25 June 2015

Just a sandwich

It comes back to me as I'm spilling rocket onto a wholemeal wrap, slicing cucumber and spring onions: my sister, Shân, asking me if I'd like a salad sandwich.

It was hot that week during the summer of 1984. I was still living in Jersey and had come home to Wales for a visit. My nephew, Gareth, is a baby. My niece, Sarah, is seven. My brother-in-law, Stephen, has driven the four of us here, 65 miles from Port Talbot, in their racing green mini: the M4, the A48 to Carmarthen, then west along the A477 past the farms of great-grandmothers we are yet to learn about, towards Pembrokeshire and Freshwater East, to the first floor flat with a tiny balcony overlooking the bay.
Freshwater East bay in 2011
After dropping us off he has headed home again to pack the rest of the week's necessities into the little car. 

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about packing the car for a road trip

This is the only photo I can find: me and the kids outside the flat's front door just before sunset one evening. But there are more, I know, showing me and Shân failing miserably at the hula-hoop and staring in astonishment at Sarah whose little hips shiggle the hoop around rhythmically and effortlessly. 

But I do not need a photo to remind me of the sandwich: the evening sunlight and shadows reaching the kitchen table where my sister is buttering a small and soft sliced loaf, layering lettuce, cucumber, tomato, and onion on one slice, adding salt, adding the second slice, placing her hand on top and cutting it all in half. She hands me the plate. The bread is soft, the salad crisp. We may have had wine: a naturally sparkling Portuguese Vinho Verde I used to bring home with me.

I do not think I am a great help with the kids on the practical level of bathing and changing, apart from holding little Gareth and giving him a bottle, or playing with Sarah or reading her a bedtime story, but I know Shân is glad of my company. And I am happy to be here too, with my big sister who I shared a bedroom with for 17 years, who is now a mother and wife, roles I cannot imagine for myself. 

I am 26, have no idea that in less than eight months I will meet the man who I will spend the next 30 years with. She is 29, too busy with two small children to imagine the roads ahead of her. But despite our ignorance the future is pulsing at the horizon, the world already turning roads in our directions. The sun is so bright tonight. A child calls out in her sleep. 

bread, lettuce, salt

12 June 2015

Appetite: Mara Bergman's New York poems

On the flyleaf of the Everyman anthology, Eat, Drink, and Be Merry, poems about food and drink, it says:

Eating and drinking and the rituals that go with them are at least as important as loving in most people’s lives, yet for every hundred anthologies of poems about love, hardly one is devoted to the pleasures of the table.

And yet without food and drink there would be no love. Literally, on the fundamental levels of survival and the biological impulse to procreate, but food is also bound to our emotional, psychological and intellectual experiences, to our memories, to the people in our lives. The sound-bite 'we are what we eat' transcends our physical compositions: we are what we have been fed, what we have shared with others, what we have offered as sustenance. 

I like reading about food in people's stories, novels and poems. Feel bereft, and irritated, when characters meet in restaurants and the writer overlooks the menu completely! Food gives us a sense of who a person is or might be, a sense of place and their relationship to it. 

I already have strong sense of who Mara Bergman is. I've known her for over 20 years as a friend, poet and a prolific picture book writer. Last year she won the Mslexia Poetry Pamphlet Competition with a collection of poems that have their origins in New York, the city where she grew up, studied and lived until she settled in England in 1983. 

The Tailor's Three Sons & Other New York Poems (Seren Books) is not a collection of poems about food but so many of them bubble with images of sustenance: there are cafés and diners, semolina bread and chicken soup, bakeries and delis, watermelon and clams, donuts and, something I now feel obsessively determined to find and try, baked mozzarella/ like fat balls of fudge.

In the poems where these ingredients appear food becomes the vehicle by which we are invited to explore a city, its history and the poet's personal life. It adds meaning, offers insight and creates appetite for a life that isn't ours, yet a life that still feels intimately familiar. After all, which one of us isn't propelled back to our childhood when we imagine our grandmother's home? And if it isn't the scent of chicken soup that takes us there, it might still be the scents of our own memories: bread, plum jam, or hot chips. 

The final poem in the collection, 'Trying to Kill Time at JFK', contains one of my favourite lines in the whole pamphlet. Here, read the poem's opening and arrive at it with a sigh of satisfaction as I did:

I am earlier than I've ever been before, for anything, 
breeze through check-in, am free
to wander the concourse of duty-free and places to eat -
Wok 'n' Roll, McDonald's, muffins at Ritazza, sandwiches
at Au Bon Pain, and gallons of coffee, coffee everywhere,
as if caffeine were the secret ingredient of flight. 

Good poetry makes us see the world we know in a new light. It illuminates the ordinary, the stuff of everyday we generally walk past and ignore. It's a gift. And each of the 21 poems in this collection shine a light on the familiar and the little or not yet known, from thinking we see a relative in the face of a stranger to the immigrant dreams of the three tailor's sons, in the title poem, who lived and worked in the tenements of New York City. 

These poems have fed me. And there's enough to feed you too. 

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about flying

7 June 2015

Grow

I am learning it all over again: the delight of picking and eating something you have grown. But perhaps it's not 'all over again', maybe it is for the first time. Dad has kept a vegetable garden since the late 1950s, ever since they moved into the house he and Mam still live in, so as a child I was used to a home-grown harvest of runner beans, broad beans, carrots, cabbage, potatoes, and onions with their tops bent over to help them dry a little while still in the earth before being plaited into strings and wintered in the dark of the redundant coal bunker. But 'delight'? No - I took it for granted. These were the years when most people grew something in their gardens; there was nothing unusual about it. It was part of life, part of feeding yourself.

The year after I moved in with Tony he ploughed up half an acre in a field at the front of his house and planted enough vegetables to feed a small village, if they'd all been famished on exactly the same day. The idea of staggered or succession planting came to him rather too late. The cauliflowers were a particular challenge: quantity wise and for the caterpillar nations they attracted. In the end I stopped searching for the tiniest of ones curled between the florets and trusted that hot water would dissolve them. That trust was sometimes misplaced. 

Cox's Orange Pippin
Now we have a greenhouse, built to house experiments with alternative fruit trees and crops we might end up planting in the orchard in place of the apple trees, mostly Cox's Orange Pippin. The Cox has lost a lot of its popularity as an eating apple but fortunately it makes great juice and we've managed to rent out the 20 acres for the last couple of years to a local fruit grower and juice producer and we're hoping that will continue for the limited number of good fruit producing years the trees have left.


Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about what the years ahead of you will contain.

So this year the greenhouse has been commandeered for more domestic crops: Tony has planted cucumbers, tomatoes, courgettes, aubergines, chillies and peppers. And the cucumbers have shot ahead, Mo Farah like, in the quest to be the first to be applauded. 

Piccolino cucumbers
Cucumber and cream cheese wraps. Cucumber and paté on wholemeal toast. Cucumber soup (which was so much better chilled and drunk the next day than eaten warm). So, I'm getting through them. And if summer does arrive, and stay for a few days, I'm going to make this Hungarian cucumber salad, a dish that reminds me of a Robert Carrier recipe I followed while I was living in Jersey in the early 1980s, a side-dish for skewered chicken satay, a memory that has remained dormant until now. 

Delia's Cucumber Soup
Knowing how complicated Carrier recipes tended to be there must have been more to it than what I remember: peeling the cucumbers, sprinkling them with sugar and salt and leaving them in the fridge for their flavour to deepen. I do remember thinking how exotic it seemed: up until then cucumber had only ever appeared in my life as part of a grated cheddar or tinned pink salmon sandwich. I don't remember who I was cooking for. But there is sunlight in the kitchen, spilling through the window above the fridge and the blue Formica table is laid for four. And there won't be quite enough for all of us to feel satisfied. I have never trusted recipe serving suggestions since.  

Soon there will be a fat purple aubergine. Courgettes, now that the flowers have gone limp and their bodies are filling like inflatable bolster cushions. Then tomatoes of all different sizes. A little later: red peppers. Some of the chillies will have to be dried or given away as presents.


All this green. At first Tony marked the supporting strings with chalk so we could be amazed at how much everything was growing within a day. Now we accept it. But with delight. Both of us are thinking of that first ripe tomato straight from the vine. We're hoping for two. 

20 May 2015

Oyster: flesh and bone

At the beginning of last year I left some oyster shells on a friend's fresh grave in Pennard churchyard on the Gower peninsula in South Wales: he loved the sea. I couldn't get to his funeral a few weeks earlier and I wanted to have a chat and say goodbye. So I collected shells from Aberafan Beach, where my parents live, shells washed in from Swansea Bay, a bay we shared during different parts of our lives, relics of an oyster fishing industry that can be dated back to Roman times but which had its heyday in the 19th century. At its peak in 1871 fishermen brought 18 million of them ashore, exporting them to London and Europe, and there's still a seemingly endless supply of sea-rubbed, encrusted half shells to be found on the bay's beaches. 


Oysters are on my mind as I've just come back from Jersey, a nostalgic trip to the island where I lived between 1978 and 1985, where I ate Jersey oysters poached in a champagne butter sauce at The Oyster Box in St Brelade's Bay.


Swansea Bay oysters had fallen into decline in the 1920s from over-fishing, pollution and disease but at the end of 2014 a project, led by marine biologist Dr Andy Woolmer, to repopulate the bay started to show positive results: a brood stock released into a 35-hectare area of sea the previous year were growing and starting to reproduce. 

My friend, Nigel Jenkins (1949 - 2014), would have appreciated this, a man who was deeply connected to his town's and country's heritage and history. He'd have surely written about it in a third Real Swansea if he'd lived. He may even have known Andy Woolmer who completed a PhD studying the seabed of Carmarthen Bay at Swansea university where Nigel led the creative writing programme until the months before his death from pancreatic cancer.

Words and laughter. The two things that come to mind when I think of Nigel. His passion, energy and precision in the former, the rumble of his deep bass voice and genuine enjoyment for life in the latter. 

Jonathan Swift is reported to have said, 'He was a bold man that first ate an oyster'. And you have to agree with him even if you're a big fan of grey, wobbly bi-valves. My first experience of eating them, at an oyster festival in Toronto in 1988, was shored up by several glasses of champagne. My friend told me to swallow them whole and the experience of wet flab slipping into my throat alienated me from them for years.

I met them again in a more positive light, when I was living in Antibes/Juan les Pins, at the exquisite Festival de la Mer, where they were served in the half shell coated in a warm sabayon sauce and flashed under the grill. Not too dissimilar from the Jersey oysters above, except the latter's sauce was more delicate and seasoned with fresh, chopped chives. 

I am grateful to Nigel Jenkins for the years of his friendship. In my last letter to him in December 2013 I told him, I want you to stay around for a long time. For Margot and your daughters and close friends. And selfishly for me too. When you like people, and they feel that warmth, it makes a difference to their lives, Nigel. Maybe because they know – I know – that you do not tolerate navel-gazers and clever dicks and pomposity! So we feel saved!  


Hungry writing prompt
Write about being saved or saving someone.

But I am grateful to him for his support and encouragement too: his invitations to edit and teach with him, how his belief in me as a a writer convinced me I could write a good Real Port Talbot

The word 'oyster' has its origins in the Greek ostreon, related to osteon meaning 'bone'. We also tend to think about oysters in conjunction with pearls, and the enduring myth of how an irritating grain of sand transforms into a thing of beauty. The reality is even more wondrous:  

It is thought that natural pearls form under a set of accidental conditions when a microscopic intruder or parasite enters a bivalve mollusc and settles inside the shell. The mollusc, irritated by the intruder, forms a pearl sac of external mantle tissue cells and secretes the calcium carbonate and conchiolin to cover the irritant. This secretion process is repeated many times, thus producing a pearl. Natural pearls come in many shapes, with perfectly round ones being comparatively rare. Wikipedia

Oyster. Flesh and bone. The health of which we all rely on for each and every tenuous day of lives. 'Accidental conditions': how else to explain those cruel, indiscriminate cells?

What did I talk about as I settled the oyster shells on the corner of Nigel's grave? I apologised for the Aberafan shells in favour of the Swansea ones he once pointed out to me on the beach near the marina there. And I swore about the damn unfairness of his death. And I told him about my dead Carmarthen grandmothers, their footsteps I was tracking along lanes between church and farm, from village to village in the 18th and 19th centuries. About running like a startled whippet along one lane too narrow to accommodate a whippet plus a convoy of monster tractors and trailers! You gave me this, I told him, the idea I could write their stories, that I could conjure them back to flesh and bone. And then I said thank you and went home.

7 May 2015

Sweetie

In January I blogged about 'The Year of Eating Everything' and while I started out brimming with enthusiasm and good intentions not to throw any food away I have to be honest and say it's been more 'The Year of Eating Mostly Everything' so far. Damn those little salad bags that turn all seaweedy if you open one and forget about it for a few days. 

But this week's experiment might compensate for any previous failings. In fact, I didn't even consider this particular food item as something that should or could be eaten when I wrote that post. You probably wouldn't have either. 

Can you tell what it is yet?
No, not worms. Candied orange peel. Made from the peel of some large dessert oranges we've been buying from our local garage's inspirationally stocked Spar Parkfoot supermarket near West Malling, Kent. (It was voted Convenience Retailer of the Year in 2014 as well as Best Independent Store and Best Chilled Retailer.) 

However, now I've Googled 'candied orange peel' it appears that the world is already awash with knowledge and recipes... but I am taking a big chunk of satisfaction from the fact that the process I made up as I went along is pretty much identical to the BBC's Good Food recipe here. Except I didn't change the water as instructed in Stage 2 - let's hope there's nothing nutritionally toxic in that oversight!* 

I've yet to try dipping them in chocolate, as this and other on-line recipes suggest, but I might give that a go the next time we have people around for dinner and serve them with coffee. But for now I'm just enjoying their chewy, slightly bitter and crunchy sugariness: they are better than fruit gums, or wine gums, or any other shop bought fruity rubbery sweet. 

I'm now inspired to try lemon and lime peel. Grapefruit too. I'm wondering about the subtleties of flavour between clementine and mandarin peel, between common and garden lemons and Meyer lemons. 

You know how there are always new songs being written, new musical arrangements that move and astonish us even though there are only 88 keys and 7 octaves on a piano keyboard? How with only 26 letters in the alphabet writers keep on assembling them into words and creating stories we could not have imagined?  

I feel like that about my little culinary discoveries sometimes. Small leaps of imagination and curiosity that produce something new, or new to me at least.

Wonder. I guess that's what we all must have and pursue. It brings light to our lives.   

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about some wondrous things.

* Tipping away that first batch of water removes some of the bitterness from the peel. And the end result is definitely better. Why don't recipes tell you stuff like this?!