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Showing posts from 2010

Comfort: Salmon and Spinach Risotto

Tony’s mother died unexpectedly in April 1998. She shouldn’t have. She was fit and healthy. She told us she didn’t want to ‘bother anyone’ when she started having breathing difficulties after she somehow ruptured her oesophagus. Within two weeks the infection in her lung developed into toxaemia and she died.
Two years earlier she had a hip replacement and stayed with us for a month to recuperate. During that time she went from sleeping upright in an armchair the week she came out of hospital to riding a bike for the first time in 60 years a few days before she went home.
Tony used to set her fitness goals, hiding lottery scratch cards in the hedge a little further along the lane each day. I tried to increase the appetite she’d lost through so much pain prior to the operation, making the small and soft food I knew she liked: crust-less sandwiches, cod in parsley sauce. She used to say ‘thank you’ to me a dozen times a day.
Lilian Lavinia Crosse was born in 1920 and married in 1938. She…

Writing Alone, Eating Alone: Magret de Canard & Scary Spice Tomatoes

It takes time for me to adapt to being alone to write.
The first few days are full of the novelty of only answering to myself, eating what, when and where I like, writing until the early hours of the morning if I want to, or staying in bed to read until midday. I like the kernel of stillness I feel growing inside me, not really talking to anyone, except in passing if I need to get some shopping, and noticing how my mind leafs through its ideas at a much slower pace.
It’s around the sixth day that the novelty starts to fade. The house or cottage feels too big or too empty. There are strange and unfriendly noises in the floors and heating pipes. I tend to be neurotically chatty with strangers, the post-man or the woman on the supermarket checkout, desperate to get away from the silence I’ve imposed upon myself. The stillness I previously welcomed feels hollow, like hunger. I’m agitated by the long days and nights. Aloneness becomes loneliness.
I’ve done a number of solitary writing retre…

Food & Friends Part 1: Jersey Exotic

‘Do you fancy a coffee?’ I say to the new girl with the big brown eyes when she opens the door of the bed-sit opposite mine. I’ve seen her a couple of times at work and there’s something both intimidating and inviting about her: the way she looks at you and holds your gaze without blinking, the same way some babies do. This morning we said ‘hi’ when we met outside the laundry room on the ground floor of Langham House. I think she could be my friend.
She looks straight at me. ‘I’m pregnant,’ she says. The rims of her eyes are about to overflow with tears. No-one has ever been so suddenly and bluntly open with me before, and about something so personal too. And it feels like a gift, something precious I've been given.  I don’t even remember thinking about what I will say next. ‘Do you need to borrow some money?’ ‘Yes,’ she says, ‘and I’ll pay you back at the end of the month, I promise.’ And she does.
After an introduction like that perhaps it’s not surprising that Alison always seemed …

Home to Home: Green Beans and Pancakes

The last thing my Dad says to me before I leave for the station is, ‘The house comes alive when you’re home.’ And then I’m in the car, driving away in the rain, watching my parents waving from the porch window.
I cannot think of my dad without thinking of his garden which he has brought to life every year for nearly 50 years with potatoes, beans, carrots, beetroot, onions, cabbage. I see him digging, planting, thinning out, and later bending over a row of plump onions, twisting down their tops to allow the bulbs to dry. The coalbunker in the garden was demolished over 40 years ago but when I picture it I smell onions, strung into plaits and hung in the cool dark amongst his forks, and hoes and spades.
As a child I pushed between the long rows of beans with a colander and instructions: leave the small and don’t miss the big. The coarse underside of the leaves grazed my bare shoulders; sun dribbled through the overlaps. I could smell hot, uncooked bean. Later, in the kitchen, he topped …

Making Sandwiches

For a couple of weeks in the autumn of 1976 I lived on grated cheese and sliced tomato sandwiches. It was the only food I could bear to eat during the initial stages of an illness that would eventually be diagnosed as Glandular Fever. Each day, sometimes twice a day, my mother brought them upstairs to me with a cup of hot chocolate.
My memory of that time is muted, slow. The sandwiches are almost weightless as I lift them from the plate, as I chew and swallow, in contrast with the weight of my body that can only surrender to hour after hour, day after day, of dreamless sleep. Sometimes I opened my eyes and saw them on the bedside table: triangles of soft, white sliced bread holding an airy pillow of cheese and thinly sliced tomato.
How many times did she come in while I slept, not wanting to wake me, and deciding in the end to make them and leave them within reach? She must have been worried during those first weeks when the doctor could not say what was wrong with me. How does a mother…

Cooking Catalunya, Part 1: 42 – 44 Carrer Pi i Margall

 There’s a supermarket opposite, a bodega on the corner that will fill your empty bottles with the local vino negro, a wine darker and heavier than rojo, and a little further up the road, one of Barcelona’s covered markets for fresh fruit and vegetables, chicken, meat and fish, and a stand-up coffee bar where you can grab a café con leche or café cortado and throw your crumpled sugar packets on the floor.

The first time I buy a chicken there I come home with its sawn off feet in a little bag. The Catalans roast and eat them, perhaps a parallel to how the British roast and eat pork crackling, though a chicken’s claws strike me as a rather more challenging culinary experience. After that I always make a point of saying, No quiero las patas. No feet.

I nearly give up on the market after my third visit. Okay, my castellano (standard Spanish) is limited, my Catalan non-existent, but surely that doesn’t merit the loud, rapid-fire rebukes I get at nearly every stall? I tell Leonardo, our…

Spilt Milk and The Perfect Fried Egg

I have cried over it.
As a kid losing at Draughts, Dominoes, Monopoly. When I wasn’t picked for the Three-legged Race in my final year at Junior School despite winning it three years in a row. When Maxine McBride chose a new best friend. When Mr. Warlow, my Welsh teacher, said he was sorry but he’d somehow got it all wrong: I hadn’t qualified to recite Mae’r Abertawe yn yr haul on the Eisteddfod stage. An ‘O’ level pass in my ‘A’ level English Lit. And later, when I was overlooked for a job, a promotion, time off; when I didn’t make the shortlist, or get the award. When the funding for my first collection was unexpectedly withdrawn. That was a weekend’s worth.
We are leaving France. We are part of a statistic that says 50% of Brits who move to France return home within two years, well, three in our case. I arrived with plans to speak French fluently, to run creative writing courses on the Côte d’Azur, to live and work here for the next ten years, at least. I am trying not to use the wo…

Take One Red Dragon: A Recipe

St. David’s Day – Dydd Dewi Sant. I wore my welsh costume to school: a black felt hat, plaid shawl, a small white apron over my kilt, and, pinned to my shawl, a fresh daffodil from the garden whose big trumpet head bumped my chin, releasing the sprinkle and scent of pollen. The boys wore leeks attached to their jumpers with nappy-sized safety pins, until playtime, when some show-off would decide to eat his raw. 
There was a school concert and we sang Calon Lân (listen here) and Oes gafr eto, a ridiculous folk song about white, blue and red goats which had to be sung faster and faster with each successive verse until the words fell apart in our mouths. And the finale of the concert: a play in welsh written by one of the teachers. When I was ten, I was picked for the leading role of Maggi, an enterprising cook who convinces a  bunch of hungry cannibals not to boil the poor missionary but to add a packet of her tasty powdered soup to their cardboard cauldron instead. It was one of the mor…

Three Houses

Cae Cottages, Penceiliogi

Memory paints my grandparents like the characters in a Dutch interior: Granny in the doorway between the porch and dark scullery, D’cu sitting in a low chair by the fire where two brass horses rear on blocks of polished oak. I enter silently, from daylight on the unpaved lane, stepping down over the stone hearth into the shadows, as if even the slightest noise could tear the membrane that divides remembering from not remembering.

I am sure I stayed here once although my mother cannot be sure. But I know the two connected bedrooms in the eaves, the cool lino beneath my bare feet, lying in an iron bed with my sister watching the squeeze of sunlight and dust around the edges of the pulled curtains.

The garden is a field with long grass and trees and an outside privy where, a young woman with auburn hair tells her two wide-eyed daughters, I was once chased by a goose.

35 Glasfryn, Dafen

When the cottage was sold and they had nowhere to live the council moved…


I learnt the secret of a good Bolognese sauce from a man who looked like George Best.
It was 1979. I met him at the bar of Lord’s Discotheque in St. Helier, Jersey. He said his name was Joe, that he drove tourist coaches for a living and he came from Argentina.
I don’t know if he was a particularly good liar, or perhaps a particularly good impersonator – he even went to the trouble of carrying a coach driver’s license tag on his key-ring – but I was twenty-one and particularly naïve. I believed that his jealousy, sullen moods and tendency to show up at my place at all times of the day and night were proof that he loved me.
This was my first Bolognese, courtesy of Robert Carrier, whose precise instructions I followed to the letter, slice and ounce for hours on Sunday morning. Joe was due at my flat at one o’clock. He turned up two hours later in full defensive bluster, blaming a football game he’d forgotten about, trying to make me laugh about the whole thing, and, when that failed, res…