Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Struggling with Jesus

Dear Nigel,

I don't know if it is indicative of the new millennium but all is not 'calm and bright' in the stable at present. Molly, who is playing Mary in the school Nativity, decided to start her letter to Father Christmas this evening with the words, 'Dear Santa, I'm struggling with my baby at present...' Obviously, she has been illicitly watching too much reality TV somewhere. The baby Jesus apparently requires all manner of baby paraphernalia, including a bath with shower attachment, a car seat (for the donkey) and a sledge (for all that snow piling up outside Bethlehem).

The Royal Mail requires a stamp for the letter to get to Father Christmas. Gone are the days when my older children were small and letters were simply stuck in a post box unstamped. Several weeks later a badly translated note would come back from Greenland, or somewhere, covered in magical foreign stamps from the land of ice and snow; from the REAL Father Christmas, without a doubt. The Internet tells me we can still do this and Santa takes euros these days. Clever Santa. The girls write their letters and clamour for stamps. I see Baby Annabel has also written a long list for Santa. Good luck to him trying to reason with a two foot piece of plastic who snores louder than my child.

There is a small digger heading its way towards my house. I watch its progress with its mole-like trail following behind. They say it's the Internet. I say I'm quite happy with mine the way it is at present, having spent ages sorting it out. My neighbour has all sorts of electrical appliances short-circuiting or something. We are the end of the line for electricity and falling below the legal minimum, it appears. No wonder I keep trying to up the lumens in the light bulbs and considering another eye test for my failing eyesight. Perhaps I should sit the children on a stationary bike and they can generate our own electricity instead.

The whole village is beginning to look like the battle of the Somme. Cables are being put underground and my friend Liz tells me they have been without a landline, mobile or Internet for over a month now. She'll be sending smoke signals to her facebook pals if this carries on much longer.

Back in the kitchen, I'm making 'Gnocchi dolcelatte' (page 505). I love to cook with blue cheese. I'd much rather cook with it than eat it straight. Best of all are the dishes, like this one, where it is added to a creamy sauce. Gnocchi and spinach are suitable partners in this dish to temper the saltiness and tang of the dolcelatte. Left to bake for 30 minutes it mellows and crisps at the edges. Like a dinner bell it calls to you from the oven as you lay the table nearby.

It has been a miserable wet day today with floods on the roads and a flash flood which threatened to enter the cottage as the stream broke its banks and water from the higher meadows made new waterfalls coming down into the stream. A couple of sandbags by the back door and the water starts receding as the rain eases. I haven't seen it this high in all the time we've been here.

We get out the advent calendars ready for next week. There is a certain amount of filling to be done of the little wooden houses with chocolate coins and novelty sweets. I always make sure I get a paper one too with little pictures behind the doors. This is how I remember advent calendars to be.

Sophie, aged nine, is unimpressed with Matthew Rice's artwork this year. Baby Jesus appears to be about six years old and wearing lipstick (2014 version). Presumably it took the three kings an inordinately long time to find the stable. Mary, meanwhile, has been erecting stair gates using sheep hurdles to try and keep the baby Jesus away from her ironing board. The shepherd has a very dodgy look to him. Methinks he has spent rather too long looking after his sheep. Sophie palms her calendar off on Molly and claims the other one as hers.

I'm using my gnocchi straight from the freezer. I like the idea of having such staples on standby, if possible. I am pleased with the outcome. The gnocchi cook just as well from frozen as fresh. You say to 'take care not to over-salt the gnocchi's cooking water' as 'the cheese will provide enough salt.' I have read that it is better not to salt the gnocchi's cooking water at all as the salt will make the potato starch go sticky and it will end up mushy. In a different recipe it would be better to adjust the seasoning after cooking. Here, there is simply no need - it is salty enough.

Fruit to follow, I think. There are bowls dotted around the house filled with heaps of vivid orange clementines, which look like someone has been at work polishing them all to a fine shine. The best and easiest way to keep winter colds at bay.Every stocking should have one. Every child, an imprint of the smell of Christmas. I cannot seem to smell a tangerine without closing my eyes to do so. And along with the scent there is a certain tingling and anticipation that has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that I am standing in the kitchen on a grey afternoon stacking plates.


Sunday, 22 November 2015

Winter Comfort

Dear Nigel,

I am at the stove making your 'Butternut and red onion gratin' ( page 441) today. It needs to bake for 'a good hour and a half', so, with a little planning and forethought, it can be left to work its magic whilst I get on with other chores like cleaning the bathroom (my least favourite job). Even with a lovely new bathroom it is my least favourite job. I am sure it is an attitude of mind and if I can just persuade myself of the BENEFITS then I might make swifter progress. Perhaps if I give it a deadline of 20 minutes, or provide a small edible treat for myself on completion. It apparently works on dogs, so why not on humans?

The thing I love most about this dish is its comfort factor. There is nothing nicer than wandering through the kitchen and smelling the culinary alchemy taking place within the depths of the oven as the appetite within you builds. Winter food is all about comfort. There are knobbly balls of celeriac (which mash so well with potato and butter) and Jerusalem artichokes for sale in the wholesalers; vividly painted red cabbages like giant Christmas baubles tossed in feathers and sturdy rows of white leeks over by the counter.

I am in soup-making mode, making batches of soup to freeze for Christmas. I have just finished making one with sweet potato, butternut squash and smoked chilli, and have gathered ingredients together for a Leek and Stilton favourite. It is natural to be drawn to a warm stove at this time of year, stirring away the the darkness and driving thoughts of rain and fog back out into the cold as you gather the people you love around you, and the animals that are part of your world; wearing layer upon layer of warm jumpers and silly scarves and hats that tell the world that you "just don't care" when it comes to being warm inside. I recently bought a pair of sheepskin earmuffs which look simply ridiculous but, ohhh.., heaven on a pair of cold, red exposed ears when hats are not really my thing.

The season is finally changing to Winter and there are strings of Christmas lights going up in the towns and villages around us. We went to the annual switch on of the Christmas lights in the little village of Castleton on Saturday. The village was crowded along the main street with children on shoulders waiting for Father Christmas in his horse and cart; and Widow Twankey, heavy in make-up and bright silks, flicking the switch on the lights.

Strings of lights on full size trees lit up outside the little shops and cottages that line the twisting main street of the village. It was a suitably dark evening and there was hot chocolate and toasted tea cakes on offer in the cafe. Sophie and Molly did their Christmas shopping well into the evening as we trooped in and out of each of the little shops in turn. A huge Gingerbread house stood in the window of the Baker's shop decorated in sweets and jammy biscuits, and earrings twinkled in the windows of the gem shops. All the little shops had really made an effort with their decorations and the pubs were decked out and inviting as we gazed through the panes of yellowed glass and into the glow from the firelight and antique-style wall lights within.

Although many of the towns around us have bigger and grander switch-ons there is something personal and informal about the small village version: The compere on the tannoy, who fancies himself a bit of a comedian, cracking jokes and announcing all the coming events. A small village, famous for its caves and Blue John stone (which is unique to this place), Castleton also puts on some rather unique Christmas entertainment - Carol singing concerts deep within the caves in the hillside.

One Christmas I went along to one of these Carol concerts, and, standing or half-crouching in the kind of blackness where you can't even see your own hand in front of your face until it touches your nose, where voices around you echo with carols of old whose words (in all their verses) have become inscribed upon your consciousness over the years, seems instead to bring everything about you into sharper focus: There is cold, but stillness; a silence, but an echo of every tiny sound. It is something rich with which to savour.

The first snow of Winter fell over the landscape last night. We woke to a bright blue sky and a landscape of fondant icing as far as the eye could see. This first time always comes as a joy. The child inside is eager to get outside and find some excuse to crunch new footprints in the virgin snow before someone else gets there. I put on my snow boots and gloves and let the dog out to play in the snow. The cat is less sure she wants to stretch her legs in this unfamiliar scenery. She is soon back again, standing outside the backdoor and looking very sorry for herself. She is a fair-weather creature who would rather lie along the seam of the sofa like some miniature  version of a Trophy hunter's prize floor rug and soak up the heat from the fire.The purr she makes is like a car with its engine left running and her tabby stripes float out from a smile that John Tenniel would be proud of.

I take the giant snow shovel from the shed and clear a path out to the lane. We bring back a barrow of salt which the council kindly leave at the end of the lane in case it should freeze. There is no snow plough or gritter here - just me and my snow shovel and a long lane to clear. At the moment it is only two or three inches deep - nothing really - but when the snows get going then I usually park at the far end of the lane for even the landrover can get stuck snowed up to its axle, and digging it out is a lot less fun than it sounds...

We sit and eat our meal. It is lovely but incredibly rich. Jim and I both agree that it would make a better accompaniment to a loop of Cumberland sausage because we are unused to such richness on its own. The wholegrain mustard - a hefty dollop - gives a lovely tang to the cream and creme fraiche, but something to cut against this richness would be welcome. I mark it as such in my copy of your book -for there will most definitely be a next time.


Friday, 13 November 2015

Hot Sour

Dear Nigel,

 I am making your 'Chicken, haricot beans and lemon' (page 395) for supper tonight. I couldn't find any bone-in chicken breasts so am having to make do with the ordinary unboned version; and, as you say, it makes a really fast version of this dish. I am in two minds whether to make some basmati rice as an accompaniment, but, given the amount of haricot beans (which seems quite a lot to me for two people), I think we might make do without.

I may have been a little heavy-handed in seasoning my chicken breasts with the salt and pepper. Perhaps the lemon was a particularly large Sicilian one, plump and juicy, of the type I favour. But whatever the story, there is a happy outcome. I really hadn't expected this, but this dish is not merely one of chicken and beans with a few flavours seeping out. Instead, there is something deeper and stronger here - and in equal measure.

There is a reasonably intense heat from the pepper seasoning on the chicken and an equally intense sour from the lemon juice and yet neither is allowed to dominate. The heat from the pepper allows for the intense sour taste of the lemon without making your mouth water. And the sour allows that the heat from the pepper be far stronger than you might perhaps normally choose to use. It is startling this strength in equal measure, and not something to be lightly glossed over. To me, it is a revelation: to have two warring factions taking strength from each other is an eye-opener. It moves the dish from being another simple chicken dish, to another level.I love to have my taste buds surprised, and this dish has surprised me.

Yesterday we made my Granny Burn's recipe for Christmas cake, heavy with sticky dark currants. I forget how little we use these tiny little fruits during the rest of the year. Of course the recipe included the usual favourites of sultanas and raisins, but it is these tiny little dark and gritty specks that give that particular burnt treacle taste that says 'Christmas' to me.

Each time I make it I have to remind myself how long it takes to bake such a cake: four hours of decreasing temperatures. It's only a problem when you start cooking in an evening and suddenly realise that you will be burning the midnight oil waiting for the timer to go off so that you can finally go to bed. Not this time, though. Sophie helps me weighing out the ingredients and everyone has a magic stir - because it IS Christmas; and we've done away with the Christmas pudding on the grounds that no one wanted to eat it last year. Or at least they did, but only after they'd eaten all the other puddings first. It seems a shame to do away with such an old tradition when so much else about Christmas stays the same, but there you are.

I was helping in school yesterday taking a class of five and six year olds out into the school grounds to collect fallen leaves. The school itself is quite unusual because the building was once a large secondary school set in open fields, where now the forty or so first school pupils have an unqualified amount of space per child, which the staff are keen to utilise.

This meant that there was a large variety of leaves which the children and I were able to gather and identify. What really amazed me was how many of these quite young children actually knew the names of the trees already and the shape of their leaves. Whether that is because most of them come from farming families or simply have the sort of parents who will take them out for walks and point out these things, I couldn't say. I often read that 'most adults' couldn't recognise a horse chestnut, or whatever, and find these bland media-intrusions installing themselves in my brain as 'facts' which I then don't question. It's a worrying thing - considering the extent of the assumptions that we all make each and every day and how much they affect the way we view life.

I know we have turned a corner into Winter when I can sit and eat heavy puddings without feeling a shred of guilt. The idea that carbohydrate is like a thermal vest on a cold day cannot be underestimated. Half the pleasure of going for a good walk in the Peak District is being able to dive into a proper thriving pub with a log fire blazing and sit and eat a hearty lunch. The weather on Sunday was suitably carbohydrate-draining, with winds lashing against our faces in the fading light. The pub we chose was 'The Royal Oak' at Hurdlow which stands almost at the end of the Tissington trail (an old narrow-gauge railway line turned into a cycle path).

Just as we were flagging and in need of a rest and shelter, one appeared as if from nowhere, just like Mr Benn. It was a small roundhouse, shaped like an igloo without it's protruding entrance, and made entirely from dry stone walling materials. It had been built and given as a present by the Republic of Croatia in 2013 to celebrate its joining the European Union.The building is called an Istrian kazun and is based on a two hundred year old design celebrating the shared heritage and tradition of drystone walling. Other kazun were being built in other parts of Europe in countries and areas which also shared this tradition. In a storm it was a welcome shelter.

To sit inside on stone-shelved benches and gaze out of the tapered window holes at the storm shouting and whistling about you whilst staying well out of the wind, was lovely. You could be part of it and yet not subjected to it. No glass wall between you to imprison or dampen the sound. We had chosen to eat first this time and the Sticky toffee pudding was doing its version of the 1970's Ready brek advert and giving an invisible warming glow as we finally struck out for home once more.


Monday, 2 November 2015

Haunted Castles and Romano Peppers

Dear Nigel,

If you want to do Halloween in style, then you could not do better than visiting a real live Haunted Castle in the wilds of Northumberland. You enter along a drive lined with rows of burning torches and have to leave your car far away amongst the trees and arrive on foot armed only with a dodgy old torch.

I was just so thankful at having found 'something' - and so not have to go out trick or treating (the whole idea of which was causing me to lose sleep at night), that I would have been quite happy if it had been a bran tub of apple bobbing and a few pumpkins dotted about.

So, having driven for six hours to my parents house for a short break, I had an hour or so to grab a cup of tea and then pour myself into a sexy witch's costume (why the sexy?), complete with massive hooped skirt, and try and negotiate the gears in the landrover whilst driving another 40 minutes with said hooped skirt on (floating across the gear stick and anchoring itself firmly under the steering wheel); travelling across darkened hillsides and even further north to a castle almost on the border with Scotland. (I'm sure the British Army don't encounter these sort of logistical problems on their manoeuvres.)

Chillingham Castle markets itself as the 'most haunted castle in England'. It has been on numerous television programmes and slept in by several celebrities with a death wish, quite possibly. It stands resplendent in a suitably dimmed glow, the shadows falling off the crossed axes and sabres on the walls, and huge log fires burning in the oversized grates.

If I had been feeling a little over-dressed, perhaps, and that dressing up was not really for me, I need not have worried. The whole cast of the Adams family were there. Families seem to come as posed tableaux, siting themselves against suitable backdrops to pose for greatest effect. My two had opted to discard the lovely ready-made costumes from previous years and create 'outfits' of their own from a motley assortment of stuff they put together themselves in a Blue Peter circa 1970's sort of way. They were happy with the effect, anyway, and I was just pleased that it was relatively dark and I was unlikely to bump into anyone I knew.

They listened, entranced, to an old man telling tales of the ghosts who live in the castle alongside the family. Molly had already spotted the ghost in an upstairs window the minute we arrived and wouldn't be encouraged otherwise. It was all very matter-of-fact to her. We  feasted in the old kitchen by the fire, chased pumpkins around the darkened maze outside and finished the evening off with fireworks, returning back exhausted and complete.

I heave my heavy copper saute pan onto the stove, now that I am back safe home, and mellow a heap of sliced red and yellow onions in a little olive oil. On the chopping board are a couple of Romano peppers (one only in your recipe, but that isn't enough for me). I am making a rich vegetable medley of 'Chickpea, courgette and pepper stew' (page 391) to chase the darkness away this night. The Romano peppers are like witches fingers and I hack them into largish chunks, removing the seeds, and let them soften with the onions. It seems like a suitable dish for a Halloween or Bonfire night; something to mop up with a wedge of ciabatta. An easy dish, perhaps, to take outside in a wide-topped flask and dispense onto bowls in the dark; the witches fingers pointing out from their mini cauldrons, beckoning.

You say, 'It is the sweet pan juices that make this dish worth making.' I found that cutting the Romano peppers into larger chunks than normal left them more succulent as they softened, and for biting into.

I'm pleased to read that you are as curmudgeonly as me in regards to this Halloween trick or treating. 'Nowadays it's all screaming groups in fancy dress ringing on doorbells. Trick or treat has become little more than licensed harassment. Parties bang on into the night. Crassness and commercialism have replaced the magic of a night where spirits were free to haunt.'

I remember Halloween as being little more than baking potatoes in a fire outside and carrying turnip lanterns round. My mum tells me that turnip lanterns were a throw back from the war when that was what was available. She merely remembers them being extremely hard to carve when we were small and there being lots of apple-based activities.

You remember 'the old Halloween, when hollowed-out pumpkins glowed ghoulishly from darkened windows, was a night I rather enjoyed. Walking along London's Georgian streets, the occasional candlelit gourd to speed us on our way home to drink pumpkin soup and watch a crackly black and white Frankenstein movie, was something I looked forward to.'

Perhaps this is a night that needs reclaiming in the way that many of us are starting to at Christmastime. The excesses of chocolate deserts and rich food of a few years back are gradually being replaced, I believe, by slightly less excess, more comfort-driven and often less traditional fare - or at least a new take on the old traditional. There is more emphasis on the company than the table display and people are coming home to the idea of a simpler Christmas being actually nicer. Perhaps Halloween, too, is due for a remake; so that it becomes something to look forward to once more.

I agree with you that 'pumpkin only really works for me when it is accompanied by a savoury element.' I don't really care for the sweet pumpkin tarts and pastries available.
'Best of all is when the squash's sugary flesh comes glowing from the oven, sticky with the caramelised juices of a piece of roast pork...A glowing reminder of a night when,once upon a time, our imagination and candlelight were enough.'

Just so.


Thursday, 29 October 2015

Diary of a Glutton

Dear Nigel,

There is no one coming to lunch today. No one at all. And yet I'm cooking something special when ordinarily I'd make do with a slice of toast. It is raining outside, that kind of miserable rain that makes you want to go back to bed. It drags you down, keeps you out of the garden, saps the light from the day and makes you crave chocolate.

Instead, I am making 'Baked potatoes with aubergine and cream' (page 389). It is a recipe for four people, and, even though my friends tell me I 'can sure put it away', I decide to scale down and have one jacket potato instead of four. There are only two aubergines, though, and I am sure I can manage a whole one if pushed...quite easily, probably.

It feels a little outrageous to be cooking lunch for one, and yet the weather demands it. My spirits demand it too, and things start to look up as I put some music on, warm the oven and start crushing the spices in my pestle and mortar. I scatter the spices over the lattice-cut aubergine halves and then, instead of pouring over the olive oil, I decide to add it to the mortar bowl to eke out the smashed garlic and spice flavours still clinging there. Then I tip it over the aubergine halves and chuck it in the oven with the jacket potato.

This leaves half an hour in which to get things done. I start to hum as my mood rises and set the kitchen timer. Most real cooks, I think, are multi-taskers. Television programmes often make it look as if the cook has sat there twiddling their thumbs, watching the clock go round.

Instead, he or she is more likely to be doing the washing up - in real life anyway; (something strangely never televised, although I'm sure whole programmes could be devoted to the knack of getting under the rim with a bottle brush or how to clean a garlic press - buy one called 'Susi' who comes with her own reverse cleaning press)....or get a dishwasher, I suppose. I have one, it lives in the shed as there's no room here at the cottage for it. So I wash by hand; slowly, laboriously, complained at constantly by my kids- whenever they are cajoled into helping - who believe I'm capable of using every pan and implement in the kitchen to make one simple dish. But it is also a very good place in which to gather your thoughts, to expend time on a washing up meditation (complete with hideous yellow gloves) and plan the following day.

The dish is ready and I can add the final flourish of salt,double cream and a little lemon juice. I don't feel guilty adding the cream as it takes the place of the knob of butter on your jacket potato. The final dish is wonderfully warming and rich. The lemon juice and garlic mute the spices - this isn't "curry" by any name - and the cream meshes with the juiciness of the oil-rich aubergine to give the idea that this is more substantial a dish that it would otherwise imply. It is filling but not heavy. I don't have time for a siesta, I have other fish to fry this afternoon.

You have been cooking 'a little plate of deepest Autumn'. It is 'a mushroom bourguignon' ( page 418) with 'inky wine and mushrooms cooked to the texture of silk'. Autumn has invaded your world and there are horse chestnut leaves piled up 'on the verge outside the house,begging to be kicked, and the garden smells like the sweetest muscat.'

Most of the best smells of Autumn come from a mixture of decay and rotting matter, and the natural leaf mould accumulating under trees in the woods. Just to sniff the air and catch the tang from a waft of wood smoke quickens the blood.
You say, 'there are few better smells on an autumn day than smoke from a garden fire.' When the weather holds, gardeners are out in force,clearing, pruning and turning into boy scout pyromaniacs.

There are few who don't feel the unpredictability and allure of a fire. Just warming your hands, and shading your face from the intense heat because it draws you so close, you are entranced. The art of keeping the fire going with dry wood whilst feeding it the sappy stuff you want rid of (which makes it smoke), is a game in itself. You can while away a whole afternoon in such quiet concentration, entering the house at dusk glowing and refreshed, ready for another meal.

Passing by on the road through Warslow, I see the old sheepdog, nose to the road in all weathers. She is an old working dog, faithful and skilled at her trade. The farmer leaves her guarding her 'charge' at the very edge of the roadside. At first I found myself feeling sorry for her when there was rain, or fog or frost on the ground, but now I see that this is her whole life. She has been bred and trained and her every sinew begs this life.

Often, I come by in the depths of the night, catching the reflection of her eyes in my headlights. She is still there in the darkness, low to the ground, not an inch moved from her place. I used to worry that she was so near to the edge of the road that her days were numbered. Now I see that they are only numbered by time for she is totally skilled in her intense concentration of every vehicle that passes.

I pass by during the day again and though she sees the landrover coming, her eyes have caught hold of mine inside the vehicle and she is watching; waiting for any unpredictable move I might make. We play a game, this dog and I. I look away, then back, and she has hooked straight back on to my eyes, muscles tensing instantly in her forelegs in a way that no footballer marking his opponent could ever do to such great degree.


Monday, 26 October 2015

Lamb Stew and Bedding the Garden

Dear Nigel,

I'm flicking through the pages of your book looking for a nice warm and comforting stew. The hour has gone back, and though the sun is bright it is chilly and there is a wind weaving about, ripping leaves from trees, and creating the kind of energy for doing things. It is a doing things type of day. I cannot sit still.

There will be a 'Lamb and Bacon stew' (page 387) on the stove simmering away for when I come back inside, but before that it is time to put away the outside chairs and table and clean and store the barbecue because I think the days of sitting out in the garden have finally gone for this year. Should there be a spot of sun one day, and five minutes peace in which to enjoy it, I can always perch up on the bench by the woodshed to sup up my mug of tea.

There is a lot to do in the garden at this time of year. Nothing, if you prefer, but there is a certain satisfaction in seeing a row of earthed pots without their mass of dead and decaying leaves, and a freshly swept path - even if it seems like an endless job at times. It is a fine time to get out your oldest most well-loved sweater, take out a mug of hot tea and put on your heavy duty gardening gloves ready for some action.

There is a carpet of moss gradually creeping across the path and grass and weeds which have woven themselves into a kind of mat across the drive. I peel it back and rediscover the garden that once lay beneath it. Summer's riot has taken hold and there is much neatening up to be done.It is not essential but oh so satisfying.

We share a trait, you and I, for neatening and for things being just so. I have seen your shelves of bowls, each in their own particular space just so. I too am like that, moving things a little to the right, a little forward, turning things round. I can't help myself. It jangles to have things not quite where they should be. No one else seems to notice it but me, and my hands have gone their way and tipped the picture, straightened a line without my mind having followed suit.

I season the lamb shoulder, having cut it into cubes, and brown it lightly on both sides. There is a deep, hearty smell coming from the pan. I feel protected by the richness as if such a rich dish inside me would keep out the cold. I bring logs in from the wood store and stack them by the wood burner.They are dry and light, the end of last year's store. They will burn well and fast. I love to wander through the village at this time of year and sniff the air. So many little wood fires going in the cottages, and wood piles by the back doors. I make a mental note to order my builders' bags of logs before the weather sets in.

I have come across a fundamental law of displacement. In my freezer. It is full to bursting and I have just made a couple of mincemeat loaf cakes to put away for Christmas. But there is no room, at the Inn or in my freezer. So we must start our annual ritual of eating up all the miscellaneous items that seem to hover for months in this arctic wasteland, rediscover small treasures that have sunk themselves to the bottom, and make way for the new.

In one respect it encourages a kind of annual clear out - and who knows, even the occasional defrost - when I might be quite content just to let things be otherwise, so that has to be a good thing. I'm never quite sure what the shelf life of frozen food is anyway. Most things seem to hold true, occasionally there is a little deterioration in texture, but it's something I'm a little fuzzy about.

The evenings are quite dark now and it gets cold long before. At cubs I have been helping them make moving models with old CDs and wood and bits of string to move across the floor of the old village hall. Activities are inside, away from the night. It is firing my imagination ready for the Science class I will be helping with after the holidays when I go back into the classroom at Molly's school.

There is a lovely point of wonder when you have taught a child something and then the penny drops and they realise for themselves. To watch a small face suddenly light up and become animated and excited about whatever it is they have learnt and internalised is priceless. Most children love practical science - it is just an extension of the play they used to be allowed to have. Some never grow out of that wonder. My Dad was a chemist and loved to experiment with things in test tubes all through his years at school. When I came along I don't know which of us had the most fun playing with my chemistry set, causing reactions, colour changes and growing crystals.

Back to the kitchen. The new potatoes and lamb are simmering gently. There is the tang of smoked bacon and the fug of softening golden onion. I still find the easiest way to chop bacon is to use a pair of scissors. Not having been on lots of cookery courses I don't really know if this is some kind of cardinal sin or not, but it works for me.

I pick a few sprigs of Rosemary from my faithful plant by the back door, adding the chicken stock at the same time. It is peaceful, warm and steamy, and I can leave the stew to meld whilst I finish up outside. My earlier enthusiasm is waning with the daylight and I am keen to finish off and come inside.

I have bought small pumpkins for the children to carve. I unleash the tide of Halloween paraphernalia from its cupboard; - hideous piles of fake hair and witches brooms, skeleton bones and torches that spin. They want to go trick or treating. I want to hide in a cupboard. There is no escape. I must grin and bear it unless I can hurriedly find an alternative party or event they can go to.

Supper is ready. The sour cream is added. It has a good strong robust taste in keeping with the time of year. In retrospect, I think I could have browned the meat a little more. could have simmered it at a slightly higher temperature so that more liquid evaporated. Perhaps the sauce would have been a little browner. Who knows? we live and learn. I add a note to your book for the next time I cook this dish.

That is what cooking is all about.


Tuesday, 20 October 2015

An apple a day

Dear Nigel,

It is National Apple Day on 21st October. Many places will have put on Apple Days at the weekend - a bit like the one we went to at The Dove Valley Centre here in The Peak District.

National Apple Day was started in 1990 by Common Ground in Covent Garden. The idea was to celebrate and demonstrate the richness and variety of apples in this country. Common Ground chose to use the apple as a symbol of the kind of genetic diversity that we mustn't just let slip away. By linking particular apples with their place of origin it hopes that our orchards will be recognised and conserved for the contribution they make to an area and the diversity of wildlife that they help support.

By 2000 there were over 600 Apple Day events up and down the country. Our Apple Day was probably a fairly typical event in many respects. There was a table with bowls of different apple varieties to look at and taste. Two which caught my eye were 'Roland Smith', which is one of our local Staffordshire varieties, and 'Jesmond Dingle' which originated from very near where my Grandparents lived. These are just two varieties of English apple. The National Fruit Collection is housed at Brogdale in Kent and has over 2000 varieties.

Transition Leek had taken over an old barn at the farm and brought a fine wood and cast iron apple press with them. Many people had brought over trugs of their own apples so that they could be turned into juice at a nominal cost. One typical ledger I read was for 33kg of apples, which would then be turned into 11 bottles of apple juice. Customers then had a choice whether they wanted their own apple juice back pasteurised or non-pasteurised.

Molly headed straight over to a hand-cranked iron apple peeler, that was clamped to the edge of a table, and spent an inordinately long time with the machine which peeled, cored and sliced the apples in one go.

There were plenty of apple-related events going on, from crafts and printing for the children, baking apples in the embers of a wood fire, to munching on apple cake and tea over in the centre. This has become an annual event that we like to go to because the surroundings are so beautiful and unique and Elspeth and Paul make everyone very welcome at their home.

But, for us, the highlight of the visit is always Gordon the Story Teller. The children sit on hay bales under the apple tree while this gentle giant in his Rainbow cloth and silver earrings talks softly in his heavy Scottish accent, charming them away to another land. I am sitting with them munching into a piece of someone's apple and Wensleydale cake. The cheese has been baked into the cake in a single layer. It is very nice indeed. There is a film show of the baby barn owls that hatched out recently, up in the hay loft; and someone else is leading a guided talk over by the orchard.

The weather is suitably Autumnal but dry and it is warmer here over by the wood fire where I go to help Sophie take a softening apple wrapped in foil out of the white hot embers. The cinnamon and brown sugar have pooled underneath the apple like heavenly-scented molasses and she sits on a hay bale, cups it onto her knees and digs in with a teaspoon. It is a fine day to be outside, togged up in jumpers and warm clothes and stomping over the long grass in wellies to find the wooden swing tied up under a large overhanging tree. A kids paradise.

I go to listen to a talk by a nutritionist who confirms something I have long believed, which is that apples are good for rheumatoid arthritis. Research shows that eating an apple daily reduces cholesterol  and C-reactive protein (CRP) which is a key marker of inflammation in the blood. It also contains vitamins A and C and is a good source of antioxidants which help protect the cells from this kind of inflammation, which is caused by free radical molecules. We rarely see the humble apple advertised as a 'Super food' (in these days of 'value added' everything where 'super foods' always seem to be rare and imported and expensive, strangely-enough), but perhaps there is a case for it being reinstated?

I am making 'Lentils with couscous' tonight (page 383). This is because I don't really like lentils - especially not the red split sort (although this uses green) - and so I am challenging my taste buds to try something I would normally shy away from. This is good, I think, as your taste buds change all through life. My Grandpa was a fishmonger and I remember a time as children when my brother and I wouldn't eat fish. These days I eat it all the time.

I have a little trouble in locating Walnut oil as it seems to me the supermarkets are now stocking their shelves with a whole draft of 'value added' oils - lots of chilli-infused, garlic-infused etc. so that we are fooled into thinking that we are being given more choice. Instead, they seem to have taken away the walnut oil and hazelnut oil that I remember buying in the same shop in the past to use for salad dressings; so there is actually less choice. Still, I find some in the end. I note somewhere that walnut oil is best used unheated as heating can change the flavour and give it a slightly bitter taste. You, sensibly, are using it in a dressing in this recipe.

There are lots of my favourite ingredients here - dried apricots, pine kernels, lemon, raisins, dill, so I have high hopes for this dish. Green lentils notwithstanding, I will enjoy eating it purely out of hunger.There is no alternative on the menu tonight at the cottage.

We eat. It is far better than I hoped for. The lentils are not allowed to dominate. There is a nice play of flavours between the sweetness of the apricot, the crunch of pine kernels, and the aniseedy taste of the dill (which I was a little heavy-handed with as I simply love the stuff and didn't want it to go to waste). Perhaps another dish to cook for my vegetarian friends. I sometimes find I am making them the same dish over and over again because I'm concentrating on the main dish that the rest of us meat-eaters will be enjoying; and they are usually too polite to say anything,....until it gently drops into conversation some time later.
Maybe they are just better at placing their depth charges.