29 Oct 2010

Trouble

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 na├»ve. 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, resorting to loud threats of leaving. He didn’t have to stay and put up with this kind of shit. He’d had a tough enough week at work without his girlfriend giving him a hard time at the weekend. He was going to walk out and not come back. Go on then, I say from 30 years away, walk out and keep on walking, you arrogant prick.

And I want to shake her, that girl who starts crying. ‘Don’t go. I’m sorry. Please stay,’ she says because she’s frightened, because she feels she’s in the wrong, because she can’t see she has a choice.

I can come up with any number of reasons for my reaction, then and on later occasions. I didn’t have any strong, independent, female role models. I had no self-belief. I used to mistake a man shouting for authority. I can cite my family background; the era in South Wales where I grew up; the bank where I worked that had different ideas about work, approval and promotion for men and for women. They all sound self-pitying.

How long did I carry on seeing him? Six months, nine months? Until after I found out he was married and ran a hotel with his wife above St Aubin’s Bay. Until after he was taken into police custody one Friday night, accused of stealing drums of coffee and fillet steaks from the Cash & Carry, and coerced me into being his alibi. Until after his wife phoned me at work one day and said, ‘You think you’re special? You’re just one in a long line of girls. He always comes back to me, you’ll see.’

She was right.

Joe wasn’t Argentinean either. He was Portuguese. It seems like a strange thing to lie about today but at that time in Jersey the local people, and a lot of my colleagues in the banking world, looked down on the island’s Portuguese population who were there mostly as low-wage workers in the hotel and restaurant industries. ‘Pork-and-cheese’ and ‘spic’ were used casually and without conscience to describe anyone with olive skin, or with a Hispanic or Latino sounding name. Joe Santos. Originally the Portuguese and Spanish for ‘saints’.

The irony makes me smile and wince at the same time. His behaviour. How his wife put up with him. My own self-absorption.

He said the Bolognese was great, he could tell I’d gone to a lot of trouble, but there was no way it would have been ready two hours earlier. No way.

Some things take time.
 
Slow-cooked Bolognese
 
I haven’t specified quantities. Decide how much meat you need for the amount of people you’re cooking for and that will guide how much of everything else you add. Once the meat is cooked (after about 15/20 minutes) you can taste, add more bit and pieces, and season to your taste buds’ content. You really can’t go wrong.

In a little olive oil soften chopped onions and thinly sliced celery.

Add good quality minced beef and keep turning it until lightly coloured.

Add:
  • grated carrot
  • grated courgette
  • finely chopped garlic
  • tin(s) of Italian chopped tomatoes
  • a good squeeze of tomato puree
  • a couple of crumbled beef Oxo cubes or a tablespoon of Marmite
  • a good glug of red wine
  • a good shake of Worcestershire Sauce
  • dried mixed Italian herbs (or use oregano and a sprinkle of parsley)

Add a little more water, or stock, if the sauce is too dry, cover the pan and let it cook very slowly for at least an hour, and up to two, stirring occasionally and checking the consistency, until it starts to ‘shine’.
To increase the ‘shine’, stir in a large knob of butter.
To intensify the beefy flavour, add more marmite, but sparingly.

Scatter a handful of fresh basil leaves and fresh shaved parmesan over the sauce just before serving to people who love you, and who, for the most part, don’t lie to you or make you cry.
 
Hungry Writing Prompts
  • Write about the lies you have told or the lies someone else told you.
  • Write about being late.
  • Write about a time when you did something that now feels wrong.
  • Write about someone who made you cry.
 

24 Oct 2010

James Bond, License to Cook

I saw 'Goldfinger' at Butlins in the summer of ‘66. A woman painted gold. Private jets. Quite a lot of kissing. And a man called Oddjob who sliced off people’s heads with his bowler hat. My sister and I blinked out of the cinema into the heat and light of an afternoon we’d forgotten was there. At eight and eleven, it was the first ‘grown-up’ film we’d seen and it was even more special to us because a welsh woman, Shirley Bassey, sang the title song.

It was on commercial TV yesterday afternoon. This time around, different things made an impression:
  • the champagne: Dom Perignon ‘53
  • the meltingly good cut of Connery’s clothes (the all-in-one towelling sun-suit aside)
  • the not so good join in his toupee
  • the women's pointy triangular breasts
  • the theme: the obliteration of the world economy which in the light of current events didn’t even have a glimmer of fantasy about it.
Eight years ago, over Christmas and New Year, we stayed on Hillsboro Beach, north of Fort Lauderdale on Florida’s Atlantic coast. Spike TV were running back to back Bond movies over two days, so on Christmas Day, while I alternately sipped champagne, roasted chicken and potatoes, read in the sun for stretches of 30 minutes, and thickened the gravy with pancake mix because I’d forgotten to buy flour, Tony lay back in the villa’s ‘massage’ leather arm chair, complete with remote control and adjustable foot and head-rests, dressed in a sarong, with a glass of Buck’s Fizz in his hand.
‘Where’s my woman?’ he’d holler when the commercials came on.
The name’s Crosse, Tony Crosse.

We always had turkey for Christmas when I was little. And sausage meat stuffing. We woke up to one of Dad’s big socks at the end of the bed, fat with little presents and a satsuma in the toe. Mammy put a threepenny bit in the home-made pudding. There were Selection Boxes, a tin of Quality Street, After Eights, mince pies. Dad drank beer. Mammy drank Harvey’s Bristol Cream and our sips progressed with the years to a half of a very small sherry glass with dinner. And we listened to the Queen. The five of us together.

Ritual. Our lives need a sense of stability and belonging, moments or events when we feel connected to people or place. They don’t have to be rituals dictated by religion or society. They don’t have to contain any overt sense of ceremony. All they need is conscious thought to give them significance and a mood of celebration.

At the end of November I’m flying back from France to Wales to see my family. When my great-nephew, Iwan, heard about my visit, his response was, ‘Straws and crisps?’ I am that woman! Even at three years old our impromptu parties with balloons and games (and ‘straws and crisps’) bind him to me.

Connery’s early Bond movies have become a Christmas ritual. The holiday’s just not the same without James. And sausage meat stuffing.

Easy-Peasy Sausage Meat Stuffing
from South Wales via the South of France
(For 4)

1 small packet of Paxo Sage & Onion Stuffing
2 Toulouse sausages (or any high meat content, big and chubby pork sausages)

Make up the stuffing with 9 fl oz of boiling water.
Leave to cool.
Skin the sausages and mix the flesh into the stuffing mix.
Roll into 8 balls and put in an oiled oven-proof dish.

 
Cook at 200° for about 35 minutes or until cooked through and crisp and golden on top.

Hungry Writing Prompts
  • Write about a childhood Christmas and a Christmas from your adult life.
  • Write about a ritual in your life, anything that repeats itself during the year, or from year to year.

 

21 Oct 2010

Out of the dark

I am sitting on her lap in the dark, the rubber studs on her suspender belt pressing into the back of my legs, my knees grazing the velvet seat in front. When the heavy curtains slide open, the light is almost too bright for my eyes. The usherette in a pink and white uniform walks back up the aisle with her tray of ice-creams. The scent of perfume and cigarette smoke. The swing doors softly bump against each other as they close. On the screen a man with an oiled chest strikes a big brass gong.

I thought I was four, but the film we saw, ‘The Three Lives of Thomasina’, was released in 1964. I would have been five or six. My brother was born the year before. My sister would have been nine. But they are not here. I am with my mother, in a space where we do not speak, a space that belongs only to me.

She liked Cadbury’s Bournville so I decided to like it too. When my sister and I started going on our own to the Saturday Matinees, at The Odeon in Bethany Square, I’d buy a big bar from the sweet shop in the foyer and manage to eat one, maybe two, of the rich, dark squares.
‘I’m keeping it for later,’ I’d say to my sister who would be halfway through her bar of Fruit & Nut and rightly suspicious of my purchase.

In 1966 we went to Butlins in Pwllheli, North Wales. In the single black and white photo of us all together we are seated at a long table in the barrack-like dining room. Family interrupted: some of us chewing, others clutching cutlery, my mother’s face showing signs of strain from the holiday camp’s regimentation and a week with a cantankerous, and soon to be seriously ill, little boy of three. I have no memory of that, or of the food. Or the chalet where we slept. Only of the Redcoats, who all signed my autograph book. And the funfair.

My father and I queue up for the roller coaster, shuffle forward as the line grows shorter, but at a quarter to five the man at the gate ahead calls out, Sorry, that’s the last ride. Come back tomorrow. But it’s our last day. It was my last chance. And there’s nothing my father can do as the disappointment fills my chest and makes me want to cry. Then on the walk back to the chalet it starts to rain, thick, heavy rain blown in on a cold wind, that darkens the path, and my father takes my hand and we start to run, and none of it matters anymore, just the feel of my small hand in his, our footsteps tamping the hard ground, in those moments before we burst in on the others, just the two of us, laughing.

Hungry Writing Prompts
  • Write about being in the dark.
  • Write about a time when you were disappointed.

14 Oct 2010

Little tricks

‘Do you want a sandwich?’ I ask Summer, my grand-daughter. If she chooses what she wants for lunch she might end up eating it.
‘No.’
‘Pasta?’
‘No.’
‘How about an avocado?’
‘No.’
She is four. ‘Do you know what an avocado is?’
‘Yes. It’s green, like a pear, and it has a big stone inside.’
Hmmm.


 There were no avocados when I was growing up in South Wales in the early 1960s. The most exotic thing I remember was Vesta Beef Curry and Rice, reserved for my dad when he was working shifts. And Ski yoghurt. My mother bought one pot in the Co-op so we could all try it.
'It tastes like junket,' she said.
I didn't know what junket was but it sounded like it would come in a shiny aluminium bucket.

I didn’t like eating until I was around eight. Or, more accurately, I didn’t like eating dinners: breaded plaice with chips, peas and bread and butter, or roast beef, roast potatoes, carrots, cabbage and gravy. Food spread out and nudging the rim of my plate. I can’t remember having a reason for not wanting to eat what my mother put in front of me when I came home from school at midday. And I can’t articulate one now. What I can remember is a feeling of overwhelming helplessness in the face of such a mountain of food.

It often reached the point when I was still staring at my plate an hour later, knife and fork unsullied, gravy congealing over the vegetables, with my friend, Kathryn Monks, walking up the garden path. That was when panic set in. The thought of being late for school threw me into floods of tears.

‘You’ll eat it, warmed up, when you get home,’ my mother would warn me. And sometimes she carried out the threat and we’d go through a whole 90 minutes of resistance (me) and despair (her) before I was sent to bed.

My mother says I was melodramatic. She’s probably right.

45 years later I found myself on the other side of the plate facing the same kind of resistance from Summer. Meal-times were marathon sessions of cajoling and distraction techniques. Karma. Everything comes home in the end.

And so I invented The Oesophagus Game: the food goes into your mouth, chew chew, you swallow, glug glug, down into your oesophagus, squeeze squeeze, into your belly, mash mash, into your intestines … and her lunch or dinner would slowly disappear. Most of the time.

But another trick I've learned is 'small food'. Bits and pieces. And cocktail sticks. You can't go wrong with cocktail sticks.

Watermelon and Feta Cheese Bits & Pieces

Cut watermelon and feta cheese into small cubes in a shallow dish. Provide cocktail sticks for harpooning the pink and white fish together.

Or, if you'd like a little more elegance:

Watermelon and Feta Cheese Parcels

Take two long, fine slices of Parma ham, or similar, and lay them across each other at right angles. Place a square of  feta cheese in the centre, then a square of watermelon on top. Season with salt and black pepper. Lift up the slices of Parma ham to wrap over the top of the stack and secure with a cocktail stick and a fresh mint leaf or basil leaf. Decorate the plates with curlicues of balsamic syrup and a few toasted pine nuts or pumpkin seeds.

Summertime, and the living is easy.


Hungry Writing Prompts
  • Write about the food you ate as a child.
  • Write about about the things you love and the things you hate.
  • Write about a game you used to play with an adult.
  • Write about small things.
  • Write about disappearing.