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_7139 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. 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.IMG_7188

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.

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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.

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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.

Staying put

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imageThis is tortilla, by which I mean Spanish omelette. Potatoes and onion sweated into a sticky mass and then flopped into beaten egg and then cooked at the lowest of heats until the top sort of coheres and then you flip it over and then it’s done. Better the next day. The recipe I use is by Delia. I somehow wish it wasn’t; someone less Spanish it would be hard to find. And yet it works.

We have been meaning to go on holiday. We were thinking of Mallorca, one of the Spanish Balearic islands. It’s apparently nothing like its previously sordid reputation and is actually really beautiful (and cheap if you use Norwegian Airlines and fly on a Saturday). But we didn’t go there. We flirted with Greece; Paxos, the place I visited when all I had was a few bin bags, a single bed sheet and £40. We didn’t go there in the end. Something about scrolling down a screen and picking a place at random was off-putting, as if all these places were somehow the same, Turkey, Toulouse, Lanzerote, Labia. I think by the end we didn’t know if they were countries or cities or what.

And it wouldn’t really have been a holiday, more a kind of fleeing. As if we were train robbers, when we were just waiting for our flat to become available, and needed somewhere to stay in the interim. But we became a bit heady at the idea of Europe because we haven’t had Europe for so many years; the idea of it, where you get on a plane that costs 10p and suddenly you are in Bosnia! Or you get on a train and you’re in Paris, city of dogs. A coach to World War 1! But I really missed going into a travel agent and being put into a trance. It’s not the same unless you’re frothing at the mouth and gently rocking while a lovely lady in a pink pelmet leafs through a catalogue and guides her gilded talon-shaped nails to some facts appertaining to you and your travel needs and then taps away at her keyboard for a while. The holiday always came to about £3,000 all in but it was like meditation. I always left with nothing but a few free magazines and a strange, limp smile on my face.image imageSo we didn’t go away. Instead, I decided to photograph conkers against a hessian background and throw away my hideous shoes. I bought a new pair from Clarks shoe shop, which was also a hypnotic experience. In the end I had no idea what I was buying. They’re cream leather with green laces and they look like little crimped pies. “They certainly make a statement!” the assistant said, while I walked up and down. Anyway, I quite like them. And we have just left LA. Maybe we’re not ready for Europe yet. It is autumn here and everyone is going away. We’ve arrived and everyone is going. Mystified by the weather, everyone talks about it, and their colds, which are measly and mainly consist of sneezing. But there are extraordinary changes afoot here, and it’s exciting. There are storms and dangerous fissures in the chalk Downs, the sea is wild but still swimable. There’s a colony of rare kittiwakes nesting in the cliffs at Seaford. On the seafront, some kind Lithuanian fishermen handed us some mackerel, which were a startling, shiny blue with eyes like little buttons. I don’t actually know that they were Lithuanian, because I didn’t ask. It was decided that they were, through some weird process to do with their courtly manners.

I was described as ‘the lady in beige’ today. There I was draped over a plastic chair waiting to have ‘my bloods’ taken by the phlebotomist and it made me inwardly smile. And a kind chef from my favourite cafe Front Room in Seaford gave me my own ramekin of Spanish almonds to go with my egg and chips. His gesture and the plate of food reminded me of the tortilla – a warm feast of piquant, oniony yellows and browns – which feels right for autumn, for rugging up in various shades of beige, for staring out to sea, and for staying put.018

Englishly wonderful

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imageThis is summer pudding. Perhaps they were being ironic when they named it, because it’s made using late summer fruit; redcurrants, raspberries. A clutch of other berries perhaps if you’re feeling rebellious. But it is more a dark and winy end to summer days. Bread soaked, I want to say blooded, in the juices of just popping fruit, crunchy berries with rather drastic seeds. This thing, this glorious crimson dome, came at the end of a proper Sunday lunch. I didn’t make it, I simply watched its procession from the kitchen out into the garden to where we sat under a canopy of grapes. I think I may well have actually said all this, Dimbleby-like, as it was carried forth. I might have provided some sort of commentary.

I do this when I’m nervous. I say what’s happening, as if for the benefit of an audience. If you like Brecht, then you’d feel quite at home sitting next to me during one of these events. I say things like: “I can’t believe we’re sitting under a canopy of grapes”. Other popular expressions: “it’s such an amazing colour!” It’s basically meta theatre and it makes things more exciting, I find. And also if you don’t know what to say, you just describe your surroundings. “If in doubt, enthuse”, a friend at university once advised.

imageIt came with a small jug of the juice – “blood of Christ” – and a bowl of thick and undulating cream – “what an amazing spoon, is it ancient?” – and then there was the eating of it. “How Englishly wonderful!”, said another guest. And it was. Not too sweet, gloriously sodden, the cream a kind of lactic counterpoint. I said all this, but no one was listening. The cold of it was intoxicating.

Liz grows her own fruit in her allotment that she’s had for ages. Fruit is easier to grow than vegetables apparently – blackcurrants, redcurrants, nothing to it – though I think we had her carrots. She also made the apple and mint jelly that accompanied our lamb, and my elderflower cordial was made by her, I think, in France. If this had been me, no one would have needed to ask. I would have volunteered all this information possibly before the removal of coats. But there you go. Some people, Liz being one, have no desire to broadcast their efforts, or to write about them. The festishizing of food is not her style. imageThe trip from Chiswick to Putney had taken ages, with full and fetid tube carriages crammed with people eating enormous flapping sandwiches. We were hungry and it was cold by the time we arrived and I was wearing a dress in denial of the unrelenting autumn wind with stupid bare legs. And then there were the five years of no one we knew making a Sunday roast in LA. Then there was LA, where nothing was full of fat or scaldingly hot, no gravy, no sauce or large florid ears of cauliflower, no chunks of melting lamb, or red-stained lips and purple tongues or waves of cream. I was unprepared for the Englishly wonderful aspect of it all.

And I was also reminded of being in England before when I was much younger and the odd thing about Sundays, the melancholy aspect to them; that they were always the end of something that hadn’t quite begun. But more than anything, this meal was served with complete knowledge of what a traditional Sunday lunch should be. And we were coming to it as you might after a long absence. It was all a bit of a shock. We left at 5 o’clock and then talked about it for days. We tried to nail down the pudding, what it was that made it so good. Perhaps more than anything it was that this went on. It was the routineness of it, and next year all being well at around the same time if we’re in the vicinity and we don’t get lost, we’ll try it again. Summer pudding, late. With whatever berries you have, and more if you’re feeling rebellious.

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The classic summer pudding has only redcurrants and raspberries, but this pudding also had blackcurrants and in fact are a popular addition generally; they add a bit of clout and deep colour. This is Nigel Slater’s recipe, which follows the classic one expounded by Jane Grigson and the like. Spoon over any extra juice which will add drama and will possibly garner you a round of applause. Or pour the juice into a jug to serve along with some thick cream with a preferably ancient spoon.

2nd October – Liz’s thoughts on her summer pudding via email

“So glad you enjoyed the summer pudding! I regret to say, it wasn’t really according to a recipe, although I started with an Elizabeth David one and then adapted it as I went along…. I think it is crucial to use stale white bread , and E D says only use raspberries and redcurrant in a ratio of 3 to 1. The amount of sugar is optional (I think I used about a quarter of a cup) and a little water. Simmer fruit for 5 mins. At that stage I thought mine was too sweet so added blackcurrants, and then not sure there was enough fruit, so added some strawberries. As you can see, I made it up as I went along! A useful tip is to line the pudding basin with cling film before putting in the sliced bread as it makes it much easier to get out.”

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Still life

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imageThese are pears that have fallen from the tree, next door to where we are staying in Chiswick, west London. It is a temporary stop-gap and we are house sitting and cat sitting a rather somnolent cross-eyed cat, an amazing shade of fawn. In fact everything in the house is on the fawn continuum so sometimes it’s hard to spot her. She is also the same colour as the envelopes that arrive from Hounslow council. Anyway, we have been enjoying the pears, that are apparently diseased. At the end of the street is a mulberry tree, which has just been cut back but earlier in the week the pavement was festooned with them, little car crashes all over the place, splats of pink, ruby spillages. We were keen to walk around them so as not to tramp mulberry stains through the house and spoil the general atmosphere of hotel calm. Which at the moment suits our mood, when normally we would be cradling the fruit in our hands and covering ourselves in the never-ever vanishing juice. Because when could you ever resist a mulberry? Never. imageAlthough I have been posting from England regularly since I started blogging, it was as an LA resident. I would always eventually board a plane back to LA, full up on Bach’s Rescue Remedy pastilles and sodden with days of fraught tears. This time, however, I am writing as a resident of England, because we have moved from LA and are now back on English soil. My blog posts will lack, I imagine, some of the emotional freight they once had – nostalgia for crisps and autumn, the love of a good walk etc – and I will be a bit more, well, down to earth, maybe, but hopefully not prosaic. We will be returning to LA regularly so I’m sure I’ll have some interesting tales to tell from immigration, and the warm and caring LA drivers and those women with faces made of brown candle wax. imageIn the meantime, I have turned the beam of my affection to those things that are difficult to find here – the type of sun and light in LA, which is almost a hard blue, all angles, and then driving, the thing that tormented me more than anything else; okay, I miss the grid system in LA. I miss grids. I miss driving in a straight line for hours at a time with no pedestrians, no people to ruin it, finding Say You Love Me on the CD player with my fingers (Fleetwood Mac Greatest Hits, track 11) tracing it like Braille in case the driver in front suddenly decided not to bother with indicating. And of course I miss our neighbours, who cordially and kindly took my cakes, sometimes as many as two a day (when things were really bad) and who became our friends, and then finally our family. And all the lovely people who scooped us up and fed us and listened to my various diatribes (“Cats need to be free to express their natural instincts!” “I’m European, I refuse to wear a bra”). Sometimes I just miss the right turn out of the garage, the car tipping down the hill into the first sun of the morning, like a massive fruit in the sky, knowing it wouldn’t change, and being endlessly surprised by it.image Here I’m not so much surprised as bemused by the amount of grown men in tailored suits eating Wotsits. Wealth, that’s a surprise, particularly here in London – it makes me want to go up to the chestnut-haired glossy mares drinking lattes in Chiswick House and ask how they did it, and could I have a look at their bank statements? I don’t remember London ever being so untouchably rich (reading John Lanchester on the subject helps). So in that sense, I’m a foreigner, but in every other way, I’m home. ‘Here no elsewhere underwrites my existence’, Philip Larkin wrote. So no LA, no mad people, no Jessica Biel or citrus to beguile you with, but plenty of pears, cats, mulberries, unpacking and, when in London, extortion. It’ll be an interesting few months, thank you for following me.

Black and blue

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016Yesterday we went walking and found these blackberries, the red picked as an enticement to the black ones to gel. I made a rather flouncy-sounding mûrée with them – a kind of jam but without the staggering amount of sugar. ‘Serve it tepid with a grainy cake,’ is Jane Grigson’s rather dowdy instruction, though I found the marriage of mûrée and yoghurt far more appealing. You can keep the jam in the fridge and be none the wiser. There are umpteen blackberry recipes around, and so it is easy to feel overpowered and then give up, eat them in a desultory way and stain your breathable ‘windproof’ pockets into the bargain. Your hands will also look as if they have been attacked by a feral dog.

But this, I have discovered, is part of the joy. Because there are also windfall apples to be scooped up. And elderberries and rosehips in the hedges, and some sweet little weedy chamomile that we picked and a couple of plump and bruised-looking figs. All foraged (or nicked depending on who you ask).030This is what happens when you leave the Metropolis; things can get a bit wild. On Sunday, we took a path that was familiar to us, walking from Berwick church, stopping to admire the clear windows and the stillness inside and the murals by Vanessa Bell, the sculptural bird bath, and then into fields of corn, the wind looping around us and whipping the trees into a frenzy (‘I hate trees. They’re so noisy!’ I once heard a woman say to her friend on the bus). This bit we knew, but then the trail we normally took was overgrown, with watery mud underfoot and a dead crow, and then a scratchy tunnel of blackberries. We picked the purple bulbous ones and tied them up handkerchief-style in the left over clingfilm from mum’s sandwich. The rest were burrowed deep into pockets, leeching out like blood onto our hands.

And then suddenly there was no more trail and no stile. It was odd, as if it had just disappeared or we had remembered it wrongly, which we hadn’t. And then came the rain, big splodges of it, and we stood there with instant wet feet, socks like sopping flannels and wondered what to do, repeatedly going up to the barbed wire fence as if it would become something else. Finally we climbed over it, our trousers and socks snagging on the wires, sparking rivulets of blood and a torrent of swearing, and then we traipsed over the Downs to Alfriston to a warm and steamy tea room, and I felt like a character in a Barbara Pym novel – Connie Aspinal to my mother’s Edith Liversidge on our way to bag a curate –  our wet things hurled in front of the cake counter so that the lovely young (slightly frightened) waitress had a job getting to the Millionaire’s shortbread.031Actually she was only frightened for a bit, and then she dealt with us in the manner of a woman running a hospital in wartime; calm, efficient, professionally wary. Then as we went from oolong to rooibos back to English breakfast, from two scones to one and then realized we couldn’t actually pay because we had brought the wrong debit card, she gave up and became herself and we chatted about life generally, her horrible time at school, her love of drama and English literature and being bullied for years and now being friends with her tormentors. And then we paid with something (my Oyster card, I think) and ran headlong into the bus that had already left its stop but was the very last one and if we missed it I think we would have drowned each other. I didn’t have my ticket because it had disintegrated in the rain but the driver simply nodded me to a seat and we trundled over the Downs back to Seaford completely exhausted. And people think LA is wild.

La Mûrée

Adapted from Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book

I can imagine this swirled through Bircher muesli. It is delicious with cream as a kind of fool or as the fruit component in a crostata. It is endlessly versatile and you can also use gluten-free flour. Honestly, I never measure anything but throw it all in and hope for the best, but the measurements are here for safety (and because sometimes mine tastes like papier mache if I’m a bit free form with the flour)

1 lb (½ kg) of blackberries
Sugar to taste (Jane Grigson uses 250g/1 cup)
Juice of half a lemon
25g flour (¼ cup)

Rinse the blackberries if necessary. Put them in a pan with the sugar, the juice of the lemon and the flour. Stir for a few minutes until cooked, over a slow heat. The juices will start to run and the fruit will cook down, though it’s nice if the berries retain some of their shape. Leave to cool and then store in the fridge.

Courgette plot

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011Hard to say if this is an unusually buoyant time for courgettes or this is the norm. Everyone has a recipe, and people who profess not to be gardeners are growing courgettes and holding forth on what to stuff the blossoms with, and what size an ideal courgette should be (small). I was given a bag of courgettes by French-friend-Monique, and they were on the large side, almost marrows, though when I cooked them they didn’t become the sloppy, watery mess cooked marrows are famous for. They actually tasted of something but with big gangster-like seeds. I followed French-friend-Monique’s recipe for soup, which was so easy and lacking in peril of any kind that I kept asking her the same thing - is that it? – because being French I thought it would be difficult but taste very good in the end. Her instructions, repeated for my benefit, were to “put them in water with a stock cube and throw in some cheese triangles.”022She gave me two triangles and the soup was delicious, and the next night I put in two blobs of goat’s cheese, and I think that is the soup’s secret. I also added some ‘umami paste’ that was being sold off cheap at the supermarket because reportedly no one knew what they were buying. It is in fact a mixture of anchovy, olive, parmesan, and other dark and yeasty backnotes, but you are essentially buying flavour; a bit like buying a jar called ‘hope’ or ‘rumour’. A friend who tried it couldn’t quite put her finger on what it was she liked, the soup a tease, like the boy at school you fancied who turned out to be made of nothing, but who made your life a merry hell before you realized. A bit like that.023

But you don’t want a recipe for soup. And it’s hardly, barely a recipe at that (I did in fact, unbeknownst to Monique, sweat the courgettes in some butter and olive oil with some garlic before adding the water, cooking it gently for 20 minutes and then whizzing in a blender with the soft cheese, because I couldn’t bear not to, but this is the Michelin starred version).

These are courgette and potato rosti – otherwise known as patties, polpette or even, and this might just be in my house, rissoles – and they came by way of a rather recalcitrant man in a tight vest who was weeding his plot in a walled garden I happened to be in the other day. The walled garden was spectacular; full of tall wavy bolting lettuces that made me think of Rapunzel, wigwams of fussy frilly sweet peas with their butterfly flowers, darkly mottled pears against one wall and espaliered plums on the other, covered in netting, which somehow made me think of bras. In the middle was this man, bending to fill his trug with slim purple beans. At first he seemed friendly. “We’re just admiring the garden,” we said by way of introduction, because it was in fact private property, in the grounds of an old house, a retreat of sorts, but the gate had been open and so we had sidled in. “Of course, yeah,” he said and started to peel the drying sheafs off his corn cobs. “I like your courgettes,” I said because we were standing right by a strange serpent-like mass of them blooming up from the ground; blossoms yellow as butter reached out from the sides, and yellow and green snakes of the vegetable slithered over the ground.029

“Yeah,” he said, or something like that. And I told him about my marrow-like courgettes from French-friend-Monique, and he said big was bad and did we have an allotment? No, no garden, mum said. No garden since 1976. That’s why she loved coming here, she was thinking of asking if there was a plot to spare. And then we started talking about what we could do with the courgettes, and he reeled off a list while he threw his corn into the trug and carried on peeling away at the next cob – “there’s courgette bread, courgette cake, courgette rosti, courgette soup, sweat them down with a bit of oil and garlic etc.” – and as he went on I decided I didn’t like him. It was just a feeling. If this had been Monique she would have slipped us a few courgettes and thrust the blossoms in a bag with a flap of her hands as if it hadn’t happened. Not because I was expecting him to – but because I knew he was the kind of person who wouldn’t. “It was nice to meet you, enjoy your harvesting,” I said and moved away. He bent over his trug and threw in the corn with another, bleaker, “Yeah”.

And as we left we saw, right by the mottled pears, a trench of unused, overgrown spartan earth; a plot. That gave us ideas. Which we kept to ourselves until we left the grounds. And then we schemed and schemed and schemed away.

Courgette and potato rosti 

Adapted from Mark Hix, the Independent

The idea with rosti is to grate cooked potato with – in this case – raw courgette and then fry in a little olive oil and butter until it looks like a golden haystack. I was taken aback by the sheer amount of juice the courgette extruded. I dealt with this by squeezing the (considerable) liquid out of the grated courgette using a tea towel before adding it to the potato. The rosti were light and subtle, grassy-green and fresh-tasting and I found dusting them lightly in flour before frying helped counteract the dampness. I ate mine with horseradish and a poached egg.

Serves 4

200-250g waxy new potatoes, boiled in skin, cooled then grated

1 large or 2 small courgettes

salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 clove of garlic, crushed and finely chopped

flour

2-3 tbs vegetable oil for frying

A couple of good knobs of butter

Grate the unpeeled courgettes using a cheese grater or something similar and then squeeze out the liquid through a clean tea towel. Add the grated courgette to the cooled and grated – and unskinned – potato. Mix well and season. I add the garlic here; I know this won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I think it adds to the heady freshness. Heat a non-stick blini or frying pan with a glug of oil. Add balls of the courgette and potato mixture dipped in flour to the pan once the oil is shimmering, press the mixture down a little with a spatula and cook for about 2-3 minutes until brown and crisp. Flip them over and add a little butter to the pan and cook for a similar amount of time. Serve with a poached or fried egg and a dollop of horseradish.

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