Friday, 10 March 2017

Plastic lambs, Crocuses and ...More Green Soup

Dear Nigel,



I knew that Spring had finally sprung when I saw my first lamb this week, standing in the middle of a grassy field in its pristine white coat looking like a plastic Britain's model circa 1968. It seemed completely out of place to me as I drove past avoiding the deep mud-filled potholes and churned up verges everywhere. There has been so much rainfall here lately. Down by the Manifold Inn there are several large duck-sized pools where people like to camp in the Summer months near the bridge over the river, iconic country Inn on one side, village shop on the other. The car looks like a paint balling accident only hours after being washed. I walk about only in my wellies at the moment; the mud is knee deep in places.

David sends me photos of the swathes of crocuses out at Renishaw Hall, where he is Head Gardener. Here, there is only a bank of snowdrops on the other side of the stream from my kitchen window and the sturdy reliable thrust of new rhubarb breaking through the earth with all the vigour of a well-defined bicep. I make a mental note to seek out last year's bags in the freezer to use up before I am inundated with copious amounts. Would that we eat a lot of rhubarb and ginger jam, or trout with rhubarb, or something, but we don't. Crumble is the preferred option, and that is for Sundays only. We've weaned ourselves off puddings on waistline grounds - mine not his, unfortunately. How lovely it would be to have the sort of constitution that required you to eat more of the things you love. The very slim people amongst my family and friends all have that rather annoying habit of either being rather in love with their emaciated shapes or claiming to only like savoury stuff. Unfair; most unfair.

I take a friend out for lunch for her Birthday. We go to a quirky secondhand bookshop with its own vegetarian cafe on the top floor. Scarthin Books in Cromford is my kind of place. There are new books and old, an artist in residence and the dish of the day is homity pie - and very good it is too. There is a community of people who meet for philosophical discussions, babies being changed somewhere out the back and the sort of displays angled to entice, so that you are led to books that might interest you, rather than have to go and search for one by someone whose name momentarily escapes you. I've come here with friends, with children, with my partner; and sometimes I've brought myself here alone and lodged myself somewhere behind a curved door full of books that becomes invisible once shut. Once, libraries used to have that feel to them. I remember ours (in the little village of St. Bees in the Lake District, where I grew up) was a single room below the pub, with warm, fogged up windows and a small librarian and small shelves. It felt cosy. These days I want a library or bookshop to sell coffee. I want a comfortable seat and time to while away. I am a demanding punter, I know, but I've tasted the good life in book places and seen that it can be done.

Scarthin books, then, sits on one side of a picturesque mill pond. Two swans nearby were busy making a fuss about their precocious youngster, who probably started learning the piano at three, and eating olives and pasta with black truffle shavings (- whilst proclaiming their virtues extremely loudly -), whilst the couple on the next table struggled to get their offspring to choose between fish fingers and chicken nuggets. (Or is that just me?) With pictures flashing through my head of swans and broken arms, we left them to their precious little darling and headed over to Cromford Studio and Gallery - a lovely, vibrant art gallery housed in an old bakehouse, where Martin Sloman works and teaches and loves a good chat; especially on a lovely sunny morning like today.

I am starting to compile 'stuff from the Peak District' for a chapter for a book which I've been invited to submit to a local publisher. This is up my street too: Things I know about the Peak District - I have a hive of useless but potentially useful stuff (to some people - walkers and visitors and the like) from years of getting to know the area like the back of my hand. Like a ball of wool I cross and recross its boundaries in all directions, adding to the ball like Ariadne's thread. My friend is constantly amazed that our journeys out usually involve me commenting on this gate and that path, the pub in this village, the post office in that, the view from over that hill, the renovation of that barn. And I am constantly amazed that I have so many friends who live so close yet rarely venture out even a couple of miles to some of the best walks in the country. Do we all have such treasures on our doorstop we never stop to gaze upon, whilst focussing all our efforts and energy in planning the next holiday to somewhere far away where there is something amazing we 'simply must see'? My older daughter, Hannah, is a case in point. Before she toddled off to China for a year, she would come here from out of the city, moan about how boring the countryside is and then swan off to America to take in 'this AMAZING scenery.' - Hills and trees; we've got them here too, you know?

I am sending you a bowl of Green Soup - more green soup, actually. This one is 'Lettuce and Spring onion'. It needs some pepping up (- more lemon juice, I discover). I seem to be wading through tides of green soup, in a new year's austerity programme of both body and pocket; and a succession of vegetarian curries, on the look out for those one or two which will become the regular curry-to-go-to for a midweek meal when I just to cook without thinking, and eat. But first I have to do the thinking - which one - and plant it firmly in the memory of my hands, the automatic shopping list and the taste buds of all concerned, so that it fits easily into family life.

Hoping Spring is coming to where you are too,

Love Martha x

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

February Blues and Red Raw Knuckles

Dear Nigel,




Everyone's least favourite month, February is blowing true to form, rolling out huge clouds of fog like polyester wadding bursting from a badly-made soft toy. It lines the base of the valleys, seeping into your very bones as you make your way up the damp hillsides. It chaps knuckles raw and seers pain against the delicate whites of your eyes as you struggle to focus on a 'view'.

'Here comes the Sun', I mutter, reminding myself of the old Beatles song and the much-drooled-over 'Holiday' programmes on the tele, when all my childhood holidays were spent in windy Whitley Bay on the east coast, pressing for sugar cones from my Dad from 'The Rendezvous Cafe' on the promenade; carrying a sticky, sandy bucket and spade made of rainbow-swirled rubber (not like the plastic ones that came later). I wore an aqua and chocolate striped towelling bathing costume that soaked up water like a sponge and sagged glaringly as I pretended not to notice, dripping a trail that could be wee behind me. I flicked my too short boys' haircut and ran away from my embarrassment across the hard ridges of sand, which jarred my feet with every footfall ; telling myself that only sissies cry. I always was more of a tomboy in those days. I remember my life in cine film; soundless, with the accompanying whirring/flapping noise that only those who remember cine film will know instantly.

I am perfecting another soup at home for the soup empire I aspire to make. Today we will be eating a sweet potato and orange soup. The thought spurs me on though the damp tears at my lungs and makes me wheeze as I walk. I am collecting all my best soup recipes together. My notes against them are so numerous now that I am quite severe in my criticism of even my own cooking. Last week's Roasted butternut squash soup, which took ages to make, was bland and boring, and I ended up pepping it up with some smoked paprika. It has been consigned to the back end of history together with the others that fell along the way. I am copying out the recipes from here, there and everywhere in a cookery journal dedicated only to soups. It appeals to my sense of order. I have another entitled 'suppers', and another for 'sweet things and puddings': It is not very scientific, but it seems to work for me.

My bookcases of cookery books have now reached the echelons of the far landing and I am in danger of losing Lindsey Bareham and Claudia Roden to the back bedroom. You are safe, though, on the main rungs of the kitchen bookcase, which takes the place of what probably ought to be useful cupboards in this pint-sized kitchen of mine. But we all have our priorities and books and a place to read them in is more important to me than where to store the food processor (which only comes out to make pastry, I've noticed). Even my new toy, a cordless hand blender, a Christmas present from my parents (to replace the much-loved old Braun one which lasted 30 years and was died orange with the sheer quantity of pureed carrot needed to feed seven hungry babies), has had to find a place in the other room under the DVD player in some pointless niche which I have yet to excavate. This one comes with a surgeon's battery of tools and lights up and speeds up to whisk and froth and chop nuts.

Right now, I just need it to blend soups without causing a huge fuss and demanding privileges it is not yet entitled to, like a place on the limited worktop where I like to put flowers because they cheer me up; and I can always chop underneath them and hoick them up to use the microwave, whose only use appears to be in softening butter these days. I hate to make my kitchen staff redundant, but it's a very large space for an employee who only softens butter, and occasionally reheats my cold coffee when I'm feeling especially lazy. I could consign it to the top of the fridge in the porch, except that the girls would probably require a small stepladder to make their hot chocolate, and that would have to live somewhere, I suppose. I never did like the idea of a 'work triangle'. It seemed to imply to me the idea that I would choose to walk back and forth in the same lines, wearing black rubber marks into the crinkles of the kitchen tiles, like some demented weather person in one of those little wooden alpine chalets  that predict the sun and rain.

Supper tonight is 'Aubergine Fesenjan'. David and I are working at being part-time vegetarians. We keep resorting to meat, usually when we are eating out, and the Sunday Roast (which seems an almost impossible mountain to get around - and one which I'm not sure we want to venture: What would we do with all those trees of brussel sprouts which he keeps inflicting on me? I have one, to show support and to try and educate my uncompromising taste buds). The resulting dish is basically slices of roast aubergine in a lovely sauce and handful of pomegranate seeds on top. We love it. It tastes good and it's Persian background takes my cooking in a different direction. Then I sit down and read in Jane Baxter and Henry Dimbleby's 'Leon - fast vegetarian' that 'people often go one of two ways with vegetables. They either try to make them more approachable - more meat-like -...or they turn to the exotic, relying on specialist ingredients and fistful of pomegranate seeds.' I feel my hand slapped for daring to leave the leeks and kale in the ground today and wishing to be transported to a warmer, sunnier place. I like the tiny jewel-like pomegranate seeds that I have only recently learnt to liberate with ease (turn half a pomegranate over a large bowl and simply bang hard on the back with a wooden spoon). It saves the 'rivers of blood' look that used to be an afternoon feature in my kitchen on these occasions.

Sometimes, when the glumness outside chases you all the way back home to toast your toes by a warm fire and sit in over-large jumpers and ridiculous large 'home-knit' donegal socks drinking some 'winter tonic', you are looking for transportation of the senses. At least until the sun does deign to shine on us once more.

Love Martha x


Aubergine Fesenjan

120g walnuts
4 medium sized aubergines
rapeseed oil
1 pomegranate (seeded)
250ml vegetable stock
2tblsp pomegranate molasses
1tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp chilli powder
11/2tblsp honey
3 cloves of garlic
2 large red onions
Fresh coriander

Method:
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C.
Line a baking tray with baking parchment. Cut the aubergines into slices, toss with the oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast on the baking tray for 25 mins until soft.
In a frying pan put 3tblsp. of oil, heat and add the the sliced red onions. Fry for about 15 mins, stirring regularly. Add the crushed garlic and fry for another couple of minutes.
Add the honey, chilli powder, cinnamon, salt and pepper, walnuts (blitzed) and the pomegranate molasses. Stir well . Add the vegetable stock and cook for around 10 minutes until it 'comes together' nicely.
When the aubergines are cooked, pour the sauce into a serving dish, put the aubergines on top and scatter with the pomegranate seeds and fresh coriander. Serve with rice.

(Your dish will come out looking much better than mine - I used a brown-looking vegetable stock I'd made and the result makes it look a bit sludgy. However, it still tasted wonderful, and that's the main thing.
The pomegranate molasses, which I'd never heard of before, I found in Waitrose. Hopefully, your supermarket will sell it too.)

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

To go on with courage and hope

Dear Nigel,




There has been a blip in our communication of late, I know. Christmas took the lion's share, with all its associated comings and goings, lots of people to feed and bedding to wash. But added to that a tragedy - for me, anyway. My dear Dad died the week before. I felt as if the whole thing were somehow on hold until after Christmas. I couldn't even let myself think about him.

Writing the eulogy which I read at his funeral and organising a film show of family snaps from over the years brought it all firmly back home again. David was amazing and stopped me falling apart. I wasn't sure whether I would be strong-enough to read at my own father's funeral, but I did. I miss my Dad so much and yet there is a feeling of acceptance there too. My dear wonderful Dad died because he simply didn't want to be here anymore. He gave up the struggle - as many do - and simply faded away. It's easy to cast around to lay the blame but ultimately he was in a place mentally where no one could reach him and he simply made a choice. I don't think he ever really came to terms with my brother's death eight years ago. So how can I blame him for choosing what he wanted? He's at peace now and no one can take the wonderful memories away that I have of him. I wish he could be here now to share the present and the future with us, but he can't.

And oddly, it's not the memories of the last couple of years which I have of him, when he was only a shell of a man. It is memories of a vibrant, happy man with vivre and life coursing through his veins. When I sat there trying to compose his eulogy I found myself banging against a brick wall mentally. I wanted to tell the truth, and the truth was the wrong thing to say. I could hardly stand up at my own Dad's funeral and tell people that he wanted to die, could I? And yet it is no less true. But then the memories started flooding out of tear ducts - happy things, important things, tiny moments and fragments in time unnoticed by anyone else. It is these truly deep connections - a squeeze of a hand, a pointed comment, a look for you and you alone - that keeps us bound to each other. And no mere thing like death will ever tear that from us.

And so I do what I always do when times are hard: I make soup - that comfort food that nourishes and protects like no other. I make a Jerusalem artichoke and spinach soup which manages to be both grounding and light. Perhaps there are less artichokes in than normal and a better balance with the spinach for lightness in this recipe than in the soup I normally make. Anyway, it does the trick.

We go to Sherwood Forest to protest. They want to frack under Robin Hood's tree. They want to dig deep below the roots of the oldest oak trees in England, a preserved forest, an S.S.S.I, to start fracking. It seems that all the things that we hold dear are suddenly up for grabs. But there at Sherwood we encounter other families, old couples hand-in-hand in padded jackets, middle aged women with dogs, young lads in combat trousers. It feels safe to be there with the girls; everyone with a kind of shared horror. Hamish McRae, the economist, once made this rather telling statement: 'Enduring prosperity requires societies which are stable, ordered and honest....Put bluntly, if countries wish to continue becoming richer, their people will have to learn to behave better.' There is no more apt a time to apply this than now.

Life in The Park is the normal grimy kind of January you might expect to see. There is more mud than vehicles and fog hangs around heavily most mornings. We did have a brief flurry of snow last Friday. And, everything in extremes, a few hours blocked the roads and gave the children delight as all school buses were cancelled and they were able to sledge and build snowmen. But it was soon gone, dropping from the tall forbidding pine trees opposite like batter from a whisk.

We braved the meadows, taking delight at being the first footprints on a new landscape. The sun was out but winds had blown drifts several feet deep. It doesn't take much around here. We are on the point where the Peak District meets the Moorlands and strong winds drive quick and fast. I am snug in my Canadian snow boots which I love for their sheer impracticability for any other situation. The children seem ringed by some far-off readybrek glow and stay out for hours. It is good to see them away from all things electric and behaving like children once more. The carrot for the snowman's nose soon falls to the ground and by the time I get back from the weekend at David's there is but a tiny heap of snow and a knitted burgundy scarf to remind me.

Fat cat lies along the top of the sofa, spreading her fur out like honey on toast and flexing her claws as if yawning. She basks in the warmth of the extra heat. The wood burner is stocked with drying split logs and outside the woodshed is replenished. I don't want to be caught short. Being cut off in the snow is a wonderful, magical thing but only if you are prepared for it and have nowhere especially that you need to go.Then, I like nothing more than walking around the village listening keenly to the silence and seeing tiny spirals of woodsmoke drifting upwards from chimneys everywhere in the valley.

Happy New Year,

Love Martha x


Jerusalem artichoke and Spinach Soup:

200g spinach leaves
25g butter
1 onion (chopped)
350g Jerusalem artichokes, sliced finely
275ml milk
570ml chicken stock
nutmeg
4tblsp double cream

Method:
Melt the butter in a large pan. Add the onion and cook gently, covered, until soft.
Add the artichokes and cook for 15 mins, stirring occasionally.
Add the chicken stock and season with salt, pepper and grated nutmeg.
Bring to the boil and simmer, covered, for 20 minutes until the artichokes are tender.
Add the spinach leaves and let them wilt. Blend the soup and add the milk and double cream.
Reheat and adjust seasoning, if necessary.