Wednesday, 28 May 2014

A guest at my table - Arthur Bentley

People often reveal more about themselves than they mean to in the way that they live their lives. Some people don't want to shout about themselves or draw unnecessary attention, but in their quietness and inner completeness they shine a light far brighter for its contrast. Arthur Bentley was one such person.

I don't remember quite what the necessity was that drew me into the shop, but it must have been quite pressing because the outside window was distinctly unfavourable. It was a small, depressing little town, limping on with the imminent threat of closure of the local tin mine. And our nearest town. When my then husband first took me there I nearly turned the car around and left the county there and then. Every area has its grim reality sited not far from its picturesque; but both are two sides of the same, and to know one you have to understand the other.

The town itself consisted mainly of little run down shops selling cheaply-made items at budget prices. It was tempting to go elsewhere. Indeed, to be fair, I often did. But proximity has a draw and often popping in for something is all you want to do. Mr Bentley's Hardware store was just a little run down shop on a back road with dark brown woodwork and peeling varnish on the outside. The windows were dirty with caked on grime and the display of assorted items looked like it had been there since the early '70s.

There was a whitish laminated pegboard with hooks at odd heights to which a strange and random assortment of items had been added, as if done without any thought whatsoever, though surely that had not been the case. There were thin plastic hooks for doors that bent under the slightest weight, blue nylon meshy pan scrubs like spaceships, and corn-on-the-cob skewers in vivid yellow plastic. All looking a little tarnished by age. Inside appeared, at first glance, to not be much better. The same cheap items lined the shelves. The floor was clean in some areas but not others. I can't remember whether there were actual wood shavings on the floor or not, but there was certainly a heavy gathering of something rounding the shape of the room and preventing entry in all directions.

Whatever brought me into the little shop that warm late summer afternoon when shafts of light bounced dust particles up and down  suspension ropes holding the walls to the inside, was obviously found and purchased. And so I returned, again and again. I soon found that the shop was in fact a tardis and the quickest route was to simply ask for what I wanted, however unlikely I thought it to be. Time after time Mr Bentley would disappear to a far off shelf under the cloak of dust, or open one of the row upon row of tiny draws behind the till and reappear with something in his hand. This front part was the only part of the shop to appear looked after. It gleamed with polish, mahogany handles and care; a stark contrast to the layer of dust elsewhere, making it appear like two-tone shoes. But Mr Bentley seemed not to notice.

As time went by I began to learn that there were things here I couldn't find elsewhere. Sometimes I was astounded that such things still existed. We lived in a mid 19th Century farmhouse/cottage and were keen to dress it likewise, with simplicity. That hooks were still being made and hinges in the same shapes was wonderful news. But with every transaction there was a necessary time factor to consider. If I was merely nipping in I needed to allow an extra five minutes, for every purchase was neatly and correctly packaged in old newspaper and tied with string. There was no quick exit; it was part of the deal.

Standing there in his Dad's old brown shop coat, I gradually learned more about the quietly smiling Arthur Bentley, hiding behind his full beard and glasses. He had been a History teacher upcountry for many years, but now in his early sixties had given it all up to come back to his childhood home after his mum and dad had died in quick succession. He had no wife, no family, responsibilities or great needs. He lived simply and quietly and it gave him pleasure to be here in this quiet space with the occasional ring of the bell on the back of the door giving a slow rhythm to his life. I saw in the old fashioned rows of tiny drawers, so highly polished, a way he found to give meaning to his existence, to keep a bit of the past - his past - alive in a way that gave him comfort. All this was long before such places became popular in 'nice' villages in the Cotswolds, before shabby chic, before even that long-lost town got an urgent makeover under  E U grants for rural poverty.

Arthur shared a little of my vision for a past that never quite existed. And, just as I loved to watch him tie each parcel lovingly in newspaper and string, in a manner to which I don't ever remember being seen done in my lifetime, he would help me search for unusual items. In an era before enamelware was everywhere in shabby chic shops, it was harder to find and the best was made almost exclusively in Poland from ancient thick world war 2 machinery, giving a thick coat of white with a dark blue edge. Arthur and I would pore over the thick paper catalogue of line drawings of large pitcher jugs and milk pails (for my goats). Sometimes these would have to be ordered and might take a few weeks to arrive from Poland but I don't remember ever being disappointed in my quest.

Standing here now with him idly stirring the Risotto and me polishing wine glasses for reasons unknown (but exclusively connected with my guest), we are both drinking in the calmness and the quiet. The sound of the stream, only feet away below my kitchen window, is the loudest thing around. We talk intermittently and lapse into a pleasant silence. There is no need or hurry. Like the Risotto, it is to savoured.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

M is for Missing people and Moroccan food

Dear Nigel,

The vegetable patch is starting to take shape and tiny seedlings are sprouting up in neat rows. I am late getting started, and I know that, but there is much to be dug over and stones removed before I can get down to business. It is blissfully absorbing to be working under the hot sun and creating order out of the weeds. I come home with a couple of pots of lovage and pineapple sage to add a slightly established tone to the almost bare soil. I am told to sprinkle coffee grounds round my seedlings to deter slugs, so I may give that a go.

My second son, Chris, is flying over from Frankfurt for a conference this week, so David and I are going up to London to see him. It is often the case when one of your children live so far away that it is easier to meet in a third place than have them drive two days out to the sticks and back. We are taking him out for lunch at 'Moro'. I have had Sam and Sam Clark's cook books for over ten years now. I love their Moroccan-influenced food, and some of my favourite vegetarian recipes come out of 'Moro - the cookbook'. Now, eventually we get the chance to eat what we have cooked (as it were). I am taking Chris his Birthday presents and cards as he will be in Brazil watching the football for his Birthday (- his girlfriend is from there). The little ones have made him cards with pictures of footballers with outsize feet on the front and their quaint childish spellings on the inside. He will treasure these most of all, I know, - far more than the little designer something I bought him in the Paul Smith shop in Nottingham. And that's the way it should be.

Inside, once more, out of the blistering heat, I am staying in the cool of the thick stone walls of the cottage and slowly and meditatively stirring risotto. It feels the right thing to do. I'm all salad-ed out and my face drops as I eye yet more mixed salad leaves in the fridge. I want something a bit more substantial today and I somehow think my guest will be less than impressed with another dressed salad. He has quite conventional tastes and has driven a long way to see me. He is eyeing the stove keenly to see what I might be making. It is 'Risotto' (page 225) made with a simple homemade chicken stock and some pancetta. There is a reassuring plainness to it which makes a contrast to some of the dishes of late. Perhaps I was thinking of my guest when I chose this dish - it somehow encapsulates his whole personality.

The village is living up to its name at the moment and is entirely surrounded by meadows of buttercups. Slowly, slowly, we are watching the changing palate of colour. The red clover is just coming out, the dandelions have had their day to be replaced by the buttercups, and by the roadside great swathes of cow parsley echo the hawthorn blossom above. This is my favourite time of year of all. The children come back from fishing barefoot in the stream bringing with them red campion and forget-me-nots and stuff them into child sized milk bottles on the windowsills. Bedtimes are getting later with the sun and the birds are singing longer into the fading sunset as I'm out with my watering can in the welcoming coolness of the evening.

Social events, it seems to me, can be as easy or as complicated as you want to make them. This last weekend there was a Beer Festival here at the Youth Hostel in Hartington. The Hostel itself is a bit special anyway, being an old Elizabethan Manor House set in very pretty grounds. But the weather was also glorious, the music ambient and the alcohol flowing freely. All we did was add friends and family and a large picnic with a fabulous raspberry and cream cake (if I say so myself); and it was 'perfick' as David Jason used to say. Sometimes the best times are the simplest of all. The children ran around in floaty dresses with long hair flying and butterfly face paints on their faces; and the older boys conked out on the blankets with their bottles of beer and soaked up the sun behind their hangovers and sunshades. It was good to catch up with absent friends and feel the grass between my toes.

This risotto is having a wonderful calming effect on me. The constant stirring is like therapy. A little taste and I decide, on second thoughts, to take some cooked chicken out of the fridge as you suggest, to make the dish a little more substantial. I put my guest to work stirring the risotto as I lay the table. People, I find, like to be able to help with the preparation of a meal, and when there are things to discuss it is often better to have something to do with your hands to help the conversation flow better. Eating, of course, has much the same effect.


Wednesday, 14 May 2014

A guest at my table - Rob

It would have been impossible to be anything but completely charmed by Rob when I first met him. He looked like the original template for Indiana Jones with his sun-bleached sandy hair and toning suntan and a captivating white teeth smile. Dressed like Indiana, but without the hat, he came to school dressed as a Geography teacher with a wardrope of khaki and open-toe sandals for his 'other life'. The similarities between Rob and the character which George Lucas created had never really struck me before, but now, as I wait for Rob to arrive for dinner, it seems almost impossible that I missed it.

Rob and I first met when I went to work at a very unusual school in the heart of the Peak District where he was already teaching. The school was based in a wonderful old late Victorian Manor House set in several acres of its own grounds. The building had been bequested to the Education Services to be used solely for educational purposes and not to be sold. Unfortunately due to educational cutbacks it no longer exists, but in 2003/04 it was a wonderful facility with a very enlightened ethos behind it. We took disruptive and emotionally disturbed pupils from schools in inner Manchester who were on the borderline for being excluded from mainstream education, and tried to get them onto a better track.

Every morning the taxis from all over would arrive and the children would all pile out. They spent part of the week in their usual inner city schools and the other part with us. These hardened city kids would come armed with their expensive designer trainers, their attitude and anger, and try and make sense of a life that bore little relation to their own. All had a story to tell, if they let you in, and, between posturing and pent-up frustration they sometimes found a space to be someone different.

Rob's classes took Geography in a fairly loose sense. Much of our time seemed to focus on making Airfix model aircraft. It was good to see how absorbed in minute detail most of the kids could be at rare times and the class was often completely silent and intense except when they needed a little help with glue or paints.

There were lessons for the children in the mornings, all of whom were aged between about nine and fourteen, a really fantastic school lunch ( not like anything I've ever tasted in school before) with a wonderful cook serving the twenty or so kids and almost as many teachers, social workers and helpers. And then, best of all, in the afternoon we got to take them out for walks, visits and climbing in the Peak District.

At first they didn't know what to make of all this empty space and hills. They were bored with 'nothing to do' but walk, angry that they were forced to be here, uncooperative and often disruptive. But gradually they got used to this kind of empty freedom. They still moaned about going up the hills, complained when their perfect white trainers got sheep muck on them, and taunted each other; but they looked happier. Sometimes they would stop and look at things or notice a view. If it was pointed out to them they weren't interested. If they were made to play an organised game they resisted; but take them to the top of a hill and do nothing and these street-wise young lads (mainly) would lie down in their designer tracksuits and roll down the hill through puddles and sheep dung getting grass stains and mud on their backs, and start to laugh and smile. The anger would turn into celebration and they would be quieter and more subdued on the way back. A little more relaxed.

Most of these walks were led by Rob, now in his element in full Indiana mode. He would take them climbing on nearby rocks and he knew the terrain like the back of his hand. This made perfect sense when you knew that the other half of his life was spent over in Turkey leading guided walks in the hills and writing travel books. Here was a man who loved the life he lead, who eked the most out of every moment and experience. He brought you back to focus on the present, constantly, and it was absorbing and addictive. Somehow time seemed longer in his presence, as if you had managed to fit two days into one.

He had a calmness about him which never seemed to waver. I never saw him angry or frustrated when one of the children took a backward step or sought to ruin the activity. He always seemed completely in control of the situation, whatever the challenge he was ready. It's almost unnerving to be faced with someone who doesn't react the way most of us do. But it calmed the boys and they trusted him more than they did almost anyone else at the school. They knew exactly where they stood with him and that he wouldn't let them down, whatever, and it had a good effect on them overall.

The Tuna and Cucumber salad I have made seems just right for Rob. He is used to simple honest food. These days he is mainly in Turkey and here is the place he visits. Back then it was the other way round, but you could just see where his heart was leading him. When he talked about Turkey his whole face would light up and become animated, as if someone had just switched on the light inside.

He strides down the path and pats the dog before he hugs me. Then he sits back in a chair and rocks on its back legs. He makes each place his own home. If he were Indiana Jones you could say that 'wherever he laid his hat, that's his home' (to misquote some old Marvin Gaye song).

Thursday, 8 May 2014

L is for Life and Living in the Now

Dear Nigel,

Coming downstairs the other day, I found the electricity cable joining my house to John's barn seemed to be down and appeared to have moved.... across the garden, down the drive and round to Craig's next door where a porch is being built. I have looked at this innocent little wire several times and half wondered about it. Now I could hear the sound of stone being cut close by and it was official: I do appear to be supplying the barn opposite with free electricity. As I went up the lane to fetch the bins, John and Terry both looked a bit sheepish. 'I need to see you about that...'one of them mumbled.

I have found that the best form of currency around here is an unofficial form of the LETS bartering system. Half an hour later I was back with the old whirly washing line which I had tossed in the shed when I first moved here. It didn't quite suit the picture in my mind's eye, stuck in the middle of my postage stamp piece of grass at the front of the house. Now that I have acquired another piece of garden and have a vegetable patch underway, I wondered if John could possibly dig up the concrete base and replant it in the new garden (where it would be less obtrusive)? No problem, he'd be round first thing the next morning. You just have to learn to use this system best to your advantage, I find, or the interest accruing has the habit of disappearing.

And, true to his word, the line was up and running the next morning and the dandelions stamped back into the old lawn to increase and multiply in their usual manner.

The best thing about growing vegetables from seed is that it gives you the opportunity to try something completely different that you wouldn't find growing in a pot elsewhere or on the supermarket shelves. I am trialing a new kind of mangetout that I haven't seen around before. It claims to have won 'Vegetable of the Year 2012' - a kind of beauty pageant of the vegetable kingdom. It is a purple mangetout...'British breeding of the first purple Mangetout', it says. It looks stunning on the packet; whether it tastes as good on the plate is another matter.

There is also a blood-veined sorrel, which looks more of a salad leaf than the sort I usually make fish sauces with; and a rhubarb chard following someone else's advertising campaign and promising to be ' probably the best tasting Red Chard' ( the world). I also come across a Borlotti bean that looks as if it's been splattered in red paint. Where in any supermarket would I find a bean like that? This is where gardeners keep their gold. I just hope the slugs don't get them first.

The recipe I am making tonight for my guest is a Tuna and Cucumber Salad (pg.361). It is just the kind of simple summer platter that my guest will like. He lives mainly in a hot climate, living and working, and popping back here regularly to be home with his partner and children. He is a nomad at heart.

I rarely consider the merits of a tin of tuna when I'm chucking it in the supermarket trolley, but as you specify 'best quality drained canned tuna in olive oil' I search this out. These days they all seem to be in sunflower oil or brine, mainly. I find one, and, on opening I think perhaps there is a real difference, in looks for starters. Maybe if it is to be the main ingredient in a recipe then it is worth getting the best. As a dish it's certainly cheap and nutritious, so perhaps worthy of a little more thought. I am keen to make cheaper dishes at the moment (being on something of an economy drive) but without being prepared to compromise on quality or taste. It's a fine balance sometimes. Jersey new potatoes are in season, and delicious, and will make a tasty addition to this dish.

I am mixing up herbs into my planters this summer - a bit of green amongst the flowers - so that I can 'snip and nip' back to the kitchen when I am in the middle of cooking without having to make a longer journey into the garden. I have an old French Zinc bath which I have filled with beautiful French Lavender and the flat-leaved French Parsley (like Italian), as there's something about the curly English stuff that I just don't really like. Something about the feel of it in my hands or the choke of it on my tongue. Perhaps we're all allowed to have these little quirks and preferences. It's all about free choice after all.

As I prepare the meal for tonight there is a major ballet rehearsal going on in the background. Sophie and Molly are leaping around the living room in frothy tutus that used to be Hannah's to the "rocking sound" of Sibelius's 'The swan of Tuonela'. Suddenly the cook has to abandon her work and go in to break up a fight - it seems that Madam Molly has been making Sophie sit out whilst she demonstrates how to do it properly and there is now a bust-up at Saddlers Wells. After a bit of negotiating I am able to continue with dinner.

I am always a bit suspicious of recipes that want a bit of fancy preparation, and I frown slightly as the instructions are to peel and deseed a cucumber - if I can get away with it I will. However, in this case I am keeping to the letter of the recipe, and, as I discover when we sit down to eat, this is exactly the right thing to do with the cucumber. The texture is right, it isn't watery, and best of all you choose to USE the pulp and seeds of the cucumber in the dressing - I really hate the amount of waste and half-used ingredients in many other recipes.What are you supposed to do with them all, I wonder? Full marks on that  one, Nigel.

This is a great recipe for summer, and, best of all it manages to be a tuna salad dish that doesn't remind you with every mouthful that 'you are now eating tuna'. Welcome to an English Summer.


Friday, 2 May 2014

A guest at my table - Mr McCafferty

Mr McCafferty had enjoyed a long and happy career as a Maths teacher, but in his late fifties he had developed heart problems and had had to retire early. His whole life had been working with children and watching the cogs turn in their developing minds as they finally understood what he was trying to teach them. His wife worried that he might become depressed without a focus, he said, but she needn't have worried - Mr McCafferty knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life. His childhood dream had always been to work in a sweetshop. And now, with a reduced pension to keep them going and a lump sum from the sale of his Mother's house, he was finally free to fulfil his dreams.

Every month I visited the little market town with a string of four children in tow, a pushchair and bags hanging off everywhere. It was an expedition. The older two boys were ten and eight and full of beans. I was still young enough to keep up with them - having children in your twenties has something to say for it.

One day, on our stroll from the car to the centre of town (having a huge aversion to paying for car parks, such that I would make the children walk miles if necessary...mean mother that I am), we passed a little shop that had once been a barber's as it still had the stripy pole outside. But today the windows were covered in white paper and a sign writer was busy painting candy shades onto a wooden board outside. 'Mr McCafferty's Sweetshop' it read. The children tried to peer in through cracks in the paper, but to no avail. Sweets were only an occasional purchase in our house at that time - more because of lack of time, I think, than because of austerity measures (although there was a hefty dose of those too).

So it was a few weeks later that we made our next visit and this time the shop was up and running and full of customers. This was in an era when little old fashioned sweet shops with lines of jars on shelves were not yet everywhere, and my children had never seen something of the like. There were large coloured lollipops in jars on the counter and striped candy canes in zinc pots echoing the candy striped pole outside. It was a children's paradise and their eyes widened as they took it all in. Luckily, there were several people in the queue in front of us, so there was plenty of time to just stand and stare.

It soon became a regular point of call and the highlight of our visit as far as the children were concerned. James and Christopher had just been given pocket money and they took the whole issue very seriously indeed. Mr McCafferty was happy to mix and match to their heart's content. So the boys took him literally and would point to a jar on the top shelf and ask for two of those. Then another jar from the opposite wall. And Mr McCafferty would patiently take his stepladder and climb to the top and bring down another jar with its black Bakelite lid and shake out two rhubarb and custards or lime and chocolate striped sweets, onto the pan of his old fashioned dial scales.

There was always a smile on his face and his eyes crinkled at the corners as he pushed his glasses back on to his aquiline nose. He moved lightly but in a calm and relaxed manner, as if he had all the time in the world for us. And, indeed he had, he told us. His half pension left him free to enjoy his hobby, and he took great delight in watching the boys totting up the amounts in their heads as they worked out how far their pennies would stretch. He waved away my concerns and embarrassment that he seemed to be working inordinately hard for his £1.20, or whatever.

Over by the window was a table piled high with pink striped boxes and gauzy ribbons and hand blown eggs and rabbits with fluffy tails. At intervals customers would enter, choose and leave, and we would still be there with one child or another with their noses pressed up against the glass, red hair and freckles and shiny eyes, still trying to make the hardest decision of all. Sometimes my patience would start to wane as I looked at my watch and measured out the day, but Mr McCafferty just smiled and smiled. I never saw any evidence of Mrs McCafferty, though I'm sure she existed. She was 'at home doing women's stuff' apparently.

Michael McCafferty had two sons and no Grandchildren that I heard of. One son was in the army and living overseas and the other had apparently 'broken his mother's heart', so I never liked to ask. He would have made a lovely Grandad as he never seemed to get bored with talking to the children and showed a real interest in them. It was a real pleasure to enter his shop, in every way, and people rarely seemed in any hurry and irritated as they waited and queued. Those that were simply dashing in in their lunch break he served quickly and quietly without ever making you feel you had lost his attention. The children loved him. The best Grandpa is always one with a sweet in the bottom of his pocket when you're out on a long walk, as I recall.

So I'm setting the table for dinner as Michael pulls up in his little red car, removing his coat and hat as he enters the house. There are flowers for me and a small striped box of something for the children tomorrow. Out of the usual white shopkeeper's coat which he always wore, he seems smaller and older somehow. He is still smiling broadly and the smiles make his large ears move as he flexes his jaw. His eyes don't miss much, though, behind his wire-rimmed spectacles. He carefully rearranges the cutlery so the knives all point in the same direction as I bring the dish to the table and place it on the rush mat. He has never tried Chinese, he says, and a flicker of alarm passes over my face. Not to worry, he is keen to try new things, have new experiences. The shop has given him a whole new life that he never knew existed, and brought him into contact with all kinds of interesting people. After all, everyone likes a 'little something special' now and again, don't they?