Lunch with JMW Turner. I paid.

View from the cafe at the
Turner Contemporary Gallery, Margate
Oh I do like to be beside the seaside. And while England's south east coastline isn't exactly the Cote d'Azur the glass of chilled rose I had at the cafe in the Turner Contemporary Gallery in Margate still transported me right back to my four years of living in Antibes. The late April sun-brimming blue sky helped too. 

I was less transported by the exhibition that juxtaposes Helen Frankenthaler's abstract expressionist canvases painted between the 1950s and the 1990s with Turner's paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries.

The critical acclaim for the exhibition appears, at least as evidenced by the quotes on the website, to have been unanimously positive so maybe I'm in the minority. Or is it a case of art critics attempting to persuade a viewing public that this pairing does work? 

If you live close enough you have until 11th May to go and decide for yourself. But whichever side the art appreciation coin falls you won't be disappointed with the cafe where simple food is prepared and presented exquisitely. Let me introduce you to today's Chicken, Leek and Mushroom Pie. 

Some of you may well have reservations about the interpretation of the word 'pie', after all a single golden glazed disc of puff pastry doesn't shout 'pie' in all its traditional encasing glory. But can I persuade you that all doubts will dissolve with the first mouthful? 

Maybe. Maybe not. The appreciation of food is as subjective as the appreciation of art. Although contemporary art is probably more of a challenge to most people than a contemporary slant on a chicken pie. 

When I came home I took another look at Frankenthaler's paintings online and found that I preferred them reproduced on a smaller scale and without any natural daylight. They're less garish. Turner's paintings have the opposite effect: they sing when I stand in front of them. His palette and textures, the way a small blob of paint becomes an evening star, the suggestions of movement, the passing of time. And his skies, of course, expansive enough to swallow you up.

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about a sky.


No-man's land

No-woman's land either. In fact, no-person's land. I'm talking about the territory, physical and temporal, between me and what I'm about to eat. In the case of last night it was a small platter of M&S's breaded and filo-wrapped king prawns with a sweet chilli dip and the last glass in a bottle of newly discovered 9.5% Pinot Grigio, the perfect accompaniment for any post-menopausal system that feels squiffy from the same quantity of alcohol that was once only the warm up to an evening on the juice. 

I'd had a day of astonishingly varied activities that included clattering around with a stilson grip inside a black, plastic 4,000 litre water tank trying to help Tony fix a leak in a gate valve. An empty tank, of course. Well almost, and it's sod's law that says you will drop your gloves in the puddle that remains at the bottom. 

So appropriately showered and slippered, damp-haired and full of warm expectation for food and another round of TV's Masterchef I felt a generous measure of gloom descend when, at just before eight, the front doorbell rang and the handle clattered with the arrival of my step-daughter and a couple of her friends. 'We were on our way back from Monk's House [to Tottenham],' she said, 'and as we were passing I thought we'd pop in.' My initial unspoken reaction, which may well have appeared like a ticker tape across my forehead, was, I'm sure there's a more direct route. 

I know. Real people, especially the people you love, and the spontaneity of life should always be welcomed. And by the time I'd said that to myself half a dozen times, taken the king prawns out of the oven with the intention of crisping them up again later, muted the TV and found another, but unfortunately un-chilled, bottle of wine, I'd morphed into a just about acceptable version of a host. (Although the possibility of being a host with a chilled bottle of champagne and some fat olives and canapes would have been my preferred version.)

The difference between the general perception I have of myself and the self that emerges in particular situations never fails to surprise me. I am generous. I can be spontaneous. I enjoy surprise. Reminder to self: Not as much as you'd like to believe. 

But we're all evolving products. We shine. We dim. And then we shine again. 

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about having guests in your home.


Daring to know my Manchego with Immanuel Kant

One of the things I learned (re-learned... and again) while writing Real Port Talbot was: Beware of what you think you know. Several times I was aware of my preconceptions of a place contradicting what I was newly discovering; several times I had to remind myself to approach a place like a curious stranger not a familiar (and judgemental) local. There's no surprise for a mind that's already mapped and staked the ground.

I've just read this:

Daring to know requires daring to admit what we don't. It also means daring to accept that some of what we have most firmly believed to be true may not be so after all.

It's from Julian Baggini's book, The Virtues of the Table, How to Eat and Think where philosophy meets the pleasure of eating and 'the riddles and dilemmas and contradictions surrounding the food on our plates'. 

It's not just a thinking feast (or a thinking nightmare if the idea of applying philosophy to the day to day experiences of food fills you with dread) though. He tags on loose recipes at the end of every section: I'm only on page 36 and I've nibbled from an inspiring cheeseboard and followed that up with a vegetable risotto and apple and blackberry crumble. 

Already his ideas have pushed a few of my buttons and made me rethink what I thought I thought. How about this: buying food that's travelled by container ship from China could be a better choice than food driven through the UK. At least as far as carbon footprints are concerned. His arguments and ideas concerning currently popular terms like organic, local, sustainable, free range, Vegetarian Society approved and even POD - Protected Designation of Origin - are thought provoking. And damn annoying. Who said thinking for yourself would be easy though?

William Pear Tarte Tatin
But I am grateful that one of my favourite cheeses, Manchego, a sheep's milk cheese, comes out with one green flag that matters a lot to me: sheep are not intensively reared so animal welfare isn't a major issue here. 

And as Cheddar or Wensleydale is to apple pie (to some people), Manchego is to Pear Tarte Tatin for me: crumbly, piquant and nutty meets moist, sweet and earthy. Of course you don't have to have them together - splash some cream on your tart and have your cheese with crackers or oatcakes afterwards. But 'dare to think' or Sapere aude as the philosopher Immanuel Kant said. Though given that an excess of cheese may have contributed to Kant's high blood pressure, his stroke and subsequent death he might not be happy to be associated with this culinary suggestion. But then again his last words were reported as Es ist gut (It is good) about the bread and wine his friend and biographer, EAC Wasianski, had served him so I'm going to assume he wouldn't mind at all. I might even name it after him: the Kant Combo. 

(p.s. this recipe for Apple Tarte Tatin can be followed for the pear alternative but add more fruit than my photo suggests... I've remodelled it since then and it looks far better in this later shot. And definitely peel the pear halves too.)

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about something you used to believe but don't any more.

The deliciousness of the vanishing onions

Image for Roasted red onions with basil
With thanks to the BBC

You'd only have to see them to be convinced. If you'd tasted them you'd be in raptures. How many times have I meant to take a photo and only remembered after the dish has been demolished? But better demolished than untouched, or just fiddled with. So here's one I didn't make earlier, courtesy of the BBC.

Nigella is the woman to thank or to blame. Her roasted red onions with fennel, balsamic vinegar and fresh basil are one of the most satisfyingly surprising successes in my culinary adventures.

Hungry writing prompt
Write about going on an adventure

I served them with a beef casserole, sweet and white potato mash and green beans tossed in olive oil and softened chopped garlic. I think they'd go well with any main course meat. And fabulously with anything barbecued. 

Beware believing every Google link for this recipe: there's one that involves gallons of vinegar, treacle and oil (well, 200ml, 125ml and 50ml respectively). This is what you do need:

From Nigellissima by Nigella Lawson

Serves 6-8 as part of a meal

1kg red onions (preferably small) quartered then peeled
125ml olive oil
1tsp fennel seeds
1tsp sea salt flakes or ½ tsp pouring salt, or to taste
1 tsp best quality balsamic vinegar, or to taste
Large bunch (approx 90gm)n fresh basil

Preheat oven to 200C.

1. Tip the quartered onions into a roasting tin, pour the olive oil over them, then scatter with fennel seeds, tossing the onions in the tin to coat them thoroughly; then put the tin in the oven for 1 hour, by which time the onions should be soft and cooked through.
2. Remove from the oven, sprinkle with the salt and drizzle the balsamic vinegar over the onions, then toss them gently and leave (for up to 1 hour) to come to room temperature, though you can eat this hot if you prefer.
3. On serving, add the basil leaves, torn from their stems, and toss again, seasoning to taste. There is a lot of basil, but think of it as a salad leaf, here, not mere decoration.

I swapped the balsamic vinegar for balsamic glaze and highly recommend it. I also only used about 80/90ml of olive oil. And if you're intimidated by the quantity of basil just use less. But it is a delicious combination both for the eyes and the taste buds.