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.

22 June 2014

Made with love

The Welsh poet, WH Davies, captured a simple truth with the opening lines of his 'Leisure' poem:

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

Simple, and easy to remember too. So how come I need to remind myself of it over and over again? I'm probably not alone.

Recently I stood and stared here:

summer solstice 
lean in the shade
Malling Abbey is only about two miles from my doorstep, in West Malling in Kent. It's been home to the same closed order of Anglican Benedictine nuns since 1916, but in historical terms that's cake crumbs: the first recorded mention of a community on this site is 946. Although credit goes to the 'builder' Bishop Gundulf for its development and foundation between 1090 and 1150, one of the first post-Conquest monasteries for women.

Malling Abbey's Norman tower
wrapping the upper, later, octagonal addition.
The wheelbarrow rest-stop in the above photo is the back of the Norman tower. Gundulf's church once enclosed this area but only one of the nave's walls remain, though the play of sunlight on old stone, the lime tree's shadows and the poetic resonance of wheelbarrows all work at making this a sacred enough space for me. 

The current Mother Abbess has been living here for 44 years. She is knowledgeable about the Abbey's history from its foundation, through Henry VIII's dissolution and subsequent centuries of private possession, right up until a 19th century benefactress, Charlotte Boyd, driven by a vision to restore monastic lands, bought the property in 1892 for £10,000 and invited an order of Benedictine nuns to return. 

She revisions the dissolution of the monasteries for us: it wasn't just about his argument with the Catholic church, Henry had wars to fight and he needed money. She asks us to consider the fate of the disenfranchised nuns in a patriarchal society: the monks could become parish priests, bishops even, but what became of the women? And reminds us of Shakespeare's 'the bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sung’ from Sonnet LXXIII, words that conjure up the abandoned ruins. 

break in the clouds
the glint of pins
in the nun's black veil

The dedication of a life to prayer, to seclusion and restriction, seems anachronistic in the 21st century. I can more easily understand religious communities that work with people in need to limit deprivation, or who look after the sick and injured, or offer spiritual comfort to the terminally ill. Does individual and/or corporate solitude, silence and prayer help the wider world? The nuns evidently believe that it does. And the community isn't as isolated as it once was. The Abbey offers public tours on Heritage and Open days and they also have a guest house for private retreats; the level of involvement in their religious services is down to personal choice.

Interior of the 1960s church. The pillars
were added 4 years after the church was
completed when the 'basilican' design
was found to be dangerously flawed.
Lauds. Terce. Sext. None. Vespers. Morning, mid-morning, midday, mid-afternoon and evening prayer. These are listed in the Guest chapel's prayer book though the nuns also pray at Matins and Compline. I'd like to believe that their fellowship and their personal prayer is making a difference, however slight. I do believe that silence and solitude are good for all of us from time to time, moments in which we stand still and notice the world, our relationship with it. We've come back to where we started: WH Davies' standing and staring. 

At the end of my Abbey tour - which included its gatehouse and restored almonary chapel, the medieval transept and cloisters, the nuns' library and the 1960s 'concrete technology' church that is surprisingly beautiful in its starkness - there was tea and cakes in a small building near the nuns' extensive vegetable gardens where rows of Cara potatoes are flourishing.

'Cara' means beloved in Latin. It's the root for names like Cherie, Cheryl, Kara and Carys. In Welsh 'cariad' means beloved too. Maybe it's not silence or solitude or prayer that makes a difference, but the quality of love that's present in these actions. Love practised, given and received. 

When my Grampa Rees really enjoyed something his wife had cooked he used to say to her, 'There's some love in this, Get.' There was some love in the apricot flapjacks served with my tea: sweet toasty oatmeal sandwiching a layer of soft fruit. I thought I'd email the Abbess and ask if I could have the recipe. But there's no email address on their website. I could phone. But there's no phone number either. There's a postal address: I'll need to write a note, slip it into an envelope, add a stamp, take it to the postbox at the corner of my lane. And wait. How anachronistic. How perfectly appropriate.

Hungry Writing Prompt

Write about doing something slowly.