Thursday, 31 January 2019

New Year - new you?

Dear Nigel,

I like to think that we are slowly moving away from the notion of draconian New Year's Resolutions in which everything good, rich and indulgent, which we have been quite happy to nibble on these past few weeks, is suddenly turfed out and deemed 'other' as we don Lycra and hit the streets running. Hopefully, for most of us, those kind of self-flagellating days are over and a new kind of balance has emerged: One that allows for holidays and celebrations and then just gently pulls things into line without guilt, like the draw string on a school PE bag, the letters of a name carefully worked in chain stitch in a contrasting silk.

You are making a 'Spiced Red Lentil Soup' to blow away the cobwebs. I am eating the leftovers from Christmas - Turkey bits with chilli jam in a sandwich and trying to find uses for all the myriad pieces of different cheeses I seem to have amassed. There is a piece of Tallegio cheese in a box by itself in the fridge which I am almost too frightened to go near...

My version of blowing away the cobwebs involves lots of Winter walks in my favourite places like the stream at Milldale. Even on dull Winter days there is plenty to see if you open your eyes. I love to see the bones of nature silhouetted against a sunset. At this time of year, before the new growth starts, you can trace the energy path of strings of ivy weaving themselves into the corrugated bark on the outside of thick trunks, or the way a young branch has twisted and turned to get towards the light or away from the wind.

It is Nature's yoga - going with the flow, bending, stretching, making room for the new through growth. As I get back to my mat again and my regular home practise and weekly Iyengar class, where repetition both embeds and creates growth, I read in your book, 'The comfort of ritual, the reassurance of the familiar, is important to me. Doing repetitive, domestic things - kneading bread, stirring soup - on the same day each year helps me feel grounded. But that repetition must be seasoned with the new. I don't ever want to stand still. That way lies a score of missed opportunities, not to mention a certain atrophy, physical, emotional and culinary.'

I am watching a whole host of younger people throwing out their whole lives in a mad, decluttering frenzy. There is a beauty in simplicity and minimalism, I agree. And the space created allows a building to breathe and the energy to flow, on feng shui principles. There is great power in the ability to let go and allow room for the new. But sometimes even this is allowed to dictate too much. Everything is thrown out in order to recreate a new you, to create a vacuum that itches to be filled. Contentment is a better place to start. Like you, there is a domestic element in this, and cleaning your space is the best place to start.

The cafe I work in was closed all this week. The staff still went in to completely clean and dust and paint and repair. On Monday, I was up a step ladder cleaning the ceilings, scrubbing the sticky residue of steam and oil and dust from hard-to-get-to places ready for painting. Next week, when I go back, I know that I will breathe more freely, feel a little lighter, move a little faster. And our homes can be like that too.

My son's fiance, Beatriz, is telling me about a small Japanese woman she saw on Netflix who helps you file your clothes, neatly folded, like vertical files. I wonder whether there is a point at which the amount of energy involved to create something so perfect becomes a chore in itself. They have a six month old baby and are short on sleep and the time to get jobs done between his needs.

It is like the perfect book I read about a Japanese monk and the cleaning routine that the monks would undertake in the temple. It was beautiful and perfect and I could feel the energy it released on every page. And yet I was conveniently making myself forget that this cleaning ritual was undertaken by a great many individuals on one building. And this made up the bulk of their daily lives.

If yoga teaches us about balance, then there must be balance in all things. A tree that only grows tall without growing deep will be upended in a storm. How often have you passed such a tree, hugely long against the grass and marvelled at the almost plate-like end of shallow roots? No one can blame the tree for this, but if we want to grow taller we would do well to tend to the things that cannot be seen as well as those that can.

In Asana (yoga) practise, I have learnt, that a stretch works two ways. Often, when you bend into a stretch like warrior pose, where one knee is bent and you point along the bended knee in both directions (hopeless depiction but I hope you get the gist), there is a tendency to do too much in one direction. This is the ego talking to you, showing pride in achievement. But much is being lost in not stretching in the opposite direction too. From a point of contentment we are able to look at things more objectively, without attachment, and hopefully make better choices....whether with your wardrobe of clothes, an improved eating plan, or any other change we might want to make.

Back in the Kitchen. I am making 'Granny's Warm Apple Cake'. I love this cake for its sheer unctuousness, the way it almost sticks to the roof of your mouth as you sink into it. It is very nice cold, but in our house we like it warm with a puddle of cream on top. It is a good choice for dark, miserable days, without smacking of the kind of over-indulgence of the last month.

Granny's Warm Apple Cake

225g self- raising flour
1 tsp baking powder
225g caster sugar
2 eggs
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
150g butter (melted)
350g cooking apples, peeled and cored
25g flaked almonds

1. Preheat the oven to 160 degrees C
2. Grease and line the bottom of a deep 8 inch loose-bottomed cake tin.
3. Measure the flour. baking powder, sugar, eggs, cinnamon and melted butter into a bowl and beat well.
4.Spread half the mixture in the prepared tin.
5. Thickly slice the apples and pile into the tin, mainly in a heap in the middle.
6. Use two desert spoons to spoon the remaining mixture on top as best you can, trying to make sure that the middle at least gets covered,
7. Sprinkle with the almonds.
8. Bake for 11/4 - 11/2 hours until golden.
9. Eat warm with double cream. - my cure for the January blues.

The New Year brings other new beginnings with it: my first Granddaughter is born - Evie Isabella. She is, like all babies, perfect. Molly bakes biscuits to welcome the new family.

It is my son Tom's first baby and he is at sixes and sevens. I go over to help them, bringing a Shepherds pie with me, and end up taking Tom and Jayden to the supermarket to stock up on food and nappies.
'DO WE NEED MILK', I say, holding each item in front of him...he doesn't know...we should have made a list. After unloading the trolley into the car, he takes the trolley back and then opens the door of the car next to me and tries to get in (- the couple sitting in the car find it all highly amusing)...lack of sleep and the sheer enormity of it all has completely overwhelmed him.

Back home, once more, I am making a 'Butternut Squash and Parmesan Tart'. It is part of a Birthday present of home-cooked dinners for Bea, who is in an anti-stuff, hopefully, being an exception. It is a favourite of mine. Sometimes we have it hot, and in the Summer I often wrap it in foil to take on a picnic.

Butternut Squash and Parmesan Tart

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

1 red onion
400g Butternut squash
2 large eggs
6 tbsp freshly grated Parmesan cheese
2 tsp salt
1 tsp ground black pepper
400ml double cream

1. Put all the pastry ingredients in a food processor and blitz until it forms a ball.
2. Chill the pastry for 20 mins.
3. Roll out and line a 23cm flan tin. Chill for 20 mins.
Put the onion (thinly sliced) and Butternut squash (cut into matchsticks) in a mixing bowl and mix well together.
4. In a separate bowl put the cream, eggs, cheese, salt and pepper and whisk well.
5. Put half the cream mixture into the flan tin. Scatter over the onion and butternut squash mixture.
6. Pour over the remaining cream mixture and bake at 170 degrees C for 35 mins, or a little longer, if necessary.

But, the food presents must wait another day as we are snowed in over night. So I freeze them to take over another time.

There is nothing for it when the weather rules but to accept it, to change ones plans, and to enjoy the new thing which has been thrown in your path.

With snow, this is easy; to go out and enjoy, to walk, to play. When there is nowhere you HAVE to be, when everyone is safely home, when the cupboards are stocked and there is wood in the woodshed, then Here, Right Now (as Ram Dass told us) is a perfect place to 'just be'.

Love Martha x

Sunday, 2 December 2018

March of The Mince Pies

Dear Nigel,

Why cook at Christmas time when the farmers markets are heaving with so much of somebody else's homemade produce? Why indeed. And yes, I did pick up a lovely jar of fig and cinnamon chutney at the Christmas market at Chatsworth the other day - I am no different to anyone else. So cooking and baking for Christmas has got to be about something else; something undefinable but meaningful to you.

Each year I let the girls take charge of mince pie making. Like a machine, they knock out dozens and we freeze them in boxes to always have something in for friends and family calling. But often I am so busy cooking elsewhere that I opt for a 'quality' jar of mincemeat instead of making my own: just one more chore to add to the list, I tell myself. But this year I find I want to make less but 'more' - more meaning to the things I choose. I want to sit down to a glass of sloe gin and a mince pie that tastes different - one that I know and can taste has been made lovingly at home. There were some fine examples at the fair, to be sure, but I am looking for the space that goes into the taste - before you bite in - that whistles memories through your head, half-heard carols and laughter and voices echoing from all points of your past, all zooming in to that split-second gap, and gone in a trice as the taste bursts over your taste buds and you are back in the present once more.

The making of the mincemeat fills a quiet evening for Sophie and I. We listen to music and weigh and stir in a relaxed manner, talking about nothing in particular in muted voices. It is very pleasant, calm and a lovely thing to do together. I light candles and the cat crawls over to sleep on the wooden chair. She sleeps on a woollen cushion that is her favourite. I made it from a sleeveless fair isle top that I never wore, and did up the buttons and sewed into a cushion cover. For the cat, it turns out. She is as languid as we are; like mercury stretched along a bench she melds. Would that we could all relax that deeply, as a cat.

The recipe we follow for the mincemeat is your 'Classic brandy mincemeat' (pg 65). You are obviously in a more philosophical mood too as you make your own mincemeat. You say, 'the task takes barely an hour. I spin it out because I like the smell that is filling the kitchen. The scent of Christmases, past. Better than that, of Christmas to come.'
As I sit here munching on one of the 'rejects', I realise how different it is to the mincemeat I have made in latter years. I am used to a heavily orange and cinnamon based mincemeat (no idea who's recipe), but this is like the ones I remember from years and years ago - more appley and with a more balanced spice base of clove and nutmeg too. It is heavier on the tradition front, and, with all the new 'interpretations' of the mince pie that seem to pop up everywhere, and on every supermarket shelf, I have almost forgotten the taste. I grind the cloves in a pestle and mortar and they shine through the gentle apple.

Like my children, the best part of Christmas for me comes before. It is the whole tingle factor that drew you to write 'The Christmas Chronicles'. The lighting of the Advent candle, paper calendars with doors without chocolates (or expensive bottles of perfume and Gin these days, I see! - another marketing opportunity)

So in this vein we like to go and watch the switching on of the Christmas lights. This year, in the neighbouring town of Ashbourne. We take my second son, Chris, his fiancee and my baby Grandson Leo. There is no TV star or minor celebrity to turn on the lights; just Santa and his real remarkably well-behaved reindeer. They pose for pictures with children young and old and Santa forgets to ask Sophie what she'd like for Christmas. She is unimpressed by this, but they seem to be sharing a private joke anyway.

Ashbourne is a lovely sleepy little town, come alive with a few dotted strings of lights and a huge Christmas tree in the
market place, on the cobbles. The girls go shopping with a long list of presents to buy and very little cash. They are very inventive, my children - a useful trait Santa would do well to emulate in this age of austerity - he may be feeling the pinch too.

The older children go off Christmas shopping for themselves, instead. This is what adults do, I notice. They go out shopping for other people and come back with a stack of goodies for themselves. Advertising in the shops encourages us to 'Treat yourself' - why? Is no one going to buy you a present this year?

I start making the Christmas cards with a photograph taken this time last year. We
were Knee deep in snow in a Winter Wonderland scene. There were sledges and woolly jumpers and a small baby kitten wrapped in the warmth inside, nestling down beside the fire. This year it's been blanket fog lately and hard to feel in the mood for Christmas, at times. I travel over to the candle lady in Tissington who refills my candle bowls for me each year, and there is blanket white fog, like a scene from a Sherlock Holmes serial. Murder in
Tissington. You can almost hear the horses hooves as the carriage swings round the corner and in through the main gates of the Hall to Sir Richard FitzHerbert. My children like this annual pilgrimage because there is a wonderful old fashioned sweet shop tucked up a little lane, like stepping into 1940s. David, who owns 'Edward and Vintage' is usually wearing exactly the kind of tank top I made into a cushion, and other 1940s regalia. We love it, and David is always very attentive to some of his most regular little customers. The Internet is great because it allows small rural businesses like these to survive when 'passing trade' is a poor joke.

Stuart delivers a load of logs for the woodshed and I spend a happy morning stacking them and saving the bark wrappings that flake off for kindling.

Dinner tonight is an old favourite of yours from a few years back that I make often. It is 'Lamb stuffed sweet potatoes'. The sweet potatoes are baked and the filling of minced lamb, onion, red chilli and fresh mint leaves has become a regular mid-week highlight in this house. Will, particularly, asks for it when he comes over. It is a recipe where using the right ingredient - ie. lamb mince and not beef - makes all the difference. It is an ideal dish to keep out the damp and the London smog and the clopping of horses hooves...

Love Martha x

Friday, 26 October 2018

Opening the Page on 'The Christmas Chronicles'

Dear Nigel,

Christmas may be the highlight, placed centre stage, but this Season of Slumber is like a comfort blanket that you snuggle into and bed down in until the change of light. It starts with the first 'icy prickle across your face', as if a frosted bejewelled spider has traced a distant memory across your cheek.

You can sense a coming home with the trickle of falling leaves; and in the damp and pungent scent that rises as you sink your Wellington boots into the piles of leafy softness. Pretty fungi, frilling over themselves to decorate a rotting bough, trees eager to outdo each other in their display of fanfare colour, like peacocks in their vanity.

And home to Home, and warmth, and fire, and cocoa, and thick socks and blankets tossed on sofas. We line our underground caves like little moles, put by provisions for a hard and long hibernation - even if there is a supermarket at the end of the road. Such urges come from the past, from the part of our genes that we share with other creatures of the earth, more primitive than primitive man, more unknown than the memories and habits we realise.

And in this vein, Sophie and I are out in Biggin dale (one of the lesser known, and certainly less frequented dales around here). We are picking sloes from the old bushes in the depths of the valley, tucked away behind other trees, fruiting in their dimness, gathering the richness of the soil at this point and converting it into bluish purple berries. We pick solidly, peacefully for a good couple of hours. Not a soul is to be heard. The valley has sunk into a late afternoon peacefulness, and the therapeutic pulling and dropping into plastic boxes is the only sound, broken by the occasional random thought or comment. It is good to be immersed in this shared venture.

At home, I freeze the sloes to simulate a frost, so that they will bleed. I lean over to see what you are up to and find that you are making your favourite winter drink, damson gin, so that, like us, it will be ready to drink by Christmas. For you, it is a pile of damsons in a basket at the greengrocer's. For us, the Christmas baubles of blue and purple dotted at random over a tree.

I take the sloes out, cover them in sugar and gin in large glass jars, and daily I give them a shake and watch them bleed. There is plenty here - more than we will need (I hope!) and I will squirrel some away when they are bottled for next year, when they will taste even better.

Last night I finished the last drop of a damson gin that my brother had made for me. He died ten years ago, this year. And each year since I have taken a tiny etched green glass and toasted him, outside, late at night, with a milky moon and stars untainted by any streetlights.

And Winter is like that: A time to toast the treasures of our past, to remember, to assimilate the feelings that another year has laid over the old. We are like trees; each year we make another ring around ourselves. We are not the same as we were the year before. We move forward, continuously, and so this season of retraction is a very necessary one. Without it we would run aimlessly in all directions, following sunbeams and the edges of rainbows.

Feeling better after having made the sloe gin, I find that I want to start making something for the freezer, to put away. There is always that first long intake of breath before I am able to start. And though I love the season I can't quite put my finger on why this unease is there. And then last night it came to me; it is a feeling of shapelessness about this year's Christmas, which unnerves me. Like someone has handed you a present tied with string and you can't find the end to untie. Once I have started it is paint on a canvas, before that it is simply a formless ghost.

So I start with the recipe which is not a recipe. At least, to me it is a cheat and not a proper recipe at all, and I feel embarrassed to put it down. And yet, for all that, it is the number one requested recipe by all my children (bar the youngest), and has to be made every year without fail. And, though my friends and acquaintances who have dined on a bowl of this, would not find themselves presenting Michelin stars to anyone, all have raved about this particular recipe, whilst I hide almost shame-faced behind my apron.

Smoked Salmon Soup

50g butter
2 large onions
2 tbsp plain flour
300g smoked salmon pieces (I use 'trimmings' as these are so much cheaper and quite adequate in this recipe)
300g garlic and herb Boursin cheese
4 pints of fish stock

1. Melt the butter in a soup pan.
2. Chop the onions and fry gently until soft but not brown.
3. Add the flour and stir until it bubbles.
4. Add the stock a little at a time and stir continuously.
5. Bring to the boil. Take off the heat and stir in the soft cheese and smoked salmon.
6. Cook gently for 5 minutes and then blend until smooth.

In our house it is usually Boxing Day soup. But this year I have also whittled a small box away for a small quiet lunch for two on a perfectly quiet midwinter day.

I have been cooking elsewhere too. In a new job - a vegetarian cafe at an old converted flour mill near Bakewell. It is a wonderfully idyllic spot where you can gaze out of large picture windows at fields of sheep with ducks on the river swimming nonchalantly past, and the clanging of a blacksmith across the yard, working with iron as if it were toffee being pulled over a hook.

It is a good place to be, busy and thriving, yet calm and peaceful. We are 'staff heavy' and so, although it is very busy, no one is allowed to get stressed. We are all close as friends, taking up the slack when it is needed by another; and treating staff and customers as equals. My lunch is as important as theirs. Everyone eats the very best in home cooking - and it is just like home cooking. And it is good to share light-hearted banter with customers who have given themselves the time to sit somewhere lovely and eat the colourful lunches and salads that we provide.

Supper today needs to be hearty and simple. More than anything else I crave
warm food, warm drink. I want to try and keep off those creeping winter pounds that hide under baggy jumpers until the Spring, but the season feels against me.

So, looking through your book for a recipe to fill the gap, I find one for 'Leeks, beans and Italian sausage' (page 42). The leeks are steamed and blended to a cream and mixed with the beans. I make this dinner for my friend and I and am mildly concerned for the lack of a potato, frankly. In much the way I once felt about the vegetarian meal missing a bit of meat, I find my conditioning and upbringing looking for the baked potato in this recipe. But I keep faith with you, and we eat, and it is plentiful and filling. The creamed leeks have become 'the
mashed potato' element in my mind. And I have learnt something new today. I am satiated, but not bloated by starch, replete and content. This very simple recipe has made a mark on me. I am changing the way that I choose to eat, so that the conscious slips into the unconscious pattern of things.

My friends Elspeth and Paul over at the 'Dove Valley Centre' near Longnor, put a free event on each year on Apple Day. We take some new friends with us this year to show them what the sharing of the riches is all about.

As you might expect, Apple Day is everything about apples. There is pressing, and peeling, and drinking and
eating. People bring apples for identification, or boxes of them for pressing and bottling. There are apply crafts for children, Creeping Toad the storyteller, and someone has brought a slide show of the barn owls nesting in the eves of his barn on the moors.

The cakes are warm apple cakes, dates and apple crumble slice - some are lovely, some are so so. All are free to eat, and freely donated by volunteers and visitors. It is a celebration of the season. And though, this year, the weather puts paid to the usual storytelling on hay bales outside under a fine crab apple tree, and the splendid walks in the orchard, people have come knowing what to expect, and expecting to have a good time. And so
they do. I make a mental note to take along some kind of slice next year - my children and their friends seem to have made up for any shortfall caused by a hurried lunch and I shepherd them off upstairs to the barn owl slide show before they polish off the whole table. I am pleasantly gratified to find that they are entranced by this simple slide show of barn owls flying in and out of a small hole, and the enthusiasm of the old man showing it. I have visions of sneaking them out mid-showing when their boredom threshold is reached (these children of the Internet age). But they have proved me wrong. Again.

Walks in the dales are routine at the moment. As long as the Autumn
sunshine lasts and I have a scarf around my neck and good boots on there is a reason to be out there; to be away from the stifling indoors. We will see enough of it soon when the light goes.

The River Dove flows on through many different dales, and different walks I do catch it at different points. Today my walk takes me down the sharp sloping paths of Gypsy bank from the village of Alstonefield to a tiny bridge across the Dove. There is a resident heron here, fishing in the weirs. It is a prize spot this, known for its fine trout fishing. One bank seems almost permanently privately owned, the other footpathed. Fishermen and herons are frequently seen involved in the same sport. There are 177 weirs on

this stretch of the Dove alone. Most of them built in 1920s and 1930s for keen anglers to stock bigger trout.

The heron is breezy about my presence, much too intent on his sport. I am a minor annoyance to him. If he thinks I am getting too close he simply hops down to the next weir. And this way we follow each other down this stretch of the river.

Further upstream (another day, another walk) I glimpse a little of the Fishing Temple between the shedding trees. Here, where Beresford Hall once stood high above Beresford Dale, where
Charles Cotton once lived, there is a tiny garden building tucked away in the trees down by the river, where he used to entertain his friend Izaak Walton, who wrote probably the most famous fishing book ever written: 'The Compleat Angler', in 1653. There is a trout on the weather vein. And the new owner - a keen fisherman it is believed - has plans to restore it to its former glory. History is everywhere you place your look.

The dale can be creepy here when the light starts to fade. It is damp and mossy. The trees are like the Green Man waving their angry arms at you and charging through the undergrowth. There is a greater assortment of fungi distributed
here than I have noticed elsewhere. And this is surely the right time of year to come and observe. Some, like the spinal pages of a book, others with cloche hats tightly pulled down over their pinned curls, and some almost like ric-rac braiding on a vintage 1970s child's dress (-yes, I feel entitled to call all my childhood dresses, the bulk of them whipped up by my Granny on her ancient black Singer, 'vintage' these days. It makes your childhood into a kind of rich plum jam, preserved and richer than the fruit that made it, somehow).

And so I return home to the best part of the walk which is the homecoming. When there is a certain glow in your cheek and an inner warmth which toasts
you as you slip into over-thick socks that you couldn't wear anywhere else, an over-sized jumper rather than put the heating on (and here I see you prefer to do the same), and spend a few minutes on my knees in reverent prayer with handfuls of kindling, knots of rolled newspaper (something my boss showed me recently and which is a revelation in fire building to me).

Halloween is in the air. My friends are preparing to celebrate Samhain and we are off up to Mum's and a wonderful family party at Chillingham Castle, open to all, which has just the right element of ghosts and dungeons and atmospheric lighting. We are taking pumpkins with us to carve the day before - they never seem to last very long once this is done. I have noticed giant ones in the supermarket lately and they have made me smile. Just to see such gluttony in nature reminds me that we are all capable of over-indulgence, pumpkins included. I will search for other suppers like the creamed leeks that balance fullness without heaviness, I think.

You are busy outside again, sweeping the leaves into net sacks to rot down for leaf mould. I feel a bit guilty that I have done the same today, except my leaves have gone off to the council recycling in the brown bin. I think we are lucky here in that we each have a full-sized dustbin, taken fortnightly, purely for garden waste. It is council-long sightedness, for once, for they see that people living here DO want to keep their environment nice, for themselves, as well as for visitors. In an area dominated by tourism this free work is in the council's best interest. So local people do mow the verges they have no need to mow, scoop up channels of leaves at the side of our pathless lanes, and prune and chop where needed. There is a giving - back, in the mowing of the churchyard, or the tending of flower tubs in the centre. Invisible fingers at work, requiring no additional praise. Mainly, it is the older members of the community, those with time to spare. But I have noticed younger ones taking things on, often to ease the burden from an older relative, and anchoring themselves further in their community. Life is coming full circle for us all, like the year, entering its waning phase.

Love Martha x

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

'That time of Year'

Dear Nigel,

         'That time of year thou mayst in me behold
          When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
          Upon those boughs which shake against the cold.'

                                                     (from Sonnet 73 by William Shakespeare)

There is a richness to Autumn which is a gathering of harvest, both in life and in nature. In all the tiny churches dotted around the hillsides here, Harvest Festivals are being planned - a big thing in small communities which are so heavily dominated by farming and dependent upon the weather. Our most widely read newspaper out here in the sticks is our 'Village and Community Magazine' which keeps us all in touch. And, being a small community with many people related to one another, there is a very personal angle to much of its contents. We all really want to know 'stuff' without appearing to be nosey - not an easy balance to get right at times.

In the hedgerows there is richness aplenty; rich colours just starting to tinge the trees beautiful shades of carmine and ochre. They parade down the catwalk in their (as yet) abundant outer garments, sweeping their fur coats in our direction, batting their eye lashes saying "look at me, in all my beauty".

And beauties they are with their clusters of tightly packed nuts in sea urchin wrapping; and small pixies' teacups (- as my Grandpa would have it in his lengthy rambling bedtime stories -) with a shiny acorn in each. Berries blaze in bushes everywhere on Hawthorns dotted along the country lanes as we drive off heading towards Chatsworth.

I am taking my eldest daughter Hannah out for the day before she heads off to China again for another year or more's teaching and travelling. The Peak District is holding its head high proclaiming its right ALSO to be visited. (All those years of being brought up and living in the countryside and it seems she only learns to appreciate it by going abroad to see someone else's trees and hills!)

The rains have greened up the hill tops which were parched and bleached only a few weeks ago. The over-abundance of berries everywhere is the plants' response to stress caused by drought. I cannot be the only one to have noticed that this year the Blackberries are HUGE. At first I thought it must be a cultivated plant that had seeded itself by the stream, but no, they are everywhere. A friend of mine made the same remark about the apples on his tree - not the largeness of them but the sheer quantity of apples on each bough. Too much so, in fact; they left each other short of growing space.

I note that the early sign of Autumn colour is also related to drought, whereas once I had thought it purely temperature dependent. Andrea Thompson, writing in the 'Scientific American' in 2016, says that 'severe drought during the growing season tends to cause trees to begin to turn colour early and not last as long.'
So, we'll enjoy it whilst we can.

Back home I am in soup mode again. Apart from a blip in the hot Summer months, it is my comfort food of choice, particularly for lunch times. I like to think it is keeping me in trim; but in truth all the best soups seem to involve a large dollop or two of double cream.

Butternut Squash, Apricot and Ginger Soup

2 Butternut Squash
2 tsp fresh root ginger (finely chopped)
100g dried Apricots (diced)
2 Onions (sliced)
700ml Vegetable stock
A knob of butter
8 tbsp double cream

1. Melt the butter in a soup pan
2. Add the onions and ginger and cook gently for 10 mins.
3. Add the Butternut Squash, Apricots and Stock.
4. Season to taste
5. Bring to the boil and simmer (covered) for 30 mins.
6. Blend until smooth.
7. Stir in the double cream and reheat gently and serve.

note: I bought some 'sun-dried' Organic dried Apricots over the Internet from Hatton Hill Organics. They are a darker looking apricot with an intense honey/caramel taste to them. And, added to this soup they give a wonderful extra dimension to the taste. I have tried it with ordinary apricots as well, and this tastes nice too, but I can whole-heartedly recommend searching out the sun-dried type, particularly for this recipe.
This being the time of year when squashes and pumpkins come into their own, I thought I would also give you my favourite soup recipe, which is also based on the Butternut squash. I find that the texture that this squash gives to soup is such a lovely velvety one that it finds its way into countless of my recipes.

And these days the soup recipes are requiring a book all to themselves as I find it hard to keep track of my favourites. I see friends downloading recipes or printing them off, but for me there is something sacred about a piece of paper. The recipe books may be dog-eared and stained, my written journals have scribbles and amendments and underlinings (mainly about the time involved or the cost of certain ingredients). But I can look back and see old friends who dropped in to visit, family members home for a brief stay, or lovely sunny Autumn days out with a flask of soup, a wet dog and something hot wrapped in foil. All these come flooding back as I turn the pages. Hopefully, it is the same for you as well.

Sweet Potato, Butternut Squash and Smoked Chilli Soup

50g Butter
2 cloves of Garlic
500g Sweet Potato (diced)
2 small Butternut Squash (diced)
2 tsp. Smoked Paprika
2 red chillis (diced)
1.5 litres Vegetable Stock
4 tsp wholegrain mustard
2 tbsp Parmesan (grated)
250ml. double cream
salt and pepper

1. Melt the butter in a soup pan.
2. Add the garlic, sweet potato and butternut squash, stir, cover and cook for 10 mins.
3. Add the smoked paprika and chilli. Cook for one minute.
4. Add the stock and bring to the boil.
5. Simmer for 20 mins.
6. Stir in the mustard and Parmesan.
7. Blend until smooth.
8. Add the cream and season to taste.......(I told you all the best soups have cream in them...)

We are not the only ones enjoying the last of the Summer sunshine as it fades into Autumn. The Butterflies are out everywhere, covering the Buddleia bushes and fanning out their wings against the stone walls of the cottage to catch the last of the sun's rays as they gather in the Summer. Soon they will be hammering on the windows to get in and hibernate in the beams. And then, on a Winter's day, most likely when the heating is on and we are sitting down to eat, they will all waken and dance around our heads like some ethereal fairyland picture by Cicely Mary Barker (her of 'The Flower fairies' fame).

The garden has been allowed to claim its own and an invisible gardener has been to work with his maverick hands,
covering the herb garden in a sprinkling of self-sown poppies, all taking the opportunity of the mild weather to flower immediately. They lend a pattern of their own.

And over in the vegetable patch there are Lolla Rosa lettuces which have bolted and sent up corkscrews of deep red and green frilly leaves, standing proud against a swag of curtain cascading over the path, of peas and pods left unpicked.

The Autumn fruiting Raspberries are ripening now like faceted rubies hidden under their briar leaves. Sophie picks and eats them all before there is hope for a pudding. It is a child's privilege to pilfer and scrump, and a right of passage every child should taste. How are we otherwise to instill a memory of a taste without the memory? A punnet from the Supermarket will not sit in its place. I see my job as a Mother as a dropper of honey. This is what I want them to be left with, long after everything else is gone. It is part of their harvest, part of the collective harvest that we all share that forms our collective memories, our culture and our understanding. The reason we anticipate and savour the Season is because of this Harvest of stored memories. It is 'the Best Season'; just as each Season is the Best Season as we enter it.

Love Martha x

Thursday, 2 August 2018

Salad days and Holidays

Dear Nigel,

We decamp for a few days to Grandma's, by the sea in Northumberland. The weather is being very kind to us and even I am finding I can swim in the North Sea without a sharp intake of breath. The kids have their wetsuits and can stay in longer - this IS England after all, even with a dose of Mediterranean sun.

One of the nicest things about going to the beach is that it tends to make the people in your family, or party, more sociable. My eldest son, James, not known for his social qualities, will happily take up a spade and take control of our military defences against the rising tide (well, he is in the Army). And, armed with a Frisbee or a couple of worn and battered old seaside boule, he doesn't give his younger sisters 'chances'. And such is beach life everywhere. Little scenarios playing out as families are forced to mingle, to co-operate (occasionally) and fight over the best spade, the non-sandy biscuits and who has to carry what back up the windy path to the car. Like Christmas, some things never change.

Sometimes, we have different figurations of people. This year Molly has a friend who lost her Dad and hasn't had a holiday for three years. It's an easy thing  for us to do, to add one more place at the table, another body in the car. And lovely for Molly to be able to show Aurora all our special places, where we go pond dipping, and eat the best fish.

Northumberland is a land of castles and long sandy beaches and few tourists, comparatively speaking. The beaches are rarely if ever crowded - there is room for everyone here - and places to go to find peace and solitude and breathe the sea air. I read more books on holiday than at any other time. I tend to take paperbacks with me and these are often trashed because I love to read on the beach and hear the seagulls calling overhead. But often the spines of the books get full of fine silver sand and won't close properly. And I'm embarrassed even to take them to the charity shop sometimes.

We have a good system up here with secondhand books. Housed in the beautiful old Victorian Railway Station in Alnwick (where trains no longer visit) is the most amazing secondhand bookshop. I've watched it over the last twenty years or so get bigger and busier. And still the little model railway tootles around over the top of the bookshelves, the cafe sells tea and there is a real fire and comfy seats on a wet day. So we have a system, my mum and I. She takes in all her lovely new books that she has read (because like me, in general, she likes the feel of a clean unopened new page) and the bookshop makes a tally and there is credit so that when the hoards of Grandchildren arrive, they can all go off and spend Grandma's credit in the children's section, and ride around on over-large ladybirds, whilst the adults are free to wander elsewhere and consider the art work and the first editions and drink coffee in peace.

James has been working at Alnwick Castle, home of Harry Potter, as any eleven year old will tell you. So we take the children to dress up in Medieval costume and make soap, and then on for Broomstick practise (- not on the Nimbus 2000. This one requires manual lift off to get a good photo, and no interactive theme park wizardry involved). It's amazing what a good sales pitch can do; the kids are quite happy with a pile of old besoms and a piece of grass quadrant.

Back home, I am amazed to see how the Peak District is draining colour from the hills. As we come down into our village I look over the church spire and see the hills of the Manifold Valley beyond, all quite brown and barren. It looks like I imagine parts of Australia to be. The trees, themselves, are still in green leaf, but the grass behind is brown in contrast. There is nothing for the sheep or cows to eat up there.

The insects however seem to be inviting themselves inside the house more often this Summer. There are bees on my Oregano which is flowering prettily in a vase in the kitchen, and ladybirds on the last of the redcurrants. The caterpillars on my kale and rocket in the veg patch get less of a welcome. I'd rather they ate the nettles. And something akin to a Horsefly is taking the opportunity to chump on any patch of bare flesh that might be sunbathing in the garden, as Hannah keeps telling me.

Some of us do not fare well in the sun and the heat - redheads particularly. And this and the tightened restrictions on visas to China is creating an undercurrent of discontent in certain quarters. She has a job to go back to in September but things are taking longer than they should. The rest of us are trying to relax and enjoy the Summer. Always a hard one, relaxing, whilst someone else nearby is creating dust clouds of stress and sending out electric currents that pollute the air and seep into your mind and body even as you are consciously relaxing your muscles and turning up the music (or removing your hearing aids, in my mother's case - no one tells you the benefits of being hard of hearing).
Food has to be fast and easy and tasty. It is too hot to want to spend a long time in the kitchen whilst everyone else is enjoying themselves outside in the sun. Or in the shade - my favourite spot. There is something delicious about the right level of shade; not too hot and not too cool. I have taken to following the sun around my vegetable patch to make the most of the moving shade. The 'lawn' - if you can call it that, as it has a rather mossy brown artificial look to it at present, and hasn't needed cutting for weeks - is too full on in the sun for me. I can feel myself visibly expanding in every direction; every blood vessel becoming taut as if someone is blowing me up with a bicycle pump; and it feels uncomfortable.

I make a quick and tasty 'Aubergine, Pomegranate and Mint Salad' which tastes like hard work was involved, but in fact it took minutes to prepare. We eat it with a mixture of leaves out of the garden - lambs lettuce, rocket, baby spinach and lolla rosso and some couscous.

Aubergine, Pomegranate and Mint Salad

2 large Aubergine
6 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
1 pomegranate
1 tbsp shredded mint leaves

Tahini dressing:
2 cloves of garlic (crushed)
1 tbsp tahini paste
125ml natural yogurt
1 lemon (juiced)
1 tbsp honey
pinch of cayenne pepper
pinch of ground cumin
salt and pepper

1. Slice the aubergines into discs and fry in the olive oil until lightly browned on both sides.
2. In a blender, add all the dressing ingredients. Blend.
3.Place the aubergine slices on a plate and sprinkle with the vinegar and season well.
4. Drizzle the Tahini dressing over.
5. Remove the pomegranate seeds from their skins. (The best way I have found to do this is to cut the pomegranate in half, place one half over a large bowl and bang on the back with a wooden spoon).
6. Scatter over the pomegranate seeds and chopped mint leaves. Serve with cous cous.

You can come and sit in the shade with me and we will drink something cool and refreshing and watch the butterflies doing their courtship dance as they whirl and turn around each other, making paths like the strands in a ball of wool. And their 'ball' drifts here and there, as if caught on the different currents of air, and then finally off towards the trees. Gone, like the soap bubble you held in the palm of your hand as a small child.

Summer's Lease.

Love Martha x

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