Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Come up and see my Magnolias

Dear Nigel,

Just as little pipe cleaner lambs start stumbling around on unsteady legs in the fields behind the cottage and the sap begins to rise once more, I have an offer I can hardly refuse. OK, so he didn't quite say 'Come up and see my Magnolias', but he might as well have done.

We are standing in an old Greenhouse and my new friend The Gardener is showing me a tray of tiny fragile seedlings, each no bigger than my thumb nail. I marvel each time at how something so very small can possibly grow into the twenty foot trees we've just be wandering beneath. They are all coming into bud now. Some, with fuzzy coverings, like the skin of a kiwi fruit, and others smoother and tipped with blood. The blossoms emerging are white, or pink, and some have been spray-painted pink on the shell and white on the inside. Some pink hussies are already out and waving their knickers in the air twenty feet above our heads. Other cream ones are more reticent and compact and sit composed on smaller  trees like a flock of starlings, each on its own spot, nodding heads in different directions and discussing the weather, no doubt. Everyone discusses the weather. Those golf ball-sized hailstones that rammed down on us on Easter Sunday, spoiling many an Easter egg hunt and confusing small children.

I am in the kitchen making soup. It is a green soup for Spring: 'a lovely fresh-tasting soup for a winter-spring day', like today. It is 'A spring soup of young leeks and miso' (page 104). The leeks and celery are softened in butter and the spring greens added later to preserve the green colour. A lemon adds the final bit of zing to whet the palate. The miso paste gives you your 'umami fix' which you crave after returning from a trip abroad. It is good that it lasts and behaves well in the fridge, becoming a new staple ingredient 'just as Parmesan used to be.'  Oh no, what has happened to the old Parmesan? It still languishes in mine. But then again, I'm still knocking out the old favourites for family members who refuse to try anything new, or different. In the battle of wills, often I prefer to make a rod for my own back and have two sittings, rather than sit and seethe at untouched plates.

The miso soup 'sustains and sets you up for the day ahead'. Almost an essential part of every Japanese meal, it becomes a routine comfort. Like a blackened pool - 'shining, calm, untroubled. A bowl of quiet perfection,' of contemplation and reflection.

I have been contemplating and considering lately the increasing phenomenon that is the rise of  the obsessive documentation of our lives. Sherry Turkle, clinical psychologist and Professor at MIT, writes about the cost of this constant documentation - i.e photographing and texting - of our lives, and how these interruptions 'make it hard to settle into serious conversations with ourselves and with other people because emotionally, we keep ourselves available to be taken away from everything.' As Arianna Huffington notes: 'By so-obsessively documenting our experiences, we never truly have them.'

To stand and hold the flower of a last remaining snowdrop and compare it tone for tone with that of a newly-emerging snowflake flower head (which take over once the snowdrops are spent). One, with a green dot on the edge of the tepals of each bell shaped flower, (as if a small child has sought to embellish nature with a felt tip pen), and the other with the same green applied delicately to the inner three. The surge of electricity which courses from a single flower head, up through the capillaries and veins of your very own hand and liberates itself towards the sun through the top of your head cannot be captured on a smart phone. Even words scarcely do it justice. Being there is enough. If the memory of that feeling isn't enough to embed itself into your very consciousness then no amount of down-loaded photographs will every retrieve it from your memory.

I read my children's face book entries and feel devoid of emotion, because I wasn't there. Life is to be lived in the present, to be truly lived. And I would rather have the excited voice of my older daughter on the end of the phone telling me in gasping breaths about the wonders of the Alps, than read a diary of events, blow-by-blow.

And so we sit down to supper and your lovely miso soup. And this is exactly what I have been talking about: I am instantly reminded of a recipe I used to make, perhaps thirty years ago, the recipe of which has long since bit the dust. I can't even remember what it was or exactly what was in it but the underlying taste is a memory that lies buried in this soup, and comes from nowhere to remind me of a time, long past, in my careless youth.

Love Martha x

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

A Cold Spring

Dear Nigel,

Spring is coming slowly this year, dragging its feet as if it hasn't quite the heart in it yet to paint the hedgerows with fresh buds, scatter wild flowers in the meadows and slowly unfurl new feather-like leaves to dust the tips of bundles of bare sticks. Every day I pass my favourite flowering current. There are tiny beetroot-stained buds now and the beginnings of leaves, but only the beginnings. I note its progress - slow - and hope each day to see a little more life rearing its head above the parapet.

The only life in the garden is the rhubarb which carries on relentless. We had a fresh crop of heavy snow two weeks ago - enough to close the schools - and it still took its opportunity to push through the white blanket. It has the muscles of a body builder in training, forcing every sinew to maintain its dominance. Even the weeds are pale and weedy, nursing colds and pretending to be delicate. Their treacherous hearts are hidden from view, for now. It is probably a good time to make a start and clear the ground. I feel its time is coming. And getting in there quick before all hell breaks loose will get things off to a good start. Perhaps tomorrow...

Today I am making breakfast. It was a hard night at the pub last night - even harder if you didn't get a drink and were hard at work fiddling until well into the wee hours. I always seem to wake up with something akin to a hangover whether I've touched a drop or not, and quite whether it is the intensity of playing or simply dehydration, I don't know. I make a mental note to 'drink more' - water at the very least.

I spy your recipe for an all-day breakfast toad-in-the-hole and check whether the ingredients are in stock. I go out to the farm shop for some black pudding and the best herby sausages I can get and am back within the hour preparing the batter. It is 'Sunday breakfast toad-in-the-hole' (page 56), although today is Saturday. The batter with its grain mustard seems based on that from an old toad-in-the-hole recipe of yours that I have made time and time again. It is still my favourite way of making it after all these years, and a teatime favourite of ours. This recipe, though, is about Breakfast with a capitol B, and having it and eating it all. There are four of us today -thank goodness - as this is substantial stuff and definitely 'the sort of heroic breakfast you need the morning after the night before.' I note your essential point before I start that 'when making any batter get the fat truly hot and sizzling before you pour the batter in.'

Rehearsals for 'Oliver' are well under way now. Sophie replays the DVD endlessly of the old film version of it with Oliver Reed as Bill Sykes and I realise where I've seen him before:- Under the bottom of my car last week as it perched high up on the ramps, giving me a stern lecture on why this bearing and that joint needed removing/fixing/or whatever, and me agreeing meekly. You would agree to anything Bill Sykes said, wouldn't you?... or Oliver Reed come to that, under that stern fixed brow and firm gaze of his.  How much?? Of course, Oliver - a pleasure...

A spot of sunshine and the sight of so many joggers and cyclists out reminds me that my excuses are wearing thin. I've used the 'black ice on the ground...and I might twist an ankle' argument for long-enough. My clothes tell me that the winter has left it's toll and a little exercise is needed to remedy the situation. It's a fine line between eating what you want, persuading yourself to eat what you need, and not denying yourself anything in the process. I head off round the village on my usual beat for fifteen minutes or so. Quite enough for one day. It doesn't seem enough, somehow, if you believe what you read in the magazines, but a couple of weeks of this and I can feel changes happening; now that the weather is changing too and soon it will be time to come out of hibernation from under those huge over sized sweaters that hide so much.

My best friend comes over in a new outfit of citrine green and teal blue. She looks fabulous. I say, 'Oh, I couldn't wear a colour as bright as that.' She tells me - honestly - that my wardrobe is boring and that I like to fade into the background where no one can see me. And she's totally right. But I feel comfortable and at ease with myself in the background. Is this not allowed? I have no desire to show off or be centre of attention or need others to bolster my self-esteem. Can I not remain in my favourite navy v neck jumper and old jeans? She has plans to take me shopping. I think she's been watching too many programmes of people jumping out naked and annoying the neighbours.

I have been reconsidering my intention to eat less meat for health, for my budget, but mainly to help the ecology of the planet. I open my 'Meat free Monday' cookbook, which Paul McCartney and his children help set up. The first recipe is a good place to start. It is for a sweet potato gnocchi with rocket pesto. The idea behind the campaign seems a good one and a practical one. If we all make a few small changes it adds up to a lot. Amongst the arguments put in favour of making changes towards a vegetarian lifestyle in the book, my favourite statistic is the one that maintains that about 634 gallons of fresh water is required to produce one 5.2 ounce beefburger, which would be enough for a four-hour shower. On those grounds alone I'm happy to have an omelet once a week, if necessary.

Love Martha x