Why I swim

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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, a dog scampers up, my body makes wrinkles through the water. 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 (down below, Christmas day). 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.

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. 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. I hope this is helpful.

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. Top photo: rocket flowers. 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.

Favourite things

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‘What is your favourite food?’ she asked and I replied ‘onions’. We were sitting side by side at a lunch to celebrate the uses of cold-pressed rapeseed oil. I then added ‘lamb’ as if onions weren’t enough. I fell in love with onions as a child when I discovered that they could somehow be absorbed into skin and fingers for hours and hours; the gorgeous brew, smoky and lingering, was useful if you were a thumb-sucker because there it was right under your nose all evening. 

The tacky, glorious stew of mince, stolen bay leaves, tomatoes and onions, and then whatever else we had to soak it up with: bread, pasta, more often potatoes. We had an ancient potato masher and I would be given the job of it, which meant that I could add more butter than was strictly necessary. Although it probably wasn’t butter, but Stork, a cheap butter substitute ‘for baking’ or Echo margarine. Anyway, Potatoes, ‘butter’, salt – landslides of mash which were a perfect foil for the mince.

Recently I have come back to onions having ignored them for a long time. There is a lovely recipe for onion jam and it involves stewing the onions very slowly until they are limp and translucent, then taking the lid off and throwing up the heat until all the liquid has evaporated and the onions are caramel in colour and starting to catch. It takes a good couple of hours or so, but you don’t have to do anything. I have been known to eat them like this straight from the pan. You can then add the mush to lots of things.

You can add Marsala to the onions at the beginning but I never have so can’t report back. I know that adding sliced potatoes at the beginning will create the most delicious fondant stew. There is another recipe – one I found in Elizabeth David – which is whole unpeeled onions baked in the oven with absolutely nothing added – no oil or salt, nothing. Because it’s the inside you want. And then you scoop out the innards. Warm with butter, cold with a vinaigrette. 

I have a memory of us all sitting in the kitchen round the table in Ottery St. Mary and watching my aunt Jo – on a visit from Australia – delve into a pat of butter (we must have had butter too because this was noticeably firm and sitting independently) with a piece of bread. 

The ridges left on the butter, the crust merely a ledge for it, the way she used the bread as an implement. And her talking of the ‘bad vibes’ in the house, which was actually a converted convent that hadn’t saved us, and all the while I watched her creaming off the butter and thinking it ingenious. 

We never had a meal of onions, because onions were just part of every meal, taken for granted. I’m fairly certain that it was either mince or ratatouille we would have had that would have required the onions, with the bread and the butter and the mash as accompaniments. I can’t imagine bread so good it would have taken centre stage like that or butter so good it was the reason for the bread. 

The walls would have been thick but it was always cold despite having open fires and storage heaters. We had an Aga or a Rayburn, one of those complicated systems that heated the water. We had a cat and we had goats, so from the outside, from here, it looked rustic, idyllic, the kitchen table rough-hewn, food solid and healthy. But there were ‘bad vibes’, which the bread and butter only temporarily ameliorated. It’s important not to be too sentimental about the past. But I do miss the simplicity of that smell and taste, of everyone together, in the simmering silence eating torn off bread. The smell of onions on the hands, as bewitching as oranges in winter.


Ps. I am going to grow onions this year at the allotment. Sets are more reliable than seed, but seed can be sown now under cover and there are many more varieties to choose from: Red Baron, Red Brunswick, Long Red Florence, Setton and Sturon are possibles, and Senshyu Yellow. Shallots: Golden or Red Gourmet or Red Sun. One piece of advice is to sow 8 seeds in a 3 inch pot and do not thin the seedlings. Plant them all out together; as the bulbs grow they push each other apart.

a quiet loaf

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I like the way the parchment paper is hugging the loaf and how it has moulded to its shape during baking. This is a sourdough boule. I decided to embrace all the cliches and start my own starter and once I got going, it’s hard to resist the jiggly, bubbly mass of it and the pub-like aroma. I have welts and fissures on my hands to show for the effort and the heat from the pot it cooks in is as ferocious as anything on bonfire night.

What I enjoyed is that it tied in well with my evening walk. After the folding, the dough needs to fill the bowl quietly and this takes a while, so I would take myself off, do a circle, look into people’s living rooms as the dusk crept in and overtook the day, and the lights went on. It was intoxicating, seeing people. They became seductive, instructive, and if a window was filled with a rainbow, then it was a family house, and sometimes the family would advertise itself more thoroughly; with cuddly toys stacked up, or a notice pleading for me not to eat beef.

On one there is a notice on the gate with the sharp instruction to “please DO add a ribbon to our rainbow fence”. The fence is festooned with ribbons tied into bows, and the tree towering over it is trailing them, long and glossy and just at head height. Each time I approach I try to pull a ribbon off a branch, so I can tie it to the fence, and am left standing there, yanking at a ribbon that refuses to come loose. Is this what I am supposed to be doing? I walk on.

As it is a suburban street in a quiet, residential area on the outskirts of a Greater London suburb, the changes have been so subtle as to be almost non-existent. Slowly, by stealth, it has become slightly louder recently, inching its way back to normality. Which is not very loud. I have longed sometimes for the quiet of an urban street, to luxuriate in the silence, the shock of its stillness. To walk for miles during the night through empty streets and stand in front of St. Paul’s. Or go back to a time when I used to walk home at night because I needed to remember all the details of an evening in a way that only feet can do.

So when I let myself in, at 10 sometimes 10.30, my skin flushed from night summer air, and begin to dust a surface with flour, I am carrying with me all the remnants of those walks I have taken and forgotten about. Evening walks with my dad in West Somerset, with views of the brown Bristol sea. Night walks I took in Sydney as a teenager, chatting and walking into spiders’ webs. Walking along the promenade in Sitges after a long day’s teaching, my friend Jonny carrying my bags, and watching the ink-black sea crawl up the sand.

The quiet brings it up, loud and insistent, it tells me what I care about and what I miss. I then have to shape the boule, which is my favourite part, dragging the dough closer to me, over and over, creating surface tension, the dome of it tight and jiggly and ready for the fridge.

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This is the sourdough recipe I have been using. The Perfect Loaf is also really helpful.

Me alegro

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Despite how healthy this picture looks, these peppers never belonged to me. I lived next door to a storeroom and it stored things like beers and tins of things as well as mountains of red peppers and tomatoes and the like. Once, all the bottles of beer in a crate rolled down the hill on their way to the sea. I stopped them by putting my leg out and then running after them, like a parent chasing after her kamikaze child. Only one bottle got broken and the man thanked me and said that he was the owner of the bar, next to my apartment, and if I ever wanted anything I was to come in and ask for him. I remember thinking how nice that was and I was only doing what anyone would have done in the circumstances.

I found the crate of peppers incongruous, sitting there unattended. There was no one in the street but me, although in the photo there is a suggestion of human activity from the open door on the left. But at the time, there was no noise. This is the street where I lived while I was teaching last year. It is in Sitges, just outside Barcelona.

Up until then, Sitges was a place I had only heard of, and only from a man I once worked with in a delicatessen whilst as a jobbing (unemployed and depressed) actor. He was someone who subtly undermined me as I attempted to slice cured meats, who nitpicked about the way I piled sausages. He was not a very nice man and when he said his tan was attributable to a holiday in Sitges, somehow Sitges became as horrible as him. I never wanted to go there. I would go and sit in the toilet and cry and then have to re-introduce myself to whoever I was serving and weigh the pâté. I’ll never forget the awful feeling of my hands shaking over the digital scales. And his red face bearing down on me.

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Also, delicatessens are a strange place to work. Things swimming in oil, the obsession with clingfilm, the smell of cold astringent objects, piles of goo. The colour brown. That weird rind on pâté. People who work in delicatessens are rarely warm – have you noticed? Because they, like the food, must remain chilled otherwise they’ll go off. Just a theory.

My very first exchange, the morning after I’d arrived, was with a waitress with black hair and a black mood who pretended not to understand the word tortilla. I thought – he is here, his spirit has contaminated this place. I never went back there even though her cafe was on the corner of my tiny pedestrian street and I passed her every day blackly sweeping up, looking as though she was still mulling over my ridiculous request. She never acknowledged me nor I her. So my first meal was spent looking at a blank space where a plate should have been and Joe drinking very good coffee.

Then I realised I had locked us out of the flat and had to call the estate agent who was hiking in the hills of Catalunya. Of course he was. He sent a sympathetic slightly cryptic message telling me not to worry and all would be well and because we had nothing else to do, we went and ate lunch – a plate of grilled sardines and patatas bravas smothered in a red sauce – made from peppers. Those red peppers are everywhere in Catalunya, a kind of culinary leitmotif.

I never saw that man from the bar again. I never went in there, preferring the open air restaurant on the pontoon over looking the sea, where the waiters fed bread to the fish. Looking over the side there would be masses of dancing fish and no bread, that’s how quick they were. The waiters were all young and friendly and prone to hand-holding; if there wasn’t a table until 3pm, I would get my hand held. That’s one of the reasons I went back, but also the food was good, with a limited menu written in chalk, always finishing with tarta de santiago, sliced as thin as paper with a rosette of cream.

The food though was not the most important thing. It was the colours of the food, the brown paper bags, the heaps of artichokes, the big orange mounds of mango, the tiny streets where my bike would fit, the sudden sweep down to the sea. The sea. I had my own bit, which had a white wind-break, a kind of fence, owned officially by the yacht club but it’s where I once left my watch (still there on my return), where I left my swimming costume hanging, where I sat and imagined the water before going in. It was near two ice cream shops. It was as ice cream always is, unless it’s Italy circa 1988. Never as good as you want it to be.

Down each of those alleyways, would appear the face, from time to time, of a student. Sometimes, we would go through the polite dance of ‘hello,’ sometimes we would feign ignorance, not see each other. Because Sitges is so small, that work seamlessly blends into all aspects of life. You are your work, and so arguments, wandering out of the sea topless, eating, walking, standing – all will be duly noted. Not going out will be too. Because Sitges is a party town, a drinkers place.

The red sauce I think is, must be, romesco? But perhaps notIn all the time I was in Sitges I never asked. Just nodded and ate it. It was lovely.

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Small green plums

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

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

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

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

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

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We don’t know what they are, a gage of some sort, but they are ripe, small and soft and full of the green juice. Avoid the ones with the caterpillars in; they feed inside ripening fruits and then mid-bite you look down and see a dark brown residue – caterpillar frass (poo). This is often accompanied by a tiny maggoty thing that rears up to meet you, with a massive smile on its face. Surprise!

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

And here is the poem in Italian, which I will endeavour to remember without resorting to my book:

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

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

The colour mauve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me: I think I might have some fish.

Boy (excited): So you DO have pets?

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

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

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

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