The pest in pesto

I doubt I'd have tried if I hadn't been surrounded by forests of basil: one small Tesco growing basil has transmuted into a miniature hedge and two 12" terracotta pots of the stuff that are triffid-like in their enthusiasm. An enthusiasm that needed severe curbing. Five ounces of basil prunings might not sound like much but, trust me, it is. 

Home made pesto seemed easy enough: basil, pine nuts, garlic, grated Parmesan, olive oil. But don't believe any recipe that says a blender can substitute for a food processor. I did. It can't.

'Let me help you,' Tony said as a big wodge of basil on a base of cheese and nuts all ignored the gnashing blades and the overheating motor. 
'I'm fine. I just need to do it slowly.'
'Why don't you let me help you?'
'I don't need any help!'
'I can get it going,' he said.
'So can I,' I said, grabbing the olive oil and pouring it in two stages before the recipe recommended. 'I'm FINE. Don't stand there watching me.'

This is the kind of inconsequential stuff that arguments can arise from, like phoenix from the ashes of previously unresolved spats.

Some kind of pesto emerged from the melée although with about three times the amount of olive oil the recipe asked for. But if someone can't judge the efficiency of a blender compared with a food processor what can they know about pesto?

My result wasn't bad: a good balance of flavours but a bit paste-like after the blender cranked up a gear and started chewing on the thicket of leaves and nuts. 

But I do prefer a more textured sauce like the recipe at this link at 101 Cookbooks. It looks and sounds more authentic too. Note to self: always Google further than you think you should.

In the meantime I have three small pots of sauce. Two have gone in the freezer. Some of the contents of the third has already been eaten directly off the spoon and with some left over medium rare rib-eye steak. (Who'd have thought that steak, some nose-stinging mustard and home made pesto would taste so good together?)

That's the thing when you go to so much trouble to make something: there's a compulsion, and a certain amount of obligation, to eat and enjoy it. Fortunately, this time, there was some enjoyment to be had. And, I'm pleased to say, Tony agreed.  

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write a list of things you have been compelled to do in your life.


Made with love

The Welsh poet, WH Davies, captured a simple truth with the opening lines of his 'Leisure' poem:

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

Simple, and easy to remember too. So how come I need to remind myself of it over and over again? I'm probably not alone.

Recently I stood and stared here:

summer solstice 
lean in the shade
Malling Abbey is only about two miles from my doorstep, in West Malling in Kent, South East England. It's been home to the same closed order of Anglican Benedictine nuns since 1916, but in historical terms that's cake crumbs: the first recorded mention of a community on this site is 946. Although credit goes to the 'builder' Bishop Gundulf for its development and foundation between 1090 and 1150, one of the first post-Conquest monasteries for women.

Malling Abbey's Norman tower
wrapping the upper, later, octagonal addition.
The wheelbarrow rest-stop in the above photo is the back of the Norman tower. Gundulf's church once enclosed this area but only one of the nave's walls remain, though the play of sunlight on old stone, the lime tree's shadows and the poetic resonance of wheelbarrows all work at making this a sacred enough space for me. 

The current Mother Abbess has been living here for 44 years. She is knowledgeable about the Abbey's history from its foundation, through Henry VIII's dissolution and subsequent centuries of private possession, right up until a 19th century benefactress, Charlotte Boyd, driven by a vision to restore monastic lands, bought the property in 1892 for £10,000 and invited an order of Benedictine nuns to return. 

She revisions the dissolution of the monasteries for us: it wasn't just about his argument with the Catholic church, Henry had wars to fight and he needed money. She asks us to consider the fate of the disenfranchised nuns in a patriarchal society: the monks could become parish priests, bishops even, but what became of the women? And reminds us of Shakespeare's 'the bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sung’ from Sonnet LXXIII, words that conjure up the abandoned ruins. 

break in the clouds
the glint of pins
in the nun's black veil

The dedication of a life to prayer, to seclusion and restriction, seems anachronistic in the 21st century. I can more easily understand religious communities that work with people in need to limit deprivation, or who look after the sick and injured, or offer spiritual comfort to the terminally ill. Does individual and/or corporate solitude, silence and prayer help the wider world? The nuns evidently believe that it does. And the community isn't as isolated as it once was. The Abbey offers public tours on Heritage and Open days and they also have a guest house for private retreats; the level of involvement in their religious services is down to personal choice.

Interior of the 1960s church. The pillars
were added 4 years after the church was
completed when the 'basilican' design
was found to be dangerously flawed.
Lauds. Terce. Sext. None. Vespers. Morning, mid-morning, midday, mid-afternoon and evening prayer. These are listed in the Guest chapel's prayer book though the nuns also pray at Matins and Compline. I'd like to believe that their fellowship and their personal prayer is making a difference, however slight. I do believe that silence and solitude are good for all of us from time to time, moments in which we stand still and notice the world, our relationship with it. We've come back to where we started: WH Davies' standing and staring. 

At the end of my Abbey tour - which included its gatehouse and restored almonary chapel, the medieval transept and cloisters, the nuns' library and the 1960's 'concrete technology' church that is surprisingly beautiful in its starkness - there was tea and cakes in a small building near the nuns' extensive vegetable gardens where rows of Cara potatoes are flourishing.

'Cara' means beloved in Latin. It's the root for names like Cherie, Cheryl, Kara and Carys. In Welsh 'cariad' means beloved too. Maybe it's not silence or solitude or prayer that makes a difference, but the quality of love that's present in these actions. Love practised, given and received. 

When my Grampa Rees really enjoyed something his wife had cooked he used to say to her, 'There's some love in this, Get.' There was some love in the apricot flapjacks served with my tea: sweet toasty oatmeal sandwiching a layer of soft fruit. I thought I'd email the Abbess and ask if I could have the recipe. But there's no email address on their website. I could phone. But there's no phone number either. There's a postal address: I'll need to write a note, slip it into an envelope, add a stamp, take it to the postbox at the corner of my lane. And wait. How anachronistic. How perfectly appropriate.

Hungry Writing Prompt

Write about doing something slowly.


Flavour the Market Deli Way

If you're a writer you're gonna love a man who secretly shows you his notebook. If that notebook is brimming with information about flavour arcs, the provenance of fresh ingredients and food's emotional journey then a 'hungry writer' starts to sigh in a manner that causes the people around her to step a little further away! Here's the notebook in question:

And here's the man responsible: the one on the left, Ben of Walkers, the British snack food manufacturers. Although the man on the right, celebrated British chef Tom Aikens, did a pretty good food seduction job too with his exquisite, cook-off dishes of a re-visioned mac 'n' cheese and a zingy gazpacho.

This was the launch of Walkers' new upmarket premium snack range, Market Deli, at Natural Kitchen in Fetter Lane, London a few days ago where taste buds sang and the perfectly partnered wines shimmied along quite willingly too.

I don't think I've ever bought Walkers crisps: they make me think of kids (I don't have them) and football (I'm only a fan around World Cup time... and then, inevitably, not for long!) But their new Market Deli range is 'canapés' rather than 'kids', sophisticated 'fun' rather than 'football' and, after nibbling my way through eight different flavours and varieties I can categorically say, an innovatively exciting competitor for Mr and Mrs Kettle and Tyrell. 

My biggest surprise was the Wiltshire Cured Ham, Mature Cheddar and Farmhouse Chutney potato chip: all my disturbing taste memories of 1960s' Smokey Bacon Crisps disappeared in a single crunch! 

Potato chip, tortilla chips and pitta chips made with Cornish cheddar, Modena balsamic vinegar, English tomato, Spanish chorizo, Mediterranean herbs: Market Deli's ingredient list is a geographical taste extravaganza. If you don't find something you love among this lot then you're the foodie equivalent of the wife who said, after her husband had booked them on a world cruise, 'I want to go somewhere else!'

I grazed through the evening with a damn good glass (that never seemed to empty) of Sancerre in my hand. And when I finally had to leave the glass was replaced with a goodie bag which included my Wiltshire Ham favourite. 

'I could eat some more of them,' my husband said, slipping the last delicious hammy crisp into his mouth just 5 minutes after I walked through the door. I hid the Flame Grilled Spanish Chorizo with Roasted Onions bag at the back of the kitchen cupboard. 


Salt's complications. And love. And chips.

Not big flakes or grains the size of peas. I don't need salt nurtured in an Hawaiian sea-salt farm or mined by hand in the Himalayas and carried down the mountains on yaks. I just want something I can shake over my chips. Something that will cling to their hot crispiness, not run off like marbles or stick in my teeth and demolish the chance of tasting anything else. A bit of Saxo will do. Oh, and yes, I'd like it in a shaker not a finger bowl. 'Disgruntled of Tunbridge Wells'

Hungry Writing Prompt
Complain about all the things that bug you in life! The incidental and the gargantuan. Write a list. Exorcise yourself!

Now I've exorcised that particular persona of mine let me introduce you to 'Delighted of Tunbridge Wells', or to be more precise, Delighted with Brasserie des Sources at the Tunbridge Wells Hotel on The Pantiles in Tunbridge Wells, steak-meisters supreme, with a little help from a Hereford Cross cow that should be given medals (posthumously) for its tenderness and flavour. The Chateaubriand Charolaise has been earmarked for my next visit. (It's a two person feast so comment on this post and you could be my companion diner!)

The salt issue was a minor irritation with what would have been an exquisite plate of food except that it came on a board. Plates, guys. Plates. I haven't fought my way to the top of the food chain to eat off a slice of timber or count the knife-score marks made by a herd of previous steak-eaters. But I am sure the lovely people at 'des Sources' would give me a plate if I asked for one. They are attentive and considerate: they deducted the price of a unfashionably late portion of chips from the bill without a quibble. 

Tunbridge Wells was one of the first towns in Kent that I visited with Tony in 1985. On 23rd February, 20 days after we'd met on a blind date in Jersey, after spending a total of 8 days in each other's company, we became engaged at the bar of a tiny, long gone, pub in the High Street, which I'm sure I remember as 'The Hole in the Wall'. We then walked down to The Pantiles, a Georgian colonnade of deliciously independent shops and restaurants with its very own 'well' where you can 'take the waters' first discovered in the 17th century, to Peter Jenner, Jeweller & Goldsmith where he bought me two rings. Yes, of course I still have the boxes.

Last night, nearly 30 years later, we ate dinner, al fresco, on the Brasserie's terrace opposite the bandstand where the Jazz on the 'Tiles summer festival is in full swing every Thursday night. Go. Music, food, love. Someone once said something about that...   


Embracing the crêpe. And other treats.

It's not that I mind it too much: I'm really not hung-up about getting, or looking, older. It's just that it still takes me by surprise, as if my mind is still running on Windows ME, or even Windows 95, and refusing automatic updates about myself. Other women of a certain age will know exactly what I'm talking about. The regular jolts of realisation that, yes, that is my neck, my forearm, my knees: the skin like the wonderfully crinkled craft crêpe paper of my childhood when I turn my head in the mirror, bend my arm to rest my elbow on the table or glance down at my sandalled feet. I'll have to force an upgrade. 

Today I'm celebrating both types of crêpe, the 56 year old kind and the French one: crêpe from the Latin crispus, which means curled or frizzed, and which has only ever jolted me in delightful ways.

I first tried crêpe suzettes while I was working and living in Jersey between 1978 and 1985 where my love of good food and wine was, at first unconsciously, born and nurtured as I lunched and dined my way through some of the best restaurants on the island: The Grill at the L'Horizon in St Brelade's Bay, Longueville Manor in St Saviour, Victoria's at The Grand Hotel in St Helier. The early 80s was a time when a table-side flambé was the height of sophistication. And, if I'm honest, a little alcoholic flaming activity by a guy in a tuxedo is still an enjoyable and rewarding performance to watch. 

But not all the great food I experienced was served at swanky venues. There was a tiny French restaurant on the edge of St Helier - La Soupe à l'Oignon - where I tasted salsify for the first time, prepared in a white cream sauce seasoned with nutmeg by the chef/patron. Where the same chef/patron kept a stock-pot bubbling in the kitchen for days so the onion soup was always deep and rich. The place was as 'old Paris bistro' as you can imagine with its red-checked tablecloths and half-curtained windows, dim yellow wall lights, tables that always rocked and had to be fixed with a book of matches, and the scent of wine and garlic as soon as you stepped through the half glazed door. 

The restaurant closed a few years before I left in 1985. I used to have a poster on the wall of my flat that was lost in the move back to the UK but every time I see the same unequivocally French image of the 'chat noir' I'm conjured back there. 

1985: the year I met Tony and moved
from Jersey to Kent
29 years later: my crêpes this morning are anglicised into pancakes with a sprinkle of golden sugar and a melting slice of French butter and rolled. They've also had the personal attention of a man, but in Chinos and a t-shirt rather than a tuxedo: tossed three feet into the air and caught perfectly in the flat of the pan before being slid onto my plate. 

'When I look at you I still see the person I first met,' he says, 'all those years ago.' 

No upgrade needed. 

Hungry Writing Prompt

Write about the person you were 30 years ago.