There is no one coming to lunch today. No one at all. And yet I'm cooking something special when ordinarily I'd make do with a slice of toast. It is raining outside, that kind of miserable rain that makes you want to go back to bed. It drags you down, keeps you out of the garden, saps the light from the day and makes you crave chocolate.
Instead, I am making 'Baked potatoes with aubergine and cream' (page 389). It is a recipe for four people, and, even though my friends tell me I 'can sure put it away', I decide to scale down and have one jacket potato instead of four. There are only two aubergines, though, and I am sure I can manage a whole one if pushed...quite easily, probably.
It feels a little outrageous to be cooking lunch for one, and yet the weather demands it. My spirits demand it too, and things start to look up as I put some music on, warm the oven and start crushing the spices in my pestle and mortar. I scatter the spices over the lattice-cut aubergine halves and then, instead of pouring over the olive oil, I decide to add it to the mortar bowl to eke out the smashed garlic and spice flavours still clinging there. Then I tip it over the aubergine halves and chuck it in the oven with the jacket potato.
This leaves half an hour in which to get things done. I start to hum as my mood rises and set the kitchen timer. Most real cooks, I think, are multi-taskers. Television programmes often make it look as if the cook has sat there twiddling their thumbs, watching the clock go round.
Instead, he or she is more likely to be doing the washing up - in real life anyway; (something strangely never televised, although I'm sure whole programmes could be devoted to the knack of getting under the rim with a bottle brush or how to clean a garlic press - buy one called 'Susi' who comes with her own reverse cleaning press)....or get a dishwasher, I suppose. I have one, it lives in the shed as there's no room here at the cottage for it. So I wash by hand; slowly, laboriously, complained at constantly by my kids- whenever they are cajoled into helping - who believe I'm capable of using every pan and implement in the kitchen to make one simple dish. But it is also a very good place in which to gather your thoughts, to expend time on a washing up meditation (complete with hideous yellow gloves) and plan the following day.
The dish is ready and I can add the final flourish of salt,double cream and a little lemon juice. I don't feel guilty adding the cream as it takes the place of the knob of butter on your jacket potato. The final dish is wonderfully warming and rich. The lemon juice and garlic mute the spices - this isn't "curry" by any name - and the cream meshes with the juiciness of the oil-rich aubergine to give the idea that this is more substantial a dish that it would otherwise imply. It is filling but not heavy. I don't have time for a siesta, I have other fish to fry this afternoon.
You have been cooking 'a little plate of deepest Autumn'. It is 'a mushroom bourguignon' ( page 418) with 'inky wine and mushrooms cooked to the texture of silk'. Autumn has invaded your world and there are horse chestnut leaves piled up 'on the verge outside the house,begging to be kicked, and the garden smells like the sweetest muscat.'
Most of the best smells of Autumn come from a mixture of decay and rotting matter, and the natural leaf mould accumulating under trees in the woods. Just to sniff the air and catch the tang from a waft of wood smoke quickens the blood.
You say, 'there are few better smells on an autumn day than smoke from a garden fire.' When the weather holds, gardeners are out in force,clearing, pruning and turning into boy scout pyromaniacs.
There are few who don't feel the unpredictability and allure of a fire. Just warming your hands, and shading your face from the intense heat because it draws you so close, you are entranced. The art of keeping the fire going with dry wood whilst feeding it the sappy stuff you want rid of (which makes it smoke), is a game in itself. You can while away a whole afternoon in such quiet concentration, entering the house at dusk glowing and refreshed, ready for another meal.
Passing by on the road through Warslow, I see the old sheepdog, nose to the road in all weathers. She is an old working dog, faithful and skilled at her trade. The farmer leaves her guarding her 'charge' at the very edge of the roadside. At first I found myself feeling sorry for her when there was rain, or fog or frost on the ground, but now I see that this is her whole life. She has been bred and trained and her every sinew begs this life.
Often, I come by in the depths of the night, catching the reflection of her eyes in my headlights. She is still there in the darkness, low to the ground, not an inch moved from her place. I used to worry that she was so near to the edge of the road that her days were numbered. Now I see that they are only numbered by time for she is totally skilled in her intense concentration of every vehicle that passes.
I pass by during the day again and though she sees the landrover coming, her eyes have caught hold of mine inside the vehicle and she is watching; waiting for any unpredictable move I might make. We play a game, this dog and I. I look away, then back, and she has hooked straight back on to my eyes, muscles tensing instantly in her forelegs in a way that no footballer marking his opponent could ever do to such great degree.