Thursday, 31 January 2019

New Year - new you?

Dear Nigel,

I like to think that we are slowly moving away from the notion of draconian New Year's Resolutions in which everything good, rich and indulgent, which we have been quite happy to nibble on these past few weeks, is suddenly turfed out and deemed 'other' as we don Lycra and hit the streets running. Hopefully, for most of us, those kind of self-flagellating days are over and a new kind of balance has emerged: One that allows for holidays and celebrations and then just gently pulls things into line without guilt, like the draw string on a school PE bag, the letters of a name carefully worked in chain stitch in a contrasting silk.

You are making a 'Spiced Red Lentil Soup' to blow away the cobwebs. I am eating the leftovers from Christmas - Turkey bits with chilli jam in a sandwich and trying to find uses for all the myriad pieces of different cheeses I seem to have amassed. There is a piece of Tallegio cheese in a box by itself in the fridge which I am almost too frightened to go near...

My version of blowing away the cobwebs involves lots of Winter walks in my favourite places like the stream at Milldale. Even on dull Winter days there is plenty to see if you open your eyes. I love to see the bones of nature silhouetted against a sunset. At this time of year, before the new growth starts, you can trace the energy path of strings of ivy weaving themselves into the corrugated bark on the outside of thick trunks, or the way a young branch has twisted and turned to get towards the light or away from the wind.

It is Nature's yoga - going with the flow, bending, stretching, making room for the new through growth. As I get back to my mat again and my regular home practise and weekly Iyengar class, where repetition both embeds and creates growth, I read in your book, 'The comfort of ritual, the reassurance of the familiar, is important to me. Doing repetitive, domestic things - kneading bread, stirring soup - on the same day each year helps me feel grounded. But that repetition must be seasoned with the new. I don't ever want to stand still. That way lies a score of missed opportunities, not to mention a certain atrophy, physical, emotional and culinary.'

I am watching a whole host of younger people throwing out their whole lives in a mad, decluttering frenzy. There is a beauty in simplicity and minimalism, I agree. And the space created allows a building to breathe and the energy to flow, on feng shui principles. There is great power in the ability to let go and allow room for the new. But sometimes even this is allowed to dictate too much. Everything is thrown out in order to recreate a new you, to create a vacuum that itches to be filled. Contentment is a better place to start. Like you, there is a domestic element in this, and cleaning your space is the best place to start.

The cafe I work in was closed all this week. The staff still went in to completely clean and dust and paint and repair. On Monday, I was up a step ladder cleaning the ceilings, scrubbing the sticky residue of steam and oil and dust from hard-to-get-to places ready for painting. Next week, when I go back, I know that I will breathe more freely, feel a little lighter, move a little faster. And our homes can be like that too.

My son's fiance, Beatriz, is telling me about a small Japanese woman she saw on Netflix who helps you file your clothes, neatly folded, like vertical files. I wonder whether there is a point at which the amount of energy involved to create something so perfect becomes a chore in itself. They have a six month old baby and are short on sleep and the time to get jobs done between his needs.

It is like the perfect book I read about a Japanese monk and the cleaning routine that the monks would undertake in the temple. It was beautiful and perfect and I could feel the energy it released on every page. And yet I was conveniently making myself forget that this cleaning ritual was undertaken by a great many individuals on one building. And this made up the bulk of their daily lives.

If yoga teaches us about balance, then there must be balance in all things. A tree that only grows tall without growing deep will be upended in a storm. How often have you passed such a tree, hugely long against the grass and marvelled at the almost plate-like end of shallow roots? No one can blame the tree for this, but if we want to grow taller we would do well to tend to the things that cannot be seen as well as those that can.

In Asana (yoga) practise, I have learnt, that a stretch works two ways. Often, when you bend into a stretch like warrior pose, where one knee is bent and you point along the bended knee in both directions (hopeless depiction but I hope you get the gist), there is a tendency to do too much in one direction. This is the ego talking to you, showing pride in achievement. But much is being lost in not stretching in the opposite direction too. From a point of contentment we are able to look at things more objectively, without attachment, and hopefully make better choices....whether with your wardrobe of clothes, an improved eating plan, or any other change we might want to make.

Back in the Kitchen. I am making 'Granny's Warm Apple Cake'. I love this cake for its sheer unctuousness, the way it almost sticks to the roof of your mouth as you sink into it. It is very nice cold, but in our house we like it warm with a puddle of cream on top. It is a good choice for dark, miserable days, without smacking of the kind of over-indulgence of the last month.

Granny's Warm Apple Cake

225g self- raising flour
1 tsp baking powder
225g caster sugar
2 eggs
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
150g butter (melted)
350g cooking apples, peeled and cored
25g flaked almonds

1. Preheat the oven to 160 degrees C
2. Grease and line the bottom of a deep 8 inch loose-bottomed cake tin.
3. Measure the flour. baking powder, sugar, eggs, cinnamon and melted butter into a bowl and beat well.
4.Spread half the mixture in the prepared tin.
5. Thickly slice the apples and pile into the tin, mainly in a heap in the middle.
6. Use two desert spoons to spoon the remaining mixture on top as best you can, trying to make sure that the middle at least gets covered,
7. Sprinkle with the almonds.
8. Bake for 11/4 - 11/2 hours until golden.
9. Eat warm with double cream. - my cure for the January blues.

The New Year brings other new beginnings with it: my first Granddaughter is born - Evie Isabella. She is, like all babies, perfect. Molly bakes biscuits to welcome the new family.

It is my son Tom's first baby and he is at sixes and sevens. I go over to help them, bringing a Shepherds pie with me, and end up taking Tom and Jayden to the supermarket to stock up on food and nappies.
'DO WE NEED MILK', I say, holding each item in front of him...he doesn't know...we should have made a list. After unloading the trolley into the car, he takes the trolley back and then opens the door of the car next to me and tries to get in (- the couple sitting in the car find it all highly amusing)...lack of sleep and the sheer enormity of it all has completely overwhelmed him.

Back home, once more, I am making a 'Butternut Squash and Parmesan Tart'. It is part of a Birthday present of home-cooked dinners for Bea, who is in an anti-stuff, hopefully, being an exception. It is a favourite of mine. Sometimes we have it hot, and in the Summer I often wrap it in foil to take on a picnic.

Butternut Squash and Parmesan Tart

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

1 red onion
400g Butternut squash
2 large eggs
6 tbsp freshly grated Parmesan cheese
2 tsp salt
1 tsp ground black pepper
400ml double cream

1. Put all the pastry ingredients in a food processor and blitz until it forms a ball.
2. Chill the pastry for 20 mins.
3. Roll out and line a 23cm flan tin. Chill for 20 mins.
Put the onion (thinly sliced) and Butternut squash (cut into matchsticks) in a mixing bowl and mix well together.
4. In a separate bowl put the cream, eggs, cheese, salt and pepper and whisk well.
5. Put half the cream mixture into the flan tin. Scatter over the onion and butternut squash mixture.
6. Pour over the remaining cream mixture and bake at 170 degrees C for 35 mins, or a little longer, if necessary.

But, the food presents must wait another day as we are snowed in over night. So I freeze them to take over another time.

There is nothing for it when the weather rules but to accept it, to change ones plans, and to enjoy the new thing which has been thrown in your path.

With snow, this is easy; to go out and enjoy, to walk, to play. When there is nowhere you HAVE to be, when everyone is safely home, when the cupboards are stocked and there is wood in the woodshed, then Here, Right Now (as Ram Dass told us) is a perfect place to 'just be'.

Love Martha x


  1. What a wonderful piece of writing..makes one think about life and how we go about our daily lives. Blissful work !

  2. A wonderful read that helps the reader remember the importance of balance,
    perspective, and life's little (but nonetheless valuable) opportunities. Thank you, Martha