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.

7 November 2015

Remember Remember the 6th of November

After the heat of the bonfire, after the newspaper stuffed guy, with his paper bag head and your dad's old trousers and worn plaid shirt, turned to black flakes. After your dad pinned Catherine Wheels to a post and warned you to keep away from the rockets ready to launch from milk bottles. After the Jumping Jacks and Roman Candles. And after you wrote your name with the brilliant fizz and crackle of sparklers against the night sky and rescued the potatoes wrapped in foil from the fire's warm heart. After the sausages. Even after you tipped towards sleep, the whizzes and bangs a memory and a glitter of lights fading behind your eyes, after you woke-up ...  


Then you began your search for them: in your garden, along the nearby streets, the spent ones still smelling of cordite, the charred cases, the bent sparklers, collecting them like treasure, the proof of everything you had, and didn't have, that had once burned so bright.

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about a light in the darkness