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.

23 July 2014

First crop: memory

Dad's first crop of runner beans, picked today, topped and tailed and strung, ribbon sliced and cooked 'al dente', seasoned with butter and pepper. They are the taste of memory, of childhood summers, caterpillars and the scent of cabbage leaves in hot sun, sunburn and prickly heat, shell gardens in sand-filled fruit boxes, rose petals soaking for days in water and hope, the three-legged race, a drindl skirt in turquoise seersucker never completed in the last year of Junior school, a new leather satchel, Tuff shoes. The years compressed: a squeeze box of sounds, some as distant as echoes, others like the ringing of a school bell demanding attention. 

And this one: a purple swimsuit with a red stripe, the sun beating on my shoulders, the sand hotter than burnt toast, and the sea so far out I think I might never reach it. Or find my way back.

the lightness of a beach ball
my great nephew tells me
scars don't last forever

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about a scar you still have.

15 July 2014

Wild Asparagus

Not wild to be fearful of. But wild enough to have seeded themselves at the bases of a dozen or more apple trees and, by the end of June, to have disguised themselves, their fern an almost indistinguishable cloud among the post blossom foliage. 

Last year we walked around the orchard and tagged the trees where we discovered them then, one by one and if they were not too close to the trunk, we dug them up and replanted them along a row of cherry trees in the new orchard near the house.

A minuscule crop this year, snapped from the earth and eaten raw. Now we brush past a hedge of asparagus fern laden with seed pods. Next year we imagine ourselves slicing their stems below the earth, blanching them for a few minutes, watching the melted butter shimmer over their plump tips. Shaved Parmesan? Italian salami scented with fennel? Smoked salmon and a squeeze of lemon? Ah, the decisions we'll have to make.

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about something you did last year.

8 July 2014

Weetabix. It's breakfast, Jim, but not as we know it.

Well, do you? And did you? Ever? Spread one (or two) with butter and jam, like a crisp-bread, or a slice of toast? 

It came back to me this morning, a childhood memory of spreading welsh butter and strawberry jam on one in my mother's kitchen, the slow, gum-sticking process of chewing my way through. I can't remember if it was at breakfast, or when I came home from school in the afternoon. If it was breakfast time perhaps it was because we were short of milk... but that doesn't feel right. Milk was delivered in red foil topped bottles to our back door every morning. I do remember that it felt like hard work by the time I'd got half way through one: the butter and jam overwhelmed by the dryness of the biscuit that found its way into every crevice between every tooth and resisted the concerted efforts of my tongue to dislodge it.

This morning I use French butter and home-made blackberry and apple jam, more generously, I imagine, than the 10 year old girl would have dared to. And the memory is remade, but differently, as I eat every mouthful with ease and pleasure.  

At the same time this feels like more than re-experiencing a taste of childhood: it feels that it's about culture and economy too. About a working class family who managed and got by thanks to hard-work, thrift and invention. I know I'm teetering on the edge of melodrama and sentimentality, imbuing a simple Weetabix with that back-story. But the objects of our lives, from food and possessions, toys and clothes, the things we preserve and throw away, contain the stories of our lives. Some are worth retelling, some are no more than anecdotes, only of interest to ourselves and immediate family. But they all make us who we are.

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about a childhood breakfast.

And Weetabix have certainly played a part in all our stories: from its creation in 1932, through WWII and rationing, and export to Canada and the USA in the late 1960s. 3D technology, space travel, Dr Who, polar expeditions: yep, Weetabix came with us.  Take a look at this History link on the UK site for 81 years of social and manufacturing history. But it seems I am not as original as I thought I was: back in 1939 Weetabix was 'making a man' of a small boy on a trike. How? Spread with butter and jam. 

30 June 2014

The pest in pesto

I doubt I'd have tried if I hadn't been surrounded by forests of basil: one small Tesco growing basil has transmuted into a miniature hedge and two 12" terracotta pots of the stuff that are triffid-like in their enthusiasm. An enthusiasm that needed severe curbing. Five ounces of basil prunings might not sound like much but, trust me, it is. 

Home made pesto seemed easy enough: basil, pine nuts, garlic, grated Parmesan, olive oil. But don't believe any recipe that says a blender can substitute for a food processor. I did. It can't.

'Let me help you,' Tony said as a big wodge of basil on a base of cheese and nuts all ignored the gnashing blades and the overheating motor. 
'I'm fine. I just need to do it slowly.'
'Why don't you let me help you?'
'I don't need any help!'
'I can get it going,' he said.
'So can I,' I said, grabbing the olive oil and pouring it in two stages before the recipe recommended. 'I'm FINE. Don't stand there watching me.'

This is the kind of inconsequential stuff that arguments can arise from, like phoenix from the ashes of previously unresolved spats.

Some kind of pesto emerged from the melĂ©e although with about three times the amount of olive oil the recipe asked for. But if someone can't judge the efficiency of a blender compared with a food processor what can they know about pesto?

My result wasn't bad: a good balance of flavours but a bit paste-like after the blender cranked up a gear and started chewing on the thicket of leaves and nuts. 

But I do prefer a more textured sauce like the recipe at this link at 101 Cookbooks. It looks and sounds more authentic too. Note to self: always Google further than you think you should.

In the meantime I have three small pots of sauce. Two have gone in the freezer. Some of the contents of the third has already been eaten directly off the spoon and with some left over medium rare rib-eye steak. (Who'd have thought that steak, some nose-stinging mustard and home made pesto would taste so good together?)

That's the thing when you go to so much trouble to make something: there's a compulsion, and a certain amount of obligation, to eat and enjoy it. Fortunately, this time, there was some enjoyment to be had. And, I'm pleased to say, Tony agreed.  

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write a list of things you have been compelled to do in your life.