Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Rockett St George

paul-farrell-limited-edition-tree-series-2096-pThere is hardly one thing on Rockett St George I wouldn't want at any time of the year, let alone Christmas. Possibly everyone I know will be getting something from here. Love it. A lot.

Friday, 18 November 2011

On friendship, with a side order of soup

NB: Rambly.

It’s a funny old thing, friendship. As Tania K points out, no-one really sings about it; Love is the eternal, the worshipped, the all-important ending. But friendship also – and sometimes even more so – lifts us up where we belong (to coin a phrase, although does anyone else find Bette Midler’s rendition particularly irritating, in passing?).

Living up here in Cheshire now, without the solid structure of friendships around me as I had in London, along with the age-old game of making new friends has made me rethink a lot of what I thought I knew. How do we make friends? At school, at university, in our jobs, through life-changing circumstances… all of these cause new people to be thrown into our paths and hopefully some of them might just be walking along the same path as you for a while. I’m not sure length of friendship or even physical closeness is what makes it hold faster; sometimes it’s just the very intensity of the situation in which you met can bond you tighter for a while. Once something changes, it’s only natural that first passion, for want of a better description, fades a little and the bond, the glue holding you together loosens just a little. Sometimes friendships survive it, sometimes they just fade away.

Longevity is a funny thing. We went to a wedding recently. It was one of our university friends, someone MCD lived with, incidentally marrying someone we have never met. Living in London, eager, or even not un-eager, to continue the friendship meant three of them would meet up every few months or so. It wasn’t necessarily a close friendship; do we just sometimes need to see people who knew us then. Who knew us as we were before responsibilities, ties, life got in on the act. Do we just need to be reminded of who we were as well as of the times we had? A device, rather than a friend, one might say. The wedding was all it should have been, but as MCD and I watched the First-Dance Shuffle, we realised that this wedding was about – as are all weddings – the friend’s life and we knew no-one else there. (In point of fact we were put on a table with his father’s friends…) We had moved to the periphery in each others’ lives and that former closeness had dissipated over the years. The fact we didn’t even know the bride spoke volumes. It left us sad, but curiously unfazed.

It got me thinking. I’m going through that first intense passion again – I have my first ‘hot date’ with a new friend next week and the thought fills me with joy. Moreover, an evening date with no children which makes me think she finds me interesting enough without a small child to distract and fill in the silences. My ego is boosted. But on the other hand, I have to maintain my friendships in London. The shorthand you get with familiarity and frequent meetings has already vanished and the phone calls must be planned and timed for sleeping children or abruptly terminated for the same reason. It makes it slightly awkward, with too much to say and not enough time. You have to learn to summarise briefly and observe the niceties by making sure you ask as much as you answer, ask after and send love. There’s more etiquette to fit in and less time for chat.

Then there’s the rediscovery of ancient friendship. I’m now living close to my oldest friend. She and I have been together for – being quite accurate – 28 years. (We have to minus a few years because there was the ‘Donna’ period and it all got messy in a 5-year-old triumvirate kind of way….). As I’ve said before, we haven’t lived this close since we were seven, and our phonecalls were practised pieces of our own kind of shorthand; friendship in precision, etiquette dealt with quickly before moving on to the hardcore stuff. Now I’m having to re-learn the art of taking it slowly with her, hanging out, learning the finer details of her life and finding more – and less – in common as we go.

In many ways, the essence of friendship can be trickier than love. Love tends to be viewed - wrongly - as a one-time-only deal, but even if you love two, three, four times in your life, the number of friendships are still going to be many times that - so many different relationships to be managed and thought over and fought over at the same time. Is love the steadier in the face of fraught friendship; the quid pro quo for when love goes sour?

Happily there's always soup for the soul in these moments. It's a long-winded process making ham and pea soup, but the final dish is so comforting on rainy cold days, it's worth the effort. It's a two-parter so you could always do it over a couple of days if you can't face whole hours in the kitchen, but there's not much to it other than occasional stirring.

Part 1: Place a large ham hock in a deep pot with a carrot, celery stalk and onion cut into chunks. Add some parsley stalks, a small handful of black peppercorns and fennel seeds. Pour over a bottle of dry cider (in this case 568ml) and top up with water to cover. Put the lid on and bring to the boil, then turn down to a simmer and cook the ham very slowly for about 2 hours or until it pulls away from the bone.

Once the ham is cooked, sieve the cooking liquid and discard the vegetables. Taste - it should be faintly salty and sweet from the veg and cider. At this point you can refrigerate everything, or just push on through.

I had about 1 litre of cooking liquor, so use this as a general measure. First finely chop (and by this I mean just blitz in a food processor) 1-2 carrots, 1 celery stalk and 1 onion. Fry gently in a little oil in a deep pan then tip in about 400-500g yellow split peas. Pour over the stock and bring to the boil. Put the lid on and cook gently for about an hour, stirring and topping up with water occasionally if necessary. When the peas are grainy and soft and collapsed, you're almost ready to go.

To finish: Flake the ham - as much as you want - into the soup and adjust the seasoning. Layer some good melting cheese - anything you fancy - onto a slice of toast, top with another and grill or bake until the cheese has melted. Once you've ladled the soup into bowls, I like to add a drizzle of cider vinegar on top (it's a straight nostalgic hit of Germany for some reason). Serve with the hot cheese toasties on the side.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Hot Lightning

Which is impossible to say without the Grease inflection [‘Hot Latnin’ and perhaps a John Travolta finger point], I notice. Anyway, it’s my take on a very fine Scandinavian/German idea for potatoes, apples and pears which makes an excellent accompaniment to anything porcine. Personally I feel Halloween and Bonfire Night are prime sausage time (and as it’s British Sausage Week this week), and for me, good peppery Cumberland are just right.

This can be made with new potatoes, which gives you a slightly less ‘stewed’ dish. It’s up to you; I rather like the way the potatoes break down in the sauce. You may want to add a couple of crushed juniper berries for variation.

Take 1 large floury potato, 1 apple and 1 pear per person and peel. Cut into large chunks. Melt a good know of butter in a casserole and fry 1 rasher streaky bacon per person until golden. Remove from the pan, then add the potatoes and try to get a little golden colour on them. Add the bacon back into the pan with the apples and pears, season and add a really good slug of white wine or even cider. Pop the lid on and cook very gently until all is tender. You should stir occasionally to ensure nothing’s sticking. You may want more liquid, so add more if necessary.

Serve, perhaps sprinkled gaily with parsley, with your bangers.