26 Mar 2014

This old heart of mine...


... has been racing ever since I had a cappuccino at around 10.30 this morning. This rarely happens and I don't like it. I'm the kind of person who can generally drink a cappuccino or a latte, or even an espresso, after dinner and later fall asleep quite rapidly and in my usual manner: dropping the Kindle onto my face.

So it can't be the cup of coffee, per se, that's done this, can it? It surely has to be more the amount of caffeine in that cup. (There's an apocryphal story that coffee was supposedly discovered by a 9th century Ethiopian goat-herder after his goats behaved strangely after eating from a coffee plant. Well, I'm feeling more than a little goatish myself at the moment.)

According to a feature on the BBC's One Show a couple of weeks ago the amount of caffeine varies drastically in similar cups of coffee from different retailers. And a study from 2011 reckons that difference could stretch from 50mg per cup to over 300mg. But how much is too much for an average person? For all the information riches we're surrounded by it took me a while to find a reliable source. Unless I happened to be pregnant then the recommended limit is 200mg. So that's four cups then? Or two thirds of one?

Eventually I came across the Food Standards Agency website:

The EU Scientific Committee on Food (SCF) considered the effects of caffeine intake in 1999 and 2003 and noted that a dose of 5mg caffeine per kilogram bodyweight (300mg for a 60kg person) could result in transient behavioural changes, such as increased arousal, irritability, nervousness or anxiety in some people, particularly if they were normally low consumers of caffeine.

As Meat Loaf said, 'Two out of three ain't bad'.  

So my theory, or theories, on why this morning's coffee lit my fuse? I drank it too close to the small milky coffee I had at breakfast. It was how the beans were roasted. Or how the coffee was brewed. My metabolism is slowing with age and before long I won't be able to sniff an open coffee jar without feeling like the wind-up penguin that fell out of a cracker last Christmas. 

Hungry Writing Prompts
Write a list of things that make you feel anxious, 
both logical and illogical.


17 Mar 2014

Good wife and mother, and puller of a decent pint too, it seems: one of the women who made me

The same year my great, great grandmother, Margaret Davies, was married in the parish church of Merthyr, Carmarthenshire the Wine and Beerhouse Act 1869 legislated that the sale of beers, wines or spirits would now require a premises licence from the local magistrates. Licences were only granted, transferred or renewed at special Licensing Sessions courts, and were limited to respectable individuals. So I think I'm safe in assuming that her new husband, John Isaac, a blacksmith, was a reliable and trustworthy type otherwise they wouldn't have been installed at the Stag & Pheasant Inn, near Llanllawddog, in 1871. 


Stag and Pheasant Inn, Pontarsais near Llanllawddog. Currently up for sale.
'Publican and Smithy' is recorded next to his name. 'Wife' next to hers. Although 18 years later she'd be cited as the landlord in the 'scandalous' 'FALSE PRETENCES AT LLANLLAWDDOG' case reported in the Carmarthen Weekly Reporter on 7th July 1899 at the end of which Joseph Turner was convicted of fraudulently obtaining 1s. 6d worth of board and lodging and sentenced to six weeks imprisonment with hard labour.

Don't mess with my grannies! 

And it goes without saying (good food genes obviously run in the family!) that the Stag & Pheasant could put on a great spread. In fact a 'capital spread' according to the reporter for the Carmarthen Journal and South Wales Weekly Advertiser for the hundreds of people who turned up for a Trotting Match at Llanllawddog on 20th February 1890. At the 'standing event of the year', There was a capital spread (which may be called the sixth race, open to all comers), provided at the Stag and Pheasant, which gave entire satisfaction to the large numbers that thronged round the tables. 

Which is a great deal more than can be said for a pub in West Peckham in Kent a couple of weeks ago. My supposedly seared scallops arrived at the table the colour of milk and so glassy, when I cut one open, I swear it was still breathing. So sorry about that, the waitress said. It'll be another seven or eight minutes. Fine, I said.

No, not fine. When someone sends back three scallops you don't put them back into a warm pan and heat them through again. They returned the colour of weak coffee and easily identifiable by the middle scallop missing his left shoulder. 

I blame the ubiquitous gastro-pub title: some people who have no idea about food or cooking think they can get away with murder (or at least food poisoning) by using big plates, rocket and artful splashes of sauce. 

Hungry writing prompt
Write about deception, about fraud, about tricking someone.

The Cafe at Number Four
I can't be exactly sure what Granny Margaret served the crowds at the Trotting Match event in 1890 although the newspaper article does mention beef as one of the dishes. And I bet it was grass fed and I bet it was good.

As good as the melt in your mouth, and melt your heart at the same time, Welsh Black Beef Bourguignon I had at The Cafe at Number 4 in Queen Street, Carmarthen at the end of a long and enjoyable day spent visiting the Stag and Pheasant and discovering John and Margaret's graves at the Parish Church of Llanllawddog.

Margaret died in 1924. John died five years later. They are buried alongside three of their 13 children, two who died at the ages of 9 months and 4 years and 2 months, and a grown up daughter, Anna, a dressmaker, who died in 1904 aged 35.


Llanllawddog Parish Church
Da fam a phriod a fu - She was a good wife and mother. 

Margaret is one of the seven women 'who made me'. From Anne born c.1745, my 5 x great maternal grandmother, her daughter Elizabeth, then Anna, Margaret, Keturah, Alice through to my mother Joyce born in 1932, married in 1952. 200 years of women's lives that I am researching for my ongoing 'Motherline' project: they farmed, invested in Turnpike roads, were widowed and remarried, kept inns, buried their children, died in childbirth, lived to old age. Their stories are waiting to be told. 

3 Mar 2014

Bagel or beigel? Our daily bread.

I say 'baygel'. A writer friend, from a Jewish family, pronounces it 'buygel'. When I met them on a supermarket shelf for the first time, in Florida in the summer of 1988, I was impressed by their versatility: plain, onion, poppy seeded, something very speckled (this could have been what I've since discovered is called 'Everything') and cinnamon and raisin. This is a bread roll that knows how to compete, I thought. A bread roll that goes the distance.

It was Andrea, the wife of the British artist, Barry Leighton Jones, who we were living with that summer who introduced them to me: lightly toasted, spread with cream cheese, draped with smoked salmon, and crowned with fresh onion and tomato. That's tomahto not tomayto! 

Cream cheese and smoked salmon on toast is nice but it doesn't compare with a bagel, its hint of resistance when you first bite, before your teeth sink into the doughy interior. This is dough that persists, pushes and wraps into every miniature crevasse in your mouth. But no-one can resist softness, pliability; it would be just too damn rude to complain, rather like criticising champagne for its bubbles.

Hungry writing prompt
Write about something or someone that is persistent, something or someone that won't go away.

When I eat them now I always remember that surprising summer of orange
trees in the garden, a swimming pool the temperature of a warm bath, flash rain storms that could turn a parking lot into a lake within minutes. And mosquitoes. And the first words I ever wrote, the beginning of myself as a writer. And long thin lasagne sheets with rippled edges that Andrea used to roll up around a mixture of ricotta cheese and spinach and bake in a tomato sauce. I'd like to find those again. 

How can a simple bread roll be capable of reviving such rich memories, such deep emotion? Maybe because it's something that's intrinsic to our life experience, the ordinary (in its place in the past and present kitchens of our imaginations) and the reverential ('Give us this day our daily bread'). And it is capable of such weight too, such significance: hunger and revolution, fairy tales and the terrible truth of history.

The Lord's Prayer in Welsh
Here's an excerpt from my book, forgiving the rain, about bread, about its power and its glory:

"At school and at Sunday-school I closed my eyes, clasped my hands together and prayed in English and Welsh: Give us this day our daily bread: Dyro i ni heddiw ein bara beunyddiol, words I repeated by rote that meant nothing to me. 

It came to us in a van that toured the estate street by street whose back doors opened to slatted shelves and the smell of flour, where I gazed at the plump Cottage loaves and imagined carrying one home in my arms like a baby. But I always parted with the half-crown piece for the disappointingly smooth, pale crust of a Sandwich Loaf that my mother would slice with a silver knife.  

At mealtimes, unless there was gravy on our plates, it sat in the middle of the table – bread and butter, bara menyn – thin slices, cut in half, which we were expected to eat, out of habit, tradition, a memory of hunger." 

What are your memories of bread? The crusts, the crumbs?