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









Thursday, 23 June 2016

All the Way to America

Dear Nigel,


If 'Fortune favours the brave', as we are told, then I hope for the very best for my bold and beautiful red-haired daughter, Hannah. Like the character in Walt Disney's 'Brave' she is the archetypal stroppy redhead - fiery, impulsive, yet intensely brave. As the middle one with two older brothers and two younger brothers, all very close in age, she soon learnt to hold her own amongst the boys, as a child.

She is twenty six now, and in the last three weeks she has left her home, her boyfriend, her job, her country and gone to America. With no responsibilities and savings in the bank she has chosen to leave a life that was making her unhappy and follow her dreams and travel.

When she first applied to work in an American Summer Camp we knew that there might not be much notice. The last three weeks have been a mad dash to London for her visa and the handing in of her notice at work. Last Monday I drove to Manchester and moved her life into boxes for storage in the barn. And the last couple of days were spent... making a cake - so very typical Hannah. This was for the people at Americamp who had been so helpful in getting her a place at a camp in Pennsylvania. The resulting cake was, of course, perfect (- not like the kind of makeshift Birthday cakes that I always made her, with ice cream cones for castle turrets and smarties on the Hansel and Gretel house).
So watch out America; here she comes.

The Summer here has been mixed. The grass is growing as we speak due to the lush rain which insists on falling at intervals and knocking the heads off all my cottage garden perennials. Patty's plum is lying in tatters on the ground, huge frothy peonies have been knocked down and beheaded and a beautiful bush of pale lilac geraniums looks as if a dog has been lying on it. This is an English Summer.

We take the opportunity to go to the Glastonbury of the impoverished. This particular folk and beer festival is a folk and beer and boat festival and centres on the little town of Middlewich in Cheshire, about an hour from here. A friend is mooring his boat there and we are coming to wish him Happy Birthday and spend the weekend camping. The nice thing about this kind of festival is that the whole town appears to be taking part. There are large cohorts of dubious morris men around, the pubs all seem to have live music playing (of various quality), but the focus is on the canal and the narrow boats travelling up and down it, through the locks, or moored up and turned into floating shops or makeshift cafes. There are three canals passing through Middlewich - The Shropshire union, the Trent and Mersey, and Wardle canals. The narrow boats on them are built to a design unique to this country and must be less than seven foot wide in order to navigate Britain's narrow canals.

It is hugely calming to sit outside a canalside pub and watch people drawing their boats leisurely through the open lock gates. The heavy oak gates are wound closed and the opposite ones opened to let the water level rise. Each lock gate is completely unique in itself as when the British canal system was constructed there was no standard template for lock gates. They were constructed using a variety of techniques designed to navigate the local landscapes, which makes it a nightmare when they need replacing. The lifespan of a lock gate is about twenty five years.

Watching the progress of boats is measured and slow. Boats come in and go out and you could sit there mesmerised for some time over a morning's bacon butty and a cup of coffee, letting the remnants of last night's alcoholic fug drain from your brain.

We amble slowly along the towpath talking to the boat owners as we pass. One is selling local Welsh cheeses (we are not far from the border here) and we stop to taste and buy a hunk of organic Caerphilly cheese. It is creamy with a delicate tang. The boat owners are selling kits for making halloumi at home, but I am not convinced. I have made cheese when I used to keep and milk my own goats - many years ago now - but I remember it took a great deal of milk to make a small piece of cheese, and these days I would rather go into a cheese shop and choose.

Back home, I am making supper. Tonight we are having 'New garlic and mushroom tarts' ( page 220). You have a head of roasted garlic left over from the day before. As I have not, I roast the garlic in foil in the oven as I cook the rectangles of puff pastry. The head of roasted garlic gives up its softened cloves readily. There is something very therapeutic about squeezing out the garlic as if it were toothpaste. With a little olive oil added it mashes to a paste 'the hue of old ivory.' Double cream stirred in thickens instantly and makes a dense-tasting spread to fill the hollows. It is mellowed by the addition of the sauteed mushrooms and balanced nicely by the addition of dill. I am getting to like this use of dill, of yours, in all its different connotations.

We both enjoy this supper very much and so I am also considering another idea of yours which is to pair the garlic cream with slices of goats cheese. I am considering making this recipe again some time soon, with its little boats of puff pastry filled with cream and topped with goats cheese rounds. I am looking for ways to persuade myself to eat less meat and I think this is a good one. I have made a couple of 'old-style' vegetarian recipes lately which were very so so. As a confirmed carnivore I need persuading to eat more vegetarian meals and taste comes top of the list. The days of the lentil rissole are long dead as far as I'm concerned.

Love Martha x

Sunday, 12 June 2016

In a Small Corner of England

Dear Nigel,




Sometimes, when I have been trying to explain to an overseas visitor WHY we do certain things we do over here, I find my voice trailing away to almost nothing. Today is a case in point. We are here in the small village of Edale, at the start of the Pennine Way, sitting on hay bales in a big white tent, keeping out of the typical English weather which is pelting down outside. The ferret racing has been abandoned, and men with white shirts, straw hats and bells on their legs and white handkerchiefs are limbering up in the corner (even though their combined age looks about seven hundred and four). A sheep dog has been chasing a line of ducks up an old children's slide and into a make-shift pond; and here we are, watching a tall striped box with curtains and two primordial puppets beating  each other over the head with a stick and throwing a baby around - all to much giggling and laughter. So much for PC Britain, these children want neglect and abuse and outright wickedness. They revel in it.

We go to watch the Sheep Shearers when there is a gap in the weather. It is a 'fine' English Summer's day. The hills all around us are green and steep in the shadows of a fleeting sun, reaching right up into the clouds. And here, far below, the little village of Edale nestles in its English prettiness. But this day is about Community. It is about raising enough money to keep the village hall going for the villagers, so that the old people will have somewhere to go for their Pea and pie supper, or their Coffee mornings in aid of some local charity, or an evening of Bingo in the Autumn before the nights turn cold.

The Shearer tells me he needs events like this to show people how it's done. Anywhere else and HEALTH AND SAFETY would be in there like a flash, putting people miles from view and away from the immediacy of it all. My children feel the new fleece as it comes off the back of one sheep. We compare the quality of wool between breeds. There is a softness to one, beloved of hand spinners, and a coarseness to the other, which will go to the carpet manufacturers, after it has been sorted and graded in Bradford. He tells me that the first fleece will fetch about £1.50 each, the second only 50p. Given that the Shearer will be paid £1.20 for every sheep he shears, there is little in it for the farmer, and a substantial loss with certain breeds of sheep. We marvel at the deftness of the Shearer and the calmness of the sheep lying on her back between his legs and eyeing us intensely only inches away. I say that we have field upon field of sheep around us, but you never see them being sheared. They just appear, as if by magic, one day in outsize winter coats - lethargic and heavy, the next in their bathing gear - with a new spring in their step and freedom beckoning. He thinks so too and that is why these days are so important to him - bringing people back to the land, back to an understanding of what the land around them does. Holidaymakers, Locals and Townies mix freely. There is no edge or snobbishness here, so often seen at the bigger shows.

My Shearer takes another ewe and starts to shear the old fashioned way with hand shears to show how things used to be done. He takes immense pride in his work and wants to demonstrate his skills. The other shearer has been using the modern electric sort and will get through more than two hundred sheep a day. They are contract workers, visiting farms with their compact trailer. The first sheep to come through is completely wild and has never been shorn before. She has beautiful curling horns, like intricately carved bone. Her face is black, her fleece an off-white matted colour. But as it peels off the pink flesh shines through the new fine wool surface and beautiful black spotted markings appear on her legs and flank. There is an engraved 'S' on her horn, a scannable tag in one ear, a nick in the other and blue raddle on the fleece to mark ownership. She is from over the back of the hill, towards the Snake Pass, and her farmer is standing behind me checking that the job is being done well.

I go to talk to a couple in a pop-up tent with a wood-fired Pizza Oven on a trailer at the back. The Edale Wood Fired Pizza Company has been going just over a year and has all the business it needs. They have a constant stream of human traffic from the walkers and campers nearby; and kindly choose to open only at 4.30pm when the National Trust Penny pot cafe nearby closes, so there is no rivalry for customers. It is as it should be. The pizzas are good and crisp and wood-fired, rolled out to order and sprinkled with toppings to please. We are difficult customers, choosing goats cheese and caramelised onion on my half, and simple tomato and cheese for the children on the other side. No matter, however. The Morris men are hard at work performing their ancient rituals (which date back to the 15th century) in the main ring. The Pizza guy jokes with me about them, but what I see, when I really look, are nine or ten old men in their late seventies and eighties, long, lean, agile and relatively fit. You never see an obese Morris dancer, do you? Perhaps there is more to it than when you first look.

Back home we are having 'Sirloin steak with aubergines' (page 219). The rain has taken the wind out of my sails and drained me and I am pleased to cook something that takes little effort and will be on the table before long.

You say 'aubergines have the ability to soak up olive oil and butter, changing the texture of their flesh from spongy and bland to soft and silky.' This is so, but also a richness here. So often I cook aubergine perhaps as a roast vegetable - and it is good; but here it takes on the pan juices from the steaks which are cooked first and left covered in foil. The whole head of purple garlic has been sliced in two and cooked gently with the sprigs of rosemary. It looks like the head of a flower with seeds in the pan. And gently, gently, it liberates its golden-tinged cloves into the buttery oil. After the steaks have been cooked, the oil, the butter, the delicious meaty pan juices all insinuate themselves into the flesh of the chopped aubergine. Eaten alongside the steak the aubergine is a rich accompaniment, perhaps not expected at first; substantial and completing the meal. A squeeze of lemon cuts through the richness. I eat whole cloves of the tender cooked garlic, their pungency mellowed and balanced in the richness of the other ingredients. It is lovely, really lovely, (not a word you are allowed to use in this game, I'm told, but however...) and has altered my perception of the order of things to be cooked. This is good; breaking moulds, ideas - where do these rules come from anyway?

Love Martha x

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Slow and Slower

Dear Nigel,




Supper tonight is 'Pancetta and leek tortilla' (page 139). It is quick and easy to prepare and cook. The ingredients are things in regular use in this kitchen, but not together: I don't usually use leeks in my tortillas (although I often cook bacon and leek together elsewhere). Sometimes, it isn't until you are confronted by a new recipe that it makes you note your own ingrained habits. It is good to have a change, and the resulting dish gets the thumb of approval from the family. I like your idea of finishing off the tortilla under the grill so that the top cooks before the bottom burns - always a difficult one when there is any kind of depth to the tortilla.

In contrast to this speed and ease of cooking, I am whisked away for a surprise Birthday weekend to one of my favourite towns - Ludlow, in Shropshire, which introduced the concept of 'Slow Food' to this country. We stay right at the heart of the old town, in and amongst the tumbling medieval buildings with their half-timbered faces and overhanging windows.(Ludlow itself has over five hundred listed buildings.) Although the room is lovely the best bit to me is to perch on the window seat with a cup of tea and watch the world pass by down below and underneath our seat. It is a small market town with a pace of life that ticks by in its own time. Wherever you arrive from, hurried or pressing to visit this castle or that shop, it will weave its way through your heart until your heartbeat slows to its own steady metronomic beat and you forget the agenda you had so carefully planned.

Through open curtains I watch the day unfold. It is perhaps just before four o'clock in the morning - that milky white pre-dawn light that pulls a strain across your eyes. The town is deserted and quiet below. I watch the baker in his blue smock top ambling from side to side on his powerful stocky frame, blinking the last trace of sleep from his eyes as he heads down the narrow lane opposite my window towards his oven. There are no lights or traces of life from the windows on either side. A few birds are making a pathetic attempt to wake the day and rustle out of bed all those hungover town birds, fat on curry and the left overs of many an open restaurant bin. It is much later in the morning when the fat grey pigeons in their England shirts plonk themselves down on the narrow ledges opposite pretending, as they lower their heads to preen, that their watches had somehow stopped.

Under the arches to the right a seller is setting up his stall of cheap, mismatched crockery and a couple of rails of assorted clothing. I watch two large ladies over by the clothes rail. One is trying to get into a large shapeless garment without removing it from the hanger or the clothes rail. The other is giving her assistance. Down the side street a butcher in a red striped apron is striding about purposely, crossing the road near to where three old men are perched by a bench in the sunshine, deep in  conversation. They are soaking up the early morning sun, like sunflowers turning their heads to drink in their vitamin D. All smiles and glasses and false teeth. One is standing by his walking frame, the others slouch on the bench with arms folded and ancient shopping bags on the ground. I wonder to myself which one I think is 'Compo' from 'Last of the Summer Wine' - perhaps the one in the knitted tea cosy, I suppose.

Straight down the middle of the main street comes a tall, thin woman in a short fitted suit and impossibly long legs. She owns this road and any car had better keep clear - a Solicitor on her way to work, I surmise. She has that perfectly ironed hair and glazed exterior as if she has been Scotchguarded against the dirt of town life. She is the only one picking up any kind of momentum around here.

A spongy woman with short hair and brand new trainers with invisible socks is pulling herself downhill towards her morning purgatory in the gym to work off the inevitable pastry on the way home and the fish finger sandwich which she made from the left overs of the kids' tea last night.

Coming up the main street - there being a dearth of cars at this time of a rush hour - come gangly youths in matching hanging backpacks. One is chomping on breakfast from a bakers' shop down the road. Another is dragging his limbs on stilts in a kind of lolloping walk that takes twice as long. Two girls check their watches and speed up slightly. The youth with greasy hair slows down. The other one crosses over to make the journey go even further. Both have their eyes trained on the ground, oblivious to the bodies of people coming the opposite way. They notice only feet and deviate with dalek precision, moving their whole bodies and heads in one turn before reverting to their original course. It is a technique perfected.

We saunter down the lane much later once the sun is higher in the sky and take delight in that continental approach of the time-affluent, buying a few rashers of thick bacon here, a loaf of brown ale bread from the baker a little further on, a few cherries and local purple asparagus from a market stall. We survey the array of cheeses on the counter in 'The Mousetrap' cheesemonger's shop and he gives advice to go with the brown ale cob we've just purchased. Perhaps a 'Herefordshire Hop' cheese - locally made, soft and creamy. Perhaps a taste? Yes, just right.

How many foodie tourists have passed this way with just such a loaf, wanting just such a cheese? Who cares. For each it is a road of discovery, a pleasant way to pass the time. And that is what Ludlow is all about. The pendulum swings more slowly here. The hours have many more minutes in them. It feels as if you could count the time between each sunbeam hitting the pavement, grasp the slow moving breeze in your fingers with ease, and be gone and back again before the conversation has ended. Every time I come back to Ludlow I notice this subtle shift within me. It's not just that the shopkeepers seem to have more time for you - the woman in the Hardware store who likes my new dress, the waitress in the deli serving our breakfast who sees refills as almost a fundamental right - but no one is in any hurry at all; anywhere.

Love Martha x



Thursday, 12 May 2016

The Space beneath the Coat Rack

Dear Nigel,



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love Martha x




Monday, 18 April 2016

The Meaning of Cake

Dear Nigel,



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With love from the shopping metropolis of the Peak District,

 Martha x










Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Come up and see my Magnolias

Dear Nigel,


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love Martha x