Monday, 16 July 2018

The Pleasure of Eating Outside in the Garden

Dear Nigel,

The Summer's 'unseasonally' warm and dry weather has been a mixed blessing in the vegetable garden. Watering has been a daily pleasure, or chore, depending who you are talking to. Personally, I've always rather enjoyed that quiet solitary time in the gentle cool of a fading sun when you are busy and occupied and somehow 'not to be disturbed' with a watering can: Much as one would a burglar brandishing a shotgun near you. 'Carry on, I'll go and water my geraniums shall I?'

Small mixed salad leaves are thriving, anyway, under this gentle care. Rocket, lambs lettuce, salad spinach and Lollo Rossa all give a good mixed salad to go with meals. We are, by nature, a little behind in the growing stakes here, due to the high altitude, but still there is an abundance and I am pleased.

The soft fruit is ripening up too in this baking hot sun. We test the black currants, Gooseberries and Red currants regularly for sweetness. Amazing how one bush of Gooseberries can ripen and another, barely three feet away needs another week or more. Today it is the day for harvesting the red currants. Mostly all ripe - leave them a day or two more and the birds will strip them bare.

So, day after day I find it is pleasant enough to eat outside in the garden. Always a bit more faff, carrying lots of bits from the house, but I like to think that this is what memories are made of. Somehow, you remember a meal because of where you were, who was there, what you ate and that certain 'je ne sais quoi', - that element that made you slow down, look around you and 'be here' in the present enjoying this meal. Eating outside is about the experience as much as anything else. If the meal is burnt on the edges or the barbecue has been 'hammered to death' you will remember this too, as much as the tenderest peach poached in vanilla and cinnamon.

The middle of the day is a favourite for salads. Lately I have been picking leaves, adding a walnut and balsamic vinegar dressing (recipe previously), and adding toasted cashews, dark flame raisins and toasted halloumi, now that it is back in the shop. In this manner it is possible to add a little bit of everything you have left in your fridge over the course of a few days, to vary things and be thrifty. It is good to get some kind of balance of sour, sweet, salty and hot (or a combination of two or three of these things). One of my favourite ingredients at the moment for adding a sweet (and almost tart shot) to a salad, is Pomegranate Molasses. I often have a bottle in the fridge to help liven things up. It is particularly nice with salty cheeses like feta and halloumi.

It is a languid kind of day - everything seems longer and slower. The butterflies seem to move in slow motion to and fro by the Buddleia bush and Willow the kitten thinks her luck is in as she jumps to try and catch them. Of course she has no chance, but there is a kind of gentle acceptance that this is a game. She is the only thing with any animation. The shadows are getting longer, the clock is ticking slower and a bottle of wine can last until every drop is drunk.

We are at the table eating Butternut Squash and Coriander Falafels with Cucumber yogurt. There is salad and flat breads and it feels like the sort of meal to ponder over and savour the scents that now and then drift over. What was that?  Honeysuckle? An old fashioned rose, looking like the tight contents of an overloaded washing machine?

The evening has drifted on. The cattle come down to the wire and stare, chomping noisily at us. If it were one of my children when they were younger, I'd be telling them to eat with their mouths closed. But these cows have 'Attitude'. They look at you straight as they pull their chewing gum out in one fine long piece, with that 'what you going to do about it?' look on their faces. John has put metal barricades across the stream below my neighbour's cottage - a temporary measure to keep them from heading for their kitchen. They are bored teenagers in the long Summer Holidays, out to cause mischief or trouble - anything for a bit of action in this 'boring' place. Kids always think the countryside is boring when they live in it all the time. Whatever you do, wherever you go - 'Boring', because it's always there. Do we always have to leave or lose something to really appreciate what we had? Is life, however hard we try, always lived in retrospect?

Butternut Squash and Coriander Falafel

3 Butternut Squash (seeded and cubed)
4 tbsp. Olive oil
2 x 400g tin Chickpeas (washed and drained)
4 Garlic cloves (roughly chopped)
1 tsp. Bicarbonate of soda
1 bunch of Parsley (chopped)
1 bunch of Coriander (chopped)
2 tsp. ground coriander
2 ts[. ground cumin

1. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees centigrade.
2. Toss the cubed Butternut Squash in 2 tbsp. Olive oil. Season well and spread out on a baking tray and roast for 35 mins. until soft. Cool.
3. Place the chickpeas in a food processor with garlic, bicarb. of soda, parsley, fresh and ground coriander and cumin. Pulse until a paste forms.
4. Tip into a bowl. Season well with salt and pepper.
5. Crush the Butternut Squash with a fork. Add to the Chickpeas. Fold together. Chill for 30 minutes (important).
6. Scoop desert spoonfuls onto a parchment-lined baking tray. Drizzle with Olive oil. Bake at 200 degrees centigrade for 15 - 20 minutes.

(As you may notice, my falafels are a bit over-cooked. This is down to a dodgy temperature gauge. Me and my cooker HATE each other. At the minute he is not to be trusted and is being kept on a short lead...)

Cucumber Yogurt.

1/2 Cucumber
300g thick natural Yogurt
1 tbsp lemon juice

1. Peel the cucumber and grate.
2. Stir the cucumber into the yogurt.
3.Add the lemon juice. Season with salt and Pepper. Chill.

My children are no longer at the tiny little first school in Warslow, which had about 50 children at one point. Now they are older and go to Middle School in the nearby town of Leek (about nine miles away). Lucky children that they are, the bus company (which lives at the other end of the village) picks them up from the end of our lane, only yards from their beds.

The great thing about their school, I think, is the mixing of children. Half the school come, like mine, from tiny farms and hamlets dotted all over the Staffordshire Moorlands - mostly farming children - and the other half are town children, who largely come from the big council estate which the school borders on one side, with rolling hills on the other. The school has its own farm, with pigs and goats and chickens. It is a good melting pot.

Most of their friends come from the town it seems. Often almost a novelty to them to go playing in the meadows or collect wildflowers for the table. Sometimes, the reality of it has the power to almost shock my complacency. A child arrives wearing dainty jewelled sandals and they want to go walking in the stream. A little Indian girl, Induh, who has only lived over here for two years, has to be rescued from a clump of nettles where she has jumped playing hide and seek, because she has no idea what nettles are. I am appalled at the number of stings on her legs when I cover her in cream, and she is being so very brave.
She tells me 'when you are in pain, think of something worse which it is not.'
I'm not sure that one would work for me. I give her a hug.

I like their differences, their easy acceptance that they are different and yet the same. They are interested in each other's differences, eager to learn, eager to try on each other's lives. Something to talk about back home, no doubt. Sophie is going for a sleepover at Indhu's. She says, 'we come from Madras - where the curry comes from.' I think, how would I condense this place we come from, that would make sense to an outsider? How would you have to trivialise your own surroundings to make meaning in someone else's mind. I hope one day she will tell us more of the places she has grown up knowing, the things that were part of her everyday life. For now, she is as eager as any to 'fit in'. When I pick her up for Sophie's Birthday treat at the Leisure Pool, there is barely a backward glance for her poor Mum and Dad. They smile indulgently at their precious only child. Mine are part of a large extended family.

Another day, another meal outside. Can I never get enough of this? Today it is warm but dull and we are eating hot food again. I am on a veggie mission to show my friend - a meat eater - that I can cook something he will like without him thinking, 'yes...but where's the meat?' Vegetarian food just makes you feel that bit lighter, I think. Meat grounds you. I don't want so much of it in this heat.

I am making 'Black Bean Stew with Chard and a Herb Smash.' The Chard is a Rainbow chard I have bought. I am growing Swiss Chard in the garden but it won't be ready for a while, I think. Still, try this recipe once and maybe next time I will be able to use my own Chard. This is my hope : to use more of the things I grow, and to grow more of the things I actually plan to eat, rather than something that looks lovely on the seed packet but which I end up just looking at in the garden.

Black Bean Stew with Chard and Herb Smash

2 leeks
1 tbsp Coconut oil
2 cloves of Garlic
pinch of chilli powder
2 x 400g tins of Black Beans
1 tsp vegetable stock powder
400ml Passata
good grating of Nutmeg
1 unwaxed Lemon
200g Swiss Chard (or Rainbow Chard)

Herb Smash:
1 bunch of Coriander
2 green Chillies (deseeded)
2 cloves of Garlic
30g  Walnut pieces
1 tbsp Maple Syrup (or Honey)
2 tbsp Olive oil
1 lemon (juiced)

1. Wash and slice the leeks. Melt the coconut oil in a casserole and add the leeks. Cook gently for 5 minutes until soft. Slice the garlic and add.
2. Add the Chilli powder and cook for 5 minutes.
3. Add the beans and their liquid, stock powder and passata.
4. Bring to the boil and simmer. Add nutmeg and lemon juice and the two lemon halves.
5. Add the Swiss Chard stalks chopped into small pieces. Shred the leaves and reserve. Simmer for 15 minutes. Then add the leaves and season well.
6. Put all the ingredients for the Herb Smash in a Processor and blitz to a paste. Season well with salt and pepper.

Serve them both with rice or flatbread.

We need to save up these long Summer days like matches and jealously guard them in our little matchbox. Then one by one, as the dark days draw in we can strike them, like Hans Christian Anderson's 'Little Match girl', to illuminate the darkness and to remind us of brighter days.

Love Martha x

Monday, 2 July 2018

A Summer of Picnics

Dear Nigel,

                                                          (National Trust Calke Abbey)                                           
'Who would have thought it?' as we sat peering through the window at yet another grim rainy day outside, that the Summer would come - like those Summers long long ago - with the kind of day-on-day- sunshine that becomes to seem almost 'reliable' for a change.

And what a difference it makes to your spirits and to the whole world around you. It is as if a collective sigh has been heaved and everyone has lost a couple of stone in weight and is now floating round about you, energised, quipping jokes, spreading smiles on slabs of bread and making life all the better for living.

So, it is picnic time, and barbecue time. And there has been a run on Halloumi by the barbecue brigade, and mangoes. I am a picnic person. I blame it on my mother who never liked to see a weekend, rain or shine, go by without a picnic in one of our beloved spots in the Lake District where I grew up. What I remember are the dozens of tiny Tupperware boxes full of little treats and tastes that poured out of the old washing hamper we took with us. And so it is for me, as a friend kindly pointed out the other day as we sat munching on the picnic blanket. I, too, have hundreds of tiny boxes, once used to prepare endless pureed baby food, and now holding a handful of green and purple olives, a small wet tomato salad, small crispy things. I hadn't really noticed that one before. I'm turning into my Mother; oh no.

For this picnic I have prepared an 'Aubergine, Red Pepper and Tomato Tart'. It is a meal investment, I agree, but it tastes so lovely, both hot and cold, that it really is worth the effort. I make sure to make the most of it by serving it hot for dinner  on another night with new potatoes glistening with butter and chives; the picnic itself; and I still get another lunch for one out of it for a day at home.

A note about travelling: This tart travels well. She is well-behaved and sturdy. This also means she goes a bit further (amongst your guests), so less is needed. - I shan't take you any further down that route or we will all start to getting into trouble... But what I had really intended to tell all you domestic gods and goddesses out there, is that there is a wonderful type of thick foil roll that comes ready-lined in parchment paper, and this is a godsend for any sticky, awkward or delicate picnic food and I can't recommend it highly enough.

 Aubergine, Red Pepper and Tomato Tart

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

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

1. Blitz all the first five pastry ingredients in a food processor until they come together in a ball.
2. Grease a 23cm deep quiche tin.
3. Roll out and line the tin. Chill for 20 mins in the fridge.
4. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees centigrade.
5. Chop the aubergines, red peppers and red onion. Roast on a tray, drizzled with oil and salt and pepper for 20 mins until just soft, covered in foil.
6. Leave to cool. Drain any excess juice off.
7. Stir in the chopped parsley and 60g of cheese and the cherry tomatoes (halved).
8. In a separate bowl, mix the yogurt and 200g of cheese. Line the pastry case with this.
9. Scatter over the roast vegetables and bake for 30 mins. at 170 degrees centigrade.
10. Allow to cool in the tin. Lovely warm or cold.

This picnic is for a rug by the river with a large wet dog with paws that don't understand blankets are for humans. He settles down before long, but before that we are protecting wine glasses and salad bowls from excited snouts. Merlin doesn't understand that food on the ground is not food for dogs. But I am in love with my friend's wonderful black dog - a rescue dog who has come to realise that he is among friends. In between holding wine and food and bowls and trying to settle the dog, a large swarm of flies heads our way. It is late afternoon, perhaps 5 o'clock, a good time to be avoiding other picnickers and walkers, I think. I look in dismay at this vision of spotted loveliness - like your old telly with the rounded screen that was dots and pictures as your dad fiddled away at the back with the knobs, usually making it worse, not better. Wimbledon became a game of spot the ball, or balls. We learnt to live through the snow storm at times, long before blu-ray.

But the flies are only there, like the rest of us, for a good drink. They slurp and lick the dog dry and then move off again as if they had never been there. This Summer drought has made everyone thirsty it seems. The little brook beside my house, 'The Hoo', which flows into the River Dove, and then on into the River Trent, has been completely dry two days running. I have never seen it like that before. Water comes down from the moors above us, running at speed, so much so that we were nearly flooded two years ago and the course of the river had to be moved over a couple of feet and widened to prevent the possibility.

The cows also broke into the stream looking for water. I saw them a few days ago mooing and stomping outside my neighbour's back door. She had the door open and washing on the line and these three beasts seem to have forgotten how they got there. They hadn't read the article on climate change.

I make another lunch. Lunch is good at this time of year. Lunch for my best friend outside in the garden. What could be better? I make Chard and Brie muffins. Fresh from the oven, slathered in butter and bordered by salad. they are very moreish. So much so that the artfully stacked and lined bread basket has only one lonely specimen in it when I realise that I have forgotten to take any photos. So apologies for the lone, lost muffin. He soon joined his fellows I can tell you. But perhaps that's a good recommendation: three of us had happily chomped through eleven substantial muffins without stopping for breath.

Chard and Brie Muffins

25g butter
150g Swiss chard (or spinach)
190g self-raising flour
4 tbsp grated Parmesan
a good grating of nutmeg
175ml milk
1 egg (beaten)
75g brie

1. Preheat the oven to 190 degrees centigrade.
2. Grease a 12 hole muffin tin.
3. Chop the chard stalks and steam for 5 mins. Add the chopped leaves and steam for a further 2 mins. Turn into a clean tea towel and squeeze out the excess water (very important as it will make your muffins heavy and soggy otherwise).
4. Mix the flour, 2 tbsp Parmesan, pinch of salt and nutmeg in a bowl.
5. Beat the milk, melted butter and egg in a separate  bowl.
6. Tip the milk mixture into the flour and stir briefly.
7. Add the cooked chard and brie (cubed). Mix briefly.
8. Spoon into the muffin tin. Sprinkle with 2 tbsp Parmesan.
9. Bake for 15 mins.
10.Cool on a wire rack. Eat warm, or cold on a picnic. Nice buttered.
PS. I used muffin cases, because my recipe told me to - don't bother, they just stick to the paper because of the amount of liquid in the chard.

The best thing about Summer, I think, is being able to sit in the shade with a good novel and read. There's nothing quite like Summer reading. It's the time to browse in a good bookshop for that pristine copy that feels so perfect in your hand and makes you salivate in anticipation of where you will be, sitting reading your perfect unopened copy; turning the freshly laundered pages with their sharp hospital corners, drinking in the scent of paper and ink and unadulterated newness. And saying to yourself, 'mine, all mine', like a miser - it's never the same once someone's 'been at it', or bought you a book but taken the trouble to read it first before they give it to you...always a rum sort of 'present' I think...

I am reading Nora Ephron's 'Heartburn'. It is a new edition marking 40 years of Virago Modern Classics, celebrating women writers and broadening the definition of a 'classic'. The series is a baker's dozen with beautiful illustrations, both inside and out, which are a joy to hold, by the illustrator Yehrin Tong.

Like me, Nora talks of life and love and food and recipes, though perhaps with a more acerbic and amusing tongue. Real life is very thinly disguised under the mantle of a novel.
Of falling in love she says, 'I have friends who begin with pasta, and friends who begin with rice, but whenever I fall in love, I begin with potatoes...I have made a lot of mistakes falling in love, and regretted most of them, but never the potatoes that went with them.'
She is my kind of woman.

So take yourself off to a tree in your garden with a bit of dappled shade. Unfold the old striped wooden deckchair that your Dad might have sat in. Pour yourself a cool drink, wear a ridiculously floppy hat and enjoy immersing yourself in Summer, brought to you on a carpet of words and images that just float on by. Delectable.

Love Martha x

Thursday, 21 June 2018

A Summer Solstice Baby and a Bring-your-own Barbecue.

Dear Nigel,

It is a beautiful clear Summer's day with sky the bluest of blues. There is a strong breeze in the tree tops which whips through the open door and sends my papers flying all over the table.

I like to think I'm writing this on my old type writer - the one with the dodgy key that would suddenly leap into the centre of the page, several tabs, (because it was a cheap typewriter, bought as a Christmas present by my ex-husband when we were still teenagers and I had too many words in my head and nowhere to put them). But in actual fact - like everyone else - it is a quiet, well-behaved keyboard with no soul and no life beyond the plug socket.

Yet today, as I sit here battling a flaring tablecloth and the sudden umbrage of Henry's chickens in the distance (who are less accommodating than they might be, given how well they are fed each day), I am drifting internally on a sea of serene calm and happiness. Today my first little Grandchild has been born and I have moved one step up the ladder and am now 'Granny'.

I am picturing an old black and white photograph I remember of my own Granny when she was younger than me, apparently. She is sitting in a pony and trap at the beach with my cousin Michael, and me a small baby. She is a more comfortable matronly-type Granny than me, with a felt hat on her head and set grey curls framing her face. She is still very pretty, but very much a Grandmother and Matriarch of her family.
I wonder what kind of Granny I will be?

I have been making a vegetable patch in my 'borrowed garden'. I do indeed have a small garden, myself, but it is my borrowed garden with its views over the cows and buttercups in the top meadow and the dip through the trees and down across the stream, where the cattle cross to the high meadows on the other bank, (reminiscent of some old oil painting of Constable's, I like to think), that is the place where I like to be, and think, and work. So, I've moved my old beehive here, and the sundial that once marked time with shadowy rotating fingers in a herb garden far away many Summers ago. There is a simple mellowed wooden bench from where I sit and drink my coffee, and two freshly dug beds zipped together by a narrow stone path in which I have been planting things I may like to eat. One day. If they grow. The climate is a bit harsher here and things take a bit longer and grow a little stockier and sturdier. Or not at all, if they're the fair-weather kind of vegetable. I hope I have just chosen the robust type. I am looking at my little leeks willing them to grow a little stronger. But they have yet time.

I arrive home from the garden nursery with herbs that I can one day use in the kitchen. I have tried to be more disciplined in my approach this time and send the mints packing to the other end of the garden, near the stream, with their unruly root systems. For fun there is a chocolate mint for Sophie and strawberry plants for her to pilfer at will. As a child I remember the best thing about a garden was either as a place to hide or somewhere to hunker down and stuff your face with raspberries, amongst the thorny canes where no one else could see you. And always the red-stained fingers that gave it all away when you were too full to manage much come dinner time.

Last week we had a special Birthday celebration for my son Chris's 30th Birthday. Newly moved into his house and with a baby due imminently it didn't seem fair to let them take the brunt of the work, so it became a family affair, which was lovely. What do you take to a barbecue run by vegetarians? Good question. I opted to make a few salads to go with everything; but in the end, being the sort of mixed family we are, we took meat for the meat-eaters, salad for all and they provided beetroot burgers and a Brazilian pudding which nearly finished us all off. The salads which I made were a simple 'Turmeric rice salad' and a refreshing 'Tangy Courgette salad'. I am gradually amassing a blank journal full of salad accompaniments which I can dip into at will - I never seem to find the recipe I want when I want it, and these blank journals (I have another for soups, one for light suppers etc) help me organise and cross reference. God, I am becoming so anal I think - cross referencing - I love it; love order and neatness, notes to self, adaptations, who loves which recipe in particular....there is no end to the thoughts that can accompany a simple dabbling in the kitchen.

Of course, making lots of salads is time-consuming and unnecessary, in general: one or two will suffice. But if you ever get the chance, take yourself off to Powerscourt House and Gardens in County Wicklow where the Avoca cafe still (hopefully) serves the most amazing range of rainbow salads I've ever seen. Just to be able to choose from so many, so much colour and texture and detail - like a fine embroidered bedspread all laid out before you- is enough to inspire you to get the chickpeas out at home and create with gusto and a sampling spoon. Soon you, too, will have a collection of quick, easy and tasty salads you can rustle up the minute the sun shines (from mainly store cupboard ingredients) and someone utters the word 'barbecue', and you're left thinking 'does this mean muggins is off to the shop when actually I'd like to sit on a terrace and drink something light and fruity served by a very nice man in a white shirt, thank you.'
There is method in this madness.

Turmeric Rice Salad

175g Brown Basmati rice
75g Sultanas
1/2 tsp Turmeric
1 clove of garlic, crushed
4 tbsp french dressing
salt and pepper
chopped parsley to garnish (flat-leaved)

1. Cook the rice in boiling water for 30-35 mins. until just tender. Drain.
2. Combine the sultanas, garlic, turmeric and french dressing.
3. Pour over the rice and stir well.
4. Cover and refrigerate.
5. Fork through, adjust seasoning and sprinkle with the chopped Parsley.

Tangy Courgette Salad

450g Courgettes
1 lemon
1 garlic clove, crushed
3 tbsp Olive oil
salt and pepper to taste.

1. Thinly slice the courgettes.
2. Pour boiling water over them and leave for 5 minutes. Drain.
3. Grate the lemon rind, add the juice, the garlic and olive oil.
4. Season with salt and pepper.
5. Pour over the courgettes.
6. Leave to cool in the fridge.

So we arrive at the party with the salads, the meat, the barbecue, the charcoal, the tools, the table, the chairs...and almost the kitchen sink...and Hannah has knocked up another of her fab cakes for the Birthday Boy.

It is one of those perfect Summer afternoons where everyone chooses to behave and things just tick along nicely and everyone has a lovely time. Sometimes, it is just about possible to have the kind of lovely afternoon you see portrayed in the colour supplements with lots of impossibly lovely people all seemingly having "amazing" fun... but it just wouldn't be England, would it, without 'something bad in the woodshed', or at least a ten year old argument being reenacted over by the he-man fire pit.
Bless 'em.

Love Martha x

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).