Wednesday, 27 May 2009

What fun...


This fabulous backdrop for our Susan's photo, was taken at Ringstead Bay, not far from Weymouth situated between Poxwell and Osmington; you cannot help but feel on top of the world when you look down at the sea below.  The sun bouncing light off the water was almost blinding and, it was pretty blustery but none the less spiritual. At the end of a day exploring the Arts in Bridport, fighting against the sun and the wind, full of the obligatory bag of chips from the harbour side waiting to be stolen by gulls the size of an albatross, and after an educational crash course for Susan in the art of Pikeyness, we sauntered back towards home, taking every opportunity to have our fill of Creations beauteous landscapes.  Homeward for another meal, another good nights sleep and the dream of a Saturday morning catch up with Sam.

Sam sent me a text from Bath on Saturday morning, to say he was on his way to join us for breakfast at the beach hut.  He arrived in an illegal amount of time as he left home at 7.15 am and arrived on our door by 8.30 ish.  Hmmm... Arriving at the chine, we became like excited school children which only added to the sense of expedition, but the enthusiasm was quenched somewhat as the lock on the beach hut door had seized fast.  Two armed men later, one weilding a crow bar and the other flashing a can of WD40, the lock opened with a little coaxing from a hunky young lifeguard, whilst the man with the crowbar was sent swiftly packing.  I had to physically restrain Susan from following the man with the can and ensconced her safely in the comfy chair, during which time I continued to unpack my Mary Poppins bag of tricks and treats.

The temperature was just about right to sit out and enjoy the sudden burst of summer heat; so it seemed fitting that we made and acknowledged an early summer tribute in the shape of a foodie celebration, by cooking a Risotto layered with chestnut mushrooms and parmesan, accompanied by a mixed green salad doused in Rosie's dressing.  This dish is simplicity itself, especially as all the cooking has to evolve from no more than a single gas ring and a single pot.

We talked about the loves and life of a she devil and received two sets of curious visitors keen to establish if other members of Gathering nuts in May have two heads or two bellies, but the sea air ensured by the time we arrived home we were all ready to eat again.  The starter I prepared was cured serrano ham, asparagus and quails eggs, although wasn't a patch on the freshly picked stems we had devoured during our stay at Little Cowarne and which was crying out for Kristen's lemony sauce to be drizzled over the legumes.  For the main course I made individual Red onion and goats cheese tarts in a filo case, set with mascapone, double cream, eggs and tarragon (actually in my opinion, the dish at better cold).

Scandal of scandal, Sam slept in my bed... however, I wish to put the record straight I was not in it! After coffee and toast he went on his merry way back to Bath and an evening of entertaining his friends.  

It had been an unplanned extra to Susan's visit and I was delighted he wanted to be with us.  He has already made a provisional booking to return during his summer break from teaching and reclaim the guest room.

On Sunday, Susan and I spent a lazy day at Kingston Lacy House and grounds.  I dozed on the lawns soaking up the rays, as Susan explored the house and marvelled at the drapes and lifestyle that the Bankes family must have enjoyed.  She also found the nursery to be enchanting and captivating and utter bliss, although I suspect the reality of living under the scrutiny and discipline of a governess was in fact far from cosy or sentimental.

Finally, Monday was upon us along with an indifferent start to the day in the form of a downpour, but it did not dampen our spirits as we set off for Swanage, stopping off at Corfe Castle with its winding, wonky streets and tightly packed houses with doors designed to accommodate easy entry for a haffle of hobbits.

A wedding party had congregated outside the church and we hovered hoping to catch a glimpse of the blushing bride as we stood melting under the noon day sun, but we grew impatient and meandered over to the 1950's steam railway stuffed to the gills with 50's and 60's memorabilia from this charming bygone era.

The sound, smell and look of the carriages reminded me of the journeys with my Aunt, from Leigh on Sea in Essex to Taffs Well station in Wales.  They had been exciting times, thick with anticipation and the holiday promise of walks in Coch Castle woods to tales of witches, dragons and trolls, or jaunts along the railway line with my uncle who worked for the rail network and took pride in showing me off to his colleagues - of course this wouldn't be allowed to happen now but back then these occurances frequently happened within this small knit community.

Finally, tearing ourselves away from Corfe, Susan and I headed to the other seaside resort of Swanage.  If it were possible to step back in time I believe Swanage could become the portal for re-entering the 50's or early 60's.  It has a quirky, pikey, reassuring charm about it, on this occasion the smell of salt and rotting seaweed perfumed the air.  The oyster bar finds itself fitting into the school of rustic charm and if you can find your way clear to walk through the sea of kiss me Kwik hats and racks of rude postcards, then a visit to the Quarr gallery or Earthlights should be high on your list.

There was a wonderful photographic exhibition and sale of iconic images taken in the 60's of The Stones, Paul McCartney, Marianne Faithful and other names synonomous with that era, but with a price tag of £2800 for a limited edition photograph, sadly it found me floating home empty handed without even the empty frame.  

From the Scott Arms in Kingston, the vista is breathtaking... far reaching views skim over the top of Corfe Castle and down towards Sandbanks.  They made the film the Mayor of Casterbridge from this pub in the 1960's or 1970's, clearly easy to see why it was chosen as a location.

Finally, all this had to end as Tuesday morning arrived along with Susan's departure back up to Durham.  Again the weather had been kind and promised to provide a fair travelling companion on her six hour journey homeward.

I was left with an urgent need to complete the half started decorating, in time for this morning's furniture delivery.  The usual sense of guilt had escaped me totally for the whole duration of Susan's and even Sam's visit.  The break had proved to be a tonic and even if internally I was obsessing and sweating the small stuff, I hope that my weekend charges had enjoyed their time in Dorset.

More images to follow... 

Friends, fun and faffing about

The lovely Susan and Sam...

Thursday arrived and following a delightful lunch at the Print Room with the writer John Foster, I picked Susan up from Bournemouth station with the sun beating down to welcome her.  Of course we went topless as we took the scenic coastal route back home.

More to follow....

Saturday, 16 May 2009


All good stories must draw to a conclusion...

Departure Day.... Sentimentality...
Monday was upon us far too soon.  From the moment everyone rose and met over breakfast, the air remained thick with a sense of departure and regret that the three days passed with the speed of a rocket. Perishable ingredients were used up, the full fat milk went unused, it had been set aside for the custard we had intended making to accompany the rhubarb still growing in the garden; how lucky the rhubarb was to have escaped a death grasp by a gaggle of cooks too full to be able to squeeze even another bean in let alone another course. Like the last day of boarding school the beds had been stripped back, bags had been packed, left over provisions and booze were either reunited with their rightful owners or reassigned to new ones.

Susan's bus was due to leave Bromyard back to Worcester train station to pick up the homeward train; I drove her to Bromyard and waited in the drizzly rain, I listened with continued amusement to yet more escapades of a Food Technologist.  Trust me dear readers the next time you pick up your luxury dessert from any of the well known specialist High Street purveyors of fine food, or watch the television advert boasting seductively about the ingredients contained within, trust me a lot of mishaps have been ironed out before they find their way to the shelves, so pay your £6.99 without conscience, that they ever arrive on the shelves at all seems a miracle to me.

I meandered back in the beast towards the house, which held all the early promise of a Hippy commune and reminded me of the rather unsanitary one a group of friends set up in Surrey in the late 60's; the only difference being that ours was much cleaner and contained all the comforts of modernity. On arrival I was greeted by an anxious Adam who came rushing out to meet me, concerned over the length of time I had taken to deliver my charge to her destination, endearing qualities in a true friend; to be rich in the knowledge that someone is rooting for you is a very comforting thought indeed.

No one wanted to leave. It was as if holding onto each other a little longer would prolong the dream - keep it alive, continue to fill the inevitable empty spaces that would inhabit our lives on final departure.  We had all revelled in the sheer joy of a shared passion, which some people might find hard to understand and which I have never before encountered.  These feelings do not replace the importance of family and loved ones, they enhance them, they add another dimension to who we are, they layer and spread the colour and the music born from within.

We hugged and vowed a reunion only once a year would not be enough, despite the use of email or telephone, so after promising to feed the dream we all went our separate ways and I was more than pleased to have Kristen and Sam with me, at least as far as Bath.  

Since last October when we all met on the Arvon course, the whole experience has proved to be an Epiphany; I feel I have found my tribe; been anchored by a commonality; writers and cooks are givers, they exude a generous spirit, they are creative, hold strong a sense of drama, nurture a grass roots sense of improvisation, they share and want to share, they enjoy the very best nature and her earth have to offer, invariably they are organic, they don't like too much interference of alchemy in their food... yes... I am blessed, I have found my tribe.  

'It is not the blood that ties, but the sifting of ashes that fuses kith with kin' (Screenplay by Rosie Jones 'The Sifting of Ashes', 2008)

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

High days and holidays

Organic moments...

Sunday dawned, as did some of our gaggle, but for most of us it was a day to be revered.  Caro was on a mission to track down Sunday papers, even though we had a forest of them in the sitting room still neatly folded, Saturday's orphans discarded, forgotten or forlorn, so she and Adam went in search of yet more reading material, as if the thousands of words sitting between the covers of dozens of cookbooks wasn't enough.  An expedition set forth whilst the rest of us discussed yet more food and started to prepare for lunch before even the breakfast clutter had been cleared away.  

The kitchen garden was a constant source of new found delight and Sam boasted about his freshly plucked spring onions with all the pride of a parent describing the finest characteristics of their first born.  He couldn't have been more proud than if he had birthed it himself.  The scent of fresh scallions is delicate yet heady, as well as capable of invoking an immediate response from all the senses.  They were so green and before you say they are meant to be, they had a crisp green appeal like the colour of envy, rather than that of the Fir; when they were chopped their essential oils were released in fresh bursts into every corner of the kitchen. Kristen and Sam made a perfect blend of spice, seasoning and lamb mince and shaped the burgers into patties.  

The Bloody Mary's were made, along with Bison Grass Vodka (I am a new convert) and tonic, Pimms o'clock, in addition to the large helping of recipes based on 99 things to do with Road Kill from our Jenny , who we had to all but physically restrain from scraping up the badger further on up the hill, thus proving her point, that it is just possible to raid the country lanes for discarded, unwanted or RTA wildlife in these credit crunchy times.

We mellowed before lighting the beast of a BBQ weighing almost the same tonnage as the 4 x 4 and after preparing a range of salads and accompaniments threw on the burgers, aubergine and tomatoes and dined al fresco on the south side of the property with its English cottage garden resembling a scene from a 50's movie.   (Kristen's blog - Kirsten in London - contains a perfect picture of simplicity of the memorable plateful on offer).  

All weekend Susan and Katie did not stop clearing up, cleaning and putting away or setting out for the next meal.  Pauline delighted us with her poems and observations, Caro proved a goldmine of information about where to buy, procure, acquire, source, track down, virtually anything to do with food, Susan kept us entertained with the exploits of a Food Technician and Sam and Adam ensured we were all made to feel special and interesting and Kristen brought her own sense of enthusiastic wisdom, kitchen style and calm to the proceedings.

Full to the brim, a walk was in order to make room for the next feast, so we meandered through the archway dripping in foliage and beyond the rickety gate into the ancient church with its wooden rafters, lured via the graveyard, which held painful secrets carved out on stone or marble of young men killed.  I could not help but notice how young many of the occupants were.  In sombre, mellow mood, in the late afternoon sunshine, we trundled along the lanes like city folk picking our way carefully between the straw and the methane left behind by bovines on their urgent evening trail homeward after a day of munching on grass.

Either side of us, banks of wild spring flowers were bathing in the dying embers of a golden day, soaking up the last of the heat rays before finally drooping their heads in silent reverence.  A friend picked a delicate purple-headed flower (periwinkle?) and placed it in my hair, a gesture of true symbiosis, of perfect understanding, a need unvoiced... delivered through a simple gesture.

Again returning to the kitchen, Mistress Muscle had cleared the decks in anticipation of the next onslaught and everyone set to, nothing was forced, everything felt organic, like the perfect blend of a notable wine, nothing was out of sorts.  Adam lathered the beef ribs with a combination of mustard, seasoning and flour and cooked the beef in the oven for around two hours; I gave a quick demonstration on how to mix the perfect Yorkshire pudding batter (fool proof method of Brian Turner's - equal quantities thoroughly whisked lump free, of sieved self raising flour, eggs and milk and a quarter teaspoon of salt and pepper and, if you have it, two pinches of dried mustard or chives) I place the mixture in the freezer for half an hour (or in this case forgot about it until someone retrieved it for me when fetching the essential homemade ice for the drinks).  Ten minutes before the meal is ready, place the individual tins (or 25 minutes in a big tin) with a teaspoon of groundnut oil or duck fat, or in one big tin pour in two tablespoons of oil or duck fat and heat in the oven to almost scorch temperature, before adding the batter.  I have never failed to make one rise yet!!!!  

Like food disciples at their last meal, we devoured the offerings, minus Jenny who had left to go and visit an old friend but who had loyally hand picked the asparagus but sadly missed out on their celebratory marriage to the peeled quails eggs  with lemony dressing.   The crusty topping on the beef was truly memorable, worthy of any highly acclaimed chef and everyone was aghast at the Brian Turner recipe for Yorkshire Puds as they stood at least 4 or 5 inches tall.  Sadly we were unable to convert our wary American, but some had more than a second helping.

Our time together was running out, plans were underway for the next potential reunion the time, date and place with Katie volunteering her services to co-ordinate the next set of dates... just one more sleep before the inevitable farewells...

Monday, 11 May 2009

Nope, I don't think it worked...

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Lord only knows what I am doing...

This might go horribly wrong, but I am attempting to add my content to google... or not... whichever it turns out to be...

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Melting Moments...

No, not the biscuits just life...

After a late night away to our beds on Friday, far too much essential chatter and alcohol to fit into the limited days and nights, the last of us hit the sack in the wee hours.  Our plan was to breakfast around nine ish before leaving for Ludlow at around 10.30/11.00.  Breakfast was slow and varied in preferences but the smell of the wonderful Giggly Pig sausages and bacon that Kristen had cosseted all the way from London, was just too divine.  Hardly any fat oozed from their tight little skins and the bacon cooked to a melt.  I enjoyed a breakfast starter of plump apricots and passion fruit yoghurt before Adam surfaced to present me with a bacon buttie; divine in the extreme.  Pauline's selection of amazing teas and coffees made the choice all the more difficult.  The banter and the humour continued until the time came to round everyone up and leave which took an English five minutes*.

* When preparing to embark on any outing with my Swiss nephews, they used to quiz us in an attempt to establish if this was a Swiss five minutes or an English five minutes;  when I first asked what the difference was between them, my eldest nephew responded 'Well Aunty Nettles (their pet name for me), in Switzerland five minutes is 4 minutes 59.99 seconds and in England it is anything from 5 minutes to around 45 minutes.'  On Saturday, it was somewhere between the two.

We trekked through the Shropshire countryside past the Cadbury's factory and a local hot spot called the 'OK Diner' , which looked liked a film set from a 1950's road movie, and chair danced all the way to into Ludlow to the lyrics belted out on Radio 2.  The most memorable of which was, 'Your body is so hot I'm melting' , or something along these lines...  I was day dreaming about lyrics (I know I should have been driving but I had four back and front seat drivers so I was hardly required), and I found myself singing along to one of my own favourites 'Your body is a wonderland', of course no one knew this except me and the voices in my head ...  Katie had clearly been responsible for evoking the music in our soul, brought about by her wonderful compilation of tunes from the previous night.  So inside at least, I was dancing.

The route we took to enter Ludlow meant we dropped down a hill.  The sight before us was magical, with near distant views of the town and the traditional, probably listed, black and white framework of the period buildings.  I cannot remember how I eventually found a space to park up, possibly aided by the four other drivers in the car; I was far too busy window shopping at the time; but I did and we all traipsed into a boutique designer shop whose mission was clearly to sell a bit of everything. Not a department store as such, more of a double fronted emporium selling beautiful handbags, jewellery, baby clothes, cook books and a whole range of what can only be described as trendy cooking weapons. 

Adam, Sam, Susan and me were joined at the hip and ducked in and out of most of the shops on offer including the Deli in the Square, how I wish this shop was on my doorstep.  Further along the road in the French Deli, I purchased a jar of Rose Petal Jelly, keenly spotted by Sam, who knows and understands my love of scented foods; I shall wait until he visits to enjoy this with ice cream or on a rose flavoured meringue base topped with whipped Mascapone and rose infused strawberries.

Susan, our Geordie and one line witsmith, came out with the saying of the reunion which would serve to keep us entertained all weekend and beyond.  When deciding what meals we might make that night, and this still brings an inner guffaw just thinking about it 'anything without nuts (referring to nut tart from the previous night).  Needless to say it involved the contents of the pie, velocity and a high performance car.   Adam and I nearly fell to our knees with laughter; I was confident I would suffer some permanent damage as my cheekbones conjoined with my ribs.  I am still laughing at this as I type, in fact I tried very hard to recount and verbalise the exact sentence and context when I returned home, to three different groups of people I know, but each time I failed to retell the story in under fifteen minutes.  Susan is visiting me in Dorset soon and I fear for my wrinkles...

Susan was keeper of the privy purse and bargained for three ribs of Hereford Beef, lamb mince and a whole rolled shoulder of pork; Kristen remarked that the beef alone would have cost her about three if not four times as much in London and I shall be having words with my butcher next time I order beef from him.

After re-grouping we lunched at the most delightful pub overlooking the river, where they advertised fresh oysters, salmon, trout, pollack, bangers and mash and other typically British food fancies.  The food did not disappoint, even if it wasn't to be had at the £50 per head Michelin star restaurant we had hoped for, which incidentally was fully booked!  A read of ALL the Saturday papers and supplements and discussions ensued, which ranged from the latest football results and transfers to the questionable political shenanigans of parliament, all the while the sun shone and the mood was gently celebratory amongst a group of like-minded friends just happy in each others company and taking time out to be...

A short visit and a walk around Bromyard to the local greengrocer, before we headed back to our temporary home for roast pork, colcannon, chantenay (? cannot remember if this is the correct spelling but they are mini shaped carrot specimens, I must find myself a culinary dictionary), gravy and pink peppercorn sauce.  THE fabulous chocolate cake, very different to Caro's wonderful passion fruit pav, but more wicked both in total calorie content and just the sheer dark seduction of it all.   Prepping, chopping, exchanging recipes, handy hints and ideas for food has to be 'up there' in terms of pleasurable pastimes; I guess like any other obsession talking about food, drink and recipes must just be the best.  Sam made an endless stream of Mojito's to die for and another late night was on the cards.

For me, one of the most touching moments of the evening was when my new found food fanatics presented me with a signed thank you card and perfect turquoise necklace.  I rarely ever cry or feel choked up, but I was just astounded by their kindness and generosity.  Enough of the Love in already, save to say it will be one of those seminal moments in life, the dawning that actually what matters is the people you are with, the interests that you share and the fun you have together in pursuing them.

Even though I have had a very mixed up busy week, I miss them all... every day...

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

As the fairy dust settles...

This weekend was the stuff that dreams are made of... fine food, fine wine and friends tightly clutched to one's bosom.  So tightly clutched that it made the letting go all the more heart wrenching... 

yet sometimes you have to turn down the gas for fear of spoiling the dish.

This week I will be taking the 'serial' approach to blogging, in view of the vast amount of activities, events and sweet happenings that came about by a gang of food enthusiasts and fanatics getting together in one place, at the same time in a beautiful house in Hereford.

After a flurry of emails and excited chatter, Friday 1st May finally came.  I am still perplexed at just how important a group of newly forged friends and, as Kristen puts it, partners in crime, can be. With no editorial intervention, we all just slid into place with such organic and natural ease . This is a group of people whose paths were meant to cross.  Fate and shared passions have brought us together but it is the love of all things culinary that will continue to act as the glue that will forever bind.  We all decided cooks are givers... they have the need to give, to feed, to please, to show off and anyway being able to cook together is sexy.

I hired a Land Rover Freelander model and was lucky enough to have one on a new number plate with less than 2K miles on the clock, after spending an hour to decide the best way to pack the boot and wasting an hour on an abortive trip to Crichel Mount Bakery due to an earlier horrific accident which resulted in blocked off roads and confusing detour instructions (I reflected and felt guilty that my own quest for pleasure was running alongside someone Else's pain).  Finally, after deciding I couldn't get another food item in, I set off, the 4 x 4 drove like a dream on the traffic free roads all the way to the outskirts of Bath.

After trawling through the traffic mayhem that currently hangs over the town centre in Bath, I arrived 25 minutes late to pick up Kristen and Richard Corrigan's Crab Tart (more of that in another episode).  Kristen was ever patient, ever present with the cultured grooming and social skills of a first lady yet full to the brim oozing a natural warmth and exuberance of a couple of girls about to embark with friends on a jolly weekend adventure.

We finally met up with Sam who managed to track us down and talk us through the twisty turns of the ancient Bath hills as we tailed him to his home, with yet more provisions and bags to pack in. With square wheels (is that possible on an LR? Yes it is) we set off on our Quest with Sam navigating every step of the way, a wonderful job and a luxury too.  An hour later than expected we turned into the driveway to be greeted by the four excited faces of Susan, Pauline, Katie and Adam running towards us and brimming with the childlike enthusiasm of friends arriving for a sleepover, impatient to give us the grand tour wanting to show us the house, which would be home for the next four days.  I probably hugged Adam longer than is decent for a woman of my years but I rest easy in that it was reciprocated and all received the same genuine Bonhomie and loving intentions from a person eternally grateful for any mutual signals of lasting friendship.

Our Susan took the lead, turning her versatile hand to that of real estate sales, weaving in and out of the listed rooms, pointing out original features, climbing the wooden stairs, which incidentally in an instant transported me to my sister's chalet in Switzerland; is it the wood treatment they cake it in or just the fact that it is wood... Eventually they saved the best until last... A Diva's four poster bed, draped in white voile and the wardrobe from Narnia, a fabulous window with a south facing view over the vegetable garden (more to follow) and the orchard beyond, then they proudly announced this was reserved for me!  To be treated with such privilege and greeted by the beaming faces of friends brought a lump to my throat.  Yep... cooks and writers are givers.  They put the L in giving it Large, LOVE!

We congregated in the kitchen, in true Geordie style our Susan had boiled the kettle about five times waiting for us to arrive and a much appreciated steaming hot cup of tea was swiftly followed by rounds of drinks and Jenny and Caro.  Susan and Pauline had set the scene ably assisted by Katie and Adam the party was about to begin.  

Sadly we were two confirmed 'nuts' down, one laid off through an injury sustained whilst trekking across the Arctic on her journalistic journey to interview the Inuits and one due to a last minute commission in Barcelona to design and furnish an interior, no doubt for some rich and famous figure, which shall of course remain nameless.

The music was struck, the table had been laid perfectly, the bar was installed, the provisions poured out along with Kristen's famous Richard Corrigan Crab tart, Pick More Daisies Nut tart and Sam's perfect Chocolate Cake with crystallised violets.  We were to dine like Kings... What seemed like hundreds of t-lights twinkled and sparkled from every conceivable corner as did the twinkle in our eyes: top tip, great for softening wrinkles too, everyone looked forever young!
The night was filled with serious talk of food and wine, not so serious talk of all things stupid and plans made for the following day. A leisurely stroll and lunch in Ludlow... The night merged into morning and after no more alcohol or food could be consumed and as the words became more difficult to decipher, we all retired to bed... to sleep perchance to dream...