Sunday, 10 December 2017

Peasants’ salad

Roughly chopped cherry tomatoes; a finely-chopped shallot; a slosh of white wine vinegar; a glug of extra virgin olive oil; fiercely ground rock salt; freshly ground black pepper; basil leaves; and a slice of baguette torn into the bowl with the other ingredients. All stirred vigorously together so the juices flow and soak into the bread.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Fish restaurant

A new fish restaurant was opening somewhere in London; as a stunt, the guests invited to their opening night all had names related to fish; and my mother had received two free places. Not that her name has anything to do with fish. Instead she had been given them by a Mr Herring, who was, I seem to remember, a colleague of my father, who was in Glasgow and could not go. To make up for her somewhat suspect credentials, my mother chose as her dining companion her old friend Sue Tirbutt: homophonically at least she accorded with the rules.


Sue’s name made no difference as it turned out; at the tables in the restaurant, there were place cards: one for “A. Herring”, where my mother sat; and the second for “Friend of A. Herring”. Sitting next to my mother was a Reverend Salmon. He had come equipped with an autograph book, which he handed round to the guests on his table. At least my mother shared an initial with the absent invitee with the piscatory name. She promptly signed  the book “Ali Herring”.

Monday, 4 December 2017

A Present from Africa

We were collecting my father from Kennington tube late one evening in my mother’s brown mini. Standing at the domed entrance with my father was another man, a stranger. My father came over to the car apologetically. “Can we give him a lift to West Norwood. He’s just landed at Heathrow and there are no buses.” My mother agreed and both men got into the car. The traveller was carrying a huge cloth sack and I wondered what was in it but didn’t like to ask. He had flown from somewhere in Africa and was here to see his family. The journey was curiously punctuated by a pattering sound. It was ignored, we dropped our new acquaintance, thanking us energetically, at a house in West Norwood, and headed home. In the morning, my mother realised the source of the pattering sound. The floor of the car was strewn with dried white beans.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Robust Soup

Someone I know invented this, but I cannot remember who it was. Possibly Lucy, who wrote another guest blog years ago but I have lost touch with her. Not my mother who would never give such a name to one of her creations. So I cannot give credit for the recipe on first publication, but am very happy to set the record straight. I am not convinced by the stock cube, nor the mixed herbs.

Ingredients:

1 large white onion, finely chopped
Finely chopped garlic
1 leek, sliced into half cm rings
2 red peppers, cut into .5 cm squares
1 carrot, chopped into rings then each ring quartered
1 courgette, cut as carrot
2 tins tomatoes
2 medium potatoes
Handful pasta
Handful lentils or pearl barley
Lentils
1 stock cube
600 ml water
Mixed herbs
Marjoram
Turmeric
Paprika
Black pepper


Cook garlic and onion in olive oil. Add other vegetables, add stock and water. Cook. Eat.

Saturday, 2 December 2017

Three golden days

In August 1984, I was in that rare position of being between schools. It was a time for looking back and forwards; it was a gap when nothing mattered because all was to begin again; and it was a hugely long summer holiday. We spent it partly in France, staying in a caravan in Fréjus.

Our friends, the Watsons, were staying in another campsite nearby. Chris Watson had first met my mother at work when she was pregnant with me, and had offered my mother her daughter Kate’s outgrown baby clothes. My mother had recently been told that I might be twins, was overwhelmed with the prospect and gratefully accepted the offer. Thus I began my life wearing girls’ clothes. Chris's husband Dave had won my father's admiration early on by repairing his car. There the friendship had started and we had holidayed together many times, with my brother William and Kate's sister, Emma, not long following their elder siblings. "The littleuns", Kate and I had used to call them with great superiority.

The campsite where the Watsons were staying was in a place called Roquebrune, near a lake. We drove there one morning. Those were the days before mobile phones and the plans had been vague: so there was that wonderful tantalising question of whether they would even be there; and the half surprise when we found one another.

I was swiftly given an opportunity to show off my recently acquired Common Entrance French. My parents went off on some errand leaving my brother and I with the Watsons. On the way to the lake, we passed a fruit stall and Chris liked the look of the apricots. “Des abricots, s’il vous plaît”, I said to the stallholder, receiving from Chris and Dave, whose schooldays had finished years before, looks that made me blush with pride.

The Watsons introduced us to their new friends, near neighbours in their campsite: the Ranges. Peter,  a gravelly accountant, Eileen, an amateur singer with one of the most infectious laughs I have ever known, and their daughter Sarah who would one day become a solicitor who instructed me and a great friend. Not yet though; the age gap of about three years was far too great and I don’t think we addressed a single word to one another during the holiday. Instead she and Kate sunbathed silently by the lake, turning away in horror and shielding their faces whenever my father’s video camera went anywhere near them. When my father got round to editing the holiday video, setting it to music, he pointedly set shots of the two teenagers refusing in the embarrassed way to engage with his filming to a song which went “Building a wall to surround you, gathering all your treasures around you, building a life apart...” Peter and Eileen were less reticent. “Isn’t it lovely?” mused Eileen on camera.

It was. The three families spent three golden days by the lake in Roquebrune. When the video later emerged, my father had included our munching on baguette with saucisson to the Beatles’ “Have you seen the little piggies?”

The first night Chris and Dave entertained us next to their caravan and Chris produced a most extraordinary food which she had bought in the local market, “to try it”. My mother’s conclusion: “If you'd mixed a white sliced loaf with a tin of Kit-e-Cat and shoved it in a pig's bladder, the result would have been about the same.”

The following night my parents entertained the Watsons and the Ranges in their caravan. I cannot remember what we ate but my father managed to persuade Dave that evening that it really would not take him as long as he thought to drive back to Calais and home and that the Watsons should really stay another night. As an added incentive, if one were needed, Peter and Eileen invited us all to a barbecue on what would be our third night.

The next day, disaster struck by the lake. Peter had been showing us all the art of windsurfing. Patient though he was with me, I realised quickly that this was yet another sport at which I would never even achieve even the most basic skill and retired to read with the others. Meanwhile, my father was swimming in the lake. His goddaughter, Emma, was floating on an airbed and he thought it would be amusing if he swam underneath the airbed and popped up the other side to surprise her. As he slipped below the water, he felt his glasses go ... and they were a murky shadow before him that he was unable to grab as they sank to the bottom.

Those who could swim went out to join my father. I felt inadequate and wished I could have been among them. They all returned, but it was not a joyous swim. They had taken it in turns to dive for the lost glasses but without success. My father, without his glasses, looked worn and fragile.

Eventually, we returned to the campsite. There had been adult talk of our needing to begin our drive back to England the following day. My mother would need to drive all the way. The idea of finding an optician’s in France was, curiously, not discussed.

The barbecue went ahead, the mood a little more sombre than it had been for the past three days. Eileen cheered us by producing a bowl of what she persisted in calling rat-tat-tat-touille. The loss of the glasses did not prevent my father from filming; on the contrary, he told us wryly that he could see quite well through the viewfinder. And he was to be rewarded. Later on that evening, he reached into his video bag for a spare battery or something and found ... his spare pair of glasses whose existence he had completely forgotten. Someone produced a still camera and he capered around for the shot, losing years, and everyone around him was grinning with relief. The end of three golden days.

Monday, 13 November 2017

Another gingerbread house

In 1982, my brother, Will, had an au pair called Lotta. She was from Sweden and introduced us to gravadlax and Swedish meatballs. We, in turn, introduced her to marmite, which she could not bear or even comprehend. We put a small jar of it into her stocking and my father filmed the look of horror that crossed her face when she unwrapped it.

The same Christmas, she had made a traditional gingerbread house for us. It had wooden figures, toadstalls and candles. Cotton wool snow. I arrived home from school to be told of this wonder and my mother took me into the dining room to see it. She struck a match to light the candles; the head of the match flew off and hit a collection of Pampas grass that was in a vase behind it and the Pampas grass started blazing. My brother burst into tears; my mother picked up the roaring Pampas grass and carried it through the hall and out of the front door. Crisis averted.

Back in the dining room, standing next to a patch of scorched brown flowery wallpaper, Lotta was surveying ruefully the remains of her gingerbread house: collapsed walls; a strong smell of melted sugar; charred cotton wool snow, singed figures and blackened toadstools. A combination of the Wizard of Oz and Hansel and Grethel...

Hot cross buns

The mistake I used to make was to toast these until brown. In my view, they should be toasted until hot and no more. Then spread thickly with butter. The best hot cross buns I ever encountered - full of fruit - were in Hyderabad, India (one of the largest Moslem centres in India), on a Good Friday.

There is a wonderful episode in Frances Hodgson Burnett's "A Little Princess" where the ravenous heroine, Sara Crewe, discovers a silver sixpence dropped in the gutter, asks at the baker's whether anyone has lost it, then, reassured, buys six currant buns warm from the oven and, finally, gives five of them away to a beggar girl who is "even hungrier" than she, Sara, is.