Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Struggling with Jesus

Dear Nigel,

I don't know if it is indicative of the new millennium but all is not 'calm and bright' in the stable at present. Molly, who is playing Mary in the school Nativity, decided to start her letter to Father Christmas this evening with the words, 'Dear Santa, I'm struggling with my baby at present...' Obviously, she has been illicitly watching too much reality TV somewhere. The baby Jesus apparently requires all manner of baby paraphernalia, including a bath with shower attachment, a car seat (for the donkey) and a sledge (for all that snow piling up outside Bethlehem).

The Royal Mail requires a stamp for the letter to get to Father Christmas. Gone are the days when my older children were small and letters were simply stuck in a post box unstamped. Several weeks later a badly translated note would come back from Greenland, or somewhere, covered in magical foreign stamps from the land of ice and snow; from the REAL Father Christmas, without a doubt. The Internet tells me we can still do this and Santa takes euros these days. Clever Santa. The girls write their letters and clamour for stamps. I see Baby Annabel has also written a long list for Santa. Good luck to him trying to reason with a two foot piece of plastic who snores louder than my child.

There is a small digger heading its way towards my house. I watch its progress with its mole-like trail following behind. They say it's the Internet. I say I'm quite happy with mine the way it is at present, having spent ages sorting it out. My neighbour has all sorts of electrical appliances short-circuiting or something. We are the end of the line for electricity and falling below the legal minimum, it appears. No wonder I keep trying to up the lumens in the light bulbs and considering another eye test for my failing eyesight. Perhaps I should sit the children on a stationary bike and they can generate our own electricity instead.

The whole village is beginning to look like the battle of the Somme. Cables are being put underground and my friend Liz tells me they have been without a landline, mobile or Internet for over a month now. She'll be sending smoke signals to her facebook pals if this carries on much longer.

Back in the kitchen, I'm making 'Gnocchi dolcelatte' (page 505). I love to cook with blue cheese. I'd much rather cook with it than eat it straight. Best of all are the dishes, like this one, where it is added to a creamy sauce. Gnocchi and spinach are suitable partners in this dish to temper the saltiness and tang of the dolcelatte. Left to bake for 30 minutes it mellows and crisps at the edges. Like a dinner bell it calls to you from the oven as you lay the table nearby.

It has been a miserable wet day today with floods on the roads and a flash flood which threatened to enter the cottage as the stream broke its banks and water from the higher meadows made new waterfalls coming down into the stream. A couple of sandbags by the back door and the water starts receding as the rain eases. I haven't seen it this high in all the time we've been here.

We get out the advent calendars ready for next week. There is a certain amount of filling to be done of the little wooden houses with chocolate coins and novelty sweets. I always make sure I get a paper one too with little pictures behind the doors. This is how I remember advent calendars to be.

Sophie, aged nine, is unimpressed with Matthew Rice's artwork this year. Baby Jesus appears to be about six years old and wearing lipstick (2014 version). Presumably it took the three kings an inordinately long time to find the stable. Mary, meanwhile, has been erecting stair gates using sheep hurdles to try and keep the baby Jesus away from her ironing board. The shepherd has a very dodgy look to him. Methinks he has spent rather too long looking after his sheep. Sophie palms her calendar off on Molly and claims the other one as hers.

I'm using my gnocchi straight from the freezer. I like the idea of having such staples on standby, if possible. I am pleased with the outcome. The gnocchi cook just as well from frozen as fresh. You say to 'take care not to over-salt the gnocchi's cooking water' as 'the cheese will provide enough salt.' I have read that it is better not to salt the gnocchi's cooking water at all as the salt will make the potato starch go sticky and it will end up mushy. In a different recipe it would be better to adjust the seasoning after cooking. Here, there is simply no need - it is salty enough.

Fruit to follow, I think. There are bowls dotted around the house filled with heaps of vivid orange clementines, which look like someone has been at work polishing them all to a fine shine. The best and easiest way to keep winter colds at bay.Every stocking should have one. Every child, an imprint of the smell of Christmas. I cannot seem to smell a tangerine without closing my eyes to do so. And along with the scent there is a certain tingling and anticipation that has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that I am standing in the kitchen on a grey afternoon stacking plates.


Sunday, 22 November 2015

Winter Comfort

Dear Nigel,

I am at the stove making your 'Butternut and red onion gratin' ( page 441) today. It needs to bake for 'a good hour and a half', so, with a little planning and forethought, it can be left to work its magic whilst I get on with other chores like cleaning the bathroom (my least favourite job). Even with a lovely new bathroom it is my least favourite job. I am sure it is an attitude of mind and if I can just persuade myself of the BENEFITS then I might make swifter progress. Perhaps if I give it a deadline of 20 minutes, or provide a small edible treat for myself on completion. It apparently works on dogs, so why not on humans?

The thing I love most about this dish is its comfort factor. There is nothing nicer than wandering through the kitchen and smelling the culinary alchemy taking place within the depths of the oven as the appetite within you builds. Winter food is all about comfort. There are knobbly balls of celeriac (which mash so well with potato and butter) and Jerusalem artichokes for sale in the wholesalers; vividly painted red cabbages like giant Christmas baubles tossed in feathers and sturdy rows of white leeks over by the counter.

I am in soup-making mode, making batches of soup to freeze for Christmas. I have just finished making one with sweet potato, butternut squash and smoked chilli, and have gathered ingredients together for a Leek and Stilton favourite. It is natural to be drawn to a warm stove at this time of year, stirring away the the darkness and driving thoughts of rain and fog back out into the cold as you gather the people you love around you, and the animals that are part of your world; wearing layer upon layer of warm jumpers and silly scarves and hats that tell the world that you "just don't care" when it comes to being warm inside. I recently bought a pair of sheepskin earmuffs which look simply ridiculous but, ohhh.., heaven on a pair of cold, red exposed ears when hats are not really my thing.

The season is finally changing to Winter and there are strings of Christmas lights going up in the towns and villages around us. We went to the annual switch on of the Christmas lights in the little village of Castleton on Saturday. The village was crowded along the main street with children on shoulders waiting for Father Christmas in his horse and cart; and Widow Twankey, heavy in make-up and bright silks, flicking the switch on the lights.

Strings of lights on full size trees lit up outside the little shops and cottages that line the twisting main street of the village. It was a suitably dark evening and there was hot chocolate and toasted tea cakes on offer in the cafe. Sophie and Molly did their Christmas shopping well into the evening as we trooped in and out of each of the little shops in turn. A huge Gingerbread house stood in the window of the Baker's shop decorated in sweets and jammy biscuits, and earrings twinkled in the windows of the gem shops. All the little shops had really made an effort with their decorations and the pubs were decked out and inviting as we gazed through the panes of yellowed glass and into the glow from the firelight and antique-style wall lights within.

Although many of the towns around us have bigger and grander switch-ons there is something personal and informal about the small village version: The compere on the tannoy, who fancies himself a bit of a comedian, cracking jokes and announcing all the coming events. A small village, famous for its caves and Blue John stone (which is unique to this place), Castleton also puts on some rather unique Christmas entertainment - Carol singing concerts deep within the caves in the hillside.

One Christmas I went along to one of these Carol concerts, and, standing or half-crouching in the kind of blackness where you can't even see your own hand in front of your face until it touches your nose, where voices around you echo with carols of old whose words (in all their verses) have become inscribed upon your consciousness over the years, seems instead to bring everything about you into sharper focus: There is cold, but stillness; a silence, but an echo of every tiny sound. It is something rich with which to savour.

The first snow of Winter fell over the landscape last night. We woke to a bright blue sky and a landscape of fondant icing as far as the eye could see. This first time always comes as a joy. The child inside is eager to get outside and find some excuse to crunch new footprints in the virgin snow before someone else gets there. I put on my snow boots and gloves and let the dog out to play in the snow. The cat is less sure she wants to stretch her legs in this unfamiliar scenery. She is soon back again, standing outside the backdoor and looking very sorry for herself. She is a fair-weather creature who would rather lie along the seam of the sofa like some miniature  version of a Trophy hunter's prize floor rug and soak up the heat from the fire.The purr she makes is like a car with its engine left running and her tabby stripes float out from a smile that John Tenniel would be proud of.

I take the giant snow shovel from the shed and clear a path out to the lane. We bring back a barrow of salt which the council kindly leave at the end of the lane in case it should freeze. There is no snow plough or gritter here - just me and my snow shovel and a long lane to clear. At the moment it is only two or three inches deep - nothing really - but when the snows get going then I usually park at the far end of the lane for even the landrover can get stuck snowed up to its axle, and digging it out is a lot less fun than it sounds...

We sit and eat our meal. It is lovely but incredibly rich. Jim and I both agree that it would make a better accompaniment to a loop of Cumberland sausage because we are unused to such richness on its own. The wholegrain mustard - a hefty dollop - gives a lovely tang to the cream and creme fraiche, but something to cut against this richness would be welcome. I mark it as such in my copy of your book -for there will most definitely be a next time.


Friday, 13 November 2015

Hot Sour

Dear Nigel,

 I am making your 'Chicken, haricot beans and lemon' (page 395) for supper tonight. I couldn't find any bone-in chicken breasts so am having to make do with the ordinary unboned version; and, as you say, it makes a really fast version of this dish. I am in two minds whether to make some basmati rice as an accompaniment, but, given the amount of haricot beans (which seems quite a lot to me for two people), I think we might make do without.

I may have been a little heavy-handed in seasoning my chicken breasts with the salt and pepper. Perhaps the lemon was a particularly large Sicilian one, plump and juicy, of the type I favour. But whatever the story, there is a happy outcome. I really hadn't expected this, but this dish is not merely one of chicken and beans with a few flavours seeping out. Instead, there is something deeper and stronger here - and in equal measure.

There is a reasonably intense heat from the pepper seasoning on the chicken and an equally intense sour from the lemon juice and yet neither is allowed to dominate. The heat from the pepper allows for the intense sour taste of the lemon without making your mouth water. And the sour allows that the heat from the pepper be far stronger than you might perhaps normally choose to use. It is startling this strength in equal measure, and not something to be lightly glossed over. To me, it is a revelation: to have two warring factions taking strength from each other is an eye-opener. It moves the dish from being another simple chicken dish, to another level.I love to have my taste buds surprised, and this dish has surprised me.

Yesterday we made my Granny Burn's recipe for Christmas cake, heavy with sticky dark currants. I forget how little we use these tiny little fruits during the rest of the year. Of course the recipe included the usual favourites of sultanas and raisins, but it is these tiny little dark and gritty specks that give that particular burnt treacle taste that says 'Christmas' to me.

Each time I make it I have to remind myself how long it takes to bake such a cake: four hours of decreasing temperatures. It's only a problem when you start cooking in an evening and suddenly realise that you will be burning the midnight oil waiting for the timer to go off so that you can finally go to bed. Not this time, though. Sophie helps me weighing out the ingredients and everyone has a magic stir - because it IS Christmas; and we've done away with the Christmas pudding on the grounds that no one wanted to eat it last year. Or at least they did, but only after they'd eaten all the other puddings first. It seems a shame to do away with such an old tradition when so much else about Christmas stays the same, but there you are.

I was helping in school yesterday taking a class of five and six year olds out into the school grounds to collect fallen leaves. The school itself is quite unusual because the building was once a large secondary school set in open fields, where now the forty or so first school pupils have an unqualified amount of space per child, which the staff are keen to utilise.

This meant that there was a large variety of leaves which the children and I were able to gather and identify. What really amazed me was how many of these quite young children actually knew the names of the trees already and the shape of their leaves. Whether that is because most of them come from farming families or simply have the sort of parents who will take them out for walks and point out these things, I couldn't say. I often read that 'most adults' couldn't recognise a horse chestnut, or whatever, and find these bland media-intrusions installing themselves in my brain as 'facts' which I then don't question. It's a worrying thing - considering the extent of the assumptions that we all make each and every day and how much they affect the way we view life.

I know we have turned a corner into Winter when I can sit and eat heavy puddings without feeling a shred of guilt. The idea that carbohydrate is like a thermal vest on a cold day cannot be underestimated. Half the pleasure of going for a good walk in the Peak District is being able to dive into a proper thriving pub with a log fire blazing and sit and eat a hearty lunch. The weather on Sunday was suitably carbohydrate-draining, with winds lashing against our faces in the fading light. The pub we chose was 'The Royal Oak' at Hurdlow which stands almost at the end of the Tissington trail (an old narrow-gauge railway line turned into a cycle path).

Just as we were flagging and in need of a rest and shelter, one appeared as if from nowhere, just like Mr Benn. It was a small roundhouse, shaped like an igloo without it's protruding entrance, and made entirely from dry stone walling materials. It had been built and given as a present by the Republic of Croatia in 2013 to celebrate its joining the European Union.The building is called an Istrian kazun and is based on a two hundred year old design celebrating the shared heritage and tradition of drystone walling. Other kazun were being built in other parts of Europe in countries and areas which also shared this tradition. In a storm it was a welcome shelter.

To sit inside on stone-shelved benches and gaze out of the tapered window holes at the storm shouting and whistling about you whilst staying well out of the wind, was lovely. You could be part of it and yet not subjected to it. No glass wall between you to imprison or dampen the sound. We had chosen to eat first this time and the Sticky toffee pudding was doing its version of the 1970's Ready brek advert and giving an invisible warming glow as we finally struck out for home once more.


Monday, 2 November 2015

Haunted Castles and Romano Peppers

Dear Nigel,

If you want to do Halloween in style, then you could not do better than visiting a real live Haunted Castle in the wilds of Northumberland. You enter along a drive lined with rows of burning torches and have to leave your car far away amongst the trees and arrive on foot armed only with a dodgy old torch.

I was just so thankful at having found 'something' - and so not have to go out trick or treating (the whole idea of which was causing me to lose sleep at night), that I would have been quite happy if it had been a bran tub of apple bobbing and a few pumpkins dotted about.

So, having driven for six hours to my parents house for a short break, I had an hour or so to grab a cup of tea and then pour myself into a sexy witch's costume (why the sexy?), complete with massive hooped skirt, and try and negotiate the gears in the landrover whilst driving another 40 minutes with said hooped skirt on (floating across the gear stick and anchoring itself firmly under the steering wheel); travelling across darkened hillsides and even further north to a castle almost on the border with Scotland. (I'm sure the British Army don't encounter these sort of logistical problems on their manoeuvres.)

Chillingham Castle markets itself as the 'most haunted castle in England'. It has been on numerous television programmes and slept in by several celebrities with a death wish, quite possibly. It stands resplendent in a suitably dimmed glow, the shadows falling off the crossed axes and sabres on the walls, and huge log fires burning in the oversized grates.

If I had been feeling a little over-dressed, perhaps, and that dressing up was not really for me, I need not have worried. The whole cast of the Adams family were there. Families seem to come as posed tableaux, siting themselves against suitable backdrops to pose for greatest effect. My two had opted to discard the lovely ready-made costumes from previous years and create 'outfits' of their own from a motley assortment of stuff they put together themselves in a Blue Peter circa 1970's sort of way. They were happy with the effect, anyway, and I was just pleased that it was relatively dark and I was unlikely to bump into anyone I knew.

They listened, entranced, to an old man telling tales of the ghosts who live in the castle alongside the family. Molly had already spotted the ghost in an upstairs window the minute we arrived and wouldn't be encouraged otherwise. It was all very matter-of-fact to her. We  feasted in the old kitchen by the fire, chased pumpkins around the darkened maze outside and finished the evening off with fireworks, returning back exhausted and complete.

I heave my heavy copper saute pan onto the stove, now that I am back safe home, and mellow a heap of sliced red and yellow onions in a little olive oil. On the chopping board are a couple of Romano peppers (one only in your recipe, but that isn't enough for me). I am making a rich vegetable medley of 'Chickpea, courgette and pepper stew' (page 391) to chase the darkness away this night. The Romano peppers are like witches fingers and I hack them into largish chunks, removing the seeds, and let them soften with the onions. It seems like a suitable dish for a Halloween or Bonfire night; something to mop up with a wedge of ciabatta. An easy dish, perhaps, to take outside in a wide-topped flask and dispense onto bowls in the dark; the witches fingers pointing out from their mini cauldrons, beckoning.

You say, 'It is the sweet pan juices that make this dish worth making.' I found that cutting the Romano peppers into larger chunks than normal left them more succulent as they softened, and for biting into.

I'm pleased to read that you are as curmudgeonly as me in regards to this Halloween trick or treating. 'Nowadays it's all screaming groups in fancy dress ringing on doorbells. Trick or treat has become little more than licensed harassment. Parties bang on into the night. Crassness and commercialism have replaced the magic of a night where spirits were free to haunt.'

I remember Halloween as being little more than baking potatoes in a fire outside and carrying turnip lanterns round. My mum tells me that turnip lanterns were a throw back from the war when that was what was available. She merely remembers them being extremely hard to carve when we were small and there being lots of apple-based activities.

You remember 'the old Halloween, when hollowed-out pumpkins glowed ghoulishly from darkened windows, was a night I rather enjoyed. Walking along London's Georgian streets, the occasional candlelit gourd to speed us on our way home to drink pumpkin soup and watch a crackly black and white Frankenstein movie, was something I looked forward to.'

Perhaps this is a night that needs reclaiming in the way that many of us are starting to at Christmastime. The excesses of chocolate deserts and rich food of a few years back are gradually being replaced, I believe, by slightly less excess, more comfort-driven and often less traditional fare - or at least a new take on the old traditional. There is more emphasis on the company than the table display and people are coming home to the idea of a simpler Christmas being actually nicer. Perhaps Halloween, too, is due for a remake; so that it becomes something to look forward to once more.

I agree with you that 'pumpkin only really works for me when it is accompanied by a savoury element.' I don't really care for the sweet pumpkin tarts and pastries available.
'Best of all is when the squash's sugary flesh comes glowing from the oven, sticky with the caramelised juices of a piece of roast pork...A glowing reminder of a night when,once upon a time, our imagination and candlelight were enough.'

Just so.