Wednesday, 30 December 2009


To begin completely irrelevantly, I can't quite bear to listen to Radio 2 just at the moment while still grieving over the loss of Terry, so I have - against all my better judgement - put the TV on while getting dressed (Can I just say at this juncture, I would listen to Radio 4 but this morning they were talking about UEFA Cup management (I think) for an extraordinarily long time and life is too short). Up came the ads in between GMTV and lo and behold, there's this - the newest product on the slimming market - Celebrity Slim. I swear to God, that's what it's called. It gets better - the tag line screams 'It won't make you a celebrity but it can make you thin.' I gaped in awe at the screen - Could there be a more depressing realisation of all the Noughties has stood for for women, aspiration, ambition, desire...

I am now going into the garden to eat worms. And anything else I can find, including the incredible amount of fox shit, if it make me less related to any species that might even contemplate buying into such bollocks.

PS: I blogged on this topic at length on Sugarvine. Go and have a look - let loose your howls of anger...

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

What now....?

Right, that's Christmas over with. I shan't bore you with the details of yet another Christmas meal, but suffice to say, it was fabulous. MCD and I went up to my parents in Warwickshire where their snow made the garden look festive as you please. The lunch - or dinner this year as we got all rebellious and defiantly had the Meal in the evening - was perfection as always. We got our bird from Adlington Turkeys - highly recommended: free-ranging birds practically sung to sleep - you can tell they are cosseted from the large sign that reminds you as you drive up to turn off your headlights so as not to disturb them. I wish I had a sign like that for MCD's 6:30am starts.

I have also been introduced to the wonders of freshly ground coffee. One of the things I wanted this year was a year's subscription to Union Roasted Coffee. I opened up the parcel and was most dismayed to find that MCD had purchased the coffee as beans - and we don't have a grinder. But then, silly me, of course he'd added a Cuisinart coffee grinder to the pile and I have been grinding beans like gangbusters. Top tip: They recommend quite a coarse grind for cafetieres, but I found it was so coarse it didn't brew, so I make mine nearly as fine as for an espresso and it works perfectly.

It's now tipping it down - they promise more snow for New Year's which seems just the thing to round the year off. I shall leave you with the above picture of Sam, my parents' last baby. I have to say, I don't usually hold with dressing dogs in clothes (having said that, we've often put past dogs in their Christmas ribbons and even shocking pink Hair Flair wigs on occasions and I remember Sage, our only girl flatcoat, put on a star turn as Bullseye for the Dickens evening in the village some years ago, but then maybe it's just that Flatcoats look so dashing). Anyway, Sam received both a set of legwarmers and a set of Churchillian collar and cuffs and a squeaky cigar which he perfected the angle of holding incredibly quickly. Of course we had to put them all on at the same time.

Monday, 21 December 2009

How to Drink

No, I wouldn't have thought any of us really required instructions on how to tip more alcohol down our ever more lubricated gullets at this time of year, but there is a small book that's been sat on my shelves for a few months that is worth a read.

A few days ago I was mooching round the various book repositories in the house trying to find something stimulating and light to read with breakfast - I had in mind a light, zabaglione-style read to counter-act the serious, weighty steamed pudding that is the never-ending 2666 by Roberto Bolano.

Ok strange choice for breakfast but go with me here. Victoria Moore's How to Drink was serialised in the Guardian during the summer, so you may have seen some extracts. It completely gripped my imagination. Funnily enough, she's not actually a heavy drinker - she doesn't even like drinking during the day, so my first thought of a meeting of minds with a female Hemingway was pretty sharply blown away. (I must just add in here, my incredulity at her stance on daytime drinking extends only to this time of year or perhaps a serious lunch... I don't actually sit here sipping vodka out of bone china cups all day long).

How to Drink is a light, refreshing guide on all things quaffable, both alcoholic and virgin, if you will. She doesn't aim to reel off reams of off-puttingly - ironically - dry information on terroirs, chateaux, peat bogs and potatoes, but you sense her learning is worn lightly throughout chapters on Breakfast & Brunch; Spring; Summer; Autumn; Winter; and Year-round show-stoppers - an eminently sensible format, I feel, as you know exactly where to turn for inspiration on what it is exactly you feel like drinking at any given time of year.

Some of it is a little counter-intuitive; for example, she does extol the virtues of rosé in winter for a cheery pick-me-up, providing you look for something with 'a bit more red in its cheeks.' For my part, I was completely smitten after the Christmas lunch. Picture the scene: we have feasted the whole day long and drunk like said Hemingway on a mission with a croissant and a glass of Bucks Fizz (which I have to confess I still don't like) at breakfast; canapés in the form of tiny hot sausage rolls and drunken devils on horseback at 12:30 with a bottle of Louis Roederer, then the afore-mentioned smidge of dessert wine and a bottle of 1998 Pauillac with the meal and another smidge of a light Spanish dessert wine with the pudding. We are grossly sated, sitting on the sofa, sipping water and waiting for Strictly... I can barely contemplate more of anything but around 7:30, once everything had gone down a bit, I felt like a bit of a pick-me-up, something cold and light. And then I read this:

'Kir, and why it's far superior to kir royale

[...] Kir is the real thing; a cool glass of white wine which might be a little astringent on its own, but to whose limpid acidity the liqueur adds a lick of heat, and the relief of some sweetness. Taking a sip should feel like standing on a frozen lake on a clear day so raw the wine stings your cheekbones and having someone put a blackcurrant pastille in your mouth.'

Just the very thing, I thought. Bracing is just what is required. So I made two with a splash of cassis and a sauvignon blanc and just 1 ice cube and it was so exactly, inspirationally right after the rich, heavy meal. Genius.
Can't recommend it highly enough.
PS: Utterly unrelated but I have just seen my first feral green parakeet, emerald green against the snow. What's even more extraordinary as how every other bird, even our fat wood pigeons, scarpered beforehand. I prefer the robins.

The Actual Christmas Feast

I promise not to re-hash the previous post too much but, at the risk of repeating myself, how good was our Christmas lunch....? I simply have to pass on the recipe for our chestnut veloute starter, so incredibly festive and rich and luxurious and simple was it.

Adapted from Pascal Aussignac's recipe, for 2 people I simmered 200ml full fat milk (it doesn't sound a lot, but you don't want a lot of this and I served it in white coffee cups) with half a pack of vac-packed chestnuts - about 100g - for 5 minutes or so. I blitzed it up with a hand blender till smooth, then whisked in about 50-75 ml chicken stock and a tsp of Marigold vegetable bouillon powder and brought back to a simmer. This is simple to multiply up as you just want 1 part stock to 4 parts milk. Check the seasoning.

In a dry hot pan, I seared 2 small slices of foie gras till just softened then scooped them into the bottom of the warmed cups (just swill them out with hot water to take the chill off). I blitzed the chestnut soup once more with the blender to make it frothy then poured over the top of the foie gras. I did, I confess, go the whole hog and top with the merest smidge of black truffle sauce, but hey-ho what credit crunch? The foie gras melted into the warmth of the soup and provided the silkiest of textures.

Rich, warming, incredibly luxurious even without the bling ingredients. Next time I might top with a couple of large prawns for a take on surf and turf but equally, I think you could try seared scallops. Think texture as well as taste. With it we had a tiny smidge of a muscat, just to offset the sweetness.
Oh - and the panettone pudding... toppest of top tips: I followed a suggestion of Nigella's to make the custard with half milk, half warmed dessert wine before pouring over the panettone and baking. Well dear reader, it was a triumph. Nowhere near as heavy as the traditional B&B pudding, boozy and light like a sabayon and reheats like a dream. Next stop with brioche.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Christmas Lunch

I am bored bored bored - I am a Border Collie; I am Carole Borderman, to quote Gavin and Stacey - of people fretting about Christmas lunch. The ingredients, the veggie option, how to cook it, when to cook it, what to drink, when to drink it.... Ack - it's a ROAST DINNER with cranberry sauce. Get over it.

In our house we don't exactly follow tradition. For one thing, Christmas is generally spent with a set of parents so MCD and I don't get a Christmas Day of our own. So what do we do? We disregard entirely the birth of baby Jesus (I mean really...) and have our Christmas Day the weekend before. And when I say Christmas Day, it's got everything. Champagne, crackers, presents, loud christmas music, a huge meal, chocolate, films (Shaun of the Dead is a must), MCD slumped on the sofa with a cocked paper hat on (he is very insistent. 'It is tradition' he cries when I demur. Last year he ended up wearing 4 in his pissed yet doggedly persistent state. There is photographic evidence), me in a pinny drifting floatily round in a haze of breakfast Baileys and elevenses Champagne. And because it's not actually Christmas Day (you poor sad schmucks - what does tradition get you but endless repeats and the Guns of sodding Navarone) the telly is still brilliant. And because it's not actually Christmas Day, we get another Christmas Day a week later. With more food and wine and presents. Clever, no?

(I sincerely love Christmas and I am not ashamed to admit, I love the presents. As a kid, I used to save - save - some presents for Boxing Day to make the festivities stretch further; my sister used to rail against my self-control, declaring me unnatural. On Boxing Day I would smugly and slowly open my remaining gifts in front of her. savouring the sound of her jealous weeping. I might even have saved one till tea-time. This is just another way of spreading the joy of Christmas.)

Aaanyway... because there's only two of us, we now forego the traditional turkey. I did it one year, then we went to the parents-in-law for Christmas proper and came home 4 days later to find the time in the fridge had improved its sorry carcass not at all and the whole thing went in the bin. I look for restaurant-style dishes that indicate we are in for a sumptuous feast. Venison with fig tarts, last year's beef with stewed oxtail stuffed in a marrowbone with a marrow risotto and roast root vegetables and so on. This year, my fatted friends, we have goose. I can make a cassoulet the next day out of the leftovers.

Starter is to be a foie gras and chestnut veloute, courtesy of Pascal Aussignac of Club Gascon. It should also include lobster, but given I am allergic, you can forget that. Then roast goose with Nigella's panettone and Italian sausage stuffing, roast potatoes, maple-roast parsnips, shredded cavolo nero, cranberry sauce and gravy. And then - because what else can you do with it - panettone pudding, made with a bottle of dessert wine in the custard. Hardly Elizabeth David's omelette and a glass of Champagne but, then, we like to feast and know about it afterwards as we roll like weebles back into the lounge.

I shall post photos of my gorgeous dining room when I've laid the table for lunch, but before MCD gets his sweaty mitts on the shiny crackers.

It's not what I expected...

Working in the bookshop is a constant education. As I mentioned in my last post, I am accompanied by a near-constant sense of panic when I look at all these books and how did I ever let myself get so out of touch. Although, when The Bookseller said portentously 'We've sold Bleach', it is a mark of the steep curve of my education that the first thought in my mind was not in fact Domestos.

There are other highlights: The Actor who comes in to give helpful hints on how to start a riot at the Crystal Palace cinema campaign; The Sci-Fi Drunk who farted loudly and wetly during the umpteenth discussion on whether we would take his (non-existent?) water-damaged collection (ummm... no.); The bizarre quantity of books we stock by the local rock 'n' roll, band-playing author-vicar; the discount on good coffee at La Bruschetta next door; the mysterious and sometimes frankly weird music we play (I got most excited yesterday that I recognised the songs playing for a whole 43 minutes - it was Crowded House. Customers ask me 'What's the music?' I reply 'No idea - it's on the IPod' as if this is a proper answer.)

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

An epiphany or two - Warning: A very long post

So here I am in the New World of freelancing, hopping here and there between jobs and tasks. I have just been granted membership to The Guild of Food Writers which is an enormous step forward both for me and my job prospects, and them for starting to embrace the alien concept that is online food writing.

Having been off formal work for nearly 2 weeks now, I have, in the manner of one who perhaps has a tad too much time on her hands (but only a tad), had a few startled revelations; namely:

1. How in the world does anyone with a full-time job get anything done? I used to be that person, struggling womanfully on, doing all the household chores on a Saturday morning (or even on a Friday night if MCD was out - I know how to have a good time), shopping on a Sunday, cooking every night, working all day with a 3-hour commute to boot - how - how - did I fit it all in? And now it's this present-buying, list-making, freaking-panicking time of the year, it's even more of a conundrum.

These days I seem to be set to a go-slow option, where jobs and tasks and chores are achieved unaccompanied by the mild panic that it must be done and ticked off the list - it's made me realise just how stressed and screwed tight I was; just like every other working woman, I was juggling 14000 different things and surviving - not thriving. That's not to say there aren't hour-long moments of panic about just where my money is going to come from, or whether I'm spending my time fruitfully and in an applied and efficient manner, or whether my brain is simply going to wither away without external stimulation - just that life at a slightly slower pace is a life slightly better lived.

2. Working in the bookshop in Crystal Palace has started off a slightly peculiar train of thought. Back in the heady days of my youth, when I dreamt of being married to a poet and heading my own literary group and living in Paris or Cadiz (don't ask) wearing black polonecks and sipping brandy (probably not suited for both Paris and Cadiz, but you get the picture), Literature was my thing. I knew the new hot titles, the out-of-prints, the rare wanted-but-never-to-be-seen-again titles, books others would love; then I moved into the world of food and my broad love of writing narrowed to the subject in hand. In the last 7 or 8 years, my general literature range reduced as I read more and more about food and got lazy with other genres, stuck with tried and trusted favourite authors, only experimenting with new books when I went on holiday. I became someone I thought I never could be - a restricted reader (the horror). It's nice to know I have a specialised field, but nowadays I am left a little panicky about my lack of knowledge of literature generally.

Now in the shop I stand there behind the counter and think 'I used to know this stuff and now I don't.' This makes me slightly stressed - can I ever learn all this again? Where did all that knowledge go? Why am I so stupid? (As I said, a tad too much time on my hands...) I want to be erudite again. And at the moment, that feels decidedly not the case.

3. Being unemployed - or at least going from the 9-5 to the whatever-whenever - means that your mindset has to change completely and that can leave you out of step with the person you live with. When you're both working full-time, you have something in common, be it the stresses of the commute, the same lack of time, the decisions of whether to spend the evening out with friends in order to catch up or in with your partner to catch up; either way someone is left out. But all the same, it is a common bond and one that means you are running, albeit slightly frenetically, on parallel tracks.

Once one of you loses your job/steps aways from the rat race, that common bond is dissolved. I experienced it myself this year when MCD got made redundant and was out of work for quite some time over the summer. I caught myself feeling a near-constant low-level simmer of resentment that he was off work throughout the summer and I couldn't have a holiday, or that I still somehow had to fit in at least half the housework and all of the shopping (Bless him, he did his bit but why must men require a detailed list of chores after nearly 6 years of living together?) When he went back to work, it was a relief because then we understood each other again.

Now I am at home, I can see the other side of the story, albeit with a slight twist. I am not an ambitious workaholic - the thought of it makes me feel a little ill - so working from home with its flexible time suits me down to the ground. I enjoy pottering and the structure working in the bookshop brings for a few hours at a time, I enjoy household chores and doing bits and pieces here and there. But the common working bond has gone again. The working partner will never quite believe you haven't been sitting on your arse all day (see Point 1), but in your own head you've achieved an incredible amount and you're quite satisfied. I am getting my rest, you think.

I - and I accept this is purely our relationship dynamic - am still, in my head, responsible for making home life as wonderful and pleasant as possible for the disgruntled worker which entails using a certain amount of headspace and mental effort, effort which I rather need for myself right now looking for projects and work. That need to keep each other's spirits up is part of being in a relationship, but sometimes you need to step back for a second and take stock. Life is going to be very different from now on and we both need to adjust and maybe that means recognising that our former work bond must be replaced by something else, hopefully something a lot healthier and less mutually stressful.

Life is tricky, rushed, stressy enough. With a little effort it needn't be demoralising too.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

A little rant about Farmers Markets

My piece in Crystal Palace Transmitter magazine - P9 Death of a Farmers Market

Turkey Time...

Check out my blog on - how much are you prepared to spend on the Christmas feast this year?

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Eating Notes

So still at home, still cooking... a few more ideas that I've played around with...

A splendid, adaptable, winter soup:

Sweat a chopped onion and sliced leeks in butter until meltingly soft. Add a quarter of a cauliflower, divided into florets and a good couple of handfuls of scrubbed Jerusalem artichokes. (Quantities are very much up to you, but this was what was in the fridge). Pour over a litre of vegetable or chicken stock (I used Marigold for the savouriness), add a couple of bay leaves and simmer for about 20-30 minutes, until everything is completely tender.

Blitz until smooth (removing the bay leaves first) and check the seasoning. I've eaten this in a couple of ways so far - try it with crumbled crisp fried streaky bacon; plain with a drizzle of extra virgin; topped with chopped parsley and grated Parmesan and a drizzle of olive oil. You might try adding in crumbled chestnuts (Merchant Gourmet do vac-packed ones that are indispensable) with the bacon, or use Parma ham.

A literary breakfast:

Not entirely sure why, but anyway I tossed cod's roes in a very little flour seasoned with a little paprika, mustard powder, salt and pepper and fried them in some butter. I added a couple of tablespoons of cream, a squeeze of lemon and adjusted the seasoning for a 'devilled' effect, then tipped the lot over a slice of home-made buttered granary toast. One for a cold morning.

A bloody mystery, frankly:

Tonight - depending on what the lump of defrosting red meat is (when, when will I learn to label freezer bags?) - we will be having either Nigel's recipe for lamb chops, where the onions are fried off with the meat, deglazed with some red wine and grain mustard and served with a chickpea mash; or steak stroganoff with cannellini beans and a pile of greens on t'side for our health.

PS: Contrary to all expectations, my own included, I made lamb stroganoff with cannelli bean mash and kale. It probably goes against all the rules, but lamb goes so well with the smoky notes of paprika and meatiness of the mushrooms that it worked. Just remember to keep the lamb pink-ish.

A Fantasy Christmas Wish List

Nicole Diver's shopping list in Tender is the Night always springs to mind around this time of year, if only for the sheer out-there unlikeliness of receiving any of it: the lovebirds, the scarves, the rubber alligator (why?), the travelling gold and ivory chess set....

But there are still a few objets de desire that one might wish for this Christmas, to make the heart beat a little faster. Oh and can I recommend that for divine inspiration and the perfect start to the Christmas wish list, no matter who you're shopping for, visit India Knight's Posterous.

1. A bottle of Julian Temperley's Alchemy - his own Somerset cider brandy

2. Any of the gorgeous new Penguin bound editions of the classics

3. A box set of Katharine Hepburn films (now one can indulge on a winter afternoon)

4. Some luxurious new pyjamas

5. A Lartigue photograph (I did mention this was fantasy, right?)

6. Or indeed a Cecil Beaton photograph, perhaps of the Jungman sisters

7. Or maybe Brassai in his French phase

8. A winter rose bush

9. A beautifully bound copy of T S Eliot's poems

10. A jewel ring

And I wouldn't say no to Sacla's tiny jar of anchovies and white truffles, which when melted and gently heated in butter, then swirled with a little Prosecco, make the most incredible sauce for tagliatelle.