After the party, reprise

Dishes

So the Spiced Salt Beef (Sugar, spice, memory) made its appearance yesterday, along with other dishes not as long in the making. It was our first party here in Heckington and, unlike at my London party in March, the guests were (almost all) people we have only met very recently. It was very nice to have the house full of people and we enjoyed ourselves.

This sort of cooking takes me back to parties in times gone by. I think of the first party we gave in Manchester, in a terrace house which seemed huge compared to partner’s flat we had just moved out of. Like yesterday it was in dead of winter and we didn’t know anyone very well. It was also rather quiet, which yesterday wasn’t.

Yesterday we ate a chicken and celery salad which reminded me of the coronation chicken I made a lot in the late 70s and early 80s. We also had Tourteau Fromage (see photo below) which is a bit like a cheesecake and a bit like a custard tart. It comes from Elizabeth David’s French Country Cooking, her first book, published in 1951, nine years before my birth, and a seminal influence on my life even when I was too young to know it. Tourteau Fromage is the sort of pastry I always hope to find when peering through the bakery window in some small French town.

I went out in the dark to the shops this afternoon, with a sense of winter gloom. But I counted less than four weeks to the solstice, felt the triumph of the light to come, felt excited like a child, as though I could see the sun shine again and the trumpets sounding. There is a miracle in the inexorable rhythm of the seasons, the certainty of change.

And what better way to cheer ourselves in winter than by having parties? We can’t see to tend the land but we can see our friends.

Tourteau Fromage

‘All sky and geometry’

Field and gate

Soon we will have been in Lincolnshire a year. Autumn is moving into winter and the landscape is beginning to look bright and spare and empty as it did on my very first walks here.

I found the phrase ‘all sky and geometry,’ describing the fenland landscape, quoted from the poet John Clare on the Woodlands Farm website. Now I have found Clare’s collected works among my partner’s books and am reading his nature poetry for the first time. I love ‘all sky and geometry;’ it exactly describes the abstract art that I find around me, especially at this time of year (see this old post).

Today was cold but beautiful and I walked on Great Hale Fen, with low, slanting afternoon sun gilding the ploughed fields; I walked along Car Dyke, the drainage ditch dug by the Romans and then past the windmill and the station on my way home to Heckington.

The photos here, with their straight lines and angles, are ones which make me think of geometry, as well as art. Many of the lines are man-made: the railway, electricity cables, drainage ditches and field boundaries. But always, all around there is that flat-line of a horizon, earth meeting sky, outside us and beyond our reach.

The folk group, LAU play a piece called Horizontigo, a response to the fenland landscape by musician Kris Drever, who comes from Orkney. Here they are playing it. I love the title: and wonder if Horizontigo is what a friend was suffering from when she said all my blog photos of flat landscapes were making her dizzy (see Flat vs bumpy post).

More of the photos from my walk are on the Facebook page. Do pay it a visit and ‘Like’ it if you haven’t already.

And for more on John Clare and his poetry, see these recent pieces by George Monbiot and Andrew Motion:
http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/jul/09/john-clare-poetry
http://www.theguardian.com/books/2003/oct/18/featuresreviews.guardianreview5?guni=Article:in%20body%20link

Line to Boston

Sugar, spice, memory

Mortar with spices

I need a break from grinding all these spices. In the mortar are peppercorns, allspice and juniper, along with lots of salt and a little saltpetre or potassium nitrate (the stuff that keeps salted meat pink instead of grey and also makes gunpowder).

I am making Spiced Salt Beef for a lunch party at the end of the month (see After the party for its last appearance). The beef has been sitting quietly in brown sugar for two days while we were off gallivanting at a friend’s 60th birthday down south. Now it will sit ten days longer in the salt and spices before I cook it.

In Manchester days beef for this dish came from our friends at Savin Hill Farm who come all the way from Cumbria to the Farmers’ Markets in Manchester. Now the beef is from lovely Bassingthorpe Beef. Going to collect it is my favourite sort of journey, through little villages, on winding, muddy, country roads.

I bought this mortar, an old chemist’s one, more than thirty years ago when I was still a student, for £12 from a junk shop on Walton Street in Oxford. It was one of the first pieces of cooking equipment I bought for myself and I thought it was cool beyond belief. I still love it.

The pestle broke some years ago. This wooden replacement was made for me by a fellow plotholder at Southern Allotments, back in Manchester. I think all he asked in exchange was some eggs from the chickens we used to keep there. I was, and still am very grateful!

I also love the Elizabeth David cookery book propped up at the back of the picture (Spices, Salts & Aromatics in the English Kitchen). This copy is the one I had in the year I bought the mortar and pestle; the year when a friend scribbled ‘very excellent good times,’ in the margin, beside the recipe for pork baked with oranges. Not all my student days were good, but times in that year, that house, cooking and sharing food with friends, yes, excellent they were indeed.

Fruits of my labour

So much work, such little jars!

It is gloomy-grey and pouring with rain outside. The conservatory is the only place in the house where there’s enough light to photograph all these jars. It’s a day for conjuring up the sun, in thought if not in fact, as I said in my rose petal post in June:

That’s the magic we make with preserves, we bottle summer, make ourselves a memory and a promise it will come again, for when we are lost in depths of winter.

This is my last preserving post for the time being, just as the rosehip syrup of Monday’s post was the last outing for bottles, jars and jelly bags – until February and marmalade-time come around again. I thought you might like to know what I have been making this year.

Jams: rose & rhubarb, redcurrant & gooseberry, black & redcurrant, plum with cumin, blackberry & plum and fig & plum.

Chutneys (made by self or partner): courgette & apricot, green tomato, damson & apple and spicy mixed vegetable.

Also: cucumber pickle, hawthorn ketchup, rowan jelly, black hedgerow jelly and plum & apple mincemeat for Christmas.

Then there was the membrillo or quince cheese, which kept me up, watching and stirring, until 3 o’clock in the morning. And jars and jars of fruit compotes and sauces, mostly apple, with blackberry, quince or plum. Our one apple tree was laden and we couldn’t bear to throw away such good food, even onto the compost heap.

I love this laying down the bounty of summer and autumn against winter’s scarcity, even though it’s no longer necessary. It connects me to the changing seasons, the turning year, and to centuries of people doing this before me. It gives me a comforting sense of prudence and providing; and feeds my sense of history.

I must remember all this next time I am swearing and sweating in the kitchen over a pan of fruit. Next year perhaps I will remember to invite friends to share the work and bounty both – though not to stay up until the early hours!

Tap the photo for a bigger version if you want to read all those little labels.

Roses revisited

Rosehips cooking

You may remember my summer post about roses and making rose petal and rhubarb jam. One or two of those beautiful salmon pink roses are still out, not realising winter is nearly upon us. In the meantime I have been making rosehip syrup, which you can see cooking in the photo above.

The rosehips in the saucepan are not from the garden but from the hedges in the field at the end of our road (as featured in View from the dog field and No longer the dog field). They are the hips of the dog rose or rosa canina, orange, fat and glossy; and very abundant this year (see photo in Mellow Frenzy).

During World War II schoolchildren were sent out to pick rosehips in bulk, as part of the government’s attempt to make Britain self sufficient in food. They contain lots of Vitamin C, which was in scarce supply when there were no imported oranges and lemons.

The recipe I used is based on the one given out by the government in those years. You chop the hips, boil and strain them through a jelly bag not once, but twice and then boil up the juice again with sugar.

When I tasted the resulting pink stuff I was transported back to my mother’s kitchen sometime in the 1960s when we were still given it as something medicinal. I plan to pour my 21st century version over ice cream with rose and rhubarb jam.