Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Slipping into Summer

Dear Nigel,


One minute, it seems, you are turning up the heating again and wearing socks in bed, and the next it's too impossibly hot to sit and read and you are falling, like a bear with a sore head, towards the nearest piece of shade, trying not to grumble about the heat.

Summer comes, slipping into your hand like a child, catching you unaware as you dress too warmly, and causing a sudden emergency situation in the greenhouse. Suddenly, everything is growing everywhere - grass, weeds, seedlings - and everything demands your attention at the same time. Plants are like a class of five year olds each holding up their hand; each bursting to tell you all about themselves. Chelsea may be five days of tall poppies but the true show stoppers are hiding under a bushel, lurking beside the weeds, and a little attention is needed if they are to shine.

I go to pick flowers for the house and find that deep pink peonies are flowering beneath a heap of greenery, almost hidden to the eye. In the house they bloom and pout like the hussies they are, soon dropping their petals piecemeal across the windowsill and chest of drawers. But I like this trail of fallen petals, random and scattered, like discarded silken underwear in a Jilly Cooper novel. It belongs with the relaxing of standards that the warm weather brings. When is there a better time to kick off your shoes and walk barefoot across the grass before breakfast to see the world is at its best? The heavy sweet scent which I cannot at first trace turns out to be Hawthorne blossom, packed into every hedgerow. May is at its best in May and is nature's decadence. The bees seem happy and relaxed in their busyness.

A barn owl hovers in an almost ungainly manner over a field of willow. Its wings are far larger than I expect them to be and I am a little unsure at first that this is him back again. But nature likes her hidden space and is far better seen from a high window at this early hour. A hare plays in the lane making circles over the grass and weaving back and forward to his own pattern, unaware of the scent of human beings that would send him scurrying back into the undergrowth. Another morning we spy a young deer standing oh so close, grazing unaware. She does not know she is being watched and moves peacefully on with the grace of entitlement surrounding her. The day has not yet begun for us and yet nature has tumbled out of bed and done a full day's work before we are even up. The birds have sung their hearts out. And it is wonderful to be able to lie in bed and listen to the cacophony of voices in the trees outside. It is early morning in a busy fruit market and all the birds are setting out their stalls. We listen to the call and answer as they chatter away amongst themselves, calling to their mates, seeing off unwanted guests.

I am experimenting in the kitchen with savoury tarts. Some I want to freeze as a batch to save time and energy at a later date. These are some of the loveliest things to pack in foil and take on a picnic. Ideal hot or cold, depending on the weather and your inclination, they are always welcome and substantial. Today I am making 'Butternut squash, red onion and parmesan' and another version with 'aubergine, red pepper and tomato'. They are old favourites. I am also knocking out an Aubergine and sweet potato lasagne for supper. I am submerging myself in the bright colours of Mediterranean vegetables and the scent of basil and the grassy smell of a heap of freshly chopped parsley. The chopping process is steady and meditative and leaves me the time to consider the new day outside. The gooseberries are starting to swell and turn pink and the second flush of rhubarb is fairly screaming for attention. I don't want it to start flowering so I must get in there quick.

Just down the road there is a round building, a kind of church, where on a weekend grown men go to escape their women-folk, dress up in unconventional dress and worship the god of heavy metal. This is Britain's last surviving working Roundhouse Engine shed where steam trains are sent from all over the country for maintenance. Today it has become even more a little boys' playground as they are hosting a huge beer festival: Beer, Steam engines and music - every little boy over the age of about thirty five is sure to be here.

We turn up early in the afternoon and it is clear that this is a 'serious' beer festival. There is an engine turning round and round on a turntable in the centre, like a pole dancer in a seedy club, and four long bars have been set up in front of other giant steam engines with rows and rows of barrels behind them, each with a scrappy name attached, mostly from local breweries. It is still only three o'clock in the afternoon and yet serious work is being done here. The regulars know that all the best beers will run out long before the evening shadows encroach upon the sooty cobbled floor. We sit in a guard's van watching a Deltic diesel engine going up and down on another line, pulling coaches full of great beaming faces and waving hands. The serious drinkers remain guarding their glasses and hovering around in the Roundhouse. There are bands and people dancing but for the seriously committed this is secondary to the beer.

We surmise that this one event probably keeps the charity going for the rest of the year. And it is hugely popular, it seems. Old Leyland buses, - not pretty vintage ones but old throw backs from the seventies - bus people in from Chesterfield and elsewhere further afield. We have walked along footpaths and hedged lanes to get here and plan to make a day of it like everyone else it seems.

The Cider bar is packed with dodgy ciders, I think. I am quickly aware that the quality control in this domain is not a patch on that demanded by the rising tide of new brewers on the beer counters. I am careful to try each cider before purchasing, and many are almost undrinkable. Quite why this should be I am not sure. David is making serious inroads in sampling most of the beers it seems to me. The afternoon is starting to mellow into a haze of mellow stupor and I am vaguely aware that there are no remaining seats and that it will be several hours more of this before the beer runs dry and we will be allowed to leave. It is perhaps only seven o'clock and already I am floating around in a dream. The serious drinkers just stand and look on as the music plays and the dancing revs up.

Summer has returned, it seems.

Love Martha x

Aubergine, tomato and red pepper tart.

200g plain flour
100g unsalted butter
1 egg
1tsp salt
1tblsp water

160g aubergines
2 red peppers
1 large red onion
50ml olive oil (and extra to drizzle)
1 tsp salt
1/2tsp ground black pepper
100g cherry tomatoes
1 tblsp. leaf parsley (chopped)
60g + 200g cheddar cheese (grated)
150g full fat Greek yoghurt

Blitz all the pastry ingredients in a food processor.
Grease a 23cm diam deep quiche tin.
Roll out the pastry and line the tin.
Chill for 20 mins.

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees centigrade
Chop the aubergines, red peppers and red onion. Roast on a tray drizzled with oil and salt and pepper; covered with aluminium foil. Bake for 20 mins until just soft.
Leave to cool. Drain any juice.
Stir in the Parsley and 60g cheese.
In a separate bowl, mix the yoghurt and 200g cheese. Line the pastry with this.
Scatter over the roast vegetables. Bake for 30 mins at 170 degrees centigrade.

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