Mulberries

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It was late summer, and this was a jar of mulberries we couldn’t open, in an old house that once stood in front of the River Ouse in Seaford. The house was loaned to us for reasons of my mum’s 80th birthday party. In the garden was a spectacularly craggy mulberry tree that had to be held up under the arms – like an elderly person over potentially hazardous terrain. Huge sagging branches, mammoth trunk and mulberries now long gone, potted up in syrup in a jar with suction so intense it resisted every implement we could put to it. So I put it back in the cupboard along with jars of homemade jam. The cupboard made me envious – summer all potted, preserved, labelled, suctioned closed. No entry.

Because I was once in another house as a child, equally but differently imposing, where there was a mulberry tree, I know that there is nothing like them. There is nothing else out there that can touch a bowl of bleeding mulberries – my small hands covered in scarlet juice. Red jelly (probably strawberry) with mulberries suspended magically. And white ice cream (yes it was white). There was a partially blind poodle who we expected tricks from, which looking back was unkind, except I was about six and didn’t know any better. Round and round she’d pirouette for me, her dull white head of curls and milky eyes following my dancing hand as I conducted her and wore her out.

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The poodle lived in a posh flat along with a family of four in Chelsea – Elm Park Gardens – with a communal garden out the back. Black railings kept out the riff raff. I was sent there to live with them while my parents – back in Devon – ‘finalised’ their divorce. I remember not understanding this; why was this necessary? I went to school locally – Bousfield Primary, still there with a Beatrix Potter blue plaque – and endured the weekly humiliation of doing PE in my vest and pants. I spent a considerable amount of time truanting in the toilet.

Nothing was as it should be: the mother of the family, Christina, wore high-heeled slippers with feathers that tickled your toes, bit her nails to the quick, had fierce black hair and a decisive temper and smoked properly. Not like my mother who smoked socially, with wine or in distress. Christina was a rampaging smoker and a hitter.

As if to herald my new urban status I was fitted with a grey coat and velvet collar and each morning had Oil of Ulay cream – pink and obscenely perfumed – slathered on my face, which gave me scales like an alligator. Christina was married to a man called Frank Weir, who was a clarinettist and a band leader. I adored him and threw myself into his arms whenever he walked through the door and folded myself into the gap he made for me in his armchair when he’d settled down to watch television. They had two daughters and it was the younger of the two who sat with me under the mulberry tree where we played with dolls. Just to say, Christina died young, and Frank followed a year or two later, and the two girls were sent to live with an aunt up in Worcester.

I’m not sure still what I feel about being sent away like this, except I remember my first bodily awareness of what it means to be homesick. The silence of the top bunk. What else…Christina’s nubby fingers holding the mulberries, the deep scarlet and the perfumed sweetness of them and the soft suck of the jelly prised from the bowl.

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Mulberries, just so you know, come around late summer, early autumn and there is no point seeing if you can buy them, please don’t go to a bearded grocer in Hoxton. They must be pilfered. It might be a bit of a wait, or you can buy a small mulberry tree from a nursery now and grow your own. I have one planted in my allotment and I’ve had my first small rash of berries this year. Elizabeth David put mulberries in her summer pudding: cook them lightly with sugar until the juices flow and use good bread. But Jane Grigson believes – in her fruit book – that the best way to eat mulberries is with cream, completely unadorned. Her compote sounds nice, though. And if you can get hold of a branch of someone else’s tree, stick it in the ground, it will grow. 

A bowl of mulberries

We are nature

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I wrote an article on environmental art (with the title We are Nature, taken from a quote by Andy Goldsworthy) and interviewed some lovely artists and – if you would like to – you can read about it in the new issue of Exmoor magazine. I was so inspired talking to them that I was tempted to give everything up and start a brand new life, but Naomi the editor advised I get over my cystitis first, which I am endeavouring to do. It was also lovely to return to my ‘neck of the woods’ after so long. I am a West Country girl and I know these here parts. The issue is available to order from the website (details below).

I wasn’t sure I knew what environmental art was (so many artists resist the term, but we had to call it something – other options are land art/eco art) but that in itself became a starting point for discussion. Amongst many things it explores the effects of time, the relationship between people and their natural environment and the beauty in loss, decay and regeneration.

It can be urban or rural, ephemeral or permanent, and is often made with found materials: leaves, flowers, branches, ice, stone. You may not even notice it. There is a debate about whether it even needs to be noticed. There is also nothing preachy about it, it doesn’t exist to explicitly ‘tackle’ environmental problems.

I like the performance art side of it, because it speaks to the performer/actor in me. I like its obliqueness. I also like how it attracts an outsider view, and outsiders generally. To paraphrase artist/sculptor Andy Goldsworthy, it takes you somewhere you’ve never thought of going, “whether it’s in the mind or the world.”

Thank you to metal artist/sculptress Belle Cole, sculptor Michael Fairfax and beach artist Ieva Slare and her family for such lovely chats and genuinely inspiring views of the world.

And lastly, the photo above is of me and my dad, on Exmoor, 13 years ago. I was about to get married and move to LA. I was very happy, and strangely relaxed despite all the planning, probably because I was based on Exmoor at the time and was infused with its spirit, and everything was just…unfolding. Also, my dad, Tony James, is a ‘proper’ writer, a journalist since the age of 16, and a West Somerset ‘local’, having been adopted many years ago from his native Derby. Still supports Derby County though. He is one of Exmoor magazine’s lead writers.

Andy Goldsworthy: “We often forget that WE ARE NATURE. Nature is not something separate from us. So when we say that we have lost our connection to nature, we’ve lost our connection to ourselves.”

One of the original environmental artists Richard Long on A line made by walking: “My first work made by walking, in 1967, was a straight line in a grass field, which was also my own path, going ‘nowhere’. In the subsequent early map works, recording very simple but precise walks on Exmoor and Dartmoor, my intention was to make a new art which was also a new way of walking: walking as art.”

Find out more about the magazine at facebook.com/exmoormagazine & https://www.exmoormagazine.co.uk/shop/editions

Leaving home

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Aubergines were the first things I learned to cook properly, by which I mean repeatedly. I cooked for a contessa in Venice in my late teens for a year while deciding what the rest of my life might look like. The contessa’s housekeeper Donatella used to stand over me during my first attempts at melanzane alla parmigiana. For weeks afterwards, I marvelled at my ability to fry the slices until crisp, but not scorched, to layer them with parmesan and mozzarella and to mound with tomato sauce – what the contessa pronounced sose (like hose).

And then Donatella’s absence from the kitchen started to hurt. The aubergines suddenly refused to crisp up – they became mere oily vehicles for the tomatoes and cheese. Ever since it’s been something I can never completely count on. One day crisp and sultry, the next not. It was the dish that I was asked to make often as it stored well in the fridge. The flavours would develop nicely so that by day two or three everything would come together into an aromatic brew of garlic and tomatoes and it was solid enough to cut into rectangles. 

It was the dish I made for my mum when she came to visit. I found her in the car park by the train station, the only bit of Venice that looks like any other place: municipal. I had left home by coming to Venice to work, and in those days letters were really all you had, because the alternative was to stand in a booth with a flimsy partition by the train station and sob down the line, which was expensive. I look back at this now as if it was pre-war, it was so basic, to only have letters and the very occasional expensive phone call. But it worked, because by the time she visited we had been apart for six months and I’d gone through the worst of it. I made the melanzane alla parmigiana for her and put it into plastic boxes and carried them to the station.

I had found her a room in a waterside house full of bohemian types and wanted to make sure she had food on her first night. It didn’t occur to me to buy milk or bread or tea. I still remember all the kitchen towel the melanzane used up – the best thing for absorbing all the grease. She didn’t last at the house because it was too noisy with too much party-going, and by now her bohemian days were limited more to reading about them and then getting a good night’s sleep.

I caught up with her in between my shifts. Going home, I first had to pass through the under storey of the palazzo where I lived, which housed washing lines and an upturned boat. The smell was the mixture of earth and Daz or the Italian equivalent. The water from the canal slapped the floors and the stone echoed under foot. I remember climbing the steps to the first floor and feeling the thick walls and knowing the door would never close quietly. My mum visited me once there and I introduced her to the contessa, who thereafter pronounced me ‘from a good family’. What the criteria was I wasn’t sure; my mum’s politeness? Her waxed coat? I remember being proud she had passed muster but also aware we were being judged.  

Can you believe in the year I was there I didn’t take a single photo of the food? Not the fish market with its loot of rust-red crabs, and layer upon layer of glassy-eyed gawpers, or the stalls of lolling fruit at the Rialto where I was dispatched daily, my old lady’s shopping trolley bouncing on the flagstones behind me. I can even remember the way the shopkeepers wrapped things: smooth, white paper oblongs that slotted into my shopping bag.

I suppose I thought it was just food and not worth documenting. So I took endless photos of bridges and washing lines. I was too busy reading, shopping, cooking and getting up very early each day to teach English to a lawyer who studied while walking to work, the only time he was free, so we’d scale bridges with his exercise book open and I’d teach him the present simple. Once, when I was explaining a grammar point, he reached across and took my hand. It wasn’t in a predatory way, just impulsive and loving. I ploughed on while he stared at me, his hand holding mine. He was so unlike the Italian men I knew, that I can only speculate he was temporarily unmoored, and I remember only how horrible it was to feel so embarrassed. A fate worse than death for a nineteen year old.

This is the first time I have grown aubergines at the allotment. I thought they would be difficult because they need a quantity of heat and light that I normally can’t provide – my greenhouse is overshadowed by a plum tree. But this scorcher of a heatwave is perfect for them and they are currently elephantine, with wonderful bruised purple flowers.

The recipe in Jamie’s Italy for Melanzane all parmigiana is really good – I have used it more times than I can remember. The recipe in Marcella Hazan’s The Classic Italian Cookbook uses mozzarella as I was instructed to (perhaps this is a Northern thing) and there is a whole section devoted to the frying of aubergines. Her two rules are: salt the aubergines first and let them stand for 30 minutes (this was in the days when aubergines were more bitter). The second rule reveals my error vis a vis sogginess: ‘aubergines must fry in an abundant quantity of very hot oil. When properly fried they absorb virtually none of the cooking fat. Never add oil to the pan while the aubergines are frying’. Indeed. She is also a fan of ‘drawing off’ excess liquid during cooking. ‘After 20 minutes (in the oven) pull out the pan, and, pressing with the back of a spoon, check to see if there is an excess amount of liquid. If there is, tip the pan and draw it off with a spoon. Return to the oven for another 15 minutes.’ This addresses the issue of oiliness on all fronts.

Aubergine flower

Melanzane all parmigiana

Lightly adapted from Jamie’s Italy, Jamie Oliver

  • 3 large firm aubergines 
  • olive oil 
  • 1 onion 
  • ½ a bulb of spring garlic or 1 clove of regular garlic 
  • 2 x 400 g tins of quality plum tomatoes or 1kg fresh ripe tomatoes 
  • Wine or sherry vinegar 
  • 1 bunch of fresh basil (30g) 
  • 3 large handfuls of Parmesan cheese (freshly grated) 
  • 2 handfuls of dried breadcrumbs (optional) 
  • A few sprigs of fresh oregano 
  • 150g buffalo mozzarella
  1. Trim and slice the aubergines 1cm thick. Peel and finely chop the onion, and peel and finely slice the garlic.
  2. Place a large pan on a medium heat with 2 or 3 glugs of olive oil, add the onion, garlic and a couple of sprigs of oregano, then cook for 10 minutes, or until the onion is soft and the garlic has a tiny bit of colour. 
  3. If you’re using tinned tomatoes, break them up, and if you’re using fresh tomatoes (which will obviously taste sweeter and more delicious, if they’re in season), very quickly prick each one and put them into a big pan of boiling water for 40 seconds. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and put them into a bowl of cold water for 30 seconds, then remove the skins, carefully squeeze out the pips and cut up the flesh. 
  4. Add the tomato flesh or tinned tomatoes to the onion pan, give the mixture a good stir, then put a lid on and simmer slowly for 15 minutes, or until thickened and reduced. 
  5. Pre-heat a frying pan. You will need ‘an abundant quantity of very hot oil’ (MH) to fry the aubergines. Do this on both sides until lightly charred – you’ll need to work in batches. Blot them on kitchen towel.
  6. Season the tomato sauce carefully with sea salt, black pepper and a tiny swig of the vinegar, then add the basil. You can leave the sauce chunky or you can purée it.
  7. Spoon a layer of tomato sauce into a 15cm x 25cm baking dish, then add a fine scattering of Parmesan, followed by a single layer of aubergines and then a layer of torn up mozzarella. Repeat these layers until you’ve used all the ingredients up, finishing with a little sauce and another good sprinkling of Parmesan. 
  8. Toss what’s left of the finely chopped oregano (leaves not sprigs) with the breadcrumbs and a little olive oil, then sprinkle on top of the Parmesan. I sometimes don’t bother with the breadcrumbs.
  9. Bake at 190°C/375°F/gas 5 for 30 minutes, or until golden, crisp and bubbly – it’s best eaten after a rest at room temperature as you won’t taste anything if it is piping hot. It can also be served cold.

Growing aubergines: you generally sow the seeds in January/February time and treat them like tomatoes. However, you can buy plants from May onwards (so this advice is too late for this year, sorry). They thrive under glass and like masses of heat and a fine, well-drained soil. There are many different varieties to grow. Nigel Slater in Tender is full of good advice about them in the kitchen and the garden, and I recommend reading what he has to say. One of his tips is to salt the aubergines not so much for the bitterness, but as a way of ‘relaxing the cells’ which means there will be less uptake of oil during the frying process. Some of the aubergines he grows are so beautiful, small and creamy rose/ivory in hue, more egg than aubergine, shape wise. Again, it’s easy to forget there’s so much more to the aubergine than the big purple whale from the supermarket. Here are a few from NS’s list to tempt you: Violetta di Firenze (‘White fruit, flushed with violet’), Rosa Bianca, Applegreen, Baby Rosanna, Black Beauty (‘Lustrous, handsome, extraordinary girth’).

Update 21/7/22

A treacherous herb

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5.30am. Unable to get back to sleep (it’s light, birds howling/something howling, not sure if it’s a bird/lots of waking up noises in the undergrowth outside) so I get dressed and cycle to the allotment. I know because of the lowering sky I’ll be alone. So I am not surprised by the emptiness, no cars, just the slowly falling mass of rubbish, like an installation that the council are reducing, like a toppling cake. The first and last time, we’ve been warned. My mood matches the air, sky, temperature. Stormy, flat, tearful. I hack away at the rosemary bush which is so overgrown the weight of it is flattening the flowers and hanks of it cover the path, so that every time I pass it grips me in its resiny hands. I’ve decided it needs to be tamed, as do I. It’s something to do at 5.30am.

S from a few plots over waves in a sheepish manner, and disappears inside his poly tunnel. I lop off more wizened rosemary hands and arms. A young robin, its breast still tufty and slightly marbled hops near me, then hops on to one of the hacked off rosemary branches and watches me. I love the smell but even more it’s the silvery needles, deep green and surprisingly soft. I feel bad cutting it all off and it looks like an awful haircut, like the ones I used to give myself as a child, serrated fringes and lopsided ends, the hairdresser startled and silent, trying to figure it all out.

Monty Don says you should replace old rosemary bushes after a while as they grow so rangy and chaotic but I love the fact this rosemary has grown into a gnarled tree, like a mulberry or a wisteria, its knitted branches hiding couch grass, convolvulus, marjoram, a little posy of forgotten geraniums. I rip up the grass by the roots and start to clear the area feeling both decisive and desolate because it is neater but less interesting, less organic. The sides of the rosemary still hang over the path, long silver fingers, arms outstretched. It takes me two hours by which time K arrives on his bike.

While I am working I imagine that one day I will have to give this plot up. We will move. We are already planning it, we can’t afford to buy in this area, don’t want to; no sea, no massive skies etc. It is not just the rosemary bush, which I bought from a nursery as a small plant, and which has grown into itself, it is the DNA of the place, which is now mine. It feels unthinkable to let it go. I wonder if it will be like the moment when you move from a house, the paintings lifted, the sofa and all the stuff gone and revealed is the dead space, no longer yours. Will it be like that at plot 10? I wonder. The quince tree, the mulberry, the dwarf apple tree. The rows of dusty gooseberries, the sorrel I grow pretty much for the compost heap. I am there in little filaments, bits of me everywhere. Even, or especially, the ground, which for six years I have fed, over fed, burdened with compost, manure, comfrey. It’s probably exhausted by me.

K approaches with a small pot filled with strawberries and upends them into a bag for me. I’ve already had a couple of my own, dipped in the watering can for a quick clean. But these are bigger and better than mine. We have a laugh about the fact that I can’t give him anything in return except piles of rosemary which he wouldn’t know what to do with. Actually, if we could cook outside, if we could make a fire (we can’t), we could dip a branch of rosemary into olive oil and brush some fish with it.

It’s easy to overdo it. The oil from the leaves can overpower. Elizabeth David called it a treacherous herb. And she doesn’t like eating the spikes. And she thinks too much of it can kill the taste of meat. Oh well. They take as cuttings very easily, and I have a line of them growing in pots in the greenhouse. I think I needed it, the oil on my hands, the strength of the smell in the air, the scale of the branches, and it was good to find space and the robin enjoyed it too. It walked up and down the new-made path, and found the different levels interesting. On my way out of the allotment I passed C in his plot who was admiring a ladybird and I had one accidentally in the side pocket of my bag which I handed over because he said he was collecting them for their beneficial effects on his broad beans. It crawled from my hand to his. He walked off with my ladybird. My allotted time over, I leave. Generally better than before.

Alys Fowler on how to take softwood cuttings of rosemary and other perennials here. I have written about lamb and rosemary and apple and rosemary cake and there is also elsewhere on the blog a recipe for labneh with lemon zest and rosemary. There is a very good rosemary and chocolate brownie recipe by Ben Tish here.

Just stop it

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I’ve been making stew. It’s hard to fathom why in the almost ten years since I started writing this blog I have not written about stew before. Stewed prunes don’t count. Also, pressure cooked stews don’t really count either, because you don’t have anything to do once it’s on the hob. And I have too many memories of holding the screaming pot under a cold tap, the way it all suddenly went wrong, the lid clamped shut, steam billowing into my face. I can’t do pressure cookers.

This is a French stew, one where you need to stand over it or nearby. I watched my friend Pippa (above) make it, in her kitchen the other day, under a low ceiling, in the Teign Valley, in Devon, on the western edge of Dartmoor. I could give you the postcode, but it wouldn’t conjure up the feeling. And what was that feeling? The feeling of slowness, of the juice of meat, of onions. Of chats, of being away for the first time in two years, properly away, no internet signal, no service on my phone, with friends. Friends! We didn’t watch that show, but we did watch Frasier in the mornings, as a kind of primer for the day. It made me think of Cheers, and also how sexy chinos are on a woman, particularly on Roz in Frasier, who wore them high and belted. I have forgotten to watch comedy, and it is a good idea, during these weird times to do that, and in the morning.

I grew up in Devon. East Devon; Ottery St. Mary, then Exeter. I lived in this county almost from birth until I was sixteen years old. I had an Exeter accent, which is not cute and cuddly, but rather flat and know-it-all, but also lovely in its way. You need to speak as if you are world weary, your arms crossed under a plinth-like bosom, eyes closing against the injustices of the world. I did this at 13. Where’s it to? instead of Where is it? And Bugger me, dun’ee fret? Instead of, Gosh, you’re a worrier, aren’t you?

Because stress is sort of alien here, not in Exeter so much, but out in the country, with the dense folds of trees, sessile oak mainly, and the swooping valley that opens out in front of you, and the red earth, red sand, the burbling of the river Teign and its mineral coldness, its red funghi and green coverings, the moss, the sharp stones under bare feet. No one is on time, strictly speaking. My last morning there was spent looking out over the great swathes of trees in February sunshine, and listening to Mark the builder’s radio – Aerosmith pounding into the clean high-up air, and none of it mattered. I didn’t sit there thinking, oh, if only it was still and quiet, if only it wasn’t Aerosmith. I sat thinking, it is perfect, like this. A person nearby fixing something and me with a cup of tea not thinking about the train I was about to catch.

Other optional chats I can suggest from my new store of conversational gambits: Buried or cremated? Also: are you Girl-sexy or Boy-sexy? (Are you sexy to men or women or both? It’s its own philosophy of life and needs its own blog post). And then finally – Just Stop It. Pippa told me about a woman who set herself up on a chair high on a hill at a festival and listened to people’s problems. She was not professionally trained to do this, but she was a good enough listener. People came to her with a problem and she listened and then delivered her verdict. She called it Just Stop It. The general tenor of the chat was that generally if you could just stop it, it would all be fine, whatever the ‘it’ was. The queues for this were round the block, apparently, and she was kept busy throughout the entire festival. So just stop it, stop the worrying, stop the feeling that you’re not enough. Start watching comedy in the morning, drinking cider, seeing people, at a distance if necessary. But go. Stop it and go. And maybe cut down on the peanut butter.

A simple stew

Adapted from Nigel Slater, Tender Volume 1 – and with inspiration taken from Pippa and Ralph.

I used cider instead of beer – which is what NS calls for here and Trappist beer at that – but it worked well. I added shredded Brussel sprouts too. NS recommends as the ideal accompaniment, ‘boiled potatoes as big as your fist, their edges bruised and floury.’ The inclusion of apple sauce is optional, but it works well together: ‘the point where the sharp apple sauce oozes into the onion gravy‘.

Butter, a thick slice

Stewing beef – approx 750g

Large onions – 2

Thyme – a few sprigs

Plain flour – 2 tbs (you could use cornstarch if you’re GF)

Beer or cider – 2 bottles (500ml approx)

Bay leaves – 2 or 3, torn

Redcurrant or apple jelly – 2 tbs

Apple sauce (optional)

Apples 5 or 6, the sharper the better

Butter, a walnut-sized knob

Sugar, a little to taste

Ground cinnamon, a knifepoint

Preheat the oven to 350F/180C/Gas 4. Melt the butter in a large casserole to which you have a lid. The heat should be ‘quite sprightly’. Cut the beef into four pieces, each nicely seasoned with salt and black pepper, then introduce to the sizzling butter. Let the meat colour on one side, then turn it over. Peel, halve, and thinly slice the onions while the meat browns. Once coloured, remove the meat to a plate and turn down the heat. Add the onions to the pan, with the thyme sprigs, and cook over low to medium heat until the onions are soft and golden. Stir in the flour and cook until it is the palest gold colour, then pour in the beer/cider and add the torn bay leaves. Once the sizzling has subsided and it is approaching the boiling point, return the beef and its juices to the pan and turn down the heat. Season with salt and black pepper, cover with a lid, and place in the oven. Bake for a good hour to an hour and a half. Check it once or twice.

Apple sauce, if using: Peel the apples, core them, and cut into coarse chunks. Put them into a pan with a little water and the butter and bring to a boil. Decrease the heat, cover with a lid, and let cook to a sloppy mess. However, this will only happen with cooking apples. Eating apples will retain their shape. Sweeten with a little sugar and ground cinnamon, then beat with a fork or wooden spoon until smooth (for cookers). Once the stew is done, lift the lid from the stew-pot and stir in the jelly. Check the seasoning, adding salt, pepper, and jelly as you go. Serve with the apple sauce.

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Stew is unphotographable. This is the best I could do.

If you are interested, Oliver Burkeman’s bi-monthly newsletter, The Imperfectionist is really helpful for sorting stuff out. His most recent one is here.

Why I swim

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When I am in the sea I am a mystery to myself. I have no idea how I got here, or why or what I am doing. I am only swimming and I am amazed – Wendell Steavenson

Mothecombe beach, in Devon: I am with Wendy from Ivybridge and we are riding the waves. She is tethered to an orange float. She has come with her winter friends, who she meets to swim with three times a week. Everything I say, she replies, ‘ditto’.

Me: ‘This really helped me during lockdown, you know, mentally’. Wendy: Ditto. Me: ‘It’s completely changed the way I view winter’. Wendy: Ditto. Me: ‘I actually say it’s not cold enough now!’ Wendy: Ditto.

I need some winter friends to swim with. As it is, I go on my own and look out for fellow swimmers. Sometimes it is one word that gets exchanged, like ‘gorgeous’. When I get out of the sea at Mothecombe, there is a lady, 50s, slim, attractive, with a slim, sandy-haired lurcher. They both enter the water, she in a pretty swimming costume, the dog as is. They both swim, deal with the waves. Afterwards, the lurcher dries himself on the sand and the lady dries her face with something un-towel-like. They look very happy.

Sometimes, if I can’t get to the sea, I will cycle to the river, to Hampton Court, or to Teddington Lock near to where I live, and I will ease myself in. A shingle beach, the water sometimes surprisingly clear. Brown water, brown leaves, a strange silence out in the middle, a murmur of cars. I get out, get back on my bike and cycle home, enjoying the sensation of my body slowly warming through my clothes. Someone will take a photo of me and shout some encouragement. A woman the other day bowed, as if I was royal.

Brackish: river water that tastes of salt, water that runs to the sea. I sometimes swim in the Cuckmere Meanders in East Sussex if I go there and the sea is too rough but I need my fix.

The writer Tom Cox said that calling swimming outdoors ‘wild swimming’ is like saying mowing the lawn is ‘wild hoovering’. You are outside doing a thing, like walking, running, swimming. You are in the fresh air. Why is this wild? Perhaps it’s feral. Feral swimming doesn’t quite have the same ring, but it makes more sense: we have all been caged these past two years. Our behaviour has become unnatural to us, and the need for an outlet more urgent. I found swimming jolted me back into the now and the cold is helpful. Swimming outside under sky with so much space, it is freeing, and it is, mainly, free.

When I can’t get to the sea, I also go to a nearby lake. There it starts to feel a bit like sport, and I need to wear a wrist band and a brightly coloured swimming hat. It has a municipal feel, there are buoys which I am encouraged to follow, a course I am encouraged to finish. The water is viscous, cold like a texture, and because they use vegetable dye to control the algae, it is luminous blue, like swimming in a lagoon. I try not to feel pushed to achieve anything but it is harder here and the cold – the intensity of it – feels like the main draw. It’s easy to get sucked into the idea of cold as prestige. The fact I know, as if it’s helpful, that it is 5.1C.

My mum still swims in the sea, at 86, most of the year. I will always take the sea over every other body of water and will always take her stretch of sea, even though there are many other stretches of sea to be had round her way. I don’t want to know the temperature of it, I know it will be cold and that’s enough. I love the moment of being out of my depth, suddenly, when the shelf gives way and I have to fend for myself. I love the salt, the view.

Why do I swim? Because, to paraphrase Linda Ronstadt, I can’t stand not to.

This is purely subjective, but I think women tend to be hardier swimmers, doing it year-round and not in wetsuits. Women who are slightly older, autumnal. They write about it differently too. Wendell Steavenson wrote about cold water swimming here in the Guardian, to help with heartbreak (‘The next day I did it again. And again. I swam every day for three weeks. For some reason, it is almost impossible to cry in the sea’). Samantha Harvey wrote about swimming and insomnia in The Shapeless Unease. (See below). There is no competition, just wonder. It’s all sensation and ritual. Susannah Constantine another outdoor swimmer, suggests a beverage of Yorkshire tea, hot milk and tons of honey to warm up after.

I would keep it minimal, it’s like making marmalade – you don’t need special kit, but neoprene socks and gloves are very handy in the winter. A float, perhaps. I do get my kit off once I’m in, by the way. Just a thought. Not in the Thames though. Too many plastic bags and bicycles.

Update 7/7/22: If you are near a lido, they are often art deco buildings, have a lovely community atmosphere, the water is unheated, and if you’re lucky there is a sauna and a cafe. I go to Parliament Hill Lido which has a beautiful silver bottom and is gently raked. The cafe is run by slightly mardy French people, which makes you feel like you are in Paris, and the cake is amazing. I have heard good things about Brockwell Lido too. And there is one in Cambridge (Jesus Green Lido) which is 90 metres long.

Semi-derelict

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She stood on the doorstep with a carton of blackcurrants, the top decorated with the pungent leaves. English but so long in France that she was a bit like Jane Birkin; she had a way of speaking English that sounded translated. She was an illustrator and had bought the house semi-derelict with her French husband and turned this annexe into a one up one down house for paying guests. I found it hard to warm to her, but I recognise it now as jealousy. The garden was ramshackle but loved and beautiful to me for that reason, with ducks and their ducklings skittering about, while various cats lounged on the vegetable beds. He – the husband – was a fanatical gardener and barely spoke. As if it was all too much, or he’d gone feral here, with the woodland at the bottom of the garden and the stream, and the birds he was protecting. Don’t go near that tree, he said, because they’re nesting. He was French and so his insouciance was more acceptable, don’t ask me why. They were both not exactly host material.

Over the years, I have listened to/read the same story told through various lenses, but the words are the same; rambling, derelict, remote, dusty plain, our hideaway, our tumble-down cottage, our house (well, one of our houses), we couldn’t find the front door for the brambles, didn’t even know there was a swimming pool, it wasn’t on the spec, rotting floorboards.

Often they wonder if it is worth it, because of the upkeep. And travel more difficult now. We are so lucky, they always say. And I think, yes you are. To be in France or elsewhere in the seventies or eighties when property was cheap, and you had a few extra bob. Then you held on to it, improved it, gradually the area became more sought after. These accretions are often slow and subtle.

The pioneer spirit looks different now, more calculated, and documented up the wazoo. I wonder if we could ever return to the relative innocence of Patience Gray in Honey from a Weed (‘I was able to light a fire, start the pot with its contents cooking, plunge into the sea at mid-day and by the time I had swum across the bay and back, lunch was ready and the fire a heap of ashes’.) or Elizabeth David brushing the fish with branches of rosemary dipped in olive oil. My own mother bought a three storey house in southern Spain for £2,000, now long gone. All the walls sloped, and swallows nested in the rafters. We had no glass in the windows only shutters. We would get lifts to places in the back of the post mistress’s van or occasionally the back of a tractor. What I remember was how unrelaxing it was. Hard work. We were dusty, tired, often bored, but our skin shone from the olive oil, sunshine and mountain air. Also: the coffee, the tomatoes, the smell of the bakery with its tough brown loaves. The way bits of wall came off on your clothes.

I suppose my mum’s place too was semi-derelict, or as one guest called it – in the days when strangers responded to an ad in Loot and were sent the keys – ‘your hovel’.


The punnet of blackcurrants are swiftly deployed. And I am left with the tale – that they zoned in on this area of unflashy northern France, their demands were few; a bus stop so their daughter could get to school on her own, relative ease of access to a town, a garden to grow vegetables. Then they got to work, quietly and slowly until they built a life.

The blackcurrants are washed and not dealt with in any way, the ‘beard’ still intact. Then they are gently heated on the hob, with the tiniest splash of water along with the sugar. They are cooked when the skins split, and then you eat them like that with ice cream, yoghurt etc. Or once cooked you can push them through a sieve to get a purée. They still retain their tartness, despite sugar, and always arrive in the same way; offered in an old ice cream carton, from a muddy hand, or a repurposed punnet. Some currants will still be attached to the stalks, leaves will be amongst them, the colour reminiscent of beetles. Or ink. Or soot. They are not glossy. I tend to eat them raw as I work my way round the allotment.


Blackcurrant compote (to add to meringue and cream or rice pudding or ice cream). Adapted from Nigel Slater, Tender Volume 2.

300g blackcurrants, 3 tbs caster sugar (or to taste), a shake of water (2 tbs)

Wash blackcurrants, pull from their stalks if necessary, put them in a stainless steel saucepan, with the sugar, water and bring gently to boil. As soon as they start to burst and the juice turns purple, remove from heat and set aside. Leave to cool, then chill.

Onward

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I am an opsimath, apparently. Those who learn only late in life. I had to get to my middle years before I went outside, not just in the summer, which until I was 35 I believed outside was for, but all year, and even better in the winter months, because of all the space I could be alone in – so much more of it when it’s cold.

Spring is an extrovert’s time, busy, crowded with growing and incident. This time, it is magnified by the fact that suddenly all the shops are open. Clothes flap in the wind, installed outside charity shops, and lines form outside the library, each person with book in hand, barbeque coal heaped up outside the hardware store, men with newly shorn heads. Spring promises everything, it is the archetypal over-promiser…it promises renewal, hope, sun and warmth, and a trip to Marks and Sparks for fresh underwear. 

But when snow fell, that day on April 12th, it was as if winter had come back. I went to the allotment very early, snow falling thick and silent, and the wheels of my bike made furrows showing up the dark beneath. I was alone there. I planted out some mangetout seedlings, hopeless as they later collapsed, limp with fatigue. I can’t think what possessed me to do it, except I was alone and felt demented with happiness about it and wanted to be productive.

I loved being there, even though the snow revealed my actions, my footsteps halted by the greenhouse, not a step behind, which is, to be clear, not ‘my land’. I was once asked, as if in a court of law, about a footprint found on the back plot; the plot holder was new, so hadn’t understood that we are free to walk around, as long as we stick to paths. He wasn’t new to passive aggression though. Or being a knob. 

Later it was as if no snow had been. There is always a feeling of the fragility of the enterprise at the allotment, which works by tacit agreement; not to talk too much, not to intrude or nick things, not to bring up politics or go on a rant. It is communal without being in any sense shared. 

I like the odd chat; I like how Richard, from one plot over, always sits with his back to me, his face to the sun, and sorts through his seeds. I feel his presence, which is kindly and calm. But my relationship is more with the place itself, an unprepossessing area next to a railway track, but which is still full of blossom; pear, plum, apple trees rampant with it and as I stood back from the peas, having tied them sadly to stakes, the blossom rained down like snow. 


Peas, I have come late to you too, believing that you were difficult to grow. Advice is very mixed, depending on who you read. Nigel Slater (another one who loves winter – perhaps it’s the jumpers) is a fan and has written a very useful ‘pea diary’ in his book Tender (Vol.1)

In it he tests Douce Provence (‘a forgotten pea from a time when legumes were grown more for drying than for eating fresh’), which is said to withstand frost and Hurst Greenshaft which is a very popular variety (‘Long pods and good cropping from plant about 60cms high’) and which I have ordered along with Kelvedon Wonder (a heavy cropping dwarf variety). He also recommends Lincoln and Onward, ‘a delectably sweet pea that is probably widest grown’. Sarah Raven on the other hands gushes about Alderman and there is a video of her munching on the peas raw, furrowing her thumb through the pod, and eating them like sweets.

Another delight is to watch how the tendrils coil around pea sticks (they need something to scramble up). Hazel is traditional, but any prunings work, as long as they can stand upright. I fell off my bike transporting a bushel of branches for the purpose.

Definition of opsimath comes from The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett, a timely read, very short, and I think a miniature masterpiece. Green peas and ham recipe here.

Update 10/6

Companion

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A companion is literally ‘a person who you eat bread with’. The word comes from Old French compaignon.” The Oxford Dictionary of Origin Words, Julia Cresswell

This is not where I live. The light is different. This light comes from a north-facing window, with the edge of a neglected plant poking into the frame. Can you tell it’s by the sea? I know by the shape of the loaf that it is some loaves back, when I was using lots of seeds, soaking them for hours; sesame, both black and white and pumpkin seeds. There will be some stoneground flour in there but it is before my Ancient Grains period. It looks like a good-enough loaf; a batard. I make two at a time – a boule and then this one. I have to decide who would benefit from which shape. I have decided my mum prefers the batard for ease of cutting.

I make them to give away. Our kitchen has become a tiny bakery, producing two loaves every couple of days or so. Sometimes, we have a loaf left over or an urge to hold on to one overtakes me and it hangs in a (cotton!) bag at the back of the kitchen door. I have become wedded to the smell of rising dough, hot but not quite baked, and the turn around when the lid is removed from the oven 20 minutes in. The fact that it is a process measured out in minutes, a stop watch handy so I can get on with something else in the meantime. I have moved beyond just sitting there staring at the blackened window of the oven.

I like the clank of clay, the different vessels I use for the purpose. The oily fist of flour (einkorn does this best – gathers itself into silky clumps). The best bit is when the bread is baked and it makes minute sounds, bubbling and popping in the ear, like a tiny river of lava. Also, there are the bronzed sesame seeds on the loaf itself and how the bread has torn in the oven, torn and risen and the ‘ear’ has scorched.

But mostly it is the smell. I always wish my mum could receive the bread still hot; the feel of warm bread in her hands, turned out of its pot, parchment paper ripped off, the bottom rapped to check for a healthy hollowness. As a potter she will know the feeling. I sometimes can’t bear that it will go cold – will ‘die’ in some way – and in those moments I might give it to a startled neighbour. I sometimes cycle it over to a friend’s house and leave it among the pots outside or sitting on the mat.

But it has been mostly bundled into a jiffy bag along with a book (Elisabeth Luard at the moment), and sent down to Sussex to my mum, where it might arrive the next day or it might not. From the beginning of lockdown, I took the parcel to my local post office, and before dropping it into the mail sack, the postmaster would cradle the package in his arms. He would lift it to his face, and rock the bread back and forth, smiling. He did this every time; stand in silence with the fragrant parcel held in his arms like a baby, smelling the warmth while I tried to smile through my mask. I imagined the bread slowly cooling until it arrived stone cold on my mum’s doorstep. He got the best part.

There are some good einkorn bread recipes here at The Perfect Loaf as well as really good beginner loaves. I have yet to feel sufficiently ‘proper’ in the sourdough stakes to include my own formula here. Maybe one day.

Thank you, Pippa, for the info about the origins of the word ‘companion’.

Are you growing?

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I used to live in LA and a waitress once asked me this question in a place called Cafe Gratitude in Larchmont. I think my reply was something like ‘not as such’. They meant it along the lines of spiritually growing, nothing to do with seeds. And then they returned with plates covered in bark and leaves and something that looked like tile grouting but was ‘cashew cheese’. Now we are in Hampton, land of corner shops, Quavers and Percy Chapman’s seed potato emporium and I am growing like billy-ho.

But back then, there were avocados hanging in front of us, skins like alligator hide. I drove, and I still go to sleep thinking of the way I undertook long journeys. The way I turned the car into the turn-left lane: I was so good at that. Sometimes I thought I would get pulled over for driving without adult supervision.

During my time there, I volunteered at the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino every Tuesday and worked in the herb garden, which was fringed with citrus trees. Chinottos, grapefruit, ponderosa lemons that lay on the ground, stem still attached to the tree. I’d sit there after lunch and meditate to the sound of the sprinklers and think: here I am. Then I’d collect all the fallen kumquats and stuff them down my trousers, to make marmalade later.

But it was the herb garden I loved. There were many different varieties of a single herb. I remember thyme mostly; coconut, lemon, spicy orange, creeping. I remember scented geraniums. I remember different sorrels, some with red veins, and huge waves of rosemary. There was ‘false garlic’ which we were instructed to get rid of, despite the delicate pearl at the base of each stalk which tasted of onions. There were cardoons and one of the other volunteers talked about his Italian grandmother rolling them up and cooking them in a pot.

Afterwards, waiting for my friend Tristan who I gardened with and who was my lift there and back, I would look at my collection of things on the bench and take photographs of them. Then I’d get in the car (belonging to Tristan) to be driven howling (by him) along the freeways back to LA, where I might partake of a vegan gelato for the walk home or we’d exchange reading material, and talk of English things.

The herb garden was where I got the idea that growing things was a good way to spend the day. I used to arrive back in LA feeling different. Better, having had my head freed to think random thoughts while cleaving herbs in two and talking to Kelly, the head gardener, about our families and homesickness etc. Gardening is much like driving when you are partnered with someone – you tend to be looking in the same direction with little eye contact and this, combined with the therapeutic aspects of sinking your hands into soil, can give rise to a candour that is often missing when you’re face to face.

No one since our return to the UK has uttered the words Are you growing? Which is funny because I am. At the moment, it’s garlic, globe artichokes, jolly polyanthus and dependable forget-me-nots. And herbs of course, my main love. Now I am waiting for people, with the warmer days, to turn up, which is my starting pistol at the allotment. So that we can have those chats that can only happen when you are both facing the same way, eyes averted or shielded by the sun, hands in the earth. It has been a safe and evenly spaced place to be this past year and I am forever grateful for it. 

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Kelly Fernandez, in the photo above, has been head gardener at the herb garden and the Shakespeare garden for 10 years. Thank you, Kelly for kind permission in using the pic.