Small green plums

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‘Surprise/after so long/of a love/I thought I had scattered it about the world’

This beautiful string of words is by an Italian poet called Giuseppe Ungaretti. This is one of his easier ones. I love it and it does make sense, if you re-read it a lot. We used to say it in the manner of Cilla Black: Surprise! It sounds just as good in her Liverpool trill, in fact. But funnier and less sincere. This was back in the day when we were at university and revising for our end of year exams and anything to get us through it helped. Small tables in the corners of rooms, an ironed-on carpet, a lot of smoking, endless tea, the sound of the put-upon mum next door playing nicely with her children. My friend Angela would wait to hear a sigh on the other side of the door followed by the sound of a paperback being closed before making her entrance with a cup of tea.

She must have been standing very close to hear it. Apparently I was a bit of a diva about being disturbed back then, my train of thought snagged by an interruption. It all mattered so much; having to re-sit as I did, because I’d failed a paper the first time round, meant I spent the whole summer revising. But now I still have those poems etched in my memory which I am thankful for, as well as having a free higher education and a huge wealth of actual experiences that did not involve the world wide web.

I remember cheque-books (in the off licence: Who do I make it payable to? Cashier: It’s all right we’ve got a stamp. Me: (writing on the cheque) It’s Alright We’ve Got a Stamp LTD), mix-tapes, actual love letters, long afternoons spent dressing up, sitting up all night talking and walking home at dawn, cream teas. Watching as people were brought over on a plane to see relatives they’d given up for dead forty years earlier on Cilla Black’s Surprise! Surprise!

The poem above has meant different things to me at different times in my life. At the time, at 20, it meant: I am an intellectual and I write in pencil in the margins of books I can only buy in Grant & Cutler. Now I understand it to mean, what matters is here. It’s been here all along. Or, it’s behind you, in the case of these plums. After three growing seasons, I have taken on a fallow plot behind me, which has been producing little green plums, Victoria plums, pears, apples, damsons and rhubarb that no one has thought to or been allowed to help themselves to. I’m sure I could have and no one would have been any the wiser. To think these plums have been dropping silently into the long grass all this time to be eaten by wasps and foxes. Which is possibly why our resident fox has such loose bowels.

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They’re not greengages as we at first thought. They’re too small apparently (although according to Nigel S. all green plums are these days called gages) but they are ripe, small and soft and full of the green juice. Avoid the ones with the wasps in; they burrow inside and lay their eggs and then mid-suckle you look down and see a dark brown residue – wasp shit. This is often accompanied by a tiny maggot that rears up to meet you, with a massive smile on its face.

I met up with Angela recently after many years and we talked about those times – my tendency to fall down stairs, our shrine to Victoria Wood, our innocence and excitement at everything. How we fell in love, platonically, with each other and how no one ever talks about that. And how we used to talk relentlessly in brackets: Hello Emma (yes, you can come in but your calves have to stay outside). Our love for Joan Hickson and Charles Hawtrey and the complete works of Marvin Gaye. Our complete and utter exhausting silliness.

Perhaps you have to get to almost fifty to realise what an intoxicating surprise it is, that it’s still there. Better than anything, better than the future, which can exert a strange sense of threat. It’s a nice surprise to know that if you stand still long enough in one place all the best things will catch up with you. That is the hope, which last week proved true. And here is the poem in Italian, which I will endeavour to remember without resorting to my book:

‘Sorpresa/dopo tanto/d’un amore/credevo di averlo sparpagliato/per il mondo’

 

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I stewed the plums: cover the base of a heavy pan with a film of water, add the (preferably stoned) plums and a little sugar/honey/maple syrup/nothing. I sprinkled on some ground ginger and star anise. Simmer until the plums collapse, about fifteen to twenty minutes. Put lid on and leave until morning and eat with yoghurt. Or pot up and refrigerate. Also lovely sieved and made into a purée.

The colour mauve

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Already this is an entirely dated picture. A week in allotment time is six months in normal. The California poppies have collapsed beneath the weight of their stems, the central path has become powdery and yellowed under the harshness of the sun. Bees like mauve. So they are still feasting, swarming over the borage, the geraniums, the sweet peas and the lavender.What’s left, just, are the nasturtiums, redly hot and peppery, calendula, verbena bonariensis (I never got round to finding a replacement for my frostbitten lemon verbena, so I have mint tea instead, a few hairy leaves in some boiled water can be a virtuous start to the day).

The heat requires shade. I am growing, from a root cutting given me by an allotment friend, a grape vine which is still in its curly glossy beginnings. It went into shock at first, a state I know well. But it has recovered. The plan is to train it over a structure and then sit under it with a Pimm’s getting steadily drunk, with ice cubes. See borage flowers below for cucumber notes.

I  still find that the allotment works for me. It doesn’t stop anxiety, over-thinking, self-absorption, worry, but it diverts them into small achievable tasks. And before you know it, you’re semi normal again! You’ve just had a conversation with someone! You strung a sentence together. I find that time passes and at the end I’ve been delivered into my body again, for free. Well, £70 a year is quite reasonable if the brief is: grow vegetables and some fruit and find sanity.

I cycled to the allotment on Friday to pick something for dinner, sorrel, some parsley, a few gooseberries dusty in my hand; whatever looked easy and pickable. It was early evening, a time I find ripe with difficulty (what have I achieved today? Ever? Etc). I met two children on the path, five and a half and seven years old they told me, who came with me to help me pick. The boy was barefoot. I had never met them before but we became instant friends, not sure how this happened but they trooped over to my plot to help me full of chatter and questions. Do you have any pets? The boy asked. No. Not a dog? Not a cat? No. This worried him, I could tell.

We picked some radishes and marvelled at their perfect spherical shape and hot pink colour. Do you like radishes? No, they both said. Too spicy. But they enjoyed washing them under the tap, revealing their perfect pinkness, glimmers of white beneath,  the pink shorn away by bite marks. Have a nasturtium, I said, and the boy put a petal in his mouth and instantly looked aghast. What were we doing eating flowers? He stood there, face shut in some internal torment of wrongness. I can’t eat this, he said quietly, and spat it out.

He was quickly diverted by the task of separating out equal bouquets of radishes to take back to their mum. I’d forgotten how ferocious this can be, making sure it was ‘fair’. The girl had all the big ones, so a reshuffle was required. As we walked back with our stash, this happened.

Boy to me: What are you going to eat with your vegetables?

Me: I think I might have some fish.

Boy (excited): So you DO have pets?

See what I mean? Diversion. Meeting people. Radishes. Pets. Children. Barefoot. Bike.

And then I felt normal. Happy summer holidays to you all.

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P.S These are borage flowers. They have the merest hint of cucumber about them. You can add them to salads and ice cubes to put in drinks if you fancy. They lack the kick and personality of nasturtiums but are very pretty.

Clearing

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I start on a bit at the allotment and clear it: along the border that separates my plot from next door’s, around the rhubarb, thick with last season’s nigella and bindweed, the rhubarb itself trampled by a fox or the man behind’s bulldog – a sweet, lolloping animal that often lies down beside me and falls asleep in the sun.

I edge. Then I collect stones. The earth is thick with them, almost like shingle or scree. I pile them up in flower pots as I go and the idea is that I will eventually pull up the central path that divides one side of the plot from the other and which consists mainly of couch grass and dandelions and fill it with the stones that I find. A crunchy path which will block out the light and suffocate all the weeds, so to speak. Other neighbours have done this and I know it works, and I love the crunch and sharpness underfoot. I am forever figuring out how long I can live with the path looking as it does.

The clearing starts to infect every area of my life – and the shed. The shed with its tiny mouse carcass and debris from two years back. Now it is clean and clear and in order – I have mugs and a gas ring and a kettle and tea. Otherwise known as ‘facilities’.

The shed is a small wooden room and makes me feel child-like when I go in. It’s also a good place to wee and spy on people. I wish I could sit at the table – above, under the kettle – and write and potter about, but the plot exerts a tyranny over me whenever I go because there is always far too much to do. I spend my days longing to be there, And then when I’m there I go at it with such force it’s as if there’s a teacher standing by taking the register and holding a stopwatch.

Today I followed a nice New Zealander to a fallow plot one over from me because it was full of disused timber and it needed to be cleared so it could be offered up to a newcomer. The discovery of wood – branches, planks, logs – has become a source of intense pleasure since I began at the allotment. I scour fields and woodland and skips for wood I can use on the plot. I prefer this to bricks but bricks will do or tiles at a pinch.

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I clear in order to fill the spaces again; I pulled up a small carpet of nigella, as I said, because it had become so wild, and then sowed other flowers – calendula, cornflowers – in its place. What was wrong with the nigella? It is an endless cycle of clearing and filling space and sometimes you have to stop; today I made myself stand up and watch as two butterflies with amazing black and red markings hovered over the herb bed, noticed bees alighting on the flowering angelica. A white moth. A single magpie. Sweet peas like huge green hands full of colour grasping at nothing. That kind of thing. And when it rains – always weirdly a relief – there’s the shed and the respite from going at it, a reprieve from clearing for a time.

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Despite once being illegal to grow flowers on allotments, most plot holders now have an area given over to a swathe of nigella, dahlias, a drift of poached egg plants or nasturtium etc. I would just have herbs and edible flowers if I had my way but that’s not allowed. It’s easy and cheap to grow any of these from seed, and do it now: calendula, nigella, borage, sweet marjoram, parsley. They can all be sown direct into previously watered soil. Calendula goes very nicely in salads; scatter the petals, leaving behind the thick bits.

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a sad centre

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This is what happens to some cakes, the ones that rise and then fall. The ‘sadness’ occurs in the centre which slumps defeatedly. Tamasin Day-Lewis was the cook I learnt this term from. It is purposeful, the slump, and not a mistake. Although here there is a hole; cake has been gouged out. It is that kind of cake – bitterly chocolatey, with espresso poured into the mix and with it almonds and butter. I only had a Pyrex dish to bake it in, because I was at my mum’s and I’d taken all her cake tins, slowly, stealthily, over the years. But it didn’t matter because it rose and fell as it should, was luscious and divine, thickly glottal and needing no accompaniment.

This is the most beautiful surface to photograph on. I never do anything to prep it, it is simply the north light and a navy counter hastily de-crumbed. I have had many late afternoon sessions, far at the end of a long corridor, where it is quiet, away from the bashing sea and the compulsive view – long stretches of water fill the windows at the front. The sea disappears gradually, engulfed in mist and the sun’s dazzle. You can’t not look. At the other end there’s nothing much, except height. I have been coming here to this plain seaside town for the last twenty years. I have never found a countertop to better it.

Late afternoons when we’ve trailed huffily up the stairs (92 of them) desperate for a cup of tea, after (just) getting the little green bus from Alfriston on a Sunday. Or a late swim in stagnant August weather, or I’m despatched to make something for an impromptu high tea. I’m miles away from it all in the kitchen and there are never any scales. I make do with the ones my mum uses for throwing her pots, I use her Cheffette mixer bought from a charity shop. I make a cake I ‘shouldn’t’ eat. “Are you allowed that?” is always the question I’m asked. As if I need written permission from a doctor before I can eat cake.

The flat belonged once to the painter Augustus John and when my mum bought it, it belonged to a potter, who with her husband decided after a year that Seaford was too friendless a place, and moved on back to France. From the beginning there were troubles; the building had heroin addicts and pigeon feeders and lots of ‘structural issues’. Neighbours were non-compliant. But my mum was left with a kiln and a room converted into a studio, perched over the English channel – overlooked only by the sea.

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Seaford has no grand architecture. There are no great restaurants, food culture, no ‘scene’. It has a long and manmade shingle beach, is in a bit of a wind tunnel. It isn’t Dorset or those places in Suffolk that people flock to to eat organic ice cream and wear long ‘wraps’. It reminds me of the towns Paul Theroux visited in The Kingdom by the Sea, where he travelled by train and on foot round the coast of Britain during the period of the Falklands war. Seaford has a defeated, slightly belligerent air. It is true what he says here:

“The greatest advantage in this tour was that a country tended to seep to its coast; it was concentrated there, deposited against its beaches like the tide-wrack from the sea. People naturally gravitated to the coast, and they wore fewer clothes there – it was normal on the coast to be semi-naked, exposed”.

He writes a little bit well, doesn’t he? I’m always wary of inserting other people’s quotes into my pieces because it acts as a point of contrast – how well other people write! He is also a bit mean, though and I try not to be. It is easy to be mean about Seaford and I can see it through others’ eyes. But it is twenty years of my life, the branch line train, the wave goodbye (with a jar of something from the health store, something earthy), the two florists and their reasonable bouquets, Paul’s Plaice the fishmonger and the vinegary smell of the sea within, Sussex Stationer’s and the smell of new books and wads of paper, the long sloping road to the sea and then the sea, green or blue, smarting under the sun if it’s out. And then turning into my mum’s and the key under a pot and the note in the letterbox – I’m on the beach, bring down avocados. And then the cake that at some point must be made.

Chocolate espresso cake

 Taken from Tamasin Day-Lewis, Good Tempered Food

TDL is quite firm here on her use of whole blanched almonds, roasted and then ground, but having done it this way many times, I think there’s a real difference in the end result; texture and nuttiness are emphasised. 

Serves 8-10

185g (6.5oz) unsalted butter, diced, plus extra for greasing

185g (6.5oz) dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids) broken into pieces

50 ml (2fl oz) very strong freshly brewed coffee

6 eggs, separated

185g (6.5oz) unrefined caster sugar

185g (6.5oz) blanched, roasted and coarsely ground almonds

Heat oven to 375F/190C/gas mark 5. Melt the butter and chocolate together with the coffee in a bowl over a pan of barely simmering water. Resist the temptation to stir. While they are melting, cream the egg yolks and sugar in an electric mixer until pale and light, about 8-10 minutes. Continue to whisk, adding the now melted chocolate and butter.

Stop the machine, remove the whisk and fold in the *almonds with a metal spoon. In a clean glass or metal bowl whisk the egg whites to stiff peaks. Stir a spoonful into the chocolate mixture to lighten it before folding in the rest. Pour the mixture into a 10in springform tin with greased sides into which you have placed a circle of buttered greaseproof paper. Bake for 20 minutes, then turn the oven down to 325F/160C/gas mark 3 and continue cooking for a further 40 minutes.

Remove the cake and leave in the tin set on a rack until completely cool. Turn out of the tin and remove the paper. Delicious served with creme fraiche but also lovely on its own.

*I would recommend roasting rather than toasting on the hob as this tends to scorch the almonds – roasting in the oven (preheated to the above temperature) for a few minutes (5 – 10 min) will give them a burnished colour without burning, but you do need to check regularly.

 

Unfurl

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Tulips, daffs, forget-me-nots, garlic. Wildly flowering blossom. It is so exciting to be at the allotment. Everything is happening. And yet I am still alone there. It won’t be until mid April that the regulars will come and so in the meantime I am here and it’s all mine. There are rat droppings in the shed and forgotten potatoes from last year have sprouted into the space where I have sown carrots, there is a carpet of grass in the greenhouse, the windows are filthy, couch grass pushes its roots underneath everything, it is everywhere, every day there are fresh sightings. Weeds flourishing is always the sign that it is time to start broadcasting seed. I can’t bring myself to start clearing and washing the greenhouse glass because there is no water yet, it would be a case of me a cloth and a jar of vinegar.

I like the mat of grass in there anyway. It gives off a dry rustling heat as I drag the greenhouse door along its clapped out runner and walk inside. I like it derelict because it reminds me of finding abandoned houses and setting up camp in them as a child far away from parental interference. Why does everything have to be clean? I imagine gardening in my bare feet and lying down in the earth under the sun’s rays. But then I’m aware this wouldn’t be suitable for Hampton, dormitory suburb of England. And I have an 88-year-old neighbour one plot over who would think I was dead. He’d worry.

The best time is morning. Early as possible before anyone is awake. I’ve been here at 4.30 when I’ve woken into darkness and decided to give it a whirl, the ground slick with snails, the slowest parkour imaginable; snails hanging upside down on the bins, leaning against leaves like Gene Kelly, nonchalant. A world of slime.

Anyone would think that given that I spend so much time there, that my plot would be amazing, full of verticals and ploughed within an inch of its life. My other neighbours, Russians with a small boy, do more in a weekend than I manage in an entire season. I saw them this morning, him on the roof of his homemade shed with a fag on, heard the boy, who was swinging a piece of fence, their place dedicated to blue gauze which they had hanging over big wooden struts, to keep out nature – slugs, birds, foxes. In the foreground were manicured clumps of flowers and fruit bushes. How did they manage it when they’ve not even been here? I am here all the time. I manage very little.

I like being near to their industriousness though. Sometimes I see the dad out in the street or on the bus and we have chats about the allotment or about our various ailments, and because of this, there’s a quiet empathy between us which makes working there easy. I know they don’t expect me to hang around, we’ll wave and nod and exchange pleasantries but no cups of tea or too many anecdotes. It’s important not to become too attached to growers, to maintain independence; a chat can easily take up too much time, grow unwieldy and then the next time you feel obliged to begin it all again, and then you’re never alone. You’re talking about Brexit and Trump. It’s ruined then.

You find you’re there ever earlier, to avoid the inane chatter. Chatter is what I grab my bike and ride to avoid. This is not the same as being happy to see people, which I am generally. So this is the bit before. Before summer when I avoid the weekends and the loud free-wheeling manic-ness of small children. Sounds occur now but they are abstract in nature, a solitary laugh, the tipping of a wheelbarrow, stone and tin. The rest is a kind of busy silence, where everything is alive and beyond me, the soil dry, sun everywhere. A time to unfurl.

My favourite thing at the moment is the new sorrel – a tight bundle of lettuce-green leaves, ripe for picking every day. It is a year-old plant grown from seed and it should be bitter by now but is still tart and lemony, turning a muddy taupe when introduced to heat and disintegrating totally in soups. It is the cousin of the handsome rhubarb, both of them astringent and singular stand alone perennials. I have not yet eaten sorrel raw, except pinched between finger and thumb and eaten in furtive shreds, so I only know it as a flavour and not quite as a texture. It would be nice to have those shield-like leaves in a salad bowl and feel the crunch. I am still afraid of fibre, but I will get there.

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Sorrel Merge

I add sorrel near the end of cooking time and it merges with all the other ingredients lending a sharpness and depth. Recently, I made a carrot and butter bean soup to which I added the leaves of parsley and sorrel five minutes before the end and the stalks earlier. Please use the stalks. If you’re interested in having an unadulterated sorrel experience simply sweat some young leaves in olive oil until they break down into a purée and keep in the fridge under a film of extra virgin. 

Olive oil, onion/shallot, garlic, carrots cut into thinnish rounds, butter beans, parsley, sorrel, sea salt, a few tablespoons of yoghurt, butter for the brave.

I have deliberately not mentioned amounts. If you’ve read Julian Barnes’s book A Pedant in the Kitchen you’ll know how infuriating he finds this. Whatevs. You can combine butternut squash with the carrots and you can also add celery along with the onion. Really it’s a melange of vegetables made liquid by the addition of some stock or water. I like to add a knobette of butter to the vegetable mess near the end, but you don’t have to. I think it lends a velvety quality.

Gently wilt the onion or shallot in a small amount of olive oil, then after a few minutes in which they’ve had a chance to soften, add smashed up garlic, sliced carrots, chopped herb stalks, butter beans and stock/water. I didn’t add the whole tin of butter beans but a handful. Cook over a medium heat until the carrots are soft and then add a generous handful of parsley and a fist of sorrel leaves and the butter if you fancy. The sorrel will turn mud-coloured. Cook for a few minutes more, or mere seconds if you like it very fresh. Liquefy in a blender and add a tablespoon or two of yoghurt, some sea salt and a smattering of fresh parsley, sorrel or other soft herb at the end.

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Thanks, that’s heaps!

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My allotment now has a utilitarian quality to it, the gates are metal, the fence discourages trespass. All I’ve got is oca, buried deep, and strawberries in leaf and tiny shoots of garlic, pale and poking up. But there are moments when I experience a kind of non-being state, even now with the ground hard and the pools of ditch water; my mind stops chuntering through its list of grievances or worries. That tastes better than the vegetables. The soil under the fingernails, the body being worked, a kind of space opening up – that’s really why I do it. And because it means there’s somewhere nice to put my butter.

I am emerging from a period of intense focus/paranoia about food in general. This thankfully rarely filters through into my gardening activities. I tend to grow that which is easy and gives me most pleasure. I’m not going to start growing cauliflower because it’s hard. I will grow potatoes because they’re easy. And tomatoes too, even though I will rarely if ever eat them. But other people will, friends, family, Joe. Nightshades I ‘can’t eat’ but I’ve forgotten now why. I thought I couldn’t eat mushrooms either but apparently I can because they’re not part of the nightshade family, but I’m not going to grow mushrooms (although I could because they grow in used coffee grounds and I get tons from Waitrose).

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Can you already feel the spiraling panic that this level of food-patrolling creates? It reminds me of someone I shared a flat with many years ago when I was in my second year of drama school. Let’s call her Ruth. Ruth was thin; she liked to remain within a tight band of seven to seven and a half stone ideally. Everything about her attitude towards food upset and enraged me. I spent a lot of my second year at drama school sweating and wearing dark brown clothes that hid the underarm ‘LPs’ (sweat patches) I sported. This was due to huge amounts of period (as in country not menstrual) dancing and Laban and bacon sandwiches.

Ruth lived on brown rice, cooked apples and herbal tea and prescribed to the yin and yang school of eating. “Thanks, gosh that’s heaps!” was her regular exclamation when I had left the bag in too long of one of her Yogi ‘chocolate’ tea sachets. Thanks, that’s heaps! became a kind of watchword for me. She wouldn’t even go off-piste for a party she was giving. Everyone had to eat what she was eating, which was basically an enormous bowl of apple puree. This struck me as aggressively un-fun. She also told me that she would go to friends’ houses with her own food, because she didn’t eat wheat. Can I just say now that there was actually nothing wrong with her: she chose to do this.

Of course this was entirely up to her. She was a nice Quaker and I like Quakers. But I used to cook with my coat on and feel embarrassed about buying cheese. I would offer up some reason why it was just this once, and we’d have really detailed discussions about why dairy was mucus-forming.

I was actually quite lonely at the time. Although I was busy, I didn’t know anyone in the Finchley Road area and my evenings were spent shelf-stacking at Habitat and spotting Pinochet in Waitrose striding about in his hulking black coat (he was living in a safe house nearby). I wasn’t that interested in macrobiotics and feng shui – but I could have done with a friend.

So now when I see a nutritionist to help me with the symptoms of Crohn’s disease, I am thrown back into the thanks, gosh that’s heaps! world of self-denial and food as enemy/cure. Pretty much everything health-wise you are experiencing (except for a broken leg and even then….Louise Hay would say it’s that you are ‘broken’ inside) can now be ameliorated by drinking apple cider vinegar, sucking out the bone marrow from a grass-fed carcass and cutting out nutmeg.

I would just like to say, from the perspective of someone who was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease 25 years ago, that if it was simply down to food and supplements I would have healed myself many many years ago. I am not healed. I love food: food is everything to me. Perhaps this is the problem.

Food is pleasure, it is there always, as succour, balm. It is the most creative thing you can do in a day, other than flying on the trapeze, painting a portrait, writing a poem, or loving someone. It is what makes me feel alive. It is part of what I love about the allotment too – food is part of that moment when you stare ahead and feel the muscles settling under the skin, the warmth of your breath inside nylon and you think ‘tea’. Opposite me is Kieran my Irish neighbour, and both he and his daughter position themselves in their two chairs after a few hours hoeing and digging and eat crisps. They have a shed full of crisps. Crisps and hoeing; what a combination.

This is not to take away from Ruth and her ilk – there can be great joy in a bowl of mashed apple. But it’s not that, it’s something else. It’s that however many diets (sorry, protocols) I go on, I know that inside me is a hoeing crisp eater wanting to get out. A sweating bacon sarnie muncher. A builder’s tea drinker. I am not from Japan and I don’t want to live on seaweed. I want to embrace pleasure and eat my fill. I want to eat heaps.

Aftermath

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There was a man I recently talked to who said he always steamed his vegetables; this made me feel sad and oddly helpless. I have a steamer and it is currently doing time on the top of my fridge, covered in a suspicion of ancient cobwebs. I come from a long line of Midlands folk who would not know what to do with a vegetable steamer, who rarely drank water (‘water is for washing’) and who needed proper animal fat for a day to pass without incident.

My grandpa had red hands, almost purple in hue, small and puffy and strangely delicate with ridged fingernails. He would wash my own small hands in the sink finger by finger as if whittling wood. He began many of his sentences with the word ‘why…’, which was in his lexicon the beginnings of an answer he was formulating. He was a timber merchant and had brylcreamed hair and resented the amount of trifle I ate and was constantly wiping my fingerprints off the bubbly glass doors in their quiet, detached house. But of course I loved him and was in awe of the way he turned my stiff and unpliable shoes into burgundy tongues of moisturised leather (which was always a sign that we were leaving, because there they stood sentry-like by the door on our last day, maroon and gleaming).

I remember the pristine plastic bag he would give me at Christmas, long like a sleeve. Inside was a Bunty comic – he was obviously ‘advised’ – and something to do with stationary and pencils. The smell of newness. I have always loved the smell of Christmas, the colours, the citrus, the nuts, the dome of disgraced pudding. However much you feel the bubbling up of resentment somewhere in your being (inevitable) it is hard to quash the feelings of excitement, of occasion, it’s always hard to sleep on Christmas eve. Presents, gold wrapping, a basted bird, the morning walk in frost, the sudden intimacies with strangers.

I have little recollection of what I ate with my grandparents at Christmas, except there was always trifle at some point and I remember the pudding on the day, hot and cascading with complicated fruit and brandy butter which I ate by the spoonful followed later by a spell of biliousness in the back of granny’s car. Breakfast would contain dry Alpen mixed to a rough cement with single cream (top of the milk).

Now the trees are on their lopsided uppers, kicked to the kerb, empty of trinkets. The only red thing left is a poinsettia, the oranges the only thing orange. It is over! It is not even the beginning of the end. It’s a whole new year. There is nothing tenuous about it. We must begin anew. My granny eventually turned her back on butter, switching to Flora margarine – something to do with Terry Wogan’s influence. But I can’t – butter is balm, particularly now in January, when darkness falls at four and the cold works its way pincer-like through all my layers. Fat makes you feel better. Well, me.

Here is a recipe for buttered carrots to which you can add the following: more butter. And a knife point of paprika, thyme, garlic or bay leaves. Adding some sweet potato can also be lovely; it will disintegrate within minutes though. I should say that I always add garlic to this. It is delicious alongside hummus or mixed with a bit of yoghurt or feta. It becomes a soup with ease, simply add water or stock. Meat stock can give it an intensity you should be prepared for.

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Buttered carrots

A bag of carrots, preferably organic (my bag says 650g)

Generous knob of good quality butter, min 25g (I use President)

Garlic, 3-4 cloves or more, bashed and chopped

Thyme sprigs (optional)

Melt the butter in the saucepan with the garlic and the (diagonally if you like) sliced carrots and coat well, add thyme or another herb here if using and a pinch of salt, then add sufficient water to cover the lot and bubble away until this has reduced to a stickiness. The moment it is ready is entirely a personal preference – I like my carrots almost burnt as it seems to bring out a corresponding sweetness, but Jane Grigson says the point of readiness is when the liquid is ‘reduced to a shiny, colourless glaze’. If you would like to make this into a soup then I would add more water and/or stock at this stage, bring it up to a boil and then blitz.

Swimmingly

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If you handle mackerel the skin on skin contact will kill them. Something to do with the natural oils in your hands reacting to their oily skin. So a fisherman, according to my fishmonger, will shake an unwanted mackerel off the line without touching it and throw it back. These two young fish were caught and handed over to my mum and eaten all on the same day. They were caught on the seafront yards away from the house, we had swum early in the morning and that night we ate their extraordinary juicy flesh singed by the grill with nothing but some rock salt and a bit of lemon. They look a bit surprised don’t they? It was all going so well.

Sometimes, while swimming, especially in the early morning when I’m still not quite awake, I can feel the nudge of a fish. A spray of bubbles accompanies it and I get a ghostly feeling, suddenly aware the sea doesn’t belong to me, that I’m surrounded on all sides and beneath. The current is a stealthy thing, dragging me away from the little bundle of clothes on the beach, so that in seconds I am a long way away and no amount of swimming against the tide will work. And yet it is such a tame looking thing, the English channel; not ‘real sea’ at all, people say. Too cold, too grey, too flat, too English.

Tessa Hadley in her latest novel The Past has a man on holiday in Minehead sitting with his coffee at a cafe, knowing that if it was France or Morocco or wherever there’d be infinite stimulation simply in the mediocre act of sitting there. The smell of churros and that bewitching fragrance Spanish women wear, the French man and his cheroot, the feeling of the air, the colour of the sky, not understanding the language, its infinite sexiness.

Here, on the beach in Seaford, there is Gary the roofer, there’s the ex-headmistress who is inexplicably polishing her chest of drawers outside, a red-faced man inside a kiosk, a man with dreads and a proper camera hurdling gently over the barrier at Splash Point to stand and stare down at the water, the fish and chip eaters shielding their hot vinegary mush from the young gulls who pretend not to care. The baby gull sitting quietly with something broken, waiting by the shoreline for the tide to carry him away. There are people running into the sea as if towards a finishing line, hurling themselves at it, screaming and being generally quite unpolished. This was before the cold snap. Now no one is running into the sea screaming, except for me and someone’s dog.

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Slitting open the mackerel’s bellies felt like an intimate act. There was very little there in the first place and I kept the head on, almost as if I wanted the torture of eye contact. There is really nothing to it when it comes to cooking them; grill on one side only and fill the cavity with a few wisps of a herb – I like fresh oregano. A light emulsion of olive oil and some big salt. And then, when they are crisp and ready, sit down with a salad of tomatoes and pretend to be European.

I wish I had an elegant photograph of the mackerel once they’d been cooked but I don’t. They become almost miniaturised by the heat and rather torched. This one was beheaded.

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Weathered

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I seem to have a thing about shoes. Here I am at the allotment on a blissful May morning wearing shoes that are more hole than sole. It has taken me a while to get back here. I never thought it would take me this long but anyway here I am. I worked through the winter and it was just me and my allotment neighbour. There was very little to do because I’m not a fan of brassicas which tends to be the over-wintering vegetable family. I can’t quite remember what I did now; I think I walked around the perimeter edging everything which is a fantastic way to dispense rage. Having an edger slicing through the soil as if it was pizza is one of the great gardening devices and should be given out by the NHS. If in doubt, edge.

So, anyway, I had bowel surgery – ‘your op’ is how it has been renamed perhaps to make it more cuddly – so then when spring came along, I was unable to do anything except watch as weeds burgeoned, spreading over the formerly pristine and frozen bare ground. Finally, the plot became as I first found it: a wildly waving sea of green. There were no distinguishing features except huge rhubarb jazz hands, flopping ears of anemones, ragged tulips, molehills, dry and gorgeously rich. It reverted to its natural state as if I had never existed. Fair enough.

Now that I have been away, there is the temptation to do things differently. To be changed in some hard to define way that will express itself in my writing and in my day to day life, in the choices I make, the direction I go in. What I grow. There is pressure, coming I admit from me alone, that because I have ‘been through something’ – something ‘major’ – things will be different now. For a start, I’m off sugar and any kind of sweetener for the time being. This initially was hard, awful in fact because sweetness is a kind of basic primal need. I understand that carrots are sweet, but so is a slice of almond cake dripping in citrus syrup accompanied by a cup of tea, delicious and ordinary in equal measure. And I’ve never been someone who would take cheese over pudding. I wish I was a savoury person, but I have been known to stare at pictures of pudding for long silent minutes. I just gravitate there.

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The truth is I’m the same but my habits have changed. And carrots are sweet. And though there is something perversely satisfying about pulling out weeds, the long slow rip of threads of a root system, the harmless throwing into the next plot of slugs and snails that I can’t bring myself to kill, the bald earth free of stuff, the wild part of the allotment that remains is really exciting. It defeats me, just looking at it. It is hoary, hairy, it slumps and rises alarmingly. Fruit bushes are hemmed in by unknown green objects. The things I have planted nearby – my dwarf mulberry tree – look genteel and a bit prim. A bit Barbara Pym.

For now I’m going to let this second half of the plot be, there’ll be a bit of binary going on. There is the right side, which has now, thanks to some elbow grease and some dainty plantings of potatoes, French climbing beans, sweet peas, a renewed herb patch become respectable and will pass muster with the allotment manager. And there is the left side, a wild and unkempt mess of weeds throttling the fruit, a prairie of long grasses, dandelion clocks and nettles and clover. I can’t yet bring myself to rip it all up. It is doing a job.

And there’s no rush. I suppose what is to be relished here, at the allotment at 8am on a Monday morning, is that there is nothing to be done. Apart from the fact that there’s a lot to do and tricky, life-defining things happen and you’ve got to seize the day and we are all so fragile when you come to think about it. I love the allotment because it makes me feel so overrated. I know I should crack on, but maybe not today. Whatever, really. My aim is to live whateverishly for a while.

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Windfallen

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Because we have to admit to winter. And that this is the last of the homegrown fruit: apples. The rest is Lidl’s. And dour farmers’ markets. Swede, turnips, parsnips. I’m quite looking forward to digging in winter, actually. I was speaking to one of my allotment neighbours and he said it was wonderful; digging in the cold, the harsh flat wind coming at them from the expanse of park and going home to a warm house, skin flushed, muscles stretched. Cold brittle days with blue sky can be miraculous. Particularly if you’re working physically and you have a good pair of gloves.

There’s nothing worse – or there’s plenty worse, of course – than standing still in winter. Standing and waiting for buses, a bus you know will be late and full of passengers, and the air will be steamy and spongy and it will be a while before you will be home and your feet are cold and oddly wet.

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But back to apples, or as we would say in my part of Devon, the slightly urbanised Aah-pew. Back to aah-pews then. And cake and tea and windfalls. Around about now there are apples on the ground, left to rot. Often there are holes in them, rusted, old holes that you know have housed a maggot. Or some other creature possibly still alive.

At the allotment, there are trees heaving with apples, and most of them are on the ground now, unpicked. But you’re not allowed to take them because being caught taking other people’s produce even though it’s on the ground, half-eaten, cloven in two and that horrible defeated colour of yellow – it’s a crime, punishable by immediate eviction. I’ve already been shouted at by Mike, the allotment manager for “resting my chicken wire” against the over-flowing community bin, so I’m sensitive to the small print of communal living. I don’t want to be evicted or ejected. It’s a delicate thing, belonging. It’s subtle here.

Paul, my twinkly allotment neighbour, smiled at me with his eyes when I told him this, about not picking. “But we do though”, he said under his breath, like a Dickens character. It was exciting. But then I thought – they’ve been here a while, six years. They know the code. They’ve been initiated into something I’ve yet to learn about. I hear them laughing with Mike under their canopy of grapes, I see Mike’s large ankles sticking out at the bottom, so I know he’s sitting down. It’s a tribal thing. Or maybe it’s because I’m a woman who enjoys reading and growing sorrel.

On my way back from the allotment a few days ago, there was a tree and it had spewed, literally spewed, its load on to the pavement in front of me. Cooking apples, hulking things, spilling everywhere. They looked largely hideous. The front door of the house was open and builders wandered in and out. In the drive was a skip. Inside the drive were even more apples. I picked up a few on the pavement and chucked them into my bike’s basket. I edged inside the drive as a builder wandered out. I was trespassing now. “Excuse me but do you think I could pick up some of the windfall apples?” I asked. “Of course”, he said. “You can take the whole tree if you like”. He smiled and walked back inside. It was as if I’d asked him if I could possibly eat the rotting vegetation that was languishing at his feet.

The cake – apple and rosemary with a glug of olive oil – is perfect for a cold day, good with a cup of tea, and all you need for tired muscles, frayed nerves and for sensitive types.

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Apple and rosemary olive oil cake

Adapted from Lili Vanilli’s Sweet Tooth

It’s a bit misleading to call this an olive oil cake because there are 2 tbs of it in total and there is also butter. I’m simply lifting the title from the book, and it sounds nice. And it tastes very nice too, sumptuous, appley and damp; I have made it exclusively with almonds on a few occasions, and on every other occasion gone 50/50 with flour/almonds or hazelnuts. I put more apples in than the recipe asked for (240g) and I would suggest you go even further. I’ve had dry apple cake before and it tastes pointless.

Scant 100g plain white flour

Scant 100g ground almonds

1/3 tsp freshly grated nutmeg

1/3 tsp ground cinnamon

1 tsp baking powder

85g unsalted butter

85g light muscovado sugar, plus extra for dusting

2 eggs

2 tbsp olive oil

300g peeled, cored and diced Bramley cooking apples or sharp eaters or a combo

½ – 1 tsp fresh rosemary, finely chopped

2 – 3 Bramley (or other apple) slices

1-2 fresh rosemary sprigs to decorate

Grease and line a 23cm round cake tin (I used tin foil though I know you shouldn’t – it was fine). Preheat the oven to 180C fan assisted/350F. Whisk together the flours, spices and baking powder to ensure they are all well mixed. Set aside.

Beat the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy – about 4 minutes. Beat in the eggs, then add the oil and beat to incorporate. Mix in the diced apple and chopped rosemary, then fold in the dry ingredients.

Put this into the prepared cake tin, level the edges and lay the slices of apple on top however you like. Coat the surface of the cake with a fine dusting of brown sugar. Dip the sprigs of rosemary into cold water, dust with brown sugar, then press into the top of the cake.

Bake for about 30 – 35 minutes or until firm in the centre and an uncooked spaghetti stick or skewer of some kind comes out clean. Remove from the oven and leave to cool in the tin for ten minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack to cool completely, or serve warm.

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