Friday, 29 July 2016

Is every village fete a Festival these days?

Dear Nigel,

We went to a Festival last weekend. Everyone goes to Festivals these days, it seems. Once upon a time it was a handful of hippies behind a hedge with a couple of guitars and peace signs on their faces; these days its three dogs in a field and a beer tent and suddenly it's 'a Festival'. Looking through a leaflet recently of Festivals in our area, there appeared to be at least one that was just a retail opportunity at a Mill with slightly longer opening hours than normal.

Stainsby Folk Festival in Derbyshire, however, is different. It is a long-standing event, now in its 48th year, and older than Glastonbury if you're comparing notes. It is small and pretty and rural and everything about it tells me that perhaps many moons ago Glastonbury was once like this when it started out. There is one phrase hidden in the festival literature which sums it up for me - 'Not for Profit'. If only Glastonbury and all the other profit-making Festival machines would choose to emulate Stainsby and move back to something that more embodies what festivals were meant to be about instead of being just another branch of relentless consumerism.

We camped in a small tent (remembering the essentials like the unbreakable cafetiere and the insect repellent) with David's teenage children in pop-up tents nearby. It is a long time since I camped at an event like this and I was a little apprehensive; but Stainsby is small-enough to not get lost in or feel claustrophobic.

The best music all weekend came from small and middle-sized bands, overshadowing the main act of the weekend with their intense vibrancy.
'Seize the day', with their protest songs and green political ideals seemed to me to have far more in common with the original idea behind festivals than perhaps Adele singing 'Someone like you' at Glastonbury. And the audience bought into this in droves, catching the lyrics as they filed away their rubbish, helping others move their sinking camper vans and lending chairs and wheelbarrows so that everyone had a good time. There was an atmosphere of goodwill and helpfulness on the site that was enchanting and compulsive. All the staff were volunteers; and the idea of a sliding scale of payment for the artists meant that no one got paid too much and no one too little to cover their costs. How many other festivals can say that about themselves?

I find these ideas echoed back to me in a book I am currently reading by Tim Freke, from which Ali takes her inspiration to write the song 'Big Love'. It is about awareness and watching the dream of life unfold as well as being part of it. It is surreal. I feel like this as I float along in my long dress and alcoholic haze in the sunshine. Life is good and it feels great to be alive. Every day I try and look a little closer, pulling myself into the Now, and noticing the detail I often miss when I try to hurry.

I buy a hat for Molly (who seems to be into hats at the moment) from a quiet man in an orange canvas tent. It is made of pure wool, hand-knitted in Nepal and costs me £3. I go back later and tell the man he has undercharged me and give him some more money: it seems like the sort of place where you would do that, somehow.

The promise of Summer has made me rather lax in the kitchen. Meals are throw together affairs - lots of artisan breads and cheeses and salads with olives and tomatoes. Cherry tomatoes are ripening in the greenhouse and they are sweet and moreish. I pick punnets of raspberries to eat now and blackcurrants to freeze. Summer's glut has arrived and we are making the most of it.

In the kitchen I want to cook simple things. I have mozzarella and aubergines and a basil plant on the window sill that it threatening to flower - all the ingredients I need to make tonight's supper which is your 'Aubergine and mozzarella (page 247). It is just an excuse really to gorge on toasted mozzarella; melted rather than cooked so that it remains long and stringy, without the chance to toughen up. The basil dressing retains all the flavour of the fresh basil. It seems an ideal recipe for pizza addicts who have read the calorie content on the side of their pizza boxes with horror. (My favourite bought pizza appears to contain almost half my entire daily intake of calories, if such things are to be believed, and I don't even feel full afterwards.)

We are in the garden at the farm looking at Sun dogs in the sky. This is a new one on me and I am fascinated. The sun dogs are two phantom suns which appear on either side of the sun and are most obvious when the sun is nearing the horizon. They are caused by the refraction of light through hexagonal ice crystals in cirrus and cirrostratus clouds and are red on the side nearest the sun, graduating through orange to blue. Often these colours are indistinct, appearing mainly like mirror suns, but today they are clearly striated.

Shakespeare, in Henry VI part three (dramatising the Battle of Mortimer's Cross in the War of the Roses), has the would-be King Edward decry: 'Dazzle mine eyes, or do I see three suns.' He reassures his army that victory is foretold and that the three suns represent himself and his two brothers, the three sons of the Duke of York, who have been  recently killed. The belief that victory was predetermined, which perhaps aided his army in battle, caused Edward IV to incorporate the sunburst as part of his personal badge.

It is a lazy warm evening and light until almost ten. It is pleasant to lie on the grass and contemplate life and the universe. The sky remains unchanged through the ages however we defile and destroy the landscape around us.

Love Martha x

Thursday, 14 July 2016

A modern day 'Oliver Twist'

Dear Nigel,

When Oliver launched into 'Where-er-er is love' - all small, blond-haired, blue-eyed, rosy-cheeked and suitable Dickensian...- I remembered that he (she) was suitably attired in off-the-internet-peg shabbery (it being cheaper than the charity shops around here) and shoes with holes in that would have made Dickens proud. I had, of course, been trying to make the school shoes last until the new term, without success, and the idea of buying new winter shoes at the end of the Summer term simply went against the grain. It was only when she came in complaining that her socks were wet and that she could see right through the bottom of her shoes that I thought I really ought perhaps to do something about the situation in the interests of good mothering.

Sophie did splendidly in the role and I was touched deep inside as you are at these special moments. I remembered her older brother Chris playing the same part nearly twenty years ago, and feeling the same way. He, of course, looked a remarkably well-fed little orphan. I toyed with the idea of putting him on a bread-and-gruel diet and keeping him out of the sun, so he could get a little more 'in character' (as so many Hollywood superstars do to extreme these days), but he had the rather distressing habit of bursting into tears if dinner was half an hour late  - always the am-dram, our Chris.

I am reading a very interesting book at the minute: 'First Bite - How we learn to eat' by Bee Wilson. Apart from showing how our food habits take hold in the first place, it is interesting to see how food habits might be consciously changed to include new or previously hated foods - such as your boiled eggs and my cooked carrots (both throw backs from an era of forced feeding). I am considering the options as David is growing all kinds of things which fill me with horror - such as Brussel sprouts. I have been wondering whether it would be sacrilege to try and stir fry them or something.

The idea behind Bee Wilson's theory (well, distinguished scientists' and nutritionists' theory anyway) seems to be the sustained practise of eating tiny tastes of the offending food, carrot, boiled egg, or whatever. When you have overcome your fear of confronting the said carrot, and taken one tiny bite for perhaps thirty days in a row, then you may come to love or at least tolerate the little blighter sitting next to the potatoes on your plate, without having to make a space between the two in case of contamination: One can spend a  whole lifetime not entirely growing up, it seems.

Living inside a pocket well of hills - or so the Peak District often feels - means that there are quaint little cast iron telephone boxes being preserved all over the place, whereas elsewhere in the country they are being ripped out, taken to salvage yards and sold to smug city dwellers to plant in their gardens as 'features'. The reason for this is, as every distressed Duke of Edinburgh student will tell you, that there is virtually no mobile phone signal around here for miles and miles. Often when I am out, sprinting down the main road through Longnor (which serves as motorway for this area of the Peaks), I encounter two tractors going in opposite directions with young lads in them both illegally holding mobile phones to their ears at just the right point when a break in the hills makes reception viable.

They are cutting and tossing hay at present. The last couple of weeks every farm was at it flat-out, all hours, and fields tinged with the haze of wild red grasses were scythed and rolled into rapidly-covered polythene cylinders. The gardens and hedges are as lush as I have ever seen them. Chlorophyll oozes from every branch or stem but there is rain damage to the roses (though their water-coloured petals still look beautiful to me) and the peonies have been weighted down until they can no longer hold out and admit defeat. I crunch into fat raw gooseberries claiming to be eaters. They have not turned pink as yet but they are sweet-enough for me. Perhaps they will make their way into a fool before long. Gooseberry fool is perhaps my most favourite of all. A strange fruit, the gooseberry. You rarely see it for sale in shops, yet it grows well and is plentiful. It freezes well too, if time is short. I am leaving mine on a little longer to see if they will turn pink. Perhaps I am just in a hurry for them. The days have been rather dull of late. Perhaps they need the promise of sun to ripen.

I am making your 'Currant buns' (page 236), which are more like little pastries containing fresh blackcurrants, served warm and slathered in cream (any excuse is good). My main reason for turning to this particular recipe is actually the wealth of blackcurrants from last year still lurking in the freezer when this year's crop is virtually ripe for picking now. Somehow there is always rhubarb and blackcurrants left in bags each year. In years gone by I made lots of jam and it would have gone then. But as we eat more healthier these days and jam consumption has plummeted, I found I was making it just to give away - which is fine - but ultimately there are many more mushrooms I'd rather stuff.

Full-fat cream cheese is added to the pastry to enrich it and the pastry is glazed with egg and dusted with caster sugar. It is a Summer treat and I have two little girls on their way back from school who might appreciate such a treat on this 'unseasonally' sunny day (or so it seems this rather wet Summer we've been having).

Broken into; the midnight berries gleam in their coat of syrup and the tide-line of purple haze against the wave of cream, is just begging to be played with and swirled, like the edges on the shore.

Ah, Summer; a time for relaxing and contemplating the essential things in life...

Love Martha x