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

Flat Earth, Big Sky joins Facebook

Hundred Fen

I have only recently begun to use Facebook and this week I decided to set up a Facebook page for this blog.

Why? Good question. I’d like more people to read the blog – though I don’t know whether or not this will happen. I also plan to put up more photos here than there is space for on a blog post. And I’d like to see if a page will give a little more scope for people to comment or talk to me.

The blog began life as a diary of leaving and arriving, my meditations on why I wanted to be in one place and not another. I have surprised myself by how right this new place felt, as soon as I got here. I miss people back in Manchester every day; and every day I feel profoundly lucky to be where I am.

This virtual conversation with friends left behind has developed in various ways. Sometimes it feels like my little advertising campaign for this part of England, and perhaps for rural, agricultural England more generally. I have also begun to meet (virtually, of course) other Lincolnshire or East of England bloggers – an unexpected and fun development, so thoroughly twenty-first century.

And so to the Facebook page – the latest development. You can go to it via the link in the right-hand column here. You can also ‘like’ it and share it with any friends you think may like to look at pictures of flat fields and huge skies.

You will also notice that I have today changed the look of the blog a bit. I liked the old fonts and spacing on the page better than this current one, but I wanted to have the archives, Facebook box etc more visible and easy to find. In time I will find some nicer fonts.

House on Hundred Fen

180 degrees

Tom's fields

Beautiful sunshine this morning reminds me of breakfast in the garden with a lovely houseful of people last Sunday. Family from Glasgow, friends from Colchester and from Manchester all came to stay for partner’s birthday.

Last year fourteen friends sat down for a birthday dinner at our house in Chorlton and shrieked in disbelief at the idea of us moving to this distant, empty region.

This year, after breakfast, we walked on Star Fen where a friend took this picture and another said how striking the flatness of the land is: ‘the full 180 degrees,’ with the sky like an upturned bowl.

Last year’s Manchester dinner was grander than this year’s, but I see that both menus featured mushrooms, asparagus and my favourite spring ice-cream, flavoured with blackcurrant leaves. I like that link across the months and the miles, and that two friends from that dinner were here with us at this one: connections, connections…

This year the asparagus was grown in the next village and I picked nettles for the pasta dough from the field at the end of the road.

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!

Star Fen, with birds

Star Fen Road

I like birds, but I’m very short-sighted and so miss a lot. Herons and owls are excellent – I can see them – along with other water birds, pheasants and indeed chickens (of which more in another post).

But smaller garden and farmland birds are a bit more challenging; so it’s always a treat, a different kind of walk, when I go out with my friend who is into birds and bird-watching. She has been visiting for a couple of days and yesterday we walked, in sun and a very strong wind, on Star Fen (see A Walk on Star Fen and Waiting for Spring). My friend spotted all the birds and then I got to see them through the binoculars (when the wind didn’t blow tears and eyelashes in the way).

We saw: a Reed Bunting, Swallows, a Skylark, Yellow Wagtails, a Yellowhammer and a Wren or two, plus lots of crows and pigeons and the odd gull. I’ve heard Yellowhammers before (the ones that are supposed to sing little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheese) but not knowingly seen one, so that was the most exciting, along with a weasel running over a field very near us.

A few years ago, in one of the very, very cold winters, an escaped ferret or polecat lived at our allotments in Manchester for a while. It killed one of our chickens and several others belonging to friends of ours. I saw it close up more than once in the course of our battle to keep it out of the chicken run (people complain about foxes – huh!) and became briefly fascinated by this family (Mustelidae: including weasels, stoats, ferrets, otters) of small, carnivorous mammals. They have pretty little furry faces and their ability to kill things much bigger than themselves is impressive – though to be discouraged!

In the course of my research I found out how you tell the difference between a stoat and a weasel, so here it is:

A weasel is weasily wecognised, while a stoat is stoatally different – of course.

I hear my readers groan! Time to go.

[Really the stoat is bigger and has a black tip to its tail]