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.


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