Wednesday 19 June 2019

'Greenfeast' and Gooseberries

Dear Nigel,

It is a green Summer this year, I think. The constant rain of late has raised the water table and made the weeds grow in abundance. Over in the vegetable garden I am feeding an army of obese slugs with tiny salad seedlings. The petals of a newly opened clump of blue geraniums lie dashed against the ground from the last downpour. More than anything I dislike the sense of heaviness in the air before a clap of thunder releases the tension.

You have a new book out: 'Greenfeast'. I take my copy to the fireside to savour with my cup of coffee. This is a book that speaks to the way I also choose to eat these days. I have my meat days, and my meat-free days. I like both. The meat-free days make me feel generally lighter over all, as the mere idea of dieting to stay the same weight (an age thing, I'm told) fills me with abject misery.

My days in the garden are dealing with triffids as the weeds take hold. I am scything down huge branches of rhubarb and chopping them into bags for the freezer. But first, I realise, there is still a whole pile of last year's assorted produce stacked in there waiting to be used. So I make some jam. 'Gooseberry and Elderflower Jam'. This year's gooseberries are not quite ripe, so it is good to deal with last year's excess first. The recipe is a simple one and uses elderflower cordial for ease. (Lovely, I know, to go and pick elderflowers when in flower, but sometimes it is just 'another thing' which puts the whole operation into jeopardy.)

As I stand there stirring my jam, waiting for the set, I realise that it has actually been a great many years since I last made Jam. I like to THINK I make it - and at one time I made it all the time - but not lately, it seems. And elderflowers go so well in recipes with gooseberries. At the artisan bakery I used to work at we made a wonderful gooseberry cake, adding the elderflower cordial to the icing sugar instead of water to ice the top.

Gooseberry and Elderflower Jam

2 kg gooseberries
200ml elderflower cordial
1800g granulated sugar

1. Place the gooseberries in a preserving pan with 500ml water and the sugar.
2. Cook over a low heat, stirring now and then, until the sugar is dissolved.
3. Turn up the heat and boil for about 15 mins. Stir regularly so that it doesn't stick and burn.
4. Use a stack of small plates placed briefly in the freezer to check for a good set with 'the wrinkle test',
5. When it seems right to you, remove the pan from the heat and stir in the elderflower cordial.
6. Leave to cool a bit. Meanwhile sterilise your jam jars in a warm oven.
7. When sufficiently cool, decant into jam jars, place a waxed disc on top (if you have them, or make your own) and take pride in writing your Homemade labels. I did.
8.Feel virtuous.

I find my first recipe that I want to cook from 'Greenfeast'. It is 'Baked Ricotta, Asparagus.' Unusually, this year I have not over-done the British Asparagus thing. Sometimes, I think I see the small window of seasonality (May really) as a kind of call to eat, whatever else is planned; as if to refrain would mean you might be missing out in some way, be impoverished. We are children let loose in a sweet shop and sometimes we don't know when to stop.

This recipe is comfort food for a wet weather day. It is 'more pudding than souffle, but nevertheless light and airy.' There is a little thyme to remind us that it is actually the height of summer, and a sprinkling of Parmesan to gild the baked top. You opt for a tomato salad to accompany it. I am thinking that a large hunk of sourdough bread to mop up would fit the mood right now.

You were right about the tomatoes; though, as we sat there eating it I was craving a plate of fried cherry tomatoes (possibly the weather again), slightly caramelised at the edges.

Working in a Vegetarian cafe, there is always a constant tweaking of recipes to suit the season. There is nearly always a quiche on, for instance. I had made a 'Courgette, Feta and Mint' soup at home for a friend visiting us. It was both warming and light and Summery at the same time. We decided to try the three key ingredients in a quiche at the cafe. It is nice to take one idea or taste and use it elsewhere. I didn't get to try the quiche as I wasn't working that day, but normally we would be keen to try things for our own staff lunches to check that this was something we would enjoy eating and like to put on the specials board again.

Courgette, Feta and Mint Soup

10 courgettes, cut into large chunks.
4tblsp Olive oil
2 cloves of garlic (crushed)
1200ml vegetable stock
100ml double cream
150g feta cheese
2 tbsp fresh mint, finely chopped

1. Heat the oil in a soup pan.
2. Add the courgettes and garlic and cook over a medium heat for 20 mins. until soft and lightly browned (stir regularly), keeping the lid off the pan.
3. Add the stock and simmer for 5 minutes.
4. Add the mint and feta cheese, and stir over a low heat until the feta has almost melted.
5. Blend until smooth.
6. Reheat gently and add the cream. Stir well.
7. Season with salt and pepper.

Last Sunday was 'Open Farm Sunday.' We went to an organic farm near us in Hartington. Lower Hurst Farm has about 300 acres of stunning pastures, and it was good to be driven around the farm on the back of a trailer and to see all our normal haunts from a slightly different angle. The cattle there are beautiful Herefords and it all seems fairly idyllic from a farming perspective with its rolling pastures and hand-carved rocks picturing sheep and cows.

(Not that all farming around here is like that. There are many many small hill farms with 'make do and mend' philosophies; and everything tied together with baler twine. I notice this most markedly at harvest time when every tractor - however old - that ever lived and breathed, is brought out coughing and wheezing and pressed into service; along with every old farmer, his wife, grandkids and anyone else nearby.)

The main market for Lower Hurst Farm is Waitrose, and, until fairly recently, they were supplying Jamie Oliver's Restaurants with all their kids beefburgers and meatballs. My children like these beefburgers too so I buy their catering boxes to keep in the freezer at home. I think it is good for children to be able to see the animals properly cared for and having a good life. This isn't an argument for or against vegetarianism, but I do know that I like to see a countryside populated by sheep and cows and a great deal of the hills and moorlands around us are not really suited for anything but sheep.

(I took this photo and my older children joked - 'Rock on Sophie''s not quite Glastonbury...I remind them they were all country kids once.)

Over in the barn we watch a young girl deftly shearing a sheep. It is some kind of rare breed with almost a full clump of dreadlocks going on. There are three ladies spinning nearby and the prize bull on the other side (father of 95% of the herd) looks like he is enjoying a well-earned rest. I am fascinated to see the sheep placed back in a small pen with its lamb once more. The lamb is bleating for its mother. Even when she is in the pen - and it's a small pen - he continues to bleat for some time. He cannot seem to smell his mother now that her coat has been removed.

I am waging war, back at home, with two large crows and a Magpie. I have this very nice metal hoop arrangement hanging from the bird feeder. It has a little metal plate and a spike on which to put a fat seed ball. It looks very nice; but day after day I have turned my back for five minutes and the fresh seed ball has completely disappeared. The other day I caught the culprits in the act. A large crow was using his pneumatic beak to hammer through the ball, taking it out in quarters. I have tried tying the feeder on to the bird table with gardening wire, and tying the seed ball to the feeder with wire. I am determined not to be outwitted by this black hooded duo and their more flamboyant accomplice. My next move, I think, is to get one of those little net bags that nuts used to come in and put the seed ball in that and wire it on to the spike. One way or another they are not about to win this one.

Back to the slug patrol. I am picking the little blighters up and flinging them across the stream, presuming that they haven't been training for swimming the channel, to get back and polish off what they left behind. Gardening means war in this climate; never mind the Pimms.

Love Martha x

Sunday 24 March 2019

Little Green

Dear Nigel,

'Call her Green and the Winters cannot fade her'
                                                    Joni Mitchell

It always seems a long time coming; Spring. The long Winter nights take an age to shorten, unless you keep watch. Day on day, noting the five or ten minutes extra in the garden, or before lighting up the house. Nature creeps around with her shawl keeping out the wind - a scatter of early blossom here, a twist of little green there, on buds on the end of frondy twigs, bending to the breeze. The flowering currant is our first arrival, beckoning us out into the wasteland.

Further over by the dry stone wall, clumps of rhubarb are making headway before a random snowfall can slow them back. I am playing the old chain letter game and passing on a severed crown to Sally at work. She is in need of rhubarb, and I have enough to spare. The best kind of gardening is like this - plants passed on from friend to friend, neighbour to neighbour. At certain times of the year I can pass through the village and note the same flowers, species and type,  in every other garden. Gardening was once always like this; generously given, not hoarded and labelled, the latest purchases from the garden centre for personal enjoyment only.

Today, I am making a Vegan soup of 'Celery and Cashew' for my Meditation Teacher who has a persistent cough she can't get rid of. I like to use food as medicine when at all possible, following Ayurvedic medicinal guidelines and current nutritional knowledge. So, the celery has anti-inflammatory properties and both this and the garlic help support the immune system. My Teacher's particular constitution, under the Ayurvedic system, will welcome the cooked vegetables and the sweetness of the creamed cashews. This is a good soup to take. I make some for home, too, because it has excellent detoxing properties, always useful at this time of year when the body is sluggish, like Moley taking his first look out of his burrow at the bright daylight outside. And, despite all these worthy properties it is also, first and foremost, a very tasty soup.

Celery and Cashew Nut Soup

3tblsp Rapeseed oil (or virgin olive oil)
2 heads of celery, chopped
4 cloves of garlic, crushed
150g unsalted cashew nuts
1.5 litres vegetable stock (I use Marigold Vegan stock granules)

1. Heat the oil in a soup pan.
2. Add the celery and garlic. Cover and cook gently for 20 mins.
3. Chop the nuts finely in a food processor. Add them to the pan with the vegetable stock.
4. Cover, bring to the boil, and simmer for 30 mins.
5. Blend until smooth.

There are other signs of life appearing outside too. Small lambs are being plonked in fields after being born inside. They are bigger than the waif-like things on unsteady legs I've seen in previous years. Perhaps it was the several scatterings of snow we've had these past couple of months, or perhaps, more darkly, the rise in rural sheep crime we've seen. Only a week or so ago, a farmer just a couple of miles from me had over seventy ewes about to lamb stolen from a field near Hartington.

Kittens too are inquisitive at this time of year. Willow sits under the bird feeder looking longingly at the seed-studded fat balls and cylinder of bird seed. She wonders were the birds have all gone and why they don't want to play. The other night she stayed out all night for the first time. I tried not to worry, but by the second night it was playing on my mind. I called and called, and nothing. And then, as I passed a locked up shed and called, a single sad meow came from within. I don't know whether she will be any the less inquisitive in future, but at least I shall know where to look for her.

Although we make lots of cakes and scones at the cafe - for the mid morning and the four o'clock crowd - I'm not a huge cake lover myself. I'm more of a biscuit eater, really; although these days it is rare for me to eat either. But, one of my favourite cakes when I do bake for myself is a 'Rhubarb Crumble cake'. At this time of year with the new rhubarb about to land on our lap, it makes economical sense to do what we all should have done ages ago, dig deep in the freezer and unearth the bags of chopped rhubarb from last year's crop. Who hasn't got such a bag sitting there waiting its time? So now its time has come, and your new, delicately forced or champagne rhubarb can be gently poached and enjoyed on its own with a little yoghurt perhaps, and last year's robust main crop enjoyed in this cake.

Rhubarb Crumble Cake

175g unsalted butter
175g caster sugar
150g self-raising flour
1tsp baking powder
1/4tsp salt
100g ground almonds
3 eggs
1tsp vanilla extract
150g soured cream
300g rhubarb
3tblsp caster sugar

crumble topping:
75g cold butter, chopped
125g plain flour
75g demerara sugar.

1. Preheat oven to 200 degrees centigrade.
2.Wash the rhubarb, blot dry and cut into 1" pieces.
3.Line a roasting tin. Toss rhubarb with 3tblsp caster sugar. Cover with foil. Roast for about 15 mins.
4. Uncover. Cook for 5 mins. Cool and drain off the juices.
5. Turn the oven down to 180 degrees centigrade. Grease and line an 8" loose bottomed deep cake tin.
6. Beat the butter and sugar together until creamy.
7. Add the flour, baking powder and salt. Mix.
8. Add the almonds, eggs, vanilla extract and sour cream. Beat well.
9. Put half the mixture in the tin. Scatter over half the rhubarb. Add the rest of the mixture and then the rest of the rhubarb.
10. Make the crumble topping in a separate bowl by rubbing the butter into the flour and then stirring in the sugar.
11. Scatter the crumble topping over the cake, and bake for 30 mins.
12. Turn down the oven to 160 degrees centigrade and bake for a further 30 mins. Leave to cool in the tin. (This cake needs to be kept in the fridge because it is moist).

Life in the vegetarian cafe where I work is busy and full-on for most of the day. See us at 4.30pm, when we all sit down together for a cup of tea, and you might be forgiven for thinking that we live the life of Reilly; but come earlier at lunchtime and you would see why we earn our cup of tea. In the midst of all this busyness, there is a small and caring community who look after and support each other constantly. Each one of us has 'issues'/family/home life problems. The great thing about the mill is that every problem is important. When I needed to change a shift because of a school inset day, someone immediately offered to swap. Some of our older cooks can't run up and down steps with hot meals, so they bake or tend to something on the stove.

At the moment I am carrying a torn tendon in my arm (which will take about four months to heal I'm told). Not working isn't really an option, so we work around it. I don't carry heavy trays back. Last week I made soda bread rolls and scones. The right hand compensates for the weak left one constantly. And yet we manage, somehow.

I think, 'Is this how it is, day in day out, for so many people in our society who have to live with their disability?' Like everything, it's not until life knocks you, yet again, that you realise truly just how much you take for granted. You can say it. You can even think it, sometimes; but how often do we really get inside those shoes and understand just what it actually means?

Of course, all this isn't much use when it comes to playing your fiddle at the pub - but then you can't have everything, I suppose.

Love Martha x

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

Sunday 2 December 2018

March of The Mince Pies

Dear Nigel,

Why cook at Christmas time when the farmers markets are heaving with so much of somebody else's homemade produce? Why indeed. And yes, I did pick up a lovely jar of fig and cinnamon chutney at the Christmas market at Chatsworth the other day - I am no different to anyone else. So cooking and baking for Christmas has got to be about something else; something undefinable but meaningful to you.

Each year I let the girls take charge of mince pie making. Like a machine, they knock out dozens and we freeze them in boxes to always have something in for friends and family calling. But often I am so busy cooking elsewhere that I opt for a 'quality' jar of mincemeat instead of making my own: just one more chore to add to the list, I tell myself. But this year I find I want to make less but 'more' - more meaning to the things I choose. I want to sit down to a glass of sloe gin and a mince pie that tastes different - one that I know and can taste has been made lovingly at home. There were some fine examples at the fair, to be sure, but I am looking for the space that goes into the taste - before you bite in - that whistles memories through your head, half-heard carols and laughter and voices echoing from all points of your past, all zooming in to that split-second gap, and gone in a trice as the taste bursts over your taste buds and you are back in the present once more.

The making of the mincemeat fills a quiet evening for Sophie and I. We listen to music and weigh and stir in a relaxed manner, talking about nothing in particular in muted voices. It is very pleasant, calm and a lovely thing to do together. I light candles and the cat crawls over to sleep on the wooden chair. She sleeps on a woollen cushion that is her favourite. I made it from a sleeveless fair isle top that I never wore, and did up the buttons and sewed into a cushion cover. For the cat, it turns out. She is as languid as we are; like mercury stretched along a bench she melds. Would that we could all relax that deeply, as a cat.

The recipe we follow for the mincemeat is your 'Classic brandy mincemeat' (pg 65). You are obviously in a more philosophical mood too as you make your own mincemeat. You say, 'the task takes barely an hour. I spin it out because I like the smell that is filling the kitchen. The scent of Christmases, past. Better than that, of Christmas to come.'
As I sit here munching on one of the 'rejects', I realise how different it is to the mincemeat I have made in latter years. I am used to a heavily orange and cinnamon based mincemeat (no idea who's recipe), but this is like the ones I remember from years and years ago - more appley and with a more balanced spice base of clove and nutmeg too. It is heavier on the tradition front, and, with all the new 'interpretations' of the mince pie that seem to pop up everywhere, and on every supermarket shelf, I have almost forgotten the taste. I grind the cloves in a pestle and mortar and they shine through the gentle apple.

Like my children, the best part of Christmas for me comes before. It is the whole tingle factor that drew you to write 'The Christmas Chronicles'. The lighting of the Advent candle, paper calendars with doors without chocolates (or expensive bottles of perfume and Gin these days, I see! - another marketing opportunity)

So in this vein we like to go and watch the switching on of the Christmas lights. This year, in the neighbouring town of Ashbourne. We take my second son, Chris, his fiancee and my baby Grandson Leo. There is no TV star or minor celebrity to turn on the lights; just Santa and his real remarkably well-behaved reindeer. They pose for pictures with children young and old and Santa forgets to ask Sophie what she'd like for Christmas. She is unimpressed by this, but they seem to be sharing a private joke anyway.

Ashbourne is a lovely sleepy little town, come alive with a few dotted strings of lights and a huge Christmas tree in the
market place, on the cobbles. The girls go shopping with a long list of presents to buy and very little cash. They are very inventive, my children - a useful trait Santa would do well to emulate in this age of austerity - he may be feeling the pinch too.

The older children go off Christmas shopping for themselves, instead. This is what adults do, I notice. They go out shopping for other people and come back with a stack of goodies for themselves. Advertising in the shops encourages us to 'Treat yourself' - why? Is no one going to buy you a present this year?

I start making the Christmas cards with a photograph taken this time last year. We
were Knee deep in snow in a Winter Wonderland scene. There were sledges and woolly jumpers and a small baby kitten wrapped in the warmth inside, nestling down beside the fire. This year it's been blanket fog lately and hard to feel in the mood for Christmas, at times. I travel over to the candle lady in Tissington who refills my candle bowls for me each year, and there is blanket white fog, like a scene from a Sherlock Holmes serial. Murder in
Tissington. You can almost hear the horses hooves as the carriage swings round the corner and in through the main gates of the Hall to Sir Richard FitzHerbert. My children like this annual pilgrimage because there is a wonderful old fashioned sweet shop tucked up a little lane, like stepping into 1940s. David, who owns 'Edward and Vintage' is usually wearing exactly the kind of tank top I made into a cushion, and other 1940s regalia. We love it, and David is always very attentive to some of his most regular little customers. The Internet is great because it allows small rural businesses like these to survive when 'passing trade' is a poor joke.

Stuart delivers a load of logs for the woodshed and I spend a happy morning stacking them and saving the bark wrappings that flake off for kindling.

Dinner tonight is an old favourite of yours from a few years back that I make often. It is 'Lamb stuffed sweet potatoes'. The sweet potatoes are baked and the filling of minced lamb, onion, red chilli and fresh mint leaves has become a regular mid-week highlight in this house. Will, particularly, asks for it when he comes over. It is a recipe where using the right ingredient - ie. lamb mince and not beef - makes all the difference. It is an ideal dish to keep out the damp and the London smog and the clopping of horses hooves...

Love Martha x

Friday 26 October 2018

Opening the Page on 'The Christmas Chronicles'

Dear Nigel,

Christmas may be the highlight, placed centre stage, but this Season of Slumber is like a comfort blanket that you snuggle into and bed down in until the change of light. It starts with the first 'icy prickle across your face', as if a frosted bejewelled spider has traced a distant memory across your cheek.

You can sense a coming home with the trickle of falling leaves; and in the damp and pungent scent that rises as you sink your Wellington boots into the piles of leafy softness. Pretty fungi, frilling over themselves to decorate a rotting bough, trees eager to outdo each other in their display of fanfare colour, like peacocks in their vanity.

And home to Home, and warmth, and fire, and cocoa, and thick socks and blankets tossed on sofas. We line our underground caves like little moles, put by provisions for a hard and long hibernation - even if there is a supermarket at the end of the road. Such urges come from the past, from the part of our genes that we share with other creatures of the earth, more primitive than primitive man, more unknown than the memories and habits we realise.

And in this vein, Sophie and I are out in Biggin dale (one of the lesser known, and certainly less frequented dales around here). We are picking sloes from the old bushes in the depths of the valley, tucked away behind other trees, fruiting in their dimness, gathering the richness of the soil at this point and converting it into bluish purple berries. We pick solidly, peacefully for a good couple of hours. Not a soul is to be heard. The valley has sunk into a late afternoon peacefulness, and the therapeutic pulling and dropping into plastic boxes is the only sound, broken by the occasional random thought or comment. It is good to be immersed in this shared venture.

At home, I freeze the sloes to simulate a frost, so that they will bleed. I lean over to see what you are up to and find that you are making your favourite winter drink, damson gin, so that, like us, it will be ready to drink by Christmas. For you, it is a pile of damsons in a basket at the greengrocer's. For us, the Christmas baubles of blue and purple dotted at random over a tree.

I take the sloes out, cover them in sugar and gin in large glass jars, and daily I give them a shake and watch them bleed. There is plenty here - more than we will need (I hope!) and I will squirrel some away when they are bottled for next year, when they will taste even better.

Last night I finished the last drop of a damson gin that my brother had made for me. He died ten years ago, this year. And each year since I have taken a tiny etched green glass and toasted him, outside, late at night, with a milky moon and stars untainted by any streetlights.

And Winter is like that: A time to toast the treasures of our past, to remember, to assimilate the feelings that another year has laid over the old. We are like trees; each year we make another ring around ourselves. We are not the same as we were the year before. We move forward, continuously, and so this season of retraction is a very necessary one. Without it we would run aimlessly in all directions, following sunbeams and the edges of rainbows.

Feeling better after having made the sloe gin, I find that I want to start making something for the freezer, to put away. There is always that first long intake of breath before I am able to start. And though I love the season I can't quite put my finger on why this unease is there. And then last night it came to me; it is a feeling of shapelessness about this year's Christmas, which unnerves me. Like someone has handed you a present tied with string and you can't find the end to untie. Once I have started it is paint on a canvas, before that it is simply a formless ghost.

So I start with the recipe which is not a recipe. At least, to me it is a cheat and not a proper recipe at all, and I feel embarrassed to put it down. And yet, for all that, it is the number one requested recipe by all my children (bar the youngest), and has to be made every year without fail. And, though my friends and acquaintances who have dined on a bowl of this, would not find themselves presenting Michelin stars to anyone, all have raved about this particular recipe, whilst I hide almost shame-faced behind my apron.

Smoked Salmon Soup

50g butter
2 large onions
2 tbsp plain flour
300g smoked salmon pieces (I use 'trimmings' as these are so much cheaper and quite adequate in this recipe)
300g garlic and herb Boursin cheese
4 pints of fish stock

1. Melt the butter in a soup pan.
2. Chop the onions and fry gently until soft but not brown.
3. Add the flour and stir until it bubbles.
4. Add the stock a little at a time and stir continuously.
5. Bring to the boil. Take off the heat and stir in the soft cheese and smoked salmon.
6. Cook gently for 5 minutes and then blend until smooth.

In our house it is usually Boxing Day soup. But this year I have also whittled a small box away for a small quiet lunch for two on a perfectly quiet midwinter day.

I have been cooking elsewhere too. In a new job - a vegetarian cafe at an old converted flour mill near Bakewell. It is a wonderfully idyllic spot where you can gaze out of large picture windows at fields of sheep with ducks on the river swimming nonchalantly past, and the clanging of a blacksmith across the yard, working with iron as if it were toffee being pulled over a hook.

It is a good place to be, busy and thriving, yet calm and peaceful. We are 'staff heavy' and so, although it is very busy, no one is allowed to get stressed. We are all close as friends, taking up the slack when it is needed by another; and treating staff and customers as equals. My lunch is as important as theirs. Everyone eats the very best in home cooking - and it is just like home cooking. And it is good to share light-hearted banter with customers who have given themselves the time to sit somewhere lovely and eat the colourful lunches and salads that we provide.

Supper today needs to be hearty and simple. More than anything else I crave
warm food, warm drink. I want to try and keep off those creeping winter pounds that hide under baggy jumpers until the Spring, but the season feels against me.

So, looking through your book for a recipe to fill the gap, I find one for 'Leeks, beans and Italian sausage' (page 42). The leeks are steamed and blended to a cream and mixed with the beans. I make this dinner for my friend and I and am mildly concerned for the lack of a potato, frankly. In much the way I once felt about the vegetarian meal missing a bit of meat, I find my conditioning and upbringing looking for the baked potato in this recipe. But I keep faith with you, and we eat, and it is plentiful and filling. The creamed leeks have become 'the
mashed potato' element in my mind. And I have learnt something new today. I am satiated, but not bloated by starch, replete and content. This very simple recipe has made a mark on me. I am changing the way that I choose to eat, so that the conscious slips into the unconscious pattern of things.

My friends Elspeth and Paul over at the 'Dove Valley Centre' near Longnor, put a free event on each year on Apple Day. We take some new friends with us this year to show them what the sharing of the riches is all about.

As you might expect, Apple Day is everything about apples. There is pressing, and peeling, and drinking and
eating. People bring apples for identification, or boxes of them for pressing and bottling. There are apply crafts for children, Creeping Toad the storyteller, and someone has brought a slide show of the barn owls nesting in the eves of his barn on the moors.

The cakes are warm apple cakes, dates and apple crumble slice - some are lovely, some are so so. All are free to eat, and freely donated by volunteers and visitors. It is a celebration of the season. And though, this year, the weather puts paid to the usual storytelling on hay bales outside under a fine crab apple tree, and the splendid walks in the orchard, people have come knowing what to expect, and expecting to have a good time. And so
they do. I make a mental note to take along some kind of slice next year - my children and their friends seem to have made up for any shortfall caused by a hurried lunch and I shepherd them off upstairs to the barn owl slide show before they polish off the whole table. I am pleasantly gratified to find that they are entranced by this simple slide show of barn owls flying in and out of a small hole, and the enthusiasm of the old man showing it. I have visions of sneaking them out mid-showing when their boredom threshold is reached (these children of the Internet age). But they have proved me wrong. Again.

Walks in the dales are routine at the moment. As long as the Autumn
sunshine lasts and I have a scarf around my neck and good boots on there is a reason to be out there; to be away from the stifling indoors. We will see enough of it soon when the light goes.

The River Dove flows on through many different dales, and different walks I do catch it at different points. Today my walk takes me down the sharp sloping paths of Gypsy bank from the village of Alstonefield to a tiny bridge across the Dove. There is a resident heron here, fishing in the weirs. It is a prize spot this, known for its fine trout fishing. One bank seems almost permanently privately owned, the other footpathed. Fishermen and herons are frequently seen involved in the same sport. There are 177 weirs on

this stretch of the Dove alone. Most of them built in 1920s and 1930s for keen anglers to stock bigger trout.

The heron is breezy about my presence, much too intent on his sport. I am a minor annoyance to him. If he thinks I am getting too close he simply hops down to the next weir. And this way we follow each other down this stretch of the river.

Further upstream (another day, another walk) I glimpse a little of the Fishing Temple between the shedding trees. Here, where Beresford Hall once stood high above Beresford Dale, where
Charles Cotton once lived, there is a tiny garden building tucked away in the trees down by the river, where he used to entertain his friend Izaak Walton, who wrote probably the most famous fishing book ever written: 'The Compleat Angler', in 1653. There is a trout on the weather vein. And the new owner - a keen fisherman it is believed - has plans to restore it to its former glory. History is everywhere you place your look.

The dale can be creepy here when the light starts to fade. It is damp and mossy. The trees are like the Green Man waving their angry arms at you and charging through the undergrowth. There is a greater assortment of fungi distributed
here than I have noticed elsewhere. And this is surely the right time of year to come and observe. Some, like the spinal pages of a book, others with cloche hats tightly pulled down over their pinned curls, and some almost like ric-rac braiding on a vintage 1970s child's dress (-yes, I feel entitled to call all my childhood dresses, the bulk of them whipped up by my Granny on her ancient black Singer, 'vintage' these days. It makes your childhood into a kind of rich plum jam, preserved and richer than the fruit that made it, somehow).

And so I return home to the best part of the walk which is the homecoming. When there is a certain glow in your cheek and an inner warmth which toasts
you as you slip into over-thick socks that you couldn't wear anywhere else, an over-sized jumper rather than put the heating on (and here I see you prefer to do the same), and spend a few minutes on my knees in reverent prayer with handfuls of kindling, knots of rolled newspaper (something my boss showed me recently and which is a revelation in fire building to me).

Halloween is in the air. My friends are preparing to celebrate Samhain and we are off up to Mum's and a wonderful family party at Chillingham Castle, open to all, which has just the right element of ghosts and dungeons and atmospheric lighting. We are taking pumpkins with us to carve the day before - they never seem to last very long once this is done. I have noticed giant ones in the supermarket lately and they have made me smile. Just to see such gluttony in nature reminds me that we are all capable of over-indulgence, pumpkins included. I will search for other suppers like the creamed leeks that balance fullness without heaviness, I think.

You are busy outside again, sweeping the leaves into net sacks to rot down for leaf mould. I feel a bit guilty that I have done the same today, except my leaves have gone off to the council recycling in the brown bin. I think we are lucky here in that we each have a full-sized dustbin, taken fortnightly, purely for garden waste. It is council-long sightedness, for once, for they see that people living here DO want to keep their environment nice, for themselves, as well as for visitors. In an area dominated by tourism this free work is in the council's best interest. So local people do mow the verges they have no need to mow, scoop up channels of leaves at the side of our pathless lanes, and prune and chop where needed. There is a giving - back, in the mowing of the churchyard, or the tending of flower tubs in the centre. Invisible fingers at work, requiring no additional praise. Mainly, it is the older members of the community, those with time to spare. But I have noticed younger ones taking things on, often to ease the burden from an older relative, and anchoring themselves further in their community. Life is coming full circle for us all, like the year, entering its waning phase.

Love Martha x

Tuesday 18 September 2018

'That time of Year'

Dear Nigel,

         'That time of year thou mayst in me behold
          When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
          Upon those boughs which shake against the cold.'

                                                     (from Sonnet 73 by William Shakespeare)

There is a richness to Autumn which is a gathering of harvest, both in life and in nature. In all the tiny churches dotted around the hillsides here, Harvest Festivals are being planned - a big thing in small communities which are so heavily dominated by farming and dependent upon the weather. Our most widely read newspaper out here in the sticks is our 'Village and Community Magazine' which keeps us all in touch. And, being a small community with many people related to one another, there is a very personal angle to much of its contents. We all really want to know 'stuff' without appearing to be nosey - not an easy balance to get right at times.

In the hedgerows there is richness aplenty; rich colours just starting to tinge the trees beautiful shades of carmine and ochre. They parade down the catwalk in their (as yet) abundant outer garments, sweeping their fur coats in our direction, batting their eye lashes saying "look at me, in all my beauty".

And beauties they are with their clusters of tightly packed nuts in sea urchin wrapping; and small pixies' teacups (- as my Grandpa would have it in his lengthy rambling bedtime stories -) with a shiny acorn in each. Berries blaze in bushes everywhere on Hawthorns dotted along the country lanes as we drive off heading towards Chatsworth.

I am taking my eldest daughter Hannah out for the day before she heads off to China again for another year or more's teaching and travelling. The Peak District is holding its head high proclaiming its right ALSO to be visited. (All those years of being brought up and living in the countryside and it seems she only learns to appreciate it by going abroad to see someone else's trees and hills!)

The rains have greened up the hill tops which were parched and bleached only a few weeks ago. The over-abundance of berries everywhere is the plants' response to stress caused by drought. I cannot be the only one to have noticed that this year the Blackberries are HUGE. At first I thought it must be a cultivated plant that had seeded itself by the stream, but no, they are everywhere. A friend of mine made the same remark about the apples on his tree - not the largeness of them but the sheer quantity of apples on each bough. Too much so, in fact; they left each other short of growing space.

I note that the early sign of Autumn colour is also related to drought, whereas once I had thought it purely temperature dependent. Andrea Thompson, writing in the 'Scientific American' in 2016, says that 'severe drought during the growing season tends to cause trees to begin to turn colour early and not last as long.'
So, we'll enjoy it whilst we can.

Back home I am in soup mode again. Apart from a blip in the hot Summer months, it is my comfort food of choice, particularly for lunch times. I like to think it is keeping me in trim; but in truth all the best soups seem to involve a large dollop or two of double cream.

Butternut Squash, Apricot and Ginger Soup

2 Butternut Squash
2 tsp fresh root ginger (finely chopped)
100g dried Apricots (diced)
2 Onions (sliced)
700ml Vegetable stock
A knob of butter
8 tbsp double cream

1. Melt the butter in a soup pan
2. Add the onions and ginger and cook gently for 10 mins.
3. Add the Butternut Squash, Apricots and Stock.
4. Season to taste
5. Bring to the boil and simmer (covered) for 30 mins.
6. Blend until smooth.
7. Stir in the double cream and reheat gently and serve.

note: I bought some 'sun-dried' Organic dried Apricots over the Internet from Hatton Hill Organics. They are a darker looking apricot with an intense honey/caramel taste to them. And, added to this soup they give a wonderful extra dimension to the taste. I have tried it with ordinary apricots as well, and this tastes nice too, but I can whole-heartedly recommend searching out the sun-dried type, particularly for this recipe.
This being the time of year when squashes and pumpkins come into their own, I thought I would also give you my favourite soup recipe, which is also based on the Butternut squash. I find that the texture that this squash gives to soup is such a lovely velvety one that it finds its way into countless of my recipes.

And these days the soup recipes are requiring a book all to themselves as I find it hard to keep track of my favourites. I see friends downloading recipes or printing them off, but for me there is something sacred about a piece of paper. The recipe books may be dog-eared and stained, my written journals have scribbles and amendments and underlinings (mainly about the time involved or the cost of certain ingredients). But I can look back and see old friends who dropped in to visit, family members home for a brief stay, or lovely sunny Autumn days out with a flask of soup, a wet dog and something hot wrapped in foil. All these come flooding back as I turn the pages. Hopefully, it is the same for you as well.

Sweet Potato, Butternut Squash and Smoked Chilli Soup

50g Butter
2 cloves of Garlic
500g Sweet Potato (diced)
2 small Butternut Squash (diced)
2 tsp. Smoked Paprika
2 red chillis (diced)
1.5 litres Vegetable Stock
4 tsp wholegrain mustard
2 tbsp Parmesan (grated)
250ml. double cream
salt and pepper

1. Melt the butter in a soup pan.
2. Add the garlic, sweet potato and butternut squash, stir, cover and cook for 10 mins.
3. Add the smoked paprika and chilli. Cook for one minute.
4. Add the stock and bring to the boil.
5. Simmer for 20 mins.
6. Stir in the mustard and Parmesan.
7. Blend until smooth.
8. Add the cream and season to taste.......(I told you all the best soups have cream in them...)

We are not the only ones enjoying the last of the Summer sunshine as it fades into Autumn. The Butterflies are out everywhere, covering the Buddleia bushes and fanning out their wings against the stone walls of the cottage to catch the last of the sun's rays as they gather in the Summer. Soon they will be hammering on the windows to get in and hibernate in the beams. And then, on a Winter's day, most likely when the heating is on and we are sitting down to eat, they will all waken and dance around our heads like some ethereal fairyland picture by Cicely Mary Barker (her of 'The Flower fairies' fame).

The garden has been allowed to claim its own and an invisible gardener has been to work with his maverick hands,
covering the herb garden in a sprinkling of self-sown poppies, all taking the opportunity of the mild weather to flower immediately. They lend a pattern of their own.

And over in the vegetable patch there are Lolla Rosa lettuces which have bolted and sent up corkscrews of deep red and green frilly leaves, standing proud against a swag of curtain cascading over the path, of peas and pods left unpicked.

The Autumn fruiting Raspberries are ripening now like faceted rubies hidden under their briar leaves. Sophie picks and eats them all before there is hope for a pudding. It is a child's privilege to pilfer and scrump, and a right of passage every child should taste. How are we otherwise to instill a memory of a taste without the memory? A punnet from the Supermarket will not sit in its place. I see my job as a Mother as a dropper of honey. This is what I want them to be left with, long after everything else is gone. It is part of their harvest, part of the collective harvest that we all share that forms our collective memories, our culture and our understanding. The reason we anticipate and savour the Season is because of this Harvest of stored memories. It is 'the Best Season'; just as each Season is the Best Season as we enter it.

Love Martha x