Hungry reading

The page proofs of Real Port Talbot arrived in the post from my publisher two days ago and I am spending the weekend scouring each page, each word, each end-note number and reference for typos, omissions, clumsy errors, checking for letters and symbols lost in the transfer from Word to Quark, that the photographs are the right ones and in the right place and that each section falls on the right page number. 

It sounds like fiddly work but this is the kind of writing work I enjoy - proof-reading, editing, layouts. So much easier than the real writing, the struggle to get the right words in the right order and saying what I want them to say. It's not that I don't like the real writing - well, I like it when I'm lost in the flow of it - but I don't like the thought of it and getting myself to the desk to begin. I don't like the white screen, the blank page, the cranking up of gears, the slow lead in and the chopsy indolence of my internal critics who'd prefer me to play Lexulous or check Facebook. 

But what I also loved about writing Real Port Talbot was the research, the walking around, talking to people, climbing through fences, braving a splintering wind, rain-soaked, muddy-booted, photo-snapping, scribbled note-taking kind of research that gave me the framework for the stories that would shape the book. The writing started in my body. I often didn't know how to start talking about a particular place but after walking it, after being alone and open to its physical and emotional influences, I found a way to begin even if that was a confession of failure:

I can’t get a handle on Margam. It feels like a place of parts rather than a cohesive whole: a club and playing fields, a park and a run of shops, a hotel, a college and schools, and the A48, Margam Road, running straight through the middle of it all, an artery hell bent on taking you somewhere else.  (p.206)
I want to write more from the body. Writing that has its roots in my physical, intellectual and emotional relationship to the environment and the landscape and the people who populate them. I want to be serious and funny, interrogative and flippant, academic and entertaining. But I don't want to be the centre of my writing either. I want what I discover in the world to be at the heart of it.

Reading the proofs has reminded me what a gift I had in the opportunity to write this book, how the genre of psycho-geography allowed me to draw on every aspect of my writing career so far and contain it between two covers. Imaginative prose, memoir, poetry, journalistic commentary, historical exploration, confession, story telling. Can I do it again with another book, with different subject matter? I hope so.  

It's at this point that I should be able to neatly segue into the subject of food. The 'proof of the pudding' would be apt. But this post is about a different kind of nourishment.  

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about what nourishes you.

Clearing out the Fridge: The Reality

When Nigel Slater clears out his fridge he finds oyster mushrooms with a 'woodsy' scent nestled in a brown paper bag and some Taleggio cheese that's creamily ripe with an attractive ooze. He also found some left over thick slices of bread cut from what looked like a wholemeal seeded batch loaf.

I cleared out my fridge yesterday. There was a not quite as attractive oozing third of a cucumber, a small dish of sliced lamb left over from lunch last Saturday that had taken on a greyish tinge and a half eaten pot of fizzing tzaziki a week past its use-by date.

That's the difference between TV and real life. And I'm sorry, Nigel, but bread cannot be categorised as 'leftover' unless it has curled crusts or a sprinkling of penicillin growth.

You can catch up with Nigel's leftovers adventures on iPlayer. I'll save you the graphic display of mine. 

But I do have a simple snack that only requires three usually available ingredients and a microwave for when you want to simulate cheese on toast but are lacking in the Slater leftovers and either don't have a grill, or don't even have any bread. I call it 'easy cheesey'.

As you can see from the photo it's pretty 'plug and play' stuff: an oatcake, a slice of cheese, a slice of tomato. If you have dried oregano, sprinkle that on. You will have salt and pepper. If you don't have salt and pepper then you probably need therapy. And you could swap the oatcake for a rice cake or a cracker.

Depending on your microwave, and how many crackers/biscuits on the plate, you're looking at somewhere between 10 and 45 seconds. Peek through the glass door until you see the first hint of bubble then take them out. Beware eating them when they're too hot. We've all been there.

Perhaps it's the nostalgia of melted cheese that, to me, makes it different from cheese on toast. My paternal grandfather, my D'Cu (dadcu is Welsh for grandfather) used to melt cheese in a glass dish in front of an open fire then spoon it onto fresh cut bread. When I put a round of fresh french bread, topped with a slice of cheddar, or the Welsh cheese, Y Fenni, a cheddar with mustard seeds and ale, into the microwave for 10 seconds I am back in that kitchen in Dafen, West Wales, a plastic cloth on the table, a can of condensed milk for tea. With my D'cu:

When he died I said, No, I didn’t want go upstairs and say goodbye. A week later, he was the old man who called me his ‘lovely girl’ as I packed his frozen chicken and packet of custard creams at the supermarket checkout. And now he is always leaning on the front gate in a collarless white shirt, sleeves rolled up above his elbows. Sunlight glints off the close-cropped silver stubble on his head that he had trimmed monthly without fail.

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about the disappointment of reality. Write about the memory of someone you loved. 

The Grumps and Treacle Tart

The last time I saw our friends, Bernie and Chris, I was unintentionally grumpy. I'd had a couple of disagreements with Tony over the previous week - in fact, we might have had a minor flare-up in the car on the way to their house for a barbecue - and by the time I got there a veil of numbness had settled over me.

I don't think I was ill-mannered or discourteous, just unusually quiet with a hint of the dismal. And perhaps because, for most of the time, I'm naturally forthcoming and chatty, my mood was obvious and noted. 

Fortunately they are good friends, the best of friends, so I'm sure they have forgiven me and put it down to a minor and temporary malfunction in my life.

I'd planned to take along a treacle tart that I'd made the day before but the barbecue had been delayed by 24 hours because of rain and Tony and I snaffled a couple of slices. Then another couple. But it was a big tart and even half of it would have been an acceptable dessert contribution. 'But Bernie doesn't eat dessert,' Tony said. That's true. So we ate some more. 

'I love treacle tart,' Bernie told us the next day. Oh. 

'But I've never seen you eat dessert,' I said.

'I don't normally. Unless it's treacle tart. Or Jam Roly Poly. Or Spotted Dick.' Ah! A Nigel Slater Eating for England accolyte. 

So today, I'm making treacle tart just for Bernie. And Roast Welsh Lamb with Marsala and Garlic for Chris. And I won't be grumpy or even vaguely morose, no matter what happens between now and 3pm when they arrive.

Sometimes we have to be firm with ourselves. As the incomparable and sparkling Mrs Peggy West, the lady who worked with me for 10 years at my second-hand bookshop, Foxed & Bound, in the 1990s, used to say: 'Someone around here is being a silly bugger, and that silly bugger is me.'

So from this occasional 'silly bugger', here's a treacle (or more accurately, syrup) tart, a tart that forgives and comforts. Attributes we all need to practice and receive from time to time.

Pastry leaves cut from the left over ready to roll shortcrust.

Grated apple on the pricked base to cut the syrup's sweetness.

Golden syrup, a little melted butter and breadcrumbs poured over and baked.
My old scribbled recipe suggests 10oz of syrup, 1oz of butter and 3oz of fresh breadcrumbs. You can also add the grated rind of a lemon.

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about grumpiness, bad manners, about being a 'silly bugger'. Then write about forgiving. 


Swooning with Raymond Blanc

Every self-respecting French patisserie in Antibes sold them. Friandises: miniature cakes and desserts that we'd probably call petits fours. Eclairs, lemon and fruit tartlets, mille feuilles, chocolate and raspberry mousse - dozens of little bite-size delights. Everything you'd ever want a dessert to be but smaller. 

But I didn't truly appreciate them until I had my first Café Gourmand while I was living there: a dessert alternative that combines a kick (or two) of espresso coffee with three tiny sweet bites. It's an invention that restaurants in Britain haven't embraced. Or I thought they hadn't until I visited the Brasserie Blanc in Chancery Lane, London this week. 

I could go on about the grass fed Cornish fillet steak that Tony had. Or my grilled scallops, crushed new potatoes with prawns, and glistening dish of buttered french beans. In fact, we could perhaps just pause there:

But it was the words Café Gourmand on the dessert menu that really made me swoon. I'm not generally a dessert eater in restaurants - too much, too sweet, too filling. So I truly believe that Cafés Gourmands were invented for people like me. Just enough sweetness, cut with a shot of coffee, to satisfyingly crown a meal.

Tarte au citron, blackcurrant mousse, delice au chocolat.
Marks & Spencer do a range of mini-desserts that you can order: tartlets, macaroons, cupcakes. And Waitrose, as you might expect, offer a selection of Petit Fours by Didier (or Dennis as his colleagues prefer to call him - just kidding!). But it's not the same as leaning over a glass case and selecting your own friandises - trois tartes au citron, s'il vous plait. Attends, non, je prends quatre - and waiting while Madame places them individually in a white cardboard box which she seals with white or pink or yellow ribbon. Gently swinging a cake box between two fingers as you walk along Boulevard Albert does not compare to hoiking a carrier bag through a supermarket car-park.

So, thank-you Raymond Blanc and the staff at Chancery Lane for the sweet swoon of memory.

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about a meal which forms the background of scene between two or more people. Use each course as part of the dramatic structure. Close with the smell of coffee, something sweet and one person's memory.