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

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