One year on

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IMG_8200I started with soft fruits. My first blog post back in the UK was on red gooseberries. Lovely in their brown paper bag from the greengrocer in Seaford (in East Sussex), the man with the curly hair and always a kind word. He is also the butcher. Joe approached him as he was carrying a palette of unskinned rabbits. Are they wild? He asked. ‘Wild?’ he replied. ‘They were furious’. He sold me the red gooseberries and invited me to live in Seaford; ‘seeing as you’re here all the time’. The sea is a big draw. And the wildness all around. It’s hard to know where to start.

There’s the ferry, yellow and bulky like a child’s drawing, on its interminable route to Dieppe. Hard to believe it ever gets there. There’s the sun, the sound of the waves crashing and drawing back all night. The fishermen pitching their tents, sleeping in salty skin and itchy sheets. That’s me. The gulls and their grey babies. Clutches of apples already visible from the train. Bramleys, but still.

People have died. People die! I still find this hard to grasp. Every time I walk past Elm Villas and get a snatch of yellow wall I remember great friends who lived there and who are now both scattered over the cliff tops that just recently were covered in pink thrift. It was the house where I learnt about Jane Grigson and how pudding could be two tubs of ice cream from the Co-op and a cup of mint tea. Now the house belongs to someone else and already the furniture strikes me as ill-advised. Their magic has gone. And their magnificent kitchen table and all their books. But mostly it’s them that I miss.

I don’t actually live here. This is my mum’s place, but it’s where I come when I need it. It’s where lots of serendipitous things have happened. The place is full of rememberers – people remember Dirk Bogarde when he lived here, they remember Winston Churchill’s school days. They know – and I do too – where Grayson Perry lives. There are a lot of closet bohemians, because we are after all within thrashing distance of London. And yet, I think you couldn’t be further away. Particularly when you hear someone pronouncing it Sea-ford. I like the cafes – there are five good ones, all worth going to. IMG_8245

What I have learned, one year on, is that July is curiously the end. Now that I am a gardener in the most rudimentary way I know that this bit of summer is when the inevitable decline into Autumn begins. Things are yellowing now, they bolt and go to seed the minute your back is turned. It is the season of collecting what you’ve grown (and eating other people’s apples) and watering what is still to be harvested – in my case, a profusion of beans and squash. There are apricots from English trees which you must eat immediately, or face comparisons with blissful ones from the Med or California.

One year on: I held a two day old baby, my arms numb from the sheer surprising weight of her, so I laid her on the bed and stared at her little twitching mouth. In the corner of the window, in a different house in Seaford, higher up the town, was the sea. The mother, my friend, was the original recipient of that goosegog pudding. Red gooseberries that made their way underneath a terrifyingly ethereal mass of Genoese sponge.

But it all worked out in the end. She’d been born in the corner of the room and, like the party with the pudding and the wild dancing, the place was now, still, full of people, children running in and out, sudden decisions to go to the beach. I was at some point mistaken for the midwife. When the real midwife arrived, I went for the train that took me back to Clapham Junction, not wanting to lose the newborn scent (honey and yeast, I thought) and the sight of her perfect Cupid’s bow mouth. So anyway, one year on, see if you can get yourself some red gooseberries. Jane Grigson’s recipe is one I would recommend. And enjoy what’s left of summer. IMG_7741

Trip to Suffolk, 1974

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IMG_7956I went to Suffolk and must write it all down before I forget, although much of the information was complex and hard to follow, compelling, beautifully described, but opaque. A bit like snooker, a game I love to watch precisely because I have no idea at all what is going on. I took a lot of photos. And if you want the science of it all, I would not be remotely offended if you went elsewhere.

I will however, as Noel Coward once advised, press on. This is a field of rape, and that is Sam Fairs, the owner of the field. It is mainly past flowering now (the spectacular yellow blossoms come in mid April to the end of May), so you are looking at the seeds housed in these long green pods. The seeds are the thing – they are pressed for their oil, on site. They are cold-pressed. A bit later, we went to watch this cold-pressing and the smell was interesting; yeasty, hops-ish, reminiscent of linseed. Sam and his family also grow winter wheat, winter barley, borage, marrowfat peas, but we weren’t here for that.

We were here for the rapeseed and its oil. I had already had an introduction to Hillfarm Oils (Sam and Clare Fairs’ extra virgin cold-pressed rapeseed oil) because I had been invited some months before to a meal where everything had been cooked using it. We even had the seeds speckled over custard for pudding – chalky, black things, tasting of dust and the outside. We had rape greens too. But I was amazed mainly by the colour of the oil – yellow, as if you could melt buttercups – and the flavour which everyone tells you is nutty and that is really the only word. Rich, nutty, warm, slightly grassy and always different, because like olive trees, there will be subtle differences in flavour based on the soil, the terroir, the weather. It’s our olive oil is probably the best way to look at it, we have it here and it grows brilliantly, though pigeons can be a menace.IMG_7949 The objective of any plant is to reproduce. This is apparently our objective too (As Sam put it, ‘growing more of me’.) When it comes to the rape plant, the oil is there to protect the seed, so it can do that, so it can carry on, so it can throw itself about. The farmer’s job is to capture it, harness it, pressing the seed to get the oil out. The way it was described it felt tantamount to murder. But in a good way. It made me think about what I was stepping on, what I might be killing mindlessly, where I am in the scheme of things. That plants are like me.

To return to the rape fields for a minute – they are presently green and house families of foxes that you can never see. There are butterflies, bees and insects. Come harvest time, the rapeseed pods will be brown and shatteringly fragile. But for now it is an endlessly waving green sea and all I wanted to do was run headlong into the midst of it, get lost and miss lunch. IMG_7937

Although I’m glad I didn’t because lunch was ice cream, scotch eggs, smoked mackerel and other exceptional cold collations, all locally produced, and later from the Cakeshop Bakery focaccia made with (actually doused is the word) rapeseed oil, speckled with crunchy salt, and an amazing root cake (below), made with beetroot, carrots, and the oil again. It was all really delicious. We ate it sitting in the Fairs’ garden. The tree behind us housed a family of little owls. There were bats living in an outbuilding nearby and house martins somewhere behind me, under the roof. The next day we even saw a murmuration of starlings as we passed round a Blythburgh piglet and the sky turned dark above us.IMG_8036

There are no motorways here in this part of Suffolk and no out-of-town supermarkets, no superstores. There are hardly any chains at all. The doughty and magnificent Caroline Cranbrook saw off Tesco more or less singlehandedly some years ago. So for two days it was like living in 1974, but with our modern sensibility for a flat white and the urgency for soya milk.

At the hotel, there was no internet reception – it was down for the whole evening – and we created our own murmuration, swirling around in the lobby trying to ‘find’ a signal. Until we gave up and gave in to the deliciousness of being untraceable for a whole evening and a whole night. In the morning, we talked about life before phones over scrambled eggs. What did we do? It is almost unthinkable now, a childhood with no signal, no texts, boredom, back at dusk or before dinner. What about work? People wandered off in singles or twos to take photographs or walk to Framlingham Castle, phones waving in the wind. Suddenly ten texts, endless vibrating, cheers etc.

Later we were deposited back to the station at Darsham, to the branch line taking us to Ipswich and then to London Liverpool Street where modernity, mobile phones, Boots and angry people in a hurry eating crisps awaited us. We said our goodbyes and dispersed into the melée. Tired and full of pork and cake, but happy.IMG_7959

Thank you to Polly at Food Safari for organising this wonderful trip.

The growing season

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IMG_7855I have an allotment. It’s ‘five rod’ which is 125 square metres and it has known better days. Waving weeds, a broken greenhouse, a shed, three pairs of Wellington boots that are sprouting wild flowers or hold stagnant pools of rainwater. The wellies start from small, a three year old I’d say, to adult. And there is something sad about them, the way they are standing to attention against the shed wall. As if something happened that I’d rather not know about. Whoever she is, she left me some tomato fertilizer, a book on allotments, a watering can and a small parcel of the blackest soil replete with worms. There is also a gooseberry bush, some errant raspberry canes, a flattened bombed-looking mass of rhubarb. A barbeque. It’s almost a friendship. And some bolting tomatoes.

Nothing more is known. Of course I said yes. We’ve been here eight months! I had put my name down, and then forgotten all about it; no one now gets an allotment. There’s a waiting list. It’s like that scene in The Kids Are Alright, where a gorgeous gamine woman carries a basket of freshly mown sprouts from the vegetable garden to a lopsided trestle table to be turned into some kind of micro feast for the bistro where she’s shagging the owner. But here I am shaking hands with a tall, white-haired man, and he’s telling me about cherry trees. About the trio of fruit trees behind the plot I’ve chosen which has similarly been left to grow wild. They wouldn’t belong to me, and there’d be no point transplanting them, because they’re damaged in some way he can’t quite explain; they’ve been left to range, to grow too high, one has been inexpertly ravaged with a saw or some cutting implement and stands dwarfed.

There’s something incredibly exciting about a fruit tree. It implies permanence in a way that a line of onions or potatoes doesn’t. Also a tree is beautiful, its blossom giving way to the fruit. Every year it will come back. Fruit that can be pilfered and pocketed, guzzled round the back of the shed, or turned into a clafoutis, or tipped into an almond cake. You can sit under a fruit tree and drink tea and read a book.IMG_7849

I threw some netting over part of the cherry tree I could reach, so that there might be some left after the birds and started pulling up weeds with my hands. I can’t yet draw up a plan. If I had a plan, then it would be a job, a task. And already with allotments, there is that whiff of slight tyranny. You have to maintain ‘your’ path which is always to the right of your plot. You need to decide whether to go down the route of mesh and bark chippings, or cutting it like a lawn. This made me sweat a bit, and so did their pack of instructions for planting from north to south, to dig or not to dig, rotovating, the price of manure. I was to look out for prehistoric flint tools. I was advised to plant spuds the first year. There is a man near me whose plot is all potatoes; they ride over hills of earth looking wholesome and uniform.

I was thinking more along the lines of thyme and lavender and nasturtium because it reminds me of those slopes in LA rampant with their dusty colour and floppy leaves. Sorrel. What else: fruit that can be picked when ripe (blackcurrants!), a swathe of colourful Califormian poppies for ease and because they like neglect and a dusty ditch. Tomatoes that can feel the sun. Basically I’d like a mulberry tree.

But first it’s a place to come. At the moment there is a wicker chair which when you sit on it gradually subsides so you are actually just sitting on the earth – from here I can be quite invisible and watch the woman mowing her path, the (possibly lesbian?) couple bending over their plants. The train rattles by. The man who said something disparaging about my grass is hiding behind a wigwam of sweet peas. I am using a child’s digging fork at the moment; it’s pink and sits jauntily in the earth in front of me. I may or may not get back to work.IMG_7910

Roasted rhubarb

This is from Mark Diacono’s book A Taste of the Unexpected. He’s the one who tells you to plant Szechuan Pepper and quince and something called Oca. His books are glorious and so are his recipes. He also says ‘you can be a neglectful, even abusive, carer of rhubarb. It is quite hard to kill off.’ Result.

500g rhubarb (trimmed & cut into 5cm pieces)
65g caster sugar
Zest and juice of a small orange

Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas 6. Put the trimmed and chopped rhubarb into a roasting tin, toss with the caster sugar and the finely grated zest of the orange. Arrange in a single layer and then pour over the orange juice. Cover the dish with foil and roast in the oven for 15-20 minutes. Then remove the foil, give it all a good stir and put back in the oven (sans foil) for another 15 ish minutes until tender and syrupy and starting to disintegrate. Lovely with Greek yoghurt or cream or ice cream and an ‘independent crumble’ – see Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall for this.

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Delight in the dish

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This is ricotta pudding from Elizabeth David’s book Is there a Nutmeg in the House? The book is blue and there is somewhere on it a picture of quinces. In a heretical gesture, I added some dark chocolate, masquerading as raisins. I’m fairly sure that ED would not have approved. She would have spoken sharply. And of my decision to throw in some Feta, to substitute strained Greek yoghurt, to add honey, as I have done occasionally, she would have regarded me coolly. I would have known this was not wise from the dip in temperature in the room. It’s no surprise to me that she’d been an actress and had come to her writing life after failure in that department. I’ve always loved her writing; the recipe here for ricotta pudding (budino di ricotta) is simple and feels quite underwritten, basic almost. There is none of the hand holding we have now in cookery books. My mother remembers her kitchen shop in Pimlico in the sixties, remembers meeting her there, and watched as ED wrapped in tissue paper a present for my grandmother, to be shipped off later to Sydney.

I don’t know what lives in its place. It was an odd time then, hard to define when you haven’t lived it, but stories abound of London in the late Fifties, the Sixities. In fact it all seemed to be going so well – London was this beatnik, makeshift place of eternal, random, spontaneous parties, according to my mother. ED appeared to be the only vaguely sniffy one there. But it was nice of her to wrap my mother’s present. She was very opinionated, that’s all. There was another figurehead at the time who gets talked of – Robert Carrier. Just before I was born, my parents owned a flat in Camden Passage, close to his restaurant. I think back then, you could afford to be a bit arbitrary and eccentric about food and flounce about a bit. Because people didn’t know about ratatouille and ricotta. These things came from the Continent, which a lot of people hadn’t explored in any great depth. And there had been rationing. My mother knew more than most only because she had done the six week boat journey from Sydney, part of the first Push that included Clive James, Barry Humphries etc. and had stopped off along the way.

She stayed in a brothel in Naples. But these are not my stories to tell. All I can tell you is how the book feels to read, and how it reminds me of the people who are still around, family friends in their eighties now and nineties, and how demure and evocative they can make an omelette seem. A collection of wooden spoons and other utensils are there not just for show. An aura of quiet descends in the room, there are no winking red lights, no computer leads, and I find myself becalmed. There’s the occasional sharpness, if I lose the thread of the conversation, overwhelmed by central heating in a small space. A telling off is part of the deal somewhere, sometimes I break a chair. But on the whole it’s a relief not to be modern for a while. The food is delicious, simple, frugal, effortless. There is delight in the dish, as below.IMG_7563 Ricotta pudding

Adapted from Elizabeth David, Is There A Nutmeg in the House?

I prefer strained Greek or Turkish yoghurt here to nasty supermarket ricotta. If you can find fresh, or even better if you can make it yourself, it will transform the dish. Ricotta is slightly drier, less silky than strained yoghurt. Not wishing to confuse, curd cheese is also lovely. I’m not imagining you’ll be as common as me and add chocolate, but if you have some raisins and some rum or marsala it’s a lovely addition. You can use honey here as well. And ground almonds instead of flour – ED does in her other cheese-cake recipes. She’s not here to tell you off.

100g raisins (optional)
4 tbsp rum
Butter, for greasing
3 tbsp plain flour (or ground almonds)
400g fresh ricotta or strained Greek or Turkish yoghurt
Pinch of sea salt
4 eggs
6 heaped tablespoons of caster sugar (or to taste)
Nutmeg
Grated zest of 1 lemon

Soak the raisins (if using) in the rum for a few hours until plump. Heat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Butter a 25cm plain cake tin or oven-proof dish of about 1.5 litre capacity.

Beat the ricotta or yoghurt until smooth. Beat in 1 whole egg and the three yolks, 4 heaped tablespoons of sugar, the salt, flour/almonds, the lemon zest, and a good grating of nutmeg. Use a whisk to get rid of any lumps. Finally, stir in the raisins, along with any rum left in the bowl.

Beat the egg whites until they hold soft peaks. Keep beating, gradually adding the remaining sugar, until you have a thick, glossy meringue that stays in the bowl if you hold it upside down. Stir a heaped tablespoonful of the meringue into the cheese mixture to loosen it, then lightly fold in the rest, keeping as much air in the mix as you can.

Pour into the prepared tin or dish and give it a gentle shake to level the surface. Bake for about 35 – 40 minutes, or until golden and set. Leave to cool to room temperature (it will sink – see above and below). Eat cold – perhaps with cream. Lovely with some sharp, honeyed rhubarb.IMG_7570

His favourite butter

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IMG_0130I have been cooking for a couple who live in Belgravia, and who spent twenty years in France and pronounce words – certain cheeses – with a proper French accent and when I was younger I found ths deeply unsettling until a friend told me how much she hated the way her Dutch friend pronounced the word Gouda. I am also cooking food from another time, when everyone ate cream daily. They are both slim and energetic older people who think nothing of eating a pudding every day, a gratin, cheese, bread, strong small coffee. Perhaps small is the key here, because occasionally they’ll remark on my portions and intimate that perhaps this is because of Joe’s rather gargantuan needs but in fact he is also a dainty eater. They like ice cream, tarts, pies, but in small amounts and eaten with style – at a highly decorative table in a room that I have seen but not yet entered.

“You can’t get food like this anymore”, the man said, as he passed me my ’empties’ from the previous day’s dishes – fish pie and lemon posset. “You can’t get it in a restaurant. Nobody makes this kind of food nowadays.” Dressed crab. Bisque. Onion tart. It’s true that no one quite eats like this. We are more timid perhaps. Shy of milk, the presence of Parmesan, nothing too florid, too lavish. “We love soufflés, Shepherd’s pie, sticky toffee pudding. No couscous.” These were my instructions delivered by phone and every day my journey takes me past that old London; Harrods with the bottle green awnings, the gold lettering, the Natural History Museum, the black railings everywhere, the white window boxes and lurid flowers. Big red buses. It’s hard not to feel a child again on the approach to Hyde Park Corner. You can imagine never seeing the same person twice. The doormen at the Wellesley. European women in varying shades of caramel, hair the same colour as their coats. IMG_0162 And then doing battle with that enormous roundabout. It’s probably not called a roundabout, but if you’re not already in the right lane, you find yourself going to Victoria station. Right in the centre is a bizarre series of enclosures impossible to navigate on foot. I’ve done it many times in the past and on every occasion have resorted to asking a stranger how to get across and together we have had a meltdown. I have never not had some sort of panic attack here. In fact it was while stranded under the Wellington Arch seven years ago that I decided to give up coffee. And always leave the house with at least ten pounds cash so I can hail a cab.

There’s possibly some Freudian impulse that has brought me back here, to a lilac mews seconds away. That and the money. I dropped off my portions today – smoked haddock in a mustard and Parmesan cream, homemade ice cream, chocolate sauce, ‘mocha-d up’, they said, approvingly. They love potatoes, so there’s them, new. And as I was leaving we talked about potted shrimp. He told me about his favourite butter only available in France. Jean-Yves Bordier. They both said it in a way I wouldn’t dare, with the breathful ease of two people who eat beurre and cheese every day of their lives. Who knew their French builders’ elegant coffee habits. And the life of weekly markets.IMG_0255 Occasionally I imagine that this is me – with my own favourite butter, for example. A liking for a specific farmer or greengrocer, someone who knows his peaches. I do actually: his name is Paul from Twickenham and he told me the other day about his grandma who made amazing rhubarb and strawberry crumbles for everyone and died sitting up, right there in the street on her stool, next to the fruit & veg. She was given a proper costermonger’s funeral with standing room only. But I wonder if that is sufficiently singular – whether it’s enough. It’ll have to do for now. I’m off to buy three tubs of cream and a tranche of Parmesan.

Food in books

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IMG_0027I’ve been away. From here, I mean. Though you may not have noticed, quite rightly. It’s been an interesting month, of reading books, one sometimes after the other, like the courses of a meal. And books that aren’t remotely about food or eating still contain passages that made me stop and want to write them down or pause. Logan Mountstuart, the writer in William Boyd’s novel Any Human Heart, eats dog food. First by mistake and then by choice, because it’s cheap and he’s now poor; he particularly likes the rabbit (‘especially with the liberal addition of some tomato ketchup and a good jolt of Worcestershire sauce’). This precipitates his move from London – leaving just as Margaret Thatcher becomes prime minister, 1979 –  to France. A ‘rich haul’ of ceps and girolles, an occasional mushroom omelette, two meals a day and wine and potato crisps at night. He dies, I believe happily, his body discovered in the garden by a friend ‘who had come to Cinq Cypres with the gift of a basket of apples’.

I was relieved when he left England, his cramped basement flat in Pimlico, and spent his last years in a ruin with a dog and a cat in France burning cherry logs, avoiding the spitting acacia, with pine ‘bringing up the rear’ and eating proper food. The end of a wild journey through the century.

This meal, the one pictured here, was largely taken up with talking about books. We ate at Rochelle Canteen in Shoreditch. I bumped into Ralph Fiennes picking over some oranges outside Leila’s Shop on the way there. It’s that kind of place (you can make your mind up what I mean by that…I like Ralph Fiennes. I like oranges. Perhaps it was the dark splendour of the interior of the shop itself that scared me). I felt more at ease with the van on the corner selling bacon baps and cups of tea the colour of malt. I don’t know what that says. And the old lady serving had yellow hair, like the colour of crayons. I’ve had more bacon baps in my life, and stewed tea (bag in) than hake, and laverbread butter, and apple galettes. I suppose that might be it.

Anyway, we ate the very refined food, as pictured, and talked about food writing. Or rather we rasped over the clamour of voices and general scraping of chairs, reduced to occasional semaphoring. What was that about Diana Henry? etc.IMG_0028 I am old, longing for quiet. And dare I say it, I’d rather read an actual book – a novel, or a memoir, a biography – than a cookbook, however learned. We all have to eat; a brilliant book will have stuff in it somewhere, about food, about the time, all in context and memorable.

I have no idea how Andrea Ashworth recalled with such detail the food of the 1970s, of her childhood in Manchester, in Once in a House on Fire. Terrible things happen to her, to her sisters and mother. Sometimes the bleakness and violence feels too sad to bear, but the details are poetry and she is a child again in the telling – Asda versus Kwik Save (Asda infinitely superior – ‘Kwik Save smelled of the weather’ ). When times are hard they eat boiled potatoes under ‘an avalanche of salt’ or Rich Tea biscuits sandwiched by ‘a glance of marg’ and wrapped in newspaper. When there’s a windfall there’s Country Life butter, real milk, ‘half a pound of white Cheshire cheese…grainy brown bread, Weetabix’. And then there’s whatever they’re given to eat or drink at the places they pitch up to in the middle of the night, on the run  from a crazed stepfather – hot Ribena in Auntie Pauline’s caravan.

Or this about her favourite refuge: ‘I found myself falling in love with the edge of Auntie Vera’s toast, where the crusts were always slightly burned and butter caught without melting, so you got a glob of it on your tongue’.

Or there’s this, for beautiful words, all on their own: ‘I missed our daytime television and the haunting half-whistle of The Clangers, hiding in moon craters, singing circles to each other through the big black – echoing without words.’ I could go on. Anyhow, it’s better than a cookbook in my view and leaves you feeling full. I hope you read it. The end.IMG_0034

Early Nigel

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IMG_7189 I recently went to visit my friend Claudia who I’ve known for 18 years and who lives in the wilds of North Essex. It is the sort of relationship where we often forget to be in touch, and because of the fact that I’ve been in LA, things have happened to one another that neither of us have had much access to. Stuff has happened. She has had three children, who have grown up despite me. They built a house I didn’t see or really know much about so long was it in the making. But we are great friends.

I met Claudia on the first day of drama school. I think I was wearing tweeds. Our friendship has been characterised by food and poetry, packets of ten Silk Cut and the very first intimacy we ever shared which was that we both experienced dizzy spells; Claudia because of Ménière’s disease and me because of recurring labrynthitis. She had fallen sideways in a lift and I had held on to bedsteads while vomiting. In the background a man sang. We sat on armchairs – part of some kind of scene study.

I was, and continue to be, eight years older than her. However, she was often cast as my mother, screaming at me from the top of the stairs as I ‘eloped’ on one particular occasion with a voice and bearing so like my actual mother I was unable to carry on down the stairs and out the door. Our relationship continued in this vein, with me ever struggling, living in vacant houses, friends’ sofas, the odd floor and Claudia settled into domesticity in Clapham with an actual kitchen. I got to know it well, and her brother who lived there and who once told me that you were upper class if you could circle your wrist with your forefinger and thumb, and I couldn’t. I don’t think he meant anything by it and he was always very friendly, even when I set off the burglar alarm and the police called him at work.IMG_7140 Food and poetry was our thing. Nigel Slater, Louis MacNiece, roast potatoes in goose fat, huge bricks of cheese, shards of shredded lamb, Elizabeth Bishop, Philip Larkin. We would rehearse each other either in an empty acting room or at the kitchen table for the strange ritual of Speech and Verse where we were regularly sent before a panel of judges who talked a terrifying nonsense about ‘interplay rhythm’ and us having no legs.

And all the while, we ate fish finger sandwiches, smoked and talked about squid ink. Because there was the River Cafe and Early Nigel and a kind of romping carnivorous lust that predated the gluten-free, rather more anaemic times we live in now. IMG_7119 It’s a difficult thing to sustain, eating like that all the time and then spending the rest of your money on Imodium. It was a bit Francis Bacon, a bit tiring, and a long time ago. This time it was the quiet I needed, the complete absence of sound. We went for a walk and watched the ponies break into an edifying gallop, then rub their conker arses on the ground, legs to the sky, the smell of manure and hay, their velvety noses, the bare clink of metal. There was a frost that covered the ground, a spare-looking snow. There was the house itself which is all wood, low-slung beams, an old Nissan hut, a disused airfield. There were the children, who were a bit magic, one of whom is my god-daughter who reads with the same relentless drive as I did; a book a day, as if it were some kind of illness.

What has survived? Because so often in those very site-specific friendships, it is hard when those things, those props, have been taken away. I can’t drink coffee anymore, a thing we obsessed about; must be a stove-top percolator, milk must be warmed, cup must be hot etc. The colour a manilla cigar. Bread is hard; we loved bread, slathered with butter and a thick and amateur marmalade. Bacon. I have Crohn’s and I’m not that person anymore, or not much of her remains. But what we had was lamb, the kids did too with spinach I believe and orzo. We all ate it. And since I’ve come back all I’ve done is roast lamb: lamb shoulder, lamb leg, tarred with oil and salt, rosemary somewhere deep inside, garlic charred to oblivion.

Lamb survived. (And Claudia did too, still my mother). I got the recipe from Nigel Slater’s Real Cooking – a book I would heartily recommend if winter food is exerting its bleak tyranny. It’s one of his early ones; you see his hands a lot, it’s spare and simple. A bit of poetry I think. See below.

Roast leg of lamb with garlic and rosemary

Adapted from Nigel Slater, Real Cooking

“Fat – sticky and rich – is the bonus for the pork eater. With lamb it is the bones. The sweet, crunchy, brittle bones of a cutlet, or the softer lump in a chump chop, are a true treat for those not too proud to gnaw at the table. Lamb clings to its bones more tightly than does pork or beef, demanding that we pick up and chew. The meat around the bone being the sweetest of course. Cutlery is for wimps.” Nigel Slater, Real Cooking

Olive oil, not much

A leg of lamb (about 2kg in weight)

A few bushy sprigs of rosemary

6 garlic cloves, peeled

Sea salt

Set the oven to 230C/450F. Pierce the fat of the leg of lamb with the point of a sharp knife. Into each hole stuff a small sprig of rosemary and a slice of garlic (do the rosemary first, and then shove in garlic – according to NS this is easier). My lamb is rarely so invaded as Joe likes herbs to be ‘shown’ to the meat (see below).

Drizzle and dab fat and aromatics with oil. Grind over some salt (don’t go overboard here). Place in roasting tin and leave to roast for about 15 minutes per 500g, in other words about an hour. After 20 minutes, turn the oven temperature down to 200C/400F. If you wanted to include potatoes, which NS does, then set the lamb directly on one of the oven shelves and place roasting tin of 6 large scrubbed potatoes, sliced, underneath with a few shakings of salt and daubs of butter. The lamb will drip all over the potatoes which you may like.

Remove the lamb from the oven and let it rest for about 20 minutes before carving. After that first meal, I use the bones and any adhered meat for a broth which I then eat for days.IMG_7265

 

Pickle

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IMG_6804Such a thing of beauty this: pickled pears. Of all the things I made at Christmas this was the one I loved the most. Sharp and simple, slightly searing, cold and slippery, the syrup thickened to a dark, gloopy sweetness. Christmas, what a slippery thing it is. Odd that the things I made with greatest pleasure when the flat was warm and still, weeks to go before the intensity of it all, were the things that were left and forgotten about on the day. In fact, the last jar of pickled pears I put in my brother’s car just before they left for Cornwall, and there it sat next to the mountain of cases and bags the day after Boxing day. It looked pathetic, so small and incongruous, and also promising because I think they will be eaten and savoured in a way that’s impossible when you are spooning things on to people’s plates in a manic, hot-faced way, pointing things out, trying to get people to eat massive amounts of food and unwrap presents and play games all within an eight hour window. The cheese grew dry, the quince paste overlooked. I think I forked a pear out of the jar in desperation, and stood over the person as they ate it. It went down well, but it was hardly a joy.

So I remember the making of the pickled pears with friendliness and calm; it was about a month before Christmas and I was leafing through Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book, wanting to find some way of not losing the small, depressed-looking pears in my bowl. I landed on her pickled pears recipe. Like me, she finds chutney ‘unsympathetic’, and so to spiced fruit, which requires a vinegar syrup to which you add what you like – bay leaves, blades of mace, allspice berries, some mustard seeds in my case. And then the fruit: pears here, but you could use plums, peaches, melon, what you like.

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We tried them out when my cousin Lucas came round, and they were eaten scooped on to Stilton and with some goat’s brie, a crater-like round of white cheese which tasted cool like yoghurt and didn’t survive the weeks to Christmas, the smell so rotten and cloying, the colour now a defeated yellow, we were forced to bin it. We tried the quince paste which was nice but still too sweet and unmellow, and Lucas told me to make jelly with the quince debris, which I did that night, spending hours watching it drip soundlessly from its muslin pouch, afraid to move it and then cloud it over. The pears and cheese were followed by a cup of tea and a round of Bananagrams and us all pretending that that had been Christmas. Or could have been Christmas, the kind that takes you unawares.
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I remember our conversation in a way that I don’t of Christmas day, which comes to me largely in images: creaming green beans out of a pot with my bare hands for someone’s plate and looking down at waves of mud that had inexplicably appeared beneath my feet. The park early in the day, the quick furtive walk we did. Red cabbage that had somehow pulverized, standing in the kitchen eating blocks of stuffing, the Christmas pudding ready two hours after everyone had gone and its shining dome so perfect, the smell of concentrated fruit and alcohol, figs, raisins, just sumptuous and totally pointless. We ate it watching Paddington.

What I have left now is the juice. I have half a jar of it, the pears long gone. Because it has sat unnoticed for this time, it is intense, dark, tea-like. It is gloriously spiced. Now I am using it to add to pulped garlic and honey, because of my rattling chest and snotty nose. There is nothing like a spiced vinegar syrup on January days, when the days are long and calm again. I don’t even think there are pears now, certainly none on the trees which are all black and knotted round here, like long witches’ hands. So make it for the syrup alone. I would. There’s a while before you have to share it. Happy New Year.IMG_6972

Pickled pears

Adapted from Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book

To vinegar: this recipe calls for white wine vinegar, but you could also make it with cider vinegar, which is about halfway between wine and malt vinegar, and not quite as shrieking in intensity. You could use red wine vinegar if you prefer the drama of it. I left my spices in the syrup, as you can see above. They continue to give up their flavour though so cloves might be best left out if you are using them. Other possibilities are a small piece of ginger, bruised, the thinly pared rind of a lemon, a red dried chilli.

6 large firm pears
350 – 450g light muscovado sugar (or to taste)
250 ml white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon of whole allspice
5 blades of mace or small chunk of nutmeg (or both)
3 bay leaves
1 teaspoon of mustard seeds

Peel, core and cut pears into 8 slices each (or thereabouts). Cover with water – about 750 ml. Boil hard for five minutes. Strain off and measure the liquid. To 600 ml of the water add the sugar, vinegar and spices. Pour over the pears and simmer until the pieces are cooked and translucent – about 20 minutes depending on ripeness. Pour everything into a bowl and leave overnight. Drain off the liquid the next day into a pan and boil for five minutes to reduce it slightly and then pack the pears into warm-from-the-oven, sterilized jars along with the spices – unless you’re leaving them out. Pour over the boiling syrup and seal while still warm. Store for as long as possible before using; Jane Grigson says a month. I keep mine in the fridge. Lovely with cheese, ham, duck, or ‘a discreet vegetable or two’.IMG_7012

 

Is it me, Lord?

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IMG_6694I have been making a lot of chicken broth. Boiling up the bones and doing a lot of skimming and straining so that all that’s left is the clear liquid to which I add a few choice vegetables. There is a lot of condensation during this process and all our windows steam up. I feel soothed. It reminds me of Ella. Ella was my landlady in Kilburn, north-west London, who took me in at a moment’s notice, the night before starting my three-year stint at RADA. I had nowhere else to go. I found her notice advertising a room pinned on the board somewhere and went to a phone box and called her. She immediately invited me over and there she was, diminutive and smiling, and we sat at her table in the kitchen and she offered me food and we decided that I would move in the following day. I stayed there nearly a year and regretted leaving and wish to this day I hadn’t. I reminded her of Doris Day, she said. It was a modern, modest house and it was always warm and I seem to remember quite red. There were photos everywhere – of Jazz bands, of singers, of the American pianist George Sheering who she had known in Chicago where she’d lived for a time as a singer.IMG_6715

But it was her kitchen I remember most. It was small but well-stocked. I had never seen a fridge as full. Stewed fruit in black juice; prunes and apricots, a few curling lemon rinds. I never remember there not being a bowl of her stewed fruit in the fridge covered in clingfilm. And chicken soup with matzo balls that reminded me of school dumplings. I remember the blue box of matzo meal always in the cupboard and the practiced way she said the word, which was new to me; it sort of flew out of her mouth. There were beads of fat that floated like sequins on the surface of the soup, and endless chicken. I was fed. Sometimes I would get out of bed, and open the door to find her holding a plate of toast or a bowl of porridge for me and then she’d collect all her teaspoons. Or I’d come home to find the hushed quiet of a bridge evening and glistening noodles for me in the kitchen. I had no money and everything went on rent but feeding me was not officially part of the deal.

Sometimes we sat at the kitchen table and talked: she told me about her love of Las Vegas, of her life in Chicago before coming back to London with her two young sons and starting from scratch alone. We talked about performing. She loved Bette Midler and sometimes she played the video of her on Parkinson or we listened to George Sheering who she couldn’t believe I’d never heard of. Or she’d tell me jokes or sometimes sing with her microphone along to a favourite piece of music.IMG_6732

I think she found me surprisingly dull. I was an actor but not, like her, an entertainer. I was just finding out what that was: there were entertainers, there were performers and there were actors. I was an actor. I was a little grey. I wasn’t as good as her at anecdotes, at the knack of turning your life into a skit. She got one joke out of me, which she made me tell whenever she had her family to dinner. I would dread it because the humour lay precisely in my delivery and my timing, in getting the pause just right. Having grown up adept at silly voices and mimicry I was having my funny rammed out of me at RADA, I was being deconstructed. But Ella made me do it.

It’s the last supper and Jesus is with his disciples. He decides to speak to them. “I know that one of you will betray me”, he says. There is consternation amongst the group and stunned silence. One of them, Matthew, finally asks “Is it me, Lord?” “No, Matthew, be assured. It is not you”, Jesus replies gently. After a brief silence Luke asks the same question: “Is it me, Lord?” Jesus smiles and rests his hand on his shoulder. “Luke, fear not. It is not you.” One after the other the same question is asked. Finally, it is Judas who speaks: “Is it me, Lord?”

And Jesus looks at him and says (mimicking him like a vicious child in the playground): “Is it ME, Lord?….Is it ME, Lord?

Actually it was me. I did the Judas thing and left her for a yellow room under the flight path in Fulham, to look after a small French boy, and was never offered anything to eat except once when I was given a soft-boiled egg in aspic. It meant I could live rent-free and stay at drama school where I was investigating my breathing, amongst other things. She was the nicest person who’d ever looked after me. She died last year at the age of 87. This recipe is for her and I wish I’d stayed.

Chicken broth

 Adapted from my mother-in-law, Susan Travers

This version requires the chicken broth to be cooked twice; once for 2-3 hours on day one, then the next day for around four hours with a sleep overnight to help all the flavours concentrate. Having made chicken broth many times, cooking it for four hours ‘only’, I can say this twice-cooked method (cooked for me and lovingly) surpasses all my efforts: it takes the broth beyond the flavourful brown water stage into deeply rich bovine jelly. It is worth the wait.

Serves 4

1 medium free-range chicken
2 large leeks, washed and chopped in half
4 carrots, peeled and left whole
1 whole head of celery, trimmed
1 large onion (red is sweeter)
1 small bunch of parsley
1-2 sprigs of thyme, rosemary or 2 bay leaves
1 tsp of sea salt (also season later to taste)
1 tsp of black peppercorns (optional)

Put everything into the largest saucepan you have and cover generously with water (it should be about 2 inches above the bird), and bring to the boil. Then turn down the heat, skimming off any scum as it appears (and keeping the ‘schmaltz’ – chicken fat – for your matzo balls if you want to make them) and simmer very gently for about 2-3 hours, partially covered. There should be the odd bubble but nothing more.

Turn it off and let it sit overnight. Keep it covered. This pause in the cooking helps concentrate the flavours. The following day, bring to the boil once more, then simmer gently for around four hours, partially covered again.

There are two methods for serving: You can strain the soup using the biggest sieve or colander you have, into another pan. Add whatever vegetables that have kept their shape. When the chicken has cooled slightly pull off what you like and add it to the broth. Add some more parsley. This method will give the broth the appearance of a consommé – clear and rather elegant. Or you can simply ladle straight from the pot into a soup bowl; mucky but good.IMG_6742

Roses and kale

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We have moved into our flat in Hampton (hence the silence, sorry) and I am thinking of getting an allotment. We went to Bushy Park Allotments on Sunday, to see if we could get in and at least get a good view of them, and there was a couple opening the gate carrying in a compost bin. We stood a way off looking at all the plots; they were untidy, shabby even, but there were also a lot of trees, and it looked both unkempt and rather beguiling; little portions of garden side by side as far as the eye could see.

The gentle hum of an engine, and I looked back at a man in a very low open-top car, with a bucket in the back and heaps of pink geraniums. He too looked unkempt and rather beguiling. He hadn’t sounded his horn, just sat in his very low down slightly rusted car waiting for us to move. He had shoulder-length sandy hair and was what people used to call rakish. My grandmother would not have trusted such a man; she would have said something about him being ‘freelance’. But there was a glamour about him and that he’d given us just the right amount of smile, to show he didn’t think we were in any way an irritant, made him alright.IMG_6847

The car rattled through the gates and disappeared into the thick brush of trees and stalks and general vegetable matter. That’s when we could have gone, but the couple smiled at us now and so I went up, leaving Joe to loiter, and said hello. Can I put my name down for a plot? (‘Put your name down!’ ‘Have you put your name down?’ has been a mantra of my mother’s since childhood). “Yes, you put your name down,” the lady nodded. And then they gave me advice along the lines of: make a nuisance of yourself, wear them down, and eventually someone will break and give you a piece of earth. “You need to not be afraid of hard work”, she said, looking me up and down in the way people do, thinking they’re being subtle.

They didn’t have much to do; it was pitifully raining, it was cold and a few minutes later they’d emerged. ‘Put your name up on the gates and ask if anyone wants to share a plot’, the lady who was called Roz now said. I have to put my name up now as well as down. She said they’d picked some roses and they had some nice kale and they were done for the day. It seemed rather a bleak enterprise; coming to pick kale. I like roses but it wouldn’t occur to me to grow them on an allotment.IMG_2583

I think if it was me, I would take my lead from the freelancer driving through the gates and plant things with colour, a bit of rakishness, and some sweetness, some fruit, otherwise it all gets a bit Eastenders. A bit Arthur Fowler. When I started this blog in LA I wrote about lemon curd. The curd was made from the very few Meyer lemons I’d eked from the tree we’d bought from an extremely rakish garden nursery on Fairfax and Santa Monica. We were promised ‘lemons in abundance’ from  the nice stoned man and although the tree was initially heavy with fruit, it never fulfilled its promise. As Joe Queenan likes to say, it wrote a cheque it couldn’t cash. But the sweetness of those lemons, their strange hybrid flavour and the thin mellow peel, started me off. I loved the colour too, a happy, acid yellow. I was never devoid of fruit thereafter. I fell in love with fruit, probably because there was an awful lot of it about in LA – orange trees mainly and their rampant, swooning blossom – and it was the first thing I genuinely liked about being there. It was growing, it was nature, it was beautiful to watch.

Perhaps I have not got the point of the allotment quite. Although I would be happy to share a plot and I wouldn’t be shy of digging, I’d need to insist there was a splash of colour, some orbs, some blossom, a cage, a tree, some espaliered plums and some brickwork to keep them warm. In the meantime I think I can live without kale, a terrifyingly healthy leaf.

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