27 November 2008

lightening up

November is never an easy month and this year it seems to have been long and gloomy and more redolent of loss and decay than it normally is. So here is something a little lighter. It comes from the window of a little newsagent /stationers shop that I rather like in Greenwich.

I love reading home made adverts,. They range from the mundane to the oblique and totally outrageous. You never know what treasures you are going to find there. These are just two of the spoofs posted by a local comedian/ artist. There was also a great "luxury caravan" holiday ad with accompanying polaroid of a 60's brown and buff caravan ( which actually I would have been very happy to spend a holiday in). But the fountain pen ad tickles me most of all. As well it might.

Oh, and I've started buying (and having a glass of) sherry, which is always a sign that Christmas is on its way.

25 November 2008

kitchen dreams

I unearthed this book in my cupboards in one of my recent purges. It was probably the first hardback cookery book that I ever bought. She writes well, Jane Grigson. History, provenance, poetry are woven together with lovely words like "inasmuch" and "hugger-mugger". Looking back at it now, you can see how much has changed. So many more varieties of vegetables are available. When she lists potato varieties, she suggests that you will have to grow your own to get hold of anything other than three or four commercially grown varieties. How things have changed.

And how some things have not. You see, the other thing that I loved about this book was the cover - a painting called "Cuisine Provencale" by Antoine Raspal, It was the leafy chard, cabbage and artichokes that fired by allotment ambitions. I wanted baskets full of vegetables, stripy cushions with cats on them, copper pans and cast iron pots, earthenware jugs, a wooden table, the rosy cheeks. I did not even mind the idea of washing drying. It all seemed like a tall order at the time.

I got them in the end - the pots and pans and shady kitchen

I grew the veg. The cats arrived. The cushions were sewn. Fires were lit. Soups were stirred. Washing hung to dry indoors for months on end.

It's been the same for years. No agonising over colour schemes, it's just painted over in the same shades. Some of it needs repair - the drafts from the cracks in the floorboards and the broken draining board need fixing and the chairs need re-rushing. Manana, manana.

I'm very grateful to Mrs Grigson for the inspiration.

24 November 2008

weighing up: inside

Christmas lights are being switched on all over town, but it is the ritual of making the Christmas Cake which marks the crossing over from autumn to winter for me.

So we've assembled our long list of ingredients. We hunted around for dried peaches and pears, decided that actually it was not compulsory to include glace cherries (I've never liked them) and substituted dried cranberries, forgot that we still had half a bottle of metaxa to use up and need not have bought more. We've weighed and chopped and measured and stirred, sipped beer and slugged brandy, tested and tasted and sniffed.

I've been making this boiled fruit cake for years, not always successfully. One year I forgot to put in the butter, so immersed was I in the weighing and chopping of the long list of ingredients. Most years I scorch the top of the cake, so long does it take to bake.

The first batch of ingredients have been boiled and spiced and filled the kitchen with their lovely, wintry scents. It's steeping in our chilly kitchen. If there aren't too many stolen spoonfuls, just to see how it's maturing, and if I get the rest of the ingredients weighed up properly and if I use the right size tin, maybe, just maybe, this will be the year it comes out perfect.


22 November 2008

weighing up: outside

Decisions, decisions. Which way to go?

Graveney marshes on one side, the winter sun low in the sky lighting up the sheep and reeds. Wind whistling through the wires and piercing the layers of woollens, hat and coat.

On the other side, the sea.

The sound of curlews. Lapwings in the distance. A cormorant washed up on the shore.


19 November 2008

november black and white

I have been wearing too much black. I'm not even sure how it happened. I've been trying to lighten up a bit my making sure that even with my summer clothes stored away, I at least have a few bright cardigans and scarves. So I'm not quite sure how I have ended up day after day in such dark colours - black frocks, black skirts, black pants, black coats. If I hadn't splashed out on some extravagantly purple hose (ah, hose, such a lovely word) I would be completely monochromatic.

However....it was the East End WI AGM last night. Monochromatic it was not. Colourful, boozy, surreal even, it was. Two lovely ladies came from the Essex Federation to explain the arcane governance arrangements and how to conduct an orderly AGM. They managed heroically, though I got the impression that they don't have Brazilian themed AGMs with strong cocktails in rural Essex. I hope we don't get excommunicated for misbehaviour.

The Brazil quiz was a cinch with Lucy on our team as she'd spent some time in Rio. So we each got a Morsbag filled with edible Brazilian themed goodies. And just look at those lovely monochromatic ants to help me through the winter.

Things are brightening up.

18 November 2008

november roses

I've been picking stone roses and flowers for a few weeks now. It started in a church in Cambridge and since then I've been surprised at quite how many of them are around. The doorway of Wilton's Music Hall is my favourite with its swags of exotic fruits and flowers.

Those roses have seen a few changes over the years - Music Hall, Mahogany Bar, Seaman's Club, Rag Sorters, hidden away behind Cable Street. When my mum and I stopped by the other day, she talked about the dairy round the corner where she and her sisters used to peek in to see the cows being milked. She said the cows used to be allowed out for a walk out for some fresh air across the street. Hard to imagine now.

These roses are in Hackney where we went to see this...

The Round Chapel, once a home of dissension, masquerades as a music hallis and is now used for all sorts of diverse entertainment, . It was here we saw the beautiful medieval badges that the mudlarks had found, admired Stephen Gill's Hackney Flowers and heard from Iain Sinclair about his rose red empire.

And just round the corner, when I looked up on my way to the station one day last week, above the rather grand gate of the local girl's school, a modest little swag.

Just to take my mind off of the leaves on the pavement.

17 November 2008

november blues

After days of damp weather, a couple of hours of blue sky can turn your mood.

After a damp afternoon yesterday and a some mood suppressing shopping, I arrived back to an empty house and found this waiting for me.

Just as good.

16 November 2008

string quintet

It's pretty quiet on the plot this time of year. Most of the harvesting has been done, but several marigold plants are continuing to bloom in the damp and gloom. There are still some beets, chard and kohlrabi waiting to be pulled and in the garden, sage, marjoram, mint and rosemary are thriving. The mystery brassicas and my late sown saladings - some red mustard, rocket and mizuna - are soldiering on against the ravages of pigeons, magpies and parakeets. Actually, I'm not sure whether the parakeets are responsible and they may have more exotic tastes so perhaps I should not libel them.

The best kept plots already already have young onions, spring cabbage and chinese greens. But other plots are looking a little tired.

And there was no music - just the squeaking of a few wheelbarrows, paths being swept and those thieving birds waiting for us to go home.

10 November 2008


Walking east along the Strand at home time is to feel like a salmon swimming upstream as everyone else makes their way west to Charing Cross. Down past the Roman bath (the sign said downstairs, turn left), then the rural cabbie's cottage and you come to a haven. Temple.

So civilised.

09 November 2008

in search of lost tastes

There was a time when this was my cooking bible. It was the first cookery book that I bought (this is my second copy - the first fell to pieces). I worked my way through Boston baked beans, liver in the venetian manner, chicken liver pilaff. I was using this pre-BSE days, but even so I avoided the brain fritters, though - and I can't quite believe this now - I definitely had a go once at making brawn.

I got a yearning for onion, bacon and potato hotpot a week or so ago and there was a scrabble round to find the recipe, hence the resurrection and nostalgic reflection. I sat up in bed and read through the recipes, remembering where I was when I tried them for the first time. I spent a few years travelling around and the book came with me, There was the fruit-picking summer in the Vale of Evesham when I first tried summer pudding. A bleak winter in Bedfordshire when my Christmas pudding was made with potatoes and carrots (vegetable plum pudding). The time in our new flat in Bethnal Green when we were both sick after eating Suleiman's pilaff made with leftover lamb. Each of the familiar recipes evoked memories of time and place and taste - a kind of reverse "madeleine" experience.

Cookery books make great bedtime reading, even those without quite so much personal resonance. I've found it hard recently to read anything else lately. This book, for example, is not a work of great literature. It does not try to be clever and it is sparing in its use of anecdote. But there is something about the rhythm of the lists of ingredients and instructions that is comforting and lulls you to sleep. And the other good thing about it, unlike most modern cookery books, is that it's pretty lightweight, so when you do nod off and if falls onto your face it does not break your nose.

It may have been re-reading this that attracted me to the kale in the market yesterday; it may have been my longing lately for green cabbegey things; or it may have been the beauty of the leaves.

I thought the book had a recipe for colcannon but I ended up winging it. Very delicious it was too. And very cheap.

07 November 2008

do leave off

What freakin' dreekin' weather we have been having this week. The flower stalls outside the District Line stations have been the only bright spots in the dark, drizzly evenings. Then, this morning, a sudden fall of leaves overnight and a hint of sunshine lighting up the wet pavements on the walk to the station. Droves of young girls on their way to school tripping along chatting, the leaves sticky with dampness and making patterns against the grey slabs. A solitary man's shoe on the path. A Poem on the Underground. My favourite Russets for sale at the fruit stall.

By the time I got to work the gloom of the last few days had lifted. Lunch of leftover sausage and lentil stew and a walk through Piccadilly (Bates window was full of felt hats after all!), people purposefully going about their business. Later, a glass of red wine to celebrate Friday, drunk at our desks.

On the way home, lamplight shining through the leaves like a Samuel Palmer moon.

I promise - no more autumn leaves.

05 November 2008


It is stress awareness day today and the campaign theme is "don't worry, take action". Now, I missed the cholesterol test and the BMI shaming and the flu jab I was scheduled to have yesterday at our health awareness day because I had a knot in my neck and a shocking headache and was at home larded with fragrant wood lock wearing a heated wheat bag. But I'd heard a radio programme earlier about Elgar and his beloved Malverns, and it reminded me of this recipe which my friend and I used to make years ago. So I stopped worrying, took action and made one.

Perfect comfort food. Perfect antidote.

We'll eat the sardines another day.

04 November 2008

more fishy tales

The state of my kitchen cupboard was starting to get to me. First there's tidying and throwing away anything that might harbour botulism (4 year old curry paste might have been in the hazard zone). Then I impose an "eating through the cupboards" regime for a week or two.

Looks like we are going to be eating a lot of sardines on toast.

02 November 2008

sea, walls and other treasures

I was going to write today about "mordros" - the sound of the sea. I managed to record some short videos of the stream running into the sea and, as the gradation changed from the smaller to larger stones as we walked along the beach, the changing resonance of the crunching of our shoes on the pebbles. They took too long to load though. Never mind.

Mordros is another Cornish word, used by Kurt Jackson, an artist who lives in Cornwall. You can read about his work here, which is also where I came across the word gloose and here. Mordros is the sound that I try to conjure up when I relax at the end of my yoga class and I'm going to be trying to hold on to it over the next week as I return to the rhythm of everyday life.

We also found some lovely Cornish walls. We walked one evening along the beach path to Newlyn, marvelled at the size of the granite stones used to build the harbour walls and the labour that went into the construction . On our way back we watched a lone fishing boat come into the harbour with its single light aloft on a pole. The next day we went back and found gardens full of agaves and succulent paths, spleenworts and ferns growing in the granite walls.

Somehow the pace of time changed in Cornwall. It was as if Greenwich Mean Time warped into some other tempo. We visited friends, saw paintings and drawings and people, ate ice cream before the season ended, learned about plants that would like living in the London Heat Puddle at the marvellous Hardy Exotics. we brought home second hand books, plants, anemones, soleil d'or, pasties (for the boy), saffron cake, a fire brick from an ironmongers in Hayle (something we have needed for ages).

The saffron cake and pasties have gone already. The flowers are giving pleasure here and elsewhere. The plants will be off to their new homes this week. The fire brick will be serving its purpose all through the winter. And the sound of the sea, I'm rather hoping, will sustain us for a long time.