Food and the dead: pears poached in red wine

I can't remember exactly when I wrote these 'instructions' for my funeral but although it was more than a decade before I started the hungry writer blog you'll notice that food plays a pretty central part!

Given a choice

I'd like a sunny day, a party 
in the garden, a wooden table laid 
with a white cloth. A bowl of cherries 
for a stone spitting competition. Veuve Clicquot 
served in uncut glass, brandied sugar cubes 
and people dancing barefoot in the long grass. 

If it’s cold and rainy, rent an old manor house
surrounded by fields. Roast chickens and eat them 
with your hands, crusty bread. Ripe peaches. 
Drink Grand Marnier on ice in a wood-panelled lounge, 
a fierce fire in front of your feet. Fall asleep 
between fat feathered duvets and crisp white sheets. 

If it’s only you, my love, tip what remains of me 
into the sea, then cook our favourite meal – 
prawns in garlic, fillet steak, sweet chips. 
Open the wine with the Picasso label 
we’ve been meaning to drink. Talk 
to someone you love on the phone.

If I’m alone, I choose a mountain 
of slate and gorse and will slowly slip 
between the seams of stone, listening 
to the cries of sheep, the rain coming home. 

My memory box
I keep it with my will, inside an old wooden writing box with other memorabilia, and while I like to hope that the people who will find it will carry out, as far as possible, my wishes, it really won't matter to me by that time! After all, funerals are for the living: people need to do whatever helps them say goodbye and grieve.

Hungry writing prompt
Write about grieving.

But in case anyone reading this is likely to be around at the time of my demise: the Veuve Clicquot (Brut) is not negotiable. 

I never went to the funeral of the woman who gave me the recipe for pears poached in red wine. She was the girlfriend, and then wife, of an entertainments agent who used to book Tony for gigs around the South East when he was a professional entertainer. I went to their wedding, had dinner at their house near Wadhurst, Sussex a few times. She collected old porcelain dolls and a whole tribe of them used to stare out of a glass fronted cupboard in the dining room while we ate. She kept a horse. She wore long clothes: skirts and cardigans that seemed to wrap her like blankets. She came to one of our fancy dress parties  as Charlie Chaplin and strutted like a penguin and twirled her cane all night with an exuberance I'd never seen when she was being herself. Once, when they came to lunch, Tony prepared her a flambĂ©ed peach for dessert in place of the bananas he was making for everyone else. Her husband peered into the frying pan and exclaimed in complete innocence, 'Oh, darling, your peach is wrinkled!' and Tony and I cried with school-yard laughter, hanging onto the edge of the kitchen cabinets like a couple of wet towels. 

She wasn't my friend. And I hadn't seen her for years when I heard she'd died. But I think of her every time I make these pears. I can see her, her long black hair, her pale skin and small mouth, her dark clothes, a little like the Victorian dolls she collected. And that's it. There's no emotional connection at all. Except perhaps a subliminal gratitude for the recipe because the pears are so damn good. Every time. And it makes me think about the idea that the dead are always with us in some way. And how stories keep on growing. 

Is someone who I've served these pears to thinking about me? If so, please put me in a pretty dress. Let me laugh. I have a black cat. And I once attended a fancy dress party as a punk wearing a bin bag and a white string vest. And a trick nail through my head!

And because even I can see there's a little confusing shorthand amongst those old scribblings...

Chianti isn't compulsory - you choose.
5 ounces of sugar
1/4 pint of red wine
1/4 pint of water 
1 inch of cinnamon stick
6 dessert pears (I tend to use Conference)
(2 teaspoons of arrowroot)

(Because I like loads of syrup I double the amounts of sugar, wine, water and cinnamon when I make it. Minimum-syrup people should stick to the original quantities.)

In a large pan, over a low heat, melt the sugar in the wine and water, with the cinnamon stick, then boil for 15 minutes.

In the meantime, peel the pears, leaving the stalks on for decoration, and cut a slice off the bottom of each one if you want to serve them standing up in a bowl like sweet fruity soldiers. But they look as nice lying down, like 6 in a bed. (Or 5 on this occasion.)

Reduce the syrup to a simmer and place the pears in and spoon the syrup over them. I turn them every 10 minutes for about 40 to 50 minutes to make sure they're cooked all the way through. You can always pierce them with a cocktail stick (somewhere unnoticeable) to check. But I'd go for 10 minutes more rather than take the chance on underdone. 

By this time the syrup is syrupy enough so I don't usually need to thicken it with the arrowroot. If you do then take the pears out first, mix the arrowroot into a little bit of cold water, add it to the bubbling syrup and stir well

You can decorate them with a good handful of toasted flaked almonds: throw them in a non stick frying pan and keep stirring over a medium heat. Don't worry about getting them all brown. And don't walk away - they burn quickly. Trust me. 

Hearth food: heart food

Martin James 1905 - 1975
My maternal grandfather, Dadcu in Welsh, or D'cu as we used to call him, Martin James, had two dietary practices that no one else in my life, then or since, has repeated. He used to swallow a raw egg in the mornings, the yolk bobbing about in its albumen as he tipped the glass towards his mouth. I imagined the yellow dome breaking in his throat as he swallowed. And he sliced cheddar cheese into a glass dish and placed it in front of the open coal fire to melt. Then he spooned it onto fresh, hand-cut white bread. I remember tasting the melted cheese. I remember the pull and slip of it against the spoon, like soft toffee. I kept a safe distance from any involvement with the raw egg.

It didn't occur to me that D'cu's melted cheese was a traditional Welsh dish. Caws pobi: roasted or baked cheese. And some people might wonder what the difference is between melted cheese spooned out of a dish and cheese melted on toast under the grill. But I think you'll have to make some to appreciate it. I suppose, primarily, cooking something at an open hearth pre-dates grilling by some considerable time, so there's an historical element that affects us when we cook this way. But there really is something about the taste and texture and contrast of temperatures that you just don't get with cheese on toast. And perhaps the idea of sitting in front of a real fire, and watching your food cook, taps into a primitive satisfaction and a time when the world rolled along at a slower pace. And, of course, for me, it connects me to my D'cu too, a slight man with a big heart who was old before his time, like so many men of his generation who lost their youth and health to Welsh tinplate works and coal mines.

In Bobby Freeman's First Catch Your Peacock, a cross between a cookery book and a history book about the food of Wales, from earliest times right up to the 20th century, she talks about the Welsh early passion for caws pobi, the forerunner of the internationally known Welsh Rarebit and traces references back to medieval and Tudor times. But, interestingly, the cheese best suited to 'roasting' was a hard cheese like Cheddar, and not the softer cheeses then being made in Wales, the result of the soil's acidity, although cheese made from ewe's milk, like the Spanish Manchego was, she assumes, a good alternative.

On my way home to pobi some caws I call for French bread at the tiny Spar attached to our local garage, whose lovely proprietors stock unusual local products and speciality ones from all over the British Isles. I spot a wheel of Ginger Spice, one of the gorgeous flavoured cheddars made by the Snowdonia Cheese Company. And Snowdon is about as Welsh as you can get! 

We've had our wood-burning stove roaring away 24/7 ever since we came back from Florida at the end of December and as soon as I put on a pan of sliced plain Cheddar and some Ginger Spice it all sizzled at such an alarming rate I was almost juggling the camera like a hot potato to try and get some shots. In less than a minute they had melted to within memories of themselves and started to burn. But clouds and silver linings and all that... once I'd spooned off what I could and slathered it onto hunks of fresh bread (pause here for some enjoyable chewing...) I was left with a cooling crispy cheese crust that lifted off the non-stick pan like a savoury veil. Parmesan crisps? Forget about them: creision (crisps) caws pobi are the future. 

D'cu melted his cheese more slowly, away from the fire's direct heat. Too slowly from a kid's perspective when having to wait for anything makes you twitch and fidget. But I'm also guessing his generation wouldn't have been anywhere near as impatient as we are today when we so easily rankle at a slow internet speed, traffic jams, queues at banks or supermarkets. 

I need to tackle caws pobi again: at a different pace. In a thicker oven-proof dish for a start. Or maybe I could prop it on a few logs in front of the wood-burner's open door where I can sit and watch the flames, their hypnotic flare and flicker. Food, like the memories of people we loved, still love, shouldn't be rushed.

Thanks, D'cu. Cysgu yn dawel*.

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about the heat from a fire. 

* Sleep peacefully. 


Please come in: welcome to my kitchen

The door is wide and warm, the kettle's on. The honey pourer that arrived here via China and the USA sits upon my Granny's plate, its edges softly frilled like grandmothers are, but often aren't. And the woman framed above who looks as if she might have slipped off the tip of William Russell Flint's sable brush, hasn't. I know; it seems as if nothing's as it really is. But it is. The child's drawing on the fridge is nothing else but itself. The gouge mark in the knotted pine wood floor proof of something heavy dropped between us, even if we struggle to remember what. And fruit is always fruit even when its cut.

There's laughter here. In the photos of how we used to be and, I like to think, captured from family, friends and even strangers like yourself in the butter yellow doors and drawers - invisible veins of music. And tears too. Our own. A daughter's pain. A friend's, in the instant she knew her man's betrayal and her shoulders dropped the way you'd watch a puppet fall when its strings are cut.

Taken in a vintage Kodak photo booth
Santa Barbara CA 1992
Sometimes the oven's or the summer's heat envelops us. Sometimes a season's morning chill makes us tiptoe across the room past the cold slices of glass, looking out on a wall of rough cut stone, a meagre persistence of moss below glowing emerald in the winter sun.

A black cat stretches here. Goes out. Comes in and leaves her muddy paw prints on the hand-made table, though its size and weight bely that phrase, the slabs of pink beech and squarely jointed legs, body-made perhaps.

The pendulum of the electronic clock mimes a tick, a tock: its swing a measurement of time that metronomes our hearts, our breath, when we are calm. Falls silent when things are broken, cracked: a plate, a forgotten promise, a glass salt pot. Regains its voice when we dance around the room, the cellar's dark air beneath our feet where wine is stored and brought up and made to sing 
in crystal and drunk. 
Garden bell from Villa les
Marronniers, Antibes.

When you come to leave take the back door, the one that opens to trees, past the photo of men who worked on this farm a hundred years ago. Their faces are inscrutable, obeying a call to pose, their real lives hidden like the faint traces of dreams. Which this life you've just walked through might seem to you: a mismatched congregation of effects. Like that iron bell, beside the carved bowl of knobbled gourds, engraved with a number 10.  But things are usually simpler than you think: the number on a street in France where we once lived and lost ourselves a while. When we ring the bell we find ourselves again. 

Stories breathe between these walls. This is where each day, over coffee sweet and strong, another one begins. 

Hungry Writer Prompt
Write about getting lost. And getting found.

Fruit, Coffee by Tony Crosse 2002

The Year of Eating Everything. And cabbage with attitude.

'Bad news,' Tony said. 'The little freezer broke down while we were away. Everything is mush and mold.'

Yep, that just about described the four drawers in varying degrees of decomposition: sludge, spores and the striking blue and white of Penicillium. The only thing to escape the annihilation was a bag of plain white burger rolls, the only processed food item in there, which were surprisingly, and worryingly, fresh looking and, when I poked them, as bouncy as the day they were born. Makes you think, doesn't it?

I wasn't upset exactly. And bereft is far too strong a word too. But when I started to bag up all the ruin (including those rolls) I realised that all my late summer fruit was there. Bramleys, chopped and pureed, for pies and desserts and sauce. Victoria plums stoned and halved for puddings and jam. I swear I could hear the buzz of drunken wasps and feel the heat from the stove from the days spent picking and preparing it all. I felt the waste of it. The loss of those summer tastes from fruit grown on our land. The year turns though.

(N.B. The blog is so far devoid of accompanying photos for a good reason.)

So the 'everything' in the title of this post isn't quite the everything I imagined. But I have decided to try my best to eat everything I buy and put in my fridge and cupboards. Not that I throw out much food, but after reading Tamar Adler's An Everlasting Meal (see last week's post) and being so impressed with her inventive and graceful ways with what could easily be thrown away - stale bread, broccoli stalks and cheese rinds to name a few - I feel inspired to emulate her, as far as I can. 

Sassy Savoy
And it makes good sense too: economic sense, environmental sense. And it's a challenge to be creative with sad cases in the salad drawer or sulks at the back of the fridge. 

Not that Savoy cabbage can ever be accused of being sad or sulky; those tightly pleated leaves seem eternally confident. But it was only a quarter of a cabbage on the cusp of its commercial death (not that I pay too much attention to use by/sell by dates) so it qualified as a user-upper. 
A date with cabbage death.

So, some chopped sad carrots (with a lonely knob of chopped red onion and a chopped 'respectable' garlic clove) sauteed in olive oil later, I added a splash of white wine to make it sizzle and some chicken stock and simmered it until the carrots were soft. Then I added the shredded Savoy and let it cook for another 8 minutes until that began to surrender to the heat too.

My 'far from sad' soup
sprinkled with chopped chives.
I could have been less heavy handed with the spicy blend of dried garlic and parsley, salt and chilli flakes I brought back from Italy in September as well as adding them at the beginning of the cooking time not  towards the end. But hey, baby, it's cold outside. The last scrapings from a tub of creme fraiche and blending half of the mixture before stirring it all together again gave me this lovely dish of far from sad soup. 

So that's my first 'waste not, want not' recipe of the year. This afternoon I was skulking around Tesco's reduced shelf and grabbed some fine stewing beef at less than half price. I'm thinking of experimenting with black olives in a stew - there's half a can of them open in the fridge - and maybe some dried fruit too. We'll see. 

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about all the things that shouldn't be wasted in life.