3 October 2015

Full English Running

I started running a year ago. Last October I hit the treadmill for 30 mins each day, walking and jogging intermittently, until after 30 days I could run 3 miles without stopping even if I did look like a grimacing Halloween pumpkin at the end of it. Running is hard. 

A year later running is still hard, not as hard as it was because I am fitter and stronger, but it still requires effort. Effort to get up and go out and run first thing. Effort to ignore the voice whining inside my head: Why are you bothering? You've proved you can run 5k and 10k. What's the point in carrying on? Whinge, whinge whinge. But, as my running coach, Kerry Hayward from Meopham & Malling Ladies Joggers, says, If it was easy everyone would be doing it!

I try not to pay attention to the whining voice while I'm running. I open a cupboard in the corner of my skull, push her in and slam the door for the duration. But, why am I bothering? 

Because I want to get older as healthily as I can. 
Because I no longer get breathless running up and down stairs.
Because I can throw, barrow and stack a week's supply of logs for the wood burner and not ache at all. 
Because the space in my head feels like the cool green air you find in a tree tunnel.
Because when I am running the me-ness of me is as authentic as I ever feel.

And if I needed any further inspiration, because this morning there would be a full English breakfast and as much tea and toast as I could drink and eat at the end of it. Let's be more precise: at the end of 7 miles of it. But with the bonus of astonishing views along the route ... 

Ah well. If life gives you mist, keep running. And don't forget to stop and smell the sunflowers.

This is the route we took, from Camer Park, near Meopham, to Hodsoll Street, near Stansted ...

... where, in the charming Hodsoll Street and Ridley Village Hall, a happy clutch of men and woman cook a £5 Big Breakfast for dozens of local people and walkers, and now, runners, on the first Saturday of the month. 

And yes, it really is worth running 7 miles for. Again. And again. 

Hungry writing prompt 
Write about trees in the mist.

12 September 2015

How the medicine goes down: rosehip syrup

Not like the pucker and shiver engendered by Cod Liver Oil. Oh no, not at all. And much better than the Syrup of Figs which I liked the taste of so much it was almost worth being afflicted by constipation! No, this was a spoonful of sugar that was also the medicine: Rosehip Syrup. Our daily dose of Vitamin C courtesy of the National Health Service in the early 1960s. Sweet, fruity, silky. 

In 1943, The Ministry for Food published a wartime leaflet, Hedgerow Harvest, full of recipes for wild fruits, fungi and nuts. Encouraging people to forage might be fashionable now but during World War II, a  time of rationing and limited imports (in 1939 we were importing around 80% of our fruit), it was considered a necessity. Sloes, crab apples, elderberries, cobnuts, mushrooms, rowan berries and rosehips could provide those essential vitamins missing from the nation's diet. The nutritional gift that rosehips offered evidently endured for quite a number of years after the end of the war in 1945 and the end of rationing in 1954. In fact, I was surprised to find that Rosehip Syrup is still widely available today.

The unstated message behind a teaspoon of Rosehip Syrup was that it was good for me. And rosehips are high in Vitamin C. But I can't help but wonder if its 'goodness' is diluted by the quantity of sugar you need to use to make a syrup: 325gr to 500ml of unsweetened juice. But hey, I've survived to my late 50s with my teeth intact and that's more than can be said for today's kids! 

I have two memories of a spoonful of syrup. The first, in the Dew Road clinic on Sandfields Estate, Port Talbot when the nurse checked me for whatever I was there to be checked for. The second, in our kitchen at home: my mother tipping the glass bottle over a spoon, my lips already parting for the sweet, peach coloured fix before she's finished pouring. Sunlight streams through the kitchen window: it is somehow impossible to remember drinking Rosehip Syrup in grey and damp weather. 

I spotted them growing in two different places in the apple orchard last week: fat and red, and, of course, sunlit. Could they replicate that childhood taste? I had to find out.

The BBC Woman's Hour website gives the original wartime recipe. Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall provides another which is a tad simpler and which I followed, but I added a little more water to the chopped rosehips as it seemed to be evaporating away too quickly during the 'boil it all up' part. 

The scent of crushed rosehips boiling is hard to describe. My first thought was hot, damp plum kernels. Now I'm thinking simmering damsons, that sharpness they have at their heart. 

And the taste? Yes, of childhood and sunlight. It's unmistakeable. 

Hungry writing prompt
Write about a memory of sunlight.

An empty maple syrup bottle I had in the cupboard was the perfect receptacle for my rosehip syrup: it feels like the right shape for my memory, unlike the plain Atkins & Potts bottles that come up on a Google search. 

'It's subtle,' Tony said when I gave him a taste while it was still warm.

Yes, subtle, like those gauzy memories I have of it, or, to be more accurate, the memories I have fleshed out with my imagination: a nurse in a crisp white apron, the dust motes that dance in the sunlight streaming in to my mother's kitchen. And what's wrong with that? That's how stories are born.  

4 September 2015

Resisting Apples (or not)

This time last year the apples had all been picked, crated and lorried away for juicing. This year's much improved harvest is still on the trees, still plumping from the alternate attention of rain showers and sunshine. But not for long. The Cox's Orange Pippins are mostly ripe already: the proof lies in the few windfalls.

The Golden Delicious look a little small although that's not really a problem for apples grown for juice, but they'll probably benefit from another week. 

the weight of apples
I tend to judge the Bramleys by a creep of peachy pink across their green skin. This one's begging to be transformed into pie.

ripe bramley
But the majority of its companions are still shy of their full potential.

To determine if the fruit is ready to be picked, place a cupped hand under the fruit, lift and gently twist. If the apple doesn't come away easily in your hand, then it's not ready to harvest.

the resistible and the irresistible apple
Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about something irresistible.

And because cupping, lifting and twisting apples is a bit of an addictive pastime I ended up looking like this:
a scrumper's pockets
I don't know which came first: scrumping (stealing apples) or scrumpy (traditionally, West Country Cider). The Oxford English Dictionary quotes the noun scrump as meaning something withered or dried up, specifically apples. If this is true then perhaps the drink came first: the gathering and pressing of windfalls into cider. Collins list it as a verb, to steal, from the dialect 'scrimp', but not in the sense of penny-pinching or frugality.

Perhaps no-one will deny there's an excitement attached to stolen or forbidden fruit (forgetting for a while the act of getting caught and the price of Eve's bold disobedience!)  A strawberry picked from the field somehow tastes sweeter than the one bought at a stall or from a supermarket shelf. There's a cheeky rebelliousness attached to stealing a few apples and, let's be honest, it's quite a thrill to feel that as an adult penned inside a regimented world.

I don't think my six Cox's Orange Pippins will impinge on the juice maker's profit margin. Or the two Bramleys I'm about to slip out for. And I promise I won't take any more. I've had my cheeky rebellious fix and from now on I'll restrict myself to the windfalls, the withered, the worm-caught, with enough sweet flesh still left on them to be good pickings.

I need the Bramleys to make this apple tart which has puree as a base layer and sliced eating apples as a top layer.

double apple tart - ready for the oven

13 August 2015

Les petites choses: how little things are so often the big things

It's the little things: a child standing on her head on the town beach, the creak a fresh baguette makes when you press it gently, the morning light squeezing through shutters. Holidays might be planned around the big things - bank accounts and airports - but the little things make them memorable. Here are more: a sip of chilled rosé, children laughing along the seashore, the taste of salt water on your lips, the scent of crepes as you pass a café.

6 Rue du Docteur Rostan
Antibes, France
I've been back to Antibes for the first time since we left in October 2011, not to our old house but to a delightful little apartment so lovingly cared for by Una Hennigan and her partner, Pascal. And what could be more appropriate for a writer than (what I'm sure is) a quill carved into the stone plaque above its doorway in Rue du Dr Rostan? 

I did walk past our old house one evening, when it was far too late to think about ringing the bell to say hello to the people who bought it from us and are still living there. There were lights on in the stairway and I could see through the open window to the polished red tiles that swirl up through the house's four storeys. The pretty bleu-lavande shutters almost glowed in the near-dark. They must have made changes in the last four years: I know they installed a pool in the garden. I imagine that the four old palm trees may have
Villa Les Marroniers, our old home
been felled after we had to have two of them treated and capped 
in the last weeks before we left because of a red weevil infestation that was quickly and tragically decimating thousands of palm trees along the coast. But the greater part of me didn't want to see the house again: it was home for a while and I loved it then but it doesn't feel like a part of me any more, though the memories remain beautiful.

And I made new memories this time: swimming from the town beach each day, feeling the remembered weight of two boxed millefeuilles in my hand as I walked home from the patisserie, visiting the restaurant at the Commune Libre du Safranier, a little community within the old town established in the 1960s specifically to celebrate and preserve Antibois traditions and culture. And an even more profound memory too: of a time of ease and laughter, of sweet and salty mussels, chilled wine, fresh baguettes and olive tapenade, shared with my step-daughter, Zoe, the first time we've ever been alone together for longer than a day in the 30 years since I've known her. 

Plage la Gravette, the town beach, Antibes, France.
A part of me wondered whether I'd be gently haunted by regret when I returned to Antibes, that a yearning to still be living there would arise in me, that a seed of dissatisfaction might be sown in my life now. But there was none of that, just a comfortable familiarity with the town, its ambience, its alternately vibrant, charming and astonishing rues and allées, as if the old stone of its walls and streets were welcoming me, not home, but with homeliness. You still belong here, they might have been saying, no matter how much time passes between each visit, no matter how long you stay. Au revoir. Bienvenue. 

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about street sounds.

20 July 2015

Chips. Buddha. And the rocky road.

'Do you fancy some chips?' Tony said.
'But we're supposed to be having a week of eating lightly ... losing some weight, remember?'
He must have thought it was a rhetorical question.
'You've bought potatoes, haven't you?'
I know. The willpower of a dandelion seed. But chips. Real chips. Deep fried in sunflower oil. 
And if there are chips there has to be home-made curry sauce.


spicing it up
There's nothing complex about my curry sauce (for two): soften a chopped red onion in oil, then stir in 3 tsp of the curry powder of your choice and 1 tsp of Garam Masala and let the mixture cook for a few minutes more before adding a handful of sultanas, half a pint of vegetable stock, a big squirt of tomato paste and half a can of coconut milk. If you like it you can also add a tablespoon of mango chutney. I like the sauce to be thick so I let it simmer and reduce until it's glossy and the colour of cinnamon bark. 

Tony is the 'hands of chips'. I peel and slice the potatoes but he takes charge of hot oil and temperature monitoring and drying the chips thoroughly in a large tea towel and cooking them twice, guaranteeing the crisp and fluffy qualities that good chips should always have. 

the hands of chips 
And it was one of those memorable simple meals that even Buddha approved of. 

buddha table

being Buddha
Buddha would have been less approving of us last night when, sitting just feet from the spot where we'd been in total harmony with each other a few nights before, we slipped into a cesspit of misunderstanding and incrimination, possibly aided by the (too) large measures of Grand Marnier over ice. Or, at least, probable in my case: I don't drink spirits as a rule and I don't think it helped me see and feel things very clearly.

Actually, Buddha didn't give a sweet cluck, as you can see. I did. Why is it so damn hard to recognise that you don't have to keep on dragging yourself (and someone else) across the sharp stony ground? Why does it seem like the only way, at the time? 

They are rhetorical questions. 

I said I didn't want to eat. Tony said he was cooking the prawns anyway and he was going to eat. He chopped parsley and spring onions, sauteed them in butter and oil, added the peeled jumbo prawns at the last minute, crisped up the bread in the oven while I sat at the table unable to get off the rocky road. Then he served up.

The ground softened. The grazes healed up, even if the little scabs hurt for a little while longer.

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about a question you do not want answered.