Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Slipping into Summer

Dear Nigel,


One minute, it seems, you are turning up the heating again and wearing socks in bed, and the next it's too impossibly hot to sit and read and you are falling, like a bear with a sore head, towards the nearest piece of shade, trying not to grumble about the heat.

Summer comes, slipping into your hand like a child, catching you unaware as you dress too warmly, and causing a sudden emergency situation in the greenhouse. Suddenly, everything is growing everywhere - grass, weeds, seedlings - and everything demands your attention at the same time. Plants are like a class of five year olds each holding up their hand; each bursting to tell you all about themselves. Chelsea may be five days of tall poppies but the true show stoppers are hiding under a bushel, lurking beside the weeds, and a little attention is needed if they are to shine.

I go to pick flowers for the house and find that deep pink peonies are flowering beneath a heap of greenery, almost hidden to the eye. In the house they bloom and pout like the hussies they are, soon dropping their petals piecemeal across the windowsill and chest of drawers. But I like this trail of fallen petals, random and scattered, like discarded silken underwear in a Jilly Cooper novel. It belongs with the relaxing of standards that the warm weather brings. When is there a better time to kick off your shoes and walk barefoot across the grass before breakfast to see the world is at its best? The heavy sweet scent which I cannot at first trace turns out to be Hawthorne blossom, packed into every hedgerow. May is at its best in May and is nature's decadence. The bees seem happy and relaxed in their busyness.

A barn owl hovers in an almost ungainly manner over a field of willow. Its wings are far larger than I expect them to be and I am a little unsure at first that this is him back again. But nature likes her hidden space and is far better seen from a high window at this early hour. A hare plays in the lane making circles over the grass and weaving back and forward to his own pattern, unaware of the scent of human beings that would send him scurrying back into the undergrowth. Another morning we spy a young deer standing oh so close, grazing unaware. She does not know she is being watched and moves peacefully on with the grace of entitlement surrounding her. The day has not yet begun for us and yet nature has tumbled out of bed and done a full day's work before we are even up. The birds have sung their hearts out. And it is wonderful to be able to lie in bed and listen to the cacophony of voices in the trees outside. It is early morning in a busy fruit market and all the birds are setting out their stalls. We listen to the call and answer as they chatter away amongst themselves, calling to their mates, seeing off unwanted guests.

I am experimenting in the kitchen with savoury tarts. Some I want to freeze as a batch to save time and energy at a later date. These are some of the loveliest things to pack in foil and take on a picnic. Ideal hot or cold, depending on the weather and your inclination, they are always welcome and substantial. Today I am making 'Butternut squash, red onion and parmesan' and another version with 'aubergine, red pepper and tomato'. They are old favourites. I am also knocking out an Aubergine and sweet potato lasagne for supper. I am submerging myself in the bright colours of Mediterranean vegetables and the scent of basil and the grassy smell of a heap of freshly chopped parsley. The chopping process is steady and meditative and leaves me the time to consider the new day outside. The gooseberries are starting to swell and turn pink and the second flush of rhubarb is fairly screaming for attention. I don't want it to start flowering so I must get in there quick.

Just down the road there is a round building, a kind of church, where on a weekend grown men go to escape their women-folk, dress up in unconventional dress and worship the god of heavy metal. This is Britain's last surviving working Roundhouse Engine shed where steam trains are sent from all over the country for maintenance. Today it has become even more a little boys' playground as they are hosting a huge beer festival: Beer, Steam engines and music - every little boy over the age of about thirty five is sure to be here.

We turn up early in the afternoon and it is clear that this is a 'serious' beer festival. There is an engine turning round and round on a turntable in the centre, like a pole dancer in a seedy club, and four long bars have been set up in front of other giant steam engines with rows and rows of barrels behind them, each with a scrappy name attached, mostly from local breweries. It is still only three o'clock in the afternoon and yet serious work is being done here. The regulars know that all the best beers will run out long before the evening shadows encroach upon the sooty cobbled floor. We sit in a guard's van watching a Deltic diesel engine going up and down on another line, pulling coaches full of great beaming faces and waving hands. The serious drinkers remain guarding their glasses and hovering around in the Roundhouse. There are bands and people dancing but for the seriously committed this is secondary to the beer.

We surmise that this one event probably keeps the charity going for the rest of the year. And it is hugely popular, it seems. Old Leyland buses, - not pretty vintage ones but old throw backs from the seventies - bus people in from Chesterfield and elsewhere further afield. We have walked along footpaths and hedged lanes to get here and plan to make a day of it like everyone else it seems.

The Cider bar is packed with dodgy ciders, I think. I am quickly aware that the quality control in this domain is not a patch on that demanded by the rising tide of new brewers on the beer counters. I am careful to try each cider before purchasing, and many are almost undrinkable. Quite why this should be I am not sure. David is making serious inroads in sampling most of the beers it seems to me. The afternoon is starting to mellow into a haze of mellow stupor and I am vaguely aware that there are no remaining seats and that it will be several hours more of this before the beer runs dry and we will be allowed to leave. It is perhaps only seven o'clock and already I am floating around in a dream. The serious drinkers just stand and look on as the music plays and the dancing revs up.

Summer has returned, it seems.

Love Martha x

Aubergine, tomato and red pepper tart.

200g plain flour
100g unsalted butter
1 egg
1tsp salt
1tblsp water

160g aubergines
2 red peppers
1 large red onion
50ml olive oil (and extra to drizzle)
1 tsp salt
1/2tsp ground black pepper
100g cherry tomatoes
1 tblsp. leaf parsley (chopped)
60g + 200g cheddar cheese (grated)
150g full fat Greek yoghurt

Blitz all the pastry ingredients in a food processor.
Grease a 23cm diam deep quiche tin.
Roll out the pastry and line the tin.
Chill for 20 mins.

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees centigrade
Chop the aubergines, red peppers and red onion. Roast on a tray drizzled with oil and salt and pepper; covered with aluminium foil. Bake for 20 mins until just soft.
Leave to cool. Drain any juice.
Stir in the Parsley and 60g cheese.
In a separate bowl, mix the yoghurt and 200g cheese. Line the pastry with this.
Scatter over the roast vegetables. Bake for 30 mins at 170 degrees centigrade.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Life in the Greenhouse and FREE glass

Dear Nigel,

There's something about the word 'FREE'...really free that is just lovely. Not 'free', but we're going to charge you a massive delivery charge, or 'free' but please make a donation you think is appropriate, but 'free' as in - we made the effort to store this glass, we made the effort to put up the sign, and we want NOTHING off you in return. How refreshing. How lovely. And doesn't it make you want to pass that feeling on somehow? I've never tried free-cycle myself but I'm guessing that the feeling is the same.

So, we are out visiting someone else's garden, looking at the early Magnolias and Rhododendrons. David takes one back for the hall. We've filled up looking at the treetops alive with giant mopheads and are winding our way back home. There it is again, that sign: FREE glass - a whole large greenhouse dismantled. The farmer seems more than pleased that good honest stuff won't end up needlessly in a skip. The greenhouse at the farm can also be mended, and the large glasshouses at the
hall will always be in need of more glass.

It is the new economy. We live in an era where we are sucked into being consumers, often whether we want it or not. To be content with less, to spend less, to desire less, is not allowed. There is a whole army of media out there convincing us we are wrong, making us feel inadequate, failing. Yet when we do, often as not we are dissatisfied the minute our consumption high has worn off. We are addicts looking for our next fix, comparing ourselves to others, letting others erode our sense of self.
We need to reclaim our individuality, our right to be different, to be unique. Our truth is as valid as any other. Often more so, being honest.

So back to the Greenhouse, where the tiny seeds we sowed only a fortnight ago are pushing up against their glass covers, thrusting towards the sun. They are reliable vegetables like leeks and chard and courgettes. The friable soil here is easy to weed and we are lifting out the last of last year's crops, adding it to the day's dinner, and preparing the ground for this year's offering. There is an honest therapeutic effect in this. And Free sunshine - as long as we look after it with care and treat it with respect.

And I am learning more and more each day about the change in climate. Once, it was just a small voice at the back of my mind reminding me to recycle plastic bottles and cardboard. The deeper I look, the more concerned I become. And what concerns me most of all is the way that mild-mannered scientists who dare to flag up their research findings, are being vilified and threatened in their own homes. It is like the worst days of McCarthyism. I google this to find Wikapedia has a definition for McCarthyism which is 'the practise of making accusations of subversion or treason without proper regard for evidence.'

This is what I believe is being perpetrated by climate-change deniers. We like to think we live in a society that regards free speech as important. We may not agree with it or like it, but we allow it. Our default setting is for honesty. We tend to believe things automatically. And any 'expert' claiming to be a scientist is treated with gravitas and respect initially. Even if he is simply an actor and his research credentials are nil. And this is what the other side - the climate deniers - are putting up against legitimate, independent research. We are being manipulated in ways we barely comprehend and our emotions tugged. We recently watched a wonderful, thought-provoking documentary called 'Merchants of Doubt' (available on You Tube) which was simply eye opening. I like to think that I will be perhaps a little more sceptical next time, but the mind is so easily fooled.

Back in the kitchen I have found an up-to-date recipe for the perfect Cauliflower Cheese. It is one of those old stalwarts that perhaps you used to make, and then it lost favour, and now you no longer make it. Until now. This is midweek vegetarian meals for a new generation. It is tasty and quick and doesn't deserve it's tarnished image. Try it. I will be making this one again. The combination of Gruyere cheese and creme fraiche and mustard makes a lovely topping to the roast cauliflower. Thoughts of slimy cheese sauce couldn't be further from your mind. It takes a bit of 'reinventing the wheel' mentality to replace one image with another in your own mind; but I promise you, if you try this you won't be disappointed.

Having a fluid and flexible mind is a fine thing, and one which is devilishly difficult to obtain. The more adamant we are that we are questioning, thinking individuals, the more entrenched we have often seamlessly become as we age, and no longer realise it. Children are the most flexible in their thinking. Often, when dealing with an obstinate toddler this can seem not to be the case, but they are capable of leaps of understanding and thinking, mental gymnastics, whilst we who are so bogged down in our own doubts and prejudices are often incapable of making that leap of faith that leads eventually to a higher understanding. Obviously, I am talking here about a simple vision of Cauliflower Cheese, but it applies equally to our understanding about climate change, or many a new progressive issue.

love Martha x

Cauliflower Cheese

1 large cauliflower
2tblsp olive oil
4tsp maple syrup
salt and pepper
350g creme fraiche
50g Gruyere cheese
2tsp Dijon mustard
1tblsp Parmesan (grated)
1tblsp chopped chives (fresh)

1. Heat the oven to 180 degrees centigrade.
2. Cut the cauliflower into florets. Place in a large bowl and toss with the the oil and maple syrup.
3. Season with salt and pepper.
4. Place in a roasting tin and roast for 30 mins. until tender.
5. Put the creme fraiche, mustard and grated gruyere cheese in a bowl and combine.
6. Tip in the roasted cauliflower and mix until coated.
7. Place in a fresh roasting tin and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.
8. Cook in the oven for 15-20 mins. until golden.
9. Sprinkle with chives and serve.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Plastic lambs, Crocuses and ...More Green Soup

Dear Nigel,

I knew that Spring had finally sprung when I saw my first lamb this week, standing in the middle of a grassy field in its pristine white coat looking like a plastic Britain's model circa 1968. It seemed completely out of place to me as I drove past avoiding the deep mud-filled potholes and churned up verges everywhere. There has been so much rainfall here lately. Down by the Manifold Inn there are several large duck-sized pools where people like to camp in the Summer months near the bridge over the river, iconic country Inn on one side, village shop on the other. The car looks like a paint balling accident only hours after being washed. I walk about only in my wellies at the moment; the mud is knee deep in places.

David sends me photos of the swathes of crocuses out at Renishaw Hall, where he is Head Gardener. Here, there is only a bank of snowdrops on the other side of the stream from my kitchen window and the sturdy reliable thrust of new rhubarb breaking through the earth with all the vigour of a well-defined bicep. I make a mental note to seek out last year's bags in the freezer to use up before I am inundated with copious amounts. Would that we eat a lot of rhubarb and ginger jam, or trout with rhubarb, or something, but we don't. Crumble is the preferred option, and that is for Sundays only. We've weaned ourselves off puddings on waistline grounds - mine not his, unfortunately. How lovely it would be to have the sort of constitution that required you to eat more of the things you love. The very slim people amongst my family and friends all have that rather annoying habit of either being rather in love with their emaciated shapes or claiming to only like savoury stuff. Unfair; most unfair.

I take a friend out for lunch for her Birthday. We go to a quirky secondhand bookshop with its own vegetarian cafe on the top floor. Scarthin Books in Cromford is my kind of place. There are new books and old, an artist in residence and the dish of the day is homity pie - and very good it is too. There is a community of people who meet for philosophical discussions, babies being changed somewhere out the back and the sort of displays angled to entice, so that you are led to books that might interest you, rather than have to go and search for one by someone whose name momentarily escapes you. I've come here with friends, with children, with my partner; and sometimes I've brought myself here alone and lodged myself somewhere behind a curved door full of books that becomes invisible once shut. Once, libraries used to have that feel to them. I remember ours (in the little village of St. Bees in the Lake District, where I grew up) was a single room below the pub, with warm, fogged up windows and a small librarian and small shelves. It felt cosy. These days I want a library or bookshop to sell coffee. I want a comfortable seat and time to while away. I am a demanding punter, I know, but I've tasted the good life in book places and seen that it can be done.

Scarthin books, then, sits on one side of a picturesque mill pond. Two swans nearby were busy making a fuss about their precocious youngster, who probably started learning the piano at three, and eating olives and pasta with black truffle shavings (- whilst proclaiming their virtues extremely loudly -), whilst the couple on the next table struggled to get their offspring to choose between fish fingers and chicken nuggets. (Or is that just me?) With pictures flashing through my head of swans and broken arms, we left them to their precious little darling and headed over to Cromford Studio and Gallery - a lovely, vibrant art gallery housed in an old bakehouse, where Martin Sloman works and teaches and loves a good chat; especially on a lovely sunny morning like today.

I am starting to compile 'stuff from the Peak District' for a chapter for a book which I've been invited to submit to a local publisher. This is up my street too: Things I know about the Peak District - I have a hive of useless but potentially useful stuff (to some people - walkers and visitors and the like) from years of getting to know the area like the back of my hand. Like a ball of wool I cross and recross its boundaries in all directions, adding to the ball like Ariadne's thread. My friend is constantly amazed that our journeys out usually involve me commenting on this gate and that path, the pub in this village, the post office in that, the view from over that hill, the renovation of that barn. And I am constantly amazed that I have so many friends who live so close yet rarely venture out even a couple of miles to some of the best walks in the country. Do we all have such treasures on our doorstop we never stop to gaze upon, whilst focussing all our efforts and energy in planning the next holiday to somewhere far away where there is something amazing we 'simply must see'? My older daughter, Hannah, is a case in point. Before she toddled off to China for a year, she would come here from out of the city, moan about how boring the countryside is and then swan off to America to take in 'this AMAZING scenery.' - Hills and trees; we've got them here too, you know?

I am sending you a bowl of Green Soup - more green soup, actually. This one is 'Lettuce and Spring onion'. It needs some pepping up (- more lemon juice, I discover). I seem to be wading through tides of green soup, in a new year's austerity programme of both body and pocket; and a succession of vegetarian curries, on the look out for those one or two which will become the regular curry-to-go-to for a midweek meal when I just to cook without thinking, and eat. But first I have to do the thinking - which one - and plant it firmly in the memory of my hands, the automatic shopping list and the taste buds of all concerned, so that it fits easily into family life.

Hoping Spring is coming to where you are too,

Love Martha x

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

February Blues and Red Raw Knuckles

Dear Nigel,

Everyone's least favourite month, February is blowing true to form, rolling out huge clouds of fog like polyester wadding bursting from a badly-made soft toy. It lines the base of the valleys, seeping into your very bones as you make your way up the damp hillsides. It chaps knuckles raw and seers pain against the delicate whites of your eyes as you struggle to focus on a 'view'.

'Here comes the Sun', I mutter, reminding myself of the old Beatles song and the much-drooled-over 'Holiday' programmes on the tele, when all my childhood holidays were spent in windy Whitley Bay on the east coast, pressing for sugar cones from my Dad from 'The Rendezvous Cafe' on the promenade; carrying a sticky, sandy bucket and spade made of rainbow-swirled rubber (not like the plastic ones that came later). I wore an aqua and chocolate striped towelling bathing costume that soaked up water like a sponge and sagged glaringly as I pretended not to notice, dripping a trail that could be wee behind me. I flicked my too short boys' haircut and ran away from my embarrassment across the hard ridges of sand, which jarred my feet with every footfall ; telling myself that only sissies cry. I always was more of a tomboy in those days. I remember my life in cine film; soundless, with the accompanying whirring/flapping noise that only those who remember cine film will know instantly.

I am perfecting another soup at home for the soup empire I aspire to make. Today we will be eating a sweet potato and orange soup. The thought spurs me on though the damp tears at my lungs and makes me wheeze as I walk. I am collecting all my best soup recipes together. My notes against them are so numerous now that I am quite severe in my criticism of even my own cooking. Last week's Roasted butternut squash soup, which took ages to make, was bland and boring, and I ended up pepping it up with some smoked paprika. It has been consigned to the back end of history together with the others that fell along the way. I am copying out the recipes from here, there and everywhere in a cookery journal dedicated only to soups. It appeals to my sense of order. I have another entitled 'suppers', and another for 'sweet things and puddings': It is not very scientific, but it seems to work for me.

My bookcases of cookery books have now reached the echelons of the far landing and I am in danger of losing Lindsey Bareham and Claudia Roden to the back bedroom. You are safe, though, on the main rungs of the kitchen bookcase, which takes the place of what probably ought to be useful cupboards in this pint-sized kitchen of mine. But we all have our priorities and books and a place to read them in is more important to me than where to store the food processor (which only comes out to make pastry, I've noticed). Even my new toy, a cordless hand blender, a Christmas present from my parents (to replace the much-loved old Braun one which lasted 30 years and was died orange with the sheer quantity of pureed carrot needed to feed seven hungry babies), has had to find a place in the other room under the DVD player in some pointless niche which I have yet to excavate. This one comes with a surgeon's battery of tools and lights up and speeds up to whisk and froth and chop nuts.

Right now, I just need it to blend soups without causing a huge fuss and demanding privileges it is not yet entitled to, like a place on the limited worktop where I like to put flowers because they cheer me up; and I can always chop underneath them and hoick them up to use the microwave, whose only use appears to be in softening butter these days. I hate to make my kitchen staff redundant, but it's a very large space for an employee who only softens butter, and occasionally reheats my cold coffee when I'm feeling especially lazy. I could consign it to the top of the fridge in the porch, except that the girls would probably require a small stepladder to make their hot chocolate, and that would have to live somewhere, I suppose. I never did like the idea of a 'work triangle'. It seemed to imply to me the idea that I would choose to walk back and forth in the same lines, wearing black rubber marks into the crinkles of the kitchen tiles, like some demented weather person in one of those little wooden alpine chalets  that predict the sun and rain.

Supper tonight is 'Aubergine Fesenjan'. David and I are working at being part-time vegetarians. We keep resorting to meat, usually when we are eating out, and the Sunday Roast (which seems an almost impossible mountain to get around - and one which I'm not sure we want to venture: What would we do with all those trees of brussel sprouts which he keeps inflicting on me? I have one, to show support and to try and educate my uncompromising taste buds). The resulting dish is basically slices of roast aubergine in a lovely sauce and handful of pomegranate seeds on top. We love it. It tastes good and it's Persian background takes my cooking in a different direction. Then I sit down and read in Jane Baxter and Henry Dimbleby's 'Leon - fast vegetarian' that 'people often go one of two ways with vegetables. They either try to make them more approachable - more meat-like -...or they turn to the exotic, relying on specialist ingredients and fistful of pomegranate seeds.' I feel my hand slapped for daring to leave the leeks and kale in the ground today and wishing to be transported to a warmer, sunnier place. I like the tiny jewel-like pomegranate seeds that I have only recently learnt to liberate with ease (turn half a pomegranate over a large bowl and simply bang hard on the back with a wooden spoon). It saves the 'rivers of blood' look that used to be an afternoon feature in my kitchen on these occasions.

Sometimes, when the glumness outside chases you all the way back home to toast your toes by a warm fire and sit in over-large jumpers and ridiculous large 'home-knit' donegal socks drinking some 'winter tonic', you are looking for transportation of the senses. At least until the sun does deign to shine on us once more.

Love Martha x

Aubergine Fesenjan

120g walnuts
4 medium sized aubergines
rapeseed oil
1 pomegranate (seeded)
250ml vegetable stock
2tblsp pomegranate molasses
1tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp chilli powder
11/2tblsp honey
3 cloves of garlic
2 large red onions
Fresh coriander

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C.
Line a baking tray with baking parchment. Cut the aubergines into slices, toss with the oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast on the baking tray for 25 mins until soft.
In a frying pan put 3tblsp. of oil, heat and add the the sliced red onions. Fry for about 15 mins, stirring regularly. Add the crushed garlic and fry for another couple of minutes.
Add the honey, chilli powder, cinnamon, salt and pepper, walnuts (blitzed) and the pomegranate molasses. Stir well . Add the vegetable stock and cook for around 10 minutes until it 'comes together' nicely.
When the aubergines are cooked, pour the sauce into a serving dish, put the aubergines on top and scatter with the pomegranate seeds and fresh coriander. Serve with rice.

(Your dish will come out looking much better than mine - I used a brown-looking vegetable stock I'd made and the result makes it look a bit sludgy. However, it still tasted wonderful, and that's the main thing.
The pomegranate molasses, which I'd never heard of before, I found in Waitrose. Hopefully, your supermarket will sell it too.)

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

To go on with courage and hope

Dear Nigel,

There has been a blip in our communication of late, I know. Christmas took the lion's share, with all its associated comings and goings, lots of people to feed and bedding to wash. But added to that a tragedy - for me, anyway. My dear Dad died the week before. I felt as if the whole thing were somehow on hold until after Christmas. I couldn't even let myself think about him.

Writing the eulogy which I read at his funeral and organising a film show of family snaps from over the years brought it all firmly back home again. David was amazing and stopped me falling apart. I wasn't sure whether I would be strong-enough to read at my own father's funeral, but I did. I miss my Dad so much and yet there is a feeling of acceptance there too. My dear wonderful Dad died because he simply didn't want to be here anymore. He gave up the struggle - as many do - and simply faded away. It's easy to cast around to lay the blame but ultimately he was in a place mentally where no one could reach him and he simply made a choice. I don't think he ever really came to terms with my brother's death eight years ago. So how can I blame him for choosing what he wanted? He's at peace now and no one can take the wonderful memories away that I have of him. I wish he could be here now to share the present and the future with us, but he can't.

And oddly, it's not the memories of the last couple of years which I have of him, when he was only a shell of a man. It is memories of a vibrant, happy man with vivre and life coursing through his veins. When I sat there trying to compose his eulogy I found myself banging against a brick wall mentally. I wanted to tell the truth, and the truth was the wrong thing to say. I could hardly stand up at my own Dad's funeral and tell people that he wanted to die, could I? And yet it is no less true. But then the memories started flooding out of tear ducts - happy things, important things, tiny moments and fragments in time unnoticed by anyone else. It is these truly deep connections - a squeeze of a hand, a pointed comment, a look for you and you alone - that keeps us bound to each other. And no mere thing like death will ever tear that from us.

And so I do what I always do when times are hard: I make soup - that comfort food that nourishes and protects like no other. I make a Jerusalem artichoke and spinach soup which manages to be both grounding and light. Perhaps there are less artichokes in than normal and a better balance with the spinach for lightness in this recipe than in the soup I normally make. Anyway, it does the trick.

We go to Sherwood Forest to protest. They want to frack under Robin Hood's tree. They want to dig deep below the roots of the oldest oak trees in England, a preserved forest, an S.S.S.I, to start fracking. It seems that all the things that we hold dear are suddenly up for grabs. But there at Sherwood we encounter other families, old couples hand-in-hand in padded jackets, middle aged women with dogs, young lads in combat trousers. It feels safe to be there with the girls; everyone with a kind of shared horror. Hamish McRae, the economist, once made this rather telling statement: 'Enduring prosperity requires societies which are stable, ordered and honest....Put bluntly, if countries wish to continue becoming richer, their people will have to learn to behave better.' There is no more apt a time to apply this than now.

Life in The Park is the normal grimy kind of January you might expect to see. There is more mud than vehicles and fog hangs around heavily most mornings. We did have a brief flurry of snow last Friday. And, everything in extremes, a few hours blocked the roads and gave the children delight as all school buses were cancelled and they were able to sledge and build snowmen. But it was soon gone, dropping from the tall forbidding pine trees opposite like batter from a whisk.

We braved the meadows, taking delight at being the first footprints on a new landscape. The sun was out but winds had blown drifts several feet deep. It doesn't take much around here. We are on the point where the Peak District meets the Moorlands and strong winds drive quick and fast. I am snug in my Canadian snow boots which I love for their sheer impracticability for any other situation. The children seem ringed by some far-off readybrek glow and stay out for hours. It is good to see them away from all things electric and behaving like children once more. The carrot for the snowman's nose soon falls to the ground and by the time I get back from the weekend at David's there is but a tiny heap of snow and a knitted burgundy scarf to remind me.

Fat cat lies along the top of the sofa, spreading her fur out like honey on toast and flexing her claws as if yawning. She basks in the warmth of the extra heat. The wood burner is stocked with drying split logs and outside the woodshed is replenished. I don't want to be caught short. Being cut off in the snow is a wonderful, magical thing but only if you are prepared for it and have nowhere especially that you need to go.Then, I like nothing more than walking around the village listening keenly to the silence and seeing tiny spirals of woodsmoke drifting upwards from chimneys everywhere in the valley.

Happy New Year,

Love Martha x

Jerusalem artichoke and Spinach Soup:

200g spinach leaves
25g butter
1 onion (chopped)
350g Jerusalem artichokes, sliced finely
275ml milk
570ml chicken stock
4tblsp double cream

Melt the butter in a large pan. Add the onion and cook gently, covered, until soft.
Add the artichokes and cook for 15 mins, stirring occasionally.
Add the chicken stock and season with salt, pepper and grated nutmeg.
Bring to the boil and simmer, covered, for 20 minutes until the artichokes are tender.
Add the spinach leaves and let them wilt. Blend the soup and add the milk and double cream.
Reheat and adjust seasoning, if necessary.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Yesterday's Tomatoes

Dear Nigel,

The change in the hour has left the evenings blacker than ink. The few street lamps in our village are up the other end and angled down to keep light pollution to a minimum. Nature sucks back its goodness and crisp and crackly leaves are left to tumble and fall in heaps on the ground just asking to be kicked. I decide to clear the greenhouse where skeleton strings of mainly green tomatoes hang suspended in mid air. It is always a satisfying job to see - order restored and decay removed. It is part of the ritual I enjoy of putting the garden to bed for the winter; like drawing out flannelette sheets and old hot water bottles from the depths of the blanket chest to mark the change in tempo as the year draws slowly to an end.

It is the hard structure of a garden that frames the view in winter. Over at the farm the willow arch needs pruning back and shaping once more. We started pruning the willow hedge that rings the front boundary the other week - a job that looked like it might take quite some time - when Les came by with his large machinery heading for the fields and polished the job off for us in minutes. It is good to know there are still corners of good neighbourliness around that come free and without expectation. All the more welcome and noted when the world feels as if it is heading into a new kind of dark age: The blackness of men's souls on show everywhere you turn in print and on screen. It makes you want to look inward for the good and create something that is real and nourishing.

In the kitchen I am 'doing something with mince' - an economy meal in lean times with Christmas just around the corner. It is your 'Lamb kofka' (page 393) but I am using minced beef, an alternative you suggest, because I am interested to know whether this will really work. Not that I doubt you, mind, but 'meals with mince' is usually enough to make me groan and I will go a long way to try and avoid its too frequent occurrence on the menu, if I can.

The anchovies are roughly chopped and added to the mince along with the ground ginger and coriander, the chopped thyme, rosemary and parsley, and a couple of tablespoons of toasted sesame seeds. I am not naturally a 'hands-in-there' kind of cook when it comes to mixtures of this kind, but there simply isn't a better way to amalgamate and shape the meat to thread on wooden skewers.

The taste is a revelation as we were both expecting that unmistakable taste of mince-dressed-as-mince; and instead it is interesting and quite pleasing. I think the saltiness of the anchovies and the spices carried the day. We think it is something that we will make again sometime, anyway. Not perhaps a show-stopper, but a good mid-week special that doesn't require too much hard work. However, I would just say that I had to remove my kofka from their skewers after they came out of the fridge. Maybe it is simply the shape of my raised-sided griddle pan but cooking was going to become an issue if I persisted.

We go for a walk around a nearby lake with the girls. It still feels funny to be walking without a dog out front. Never happy on a lead, our Poppy was always in and out of the water, carrying impossible-sized sticks and wagging her tail with the energy of a troupe of cheerleaders egging you on. I've hardly been without a doggy companion for the last twenty three years and it stil feels strange especially when we are out. Dogs provide the energy you wished you still had, a reason to walk alone, and an upbeat face when the gloom starts to settle like the mist. It is hard to match.

A flock of Canada geese graze on a nearby grassy bank, but as the light starts to fade and the walkers become more sparse they make their way back noisily towards the edge of the lake. The country park is closing, cars are leaving and nature is crawling back to take charge once more. The noise from the jet skier is silenced as he packs away his kit. Model boats on the far lake and a miniature railway are put to bed. There is a welcome hush though the light is low and distant runners look like washing on a line with only dayglo t-shirts and arms heading towards you. I feel the damp hitting my lungs. It is not a good time to be out if you are prone to wheezing. But the sudden silence is intoxicating; more so because of the contrast.

We are all so unaware of the background noises in our environment. Even when we come out for a bit of peace and a country walk, there is sound. I relish the two ends of the day and find myself listening intently to the silence. If there is a radio on I switch it off. Even the heating has to go. The washing machine can wait till later. The fan in the bathroom that is linked to the light is left in darkness. A kettle - too loud. The cat snores gently beside me on the sofa. This is the extent of noise pollution I will allow in that small piece of time that I claim as my own when the house is empty and my hearing is super-charged to hear a pin drop if drop it would. I love this time. It is mine.

Love Martha x

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

A Butterfly on the Other Side of the World

Dear Nigel,

Change is in the air again and so I am making Comfort food for the table. It helps ground me and provide comfort against the Autumn winds and energy of red leaves and restlessness around me. I am preparing your 'Split peas and coriander' dal (page 355), whilst you are preparing a more recent version yourself at home. We both have comfort in mind. For me it is the never-ending butterfly effect in my own life. How we deal with the constant changes in our lives is a marker of our own resilience. And there is always change.

The Clever North Wind is blowing again and my daughter Hannah is picking up her Chinese visa as I write to go and teach English in Southern China for a year or so. It will be a long time until I see her again. Although only newly returned from America and Summer Camp she is keen to be off again, spreading her wings and seeing life on the other side of the world. I marvel at her courage and zest for life and wish her the best of luck whilst keeping my darker feelings under wraps.

You are in a poetic  mood I see, saying (of dal),'you heal more rapidly than arnica. You put the world to rights even before you reach the table.' This is what we want, right now. Whilst others are knocking up elaborate cakes and impossibly complicated puddings in the name of comfort food, we are making simple pared down honest foods, to eat.

The book I am reading at the moment about 'Mindless Eating' echoes these sentiments, showing how our comfort foods can be changed and engineered to include healthier foods in our diet. The big gender divide - women turning to sweet foods and chocolate and men to meat and veg - is partly all in the mind. We each add our own associations and memories to foods and so are also capable of introducing new memories and associations to improve our diet. Soup is a great example of a healthy food with comfort associations attached. Perhaps that is why it is such a mainstay in this house.

We pick the last of the tomatoes in the greenhouse and I turn them into Fennel, Tomato and Feta soup. The potatoes are lifted and there is an abundance of pink fir apple potatoes to enjoy. The onions are huge unwieldy globes which we lay in boxes of newspaper in the barn. Leeks and Greens are coming into their own right now and we are centering meals around vegetables with meat (rather than the other way round) and exploring vegetarian options to make the most of the season's bounty.

I am laying down dishes in the freezer to feed an army at Christmas, and trying to include as many home-grown ingredients as possible - like the Apple and Blackcurrant crumble I part-cooked on Tuesday. It feels good to be adding this kind of value to our celebration meals. And the meals themselves have become an extension of the best of Comfort food. I think anything cooked and prepared by hand at home is about providing love and comfort. And the food most requested by family are the old favourites, not the new and untried or novelty factor ingredients. Perhaps a bit more game or alcohol in the dinner, but often it is a recipe that last saw the light of day at a previous Christmas. I try to add a slightly new twist or take on things without risking a full mutiny.

The split pea dal has a kind of herb paste made with cashew and coriander and basil and lime juice. It adds interest to comfort and an element of 'dazzle'. The turmeric has many ayurvedic benefits including purifying the blood and helping arthritis. I like to think of food as medicine as well as for health. It feels in tune with the rest of my life. If it is commonplace to regard alcohol as relaxing and coffee as a pick-me-up then it should not be such a huge leap to regard individual ingredients for their health benefits when we consider what we want to cook. How do we make those choices anyway? Flicking through the latest recipe book? Eating seasonally? Whim? How in tune with Comfort eating would it be to prepare and cook the sort food that supports the health of those we care about right now - using ginger root perhaps in a stir fry to aid someone fighting the onset of a cold, or chilli and garlic in a spicy curry to clear a stuffy nose.

Halloween fare is everywhere in the shopping isles at the moment. There are cupcakes with pumpkins on, expensive chocolate heads and eyeballs for trick or treaters. I am taking the children to the same ghostly castle of Chillingham in Northumberland, near their grandparents, which was such a hit last year. I dig out last year's skeleton outfit for Sophie and Molly and I patch together old witch and devil outfits to make a girl vampire costume which is more to her sophisticated taste this year. Out shopping during the day I stop to fiddle with a singing/dancing hand in the supermarket and soon have a following of old age pensioners all keen to play with the toys and make jokes - it's like Christmas in Hamleys.

The American tradition of trick or treating doesn't really work in a small rural community like this where the few old people lock up their doors, turn out the lights and go to bed as soon as it gets dark, and wouldn't dream of answering the doorbell this late at night. So this year I am taking the girls and a few of their village friends into the town eight miles away so they can have the opportunity to knock on doors and wave a cauldron around. It is not really within my comfort zone but neither is the endless moaning of 'we never get to go round trick or treating..'which endures for some time before being rekindled the following year. So, in order to save my gentle village neighbours any kind of ordeal I'll dress in green and black and shiver and cringe for an hour or two. I hope my children will appreciate the sacrifices I make for them when they're older.

Love Martha x