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

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