Relax, enjoy.

The fridge is brimming with free range chickens and vegetables and enough Tesco Finest Wild Mushroom Filo Parcels to feed a small army. Some things are worth doing yourself (garlic and herb roast chicken and potato and celeriac dauphinoise), some things aren’t (stuffing little squares of filo pastry for hours).

Christmas is low-key at our house. We stopped buying ‘presents for everyone’ years ago and that makes life much easier. Unless 1) you can afford it, and 2) you know that someone wants something particular then Christmas presents can be a debt inducing, stress filled, disappointing activity and finale.

My present to the four people I’ll be eating with on Sunday will be a walk around the apple orchard to see the bouquet of pheasants (I just checked that on Google!) living in the wild there, followed by an afternoon of home cooked food (mushroom parcels aside), lots of laughter with a log-fire and a sparkly Christmas tree. I love Christmas trees. But real Christmas trees not joking ones. (That’s South Wales for ‘pretend’ or ‘artificial’, as in ‘Is that a real log-fire or a joking one?’)

I wish you your perfect day too whether it’s quiet or boisterous, whether it takes place this weekend or any other time over the holiday season.

Relax, enjoy.
Happy Christmas – Nadolig Llawen.

Eating with Real People

Steak and roast chicken, savoury sausage and baked salmon, wine and puddings, maple fudge and a custard slice. It has been a week of eating. When I arrive at my home town of Port Talbot in South Wales, within minutes of getting off the train, it’s the first thing I organise, and then organise again. And again.

Pretty cappuccino at
Cafe Remos, Aberafan Beach
Actually, the custard slice was only half a custard slice. I shared it with my sister at Café Remos on Aberafan Beach after we’d spent a couple of hours walking around the western perimeter of the council estate where we both grew up. My new book, Real Port Talbot, will include memoir (my own and others’) as well as local history and the only way to see an area, to notice what remains, and to remember what has disappeared is to walk it. Even if the wind threatens to take off the top layer of our faces as we turn the corners of the ‘colour’ streets near the beach. And, appropriately, it’s in Scarlet Avenue that my sister confesses to forgery.

‘I only had one ticket for the Naval Club Disco,’ she says, ‘and I wanted my friend Veronica to come with me so we made another one.’

I’m impressed. She was only 12! Think of what she could have achieved if she’d capitalised on this talent.  

I confess that I once stole a monkey nut from the greengrocery section at the Co-op in Fairway. I could feel the dare rising up in me as I realised it would be small enough to fit into my eight-year-old hand and I brushed my fingers over the top of the pile and closed them around one. 

In the warmth of Café Remos we watch the whip of the sea and the rain slap against the plate glass windows. Opposite us a man is reading a  black leather bible and making copious notes into a spiral bound notebook. I wonder what his reaction would be if he knew he was in the presence of a forger and a thief?

At this point my sister and I would like to point out that we were not encouraged by our successes in these fields and that these were our first and only attempts at deceit for material gain. And I didn’t even like monkey nuts.

12 Cafe, 37 Commercial Road, Taibach, Port Talbot

You could pass 12 Café in Taibach, a community to the east of Port Talbot town centre, and be excused for thinking that this was a contemporary café more or less like any other. It offers leather sofas at the front, plenty of bright, clean tables and chairs, and free wi-fi. All the food is prepared fresh every day as the intoxicating, savoury scent of baking proves as you enter.

I’ve come in with Allen Blethyn, a retired carpenter and joiner who discovered his passion late in life for local history, for researching the people and the places and the events that make us who we are now. Allen has shown me copper slag coping stones, chapels and old butcher’s shops and now he takes me into 12 Café because he understands that the Real Port Talbot will be just that: a real account of the town as it is now as well as a record of the past.

12 Café is a social enterprise run by West Glamorgan Council on Drug and Alcohol Abuse Limited. You can read more about the project and its aims here.

While I am sure there are lots of different social enterprises providing valuable help to people and communities this one, revolving around the preparation of food, of people eating together, particularly appeals to me. The whole ethos of cooking is about transformation and understanding. It’s about self-confidence and contributing to the enjoyment of others. And one cheese and onion toastie and a café latte later it is obvious that 12 Café has all these ingredients and more. 

I currently have two stamps on my loyalty card. I reckon I’ll be getting my free coffee very soon. But if you're too far away to pop into 12 Café you can Like them on Facebook and tell them what a great job they’re doing.

Hungry Writing Prompts
  1. Write about something that has disappeared from your life.
  2. Write about a crime.
  3. Write about something you remember from your past that has affected your present life.
  4. Write about a particular smell that you associate with a particular place.
  5. Write about a favourite cafe.

The cooked and the cruel

Where does the love of food end and cruelty begin? I’m sure there will be different boundaries among us, and contradictions too. I’ll start with myself: I will only buy free range eggs but I ate foie gras several times during my four years in France. I refuse to buy the battery chickens from the supermarket but I don’t question the source of the pork in Tesco Finest Cumberland Sausages.  Actually, that sounds more like hypocrisy than contradiction.

I am reading Breakfast with Socrates by Robert Rowland Smith, a series of philosophical commentaries on the ordinary content of our day to day lives, from getting ready to go out, sitting at a desk, going to a party, to falling asleep at the end of the day. In the chapter, ‘Cooking and Eating Dinner’, he describes the French penchant for ortolan, a ‘delicacy’ I’d never heard of that has been illegal in France since 1999, although the laws have only been properly enforced since 2007. I should warn you that it doesn’t make for easy reading:

The ortolan – a bunting, the size of a sparrow – is trapped and incarcerated in a windowless box to be fed figs; when it has fattened, it is literally drowned in Armagnac, its minute lungs flooded with the rasping liquor. Now dead, it is plucked, roasted and served whole – bones, guts, pluck and all – with only the head to be left dangling untouched beyond the eater’s lips.

François Mitterrand, the former French president, ate ortolan at his ‘last supper’ while terminally ill with prostate cancer, with his head concealed beneath the traditional napkin. The reasons for this are disputed: it’s a messy business crunching through bones and innards; it preserves the aromas; it hides your face from God. Mitterand died eight days later.

Of course I prefer to think that my unquestioning purchase of pork sausages is on a different level to Mitterand’s ortolan feast. And perhaps, to some degree, it is if I believe the supermarket’s claims about animal welfare.

But the ortolan story has been playing on my mind since I read it.

… just as either the overripeness [pheasant, cheese] or the rawness [sushi, steak tartare] of what you serve can speak to your cultivation, to your acquired level of artistry, so cruelty can exhibit your refinement.

So what will I do the next time I’m in a restaurant and fancy ordering the foie gras? Ask if it comes from a duck or goose that hasn’t been subjected to gavage or force-feeding? Some top chefs, including Anthony Bourdain, have supported foie gras production from humanely treated, properly raised ducks so, in theory, it should be available. But could I be sure? No. I’ve said in other posts on this blog that the world needs more kindness.

There’s a Michelin star restaurant in Reading, England, called L’Ortolan although the little bunting on their logo looks quite happy and there’s no trace of the barbaric dish on any of their menus. Still, personally, I’d think about a name change.

Hungry Writing Prompts
  1. Write about the one item of food you couldn’t do without.
  2. Write about an instance of cruelty.
  3. Write about ‘a last supper’.
  4. Write about watching someone eat.
  5. Write about an aspect of yourself that you don’t like.

Buffets and fiction can change your life

I am reading A.D.Miller’s Snowdrops and now I never ever want to go to Moscow. I know it’s not a Rough Guide; it’s not a Lonely Planet traveller’s insights.  I know it’s fiction, a story created in the author’s imagination, but its descriptions and portrayal of people and everyday life are so convincing.

In an interview on the Man Booker website, Miller says: The kinds of crime that the book describes, the pervasive corruption it depicts and the awful vulnerability of anyone without powerful connections are real, as people who have spent time in Moscow will recognise. The details of the Metro, the dacha, the night-life and so on are, I hope, true to life.

No hoping needed. He has absolutely nailed ‘true to life’. But apart from the off-putting crime and corruption, the blood-letting bureaucracy and the cold that freezes the hairs in your nostrils and glues your mobile phone to the palm of your hand, there’s the food:

On the desk was the kind of Russian party spread I always dreaded, as inedible as it was extravagant… all sweaty fish, jellied and unidentifiable bits of animals, Russian chocolate broken into clumps, blinis that were getting cold…

I can empathise with the ‘party spread’. In France, invitations to dinner seemed to be rather stress-inducing formal affairs for their hosts. There was never such a thing as a casual invitation to ‘come and have something to eat with us’. In Antibes it always meant the whole shebang of pre-dinner drinks accompanied with variations on puffy cheese balls, followed by a shift to the dinner table for a dressed salad, a main course, a cheese course, a dessert, their accompanying wines, and then another (heavier) shift back to the salon for digestifs and chocolates. So the popular alternative was to invite people for a ‘party spread’ or, as they called it, un apero dinetoire.

This was a slightly earlier event than dinner that involved champagne or wine and a range of small snacks handed from guest to guest in a way that reminded me of the childhood 'pass the parcel' game, each tray diminishing in servings as it did the rounds.

I could never work out how preparing half a dozen finicky snacks per person was less trouble than plonking a big dish of spaghetti Bolognese in the middle of the table, along with a crusty baguette and a couple of bottles of red wine and saying, Servez-vous! But the french didn't seem open to that kind of British informality. They had their own, a variety of foods you’d never choose to eat together in one sitting: thick cured salmon with a dollop of warm crème fraiche, a little plastic glass of cold carrot soup, saucisson, brioche smeared with duck paté. Think compulsory food tasting and you'd be getting close.

More food from Snowdrops:

We ordered some vodka and ‘herring in a fur coat’ (marinated fish buried under a sludge of beetroot and mayonnaise).

There’s something unpleasantly visceral about fish and fur in the same phrase. It reminds me of a money dealer I used to work with in Jersey who, if you came in with a killer hangover, would torture you with the image of a chunk of fatty bacon tied to a thick piece of wool being dangled in your mouth.

But back to Snowdrops and its ability to put me off going to Moscow and, if I’m honest, Russia in general. Is it shallow, or naïve, to allow fiction to have this kind of effect on me? Does this clump me with the 50% of British people who, Google tells me, believe Sherlock Holmes was a real person? I’d obviously prefer to think that it doesn’t and that it’s the novel’s emotional intensity, how hypnotised I am by the narrator’s life and experiences, that is contributing to my current negative response to the city.

The Russian women in Snowdrops tend to be young, hard and beautiful. I am convinced by them too. They fit into the landscape, the weather, the economy. And so far (I’m two thirds of the way through the novel) I don’t like any of them either! But I can't recommend this book enough for the insidious way it has taken over my mind, how it keeps me hooked from page to page with its understated dramatic development, and for the quality of its writing too.

The pavement looked like it had been doused in chilled gravy,  says the narrator. The streets smelled of beer and revolution.

This week I'm a hungry reader.

Hungry Writing Prompts
  1. Write about the first story you remember reading.
  2. Write about snow.
  3. Write about an invitation to dinner.
  4. Write about something you used to believe.
  5. Write about someone you don’t like.