Saturday, 25 October 2014

T is for Treacle Toffee

Dear Nigel,

Was it only just over a week ago that we watched the last of Summer's footprints evaporate leaving no trace? There we were, cycling along one of the many old railway tracks that serve as cycle paths here in the Peak District, weaving themselves over and through the hills; coats left in Archie because an unseasonal warm wind was fanning our path, and the sun glowing that Autumn gold that colours the landscape sometimes like a badly-exposed print at this time of year.

We took the Monsal trail which goes through the side of a hill in two places. Coming out of the soot-lined tunnel we blink in multicolour and stop on top of the viaduct to gaze at the tranquil ribbon of water beneath. Sophie whizzes past on a bike that is much too small for her now. She is enjoying the freedom that comes from suddenly being able to take off and go. There was no teeth-pulling endless learning to ride with her - wobbling and grazed knees each day. She simply decided one day she could do it, borrowed someone else's bike and rode off. That's the sort of laborious parenting I like.

The warm currents of air have also brought the butterflies out in force. A cloud of Red Admirals enter the cottage and take residence along the beams of the living room ceiling. They come probably from the Buddleia just outside the window, but show no signs of wanting to leave. Each day they sleep and in the evening when the cottage warms up they wake up and fly around the room as we eat our supper. One lands on the back of Sophie's hand and stays there, happy to bask in the warmth of her skin for a while. It is most odd. Sometimes, the sun wakes them during the day and I open the window and chivvy them on their way. But, by night time they have all flown back in again and are perched in exactly the same individual spots as the day before. If I were so inclined I could find myself believing that there is a message there in all this. Instead, I simply marvel at this peculiar thing and pick up my knife and fork and tuck into my supper as our resident friends dance at face height over the table and settle over by the window.

The supper I am making tonight for my guest is 'Sweetcorn Crumb-crust Pie' (page 333). It is the sort of easy family meal that I know my kids will like too, with nothing they can complain about (except, perhaps, the odd bit of green parsley - but let them complain). As a huge fan of all shallow oven-baked dishes involving potatoes and cream I am looking forward to this one warming up a dismal day outside. The weather has changed radically here and so suddenly and the summer is all but instantly forgotten. How short our memories are as we battle through driving rain,doing battle with our swords of flimsy metal spokes and nylon against mother nature's outrage.

Each year the pile of old coats gets larger and tattier, threatening to pull the coat hooks off the wall. Each year I promise to send them all winging their way to the clothing bank. And each year they get a sudden last reprieve, like condemned prisoners on death row, and I feel comfortable once again walking the dog in an old favourite battered and faded jacket that has become my friend over the years. Both of us have seen better days, I think.

There is another convict on death row whose fate is the talk of the pub as I go to play my fiddle. Many of the regulars actually come from the neighbouring village of Eyam (famous for being the village that cut itself off during the Plague). Where Andy lives, his neighbour has a now rather famous Welsummer Cockerel called William the Conqueror, who is known to have an exceptionally loud crow in the mornings.

Now, I'd always rather assumed that if you chose to live in the country, then you accepted cockerels crowing and birds singing the dawn chorus as part of life - even welcomed it? Apparently not. Someone in Eyam has made a complaint to the district council about William and a man from the council has been sent out to investigate. Poor William was clocked and registered (and an ASBO tag fitted to his leg perhaps?) and deemed to be above the required decibels that is allowable for Cockerels. (If only we could do that for there's a thought...)

The outcome is that poor William either has to be dispatched or sent away from home, as he apparently refuses to sleep in his new modified coop. Poor eighty year old Mr Sutcliffe, William's owner, has found no takers for the bird and so it seems William's days are numbered.

However, a backlash is afoot. William apparently has his own facebook page with over two thousand supporters from all over the world, and Mr Sutcliffe has written to his Derbyshire Dales MP Patrick McLoughlin to complain that you can't stop a Cockerel from crowing. Meanwhile, district councillors have given William a few more days reprieve.

Ahhh... such is village life.


Thursday, 16 October 2014

A guest at my table - Ruby

The image which we portray to the outside world is largely of our own making. It can be how we see ourselves, or the person we believe ourselves to be, or what we want others to believe about us. There is nothing wrong in all this - we all dress up and play a part every day of our lives, whether we realise it or not.

When I first saw Ruby I was so transfixed by the multitude of colour and texture of her clothes, her rich velvet scarves, auburn hair and startlingly green eyes that I thought she must surely be one of the most interesting people I'd ever meet. She was probably in her later 50s, rosy cheeked and quite a large lady in all directions, but it was difficult to tell under all those layers of clothing. She dressed to please herself and the clothes themselves owed more to Vintage dressing-up box style than any high street chain store. She wore jewel-coloured silks and lace and velvet and leather all together; the colours toning and contrasting with each other. I suppose it was simply an extension of her day job which, (when she wasn't caring for her elderly mother), was in making handmade quilts for commission. She supplemented her carers allowance with a day course which she taught at the local college one morning a week. It was her get-out-of-jail card, she said. But mostly work had to fit around her caring responsibilities, which made having a life difficult.

As the only one of her siblings who wasn't married with a family it had rather been expected that she would give up her secretarial job and look after her mum as she got weaker and her condition worsened. She wasn't resentful of this exactly, she said, as she loved her mum dearly, but the broken nights took their toll on her sense of humour as there was simply no let up. Sometimes, she told me, when her sister came over to visit, she just slept. Her sister Annie would take their mum out in the wheelchair for a couple of hours and she would put last night's stinking bedding in the wash, take the phone off the hook and go to bed. She was supposed to be working or taking some time out for herself but sleep seemed more important. A carer's life is often a lonely one, relentless and thankless. She was supposed to be going to a support group with other carers but couldn't actually fathom up the energy to get there.

All this seemed a mile from the Ruby who greeted us so enthusiastically each week on a Tuesday.This Ruby was very upbeat  and exuberant. Her one great love was colour. She loved to open draw upon drawer and throw fabric across the table, and find two or three others that would give exactly the effect she required. Perhaps it would be a corner of a ploughed field and the tones would be in old gold and nougat. Or greens against a hedge where the sun cast a shadow of almost inky black.

We were making a communal quilt which was to be auctioned for an overseas charity, alongside the single bed quilts which we were all making to take home. I was making one for my daughter Hannah in shades of blue and pink, as she shared a bedroom with her younger brother William. Each week we were given homework to finish which was a block in a different style or pattern - like a living book of quilt designs which would week-on-week mount up to the finished quilt.

Sewing had never been my thing. Ever since Miss Bingham had made us sew what looked to me like maternity smocks at the age of eleven at Buxton Girls School (it was 1976), I'd gone right off the whole idea. And found my way to Top Shop. But here, in this old room with its high ceilings, arched windows and plan chests, an eclectic group of women of all ages met for a few hours each week to unpick the seams of our lives and to sew new ones for posterity on our communal project.

In America, sewing bees were once quite common social occasions which women were 'allowed' to go to. There is something in the making of stuff that loosens the tongue. Perhaps the concentration takes away any awkwardness or shyness. Either way, it has a profound effect on conversation. Things are said that would never otherwise have been aired in public. I wouldn't have learnt so much about the frustrations and numbness of Ruby's other life if she'd been teaching and I'd been listening. But in the act of making all manner of things come out of the woodwork and are woven into the weft of the cloth.

This is the Ruby I am waiting for now. She is late and the dinner is getting cold. To me she is always dressed like a most splendid Christmas tree, yet I'm sure at home it's a different story. There is lot of hands-on physical stuff involved. These are her glad rags which she saves for Tuesdays and brightens up all our lives. She throws stardust into the fire to make it crackle, and we all leave, a different set of characters to the ones who came in. I know it is as much therapy for her as it is for us, but I do hope that someone can bring a bit of sparkle to her life as she so generously gives to others.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

S is for Squiffy cows and Seasonal warmth

Dear Nigel,

The hedgerows are still rich with jewel-like berries and the Autumn-fruiting raspberries ripen as we pick. This has been such a good year for berries, and the mild warm weather has allowed us to stay longer in the garden and go picnicking with flasks of soup and warm quiche wrapped in foil. It is a fine season.

I go for my usual run around the lanes and past the church. It is flattish around the village and beats the smell of rotting corpses in the gym. It stretches my lungs and maybe, if I work hard-enough, it will keep the asthma and bronchitis at bay. The damp Autumn air is not a friend to the asthmatic.

As I run, carefully avoiding the cowpats and tractor muck - an exercise in itself rivalling Sudoku - I pass the milkman on his round. I used to live in a town fifteen miles away, and opposite me up a little side street was a small dairy, bang in the middle of the town. The milkman from opposite my old house now winds his way through the smallest villages of the Peak District delivering his goods. I suppose if there are two supermarkets within spitting distance business will be slack, whereas out here where the nearest village shop is four miles away, a milkman is often welcome.

Like most milkmen these days he delivers newspapers and groceries too. And, so the sign on his bright yellow van tells me, it seems the cows of the Peak District are producing fine quality wines and beer these days. I wonder what they feed them on?

I come back to an upended bird table and bird feeders scattered in the rose bushes. It is next door's evil cat, the one we call 'Bandido' ( on account of his Zorro-like mask), I suspect. There is a tiny blue tit lying stone dead beside it. It is perfect and untouched, like a stuffed museum exhibit with stiff outstretched wire legs, or a child's discarded soft toy. It reminds me that life is short and to be treasured. I have enjoyed watching these little friends visiting my table and squabbling over the seed like unruly children. They have been greedy and busy and it has brought life back into a little space, and movement and energy. I don't know what the Chinese would say about bird tables but it seems a good bit of Feng Shui to me, instinctively.

There, two minutes on google and I find a Feng Shui expert called Rodika Tchi who says that 'bird symbols...have an intrinsic universal energy that doesn't need translation' (giving a) 'feeling of inspiration, freedom, and a longing for being united with the divine.' Maybe this is what saddens me so much, to see this perfect little creature lying dead. A close relative of mine has died and I am preparing to go to yet another family funeral. The Autumn is closing in around me. I turn to your book to find a warming dish to take away the sudden chill. I find it on page 245 - an 'Aubergine Curry' for an Autumn day.

There are times when I want to stand over a stove and toast spices in a dry frying pan and inhale the aroma. And there are other times when my stomach is talking to me as I cook, when I'm trying to help with homework or break up a fight in the other room, and the dog is getting under my feet because she knows it's her dinnertime too. These are the times when I want to bung it in a pan and get on with other things. You know this too because you say 'when I am in the mood, I will toast cumin seeds and coriander, adding dried chilli and turmeric....but on a weekday, when I'm quickly putting together a curry for dinner, I use my favourite curry powder.' So, I will no longer feel I'm somehow cheating.

This curry, for the most part, takes care of itself as the vegetables gently cook. It is refreshing and juicy as the thick slices of aubergines - mine are like tractor tyres - keep their shape and remain succulent. Altogether, a gentle fruity curry which warms the stomach without leaving you feeling heavy and bloated. I also think this dish must be really quite good for you and relatively low on the old calories (providing you don't overdo the naan bread - my weakness).

Yesterday was a magical evening. It started as a sudden urge to put up the string of white outdoor lights that I'd been planning to do all summer but never quite got round to. I think it occurred to me early on in the summer that these lights are only best seen when dark, and, as it never seemed to get dark-enough until well after ten (and I don't really have those sort of all-night parties anymore), there didn't seem to be much point.

I looped them all along the little picket fence at the back which stops people falling headlong into the stream. It is very dark outside at the back as there are no streetlamps around here and I usually have to remember to take a torch with me everywhere. Even going out to the shed for wood or dog food is an expedition in itself in the middle of winter, (especially if there's a foot of snow on the ground). I got out the fire basket and filled it with logs and placed benches around it and hung cheap zinc Ikea lanterns from the roof of the woodshed.

My moment of inspiration, however, for which I am most proud, was in bringing out the large green wheelbarrow and placing the outside door mat (one of those farmers' metal grid things) over the top. Onto this went the hot terracotta pizza stones from out of the oven. It was just magical to be able to sit there with my little ones and my eldest son, James, and watch the flames lick and spit.

The stream still rushes on and an owl hoots somewhere out there in the night. This time is very precious to me. I have learnt from life's tumbles that we only ever really have today right now to cherish. My son is back from University and applying to join the army. I put away my fears and thoughts and enjoy the night. He is the happiest and focused that I have seen him in a long while; and who can deny him that. We each of us make our own path in life and desire only the love and support of those closest to us. The pizza stones stay hot on their grid, keeping the slices of pizza warm till the end. The citronella candle does its job in keeping the midges away. We have foregone the organised side of the garden and are perched on the concrete on old plank benches with the kids on wooden steps. It would have been an ideal time for toasting marshmallows but I don't have any. And anyway, that would have made it an organised occasion, and this is simply impromptu and unplanned. And the more completely lovely for it.