Sunday

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 feel when the only thing she can do is watch and wait and make sandwiches?

Thirty-four years later, I am in the same house making sandwiches for her: Allinson’s sliced wholemeal filled with flakes of poached salmon mixed with mayonnaise and topped with thin slices of peeled cucumber. No pepper - pepper irritates her throat - and a shake of salt. I cut off the crusts, hesitate between triangles and fingers, and go for the fingers. I wrap them in cling film and slip them into the cool bag with a small Cox’s apple, an oatmeal bar and a paper napkin.

Food occupies us. We apply ourselves to its transformation. We stand over it, wait for it, sometimes even cry over it. It is sustenance, gift, apology. Even though we do not know for sure it will be eaten we still offer it. It contains our love, our hope.

1959 - age 1
It is my birthday tomorrow and this is the house where I was born. It was a sweltering June morning, my mother has told me, but the midwife still insisted on an electric heater in the bedroom and all the windows closed for the small, sickly baby she was convinced I would be, and who would prove her entirely wrong.

That my parents still live in the house where I was born has only become significant to me in recent years: when I come home to Wales I return to the place where I took my first breath. This idea, and how it has come to mean so much, is undoubtedly linked to my parents ageing, and getting older myself. Perhaps the closer we get to the end of our lives the more urgent it becomes to know who we are and where we came from.  This is where my story began.

When I arrive at the hospital, she is asleep, propped against her pillows. Her face is pale, her lemon nightdress loose on her 7 stone frame. I don’t want to disturb her; she needs to catch up on the rest she misses at night because the ward is so noisy. Should I wait or leave the cool bag within reach, where she will see it when she wakes?

sunset over the sea
I remember when my mother
ran faster than me *


Hungry Writing Prompts
  • Write about being ill.
  • Write about watching someone while they sleep.
  • Write about a transformation.
  • Write about the place where you were born.
  • Write about someone running.

* haiku first published in Blithe Spirit Vol 20, no 3

Saturday

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


'paperforces' - handmade paperwork, Tony Crosse, Barcelona 1995
 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 doorman, and he explains what I’m doing wrong. Or what I’m not doing.

The British shopping habit of silently clocking who’s there before you and who comes up after you, so you know when it’s your turn, doesn’t work here. If there are more than two women in front of you, you must ask, Quien es la ultima? Who’s the last one? And someone will reply, Soy la ultima, and then everyone knows the pecking order. Of course, you need to listen for the same question, and for the first couple of months of market shopping I’m so anxious that I won’t hear or understand the next person, or they won’t understand me, I spend most of the time holding my breath. I know what I mean when I say breathing techniques should be a fundamental part of language classes.

It’s Leonardo who gives me my first Spanish recipe. I want to cook something traditional, I say to him one evening, and the next day he hands me a scribbled list from his wife for Merluza en Salsa: lightly fried hake in a sauce made from onions, garlic, red pepper, tomate triturado (passata), white wine, saffron and cooked peas.

I set off to the market, deliver my now practiced, Quien es la ultima? at the fish stall and a tiny, old woman turns to me and says, Servidora. I hold my breath and hope no-one else comes along after me. Leonardo? Ah, si! He’d forgotten. That’s what some of the older people still say. It translates as ‘your faithful servant’ or ‘yours truly’; basically, ‘me’. Breathe.


 After Tony took the metro each morning, from Joanic in Gracia to Jaume 1 in the Barrio Gotico where Winchester School of Art had studios for their MA in European Fine Art, I shopped, cooked, read my Spanish grammar books and studied for the first year of my distance learning MA in Writing with the University of Glamorgan.

Gillian Clarke
I stopped reading novels, immersed myself in the previous 100 years of British and American poetry, did enormous amounts of free-writing and attempted to write and craft my own poems that I posted off in fat packets (this was the mid 1990s, the days before email) to Gillian Clarke, my tutor at Glamorgan.

For the most part I wrote terrible poems: the worst kind of feminist poems about menstruation and vengeful, bare-footed women, poems that were all imagery and no substance and full of unconscious habits of phrasing and odd punctuation which must have driven Gillian to distraction, despite evidence of her measured advice: ‘Is this something that could be more subtly put?’, and encouragement, ‘Good ending!’

 There were glimpses of craft, of pushing boundaries and experimentation: the form of a free-verse poem emerging in response to its subject matter, some strong poetic closures, a few prose poems at a time when the form was far less common than it is now. But it would be another ten years before I published my first collection.

During one of our tutorials, Gillian said, ‘Don’t be in too much of a rush to publish your first book.’ That’s easy for you to say, I thought, when you already have dozens of books to your name. But I understand now what she was trying to tell me and I'm pleased I continued to serve that apprenticeship after finishing the MA in 1996 – attending workshops, writing courses and readings, submitting to magazines – as challenging and unrewarding as it seemed at times – and that I didn’t self publish too early or find an undiscerning publisher. Learning How to Fall has its failings but I am still proud, five years later, of the overall level of craft the poems display.
There is a series of Barcelona poems at the back of the MA manuscript. Not one of them made it through to the collection because they’re not really poems, more postcards to myself. ‘I have never lived like this before,’ is the opening line and the following pages are full of vivid descriptions that transport me back to a year when I seemed to learn most of my Spanish from the backs of tins and packets, from recipes in the monthly issues of Cocina, and conversations with Leonardo in the foyer of our apartment building. At night we could see the lit spires of the Sagrada Família from our apartment on the 7th floor. We watched our neighbours dead-heading flowers on their balconies, listened to the clink and chatter of their late suppers. And here is a dish of patatas bravas at the Cafè de L‘Òpera on La Rambla, tapas and cava at La Xampanyeria on Reina Cristina. And, to finish, a thick slice of Brazo de Gitano, a sponge roll packed with rich yellow crema and named for the arm of a gypsy I’ve never met the likes of in my life.

 Merluza en Salsa
(Hake in a Sauce)

Hungry Writing Prompts
  • Write about breathing, about holding your breath, about being short of breath, about the breath of life, about deep breaths, about a last breath.
  • Write about a time when someone helped you.
  • Write about strangeness.

Sunday

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 word ‘fail’. After all, our house went from this:



and this:



to this:


and this:



in less than a year, so failure isn’t the first word that comes to mind.

I say instead ‘it hasn’t worked out’. Perhaps more so for Tony than for me, who has found the language far more of a challenge than he expected, and admits that for the first time in his life he feels ‘so English’, and disconnected from the society around him. He’s far more gregarious than I am and misses the ordinary, everyday things he took for granted in daily life in the UK, from chatting to the woman on the supermarket checkout, to popping along to B&Q on a Sunday morning for some shower sealant, or calling up a friend for an impromptu, last minute drink or dinner.

With hindsight, our decision not to deliberately seek out the ex-pat community when we arrived might have added to his sense of isolation. Not that we had much time to socialise in the first 18 months here as the renovation was a ten hour a day, seven day a week project that exhausted us both. But there are other things too.

The ‘closed shop’ system that still exists in France which meant, as a private individual, he couldn’t get access to some of the top suppliers of quality building materials. A nasty neighbour’s denoncement of us to the Mairie for changing the colour of the shutters on our house, which, as we quickly found out, you need permission for in Antibes. And Tony's accident.

Early one Friday evening at the end of March last year, just as the light was beginning to drop, he misjudged the height of the blade on the table saw as he reached over it to steady the piece of wood. Two operations and months of rehabilitation later he has the use of his hand but his thumb and little finger are permanently damaged.

It was only after I left him at the hospital at 10.30 that night, drove home and put away all the tools we’d abandoned in the garden in the rush to get to A&E, wiped up the trail of blood over the marble steps, the staircase and bathroom floor, that I recognised how alone I felt.

I’m sure I could have knocked on a neighbour’s door. There were a few people here I could have called. But neither of those things occurred to me at the time. There wasn’t anyone I actually wanted or needed to see, no close friends who knew me, who would turn up and let me cry against them: Michelino and Jan, Bernie and Chris.

A few years ago I spoke to a group of anxious writing students about failure. We can’t be afraid of failing, because we’ll stop growing as a writer, I said. We have to look at failure positively. Failure is never about us, it’s about development. Failing at something allows us to understand something more about our writing, about ourselves as writers. It means we have the opportunity to take it further.

Positive failure? Yes. We have restored a house neglected for 50 years and made it beautiful again. Not a day went by during the renovation when someone walking along Avenue des Chênes didn’t stop to say, Elle est belle. Tony has decided he’s too old for any more of this renovation lark, time to relax. I have learned that I need to be with people who I love and who love me more than I thought I did.

I’ve forgotten now why I started with The Perfect Fried Egg, and how I hoped to return to it. I think it had something to do with small things, ordinary things. I think I meant to write about being kind to ourselves. And honest. Which I think I might have done.

But here’s the egg anyway.

The Perfect Fried Egg

Melt a small knob of butter and a little olive oil (to stop the butter from burning) in a frying pan. When it starts to sizzle, set the heat to medium/low, crack in the egg and immediately cover with a close fitting lid and leave for two minutes, and no longer.



Voila! Some fresh ground sea salt and black pepper and you have the perfect fried egg, a little crispy around the edges, the centre of the yolk still runny, and not a trace of sloppy white.

La vie est belle.

Hungry Writing Prompts
  • Write a list of things you have cried over.
  • Write about leaving home.
  • Write in praise of an ordinary thing in your life.

Tuesday

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 more enjoyable moments of my early association with Methodism. But that’s another story.

I only recently discovered that my Welsh costume was not ‘traditional’ at all but a 19th century invention by Lady Llanover. She took certain items from the clothing of Welsh countrywomen at the time, added Welsh tweed, and created a ‘national’ dress that would take hold of the public imagination and survive until today. To be fair, Lady Llanover was not the only one tinkering with mythmaking and the recipe for welsh identity. During the 18th and 19th centuries other popular symbols of Wales – the red dragon, leeks, harps and druids, and even some bardic rituals – were also ‘introduced’, part of a pressing cultural wave to identify and strengthen the idea of ‘welshness’ in response to changes that were threatening traditional ways of life.

Change can often be a catalyst for us to protect what we deem to be under threat. Perhaps it is partly because I have lived away from Wales for more than thirty years that I cling to the small yearly ritual of making Welshcakes on 1st March, St. David’s Day, wherever I am and for whoever I’m around: friends, family, writing groups, my university students, and neighbours in England, Wales, the United States, Spain and France. And even though they could be a result of the same mythmaking, not particularly welsh at all but common to baking practices in general, I still associate them with growing up in Wales and they form part of my perception of what it means, or feels like, to be welsh but living elsewhere. Molly Wizenberg, in her book A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table, says, ‘Food is never just food. It's also a way of getting at something else: who we are, who we have been, and who we want to be.’

And, a Welshcake is never just a cake. Nor a scone, nor a biscuit. ‘They’re a drop-scone,’ some people say when I describe how they’re cooked on a griddle, or a maen, a bakestone. But they’re not that either. For a start, they’re made from soft dough not a batter, dough that plumps on a hot griddle with the scent of nutmeg and butter. They are my mother’s cool hands, perfect for baking. They are home.

Welshcakes
Depending on what part of Wales you’re in you might hear them called Tishan ar y ma’n (teeshun arr uh maan) or Pice ar y Maen (peekay arr uh mine)
 
Welshcakes: Made in France
½ lb self-raising flour
pinch of salt
¼ level teaspoon of ground nutmeg
4 oz butter, left to soften slightly at room temperature
4 oz sugar
2 oz seedless raisins or sultanas
1 egg, beaten
milk to mix
caster sugar to sprinkle

Makes between 25 and 30 small welshcakes*

  • Sift the flour, spice and salt into a large bowl and rub in the butter with your fingertips until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs.
  • Mix in the sugar and fruit.
  • Make a well in the middle of the bowl and add the beaten egg.
  • Working in a circle, push the dry mixture into the liquid centre, adding a little milk if needed, until it binds to a soft dough.
  • Roll out on a floured board to a thickness of less than ¼ inch and use a pastry cutter to make rounds. The size is up to you, but my favourite is a dinky 1½ inch fluted cutter*
  • Cook them in batches on a pre-heated non-stick griddle, or a large flat-bottomed frying pan, over a low to medium heat, for about 2½ minutes each side, or until golden brown.
  • Sprinkle well with caster sugar while still warm.
I think they’re at their best at this point, but if you microwave a cold one for 10 seconds you’ll recover some of that softness. Or, try spreading one with soft, unsalted butter.

Hungry Writing Prompts
  • Write about something you believed to be true but later turned out to be false.
  • Write about food that reminds you of home.

Thursday

Three Houses


Three Houses: The Geography (click to enlarge)
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 them here, a terraced house with a squeaky iron gate and a long arch-roofed alleyway that ran from the side of the front door to the back garden. Each morning D’cu swallowed a raw egg, breaking the yolk in the chamber of his throat. Sometimes he melted cheese on a glass plate in front of the open coal fire and spread it on thick slices of white bread. Granny fried chips in lard, kept toffee bonbons and rainbow drops in white paper packets in the sideboard. There was always an open tin of condensed milk on the kitchen table to sweeten their tea.

When he died I said, No, I didn’t want go upstairs and say goodbye. A week later, he was the old man who called me his ‘lovely girl’ as I packed his frozen chicken and packet of custard creams at the supermarket checkout. And now he is always leaning on the front gate in a collarless white shirt, sleeves rolled up above his elbows. Sunlight glints off the close-cropped silver stubble on his head that he had trimmed monthly without fail.


Llandaff House, Llangennech

I did not know her. Language fails me when I try. She was only ever Granny, progressively stranger and more stubborn as I grew up and the longer she lived alone. She still wore bandages for her burns; she knocked a pan of boiling water off the grate and over her leg in 1943. She’d eat stale bread rather than buy fresh with the money she hid down the sides of the sofa, in the sideboard, and in old handbags at the back of her wardrobe, tight rolls of notes like fat cigars, the accidental discovery of which sent irrational fear and guilt racing through my ten-year-old heart. She refused gifts, insisting she didn’t like chocolate and she most certainly didn’t drink alcohol, or she inquired suspiciously after the price of any new clothes my mother bought her.

I saw her once, maybe twice, in this house where the walls might have been cream or pale green, where the framed prints were of flowers or seascapes, but where the women who bathed her, cleaned for her, and made sure she ate, were kind and called her Alice.

Alice was ten when her mother died in childbirth. She walked with her father behind the horse-drawn hearse, a father who would re-marry, who would lose another wife in childbirth, who would marry again.

Sometimes I try and imagine the story of the life that shaped her, that persuaded her to stubbornness and suspicion, that fed her neuroses… but that would be my story.

Hungry Writing Prompts
  • Write about a house from your childhood.
  • Write about someone you didn’t know.