Friday, 23 January 2015

V is for Velvet landscapes and Venn diagram logic

Dear Nigel,

I am cooking your 'Courgettes with Bacon Gemolata' (pg 95) for my guest tonight. I have some bacon which has been sitting in the fridge since Christmas which I feel needs using up. No doubt the supermarket would have chucked it long ago, but this one came with the turkey from Stanedge Grange Farm and it still looks and smells OK to me. I have left bacon to hang around too long in the past and I know the difference in smell - a far better pointer than some arbitrary date stamped on a plastic packet. Luckily for me this is one of those easy suppers where all the ingredients are things I seem to have to hand, and it's quick, simple, and cheap to boot.

The snow comes and goes as it pleases. The landscape stays gloriously white, but the roads are dependant on the local farmers and their tractors fitted with snow ploughs; and, further afield, the council gritters with their flashing yellow lights. On our lane, the snow compacts itself and is good for sledging. The three cottages that use it all have four-wheel drive so it stays white. I take my snow shovel and clear a path to the woodshed and up the steep drive so that the postman doesn't complain. I bring a wheelbarrow of salt from the pile that the council leave at the end of the road, to help with the steepest part.

When I see that heavy snow is due again this evening, I take the opportunity to get to the shops and stock up. I meet so many of my neighbours on my rounds - even though it is fifteen miles away from home - all with the same thought in mind. When you have the sort of weather we do round here it feels good to be stocked up, with enough diesel in the car and wood for the fire to be able to batten down the hatches and not feel obliged to be anywhere in particular.

It's all an attitude of mind, of course. If you come here and you feel trapped because you can't get out (as one of my sons did at Christmas) then you will never be happy. If you accept what IS, then you can simply relax and appreciate it for its specialness - and enjoy the unique silence that echoes all around you in the whiteness. It makes you realise how little in life is so important that it cannot be cancelled, changed or rearranged in some way. When there is no one to be angry with, you simply learn to be creative and think more widely around a problem than you might.

The children, of course, love it because they get to have a day off school. And there are snowmen to be built, sledges to be dragged up the meadow and snowballs to aim. The radiators are covered in mounds of soggy hats and gloves and the dog gets to have her bed brought into a warmer room by the wood burner. Outside, the birds are clamouring for their breakfast again, and getting through the sack of bird seed I bought at a rate of knots. Some days a couple of pheasants clear up under the bird table; on other days a magpie or two chases the others away, or a squirrel chances his luck. The snowman standing next to them all has a sweet potato for a nose and is sliding sideways as the sun rises once more.

The breadcrumbs in this recipe seem to be drinking up a lot of butter and I am a little unsure at first. But in hindsight I find that I am right to follow your advice to 'add more butter if the crumbs prove thirsty'. The taste tells all. The best bit of this dish by far for me are the buttery golden crumbs with their gentle hint of lemon, which offset the saltiness of the bacon nicely. It is substantial, yet light. In this post-Christmas daze when I have only just dared to take a peek at the damage on the bathroom scales, (whilst still polishing off all manner of Christmas leftovers of one sort or another), I can only say that this dish won't leave you feeling bloated. We ate it on its own, without any accompaniments, and it was good - very good, actually.

Tom seems to have been awarded a scholarship at University. It's very typical of him that he forget that he'd even applied for it, or that it had been awarded. To celebrate he seems to have dyed his hair blue and been made an Ambassador for the University. I say 'Microsoft will soon put an end to that': (they seem to have been back and forward to his course half a dozen times or more already, head-hunting). He is doing Computer Programming - one of the few courses I imagine where there seem to be more jobs than Graduates, apparently. His older siblings meanwhile didn't seem to find it quite as easy.

He also seems to have joined the 'Tea drinking Society' - whatever that's a front for - and spent a great deal of time on the phone today complaining about not having the right baking tins for all these cakes he seems to be making. His flatmates and he were complaining about how much 'batterie de cuisine' a student kitchen seems to need. (In my experience with his older brothers, two pans, a wooden spoon and a tin opener seemed to do the job.)  At the same time I am leafing through a kitchen catalogue wondering why some of these gadgets even exist and who might conceivably buy them. The ONLY good thing about having such a tiny kitchen, I find, is that it makes you consider each and every item and demand of each that they justify their place in existence. It has sharpened my awareness and ability to declutter. I look at each bag-load winging its way to the charity shop and say to myself, 'there's another cubic foot of space in which to breathe'. And in those terms it's easy.

It was lovely to hear from you again and to wish you a Happy New Year. Sometimes when the darkness draws in early and everyone seems to be suffering from some residue of SAD (or lack of sunlight), it feels hard to look for the hope of the year ahead. I find it as I go out into the garden again, in between snowfalls. Strong young stems of rhubarb are pushing up against the frost: a true triumph of hope over experience - and that's what we all need.


Thursday, 8 January 2015

A guest at my table - George

It is always difficult moving house to a new area: You feel yourself floundering as you try to find your bearings and make sense of your surroundings and your place in it. Having moved house many times over the years I am used to this sense of rootlessness and the necessary time it takes to feel 'at home' once more. But it is never easy.

We moved house one bright warm sunny day in May, leaving home, friends and community in a small town on the edge of the Cotswolds and headed South West to rent a little house in a village by the sea in Cornwall; leaving our not-very-nice-looking house, within travelling distance of England's silicone valley, to sell itself.

It was the right decision. The sun was smiling on the Cornish hedges and never had I seen so may wild flowers clustered together in such variety, as if a whole army of florists had been at work the night before to garland the hedgerows for our arrival. The pure sea air, the rarity of seeing a car around the headland and the blinding sun against the blue no doubt fuelled their growth.But I was still in awe.

With a baby, a toddler and another not quite old-enough for school, it was a blessing to be able to go down to the beach each day and play in the rock pools. Looking over the bay towards the island with its stunning white lighthouse, I felt as if it was the very first thing I saw when my feet touched down on Cornish soil. And the purity and brilliance of it has never left me.

At that time of slippy, slidey, feeling around for a place to be, we made friends with a gentle giant of a man called George, who, for reasons different to mine, also found himself cast adrift on the tide.

He was a farmer who had come from 'up country' many years before to work a farm several miles away inland. His children were much older than mine and, as we talked, they were happy to take them off to look for toads in the boggy land beside the fields.They seemed settled and accepting of the changes in a way that children often do far quicker than the adults around them.

George's wife had left him and he had been forced to leave his farm and come and live in this tiny tucked-away cottage on the kink of a windy road set against a blanket of golden fields. Everything ripens earlier in Cornwall, it seems....and finishes sooner.

As he told his story, his back against the smouldering hearth and passing a hand through his thick black curly hair, he was still smiling that gentle, almost 'simple' smile over his round ruddy cheeks. But George himself was no simpleton. He understood and accepted more than I would have thought possible. He, himself, was a devout Christian; but as I listened I wanted to get angry on his behalf. He accepted everything - the deceit, the betrayal, the destruction of his family. The only thing he struggled with was the loss of his family farm, which had had to be sold and split two ways. He made his living looking after someone else's cows these days; his own animals long gone. And still he smiled; even as the tears rolled down from the crinkles of his eyes as he remembered taking his animals to auction  somewhere over near Truro.

Ours was a special kind of friendship which owed much to a mutual feeling of being somewhat lost at sea and in need of a compass. Perhaps, he would say, he had his bearings in nightly instalments from above. I was less sure what was in store for us but only trusted that it somehow felt right - like coming home. Having grown up in small villages and now finally cut the ties that bound us to our town life, I felt I could finally breathe again. And breathe I did the pure oxygenated air, and the night-time sky without its orange extending haze obscuring all but the most persistent of stars.

In time George made a new life for himself; bought a house in town, married his lodger and had a new twinkle to his eye - little Georgina. His lodger, who had seemed the most unlikely to be his type, with her fierce haircut and nose stud, turned out to be an earth  mother and morphed, and they took to managing the transfer of wholesale vegetables from local farmers to farm shops and grocers in the area.

Somewhere in all of this we lost touch, as some friendships do along the way, so it is good to know that he is coming to supper tonight to catch up with the multiple of episodes that have happened in both our lives since then; and on reports of his enigmatic godson.