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

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