Tuesday

Old Stones and Light

This week I ran, with Meopham & Malling Ladies Joggers, from Trosley Country Park to the Coldrum Stones and back to the Park's Bluebell Café for hot chocolate and a Bacon, Brie & Cranberry Sandwich. The bread was so fresh and pillowy it reminded me of clouds - the kind of surface you'd like to fall asleep on... if it wasn't filled with bacon and cheese. 

Coldrum is a 3,000 year old burial chamber, or Long Barrow, and its name is derived from the old Cornish word, 'Galdrum', which means 'place of enchantments'. And appropriately for an enchanted place there's a wishing or prayer tree here that visitors tie strips of cloth, or 'clooties', to. We can guess at the intentions - prayers for healing and forgiveness, personal and universal wishes, or simply to honour those buried on the site. 


At the beginning of December a colleague's mother died. A week ago a friend's father died. I tied my ribbon and thought of peace: the type you want a grieving heart to find, and the more complex peace we all wish the world could agree on. 

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about where you might find peace.

Soon it'll be the close of one year and the beginning of another. What else can we wish each other? Light, perhaps. So here's my recipe for Mango and Ginger Jam, which is less jam and more thick fruit spread as the recipe doesn't call for too much sugar. It's summer in a jar, on a spoon, or spread on toast. It's sings with heat and light. And I wish you all a good song, heat and light, in your hearts and your lives. 

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Mango and Ginger Jam

what you need:
  • the chopped fruit of 9 peeled mangoes
  • about 4" of fresh ginger root, peeled and finely grated
  • 1 lb of sugar
  • 1 cup of water


what you do:
  • Cook the mango and ginger in a large saucepan for about 30 minutes.
  • Add the sugar and water, allow the sugar to dissolve slowly, then bring to a steady boil and let it bubble until it reaches a setting point. Mine took about 15 to 20 minutes to arrive at the right kind of consistency. I also kept stirring it regularly so it didn't catch and burn as sweet, sugared fruit easily can.
  • Pour into clean glass jars and close the lids tightly. 


Note: I don't have much success setting jams with a thermometer so I rely on the 'cold saucer in the fridge'method: after about 10 minutes put a teaspoon on the saucer then check it after a couple more minutes. If the surface of the jam wrinkles slightly to the drag of your fingertip then it's set. 

But don't stress about it. If your jam still isn't set the next day - and swinging rather loosely in your jars - just tip it all back into the saucepan and boil it up again.


Popcorn: the guilt-free confession

I blame the salmon. Okay, my freezer door does advise that fish should only be stored for a maximum of six months, and the use-by date on the pack of salmon fillets was 29th December 2014, but that doesn't necessarily mean food stored beyond a best-by date is dangerous to eat. And it looked okay: well wrapped and not doing any iceberg impressions. So, perhaps it wouldn't be at its best ... but how bad could it be? Let's ask the judges. Dry, chewy. A culinary disahster, daahling. Six months over the six months is obviously a few months too many.

And that's how we ended up eating this:



No, I mean that's how we ended up eating ALL of this:



All 350 grams, 14 servings, 1274 calories of it. Although we were watching a movie so I guess there was a certain air of synchronicity.

And there was one other mitigating circumstance: lettuce, which didn't live up to its bright pre-cooked promise. 



Did I use the wrong type? Nigella used Cos or Romaine on 'Simply' the other night. I used large but sweet Little Gem, which isn't that different, and left out the anchovies from her drizzle of olive oil and crushed garlic and sprinkle of sea salt. Perhaps she has sharper cutlery and/or stronger jaws than us: damn, that stuff gets stringy! Did I cook it for too long?

To commandeer a popular slogan: food doesn't get worse than this

Despite the need for reparation after a dodgy, unsatisfying dinner I was a bit surprised we polished off the whole tub of popcorn quite so quickly, but I enjoyed every tooth-sticking mouthful. I didn't feel any regret, which is what I do feel after demolishing a large bag of Kettle Crisps but that's a physical response from all the sunflower oil slicking around in my stomach. And I didn't feel guilty either which, if Google is to be believed, would be the most common response, particularly amongst women, to stuffing yourself with a small cinema's supply of toffee popcorn.

Google 'guilt' and 'food' and you're overwhelmed with information. There are people who feel guilty about eating deli-meat, coal-fired pizzas and lamb; there are people who can help you eat without shame and people who will sell you guilt-free food treats. And then there are the infinite 'guilt-free' recipes: pancakes, sticky toffee pudding, brownies ... name your favourite dessert and someone will have found a way to make you feel better about eating it. Or at least, that's the message. 

I can understand guilt in response to inhumane animal husbandry or farming practices that are detrimental to the planet. But we can make choices in responses to those issues and move on, can't we? But saying we feel guilty because we had dessert, because we ate that large bar of Galaxy, or stuck our fingers into the peanut butter and finished half a jar? Isn't that just self-indulgent wittering? 

In his article, 'The Joy of the Memorised Poem', American poet Billy Collins says: I think I read recently that we’re not suffering from an overflow of information—we’re suffering from an overflow of insignificance. He's specifically talking about poetry as an oasis or sanctuary from the forces constantly drawing us into social and public life. But it feels relevant to how we act and talk about our relationship with food too: let's not be drawn into the media's insignificant obsessions, faddy diets, the idea of food as reward and punishment rather than nutrition and enjoyment. We should value our intelligence more. And not perpetuate those ideas either. 

I know, intuitively, that it's not a good idea to munch my way through a big tub of toffee popcorn on a regular basis. But I'll damn well enjoy it when I do. 

Which brings me back to Nigella and her trademark voluptuousness. She just isn't lettuce. She's spring lamb with its fat crisped in the oven. Just sayin'...


Sunday

Apples everywhere


I've been running through them: on Friday morning's off-road run around local orchards with Meopham and Malling Ladies Joggers on a day that forgot it was November, at least for the first couple of hours.

While at home I'm living, breathing, chopping and slicing them. Apple sauce, apple puree, chunky apple pie filling, apple crisps (in the dehydrator), and enough grown-up varieties of apple jelly to get you singing: Golden Whapple (Golden Delicious with whisky), Rumley (yep, Bramleys and rum), Bourpple (you're with me now) and Chapple (with chilli). The Bourpple was more the result of discovering half a bottle of Jim Beam wearing a thick and sticky blanket of dust in the back of a cupboard than any deliberate planning. The Whapple and Chapple are repeats from last year. Rumley is this year's innovation and, as well as Bramleys, also contains the last
of the Russets from the single tree (out of ten thousand) in our orchard. But Russrumley was too long to write nicely on the lid of the jar. 

But despite my apple industriousness I won't even manage a small bite in the fruit remaining in the orchard after the best harvest in the South East of England for a decade. And best here means glut. The money crop, (and the majority of our trees), Cox's Orange Pippins, has all been picked and stored, but the minor crops and pollinators (Bramleys, Golden Delicious and Idareds) were left and, since this weekend's blustery weather, have mostly dropped. 


Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about the aftermath of a storm

I feel particularly bad about the Idareds, but not for the right reason. I don't really like them to eat: they're tart, white fleshed and juicy but don't have the depth of flavour that the other apples have. I'm not even that fond of them after they've been baked or stewed. 

I feel bad for them because they are the most exquisite fairy tale apple: the apple you want to see glowing like a jewel in the gnarled hand of a bent old woman in a dark forest. They're arty apples: the ones tumbled in a small bowl on the table in a still life canvas, the splash of red in an otherwise muted palette. They're an interior designer's dream in a white room. They are glamorous apples. Apples that turn heads. Even amongst the cleaning and Sunday dinner cooking chaos of my kitchen this morning they are striking a shiny, 'love-me' pose.


So, I have carefully wrapped around 80 of them in newspaper and stored them in the cellar ... and I will return to them over the next few months and hope they can dilute my prejudice towards them as I attempt some new apple recipes, pink apple sauce among them (if, allegedly, you cook them in their skins then strain). That one dish might be enough to make me love them a little.

Loving is better for us than disliking, I'm sure.

Saturday

Remember Remember the 6th of November

After the heat of the bonfire, after the newspaper stuffed guy, with his paper bag head and your dad's old trousers and worn plaid shirt, turned to black flakes. After your dad pinned Catherine Wheels to a post and warned you to keep away from the rockets ready to launch from milk bottles. After the Jumping Jacks and Roman Candles. And after you wrote your name with the brilliant fizz and crackle of sparklers against the night sky and rescued the potatoes wrapped in foil from the fire's warm heart. After the sausages. Even after you tipped towards sleep, the whizzes and bangs a memory and a glitter of lights fading behind your eyes, after you woke-up ...  


Then you began your search for them: in your garden, along the nearby streets, the spent ones still smelling of cordite, the charred cases, the bent sparklers, collecting them like treasure, the proof of everything you had, and didn't have, that had once burned so bright.

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about a light in the darkness

Sunday

Jelly for Grown Ups

You can still see them: the waxed paper dishes at parties when you were a kid, their fluted pink rims around a pool of glistening red jelly, sometimes, depending on the skill of whoever's mother was in charge, crowned with a nozzled star of cream. Nestlé. Tinned. You remember, still, the sound jelly makes scooped up on a plastic spoon, a rubbery squelch, and how easily the spoon's handle could shatter in your fingers. And now, the toy cat your friend, Maxine, bought you when you were 9 or 10: admired by all your friends for its extravagance, its own stiff card box with a lid, its jet black beaded eyes, the silkiness of its fur. 

Tuesday

The old and the new

On 20th October 2014 I posted the following on Facebook:


The ferns are the first to go, followed by a single Golden Delicious tree, autumn's first hostage in a row of Cox's Orange Pippins. Two wood-pigeons lift their barrelled-bodies into the air, such effort in the whir of their wings, as if the weight of summer is still with them. And it is, in the long grass, the scatter of daisies, the oak trees, the sun-busting blue sky, these stray apples I gather, missed by the pickers almost two months ago. 

Indian summer 
the impatient rustle 
of something in the woods


And here I am, precisely a year later, standing in the orchard on a day that seems like an exact replica of that one: the light, the burnished leaves, the same point of slip towards autumn. 

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about what you were doing one year ago.

And if that wasn't enough the vet who stamped my cat's inoculation booster card this morning noticed that he'd given her last year's on 20th October too. 

There's no third repeated thing for 20th October, however tempted I am to find, or even invent, one! But there is a bright and beautiful new thing for October 2015: the hungry writer book which owes much of its beauty to Bob Carling, of Cultured Llama, whose publishing skills expended on the book design and production have everyone sighing over how lovely it is to touch and hold! Even this llama puppet, courtesy of Steve Allen, was impressed at the book's Kent launch last Sunday. 

And even more beautiful - more so even than the little welshcakes I made for the launch which also inspired a lot of sighing and crumbly delight - were all the lovely guests who came along to help me celebrate. 


They made the occasion so much more than just a book launch: it was about friendship and generosity. And I can't thank them enough. Except to say, please have another welshcake. And I hope you enjoy the stories in the book. They might be my memories and reflections but they're probably not that different from your own. Stories about parents, about children, about losing people we love and wondering about the world we live in. All the things that make us human, whoever we are, wherever we happen to be. 

Love from Lynne x






Saturday

Full English Running

I started running a year ago. Last October I hit the treadmill for 30 mins each day, walking and jogging intermittently, until after 30 days I could run 3 miles without stopping even if I did look like a grimacing Halloween pumpkin at the end of it. Running is hard. 

A year later running is still hard, not as hard as it was because I am fitter and stronger, but it still requires effort. Effort to get up and go out and run first thing. Effort to ignore the voice whining inside my head: Why are you bothering? You've proved you can run 5k and 10k. What's the point in carrying on? Whinge, whinge whinge. But, as my running coach, Kerry Hayward from Meopham & Malling Ladies Joggers, says, If it was easy everyone would be doing it!

I try not to pay attention to the whining voice while I'm running. I open a cupboard in the corner of my skull, push her in and slam the door for the duration. But, why am I bothering? 

Because I want to get older as healthily as I can. 
Because I no longer get breathless running up and down stairs.
Because I can throw, barrow and stack a week's supply of logs for the wood burner and not ache at all. 
Because the space in my head feels like the cool green air you find in a tree tunnel.
Because when I am running the me-ness of me is as authentic as I ever feel.

And if I needed any further inspiration, because this morning there would be a full English breakfast and as much tea and toast as I could drink and eat at the end of it. Let's be more precise: at the end of 7 miles of it. But with the bonus of astonishing views along the route ... 



Ah well. If life gives you mist, keep running. And don't forget to stop and smell the sunflowers.


This is the route we took, from Camer Park, near Meopham, to Hodsoll Street, near Stansted ...


... where, in the charming Hodsoll Street and Ridley Village Hall, a happy clutch of men and woman cook a £5 Big Breakfast for dozens of local people and walkers, and now, runners, on the first Saturday of the month. 



And yes, it really is worth running 7 miles for. Again. And again. 

Hungry writing prompt 
Write about trees in the mist.



How the medicine goes down: rosehip syrup


Not like the pucker and shiver engendered by Cod Liver Oil. Oh no, not at all. And much better than the Syrup of Figs which I liked the taste of so much it was almost worth being afflicted by constipation! No, this was a spoonful of sugar that was also the medicine: Rosehip Syrup. Our daily dose of Vitamin C courtesy of the National Health Service in the early 1960s. Sweet, fruity, silky. 

In 1943, The Ministry for Food published a wartime leaflet, Hedgerow Harvest, full of recipes for wild fruits, fungi and nuts. Encouraging people to forage might be fashionable now but during World War II, a  time of rationing and limited imports (in 1939 we were importing around 80% of our fruit), it was considered a necessity. Sloes, crab apples, elderberries, cobnuts, mushrooms, rowan berries and rosehips could provide those essential vitamins missing from the nation's diet. The nutritional gift that rosehips offered evidently endured for quite a number of years after the end of the war in 1945 and the end of rationing in 1954. In fact, I was surprised to find that Rosehip Syrup is still widely available today.



The unstated message behind a teaspoon of Rosehip Syrup was that it was good for me. And rosehips are high in Vitamin C. But I can't help but wonder if its 'goodness' is diluted by the quantity of sugar you need to use to make a syrup: 325gr to 500ml of unsweetened juice. But hey, I've survived to my late 50s with my teeth intact and that's more than can be said for today's kids! 

I have two memories of a spoonful of syrup. The first, in the Dew Road clinic on Sandfields Estate, Port Talbot when the nurse checked me for whatever I was there to be checked for. The second, in our kitchen at home: my mother tipping the glass bottle over a spoon, my lips already parting for the sweet, peach coloured fix before she's finished pouring. Sunlight streams through the kitchen window: it is somehow impossible to remember drinking Rosehip Syrup in grey and damp weather. 


I spotted them growing in two different places in the apple orchard last week: fat and red, and, of course, sunlit. Could they replicate that childhood taste? I had to find out.

The BBC Woman's Hour website gives the original wartime recipe. Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall provides another which is a tad simpler and which I followed, but I added a little more water to the chopped rosehips as it seemed to be evaporating away too quickly during the 'boil it all up' part. 

The scent of crushed rosehips boiling is hard to describe. My first thought was hot, damp plum kernels. Now I'm thinking simmering damsons, that sharpness they have at their heart. 

And the taste? Yes, of childhood and sunlight. It's unmistakeable. 


Hungry writing prompt
Write about a memory of sunlight.

An empty maple syrup bottle I had in the cupboard was the perfect receptacle for my rosehip syrup: it feels like the right shape for my memory, unlike the plain Atkins & Potts bottles that come up on a Google search. 

'It's subtle,' Tony said when I gave him a taste while it was still warm.

Yes, subtle, like those gauzy memories I have of it, or, to be more accurate, the memories I have fleshed out with my imagination: a nurse in a crisp white apron, the dust motes that dance in the sunlight streaming in to my mother's kitchen. And what's wrong with that? That's how stories are born.  

Friday

Resisting Apples (or not)

This time last year the apples had all been picked, crated and lorried away for juicing. This year's much improved harvest is still on the trees, still plumping from the alternate attention of rain showers and sunshine. But not for long. The Cox's Orange Pippins are mostly ripe already: the proof lies in the few windfalls.

windfalls
The Golden Delicious look a little small although that's not really a problem for apples grown for juice, but they'll probably benefit from another week. 

the weight of apples
I tend to judge the Bramleys by a creep of peachy pink across their green skin. This one's begging to be transformed into pie.

ripe bramley
But the majority of its companions are still shy of their full potential.



To determine if the fruit is ready to be picked, place a cupped hand under the fruit, lift and gently twist. If the apple doesn't come away easily in your hand, then it's not ready to harvest.

the resistible and the irresistible apple
Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about something irresistible.

And because cupping, lifting and twisting apples is a bit of an addictive pastime I ended up looking like this:
a scrumper's pockets
I don't know which came first: scrumping (stealing apples) or scrumpy (traditionally, West Country Cider). The Oxford English Dictionary quotes the noun scrump as meaning something withered or dried up, specifically apples. If this is true then perhaps the drink came first: the gathering and pressing of windfalls into cider. Collins list it as a verb, to steal, from the dialect 'scrimp', but not in the sense of penny-pinching or frugality.

Perhaps no-one will deny there's an excitement attached to stolen or forbidden fruit (forgetting for a while the act of getting caught and the price of Eve's bold disobedience!)  A strawberry picked from the field somehow tastes sweeter than the one bought at a stall or from a supermarket shelf. There's a cheeky rebelliousness attached to stealing a few apples and, let's be honest, it's quite a thrill to feel that as an adult penned inside a regimented world.

I don't think my six Cox's Orange Pippins will impinge on the juice maker's profit margin. Or the two Bramleys I'm about to slip out for. And I promise I won't take any more. I've had my cheeky rebellious fix and from now on I'll restrict myself to the windfalls, the withered, the worm-caught, with enough sweet flesh still left on them to be good pickings.

p.s.
I need the Bramleys to make this apple tart which has puree as a base layer and sliced eating apples as a top layer.

double apple tart - ready for the oven


Thursday

Les petites choses: how little things are so often the big things

It's the little things: a child standing on her head on the town beach, the creak a fresh baguette makes when you press it gently, the morning light squeezing through shutters. Holidays might be planned around the big things - bank accounts and airports - but the little things make them memorable. Here are more: a sip of chilled rosé, children laughing along the seashore, the taste of salt water on your lips, the scent of crepes as you pass a café.

6 Rue du Docteur Rostan
Antibes, France
I've been back to Antibes for the first time since we left in October 2011, not to our old house but to a delightful little apartment so lovingly cared for by Una Hennigan and her partner, Pascal. And what could be more appropriate for a writer than (what I'm sure is) a quill carved into the stone plaque above its doorway in Rue du Dr Rostan? 

I did walk past our old house one evening, when it was far too late to think about ringing the bell to say hello to the people who bought it from us and are still living there. There were lights on in the stairway and I could see through the open window to the polished red tiles that swirl up through the house's four storeys. The pretty bleu-lavande shutters almost glowed in the near-dark. They must have made changes in the last four years: I know they installed a pool in the garden. I imagine that the four old palm trees may have
Villa Les Marroniers, our old home
been felled after we had to have two of them treated and capped 
in the last weeks before we left because of a red weevil infestation that was quickly and tragically decimating thousands of palm trees along the coast. But the greater part of me didn't want to see the house again: it was home for a while and I loved it then but it doesn't feel like a part of me any more, though the memories remain beautiful.

And I made new memories this time: swimming from the town beach each day, feeling the remembered weight of two boxed millefeuilles in my hand as I walked home from the patisserie, visiting the restaurant at the Commune Libre du Safranier, a little community within the old town established in the 1960s specifically to celebrate and preserve Antibois traditions and culture. And an even more profound memory too: of a time of ease and laughter, of sweet and salty mussels, chilled wine, fresh baguettes and olive tapenade, shared with my step-daughter, Zoe, the first time we've ever been alone together for longer than a day in the 30 years since I've known her. 

Plage la Gravette, the town beach, Antibes, France.
A part of me wondered whether I'd be gently haunted by regret when I returned to Antibes, that a yearning to still be living there would arise in me, that a seed of dissatisfaction might be sown in my life now. But there was none of that, just a comfortable familiarity with the town, its ambience, its alternately vibrant, charming and astonishing rues and allées, as if the old stone of its walls and streets were welcoming me, not home, but with homeliness. You still belong here, they might have been saying, no matter how much time passes between each visit, no matter how long you stay. Au revoir. Bienvenue. 


Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about street sounds.

Monday

Chips. Buddha. And the rocky road.

'Do you fancy some chips?' Tony said.
'But we're supposed to be having a week of eating lightly ... losing some weight, remember?'
He must have thought it was a rhetorical question.
'You've bought potatoes, haven't you?'
'Yes.'
'Okay.'
I know. The willpower of a dandelion seed. But chips. Real chips. Deep fried in sunflower oil. 
And if there are chips there has to be home-made curry sauce.

onion

spicing it up
There's nothing complex about my curry sauce (for two): soften a chopped red onion in oil, then stir in 3 tsp of the curry powder of your choice and 1 tsp of Garam Masala and let the mixture cook for a few minutes more before adding a handful of sultanas, half a pint of vegetable stock, a big squirt of tomato paste and half a can of coconut milk. If you like it you can also add a tablespoon of mango chutney. I like the sauce to be thick so I let it simmer and reduce until it's glossy and the colour of cinnamon bark. 

Tony is the 'hands of chips'. I peel and slice the potatoes but he takes charge of hot oil and temperature monitoring and drying the chips thoroughly in a large tea towel and cooking them twice, guaranteeing the crisp and fluffy qualities that good chips should always have. 

the hands of chips 
And it was one of those memorable simple meals that even Buddha approved of. 

buddha table

being Buddha
Buddha would have been less approving of us last night when, sitting just feet from the spot where we'd been in total harmony with each other a few nights before, we slipped into a cesspit of misunderstanding and incrimination, possibly aided by the (too) large measures of Grand Marnier over ice. Or, at least, probable in my case: I don't drink spirits as a rule and I don't think it helped me see and feel things very clearly.

Actually, Buddha didn't give a sweet cluck, as you can see. I did. Why is it so damn hard to recognise that you don't have to keep on dragging yourself (and someone else) across the sharp stony ground? Why does it seem like the only way, at the time? 

They are rhetorical questions. 

I said I didn't want to eat. Tony said he was cooking the prawns anyway and he was going to eat. He chopped parsley and spring onions, sauteed them in butter and oil, added the peeled jumbo prawns at the last minute, crisped up the bread in the oven while I sat at the table unable to get off the rocky road. Then he served up.

The ground softened. The grazes healed up, even if the little scabs hurt for a little while longer.

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about a question you do not want answered. 


Thursday

Just a sandwich

It comes back to me as I'm spilling rocket onto a wholemeal wrap, slicing cucumber and spring onions: my sister, Shân, asking me if I'd like a salad sandwich.

It was hot that week during the summer of 1984. I was still living in Jersey and had come home to Wales for a visit. My nephew, Gareth, is a baby. My niece, Sarah, is seven. My brother-in-law, Stephen, has driven the four of us here, 65 miles from Port Talbot, in their racing green mini: the M4, the A48 to Carmarthen, then west along the A477 past the farms of great-grandmothers we are yet to learn about, towards Pembrokeshire and Freshwater East, to the first floor flat with a tiny balcony overlooking the bay.
Freshwater East bay in 2011
After dropping us off he has headed home again to pack the rest of the week's necessities into the little car. 

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about packing the car for a road trip

This is the only photo I can find: me and the kids outside the flat's front door just before sunset one evening. But there are more, I know, showing me and Shân failing miserably at the hula-hoop and staring in astonishment at Sarah whose little hips shiggle the hoop around rhythmically and effortlessly. 

But I do not need a photo to remind me of the sandwich: the evening sunlight and shadows reaching the kitchen table where my sister is buttering a small and soft sliced loaf, layering lettuce, cucumber, tomato, and onion on one slice, adding salt, adding the second slice, placing her hand on top and cutting it all in half. She hands me the plate. The bread is soft, the salad crisp. We may have had wine: a naturally sparkling Portuguese Vinho Verde I used to bring home with me.

I do not think I am a great help with the kids on the practical level of bathing and changing, apart from holding little Gareth and giving him a bottle, or playing with Sarah or reading her a bedtime story, but I know Shân is glad of my company. And I am happy to be here too, with my big sister who I shared a bedroom with for 17 years, who is now a mother and wife, roles I cannot imagine for myself. 

I am 26, have no idea that in less than eight months I will meet the man who I will spend the next 30 years with. She is 29, too busy with two small children to imagine the roads ahead of her. But despite our ignorance the future is pulsing at the horizon, the world already turning roads in our directions. The sun is so bright tonight. A child calls out in her sleep. 

bread, lettuce, salt

Friday

Appetite: Mara Bergman's New York poems

On the flyleaf of the Everyman anthology, Eat, Drink, and Be Merry, poems about food and drink, it says:

Eating and drinking and the rituals that go with them are at least as important as loving in most people’s lives, yet for every hundred anthologies of poems about love, hardly one is devoted to the pleasures of the table.

And yet without food and drink there would be no love. Literally, on the fundamental levels of survival and the biological impulse to procreate, but food is also bound to our emotional, psychological and intellectual experiences, to our memories, to the people in our lives. The sound-bite 'we are what we eat' transcends our physical compositions: we are what we have been fed, what we have shared with others, what we have offered as sustenance. 

I like reading about food in people's stories, novels and poems. Feel bereft, and irritated, when characters meet in restaurants and the writer overlooks the menu completely! Food gives us a sense of who a person is or might be, a sense of place and their relationship to it. 

I already have strong sense of who Mara Bergman is. I've known her for over 20 years as a friend, poet and a prolific picture book writer. Last year she won the Mslexia Poetry Pamphlet Competition with a collection of poems that have their origins in New York, the city where she grew up, studied and lived until she settled in England in 1983. 

The Tailor's Three Sons & Other New York Poems (Seren Books) is not a collection of poems about food but so many of them bubble with images of sustenance: there are cafés and diners, semolina bread and chicken soup, bakeries and delis, watermelon and clams, donuts and, something I now feel obsessively determined to find and try, baked mozzarella/ like fat balls of fudge.

In the poems where these ingredients appear food becomes the vehicle by which we are invited to explore a city, its history and the poet's personal life. It adds meaning, offers insight and creates appetite for a life that isn't ours, yet a life that still feels intimately familiar. After all, which one of us isn't propelled back to our childhood when we imagine our grandmother's home? And if it isn't the scent of chicken soup that takes us there, it might still be the scents of our own memories: bread, plum jam, or hot chips. 

The final poem in the collection, 'Trying to Kill Time at JFK', contains one of my favourite lines in the whole pamphlet. Here, read the poem's opening and arrive at it with a sigh of satisfaction as I did:

I am earlier than I've ever been before, for anything, 
breeze through check-in, am free
to wander the concourse of duty-free and places to eat -
Wok 'n' Roll, McDonald's, muffins at Ritazza, sandwiches
at Au Bon Pain, and gallons of coffee, coffee everywhere,
as if caffeine were the secret ingredient of flight. 

Good poetry makes us see the world we know in a new light. It illuminates the ordinary, the stuff of everyday we generally walk past and ignore. It's a gift. And each of the 21 poems in this collection shine a light on the familiar and the little or not yet known, from thinking we see a relative in the face of a stranger to the immigrant dreams of the three tailor's sons, in the title poem, who lived and worked in the tenements of New York City. 

These poems have fed me. And there's enough to feed you too. 

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about flying

Sunday

Grow

I am learning it all over again: the delight of picking and eating something you have grown. But perhaps it's not 'all over again', maybe it is for the first time. Dad has kept a vegetable garden since the late 1950s, ever since they moved into the house he and Mam still live in, so as a child I was used to a home-grown harvest of runner beans, broad beans, carrots, cabbage, potatoes, and onions with their tops bent over to help them dry a little while still in the earth before being plaited into strings and wintered in the dark of the redundant coal bunker. But 'delight'? No - I took it for granted. These were the years when most people grew something in their gardens; there was nothing unusual about it. It was part of life, part of feeding yourself.

The year after I moved in with Tony he ploughed up half an acre in a field at the front of his house and planted enough vegetables to feed a small village, if they'd all been famished on exactly the same day. The idea of staggered or succession planting came to him rather too late. The cauliflowers were a particular challenge: quantity wise and for the caterpillar nations they attracted. In the end I stopped searching for the tiniest of ones curled between the florets and trusted that hot water would dissolve them. That trust was sometimes misplaced. 

Cox's Orange Pippin
Now we have a greenhouse, built to house experiments with alternative fruit trees and crops we might end up planting in the orchard in place of the apple trees, mostly Cox's Orange Pippin. The Cox has lost a lot of its popularity as an eating apple but fortunately it makes great juice and we've managed to rent out the 20 acres for the last couple of years to a local fruit grower and juice producer and we're hoping that will continue for the limited number of good fruit producing years the trees have left.


Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about what the years ahead of you will contain.

So this year the greenhouse has been commandeered for more domestic crops: Tony has planted cucumbers, tomatoes, courgettes, aubergines, chillies and peppers. And the cucumbers have shot ahead, Mo Farah like, in the quest to be the first to be applauded. 

Piccolino cucumbers
Cucumber and cream cheese wraps. Cucumber and paté on wholemeal toast. Cucumber soup (which was so much better chilled and drunk the next day than eaten warm). So, I'm getting through them. And if summer does arrive, and stay for a few days, I'm going to make this Hungarian cucumber salad, a dish that reminds me of a Robert Carrier recipe I followed while I was living in Jersey in the early 1980s, a side-dish for skewered chicken satay, a memory that has remained dormant until now. 

Delia's Cucumber Soup
Knowing how complicated Carrier recipes tended to be there must have been more to it than what I remember: peeling the cucumbers, sprinkling them with sugar and salt and leaving them in the fridge for their flavour to deepen. I do remember thinking how exotic it seemed: up until then cucumber had only ever appeared in my life as part of a grated cheddar or tinned pink salmon sandwich. I don't remember who I was cooking for. But there is sunlight in the kitchen, spilling through the window above the fridge and the blue Formica table is laid for four. And there won't be quite enough for all of us to feel satisfied. I have never trusted recipe serving suggestions since.  

Soon there will be a fat purple aubergine. Courgettes, now that the flowers have gone limp and their bodies are filling like inflatable bolster cushions. Then tomatoes of all different sizes. A little later: red peppers. Some of the chillies will have to be dried or given away as presents.


All this green. At first Tony marked the supporting strings with chalk so we could be amazed at how much everything was growing within a day. Now we accept it. But with delight. Both of us are thinking of that first ripe tomato straight from the vine. We're hoping for two.