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

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