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

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