Hearty. My Dutch friends used it when they were talking about breakfast. 
'We'll have a light breakfast and leave before 9,' said A.
T didn't agree. 'I think we'll need a hearty breakfast,' he said. 'We have a long drive ahead of us.'
'Alright, a hearty breakfast then.'

It's not a word I'd ever use for breakfast. Light, maybe. Continental (when I read aloud from hotel menus - I like to clarify and share information about what's available to eat). Big. Cooked. Fried. But never hearty. 'Hearty' has a tweed jacket, green wellingtons, kedgeree and cocked-shotgun feel about it to me.

But it sounds right for T and A, perhaps because English is their second language and while they don't have a trace of accent when they speak it, and they speak it beautifully too, they occasionally use words that mother-tongue English speakers might not. But this only adds to the richness, the colourfulness, of their conversation: you only have to read what 'hearty' suggested to me to be convinced of that.

But there's another reason why the word suits them so well: they are hearty  in the sense of their relationship being full of heart, of kindness and consideration towards each other. When I've spent time with them I am aware of the love that surrounds them like light filling a room.

I don't think I know many other couples like that. Perhaps it's partly due to them meeting later in life. T once told me that he'd prepared himself for being alone in middle and old age, hadn't expected to find this kind of happiness.

I like real love stories. Love stories that bloom in the details of ordinary life. The kind of love UA Fanthorpe talks about in her poem, 'Atlas':  There is a kind of love called maintenance,/ Which stores the WD40 and knows when to use it;/ Which checks the insurance, and doesn’t forget/ The milkman; which remembers to plant bulbs/

The kind of love that makes you a hearty breakfast when you need one:

A Sunday breakfast, with love from Tony


Sweet Home Port Talbot

This might be the street of my hungry writer dreams, right here in my hometown.

  • Riverside Café
  • Gossip Café
  • Sweetmans
  • Jenkins Bakers and Café
  • Greggs
  • Lynda’s Café Bar
  • Ferrari’s Café
  • Selections Coffee Shop
All within 500 yards of each other and I’m only half way up and yet to check out the other side. Ask any writer and they’ll glaze over (a bit like a fresh doughnut) at the thought of being tucked at a table with coffee and cake, a pen and a notebook, a little condensation on the windows maybe, anonymous chatter and the random clatter of cutlery against china.

Today I’m on a mission: my mother has told me that Jenkins is renowned for custard slices. They’re a family firm from Llanelli, in West Wales, going back to 1921 when Lizzie Jenkins opened ‘The Unique Café’ on New Dock Road. Their slogan at the time was ‘Every bite – pure delight’ and even though the business has since expanded to 25 retail shops, including this one in Port Talbot, it is still being run by a third generation today.  

Of course, tucked in the corner of my mind is an awareness of my mother’s bias: she’s Llanelli born and even though she left her home town nearly 60 years ago she’s still a dyed in the wool Scarlets supporter (the Llanelli Welsh Rugby Union team).

But the Scarlets have dropped a few points today: not a custard slice in sight. There are a couple of concoctions behind the glass case labelled ‘non-dairy jam and cream slice’.  If it’s not dairy, how can it be cream? But then I remember those gargantuan Cream Horns of my childhood – thick,papery, hollow pastry horns filled with a sticky cloud of sweet fluff...

Yes, obviously I am
But nostalgia does not sway me and I pop a few doors along where Greggs have custard slices that look as if they’ve been putting in gym-time pumping up their fillings. So Greggs get my £2.10 and 3 custard slices and I get a box, the lid of which advertises my weakness,  that’s designed for 6 cakes though I doubt it would take the weight of 6 custard slices: I have to carry it in two hands to stop it from bending. These are more hunk than slice. 

In fact they’re so big me and my mother share one between us after dinner. ‘The custard is nice,’ she says. ‘Not too sweet.’

The Gregg's custard hunk

And she’s right. I might just go for another half. But she’s still waving her Llanelli supporter’s scarf. I was probably too late for the custard slices at Jenkins, she tells me. They’re so popular they would have sold out by three in the afternoon.

I have 5 more days here, more than enough time for an early morning custard slice expedition, I believe.

Hungry Writing Prompts
  • Write a list of shops that would exist in your perfect imaginary street.
  • Write about different kinds of noise.
  • Write about what delights you.
  • Write about carrying something precious.
  • Write about getting up early in the world. 


The path to addiction (and some maths)

I have discovered a piece of France that evaded me while I lived there. But not because I wasn't paying attention. It somehow even managed to evade my French sister-in-law, Manuela, for 38 years. She discovered it when some French language students from the west coast gave it to her as a gift when they stayed at her home in Swansea, South Wales. She gave it to me. 

This post should come with a warning of addiction. There is no way back once you start. Forget licking out the bottom of a large bag of Kettle Crisps, forget 'oh, just one more then' when the box of Ferrero Rocher comes around for the 8th time. Whatever your guilty pleasure, it will fade into insignificance if you go any further. Don't come crying to me in a month's time. You have been warned.

But let's do this slowly.

the batter
What are the things you were allowed to cook as a child? The first things I remember preparing were the batter for Yorkshire puddings and mint sauce. Late Sunday morning in the kitchen of our council house: the condensation thickening on the window, beans kept green with a dash of bicarbonate of soda, the roast topside or silverside of beef, tied with string, under a dome of tinfoil.

The mint came from our garden and I washed it, dried it and chopped it with the thin blade of a silver handled knife, one of my mother's wedding presents. When the chop was fine enough I added a little bit of caster sugar. Then I chopped it again, added more sugar, before scraping it all into a little glass jug and adding malt vinegar to a level my mother approved of.

My mother once told a family friend from Yorkshire that I made the batter for the Yorkshire pudding. 'But what kind of flour do you use?' he asked me with an air of suspicion and condescension. Are all Yorkshire men this threatened by Welsh ten-year-old amateur Yorkshire pudding batter makers?

You can use plain or self-raising for our silky batter recipe which calls for very little of it - a mere 100 grams.

Do you recognise it? Please don't mistake les moules for mussels. That would lead to all kinds of unpleasantness.

I also helped to make fairy cakes when my mother had a Saturday baking session. When did fairy cakes submit to the American 'cup' cakes? The term must derive from the measuring cups American cooks use. We don't use cups here in the UK. A lot of us don't even use grams. We use real money: ounces. But the drift towards the continent is worth it in this case. Trust me.

These are the moulds (les moules) you'll need to buy.

Yes, you could substitute something else but it won't be the same. You won't get that sweet, gooey and simultaneously crisp bite of french perfection.

Listen to me and this is what you will have in a few hours time: Cannelés Bordelais

And now for the maths. Take 64 cannelés, deduct 8 (for the neighbour), divide by 2 (people) over 16 (hours). How many remain? Your answer may well be different from mine:

You'll find the recipe below the writing prompts. Steady now.

Hungry Writing Prompts
  1. Write about addiction.
  2. Write about giving.
  3. Write about an adult questioning a child.
  4. Write about the influence of another culture on your life.
  5. Write about counting: sheep, fingers and toes, your blessings, anything you like.
Cannelés Bordelais

half a litre of milk, pinch of salt, 2 eggs plus 2 extra yolks, a teaspoon of good vanilla essence, a tablespoon of rum (I used Grand Marnier), 100 grams of flour, 250 grams of caster sugar, 50 grams of butter

Bring the milk to the boil with the vanilla and butter.
While that's happening, mix the flour and sugar, then add all the eggs and mix together.
Add the boiling milk and mix gently but thoroughly to achieve a smooth, silky batter.
Let it cool. Add the rum, stir, and put it in the fridge for at least an hour.

Put a baking tray in the oven and preheat it at its maximum temperature. My gas oven goes to no. 9.

Melt some more butter and brush the insides of the moulds.
Fill the moulds, to about two thirds full, with the chilled batter. Place them on the hot tray and cook for 10 minutes at that high heat.
Lower the thermostat to no.6 (180 electric) and cook for a further 40 minutes.

They should have a lovely brown crust, but don't worry they'll still be soft inside.

It's easier if you take them out of the moulds while they're still warm.

If you halve the quantity above you'll have enough for 2 moulds of 18. Otherwise you'll have enough for a second batch. What a hardship.


Back to school

I walked the route between home and Tir Morfa Primary School four times a day for six years. Heading there this morning, my mind automatically re-sets itself to the early 1960s and I start counting my footsteps as I leave my parents’ house. It’s rather satisfying when, at 55 steps, I look up and realise I’m walking past 55 Chrome Avenue.

I’m visiting the school as part of my research for Real Port Talbot. There’s a mural in the Assembly Hall by the Port Talbot born artist, Andrew Vicari and I want to photograph it for the book. 

The Tir Morfa mural is a product of its era – the stylised lips and eyes, the strong outlines – and perhaps more of a nostalgia trip for people like me than of any particular value to art history. It takes me back to a time of home knitted jumpers, when the toys we carried didn’t require a power source. The children feel unfamiliar to me but the faces of the women are the remembered mothers of my childhood: Mammy, Aunty Ruth, Aunty Phil, Aunty Beryl. They were the soapsuds and steam of a Monday’s laundry, the warnings of being in trouble when our fathers got home. Letting us stay up late on Friday nights for Bonanza. Women their daughters took for granted until they started to fear losing them.

I had my first school photograph taken in the Assembly Hall but it’s the Dining Hall, connecting the Infants and the Juniors, where memory overtakes me, transports me back 45 years.  The long trestle tables are still there and in the room’s emptiness, its mid-morning silence, I can see the table monitors with their long spoons sharing out cottage pie and cake from oblong aluminium tins. Over-heated mashed potato. Those squares of overly sweet baked sponge with jam. I discovered gristle for the first time when I persuaded my mother to let me have school dinners for a term. I was suspicious of the startlingly yellow custard and rice pudding, their thick wrinkly skins.  

Some kids didn’t complain although they had a right too when they were required to publicly announce their ‘free dinners’ status as the register was called out at the beginning of each week. And the rest of us stared at them.

Hungry Writing Prompts
  • Write about counting things.
  • Write about the women who lived in your street when you were young. 
  • Write a list of things a mother does.
  • Write about someone serving you food in a public place.
  • Write about people looking at you.