I’ve been here three seasons; a whole autumn, one full winter, the beginnings of spring. That translates as cold, long, dark, wet and angry. Gusty gales, the inexplicable (to me) spring and neap tides, the winter solstice and the darkest night. I’ve watched too many documentaries on BBC4, and I keep bumping into people who think I’ve already left. “Haven’t you gone yet?” “Still here?” or the weirdly judging “shouldn’t you have gone by now?”. And the sun is tepid – bright and cheerful but not warm. At the moment, and this moment is long, there is nowhere but here. Here is where I have a good doctor and no bills, no frightening and incomprehensible bills that have to be explained to me in a way that makes them even more incomprehensible.
Because Obama is still sorting out his healthcare, and for now we have no insurance and to be without insurance with a chronic condition in the US is scary. And people love to tell you how scary; a medical insurance broker in LA, over the course of a two-hour conversation, cheerfully painted a picture of precise Breugal-like horror at what would befall me if I continued to live an uninsured life. One of her client’s had walked out of the door one morning and dislodged one of her eyeballs – or her retina flew off. Or anyway, something happened to her eye and she had no insurance! I probably would have followed Francis Bacon’s lead in this case and popped my eyeball back in, which I read he used to do often after a few stiff ones at the French House.
So I’m here and it’s spring and I’ve already said goodbye at least twice to everyone. I am in that strange, drained nothing-doing state. An oddity in a world where everyone works, a permanent tourist, which is not half as fun as it sounds. And I don’t want to write about leeks or rhubarb, and I have tramped through enough Sussex undergrowth to know that the ubiquitous wild garlic leaves of which everyone writes are having an off year, or simply spring is late. So anyway I started cleaning. Sponging down the insides of my mother’s cupboards, shaking out the bowls and the bits of plastic appendage and the darkly mottled casserole dishes and the 70s colander. This bit was fun, discovering what was there and had been forgotten about. There were things that have followed me from Devon up to London down to Sussex, and sometimes even before my birth; some predate Woolwich!
The pestle and mortar originally belonged to my Australian grandmother and came from her home in Sydney. I never knew her really, but I have her postcards and letters in her kind capitals and lots of photos, and a memory of brushing her long silver hair. Now that I am apart from my things, I can see how wonderful it is to hold something like this – its weight and shape, and to imagine fingerprints and palms. The beechwood handle has come unmoored from its porcelain head. There are marks from not sure where or what all over the bodies of both mortars. The very act of pounding is to replicate what she would have done, her hands under mine; a form of conjuring. Spices, herbs, pigments and powders – I know she was a natural alchemist. Maybe, who knows, if I pound away and for long enough I’ll get healed.
Pounding herbs and garlic in a mortar is not nearly as arduous as it looks. It is actually very efficient – the whole thing comes together within a few minutes, the addition of oil is very satisfying, and then you’ve made it yourself and probably worked through a few grudges while you were at it. You are also ‘tempering’ the ingredients, putting them back into balance; in the Middle Ages, honey tempered vinegar, wine tempered fish and the mortar was the vessel to do it.* You are in control of things too, able to see and feel when particles become slosh (as it were).
The Catalan sauce romesco is still made in this way; peppers, nuts, oil, vinegar, bread and garlic are pounded into heady oblivion. As is pesto, skorthalia, the garlicky sauce from Greece, tahini, the Turkish classic tarator made with walnuts and stale white bread and Catalan picada, made with parsley and almonds (below).
It’s better to give approximations when it comes to pounding, because this is where feel is paramount, and it’s good to taste as you go; you can always add more of something. Add oil in very small increments to begin and then increase. I like herb/garlic sauces to have texture, with nuggets of this or that. If you don’t, pound on.
My version of a Catalan picada
1 small handful of blanched almonds (about 20)
1-2 garlic cloves peeled & a pinch of sea salt
4 big glugs of extra virgin olive oil
One big handful of roughly chopped flat-leaf parsley
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Crush the garlic with a good pinch of salt in a mortar until you have a smooth paste. Now add the almonds and keep pounding until amalgamated. Now add the parsley to the mortar, a small bit at a time, and pound until incorporated. Add the olive oil, trickling it in slowly and stir well before adding the lemon juice (add the juice after the oil otherwise it’ll turn the parsley brown). Lovely stirred into a fish casserole or simply served alongside mackerel or clams, sprats, lightly steamed veg or chicken, or stirred into salted yoghurt – really anything.
*Consider The Fork, a history of how we cook and eat by Bee Wilson, is a fascinating book and goes into some detail on the history of the pestle and mortar, if you wanted to read on…