Sunday, 26 August 2012

WonderWall

In southern Africa man's early legacy has the lightest touch, wistful hunting scenes painted in ochre on the furthest walls of inaccessible caves. Not so here in Britain, where the mighty Stonehenge still dominates the landscape, proclaiming man's soul to the heavens. Much later, the Romans. Apart from their compulsion to conquer the world, they were absolute sticklers for the straight line. Many roads here are still as straight as the Romans laid them two millennia ago. The ancient site of Silbury Hill, near the mysterious Avebury, was only dated as pre-Roman after someone climbed to the top, and noticed that the Roman road made a detour around it. Grandiose, the Romans certainly were, but you've got to hand it to them. Annoyed with the marauding Picts to the north, Hadrian built a monumental wall straight across the country.

We took an early summer walk along the Wall this year. Dodging the incessant rain, we managed a few dry days in the desolate rolling hills of Northumberland. There is of course a national trail running the whole length of the Wall, and desolate only works if you look away from it.  The path is dotted with bright anoraks all the way. Naturally this being England, everyone has a polite greeting as you pass. But it becomes more competitive if you're heading the same way. The last thing you want is to stare into someone else's backpack for miles, so stopping at viewpoints and for lunch becomes finely timed. But it was good-humoured none-the-less, with friendly exchanges all beginning with "east or west?"
 
The vast blue hills north still feel untamed, with the shrilly whistling sky lark high over the hills. Also curlew, its call much like an excited puppy. While below, wild early purple orchid, their velvety clusters spiking the valley floors. 
 
 
The wall is solid still, surviving eons of plunder. We passed huge farmhouses built from the quarried limestone, plus the odd church. It skirts the highest parts of the countryside, and goes on and on periodically studded with forts and garrisons. Below, not as desolate as you'd like, the dead straight B6318 still bustles with traffic. It was invigorating, long, and very thought-provoking. The huge settlements with mountains of sophisticated artifacts leaves you under no illusion that these were a primitive people, and it's hard not to to get a mystical feel for the thousands of legionnaires and the slaves who walked and fought, and built and lived in this rare place.
 
One thing about walking all day is the treat of stopping for food. We carried packed lunches, but I also brought slices of my special Energy Cake. This is a fruit and nut cake that tastes different every time I bake it. It has a wonderful quality, much like a Roman Wall, I'd like to think, that it gets better with age. So here it is:
 
 
Whisk together 3/4 cup flour, !/4 Tsps of baking soda and baking powder, 1/2 tsp salt. Then stir in 3/4 cup of light brown sugar, and 3 cups of chopped walnuts or any mixed nuts, 1/2 cup of dried cherries or cranberries (although I use glace cherries and cut down on the sugar), 2 cups of chopped dates and figs (I use more) and 1/2 cup chopped dried apricots. Mix well. In a separate bowl whisk 3 large eggs and 1 tsp of vanilla extract till creamy and thick. Add the egg to the fruit and nut mixture, and mix till everything is covered. Spread into a well-buttered loaf tin (9"x5") and bake for an hour or 75 minutes at 150deg. Best after a few of days, it will keep easily for two weeks, two months in the fridge - longer, even.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Elephant and Fortune

The wind blew like a hairdryer.  It was hot. Too hot.  Our party stopped yet again and sank to the ground to drink from our water bottles.  Red-faced, the English girls looked at me gratefully because I was the first to call a halt.  Fortune, our leader was sanguine.  Stop any time you like, it's your call. We were in the iMfolozi Game Reserve in Zululand, originally King Shaka's hunting grounds. It was here in the 60s that the white rhino was saved from extinction. Three days of wilderness walking through baking pristine bushveld, and we had only been going for about an hour.  It was obvious the weather was going to break, and we were all worried about the river we'd had to ford to get here.  If the rains came, that river was going to become impassable.  It turned out the least of our worries, but that sums up the excitement of the bush. You never know what is going to happen.


That first night we were all strangers.  We sat around a large table and were given our first talk about walking in the wild. Whatever you do, said Fortune, keep an eye on me.  If I gesture like this, and he waved his hand behind, you must stop immediately.  There are elephant and rhino everywhere, and if we surprise them and leave them with no escape route, they are likely to charge. Then we're in trouble. But if we are downwind, we will be safe, and we can view them up close. Remember these are wild animals, you never know what they might do, and silence is vital. We listened intently, feeling nervous. The three English girls, a young German couple, me and two childhood friends were about to get to know each other well. 

That night, we slept in our little cabins next to the wide river.  We had been warned to watch out for nocturnal hippo in the camp.  I lay awake most of the night listening to the chomping outside my window.  Need to sleep, I thought.  Many kilometres to cover tomorrow, I'll need my strength. But the sound of hippo grazing five feet away from my ear was seriously unnerving  I blearily woke up and complained to my room-mate, my new friend, about lying awake.  Me too, she said.  We all had. The incessant chomping, it tuned out, was a bushbuck.

As we set off, we saw a second group leaving.  They were heading in the other direction, and were on a tougher, more rustic walk with a different camp every night.  They were going much further into the bush, and sleeping under a single shelter.  We were headed to a camp with two-man tents, and a bush kitchen, and now it was time to get across the river. Fortune was always at the head of our little line, Thandu at the rear, with Richard their assistant keeping vigil wherever he was needed.  Each Zulu had a 458-calibre rifle cocked over his shoulder, ready to shoot if things got scary. This was serious. We gingerly waded through the river up to our knees.

The going was hot, but we got used to it.  The bush was screaming with cicadas and bush shrike and a million other sounds all melding into one soothing hum that sang African bush. Fortune led us at our own pace, giving us interesting facts, like a tree still damp with mud rubbed off by a very recent rhino, or explaining the undulating yellow landscape, studded with thorny acacia trees. The next river was much shallower and the colour of coffee.  By then we were so hot, we lay down on the bank, cooling our heads in the sweet muddy water. Shampoo and set courtesy the Black Umfolozi river.

Finally the camp, tents around a campfire, and a fresh-cooked meal, our backpacks already there, carried ahead by gentle donkeys. Behind some bush, the camp shower. This was a 5 gallon drum, pierced with holes, filled with warm water and operated by string, well obscured from the camp, but wide open the rest of the way round. It was an interesting experience in trust, but oh so blissful. Below us lay the wide lazy river with wide sandy banks.

Early next morning, as we emerged from our tents we met the German. A keen photographer, he was wild-eyed with excitement. There are lions down there, I just saw three cubs playing by the river. Indeed the sand showed the heavy little pug marks all over the place. Yes, nodded our ranger, they are probably sleeping over there below our camp.  We'd spent the night cuddled up next to a pride of lions. Another hot thirsty and powerfully spiritual day, we trekked through the vast bushveld. In a particularly lush valley we came across a herd of elephant.  Huge and black, with ears waving furiously in the heat, we crept up slowly, our eyes stuck on Fortune to get a breathtaking view of these magnificent animals. The trees were swaying as branches were pulled off for their green foliage.  This was up close and it felt like we were staring into their eyes.  Eventually Fortune gestured us back, and silently we retreated, hearts pounding.

Back in our camp, the river looked very inviting.  Can we swim safely here, Fortune?  No problem, Richard will come down with you.  We waded in and Richard, rifle permanently cocked, stood near as we frolicked in the smooth running water.  Chatting to Richard, the rifle it turned out, was to shoot crocodiles. We didn't stay in too long. At dusk, I was amazed the English girls braved the shower knowing there were lions around.  I kept mine till morning.  That night, around the campfire, we got to know our hosts a bit better.  Fortune as the leader of the group, held the floor. A Durban boy, like us, he entertained us with stories of charging elephant, and being caught in cross fire during an armed robbery at a garage. He lifted his khaki shirt and showed us the scar where a bullet had got him. Also about the group of rogue elephant that were causing trouble in the reserve.  They were angry because some bush camps were slap bang in the middle of their age-old paths. Fortune obviously was a man in tune with the wild. Only 27, his father was a high-ranking government official and he could have reached any heights, but he chose to be a ranger in the bush. Our lives depended on him, and we became very fond of him.

Our final day and we headed off in single file. The weather was about to break, and Fortune was worried about the river flooding.  There was no other way back, so we kept a good speed.  Coming to a wide clearing, our hoods well up against the pounding rain, I looked across to see a black bus just 50 yards away.  It was so incongruous, it took a few seconds before we realized Thandu was running straight for it shouting and waving his rifle.  It was a huge white rhino, and startled, it turned and ran away. A very close call. We marched on, getting to the rapidly swelling river just in time to cross. And then we were home. That night, spirits were high and some wine was produced for the final evening. 

Then the other group returned.  They looked shocked and strained. They had a frightening story to tell.  On their final night in the bush, rogue elephants had attacked their camp.  They trampled through the tents, ripping everything down, and the whole group fled into the bush where they spent a terrifying night.  When they finally ventured out next morning, they found that after the elephant had wrecked the place, they had dragged all their belongings and cameras out of the shelter and had dumped them in the fire.

Exactly 12 months later, Fortune Mkize was leading the exact same trail with a small group.  They came upon an angry rheumy-eyed male elephant.  Fortune froze and signaled everyone's retreat, then faced the animal, his rifle cocked.  Slowly he tried to manoeuvre away. But the elephant charged. Fortune tripped on some branches, and in a second, the giant creature trampled him, knelt and hooked his tusks under his body, then using his trunk, tossed his body away.  He was heard to shout in Zulu,  "Ngafa mina kaBaba" - "I, my father's beloved one, am dying".  And that was it.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Tarantula Walk Part 2


The wolf spider is found all over the world.  It does not build any kind of web because it is a hunting spider.  It has fangs and speed to hunt down and kill its prey. It has hairy legs and it is two inches from my slip-ons.  Last night I’d had to fumble in the dark for my shoes.  I swallow hard and try not to shudder.


The spider remains frozen too, rearing up. Its eight eyes holding my two. Its poisonous fangs are poised and ready to strike. No one dared blink. The spider is mesmerised, and while I hold the teeny little beam rock steady, at least he is immobile.  What you do not want is a very fast furry spider hiding under your bed, or maybe jumping onto your flimsy summer pyjamas. The minutes pass and my mind is racing. I HAVE to deal with this. I could escape the room: and spend the night outside on the hammock with every other nocturnal creature in the Central Belizean forest – no. This is my room.  Could I frighten it out - it had the upper hand on that one.  Shout for help?  Maybe the nice young American would hear me.  But I didn’t think that would go down too well.


It was him or me. Holding both my torch and my breath very, very steady, I painstakingly inch my way down the bed to reach my brand new walking boots. This was a battle of nerve.  One false move and he’ll disappear who know where. Our gaze did not break for one second.  Gingerly, I felt for my boot.  Please, please let there be no more spiders hanging around.  Don't think. Just feel.  Finally in the dark, managing not to fall off the bed, a shoelace. Carefully I gather it around my fingers, and gently, gently, pull it back up onto the bed.  I held my breath, I held him, and in slow motion I raised the boot into the dark behind my head as high as it would go.  I knew there was no second chance. With rising revulsion and sinking heart, I slammed it down as hard as I possibly could. 


It’s perfectly possible to shudder for three or four hours after even a very mild incident with a spider, but I couldn’t indulge. My little torch was now my only friend. Ice cold, I agonizingly tip-toed up the stony little path avoiding all tarantulas.  Finally, the tiny guiding courtesy glow at the very top.  Choosing between two little wooden doors, I reached out to open the simple wooden latch on the jungle latrine.  Yet again I froze. Oh God. Sitting parallel on the handle,  hard and shiny, tail reared up and ready to strike, I was within whisker of twisting open a black scorpion.  


Nerve completely gone, my five-octave scream echoed down the valley and melted into the impenetrable blackness. No one came, and in truth I didn't need saving.  The worst was over and I can't really remember much more than eventually I was back in bed.  A 6-inch stick insect was lurching purposefully towards me as I turned off the torch.  The new me shrugged and fell asleep. 


Stuffed pumpkin: This has been my new rave lately, stuffed veggies. Red pepper, tomatoes, but best of all, pumpkins. This one has been stuffed with puy lentils, but brown rice is good too.  Cut the top off a small pumpkin, and scrape out the seeds.  Fill the pumpkin with a nice tasty lentil mix.  For this I fried up chopped bacon, plenty onions, garlic, stock. Add a large cup of lentils, curry paste would be good too. Then of course any vegetables like chopped de-seeded tomatoes, or red pepper. Cover well with water and cook gently for 30 minutes or so. 


Put the top back onto the pumpkin and bake for a good hour. The pumpkin must be well cooked and in a state of collapse. Like it's just seen a wolf spider, say.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Doing the Tarantula Walk


It’s been a long day.  The bus finally pulls in to San Ignacio.  Hot and thirsty, I tumble out to be met by my taxi.  He’s expecting me. He looks dodgy, but then all the taxi drivers do and I’m ushered into another unlikely piece of machinery –  there are no shiny cars here. By this time I want to kick the dogs that plague your every step, skeletal or not.  We head for the hills.

I have arrived in Belize - my very first holiday all alone. Why Belize? It's got rain forests and ancient ruins, and they all speak English. After I'd booked my ticket for two whole weeks, someone asked me where Belize was, so I looked it up.

I'm here now, driving 10K on a bumpy dirt road right up into Mountain Pine Ridge, a tropical forest reserve right on the Guatemalan border overlooking the broad Macal River, The camp is exquisitely rustic. Little wooden casitas charmingly hidden in the jungle, with multi-coloured keel-billed toucans casually swooping between the trees.

I’m the only guest at the Chaa Creek Jungle Camp, but there's a swish spa complex out of sight over the headland - a sanctuary for rich Americans.  This afternoon Dossia, my local host, has coaxed a nocturnal tarantula out of its hole near the path with a stick.  Fat with downy legs, it’s almost charming, all sleepy and shy.  But now it’s midnight and I’m in the depths of the darkest jungle night.  Your eyes don't get used to it, it is solid black ink.  The camp is crawling with by now very wide-awake tarantulas.....and I need to pee.

The gas-lamp is out and there are no matches. A slow dread begins to envelop me. With a jolt I remember something.  I am arachnaphobic.  With no lights and only the vaguest memory of the path back up, I know I have to busk it. Nearly breaking my neck on the steps, I gingerly feel my way, and I just go next to my hut.  I leap back into my camp bed, my heart pounding. It’s my first night away  - and I’ve got the horrors.

Next day, bravado restored, I befriend an American honeymoon couple. They come from Oregon and invite me to visit. When there’s nobody else, it’s just so easy to make friends!  We eat and chat through the warm evening in the open-sided palapa.  It feels benign as gheckos scuttle around the rafters in the lamp light; a frog even lands on my foot - but I’m not spooked.  I’m relaxed, I’m with Americans.  I’m a cool independent English traveller.  We swap stories and Dossia chuckles as he remembers being stung by a black scorpion in the woodpile and had to be rushed to hospital. Hearing I don’t have a torch, the friendly American kindly gives me his little penlight.

Night two: I wake up again, and now I’m not entirely alone in the depths of the darkest jungle night.  My new friends are in the hut right next door. There's no way out. I am going to have to do the tarantuala walk.  


My shoes are next to the bed, so I feel for the penlight and shine my way. My insides turn to stone as the narrow silvery light catches a solitary leather glove in the middle of the floor, the size of a man' hand. Eight fat fingers and poised as if to strike.  It’s no glove. It’s a Wolf Spider. 


Time has stopped - this moment suspended forever in the tiny shaft of light. A discordant chord slowly fades in my consciousness. I'm paralysed and I can’t breathe.......


I need a break.  I'll finish this story next time. Let's talk food.  For a country that seems on the breadline, the food in Belize is really very good.  In every restaurant, on every single table there is a bottle of Marie Sharp's Chilli Sauce.  Eaten with everything it is a signature of Belize, and their habanero chillies.  There are a couple of recipes around, all more or less the same, except for the amount of chillies you put in.  Known in this country as scotch bonnet, they are very, very, very hot. After trying seven different shops, I finally found some. Bright shiny red, I bought two little bags, and set about. Some of us used gloves to de-seed, some of us didn't.


First tranche used 10 chillies, as one recipe suggested.  Easy and fun, but after a teeny taste, I very quickly made another lot using just 4. This I recommend, and also the gloves - even though I avoided the seeds, it was days before I could get my lenses anywhere near my eyes.




So here it is:  Belizean Hot chilli sauce:
Fry a finely chopped white onion in some oil.  Add 2 cloves of chopped garlic, and two or three chopped carrots.  Then some water, say a half cup and 3 Tbs of white wine vinegar plus the chopped chillies  Boil gently till carrots are tender.  Add 3 Tbs of lime juice, a tsp of salt - and whizz till very smooth.  Add a little more water if it is a bit thick. Pour into sterilized bottles or jars, and keep in the fridge.  Sheesh!

Monday, 19 March 2012

Almond butter


Almond butter.  What an joy.  This has got to be the easiest thing to make.  500g almonds, toasted very lightly in the oven, then whizzed in a (brand new) blender along with about a teaspoon of sea salt and added groundnut oil.  It's worth adding the oil really slowly, it doesn't need too much.  Just enough to make into an irresistible pale caramel cream.   As you can see from the only pic I managed, it is irresistible. It was so delicious, I immediately decided to make some more, plenty more, this treat needs to be shared. Also, an experiment with cashews. The nuts covered in a little oil and sprinkled with a teaspoon of hot pimenton, mixed and roasted lightly. Spicy cashew butter. A snip.  What could go wrong.  Into the shiny blender - blend.


I say brand new, but the six months I have had this Magimix has been inspiring.  After too many years using the clunky old one I inherited from my son's student house, suddenly it was soups, pates and purees, and why not. I put all the delicious-smelling cashews into the tall glass jar and started my magic.  Bit of oil...a bit more.... a bit more.... didn't seem to be taking.  More and more, till the nuts finally came together in a thick creamy gloop.  It looked good, but the blender did seem to struggle. Now for the sterilized little jars.  I picked the heavy square jar off the base and froze in horror as the bottom fell off. Slowly the whole jar of cashew butter slid inexorably all over the base, and gracefully pooled onto the counter.  The base for some inexplicable reason had come loose, got looser, gave up.  With hands covered in an oily sticky mess, we eventually got the giggles as we tried to retrieve what we could. 


It says something for the nut butter that some of us ended up licking excess off the machine before scrubbing..  With all the excess oil in a giant pool behind, it was a serious clean up job.  And with that, the huge tray of almonds which were gently toasting, became well, over-toasted.


Into in the blender, no backing out now.  But it didn't want to know.  It whizzed a bit, slowed down, then gave up. The oil and nuts had done their worst.  A Kg of almond butter, too dark, and far too chunky. Still sublimely edible for all that, I'm jolly well handing it out anyway.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Puree and simple

I never thought I'd ever say this again, but I have just loved winter. The last time I said that it was years ago in the time of skiing, when we discovered the new world of wonder, speed and, it has to be said, fear.

The last ski trip I did was with a junior school.  And let me say right now: whatever you do, do not go skiing with a bunch of little boys. Even though I hadn't skied for a while, I started the week full of confidence. But despite the breathtaking setting of the Italian Dolomites, things didn't go my way. First, even if you elect to start again at beginner's level, the boys are fearless.  They zoom past with a manic will, and you can never keep up.  They also use you, an adult, as their brakes.  Aah, I'm going too fast, I'll just crash into that grown up there....  And down you go, while they hoot, and slide away again. They think nothing of skiing straight over your skis if you're queuing, and again, bang! over you go.  And if you've finally got a decent shuss down a narrow little run, one of them will be lying sprawled in your path.  A choice:  kill the little beggar, or avoid! avoid! bang! 

We also chose a year of El Nino, a weather system that melts all the snow, so as well as sharing the slopes with over-excited mini human torpedos, the slush was deep and terrifying.  And so it was, on my third miserable afternoon, that I dragged myself, defeated, bruised, silently sobbing with shame, into the noisy restaurant, only to find all the expert skiing mums sitting around two bottles of wine. Darling, we can't ski in this, they all cried. I wasn't alone, and a certain camaraderie was formed.

One of our group, a dad, was a film-maker, and a few weeks later, after the video had done the rounds at school, it was my turn. It was the usual hotch potch, most of which I had forgotten. I smiled at some of the happy memories.  Then the final scene of the movie. The camera was set up to capture the last run of every single one of the party for the finale. Skier after skier whizzed past, jumps, twists, shrieks, and the cavalier waving of hands. And then a long, long pause.  Finally the last of our number came into view.  Shaky, bent double, her skis in a giant snowplough edging excruciatingly slowly over the crest. Yes. It was me. A broken woman. That was the last time I skied.

But now I love winter again.  True, it has been very mild, so running through the woods behind our house has been something of a crystal-clear joy.  But also walking on the Anglesey coastal path in what really was quite chilly weather.  We arrived in Wales just missing the snow that brought the M40 to a standstill.  It was sleeting as we left the motorway, and despite all the warnings, hundreds of our fellow motorists were caught for seven hours in the storm.   

In the rain, though, Wales is quite mournful.  The whole place is built out of local grey stone, and truth is, it all looks quite doom-laded and miserable.  A teensy bit like the Welsh themselves, really. In fact when a very cheery waitress served us full of smiles, surely she came from Liverpool. We told her she didn't seem Welsh. Everyone says that, she laughed, as if accepting a compliment.   

The rain stopped, the stars came out, it all turned into something quite spiritual. The mists, the birds, the subtle colours; ochre, pink or marroon.  The fulmars, with their white necks, nesting early on the cliffs in contented pairs. With the sunshine breaking through to illuminate emerald fields, the grim stone houses take on a charming air. And one night, a barn owl hooted straight into my face from the trees outside our open window.

Anglesey was the island home of the ancient Druids, who were annihilated by the Romans in 60AD for their spiritual beliefs.  Dotted with holy wells and bronze age forts, it is a strange mix of the sombre and the magical.

And of course, what they are really proud of in Wales, their lamb.  We stocked up of course, but regret not buying the whole shop. Excellent meat. And it goes very well with my latest rave, puree.

Influenced by the cheffy programmes I am addicted to, I started pureeing my veggies, and it really adds something different.  Puree a cauliflower, and the sweetness is intoxicating. It seems to bring out the very essence of the vegetable. It's the only way to eat celeriac, and works wonders with turnips, root artichokes or swede. Here, in case you need it, is the recipe:

Steam cauliflower till tender.  Place with butter, milk, salt and pepper in the blender.  Whizz till smooth, then reheat gently.  They all go something like that.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Fun Fare


Food, food food.  You know when the weather is so cold for Christmas week, and you just stay in and cook, well the weather was balmy, still I stayed in and cooked.  It was an especially feastive week.  Almost by accident, really.

For a change, I ordered a haunch of wild boar for Christmas lunch.  It arrived in time, but it was the wrong order. Instead of a small haunch, we had a huge leg of wild boar.  Not only that, a wild boar rib as well.  The supplier wouldn't accept my offer to pay the difference. "Don't be silly", said Keiran, in his disarming Irish accent.  So for four of us, we had a roast that would feed about 20.  Marinaded in cider and slow-roasted, it was very tasty, quite strong, and went wonderfully with the turkey and bread sauce.  A winner. But cold, it was the turkey that got gobbled up with lettuce and mayonnaise, the boar not quite tender enough, a little too tasty.  It sat in the fridge accusingly.  Eventually I cracked, and started again.  The boar was cut up into big chunks. Then it was the usual drill:  lardons, onions, garlic, two tins of cannellini beans, cup of red wine, stock cube - I think I used beef.  And then bubbled gently for an hour.  I wouldn't go on about left-overs, except it was possibly the best meal of the week!  Melting and divine we had enough left over to freeze for another blow-out.  I say possibly the best meal, because it didn't stop there.

Chestnuts.  They were fat and fresh at our local shop, shiny next to the mistletoe. We roasted them, peeled them rather laboriously, and made a chestnut soup. Oh dear heaven. It was heaven. The chestnuts were maybe a little too toasted with dark edges - most recipes recommend getting 400g of chestnuts vacuum packed, all uniform and creamy in colour. Sweet and nutty, we struggled not to eat them all up. It's made in just the usual soup way, onions, carrot and celery fried in a bit of butter, then chopped and peeled potato and the chestnuts, boiled in a litre of stock for 30 minutes, then swizzed till a cream. Then served with a swirl of real cream (it being a Christmas larder) on top. Good enough to well, eat and eat and eat.  No need for a second course.

We've had a single lobster in the freezer ever since out trip to the Isle of Wight in the summer.  I saw my first ever red squirrel there - squashed in the road.  But for all that, it's a lovely olde worlde place, the Isle of Wight, with fresh crab and lobster on every cobbled street corner. Lobster Newburg is a simple recipe with lots of cream, sherry, brandy, and paprika, all reduced, then stirred into the cooked lobster and served on rice.  A rare treat.  My most favourite ever lobster, though, was eaten years ago at a crumbling little ferry port in Nova Scotia in a rickety wooden caff.  With the wild Bay of Fundy and roaring gales outside, here they served Lobster Newburg up like a snack, on toast. Unforgettable.

And for New Year's Eve, also up there, a humble chicken. Not all that humble, though. It was Jamie's Empire Chicken.  This took quite a bit of preparing, marinading, then roasting on a rack, and it was great fun.  The marinade goes like this:  garlic, ginger, chilli, all crushed together, lemon, yoghurt, masala, cumin, coriander and turmeric, oh god, the whole bang shoot. Slash the legs to the bone then smother the whole chicken in it, inside and out. Then overnight in the fridge, I think I would turn it over a couple of times - the chilli seemed to settle at the bottom of the bird.  Put the boiled lemon from the potatoes inside, and in for a slow-roast (I deviated just a bit there) on a low rack in the oven with the roasting pan below.  The roasting pan has the gravy and theoretically, the juices drip from the chicken.  You chop three onions, and fry them up with cinnamon and cloves in the pan, add vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, stir in some flour and half a litre of chicken stock. And that makes the gravy, theoretically, as I say. At the end of cooking you just strain into a jug. Mine ended up a rather aromatic black tar which took two days soaking to get off.

It didn't need the gravy.  It barely needed anything else. But we soldiered on and did it with Jamie's Bombay potatoes. These you boil up with lemon till just cooked, then roast them in a fry-up of cumin, turmeric, garlic, black mustard seeds, de-seeded chilli, tomatoes and (whew, I did all this?) oil and butter. I may not bother with the potatoes again, but the next time I want to impress, this chicken is exactly what I will do.

Can't wait.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Harvest

The weather is always glorious for autumn, but this year has been magnificent.  The leaves don't seem to want to fall, and even now there are bright yellow and orange patches on the Common and along the streets where the leaves are holding on.  Last year at exactly this time we were under a few inches of snow.  This year it has been not just an Indian summer, more like the whole Asian continent.  The dawn this morning was almost biblical with the golden pink sky casting a surreal glow through the whole house.



They say the mushrooms have been wondrous this year, but not on my patch.  A couple of fairy-tale Amanita, or fly agaric, with their bright red caps, and some yellow fungus, but that's it, really.  The grapes were plentiful, little velvety black cobs, good for eating like sweet miniature corn, and hazelnuts, 1. 

The most successful crop was two hessian bags of Black Shetland potatoes.  They grew resplendant in a sunny corner outside the kitchen, but when they started to yellow, I thought I had lost them.  It turns out that's what potatoes do.  I finally got up the courage to tip them out, and what excitement.  Bright purple - with a creamy nutty flavour.  Two sacks full didn't exactly keep us in potatoes for the winter, but they were a joy for a few meals.  Next year, six sacks.


And so to preserving.  Last year, there were quinces galore in Waitrose.  This year, one blink and the season was over.  None. I was looking at a whole year without quince cheese.  Quince cheese is a far meatier version of quince jelly.  This time you discard the clear juice (or make jelly as well), and mill the drained cooked fruit till smooth - but with a distinctive graininess.  Boiled slowly with sugar till very thick, it can be cut into chunky pieces to be served with lamb or pork or game or sausages.  Everything, really. 

Luckily I found some French ones at the very smart delicatessen in the Village.  I scrubbed and boiled them up together.  Oh I've done this plenty of times now,  Milled fruit back in the pan, equal amount of sugar, boil gently.  But I got distracted and when I came to check, the sugary fruit was a volcano.  This is quite dangerous in fact, because of course boiling sugar can burn you, and burn it jolly well did.  It exploded all over the cooker and into my face.  If you don't want to look like you've got the pox, watch the pot, and keep stirring.  Not content with spatters of crystalized sugar all over the cooker, I managed to let it stick and blacken too.  What was salvaged was dark and tasteless. I bottled it anyway, but a couple of weeks later, passing the same shop, I happily found some more, and started again.  Gentle heat, watched all the time, the new batch had the colour of intense guava, with the sweet aroma of the freshest fruit.  That's what it's all about. Lesson: don't get blasé.

There might be the occasional moment in my life when I feel a little melancholy.  And so it was that I was staring at my garden wondering what it was all for, when down flew a giant heron.  It had chosen my pond for a silent vigil.  Oh bless, I thought, a heron! Then it dawned on me it had probably come to feed on the defenceless little newts.  My newts!  Oh dear, should I chase it away. But it's a heron! Heron/newts/heron/newts? I didn't have to struggle against nature for too long.  After ten minutes, it hopped away and then took off gracefully for some less angst-protected prey.  Photographs taken, mood settled, and all was once again well with the world. 

Warm it may be, but still it's the time for slow cooking.  I've done this dish with lots of different game birds, and you can't go wrong.


Duck legs in Lentils:  Prick and trim excess fat from the legs, place them in a roasting tray covered with foil, and allow to bake for about an hour on a low heat - 150 or less. In a separate pan fry lardons, then a chopped onion.  Bay leaf, garlic, whatever.  Make some stock, and put the fried onions and bacon into the roasting pan around the duck, a cup or so of puy lentils, cover well with the stock, again with the foil, and back for another hour, maybe less.  You need to keep an eye on it because you don't want the lentils over-cooked and dry, but you want all the stock to be absorbed, so remove the foil to get the lentils done, but are still creamy, put near the top of the oven or under the grill, teeny bit of salt on the duck, and crisp up the skin.  It's a cinch.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Crocodile Stew

You never forget your first crocodile egg.  Five years old, barefoot in the bright sunshine with my older sister and brother, we were each handed a pale, heavy, leathery egg.  Crouching down, and looking us all in the eye, my uncle gave his instructions:  take the egg home, bury it somewhere sunny in six inches of soft sand, and every day put your ear close to the ground and listen.  When you hear the sound of scratching, dig it up, and there you go, your very own baby crocodile. We nodded gravely, cradling the precious eggs. We understood. ”But, the most important thing”, his voice lowering, calling us even closer, and with a conspiratorial wink…..”whatever you do, don't tell your father!”

And that was the crux of the brothers' relationship.  They were both jokers. My earliest memories are walking through a forest of legs, the men with big brown bottles of Castle beer, stories, good-natured arguments and jokes, voices raised in the South African way, then peals of uncontrollable laughter.  Larger than life, they thrived on practical jokes.  And while my father was to build himself into a property developer, my uncle lived with his huge family in a sparsely furnished rambling home, with echoing wooden floors and camp beds - ready to  take off to the bush at a moment’s notice.

My uncle Doug was a crocodile hunter. Somewhere is a faded newspaper cutting of him, khaki shorts, khaki shirt, slouch hat, rifle in hand crouching next to a huge dead Nile crocodile. A mighty beast, its stomach is slit, and piled up in in front, five or six incongruous towers of beaded native bangles. There were hundreds of them.  Also in the photo were a couple of African helpers, eyes as big as saucers. It was the fifties, and crocodiles were a serious threat to locals in Zululand, the wild northern reaches of Natal. That old croc had spent its life feasting on unsuspecting Zulus fetching water from the lake.  All that was left was a poignant mountain of bangles.

Zululand is a romantic place.  Its endless grassland is unchanged and these days is a thick patchwork of game reserves. We were drawn to the huge wetlands called Lake St Lucia. A vast marine lake, it stretches and meanders along the coast for 60 kms, and is fed by five rivers, making the sea side of the lake saline and edged with mangroves, while on the other, a freshwater lake with reedbeds.  As the rains come, so the salinity of the lake changes and alters the fragile eco-system. Home to hippos and crocodiles, it is today a World Heritage Site, its ecological diversity a true rarity. It was here we went to fish.  

Camping was a primitive affair, and the few expeditions we did with my uncle and cousins are a vivid mix of very early memories. The excitement of the early start, car loaded to the brim - off at "the crack o' dawn!" my father would cheerfully announce. I kept an eye out for the dawn that would split the black sky in two.  After the main road north, headlights blazing, the slow, dark bumpy drive through the forests that surround the lake as the dawn gently broke around us.  Camp was made with huge round canvas tents held with a single heavy wooden pole, while the cicadas screamed in the heat. It was the rainy season. The lake was full, a vast shimmering vista of water, lapping up through the short green grass and around our ankles.  Also half-submerged a peeling sign, “Beware of the crocodiles”. The men launch the boat onto the lake, a tangle of fishing rods and bait boxes, diesel making silvery rainbows in the water. And the good-natured shouting - mostly in Zulu - at the locals who were always on hand to enthusiastically push and shove.  It was here, amid much jumbled excitement that my father caught a fish as big as my brother. 

Basic it may have been, but my uncle’s home was a vibrant adventure.  My cousins, the five boys, made music in a skiffle band; a tea chest bass, washboard and various strings, while a dainty baby impala ran from room to room.  Outside, homemade steel tanks all in a row, each half-filled with dank water and a crocodile, usually asleep, their noses just out of the water.  Posspatoo (named after Jean Passepartout, the Jules Verne character) was their favourite. The biggest and oldest of their crocs, he would spend his post-lunch afternoons asleep on my cousin Bobby's camp bed.  Aunt Jo told me many years later, how a young neighbour came to visit with her four-year-old son.  He disappeared with his little tin car to play while the two women had tea. Searching for him through the house, when she finally found him she froze in horror. There the little fellow was running his toy car over mountains and valleys, up and over, from Posspatoo’s horny tail to the tip of his gnarled old nose. His only concession to the game was to blink his eyes hard when the car travelled up and down between them. She never came back, she smiled.

We buried our eggs, and listened every day in the sunshine for the sound of scratching.  We never heard it. Who knows what happened. But something happened, and it was to be 42 years before I saw my uncle Doug again. Still as jaunty, he was living with a fading Jo and various sons in Australia.  Still talking crocs.


Durban Masala
Masala is a mix of spices all the Indian’s make for curry. Slightly different from curry powder, which is fried,  you chuck it in at the end and stir it in.  In its simple form, it consists of coriander, cumin, pepper, cardomom, clove, cinnamon, which works.  I found this recipe for Durban Masala, and it has many, many more ingredients.  I think it just uses everything.  I’d use a little less cinnamon next time.

500ml coriander seeds, 200ml cumin,  200 ml fennel seeds, 30ml black peppercorns, 25ml poppy seeds, 12,5ml shah jeera (caraway), 15ml ground nutmeg, 4 bay leaves, 12,5ml cloves, 25ml star aniseed, six black cardamoms (peeled), 50ml cinnamon powder, 25ml white cardamoms, 60ml turmeric powder, 250ml roasted and ground dry chillies.

Pick over whole spices carefully and rinse. Spread spices on large trays and sun dry for a few hours. Heat oven to 120 degrees Celsius and roast spices for 15 minutes until aromatic, or use the traditional method and slow roast spices in a karahi (a traditional little cast-iron wok) . Cool then grind spices.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Rowan Jelly

Yes!  On my third attempt,  it worked.  We found a rowan tree heavily laden and not too bitter at all.  The berries were definitely ripe, because as we picked, the little berries rained down on me, which was quite fun. I spent a good half hour crawling around and squashing berries, ruining my trousers, picking up all the shiny fresh ones.  This was a bit compulsive if time-consuming, as it was a huge tree, and eventually I was dragged away - with a whole kg of rowans in my foraging bag.

So this is how it is done:  Pick over the berries, calmly letting all spiders escape - otherwise the berries are very likely to go all over the floor. Then a good wash, and straight into a big pan covered in water, plus about a small pint.  Some recipes call for the same amount of crab apples to provide pectin - not needed. Cover and bubble till  berries are soft, which turns their vibrant pink colour to palest orange Then strain the lot through a scalded jelly bag.  There are ingenious contraptions you can invest in to hold the jelly bag over the bowl, but I just use various chopsticks and colanders. A piece of folded muslin cloth would do. I think my first jelly was strained through a clean t-shirt. Leave overnight to drip through.  The important thing is not to touch or squeeze the jelly bag.  This makes it cloudy.

Next morning, you have a bowl of juice the colour of which you will never have seen before.  Measure it, and for every pint add around a pound of sugar - standard measure for  jellies and jams.  Slowly bring to the boil stirring a lot, because the sugar must be dissolved before it boils.  Then boil quite hard for a bit.  Setting point is reached when you do the cold saucer thing, but I find you can tell by the way it drips off the wooden spoon - a little slowly.  Also, if the droplets just spread on the saucer, it's not done.  If they stay round and proud, done.

Pour into sterilized jars.  I just hot-wash them in the dishwasher.  Seal.


Serve with game or pork.... for an interesting, if inexplicable flavour.




  

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Wild Gardening

I love the flowers of summer - and the birds - and the sun, obviously. The native white water lily needs a lot of sun, and here is one of only two that appeared on my pond this year.  And so fleeting - just a day or so, then it's gone, just like our summer, really.


My front garden is a "scented" garden.  I love that idea, so I planted the little patch with camomile lawn seeds.  It is a delight, and if you rolled around on it you'd get the very strong scent of sweet apples.  I don't often roll, but I was pleased when a very little girl stopped and crept into the garden to have a closer look at the masses of charming little flowers.  But I wouldn't go so far as to call it a lawn - more a very unruly camomile meadow.  

Last year a giant borage plant curled and furled its bright purple boragey flowers,  laying claim to the front. But no sign of it this year. I was very excited to find wild rocket, though, dear little yellow flowers at the end of the long nodding stems growing all along our verge under the viburnum hedges (wayfaring tree) that line our road. The new lavender has done very well in the morning sun, not much scent, even so, they always attract the bees.  And as for the viola odorata (sweet violet) under the elderberry tree, they have spread well in the shade - but not a single sweet-jolly-scented flower between them.

So, to the back.  I've been wanting to paint the shed black ever since I saw a very tasteful black shed in an arty garden book. So I did it. Now it looks for all the world like a fire has turned it to charcoal.  It was a bit of a job, too.  First I had to steel myself to gently sweep all the spiders' webs away (they'll build more!).  Then move the tiles and various pots and bricks stacked around the bottom.  This dislodged two very sweet little frogs.  I left them to make their escape, and only later, when I was painting near the bottom did I see they were still crouched there, still as...well, frogs, just waiting to get an arty splodge of paint on their speckly little bodies.  Known as common frog, I had to delicately balance all the tiles to form a covered walkway for them to shelter under. I saw a couple of the little spiders storming off too. A wildlife garden is such a treasure of finely played-out angst.

And there's the birds.  The bird table groans with wild bird food, and I would have loved to see a goldfinch or our visiting chiff chaff - tiny little birds with a dawn call described kindly in the book as "dogged". Described by me (it's early!!) as extremely annoying. But we have grown fond of the wood pigeons who visit.  Always in pairs, sometimes they let two dainty collared doves share the table.  With the table full, the garden is often a charming energy of the big fat grey birds bouncing around on the thinnest branches grabbing berries or strutting and posing on the table. Then the other day, on the deck was sweet Kitty in a silent and serious stand-off with a very young and handsome fox.  I rushed out, and it darted off, although not very far.  It stood quizzically in the middle of the lawn and eye-balled me.  Then it eye-balled the cat, who made a convincing play of darting to the end of the deck to see it off, then straight back inside to us. The fox didn't move.  After a while it slunk casually around the garden, its very fat tail hanging behind.  It sniffed around, no hurry, much like he probably does every night when he owns the place.  Then disappeared.

Later, walking to the bottom of the garden, behind the hazel where everything is left wild, I saw it.  A large flattened area - and dusted everywhere, dozens of gentle dove-grey feathers.  

One of my pigeons has been taken.


All alone 


After a couple of days on the exquisitely old-fashioned Isle of Wight, at an exquisitely old-fashioned hotel, we were blown away by an exquisitely old-fashioned mackerel pate.  It was the first thing I made when I got home:  


Smoked Mackerel Pate.


2 fillets smoked mackerel, 4 or 5 spring onions, half the juice of a lemon (to taste - I was told it was a bit too lemony), very large teaspoon of horseradish (serve some on the side as well - I was told there wasn't enough), parsley, white pepper, 4 Tbs double cream (although I used half-fat creme fraiche, being on a low-cal kick), and as you can see, it's very much a matter of taste.  I whizzed it up on my brand new Magimix blender - although you can also pound it in a mortar and pestle.  Serve on melba toast (sliced thick white bread, toasted till golden, then split the bread down the middle and grill the other side).  A delicious old-fashioned dish.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Bitter, sweet

The rowan berries are ripe, the bright pink and red bunches weighing their branches down. Its a good year for them. Not for everything, though. The pyracanthus, a real dazzler last year - hardly a thing. Nor the giant pear tree in front of the house. Last year, the pavement was a serious danger with fallen and rotting pears. This year, no such luck. We saw a woman stop her car and load the little beggars that were lying under the tree into her car, and I had to smile. I know what they're like: truly vile.

So off to forage in the early autumn evening for rowan berries.  They are so beautiful, and some trees so laden, that it becomes a bit compulsive.  I have promised myself some rowan jelly for years now, but it's quite difficult to get hold of them.  It feels mean to deny the birds.  But this year, the birds can SHARE. The only advice I could find on how to tell if rowans are ripe was when they are are "bitter, but not too bitter". Thanks. Also, apparently, they are best after the first frost, so into the freezer for an hour or so. Please work.  I just threw out six little jars of damson jelly. I found the damsons at the farmer's market, but I over-boiled them, and the jelly became dark toffee. The hardest part of the whole job was trying to get the gloop out of the jars again.  

So it's a gentle boil this time, and the jelly turns out just perfectly soft enough, and the colour is perfectly jewel-like and divine. But remember the "bitter but not TOO bitter...."? Yup. Too bitter.  

Well that was a lot of work for nothing, so for dinner, I decided to go simple.  We'd bought a very nice-looking coiled Italian sausage at the market, so I jolly well put it in a dish, chucked a tin of rinsed cannellini beans into it, then (you can tell I was feeling a bit fed up) just threw in some tomato sauce I had in the freezer, then baked it uncovered for 30 minutes or so. 
It was one of the best dishes we've ever had! How rustic does that look? The sausage comes from March House Farm, and it is very good. The sauce is one I made when I had too many tomatoes a month ago.  I had a couple of different varieties, and the so, so simple recipe goes like this:  Fry lots of chopped onions in a little oil, when very soft, add about four whole garlic cloves, tomato puree, a teaspoon of sugar, as many chopped tomatoes as you can, and a giant handful of chopped basil, stalks and all. Salt and pepper. Cover, and allow to bubble gently for ages. You want everything very soft  Then: the bit that elevates this sauce into something memorable.  Push the whole lot through a sieve.  Hard work by hand, but keep going. Every last bit. The sauce transforms into a velvety, biting and unctuous sauce that you can keep in the freezer, then just throw onto the simplest thing - and boom!  That's sweet.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Dog's Dinner



We always had dogs.  Our first real family dog was called Boxer.  A huge Collie/St Bernard cross, this dog was pure Nana.  As tiny ones, we would fall asleep on him. He would lie very, very still for as long as possible. Then, when he got thoroughly fed up, he knew to slowly, gently pull away, never to drop our heads on the floor.  I don't know how I remember that, yet I can almost feel him edging away from under me.  He would guard an open gate, too, by barking till someone locked it, and I vividly remember playing K.I.N.G. alongside him. Slowly walking, then a sudden stop and hold stock-still as the child suddenly turned around.  He was a master. A canine gentleman, my father called him, and he was definitely in charge. 

Bokkie had to be sent to dog heaven when we emigrated to Tasmania in the shocking aftermath of  the Sharpeville massacre in 1960.  As children we were kept away from the news, but I remember some little girls in the school playground warning us the Russians were coming.  I remember watching and waiting for the Russian tanks to appear around the corner at the end of the road. Another young school friend got caught in our local shop when hundreds of Africans stampeded through the streets of Manor Gardens.  But they weren't after whites, they all ran straight past the little shop with the frightened shopkeeper inside. Most likely a show against Indian shopkeepers.  But that was the funny thing in Natal. By and large, the day-to-day relationship between Zulus and English as well as Indians (from South India) and the English was very good.  The true natural enmity lay between us and the Afrikaner. Separated in the apartheid manner, they had their own schools and areas. We were very far apart.  While Zulus were around from my very earliest memories, my first Afrikaner on my own terms was when I was 14.  Maryna was from Pretoria, and a "crunchie" - one of the annoying foreigners who invaded our beaches from "up country" every holiday. They provided endless ridiculous antics, swimming in winter for example, or, like the little boy who found a giant jellyfish and put it on his head shouting "kyk my hoed!! (look at my hat!)".. and then dropped down dead. While chocolate ads on the radio exhorted us to "bite-on-a-Crun-chie!", the English boys would sing, "beat-on-a-crun-chie!"  But we weren't really all like that of course, and I befriended Maryna at a campsite up the coast.  For two weeks we swam together, sunbathed on the glorious white beaches, and revelled in our holiday freedom together. Eventually we confided our deepest prejudices.... I told her I'd always thought Afrikaners were well, stupid. And she confessed she'd always thought us English were ...wet.

Tasmania was far too cold for our little toes, and the truth is my father missed his African work-force. So back to Durban, and the university neighbourhood of Manor Gardens.  Leafy and hilly, the valleys behind covered with huge swathes of bush. It was here we got a real Boxer puppy, Kris.  If Bokkie was Nana, this dog was sheer Scooby Doo. Beefy, shiny, frenetic docked tail and huge flopping mouth with a mountain of drool, he was very, very keen.  No master, this one, he was the biggest kid going.  One of the gang.  Arriving home was a messy business as Kris the dog would jump up at the car long before it had come to a stop, and cover the two side windows in buckets of happy slobber.  Of course as children, we didn't mind at all, but I well remember the regular horrified shrieks of various aunts as they were excitedly greeted with revolting strings of drool.  Giving him a boys name didn't bother us until my sister got a boyfriend called Chris. The poor boy turned pale when he turned up at the front door for the first time, to be greeted by "GET OUT KRIIIIISSSSS!!!!  GET!! OUUUUTTTTT!!!"  That's when he became Kris the Dog.

He only really let us down the once.  My mother's car must have broken down, because very unusually, my mum caught the bus with us four children into town.  Sensing something was up, Kris followed, and waited with us at the bus stop.  The huge single-decker bus finally stopped for our little group, and it was then that Kris made his plans clear.  He was coming. He bounded onto the bus, closely followed by us three older children. Right down the middle aisle, claws scrabbling, straight under the long seat at the back.  The seats that were in those days reserved for blacks only.  We three raced down the bus calling and cajoling, but he wasn't moving. My brother scrambled under the seat behind legs, and got hold of his heavy leather collar and started pulling.  No luck. My sister joined in to pull him out.  He levered himself in even more tightly.  This huge bulk of squirming dog-hood wasn't giving up.  I joined in, and finally we yanked him out.  But that was only the beginning. He proceeded to brace his legs against every single pair of seats up the whole aisle. I took the back position to push, and between the three of us, we pulled and heaved, dislodging his hulking frame, paw by reluctant paw.  I can still feel the gnarling of the giant diesel engine beneath me as slowly we worked him up the aisle, past quizzical passengers, through the bus till eventually we pushed the big spoilsport down the stairs and back to my mother and little sister waiting in silence on the kerb.   It took a very long time and a lot of effort, but we had him off.  We gave up on our outing, and the bus driver pulled away without another glance.

It was not too long after that, back in my mother's little car, I saw Kris for the last time.  We were all packed in and leaving the family home. It wasn't the best time.  South Africa was bursting with its insanity and these things are catchy. As we belted away, I looked back.  There was my father, standing at our gate, watching us go.  And Kris, his jowls flailing,  galloping and galloping after the car.

I don't know about you, but I could do with a drink.  How about this:

Bloody Mary jelly shots
150ml vodka ,  2 tbs water, bring to the boil.  Remove from the heat and sprinkle 10g powdered gelatine sachet, whisk until dissolved, obviously. Into a mixing bowl, place: 3 tsp Worcestershire sauce, 1 tsp Tabasco, 1 tsp creamed horse radish, juice 1 small lemon, 450ml tomato juice, 2 tbs creme fraiche, qurter cucumber de-seeded and finely diced, strain in the vodka /  gelatine mixture...pour into 6 "Manhattan" glasses (we've got hundreds - but you get the drift). Refrigerate.

To dogs.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Summertime in Wimbledon

At last the sun is shining again. Well sort of.  It has been a vicious rain lately, cold and blustery, but now everything is green and soggy again, just like an early English summer should be.  Except the cold seems to have done for the bumblebees.  Lots of different bees this year, including the hairy-footed garden bee, no less. A pitch black furry little thing, it was unmistakable, although I missed the hairy little feet.  Lots of honey bees, too - there was even a swarm at the tennis yesterday. But my best is this giant southern hawker dragonfly, two years in my pond, existing on my baby newts, as I understand. But what an exquisite specimen.


Talking of which, Maria Sharapova is back in town.  An amazon beauty, we saw her one morning, jogging along the busy Ridgway with her trainer - she was not trying to hide, that's for sure. Bumped into Pete Sampras at Blockbusters once, too - got his autograph, but he didn't look up.  The best, though, was when my daughter came home from her school tennis courts, and told me about how, "Yana came and said hello to all of us, mummy".  The divine Jana Novotna, famous for her tears at losing in the final, had come off the practice courts and introduced herself to every little girl. How we cried when she finally triumphed that year.  Oh, the stardust rubs off, I can tell you.


It's the year of the strawberry this year, there's no doubt.  I don't eat them generally, but really, they are as sweet as I've ever had them. The early (long-forgotten) sunshine has made for the best harvest in living memory (I made that up, actually). But it is true that this year, halved, sprinkled with balsamic vinegar and possibly a little bit of demerara for the crunch, they are a seriously sophisticated and memorable treat.


And not only that. The asparagus is too too divine.  We're mostly having it cold with a spoon of home-made mayonnaise (home being Waitrose, in this case).  But this evening I plan to do a very early favourite of mine: asparagus soup, and definitely having it cold.


So: a bunch of fresh asparagus, hard bits cut off, tips kept for garnish. One onion, or a few spring onions chopped and very gently sauted in plenty butter.  Jamie adds celery and leeks to the onion, but then he also serves it hot. When the onion is quite soft, add the chopped asparagus.  Cover and cook a bit more, then add just under a litre of chicken stock.  Bring to the boil, cover and simmer gently until very tender.  Whizz. Add more seasoning to taste (using white pepper if you're a bit... you know) and stir in a nice big glug of double cream. Add the tips and heat gently for a few more minutes to tenderize.  Take off the heat, then when it's cool, chill.  I adore a cold soup, and you can chop almost anything green on top.  Maybe a squirt of lemon?


But how about this from James Martin:  the Jersey Royal potatoes are heavenly at the moment too, so chop a few (left-over) cooked potatoes into hot oil, along with some of the fresh asparagus tips, when just cooked and crispy, take off the heat and add chopped watercress and chives. Season. Divide into four bowls and pour the hot soup gently around, just like a top chef.


On the other hand, Jamie would put a softly poached egg on toasted ciabatta, breaking the yolk just as you slip it into the hot velvety soup..... I can't choose!!