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.


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