Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Yesterday's Tomatoes

Dear Nigel,

The change in the hour has left the evenings blacker than ink. The few street lamps in our village are up the other end and angled down to keep light pollution to a minimum. Nature sucks back its goodness and crisp and crackly leaves are left to tumble and fall in heaps on the ground just asking to be kicked. I decide to clear the greenhouse where skeleton strings of mainly green tomatoes hang suspended in mid air. It is always a satisfying job to see - order restored and decay removed. It is part of the ritual I enjoy of putting the garden to bed for the winter; like drawing out flannelette sheets and old hot water bottles from the depths of the blanket chest to mark the change in tempo as the year draws slowly to an end.

It is the hard structure of a garden that frames the view in winter. Over at the farm the willow arch needs pruning back and shaping once more. We started pruning the willow hedge that rings the front boundary the other week - a job that looked like it might take quite some time - when Les came by with his large machinery heading for the fields and polished the job off for us in minutes. It is good to know there are still corners of good neighbourliness around that come free and without expectation. All the more welcome and noted when the world feels as if it is heading into a new kind of dark age: The blackness of men's souls on show everywhere you turn in print and on screen. It makes you want to look inward for the good and create something that is real and nourishing.

In the kitchen I am 'doing something with mince' - an economy meal in lean times with Christmas just around the corner. It is your 'Lamb kofka' (page 393) but I am using minced beef, an alternative you suggest, because I am interested to know whether this will really work. Not that I doubt you, mind, but 'meals with mince' is usually enough to make me groan and I will go a long way to try and avoid its too frequent occurrence on the menu, if I can.

The anchovies are roughly chopped and added to the mince along with the ground ginger and coriander, the chopped thyme, rosemary and parsley, and a couple of tablespoons of toasted sesame seeds. I am not naturally a 'hands-in-there' kind of cook when it comes to mixtures of this kind, but there simply isn't a better way to amalgamate and shape the meat to thread on wooden skewers.

The taste is a revelation as we were both expecting that unmistakable taste of mince-dressed-as-mince; and instead it is interesting and quite pleasing. I think the saltiness of the anchovies and the spices carried the day. We think it is something that we will make again sometime, anyway. Not perhaps a show-stopper, but a good mid-week special that doesn't require too much hard work. However, I would just say that I had to remove my kofka from their skewers after they came out of the fridge. Maybe it is simply the shape of my raised-sided griddle pan but cooking was going to become an issue if I persisted.

We go for a walk around a nearby lake with the girls. It still feels funny to be walking without a dog out front. Never happy on a lead, our Poppy was always in and out of the water, carrying impossible-sized sticks and wagging her tail with the energy of a troupe of cheerleaders egging you on. I've hardly been without a doggy companion for the last twenty three years and it stil feels strange especially when we are out. Dogs provide the energy you wished you still had, a reason to walk alone, and an upbeat face when the gloom starts to settle like the mist. It is hard to match.

A flock of Canada geese graze on a nearby grassy bank, but as the light starts to fade and the walkers become more sparse they make their way back noisily towards the edge of the lake. The country park is closing, cars are leaving and nature is crawling back to take charge once more. The noise from the jet skier is silenced as he packs away his kit. Model boats on the far lake and a miniature railway are put to bed. There is a welcome hush though the light is low and distant runners look like washing on a line with only dayglo t-shirts and arms heading towards you. I feel the damp hitting my lungs. It is not a good time to be out if you are prone to wheezing. But the sudden silence is intoxicating; more so because of the contrast.

We are all so unaware of the background noises in our environment. Even when we come out for a bit of peace and a country walk, there is sound. I relish the two ends of the day and find myself listening intently to the silence. If there is a radio on I switch it off. Even the heating has to go. The washing machine can wait till later. The fan in the bathroom that is linked to the light is left in darkness. A kettle - too loud. The cat snores gently beside me on the sofa. This is the extent of noise pollution I will allow in that small piece of time that I claim as my own when the house is empty and my hearing is super-charged to hear a pin drop if drop it would. I love this time. It is mine.

Love Martha x

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

A Butterfly on the Other Side of the World

Dear Nigel,

Change is in the air again and so I am making Comfort food for the table. It helps ground me and provide comfort against the Autumn winds and energy of red leaves and restlessness around me. I am preparing your 'Split peas and coriander' dal (page 355), whilst you are preparing a more recent version yourself at home. We both have comfort in mind. For me it is the never-ending butterfly effect in my own life. How we deal with the constant changes in our lives is a marker of our own resilience. And there is always change.

The Clever North Wind is blowing again and my daughter Hannah is picking up her Chinese visa as I write to go and teach English in Southern China for a year or so. It will be a long time until I see her again. Although only newly returned from America and Summer Camp she is keen to be off again, spreading her wings and seeing life on the other side of the world. I marvel at her courage and zest for life and wish her the best of luck whilst keeping my darker feelings under wraps.

You are in a poetic  mood I see, saying (of dal),'you heal more rapidly than arnica. You put the world to rights even before you reach the table.' This is what we want, right now. Whilst others are knocking up elaborate cakes and impossibly complicated puddings in the name of comfort food, we are making simple pared down honest foods, to eat.

The book I am reading at the moment about 'Mindless Eating' echoes these sentiments, showing how our comfort foods can be changed and engineered to include healthier foods in our diet. The big gender divide - women turning to sweet foods and chocolate and men to meat and veg - is partly all in the mind. We each add our own associations and memories to foods and so are also capable of introducing new memories and associations to improve our diet. Soup is a great example of a healthy food with comfort associations attached. Perhaps that is why it is such a mainstay in this house.

We pick the last of the tomatoes in the greenhouse and I turn them into Fennel, Tomato and Feta soup. The potatoes are lifted and there is an abundance of pink fir apple potatoes to enjoy. The onions are huge unwieldy globes which we lay in boxes of newspaper in the barn. Leeks and Greens are coming into their own right now and we are centering meals around vegetables with meat (rather than the other way round) and exploring vegetarian options to make the most of the season's bounty.

I am laying down dishes in the freezer to feed an army at Christmas, and trying to include as many home-grown ingredients as possible - like the Apple and Blackcurrant crumble I part-cooked on Tuesday. It feels good to be adding this kind of value to our celebration meals. And the meals themselves have become an extension of the best of Comfort food. I think anything cooked and prepared by hand at home is about providing love and comfort. And the food most requested by family are the old favourites, not the new and untried or novelty factor ingredients. Perhaps a bit more game or alcohol in the dinner, but often it is a recipe that last saw the light of day at a previous Christmas. I try to add a slightly new twist or take on things without risking a full mutiny.

The split pea dal has a kind of herb paste made with cashew and coriander and basil and lime juice. It adds interest to comfort and an element of 'dazzle'. The turmeric has many ayurvedic benefits including purifying the blood and helping arthritis. I like to think of food as medicine as well as for health. It feels in tune with the rest of my life. If it is commonplace to regard alcohol as relaxing and coffee as a pick-me-up then it should not be such a huge leap to regard individual ingredients for their health benefits when we consider what we want to cook. How do we make those choices anyway? Flicking through the latest recipe book? Eating seasonally? Whim? How in tune with Comfort eating would it be to prepare and cook the sort food that supports the health of those we care about right now - using ginger root perhaps in a stir fry to aid someone fighting the onset of a cold, or chilli and garlic in a spicy curry to clear a stuffy nose.

Halloween fare is everywhere in the shopping isles at the moment. There are cupcakes with pumpkins on, expensive chocolate heads and eyeballs for trick or treaters. I am taking the children to the same ghostly castle of Chillingham in Northumberland, near their grandparents, which was such a hit last year. I dig out last year's skeleton outfit for Sophie and Molly and I patch together old witch and devil outfits to make a girl vampire costume which is more to her sophisticated taste this year. Out shopping during the day I stop to fiddle with a singing/dancing hand in the supermarket and soon have a following of old age pensioners all keen to play with the toys and make jokes - it's like Christmas in Hamleys.

The American tradition of trick or treating doesn't really work in a small rural community like this where the few old people lock up their doors, turn out the lights and go to bed as soon as it gets dark, and wouldn't dream of answering the doorbell this late at night. So this year I am taking the girls and a few of their village friends into the town eight miles away so they can have the opportunity to knock on doors and wave a cauldron around. It is not really within my comfort zone but neither is the endless moaning of 'we never get to go round trick or treating..'which endures for some time before being rekindled the following year. So, in order to save my gentle village neighbours any kind of ordeal I'll dress in green and black and shiver and cringe for an hour or two. I hope my children will appreciate the sacrifices I make for them when they're older.

Love Martha x

Monday, 26 September 2016

How to Melt an Iceberg

Dear Nigel,

I read recently that when a piece of Iceberg starts to melt it makes a kind of fizzing sound known as 'Bergie Seltzer', as tiny air bubbles trapped since it's early formation (and pressurised) become liberated into the atmosphere.

This is happening to me. Right now. The Iceberg that has been floating in my life for almost twenty years, largely unnoticed and avoided (and mainly below the surface), has started to melt.

We all like to think that our lives are straight forward and laid out plain to see, but that is rarely entirely the case. Many, if not most of us, have small icebergs of one size or another displacing the water around them. Their lack of colour aides our obliviousness to them and it is entirely possible to get through a whole lifetime circumventing these icebergs without ever having to consider them at all. But now, all of a sudden, the largest iceberg in my life story is starting to melt.

Google tells me that the largest iceberg on record was sighted off Scott Island in the South Pacific Ocean in 1956  and was larger than the whole of Belgium. My Iceberg has similar gargantuan proportions. It stems from a piece of my history which I've long since put to rest and dealt with emotionally as best as I am able.

Nearly twenty years ago now I was living what for me seemed to be the perfect life in Cornwall, and the roses in the garden were blooming. I was happier than I have ever been before or since and this joy spilled over into the lives around me. I remember one particular morning when I was sitting there in my garden with a cup of coffee and chatting to my best friend Marian. I became totally conscious of every single dew drop sparkling on every single blade of grass, every insect beating its wings nearby. Time slowed down an hour or more between each heartbeat and I could contain within myself everything that I could see or hear or fathom within that instant. Some say that they understand what it means to be 'in flow' and that it happens regularly to them when focussing on sport, or the wonders or nature, or whatever. But I would question that. This was a far deeper moment, encompassing far more that a single focused trait. Perhaps something only witnessed once within a single lifetime, at best. And never ever forgotten.

Within six months of that particular February morning (and yes, in parts of Cornwall it is sometimes hot enough even in February to sit outside in shorts) my life had fallen apart, my then-husband had left me to bring up five small children on my own, and suddenly nearly everything about my world which I held dear were like the ashes of a book trickling through my fingers. It was time to leave.

We moved on quickly to an almost derelict railway station in Northumberland - a strange choice some might say (including my parents) - but it was the change that was needed to rebuild a new life. And life has moved on and on so much since those days and the past is indeed another lifetime.

So earlier this Summer when David suggested we go down and visit the Cornwall that I knew and loved, and hadn't been back to visit for seventeen years, I did my usual making of excuses - all very laudable reasons why it just wasn't possible this year, perhaps next year. And when he suggested the same thing again I realised that the excuses were passed and that it was the right time and the right person to go down with; to face my demons and unlock the past.

And it turned out to be just fine after all. The house was just a house I used to live in, the village just a village I used to know. The friends I obliquely mentioned to that I might be passing and could I possibly drop in - only if they were not busy...all got together and threw a wonderful celebration meal for me. And they all came. And I felt loved and honoured.

As I travelled around watching the seals playing by Godrevy lighthouse and the unseasonably-strong winds whip the surf at Kynance Cove, I saw my older children playing on the beach in their padded Clothkits' jackets and wellies and home-knitted fairisle hats made by Grandma (- we always seemed to go to the beach in Winter when it was deserted). And the shape of my Iceberg started to emerge, silhouetted against a pure blue untroubled sky. Memories started drifting back, sometimes in drips and drabs, sometimes flooding. I know that there are four large red plastic boxes underneath my bed full of photographs encompassing the best part of twenty years. I've barely looked at them in all that time. Couldn't. I think now is the time, and I feel strong-enough to look and assimilate and remember. Then the Iceberg which is slowly shedding it's outer clothing will start and truly melt.

All this may somehow seem something of nothing to you - and perhaps it is; all just nothing but a glass of water in its many forms. But in my mind it has taken on its solid state and there are whole periods of time - years even - that have almost completely disappeared from my memory. And it is not just the bad things that have been unconsciously blocked out; the worst thing is that it is the good times and the best memories which I have greatest difficulty in locating. I'm sure I'm not alone in this. And it is frightening when you are so desperate to recapture a particular time and place and it is simply not there. At least the constant photography that is most parents' way of hanging on to a fleeting childhood, is there to draw me in. When I'm ready.

I have been immersing myself in the Danish art of Hygge and donning an over-sized jumper and thick wool house socks and making your 'Stuffed summer squash with tomatoes and butter beans' (page 352). Summer has well and truly ended here and a nip in the air has brought the first leaves tumbling from the trees. It is still fairly green outside but it is not Summer here anymore. The hawthorn leaves curl back to reveal their scarlet berries and the bank opposite my kitchen window is covered in flushed rosehips and glossy blackberries. Someone has hammered details of the annual 'Pea and Pie Supper' to the notice board and there is talk about the new funding for the church bells - something I assumed was but a local myth but is, it appears, about to happen within the next year. Butterton will get its peal of bells back. An over-enthusiastic mobile campanologist with an eye for the ladies gave me a very detailed tutorial at the recent village Wakes Day. When I eventually escaped I felt I knew all there is to know about pulling a rope with a 'Sally' on it (you can look that one up for yourself).

The local Brass band arrived and left on a large trailer, still playing, all the way down the road pulled by a tractor to the local pub. The only pub - 'The Black Lion.' The village W.I, always game for a laugh, appeared to be dressed as waddling penguins. Apparently they were actually swans doing their 'swan song', so I felt quite relieved that I hadn't referred to Pingu before finding out. But anyone who is prepared to laugh at themselves and have fun in the name of village continuity - or "keeping the event going" in a small rural village - gets my vote; and last year's rendition of 'Cats' in black leotards was certainly a sight to behold.

The Supper is ready. It is cosy comfort food to suit my mood - all very hyggelig. I had my doubts about including butter beans - they are not really favourites of mine - but here I find they take on the taste of the juicy cherry tomatoes and a little heat from the chilli. I am pleasantly surprised. The dumpling squashes took a little while locating but they look so sweet, like little Danish Elves in their hats, and there is something a bit more of an occasion about this too. Time to light some beeswax candles and draw the blinds against the early falling darkness.

Love Martha x

Friday, 29 July 2016

Is every village fete a Festival these days?

Dear Nigel,

We went to a Festival last weekend. Everyone goes to Festivals these days, it seems. Once upon a time it was a handful of hippies behind a hedge with a couple of guitars and peace signs on their faces; these days its three dogs in a field and a beer tent and suddenly it's 'a Festival'. Looking through a leaflet recently of Festivals in our area, there appeared to be at least one that was just a retail opportunity at a Mill with slightly longer opening hours than normal.

Stainsby Folk Festival in Derbyshire, however, is different. It is a long-standing event, now in its 48th year, and older than Glastonbury if you're comparing notes. It is small and pretty and rural and everything about it tells me that perhaps many moons ago Glastonbury was once like this when it started out. There is one phrase hidden in the festival literature which sums it up for me - 'Not for Profit'. If only Glastonbury and all the other profit-making Festival machines would choose to emulate Stainsby and move back to something that more embodies what festivals were meant to be about instead of being just another branch of relentless consumerism.

We camped in a small tent (remembering the essentials like the unbreakable cafetiere and the insect repellent) with David's teenage children in pop-up tents nearby. It is a long time since I camped at an event like this and I was a little apprehensive; but Stainsby is small-enough to not get lost in or feel claustrophobic.

The best music all weekend came from small and middle-sized bands, overshadowing the main act of the weekend with their intense vibrancy.
'Seize the day', with their protest songs and green political ideals seemed to me to have far more in common with the original idea behind festivals than perhaps Adele singing 'Someone like you' at Glastonbury. And the audience bought into this in droves, catching the lyrics as they filed away their rubbish, helping others move their sinking camper vans and lending chairs and wheelbarrows so that everyone had a good time. There was an atmosphere of goodwill and helpfulness on the site that was enchanting and compulsive. All the staff were volunteers; and the idea of a sliding scale of payment for the artists meant that no one got paid too much and no one too little to cover their costs. How many other festivals can say that about themselves?

I find these ideas echoed back to me in a book I am currently reading by Tim Freke, from which Ali takes her inspiration to write the song 'Big Love'. It is about awareness and watching the dream of life unfold as well as being part of it. It is surreal. I feel like this as I float along in my long dress and alcoholic haze in the sunshine. Life is good and it feels great to be alive. Every day I try and look a little closer, pulling myself into the Now, and noticing the detail I often miss when I try to hurry.

I buy a hat for Molly (who seems to be into hats at the moment) from a quiet man in an orange canvas tent. It is made of pure wool, hand-knitted in Nepal and costs me £3. I go back later and tell the man he has undercharged me and give him some more money: it seems like the sort of place where you would do that, somehow.

The promise of Summer has made me rather lax in the kitchen. Meals are throw together affairs - lots of artisan breads and cheeses and salads with olives and tomatoes. Cherry tomatoes are ripening in the greenhouse and they are sweet and moreish. I pick punnets of raspberries to eat now and blackcurrants to freeze. Summer's glut has arrived and we are making the most of it.

In the kitchen I want to cook simple things. I have mozzarella and aubergines and a basil plant on the window sill that it threatening to flower - all the ingredients I need to make tonight's supper which is your 'Aubergine and mozzarella (page 247). It is just an excuse really to gorge on toasted mozzarella; melted rather than cooked so that it remains long and stringy, without the chance to toughen up. The basil dressing retains all the flavour of the fresh basil. It seems an ideal recipe for pizza addicts who have read the calorie content on the side of their pizza boxes with horror. (My favourite bought pizza appears to contain almost half my entire daily intake of calories, if such things are to be believed, and I don't even feel full afterwards.)

We are in the garden at the farm looking at Sun dogs in the sky. This is a new one on me and I am fascinated. The sun dogs are two phantom suns which appear on either side of the sun and are most obvious when the sun is nearing the horizon. They are caused by the refraction of light through hexagonal ice crystals in cirrus and cirrostratus clouds and are red on the side nearest the sun, graduating through orange to blue. Often these colours are indistinct, appearing mainly like mirror suns, but today they are clearly striated.

Shakespeare, in Henry VI part three (dramatising the Battle of Mortimer's Cross in the War of the Roses), has the would-be King Edward decry: 'Dazzle mine eyes, or do I see three suns.' He reassures his army that victory is foretold and that the three suns represent himself and his two brothers, the three sons of the Duke of York, who have been  recently killed. The belief that victory was predetermined, which perhaps aided his army in battle, caused Edward IV to incorporate the sunburst as part of his personal badge.

It is a lazy warm evening and light until almost ten. It is pleasant to lie on the grass and contemplate life and the universe. The sky remains unchanged through the ages however we defile and destroy the landscape around us.

Love Martha x

Thursday, 14 July 2016

A modern day 'Oliver Twist'

Dear Nigel,

When Oliver launched into 'Where-er-er is love' - all small, blond-haired, blue-eyed, rosy-cheeked and suitable Dickensian...- I remembered that he (she) was suitably attired in off-the-internet-peg shabbery (it being cheaper than the charity shops around here) and shoes with holes in that would have made Dickens proud. I had, of course, been trying to make the school shoes last until the new term, without success, and the idea of buying new winter shoes at the end of the Summer term simply went against the grain. It was only when she came in complaining that her socks were wet and that she could see right through the bottom of her shoes that I thought I really ought perhaps to do something about the situation in the interests of good mothering.

Sophie did splendidly in the role and I was touched deep inside as you are at these special moments. I remembered her older brother Chris playing the same part nearly twenty years ago, and feeling the same way. He, of course, looked a remarkably well-fed little orphan. I toyed with the idea of putting him on a bread-and-gruel diet and keeping him out of the sun, so he could get a little more 'in character' (as so many Hollywood superstars do to extreme these days), but he had the rather distressing habit of bursting into tears if dinner was half an hour late  - always the am-dram, our Chris.

I am reading a very interesting book at the minute: 'First Bite - How we learn to eat' by Bee Wilson. Apart from showing how our food habits take hold in the first place, it is interesting to see how food habits might be consciously changed to include new or previously hated foods - such as your boiled eggs and my cooked carrots (both throw backs from an era of forced feeding). I am considering the options as David is growing all kinds of things which fill me with horror - such as Brussel sprouts. I have been wondering whether it would be sacrilege to try and stir fry them or something.

The idea behind Bee Wilson's theory (well, distinguished scientists' and nutritionists' theory anyway) seems to be the sustained practise of eating tiny tastes of the offending food, carrot, boiled egg, or whatever. When you have overcome your fear of confronting the said carrot, and taken one tiny bite for perhaps thirty days in a row, then you may come to love or at least tolerate the little blighter sitting next to the potatoes on your plate, without having to make a space between the two in case of contamination: One can spend a  whole lifetime not entirely growing up, it seems.

Living inside a pocket well of hills - or so the Peak District often feels - means that there are quaint little cast iron telephone boxes being preserved all over the place, whereas elsewhere in the country they are being ripped out, taken to salvage yards and sold to smug city dwellers to plant in their gardens as 'features'. The reason for this is, as every distressed Duke of Edinburgh student will tell you, that there is virtually no mobile phone signal around here for miles and miles. Often when I am out, sprinting down the main road through Longnor (which serves as motorway for this area of the Peaks), I encounter two tractors going in opposite directions with young lads in them both illegally holding mobile phones to their ears at just the right point when a break in the hills makes reception viable.

They are cutting and tossing hay at present. The last couple of weeks every farm was at it flat-out, all hours, and fields tinged with the haze of wild red grasses were scythed and rolled into rapidly-covered polythene cylinders. The gardens and hedges are as lush as I have ever seen them. Chlorophyll oozes from every branch or stem but there is rain damage to the roses (though their water-coloured petals still look beautiful to me) and the peonies have been weighted down until they can no longer hold out and admit defeat. I crunch into fat raw gooseberries claiming to be eaters. They have not turned pink as yet but they are sweet-enough for me. Perhaps they will make their way into a fool before long. Gooseberry fool is perhaps my most favourite of all. A strange fruit, the gooseberry. You rarely see it for sale in shops, yet it grows well and is plentiful. It freezes well too, if time is short. I am leaving mine on a little longer to see if they will turn pink. Perhaps I am just in a hurry for them. The days have been rather dull of late. Perhaps they need the promise of sun to ripen.

I am making your 'Currant buns' (page 236), which are more like little pastries containing fresh blackcurrants, served warm and slathered in cream (any excuse is good). My main reason for turning to this particular recipe is actually the wealth of blackcurrants from last year still lurking in the freezer when this year's crop is virtually ripe for picking now. Somehow there is always rhubarb and blackcurrants left in bags each year. In years gone by I made lots of jam and it would have gone then. But as we eat more healthier these days and jam consumption has plummeted, I found I was making it just to give away - which is fine - but ultimately there are many more mushrooms I'd rather stuff.

Full-fat cream cheese is added to the pastry to enrich it and the pastry is glazed with egg and dusted with caster sugar. It is a Summer treat and I have two little girls on their way back from school who might appreciate such a treat on this 'unseasonally' sunny day (or so it seems this rather wet Summer we've been having).

Broken into; the midnight berries gleam in their coat of syrup and the tide-line of purple haze against the wave of cream, is just begging to be played with and swirled, like the edges on the shore.

Ah, Summer; a time for relaxing and contemplating the essential things in life...

Love Martha x

Thursday, 23 June 2016

All the Way to America

Dear Nigel,

If 'Fortune favours the brave', as we are told, then I hope for the very best for my bold and beautiful red-haired daughter, Hannah. Like the character in Walt Disney's 'Brave' she is the archetypal stroppy redhead - fiery, impulsive, yet intensely brave. As the middle one with two older brothers and two younger brothers, all very close in age, she soon learnt to hold her own amongst the boys, as a child.

She is twenty six now, and in the last three weeks she has left her home, her boyfriend, her job, her country and gone to America. With no responsibilities and savings in the bank she has chosen to leave a life that was making her unhappy and follow her dreams and travel.

When she first applied to work in an American Summer Camp we knew that there might not be much notice. The last three weeks have been a mad dash to London for her visa and the handing in of her notice at work. Last Monday I drove to Manchester and moved her life into boxes for storage in the barn. And the last couple of days were spent... making a cake - so very typical Hannah. This was for the people at Americamp who had been so helpful in getting her a place at a camp in Pennsylvania. The resulting cake was, of course, perfect (- not like the kind of makeshift Birthday cakes that I always made her, with ice cream cones for castle turrets and smarties on the Hansel and Gretel house).
So watch out America; here she comes.

The Summer here has been mixed. The grass is growing as we speak due to the lush rain which insists on falling at intervals and knocking the heads off all my cottage garden perennials. Patty's plum is lying in tatters on the ground, huge frothy peonies have been knocked down and beheaded and a beautiful bush of pale lilac geraniums looks as if a dog has been lying on it. This is an English Summer.

We take the opportunity to go to the Glastonbury of the impoverished. This particular folk and beer festival is a folk and beer and boat festival and centres on the little town of Middlewich in Cheshire, about an hour from here. A friend is mooring his boat there and we are coming to wish him Happy Birthday and spend the weekend camping. The nice thing about this kind of festival is that the whole town appears to be taking part. There are large cohorts of dubious morris men around, the pubs all seem to have live music playing (of various quality), but the focus is on the canal and the narrow boats travelling up and down it, through the locks, or moored up and turned into floating shops or makeshift cafes. There are three canals passing through Middlewich - The Shropshire union, the Trent and Mersey, and Wardle canals. The narrow boats on them are built to a design unique to this country and must be less than seven foot wide in order to navigate Britain's narrow canals.

It is hugely calming to sit outside a canalside pub and watch people drawing their boats leisurely through the open lock gates. The heavy oak gates are wound closed and the opposite ones opened to let the water level rise. Each lock gate is completely unique in itself as when the British canal system was constructed there was no standard template for lock gates. They were constructed using a variety of techniques designed to navigate the local landscapes, which makes it a nightmare when they need replacing. The lifespan of a lock gate is about twenty five years.

Watching the progress of boats is measured and slow. Boats come in and go out and you could sit there mesmerised for some time over a morning's bacon butty and a cup of coffee, letting the remnants of last night's alcoholic fug drain from your brain.

We amble slowly along the towpath talking to the boat owners as we pass. One is selling local Welsh cheeses (we are not far from the border here) and we stop to taste and buy a hunk of organic Caerphilly cheese. It is creamy with a delicate tang. The boat owners are selling kits for making halloumi at home, but I am not convinced. I have made cheese when I used to keep and milk my own goats - many years ago now - but I remember it took a great deal of milk to make a small piece of cheese, and these days I would rather go into a cheese shop and choose.

Back home, I am making supper. Tonight we are having 'New garlic and mushroom tarts' ( page 220). You have a head of roasted garlic left over from the day before. As I have not, I roast the garlic in foil in the oven as I cook the rectangles of puff pastry. The head of roasted garlic gives up its softened cloves readily. There is something very therapeutic about squeezing out the garlic as if it were toothpaste. With a little olive oil added it mashes to a paste 'the hue of old ivory.' Double cream stirred in thickens instantly and makes a dense-tasting spread to fill the hollows. It is mellowed by the addition of the sauteed mushrooms and balanced nicely by the addition of dill. I am getting to like this use of dill, of yours, in all its different connotations.

We both enjoy this supper very much and so I am also considering another idea of yours which is to pair the garlic cream with slices of goats cheese. I am considering making this recipe again some time soon, with its little boats of puff pastry filled with cream and topped with goats cheese rounds. I am looking for ways to persuade myself to eat less meat and I think this is a good one. I have made a couple of 'old-style' vegetarian recipes lately which were very so so. As a confirmed carnivore I need persuading to eat more vegetarian meals and taste comes top of the list. The days of the lentil rissole are long dead as far as I'm concerned.

Love Martha x

Sunday, 12 June 2016

In a Small Corner of England

Dear Nigel,

Sometimes, when I have been trying to explain to an overseas visitor WHY we do certain things we do over here, I find my voice trailing away to almost nothing. Today is a case in point. We are here in the small village of Edale, at the start of the Pennine Way, sitting on hay bales in a big white tent, keeping out of the typical English weather which is pelting down outside. The ferret racing has been abandoned, and men with white shirts, straw hats and bells on their legs and white handkerchiefs are limbering up in the corner (even though their combined age looks about seven hundred and four). A sheep dog has been chasing a line of ducks up an old children's slide and into a make-shift pond; and here we are, watching a tall striped box with curtains and two primordial puppets beating  each other over the head with a stick and throwing a baby around - all to much giggling and laughter. So much for PC Britain, these children want neglect and abuse and outright wickedness. They revel in it.

We go to watch the Sheep Shearers when there is a gap in the weather. It is a 'fine' English Summer's day. The hills all around us are green and steep in the shadows of a fleeting sun, reaching right up into the clouds. And here, far below, the little village of Edale nestles in its English prettiness. But this day is about Community. It is about raising enough money to keep the village hall going for the villagers, so that the old people will have somewhere to go for their Pea and pie supper, or their Coffee mornings in aid of some local charity, or an evening of Bingo in the Autumn before the nights turn cold.

The Shearer tells me he needs events like this to show people how it's done. Anywhere else and HEALTH AND SAFETY would be in there like a flash, putting people miles from view and away from the immediacy of it all. My children feel the new fleece as it comes off the back of one sheep. We compare the quality of wool between breeds. There is a softness to one, beloved of hand spinners, and a coarseness to the other, which will go to the carpet manufacturers, after it has been sorted and graded in Bradford. He tells me that the first fleece will fetch about £1.50 each, the second only 50p. Given that the Shearer will be paid £1.20 for every sheep he shears, there is little in it for the farmer, and a substantial loss with certain breeds of sheep. We marvel at the deftness of the Shearer and the calmness of the sheep lying on her back between his legs and eyeing us intensely only inches away. I say that we have field upon field of sheep around us, but you never see them being sheared. They just appear, as if by magic, one day in outsize winter coats - lethargic and heavy, the next in their bathing gear - with a new spring in their step and freedom beckoning. He thinks so too and that is why these days are so important to him - bringing people back to the land, back to an understanding of what the land around them does. Holidaymakers, Locals and Townies mix freely. There is no edge or snobbishness here, so often seen at the bigger shows.

My Shearer takes another ewe and starts to shear the old fashioned way with hand shears to show how things used to be done. He takes immense pride in his work and wants to demonstrate his skills. The other shearer has been using the modern electric sort and will get through more than two hundred sheep a day. They are contract workers, visiting farms with their compact trailer. The first sheep to come through is completely wild and has never been shorn before. She has beautiful curling horns, like intricately carved bone. Her face is black, her fleece an off-white matted colour. But as it peels off the pink flesh shines through the new fine wool surface and beautiful black spotted markings appear on her legs and flank. There is an engraved 'S' on her horn, a scannable tag in one ear, a nick in the other and blue raddle on the fleece to mark ownership. She is from over the back of the hill, towards the Snake Pass, and her farmer is standing behind me checking that the job is being done well.

I go to talk to a couple in a pop-up tent with a wood-fired Pizza Oven on a trailer at the back. The Edale Wood Fired Pizza Company has been going just over a year and has all the business it needs. They have a constant stream of human traffic from the walkers and campers nearby; and kindly choose to open only at 4.30pm when the National Trust Penny pot cafe nearby closes, so there is no rivalry for customers. It is as it should be. The pizzas are good and crisp and wood-fired, rolled out to order and sprinkled with toppings to please. We are difficult customers, choosing goats cheese and caramelised onion on my half, and simple tomato and cheese for the children on the other side. No matter, however. The Morris men are hard at work performing their ancient rituals (which date back to the 15th century) in the main ring. The Pizza guy jokes with me about them, but what I see, when I really look, are nine or ten old men in their late seventies and eighties, long, lean, agile and relatively fit. You never see an obese Morris dancer, do you? Perhaps there is more to it than when you first look.

Back home we are having 'Sirloin steak with aubergines' (page 219). The rain has taken the wind out of my sails and drained me and I am pleased to cook something that takes little effort and will be on the table before long.

You say 'aubergines have the ability to soak up olive oil and butter, changing the texture of their flesh from spongy and bland to soft and silky.' This is so, but also a richness here. So often I cook aubergine perhaps as a roast vegetable - and it is good; but here it takes on the pan juices from the steaks which are cooked first and left covered in foil. The whole head of purple garlic has been sliced in two and cooked gently with the sprigs of rosemary. It looks like the head of a flower with seeds in the pan. And gently, gently, it liberates its golden-tinged cloves into the buttery oil. After the steaks have been cooked, the oil, the butter, the delicious meaty pan juices all insinuate themselves into the flesh of the chopped aubergine. Eaten alongside the steak the aubergine is a rich accompaniment, perhaps not expected at first; substantial and completing the meal. A squeeze of lemon cuts through the richness. I eat whole cloves of the tender cooked garlic, their pungency mellowed and balanced in the richness of the other ingredients. It is lovely, really lovely, (not a word you are allowed to use in this game, I'm told, but however...) and has altered my perception of the order of things to be cooked. This is good; breaking moulds, ideas - where do these rules come from anyway?

Love Martha x

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Slow and Slower

Dear Nigel,

Supper tonight is 'Pancetta and leek tortilla' (page 139). It is quick and easy to prepare and cook. The ingredients are things in regular use in this kitchen, but not together: I don't usually use leeks in my tortillas (although I often cook bacon and leek together elsewhere). Sometimes, it isn't until you are confronted by a new recipe that it makes you note your own ingrained habits. It is good to have a change, and the resulting dish gets the thumb of approval from the family. I like your idea of finishing off the tortilla under the grill so that the top cooks before the bottom burns - always a difficult one when there is any kind of depth to the tortilla.

In contrast to this speed and ease of cooking, I am whisked away for a surprise Birthday weekend to one of my favourite towns - Ludlow, in Shropshire, which introduced the concept of 'Slow Food' to this country. We stay right at the heart of the old town, in and amongst the tumbling medieval buildings with their half-timbered faces and overhanging windows.(Ludlow itself has over five hundred listed buildings.) Although the room is lovely the best bit to me is to perch on the window seat with a cup of tea and watch the world pass by down below and underneath our seat. It is a small market town with a pace of life that ticks by in its own time. Wherever you arrive from, hurried or pressing to visit this castle or that shop, it will weave its way through your heart until your heartbeat slows to its own steady metronomic beat and you forget the agenda you had so carefully planned.

Through open curtains I watch the day unfold. It is perhaps just before four o'clock in the morning - that milky white pre-dawn light that pulls a strain across your eyes. The town is deserted and quiet below. I watch the baker in his blue smock top ambling from side to side on his powerful stocky frame, blinking the last trace of sleep from his eyes as he heads down the narrow lane opposite my window towards his oven. There are no lights or traces of life from the windows on either side. A few birds are making a pathetic attempt to wake the day and rustle out of bed all those hungover town birds, fat on curry and the left overs of many an open restaurant bin. It is much later in the morning when the fat grey pigeons in their England shirts plonk themselves down on the narrow ledges opposite pretending, as they lower their heads to preen, that their watches had somehow stopped.

Under the arches to the right a seller is setting up his stall of cheap, mismatched crockery and a couple of rails of assorted clothing. I watch two large ladies over by the clothes rail. One is trying to get into a large shapeless garment without removing it from the hanger or the clothes rail. The other is giving her assistance. Down the side street a butcher in a red striped apron is striding about purposely, crossing the road near to where three old men are perched by a bench in the sunshine, deep in  conversation. They are soaking up the early morning sun, like sunflowers turning their heads to drink in their vitamin D. All smiles and glasses and false teeth. One is standing by his walking frame, the others slouch on the bench with arms folded and ancient shopping bags on the ground. I wonder to myself which one I think is 'Compo' from 'Last of the Summer Wine' - perhaps the one in the knitted tea cosy, I suppose.

Straight down the middle of the main street comes a tall, thin woman in a short fitted suit and impossibly long legs. She owns this road and any car had better keep clear - a Solicitor on her way to work, I surmise. She has that perfectly ironed hair and glazed exterior as if she has been Scotchguarded against the dirt of town life. She is the only one picking up any kind of momentum around here.

A spongy woman with short hair and brand new trainers with invisible socks is pulling herself downhill towards her morning purgatory in the gym to work off the inevitable pastry on the way home and the fish finger sandwich which she made from the left overs of the kids' tea last night.

Coming up the main street - there being a dearth of cars at this time of a rush hour - come gangly youths in matching hanging backpacks. One is chomping on breakfast from a bakers' shop down the road. Another is dragging his limbs on stilts in a kind of lolloping walk that takes twice as long. Two girls check their watches and speed up slightly. The youth with greasy hair slows down. The other one crosses over to make the journey go even further. Both have their eyes trained on the ground, oblivious to the bodies of people coming the opposite way. They notice only feet and deviate with dalek precision, moving their whole bodies and heads in one turn before reverting to their original course. It is a technique perfected.

We saunter down the lane much later once the sun is higher in the sky and take delight in that continental approach of the time-affluent, buying a few rashers of thick bacon here, a loaf of brown ale bread from the baker a little further on, a few cherries and local purple asparagus from a market stall. We survey the array of cheeses on the counter in 'The Mousetrap' cheesemonger's shop and he gives advice to go with the brown ale cob we've just purchased. Perhaps a 'Herefordshire Hop' cheese - locally made, soft and creamy. Perhaps a taste? Yes, just right.

How many foodie tourists have passed this way with just such a loaf, wanting just such a cheese? Who cares. For each it is a road of discovery, a pleasant way to pass the time. And that is what Ludlow is all about. The pendulum swings more slowly here. The hours have many more minutes in them. It feels as if you could count the time between each sunbeam hitting the pavement, grasp the slow moving breeze in your fingers with ease, and be gone and back again before the conversation has ended. Every time I come back to Ludlow I notice this subtle shift within me. It's not just that the shopkeepers seem to have more time for you - the woman in the Hardware store who likes my new dress, the waitress in the deli serving our breakfast who sees refills as almost a fundamental right - but no one is in any hurry at all; anywhere.

Love Martha x

Thursday, 12 May 2016

The Space beneath the Coat Rack

Dear Nigel,

Tonight we are having 'Lamb with tomato, ginger and basil' (page 123). It is a simple supper with thick juicy lamb steaks and a lovely fresh-tasting dressing on top. Just right for days like today when there are better things to be done in the garden than spending ages over a hot stove. I take the cherry tomatoes, fresh root ginger and basil and put them in the blender. The mustard seeds take little time in a hot pan to crackle and pop. With salt and olive oil it becomes a vibrant but balanced dressing. It tastes super fresh and reminds me, with a slap on the hand, that some things - usually all things - are better made fresh; when I take out the bottle of bought salad dressing from the fridge each time. I buy a good product, but tasting this I know there is simply no comparison whatsoever.

I go to the fridge to fetch the lamb steaks. It sits in the porch next to the coat rack, because the kitchen here at the cottage is tiny. As I close the fridge door I glance down to pat my old dog on the head and all I see are a line of wellies. The space beneath the Coat Rack is filled once more, and there is no nuzzling wet nose to greet me, no hopeful eyes wondering if it's time for a walk up the meadows.

It is two weeks now since I had to take Poppy to the vet for that last time. I'm getting slowly used to the sound of silence echoing around me. She was an old dog, supremely lively and healthy to the end; only her grey whiskers gave her away as being other than a lively pup. She loved to swim down in the river at Milldale and wander about with a stick the size of a gate post in her mouth, lolling happily in the sun until she had chewed it into twiglets for the crows to line their nests.

I knew her time had come when she suddenly came out covered in lumps all over, too many to operate on, even if that had been on the cards. When she stopped eating altogether I knew it was only time, yet still she woke each morning wagging her tail and wanting to be out in the fields. It's a fine line knowing where quality of life lies. I hoped each day I would know when the time was right - not too little and not too much. I hoped she would tell me herself with her eyes.

Animals teach you dignity, I think. They don't let emotion cloud their view of the world. As long as she could muster the strength she wanted to be out enjoying chasing the smells, reading the lie of the land - the hidden travellers, the unseen dramas.

And animals teach you humanity. I knew that the day had come when she came over to each one of us at breakfast to get a stroke. The girls said goodbye before they went off to school. Then she lay on the hearth rug with her chin on the floor and we talked; - about the dramas we'd seen through together; the pain and suffering that every family weathers at some stage of its existence. And through it all she'd always been there for me, helping me take one day at a time, building me up, bringing me back to life once more with courage and optimism and belief in the future. Molly's last words (and she's only eight) to Poppy were 'Thank You'. It says it all.

So I took her to the vet and lay down on the floor with my head on hers and stroked her ears as she drifted off into another world. The space beneath the coat rack catches me, now and then. Sometimes I go to open the door to let her out. And then I remember. The postman calls and I don't notice. There is no one to eat the scraps that the kids leave on their plates.

I take the lamb steaks and season them with sea salt and a hefty grinding of black pepper. I need the pepper, I think, right now. And wine to toast a good friend.

I am collecting together my recipes in a new book - a blank, unopened new book. Recipes for home use only which say 'This is the way we eat Now'. I'm fed up with deciding to cook something - a casserole I once made that was lovely, a particular pudding or cake, and then not being able to locate the recipe in my vast bookcase of cookery books, which I have a habit of accumulating. Not everything, but certainly favourites and ease of cooking.

I am looking for a recipe right now for a rhubarb crumble cake that contained both sour cream and ground almonds for density, but can I find it anywhere? No. So I am amalgamating several recipes to try and come up with the picture in my head. I have rhubarb in the garden threatening to take over and still bags of last year's sitting in the freezer awaiting a purpose in life. I think, perhaps, it would be nice to make a rhubarb cordial to have with something fizzy on a hot day, presuming there will be more hot days this year.

The garden is unfolding itself from its winter blanket and I have a promise of help that involves a spade and fork. The hostas are unscrewing themselves from their shoots and painted leaves are unfurling with every ray of sun. They sit happily in their pots, almost completely unbothered by slugs. I put this down to their hardiness in the face of adversity: I have cruelly left them pot-bound for some time and the lack of any moist soil, whatsoever, is probably the greatest deterrent. They sit by the back door only inches away from the stream. The slugs prefer to bypass the hostas and make straight for the cool of the kitchen. Sometimes, I come down in the morning and a crazy mad slug on speed has been in leaving a silvery trail on the dark carpet of the hall; then left by the way he came, with a contortionist's ease and a sneer that I might possibly catch him in the act. We're not done, that slug and I. I will be down one night and catch that contemptuous philanderer in the act, and then his days will be numbered.

Love Martha x

Monday, 18 April 2016

The Meaning of Cake

Dear Nigel,

I am busy making two separate cakes at the moment. Both of them are 'cakes with a message'. The first is a simple Birthday cake - the cake that says 'I remembered' and 'this is because you are special'. The second also says those things, but differently. It is for a friend who is going through a pretty rough time right now; for whom there is nothing I can do or say that would 'help'. This is the meaning of cake, I think. It says what's in your heart when there are no words that would do as well.

I remember reading a story once about a Mexican woman who cried tears of pain or passion into her cooking and the magical effect they had on the recipients of her meals. I think that if you cook with passion and feel the life inside you ebb towards your creation then there has to be a kind of energy that is transferred from one being to another. Just as an energetic, optimistic person can create waves around themselves, igniting thoughts and movement in others. And, just as the reverse can also happen: the flat, monotone words of the world-weary that can drive the life-blood out of you, switch you off or send you to sleep. We all have the power to create either effect. And to imagine that a cake is more than a cake, that it can stand for something, is to imagine that all things are possible. And to have hope.

Spring has been a long time coming this year. We get a single sunny day and everyone is out flying their Summer colours and basking in the glow; and then the cold returns to check the blossoms before they dare to open, restore the daffodils to their glory and drum the ground to warn the sleepers beneath. The only good side to this has been the grass, which hasn't needed cutting yet. I clear back the dead growth of winter to reveal small clumps of geranium and alchemilla mollis (or lady's mantle) preparing to face the world. I love the alchemilla with its sparkling beads of dew glistening on the leaves, like the finest evening dress laid out to wear. This dew was once considered by alchemists the purest form of water of all and they used it in their endeavour to turn base metal into gold; and which is also how it got its name.

Supper tonight is simple fare. I have some marinated anchovies and potatoes and am making your recipe for 'Potatoes, anchovies and dill' (page 115). As you know, anything with dill gets my vote. The dog isn't well and I need to stay close to home. She is an old dog; well-loved and a bit raggy at the edges now, but a large part of our life in this little cleft in the hillside.

 The potato slices are tossed in olive oil, seasoning and rosemary and baked in the oven. A wonderful scent of warm rosemary oil permeates the air as I take the tray out of the oven, and I breathe it in. Rosemary oil is good for clearing the head, and for memory. I keep some in the car to help me concentrate on driving, particularly late at night. The anchovies, capers and dill are added cold. It is a simple dish, full of flavour, which fits my mood and comforts. Potatoes are natures 'onesies'. As we sit down to eat I find I am drawn to dispense with a knife and fork and we pick as if with a tray of canapes. Dressed down living at its best.

I am noting with curiosity the rise in interest amongst my older children towards the EU referendum. I think it is because the vote will be closer and the whole thing seems somehow a bit more relevant to them than the general election did, which seemed to provoke a blanket of apathy amongst both them and their friends. My mother says she will ask each of her grandchildren how they will be voting and then vote with the majority. She says the responsibility for the future is theirs - whether it be a blessing or a curse. At present they are split, like much of the country it appears; their life choices - one working at the major European financial and diplomatic centre of Geneva, another of domestic Army life - have pulled them in different directions. It is interesting to see them developing their own ideas and thoughts. From the same pool of values and history and shared experience, life colours the water of each with the imprint of adult life. Imperceptibly at first, then through the teenage years - a bit more growth. Then branches, twigs and finally leaves appear. And the seed becomes a man: Not fashioned in anyone's own image, but their own.

A new village shop has opened up about three miles away at Hulme End. It is, never-the-less, our nearest shop. I have promised the children we will pop in for sweets. I hope it makes a go of it. If anything will, it should: It is on the 'main road' into Hartington, catching most of the passing traffic, and is in a wonderful little spot near the Manifold Inn - a popular camping area by the river. We are heavily dependent on the tourist trade around here, and, although our village doesn't suffer from it, several villages nearby are heavily dominated by holiday cottages - which has both its pros and cons, to be fair. The village shop in Hartington, which is our main port of call when we don't want to drive all the way into town, is probably only kept open because of the year-round holiday cottage Industry. Prices might be higher, but then so is the additional petrol needed to drive into town, and it allows us to shop. While some around here will moan about the number of holiday cottages, there are plenty of others whose work either in cleaning, or maintaining or catering for the cottages provides an income. Somewhere to pop into for that extra pint of milk and a few extras is always welcome as far as I'm concerned, and visiting regularly builds bonds and communities as well as keeping money in the local area.

With love from the shopping metropolis of the Peak District,

 Martha x

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Come up and see my Magnolias

Dear Nigel,

Just as little pipe cleaner lambs start stumbling around on unsteady legs in the fields behind the cottage and the sap begins to rise once more, I have an offer I can hardly refuse. OK, so he didn't quite say 'Come up and see my Magnolias', but he might as well have done.

We are standing in an old Greenhouse and my new friend The Gardener is showing me a tray of tiny fragile seedlings, each no bigger than my thumb nail. I marvel each time at how something so very small can possibly grow into the twenty foot trees we've just be wandering beneath. They are all coming into bud now. Some, with fuzzy coverings, like the skin of a kiwi fruit, and others smoother and tipped with blood. The blossoms emerging are white, or pink, and some have been spray-painted pink on the shell and white on the inside. Some pink hussies are already out and waving their knickers in the air twenty feet above our heads. Other cream ones are more reticent and compact and sit composed on smaller  trees like a flock of starlings, each on its own spot, nodding heads in different directions and discussing the weather, no doubt. Everyone discusses the weather. Those golf ball-sized hailstones that rammed down on us on Easter Sunday, spoiling many an Easter egg hunt and confusing small children.

I am in the kitchen making soup. It is a green soup for Spring: 'a lovely fresh-tasting soup for a winter-spring day', like today. It is 'A spring soup of young leeks and miso' (page 104). The leeks and celery are softened in butter and the spring greens added later to preserve the green colour. A lemon adds the final bit of zing to whet the palate. The miso paste gives you your 'umami fix' which you crave after returning from a trip abroad. It is good that it lasts and behaves well in the fridge, becoming a new staple ingredient 'just as Parmesan used to be.'  Oh no, what has happened to the old Parmesan? It still languishes in mine. But then again, I'm still knocking out the old favourites for family members who refuse to try anything new, or different. In the battle of wills, often I prefer to make a rod for my own back and have two sittings, rather than sit and seethe at untouched plates.

The miso soup 'sustains and sets you up for the day ahead'. Almost an essential part of every Japanese meal, it becomes a routine comfort. Like a blackened pool - 'shining, calm, untroubled. A bowl of quiet perfection,' of contemplation and reflection.

I have been contemplating and considering lately the increasing phenomenon that is the rise of  the obsessive documentation of our lives. Sherry Turkle, clinical psychologist and Professor at MIT, writes about the cost of this constant documentation - i.e photographing and texting - of our lives, and how these interruptions 'make it hard to settle into serious conversations with ourselves and with other people because emotionally, we keep ourselves available to be taken away from everything.' As Arianna Huffington notes: 'By so-obsessively documenting our experiences, we never truly have them.'

To stand and hold the flower of a last remaining snowdrop and compare it tone for tone with that of a newly-emerging snowflake flower head (which take over once the snowdrops are spent). One, with a green dot on the edge of the tepals of each bell shaped flower, (as if a small child has sought to embellish nature with a felt tip pen), and the other with the same green applied delicately to the inner three. The surge of electricity which courses from a single flower head, up through the capillaries and veins of your very own hand and liberates itself towards the sun through the top of your head cannot be captured on a smart phone. Even words scarcely do it justice. Being there is enough. If the memory of that feeling isn't enough to embed itself into your very consciousness then no amount of down-loaded photographs will every retrieve it from your memory.

I read my children's face book entries and feel devoid of emotion, because I wasn't there. Life is to be lived in the present, to be truly lived. And I would rather have the excited voice of my older daughter on the end of the phone telling me in gasping breaths about the wonders of the Alps, than read a diary of events, blow-by-blow.

And so we sit down to supper and your lovely miso soup. And this is exactly what I have been talking about: I am instantly reminded of a recipe I used to make, perhaps thirty years ago, the recipe of which has long since bit the dust. I can't even remember what it was or exactly what was in it but the underlying taste is a memory that lies buried in this soup, and comes from nowhere to remind me of a time, long past, in my careless youth.

Love Martha x

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

A Cold Spring

Dear Nigel,

Spring is coming slowly this year, dragging its feet as if it hasn't quite the heart in it yet to paint the hedgerows with fresh buds, scatter wild flowers in the meadows and slowly unfurl new feather-like leaves to dust the tips of bundles of bare sticks. Every day I pass my favourite flowering current. There are tiny beetroot-stained buds now and the beginnings of leaves, but only the beginnings. I note its progress - slow - and hope each day to see a little more life rearing its head above the parapet.

The only life in the garden is the rhubarb which carries on relentless. We had a fresh crop of heavy snow two weeks ago - enough to close the schools - and it still took its opportunity to push through the white blanket. It has the muscles of a body builder in training, forcing every sinew to maintain its dominance. Even the weeds are pale and weedy, nursing colds and pretending to be delicate. Their treacherous hearts are hidden from view, for now. It is probably a good time to make a start and clear the ground. I feel its time is coming. And getting in there quick before all hell breaks loose will get things off to a good start. Perhaps tomorrow...

Today I am making breakfast. It was a hard night at the pub last night - even harder if you didn't get a drink and were hard at work fiddling until well into the wee hours. I always seem to wake up with something akin to a hangover whether I've touched a drop or not, and quite whether it is the intensity of playing or simply dehydration, I don't know. I make a mental note to 'drink more' - water at the very least.

I spy your recipe for an all-day breakfast toad-in-the-hole and check whether the ingredients are in stock. I go out to the farm shop for some black pudding and the best herby sausages I can get and am back within the hour preparing the batter. It is 'Sunday breakfast toad-in-the-hole' (page 56), although today is Saturday. The batter with its grain mustard seems based on that from an old toad-in-the-hole recipe of yours that I have made time and time again. It is still my favourite way of making it after all these years, and a teatime favourite of ours. This recipe, though, is about Breakfast with a capitol B, and having it and eating it all. There are four of us today -thank goodness - as this is substantial stuff and definitely 'the sort of heroic breakfast you need the morning after the night before.' I note your essential point before I start that 'when making any batter pudding..to get the fat truly hot and sizzling before you pour the batter in.'

Rehearsals for 'Oliver' are well under way now. Sophie replays the DVD endlessly of the old film version of it with Oliver Reed as Bill Sykes and I realise where I've seen him before:- Under the bottom of my car last week as it perched high up on the ramps, giving me a stern lecture on why this bearing and that joint needed removing/fixing/or whatever, and me agreeing meekly. You would agree to anything Bill Sykes said, wouldn't you?... or Oliver Reed come to that, under that stern fixed brow and firm gaze of his.  How much?? Of course, Oliver - a pleasure...

A spot of sunshine and the sight of so many joggers and cyclists out reminds me that my excuses are wearing thin. I've used the 'black ice on the ground...and I might twist an ankle' argument for long-enough. My clothes tell me that the winter has left it's toll and a little exercise is needed to remedy the situation. It's a fine line between eating what you want, persuading yourself to eat what you need, and not denying yourself anything in the process. I head off round the village on my usual beat for fifteen minutes or so. Quite enough for one day. It doesn't seem enough, somehow, if you believe what you read in the magazines, but a couple of weeks of this and I can feel changes happening; now that the weather is changing too and soon it will be time to come out of hibernation from under those huge over sized sweaters that hide so much.

My best friend comes over in a new outfit of citrine green and teal blue. She looks fabulous. I say, 'Oh, I couldn't wear a colour as bright as that.' She tells me - honestly - that my wardrobe is boring and that I like to fade into the background where no one can see me. And she's totally right. But I feel comfortable and at ease with myself in the background. Is this not allowed? I have no desire to show off or be centre of attention or need others to bolster my self-esteem. Can I not remain in my favourite navy v neck jumper and old jeans? She has plans to take me shopping. I think she's been watching too many programmes of people jumping out naked and annoying the neighbours.

I have been reconsidering my intention to eat less meat for health, for my budget, but mainly to help the ecology of the planet. I open my 'Meat free Monday' cookbook, which Paul McCartney and his children help set up. The first recipe is a good place to start. It is for a sweet potato gnocchi with rocket pesto. The idea behind the campaign seems a good one and a practical one. If we all make a few small changes it adds up to a lot. Amongst the arguments put in favour of making changes towards a vegetarian lifestyle in the book, my favourite statistic is the one that maintains that about 634 gallons of fresh water is required to produce one 5.2 ounce beefburger, which would be enough for a four-hour shower. On those grounds alone I'm happy to have an omelet once a week, if necessary.

Love Martha x

Sunday, 28 February 2016

'Sophie's Choice'

Dear Nigel,

The weather chills us to the bone, invading gloves and scarves and clipping ears raw and red...this way laddy, it pinches. But still the dog must be walked and she is eager-beavering away searching for smells that linger on the frost-hawed covering. It is ideal weather for snowdrops.They need the cold to make them stand tall and erect. Taking them into the house soon has them droopy and flaccid in their momentary show. But in the raw they bloom; their petals bursting with pride like small children desperate to get their words out. They don't seek to open any wider but relish their individual moment of perfection. This is what all those refrigerated trucks from Holland seek to emulate.

We travel 'up North' visiting the Grandparents in Northumberland. I take the chance to go for a stroll along the Snowdrop walk at Hawick Hall (home of Earl Grey - him of the nice bergamot-scented tea fame).
At this time of year it is a huge treat to be able to go and walk somewhere like this and witness the dazzling white blanket of flowers. I love to see the places where snowdrops show themselves. Often they mark the relic of old gardens from time long passed, like bits of history poking up through the soil for their temporary fleeting show. There is less of this where drifts have been created and new bulbs sown, but still, in the corner of a field, a strange outline near a garden path, a neglected garden, there is a memory laid out if you care to look.

I am making 'Pasta with dill and bacon' (page 48) for supper tonight. Dill is a favourite of mine and I am used to Scandinavian recipes and fish dishes using it, so I am intrigued. I have used fennel with pasta before to give that slight aniseed flavour, but never dill. I place the dill and Parmesan in the food processor and blitz as you suggest. The resulting green crumbs are then melted into the cream. I like this use of Parmesan as I have often thought that Parmesan gets a raw deal merely being used as a finishing grating on your mid-week spag bol, or whatever. And when I consider the myriad uses in cooking to which I put some of my favourite cheeses, like Comte and Gruyere, I think better use could be made of Parmesan. This sauce is a perfect example. The finished dish with its crispy bacon bits and toasted garlic and creamy sauce is full of flavour and salty-enough not to need any additional seasoning. The aniseed flavour of the dill is also a good temper for the salt. We sit and eat it all up without stopping for breath. You say that this 'might just be my favourite pasta dish of all' and I can see why.

I take some flowers over to my friends Anne and Anthony. I haven't seen them for a little while, and, truth be told it is my own fault. I have stayed away. Sometimes, when you are in the midst of emotional turbulence yourself it is difficult to be able to support friends in theirs. Sometimes you just don't have enough in you to be able to cope. And it is easier to stay away than come back each time feeling even lower than before. There is no shame in this. But it is a pity all the same. The flowers, though, are not to say sorry. They are to say the words that I can't possibly begin to articulate.

I used to take my little girls over to play with their adopted son, Stephen. He was five years old when he first came to live with them and they adopted him. He had had a very difficult start in life. Although a few years older than my two girls, he liked to play with younger children because they accepted him and didn't judge him like his peers. As the years went by the behavioural problems that came with him gradually got worse instead of better. We managed him in small doses. Anne and Anthony had it full time. In the end, it seems, they just couldn't cope as he grew more violent, and after nine years of adoption had to give him up. I meet them again nearly a year after this has happened and they are still looking haggard and bereft. I can't imagine the pain that they are going through. There are no words I can say. Only flowers and a hug.

The Ready Steady Cook challenge looms large. The team of three little cubs have a timed run through. Sophie is unimpressed at being made to hurry. It is not something that sits well with cooking to me either. I think perhaps there is a huge divide between the chefery element of knocking out meals swiftly and economically to order and the kind of cooking which can become almost a meditation, when you are lost in thought or just simply lost in the essence of beating a sauce smooth or peeling a pile of vegetables. This is my kind of cooking; therapeutic and life-enhancing. Sophie has never been made to hurry before and is unable to see why.

Being her usual argumentative self she also takes issue with the ingredients. Being made to pour vegetable oil into an omelet pan, she complains that at home we melt lots of butter and stir the melted butter back into the batter mixture. That way the pancakes don't stick. She gets her way. The cub leaders tell me they've never made pancakes before; only out of a packet. I suggest we send in our iron crepe pans for the final run through. I have struggled in the past to get a pancake out an omelet pan; and I'm a bit of a coward when it comes to flipping, preferring a palette knife and a swift flick. She says, 'have we got a squeezy lemon at home?' I say no, but we do have a real one, if that will do instead. Perhaps I'd better send in a lemon squeezer too.

Love Martha x

Monday, 8 February 2016

A touch of Snow

Dear Nigel,

At last the Winter has provided us with a bit of the real white stuff and there is a small window of opportunity, a blink of the eye, in which to sledge, throw snowballs, build a snowman and soak up the blinding light that is sunshine on snow under a solid blue sky. It is fleeting. Tomorrow it will all be gone, so every breath counts, every moment stretched and slowed and nailed down with photographs and smiles and footprints in the snow.

The dog enjoys it too; running and jumping like a puppy once more. But when it comes to crossing the stream to go and sledge she holds back and wants to go back to her bed; to her nice warm electric blanket that I have recently bought her; for she is an old dog now and her bones creak and stiffen when she gets up. She sleeps in a cold porch and the blanket has transformed her life. Now she lolls over the edge of the basket, stretched out with sunglasses on and reading the newspaper, a glass of pinot grigiot in her hand. She can scarcely summon up the energy these days to bark at the postman.

I am making a Roast Chicken tonight with your version of colcannon to accompany it. The recipe is 'Kale colcannon' (page 18). It is an altogether lighter dish than the traditional potato-based one, with a sweeter flavour, as it is a mix of kale and celeriac. It is simple and straightforward and warming but without some of the more off-putting virtues of the traditional dish. I like it very much, anyway, and I'm not a huge fan of the green stuff normally. The celeriac gives it a tasty edge. You use it with pig cheeks and apples and cider, but I have a chicken in want of some vegetables. It works just as well.

I am planning an expedition tomorrow - at least it feels that way. I am taking Sophie and Molly to see the Chinese New Year celebrations in Manchester. I have developed the art (very usefully) of turning almost any outing into a treat. When money is tight adding value to the mundane is like using a golden cheque book.

It is something I have got down to a fine art: The most sort after treat in our house right now is a single gold-wrapped toffee out of an ancient Farrah's Toffee tin which sits in the car. It is only available on a Tuesday after swimming lessons, and there is only ever one each. What started off as a distraction to get my children away from clamouring for stuff from those awful moving sweet and crisp machines you get at swimming pools (and which are such a huge rip-off), has become a much-sort-after event. The fact that it isn't ever offered at any other times somehow adds to its cachet - a technique that most advertising execs seem to employ with gusto. I must see if I can employ these tactics elsewhere as it could prove to be a huge money saver...

We are going by train, which to them is almost a treat in itself since the nearest train station from here is about half an hour away and we use it very rarely. We are meeting Hannah in Manchester and Tom is also coming over from his University in Sheffield. Nice to have four of my children in the same place at the same time. These things have to be engineered; they don't happen by themselves. Hopefully there will be some nice Chinese street food for them to try as getting a table at a restaurant is probably nigh on impossible during the New Year celebrations, even if my budget ran to it. We are going early so we can get a good position to see the traditional Dragon Parade. It is all under wraps, though, as there is nothing they like more than a surprise.

Sophie goes to a big Middle School now in a town about nine miles away. She is about the youngest and smallest in the school - perhaps that is partly why she has been offered the role of 'Oliver' in the forthcoming school production. She's pleased. I'm pleased; but I could see the ramifications playing out in my head. Both she and her best friend were up for the final audition for the part. Her best friend was excited and desperate for it. I tried to play it down, foreseeing the dangers ahead. Now there is tears and 'not talking'. I try and talk to Sophie about how her best friend might be feeling. It is not an easy thing for a child to do. All babies are egotists - they have to be in order to survive. A child's growth away from self-centeredness is slow and often painful. I sow the seeds and hope she will at least be tactful.

Tomorrow will be pancake day - a time for over-indulging and scoffing far too much, I suspect. Four pancakes doesn't really do it in our house, somehow. At no other time would my family expect endless pudding, but on pancake day tradition seems to dictate that people eat pancakes until they can eat no longer. Its biblical roots are fudged when it comes to the 'giving something up' bit and the lean times ahead between now and Easter: Convenient religion I call it. Sophie wants to fine-hone her cooking skills so we have agreed to share the cooking. There will be lemon and caster sugar, and maple syrup for those who prefer. I haven't heard from Will yet, but I'm expecting a phone call any time now...

Enjoy your pancakes,

Love Martha x

Sunday, 31 January 2016

The texture of antique leather

Dear Nigel,

I have been contemplating the simple dish of pasta and wondering why one dish has a certain cachet that makes me want to eat it and the other is shied away from swiftly. I'm not even aware that I'm making these choices on a day to day basis - but I am.

Once upon a time, pasta was a three times a week staple for two young marrieds in their first little two-bedroom terraced house. We were sitting on the floor (as we couldn't afford a sofa) and eating off a wallpapering table. All available cash was going on stripping the doors and damp proofing the walls. And pasta enabled us to eat.

Over the years it morphed into the once or twice a week family dish - usually a Lasagna or bolognaise - until eventually it became once a week, and then PERHAPS once a week. It is not that I particularly want to bring back pasta dominance into our weekly menu, but I wonder how it got to be so unimportant and forgotten.

Nowadays, if its pasta then there has to be a more exciting accompaniment or sauce to go with it: Something that works, something that has a certain wow factor to it. Sometimes, I am disappointed with what I produce, or just not very inspired. But lately I have come to realise that there is a reason for this; something that I have been missing, or hit and missing without realising its relevance - and that is the texture of the pasta itself.

Looking at the packets of pasta on the supermarket shelf, it is easy to miss this small detail. There are so many shapes and sizes to choose from. Why wouldn't you choose that packet of bright yellow linguine rather than the rather old, tired looking one next to it which looks frankly a bit dried out and possibly out-of-date? Surely the former has been made with free-range, organic eggs to achieve that colour, you might reason. Not so. Dried pasta is extruded through a machine using either a bronze or a silicon die. The bronze die extrudes pasta at a slower rate (hence it is more expensive to produce), but it leaves a rougher texture to the pasta - like that of an antique leather sofa - which allows the sauce to cling to it better. The silicon die leaves a smooth surface and a brighter yellow colour. How often have you eaten out and been given a dish of pasta only to find half the sauce remaining at the end of the meal? or perhaps they fudged things by using too thick a sauce?

It's a small thing, perhaps, but I am aware that pasta is making a come back in this house. I don't begrudge paying slightly more for it when the over-all cost of the dish is usually considerably less than some of the other meals I cook. We eat less pasta these days, quantity-wise. No longer is there a huge heap to be ploughed through. Sometimes the pasta is almost the accompaniment to the other ingredients, or at least an equal part.

Tonight, however, I am making 'food for a windy night.' I am making 'Artichoke "tartiflette"' (page 27) - 'Not just a hot meal to fatten and fill, but something that will warm our very souls'. It is inspired by the 'Alpine dish of tartiflette, whose layers of potatoes, onions, smoked bacon and Reblochon cheese help to thaw out skiers and snowboarders alike'. It is pertinent as number two son, Christopher, has just moved to Geneva with his Brazilian girlfriend, Beatriz. Only there a week and he sends me a photo of them skiing in the Alps. Lucky boy. Lovely to see him looking so happy and alive.

Your dish involves those lovely little knobbly vegetables - such a pain to peel - called Jerusalem artichokes. Their taste is so wonderfully earthy and deep that all is soon forgiven. We sit down to a large plate of melting softness. The cold is swiftly driven out. It is good; very good. The interplay between the stronger flavours of the Jerusalem artichokes, the Reblochon cheese and the lardons is well-balanced. The 'pale milky curds (of the Reblochon) melt into  a velvety blanket, and whose flavour softens upon heating.'
We feel complete as we curl up on the sofa.

(Small note: Although you say you have to rechristen this dish 'fartiflette' the next day....hence a windy night in your place....I have to say that it didn't have quite that effect over here! Thank goodness: It's a small house.)

Love Martha x