Saturday, 20 December 2014

U is for Unforeseen circumstances and the Unnecessary madness of Christmas

Dear Nigel,

The Christmas preparations are well under way all around me and I've discovered that it it is the very worst time of year to decide to be ill. Not only do you have little choice but to carry on regardless, but appointments bank up at the hospital and 'a month isn't a long time to wait', apparently. The huge machine of ritual that is Christmas chugs on, and all around you the expectations of friends and family seek to hem you in. I never understood why anyone would want to be away from all their loved ones and holiday in the sun at Christmas, but this year me and my sore jaw would happily take a vegetarian chicken leg and go and sit and watch the Northern Lights (somewhere much colder than here).

For the little ones, of course, it is totally magical and no one should take that away from them. Watching their faces all lit up as the Steam train pulled in to take them to see Santa the other day was wonderful. I suppose for each of us there is a memory in our distant past - probably of something very small indeed - that rekindles itself every time we see that look of pure wonder on a small child's face. There are so few times in any lifetime when we experience something so perfect.

The school Nativity play goes past without a hitch. Molly, a decidedly unpregnant-looking Mary, decides that baby Annabel - dressed in a pink babygro, like all good french baby boys - was going to be Jesus, whatever...

Sophie is dressed as a Star, along with little Alfie (one of the younger ones in Reception, who has Downs Syndrome). All the children have learnt 'We wish you a Merry Christmas' in Makaton and it is lovely to see Alfie joining in with the others with the sign language- very much a part of our little family school. The children say that 'Alfie just hasn't grown out of being a toddler' and accept him for who he is, unconditionally. At their age they are so accepting of difference wherever they find it. If only it would stay that way.

The dinner I am making tonight is 'Aromatic Pork with Cucumber' (page 347). It is a lightening-quick dinner on the plate and tastes wonderful, and my guest thinks so too. Sometimes, especially at this time of year, when I'm busy cooking other things for Christmas, the last thing I want to do is spend ages cooking dinner as well. I'm busy filling up the freezer, with all seven of my children due home in the next couple of days (and Chris's Brazilian girlfriend Beatriz, too). I prefer to sit back with a glass of wine and enjoy spending time with my family at this time of year rather than slaving away in the kitchen. They all have much more important parties to go to for New Year so our time together is short and sweet.

The emails advertising this and that come in thick and fast as the great day looms. Gentle reminders to stash in piles of fluffy white towels and individual candle bowls for 'all those individual guest bathrooms' leave me laughing on the floor. In our house there'll be a long queue for the one bathroom and much banging on the door methinks. James is already planning to get up a rota.

I think my ideal would be to hire some large place in the country that would take all the family who care to spend Christmas with us - all under one roof, in a certain amount of comfort. It occurred to me that there must be a good number of suitable homes available for 'a house swap' at this time of year, what with all the Royals going up to Balmoral and everything. Perhaps someone should suggest it to Kate.

The tree in the corner appears to have a drink problem again this year. Last year we narrowed it down to the dog, this year it seems the cat is taking a liking to pine-infused liqueur. It just keeps me busy down on my front trying to fill it up again.

The village newsletter is delivered by Melanie on her rounds. It covers five tiny villages in this little area of the Peak District, including ours. I leaf through and note that Annie the vicar is doing a candlelit carol service on Monday evening at one of our neighbouring villages. I don't often go to church these days, but there is something rather awe-inspiring about a small candlelit church in the middle of winter, that beckons. The girls love singing carols (and more-importantly can read the words now) so I'm thinking that this would be an ideal time to go and remember the other side of Christmas, too often forgotten in the wrapping and unwrapping of presents and over-indulgence at the table.

It's a time for remembrance too. I'm still tippling back a thimble full of the sloe gin my brother made several years ago now and raising a toast to him. And this year I have three people close to me who will be having a harder Christmas than most to remember. I do what little I can to show that people do care and remember their pain. We can all do that for someone around us - light a tiny candle at the end of the tunnel to guide them home again.

Martha



Saturday, 15 November 2014

A guest at my table - Danny Boy

The last time I saw Danny was about seven or eight years ago, or more. That's what happens when you have a baby; suddenly everyone you'd been seeing week in week out for years on end suddenly become invisible in your life as you get pulled in another direction. Even good friends are cast along the wayside and stop listening to your empty promises to meet up.

So when you do finally get your life back together you find that things have changed. What seems at first a most familiar landscape has pockets of history that you've completely missed.

Danny and Amy were regulars at the pub. A young couple in their twenties who seemed to have the golden ticket in their hands. Some couples are just gorgeous - good looking, good jobs, plenty of money, everything going for them and their whole lives mapped out. Amy, certainly, had a plan. She was used to making an entrance each week so that she could show off her new designer handbag, the shoes, the outfit. She glowed, and Danny stood beside her glowing in her wake.

A wedding seemed in the offing; the talk between them centred on possible farmhouses they might buy (-not your average first time buyers' house for Amy). They posed with other lovely young couples, laughing, smiling, looking round for approval. Or perhaps that was only Amy. But Danny had bought into her dreams as well.

The other week I thought I saw the back of him ambling away from the bar. He seemed to be rather drunk and was leaning to one side as he walked. His clothes were a mess and there was mud in his hair. It wasn't till he came back the other way that I realised that he wasn't drunk, or if so, only slightly. His whole left arm was missing and he was overcompensating for the loss of weight on one side as he walked towards me, as if he was still getting used to things.

Amy had disappeared, it seemed, and had since married a farmer in the next valley. All his bricks had come tumbling down at once - job, home, girlfriend - the whole mapped out future was torn to shreds. He was still coming to terms with this. Some things had slid, but that was temporary. But the pain on such a young face was evident. Still barely into his thirties, I thought, and yet he carried the weight of the world on one shoulder, hardened to his predicament and to the intense sympathy of others.

It had been a farm machinery accident which tore the whole limb. Whether it was his own fault or not was hard to say. Some said he had been drinking. It mattered not. And he didn't want to hear yet more sympathy for something that he couldn't change. He wanted me not to notice and to talk about the changes at the pub (none), the likelihood of snow and the planning application that everyone was in uproar about. His eyes begged only for that. I understood what he was saying.

'Why don't you come to supper?' I heard myself say,'We won't talk about ANYTHING,'

I was surprised, really, when he agreed. Our conversations had been almost superficial up to now, I thought. But Danny was desperate to gain some kind of normality into his life again and he didn't know really where to start. They'd kept him on at the farm but he could only really help out. He knew they were doing him a favour and he had swallowed his pride. What choice did he have? The regulars were still the same crowd and it was here he felt most at home. As the evening mellowed out and people seemed to forget he could become himself once more. His crowd of friends had altered. The shiny people seemed to have moved on elsewhere. He seemed far older than his years.

I watched him as I sat talking to a friend. He was still a very good looking lad; almost throwing himself into pointless conversation with a renowned pub bore just to keep himself going. I wondered what such a tragedy really does to a person, deep down. How hard is it to keep clinging on, to rise above a wave of depression that could so easily drag you under if you let it. Is it better to go looking for a possible future or to simply hold on to a fragile present. I didn't know that I would be able to help him answer that. We each surf that wave at times, and each behave differently. It's so easy to stand on the outside looking in and judge another's pain without having the remotest idea how the cycle of feelings, thoughts and behaviour really affect another person.

Danny had built a wall in front of himself and he needed this wall to make him strong and stop him falling apart. We talked about his brother's family and his sister's new boyfriend; his Dad's minor heart operation and the beleaguered cricket team's bad year. He was desperate to keep things light and I had no intention of treading on sore ground. I still wondered what we'd find to talk about. I wasn't used to this level of very casual conversation. It seemed pointless to me, somehow, and yet Danny was desperate for that level of pointlessness. Like an orange with a tightly-bound skin, there seemed no way to get into this man's inner world.

I was at a loss to know what to do. I hoped that a good meal would do the trick. Food has that way of unlocking the most complex of doors. To share food, to sit alongside another and eat separately in unison, is bonding. We are the same, you and I - we both eat. You can trust me because we have eaten together. The wall you have built can remain but if you let me scale it's huge height we might between us find some kind of answer to that question that you are unable to articulate. I was prepared to give it a go, should the opportunity arise.

As I take the dish out of the oven I see his brother's car draw up outside. Part of me automatically thinks to invite him in as well as it is quite a distance for him to travel, but I know Danny would not appreciate this. I rarely find myself so unsure of how to be. I need to take my lead from him and remember that he is actually only a handful of years older that my eldest son. He has lived a lot in the last few years.


Saturday, 25 October 2014

T is for Treacle Toffee

Dear Nigel,

Was it only just over a week ago that we watched the last of Summer's footprints evaporate leaving no trace? There we were, cycling along one of the many old railway tracks that serve as cycle paths here in the Peak District, weaving themselves over and through the hills; coats left in Archie because an unseasonal warm wind was fanning our path, and the sun glowing that Autumn gold that colours the landscape sometimes like a badly-exposed print at this time of year.

We took the Monsal trail which goes through the side of a hill in two places. Coming out of the soot-lined tunnel we blink in multicolour and stop on top of the viaduct to gaze at the tranquil ribbon of water beneath. Sophie whizzes past on a bike that is much too small for her now. She is enjoying the freedom that comes from suddenly being able to take off and go. There was no teeth-pulling endless learning to ride with her - wobbling and grazed knees each day. She simply decided one day she could do it, borrowed someone else's bike and rode off. That's the sort of laborious parenting I like.

The warm currents of air have also brought the butterflies out in force. A cloud of Red Admirals enter the cottage and take residence along the beams of the living room ceiling. They come probably from the Buddleia just outside the window, but show no signs of wanting to leave. Each day they sleep and in the evening when the cottage warms up they wake up and fly around the room as we eat our supper. One lands on the back of Sophie's hand and stays there, happy to bask in the warmth of her skin for a while. It is most odd. Sometimes, the sun wakes them during the day and I open the window and chivvy them on their way. But, by night time they have all flown back in again and are perched in exactly the same individual spots as the day before. If I were so inclined I could find myself believing that there is a message there in all this. Instead, I simply marvel at this peculiar thing and pick up my knife and fork and tuck into my supper as our resident friends dance at face height over the table and settle over by the window.

The supper I am making tonight for my guest is 'Sweetcorn Crumb-crust Pie' (page 333). It is the sort of easy family meal that I know my kids will like too, with nothing they can complain about (except, perhaps, the odd bit of green parsley - but let them complain). As a huge fan of all shallow oven-baked dishes involving potatoes and cream I am looking forward to this one warming up a dismal day outside. The weather has changed radically here and so suddenly and the summer is all but instantly forgotten. How short our memories are as we battle through driving rain,doing battle with our swords of flimsy metal spokes and nylon against mother nature's outrage.

Each year the pile of old coats gets larger and tattier, threatening to pull the coat hooks off the wall. Each year I promise to send them all winging their way to the clothing bank. And each year they get a sudden last reprieve, like condemned prisoners on death row, and I feel comfortable once again walking the dog in an old favourite battered and faded jacket that has become my friend over the years. Both of us have seen better days, I think.

There is another convict on death row whose fate is the talk of the pub as I go to play my fiddle. Many of the regulars actually come from the neighbouring village of Eyam (famous for being the village that cut itself off during the Plague). Where Andy lives, his neighbour has a now rather famous Welsummer Cockerel called William the Conqueror, who is known to have an exceptionally loud crow in the mornings.

Now, I'd always rather assumed that if you chose to live in the country, then you accepted cockerels crowing and birds singing the dawn chorus as part of life - even welcomed it? Apparently not. Someone in Eyam has made a complaint to the district council about William and a man from the council has been sent out to investigate. Poor William was clocked and registered (and an ASBO tag fitted to his leg perhaps?) and deemed to be above the required decibels that is allowable for Cockerels. (If only we could do that for people...now there's a thought...)

The outcome is that poor William either has to be dispatched or sent away from home, as he apparently refuses to sleep in his new modified coop. Poor eighty year old Mr Sutcliffe, William's owner, has found no takers for the bird and so it seems William's days are numbered.

However, a backlash is afoot. William apparently has his own facebook page with over two thousand supporters from all over the world, and Mr Sutcliffe has written to his Derbyshire Dales MP Patrick McLoughlin to complain that you can't stop a Cockerel from crowing. Meanwhile, district councillors have given William a few more days reprieve.

Ahhh... such is village life.

Martha




Thursday, 16 October 2014

A guest at my table - Ruby

The image which we portray to the outside world is largely of our own making. It can be how we see ourselves, or the person we believe ourselves to be, or what we want others to believe about us. There is nothing wrong in all this - we all dress up and play a part every day of our lives, whether we realise it or not.

When I first saw Ruby I was so transfixed by the multitude of colour and texture of her clothes, her rich velvet scarves, auburn hair and startlingly green eyes that I thought she must surely be one of the most interesting people I'd ever meet. She was probably in her later 50s, rosy cheeked and quite a large lady in all directions, but it was difficult to tell under all those layers of clothing. She dressed to please herself and the clothes themselves owed more to Vintage dressing-up box style than any high street chain store. She wore jewel-coloured silks and lace and velvet and leather all together; the colours toning and contrasting with each other. I suppose it was simply an extension of her day job which, (when she wasn't caring for her elderly mother), was in making handmade quilts for commission. She supplemented her carers allowance with a day course which she taught at the local college one morning a week. It was her get-out-of-jail card, she said. But mostly work had to fit around her caring responsibilities, which made having a life difficult.

As the only one of her siblings who wasn't married with a family it had rather been expected that she would give up her secretarial job and look after her mum as she got weaker and her condition worsened. She wasn't resentful of this exactly, she said, as she loved her mum dearly, but the broken nights took their toll on her sense of humour as there was simply no let up. Sometimes, she told me, when her sister came over to visit, she just slept. Her sister Annie would take their mum out in the wheelchair for a couple of hours and she would put last night's stinking bedding in the wash, take the phone off the hook and go to bed. She was supposed to be working or taking some time out for herself but sleep seemed more important. A carer's life is often a lonely one, relentless and thankless. She was supposed to be going to a support group with other carers but couldn't actually fathom up the energy to get there.

All this seemed a mile from the Ruby who greeted us so enthusiastically each week on a Tuesday.This Ruby was very upbeat  and exuberant. Her one great love was colour. She loved to open draw upon drawer and throw fabric across the table, and find two or three others that would give exactly the effect she required. Perhaps it would be a corner of a ploughed field and the tones would be in old gold and nougat. Or greens against a hedge where the sun cast a shadow of almost inky black.

We were making a communal quilt which was to be auctioned for an overseas charity, alongside the single bed quilts which we were all making to take home. I was making one for my daughter Hannah in shades of blue and pink, as she shared a bedroom with her younger brother William. Each week we were given homework to finish which was a block in a different style or pattern - like a living book of quilt designs which would week-on-week mount up to the finished quilt.

Sewing had never been my thing. Ever since Miss Bingham had made us sew what looked to me like maternity smocks at the age of eleven at Buxton Girls School (it was 1976), I'd gone right off the whole idea. And found my way to Top Shop. But here, in this old room with its high ceilings, arched windows and plan chests, an eclectic group of women of all ages met for a few hours each week to unpick the seams of our lives and to sew new ones for posterity on our communal project.

In America, sewing bees were once quite common social occasions which women were 'allowed' to go to. There is something in the making of stuff that loosens the tongue. Perhaps the concentration takes away any awkwardness or shyness. Either way, it has a profound effect on conversation. Things are said that would never otherwise have been aired in public. I wouldn't have learnt so much about the frustrations and numbness of Ruby's other life if she'd been teaching and I'd been listening. But in the act of making all manner of things come out of the woodwork and are woven into the weft of the cloth.

This is the Ruby I am waiting for now. She is late and the dinner is getting cold. To me she is always dressed like a most splendid Christmas tree, yet I'm sure at home it's a different story. There is lot of hands-on physical stuff involved. These are her glad rags which she saves for Tuesdays and brightens up all our lives. She throws stardust into the fire to make it crackle, and we all leave, a different set of characters to the ones who came in. I know it is as much therapy for her as it is for us, but I do hope that someone can bring a bit of sparkle to her life as she so generously gives to others.


Wednesday, 1 October 2014

S is for Squiffy cows and Seasonal warmth

Dear Nigel,

The hedgerows are still rich with jewel-like berries and the Autumn-fruiting raspberries ripen as we pick. This has been such a good year for berries, and the mild warm weather has allowed us to stay longer in the garden and go picnicking with flasks of soup and warm quiche wrapped in foil. It is a fine season.

I go for my usual run around the lanes and past the church. It is flattish around the village and beats the smell of rotting corpses in the gym. It stretches my lungs and maybe, if I work hard-enough, it will keep the asthma and bronchitis at bay. The damp Autumn air is not a friend to the asthmatic.

As I run, carefully avoiding the cowpats and tractor muck - an exercise in itself rivalling Sudoku - I pass the milkman on his round. I used to live in a town fifteen miles away, and opposite me up a little side street was a small dairy, bang in the middle of the town. The milkman from opposite my old house now winds his way through the smallest villages of the Peak District delivering his goods. I suppose if there are two supermarkets within spitting distance business will be slack, whereas out here where the nearest village shop is four miles away, a milkman is often welcome.

Like most milkmen these days he delivers newspapers and groceries too. And, so the sign on his bright yellow van tells me, it seems the cows of the Peak District are producing fine quality wines and beer these days. I wonder what they feed them on?

I come back to an upended bird table and bird feeders scattered in the rose bushes. It is next door's evil cat, the one we call 'Bandido' ( on account of his Zorro-like mask), I suspect. There is a tiny blue tit lying stone dead beside it. It is perfect and untouched, like a stuffed museum exhibit with stiff outstretched wire legs, or a child's discarded soft toy. It reminds me that life is short and to be treasured. I have enjoyed watching these little friends visiting my table and squabbling over the seed like unruly children. They have been greedy and busy and it has brought life back into a little space, and movement and energy. I don't know what the Chinese would say about bird tables but it seems a good bit of Feng Shui to me, instinctively.

There, two minutes on google and I find a Feng Shui expert called Rodika Tchi who says that 'bird symbols...have an intrinsic universal energy that doesn't need translation' (giving a) 'feeling of inspiration, freedom, and a longing for being united with the divine.' Maybe this is what saddens me so much, to see this perfect little creature lying dead. A close relative of mine has died and I am preparing to go to yet another family funeral. The Autumn is closing in around me. I turn to your book to find a warming dish to take away the sudden chill. I find it on page 245 - an 'Aubergine Curry' for an Autumn day.

There are times when I want to stand over a stove and toast spices in a dry frying pan and inhale the aroma. And there are other times when my stomach is talking to me as I cook, when I'm trying to help with homework or break up a fight in the other room, and the dog is getting under my feet because she knows it's her dinnertime too. These are the times when I want to bung it in a pan and get on with other things. You know this too because you say 'when I am in the mood, I will toast cumin seeds and coriander, adding dried chilli and turmeric....but on a weekday, when I'm quickly putting together a curry for dinner, I use my favourite curry powder.' So, I will no longer feel I'm somehow cheating.

This curry, for the most part, takes care of itself as the vegetables gently cook. It is refreshing and juicy as the thick slices of aubergines - mine are like tractor tyres - keep their shape and remain succulent. Altogether, a gentle fruity curry which warms the stomach without leaving you feeling heavy and bloated. I also think this dish must be really quite good for you and relatively low on the old calories (providing you don't overdo the naan bread - my weakness).

Yesterday was a magical evening. It started as a sudden urge to put up the string of white outdoor lights that I'd been planning to do all summer but never quite got round to. I think it occurred to me early on in the summer that these lights are only best seen when dark, and, as it never seemed to get dark-enough until well after ten (and I don't really have those sort of all-night parties anymore), there didn't seem to be much point.

I looped them all along the little picket fence at the back which stops people falling headlong into the stream. It is very dark outside at the back as there are no streetlamps around here and I usually have to remember to take a torch with me everywhere. Even going out to the shed for wood or dog food is an expedition in itself in the middle of winter, (especially if there's a foot of snow on the ground). I got out the fire basket and filled it with logs and placed benches around it and hung cheap zinc Ikea lanterns from the roof of the woodshed.

My moment of inspiration, however, for which I am most proud, was in bringing out the large green wheelbarrow and placing the outside door mat (one of those farmers' metal grid things) over the top. Onto this went the hot terracotta pizza stones from out of the oven. It was just magical to be able to sit there with my little ones and my eldest son, James, and watch the flames lick and spit.

The stream still rushes on and an owl hoots somewhere out there in the night. This time is very precious to me. I have learnt from life's tumbles that we only ever really have today right now to cherish. My son is back from University and applying to join the army. I put away my fears and thoughts and enjoy the night. He is the happiest and focused that I have seen him in a long while; and who can deny him that. We each of us make our own path in life and desire only the love and support of those closest to us. The pizza stones stay hot on their grid, keeping the slices of pizza warm till the end. The citronella candle does its job in keeping the midges away. We have foregone the organised side of the garden and are perched on the concrete on old plank benches with the kids on wooden steps. It would have been an ideal time for toasting marshmallows but I don't have any. And anyway, that would have made it an organised occasion, and this is simply impromptu and unplanned. And the more completely lovely for it.

Martha












Thursday, 18 September 2014

A guest at my table - Rik

The first time I met Rik it was his boots I was introduced to - the rest of him was somewhere under a pile of heavy tarpaulin trying to mend something on a tent. He would have been in his mid-forties perhaps by then, although my sons were only young. They had moved seamlessly from cubs to scouts and were looking forward to a bit of sleeping rough, playing with knives and warming their hands over a box of matches, or whatever notion they might have. I was hoping there might be more involved.

His face, when he finally emerged, was flecked with something black and he had a huge grin as he adjusted his spectacles, flushed red to his ears and wiped the sweat off his forehead with his shirt sleeve. He seemed to be having far more fun than any of the boys - in his element in his grubby shorts with freckled knees poking out. And this was a few years before Ray Mears had hit our screens. He wiped his hand on his clothes before offering it to me. His cheesy grin was so infectious it was impossible not to warm to this overgrown ten year old. The boys obviously loved every minute of it and there was an energy and buzz about the place.

The law on the sale of knives may have changed but back then a Swiss army knife was still a prized bit of every boy's kit. I checked the Scout website to see how things had changed in this regard. It seems that although it is illegal to sell a knife to anyone under eighteen it is not illegal for anyone to carry a folding knife like a Swiss army knife as long as the blade is shorter than three inches. Scouting policy is that knives should be carried only when they are going to be used as a tool.I remember how seriously my boys took the responsibility of having a penknife - almost because a level of trust was bestowed. And, although they could often be silly over other things, in this nothing needed to be said.

We soon got to know Rik better, and, when it came to camps, he often called on the extra support of his two older teenage sons. Rik's wife had died a few years previously and, rather than remarry, he had thrown himself into Scouting and bringing up his two equally lanky sons. I once had the privilege to visit his house and saw a completely different way of living which seemed to mark it out as an 'all male household'. There was a canoe lying in the hallway and various paddles stacked in the corner. The downstairs loo was more library than loo, and there were two pieces of wood joined together in a clamp in the middle of the kitchen table, which we were eating off. Toast and jam was a popular meal and all of them looked as if they could swallow a loaf whole without even noticing. It was Rik, I remember, who first introduced me to the delights of French toast - so much better eaten straight from a smoking black frying pan on an open fire - ...and I was only there for a visit, to drop something off.

There is something very compelling about finding someone in their element. It doesn't matter what they are passionate about; to be around someone whose very fibre fizzes over with enjoyment, their eyes lit up, blood pumping pinkness into their face, is highly magnetic. Perhaps we seldom see people in this state. Normal life rarely lets people be the people they would like to be. So we are transfixed because we see that they have something very special that we want for ourselves, if we ever let ourselves find that one thing with which we could be totally in flow.

The lamb and tomato and smoked paprika dish I am making will be gobbled up in minutes by my guest. I have never seen him without being in a state of measuring time as gaps between meals or snacks. He always seems permanently hungry. I have been at a camp and watched him and his sons eat vast quantities of stew as if they'd just returned from hunger strike or something. The boys around them couldn't match their pace. Indigestion and chewing each mouthful twenty times whizzed over their heads as they matched each other spoon for spoon. He will appreciate the simplicity of having plain crusty bread with which to dunk, and a bowl to nurse in his large calloused hands. If the weather stays warm we will eat in the garden. He will be happier kicking back and enjoying a pint as we talk. Houses don't really suit him anymore. When he's not camping or working he's off in his '70s camper van with a canoe strapped to the roof. I feel that when his boys do finally go he might rent out a garage to house his washing machine and line of canoes - and spend the rest of the time living in his van. He'd like that - a bit of discomfort - it would make him feel at home, somehow.


Wednesday, 10 September 2014

R is for Re-Freshers' week and Ripening hedgerows

Dear Nigel,

Another school year starts for the little ones, and a new beginning looms elsewhere - number four son is heading off to University and I'm knocking around looking for a fifth set of pans and a few mugs and plates with a kind of deja vue feeling. Tom is excited but trying to remain fairly cool about it all as if it's no big deal. We leaf through the mail order shot from John Lewis and laugh at the NEW student 'must have's. There's something nice and homely about having a handful of hand-me-down cutlery and an old favourite mug, I think. The Bank of Grandma stumps up for a new laptop, thankfully, as it probably wouldn't impress prospective employers for a Computer Graduate to sit there with an old pencil jammed in the side of his laptop to keep the light on...but then again, maybe they'd see ingenuity in the face of a tide of student debt.

I'm watching the hedgerows ripen at lightening speed. The blackberries are already plump and heavy and still full of taste. I take a mental note of the best hedgerows round here and prepare for an afternoon's picking before someone else gets there. There's nothing worse than following on the back of a quick-witted picker who's had the same idea and got there earlier in the day, and to arrive home with half a dozen under-ripe specimens and the feeling of being hard-done-by. This weekend seems just right for a large dish of apple and blackberry crumble. We make ours with half rolled oats to flour for that flapjacky taste my kids love, and a mixture of cookers and eaters so that there are tasty chunks of real apple - the eaters - amongst the sublime mush of puree and muscovado sugar.

The red-haired Hannah is descending on us this weekend from the bright lights of the city and will no doubt have certain food expectations. They find it too quiet and dull here for their flitting minds, my city children. Chris, the other one, is planning to fly over from Frankfurt at Christmas. He calls it 'coming back to the Dale'. Technically right, I know (despite its Hobbit associations), but I am never quite sure if he's being complimentary or not. I have my doubts.

The dish I am making this evening reflects the change in the seasons. I love this time of year with its red  and gold leaves and a freshness in the air once more that stimulates the mind. It is a simple casserole of lamb and tomato and smoked paprika which has a warmth in it to both comfort and invigourate (Lamb, garlic, paprika and tomato pg236). As you say, 'There is much comfort in food that has been cooked in a casserole.' These recipes of yours are like stews that have been speeded up to reflect the fact that we may well want to eat dinners like this but often don't have the time to just leave things to cook. This dinner was prepared and cooked and on the table in less than an hour, which is usually my benchmark, and I've never been known as the fastest of cooks - I can quite happily while away half an afternoon chopping a few onions given the chance.

There is something magical about an Indian Summer, like the one we're having right now. We often talk in hope about them, but they come more infrequently than we seem to remember. Perhaps it is the warm breath of air which whips leaves from the trees yet still blows refreshingly across our cheeks. The temperature, a pleasant warmth - warm enough to sit out and have lunch - yet doesn't sap our energy and strength the way a warm day in Summer often does.

We sit out at the weekend with Hannah and eat the fish soup I've prepared. It is the season of soups in my mind, and nothing makes me feel more snug than a real fire in the evening and a bowl of hot soup for lunch. The garden and lane are bedecked with all manner of garden birds, all here for the feast of Autumn-cropping raspberries and hedgerow blackberries. We will agree to share, I think. We get our bird spotter book out and the children have a go at identifying them. I buy another bird feeder but forget the seed. Another visit. It's a thirty mile round trip to the shops so it'll have to join the list. Archie eats diesel, I think, but then again he's doing sterling work doubling as a cupboard for all Tom's mountain of stuff heading off to Uni. The cottage would be more than a little cluttered otherwise.

They say that people are divided into people who clean and people who declutter (and presumably people who can manage neither). I am a declutterer. I can cope with a little bit of dirt...in moderation...but I can't begin to think straight if there are piles of mess everywhere. It's not about being hugely house-proud or anything, but the layout of a space (for some of us) affects how we move and think and relax in that space. I have a friend who is the reverse to me. She has a wonderful living room with huge piles of magazines on which we place our wine glasses. A tower of books at one end is a focus for the eye. Every week she moves all these books and things, hoovers, dusts and then places them all back down as before. I've seen it done and marvelled at her determination to have things back exactly as she would place them. It's a hugely cluttered room with mobiles and wind chimes and sticks of incense everywhere, but opened up and cleaned like a piece of unfolded origami, and refolded once more; it is her space.

Martha




Tuesday, 26 August 2014

A guest at my table - Magna

Magna was a large lady with tiny feet who wafted in gracefully on a cloud of expensive Lily of the Valley perfume. I could tell it was expensive because even though she appeared drenched in the scent ( - you could smell it from several feet away- ) it still smelled wonderful, none-the-less. That there should be a reason she might wish to douse herself in SO much scent had never really occurred to me. Only now, thinking back, I remember that she had given up a good career as a University Lecturer to look after her Barrister husband who had become an Alcoholic. It seems natural to me that she should want to surround herself in a protective layer (- in every way -) against the acrid ketone smell of an Alcoholic.

She was a kind and gentle tutor who had found a niche for herself shepherding novice students through the Open University Arts Degree courses, many of whom had little or no qualifications on embarking; some of whom would fly, others who would need hoisting up by the breeches and pointing in the right direction. Magna knew just how to get the best out of everybody. She was as sympathetic to all my whingeing and pleading for extensions on the grounds of lack of sleep due to having a new three month old baby, as she was to all the others.

If it was a come-down for her from teaching the creme-de-la-creme then she never showed it. Her enthusiasm was electric, yet gentle and soft in voice. It was as if she saved all her energy up for these Tuesday night sessions and then exploded her enthusiasm for Pre-Raphaelite paintings or the complex meanings hidden behind an Enlightenment text. It was impossible to not come in on a dark and windy night with the rain pelting down outside and not feel immediately engrossed in something warmer and brighter.

Her tiny feet were truly amazing. They defied any law of gravity that someone so large and voluptuous should move around so daintily, barely seeming to touch the ground in any one place at all. I have seen cartoons of characters shaped not too dissimilar to Magna and always dismissed them as caricatures or incomplete line drawings. The laws of gravity should have held some sway, and yet Magna appeared to have no centre of gravity whatsoever.

I haven't seen Magna for several years now, and, as I put together this most humble of meals, I am wondering how life has treated her. To have been prepared to put so much of herself aside and not to feel embittered by it showed me how it was possible to still live against the odds and be happy. She threw more of herself into what she could do instead of pining after that which she could no longer. If her high voice betrayed an over-enthusiastic optimism, then the energy and vigour behind it was genuine and she took huge delight in watching the penny drop at times.

Her deep Catholic beliefs which had led her to make such a radical career choice were ingrained. She once took us on an outing to her old family home which had since been given to the National Trust. We looked at the Priest's hole and the simple furniture and the picture of Christ hung on the wall.

'Of course,' she said, 'they've got it wrong here. In a Catholic house like this where religious practise had to be kept secret, and the priest hidden at times, there would never have been a painting like this hung up on the wall.' And she was right. She showed us how to take the hidden testimony from a room, or a painting, or a piece of furniture and see what else was there - what interpretation or prejudice time had placed, and needed stripping back like a painting beneath a painting only to be caught in Infrared scanning -  like the man hidden behind Picasso's 'Blue Room'.

She was very matter-of-fact about it all, and never grand. I think life had taught her to value all things and all people equally. For all that, she was amazingly clever and it was always interesting to be in her company and talk on any level. She was the kind of teacher who brought you up to her level rather than the sort who would rather demoralise and squash in order to gain some kind of paltry self-esteem.

As I stand here waiting for her to come in it is her resonating voice that greets me first, closely followed by a cloud of Lily of the Valley, before two tiny feet in red shoes shuttle her in over the doorstep. She sits down like a parachute coming in to rest and immediately asks, questions and notes in the same sentence so that I don't know which part to address first. My brain notches up a gear and I reach for the wine.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Q is for Quality and a Quiet simplicity

Dear Nigel,

I am freshly back from a holiday in Ireland and leafing through your book for inspiration. I find a recipe for 'Poor Man's Potatoes' (pg 113) which seems to fill the bill entirely. Not only does it remind me of Old Ireland but also New Ireland's fantastic culinary heritage has left me bloated and craving simplicity- a piece of toast or a pile of new potatoes. Like you, a fairly empty store cupboard and bank balance also turned me in the right direction. By the time the potatoes had softened in the stock and the peppers remaining plump and juicy, I was in no doubt that there would be plenty of taste and I would not be left feeling disappointed. As always, you didn't let me down. Perhaps next time I might add some smoked garlic or fennel seeds as you suggest; but for now this is plenty.

We went to Ireland in search of new songs, travelling from Dublin to the West coast and back again. In the West our main stay was at the tiny village of Doolin on the coast in County Clare. Doolin is the home of Traditional Music in Ireland, to those who know. Here on the edge of the Atlantic Way, by the harbour which ferries folk over to the Aran Islands, are three busy little pubs with music playing into the night. Over in McGann's a guitar and banjo were accompanying a singer with long dark hair and Celtic looks. A young lad of perhaps fourteen (also from the McGann clan as it turned out) came and did his bit on the penny whistle. He played his few tunes very well and it was nice to see young blood with a bit of old whiskey in his veins. The pub was full to heaving and I got talking to the old guy next to me who turned out to be an architect who had turned to making banjos after an injury. He'd come to see one of his famous handmade banjos is practise played by a true professional. He said he had more business than he could cope with and an ever longer waiting list. There aren't many banjo makers out there, apparently.

On to O'connor's the next evening where an even tighter-packed pub was waiting for the music to begin. This should have been the epitome of our week - this is where it all started and became 'known' - and yet the musicians here were dragging their feet; with long gaps between the songs where they sat and chatted between themselves or went on their phones. I have never been into a pub where the musicians were less keen to play. They were obviously there just for the money, and in the end we made our excuses to the people were were sat with and left for McDermot's and a group of lively young players who were simply having fun and who would happily have played all night, I think .

But before that, for me, the highlight of the evening. An old man stood up. He had the face of Old Ireland, with tight knobbly cheekbones in a red shiny face and smiling eyes, grey hair and a beard. And he entertained. He sang only two songs and then went away. Meanwhile, the accordion player hung his head and looked down, pretending not to hear. The fiddle player fiddled with her iphone and picked her nails. Only the guitarist kept a few chords going while the old man sang.He sang of 'Dublin in the Rare Old Times', and he did it beautifully. This was the kind of Ireland that I had come to hear. I thought, give an old man his two minutes of glory and make his day. How little would it cost you?

Mary, my B&B lady told me the old man had been going to O'Connor's for over thirty years. The musicians were obviously used to his interruptions and resented it. And yet, they had no great desire to play themselves. All he wanted was his few minutes to shine; and he went away a happy man. It was only when he picked up his crutches and turned that I realised he only had one leg. But he left with a huge smile over his wizened face and his eyes lit up the night.

Ireland never fails to inspire me, musically, and yet there is a massive commercial side to it all these days. Even in Doolin, the village has doubled in size in the last ten years. In Dublin, where music plays till three or four in the morning in almost every pub in the Temple Bar part of the city, all the musicians are selling  their Cd's and there are bouncers on the doors. As we'd been there listening to music since about four in the afternoon, trying to measure our drinks, and  had a nice meal, by about eleven in the evening I'd had enough and just wanted to listen and dance. The atmosphere was electric. A young lad with red hair and a beard was entertaining on his own on guitar. Music was more modern here with each musician having his own take on a handful of classics. A group of Irish girls out on the town were having a riotous time dancing and singing along. They impressed me, though, that they still knew all the verses to 'The hills of Athenry' (but I think that owed more to the football than anything else.)

At some point near midnight a man ran into the pub waving a huge silver soup terrine over my head. A load of men in synthetic blue shirts raised their arms and cheered. Clearly, this is some strange local custom as I'm not sure any soup I've ever made has elicited quite that response.

A little later, we were thrown out of the pub by a man with surgically-enhanced biceps who looked younger than my sons. It's a long, long, long time since I was thrown out of a pub. Still, something to impress my wayward older brood. It seems we weren't drinking enough by that time in the evening, though I'm not sure that dancing with beer glasses is to be recommended either.

Martha

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

A guest at my table - Ernest

I am sitting here at the kitchen table looking at a photograph of two old men, perhaps in their late seventies, early eighties. It is taken sometime in the early 1980's. It is a bright sunny day and they are both screwing up their eyes slightly and turning their heads to face the camera. The photographer is saying 'Cheese' and they are putting on a broad grin showing lots of off-white teeth. Their bodies are turned towards each other as if they have just been talking and someone holding a camera has said 'This way please.'

The two men in the photograph have snowy white hair and the kind of beaten leather suntans freckled with liver spots that says that they are men of leisure now and like to be outdoors. There is a similarity between them, something in the shape of the forehead, the hook of the nose. It says, we are related, we are brothers; though one of them is tall and gaunt and bending to the level of the smaller one. He is thicker set - solid really - and shorter, but not remotely fat in any way. I would recognise his smile anywhere for I know him very well. The other one has met me only once when I was a baby and I don't remember him at all.

The thing about this photograph that captures me the most is something about the eyes; a kind of desperation about the smile. It tells me that they are very close - they are very pleased to see each other and to be in each other's company - but also about a kind of regret and longing and a desperation to hold the moment in the palm of their hands and never let it go. They are old men now. They have been apart so much of their lives; who knows if this will be the last time that they will see each other.

The taller of the two, the one I know least well, is coming to dinner. He is a child of Edwardian times who has lived through two World Wars and many changes. He has lived much of his adult life abroad on a small Island, where he paints. We are related.

His choice to live quietly abroad is a kind of voluntary exile. He lives with another man. It is not a crime, now, in the early 1980's, but it is still subject to a quiet prejudice, reproach from older relatives and 'friends', and shame. I am amazed to realise that decriminalisation came as late as 1967. But what of the years passed by since then? How many other people - older people, in particular - chose this form of voluntary exile just so that they could live and be happy? And what of the pain that that separation inevitably brings to families everywhere - to closely-bonded brothers like these two, whose wistful smiles belie the pain they feel beneath.

I look up the meaning of exile. The dictionary tells me it is a form of punishment and solitude, 'to avoid persecution' or 'an act of shame or repentance'. There is something incredibly sad about all this. We live in a world, thank goodness, that has moved on from all this. Even in the early '80s, younger men had an easier time of it, somehow, I think. For me, it is noting what is lost by such prejudice. Time, precious time, with the people you love. And who can put a price on that?

The meal I am making for my guest is a sort of 'retro' dish  of Chicken in Cider which I first made in the early 1980's. It is a dish Ernest will recognise and appreciate, I think. We sometimes need to be reminded what has changed and what has stayed the same in order to appreciate where we are right now. It makes us more aware, I think, and reminds us not to be too complacent and oblivious to the injustices still around us.


Thursday, 10 July 2014

P is for a Pile of Princesses

Dear Nigel,

'I have made Dinner' (in the Perfect tense). It is 'Cider Thighs' (page 253) and is bubbling away nicely in the pan. But there is an aspect of 'Present consequences' - and in this case, the consequences involve the potatoes which are taking an inordinately long amount time to cook in the cider. Little by little, the cider is evaporating from the pan, my guest is due any minute now, and still I am prodding the potatoes with a knife, willing them to soften enough to eat. I don't know what variety of potato this is but it is bullet-proof.

There is an air of nostalgia for me in this dish. This, together with Boeuf Bourguignon, was one of the first dishes I learnt to cook when I left home. I remember being almost surprised that anything I made should be not only edible but actually really quite tasty. I felt like a cook for the first time.

My teenage son, Tom, arrives back after his A levels bearing an armful of cans of cider. So, ...what can I say?... I wonder how long it will take him to realise what a wonderful contribution he has made to the meal.

It takes him about ten seconds. Odd, really, when you consider that he has failed the whole week he has been here to notice the pile of washing up sitting on the side, and yet, within ten seconds of coming downstairs - still in his dressing gown at five in the afternoon - he spies the two cans of empty cider on their way for recycling. He thinks I should have used my last bottle of Black Fox. I tell him it is my last bottle and as such, in this case, I intend to consume the entire contents myself in a glass later on. He prefers not to see reason, but happily consumes the dinner anyway.

My guest arrives; still driving himself carefully at a low speed at an age when others might have thought to leave driving to others with quicker reflexes. I think he will like this meal; it is something that he might remember, and will certainly be easy on the teeth (not a concern I've had to think about as yet, but I suppose it's there waiting for all of us). He is still sprightly for his age yet a little fragile. His wrists are thin and papery and spotted with a sprinkling of brown liver spots over a golden tan. I guide him to the table so he can sit down.

We  had a Children's Birthday Party here this week. It was Sophie's and she was eight. I am still recovering. The penalty of producing two children only twelve months apart means that I get to repeat the performance in a week's time when Molly turns seven. I am already psyching myself up.

Sophie wanted a traditional party at home with ice cream and jelly and lots of games. As I look over the lawn - if you can call it such - and round the faces of the circle of little girls aged eight or nearly nine, all dressed up as Princesses, I wonder if this will be the last year that they will want to do this. I feel their precious childhoods ebbing away with every advert they watch aimed to undermine their childish imaginations with more adult desires.

But here, right now, the excitement is all about who can stand still the longest when the music stops, without falling over their lurex trains or losing their diamante tiaras. The Lavatera 'Barnsley' billows out over onto the lawn and the bushes are heavy with bunches of giant Black currants against the path. Over by the freshly-weeded vegetable patch a crop of large floppy poppies are nodding their heads, and I am willing the rain to stay away as the cottage is mouse-sized and would burst to accommodate a gaggle of giggling Princesses. Luckily, the gods are smiling today. Tom has been press-ganged into helping and appears to be being squashed under a pile of Princesses who see him as their new toy. Luckily, he takes it in his stride. He is eager to be off to University and to stretch his wings. The Summer seems too long for him.

There are Gooseberries ready for picking now, and more rhubarb and blackcurrants, although the raspberries haven't arrived as yet as they are Autumn-fruiting. Last year they came early because I planted them at the wrong time but I didn't see a single one anyway as Sophie was out there every day after school pilfering all the ripe ones before I got to them. It is a child's privilege - I remember doing much the same myself.

I am planning to make some compotes as I don't really eat much jam but often fancy something sweet and fruity with a dollop of thick whole milk yoghurt. Also, there are days when I don't get to the shops, when the fresh fruit and veg have run out and I am raiding the freezer and 'making do' with the distant contents of the corners of my cupboards. To have a jar of thick and juicy compote to call on would be very welcome indeed. I am conserving my diesel and making longer lists. Summer's glut will help spread the load as family descend to eat me out of house and home. There is a Pavlova or Eton mess almost every week at the moment as the most requested Summer pudding in our house - a swirl of compote, a scattering of berries and it's done.

Martha






Wednesday, 2 July 2014

A guest at my table - Dougie

Pubs have changed so much these past few years that it's almost impossible to remember back to a time when they were still clinging on to a past that was changing faster than they were. When every other pub is now a gastropub with families openly encouraged and smokers banned to a small wooden canopy on stilts near the car park, it is hard to remember a time when things were different. Yet different they were.

Dougie is coming over to watch a DVD with me and share a pile of homemade potato wedges with Gorgonzola sauce. He is happiest talking when there's something else going on, and that way there won't be any awkward silences on either side. Dougie is the friend I would most credit with introducing me to the seedier side of life of most of the local pubs in the small area in Oxfordshire in which we lived, when I was only....well, somewhere between the ages of 15 and 18....it's a grey area.

Still living with his old mum at the age of 40, Dougie was not the most obvious of friends, perhaps. He had dyslexia problems, amongst others, but still managed to hold down a gardening job at the local college and drive a car. He was a gentle soul who was happiest mixing and socialising with people a few years younger than himself. Technically, he was our Venture Scout leader, and in control. In reality, he was one of the gang - which is where he wanted to be.

Of course it helped enormously that he had a car and could drive. She was an immaculately-polished navy blue Morris minor (are they all that colour?) with a high forehead and surprised-looking eyes. And, loaded up with five or six of us, she flew down the back country lanes with 'The Who' blasting out of all the windows and her suspension rocking in time to the music as we bounced  and sang along at full volume over the bumps and dips in the road.

Dougie had an uncanny resemblance to Eric Clapton in those days with a flop of hair through which he peered and a light brown jawline beard but with perhaps a few slightly more crooked teeth. He smiled a lot, shyly, often instead of saying something. He wanted to be liked, and included. His job involved a great deal of mowing of grass. His home life was quiet. Often in overalls and found lying on the ground under his car doing something with oil - we didn't like to ask. The cars our parents drove didn't seem to need this level of attention.

I think the pubs of our youth hold nostalgically cosy memories for all of us. Whether it is the excitement of being allowed to be there at all, or the camaraderie of being with your friends and trying new and unfamiliar drinks, but the stale tobacco and the stench of male urinals and sticky bar counters fade with time. And in their place, fond memories of pulling the horsehair out of the over-ripe sofa at 'The Crooked Billet', where beer was sold from out of the cellar as there was no bar. And, sitting beneath giant mantraps and razor-sharp scythes slung to the ceilings of 'The King William'. I somehow imagine Health and Safety will have been and tidied up there by now, and the romance and thrill that at any moment a ton of cast iron with huge jaws might suddenly descend on you, will have been wiped away with a whisk of anti-bacterial eradication.

The Landlord at 'The King William' at that time was a man called Brian Penny who drove a Brewers' Dray to local steam rallies with two magnificent-looking Shire Horses. He had a full reddish beard and red cheeks and a stomach to rival Father Christmas. He looked for all the world like he'd just stepped off the set of a Thomas Hardy film and was serving pints to the likes of Alan Bates with a raucous laugh which echoed throughout the pub.

The world of Scouting offered people like Dougie a kind of refuge where they could thrive and be happy and connect with other people without being bullied or feeling ostracised. He was just an over-grown teenager, with the same sense of silliness and fun and it was several more years before he would manage to find a relationship that would stick.

As I pile the potato wedges onto a plate a familiar face puts his head round the door and saunters in with his hands in his pockets. He is wearing the same navy blue overalls which mask the oil stains and the hands that reach out to hug me are black. I pretend not to notice: the smile is genuine, as is mine.







Thursday, 19 June 2014

O is for Open heart surgery (therapy) and a few healthy chips

Dear Nigel,

Summer is big and blousey here; the flowers are all out - swathes of blue Geranium, pink Peonies and my favourite weed the deep pink Valerian. The roads are thick with tractors on their way to yet another field of hay and the whole countryside is busy at work. Young lads pulling balers have England flags jutting out of their John Deere's and the roofing next door has ground to a halt as it's all hands on deck to bring in the hay. Children are regularly pulled out of school (unofficially) to help, and the local schools turn a blind eye to it...though you didn't hear it here.

I am making a 'TV supper'. My guest is coming over to watch a DVD. Sometimes, for some people, the conversation flows easier when there is something to do or something to watch. My guest is one such person; and I am making 'Potato Wedges with Gorgonzola Sauce' ( pg 309) for the occasion. At first I baulk at the sheer amount of chilli flakes involved - in this case a whole tablespoonful - but I trust your judgement, and in hindsight have to agree.

These sort of suppers are vying against the heavily-seasoned tortilla chips, the mono sodium glutamate 'gimme-more' crisps, and over-sugared popcorn; and they have to hold their own. Also, I think there is something about eating mindlessly whilst watching the tele that calls for stronger flavours just to bring your mind back again and again to what you're actually doing. It would be an interesting experiment, I think, to link the heat of the chip/or crisp (in chilli terms) with the degree of action in a film. Perhaps a high action-packed, adrenalin-inducing film might be linked to a greater heat tolerance? What do you think?

My mum sends me a cutting out of the 'Northumberland Gazette'. It is an article about a house I used to live in that a TV company is making a programme about.

When my marriage ended in 1998 and I was left with five small children to bring up on my own, I did the only thing I felt I could at the time when paradise has just been bombed, and took my children somewhere to start a new life where there would be no painful memories holding us back. We moved from Cornwall to an old derelict railway station in the middle of nowhere in rural north Northumberland. The railway was like a time warp. There was a Victorian railway station complete with ticket office, an engine shed, a stationmaster's house (which we were to live in), and a tiny terrace of six cottages on the other side of the station.

The railway was part of Lord Ravensworth's estate in those days, set several miles deep in countryside away from the nearest towns, and remained virtually untouched by time. It was overgrown with weeds and long grasses with wild flowers all down the sides of the grassed-over trackbed and brambles around the coal shed. My parents, who lived not too far away, were absolutely horrified that I wanted to move my family to this desolate place in the middle of nowhere, and kept trying to show me more suitable properties in nice little villages nearby. But I was caught up in the romance of the whole place. In my mind I was Jenny Agutter waving her red knickers at the railway tunnel; and the extreme pain of that time made me feel as if I was living on someone else's film set. My fame went before me, it seemed, and all the locals seemed to know that a 'single mother with five children' was moving in. In one swift move I seemed to have gone from respectable Bank Manager's wife to social leper.

The day we looked round we had to tramp through two foot of snow to get to the house. There was no kitchen to speak of, no basin in the downstairs loo and the plaster bounced if you touched it. To my Dad it was a given conclusion but I was already thinking Farrow and Ball paint charts and planning a very special Birthday party on the station platform. The party was to be for my third son, William, who would be seven years old in the July. There would be a line of old school desks making up a long table and tiny chairs to sit at and lots of balloons strung up to the cast iron tracing.

It was this image that kept me going through some very tough times. And in the July we had the party. It was a beautiful sunny day. New school friends from the village primary school three miles away came and we played games and races on the old track bed. The tea was a fine success, punctuated by the constant sound of mini explosions as balloon after balloon popped against the jagged edges of the cast iron tracing. If you had been  driving over the little bridge towards the Vale of Whittingham, you might have chanced to look down and see a line of happy faces waving and holding hands in a circle.

In many respects it was a happy time of renewal and healing. Three children went one way on a bus, two the other way in a taxi. I played piano at the village school, finished my degree and got a teacher training place, and gardened and walked the dog clockwise around the circular track. Archie the old shepherd who lived at the end cottage, would walk his old sheepdog anticlockwise, and we'd nod in passing. He'd had fourteen children, the youngest of whom, Angela, still lived at home and caught the bus with my lot. Archie had come down off 'the mountain' to retire and one of his sons, who worked on one of the farms on the estate, lived in the middle cottage. At the other end of the row of cottages was John the Gamekeeper - a kindly soul. It was community enough for me.

The producer wants to make a documentary for Channel 4's 'Restoration Man'. At long last someone has bought the place and has grand plans for a home. I often thought it could have been moved lock, stock and barrel to a living museum somewhere, it was so untouched. I am sure it will make a fascinating project and a lovely home. And yet, for every weed that is lifted, a little of the romance of the place is removed. It is somehow impossible to have both it seems.

And Jenny Agutter's red knickers will no longer be waving in the wind.

Martha


Monday, 16 June 2014

A guest at my table - Angie

A long time ago when I was but a little bird turning into an awkward fledgling, I had a friend called Angie who lived only a bike ride away on the edge of the next village. Angie and I had one of those love/hate relationships that young girls do, best of friends one minute, enemies the next. Such is the pain of life at that age. We were as normal a pair of friends as it is possible to be when one of you is the daughter of a fairly famous ageing rock star, often away.

The school we went to was an ordinary state secondary school set in a (perhaps less ordinary) small village in the fairly heavily-wooded area that nestles not far from the banks of the Thames in Oxfordshire. It was an area of small villages and larger properties hidden between the trees where those who wanted to escape the world for a bit of privacy were able to do so. That some chose to give their own children a bit of normality in going to the local state school was a good thing; and indeed there were several offspring and relatives with celebrity connections. But school is a good leveller and any sharp Alec bragging about his dad is likely to get a bloody nose in the playground of a school which caters to all ends of the spectrum.

So Angie and I rode our bikes and camped and talked about boys, and the other half of her life barely came into things at all. Perhaps it simply gave her a far greater confidence to deal with life, and a presumption of entitlement that such confidence often brings. And perhaps it was this that made her do what she did, crushing my fragile first love, betraying my trust.

It is hard enough to deal with your own fragility at that age, to place the trust in another and talk of your hopes and dreams of unrequited love. Perhaps I told the tale too well. Perhaps I made the poor boy of my dreams into such a shining gallant knight that she was mesmerised and caught up in the fairy dust, seeing anew a boy whom she would have passed by daily without a glance. Anyway, their relationship was short-lived - our friendship never quite the same. And the boy of my dreams said, years later to me, 'I wish I'd known'. But it was the wrong time, the wrong place for me by then. Life is full of one-way doors with no way back.

So I'm putting out the biscuits with trepidation. We talk. Now and again. We've followed each other's lives through the ups and the downs in intermittent Christmas cards and the sudden urge to phone. My confidence has grown in life, plummeted and grown again; but then so too has hers. It seems a gilt-edged crib is no protection against the cruelties that life has to offer. And confidence is only skin deep in all of us, however thickly we appear to wear our skins.

She has only a couple of hours to offer me, she says on the phone. She is on her way to take some of her paintings to a new Art gallery. She doesn't know whether they really want them all, or just a few to contrast against another's work. This isn't the Angie I knew back then. Perhaps we have both mellowed in the bottle and the unlabelled plonk is holding its own against the famous name. I give her instructions for her sat Nav and tell her to read it back to me as there's no mobile phone reception here and I may be up the field with the dog. There are no numbers to the houses in this village either, and all the cottages share the same postcode. She could ask at the Post Office, but it's very likely to be closed. I'm starting to sound nervous, despite the biscuits looking like a far better cook than me has made them. She rings off in the exuberant flourish I remember of old when she is keen to finish a conversation and impatient to move on to something else. I bite my lip.

Our letters have been full of the daily doings, the routine, the advent of babies and christenings, school plays and divorces. Her life has had as many twists and turns as mine. And each made light of in the yearly ramblings....'and the weather has been awful here these last few weeks...and by the way, Andrew and I are getting divorced...', she says in one. I let it slide under the carpet like that letter from the postman coming through the letterbox, across the polished parquet floor and found six months later when the rugs are taken up for cleaning. We talk in the crocheted loops of silence. The phone is even worse. She rabbits on about her artwork taking up all her time and I can hear the silence behind that says 'my youngest child has gone off to college and now it's only me and the dog'.

'Come down', I say.
'I can't. I'm busy.I can only offer you a couple of hours next Tuesday.'
'Tuesday's fine. I'll make some biscuits.'
'I'm on a diet.'
'Then I'll eat them for you. But I have to warn you, they're to die for. And you'll have to watch me eat them...'
I hear her smile at this and the chill has gone once more.

So here she is in her navy blue convertible, sunglasses pushed up on her head and her red hair more bottle red than I remember. But she hasn't changed. Still that dimple. Still that warm hug. I used to think, - afterwards, ' I don't want any daughter of mine to have red hair'...and then Hannah was born and she was...beautiful. Angie's changed, a little. We're both a bit - larger, I think. A few wrinkles, perhaps, a bit less energetic, possibly. Do we both look so exhausted all the time? We used to live life on maximum speed and sleep seemed like an optional activity. She says she doesn't sleep well these days. I nod in agreement. We sit outside and she carelessly pulls the petals off a daisy as we catch up on the news, skirting around the real issues, hinting at things and then skimming off in another direction.

'Thank you,' she says, hugging me as she gets up to leave. We've talked. I think. We've shared food.
'My turn next,'she says. We smile. It could be another ten years, or more, or perhaps only a couple of weeks. I wave all the way as she backs down the drive and around the corner and then roars off up the lane. A loose chicken squawks and jumps out of the way. I catch a backward wave of pale white hand with vibrant polish, and she's gone.
'Bye Angie.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

N is for Nice things, Normality and Nigel

Dear Nigel,

I have a friend coming over for coffee. She hasn't time to stay for dinner, apparently, as life is busy, busy, busy....so coffee will have to do. I am marking the occasion with 'Oat and Lemon Cookies' (page 407). I hope she has time to eat, time to savour...time to live....Everyone is so busy these days, it seems, stuck on their own little hamster wheels going round and round ever faster, getting nowhere fast. It gets harder and harder to justify taking time out, it seems. My friend thinks so anyway. I think, what if you were not here tomorrow? What about all those things we left unsaid, those half-finished conversations, the half chewed-through chats we never got to finish because one or other of us was always 'too busy', on to the next thing, moving on...

I am taking time out, for a few days; paddling my feet in the cold north sea, watching the young man with the beard making his designer beers in the microbrewery of the pub on the beach - its door slid open to let the scent of the sea and the seagulls' calls filter through into the amber soup. It is a quiet day; the school children are back at school, mostly, the rain drizzles gently against our faces and the wind is from the land - warm and moist and succulent - like the baked herring I am tucking into for my lunch. My mum says 'Your Granny used to make those for the shop'. (My Grandpa had fish shops down the coast). '...She used to bake them in huge trays in the bottom of the old gas oven. They went like hot cakes when the holiday makers all came.' This would have been in the fifties, I guess. I tuck in and try to imagine the palate of another era, in an age before Focaccia. It is plain and wholesome and tastes just right with a plain slice of bread and butter. It does leave tasteful reminders of itself all afternoon long, however, but I guess that is power for the course and not a good-enough reason to abstain.

There is a ribbon of orange seaweed along the tide line, harvested from the bottom of the sea by a rough tide. It spirals with the ribbons of dark green bubble wrap, like a complicated double helix in a biology textbook, going right across the expanse of the bay. We cross the rock pools to the spit at the turn in the sand and look over towards the ruined castle shadowed against the mist. My camera isn't up to this, in this light; I will have to capture it in my mind's eye and develop it in the darkroom of my subconscious.

The children bring small treasures for me to see. Several jointed crabs' claws that stink out the Landrover in their plastic buckets. There is a whole line of pink buoys in the bay guiding the fisherman to his crab pots, and lunch on to the plates in the pub. I have seen crabs here caught in the morning and brought in and eaten hours later with a squeeze of lemon between two slices of brown bread. We find a square pebble with a calcified shape of a heart, left by a little sea creature. It will make a fine paperweight for a fussy Designer type like David. We stroke the pearlised inners of hinged mussel shells and move a line of slowly-moving tiny black sea snails a little further along their rock. It feels nice to be so absorbed.

There is a word in the Swedish language with no direct English equivalent - 'Lagom' - meaning 'just the right amount'. It also translates as ' in moderation', 'in balance' and 'there is virtue in moderation'. It is a concept I find myself creeping ever closer towards as the years go by. Heady past excesses seem merely that. The real things are to be found at the bottom of a rock pool, and in the conversation with my friend, whose unsaid comments are written loudly across her face even as she tries to hide them. This is real conversation; not the sort you can hide behind a smoke screen of telephone 'verbalism' or a brief non-committal email shot. She will be captive to my scrutiny and she knows it.

This moderation - in all things - (good food included), brings a sense of normality to my life, an evenness that fosters a quiet contentment. It is also the way you cook, I believe; focusing on the simple balance of ingredients, letting things sing for themselves with just a hint of everyday magic  to let them shine. It is an honest way to cook. I like that.

I beat the softened butter and muscovado sugar together in  the mixer. There is a gentle rhythm to it all - baking - I am fond of cake but even more so of a good biscuit. I eat my mum's Gingersnaps because they remind me of my Granny. A good biscuit is a comfort. These seem an indulgence to me - two for the price of one, actually; larger than they should be, and slathered in a mixture of two of my favourite ingredients (lemon curd and mascarpone). These are occasion biscuits. I hope my friend appreciates that. The only way I manage to keep biscuits in the house at all, and keep my weight under control, is (rather meanly I suppose), to buy the plainest biscuits that I can for my kids. They do seem to rather prefer that anyway for some obscure reason. When I was a child it was dead fly biscuits (or Garibaldi if you will).

The biscuits spread and toast lightly in the oven. I am careful not to over-brown them as I want them still soft. You say 'I prefer them the next day, when they become soft and chewy'. I think I will too, if they last that long. An unmarked tin is a dangerous thing in our house. When in doubt I have to leave a note sellotaped to the lid. It wouldn't be the first time I came down in the morning to a scattering of crumbs and nearly cried.

Martha

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

A guest at my table - Arthur Bentley

People often reveal more about themselves than they mean to in the way that they live their lives. Some people don't want to shout about themselves or draw unnecessary attention, but in their quietness and inner completeness they shine a light far brighter for its contrast. Arthur Bentley was one such person.

I don't remember quite what the necessity was that drew me into the shop, but it must have been quite pressing because the outside window was distinctly unfavourable. It was a small, depressing little town, limping on with the imminent threat of closure of the local tin mine. And our nearest town. When my then husband first took me there I nearly turned the car around and left the county there and then. Every area has its grim reality sited not far from its picturesque; but both are two sides of the same, and to know one you have to understand the other.

The town itself consisted mainly of little run down shops selling cheaply-made items at budget prices. It was tempting to go elsewhere. Indeed, to be fair, I often did. But proximity has a draw and often popping in for something is all you want to do. Mr Bentley's Hardware store was just a little run down shop on a back road with dark brown woodwork and peeling varnish on the outside. The windows were dirty with caked on grime and the display of assorted items looked like it had been there since the early '70s.

There was a whitish laminated pegboard with hooks at odd heights to which a strange and random assortment of items had been added, as if done without any thought whatsoever, though surely that had not been the case. There were thin plastic hooks for doors that bent under the slightest weight, blue nylon meshy pan scrubs like spaceships, and corn-on-the-cob skewers in vivid yellow plastic. All looking a little tarnished by age. Inside appeared, at first glance, to not be much better. The same cheap items lined the shelves. The floor was clean in some areas but not others. I can't remember whether there were actual wood shavings on the floor or not, but there was certainly a heavy gathering of something rounding the shape of the room and preventing entry in all directions.

Whatever brought me into the little shop that warm late summer afternoon when shafts of light bounced dust particles up and down  suspension ropes holding the walls to the inside, was obviously found and purchased. And so I returned, again and again. I soon found that the shop was in fact a tardis and the quickest route was to simply ask for what I wanted, however unlikely I thought it to be. Time after time Mr Bentley would disappear to a far off shelf under the cloak of dust, or open one of the row upon row of tiny draws behind the till and reappear with something in his hand. This front part was the only part of the shop to appear looked after. It gleamed with polish, mahogany handles and care; a stark contrast to the layer of dust elsewhere, making it appear like two-tone shoes. But Mr Bentley seemed not to notice.

As time went by I began to learn that there were things here I couldn't find elsewhere. Sometimes I was astounded that such things still existed. We lived in a mid 19th Century farmhouse/cottage and were keen to dress it likewise, with simplicity. That hooks were still being made and hinges in the same shapes was wonderful news. But with every transaction there was a necessary time factor to consider. If I was merely nipping in I needed to allow an extra five minutes, for every purchase was neatly and correctly packaged in old newspaper and tied with string. There was no quick exit; it was part of the deal.

Standing there in his Dad's old brown shop coat, I gradually learned more about the quietly smiling Arthur Bentley, hiding behind his full beard and glasses. He had been a History teacher upcountry for many years, but now in his early sixties had given it all up to come back to his childhood home after his mum and dad had died in quick succession. He had no wife, no family, responsibilities or great needs. He lived simply and quietly and it gave him pleasure to be here in this quiet space with the occasional ring of the bell on the back of the door giving a slow rhythm to his life. I saw in the old fashioned rows of tiny drawers, so highly polished, a way he found to give meaning to his existence, to keep a bit of the past - his past - alive in a way that gave him comfort. All this was long before such places became popular in 'nice' villages in the Cotswolds, before shabby chic, before even that long-lost town got an urgent makeover under  E U grants for rural poverty.

Arthur shared a little of my vision for a past that never quite existed. And, just as I loved to watch him tie each parcel lovingly in newspaper and string, in a manner to which I don't ever remember being seen done in my lifetime, he would help me search for unusual items. In an era before enamelware was everywhere in shabby chic shops, it was harder to find and the best was made almost exclusively in Poland from ancient thick world war 2 machinery, giving a thick coat of white with a dark blue edge. Arthur and I would pore over the thick paper catalogue of line drawings of large pitcher jugs and milk pails (for my goats). Sometimes these would have to be ordered and might take a few weeks to arrive from Poland but I don't remember ever being disappointed in my quest.

Standing here now with him idly stirring the Risotto and me polishing wine glasses for reasons unknown (but exclusively connected with my guest), we are both drinking in the calmness and the quiet. The sound of the stream, only feet away below my kitchen window, is the loudest thing around. We talk intermittently and lapse into a pleasant silence. There is no need or hurry. Like the Risotto, it is to savoured.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

M is for Missing people and Moroccan food

Dear Nigel,

The vegetable patch is starting to take shape and tiny seedlings are sprouting up in neat rows. I am late getting started, and I know that, but there is much to be dug over and stones removed before I can get down to business. It is blissfully absorbing to be working under the hot sun and creating order out of the weeds. I come home with a couple of pots of lovage and pineapple sage to add a slightly established tone to the almost bare soil. I am told to sprinkle coffee grounds round my seedlings to deter slugs, so I may give that a go.

My second son, Chris, is flying over from Frankfurt for a conference this week, so David and I are going up to London to see him. It is often the case when one of your children live so far away that it is easier to meet in a third place than have them drive two days out to the sticks and back. We are taking him out for lunch at 'Moro'. I have had Sam and Sam Clark's cook books for over ten years now. I love their Moroccan-influenced food, and some of my favourite vegetarian recipes come out of 'Moro - the cookbook'. Now, eventually we get the chance to eat what we have cooked (as it were). I am taking Chris his Birthday presents and cards as he will be in Brazil watching the football for his Birthday (- his girlfriend is from there). The little ones have made him cards with pictures of footballers with outsize feet on the front and their quaint childish spellings on the inside. He will treasure these most of all, I know, - far more than the little designer something I bought him in the Paul Smith shop in Nottingham. And that's the way it should be.

Inside, once more, out of the blistering heat, I am staying in the cool of the thick stone walls of the cottage and slowly and meditatively stirring risotto. It feels the right thing to do. I'm all salad-ed out and my face drops as I eye yet more mixed salad leaves in the fridge. I want something a bit more substantial today and I somehow think my guest will be less than impressed with another dressed salad. He has quite conventional tastes and has driven a long way to see me. He is eyeing the stove keenly to see what I might be making. It is 'Risotto' (page 225) made with a simple homemade chicken stock and some pancetta. There is a reassuring plainness to it which makes a contrast to some of the dishes of late. Perhaps I was thinking of my guest when I chose this dish - it somehow encapsulates his whole personality.

The village is living up to its name at the moment and is entirely surrounded by meadows of buttercups. Slowly, slowly, we are watching the changing palate of colour. The red clover is just coming out, the dandelions have had their day to be replaced by the buttercups, and by the roadside great swathes of cow parsley echo the hawthorn blossom above. This is my favourite time of year of all. The children come back from fishing barefoot in the stream bringing with them red campion and forget-me-nots and stuff them into child sized milk bottles on the windowsills. Bedtimes are getting later with the sun and the birds are singing longer into the fading sunset as I'm out with my watering can in the welcoming coolness of the evening.

Social events, it seems to me, can be as easy or as complicated as you want to make them. This last weekend there was a Beer Festival here at the Youth Hostel in Hartington. The Hostel itself is a bit special anyway, being an old Elizabethan Manor House set in very pretty grounds. But the weather was also glorious, the music ambient and the alcohol flowing freely. All we did was add friends and family and a large picnic with a fabulous raspberry and cream cake (if I say so myself); and it was 'perfick' as David Jason used to say. Sometimes the best times are the simplest of all. The children ran around in floaty dresses with long hair flying and butterfly face paints on their faces; and the older boys conked out on the blankets with their bottles of beer and soaked up the sun behind their hangovers and sunshades. It was good to catch up with absent friends and feel the grass between my toes.

This risotto is having a wonderful calming effect on me. The constant stirring is like therapy. A little taste and I decide, on second thoughts, to take some cooked chicken out of the fridge as you suggest, to make the dish a little more substantial. I put my guest to work stirring the risotto as I lay the table. People, I find, like to be able to help with the preparation of a meal, and when there are things to discuss it is often better to have something to do with your hands to help the conversation flow better. Eating, of course, has much the same effect.

Martha

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

A guest at my table - Rob

It would have been impossible to be anything but completely charmed by Rob when I first met him. He looked like the original template for Indiana Jones with his sun-bleached sandy hair and toning suntan and a captivating white teeth smile. Dressed like Indiana, but without the hat, he came to school dressed as a Geography teacher with a wardrope of khaki and open-toe sandals for his 'other life'. The similarities between Rob and the character which George Lucas created had never really struck me before, but now, as I wait for Rob to arrive for dinner, it seems almost impossible that I missed it.

Rob and I first met when I went to work at a very unusual school in the heart of the Peak District where he was already teaching. The school was based in a wonderful old late Victorian Manor House set in several acres of its own grounds. The building had been bequested to the Education Services to be used solely for educational purposes and not to be sold. Unfortunately due to educational cutbacks it no longer exists, but in 2003/04 it was a wonderful facility with a very enlightened ethos behind it. We took disruptive and emotionally disturbed pupils from schools in inner Manchester who were on the borderline for being excluded from mainstream education, and tried to get them onto a better track.

Every morning the taxis from all over would arrive and the children would all pile out. They spent part of the week in their usual inner city schools and the other part with us. These hardened city kids would come armed with their expensive designer trainers, their attitude and anger, and try and make sense of a life that bore little relation to their own. All had a story to tell, if they let you in, and, between posturing and pent-up frustration they sometimes found a space to be someone different.

Rob's classes took Geography in a fairly loose sense. Much of our time seemed to focus on making Airfix model aircraft. It was good to see how absorbed in minute detail most of the kids could be at rare times and the class was often completely silent and intense except when they needed a little help with glue or paints.

There were lessons for the children in the mornings, all of whom were aged between about nine and fourteen, a really fantastic school lunch ( not like anything I've ever tasted in school before) with a wonderful cook serving the twenty or so kids and almost as many teachers, social workers and helpers. And then, best of all, in the afternoon we got to take them out for walks, visits and climbing in the Peak District.

At first they didn't know what to make of all this empty space and hills. They were bored with 'nothing to do' but walk, angry that they were forced to be here, uncooperative and often disruptive. But gradually they got used to this kind of empty freedom. They still moaned about going up the hills, complained when their perfect white trainers got sheep muck on them, and taunted each other; but they looked happier. Sometimes they would stop and look at things or notice a view. If it was pointed out to them they weren't interested. If they were made to play an organised game they resisted; but take them to the top of a hill and do nothing and these street-wise young lads (mainly) would lie down in their designer tracksuits and roll down the hill through puddles and sheep dung getting grass stains and mud on their backs, and start to laugh and smile. The anger would turn into celebration and they would be quieter and more subdued on the way back. A little more relaxed.

Most of these walks were led by Rob, now in his element in full Indiana mode. He would take them climbing on nearby rocks and he knew the terrain like the back of his hand. This made perfect sense when you knew that the other half of his life was spent over in Turkey leading guided walks in the hills and writing travel books. Here was a man who loved the life he lead, who eked the most out of every moment and experience. He brought you back to focus on the present, constantly, and it was absorbing and addictive. Somehow time seemed longer in his presence, as if you had managed to fit two days into one.

He had a calmness about him which never seemed to waver. I never saw him angry or frustrated when one of the children took a backward step or sought to ruin the activity. He always seemed completely in control of the situation, whatever the challenge he was ready. It's almost unnerving to be faced with someone who doesn't react the way most of us do. But it calmed the boys and they trusted him more than they did almost anyone else at the school. They knew exactly where they stood with him and that he wouldn't let them down, whatever, and it had a good effect on them overall.

The Tuna and Cucumber salad I have made seems just right for Rob. He is used to simple honest food. These days he is mainly in Turkey and here is the place he visits. Back then it was the other way round, but you could just see where his heart was leading him. When he talked about Turkey his whole face would light up and become animated, as if someone had just switched on the light inside.

He strides down the path and pats the dog before he hugs me. Then he sits back in a chair and rocks on its back legs. He makes each place his own home. If he were Indiana Jones you could say that 'wherever he laid his hat, that's his home' (to misquote some old Marvin Gaye song).


Thursday, 8 May 2014

L is for Life and Living in the Now

Dear Nigel,

Coming downstairs the other day, I found the electricity cable joining my house to John's barn seemed to be down and appeared to have moved.... across the garden, down the drive and round to Craig's next door where a porch is being built. I have looked at this innocent little wire several times and half wondered about it. Now I could hear the sound of stone being cut close by and it was official: I do appear to be supplying the barn opposite with free electricity. As I went up the lane to fetch the bins, John and Terry both looked a bit sheepish. 'I need to see you about that...'one of them mumbled.

I have found that the best form of currency around here is an unofficial form of the LETS bartering system. Half an hour later I was back with the old whirly washing line which I had tossed in the shed when I first moved here. It didn't quite suit the picture in my mind's eye, stuck in the middle of my postage stamp piece of grass at the front of the house. Now that I have acquired another piece of garden and have a vegetable patch underway, I wondered if John could possibly dig up the concrete base and replant it in the new garden (where it would be less obtrusive)? No problem, he'd be round first thing the next morning. You just have to learn to use this system best to your advantage, I find, or the interest accruing has the habit of disappearing.

And, true to his word, the line was up and running the next morning and the dandelions stamped back into the old lawn to increase and multiply in their usual manner.

The best thing about growing vegetables from seed is that it gives you the opportunity to try something completely different that you wouldn't find growing in a pot elsewhere or on the supermarket shelves. I am trialing a new kind of mangetout that I haven't seen around before. It claims to have won 'Vegetable of the Year 2012' - a kind of beauty pageant of the vegetable kingdom. It is a purple mangetout...'British breeding of the first purple Mangetout', it says. It looks stunning on the packet; whether it tastes as good on the plate is another matter.

There is also a blood-veined sorrel, which looks more of a salad leaf than the sort I usually make fish sauces with; and a rhubarb chard following someone else's advertising campaign and promising to be ' probably the best tasting Red Chard' (...in the world). I also come across a Borlotti bean that looks as if it's been splattered in red paint. Where in any supermarket would I find a bean like that? This is where gardeners keep their gold. I just hope the slugs don't get them first.

The recipe I am making tonight for my guest is a Tuna and Cucumber Salad (pg.361). It is just the kind of simple summer platter that my guest will like. He lives mainly in a hot climate, living and working, and popping back here regularly to be home with his partner and children. He is a nomad at heart.

I rarely consider the merits of a tin of tuna when I'm chucking it in the supermarket trolley, but as you specify 'best quality drained canned tuna in olive oil' I search this out. These days they all seem to be in sunflower oil or brine, mainly. I find one, and, on opening I think perhaps there is a real difference, in looks for starters. Maybe if it is to be the main ingredient in a recipe then it is worth getting the best. As a dish it's certainly cheap and nutritious, so perhaps worthy of a little more thought. I am keen to make cheaper dishes at the moment (being on something of an economy drive) but without being prepared to compromise on quality or taste. It's a fine balance sometimes. Jersey new potatoes are in season, and delicious, and will make a tasty addition to this dish.

I am mixing up herbs into my planters this summer - a bit of green amongst the flowers - so that I can 'snip and nip' back to the kitchen when I am in the middle of cooking without having to make a longer journey into the garden. I have an old French Zinc bath which I have filled with beautiful French Lavender and the flat-leaved French Parsley (like Italian), as there's something about the curly English stuff that I just don't really like. Something about the feel of it in my hands or the choke of it on my tongue. Perhaps we're all allowed to have these little quirks and preferences. It's all about free choice after all.

As I prepare the meal for tonight there is a major ballet rehearsal going on in the background. Sophie and Molly are leaping around the living room in frothy tutus that used to be Hannah's to the "rocking sound" of Sibelius's 'The swan of Tuonela'. Suddenly the cook has to abandon her work and go in to break up a fight - it seems that Madam Molly has been making Sophie sit out whilst she demonstrates how to do it properly and there is now a bust-up at Saddlers Wells. After a bit of negotiating I am able to continue with dinner.

I am always a bit suspicious of recipes that want a bit of fancy preparation, and I frown slightly as the instructions are to peel and deseed a cucumber - if I can get away with it I will. However, in this case I am keeping to the letter of the recipe, and, as I discover when we sit down to eat, this is exactly the right thing to do with the cucumber. The texture is right, it isn't watery, and best of all you choose to USE the pulp and seeds of the cucumber in the dressing - I really hate the amount of waste and half-used ingredients in many other recipes.What are you supposed to do with them all, I wonder? Full marks on that  one, Nigel.

This is a great recipe for summer, and, best of all it manages to be a tuna salad dish that doesn't remind you with every mouthful that 'you are now eating tuna'. Welcome to an English Summer.

Martha