Friday, 28 February 2014

G is for Greens are good for you

Dear Nigel,

Having decided what we are having for dinner tonight - Lamb cutlets with mustard seed and coconut (page 167) - and shopped diligently, I am left looking at a cabbage. The recipe calls for 300g Savoy or other dark-leaved cabbage to accompany the cutlets. The crinkly-veined, dark skinned beauty and I regard each other with suspicion. Every time I pass on my way towards the fridge she is there, glowing. I haven't let cabbage pass my lips since....ooh, 1974 I think. The way that children do, I decided that I didn't like cabbage. And that was that. It's amazing how many plates of school dinners, posh dinner parties, close relatives, distant friends you can manage to avoid offending whilst still sticking to your code of 'those things which I do not eat'. But now the greatest test is questioning your own judgement; seeing whether the absolute decision of a nine year old child should still control the choices of a 48 year old woman. I'm hoping that a new way of cooking the said cabbage - in this instance it is to be shredded and fried in a little butter and/or oil - will provide new more pleasant memories.

I had to take Poppy to the Vet yesterday to have some stitches out. Ours is a large animal veterinary practice, primarily, serving most of the farms in our local area. So it wasn't surprising, really, to find two cartoon character farmers standing in front of me in the queue complaining about the new changes in the forms for TB testing and the tightening up of regulations. Did they want their heifers testing or didn't they? Well, that was a difficult one...The queue for open surgery was getting longer and longer. Big dogs and small dogs, all with uncanny resemblance to their owners, came in through the door. But rules is rules and the receptionist was having none of it - no doubt she'd heard it all many times before. How many heifers did they want testing now? Still no decision. You'd think some farmers had all the time in the world. She tried a different tack, played on the solidarity thing of other moaning farmers she had known. You could almost hear the cogs turning, thumb screws going on. They knew they were going to have to go through the hoops, like it or not. At what point we all wanted to know were they going to back down and grump off in their landrover back to the farm. The vet would be round before Friday and the cows scanned and tested she said. A dob of flat cap and out they marched in their wellies. The old vicarage (now the veterinary centre) breathed a collective sigh of relief and business resumed once more.

There is a wonderfully aromatic scent as I mix the spices into a paste with the coconut cream and roll the cutlets in it. I am looking forward to this dish. I am still unsure about the cabbage but decide that it will be fried in a fairly generous amount of butter and hopefully that will do the trick. There is always something else to be done whilst meat is marinading, and in this case it involves feeding the dog before she takes a liking to lamb cutlets. I find hiding it in the microwave prevents excavations of the canine/feline type. There is a lovely gentle warmth to the smell of the cutlets griddling in their sticky coating. In the end I find I want to keep all the sticky half-burnt marinade and chuck it on top as this has some of the best flavours. And as for the cabbage...well, it was really rather nice. And my guests agree too.

Kevin was out planting a new hedgerow this morning on the edge of the hill looking down the valley at the bottom of Old Eric's farm. It has the most amazing views but is also an exposed and windy spot. The winds of late have brought huge trees crashing down all over the place. Lots of old Oak trees and others with shallow roots loosened by the heavy rains and then blown over by the subsequent winds. Over at my friend Yuri's farmhouse a huge tree came down on their chimney a week or so ago. I arrive to pick her up for coffee and find lots of men with chain saws busy at work. It has cracked the end wall of the house and traumatised the children, who thought an aeroplane had hit the house. It is odd to see so many large old trees lying roots up in the air. When you look at how shallow their roots systems are to support such fine old specimens, it is amazing that they survived this long, I think. There will be plenty of good wood around for local craftsmen to work on anyway.


Saturday, 22 February 2014

A guest at my table - Johnathan

He is one of my oldest friends; I have known him nearly all my life. Coming through the door he bobs his head as he wipes his feet roughly on the mat and comes over to give me a kiss as I stand, oven gloves in hand, by the stove. We are having fish cakes tonight, the significance of which won't have eluded him. I chivvy him over to the table and take pan to plate. Better to eat it whilst it's hot.

Johnathan has a light tan from a day's climbing and is cruising on a wave of adrenalin and fresh air. He wears a simple navy crew neck jumper and jeans over his slim frame. He is a good looking guy yet everything is understated about him. Nothing is out of place and nothing shouts to be noticed. But people notice him and love him for his integrity and his kindness.

Having spent years living in London and escaping only at weekends, he has now planted himself firmly in his beloved Yorkshire, the place of his birth. He has come home. His hair is close-cropped, greying only slightly though he is heading towards forty now. There is a criss-cross pattern on his forehead with fine wrinkles going both ways that belie some of the strains and stresses in his life which stay firmly under wraps. He is an intensely private person.

Now and then he breaks to go outside for a cigarette. But not when we're eating. I tell him of our problems; he sympathises and mends things where he can. Each time there is a list of jobs that need doing - mainly mending things which the kids have broken, drilling holes, fixing screws. He is good at that. He can take a 'to do' list and cross them off one by one until they are done. This takes willpower and patience which he has in buckets and of which I sense mine are seriously depleted.

It is a fine sunny day and we are standing in the most beautiful garden I have ever seen. It isn't large but every single flower in it is at its best and perfect just for today. The gardeners keep it that way. Earlier in the morning we have been at the hospital. I am not afraid of such places. For me, my main contact with hospitals has been with the happy times of bringing children into the world. Of flowers, and cards, and people visiting with huge smiles on their faces. Today it is an impersonal place, the staff busy with their work.
'Let's get out of here,' he says, a slight note of irritation in his voice. But only slight. There are no fond farewells just a form to sign, and we are gone. It is a relief to get out of the air conditioning and into the sunshine and breathe fresh air once more.

The new place is welcoming, in contrast. And here we stand in the garden; this perfect garden which has to be perfect for today and for every today; for every today is someone's last here. My little girls are one and two, dressed in matching buttercup yellow dresses and little hair slides pinning up their curls. Their outfits have been so carefully chosen, as has mine, today, for every little thing matters. The meaning of everything has to be the largest that it can be;  the elephant that is squashed inside the room beside us is taking up all the space there is.

And this is when I notice something else about Johnathan, something I had inwardly suspected but never managed to explain to myself. I saw his dying in my own terms. I wept, I cried, I emptied buckets and gave myself headaches; but it changed nothing. He sits us all down in a semi-circle facing him. Like the most Regal of kings he sits calmly and sedately on his wheelchair throne and explains to us in completely matter-of-fact terms how his next few weeks will be managed, what treatments there would be to alleviate his suffering, how his decline would most likely go. And all this without a single tear being shed or a flicker of fear or pain.

I have never seen a man choose to manage his own dying in this way, with such dignity and fortitude. They seem like values of a bygone era that are rarely seen these days where feelings are encouraged to be expressed at every occasion, however trivial at times. And yet he is far from being a man who is unable to express his own feelings.

As I look into his face I realise I can see completely through his nose. The blood has withdrawn itself along with the cancer and the nose is like glass. I fancy that if I touch it it will shatter in my hand. When it comes to the time to leave he gets up, with supreme effort, out of his wheelchair to stand on his one remaining leg so that we can hug. I give him a pained look as I stand back, turning my head diagonally to look at him as I do so. He mirrors me, one way and the other. We have talked.

A week later he is dead. The roses in the garden are just as perfect on the day he died.

And, although it is the saddest of saddest things, he is with me now eating enough fish cakes for two with the metabolism of a gangly teenager. And will always be with me. I promised him that I'd live for the two of us - and it can be quite exhausting trying to live two people's lives - and I try to hold on to something of the dignity with which he bore his dying when I'm faced with all the rubbish and adversity with which my own life seems to have had more than its fair share of (or so it seems to me).
For it is nothing in comparison.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

F is for 'Far from the Madding Crowd'. And Fish

Dear Nigel,
From the moment we moved here nearly two years ago now I knew we'd done the right thing. Growing up in tiny villages myself, and also with my older children, I wanted Sophie and Molly to know a country childhood in all its simplicity and groundedness. In every way it has been 'Far from the Madding Crowd' and I love its closeness and quirkiness as much as anything. My friend Lucy Sheeran, who lives locally, does these wonderful minimal style prints (

Another friend looks at it and says, 'But..' And I know what she's going to say, because she doesn't get it at all. She's going to say 'but you don't own it, it doesn't belong to you.' And it's true, we rent. But then, I don't own the cottage next door either, or the stream behind which cuts into the landscape, or the church spire in the distance. And yet, for all that, there is somehow more permanence here in this captured moment in the snow than in any for sale sign going up or down. We seek to grasp on to things and pin them down but what is really ours to keep? Things change constantly - children grow up, spouses leave, people die - things happen beyond our control and all we ever really have are the memories of those moments. Things we hold dear, even homes, can crumble into dust in a moment's carelessness.

I am looking for a good fish recipe to make that will use some of the wonderful smoked fish that I buy at Robson's smoke house in Craster, Northumberland, just down the road from my mum's, where we come for a few days holiday. I can buy it back home but this has the kind of provenance and depth of flavour that feeds my soul. I find your recipe for 'Smoked Haddock and Leek Cakes' (page 203). It is simple enough and yet the leeks give it that added dimension. The recipe is for lumpy, rough-textured fish cakes which I guess will be more like patties. I think this might be more my kind of fish cake anyway, though I wonder what the troops will make of it. In your cookery thoughts you mention that a more classic result could be obtained by mashing the potato to a cream, but I think not today. I am in want of a bit of novelty, and for my guest to know that I didn't just open a packet from the freezer department of the supermarket.

The fishcakes are quick and easy to make. The potatoes don't need peeling, the leeks soften and the haddock poaches whilst the potatoes boil. Then a quick mix and into the frying pan in rough patties, shaped with the help of a serving spoon and a spatula as the mixture is quite loose. The only quibble I have regards checking for the opaqueness of the cooked fish. The oak-smoked haddock I bought was a rich copper colour whose opaqueness was simply not to be fathomed. I kept my eye on the clock and guessed that the ten minutes you suggested would be adequate. It was.

All in all, another lovely recipe; quick and easy to make. There seemed an awful lot of leeks at first but they soon cooked right down and their addition to the fish cakes is just right. Sometimes smoked haddock can be a bit much and apt to repeat itself over and over again; so this recipe is good because it tempers the flavour. I thought the potato would be more chunky and maybe it was just the variety I used but it was only mildly lumpy, along with the leeks and haddock. 'Comfort food,' my mum said, substantial food for an older person, I thought, or anyone getting over an illness. But tasty, very very tasty all the same.

We watched the fishing boats coming in to the little harbour at Seahouses this afternoon. They were unloading crates of crabs, and lobsters with their pincers tied together; not much fish. Most of the boats were up out of the water having their bottoms scraped and a bit of paint and repair. The lifeboat passed on a routine practise run and the flat bottomed boats which take divers out to the wrecks were moored up to the harbour wall. Billy Shields, though, was still running trips to see the seals on the Farne Islands and all along the coastline the sand dunes were falling away onto the beaches as the storms of late have carved away at them from beneath making them unsafe to play in.


Saturday, 15 February 2014

A guest at my table - Elizabeth

Some people come out simply surrounded by an aura of energy that clings to them like water from the lake from which they've just emerged. They don't glide into a room unseen or mingle inconspicuously with other guests. Their very personalities are infused with life and blood and vividness. My guest is of this ilk. I shall call her Auntie Liz, because this is what I've always called her, though she is not related to me by blood.

Energy glows vividly in her face. Bright eyes, tight curls and the sort of natural large pink cheeks that children like to paint on pictures. Her voice is penetrating and clear, slightly clipped, tempered by a smattering of newly-inherited raw Cumbrian vowels. It can reach the end of a Rugby pitch without changing key, bringing dogs and small boys to heel. For this is the voice of Matron, the House Master's wife at a small public school in West Cumberland, which dominated the tiny village of St. Bees in which I grew up.

Although brought up in a different world to us there were no airs and graces to her. A life dedicated to Nursing in one form or another had cut through to the practical. And, although her children were often away at boarding school whilst we went to the ordinary village primary school, the two families were very close. Uncle Tony was the Latin Master at the school, and often away in his own little world in the clouds. Two more different people it would be hard to find. He was the Yin to her Yang.

We spent holidays together on Cornish beaches and tramped up snow covered hills in the Lakes 'for fun'. There was no getting out of it. We didn't stop to argue. You didn't. There was great command in everything she said and we all just fell into line. But she was great fun too and demanded as much from herself as anyone else. She never appeared tired or unwilling, whatever the weather. Everything was an adventure, drummed into something greater than a few sandwiches by a boggy stream.

For a child who didn't inhabit that kind of closeted world of an English Public School, we spent a fair bit of time in it. It was there that I saw my first film, at the tender age of four. Whilst most people's parents were taking them to watch 'Bambi' or 'Cinderella' mine took me to see a Foreign Art film without any words in which the central character - a red balloon - is on the run for the entire film, eventually meeting his demise in a rather deflating ending. I have been traumatised ever since.

We went swimming in the school pool, tramping all over the Rugby pitches and feeding the Pony in the field. Inside was even better. Few get to see the inner workings of these large old school buildings with their dumb waiter lifts that we dared each other to climb into, which took food from the kitchens to the Master's flat and piles of freshly ironed sheets. But my favourite place of all was the basement where the enormous washing proceedings took place. A maze of tunnels and huge overhead pipes,of heat and steam all drenched in a fog of washing soda.

It was down here that I first held the tiniest of little black fur balls in my hands. All nose and feet, eyes firmly closed with a tiny whip of a tail. I was seven years old, holding the tiny wriggling two day old mass that was to be my childhood companion, Luckie, with  infinite care and gentleness. It was a moment. Auntie Liz's dog Sally watched me carefully, never happy until her puppies were all returned. As the days grew longer we would walk the dogs regularly along the beach and up the headland to look at the view. Sometimes, on a clear day, you could see as far as the Isle of Man.

Famous only for being one end of the Coast to Coast walk, and a certain schoolboy by the name of Rowan Atkinson (who my mum regularly picked up on arduous cross country runs and deposited a little closer back to base), the tiny village has remained virtually unchanged. Framed by the old red sandstone school buildings and the church tucked behind the Dandy walk, it nestles in a valley leading down to the sea. I went back a couple of years ago, expecting to see the sort of increase in housing and change of use you find everywhere, but found only a handful of houses more built over the last thirty years, and everything else as untouched as if it were yesterday. There is a strange timelessness to this that shouldn't be, somehow, and it unnerves me and I'm not quite sure why. As if, it is here and I am not.

The main village itself is built of the same degrading pink sandstone as the school. It rubs off to the touch. Main Street, where we rented a house whilst ours was being built, is a wind of cottages with heavy stone mullions painted in black on white, or perhaps brown on white . 'The Funny house', as we called it, was a tiny mid-terrace cottage in which one of the front rooms was used as a Bank several days a week. I was small then, my brother and sister even smaller. Mum would bundle us up with my brother in the large carriage pram, my sister on top and me trailing behind, and march us up the road to Frank Irving's shop for slices of ham and packets of cereal.

All in all, we ate a lot of home cooked food and cakes, compared to other people it seemed. So it was always a great treat to stay at Auntie Liz's for tea whilst my mother was busy elsewhere. I would be allowed to sit and watch TV and have my tea on a tray (something which was unheard of at home). Auntie Liz was busy, busy. She didn't have time to cook. Meals came from the school kitchens and cake out of a packet. There would be Battenburg and French fancies with their pastel fondant coverings, jaffa cakes and a line of crisp chocolate wafer fingers. And somehow, however nice the homemade scones and Victoria sponges back at home, there was something nicer for a child in all these treasures slipped out of packets with their gold writing and coloured foil and slipped onto a plate.

But my favourite image of all, which seems to sum up everything to me about Auntie Liz, is of her on the beach in Cornwall. Uncle Tony is trying to sleep in a deckchair, my mum is busy with her cine camera. Auntie Liz erupts from the sea in a large child's swimming costume with a flippy skirt and a rubber swimming hat with flowers on clamped to her head. She is carrying a six foot blue inflatable sausage and jumps over the waves, in as much as her comfortable matronly curves will allow, and chases us children up the beach like a ten year old, whooping like a Red Indian.

She sits here now, at the table, her napkin on her lap, tucking in with gusto. Age doesn't seem to have slowed her down much and her conversation is just as bright. A force of life, one might say.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

E is for 'Eat' and Expand

Dear Nigel,

OK, so it's been one of those sorts of days; best laid plans and all that out of the window....Had to take the dog to the Vet for an operation, got caught in a really bad sudden snow blizzard on the top road going to Buxton, avoided swerving buses and visibility down to 20 mph, decided to cancel my appointment in case the school should close, marinated the lamb, went back to fetch the dog (convenient hour to marinade), forgot leaf coriander to sprinkle, decided it wasn't worth the 20 mile round trip again; and made a bit of a hash of it all in the frying pan. ('Lamb with yoghurt and Turmeric' pg 103.) This one doesn't quite come up to standard, at least my version doesn't. On the plus side, my guest and I still wolfed it down. With the lights turned down low and a bit of artful presentation of the rice, it passed muster.

The frying pan hash was entirely my own fault. Had I added perhaps just a little more groundnut oil, heated it a little more and left the lamb steaks to make a golden crust of the marinade for a little while longer then things would have been fine. But I had to meddle, didn't I; try to turn it just a little too early and so end up with a nice layer of burnt yoghurt on the bottom of the pan, which of course would no longer fry the steaks. We live and learn; or rather we most likely live to make the same mistake over and over again until we finally pluck up the courage to do things properly. (Never said I was a good cook, just an average person in the kitchen who likes to dally now and then.)

Having said that, I think I will be making this one again, and soon. There's far too much doing things with chicken in this house, and, although you say that this recipe can also be used with chicken, personally I will completely ignore that idea as the dish was wonderful with lamb steaks and the meat and the marinade balanced each other so well. I've done similar things to a chicken before, but lamb...well, it just tastes somehow a bit more authentic. It makes me realise just how few different cuts of meat I usually buy. It's so easy to get stuck in the same routine, buy the same things, make the same meals. And lamb is all around us (at least it certainly is round here, although the spring lambs aren't being born quite as yet).

This sudden shower of snow was a bit of a surprise. It's been mud, mud, mud up till now. My older daughter Hannah came over for the weekend, arriving in a dinky pair of beige suede boots. You'd think she'd know by now. I suggest going for a walk and it turns out we can't walk anywhere at all because we don't have walks that don't involve mud. (Too much city life and it's gone to her head.) So we headed into Bakewell where they have things called pavements, and cafes where you don't have to do any walking at all.

The most amusing part was kitting her out for an imminent sponsored trek up Snowdon with her dance group (much to my total amazement). Bakewell is blessed with more outdoor pursuits shops than people under the age of 60. Seeing Hannah posing in the mirror, trying to see if she still looked chic in a pair of plastic trousers doubled me up. The boots, which I think she was hoping to get for a tenner, were apparently the wrong colour and didn't have stiletto heels. Still, daughter and hard-earned cash were parted in the end and we left the store with success. I suggested she might actually want to use her new boots with us occasionally. She snorted. Clearly these boots aren't made for walking...

Getting back to the subject of 'EAT', which I was just getting to, I would just like to say how much I'm enjoying all the recipes in this book. Maybe I'm getting a bit lazy these days but so often when I'm thumbing through some of my old books I find I'm looking rather than cooking. Things which I remember sweating over for hours before friends came for dinner I'm simply refusing to make anymore, particularly fancy stuff that ends up looking ever so slightly pretentious; like you've tried too hard. I was watching some sort of dinner party dustoff, a supposedly 'reality' TV programme with Hannah the other week, and it made me realise how much we've all mainly moved on from that. I'm sure there's still a fair bit of it around but among the lovers of 'good food' that I know there is much more of a culture of informality and almost nakedness to food, exposing flavours rather than covering them up.


Thursday, 6 February 2014

A guest at my table - Raymond

Sometimes the right people drop into your life at just the right time. They often come out of the blue, are people far outside your own orbit and with whom there would never be a chance encounter. Except by chance. Raymond is one of those people.

I first met Raymond in the early '90s. I'd fallen completely in love with a design for a WBC Beehive, which, for those not 'in the know' is one of those sloping slatted white hives with little hats on that look as if they are straight out of Winnie the Pooh. And, thinking there was little more to it than setting it up prettily  in a wildflower meadow and going back a little while later to collect jars of true amber nectar (probably neatly packaged and labeled by the bees themselves), I went along to my local Cornish Beekeepers Association meeting. Suddenly I felt very small and very silly: This room was a hive of major enthusiasts and the conversation and argument was completely over my head. There was little room for a struggling beginner, certainly not one with an over-simplistic line of questioning and a sketchy knowledge.

By the end of the meeting I was all set to creep out, tail between my legs, and turn my beehives into compost bins. But then a little old man sitting at the back of the hall, perhaps in his mid eighties by then, in a navy boiler suit, gold earrings and a ponytail, came over and shook my hand and told me that he also lived in the tiny village of Praze-an-Beeble, just a stone's throw from me as it happens.

As it turned out, he lived in the tiniest little cottage- of childlike proportions - down a stony lane and some distance more, beyond the scope of any vehicle...just like Hansel and Gretal's cottage. He had invited me over to meet his wife, Dolly, who was about 4 ft 6 ins and as slight as a child. Sitting in the scaled down living room over a cup of strong Yorkshire tea, Raymond started talking to me about his life with bees. Slowly, slowly it started to dawn on me that I'd struck gold, as it were, in Bee terms. Here was a man who'd spent the last thirty years or more as The County Beekeeper. What he didn't know about bees didn't seem worth knowing. And yet, a true Yorkshire man in every way, he was scathing of all the expensive Beekeeping equipment that most of the other enthusiasts coveted. My budget wasn't quite up to the mark either. Any idea that this was some cheap little hobby had gone right out of the window long ago. But over the next few months Raymond showed me how 'make-do-and-mend' could work for me.

First we went to Cornwall Farmers at the village crossroads and I bought a pair of small man's white overalls, from which I cut about a foot off the legs. Raymond encouraged me to sew up the fly (something I was swift to do) to keep out angry bees, and tuck them into wellingtons as bees don't walk down, only up. He showed me that Marigolds were as good as fancy bee gloves and that many tools could be simply made or adapted.

Then he did what few true Yorkshiremen might have reasonably done - he gave me two of his beautiful wooden hives with dovetail joints that he had made himself nearly forty years previously and kept oiled and preserved, and a wonderful old honey extractor with a crank handle and spinning arms that held the individual frames in place as honey was spun out of them. It was truly humbling to have such  precious, well-loved presents from someone who seemed to have little himself and yet was so rich and generous in his time, his teaching and his laughter. I have seen bellows smokers like the ones he gave me in museums, but still they worked as well. His frames, all handmade, were just a fraction different to each other so they all had to fit in the hives in a particular order - but none the worse for that. He came at the end of a phone call when my bees were about to swarm, when I was unsure where the Queen was; whatever the problem, however trivial, he was there to hold my hand.

I am pleased to see him at my table tonight because, like many of us, I felt I never got the chance to really thank him for all the many things he did for me. One winter, like the bees, he was suddenly gone. Dolly gave me one of his books and, so typically him, I see a photo carelessly placed inside the dust jacket of him and Dolly in younger years - not just one of his books, but of His Books. An understated celebrity of the Bee world who could slink unnoticed at the back of halls like part of the furniture, which he probably was, living on the edge of life in a tucked away nook where none would find him.

His face is tan and leather with crinkly eyes and his gypsy earrings swing as he throws back his head and laughs at something I have said. There are hollows under his cheekbones and dark shadows around his eyes as if he doesn't sleep well these days. For a man his age his hair is a darker grey than I might expect. It is held in a bush of ponytail. He rarely wore his hat and veil, and never his gloves. He said his hands were virtually immune to stings as he'd been stung that often over the years he hardly felt it anymore. Of Dolly, he is very protective. She is childlike in every way and there are no children to look after her once he is gone. There is nothing old in the way he moves, though. His long arms and legs swing carelessly when he comes down the path to the cottage. His gait is loose as if he has practised yoga all his life. But it is just 'life' - his life and passion - all still inside him and as fresh as ever. Some people never seem to really age, some in face and some in body and mind. Raymond is of the latter. If I said there was a swarm of bees in a tree close by (unlikely I know at this time of year but bear with me), he'd be up the ladder like a flash with his coiled skep which he'd made himself from straw.

It's a remarkable sound, if you ever get the chance, a swarm brewing. I heard one only a few months ago as I walked back through the village one morning. It starts with a gentle hum which gradually grows both in sound and energy. I looked for the swarm but couldn't see it; probably behind the high kitchen wall of Town farm. The energy is palpable, like a room of chanting yoga students. It raises the hairs on the back of your arm and any dreamy or sleepy feelings leave you instantly. All is expectant. This can go on for many hours before the Queen is ready to move.

Raymond is eating his Yorkshire pudding whole-heartedly. For a lithe old man he has a staunch appetite. Although it is many years since he left his native Yorkshire for the milder Cornish climate he still retains a broad Yorkshire dialect and gentle mocking humour.
'Not bad, lass,' he says, as he polishes it off and goes back for seconds.

Monday, 3 February 2014

D is for Discovered

Dear Nigel,

One of my all-time favourites of yours has always been your recipe for toad in the hole. I think it was the subtle addition of a little whole-grain mustard that swung it for me. So I was intrigued to find a vegetarian offering of the famous 'Toad' in your new book : 'Onion and Mushroom Toad in the Hole' (pg 307).The Caerphilly was a little harder to come by than I expected but worth the effort as it adds a note of piquancy, and, together with the caramelised shallots and the mustard make for sturdy tastes that don't shriek 'vegetarian option'.

Tom did ask me whether I could sneak a couple of sausages into the corner for him but I refused. It wouldn't look too good to have a couple of renegade sausages peeping out from the corner of the photo. And, when it came down to it, even he had to agree that it was a lovely meal in itself and didn't need the addition of a little meat. Do your guests always make such demands? Anyway, as I told him, he wasn't my sole guest tonight. Tonight I am bringing Yorkshire Pudding to a true Yorkshire man so I had better get this right.

Using the water from the rehydrated porcini to make a gravy, with a heavy dash of Marsala, is good economy as well as being a delicious accompaniment to the toad. I'm also rather taken by your alternative version with aubergine and feta, and am planning to make that next week. All in all, I'm rather pleased to discover another item to add to that rather select list of recipes of family staples - the sort of recipes that get made week after week after week.

Tom and I made the great long trek today that reaches to the out-of-town shopping merry go round hovering on the outskirts of Manchester. We went prepared to invest the entire day in one shop only kitting him out in his first real suit for imminent University interviews. Standing in the huge car park of Marks and Spencer's it wasn't hard to spot Archie towering away above the sleek low-slung saloons and the line of waxed and polished cars. Landrovers - at least old ones like Archie- only really respond to a jet spray to detach the cake of mud clinging from their folding steps. 

Once inside, dressed in our ordinary casual wear we still feel conspicuous. No one really notices what you wear out in the country and you can get away with just about anything if you put your mind to it. Very liberating when you can wear that holey jumper without a second thought as to what someone else may think. There is often an inversely proportional equation to dress, which is unwritten and accepted, that the richest farmers and landowners of all are often to be found in the sort of clothes you might use to line a dog's basket with. This pays dividends when deciding you want to dress down today - unless, of course, you are heading up to town, in which case you invariably forget until it is too late.

Here in the shop we feel on display as much as the merchandise. I am aware of fashions that seem to have passed me by. There is a woman in trainers with wedge heels and I remark to Tom that I've never seen the like stomping around our neck of the woods. Perhaps it really is a different world.

We spend the afternoon kitting him out, and when, eventually, he emerges from the changing rooms in the final ensemble I find I am looking proudly at a young man emerging from the grunge of college life (if only temporarily).
'First time?' a lady offers. I nod and we exchange a look. The shop assistants look pleased that they have managed to tame this gangly youth into shape. He even stands on two legs for once and smiles that big enormous grin of his that takes in all the world. It has been a successful trip. We limp home exhausted and depleted. There is talk of a haircut, of Samson and Delilah proportions, that will chop off his Rubenesque curls. I am impressed that he is taking his future so seriously. On the way back we talk of throwing out his old converse trainers - the ones with several holes in them - but when I look later I find he has sneaked them into his bag again to take with him back to college, and I know that next time when I pick him up they will be sitting on the end of his feet again.