25 May 2011

Cake. And writing prompts.

In Aimee Bender's The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake nine-year-old Rose tastes emotions in the food she eats:

So every food has a feeling, George said when I tried to explain to him the acid resentment in the grape jelly.
I guess, I said. A lot of feelings, I said.

When she tastes her brother’s toast, with butter and jam and sprinkles of sugar, she detects something folding in on itself. At the bakery she tastes the baker’s tight anger in a chocolate chip cookie.

I always taste expectation in the first few sips of champagne. Burnt pizza tastes like meanness. The hot, fluffy flesh of a jacket potato is somewhere between laughter and sleep.

All the dinners I resisted eating when I was little: could I taste my mother’s hard work and thrift in them? I was too young to empathise with the effort required of her to keep a house, to feed and clothe three kids, to pay the rent and bills on my dad’s steelworker wage, and still put away a little each week. I am sure she went without for us. I am sure they both did.

When I was eleven I visited the Roman Baths in Bath, grown up enough to wander around the thermal spa ahead of my parents, old enough to have my own pocket money to spend in the Pump Room tea and coffee shop.

It was sitting in its own fluted white paper case and looked like a doughnut glazed with syrup; a flower of cream had been nozzled onto its crown. Its exotic name was hand-written on a folded card: Rum Baba. It had to be delicious.

At the first mouthful the cloying sweetness seemed to penetrate my teeth and gums while another flavour, probably rum essence rather than true rum, rushed like a wave of acrid disappointment to the back of my throat, my nose, and even into my eyes. These were flavours beyond the capabilities of my eleven-year-old taste buds. This was a cake from an adult world. It repelled and confused me. And I felt like crying when I left it, uneaten, on the table, the proof of my pocket money squandered.

The spa water at the Baths was laced with minerals: it made us smack our tongues against our teeth, the roofs of our mouths. Is this what the past tastes like: layers of salts and sulphur compounds, calcium, potassium, magnesium. Fissures and pathways. Hardness and softness.


Hungry Writing Prompts
  1. Write a list of happy food.
  2. Write about sleep.
  3. Write about the things your parents never had.
  4. Write about someone eating cake in a coffee shop.
  5. Write about hardness.

18 May 2011

Apples

10,000 trees it says on the orchard deeds but it feels more like infinity when I’m standing in the main tractor lane that cuts through the middle, as straight as a roman road, with rows of apple trees stretching out on either side of me and ahead to the windbreak of poplars and past them all the way to the beech trees at the edge of Offham woods.

We have come home from France for two weeks to see what can be done with the apple farm. The farmer who rented it for seven years decided not to renew his lease. So this year we’ll try and sell the crop to a local apple juice company who’ll supply the bins and lorries but it’ll be up to us to pick the the fruit.

We are learning about tractors: Massey Fergusons are the best. About models: standard, narrow and vineyard. About equipment: toppers, tipping trailers, rear bin forks. There is the language of apples to learn: cultivars, pollinators, yield. And stories to remember: when you shake a Cox’s Orange Pippin you can hear the rattle of its seeds loosely held in the flesh unlike other apples whose seeds are part of the flesh.

It is mid-May. The blossom has come and gone and the apple buds are as hard and shiny as marbles. Beneath the trees last year's windfalls have almost returned to earth. If there’s enough rain and the right amount of sun, no drought, no freak hail in June, no scab or mildew, then we’ll have a good crop.

Between now and July, when the fruit buyer will come and make his decision, all we can do is mow, spray, weed, and hope for the best.

in the empty cold-store apples everywhere I breathe


MJ’s Tarte aux Pommes

I’ve never really grasped the tart or pie issue. When I was little my mother made what we always called apple tart: on a large Pyrex plate with a pastry bottom and top. But some people will say that a pastry top automatically makes it an apple pie. For others, a pie only has a top crust. In France it’s easier, they’re all tarts. If you know what I mean!

My friend MJ’s recipe is exceptionally easy but impressive. The addition of lemon curd is a touch of delicious genius.

In France the ready made pastry is particularly good. You can buy 'all butter' (pur beurre) versions thus avoiding the dreaded hydrogenated vegetable oil thigh building and heart clogging ones. And you buy it as a ready rolled circle in its own sheet of baking paper too. so all you have to do is unroll it and trim it to fit a flan dish. Alternatively you can buy a ready baked pastry case.

If you go along the uncooked pastry route, prick the bottom of the pastry all over with a fork once you’ve fitted it into your dish and bake it for about 10 minutes at 180°, just until it starts to turn colour and then continue here:

Spread some bought apple puree over the bottom of the pastry case. About 150gr should be enough. Quarter and core some dessert apples, (don't peel them), slice them thinly and lay them in a pretty pattern over the puree.

Heat a good tablespoon of lemon curd with a teaspoon of water and use it to glaze the uncooked apples. Sprinkle with a little bit of cinammon.

Cook the tart for about 20 minutes at 180° but make sure the pastry doesn’t get too brown.


That’s it. And it looks and tastes gorgeous. Of course you could make your own pastry, your own apple puree, and your own lemon curd. You could even grow your own apples. In which case, I highly recommend the Massey Ferguson 135 as the perfect orchard tractor.


Hungry Writing Prompts
  1. Write about something that doesn’t end or seems as if it will never end.
  2. Write about a tree.
  3. Write about something that is rotten.
  4. Write about waiting and hoping.
  5. Write about a dish your mother used to make.

10 May 2011

Doing It Right

I am making a summer fruit flan with my five-year-old granddaughter, nothing complicated – a ready-made sponge flan-case, strawberries already cut in half, raspberries, a packet of Quick-jel – nothing that can hurt her, nothing that can be spoiled under her energetic little hands, so why is the didact inside me so intent on her 'doing it right'?

Put in the strawberry halves cut side down, around the edge, and tightly together, I say. But she doesn’t seem to be listening and drops them anywhere. She leaves gaps that I hurry to fill. And then the raspberries. Choose the small ones first, I tell her, and put them in the spaces between the strawberries. But she chooses any sized ones and squashes them in, their ripe flesh pulping between her fingers and thumb.

When it comes to the Quick-jel, I bring the saucepan over to the kitchen bar, hand her the wooden spoon and say, Stir it gently.

Pink waves break over the side of the pan and I realise she’s not even watching; her eyes have drifted to the other side of the room bewitched by her Granddad unravelling a knotted piece of string.

I cover the fruit with the gel while she climbs down from her stool asking Granddad about the fish, when are they going to call and feed them, and can she go upstairs and open the little door in her bedroom that leads to the roof’s dusty eaves.

Later, in the garden, she cuts the flan and lifts it before I can warn her to Keep the knife flat, slide it out slowly. We eat it upside-down and throw the crumbs to the fish.

When she asks me to tell her a story of when I was a little girl, I tell her how once I polished my mother’s red and green kitchen floor with Cherry Blossom Dark Tan shoe polish. After that, we both run through the orchard, screaming because giants are chasing us up and down the rows of apple trees.

'attic': what I don’t want to say
when she asks, what do you call
the sky in your house?
  
Hungry Writing Prompts
  • Write about doing something wrong.
  • Write about not listening.
  • Write a list of questions you don't need answers to.
  • Write about something you did as a young child.
  • Write about the sky, but don’t mention the word 'sky'. 


4 May 2011

Slow

Absinthe Bar, Antibes
One of the reasons why I love our house in Antibes so much is that pretty much everything is within walking distance. The centre of Antibes is a short walk along the seafront and up the broad, plane tree-lined Boulevard Albert 1er. Supermarkets, La Poste, our bank and insurance agent, the Mairie, the Provencal market, bakers and fishmongers and chocolate shops, enough restaurants, bars and cafes that would probably take a year to visit, are all there.

Juan les Pins lies in the opposite direction, a steady climb to the crest of Chemin de Sables from where, 75 years ago, the 19th century palazzo that’s currently being renovated must have had a sweeping and uncluttered view of the bay and the Cap d’Antibes. Now the horizon is mostly filled with high rise apartment blocks that start on land once belonging to the palazzo’s estate and trickle down the hill to La Pinede at the edge of the town, a park full of umbrella pines, clumps of Strelitzia, or Birds of Paradise, and fairground rides for little children.

I now find myself measuring distances in streets and landmarks (the other side of Place de Gaulle, or two streets after Café Kanter) rather than the miles I used when I was living permanently in Kent where even buying a pint of milk involved a car journey.

How long each walk takes depends on how long you’ve been living here. In my first few months it took me ten minutes or less to reach the centre of Antibes. These days it’s likely to be fifteen, or more. I suppose the heat is one reason to slow down. Even in February the sun can sometimes be hot enough to have you wiping perspiration from your forehead and tugging the damp cotton of your t-shirt away from your skin if you set out route-march style. Try it in July or August and you’ll find yourself liquefying after the first 200 yards. But that’s only part of it. The engine that drives life here actually runs at a slower pace.

It might be easy shifting down a gear during a two or three week holiday but getting used to a slower pace every single day is more challenging. Even after three years I can still get irritated when the person serving at the fishmongers or the greengrocers keeps on chatting, at length, with a customer after they’ve made their purchase, regardless of the queue of people waiting.


Yesterday, when I went to buy some Carpentras strawberries at the greengrocers, worth every cent of the 4,50  for their sweetness and deep red hearts, the woman carried on tidying up the punnets of soft fruit, shifting them towards the front of the stall, lining them up neatly. I’ll be with you in a moment, Madame, she eventually said to me, but she didn’t rush, and stood back to admire her handy work before going back behind the stall to ask me, Qu’est-ce que vous voulez? The strawberries that have been sitting in my hands for the last 4 minutes?!

But yesterday I managed to embrace the slowness. While she was wrapping the strawberries I tasted a little slice of melon from the sample plate she'd put out (the first Provencal cantaloupes of the season) and told her I’d take one of those too. She picked up one, two, weighed each one in her palm, tapped them and put them back. She took a third to the scale then changed her mind again, brought it back and exchanged it for another. Ça c’est un bon melon, she said and I had no doubt she’d be right.

I won’t idealise France; it’s not always the case that ‘slow’ is good. I signed a mandate for a new savings account at the bank two weeks ago and the account still hasn’t been opened. But that’s French bureaucracy for you; even the French complain of la paperasse, the bumf of paperwork and length of time that even the smallest administrative task can entail.

But sometimes slow is wonderful. No one has ever chosen a melon for me with such care. And not necessarily because she wanted to please or impress me, but because it was her metier, her trade, and doing it well was what mattered.

Slow Tomatoes

I’ve been preparing this dish with winter tomatoes, adding a sprinkling of sugar to enhance their flavour, but now we’re into spring, and soon to be summer, they don’t need that extra kick of sweetness.

Cut the tomatoes in half horizontally and place cut side up in a baking tray. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with dried herbs – oregano, or Italian, or Herbes de Provence. If you’re using winter or forced tomatoes you might want to add a little salt and sugar too but don’t over season as the flavour does concentrate during the slow cooking.

Now you have a choice. Either put them in the oven at 100° centigrade for 3 to 4 hours or at 50° centigrade over night. This timing is okay for medium to large tomatoes.

I love them cold with crusty bread, or just snacking on them during the day, but I’ve used them in a tomato and buffalo mozzarella starter too, dressing them with roughly chopped basil and balsamic syrup.

Slow here means flavour. So good.


Hungry Writing Prompts
  • Write about walking away from home.
  • Write about slowing down.
  • Write about soft fruit.
  • Write about someone who cares.
  • Write a list of all the good things in your life.