Hungry

There has been much late night activity in the kitchen, after the pots and pans have been washed and dried and put away. Once the sink has been wiped clean, and the table cleared for action the following morning. When the light should have been switched off, and the door pulled to.

Something was keeping me in there, away from the sitting room with its fire and cheerful company. It might have been the wireless, with the latest adaptation of Jane Eyre. But I think it was something deeper than that. Something tired of winter, mild though it has been. Something needing a change, and not a rest.

As a result, we are getting through flour at an alarming rate. Bags which have been lingering for some weeks now are being used up, finished off, tipped upside down over the mixing bowl. On Thursday it was a speedy seed cake, slid into the still hot range straight after supper. Its fragrant, damp heaviness, studded with caraway seeds, is the perfect partner to a well earned cup of tea.

On Friday the children were all playing at cards, just one last game of snap before bed, when I turned tail halfway down the hall and headed back to the kitchen. It was plain flour that found its way into the bowl, this time, along with a pint of milk and a couple of eggs. A quick whisk, and a space on the cold shelf in the larder. Breakfast done, but for the frying. Yet that wasn’t quite enough, so I kneaded strong flour into the leftover mashed potatoes, with a splash of milk and a pinch of yeast, and left that too, in the cold, to rise slowly overnight. It baked on Saturday, while the pancakes fried on the griddle, and baked beans heated in the bottom oven. Lunch, made at breakfast, dreamed up the night before. Chewy, dense potato bread, toasted in waxy yielding slices. Food thought of long in advance. Hungry food.

The seasons must be shifting if I am thinking of baking again. In the winter it is parsnips we eat, roasted, or a celeriac mash. Swede and carrot, on the side or sliced into a stew. Or potatoes, lots of potatoes, delivered by the sackful. Peeled and boiled and roasted. Left over, and chopped straight into the frying pan in the morning, alongside the eggs and some cold savoy cabbage. Mashed and eaten with an eruption of gravy, the remains patted into little cakes and fried in butter until crisp around the edges. They fill my suppertime kitchen with a gentle fug, these rooty vegetables, dug up in the autumn, stored in the mud they came with.

But when spring comes I won’t want to be standing over a steamy stove each night. I’ll want to be outside, doing something else. It’s bread I turn to then, rather than spuds, rather than swedes or parsnips or even porridge. Bread, straight from the crock, baked once a week in a session which makes me wonder what else I can fit in while the oven’s hot. A quick soda farl, perhaps, for supper that evening. A cake or two, while the oven is cooling down. Then no more baking for another week.

Bread is what I want to eat when the weather is hot and there are better things to do. I like a slice, buttered and folded in on itself, as the afterthought to having nibbled my way around the veg patch by way of a solitary luncheon. I might slide a sliced tomato in there, with a grind of pepper, if I can be bothered. And for supper I might go to all the effort of boiling some eggs to go with the salad and the loaf and the sliced ham. Or not. It depends on the weather.

In the greenhouse, baby lettuces are finding their feet. The first seeds are thinking about germinating, encouraged by a daily dose of water and kind words. The early potatoes are chitting on a cool windowsill, just waiting for Good Friday and the start of a new adventure, underground. The broccoli is beginning to sprout, and we have had our first taste of sour pink rhubarb.

The roots will keep coming for a while longer. Sunday morning saw a whole basket of Jerusalem artichokes, topped with a few more parsnips to go with the roast. They’ve kept us going all winter, those parsnips, with enough to give a few away. But now it’s time to eat them up, and make room for the new harvest. Which we do with pleasure: they are sweeter than ever, after the recent frosts.

Even so, I am greedily awaiting all the things I haven’t tasted in a while. Which is perhaps why I keep finding myself in the kitchen, after the day is done. Mixing and kneading. Getting my arm in again. Hungry for the season ahead.

[whohit]hungry[/whohit]

Mothers and sons

Traditionally, Mothering Sunday was the day when people would be allowed to attend their ‘mother’ church – a religious occasion which meant that those in service would be allowed home for the day. Of course, the Great War changed all that – there are so few people working in the big houses nowadays – but I like to think of all those near-grown lads and lasses picking flowers from the hedgerows to greet their mothers with.

We went to our church last Sunday, and the little ones were invited to take flowers from the altar and bring them back to us. Seb picked out a hothouse rose, Ilse a seasonal tulip. Once home, Ilse tucked her pink one into the orange bunch John had bought me on Saturday. But Seb’s rose lay lonely on the kitchen table, with no natural mate. The house is full of flowers: daffodils, tulips and great leggy branches of forsythia, cut from the garden. Yet our own roses stand bare and twiggy in the beds. He looked a little forlorn, until I took down a cut glass vase, just big enough for a single bloom, and trimmed its stem to length. Now it stands beside my bed, the last thing I see at night. Something beautiful, from my boy.

It was Ben’s birthday, too, last weekend: his seventeenth. He still climbed into bed with us, long limbs and all, to open his presents in the morning. It is getting to be a squeeze, this bed of ours, on birthday mornings. Soon, too soon, he will be elsewhere, making his own traditions. But not yet. We showered him with all of ours: gifts before breakfast, a special supper of his choosing, and an outing with a friend or three. A raucous chorus of Happy Birthday. A cake, aflame. Nothing extraordinary, but everything sweet and full of comfortable, familiar ordinariness. We have had seventeen years of practice, to find out what he likes.

He likes to see his grandparents, too. We invited them all to share our Sunday roast: a chicken as a treat, and a home grown fruit crumble for afters. I took the opportunity to give my mother some flowers, and a card I’d stitched on my machine. My own cards, adorned with cups of tea and colourful (if improbable) garden scenes, were lined up on the dresser. I love those homemade cards: crayon on folded paper from some, watercolours on the special laid stuff from others. I cherish the way they appear from under mattresses and stacks of vests. I take care not to tidy too well at such times of year. And I love how there are always more than four, always six or eight or ten, as they are struck by inspiration over and over again. Those funny little cards are the best gift I could have.

Yesterday I dusted the mantelpiece, moving each of Ben’s cards carefully out of the way, daydreaming idly about our upcoming holiday in the Lakes. Meg and I have begun to plan it, sending lists of food and equipment north and south of the Scottish border. She: pickles and cold meats. Fresh perch, fried in butter. Fishing rods. I: beef stew and new sleeping bags. And cake. More than anything, I want to arrive armed with heavy tins of it. I want to send the children into the woods with greaseproof-wrapped slabs in their pockets. I make a list, thinking most of all of what Ben might like. Tiffin, stored with a cut Cox to keep it moist: gingery, Yorkshire. A simnel cake, made by a mother for her children rather than the other, traditional, way around, a fat disc of marzipan melted into its fruity middle. Hot cross buns, full of chopped peel and spice. Easter food. Picnic food. The sort of food that can be served in chunks. The sort of food that boys – and girls, and mothers and fathers and aunties and uncles – crave on long walks with uncertain weather. A last burst of winter food, eaten in front of a bank of crocuses, under a shower of blossom. Food for the start of spring.

As a result, I’ve spent a lot of time poring over my cookbooks this past week, choosing what to bake. I’ll try a few things out, between now and then, recipes I’ve not followed for a while. From over my shoulder, certain voices have made themselves heard. I nod, and assure them that I know what they would choose. I am their mother, after all.

[whohit]mothersandsons[/whohit]

Crisp

All it takes is for the sun to shine, and every little detail is thrown into relief. Where did that rhubarb come from, unfurled so soon from soil-bound tender buds? I didn’t see it yesterday, trudging through the gloom to empty the bucket of peelings, yet here it is, crisp and pink against the bluest sky. My mouth waters: already in my mind it is full-grown and pulled, chopped into inch-long sticks and dipped in a saucer of sugar. Already it is boiled in a copper pan, with thin slivers of ginger, and tucked into the larder: an edible memory of just this sort of day. Clear and cold and crisp.

Everything is heightened, today. The garden is loud with birds, the magpies and blackbirds and territorial robins competing with the steady hens in their worship of the welcome yellow sun. They trill and cluck. It has been a very long and very grey winter, this year. There has been a lot of rain, and no snow to lift the landscape. But now the sun is out even the mud sparkles, and the ridges left by my boots yesterday are semi-solid with frost. I took a little longer over my outdoor chores. Hanging out the washing is a task which can be stretched as long as the line I peg it to. The air was cold on my fingertips, the sun warm on my back. Later, the sheets smelt wild, half-dried in the clean fresh air.

This is a day for fine black tea, not dulled by milk. This is a day for toast and marmalade, the bread allowed to cool so that the butter lies upon it in thick cream slabs, protecting it from damp. Lately the shops have been full of seville oranges, and today they have come into their own. I count my  jars greedily, and plan to make some more.

This is a day for sewing, for pressing new seams clean and straight, sprinkled under a hot iron. The settee has fresh cushions, birds and flowers against a clean white background. This is a day for gardening, for turning the green lawn over into something darker. This is a day for making music, for high notes cutting through the still house. A day for opening windows, and letting the dry air sweep swiftly over everything. A day for reading a book on a window seat, blanket and hot water bottle to hand. This is the sort of day on which I want to do everything, and can’t, and have to choose just one favoured task over all the others. The kind of day I would like all days to be. The kind of day winter was made for.

Late in the afternoon I set a match to the newsprint and watch it curl and blacken, delicate flames growing bold. They lick at the kindling and make it crackle. The sun disappears, over the edge of the earth. I hope it will come back. Now that it is gone, everything changes. The time for marmalade has passed. Instead I set to making a huge fish pie, smoky and smooth. I serve it with wilted greens: the blueish tops of sprouts that grow like algae in the winter beds. The cream of the pie is salty and soothing. It will send us all early to our beds. Yet there is an undercurrent to it, wild and clean. A day in Whitby, visiting the smokehouses after a chilly morning paddle. The smell of kippers coming home with us as we journey over the free and windy moor. Before I settle down to sleep, I make a note to book rooms in a boarding house in May, beside the sea. Then I say a prayer for another crisp day tomorrow, and sleep deeply and well.

[whohit]crisp[/whohit]

Remember, remember

Bonfire night is the highlight of the autumn calendar. All four children have been anticipating it with glee, whispering about their plots, and gathering fuel for the fire. The guy waited ready in our shed, complete apart from his turnip head, which Ben carved on Wednesday evening.

Even Mrs P seemed to have an air of excitement about her as she came in on Thursday morning. Having stopped at the grocer’s on the way, her basket was full of caster sugar and golden syrup. I had laid the apples ready on the table, sixty of them, washed, with a lollipop stick pushed into each core. We melted the sugar and syrup and dipped the apples into the pot, before leaving them to cool and harden on trays. The toffee ran into little flat discs around their bases. Surreptitiously, while Mrs P was clearing away in the scullery, I ran my finger around the inside of the empty pan. The touch of toffee on my tongue brought back a world of childhood bonfires.

We borrowed trestle tables from the village hall and, as the day was clear and bright, set them on the village green. The infants were let out of school an hour early and bade carry chairs. The older ones must have cycled like the beefeaters were on their tails to reach us as early as they did, and then the fun began in earnest. By five o’clock, as the light finally fell, the bonfire was built and burning: a hodgepodge of old furniture, prunings and scrap wood. In the centre, bound to the farmer’s long pine trunk, was the guy.

By then, the last of the mothers had turned out, each bearing a tin of cake, platter of sandwiches or great jugs of milk. Someone filled the tea urn and kept it topped up with boiling water. By the time the men arrived the flames were licking the guy’s darned and darned-over socks, and potatoes had been pushed into the grey embers around the edges of the fire. John helped Ben and some of the other boys sharpen one end of a pile of sticks, and we pushed a sausage onto each for the children to roast. They stood in a circle, faces burning and backs cold, oblivious to everything but the fate of their guy, their dripping sausage and the promise of sweets.

Mr Hewitt made his annual gift of a box of fireworks, and set them off as the last of the potatoes was being pulled open, exposing its fluffy insides. We stood around the fire, oohing and ahhing in unison, well rehearsed over the years. Toddlers began to whinge and a dog, not locked up, set up a howling that started the babies off. Prams were wheeled away with reluctant infants in tow. The older children stayed to tease the fire. John lifted a sleepy Ilse onto one arm and she laid her head on his woollen shoulder. His other arm he put around me, and we watched the end of the evening, remembering other such nights in years past, back to when it was a tired Ben in his arms, and before even then, when there was only he and I.

[whohit]rememberremember[/whohit]

Stir up Monday

Our conker expedition was rained off. The picnic, prepared the day before, sat forlornly on the kitchen table. Everything felt damp, and the sky stayed resolutely grey.

On days like this, the kitchen is the place to be. I turned on the electric light and, not trusting to its yellow glow alone, shook more coal from the scuttle into the stove. Then Ilse, Seb, Fliss and I gathered our supplies, not for an outdoor expedition but for a rainy day adventure.

For the children: coloured pencils, wooden rulers, ink pots and boxes of nibs, and thick sheets of laid paper. Special paper, for a special project.

For me: cinnamon and mixed spice, flour and eggs, golden syrup and dark brown sugar.

The children began by sketching compasses, Fliss reminding Ilse of in which direction each of the points lay. They discussed their landscapes, suggesting features geographically possible and impossible. Oxbox lakes in surprising little Os along the river. Islands with hostile camps upon them. High strung bridges and fireplaces with cauldrons slung over them. Then the map-making began in earnest, tongues out, brows furrowed. Seb drew curving contour lines. Fliss sketched a magical glade.

While they drew, I zested oranges and lemons. I creamed sugar and butter with oozing syrup. I sieved flour with spices and stirred them, alternating with beaten eggs, into the mix. Finally, I poured in two pounds of brandy-soaked fruit and carried the bowl to the table.

Ilse went first, pulling the spoon easily through the layer of dried fruit and wishing, eyes tight shut. Then Seb, whose lips moved unconsciously, nearly spilling his secrets. Fliss’ wishing took a long time, and I wondered whether there was a long list of wishes or just one, elaborate, desire. And I went last of all, wishing for the same thing that mothers always wish for, and actually stirring the fruit into the cake mixture.

The Christmas cake went into the oven. Soon there was a warm, spicy December fug, cacooning us from the lingering gloom. Coloured pencils were taken up, and I turned to the pudding.

Eggs and brandy, nutmeg and zest – almost the same ingredients but to a different end. We washed a silver sixpence and buried it in the uncooked basinful, before pleating the greaseproof paper lid and tying it on with string. Once lowered into the steaming pan it began its rattling dance, rising and falling with the bubbles. The room grew warm and softly steamy. Exotic flora and fauna were sketched around the edges of the maps.

I spread the picnic on the tablecloth for a late luncheon. Bully beef sandwiches, apples and cocoa make a feast whether eaten in a Christmas-cosy kitchen or on a trans-Siberian trek. Over their meal three excited children told me of the developments to their conker-collecting plans. It appears that we will be criss-crossing the globe. Their eyes shone, their voices rang, and their imaginations were clearly stirred up. As was my pudding, on a Monday, and a few weeks early. Sometimes, though, you have to obey the weather.

[whohit]stirupmonday[/whohit]

Late-harvest chutney

There is a period, each August, when the tomatoes ripen thick and fast. Every day I leave a bowlful on the kitchen table. We eat them in sandwiches, with or without cheese; fried for breakfast with a panful of eggs; or just as they are.

Bit by bit, our enthusiasm for them fades. As their numbers dwindle in September I fall out of the habit of picking them every day and by the end of the month I am content to close the greenhouse door on them.

It was my garden task, yesterday, to dismantle that little jungle. I sliced through twine and stems with my curved knife, arranged the canes neatly in a corner of the potting shed, and carted load after load of compost to the heap at the far end of the garden. Then I cleaned the greenhouse, sweeping it clear of desiccated leaves and previously encouraged spiderwebs. I washed the glass inside and out. I scrubbed slippery algae from the paving slabs. I wiped the woodwork, and made a note of where it needs another coat of paint. When all that was done, I had almost nine pounds of tomatoes to bring indoors.

There has been enough of a lull for the red ones to be greeted with renewed enthusiasm. Most of them are green, though, and need to be cooked. Hence the late-harvest chutney.

I’ve been following the same recipe ever since we’ve had a garden large enough to produce a surplus. Occasionally I make tangy yellow piccalilli, or spicy red relish, but not this year: those are the sorts of recipes which come and go. They depend on the weather, the harvest, and my holiday plans. But I make late-harvest chutney every October because it uses what I have in abundance: windfall Bramleys, marrows, onions and green tomatoes.

Sitting down to read through the recipe, I realised with a start that I have seemingly never done this before. The ingredients were familiar, the method as simple as I remembered – yet apparently I am supposed to peel the tomatoes. Peeling tomatoes is one of those tasks which I do not do. It falls into the same bracket as ironing tea towels, or buying little china ornaments to dust. Succumb to these tasks and there would be no time left for the important things in life like talking – really talking – to John, playing with the children, or watching the fast-changing autumn skies. In truth, if I had to peel the tomatoes I simply wouldn’t make the chutney.

So I made it anyway, skins and all. I took the time to arrange all the fruit in order of colour and size, and paused to admire that little segment of rainbow. Once the meditative chopping was done, I stopped again, to wonder at the all shades which fall between white and green. I even admired the sheen on those taut tomato skins.

All told, it is quite a mountain of vegetables, and takes a while to collapse beneath the rim of the pan. I let it get on with this while I prepared the spice bag: peppercorns, cloves, coriander seeds and fragrant ginger. I put in a couple of extra cloves, and, once I had smashed the ginger root with my rolling pin, held back a slice for myself. It only wanted boiling water and a spoonful of honey. Cup in hand, I spent an important fifteen minutes watching clouds scud across the brightening sky.

[whohit]lateharvestchutney[/whohit]

Hedgehog season

Beyond the lawn and the veg patch, in the unclaimed land between my garden and the start of the children’s territory, stands the pergola. It leans to one side, and I’ve grown to love its weary dilapidation. A wisteria, once trained up it for support, now holds the structure together, and each spring dangles slender bunches of lilac blooms into its interior.

To its left is the fruit bed and to its right, a shaded, forgettable bed which, until this year, has ended each season deep in weeds. Last spring I hit upon the idea of growing jerusalem artichokes there and they have flourished, forming an impassibly lush and vaguely prickly wall. The beans took up the bed to the front of the pergola, and the wisteria linked arms with them as soon as they were tall enough, forming a seamless transition from ceiling to floor.

We sling the hammock in this green room, and I’m sure I was not the only one to imagine myself on an Amazon expedition as I swung there in muggy July.

But now it is October, and time for its walls to come down. I spent an hour this morning pulling up the spent beans, having first collected the mottled pods full of next year’s seed. The robin moved in as I left, hopping over the dark bare soil, hoping for a worm. The hideaway is no longer.

Yet I am careful to leave a boundary: an untouched edge of hedge and fallen leaves which is disturbed as little as possible. The toads live here, and the hedgehogs and, once, we even saw a lizard zig-zagging his way to the safety of a crevice. We leave the nettles standing all summer for the butterflies to feast on, and piles of old logs for beetles and solitary bees to set up house.

At tea time there was a knock on the door and six or seven of the village children were crowded there, asking whether mine might come out to collect wood for Bonfire Night. Seb bolted his milk and in a few minutes he and Ilse were scarved and hatted. Ben took his electric torch to ward off the gathering darkness. I started to remind him not to let the children build the bonfire until the fifth, but he nodded impatiently. He knows what hedgehogs like to do.

Once the door was shut behind them, their simmering excitement pouring down the lane to the farmer’s house, Fliss and I looked at each other, the same idea in each of our minds. The dough was rising for supper, next to the stove where vegetable soup spluttered lazily.

She divided the dough in two while I cleared the tea things. Then we shaped dough noses, snipped prickles and pressed fat raisin eyes into place. We set the little creatures down for a rest, under a clean tea towel, before finishing them in the oven.

At the supper table Ilse and Seb were full of their triumphs: the strong pine tree trunk Mr Stevens had been saving for them all year, the woodwormy wardrobe Mrs Cornwall was only too pleased to be rid of, and the promise, from next door, of a moth eaten suit for the guy. Ben had taken them all hunting for conkers, too, shining his light into the orange leaves which lay, thick and unbroken, on the green. Too soon, though, a definite rustling in the leaves persuaded them to abandon their endeavours.

There had been many eager pockets and too few conkers to go around. Seb asked whether we might run a half term expedition to a row of horse chestnuts we know, near the knavesmire. I agreed at once, on the proviso that Ilse would be cartographer and Seb navigator. I would provision the company.

Fliss had decorated the hedgehog loaves with fallen leaves, conkers, and acorns. They prompted happy bouncing from Ilse, a bloodthirsty ‘can I eat the eyes?’ from Seb, and a kiss from John as I sat down. It was the end of one happy day, full of plans for another.

[whohit]hedgehogseason[/whohit]

Gathering

Sunday morning, before mass, found me in the garden, gathering the last of the anemones. I arranged them into a rough bouquet as I picked them, knowing that to separate them would cause the trembling petals to scatter. There were just enough to fill two vases: one for the kitchen and the other for the dining table, ready to greet our guests. It was ‘only’ Mother and Father, but the occasion was heightened by the fact that we hadn’t seen them for a month. They have been on the south coast, catching the remains of the summer sunshine.

I laid on the sort of luncheon October does best: roast loin of pork with apple sauce, cauliflower, potatoes and parsnips which, although not yet sweetened by the first frosts, were golden and sticky from their roasting.

Ben was home from camping with the scouts just in time to bathe and join us. The others were rested from their week-end at home, scattered about the place, engrossed in their own endeavours. Ilse has been learning to knit, flitting down from her bedroom every few minutes with another tangle for me to unravel. Seb has been practising archery, having carefully restrung the bow Ben made so patiently with him last spring. Fliss has been wandering in some imaginary world, under an old blanket in the tree house, a stack of best-beloved volumes beside her. Industrious John chopped and stacked all day on Saturday, filling the woodshed and shaking off the feel of his desk.

So it was with great joy that I had them all around one table. We each had our own adventures to tell of, so that we sat talking for a long while after the last spoonful of damson crumble was gone.

A lengthy game of scrabble ensued, and knitting for some, and the customary doze on the settee for Father. Best of all, we lit the sitting room fire for the first time this season, and its magic held us all there, together, in one space. We didn’t even move for tea but drank it where we rested, with thin slices of apple and cheese, and slabs of Mother’s apple and marmalade cake to follow. It was the very best sort of Sunday: involving food, fire and a family gathering.

That evening, before turning in, I weighed out sugar and dried fruit, and poured over it the dregs of the day’s tea. An egg, some flour and a quick stir was all that was required before I popped it into the stove to bake the following morning. It made two tea loaves, fragrant with cinnamon: one for home and one for John to take to the office. In the coming afternoons, I believe that they will be the cause of smaller, but no less important, gatherings.

 

[whohit]Gathering[/whohit]

Jam for grown-ups

Last Wednesday, after tea, we headed down the green lane once again. The blackberries are nearly over, and the few that remain are either small and dry or overblown and pecked at. Although we picked a few, they were not our primary concern: we were after sloes.

Seb and Ilse were with me, as were my sister and her husband. Being newly married, they have no children, but make a great fuss of mine. My four are very fond of their new uncle who, as an historian at Edinburgh, has no shortage of tales of derring-do, and whose study at home boasts no fewer than three swords. He also has three of the prettiest spaniels this side of London; it was with heavy hearts that Fliss and Ben stayed at home to finish their prep.

Despite the dogs under our feet we gathered twenty pounds of sloes in no time. I am so often overawed, at this time of year, by the sheer abundance of nature. We left hundreds upon hundreds of fruits for the birds, all in a ten yard stretch. Multiply that by the thousands of miles of hedgerows in Britain, and the hundreds of thousands of families like ours. Then there are the millions of creatures who depend on them for their shelter and food over the course of a year. The mind boggles.

I kept eight pounds of the sloes for ourselves, which Mrs P clearly thought was far too much, judging by the shape of her left eyebrow. I assured her that much of it was destined for the village show, and charity auctions, but the truth is that that still leaves plenty for us. John and I are both rather fond of a small glass of sloe gin while toasting our feet in front of a February fire.

When Seb discovered that he wouldn’t be eating any of the sloes, he asked why on earth he’d been gathering them. Ilse stepped in. ‘It’s to make a special drink’, she explained. ‘It’s like jam, but for grown-ups.’ Which is precisely what it is: a sweet, fruity reminder of a happy afternoon over a year ago. A sun-drenched autumn afternoon, stored up for winter.

By the time we were home the cottage pie I’d left in the oven was ready, Fliss had cooked the beans and John was in from work. We had a very merry supper, the eight of us, ending with a bowl of blackberries and cream. Seb and Fliss gave an impromptu piano concert, and we laid plans for gathering sloes again this time next year. It was a perfect midweek supper: homemade, simple and sweet. Jam for the souls of grown-ups and children alike.

 

[whohit]Jam For Grown-Ups[/whohit]