Thursday, 8 October 2015

Forever Autumn (...'as the year grows old')

Dear Nigel,

There is a day, a point in every year, when it seems as though a switch is suddenly flicked on and the leaves start to fall from the trees. That day happened today. The cold dry air and reduced light causes the trees to seal off the points where their leaves are attached. They do this in order to survive as they don't get enough water in Winter to replace what would normally evaporate through their leaves. So the leaves change colour. And one day they simply start to fall; softly at first, whipped by a gentle cross-breeze, then gathering momentum as they are swirled and gathered into piles on the lee side of entrances and under hedges.

On a fine day it is tempting to join the children crunching and kicking piles of leaves, and I am often tempted to let my 'inner child' loose and be that old woman wearing purple that we all secretly wish to be at times - uncaring of the looks of others, or maintaining a certain image: The freedom of being completely happy in our own skin that only old people seem to have truly mastered. We can learn a lot from the elderly.

Maybe it is the insecurities of youth which drives young people to achieve, and so to wish such wisdom on them would be counter-productive. But, as the Autumn of ones life approaches, so the Harvest, and so the mellowing and ageing. Just like a mature cheese, some things are better with time. As with a velvet-covered round of goats' cheese, there is a time and a place for both the immature cheese to shine, and the mature version to glow. One is fine tossed into a salad with a handful of olives; but at this time of year, with a plump and sticky Turkish fig, there is only one type of goats cheese that I want sitting on my plate. And if it's slightly runny, and almost the colour of a light butterscotch sauce inside, then so much the better.

Today I am busy searching for something called Mograbia, which you use to make the recipe for 'Mograbia, shallots, lemon' (page 405). I confess to never even having heard of this stuff before, although have probably eaten it without realising it. Anyway, it was harder to search down than I thought it would be, as it is essentially just a larger version of couscous, and marketed as 'giant couscous' where you can find it. Having said this, I'm still not sure that I've bought the right stuff as it looks a bit small in its dried-up form. I'm looking at your photograph of the finished dish on page 404, where the grains are now the size of chickpeas and wondering the likelihood of such a transformation taking place; or whether there is indeed a third form of couscous known as the REAL giant couscous...and not to be confused with 'giant couscous' which is not in fact giant couscous at all but an impostor. We'll see...

You say that you 'can't really love couscous...the way one can potatoes, pasta, bread or rice.' It is 'a fine, soft grit with which to pad out a stew'. In much the same way that a Summer Pudding is best made with a cheap white sliced loaf, couscous's virtue is as a vehicle for sauce or stock.

However, this new, improved Mograbia 'of which I have recently become extraordinarily fond...' are simply 'soft, bobbly and texturally intreguing' balls of starch 'with a satisfyingly chewy interior' with 'something of the texture of commercial gnocchi.' It looks 'fun' to eat - if that isn't a completely stupid word to use - and I notice that your balls aren't sticking together in the photograph (if you see what I mean). Anyway, lets move on to the saucepan and see what happens. Cornichons are another ingredient that I wouldn't automatically put in my shopping basket, but that is the great thing about a new recipe, making you search out the new, the untried and untested.

I was sitting in the Dentist's chair the other day having some work done on a tooth. The Dentist was one side, his assistant the other, concentrating on the job in hand. I was lying there, sunglasses on, anaesthetised mouth drooping open and several bits of metal cutlery fishing around in there, when it occurred to me the sheer powerless of my situation. My darling little angels who were sharing a seat in the corner of the room, decided  to take the opportunity to start belting each other over the head.

The Dentist and his Assistant started sniggering and carried on, while I was wildly waving my arms around with dagger gesticulations and making 'Ahh, ahh....ahh, ahh...' sounds which threatened certain death on all parties unless war ceased immediately; but to no avail. I am always slightly in awe of the parents of particularly placid and 'good' children and wonder 'how can this be?' I console myself with the thought that it must be my children's William Brown creativeness at work when they are naughty. And perhaps the fighting is just a child's version of the kind of exchange that most members of Parliament love to indulge in. I often notice those kind of looks that suggest a desire for a good old scrap on the House of Commons floor once the tea bell sounds. Don't you?

The Mograbia was easy to cook and the texture is really lovely. I made too much and saved some for a cold salad lunch the next day. I think my cornichons were too big - more just gherkins, really - and I hadn't realised that there was a difference. I was swayed by price, I have to say, as the supermarket was 'adding value' on its bottled cornichons. In the event, they taste pretty much the same, I guess.

The dish works well as a salad. We had it warm with a small piece of steak on the side. Today I will have it cold for my lunch. I particularly like the texture and think that if you are making several salads to serve for a party then having this as one particular texture to offset against others would be nice. Flavour-wise it is quite sharp, with the pickled gherkins, but the lemon and olives also come through to help balance this.

I have a deep-sounding metal wind chime which I often like to put up at this time of year. I'm not sure whether it is annoying other members of my family or not, but I love the deep tones it makes. Just as the colour of red leaves has the ability to quicken your heart rate when you look at them, so the intermittent chimes heard in a breeze invoke a feeling of energy and movement, enhancing positive chi and bringing a feeling of peacefulness.

I know how much you love this time of year, too. The temperature is more suited to the both of us now and there is an energising rather than a draining of energy that too much heat creates.


Monday, 5 October 2015

Recipes that surprise us

Dear Nigel,

Never in a million years would I have thought about adding anchovies to a couple of pork chops. In fact, if I'd looked a bit closer at the ingredients then it might have put me off altogether. And that would have been a pity. The recipe in question is 'Pork chops with mushrooms' (page 379). It is a simple supper dish which was on the table in less than half an hour, which is always a bonus when time is short and you are already hungry. The anchovies are basically chopped and added to the gently fried onion before the mushrooms.

When I tasted this I thought 'wow, much too salty', and I was unsure. But hold fire, add it to the plate with the nicely browned chops which have been finished off in the relish, and let the anchovies do their magic. In much the same way that a tart apple sauce cuts through the fat of a piece of roast pork, the salt of the anchovies has the same effect. The pork also has the effect of tempering the saltiness, and the result is truly delicious. If there was going to be one recipe that has both surprised and inspired me to be more adventurous in my cooking recently, then I think it is this one. Sometimes, I think, we all believe we know exactly what something is going to taste like, just by looking at a recipe, and it can make us hold back from being brave and trying new things.

So thank you, Nigel, you have pleasantly surprised me here. It is a recipe that is both simple and tasty-enough to want to eat on a fairly regular mid-week basis.

I'd forgotten what hard work it is to motivate other people to do something, and how completely exhausting it can be. We had ten cubs with us on Saturday on an Activity Day at Carsington Water. A simple little walk with a few challenges en route....of 8 1/2 miles. There are not many eight year olds who are used to walking these kind of distances regularly - if ever - these days. And keeping up morale, dealing with sore legs, bad temper and those who just sat down like elephants and refused to move, ensured I for one came home ready to drop. The dictionary definition of motivate includes such words as activate, impel, push and propel, and this certainly seemed to be closer to the knuckle.

But, all in all, they all finished the course in good spirits; the last leg of the journey, spurred on by the thought of a cooked hamburger at the end of it. I was pleased to see that the burgers were of good quality - thick and meaty and not leaching out lots of fat - and that the area support team were doing a good job in mass catering to dozens of small tired children.

Half way round the course there was an old WW2 watchtower  where they used to observe bombing practise. Today it was being used to raise a poor old teddy bear down on rope as an injured person. The 'rope' involved tying several shorter bits all together with different knots. For children more used to closing Velcro than tying shoe laces, it was certainly a challenge. Twice teddy came down with a loop round his neck instead of under his arms...I don't think we've got as far as the first aid badge with our pack.

Sunday was time out. Tissington village, not far from Ashbourne, is a small feudal estate village which is very pretty and pleasant to visit. At the far end of the village, tucked away, is 'Edward and Vintage' which is a wonderful old fashioned sweet shop, decked out in an old fashioned way with bunting and jars on shelves and lots of blue grey paintwork; and is a favourite with my own children. Apart from the usual boiled sweets, sugar mice and other memories of a distant childhood, they have started to make trays of their own delicious fudge in the back kitchen. Recipes such as lemon cheesecake and chocolate and ginger are very popular. I can personally vouch for the chocolate and ginger. Like many places these days they can't just rely on passing trade and do a great deal of their business on line. I bought a Ration book for my mum last year so that she could ring up (or go on line) and choose a few old favourites for herself.

As a place to wander Tissington is very pretty,with its central duck pond and lovely old cottages with their gardens of giant rose hips and wandering bantams. There is a candle maker doing sterling trade at the other end of the village; yet she also manages to sell her stuff  far afield. I have seen candles from 'On a wick and a prayer' in the National Trust shops of Northumberland; and yet most of the work is still done out of the back of an old shed in Tissington which I think is great.

One little known fact (which particularly interests me) is that you can choose any of the scented candles that she does and have your own containers filled or refilled. The cost is extremely minimal for this (in my mind); and yet how lovely to have something that is treasured by you, or a present for a friend, put to a good use once more. I take my favourite large candle bowls there each winter for refilling ready in time for Christmas with 'Dark Amber', which seems to me more the essence of deep winter and yuletide than some of the 'Christmas' scents she offers. But come and sniff for yourself.

Last year 'Father Christmas' (who is in the habit of leaving food-inspired gifts) left jars of the most lovely 'goo' in the stockings of all my older children. This 'goo', or spread (if you like) is a recent find of mine and was universally popular. It is called 'Biscoff' and is basically those lovely little caramelised biscuits (made by a company called Lotus) that you get on the side of your latte or cappuccino, all crunched up into some kind of spread. I think you are supposed to put this on bread, perhaps, but most of my children ate it straight out of the jar with a spoon. This evening I thought I would make a super-quick cheat's apple 'crumble' with nothing more than an eating apple stuck in the microwave and a dollop of this on top. A fireside treat. The mixture tastes even better with the gentle warmth from the cooked apple. A singular treat, I think, for those times when no one else is looking...

From the end of the sofa, with my feet on the coffee table,

Martha x      (...bliss..)

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

More haste, less speed

Dear Nigel,

There is a spider who lives in my car called Ariadne who is waging a small battle with me. Each morning when I get in I have to wipe away a web obscuring my vision out of the side window; and each night she replaces it with another one in exactly the same place. Were it not for the slightly pressing need to see out of the side window I might be happy to leave her in peace. She is an obstinate creature, my Ariadne. Perhaps we both are.

And they are everywhere at the moment. Spiders. Hanging out their washing in the morning dew, neatly pegged to the frames of seed heads and bare stemmed plants. Inside, they corner each window frame and take particular delight in lining each beam on a beamed ceiling. Me and my feather duster are waging war relentlessly inside so that we don't become a tableau like Miss Haversham's.

The mornings are misty, with a heavy fog down in the valley. It burns off by ten, but then returns in late afternoon. I am gazing at a particularly beautiful web today, hanging from a bush and outlined as if with liquid silver, showing off the weaver's intricate skill.

Back in the kitchen, I am cooking in too much haste. Supper tonight is 'Lamb steaks, creamed cannellini' (pg 375). The first mistake I make is to buy the steaks in the supermarket, I think. But I was shopping in a hurry today and there wasn't time to go to the farm shop on the way back.

I am looking at your steaks and then looking at mine, thinking 'yep, a poor do indeed'. These are the best lamb steaks the supermarket could come up with, but they are small and thin, and I would be most disappointed, were I eating out somewhere, to be served up a steak like this. Of course, the proof is in the eating. And, as it turns out, they taste fine. But all the same, if I make this again, I wouldn't want to feel that huge sense of disappointment.

The second mistake I make is entirely mine. I am rushing because there is homework and music practise and a hundred other things to be done. And so I fail to squeeze out the water from the spinach enough and the puree is a little too much on the runny side. It tastes fine, of course, and nothing that an end of bread can't mop up on the plate, but I am hearing my old home economics teacher saying 'could do better, girl', and I know it. So, a note to self in the book, a rap on the knuckles, but at least we eat well tonight.

I am particularly taken by the idea of pureeing the cannellini beans with the spinach. Never a huge fan of beans, this alters the texture completely. It tastes really good as the beans are cooked in a chicken stock before being pureed with the spinach. I can see that this one has a whole host of applications. You suggest butter beans as an alternative, and a rib eye steak. I think it might work well with sausages too. Cannellini beans have one of the highest protein content of any bean, and I can see it making a fine alternative to bangers and mash for those trying to cut down on carbs.

Sophie has started to learn the violin, and I had forgotten how excruciating it is to be in the proximity for anyone with 'an ear' for music. I can't imagine teaching the violin, myself. I grit my teeth and try not to show the 'pain' I'm feeling when things are just a fraction out of tune. Greatly out of tune I can cope with, but minutely, it's agony.

I think there is a good case to be made here to the old man upstairs for the mutation of genes to skip a generation, so that the parents of musical offspring are of the tone deaf variety. In this way, all would be satisfied. Tone deaf parents would obviously make the best audience as being endlessly appreciative and in awe of their children; and probably be the most encouraging to their offspring as well, delighting in a talent they themselves never had. Musical parents are also apt to be less patient when the penny doesn't sink in first time. This is why musicians always send their children to other musicians to learn. I am perfecting the encouraging grimace in Sophie's case.

There are about five violins knocking around in our family it seems, of various sizes, in lofts and under beds. Musical instruments are, strangely, one of those things that people don't like to get rid of. Charity shops are full of your old clothes, outmoded furniture and old Laura Ashley curtains, but rarely is there a decluttering of instruments. And luckily so for us right now as we are on a fairly tight budget.

Sophie collected some blackberries yesterday and we had them with apple for tea. Sometimes you can taste an individual berry and know that the time is just right. And that time it seems is now. They may be less juicy than the showy, cultivated, giant grenade-like things that the grocer sells, but they win hands-down on taste. They have an almost citrus fruitiness at times, in a truly ripe berry just before it turns and becomes watery and insipid. Gather them now and you have a feast in a handful.

The whole point about a blackberrying expedition is 'the journey', as they like to say these days. It is the day out, the getting scratched and prickled and hands covered in purple stain. Sometimes you come back loaded and other times, when someone else has got there first, you might find only a handful. And yet it fairly ceases to matter. The one tiny apple crumble with half a dozen carefully placed berries sitting on your table is a triumph to the hunter gatherer buried deep within your psyche. No matter if you have driven for over an hour to find a sodding bush.

Of course you could be lucky and your buckets and ice cream tubs will be laden. Don't sit back on your laurels, though, as I have done in the past: It's amazing how quickly a fruit mould will develop and ruin the whole lot in an instant. Less is probably more in this case, too. How many of us really have the time to knock out hundreds of jars of jam? Blackberries are too 'chewy' on their own. A shelf of jars is great to look at for a while; but after that while you must either eat them all yourself or find people to offload them onto. The two precious jars you might have eked out of your half-filled bowl is a more precious and treasured (and therefore savoured) thing than the third jar this month that you're still wading through come April.

Martha x

Friday, 25 September 2015

Another year of good eating

Dear Nigel,

It was such a treat to receive the signed copy of your new book 'Kitchen Diaries 3 - a year of good eating' which you sent me the other day.

It was one of those perfect Autumn days with the sun gilding every leaf and glossing every hue, and we were out enjoying perhaps the last meal of the year in the garden when the post van called with your present. To be surrounded by the people I love, eating good food on a perfect day, was just heaven to me.

You seem to sense this too - that this is what life is all about - and yet there are still those who want to make 'eating' some kind of elitist pleasure, to be denied to those they regard as 'others'.

You say, 'with this book comes something of a plea for both good food and a love of cooking to be just part and parcel of our everyday lives. Thoughtful, considered, always delicious, but something to be quietly enjoyed rather than put on a pedestal.'

We were enjoying a simple fish soup which is a particular favourite of my daughter, Hannah, who was home for a couple of days. With bread, cheese, olives and whatever goodies I could find lurking in the fridge and which might need eating up.

You say, ' there is, I believe, too much pressure on us to "perform", to reach for perfection, instead of simply treating the art of making something to eat as the lifelong joy it should be'; and you 'worry that the competitive element currently prevalent in food and cooking is scaring people...from getting stuck in.'

Simple food, simple pleasure. The people you care about will love you for your care and effort on their behalf, not for your picture -perfect meringues.
'I think of good eating as something to enrich our daily lives,...Simple cooking that results in something unfussy, unshowy, understated. Something to bring pleasure to our own lives and to those of others.'

You have been experimenting in the kitchen again, and come up with 'Fig and red onion tartlets' (pg 411) which is a 'marriage of soft, buttery onion, cooked down to an amber marmalade, and dark figs....the result is so good I cannot imagine why it hasn't occurred to me before.'

As this uses two of my most favourite things in the whole world I immediately home in on this recipe. I am heartened by the fact that the supermarket is discounting figs on the grounds that they are supremely ripe, and therefore perfect for eating. I think a bowl of figs is a sculptural thing of great beauty. Your figs come from a tree in your garden, (lucky you) - one of the advantages of city living. Here it would not survive our harsh winter weather, I think.

There is a gradual drawing in of sap and goodness outside in the garden. The leaves are slowly changing colour and the occasional splash of red here and there, on leaves and the blooms of crocosmia and the wings of butterflies, reflects the pent up energy I feel all around me at this time of year.

The buddleia bushes are covered in Red Admirals airing their wings in a moment of brief sunshine. These butterflies are the offspring of migrants who came over from the Mediterranean as early as March and laid their eggs on nettles. The new caterpillars, eventually (by late September), become the adults who feed on the last nectar of Summer - the buddleia and ivy - before migrating further south to a warmer climate. A few will stay and try and hibernate but this is not often successful. They are as much a part of a late September garden as any bloom or showy tree display. They flit around us as we eat our lunch in the sunshine, careless almost to our presence as they too feast on plenty, building reserves up for their long flight south.

Back in the kitchen I find my first problem is a lack of six  loose-bottomed tart tins. Not one to be put off so early in a recipe I decide that my large loose-bottomed flan tin will work just as well (hopefully). You choose to use a food processor to make your pastry, which is about the only thing I seem to use mine for these days. I decide to use my ceramic baking beans which have been with me forever to bake blind the pastry. I like the indented pattern of marbles they leave behind them on the smooth pastry surface. I keep them in an old Fortnum's Stilton jar - a relic from my childhood days when companies used to send out hampers to various people at Christmas. (...I'm not sure how much of that still goes on, but I remember how much we appreciated the rich foodstuffs from shops too far away to ever visit, and too expensive to ever send from.)

The filling is both jammy and rich. I love the sweet and savoury marriage of this tart and the fact that it is eaten warm reminds me of the tasting spoon of a good jam making session. It is not often that you get to spoon the ribbon of warm jam straight into your mouth - not too hot to scald the tongue, nor too runny to crinkle on a plate- and this recipe perhaps comes closest to those times of pure and utter bliss. I think the individual tart tins probably win hands down here, giving a more filling mouthful of the crumbly sweet pastry, so maybe that's one for the Christmas list.

At long last the Autumn-fruiting raspberries are ripening up outside when I'd all but given up hope of them. I love the contrast of colour they make in a compote of mixed berries with their deep red hulled bodies tossed against the  purple/black clusters of the blackberries. It is a season of such truly beautiful colours. And right now, of memories too. Summer came and wiped away all past memories it seems, and now it feels like the time is right for gathering them all up again and 'coming home' once more in your mind.

I sink my teeth into an apple strudel and think, 'Apple. When did I last eat some wonderful slushy cooked apple?' I am sitting in the car park in Archie, (my ancient old Landrover) half way through my shopping trip to town, with an open box on the dashboard from the patisserie and a free cup of coffee (courtesy of Waitrose), and I'm contemplating the comfort of a warm baked apple bursting at the skin with plump soaked sultanas pouring out of its core. And the crunch of a crumble made with oats and a smattering of cinnamon and brown sugar on top of a sea of mushy fruit .

Already I am using one meal to plan another. For so much about eating is about memory and the creation of new ideas. If this tastes good, how would it be (you reason) if I added a few black currants or a lick of maple syrup or a handful of honeyed dates? and so it goes on.

Wishing you the best of luck with the new book as I tuck into my fig and red onion tart for supper and drink your good health,

Martha x

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

New Pencils and a handful of nectarines

Dear Nigel,

This has always been one of my favourite times of year. I'm not sure why. There is an energy that whips through the branches and around the trunks, teasing the leaves only just tinged with umber and copper plate by some careless decorator. Summer is packing up its bags and heading South, leaving a last scattering of golden sugar cube hay bales on flat fields of golden stubble and lengthening shadows.

Sophie is heading off to Middle School in the nearby town of Leek nine miles away. Pencils are sharpened and endless name tags sewn into clothing. She seems so small to be heading off on the big bus, swamped by her over-stuffed back pack and shiny new shoes. The Honker bus comes a little while later for Molly so we are up and down the village twice in the morning; passing the goats waiting for their breakfast and stopping briefly to talk to the Indian runner ducks up by the pond. We get up at some ungodly hour just so we can enjoy the privilege of these few stolen moments. I wonder how much longer it will be before I am banned from accompanying them up the village and told to wait at some distance when coming to pick them up later.

The veg box in the porch is heaving. I come back loaded from the wholesalers where I get most of my fruit and veg, fired up to make more vegetarian meals in a bid to head off the over-indulgence of Summer from hanging around my waistline. It seems a good ploy to fill up on vegetables and juices. But I keep noting my skin. I have a (probably) quite irrational fear that the seemingly gallons of carrot juice which I'm imbibing - my current favourite juice being apple, carrot and red pepper - is turning me orange. OK, I'm sure this isn't probable or even possible....perhaps, but I'm not convinced that my fading suntan isn't without a hint of some dreadful San Tropez out-of-a-bottle look that I'm not over-endeared to. A quick glance on google and my niggling fears are confirmed. I am, in fact, turning orange and it has a name - it's called Carotenemia. Good old google - it can turn you into a hypochondriac in five minutes flat.

I am considering your Chickpea and nectarine couscous recipe in the Guardian. I am in a couscous mood and have inflicted it on various friends and family on several occasions this last fortnight or so, tweaking it in different ways with courgettes and feta with lemon myrtle salt (something I picked up with intrigue in Ottolenghi's wonderful deli in Notting Hill last year. I just want to be that child looking in through the window with my mouth hanging open).

So,here am I, experimenting with a little sumac on here, a scattering of za'atar on there - all very 'not allowed' in cooking circles, I'm sure, but I'm feeling with my tongue and the couscous is a fine blank canvas for all manner of lively spices. You are using this season's glut of nectarines which still seem to fill the shelves when I'm out shopping; spicing them up with ras el hanout and sweet paprika.

A few days catching the music in Dublin gave me a couple of new ideas to take to the pub in Foolow where I play my fiddle. A young red haired Irish girl was enlivening a well-worn classic with two-string melodies and a medley of more interesting bowing techniques.

'I can do that,' I thought, sinking in to my half of cider. And possibly I could; but good technique has a way of standing in your way. Time after time I come to the conclusion that a classical music education is a real hindrance to traditional fiddle playing. Whether it's holding the bow differently and building up speed or angling the neck with your other hand sliding the fingers over the strings, it could take a lifetime to undo a lifetime of good technique. So I do what I can with what I have, developing my own style. And sometimes, like the other night, the Season's energy whips through the pub and round the bar, picking up the fiddle and making it fly away with my fingers desperately trying to keep up with it.

I'm not aware what it is I'm playing - some sort of blues number I think - and time stands still as I watch from the side and someone is playing my fingers while my mind is elsewhere. The bow is bouncing and stopping, flying and returning to the heel, and the other hand is drifting over semitones, ad libbing wildly. But I'm not there. I'm standing next to me and these hands are no longer mine. The gap is longer than I expect it to be before we are reunited - hands, arms, fiddle and me. And I have no idea where I've been. The talking stops at times like these, and that is perhaps the thing that I like best of all: the ability to still a noisy pub for a moment in time. It is a real satisfying pleasure, better than the drink.


Saturday, 29 August 2015

A Child's Summer in Wales

Dear Nigel,

Summer came and went with the swallow. Blink and you missed it.  But we were lucky enough to catch its tail end in a campsite dropping off the end of the Llyn Peninsula in Wales. It is a magical spot we have been to for several years running now, set on a small farm overlooking Bardsey Island with nothing between you and the feint outlines of Ireland but a wide expanse of sea.

On a good day there is sky, and the sea is the colour of blue lace agate with its threads of greys and whites tacking over the surface like a tailor's dummy. The sea and sky meld and fold into one another in a seamless crease. On a bad day the mists are low and I am sitting there outside my tent in the early morning whiteness with my mug of hot tea waiting for the mist to rise. Then a sudden burst of hot sun on damp tent causes rising steam and an uncomfortable rainforest fug prevails that irks until it too finally disperses and the day can begin.

Most of the time the days are hottish and long (albeit with windbreaks on the beach) and the kids spend their time in wetsuits in the sea trying to adopt all the spare children they can lay their hands on. I am reading cheap trashy novels of the type my mum would definitely not approve of and unwinding to the pace of life which only a tent can command. Every little thing takes so long in a tent; you are constantly in a kind of slow meditative motion, like Tai Chi, froing between the camp cooker with its whistling kettle which takes about a week to boil, and the moving of drying towels and snakes and ladders and small piles of sand that threaten to invade your sleeping bag.

It is not for the feint-hearted, or anyone probably with any degree of sense, but it is extremely cheap if you make it so. Invariably we don't, as the next sea fret of an evening sends us down to the chip shop in Abadaron for piping hot crisp-battered haddock and chunky golden chips - always best eaten by the sea. Sophie and I share a haddock.

Molly, my ragamuffin daughter, is in her element running barefoot the whole time in cotton dresses with her long toffee-coloured hair unbrushed and flaring out behind her. She is a wild child, unkempt and smiling with shiny eyes and a forceful nature. I try and tame this wild child of mine with platted hair and white socks but she will have none of it. And in tentland she is free to be herself.

We make barbecues on long, calm evenings outside the tent. The sun has set and the sea is in sepia. The flames from the barbecue die down enough not to burn the lamb chops and burgers the kids prefer, with just enough over to toast marshmallows on skewers over the white embers. I have remembered a very  helpful idea of Annie Bell's and am also equipped with Tunnock's teacakes. These do not have that caramelised surface that real marshmallows in their gloop are famed for, but they have other interesting properties worth investigating, I think.

Gently piercing the surface chocolate and marshmallow, you anchor your spear in the biscuit base. The good thing about this is that the teacake can be rotated evenly over the heat without threatening to drip off the stick. Once there are tiny bubbles on the chocolate surface it is ready. The chocolate doesn't seem to move, and biting in the mallow is soft and unctuous. Only camp food can do this for you. When else would you be seen cramming your mouth with molten mallow and chocolate and still feel faintly virtuous, as if the cold air insisted that you needed an influx of calories to drive out the damp?

Round the campfire we tell stories of fairies and selkies (the seal people). Molly is animated in her telling, her eyes bright as the flames light up her face. Of all my seven children it is the last, my baby child, who has the gift to carry a story and the passion to make it burn and live.

I am reminded of another story telling session of my own childhood years. Not the romantic headland setting of this night but an ordinary little front room in an ordinary little 1930's house. My grandpa is sitting in his powder blue wing armchair and we children are perching on its uncomfortable arms. There is a three bar fire in the corner with orange glowing strips which stand out against the dark. We sit and listen intently to his lilting gentle voice recounting, perhaps the same tale yet again, of pixies, ghosts and Scottish glens, the scent of highly polished wood drifting over from the grand piano and the street lights trying to push in through the outlined edges of the heavy curtains. I feel safe inside.

A few days later there is an opportunity to go to a real Story Telling session set in a Roundhouse a few miles away. The buildings are based on ancient designs, set into the earth with straw and clay walls, and thatched with reed. There is a huge copper fire pit burning brightly in the middle and candles on sticks jammed into the earth between the stone slabs light up the outline of the Story Teller as he stands to begin his tale. An expectant hush descends on the gathering as the Story teller picks up his Welsh Harp and plays us into his magical world. His broad grin and smiling eyes scan the room taking us all into his world. He has fine lines carved into his face and tightly packed curls which bounce light from the fire. He carries us with him on his journey into the night. And all is silent and intent.

My two are mesmerised, their ears hanging on his every word as he recounts his tale. Molly is particularly taken by the Welsh Harp and, at the interval he lets her sit and play. I am surprised and intrigued to see that instead of taking a finger and drawing it across the strings, she has sat beside him watching intently. Plucking the stings with the thumb  and fourth fingers of each hand she starts to play a fairly tuneful melody from out of nowhere.She is as spellbound, I think, as I am and back home at the tent next day she decides she will make her own Welsh Harp. As you do. So we set to with a biscuit tin and elastic bands from the local post office and a wooden spoon to thread them on to make the acute angle for a range of different notes. She is pleased with our attempt, thank goodness, and demands that we go back to the next session so that she can join in and play.

The next session has a guest Story teller even bigger and bolder than the last. Eric the Brave with his mop of silver hair and sawn out cheekbones has giants to slay and a history of stories of the Llyn to tell. There are perhaps a hundred people gathered round the fire pit tonight, crammed into the alcoves around the edge, huddled on benches and on cushions on the floor.

My two are sleepy as the evening wanes and the tales drift around their heads like the swirls of smoke from the fire. Every now and then a swallow swoops down, wheeling in the smoke, rising with the heat, and roosts back down in the apex of the round thatched wheel above our heads. It is cosy and we have brought cushions and blankets of our own with us. The cushions are old, made from a long discarded worn out blanket from my own childhood, torn up and refashioned as cushions with blanket stitch edges. Time stands still. Past, future. All is still in the telling. Whirls of smoke take the fragments of story out into the ether. This is the skill of the Story Teller. It is one of those perfect evenings.


Thursday, 6 August 2015

The Secret Garden revisited

Dear Nigel,

Summer is raging on apace and Autumn weather beckons, it seems. And yet the Holidays have hardly begun for us. The garden has taken over once more and I have given it free rein to design itself this year. Flower begets flower in a passing parade of heady blooms peeping out from a tangle of weeds in the border. Over by the path there is a heavy crop of blackcurrants glimpsed through an undergrowth of dense green foliage. They should have been picked some time ago and yet I let them go, promising myself 'manyana', as always.

I return from town to find Kevin's cockerel and his harem have invaded our space. He takes one look in my direction, and, like a sulky teenager, does just what he always intended - swaggering over with his hands in his pockets and starts to eat the polished black fruit. I shoo him away and one of his giggling entourage makes a dash for the tiny cottage window (thinking it the entrance to a hen coup, no doubt), banging her head again and again against the glass to try and gain entry. Remind me please to source my eggs from responsible chickens with a higher IQ next time - no doubt the yolks will be darker and richer in iron than from this daft bird.

The other reminder, as if I needed one, that Summer is rocketing by at startling speed and leaving me in its wake, comes with a visit from a confident young surveyor. Having assessed the height of the stream and its likelihood of flooding (very unlikely on this gradient), he then turns his attention to my overgrown garden. In particular, the vegetable patch seems to catch his eye. Here, to be fair, it is more jungle than veg. at the moment, and I am a little embarrassed in its defence. There are, however, if you were to look really carefully, lines of carefully planted spinach, rhubarb chard and rocket, but these have bolted now and wave around at waist height looking slightly unseemly.

The surveyor informs me that I am harbouring a dangerous criminal in my midst and severe measures will have to be taken so that I can comply with whatever needs complying with. I frown. I am a little perplexed. I am the harbourer of Japanese knot weed, he claims, looking at the bolted rhubarb chard, and it will need the most potent chemicals to eradicate it ( and which will no doubt undermine my personal organic certification). Hmmm....

I look carefully at his Japanese knot weed which I have lovingly planted, seed by seed, from a packet of Unwins' finest; watered, grown, and tipped into endless stir fries and eaten; and smile back at him. Bless, he is only trying to justify his pay rise.

So, in a bid to prevent the thought police from hounding us out of the district on grounds of letting down the 'best kept village in bloom', or whatever, we start to attack the worst offenders. Will makes short work of the grass, mowing down weeds when the fancy takes him, and I collect in the soft fruit. Apart from the black, red and white currents there are bowls of Gooseberries for freezing. I like to save these for the very end of summer when a soft, tart bowl of whipped fool reminds me of 'Summer's lease', as we sit out, perhaps for the last time that year, and savour all that Summer has to offer.

There are pinkie, hairy gooseberries too - edible ones my mum calls 'the gardener's perk'. But these are fewer and far between. I eat them in passing every time I go up or down along the path. One is enough. Bursting with gelatinous seeds, like an English passion fruit in texture, it is a momentary treat.

They are still collecting in the last of the hay. The little old red tractors are out in force amongst their big green brothers, bringing in the smaller brick-shaped bales from the smaller fields, which horsey people find more convenient to carry. There is a constant to-ing and fro-ing to the barn beside me of these sweet golden parcels. I love the smell of this fresh hay before it is properly dried and make sure I always inhale when passing.

It has been an odd year this one, so far, for me. Much of it has been spent in a great deal of pain, wishing the days away and watching the clock for the release that the next lot of painkillers will bring me. Waiting in a queue for operations has taught me patience and to draw back. That my pain - however severe I feel it to be - is no more important that another person's pain. We are all so used to going out and getting things for ourselves - putting ourselves first at the expense of others without a second thought. And yet it surprised me that I would feel more in tune with others at the very point I should have wanted to put myself first, because of its severity. We should never lose the ability to surprise ourselves.

But it is done and dusted anyway now and life has returned to this old bird - lately turned fifty, and enjoying every minute of it. The garden is a metaphor for a life left to renew and replenish itself at will. Manicured lawns and mixed borders are all very well when life is in control and, like a newly spring cleaned kitchen, a small bit of effort here and there will keep things up to scratch and ticking over. But we all, from time to time, need to let the grass grow between our feet and feel the surge of nature which allows both growth and change and brings us back to ourselves once more, renewed.

Hoping that your Summer has been a more productive one,