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.