Wednesday, 7 December 2011


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!!

Saturday, 4 June 2011


Everybody loves France.  Sometimes the language can be a little baffling, true, but a short hop from our shores, and the moment you set foot in France you're foreign. My first brush with French was one very early dawn in the mid-Seventies.  We were on a bus from Athens to London.  You took a bus for $60, and for three days and two nights you got distance. This was quite exciting in many ways, the fun Greek students we befriended, the Continent, Italy, Switzerland and France rushing past your window, and the pressure to make time which involved the drivers swapping driving duties while the bus was hurtling down the motorway at seventy miles an hour.  It was about 4am when I heard my brother whisper excitedly, and there it was: in the grey shadows of the early morning light... the Eiffel Tower. We had arrived in Paris, its huge iconic structure forever in the memory of that dawn. We were as far from Durban as it was possible to be.  The bus stopped. Out into the chilly air and into a cosy a little French tabac.  It was a tiny affair, with lots of warm polished wood and one huge glass counter brimming  with fresh golden croissants. The smell of coffee filled the air. Well if this wasn't what it was all about: after a pretty gruelling three days, coffee and croissants in Paris at the foot of the Eiffel Tower. The French barman stood casually in his black waistcoat to take our order.  We'd like a croissant si vous plais... he looked at us quizzically.  We tried again.  We'd like a croissant please, inflecting a further syllable.  No.  He had no idea what we'd like. Another of us tried. A CROISSANT, si vous plait.  Never heard of that either.  Sorry. He made us say the jolly word about six times, each time shrugging and shaking his head, even though there was nothing else in the whole cafe!  But our accent was far too much for this Parisienne. Pointing and money eventually did the trick, but he made it quite obvious he had never met a less useful bunch. 

There is always something of that in France.  Never does the written word look less like it sounds.  Last week we took a chalet on the beautiful Cote d'Armor in Brittany.  Just a few days by the sea, and a little bit of seafood somewhere quiet.  The chalet was called Chanson d'Oisseau.  I mean, how would you say that? They kindly let us know at the chalet: "shong-zon dwazo".  It means the Song of the Birds, and it certainly was that.  They woke us up in the fresh morning, and sang till the last light.  Even the cuckoo. And when the tide was low we saw row upon row of short black stakes between the islands: mussel farms. We were in the home of moules. Our best meal, though, was a dish of chicken.  Lunch is just as big a deal in France as dinner, and we stopped at the Restaurant Le Vieux Chateau. Not as pretentious as its name implies - the Chateau is just a ruin opposite. We made ouselves comfortable and a very bleached blonde took our order.  Ahh, Poelet St Jacque...that's got to be chicken!  Oh, we just felt like chicken.  Our plates duly arrived.  Circling a neat mound of rice, ten plump scallops sat, interspersed with crispy green mangetout.  Sweet and perfectly cooked in a dreamy white sauce, it was as delicious as it was unexpected.  Scallops cooked on the stove.  Result.

A rainy afternoon in the Breton city of Dinan would lift anyone's spirit. A vast walled medieval town, perfectly preserved. Breathtaking could hardly describe it.  We stopped for a drink at a particularly picturesque restaurant.   Inside, dominating the dining room, a wide sweeping spiral staircase, huge and black and very shiny, giant ancient oaks still holding after five hundred years. This place had soul. 

But we headed back to the coast for dinner.  In the exquisite pale Victorian splendour of Saint-Cast-de-Guildo, we raised our game.  Not only was this restaurant overlooking the white sands and fading turqoise sea, the handsome young waiter could translate. He read out the specials in perfect English, and we went for bar. Seabass. Cooked to perfection, the buttery sauce on the side was a revelation.   Was it hollandaise?  Couldn't put a finger on it. What, we asked our English-speaking hero, was that sauce served with the bar... "Ahh, he said, with a heartbreaking accent, "that is....butter white".  I've watched the cookery shows, and I know it's called beurre blanc (ber blonk) even in English, but I could have climbed into his pocket I was so charmed. 

And so easy. Here it is: Butter White (ber-tair whet):

Chop 4 shallots, place in a saucepan.  Add 200ml of white wine (Chablis apparently, we always have it...not!) and any or all or none of these: bay leaf / garlic / thyme / parsley. Bring to the boil and reduce by half.  Lower the heat, and cube 200 - 250g of cold unsalted butter. Whisk them in one by one, letting each one melt before the next. Just don't overheat, and keep whisking.  The sauce should be just thickened. Season with salt and pepper, and strain. This will keep warm for a while.  Add the juice of half a lemon just before serving on your delectable fish / broccoli / asparagus / peas / artichoke ....

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Chop chop

Suddenly you've just got to have salad. The sun shines, the veggies are bursting with colour and flavour, all you want is crunch. It's lovely when someone remembers a salad we had ages ago. Imogen reminded us: we all made that lovely salad with.....sumac.  Great name for a dusty, sour Middle Eastern spice used in the Lebanese salad, Fatoush.   It's a dried and crushed berry, and surprisingly for something so exotic, the trees grow all over London.  We love Lebanese. There are lots of brilliant little Lebanese cafes in central London, big square silver trays of irresistible salads lined up in the windows, always so fresh, so friendly, so cheap.  And it's true, a year or so ago we made a lot of Fatoush.  

Well I say it was Fatoush, but we got carried away, and added a few of our own things, and left a few things out. And ok, I'm going to say it, ours is better!! So here it is, our Fatoush: 

Crisp cos lettuce, not quite a whole one, 2 tomatoes, 1 red onion, half cucumber, half a bunch of flat-leaf parsley, clove garlic, 2 large gherkins, large Tbs of capers - maybe some red pepper too. Everything chopped quite finely, good squeeze of lemon, and a very large Tbs Hellmans mayonnaise, maybe more. Salt, pepper, mix.  Tear two toasted pitta breads into pieces and scatter on top, sprinkle with 2 large Tbs of sumac, and drizzle the lot with olive oil.  Serve.

We stopped making that salad, but here are a couple that have been staples in our home for years.

First, tuna and rice salad.  This is a brilliant simple summer dish, very filling, and in my opinion, the best way to eat rice. Cup of brown rice simmered till just tender then cooled. Two tins of tuna with the oil. Chopped tomato, cucumber, parsley and lots of red onion. Plenty of lemon juice, lots of mayonnaise and salt and pepper (plenty of everything, really). Mix and serve on a bed of lettuce.

Then, tuna and bean salad.  I was addicted to this. First cook your white kidney beans, or..... open a can.  Rinse. Pile on a shallow plate. Top with flaked tuna, tuna oil,  red onions sliced into fine rings - quite a lot, lemon, lots more oil, parsley, pepper.

And a really, really simple starter that we have before almost every meal during the height of summer, when the tomatoes are at their best, with a glass of ice cold Beck's.  Chop two or three tomatoes,  put in a bowl with salt.  Chop two cloves of fresh juicy garlic into reasonable chunks, not too small, add to the tomatoes.  Allow to stand.  Toast a few slices of ciabbata or sourdough bread, pile the tomatoes on top, and douse with olive oil and sprinkle with pepper.

And last, in a toasted pitta, chopped tomato, spring onion, avocado, salt, red chilli, oil. Mix well and fill the pitta.  If you have fresh coriander, that would be good too. It's just a guacomole, but I made it at the start of a solitary weekend, and ate it for every single meal.  That good.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

My Liege, my Lentils

I love The Queen almost as much as I love potatoes.  As a newly-arrived colonial, we lined up as she drove past my office in Buckingham Palace Road.  We were all rather high-spirited, and in my enthusiastic waving, I toppled off the kerb just as she drove past.  Hoots of laughter as she gave an indulgent smile and wave just for me. It's true I was teased for throwing myself at The Queen, but close up.... what a presence -  what a complexion!   

Last big Royal Wedding, I vividly remember the pervading feeling of joy. Charles finally had his Princess. There was something to celebrate. The night before, we climbed up Parliament Hill to watch the huge fireworks display. We were not the only people with that idea.  There were hundreds of us, all young and 80s trendy, drinking wine, happy laughter and friendly chat, doing what England does so uniquely well - crowds.  Join a crowd scene of any sort in England, and it's likely you'll never forget it.  We sat in the warm evening, the lights of London, our new home, twinkling beneath us.  I'll never forget that feeling. We were part of it. 

Like when Diana died. The day before the funeral, I went down to Buckingham Palace. I had happened to be in Kensington early that first morning, and my flowers were right at the very bottom of the sprawling mountain at her gates. This thing felt momentous and I still wanted to be part of it. The Queen was due  back in London, and the whole city had a quiet expectancy.  There were shrines, flowers, candles everywhere.  In the Royal Parks, every tree was a dedication to people's grief.  The Palace gates and railings were thick with letters, poems, ribbons and accusations. The crowds were four or five thick around the Palace, the TV cameras high on their plinths.  A good-humoured crowd, swelled with plenty of tourists, we waited for something to happen.  Then we saw it, coming down Constitution Hill, just above heads, the flickering gold and red of the Royal Standard, leading a huge and sombre Rolls Royce Phantom to the gates. I caught a glimpse only of the car. People crowded forward.  Not many waved. The tension mounted.  We knew there was a big issue over the Palace flag flying half-mast. And the very second the gates opened, the Royal Standard went up. Right to the top, it stayed for a minute or two, then all of a sudden, down it went.  We watched incredulous as the half-masted flag with a sudden jerk, went back up to the top yet again. The crowd gasped, then an Aussie accent suggested loudly that it was the Queen herself hoiking the flag back to the top again:  "I say it goes UP!"  It was a hilarious image, and the tension was broken. 

But of course The Queen was under serious pressure. As it turned out, she was deeply worried about the reception of the crowd. This was fast becoming a Royal crisis. The Royal Standard stayed at the top of the flagpole, but the next day the Union Flag was lowered to half-mast during the funeral, and is now flown half-mast at times of national mourning. The Standard is never flown half-mast, of course, because there is always a sovereign.

I couldn't see anything. There was no way I could get anywhere near. But I wanted to stay, I had to stay. I hung around Green Park, kept open, like Kensington Gardens, all night for ordinary people to hold vigil. Little groups, hundreds of them, a huge subdued party, one where everyone belonged.  It was dusk when I decided.  I would walk the funeral route all the way to Westminster Abbey. Down The Mall I went, heading straight towards St James's Palace, where Diana was lying beautiful and cold.  A wide imposing tree-lined avenue, it was completely deserted.  I had not got very far when I looked up to see it again.  That heraldic Royal Standard, atop that huge black car.  It was The Queen - my Queen, because by now I was a British subject. Fresh from paying her respects, she was slowly heading back to Buckingham Palace.  The only person in the street, I ran to the side as she passed. I ran with my arm up high. I waved and waved and waved. And The Queen, in a moment I'll always remember, her face white and stained with grief,  turned, and looked directly at me.

I'll probably be on my own to watch the Wedding, but if I had to make a celebration lunch for two, as we romantically did all those summers ago, I would do what I made the other night: a Royal Pork Belly.

Too jolly easy by far, salt and pepper the biggest pork belly you can find.  Into a roasting pan, the oven at 150, three hours, basting every so often.  For the last 10 minutes, bring nearer the top and grill.  Keep an eye on it.   To accompany, well, we had an excellent lentil salad last night, Boil puy lentils for 20 minutes, cool, add chopped red onion, chopped parsley and coriander, carrots, celery, radish, red pepper. Lots of lemon, mustard powder, a little mayo and oil.  Served with the sticky melting pork, endless crackling, and maybe some sweet chilli jelly - good enough for any commoner.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011


Arriving back here after five weeks in the southern hemisphere, I expected my garden to be overgrown and abundant.  But no, it was a sorry dismal little place, muddy, covered with fallen branches and twigs, a slimy green pond, and just a couple of snowdrops (I swear I put in more).  My lovingly-planted hedgerow...sticks in the ground.  The adorable little insect-house... empty. That promising little burrow....zilch. Still, a couple of weeks, and a bit of work, and I'm beginning to see what it was I could have missed while I was away. My single snakes-head fritillary (and I planted twenty-four, this I know) is outshone by a mass of lesser celandine all over the lawn.  Buttercups - thousands of them! 

It's been a busy three weeks with dear son returning unexpectedly - albeit after much subtle imploring ("GET OUT OF TOWN!!") by his dad - from Tokyo. It's been a happy-sad time of big meaty roasts, family treats and dread. The unspeakable tragedy is a constant back-drop, but there are always funny moments.  Rip sat Alyssa down when she'd got tired and upset after days of nasty after-shocks and scary news.  In their cosy flat in Yokohama, he took both her hands in his, looked her in the eye, and soothingly and confidently told her it would soon all be over. “Trust me, I know this for a fact,” he levelled, “it will settle down”....just then a huge after-shock engulfed them, and they just sat there, holding hands, lurching backwards and forwards. They say timing is everything. It was time to get out.

No ovens in Japan, so it was easy to show off. My best was our new fave, brisket - just the usual method, onions, whole garlic cloves, not enough flour, stock, glug of something, celery (inspired) and chunks of carrots.  Slow roast at 150 for three hours or so, remove the meat and vegetables, strain the gravy and mash the onions and garlic through into the stock.  Reduce a bit, add a roux (squish equal parts of flour and soft butter, to the tune of how thin the gravy is) to thicken. Whisk. Bubble. I think we had rice with that, because unusually we were out of potatoes (YAY! I can hear my family cry). 

I love potatoes, I think this country has the best. I could eat them with every single meal.  My favourite here is Maris Piper, although I will always buy Cyprus in season, and I still dream of the little black Shetland potato I found at Waitrose, which I baked and they were like creamy chestnuts with crusty nutty skins.... although I’ve only ever found them once. 

South Africa doesn’t have the best potatoes in my memory, but this trip I made my everyday crispy potatoes, and they were sensational. I put this right down to the totally perfect Avalanche potato we bought and bought and bought at Woolworths, the South African M&S. Everyone (two people) asked how I did them, so here it is: Medium-sized wedges of potato, peeled, into a flat baking tray. Lots. Douse in olive oil, salt and pepper, mix around. Place in a 180 oven, move and unstick them halfway through – not too soon or they’ll collapse. Bake until very crispy, then bake for a little bit more. I would have had exactly that with the brisket and gravy. 

So back to cooking for just two.  It’s warming up slowly here, daffodils are out, almost over really, and when the sun shines, it is the best. Tokyo is still cold and fragile. It took a while for the after-shocks inside their heads to stop, but they couldn’t wait to get back. Not long now, and it will be cherry-blossom time.  

Thursday, 24 March 2011

A Few Bad Men

Back from South Africa, a land of myriad butterflies and scuttling lizards all set about in a bleached and dazzling sun.  It’s been a kaleidoscope of joyful faces, multi-colours and poignant memories.  One such re-visiting was to Fugitives’ Drift.  Just a few miles from the victorious Rorke’s Drift, Fugitives’ Drift tells the opposite story: of the devastating defeat suffered by the British Army at the hands of the Zulu. Where only 55 men escaped the carnage, managed to avoid the relentless assegais, and forded the flooded  Drift back into Natal and to safety.  Where the world's first-ever posthumous VCs are buried, dying in their attempt to save the Queen’s Colours.

We first saw the name on a crooked little sign announcing the “Fugitives’ Drift Lodge”, a vague arrow pointing down a long bumpy track.  It was the mid-eighties.  Visiting home from the UK, we had taken a favourite drive through the heart of Zululand to the quaint little settlement that is Rorke’s Drift. We loved the woollen rugs they dyed and wove at the Lutheran craft centre there.  It was hot and very dry when we came across the sign announcing a drift we had never heard of, so we drove down to get ourselves a drink.  The Lodge looked pretty basic, but we wandered in, up the broad stairs, through the wide dark verandah, and into the cool reception room.  We stood around a bit, looking in fascination at the battlefield memorabilia on tables, the walls, everywhere.  Almost  a museum, we thought.  Eventually a young man appeared, dark hair, and rather pale-faced, he smiled and nodded as we ordered two very cold drinks with ice, please.  We sent him off, and made ourselves at home examining the buttons and bayonets that were obviously on display after being picked up in the area.  It had been a long drive, and we settled back in the comfy chairs as our host brought two tall tinkling glasses of sparkling orange.  We took our time, asking about his wonderful collection. It was obvious he was passionate about this little-celebrated part of the Anglo-Zulu Wars – the battle the Zulus won: Isandlwana.

It was only when we came to pay that that it dawned on us. David Rattray, for it was he, refused our money, saying thank you, but this was not a hotel.  We had made ourselves at home, ordering extra ice even, in his front room!  He smiled at our discomfort.  No, on the contrary, he assured us, he was very pleased we had come. He was planning to open a hotel on this very spot, and to run battlefield tours culminating in the dramatic crossing of Fugitives’ Drift.  Would we like to climb aboard his Land-Rover; he’d give us a personal tour.  He drove us down to the Buffalo River, and first-hand, we got the story of how the 24th were overrun and slaughtered.  How the few men who managed to avoid the stampeding Zulus, the boggy marshes and the slithering gorges, finally either drowned - their heads bobbing and whirling in the flooded pools - or made it across to Natal, and back to the tiny garrison at Helpmekaar. How the two VC’s, Melville and Coghill, tried in vain to save the Queen’s Colours, but were inexplicably murdered and disembowelled on the Natal side, under a huge rock, where they had managed to drag themselves crippled and bleeding. Where they still lie.

David Rattray was to become the world renown Anglo-Zulu War historian, honoured by the Royal Geographical Society, personal friend of Prince Charles, and famed for his passion, his authenticity, and brilliant oratory. He painstakingly interviewed old men on the folk stories handed down from grandfathers. He went on to build the international standard Lodge in the middle of remotest Zululand, and created an industry honouring Zulu history and the Zulu people.  An ordinary man, universally loved and respected.  Then three years ago, he was cruelly murdered in front of his wife by five armed robbers, who took not a penny.  Only David’s life.

Now we were travelling back into the vast shimmering valleys to take the full battlefield tour of the Isandlwana site; and a return to the now unrecognisable property we had innocently stumbled into all those years ago. 

Yes, it was pretty upmarket, that’s for sure, but the welcome was pure warm South African.  After a very long and dusty drive, the looming presence of Isandlwana Mountain hung everywhere.  The singing of the cicadas added to the dense heat.  The tour was led by Mphiwa, a handsome Zulu, whose grandfather and great-grandfather had fought alongside King Cetswayo when he had annihilated Lord Chelmsford’s army.  Mphiwa had a good delivery, and disarmed us when he described the Zulu hoard streaming over the hills, “...just imagine," he stopped and squinted hard across the horizon, taking in the vastness, “.... England.... against the All Blacks!”
In fact it was only half the British force, because Lord Chelmsford, underestimating the war-like Zulu, had taken off on a wild goose chase, and left an inexperienced Lt Col Pulleine in charge of the camp.  1750 men stood with their Martini-Henry rifles and cherry-red jackets as 25,000 or more crazed Zulus poured over and around them. The eerie quality of the mountain made even more so by a total eclipse of the sun during the height of the battle.  

Arriving at the silent battlefield in the shimmering heat was a moving experience.  The beautifully white-painted cairns built over the skeletons of men, exactly where they fell, dotted their retreat back through the valley behind.  A couple of lonely cairns up on the slopes saw an inevitable last stand on the Mountain itself.  Mphiwa told the story of his people’s historic victory, and it sent a shiver to hear him call the original battle cry, “I-SU-THU!!!” and imagine the terror those carved names must have felt.  Each man was disembowelled, and reports state the ground ran vivid and glistening with blood and gore.  They were disembowelled to stop their spirits haunting the Zulus who had killed them.  Captain Durnford - and there’s the large marble cross where he fell - was spared disembowelling:  the Zulus did not regard him as their enemy.  Well over a thousand white skeletons were found, most still in their uniforms, four months later, when the 24th had enough men to return and bury their dead. Two royal tribes locked into a spurious hatred. The Zulu King stated he did not want to fight the British for his own Kingdom, and even today, there is little here an Empire would want.  They were all traduced into a ghastly war by Chelmsford and a couple of duplicitous cronies, Sir Bartle Frere among them, on the make for imperial land. Our British fellow-tourists were left pale and shamed by the story of betrayal perpetrated by Chelmsford in the name of Queen Victoria and the British people.

And of course, that was the end of the fearsome Zulu kingdom.

Sitting under the shade of some acacia trees, sharing the huge mournful area with lots of other tour parties and lecturers; knowing that this is exactly what David strove to bring about, Mphiwa eventually tells us about the day of David’s murder.  Hard to stop the tears as we get the hollow, mindless story.  Five armed men burst into David’s living room, David rushes out to protect his wife Nicky, calls: “Don’t shoot!” They shoot and run away.  It is clear how much they all loved him, and how hard it must be to repeat this story over and over again, on this battlefield, this one man, joined forever.  We climb back into the Landie.  Mphiwa and I softly singing the Click Song. We drive home in the fading golden light with a CD of David’s voice describing the aftermath; finding the Colours in the river two weeks later, the rout at Rorke's Drift, the final defeat and incarceration of King Cetswayo at Ulundi.

Four of the murderers were arrested and jailed.  At dinner that night, another guide lowers his voice as he tells us how the fifth man escaped arrest, but was caught by locals and had both his arms - and he demonstrates with his hands – chopped off. He sits back, and by look he gives, we know this is a folk story full of wishful thinking - the local grief is still very raw.

Nicky Rattray has written in her Lodge welcome letter, that they have spent many a night trying to make sense of what happened. It seems that, just like Isandlwana, there is no making sense of just a few Bad Men.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Marmalade in Heaven

February,  and the marmalade season has brightened my life.  I do get a little excited when I see Sevilles, too excited even, because this year I think I've made about 20 jars, filling my new maslin pan to overflowing. We all make marmalade, and every year my mother is required to declare whose is the best. I confess, I always win - though my sisters, strangely, always seem nearly as  triumphant.

This recipe is no secret, because it's a Delia.  Very dark and chunky, we found our last bottle was two years old, and gee, it was superb. It was Delia who said you could freeze the bitter little oranges.  Just think, I could have had 30 jars. The other beauty is the method, so totally me - long and slow. 

For my second tranche, I used The River Cottage marmalade recipe with demerara sugar - it has a superb light jelly, although I panicked about the amount of pith at the last moment, so spent three hours straining the syrup and trimming every single little shred!  Bliss.

Dark Chunky Marmalade
So: 3lbs (if you can contain yourself) Seville oranges
2 lemons
6 lbs white sugar

Scrub, obviously, add 5 pints water, and bring all fruit to a simmer. Cover well and gently poach for three hours.  Allow to cool, remove all pith and pips from the halved oranges and lemons into a saucepan, add about a pint of the liquor and boil for 10 minutes. Strain the whole lot through a large muslin cloth back into the pan.  Now: the slicing of the orange peel. This is a precision job, as my family has found out. This year I may have gone a teeny over-chunky - no matter. Add the peel back into the pan, and finally, the gooey pith from the  muslin cloth, squeezed and squeezed and squeezed.  If your hands aren't red and raw and stinging after all that.... it'll probably work just as well.   Cover the pan with a cloth, and leave overnight.  
At first light - although I think that's just me - warm the sugar for 10 minutes in the oven (as Delia helpfully puts it, in a roasting pan - like I'm going to pour 6lbs of sugar straight into my oven) and add to the warming liquor, stirring till the sugar is completely dissolved. Bubble gently for three or four hours.  Test for  wrinkles with a cold saucer. Don't be too strict.  The first time I made this marmalade, I boiled it for 6 hours, not believing I had got a set.  A few people lost fillings.

Four hours, and it really will be set.  Leave to cool for at least 30 minutes. More.  The very last thing you want, believe me,  is for the peel to float to the top. Ladle through a wide-mouthed funnel into freshly hot-dishwashered jars. Seal.  Relax.

Excuse me, I think I'm off to find some more oranges...