Friday

Relax, enjoy.

The fridge is brimming with free range chickens and vegetables and enough Tesco Finest Wild Mushroom Filo Parcels to feed a small army. Some things are worth doing yourself (garlic and herb roast chicken and potato and celeriac dauphinoise), some things aren’t (stuffing little squares of filo pastry for hours).

Christmas is low-key at our house. We stopped buying ‘presents for everyone’ years ago and that makes life much easier. Unless 1) you can afford it, and 2) you know that someone wants something particular then Christmas presents can be a debt inducing, stress filled, disappointing activity and finale.

My present to the four people I’ll be eating with on Sunday will be a walk around the apple orchard to see the bouquet of pheasants (I just checked that on Google!) living in the wild there, followed by an afternoon of home cooked food (mushroom parcels aside), lots of laughter with a log-fire and a sparkly Christmas tree. I love Christmas trees. But real Christmas trees not joking ones. (That’s South Wales for ‘pretend’ or ‘artificial’, as in ‘Is that a real log-fire or a joking one?’)

I wish you your perfect day too whether it’s quiet or boisterous, whether it takes place this weekend or any other time over the holiday season.


Relax, enjoy.
Happy Christmas – Nadolig Llawen.

Eating with Real People

Steak and roast chicken, savoury sausage and baked salmon, wine and puddings, maple fudge and a custard slice. It has been a week of eating. When I arrive at my home town of Port Talbot in South Wales, within minutes of getting off the train, it’s the first thing I organise, and then organise again. And again.

Pretty cappuccino at
Cafe Remos, Aberafan Beach
Actually, the custard slice was only half a custard slice. I shared it with my sister at Café Remos on Aberafan Beach after we’d spent a couple of hours walking around the western perimeter of the council estate where we both grew up. My new book, Real Port Talbot, will include memoir (my own and others’) as well as local history and the only way to see an area, to notice what remains, and to remember what has disappeared is to walk it. Even if the wind threatens to take off the top layer of our faces as we turn the corners of the ‘colour’ streets near the beach. And, appropriately, it’s in Scarlet Avenue that my sister confesses to forgery.

‘I only had one ticket for the Naval Club Disco,’ she says, ‘and I wanted my friend Veronica to come with me so we made another one.’

I’m impressed. She was only 12! Think of what she could have achieved if she’d capitalised on this talent.  

I confess that I once stole a monkey nut from the greengrocery section at the Co-op in Fairway. I could feel the dare rising up in me as I realised it would be small enough to fit into my eight-year-old hand and I brushed my fingers over the top of the pile and closed them around one. 

In the warmth of Café Remos we watch the whip of the sea and the rain slap against the plate glass windows. Opposite us a man is reading a  black leather bible and making copious notes into a spiral bound notebook. I wonder what his reaction would be if he knew he was in the presence of a forger and a thief?

At this point my sister and I would like to point out that we were not encouraged by our successes in these fields and that these were our first and only attempts at deceit for material gain. And I didn’t even like monkey nuts.

12 Cafe, 37 Commercial Road, Taibach, Port Talbot

You could pass 12 Café in Taibach, a community to the east of Port Talbot town centre, and be excused for thinking that this was a contemporary café more or less like any other. It offers leather sofas at the front, plenty of bright, clean tables and chairs, and free wi-fi. All the food is prepared fresh every day as the intoxicating, savoury scent of baking proves as you enter.

I’ve come in with Allen Blethyn, a retired carpenter and joiner who discovered his passion late in life for local history, for researching the people and the places and the events that make us who we are now. Allen has shown me copper slag coping stones, chapels and old butcher’s shops and now he takes me into 12 Café because he understands that the Real Port Talbot will be just that: a real account of the town as it is now as well as a record of the past.

12 Café is a social enterprise run by West Glamorgan Council on Drug and Alcohol Abuse Limited. You can read more about the project and its aims here.

While I am sure there are lots of different social enterprises providing valuable help to people and communities this one, revolving around the preparation of food, of people eating together, particularly appeals to me. The whole ethos of cooking is about transformation and understanding. It’s about self-confidence and contributing to the enjoyment of others. And one cheese and onion toastie and a café latte later it is obvious that 12 Café has all these ingredients and more. 

I currently have two stamps on my loyalty card. I reckon I’ll be getting my free coffee very soon. But if you're too far away to pop into 12 Café you can Like them on Facebook and tell them what a great job they’re doing.

Hungry Writing Prompts
  1. Write about something that has disappeared from your life.
  2. Write about a crime.
  3. Write about something you remember from your past that has affected your present life.
  4. Write about a particular smell that you associate with a particular place.
  5. Write about a favourite cafe.

The cooked and the cruel

Where does the love of food end and cruelty begin? I’m sure there will be different boundaries among us, and contradictions too. I’ll start with myself: I will only buy free range eggs but I ate foie gras several times during my four years in France. I refuse to buy the battery chickens from the supermarket but I don’t question the source of the pork in Tesco Finest Cumberland Sausages.  Actually, that sounds more like hypocrisy than contradiction.

I am reading Breakfast with Socrates by Robert Rowland Smith, a series of philosophical commentaries on the ordinary content of our day to day lives, from getting ready to go out, sitting at a desk, going to a party, to falling asleep at the end of the day. In the chapter, ‘Cooking and Eating Dinner’, he describes the French penchant for ortolan, a ‘delicacy’ I’d never heard of that has been illegal in France since 1999, although the laws have only been properly enforced since 2007. I should warn you that it doesn’t make for easy reading:

The ortolan – a bunting, the size of a sparrow – is trapped and incarcerated in a windowless box to be fed figs; when it has fattened, it is literally drowned in Armagnac, its minute lungs flooded with the rasping liquor. Now dead, it is plucked, roasted and served whole – bones, guts, pluck and all – with only the head to be left dangling untouched beyond the eater’s lips.

François Mitterrand, the former French president, ate ortolan at his ‘last supper’ while terminally ill with prostate cancer, with his head concealed beneath the traditional napkin. The reasons for this are disputed: it’s a messy business crunching through bones and innards; it preserves the aromas; it hides your face from God. Mitterand died eight days later.

Of course I prefer to think that my unquestioning purchase of pork sausages is on a different level to Mitterand’s ortolan feast. And perhaps, to some degree, it is if I believe the supermarket’s claims about animal welfare.

But the ortolan story has been playing on my mind since I read it.

… just as either the overripeness [pheasant, cheese] or the rawness [sushi, steak tartare] of what you serve can speak to your cultivation, to your acquired level of artistry, so cruelty can exhibit your refinement.

So what will I do the next time I’m in a restaurant and fancy ordering the foie gras? Ask if it comes from a duck or goose that hasn’t been subjected to gavage or force-feeding? Some top chefs, including Anthony Bourdain, have supported foie gras production from humanely treated, properly raised ducks so, in theory, it should be available. But could I be sure? No. I’ve said in other posts on this blog that the world needs more kindness.

There’s a Michelin star restaurant in Reading, England, called L’Ortolan although the little bunting on their logo looks quite happy and there’s no trace of the barbaric dish on any of their menus. Still, personally, I’d think about a name change.


Hungry Writing Prompts
  1. Write about the one item of food you couldn’t do without.
  2. Write about an instance of cruelty.
  3. Write about ‘a last supper’.
  4. Write about watching someone eat.
  5. Write about an aspect of yourself that you don’t like.

Buffets and fiction can change your life

I am reading A.D.Miller’s Snowdrops and now I never ever want to go to Moscow. I know it’s not a Rough Guide; it’s not a Lonely Planet traveller’s insights.  I know it’s fiction, a story created in the author’s imagination, but its descriptions and portrayal of people and everyday life are so convincing.

In an interview on the Man Booker website, Miller says: The kinds of crime that the book describes, the pervasive corruption it depicts and the awful vulnerability of anyone without powerful connections are real, as people who have spent time in Moscow will recognise. The details of the Metro, the dacha, the night-life and so on are, I hope, true to life.

No hoping needed. He has absolutely nailed ‘true to life’. But apart from the off-putting crime and corruption, the blood-letting bureaucracy and the cold that freezes the hairs in your nostrils and glues your mobile phone to the palm of your hand, there’s the food:

On the desk was the kind of Russian party spread I always dreaded, as inedible as it was extravagant… all sweaty fish, jellied and unidentifiable bits of animals, Russian chocolate broken into clumps, blinis that were getting cold…

I can empathise with the ‘party spread’. In France, invitations to dinner seemed to be rather stress-inducing formal affairs for their hosts. There was never such a thing as a casual invitation to ‘come and have something to eat with us’. In Antibes it always meant the whole shebang of pre-dinner drinks accompanied with variations on puffy cheese balls, followed by a shift to the dinner table for a dressed salad, a main course, a cheese course, a dessert, their accompanying wines, and then another (heavier) shift back to the salon for digestifs and chocolates. So the popular alternative was to invite people for a ‘party spread’ or, as they called it, un apero dinetoire.

This was a slightly earlier event than dinner that involved champagne or wine and a range of small snacks handed from guest to guest in a way that reminded me of the childhood 'pass the parcel' game, each tray diminishing in servings as it did the rounds.

I could never work out how preparing half a dozen finicky snacks per person was less trouble than plonking a big dish of spaghetti Bolognese in the middle of the table, along with a crusty baguette and a couple of bottles of red wine and saying, Servez-vous! But the french didn't seem open to that kind of British informality. They had their own, a variety of foods you’d never choose to eat together in one sitting: thick cured salmon with a dollop of warm crème fraiche, a little plastic glass of cold carrot soup, saucisson, brioche smeared with duck paté. Think compulsory food tasting and you'd be getting close.

More food from Snowdrops:

We ordered some vodka and ‘herring in a fur coat’ (marinated fish buried under a sludge of beetroot and mayonnaise).

There’s something unpleasantly visceral about fish and fur in the same phrase. It reminds me of a money dealer I used to work with in Jersey who, if you came in with a killer hangover, would torture you with the image of a chunk of fatty bacon tied to a thick piece of wool being dangled in your mouth.

But back to Snowdrops and its ability to put me off going to Moscow and, if I’m honest, Russia in general. Is it shallow, or naïve, to allow fiction to have this kind of effect on me? Does this clump me with the 50% of British people who, Google tells me, believe Sherlock Holmes was a real person? I’d obviously prefer to think that it doesn’t and that it’s the novel’s emotional intensity, how hypnotised I am by the narrator’s life and experiences, that is contributing to my current negative response to the city.

The Russian women in Snowdrops tend to be young, hard and beautiful. I am convinced by them too. They fit into the landscape, the weather, the economy. And so far (I’m two thirds of the way through the novel) I don’t like any of them either! But I can't recommend this book enough for the insidious way it has taken over my mind, how it keeps me hooked from page to page with its understated dramatic development, and for the quality of its writing too.

The pavement looked like it had been doused in chilled gravy,  says the narrator. The streets smelled of beer and revolution.

This week I'm a hungry reader.

Hungry Writing Prompts
  1. Write about the first story you remember reading.
  2. Write about snow.
  3. Write about an invitation to dinner.
  4. Write about something you used to believe.
  5. Write about someone you don’t like.  

From Florida to Fowey: remembering the laughter

In June 1988 we went to Florida for three months. We lived about as far west of Fort Lauderdale as you could get at that time, in Plantation Acres, with the British artist Barry Leighton-Jones and his family.

Painting on the terrace.
During the day Tony painted on the terrace, taking on board Barry’s suggestions for editing and improving his composition or palette, and I made my first attempts at writing, thanks to the discovery of Natalie Goldberg’s book, Writing Down the Bones in a local bookstore, Books Etc. As inspired as I was by her words and encouragement you wouldn’t have been able to identify that from the first entry I ever made into a little spiral notebook not much bigger than a mobile phone: The birds were tweeting. I kid you not.  

At the end of most days, Barry’s wife, Andrea and I set out wine, jumbo shrimp and dip, and the four of us sat on the terrace and chatted while the kids jumped in and out of the pool with Ginger, a barmy red setter.

It was a summer of discovery and friendship, a summer of generosity, even if, when we first arrived, I was anxious at the thought of being 24/7 in the company of four kids aged 5, 7, 9 and 12. And there must have been moments when my tolerance was stretched but my over-riding memory of that time is one of laughter. And of mealtimes together.

Before we arrived dinner was often a fractured affair: the kids grazing, Barry eating his statutory beef and potatoes, Andrea making herself a snack. But with our arrival, and the creation of an extended family, dinner became a celebration of the day. We laid the table with silverware and napkins each night, placed that night’s meal in the centre of the glass oval table – spinach and ricotta cannelloni, or crumbed chicken, or a spiral ham from the Deli at Publix, with salad and potatoes and big hunks of Floridian French bread – and we crammed ourselves around it and ate together and told jokes and stories and laughed.

Twenty three years later we are driving to Fowey in Cornwall for Barry’s funeral. So much has happened to their family in the intervening years – court cases, debts, teenage pregnancy, separations, emigration, divorce – events that can break people, events that can turn people away from one another, but within days of Barry’s death the whole family were together again.

There has been dissent between us too: anger, disappointment and recrimination. But we’ll be there with them all on Monday. And we'll eat together again too, food prepared by Barry's youngest son who is now a chef in London.

When the kids talk about that summer in Plantation Acres, they still say ‘the two-storey house’. Before that they’d always lived in ranch-style houses and the stairs in this one were a novelty. In the 1990s they moved to Helen, Georgia where, for a short while, they lived in a three-storey house, but they never talk about that one in the same way. Life had changed by then and not for the better.

'the two-storey house'
The summer of ’88 in the two-storey house with its orange and grapefruit trees. With a field of cows next door where Ginger would roll in cow-shit the moment after you’d given her a bath. The house with ceiling fans and a TV in every room. The house where I found the beginnings of a voice that would change my life. Where we laughed and loved. The house all of us will always remember.

Barry Leighton-Jones at Plantation Acres, Florida 1988
In memory 1932 - 2011


Hungry Writing Prompts
  1.  Write about something you did one summer.
  2. Write about a dog.
  3.  Write about someone you have lost contact with.
  4. Write about a staircase you remember from your childhood.
  5. Write a eulogy to someone.

Plain sailing with cats. And bananas.

Chica has been living mainly under the bed since we came back from France three weeks ago – in an under-bed storage drawer on wheels filled with spare bedding. Sometimes, when I bend down to check on her, the drawer has rolled up against the skirting board, or over to the far left. Of course if I try and roll the drawer while she’s in it, she’ll get out. Cats are like that. They will never do what you want them to do, or go where you want them to go, when you want them to.


Tony says she’s a strange cat (and she does have her odd ways – she won’t sit on your lap, ever, and she plays fetch, like a dog, with elastic bands) but I think she’s just taking her own time to settle into a different house and environment: from French suburban living to the British countryside, from the screech of seagulls to the low growl of a passing train, from palm trees to apple trees. And a drop in temperature at an average of 6 or 7 degrees. To be honest, I’m having a bit of a problem with all of these things myself.

But overall the 800 mile journey back with her in the car, and the first couple of weeks here, have been pretty much plain sailing. However she still won’t go out during the day, preferring the cover of darkness, and despite all the common sense and logic and ‘she’s a cat’ arguments I tried to convince myself with my stomach still tightened into a nut the first time I watched her disappear around the side of the packing shed and into the orchard, all 20 acres of it.

But, each time, she’s pranced back, cocky as a dressage horse, at negotiating the tarmacadam tundra of the farmyard and the jungle of long grass between the trees, and a whole world of smells she’s never encountered before.

When she comes in I practice my Pavlov’s Dogs routine, feeding her Dreamies so she connects returning home with a reward. (If there isn’t a Cat Psychology degree course out there then there should be.)

The Dreamies are a big success. They must be the cat equivalent of the Macdonald’s breakfast wrap I wrote about last week.

My own rewards since I’ve been back have been:
sausage (British as opposed to French)
sushi (Tesco as opposed to authentic Japanese)
stuffed vine leaves (doing my bit for the Greek economy)
Pinot Grigio (despite only being 40 minutes from Italy the Cote d’Azur staunchly protects its own wine market)
wraps (edible as opposed to pashmina)

I couldn’t buy large plain wheat wraps in the south of France and I can’t say that I really missed them, not while I was living in the Kingdom of Bread. But now that I’m back I’m indulging my banana wrap cravings.

I invented the banana wrap for my granddaughter, Summer, as it was the only way I could get a small amount of protein into her during her ‘reluctant to eat’ early years. And they pretty much do what it says on the label:

Step 1

Step 2

Step 3 might be optional for you but it’s pretty essential for me:

Step 3
Bananas and brown sugar were born to lie together. After that it’s just a case of wrapping:

Step 4
And eating.

Summer used to ask me to make this wrap for her when she came to stay. She also once asked me why she was free to do whatever she liked in my house which came as a bit of a surprise because I’d always been really strict with her as far as bedtimes, mealtimes and TV watching were concerned. But within those clearly defined boundaries she obviously did feel free.

What I Remember
                                    (For Summer)

How Dadcu wore his belt buckled at the back, pulled
so tight around his skinny waist the tops of his trousers

fluted like piecrust; how he swallowed raw eggs, breaking
the yolk in the chamber of his throat; how the fire roared

behind yesterday’s paper stretched across its mouth
and Granny melted cheese in dishes on the grate,

kept an open tin of condensed milk for tea. The lumpy
featherbed, the musty wardrobe, a chocolate coloured fur coat. 

And what will you remember? Your granddad throwing you
in the air, the fat china woman on the edge of my bath,

the window at floor level in your bedroom looking down
on red tiled roofs, sheep in long grass, the apple orchard? 

Or the day we smeared our faces with burnt cork
and you said You are my best friend. But no,

that is what I’ll remember, and how you asked
Why do you make that funny face when you look in the mirror?  


Hungry Writing Prompts
  1. Write about an animal you had as a pet.
  2. Write about reward.
  3. Write about sugar.
  4. Write about feeling free.
  5. Write a list of things you remember about your grandparents.

Thursday

Loving it: Macdonald's and crud

A man in Port Talbot, South Wales drove his car into Macdonald’s because they wouldn’t serve him in the drive-thru hatch as he was on foot. I know what you’re thinking: why didn’t he take his car into the drive-thru in the first place? The 8 pints of lager probably had something to do with it. Maybe he thought he was in his car. I picture him miming a steering wheel, tootling up to the hatch making broom-broom noises: ‘Quarter pounder with cheese, large fries. Shall I turn the engine off while I wait?’

When the staff told him to go to the restaurant he went to get his (real) car, parked it on the kerb and walked back (you can’t fix stupid) to the drive-thru hatch to make a fuss at which point they refused to serve him anywhere.

‘You'd better move yourself, I am coming in. Even if I've got to ram these doors down, I am coming in.’ That’s the voice of a man desperate for a Macdonald’s.

In true media fashion the manager was quoted as describing the situation as ‘carnage’. No, carnage is the destruction of the rain forest. Carnage is factory farming. It’s killing people slowly with sugar. But where does corporate responsibility end and personal responsibility begin? No one’s force feeding us burgers and nuggets. We are doing it to ourselves.


I told my great niece that Macdonald’s chicken nuggets are made from giblets and crud. At first Ffion, who’s six and a chicken nugget fan, refused to believe me. More recently she’s accepted that they could be made of giblets but refuses to believe there’s any crud in them. (Crud is the word I gave her for the stuff she has to wash out of her fingernails).

‘But they fall on the floor,’ I tell her, ‘and that’s where the crud comes from.’

‘Mammy, she’s not right, is she?’ Her voice pleads from the back seat of the car. Her mother doesn’t disagree with me.

 

Tony says that when he sees the big bar of Galaxy chocolate on the coffee table he can feel his jaws starting to ache for it, his mouth begin to salivate. ‘I could easily eat the whole thing,’ he says. ‘I have to stop myself.’ When I watch the Macdonald’s TV advert for their breakfast wrap ­– sausage, bacon, egg, potato rosti and cheese lovingly folded into a wheat wrap – I want one. I really want one. (I’m developing a vein of empathy for the Port Talbot drunk.) What can be wrong with it? They use free range eggs, pork sourced from British farms. They have a sustainable seafood strategy and recycle their cooking oil. They campaign against litter and use low energy lamps in their restaurants. They employ 80,000 people in the UK and run an education programme. In the last 20 years they’ve built 14 Ronald Macdonald Houses to provide accommodation for families with children in hospital. The Sunday Times says they’re the best big company to work for. Macdonald’s are starting to sound like the Mother Theresa of the corporate world. Jeez, they’ve even received three awards from the RSPCA.

It’s often easier to accept pre-packaged arguments from both the defenders and attackers of any issue  than sift through vast amounts of information to find our own truth. But for now I’m sticking with my giblets and crud argument, at least until Macdonald’s start using free range chicken meat.

Hungry Writing Prompts
Write about drunkenness.
Write about refusing to do what you’re told.
Write a fan letter to someone or something.
Write about a childhood belief.
Write a list of positive attributes/characteristics about someone or something you have doubts about.

Friday

Missed deadlines and sausages

I have been carrying this Cumberland sausage around for twenty minutes, the loops of its resealable transparent bag tangled around my fingers like a rosary.  It's jumbo size, curved to an oval and, guessing by the even colour it's been oven baked, and over-baked if I'm honest, its glistening brown skin a little wrinkled. I have clutched it up and down the aisles of Tesco's at Lunsford Park, near my home in Kent, feeling its heat and fearing even to let go of it at the checkout in case it disappeared under a pile of crumpled carrier bags. In the carpark each bag I lift into the trunk is one step closer to it. By the time I slip behind the steering wheel and close the door this sausage has developed mythical status: it is the homecoming sausage. It is all the sausages I haven't eaten during three years in France. It is the sausage to answer my prayer, assuage my cravings for a good British banger.

 
Of course it does not live up to expectations but some things are good even when they're bad and I forgive the way the skin squeaks when I take my first bite. I forgive the over-seasoning, the enthusiastic bite of black pepper. And I ignore the option of the resealable bag. Nothing will stop me from wolfing the whole thing down in less than three minutes flat. And I do.

 
That's what I was doing when I should have been posting the latest hungry writer on Wednesday, 2nd November as promised. Sausage lovers among you will understand.

 
Writing about what I had for lunch, even in Tesco's carpark in a state of sausage deprivation, risks the webspeak accusation of 'cheese-sandwich' blog, a blog that only offers, as columnist Pete Wells says, 'the dear-diary scribblings that don't acknowledge, let alone describe, life outside the author's dorm room.' (Click on the link to enjoy the whole article.)

 
Since starting the hungry writer a year ago I've tried to make sure that every post is 'about something', that the food, or the anecdote or memory, act as a vehicle for an idea. I think I've been more successful on some occasions than others but having this focus disciplines me, encourages me to strike out some parts of a post that verge off track, or include details to expand the theme I've decided to explore.

 
Above all, the author should know how to complete the sentence "This blog is about___." Pete Wells says later in the same article. the hungry writer began as a way for me to write about family, about childhood, and about memory through the vehicle of food. In the above link, the beginning, I also said it was, About home, about leaving home and finding ways back.

 
Last weekend I left France for good and came back to live in the UK. I have been expecting to feel some sense of loss, some sense of longing for the southern coast, the sea-breeze in the garden, the smell of bread from the boulangerie on the corner. At least a touch of sadness for leaving the house we spent so long making beautiful. But all I have felt is contentment. Okay, I have also felt an overwhelming sense of knackeredness as we packed up one house in a 40ft lorry, drove 800 miles and unpacked it all in another house in the course of three days, but the physical aspect of the move aside, my emotional response to the change of environment, of culture and language, has been joyful.

 

 

 
Shortly after we bought the house in Antibes I remember saying to Tony that I felt more at home there than I'd ever felt in rural Kent. I thought I was speaking the truth, but I can't identify with those words now. I don't think I could feel more completely at home than I do right here, now.

 
So much of what we believe, of what we feel, perhaps even of who we think we are, seems to be dependent on the moment we are living in, the world we are experiencing in that precise and elusive present.

 
far away
from the sea
today the rain
comes in waves

Hungry Writing Prompts
  1. Write about eating something secretly.
  2. Write about missing a deadline or an appointment.
  3. Write a list of things that mean a lot to you.
  4. Write about a long drive.
  5. Write about rain.

Wednesday

Flying, eating, reading (and Writing Prompts)

Life doesn't get better than that. Although I have to say that flying isn’t what it used to be. I’ve put up with Easy Jet over the last three years because of cheap flights from Nice and convenient airports (Gatwick and Bristol). Their food is pretty dodgy though, particularly anything hot – the last bacon breakfast sandwich I had looked and tasted like it had been laminated – so I’ve tended to stick to a bottle of water or a tomato juice.

But the price of Easy Jet flights have been increasing. They might look cheaper on the Select Your Flight page but by the time you’ve added luggage and Speedy Boarding (essential if you don’t want to board a plane as part of a re-enaction of The Charge of the Light Brigade) the price starts to lose all attractiveness. The last time I flew to the UK it was cheaper to fly with British Airways than with Sleasy, and that was booking directly on the BA website too.

I remember when a two hour flight guaranteed being served a lunch, or at least a sandwich and a cake. No more.


And you’d need to be a forensic scientist to detect the trace of cheese or oregano in that packet. However, it was free. Although on the other side of the curtain, just four rows in front of me in Club World, lunch was definitely being served: the aroma of something hot and savoury filtered through Cattle Class like the animated wisp in a gravy advertisement and we were the ragamuffin kids. Ah, Bisto!

I’ve been teetotal for 23 days. Apparently, according to Wikipedia, the word either derives from a member of the 19th century Preston Temperance Society who had a stammer – ‘nothing but t-total abstinence’ – or it’s a deliberate repetition of the T in total, as in 'Tee-total'. I’m with the stammerer. I’ve felt a little bit like that m-myself now and again during the last three weeks as the urge for a glass of wine has almost overwhelmed me. I’m not on a 7-step programme or anything like that. It’s an exercise in will.

I’ve written haiku every day for 30 days. I’ve swum in the sea every day for 30 days. And it can’t do me any harm to go without any alcohol for 30 days, can it? The Daily Mail suggests otherwise:


What each of these 30 day exercises has done for me is to raise my awareness, and not just my awareness of the thing I’ve chosen to undertake or relinquish. I find myself being more aware of my thoughts and actions in general, more aware of what's going on around me too and that's always good for a writer. Observing and recording are what feeds us.

From The Daily Swim Journal
I count 100 strokes out and 100 strokes back. There are boys on each other's shoulders trying to wrestle one another into the water. A man floating belly down on an airbed. A young couple splashing and diving on one another. In the bay a double masted yacht I'd like to climb aboard. The Alpes Maritimes are covered in mist. It is strange being on my own here. There is a moveable frontier between alone and lonely, a little like the sea and sky today. Sometimes they seem so very far apart, other times they wrap around each other. I'm not sure what I am at the moment. I think that the continuing wave of guests and negotiating the sale of the house (and thinking about the move back to the UK ahead) are combining to make me wobble.

On my next flight out of Heathrow Terminal 5 I’m going to treat myself to a Gordon Ramsay Plane Food box. For £11.95 you can buy a three course picnic of freshly prepared food that beats the pre-prepared, re-heated, over-seasoned trays on any flight. Unless, I imagine, you’re travelling Business or First? But maybe you just get the same food but on proper plates with real cutlery? Or has stainless steel cutlery even been stopped in First Class? After all terrorists have money too.

However, last weekend’s trip back to Nice, from South Wales, meant that I had over 2 hours to spare at the airport so I wandered from restaurant to restaurant checking out the menus. A steak at Ramsay’s was out of the question because I couldn’t bear to eat it without a glass of red wine, so I opted for Wagamama’s and Sparkling Elderflower Cordial to go with the chicken Gyoza dumplings and the chicken Raisukaree:



I like Wagamama’s. I like the servers scribbling your order on the paper place-mat. I like it when they say the dishes are freshly prepared so they might not all arrive at your table together. And that no-one hassled me to hurry up despite every table at the restaurant being occupied. And I like their sign.

Delicious food. Great service. And a good book.

I am reading Roger Lewis’s (sorry, Dr Roger Lewis’s – he can be picky about that), What Am I Still Doing Here? He’s from Caerphilly (yes, it matters that he’s Welsh) and is the most opinionated, grumpy, intolerant and funny writer I’ve read in ages. I read Stephen Fry’s Chronicles and kept wanting to slap him for his self-indulgence, even though he kept admitting that he was being self-indulgent. Confessions (I’d even go as far as St Augustine) are often very lightly disguised manifestos of arrogance and self-importance.

Roger Lewis manages to combine self-aggrandisement and self-immolation to a perfect degree. And he has a natty way with language that tickles me pink, as my fellow passengers on BA 0356 from Heathrow to Nice will confirm. However, reading him is probably as close as I want to get. He likes tinned soup.

Back in France I am surrounded by cardboard boxes and echoes – literal, as the high-ceilinged rooms are emptied, and figurative. I am vividly aware of what we walked into 4 years ago and what we are leaving for the new owners. The house itself already had the capacity for beauty because of its architecture but we made it happen. I feel prouder now that we are leaving than I have previously felt during the whole of the three years of renovation work. And deservedly so.


the hungry writer will be taking a break next week as ‘le gros demenagement’ gets underway and we leave Antibes for a 12 hour car journey up the spine of France with the cat. Wish me a stress free time! And I’ll see you in the UK on 2nd November.


Hungry Writing Prompts
  1. Write about flying.
  2. Write about getting something for nothing.
  3. Write about a matter of self-control.
  4. Write about a grumpy, intolerant person.
  5. Write about echoes.

Monday

Dreams and transformations, marmalade, and the best view in the world, probably

The bird in my dream is tame. It sits on my hand while I am standing outside my house in Kent. It bathes in the water I pour into a dip in the tarmac right next to my feet. When it presses against my leg it changes into a grey floppy-eared puppy with a thick suede collar around its neck printed with a message: this dog is looking for a home, if it is returned to the address noted it will be destroyed.

Dreams are full of transformations. We walk into one house and find ourselves in a different place entirely. We talk to people we know who don’t look like the people we know. When we dream we’re supposed to be always dreaming about ourselves, each symbol representing some aspect of our character, our psyche.

The dream makes sense on some levels. I am leaving France and going home to our house in Kent. If I am both the bird and the dog then I am relinquishing the air for the earth, flight for firm ground.

Firm ground: the orchard around my home in Kent


Between the age of 8 and 9, in my second year at junior school, I had recurring nightmares about mushrooms and telegraph poles. The mushroom nightmares were more a feeling rather than dreams of real mushrooms but ‘mushroom’ was the only way I could describe them to my mother. Imagine yourself about to tip over into sleep then, at the edge of your perception, something soft and silent begins to expand, pushing against you, filling the space until there is no room for you, until you’re on the verge of disappearing. You cannot breathe.

The telegraph poles nightmare was more straightforward. I am passing them or perhaps they are passing me, but I am counting them. But they get faster and faster until I can’t keep up. My head spins. I feel sick and wake up crying.

My first year in Tir Morfa Juniors' had been in Mrs Bamford’s class. I remember making salt dough jam tarts. I remember her telling us about Winston Churchill’s death, the photo of a fat man with a cigar that she showed us in the newspaper. Mrs Bamford had Mary Poppins hair. Mr Davies was my teacher the following year. He was a thin, worn out looking man who wore a suit the colour of tobacco and a hand-knitted waistcoat. He disapproved of us playing with the Plasticine. If we made mistakes in our exercise books he hurled them from his desk across the room at us. Once, when I was tucking a doll into her pram he told me it didn’t matter how many blankets I put on because it wouldn’t make her any warmer. I remember feeling upset but angry too, angry because, in the way children do, I suspected there was truth in what he was saying and I didn’t want it to be true.

The Times Tables were the focus of Mr Davies’s class which we had to memorise and recite. Like most kids, I found 1 to 6 not too bad, but the trouble started with 7, 8 and then 9.

One 9 is 9
Two 9s are 18
Three 9s are 27
Four 9s are 36
Five 9s are 45
Six 9s are 54
Seven 9s are 63
Eight 9s are 72
Nine 9s are 81
and relief… Ten 9s are 90
Eleven 9s are 99
Twelve 9s are 108

Even today, when I make myself recite it out loud, I can feel the flutter of a small panic in my chest as I pass, Five 9s are 45…

After months of being woken every night by my screams my parents went to the school and complained about Mr Davies’s behaviour in the classroom. My mother remembers the headmaster saying, ‘He suffers with his nerves.’

Whatever the headmaster said or did must have worked. Mr Davies’s demeanour seemed to change overnight and the nightmares stopped shortly afterwards, though I still experienced the mushroom feeling every now and then for years, even into my early twenties, on the point of falling asleep. Maybe it happened on occasions when I was feeling anxious or stressed but it took me a long time to realise there was nothing sinister on the other side of that feeling and that I could allow myself to go with it and ‘disappear’ into sleep.



There are no mushrooms. But there is marmalade, which is transformation.

I bought a net of clementines last week, an early variety called Marisol from Spain, but they were too acidic to eat. Or at least too acidic to enjoy eating. I could have made Nigella’s Clementine Cake but Tony’s on a diet and wouldn’t have thanked me for that, so I decided on the marmalade.

I still have my first ever cookery book, The Cookery Year, originally published by The Reader’s Digest in 1973 and still going strong, and it’s the book I always turn to for basic culinary skills and recipes. I based my marmalade on the Three Fruit recipe but I used only clementines and twice the quantity of water, as opposed to three times. There weren’t any pips in my clementines so I didn’t have to bother with the little muslin bag either and I had about 740 grams of sugar remaining in a bag to the 700 grams of fruit pulp and juice after boiling so I used the lot.

The point at which jam sets for me is always rather hit and miss. I’ve even emptied jars into a pan a day or so later and boiled the whole lot up again to try and make it more jam and less syrup. The most reliable, but not foolproof, test I’ve found is tipping a teaspoonful of hot jam onto a cold saucer, letting it cool, and then running my finger over the surface to see if it wrinkles. And then eating it and trying again later if it doesn’t.


The marmalade is delicious. Sometimes when things change form they change for the better. I’m hoping that will be the case for the hungry writer because this is the 52nd post of a year of weekly posts that I committed to on October 14th 2010.

I’d imagined that at this point, 42,000 words later, I would stop writing the blog and move onto another project. After all I’ve done what I set out to do. But the habit of writing something every week, and sometimes scrabbling desperately towards the self-imposed deadline, has become part of me. I’ve looked forward to the writing and rewriting, sometimes discovering what I have to say in the drafting process, and learning about taking photos. Having a weekly objective has encouraged me to think and reflect and question. All of those things have to be good. And that’s aside from the cooking and the eating.

But perhaps things will change a little. The themes of life and food will remain, of course, but perhaps there’ll be a little more about writing. About how we do it. And reading too. And, I’m sure you’ll be reading a lot more about my home town, Port Talbot in South Wales, as I plan to to be there on a regular basis in the future. And who could blame me with a view like this:
Aberafan Beach, Port Talbot
Hungry Writing Prompts
  1. Write about something that starts off as one thing but ends up as another: an object, a relationship, a journey.
  2. Write about dreaming.
  3. Write about a teacher you had at a school.
  4. Write about the first book you remember reading.
  5. Write a list of themes that are present, or have been present, in your life.

Wednesday

Programmed to Eat and A Nice Cup of Tea

Are we born with some of our our food preferences already genetically programmed? I don’t mean not liking the texture of raw tomatoes, or preferring custard to cream, or heating up your sugar puffs in the microwave for 30 seconds. I’m talking about the cultural relationship to our food. I don’t know any British person who doesn’t look forward to, or who doesn’t starts salivating at the thought of a roast dinner, personal hostilities towards parsnips or sprouts aside.

I have drawn the line at cooking a traditional Sunday lunch during the summertime here on the Cote d’Azur – there’s only so much heat any cook can take – but outside of those months the preparation and the cooking and the dishing up and the eating of a plate of roast chicken, roast potatoes, carrots, green beans, sausage-meat stuffing and gravy makes me feel all happy and glowing inside and out.

I’ve tried the roast dinner on French neighbours and they have appeared… well… indifferent. Politely complimentary, yes, but not enthusiastic by any stretch of the imagination. None of the mmmms and aahhhs and cors that I’m used to hearing, and contributing, around a table as a fragrant wisp of steam rises off the gravy jug, when someone takes their first bite of crisp then soft potato, that first sweet taste of a honey braised carrot.

We’ve had some strange, some inedible, and some delicious meals at private houses in Antibes though I believe that the less successful ones had more to do with a general lack of interest in food combined with a deeply felt obligation to return invitations. At one dinner we ate cheese at every course: a salad of mache (lamb's lettuce) with crumbled blue cheese, endives wrapped in ham and baked in a cheese sauce, a tripartite cheese course, then cheesecake for dessert. If someone had given me a glass of citron pressé I’d have curdled.

Last week I invited my neighbours, Lydie and Josiane, for tea. Josiane is a fan of all things British so I set out my plans to make a traditional cream tea: sandwiches, scones and cake. Josiane’s medication over the last few years has left her with serious food allergies and while I could negotiate my way around shellfish and nuts (it’s astonishing how nut by-products find their way into all kinds of products here… cream cheese is one) there is no way I could avoid a raising agent for the scones and cake but commercially produced baking powder, that can contain aluminium compounds, was on her prohibited list.

When I explained I could use bicarbonate of soda and cream of tartar as a replacement they both looked unconvinced probably because they’d never heard of cream of tartar. It appears in the dictionary as Crème de Tartre but that still meant nothing to them. And to be honest if I had serious allergies then I’d be suspicious of ingesting something that allegedly originates from the coating that builds up on the inside of wine barrels.

But it all turned out fine in the end. We had les salées, the savoury part:


And then les sucrées, scones and Bara Brith (the recipe is here), both made with plain flour and and the oomph of bicarbonate of soda and cream of tartar:


And if there’s one thing I love it’s people who eat with interest and enthusiasm. Scones cut in half and served with jam and cream? Hmmm… how about spreading a little butter on that cut scone too? Oh yes, Lydie. Bon idée!

So cream teas don't fall under my genetic food programming theory. But tea, as in ‘a nice cup of’, definitely does.

If you order a cup of tea in an Antibes café you get a cup of warm water with a tea-bag on the side. (I once made my French electrician a cup of tea, British temperature, and he sat in front of it for about 15 minutes terrified to take a second sip.) The tea-bag is usually Lipton’s – the yellow sachet of bog standard tea you find on mainland Europe and in the USA but rarely, if ever, in the UK – or, if you specifically ask for it, a bag of thé vert a la menthe, green tea with mint, also delivered with warm water.

Then there are the herbal teas, although they aren’t called teas here (which makes sense given they’ve never even rubbed up against a tealeaf) but tisanes which are pretty identical to the range of herbal sachets in the UK. You know the ones? They all smell different but all taste the same, a kind of cross between Beecham’s powder and fruit sherbert?

Bill Bryson talks about tea’s dramatic history and the growth of Britain’s sweet and milky love for it, in the chapter on ‘The Dining Room’ in At Home, A Short History of Private Life. While I drink mine strong (builders’ strength) with only a dash of milk and a good squirt of honey I am definitely genetically programmed to that British predilection of tea at anytime of the day. In fact, here comes one right now.


I avoided any tea issues with Josiane and Lydie by serving champagne instead. You know that motto: When in doubt, drink champagne?

Living outside of Britain for the greater part of five years has made me reflect on a lot of cultural differences, far more than I thought there would be. But that's the subject of another hungry writer post, appropriately one of the last ones that will come from France. See you next week.

Hungry Writing Prompts
  1. Write about Sunday.
  2. Write about forced politeness.
  3. Write about excess.
  4. Write about eating in a foreign country.
  5. Write about anything you’d like to do but don’t feel equipped, or programmed, to do.

 A dozen fluffy little scones

175 g plain flour
good pinch of salt
1 tsp cream of tartar
half a teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
42 g cold butter cut into cubes
2 tbsp golden caster sugar
75 g natural full-fat yogurt
2 tbsp full-fat milk
half tsp vanilla extract

egg beaten with 1 tbsp milk, to glaze

  • Put a baking tray in the oven at 220C or gas no. 7.
  • Seive the flour, baking powders and salt into a bowl, add the chopped butter and rub in until it goes breadcrumby.
  • Mix in the sugar and shape a well in the middle of this dry mixture
  • Warm the yogurt, milk and vanilla together in the microwave for 30 seconds to 1 min or in a pan. Make sure it’s hot and don’t worry if it looks curdled.
  • Add this to the bowl and quickly work it into the flour mix using a fork.
  • Tip the dough onto a floured surface and fold it into itself a few times until it’s smooth.
Press it out to about a 2 cm thickness and use a small fluted cutter (mine’s about 4.5 cm in diameter) dipped in flour to cut out your scones. (You can, of course, make thicker and bigger scones and that would be Tony’s choice. When he’s presented with small portions of anything – cheese, cake, a dollop of cream – he always refers to them as ‘welsh’ portions. Are you wondering how we’ve managed to stay together for 26 years?!)

Brush the tops with the egg and milk, scatter flour over the hot sheet, then pop the scones on to bake for about 8 to 10 minutes. Keep an eye on them. They might need less.

Eat them all up straight away. Or you could keep them for later in the day.