Cruelty and kindness

I once made the girl who lived next door to me drink mud. The fact that I was only 4 or 5, and this was a pretend tea-party where we’d mixed up earth and water to resemble hot chocolate in the blue plastic teacups, could perhaps excuse my behaviour, but the memory is harsher than that.

There were three of us at the tea-party: me, Anne, my next door neighbour, and Kathryn, who was my best friend at the time, and that intimacy between us created a streak of cruelty towards the ‘outsider’.

A real tea-party 1963 - front row, from the right:
me and Anne
‘You have to drink it if you want to play with us. ’ I remember us pressurising Anne. And she did. Or at least I remember watching the mud seep between her closed lips. And I think she might have cried.

Cruelty might be too strong a word here; bullying might be more appropriate although that doesn’t make the memory any less unpleasant. Some people might interpret the whole event as part of any child’s introduction to social dynamics, the emotional experiences of inclusion and exclusion. Others might say that what adults perceive as cruelty in very young children is often only curiosity: a desire to know the result of a particular action. And perhaps I’m making too much of it, searching too deeply for a meaning that might not be there. But why have I remembered it so vividly? I hope it was an early lesson in self-reflection and it affected how I treated people from that time on.
Cruelty is on my mind. My sister-in-law’s baby died yesterday. Florian was due to be born by C-section on Thursday 13th October but his heart stopped in the womb.

We try to make sense of this with words: his heart was too tender for this world. We try to nurse grief: he fell asleep in the safest of rooms. But there is no sense to a death like this: it is cruel and I want to kick death in the teeth.

I know love will restore my brother and his wife in time. The love they have for each other and their two beautiful children. And the love and kindness from their family and friends in Wales and France that are already wrapping around them. I wish I could be closer right now.

My brother's photo from the hospital last night: 'the sun sets'
We are lucky if we have kindness in our lives: lucky to be in a position to offer it and lucky if we can let ourselves receive it and not beat it away with ‘wordsticks’ – there was really no need… oh, you shouldn’t have done that. It takes humility to accept kindness. Thank you for what you have done for me.

Bernie's Pork Cassoulet
with herb sausages, crushed
potatoes and green beans
Living here in the south of France has meant that we’ve been able to have lots of family and friends to stay, to make a fuss of them and share the loveliness of this place for more than three years. And when we’ve been back in the UK people have made a fuss of us too, and in Kent no-one has done this more than our friends, Bernie and Chris, whose home becomes our second home for lovingly prepared favourite foods and music dvds, for long talks and feet up on the sofa and wondering how 8 or 10 hours can melt around us so quickly.

Tony came in while I was writing this and said, ‘You haven't eaten. Can I make you beans on toast?’ Yes, please. And then, ‘Try and think about the two gorgeous kids they have.’ Yes. Think about that. And the kindness of people. And sunrises.

Hungry Writing Prompts
  1. Write about ordering someone to do something.
  2. Write about watching children play.
  3. Write about something cruel.
  4. Write about a place where you feel at home.
  5. Write about a sunset or a sunrise.


Pantries and peanut butter.

My favourite room in our French house is the pantry or garde-manger. A pantry is something I’ve wanted in a house for a long time. A proper pantry, a little room you can walk into, not just a larder cupboard. The other thing I’d like, one day, is stone windows. You know the ones I mean? Deep window sills with the metal window frames hinged right into the stone walls and the window panes distorted with age? We do have some of that old wavy glass in a few of the windows here but the frames are wooden. But at least I have a pantry.

You see the windows at the back? They don’t have any glass, just fine mosquito mesh to keep out insects and let in the cool air from under the terrace. To be honest, during the summer there’s not a great deal of difference between the temperature in the pantry and the temperature in the kitchen but in autumn, winter and spring you can feel the cool, or even cold, rush towards you when you open the door.

The word ‘pantry’ has its roots in the late Latin, panarius, bread-seller, from panis, bread, and rose up to greet us in English through the old French paneterie, from panetier, baker.

There is something floury and sweet about pantries. Perhaps the sound of the word itself triggers a connection to ‘pastries’. The smell in my granny’s pantry in Dafen, South Wales was like yesterday’s bread, condensed milk.

I only have a vague memory of the one in the house where I was born. It might have had a yellow door. There was an airbrick in the wall for ventilation.

Summer of ‘63

We were the first people at our end of Chrome Avenue to have a fridge. Preparation for it had started weeks before – the brick pantry in the corner of the kitchen was knocked down, new lino laid on the floor. When it was delivered, the neighbours came out to watch its white bulk being trolleyed through the back gate. The next day my mother made ice-lollies from orange squash and I sucked mine until my gums ached.

I was playing in the sandpit in the garden when I told my friend Kathryn about our new fridge. She hit me over the head with a long-handled spade and ran home crying. My mother said Kathryn didn’t like me being different from her. And we were different now. Our butter was hard. We had frozen peas.

new neighbour:
secretly inspecting
her washing-line

I have a lovespoon on the pantry door. These carved wooden spoons are now a craft tradition in Wales, but they were originally made and presented by young men to convey their romantic intent. I bought this one for Tony shortly after we met in 1985 and it’s travelled with us from house to house, from country to country. The symbols are universal: two interlinking hearts, a wheel.

The pantry door feels like the right place for it. Food I prepare without love (perhaps 'without a genuine interest in what I'm doing’ might be a better description), or prepared impatiently or even resentfully, generally ends up at best mediocre and at worst, inedible.

Here’s something I made with a great deal of interest this week. If you are not a peanut butter fan you might want to look away now. But if apples and peanut butter (stacked into a form reminiscent of a wooden building block toy, called Tom Pedro, that I had as a child ) are your idea of heaven, then this is for you.

It doesn’t take a lot of working out: apple, peanut butter. But core the apple, of course, before spreading the slices with the peanut butter, then fill the empty chamber in the middle with dried fruit…raisins, sultanas, maybe a scattering of peanuts. I used crunchy peanut butter which is a bit tricky to smooth neatly between the slices of apple, as you can see. You might also want to consider sharing this with someone else because, depending on how many apple slices you make, you could end up with quite a lot of peanut butter. I did. And I didn’t.

Hungry Writing Prompts
  1. Write about what you find when you open a cupboard.
  2. Write about a room that has a particular smell.
  3. Write about what’s changed.
  4. Write about making something for someone you love.
  5. Write about sharing and not sharing.






3 Unexpected Things and Lemon Cake

1. Lunch on the Beach

The Mediterranean Sea
just feet from our table
at Helios Plage, Juan les Pins
September feels a little odd to me, here on the Cote d'Azur. Perhaps it’s the contrast between the guest filled house of the previous months and the distinctive silence I’m living in at the moment: I’m on my own for two weeks. But I wonder too if I’m genetically programmed to see September as the start of autumn, an in-between month that ushers in change, and so I feel at odds with 30 degrees centigrade and bright blue sky. There’s no reason why I can’t continue with my daily visit to the beach but… it’s September.

September used to be the smell of a leather satchel and new black school shoes pressing into the back of my heel. Or, back at work, watching a summer holiday suntan start to peel and fade. It was preparing modules for the new University term, the branches of apple trees heavy with fruit, almost touching the ground. Woodsmoke. Now it’s the dichotomy of walking past clothes shops wearing flip-flops and a sleeveless cotton dress while the window mannequins are wrapped up in checked shirts and lambswool sweaters, full length boots and quilted jackets.

But today I experienced all the delights of an extended summer with an unexpected invitation to lunch on Helios Plage in Juan les Pins and watched the waiter prepare beef tartare for my friend, Patrick.

Beef tartare is something I always like trying from someone else’s plate but not something I ever wish I’d ordered, as delicious as this one looked and tasted. It’s not that I don’t like raw meat – I had a plate of beef carpaccio with rocket and parmesan. I think it’s more to do with the texture and flitting images of mother birds regurgitating worms into baby birds’ mouths. I can safely say that’s not something you’d expect to read on a food blog, which leads me on to:

2. Creepy Crawly

Actually this should be number 3 but I can’t waste a good link.

I didn’t count its legs but I think it’s a millipede that must have been making its way from the open back door across the kitchen while I was making the Lemon (Drizzle) Cake (see 3. Cracking Eggs in One Hand). It was 3 inches longer than I like them to be but I caught it on the recipe sheet and flicked it onto the grass outside. Maybe he had September issues too.

3. Cracking Eggs in One Hand

I’ve been thinking about food processors. I’ve got to the point of Googling images of them and checking out reviews and articles on the Top 10 currently on the market. I won’t bore you with my research as I’m holding back from buying one until I return to the UK. It’s a hell of a long way to go if it breaks down under guarantee. In the meantime I am still using an electric hand mixer that I’ve had for about 30 years, a relic of my time in Jersey.

It’s probably a testament to Krups that it’s still working even if the ends of the metal whisks that clip into the motor get hot enough to blister your skin if they drop onto your hand!

Using a hand whisk means that being able to crack an egg one handed is an advantage. And I did it today for the first time in my life. Without thinking that I couldn’t do it. Without worrying I’d splatter an egg everywhere. Without dropping any shell into the creamed butter and sugar. And I did four of them. One after the other. Each egg plopping softly into the mixing bowl.

‘Watch me,’ I remember my granddaughter saying when she was four.

suddenly she’s learned
how to hop

Is it possible that our brains store all the memories of our early accomplishments? Those little bursts of joy when we caught a ball for the first time, or swam into someone’s arms. I’d like to think that the delight I felt today, as each eggshell broke perfectly in half, was an echo of those small successes. But how many others have I allowed myself to miss throughout my adult life because of days when I’ve picked and scraped at the world instead of being open to the possibility of new things?

When my mother made cakes she gave me and my sister the choice of licking the mixing spoon or scraping out the bowl although I remember wishing she’d leave more for us than the skinny traces our tongues could find around the handle of the spoon and under the rim of the bowl.

You obviously wouldn’t want to eat as much as this (would you?):

But it’s a good feeling, after filling the cake tin, to end up with a licked out bowl that looks like this:

Hungry Writing Prompts
  1. Write about the end of summer.
  2. Write about feeling raw.
  3. Write about something that crawls.
  4. Write about having a choice.
  5. Write about fullness.

 Lemon (Drizzle) Cake

I bought a zester today and after zesting the knuckle on my left thumb I wished I’d splashed out on the more expensive model that looked like a tall, skinny grater. The one above is Italian. Perhaps Italians have the required knack.

Cream 225gr of fine caster sugar with 225gr of butter until it’s pale and creamy.
Add 4 eggs, one at a time (yay!) and mix well after each one.
Sift in 225gr of self-raising flour.
Add the zest of two lemons.
Mix it all together, pour into a lined loaf tin and flatten the top with a spoon.

Cook at about 180 degrees for 45 to 50 minutes.
Check that the centre of the cake is cooked with a wooden skewer.

Now here comes the (Drizzle) bit which didn’t quite work out for me.

Mix up the juice of one and a half lemons with 100gr of caster sugar.

Make lots of little holes in the cake with the skewer and pour the ‘drizzle’ over the warm cake. The lemon juice is supposed to soak in and the sugar is supposed to set like a gauzy crust on top.
Maybe my cake was too hot because I didn't get a sugar crust. I tried a little later with some more juice and sugar and still no sugar crust which is obviously meant to hide all the little holes. Maybe it wasn’t warm enough at that point.
But it still tasted nice. Very lemony. Maybe a bit too sugary and lemony around the edges where all the drizzle seemed to have settled. I had to unstick my gums from the sides of my mouth and have a strong black coffee after the second slice!
But who says 'no' to cake?  If you are one of those people you really don't need to answer.


Goodwill and happy companionship. And saying thank-you to the chicken.

I meant to take a photo of the roast chicken and vegetables last night but Tony and I were so pleased to be having dinner together that we ploughed on with the carving and serving and talking and it was only when my plate was a smear of jus and breadcrumbs that I remembered.

Tony’s been on a post-guest diet so we haven’t sat down to eat together properly for a little while. We’ve also been fractious with one another, partly due to the wilting humidity when we arrived back in the south of France last week and partly due to the drawn out uncertainty of the house sale as our buyer’s English solicitor requests official attestations for even the air we breathe!

Bread and cheese
Perhaps if we had been sharing a meal each night the fractiousness could have been avoided because mealtimes are the moments when we reconnect. They don’t have to be grand affairs; often they are as simple as bread and cheese. But they are essential to how we act and react healthily with each other and I’ve noticed, over the past 26 years, that any prolonged period of not regularly eating with each other tends to produce a sense of disconnection.

Eating is not merely a material pleasure. Eating well gives a spectacular joy to life and contributes immensely to goodwill and happy companionship. It is of great importance to the morale. Elsa Schiaparelli

When I was young mealtimes did not always involve the whole family. Dad worked shifts at the Steelworks - nights (10 to 6), mornings (6 to 2) or afternoons (2 to 10) - so the five of us only tended to sit down together on his Sundays off. I remember roast chicken and sage and onion stuffing or a topside of beef and yorkshire puddings. Trifle with slices of jam swiss roll set into the strawberry jelly, a layer of yellow Bird’s Custard, topped with tinned Nestle’s cream and sprinkled with hundreds and thousands. There’s not a lot of tinned food I prefer to the fresh equivalent but Nestle’s (pronounced, of course, nestle to rhyme with trestle, and never nestlĂ©) tinned cream still does it for me.

A meal is about civilizing children. It's about teaching them to be a member of their culture, says Robin Fox, the anthropologist. He also talks about the ceremony attached to eating and how the contemporary ease of obtaining food, and the advent of fast food in particular, has resulted in it losing its significance for us:

It's like the American Indians. When they killed a deer, they said a prayer over it," says Fox. "That is civilization. It is an act of politeness over food. Fast food has killed this. We have reduced eating to sitting alone and shoveling it in. There is no ceremony in it. Read more.

Ceremony. Unfortunately, the word’s root in the Latin caerimonia (religious worship) doesn’t do it any favours. It evokes a formality and solemnity I don’t associate with the joy of eating with family and friends.

Tony tells the story of attending a Showman’s Guild Ball at Grovesnor House in London when he was 18. He was dating the then President’s daughter and was completely unprepared for the formality of the evening: the Master of Ceremonies, the endless courses and the array of required cutlery fanning out across the white linen tablecloth in front of him. But not being a person to admit defeat, he decided to pick up and use whatever seemed appropriate as each course arrived and felt he was doing quite well until it came to dessert and he ended up eating his Peach Melba with a soup spoon and a fish knife.

So if it’s not ceremony that I want and need in shared meals, what is it? I like Elsa Schiaparelli’s ‘goodwill and happy companionship’. And I feel lucky to have shared, and continue to share, my meals with people who are full of goodwill and companionship and for whom food is also a guest at the table.

Iwan walking with his shadow
My great-nephew, Iwan, who is three and a half, recently made a return visit to a family holiday flat in Freshwater East, West Wales.

‘Flat, I have missed you,’ he said to the air and walls when he walked in.

I think that’s the kind of simple and honest ceremony I want to have at meals.

Chicken, you were delicious, so crispy-skinned and tender-fleshed. Thank you.

Hungry Writing Prompts
  1. Write about forgetting.
  2. Write about a connection that becomes a disconnection.
  3. Write about your father’s work.
  4. Write about a formal event or occasion.
  5. Write about saying, ‘Thank you’.