Wednesday, 26 March 2014

I is for Inexplicably good

Dear Nigel,

Most of life seems to be inexplicable, it seems to me. Things either work or they don't. Food is either inexplicably good or bad but rarely indifferent. Sometimes the culprit is easily spotted and dealt with swiftly - too much seasoning in a casserole, add a potato and let the saltiness disappear. Sometimes, of course, it's too late and it's 'eat it or starve'.

On the other end of the scale are those memorable meals where the inexplicable something is usually the catalyst between one ingredient and another. These are the meals we mark out as sublime, and they can be anything from salt and vinegar on chips to truffle oil on wild mushrooms. This is the outcome I am hoping for with a simple comfort food dish of potatoes on a wild and windy March afternoon when it is better to be in than out, with the hailstones clawing my face as I screw my eyes up and make a dash to the car. The dish is 'Potatoes with Spices and Spinach' ( pg 263).

I am inviting my new friend over here for the first time. He is a Designer, and the one thing about Designers is that they notice everything. Including the dirt. So I am cleaning like there's no tomorrow. Of course I know it doesn't matter in the slightest. And yet it does; this time at least. Dirt is the one thing we do well over here. It is a different kind of dirt to the clogged up London air. This dirt arrives on foot, usually. The dog rarely wipes her feet on the specially-constructed dirt-trapper mat, preferring to jump over it so that she can make perfect paw prints on the tiles. The children are better organised to remove their wellies as they fly in off the moors leaving a trail behind them all the way to the television of boots, coats, and trousers often-enough. The village lanes are cleaned almost weekly now but the off-load of constant tractors fresh from the fields is a constant trial. I want to send the children to school in shoes like everyone else but the obstacle course of mud makes it impractical until it all starts to dry up a bit.

This simple meal is basically another take on the humble roast potato. I ask myself why I've never made this before as I sit down to eat. It's lovely. But when I think of making roast potatoes they are always accompanied in my mind by a roast meat. It's the way I was brought up. Most of us in this country, I expect. So how to get from there to a dish like this. I have often eaten a dish like this when out, but never cooked it myself. Yet it's so ridiculously easy. How can we change the habits of a lifetime and create new ones. Do I need to cook this week in week out until it is embedded in my subconscious, or do I have to deliberately turn to the recipe every time. I want to be able to look at a potato and say, 'this will make a fine dinner today.' I want to move my socialisation process and coat those potatoes in spices and yoghurt, instead of gravy and redcurrant jelly. As you say, the dish is 'hot, cool, crisp, soft' and inexplicably sublime. It is a dish without meat where none is intended, and comfort on a blustery day. It is also very inexpensive to cook, which makes it hugely attractive to me right now. The sublime bit for me comes with the interplay between hot and salty. I think maybe I have overdone the sea salt, but no, it is simply the heat of the cayenne and chilli bringing out the tang of the sea. As a marmite girl this is completely up my street.

There is a newly-rotavated vegetable patch waiting for me to sow now. I am holding fire a little while longer as the morning frosts still linger. I think a couple more weeks will give even the hardiest little seedling more of a fighting chance. I'm thinking we might have missed the snow this year, though it is still very cold out of the sunshine. I only want to plant things this year that will work hard for their money - cut and come again salads and perpetual spinach; that sort of thing. The rhubarb creates a pretty hedge with its leggy pink stems and will soon need pulling. Every year it gets stronger and better. Last year's newbies are feeble in comparison to the rude health of the previous year's stock. I am trying different varieties - early and late- to try and extend the season. The spinach has designer lacework courtesy of a myriad of insects, no doubt. We eat that which would never grace any restaurant table and it is none-the-worse for its doily-like effect.

Each day we wave to old Nigel as he goes back and forth down the lane in his huge red tractor, taking bales of hay to the cows. He is my five o'clock wake up call drifting in to my subconscious and priming me for the series of more insistent alarm calls from my phone. The other day he passed us with his one year old grandson sitting up front, grinning from ear to ear. Young and old together. The next generation of farmers in training.


Wednesday, 19 March 2014

A guest at my table - Mrs M

I am looking at a salt and pepper grinder in John Lewis. One click and there is pepper, turn it round and pure white sea salt is dispersed with a second click. People are like this, sometimes; like politicians appealing to every denomination and social strata they click and turn, click and turn. I want my pepper mill to grind pepper, my salt mill salt. They are different heights, different weights and I can see them on a dark night with the lights turned down low without having to squint. They are comfortably permanently the same. This is how I want them to remain.

It is the Autumn of 1981 and a new term at a new college has begun. There is a river of oil on water as the products of two diametrically opposed educational systems seek to merge, or spar. This is the Conservative heartland of Henley-on-Thames. George Harrison is ensconced next door and the local MP has too much make-up on his face from too many television appointments. He is Michael Hesseltine. He thinks in coming here to this little sixth form college in his own backyard that he will have an easy ride. He is wrong. There is a battle going on between the plummy debs and the backyard Stanleys and the lines have been drawn. This is a state school still, but infiltrated en masse by a lobby of partly-educated private and public school adolescents whose parents seek to skim the cream off a state education beacon of excellence. We don't recognise it as such - the plebs without another place to go - it is our nearest and only college within miles of this warren of tiny villages we all inhabit.

The stage is set for a pageant. The principle arrives in flowing robes and a special song is installed in us and reverberates. We state school pupils role our eyes and look for the exits. And there, standing on the stage in the line up of performing clowns is Mrs M. She looks bemused and alert as she gazes from face to face, checking out what the winter winds have blown in for her to sculpt.

The building is a Victorian Gothic fantasy, much like Harrison's, but half way down the drive, hidden by trees and a mountain of rhododendron bushes are a couple of seedy old portacabins - much like any well-thumbed state school - where a cauldron of discontent and future subversives is brewing. This is where the Politics and Sociology classes have been ousted to; to be tolerated at a distance. Mrs M roars up in her sports car and parks it round the back. Her hair is expensively maintained and immaculate. She is bright, articulate with red nails and a Bank Manager husband heading the large fort back home. She talks of equality and an education system for all before collecting her own sons from boarding school for the weekend. She has seen both sides of the street and decided for herself which one to stand on. This is easy for she is pretty and shiny whilst emitting with passion ideals formed in the hot bed of the LSE. We love her for her passion. We tolerate her dichotomy in a world she seeks to change by engaging minds and sowing seeds.

There is a gradual melding of two social systems as we try to become more alike. Toffee-nosed airs are ripped down and grungy clothing is ubiquitously the order of the day. A uniform of  black is taking over in the politics block. CND badges replace the old school blazer laudatum and enquiring minds are put to work uncovering the blinkers and the legacy of social backgrounds. There is anger, there is hunger and a thirst for new ideas and political ideals. Reality does not intervene with all its mundane certainty as Mrs M keeps court. Back to the hall for the week's drill of gowns and flamboyant lecturing. Back to the Nissan hut for a quick roll up and decoding of the subversive indoctrination we've all been party to. One system seeks to neutralise the other. It is ping pong and we are the vacuous white balls in play.

I am putting the dish of Chicken and Spelt on the table as my guest comes flying in on a wave of energy, her eyes darting everywhere, the light in them flickering as she surveys the room. I am wanting to know how the intervening years have mellowed her; whether her ideals have faded at the edges as the will to fight ebbs; or whether the energy to cultivate young minds is as fresh as it ever was. A good teacher carries her pupils along on a wave of passion and discovery. Mrs M was born to teach.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

H is for Hankering

Dear Nigel,

I may have a bone to pick with you this time, Nigel - in fact several bones as it happens. I have a hankering to make your recipe for 'Ras el Hanout Chicken and Spelt' (page 189), but when it comes down to going out shopping I find the ingredients a little elusive to say the least. The pearled spelt I eventually track down in a health food shop, but the chicken wings are unavailable everywhere I go. Perhaps in London with its ethnic diversity it's a different matter but in Ashbourne, anyway, there is no demand for them is seems.

I am beginning to think I might have to substitute a few chicken drumsticks but I can just imagine the comments coming back...'that chicken never flew'...etc Eventually I track some down but even then the butcher says it is for a special order otherwise he wouldn't have had any in either. That said, by the time my guest and I sit down to eat, I know exactly why it has to be wings. There is a claggy stickiness to them that is just so moreish it is worth the hunt. The pearled spelt is a new one on me but it seems to take on the rich flavours as it plumps up, and makes a nice change to normal rice. Another quick and tasty recipe with a waft of Morocco on the plate.

I saw my first Spring lambs this week playing in a meadow, all cotton woolly and new. When they jump it is as if they are tiny puppets on strings being lifted vertically in the air on all four feet. It feels as if it has been a very long winter this year and the first couple of days of real sunshine almost seem unreal. It is warm-enough to eat in the garden on Sunday for the first time. There is lots of over-enthusiasm for these first few rays of sun. Everywhere, it seems, there are tons of pale bare flesh being aired as if a tropical heatwave is on its way.

The good thing is the weather has dried up some of the mud in the meadows and we are less in danger of losing our wellies trying to cross the stile. The rhubarb is shooting up and the flowering currant is about the burst forth. There is an air of Spring around even though there is often a low-hanging mist in the early mornings. As we are high up near the moorlands here it's not surprising. The sun burns it off by mid-morning and the air of mystery surrounding it is lost. The tabby cat stretches out on top of the woodshed as if she is ironed flat with a leg at each corner; maximum surface area soaking up the heat like a little solar panel. She is in her element, drunk on sunshine, with a Cheshire cheese smile going from whisker to whisker. Don't wake me, she says.

My Tom has been away for his University interview, dressed in his suit all dapper, without the apron strings of his mum to tie him down. I think, should I have gone with him after all, despite his protestations? But no, that would be for me. He wants to be independent and confident, without me clucking round him. They offer him a conditional place; perhaps now he'll put some work in...

John has been rotavating the vegetable patch again and a path is going down tomorrow he tells me. Usually by now the seeds are bought and planned out on paper. Why am I being so tardy this year, I ask myself? It is as if I have forgotten a part of myself I left outside last summer and have yet to reclaim and make mine. I start from the house working outwards. The windows wide open, the paths being swept. I remove all the gravel I threw on there to make traction in the ice which never really came this time. It is looking more as if someone lives here, someone who cares. The harsh sun obliterates the windows with their crust of winter grime - another job to do. There is a cleaning woman inside me desperate to get out. I'd better make the most of her - she doesn't come this way often. The vegetable patch can wait a few more days. I hack off some of the dead stuff in the flower bed that I should have done away with last Autumn but didn't. It has ceased to be sculptural and now just looks dank. Every tweak is an improvement. Spirits lighten as fresh winds blow in and the washing dances on the line. Spring is nearly here.


Tuesday, 4 March 2014

A guest at my table - Mathew and Andy

The year is 1997 and I am travelling to York University to meet a group of people I have never seen before and who will, by the end of the next week, have become like close family if only for a short, intense time. This is the Open University Summer School programme. All of us have spent the entire year individually deep in assignments, books and late night television programmes (although most were starting to appear on video, thankfully) and now we are here all together. I think I have travelled a long way, coming up from Cornwall, until I meet the others. I find myself in a minority, suddenly, as people fly in in drips and drabs from all corners of the earth.

It is an essential requirement of the courses that people attend Summer School, and every help is made available for those with tiny babies, those who have to bring whole families with them, the old, the disabled, service men and women stationed on the other side of the world. There are no exceptions.

I hadn't realised when I started this History degree that it would be so dominated by the army. The services pay/or help pay for servicemen stationed overseas to be able to study for a degree, and many of them fit it in with night work or long periods of waiting. In my group are two young men roughly the same age as me; Mathew is a young officer in his early thirties working undercover for the MOD in Eastern Europe. Andy is part of a Bomb disposal squad in Northern Ireland. It is a difficult time for both of them. Over in Ireland, the Real IRA are waging a campaign against the British security forces, culminating in the Omagh bombing which would occur the year after this. Over in Albania, the United Nations Security Council had, in March, authorised a force of 7,000 to direct relief and restore order to Albania, to try and prevent the unrest from spreading outside the country. Both men have young families back home, and young wives who have mental health problems. You can perhaps pick and train men to be mentally strong in these situations but you can't pick their families. It is an added burden they both share. It is not something I have ever thought about before.

Mathew has dark wavy hair and glasses and unusually pale skin. He is calm and controlled and never seems to become particularly animated by any of the discussions. He is thoughtful and incisive and brings a deeper interpretation to our joint projects. It is interesting to see how different minds work in the same situation. Other people make you look at things in a different way, if they are able to communicate their thoughts properly. Andy shows me a different side. He isn't as intellectual as Mathew but his take on things is totally unique. He breaks things down into a step-by-step approach. Every step provides a choice, but each of these choices lead to a pre-determined step. He is applying his skills as a bomb disposal expert to the deconstruction of an assignment question. He is slightly younger - perhaps in his late twenties still- with a regulation crew cut and square jaw. He is charismatic and witty yet never out of control of the situation. He is an interesting mix, and lives on the hyped-up adrenalin that his job gives him; yet in a controlled and confined sort of way. He isn't a man to shout.

The week plays out in a heightened state for all of us. These events are notable for this I think. Each night we find we are still talking at four or five in the morning, no one wanting to give in to the dull ache of sleep. It is the finite time limit that makes this all the more imperative. And the bug is catching. By the end of the week even the older members who have taken themselves off to bed on the first couple of nights are hanging out in the halls with the dwindling supplies of alcohol and crisps, their wrinkles pinned back and their eyes glistening with fire.

My guests have arrived at the correct time for our dinner of lamb cutlets. They are still in their late twenties and early thirties, and, although I want to find out how the intervening years have left their mark, they are unable to tell me what they cannot know. The world is a different place today. Their conflicts are just another page in the history books; another question on a University exam paper. These young men are helping to write that history, even as they examine the questions from another time. Perhaps all wars and conflicts throw up the same universal questions and issues, and, in answering those, they are seeking to answer their own. Their worlds are very far apart and yet the questions are the same.