a sad centre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chocolate espresso cake

 Taken from Tamasin Day-Lewis, Good Tempered Food

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

Serves 8-10

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

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

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

6 eggs, separated

185g (6.5oz) unrefined caster sugar

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

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

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

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

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

 

Unfurl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sorrel Merge

I add sorrel near the end of cooking time and it merges with all the other ingredients lending a sharpness and depth. Recently, I made a carrot and butter bean soup to which I added the leaves of parsley and sorrel five minutes before the end and the stalks earlier. Please use the stalks. I am ashamed now how much I have previously wasted.

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

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

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

 

Thanks, that’s heaps!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aftermath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Buttered carrots

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

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

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

Thyme sprigs (optional)

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

Swimmingly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Weathered

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Windfallen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Apple and rosemary olive oil cake

Adapted from Lili Vanilli’s Sweet Tooth

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

Scant 100g plain white flour

Scant 100g ground almonds

1/3 tsp freshly grated nutmeg

1/3 tsp ground cinnamon

1 tsp baking powder

85g unsalted butter

85g light muscovado sugar, plus extra for dusting

2 eggs

2 tbsp olive oil

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

½ – 1 tsp fresh rosemary, finely chopped

2 – 3 Bramley (or other apple) slices

1-2 fresh rosemary sprigs to decorate

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

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

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

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

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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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I 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.

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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.

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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.

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