Monday, 25 August 2008

Dirge Without Music

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving
hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out
of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely.
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains, - but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the
laughter, the love, -
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses.
Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I
do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the
roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

Edna St Vincent Millay (1892-1950)

Last Thursday (21st August), at 5.50am my mother-in-law stopped breathing in her hospital bed. Her daughter, nodding off beside her in the piss-proof chair started at the silence, and went to call the nurse. Ten minutes later I awoke to the sound of the telephone and a tear-stained voice. Then I had to tell my husband his mother was dead. Then I had to phone his brother and tell him. Then we had to tell our son the last of his grandparents was gone. Then we had to throw on the clothes we'd taken off only two hours before and go back to the hospital.

She was only 72. A cancer that had been removed seven years ago had reappeared in a different place and, this time, it was discovered too late. Bob and I had panicked on Tuesday evening and called an ambulance. The houseman on duty in A&E had told us to call the rest of the family and thus begun our bedside vigil.

Now, we are home for a couple of days, and then it's back in the car on Wednesday for the funeral on Friday.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Due to family ill health I'm going to be away for a while, not sure how long, it depends on a number of factors. We'll need to form a working plan based on a medical trajectory. Until then as Bob and I are the only ones who are in a position to drop everything and go, that's what we're doing.

We'll be taking an old lap-top with us so I will still be able to check in on your blogs, but it's doubtful that I'll be posting. I'm one of those people who can't walk and chew gum at the same time. Not when the gum is an enormous great gob-stopper at least.

Monday, 11 August 2008

Teach Yourself Latin

We love a bit of pesto in our house. That glistening green sauce of basil plopped and stirred into pasta. It's the taste of summer. I hate, hate, hate the jar stuff though, it tastes, and looks, as if you've scraped the mould off a cellar wall and added cheese. No, it has to be fresh and the freshest comes from making your own. It is eminently easy to buy decent fresh pesto in most supermarkets these days for not very much at all, but I like to make my own at least once every summer, it makes me feel like I belong in a Dolce and Gabbana advertisement.

So, every summer I attempt to grow enough basil specially to make it. Last year, because the weather was appalling my crop failed. This year because the weather is appalling still, I've grown it on the bathroom windowsill in an old apple crate. Bringing the crate into the house resulted in me getting a scar on my nose, so I was horrified to find when I got back from a trip to visit my mother-in-law that my plants were covered in whitefly. I'd foolishly left the window open a smidge to keep the air fresh. So the last few weeks have had me frantically spraying with a mild solution of fairy liquid in the hope of saving my dream, to little effect. Having failed to get rid of the blasted sticky mites I decided that today I would have to crop a little early and make the sauce before my efforts were reduced to limp nothings.

What a ghastly job it proved to be. Fishing for enough firm shiny leaves amongst the goo to get a decent amount. But I managed it thank goodness. A scarred nose and no pesto for the second year running would have sent me over the edge.

I use the recipe from Anna Del Conte's book The Gastronomy of Italy, but because I can't easily get peccorino cheese I use all parmesan. It's not quite as good, and certainly not as authentic but it's still better than supermarket sauce. I also toast the pine nuts in a dry frying pan rather than on a tray in the oven. This because using the oven, in these days of energy efficiency, seems ridiculously extravagant. The result is the same, you just have to be a bit more careful not to burn them. Also, I make it in a food processor but if you feel that using machines is an inauthentic step too far you can bash it all to a paste in a mortar with a pestle. And there is something to be said for doing it that way. You probably use up more calories making the sauce than you get from eating it, for one.

If you have any basil and would like to make pesto easily and deliciously, here is my augmented recipe:

20g of pine nuts
50g of fresh basil leaves, the bigger and glossier the better
1 clove of garlic, peeled
a pinch of sea salt
6 tablesoons freshly grated parmesan cheese (or 4 + 2 of grated pecorino if you don't live in a food desert like me)
120ml mild extra virgin olive oil.

For the full on Italian dream experience ensure you are barefoot and wearing a tight fitting, floral tea dress, and flicky eye-liner. Toast the pine nuts in a dry frying pan over a medium heat until they are speckled with brown. It will only take a few minutes, so don't be tempted to abandon them. Put the basil, garlic, pine nuts and salt in a food processor or blender and whiz to a paste. Once you have your paste, transfer it to your most Italian looking bowl, add the grated cheese stirring it all together, then add the oil in a trickle as you beat it with a wooden spoon. To eat it just add a tablespoon or so to a bowl of hot pasta or gnocchi. This should easily serve four. I rather like it spread thickly on toasted sourdough bread and topped with tomatoes too, so as usual I made double the quantity.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008


This picture comes courtesy of The Sartorialist (not that I actually asked him if I could use it, I'll ask now: 'can I please Mr S.?').

I said I would explain why tank-tops, Fair Isle ones in particular, are cool. Now, of course, I find myself struggling to do so. Not because I've changed my mind, but because what someone finds themselves attracted to isn't subject to reason, logic, or any kind of rational explanation. I am just attracted to Fair Isle tank-tops, in the same way I am attracted to brown leather, sea-side towns that have seen better days, and coloured string.

When I see someone wearing one I immediately invest them with all number of traits they may very well not have: artistic, intellectual, maverick. I think they probably enjoy solitude, wide open spaces, beach-huts, and beer. That they are the sort who only speak when they have something to say, rather than because they want to say something. That they are strong individuals and not part of the herd. How often do you see an adult male in a Fair Isle tank-top? Exactly! I instinctively take them to be the sort I could have an easy conversation with, and that they will be interested in, at least some of, the same things I am.

Fair Isle makes me think of hills, of coming in from a long walk to a warm fire and tea and scones. Of staying at the beach after the sun has cooled to scramble about in rock pools. Of ice-cream sundaes; best china; cake stands with glass domes; camping; unusual punctuation; Dylan Thomas (who knows why); poetry; mixing-bowls; duck-egg blue.

Tank-tops are a little less cosy than jumpers. The arms are kept free for ease of movement. They speak of cool summers rather than cold winters, of getting out and about rather than hunkering down. And they can be worn under a jacket without giving you bulky (never attractive) arms.

This may very well be because I was brain-washed in 1974. Or it may have something to do with when I was nineteen my (then to be) mother-in-law went to the trouble of measuring my tee-shirts in order to knit me a Fair Isle tank-top for the first Christmas I ever spent with my husband's family. And my sister-in-law who, having helped with the subterfuge, was at first envious and then delighted to get one too. We wore them proudly for our Boxing day walk. And I, having been somewhat nervous of the whole event, was made to feel part of the family that I have loved ever since.

All I know is this: I would always give a person in a Fair Isle tank-top the time of day, no matter what the rest of them looked like, and I don't think I'm the only one. When Boden did them a few years ago I promptly ordered one for myself. The first time I washed it - in the machine, defying hand-wash only instructions - it shrunk to the size of a bee, so I went back to the site to order another and they had sold out never to get them back again.

In this day of mass-manufacture, designer labels and tee-shirts that say such ghastly things as 'Real Man' across the chest - 'Really!' I want to yell, 'who fucking says?' - a Fair Isle tank suggests hand crafting and time taken. I know it's a bit like a label that says size four in the jeans of a woman who knows she is really a ten. Or opening a tin of 'home made' soup. Or even, as I saw the other day, a faux-leather handbag that costs as much as a real leather one. But, as I said, it's all based on feelings that however much I try I can't really justify. A bit like preferring the poetry of Ted Hughes to Keats (check), the paintings of Ben Nicholson to Constable (check) or chocolate cake to curry (check).

If I were to find myself sitting in a cafe eating chocolate torte with Nicholson's paintings on the wall, a book of Ted Hughes' collected on my lap, and looked up to see my husband coming towards me wearing a Fair Isle tank top and cords, that would be a good day.

Friday, 1 August 2008

Getting a Slice of the Pie

I am a potterer and one of the places I like pottering about the most is the kitchen. Since I got back from my mother-in-law's I've been reorientating myself with kitchen activity. It's probably the equivalent for me of a dog sniffing and peeing in his territory. First I tidied and smoothed and made sure everything was in it's proper place. Then I sharpened all my knives and ensured all my tools were in working order (one of the most satisfying things for a cook is a knife that just glides through ingredients). After all of which I began to think of baking to fill the house with the requisite smells.

By Wednesday I was ready to get into full feeding mode and decided to make my son's favourite quiche for supper. The whole thing was incredibly therapeutic, from the fact that I had all the ingredients to hand (except the cream which I sent Bob out for, a gladdening notion in itself), to the sun shining outside, and the way the kitchen looked with broken eggshells, torn packaging, and other sundries littering the counter and table. I love walking into a pristine, tidy kitchen, but I also love to see flour snowing all over the table, a fat yellow disc of dough sitting amongst it, pressaging all the good things to come. The very thought of pastry thrills me and this day I experimented by merging two of Nigella Lawson's pastry recipes and (joy!) managed to make my own perfectly light and flaky shortcrust.

Here's my recipe for hot smoked salmon and feta quiche (I know it's not really quiche if it doesn't contain bacon and Gruyere for the purists out there, but it's delicious nonetheless). This fills a dish 28X18X5cm, but you can shrink or expand the quantities to fit your own dish without any harm, it's not an exact science:

2 fillets of hot smoked salmon
1 packet of feta cheese (I use organic)
6 large eggs
600ml of double cream (ish)

For the pastry
300g of Italian 00 flour (this doesn't need to be sifted like ordinary plain and is much lighter)
170g of unsalted butter
1 teaspoon of yoghurt
a few tablespoons of iced water with half a teaspoon of salt stirred into it

I make the pastry in my food processor a la Miss Lawson's recipe in How to Eat. Measure out the flour and butter, cut butter into small dice, put both in a bowl and stash in the freezer for ten minutes. Once they have had their chilling, put them in a foodprocessor and whizz till they look like fine oatmeal (you can do the rubbing in by hand if you so wish). Add your teaspoon of yoghurt and pulse for a second, then with the machine running add the iced water very slowly through the funnel until the pastry is just about to come together but hasn't quite. Swich off and turn the dough onto a surface, squish it into a ball, wrap in plastic and put it in the fridge to rest for at least twenty minutes.

Once the pastry is rested bring it out, roll it to size and line your, buttered, dish. Put it back in the fridge, put the oven onto gas mark 6, and gather all the other ingredients. Flake the salmon, beat the eggs with the cream and crumble the feta. Bring the pastry lined dish out of the fridge once the oven is up to temperature and get on with building the quiche. Put the salmon in the dish, pour in the eggy cream, arrange the feta all over and put in the oven for about an hour. You may need to turn the temperature down after about forty five minutes, but ovens vary so much, so just have a look and see what you think: if it's getting rather brown but is still very wobbly turn it down a notch.

I really like this eaten hot with salad and a baked spud, but it's great ice cold the next day too. This size will easily feed eight people but I like to make a lot so there is plenty left over, it freezes very well and it's great to have the odd wodge stashed in the freezer for unexpected feedings.

The finished product

One of the best things about making pastry is that there is almost alway some left over from trimmings, and with this I like to make pudding. Sometimes I make custard tarts but on this day I made jam tarts. Little teeny fat ones filled with raspberry jam.

P.S in my next post I will be talking about tank-tops, and why fair-isle is cool, specially for Conan.