Tuesday, 6 August 2013

August 6th - A day at the beach and Nigel scrumping plums

Dear Nigel,

Summer holidays are not things I write about much. No one wants to hear that you had a lovely time on the beach, that the sun shone every day and that you drifted through the week in a swimming costume and flip flops making sand pies and eating ice cream. That was two weeks ago in North Wales in the British heatwave to rival that of '76 - and to be remembered for almost that long, probably. So I didn't write about it.

This last week we were camping again, down the Gower this time, with my little ones and my two eldest sons - James (26), and Chris (25) on a fleeting visit from Frankfurt. This was more of your characteristically British Summer holiday, complete with howling gales ripping the stitching from part of the awning, and that Great British tradition of taking down the tent in the pouring rain. These sort of things are what holidays are made of, in retrospect, - it is the disasters and discomfort we remember fondly not the plain blue skies and the endless cocktails by the pool.

That aside, there were enough sunny days and long, still evenings to balance out. And a touch of sunburn to prove that the sun was stronger than you first imagined. Two of Chris's friends came out to camp so they could all go surfing together, and there was a memorable evening barbequeing on the campsite and watching a game of cricket played with the tiniest child's cricket bat and stumps, and four lanky lads being bowled out by several small enthusiastic children on the campsite.

Two days earlier it was a beautiful sunny day. We trekked the twenty minutes down to the beach below, marvelling at the sweep of the bay, the three dinosaur spines sticking out of the water on one side, and the meander of the little stream as it made its way to the ocean - a perfect picture postcard scene. We unpacked the rug and the spades and the children ran to paddle at the water's edge. They were soon back - Jellyfish. Lots of jellyfish along the tide line; so they built castles instead. Perhaps it should have told me something, but there had been no storm the night before and the sky was clear blue with just a pleasant breeze.

A woman ran along the waters' edge screaming. It took a moment to realise that she was distressed and not just having fun. It took another moment to run down there to see if she had been stung or something. Then I saw a body and a pair of legs floating. Time goes into slow-motion in a situation like that. Chris had seen me running and was there helping me pull the woman out of the water. Someone else caught her arms. We pulled her short of the tide. An off-duty paramedic ran over and between us we did CPR until the air ambulance arrived. I called to James to take the children away and new friends kept them occupied with beach games. Someone put up a windbreak, others comforted her friend; someone took some details for the medics. I find that I am unnaturally calm and focused.

Afterwards we try to throw ourselves in to a beach day for the kids as the forecast is for a change in the weather. Molly has completely missed the drama. She is upset because I told them to stay out of the water and yet Chris and I were in there for ages until the helicopter came. Sophie says, 'a women died', without emotion. She has big ears. I don't know the fate of the woman. I choose not to try and find out.

It is the best day's weather so far. We stick it out and try and absorb the sun. The children are having a great time. As evening approaches we are paddling and there is a cry for help. It is difficult to gauge sometimes when people are just messing around, but there it goes again. It is a man and his son on body boards and they are being swept out by a rip current. Chris is straight out there with them, seeing their distress. Small groups of people form on the waters' edge. I am aware of a lump in my throat that I have sent my two sons out into dangerous waters. James is back with me now and Chris is with the man and his son. It takes a long, long time (or so it seems) for Chris to bring them in. The coastguard has been called and a boat has been sent out. The man squeezes Chris's shoulder and takes his boy away, close to tears.

We decide it is time to go back to the campsite. Twice in one day is too much. On the way back we pass four coastguards heading our way down the sands.
'It's OK,' I say, ' the man and his boy are safe.'
'It's not them. It's the next one. Three youngsters in an inflatable.'
It is little more than five minutes later. We carry on walking up the track and the lifeboat appears round the headland. A minute later and the air-sea rescue helicopter is also tracking across the bay.

I can't help but feel it must have been unusual currents that day, although it looked near perfect. Two helicopters, two lifeboats, at least six coast guards on foot. No life guards, no warning flags, a well-used holiday beach.

It is a beautiful sunny day, the next day. We drive to Mumbles where there are Italian ice creams by the pier and a funny little train that tootles round the bay to a water park at a 1930's pavilion next to the sea. The water is two foot deep and the children play all afternoon. It is the antidote we need.

You are also having a barbeque - or at least strips of sirloin steak in a barbeque sauce (page 298). It is a barbeque for one which, 'to be honest, I have been waiting for this all week. I splash out on a sirloin steak.' (Am I to take it that if there were friends around we'd be having rump?) The sauce is  a 'sweet, nutty, slightly salty' concoction made with rice wine, dark soy and runny honey, and a handful of sesame seeds and oil; into which the sizzling strips of meat are dipped.

While your friends are away on holiday abroad you are scrumping plums in their back garden: 'Even with tacit permission, helping yourself to someone else's crop feels like stealing, and I walk away in a daze of greed and guilt.'

I was seven years old and eating my first scrumped fruit - a greengage, the like of which I had never seen before. It tasted of anxiety - of beating heart and breathless running and giggling on our backs.

The bulk of the fruit is to be turned into jam, but the rest will be a shallow, juice-soaked plum pie. The pastry is a simple butter shortcrust, woven beautifully into a latticework topping. It is pies like this that I remember from my childhood. But back in the Delia days when cooks TV was taking off, I remember being persuaded to buy something called a lattice roller to make toppings for mince pies. They were everywhere - the 'must have' gadget of that particular Christmas. I never managed to get the damn thing to work without sticking to the rollers. I still have it - out of spite, I think - one day I'm going to master the thing, before I'm in my dotage. The recipe is for 'a latticework pie of plums and raspberries' (page 302), though you say you could use loganberries. That takes me back. Perhaps a pick-your-own would have some? They have a more mellow, less acidic flavour. Perhaps I will grow some next year. The soft fruit is doing nicely this summer. There are white, red and black currants ready for picking; gooseberries and raspberries. I can't complain.

The drained fruit is placed in the lined tart case and the lattice woven on top. After being brushed with milk and baked, I rather like your idea of brushing some of the reserved plum juice onto the cooked pastry topping and returning to the oven for five minutes. It has something of that caramelised fruit toffee taste that we fight over at the edge of the tin where the juice has bubbled over, and which has to scraped at whilst hot as it welds itself to the metal the minute it hits the sink. Cook's perk.


1 comment:

  1. What a day, I can't imagine what you felt going through all of that plus trying to shield your small ones.