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 '...meet 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.