Wednesday, 30 September 2015

More haste, less speed

Dear Nigel,

There is a spider who lives in my car called Ariadne who is waging a small battle with me. Each morning when I get in I have to wipe away a web obscuring my vision out of the side window; and each night she replaces it with another one in exactly the same place. Were it not for the slightly pressing need to see out of the side window I might be happy to leave her in peace. She is an obstinate creature, my Ariadne. Perhaps we both are.

And they are everywhere at the moment. Spiders. Hanging out their washing in the morning dew, neatly pegged to the frames of seed heads and bare stemmed plants. Inside, they corner each window frame and take particular delight in lining each beam on a beamed ceiling. Me and my feather duster are waging war relentlessly inside so that we don't become a tableau like Miss Haversham's.

The mornings are misty, with a heavy fog down in the valley. It burns off by ten, but then returns in late afternoon. I am gazing at a particularly beautiful web today, hanging from a bush and outlined as if with liquid silver, showing off the weaver's intricate skill.

Back in the kitchen, I am cooking in too much haste. Supper tonight is 'Lamb steaks, creamed cannellini' (pg 375). The first mistake I make is to buy the steaks in the supermarket, I think. But I was shopping in a hurry today and there wasn't time to go to the farm shop on the way back.

I am looking at your steaks and then looking at mine, thinking 'yep, a poor do indeed'. These are the best lamb steaks the supermarket could come up with, but they are small and thin, and I would be most disappointed, were I eating out somewhere, to be served up a steak like this. Of course, the proof is in the eating. And, as it turns out, they taste fine. But all the same, if I make this again, I wouldn't want to feel that huge sense of disappointment.

The second mistake I make is entirely mine. I am rushing because there is homework and music practise and a hundred other things to be done. And so I fail to squeeze out the water from the spinach enough and the puree is a little too much on the runny side. It tastes fine, of course, and nothing that an end of bread can't mop up on the plate, but I am hearing my old home economics teacher saying 'could do better, girl', and I know it. So, a note to self in the book, a rap on the knuckles, but at least we eat well tonight.

I am particularly taken by the idea of pureeing the cannellini beans with the spinach. Never a huge fan of beans, this alters the texture completely. It tastes really good as the beans are cooked in a chicken stock before being pureed with the spinach. I can see that this one has a whole host of applications. You suggest butter beans as an alternative, and a rib eye steak. I think it might work well with sausages too. Cannellini beans have one of the highest protein content of any bean, and I can see it making a fine alternative to bangers and mash for those trying to cut down on carbs.

Sophie has started to learn the violin, and I had forgotten how excruciating it is to be in the proximity for anyone with 'an ear' for music. I can't imagine teaching the violin, myself. I grit my teeth and try not to show the 'pain' I'm feeling when things are just a fraction out of tune. Greatly out of tune I can cope with, but minutely, it's agony.

I think there is a good case to be made here to the old man upstairs for the mutation of genes to skip a generation, so that the parents of musical offspring are of the tone deaf variety. In this way, all would be satisfied. Tone deaf parents would obviously make the best audience as being endlessly appreciative and in awe of their children; and probably be the most encouraging to their offspring as well, delighting in a talent they themselves never had. Musical parents are also apt to be less patient when the penny doesn't sink in first time. This is why musicians always send their children to other musicians to learn. I am perfecting the encouraging grimace in Sophie's case.

There are about five violins knocking around in our family it seems, of various sizes, in lofts and under beds. Musical instruments are, strangely, one of those things that people don't like to get rid of. Charity shops are full of your old clothes, outmoded furniture and old Laura Ashley curtains, but rarely is there a decluttering of instruments. And luckily so for us right now as we are on a fairly tight budget.

Sophie collected some blackberries yesterday and we had them with apple for tea. Sometimes you can taste an individual berry and know that the time is just right. And that time it seems is now. They may be less juicy than the showy, cultivated, giant grenade-like things that the grocer sells, but they win hands-down on taste. They have an almost citrus fruitiness at times, in a truly ripe berry just before it turns and becomes watery and insipid. Gather them now and you have a feast in a handful.

The whole point about a blackberrying expedition is 'the journey', as they like to say these days. It is the day out, the getting scratched and prickled and hands covered in purple stain. Sometimes you come back loaded and other times, when someone else has got there first, you might find only a handful. And yet it fairly ceases to matter. The one tiny apple crumble with half a dozen carefully placed berries sitting on your table is a triumph to the hunter gatherer buried deep within your psyche. No matter if you have driven for over an hour to find a sodding bush.

Of course you could be lucky and your buckets and ice cream tubs will be laden. Don't sit back on your laurels, though, as I have done in the past: It's amazing how quickly a fruit mould will develop and ruin the whole lot in an instant. Less is probably more in this case, too. How many of us really have the time to knock out hundreds of jars of jam? Blackberries are too 'chewy' on their own. A shelf of jars is great to look at for a while; but after that while you must either eat them all yourself or find people to offload them onto. The two precious jars you might have eked out of your half-filled bowl is a more precious and treasured (and therefore savoured) thing than the third jar this month that you're still wading through come April.

Martha x

Friday, 25 September 2015

Another year of good eating

Dear Nigel,

It was such a treat to receive the signed copy of your new book 'Kitchen Diaries 3 - a year of good eating' which you sent me the other day.

It was one of those perfect Autumn days with the sun gilding every leaf and glossing every hue, and we were out enjoying perhaps the last meal of the year in the garden when the post van called with your present. To be surrounded by the people I love, eating good food on a perfect day, was just heaven to me.

You seem to sense this too - that this is what life is all about - and yet there are still those who want to make 'eating' some kind of elitist pleasure, to be denied to those they regard as 'others'.

You say, 'with this book comes something of a plea for both good food and a love of cooking to be just part and parcel of our everyday lives. Thoughtful, considered, always delicious, but something to be quietly enjoyed rather than put on a pedestal.'

We were enjoying a simple fish soup which is a particular favourite of my daughter, Hannah, who was home for a couple of days. With bread, cheese, olives and whatever goodies I could find lurking in the fridge and which might need eating up.

You say, ' there is, I believe, too much pressure on us to "perform", to reach for perfection, instead of simply treating the art of making something to eat as the lifelong joy it should be'; and you 'worry that the competitive element currently prevalent in food and cooking is scaring people...from getting stuck in.'

Simple food, simple pleasure. The people you care about will love you for your care and effort on their behalf, not for your picture -perfect meringues.
'I think of good eating as something to enrich our daily lives,...Simple cooking that results in something unfussy, unshowy, understated. Something to bring pleasure to our own lives and to those of others.'

You have been experimenting in the kitchen again, and come up with 'Fig and red onion tartlets' (pg 411) which is a 'marriage of soft, buttery onion, cooked down to an amber marmalade, and dark figs....the result is so good I cannot imagine why it hasn't occurred to me before.'

As this uses two of my most favourite things in the whole world I immediately home in on this recipe. I am heartened by the fact that the supermarket is discounting figs on the grounds that they are supremely ripe, and therefore perfect for eating. I think a bowl of figs is a sculptural thing of great beauty. Your figs come from a tree in your garden, (lucky you) - one of the advantages of city living. Here it would not survive our harsh winter weather, I think.

There is a gradual drawing in of sap and goodness outside in the garden. The leaves are slowly changing colour and the occasional splash of red here and there, on leaves and the blooms of crocosmia and the wings of butterflies, reflects the pent up energy I feel all around me at this time of year.

The buddleia bushes are covered in Red Admirals airing their wings in a moment of brief sunshine. These butterflies are the offspring of migrants who came over from the Mediterranean as early as March and laid their eggs on nettles. The new caterpillars, eventually (by late September), become the adults who feed on the last nectar of Summer - the buddleia and ivy - before migrating further south to a warmer climate. A few will stay and try and hibernate but this is not often successful. They are as much a part of a late September garden as any bloom or showy tree display. They flit around us as we eat our lunch in the sunshine, careless almost to our presence as they too feast on plenty, building reserves up for their long flight south.

Back in the kitchen I find my first problem is a lack of six  loose-bottomed tart tins. Not one to be put off so early in a recipe I decide that my large loose-bottomed flan tin will work just as well (hopefully). You choose to use a food processor to make your pastry, which is about the only thing I seem to use mine for these days. I decide to use my ceramic baking beans which have been with me forever to bake blind the pastry. I like the indented pattern of marbles they leave behind them on the smooth pastry surface. I keep them in an old Fortnum's Stilton jar - a relic from my childhood days when companies used to send out hampers to various people at Christmas. (...I'm not sure how much of that still goes on, but I remember how much we appreciated the rich foodstuffs from shops too far away to ever visit, and too expensive to ever send from.)

The filling is both jammy and rich. I love the sweet and savoury marriage of this tart and the fact that it is eaten warm reminds me of the tasting spoon of a good jam making session. It is not often that you get to spoon the ribbon of warm jam straight into your mouth - not too hot to scald the tongue, nor too runny to crinkle on a plate- and this recipe perhaps comes closest to those times of pure and utter bliss. I think the individual tart tins probably win hands down here, giving a more filling mouthful of the crumbly sweet pastry, so maybe that's one for the Christmas list.

At long last the Autumn-fruiting raspberries are ripening up outside when I'd all but given up hope of them. I love the contrast of colour they make in a compote of mixed berries with their deep red hulled bodies tossed against the  purple/black clusters of the blackberries. It is a season of such truly beautiful colours. And right now, of memories too. Summer came and wiped away all past memories it seems, and now it feels like the time is right for gathering them all up again and 'coming home' once more in your mind.

I sink my teeth into an apple strudel and think, 'Apple. When did I last eat some wonderful slushy cooked apple?' I am sitting in the car park in Archie, (my ancient old Landrover) half way through my shopping trip to town, with an open box on the dashboard from the patisserie and a free cup of coffee (courtesy of Waitrose), and I'm contemplating the comfort of a warm baked apple bursting at the skin with plump soaked sultanas pouring out of its core. And the crunch of a crumble made with oats and a smattering of cinnamon and brown sugar on top of a sea of mushy fruit .

Already I am using one meal to plan another. For so much about eating is about memory and the creation of new ideas. If this tastes good, how would it be (you reason) if I added a few black currants or a lick of maple syrup or a handful of honeyed dates? and so it goes on.

Wishing you the best of luck with the new book as I tuck into my fig and red onion tart for supper and drink your good health,

Martha x

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

New Pencils and a handful of nectarines

Dear Nigel,

This has always been one of my favourite times of year. I'm not sure why. There is an energy that whips through the branches and around the trunks, teasing the leaves only just tinged with umber and copper plate by some careless decorator. Summer is packing up its bags and heading South, leaving a last scattering of golden sugar cube hay bales on flat fields of golden stubble and lengthening shadows.

Sophie is heading off to Middle School in the nearby town of Leek nine miles away. Pencils are sharpened and endless name tags sewn into clothing. She seems so small to be heading off on the big bus, swamped by her over-stuffed back pack and shiny new shoes. The Honker bus comes a little while later for Molly so we are up and down the village twice in the morning; passing the goats waiting for their breakfast and stopping briefly to talk to the Indian runner ducks up by the pond. We get up at some ungodly hour just so we can enjoy the privilege of these few stolen moments. I wonder how much longer it will be before I am banned from accompanying them up the village and told to wait at some distance when coming to pick them up later.

The veg box in the porch is heaving. I come back loaded from the wholesalers where I get most of my fruit and veg, fired up to make more vegetarian meals in a bid to head off the over-indulgence of Summer from hanging around my waistline. It seems a good ploy to fill up on vegetables and juices. But I keep noting my skin. I have a (probably) quite irrational fear that the seemingly gallons of carrot juice which I'm imbibing - my current favourite juice being apple, carrot and red pepper - is turning me orange. OK, I'm sure this isn't probable or even possible....perhaps, but I'm not convinced that my fading suntan isn't without a hint of some dreadful San Tropez out-of-a-bottle look that I'm not over-endeared to. A quick glance on google and my niggling fears are confirmed. I am, in fact, turning orange and it has a name - it's called Carotenemia. Good old google - it can turn you into a hypochondriac in five minutes flat.

I am considering your Chickpea and nectarine couscous recipe in the Guardian. I am in a couscous mood and have inflicted it on various friends and family on several occasions this last fortnight or so, tweaking it in different ways with courgettes and feta with lemon myrtle salt (something I picked up with intrigue in Ottolenghi's wonderful deli in Notting Hill last year. I just want to be that child looking in through the window with my mouth hanging open).

So,here am I, experimenting with a little sumac on here, a scattering of za'atar on there - all very 'not allowed' in cooking circles, I'm sure, but I'm feeling with my tongue and the couscous is a fine blank canvas for all manner of lively spices. You are using this season's glut of nectarines which still seem to fill the shelves when I'm out shopping; spicing them up with ras el hanout and sweet paprika.

A few days catching the music in Dublin gave me a couple of new ideas to take to the pub in Foolow where I play my fiddle. A young red haired Irish girl was enlivening a well-worn classic with two-string melodies and a medley of more interesting bowing techniques.

'I can do that,' I thought, sinking in to my half of cider. And possibly I could; but good technique has a way of standing in your way. Time after time I come to the conclusion that a classical music education is a real hindrance to traditional fiddle playing. Whether it's holding the bow differently and building up speed or angling the neck with your other hand sliding the fingers over the strings, it could take a lifetime to undo a lifetime of good technique. So I do what I can with what I have, developing my own style. And sometimes, like the other night, the Season's energy whips through the pub and round the bar, picking up the fiddle and making it fly away with my fingers desperately trying to keep up with it.

I'm not aware what it is I'm playing - some sort of blues number I think - and time stands still as I watch from the side and someone is playing my fingers while my mind is elsewhere. The bow is bouncing and stopping, flying and returning to the heel, and the other hand is drifting over semitones, ad libbing wildly. But I'm not there. I'm standing next to me and these hands are no longer mine. The gap is longer than I expect it to be before we are reunited - hands, arms, fiddle and me. And I have no idea where I've been. The talking stops at times like these, and that is perhaps the thing that I like best of all: the ability to still a noisy pub for a moment in time. It is a real satisfying pleasure, better than the drink.