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

There… and back again

We have been in Manchester this past weekend. The drive over the Pennines and back again can be slow, but there are glimpses of beautiful countryside to be had from the van windows as we pass – a few of which form today’s gallery above.

We have spent time with friends, daughter and grandchildren, all people very dear to us. Each encounter has been important, and fun, and yet I still find it unsettling being back where we used to live. Every bit of it is so familiar, it induces a kind of panic in me. It seems as though the new life, Heckington, is but a dream and I have not managed to leave after all.

On the way home I mused about why I find it so hard to go back. I think my separation from the place throws into relief the feelings of being trapped, stuck and powerless that I had over so many years. I feel cheered by this realisation that Manchester is not a terrible place; it is simply that I was often unhappy in the years I lived there.

I am happier now. Over this past year I have felt the happiness came from being in a place that feels so right for me. But perhaps there is another way of looking at it. Perhaps it is not the place so much as my act of choosing it that brings this lightness of heart, this sense of balance and freedom.

I am reminded of children’s adventure stories, of those moments when someone crosses into another world. There is a magic in the curiousity, faith and courage that take someone over a threshold into an unknown future. When we choose freely and step forward in hope, we claim some of that magic for ourselves.

I wrote this post back in April about some of the same set of feelings, though I didn’t see them so clearly then as now.

Losing the thread

Teasels

Two weeks have drifted by since my post written in the very first hours of 2014, when our New Year guests had gone to bed and I was contemplating the peculiar beauty of a post-dinner-party table. The crumpled napkins, stray unused cutlery, empty glasses gleaming in the last light from sputtering candles, all seemed to hold a faint essence of the people who had been eating and talking there, like ghost or dream-guests come out to play round the festive table while their corporeal selves were peacefully asleep.

This point in the year is always a hiatus, a gap in the normal order of things. Visitors come and go: extended family, friends from other countries, small grandchildren. The house is full of food, the garden is cold and wet. Without our dogs we have been outside even less than usual at this time of year.

And it is outside that makes me write and think, outside where the fields are abstract paintings; where greens and browns are soaked in light and the black of winter hedgerows is deep enough to drown in; where the ploughed earth is rich, scented, edible and my connection to it visceral.

So no outdoors means no blog posts, or not so many at least.

Yesterday I went to Doncaster and took pictures of sunrise and railway tracks on the way, pictures intended for here but I’ve written a different kind of post.

Today’s picture is from a walk of two or three weeks ago and very like lots of photos I took early last year. Passing my blog anniversary and the festive break has left me musing about what this year’s blogging will bring. Will my pictures all be like ones from the same time last year?

I didn’t expect photographs to become such a big part of the blog when I began it in Manchester; but I have loved taking them and looking at them. The landscape always looks like a picture to me now. I wish I could paint it as well as photograph it.

In any case, time to get out more – if only, today, as far as the end of the garden to fetch swede and leeks for supper.

Hello 2014!

New Year's Eve table

Second New Year’s Eve in our ‘new’ home. Last year we were just four for dinner and tonight we were eight; so brilliant to have friends and family from Manchester and other bits of our old life here in the new one – makes me feel whole, connected, all of that.

Tonight we ate: tapenade and a bean and garlic thing on toasts, celeriac and chestnut soup (very good recipe from River Cafe), roast goose with apples or spinach and nut roast and red cabbage, green salad and cheese, cheesecake with plum and apple compote.

Another year coming and I feel full of hope.

Happy new year to all my friends and readers out there. May 2014 be good to you.

One year; two dogs

Doris

This time a year ago we moved and I wrote this post as we were about to leave Manchester.

Some hours later, about the time of day that I am writing this, the removal men were unpacking the van and I was walking two very fed-up lurchers round a strange village in the dark. They were not impressed by the trip over the Pennines in an over-stuffed campervan or by a late walk on the lead.

The new garden in the morning, with neighbouring cats to chase off, was better. But that first evening I felt like a very poor dog owner.

A year later both dogs are gone and we are bereft. Bob, everybody’s friend, the plucky three-legged character, died in the summer at nearly fifteen years old. Doris, our ‘young’ dog, was nearly thirteen by then – see Spot the dog and Poor Doris for more about her. She was getting a bit stiff with arthritis, but was still frisky in spirit and we expected her to be with us for some time more.

Yesterday, suddenly her back legs gave out and she couldn’t walk or even stand. We talked about investigations, x-rays, general anaesthetics, pain relief. We wanted to keep her longer but it felt that it would be entirely for us not for her. So we let her go and the house is desolate with no dog. In twenty years we have always had at least one.

I was planning a celebratory post about a year in Heckington for today. But all I can think about is that a year ago I had two dogs and now I have none. And then, ridiculously I start feeling guilty about making them move.

I know this is transferred guilt about having hurt people by my leaving (of which more another time). Really I know that no dogs, or people, died because I moved to Lincolnshire. I’m glad that Bob and Doris shared the beginning of our new life and I’m glad they had a garden for their last months.

But I do miss them: beautiful creatures, greedy scavengers, speed merchants, born-to-kill hunters, all of that and dear companions.

Bob

People and places, revisited

Sunset in the winter garden

So I ponder this paradox: that I don’t love this city, find little beauty or joy in its many faces, and yet so many places in it remind me of love.

I wrote this a year ago today, two days before leaving Manchester.

These themes, of connection to place and connection to people have continued to preoccupy me in the past year while I have been writing this blog. Many people, I guess, though definitely not everyone will have a time in their life when they face this kind of split; when the people they love and the place where they feel at home are far apart.

As I have approached the anniversary of us moving here, I have been missing Manchester friends and family very much, both a wider group of people we had known over many years and a few, very close friends, and my daughter and grandchildren, whose company I miss every day.

And yet I wouldn’t go back. There has not been one minute, one time since arriving here when I wished myself living in Manchester again.

In Manchester I used to try to summon up a sense of homecoming as I approached my house, my street after being away; but my pleasure at coming home to my loved ones, my familiar surroundings, was always tinged with nelancholy. How odd to have lived in a place for so long and never loved it. Is it something wrong with me or just that we didn’t fit?

If I left here and came back, I imagine myself falling on my knees, digging my hands in the earth like an exile coming home.

In fact sometimes I want to do just that, even now: the earth looks so luscious in the bare, ploughed winter fields.

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.

A holiday feeling

Coffee

We’ve had a few days away, taking Doris the dog and the campervan off to visit cousins in Suffolk and friends in Essex. In Colchester one morning I found myself in last-days-of-summer, holiday mood, seeing colours, shapes and interest in the most ordinary of corners.

I wonder what brings on these hard-to-pin-down states. This was a sunny day, with winter forecast to arrive the following morning and so there was a definite sense of carpe diem; and our friends are especially easy and relaxing to be with. But still, what was there about a small coffee bar and a medium-interesting art exhibition (Xerography at Colchester’s new art gallery) that felt like being in some little town in Picardy on the last day of a French camping holiday?

Part of me says, don’t analyse, just be open to the surprise and the fun, accept this grace with grace. Another part of me says why save all our analysis for the miserable days? So here I am marking a happy morning, giving it a little attention and thanks.

A few more photos are on the new Facebook page.

Church door, Colchester