Thursday, 18 September 2014

A guest at my table - Rik

The first time I met Rik it was his boots I was introduced to - the rest of him was somewhere under a pile of heavy tarpaulin trying to mend something on a tent. He would have been in his mid-forties perhaps by then, although my sons were only young. They had moved seamlessly from cubs to scouts and were looking forward to a bit of sleeping rough, playing with knives and warming their hands over a box of matches, or whatever notion they might have. I was hoping there might be more involved.

His face, when he finally emerged, was flecked with something black and he had a huge grin as he adjusted his spectacles, flushed red to his ears and wiped the sweat off his forehead with his shirt sleeve. He seemed to be having far more fun than any of the boys - in his element in his grubby shorts with freckled knees poking out. And this was a few years before Ray Mears had hit our screens. He wiped his hand on his clothes before offering it to me. His cheesy grin was so infectious it was impossible not to warm to this overgrown ten year old. The boys obviously loved every minute of it and there was an energy and buzz about the place.

The law on the sale of knives may have changed but back then a Swiss army knife was still a prized bit of every boy's kit. I checked the Scout website to see how things had changed in this regard. It seems that although it is illegal to sell a knife to anyone under eighteen it is not illegal for anyone to carry a folding knife like a Swiss army knife as long as the blade is shorter than three inches. Scouting policy is that knives should be carried only when they are going to be used as a tool.I remember how seriously my boys took the responsibility of having a penknife - almost because a level of trust was bestowed. And, although they could often be silly over other things, in this nothing needed to be said.

We soon got to know Rik better, and, when it came to camps, he often called on the extra support of his two older teenage sons. Rik's wife had died a few years previously and, rather than remarry, he had thrown himself into Scouting and bringing up his two equally lanky sons. I once had the privilege to visit his house and saw a completely different way of living which seemed to mark it out as an 'all male household'. There was a canoe lying in the hallway and various paddles stacked in the corner. The downstairs loo was more library than loo, and there were two pieces of wood joined together in a clamp in the middle of the kitchen table, which we were eating off. Toast and jam was a popular meal and all of them looked as if they could swallow a loaf whole without even noticing. It was Rik, I remember, who first introduced me to the delights of French toast - so much better eaten straight from a smoking black frying pan on an open fire - ...and I was only there for a visit, to drop something off.

There is something very compelling about finding someone in their element. It doesn't matter what they are passionate about; to be around someone whose very fibre fizzes over with enjoyment, their eyes lit up, blood pumping pinkness into their face, is highly magnetic. Perhaps we seldom see people in this state. Normal life rarely lets people be the people they would like to be. So we are transfixed because we see that they have something very special that we want for ourselves, if we ever let ourselves find that one thing with which we could be totally in flow.

The lamb and tomato and smoked paprika dish I am making will be gobbled up in minutes by my guest. I have never seen him without being in a state of measuring time as gaps between meals or snacks. He always seems permanently hungry. I have been at a camp and watched him and his sons eat vast quantities of stew as if they'd just returned from hunger strike or something. The boys around them couldn't match their pace. Indigestion and chewing each mouthful twenty times whizzed over their heads as they matched each other spoon for spoon. He will appreciate the simplicity of having plain crusty bread with which to dunk, and a bowl to nurse in his large calloused hands. If the weather stays warm we will eat in the garden. He will be happier kicking back and enjoying a pint as we talk. Houses don't really suit him anymore. When he's not camping or working he's off in his '70s camper van with a canoe strapped to the roof. I feel that when his boys do finally go he might rent out a garage to house his washing machine and line of canoes - and spend the rest of the time living in his van. He'd like that - a bit of discomfort - it would make him feel at home, somehow.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

R is for Re-Freshers' week and Ripening hedgerows

Dear Nigel,

Another school year starts for the little ones, and a new beginning looms elsewhere - number four son is heading off to University and I'm knocking around looking for a fifth set of pans and a few mugs and plates with a kind of deja vue feeling. Tom is excited but trying to remain fairly cool about it all as if it's no big deal. We leaf through the mail order shot from John Lewis and laugh at the NEW student 'must have's. There's something nice and homely about having a handful of hand-me-down cutlery and an old favourite mug, I think. The Bank of Grandma stumps up for a new laptop, thankfully, as it probably wouldn't impress prospective employers for a Computer Graduate to sit there with an old pencil jammed in the side of his laptop to keep the light on...but then again, maybe they'd see ingenuity in the face of a tide of student debt.

I'm watching the hedgerows ripen at lightening speed. The blackberries are already plump and heavy and still full of taste. I take a mental note of the best hedgerows round here and prepare for an afternoon's picking before someone else gets there. There's nothing worse than following on the back of a quick-witted picker who's had the same idea and got there earlier in the day, and to arrive home with half a dozen under-ripe specimens and the feeling of being hard-done-by. This weekend seems just right for a large dish of apple and blackberry crumble. We make ours with half rolled oats to flour for that flapjacky taste my kids love, and a mixture of cookers and eaters so that there are tasty chunks of real apple - the eaters - amongst the sublime mush of puree and muscovado sugar.

The red-haired Hannah is descending on us this weekend from the bright lights of the city and will no doubt have certain food expectations. They find it too quiet and dull here for their flitting minds, my city children. Chris, the other one, is planning to fly over from Frankfurt at Christmas. He calls it 'coming back to the Dale'. Technically right, I know (despite its Hobbit associations), but I am never quite sure if he's being complimentary or not. I have my doubts.

The dish I am making this evening reflects the change in the seasons. I love this time of year with its red  and gold leaves and a freshness in the air once more that stimulates the mind. It is a simple casserole of lamb and tomato and smoked paprika which has a warmth in it to both comfort and invigourate (Lamb, garlic, paprika and tomato pg236). As you say, 'There is much comfort in food that has been cooked in a casserole.' These recipes of yours are like stews that have been speeded up to reflect the fact that we may well want to eat dinners like this but often don't have the time to just leave things to cook. This dinner was prepared and cooked and on the table in less than an hour, which is usually my benchmark, and I've never been known as the fastest of cooks - I can quite happily while away half an afternoon chopping a few onions given the chance.

There is something magical about an Indian Summer, like the one we're having right now. We often talk in hope about them, but they come more infrequently than we seem to remember. Perhaps it is the warm breath of air which whips leaves from the trees yet still blows refreshingly across our cheeks. The temperature, a pleasant warmth - warm enough to sit out and have lunch - yet doesn't sap our energy and strength the way a warm day in Summer often does.

We sit out at the weekend with Hannah and eat the fish soup I've prepared. It is the season of soups in my mind, and nothing makes me feel more snug than a real fire in the evening and a bowl of hot soup for lunch. The garden and lane are bedecked with all manner of garden birds, all here for the feast of Autumn-cropping raspberries and hedgerow blackberries. We will agree to share, I think. We get our bird spotter book out and the children have a go at identifying them. I buy another bird feeder but forget the seed. Another visit. It's a thirty mile round trip to the shops so it'll have to join the list. Archie eats diesel, I think, but then again he's doing sterling work doubling as a cupboard for all Tom's mountain of stuff heading off to Uni. The cottage would be more than a little cluttered otherwise.

They say that people are divided into people who clean and people who declutter (and presumably people who can manage neither). I am a declutterer. I can cope with a little bit of moderation...but I can't begin to think straight if there are piles of mess everywhere. It's not about being hugely house-proud or anything, but the layout of a space (for some of us) affects how we move and think and relax in that space. I have a friend who is the reverse to me. She has a wonderful living room with huge piles of magazines on which we place our wine glasses. A tower of books at one end is a focus for the eye. Every week she moves all these books and things, hoovers, dusts and then places them all back down as before. I've seen it done and marvelled at her determination to have things back exactly as she would place them. It's a hugely cluttered room with mobiles and wind chimes and sticks of incense everywhere, but opened up and cleaned like a piece of unfolded origami, and refolded once more; it is her space.