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.
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. 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. But 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
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.