Thursday, 19 May 2011


April was the month for weddings. I allowed the one on the 29th of April to pass me by; well, all those red coats and big teeth vying for attention. The best thing about it was the day off work. It was a fresh spring day and the last thing I wanted was a slob-out on the sofa watching sweet William and Kate getting hitched. This is what we did instead:
A sharp rewind to 25th April heralds our wedding anniversary. Beaming like idiots, Martin and I look back fondly to our special day. Our wedding was a quiet, gentle affair and one that I shall cherish for all its charm and whimsy. One might say ours was a fairytale wedding:
Made more so by this simple fact: I ended up marrying the giant.
Let’s rewind once more - to April 16th and the day we were lucky enough to witness one of the happiest and loveliest of brides declare her love for the luckiest of men.
Here she is
My niece, Isolde.
The service was held in the grounds of her father’s medical practice in Bollington, Cheshire. A large country property named The Waterhouse. It was a perfect day to be married: windless, yet fresh and without the full glare of the sun allowing the guests to be dazzled by the bride’s beauty alone.
We shared in the groom’s adoration as she moved through the pillars of trees on her father’s arm. Her smile was sparkling. We were intoxicated by her happiness as it shone everywhere. A sensation which touched the new-born maple leaves overhead, their branches bowing in arcs of brilliant green. We strained our necks to take in the frothy swirl of her dress as it spilled from her nymph’s waist. As decorative as filigree, as delicate as Victorian lace. A detail of tiny pearl beads dotted the scalloped neckline of her bodice and while the dress covered her d├ęcolletage demurely her bare arms swung free tracing a ballerina’s sensuality and grace on the air. We were excluded only as their love became a closed embrace, a pact - sealed with red lipstick.
After the ceremony, we queued to meet her and showered her with confetti and compliments. Once we made our way inside the marquee we were struck by its mellow dazzle: diffused lighting and bright white tablecloths made our faces glow like waxwork. We found our seats and created ease with our admiration of the impossibly pristine china teapots and cups and saucers. It was Isolde’s wish to have afternoon tea and here it was – a granting of steaming brews; impeccably sliced smoked salmon sandwiches and vanilla-scented scones dusted with powdered sugar waiting to be split and filled with dark jam and clotted cream. Centrepiece bouquets decorated the tables yet were moved to one side to accommodate tiers of miniature cupcakes - each one iced with a tiny mimic of red and pink roses. After our meal the fine vintage china cups were replaced with slender champagne flutes glowing with effervescent amber as we waited for the speeches.
Her father spoke of the day she was born and how he rode through the village on a bicycle wearing a yellow rose in his lapel giddy with joy. He read out Auden’s ‘Anthem for St Cecilia’s day’ and through its ebb and flow we held onto the sincerity evoked in the reading of these four lines:
Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions
To all musicians, appear and inspire:
Translated Daughter, come down and startle
Composing mortals with immortal fire.
We learned of her childhood need to know what life was for and of how she blurted out in answer to her own question that “life was for singing and dancing.”
It was easy to believe in that answer once the candles had been lit and the wine flowed and the head table moved to make way for the swing band. The mother of the bride is my dear sister and so invigorating it was to watch her shed a mixture of panic and loss and take to the dance floor in polka dots and pearls and shimmy and twirl as she once did when she was young.  

Polka Dots and Pearls

As Auden’s poem might suggest, we are easily startled by immortal beauty as it appears to us in all works of great art: in the transitions of light and shade in a Turner landscape; the yearning strings of a Mozart aria or in the closing couplet of a Shakespearean sonnet. Nothing, though, can beat the real thing, that mortal flesh and blood thing. And here at this amazing wedding it graced each of us as we breathed in what we saw: the swishing, swirling grace of Isolde in her snowy dress; a groom stunned by love; my sister and her uninhibited warmth and kindness; a tiny flower girl alight with wonder. Beauty was love and it was there that day. It belonged to the old - to me and my big friendly giant:

And will forever belong to both Isolde and Matthew.

Of course, this is a food blog and wouldn’t be doing its job if it didn’t acknowledge the source of all that wonderful food. My sister, Nancy, spoke with high praise for her caterers The Smokehouse in Cheshire. The scones were a delight: plump platforms of perfectly baked dough with a sensuously soft crumby bite and just the subtlest hint of vanilla. An amazing member of staff named John shone with professionalism when he sourced no fewer than 24 tea-strainers and had no problem taking charge of the sumptuous vintage china tea sets that had made their delicate way from Harrogate. An Afternoon Tea that we shall never forget.
And yes, this is a food blog but acknowledgements need to shine on a certain vintage wedding dress shop: fur coat no knickers which, I am told, exists off Carnaby Street in London. Isolde’s dress originates from 1950s America and shopkeepers Emma and Laura darned on beads and petticoats to restore it to its former razzle dazzle.  How privileged you might feel to wear an outfit that would have once clung and swayed on the figure of a Hepburn clone in those glamour-greedy days. And how privileged we were to watch Isolde perform this role with such style and poise.
All wedding images apart from Polka dots and Pearls were produced by my talented brother, Tom.
The official photographers were expert wedding photography duo Nouvel Amour (my nephew, Daniel and his partner, Dot).

Sunday, 1 May 2011

To market, to market, to buy...

Curry leaves. I have Nigel Slater’s KitchenDiaries open at the page where he speaks of their scarcity: “unless,” he says, “you happen to live near an Asian market.” I’m excited. Martin and I have a day to ourselves, away from work and near to weekend when we plan to shop and hike and eat. The sky is colourless apart from the odd smudge of charcoal-grey and there is rain in the air. Despite this, I feel lucky. Blessed almost, for living – only a short drive away – from one of the region’s best providers of Asian herbs, vegetables and fruit. Let me introduce you to the Bates brothers’ emporium. A bustling, basket-bumping aisle of ripening fruits, aromatic herbs and dewy fresh greens.

Mr Bates’s stall is one of the larger and more diverse of the many fresh produce stalls which make up Bolton Market’s indoor food hall. Positioned ever so conveniently next to the fish market, you can slip out through one sliding glass door with your parcel of freshly gutted sea bream and in at another for your frond-topped fennel and bouquet of dill.

Mr Bates carries in crates of tomatoes and boxes of mango, plum and papaya. He has thick iron-grey hair and small jittery blue eyes. His neck muscles tense and then relax as he replenishes his stock of deep purple plums. He scans the display for burst fruits and chucks them into the empty box.  I sense his hunger for perfection and feel some sympathy for the imagined wife: edgy in her neat-healed mules as she straightens the bathroom towels or balances the books. Mr Bates does not take prisoners. Ever.  On one of our visits I saw his arms shoot down to his thighs like a soldier obeying drill orders and his fists clench in readiness for a fight: “The bloody dick-‘ed,” he screeched, “what a bloody dick-‘ed.” Who? I thought as I turned to see an old man slouch from the stall grinning like a pixie. “He comes here, every bloody week, looks up and down my stall and then asks for something I haven’t got! This week it’s flat-leaf parsley,” and again, “the bloody dick-‘ed!!”

Today, I unhook a bushy bunch of dill that hangs next to the parsley. I place a bulb of fennel, a pair of aubergines the colour of dark jam and a bag of earth-dusted Cyprus potatoes into our wire basket. I puzzle over which chillies to buy and Martin, seduced by their wrinkled plumpness and Ethiopian colours, urges me to choose scotch bonnet. I pick out some mint and feel through the rubble of garlic for the fattest bulbs. I lay the garland of curry leaves on top of the basket and Martin carries our purchases to the till. There are two tills both operated by unsmiling women. Perhaps one of them is Mrs Bates. They look like they have had their fill of five-a-day as they dump potatoes and tuck herbs into plastic bags. Our lady of the cash register stares at the proffered twenty pound note as if it’s crawling with lice. She counts out change into Martin’s palm and shouts, “Next!” Neither Martin nor I mind this brusque treatment; we see it as part of the market’s charm. A gritty no-nonsense northern attitude that refuses to accommodate the vacuum-packed pleasantries practised by Sainsbury’s check-out girls. No, you will never hear "would you like help with your packing?" or (thankfully)  “have a nice day” at Bolton’s market.
But it is Sainsbury’s we travel to next. As much as I would love to gather all my groceries from the local market traders there are just some items you can’t get. I’d really rather not deal with a full head of lettuce and its grubby roots (I leave these with Mr Bates), but prefer instead the tender leaves tumbling through the air of a cushion-soft pre-packed mix - despite the fact that it stubbornly refuses to be squeezed inside the salad compartment at the bottom of our fridge.
It is later in the day and I return again to The Kitchen Diaries for inspiration. The page is still open at 110 and I scan the list of ingredients for ‘Chicken with mustard seed and coconut milk’. I think it’s a perfectly composed title for Nigel’s recipe as it describes three of the many listed ingredients. However, on production of my version I want to amend this mouth-soothing mixture of words into a headline more fitting for the scalding fieriness of quite the hottest curries I have tasted in an overlong time.

Stinging Hot Curry with Essential Leaves and Scotch Bonnet Chillies
I know, it’s a mouthful but I really don’t care, this dish demands everyone’s attention.  And I gave some emphasis in the last paragraph to the fact that I have missed those days. Yes, crazy days indeed where on one of them I stared gasping with admiration while my brother, Ed, just for a laugh, glugged down the contents from a bottle of Tabasco sauce at our local Pizza House. I just had to try it and was hooked ever since. It was that sensation, like having sunburn on the roof of your mouth. Like licking hot coals. It didn’t matter that I adopted the freaky look of a pop-eyed ornamental goldfish opening its mouth for the water to rush in. From then on whatever was hottest on the menu I had to order - from the scariest con carne to the fiercest vindaloo. Bring it on down. My mother stopped buying Daddies Sauce and instead we would shake Tabasco on our chips and drink, it has to be said, gallons upon gallons of icy water. We were table-top anarchists my brother and I; a tea time Bonnie and Clyde with forks at the ready as we murdered our fish with heat.

Of course, I’m going to blow the bonnet chillies’ trumpet here, they were so very hot but I must also salute their laidback partner – the green and pleasant curry leaf. Nigel suggests they are a ‘sound’ but not ‘essential’ ingredient and I can agree - without them, and certainly after the first blast of heat, we would have made do with the calming milky sweetness of coconut. But they were the reason for this morning’s market trip and they decorate my worktop so demurely like a flowerless clipping from an English rose bush. How perfectly strange, then, and how seductive is their scent: a warm nutty spiciness that has wafted its way, not from the garden, but from a far away eastern land where donkeys doze in the sun.

Serves 3-4
Groundnut oil – 3 tablespoons
12 boneless, skinless chicken thighs – cut into bite-sized pieces
Cumin seeds – 1 teaspoon
Coriander seeds – 2 teaspoons
Black mustard seeds – 2 teaspoons
Small, hot, red chillies – 3
Ginger – a walnut-sized thumb
Onions – 3
Garlic – 2 cloves
Ground turmeric – 1 teaspoon
Tomatoes – 400g, chopped (or tin of chopped tomatoes)
Curry leaves – handful
Coconut milk – 400g can
Salt – approx 1 teaspoon

With a pestle and mortar - grind the cumin, coriander and mustard seeds just enough to release some of their heat.
Heat the oil in a large fry pan and toss in the ground spices allowing the mustard seeds to sputter and pop before adding your chopped (and if you must) deseeded chillies.
Peel and grate the ginger, chop the onions and slice the garlic stirring each into the warmed spices.
Add the chicken and turn up the heat a little making sure the onions soften and the meat cooks evenly. This should take around 10 minutes.
The tomatoes can now be added, along with the turmeric, curry leaves, coconut milk and salt.
Cover and simmer gently for 20 to 30 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through and the sauce has thickened.
Serve with your choice of rice dish, poppadams and their accompaniments.
Nigel encourages you to use a full chicken jointed for this dish and I suppose this would be perfectly acceptable for some. However, what is agreeable in a rustic stew may not be as favourable in its Far Eastern counterpart. No, the very idea of curry sauce atop a skin-on chicken portion leaves me feeling a little squeamish, however much I may have browned the chicken pieces before the sauce has been added. You can use chicken breast if you want but I used chicken thighs in my version as I think the darker meat is far more flavoursome than the white. As you probably guessed, I threw in my chopped chillies - seeds and all. As I stirred my curry and tested the mix I knew it would be too much for Martin and so slid in dollops of cooling yogurt to assuage its screaming heat. Even so - this curry, with its insane mix of scorching Caribbean chillies really did sing.