27 August 2014

It's all jam. Let it bubble.

'I'd never have imagined you in a place like this,' my brother-in-law said last year as we were walking through the apple orchard talking about fruit, new trees, bees and home-made jam. 

Bramley Apple Trees
I've known him since I was about 12 years old. He married my sister when I was 17. He was on the sidelines of my 'glory' years in the 1980s: that's the superficial glory of too much make-up, big hair and a wardrobe bulging with party clothes rather than any particular achievement. Unless you call walking in 6 inch stilettos while wearing a strapless silver sequinned boob tube and 'spray-on' lycra lilac jeans an achievement. Actually, I'm beginning to think it was! 

30 years later. This summer my day to day wardrobe has consisted mainly of cut off jeans, a t-shirt and flip-flops or wellies, depending on the terrain. (Wellies terrain includes long grass with evening slugs, log collecting in the wet, the nettle choked bramble hedge that skirts the orchard and, occasionally, Tesco's.) Instead of foundation and blusher my face has been regularly smeared with blackberry or damson juice and ash from the bonfires where we've burned the trimmed tops of the alder windbreaks. Sometimes I look back at the Martini-drinking party girl and wonder if that really was me. Do you have past selves that seem more like completely different people, not just different aspects of your personality? People you might not like much? People you want to grab by the shoulders and shake? 

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about the person you were 30 years ago.

But it's all jam, as the title of this post says. Every single thing I've done, achieved, lost, wasted; every experience I've had, positive and destructive; all the people I've met, lives I've enriched or depleted; all of it has boiled down, or up, to who I am now. Who is that?

Currently it's Jam-Maker. Apple, blackberry, damson, plum and now... onion. I know, there's something a bit icky about the words 'onion' and 'jam' together. But it's not chutney, it's not relish or marmalade. It's sweeter - caramelised onion and dark brown sugar offset with notes of balsamic vinegar and garam masala. 
Peel
Recipe? Hmmm... this really is a throw-it-in-cook-it-up kind of experience. Thinly sliced onion cooked slowly in butter until very soft but not browned at all, sugar and spice mixed in, the vinegar added at high heat then bubbled until syrupy. I started with 6 large onions, a large knob of butter, 100gr of sugar, a tbsp of spice and 100ml of vinegar. But I added more sugar to get the sweetness I wanted. We've eaten half a jar already, slathered on slices of mature cheddar.

Sauté
On top of being official Jam-Maker I am also writer, time-waster, tutor, click-clack maker, apple-picker, cook and cleaner, evening-sofa-slouch, family history researcher, aunty, step-mother and step-grandmother, part-time morning-tea maker, laughter lover, wine drinker, hula-hooper, moaner, table-tennis player, playmate to a cat, dreamer, lip gloss wearer, log stacker, rain-wonderer... I could go on. And on. You could too.

Bubble
Jar
If you'd asked me 30 years ago to tell you who I was I'm pretty sure I'd have been stuck after offshore banker. Not that there weren't other aspects to me (I was always immersed in a book, was learning to cook, I loved the sea...) but I didn't look inwards and appreciate them as things that mattered. And we should, don't you think? We should celebrate ourselves, our lives, share the things that make us who we are. 

Yay: 'Let your jam bubble!' : ) 

21 August 2014

Belly laughing

"Pork belly," I said.
"What did you call me?" Tony asked.
This has been an ongoing gag between us ever since we were loading up the car outside Carrefour in Antibes around 2009 and Tony asked me to toss him a packet of freshly cut jambon so he could make an impromptu ham baguette in the front of the car. There were two different sized packets.
"Big ham?" I said. 
"What did you call me?" he said.
Ensuing fits of giggles. 


For me the best jokes are those that arise from silliness because the laughter feels pure, healthy. We're not laughing at anyone, anything. It's all about joy, a lifting of the spirit. 

Hungry Writing Prompt
Stand in front of a mirror and laugh for one whole minute. 
Then write about laughter


This was the above-mentioned pork belly. Rind cut off (for crackling), bones cut out (for extra stock flavour in the pan), rolled and ready to tie up.





After my first luscious slow roast pork belly experience at Sosban, Llanelli I've been meaning to have a go at home. Tony accelerated my attempt by buying two strips at a local butcher so... a quick knot or two, a sprinkling of salt and pepper, a slow slow roast (for about 2¼ hours at 160C / gas mark 4) followed by a 25 minute burst of high heat and out came two delicious, pull-apart-with-a-fork feasts. Mashed potato (with creme fraiche and butter), shredded steamed cabbage tossed in some chopped and sauteed onion and bacon, and gravy made from the meat jus and blisterings scraped up from the pan. The crackling was great too. Big happy belly. What did you call me?

16 August 2014

Out of chaos comes chaos. And the 'Wrapizza'.

Chaos doesn't suddenly descend on a writer's room: it's creeps in, like fog, or mould. There's nothing to notice at first. Then you're forced to acknowledge its small claims over the days, weeks, until one day you look around and realise why you feel so wired. There's no clear route from your computer to your door, the waste paper basket is overflowing, you can't see a single knot of wood on your desk top, loose sheets of paper and plastic sleeves that were once married are now littered everywhere in acrimonious divorce. 



I'm not advocating Pure Order. I like a certain amount of clutter but there comes a point when not being able to find anything leads to tidying up a bit. That point is now.

I wish it had been three days ago, before I decided to make jam from the first crop of Victoria plums from a neighbour's tree. I can't decide whether the chaos flavoured the jam or whether I just don't like plum jam. But there's something not right about it. Too sweet? A touch singed around the skins? The four sealed jars sit there like judges: you wasted all that fruit, they say. You didn't pay enough attention. They may have to move out. 

Here they are brooding over the early stages of my Wrapizza: a guaranteed cure for the chaotic and hungry writer being judged by jam. 

A wrap, a tomato base, thinly sliced cheese (of your choice) and red onion. Microwave for 1 to 2 minutes until the cheese melts and the onion softens, top with a pile of fresh rocket and drizzle with balsamic glaze.

You could use any ready-made pizza sauce but it's easy to chop up (and skin) a handful of ripe tomatoes and cook them down, with the spices and herbs of your choice (garlic pepper, chives, a little chilli, oregano...), to a thick and sweet and fragrant sauce. You don't have to be quite so OCD about the cheese: remember I was attempting to temper the chaos.

It doesn't matter how many times I assemble this snack it always makes me feel happy, satiated, relaxed. It's comfort and taste combined. It makes tackling the chaos a little less intimidating. Even the jam relaxed a little: it may live to see another day.

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about the chaos in your life: past and present.





7 August 2014

Butter butter butter

It's one of those words that starts to lose any meaning and sounds ridiculous the more you say it. Tony and I had a row, years back not long after we'd met, over a butter dish, one I'd bought in a Welsh pottery that he thought was particularly ugly. Okay, it hadn't been used in a while and was sitting in the dark at the back of a cupboard but that's no reason to throw out a woman's butter dish. 

'It's only a butter dish!'
'But it was my butter dish!'
'I'll get you another butter dish!'
'I don't want another butter dish, I want that butter dish!'

Read that lot out loud and you'll understand what I mean about the disappearance of sense and meaning. Although it's only hindsight that allows us to identify, and laugh at, the ridiculousness of those kinds of exchanges. And it was MY butter dish! 

I love butter but even I approached butter-overload yesterday after eating a couple of these apricot flapjacks.


I tasted them first in June: the nuns working in the kitchen at Malling Abbey made them to anoint the end of a guided tour of the Abbey and its grounds and I liked them so much I wrote to the Mother Abbess for the recipe which she kindly sent by return. But I didn't read it properly until yesterday: 12 ounces of fat. You are kidding me?! But no, the recipe calls for 12 oz of margarine and as I don't buy or eat that stuff I replaced it with butter. And they do taste lovely: they don't leave that oily smear around your mouth that commercially made flapjacks do. They're sweet and buttery. With a side of heart palpitations. 

Last night we ate them with custard. Mid-morning today we had them with a cup of tea. 
'Oats are good for you, aren't they?' I asked Tony.
'Yes, I feel better already.' he said.

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about what's good for you.
Write about what's bad for you.

I gave two large squares to the guys pruning the alder windbreaks in the orchard today. There are four left. Will they keep? Best not risk it, eh? We'll finish them off tonight.

Here's the recipe and a small gallery of photos. I used a circular tin as I didn't have the right sized oblong one so my flap-jacks were rather more hefty than they're intended to be. And it might be worth experimenting with a tad less butter too - I'm going to try 9 ounces and see how they turn out.





'I'll make them in a larger tin next time,' I said to Tony, 'so they'll be thinner.'
'Why?' he said.

31 July 2014

Hungry for more in West Wales

Nigel Slater's in Wales!  Or has been. And I'm not sure how far west he penetrated but I'm looking forward to seeing his discoveries when the new series starts. 

And up I go... 
I've been in Wales myself, with rather less fanfare, but probably an equal amount of passion and interest as I trekked up and down hillsides following in the imagined footsteps of some of my great grandmothers. I'm yet to find a map of mid 18th century Carmarthenshire so I can't be sure of the route Anne Protheroe took from her father's farm at Bron y Gaer, in the parish of Meidrim, to her new husband's farm, Plas Issa, in the neighbouring, and southern, parish of Llangynog. I am sure that some of the lanes might still wind around the same bends although the main Carmarthen to St Clears road, the A40(T) and the railway have irrevocably changed the landscape since that day in February 1769. 

Did she walk or travel in a cart? Did she take more than her clothes, her personal possessions? Did her father gift her a cow, some chickens, a horse, a sheep? From the few traces of births, deaths and marriages in the parish records I've assembled a family portrait, glued together with some educated guesses, that shows her mother already dead, a few days after giving birth to a baby girl in 1752, an elder sister already married, and the baby long dead too, buried in 1756. Did she carry something of her mother's? I'd like to think she did, a prayer book, a piece of lace, something of her that she could take into her own life as a soon to be mother.
Stone barn/house at Bron y Gaer, Meidrim

At Bron y Gaer there's an old stone building still standing, used as a storehouse and barn, next to a much later build with a bright cream render. Could this be the original farmhouse, its outside steps leading to living accommodation on the first floor over the animals? Or do I just want this to be the case, to be able to touch the stone her skirts would have brushed? As if my skin might absorb some of her story. 

I stayed at Sarnau Mansion, a peaceful and welcoming gem of a Georgian country house, ideally placed for a circular walk to Bron y Gaer, beginning and ending at the Fox & Hounds Inn at nearby Bancyfelin. A half pint of Guinness there at midday was my reward for a two and half hour trek and, with hindsight, I probably should have remained for lunch (the pan fried salmon with fresh mint was calling to me from the specials blackboard) and ignored the salty crumbs and greasy smudge or two on the coffee table in the bar where I'd installed myself. But it was early. I'd only cleared a plate of double fried egg on hot buttered toast at 8.30 and I was bound to find somewhere else relatively close-by, wasn't I? Um, no. 

Wern Inn, Llangynog
Do not believe those big blue tankards on OS maps that promise food and drink. The one stamped on the outskirts of Llangynog is the sad and bitter ruin of The Wern Inn. The more promising signs I kept seeing for The Farmer's Arms at Llanybri led me to a fractured conversation through a window with two Thai women. It was closed. They opened at 4. But no food was served on Mondays. And then I found Florrie's at the beach in Llansteffan.

Fish cake and chips and the Tywi Estuary
Oh bliss. And to make things even more blissful there was tea and coffee and walnut cake at the nearby beach shop and tea room. I swear I have never tasted cake so light. Angel fingers at work there. Or angel food-processors.


My 3 x great grandmother, Anna Morris, granddaughter of Anne Protheroe, and born at Plas Issa in 1811, moved to Llansteffan with her second husband around 1878. I do not know yet what brought her here. I doubt it was chips and cake. But maybe the sea had something to do with it. The breeze rushes inland smelling of salt. You have to eat your chips quickly here.

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about moving to a new town.