What matters in the here and now: food and grace.

Last night's here and now was an experiment with Pissaladière, Niçoise kind of open tart, or flat bread, filled or topped with caramelised onions, anchovies and black olives. We've invited our neighbours in for a New Year's glass or two of champagne and nibbles next Sunday and I'm playing around with canapé ideas - the usual meat, fish, vegetarian presentation. I wanted to see if the topping would hold up cooked on a sheet of puff pastry then cut into small squares. It does. But it won't. It's more a 'chomp on that with a glass of rustic red wine' kind of snack than a glass of champagne one.

To be honest, I seem to be thinking too much about this event, trying too hard to come up with little plates of food to welcome people into our home. I'm not sure why. Maybe it's a side-effect of lingering jet lag after flying back from Florida a couple of days ago. Maybe I'm focussing too much on wanting to impress people, some of whom I hardly know. A 'look at my perfectly original amuse-bouches, people!' approach that really isn't the way I normally think about food and feeding people at all. 

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about trying to be perfect at something, or for someone.

I recently bough Tamar Adler's lyrical and meditative An Everlasting Meal, Cooking with Economy and Grace, a book that is far more than a cookbook or a book about how we live and eat, but has so much to say about both, and more. I read it while sitting on a beach in Florida and so many times I had to close the book and close my eyes and let myself absorb the poetry of her words and insights. I know when a book is about to take up permanent residence in my life when I start filling the margins with notes and underlining words I want to remember. This is a book for writers who love food. Capers are as odd and wild as birds. (p.136)  Yes!

And now I'm remembering what she says on p.215:

...the simple, blessed fact is that no one ever comes to dinner for what you're cooking. We come for the opportunity to look up from our plates and say 'thank you'. It is for recognition of our common hungers that we come when we are asked.

Now, some champagne and a few mouthfuls of savouriness are not dinner. There's no table sharing involved. But our get-together next Sunday is about companionship, about living in the same lane, about what we have in common and about the differences we accept in each other.

And now I start to think about food as tenderness, as an ordinary but sincere smile, as good wishes for the now and what's to come, as the grace in the title of Tamar Adler's book. That's a start. I can go forward from here. And maybe the Pissaladière* will find a place.

Happy New Year. Go forward with grace too - from the here and now and into what 2015 will bring for you.

*You'll find Tamar Adler's guidelines for making this on pages 147 to 149 of her book although there are hundreds of recipes for it on-line. But she is the only cook I've ever read who really understands the patience involved in caramelising onions. Do not believe anyone else who says 20 minutes, even half an hour, is enough. Prepare yourself to engage with them for an hour. 'Golden jam', she says. Yes. 


The Hunger Trap (and my inexcusable, creativity-barren attempts to escape from it)

I can count the number of ready meal items I buy at home in the UK on one hand. Make that less than one hand: Tesco Finest Prawn and Chili Fishcakes and Four Cheese frozen pizzas. They're quick 'feed me/us now' options. The fishcakes are for me when I'm on my own: baked and crisped up in the oven and slipped onto a rocket (arugula) salad. The pizzas are for us both on a chow down in front of the TV night: we undress them, top them with a selection of fresh sliced tomatoes, char-grilled artichokes, hot and sweet peppers, black olives, maybe a few slices of Waitrose's Italian fennel salami on mine, and wait 15 minutes for the oven to exert its transforming powers of bubble and melt.

So why was I gazing into the icy bowels of a freezer at Publix supermarket on Deerfield Beach, here in south Florida, a couple of nights ago as if it held the answers to my culinary dreams? Some possible reasons. 

Tony wasn't hungry so I was looking only to feed myself. It was late, 8pm, later than I'd normally eat. I was tired. And I'd gone around the curve of hungry into the strait of being over-hungry where my blood sugar levels start to plummet and I get grumpy. All of which are pathetic and clatter together into one big unacceptable whine, making me more than deserving of what followed.

1) When I got home the box of Cajun flavoured frozen Wild Atlantic salmon told me I'd need to defrost it for 8 to 12 hours and 2) 1 hour and 30 minutes later the frozen Lime & Coriander Shrimp emerged from the villa's oversized oven, big enough to cook a small goat in, looking as appetising as the fragments of wave-shattered jelly fish along the shore when we first arrived on Hillsboro Beach, and with, I imagine, a similar consistency.

C'mon! I can do better than that. I know I can. And with very little effort. Some al dente pasta tossed in softened, chopped garlic, olive oil, parsley and grated Parmesan. A fried egg on hot buttered toast. Or just a dish of sliced fresh tomatoes drizzled with oil and salt, sprinkled with chopped spring onions, or scallions as they're called here, and bread to mop up the juice. It's not rocket science; it's not even science.

This story doesn't end well. (Although there was a satisfying interim event of a crustily seared but melt in the mouth medium rare filet mignon with a bottle of J Lohr Cabernet Sauvignon that didn't allow for even the seed of a whine to be germinated, let alone planted.) Last night I gave the (defrosted) salmon a chance. And promptly slid it off my plate into the bin. Salmon should taste of salmon not a fishmonger's rag. 

But I wasn't completely thwarted this time: on my plate was a pile of curly green rocket drizzled with oil and a baked potato whose skin had been rubbed with salt and whose creamy heart was draped in sour cream. Ahhh. There's nothing like letting ordinary ingredients run about (almost) naked to make me smile.

Hungry Writing Prompts
Write about throwing something away.
Write about being 'almost' naked.


Sweet life

I'm trying to remember where my school tuck shop was. The sprawling Sandfields Comprehensive School was divided into Lower, Middle and Upper sections of red brick buildings, each with their own assembly halls. I'm pretty sure it occupied a small room at the end of an L-shaped covered walkway behind the Lower School Hall, at the edge a kind of no-man's land yard that joined all three parts but didn't seem to belong to any particular one. Ah, the democracy of the comprehensive system! A system that still marshalled their identified high achievers into an unspoken grammar stream of 3 forms labelled X, Y and L and placed the kids at the other end of the academic spectrum into Form A!

But I can't see beyond the Tuck Shop's split door, or was it a slide-open window? I can suggest a list of chocolate bars and packets of crisps from the late 1960s and early 1970s that might have nudged up against each other on the shelves but I have no memory of handing over money for a Milky Way (1935), or a Wagon Wheel (1948), or a packet of the still excitingly novel, (well, as novel as reconstituted potato gets), Cheese Quavers (1968). 

The (sometimes surprising) dates above are courtesy of Steve Berry's and Phil Norman's The Great British Tuck Shop, an encyclopaedic and entertaining memory-stirring read through all things sweet and savoury from a time when we didn't even know how to spell obesity and diabetes (type 2).

Maybe I did buy one or two things at the school tuck shop but my strongest memory of sweet buying is closer to home, from a little flat-roofed shop at the end of Aberafan Beach's promenade, a street away from our house. Recite with me now: Black Jacks, Fruit Salads, Rainbow Drops, White Mice, Pink Shrimp, Flying Saucers, Bazooka Joes. Sweets we chose in straight and mixed pairs, triplets and quartets, according to the amount of solidly reliable brass pennies in our pockets that we could spread them across. Pennies that betrayed us after 1971 with the decimalisation of the UK's currency when, overnight, 2.4 old pennies was now only worth 1 new one and the Black Jack count fell simultaneously. 

Reading The Great British Tuck Shop on a beach in South Florida has probably been a cause for consternation amongst adjacent non-British holidaymakers. 'Aztec!' I've yelped. Or, 'Caramac!' And, 'Curly Wurly!' Or, perhaps even more worryingly, 'Oh, Raspberry Ruffles,' with a long and satisfying sigh. Because when I say, 'Raspberry Ruffles', a whole other world rushes back to me: the worn, red velvet seats of an old cinema, the scent of perfume and cigarette smoke from the usherette as she saunters back up the aisle with her tray of ice-creams, and the light from a suddenly curtain free screen that makes my eyes ache. 

And then there are the people who embody my chocolate memories. My husband, Tony, is Fry's Turkish Delight (1908). My mother goes with Bournville Chocolate (1908). For my older sister there's Cadbury's Fruit and Nut (1926). My younger brother, the aforementioned laces of stiff toffee dipped in chocolate, a Curly Wurly (1970). 

Me? I'm a packet of Munchies (1957). Or maybe, Rolos (1937). But what about my father? There's nothing that comes to mind. Did he like the Toffee Pennies in a Christmas tin of Quality Street (1936)? Or a sophisticated After Eight (1962)? Did Mam put a Jacob's Club (1932) - If you like a lot of chocolate on your biscuit join our club! - in his box, along with his sandwiches, when he went to work? It suddenly feels important to find out. 

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about someone who reminds you of chocolate.


Small things we love and Blue Mind Science

Everyone has a favourite kitchen utensil, right? Something quite ordinary, maybe, not necessarily a shiny and mind-boggling piece of culinary technology.

I have one. But Tony, my husband, hates it. My mother finds it awkward when she visits. But I discovered, by accident, that a friend shares my passion for it. When I told him I'd written a poem in its praise, he asked for a copy to put up in his kitchen. How deep is our love!

In Praise of Things

Today I want to say something wonderful
about my potato peeler –
the way the ergonomically designed handle
fits snugly in the curve of my palm as if
it was made for the valley of my right hand.

I want to tell you how it is soul-mate
to thick-skinned vegetables –
cloudy tangerine columns of carrot
knobbly orbs of King Edwards.
How it slides over them as if it might be
wrapping them not unwrapping them
as if it might be whispering
while secretly stealing their skin.

I love the way the steel head swivels
gently rocking from side to side
accommodating each ridge, bump, lesion.
Under the skin

everything glistens
our true colours rising.

OXO Good Grips
Swivel Potato Peeler
I'm thinking about my lovely potato peeler because here, on holiday in South Florida, the one in the kitchen drawer in the rental villa seems designed for other chores, and not one of them involving any degree of sharpness. I could have gnawed the skin off one Idaho potato and two sweet potatoes more effectively with my teeth. I didn't. I used a knife, that was only slightly sharper. 

I was making mashed potatoes to go with Tony's peppered chicken cooked with red wine and cream. As lovely as it is to eat out on holiday, and particularly here in a place that has enough bars and restaurants to entertain the inhabitants of a small country for a year, it is also good to stay in our little villa next to the Atlantic ocean and prepare our own dinner. 

A bottle of Kendall Jackson Cabernet Sauvignon flavoured the chicken and our palates. Afterwards we wandered out into a dark too dark to see the water but we listened to the waves, felt the salt start to speckle on our skin. 

Hillsboro Beach, South Florida
'What is it about the ocean that people feel drawn to it?' Tony asked me.
'Perhaps, at a primitive level, because it's the place we all come from,' I suggested. 

Dr Wallace J Nichols, scientist and best-selling author, is far more insightful in his book Blue Mind, The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connect, in which he combines science and neuroscience to show us how our brains are hard-wired to react positively to water. 

Being British I can't help but think of David Attenborough's series, The Blue Planet. He might not be making the links between human consciousness and the oceans that Nichols identifies but he still delivers us up to the grandeur and astonishing beauty of our watery world, our home. 

At night we switch off the A/C, sleep with the window open, let the sea's voice lull us to sleep, imagine its breath billowing through our dreams. Each day we walk the shore, watch sandpipers scuttle away from waves, the southern flights of pelicans. We breathe.

          never so big
          as when I am breathing
          in the sea

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about a shoreline, the boundary between a body of land and a body of water.


Does anything eat jellyfish?

The mornings begin here, on Hillsboro Beach in South Florida, pretty much as they do at home: one of us makes tea and brings it back to bed. But we do not look up at the fickle English sky through the Velux windows or catch the faint drone of the motorway in the distance. Instead we gaze out at the Atlantic, the horizon brightening with the rising sun, the sound of the wind ruffling, or sometimes bullying, the water into white and whiter peaks.

Hillsboro Beach, South Florida
Then our mornings' paths diverge a while for fresh papaya squeezed with the zing of lime, meet again an hour later for coffee made with milk and sweet with brown sugar, then strike off more determinedly for a walk along the beach towards Lighthouse Point, our feet in the shallows, keeping an eye out for shells and coral. And jellyfish. Quite a lot of jellyfish trundled out of a bolshy sea over the last couple of days.

Some are glassy and pinkly luminous in their freshness, up to nine inches in diameter, still pulsing faintly on the wet sand. Others have dried into bulbous clumps of aspic after their hours ashore. The blue and pink gas-filled sacks of Portuguese Men of War waver like sails on nests of weed washed up by the tide, their long inky tentacles as fine as cotton thread: colours that make you think of children's party balloons.

Sometimes ignorance really is preferred: after checking Wikipedia I now know that the tentacles from a Portuguese Man of War can sting long after the host is dead. That they can sting for hours, or even days, after being detached. 

I shout to the gulls, the sandpipers, the terns, even the osprey that career above the shore: 'Eat the jellyfish!' I don't think they're listening. I don't think they want to.

I don't want to either, although the gummy looking ones are served as a delicacy in some Aisan countries. If you're searching for that unique and attention grabbing job then 'Jellyfish Master' could be the one for you!

Late yesterday afternoon I walked back along the shoreline, trying to to snap a couple of photos of those glutinous ones... but all I could find were some scattered fragments of their former selves, sparkling like sea glass. 

The pull of the ocean, its power and danger, its terrible beauty.

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about something that sparkles.

More and less: food banks

In true 'Brit-abroad' fashion I'm putting together some 'essential' items for my month long trip to Florida this Saturday. So far: a couple of mini Christmas puddings, a small slab of iced Christmas cake, bags of my Natco Indian spicy tea and a packet of sage and onion stuffing mix for my 'easy-peasy' stuffing. This involves the very basic skills of making up the mix according to the instructions on the box, letting it cool slightly, then mixing it with the meat from a few skinned pork sausages and a knob of butter. Bake that for 35 minutes until it has a nice crispy topping. Food snobs desist. No sweated over, hand-made stuffing can beat this. I've tried drifts, litters and sounders of home-made pork stuffing recipes and always go back to 'easy-peasy'. And everyone I've ever cooked it for loves it too. 

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about food packed for a long journey.

I am grateful for my life that allows me to make a trip like this. A gratitude that deepens when I read about, and witness, the conditions and circumstances that some people are struggling with. Can you imagine not having enough money to feed your kids properly? I try, but feel sure I get nowhere near to the levels of distress and fear. 

I'm thinking particularly about food because of the number of food banks opening in the country and some of the disturbing media coverage, like Brendan O'Neill's comments in 'What's fuelling the food-bank frenzy?' in The Telegraph last month: "Today’s food banks are not fuelled by the needs of the poor so much as by the needs of charities and campaigners." Then there are the inflammatory, and unfortunately sometimes accurate, reports of misuse - scroungers and con-men - and the politicisation of the subject by Left and Right which can obscure the facts and genuine need.

Yes, some people do charity work for their own glory. Yes, some people are gutter-rats who will abuse any system for their own greedy benefit. And yes, so many politicians use social issues to blow their own trumpets and attack their opponents. But let's bypass all that and and step into these people's lives.

You're out of work following a bad car accident. You've lost your wife. Money's tight but you've always managed to pay your bills. But your child is going to a new school. You have to buy a uniform, a gym-kit. You do it, cover your monthly expenses too, but you now have £7 left to feed yourself and your child for the next three weeks.

Or, you've been made redundant. Your debts are growing. There's the threat of bailiffs. You watch your child eating toast, again, because a couple of loaves of bread is all you've been able to buy with the change in your purse.

You're elderly, you've been living alone in your two bedroom flat for years but the bedroom tax has cut your benefits. When you meet the woman from the food bank you confess you've been sharing cereal with your dog for a couple of months. 

I haven't invented these stories. I wish I had. 

Food = life. It's that simple. And do you know what's even more simple for those of us who have 'more'? Let's make do with less and give to people who really do need more. And at this time of the year when, let's be honest, so many of us spend more money than we need to, buy more than we can really eat, we could easily put aside some things and donate them to our local food bank, or even give the money we would have spent on them to a food bank so they can use it in the best possible way for the people in need that they are really helping. 

Food = life. It's that simple. I can't say more. 



Triggers: scents and textures of memory

The lingering crisp aroma of home-made chips (cooked in the Actifry pan with just a tablespoon of sunflower oil) combined with the scent of the log fire as I walk from the kitchen into the lounge triggers the memory of my grandparents' house in Dafen, Llanelli. Although the scent of memory lies: those chips would have been cooked in lard, the fire made of coal, the heat localised around the grate in the kitchen rather than filling the ground and first floor of the house as our log burning stove does. 

They moved into that house around the mid 1960s although my first memory of it is from 1966, the date fixed by a family holiday at Butlins in Pwllheli, North Wales and how we called in to see them on the journey home from north to south. I remember the outfit I am wearing standing on their narrow, brick and concrete garden path for a photo, an outfit that repeats itself in the Butlins' snaps. Different shades of green in a photo that is only preserved in shades of grey.

Food and drink, clothes. My memory triggers.

I remember what I was wearing on my first (blind) date with Tony in February 1985: a black and purple, above-the-knee, knitted tunic dress with a wide shawl collar. I remember he wore a dark grey flecked suit and a bow tie. 

I remember the 'tent' dresses my mother made for me and my sister Shan in the 'psychedelic' years of the late 1960s: pink and yellow swirls with front zips. We wore them with love beads, (of course we did!), those thin long strands of tiny beads strung together with silver-coloured wire. 

What are your triggers? Music? Books? Cities? The sound of a train? The smell of old leather handbags? What carries you back to the past? What awaits you there? 

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write a list of memory triggers.

The magic of apples and other things

I'm sure no one will contradict me when I say that growing or foraging, then preparing and eating, your own food has a certain magical but, at the same time, earthly appreciation attached to it. Tasting the Bramble Jelly I made in August under this November's grey sky transports me to the side of the
in August
blackberry hedge again, the one that runs east along the railway line towards Moorland Wood, to the scent of the sun in long grass, the lazy buzz of summer's insects, the grazes and scratches along my arms ignored for the sake of the ripe fruit.

I'm on my last jar: I don't know how long I can make it last.

I made this year's apple jellies  - Mapple (apple and mango), Chapple (apple with chilli) and Whapple (you're probably noticing a pattern now (!) - apple with whisky) - from the leftovers, the occasional overlooked fruit and the windfalls, after the pickers rolled purposefully through the orchard in September then tractored their brimming crates to Chegworth Valley Farm, not far from Harrietsham, Kent, to be made into juice.

The Deme family who run Chegworth have taken our apples for several years. David Deme established the fruit farm in the early 1980s on a 15 acre parcel of land that had originally been a dairy farm attached to the Leeds Castle estate.
Today the farm stretches across 100 acres, all of it certified organic by the Soil Association: apples, pears, soft fruit, seasonal vegetables and salads. But these are cold facts and the reality of what happens on the farm is far more vibrant and life-affirming. Let me try again.

Have you ever tasted sorrel fresh from the ground? It's like a burst of lemon juice across your tongue.

And nasturtium leaves and their bright, carrot-coloured flowers? The surprising peppery bite of radish heat. 

In a poly-tunnel, still simmering with the smell of summer in November, the ripening strawberries grow like trees, fruit spilling from their waist-high raised and propped up beds.  Another tunnel opens like a yawn, the organic soil raked ready for planting with more salad crops: rocket, or rainbow
chard, or spinach. 

These are the whispering crops: their delicacy and freshness picked and bagged and sold within a day or two. Back at the farm entrance the apples are causing more of a hullabaloo: rumbling and chundering out of wooden bins, along conveyor belts, through baths and presses, their juice flowing one way into the stainless steel vats, their flesh rolled and spilled another to go back onto the land as fertiliser. 

Egremont Russet, Cox, Bramley: all shades of apple gold. Or Apple and Beetroot, or Elderflower, or Strawberry, or Blackberry. Pasteurised, bottled, capped, cooled, cleaned, labelled and boxed. 

Perhaps the day I visited coloured my response to the farm: one of our recent blue-skyed and sun-plumped November days when everything seems right. But even on a cold muddy January day you couldn't help but be impressed by what happens here: the land loved and respected. 

Want a little more magic? How about a gleaming raspberry whose hull lifted out like Cinderella's foot from a glass slipper. 

The small rewards. The great gifts.

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about what happens in the earth. 

Extreme Baking, or The Revenge of the Jam Tart

There have been a few pastry related discussions in our house over the last week.

'It's frozen,' I said, picking up the box of puff pastry Tony'd just bought.
'Can't I put it in the microwave?' he asked
'No, it'll start cooking at the edges before the centre thaws.'
'I'll leave it to defrost then.'
'But aren't you cooking now? It'll take a good couple of hours to defrost.'
'I'll go and buy some fresh pastry.'
'I didn't know they sold fresh pastry.'

'What are you doing?' he asked.
'Trying to unstick your pastry sheet. If you're going to unroll it on the wooden counter, and leave it, then make sure the paper's underneath it.'

Me: 'What are those brown marks?'
Him: 'I used the wholemeal flour to roll it out thinner.'

I really am trying to be supportive but when I see someone wiping a wooden surface with a ball of puff pastry 'to pick up all the crumbs' then my resolve falters. Best to leave the room at this point and repeat, 'My way isn't the only way' a few dozen times until the desire to criticise passes.

Tony's enthusiasm is one of his best qualities and it's what I love so much about him too. He oozes it. Will have a go at anything and work out any snags along the journey. As you might have guessed I'm more of a 'read all instructions, get everything ready, imagine what might possibly go wrong, and only then begin' kind of person. I'm also very territorial when it comes to the kitchen. Note to self: learn to share more.

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about having to share something with someone.

But on an 'it'll be all right on the night' note, it did. They did. Mostly. The chicken tikka slices (made with leftover chicken and wrapped in puff pastry) were delicious: the pastry golden, the filling spicy and sweet with a dollop of mango chutney. 

And the jam tarts had their good points too: pastry thinly rolled and lightly crisp. Although I think our disagreement over the optimum depth of a jam tart has had an effect. The ones filled with chunky apple puree mixed with blackberry jam (left of pic below) were lovely. The ones filled just with plum and damson jam were Jam Attacks. Invasion of The Jam Monsters. Jam Tarts: The Apocalypse. There is no scary movie title that can exaggerate their overwhelming, almost suffocating jamminess. 

'Do you want to finish this,' I asked Tony, handing him the other half.
'Too much jam?' he asked with more than just a hint of a rhetorical question. 

I don't think he'll insist on using the muffin tin to make jam tarts again.


Just right

pumpkin pie
Some days everything is right: the roast chickens moist, the green beans with the perfect amount of bite, the crunch and fluff of the potatoes, the teaspoon of freshly ground cumin on the shredded sweetheart cabbage while it steamed a good choice. The gravy makes you sing. Even the pumpkin pie you leave in the oven for 15 minutes too long survives without a scorch. 

Your friends arrived cloaked in the after-shock of six weeks of builders, work concerns, family niggles, the kind of weariness that flattens the light in people's eyes. 

Food, wine, spicy tea, chocolate, laughter and a feel-good movie in front of a log burning fire to make you smile.

Some days you do not have to try to be good to yourself or others. Some days it just happens of its own accord. An alignment of the stars? Your breath in tune with the rhythm of the season? The way you looked at the world when you got out of bed that morning and said, 'yes'? 

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about what your body loves.

I have kept the bottle of Chianti we drank. It is asking for candles, for flames and soft rivers of wax. Remember them, those bottles in their nests of woven straw from our bedsits and twenty-something flats that sat on our kitchen tables, their waxy rippled landscapes growing fatter by the week as we ourselves grew into the world? I'm starting another: a feel-good bottle of colour and light. We might have evolved from the events and journeys of our past but it's how we live and love in the present that really makes us who we are. 


Good soup

I wrote about my Mam's vegetable soup back in January 2011, just a few months after I started the hungry writer blog while living in France. It's a post I'm particularly fond of and a few other people liked it too. Here's one of the comments it received:

My house (in Ames, Iowa,USA) is filled this frigid January night with the heady and hearty scents of your Mam's Vegetable Soup - this weekend's treat to me.

How lovely is that?! 

'The fragrance, the tenderness.' the blogpost ends, literally and metaphorically. And they are present too every time I make it and serve it.

I made it recently for a friend of Tony's who's had 8 sessions of chemotherapy this year and will not let cancer get the better of him. I am sure he has his dark days, disappointments and fears, yet he smiles and jokes with us and gollops up Mam's soup sprinkled with parsley and Parmesan, dunking chunks of crusty bread into the broth, then digs into the cheese plate (Cheddar, Cheshire and Gorgonzola) and lamb's lettuce salad, and tops his meal off with a cup of green tea to celebrate the news that his recent scan showed no progression.

'That is the best possible lunch you could have made for me,' he said. The fragrance, the tenderness. 

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about a single act of tenderness

We have to allow other people's positive thinking to be contagious, for them and for ourselves. A Facebook friend recently updated their status complaining about inspirational quotes, about how damn depressing and irritating the ooze of them across the internet can be. No. I won't let myself agree. Even if the sentiment feels too easy. Even if I scroll past a lot of them myself. I won't slam them or the people posting them. Every drop of good feeling matters. 

The above and following photos are from The Secrets of Pistoulet, a magical illustrated little book of contemporary fables all about making soup and making people feel better. There are decorative transparent pages, a pull-out letter, recipe cards in envelopes and a bubbling pot of uplifting, inspirational quotes. 

'Strong is the hand that lifts the soul.' 'Passionate choices have potent consequences.' 'Clarity of the mind brings a moment of grace.'

The recipe instructions are quirky, flirty and fun. The 'Potage of Vision' instructs: Go to the farmer's market and look for the farmer with the clearest and most penetrating eyes. 

I shall try that out at West Malling's Farmers' Market at the end of this month! 

On the last page the author and illustrator, Jana Kolpen, has written: Peace to all creatures great and small. On the home page of her website you read this: Art that makes you smile. 

I've said it once already. How lovely is that.

Feed me

Feed a cold: starve a fever. I've plumped for 'cold'. There aren't that many things that will stop me from eating even if eating for the last couple of days has consisted mostly of toasted organic wholemeal bread and cups of tea. 

Toasted bread - the real stuff with a crust, not the doughy, long-life, ready sliced version - has to be one of the great comfort foods of the world: a satisfying light crunch with a soft, warm heart tickled with melted butter. 

On the first page of his culinary autobiography, Toast, Nigel Slater says, 'It is impossible not to love someone who makes toast for you.' 'Putty in their hands,' he says.

I wholeheartedly agree with the first sentence. Not so much with the second. I'm not the most amenable of patients. I think it's the 'wounded animal' part of me. When I'm ill I just want to curl up, put my tail over my eyes, and be left alone. No, please don't stroke my head, or pat me. In fact: DON'T TOUCH ME! Fortunately, Tony has known me long enough to realise this and can deliver a plate of toast and a cup of tea in such a way that I do soften enough to smile and say thank-you.

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about touching. And not touching.

Apparently, there's some dispute about the 'feed a cold/starve a fever' saying. It could be a centuries driven misinterpretation of 'feed a cold to stave off a fever'. That's the kind of information that delights a hungry writer's mind, and stomach.

An interlude for chips


Skinny women order his fish
fried in low-cholesterol oil,
batter as crisp and sheer as glass.

He teases them about goose-fat,
the slip of it, how it dimples
under fingertips, at the right point
of tenderness how it gives
to the tip of a tongue.

He dreams of women
whose flesh parts for him
like lard – their overlap, the spill
and pleat of them, his hands skating
over their suety gleam, their excess
rejoicing under his palms.

From Learning How to Fall (Parthian 2005)

Hungry Writing Prompts
Write about chips.

Fancy pants

a name lost to you over millennia 
with more flash and glitz than 'gourd' 
but you three are making up 
for that with how you dress. 

No matter that you sound 
like a growl in people's throats 
when you are the vessels of history 
and myth: water-carriers, birdhouses, 

drums and nose-flutes, the carriage 
for a princess. Bright, hard-skinned, 
your own determined selves.
If the end of autumn 

is leaf-mulch and wood-smoke 
then you are the unbridled 
beginning, the flag-waving, 
fancy-pants of its arrival.

We want more of you. We want to
fill the kitchen with your rowdiness 
as the days slowly shrivel,
as we light the fire earlier

each night. You're the echo 
of summer, the sun packed 
tight within you like memories, 
the ones we cannot let go. 

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about hard-skin.

Travelling bites

Is there a difference between travelling and taking a holiday? The former makes me think of gap-year students roaming around Asia and the Far East or older adventuring types who will happily drink warm yak's milk or sleep under a Landrover in the Sahara. Compared to that shuttles from the airport and room
The wonderful kitchen at Le Rughe apartment
in Montepulciano, owned and run by the lovely
Nico and Elena of Sant Antonio Country Resort
service seem rather tame although both of those things are guaranteed to make me happy. There does seem to be a bit of snobbery around what you call yourself and what you do during the weeks, or months, away from your home 
turf: travelling is challenge, holidays are fun. But the older I get then convenience, comfort and safety are towards the top of the list of any holiday requirements. Fun and laughter are right at the top. 

Tony and I are staying in Montepulciano for a week checking out its possibility as a base for a longer 'learn Italian in school' trip next year. Sometimes I feel as if I'm on holiday, that 'freshly risen dough' feeling when all is bright and airy around me. I'm curious, light-hearted, relaxed. Occasionally, I feel as if I'm doing things to fill time: walk these streets, visit another town, check out that museum. Because that's what you do on holiday, isn't it? Have new experiences, take photos, collect memories, tick things off lists. That makes it sound as if I'm not enjoying myself, and I am, but I'm also distinctly aware of myself as a 'visitor' peering at the locals, the souvenirs, the architecture. A kind
Montepulciano street.
of inverted 'culture' zoo experience.

And maybe that's what travellers, or people who call themselves travellers, don't feel, or don't want to feel. They merge with their new environments, work there, get involved, set up homes rather than briefly stop over and observe. Or are they just under the illusion that's what they're doing and they're actually equal to us ordinary holiday makers bumbling around the world, sometimes fitting in, other times wanting to go home?

Hungry writing prompt
Write about not fitting in to the world around you.

Fortunately, any slight and temporary feelings of disorientation, discomfort or disconnection - wherever I am in the world, home or away - can generally be resolved by food. Is that shallow? I don't think so. To eat the food produced and made local to you connects you to its landscape and its people, however subtle that connection might be. 

In Tuscany the pici pasta is a hand-made fat spaghetti usually served, in this area, with one of three sauces. I've tried two so far: aglione (tomato and garlic) and cacio e pepe (pecorino cheese and black pepper). The third one (briciole) involves day old bread, toasted and breadcrumbed, mixed with oil, garlic, pepper and salt. I'm not sure of the 'carb-on-carb' combo but I bet it'd taste delicious all the same. 

The name pici probably stems from the verb appicciare - to stick. And my pici at Pienza yesterday was sticky, especially after the cheese started to cool slightly on the terrace of the wonderful La Terrazza del Chiostro, but that was no reason for complaint. Every mouthful was a heart-lifting, stomach-patting, deep-mind-and-body-connecting delight. 

And, of course, there is one aspect of travelling, or being on holiday, that makes all the difference, no matter where you are in the world: the people. And all the people we have met in this small area of Tuscany are rich with kindness and humour. There has not been a single restaurant, cafe or shop in Montepulciano where we have not been greeted with a smile and good-natured assistance with our stumbling Italian. Come si dice en Italiano... we begin and they open their arms, their hearts and welcome us in.

Bread love

Bread is on my mind. Literally, as you can see. A local garage on the A20 just outside of West Malling, has upgraded its grocery section into a full blown 'buy-everything-you-could-possibly-want-while-filling-up-the-car-or-even-not-filling-up-the-car' Spar. Spar with bells and whistles: delicatessen, butchery counter selling local meats, flavoured olive oils you can buy in exquisite long necked glass bottles. And oven baked bread. And they are the best French baguettes we've tasted since we left France nearly three years ago.

There is no photo of the baguette Tony bought yesterday. There isn't even a photo of the crumbs. They are that good.

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about crumbs, what's left when what you once had, is gone.

One I bought earlier
Some of you may know the Billy Collins' poem called 'Litany' that springboards off lines written by Belgian poet, Jacques Crickillon...

You are the bread and the knife,
The crystal goblet and the wine...

...then dives into a list of things the poet and his companion are and aren't. It is vibrant and funny and, with the last phrase, full of love. At least that's how I interpret it.

You can listen to Billy Collins reading 'Litany' on YouTube. And then, of course, spend the rest of your afternoon linking to other Billy Collins videos. He's addictive.

In between your Billy Collins fixes check out this three year old poetry fan's recitation of 'Litany' too. Yes, he's three. I couldn't even recite the alphabet when I was three!