19 November 2014

Triggers: scents and textures of memory

The lingering crisp aroma of home-made chips (cooked in the Actifry pan with just a tablespoon of sunflower oil) combined with the scent of the log fire as I walk from the kitchen into the lounge triggers the memory of my grandparents' house in Dafen, Llanelli. Although the scent of memory lies: those chips would have been cooked in lard, the fire made of coal, the heat localised around the grate in the kitchen rather than filling the ground and first floor of the house as our log burning stove does. 

They moved into that house around the mid 1960s although my first memory of it is from 1966, the date fixed by a family holiday at Butlins in Pwllheli, North Wales and how we called in to see them on the journey home from north to south. I remember the outfit I am wearing standing on their narrow, brick and concrete garden path for a photo, an outfit that repeats itself in the Butlins' snaps. Different shades of green in a photo that is only preserved in shades of grey.

Food and drink, clothes. My memory triggers.

I remember what I was wearing on my first (blind) date with Tony in February 1985: a black and purple, above-the-knee, knitted tunic dress with a wide shawl collar. I remember he wore a dark grey flecked suit and a bow tie. 

I remember the 'tent' dresses my mother made for me and my sister Shan in the 'psychedelic' years of the late 1960s: pink and yellow swirls with front zips. We wore them with love beads, (of course we did!), those thin long strands of tiny beads strung together with silver-coloured wire. 

What are your triggers? Music? Books? Cities? The sound of a train? The smell of old leather handbags? What carries you back to the past? What awaits you there? 

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write a list of memory triggers.

12 November 2014

The magic of apples and other things

I'm sure no one will contradict me when I say that growing or foraging, then preparing and eating, your own food has a certain magical but, at the same time, earthly appreciation attached to it. Tasting the Bramble Jelly I made in August under this November's grey sky transports me to the side of the
in August
blackberry hedge again, the one that runs east along the railway line towards Moorland Wood, to the scent of the sun in long grass, the lazy buzz of summer's insects, the grazes and scratches along my arms ignored for the sake of the ripe fruit.

I'm on my last jar: I don't know how long I can make it last.

I made this year's apple jellies  - Mapple (apple and mango), Chapple (apple with chilli) and Whapple (you're probably noticing a pattern now (!) - apple with whisky) - from the leftovers, the occasional overlooked fruit and the windfalls, after the pickers rolled purposefully through the orchard in September then tractored their brimming crates to Chegworth Valley Farm, not far from Harrietsham, Kent, to be made into juice.

The Deme family who run Chegworth have taken our apples for several years. David Deme established the fruit farm in the early 1980s on a 15 acre parcel of land that had originally been a dairy farm attached to the Leeds Castle estate.
Today the farm stretches across 100 acres, all of it certified organic by the Soil Association: apples, pears, soft fruit, seasonal vegetables and salads. But these are cold facts and the reality of what happens on the farm is far more vibrant and life-affirming. Let me try again.

Have you ever tasted sorrel fresh from the ground? It's like a burst of lemon juice across your tongue.

And nasturtium leaves and their bright, carrot-coloured flowers? The surprising peppery bite of radish heat. 

In a poly-tunnel, still simmering with the smell of summer in November, the ripening strawberries grow like trees, fruit spilling from their waist-high raised and propped up beds.  Another tunnel opens like a yawn, the organic soil raked ready for planting with more salad crops: rocket, or rainbow
chard, or spinach. 

These are the whispering crops: their delicacy and freshness picked and bagged and sold within a day or two. Back at the farm entrance the apples are causing more of a hullabaloo: rumbling and chundering out of wooden bins, along conveyor belts, through baths and presses, their juice flowing one way into the stainless steel vats, their flesh rolled and spilled another to go back onto the land as fertiliser. 

Egremont Russet, Cox, Bramley: all shades of apple gold. Or Apple and Beetroot, or Elderflower, or Strawberry, or Blackberry. Pasteurised, bottled, capped, cooled, cleaned, labelled and boxed. 

Perhaps the day I visited coloured my response to the farm: one of our recent blue-skyed and sun-plumped November days when everything seems right. But even on a cold muddy January day you couldn't help but be impressed by what happens here: the land loved and respected. 

Want a little more magic? How about a gleaming raspberry whose hull lifted out like Cinderella's foot from a glass slipper. 

The small rewards. The great gifts.

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about what happens in the earth. 

5 November 2014

Extreme Baking, or The Revenge of the Jam Tart

There have been a few pastry related discussions in our house over the last week.

'It's frozen,' I said, picking up the box of puff pastry Tony'd just bought.
'Can't I put it in the microwave?' he asked
'No, it'll start cooking at the edges before the centre thaws.'
'I'll leave it to defrost then.'
'But aren't you cooking now? It'll take a good couple of hours to defrost.'
'I'll go and buy some fresh pastry.'
'I didn't know they sold fresh pastry.'

'What are you doing?' he asked.
'Trying to unstick your pastry sheet. If you're going to unroll it on the wooden counter, and leave it, then make sure the paper's underneath it.'

Me: 'What are those brown marks?'
Him: 'I used the wholemeal flour to roll it out thinner.'

I really am trying to be supportive but when I see someone wiping a wooden surface with a ball of puff pastry 'to pick up all the crumbs' then my resolve falters. Best to leave the room at this point and repeat, 'My way isn't the only way' a few dozen times until the desire to criticise passes.

Tony's enthusiasm is one of his best qualities and it's what I love so much about him too. He oozes it. Will have a go at anything and work out any snags along the journey. As you might have guessed I'm more of a 'read all instructions, get everything ready, imagine what might possibly go wrong, and only then begin' kind of person. I'm also very territorial when it comes to the kitchen. Note to self: learn to share more.

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about having to share something with someone.

But on an 'it'll be all right on the night' note, it did. They did. Mostly. The chicken tikka slices (made with leftover chicken and wrapped in puff pastry) were delicious: the pastry golden, the filling spicy and sweet with a dollop of mango chutney. 

And the jam tarts had their good points too: pastry thinly rolled and lightly crisp. Although I think our disagreement over the optimum depth of a jam tart has had an effect. The ones filled with chunky apple puree mixed with blackberry jam (left of pic below) were lovely. The ones filled just with plum and damson jam were Jam Attacks. Invasion of The Jam Monsters. Jam Tarts: The Apocalypse. There is no scary movie title that can exaggerate their overwhelming, almost suffocating jamminess. 

'Do you want to finish this,' I asked Tony, handing him the other half.
'Too much jam?' he asked with more than just a hint of a rhetorical question. 

I don't think he'll insist on using the muffin tin to make jam tarts again.

28 October 2014

Just right

pumpkin pie
Some days everything is right: the roast chickens moist, the green beans with the perfect amount of bite, the crunch and fluff of the potatoes, the teaspoon of freshly ground cumin on the shredded sweetheart cabbage while it steamed a good choice. The gravy makes you sing. Even the pumpkin pie you leave in the oven for 15 minutes too long survives without a scorch. 

Your friends arrived cloaked in the after-shock of six weeks of builders, work concerns, family niggles, the kind of weariness that flattens the light in people's eyes. 

Food, wine, spicy tea, chocolate, laughter and a feel-good movie in front of a log burning fire to make you smile.

Some days you do not have to try to be good to yourself or others. Some days it just happens of its own accord. An alignment of the stars? Your breath in tune with the rhythm of the season? The way you looked at the world when you got out of bed that morning and said, 'yes'? 

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about what your body loves.

I have kept the bottle of Chianti we drank. It is asking for candles, for flames and soft rivers of wax. Remember them, those bottles in their nests of woven straw from our bedsits and twenty-something flats that sat on our kitchen tables, their waxy rippled landscapes growing fatter by the week as we ourselves grew into the world? I'm starting another: a feel-good bottle of colour and light. We might have evolved from the events and journeys of our past but it's how we live and love in the present that really makes us who we are. 

22 October 2014

Good soup

I wrote about my Mam's vegetable soup back in January 2011, just a few months after I started the hungry writer blog while living in France. It's a post I'm particularly fond of and a few other people liked it too. Here's one of the comments it received:

My house (in Ames, Iowa,USA) is filled this frigid January night with the heady and hearty scents of your Mam's Vegetable Soup - this weekend's treat to me.

How lovely is that?! 

'The fragrance, the tenderness.' the blogpost ends, literally and metaphorically. And they are present too every time I make it and serve it.

I made it recently for a friend of Tony's who's had 8 sessions of chemotherapy this year and will not let cancer get the better of him. I am sure he has his dark days, disappointments and fears, yet he smiles and jokes with us and gollops up Mam's soup sprinkled with parsley and Parmesan, dunking chunks of crusty bread into the broth, then digs into the cheese plate (Cheddar, Cheshire and Gorgonzola) and lamb's lettuce salad, and tops his meal off with a cup of green tea to celebrate the news that his recent scan showed no progression.

'That is the best possible lunch you could have made for me,' he said. The fragrance, the tenderness. 

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about a single act of tenderness

We have to allow other people's positive thinking to be contagious, for them and for ourselves. A Facebook friend recently updated their status complaining about inspirational quotes, about how damn depressing and irritating the ooze of them across the internet can be. No. I won't let myself agree. Even if the sentiment feels too easy. Even if I scroll past a lot of them myself. I won't slam them or the people posting them. Every drop of good feeling matters. 

The above and following photos are from The Secrets of Pistoulet, a magical illustrated little book of contemporary fables all about making soup and making people feel better. There are decorative transparent pages, a pull-out letter, recipe cards in envelopes and a bubbling pot of uplifting, inspirational quotes. 

'Strong is the hand that lifts the soul.' 'Passionate choices have potent consequences.' 'Clarity of the mind brings a moment of grace.'

The recipe instructions are quirky, flirty and fun. The 'Potage of Vision' instructs: Go to the farmer's market and look for the farmer with the clearest and most penetrating eyes. 

I shall try that out at West Malling's Farmers' Market at the end of this month! 

On the last page the author and illustrator, Jana Kolpen, has written: Peace to all creatures great and small. On the home page of her website you read this: Art that makes you smile. 

I've said it once already. How lovely is that.