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?'
'Yes.'
'Okay.'
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.

onion

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. 


25 June 2015

Just a sandwich

It comes back to me as I'm spilling rocket onto a wholemeal wrap, slicing cucumber and spring onions: my sister, Shân, asking me if I'd like a salad sandwich.

It was hot that week during the summer of 1984. I was still living in Jersey and had come home to Wales for a visit. My nephew, Gareth, is a baby. My niece, Sarah, is seven. My brother-in-law, Stephen, has driven the four of us here, 65 miles from Port Talbot, in their racing green mini: the M4, the A48 to Carmarthen, then west along the A477 past the farms of great-grandmothers we are yet to learn about, towards Pembrokeshire and Freshwater East, to the first floor flat with a tiny balcony overlooking the bay.
Freshwater East bay in 2011
After dropping us off he has headed home again to pack the rest of the week's necessities into the little car. 

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about packing the car for a road trip

This is the only photo I can find: me and the kids outside the flat's front door just before sunset one evening. But there are more, I know, showing me and Shân failing miserably at the hula-hoop and staring in astonishment at Sarah whose little hips shiggle the hoop around rhythmically and effortlessly. 

But I do not need a photo to remind me of the sandwich: the evening sunlight and shadows reaching the kitchen table where my sister is buttering a small and soft sliced loaf, layering lettuce, cucumber, tomato, and onion on one slice, adding salt, adding the second slice, placing her hand on top and cutting it all in half. She hands me the plate. The bread is soft, the salad crisp. We may have had wine: a naturally sparkling Portuguese Vinho Verde I used to bring home with me.

I do not think I am a great help with the kids on the practical level of bathing and changing, apart from holding little Gareth and giving him a bottle, or playing with Sarah or reading her a bedtime story, but I know Shân is glad of my company. And I am happy to be here too, with my big sister who I shared a bedroom with for 17 years, who is now a mother and wife, roles I cannot imagine for myself. 

I am 26, have no idea that in less than eight months I will meet the man who I will spend the next 30 years with. She is 29, too busy with two small children to imagine the roads ahead of her. But despite our ignorance the future is pulsing at the horizon, the world already turning roads in our directions. The sun is so bright tonight. A child calls out in her sleep. 

bread, lettuce, salt

12 June 2015

Appetite: Mara Bergman's New York poems

On the flyleaf of the Everyman anthology, Eat, Drink, and Be Merry, poems about food and drink, it says:

Eating and drinking and the rituals that go with them are at least as important as loving in most people’s lives, yet for every hundred anthologies of poems about love, hardly one is devoted to the pleasures of the table.

And yet without food and drink there would be no love. Literally, on the fundamental levels of survival and the biological impulse to procreate, but food is also bound to our emotional, psychological and intellectual experiences, to our memories, to the people in our lives. The sound-bite 'we are what we eat' transcends our physical compositions: we are what we have been fed, what we have shared with others, what we have offered as sustenance. 

I like reading about food in people's stories, novels and poems. Feel bereft, and irritated, when characters meet in restaurants and the writer overlooks the menu completely! Food gives us a sense of who a person is or might be, a sense of place and their relationship to it. 

I already have strong sense of who Mara Bergman is. I've known her for over 20 years as a friend, poet and a prolific picture book writer. Last year she won the Mslexia Poetry Pamphlet Competition with a collection of poems that have their origins in New York, the city where she grew up, studied and lived until she settled in England in 1983. 

The Tailor's Three Sons & Other New York Poems (Seren Books) is not a collection of poems about food but so many of them bubble with images of sustenance: there are cafés and diners, semolina bread and chicken soup, bakeries and delis, watermelon and clams, donuts and, something I now feel obsessively determined to find and try, baked mozzarella/ like fat balls of fudge.

In the poems where these ingredients appear food becomes the vehicle by which we are invited to explore a city, its history and the poet's personal life. It adds meaning, offers insight and creates appetite for a life that isn't ours, yet a life that still feels intimately familiar. After all, which one of us isn't propelled back to our childhood when we imagine our grandmother's home? And if it isn't the scent of chicken soup that takes us there, it might still be the scents of our own memories: bread, plum jam, or hot chips. 

The final poem in the collection, 'Trying to Kill Time at JFK', contains one of my favourite lines in the whole pamphlet. Here, read the poem's opening and arrive at it with a sigh of satisfaction as I did:

I am earlier than I've ever been before, for anything, 
breeze through check-in, am free
to wander the concourse of duty-free and places to eat -
Wok 'n' Roll, McDonald's, muffins at Ritazza, sandwiches
at Au Bon Pain, and gallons of coffee, coffee everywhere,
as if caffeine were the secret ingredient of flight. 

Good poetry makes us see the world we know in a new light. It illuminates the ordinary, the stuff of everyday we generally walk past and ignore. It's a gift. And each of the 21 poems in this collection shine a light on the familiar and the little or not yet known, from thinking we see a relative in the face of a stranger to the immigrant dreams of the three tailor's sons, in the title poem, who lived and worked in the tenements of New York City. 

These poems have fed me. And there's enough to feed you too. 

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about flying

7 June 2015

Grow

I am learning it all over again: the delight of picking and eating something you have grown. But perhaps it's not 'all over again', maybe it is for the first time. Dad has kept a vegetable garden since the late 1950s, ever since they moved into the house he and Mam still live in, so as a child I was used to a home-grown harvest of runner beans, broad beans, carrots, cabbage, potatoes, and onions with their tops bent over to help them dry a little while still in the earth before being plaited into strings and wintered in the dark of the redundant coal bunker. But 'delight'? No - I took it for granted. These were the years when most people grew something in their gardens; there was nothing unusual about it. It was part of life, part of feeding yourself.

The year after I moved in with Tony he ploughed up half an acre in a field at the front of his house and planted enough vegetables to feed a small village, if they'd all been famished on exactly the same day. The idea of staggered or succession planting came to him rather too late. The cauliflowers were a particular challenge: quantity wise and for the caterpillar nations they attracted. In the end I stopped searching for the tiniest of ones curled between the florets and trusted that hot water would dissolve them. That trust was sometimes misplaced. 

Cox's Orange Pippin
Now we have a greenhouse, built to house experiments with alternative fruit trees and crops we might end up planting in the orchard in place of the apple trees, mostly Cox's Orange Pippin. The Cox has lost a lot of its popularity as an eating apple but fortunately it makes great juice and we've managed to rent out the 20 acres for the last couple of years to a local fruit grower and juice producer and we're hoping that will continue for the limited number of good fruit producing years the trees have left.


Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about what the years ahead of you will contain.

So this year the greenhouse has been commandeered for more domestic crops: Tony has planted cucumbers, tomatoes, courgettes, aubergines, chillies and peppers. And the cucumbers have shot ahead, Mo Farah like, in the quest to be the first to be applauded. 

Piccolino cucumbers
Cucumber and cream cheese wraps. Cucumber and paté on wholemeal toast. Cucumber soup (which was so much better chilled and drunk the next day than eaten warm). So, I'm getting through them. And if summer does arrive, and stay for a few days, I'm going to make this Hungarian cucumber salad, a dish that reminds me of a Robert Carrier recipe I followed while I was living in Jersey in the early 1980s, a side-dish for skewered chicken satay, a memory that has remained dormant until now. 

Delia's Cucumber Soup
Knowing how complicated Carrier recipes tended to be there must have been more to it than what I remember: peeling the cucumbers, sprinkling them with sugar and salt and leaving them in the fridge for their flavour to deepen. I do remember thinking how exotic it seemed: up until then cucumber had only ever appeared in my life as part of a grated cheddar or tinned pink salmon sandwich. I don't remember who I was cooking for. But there is sunlight in the kitchen, spilling through the window above the fridge and the blue Formica table is laid for four. And there won't be quite enough for all of us to feel satisfied. I have never trusted recipe serving suggestions since.  

Soon there will be a fat purple aubergine. Courgettes, now that the flowers have gone limp and their bodies are filling like inflatable bolster cushions. Then tomatoes of all different sizes. A little later: red peppers. Some of the chillies will have to be dried or given away as presents.


All this green. At first Tony marked the supporting strings with chalk so we could be amazed at how much everything was growing within a day. Now we accept it. But with delight. Both of us are thinking of that first ripe tomato straight from the vine. We're hoping for two.