Thursday, 30 January 2014

A guest at my table - Auntie Jane

She shimmies into the room in her pointed slingbacks and starts drumming on the table absent-mindedly with her coral coloured nails. There is a multitude of gilt rings on each hand holding back a tide of wrinkled knuckles. Everything about Auntie Jane is in a state of constant alert. She asks me about the children but one eye is on the clock and the other catching her reflection in the glass of a photo frame. She pats her hair, picks something off her teeth and flashes me a smile of off-white dentures. It is the early '70s in Auntie Jane's world and teeth, if you have them, are a luxury to be cleaned in a glass of fizzy water by the bed each night. My Grandpa cleans his with soap and a nailbrush and one of the highlights of my visit is to watch him take them out each day as he stands there is his vest and stripy pyjamas.

Auntie Jane's house is just up the road from my Grandparents; a curving drive of 1930's semis with beautiful stained glass panels in the landing windows. My Grandparents seem to have lots of this pretty glass in all their windows - a house that was new when they bought it and made just for them. Auntie Jane's house has had all the pretty glass removed and there are diamond panes and a different door that plays songs when we ring. Even as a young child I can tell the difference between the house I love and this one. This one is full of toys - the sort of toys I would never find in our house or my grandparents.

The front room has what Uncle Billy calls his Bar. It is a curving structure made of outside rock with lots of upside down bottles screwed to the walls. On the wooden top there is a doll. It is like my Sindy dolls and is wearing a bikini. But unlike my Sindy dolls this one does a wiggle and shakes up drinks. It makes Uncle Billy laugh and we laugh too. We are easily pleased.

Auntie Jane makes us sit in the back room which has been extended somehow into the garden. My Granny has a back door that opens out of the middle of the bay window but Auntie Jane's has lots of glass and space and nowhere for the tomato plants to sit. I am too young to realise why I like the curving dark wood doorknobs or the picture rail which has pictures on chains. I only know that they are part of what makes Granny's house special and so different to our own. Auntie Jane's is full of toys that they like playing with. There is a large water fountain made of translucent orange plastic sitting in the middle of the room. I have never seen one before. It is arranged in three tiers and is lit from within when Auntie Jane plugs it in. We spend ages interrupting the flow of water with our fingers and trying to plug the hole to make it stop.

Eventually Auntie Jane grows bored with us and our stories about the picnics in the Lake District we go on each weekend and the dull afternoons hanging around the sailing club as our parents leave us to go off racing. (How times have changed). She marches us into the lemon grove that is her kitchen to hunt for sweets. It is like being in the jungle here as there are creepers looping all over the ceiling. From them are hanging lemons and oranges and bananas - a veritable fruit salad - all made from the finest plastic. I am never sure what you are supposed to do in this room, whether it is for sitting in or cooking.

My Granny still cooks in the little lean-to behind the garage where the mangle still sits in the corner of the room glaring at the newer washing machine. But fish is fried there, and lots of steam, and Blackbird it is like a sunny foreign country which I have never been to before, since the furthest my parents would take us to was Cornwall. Auntie Jane has strange orange arms and freckles and a nest of dark orange hair that is set firm and reminds me of those outside doormats with bristles on them. Her arms are always bare, the flesh somehow loose and coming away from the bone. (She likes these sleeveless dresses, even in the middle of winter, and she is wearing one today even though there is a light scattering of snow outside and I am layering up to keep warm.)

We sit in the back room again and pay homage to the three perfect boys who sit in photo frames smiling out at us from the fireplace. They fade a little more each time we visit; these nephews of hers who live all the way in America and never write or ring or visit. But still we have to talk about them each time we come. I often wondered why my Granny sent us up the road each time to visit 'Auntie Jane', who wasn't our proper Auntie of course. And I think maybe it was because of these three perfect boys who lived so far away and yet so near to her heart.

As children, you never stop to think how old anyone is. Everyone is old to you, unless they are a child. A twenty one year old mum is an adult and old people have grey hair and comfortable laps to sit in. Auntie Jane has orange hair - a strange colour like the fizzy drinks that I don't yet like. My Granny tells me that she is as old as Grandpa and quite a bit older than her. But that can't be right. Uncle Billy is not much older than my Dad and he still plays with dolls and laughs. My Mum says Auntie Jane is actually called Auntie Gladys, but at some point she decided she wanted to be called Auntie Jane instead. Perhaps it is because she seems much younger to us. Only when she blinks, and her eyelids are like solid blue shells coming down and sort of crinkly, do I see a different kind of 'old' that I am unused to in my fresh-faced Mother and my gently powdered Babushka-shaped Granny. The coloured nails frighten me. I am unused to seeing them around. They don't look like the kind of hands that I would want to hold.

Auntie Gladys had another life that I knew nothing about. I only know the Auntie Jane that I see now. My picture is  a different picture to the one my Mum and Granny knew before. If people are going to reincarnate themselves they had better do it to a child or else move house. A little fronting on the windows and a string of fruit salad is not going to convince the huddle of arm-folded Geordies down the street. But a child only sees what he sees.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

C is for degrees of Certainty

Dear Nigel,

There has been a light covering of snow today together with a barrage of frozen pellets giving a bubble-wrap appearance to the ground outside. It is chillingly cold and I have been dipping into your book for something warm and comforting to make for dinner. The recipe I settle on is 'Chicken with Fennel and Leek' (pg 257). My guest has affectations of 'glamour' but I know that simple comfort food like this will be what her palate would choose if left to its own devices.

The chicken thighs are browning nicely in the oil and butter, the spitting noises in the pan masking the rush of the brook outside the window which is running very fast due to all the rain we've had recently. A damp, dark winter. The woman in front of me at the checkout was taking an inordinate amount of time choosing the right bar of chocolate with which to comfort herself against it all. I don't blame her, chocolate has been known to help in many a time of stress. All first aid boxes should come equipped with some, I think.

Aside from Christmas, the great chocolate-eating time, of course, is Easter. There is something so very lovely about an elongated globe of chocolate wrapped in pastel foils and embellished with ribbon that is so completely out of proportion to the often rather disappointing contents within. Even if the chocolate is a good one the egg is often empty. I want to see mine explode with a fountain of tiny chocolates - at least a kilo's worth - within.

In our house the season is usually accompanied by the remembering, by one or other of my older ones, of the case of the missing Easter Egg. Such is the magnitude of this crime that even now, almost twenty years later, the perpetrator has never been allowed to forget it.

My Mum had come to stay bearing gifts of many Easter eggs, one for each one of us - large quantitative ones for small children and rather special 'adult' ones for us, smaller and beautifully packaged. I took great delight in placing mine on the top shelf in the walk-in pantry where I could gaze at it in all its prettiness every time I stepped through the door. Here it remained for an uncharacteristically long time.

Eventually the day came when I had to destroy its prettiness and consume the contents. I carefully opened the beautifully sealed box, took out the plastic moulding, lined with a lovely peony-shaded foil and....nothing. The box was completely empty. I looked in the box again, as if this would magically make the chocolate appear, and then called all my suspects for a line up and inspection.

That the dog had not eaten it was irrefutable as the pantry shelf was too high and anyway she would have no doubt eaten the cardboard box as well. That a mouse, or even a whole family of them, had not got in and consumed the entire contents was also pretty certain as not many mice, in my experience, have worked out how to replace the packaging with such care as to cover up their crime. Of my cast of suspects things were less clear cut. Several of them appeared to look guilty and only an in depth knowledge of their psychological makeup would uncover the perpetrator. One had the ability to swear blind that he wasn't even in the vicinity with such conviction that it was impossible to believe otherwise, even if later proved to be the villain. This would prove to be a very handy characteristic in his future Sales work. Another would simply go red in the face and appear guilty as hell despite having a cast iron alibi to the contrary.

The master of this crime, I believed, was both very clever in covering up his crime for so long and also fairly ingenious in his reconstruction. William. Five years old and with no flies on him. The body of evidence was 'clear and convincing' it seemed to me, in legal terms. His way of averting punishment was to flash an impossibly endearing wicked grin that inevitably worked in his favour every time.

I consigned the empty box to the bin and the perpetrator to his room. The lasting regret I had was for the prettiness of the box which I could have kept, rather than for the uneaten chocolate within. Today I have no problem passing the chocolate counter. My comfort will come in the form of chicken and leeks and fennel. There are no surprises in this dish. All is just as it should be. We live in an age of uncertainty, and to comfort ourselves, we need to know that some things in life at least are certain. 'Familiar flavours. A meal to nourish,' you say.

I decamp the bubbling stock, the chicken and vegetables to my largest casserole as the saute pan is struggling to cope with so much. Perhaps your pan is larger than mine but a litre of stock and six thighs and veg take up quite some room. I inhale deeply and feel comforted already. It is snowing properly outside for the first time this winter. My guest is glammed up and ready for a stroll down to the trattoria it appears. I put an extra log on the log burner.

As we sit down to eat and I take my first few mouthfuls I realise something else. There is something new. The lemon juice added right at the end of cooking, and, strangely enough the chopped parsley, have made this a light and optimistic dish as well. Not swimming in cream or other fattening things, it is a good candidate for a light and healthy diet. Well done, Nigel.


Tuesday, 21 January 2014

A guest at my table - John

Meatballs are a fitting meal for my guest - something he will instantly recognise even if the pasta is a new-fangled thing which may prove difficult. I have put out the best silver for him and napkins because he will be expecting this, even just for supper. He is slow making his way to the table and his clenched hand trembles on my arm as I lead him there, exposing a polkadot arrangement of liver spots on thin papery skin that looks almost transparent these days.

I first met John at a time in my life when I had five small children to care for and thought nothing of fitting in a small evening job before starting my studies for a degree with the Open University at eleven o'clock at night - such is the boundless energy of youth. I wish I had a fifth of it these days.

John was one of my small band of old people I cared for, gave supper to or made ready for bed, read stories to or brought news on the bush telegraph wire from their relatives up the road - as most of them were related in some way. But John was slightly different. He lived in a different world behind the high prison walls of his own secret garden in the middle of the nearby town, in a utopia few were encouraged to intrude upon. It was an unusual house because it was old and rambling with several acres of ground bang in the middle of the town. The house was older, far older, than the town and although compulsory purchase orders had whittled the land down substantially, it was still a foreign land within.

For John it was his sanctuary from a life that had brought with it nightly screaming and dreams that could not be articulated. As I sat on the ancient counterpane, reading to him from his lifetime scrapbook (which, like the house itself, had stopped in time decades earlier like the Grandfather clock that refuses to tick anymore), I would look at his ancient wizened face with it's hollowed out cheekbones and sunken eye sockets and wonder about this life.

Like many young men of good families he had risen rapidly through the ranks to Major and gone off to serve his country in some foreign land. But John had found himself before long in a Japanese prisoner of war camp biding his time, dealing with daily mental and physical torture. As I care for his long, extended body which is unnaturally sinewy and willowy and had never recovered from the extend period of malnutrition he experienced in the camp, I note the unusual purple scars, like the healed up hands of Christ on the cross. I make no comment. We have this understanding, he and I, the things we will talk about and the things which are a bridge too far.

I am interested in this history because my degree is in History and he is happy to talk to me about the past that is still his present daily, and hauntingly every night. It is interesting that these meatballs I have made are pork because that is something he relishes. He tells me of the food rationing in the camp and how they grew vegetables and kept pigs for their Japanese captors' table. Every ten days of so they would be allowed a little pork with their rice.

The pigs were a useful distraction too as the Japanese refused to go near their excrement. This was used and dug into the vegetable patch to help the vegetables grow. But the Japanese' reluctance to go near it meant that it was a useful place to hide things in as well as they would never go near it. During the war artists in the camp made small portrait pictures of the soldiers there on pieces of toilet paper as so many men never returned from those camps. These were then wrapped and dug into the soil below the pig manure.

After the war they were dug up and returned to many of the families of the soldiers. John's portrait hung in a small frame at the bottom of the stairs; so small against the backdrop of many that if you didn't know its history you would pass it by carelessly. It is the likeness of a very young man, probably no older than my sons now, yet on whose shoulders I lifetime already weighs like lead.

His great passion was his old fashioned roses and often in an evening he would take to his electric scooter and we would wander round the little parterres and he would show me this or that one in full bloom with a scented nectar that hung in the still air. Old kitchen gardens were a passion of mine and this one, though turned mainly over to roses and other flowers, had still something of the magic within its walls.

Sometimes he would have a parcel of fresh figs for me to take back, for there were too many for him and his wife to consume, and I would take them home and bake them in the Aga and we would  eat them with homemade goats' yoghurt and honey from my own hives. Sorrel and Snowdrop my Anglo-nubian goats still milked well, providing a rich creamy milk that made a wonderfully thick Greek-style yoghurt.

In his later life John could be difficult and argumentative. He was often short with his long-suffering wife who had long ago moved herself to the other side of the house so that she could get some sleep. But to me he was always charming and kind. The life that he chose to lead was measured out in dreams of summers past. The prison walls also protect those within them. For John, they were his protection from the modern world which had grown up around him literally and metaphorically. We lived an inner life in which the cucumber sandwiches and the clink of teaspoons on bone china never ended and the dancing never stopped.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

B is for the dog's Bollocks

Dear Nigel,

Tonight's recipe is for 'my favourite meatballs, ever' (Sausage Balls, Mustard Cream Sauce - pg 129); so I'm expecting great things from you, Nigel. The meatballs and I don't get off to a great start, however, as the non-chef in me is having trouble getting them out of their skins. According to you, I should simply be able to slit them from end to end and pull the skin apart. I thought I'd bought a good batch of sausages but maybe the 40% pork belly (with 40% pork shoulder) is proving too slimy for easy extraction. In the end I resort to cutting the links and squeezing from the middle so that the sausagemeat fires out of each end of the sausage. This at least seems to work. Then I am kneading the sausagemeat with handfuls of thyme, shaping them into small balls. I don't achieve the twenty four you indicate - more like twelve - and the process leaves me cold.

I know, in theory, and from just about every cook on tele, that I should be enjoying squidging this cold, clammy stuff in my hands, but I am not. It is cold and dark outside and I am tired. Being told I should be enjoying something which I am clearly not makes me feel worse. Perhaps I have just spent too much of my adult life with my hand up an unwell chicken's bottom to delight in such things anymore (- the provenance of the over-enthusiastic city farmer in my experience, with his full clobber of 'country' clothing).

The meatballs are gently braising in their covering of stock and looking more like something I may want to eat for supper. I hope my guest will appreciate the effort I've gone to. Meatballs have somehow been one of those standard family dishes that have passed me by. Never having grown up with a can of Campbell's meatballs I suppose I've never tried to emulate it. I'm interested, but I've yet to be convinced. After the cream and Dijon are added  it looks more like a cheap tin of tomato soup and I decide to leave it to its own devices - the mercurial magic that only seems to happen when you don't try and meddle.

Molly has been ill all week with a very high temperature so I have been house-bound and am starting to get cabin fever. Luckily she makes some progress in this last day or so and I am able to sprint to the shops for provisions as we are doing a Mother Hubbard here. So I get the ingredients, including some good quality Pappardelle ribbons which will hopefully take up the thin liquid sauce. You say it doesn't thicken and I don't forsee it happening in the next five minutes either. Pappardelle comes from the verb 'pappare' which means to gobble up, apparently. And this is what my guest and I will certainly be doing. He is here already and I am still busy cooking. We are both hungry now.

An ill person in the house is debilitating all round. You know yourself what it feels like to just want to give in to being ill and have someone else pass that drink from the table to you because to move your head would be to set in motion a series of waves which go all the way from one side to the other. And to be wrapped in cashmere and have your pillows plumped is surely what it's all about. The downside to this is, of course, that nothing much else gets done. So a whole week is resigned to the scrap heap, with only a few weak smiles from a pastry-coloured face to let me know that it is appreciated.

There is a level of chatter that can happen anywhere, at anytime  - at work, in the pub, at the school gates - which is cyclical and has the power to make you want to run screaming out of your own 'Groundhog day' madness. It may consist of the weather, how much you all hate your boss; or, in our case, why the Honker Bus is late yet again, and whether they are trying to tuck another job in before taking our little ones to school in the next village. For reasons unknown you find yourself involved in these conversations, unable to escape, saying the same platitudes over and over again, whilst you look on with horror at your former self and wonder for the nth time how your life came down to this.

At times like this I have to go and phone a friend who can offer me some sanity. The dog has more wisdom in one wag of her tail, and later we are off up the moors to see the shapes made by a low-lying mist with the sun on it. Hedge trimmers have been out stripping bark from sap and there are jagged pencils sticking from hedgerows all along the roadside. My friend, who is a Peak National Park Ranger here, tells me that all the trees are being individually shaken and checked for safety - a mammoth task. The uncharacteristically wet winter so far has left the meadows boggy and dank. The cows have been moved to drier ground and the sheep are congregating in small groups moaning about the churned up mess the cows have left behind. They stand on the high ground watching as I jump from clod to clod of tufted grass. Men have been known to drown in these parts, they say, lost for weeks beneath a quicksand of mud. We hurry on chasing the last rays of the sun, following the spire of the church in the distance as it guides us home like an upright compass. The sun falls fast at this time of year, faster than we are walking,you and I.

By the time my guest and I sit down to eat and I take my first mouthful you have me convinced. For me, it's not particularly the meatballs that do it, but the sauce....Nigel, you surpass yourself. One may look at the photo and see - meatballs. But dip into the sauce and you just know the whole process that has gone in to making this dish. That toffee-flavoured sticky stuff that melds to a grill pan of sausages has been evaporated and dispersed and only the memory of that flavour is floating on your taste buds. In the cream, in the stock, tickled by the Dijon. The dog's Bollocks indeed.


Tuesday, 14 January 2014

A guest at my table - Suzanne

Sometimes, even now, when I'm lying on my back in the long grass on a summer's day, my eyes half-closed and sunbeams bouncing off my eyelashes, I dream I'm back in that long hot summer of '79 in a small town in Normandy, lying on a towel by the open air public swimming pool with most of my school friends. Our  french exchange partners are all congregated together talking animatedly about us in a language we don't understand. We are bored, blotchy and wilting under the heat in our freckled English skins. Mutiny has started to break out as we compare notes as to who has the most obnoxious frog for a partner.

I think I score quite highly as my partner is four years older than me, obviously bored at having to drag round a child and spends most of her time trying to imprison me in her large house when all the others are happy to be rid of their charges for a few hours.

Suzanne is applying cherry lip gloss with the aid of a small handbag mirror. She fancies one of the brothers of another penfriend. She giggles as Alison shows her something in 'Jackie' magazine - the one we all get; the only one to get. On this trip we are thrown together. Here, it is us versus them - the garlic breathed, hairy underarmed skinny french girls who prance rather than walk and seem to know how to eat without putting on weight. We cover ourselves in towels and Ambre Solaire and try not to look self-conscious in our new bikinis which don't seem to fit properly.

She offers me the sickly smelling stick and I wrinkle my nose and say ' no thanks'. There is a mint one leaking out of the bottom of my beach bag which I have made from a large towel and some rope cord to a pattern in the magazine. I am proud of it for five minutes until it starts to lose its shape and look less like the one in the picture and more like the remains of a trip to the laundrette.Suzanne exudes the confidence that I lack. I put it down to hormones. All those of a well-developed 'D' cup look down on those of us a bit late off the starting blocks. The clothes that don't quite hang properly, the boobtube tops that threaten to fall down at any minute, the green eyeshadow that we haven't quite worked out how to apply (despite the many diagrams in our bible).

Our penfriends are friends so we are thrown together with a couple of others and herded round to the pool most days as the weather is too hot to do anything much else. This is the summer I am faced with a plate of raw meat swimming in an ocean of blood. It is also the summer that I am bewitched by a huge globe of warm succulent leaves which have to be stripped and dipped into a tepid speckled cream and scraped against your teeth. It is heaven; and my first taste of artichoke that stays with me long after the holiday is wrapped up and fixed into an album. Small square prints with a slightly faded look to them behind a wrap of gradually yellowing plastic that will ruin them all in time.

She comes through the door and greets me as if it was yesterday that we cut our ties into pieces and waved goodbye to the hockey pitch and other implements of torture and went our separate ways. Me, to the college up the road where A levels and academia were the order of the day, and she to the Tech college down the road. Like an invisible divide down the streets of Belfast our school was suddenly torn apart. And ne'er the twain should meet or have anything to do with each other again.

I lost touch with Suzanne at this point. Our lives diverged. Soon I was off to another town, to work, a home, another life. But I have lived a hundred lifetimes since that day. I carry with me the scars of battles won and lost. She is fresh as a daisy still living for the day. We sit and she sips her coke from the bottle, ignoring the glass beside. There are no wrinkles on her face, no hollow cheekbones or sleepless baby nights ringing her eyes.

She talks of the small and the daily, the future only as far as next week. And maybe this is just as well, for I am sitting in the rest room above the bank where I have just started working, looking through a newspaper someone else has left behind. And there in the black on white is a name I recognise. A name I used to know. There is a tragedy ( in every sense). A landslide victory by the conservatives, which has the bank a-buzzing and hyper, is celebrated by a disco in a large marquee down by the river. I don't go because I have joined another world where everyone lives to work and the social life is incestuous. But Suzanne went to dance, and, stepping on a live wire, danced her last.

But she is here now, unaware, and with all the certainty of youth that the future will be eternal and blessed. It will be forever the summer of '89.

But what of those left behind? What of the parents who will never know the joy of Grandchildren. Who choose to move away because the pain of others' pity is too great to carry. The brothers at that gently formative age who will rage with their anger against the world and all there in it. Where will their lives end up. And what of Alison, the Best friend through thick and thin, from playschool to puberty. One on one side of the street, one on the other. The sort of friends you never tried to tackle because they had each other linked and wouldn't sway. Their lives mapped out perhaps with husbands drinking in the same pub; their children, a boy and girl each matching bumps apart. What happens when the future dissolves before your very eyes and has to be remade in a different way, bits missing where nothing matches up. Perhaps there is another friend but there will be no symmetry, no shared memories to feed on. Perhaps Alison will turn to her husband for support; will become clingy and needy and afraid. Who knows.

Only today is visible now. And today is 1981. We have finished our exams and have been sitting on the swings celebrating with a coke for her and Dandelion and burdock for me. Some of us are smoking, some are not. There is a feeling of elation and unreality and something soft and sinking that hasn't sunk in yet which marks the end of something for us all, that this place will no longer be ours.

Sitting at the table now I am struck by how much more life I have lived - more than twice - and yet youth glows in its certainty in a way that few of us are lucky-enough to hold onto for long. It is a brightly burning torch which lights the way, and brings illumination to the faces of all it touches.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

A is for Adventure

Dear Nigel,

Every new beginning brings butterflies to your stomach. Your heart pounds, your stomach churns and you feel you can't eat. But eat we must, and soon those butterflies with their gossamer wings will float away downstream with only the trick of the light catching their rainbow plume, like oil on water. And all will be calm once more. This is how it is when the new becomes the accepted.

But in the beginning it is an Adventure, rivalling any untrod path taken by Ranulph Fiennes: a journey into the unknown. For our journey we will take a map : 'Eat' - the little book of fast food. This will provide a point of reference, an anchoring to the daily routine of what to make for dinner tonight. You will be my map reader and I will go tie the guy ropes and get out the billycans. We have a guest for supper.

Tonight we are going to have 'Goat's Cheese Frittata' (page 99).There is a French connection with my guest so I buy a thick Swiss roll slice of French Chevre at the Bakewell Deli. It has a velvet skin marked out like the tyre of a bicycle and, cut into coins, will rest like pennies on a corpse on the top of our Frittata tonight. This cheese is a firmer Goats cheese than the snow white creamy-textured stuff I once used to make from my own goats' milk , strained through a piece of cheesecloth in a large sieve, in the hope that my children would eat that which they would not drink (because it was 'too creamy' apparently). It is better for cooking than most cheeses made from cows milk when the object is to keep the cheese intact. The photo shows how simple and enticing this can be.

There are free range eggs with dark coloured yolks and spinach and thyme and basil from the Greengrocer. I am cooking for one meal only, eschewing my usual sprint to the supermarket and savouring the provenance of locally produced eggs and the 'shop local' posters everywhere I go. Bakewell is still a thriving market town, here in the Peak District, but only using it will keep it that way. I resolve to change some of my shopping habits and bring a bit more balance to that area of my life. Shopping for food should be a pleasure, not a chore, and making it into a kind of social occasion gives it value. It requires time. But then the recipe I am making requires less; so equanimity is restored.

In making this recipe, I have to say I started wilting the spinach in the little pan, but then decided to give up and pour it all into another larger pan and slam on a lid. I think I'm just a very messy cook, and probably too impatient to watch the mountain of spinach diminish in batches. The other thing which I almost did was to get out a bigger frying pan. I love my little french Iron pan, like you love your little pan, and it's been with me a good twenty years or more getting more non-stick with every use; yet I did look at the quantities and think it wouldn't quite make it. But I held faith, and you were right. As I realised when my guest and I cut into the frittata, the whole point is the depth of the layers of succulent spinach, herbs and the little patties of goats cheese floating like islands on the top.

On my drive out most days I take the little cut-through along 'Dog Lane' which takes me to the main road, passing the farm where old Eric still lives alone with his little dog. This is the same old Eric I wrote to you about last year who found packets of powdered rat poison in his fridge, which his daughter-in-law had put there for safe-keeping (don't ask me why), and carefully made a cottage pie for himself and his dog with a 'savory topping' of rat poison on top. Eric ended up in Hospital, his dog at the Vet's. Both made a full recovery.

 He was supposed to be kept an eye on but he's a stubborn old mule. Last week Kevin caught him trying to saw down a tree. (I guess he must be in his late eighties). This week old Eric's decided he wants to go into a home so they've made arrangements for a day's visit to one nearby. But anxiety about it is keeping the old man awake at nights. Sometimes when I drive past and he's flat out asleep in his conservatory with his boots in the air I wonder for him, but I can't see the life within him giving up that easily somehow. We'll see whether he manages a whole day at the home. Chances are he'll be back home by Friday.

I hadn't expected to locate the Rosemary needed in this recipe so easily in the garden, but this year has been a mild winter here so far. Last year lots of things died beneath the eighteen inches or more of snow at times which hung around for so long. Even hardy things which you would expect to last like Buddleias and, yes, Rosemary bushes, perished under their iron blanket. This year will mean more restocking of my herb garden when I get my seeds for the vegetable patch. John has offered to lay a path for me across the patch with bits of left-over reclaimed stone from his various building jobs. It is good to have neighbours like this. Payment will be made in cake and heartfelt thanks.

The meal is prepared, the table is laid and I know my guest will be drinking coke and I will have Dandelion and burdock. The recipe says for one person but we will make it do two of us with some french bread on the side. She is, after all sixteen and therefore permanently on a diet. But now I am giving too much away and you will have to wait and see. I am nervous, uneasy; what will she see in me? I do what people do when they are uneasy and time hangs heavy - I fiddle with a tablecloth, I wash the dishes, I pour a medicinal glass of wine, I hunt for suitable music to play. I wait.


Thursday, 9 January 2014


'In the Life of the spirit
the importance of things
is measured not by their
material value but by their
value to the soul.'
                   Leo Tolstoy

There can be few finer things in life than Good Food and Good Company. Sometimes this may involve prestige-enhancing recipes, the best china and a ring of glasses round the table; at others it is bread and soup and a packet of butter if you're lucky. Most of my favourite entertaining falls into the latter these days. Time is short, energy is finite. This is the way I like to cook. This is the way Nigel likes to write. His recipe, in My pan, served up to 'A guest at my table'. (All will become clear in the fullness of time.) We make a good team, he and I.

All the following recipes can be found in 'EAT - the little book of fast food.'

As Nigel says, ' making yourself and others something good to eat can be so little trouble and so much pleasure. And much more satisfying than coming home to a meal in a box.'

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

On another note (no. ten) - New Beginnings

The Kitchen Diaries have finished, volumes one and two, and I have been following them for the last two years with 'Letters to Nigel Slater'. My plan right now is to try and get them into book form if I can find an agent and publisher who will have me, as, at long last there are hopefully 'enough words'....I can't tell you what an achievement that in itself means to me personally.

In the mean time, I am planning to carry on writing 'Letters to Nigel Slater' but with a few changes which I hope you will enjoy. I am busy thumbing through my new little copy of 'Eat' which, although I've had for a couple of months or so, refused to look at whilst I was still writing from 'The Kitchen Diaries' as I didn't want a cross of influence: It was like waiting for Christmas as a child - feeling all over the wrapped present and trying to guess what's inside. So, present unwrapped, I'm really pleased to find, as usual, something of an echo in the way I want to cook Today. Simply, quickly, with flavour and soul. Thank you, Nigel.

So, my plan is to carry on writing my usual posts from somewhere deep, deep in the middle of nowhere to 'Our man in London' - Nigel; and dipping in and out of 'Eat' to follow recipes for Dinner. If I can organise a techie teenager - or even a six year old - I will attempt to photograph said meals and add them to my posts. This is part one of the plan. The other part is to try and interleave these with a fictional character and story as 'A guest at my table'. This is all a bit untried and tested and I'm entering new territory so I hope you'll bare with me whilst I iron out any teething troubles. If all else fails we can go back to the old formula, but I'd like to extend your horizons, and mine, and see if this is possible. Were I writing 'a book' then this conversation would be immaterial since the finished copy would never reach the shelves unless it was cast iron; but to create something new from nothing minute by minute as we go along is both exciting and very frightening. Let's see....

Dickens wrote his books in serial installments, and, whilst not planning to emulate the great man in any way, I hope you will keep coming back for more. Thank you to everyone for all your support, tweets and comments. Any feedback - good or bad - would be most welcome. I hope you continue to enjoy 'Letters to Nigel Slater'.