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.