Sunday, 23 June 2013

June 23rd - The story of a ring and a lesson in barbecuing

Dear Nigel,

I want to tell you the story of  a ring; at least not the ring itself but what it means to me. It is a flat-set emerald and diamond ring that once belonged to my great aunt who died fairly recently, and given to me. Although she married at the end of the second world war, this ring is from an earlier era - perhaps 1920's. I have no way of knowing now whether it was bought secondhand or handed down but the production of engagement rings would not have been exactly a priority in wartime Britain.

For me this ring is not about itself but is about the way we protect the fragile members of our family and friends. It is of my great aunt but also about her brothers and sister and how they always took care of her. Every family has a few skeletons hanging in their cupboards - and mine is no exception. It is these stories that give life to an earlier generation, to old photographs and treasured trinkets. Stories to be handed down, embellished or degraded as history sees fit, which show deep down that we are all human - that nothing changes over time.

My great grandmother had three boys and a girl - my granny Burn - at the beginning of the last century. Like most families, it seems, she saw her husband off to the first world war, never to return. To help make ends meet she took in a lodger, and later my great aunt was born. Like all good chaps at the time he wanted to marry her, but she would have none of it as it meant losing her widow's pension. For me, the sad part of all this is the legacy of shame that followed round thereafter. My granny was sent to the grammar school but my great aunt went to the secondary modern because they didn't require a birth certificate to be produced like they did at the grammar school. Things that wouldn't turn a hair these days were part of a culture of shame back then. To me, this ring is about the link of family and of the protection it offers to those who need its sanctuary.

If I ever needed a lesson in how to barbecue properly, I was given one the other night. Going round to my Japanese friend Yuri's for a party, I noticed that not just one but three barbecues were lined up and set ready  with whitened coals. There was more meat than anyone could hope to finish - each one marinaded or skewered to a different recipe. Yuri had tried to temper this meat-fest with a choice of salads including one of finely-sliced Japanese radish; not as peppery as I at first imagined.

The wind had blown in an Italian-Indian Summer who talked of life and the deeper things as clouds sent veils floating across the silver moon in a starless sky. The fire pit kept us warm well into the tender hours as we stared out across the valley beyond the ford, watching the moon play tricks on the landscape, shaping creatures of the night galloping across the meadows.

You are making a 'warm jam of gooseberries and strawberries' - page 255 (which will please a friend of mine who can't get enough gooseberries into a summer). The jam is much less sweet and more runny than normal because it is for immediate consumption - or at least in the next few days. This works well on homemade scones or dribbled into yoghurt, meaning a fresher flavour all round. As an alternative, you suggest adding it to whipped cream and crumbled meringue as a kind of Eton mess. I think this seems a really good idea for a quick-to-serve pud.

One of my all time favourite comfort foods - at any time of the year - is a properly made risotto. The one you are making today is using pearled spelt which has 'a nubbly quality ...(and is) extraordinary comforting.' It handles 'vegetable stock more successfully than rice does, restoring some of the silky texture that is often missing in a traditional risotto when made with vegetable stock.' Interestingly, you are growing your own pea shoots for this recipe on trays of shallow compost. They are also easily available in the supermarkets at this time of year, and, although I was persuaded to add them to a salad the other day, I do prefer them slightly cooked, or wilted, as in this recipe. As with any risotto, the most important ingredient of all is the quality of the stock you use. I shall look forward to making this recipe once I have searched out some pearled spelt.


Monday, 17 June 2013

June 15th - Not just roses, and Sweet sensations

Dear Nigel,

Sometimes, when the countryside looks so idyllic, the flowers are out and the sun is shining, it feels that nothing could go wrong in the world - everything is 'perfick'. Reality soon intervenes. There is a downside to living in fresh air, well away from roads and towns, in a mobile phone black spot, inaccessible at times in the winter. That downside is time- the time it takes for an ambulance on blue light to get here. Almost ten minutes. Too long. An unconscious person would be beyond resuscitation. That's why we have a voluntary system of first responders - with collecting boxes in most pubs and post offices in the area - and unpicturesque custard yellow boxes going up on quaint cottages with defibrillators inside. This week I joined a sizeable proportion of people in my village on a course to know how to access and use the defibrillator, should the need ever arise. The box is fixed to the wall of Bagshaws the Butchers (- unfortunate symbolism). There is another at nearby Alstonefield.

If you ever find yourself out in the countryside and a situation occurs, the system is designed so that any member of the public ringing 999 will be given the location and code to the nearest box. Inside the box is another carry-out box. When opened, it automatically talks you through the procedure in such a way that anyone could administer  the electric shock needed to save a life. CPR (manual chest compression) helps, but time is of the essence - and ten minutes is too long. It is a sobering thought as you take a gentle stroll up that hill, place a picnic by that stream, enjoy a moment of peace and tranquillity.

Talking of Bagshaws the Butcher's; I was up there earlier picking up the most succulent lamb chops to marinade for the barbecue. I'm quite getting the hang of my new toy and find the best part of the procedure is just standing out there on your own with a pair of tongues, sipping a half of cider and listening to the evening chorus - if there is such a thing. The sun sliding down the hillside, insects beginning to stir and sharpen their biting parts; and the stillness of a moment that is purely your own before the masses descend with the carnivorous instinct of an impending famine-alert, and the outdoor air making everyone eat super-size portions of food

You are busy in your vegetable patch tying in sweet peas and purple climbing beans. I was also tying in sweet peas yesterday. For a change I bought a perennial one in pink and white (not the 'original', best-scented of all, but I thought I'd give it a try anyway.) Along with the new garden is an ugly shed which I would like to disguise. It has its uses for storing bikes and the lawnmower so it will have to stay.
You say,'No job in the vegetable patch feels quite so nurturing as tying the delicate stem of a plant to a stick.'

There has been rain these last few days, and in your garden too, though you appear to be enjoying it just a little bit too much, if I might say:
After 'the second driest spring since 1910...the last few days' steady rain...(makes me want) run naked into the garden and stand in the blissful rain, arms held up in thanks.'
So this is what is going on in some parts of London, then.

The French Tarragon seems to have survived our appalling winter when by rights it should have curled up and died at the first heavy frost ( the French being much less hardier than the Russian - but then we are both in agreement as to which has the superior flavour). It is for you 'one of the essential scents of summer'. And me. The necessary trim to your Tarragon allows you to make 'Chicken tarragon mayonnaise' (page 246) This is essentially grilled chicken rolled in cucumber and tarragon mayonnaise and eaten with a handful of pea shoots as a side salad. Being the thoughtful sort of cook you are - and appreciating that not everyone has the time or the inclination to spend too long in the kitchen - you suggest that 'If you don't fancy making your mayonnaise, use a mild proprietary brand.' And why not. Too many chefs in fancy trousers trying to make a good thing hard, I think.

I was chopping up summer rhubarb today trying to decide what to do with it. My thoughts on crumble were 'better in the chilly Autumn days', so I decided to freeze it as there is so much summer fruit in the house at present. Fruits like nectarines have a habit of ripening, over-ripening, and going mouldy all in the same afternoon, it seems.

 By the way I found some of your truly fragrant apricots the other day. These ones were black and like nothing I'd ever tried before. Apparently they are some kind of cross between an apricot and a plum... but they never made it to the chicken with apricots and coconut milk recipe, I have to say.

You, however, have been making a crumble. It is a 'Cherry almond crumble' ( page 249) and I think I am going to try making it before the cherry season ends. Partly because you are adding ground and flaked almonds to the crumble topping and I want to see how this tastes, and partly because you are cooking cherries and, like you, 'it is not often I cook a cherry.' Having sampled a few great french cakes and puddings of late with both ground almonds and cooked cherries, I am intrigued to see how well this combination will adapt to our English crumble. And crumbles are a cinch to make and a joy to eat.

I took the girls to the little estate village of Tissington, just a few miles away, at the weekend to visit the plant nursery. I was very impressed by the diligent workers there picking off slugs from the surrounding gravel and then waddling off back to their duckpond just beyond the car park. These are the sort of places where 'old treasures' can be found and varieties that you only see in old cottage gardens that have been there decades.

Past the imposing Hall and the church and the farm cottages; round the corner, down a tiny lane, is a tiny, immaculate and beautiful vintage sweetshop selling jars of fizzy sours and strawberry laces on high shelves and mingled with push-along toys and '50's kitsch. It's a perfect place to take the kids - big ones or small ones - though heaven knows how they manage to make a go of it. Perhaps it's the online business. Either way 'Homes and Antiques' magazine just gave it one of their top three of vintage shops 2013. It's called 'Edward and Vintage' and you can tuck in online.

Mr. Edward, I presume, with his floppy old-fashioned haircut, was a dab-hand at dealing with indecisive children, making up a pound's worth with a couple of this, a handful of that, until clammy little hands could grab the candystripe paper bags and run laughing out of the shop to sit on the drystone wall and suck.I think we all have a favourite sweetshop from our childhood where memories are stronger than any lesson we ever learnt at school - the spangles that cut your tongue in two, the apple bombs that smelt of compost, the butter cushions that had a sheen like spun silk. We all remember those times.


Sunday, 9 June 2013

June 8th - Guerilla gardening and Barbecue Summers

Dear Nigel,

I have been doing a spot of guerrilla gardening - of a sort. There's been a barn restoration going on beside my cottage which is nearly finished now. Lately, I've sat and watched a couple of swallows sitting on the telephone wire joining the cottage to the barn, swooping in and out to their nest by a little red tractor with flat tyres (like an old dinky toy with sad eyes). Beside the barn is a small piece of land bound by railings just above the woodshed. I've been looking longingly at said bit of land for a while. The garden here is tiny - too tiny for a proper vegetable garden - but I miss my rows of perpetual spinach and rhubarb chard and the cut-and-come-again salad crops that are such a joy to harvest with scissors, straight into the salad bowl.

So it occurred to me that nobody might really want said bit of land and it would be perfect for a small veg patch. I tentatively asked if I could grow a few herbs around the edges - although by 'herbs' I obviously meant a couple of rows of Raspberry canes, rhubarb, leeks and some red cabbages. John ( my landlord) thought it would make his life easier if I keep it tidy for him. A few days later a load of top soil appeared from nowhere, and a few evenings after that a man with a rotavator turned up and spent all evening working, all for the price of a cup of tea.

So off I tripped off to the nursery with ideas for a few plants, and found myself at the till with half of Mr MacGregor's garden.
'I think I spend more on plants than I do on the kids,' I idly quipped.
I see the headlines now: 'Children neglected as (single mum) indulges in tray of cabbage plug plants.' Shock. Horror. Close up of Pak choi.

The Summer is at last with us and it is wonderful to be able to eat in the garden and sip wine late into the evening. Will and I have been tackling the new barbecue; trying to eradicate all previous memories of appalling barbecue sessions by learning how to use it properly and what interesting things we can find to cook on it. We spend a lovely evening with marinated steaks and lamb and mint burgers and Hannah declares it 'the best barbecue ever'. (Praise indeed as Hannah is not prone to compliments, at least where I'm concerned). I feel we are conquering another bit of territory and it is losing its awe.

I am reading your recipe for 'Gooseberry crumble cake' (page 238). I seem to have had a few of these kind of cakes with a crumble topping lately and am very taken by them. The gooseberry bushes in the garden are far from fruiting so I may have to visit the freezer department of my local supermarket. I never seem to see them for sale in the fresh fruit department, although perhaps a good pick-your-own might be a good place to start a little later in the summer.

I think this recipe would work with frozen fruit though as gooseberries hold their shape well. You use a mixture of golden caster sugar and light muscovado with ground almonds folded into the mix a bit later. The fruit is simply top and tailed, scattered on top of the cake and the crumble topping added. I like the fact that the fruit is left whole and not sweetened as is usually the case with gooseberries. There is plenty of toffee sweetness in the cake and crumble and a layer of tartness is welcome.

Apricots are temperamental little fruits. It is impossible to judge without tasting whether they will be worth the effort or not. Often, you choose to bake the fruit with honey or poach with plenty of sugar and perhaps some vanilla or orange zest or even elderflower cordial (which I have noticed turning up in quite a few recipes of late, where once it was only a midsummer drink with ice and mint).

Today's apricots, though beautiful to look at 'flushed with vermilion and freckled with deepest ruby', are a disappointment. You take them to the kitchen and add them to the chicken curry that you are making. Like you, I have previously only added the dried variety (or semi-dried  ready-to-eat, whatever that really means) to savoury dishes, mainly Moroccan. You are very pleased with the result for 'Chicken with apricots and coconut milk' (page 241): 'Rather than the sweetness overkill I feared, the apricots bring a welcome tang to the coconut-scented sauce and produce a partnership with the chicken that deserves investigating further.'

Summer fruit is so wonderful to look at piled up in all its vibrant hues or nestled into tiny baskets in the greengrocer's that, like you, I am a kid in a sweetshop wanting to bring everything home - far more than we can possibly consume - because it all just looks so good. Summer has arrived and we must savour every last bit of juice trickling down our chins. It is the only way that we can make the summer appear longer - those endless summer days of childhood that we had thought were all but gone; of bicycles and the wind in our hair, scraped knees and grass stains on our clothes.


Saturday, 1 June 2013

May 31st - Fitting pieces of sky and the Rendezvous Cafe

Dear Nigel,

A couple of years ago I happened to go into a tiny shop in Grasmere in the Lake District to find myself surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of boxes of jigsaws. I was amazed to find that people are still inflicting these objects of torture on their nearest and dearest and those already in enough pain in hospital wards. My Dad always accompanied Holidays and Christmases with a table containing a swathe of unfinished sky and some other object (- a boat, thatched cottage, buxom wench in mop cap and lupins etc.....who on earth commissions such naff paintings?). These unfinished jigsaws were the bane of my life as a child - untidy, unfinished, completely pointless and irritatingly controlling. Especially the sky.

Today I fitted a bit more sky into the picture. Today I finished a bit of unfinished.

All my life we had been visiting my Grandparents by the sea for our holidays; coming from a tiny village in the Lake District to the seaside town of Whitley Bay, near the mouth of the Tyne. And every time we would walk over the causeway to St. Mary's island and the lighthouse to fish in the rock pools.
'One day I'll take you up the lighthouse, just you and me,'my Grandpa would say, patting my hand. He'd been there many times over the years with my mum and her brother and sister but during my childhood it remained resolutely closed...always just one day... And then one day in my late teens it opened up again for folk to visit. But by then, of course, he was too old to climb the winding spiral staircase to the top. And then, of course, he died. So we never went, my Grandpa and me.

Time went by, as it does, and the promise always hung there in the day...And so today, more than twenty five years later, I took Will, Sophie and Molly and my mum for a trip down the coast and a climb up the lighthouse to look out over the Northumbrian coastline and down towards the white dome of the Spanish city in the distance; and fitted yet one more piece of sky into the jigsaw that is my life.

A bit of a nostalgia trip coming back here after so many years. I also wanted to see if the Rendezvous Cafe was still there on the promenade where we had queued so many, many times over the years, to buy slippy, silky 'venetian' ice creams in sugar cones with chocolate flakes if we'd been good. And a ride on a braided donkey or the swing boats on the sand.

Built in the 1930's when my Grandparents were moving into their newly built home up the road, I remembered it from my 60's/70's childhood, still a beacon of shiny Formica and chrome with huge arched metal-framed windows. I wanted to see if it still existed, and if it did, whether the fact that it had remained so untouched for so long, might mean that it had resisted the 'improvements' that were the fate of most such coffee bars. It was pleasingly retro before retro was invented and I loved it even then.

I was not disappointed. And the beautiful acrylic paintings by Emma Holliday and a poem by the late Julia Darling showed I was not alone in appreciating the 'tacky' (in the best sense of the word) Formica world. A chance to gaze over the pink and yellow chequered  promenade at the rolling waves from a mug of frothy coffee whilst the winds seeped through the single-glazed metal frames and large letters spelling 'ICES' on the outside wall drew people to the arched windows down one side. The acrylics seemed just the right medium to capture the brash and vibrant retro environment, still drawing the crowds, yet comfortingly not over-restored. Forward thinking, perhaps, or just a true sense of style.

So what have you been up to whilst we have been away for a half-term break? Work, work, work, it seems:
'I spend pretty much the whole day writing and recipe testing. There is no particular place reserved for this, and today I am holed up in the basement at the kitchen table...As the evening draws in, I put a match to the lanterns in the fireplace and write by their flickering amber light.' And for supper? 'a treat to eat something made by someone else' (for a change) - a simple sandwich of sourdough bread piled with fried mushrooms and grated cheese which James 'cooks in a shallow pan, the crusts turning crisp and deep gold, the cheese between oozing and peeping at the edges...A perfect thing.' There is a time, a stillness, a paring back of life when the simplest thing is the perfect thing. It arrives on a small wooden board and sliced into six fingers.

I saw the photograph of your cupboard of bowls the other day which you had rearranged, probably for the umpteenth time, to help you clear your mind for writing. You would understand the messiness of jigsaws, I feel.When I come home and the place is in disorder I can't begin to think once more until I have tidied up and made space for my mind to just be. There is a jangling with clutter, like nails scraped down a wall, that unnerves me and will not let me rest. I will come and sit by your flickering amber light and listen to the silence of your thoughts instead.

I turn the page of your diary to June and there exploding from the front of the page is a geisha of a peony unfurling its deep pink silk gown against the dark green leaves. Mine are still  like the heads of knitting needles jutting from balls of rampant wool. I wonder if a few days sun will be enough to bring things on enough or whether it will just be an apology for a summer this year.

I catch you in the act of preparing cupcakes - something you have sworn blind to avoid at all cost. But no, there is a twist - not sugar frosting and heart-shaped confetti for you, but 'Cheese, ham and apple muffins' (page 222) to make a little piece of sublime cheese go a long way. The cheese in question is 'a small lump of Anne Wigmore's Spenwood, a firm ewe's milk cheese...It has something of an aged pecorino about it.' It is matched with some ham 'from the sort of well-cared-for pig that probably had a Christian name.' The muffins will need eating on the same day but I don't foresee that being much of a problem in this house. Used to knocking out cheese scones by the dozen, I haven't often had my muffin tins out of the cupboard. The sweet muffins are often larger than either I or the little ones want to eat, and a cake that won't keep a couple of days seems too much faff. But savoury is a different matter. You choose to eat these still warm from the oven with the scent of baked cheese wafting through the kitchen. Who could refuse?