Friday, 13 November 2015

Hot Sour

Dear Nigel,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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