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.



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