Wednesday

More, please

There is always more:



the shore of a stone sea


the heart of a bonsai grove

or these two old ladies like exotic finches in their turquoise and black pants suits, lips painted red, white hair coiffeured and lacquered: their tiny bones weighed down with two many bright feathers. They cling to each other as they totter on each step towards the Museum’s doors, then rest at the top to look behind them, at the lake with its reflections of sky and trees. If I clapped my hands suddenly, they might take flight, across the water, rising over the umbrella pines and bamboo grove, their wings stretching in the warm air as if they’d never feared falling, never doubted that earthbound was just a passing phase.

 ~~~

There is always more to know about myself. Like how I can feel simultaneously ecstatic and discomforted. Sitting alone in the Japanese restaurant, overlooking the lake at the Morikami Museum & Gardens in South Florida, there’s the joy of being exactly where I want to be and choosing whatever I want to eat and in whatever order I want to eat it. There’s no-one to express astonishment or disagree, or suggest something else. If I want to start with dessert I can. But every other table in the café is lively with chatter and chopsticks which seems to exaggerate the silence and emptiness at mine. I have left the museum guide open on the table next to my napkin, a notebook and a pen beside it, and while I’d like to put them away, to be uncluttered, I'd feel too exposed if I did. They fill some of the space around me, like laying down a blanket on the grass in a park, defining my boundaries, creating a small known world for me to occupy.



I order chilled tofu with soy-garlic sauce, finely sliced spring onions and pink leaves of pickled ginger, Chef Fu's crab cakes and bang-bang shrimp, a bowl of edamame beans.


I’m in Japanese gastronomy heaven, swinging deliciously between silken and crunchy, sweet and sour, cool and spicy. I try a steamed edamame bean which looks so much like a sugar-snap pea…


…that I pop the whole thing into my mouth and immediately wish there was someone sitting opposite me. Someone who will laugh with me while I choke and spit out a masticated lump of woody pod. Perhaps the waiter turning over the bowl's deep lid and leaving it on the table was a clue, but I’m still not absolutely sure of edamame protocol and I can’t see anyone else eating them to pick up some tips. Perhaps I was unlucky with a particularly woody pod, but they all seem equally tough between my fingers and bristly too, like the skin of a very coarse peach, so I decide to pop the pods and trickle the beans onto my plate.

While I didn’t laugh at loud I did smile and chuckle quietly to myself. Though it wasn’t so long ago when a similar gaffe would have had me squirming with embarrassment. Perhaps age has helped me take myself less seriously, made it easier to laugh at myself. Or perhaps I’ve made a complete fool of myself so many times now that I’ve begun to enjoy it.

During a workshop a few years ago I invited the group to contribute a verb, a noun, an emotion, a time, and an adjective for a 10 minute spontaneous writing exercise… dreaming, a house, regret, late afternoon and… fluffy. Fluffy? But spontaneous means running with whatever's suggested so we all began to write.

I like this kind of writing exercise, how it reveals the different worlds we all create with much the same material and so it’s great when students are happy to share their free-writing afterwards.
‘I’m afraid I haven’t used ‘house’,’ one student apologised before she read. ‘But I do have my character looking out of a bedroom window.’
‘That’s fine,’ I said. ‘You have an implied house.’ And, in a rather more enthusiastic manner than I intended, ‘I actually have an implied fluffy.’


Hungry Writing Prompts:
  1. Go to a park, museum or café and watch someone or a group of people. If they were animals, which animals would they be? And why?
  2. Write about being alone.
  3. Write about someone who can’t or won't laugh.

Daily Bread

At school and at Sunday-school I closed my eyes, clasped my hands together and prayed in English and Welsh: Give us this day our daily bread: Dyro i ni heddiw ein bara beunyddiol, words I repeated by rote that meant nothing to me.

It came to us in a van that toured the estate, street by street, whose back doors opened to slatted shelves and the smell of flour, where I gazed at the plump Cottage loaves and imagined carrying one home in my arms like a baby. But I always parted with the half-crown piece for the disappointingly smooth, pale crust of a Sandwich Loaf that my mother would cut with a silver knife.

At mealtimes, unless there was gravy on our plates, it sat in the middle of the table – bread and butter, bara menyn – thin slices, cut in half, which we were expected to eat, out of habit, tradition, a memory of hunger.

For years I bought it, threw so much away, dry and forgotten, riddled with mould. But now I live in the kingdom of bread: baguette, ficelle, couronne, pain au restaurant, de campagne, de seigle, au levain. Its scent drifts from every corner. It comes wrapped in twists of paper. I carry it along the street, arrive home with crumbs between my teeth. The power and the glory; yr nerth a’r gogoniant.

Hungry Writing Prompt: Write a poem in praise of an ordinary thing.


Kanwar’s Perfect Baguette Test

According to my nephew, the perfect baguette has a sound like the first soft cracklings of a log fire, or the crinkle of thin silver paper, the type I remember from old cigarette packets, when you hold it to your ear and squeeze it, gently, between your thumb and fingers. And after all the bacon baguettes he has eaten from his tuck-shop at King’s School in Rochester he is something of an authority on the subject.


I’ve yet to run the test in the UK but here in France I choose a baguette that’s pas trop cuit, not too cooked, one whose crust is lightly golden rather than caramel. But unless I’ve managed to synchronise my purchase with the moment the bread leaves the bakery oven it’s unlikely to meet with Kanwar’s approval.

So preheat the oven to 200° C for around 10 minutes and pop in your baguette for 2 minutes, no more. If you have the fatter pain au restaurant (the French bread you generally buy in British supermarkets) it’ll need 3 to 4 minutes.

And, squeeze.

Home-made croutons

Cut day old bread into roughly ½ to ¾ inch cubes, removing any crusts that are too hard.

Mix olive oil with crushed garlic (or minced or powdered dried garlic if that’s all you have), dried herbs and salt to taste and toss the bread in this mixture. It should be slightly damp on the outside rather than saturated. Cook on a baking tray at the bottom of  the oven, on a low heat, about 125 to 140° C for 10 minutes. Shake and turn and cook for another 10 minutes until they are crisp throughout.

Lovely on leafy salads or home-made soup.


Tuesday

Lessons: Mam's Vegetable Soup

for Mammy

It has never been in your nature to give up, not even at catering college when the head chef put you to peeling and chopping onions every day for weeks in a row. You were there to learn and you would take something from every task, every day in that professional kitchen; you would show yourself determined and willing, unable to be beaten.

At home you astonished us, unwrapping the knives you kept sheathed in a drawer, that we were forbidden to touch, and transforming a topside of beef into ‘Olives’, a shoulder of lamb into Navarin. You were suddenly more than the wife and mother we knew: a woman carrying the noises and scents of other countries into our south Wales home, your fingers scented with garlic; al dente you said as if the words had always belonged to you.

And here I am, forty years later, astonished again by this bowl of soup you carry into the conservatory and place before me in a patch of sunlight: the simplicity of parsnip, onion, carrot, potato, simmering in a glassy broth flecked with herbs. You hand me parsley, parmesan. ‘Can I get you anything else?’ you say. The fragrance, the tenderness.


Mam’s Vegetable Soup

2 onions chopped
2 cloves garlic chopped or crushed
1 small swede, 1 parsnip, 3 carrots, 3 potatoes all finely diced
2 organic vegetable stock cubes
1 litre water
dried mixed herbs
salt + pepper
a little olive oil

Put all veg + olive oil in large saucepan, cook for 10 mins, stir.
Dissolve stock cubes in boiling water, pour into saucepan, add herbs.
Simmer gently for about 2 hours until cooked, season with salt and pepper to taste.

p.s
try for an equal amount of root vegetables


Hungry Writing Prompt:

Write about a time you were astonished by food, by the look of it or by its texture, taste or smell. Or write about a time when someone you knew well astonished you.

Wednesday

Eat, laugh, cry, remember: Baked Camembert

Once, on a holiday in Malta, I dressed Tony up in my gypsy skirt and stretchy white vest, used two satsumas for breasts and made up his eyes and lips with the brightest colours I had with me. Then I took a photograph. He didn’t seem to mind, in fact he seemed quite tickled by the fuss and attention to detail, but the quantity of rosé we’d shared at Snoopy’s restaurant on the seafront in Sliema earlier in the evening might have had something to do with that.

This was 1988. There were no digital cameras for instant viewing (and, praise be, instant deletion). The only instant photographs at the time came courtesy of Polaroid, with their packages of square film and box-like cameras, and slid out of the front of the machine on shiny thick card that everyone huddled over and watched develop. But they tended to be party cameras, appearing at Christmas, birthdays, engagements. You captured your holiday photos on a proper camera, one you had to load and feed film into, then unload and drop off at a chemist’s shop to be developed and the prints collected a few days later.

Tony had absolutely no memory of our photo session, or even the haziest recollection of the dressing up that preceded it. His face when I showed him the photo was, appropriately, a picture. Not that he made a particularly good woman - muscled biceps, chest hair and a moustache aren’t the most winning of feminine attributes.