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.