailed, and will be there at a later date to make coulis for a Fool and one of the best ice creams I have ever made - Gooseberry ice cream, perhaps with a little elderflower cordial to beat off the tartness. It is nice to be able to take Summer into the Autumn and serve with friends.

Food is how we show the people we love that we love them. Every mug of rich soup to take to work, every vegetable curry waiting on the stove is a labour of love, when a pizza from the freezer would be so easy, it seems. But if we can invest just a little of ourselves in showing we care, then somehow, somewhere, the world is a better place for our being there.

The other week, it seems, we were away in Scarborough, looking out over the huge sweep of the bay. Gingerly, we climb out of our roof-top window and perch on our balcony-which-is-not-a-balcony, to feel the wind on our faces and hear the steady rhythmic lap, lap, lap of the waves below. Red Valerian, my favourite flower (which clings on to life in all the most unlikely places) is flowering on either side of the railings. And a hummingbird hawk-moth - the like of which I have never seen before - hovers nearby, slipping its long proboscis in to feed and gorge on nectar from the tiny deep pink flower heads . It hovers only inches away from our faces, paying us no attention at all as it busies itself in its work, its wings, like an electric toothbrush, a haze of blur surrounding it.

Little speed boats come in, go out, round and back again. The funfair stands lit up over by the lighthouse, and strings of pearly lights loop along the coast road. Children write their names in the sand below, and a comic seagull walks past imitating that nodding walk of Basil Fawlty, daring us to laugh at him. Not funny, he says. Not funny. The sun has been hot and has burnt the top of my shoulders. The fish and chips we bought in the bay lies heavily in our stomachs as we dust the sand from our feet and smell the raw night air, fresh with the tang of salt, which will lull us to sleep with the steady lap, lap, lap upon the shore.

It all seems such a long time ago now. The wind has changed, sending flower petals, stringless balloons and dust towards an uncertain future. Politics jangles. Towers burn and tempers flare and nothing feels solid anymore. I reach out to touch and my hand closes on nothing. I head to the kitchen to make Hummus, to eat with pitta breads, warm from the oven. There is comfort to be had in the solidity of warm food.


1x400g tin of chickpeas
2 garlic cloves (crushed)
2 lemons (juiced)
2tblsp tahini
salt and pepper
olive oil to dress
pinch of hot paprika

1. Place the chickpeas and the liquid from the can, garlic, lemon juice, tahini, salt and black pepper in a blender or food processor. Blitz until smooth.
2. Pour into a  bowl and drizzle with olive oil and then sprinkle over some hot paprika.
(Keeps well in the fridge for a few days with clingfilm over it).

Molly moo's Birthday falls on the weekend of a small music festival near here at Stainsby in Derbyshire. Older than Glastonbury festival, itself, Stainsby is run on a shoe-string by volunteers and is TRULY not-for-profit. It has a lovely, caring, family feel to it, which we so loved last year. And so I thought that this year it would make a lovely Birthday for my baby girl, just turning ten years old this Summer. We will have bunting around the door of the tent and a cake with candles kept in a coolbox until the time. She will no doubt have flowers in her hair and face paints on her cheeks and be running around in the willow circle with her hair streaming out, chasing the other children in their games. This is Summer. And before the Summer's out it will return once more, bringing smiles to the children's faces. Snowy Bear will come and Rudolph, tucked inside sleeping bags to ward off the night. And the music will play until the last star has left the sky, chased away by the morning crow, and it is time to bed down and drift away on a cloud of possibilities and new beginnings.

Love Martha x

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Slipping into Summer

Dear Nigel,


One minute, it seems, you are turning up the heating again and wearing socks in bed, and the next it's too impossibly hot to sit and read and you are falling, like a bear with a sore head, towards the nearest piece of shade, trying not to grumble about the heat.

Summer comes, slipping into your hand like a child, catching you unaware as you dress too warmly, and causing a sudden emergency situation in the greenhouse. Suddenly, everything is growing everywhere - grass, weeds, seedlings - and everything demands your attention at the same time. Plants are like a class of five year olds each holding up their hand; each bursting to tell you all about themselves. Chelsea may be five days of tall poppies but the true show stoppers are hiding under a bushel, lurking beside the weeds, and a little attention is needed if they are to shine.

I go to pick flowers for the house and find that deep pink peonies are flowering beneath a heap of greenery, almost hidden to the eye. In the house they bloom and pout like the hussies they are, soon dropping their petals piecemeal across the windowsill and chest of drawers. But I like this trail of fallen petals, random and scattered, like discarded silken underwear in a Jilly Cooper novel. It belongs with the relaxing of standards that the warm weather brings. When is there a better time to kick off your shoes and walk barefoot across the grass before breakfast to see the world is at its best? The heavy sweet scent which I cannot at first trace turns out to be Hawthorne blossom, packed into every hedgerow. May is at its best in May and is nature's decadence. The bees seem happy and relaxed in their busyness.

A barn owl hovers in an almost ungainly manner over a field of willow. Its wings are far larger than I expect them to be and I am a little unsure at first that this is him back again. But nature likes her hidden space and is far better seen from a high window at this early hour. A hare plays in the lane making circles over the grass and weaving back and forward to his own pattern, unaware of the scent of human beings that would send him scurrying back into the undergrowth. Another morning we spy a young deer standing oh so close, grazing unaware. She does not know she is being watched and moves peacefully on with the grace of entitlement surrounding her. The day has not yet begun for us and yet nature has tumbled out of bed and done a full day's work before we are even up. The birds have sung their hearts out. And it is wonderful to be able to lie in bed and listen to the cacophony of voices in the trees outside. It is early morning in a busy fruit market and all the birds are setting out their stalls. We listen to the call and answer as they chatter away amongst themselves, calling to their mates, seeing off unwanted guests.

I am experimenting in the kitchen with savoury tarts. Some I want to freeze as a batch to save time and energy at a later date. These are some of the loveliest things to pack in foil and take on a picnic. Ideal hot or cold, depending on the weather and your inclination, they are always welcome and substantial. Today I am making 'Butternut squash, red onion and parmesan' and another version with 'aubergine, red pepper and tomato'. They are old favourites. I am also knocking out an Aubergine and sweet potato lasagne for supper. I am submerging myself in the bright colours of Mediterranean vegetables and the scent of basil and the grassy smell of a heap of freshly chopped parsley. The chopping process is steady and meditative and leaves me the time to consider the new day outside. The gooseberries are starting to swell and turn pink and the second flush of rhubarb is fairly screaming for attention. I don't want it to start flowering so I must get in there quick.

Just down the road there is a round building, a kind of church, where on a weekend grown men go to escape their women-folk, dress up in unconventional dress and worship the god of heavy metal. This is Britain's last surviving working Roundhouse Engine shed where steam trains are sent from all over the country for maintenance. Today it has become even more a little boys' playground as they are hosting a huge beer festival: Beer, Steam engines and music - every little boy over the age of about thirty five is sure to be here.

We turn up early in the afternoon and it is clear that this is a 'serious' beer festival. There is an engine turning round and round on a turntable in the centre, like a pole dancer in a seedy club, and four long bars have been set up in front of other giant steam engines with rows and rows of barrels behind them, each with a scrappy name attached, mostly from local breweries. It is still only three o'clock in the afternoon and yet serious work is being done here. The regulars know that all the best beers will run out long before the evening shadows encroach upon the sooty cobbled floor. We sit in a guard's van watching a Deltic diesel engine going up and down on another line, pulling coaches full of great beaming faces and waving hands. The serious drinkers remain guarding their glasses and hovering around in the Roundhouse. There are bands and people dancing but for the seriously committed this is secondary to the beer.

We surmise that this one event probably keeps the charity going for the rest of the year. And it is hugely popular, it seems. Old Leyland buses, - not pretty vintage ones but old throw backs from the seventies - bus people in from Chesterfield and elsewhere further afield. We have walked along footpaths and hedged lanes to get here and plan to make a day of it like everyone else it seems.

The Cider bar is packed with dodgy ciders, I think. I am quickly aware that the quality control in this domain is not a patch on that demanded by the rising tide of new brewers on the beer counters. I am careful to try each cider before purchasing, and many are almost undrinkable. Quite why this should be I am not sure. David is making serious inroads in sampling most of the beers it seems to me. The afternoon is starting to mellow into a haze of mellow stupor and I am vaguely aware that there are no remaining seats and that it will be several hours more of this before the beer runs dry and we will be allowed to leave. It is perhaps only seven o'clock and already I am floating around in a dream. The serious drinkers just stand and look on as the music plays and the dancing revs up.

Summer has returned, it seems.

Love Martha x

Aubergine, tomato and red pepper tart.

200g plain flour
100g unsalted butter
1 egg
1tsp salt
1tblsp water

160g aubergines
2 red peppers
1 large red onion
50ml olive oil (and extra to drizzle)
1 tsp salt
1/2tsp ground black pepper
100g cherry tomatoes
1 tblsp. leaf parsley (chopped)
60g + 200g cheddar cheese (grated)
150g full fat Greek yoghurt

Blitz all the pastry ingredients in a food processor.
Grease a 23cm diam deep quiche tin.
Roll out the pastry and line the tin.
Chill for 20 mins.

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees centigrade
Chop the aubergines, red peppers and red onion. Roast on a tray drizzled with oil and salt and pepper; covered with aluminium foil. Bake for 20 mins until just soft.
Leave to cool. Drain any juice.
Stir in the Parsley and 60g cheese.
In a separate bowl, mix the yoghurt and 200g cheese. Line the pastry with this.
Scatter over the roast vegetables. Bake for 30 mins at 170 degrees centigrade.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Life in the Greenhouse and FREE glass

Dear Nigel,

There's something about the word 'FREE'...really free that is just lovely. Not 'free', but we're going to charge you a massive delivery charge, or 'free' but please make a donation you think is appropriate, but 'free' as in - we made the effort to store this glass, we made the effort to put up the sign, and we want NOTHING off you in return. How refreshing. How lovely. And doesn't it make you want to pass that feeling on somehow? I've never tried free-cycle myself but I'm guessing that the feeling is the same.

So, we are out visiting someone else's garden, looking at the early Magnolias and Rhododendrons. David takes one back for the hall. We've filled up looking at the treetops alive with giant mopheads and are winding our way back home. There it is again, that sign: FREE glass - a whole large greenhouse dismantled. The farmer seems more than pleased that good honest stuff won't end up needlessly in a skip. The greenhouse at the farm can also be mended, and the large glasshouses at the
hall will always be in need of more glass.

It is the new economy. We live in an era where we are sucked into being consumers, often whether we want it or not. To be content with less, to spend less, to desire less, is not allowed. There is a whole army of media out there convincing us we are wrong, making us feel inadequate, failing. Yet when we do, often as not we are dissatisfied the minute our consumption high has worn off. We are addicts looking for our next fix, comparing ourselves to others, letting others erode our sense of self.
We need to reclaim our individuality, our right to be different, to be unique. Our truth is as valid as any other. Often more so, being honest.

So back to the Greenhouse, where the tiny seeds we sowed only a fortnight ago are pushing up against their glass covers, thrusting towards the sun. They are reliable vegetables like leeks and chard and courgettes. The friable soil here is easy to weed and we are lifting out the last of last year's crops, adding it to the day's dinner, and preparing the ground for this year's offering. There is an honest therapeutic effect in this. And Free sunshine - as long as we look after it with care and treat it with respect.

And I am learning more and more each day about the change in climate. Once, it was just a small voice at the back of my mind reminding me to recycle plastic bottles and cardboard. The deeper I look, the more concerned I become. And what concerns me most of all is the way that mild-mannered scientists who dare to flag up their research findings, are being vilified and threatened in their own homes. It is like the worst days of McCarthyism. I google this to find Wikapedia has a definition for McCarthyism which is 'the practise of making accusations of subversion or treason without proper regard for evidence.'

This is what I believe is being perpetrated by climate-change deniers. We like to think we live in a society that regards free speech as important. We may not agree with it or like it, but we allow it. Our default setting is for honesty. We tend to believe things automatically. And any 'expert' claiming to be a scientist is treated with gravitas and respect initially. Even if he is simply an actor and his research credentials are nil. And this is what the other side - the climate deniers - are putting up against legitimate, independent research. We are being manipulated in ways we barely comprehend and our emotions tugged. We recently watched a wonderful, thought-provoking documentary called 'Merchants of Doubt' (available on You Tube) which was simply eye opening. I like to think that I will be perhaps a little more sceptical next time, but the mind is so easily fooled.

Back in the kitchen I have found an up-to-date recipe for the perfect Cauliflower Cheese. It is one of those old stalwarts that perhaps you used to make, and then it lost favour, and now you no longer make it. Until now. This is midweek vegetarian meals for a new generation. It is tasty and quick and doesn't deserve it's tarnished image. Try it. I will be making this one again. The combination of Gruyere cheese and creme fraiche and mustard makes a lovely topping to the roast cauliflower. Thoughts of slimy cheese sauce couldn't be further from your mind. It takes a bit of 'reinventing the wheel' mentality to replace one image with another in your own mind; but I promise you, if you try this you won't be disappointed.

Having a fluid and flexible mind is a fine thing, and one which is devilishly difficult to obtain. The more adamant we are that we are questioning, thinking individuals, the more entrenched we have often seamlessly become as we age, and no longer realise it. Children are the most flexible in their thinking. Often, when dealing with an obstinate toddler this can seem not to be the case, but they are capable of leaps of understanding and thinking, mental gymnastics, whilst we who are so bogged down in our own doubts and prejudices are often incapable of making that leap of faith that leads eventually to a higher understanding. Obviously, I am talking here about a simple vision of Cauliflower Cheese, but it applies equally to our understanding about climate change, or many a new progressive issue.

love Martha x

Cauliflower Cheese

1 large cauliflower
2tblsp olive oil
4tsp maple syrup
salt and pepper
350g creme fraiche
50g Gruyere cheese
2tsp Dijon mustard
1tblsp Parmesan (grated)
1tblsp chopped chives (fresh)

1. Heat the oven to 180 degrees centigrade.
2. Cut the cauliflower into florets. Place in a large bowl and toss with the the oil and maple syrup.
3. Season with salt and pepper.
4. Place in a roasting tin and roast for 30 mins. until tender.
5. Put the creme fraiche, mustard and grated gruyere cheese in a bowl and combine.
6. Tip in the roasted cauliflower and mix until coated.
7. Place in a fresh roasting tin and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.
8. Cook in the oven for 15-20 mins. until golden.
9. Sprinkle with chives and serve.