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