Are we all racists?

I’m at the counter of The Seafood Bar in Gatwick airport’s South terminal, my regular pit-stop on journeys between the UK and France over the last three years.

I think the woman preparing lemon slices, toast and salad is Phillipino and her English is a little broken and rushed. ‘He come take your order soon Madam,’ she says smiling at me and nodding towards a man busy with customers at the far end of the bar. I can hear his eastern European accent.

‘No problem, I’m not in a hurry,’ I say and take out my book, a French translation of one of Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels, Fleshmarket Close. Translated British and American crime novels, or policiers, are perfect for improving my French; their tension keeps me turning the page and the syntax is much easier to understand than a lot of contemporary French literature.

Nous sommes tous racistes, inspecteur…, moi aussi. Ce qui compte, c’est la façon dont nous abordons cette triste réalité.

The words of Mohammed Dirwan, a Glasgow lawyer working with immigrants and refugees on the fictional estate of Knoxville.

We’re all racists, inspector…, myself included. What counts is the way in which we tackle this sad reality.

After a few minutes, she notices that he’s still busy and takes my order herself, although he delivers the plate with an equally lovely smile, and during the course of the next 40 minutes they both check to see that everything’s okay, that I don’t need anything else.

I love good service, and since living in France I’ve even got used to being called Madam; it makes me feel like a valued customer. My smiles are probably as wide as theirs, in reciprocation of their attention as well as the gorgeous food.

The Classic Salmon Balik
Caviar House & Prunier
I’m half-way through my Balik, and Rebus is contemplating another evening in the company of a bottle of malt, when the cut-glass English accent to my left grabs my attention.

‘You mean he’ll come and take my order,’ she says in response to the Phillipino woman, and there’s something pointed about the slow and deliberate way it’s delivered. It feels like a lesson in grammar and pronunciation, and not a kind one.

A minute or so later she places her order for two spoons of caviar without a please or thank you, a long manicured nail hovering above her choice on the menu; offers a clipped ‘yes’ when he suggests a glass of champagne or Muscadet because she’s taking ages to make up her mind. The characters in my novel take a back seat to the character next to me.

After she’s finished and he lifts her plate and starts to turn away from the bar she impatiently waves him back indicating with her snapping fingertips, and without saying a word, that she wants to keep the serviette. When he hands her the bill and explains she’ll need to pay separately at another till for the box of biscuits she’s picked up from the shelf, she interrupts him sharply. ‘Yes, I know. I know.’ When she leaves she doesn’t say thank you or goodbye.

I’m beginning to understand why waiters might spit in someone’s food. I’m also wondering if I’m more irritated than usual by this kind of rudeness because she’s black.

The thought has shot through my mind that one minority group should have more compassion or consideration for another, a ‘she should know better’ kind of response, but that idea seems quickly  ridiculous in the light of racial intolerance in all parts of the world.

So perhaps it’s her behaviour combined with the Received Pronunciation. An old colonial aspect that jars with my Welsh working class upbringing.

Or perhaps it’s just her abruptness and condescension that I’m taking umbrage against. Because the people serving her are gentle, polite and friendly and good manners cost nothing.

La politesse, ça ne coûte rien.

But I keep on thinking about it during the flight. There was no doubt I was initially surprised by her colour after hearing her voice. Is that racist? What counts is how I tackle that reality.

Hungry Writing Prompts
  1. Write about a journey.
  2. Write a biography for a character who annoys you.
  3. Write about a time when you judged someone.
  4. Write about the colour of your skin.
  5. Write about politeness.

The Invention of Mousse

What was your iconic party food as a child?
Party dresses: my big sister and me 1961

Mine was ‘mousse’: the whisked concoction of Rowntree’s jelly and evaporated milk that my mother made. She filled stiff, waxed paper jelly dishes with it for birthday parties,  glass dishes for Sunday teas, or used it to make a quick trifle topping, pouring it over the jelly-set swiss roll and tinned fruit instead of the layers of custard and cream. After leaving it in the fridge for several hours it set stiffly around the million air bubbles added by a furious session with the rotary whisk. When you pushed your spoon in it made a sound that was a cross between a squeak (the noise jelly made) and a squelch (the noise of custard).

There was strawberry mousse and orange mousse but I preferred the strawberry. The tang of orange set into sweet milk just didn't taste right to me and I’m still a bit resistant to orange combined with anything creamy today.

The original 1952 Prestige Rotary Whisk
and glass jelly dishes.
In a recent cloud of nostalgia I bought a new hand rotary whisk, a Faringdon 30cm 'Fouet rotatif' with stainless steel blades, but my mother still has and uses the same whisk that Uncle Michael bought her as a wedding present 58 years ago: a Prestige model with a dark wooden hand-rest and handle. It made the mousse, it beat eggs to a yellow cloud, and it took the lumps out of the gravy on Sunday morning if I’d added the potato water too quickly to the fat, flour and Oxo cubes.

But despite its usefulness the rotary whisk along with the other sharp and awkwardly shaped kitchen utensils, (the silver carving knife, the potato peeler and masher, the turned metal skewers), was still one of the bad men in the country of Cutlery, the game I played in my head while wiping dishes. It was down to me, armed only with a tea-towel, to save the lives of the ordinary people: the knives and forks (fathers and mothers), teaspoons (the kids), and the deep-bowled tablespoons (grandmothers) who were so old and slow I was forever rescuing them at the last minute and delivering them to the safety of the cutlery drawer.

I believed that the invention of mousse belonged to our family. No-one else’s mother on Sandfields Estate made it. But in her book, Miss Dahl’s Voluptuous Delights, Sophie Dahl gives a recipe for ‘Clover’s Carnation milk jelly’ in honour of her younger sister. The brand of evaporated milk available at our local Co-op (pronounced ‘kwop’ in south Wales) was Ideal and I think that ‘Ideal milk jelly’ just caps Miss Dahl’s pretty alliteration. Listen to the glee in its long second syllable and the conviction in its name: this milk really is the best.

Ideal Milk Jelly aka Sandfields Estate Strawberry Mousse

Sadly, I could not find Ideal evaporated milk in any supermarket, so I plumped for an 'own brand' rather than surrender to Carnation. You, of course, are not expected to display such staunch loyalty.

What you need:
1 packet of strawberry jelly
half a large can of evaporated milk

What you do:
Break up the jelly into a jug or bowl capable of holding at least 1 pint of liquid (the whisking will increase the quantity).

Add enough boiling water to the jelly cubes to make half a pint and stir until all the lumps dissolve.

Frothy jelly and frothy evaporated milk.
Leave it in the fridge until it begins to set. It'll probably take about half an hour but you can tell it's ready when the jelly sticks to the sides of the bowl when you swish it around.

Set upon the jelly with the rotary whisk until it's very frothy then, in another larger bowl, whisk the evaporated milk to an equally frothy state.

Pour the jelly into the milk and whisk again until it's all one frothy homogenous mix.

Pour or scoop into jelly dishes and leave to set fully in the fridge for at least 2 to 3 hours.

Three mousses: strawberry,
strawberry with a blackcurrant top and
You can play with different flavoured jellies and make layers in glass dishes but make sure your bottom layer is firm enough before you add another or your mousse will be far from ideal… sorry, I couldn’t resist!

I made strawberry with a blackcurrant top, which was decidedly paler than I anticipated, but very pretty, very girly.

Hungry Writing Prompts
  • Write about a birthday party.
  • Write about a domestic object from your childhood.
  • Write about a childhood game.
  • Write about a belief you had that was subsequently shattered.
  • Write a page of words that you like the sound of.

Guest Post by novelist, Deborah Lawrenson

I am so pleased and excited that Deborah Lawrenson accepted my offer to write a guest post. I've read her previous novel, The Art of Falling, where she writes exquisitely about family, secrets, food and landscape so I know what delights lay in store for readers of her new novel, The Lantern, due out in the UK and the US later this year. Enjoy this short excerpt from the book and what she has to say about the place that inspired it. And, as you'll see, she makes a mean tomato salad too!

That summer the house and its surroundings became ours, a time reduced in my memory to separate images and impressions: mirabelles, the tart orange plums like incandescent bulbs strung in forest green leaves, a zinc-topped table under a vine canopy; the budding grapes; the basket on the table, a large bowl; tomatoes ribbed and plump as harem cushions; thick sheets and lace secondhand from the market, and expensive new bedcovers that look as old as the rest; lemon sun in the morning pouring through open windows; our scent in the linen sheets.

From The Lantern

When my husband and I bought an atmospheric but crumbling old hamlet on a hillside in Provence, we arrived with the keys in July to find an overgrown wilderness. A relentless sun had supercharged weeds and wildflowers in the courtyard and the grass on the terraces was thigh-high. Effectively abandoned for a few years, the place was sad and shuttered.

Inside, the smell of mouse was overpowering. Drifts of dry leaves had found the corners of every room. Dead insects crunched under our feet. Scorpions scuttled up walls. We camped on stone floors, took note of the many large structural cracks in the buildings, and hoped for the best.

We knew this valley well. For many years Rob’s parents had owned a house in a village not so far away. I’d first visited and stayed in that house when I was his college girlfriend, way back when. That era ended, and the property was sold, but we always dreamed that one day we’d return and find our own place here.

That first daunting summer, in between sweeping and scrubbing, and meeting builders, I re-read Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and wondered… what if I had come here knowing less about the countryside I was in and the man I was with?

The idea for The Lantern came very quickly. It’s my sixth novel, but even so I don’t think I have ever begun a book more certain of what I wanted to achieve, or with such a strong sense of place. It was all there in front of me, after all. The challenge would be to do it justice: to keep the setting accurate while also conjuring a dreamscape, real and yet not real, shaped by memory and the imagination.

I wanted to evoke the timeless fear of the unknown, beginning with the insidious uncertainties that mark the end of a love affair’s first hectic passion, and real life begins. The idyll of a long Provencal summer that cools into autumn, and brings unexpectedly chill winds, in other words. What begins as a romance becomes a darker story.

It’s also a novel of the senses: as well as vivid visual descriptions of the landscape, I’ve tried to evoke smell and taste and sound and texture, making them integral to the atmosphere until there is an inescapable feeling that there is also a sixth sense in play: an instinctive sense of foreboding that cannot be explained rationally, only felt.

For where we are in the Luberon is a sensuous landscape, with its hilltop villages, lavender fields, clear bright light and rippled blue hills, abundant fruit and vegetables. Scents and colours abound, and even the simplest of meals seems infused with its spirit. Simplicity seems extraordinarily close to hedonism when you find “harem cushion” tomatoes like these in Apt market.

The tomato salad they will make is one of the most delicious and simple dishes known to man: just sliced with onion and a handful of ripped basil, then dressed with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. It takes five minutes to assemble and then all you need is a baguette, newly baked with a light crust from your favourite boulangerie in the Rue des Marchands, to mop up all the juices. Here is a spring version, using spring onions for a touch of green instead of basil. The perfect lunch, and a taste of summer and outdoor dining to come.

The Lantern will be published in the UK by Orion in July, and in the US by HarperCollins in September.

Deborah Lawrenson graduated from Cambridge University and worked as a journalist in London. She is the author of six novels, including The Art of Falling, chosen for the prestigious WHSmith Fresh Talent promotion, and Songs of Blue and Gold, inspired by the life of writer-traveller Lawrence Durrell. She is married with a daughter, and lives in Kent and a crumbling hamlet in Provence, France, which is the atmospheric setting for The Lantern.



What’s the first thing you can remember eating?

Porthmadog 1962

I don’t remember eating these chips with my older sister, Shân, on holiday in North Wales, though I have a faint memory, that my mother says is from the same holiday, of the walls in a square upstairs room of a B&B that the four of us shared for one night. My father remembers it was an old school house in Capel Curig. My mother remembers the woman who owned the house giving us buttered welshcakes. But all I remember is the walls. They had some kind of decoration or fixing, perhaps a frieze or a dado rail, or maybe there were paintings or framed prints hanging around the room, but something cemented those walls into my memory. And each time I pull that scene to the surface I see that the ceiling is high too, the perspective preserved from my four-year-old eyes.

I look at the photo again; my left hand is a blur, the Box Brownie capturing it in motion, and something stirs. Do I remember wanting to hold a chip for the photo, the novelty of eating them from a packet outside propelling me to strike a pose, or am I inventing the memory? We are four and seven; the expression on my sister’s face is so beautifully contented I yearn to remember the moment.

I do remember eating chips on the back seat of our car outside the chip shop in Llwynhendy at the end of a long Saturday of family visits around Llanelli in West Wales: on my father’s side Grampa Rees and Uncle Michael, my father’s younger brother who lived at home until he was 32, Uncle Ivor and Aunty Beryl, Uncle Tom and Aunty Marion, and on my mother’s, Granny and D’cu, Uncle Bryn and Aunty Nancy, her only sister.

The frequency of the visits and the amount of people we called on decreased with the years. In 1965 Uncle Michael married, to probably more than a few raised eyebrows, a divorcee with a nine-year-old daughter. And if that wasn’t enough her previous husband had been a Scottish footballer. Duw, duw! They moved to Pemberton Park and kept to themselves.

Grampa Rees
Grampa Rees died when I was 8.
‘Daddy’s an orphan now,’ I said to my sister that night as we were lying in our single beds on opposite sides of the room.
‘No, he’s not!’ Her abrupt and tearful response surprised me, as well as the logic. If your mam and dad were dead then that meant you were an orphan, didn’t it?
‘He’s got us!’ she said.
I didn’t know that counted.

But my parents must have become weary with the dutiful round of family visits too, visits that were sometimes greeted with what seemed like indifference, or an absence of any obvious delight. They’d left Llanelli in 1957 and moved into the house where they still live on Sandfields Estate, outside of Port Talbot, because of Dad’s job at the Steelworks there. So perhaps tied up with their sense of duty was the conscious, or unconscious, desire to stay connected to and preserve their own memories of the place they were born, grew up and were married in, the place they knew as home.

The past closes over so quickly.

Whatever my parents felt at the end of those long days, and despite the round trip of two hours, and sometimes more, that it took to drive the 22 miles there and back in the early 60s, despite the boredom we kids experienced in houses where we’d been warned in advance to sit still and not to touch anything, and not to ask for anything either, the chips in the car on the way home made it all worthwhile. They were ‘open, not wrapped’, fat-cut and salty, sprinkled with vinegar in a greaseproof paper packet held in a fold of white paper and a sheet or two of newspaper through which the heat still seeped and almost burned my hands.

Sometimes we had fishcakes too, or rissoles, although the dominant ingredient of both was potato rather than fish or meat, but that didn’t matter. I loved biting through the crisply fried breadcrumbs to the soft pillow of seasoned mash inside, blowing on hot chips and licking salt and vinegar from my fingers as the car windows slowly steamed up.

It was dark by the time we finished. Mam collected the rubbish and Dad started the engine, blowing the heater onto the windscreen and wiping away the condensation with a chamois. We left behind the chip shop lights and drove out of Llwynhendy, through Bynea, Loughor, down to Fforest Fach and Swansea, along the Jersey Marine, and over the Briton Ferry Bridge, past the petrol station where Dad once bought four gallons for £1. My head rests against the cold window. My eyes are half closed. Nearly home now, nearly home.

Hungry Writing Prompts
  • Write about something you can’t remember.
  • Write about a place you visited as a child, from that child’s perspective.
  • Write down the names of all your relatives; include everyone, cousins, children and in-laws, and as far back as you can remember.
  • Write about duty.
  • Write about the back seat of a car.

Eat Write

This is what makes me happy: good books, good food.

Barnes & Noble, University Commons, East Boca, South Florida
Bad food makes me grumpy, as I’ve said elsewhere. And I’ve eaten more unappetising and occasionally lamentable food on residential writing courses than at any other places or times in my life.

On these courses, at least in the UK, evening meal preparation is organised on a rota system. 16 course participants divide neatly into four groups of four for cooking dinner on Tuesday through to Friday. If you’re lucky each group will have at least one person who knows their way around a kitchen, but even then success isn’t guaranteed because cooking for between 18 and 20 people is not the same kind of undertaking as cooking at home for two, or four, or even eight. Even with recipe cards and ingredients supplied there’s a whole world of difference as far as cooking stages and methods, timing and seasoning are concerned (regardless of what the recipe says), not to mention the conflicting opinions of four people who don’t want to add salt, or prefer their rice firm, or believe that butter is bad for you, or don’t even like food that much and see it as fuel rather than feast and bang it all together with the finesse of a farmer preparing mash for pigs.

The food on one course in the 1990s has been seared into my memory for being particularly depressing (penible the French say) due to administrators (poor dabs) struggling to cater for seven omnivores, two pescetarians, four vegetarians, two vegans, two wheat and dairy intolerances and one nut allergy. If there is anything worse than eating variations of flavourless tomato and vegetable based stews for supper every night for a week, it’s having to help prepare them. I wrote nothing of any note that week, devoid as I was of inner comfort.

In my experience, each cooking team will also include a self-confessed, ‘I’m hopeless in the kitchen but will gladly wash up’ older man. I like these men. They tend to be jolly and self-effacing; you can tell them what to do and when to do it. They’re pleased to be directed and don’t take offence, unlike ‘the one’.

Yes, ‘the one’. The majority of writing groups, residential and otherwise, have ‘the one’, the person, and they can be male or female, who’s overly defensive, confrontational and attention-seeking. They create an atmosphere, a palpable tension that sometimes has to be diffused by the tutors, or the group themselves manage to deal with it by bonding so strongly they hold any conflict at bay. I know one administrator/tutor who spent most of a week with ‘the one’, alternately distracting and soothing them in order to keep the rest of the group running smoothly.

But, it doesn’t happen in all groups, and it’s not all the time. Although if you are in a group and there isn’t, as far as you can tell, ‘the one’ then it’s worth considering whether ‘the one’ might be you!

But back to food. Not everything I’ve eaten on writing courses has been disastrous, but for the most part it’s been mediocre. Perhaps that’s inevitable when the people detailed to cook are distracted, unable to give their full attention to the task, unwilling even. After all they’re there to write and every minute of that week is precious. And food prepared without care and love generally appears careless and loveless on a plate.

So when I founded and ran the AppleHouse Poetry School at my home in Kent between 2005 and 2007 I was determined that the food had to contribute to the overall experience. What’s the point of booking an exceptional poet and tutor to run an exceptional workshop or master-class if, at lunch, people are presented with mediocrity, or worse?

AppleHouse developed a reputation for good food and wine, sometimes themed to match the workshop that was running, a reputation for excellence and caring. Printed menus. Freshly brewed coffee. Fresh ingredients and home-made dishes. Free-range chicken and ocean caught fish. And, between August and October, even apples from our own orchard. Taste, colour, aroma and texture. These are the elements that mattered. The elements you might expect in a good poem, a poem that both feeds and satisfies you.

Baked Salmon with Chilli Kick Leeks

Colour and texture (and taste, of course, but that goes without saying) are what I love about this dish. And it’s so easy too. It’s a variation on the salmon from the menu on the left  for Tamar Yoseloff’s workshop. By the way, Hungry Writing Prompts follow the recipe so if you’re hungry to write, and not hungry to eat, scroll down.

Mix cream cheese with crushed garlic (one clove to 125gr of cheese) and spread over boneless salmon fillets. Make fresh breadcrumbs (the hardway is to grate an uncut loaf, the easy way is to chuck a slice or two of wholemeal in your blender and whiz a couple of times) with grated fresh parmesan and freshly chopped parsley, or if you don’t have any, you can use dried chives, and press lightly all over the cheese topping.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes at 200°

While the fish is cooking, finely slice washed and dried leeks (not too much of the dark green bit) and sauté gently in a little oil and butter, adding 1 crushed dried piri-piri or bird’s eye chilli for every two leeks.

Serve the salmon on a bed of soft, buttery leeks.

Hungry Writing Prompts
Write about being disappointed.
Write a recipe for something inedible, not necessarily food.
Write a list of all the things you’ve ever tasted.
Write about conflict.
Write about what satisfies you.