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.