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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One year on

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I started with soft fruits. My first blog post back in the UK was on red gooseberries. Lovely in their brown paper bag from the greengrocer in Seaford (in East Sussex), the man with the curly hair and always a kind word. He is also the butcher. Joe approached him as he was carrying a palette of unskinned rabbits. Are they wild? He asked. ‘Wild?’ he replied. ‘They were furious’. He sold me the red gooseberries and invited me to live in Seaford; ‘seeing as you’re here all the time’. The sea is a big draw. And the wildness all around. It’s hard to know where to start.

There’s the ferry, yellow and bulky like a child’s drawing, on its interminable route to Dieppe. Hard to believe it ever gets there. There’s the sun, the sound of the waves crashing and drawing back all night. The fishermen pitching their tents, sleeping in salty skin and itchy sheets. That’s me. The gulls and their grey babies. Clutches of apples already visible from the train. Bramleys, but still.

People have died. People die! I still find this hard to grasp. Every time I walk past Elm Villas and get a snatch of yellow wall I remember great friends who lived there and who are now both scattered over the cliff tops that just recently were covered in pink thrift. It was the house where I learnt about Jane Grigson and how pudding could be two tubs of ice cream from the Co-op and a cup of mint tea. Now the house belongs to someone else and already the furniture strikes me as ill-advised. Their magic has gone. And their magnificent kitchen table and all their books. But mostly it’s them that I miss.

I don’t actually live here. This is my mum’s place, but it’s where I come when I need it. It’s where lots of serendipitous things have happened. The place is full of rememberers – people remember Dirk Bogarde when he lived here, they remember Winston Churchill’s school days. They know – and I do too – where Grayson Perry lives. There are a lot of closet bohemians, because we are after all within thrashing distance of London. And yet, I think you couldn’t be further away. Particularly when you hear someone pronouncing it Sea-ford. I like the cafes – there are five good ones, all worth going to.

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What I have learned, one year on, is that July is curiously the end. Now that I am a gardener in the most rudimentary way I know that this bit of summer is when the inevitable decline into Autumn begins. Things are yellowing now, they bolt and go to seed the minute your back is turned. It is the season of collecting what you’ve grown (and eating other people’s apples) and watering what is still to be harvested – in my case, a profusion of beans and squash. There are apricots from English trees which you must eat immediately, or face comparisons with blissful ones from the Med or California.

One year on: I held a two day old baby, my arms numb from the sheer surprising weight of her, so I laid her on the bed and stared at her little twitching mouth. In the corner of the window, in a different house in Seaford, higher up the town, was the sea. The mother, my friend, was the original recipient of that goosegog pudding. Red gooseberries that made their way underneath a terrifyingly ethereal mass of Genoese sponge.

But it all worked out in the end. She’d been born in the corner of the room and, like the party with the pudding and the wild dancing, the place was now, still, full of people, children running in and out, sudden decisions to go to the beach. I was at some point mistaken for the midwife. When the real midwife arrived, I went for the train that took me back to Clapham Junction, not wanting to lose the newborn scent (honey and yeast) and the sight of her perfect Cupid’s bow mouth. So anyway, one year on, see if you can get yourself some red gooseberries. Jane Grigson’s recipe is one I would recommend. And enjoy what’s left of summer.

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Trip to Suffolk, 1974

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IMG_7956I went to Suffolk and must write it all down before I forget, although much of the information was complex and hard to follow, compelling, beautifully described, but opaque. A bit like snooker, a game I love to watch precisely because I have no idea at all what is going on. I took a lot of photos. And if you want the science of it all, I would not be remotely offended if you went elsewhere.

I will however, as Noel Coward once advised, press on. This is a field of rape, and that is Sam Fairs, the owner of the field. It is mainly past flowering now (the spectacular yellow blossoms come in mid April to the end of May), so you are looking at the seeds housed in these long green pods. The seeds are the thing – they are pressed for their oil, on site. They are cold-pressed. A bit later, we went to watch this cold-pressing and the smell was interesting; yeasty, hops-ish, reminiscent of linseed. Sam and his family also grow winter wheat, winter barley, borage, marrowfat peas, but we weren’t here for that.

We were here for the rapeseed and its oil. I had already had an introduction to Hillfarm Oils (Sam and Clare Fairs’ extra virgin cold-pressed rapeseed oil) because I had been invited some months before to a meal where everything had been cooked using it. We even had the seeds speckled over custard for pudding – chalky, black things, tasting of dust and the outside. We had rape greens too. But I was amazed mainly by the colour of the oil – yellow, as if you could melt buttercups – and the flavour which everyone tells you is nutty and that is really the only word. Rich, nutty, warm, slightly grassy and always different, because like olive trees, there will be subtle differences in flavour based on the soil, the terroir, the weather. It’s our olive oil is probably the best way to look at it, we have it here and it grows brilliantly, though pigeons can be a menace.IMG_7949

The objective of any plant is to reproduce. This is apparently our objective too (As Sam put it, ‘growing more of me’.) When it comes to the rape plant, the oil is there to protect the seed, so it can do that, so it can carry on, so it can throw itself about. The farmer’s job is to capture it, harness it, pressing the seed to get the oil out. The way it was described it felt tantamount to murder. But in a good way. It made me think about what I was stepping on, what I might be killing mindlessly, where I am in the scheme of things. That plants are like me.

To return to the rape fields for a minute – they are presently green and house families of foxes that you can never see. There are butterflies, bees and insects. Come harvest time, the rapeseed pods will be brown and shatteringly fragile. But for now it is an endlessly waving green sea and all I wanted to do was run headlong into the midst of it, get lost and miss lunch.IMG_7937

Although I’m glad I didn’t because lunch was ice cream, scotch eggs, smoked mackerel and other exceptional cold collations, all locally produced, and later from the Cakeshop Bakery focaccia made with (actually doused is the word) rapeseed oil, speckled with crunchy salt, and an amazing root cake (below), made with beetroot, carrots, and the oil again. It was all really delicious. We ate it sitting in the Fairs’ garden. The tree behind us housed a family of little owls. There were bats living in an outbuilding nearby and house martins somewhere behind me, under the roof. The next day we even saw a murmuration of starlings as we passed round a Blythburgh piglet and the sky turned dark above us.IMG_8036

There are no motorways here in this part of Suffolk and no out-of-town supermarkets, no superstores. There are hardly any chains at all. The doughty and magnificent Caroline Cranbrook saw off Tesco more or less singlehandedly some years ago. So for two days it was like living in 1974, but with our modern sensibility for a flat white and the urgency for soya milk.

At the hotel, there was no internet reception – it was down for the whole evening – and we created our own murmuration, swirling around in the lobby trying to ‘find’ a signal. Until we gave up and gave in to the deliciousness of being untraceable for a whole evening and a whole night. In the morning, we talked about life before phones over scrambled eggs. What did we do? It is almost unthinkable now, a childhood with no signal, no texts, boredom, back at dusk or before dinner. What about work? People wandered off in singles or twos to take photographs or walk to Framlingham Castle, phones waving in the wind. Suddenly ten texts, endless vibrating, cheers etc.

Later we were deposited back to the station at Darsham, to the branch line taking us to Ipswich and then to London Liverpool Street where modernity, mobile phones, Boots and angry people in a hurry eating crisps awaited us. We said our goodbyes and dispersed into the melée. Tired and full of pork and cake, but happy.IMG_8086

Thank you to Polly at Food Safari for organising this wonderful trip.

The growing season

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IMG_7855I have an allotment. It’s ‘five rod’ which is 125 square metres and it has known better days. Waving weeds, a broken greenhouse, a shed, three pairs of Wellington boots that are sprouting wild flowers or hold stagnant pools of rainwater. The wellies start from small, a three year old I’d say, to adult. And there is something sad about them, the way they are standing to attention against the shed wall. As if something happened that I’d rather not know about. Whoever she is, she left me some tomato fertilizer, a book on allotments, a watering can and a small parcel of the blackest soil replete with worms. There is also a gooseberry bush, some errant raspberry canes, a flattened bombed-looking mass of rhubarb. A barbeque. It’s almost a friendship. And some bolting tomatoes.

Nothing more is known. Of course I said yes. We’ve been here eight months! I had put my name down, and then forgotten all about it; no one now gets an allotment. There’s a waiting list. It’s like that scene in The Kids Are Alright, where a gorgeous gamine woman carries a basket of freshly mown sprouts from the vegetable garden to a lopsided trestle table to be turned into some kind of micro feast for the bistro where she’s shagging the owner. But here I am shaking hands with a tall, white-haired man, and he’s telling me about cherry trees. About the trio of fruit trees behind the plot I’ve chosen which has similarly been left to grow wild. They wouldn’t belong to me, and there’d be no point transplanting them, because they’re damaged in some way he can’t quite explain; they’ve been left to range, to grow too high, one has been inexpertly ravaged with a saw or some cutting implement and stands dwarfed.

There’s something incredibly exciting about a fruit tree. It implies permanence in a way that a line of onions or potatoes doesn’t. Also a tree is beautiful, its blossom giving way to the fruit. Every year it will come back. Fruit that can be pilfered and pocketed, guzzled round the back of the shed, or turned into a clafoutis, or tipped into an almond cake. You can sit under a fruit tree and drink tea and read a book.IMG_7851

I threw some netting over part of the cherry tree I could reach, so that there might be some left after the birds and started pulling up weeds with my hands. I can’t yet draw up a plan. If I had a plan, then it would be a job, a task. And already with allotments, there is that whiff of slight tyranny. You have to maintain ‘your’ path which is always to the right of your plot. You need to decide whether to go down the route of mesh and bark chippings, or cutting it like a lawn. This made me sweat a bit, and so did their pack of instructions for planting from north to south, to dig or not to dig, rotovating, the price of manure. I was to look out for prehistoric flint tools. I was advised to plant spuds the first year. There is a man near me whose plot is all potatoes; they ride over hills of earth looking wholesome and uniform.

I was thinking more along the lines of thyme and lavender and nasturtium because it reminds me of those slopes in LA rampant with their dusty colour and floppy leaves. Sorrel. What else: fruit that can be picked when ripe (blackcurrants!), a swathe of colourful Califormian poppies for ease and because they like neglect and a dusty ditch. Tomatoes that can feel the sun. Basically I’d like a mulberry tree.

But first it’s a place to come. At the moment there is a wicker chair which when you sit on it gradually subsides so you are actually just sitting on the earth – from here I can be quite invisible and watch the woman mowing her path, the (possibly lesbian?) couple bending over their plants. The train rattles by. The man who said something disparaging about my grass is hiding behind a wigwam of sweet peas. I am using a child’s digging fork at the moment; it’s pink and sits jauntily in the earth in front of me. I may or may not get back to work.IMG_7910

Roasted rhubarb

This is from Mark Diacono’s book A Taste of the Unexpected. He’s the one who tells you to plant Szechuan Pepper and quince and something called Oca. His books are glorious and so are his recipes. He also says ‘you can be a neglectful, even abusive, carer of rhubarb. It is quite hard to kill off.’ Result.

500g rhubarb (trimmed & cut into 5cm pieces)
65g caster sugar
Zest and juice of a small orange

Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas 6. Put the trimmed and chopped rhubarb into a roasting tin, toss with the caster sugar and the finely grated zest of the orange. Arrange in a single layer and then pour over the orange juice. Cover the dish with foil and roast in the oven for 15-20 minutes. Then remove the foil, give it all a good stir and put back in the oven (sans foil) for another 15 ish minutes until tender and syrupy and starting to disintegrate. Lovely with Greek yoghurt or cream or ice cream and an ‘independent crumble’ – see Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall for this.IMG_0360

Delight in the dish

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This is ricotta pudding from Elizabeth David’s book Is there a Nutmeg in the House? The book is blue and there is somewhere on it a picture of quinces. In a heretical gesture, I added some dark chocolate, masquerading as raisins. I’m fairly sure that ED would not have approved. She would have spoken sharply. And of my decision to throw in some Feta, to substitute strained Greek yoghurt, to add honey, as I have done occasionally, she would have regarded me coolly. I would have known this was not wise from the dip in temperature in the room.

It’s no surprise to me that she’d been an actress and had come to her writing life after failure in that department. I’ve always loved her writing; the recipe here for ricotta pudding (budino di ricotta) is simple and feels quite underwritten, basic almost. There is none of the hand holding we have now in cookery books. My mother remembers her kitchen shop in Pimlico in the sixties, remembers meeting her there, and watched as ED wrapped in tissue paper a present for my grandmother, to be shipped off later to Sydney.

It was an odd time then, hard to define when you haven’t lived it, but stories abound of London in the late Fifties, then the Sixties. It was this beatnik, makeshift place of eternal, random, spontaneous parties, according to my mother. ED appeared to be the only vaguely sniffy one there. But it was nice of her to wrap my mother’s present.

There was another figurehead at the time who gets talked of – Robert Carrier. Just before I was born, my parents owned a flat in Camden Passage, close to his restaurant. I think back then, you could afford to be a bit arbitrary and eccentric about food and flounce about a bit. Because people didn’t know about ratatouille and ricotta. These things came from the Continent, which a lot of people hadn’t explored in any great depth. And there had been rationing.

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My mother knew more than most only because she had done the six week boat journey from Sydney, part of the first Push that included Clive James, Barry Humphries etc. and had stopped off along the way. She stayed in a brothel in Naples. But these are not my stories to tell. All I can tell you is how the book feels to read, and how it reminds me of the people who are still around, family friends in their eighties now and nineties, and how demure and evocative they can make an omelette seem. A collection of wooden spoons are there not just for show. An aura of quiet descends in the room, there are no winking red lights, no computer leads, and I find myself becalmed.

There’s the occasional sharpness if I lose the thread of the conversation, overwhelmed by central heating in a small space. A telling off is part of the deal somewhere, sometimes by accident I might break a chair. But on the whole it’s a relief not to be modern for a while. The food is delicious, simple, frugal, effortless. There is delight in the dish.

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Ricotta pudding

Adapted from Elizabeth David, Is There A Nutmeg in the House?

I prefer strained Greek or Turkish yoghurt here to nasty supermarket ricotta. If you can find fresh, or even better if you can make it yourself, it will transform the dish. Ricotta is slightly drier, less silky than strained yoghurt. Not wishing to confuse, curd cheese is also lovely. I’m not imagining you’ll be as common as me and add chocolate, but if you have some raisins and some rum or marsala it’s a lovely addition. You can use honey here as well. And ground almonds instead of flour – ED does in her other cheese-cake recipes. She’s not here to tell you off.

100g raisins (optional)

4 tbsp rum

Butter, for greasing

3 tbsp plain flour (or ground almonds)

400g fresh ricotta or strained Greek or Turkish yoghurt

Pinch of sea salt

4 eggs

6 heaped tablespoons of caster sugar (or to taste)

Nutmeg

Grated zest of 1 lemon

Soak the raisins (if using) in the rum for a few hours until plump. Heat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Butter a 25cm plain cake tin or oven-proof dish of about 1.5 litre capacity. Beat the ricotta or yoghurt until smooth. Beat in 1 whole egg and the three yolks, 4 heaped tablespoons of sugar, the salt, flour/almonds, the lemon zest, and a good grating of nutmeg. Use a whisk to get rid of any lumps. Finally, stir in the raisins, along with any rum left in the bowl. Beat the egg whites until they hold soft peaks. Keep beating, gradually adding the remaining sugar, until you have a thick, glossy meringue that stays in the bowl if you hold it upside down. Stir a heaped tablespoonful of the meringue into the cheese mixture to loosen it, then lightly fold in the rest, keeping as much air in the mix as you can.

Pour into the prepared tin or dish and give it a gentle shake to level the surface. Bake for about 35 – 40 minutes, or until golden and set. Leave to cool to room temperature (it will sink). Eat cold – perhaps with cream. Lovely with some sharp, honeyed rhubarb.

His favourite butter

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I have been cooking for a couple who live in Belgravia, and who spent twenty years in France and pronounce words – certain cheeses – with a proper French accent and when I was younger I found ths deeply unsettling until a friend told me how much she hated the way her Dutch friend pronounced the word Gouda. I am also cooking food from another time, when everyone ate cream daily. They are both slim and energetic older people who think nothing of eating a pudding every day, a gratin, cheese, bread, strong small coffee. Perhaps small is the key here, because occasionally they’ll remark on my portions and intimate that perhaps this is because of Joe’s rather gargantuan needs but in fact he is also a dainty eater. They like ice cream, tarts, pies, but in small amounts and eaten with style – at a highly decorative table in a room that I have seen but not yet entered.

“You can’t get food like this anymore”, the man said, as he passed me my ’empties’ from the previous day’s dishes – fish pie and lemon posset. “You can’t get it in a restaurant. Nobody makes this kind of food nowadays.” Dressed crab. Bisque. Onion tart. It’s true that no one quite eats like this. We are more timid perhaps. Shy of milk, the presence of Parmesan, nothing too florid, too lavish. “We love soufflés, Shepherd’s pie, sticky toffee pudding. No couscous.” These were my instructions delivered by phone and every day my journey takes me past that old London; Harrods with the bottle green awnings, the gold lettering, the Natural History Museum, the black railings everywhere, the white window boxes and lurid flowers. Big red buses. It’s hard not to feel a child again on the approach to Hyde Park Corner. You can imagine never seeing the same person twice. The doormen at the Wellesley. European women in varying shades of caramel, hair the same colour as their coats.IMG_0242

And then doing battle with that enormous roundabout. It’s probably not called a roundabout, but if you’re not already in the right lane, you find yourself going to Victoria station. Right in the centre is a bizarre series of enclosures impossible to navigate on foot. I’ve done it many times in the past and on every occasion have resorted to asking a stranger how to get across and together we have had a meltdown. I have never not had some sort of panic attack here. In fact it was while stranded under the Wellington Arch seven years ago that I decided to give up coffee. And always leave the house with at least ten pounds cash so I can hail a cab.

There’s possibly some Freudian impulse that has brought me back here, to a lilac mews seconds away. That and the money. I dropped off my portions today – smoked haddock in a mustard and Parmesan cream, homemade ice cream, chocolate sauce, ‘mocha-d up’, they said, approvingly. They love potatoes, so there’s them, new. And as I was leaving we talked about potted shrimp. He told me about his favourite butter only available in France. Jean-Yves Bordier. They both said it in a way I wouldn’t dare, with the breathful ease of two people who eat beurre and cheese every day of their lives. Who knew their French builders’ elegant coffee habits. And the life of weekly markets.

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Occasionally I imagine that this is me – with my own favourite butter, for example. A liking for a specific farmer or greengrocer, someone who knows his peaches. I do actually: his name is Paul from Twickenham and he told me the other day about his grandma who made amazing rhubarb and strawberry crumbles for everyone and died sitting up, right there in the street on her stool, next to the fruit & veg. She was given a proper costermonger’s funeral with standing room only. But I wonder if that is sufficiently singular – whether it’s enough. It’ll have to do for now. I’m off to buy three tubs of cream and a tranche of Parmesan.

Food in books

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IMG_0027I’ve been away. From here, I mean. Though you may not have noticed, quite rightly. It’s been an interesting month, of reading books, one sometimes after the other, like the courses of a meal. And books that aren’t remotely about food or eating still contain passages that made me stop and want to write them down or pause. Logan Mountstuart, the writer in William Boyd’s novel Any Human Heart, eats dog food. First by mistake and then by choice, because it’s cheap and he’s now poor; he particularly likes the rabbit (‘especially with the liberal addition of some tomato ketchup and a good jolt of Worcestershire sauce’). This precipitates his move from London – leaving just as Margaret Thatcher becomes prime minister, 1979 –  to France. A ‘rich haul’ of ceps and girolles, an occasional mushroom omelette, two meals a day and wine and potato crisps at night. He dies, I believe happily, his body discovered in the garden by a friend ‘who had come to Cinq Cypres with the gift of a basket of apples’.

I was relieved when he left England, his cramped basement flat in Pimlico, and spent his last years in a ruin with a dog and a cat in France burning cherry logs, avoiding the spitting acacia, with pine ‘bringing up the rear’ and eating proper food. The end of a wild journey through the century.

This meal, the one pictured here, was largely taken up with talking about books. We ate at Rochelle Canteen in Shoreditch. I bumped into Ralph Fiennes picking over some oranges outside Leila’s Shop on the way there. It’s that kind of place (you can make your mind up what I mean by that…I like Ralph Fiennes. I like oranges. Perhaps it was the dark splendour of the interior of the shop itself that scared me). I felt more at ease with the van on the corner selling bacon baps and cups of tea the colour of malt. I don’t know what that says. And the old lady serving had yellow hair, like the colour of crayons. I’ve had more bacon baps in my life, and stewed tea (bag in) than hake, and laverbread butter, and apple galettes. I suppose that might be it.

Anyway, we ate the very refined food, as pictured, and talked about food writing. Or rather we rasped over the clamour of voices and general scraping of chairs, reduced to occasional semaphoring. What was that about Diana Henry? etc.IMG_0028 I am old, longing for quiet. And dare I say it, I’d rather read an actual book – a novel, or a memoir, a biography – than a cookbook, however learned. We all have to eat; a brilliant book will have stuff in it somewhere, about food, about the time, all in context and memorable.

I have no idea how Andrea Ashworth recalled with such detail the food of the 1970s, of her childhood in Manchester, in Once in a House on Fire. Terrible things happen to her, to her sisters and mother. Sometimes the bleakness and violence feels too sad to bear, but the details are poetry and she is a child again in the telling – Asda versus Kwik Save (Asda infinitely superior – ‘Kwik Save smelled of the weather’ ). When times are hard they eat boiled potatoes under ‘an avalanche of salt’ or Rich Tea biscuits sandwiched by ‘a glance of marg’ and wrapped in newspaper. When there’s a windfall there’s Country Life butter, real milk, ‘half a pound of white Cheshire cheese…grainy brown bread, Weetabix’. And then there’s whatever they’re given to eat or drink at the places they pitch up to in the middle of the night, on the run  from a crazed stepfather – hot Ribena in Auntie Pauline’s caravan.

Or this about her favourite refuge: ‘I found myself falling in love with the edge of Auntie Vera’s toast, where the crusts were always slightly burned and butter caught without melting, so you got a glob of it on your tongue’.

Or there’s this, for beautiful words, all on their own: ‘I missed our daytime television and the haunting half-whistle of The Clangers, hiding in moon craters, singing circles to each other through the big black – echoing without words.’ I could go on. Anyhow, it’s better than a cookbook in my view and leaves you feeling full. I hope you read it. The end.IMG_0034

Early Nigel

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I recently went to visit my friend Claudia who I’ve known for 18 years and who lives in the wilds of North Essex. It is the sort of relationship where we often forget to be in touch, and because of the fact that I’ve been in LA, things have happened to one another that neither of us have had much access to. Stuff has happened. She has had three children, who have grown up despite me. They built a house I didn’t see or really know much about so long was it in the making. But we are great friends.

I met Claudia on the first day of drama school. I think I was wearing tweeds. Our friendship has been characterised by food and poetry, packets of ten Silk Cut and the very first intimacy we ever shared which was that we both experienced dizzy spells; Claudia because of Ménière’s disease and me because of recurring labrynthitis. She had fallen sideways in a lift and I had held on to bedsteads while vomiting. In the background a man sang. We sat on armchairs – part of some kind of scene study.

I was, and continue to be, eight years older than her. However, she was often cast as my mother, screaming at me from the top of the stairs as I ‘eloped’ on one particular occasion with a voice and bearing so like my actual mother I was unable to carry on down the stairs and out the door. Our relationship continued in this vein, with me living in vacant houses, friends’ sofas, the odd floor and Claudia settled into domesticity in Clapham with an actual kitchen. I got to know it well, and her brother who lived there and who once told me that you were upper class if you could circle your wrist with your forefinger and thumb, and I couldn’t. I don’t think he meant anything by it and he was always very friendly, even when I set off the burglar alarm and the police called him at work.

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Food and poetry was our thing. Nigel Slater, Louis MacNiece, roast potatoes in goose fat, huge bricks of cheese, shards of shredded lamb, Elizabeth Bishop, Philip Larkin, Vicki Feaver. We would rehearse each other either in an empty acting room or at the kitchen table for the strange ritual of Speech and Verse where we were regularly sent before a panel of judges who talked a terrifying nonsense about ‘interplay rhythm’ and us having no legs.

And all the while, we ate fish finger sandwiches, smoked and talked about squid ink. Because there was the River Cafe and Early Nigel and a kind of romping carnivorous lust that predated the gluten-free, rather more anaemic times we live in now.

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It’s a difficult thing to sustain, eating like that all the time and then spending the rest of your money on Imodium. It was a bit Francis Bacon, a bit tiring, and a long time ago. This time it was the quiet I needed, the complete absence of sound.

We went for a walk and watched the ponies break into an edifying gallop, then rub their conker arses on the ground, legs to the sky, the smell of manure and hay, their velvety noses, the bare clink of metal. There was a frost that covered the ground, a spare-looking snow. There was the house itself which is all wood, low-slung beams, an old Nissan hut, a disused airfield. There were the children, who were a bit magic, one of whom is my god-daughter who reads with the same relentless drive as I did; a book a day, as if it were some kind of illness.

What has survived? Because so often in those very site-specific friendships, it is hard when those things, those props, have been taken away. I can’t drink coffee anymore, a thing we obsessed about; must be a stove-top percolator, milk must be warmed, cup must be hot etc. The colour a manilla cigar. Bread is hard; we loved bread, slathered with butter and a thick and amateur marmalade. Bacon. I’m not that person anymore, or not much of her remains. But what we had was lamb, the kids did too with spinach I believe and orzo. We all ate it. And since I’ve come back all I’ve done is roast lamb: lamb shoulder, lamb leg, tarred with oil and salt, rosemary somewhere deep inside, garlic charred to oblivion.

Lamb survived. (And Claudia did too, still my mother). I got the recipe from Nigel Slater’s Real Cooking – a book I would heartily recommend if winter food is exerting its bleak tyranny. It’s one of his early ones; you see his hands a lot, it’s spare and simple. A bit of poetry I think.

Roast leg of lamb with garlic and rosemary

Adapted from Nigel Slater, Real Cooking

“Fat – sticky and rich – is the bonus for the pork eater. With lamb it is the bones. The sweet, crunchy, brittle bones of a cutlet, or the softer lump in a chump chop, are a true treat for those not too proud to gnaw at the table. Lamb clings to its bones more tightly than does pork or beef, demanding that we pick up and chew. The meat around the bone being the sweetest of course. Cutlery is for wimps.” Nigel Slater, Real Cooking

Olive oil, not much

A leg of lamb (about 2kg in weight)

A few bushy sprigs of rosemary

6 garlic cloves, peeled

Sea salt

Set the oven to 230C/450F. Pierce the fat of the leg of lamb with the point of a sharp knife. Into each hole stuff a small sprig of rosemary and a slice of garlic (do the rosemary first, and then shove in garlic – according to NS this is easier). My lamb is rarely so invaded as Joe likes herbs to be ‘shown’ to the meat (see below).

Drizzle and dab fat and aromatics with oil. Grind over some salt (don’t go overboard here). Place in roasting tin and leave to roast for about 15 minutes per 500g, in other words about an hour. After 20 minutes, turn the oven temperature down to 200C/400F. If you wanted to include potatoes, which NS does, then set the lamb directly on one of the oven shelves and place roasting tin of 6 large scrubbed potatoes, sliced, underneath with a few shakings of salt and daubs of butter. The lamb will drip all over the potatoes which you may like.

Remove the lamb from the oven and let it rest for about 20 minutes before carving. After that first meal, I use the bones and any adhered meat for a broth which I then eat for days.

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