Wednesday, 1 October 2014

S is for Squiffy cows and Seasonal warmth

Dear Nigel,

The hedgerows are still rich with jewel-like berries and the Autumn-fruiting raspberries ripen as we pick. This has been such a good year for berries, and the mild warm weather has allowed us to stay longer in the garden and go picnicking with flasks of soup and warm quiche wrapped in foil. It is a fine season.

I go for my usual run around the lanes and past the church. It is flattish around the village and beats the smell of rotting corpses in the gym. It stretches my lungs and maybe, if I work hard-enough, it will keep the asthma and bronchitis at bay. The damp Autumn air is not a friend to the asthmatic.

As I run, carefully avoiding the cowpats and tractor muck - an exercise in itself rivalling Sudoku - I pass the milkman on his round. I used to live in a town fifteen miles away, and opposite me up a little side street was a small dairy, bang in the middle of the town. The milkman from opposite my old house now winds his way through the smallest villages of the Peak District delivering his goods. I suppose if there are two supermarkets within spitting distance business will be slack, whereas out here where the nearest village shop is four miles away, a milkman is often welcome.

Like most milkmen these days he delivers newspapers and groceries too. And, so the sign on his bright yellow van tells me, it seems the cows of the Peak District are producing fine quality wines and beer these days. I wonder what they feed them on?

I come back to an upended bird table and bird feeders scattered in the rose bushes. It is next door's evil cat, the one we call 'Bandido' ( on account of his Zorro-like mask), I suspect. There is a tiny blue tit lying stone dead beside it. It is perfect and untouched, like a stuffed museum exhibit with stiff outstretched wire legs, or a child's discarded soft toy. It reminds me that life is short and to be treasured. I have enjoyed watching these little friends visiting my table and squabbling over the seed like unruly children. They have been greedy and busy and it has brought life back into a little space, and movement and energy. I don't know what the Chinese would say about bird tables but it seems a good bit of Feng Shui to me, instinctively.

There, two minutes on google and I find a Feng Shui expert called Rodika Tchi who says that 'bird symbols...have an intrinsic universal energy that doesn't need translation' (giving a) 'feeling of inspiration, freedom, and a longing for being united with the divine.' Maybe this is what saddens me so much, to see this perfect little creature lying dead. A close relative of mine has died and I am preparing to go to yet another family funeral. The Autumn is closing in around me. I turn to your book to find a warming dish to take away the sudden chill. I find it on page 245 - an 'Aubergine Curry' for an Autumn day.

There are times when I want to stand over a stove and toast spices in a dry frying pan and inhale the aroma. And there are other times when my stomach is talking to me as I cook, when I'm trying to help with homework or break up a fight in the other room, and the dog is getting under my feet because she knows it's her dinnertime too. These are the times when I want to bung it in a pan and get on with other things. You know this too because you say 'when I am in the mood, I will toast cumin seeds and coriander, adding dried chilli and turmeric....but on a weekday, when I'm quickly putting together a curry for dinner, I use my favourite curry powder.' So, I will no longer feel I'm somehow cheating.

This curry, for the most part, takes care of itself as the vegetables gently cook. It is refreshing and juicy as the thick slices of aubergines - mine are like tractor tyres - keep their shape and remain succulent. Altogether, a gentle fruity curry which warms the stomach without leaving you feeling heavy and bloated. I also think this dish must be really quite good for you and relatively low on the old calories (providing you don't overdo the naan bread - my weakness).

Yesterday was a magical evening. It started as a sudden urge to put up the string of white outdoor lights that I'd been planning to do all summer but never quite got round to. I think it occurred to me early on in the summer that these lights are only best seen when dark, and, as it never seemed to get dark-enough until well after ten (and I don't really have those sort of all-night parties anymore), there didn't seem to be much point.

I looped them all along the little picket fence at the back which stops people falling headlong into the stream. It is very dark outside at the back as there are no streetlamps around here and I usually have to remember to take a torch with me everywhere. Even going out to the shed for wood or dog food is an expedition in itself in the middle of winter, (especially if there's a foot of snow on the ground). I got out the fire basket and filled it with logs and placed benches around it and hung cheap zinc Ikea lanterns from the roof of the woodshed.

My moment of inspiration, however, for which I am most proud, was in bringing out the large green wheelbarrow and placing the outside door mat (one of those farmers' metal grid things) over the top. Onto this went the hot terracotta pizza stones from out of the oven. It was just magical to be able to sit there with my little ones and my eldest son, James, and watch the flames lick and spit.

The stream still rushes on and an owl hoots somewhere out there in the night. This time is very precious to me. I have learnt from life's tumbles that we only ever really have today right now to cherish. My son is back from University and applying to join the army. I put away my fears and thoughts and enjoy the night. He is the happiest and focused that I have seen him in a long while; and who can deny him that. We each of us make our own path in life and desire only the love and support of those closest to us. The pizza stones stay hot on their grid, keeping the slices of pizza warm till the end. The citronella candle does its job in keeping the midges away. We have foregone the organised side of the garden and are perched on the concrete on old plank benches with the kids on wooden steps. It would have been an ideal time for toasting marshmallows but I don't have any. And anyway, that would have made it an organised occasion, and this is simply impromptu and unplanned. And the more completely lovely for it.

Martha












Thursday, 18 September 2014

A guest at my table - Rik

The first time I met Rik it was his boots I was introduced to - the rest of him was somewhere under a pile of heavy tarpaulin trying to mend something on a tent. He would have been in his mid-forties perhaps by then, although my sons were only young. They had moved seamlessly from cubs to scouts and were looking forward to a bit of sleeping rough, playing with knives and warming their hands over a box of matches, or whatever notion they might have. I was hoping there might be more involved.

His face, when he finally emerged, was flecked with something black and he had a huge grin as he adjusted his spectacles, flushed red to his ears and wiped the sweat off his forehead with his shirt sleeve. He seemed to be having far more fun than any of the boys - in his element in his grubby shorts with freckled knees poking out. And this was a few years before Ray Mears had hit our screens. He wiped his hand on his clothes before offering it to me. His cheesy grin was so infectious it was impossible not to warm to this overgrown ten year old. The boys obviously loved every minute of it and there was an energy and buzz about the place.

The law on the sale of knives may have changed but back then a Swiss army knife was still a prized bit of every boy's kit. I checked the Scout website to see how things had changed in this regard. It seems that although it is illegal to sell a knife to anyone under eighteen it is not illegal for anyone to carry a folding knife like a Swiss army knife as long as the blade is shorter than three inches. Scouting policy is that knives should be carried only when they are going to be used as a tool.I remember how seriously my boys took the responsibility of having a penknife - almost because a level of trust was bestowed. And, although they could often be silly over other things, in this nothing needed to be said.

We soon got to know Rik better, and, when it came to camps, he often called on the extra support of his two older teenage sons. Rik's wife had died a few years previously and, rather than remarry, he had thrown himself into Scouting and bringing up his two equally lanky sons. I once had the privilege to visit his house and saw a completely different way of living which seemed to mark it out as an 'all male household'. There was a canoe lying in the hallway and various paddles stacked in the corner. The downstairs loo was more library than loo, and there were two pieces of wood joined together in a clamp in the middle of the kitchen table, which we were eating off. Toast and jam was a popular meal and all of them looked as if they could swallow a loaf whole without even noticing. It was Rik, I remember, who first introduced me to the delights of French toast - so much better eaten straight from a smoking black frying pan on an open fire - ...and I was only there for a visit, to drop something off.

There is something very compelling about finding someone in their element. It doesn't matter what they are passionate about; to be around someone whose very fibre fizzes over with enjoyment, their eyes lit up, blood pumping pinkness into their face, is highly magnetic. Perhaps we seldom see people in this state. Normal life rarely lets people be the people they would like to be. So we are transfixed because we see that they have something very special that we want for ourselves, if we ever let ourselves find that one thing with which we could be totally in flow.

The lamb and tomato and smoked paprika dish I am making will be gobbled up in minutes by my guest. I have never seen him without being in a state of measuring time as gaps between meals or snacks. He always seems permanently hungry. I have been at a camp and watched him and his sons eat vast quantities of stew as if they'd just returned from hunger strike or something. The boys around them couldn't match their pace. Indigestion and chewing each mouthful twenty times whizzed over their heads as they matched each other spoon for spoon. He will appreciate the simplicity of having plain crusty bread with which to dunk, and a bowl to nurse in his large calloused hands. If the weather stays warm we will eat in the garden. He will be happier kicking back and enjoying a pint as we talk. Houses don't really suit him anymore. When he's not camping or working he's off in his '70s camper van with a canoe strapped to the roof. I feel that when his boys do finally go he might rent out a garage to house his washing machine and line of canoes - and spend the rest of the time living in his van. He'd like that - a bit of discomfort - it would make him feel at home, somehow.


Wednesday, 10 September 2014

R is for Re-Freshers' week and Ripening hedgerows

Dear Nigel,

Another school year starts for the little ones, and a new beginning looms elsewhere - number four son is heading off to University and I'm knocking around looking for a fifth set of pans and a few mugs and plates with a kind of deja vue feeling. Tom is excited but trying to remain fairly cool about it all as if it's no big deal. We leaf through the mail order shot from John Lewis and laugh at the NEW student 'must have's. There's something nice and homely about having a handful of hand-me-down cutlery and an old favourite mug, I think. The Bank of Grandma stumps up for a new laptop, thankfully, as it probably wouldn't impress prospective employers for a Computer Graduate to sit there with an old pencil jammed in the side of his laptop to keep the light on...but then again, maybe they'd see ingenuity in the face of a tide of student debt.

I'm watching the hedgerows ripen at lightening speed. The blackberries are already plump and heavy and still full of taste. I take a mental note of the best hedgerows round here and prepare for an afternoon's picking before someone else gets there. There's nothing worse than following on the back of a quick-witted picker who's had the same idea and got there earlier in the day, and to arrive home with half a dozen under-ripe specimens and the feeling of being hard-done-by. This weekend seems just right for a large dish of apple and blackberry crumble. We make ours with half rolled oats to flour for that flapjacky taste my kids love, and a mixture of cookers and eaters so that there are tasty chunks of real apple - the eaters - amongst the sublime mush of puree and muscovado sugar.

The red-haired Hannah is descending on us this weekend from the bright lights of the city and will no doubt have certain food expectations. They find it too quiet and dull here for their flitting minds, my city children. Chris, the other one, is planning to fly over from Frankfurt at Christmas. He calls it 'coming back to the Dale'. Technically right, I know (despite its Hobbit associations), but I am never quite sure if he's being complimentary or not. I have my doubts.

The dish I am making this evening reflects the change in the seasons. I love this time of year with its red  and gold leaves and a freshness in the air once more that stimulates the mind. It is a simple casserole of lamb and tomato and smoked paprika which has a warmth in it to both comfort and invigourate (Lamb, garlic, paprika and tomato pg236). As you say, 'There is much comfort in food that has been cooked in a casserole.' These recipes of yours are like stews that have been speeded up to reflect the fact that we may well want to eat dinners like this but often don't have the time to just leave things to cook. This dinner was prepared and cooked and on the table in less than an hour, which is usually my benchmark, and I've never been known as the fastest of cooks - I can quite happily while away half an afternoon chopping a few onions given the chance.

There is something magical about an Indian Summer, like the one we're having right now. We often talk in hope about them, but they come more infrequently than we seem to remember. Perhaps it is the warm breath of air which whips leaves from the trees yet still blows refreshingly across our cheeks. The temperature, a pleasant warmth - warm enough to sit out and have lunch - yet doesn't sap our energy and strength the way a warm day in Summer often does.

We sit out at the weekend with Hannah and eat the fish soup I've prepared. It is the season of soups in my mind, and nothing makes me feel more snug than a real fire in the evening and a bowl of hot soup for lunch. The garden and lane are bedecked with all manner of garden birds, all here for the feast of Autumn-cropping raspberries and hedgerow blackberries. We will agree to share, I think. We get our bird spotter book out and the children have a go at identifying them. I buy another bird feeder but forget the seed. Another visit. It's a thirty mile round trip to the shops so it'll have to join the list. Archie eats diesel, I think, but then again he's doing sterling work doubling as a cupboard for all Tom's mountain of stuff heading off to Uni. The cottage would be more than a little cluttered otherwise.

They say that people are divided into people who clean and people who declutter (and presumably people who can manage neither). I am a declutterer. I can cope with a little bit of dirt...in moderation...but I can't begin to think straight if there are piles of mess everywhere. It's not about being hugely house-proud or anything, but the layout of a space (for some of us) affects how we move and think and relax in that space. I have a friend who is the reverse to me. She has a wonderful living room with huge piles of magazines on which we place our wine glasses. A tower of books at one end is a focus for the eye. Every week she moves all these books and things, hoovers, dusts and then places them all back down as before. I've seen it done and marvelled at her determination to have things back exactly as she would place them. It's a hugely cluttered room with mobiles and wind chimes and sticks of incense everywhere, but opened up and cleaned like a piece of unfolded origami, and refolded once more; it is her space.

Martha




Tuesday, 26 August 2014

A guest at my table - Magna

Magna was a large lady with tiny feet who wafted in gracefully on a cloud of expensive Lily of the Valley perfume. I could tell it was expensive because even though she appeared drenched in the scent ( - you could smell it from several feet away- ) it still smelled wonderful, none-the-less. That there should be a reason she might wish to douse herself in SO much scent had never really occurred to me. Only now, thinking back, I remember that she had given up a good career as a University Lecturer to look after her Barrister husband who had become an Alcoholic. It seems natural to me that she should want to surround herself in a protective layer (- in every way -) against the acrid ketone smell of an Alcoholic.

She was a kind and gentle tutor who had found a niche for herself shepherding novice students through the Open University Arts Degree courses, many of whom had little or no qualifications on embarking; some of whom would fly, others who would need hoisting up by the breeches and pointing in the right direction. Magna knew just how to get the best out of everybody. She was as sympathetic to all my whingeing and pleading for extensions on the grounds of lack of sleep due to having a new three month old baby, as she was to all the others.

If it was a come-down for her from teaching the creme-de-la-creme then she never showed it. Her enthusiasm was electric, yet gentle and soft in voice. It was as if she saved all her energy up for these Tuesday night sessions and then exploded her enthusiasm for Pre-Raphaelite paintings or the complex meanings hidden behind an Enlightenment text. It was impossible to not come in on a dark and windy night with the rain pelting down outside and not feel immediately engrossed in something warmer and brighter.

Her tiny feet were truly amazing. They defied any law of gravity that someone so large and voluptuous should move around so daintily, barely seeming to touch the ground in any one place at all. I have seen cartoons of characters shaped not too dissimilar to Magna and always dismissed them as caricatures or incomplete line drawings. The laws of gravity should have held some sway, and yet Magna appeared to have no centre of gravity whatsoever.

I haven't seen Magna for several years now, and, as I put together this most humble of meals, I am wondering how life has treated her. To have been prepared to put so much of herself aside and not to feel embittered by it showed me how it was possible to still live against the odds and be happy. She threw more of herself into what she could do instead of pining after that which she could no longer. If her high voice betrayed an over-enthusiastic optimism, then the energy and vigour behind it was genuine and she took huge delight in watching the penny drop at times.

Her deep Catholic beliefs which had led her to make such a radical career choice were ingrained. She once took us on an outing to her old family home which had since been given to the National Trust. We looked at the Priest's hole and the simple furniture and the picture of Christ hung on the wall.

'Of course,' she said, 'they've got it wrong here. In a Catholic house like this where religious practise had to be kept secret, and the priest hidden at times, there would never have been a painting like this hung up on the wall.' And she was right. She showed us how to take the hidden testimony from a room, or a painting, or a piece of furniture and see what else was there - what interpretation or prejudice time had placed, and needed stripping back like a painting beneath a painting only to be caught in Infrared scanning -  like the man hidden behind Picasso's 'Blue Room'.

She was very matter-of-fact about it all, and never grand. I think life had taught her to value all things and all people equally. For all that, she was amazingly clever and it was always interesting to be in her company and talk on any level. She was the kind of teacher who brought you up to her level rather than the sort who would rather demoralise and squash in order to gain some kind of paltry self-esteem.

As I stand here waiting for her to come in it is her resonating voice that greets me first, closely followed by a cloud of Lily of the Valley, before two tiny feet in red shoes shuttle her in over the doorstep. She sits down like a parachute coming in to rest and immediately asks, questions and notes in the same sentence so that I don't know which part to address first. My brain notches up a gear and I reach for the wine.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Q is for Quality and a Quiet simplicity

Dear Nigel,

I am freshly back from a holiday in Ireland and leafing through your book for inspiration. I find a recipe for 'Poor Man's Potatoes' (pg 113) which seems to fill the bill entirely. Not only does it remind me of Old Ireland but also New Ireland's fantastic culinary heritage has left me bloated and craving simplicity- a piece of toast or a pile of new potatoes. Like you, a fairly empty store cupboard and bank balance also turned me in the right direction. By the time the potatoes had softened in the stock and the peppers remaining plump and juicy, I was in no doubt that there would be plenty of taste and I would not be left feeling disappointed. As always, you didn't let me down. Perhaps next time I might add some smoked garlic or fennel seeds as you suggest; but for now this is plenty.

We went to Ireland in search of new songs, travelling from Dublin to the West coast and back again. In the West our main stay was at the tiny village of Doolin on the coast in County Clare. Doolin is the home of Traditional Music in Ireland, to those who know. Here on the edge of the Atlantic Way, by the harbour which ferries folk over to the Aran Islands, are three busy little pubs with music playing into the night. Over in McGann's a guitar and banjo were accompanying a singer with long dark hair and Celtic looks. A young lad of perhaps fourteen (also from the McGann clan as it turned out) came and did his bit on the penny whistle. He played his few tunes very well and it was nice to see young blood with a bit of old whiskey in his veins. The pub was full to heaving and I got talking to the old guy next to me who turned out to be an architect who had turned to making banjos after an injury. He'd come to see one of his famous handmade banjos is practise played by a true professional. He said he had more business than he could cope with and an ever longer waiting list. There aren't many banjo makers out there, apparently.

On to O'connor's the next evening where an even tighter-packed pub was waiting for the music to begin. This should have been the epitome of our week - this is where it all started and became 'known' - and yet the musicians here were dragging their feet; with long gaps between the songs where they sat and chatted between themselves or went on their phones. I have never been into a pub where the musicians were less keen to play. They were obviously there just for the money, and in the end we made our excuses to the people were were sat with and left for McDermot's and a group of lively young players who were simply having fun and who would happily have played all night, I think .

But before that, for me, the highlight of the evening. An old man stood up. He had the face of Old Ireland, with tight knobbly cheekbones in a red shiny face and smiling eyes, grey hair and a beard. And he entertained. He sang only two songs and then went away. Meanwhile, the accordion player hung his head and looked down, pretending not to hear. The fiddle player fiddled with her iphone and picked her nails. Only the guitarist kept a few chords going while the old man sang.He sang of 'Dublin in the Rare Old Times', and he did it beautifully. This was the kind of Ireland that I had come to hear. I thought, give an old man his two minutes of glory and make his day. How little would it cost you?

Mary, my B&B lady told me the old man had been going to O'Connor's for over thirty years. The musicians were obviously used to his interruptions and resented it. And yet, they had no great desire to play themselves. All he wanted was his few minutes to shine; and he went away a happy man. It was only when he picked up his crutches and turned that I realised he only had one leg. But he left with a huge smile over his wizened face and his eyes lit up the night.

Ireland never fails to inspire me, musically, and yet there is a massive commercial side to it all these days. Even in Doolin, the village has doubled in size in the last ten years. In Dublin, where music plays till three or four in the morning in almost every pub in the Temple Bar part of the city, all the musicians are selling  their Cd's and there are bouncers on the doors. As we'd been there listening to music since about four in the afternoon, trying to measure our drinks, and  had a nice meal, by about eleven in the evening I'd had enough and just wanted to listen and dance. The atmosphere was electric. A young lad with red hair and a beard was entertaining on his own on guitar. Music was more modern here with each musician having his own take on a handful of classics. A group of Irish girls out on the town were having a riotous time dancing and singing along. They impressed me, though, that they still knew all the verses to 'The hills of Athenry' (but I think that owed more to the football than anything else.)

At some point near midnight a man ran into the pub waving a huge silver soup terrine over my head. A load of men in synthetic blue shirts raised their arms and cheered. Clearly, this is some strange local custom as I'm not sure any soup I've ever made has elicited quite that response.

A little later, we were thrown out of the pub by a man with surgically-enhanced biceps who looked younger than my sons. It's a long, long, long time since I was thrown out of a pub. Still, something to impress my wayward older brood. It seems we weren't drinking enough by that time in the evening, though I'm not sure that dancing with beer glasses is to be recommended either.

Martha

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

A guest at my table - Ernest

I am sitting here at the kitchen table looking at a photograph of two old men, perhaps in their late seventies, early eighties. It is taken sometime in the early 1980's. It is a bright sunny day and they are both screwing up their eyes slightly and turning their heads to face the camera. The photographer is saying 'Cheese' and they are putting on a broad grin showing lots of off-white teeth. Their bodies are turned towards each other as if they have just been talking and someone holding a camera has said 'This way please.'

The two men in the photograph have snowy white hair and the kind of beaten leather suntans freckled with liver spots that says that they are men of leisure now and like to be outdoors. There is a similarity between them, something in the shape of the forehead, the hook of the nose. It says, we are related, we are brothers; though one of them is tall and gaunt and bending to the level of the smaller one. He is thicker set - solid really - and shorter, but not remotely fat in any way. I would recognise his smile anywhere for I know him very well. The other one has met me only once when I was a baby and I don't remember him at all.

The thing about this photograph that captures me the most is something about the eyes; a kind of desperation about the smile. It tells me that they are very close - they are very pleased to see each other and to be in each other's company - but also about a kind of regret and longing and a desperation to hold the moment in the palm of their hands and never let it go. They are old men now. They have been apart so much of their lives; who knows if this will be the last time that they will see each other.

The taller of the two, the one I know least well, is coming to dinner. He is a child of Edwardian times who has lived through two World Wars and many changes. He has lived much of his adult life abroad on a small Island, where he paints. We are related.

His choice to live quietly abroad is a kind of voluntary exile. He lives with another man. It is not a crime, now, in the early 1980's, but it is still subject to a quiet prejudice, reproach from older relatives and 'friends', and shame. I am amazed to realise that decriminalisation came as late as 1967. But what of the years passed by since then? How many other people - older people, in particular - chose this form of voluntary exile just so that they could live and be happy? And what of the pain that that separation inevitably brings to families everywhere - to closely-bonded brothers like these two, whose wistful smiles belie the pain they feel beneath.

I look up the meaning of exile. The dictionary tells me it is a form of punishment and solitude, 'to avoid persecution' or 'an act of shame or repentance'. There is something incredibly sad about all this. We live in a world, thank goodness, that has moved on from all this. Even in the early '80s, younger men had an easier time of it, somehow, I think. For me, it is noting what is lost by such prejudice. Time, precious time, with the people you love. And who can put a price on that?

The meal I am making for my guest is a sort of 'retro' dish  of Chicken in Cider which I first made in the early 1980's. It is a dish Ernest will recognise and appreciate, I think. We sometimes need to be reminded what has changed and what has stayed the same in order to appreciate where we are right now. It makes us more aware, I think, and reminds us not to be too complacent and oblivious to the injustices still around us.


Thursday, 10 July 2014

P is for a Pile of Princesses

Dear Nigel,

'I have made Dinner' (in the Perfect tense). It is 'Cider Thighs' (page 253) and is bubbling away nicely in the pan. But there is an aspect of 'Present consequences' - and in this case, the consequences involve the potatoes which are taking an inordinately long amount time to cook in the cider. Little by little, the cider is evaporating from the pan, my guest is due any minute now, and still I am prodding the potatoes with a knife, willing them to soften enough to eat. I don't know what variety of potato this is but it is bullet-proof.

There is an air of nostalgia for me in this dish. This, together with Boeuf Bourguignon, was one of the first dishes I learnt to cook when I left home. I remember being almost surprised that anything I made should be not only edible but actually really quite tasty. I felt like a cook for the first time.

My teenage son, Tom, arrives back after his A levels bearing an armful of cans of cider. So, ...what can I say?... I wonder how long it will take him to realise what a wonderful contribution he has made to the meal.

It takes him about ten seconds. Odd, really, when you consider that he has failed the whole week he has been here to notice the pile of washing up sitting on the side, and yet, within ten seconds of coming downstairs - still in his dressing gown at five in the afternoon - he spies the two cans of empty cider on their way for recycling. He thinks I should have used my last bottle of Black Fox. I tell him it is my last bottle and as such, in this case, I intend to consume the entire contents myself in a glass later on. He prefers not to see reason, but happily consumes the dinner anyway.

My guest arrives; still driving himself carefully at a low speed at an age when others might have thought to leave driving to others with quicker reflexes. I think he will like this meal; it is something that he might remember, and will certainly be easy on the teeth (not a concern I've had to think about as yet, but I suppose it's there waiting for all of us). He is still sprightly for his age yet a little fragile. His wrists are thin and papery and spotted with a sprinkling of brown liver spots over a golden tan. I guide him to the table so he can sit down.

We  had a Children's Birthday Party here this week. It was Sophie's and she was eight. I am still recovering. The penalty of producing two children only twelve months apart means that I get to repeat the performance in a week's time when Molly turns seven. I am already psyching myself up.

Sophie wanted a traditional party at home with ice cream and jelly and lots of games. As I look over the lawn - if you can call it such - and round the faces of the circle of little girls aged eight or nearly nine, all dressed up as Princesses, I wonder if this will be the last year that they will want to do this. I feel their precious childhoods ebbing away with every advert they watch aimed to undermine their childish imaginations with more adult desires.

But here, right now, the excitement is all about who can stand still the longest when the music stops, without falling over their lurex trains or losing their diamante tiaras. The Lavatera 'Barnsley' billows out over onto the lawn and the bushes are heavy with bunches of giant Black currants against the path. Over by the freshly-weeded vegetable patch a crop of large floppy poppies are nodding their heads, and I am willing the rain to stay away as the cottage is mouse-sized and would burst to accommodate a gaggle of giggling Princesses. Luckily, the gods are smiling today. Tom has been press-ganged into helping and appears to be being squashed under a pile of Princesses who see him as their new toy. Luckily, he takes it in his stride. He is eager to be off to University and to stretch his wings. The Summer seems too long for him.

There are Gooseberries ready for picking now, and more rhubarb and blackcurrants, although the raspberries haven't arrived as yet as they are Autumn-fruiting. Last year they came early because I planted them at the wrong time but I didn't see a single one anyway as Sophie was out there every day after school pilfering all the ripe ones before I got to them. It is a child's privilege - I remember doing much the same myself.

I am planning to make some compotes as I don't really eat much jam but often fancy something sweet and fruity with a dollop of thick whole milk yoghurt. Also, there are days when I don't get to the shops, when the fresh fruit and veg have run out and I am raiding the freezer and 'making do' with the distant contents of the corners of my cupboards. To have a jar of thick and juicy compote to call on would be very welcome indeed. I am conserving my diesel and making longer lists. Summer's glut will help spread the load as family descend to eat me out of house and home. There is a Pavlova or Eton mess almost every week at the moment as the most requested Summer pudding in our house - a swirl of compote, a scattering of berries and it's done.

Martha