Rules to be broken – “Red wine with meat, white wine with fish.” 

This is a recipe for those of you who like to break rules. My late husband, Slater, was a great rule-breaker, and when I discovered this recipe, I knew it would amuse him – and it did.

I met Slater at the 1983 Edinburgh TV Festival when this complete stranger with a lovely smile and curly hair waltzed up to me with the line, “I couldn’t decide whether to look at you or Jonathan Miller”, before disappearing into the crowd. I was much amused by this opening chat up line as Jonathan Miller, the renowned theatre and opera director, had given the opening address to the TV festival. Continue reading “Rules to be broken – “Red wine with meat, white wine with fish.” “

An Ode to Broad Beans – Habas con Jamon

May and June always meant two things for me when we were living on the Welsh Borders: our spring holiday escaping to the mountains in Southern Spain for the May half term; and the first broad beans in my vegetable garden, ready to pick in June when we returned. They are inextricably linked in my mind by one recipe – Habas con Jamon.

The Jamon would be a huge leg of Jamon Serrano, a speciality of the Alpujarras Mountains in Southern Spain. The mountains are famous for their salted air-dried hams, with the best coming from the highest village of Trevelez. While not cheap (even back in those days),  the flavour was excellent. Invariably, we would be tempted and buy a whole leg. Slater would board the return plane with a rucksack on his back containing an entire ham with the pigs trotter gently nudging the back of his head! Continue reading “An Ode to Broad Beans – Habas con Jamon”

Mary Poppins and The Pasta Bake

I am in admiration of all my children working full time, but frankly horrified at the price they now have to pay for child care. Thirty years ago like so many women who wanted to keep their foot on the career ladder as well as raise children, it was my problem. Continue reading “Mary Poppins and The Pasta Bake”

An Ode to Carrots

Some of the ingredients for carrot and cardamom pilaf
Ingredients for carrot and cardamom pilaf

Carrots have been one of my favourite vegetables since way back when. As a child, I was never keen on meat, especially beef. I hated all that chewing and would end up with dry indigestible lumps hidden in my cheeks like a hamster. Muttering that I had finished, I would leave the table and head for the toilet to spit out the offending lumps. So my mother wisely compromised by serving me potatoes and carrots covered with the meaty gravy which I would then mash together. For a four year old, it was my idea of the perfect meal.

In those days, carrots were the inevitable pairing with potatoes – mashed, roasted or boiled – for the traditional ‘meat and two veg’. My grandmother sliced her carrots in roundels and boiled them, as did my mother. Generation after generation of us eating sliced carrots… Continue reading “An Ode to Carrots”

Salt and Pepper – Earth and Fire

Fleurs du sel
Fleurs du sel

Having lived as many decades as I have (six and counting), it’s easy to forget how some of the most basic elements of cooking have changed over my lifetime – and you cannot get more basic than salt and pepper. Continue reading “Salt and Pepper – Earth and Fire”

Starry, Starry Nights

I came to camping late in life, with the arrival of Man, to be precise. Our relationship had started to get serious and it was suggested that after I went to Holland to be introduced to my future father-in-law, we should explore the Normandy coastline, staying in the small town of Yport where Man had previously enjoyed a lively New Year’s Eve. It was then mentioned that ‘staying‘ meant camping. Now this was an activity I had contemplated in the past, something  great to do with kids, but I had to confess never quite got round to doing it, probably because it I’m not very practically minded and the thought of tightening guy ropes – whatever they were, or lighting a Calor Gas camping stove filled me with anxiety. But I will have a go at most things if I can trust somebody to know what they’re doing. ( Bungee jumping is a flat NO!). Therefore as Man was Dutch (known for their like of the great outdoors), handy (no just in that way), I agreed and even managed to sound enthusiastic about it.

Yport and tiny tent with large lady

Yport is a village with a congregation of grey austere houses built in flint, huddled in the cleft of a valley that leads to the sea.  We found what was called the municipal camp site. France has them all over the country. Empty of other campers, it appeared to be a small field on the outskirts of town containing a flat brick outbuilding which, I later learned, housed flush toilets and ‘pay by the centime’ showers. A tiny tent was unfolded from the boot of the car and laid out in the ‘best’ position on fairly flat ground backed by trees, looking down towards the village. Other paraphernalia was unpacked, the tent erected, a lilo and sleeping bag were laid into place. Then we zipped up our new home and strolled into the village to buy provisions.

The weather was not kind and it started to rain, profusely. While we were away, a local urchin thought fit to stone the tent causing a small rip. On our return, Man, in the best boy scout manner, pulled a repair kit out of his bag and mended it immediately.  But my most entertaining moment of the night was watching him crouched under the tent’s petite canopy, umbrella in hand, cooking quail and vegetables on a saucepan balanced on the smallest of Camping Gaz stoves, while I sat inside, cross-legged, dry, and holding a glass of red. That moment could be said to be the making of our relationship – possibly because I didn’t complain about the lumpy lilo, the lack of pillows, and having to pee in the middle of the night in the pouring rain – but definitely because supper was delicious. In difficult and trying circumstances, Man had proved he could cook.

Camping Danish Style with Loads of Hygge

Ten years and many camping trips later, the camping experience has been fine honed. We have a high tech, waterproof cotton tent manufactured in Denmark with a ‘living area’ that we can nearly stand up in, a brilliant double mattress that needs only to be deflated not inflated, and I never forget pillows, never mind a sheet to sleep on and a duvet cover for the sleeping bag. It also has room for Dog, who is a camper extraordinaire.

Now our only challenge is to research the September weather in Europe, follow the sun around, and find campsites that suit us. That is the hardest part. We demand things that are not generally popular: no facilities that cater for children, no swimming pools, no restaurants, no wooden lodges; but yes to working hot showers, flushable loos, and a view. Extra points are awarded if it’s walking distance from a small village with a café and shop.

We currently have three favourites, weather permitting; Beatenberg in Switzerland, with incomparable views over the Eiger where you fall asleep to the sound of cowbells; Lake Bolsena in Italy, beautiful to swim in and surrounded by a national park; and our all time favourite in France, in the village of Ceneviéres on the banks of the Lot, just west of Cahors.

View from Bed in Cenevieres

Camping is the greatest detox activity. Many sites have limited Wifi and irregular mobile connectivity. We are both news junkies; Today programme addicts; Channel 4 news regulars; readers of the FT weekend and lunchtime flitterers through the pages of the Guardian. When camping we have access to none of these things.  We wake to either birdsong or Dog digging his muzzle into our faces at 7am to announce it’s time for breakfast.

In the evenings we watch dusk unfold around us, the colours of the sky deepen and the trees and bushes, lit by our lantern and candles, stand out against its deep blue. Flocks of swallows chitter and swirl grouping for their journey south, low level bats flurry past to the hoot of hunting owls. Then stars appear twinkling overhead as we light the mosquito coils and let them waft their thin trails of smoke across our laps. We sit mesmerised by the night sky, glasses of wine in hand. With no screens to watch, the nightly entertainment becomes who can spot the first plane – blinking and moving lights across the night sky; the first satellite – moving but not blinking lights; and the first shooting star – this year we both caught one in France in the skies above the Pilat mountain range.

Night sky, as stars begin to appear

In London,  I do the vast majority of the food shopping and cooking, making the effort to source seasonal and good quality ingredients. Man, therefore, does the washing up. On holiday this is reversed. I keep Dog company, while Man does the shopping in whatever local supermarket presents itself, be it a small village Casino or a large hypermarché. I never quite know what he is going come back with, but I do know he will have taken into account that we still have to cook on the same Camping Gaz stove that he cooked quail in red wine, over ten years ago.  We then will jointly divvy up the cooking tasks. I don’t mind cutting and chopping, if he holds the pan straight on the stove and stirs, adding stuff when necessary. It’s the combination of gas, a tiny hob and balancing that I find scary and something Man handles with great aplomb.

A balancing job; sizzling Merguez

This trip we started off in Italy at a campsite on the shores of Lake Como, and for a couple of days ‘survived’ on squid ink pasta with spicy tomato sauce and prawns. We were then driven out by the arrival of too many motorhomes and moved onto France and an altogether quieter, less artificial site on a fruit farm in the Pilat Regional Nature Park. On the menu was a surprisingly good packaged steak – of unknown cut, into whose juices were stirred just-blanched broccoli florets tossed in with garlic clove or two, and a quick and dirty ratatouille to which fat chunks of merguez sausage were added to ooze their unctuous oils.

But Man’s piece de resistance was the day he returned from the supermarket with a packet of Confit de Gesiers de Volaille et Canard! Mmm. That caused a bit of a stir. The closest I had come to eating a gizzard was at Christmas when I bung them into the pan with the other internal turkey unmentionables to make gravy.

Confit de Gessiers

Anyway, they were sautéed in olive oil with chopped onion, just long enough until they started to fall apart, a tablespoon or two of raspberry vinegar was then sprinkled over and all was tossed into a mache or lambs lettuce salad with a handful or two of cherry tomatoes. Seasoned, and served with thick slices of baguette cereale and a glass or two of a Rhône red. Eaten under the stars on a warm summer’s night. What could be better than that?

A starlight meal – Confit de Gessiers warm salad with raspberry vinagrette dressing

 

College Days – cooking my oats!

Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford
Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford

This is the simplest of recipes but, whenever I make flapjacks, I am transported back to my college days in Oxford at Lady Margaret Hall. One of the first women’s colleges at Oxford, LMH (as it’s called), had a reputation for being a college where the ‘posh girls’ went.

By the mid-1970s, Oxford University was under pressure to admit more state school candidates and I clearly qualified, having gone to the local grammar school in Buckingham. At my interview I was asked which colleges at Oxford had my parents gone to? My heart sank. When I replied that I was the first member of my family to ever go to university, the tutor looked visibly surprised! Continue reading “College Days – cooking my oats!”