Winter Cooking

Okay.  So I haven't written about food, or much of anything else, for a long time.  But days and days of dreary, rainy weather, short days with dim light for the studio, have driven me inside again.  And what better on these wintry days than my cozy old kitchen, whose stones hold molecules of meals consumed by people long gone.  I feel the smoke from those old fires wrapping around me like loving arms, whispering to me of families, of food generously prepared.

The chimneys are still there, although one of them now has a Norwegian wood burning stove in it.  The other one goes up to the bedroom above, but is no long usable so I put things there I want to keep cool – eggs, flours, sometimes cheese.  All in tight containers, of course, so spiders and other friendly insects can't get inside.  My mother would have been horrified at this crumbling storage area, black with centuries of unremovable suet, hung with spider webs until I clean them out and they return again. 

Anyway, my focus with food these days is more often economical, like using up leftovers, not because we need to, but because I want to.  The amount of food wasted here in the UK is appalling.  It must be many times worse in the US.  Part of that economy is simply  to avoid going to the supermarket, which I detest, which means often using up bits of what happens to be there. 

Today at lunch, for instance, the cupboard was pretty bare.  I made a short crust for a quiche, and then found 3 slices of bacon, and half of a sausage from last night,   I cooked the bacon, sliced the sausage into thin slices, thinly sliced a red onion and slowly caramelized it.  After cooking the crust, I put the meats and onions on the bottom, along with some frozen, grated Gruyere cheese I had left, poured a mixture of 3 beaten eggs, 1-l/1 cups of semi-skimmed milk, a pinch of salt and pepper over it all, and popped it in the oven for 30 minutes. 

It came out puffy and slightly browned, and perfectly delicious.  I made a little salad of arugula freshly picked from the garden with a balsamic/olive oil dressing and a pinch of salt.  Voila.  In not time at all, a pleasant little winter lunch. 

Art Class in Albury

Wednesday mornings I go to a painting class in the nearby village of Albury. Our  teacher lives off Rectory Lane just down the road in Shere. I’m not feeling much like a painter, today. Well, yes, a painter, but rather of walls than of canvas. The thing is, this man is really teaching us to paint, and not just to mess around, and that means re-thinking methods and outlook. He says  he can tech us to paint what we see, but he can’t turn us into artists. That is up to us. As of now, I not only don’t feel like an artist, but a klutz as well.

One of the 8 or so women in the group is an experienced water color artist who is learning oil painting. Whatever she does turns out beautifully, despite this being a new technique to her. Another teaches pottery and ceramics and is expanding to oils, and she is also very accomplished. Most of the others are learning water color; another is doing pastels. Rosie, at 83, is taking up water color painting.

Our teacher spends time with each of us, turning our efforts into better pictures with a stroke of his brush . It is inspiring, if humbling, to see how little it takes to make it come to life, but how important that little bit is. And it’s all about the way you observe, he says.

If we don’t become great artists, it is at least bonding experience, this common effort, and our gang of four have decided that lunch at Wooten Hatch ought to become a regular feature. So after the class we brave snowy roads to this upscale pub a few miles away to catch up on each other’s lives, have a glass of white wine and enjoy very nice food at pub prices.

Tiny Rosie has a starter meal composed of a slice of frittata, smoked salmon, and a little salad, all beautifully presented on a pristine white plate. Pat and Anne choose a chorizo pizza with jalapenos, thin-crusted, brightly red and green. I have ordered seared scallops and black pudding on mashed sweet potatoes, drizzled with black balsamic vinegar. It, too, is beautifully presented on a white plate, delicately flavored with a hint of garlic and butter. But this is a starter dish, and there are only THREE of them, so Pat shares a slice of her pizza and I leave feeling well, and not overly, fed.

But my soul is replete with the companionship and common humanity of friends.l

Hoar Frost

Hamletl by the Volunteer
Our Church and the churchyard

Sorry to go on and on about the weather. It’s just so variable here in England, but just now, invariably cold. I’ve never lived anyplace with 0C temperatures or less for more than a weekend skiing. We have our two wood fires going, as well as the central heating, which I like, but Bernard likes less as he is the guy who fetches the logs. If it lasted too long, though, we would probably be carried off by emphysema as the smoke does leave the chimney sometimes and pours into the room. The other day I went to the hair dresser, and after my hair was washed by the assistant, the hair dresser said, “I smell wood smoke.”

But the most wonderful thing has happened. It has been misty and foggy the last couple of days, as well as freezing or below, and the moisture froze onto every twig and branch and leaf and blade of grass. It is a fairyland. Unlike snow, which piles onto branches and leaves the dark wood showing through, the frost clings to everything and turns it white – like an old man’s (or woman’s) beard.

Today we decided to combine food shopping with taking photos and lunch. On our way up to our favorite local pub, The Parrot, where you can buy local meat and cheese, Bernard took a few pictures with his new camera. I wish he had taken a picture of the huge pig’s head hanging in the butcher’s portion of the pub. We bought beef, sausages, and a mutton shank to cook with white beans, but no pig’s cheeks. I am a fairly adventurous cook. I have gathered snails, cleaned and cooked them; I have cooked sweet breads, heart, liver, tongue, and kidney, and even had a go at tripe, once, but I draw the line at a whole pig’s head.

Socializing and Studios

Parties, parties, parties: on Wednesday, at Anne’s, we met two new (to us) Shere couples, a striking woman with gray hair cut in a brush style, and her Danish/British husband whom she met through a newspaper ad.  The wife has lived in Shere for a long time, and knows everything about everybody.  Can’t wait to know more.

Joy and Paul are newer to Shere than we are. Joy owns the shop on the corner where the antique shop used to be, and which is now full of tastefully displayed high-end linens, bath robes, Christmas decorations, and other gift-y things. Her partner is a New Zealander,ebullient and talkative; not one you would have picked for the quietly spoken, low key Joy.

The three men could hardly have been more different. The New Zealander is tall and thin, in his late fifties or early sixties, an enthusiastic talker . The Dannish/Brit is a stockier man, more toward his late sixties, who has bought land in the Devon and planted thousands of trees Then there is Bernard, also tall and thin, quietly spoken, gentle soul, who is very good at sussing out other people. He didn’t say anything bad about the company.

Anne’s chicken and mushroom dish, garlic green beans, and beautiful apple tart and lemon roulade were beautiful to look at and delicious to eat.

Now, our party –

Some time ago, we invited two couples for dinner at our house on Friday night. On Wednesday, the builders called to say they could come on Thursday and Friday to put the studio together. Eagerly awaited as this project is, I was not about to say no.Studio_in_stages_001 

They were incredibly efficient. By the end of Thursday night, the walls were up and the roof begun. Friday morning, after a nearly sleepless night, for reasons I won’t go into now, I was feeling every wakeful hour. Then my adrenaline kicked in and I felt in control, fatigue at bay, planning the meal like a general plans a battle. I was making two desserts, a lemon custardy cake and a chocolate tart, braised beef accompanied by roast potatoes ,"carrotes etuvees", and butternut soup. (Yes, the order is backwards, which tells you my favorite part of a meal, but I digress). None are really complicated dishes, only somewhat logistically challenging. I start on the desserts, rolling out crust, squeezing lemons, melting chocolate. Studio_in_stages_002

Bernard is off to Guildford for banking errands and to get the bread from Le Maison Blanc; the baker’s name is M. Blanc, in case you are wondering why the article is le instead of la. The plumber knocks. Where do I want the sink, he asks. Out we go to the studio, and there is really only one place for the sink, so I’m wondering why he asks, but okay, it’s nice of him. Then the electrician knocks. I have the pie dough poised over the pan, so I gently drape it and run out to the studio. Fine, got it sorted, sockets placed. Back to the pie dough, pinch the edges, prick the bottom, put it into the oven. I chop carrots, celery, onion, and garlic to sauté in butter before browning and adding the meat.

The plumber is back. Disaster. The basket for the drain hole doesn’t fit. We bought the whole unit at B&Q, the UK do-it-yourself store, and got the wrong pack of accessories. We consider the options. Call Bernard to tell him. He wants to talk to the plumber, and says he will return to B&Q. Back to the kitchen, I am whipping together eggs, lemon juice and zest, flour, and milk, to prepare a dessert I’ve never made before.

Phone rings. Bernard is wondering if I could look at the packing box to see if it has a number for the right basket on it. Get the plumber down to talk to Bernard again. Correct pack is identified. Back in the kitchen, I beat the egg whites and try to determine what "stiff but still moist" looks like. The phone rings, again. It is our vet, calling to see how Tasha is doing on the new heart medication.

Our handyman knocks, wondering if he could "have a word". It’s about something he has too much of, wondering if I’d like them for Christmas gifts for a bargain price. Yes, fine. Back to folding in the egg whites, then pop the custard into the oven in an improvised "bain Marie". He knocks again. Actually, he says, I have a couple more. Okay, fine, fine, fine. Back to sear the meat, drench it in wine, and put it into the oven. Stupidly, I forgot to pick some thyme on one of my many trips to the garden, so I grab the scissors, slip on my clogs, grab a scarf, and brave the rain and the cold (it is only about 45F) to pick the thyme for my bouquet garni.

Bernard arrives with the right basket drain, and I wonder if I should offer these poor guys working in the cold, drizzly day cups of hot tea or coffee. All but two have gone to the "burger van" for lunch. The remaining two are the youngsters of the crew, one of them, predictably, a Pole. They are grateful for a hot coffee to go with their lunch, which they are eating in the garage, and we have a 15 minute chat about their future ambitions.

By the time it is dark, the studio has a skylight, electricity, a little hot water heater, a room heater, running water, and paint on the walls. I am thrilled.Studio_in_stages_003 

And miraculously, the meal is organized and finished on time, including the chocolate fondant tart. The lemon custard didn’t rise at all. I assume the "stiff but not moist" means more beating than I gave them. I’ll make a raspberry coulis to pour over it, and send Bernard for some vanilla ice cream to disguise my failure. The table is laid, the wine glasses, sparkling.

At 7:15, clean, made-up and dressed, I sit on the sofa and sigh to Bernard that I’ve never felt less like having a dinner party in my whole life. I’d rather go play in my new studio. Or go to bed. He agrees. There is a knock on the door. Our very charming and bubbly neighbor arrives. Her husband, a solicitor (lawyer) in London, will be late because his train was cancelled. The first glass of champagne is started, the fire is roaring, and we begin to relax. The second couple arrive. They have a huge house with several smaller units around. They’ve rented the big house to an American couple and moved into one of the smaller ones themselves, and say we must meet them. Sounds like their politics are of the Orange Curtain type, so I am not sure this is a good idea.

More champagne and nibbles. The conversation flows easily, everyone is enjoying themselves. Tony arrives, and our little party is complete, fun, interesting. We sit down to butternut squash and ginger soup with fresh coriander and chunks of French bread; everyone raves. The braised beef looks unusually flaky, but I remind myself that pot roast looks like that. The vegetables are done at the right time, potatoes crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside, the carrots buttery and fresh tasting. I even manage a yummy sauce to pour over the meat.

After cheese, selected and served by Bernard, I whip some cream with a little sugar and vanilla and pass it around to put on the chocolate tart. The lemon whatever-it-is with fresh raspberry coulis is actually delicious, despite being pitifully flat.

Everyone wants to see the new studio. It is really cold by now, but we bundle up to go admire the little house. The women are jealous (everyone I know here paints). The men admire the speed of its completion. We scurry back to the house for hot coffee and tea.

No one leaves until nearly 1:00 Am, an unusually late hour for us. Surprisingly, this has turned out to be one of the best dinner parties we’ve ever had.

Goes to show something, but I’m not sure what. Always plan a building project on the day you are planning a party?

(Today, Sunday, we were invited to a drinks party at Tina’s house. I have crashed, and choose, regretfully, not to go. All the people we know and like were there. Bernard went alone with strict instructions to remember everything. See The Other Side of the Coin.)

More North – June, 2008

Although we spent a night in so-so hotel near a village called Cranster, and had a good meal of fresh fish beside the North Sea, it was really only a stopover on our way to the Yorkshire Dales, another high point of our trip. 

As we traveled into Yorkshire, the countryside became spare, sheep fields sectioned by dry stone walls instead of hedgerows.   The clouds were low and dark,  the rain sporadic to heavy, but the vistas were so enchanting we didn’t mind (what we could see of them).   We stopped in a village called Kettlewell, where the film, CALENDAR GIRLS was shot.   It has a  stream running through it, and is  renowned for its trout fishing.  Fly fishermen come from everywhere to try their luck, and if they don’t catch any fish it doesn’t matter, because it is so unspoiled. 

The Amerdale, a restaurant-hotel, in that order, is tucked away in a dale, the Amer, presumably, as most of the dales are named after the river running through them.   We drove up the crunchy gravel drive to a  manor house, ran into the reception hall (it was raining) and met our host, a roundish, friendly fellow, who showed us  to our rooms before sending up the luggage.   The rooms were pretty and comfortable, and after a shower – nice and hot – and a rest broken only by the baa-ing of the lambs, we went to the huge, two storied sitting room for our aperitif.   We ordered our dinner in the comfort of the sitting room, and were summoned when it was ready.  The food was superb, but unfortunately I didn’t write down what we ate and I can’t remember.  (Lora?)

Breakfast was copious and delicious, not always the case with English cooked breakfasts.   The sausage was tasty and light, the bacon tender, the black pudding one of the best I’ve eaten.  We could have opted for porridge laced with whisky, but we declined.  Who says the Scots have a high rate of alcoholism? 

HAWORTH – AND THE WAY HOME

We had to decide whether to stop at Haworth, the home of the Brontes, or Hadrian’s Wall on our way home.  . We decided that for this time, at least, a wall is a wall is a wall, and the Bronte house and village would be more interesting.

Interesting, it was.  The town looks dreary and shuttered, except for the tiny square near the house, where rock music blared bizarrely from a loudspeaker on the corner.  Midweek, there were still plenty of tourists nosing around, like us.  The house is up the hill from Mr. Bronte’s church and the churchyard.  I had heard that the early deaths of most of the family were due to their well, polluted by bodies decaying in the church grounds.  But the house is uphill from the churchyard, and the docents told us that it isn’t true.  Haworth  wasn’t exactly a healthy place in the 19th century, and the town well may have been polluted; tuberculosis and infectious diseases carried off more citizens than would be expected for a town of its size.  It was notorious even at the time, and an extensive government report on the insalubrious conditions of Haworth is on display in the Bronte house.  The report apparently did not generate much action, though. 

The house itself  is tiny, especially for so many family members.  You can imagine the wind howling around the house and through the trees, and cold mists hanging low through the graveyard.  Ideal conditions for creating a book like Wuthering Heights.  But the extraordinary thing about the Bronte’s is that all three sisters created blockbuster novels – Emily authored WUTHERING HEIGHTS, Charlotte, JANE EYRE, and Anne, THE TENANT OF WILDFELL HALL.  Winter nights were long, and tv and films were a long way off, but that doesn’t entirely explain the creativity of the family.  Other people of the age were thrown onto their own imaginations to fill the hours, but not all produced  novels and poetry.  They must have been mutually supportive rather than competitive, unusual in a same sex family, and helped each other with the many chores an early 19th century woman was expected to do. 

Unfortunately, Emily died at 30 of tuberculosis, Anne, at 29, and Charlotte died pregnant, after a brief marriage, at the age of 38.  I don’t know of what. 

Their father, Patrick, outlived all his six children, as well as wife.  He died at 84, presumably of old age. 

FORAGING —

It isn’t the cost of vegetables and fruits which periodically sends me scampering to the fields and woods to scout for wild food.  It’s the self-sufficiency of it.  It’s about reaching back through generations to glimpse my ancestors, to experience an instinct going back to human beginnings, and to relate to the universal need to find food.

I don’t know very much.   I can identify two varieties of mushrooms out of the hundreds of edible ones, and neither of them grow in England, as far as I know.  But I still love walking through the forest scanning the ground for them.  Something about the aroma of damp earth and leaves triggers some primeval urge to stay alert to what I might find underfoot – or encounter, for that matter. 

I pick elderflowers in June, infusing a mixture of sugar, water, and ascorbic acid with the subtle, tantalizing fragrance of elderflower to create cordial.  In autumn, people here collect sloes, which I have yet to do, though I hope there is more to do with them than make Sloe Gin.  Ubiquitous black berries, or brambles, growing along paths and weaving themselves through hedges, will ripen in late August and September.  And I have discovered that nettles, which grow abundantly just about everywhere, are a delicious substitute for spinach, as well as for stimulating infusions. 

This week we pulled up some wild fennel which was growing in places we didn’t want it to, so I washed the white roots, peeled them, and cooked them with potatoes.  The younger, smaller roots were delicious, adding just a hint of fennel to the spuds.  The bigger ones were a little tough, not worth bothering about.  I’ve seen a recipe using the stalks to stuff fowl, which I will try, and the fronds are delicious chopped up in salads or as a bed for roasting or baking fish.  I will try things until Bernard cries "no more fennel". 

Lemon verbena grows in our garden, too, and sometimes I make an infusion with that.  The plant is supposed to keep mosquitos away, but I don’t think it does.  We have lots of varieties of thyme, lavender, mint, marjoram, wild garlic, chives. 

I wish I knew more.  I am probably too lazy to do much about it now, at my advancing age.  It is the sort of thing grandmothers ought to teach their grandchildren, but stopped doing a few generations ago.  Reports are that Malia, three, who lives in the California foothills, is a dedicated forager.  I have seen her pick and eat by the handful the dry, mealy berries of the Manzanita, which  taste a little like apples.  Indeed, Manzanita means little apples in Spanish, and are reddish, but the resemblance goes no further.   Now she is apparently equal to the task of avoiding the defensive thorns of the blackberry bush to get to the juicy fruit.   

I hope she will persevere.  Maybe she will teach me, instead.

FAGGOTS

I had faggots for lunch yesterday.  Two round, dark brown balls appeared from the pub’s kitchen, nestled in a soft bed of mashed potatoes.  No, don’t be vile.  Not testes, and not made from bundles of wood or of anything else, except liver, ground and spiced.  I looked up the word in my Collins English Dictionary, to see what, if any, connection there might be between this culinary anomaly and the slang word for male homosexuals. 

I found "fag" as a noun, meaning a "boring or wearisome task", and 2, (I think I hit paydirt here)," Brit., (esp. formerly) a young public school boy who performs menial chores for an older boy or prefect."  No comment.

A fag is also the nasty end of a used cigarette (if there is an end which isn’t nasty), or the end bit of anything, or bundles of anything, wood, iron bars, cloth, sticks.  There are also verbs and adjectives, faggoting and faggoty, and even fagaceous, a genus of trees, and a faggot vote.  Look it up. 

Publishable feedbacks and comments are welcome.  (No photo album attached.  Forgot my camera.  Darn. )

York minster and Belford

The sun shone on the morning we went to see the Minster.  I wondered why York Minster is called a Minster instead of a Cathedral, so I looked it up on Wictionary and in the Dictionary, but there isn’t an answer in either place.  It’s just a Big Church, the same as for the cathedrals.  Both Minster and Cathedral come ultimately Latin via Greek.  I was hoping for a connection to Nordic languages, as this part of England was conquered by the Vikings, but it seems not to be so.   We amble to the Shambles, a very old shopping area in York, where the upper floors hang over the street.  The word Shambles was originally applied to a place of slaughter, as in butchers.  As this area was once the food market, including meat and poultry, it is a fitting sobriquet.  . 

We reached Belford and the bed and breakfast, MARKET CROSS, about 6:00 PM.  It had been a rainy, windy drive North, and the next day we were hoping to take a boat to the Bird Sanctuary on Inner Farne to see puffins and other nesting sea birds. Fortunately, the b & b was more than we had hoped for.    We  were delighted with the wonderful touches our hosts provided.  The atmosphere was welcoming and without pretension, the rooms comfortable, pretty, and well equipped.  It was like going to your mom’s house.  There were facial AND douche wipes in the bathroom, fluffy clean towels, candies in the candy dish, sherry on the landing for imbibers (like us).  We ordered our breakfast for the next morning, and found something called a "Singin Hinney" on the menu.  Lora and I ordered it to share, and it was delicious, something like a thick pancake with dried fruit which you smear with butter and jam or syrup, excellent if you want to turn into a Daniel Lambert.

We asked about the name, and the story is that when you pour the batter onto the griddle, it hisses.  So when the wee ones ask about the sound, the cook says, "It’s singin’, hinney", hinney being dialect in the north for honey.  Voila. 

Well-fed, we drive off for Lindisfarne, or Holy Island, where the haunting ruins of a monastery stand near the village. The winds are still howling, but the sun is shining and boats are able to reach the bird sanctuary, so we are happy.    On a promontory a castle stands, looking forbidding and cold. When we go inside, it is indeed cold, but had been refurnished in the 1920’s in a sort of faux medieval, not very interesting.  The views, however, are breathtaking.   The countryside swarms with sheep; the ruins are reddish rock surrounded by fields.  We have reached Lindisfarne by a causeway which you must cross at low tide, and must exit before the tide starts to turn. 

We head for Seahouses (that is its real name), to catch the boat. boat. 

York

York_wall
We find our hotel, The Minster, with no trouble.  An alleyway off the main road leads to a parking area, and we roll our bags up the slight incline to enter a warren of twisting and turning corridors to find our rooms.  They are clean, comfortable and adequate, but not more;  the hotel looks like it has seen better days, but we are not complaining, We stretch out on our beds and promptly fall asleep for half an hour before tackling the dinner decisions.  It is still raining when we go out, but not pouring, so we grab our brollies and set off through an archway leading to a narrow street where we have been told there are many restaurants and cafes.  The young receptionist at The Minster Hotel, as well as the barman, upon hearing our American accents,  recommend a little restaurant which serves good hamburgers and steak.  This is a little like the old coals to Newcastle thing, so we set off in search of something more exotic. 

Reproductions of famous Renaissance paintings depicting life in earlier centuries hang on the ancient walls of the Minster and the streets.  This is a town that knows how to exploit its past, for sure.  Even in the rain this street exudes charm and the warmth of little cafes, pubs, shops, and restaurants.  It is young and lively.  We end up in the Café Rouge, a chain of French restaurants in England, where you can always be sure of a decent French-ish meal, sort of like an upscale MacDonalds, I guess – a place where you know what you will get, whether it is a steak-frites, a quiche, or a cassoulet. 

When we leave the café, it is still raining. 

BLISS

Lunch today in our garden with my darling, under an arbor of fragrant, pink tea roses; a white platter on the glass table before us, piled with coral smoked salmon and green capers; ripe summer tomatoes and finely sliced red onion; slender wedges of  lemon; parsley from the garden. Tiny brown-spotted quail eggs nestle in a basket lined with a white cloth.     A breeze stirs the roses, sends their fragrance across our faces, mingling with the salty odor of salmon and capers.   Thin slices of home-made sourdough bread, slathered with butter, slices of smoked salmon and a squeeze of lemon, hint at the sea with each bite.  Crispy salad topped with a dressing made from a spoonful of Dijon mustard, a crushed garlic clove, vinegar from the vinegar pot, and spicy green olive oil, follows.  Tasha, my dog, my old friend, sits beside us, polite but vigilant, waiting for whatever scraps we leave  her. 

Puffy clouds drift across a clear sky, while the garden stretches and sighs under the warming sun.  The stone wall at the end of the garden, at least as old as our 17th century house, is strewn with pink roses against the red- violet of a bush aptly named "Grace".  White climbing roses embrace the thick ropes looped along the wall, while spiky magenta, and white foxglove reach upward, sentinels for tender roses. 

Some days are like this.  Simple pleasures like preparing a meal, dining in the garden, watching the sun pull all nature towards itself, are suffused with the ineffable.  It is peace