Monday, 26 October 2015

Lamb Stew and Bedding the Garden

Dear Nigel,

I'm flicking through the pages of your book looking for a nice warm and comforting stew. The hour has gone back, and though the sun is bright it is chilly and there is a wind weaving about, ripping leaves from trees, and creating the kind of energy for doing things. It is a doing things type of day. I cannot sit still.

There will be a 'Lamb and Bacon stew' (page 387) on the stove simmering away for when I come back inside, but before that it is time to put away the outside chairs and table and clean and store the barbecue because I think the days of sitting out in the garden have finally gone for this year. Should there be a spot of sun one day, and five minutes peace in which to enjoy it, I can always perch up on the bench by the woodshed to sup up my mug of tea.

There is a lot to do in the garden at this time of year. Nothing, if you prefer, but there is a certain satisfaction in seeing a row of earthed pots without their mass of dead and decaying leaves, and a freshly swept path - even if it seems like an endless job at times. It is a fine time to get out your oldest most well-loved sweater, take out a mug of hot tea and put on your heavy duty gardening gloves ready for some action.

There is a carpet of moss gradually creeping across the path and grass and weeds which have woven themselves into a kind of mat across the drive. I peel it back and rediscover the garden that once lay beneath it. Summer's riot has taken hold and there is much neatening up to be done.It is not essential but oh so satisfying.

We share a trait, you and I, for neatening and for things being just so. I have seen your shelves of bowls, each in their own particular space just so. I too am like that, moving things a little to the right, a little forward, turning things round. I can't help myself. It jangles to have things not quite where they should be. No one else seems to notice it but me, and my hands have gone their way and tipped the picture, straightened a line without my mind having followed suit.

I season the lamb shoulder, having cut it into cubes, and brown it lightly on both sides. There is a deep, hearty smell coming from the pan. I feel protected by the richness as if such a rich dish inside me would keep out the cold. I bring logs in from the wood store and stack them by the wood burner.They are dry and light, the end of last year's store. They will burn well and fast. I love to wander through the village at this time of year and sniff the air. So many little wood fires going in the cottages, and wood piles by the back doors. I make a mental note to order my builders' bags of logs before the weather sets in.

I have come across a fundamental law of displacement. In my freezer. It is full to bursting and I have just made a couple of mincemeat loaf cakes to put away for Christmas. But there is no room, at the Inn or in my freezer. So we must start our annual ritual of eating up all the miscellaneous items that seem to hover for months in this arctic wasteland, rediscover small treasures that have sunk themselves to the bottom, and make way for the new.

In one respect it encourages a kind of annual clear out - and who knows, even the occasional defrost - when I might be quite content just to let things be otherwise, so that has to be a good thing. I'm never quite sure what the shelf life of frozen food is anyway. Most things seem to hold true, occasionally there is a little deterioration in texture, but it's something I'm a little fuzzy about.

The evenings are quite dark now and it gets cold long before. At cubs I have been helping them make moving models with old CDs and wood and bits of string to move across the floor of the old village hall. Activities are inside, away from the night. It is firing my imagination ready for the Science class I will be helping with after the holidays when I go back into the classroom at Molly's school.

There is a lovely point of wonder when you have taught a child something and then the penny drops and they realise for themselves. To watch a small face suddenly light up and become animated and excited about whatever it is they have learnt and internalised is priceless. Most children love practical science - it is just an extension of the play they used to be allowed to have. Some never grow out of that wonder. My Dad was a chemist and loved to experiment with things in test tubes all through his years at school. When I came along I don't know which of us had the most fun playing with my chemistry set, causing reactions, colour changes and growing crystals.

Back to the kitchen. The new potatoes and lamb are simmering gently. There is the tang of smoked bacon and the fug of softening golden onion. I still find the easiest way to chop bacon is to use a pair of scissors. Not having been on lots of cookery courses I don't really know if this is some kind of cardinal sin or not, but it works for me.

I pick a few sprigs of Rosemary from my faithful plant by the back door, adding the chicken stock at the same time. It is peaceful, warm and steamy, and I can leave the stew to meld whilst I finish up outside. My earlier enthusiasm is waning with the daylight and I am keen to finish off and come inside.

I have bought small pumpkins for the children to carve. I unleash the tide of Halloween paraphernalia from its cupboard; - hideous piles of fake hair and witches brooms, skeleton bones and torches that spin. They want to go trick or treating. I want to hide in a cupboard. There is no escape. I must grin and bear it unless I can hurriedly find an alternative party or event they can go to.

Supper is ready. The sour cream is added. It has a good strong robust taste in keeping with the time of year. In retrospect, I think I could have browned the meat a little more. could have simmered it at a slightly higher temperature so that more liquid evaporated. Perhaps the sauce would have been a little browner. Who knows? we live and learn. I add a note to your book for the next time I cook this dish.

That is what cooking is all about.


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