9 October 2016

Things have changed

Things have changed for the hungry writer. I'll let Dylan have his say first:

I'm not a worried woman with a worried mind, although I do drink champagne. It's just that my life has changed over the last two years: I started running and I've written much less than I ever have since I first began around 25 years ago. So I can either change the blog title to 'the hungry writer who doesn't write much and runs' or I could just blog about whatever engages me, when and if I feel like it. Or I could stop altogether. 

Because something else has been circling my mind over recent months too: reading. Is it happening on the web? Does the popularity of Twitter and Instagram, and the ease of making snappy status updates on Facebook, mean that most people on social media really don't want to read more than a sentence or two? Are blogposts going the way that critics said 'real' books would go? (Except they haven't: they're on the rebound.)

Maybe no decision has to be made. Maybe a blog should be a spontaneous response to the urge to share something, a story, an insight. That's how 'the hungry writer' started back in 2010. With a genuine urge to explore memory and daily life through the theme of food. 

Maybe I'll just see what urges, if any, arise over the coming months. And I think I might re-watch the movie that featured the song above, the brilliant Wonder Boys with Michael Douglas, which happens to be about a writer who isn't writing. Not that the movie was even on my mind when I started this post ... but it seems to be the right thing to mention now. And then stop. 

(Here's a trailer for anyone who hasn't seen it.) 

3 August 2016

Pie, pie glorious pie

So often when we talk about food we are talking about family. In fact that was how the hungry writer blog began, nearly six years ago: weekly memories or life stories linked by the theme of food. Food is nurture and love. It can be celebration and anxiety too. It can also be a battleground, as the parents of young children know so intimately! Which is rather a satisfying segue into the family featuring in this week's blogpost: The Radfords. Because if anyone understands the feeding of children, really, really understands, it has to be Sue Radford who, with her husband, Noel, has 19 children. You can read about the family on their website but don't rush off yet as what I really want to talk about is pie. And specifically Radford's pies.

Noel Radford has been a baker for 25 years and opened his own bakery in 1999 in Heysham, Lancashire and makes pies with locally sourced ingredients. That, along with his skill as a master baker, means that the pictures of the 'filled to the crust' pies on the website look exactly like, and I mean unequivocally identical to, the pie delivered to your door, lovingly wrapped, protected and chilled in a polystyrene box.

I didn't know about the bakery business when I came across a Facebook link to the birth of the Radford family's 19th child and then Googled them to find out a bit more, astonished by a family of that size and, I'll be honest, wondering whether they were financially supported by our Benefits system. But they're not. The only payment they receive is the standard Child Benefit.  

And I felt a bit guilty afterwards, like a Daily Mail reading curtain twitcher who assumes the worse in people... tabloid headlines and sensationalist 'benefits' TV programme titles taint us even when we don't read or watch them. So let's get back to goodness. And the goodness and deliciousness that is a Radford's Chicken & Mushroom Pie. And as there are only two of us at home we naturally ordered the Family Size (!) which weighs in at 1.25kg and, unlike so many pre-prepared meals that promise 2, 4 or 6 portions, would definitely feed a whole family. Not the 19 in the Radford Family... but it'll easily fill the bellies of 6. Naturally, again, we ate half between us. 



Words failed us shortly after this photo. 

I don't write promotional blogposts. I don't accept payment for recommendations. Writing about Radford's Pie Company is a genuine appreciation for people who love what they do and work hard to achieve their success, and support other local businesses at the same time. Passion, sincerity, honesty, generosity. Our world needs people like this. 

And I am damn glad I found them, not least because I can now make that terrible pun:

I have pied and gone to heaven.

'The best chicken and mushroom pie I have ever tasted,' Tony said. 
I didn't say anything for about 30 minutes. Then I lay down on the sofa to dream about my next order. Steak & Stilton? Leek, Chestnut Mushroom & Gruyere Cheese? Chicken & Gammon? 

I think we need to organise a Pie Party.

3 July 2016

From crop to cake: courgettes

It's not what I imagined when I first pushed the seeds into damp soil. Or even when I watered the first show of green, or transplanted the seedlings into bigger pots, then finally those startlingly robust plants into the earth beneath the espaliered pear trees. 

And not even when light transforms them from vegetable to chalice and you think they are capable of so much more than their natural selves. 

Synchronicity. Happenstance. Serendipity. Some of that perhaps: the BBC Good Food's recipe called for 350 grams of grated courgette and the first two ready for picking, washed and topped and tailed, weighed 351. 

And here is their transformation into sweet cake. 

And this was breakfast on a July Sunday morning but minus the cream cheese frosting the recipe recommends as, in my opinion, there's only so far a courgette should be pushed. 

But there's some home-made orange syrup in the cupboard and some fresh custard in the fridge and a sweet, springy cake will make such good dessert later... 

I didn't have enough brown sugar so topped up with golden caster sugar. And I used raisins instead of sultanas. But it all turned out well. Although my cake took around 65 minutes, rather than 50, to cook, in the middle of the oven, before a wooden skewer came out clean. And I did squeeze lots of water out of the courgette as advised, even using a tea-towel... which is stubbornly remaining a lovely shade of green!

24 May 2016

Hunger games and telling stories

Being home in Wales for a week means eating out at least two or three times with Mam and Dad. We have our favourite casual lunch place - La Memo in Port Talbot - who serve a home-made lasagna you might sell one of your children for, or at least swap them for a day or two of hard labour. It's a family run place and their reputation is built on their fuss-free and friendly service and the reliable quality of their food. And lovely little surprises like this, which arrived after the following conversation:

Me: could I have a Macchiato, please?
Turkish owner: what's that?
Me: an Espresso with a splash of milk foam on top.
Turkish owner: oh, Espresso Cappuccino style.

That's the one.

Two other regular lunch haunts, outside of Port Talbot, were less successful. One has been slipping into the arena of dismal failure since its make-over a year ago. When a kitchen's primary function is a grill (as the majority of the rest of the food is, let's be honest, pre-prepared) it's difficult to understand why it should take almost an hour for an order to arrive at the table. 'There've been some kitchen adjustments,' explained the manager, who sidled up to our table like a man anticipating an unscheduled hemorrhoidectomy. Well, perhaps they were adjusting in the wrong direction. Try fast forward. 

The second venue had staff problems. 'Three off sick,' one of the waiters said. Which is why, of course, when you ask for a spoon for the side vegetables you're given a teaspoon. 'One pea or two?' And I could have submitted my cheese plate to Time Team: I've never seen a wedge of Camembert that colour, that dry and that cracked. 

Fortunately my week at home ended on a culinary high with Sunday dinner at my niece's house: roast chicken and stuffing, roast potatoes, Yorkshire puddings, carrots and sprouting broccoli, followed by Normandy Apple Tart, courtesy of M&S. There are no photos. Plates were cleared with the speed of piranhas. And family get-togethers are always a great source of remembered and shared memories too... and we can't be the only family, can we, whose mealtime stories sometimes have an excremental element? 

A family trip to Euro-Disney was flagged up as potentially disastrous when, just as the plane was landing at Charles de Gaulle airport, my great nephew filled his nappy with the force of the whole elephant house at London Zoo.

The men wanted to push on and take advantage of a completely empty immigration area but my sister and niece were adamant. 'This boy is having his nappy changed now!' and they headed for the toilets air-side leaving their husbands looking wistfully at the immigration officers doing no more than a bit of pouce-twiddling. And then less wistfully as the 832 occupants of two jumbo jets from Beijing rushed past them like a human tsunami. An hour later... 

Stories that make us laugh or make us cry. The blueprints we make as we go through life. 

24 April 2016

Opening the box. And Teisen Lap.

We were looking for an old black and white photograph last time I was home in Wales: my parents sitting on an outcrop by the River Nedd where it enters Briton Ferry, beside the road bridge that opened in 1955.
'I'll have a look in Granny's box,' my mother said.

Granny's box, that now holds photos, a small Welsh bible and newspaper clippings, was the tin box my D'cu (Grandfather) took to work with him when he was a Doubler in the Tinplate Works in Llanelli, pre and post WWII. One of the men who bent, or doubled, sheets of hot rolled iron or steel bars in half with a large set of tongs before they were rolled again, maybe three or four times, and subsequently coated with tin. I remember that he always wore his belt buckle fastened towards the back, a legacy from those years to avoid catching the handles of the tongs in a front fastened one and a mishandled sheet slicing through flesh.

I don't know what he carried in his box to eat during his dinner break. I can guess at white bread and strong Welsh cheddar. Jam, maybe. Perhaps, at the beginning of a week, some cold meat left over from Sunday.

If you run your fingers over the front edge of the tin, catch it in the right light, you can make out his scratched name and part of his address: M [Martin] James, 2 Cae [Cottages].

We didn't find the photo we were looking for. But found this one instead.

This is how I remember him, leaning on the front gate, satisfied with his own company or chatting with anyone who passed. And how I wrote about him in a poem about grandparents and grandchildren and memory:

How Dadcu wore his belt buckled at the back, pulled 
so tight around his skinny waist the tops of his trousers 
fluted like piecrust; 

And in this one:

My grandfather leaning 
on the front gate, sunlight 
glinting off the silvered stubble 
on his head, cropped weekly 
without fail, speaking 
in a language I recognised 
but never fully understood. 

Maybe, if Granny had made Welshcakes, he might have had a couple of those in his box, but given how my father always chuckles about his mother-in-law's cooking they might not have been that welcome. Although I can't imagine my D'cu complaining about them. Complaining about anything really. He was a man with only a few simple needs. Low maintenance, we'd say today.

These Welsh memories always bring me back to food. Today it's Teisen Lap or Moist Cake. The first and last time I made it was in school, around 1970, and I remember being particularly unimpressed with the flat, rather dry disc of cake my culinary talents produced. Some things do get better with age! And I should thank Parc Le Breos Guest House on the Gower Peninsula for their online recipe which produces a sweet and moist circle of deliciousness.

From this:

to this:

and finally this:

Perhaps in another dimension of time, in some kind of parallel universe, I could wrap a piece in greaseproof paper and slip it into D'cu's tin. I'd make it a big one. 

25 March 2016

The Past and the Present of Peanut Butter. And a dose of donkiness.

Facebook reminded me of this haiku I posted 6 years ago today. 

peanut butter fudge/ we really don't mind/ if it rains today

I was living in France in 2010 and six months away from starting this blog with stories about family and friends all linked by the theme of food. But the signs were there! 

The recipe was Sophie Dahl's, and it must have been one featured on her TV programme that year, The Delicious Miss Dahl, as it doesn't appear in her book, Miss Dahl's Voluptuous Delights. A book you can now pick up from 1 penny (plus postage) on Amazon which surprised me as I really loved the TV series and the book is really pretty too, with uncomplicated and inviting recipes. But then I looked at a few of Jamie Oliver's titles and the penny price for used copies applies to them too. And he's as popular as hot salty chips by the seaside. 

And 6 years later I'm back with my spoon in another jar of peanut butter making these cookies as a post run snack for my running friends belonging to Meopham & Malling Ladies Joggers. You can check the recipe here, courtesy of Melissa at My Whole Food Life, and I bet you'll be as surprised as I was at the ingredients: peanut butter, maple syrup and salt. That's it. Really. No flour. No dairy. Which leads me to how I ended up calling one of my friends 'a donk'!

'So gluten free,' one of them said when I explained what was in them.
'Dairy free as well,' I said.
'But how can they be dairy free if they have butter in them?'
And it just slipped out. 'There's no butter in peanut butter, you donk!' 

I guess we've all had moments of donkiness. My greatest was in a creative writing class at the beginning of the 1990s when I first started writing. The tutor returned a story I'd submitted for feedback. 'I'm unsure about the use of the 3rd person,' he said. 'But there are only two people in it,' I said. English grammar classes at my comprehensive school had either overlooked the specifics of verbal conjugation (I write/1st person, you write/2nd person, he or she writes/3rd person) or, more likely, I'd somehow blanked out that particular lesson.

Come to think about it there's an even greater donky moment in my past: in my early twenties I had it in my head that birds mated by the male bird passing the 'seed' from his beak to the beak of the female bird (don't ask...) and I shared this information with my new boyfriend's mates. Donk. Dork. Dunderhead. I'll take them all. I have no idea why I believed that. Though it'll probably come as no surprise to hear that I failed Biology at school.

I did apologise to my friend for calling her a donk.
'Don't worry,' she said. 'It's kind of a nice way of saying 'stupid'.'
Friends are lovely, aren't they? And I offered her a second cookie. (Which are pretty gorgeous, by the way. I cooked mine for a couple of minutes longer than recommended, for extra crunch.)

10 March 2016

The Knack of Running and some Snick-Snacks

It's not rocket science. You put on a pair of daps, go outside and run. But then you start reading about gait, cadence, foot-strike, the best shoes for you and you wonder if you're doing it right. (Even though you've been running since you were 4 years old!) But there are a myriad articles about runners' injuries to shins, knees, hips. So you should probably talk to an expert, shouldn't you? And suddenly it becomes rocket science. A different kind of rocket science depending on which expert you talk to. 

I'm sounding a little sour because ever since I took an expert's advice and changed my running shoes a couple of weeks ago I've been tip-toeing around the house like the Sugar Plum Fairy because of a strained Achilles tendon. And over the last year not one expert has ever warned about changing shoes gradually, doing short runs in the new ones before chucking the old ones out. I just put them on, thought, 'ooh comfy', and set off for 10km. 

But ice, ibuprofen and short runs later it's all getting better. And I'm starting to believe there's a lot of pseudo-science around running shoes. A lot of it based on fashionable thought promoted by big sports brands who want your money rather than on proven scientific facts. I'm sure Roger Bannister didn't have his gait checked. And my 'comfy' reaction to shoes seems the best bet in the future, combined with a slow transition, as this article points out.

These are the reasons why I run. (The fitness is a bonus.)

Fields. Lanes. Trees. Big sky. Fresh air. Running is the best head and heart clearer I've ever found. The natural world doesn't do fashion. It doesn't need to.

And talking about fashion, and food: do you remember Leslie and Susannah Kenton's Raw Energy book that first appeared as far back as the 1980s, I think? I bought it but didn't get near to eating the ratio of raw to cooked food they recommended to de-stress, look younger, feel fitter etc etc. But the book remained in my memory for two reasons.

One, a story Susannah Kenton told about how she burnt the skin on her face after she tried to get rid of a big spot by applying fresh garlic and a plaster for a couple of days. I'm guessing she didn't have to leave the house in all that time?

And two, Snick-Snacks. Or at least I think that's what they called them as that's what I wrote in this old recipe book.

But I never ventured as far as 'spirulina (for hunger pangs)'. If you eat one of these you don't get hunger pangs - not with all those figs, dates, nuts and seeds. 

They sound very worthy, I know. All natural and raw ingredients. Full of slow-release energy (good for runners). But they don't taste worthy. They taste like a treat. Even if you're not a big fan of figs and dates. The coconut and vanilla essence have a transforming effect. Sweet and delicious. And not a single fashionable ingredient. Come to think of it, that's probably why I ignored the spirulina in the first place. Enjoy. 

The recipe makes about 16 to 18 little balls - they're miniature cake cases, not cupcake size, in case you're wondering. I usually double up the amounts, make about 32 to 36 and keep them in a sealed container. 

21 February 2016

Running through History: Addington, Kent

I am hoping that I never ever need to use one of these when I'm out running. This one's in an adopted BT phone box at the top of the hill leading to Addington Village Green, but as I'm tackling the climb up from the A20, past the entrance to West Malling Golf Club, there's something oddly reassuring about knowing it's there! And it seems that any village with a redundant phone box can take steps to change it into a mini-medical centre - read how here.

footsteps heartbeats the breath and measure of my days 

Addington, aside from being the name of the village, is also the neighbouring parish to Offham, where I live, although we used to lie within Addington Parish until boundary changes a couple of decades ago. The original rectory to Addington Church is across the lane from me. And the land the houses in our small hamlet are built on was once part of Addington Park, the estate and gardens belonging to the Jacobean manor house, Addington Place. The manor house changed hands at a series of auctions in the 1920s and 1930s, was requisitioned by the Ministry of Defence during World War II and subsequently demolished in 1950 after it had been gutted by fire. 

story time the scent of woodsmoke 

The road I follow from Addington village green is called Park Road. It was originally just a track but road engineers deepened it in 1828 to construct a carriage road. The fact that the track ran over the top of a Neolithic long barrow evidently didn't hold much interest at the time and the barrow, one of Kent's, if not Britain's, most ancient monuments, remains divided by today's road, with the mounds clearly visible on either side. 

Most of the stones belonging to this megalith - Addington Longbarrow - maybe as many as 50, have been flattened, removed or half-buried. But a 100 yards to the north-west there's another burial chamber: The Chestnuts. Thousands of flints, from the earlier Mesolithic period, have been recovered from this area: scrapers, cutters, chisels, awls, saws and axes. The tools of people living from the land. I held some of these in my hand around 20 years ago, when I was running my bookshop in nearby West Malling, and the landowner, a regular customer, showed me around the sarsen stones (sandstone hardened during the ice age by silica rich sand) that were re-erected during excavations in the early 1960s. And you can still visit them today, by appointment with the owner. 

Today, I ran through the middle of the longbarrow, past the gateway towards the standing stones, along Park Road towards St Vincent's Lane flanking the fairways and greens of West Malling Golf Course which spreads across the old mansion house grounds. Then stopped abruptly when I glimpsed the abandoned sandpit through the bare winter hedges. Suddenly history wove itself more tightly for me, random events threaded together and making sense, as I noticed walls of silent stone rising above the void on the other side of the field. 

The hum of traffic from the motorway, the occasional golfer's shout, a dog bark, or the changing gears of a local car negotiating the bends in the lane are the only sounds you hear now. But if I stood here long enough, imagined the people who occupied this land so many thousands of years ago, would I hear the patient strike of flint against stone, feel the determination in their work to revere their dead?

reading the past missing letters on my grandmother's grave

Source material
Richardson, Patricia, Addington, The Life Story of a Kentish Village, privately published by the author, 2012

13 February 2016

The Sprout of Gratitude, The Crumb of Romance and The Gloop of Disappointment

Cat hiding in a pot
I am not the best patient. I know that. When I'm ill I like to be left alone, for the most part. A bit like a cat: just let me curl up in a corner and heal quietly. I don't snarl or bite though. And I do appreciate, and respond civilly, to regular cups of tea or Lemsips. And the occasional snack. The kind of snack that appeals to a convalescent, someone with a light appetite, something visually tempting. Hot toast with melting butter. Some lightly scrambled eggs with a sprinkling of chives. Even a mug of Heinz tomato soup swirled with a little creme fraiche. 

There was an M&S chicken pie in the fridge. Hmmm ... not sure, maybe. But I'd probably eat some lightly cooked vegetables. An hour later, Tony called me. And I really don't want to sound ungrateful. But sprouts? Vigorously boiled sprouts? Sprouts, of any texture, just don't whisper: get better soon. I ate some. They were very soft. That was the only sprout of gratitude I could muster. 

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about the things you are grateful for.

And it's almost Valentine's Day. A day, allegedly, to show (or convince) your loved one how grateful you are to have them in your life. Sometimes your plans unroll like a plush, sandalwood scented carpet. And then they don't. You can read one of my Valentine experiences at this link, published by Women's Memoirs a few years ago. Lots of heat. But the wrong kind.

by Francesca Hornak in The Dish,
Sunday Times Food Magazine
February 2016
An article in last weekend's Sunday Times' food supplement explored the 'culinary minefields' surrounding Valentine's Day. The one that made me laugh out loud was:

'Home-cooking: ... Unfortunately the male cook will typically attempt something so ambitious that dinner won't be ready until 10pm. During this process there will be a half-argument about how he is handling the raw chicken. [The big wooden board marked with an 'M' is the one for meat!] By the time it's ready she will be tipsy and already full from eating Kettle Crisps.' 

I worry there's a secret camera in my home.

I am going to make a Valentine's cake for Tony, a cake that clearly says, 'I love you to the galaxy MACS0647-JD and back' to a person with a sweet tooth. It's Sweet Paul's Cuatro Leches ['four milks'] Cake. And, even though I'm nowhere near as fond as desserts as Tony, it really does appeal to me too (minus the frosting). Why? The word 'homey' in the description maybe? The pretty photo of a creamy, plump soft-crumbed slice accompanying the recipe? But perhaps it's just the word 'milk', the food that welcomed us into the world. A word we automatically associate with nurture. And here we have milk x 4. 

So here we go. Watch the rugby (Six Nations). I'll be back...

Cake batter
Ramblings of a Demented Baker

Back sooner than I thought. That is one strange recipe... but I'm going to trust Sweet Paul because no one who's first name is Sweet would let me down, would they? 

I think my eggs were too big ... after 25 minutes in the oven, when 15 to 20 were recommended, it is still liquidy in the middle when I stick a wooden skewer in. And the rise of it in the dish doesn't look like there'll be any room to pour over the milks.

I am starting to doubt the recipe: do you pour the milk mixture into the cake hot from the oven? Do you leave the cake to cool? Is there enough flour to get a crumb texture? I am tipping through doubt towards failure. 

30 minutes in the oven now. Have I used the wrong dish? Ceramic instead of glass? It smells like egg. The eggs were definitely too big.

Where's Mary Berry when you need her? Note to self: do not trust a recipe that has no reviews.

35 minutes. What is most annoying is the potential waste of ingredients, including 5 eggs. The dish of loveless gloop I am imagining. 

Yes, the dish, the sides too thick to allow the heat to penetrate to the centre of the cake. At the moment I'm looking at a crisp border and a soft centre - something you might want in a chocolate truffle but not in a cake.

After 45 minutes I'll have to take it out of the oven and hope for the best, or the best of the worst.

A soggy middle rather than a soggy bottom.
It's out. I didn't leave it cool on the grounds that I want this to be over soon! I pricked it all over with a skewer (not in the recipe) but it seemed like a good idea to allow the milks to be absorbed. So much milk too, almost a litre of tinned, fresh and cream. But it all eventually soaked in. It's resting. That's what I should do. And breathe. And wait.

Soaked in. 
But for how long?

What's that phrase again? Oh ye of little faith?

It's like a mixture of Madeira cake and rice pudding. Sweet, soft. And yes, homey. It is a touch too moist towards the centre, but nowhere near the disaster I was anticipating.

Will I make it again? Yes. With smaller eggs. And a thinner dish. And, I hope, less angst. 

And Tony says it's definitely a 'I love you to the galaxy MACS0647-JD and back' cake.

9 January 2016

With and without striped pyjamas: children who starve

Degrees of sadness and/or joy, yes of course, but I don't think I've ever finished a novel so beautifully written that left me with such a sense of chilling and inevitable hopelessness. When I read the following, towards the conclusion of John Boyne's The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, I had to stop and remind myself to breathe:

... if I had a pair of striped pyjamas too, then I could come over on a visit and no one would be any the wiser.

The book was first published in 2006 and the film was released in 2008 so I'm sure lots of people are familiar with the story of quirky, nine-year-old Bruno whose family moves from Berlin to a place he pronounces 'Out-with' when his father is appointed camp Commandant  by the 'Fury'. 

'There are no monstrosities on the page' a review in Ireland on Sunday said. That's right. There are bright store fronts, fruit and vegetable stalls, cafés that serve frothy drinks, a house with servants and plenty of food: chocolate, bread and cheese, soup, roast lamb, stuffed chicken. '... but the true horror is all the more potent for being implicit.' A high fence with enormous bales of barbed wire tangled in spirals, huts, a skinny and sad boy whose face is almost the colour of grey, his fingers like dying twigs, and people who go on marches and never come back.  

'Children’s books are never just for children,' was a Guardian headline last February. It could have been written just for this book. 

The novel closes with:

And that's the end of the story about Bruno and his family. Of course, all this happened a long time ago and nothing like that could ever happen again.

Not in this day and age.

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about something that happened once and you cannot imagine happening again.

And now in the News another war and graphic images of starving children coming out of the besieged Syrian town of Madaya. 

What can we do? Whatever it might be, whatever we are able to, we do it in spite of those feelings of hopelessness, even though it can seem like an insignificant healing drop in an enormous ocean of conflict, horror and grief. We do it. 

22 December 2015

Old Stones and Light

This week I ran, with Meopham & Malling Ladies Joggers, from Trosley Country Park to the Coldrum Stones and back to the Park's Bluebell Café for hot chocolate and a Bacon, Brie & Cranberry Sandwich. The bread was so fresh and pillowy it reminded me of clouds - the kind of surface you'd like to fall asleep on... if it wasn't filled with bacon and cheese. 

Coldrum is a 3,000 year old burial chamber, or Long Barrow, and its name is derived from the old Cornish word, 'Galdrum', which means 'place of enchantments'. And appropriately for an enchanted place there's a wishing or prayer tree here that visitors tie strips of cloth, or 'clooties', to. We can guess at the intentions - prayers for healing and forgiveness, personal and universal wishes, or simply to honour those buried on the site. 

At the beginning of December a colleague's mother died. A week ago a friend's father died. I tied my ribbon and thought of peace: the type you want a grieving heart to find, and the more complex peace we all wish the world could agree on. 

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about where you might find peace.

Soon it'll be the close of one year and the beginning of another. What else can we wish each other? Light, perhaps. So here's my recipe for Mango and Ginger Jam, which is less jam and more thick fruit spread as the recipe doesn't call for too much sugar. It's summer in a jar, on a spoon, or spread on toast. It's sings with heat and light. And I wish you all a good song, heat and light, in your hearts and your lives. 

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Mango and Ginger Jam

what you need:
  • the chopped fruit of 9 peeled mangoes
  • about 4" of fresh ginger root, peeled and finely grated
  • 1 lb of sugar
  • 1 cup of water

what you do:
  • Cook the mango and ginger in a large saucepan for about 30 minutes.
  • Add the sugar and water, allow the sugar to dissolve slowly, then bring to a steady boil and let it bubble until it reaches a setting point. Mine took about 15 to 20 minutes to arrive at the right kind of consistency. I also kept stirring it regularly so it didn't catch and burn as sweet, sugared fruit easily can.
  • Pour into clean glass jars and close the lids tightly. 

Note: I don't have much success setting jams with a thermometer so I rely on the 'cold saucer in the fridge'method: after about 10 minutes put a teaspoon on the saucer then check it after a couple more minutes. If the surface of the jam wrinkles slightly to the drag of your fingertip then it's set. 

But don't stress about it. If your jam still isn't set the next day - and swinging rather loosely in your jars - just tip it all back into the saucepan and boil it up again.

24 November 2015

Popcorn: the guilt-free confession

I blame the salmon. Okay, my freezer door does advise that fish should only be stored for a maximum of six months, and the use-by date on the pack of salmon fillets was 29th December 2014, but that doesn't necessarily mean food stored beyond a best-by date is dangerous to eat. And it looked okay: well wrapped and not doing any iceberg impressions. So, perhaps it wouldn't be at its best ... but how bad could it be? Let's ask the judges. Dry, chewy. A culinary disahster, daahling. Six months over the six months is obviously a few months too many.

And that's how we ended up eating this:

No, I mean that's how we ended up eating ALL of this:

All 350 grams, 14 servings, 1274 calories of it. Although we were watching a movie so I guess there was a certain air of synchronicity.

And there was one other mitigating circumstance: lettuce, which didn't live up to its bright pre-cooked promise. 

Did I use the wrong type? Nigella used Cos or Romaine on 'Simply' the other night. I used large but sweet Little Gem, which isn't that different, and left out the anchovies from her drizzle of olive oil and crushed garlic and sprinkle of sea salt. Perhaps she has sharper cutlery and/or stronger jaws than us: damn, that stuff gets stringy! Did I cook it for too long?

To commandeer a popular slogan: food doesn't get worse than this

Despite the need for reparation after a dodgy, unsatisfying dinner I was a bit surprised we polished off the whole tub of popcorn quite so quickly, but I enjoyed every tooth-sticking mouthful. I didn't feel any regret, which is what I do feel after demolishing a large bag of Kettle Crisps but that's a physical response from all the sunflower oil slicking around in my stomach. And I didn't feel guilty either which, if Google is to be believed, would be the most common response, particularly amongst women, to stuffing yourself with a small cinema's supply of toffee popcorn.

Google 'guilt' and 'food' and you're overwhelmed with information. There are people who feel guilty about eating deli-meat, coal-fired pizzas and lamb; there are people who can help you eat without shame and people who will sell you guilt-free food treats. And then there are the infinite 'guilt-free' recipes: pancakes, sticky toffee pudding, brownies ... name your favourite dessert and someone will have found a way to make you feel better about eating it. Or at least, that's the message. 

I can understand guilt in response to inhumane animal husbandry or farming practices that are detrimental to the planet. But we can make choices in responses to those issues and move on, can't we? But saying we feel guilty because we had dessert, because we ate that large bar of Galaxy, or stuck our fingers into the peanut butter and finished half a jar? Isn't that just self-indulgent wittering? 

In his article, 'The Joy of the Memorised Poem', American poet Billy Collins says: I think I read recently that we’re not suffering from an overflow of information—we’re suffering from an overflow of insignificance. He's specifically talking about poetry as an oasis or sanctuary from the forces constantly drawing us into social and public life. But it feels relevant to how we act and talk about our relationship with food too: let's not be drawn into the media's insignificant obsessions, faddy diets, the idea of food as reward and punishment rather than nutrition and enjoyment. We should value our intelligence more. And not perpetuate those ideas either. 

I know, intuitively, that it's not a good idea to munch my way through a big tub of toffee popcorn on a regular basis. But I'll damn well enjoy it when I do. 

Which brings me back to Nigella and her trademark voluptuousness. She just isn't lettuce. She's spring lamb with its fat crisped in the oven. Just sayin'...

15 November 2015

Apples everywhere

I've been running through them: on Friday morning's off-road run around local orchards with Meopham and Malling Ladies Joggers on a day that forgot it was November, at least for the first couple of hours.

While at home I'm living, breathing, chopping and slicing them. Apple sauce, apple puree, chunky apple pie filling, apple crisps (in the dehydrator), and enough grown-up varieties of apple jelly to get you singing: Golden Whapple (Golden Delicious with whisky), Rumley (yep, Bramleys and rum), Bourpple (you're with me now) and Chapple (with chilli). The Bourpple was more the result of discovering half a bottle of Jim Beam wearing a thick and sticky blanket of dust in the back of a cupboard than any deliberate planning. The Whapple and Chapple are repeats from last year. Rumley is this year's innovation and, as well as Bramleys, also contains the last
of the Russets from the single tree (out of ten thousand) in our orchard. But Russrumley was too long to write nicely on the lid of the jar. 

But despite my apple industriousness I won't even manage a small bite in the fruit remaining in the orchard after the best harvest in the South East of England for a decade. And best here means glut. The money crop, (and the majority of our trees), Cox's Orange Pippins, has all been picked and stored, but the minor crops and pollinators (Bramleys, Golden Delicious and Idareds) were left and, since this weekend's blustery weather, have mostly dropped. 

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about the aftermath of a storm

I feel particularly bad about the Idareds, but not for the right reason. I don't really like them to eat: they're tart, white fleshed and juicy but don't have the depth of flavour that the other apples have. I'm not even that fond of them after they've been baked or stewed. 

I feel bad for them because they are the most exquisite fairy tale apple: the apple you want to see glowing like a jewel in the gnarled hand of a bent old woman in a dark forest. They're arty apples: the ones tumbled in a small bowl on the table in a still life canvas, the splash of red in an otherwise muted palette. They're an interior designer's dream in a white room. They are glamorous apples. Apples that turn heads. Even amongst the cleaning and Sunday dinner cooking chaos of my kitchen this morning they are striking a shiny, 'love-me' pose.

So, I have carefully wrapped around 80 of them in newspaper and stored them in the cellar ... and I will return to them over the next few months and hope they can dilute my prejudice towards them as I attempt some new apple recipes, pink apple sauce among them (if, allegedly, you cook them in their skins then strain). That one dish might be enough to make me love them a little.

Loving is better for us than disliking, I'm sure.