Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Gooseberries for a Fool

Dear Nigel,

Summer has taken a sideways slant and the dull cool days send me back in to the kitchen to cook. I have been making soup in a vegetarian cafe in a quirky little bookshop in Cromford. It is a lovely place to work and has a great feel about it. Everyone who works in the kitchen seems to be a writer. The other staff all pop in for their lunch and to discuss the book group, or the Bob Dylan Society, or the Philosophy group. It's an interesting place to be.

Back home I'm working on more vegetarian recipes. We eat less meat these days - flexitarian, I'm told, by my new friends from Friends of the Earth. Partly, it is an initiative to do my bit to help the planet: Friends of the Earth tell me that livestock production causes almost 15% of all climate changing gases. Every meal in which you substitute vegetables for meat counts. It's not an either/or approach - just as every plastic bottle recycled instead of binned makes a difference. The world is made of small things and small deeds, but collectively we are strong and we are many. And partly, too, it is because vegetarian food is healthier and I generally feel better for it. But I am interested in taste, primarily, and new flavours, and am not interested in meat substitutes - I would rather eat meat.

Today I am making a salad of 'Bean, Fennel and Feta'. There are toasted pine nuts to add crunch and more protein and a zingy fresh dressing made of lemon juice, Dijon mustard and olive oil. I am doing what we do in the cafe and keeping the salads in plastic boxes in the fridge - so much nicer to be able to have three different types on one plate, along with salad leaves, tomatoes and pepper slices. The salad keeps well for a few days.

Bean, Fennel and Feta Salad.

200g french beans
1 head of fennel
1 bunch of flat-leaved parsley
100g feta cheese
100g toasted pine nuts

11/2tsp Dijon mustard
50ml lemon juice
100ml olive oil
salt and pepper

1. Boil a large pan of water. Add the beans (topped and tailed first) and blanch for 4 mins.
2. Set aside to cool.
3.Finely shred the fennel using a mandolin, or sharp knife.
4.Whisk the dressing ingredients together.
5. Put the beans, fennel, chopped parsley, crumbled feta cheese and toasted pine nuts in a bowl.
6. Toss with the dressing and season well.

The Gooseberries are swollen and plentiful on their prickly stems outside. I pick and pick (studding my thumbs with pricks of blood) and still there is more to come. They freeze well, top and tailed, and will be there at a later date to make coulis for a Fool and one of the best ice creams I have ever made - Gooseberry ice cream, perhaps with a little elderflower cordial to beat off the tartness. It is nice to be able to take Summer into the Autumn and serve with friends.

Food is how we show the people we love that we love them. Every mug of rich soup to take to work, every vegetable curry waiting on the stove is a labour of love, when a pizza from the freezer would be so easy, it seems. But if we can invest just a little of ourselves in showing we care, then somehow, somewhere, the world is a better place for our being there.

The other week, it seems, we were away in Scarborough, looking out over the huge sweep of the bay. Gingerly, we climb out of our roof-top window and perch on our balcony-which-is-not-a-balcony, to feel the wind on our faces and hear the steady rhythmic lap, lap, lap of the waves below. Red Valerian, my favourite flower (which clings on to life in all the most unlikely places) is flowering on either side of the railings. And a hummingbird hawk-moth - the like of which I have never seen before - hovers nearby, slipping its long proboscis in to feed and gorge on nectar from the tiny deep pink flower heads . It hovers only inches away from our faces, paying us no attention at all as it busies itself in its work, its wings, like an electric toothbrush, a haze of blur surrounding it.

Little speed boats come in, go out, round and back again. The funfair stands lit up over by the lighthouse, and strings of pearly lights loop along the coast road. Children write their names in the sand below, and a comic seagull walks past imitating that nodding walk of Basil Fawlty, daring us to laugh at him. Not funny, he says. Not funny. The sun has been hot and has burnt the top of my shoulders. The fish and chips we bought in the bay lies heavily in our stomachs as we dust the sand from our feet and smell the raw night air, fresh with the tang of salt, which will lull us to sleep with the steady lap, lap, lap upon the shore.

It all seems such a long time ago now. The wind has changed, sending flower petals, stringless balloons and dust towards an uncertain future. Politics jangles. Towers burn and tempers flare and nothing feels solid anymore. I reach out to touch and my hand closes on nothing. I head to the kitchen to make Hummus, to eat with pitta breads, warm from the oven. There is comfort to be had in the solidity of warm food.


1x400g tin of chickpeas
2 garlic cloves (crushed)
2 lemons (juiced)
2tblsp tahini
salt and pepper
olive oil to dress
pinch of hot paprika

1. Place the chickpeas and the liquid from the can, garlic, lemon juice, tahini, salt and black pepper in a blender or food processor. Blitz until smooth.
2. Pour into a  bowl and drizzle with olive oil and then sprinkle over some hot paprika.
(Keeps well in the fridge for a few days with clingfilm over it).

Molly moo's Birthday falls on the weekend of a small music festival near here at Stainsby in Derbyshire. Older than Glastonbury festival, itself, Stainsby is run on a shoe-string by volunteers and is TRULY not-for-profit. It has a lovely, caring, family feel to it, which we so loved last year. And so I thought that this year it would make a lovely Birthday for my baby girl, just turning ten years old this Summer. We will have bunting around the door of the tent and a cake with candles kept in a coolbox until the time. She will no doubt have flowers in her hair and face paints on her cheeks and be running around in the willow circle with her hair streaming out, chasing the other children in their games. This is Summer. And before the Summer's out it will return once more, bringing smiles to the children's faces. Snowy Bear will come and Rudolph, tucked inside sleeping bags to ward off the night. And the music will play until the last star has left the sky, chased away by the morning crow, and it is time to bed down and drift away on a cloud of possibilities and new beginnings.

Love Martha x

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Slipping into Summer

Dear Nigel,


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer has returned, it seems.

Love Martha x

Aubergine, tomato and red pepper tart.

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

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

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

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