Wednesday

Mathematics, evolution and prawns to die for.

I am back in Kent bouncing around on a tractor and stacking up on logs for the winter.


Four of these:


equal one of these:


Each tipped trailer-load had to be wheel-barrowed into the store and while I started counting the trips I made from diminishing woodpiles to increasing woodpile I soon gave up. Not because of boredom or frustration but because I lost myself in the repetitive but satisfying physical work of bending and lifting and throwing which left my shoulders, back and leg muscles as tough as walnuts but calmed my mind to an unruffled ocean of contemplation.

I love logs. Cutting them, splitting them, stacking them. Their scent and texture. The differing weights of different hardwoods.


But I suspect there’s more to their appeal than I’m consciously aware of.

Wood = fire = heat = food. Opinions are divided about how long fire has been used to cook food but even the most conservative archaeologist would commit to 250,000 years. And in the book Catching Fire, How Cooking Made Us Human, Richard Wrangham presents us with the idea that eating cooked food allowed our brains to expand and was central to the biological and social evolution of humanity.  It’s an interesting and convincing argument that civilised technology created humans rather than the other way round.


My own culinary evolution has currently come to a halt. After three months of cooking for guests in France I fancied a break so since we’ve been back in the UK Tony has done the cooking at home. One of his specialities is Prawns Provencal, although his blend of garlic, tomatoes and parsley is a more rustic and hearty affair than the whisper of sauce you’re served with the shell-on prawns you’d get in a Provencal restaurant.
He also uses spring onions. Is there anything more tantalising than the smell of onions frying?

It manages to be a dish that suits both summer and winter which is just as well because we left Antibes with 32 degrees wrapping our shoulders and arrived in Folkestone 12 hours later with 16 of the mean little critters biting the rain. (So when I said 'stacking up logs for the winter' those of you living in the UK will appreciate that I used the term ‘winter’ loosely: we’ve lit the wood-burner for the last two nights in a row. Don’t you just love an English summer?)


But I’m afraid that this basic list of ingredients is all I can give you.  This is because Tony says if he ever revealed his secret methods he’d have to kill me. And you.

  Hungry Writing Prompts
  1. Write about lighting a fire.
  2. Write about being bored.
  3. Write a list of things that you believe make you human.
  4. Write about the scent of something cooking.
  5. Write about wanting to know something so badly.

Staying hungry. And writing prompts.

As the hungry writer gets nearer to the end of its posting life (this is number 45 in the original plan for 52) there have been weeks when panic has crept into my bones, a little like how the cold can sometimes find its way through your coat, sweater and even your thermal vest on a winter walk and suddenly your heart feels frozen at its rim and the involuntary shiver you give is tinged with fear.

wondering what to write...
outside my bedroom window
a seagull laughs and laughs

This is one of those weeks.

Since our drive from the south of France to the south of England in the middle of last week, then, a few days later, across to south Wales, food has been:

Heartwarming: sweet potato and blue cheese bake at Fortify, a vegetarian café (with WiFi) in Maidstone.
Unexpected: foraged damsons and a few ripe cox from the orchard


Argumentative: fillet steak and a heated debate about the properties of the new cast iron frying pan, possibly fuelled by the 2005 Berton Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon that rolled off the tongue at 15.5%.
Scary: a sausage roll from the West Cornwall Pasty Company at Leigh Delamere Service station on the M4. Is the sausage filling supposed to be so slippery?
Pretty: dessert at my nephew’s wedding.


Comforting: Chicken Assar at the Shah Tandoori Indian Restaurant in Port Talbot.
Life-saving: a custard slice at Café Remo’s on Aberafan Beach two thirds of the way through a hike along Port Talbot’s coastal path from Margam Moors to Baglan Bay with Cardiff writer, Peter Finch, which was interrupted by being very nicely ‘arrested’ on Tata Steel property and escorted off by security.
Cross-cultural: White stilton with pineapple and ginger.

Lots of detail but no ideas. And I want to write things that mean something to other people and not just remain at anecdote level. I want the things I write about to become more than just their literal selves: to be vehicles for ideas that will open and bloom in a reader’s mind.

But as all writers know, and have to learn to accept, the writing process can be like that: it sometimes feels impossible to pluck out the one thing that will lead you deeper.

Do you know those grab machines at the fairground? The glass cases filled with teddies or glittering fake jewellery and the crane arm you have to direct with a lever, for as long as your shiny coin will allow, and drop it onto your chosen prize?

My crane arm is either juddering or swinging wildly. When it drops it grasps air.

But this will pass. So, for now, let’s play:

Mr & Mrs Beans-Onions
with pet Beetroot

Hungry Writing Prompts
Write about coldness.
Write about birds.
Write about something that happens at a wedding.
Write about not getting what you want.
Write about going deeper.

Tuesday

Figs. And doors opening. And writing prompts.

Yesterday evening we said goodbye to the last of our summer guests. We chalked up 19 this year, a little lighter than the 34 during our first year here. Today I’m packing and closing up the house as we leave tomorrow morning for two weeks in the UK. Then we’ll be back for a month to, hopefully, finalise the sale and move permanently back to Kent.


I’m putting aside the fridge goods, fruit and snacks we’ll take with us for the journey and calculating how much Tony and I can manage to eat of what’s left. I think watermelon does go with chopped cold chicken in crème fraiche, mayonnaise and curry spices. Well, it will today. There’s also a lonely Mille Feuille in the fridge and I can bet money that Tony will get to that before I do!

Some of what’s left is breaking my heart. Figs. Our three fig trees are plump with fruit that’s now ripening on a daily basis. I’ll take a bowl of them with us in the car and I’ve told my house and cat-sitter to pick and eat as much as she wants. I’m also hoping there'll be a few left when we get back at the end of the month so I can make Pim Techamuanvivit’s fig tart.

We don’t stop for full meals during the drive. We have brief grazing sessions in a few of the bountiful, and often very beautiful, French ‘aires’, with their picnic tables, trees and toilets, that are dotted along every motorway that leads us west then north towards Calais. They put British motorways and service stations to shame.

Hard-boiled eggs with celery salt, fresh tomatoes, peppered salami, some creamy French cheese, a baguette snapped up when we last stopped for petrol that fills the back of the car with the scent of its fresh-baked crust. Even the thought of this today comforts me a little when I think about the 12 hour drive ahead.

And the figs, of course. These little green baubles heavy with sweet flesh. They will always remind me of our house in Antibes, wherever I am in the future. The sunlight slicing through lavender shutters. The smell of bread riding on a sea breeze up Avenue des Chênes.

There’s a line from a poem of mine painted on the paving stones in the garden. I wonder if the new owners will keep it?

une lumiere qui me fait penser à des clefs de porte et je suis la porte qui s’ouvre
a light that makes me think of keys to a door and I am the door opening
I always want to be the door that opens.


Hungry Writing Prompts
  1. Write about packing a suitcase.
  2. Write about what’s left over.
  3. Write about picking fruit from a tree.
  4. Write about a picnic.
  5. Write about a door opening.

Wednesday

Cooking with Children: writing prompts and chocolate fridge cake

Take one plump child.
Set the oven to 200° C / Gas mark 6.
I know. It’s an old gag. But family and close friends know I am not equipped with the maternal gene. I never wanted my own children and as the years go by I’m still pleased with my childless state. I’m particularly averse to babies. Apart from holding new born family members and writing a poem to celebrate their arrival into the world I’ve managed to keep a distance from the whole birthing, feeding, defecating, crying and screaming side of things.

I remember the first time I looked after my step-granddaughter. Her mother had a heavy week of OFSTED inspections at her school in north London so could we have Summer to stay at our house in Kent? She was a few months past her third birthday and, mercifully, well beyond the nappy stage, but the idea of being responsible for a young child for a whole week filled me with dread. Not just the responsibility of mealtimes and bath-times and bedtimes but the anticipated boredom too.

At the end of that week I wrote my first poem for her.


Awakening

When the child comes, she rouses them,
all the never-borns, the never-will-be-borns
I never missed or wanted:
busy feet tamp across wooden boards,
scurries of handprints challenge the walls,

and I move in patterns I haven’t known –
trapping her weight against my hip,
remembering not to heat her plate,
side-stepping with precision
a torn McDonald’s crown,
a bear’s sweater discarded on the stairs.

Her hand’s a small island
on the flesh of my face. Her heat
creeps through my skin when I comfort her
in the hours before dawn.

The first night the house is empty of her
I start awake to a muster of footsteps
outside my door, cries.



It is not only blood that bind us to one another. But how to articulate what it is; that connection we can suddenly make with people of any age?

I know it wasn’t her vulnerability, or my responsibility for her safety, or her dependence on me, although they must have played some part in my emotional response. But it felt like something more shared. She added a dimension to my life even though she would have been completely unaware of it at that time. My life expanded because I got to know her.


‘Who are you?’ she asked my reflection one day when she was about five.
We were both standing in front of the bathroom mirror cleaning our teeth.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, you’re not my Nanny.’
‘Strictly speaking, no.’
‘And you’re not my aunty.’
‘No.’
‘So who are you?’
‘Who do you think I am?’ I asked her.
She stared into the mirror again.
‘I think you’re my best friend,’ she said.

This morning, in my kitchen in France, she is making chocolate fridge cake with me.

Before she arrived I was a little uneasy about what to expect. She turned 16 last month and I also lack another gene that enables understanding and tolerance of teenage behaviour. And with me living in France and her at boarding school in the UK we haven’t spent any real time with each during the last year.

And there have been a few moments during the last week when I have felt as if I am getting to know her all over again: as she tests out different identities, strikes a pose, as moods slip through her. But all these things seem incidental to the person she is at her core, the core that still reveals itself in her smile, the way she still hugs me as tight as a glove,  reminders of who she was already becoming at the age of three.


Hungry Writing Prompts
  • Write about the distance between two people.
  • Write about feeling responsible.
  • Write about footsteps outside your door.
  • Write about a reflection in a mirror.
  • Write about knowing someone and not knowing someone.

Chocolate Fridge Cake

400 ml sweetened condensed milk
400 gr of cooking chocolate (I use half dark and half milk)
100 gr butter
300 gr Digestive Biscuits


  • Melt the milk, butter and chocolate in a large non-stick pan on a very low heat.
  • Crush the biscuits roughly into various sizes into the pan.
  • Mix until the chocolate covers the crushed biscuits.
  • Pour into the flat baking tray or cake tin previously lined with grease proof paper or cling film.
  • Allow to cool then refrigerate for at least two to three hours.
  • Once the chocolate has hardened it can be cut and served.

Variations
  • Add a handful of raisins, sultanas, cranberries, chopped unsalted nuts or seeds to the mix at the same time as adding the biscuits.
  • After letting the cake set, slowly melt 200gr of white chocolate and pour over the top. Leave to set fully in the fridge. When you turn the cake out the white chocolate will form the base.

What we mean when we say goodbye, and a breakfast smoothie.

The summer has been full of hellos and goodbyes. Yesterday we said goodbye to our 17th and 18th staying guests, my step-daughter and step-grandson who have been with us for ten days. Oliver, who’s seven, ate snails for the first time. And olives. And saucisson. In fact he ate everything that was put in front of him, the kind of behaviour that both astonishes and frustrates parents who are used to their kids’ resistance at home.


He won’t have sauce, his mother says. He never has sauce on anything. Or gravy. Nothing. Ten minutes later he’s wolfing down the chicken in cream sauce his Papi has made.