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.