Thanksgiving

photo

I had little time for cooking last night, after a long afternoon of weeding while partner struggled manfully with putting up a new chicken run.

But our soup and salad meal included celeriac, chard, carrots, lettuce, potatoes and apples, all from the garden, plus pears from a neighbour’s tree. There could have been cobnuts too, if I’d had time to shell them. And the basketful of peppers and tomatoes, pictured above, is still untouched, demanding my attention today.

I know, I know that all this bounty does not come by magic, but after weeks and months of sowing and tending by partner (mostly) and weeding by self (mostly). But at this point in the year, when there is just so much and it is so good, it seems like a miracle, like manna from heaven.

And when I look at the enormous tomato plants, the weighty fruit hanging from them, and remember the tiny seeds they came from, I am amazed, as every year, by the magic that turns one into the other; by nature’s conjuring trick that gives us all this food. It is one of those moments when this lifelong atheist craves religion; I would like there to be someone to thank for the magic and the bounty.

Well a blog is not church, but here I am saying thank you nevertheless. All this food is amazing and I love it. Below is a picture from three years ago, taken in our Manchester kitchen, with bounty from our allotment there. I’ve been looking at pictures (see the Facebook page) from past years, remembering friends and fellow plot-holders, loving it as the start of a journey which brought me here.

Manchester bounty

A short break

River at Maintenon

After a ten-day holiday in France, during which we had no internet to speak of, I am writing today to announce another short break. For the next few weeks I am writing up my portfolio to get accreditation as a family mediator and am putting an embargo on blogging until I have broken the back of that writing task.

So I leave you with a couple of the few photos I took on our holiday, from the chateau that is famous for having belonged to Madame de Maintenon, mistress of Louis XIV. I struggle to love French formal gardens, but this is a nice one, not too huge, with lots of water and a beautiful colour scheme in the planting of the beds (we saw even more beautiful plantings in the town of Chartres on another day). It was a nice day out.

The highlight of my visit however – apart from the general niceness of spending time with friends and catching up with family – was on a walk, when we came suddenly close to some deer hiding in a field of oil-seed rape. They turned to check us out, then ran off into the nearby woods, leaping high over the yellow rape so they looked like the model for those roadside signs (seen often in France) telling you there will be leaping deer for the next few miles. I have been as close to very tame deer at Dunham Massey in Cheshire, but these were not tame and they were wonderful.

Almost as wonderful was the cheese shop in the town of Rambouillet, a few miles from where we were staying.

If you are a regular reader you will have noticed that I have been posting less often in the past few months than I did last year. Over time the blog has been many things: a diary to keep friends in touch with our life in the new place; an introduction to rural Lincolnshire for those who don’t know it; a garden, food and cooking journal and a place to muse on connection to place and to people. In recent weeks I have been preoccupied with family issues, which I don’t write about here. And I have been turning over in my mind the question of what the blog is for and where it is going. No answers as yet, but watch this space (though it will just be space for a few weeks!).

p.s. And if you haven’t already visited the Facebook page, please do go and ‘like’ it. There are a few more photos there than appear on the blog posts, if you like that sort of thing.

p.p.s. I have this week been eating and loving the rose and rhubarb jam I wrote about in this post last year. Lovely stuff!

p.p.p.s. So exciting, the beginning of the long, light evenings. We ate out tonight, an unusual treat that was our Christmas present, and driving back after ten saw the last light in the sky – magical.

I shall return. Until then, go well.

Chateau at Maintenon

Food and friendship revisited

This time last year, when we were leaving, I spent a lot of time looking back over my time in Manchester. I don’t keep a diary, but my nearest thing to one is my cookery notebook, as described in this, my second blog post, Of food, feasts and friendship.

The party I talked of there was our last in our Manchester house, but we didn’t do the cooking as we were packing up to move. Friends brought the food, which was nice, but strangely this means that I haven’t written it down in the notebook. I know what we ate at our first Manchester party on 22nd December 1990, but I can’t remember for sure the date of our leaving party in December 2012 (or was it still November?).

Recently I have heard of the death of a friend’s mother and a friend’s father, both very striking people in very different ways; and also people I’ve not seen for many, many years. It is only this evening, in another retrospective session with the notebooks, that I find I cooked for both of them in 1981. Is this an odd way to commemorate people?

I can’t help but look back, to Manchester and beyond, as the anniversary of our moving approaches. When I was doing the same this time last year- and trying to imagine myself in the new life to come – I said that I wouldn’t miss Manchester the city, but I would miss my friends. And that has turned out to be exactly right.

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

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.

Vegetable Stories no 2

I am at the kitchen window, looking out on the garden as I tear the fat stalks from a glossy sinkful of chard leaves. Baby carrots and cavalo navone (a buttery Italian turnip, highly recommended) are stewing with oil and honey. Steam from the new potatoes rattles the saucepan lid and makes me think of James Watt watching his mother’s kettle and inventing the steam engine.

For the first time most of this evening’s meal comes from the garden. It’s been thin pickings from this new plot compared to recent years when by July we would have been feasting on allotment produce.

My mouth waters in anticipation of the earthy taste of chard and sweet carrots. I love eating things so soon after they come out of the ground or off the plant.

And as I stand there, something flips me back to a much younger self. It’s London in the early 80s and there I am, head over heels in love with the markets like Pimlico’s Warwick Way and Soho’s Berwick Street. I smile a little ruefully at my smugness in knowing the good places to buy food; but it’s nice to remember that child-like pride and pleasure in negotiating the stalls and heaps of produce, coming home with just what I wanted, lovely fresh things crying out to be cooked.

Back then the idea of growing anything other than a few herbs in pots never crossed my mind. I’ve got to know a different way of living, but colours, textures, tastes, the excitement of food are all the same. And at 53, with my hands in a sink full of green leaves, inside I feel just like myself at 23.

Except of course, back then I thought I’d always live in London…

Early morning beans

A different piece of sky

Chorlton sky

I’ve been in Chorlton again for a short stay, seeing grandbabies and friends. I was struck by this view through a skylight when I arrived at the friend’s house where I was staying. Contrails from airplanes criss-crossed the sky, which was lit up with gold by the sun going down. It seemed an urban skyscape, fixing me in Manchester.

I’m on the way home as I write this, missing daughter and babies already but glad to be heading out of the city. I find the centre of Manchester exhausting – unused to it so quickly!

Last night was good, eating with friends at Arian, our favourite restaurant in Chorlton, where we had our leaving meal in December. Manchester friends or followers reading this, if you don’t already know Arian, go and try it. The Persian cooking is good, ingredients are fresh, tastes are interesting & genuine.

Lovely to see everyone, but Heckington, here I come!