On the turn

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IMG_0497Food-wise, I’m waiting for peaches. That’s when I know I’m in Los Angeles. More than lemons and oranges, which have an all-year-round prolific, whoreish quality – if they’re not blossoming they’re bearing fruit, it’s a constant publicity machine – peaches can only mean early summer here. And they get riper and more aromatic and squishier as the weeks go by, the skin seemingly more paper-thin, the round globe of flesh beneath more sunset-orange, more dripping, before it goes over, starts to rot. We have a nectarine tree which is coming into blossom and that counts as my stone fruit barometer of how things will be. The blossoms are pink and furtive still, with only a few little dazzlers. There is no point waiting for the fruit, which will be eaten by squirrels. Every year I have been thwarted by them and so I don’t bother now – they know the perfect moment at which the fruit needs to be eaten better than I do and besides they’re more likely to be up and ready. They demolished my sunflowers, full of nascent seeds. They eat all the bird food.

And we have B&B to do. We’re ‘doing’ B&B though sometimes it feels as if we are being done to, depending on the caliber of guest. Some make it easy. Our first guests since our return were from Amsterdam and behaved as if these were their last days on earth. They breakfasted early and then played tennis, swam in the pool and generally ran themselves ragged in a pleasant and contained way. They loved the place and we loved them for loving it all. Then came a mother and daughter team – New Yorkers originally from Egypt – who alternated between days spent dragging around theme parks and long hours holed up in their room lobbing shrill and indecipherable insults at each other. They also filled our fridge with foodstuffs of no particular seasonal bias: Ranch dressing, a bumper box of strawberries, little dwarf tomatoes, chocolate milk, an enormous chocolate Bundt cake, boxed up. “Fresh,” the mother announced, “I need fresh.” As if this explained it. It may have explained their blocked toilet, which I had to investigate with a forced smile and a plunger.IMG_3990

It was the Bundt cake that bothered me. They were passing up my homemade lemon shortbread, which languished to staleness. Five ingredients (lemon zest, butter, sugar, flour, almonds) versus – actually I lost count. They had me at sorbitan monostearate. I’m not against junk food in its place (a burger at midnight, fries, sweet fries for dipping into an omelette, a tranche of milk chocolate and a hot mug of tea), but if I’m being offered something home-made, I devour it. And I say thank you a lot. And where’s the fricking Ranch anyway? What is Ranch dressing? I need to know this before I leave.

Some strangers become stranger still, the longer you make their acquaintance; in this case, we were all mutually baffled by one another but tried for the sake of sanity to get along. They were nice people and kind in this instance: Joe did his back in and they gave us Tiger Balm and it helped. But it always happens in the first moment of meeting, the mould is set and there’s no turning back; the apartment becomes a set of enclosures, returning to rooms only when the keys are returned.IMG_4027

Back to blossoms. I will let you know when the peaches are in. In the meantime, there are rosemary blossoms (however, on the turn) to add to peach and nectarine and they are all edible. You could festoon salads with them, or adorn this cake with them if you are in favour of icing/frosting (they would need something to stick to, I should think). I immediately wanted to make chocolate cake; I wanted to make the opposite of the towering brown behemoth chilling in our fridge for seven days. So this is an austere, silken and rather un-American square of dark chocolate brownie spiked with rosemary. The herb gives it a silvery, savoury edge and the chocolate is dense and rather grown up. I also added a handful of almonds and two small clouds of cocoa.

Rosemary and chocolate brownie

Adapted from Ben Tish, Salt Yard, read in The Guardian

Serves 6-8
100g good quality dark chocolate (70% cocoa) broken up into pieces
100g unsalted butter
2 large eggs (room temp)
250g unrefined caster sugar
100g (scant) self-raising flour, sifted
2 heaped tablespoons cocoa, sifted
25g roughly chopped almonds (optional)
½ tsp sea salt
25ml extra virgin olive oil
50g dates, chopped
2 sprigs of rosemary, one intact, the other with leaves chopped & stem removed

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Line a square brownie or cake tin with baking paper. Melt the chocolate and butter together above (but not in) a pan of simmering water. Whisk together the eggs and sugar in a mixer or with an electric whisk until light and fluffy. Now fold the eggs and sugar into the melted chocolate and butter, then add the flour, cocoa, almonds (if using), dates, chopped rosemary, salt and oil. Pour the mixture into the tin, embed the remaining rosemary sprig, and bake for about 25-30 minutes, or until the brownie is setting around the outside but still slightly gooey in the centre. Don’t be tempted to bake it to cake consistency, as it will be hard-bottomed and uninteresting. A skewer inserted into the centre of the brownie should come out with a little of the mixture still on it. Remove the tray from the oven and leave to rest for 20 minutes before cutting. Don’t necessarily embellish with cream, though you can if you like.

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Life is butter

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IMG_3947melon cauliflower. Get it? Life is but a melancholy flower. I used to sing this as a round in the days before iPhones and laptops. Before all the screens. We would sit in a circle in the garden and sing; we actually did that. That’s how we got our kicks. Singing songs and then cooking porridge if it all got too much. Most of the songs were Elizabethan, and almost all were sad; someone was dead, or they refused to marry you, or you were trying to persuade the ferryman to ferry you over to the place you’d rather be, or there was a rose you knew who would remain forever a spinster. We would often begin in the spirit of silliness and jocularity and steadily it would overcome us, the words sung in strange counterpoint, soaring and dying; ‘my poor bird wing thy flight, far above the sorrows of this sad night.’ And before we knew it, we were gone; transported to this other place of words sung and soaring.

I learnt the songs predominantly from a girl called Helen who I met in Rome, and who then moved to London around the same time I did. She had a French girlfriend called Valerie and at that time it was trickier being gay in Rome than in London, and better all round for work, so they moved. It was her garden in north London that we sang in and occasionally she would accompany the rounds with her recorder. I don’t know what it is about the recorder but Helen stamped on any snickering which only led to more snorting and rampant giggling and us having to begin again. It was better without. I have no idea where Helen is, because this was before social media, and I lost her phone number many address books ago. She is lost to me. I don’t even remember her surname. We had a real laugh in Rome where we helped at an international school and managed the outings for the children (three months of panini and prosciutto, always warm and wet from the heat of the bus, and an orange. I longed for change, and to this day I can’t eat prosciutto two days running). There was a lot of snorting and inappropriateness, looking back. We would never have been allowed if the time was now.

Those summer evenings in Helen’s garden got me through the London roughness after Italy, and I lazily lost touch because at that age I thought the world was full of Helens. But to this day I can’t look at a cauliflower and not think of her. And I don’t know many people whose idea of bliss is to sit in long grass and sing for hours on end and then make salty buttery porridge. I sometimes wonder what she’s up to, but I never worry. My grandmother would have said ‘she doesn’t make enough of herself’ because she wore no make up and scraped her wild blonde hair into a bun, but we were all tomboys and wore the same clothes day in day out, and nobody seemed to mind.IMG_3972

And actually, life is butter. Not sure about melons, though they’re perfectly nice. And cauliflower – well, let’s see. They are so much in abundance in the farmers’ markets here in LA (see how I did that? Got on a plane, crossed the Atlantic and before you know it…) and appear in a variety of colours and sizes: purple, popcorn-yellow, small as apples, big as bazookas. I chose one that looked as if it had been smoking Gauloises its whole life, roasted it with some anchovies and garlic and a few glugs of olive oil. The anchovies disintegrate into a salty tacky juice which works very well. It’s really brown salt. For Helen.

Roasted cauliflower with anchovies and garlic

Adapted from table366

Head of cauliflower, chopped
Parmesan cheese (optional)
Tin or jar of anchovies
Olive oil
4-5 cloves of garlic, unpeeled

Oven Proof Dish (8×8 or 9×11 is a good size) lined with parchment

Preheat the oven to 400F/200C. Spread the cauliflower out evenly in the dish in one layer (otherwise it won’t cook as well). Drop the anchovies round and about; remember they are very salty, so the more you use, the saltier the dish will be. Pour over a few glugs of olive oil; you want to wet the cauli but not completely drown it – say 4 tablespoons. Salt (very lightly if at all) and give everything a good toss with your hands. Roast for 20-25 minutes until the cauliflower is slightly caramelized and the anchovies have melted. Stir and then grate over some parmesan or whatever hard cheese you like as long as it’s the melting kind – you can leave it out entirely and it will still taste lovely. Roast for another 5-10 minutes so the cheese has a chance to thoroughly melt. Let it sit for a little bit so it doesn’t burn your mouth or serve at room temperature.IMG_3982

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The melon was good too

I’m so happy you’re alive

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018I met David Sedaris. It is hard for me to write this without italics or exclamation marks or at the very least a change of font; I’m thinking Garamond. I did wonder if I had dreamt it, but I have proof; I have the book, signed by him, and I have witnesses that we talked. Perhaps I should clarify; I haven’t just read David Sedaris, I have sucked him dry. I have read and reread him to the point where none of his stories hold any surprises. I know what’s coming, always. I read to reassure myself that the world has him in it, with his mass of menial jobs and his need to touch people’s heads at odd times. I feel a sense of possession about the books that borders on the kind of repetitive obsessive detail-orientated disorder of which David himself would be proud.

I waited in the book signing line after the show at Cadogan Hall in Chelsea – my first of his – like a child waiting for Santa Claus. The wait was horrible. He was taking an inordinate amount of time talking to people and also eating from little plastic boxes of feta and olives and greenery. He was actually stuffing his face; he must have been starving. He was drawing a caterpillar on the front page of a girl’s book, while talking animatedly to her about something I couldn’t catch, with bits of salad peeping out of the corners of his mouth. At the end of the show, during the Q&A, he had asked for two things: the hood of his stove had broken and he needed the name of a handyman who could come and fix it, and he needed a psychiatrist for a friend of his who was having a hard time. Could we please meet him afterwards with names and numbers?

It was finally our turn. I hadn’t planned to be here and now here I was, sweating with bright red cheeks and a borrowed coat. I’ve only ever had the books and now, thanks to a fabulous fairy godmother and a returned ticket, I had him. We approached and he immediately started talking about the weird coincidence of being given three recommendations for exactly the same psychiatrist. ‘There are times when I get kind of blue, but this friend really needs help’, he said. We talked about cycling in Sussex, where he now lives. He sometimes cycled as far as Angmering and I sometimes cycled as far as Newhaven. My name means ‘wisdom’ in Greek, did I know that? His face was both familiar and not, small ashen and with a bright and convincing smile. In fact it was his smile that was most in evidence, and gappy teeth. He smiled almost all the time, to himself, to people, while writing. He had a pencil case stuffed with coloured pens, and he doodled as he talked, writing in loopy black ink.

I forgot to say how much I’d loved the show; that’s what happens, you meet your hero and forget to say, that was great, thank you so much for lighting up my life for the past decade or so. That long dark night in Normandy when you tried to drown that mouse in a bucket got me through my own long dark night. The first book I ever read of yours, Me Talk Pretty One Day, was the only good thing that came out of a terrible relationship. I’m sorry your sister died. Do you still have to lick letter-boxes? Instead we talked about cycle paths. He gave me back my book, and I walked away, feeling a weird mix of wretchedness and elation. I had met him and hadn’t found the words. Then I looked at the inscription inside as we walked towards the exit, and it made me laugh so much none of the rest of it mattered. And it was what I’d wanted to say. Those were the words.004

On picky eaters

“Neither were we allowed to choose what we ate. I have a friend whose seven-year-old will only consider something if it’s white. Had I tried that, my parents would have said, “You’re on,” and served me a bowl of paste, followed by joint compound, and, maybe if I was good, some semen.”

David Sedaris, Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls

Paul’s cod

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004Cod is hard to describe. It’s so ubiquitous or so rare or endangered or somehow so obvious that I hadn’t really thought of it before now (except in batter). ‘Local cod’ said the sign outside Paul’s Plaice, the only fishmonger left in Seaford, and then you go through the little chain-mail curtain into a shop that smells of the sea.

Paul works alongside his brother and I’ve never worked out which one is actually Paul, although it’s been explained to me enough times. I just draw a blank. Perhaps my brain has discounted it because it needs to stay alert for ‘novelties’ such as an oncoming car or a mountain lion. Apparently this is what the brain does, it has this discounting mechanism which I read about in mad, brilliant novel Where’d you go Bernadette. I have also discounted the sea which roars all through the day and night outside my window. Every day it lies there, a different colour, doing something slightly different with itself; occasionally it catches me and I notice it – a thin pencil line on the horizon or a big mushroom cloud of rain the same gunmetal grey as the waves, gulls flapping over a fishing boat like washing on a line, something suddenly surfacing – a snout? – and then going under. Then I forget.

Back in Paul’s Plaice, I notice a box of tiny fish as small as matchsticks with the name Smelt written above, which I think sounds rather Dickensian. They’re baby whitebait, according to ‘Paul’. They look too small to taste of anything, too fragile, almost pre-fish. They also have local plaice and cod, and everything is from the nearby fishery. They’re caught trawler style, because netting taints the fish with all the seaweed that gets caught up with it. What about line-caught, I ask him. ‘That’s just a bloke standing there with a fishing rod’, he says. ‘I can get it for you but it’s really expensive.’ I know from past experience that my mother has got mackerel for free by walking past a full bucket at just the right time, but obviously this takes a certain louche opportunism that is beneath Paul, who I can only describe as ‘bubbly’ though I know that makes him sound like an Avon lady. They are all so friendly in there it’s quite disconcerting.008I cooked the cod and let me tell you it was so flipping good I went out and bought another three pieces, and ‘Paul’  thrust a whole handful of parsley into the bag for good measure. It was meaty yet tender, and chunks dissolved, not actually like butter, but with a gentle yielding buttery quality. I baked the cod in one of those parchment parcels, where it steams but also seals without drying out. You want the cod to somehow give itself to you, each layer opening, each cavity glistening, the smell of lemon and salt and heat and herbs, pale discs of pearly white, soft and supple. I think I’ll stop now.

Cod in a bag

With advice from Paul

Serves two

2 pieces of cod fillet, cut from the thick end (3 cm/1½ inches thick)

Olive oil & a small pat of butter

Lemon juice and the rind of 1 lemon

Sea salt

Fresh parsley (about four healthy sprigs)

Parchment paper

Butcher’s twine

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F. Arrange 2 sheets of parchment paper on a baking tray about double the size of each cod fillet. In the centre of the sheet put the cod and add what you like: here I added a pat of butter, some fennel fronds, a little glug of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon juice, the lemon rind cut thickly and some sea salt. But you can add anything; bay leaves, thyme, chillies, garlic, thinly sliced potatoes etc. Pull the corners of the parchment paper together and twist shut.  Secure with some butcher’s twine. Slide the tray into the oven and bake for about 15-20 minutes. Open the bag to check it’s done and sprinkle the insides with chopped parsley.014

Frilly

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053I like flowers, particularly ones you can eat. These are garlic flowers (or blossoms) from the wild garlic leaves I found festering in the heat and growing through the railings of a building I have often wondered about, mainly because it’s called Corsica Hall and that sounds quite grand and Corsican though I gather it’s neither. You can smell it, the wild garlic, as you approach; that oniony heat, suppurating and cleansing and sweeping everything out like a broom. In fact it looks when washed rather like a collection of spring onions, and the general taste is milder than a clove of garlic. It can get a bit lost. What to put it with? Meat. Yes, go on. A bit of animal.

I have been discussing such things with my new friend the café owner in town. Every time I go in to have a cup of tea (last one free with my loyalty card) we talk quickly and furtively about food. Scandi, she said, that’s the new thing and I said yes, because I saw a TV programme with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in which he shoved onion flowers into the crevices of a huge leg of lamb just before barbecuing it and this was in Denmark. Then she has to go away and serve people but I know in her body language that she will come back and add something. So then she tells me about infusing flowers into custard, and this is absolutely the perfect time; gorse, rosemary, broad bean, dill, fennel flowers. Our conversations are quite tense because time is of the essence and everything must be boiled down to the bare essentials. I found garlic flowers. Really? Yes, I’ll bring you some. Okay, brilliant etc. And then today, I dropped off a small stash tied together with cotton. She wasn’t there which was just as well. A waitress put them in the fridge. I was like her dealer.

I think I may have found my perfect café. There’s a man who is there every time I go, and generally he drinks coffee, but the other day he was nursing a glass of white wine at eleven o’clock in the morning, reading the paper with exquisite slowness. And they have a mushroom man, and they line-catch their cod from the seafront. And they made their own tables. I would like their life.024Meat reminds me of Clarissa Dickson Wright who died at the weekend. She didn’t just cook a lot of meat, she believed in it, loved animal fats, found vegetarianism deeply unsettling, and was generally a force of nature of the old-fashioned kind. Her appearance on Desert Island Discs is probably my all-time favourite interview ever, particularly in the face of the withering Sue Lawley, who is clearly trying to chasten her into admitting that the food she championed was unhealthy. “I’d rather eat a cream cake than take Prozac”, she shot back, mischievous and right. Mischievous and right, scholarly, fun, unruly, brave. Sorely missed.009

Grilled lamb chump chops with wild garlic

With help from Nigel Slater

50g garlic leaves with bulbs and flowers if possible
Juice of half a lemon
a little olive oil
2 lamb chump chops

Lay the chops in a bowl and add the oil and lemon juice, salt and pepper, and give it all a swish so the meat is lapping it up. Chop up the garlic leaves roughly and add to the bowl. Press a few of the wild garlic bulbs & flowers into any cuts or crevices you can find in the meat. Allow this to sit at room temperature for a couple of hours if you can, moving the pieces of lamb around now and then and giving them a little knead. Alternatively, you can refrigerate overnight covered in foil.

Heat the grill to very hot (a charcoal grill is ideal but timings will vary according to how much heat you’ve harnessed. For this recipe, the assumption is you have a grill where the heat comes from above). Grill the lamb till firm and slightly charred at the edges, with as many of the leaves as possible tucked underneath. The lamb should be pink in the middle – about four minutes on each side. Serve with a few scattered flowers and left-over leaves. Lovely with new potatoes.003008

Snap out of it!

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019Actually, I’m fine. And I’m English so it’s my job to suppress all those untoward feelings of failure and loss and give myself boils and cysts instead. And something unusual has happened: I love London! All of a sudden, the place I have hated for about 25 years, give or take a year or two in the middle, has become somewhere rather exciting and magical. I think you have to have a few seminal moments in London; something has to have happened to you there, otherwise it’s just another capital city with a lot of people and escalators. And it’s so expensive it brings tears to your eyes and I will never ever go on the London Eye ever again.

RADA happened to me fifteen years ago. I went up for the day last week and went to the same area, though this time it was to meet the lovely bloggers, Rachel from Rachel eats and Evie from Saffron Strands, and to eat at Honey & Co, the Middle Eastern café (very good cakes, a bit hectic). It’s not that Fitzrovia is particularly beautiful – it’s not Prague or anything (I’ve never been to Prague). It’s just that when I stepped out at Warren Street tube station, there I was, back in 1997. And it’s more or less the same, minus the porn shops and O’Brien’s, an Irish café that sold the biggest and cheapest coffee and the biggest, cheapest croissants ever, and no one had any money so that was brilliant. And if we weren’t paying – it was a benevolent acting teacher wanting us to do ‘a Pret run’ – then it would be off to Pret a Manger, returning with a box of hot pastries and smouldering Mochas and little change out of a twenty.061

But what’s amazing, what’s strange and unsettling is that really it’s the same. If you get out at Warren street tube station, then clearly you’re doing that because you want to go to French’s Theatre Bookshop. I did this the other day and it was still run by a man who looks as if he hates you, because he knows you’re not going to buy anything. He looks a bit like Philip Seymour Hoffman though and I think that’s why on this particular day I didn’t mind his sullenness. I never liked this shop and still don’t. I’m not sure why; something to do with young hunger and ambition and where it all goes. Then you walk down Tottenham Court Road, unless you want to go the other way to Villandry on Great Portland Street, which is one of those glittering delis with a very posh café and people who look like they have no pores. Instead, you go down Tottenham Court road (past the Scientology shop, don’t go in) to Goodge street, which is where RADA students generally disgorge themselves from the tube station. Goodge street is an interesting street, full of little places to eat and drink and if you walk on you get to Charlotte Street, which crosses it. Charlotte street is home to the Charlotte Street Hotel, where I have taken the odd eye-wateringly expensive tea.IMG_0491It’s also home to my uncle Alex Hollweg’s paintings and whenever I see them, they remind me of the wooden fruit he made in the same jauntily rich colours that sit in his sitting room. The Charlotte Street Hotel, though they serve nice nuts, deals in the kind of exclusivity and luxe that made me feel forever an outsider. I remember sitting at the bar feeling like a scruff. But I have sat at the bar, and I can say it is a fine place to be, particularly if someone else is paying. My brother for one. I remember it was an evening of convincing; him trying to convince me to do something I wasn’t sure about. Anyway, I did it and it was a disaster. But thanks for the wine.

Back then I would have bumped into people – teachers, other students, Val. (Val worked at the front desk at RADA and basically ran the entire school and I think still knows my bank details. She also knew her way round a bagel). The place was a village in the middle of the city. You couldn’t go a hundred yards without seeing someone you knew, sometimes even someone who happened to be in the area by chance, an old friend apropos of nothing. It was all so easy; I have never quite got that back, that feeling of effortless unfolding, of friendships made blithely. It was that kind of place and time. Young love. So it was all the more delicious when the three of us last week went for a walk after eating. We did the back streets and didn’t really notice anything, too wrapped up in each other and our exuberant conversation. Streets were missed, the tubes came and went, we crisscrossed London, still mithering on about Nigella and Nigel and Simon, our faux friends from the world of food. So anyway, I went back and it was good.

Made me snap out of it.

Nowhere but here

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005I’ve been here three seasons; a whole autumn, one full winter, the beginnings of spring. That translates as cold, long, dark, wet and angry. Gusty gales, the inexplicable (to me) spring and neap tides, the winter solstice and the darkest night. I’ve watched too many documentaries on BBC4, and I keep bumping into people who think I’ve already left. “Haven’t you gone yet?” “Still here?” or the weirdly judging “shouldn’t you have gone by now?”. And the sun is tepid – bright and cheerful but not warm. At the moment, and this moment is long, there is nowhere but here. Here is where I have a good doctor and no bills, no frightening and incomprehensible bills that have to be explained to me in a way that makes them even more incomprehensible.

Because Barack, ‘bless him’ is still sorting out his healthcare, and for now we have no insurance and to be without insurance with a chronic condition in the US is scary. And people love to tell you how scary; a medical insurance broker in LA, over the course of a two-hour conversation, cheerfully painted a picture of precise Breugal-like horror at what would befall me if I continued to live an uninsured life. One of her client’s had walked out of the door one morning and dislodged one of her eyeballs – or her retina flew off. Or anyway, something happened to her eye and she had no insurance! I probably would have followed Francis Bacon’s lead in this case and popped my eyeball back in, which I read he used to do often after a few stiff ones at his club.

010So I’m here and it’s spring and I’ve already said goodbye at least twice to everyone. I am in that strange, drained nothing-doing state. An oddity in a world where everyone works, a permanent tourist, which is not half as fun as it sounds. And I don’t want to write about leeks or rhubarb, and I have tramped through enough Sussex undergrowth to know that the ubiquitous wild garlic leaves of which everyone writes are having an off year, or simply spring is late. So anyway I started cleaning. Sponging down the insides of my mother’s cupboards, shaking out the bowls and the bits of plastic appendage and the darkly mottled casserole dishes and the 70s colander. This bit was fun, discovering what was there and had been forgotten about. There were things that have followed me from Devon up to London down to Sussex, and sometimes even before my birth; some predate Woolwich!

034The pestle and mortar originally belonged to my Australian grandmother and came from her home in Sydney. I never knew her really, but I have her postcards and letters in her kind capitals and lots of photos, and a memory of brushing her long silver hair. Now that I am apart from my things, I can see how wonderful it is to hold something like this – its weight and shape, and to imagine fingerprints and palms. The beechwood handle has come unmoored from its porcelain head. There are marks from not sure where or what all over the bodies of both mortars. The very act of pounding is to replicate what she would have done, her hands under mine; a form of conjuring. Spices, herbs, pigments and powders – I know she was a natural alchemist. Maybe, who knows, if I pound away and for long enough I’ll get healed.

001Pounding herbs and garlic in a mortar is not nearly as arduous as it looks. It is actually very efficient – the whole thing comes together within a few minutes, the addition of oil is very satisfying, and then you’ve made it yourself, and probably worked through a few grudges while you were at it. You are also ‘tempering’ the ingredients, putting them back into balance; in the Middle Ages, honey tempered vinegar, wine tempered fish and the mortar was the vessel to do it.* You are in control of things too, able to see and feel when particles become slosh (as it were).

The Catalan sauce romesco is still made in this way; peppers, nuts, oil, vinegar, bread and garlic are pounded into heady oblivion. As is pesto, skorthalia, the garlicky sauce from Greece, tahini, the Turkish classic tarator made with walnuts and stale white bread and Catalan picada, made with parsley and almonds (below).

It’s better to give approximations when it comes to pounding, because this is where feel is paramount, and it’s good to taste as you go; you can always add more of something. Add oil in very small increments to begin and then increase. I like herb/garlic sauces to have texture, with nuggets of this or that. If you don’t, pound on.

My version of a Catalan picada
1 small handful of blanched almonds (about 20)
1-2 garlic cloves peeled & a pinch of sea salt
4 big glugs of extra virgin olive oil
One big handful of roughly chopped flat-leaf parsley
Juice of 1/2 lemon

Crush the garlic with a good pinch of salt in a mortar until you have a smooth paste. Now add the almonds and keep pounding until amalgamated. Now add the parsley to the mortar, a small bit at a time, and pound until incorporated. Add the olive oil, trickling it in slowly and stir well before adding the lemon juice (add the juice after the oil otherwise it’ll turn the parsley brown). Lovely stirred into a fish casserole or simply served alongside mackerel or clams, sprats, lightly steamed veg or chicken, or stirred into salted yoghurt – really anything.

*Consider The Fork, a history of how we cook and eat by Bee Wilson, is a fascinating book and goes into some detail on the history of the pestle and mortar, if you wanted to read on…002

Chop, chop

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001David Mellor’s shop lives at No.4 Sloane Square in London, yards from the Royal Court Theatre. I suppose it’s interesting that I would now far rather go into a kitchen shop and buy a chopping board than go and see a play, or indeed audition for one. In fact, I steer well clear, scared (or should I say trepidatious) of bumping into someone from my former life, the theatre bar at the Royal Court witness to a small handful of intense, deeply felt humiliations. A theatre bar is not in and of itself a relaxing place to be anyway; everyone is subtly networking or nervous for a friend or relative about to perform (or jealous), everyone is sweeping the room, status – yours and theirs – is being constantly, silently re-negotiated. You can’t, or rarely can you, just go up to someone. Which is what I used to do before I realized it was not done. There’s Tom Stoppard! Why, he gave me a small but not insignificant cheque at the beginning of my drama school career, based on his friendship with my dad that went back to the Sixties. I shall go over and thank him in person. Why not? He looked at me as though I were a flying insect hovering near, but not directly in, his sight-line. I’m not sure exactly what I said, but it was probably fairly anodyne, inoffensive stuff. In the end, he simply turned away.

I never developed the right persona – some people do and it’s like armour, I suppose. I know them – charming, robust, flirtatious when needed, personal and then oddly impersonal. After my theatre bar exchanges, after auditions, and meetings, I always felt as if I’d just emerged from a car crash. Or a beheading. An agent once said to me that ‘I cared too much’.

I think that’s when I started going into kitchen shops and reading cookbooks; the balm at the end of a day of commercial castings, speaking my name and my agent’s into a camera before pretending to have road rage or candida (sometimes both). At David Mellor’s I headed straight for the chopping boards, past the sparkling glasses and his signature cutlery. And there it was; the smooth, rounded rectangular board with the hole in it. I had been admiring it at my cousin’s. New it was planed smooth of any imperfections, a plain, pale ash wood, but I knew what it would become with time. I have always had a thing about chopping boards – I notice them in the same way people notice shoes or jewellry or mood swings. A chopping board is a living thing and the more it lives with you the more it absorbs all the things you chop on it, leave on it, put it on, and it develops its own worn character, lines and all. I love the way Becky’s board has those little serrations all round the edge, which makes me wonder what they were for and why the centre is relatively empty.

003I suppose you could call it a character study. And although I am a fan of pummelling and pounding – the vivifying effects of a pestle and mortar -  there’s something to be said for smashing something, breaking it, or chopping it, or creaming it with a knife. You know the way that garlic can be chopped into a paste, the knife swishing this way and that like a paintbrush until the garlic is practically emollient; I like that. So I bought the chopping board, and the beautiful, slightly MI5 assistant wrapped it in blank white paper and slipped it into a black paper bag, and we emerged into the Sunday sunlight and walked to the Tate. All the way there and all the way back, (and during) I thought about the board; what I would anoint it with. Garlic. Lemon zest. Parsley or basil. Splat, Chop, chop, scrape, crunch, chop, chop, chop, chop, swipe, swipe, bang. Smile. Repeat to fade.005004You can make a pesto (basil, garlic, pine nuts, parmesan) or a picada  (Catalan version with parsley and almonds) or a pistou (Provencal version using garlic, basil and oil) on a chopping board, as long as you transfer everything to a bowl before adding the oil (though olive oil is the perfect way to replenish your board – rub it in with a soft, lint-free rag if you have any spillage). Gremolata is a ‘dry’ sauce usually served with osso buco (braised veal shank) and uses garlic and parsley and lots of lemon zest. Try two large handfuls of parsley, the zest of two lemons and two cloves of garlic, reducing them all to a thick slurry. The board, the kitchen, your hands and you will smell intensely of these things afterwards.

More on David Mellor here.

Empty legs

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010I had my first shiatsu session the other day (along the same lines as acupuncture but using physical pressure instead of needles), and the man told me I had ‘empty legs’. I had empty legs and empty feet, particularly my arches. This is nothing new – when I was a drama school student, the teachers’ main beef with me was that I had ‘dead legs and frozen eyes’. Someone else was described as having ‘no back’. It’s something to do with parts of our bodies being absent to us. The answer these days is to swim more, but I have not ventured into the English channel since November, and certainly don’t intend to now, with the huge brown swell, the sudden big lurching tide that would vanish me in a second. All I do is look at it from the balcony; a passenger on a boat that never docks.

But I know what he means about swimming. In LA I swam every day in an open-air pool. The area was fringed with merry red Bougainvillea, insubstantial as paper, and smelling of nothing. My wet footsteps evaporated behind me, making me handily invisible. It was all man-made, and relatively new; units instead of flats, everything built for the purpose, everything clean. At first glance there is nowhere to hide, no nooks or crannies, so you are exposed to the neighbours wanting to chat/complain about the perfect temperature of the water, the ‘chill’ in the air when there is none, the only thing fluttering being the leaf of a book or a butterfly. It feels an empty landscape.007Until you take yourself off; behind the tennis court is a narrow pathway where there is a pendulous lemon tree; Eureka lemons, that are thick and pock-marked, and heavy in the hand, and need a hoe to get a purchase. Sprouting like mad hair is wild fennel and the smell is strong and medicinal and follows you to the orange trees, their diseased leaves and strongly floral blossoms, heady like some kind of deathly elixir. A wild peach tree stands anonymously, with blossoms like any other, and tough herbs lead the way round the complex. Yards from the pool is this alchemy of smell, coming up from the dust.

For me the pull to this landscape is stronger, particularly now that I know about our own Meyer lemon tree and its rash of blossom, and the ‘eight or nine’ hummingbirds that visit it every day. And Joe is there, doing the B&B in my stead, greeting the guests, not making the lemon shortbread or jam or ironing the sheets (‘I’m not going to do it like you’), but feeding the stray cat and getting rave reviews and being lovely as only he can be. Here in England there is rhubarb and snowdrops and long cold doused days, and the obscene trickle of rainwater as it finds the nape of the neck. Bay trees stand to attention outside glossy eateries but it rarely occurs to me to take a leaf and scrunch it up, and smell its warm spiky clove-ness.026Occasionally it feels like fun; the new roomy Circle Line, and the hoards of children on half term holiday on the tubes and the buses up in London (‘hold on to the yellow, Imogen!’). A small boy in a bike helmet traces his F Words To Work On next to me with his finger: frightened, fallow, fall, fat. And suddenly I feel bereft that there’ll be no Imogen in LA, none of these terribly English moments. So I make myself think of the sun, like a huge melting pat of butter in the sky. The blue will be the most unEnglish blue. The herbs will be virulent, wild and prolific and the air will smell of them. I’ll stride out, lunge into water and then feel it evaporate on my skin. I’ll have my own bowl of lemons, the car, the pool, that constant sun again (always the same), a brilliant dry cleaner, empty streets. Hopefully no more empty legs.005

The B&B lemon shortbread began life as Jane Grigson’s shortbread knobs in her Fruit Book though I have doctored them with lemon zest and almonds. They are incredibly simple to make: melt 175g unsalted butter over a medium heat and add the finely grated zest of two lemons. Allow this to infuse and cool. Then add to the butter 200g of plain flour, 25g of ground almonds, 125g of sugar and a pinch of sea salt (all mixed together beforehand in a bowl). Make a sandy paste and then roll the mixture into little teaspoon-sized balls which you then press slightly to flatten. Bake on trays with parchment paper at 150C/300F for about 25 minutes. They’re done when they’re golden brown. Sometimes I drop a couple of torn bay leaves into the melted butter to infuse – is this wrong? I don’t know but I like the smell and fish them out before adding the flour.

Unbearably smug

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027The last of the Sevilles and I barely registered their presence. Here and gone and not really that baggy or grim-looking. Not ugly enough. Normally I’m halted by the sheer filth. But these were tight little things; tidy orange globes with a few grimy seams. All a bit middle class. Still, I couldn’t resist. Because when all else fails, you’ve got a kitchen smelling like an orange grove for twenty-four hours. And then potted up, you’ve got jars of warm pellucid brightness: Seville orange marmalade. And then you can spend the rest of the year being unbearably smug, perhaps handing jars out to people (‘it’s probably awful, yes, I made it, not sure what it tastes like, I didn’t bother measuring, oh god I never buy pectin, it’s all in the pips and pith!’). We are a violently humble people.

And we don’t do it like the French, who on the whole have far more sex than we do. My French friend Monique literally throws beetroot at me in the street. There is no preamble at all. And because it’s straight from her allotment, there is a fair amount of clag attached. She unearths atrocious-looking, gorgeous-tasting stuff and shares it with a bewildered, Gallic shrug, as if to say: what am I going to do with all this incessant greenery?

There are no strings attached to her generosity. And because English is not her first language, there is no hidden meaning in her conversation. There are no barbs or subtle slights. No crowing. We are great crowers. And because I have been here a fair while this time round, I have noticed this as one notices the way ivy creeps into brickwork and destabilizes it. You are demolished slowly, gently, by stealth.014The clue is no questions. No interest in who you are or what you’re doing, as if your being interesting is somehow a threat. It must be something to do with being islanders, being victors and colonizers. We are guilty and proud and a bit defensive at the same time. All of this is in the marmalade, by the way: that bitter candy and burnt orange aroma, taut, thick rind against umber jelly, the sticky tributaries of syrup, the brightness in winter, the selfless preserving, the putting up, and putting up with, the sex (or lack thereof). We put it all in there. Possibly why Seville orange marmalade is such a complex preserve; because we are.001Seville Orange Marmalade

Adapted from Delia Smith, Complete Cookery Course

There are versions of this elsewhere on the blog – I would say this is the definitive Delia, and my favourite so far. It’s lovely on its own on a piece of toast, an oatcake, anything, or dropped into some cake batter (gingerbread is a natural bedfellow as is anything chocolate). And in case you are put off by the intricacies of making your own marmalade, just so you know there are no intricacies: I have been making very good marmalade for years with nothing but a big saucepan and a clean handkerchief (for the pips and pith). It’s a bit long-winded, that’s all. Always worth it.

Makes 6lb/2.75 kg

2lb (900g) Seville oranges
1 lemon
4 pints (2.25 litres) water
4lb (1.8kg) granulated sugar (you could make some of this light muscovado)

Six 1lb (450g) jars, a square of gauze/muslin or a clean handkerchief or a new pair of tan tights/stockings, string and a saucer.

Begin by squeezing the juice from the oranges and the lemon into the pan you’ll be using. Remove all the pith and pips as you go and place them on a square of muslin laid over a bowl; the pips and pith contain the pectin which will enable your marmalade to set. Now cut the peel into shreds and add it to the juice – as fine or as thick as you like, but the thicker it is, the longer it will take to soften. When you’re done, add the water to the juice and peel, tie up the muslin to form a small bag – make sure nothing will escape – and add that too. Leave in a cool place overnight.

The next day, tie the muslin bag to the handle so that it bobs like a cork in the liquid  (but doesn’t touch the bottom). Now is the time to put a saucer in the freezer so you can begin testing later. Bring the liquid gently to the boil and then lower the heat and simmer. It is ready when the peel is completely soft – you can test a piece by pressing it between your finger and thumb. This can take anything from 35 minutes to an hour and a half; be aware that once sugar meets rind, it will no longer soften.

When the peel is ready, lift out the muslin bag and leave it on a plate until it’s cool enough to handle. Pour the sugar into the pan and stir over a very low heat until it has dissolved. You may want to hold back on the full amount of sugar and go for a slightly tarter taste. When there are no crystals left, increase the heat and bring the marmalade to a rolling boil. Now squeeze every last bit of the jelly-like pectin that oozes from the muslin bag into the pan. Every little helps here, so be vigilant. Skim off any froth or scum that comes to the surface and leave the marmalade at a fast boil for 15 minutes. Now put a tablespoon of it on one of the cold saucers and let it cool in the fridge. If when you push the marmalade with your finger the mixture crinkles like a furrowed brow, then you have a ‘set’.

Keep testing at 10 minute intervals until it has reached setting consistency. The mixture will start to look more amber and treacly – there is a trick here which is to watch as droplets of the marmalade leave a spoon. When it’s ready, there will be one single droplet; one of the myriad ways of knowing it’s set. Leave the marmalade to settle for about 20 minutes otherwise all the peel will float to the top of the jar. Wash and dry your jars and warm them in a moderate oven – this will sterilize them. Ladle the marmalade into the jars and seal immediately. Label when completely cold.002

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