Feijoada -the perils of translating food

IMG_4476Isn’t that the prettiest railway station you ever saw? I took it on a trip to Lisbon in 2009, and it popped into my mind yesterday when madame was going through an old sketchbook in which she’d handwritten the recipe for feijoada from our friend Denis some time in the mid-1970’s. Here’s the first trick of the memory, because I’d always assumed it was his own take on the Brazilian Sunday lunch, but written alongside the recipe in pencil was the name Ursula Bourne, and the name of the dish was not feijoada at all but “feijao frade com chourico”.

Denis was young, Portuguese and a wonderful singer who could light up a party just by walking through the door.  He was an olympian drinker and smoker whose lifestyle finally killed him when he was absurdly young, and he could sing Fado so powerfully that ‘though you couldn’t understand a word, you knew it was dragged wailing out of a very dark place. We had some memorable times and parties – once, I recall, involving a huge quantity of alcohol liberated from the Venuzualan embassy by the son of the ambassador’s chauffeur.  We were all working together at an old-school mental hospital that was in the throes of  moving out of the eighteenth century Bedlam it had become. I still dream about some of the stuff I saw there.

But it was Denis that first cooked that meal for us and (I was quite certain) called it feijoada. I remember the discussion we had at the time about the impossibility of cooking it properly because so many of the ingredients were unavailable in this country and so he had ‘translated’ it into something close enough, using – as I discovered yesterday – Ursula Bourne’s recipe. I recalled then that I’d bought two of her books secondhand last year for next to nothing and so I grabbed them out of the bookshelf and double checked.

So the story I’d made my own was that you needed all sorts of meat, goose, bacon and sausage which you cooked with beans and a kind of chopped greens only grown in Portugal. The Denis/Ursula Bourne version was made using garlic sausage and celery with a bit of cream and lemon juice added at the last minute, and for years we enjoyed cooking and eating it.  It was cheap and cheerful but very filling for a growing family with no money.

IMG_4751Then, as funds permitted and the food culture changed, I was once able to try it in a real Brazilian restaurant in Bristol where my son was working as a chef. It was OK but absurdly expensive and sanitized from the description Denis had planted in my mind. Over the years I’d been cooking and learning about other cuisines and my collection of cookery books was growing and so I’d made a resolution to try to eat as many of these disppearing recipes as I could whenever I came across them; which was why when we arrived for a week in Lisbon we set about hunting a couple of them down. There were two in particular – one I called ‘stone soup’ which Denis had talked about but never cooked.  Its real name is Acorda Alentejana and it couldn’t be simpler – or harder to find. We trailed around the cafes and restaurants until eventually we found a cheerful waiter who spoke good English and knew what I was after.  Except he point blank refused to sell it to me – “it’s horrible and you won’t like it” he said. But I pressed on and promised that however disgusting it was I wouldn’t blame him or complain and that I’d pay in advance if that was what was needed. He went and talked to the chef and eventually he brought it to the table shaking his head and, not for the last time that week, he hung around waiting to see what I’d make of it.

Well, it was pretty basic. A couple of crushed cloves of garlic and a slice of bread covered with boiling water with a raw egg broken into it and a sprinkling of parsely on top. I finished it off and it was, as he’d said, pretty disgusting, but I thanked him, shook his hand and ticked it off my to-do list. The cafe did not, however, do feijoada and he didn’t know anywhere that did.

Later we wandered around what was then a market but has now turned into a foodie venue.  We found the required cabbage, called ‘couve’ heaped up in the market next to what looked like a victorian chaff cutter which they used to cut it into fine shreds.  But nowhere we visited had feijoada on the menu and no-one knew where we could buy it.  We were followed by many curious glances wherever we asked, until eventually ( as if he were confessing to a mortal sin) someone told us about a cafe down near the market that occasionally offered it. They were open.  It was on the menu. I almost had to beg for it but eventually they relented and we sat outside in the sunshine drinking beers and waiting for the final reveal. There was everything short of a miltary fanfare as a really huge cazuela was brought out, probably enough for four hungry peasants, followed by the entire waiting staff who came and surrounded me curiously as if I’d just landed by helicopter in the main square.

I cannot adequately describe the contents which included a big chunk of pig’s skin, a great number of bones from various animals, and – I swear – a tooth! But true to my resolution I ate about half of it and the crowd drifted away.  It wasn’t nearly as bad as it looked and – like the curate’s egg – was good in parts. Memories of Denis were swirling around me as I ate, and later in the day we visted the Fado museum to see if we could find a photo, but we didn’t.

But in answer to my own question about translating food there are two things to add. Isn’t it interesting that the more obsessive about “authenticity” we become, the more homogenous the food culture seems to be. Adding new ingredients doesn’t necessarily mean accessing another culture. What generations of poor people ate (still eat) out of necessity doesn’t translate at all when you’re wealthier beyond their wildest dreams.

At Bath Farmers Market

One of our Saturday morning treats is to go to the market –  http://www.bathfarmersmarket.co.uk –  and wander about spotting some favourites. Some of the stalls only show up fortnightly and some are occasionals so there’s always something to see. But the regulars are reliable – butchers, bakers, fishmongers and greengrocers plus some of the best cheeses and deli – all locally produced. There’s a really good atmosphere and organic produce is always available.  Just imagine, if every small sized town or large village could organise something like this it would support local small businesses – especially startups – reduce food miles, build new human networks and challenge the hegemony of the supermarkets. If you think that’s a romantic dream, ask yourself why the big supermarkets are chasing to keep up with traceability, little farmer biographies (are they real?) imitation sourdough breads and ‘artisan’ gins.  Why would we be satisfied with the phoney if we could get our hands on the real and actually talk to the producers?

In particular there’s a stall run by a local organic group where anyone can sell their surplus produce and share the proceeds. That could be a boon to allotmenteers like us who often have surpluses of extremely good but perishable crops. The essence of this is not to attract car drivers from 50 miles away but to encourage them to set up their own markets and exchanges. We’ve seen the way that microbreweries are being bought up and sucked into the corporate beast, and that can’t be the way to go.  Upscaling artisan industries merely repeats the mistakes of the past, and equates profit with value. We need a broader set of values and a different mindset for a new kind of entrepreneur to implement them.  Values like slow, local, inclusive and respectful of local community aren’t backwards looking romanticism but revolutionary and challenging. Local businesses that implement these values are often driven out by predatory supermarket practices and the result is unemployment, waste and pollution. I had a long converstaion with a struggling dairy farmer several years ago and he said that in order to enforce price cuts on farmers, one big supermarket was importing cheaper milk from Eastern Europe to drive down the price.  How can that be right?  In a market economy it’s buying decisions that can make the world a better place.

Pickled eggs and crisps

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“Provinder,” he whispered, drawing near to the Inn. “Cold sirlion for choice. And nut-brown brew and wheaten bread.”

Madame has pointed out that there is a major historical error at the Potwell Inn,  inasmuch as there are no pickled eggs lurking darkly at the back of the bar –  and therefore she is not able to indulge her favourite passion for consuming them, lurking like  reproachful sheep’s eyes, at the bottom of a packet of crisps.  I pointed out that the Inn is trying to move with the 20th century and may well introduce “Chicken in a Basket” at some point, and in any case Alfred Polly suffered terribly with indigestion and so pickled eggs were not his ‘thing’ as it were.  Furthermore I could find no reference to them anywhere in the novel.

However a happy landlady is a happy pub, and so I have bowed to her pressure and produced a jar for her exclusive use. We always treasure our customer feedback. I must clean behind the cooker at some point!

Equilibrium recovered

IMG_4697OK so it’s not the prettiest sight, a very dirty hand, but I’ve come to see that sometimes the best therapy for November is getting out on the ground.  I remember one of my spiritual directors once saying to me (at about this time of year) “there’s nothing wrong with you that a bit of sunshine won’t put right” and today, after a very grey day yesterday, that’s exactly what did the trick.

Yesterday I didn’t post because we spent the day with my old friend Big Al, and his wife.  I’ve known them both for 28 years.  Al was the very first person I met when I took on my first parish. I was sent to placate him one night because the Acting Head of the school in which I’d automatically become Chair of Governors, had made a disastrously bad decision.  I think I was thrown over the wall to take the flack.  The monstrous parent I was sent to sort out had, I quickly realized, got a real case. We got along famously from that moment and we’ve shared some great adventures together. It was Al who took me to Compiegne where the armistice was signed on November 11th 1918.  We stood quietly immersed in our own thoughts in front of the railway carriage deep in the woods where the war ended.  We were delivering some furniture to a place in Belgium, and apart from having the scary experience of driving the Green Goddess, a borrowed veg lorry, around the Periferique in Paris, we managed to visit as many 1st World War cemeteries as he could fit in. In Arras I got really ill and Al looked after me, calling the doctor and dealing with Madame (basically by not telling her).  We stood at Vimy Ridge together in awe at the monstrous craters and the sheer number of dead.  He’s traced and visited every single war grave of every soldier who came from the parish and died in action.  I’m proud to call him a friend.

With Armistice Day on Sunday  (it’s all been on my mind this week),  I had a curious experience in Bath a couple of days ago as I walked past the Post Office into Green Street. I turned the corner and I suddenly felt the presence of children there- but not there – if that’s not too strange. They seemed to be sad, fearful, suffering souls asking me to help them or perhaps just to remember them. It was such a powerful experience I had to struggle to deal with it. But it’s bearing down on me to say that just remembering alone isn’t enough if it doesn’t change our behaviour. Why are we celebrating the dead of 100 years ago when we’re still manufacturing and selling weapons that we know are being used to kill and maim civilians and above all children? Are the employment statistics so important that they’re worth killing children for?  That’s why it was a grey day yesterday.

IMG_4698So I’ve said it and it feels good. Madame is very sensitive to my melancholic states and she knows what’s good for me.  Yesterday I coped by cooking for Al and Helen.  I made the very last fresh tomato soup of the year as the rotting remains of the tomatoes damaged by the recent frost went on to the compost heap. It was a recipe from the Leith Vegetable Bible, and we were really delighted with it. Making veg stock is such a good way of using up the inevitable scraps from cooking. I think I rate this new addition to the library – two recipes and two successes.

This morning, with a bit of prompting from Senior Management we went up and spent the day at the allotment once I’d made some bread, labelled all the blackcurrant cordial, whizzed up the chilli sauce and labelled the blackcurrant jam.  I’m very adept at displacement activity.  Interestingly, this years is so much more flavourful than the last year’s batch we just finished – at least according to my breakfast slice of toast, spread with samples of both.  The chilli sauce is so fragrant I could eat it by the spoonful.  Say what you will, home produced food tastes just so much better.

So now we’ve planted all the alliums – 5 sorts of garlic, 2 of shallots, onion sets, and prepped the spring bed for leeks.  We’ve planted broad beans ( Aquadulce Claudia) and overwintering peas (Douce Provence) and last of all, as it was getting dark, I grease -banded all the trees.  What a filthy job! It took 3 washes of surgical spirit to break down the sticky coating on my hands.  But the allotment looks great and I felt a whole lot better. It’s a good reason for prescribing gardening as a treatment for modern life. Cheap, drug free and free exercise as well. Oh and the root veg are doing so well.

Please take a seat, a waitress will come to your table

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Another bit of writing from maybe 10 years ago.  I’m going to put it in a new category which I’ll call ‘longer writing’, and I’ll add some of the other stuff that fits more comfortably there. It’s fun and I think it still stands up. The obsession with crab sandwiches is still alive and well!

Six months ago, in April, we were in a beach café in Cornwall. It was the notice that caught my eye first. It was to the left of a whole line of fruit sundae goblets on the top shelf; written by hand on a piece of pale brown cardboard that was just an inch too deep for the space it occupied, and so it was folded over at the top and jammed fat-bellied into place. In particular the hand in which the sign was written told its own story as all the letters were inscribed in a slightly florid hand that drew inspiration from a hundred typefaces. The W in waitress resembled Neptune’s fork, which was fortuitous since the café, being perched at the edge of the sea, specialised in seafood. You could only imagine the sign resulting from a particularly trying day when steam clouded the windows and the tourists persisted in queuing at the sweets display. The owner, who was eating with friends near us had, or at least his haircut seemed to have, pretentions, notwithstanding which, I couldn’t think it was he who wrote the notice which was in too feminine hand. I scanned the waiting staff who were waiting indeed since it was a cold but bright day with a cold northerly wind and occasional flurries of hail battering down between periods of sunshine. They were students, any of whom would have knocked out a typographically perfect notice on their computers in less time than it takes to throw two teabags into a stainless steel pot.

Something about the notice seemed to be pushing beyond the pale‑blue painted wooden shingles and the gift shop next door, perched as they were on the edge of a cliff with nowhere else but the sea to expand. Something about the almost innocently applied curlicues and serifs of the felt‑tip writing that subliminally referred to a higher authority, One to whom passes would be shewn, and from whose carriages one might alight rather than simply get off. Something about the plurality of waitresses waiting to attend which elevated the café beyond the ordinary.

And yet it was the ordinary.

Maybe, I thought, the notice was supremely ironic. Maybe it was one of the waiting staff’s idea of a joke – but again a joke at whom? But the staff seemed too young and inexperienced to have developed the necessary detachment for such a quiet joke, and too worldly to be capable of feigning its innocence.

The proprietor’s mother came to mind, and then went again. His partner, perhaps? (assuming he had one) but then I was into the territory of the seaside postcard, of burst pretentions, red noses, weedy men and enormous women. Even storytellers have their limits. Any further investigation would have been pointless because the truth – were it ever possible to know it – would have been simple, indivisible and I suspect rather moving. A moment of innocent aspiration through which a cardboard sign came to embody something a bit weightier than the simple instruction “Don’t queue!” When someone gave a notice something extra and launched it into the world full of hope. Hope for a bigger, better world where hard work might be rewarded and beach huts might mature into restaurants: but eventually, just like those of us who also come to find something beautiful, lost at the sea’s edge, it was washed up on the top shelf, next to the fruit sundae goblets and other lost dreams. Worn down by that other tide that ebbs and flows up and down the motorway.

And weren’t we just a part of that tide? In October of the same year we were back again on an uncannily similar day. Squally north-westerly showers were driving across the coastal path. We had parked in the centre of Lizard village and walked across the fields to Kynance Cove along one of those raised paths you often see in that part of the country where the footpath is actually the top of the wall. There’s always a mild sense of illicit pleasure in following them. Kynance was, as usual crowded with visitors. Apart from one or two teenagers heedlessly surfing in the cold sea, the majority of us were crowding the beach in stout shoes and Gore-Tex jackets. The English middle-classes at leisure, replete with  Labradors and wellingtons and loud voices and the certainty that everyone else on the beach will be fascinated to listen in on our conversations. Forty years previously we had stalked the same beach as students, and scraped our last coppers together to buy the best cucumber sandwiches we’d ever tasted. We had slept on the clifftop and camped at a local farm and I’d quietly hated all the people who seemed never to have to worry about money, and who called their children Henry, and who only needed to think of something in order to do it.

Walking then, as now, back to Lizard Point along the cliff nothing had changed. In the intervening years the chough had disappeared and miraculously reappeared a couple of summers previously. We had seen both the last of the original population and the first of the pioneers, newly arrived we were told, from France.

Then, our skin was brown, and our hair was bleached by the same sun that still appeared from time to time between the showers. Unaware of our beauty we resented the very people who would have given their right arms to have a single day of our freedom. It’s a malign culture that can so arrange our consciousness that we rarely understand what bliss is until it slips through our fingers.

Then, we had feasted one day on a plate of ludicrously expensive crab sandwiches and enjoyed every last crumb as if it were the foretaste of a kingdom of plenty in which we would always be the outsiders. So to tell the truth, I suppose half the reason for going back forty years later was to enjoy the sensation of ordering the same round of sandwiches – ‘no – lets have one each’- without caring what it cost. This was something of a challenge because, ‘though we now have a lot more money than we did, the cost of a crab sandwich was on the far side of my pain threshold.

So our revisit in the autumn had more than a touch of the pilgrimage about it. In the meantime I had tried to write about the notice which had unaccountably pressed itself on my attention. Why on earth should a piece of card become the central thought in a piece of writing – except why on earth should it not? It had got under my skin, as had the owner’s haircut, and exposed a vein of mean spiritedness in me that I disliked intensely. The writing – I didn’t know what to call it – had ground to a halt at the point where the real significance of the epiphany had run out, and all I could all upon to complete it seemed hopeless, shoddy, lazy and brutal.

Then we went back and a saw the sign again and I had the sudden urge to photograph it, to preserve it. With a bit of prompting I asked the waitress if she would mind. Was she the waitress though? There was something about her that radiated a bit more authority, as if she was moving in her space. She fitted her skin, which was a surprise because just by virtue of that observable fact my thesis – that the café was the site of an imploded dream – crashed in flames. She didn’t mind, ‘though she asked with a smile if I was photographing it because we had waited for so long. The café was crowded with walkers sheltering from the icy showers. I couldn’t tell her the reason, but she was happy enough for me to take it; she even offered to pose in front of it. ‘No need’ – I thought. We ate our sandwiches which were lovely. Brown bread and butter, crab meat with plenty of the brown meat heaped on. Nothing added and nothing needed. One pot of tea for two. I caught her giving me strange glances from time to time. Why on earth would anyone want to photograph a notice? I kicked myself for not taking up her offer to pose, and yet how would that have helped. She was probably the owner, or the co-owner, or the owner’s partner. They had built up a perfectly lovely café which was the expression of the best they could do there with that particular site and with their particular talents. It was, like every other human enterprise, good – very good in parts. The notice was factual – ‘Please take a seat, a waitress will come to your table.’ Well that’s what happened wasn’t it. Apart from the incredible castles-in-the-air- building capacity of my writer’s imagination.

Then I unexpectedly caught sight of myself for a moment in a large mirror. That’s never a very comfortable moment in my experience, with no time to compose the face and arrange the presentation. Just another middle aged, middle class bloke in an expensive waterproof jacket. Who, I thought, was feeling sorry for whom? Isn’t there always something melancholy about the seaside? That’s why we go there – to remind ourselves of our finitude. To listen to the melancholy soft withdrawing roar of our own aspirations and, if we are very lucky to eat a crab sandwich and laugh out loud at our pretentions.

When “just too much” is a moral problem

So today turned out to be something of a day of reckoning in the Potwell Inn pantry, largely on account of the large batch of ragu I cooked yesterday.  It had to be frozen in individual batches today, but our little freezer was stuffed to capacity – not least with 12lbs blackcurrants that went in there when we were too busy to do anything with them. Fridges and freezers can very easily become the slow -food equivalent of the dustbin if you’re not ruthless, and I’m not nearly ruthless enough.

But that brought around another challenge; what should we do with the defrosting blackberries?  Easy-peasy we thought, we’ll make some cordial and some jam.  The elderflower cordial we made in the summer is beginning to run low and in any case the flavour diminishes the longer it’s in a bottle. Already it’s a shadow of the glorious scent of early summer that it possessed when we made it. So what better than blackcurrant cordial for the winter, all that vitamin C to fight off colds.  But then that left six pounds to make jam with, and when I counted our empty jam jars there were just six and I needed at least twice that. The easy thing to do would be to go and buy some more, but I knew there were quite a number of full jars of jams and chutneys being stored in the garage, some of them quite old. Cue head torch and a stumble around in the chaos of a garage repurposed as a dump for yet more things we don’t quite know what to do with since we moved here 3 years ago.  I found 20 jars of various substances some without labels, some with the contents shrunk by 25% and some whose once pristine lids were spotted with rust. Initially, when I got them up 3 flights of stairs to the flat I opened each one and tasted it.  Some were flat-out gone, in some the sugar had granulated out leaving crunchy bits and all of them were, like the elderflower cordial, diminished in flavour. In the end I spooned all the contents into the bin and shoved them into the dishwasher to be cleaned and sterilized. Sadly one of the more recent casualties was some 2016 marmalade which we’ve run out of altogether so we can’t make any more until the Seville oranges come in January.  The most venerable was a jar of 2009 jam that was still edible but devoid of any identifying taste. It was supposed to be gooseberry.

This is a constant problem for most of us in this situation.We wouldn’t be gardeners at all if we didn’t want to eat the things we grow, but the fruit grows generously every year and it’s all too easy to try to use every bit of it up. Freezers and jam making cost money and in truth it would be much better to give the surplus away to someone who can use it. The same kind of argument goes for many of the other things we grow, it all comes in at once and we go into surplus in a matter of a few days.  This is all the more reason for researching the heritage varieties in favour of the F1 hybrids.  What’s the point of having a huge crop all at once when what you need is to have it spread out so you can eat fresh every day for a few weeks.  Today our thriftiness began to feel more like selfishness; twenty pots of jam and chutney that could have fed someone else if we hadn’t instinctively hoarded them again a rainy day that never came. Who’d have thought that making a batch of ragu could expose a moral dilemma?

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Feeling a bit seasonally affected

How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
You know those days when you wake up, look out of the window and you think November.  I remember reading Bernard Leach’s “A Potters Book” for the first time more years ago than I care to remember – it’s in front of me now as I write this. Somewhere in the book he wrote that, of all the jobs in the pottery, filling in the tax return was the one that cost him most sleep.  Mercifully I no longer have to fill them in, but today I had to complete some unintelligible forms to claim back a small amount of money that was owed to me. Somehow the (relatively) simple action of searching for forms and letters last seen more than a decade ago saps the energy in a terrible way.
There were jobs on the allotment that needed to be done, but it was no use; I just had to get down to it. Of course in the event it wasn’t nearly so hard as I’d feared and by lunchtime the documents were on their way but the Black Dog lingered on. Cooking always seems to do the trick, so we did some shopping and I knuckled down to batch-cook 3.5 Kg of ragu, prepping 3Kg of blackcurrants ready to make cordial, and toad in the hole for supper – does that translate into North American, I wonder? Basically it’s sausages in Yorkshire pudding batter.  That, plus some spiced red cabbage and left-over gravy, made a meal to lift the soul.
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Where the allotment and the kitchen join together

 

Here’s an idea stolen shamelessly from the Harvest Meal at the Lost Gardens of Heligan.  My only spin is to add a slice of goats cheese. Oatmeal biscuit with a slice of goat’s cheese and on that some ordinary beetroot mashed with black pepper and salt and a teaspoon of horseradish sauce. Then some diced super sweet beetroot on top. It looks even better if you use yellow beets, but we used what we’ve grown.

Where’s the little sharp knife?

 

Squash the juniper berries roughly , maybe with the flat of a heavy knife blade or a pestle. You don’t want them so much a powder, simply well bruised.

I was reading Nigel Slater’s vegetable cookbook “Tender” when that phrase suddenly struck me.  One of the reasons his books are such a pleasure to read is that they so often capture the sense of what it feels like to cook. Cooking is a truly multi-sensory experience involving taste and smell, colour, sound and texture but also memory of meals eaten, lessons learned, friends who were deeply appreciative and meals cooked and swallowed rather than savoured by those who could not recognise a love letter unless it was written down. Some food writers are a bit cerebral; some assume you’ve got skills you never learned, some assume that the pleasure is all in the eating, and that the cooking is no more than the warm-up for the main event.

My mother taught me how to make Yorkshire puddings one Sunday morning when the condensation was running down the kitchen windows. “How do you know when it’s thick enough?” I asked. The answer came in an action; she moved the spoon rapidly back and forth in the bowl causing the mixture to flop back making an utterly distinctive sound that I’ve never forgotten. It’s a formidably accurate measure that works every time but I couldn’t describe it in words.  The old cookbook standby “like cream” is too vague. The sound, on the other hand, never lets you down.

And in that contemplative moment I remembered her little sharp knife. She wouldn’t have known what ‘mise en place’ was all about but she knew that it was always kept in the right hand drawer of the cupboard in the kitchen, and she also knew that she was the only person in the house who understood why that was important. Other people would take it out to cut string, or whatever, and then it would be left lying around somewhere else, not close at hand.  It was everything to her, although it was probably second hand when she acquired it from her mother. Sharpened to the point where there was little of the original shape or length left, in truth it wasn’t that sharp at all but just sharper than the others. Carbon steel, slightly flexible and stained by what might have been generations of use: it came to represent her. It was her peeler, her tester her filleting knife

That was the knife I used when I first learned to trim shin of beef. I thought you had to remove all the connective tissue so I landed up with some very small shreds of meat and threw all the flavour and texture away. I used it clumsily to core kidneys with much the same results, but in doing so I learned something about the tactile pleasures of cooking. It’s hands-on and hands-in alchemy that takes the most unpromising or even faintly disgusting, and transforms it into something beautiful. Every day the ugly duckling in the larder becomes a swan. She had a tiny repertoire of meals that marked the seasons year by year. The day she made a curry for the first time, the day she added a single chilli to a stew were memorable days because her menus revolved like the stars in the sky. Innovations were like comets hinting at disasters to come.

The sensual pleasures of cooking are not talked or written about nearly as much as those of eating and yet they’re the foundation of good cooking. It’s in the hands, between the fingers, even with the whole body when kneading dough. The difference between right and not quite right are better inscribed in tactile memory than they can ever be described in words.  But Nigel Slater sometimes gets close.

 

Quiet day at the Inn

IMG_4281So why is this blog called the Potwell Inn? I feel the question hovering, unspoken, in the air. Part of the answer is that (for me) it’s the equivalent of a keyboard shortcut that takes me immediately to where I need to be in order to write. The two words are analogous to a complex in psychological terms and so when I say ‘I’ve got a complex’ I mean it in the wholly positive sense that it’s the ‘madeleine’ that gets me going. John Masefield apparently liked to write with a box of rotting apples under his chair.  Stanley Spencer had an even more unpleasant olefactory shortcut it seems. For me it’s just those two words. Of course there’s nothing more obscure than someone else’s obsession and I realize that some potential readers turn away in bafflement.  A pub that doesn’t exist is a blog too far! But a good pub embodies all of the qualities I most treasure. It’s a place of welcome, of meeting, an escape.  It’s never judgemental, it sells good beer and good food. Any topic of conversation is permitted and it might even lead to a memorable evening from time to time. In my working life I spent ten years teaching in a prison and two old style mental institutions; ten years as a community worker on an outer fringe estate, and thirty years as a parish priest. All 50 years of experience taught me that the qualities needed to do that kind of work were exactly the same as those needed to run a good pub. Add to that the fact that HG Wells’ novel “The History of Mr Polly” has the Potwell Inn as a place of liberation and self-discovery and that seals the deal for me. I hope it might for you as well.

Not much happening at the Inn today, but the sun shone and drove away the frost and we siezed the opportunity to catch up with some household jobs. If I’m feeling particularly melancholic there’s nothing more therapeutic than making stock, filling the flat with the aroma of meals as yet uncooked. Making stock is like planting seeds, it insists that there will be another day. The other running project is to eat more veg, and so an hour in the bookshop sorting through endless possibles, I eventually invested £30 in the Leith Vegetable Bible. No breathless exuberance, no claims of everlasting life and best of all no photographs – like all the best cookery books. So the overcrowded space on my side of the bed now has four of the best vegetarian cookery books with barely a photograph between them. Apart from the Leith book, there are Nigel Slater’s veg book “Tender”, Jane Grigson’s magnificent “Vegetables” which has the best and most comprehensive research, and finally Rose Elliot of course.  There are many others in the bookshelves, but those are my personal favourites.

The asparagus bed is refusing to bow to winter, but tomorrow I’m going to cut all the fronds back so I can spread the seaweed we gatered in North Wales.  It was pretty ripe when we loaded it into the car, and we had to tie the sack tight to stop the copious wildlife escaping – so God knows what it’s like now.  Tomorrow will tell.