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