Wednesday, 16 July 2014

A guest at my table - Ernest

I am sitting here at the kitchen table looking at a photograph of two old men, perhaps in their late seventies, early eighties. It is taken sometime in the early 1980's. It is a bright sunny day and they are both screwing up their eyes slightly and turning their heads to face the camera. The photographer is saying 'Cheese' and they are putting on a broad grin showing lots of off-white teeth. Their bodies are turned towards each other as if they have just been talking and someone holding a camera has said 'This way please.'

The two men in the photograph have snowy white hair and the kind of beaten leather suntans freckled with liver spots that says that they are men of leisure now and like to be outdoors. There is a similarity between them, something in the shape of the forehead, the hook of the nose. It says, we are related, we are brothers; though one of them is tall and gaunt and bending to the level of the smaller one. He is thicker set - solid really - and shorter, but not remotely fat in any way. I would recognise his smile anywhere for I know him very well. The other one has met me only once when I was a baby and I don't remember him at all.

The thing about this photograph that captures me the most is something about the eyes; a kind of desperation about the smile. It tells me that they are very close - they are very pleased to see each other and to be in each other's company - but also about a kind of regret and longing and a desperation to hold the moment in the palm of their hands and never let it go. They are old men now. They have been apart so much of their lives; who knows if this will be the last time that they will see each other.

The taller of the two, the one I know least well, is coming to dinner. He is a child of Edwardian times who has lived through two World Wars and many changes. He has lived much of his adult life abroad on a small Island, where he paints. We are related.

His choice to live quietly abroad is a kind of voluntary exile. He lives with another man. It is not a crime, now, in the early 1980's, but it is still subject to a quiet prejudice, reproach from older relatives and 'friends', and shame. I am amazed to realise that decriminalisation came as late as 1967. But what of the years passed by since then? How many other people - older people, in particular - chose this form of voluntary exile just so that they could live and be happy? And what of the pain that that separation inevitably brings to families everywhere - to closely-bonded brothers like these two, whose wistful smiles belie the pain they feel beneath.

I look up the meaning of exile. The dictionary tells me it is a form of punishment and solitude, 'to avoid persecution' or 'an act of shame or repentance'. There is something incredibly sad about all this. We live in a world, thank goodness, that has moved on from all this. Even in the early '80s, younger men had an easier time of it, somehow, I think. For me, it is noting what is lost by such prejudice. Time, precious time, with the people you love. And who can put a price on that?

The meal I am making for my guest is a sort of 'retro' dish  of Chicken in Cider which I first made in the early 1980's. It is a dish Ernest will recognise and appreciate, I think. We sometimes need to be reminded what has changed and what has stayed the same in order to appreciate where we are right now. It makes us more aware, I think, and reminds us not to be too complacent and oblivious to the injustices still around us.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

P is for a Pile of Princesses

Dear Nigel,

'I have made Dinner' (in the Perfect tense). It is 'Cider Thighs' (page 253) and is bubbling away nicely in the pan. But there is an aspect of 'Present consequences' - and in this case, the consequences involve the potatoes which are taking an inordinately long amount time to cook in the cider. Little by little, the cider is evaporating from the pan, my guest is due any minute now, and still I am prodding the potatoes with a knife, willing them to soften enough to eat. I don't know what variety of potato this is but it is bullet-proof.

There is an air of nostalgia for me in this dish. This, together with Boeuf Bourguignon, was one of the first dishes I learnt to cook when I left home. I remember being almost surprised that anything I made should be not only edible but actually really quite tasty. I felt like a cook for the first time.

My teenage son, Tom, arrives back after his A levels bearing an armful of cans of cider. So, ...what can I say?... I wonder how long it will take him to realise what a wonderful contribution he has made to the meal.

It takes him about ten seconds. Odd, really, when you consider that he has failed the whole week he has been here to notice the pile of washing up sitting on the side, and yet, within ten seconds of coming downstairs - still in his dressing gown at five in the afternoon - he spies the two cans of empty cider on their way for recycling. He thinks I should have used my last bottle of Black Fox. I tell him it is my last bottle and as such, in this case, I intend to consume the entire contents myself in a glass later on. He prefers not to see reason, but happily consumes the dinner anyway.

My guest arrives; still driving himself carefully at a low speed at an age when others might have thought to leave driving to others with quicker reflexes. I think he will like this meal; it is something that he might remember, and will certainly be easy on the teeth (not a concern I've had to think about as yet, but I suppose it's there waiting for all of us). He is still sprightly for his age yet a little fragile. His wrists are thin and papery and spotted with a sprinkling of brown liver spots over a golden tan. I guide him to the table so he can sit down.

We  had a Children's Birthday Party here this week. It was Sophie's and she was eight. I am still recovering. The penalty of producing two children only twelve months apart means that I get to repeat the performance in a week's time when Molly turns seven. I am already psyching myself up.

Sophie wanted a traditional party at home with ice cream and jelly and lots of games. As I look over the lawn - if you can call it such - and round the faces of the circle of little girls aged eight or nearly nine, all dressed up as Princesses, I wonder if this will be the last year that they will want to do this. I feel their precious childhoods ebbing away with every advert they watch aimed to undermine their childish imaginations with more adult desires.

But here, right now, the excitement is all about who can stand still the longest when the music stops, without falling over their lurex trains or losing their diamante tiaras. The Lavatera 'Barnsley' billows out over onto the lawn and the bushes are heavy with bunches of giant Black currants against the path. Over by the freshly-weeded vegetable patch a crop of large floppy poppies are nodding their heads, and I am willing the rain to stay away as the cottage is mouse-sized and would burst to accommodate a gaggle of giggling Princesses. Luckily, the gods are smiling today. Tom has been press-ganged into helping and appears to be being squashed under a pile of Princesses who see him as their new toy. Luckily, he takes it in his stride. He is eager to be off to University and to stretch his wings. The Summer seems too long for him.

There are Gooseberries ready for picking now, and more rhubarb and blackcurrants, although the raspberries haven't arrived as yet as they are Autumn-fruiting. Last year they came early because I planted them at the wrong time but I didn't see a single one anyway as Sophie was out there every day after school pilfering all the ripe ones before I got to them. It is a child's privilege - I remember doing much the same myself.

I am planning to make some compotes as I don't really eat much jam but often fancy something sweet and fruity with a dollop of thick whole milk yoghurt. Also, there are days when I don't get to the shops, when the fresh fruit and veg have run out and I am raiding the freezer and 'making do' with the distant contents of the corners of my cupboards. To have a jar of thick and juicy compote to call on would be very welcome indeed. I am conserving my diesel and making longer lists. Summer's glut will help spread the load as family descend to eat me out of house and home. There is a Pavlova or Eton mess almost every week at the moment as the most requested Summer pudding in our house - a swirl of compote, a scattering of berries and it's done.


Wednesday, 2 July 2014

A guest at my table - Dougie

Pubs have changed so much these past few years that it's almost impossible to remember back to a time when they were still clinging on to a past that was changing faster than they were. When every other pub is now a gastropub with families openly encouraged and smokers banned to a small wooden canopy on stilts near the car park, it is hard to remember a time when things were different. Yet different they were.

Dougie is coming over to watch a DVD with me and share a pile of homemade potato wedges with Gorgonzola sauce. He is happiest talking when there's something else going on, and that way there won't be any awkward silences on either side. Dougie is the friend I would most credit with introducing me to the seedier side of life of most of the local pubs in the small area in Oxfordshire in which we lived, when I was only....well, somewhere between the ages of 15 and's a grey area.

Still living with his old mum at the age of 40, Dougie was not the most obvious of friends, perhaps. He had dyslexia problems, amongst others, but still managed to hold down a gardening job at the local college and drive a car. He was a gentle soul who was happiest mixing and socialising with people a few years younger than himself. Technically, he was our Venture Scout leader, and in control. In reality, he was one of the gang - which is where he wanted to be.

Of course it helped enormously that he had a car and could drive. She was an immaculately-polished navy blue Morris minor (are they all that colour?) with a high forehead and surprised-looking eyes. And, loaded up with five or six of us, she flew down the back country lanes with 'The Who' blasting out of all the windows and her suspension rocking in time to the music as we bounced  and sang along at full volume over the bumps and dips in the road.

Dougie had an uncanny resemblance to Eric Clapton in those days with a flop of hair through which he peered and a light brown jawline beard but with perhaps a few slightly more crooked teeth. He smiled a lot, shyly, often instead of saying something. He wanted to be liked, and included. His job involved a great deal of mowing of grass. His home life was quiet. Often in overalls and found lying on the ground under his car doing something with oil - we didn't like to ask. The cars our parents drove didn't seem to need this level of attention.

I think the pubs of our youth hold nostalgically cosy memories for all of us. Whether it is the excitement of being allowed to be there at all, or the camaraderie of being with your friends and trying new and unfamiliar drinks, but the stale tobacco and the stench of male urinals and sticky bar counters fade with time. And in their place, fond memories of pulling the horsehair out of the over-ripe sofa at 'The Crooked Billet', where beer was sold from out of the cellar as there was no bar. And, sitting beneath giant mantraps and razor-sharp scythes slung to the ceilings of 'The King William'. I somehow imagine Health and Safety will have been and tidied up there by now, and the romance and thrill that at any moment a ton of cast iron with huge jaws might suddenly descend on you, will have been wiped away with a whisk of anti-bacterial eradication.

The Landlord at 'The King William' at that time was a man called Brian Penny who drove a Brewers' Dray to local steam rallies with two magnificent-looking Shire Horses. He had a full reddish beard and red cheeks and a stomach to rival Father Christmas. He looked for all the world like he'd just stepped off the set of a Thomas Hardy film and was serving pints to the likes of Alan Bates with a raucous laugh which echoed throughout the pub.

The world of Scouting offered people like Dougie a kind of refuge where they could thrive and be happy and connect with other people without being bullied or feeling ostracised. He was just an over-grown teenager, with the same sense of silliness and fun and it was several more years before he would manage to find a relationship that would stick.

As I pile the potato wedges onto a plate a familiar face puts his head round the door and saunters in with his hands in his pockets. He is wearing the same navy blue overalls which mask the oil stains and the hands that reach out to hug me are black. I pretend not to notice: the smile is genuine, as is mine.