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.