Sunday, 30 December 2012

On another note...

Those two dead birds? Nothing to it really - just like peeling a satsuma. Do use the kitchen floor (a much under-utilised work surface) with newspaper, and a pair of good scissors. There was no blood. Apparently these aristocratic creatures don't have any - that way there is no need to make brain cells either...and i'm sure we've all met a few like that at parties.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

December 29th - Great Expectations and the Christmas Wasteland

Dear Nigel,

I hope you had a good Christmas. Did you? I'm not sure whether i did or not. The problem is that thing called EXPECTATIONS. We all have them  - huge inflated things, impossibly sentimental and romantic things.

Sitting in my Christmas Wasteland amid the half-eaten pudding, the Turkey leftovers and the wreckage of fading decorations, bits of children's toys and mess, i begin to amass a list of all the obstacles to a decent family Christmas this year:

1. Illness.
My family and i, and half the country it seems, spent most of the run-up to the main event either being sick or groaning over a heavy cold and not being able to do anything in the way of Christmas preparations, particularly food ones. The normally heaving freezer and tins of smug mince pies gave way to hurried boxes of something not quite as worthy - however expensively packaged - and the  annual battle in the supermarket requiring medicinal compensation of the alcoholic variety.

2. Weather
Whether it was debilitating floods altering the travel plans of loved ones, emptying flood-alert homes just  at Christmastime, or simply rain, rain and more bloody rain, dark days and damp spirits; it came. Christmas cards  tell us that the natural weather for this time of year is bright skies, snow-laden landscapes and ethereal beauty - not many cards depicting cars being washed away under bridges it seems. Yet. I feel a new generation of Christmas cards being invented as we speak: sarcastic realism...remember the year the dog took the turkey off the side while you were busy laying the table and it had to be rescued, reformed and one leg removed in the interests of hygiene?...etc

3. Difficult Teenagers.
You may not have had the pleasure of this one, but i can assure you that this sub-species has the power to crack Christmas wide open with its minimal words and grunts. The plea (almost hysterical ) to get the family to the Christmas table at just the right moment, being met with a 'Just going for a shower now' boils the blood instantly - at least mine. Don't think Jamie Oliver or Gordon Ramsey have this trouble with their brood; it's all those sharpened knives, you know....dinner will be served now, won't it?

On the plus side, apparently the presents were acceptable, the stockings up to scratch and the dinner did at least all make it on the same day...and i jest not. But i'm still left sitting in a puddle of destruction with an appetite for nothing it seems.

I turn to your diary to see what you're up to.

December 27th: 'With snow still on the ground and mercifully little to do, three of us sit at the kitchen hob making warm hotcakes of sweet mincemeat and brandy butter.' Here maybe lies my answer. Instead of me sweating over things i don't wish to cook and don't wish to eat, a communal activity of conveyor belt eating. Like pancake day marathons, there is much to be said for the clamour for the next one fresh from the pan. Perhaps with the added attraction of an appetite formulated on a walk in the rain. Sophie is desperate to use her new umbrella with its kitten handle, so what the heck, out with the wellies. Teenagers have a habit of waking up when they smell food. Like dogs really. The little mincemeat hot cakes you make (like drop scones) will use up the leftover mincemeat nicely and a couple of clementines knocking around in the fruit bowl. Shopping aversion has set in. There is a deep split in a nation of those living to shop and those shopping to live if pictures on the news are to be believed.

I have put away my Turkey now. Made the stock for soup, made the traditional Turkey curry, and cold meats and pickles for a Boxing Day cooks rebellion; 'the day those working 'below stairs' would open their presents and count the tips box' (...still waiting for that tips box...) You enjoy the annual ritual of stripping the Turkey from the joint, and, i have to admit there is something very therapeutic about slipping the flesh from the bones and frugally easing off each minute morsel to add to the pile on the table. Your chosen recipe for leftovers this year is a Christmas bubble and squeak (page 512) made with red cabbage - leftovers if possible - an apple, and goose or turkey trimmings. This will be tasty-enough for me to be able to cope with the red cabbage. And fried again. This is not the time for New Year penance and self-flagellation.

Best wishes for a really good year next year. Think we probably both deserve it.


Friday, 14 December 2012

December 14th - Two dead birds in the shed

Dear Nigel,

There are two dead birds in my shed. No, it's not the latest crime fiction on tele, these two were live and kicking  until fairly recently and running around in their fine rust feathers.

I came home from the school run to find them tied by the necks to my garden gate. If this were a place where they celebrated witchcraft and the local vicar was seen helping the villagers create a wicker man with a slightly unhinged manic look on her face, my heart might be starting to race a little. As it was, the gamekeeper next door came round again to give me a lesson in quick pheasant plucking - don't bother, just take off the skin and cut out the crown. Having only ever been faced with a nicely plucked, dressed and sealed-in-cellophane bird from the farmers market i am feeling a bit dubious about my Christmas casserole.

I decide to shelve the problem temporarily and hang them in the shed until I'm feeling a little braver - after all, aren't they supposed to be hung for a good while? Eventually, i think, i will set to for the massacre with newspaper on a clean kitchen floor and a pair of scissors to get inside the skin. (Not many recipe books, i suppose, start their recipe with ' first clean your kitchen floor', but the thought of rivers of blood streaming off my worktops rather puts me off.)

I turn to see what you have been up to lately and find that you have been considering the prune (page 487), a wonderful edition to so many recipes at this time of year. You like to use those half-dried prunes that require no soaking, adding them to casseroles and other slow-cooked dishes. I notice that you recommend them for Beef, pork, rabbit and game, so this might be a possibility for my brace of pheasants when i get round to it. They add a deep richness to the sauce, and, as you say 'any slow-cooked dish where prunes have been added will be better...for a night in the fridge.' You use them in a casserole of oxtail and prunes. I'm not a great fan of oxtail, and nor, by your admission are most of your friends. Your recipe is for two people as you 'can't imagine ever getting four oxtail-loving people around the table at the same time.' Nor me.

Your Mincemeat cheesecake (page 486) is much more to my liking, and it gives that welcome lift (which cheesecakes so often need) from their overbearing richness. I like your use of shortbread biscuits for the base and the addition of soured cream to the cream cheese mixture to help temper the sweetness. All-in-all, i think this could be the recipe i have been looking for - something a bit different yet festive and popular with all ages. Thank you for that.

We are definitely in agreement when it comes to canapes, however. I refuse to make them as they seem so pointless and time-consuming: if ever there was a time to nip into M&S now is definitely your moment. You declare that 'if there is a part of the festivities that depresses me, it is the thought of making bits to go with drinks.'
Let's the two of us declare war on canapes with a bowl of olives and a rich brown casserole.

With Best wishes and Seasons greetings,


Tuesday, 4 December 2012

December 4th - Best laid plans....

Dear Nigel,

Are you a list person? I am a list person. There's the Christmas card list (-I've written three), the Christmas present list (easier since the advent of one-click-and-it's-yours), and, of course, the Christmas food list. The latter started off as a pleasant evening perusing all my favourite recipe books and deciding what people wanted to eat this Christmas. There were requested favourites such as Millionaire's shortbread for Tom, Smoked Salmon soup for James, Traditionals such as my Granny Burn's Christmas cake (for which no Christmas could possibly happen without), and other inspiring or useful recipes. So, QED; and i went to bed feeling I'd sorted - and actually already done - Christmas.

Now, here we are first-footing into December and the items cooked and stored are lagging behind the advancing days on the calendar. I count them up and realise that unless i make one extra dish every day of the week from now until Christmas then Christmas is not going to happen. Like some ridiculous horse race we put ourselves through it every year.

 Alison Pearson may have smashed up some bought mince pies to make them look homemade but this is nothing compared to the expectations of  family members that this year must be at least as good, if not better, than last year. I may feel like i want to retire to bed with a bottle of sloe gin and a half-read book but other members of the family would soon put a stop to that. Christmas may be for everybody but you'd better make sure you want what everyone else wants. My second son, Christopher, declared last year 'the best Christmas ever' - so however am i going to top that?

I return to THE LIST and decide to make mince pies with the little ones. This is one of those areas where imperfection is almost a requirement. I manage to knock out a few dozen mince pies on one end of the table whilst Sophie is busy hammering pastry into submission at the other. Once levered off the table into tins they are being over-generously filled ( supermarkets' ideas of 'generous fillings' and my kids' seem to differ somewhat), and stamped with carpet-sized stars.

 I stop for a moment and catch  a look of deep concentration as Molly carefully paints each star with a whitewash of floury milk. And it is at this point that all the lists and panic and pressure of Christmas goes completely out the window. This is what it's all about, and if there are huge gaps in the Christmas menu and we are resorting to opening a packet of cheese straws on Boxing day then nobody will really care.

I turn to your diary for December 1st and see that you, too, feel the change in the air. 'Unlike so many other meals, Christmas cannot be left to chance. Planning, rarely part of my kitchen life, is essential.' The reason you give is that 'you tend to remember every Christmas'....and that 'every dish that fails or disappoints will be mentioned at every Christmas from now till kingdom come.' I think you are perfectly right here. I still recall very well the turkey from a friend that was still being plucked at nine o'clock Christmas eve and that was so huge that we had to fairly ram it in the Aga to make it fit.

You serve up a warming dish of mashed cumin and paprika-spiced parsnip croquettes in a tomato sauce enlivened with sherry vinegar (page 473) to chase out the  cold on a bone-chilling evening. I hadn't noticed the cumin in here before but am keen to give it a go now. I seem to have made several cumin-based recipes lately in a bid to ward away the fog of colds that seem to pass endlessly around at this time of year. Some say 15 raw garlic cloves works a treat, and i expect it does if you want to be billy-no-mates.

Bored with the usual Christmas cake you concoct a version of the french Buche de Noel that is more to your liking. There is something distinctly naff about the arrangement of two swiss rolls pretending to be a log - as made by every girl guide doing their cookery badge in the 70's. Your version contains a homemade  praline - a festive 'crown of glistening, caramel-coated hazelnuts' and a butter cream made with Nutella (pg 476). I will, of course, be making the TRADITIONAL version. And, as is traditional, it will probably still be sitting there half - eaten until well into January. Perhaps if there were not small children around who consider it their right to decorate it, i could possibly get away with it. Maybe in a few years time...It's not as if it's most people's first choice from the table anyway, but then it does have its uses when someone drops by unexpectedly.

Best wishes for a stress-free run up to Christmas,


Tuesday, 20 November 2012

November 20th - The kitchen Diaries volume 2, and grave robbers in the night.

Dear Nigel,

A whole year has passed since we started corresponding. Some would say that time has flown past, but for me this has been a long and difficult year. The churning mud and thick fog on the moorlands outside seem symbolic of my progress at the moment. Stoic, perhaps, but ever optimistic that a new spring is only hiding away behind the winter that will surely follow.

There was a funeral in the village church a few days ago. There had been much mutterings by the bus shelter as we waited for our offspring from the 'honker bus' about dates and family. In a small village like this where nearly everybody seems to be related, it was inevitable. And, as i drove through the village it was wall to wall  with vehicles - more vehicles than houses - as relatives came by from the nearby villages of Sheen, Hartington and Onecote. The churchyard is full of Salts and their names can be followed from one generation to another. I passed by  a bit later and all the cars had gone. The watery sun had dropped low in the sky and the fog was drifting in once again. Over in the churchyard a lone figure in a flat cap was digging in the vast silence. Like a scene from a Sherlock Holmes film: another life moving on, another bit of history added to the tapestry.

You are by your kitchen door gazing lovingly at the rich Autumn hues of your two pear trees - 'the Doyenne du Comice..a mass of copper and orange...the Winter Nellis (with) crimson leaves as slim and fine as a feather.' As you gaze around you are caught by the 'romantic melancholy' which is the beauty and poetry in a garden which has been left to blow over,- to seed, to fossilize on the stalk, as the structure for a winter rime is embroidered on the canvas.

You celebrate the beauty with a hazelnut-scented pear cake.It has a lovely cinnamon-dusted crumble to make a contrast of textures and a drizzle of syrup for indulgence. I have always played shy of using pears because of their notoriously fine ripeness window - either like raw potato or slush - but this cake just seems so fitting for a place not quite winter yet  past the first flush of Autumn's new pencils and Halloween revelries.The gentle poaching removes that problem and it will make a nice change from the onslaught of apple-based puddings of late.

I return to a bowl of soup made yesterday and kept on the hob. It is roasted sweet potato, scattered with ground cumin, and blended with lemon juice, yoghurt and stock. It is a hearty Autumn feast and will feed a crowd.

The pie you are making is of dried mushrooms and spinach, with a 'proper' pastry crust enriched with Parmesan. How sad that we have to remark on proper pastry these days, as opposed to the whipped-out-of-the-packet frozen puff pastry (which has its place, but is too often substituted by a lazy chef). This will make a substantial  and welcoming non-meat alternative for my vegie friends. The spinach is mixed with creme fraiche for a creamy filling. I welcome the opportunity to use my pie dish and the old Blackbird sitting on the dresser: It is a reminder of something older than me, of memories of my childhood and Granny Burn's pies, and of making something ever fashionable and completely out of date. I see you are making an arrangement of overlapping squares for its coat - like some mondrian block art fixture that will be demolished in seconds. Sometimes only the cook knows what love is poured into the food we eat - or maybe it is simply the parmesan making the pastry too short to roll out in one piece?



Saturday, 27 October 2012

October 27th - Bread of life

Dear Nigel,

It's been a little while since i was in any kind of regular routine of bread making, and it's amazing how quickly you forget the little things that make it special. Like the smell of fermenting yeast and dough - instantly memorable yet forgetable. And the weight. Hold a homemade loaf in your hand and the comparison is stunning. Weight for weight you are paying a small fortune for fresh air when you buy an ordinary loaf from the supermarket. Even the artisanal bread on offer seems somehow insubstantial. It's not that I'm in the habit of making rock-hard doorstops, you understand, but homemade bread is generally denser and more chewy and you need less of it to feel satisfied.

We had the first proper hard frost today followed by a blue blue sky with copper beech trees glowing in the sunlight - a sight to rival any Autumn in New England.The Lebanese lentil and chickpea soup i made is left uneaten by my lentil-hating, chickpea-hating sons. Bet you don't have this trouble when folks come to lunch! The second row of logs are stacked and we are ready for all a hard winter can throw at us.I am finding all those junk mail catalogues very useful as firelighters.

You, too, have been using lentils to make supper, but green ones rather than the ordinary red ones i poured into my soup.Your supper is a simple dish of boiled green lentils with red wine vinegar, olive oil and parsley, eaten with slices of ash-rolled goat's cheese. It's probably a good thing you have no inclination to invite my sons for supper, unless you have a very hungry dog to polish up the plates.

I am very taken with your Raspberry vanilla ice-cream cake (pg 316) which relies on nothing more than bought sponge cake, bought ice cream, Raspberries and icing sugar, which is then moulded back and refrozen as a cake.The result reminds me fondly of those simple jam and cream sponge cakes that my mum sometimes bought us for Birthday cakes and that we ate half-frozen with the cream still solid at the centre, rather like those arctic rolls which also hailed from that era and are no longer eaten. A variation you suggest would be to use brioche or panettone instead.

This would be a good recipe for the dark days of January when there is usually a panettone sitting around in a tin wondering what to do with itself. They have an amazing life-expectancy, those crown shaped loaves. I've occasionally come across one lurking in a tin six or more months later, still looking like it could be used, if you dared.Whatever they are embalmed in, i don't know, but if it could be bottled as an anti-ageing formula, some little baker in Italy would be very rich. I love the colourful  tins the Panettone come in. Each year i add one to my collection at the start of my preparations for the Christmas season. Sometimes, when there is so much rich food and chocolate on offer, you start to crave the  plain and simple as a kind of rebellion against mince pies. These are the days when you head out into the hills for a walk when all around you are sunk into sofas and glued to the box. Ahh, the family at Christmas; another tale.


Wednesday, 17 October 2012

October 17th - Robbie Williams' apple juice and a weaver of fairy tales

Dear Nigel,

There's only one fruit, to my knowledge, so universally used and abused (see Halloween) and given a day all to itself, as the humble apple. From apple bobbing to apple crumble we all love this simple fruit. A few days ago the nation celebrated Apple day. I took the children along to a farm near Longnor where there was to be   an open-invitation celebration of the apple.

Over in a disused barn a couple from Transition Leek had set up a beautiful wooden Vigo Apple press. They  told me that thanks to Robbie Williams (or rather a grant foundation he set up to help initiatives in Staffordshire), they were able to purchase this press. They travelled around various markets and other venues and simply pressed batches of apples that individuals brought in from their own gardens and mini-orchards into first class apple juice for them to take back home with them. We tasted some of the local apple  juice and it was sublime - unlike any single variety posh bottled juice I've ever tasted. Whether it was because there was no oxidising agent added - and it was starting to look like a mature cider from the outset - or because it was completely fresh, i have no idea, but it was an eye-opener.

We toured around the orchard looking at all the different varieties growing. An old, wizened (man-looks-like-his-apple) expert was guarding his table of precious fruit over to one side. We were allowed to sample some of the rarer, local varieties. I was looking for an apple that would grow well in our fairly harsh climate, and, more to the point, would produce fruit. Most apple trees need another apple tree to pollinate them and the chances of a bee from the one apple tree next door flying over to my tree seem fairly remote. In the end we  decided that the more common Egremont Russet, which is a wonderful burnished gold and a particular favourite of mine, would be an ideal candidate since it is self-fertile. It seems a good thing to do to plant an apple tree to begin a new life of plenty.

The bees were still flying into the hives though their numbers are down. The bumble bee can survive in temperatures 10% lower than the honey bee - must be those luxurious thick fur coats of theirs. We tramp back across the bottom of the valley to the kitchen where a huge array of apple cakes, strudels and cider bread are on offer. In true spirit there is no charge for anything today and donations are for Bat preservation.

Perhaps it is the unseasonal golden sunshine that colours the side of the valley, or the look of glee as a young boy emerges from a tub of ice cold water with a small apple between his teeth, but there is magic in the air and everyone around can somehow sense it. There is a buzz around the craft table where apple fairies are being crafted and small children perch on hay bales listening to suitably gory tales from a storyteller-par-extraordinaire in a merlinesque cloak and flowing beard. I find a smile twitching as i watch the very-PC parents squirming as the story man tells of hacking off the giant's limbs, their offspring entranced on the mat.

Back home i look for a favourite apple cake recipe and i find one in my spattered and battered, well-thumbed copy of Mary Berry's 'Ultimate Cake Book'. Her Devonshire Apple Cake is a simple classic. Apple cakes can be a bit heavy and stodgy when cold, but are just made to be served warm with cream. True comfort food for the season.

You have been in apple mood, too. You have planted apple trees - a Blenheim Orange and a Discovery, but neither have fruited well this season. My neighbour was bemoaning the sparseness of his crop this year. I think the heavy rains we had at the beginning of the summer stopped much of the pollination as bees don't fly when it's raining.You are entranced by the smell '..the pear-drop notes of the honey-skinned Russets', but what you really like is a crunch 'so crisp they make your gums ache.'

I turn to your diary having already made my apple cake and find that you have been making.....English apple cake. Slightly apologetic for not having made this my first port of call i compare the two recipes. Like Mary Berry this 'slim, moist cake (is) best served warm...(and) will keep for a day or two wrapped in foil', which is  a good tip. Mary's recipe contains almond essence and flaked almonds whereas you plump for cinnamon and demerara to toss your apples in - a match made in heaven....perhaps we need a little more comfort food here to drum the mizzy weather away.

The season is your chance to pig out on one of your favourite meats, pork, of which you say: 'My appetite for pork is what stops me being a vegetarian.' You make pork ribs with honey and anise, and roast pork with grapes, juniper and vin santo with meat from wonderful old breeds like Tamworth and Gloucester Old Spot.

The logs are being delivered tomorrow, the apple cake is in the tin. Time to cuddle up on the sofa and read a good book,



Sunday, 30 September 2012

September 30th - £6 for some chocolate fingers, and a damson compote

Dear Nigel,

Autumn is here, thick and heavy, alternating between those bright and sunny windswept days when the changing leaves glow, and dark, wet and muddy days when venturing out is done under protest. I am waiting for my log store to arrive so i can lay in supplies for the winter. The dark days make us like squirrels tucking things away in the freezer, making jam for buttered crumpets in front of the tele and bottling the last of the summer.

The produce at the Harvest auction showed likewise. There were plenty of jars of homemade lemon curd and pickled onions, jams and chutneys. You could almost picture which villager brought which item. There was a whole swathe of gladioli in vibrant shades, and two onions and a sweetcorn which was slightly less funny when the second one appeared, although one raucous laugh from the back obviously didn't think so.

It was bring-your-own-drinks and a choice of pud. The Pie itself was first class, which rather suprised me, although maybe it shouldn't. Maybe we have all got used to eating and expecting better quality food these days, from pubs, restaurants (naturally), school dinners, hospitals and even village hall get-togethers. The event was a sell-out and a good mix of young and old. It was good to feel part of a community and made welcome.

And then the bidding started in earnest. The vicar (who Dawn French must surely have based her character on in 'The Vicar of Dibley') seemed to be bidding against herself in an urge to up the proceedings, and the profits. Sophie had great fun bidding wildly for a packet of chocolate fingers, which ended up costing me about £6 for the privilege.

Red is everywhere,quickening the heart. The Robin is back perched high on Archie. There are Rose hips in the hedgerows and deep pink sedum blossoms covered in the last bumblebees of  summer; and the giant heads of fading hydrangeas, like ladies in swimming hats, nodding over the paths. I buy chilli plants for the house and a bowl of tiny kir-like damsons to make into compote. The shops are full of fresh Turkish figs and pomegranates to pick at and sprinkle on puddings.(I'm never quite happy with that word 'desert' - pudding sounds just so much better, like something you're going to eat rather than just look at on a trolley.)

You make a Courgette and Lancashire cheese crumble and apologise for its 70's nut-cutlet image. But don't. I make a similar Cauliflower crumble that i love (but have been banned for making it by the kids since leaving Cornwall, where i bought cauliflowers from little tables at field edges for 20p each, and it became our weekly frugal staple).Your crumble is fragrant with flecks of chopped Rosemary and walnut pieces. The toasting of the cheese in the crumble mixture on top is what gives it its satisfying and moreish qualities.

'There is a chill to the house and sweaters all round. Supper is risotto, the first of the season.' If ever there were a single comfort food to welcome you home on a cold, dark night, it is a well-made risotto.You make yours simply today with just onion, rice, stock and Gorgonzola. I realise the dark is so intense here, the light-pollution so completely absent, that unless i remember to put on the house light i am left fumbling my way in the dark with a torch to locate the back door.

Come and join us round the fire for hot chocolate with marshmallows this windy night,


Monday, 17 September 2012

September 16th - Blackberries, Rosehips and a Harvest Supper

Dear Nigel,

After last year's complete failure to find any Blackberries, suddenly this year I'm having no trouble at all. The wonderful wet Summer has done wonders for these little midnight berries and even the wild hedgerow ones are juicy and plump.Such is their enthusiasm that their long spiny tentacles bridge over the little stream and meander through the fence to find us.

Like every child since year dot, mine are transfixed with their bountiful juiciness and that they can be had for free. It is harder persuading a little one to watch and wait until the colour has turned completely black and daily inspections are being made to check on the progress.Scraped arms are a right of passage and distant memories of the taste are as much bound up with the pain of foraging, the stained  purple hands and the smell of musty Autumn heavy in the air.

Autumn has arrived for you, too: 'A fine autumn day has turned to a chill evening where the dry leaves are being blown against the windows, whirling and crackling in sudden gusts.' You opt for comfort food in the guise of  mushroom pappardelle - a pasta dish made with chestnut mushrooms (which taste so much better than the ordinary closed cap cousins), with a 'lovely autumnal flavour...if you let the mushrooms cook until they are nut brown and stickily tender'.It's a very simple dish (pg 283) with plenty of parsley and grated Parmesan added, but tasty. Like you, i also think that 'much modern cooking is so exquisitely contrived that the chunky, rustic-looking dish, inelegant and apparently thrown together, is something of a rare treat.'I thoroughly enjoyed this simple supper dish and its comforting heaviness banished the Autumn chill that had set in.

Against my kitchen window is a fine wild rose bush with jewel-like hips in abundance. I tentatively think about making some rose hip syrup, but change my mind: I will leave them for the birds so we can enjoy their feasting in the depths of winter and a little colour against the blank white canvas of snow.

The village newsletter makes its rounds - not quite on par with the evening standard, but probably more avidly read. Ours is an amalgamation with several other small villages around us, each with their own page. Highlight of this month's calendar is the Harvest Festival and its associated pagan charity auction and a Pea and Pie supper. It's a school night, but opportunities here are few and far between, and the chance to bid £11 for a loaf of bread seem too good to miss. My friend June is making pickles as there are a great many cake bakers in the village, as the Jubilee tea was able to testify.

There has been a great deal of action here in the last few weeks. The tide may have turned now but the balmy Indian Summer weather of the past couple of weeks brought all the tractors and combines out in a flurry to bring in the last of the hay. Little old tractors, modern monster-sized vehicles, and all hands on deck. One balmy evening i set off to walk the dog through the meadows beside our house. Two little pairs of feet too awake to sleep appeared behind me in nightgowns and wellies. We walked on through the last golden rays of sunset watching the haymaking on the other side of the hill. Our friends Jane and Kevin were baling the rows of dried hay. Terry was helping out, and little Liam and Jessie were running along behind a trailer stacked with bales, laughing and calling out. We waved back: A timeless scene of country life, like a richly-oiled Turner.


Friday, 31 August 2012

August 31st - Camp Cooking, Summer Living

Dear Nigel,

We've just been away camping in the wilds of North Wales, far away from any form of communication, digital or electrical device.

There is a kind of quietness, of stillness, that comes to rest on you in a place where there are no televisions or music blaring; no news broadcasts, no newspapers, no mobile phones, telephones or computers. Where all you have to rely on for entertainment are your imagination, a good book to read and casual conversation with a medley of assorted individuals - camping encourages people from all points on the social spectrum, like no other.

So we return with wind-blasted tans from a week of uncharacteristically favourable weather and over-indulgence in the culinary department: One of the most fundamental things about camping is, quite naturally, the food. Whether a tin of soup, or out of a tin of home-baked goodies, the food you eat camping takes on an almost religious significance.

Remembering back fondly to last year's fortnight of galeforce storms in the sand dunes of Shell Island, i exerted myself the week before in a baking frenzy. There's nothing more comforting when the rain is drumming on the canvas and you've just been banging in 14 inch stormpegs than to sit with a tin mug of hot chocolate and something homemade and gooey and baked especially for you.

Each child had their favourite, made and stored and jelousely coveted, - not a great deal of swapping and trading went on. For Sophie it was chewy flapjacks, for Hannah (newly returned from living in Spain) it was chocolate biscuit and raisin cake, and for Molly, a Honey and Ginger cake.

There are many good camping cookbooks - most of whom seem to offer the same selection in various forms, to eachother - but good, basic, well tried-and-tested stuff. Ordinary cookbooks just don't seem to do it in extreme circumstances. The ginger cake NEEDS to be stickier, the flapjack heavier and more substantial than normal.

One of the best people i know who can pull this all together - because she ACTUALLY GOES camping herself - is Annie Bell. A woman after my own heart in many respects, and the only person to have solved my quest for a folding breadknife. (If you throw things together for an impromptu picnic - bread, cheese, fruit, wine - then surely you need a folding breadknife to prevent your nearest and dearest impaling themselves whilst you're spreading the blanket? So why does no one seem to make them).

The ginger cake recipe comes from Annie Bell's 'The Camping Cookbook' and Molly gives it ten out of ten. Her 'Delicious Chewy flapjacks' are also on pg 69 and the wonderful idea that 'this has two lives, one for tea (great for the journey), and at a later date it will stand in as a crumble topping for whatever soft fruits you're warming on the grill.'

Much of our camp cooking was done on the portable barbeque. There's nothing finer than sitting by a smoking hot barbeque, a glass of chilled cider in your hand, watching the evening sun changing the hue of the sea and rolling hilltops.

Annie Bell suggest taking a basic camping marinade with you based on lemon juice, olive oil, garlic and salt in a watertight lock-n-lock box, and a few spice blends (of which she gives recipes for a middle eastern, a moroccan and jerk seasoning). From these basics she demonstrates how simple it is to create barbeque diversity without any fuss. Her 'Grilled Pork Chops with Aiole' use the basic camping marinade and middle eastern spice blend together as a marinade. There is even a convenient website - Seasoned Pioneers, who specialise in replicating traditional spice blends and make 'Annie's Camping Kit' which contains small resealable packets of all five spice blends which she uses in her book.

The morning ritual had to start with a whistling kettle and bacon frying in the morning air. It's no use being in the tent nextdoor with your Rice Krispies when the scent of sizzling bacon is wafting your way. Odd really, because a cooked breakfast isn't one i would normally choose to cook or eat at home. But camping does something to highten your taste buds and sense of smell, - in fact all your senses.

Of course the other item that you simply must take is an unbreakable cafetiere and some good coffee. There was a wonderful moment last year when we were doing some late Summer camping near Hathersage here in the Peak District. We met a lovely family of 'Glampers' with their canvas Bell tent and their VW Campervan all decked out in bunting. 'Daisy' was their summer vehicle ( - of Mr and Mrs my-winter-car's-a-Range-Rover ). Mister, having made a great play of frying up some bacon in his shorts and shiny new walking boots, then sat taking in the sun with his wife. I, meanwhile, had moved on to brewing up fresh coffee and a good book. I glanced over to see real envy on their faces. The moment was priceless. Of course i then made them a pot of coffee - but some things are worth savouring, just a little, and that moment was one of them.

I look through to see what you've been cooking lately and see the ease of Summer Living has worked into your bones too. This is not the time for fuss and bother. I pause momentarily past the tele where my older daughter is watching 'Come dine with me': All that pomp and pretence and effort - it's like watching animals in the zoo perform.

You have an outside grill and over the past couple of weeks it's been in almost constant use. Garlic prawns (pg 272), grilled zucchini with basil and lemon (pg 259), grilled chicken with lemon and couscous (pg 258). You say 'it is not unusual for the little stone terrace outside my kitchen doors to have a pall of smoke over it at suppertime...smoke imbued with thyme, garlic and rosemary that wafts around the ripening tomato plants and pots of geraniums.'

There is a recipe for four fat poussin sitting on a grill - or 'grilled chicken with garlic and lemon butter' - which i think i'm going to make. You suggest having the butcher spatchcock the chickens for you, splitting them down the middle and flattening them 'so that they resemble road-kill. Butchered this way they can be grilled rather than roasted.' In much the same way as Annie Bell's camping recipes, the poussins are marinaded in olive oil, lemon juice, chilli and garlic.

'Pudding' is Italian peaches sliced with a little lemon juice. What could be more sublime?


Sunday, 12 August 2012

August 11th - Sean Bean's arms and a Manifold Valley Turnout

Dear Nigel,

Many years ago i can remember slobbering over Sean Bean on the tele - usually a Romantic hero in some historic drama-piece or other. And then on camera would come this hazy blue bruise-thing on his naked arm. Of course we all knew this was an out-of-focus cover-up for a tattoo (in a time when tattoos were a good deal less common). I spent many an evening trying to work out what it read - and then, eventually: '100% Beef '.

This was what was on my mind as i watched the children's sports at our Jubilee celebrations outside the village hall. Only in a small village could small weedy four year olds be pitted against large strapping ten year olds in the same race. And 100% Beef. My friend June commented, 'Farmers sons'. I knew just what she meant.

These children weren't fat or obese in any way. These were tomorrow's entrants for the tractor - pulling competition: They are built, not grown; and they are 100% Beef. Their hands are large, their necks are thicker, their whole frames are broad and solid and they glow with rude health and sunshine.

The Beef in question comes from Bagshaws farm shop, almost certainly. Half the village are related in some way, Bagshaws is the main farming enterprise, and so dinner must follow.

The village shop has long since bit the dust it seems, though the Post Office lingers on three days a week. But we do have a superb butchers - and outlet for a local farm which takes animals from the surrounding area. They are closed on Mondays as this is when they do their killing, but open the rest of the week.

A door at the back shows through to an enormous butchery area. A shop like this only exists because the main concern is butchery for Restaurants and pubs in the surrounding valleys. When we ate at 'The Greyhound' in Warslow last week, the menu said steaks from Bagshaws. And what a superb and tender steak it was. Like the nursery rhyme Jack Sprat (...could eat no fat, his wife could eat no lean...) i couldn't decide which was tastier the steak itself or the amazingly flavoursome licked the platter clean.

We are spoilt for choice at the Butchers and so close that they can almost tell you the exact farm each animal comes from. That's zero miles for you. Naturally. The nice lady from the kids club pops up again to serve us in the Butchers. I say the kids will be there that evening as it seems to be the highlight of their week. She smiles. Everyone makes us welcome here. It's nice. I've lived in small places before where incomers are incomers until they go away again, but not here. I pull the kids along in their waggon. There is a flash flood on the way back and the road becomes a lake and their waggon a boat, and i wade home in my wellies.

It is a warm, hazy Summer Day today and most of the farmers are itching to get back to their haymaking. But today is Manifold Show - one of the few that wasn't cancelled because of the weather this year - and half the valley has turned out to show their cattle, polish their vintage tractors into spluttering life, and come to the show. I see almost everyone I've met since I've been here.

Anne Peach is here with first prize for her gigantic cabbage - about 5ft. in diameter, and close to having its leaves pulled off (to be used as fans) by my little darlings last week at her open farm and farm bakery day.

A farming family from Sheen take nearly all the prizes for their Belgian Blue and British Blue cattle. I feel a bit sorry for the other farmers leading their animals around the ring. The British Blue cow is something else. Like those old posters in Butchers shops with a cow covered in lines showing the different joints of meat, this animal seems to come with its own joints delineated on its coat. Every muscle seems to almost explode from the surface - the equivalent of a bovine bodybuilder, to be sure.

Over by the hog roast the last bones are being picked over. There are almost more dogs than people here. A man in the ring is calling 'come by' to a young collie pup who is chasing a group of ducks around a course. The show jumpers are preparing to come into the ring - so beautifully attired they put us all to shame.

But for me, the stars of the show are the huge graceful Shire Horses with their prinked-up, pastry-edge manes and their glossy flanks. There is something truly magnificent about these gentle giants and they are bewitching on the eye.

It has been a good day in the Manifold Valley. I trundle home in Archie, joining the queue for the exit. There are more Landrovers than cars, in all states of repair - a good thing, as Archie's hanging on with one door falling off and gaping at the top edge awaiting hinges from the garage. I make my Mum sit in the back - just in case we lose her when we go round a corner.

You are cooking good meat simply, for a hot day, too. It is Lamb chops with oregano and tsatziki, the oregano in full bloom right now in your garden. I will have to wait for next year for flowers on mine as they are young plants. The tsatziki is kept cool till the last minute and the lamb chops rubbed in a mixture of olive oil, oregano and seasoning and sizzled over a hot grill. Summer cooking at its simplest and most flavoursome. Perhaps you should try some of our chops from Bagshaws on your grill? They melt with that almost-muttony older lamb flavour i so love.

I drive down the valley past Longnor and gaze on green fields: The brighter green of the lower valley where nitrogen-throwing tractors have grown lush pasture for the cattle, and the higher fields - a different shade entirely, where sheep graze and pick their way around the rocks.

You finish with an orange yoghurt water ice to cleanse the palate and refresh in the stifling heat 'so hot i cannot cross the stone slabs of the terrace in bare feet'. I am watering next door's tomatoes as they are away but not a single one has ripened. It's really only been the last three weeks we've had any sun this Summer. I look at the grapevine that Terry is so proud of. It is almost a different creature to the one i remember.

I once bought a house for the sole reason that it had the most amazing grapevine in its greenhouse: Forty foot long with a trunk as thick as a man's leg. It came in from outside with water from a dripping gutter tending its roots and ran the entire length of the greenhouse. It must be about a hundred years old by now. I must not go back there. The past is a foreign land and a hundred years away. I must move on.


Tuesday, 24 July 2012

July 24th - Trouble at the Peace Camp and Royal footsteps on the beach

Dear Nigel,

The summer holidays are upon us and its time to catch up with friends and family. We head north to Northumberland in search of a little warm beach weather. I'm so not optimistic that i barely pack any Summer clothes at all, just plenty of coats and jumpers. So, naturally the sun decides to make its entrance at last. I'm not disappointed, though - we've had quite enough winter weather lately. There is a simple delight in English bucket-and-spade holidays that other holidays simply cannot match. The less-is-more principle that egalitates us all and which will be eternally remembered as sunny, whatever the weather.

Evening draws in and i decide to visit the Peace Camp which has taken over at Dunstanburgh Castle. This is part of an artwork commissioned by the London 2012 Festival taking place simultaneously at eight of 'the most beautiful and remote locations around the UK', and just round the corner from here so it seems a pity to miss it. 2000 glowing dome tents are pitched for four days only at the eight sites and people are invited to visit during the night to eavesdrop on  conversations within about love and recitations of love poems by both famous poets and ordinary folk.

 The night i choose is Sunday, the last night, and as i pull into the car park in the tiny village of Craster a large flashing motorway sign declares the car park full and that high winds may cause the display to close. I am half-way to the castle, torch in hand, when we are turned back by men in fluorescent jackets. The Peace Camp has had to close because of the danger of having lots of people on the cliffs in the dark in high winds. There are grim faces around me. Some have come a long way for this. I will soon be back to my hot chocolate and bed: it is a mild disappointment. There is, i think, a kind of irony in a greater force defeating the Peace Camp. And the greatest force of all is not man-made  (although i suppose we could argue forever and a day as to whether the recent weather is a spin off of man-caused global warming).

Today we are back on the beach at my favourite little pub at Low Newton, but it is closed. Prince Charles is visiting the area and has come to see the tiny micro-brewery on site next to the pub. Shame, I'm feeling quite parched. One of us will be imbibing a long cool drink anyway. The kids and i head off to the beach away from the throng of people. The sea is incredibly calm today, the waves barely lapping at the shoreline. Amid the castle building all heads turn as Prince Charles heads our way and walks along the beach to view the classic picture of Dunstanburgh Castle against a fading sky. As Head of the National Trust i'm sure he's seen THAT picture representing the Trust a  hundred times so it was good to see him taking the effort to see it for himself. The Peace Camp has been dismantled and calm has returned. He doesn't come back and it's a fair way across the sands whichever way he goes: there'll be no getting the Royal car down there.

 Sophie insists on telling everyone she has seen Prince Charming as we watch the fisherman row out to check his crab pots.I'm pleased to see that much of his visit has been based around the artisan food producers in this sparsely-populated area: Swallows smokery at Sea Houses, the Butcher at Bamburgh who makes the infamous Bamburgh Banger, the Microbrewery and a woman near Alnwick whose company 'Proof of the Pudding' has taken off with much acclaim lately.

 The pub reopens for business and the crowds drift away. A few rowing boats and a couple of sailing boats dot the bay. The sea and sky are almost irridescent and the tones so similar it is hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. The gentle lapping is hypnotic, appearing to come from the inside of a seashell or a distant dream. There are golden footprints in the sand.


Tuesday, 17 July 2012

July 16th - Legally poached carp and an authentic Staffordshire oatcake

Dear Nigel,

I'm pondering what to make for dinner the other day when my neighbour Terry leans over our adjoining fence and raps me on the knuckles with two wet fish. 'Try these,' he says, 'caught an hour ago.' I look to check they're dead (- carp are notorious for hanging on for hours, if not days) and then lower them so the children can run their fingers over their shiny backs and trace out their shapes.

'Where did you catch them?' I ask. Silly question. Obviously i'm no fisherman. Note to self: never ask a fisherman where he goes to catch his fish. Terry chuckles. He is doing some work for the National Trust, helping to reinstate a wildlife area in a river where the carp are taking over. So he has a licence to kill (like James Bond), if only to reduce the carp population a little. His wife is getting fed up with eating carp.

I turn to my copy of 'Fish' by William Black and Sophie Grigson. Black says ' the aquatic rabbit. Prodigious, hardy and fast growing, the carp family are giant minnows that have moved far and wide from their original home waters in China.' He also says that carp are 'highly rated in Chinese cooking...(and) a difficult fish to fillet when very fresh.' Too bloody right. Mine nearly shoot to the other end of the kitchen as i struggle to gut and fillet the little buggers; their slimy coating making them very difficult to handle.

Sophie Grigson gives a couple of great recipes for cooking carp. The first is carp with black sauce which involves plenty of brown ale and crumbled gingerbread would you believe. It seems an odd combination at first until you consider the chinese connection. I decide to use a Ken Hom recipe with fresh root ginger instead, as we are clean out of gingerbread as it happens. The village shop (three miles away) has Yorkshire Parkin but i doubt this would have the same effect.

Our nearest shopping town is Leek as we are this side of the Staffordshire border - the creative county, apparently (probably due to its William Morris connections). I love the run-down honesty of this little town with its ancient, semi-derelict buildings and shops selling 'Antiques' - or a load of old tat as my Mum would put it. Mismatched furniture, badly mended pieces and shabby chic bookcases abound (- in need of a good coat of paint, i hear her say).

Still, i love this town. And one shop i never fail to visit is the tiny Leek Oatcake Shop situated on a backroad and completely unmodified or changed in any way since it first opened in 1964. Like a slice from a living history museum the door of this little corner shop gives way to a huge heated open griddle where oatcakes are constantly cooking and served from early until one o'clock closing time. I buy lunch for four - six oatcakes for 90p.

You have been making Zucchini cakes with dill and feta (page 228). The recipe involves a mixture of grated zucchini (or little courgettes), salad onion and garlic stirred into flour and egg. Feta cheese and dill are then added and dollops of the mixture gently fried. I have not seen this recipe before and my mouth waters as i read. I sense a visit to the grocer coming on - this one is too good to miss.

Next year i too will have a couple of cougette plants in pots near the backdoor - the nearer to be on slug patrol. I haven't decided whether slugs can swim or not but i'm hoping that the flowing stream behind our house will take them somewhere further downstream where they can gorge to their hearts content on someone else's delphiniums.


Tuesday, 10 July 2012

July 9th - Where have all the Blackberries gone?

Dear Nigel,

Yesterday i went to the garden nursery for some cottage garden plants and came back with some gooseberry bushes and two thornless blackberries. I've always rather pooh-poohed these as 'not being the real thing' (after all, blackberries are meant to be hard work to pick, aren't they?), but this time i was entranced by the delicate shape of their leaves, so different to their native cousins.

In the supermarket i am quite prepared to buy a punnet of large juicy blackberries to put on top of a pavlova, combining them with raspberries an perhaps a handful of blueberries. We are all so used to the small half-red bullets from childhood days in the hedgerows that these over-large specimens always seem to hold a certain 'wow' factor for us.

But when was the last time you went blackberry picking? And, more to the point, where exactly did you go? (we all want to know). I know i took my children picking a couple of years ago here in the Peak District, in order to make some blackberry jam; but could we find enough for even one small pot? We could not. We looked high and low in vain.

I have my suspicions that the countryside is being manicured to oblivion. Not content with their war on the ever-encroaching, out-of-control Victorian interloper - the Rhododendron - I suspect a general 'prettynization' of the countryside which involves hacking away at nature to conform to a certain ideal of what the countryside is meant to look like.

I know the National Trust and the National Park rangers here do an excellent job,....but i still wonder...Where have all the blackberries gone? As a child it was never a problem in late Summer to find a hedgerow laden with fruit (as long as you got there first). So where are they all?

You, too, are making the most of Summer's glut of ripe fruit. For lunch there is a sweet, orange-fleshed charentais melon with some salty air-cured French Bayonne ham. 'You should treat a charantais with the same tenderness you would a tiny baby, and with the same awe and wonder, too.' The simple paring of ham and fruit is 'a gift from the gods'.

The evening's dinner also ends with a pure white log of goat's cheese and a bowl of 'late season English cherries, their juices staining the white cheese as we eat.'

The main course is roast lamb with a rub of oregano and garlic. The oregano in your garden is 'in its third year and just about to come into flower'. This year, things here are taking a lot longer to flourish. The torrential rains and dark skies have knocked everything back. Last week we were stopped by floods and fire engines at nearby Glutton bridge (now there's a good name). We were OK to plough on through the waters but a whole army of little cars were turning back. Only the hostas and the weeds seem to love this year's weather.

Garlic is crushed with a little salt, chopped anchovies added, oregano, pepper and olive oil. The resulting rub gives 'a soft, aromatic note to the meat and in particular to its fat.' You eat it thinly sliced with a few salad leaves in soft rolls to mop up the juices. 'A semi-formal Sunday roast for us suddenly becomes an informal lunch, eaten outdoors.'

We eat outdoors as much as possible, plates at the ready, watching the heavy black clouds heading towards us with menace. We bob back and forward like the weather people and time and again we are lucky as the breaks are just long-enough for a meal or a quick game or a toast of sunburn.

The lettuces are still growing strong. And i still haven't had to water them,


Monday, 2 July 2012

July 1st - A very English Garden Party

Dear Nigel,

There can be few items of food that we are all individually so fussy about as the condition of a banana we are about to eat. This fairly inoquous fruit makes each one of us become a fussy eater. Do you like your banana green and hard to peel, freckled with sunshine, or brown and limp and fragrantly sweet? From your diary i note you prefer yours 'long, thick...(and) without blemish, fruit that banana aficionados would no doubt consider unripe.'

I like them this way as well. Too many freckles and that almost appley taste becomes bland . Bananas reaching the freckled state in our house remain unloved and uneaten in their bowl. Fed up with recycling perfectly good fruit i have taken to chopping them into chunks and freezing them in order to make fabulously thick smoothies at a later date. Frozen banana gives a wonderful texture when blended and can be used as a base to most fruit smoothies or simple vanilla with milk and yoghurt.

I have been gardening between the showers this week. I made what, for me, seems to have become my signature - a simple long bed of rhubarb. I position the old rhubarb forcer beside the frondy crowns and stand back. This simple scene says 'Home' to me.

The old game keeper nextdoor is keeping me in lettuces faster than we can eat them. I thank him kindly and stash the latest offering left on the wing of my landrover alongside the other two in bags in the fridge. He also gave me some small seedlings and these are holding their own in the zinc tub against the clement weather. I haven't even needed to water them as yet.

Today we brave the uncertain weather and head off to that other most English of English summer events (next to Wimbledon and strawberries and cream), the Garden Party. This one is held at Thornbridge Hall at Great Longstone. We arrive in tea dresses and carrying wellies but the weather holds and these are soon disbanded.

There is something very special about being invited into someone's private garden that a day out at a National Trust property just can't seem to match. I'm a great fan of the little yellow book of national garden scheme open days (in aid of charity), that give you that certain glimpse of the personal - the well-worn, the simply knocked together or the piece of fireplace given a new lease of life as a bench.

This garden party thrived with a seemingly endless flow of beer glasses from the on-site award-winning Thornbridge brewery. There was music on the lawn and a children's entertainer beyond the kitchen garden. Everywhere people were welcomed, to browse, to nose around, to make themselves at home for one day only. The sun came out and, this year especially it seems, a party spirit broke out. People kicked off their shoes, danced with their children and tucked into food from the Wild Boar man. My children are entranced by the scent of a chocolate cosmos and run round smelling everything in sight.

Small local food producers abound. We buy chocolate from Cocodance (which rent a barn from the National Trust somewhere up Mam Tor i believe) and ice creams from Bradwells. Bradwells ice cream is probably the best known of the five main ice cream producers in this area. Their ice creams are old fashioned and rich, based on a simple butter-rich recipe less well used these days.

The best part of the day is spent sprawled on a lawn, glass in hand, watching the kids strut their stuff to the sound of the band. Children mingle and chase around the maze and the evening sun turns everything a pale gold.


Tuesday, 26 June 2012

June 25th - The Importance of Birthday Cake

Dear Nigel,

It's one of those rights of passage through which we mark our lives, but birthdays figure large even when we make them small. For children they have an almost reverential significance. And, wobetide the mother who didn't think to bother with a birthday cake this year. Children will never forgive you. You will take their pained expresions to the grave with you - and they will never, ever forget. So beware. This applies mostly to 'older' children (of ANY age). They will always expect a cake.

Over the years i have made many, many Birthday cakes. Some people are gifted in the art of sugar decoration - the rest of us construct something of a Blue Peter model with playdough icing and bits of swiss roll and chocolate fingers stuck together, perhaps in the shape of Thomas the tank engine or a fairy princess castle.

My Jane Asher books of novelty cakes all seem so amazingly simple, but less so when you're there at three in the morning trying to create the same effect, wondering why you've just spent the last seventeen hours in purgatory when to pick one off the counter at Marks and Sparks would have been certainly worth every single penny. But no, you are doing this for your loved one, the apple of your eye, your little cherub - and they had better bloody well appreciate all your effort.

And, strangely enough, they do. They love the lopsided writing of their name, the way the candles slide off the cake and drip every where. They appreciate your effort even when it goes ever so slightly wrong. I remember one year making the most spectacular rocket cake for Chris when he was about eight. It was about three feet tall with different sections and engines firing at the base. It looked perfect. And as i gazed at it with an ever-so-slightly self-congratulatory smile, i suddenly remembered that the party was being held at the village hall at the other end of the village and i had now to transport this three foot cake all the way there as it was fully-assembled. (Most of it made it there, anyway.)

When the Birthday cake is for an adult or older teenager it is mostly about the taste, but when it is for younger ones looks are everything. I think you could get away with icing a cardboard box as long as you stuck candles on it and took it away rapidly and sliced something up into paper napkins in the back room to put into take home bags. And is it ever eaten anyway? or just squashed and nibbled and thrown aside in favour of a small chocolate bar and a plastic novelty toy.

As Sophie and Molly are almost exactly twelve months apart, i thought this year to make a joint party. This took more than a little selling to Sophie who obviously thought she was being ripped off somehow and that Molly would get more, having a whole Birthday too on another day. I almost suggested a shared Birthday cake, but thought better of it: that almost certainly would have been the last straw. So i'm making two cakes for the price of one and averting another world war. (She's still in the corner muttering about who should get the presents and whether she's even going to invite Molly at all.)

While small children tend to have definite ideas about what shape of cake they want - a pirate ship, a teddy bear, a castle - older members of the household often have definite ideas too. There are those, like Hannah, who will have anything as long as it's a chocolate cake of some sort. I like fresh fruit and cream or a plain non-sweet ganache filling. And others, like Will, just want a very plain cake but their very favourite. He likes lemon drizzle cake (and you can't get plainer than that). But if that's what he wants, that's what he wants, and candles will fit on any kind of cake. I often make him two - one to share and one to smuggle away.

You are making a wonderful- looking strawberry mascarpone tart. In truth, almost anything covered in slices of luscious red strawberries would have that necessary wow factor as far as i'm concerned. The base of the tart is crushed sweet oat biscuits and you observe wryly that you 'want it to be more crumbly than the average cheesecake bottom, which can vary from the rock hard to the down-right impenetrable.' We've all been there with the pneumatic drill trying to bore through to the bone china plate beneath. The filling is a rich custard cream made with eggs, sugar and mascarpone with a little vanilla extract mixed in. I am very fond of vanilla bean paste which you can also get. I like the addition of tiny seeds added to a custard.


Wednesday, 20 June 2012

June 19th - A true Peak District Country Fair and junk food revisited

Dear Nigel,

A Summer's day and, after what seems like weeks of rain, there is a break in the clouds and we are off for a traditional day out at Edale Country Show.

Big shows abound, ever more spectacular tent cities floating in their sea of mud. Small Country shows are still marked by their personalities, local references and 'in'-jokes. We go hoping to bump into a few old friends and are not disappointed. I am hoping that a helping of Punch and Judy and high-speed sheep shearing will be able to compete with the high octane thrills of theme park rides. In the end it is the free events that entertain the children most. The birds of prey in flight and a caving tunnel made from a large drainage pipe set up by the national trust, with hard hats and torches for the young explorers,

Food, as ever, plays a large part in the proceedings. Whether in the tea tent with its long line of wobbly trestle tables and styrene cups, or outside at the smoky barbeque and lengthy queue, or the lure of the inevitable ice cream van. We join the queue for hotdogs and i get an overwhelming urge to consume a hamburger. Not exactly something to write home about you might think, but i cannot be alone in having a pathological aversion to these things, brought on solely from a history of enforced appauling weekend barbeques with their monotonous set menues and enforced jollity.

Maybe you have had the misfortune to be invited to one of these? Usually overseen by Lord-of-the-Barbeque (-and these days such barbeques are getting to be almost the size of a small car); his (let's face it, it's almost ALWAYS a man) audience is captive and hungry, very hungry, for  a helping of charred carpet dosed in lighter fuel marinade with a perfect square of bright orange plastic on the top and wrapped in a bap and paper napkin (which taste remarkably the same).

I allow my tastebuds to lead me and the resulting hamburger, firm and meaty and flavoursome, coming from Watson's Farm Shop so the sign tells me, restores my faith in the hamburger as a vehicle for lunch on the move.

After Hobbyhorse racing in the ring and the invisible fly-fishing demonstration by three old men in flat caps the children clamour for ice creams. And why not? The van is from the Peak District Dairy in Tideswell, but the kids want Mr. Whippy. Looking closer i see the dairy is serving their own version of a Mr. Whippy. This product is a revelation to me: so nice to see that junk food can be taken, upgraded and sold back to us again. All in keeping with the ethos of a locally-produced country show.

You are out, eating in the rose garden with friends. "In the evening, the smell of the roses, light, fruity, romantic, wafts over to the garden table". You make a Summer hummus for people to dip into as they talk, with freshly boiled broad beans and dill - "a brighter, fresh-tasting recipe for Summer". There is roast lamb with cumin and fresh mint to follow (-no charred carpet for you) and a rocket salad. Your recipes are swayed by heady visits to the Lebanese shops on the Bayswater Road. The spice paste the lamb is wrapped and roasted in consists of garlic, cumin seeds, mint and lemon juice, together with salt, pepper and olive oil. Enough to get the taste buds tingling once again. Even with a slight chill in the air food this good only tastes better when infused with Summer's heady perfume.


Friday, 15 June 2012

With love from Spain, and a little spit and sawdust

Dear Nigel,

My older daughter wafts in from Spain on a tide of Spanish dialect and memories of her Spanish family and friends made whilst spending a year au pairing near Madrid. She brings with her an unusual present from her Spanish hosts - some kind of purple silicone flying saucer which all modern Spaniards seem to use to flip their tortillas apparently. She purchases a cheap non-stick frying pan (as apparently none of mine are good-enough) and declares that she is going to wow us with her recent culinary prowess and make tortillas for lunch, for us and for all her friends and family as she 'does the rounds' with her frying pan and purple flipper in tow.

My eyes marvel at the sheer quantity of olive oil that the potatoes seem able to soak up when cooked this slowly. I wonder at how her Spanish family managed to remain so slim but am told they all run and cycle everywhere and even the old people all work-out in 'green gyms' in the middle of parks. The resulting tortilla is dome-shaped and slightly wobbly to the touch. Cheap to make - and i guess Hannah's become a bit of an expert on those grounds alone over the past year - and actually very nice to eat with a plate of salad. We feast. It's great to have her back home if only for a few days. Then she's back to another family near Barcelona who speak no English at all. Nothing ruffles my dynamic redhead.

We are settling in slowly here and boxes are nearly all unpacked. I decide to take us all to the village pub for dinner. We arrive late-enough to find them actually open this time, and populate most of the bar area between us. Something in the simple white-washed manner of the place takes me back to the way pubs used to be a few years back when i was a teenager. (O.K, many, many years ago, then).

In the years before Weatherspoon amalgamation and food-first, drink-if you're lucky pubs, there was a time when pubs kept strict drinking times. There was something almost traditional and English about the call for last orders and the occasional illicit 'lock-in' in our favourite pubs, like 'The crooked billet', where there was no bar and beer was pumped from the cellar. Where old furniture (now called 'shabby chic') had horsehair and stuffing falling out of it and great dips where the bottoms of many a healthy farmhand had furrowed.

And characters like Brian Penny at 'The king William' - like an extra from 'Tess of the D'Urbevilles' - with his shire horses and curtain of a beard, laughing raucously as we sat in the foreboding shadow of a selection of well-sharpened mantraps and scythes. (No doubt health and safety would put a stop to all that these days. And characters like Brian are replaced by young barristas - proficient in the art of the skinny latte as well as the uncapping of a bottle of refrigerated cider.)

Pubs have moved on and been disneyfied and yet somehow we are the loser in all of this. Character has been ripped from its sockets and replaced with antiques manufactured in China.

This pub smells of all that is ancient. Fittings are oversized and handmade. We are made welcome even as i struggle to stop my younger children stabbing each other with the darts. The food is hearty pub food and we eat heartily to keep the cold and rain out. Back home to the seeping warmth of a wood-burning stove that reminds me again why we came to live just here. 'Perfick'.


Wednesday, 6 June 2012

June 6th - A village Jubilee

Dear Nigel,

Two days after moving house and there is a chance to meet the rest of the village at the Jubilee Tea Party. I congratulate myself on finding the iron in and among our mountain of unopened boxes, and duly ironed tea party dresses for myself and the little ones. I needn't have bothered; the weather and the sudden drop in temperature made certain that most of the village were dressed in ripped barbours and leggings. It wasn't long before we too were head to foot in raincoats and my daughters' vintage dresses covered in as many stickers from the children's sports as they could plaster on.

The proceedings started with a traditional rendition of the national anthem. Only when it was nearly half way through did anyone realise that there wasn't an introduction and we were supposed to be singing. So there was a quick rewind of the tape and we started again.

I stood outside in the drizzle cheering on the children in their sports, who seemed oblivious to the cold and wet. At one point a field of cows got out and threatened to trample onto the playing field. But luckily they headed down the road instead. There were commemorative mugs to paint for the children in the back room, and then we headed into the village hall for the tea itself.

I had been under the impression that not many people seemed to have turned up for the celebrations - at least the audience for the sports was a bit sparse. But when we went in to the warmth of the hall suddenly a room full of people seemed to have nipped in on the quiet, having bi-passed both the children's sports and the national anthem, and were raucously tucking in to the banquet of cakes on offer. The Women's Institute appeared to have taken over, as they so often do on these occasions, and the teapots were flowing and  raffle ticket money extracted with the sort of intimidation the average loan shark would do well to emulate.Never had a cheap bottle of wine suddenly looked so enticing. Secretly we were all hoping for the Bagshaws farm meat voucher. Naturally it was the first to go.

You have been making gooseberries with mascarpone cream. One of my favourite fruits, it's season is so perilously short: three or four weeks according to you. I particularly love the 'edible' gooseberries - the fat pink hairy ones that you can't buy in the shops but catch occasionally in old gardens, and pluck and devour whole before anyone sees you. My mum rarely seemed to gather enough for a whole crumble...

The ordinary green cooking variety is best poached. You like it with 'a jug of yellow organic cream', while i prefer mine with thick plain yoghurt or mixed in to a fool. Your recipe for mascarpone cream appears to be similar - a kind of rich vanilla custard - and i may give it a go if i can find any fresh gooseberries anywhere : I've not seen any as yet.

For supper you are steaming sea bass with ginger and cucumber, and just a small amount of chinese spicing. I am rather heartened to see that as your kitchen doesn't have a large-enough steamer for this, you 'get by with a Chinese wicker basket suspended over a heavy casserole of boiling water'.

With best wishes from the cottage at the end of the world,


Saturday, 26 May 2012

May 26th - The waving of fish and a sweet shop risotto

Dear Nigel,

Supper in our house has become a bit of a Mother Hubbard affair at the moment. As we are moving to our new home in five days time i have decided that we will, as best as possible, eat up the contents of the cupboards and the freezer.Today things were looking a little sparse. I discovered the Samphire i bought at the back of the fridge, together with half a tub of creme fraiche slightly on the wrong side of its sell-by date, but it smelled OK to me.

 Of course I'm sure you would never dream of using produce 'past its best'...and i have been a little more cautious since the case of the exploding egg. However, i still remain a bit dubious about those dates; suspicious, even, that it has more to do with supermarket profits and sales than rotting food. I decided to use the creme fraiche anyway and no one keeled over at the table.

You are making a risotto of Asparagus and lemon - three of my favourite things in one. The stock you use is a chicken one as you think a vegetable one would make the risotto 'lack the soul, not to mention the silky texture, that can only be achieved with a fine, gelatinous chicken stock.' I couldn't agree more. A good risotto is about the finest comfort food around, a bad one is an effort in digestive engineering.

I'm pleased to see that I'm not the only one with a sweetshop mentality when faced with a wonderful array of fresh produce. I usually get quite carried away and over-ambitious about all the meals I'm going to create, then find the produce going limp and brown in the vegetable box several days later. Like me you prefer your Asparagus plain, in general, but you 'bought too much yesterday, as you might expect of a townie let loose in a farm shop', hence the risotto.You are forgiven this once, i made your recipe last week and it was sublime.

I'm on to box a hundred and fifteen now in the removals inventory, and severely losing the will to live over the whole enterprise. I know when we get there it will be wonderful but the weather is wonderful NOW and I'm inside with a dozen rolls of parcel tape and some bubble wrap(and no, it's not some kind of kinky game).

 I'm catching up on all the news, though - it's amazing what catches your eye when you're packing away the china in old newspapers. Not getting a newspaper myself i decided to liberate a few blue bags around the neighbouring streets before the recycling men did their rounds. I'm becoming quite an avid fan of 'The Angling Times'...the things i never knew before.... I've taken to playing 'spot the token woman' as i wrap my teapots. Here's one magazine definitely for the lads. I must have leafed through five or six copies before i chanced upon one of the female species. Usually they looked like somebody's daughter dragged along and given a great fish to wave in the air for some completely unknown reason. The waving of large fish seems to be a national pastime if this particular newspaper is anything to go by.


Monday, 21 May 2012

May 21st - A simple sandwich in the sun and the nesting of crows

Dear Nigel,

I see you are making your own version of a deli sandwich today. You are late getting to the corner shop and all they have left is a 'soft, open-textured ciabatta.' Too often these breads are the last to go, and a shame really as they make a splendid sandwich. I often buy up a whole lot just as they hit the reduced counter and shove them in the freezer for another time when quick and simple is imperative.

Your version is drizzled with a good olive oil ( - no one's counting the calories today), and layered with thinnish slices of fat-marbled coppa, rocket, black olives and parmesan, which you shave off with a potato peeler. I have noticed that, whenever i need to add parmesan to a dish, it somehow tastes so much better if peeled into curls rather than grated, for some completely inexplicable reason.

My sandwich was a large soft beef salad bap, and  i didn't even make it myself, I'm afraid. Sometimes, the main ingredient in the best of food has simply to do with its context. The taste of that sandwich was soaked in glorious Spring sunshine (of which we have seen so little this year), embellished with the sound of uncharacteristic peacefulness and gentle birdsong in the distance. Heated by the warm wood slats of a simple picnic bench outside the little village shop, and enlivened by piquant conversation with an old local, in the pretty little village of Hartington.

It is rare to find this village so peaceful and relaxed. An over-attractive destination for tourists and walkers alike, it usually heaves with traffic and an abundance of walking poles. It can be very hard to discern the simple quaintness that brought people flocking in the first place. We discuss the weather, naturally; whether the crows are nesting high this year, (and whether that makes any difference at all to the outcome), and how many years it might be necessary to live in a small place like this before you might be considered a local. He favoured the several generations approach, so there's not much chance for me in the little village nearby we're moving to.On the plus side, he thought that since so much of local trade is dependent on tourism, there was a far greater chance of being welcomed ( - perhaps not with open arms) than in many small communities.

Probably looking to impress me he mentioned that he was going to look for the early purple orchid in nearby woodlands that afternoon. I had to confess that we'd already tracked it down in nearby Tideswelldale a couple of weeks earlier on one of our walks. I hoped he wasn't crestfallen; i really wasn't trying to score any points.


Sunday, 13 May 2012

May 13th - Shopping psychology and a certain je ne sais quoi

Dear Nigel,

I wandered in to our local supermarket - Morrisons - today and came across a reincarnation of Auschwitz. Going through the door you first encounter 'the market'. To be fair they have brought in lots of undiscovered vegetables, some very obscure and different. I was pleased to see some samphire so bought some to have with the Jersey royals. No, what really threw me was the pipe arrangement around the vegetables with holes in emitting some kind of cloudy vapour at intervals. On closer inspection a notice said that this was only water vapour to keep things in peak top condition, but the bunches of herbs, to my eye, still seemed to be wilting none-the-less. The overall effect was a little disconcerting and seemed as far removed from a bustling french market as is possible to get.

Another sign said ' feast your eyes', and i think that was probably the great idea. Like the armchair cooks who devour cookery programmes on the tele but then grab a takeaway, the great market was placed alongside a whole line of ready meals. Fancy a baked plantain today? Why bother when you can get one already prepared and cooked for you earlier in a mild chilli sauce - only three minutes in the microwave...or  some such twaddle. I think there is a whole change in the way we are being manipulated to shop at the moment. Times are hard, profits are harder to come by, so let's get them unaware and draw them in.

My over-suspicious mind, perhaps, but i was accutely aware that after the traditional fruit and veg welcome, the isles went from ready meals to wine to snacks and crisps and magazines, and you are half way round the store before you come across anything that you actually went in for.

Back home we tuck into locally grown Asparagus with far too much butter than is advisable and soft duck eggs to dip into. I love this brief and heady season and prefer to forgo the Spanish stuff just for the joy of anticipation. I toy with the idea of making frittata with the Asparagus but inevitably find that this is one thing that just tastes so good so simply that anything else is just a bit of a disappointment.

You are cooking salmon and dill fishcakes with wedges of lemon and a sauce made from yoghurt and dill and whole grain mustard. A wonderful delicate herb, you find bunches in the Lebanese shops on the Edgware Road ' the size of horses' tails and tubs of thick, tart yoghurt.' These are the sort of shops that we miss the most living far from the city centres. I'm making a rare pilgrimage to London next week to meet my second son, Chris, who flies in briefly from Cyprus. We plan a weekend of shows and little more than wandering round food shops and cafes.

Sophie has been making soup. She looks a little defensive as i eye the bowl she's carrying. The liquid is creamy and thick as if a large helping of creme fraiche has been added. She is stirring it carefully with.....with my make up brush. I come closer my eyebrows all ready to frown. There is an aroma, a certain 'je ne sais quoi'. I stop, i sniff again; it is...suddenly i know exactly 'quoi' - Shalimar. I race upstairs. Half a bottle of my most expensive perfume. Great. Mixed with bath cream and shaving gel, apparently. We are not friends at the moment, she and i.

Monday, 7 May 2012

May 7th - The cottage at the end of the world, and cakes for rainy days.

Dear Nigel,

The season of rain has driven me to cake...again. I made a fine coffee shop cake which got me lots of brownie points with a friend whose attic i'm about to invade with my excess furniture as i attempt to move myself and the  kids to a shoe box in the sticks.

The cake was a white chocolate maple cake which had a lovely creamy texture to it as the white chocolate was melted and added to the cake mixture itself. I love cakes that are not too sickly sweet and this one was perfect. It comes from 'Secrets of AGA cakes' by Lucy Young ( who works with Mary Berry), but cooks perfectly in an ordinary cooker like mine, too. Lucy Young is a very under-rated cookery writer, i think. I use her recipes a lot as they are very practical and quick, and often with an unusual combination of flavours or ideas, which i find refreshing.

I made a second cake from the book this evening - a swedish apple cake, to be eaten warm with custard for pudding (the richness in the cake deriving from the half pint of single cream added to the mixture).

When not making and eating cake i  have been organising our house move lately. At long last the children and i are moving to somewhere where i can breathe a bit better. The cottage at the end of the world is waiting for us. There is a tiny stream behind it and a field to play in for the dog.Today i took the children for a visit. "Where's the garden", said Sophie, looking at the garden. I could see that selling a shoe box to them was going to take a bit of creative thinking and imagination. In the end they could see themselves paddling in the stream in their swimming costumes in the Summer and eating a picnic lunch in the shade of the oil tank.

Houses either shrink or they grow as you look at them. By my second visit the cottage had grown as i became accustomed to the low ceilings. This time, having spent hours with graph paper and scissors arranging the furniture to fit, it seemed to have shrunk again and i begin to doubt my own measurements.

We have been welcomed with open arms, and we're not even there yet. The village is organising a jubilee tea - like hundreds of other villages up and down the country - and it seems a great way to say hello and meet people. Tom (16) refuses point blank to go. I like the whole idea of a community tea or a street party. They are events that you remember and hang on to. "Where is the Queen's castle?" Molly wants to know. "London". "And she's having her party here?" "Yes."... I expect she'll be joining in the children's sports, too, and playing on the seesaw with you both...

You are having something between a late lunch and early tea. What do you serve someone at two forty-five in the afternoon? Pancakes. The recipe is for orange and ricotta pancakes and seems like an enriched version of a drop scone or scotch pancake.I like to cook-and-eat these little bites in one smooth movement. Like you, they are best eaten straight off the pan. Sometimes i see them packaged in cellophane boxes in the supermarket - all lightly-coloured and flabby. Mine are often blackened (maybe a bit much then), scalding hot and dripping with butter and syrup - almost a different product entirely.I can almost feel the pain of scalded tongue already.


Thursday, 3 May 2012

May 3rd - The common cold and witchcaft

Dear Nigel,

I am sitting here in limbo with that uncertain taste in my mouth which tells me for certain that a rather nasty cold is heading my way. Like the heaviness in the air before a storm i can sense it coming and my spirits droop correspondingly. I am told the best 'cure',as such, is fifteen raw cloves of garlic taken at the first inkling. This no doubt has the effect of keeping every germ known to man at a distance of fifty paces including your nearest and dearest who undoubtedly are the carriers of your incubating cold in the first place. Failing that, we are in the realms of spells, potions, old wives tales and echinacea. I like to think the latter taken as a herbal tea is doing me some good, but I'm not 100% convinced of the evidence.

I turn to your book ' Real Food' for some garlic inspiration as a whole section is given over to it. Looking for something a little less toxic for a cold cure i find your description of the new season's garlic rather beautiful and poetic. It is still a little early for the first garlic to appear at the market. It comes around late May or early June from Italy or France and is "plump and white, its skin a soft green, brushed with anything from the faintest pink to the deepest mauve." In your eyes it "is the sweet, mild garlic of romance" - not probably the fifteen raw cloves recommended though, unless your partner also has a bad cold i suppose.

Your solution for a goodly amount of garlic is to roast it in a baking dish with olive oil and a little thyme and bay leaves. In this recipe the whole head of garlic is left in its bulb, severed into two halves and left to bake until the slightly caramelised cloves can be scooped out with a teaspoon and pureed with a pestle and mortar - a very satisfying feeling. The resulting goo can be used in a number of ways. My favourite idea of yours is the sauce made with masala and double cream to accompany chicken.

I decide to go with your recipe for baked chicory with parmesan, where the halved chicory is cooked in butter and garlic then covered in lemon juice, breadcrumbs, parmesan and baked. It can be found on page 147 as a sublime side dish for four people,( or two piggies who can't get enough of it in our case).

I turn to your diary and see that you have procured a crate of zesty lemons still with their leaves intact. This is my other pronged approach to blasting a cold, with the maximum amount of vitamin C my system is prepared to accept relentlessly doused throughout the day. Like you, i always like to start my day with a slice of lemon in a glass of hot water, to clear out the system.

You are making a rather lovely dish of linguine with lemon and basil. I have made pasta dishes in the past that contain lemon and have always loved their freshness and the vitality which they bring. As you put it: "Squeezed or grated into a cream sauce and matched to fat, peppery basil leaves, they introduce a vitality all too often missing in Italian pasta 'comfort' suppers." This recipe has no cream in it, the sauce being made purely from the lemon and parmesan and is lighter because of it. This seems like the ideal cold cure to me and looks like being tomorrow's supper in our house.


Saturday, 28 April 2012

April 28th - Hangover puddings and the way to a woman's heart

Dear Nigel,

Today i wander round the house like a bear with a sore head. In earlier years you might have supposed i was nursing a bit of a hangover - and lord knows it feels like one - but in fact my 'hangover' is little more than an ultra-late night's fiddle playing at the little pub where i go to play with a group of friends. It seems almost unfair that so little alcohol was involved in the resulting headache. I turn for solace to an old copy of 'the pudding club book'. If they can't help me, no one can.

The pudding club was founded in 1985 by Jean and Keith Turner at The Three Ways House Hotel in Mickleton, Glocestershire. It was started almost as a joke but since then the revival in traditional puddings has been phenomenal. Seems a long time ago now, but even the call to eat a Mediterranean diet has not dented our enthusiasm for comfort-eating. Many of the puddings are traditional sponges which take some time to steam and can be a little heavy on the stomach. I prefer the kind of pudding that is basically a sponge batter which rises as the sauce sinks through it to a delicious goo underneath. There are two lovely examples in this book, the Caramel pudding and Sultana and Butterscotch pudding. I favour the latter i think and set to work. It is very satisfying to make this in an old pie dish; the very shape of which brings back memories from childhood. It cooks in the oven in 40 minutes.

You are also indulging in a bit of pudding, i see, and, hair of the dog or not, i see it contains a goodly helping of limoncello liqueur. This might be very handy for the majority of the us who inevitably have a little handbag bottle of the stuff knocking around in a cupboard somewhere from a holiday in distant memory (along with a completely unopened bottle of Ouzo that you can't remember why you bought). I like the idea of using lemon curd in your lemon trifle and the scattering of crystallised violets lends the Edwardian air that you were aiming for.

By the next day you are sitting quietly barefoot in the garden 'sipping green tea and listening to the sound of church bells'. How a change in weather can change our behaviour and whole outlook on life. It's raining here. Still. There is a drought elsewhere in the country if we are to believe what we are told, but we are drowning in the stuff here. I drove past the new bottled water factory. It has a wavy roof and large picture window looking out over the countryside. I think it is well-designed and, as it is placed near to the recycling centre, does not blot the landscape. But they call it Nestle water now - not quite so poetic somehow.

You find sweet cicely at the market to flavour an omelet, and completely environmentally-unsound baby monkfish  which you marinade in rosemary and garlic and grill .We all follow our own principles most of the time but from time-to-time pure lust gets in the way and we stray. You attempt to appease your conscience with a fool made with rhubarb from the garden and not laden-down with food miles.You use a few of the sweet cicely seeds in with the stewed fruit and sugar. I think i will try that if i can get my hands on some sweet cicely. Our markets aren't up to such delights but i might have better luck in one of the smaller plant nurseries. Seems almost unusual to shop for the kitchen at such a place but the quality and the price is often better.


Monday, 23 April 2012

April 23rd - All the cake in the world

Dear Nigel,

The miserable weather is taking its toll on my stomach. At times like this the only answer is to eat cake - lots of it. As Kate Winslett said in 'Mildred Pierce', "I want to give my children all the cake in the world". In an age of austerity and prohibition, there was psychologically a huge need for such cake. In hard times a little indulgence lifts the spirits.

I see you have been indulging in a rather fine orange and lemon cheesecake yourself (page 129). Obviously proud of your achievement you say "today i made  cheesecake that turned out to be one of those perfect recipes that you have been after all your life..." I am pleased to see you use digestive biscuits - oatmeal may be traditional but it tastes like something you would give a horse. The filling is both fudgy and creamy with its cream cheese and mascarpone mix. I think i might try making this one as i like the mixed tang of St. Clements.

Searching for a new cake to experiment with, i come across a recipe for East Anglian Vinegar cake. This is a kind of light fruit cake which uses bicarbonate of soda and vinegar instead of the more traditional eggs and baking powder to give a rise to the mixture. As Alison Walker says in her book 'A Country Cook's Kitchen', this recipe was usually made during the winter when hens lay less eggs (or pure breeds like ours used to give up entirely and put out placards saying they were on strike - probably in support of the turkeys).

A friend was coming to lunch and needed a bit of TLC, so i reached for my favourite cookbook of the moment for inspiration. Mum had sent me back with armfulls of this year's Rhubarb and it was twitching to be used. I found a wonderful recipe for a rhubarb custard and crumble tart that fitted the bill perfectly. It is basically a sweet  tart base filled with a mixture of pre-roasted rhubarb and freshly made real custard, and topped with a shortbread crumble. I took the cheats route,as suggested, and bashed up a packet of good bought shortbread for the top. The result was wonderful, creamy and fresh. The recipe is in the 'popina book of baking' by Isidora popovic - a book i can't praise too highly.

In the end, one friend turned spontaneously into five. Sometimes group therapy and laughter is a better medicine for the blues.

High street shops are closing like nine pins in our town. There is now a clear divide between the 'nice' shops in the beautifully preserved Cavandish arcade, where the tourists like to potter, and the seventies mall of high street chain shops with its empty glass windows where the likes of Millets, Subway and Game used to be. It's not that i miss some of these shops but there is something of a ghost town when you go down Spring Gardens (they always have such enticing names, don't they?) and your gaze pitches from one charity shop to another. At the other end of the scale there is supposed to be go-ahead now on the start of the scheme to transform the Crescent from a dosser's paradise to a swanky Spa Hotel alla Bath, or something like it. We'll see...People in this town have seen the planners' promises come and go, hitches, funding given and taken away again. They hold the power to make or break this town. I remember going to school here in the mid - 70's when it was a dark, dirty town and the fine architecture was completely ignored. There are some lovely bits, but also some squalor - a microcosm of most towns and cities these days, i suppose. In good times things thrive and develop; in bad, even the good is left to tarnish and neglected.

Let's you and i eat cake instead and look forward to better times,


Tuesday, 17 April 2012

April 16th - Detox: paying more to eat less.

Dear Nigel,

Chocolate over- indulgence soon turns to post-easter guilt. Out comes the running gear and the annual  burst of zeal to cleanse and detox the system. Carol Vorderman beckons - and I could certainly do with some of her energy (even that emanating from her mouth could probably fuel a small power station). I have only twice ever completed her 28 day detox, and it was hell. I was crossing off the days on my cell wall like a modern day Robinson Crusoe, basically living on roast veg and feta cheese and lots of fruit.

The last time I let the lad at the gym loose with his callipers to measure my BMI - fat - he decided I was in the obese category. As a fairly standard size 10ish I wasn't very impressed. A fairly easy way to measure it yourself  is to use the calculation (your weight in kilogrammes) divided by (your height in metres, squared). Otherwise, just look in the mirror.

I flick through Carol's book and note that parsley leaf is great for helping the kidneys. Very convenient as I'd just found a great recipe for Parsley soup. The recipe is from New Covent Garden Food Co. 'A soup for every day'. This one is under 5th April, fortuitously, and, having now made and eaten a bowl of it, I can tell you that it tastes very good indeed. Like you, I thought it might be at best bland or repetitive or disgustingly healthy (in every sense of the word). But no; there is a good balance of flavours with a leek base, and, although it uses an enormous amount of the main ingredient, because it is cooked the flavour mellows and becomes almost lemony. I used reduced fat crรจme fraiche instead of the ordinary, as written, and a considerably larger amount of freshly grated nutmeg. There is a wonderful springtime optimism to this soup, and anything that helps cheer away the unpredictable hail and snow we've had of late is to be welcomed.

The main cost to any detox diet seems to be to the purse strings as well as to the soul: It's difficult to get enthusiastic about the relative lack of variety on offer, at least after the initial few days. I glance down the list of supplements - chlorella, spirulina, kelp, milk thistle...- and realise I still have a whole drawer full of half-empty bottles from last time.

Of course, the main aim of a detox diet isn't necessary to lose weight but the two usually go hand-in-hand in most people's expectations. I turn for more interesting recipes and more civilised guidance to Ed Victor's 'The obvious diet'. Nigella Lawson gleefully points out in her foreword to the book: "why should someone lose weight without suffering". She has a point. We all know we over indulged on the old easter eggs - cheap chocolate along with the organic and the hand-made, mini eggs in their chocolate crispy baskets - made with love (and hopefully clean hands), foil-covered treasure found on egg hunts and hot cross buns and lots of cake - simnel or otherwise.So it seems almost right that we should have to pay the penalty of hard work, both physically and mentally (at no other time in your life will you become so obsessed about food than when you are willingly denying yourself).

Many of Ed's favourite recipes come from The River Cafe cookbooks. There is a lovely recipe for baked red onions and thyme (taken from Book Two) which particularly catches my eye. Carol tells me such foods are rich in fructo-oligosaccharides - and I'm prepared to believe her - and very good for anyone with irritable bowel syndrome. Ruth Rogers and (the late) Rose Gray simply say "our advice is to eat small portions of beautifully and carefully considered food". This seems to me a far kinder and easier way to rein in. And if this carefully considered food should taste amazing as well, like their Zucchini carpaccio (book two again), then I might be tempted to put the carbs back in the cupboard and feed the chocolate to any passing child.

You roast spring pigeon and serve with a sorrel puree. Like the parley in my soup this herb is so wonderfully fresh and lemony that it is worth growing a bushel of the stuff in your borders (even if it does have the unfortunate habit of looking like a bunch of dock leaves). I noted, as your did, how little of the wilted leaves  remain from even  a huge bunch: "Heaven knows what would happen if the leaves met boiling water". Luckily the taste is highly concentrated, so a little goes a long way. I like it with fish, instead of lemon at this time of the year. Later on, it bolts very easily and the leaves become thick and leathery.