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...


Tuesday, 23 July 2013

July 23rd - Molly is six

Dear Nigel,

Today is Molly's Birthday. She is six. My 'last chance' baby is spreading her wings and taken her first glimpse of independence. She gets her first proper bicycle and there is a smile from ear to ear that mirrors that of every middle age man taking possession of his first sports car. It is light blue and 'vintage' for a child more into making dens than playing Princesses. The other day whilst away camping she was making a careful pile of old shoes. 'This is the campfire,' she said, 'and these are the fire-lighters'. Perhaps next year she'll be asking for a Swiss knife and a set of mini hand-grenades.

Going away is always a two-edged sword for anyone who loves their garden. Those coveted flowers you have been waiting oh-so-patiently to open will inevitably flower and be on the way out by the time you come back. If, like me, you forget to specify which plants you'd like watering, you will come back to dead tubs and needy pot plants. The Autumn-fruiting raspberries have decided to arrive early and the birds are enjoying a feast. And there are roses; beautiful full-blown old fashioned roses with perfume wafting through the house. I pick some to take to a friend and they are the perfect summer present. Several of the lettuces are bolting in this heat, but the spinach is coming on leaps and bounds and the summer rhubarb taking over from the Timperley early. My neighbour Val comes over with tiny white bantam eggs and I think they will look lovely hard boiled in a salad.

You are in the mood for making tarts. In this case it is a 'Plum (or greengage) and almond tart' (page 292). A good tart is such a nice way to present the fruit and it makes a treasured crop go that little bit further. Tart tins become like old friends through use; the older, stained (but maybe not battered), the better. I will remember your tip for placing a baking sheet in the oven first. Many times have I suffered with a leaky filling dripping out of a loose-bottomed tin as it cooked not quite quickly enough, it seemed. Preheating the baking sheet 'will help to crisp the base as it cooks'.The frangipane mixture on which the fruit sits is an almost fool-proof way to ensure that fruit juices will be stoppered before they drip out of the tart, although it still helps to select your fruit wisely. In essence, nearly any seasonal fruit can be used to vary this tart (you suggest blackcurrants), although for me peaches and plums have that wow factor here as the fruit gently bakes on top.

I liked this simple recipe of yours for 'Tomato and basil bruschetta' (page 287). Initially caught by the fact that it uses one of my favourite store cupboard staples - marinated artichokes - it was just the sort of dish I would attempt to whip up myself but coming across it in print made it all the easier. On a hot summer's day something a little different to go along with the inevitable salad is welcome. And this makes a simple lunch. We have talked before about keeping the essence of basil going by cooking it in oil rather than have it crisp away to dust on the top of a pizza. Simple bread and oil is the answer. It tasted lovely and deep with the scent of summer basil.

An easy answer to those supermarket potted plants that look so enticing on the shelf but reach a critical point after a few days at home, shrieking 'use me or die' - usually on a day you have chosen to cook something entirely different for that evening's meal. If you've ever been held to ransom by one of these creatures sitting on its bed of dry and fibrey compost, though a hasty, last-minute purchase, then this an excellent antidote to 'the expensive compost heap' (as one friend called her organic veg box castoffs). Bad planning, perhaps, but we all do it. I suppose it's one area where we just want to eat what we want to eat and not be dictated to by the contents of our cupboards all the time. The rebel in us will out and the ingredients for the dish you decided not to make will sit there accusingly. Like the basil.

I am reading your entry for 11th July, about Parmesan. Like you I seem to have numerous different types of graters for this one little cheese. None of them is such a pleasure to use that I want to advertise it to all my friends and family. Inevitably there is a little of piece of hard Parmesan in the back of the fridge, getting harder and harder by the day, so that the day I finally try to use it I have to be careful that my family are actually getting cheese and not a handful of finely grated knuckle on their lasagne. Your brilliant answer - and one which I intend to change to right away - is to grate the entire thing whilst it is new and relatively pliant, and to put it in a box in the freezer. Although this doesn't work for salad dressings, you suggest, it seems an ideal answer to a common problem. In the past the answer, too often, has been to buy yet another piece of cheese and shunt away the little bit of hard stuff until there is a descending pile of ageing little bits of Parmesan that you could happily use in a humane mouse trap. The little bleeders would no doubt be holding up a white flag after chewing away unhappily for some hours making no progress at all.


Wednesday, 10 July 2013

July 10th - A swarm of bees, haymaking and Blue Peter Birthday cakes

Dear Nigel,

The long promised Summer has arrived. Andy Murray wins at Wimbledon at last and the haymaking has started in earnest all around us. The sun casts long shadows in the balm of a late afternoon and there is 'honey still for tea'. This morning I  passed by an old farm wall, too high for me to peep over. Great trees shadowed me and from the other side of the wall came a low murmuring. As I got nearer more voices joined in and the sound got louder. The energy was palpable, the chatter incessant. It was a sound I remember from another life when my dear old friend Raymond would arrive with his straw bee skep, hat and veil, and deftly move the swarm into a new hive with his ungloved hands. He used to say that he'd been stung that many times that he no longer felt it. With his silver pony tail and gypsy earrings he cut a dash wherever and watching him handle the bees was a lesson in gentleness itself.

There is a man at the other side of the village who keeps bees and sells his honey to those in the know. My friend Yuri has bad hay fever this year and we are hoping that a little local honey might help; the idea being that minute traces of local pollen in the honey act as a kind of inoculation. The evidence appears slim but the idea seems a sound one nevertheless; and, without the huge machinery of a GlaxoSmithKline (whose website states they are 'dedicated to improving the quality of human life by enabling people to do more, feel better and live longer.' - when perhaps a better diet, a little exercise and who knows, maybe even a little local honey might do the same.) there is probably not the imperative.

The weekend was dominated by a combined children's party for Sophie and Molly. As has long been the tradition in this house the children put their requests in - Pepper Pig with a crown on for Molly, this year, and  a bee with flowers for Sophie. The cakes when finished are more Blue Peter than Jane Asher - but we like it that way. The one year that I managed to surpass myself and make something that looked like it could potentially be saleable, I found that I was surprisingly disappointed and couldn't work out why. The cake - a  Thomas the Tank Engine, for Tom - was just like the photograph in the book, the colours all the right shade of icing, and yet something was missing. That 'something', I have since come to realise, is that 'homemade' look - like Alison Pearson's bashed-up bought mince pies - that show that love and blood, sweat and guts went into this  and not just a credit card over the counter at the Supermarket.

There is a picture of my cat Martha ( the other Martha in this house) outside your garden gate in July's entry in your diary. She's probably working out how to remove the 'finger-licking chicken' (page 274) from the plate whilst you fuss around with the lighting trying to take a good shot. And she would, that cat has lightening speed. We had Roast chicken in the garden yesterday and I had to have guards watching the meat tray as I took the plates outside. Now I see she's round at your place trying her luck.

The gooseberries are almost ripe for picking. I squeeze one every few days just to check. I don't think they will suffer the fate of the currants who, unless I cover them pretty sharpish with nets as soon as they start to colour, will be decimated in minutes by the birds, but I am looking forward to a decent crop this summer. You are making 'Pork chops and gooseberry sauce' (page 282) with a little cider or vermouth added in which 'the gooseberries will collapse somewhat and make their own sauce.' The sauce is slightly acidic and sharp, the way a good apple sauce should be, cutting the fat of the pork.

More than any herb, without possibly the exception of Tarragon to which I am strangely addicted, it is the Basil plant that reigns throughout the summer. As you point out, 'it loves warmth but it hates to be cooked for more than a few minutes.' But covered in oil and tucked into a roast pepper it stands a chance of giving back some of that summer sunshine that went into its making. I like to make Basil oil when there is not enough leaves for making pesto. And as you'll know, the sheer quantity of basil leaves needed to make one little meal of pesto makes it a very occasional delicacy. The recipe you are preparing basil sauce for is 'Mussel soup with tomato and basil' (page 279). The sauce is left as a thick thread of green which trickles through each bowl of soup.


Monday, 1 July 2013

July 1st - You've been here before I think, and Sports injuries

Dear Nigel,

I think you've been here before - maybe in your dreamtime sleep or that half-remembered snatch as the sun caught you snoozing. I'm reading your entry for 27th June and it's painting an almost exact picture of the cottage:
'The only part of summer I truly enjoy is shade and shadow, and the notion of the mythical meadow with its buttercups, babbling brook and overhanging branches.'

You shall sit in the shade of the trees over there that overhang the little brook (Hoo brook) and look out into the blindingly bright sunshine as it bounces off the sea of yellow heads. When I first came here I felt certain that they must have named this village, Butterton, after the sloping buttercup meadows that completely surround it on every side. The flowers are going over slightly now - not the sheeny hue they once were - and the farmer has let the cows in so they will soon be trampled back into the earth and time. The little brook chatters and laughs as it winds its way down. At this time of year the water is low and the chatter is louder and more playful. When the winter rains make a second waterfall coming down from the high meadow the chatter becomes a constant stream and your ears turn off from the relentless scolding.

Some days are too hot to work. They sap your strength and sleep beckons and pressing tasks suddenly become much less important than a minute ago. I am caught between the sun and the shade, valuing each for its strength. The sun, so fleetingly remembered needs treasuring, and summer memories stored like a feast of hazelnuts in a pocket beneath the branches of a spreading tree.

In the kitchen you are playing with salmon. Today it is 'Salmon and dill patties' (page 264), yesterday a 'salmon and spinach tart' (pg 261). Some foods scream summer and salmon is one of them. Wimbledon is on the tele, strawberries are in the bowl and there is salmon basking in its firm and healthy goodness trying to restore and trim. They say salmon is a mood-enhancer and who can doubt it when the sun is out and there are cricket whites on village greens and an absence of lycra for once.

The patties are served with a simple cucumber and yoghurt sauce. The lift comes from the couple of teaspoons of capers added to the little cakes along with the dill. It is enough to wet the tongue.

There is something about a tart that gives great pleasure. Like you, sometimes it all just seems a little too much like hard work. But then you set to - 'the day when I remember the pleasure of rubbing butter into flour...and then peacefully pushing the pastry into the corners of the tin so it doesn't shrink'. Then there is the baking and the filling to come. But then, oh then, the pride of taking something so spectacular and lovingly made to the table.
'there is something deeply satisfying about taking a huge, golden tart to the table. A tart we have made ourselves. A tart we can give to others knowing it will give as much pleasure to them as making it did to us. Sometimes.'
And that is the point - sometimes. It is treat, a loving gift, and would lose all sense of value if it were a weekly  occurrence.

Last week was Sports Day at my children's school. The usual heats of egg and spoon and sack race, played out against a background of hills and fields as far as the eye will reach. And then the highlight of this annual occasion, the one event that every child will remember for ever more - the Mothers' race.

Not long ago when my older children were small there was a mild competitive streak in me egged on by my two over-competitive older sons and their younger siblings. I was young and fit and healthy and it was a breeze. Nothing changes as far as children are concerned and my younger ones accept no excuses. I am twenty years older than most of the other parents and not as fit as I once was. But who can refuse that look in their eye that is completely unforgiving. So I bust a gut to make my kids happy, and, just as I am reaching the finishing line (in surprisingly first place) I trip and fall. And, with all the gusto of a football player, I throw myself over the line to come in second. I land heavily on one hip bone and am hobbling for the rest of the week. But, as any child will tell you - despite school policy - it's not the taking part that counts, it's the winning. As one of the least competitive people I know these days, I hope my children appreciate the pain involved.