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 at 17
Lilian Lavinia Crosse was born in 1920 and married in 1938. She had two sons before the end of the war then, 20 years later, when she was in her late 40s, a rather unexpected daughter. Tony remembers his dad, Jack, calling him at work in a wild panic.
‘Son, it’s your mother, your mother…’
‘What Dad, what is it?’
‘She’s pregnant, son, and it can’t be mine. I’ve only touched your mother once this year.’
‘That’ll do it, Dad,’ Tony said.

I’d only known Tony a year when Jack died in 1986.
‘When was your brother born?’ I asked. We were getting all the official documentation together, birth certificate, marriage certificate, to take to the Registrar.
‘Um… February 1939.’
‘Your parents were only married in November 1938.’
‘The sneaky bugger!’ Tony started to laugh. ‘And he gave me and Baz such a hard time when we had to get married!’
I was amazed he hadn’t worked it out before. His sister had. I had. I guess girls are like that.

Jack’s funeral was a standard crematorium service. Tony chose two pieces of music but apart from that we went along with everything the funeral director suggested. When Lil died twelve years later we wondered if we could do things differently. A copy of The Dead Good Funerals Book told us we could.

We ordered a ready assembled cardboard coffin from Compakta Ltd and Tony painted Lil’s portrait at one end and a portrait of his dad at the other. On the sides he painted poppies and butterflies. The lovely, family funeral directors in West Malling, Viners & Sons, collected it from our house the day before the funeral, went to the hospital to pick up Lil’s body and then drove directly to the crematorium.

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

Brisons Veor, Cape Cornwall
Writing Retreat 1998
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 retreats so I’m used to this emotional pattern and can usually push through those few days when I feel like packing up and going home. But a retreat at Almassera Vella at Relleu, near Alicante in Spain, in November 2004 nearly got the better of me. It took me much longer than usual to settle into my routine and I almost burst into tears when I walked into the village supermarket on one of these interim days:

How Are You?

After twelve anonymous days
I walk into the supermercado and someone says

my name and my heart
ignites with something that feels like heat, light.

No matter that rain is pushing its cold smoke
down the mountains,

that I can smell it coming,
the damp evening air sticking to my skin.

What more is there? My place in the world
confirmed, still hearing it in the street –

Lynne. Que tal? Like a blessing. And I am fine.
I am so fine.

(Prizewinner in the Poetry on the Lake festival at Lake Orta, Italy 2005)

But usually, by the eighth or ninth day, I settle. Hollowness and loneliness give way to stillness and aloneness again. I no longer feel threatened by the time that surrounds me. I stop measuring days and nights by the clock and respond to hunger and thirst instead, the need to rest, read or walk. And then

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 rather exotic to me: a little dangerous, unpredictable. South Wales and Romford were hardly universes apart, and we were almost the same age, but she seemed to be so much surer of herself than I was, as if she’d already decided to live life according to her own rules regardless of what anyone else was doing or what they said.

She always made up her eyes with the same dark smoky shadow and kohl. She bought a double duvet for her single bed so there was more to wrap around her and it never slipped off. If she woke up with a hangover she’d take a bottle of tonic water spiked with vodka into work to delay the full whack of it until the end of the day. And she changed all of her underwear everyday. Not just her knickers, but her bra too, which at the time struck me as particularly extravagant!

We decided to cook our first meal together on the day she moved across the hall to share my bed-sit: chicken portions baked in Homepride Red Wine Cook-in Sauce with roast potatoes.
‘But how can we make roast potatoes?’ I wanted to know.  At home in Wales, roast potatoes came with a roast dinner. If we weren’t roasting a joint of meat or a chicken where would we get the fat to cook the potatoes?
‘With cooking oil,’ she said, ‘in a pan, in the oven,’ as if I had landed from another universe.

21st Birthday Menu, 3rd June 1979
We both worked for the Midland Bank Trust Corporation in Jersey. I'd arrived in April 1978, Alison at the beginning of 1979, the year of my 21st birthday. I had a party at the Bistro Borsalino in St. Helier with a menu that included Moules Marinieres, Coquille St. Jacques and grilled lobster, a menu I couldn’t have dreamt of a year earlier, but fourteen months later, on an island with so many good restaurants bursting with French cuisine, it had become pretty standard fare to me.
Birthday Party

At the edge of one photograph, taken at the table, there’s a glimpse of Alison’s mother. I’d forgotten her parents were visiting that week and I’d invited them to my party, although they didn’t come back to our bed-sit later that night where the party continued at length in an expectedly drunken fashion. 

What I do remember is her mother pushing open the door the next morning to find Alison lying on her back on her single bed, wrapped in her double quilt, with her feet propped up against the wall, singing the opening lines to Jerusalem over and over again: And did those feet in ancient time…

The next time I saw Alison’s mother was even more memorable for all the wrong reasons. She came to collect Alison who’d spent three months as a voluntary patient in the mental health wing at Jersey Hospital.

Why didn’t I see it coming? Perhaps I did and chose to ignore it. After all I was 22 and totally absorbed in my own romantic escapades. We’d already started to spend less time together because of boyfriends, and then she had another abortion and not long after that she split up with the man she'd been seeing for over a year. She was also getting into trouble at the bank because of an 'attitude' and for taking too much time off sick. When she was threatened with dismissal, she resigned and moved out of the subsidised bank accommodation. I remember feeling impatient towards her because everyone else seemed to be in the wrong; she was always the victim. But I still wasn’t prepared for her call one Sunday morning to come and pick her up at A&E because they wouldn’t let her leave unaccompanied. The duty nurse told me she'd arrived the night before saying she'd overdosed on painkillers but when they pumped her stomach there was nothing there. A week later she committed herself to the mental health ward and agreed to a course of electric shock therapy.

Sometimes we don’t know what’s best for ourselves, so how can we be sure of what’s best for other people? How can we really know what anyone else’s distress feels like, how deep it goes, what they might need to avoid it, erase it, or deal with it? Maybe this is what Alison needed to do but I hated visiting her after a treatment and seeing her in a near vegetative state. And I remember feeling anger and confusion towards her parents who only flew over at the end of the three months to take her home. I knew for certain that my parents would have been on the first flight over if it had been me. But my relationship with Alison was not their relationship. And perhaps they harboured an equal amount of anger towards me. Surely a friend could have prevented her disintegration, or should have recognised the signs and warned them, or someone, before things got so bad? Although I can't help thinking they were embarassed by her too, their 'crazy' daughter. And it probably wasn't an unusual reaction at that time. Her father stayed in the car when they came to pick up her belongings. It was a withdrawn Alison who rang the bell while her mother avoided looking at me from the other side of the road.

The Old Court House
St Aubin, Jersey
But this story doesn’t end badly. A year or so later, she was back to full health and working for the Midland Bank in London. I stayed with her at her parents’ house in Romford for a weekend and we partied at Covent Garden and Stringfellows. We went to Lanzarote together one Christmas, to Marbella the following summer. She came back to Jersey for holidays. And it was down to Alison, and a dancer friend of hers, that I ended up meeting Tony on a blind date in 1985 at the Old Court House in St. Aubin. And it was Alison who I called 20 days later, before anyone else, from Tony’s house in Kent to tell her we were engaged.

‘I knew something like that would happen,’ she said, and then she burst into tears.

She subsequently met and married a policeman, had two kids, who must be in their late teens and twenties now. We sent Christmas cards for a few years and then we lost touch.

Can friends last a lifetime? They seem to for a lot of people, but mine tend to be compartmentalised into certain sections of my life. But that doesn’t make them any less precious, or present.

Pommes Dauphinoise or Potato Gratin

Alison and I once cooked a whole meal from Robert Carrier recipes in the weekly magazines I collected at the end of the 1970s – starter, main course and dessert – after which she complained that she’d never sieved so many things in the course of one day. Carrier wasn’t user friendly, or at least not user friendly enough for two girls in a bed-sit preparing everything on a counter-top Baby Belling Cooker with two rings. The Pommes Dauphinoise were one of the easier dishes we cooked, and the one that was appreciated most by the two guys we were cooking for.
‘Are there any more of these?’ one of them asked.
But there weren’t. I’d followed the recipe to the exact ounce of potato and they cooked down to half their original size. These days I know better than to trust a recipe when it says ‘enough for 4’, particularly if you’re cooking for potato freaks like me or hungry men.

In my version of the Carrier recipe I slice the potatoes very finely and soak them for 30 minutes or an hour to eliminate the starch then rinse and dry them completely between kitchen paper. They can’t be dry enough, but don’t do this until you’re ready to use them or they’ll go brown.

I then layer them in a dish with a light scattering of very finely chopped onion, salt and freshly ground pepper between each layer, finishing with a layer of potato. In the UK I use Elmlea Whipping Cream (part dairy, part vegetable oil) and pour it over until the cream is just visible under the potato layers, then I sprinkle grated gruyere cheese over everything and more ground pepper. Here in France I use the equivalent of single pouring cream.

Don’t use too deep a dish or they’ll take forever to cook. A big shallow dish that’ll take 3 layers is a good idea. Cook for about 90 minutes in a medium oven until soft and bubbling and golden on top. Cover the top with foil if it gets too brown.

But… while in Wales recently I found this recipe in the Western Mail:

I am yet to try it but I like the idea of simmering the sliced potatoes in the cream infused with garlic and thyme. However, as you might expect, I’m not convinced by ‘serves 4’ and I’d put the dish in a hot oven for 30 minutes, or more, instead of using the grill to make sure the potatoes are cooked right through and the cream has been thoroughly enough absorbed.

(p.s. the bit missing from the middle of the recipe where the paper tore awkwardly? It’s: until the potatoes are soft but still have a little bite.)

Hungry Writing Prompts
  • Write a list of things that feel exotic to you.
  • Write about a telephone call that surprises or shocks.
  • Write about feeling angry.

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 and tailed them, sliced away their woody spines. ‘Just a plate of these’ll do me,’ he used to say, ‘with some butter and a drop of pepper.’

9.25 from Port Talbot to Gatwick Airport
Cappuccino, Mineral Water, Apple, Lightly Salted Crisps, Belgian Chocolate Cookies

Snow along the tracks as the train passes through Bridgend, Cardiff, Newport. I remember the winter of 1962/63, the winter Sylvia Plath died in London, the one people still talk about along with 1947, and now, perhaps, 2010 with its airport closures and blocked motorways. I remember staring out of the front-room window at the snow lying thickly along Chrome Avenue, hiding all the pavements and gardens, and continuing to fall, in big, slow flakes. I am 4 years old, wearing a white tartan skirt, standing on the sofa, my fingertips pressing into the claret-coloured Rexine. But if this is a true memory why do I see myself from behind? Why don’t I see only the street, the view through the window? How much of my past is invented, a patchwork of memory and imagination?

15.45 Seafood Bar, South Terminal Departure Lounge, Gatwick Airport
Pink Champagne, Foie Gras and Crayfish Salad with Green Beans and Cherry Tomatoes, Wholemeal Bread
Tony asked me to marry him on a flight from Heathrow to Miami. He stood up in front of our bulkhead seats and said, ‘Blods, will you dance with me?’ There’s not a lot of room in a bulkhead so it was more swaying back and forth on the same spot than dancing. And then he asked. And I said yes.

We didn’t want to get married. In fact, ever since we first spoke about it, I couldn’t stop thinking about stories of people who’d lived quite happily together for twenty years, as we had, before suddenly deciding to get married, and then split up within a year. But we needed to get married to buy the house in Antibes. French inheritance laws are complex and unavoidable and inheritance taxation between ‘unrelated’ people is cripplingly high. So we really did get married for the money!

And because it was a purely administrative choice for us we didn’t want to mark the day in any way. We didn’t want to suggest to anyone, and particularly to ourselves, that things would be different from now on. So getting married in Florida while we were there on holiday, with no friends or family present, and with no excuses or explanations to make to anyone, seemed the easiest and most ‘un-remarkable’ thing to do.

But you have photographs? people ask. No, sorry. We didn’t do that either. But we did laugh in Deerfield Beach Town Hall with a Public Notary who looked like Whoopi Goldberg and who repeated, ‘You guys!’ each time she asked about friends, witnesses, cameras, flowers etc. After 30 minutes and a bill for $135 we went back to the little bungalow we'd rented on Hillsboro Beach, had pancakes for brunch and then went for a swim.

That was three years ago. Now here he is, waiting for me on the other side of the Plexi-glass security screen when I come through Passport Control at Nice. He jumps up and down and waves with both hands, mouthing hellooooo, oblivious to people standing around him. If he asked me to dance now, even with the screen between us, I’d say yes.

Haricots Verts with Garlic Butter Glaze

The beans I remember picking in my dad’s garden were runner beans, the ones with the red bean hearts inside the green pod, or at least they were red until you cooked them and then they lost their colour. He grew dwarf beans too but they weren’t as dramatic as the runners. They (obviously, by virtue of their name) didn’t grow as tall. I couldn’t lose myself in a tunnel of scratchy leaves and sunlight. Picking them was more chore than adventure. So this recipe is my apology to dwarf beans, or Haricots Verts: you have my complete attention now.

Snip the tops off the beans, and the curly tails too if you don’t like them. Apparently the French don’t. Steam, or drop them into lightly salted boiling water and simmer, until cooked but still have a bite to them. You don’t want mushy beans.

Melt a knob of butter and a tablespoon of olive oil in a deep pan and add some finely chopped garlic. Swish it around over a medium to low heat for about a minute until it’s cooked. You don’t want burnt garlic. Switch off if the beans aren’t ready.

Drain the beans and toss them in the hot garlic mix over a medium to low heat until they are glistening and steamy.

Serve them with anything. Or eat them on their own. Or add finely sliced salami or chorizo and top with shavings of parmesan for something fatter and more filling.

Apple Pancakes with Cinnamon Honey Cream Cheese

Actually the apples are optional because they sound better than they end up tasting. Or maybe I haven’t found the right apple here in France. I’d imagine that a fresh Cox, or something crisply similar, would be the best because anything that’s too sweet or too juicy is indiscernible in the final pancake. I’ve tried Braeburn, Gala, Jazz, Pink Lady, Fuji, and some anonymous red and green ones that were just labelled ‘French’ and only occasionally detected a burst of appleyness. But I still use them because if you flip them over quickly when the batter is still a bit wet on top the bits of apple splash towards the outer edges and create a crisp fringe. Now, if I haven’t put you off, this is how I make them.

1 small cup of flour
1 small cup of milk
1 medium egg

Mix together, add a pinch of salt, and 1 small grated apple, peel and flesh.

(I’m sure you realise that if you decide to use a large cup then you follow that pattern.)

Melt a knob of butter in a large frying pan and when it starts to sizzle add enough batter to make one big pancake, or two or three individual dollops to make two or three smaller ones.

Wait until the tops of the pancakes start to develop little holes as that means they should be cooked and golden underneath. Flip over for another minute or so.

Now, about the cream cheese. You can use Light, or Low Fat, but it doesn’t taste the same. I’d rather use the Full Fat and have big taste, small portion. Who am I kidding? Big taste, big portion. Add runny honey and ground cinnamon to taste; mix well and serve on the side of the pancakes.

Sprinkle with icing sugar if you’re allowed.

Hungry Writing Prompts
  • Write about leaving home.
  • Write about a garden.
  • Write about someone who has waited for you.