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