All this newness: happy 2014

My great-nephew Harri celebrated his first Christmas this year. He's five months of concentrated cuteness now and I'm sure he enjoyed the glitter and rustle, the cwtches and kisses. But he won't remember the event.

I've always imagined that it would be neural overload for babies and toddlers to remember all, or even some, of their new experiences, their first times. How could we possibly process so much novelty at such a rapid pace: the sounds and sights, the sensory explosions of tastes and textures that build to create a world we begin to catalogue and recognise? But I've recently discovered that we do retain all those individual fragments of information: it's just that our brains don't develop the ability to bundle all those fragments together and create memories before the age of between two and four. 

Harri still has a lot of 'first times' to come and even though he won't remember them his parents will, their hearts beating out such joy and delight they never thought possible until his arrival in the world.

We don't lose the experience of 'first times' as we get older. But it's easy perhaps to lose, or dilute, our spontaneous responses. So maybe the cusp of a new year is an opportune time to remind ourselves to express joy and delight and surprise when they manifest in our lives.

This was sunrise on the wall of my writing room earlier this year. 

The reason for this experience being a 'first time', for me not noticing it before, was more to do with time than not appreciating the golden light. Are there really two four o'clocks in one day?! Insomnia has its good sides. 

And this. The whole of the new apple orchard festooned with spider webs one morning. Has it been happening the whole of my life but I had to wait 55 years to experience it? If so, it was more than worth it.

Sometimes I have to look at photographs like this to remind me of the newness in the world. The downsides of living - ill-health, grief, anxiety - can get in the way of being open to joy. But each day is new. A whole 24 hours of never lived before-ness. Each hour even. Each minute. 

Harri might not know this. But his eyes are wide open, his face lit with a smile or creased with a frown. Hello world, he says even before the beginning of words. 

Hello 2014. Show us what you've got. 


'I just wanted to be sure of you.' And happy holidays.

from 'Winnie the Pooh' by AA Milne

We need that, don't we? Feeling sure of someone? A surety that allows us to trust them, feel safe. Or just feeling sure that even breached by many years the next time you meet your conversation will be a continuation: renewed, an easiness settling around you.

I have friends like that. Ones I might go months without seeing. Others who live in different countries that I might not see for years and years. You probably do too.

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about someone you are sure of.

These little almond and chocolate beauties arrived in the post today from our friends in St Pere de Riudebitlles, a village north west of Barcelona.

Catanies, a Catalan speciality from Vilafranca del Penedes
We haven't seen Engracia and Enric, and their sons Darwin and Gerard, for over 12 years. But between 1994 and 1995, when we were living in Barcelona, we spent most of our days with them. Tony made huge sheets of paper on the terrace of their house, as part of his Masters in European Fine Art, using paper pulp from the factory they ran and still run today. 

Enric had handed Tony the keys to their house the first day they met when Tony turned up at the factory to ask if he could buy some pulp for his work. Enric refused any payment and said, 'You can work here.'

Engracia fed us. She made stacks of tortillas - plain, garlic and parsley, and potato. At Christmas she gave us gambas cooked in sherry and a leg of lamb slow roasted on a bed of sweet onions. When they were in season she prepared calcots, a green onion that resembles a long baby leek, grilling them on the outdoor barbecue and serving them to us with a romesco dipping sauce made from ground almonds. On Sunday mornings I walked to the Polleria with her to buy spit roasted chickens and potatoes that had cooked in the fat dripping from the crisping birds. 

When we left to come home in June 1995 we said goodbye to them in the courtyard of the paper factory, little Gerard pointing at me and laughing, 'Why is she crying?', while his parents hushed him and blinked back their own tears.

I don't care if all this sounds sentimental. Because I want to remember and record that special relationship between me and Tony and Enric and Engracia. It was unspoken and unexamined. But somehow we felt sure of each other. And it remains like that. That's a gift that cannot be measured. One to always treasure. 

Wishing you all, new and old friends, those close to me and in far-flung places, happy holidays filled with laughter and a new year that nurtures you with peace and love. 

And chocolates. Of course.

Famous Names: the trickle and dribble of memory

Famous Names: boundary chocolates 
Remember these? Christmas chocolates for grown-ups. At least they only ever made an appearance in our house at the end of the year and they belonged strictly in adult territory. Only the Harvey's Bristol Cream one blurred the boundary line. Perhaps because, at the end of the 1960s, I was allowed half a glass of sherry at Christmas then that little barrel of chocolate filled with the sweet, dark syrup was also viewed as an acceptable trespass. 

I do not know, yet, whether there is a little barrel of chocolate inside this box a friend gave me a couple of days ago. I am reluctant to open it and discover plain and uninspiring chocolate blocks, design beaten into submission by the passing years. I am also keeping possible disappointment at arm's length because the memory is a sweet one too: biting off the top, drinking the contents then allowing the remainder of the sherry infused barrel to melt on my tongue. There was risk involved in that approach though: a less than clean bite resulted in a full chin dribble.

I had no idea these liqueur chocolates were still being manufactured. They're made by Elizabeth Shaw, a brand named for the woman who developed the much appreciated mint crisp in her kitchen in the 1930s. And I am sure we used to have a box filled with just the Harvey's Bristol Cream variety although only this Signature Collection and a Whiskey Collection are currently available.

Harvey's was THE sherry of taste in the 1960s. And even my youthful palate could tell the difference between a sip of the good stuff and the decidedly inferior British Sherry or Emva Cream Cyprus Sherry my Aunty Beryl used to pull out of the sideboard during the compulsory Christmas-time family visit.

Christmas 1961
That was forty to forty five years ago. And this photograph, fifty-two years ago. Santa looks a little thin in the face. And I do not remember what the small wrapped present contained. A snow-globe would have been good. And it's the right shape. 

Perhaps I am hesitant about opening the box of Famous Names because I do not want to disturb the memory with a different reaction. It's not that I want to enshrine the past as a place that's better than the present. But there's no harm in framing it with a certain amount of tenderness. 

One Christmas morning my sister, Shan, and I crept downstairs while it was still dark and opened the living room door on absence. Not a single present. This couldn't be right. Had Mam and Dad forgotten? The shivers that ran through us, only dressed in our nighties, were not from the winter temperature in a house before the days of central heating. My big sister took the initiative. Our presents had to be somewhere else. And they were. In the front room where Mam and Dad had thoughtfully left the gas fire on low so we wouldn't be cold. Although we still carried everything into the living room, one by one, including the big hand-made dolls' house Daddy had been papering the roof of the night before. Because the living room was where they belonged. 

I might open the box tonight. Try that Harvey's Bristol Cream chocolate. Now that I've captured that memory, preserved it in words, I think I'll cope with the outcome. 

Hungry Writing Prompt 
Write about waking up on Christmas morning.


The Vegetable of Doom

Mine was 'the frozen pea'. I could stare at them, corralled on one side of my dinner plate, for an hour without eating a single one. I didn't like their colour or their texture. And they had a strange smell: like green rainwater in an old garden bucket. Fifty years later I can deal with them. But let's be honest, they're a little too independent. There can't be a person alive who hasn't shot an 'escape-pea' off the side of their plate. 

I imagine a lot of us have seen our 'vegetables of doom' metamorphose into our friends. Unless you're a hardened enemy of the Brussel sprout that is.

But more on the maligned sprout later.

My brother-in-law's sworn enemy was the parsnip. He swears his mother disguised them amongst his roast potatoes, where they lurked, cloaked in gravy and deception.

You can't really get a more common and garden variety vegetable than the parsnip. At least not here in the UK, and possibly in the US. But when I was living in the South of France most French people I asked didn't even know what a parsnip was. Even when I asked them in French: le panais. Though to be fair there probably aren't that many people here who'd be able to point you in the direction of salsify. And you'll trip over that in nearly every supermarket in France.

But the parsnip is even more on my mind today as this morning I received an invitation to run a writing workshop at the BlogHer Food '14 conference in Miami. I can't think of a better way to start a day! And the title the organisers have given to my session is: Poetry & Parsnips: Unleash Your Creativity in Food Writing. 

I'm not sure where the 'parsnip' idea came from. It wasn't in my proposal. There's the appeal of the alliteration, of course. But why not Peas? Or Pomegranates or Potatoes? Or Pineapple? Or peanuts or peppers or prawns or pumpkins?

According to Wiki the etymology of parsnip is unclear but it may have evolved from the Latin word pastus, meaning 'food'. Suddenly, 'Parsnips' is the perfect choice to describe 90 minutes of creative expression. Because writing feeds us. We feel richer for committing our memories, our desires, our hopes and fears to paper: we make connections between our past and our present. We begin to make a map of our future. 

hungry writing prompt: 
write a list of your hopes and a list of your fears

But to return to the humble sprout and a way of convincing even serial sprout-haters of their charm. Chop some streaky bacon and shallots and saute until they begin to caramelise. Remove from the heat, add some cream then warm through gently, seasoning to taste. Pour over the hot, steamed sprouts and sprinkle with crumbled walnuts or a handful of toasted pine-nuts. 


Welcome to The Hotel Decrepitude

You know those ads with 50-somethings bouncing around tennis courts with perfectly groomed hair and suntans that advertise, 'Fifty is the new Thirty'? Well, not around here it ain't. 

I don't want to be 30. I'd settle for, 'Fifty-five is the same-old Fifty-five' but my list of growing complaints is trying to convince me otherwise. I won't bore you here with the accumulation of details because I am trying to avoid membership of the 'Tasmalou Club' as the French call it.

T'as (tu as) mal ou? Or, Where does it hurt? A phrase I learned from Mme Riff, our beautiful and elegant French landlady in Juan les Pins as her husband launched into a description of his bad ankle. 
Pie d'Angloys & Brillat-Savarin with fresh black figs
Frozen joints, random lumps, the failing eyesight of a mole I can deal with. But telling me I can't eat butter? Or saucisson sec? Or my pungent and creamy French cheeses? Yes, it's the dreaded unreasonably high cholesterol reading. Which is either punishment for extended hedonistic indulgences while living in France or inconvenient and obstreperous genes. I am supposed to be good, and bored, and wait for six months to find out.

But maybe I don't have to wait that long. Red blood cells only live for about four months so I could have nearly a whole new set to juggle with by February. In the meantime I'm not sure whether to laugh or cry at the fact that the following snack bar represents excitement in my life right now...

In an idle moment I decided to Google the number 55 to discover any numerological, social or historical insights. It seems I have nothing to worry about. In numerology I am composed of Independence, Exploration, Self-determinism, Freedom and Adventure.  In the I Ching I am the sum of earthly and heavenly numbers. I am also the 10th Fibonacci number and the international telephone code for Brazil. I am also quite happy that the 55th word of the King James bible is 'light'. But probably won't ponder on the fact that Adolf Hitler was the 55th member of National Socialist German Workers Party.

February 24th IS the 55th day of the year however. So my February goal is looking promising.

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about numbers: your shoe size, your age.


Having a laugh. And lunch.

He gave me the post code, saw me putting it into the sat nav, so the third time he asks, Are you sure this is the right way?, I feel like poking him. Instead I say, firmly, You do it then! To be fair to him, the posh woman in the machine does seem to be sending us the very long way round. But at least it's a scenic route: the back lanes of mid Kent on an autumn day bright with blue skies are worth any detour. And as we appear to be heading more or less in the right direction I'm happy to take things slowly. But as we follow instructions to turn left into yet another narrow high-hedged lane Tony's resolve crumbles and he decides to ask for directions. 

There are rules governing the asking of directions. Don't do it in city centres after 7pm: you'll inevitably get the drunk. Don't ask people at bus-stops: they're there because they don't know the way to anywhere independently. If you ask someone and they say, Pardon?, just drive off: they're playing for time, politely, and the next time you repeat the address they'll tell you they're not from around here. What? You didn't know that when I first stopped?!

I've now added another rule, one that was rapidly formulating in my mind as Tony slowed down alongside a half hidden driveway where an old man was leaning on a rake. Tony, no... But it was too late. 

As soon as we came to a stop he shifted his weight from the rake onto our wing mirror so now we were stuck there or we were going to have to take the old bugger with as as we drove off. Ah, Kingswood, he said and nodded and then left a pause long enough that we were both tempted to poke him to see if he was still alive. But what if we poked him and he fell off the wing mirror? 

I left Tony to deal with the matter, and stared out of the passenger window, my shoulders, by this time, rocking with silent laughter as the old boy tried to remember what was at the end of the lane. 

He probably hasn't spoken to anyone since the end of WWII, Tony said after we eventually escaped and I was wiping the tears from my eyes. And then the sat nav instructed us to turn into Gravelly Bottom Road. You're having a laugh, aren't you? Tony said to no-one in particular. By the time we'd passed Bushy Grove we were a pair of basket cases. Sometimes living in England is entirely worth while! 

And we got a great lunch out of the day too. The Pepperbox Inn near Harrietsham lives up to all and any expectations of what an English pub should be like: 15th century, whitewashed, a roaring fire, cosy leather sofas and dark wooden furniture with the worn gleam of centuries and the obligatory lollopy dog asleep on the floor next to the bar. 

And the food was a winner too. I had an Asian scotch egg with salad and chips, the sausage meat singing with flavours of chilli, garlic and cumin. But I could have chosen a good half a dozen other things and been equally as happy, I'm sure.

And there was a windowsill I wanted to take home with me.

Or at least spend a weekend in with a pile of soft cushions and a couple of books. 

Is there anything better than a good laugh and a good lunch within minutes of each other? Not that I can think of right now.

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about stopping at the side of a road.


The reality of disappointment

Three disappointing food things:

  1. cold chips
  2. discovering your husband has eaten the custard tart you'd been saving for a snack during Masterchef
  3. dragon fruit
1. is redeemable: a few minutes in a hot oven. 2. could provoke an argument if you didn't find the bar of chilli flavoured chocolate in the kitchen cupboard while muttering to yourself about 'greedy gits'. But there's nothing you can do about 3. 

Dragon fruit disappoint more deeply because of their vibrant exterior. Then when you slice one open the black seed-speckled bright pinky purple flesh almost makes you gasp. It's like nothing you've ever experienced in your life. 

Dragon fruit: Pitaya or Pitahaya
Google searches throw up descriptions of its wonderful flavour: like a cross between kiwi and pear. But that wasn't my experience in the kitchen this morning: solid pink water is the most complimentary I can be.

I imagine eating the carrots dug from my dad's garden only a few hours earlier and comparing them to the carrots, even the organic ones, I buy in a supermarket. The taste of two different worlds.

It's difficult to imagine only eating indigenous, and seasonal, fruit and vegetables: the 20th and 21st centuries have gathered food to our tables from all over the world and my culinary and gastronomic experience is richer for that. But that's what we did do, mostly, when I was a kid. Bananas and oranges were the only 'exotic' fruit Mammy bought. Pineapple came in tins. And there are plenty of popular and academic posts and articles on the web that promote the health benefits of doing just that. 

I'm not sure if I'm disappointed or relieved to discover that last week was the annual week of eating indigenous food, according to the Facebook group, Indigenous Eating. But there's an itch in my mind that will probably grow to an inclination over the next couple of months. I'll let you know how I get on with food that looks more like this: 

And this:

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about a time when you were disappointed. 


Forgiveness soup

I'm not going to divulge why I need to make this soup. In fact I tend to be suspicious of other people's confessions, the motives behind them, so I also suspect the motive for my own. 

Even confessions that make it to the printed page sometimes wobble along a a narrow line between confession and exhibitionism. Confessions don't always make for reparation. Sometimes they're just attention seekers. Sometimes they just make the confessor feel better. 

There's a strong argument, on a lot of occasions, for staying quiet, zipping it, putting a lid on it, keeping it to ourselves. This is one of them.

Why does this make a good forgiveness soup? Both as an offering and a receiving? Because it's simple. It's straightforward. It's warming. It has a texture that comforts you whatever side of the forgiveness model you happen to be sitting on. Or waving from, if the event was truly divisive.

You'll feel better after a bowl of this though.

3 leeks, sliced, and 3 carrotts, sliced, sauteed in a little olive oil.
Add: 1 litre of vegetable stock

grind together quarter tsp chilli flakes, half tsp cumin seeds, quarter tsp coriander seeds and add to pot
salt and pepper to taste (I used garlic pepper)

Add 250 gr split red lentils (having boiled them rapidly for 10 minutes spooned off any froth)

Cook until the lentils have softened. Keep an eye on it and add more stock for the required consistency.

Add some chopped parsley to serve.

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about a time when you were in need of forgiveness. 


The evolution of the fish finger sandwich

Regular readers will remember this post where I upgraded the fish finger sandwich with hand-sliced black olive bread. Well, it has evolved further. Out of necessity. 

I wouldn't go as far as to cite the 'necessity is the mother of invention' proverb. And I think I can be pretty sure that Plato did not have fish fingers on his mind, or his plate, when he, allegedly, used those words. 'Necessity is the impulse to scour the cupboards' would be more accurate.

But talking about 'invention', who invented the fish finger? And yes, it was Captain Birdseye! Well, almost. It was a Mr Scott, of Birds Eye, who developed the fish finger at their factory in Great Yarmouth. It was gifted to the world in 1955 at a Brighton sales conference.

The Americans, as is often the case, apparently beat us to it with their 'fish stick' in the 1920s. Fish stick? Not very inventive at all. 

I found these and other insightful details about the FF in a 2010 article in The Telegraph. Google also nets you page after page of sites talking about the FF sandwich: posh, perfect, homemade, ultimate, world's best, deluxe. 

In this case it seems that necessity is the mother of repetition.

And my latest contribution to this over-crowded culinary debate? 
  1. A wrap. 
  2. A generous couple of tablespoons of mayonnaise mixed with finely chopped sweet and sour gherkin. 
  3. Shredded romaine lettuce.
And yes, necessity was at play. I spent the whole day scraping window sealer from the edge of the two dozen wooden frames in our new greenhouse. I wanted feeding quickly. I wanted comfort, taste, with a kick of originality. And I wanted to use up the fish fingers (the usual leavings from a visit of family munchkins) before they developed a deeper crust of freezer dust. 

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about what is necessary in your life. And what is unnecessary. 


Flat and flatter: cars and ducks

(Please don't worry - there's no direct relationship between the car and the duck!)

There's a flatness to grey, wet weather, don't you think? Everything might be exactly how it was yesterday, every building, every tree, even the colour of the grass, but when I look out of the window it feels pressed upon, weighted down. It's like the sound an old bruise might make. The smell of a damp towel.

And just when you think things can't get any flatter:

But I called a very nice man. A very, very nice man. In fact, in the handful of times I've had to use a breakdown service I've never met an un-nice man. It's not just that they solved the problems: changed a tyre, refilled an empty fuel tank, or took me home. It's the manner in which they handled all that. They're like magicians: they make anxiety disappear. But that is coming from a woman who generally doesn't look under the bonnet of her car; a woman who has been meaning to get out the owner's manual for the past five and a half months, to find out how to change the clock forward an hour, and who realises it's not really worth it now. In two weeks time she'll only have to change it back. 

Flatness needs a non-flat antidote. And this was mine:

I used to buy this duck confit when I lived in Antibes: I nabbed this one in Carrefour during a shopping trip at the Cite Europe on the other side of the Channel Tunnel. 

Taste and simplicity: you empty the tin into a large saucepan, allow the duck fat to melt and the duck legs to warm through. Et voila! Pour off the fat, use the meat in a salad, as I did, or as the base for a 'duck' cottage pie. Or just scoff it off the plate on its own. It has been known.

I made a salad dressing with a couple of tablespoons of the melted duck fat, some home-made orange jelly and a splash of balsamic vinegar.

And all my flatness disappeared. And a little more roundness took its place.

Hungry Writing Prompts
Write about changing shape.  

Dancing with the pig

Lunch menu at The Potted Pig
A pig that lives in a vault. A pig that keeps eclectic company. A salty, savoury, gently pulled pig. A pig from Cardiff. A Potted PigAnd dance I did: metaphorically and literally.

An old school friend had recommended this Cardiff eatery although Google shows that it ranks pretty highly for a lot of people, including Jay Rayner, food critic at The Guardian, who chewed and drooled throughout his review after it opened in 2011.

I booked a table on-line and chose the offered option for the set two course lunch at three o'clock. Nice to have a late lunch: the R&R after a necessary shopping spree in the city with my sister. But the restaurant called the day before to say that their on-line booking system was playing up. They only served until two so could we come then instead? And I'm pleased I did. 

If you're a fan of cockles, you're going to love the next photo. If you're not... you really need to rethink your eating habits. I know that they're not the most photogenic of creatures. I know that bi-valve isn't the most inspiring gastronomic term. But once they're cooked they tighten to a sweet chew and combined with laver bread and bacon on lightly toasted sour-dough bread they are the food equivalent of a hot tango with Antonio Banderas. I told you I was dancing. 

Cockles, bacon and
laver bread on toast
The choice of main courses wasn't as enticing or as varied as I'd have liked: pork chop (pass), pasta with courgettes and peas (boring), grilled plaice (something I could do at home), burger (just no), BBQ pulled pork sandwich (do I really want bread again?) and a philly cheese steak sandwich (ditto). In the end I chose the pulled pork and discarded the bread and, Wow. The combination of soft pork, spicy sauce and a crisp red cabbage coleslaw sent me whirling around the floor with Snr. Banderas again. 

My literal dancing was something of a surprise. The rain was washing the city clean as we came in and we were warned that the floor might be a bit slippy. A BIT slippy? Imagine Dancing on Ice meets Julie Walters' Mrs Overall from Acorn Antiques and you'd have a pretty good idea of what it felt like, and what I looked like, walking across the wooden floor from reception to our table. 

And there was a little bit more dancing before my day was over. A large (and I use that word without any hint of exaggeration) spider scampered across my sister's foot while she was watching TV that evening. Riverdance had nothing on her. 

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about dancing, about music and movement, about delight.

The Potted Pig's BBQ pulled pork with red cabbage coleslaw and watercress with home-made chunky chips.

Oh. Venice.

In Venice there's a People Mover, a half mile long funicular-type overhead railway, that connects the cruise terminal to Piazzale Roma, at the western edge of the intricate web of islands, canals and bridges that make up the city of our imaginations. 

My flights of fancy about Venice were first fuelled, in the early 80s, by Pizza Express's Pizza Veneziana (a snippet of the cost of each pizza was given to the Venice in Peril fund) and, in the early 90s, by reading Thomas Mann's Death in Venice as part of my Diploma in Comparative Literature, a novella which is a fetid hothouse of decay and destructive eroticism. Hey, what's not to like?

But Venice has the reputation of being the most romantic city on earth and my first reaction, after stepping off the People Mover and wandering along the minor canals, is satisfyingly predictable. Every bend, every building, every wooden boat dock elicits a sigh. I don't even mind paying 12 Euros for a bottle of coke and an orange juice outside a little bar in one of the out of the way piazzas, although the irony that the orange juice is made of blood oranges isn't lost on me.

But the closer I get to St Mark's Square the less enamoured I become as subtlety gives way to brashness and overcrowding. And, at the risk of being called a Philistine, I just don't get the fuss about the square. It's an ugly stone tundra. 

I suppose September is still considered a high tourist season so perhaps I only have myself to blame. I'm also to blame for not checking my change after buying a couple of water taxi tickets on the banks of the Grand Canal. As I walk away I realise I'm 4 euros short though the hand-written English notice on the booth window telling me, and every other English-speaking tourist, that I should have checked it before leaving means there's no way I'm going to get it back.

It's funny how little things like that can colour your view of a place. Perhaps unfairly. Perhaps not. The man who served us in the bar just clipped the edge of politeness. The ticket-booth guy was fully trained in unarmed hostility.

Perhaps the people of Venice are fed up with all the visitors and tourists. And particularly the cruise ships as recent newspaper reports illustrate. 

Luckily there was something to save Venice for me as I puttered along the
Giudecca Canal back to the ship: a 35 ft inflatable replica of Mark Quinn's sculpture, 'Breath', of a naked and eight month pregnant Alison Lapper, the disabled artist who was born with no arms, on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. 

It's not something everyone in Venice was happy to see though. The Catholic church said, diplomatically, that it was 'out of place'. Other people think that the inflatable version doesn't have the presence of the original 11.5 ft marble sculpture, made from Carrara marble, the same stone Michelangelo's David was carved from. Some feel that it's too obvious a way of encouraging us to re-examine our attitudes about beauty and the human form. You can read more here and make up your own mind.

For me, it's beautifully brave and honest. 

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about a time when you were brave. 

Livorno, ti amo

Livorno, I love you. I love your piazzas and statues, your brickwork and pavements, your streets and canals. I love the sound of water lapping against old stone and the musical rise and fall of your language. I love your one legged pigeons. I love your graffiti and your church’s trompe l’oeil murals that convince me I could walk through paint and plaster into light and shadow. And I love your mercato centrale, your fishmongers and butchers, stalls that sell candies and knitting wool, herbed mozzarella and ripe black figs. Livorno, I love your ordinariness, your honesty. The faces of your people. Your grazies and your pregos. And Livorno, perhaps you love me too.

I'm unsure if I have the spelling right but 'la bella signora' at Caffetteria da Lori in the central market
told me this coffee was called 'la marocaine' (pronounced 'marokenna'.)
And here are the rest of my Livorno photos, the city that captured my heart.

Love Lori's coffee bar

Love the old quarter

Love the central market

Love the trompe l'oeil  painting at Santa Caterina

Love the one legged pigeon

Love the street graffiti: the Madonna, Palestine and Claudia.

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write, and keep writing, about what and who you love. 


I’ve worked out that there are only 30 minutes of each day when I cannot be sitting at a table and chowing down. That’s between 11am when the Waves Grill closes after breakfast and 11.30am when it re-opens for lunch.  And I wouldn’t have to restrict myself to breakfast in Waves; there’s also the Grand Dining Room, until 9.30am, or the Terrace CafĂ©, until 10am.  And I’ve just realised that if I’m really and truly, dangerously even, in need of sustenance during those barren 30 minutes I could always take a trip up to the 12th deck and snack on the miniature rolls and cakes tucked away, with fresh fruit juice, in the corner of Barista’s coffee bar.

Yep I’m cruising. I embarked as a passenger in Venice on 7th September and I’m likely to leave as cargo in Lisbon on 29th.

I’m wondering if people on an Oceania cruise reach an immunity level to the availability, quantity and astonishing choice of high quality, freshly prepared food. A little like  people who start work in chocolate factories and are told they can eat as much of it as they like, as often as they like, and within two weeks have been cured of any desire for the sweet milky drug. I’ll let you know when the novelty of being served, and eating, breakfast, morning coffee, brunch, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner has worn off. Portion control, that’s the trick. Will someone please show me how that trick works?

And if being gastronomically assaulted from all sides on board ship isn’t enough there’s also the food ashore, like this lunch I had in Dubrovnik a couple of days ago: blue cheese risotto garnished with freshly grilled Adriatic shrimp.

The old walled city of Dubrovnik is a UNESCO World Heritage site though that didn’t stop the Yugoslav People’s Army from shelling it in 1991 during the Croatian war for independence, an action that contributed to the diplomatic and economic isolation of Serbia and Montenegro and led to the international recognition of Croatia as an independent state.

Walking through the old city today it’s hard to imagine what it looked like two decades ago.  It’s even harder to imagine the violence and atrocities that took place in the region too, neighbour turned against neighbour, even families dissected and destroyed. Twenty years isn’t a long time. What were you doing in 1991/2? I attended my first ever residential writing course at Ty Newydd in North Wales. I was running my second-hand bookshop, Foxed & Bound, and studying part-time for a Diploma in Comparative Literature. People in the Balkans were living in fear of their lives. They were grieving and dying in the onslaught of racial and religious hatred whipped up by political factions.

Today the ship stops at Giardini Naxos in Sicily, the site of the first Greek colony on the island. In the archaeological museum there’s a display of pots and bowls and amphorae, the ordinary vessels of daily life from the 6th and 7th centuries BCE.

The lived, they ate, they died. Nothing much changes. Even how we treat one another. What happened in the Balkans shocked the world. We didn’t believe that those kinds of atrocities could happen, again, in our post-holocaust ‘civilised’ West. Will human beings ever learn?

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about excess, going too far, about too much of any one thing.


Like hunger

How to describe this feeling, this physical sensation, that has settled below my solar plexus. It is like hunger in its hollowness, in my desire to feed it. Because what has been feeding me for the last five days has left, travelling away from me, going west along the motorway, crossing the bridge over the River Severn from England into Wales, past the old port cities along the coast towards the smoky clatter of plant and towers of the steelworks that announces Port Talbot, then turning south towards the sea. They're home. And what remains of them here are bright memories, like illuminated shadows stretching across the grass.

My mam and dad, my niece, her husband and their two little kids have been staying with me. There has been pancake flipping, barbecuing and roasting, baking, jam making and wine pouring. There have been darts and frisbees, footballs and bingo games. There have been walks and runs and falling over. Rabbits and deer. Sunrises and sunsets. There has been laughter. Lots of laughter. 

('Iwan gets really upset when I tell him off,' his mother said. 
'I don't,' Ffion, his older sister said. 
'No, you're more resilient.' 
'I'm not Brazilian!')

The orchard fences were sagging under the weight of brambles clustered with plump blackberries. We made a small dent.

Blackberry jam 
Blackberry tart (recipe below)
And now I find myself alone I am attempting to nourish that hollow feeling with a soup made with the home-grown tomatoes and red onions that Mam and Dad brought with them.

Tomato, pepper and hot chilli soup (recipe below)
And then as I'm stirring the soup, my husband, Tony, calls from Corfu where the cruise ship he's lecturing and painting on for 8 weeks has docked for the day and his voice brings me home to myself, our life together.

We all need to be capable of feeding ourselves but the nourishment we receive from the people in our life who we love, who love us, makes us whole. 

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about the shadows in your life so far. Write about the illuminations. 

Blackberry Tart
This was the first time I'd made this tart, originally served to me by my friend, Mary Vickers, in Florida. I cannot begin to tell you how good the cream cheese and icing (confectioner's) sugar base is within a crisp, sweet and buttery shortcrust envelope. You could pile more fruit onto the top. Next time I will and I'll try a mixture of blackberries and raspberries too.

Tomato, sweet red pepper and chilli soup 

No real recipe here, just instinct and palate. I used 1 red onion, two long sweet red peppers, a red chilli (all three chopped and softened in olive oil), added a small bowl of chopped fresh tomatoes, some crushed coriander seeds, salt and black and red pepper (for extra heat) and simmered it all for about 45 mins. I pushed it through a sieve for a bright and fine broth but you could liquidise it all for a thicker soup.

I was just on the point of discarding the mash of seeds and skins when I decided to taste it. It is now in a small bowl and will form a tasty little island in the soup along with some creme fraiche.