Friday, 30 September 2011

Our Second Home.

It’s a beautiful part of England, Northumberland. I’m proud to say I see it as my second home. We come here every year, following the same paths: through markets; along the North Sea’s shore; beside farmland that suffocates you in musky rape. The beaches are a Geordie secret I feel lucky to share. For a person who feels anxiety in crowds (as I do) a Northumbrian beach is paradise. Walk with your shadow and feel safe in the sky-scraper distance from it and you to the next silent stroller.

We stay in the village of Shilbottle renting one of the holiday cottages owned by Anthony and Crissy Stoker. This time we were lucky enough to inhabit the flat which adjoins their farmhouse. Through the windows we watched take after take of country living and so the stable yard below our sill was the only TV we needed. One morning I spent a full hour watching the farrier shoe horses. In the evenings we would watch farm dogs greet the stable-hand as she arrived late to perform her night time duties. One evening brought out a blackbird’s alarm call, shrill and loud and angry. So what! I hear that every day in anyone’s street or garden. I know but this one belonged to the fiercest of all; a black mean streak who chased a howling Tawny Owl over the lawn and then, hoot-less, into the trees.

Martin spent most of his childhood here. Taking for granted the white waves foam on the beaches which stretch out to eternity; the enormous skies and the farmyard which smells of dung and kippers. The rest of his family live here still (aren’t they the canny ones?) and so our holiday time incorporates family visits.

This time it was a little different in that we visited a new place. Martin’s mother now lives in a care home. She is suffering from Alzheimer’s:
We are sitting in a lounge full of sleeping people but Martin’s mum is far from sleepy. She does not know who I am but for a moment is pleased to see Martin (her ‘big boy’) and Tommy, her husband. She is a curious mixture of kindness and outrage. Her eyes sparkle a gritty blue and she grins at her son before she berates him for talking too loud. She tells Tommy to stop swearing. Through the thicket of Tommy’s Northumbrian roots I’m unable to latch onto any particular swear word and can only smile in ignorance. Suddenly she remembers and tells the whole room that I’m a foreigner. ‘She’s from mucky Bolton!’ I should feel shame that I dare rise from the slag heaps of Lancashire but I laugh with her and hope she can sense, like I can, the sharpness of her humour.
 Her disease is a series of full stops that punctuate a page full of sentences within a book that holds more meaning when you skip backwards. She reaches another full stop and can’t recall the preceding sentence. Instead she flicks back the pages and reads out loud in a clear bright voice:
When we were kids we would walk to the beach at Alnmouth;
We would take off our shoes and socks and play all day in the sand...
...Mam would appear at tea-time to bring us home.
 She looks down at her feet and is alarmed to find she is wearing slippers. She wonders where she has left her handbag as she wants to pay for tea.

Tommy is silent on the car journey home. We tell him he has done all he can and that she is in the best place but his home feels empty as we step into the kitchen, flick the kettle on and make some tea. We are all silent with tasks so it is easy to sense something transformative taking place. I turn from the teapot to find the gas stove lit and Tommy sitting by its side as a pan heats up. The kitchen is now warm with the sweet earth smell of leeks, carrots and potatoes. He kindly ladles vegetable broth into small soup tureens and shoves us a bowl each. I tell him it’s the most wholesome soup I’ve ever tasted. And so begins a conversation about food. A sudden and surprising shared passion. He tells me he can’t imagine life without his slow-cooker. And in there I see a rolled joint of meat decked with a pale glistening arch of fat – its slow release moistening the beef and amalgamating with its juices. I can only wonder at what sort of gravy this might produce...

...The morning after I could still taste it – beefy and satisfying. I saw it too – a coverlet in dark brown draped and dripping over the thickly sliced brisket. I remember Martin’s face as he tested it with spoon from the jug before it was poured over our scrubbed potatoes and chunks of carrot and meat. A strange look I thought I’d never seen before – as though he’d been jabbed and comforted all in one. Today I asked him what that look might have meant and he could only smile. Much later he said, ‘It felt like I had tasted home.’ It made me understand.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Blackberry Chutney

What am I doing? I asked myself as I foraged in the back of the kitchen cupboards for jars and lids, vinegar and spices. It’s an August Bank Holiday and we still have our late summer trip to Northumberland in front of us and I have the audacity to start making chutney. It was as if I was allowing autumn to creep past the humming lavender pots and in through my backdoor and hover behind me. I felt him as I added sugar and cinnamon to the berries. He was breathing down my neck and getting high on the scent of woody spice and burst-ripe fruits.

I should add that this was not the first encounter. On the evenings that ran up to our Bank Holiday, Martin and I had enjoyed early evening walks where we watched the skies deepen from pale baby blues and pinks into shock orange and reds as the sun shrank from view.

Those evenings were warm enough to almost make us believe in summer but, with his cooling kisses, touches of autumn teased us away from the glare of the sun and showed us the turning leaves and the hedgerow stores. We listened more carefully, then, to the swallows and their manic chatter on the farm whose lamps were now lit.

On Sunday morning sharp – we retraced our steps and picked blackberries until our fingers turned purple. Our aim was to make a plum and blackberry crumble. But after soaking the berries in a basin of salted water to rid them of pests, they looked less than appetising and so I left them in the bowl with a mind to throwing them away the next day.

I didn’t and this was the result:

I found a recipe on the internet here. I adapted it to meet what I had in the kitchen and how many blackberries I was left with: a mere 300g. And so I added a couple of pears and a plum to reach the 500g mark. It became a perfect medley of seasonal fruits and the resulting chutney was dark and sticky and perfectly set.

5oog Blackberries (add chopped pear and plum if not enough berries)
140g Soft brown sugar
140g Red onion (chopped)
2 tsp Ground Ginger
1 tsp Cloves
1 tsp Cinnamon
150ml White wine vinegar

Makes around 600ml (will be less if just using blackberries).

Combine all your ingredients - except for the vinegar - in a large saucepan or preserve pan and stir the mixture over the heat until the fruits give under your spoon. Add the vinegar and allow to simmer, stirring occasionally, for around 30-45 minutes. 
Once the mixture has set to a thick jammy consistency, spoon into sterilised jars and seal.
And in the dark cupboard my chutney will stay until a day in late, late autumn. On that evening there will be candles lit and a pheasant roasting in the oven. It will be my duty to come back here and tell you just how well blackberry chutney goes with game.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Midsummer Madness

It had been a week of rain and riots and I’d found it hard not to watch the orgy of looting and violence played out on our TV screen each night. All of it appeared senseless so I can only pretend to make sense of what I saw:

Our Prime Minister tells us that there are “pockets of society,” which are “not just broken but frankly sick.” A charity worker reacts suggesting that those suffering the disease are the poor and abused: “1.4 million children are living below the poverty line and 1.1 million are living with substance-abusing parents.”  But the illness spreads and becomes endemic. It contaminates all sections of society.  I see a plague – an ant swarm. They flock like birds. A murder of crows hooded in black. I’m reminded of Joni Mitchell’s song ‘Black Crow’ from her album Hejira:
And diving, diving, diving, diving.
Diving down to pick up on every shiny thing
Just like that black crow flying
In a blue sky
But what is this? A child in a bright turquoise track suit flits to the front line and kicks out at a shop window. Even a ‘bad’ birdwatcher would recognise the startling flash of a kingfisher’s plumage. Where are the parents of this child? They must be able to identify the boy that dressed this morning in shocking kingfisher blue. How are they feeling?
Devastated? Like the family whose home has been burned to cinders. Like the father who has lost his son. Like the shop owner who witnessed the destruction of all his worldly goods.
Another boy struts at the heels of the Mayor of London and motions toward his stomach. He says we have no food in our bellies. We are hungry. But we all know he has a blackberry in his pocket.
A learning and behaviour mentor adds to the discussion: “Whatever someone else has got, they have to have it.” And so it goes on. I can see the jubilance on the faces of those who come away with their boxes of something for nothing. They sicken me as much as I’m sickened by all the politicians who were involved in the expenses scandal last year. Those were not the poor and abused but the privileged and the wealthy; intelligent criminals making fraudulent claims just so they can get their bit of something for nothing.
I switch off the TV and stare out at the garden. The rain-tears on the window have become static, stilled into wet freckles. It has stopped raining. From where I sit I cannot see where the sun should be in the sky only the effect of it which makes the grey tiles on the school’s roof lighten. It’s as if someone is turning the brightness dial on an analogue TV set and knows exactly when to stop. The picture is so vivid and so real it makes me tighten my grip on summer.

But the garden is in chaos; it’s a hodgepodge of dying plants and full flower. The lobelia swarms out over its pot in a mass of vibrant blues. I clip off a few sprigs and bring them indoors. A little bowl of summer.

Outside again and against the wall the ox eye daisies are shedding their thick white lashes. They are left with amber pompons the same colour as my cats’ eyes.  

There are sun yellow poppies sprouting up between the flags.  The lettuce has been ransacked by slugs but the rosemary, along with the lavender, is thriving. I collect the sticky scent of rosemary on my fingers as I break off a few tips.

This is the good and bad of summer.
I open a bottle of wine and the kitchen window and start to cook.

It’s surprising how many meals you can produce from one big fish. I rub my salmon with olive oil and season it with salt and lemon juice. I then tuck parsley and fennel inside and outside its body and wrap it up in newspaper tying it neatly with string. I dampen the mummified fish under the tap and place the whole thing in an oven preheated to 180°C. It bakes for about 30 minutes and I leave it to rest while I shred cabbage, carrots and a red onion for coleslaw. I serve the plump pink flakes of salmon flesh with the freshly made coleslaw and little potatoes roasted with rosemary and sea salt.

It’s the day after and I tear off the rest of the salmon flesh from the carcase. I make a fish stock from the head and bones and freeze it. The rest of the salmon fills a pastry case and over that I pour an egg and cream mixture and bake a quiche which will feed us for two days.

What a week. I can’t make sense of the riots. I feed instead on the senses from my kitchen garden and my quiet cats and the discussions we share over wine and salmon and lobelia. There is little sense to this posting, I know this. But I want to send my thoughts to the man whose son was killed by wild men. His composed kindness is what I need to remember; he tells us all to “stay calm,” and “go home.” The violence and looting stops.

Sunday, 31 July 2011

The Humble Potato

I can’t begin to tell you how difficult it has been to write about this passion of mine. I had started a draft some weeks ago, after returning from a bleak wet break to The Lake District. Frustrated I was and afraid that I would not do it justice. And then I read a piece by Nigel Slater who wrote with such apparent ease of his own “deep fondness” for the humble potato: “The crisp sticky edges of a roast potato that has stuck to the roasting tin;” “The first forkful of creamy buttery mash;” and let’s not ponder too much on “the crisp bite of a barely cooked Jersey Royal.” It all became too much for me. I simply couldn’t compete. I am sorry to say I abandoned my poor attempt at eulogising this glorious friend of mine. But now I am digging up my courage by its roots and taking you back through time, once again, to the scanty days of my youth where I may unearth some truths. I really need to know why my meals cannot survive without a helping hand from the humble yet generous spud.

Sit yourself down to dine with the Gradwell kids and learn just what our mother produced from a peeled potato and half a pound of Kilverts'.

“Chips!” I hear you shout. Yes there were plenty of those and Mum believed that the perfect chip came from a Cyprus potato (those clumsy mini-airship-shaped spuds dusted with the warm red soil of the eastern Mediterranean). She would tip them out of the bag onto laid out newspaper and peel them with a sharp knife (never a potato peeler). I didn’t like the thick dirty coils of peel that heaped up like compost on the paper but loved to feel the clean yellow flesh of the potato once it had been rinsed under the tap. Mum would line them up on the counter top like a row of rugby balls waiting to be kicked. The lard would melt slowly on the heat and I would watch it shrink from a solid white block to a soft-edged pat and finally surrender itself to a blister-hot hazy pool of liquid fat. Only then would Mum - with hot red hands - hold the whole potato above the pan and slice it into chips that fell with spits and crackles into the bubbling liquid below. But there was much more to come from up her spattered sleeve.

One of those was a much-loved family favourite. A staple in the Gradwell family diet: Par-ba-fra. What on earth is that? I know, it sounds remotely exotic like it might emerge from the sunny kitchen of a French bistro or perhaps a Greek Taverna.Yet what it has become in my memory is a plateful of heaven - a steaming pile of part-boiled, deep-fried chunks of potato with crusted crunchy edges and soft white innards that, because we were so eager to eat, often burned our tongues or blistered the roof of our mouths. They were, in fact, a speedier version of a roast potato. A mound of King Edward’s cubed and boiled for 5 or so minutes and then plopped into a chip pan full of heated lard, pulled out only when they became amber and crisped. They filled our tummies and our hearts with joy. Stodgy and starchy but an entirely necessary part of our diet.

On another day Mum would boil chunks of potato in salted water until they would break open when prodded. After draining them she would set about with her fork and work them into a lumpy mash. Then, in a frying pan, she would allow a slither of lard to melt and heat up on the stove. The mashed potato would fall into the hot lard and Mum would flatten it out so that it covered the whole base of the pan. She would leave it for what seemed like an age before upturning it in batches so each side would develop a thick and often blackened crunchy crust. We would be served heavy wedges of this fried potato with beans or perhaps some boiled cabbage and Mum could rely on it always satisfying our hunger.

On Saturday nights, Dad would arrive home from his angling trips and Mum would return to her trusted frying pan. Dad’s favourite were scalloped potatoes (I suppose a chef might call them ‘fondant potatoes’). These were fat scallops of sliced potato that sat and sizzled in their shallow bath of hot lard, being turned over only once so that each side would develop a thin patchy crust. It was during one hot summer that Dad instructed me on how to cook the perfect scalloped potato. In my memory this has to be the same summer where he felt some concern for what was put on the dining table. That summer he became a gardener who grew runner beans in rows, their tendrils twisting upwards against tall sticks of cane. Along the hedge borders he planted seeds which sprouted into verdant heads of lettuce whose loose outer leaves splayed open to reveal tender pale green hearts. And the unwieldy rhubarb which, each year, was so often forgotten was remembered and tamed by hacking off monster leaves to allow access to tart pink stalks.

The scallop, he advised, must come from a large potato and the first and last scrappy cut should be discarded. The remaining slices should be as thick as a finger and dried thoroughly before laying carefully in the hazy lard. Leave them alone awhile before slipping a spatula underneath the first slice and testing it for colour. Once both sides have browned the resulting scallop should be nicely golden but firm to bite. I didn’t like saying it but I was never a fan of the unyielding and hard-fleshed scalloped potato with its thin veneer of crust. It was the contrasting textures I craved in my potatoes and so, for its crisp-crunchy edges and soft fluffy centres, the chip or roast potato would always be my favourite.

One Saturday night, long before Dad began to grow his own vegetables, Mum was cooking her usual batch of scallops. She promised to let me have the fried scrappy off-cuts which I knew would have dark golden edges framing a soft white middle. I was only five:
Mum has scooped the last of the big slices from the pan and piles them on Dad’s plate. I can hear the scraps singing in their heat and while Mum carries the plate up the hallway I grab the pan handle and pull it toward me. The first splash of hot fat reaches my skin and I recoil, horrified, but it’s too late and the frying pan slips from the stove with its contents washing over my hand. The red hot pain is making me scream and Mum is desperate for me to stop. She smears butter on my hand which makes me scream even louder. Dad is shouting at Mum and I can’t understand why he doesn’t shout at me – I am making so much noise. Instead he picks me up and carries me to the car and drives us to the infirmary. He promises me a bar of chocolate if I am brave and I’m so shocked I stop crying. The hospital smells of our medicine cupboard and another unfamiliar scent of injury and sadness. I am too scared to cry again and wait with Dad – he is holding my good hand.
I am at home now and allowed in the front room where Dad sits in his comfy chair in the corner. I have a big bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk which is put to one side while I climb onto his knee. I realise now that Dad has a second nature which can cover up his harsh first. The first, I know, fixes the thin line of his mouth into grim silence and sets his eyes cold like blue pebbles. Tonight, his little girl’s hurt has disturbed his mute paternity and his second nature opens into song: sweet and low and soothing. I rest my head against his chest and feel the scratchy wool of his cardigan and take in the calming earth-woody scent of tobacco. And as far as I remember this is the only occasion where I have sat on my father’s knee.  The memory of it is cushioned and sound, like a jewel in safe-keeping.
The day after my Grandma scolds me, telling me that no man on earth would want to put a ring on the finger of a girl with a scarred hand. “You’ll never marry,” she sighs, wearily.

The first meal I made, when I left home at 21, was a copy of another of Mum’s potato dishes. The one she named ‘hamburger’ despite the fact it was devoid of ham. The meat she used would have been minced beef and the ratio of potato to meat was considerably larger. A kind of meat version of a fish cake. There was another ingredient – a sliced onion. This would be boiled in salted water and simmered along with the beef until all the red rawness had disappeared and tiny bubbles of yellow fat appeared on the surface. Mum would drain this mixture and combine it with mounds of mashed potato which she allowed to cool. In her hand she would roll palm-sized patties about the thickness of a scone and fry them in a frying pan of hot fat. We usually ate these with a serving of baked beans and a splodge of brown sauce.  I copied her methods so diligently back then - at 21 I didn’t know you could experiment with recipes.  

I try a version of this today, using turkey mince instead of beef and boosting the flavour with chilli, aromatic rosemary and the warm aniseed pungency of fennel seeds. Of course, experience has taught me not to strip the meat and onion of their essence by boiling them in water. Instead, I sauté both along with the herbs and spice in a good glug of oil. After mixing the meat and onion with the mashed potato and allowing it to cool slightly I test a mouthful of it before forming patties: warm and un-fried and taking me back in an effortlessly Proustian manner to my childhood where Mum would frown at the insatiable can’t-wait hunger of her children. My memory tells me the potato was there to nourish and sustain. And I see, as I serve up this adaptation of my past, that the potato continues to satisfy an often ravenous appetite. How might Mr Slater describe this dish? Oh, I don’t know. Perhaps he would see it as little mounds of gooey potato folded gently around meat and herbs and encased with a thick sticky rustling of golden crunch. Whatever, I think they look delicious and serve them alongside the newness of a baby spinach salad and a drizzle of mustard dressing.