Flying, eating, reading (and Writing Prompts)

Life doesn't get better than that. Although I have to say that flying isn’t what it used to be. I’ve put up with Easy Jet over the last three years because of cheap flights from Nice and convenient airports (Gatwick and Bristol). Their food is pretty dodgy though, particularly anything hot – the last bacon breakfast sandwich I had looked and tasted like it had been laminated – so I’ve tended to stick to a bottle of water or a tomato juice.

But the price of Easy Jet flights have been increasing. They might look cheaper on the Select Your Flight page but by the time you’ve added luggage and Speedy Boarding (essential if you don’t want to board a plane as part of a re-enaction of The Charge of the Light Brigade) the price starts to lose all attractiveness. The last time I flew to the UK it was cheaper to fly with British Airways than with Sleasy, and that was booking directly on the BA website too.

I remember when a two hour flight guaranteed being served a lunch, or at least a sandwich and a cake. No more.

And you’d need to be a forensic scientist to detect the trace of cheese or oregano in that packet. However, it was free. Although on the other side of the curtain, just four rows in front of me in Club World, lunch was definitely being served: the aroma of something hot and savoury filtered through Cattle Class like the animated wisp in a gravy advertisement and we were the ragamuffin kids. Ah, Bisto!

I’ve been teetotal for 23 days. Apparently, according to Wikipedia, the word either derives from a member of the 19th century Preston Temperance Society who had a stammer – ‘nothing but t-total abstinence’ – or it’s a deliberate repetition of the T in total, as in 'Tee-total'. I’m with the stammerer. I’ve felt a little bit like that m-myself now and again during the last three weeks as the urge for a glass of wine has almost overwhelmed me. I’m not on a 7-step programme or anything like that. It’s an exercise in will.

I’ve written haiku every day for 30 days. I’ve swum in the sea every day for 30 days. And it can’t do me any harm to go without any alcohol for 30 days, can it? The Daily Mail suggests otherwise:

What each of these 30 day exercises has done for me is to raise my awareness, and not just my awareness of the thing I’ve chosen to undertake or relinquish. I find myself being more aware of my thoughts and actions in general, more aware of what's going on around me too and that's always good for a writer. Observing and recording are what feeds us.

From The Daily Swim Journal
I count 100 strokes out and 100 strokes back. There are boys on each other's shoulders trying to wrestle one another into the water. A man floating belly down on an airbed. A young couple splashing and diving on one another. In the bay a double masted yacht I'd like to climb aboard. The Alpes Maritimes are covered in mist. It is strange being on my own here. There is a moveable frontier between alone and lonely, a little like the sea and sky today. Sometimes they seem so very far apart, other times they wrap around each other. I'm not sure what I am at the moment. I think that the continuing wave of guests and negotiating the sale of the house (and thinking about the move back to the UK ahead) are combining to make me wobble.

On my next flight out of Heathrow Terminal 5 I’m going to treat myself to a Gordon Ramsay Plane Food box. For £11.95 you can buy a three course picnic of freshly prepared food that beats the pre-prepared, re-heated, over-seasoned trays on any flight. Unless, I imagine, you’re travelling Business or First? But maybe you just get the same food but on proper plates with real cutlery? Or has stainless steel cutlery even been stopped in First Class? After all terrorists have money too.

However, last weekend’s trip back to Nice, from South Wales, meant that I had over 2 hours to spare at the airport so I wandered from restaurant to restaurant checking out the menus. A steak at Ramsay’s was out of the question because I couldn’t bear to eat it without a glass of red wine, so I opted for Wagamama’s and Sparkling Elderflower Cordial to go with the chicken Gyoza dumplings and the chicken Raisukaree:

I like Wagamama’s. I like the servers scribbling your order on the paper place-mat. I like it when they say the dishes are freshly prepared so they might not all arrive at your table together. And that no-one hassled me to hurry up despite every table at the restaurant being occupied. And I like their sign.

Delicious food. Great service. And a good book.

I am reading Roger Lewis’s (sorry, Dr Roger Lewis’s – he can be picky about that), What Am I Still Doing Here? He’s from Caerphilly (yes, it matters that he’s Welsh) and is the most opinionated, grumpy, intolerant and funny writer I’ve read in ages. I read Stephen Fry’s Chronicles and kept wanting to slap him for his self-indulgence, even though he kept admitting that he was being self-indulgent. Confessions (I’d even go as far as St Augustine) are often very lightly disguised manifestos of arrogance and self-importance.

Roger Lewis manages to combine self-aggrandisement and self-immolation to a perfect degree. And he has a natty way with language that tickles me pink, as my fellow passengers on BA 0356 from Heathrow to Nice will confirm. However, reading him is probably as close as I want to get. He likes tinned soup.

Back in France I am surrounded by cardboard boxes and echoes – literal, as the high-ceilinged rooms are emptied, and figurative. I am vividly aware of what we walked into 4 years ago and what we are leaving for the new owners. The house itself already had the capacity for beauty because of its architecture but we made it happen. I feel prouder now that we are leaving than I have previously felt during the whole of the three years of renovation work. And deservedly so.

the hungry writer will be taking a break next week as ‘le gros demenagement’ gets underway and we leave Antibes for a 12 hour car journey up the spine of France with the cat. Wish me a stress free time! And I’ll see you in the UK on 2nd November.

Hungry Writing Prompts
  1. Write about flying.
  2. Write about getting something for nothing.
  3. Write about a matter of self-control.
  4. Write about a grumpy, intolerant person.
  5. Write about echoes.


Dreams and transformations, marmalade, and the best view in the world, probably

The bird in my dream is tame. It sits on my hand while I am standing outside my house in Kent. It bathes in the water I pour into a dip in the tarmac right next to my feet. When it presses against my leg it changes into a grey floppy-eared puppy with a thick suede collar around its neck printed with a message: this dog is looking for a home, if it is returned to the address noted it will be destroyed.

Dreams are full of transformations. We walk into one house and find ourselves in a different place entirely. We talk to people we know who don’t look like the people we know. When we dream we’re supposed to be always dreaming about ourselves, each symbol representing some aspect of our character, our psyche.

The dream makes sense on some levels. I am leaving France and going home to our house in Kent. If I am both the bird and the dog then I am relinquishing the air for the earth, flight for firm ground.

Firm ground: the orchard around my home in Kent

Between the age of 8 and 9, in my second year at junior school, I had recurring nightmares about mushrooms and telegraph poles. The mushroom nightmares were more a feeling rather than dreams of real mushrooms but ‘mushroom’ was the only way I could describe them to my mother. Imagine yourself about to tip over into sleep then, at the edge of your perception, something soft and silent begins to expand, pushing against you, filling the space until there is no room for you, until you’re on the verge of disappearing. You cannot breathe.

The telegraph poles nightmare was more straightforward. I am passing them or perhaps they are passing me, but I am counting them. But they get faster and faster until I can’t keep up. My head spins. I feel sick and wake up crying.

My first year in Tir Morfa Juniors' had been in Mrs Bamford’s class. I remember making salt dough jam tarts. I remember her telling us about Winston Churchill’s death, the photo of a fat man with a cigar that she showed us in the newspaper. Mrs Bamford had Mary Poppins hair. Mr Davies was my teacher the following year. He was a thin, worn out looking man who wore a suit the colour of tobacco and a hand-knitted waistcoat. He disapproved of us playing with the Plasticine. If we made mistakes in our exercise books he hurled them from his desk across the room at us. Once, when I was tucking a doll into her pram he told me it didn’t matter how many blankets I put on because it wouldn’t make her any warmer. I remember feeling upset but angry too, angry because, in the way children do, I suspected there was truth in what he was saying and I didn’t want it to be true.

The Times Tables were the focus of Mr Davies’s class which we had to memorise and recite. Like most kids, I found 1 to 6 not too bad, but the trouble started with 7, 8 and then 9.

One 9 is 9
Two 9s are 18
Three 9s are 27
Four 9s are 36
Five 9s are 45
Six 9s are 54
Seven 9s are 63
Eight 9s are 72
Nine 9s are 81
and relief… Ten 9s are 90
Eleven 9s are 99
Twelve 9s are 108

Even today, when I make myself recite it out loud, I can feel the flutter of a small panic in my chest as I pass, Five 9s are 45…

After months of being woken every night by my screams my parents went to the school and complained about Mr Davies’s behaviour in the classroom. My mother remembers the headmaster saying, ‘He suffers with his nerves.’

Whatever the headmaster said or did must have worked. Mr Davies’s demeanour seemed to change overnight and the nightmares stopped shortly afterwards, though I still experienced the mushroom feeling every now and then for years, even into my early twenties, on the point of falling asleep. Maybe it happened on occasions when I was feeling anxious or stressed but it took me a long time to realise there was nothing sinister on the other side of that feeling and that I could allow myself to go with it and ‘disappear’ into sleep.

There are no mushrooms. But there is marmalade, which is transformation.

I bought a net of clementines last week, an early variety called Marisol from Spain, but they were too acidic to eat. Or at least too acidic to enjoy eating. I could have made Nigella’s Clementine Cake but Tony’s on a diet and wouldn’t have thanked me for that, so I decided on the marmalade.

I still have my first ever cookery book, The Cookery Year, originally published by The Reader’s Digest in 1973 and still going strong, and it’s the book I always turn to for basic culinary skills and recipes. I based my marmalade on the Three Fruit recipe but I used only clementines and twice the quantity of water, as opposed to three times. There weren’t any pips in my clementines so I didn’t have to bother with the little muslin bag either and I had about 740 grams of sugar remaining in a bag to the 700 grams of fruit pulp and juice after boiling so I used the lot.

The point at which jam sets for me is always rather hit and miss. I’ve even emptied jars into a pan a day or so later and boiled the whole lot up again to try and make it more jam and less syrup. The most reliable, but not foolproof, test I’ve found is tipping a teaspoonful of hot jam onto a cold saucer, letting it cool, and then running my finger over the surface to see if it wrinkles. And then eating it and trying again later if it doesn’t.

The marmalade is delicious. Sometimes when things change form they change for the better. I’m hoping that will be the case for the hungry writer because this is the 52nd post of a year of weekly posts that I committed to on October 14th 2010.

I’d imagined that at this point, 42,000 words later, I would stop writing the blog and move onto another project. After all I’ve done what I set out to do. But the habit of writing something every week, and sometimes scrabbling desperately towards the self-imposed deadline, has become part of me. I’ve looked forward to the writing and rewriting, sometimes discovering what I have to say in the drafting process, and learning about taking photos. Having a weekly objective has encouraged me to think and reflect and question. All of those things have to be good. And that’s aside from the cooking and the eating.

But perhaps things will change a little. The themes of life and food will remain, of course, but perhaps there’ll be a little more about writing. About how we do it. And reading too. And, I’m sure you’ll be reading a lot more about my home town, Port Talbot in South Wales, as I plan to to be there on a regular basis in the future. And who could blame me with a view like this:
Aberafan Beach, Port Talbot
Hungry Writing Prompts
  1. Write about something that starts off as one thing but ends up as another: an object, a relationship, a journey.
  2. Write about dreaming.
  3. Write about a teacher you had at a school.
  4. Write about the first book you remember reading.
  5. Write a list of themes that are present, or have been present, in your life.


Programmed to Eat and A Nice Cup of Tea

Are we born with some of our our food preferences already genetically programmed? I don’t mean not liking the texture of raw tomatoes, or preferring custard to cream, or heating up your sugar puffs in the microwave for 30 seconds. I’m talking about the cultural relationship to our food. I don’t know any British person who doesn’t look forward to, or who doesn’t starts salivating at the thought of a roast dinner, personal hostilities towards parsnips or sprouts aside.

I have drawn the line at cooking a traditional Sunday lunch during the summertime here on the Cote d’Azur – there’s only so much heat any cook can take – but outside of those months the preparation and the cooking and the dishing up and the eating of a plate of roast chicken, roast potatoes, carrots, green beans, sausage-meat stuffing and gravy makes me feel all happy and glowing inside and out.

I’ve tried the roast dinner on French neighbours and they have appeared… well… indifferent. Politely complimentary, yes, but not enthusiastic by any stretch of the imagination. None of the mmmms and aahhhs and cors that I’m used to hearing, and contributing, around a table as a fragrant wisp of steam rises off the gravy jug, when someone takes their first bite of crisp then soft potato, that first sweet taste of a honey braised carrot.

We’ve had some strange, some inedible, and some delicious meals at private houses in Antibes though I believe that the less successful ones had more to do with a general lack of interest in food combined with a deeply felt obligation to return invitations. At one dinner we ate cheese at every course: a salad of mache (lamb's lettuce) with crumbled blue cheese, endives wrapped in ham and baked in a cheese sauce, a tripartite cheese course, then cheesecake for dessert. If someone had given me a glass of citron pressé I’d have curdled.

Last week I invited my neighbours, Lydie and Josiane, for tea. Josiane is a fan of all things British so I set out my plans to make a traditional cream tea: sandwiches, scones and cake. Josiane’s medication over the last few years has left her with serious food allergies and while I could negotiate my way around shellfish and nuts (it’s astonishing how nut by-products find their way into all kinds of products here… cream cheese is one) there is no way I could avoid a raising agent for the scones and cake but commercially produced baking powder, that can contain aluminium compounds, was on her prohibited list.

When I explained I could use bicarbonate of soda and cream of tartar as a replacement they both looked unconvinced probably because they’d never heard of cream of tartar. It appears in the dictionary as Crème de Tartre but that still meant nothing to them. And to be honest if I had serious allergies then I’d be suspicious of ingesting something that allegedly originates from the coating that builds up on the inside of wine barrels.

But it all turned out fine in the end. We had les salées, the savoury part:

And then les sucrées, scones and Bara Brith (the recipe is here), both made with plain flour and and the oomph of bicarbonate of soda and cream of tartar:

And if there’s one thing I love it’s people who eat with interest and enthusiasm. Scones cut in half and served with jam and cream? Hmmm… how about spreading a little butter on that cut scone too? Oh yes, Lydie. Bon idée!

So cream teas don't fall under my genetic food programming theory. But tea, as in ‘a nice cup of’, definitely does.

If you order a cup of tea in an Antibes café you get a cup of warm water with a tea-bag on the side. (I once made my French electrician a cup of tea, British temperature, and he sat in front of it for about 15 minutes terrified to take a second sip.) The tea-bag is usually Lipton’s – the yellow sachet of bog standard tea you find on mainland Europe and in the USA but rarely, if ever, in the UK – or, if you specifically ask for it, a bag of thé vert a la menthe, green tea with mint, also delivered with warm water.

Then there are the herbal teas, although they aren’t called teas here (which makes sense given they’ve never even rubbed up against a tealeaf) but tisanes which are pretty identical to the range of herbal sachets in the UK. You know the ones? They all smell different but all taste the same, a kind of cross between Beecham’s powder and fruit sherbert?

Bill Bryson talks about tea’s dramatic history and the growth of Britain’s sweet and milky love for it, in the chapter on ‘The Dining Room’ in At Home, A Short History of Private Life. While I drink mine strong (builders’ strength) with only a dash of milk and a good squirt of honey I am definitely genetically programmed to that British predilection of tea at anytime of the day. In fact, here comes one right now.

I avoided any tea issues with Josiane and Lydie by serving champagne instead. You know that motto: When in doubt, drink champagne?

Living outside of Britain for the greater part of five years has made me reflect on a lot of cultural differences, far more than I thought there would be. But that's the subject of another hungry writer post, appropriately one of the last ones that will come from France. See you next week.

Hungry Writing Prompts
  1. Write about Sunday.
  2. Write about forced politeness.
  3. Write about excess.
  4. Write about eating in a foreign country.
  5. Write about anything you’d like to do but don’t feel equipped, or programmed, to do.

 A dozen fluffy little scones

175 g plain flour
good pinch of salt
1 tsp cream of tartar
half a teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
42 g cold butter cut into cubes
2 tbsp golden caster sugar
75 g natural full-fat yogurt
2 tbsp full-fat milk
half tsp vanilla extract

egg beaten with 1 tbsp milk, to glaze

  • Put a baking tray in the oven at 220C or gas no. 7.
  • Seive the flour, baking powders and salt into a bowl, add the chopped butter and rub in until it goes breadcrumby.
  • Mix in the sugar and shape a well in the middle of this dry mixture
  • Warm the yogurt, milk and vanilla together in the microwave for 30 seconds to 1 min or in a pan. Make sure it’s hot and don’t worry if it looks curdled.
  • Add this to the bowl and quickly work it into the flour mix using a fork.
  • Tip the dough onto a floured surface and fold it into itself a few times until it’s smooth.
Press it out to about a 2 cm thickness and use a small fluted cutter (mine’s about 4.5 cm in diameter) dipped in flour to cut out your scones. (You can, of course, make thicker and bigger scones and that would be Tony’s choice. When he’s presented with small portions of anything – cheese, cake, a dollop of cream – he always refers to them as ‘welsh’ portions. Are you wondering how we’ve managed to stay together for 26 years?!)

Brush the tops with the egg and milk, scatter flour over the hot sheet, then pop the scones on to bake for about 8 to 10 minutes. Keep an eye on them. They might need less.

Eat them all up straight away. Or you could keep them for later in the day.