Tuesday, 31 December 2013

December 31st - Toasting the stars

Dear Nigel,

Christmas is all but over, belts are strained and straining and thoughts stray to the new year, resolutions and plans. I feel like I'm in a permanent post-Christmas hangover state, even though I don't have a hangover. I'm physically knackered and yet itching to take all the Christmas stuff down and go for a kind of Amish simplicity instead. Long frosty walks help with the post-Christmas blues, with the dog swimming in the ice cold waters and the children falling flat on their faces in the mud three days in a row.

Food was a success, although like most people  the sheer quantities were on the over-generous side. I think the whole of January might consist of eating up the leftovers. That I knew that things were waning were the two comments I overheard yesterday. The first, 'not quiche again for lunch' (-spoilt brat, methinks), and the second, 'save some bread for me'. Too much rich food and we're all craving simple stuff once more.

Back in the kitchen, you are busy playing again. Your new toys put to one side, you are busy with the comforting and the familiar, making your friend Jeremy Pang's curry again tonight - 'a stock with tamarind paste, toasting cumin and coriander seeds, and frying fish.' I can almost smell the warm steamy air heady with the scent of toasted spices and the fish spitting and sizzling in a pan. 'Tamarind fish curry' (page 516). This is a recipe 'to play with...a bit more of this, a little less of that. I follow the recipe, but it is about more than that, it's about cooking or the thrill and joy of it all, about having a good time in the kitchen. I can ask for no more.'

It's New Year's Eve and the older ones are all rushing off to parties with their friends. Not being much of a party person myself (in fact I hate the things), I've opted for joining a motley group of friends playing fiddle in the pub. It sounds as if you too are cooking for a quiet night in with friends rather than preparing to go to some glitzy party somewhere.

Every year, at some point in the evening, I stand outside in the sheer blackness of the night and look for the brightest star in the sky. I remember the people and the places that have formed the half-completed jigsaw that is my life and raise a toast to them. I think about the past year and the new and about the wisdom and the lessons that I want to carry over from one to the other. The sound of the running stream behind me reminds me that life is constantly changing and moving on, and though I want to stop it and hold this moment in my hand, it too will be gone in an instant. A cloud moving silently over the face of the moon draws a temporary veil and a breath of cold air sends icy fingers brushing the side of my face.

If there are answers to the questions we seek to ask, then they are here. At the end. At the beginning.

Happy New Year,


Sunday, 22 December 2013

December 22nd - Tree with an alcohol problem

Dear Nigel,

He arrived as a feted and honoured guest, given pride of place in the middle of the room and decked in all the riches and finery that we had to offer. But since then he has been behaving like the sort of guest you can't wait to wave goodbye to at the end of the holidays. Offered to help himself to a drink, the bad guest avails himself of the whole of his host's drinks cupboard, wine cellar and bottles of single malt carefully stashed behind books on the shelves. Smiles become strained and a subplot emerges where the host seeks to find ever new and ingenious hiding places for his remaining supplies with an air of wartime conspiracy. Sometimes the bad guest will seek these out and, with great hilarity, proclaim the eccentricities of his host.

This was the sort of guest we had taken into our home. The first pint downed in under ten minutes, another an hour later; and again later that evening. No tree invited into our house had ever come so close to having a full-blown alcohol problem as this one. It wasn't until I heard him sipping loudly in the next room and actually heard him belch that I realised that our guest had gone too far this time. Rounding the corner quickly to try and catch him in the act I instead caught sight of Poppy (our black Labrador), head on one side scraping along the floor under the tree, lapping up the water from the cup of the Christmas tree stand. She slunk off to bed pretending to be part of the carpet.

You are making a store of food for Christmas which will last several days (hopefully) and that can be used in a cut-and-come-again manner. Like you I find a side of smoked salmon very useful at this time of year. You are also curing some raw salmon yourself in a mixture of salt, lemon and herbs. My cooking time at the moment is vying with the pressing need to whizz the hoover round and wash all the bedding so my list is fairly short now, along with the energy needed to do it all. I am looking forward to picking up the Turkey tomorrow from the farm up the road. I think it will have to live in the back of the Landrover for the next two days as the only safe place away from the dog and the cat. The fridge is full to bursting.

It is hard in the run up to Christmas not to feel under pressure from it all - whether it is your own endless lists which you either gradually tick off or discard as over-optimistic, and from the expectations of others; or even from your own traditions and shackles which you insist upon. Even you, normally so laid back and relaxed - or so it seems - are prone to a little stress.
'If I am going to lose it (and I do), then this will probably be the month. When there is too much going on, I have a fast, failsafe fish soup that seems to make life manageable once more.' The recipe is for 'Lifesaving soup' ( page 498). It involves miso paste and vegetable stock, a little Vietnamese chilli paste (an ingredient I have to confess I've not come across), some broccoli, salmon and prawns. I like the idea of food as medicine and we all need a bit of a life saver right now - that and a stiff drink.

Took my fiddle to the village pub here the other night. With the vicar doing an Elton John impersonation on  keyboard we led the rabble in a round of carol singing. Someone had suggested, I think, that since there is a very steep lane in our village which leads down to a ford at the bottom, and some of the older ladies might not be able to get back up it, that singing in the pub instead was a good idea (at least that was the excuse I was given). Carol at the pub put on a simple hot supper with a donation to church funds from each meal sold. The pub was packed and it seemed to go down well anyway.

You arrive back home with a bag of clementines. Like you, they are the essence of Christmas for me. Often I am to be found head in the fruit bowl sniffing the zest as I peel. It takes me back to childhood every time when somehow they were a special treat to be found down the bottom of a stocking along with a single coin and a handful of presents. Stockings these days are definitely getting bigger and more elaborate than one of Dad's old walking socks.

You use the clementines in a recipe of 'Roast duck with apples, clementines and prunes' (page 492). The zest is added to the apples and the fruit mixture used as a stuffing for the meat. A second clementine holds the stuffing in place. This is such lovely seasonal recipe, and so simple, that I might have to add a duck to my order tomorrow. I have a beef and game pie waiting for the family enriched with more than a slug of something a bit special. It is a time to gather people round. Christmas is about togetherness and sharing.So put the stress aside and take time to just enjoy the simple pleasures of good food and good company.

Merry Christmas, Nigel.


Thursday, 12 December 2013

December 12th - Karate cows and Lament for a bespoke kitchen

Dear Nigel,

You could say the kitchen here is of a 'bespoke' nature. Over the eighteen months that we have been here it has been customised to fit and tailored to our own specifications. That the dishwasher is but a distant memory and now lives in a shed due to size of kitchen is neither here nor there. Nor the lovely cream Aga which resides in my ex's house due to lack of gas in the village and the pennies to run it. The new cooker, a slimline electric thing (too busy painting its nails), and I, hate each other. I think it lies about temperature and it thinks I can't cook. Most probably it is right.

I am contemplating a subtle embellishment to the finish of the kitchen cupboards - sticking back the laminate with sellotape so that I can get into them without having to fight with them every time. There are baking tins in the bookcase and glass storage jars under the tele. Everything in its place, and a place for everything. As long as you know where that is of course.

This week a marvellous stroke of luck came our way. James and I had been discussing the Christmas arrangements.
'I hope you're not going to do what you did last year,' he said, 'and save all the good stuff for when Chris gets here.'
Honestly, sibling rivalry for you. There is far too much expected of Christmas. For some reason they have taken it into their heads that Christmas lasts about three weeks and every day has to have special food attached to it.

Anyway, clutching the 'golden ticket' as it were, in the school raffle, I managed to avoid the dodgy spa prize and won instead a voucher for some of Barney's Dad's rare breed meat. Driving over the moors towards Big Fernyford farm, I began to realise why Neil and Dorota had decided to concentrate on rare breed sheep and cattle. The mist had come down and it was thick like cream. Turning into the lane of this upland stock farm I passed several fields marked SSSI. Neil rents the farm from the Peak District National Park Authority and runs Swaledale sheep and Belted Galloway cattle up here.

Peeping out at me from under a mop of tufted gelled up hair, was a tiny little black calf with a huge white belt round its middle keeping its trousers up. All around it were larger versions all dressed in the same uniform with tousled hair and white belts, like a group of delinquent beginners at a Karate club (white being the beginners belt). They had that air that teenagers sometimes have when they grow their hair so that they can watch you from underneath it with 'attitude' written all over their faces, as they chewed unblinkingly in my direction.

I have noticed these cattle experiencing a surge of popularity these last few years. Bred to thrive outdoors in any climate they suit upland farms with wide sweeping moors like this. The animals are slow to mature which means the meat has a special flavour and texture, which I was keen to try for myself. They also live a long time, often well into their twenties, which means they produce more calves and reduce replacement costs; which all helps the farmer. The joint of beef now, of course, will have to wait until Hannah arrives on the 27th. Since she is missing Christmas and the free range Turkey from the farm up the road, she will no doubt be expecting something equally wonderful when she finally deigns to drop in on us.

Back home I am struggling to find work surfaces to roll out dozens of pastry straws for the 'Yoga babes' Christmas party tomorrow; including ninety one year old Olive, still doing the splits and putting most of us to shame. I am making spinach, smoked garlic and chilli straws and they are so moreish that any that break are being eaten on the spot and there is a danger that I will arrive with an empty box tomorrow.

You have found something which 'pops (your) cork' - a robust recipe for 'Roast pork belly with pomegranate molasses' (page 490). You have had 'a sudden attack of deep carnivorous lust' and are looking for a piece of meat to hack at. The cheap pork roast is 'as deeply caramelised as it can be without being actually charred.' Perhaps it is the genetic pull of wiling away the dark winter days around the campfire gnawing at bones with the other cave men that festers. It is not a recipe for the faint-hearted cook.

But you are also making recipes that draw me in when I'm in need of inspiration at a time like this. I am taken by your novel way of dressing cooked vegetables for a change. The cabbage family are given butter and lemon juice, root vegetables are attired in walnut oil and herbs; but the one that interests me most is the roast artichokes with walnut oil and red wine vinegar. I love the earthy taste of those nubbly little Jerusalem artichokes which look on one hand so unappealing yet on the other so 'home-grown' and wonderfully irregular, that they defy any supermarket grading system, and often much washing also.

So I'll leave you sitting round your campfire hacking away at great lumps of meat with your dagger and considering the starlit sky above.


Wednesday, 4 December 2013

December 4th - Joseph, the Donkey and "Words" with Santa Claus

Dear Nigel,

The other day I took Sophie and Molly to a Nativity at a local farm. Fed-up with being angels every year they both opted for the male roles (- it's not just Shakespeare then where all the good roles go to men) Sophie chose to be one of the three kings and Molly decided she wanted to be Joseph.
'I'm a special person,' she beamed from ear to ear. And I remembered the importance of such things, having been the Inn keeper's wife twice and the back end of a camel on one occasion when I was small.

The best thing about Joseph's job, of course, is that he gets to lead the donkey into Bethlehem. Making their way between the hay bales, with the ever-dependable Tilly the donkey, Molly's beam was bright as any star twinkling through the backcloth. Squeezing their way towards the manger beside a very rotund Sophie the sheep, who chose only to give us her back view, they managed to find somewhere to park the donkey in a pen near the baby goats.

As with all good Nativities it is the ad libbing that makes it. Last year it was the stunningly different Mary who had gone in for a face painting session at the last minute and Sophie the sheep who was dangerously close to chomping off one of the baby Jesus's limbs as she'd found something more tasty to eat in the manger than whatever it was the shepherds were offering her. This year, a tiny shepherd - quite possibly with a new baby brother or sister at home - was using the three kings' presents to batter the baby Jesus with (luckily only a doll), until his mother came and removed him, complaining loudly. (I never did understand why we expect the apple of our eye - an only child- to swallow the lie that we love them so much we've gone and got another one - in much the same way that polygamy never really caught on over here.)

This evening we made our Christmas cake, the girls weighing out all the many ingredients between them, following Granny Burn's old recipe that we make every year, just the same. And as it cooks for what seems an incredibly long time, the gentle aroma that permeates the room reminds me of every Christmas I've ever known. Past and present linked as one, and it feels homely and safe. I notice what a dab hand Molly's become at cracking eggs and wonder when that happened.

Highlight of the village calendar was the Butterton Christmas Fair at the weekend. The usual round of guess the weight  of the cake, tombola and soon-fleeced cake stall. And over in the corner, lurking behind the Christmas tree was a ruddy faced Santa Claus with his little helper. Dragged over in that direction, I wasn't quite prepared for the politics involved in such a transaction. To the question, 'what would you like for Christmas little girl?', Molly had an extravagantly complex answer which seemed to involve something very big and expensive, probably from the endless advertising-bombardment with which children's TV seems to be full of at the moment. And then...if I hadn't been standing closely I might have missed it....I categorically heard the man in the red coat and white beard say to Molly,'I  think I have one of those in my sack for you.' My jaw dropped at this point. No!!! I wanted to wail. I already have said presents and they certainly don't include anything like as expensive as the afore mentioned article. I can see I'm going to have to have "Words" with Santa next time I see him heading down in the direction of The Black Lion.

Christmas has got into your soul too, I notice. 'The first of December always makes my heart beat a little faster. The day it all starts.' It is now that you start planning the recipes for your newspaper column, which 'bird will be sizzling and spitting in the oven' and who will, or will not, be sitting at your table with you this year. Profoundly, I think, you remark that 'these decisions are momentous only because you tend to remember every Christmas....The problem is that every dish that fails or disappoints will be mentioned at every Christmas from now till kingdom come.' So, no pressure then. But you're right. It's partly why I pre-cook and freeze so much at this time of year. Other people may chuck a bird in the oven and say glibly that it's the easiest dinner of all to cook, but I quake at the thought of getting so many different vegetables and things all on to the table at the same time with a modicum of heat left in them.

For you, vegetable of the season is the parsnip. I have a slightly love-hate relationship with this vegetable, feeling that they need 'something' to spike their parsnipey taste away, if that's allowed. Here may lie one answer: Today's reincarnation of the parsnip involves one of my favourite spices - hot smoked paprika - and a shot of sherry vinegar in the accompanying sauce. The parsnips and potatoes are mashed with cumin and paprika before being made into coquettes and rolled in breadcrumbs, and served with a tomato sauce. 'Parsnip and potato croquettes' (page 473).

You are also feeling the heat in the kitchen.There are always heightened expectations of Christmas from your nearest and dearest, however loudly they insist they'd be happy with bread and cheese. 'Planning, rarely part of my kitchen life, is essential. December is when I try out new recipes I am thinking of serving at Christmas. Daring is the cook who makes something for the first time on Christmas Eve (daft, more like it).' You start with playing with a recipe for lemon posset, substituting clementines for a seasonal touch; and finally you are pleased with the result (page 479). It makes four tiny puddings for a 'sharply refreshing dessert' to round off a full and plenty meal. I always make a Summer Pudding for me for Christmas Day (plenty of other choices for others), which seems a bit incongruous I suppose, but I like to be reminded of the Summer in this deepest depth of winter. And, for me at any rate, it has become something of a tradition and stuck.


Wednesday, 27 November 2013

November 27th - Wigs on Cats and an Advent Calendar

Dear Nigel,

The other musicians were still warming up as I blew into the pub on a gust of winter's fury, hair and fiddle flying everywhere. The locals waved or nodded as I tuned up, drew rosin across the horsehair and opened the crumpled play list. Energy was snapping at the air that evening, driving the conversation, spitting from the green pine in the open log burner and whistling through the doorway every five minutes or so. The musicians felt it, keyed up and taut. Playing was animated and fast, song upon song, a riff from a mandolin, a solo from a slide guitar. Layer on layer, each feeding into the next, driving the music on and on like horses at the whip.

Sometimes, on evenings like these, the music is carried away elsewhere until the cock crows. Tonight we go back to my friends Wendy and Mark's lovely cottage in the ancient plague village of Eyam. They run caving courses both here in the caves around Castleton (the only place in the country where the blue john stone, a kind of purple-banded fluorite, is found), and abroad. Guitar cases are stacked behind singers, bottles of beer pepper the arms of chairs and curious cats weave in and out, draping their tales around limbs. I turn to watch a little black cat who is making herself comfortable inside my fiddle case and goes to sleep in the amber glow. Over the huge lintel a line of forty wigs are staring down at us like symbolic African treasures from some exotic trip abroad. But they are in fact wigs; just wigs. Wendy's daughter Jenny, an Art student, is making them for the musical 'Cats' and they are everywhere. There is a deadline to meet and the archetypal country kitchen is taken over with coloured tresses, polystyrene heads and an army of glue guns.

At four in the morning I take my leave for I have a drive ahead of me across the hills in this blackest of landscapes. From the edges of the road my headlights pick out the spikes of crystallised Angelica that are the frosted blades of individual grasses. Against the frost the darkness is total. Yet here and there, on distant hills, on turns in the ribbon of tarmac, a single square of parchment light stands out against the black. It is four in the morning yet someone is awake. Friday revellers, perhaps; most likely early morning farmers getting ready for milking. I am woken daily at five o'clock by my alarm clock - a single tractor coming down the road - so precise that I can note the time without ever having to open an eye to squint at the clock beside me. These dotted lights  remind me of advent calendars pinned up against a window, each revealing a different miniature world, a daily treasure from now till Christmas Eve. I drive for forty five minutes encountering only two cars along the way. There is a magic to this quiet blanket, and I am propping my eyelids open with matchsticks all the way.

You are meandering your way around the market in Helsinki, gazing at the cured salmon and eating hot soup from a market stall. The recipe you bring back with you is not the classic Finnish 'lohikeitto' but its more humble market stall interpretation - a recipe for the people. 'Salmon soup' (page 461) is a medley of vegetables with large chunks of whole salmon fillet, cream and chopped dill. The Finnish use dill as we would parsley, and it is everywhere.

Back home a couple of days later and it is clear your heart is still in that Nordic landscape: 'So grey is the sky this morning at nine, I could be back in Finland. Grey, Nordic-looking skies can be benign as the mood takes them. (I love them when they are heavy with the promise of snow.)' You decide to have a go at making the other soup idea you picked up in Helsinki. It is a fish soup of tomato, mushrooms and olives to which slices of gherkins add a piquant note. 'Tomato fish broth' (page 464) is seasoned with sour ingredients mainly. Your tip here is to add them at the last minute: 'Acidic ingredients can turn overpoweringly sour if you add them to a recipe too soon...Added late, they correct the seasoning, slicing through richness and bringing a sauce or stew to life.' The soup is seasoned and a dollop of soured cream added to each bowl.

I am also making soup - a Leek and Stilton soup, most of which is destined for the freezer for Christmas. But I make a double batch for a friend coming round tomorrow. I feel slightly unnerved that the food I want to make for Christmas seems so plain and every day. And yet I do. Luckily Mary Berry agrees with me on this soup, anyway, for I find my recipe in her Christmas cookbook, though she too says this is a winter recipe really. Who says Christmas food must all be so rich and chocolaty and overblown? I want to eat plain cheese scones with this, warmed with butter dripping off them. I hope my family won't complain.

Yesterday we had your 'pie of mushrooms and spinach' (page 459). A nice economical little dish as the shopping trolley seems so full of 'other stuff' at the moment. I like a variety of mushrooms in my pie and this recipe had a mixture of fresh and dried which gave a stronger taste, which I liked. I also particularly liked the taste of Parmesan cheese mixed into the pastry and scattered on top. I keep meaning to do this in some of my own home recipes - but I always forget. Yet it tastes so good.


Tuesday, 19 November 2013

November 19th - Mince pies and Murmurations

Dear Nigel,

I stood at the side of the road yesterday evening watching a murmuration of starlings rising and falling in the sky above a rolling field. Two invisible washer women shaking out a blanket between them; turning it, shaking out the folds, end-to-end, middle to end, and then finally laying it taught against the surface of the field, hospital corners, surface smooth.

The RSPB tell me these things are a common-enough sight at this time of year, and yet they never fail to catch the imagination. Who wouldn't be transfixed by this mercurial living sculpture playing out against a winter sun? Their numbers are down, though. In the last few years the starling population has declined by 70% in this country, causing the RSPB to add them to its critical list. The loss is thought to be due to loss of permanent pasture and the increased use of farm chemicals.

Back home we are making a batch of mince pies for the freezer. My little helpers are ready with their tiny rolling pins and star cutters. All starts off well. There is little flour on the floor as yet. Helper number one is rolling out rounds for the cases and then eating the remains of the raw pastry. I am too late to point out that the idea is to roll it out again. Helper number two, meanwhile, is ladling in small spoons of mincemeat - one for the baking tin, one for me, one for the baking tin...I say that we only have two jars of mincemeat and quite a lot of pastry still to cover, but all I get is 'the look' with spoon in mouth.

Luckily, these mince pies are destined for home use only; Health and safety would fall on deaf ears, I think. For them, half the point in the making is the eating - at all stages of preparation, pre- and post-cooking. I thought I was being clever by making two lots of pastry (one with grated orange peel and juice added) so that I could track the 'better' mince pies down to squirrel away; but I was wrong. Oddly enough, the mince pies all looked the same - theirs and mine. It seems that somewhere in the cooking process they even themselves out and come out looking uniformally homemade. And surely that is the point: No mince pie should ever look as if it had come straight out of a packet.

At the minute I am using you to weigh down the Christmas cards I am making. Diaries 1 and 2 add up to just the right weight it seems to prevent the cards from curling up. Back in the summer there were weeds squashed between your sheets - well wild flowers, anyway - as we tried to preserve the colours of a summer meadow, so transient now as I squelch through calf-deep mud with the dog, the frost nipping the end of my nose.

You are taking stock of the rich red and coppery hues that a long Autumn has left unshed in your garden. 'The two pear trees outside the kitchen door are heartstoppingly beautiful this morning. The Winter Nellis has crimson leaves as slim and fine as a feather; the Doyenne du Comice is a mass of copper and orange.' Others would say your garden was in dire need of a good weed, rake and pruning. But you are caught for a moment, lost in this scene of romantic melancholy: 'They are wrong, of course, and I celebrate with a hazelnut-scented pear cake'(page 456).

I have made this recipe of yours before and loved the different textures with the lightly poached pears laid on top of the cake mixture and a crumble mixture scattered on that. Demerara and cinnamon are sprinkled on lastly for the crust. I particularly liked the taste of cinnamon added to the poached pears. It reminded me of 'Olde England' somehow and midwinter festivities and the Solstice. Our mince pies would once have contained minced meat along with the spices, though now the only trace of that is in the suet. Brought over from the Middle East by Crusaders in the 13th Century, the humble mince pie was frowned on by the Puritan authorities during the English Civil War but has remained popular right until today.

Looking back a couple of pages I find tonight's supper tucked seamlessly into 'November 17 - Poor man's potatoes' (page 453). One of those simple 'chuck-it-in-a-pan suppers' when all the ingredients are to hand and there's no necessity to go out shopping for that one elusive ingredient without which the dish is incomplete. There are tiny salad potatoes (to which I am quite partial) and red peppers and onion. You seem to agree with me about the choice of red over green pepper. The classic Spanish tapas dish 'patatas pobre' contains green peppers but red are so much sweeter and more inviting somehow. Green peppers are often just under-ripe versions of red and orange peppers, with less vitamin C and carotenoids to boot. Perhaps I have just been offered too many strips of raw green pepper and dips at parties and the slightly indigestible taste has rather put me off. So thank you for choosing it's warmer brother.

The salad potatoes are halved and placed face down in a pan with a little olive oil. Then sliced red pepper and onion placed on top. It cooks gently on top of the stove until the potatoes are starting to brown. Then a little stock is added and absorbed. It cooks by itself whilst I clear up the winter wasteland that was a mince pie workshop. The sticky residue which leaches from under the tops of the mince pies welds itself resolutely to the baking tins as I scrub


Monday, 11 November 2013

November 11th - Trial and error and Nigel's Favourite

Dear Nigel,

Today I see you've been experimenting in the kitchen with a kind of homemade teriyaki sauce which you add to a heap of mushrooms and reduce. But it doesn't quite go to plan - 'the flavours are altogether too powerful, too salty, sweet, earthy, almost liquorice-like in style.' You rescue it with a bowl of steamed brown rice which calms the flavours and averts disaster. It happens to all of us, we think we'll add a little bit of this, a little of that, and it doesn't always have the desired effect.

I remember when I was eleven years old and in the Girl Guides doing my cooks badge. I went round to my tester's house with my basket of ingredients and started to make a gingerbread cake and a shepherds' pie. Part way through browning my mince and onions in the pan I thought it might make an interesting addition to the dish if I added some of the ground ginger left over from the gingerbread. I thought it probably needed a fairly hefty helping, and at first I couldn't taste it at all....Luckily my tester decided to mark me on presentation alone, although I think she helped herself to a slice of the gingerbread. So I took my prize accomplishments home and served them up for tea. Strangely enough, I didn't feel very hungry myself that evening, but I watched avidly the reactions of my mum, dad, sister and brother as they sat around the table. Each one was complimentary. No one pulled a face. And they ate it all. Such is family loyalty. I feasted on a tin of biscuits that evening.

Looking through your recipe books at so many tasty little morsels, I often wonder which are your favourite ones. Do they change with the seasons, with the turn of the leaves or the budding of the new on a sunny spring day? I am a huge fan of the simple jacket potato as a simple supper to which I can add numerous toppings depending on the contents of my fridge or what's left over from the day before. You are making 'Baked potatoes, rillettes and rosemary' (page 436), and, although the recipe calls for deli-bought pork rillettes, you are making your own: 'I sometimes think this is my favourite recipe of all. I make the coarse fatty pate from scratch, but they are also good made with shop-bought rillettes too.' You hollow out the potatoes and mash the insides with butter, rosemary which is finely chopped and strands of the pork rillettes. Then a dusting of Parmesan on the top to make a firm crust and 'they are the most humble yet delectable of potatoes.'

At this time of year, when every penny saved is another in the kitty marked "expectations of Christmas by other friends and family members" (which always seems onerous, and makes you want to get on the next boat to Norway without any baggage - human or otherwise) the humble jacket potato goes a long way in the fight to survive. It also cocoons and comforts when you're pretending not to notice the incessant rain outside. Or the fact that your boots are leaking, the drains are blocking up and there are piles of wet leaves trying to get in the back door.


Saturday, 2 November 2013

November 2nd - Halloween and Turnip lanterns

Dear Nigel,

Today I took the children to a Halloween Party dressed as a pair of witches. Molly, with her entirely authentic pair of fangs and front teeth missing looked completely right for the part. It's such a wonderful opportunity for imaginations to run wild with pumpkins, bats blood and green slime for tea. The most popular activity by far seemed to involve four grown men being turned into mummies by hoards of children with two dozen toilet rolls - such is the ease with which this modern techno-savvy generation can be pleased if given half a chance.

Growing up in the Lake District I remember lanterns being made from turnips rather than pumpkins, which hadn't seemed to arrive over here from America then. The custom originated in Ireland and was common then in Scotland and the Isle of Man. The Irish immigrants took their custom to America where pumpkins were more common, and the custom was transported back here in latter years as pumpkin lanterns. My friend tells me that turnip lanterns were usually left outside on posts as they used to smell very quickly of a rotten cabbage-type smell. I don't remember that bit, but probably as a child I was just caught up in the magic of it all, in an era before the depressing advent of trick or treating.

You are following tradition with recipes based on pork and apple. 'All Hallows is often pork based, this being the season for killing the family pig, and apples usually get a look in too, often baked in the embers of the fire.' It seems somehow right that this night's simple meal is left to cook slowly 'over a low heat, quietly puttering away, filling the kitchen with the scent of welcome.' It is 'a simple smell (barely half a dozen ingredients), yet deep and rich (beef stock, browned pork, sweet carrots) and seasoned, reeking of nostalgia.' The recipe is 'Rich ragout with pappardelle' ( page 428). The slow cooking will take a good three hours, simmering away in the background with the occasional stir, and perfect for a day when you are pottering around blissfully not getting very much done. The depth of colour is as dark as the night. When the weather is chucking it down outside it feels good to be inside comfort-cooking. I like the idea of this recipe moving me away from automatically sticking potatoes or rice in a pork rib recipe. We get caught up in our own traditions and carry on unthinkingly at times.

Two incidents occurred this last week which made me realise how isolated we all really are. My daughter, living in a lovely new yuppie complex by the canal basin in the city, was burgled just before five o'clock in the afternoon along with the flat opposite; despite being a gated complex with pretty lighting and cameras everywhere. Later, having seen the broken door, bludgeoned to pieces, I feel safer living away from city life, I think. Two days later I am overcome at a Hospital eye test appointment with a fainting fit that refuses to go away. They want to keep me in but I want to get back home to my own little world but am beset by obstacles: I can't drive, so I have to leave the car and ring a friend to pick me up. I'm unsure about being on my own in case I take another turn. Suddenly I feel vulnerable. The children are all away and I am on my own with no neighbours at present. There is a fine line between being alone and being lonely, between the peace in the space between quietness and feeling isolated and vulnerable. I ring Will and persuade him to accompany his old mum back home for the night.

I am looking at your recipe for 'Apples with maple syrup' (page 423), dated 29th October, with its lovingly lemon-coated peeled apples (to prevent discolouration), its sprinkle of ground cinnamon, a few cloves, a vanilla pod tucked neatly in.... and back at my own entry for 15th October. There I am tucking into a midnight feast of apple bunged 'in the microwave...'and eaten 'straight from the dish drizzled in the amber syrup.' Embarrassed, I could be, for my lack of finesse, but mainly I see the sheer coincidence -  and I thought I was being so inventive, sitting there on the bottom of the stairs with my bowl and spoon listening to the night.


Wednesday, 23 October 2013

October 23rd - Falling leaves and Chocolate crumble

Dear Nigel,

We had another fruit crumble the other day - there seems no end to their appeal at the moment in this dank weather. I turn to page 412 where you have been busy likewise making a 'pear and chocolate oat crumble.' My daughter thinks it's just a version of flapjack anyway, as I nearly always choose to add oats to the traditional topping, as indeed you have here. But you have also added a scattering of dark chocolate pieces to the mixture, which gives it a whole new dimension and appeal as far as my kids are concerned. This seems to me a good way to make some poached and caramelised pears go a little further - and maybe that's the appeal of a good crumble - as they are quite fiddly to prepare in any sizeable number.

This recipe has only one fruit per person. I quite often need/or prefer to double up the quantities because I live with a trough of pigs it seems. Portion control is not a phrase they want to hear. And thus speaks someone who was one of three siblings and always given the Mars Bar and the knife with which to divide it. When, as a child, you are left with such a task, knowing that you will have the last choice, you hone your skill with such accuracy. The ability to calculate the precise amount extra to allow the middle section on account of the fact that the two ends are both slightly rounded but also covered in chocolate, is perhaps a skill that would sit well in any law court, I fancy.

The leaves are on the turn now. Gentle winds are bringing them tumbling down in all their coppery hues. The girls try catching them as they glide down in gentle zigzaggy lines. They prove quite difficult to catch as they turn and veer away from outstretched palms. Along the verges their favourite game is kicking the leaves, like any child faced with sizeable piles and an empty road.

There is an elderly white-haired man in our village called Peter whose sole greeting is a nod or a wave of the hand. His almost constant job is to go back and forth trimming hedges, clearing tractor mud off the lanes, and sweeping leaves. I look at all these tidy heaps which my daughters are blithely kicking all over the place and try and hurry them on before we are found out. I resist the urge to join them but there is something very satisfying in sending a huge pile flying high into the air with a footballer's right leg.

Perhaps we should come over to your garden where you are 'raking the leaves up from the garden paths, picking the Autumn Bliss raspberries that are still going strong, and tidying up the pots that contain the remains of the courgette plants. A nip in the air and it's a definite carb moment.' It feels like we are all bedding down and following an ancient deep urge to hibernate - perhaps until the spring. I think I could do that quite comfortably, given the right biological makeup.

I have got out of the habit of making homemade pizzas of late. It's easily done. One minute you are right in there, feeling virtuous, enjoying the process, loving the result; and the next you have got out of the routine and are unthinkingly slamming a bought pizza into the oven. How does that happen? How does a habit, even quite a strong habit suddenly become forgotten and unmake itself? I am looking at your 'mushroom with creme fraiche and mozzarella pizza' (page 407) wondering how and when I fell off the waggon. It brings you up short, particularly the forgetting.

You say that you knead pizza dough for less time than you used to. 'The original fifteen minutes has now become more like ten- by which I probably mean about six or seven.' So what's my excuse? I renew my intention, particularly as there has been too much conflict here lately about choice and combination of toppings. At least if you make your own you can cater for the child that only likes one certain cheese and the one who won't eat mushrooms....looks like this recipe might just be made for me, then....oh goody!

Perhaps my all-time favourite recipe of yours right now is your 'Orzo with courgettes and Grand Padano' (page 404) which I have made several times over in the last couple of weeks as I can't seem to get enough of the combination of flavours. Sometimes I used Parmesan when the Grand Padano ran out. (Actually I was seen eating large chunks of it off the chopping board, which is simply NOT ALLOWED.) I love the balance of the warmth of the white wine against the salty pancetta, tempered by the sticky cheesy orzo. I could quite happily eat this every day for a week for lunch without getting bored. I feel I ought to put something with this but am reluctant to do so. Like adding a side salad or a vegetable because you think you ought to put something healthy in there. But I don't want it. I come down on the side that as you haven't specifically suggested an accompaniment, and none appears in the photograph, then it is somehow alright and 'allowed' to be eaten just as it is. Who are these health gurus who would stick a non-ending round of broccoli on every plate and make you feel guilty for not complying? 


Tuesday, 15 October 2013

October 15th - Grilled figs and Food for an American Indian Chief

Dear Nigel,

I've been making your 'Grilled figs with Marsala' (page 396) which we ate with thick Greek yoghurt. Moving my way through endless variations for baked fruit at the moment, this has been one of my favourites, with its wonderful sticky basting sauce which is a mixture of honey, Marsala and the juices from the figs. Together with a rather badly-put-together own concoction involving nothing more than a baked apple and quarter of a bottle of maple syrup late one night. I am partial to such things since I discovered that I could simply bung it in a bowl in the microwave (very scientific) for a few minutes and eat straight from the dish drizzled in the amber syrup....such is the midnight snacker...

Maple syrup has been flowing freely in this household of late, on drop scones, maple and pecan biscuits, and as a rather wicked addition to a vanilla bean paste smoothie (trying to emulate one found on the shelves in Waitrose). I love its amber colour and the unique sweet tang, so full of depth and flavour. The trees are tapped in the springtime in cold climates like Quebec in Canada, when the starch that has been stored in the trunks and roots of the maple trees before the winter is turned into sugar and rises in the sap. The buckets of sap tapped from the trees are then heated to leave a concentrated dark amber syrup.

I came across a simple recipe you have been making lately with maple syrup. It is 'ribs, mirin and maple syrup', where a five rib pork belly is marinaded in a mixture of mirin and maple syrup. It was tucked away with other recipes under the heading 'kitchen' on your website. The Indians in North America are known to have first produced maple syrup, long before the Europeans arrived. Legend has it that maple sap was used in place of water to cook venison for one of the chiefs. Probably a good thing that they didn't have a bottle of mirrin handy, though.

You have been making 'a mild and fruity curry of salmon' ( page 399), with chilli, the usual curry suspects, coconut milk and tamarind paste. I am interested in this because I don't think I have ever made a salmon curry before and it's a fish we like to eat regularly. My only concern is the tamarind paste - and really it's a note to self, as I had a bad experience with an over-generous dose of the stuff in one recipe, which haunts me still. So I shall be careful to put in only a bare tablespoon. It is extremely sour and dominating, otherwise.

The children have been watching regular instalments of adverts for toys strung together with the odd children's programme in between. The march of this advertising is relentless in this, the run-up to Christmas. Everything it seems is a must-have in their eyes. I am taking a more objective look at the products in this hyped-up frenzy. There is a game with a dog that does poos, and another raucously funny game (or so they would have you believe) which looks like pumping up an airbed to me. It makes it all the more difficult to locate things that will really spark their imaginations - the right toy for the right child at just the right moment. I want to turn and run away from all this Christmas stuff but, with a list of friends and family as long as my arm I know that I will be less panicked if I at least put my thinking cap on.

When it comes to food, I always prefer to cook as much in advance as possible and freeze it as I really just want to make the most of the limited time I get to have my family all together. Soups and mince pies and all manner of things are as good frozen as slaved over at the last minute, when you would rather be toasting your socks in front of the log burner and playing out the same old jokes and memories as last year and the year before. I rarely make much new stuff at Christmas as the kids all have their favourites, and woe betide me if I forget. Tom reminds me that I didn't get round to making his millionaire's shortbread last year (I was badly ill the week before Christmas, and the ingredients never made it further than the cupboard). Smoked salmon soup is the out-and-out favourite, and it's a good place to start. It freezes well.


Sunday, 6 October 2013

October 3rd - The price of high art and Poached pears with the devil's cheesecake cream

Dear Nigel,

Last week I took a group of school children around the village church in nearby Warslow where their school is as part of a town and country project they were doing. (They were all very excited as they get to visit a 'real city' soon.) The children were encouraged to be nosey and to see what they could find inside. Of course they soon discovered where the vicar makes a cup of coffee and where the steps to the disused belfry were to be found.

But somewhere, amongst the jumbled list of things they found interesting, two things juxtaposed and stuck in my mind. The first was a beautiful William Morris stained glass window (him being a local lad) tucked away in this tiny church in the Peak District; and over in the vicar's private little ante-room (well she did encourage them to be nosey!) the second: a  record of the collection taken at each service, lying open on the side.

Looking down I noticed one service recently - presumably an early 8 o'clock one - where the collection taken was only £8. Now, if vicars are  being paid the national minimum wage (which currently stands at £6.31, since Tuesday), that leaves approximately £1.69 by my reckoning to cover the cost of maintaining the church, heating, light....and the buying(?) and preservation of fine art. Perhaps it is time to change the idea of the collection plate to a new kind of state-funded church lottery, and the coffers might start rolling in. A series of little coloured balls running from the pulpit across the altar rail and down the pipes of the organ to the cries of 'two fat ladies 88; the Lord is my shepherd 23' might do the trick.

There is something  very comforting about baked fruit or vegetables that seems to work so well at this time of year; whether it's a baked apple stuffed with sultanas or a rhubarb and ginger crumble, or a humble tomato. You are making 'Baked tomatoes' (page 390) stuffed with a creamed coconut mixture and chilli, ginger and garlic. It is an unusual way to use creamed coconut, and, as you say, 'shouldn't work but it does.'

You are also poaching pears 'with cream cheese and ginger sundae' (page 389). Having just thrown away one lot of pears that went from bullet hard to pocked with brown overnight, I am a little reluctant, though the sundae part of the recipe more than makes up for the replacements. This is a truly wicked mix of cream cheese (full-fat if you please), icing sugar and double cream, to which crushed ginger nut biscuits and grated chocolate are added. Recipe for a coronary, I think, or a well-deserved treat after a week of trying too hard to be good. Never underestimate the power of food (and not just chocolate) to lift your mood.

Lately, I have poached or baked plums and peaches and fresh figs and apples. Somehow they are far more satisfying that their raw counterparts (worth remembering if you ever get to that stage of having indulged in too much cream cheese sundae and needing to drop a few pounds....although somehow I can't see that happening.)

Having spent the last few days hammering into my children that money doesn't grow on trees, today I took them to a place where money does in fact grow on trees. Over in the valley of Dovedale there are fallen trees and stumps all along the riverside walk where people have hammered coins into the bark for luck. Some logs appear like spiny creatures with hundreds and hundreds of silver scales, many bent over, cascading over them and glistening in the sun. The children love to try and dig them out, failing miserably. I don't know how unique this custom is but I haven't seen it to this extent anywhere else in the Peak District. There is a strange beauty to this odd custom. The autumn sun is wonderfully warm today and Poppy is happy swimming in the river while we look for the last of the blackberries. It is getting to the end of their season and all the best ones have gone. I notice the sloes are starting to get that wonderful bloom, though they are best left till after the first frost if you don't want to spend all day with a pin stabbing them to release their juices.


Thursday, 26 September 2013

September 26th - Cake on elastic and A warm dressing for Roast Pork

Dear Nigel,

I went to a party recently where each of the guests had brought along a plate of food to share or a pudding for afters. Nothing unusual there. Some of the puddings were simple, some quite elaborate, and it occurred to me that there was quite a competitive angle to all this bonhomie going on. Hovering beside a fabulous-looking cheesecake, that had obviously taken some time to construct, was the owner of the cheesecake. Not wishing to have her hard work decimated in seconds by the hungry mob she was measuring it out in small wafer-thin slices, assessing the party-goers individually (or so it seemed) to see if they deserved a slice of cake or not.

It could, of course, be partly my fault. Someone, (quite possibly, I think, this rather severe and imposing woman) had left a tray of over-large cupcakes on the side, swirled with cream and with a flake poking out of each one. There was a bottle of strawberry syrup and sprinkles nearby. Assuming, quite naturally, that these were for the children, I was busy dolling them out and decorating them to order by a most appreciative set of small diners. In came dragon-woman with a huge frown. 'Don't you think they're too large for them,' she snapped. I did not, and there didn't seem to be many complaints. Anyway, it was rather too late for that as there were only two left. It did leave me wondering why you would bring a tray of 'child-like' deserts to a party where nearly everyone had children and not expect that the children would want to eat them. I took my sliver of cheesecake and disappeared into a corner whilst dragon-woman hovered nearby brandishing the cake knife.

I'm taking my eldest, James, down to University this weekend (back again to do an MA), and, as I'm packing up biscuits and vitamin C tablets, I feel another moving on and away as my brood drift off on their own life journeys. He is in his element; never happier that when he is in contained and prescribed surroundings. Where others are seeking freedom and anarchy, James is happy to be compliant and organised by others.

I have been given a large bag of damsons by my neighbour which are sitting in the porch with their expiry date ticking away for a few days now. Thank goodness for your recipe 'a pudding for autumn' (page 376), which is essentially a summer pudding made with autumn fruit and a good slug of sloe gin, which, luckily I happen to have sitting on the side for medicinal purposes. The fruit you are using is a mixture of damsons, raspberries, blackberries and blueberries, which might go down better with my little fusspots here. Not everyone shares my love for the deeply sour. You leave the stones in until the fruit is cooked, then squeeze them to release. 'If you skip the stoning process you will, I promise, regret it later.' Sounds like you are talking from personal experience here, Nigel? I agree, summer (or autumn) puddings should be undemanding and unctuous, and drizzled in double cream.

You are busy cooking something which is making me drool. It is 'Roast pork and rocket salad with lemon and olives' (page 380). You talk about the merits of the pan juices, 'the treasure in the pan...containing the caramelised meat juices, crusty pan-stickings...the essence of the meat.' Invariably, for me, this becomes the basis of a good gravy; sometimes it is regarded as 'cooks perks'. Today you are doing something different with it . You are using the pan juices to form the base of a warm olive dressing, adding chopped olives, lemon juice and olive oil. It gives a big rustic flavour to pour over thin slices of roast pork. Sometimes we get complacent about our roasts. The pork here has been roasted in a mixture of garlic and rosemary and seasoned well. The robust flavours balance each other nicely, and for a windy autumnal day this seems just the thing; perhaps with some celeriac mash to serve or some crusty bread. I am not a great fan of roast pork generally but I can see that the amalgam of strong flavours here will make a dish to remember and I am keen to try it.


Thursday, 19 September 2013

September 19th - Painted trees and The traditional pea and pie supper

Dear Nigel,

'Round our neck of the woods things are getting Autumnal. Not a huge leaf fall, as yet, or the fade to brown of all things green; but there are small pockets of activity here and there. Driving down to the village shop three miles away, I notice the odd tree dotted about one per field, covered in a rainbow mantle of reds, yellows and burnt orange - looking for all the world like a painted sculpture driven into the ground by guerrilla artists, against a backdrop of solid green. It is uncanny this Autumn on the cusp. Like many people I have always believed that the change in colour was due to the lowering of the temperature. But now I find that I am wrong. The colours and their intensity may be dictated by the temperature outside, but the actual change in colour is caused by the lengthening of the night at this time of year - whether it is cold outside or not.

There is vitamin C hanging for the birds on every hedge in the form of vibrant glossy rose hips and tiny peppercorn elderberries (to keep away bird flu perhaps?...well, who knows...); and clods of mud on the road left by the constant trail of tractors from the fields. We have to skip round them on our way to the bus each day. There is an old farmer in our village kept in constant work - I presume paid by the parish or district council - to keep the roads and the verges tidy. Every few days we wave at each other as he strims the verges, prunes the hedges, sweeps up the muck from the road. It is a part of the necessary, and hidden, polishing of our countryside which keeps it looking 'pretty pretty' for the tourists and locals alike.

The big event of the week here is the annual pea and pie supper at the village hall. It follows the Harvest Festival at the church the day before, with the supper preceding an auction of produce. The children revel in a chance to bid for a bunch of red onions and a gingerbread. They are less enamoured of the green sludge pertaining to be mushy peas. The pie is good and solid and meaty with plenty of dark gravy. (In a village where the only shop is a Butchers it would be a poor do otherwise.) The large selection of puddings proves more popular.

The vicar is down to her last 67p and is frantically bidding for a jar of marmalade. This year the bidding starts off at a pace and then slows down as people get worn out. It is late and I am eager to take the kids home to bed but there is still twenty or more individual items. Another jar of red cabbage. Another bunch of gladioli. I want to bang my head on the table. Please, let me go home. Someone is refusing to let the vicar have her jar of marmalade for 67p. It's been a good evening, but too long. We have to stay for the raffle. We are trapped. There would be an uproar if I tried to make us leave before the drawing when they have had their tatty pink tickets stuffed in their pockets all evening - each one pointing to a jar of bath salts or some asti spumante.

Back home I am making a spinach, leek and Stilton soup. It takes a phenomenal amount of spinach - four huge bags - and even wilted it seems a lot. I often think some recipe writers ignore the financial constraints of their readers. Have you ever noticed this? You are out shopping, slavishly following someone's ideas to the letter, when you get that gnawing feeling that tonight's dinner is costing a kings ransom, and wouldn't you prefer to eat out instead? Occasionally, of course, it is our own fault. We have decided to cook something where the main ingredient is out-of-season and expensive. But not always so. I have notes littered on books all over the house saying, 'don't bother...it's far too expensive' or 'use tinned instead of fresh tomatoes as it seems to taste exactly the same...'

I like it that you follow the seasons round with us. You make the food I want to eat right now at this time of year. Today you are using up some leeks to make little 'tarts of leek and cheese' (page 369). You are using Taleggio, which is one of my favourites to cook with. The leeks are thinnings from a friend, removed to allow the others to fatten up in the coming months. These have a more delicate taste than the dark fat leeks in my trug. You say that 'the French and the Flemish have more ways to use the humble leek than the Innuit have words for snow or the Lapps have for reindeer'. You like 'the more robust notes of our own leek and potato soup..than the French vichyssoise. It's a more common soup - you rarely see it on menus now'. Not in our house, Nigel. It's one of the few soups I can guarantee they'll all eat. The beetroot, lemon and chive was too red, apparently, and this one I'm making is too green. Doesn't seem a fair argument to me. The little tarts are made with puff pastry and the leeks are merely softened in a pan and them sprinkled with cubes of cheese.
'Later, as we tuck into the steaming pie with its puff pastry and sweet, mild filling, it occurs to me that the precious leeks my neighbour had grown from seed were actually meant for my garden.' Whoops!

You are also making soup. It's good to know you are prepared to dive into your freezer and come up with a big bag of frozen peas, like the rest of us. My freezer is getting to that chaotic state when I know I have to do likewise and eat our way through it if there is to be any chance of putting things by for Christmas. The bag of frozen peas go into a large pan with some vegetable stock (made from powder - Marigold, I presume?), spring onions, mint and salt. Blended with cream, you eat it with rye crackers and smoked salmon. Here is a lesson in the economy of soup, sorely needed here at present. There are vegetables crying out to be used up and I am 'following a recipe' when I should, perhaps, be experimenting with frugality.

Like the answer to Sophie's angling of the tooth fairy: 'Emma gets £2 from the tooth fairy in her house.' 'Well,' I say,'I think the tooth fairy is a bit more frugal around here.' Molly has lost her top front tooth and is doing pirate impersonations. There is enough space to be able to suck a straw with her teeth closed. I find some tiny milk bottles, like the kind we used to have at playtime with gone-off warm milk inside, which everyone left. They make great milk shakes for after school. Note to self - write out a hundred times: I will make frugal soups. I will make frugal soups.


Thursday, 12 September 2013

September 12th - Remaking 'the Godfather' and A shark claiming to be vegetarian

Dear Nigel,

There is a bloodbath going on next door. Terry is slaying his babies one by one with tears glistening in his eyes - every inch a tormented Al Pacino in 'the Godfather'. They are moving to another cottage a few miles away due to a hike in the rent. The garden is Terry's passion. It may not be chocolate-box picturesque with its motley collection of sheds, fencing pole stacks and chickens, which rather obscure the chocolate-box cottage standing behind it, but it was a labour of love and ingenuity in a small space. They are attempting to root up fruit bushes, fully grown apple trees, grapevines and herbs and transport them down the road in bin bags to their new home. I suppose when it comes down to it most gardeners spend a small fortune on the plants in their garden. A keen gardener let loose in a nursery is like a small child in a sweet shop. He wants everything. So naturally he wants everything to go, too.

Val says the difference in rent will allow Terry to keep pursuing his new hobby which is shark fishing, off Scotland and parts of Cornwall. She says she's not getting in a nineteen foot boat with a fourteen foot shark claiming to be a vegetarian. It wouldn't be the first vegetarian to fall for the smell of a bacon sarnie. Stands to reason that sharks are as likely as humans to lose self-control and cave in at the first available opportunity. (The sharks in question are caught,tagged and sent back again - so no endless round of shark goulash, shark bolognaise, shark and kidney pie....)

The early Autumn weather has started to bring leaves down from the trees and the berries in the hedgerows are all ripening. Every day on the way to the Honker bus the children snaffle redcurrants from old bushes in someone's garden edging the road. There are blackberries to be had and small sprays of elderberries in more sunny corners. I am attempting to teach them the difference between what is edible and what is not. We pick blackberries and go home to make the first of the season's blackberry and apple crumbles. It is high time they learnt a few cookery techniques, I think. Today it is the rubbing in method. We leave out the porridge oats for once to make the traditional topping and they practise this new skill. It's quite hard to explain to a child how to flick your thumb back lifting and pressing the fat into the flour so that it resembles breadcrumbs and not a claggy mess. There is a marked difference in colour and texture between the two little pudding basins. We combine the two and the result tastes just fine. They are pleased to eat something they have made themselves and proud to serve it out for the rest of us.

You are making a dish of 'baked squid with chilli tomato sauce' (page 363). You say 'get your fishmonger to do the preparation of the squid. There is no reason to do it yourself.' Something tells me you wouldn't be up there with Terry filleting his shark. Given the licencing laws this is probably a mercy. A passing stranger remarked on the bad case of woodworm of his pergola. ' That's not woodworm,' he said, ' that's what happens to the squirrels eating off the bird table.' Now I come to think of it, the numbers do seem to have dropped over the past year.

You have arrived back home from the allotments with a gift from a friend of San Marzano tomatoes, Italian tomatoes which thrive in the Italian blistering sunshine and volcanic soil around Mount Vesuvius. Whether they taste as sweet grown in our British climate is questionable. You question it, too.
'I have grown them, but not with what you could call success. It is often said they make the richest tomato sauce of all, but obviously much depends on the ripeness of your tomatoes and , I would venture to suggest, on whether they were grown in Italy.'

The tomatoes are used to prepare a new everyday tomato sauce which can be used in an infinite variety of ways. Today it is poured over the squid, which have first been stuffed with an anchovy, breadcrumb and parsley mixture (which sounds intriguing) and baked in the oven.

I am looking at your recipe for 'broad bean, feta and spinach pie' (page 360) and considering its suitability for tomorrow's dinner. The filling is very familiar to me at the moment with its mountain of wilted and squeezed out spinach and crumbled feta, but you are using sheets of filo pastry brushed with melted butter and scattered with sesame seeds. I seem to have fallen out of using filo pastry- for no particular reason that I can think of - and perhaps it will make a lighter change that the puff pastry that has become too much of a regular routine for me. Sometimes it is a fine thing to be reminded of the good things half forgotten in your haste for the new and the novel.

A celebration is in the making. Plans for the new kitchen that you 'thought would never happen' are finally underway. There is something fundamentally right about returning a house to its roots - putting back the original 1820s floor plan and 'restoring the basement kitchen with its York stone floors, two fireplaces and deep fireside cupboards.' In celebration you make ' a lentil and pumpkin soup-stew' (page 358): 'A big, bolstering dish, tied as always to the season....Golden flesh to celebrate a golden day.' The pumpkin, you say, is interchangeable with butternut squash, which would probably be my chosen veg on this occasion as I prefer the texture. My dalliance with pumpkin has mostly been what to do with the insides of a pumpkin lantern, sometimes including a trail of dripped wax and the char of candle flame. Not a tasty ingredient, I hasten to add. Enjoy your stew. Slainte, Nigel.


Tuesday, 3 September 2013

September 3rd - The daunting prospect of lunch and A rather special Chocolate damson cake

Dear Nigel,

I am busy making a soup of Beetroot, Lemon and Chive for a friend who is coming over tomorrow. I am slightly bothered by the fact that I have chosen to make something which I am very uncertain as to whether I will like or not. The fact is that I don't really like the taste of cooked Beetroot. But then again I don't like carrots either, but I try and push the boundaries of my own taste buds by making myself try things all over again. With carrots I only succeed by making ancillary recipes - like carrot and ginger soup or carrot cake.I am slightly daunted by the prospect of lunch tomorrow but I know that coming out of your comfort zone and trying something new is the only way to move on. In every walk of life, food included.

You've got your teeth into a bit of cake, sitting in the shade of the Robinia tree, 'a full afternoon's work'. This is because you are thwarted in your desire to raid your profuse vegetable patch by the constraints of waiting for the photographer to come and take his pictures: 'As a gardener, I'm proud; as a cook, frustrated.' So you go to work on the produce of the old damson tree which hides behind the compost heap and, as such, is unlikely to feature in any shots. It is one of your favourites, I fancy.

'You could measure my life, or at least my autumns, in the fruit of the damson tree. Flicking back through my books, there have been crumbles and crisps, fools and compotes...a soft-crumbed sponge..a glossy-topped cheesecake.' It is that 'mouth-puckering smack of fruit and acidity that remains intense even when they have been cooked with sugar.' So into a wonderfully dark brownie recipe they go, making something a little 'dark, sumptuous, intense, faintly reminiscent of the best sort of Schwarzwalder Kirschtorte but without the cream.'

This I will have to try. The recipe is for 'Chocolate damson cake' (page 338), and, looking at it I'm wondering whether you would allow it to be eaten gently warmed with a dollop of vanilla ice cream? (I think the autumn weather is settling in to my stomach early...the carbohydrates are calling me.) Perhaps we'll try it both ways - as a cake and as a pudding and see which comes out tops. How does a Cookery book writer feel about people meddling with their recipes, I wonder? After all, if you've spent good sweat and tears over perfecting something, it's a bit like someone putting tomato ketchup over everything in a posh restaurant, isn't it? Or maybe that is for the chefs that like to impress and you are a little more laid back as to people's idiosyncrasies.

You are wondering how you became the sort of guy that makes his own chutney. I find my chutney making goes in fits and starts. Either there are shelf upon shelf of beautifully labelled jars - too many to eat oneself, destined as presents to friends and relations - or a desert. At the moment we are in a desert position. The cause of this is invariably the former i.e. shelf upon shelf of the same chutney which ends up being waded through until your bread and cheese cries out to be alone for a change. Your habits came 'not out of the need to preserve a glut or to make ribbon-decked gifts for my friends but from a desire to have a spoonful or two of home-made relish to go with a piece of cheese and a wodge of bread.'

Lately my chutney habit has been in almost single jars - which is plenty for the use to which is intended - and on the lines of experimenting with different caramelised onion recipes. Your pot of chutney looks intriguing. It is 'a dark and sticky fruit chutney' ( page 342) made with ripe figs, which are at their best at the moment, if the ones I picked up the other day so beautifully displayed in a local shop are anything to go by. And, gratefully enough, it makes only a couple of jars. My copper preserving pan sits doing a sterling job on top of the cupboard collecting envelopes and stuff for recycling; its alter ego.


Wednesday, 28 August 2013

August 28th - Butterton Wakes and Playing 'chicken'

Dear Nigel,

Many of the little villages round here have been celebrating a Wakes week lately. This is an old, originally religious, celebration (which in our village has been going on for over a hundred years), when the workers were given a holiday. It would have started with a church service late on Saturday evening - a vigil - known as a Wake (from the Old English word 'wacan'....although no policemen were burnt here...). It was followed by sports, games, dancing and drinking the next day.

True to tradition there was plenty of all four going on this year, too. Lead by Warslow Silver Band, the couple of floats drawn by tractors and the Princesses' entourage - with a beaming red-haired Ruby waving vigorously at us, circled the lanes round the pub and ended up at the village hall where the cake stall was under wraps and there was already a queue for the bar. I must have moved away from the cake stall - which was heaving with thirty or more large cakes - for no more than ten minutes, but when I returned there was barely a couple left. A lesson for next year.

A little funding had been found for a magician/clown who kept the children occupied for nearly an hour with only three tricks that I could see - but they were entranced - including at least two stuffed toy rabbits and the eventual appearance of a real one. The first ten minutes consisted solely of him putting on his clown' s outfit and make-up, but he had them in the palm of his hand. He could have included dismantling his stage set and stowing it in his car, I think, and they would have watched agog (-sheltered children, mine, they have not yet got to the stage of 'professional party-goers' and the subsequent disillusionment.) The evening was rounded off by a barbecue and a Barn Dance but my two were fading fast and I took them off to bed.

Round at Yuri and Johnathan's things are happening. Or rather, things should be happening. Big event in the village - they are moving from a cottage in the middle of the village near the pub (which they are renting) to a farmhouse on the outskirts (which they are buying). They are moving in a week's time. I go over to help Yuri pack to find that there are two, maybe three boxes, ready to go. We sit there eating tasteless beef cooked on a George Foreman grill - which has the appearance and taste of shoe leather - and both Yuri and Johnathan are looking non-plussed. I point out that when I moved myself here a year and a half ago I must have had about ninety boxes packed by this stage? Nothing. Not a flicker of panic. I am amused by their stance. Johnathan says 'Yuri is at home all day, she can do it'. Yuri is ironing a stack of thirty pillow cases. I think each is playing 'Chicken'. The days are ticking past. Yuri makes a dipping sauce with Japanese citrus, which has something of the taste of old fashioned boiled sweets to it. We dip the shoe leather in it and it improves a bit. Johnathan is supposed to be on a diet - a tasteless, fat-free one - it won't last.

 The old farming family are having a 'cooling' party - they have been in the farmhouse over fifty years. Yuri and Johnathan are planning a 'Housewarming' party -half the village will be there. I have seen it before, recently, with another old farming family: a farm without an heir that is sold and split many ways between siblings and other relatives who may have a claim. This farm will be split six ways - none of the 'children' ever produced any offspring. Yuri says the inside is barely untouched. There is happiness and sadness at the passing of the reins.

You are making 'Grilled aubergine, roast garlic cream' (page 333). The roasted garlic cloves are crushed in a pestle and mortar. The 'smell is sweet, a blend of garlic and caramel. Soft too, with a honeyed warmth.' They have been roasted in the oven in foil with a trickle of olive oil and a couple of thyme sprigs. There is something rather satisfying about squeezing 'the garlic out of its skin, breaking off single cloves and pressing each one between thumb and finger till the soft, ivory-coloured paste comes out.' It is stirred into mayonnaise and a little milk. The aubergines are grilled and the garlic mayonnaise, capers and basil leaves added.

It is August 23rd and you 'wake at 5.30 to the sound of rain on the bedroom window ledge. Warm and steady, this is the sort of rain farmers and gardeners have been praying for...As the rain slows to a proper drizzle, the air is left warm and humid and anything remotely ripe will need to be picked urgently to stop it rotting.' So out you go into the rain after the elderberries that overhang the garden and are almost touching the ground, picking 'as many of the purple-black berries as I can reach, getting soaked to the skin as I go.' It is 5.30am Nigel! - '...and I haven't even had breakfast yet.' The elderberries are tossed into some stewed apple and eaten with goat or sheep's yoghurt (page 326). Apples are considered good for the Arthritis, Nigel, - if you insist on such mad stunts.

An end-of-Summer dish: You are using up the last of the tomatoes, both the ripe and the green ones, in a ratio of 2:1. 'The green ones do need quite a bit of cooking if they are to be worth eating. Slowly baked with the juices from the chicken, they take on the sweetness of their riper cousins.' ('Baked chicken with tomatoes and olives' - page 322.) The chicken thighs are covered in a mixture of lemon juice, olives, tomatoes, garlic and thyme and baked in the oven. Great for the thrifty cook - after all there is only so much green tomato chutney you can get through in a year!


Thursday, 22 August 2013

August 21st - New shoes, sharpened pencils and The scent of summer's shortening lease

Dear Nigel,

I am twitchy for a change in the seasons - crazy since the summer was so long awaited and so welcome when it did at last arrive. But I am restless amid the full-blown poppies, the tangle of weeds and the gradual yellowing of plants around me, long since past their best. I long for a fresh breeze, a morning sun that brings things sharply into focus and the whisper of red leaves on the shady side of the hedge. It is the red leaves I long for most of all, I think, reminiscent of those perfect Japanese gardens with their artfully pruned, ketchup-spattered maples that bid quiet contemplation amongst their brilliance.

It is the time of year for that torturous of rituals - of being measured for school shoes, and a pencil case full of newly sharpened pencils and possibilities. Don't we all come back from holiday with a suitcase full of good intentions and New Term resolutions to shore up all that we have let slip in unwinding to summer's easy song?

I am looking for something a little angelic and smug - the all-green smoothie of recipes - to put me back on track and away from searching out my looser clothes and the notching down of belts. I like to think we all swell up a bit in the heat and then, like a cold shower, the change in temperature firms us up again once more. (That's my theory and I'm sticking to it as I tuck into my umpteenth ice cream this summer.)

Here is the kind of recipe I had in mind: 'Carrot and cockle soup' (page 315), made with a handful of spinach leaves and lemon juice, as sorrel is proving elusive even for you. I'm not growing any at present but usually, by this point in the season, the sorrel's urge to bolt has got the better of me and it has got away and is looking more like an out-of-place dock leaf plant, unruly and unkempt. That it has, even when lightly cooked, 'the colour and texture of something dropped by a passing seagull' is of little significance compared to its deeply sharp and tangy taste. It always seems amazing to me that something so wonderfully lemony can come straight in from an English garden and onto a plate, to liven any fish or seafood supper. Not an 'English' taste somehow.

I am looking at your entry for 17th August and I see that late summer's  'overblownness' is rife in London, too. Your wonderful vegetable patch is less than 'Gardeners' World' quality then?...
'we are eating in the garden amongst the marigolds and nasturtiums that seem to have taken over the vegetable patch (seriously there is nothing but flowers, chard and a few blight-crisped tomatoes).'
....so nice to let nature have its way amid the design we try to impose - the letting go that is part of the reason we have a summer. Lunch is quick-as-a-flash sweet, spicy chicken, 'beer so cold it has ice crystals in it, then (we) make a mad dash to the shops for vanilla ice cream.' (...so glad I'm not the only one then...)

Yet the heat has you listless too, I suspect. Today you are back in the kitchen rolling pastry with your eye on the end result - the eating - making a 'peach pie with lemon pastry' (page 317). I imagine you lolling in a hammock between two trees with a glass of wine in one hand, newspapers crumpled and discarded on the ground and 'a pie of gentle seductiveness on a hot, still afternoon when there is little else to do.' Enough for six?...or a whole afternoon's work before you...Enjoy.


Thursday, 15 August 2013

August 15th - The fussy eater and The baby's bottom of smoothies

Dear Nigel,

There is a point in any argument when you know you're just not going to win so you might as well give up now.
'It's all your fault. If you'd forced me to eat more things when I was younger I would eat more different things.'
We were sitting in a noodle bar in Manchester, Chris, Hannah and I, having a last supper before the prodigal returned to Frankfurt.

We have had this conversation, you and I, about not forcing your children to eat things, however good they are for them or however long you spent preparing the damn stuff especially for them. But it turns out it was all my fault anyway. Fussy toddlers turn into fussy twenty-somethings and it's all your fault. Oddly enough, my stroppy red-head, sandwiched between four brothers, is the only one who is fussy. The boys have all grown up and expanded their taste bud experiences and now, more-or-less, eat anything. Not so Hannah, despite a year living in Spain with Spanish families. (Although, to give her her due, she does now eat courgettes and red peppers, but that's about it.)

I should have seen the arguments coming. After all she'd been on a ten hour train journey up from Cornwall and was in no mood to socialise. I packed her off to have a shower and hoped the fog would lift. But it was my silly suggestion, I'll admit, to take them to a noodle bar with the idle notion that if you don't like hot and spicy there's no point suggesting Mexican, Indian or Thai but there would be plenty not hot or spicy to choose from here.

Seating on the end of one of the long benches surveying the menu it became obvious that the fog had no intention of lifting.
'Hannah's in a bad mood because of the long train journey,' I told Chris, 'so don't wind her up.'
'I'm not in a bad mood. And you're making me worse, Mum, with comments like that.'
She went through the menu  - which was lengthy - attacking every single dish.
'I don't like carrots...I hate coriander ever since you made that soup...I don't like mussels, only prawns...what's that? I'm not ordering a meal with something I've never heard of in it...'
By the time we'd reached about the twentieth dish on the menu I'd started to hide a smile. Chris chuckled. I swallowed a laugh.
'We should never have come here. It's all your fault. I don't like ginger in dinners, only puddings...'

And on it went, Hannah finding fault with every single dish, Chris and I waiting for the next outburst whilst trying to swallow our napkins and laugh into our menus. Of course this just made her worse. It wasn't fair. Never stand within firing range of a red-head turning scarlet. When they were little children my two redheads would occasionally turned bright pink with anger and stamp their feet like little Rumplestiltskins. And we would laugh at them then, too.

The soft fruit is ripening as fast as I can pick it. Fruit and weeds are in abundance and it feels good to squirrel things away into the freezer for the winter. There are currants, black, red and white, gooseberries, raspberries and tons more rhubarb. It is a good year for soft fruit, I think. I like to make smoothies whenever I can and now is the best time of all when fruit is minutes from vine to blender. I dip into your book 'Thirst' which has become a bit of a bible when I'm in the mood. So many ideas, so simple, so quick. Would like you to think about my idea of using chunks of frozen banana instead of ice cubes? I'm still chuffed at being able to find a use for all those left-over bananas that everyone refuses to eat because they are freckled and don't taste as nice ( - on this point I know you and I agree). Today I make a blueberry and banana smoothie ('Thirst' pg 95) but with the frozen banana. I'm wondering how different frozen berries will work. Much handier to be able to dip into a box in the freezer for a couple of handfuls of berries than keep a constant supply of fresh in the fridge if you're trying to cut down on journeys to the shops.

You are making 'Thyme and garlic chicken wings' (page 312) in a sticky marinade with honey and dried chilli and lemon juice to serve. See, if this was pasted on a menu somehow Hannah would no doubt complain about the dried chilli (although it's only a couple of good pinches), yet put it on a plate beside her and I think she'd be won over by the garlicky honey, and the combination of sour, sweet and mildly hot would get to her. So the lesson is never teach your toddler to read so they can read menus and they won't turn into fussy eaters. The chicken is as good cold as hot, you say, and I think for us cold would make a welcome change. I'm all but barbecued out for the present, I think.

You're out scrumping plums again, I see:
 'I return home with another bowl of scrumped fruit.' I tell you, you'll get caught one of these days, Nigel. Dixon of Doc Green will be standing at the bottom of the tree with that look on his face:-
'Now what have we got here, young Slater..'
The plums go in a tart with a classic almond filling, like a Bakewell pudding, but feels French.

Like you, I have always been under the impression that marinades were things you had to think about in advance and be very well-prepared and organised over. It has an off-putting quality to it only in that I am not always that organised. You have recently pondered the subject:
'Marinating..is something I have only recently taken to, having assumed, wrongly as it turns out, that I have to be organised and know what I will be eating tomorrow.'
'The concentration of the marinade matters. A highly spiced, intensely flavoured paste will do the job in less than an hour.'
'I love the fact that ingredients sometimes get on with things themselves and we are only a small part of the equation. I don't see why we always have to be in control of everything in the kitchen. The science behind what happens when we cook is interesting, but please leave me some magic and surprise too.'

The result today is 'Grilled lamb with lemon harissa' (page 308) which you marinated for a couple of hours and yet it worked 'just as well as when marinated overnight.' It uses lamb steaks which I find practical for midweek meals. I may have to go in search of some preserved lemon for this one but it looks to me like just the sort of dish I want to cook in late summer with its yoghurt and mint sauce and some hummus on the side. Thank you for that, I am in need of novelty. I am writing this in the garden and a butterfly is sitting on the photo of this dish, eyeing it up intently on its wooden platter. She and me both.


Tuesday, 6 August 2013

August 6th - A day at the beach and Nigel scrumping plums

Dear Nigel,

Summer holidays are not things I write about much. No one wants to hear that you had a lovely time on the beach, that the sun shone every day and that you drifted through the week in a swimming costume and flip flops making sand pies and eating ice cream. That was two weeks ago in North Wales in the British heatwave to rival that of '76 - and to be remembered for almost that long, probably. So I didn't write about it.

This last week we were camping again, down the Gower this time, with my little ones and my two eldest sons - James (26), and Chris (25) on a fleeting visit from Frankfurt. This was more of your characteristically British Summer holiday, complete with howling gales ripping the stitching from part of the awning, and that Great British tradition of taking down the tent in the pouring rain. These sort of things are what holidays are made of, in retrospect, - it is the disasters and discomfort we remember fondly not the plain blue skies and the endless cocktails by the pool.

That aside, there were enough sunny days and long, still evenings to balance out. And a touch of sunburn to prove that the sun was stronger than you first imagined. Two of Chris's friends came out to camp so they could all go surfing together, and there was a memorable evening barbequeing on the campsite and watching a game of cricket played with the tiniest child's cricket bat and stumps, and four lanky lads being bowled out by several small enthusiastic children on the campsite.

Two days earlier it was a beautiful sunny day. We trekked the twenty minutes down to the beach below, marvelling at the sweep of the bay, the three dinosaur spines sticking out of the water on one side, and the meander of the little stream as it made its way to the ocean - a perfect picture postcard scene. We unpacked the rug and the spades and the children ran to paddle at the water's edge. They were soon back - Jellyfish. Lots of jellyfish along the tide line; so they built castles instead. Perhaps it should have told me something, but there had been no storm the night before and the sky was clear blue with just a pleasant breeze.

A woman ran along the waters' edge screaming. It took a moment to realise that she was distressed and not just having fun. It took another moment to run down there to see if she had been stung or something. Then I saw a body and a pair of legs floating. Time goes into slow-motion in a situation like that. Chris had seen me running and was there helping me pull the woman out of the water. Someone else caught her arms. We pulled her short of the tide. An off-duty paramedic ran over and between us we did CPR until the air ambulance arrived. I called to James to take the children away and new friends kept them occupied with beach games. Someone put up a windbreak, others comforted her friend; someone took some details for the medics. I find that I am unnaturally calm and focused.

Afterwards we try to throw ourselves in to a beach day for the kids as the forecast is for a change in the weather. Molly has completely missed the drama. She is upset because I told them to stay out of the water and yet Chris and I were in there for ages until the helicopter came. Sophie says, 'a women died', without emotion. She has big ears. I don't know the fate of the woman. I choose not to try and find out.

It is the best day's weather so far. We stick it out and try and absorb the sun. The children are having a great time. As evening approaches we are paddling and there is a cry for help. It is difficult to gauge sometimes when people are just messing around, but there it goes again. It is a man and his son on body boards and they are being swept out by a rip current. Chris is straight out there with them, seeing their distress. Small groups of people form on the waters' edge. I am aware of a lump in my throat that I have sent my two sons out into dangerous waters. James is back with me now and Chris is with the man and his son. It takes a long, long time (or so it seems) for Chris to bring them in. The coastguard has been called and a boat has been sent out. The man squeezes Chris's shoulder and takes his boy away, close to tears.

We decide it is time to go back to the campsite. Twice in one day is too much. On the way back we pass four coastguards heading our way down the sands.
'It's OK,' I say, ' the man and his boy are safe.'
'It's not them. It's the next one. Three youngsters in an inflatable.'
It is little more than five minutes later. We carry on walking up the track and the lifeboat appears round the headland. A minute later and the air-sea rescue helicopter is also tracking across the bay.

I can't help but feel it must have been unusual currents that day, although it looked near perfect. Two helicopters, two lifeboats, at least six coast guards on foot. No life guards, no warning flags, a well-used holiday beach.

It is a beautiful sunny day, the next day. We drive to Mumbles where there are Italian ice creams by the pier and a funny little train that tootles round the bay to a water park at a 1930's pavilion next to the sea. The water is two foot deep and the children play all afternoon. It is the antidote we need.

You are also having a barbeque - or at least strips of sirloin steak in a barbeque sauce (page 298). It is a barbeque for one which, 'to be honest, I have been waiting for this all week. I splash out on a sirloin steak.' (Am I to take it that if there were friends around we'd be having rump?) The sauce is  a 'sweet, nutty, slightly salty' concoction made with rice wine, dark soy and runny honey, and a handful of sesame seeds and oil; into which the sizzling strips of meat are dipped.

While your friends are away on holiday abroad you are scrumping plums in their back garden: 'Even with tacit permission, helping yourself to someone else's crop feels like stealing, and I walk away in a daze of greed and guilt.'

I was seven years old and eating my first scrumped fruit - a greengage, the like of which I had never seen before. It tasted of anxiety - of beating heart and breathless running and giggling on our backs.

The bulk of the fruit is to be turned into jam, but the rest will be a shallow, juice-soaked plum pie. The pastry is a simple butter shortcrust, woven beautifully into a latticework topping. It is pies like this that I remember from my childhood. But back in the Delia days when cooks TV was taking off, I remember being persuaded to buy something called a lattice roller to make toppings for mince pies. They were everywhere - the 'must have' gadget of that particular Christmas. I never managed to get the damn thing to work without sticking to the rollers. I still have it - out of spite, I think - one day I'm going to master the thing, before I'm in my dotage. The recipe is for 'a latticework pie of plums and raspberries' (page 302), though you say you could use loganberries. That takes me back. Perhaps a pick-your-own would have some? They have a more mellow, less acidic flavour. Perhaps I will grow some next year. The soft fruit is doing nicely this summer. There are white, red and black currants ready for picking; gooseberries and raspberries. I can't complain.

The drained fruit is placed in the lined tart case and the lattice woven on top. After being brushed with milk and baked, I rather like your idea of brushing some of the reserved plum juice onto the cooked pastry topping and returning to the oven for five minutes. It has something of that caramelised fruit toffee taste that we fight over at the edge of the tin where the juice has bubbled over, and which has to scraped at whilst hot as it welds itself to the metal the minute it hits the sink. Cook's perk.


Sunday, 28 July 2013

July 28th - A trip to the zoo and Pickled ginger

Dear Nigel,

"Hey, man, have a drag of this."
An arm was flung backwards, strong and dark-haired. I looked up and saw them all hanging in around in hammocks, all completely stoned out of their heads. There were piles on dirty clothes all over the floor and what looked like the contents of a takeaway curry on a coffee table in front of a large plasma screen TV. The scene looked strangely familiar. The kids were unimpressed. We left the ape enclosure and moved on towards the penguins.

Now you would think that with such a large swimming pool and several keepers whose full-time job it seemed was to hose down guano from the embankments, picking up litter and generally keeping the verges well- kept and presentable, that this lot would be happy. Under the water they shot like darts, chasing each other and proving that age was not an obstacle. But, get them out the water, and, like old people everywhere all you could hear was moan, moan, moan. Shuffling about complaining all the time about their bunions and who was standing in who's place when they'd always stood there, hadn't they Beryl? Beryl shuffled off after her friend and the whole lot of them turned and went in search of a good podiatrist.

Things were no better in the Panda enclosure. We may have booked for our ten minutes gawk at Britain's only Pandas here in Edinburgh Zoo but she had work to do and didn't want to be interrupted. There she sat, Sweetie by name (if not by nature), looking for all the world like she was hammering away on her weaving loom as she stuffed her face with bamboo, oblivious to the cameras and pink blotchy faces behind the glass.

"She doesn't like camera flashes," the young man said. Sweetie was far too busy to pose for photographs and sign autographs. Her minder was impatiently moving people on. Over in the pen next door, Sunshine was lying prostrate and dejected on the ground. He had been doing handstands to impress it seems, she'd slapped him on the face for being so impertinent. And that was it, over for another year. No wonder he was looking so down on his luck.

A trip to the zoo is a childhood milestone every child should enjoy. We spend the next day recovering.

You have been recreating memories of your holidays to Japan in a 'Tuna, pickled ginger and cucumber salad' (page 295). The chief ingredient, pickled ginger is a particular favourite of yours: 'It is not a particularly easy ingredient to introduce into recipes, but it does lend itself quite easily to inclusion in a salad. Anyone who eats sushi regularly will know how good it is with cucumber...add a few other sushi-friendly ingredients - carrots, lime and tuna - and you have a neat little salad.'

My friend Yuri has been introducing me to Japanese salads. Johnathan comes in from the garden with a handful of large oval-shaped white radishes called Mooli. She is back from the Japanese Centre in Derby with library books for the children with cartoon characters and beautifully-formed script, and the right kind of soy sauce. Johnathan is English, Yuri from Kyoto and the children, Lucy -  all Japanese, and BB - an English rose, would never be taken for sisters. I am at home in their calming presence; and the mooli salad is very good. I take a second helping.

Your mind is full of the week's filming for your side of the goldfish bowl. Sweetie could do with some of your desire to explore and educate at the same time. Your mind is mulling over the pleasure to be had in eating something hot with something cold, such as 'that moment when a blistering hot sauce meets an icy dessert' or 'a ball of vanilla ice cream with a stinging-hot espresso.' You come back from the market with a basketful of plums ready to turn them into 'A plum water ice' (page 296) and 'Roast plums, gin and juniper' (page 298); 'probably my favourite pudding of late summer.' Oddly-enough 'a good third of them disappears in the half hour it takes me to unpack the shopping and tidy the fridge.' The same thing happened to me with the bag of greengages my mum left on the kitchen worktop...