Thursday, 24 April 2014

K is for Kindness and the Kingmaker scenario

Dear Nigel,

In games of strategy the Kingmaker scenario is often unavoidable. Such behaviour is regarded as unsportsmanlike but not against the rules. The Kingmaker scenario is where a player who is unable to win the game himself has the ability to determine which of the other players is the overall winner.

Whether this is Party politics, or Family politics involving the contentious issue of dividing up an unequal quantity of Easter eggs to absent (but not unaware) members of the family (- when did the Easter bunny start to have these problems?) - life was surely never meant to be this difficult. It's enough to make you want to melt the whole lot down and make a single bar with easily-divided chunks.

Easter egg hunts are an annual favourite in our house and a plate of properly-made hot cross buns dripping in unholy amounts of butter. The holiday weather mellows to a golden sunset here at mum's and we sit on a sun-bleached driftwood log looking out over a calm and peaceful sea full of promise for the summer to come. Easter is the start of it all, somehow, with winter firmly put to bed and seeds to sow in ready anticipation of a gradually warming soil back at home.

The dish I am making for my guest this week is a simple Chinese-inspired dish of chicken, broccoli and cashew nuts. I want to see how fast and easy good things to eat can really be; and this is definitely one of those- a dish you can rustle up in minutes, looks good, tastes fab (thank you Nigel) and would slot very neatly into a weekly routine of hurried affairs when the call to eat is louder than the call to cook....and you really can get it on the table before you have time to stuff that Mars Bar into your mouth. I don't believe that I'm the only cook who can't cook a lovely meal on an empty stomach. There's a fine line between building up an appetite and ritual torture, I think. (Stir-fried Chicken with Cashews and Broccoli. pg 343.) The thin-stemmed broccoli has just the right amount of crunch to balance the meal. I'm so used to thoughtlessly reaching for those football shaped bouquets that sometimes I fail to consider the alternate possibilities (purple-sprouting broccoli aside, for which I have a particular soft spot and take great pleasure in watching grow).

Having recently subjected a friend to the hottest dish available in Soho (of the culinary variety I might add), I want to reassure them that there is a lot less heat in most Chinese dishes:

We are sitting next to a lovely girl from Denmark whose family are from Northern China (whose food this particular restaurant specialises in) who is happily guiding us through the best dishes on the menu as she deftly wraps  pig's intestines round her chopsticks out of a cloudy soup and eats. Although it seems a great idea to take the advice of someone who actually knows what they're talking about when it comes to food, sometimes the cultural differences can almost prove too great a divide. I survive the meal intact, my companion however spends the next day suffering.

I have a new neighbour next door at last. Terry the game keeper has moved on to another cottage a couple of miles away. My new neighbour is a different kettle of fish. He drives a sports car and tells me he is hugely security-conscious and puts locks on his shed and lighting up outside. I mourn for the truly dark nights we used to have when the nights were dark and the stars intensely  bright. I have taken a leaf out of his book and invested in a padlock for the shed. But the dog will warn me of any passing cats feet and I can't tell the difference between feeling safe inside and feeling imprisoned. We chat and make plans to spend time over a bottle of wine one evening. I make some comment about the practicality of his lovely little sports car, given the 18 inches of snow sunk on the lane for weeks on end last year (this passing winter being an unusual case). He has already seen the light and is looking about for something a bit higher up off the ground. In his townie way he is settling in and soon, I can tell, the place will start to weave its magic around him too. And maybe he, also, will learn to be a little less frightened of the dark.

He brings two cats with him - big fat townie cats with attitude. They stare me down as I come back from our walk on the meadows with Poppy. One is a dusty grey with lots of hair, who the kids call 'Smokie'. He is the Godfather, I think; full of disdain and ruthless power. The other, they call 'Bandito' on account of his Zorro-like mask. This cat looks truly evil. I can see that there will be a tussle for power and territory; perhaps pistols at dawn or claws at three o'clock on a damp and moonlit night. They are moving in and marking their territory, flexing their muscles and preparing for a stand-off. Clint Eastwood waits in the shadows.


Wednesday, 16 April 2014

A guest at my table - John Daniel

I was minding the time in a tiny second hand bookshop, shoved somewhere up a narrow alleyway in a town I no longer remember. Crouching down amongst the fug of slightly damp, brown paper hedges, I came across a book called 'Cottesbrooke: An English Kitchen Garden' by Susan Campbell. It was 1989 and this book only published a couple of years earlier seemed to have been read and discarded rapidly. But as I started to read this diary of one of the last surviving working Kitchen Gardens in Northamptonshire, documented for the year 1984-85, I found myself standing beyond the door of 'The Secret Garden', looking in on a world that no one knew existed anymore; and I was totally and utterly enchanted. This for me was a formative moment; the moment a passion was ignited whose flame has stayed pure to this day.

I started to soak up everything I could about old Kitchen Gardens, tracing their outline at National Trust Houses where often only a couple of espalier trees remained against a sun drenched wall. I followed architectural books and plans of old hot houses, visited the glasshouses at Kew, traced plant histories in physic gardens and old herbals. And all the while, like a ball of wool being wound, this passion grew and grew.

So when, finally, in 1991, I found myself with an outline for a kitchen garden, hemmed in by the walls of an old farmyard at our new home, I knew exactly what I wanted to create. At just that moment I chanced upon a scruffy little note on the village noticeboard advertising box hedging for sale by the foot. In my mind there was a perfect square parterre with clipped box hedges and filled with herbs and vegetables; with gravel paths to ward off slugs and spanned at the edges with an arch of climbing roses and clematis.

Seeing that the number was just down the road I took a chance and hammered on the old cottage door. A tall man with iron grey hair and a heavy moustache came to the door, still dressed in a pair of enormous wellies. He was gruff but friendly, more so when he realised I'd come about the hedging. He was turning over the whole garden to vegetables, he said, and the old hedging was in the way. We went to look at it and I took a double take. Although it was a little ragged and sitting amongst a good crop of wild grass, the shape was undeniably the same shape in my mind's eye. How many feet did I need? he asked. All of it, I replied, all exactly as it was. Over the next weekend I moved the entire parterre, chunk by chunk, in a wheelbarrow up the road to our cottage farmhouse at the top. The roots of box are shallow and compact and it was like fitting a jigsaw back into place, rotating the corners to just the right angle, as if it had been grown exactly for the space in which it was intended.

John Daniel came up to check I was watering it properly and that all the roots were properly covered and anchored in. Then he came up again with seedlings; vegetables he had a surplus of. Over the next few months all sorts of gifts started arriving; each one a lovingly tended little specimen cocooned within an old yoghurt pot or a piece of empty toilet roll. I had often noted the ingenuity of allotment holders in creating plant holders and supports out of recycled 'rubbish', but John Daniel had this down to a fine art. Nothing was ever wasted in his house. Cloches were made out of orange squash bottles and homemade beer to line the slug defence system. Cd's whirred in the sunshine deterring birds from his precious seedlings and the copper stripped from old wiring to wind around the pots - a second line of defence against the inebriated slugs.

John Daniel lived on his own with only his old sheepdog Nell for company. His wife had died a few years earlier and with her the desire to remain kempt for the rest of humanity's sake. He was reverting back to nature along with the plants that he tended. His plan was to buy as little as possible from an actual shop, preferring to scavenge from the multitude of skips left outside more affluent homes and to grow everything that he ate. I worried that his diet might be a little boring at times, but I needn't have worried. He brought a pan of nettle soup made from the tips of young nettles and a little lemon thyme. It was wonderful. Never did I have the chance to thank him in a way that would have been acceptable. But in exchange, he would look around and see what was going to waste. If the builders we had in had left some plastic pipes then he would go off with those to construct a tower to grow courgettes in or a tumbler for a cascade of tiny tomatoes that grew plump and red in the Cornish sunshine.

In the Summertime, I took him into the cool of the cowshed wall where an old lean-to greenhouse had been constructed. 'This', I told him emphatically, 'was the sole reason we had bought this particular house'. And then I showed him inside my secret palace. The 'Greenhouse', as such was about 30 feet long and had been constructed around a very old grapevine. The previous owner had told me that the grapevine was at least 80 years old. The roots were outside under the shade of a wonderfully-shaped willow tree where I parked the baby's pram, and came in through the wall  and along the roof the entire length of the house. There was a gutter which dripped water onto the roots, which they loved, and the 'stem' of the vine was the diameter of a man's arm. In summer we were harvesting six large bunches of red grapes a day just to keep from going mouldy. The neighbours were kept in presents and my then-husband had me treading grapes in the bathtub to turn into wine. (Somehow, though, it wasn't an occupation he was prepared to do himself).

I made Dolmades out of the young vine leaves and took them over to John Daniel's. We sat on old striped deckchairs next to the blue plastic potato barrel to eat; and I suddenly realised that I'd made something very fine indeed. There was an ease to this kind of living, a giving and receiving that was both natural and uncomplicated. So often there is no gift without a kind of price tag fixed at some imaginary point in the future that will be called in. With John Daniel there was none of this. The only money that ever changed hands was in square footage over a length of box hedging. The friendship built lives on to this day, as does the passion for kitchen gardening which he help foster.

I am smiling broadly as he draws up outside my new home. He carries a bottle with a hand-written label on it. Will it be more of his mind-blowingly strong parsnip wine I wonder? He leaves his worn espadrilles at the door and fusses the dog as she greets a friend she has yet to meet. There are treats in his trouser pockets and he has won her over as he did us all those many years ago. There is a genuine abundance about him, a generosity that has no truck with material possessions. I feel that if I asked for his coat he would give it to me, willingly, and be glad to have been of service. It is hard to give back to someone like that who doesn't ask for it, and insulting to be more obvious. A meal is good. He will accept my hospitality gladly, and the chicken pie that I have made with its liquor interior of pale ale is heartily received. He has made something similar himself, he declares, checking the label on the bottle. Organic, naturally. I never doubted it for one moment.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

J is for Jammy

Dear Nigel,

I am making a chicken pie. It is an exceedingly good chicken pie; and as I stir the chopped tarragon leaves into the rich gravy made with organic pale ale and fresh chicken stock, Molly comes up to me and informs me that she had one the other night and nearly ate half the pie. I inform her tartly that this one is homemade and she is therefore a very lucky girl, and not out of a packet from some budget supermarket. The recipe is 'Quick Chicken Pot Pie' (page329). Good for a damp, dismal day when 'sometimes, you just want pie.'

The recipe calls for White beer, and here you have me floored. Enlisting the help of half the available shop assistants this morning, we decide that white beer is most likely to be pale ale but no one had heard it called as such. That so many young men should be happy to be called over to discuss the subject of beer at nine o'clock on a Friday morning shows a certain dedication to their calling.

Mothers Day on Sunday saw five out of seven of my little chicklings back home for the day. An earlier email from my daughter when I'm trying to firm up arrangements happily says, 'we'll do whatever you want - it is your day'. However, as we sit eating lunch and I drop into the conversation that I'd like to go to Biddulph Grange, an almighty groan goes up from my older ones. 'Not another National Trust Garden'. David finds this highly amusing. I'm thinking - what did that nice little email from Hannah say? Shouldn't we be doing something that I want to do on MY Day? Of course we go. Of course they moan. The little ones enjoy the Dinosaur bones garden (the Stumpery), the Chinese pagoda and  the Tea house, feeding the Carp and finding the imaginary monsters that lurk in all the caves and tunnels. They, at least, are easily amused.

I hear from my two older sons, James and Christopher, and I ring my Mum. I think about you, and your Mum, and I feel grateful for what I have. Trying to write the most difficult of letters ever recently, to someone, I come up with only one thought that seems to resonate in me: The people that I have loved best and who are no longer with me live on most in the values that they imparted. I look at my children and see not just a look or mannerism or colour of eye, but the values and principles that have passed on and assimilated effortlessly in them. Not things that I have taught them, cajoled or badgered them into doing, but a way of living that has come through the years through the people who have taught me how to live well. And which now lives on in them.

The fields are full of twin lambs everywhere at present, and notes on farm gates advertising cade lambs for sale (ie orphan lambs raised on a bottle). The children would like to take one home as a pet but I think the paperwork would be a little excessive these days, even for just one lamb. They are, however, the best indication that Spring is here and Summer, hopefully, not too far behind. Tractors are wearing over-large tyres this season, as the ground is so wet, and young lads are out courting in Green Massey Fergusons driving erratically with their girlfriends in tandem. At least I was only following one lad and his girlfriend this morning as he wove across the road; I wouldn't have liked to have been the car coming the other way who was eyeing his shiny new paintwork with horror.

Last weekend I was hedge trimming at a friend's farm, taking out thick stems with a pair of loppers (a  necessary procedure just before the surge of Spring makes it an impossible job). There in the heart of the hedge I uncovered the most perfectly formed little nest with three bluish-green eggs cossetted inside; looking for all the world like the most twee and artificial chocolate confection. Carefully, I moved it and hid it deeper in the hedge and moved off to allow the flustering mother blackbird to re-establish herself. It is one of the hazards of gardening at this time of year, unfortunately.

The children play a treasure hunt game by my friend's lake and it is a bit like running in a playground full of toddlers as they try and avoid the mass piggyback races of all the nearby toad population. Lawns have been wrecked by an unchecked assault by the local mole SAS team, but the soil makes great covering for the herbs and salad beds. Gardening, which has been left for so long to manage itself over the winter months has suddenly become an imperative as the days get longer and the temperature starts to rise a little.

The Rhubarb is the first crop to be ready for harvesting. It is a beautiful and vibrant pink with long-enough stems to warrant picking. I am also testing some later-cropping variety this year, but this more established mound will soon be pulled and made into crumble. My family like it with Raspberries or alternatively a little stem ginger and brown sugar. It is heartening to make something good that grows so effortlessly under its blanket of well-rotted manure.


Wednesday, 2 April 2014

A guest at my table - Jo

Entering into Jo's house for the first time was like encountering a different world: It was a different world, different to the life I'd hitherto known. As we sat on enormous beanbags on the floor of the spacious and empty room gazing at the expanse of polished parquet and sipping herbal tea, I felt more at home in this place than I had done back at my parents. John and Jo lived ethically and politically, both in his job in overseas development, and hers helping women in childbirth in Bolivia and now here at home in middle class suburbville somewhere off the M4.

The NCT class was populated with highly educated professional people all in their sensible mid to late thirties, and early forties. And a couple of kids, really. Us. I was 20 years old, barely out of college, and in that seemingly unlikely state of being straight out of school and able to buy our first house. Back in the early '80s when a two bedroom terraced house in East Reading could be had for £19,000, it was strangely possible.

Jo was bright-eyed and dark with tight curly hair and an eternally youthful stance and outlook on life. Coming in as the second wife to a man who already had three children and a view on population, meant that her longing for children only allowed her the one. The longing was always there and she used this to help drive her desire to help others create families of their own. Even though she'd taught as a teacher for many years she'd never been invited to attend a birth - that most personal and private of times. Until now. I think my main motivating desire for Jo's support was the fact that my then husband was prone to passing out at the sight of blood, and I was more worried about what would happen to him than what would happen to me. So Jo was enlisted to cart him off at the ninth hour should it be necessary.

The birth was fairly 'textbook', as they say. Age had a huge part to play in that way, I think. Our society has unbalanced the natural order of things as far as mother nature is concerned, and it shows in the steep rise in intervention in childbirth in this country. Jo was there. Miraculously, Richard was still standing too. And there was this little bundle of joy that looked more like ET than the photographs I'd seen in baby books.

Jo returned the next day with a framed piece of calligraphy she'd done of a piece out of Kahlil Gibran's poem 'The Prophet'. It said -

'Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.'

It carries on in this vein. Many of you may know it well. But it gave me -  a young, naive new mother -  a different view on children to the dolls pram and pretty dresses one so many little girls are brought up on. Jo helped me to look on life and its blessings in a different way. Over the years I have tried to preserve the differences between my children, guarding the personalities that are entirely their own and nothing to do with the way I have brought them up or the way I might wish them to be. One is sporty, another quiet, one flamboyant, another hot and fiery. All quite different.

Jo indulged her desire for daughters in running the local Brownie pack and for the bizarre and spectacular in her beautiful millinery creations (a passion for which carried on through the years). We wrote, usually at Christmas, keeping in touch as my unethical family grew and life wove this way and that across the country, putting down roots, ripping them up and planting fresh ones elsewhere. Her family spread out world-wide in their high-flying careers and she carried on in the same house, imparting the same sound knowledge where it was needed.

She sits at the table now, swinging her legs up to sit cross-legged on the seat in her bare feet and smiling like a young girl. The dish is just right, I think: vegetarian, inexpensive, spicy and hot and of elsewhere. She is notably pleased.