Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Coming Home

Tuesday 31st August

Day 132

This evening I leave my father sitting at his round table writing his story.

I think I’ m too tired to cook but later when I take the fresh plum cake out of the oven, smelling of its toasted hazelnut topping, and replace it with a tray of quartered tomatoes slippery with olive oil, fragrant with torn basil and garlic........

when I blend pinenuts with a forest of coriander and spike them with red chilli to make a luminous green pesto.......

when I pop the pink speckled borlotti beans out of their matching pods......

then I forget all the things I didn’t do today- didn’t say, didn’t write, didn’t read, didn’t clean - and I come home to myself - plant myself in my kitchen like a giant sunflower, scattering pollen. I never get lost there like I do sometimes in other places.

Monday, 30 August 2010

Roman Holiday

Monday 30th August

Day 131

I have been drenched in Ancient Rome today, deep in a novel by Helen Dunmore called 'Counting the Stars'. Her words accompanied my plate of sliced plums in bed this morning. She distracted me from my beetroot splashed salad under our sun umbrella in the garden and absorbed me while I ate scrambled eggs from a tray on my lap this evening.

Just when I thought summer had flown away it sneaked back and gave me the gift of a Roman holiday under a flawless blue sky. And the surprise of sunburnt knees.

Sunday, 29 August 2010


Sunday August 29th

Day 130

I’m writing this in bed, way past midnight. There are shouty voices in the street outside. I wonder if my husband can see the same moon as me from the window of his gite in Provence. I hope he’s sleeping.

The hot, too sweet cocoa and shortbread biscuits I had earlier on the sofa have filled me up. But the big space beside me in the bed is echoey empty.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Long Distance

Saturday August 28th

Day 129

I drive my husband to the airport. I don’t like goodbyes so I leave him in the car park and wave through the window till he’s a disappearing smile in his blue t-shirt and leather rucksack.

Much later, after a sweetcorn and beetroot supper, I sit with my eldest sister on our sofa, she wears my dressing gown and I borrow his which is huge and snuggly soft. We eat dark chocolate coated ginger and cranberries - her treat - and stay up watching a TV film long into the night. Something we couldn’t do growing up in Africa - long before we had husbands to leave and come back to, like kites in the sky.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Green Beans, Tomatoes and Love

Friday August 27th

Day 128

We sit on the back step, the pussy cat and I. My feet are immersed in a washing up bowl of hot salty water. He gazes into the garden. We are basking in the surprise gift of a late sun - hot even at 6 pm.

My favourite supper is on the stove - a pan of Braised Green Beans with Tomatoes and Garlic. I make it every summer, more than once. It’s a rich stew, slow cooked in olive oil till the beans are melting tender and the tomatoes have broken out of their skins and made a pulpy sweet sauce with the garlic and stock. It’s from ‘Cranks Fast Food’ by Nadine Abensur who is French-Jewish born in Morocco so many of her dishes are inspired by the earthy heat of the Middle East and Mediterranean.

I sometimes wonder why some vegetables or fruits compliment each other so well and become classics and other combinations just clash and you turn your nose up at them.

I think beans and tomatoes are a marriage made in heaven because they bask together under the same sun and rain, share the same season. And garlic, like love, brings out the best in just about anything.

Thursday, 26 August 2010


Thursday August 26th

Day 127

I want to dedicate today’s entry to my lovely husband, who grew all the bounty bursting out of old carrier bags, that is now gracing our kitchen counter.

Early this morning while he sat on a train to Salisbury, I took my knife and walked to the allotment under glowering, rain filled clouds. This is what I culled from the black soil which he has nurtured these last years - growing a garden like a symphony, dropping a sweet unexpected music into our lives - each note another gift to savour.

Three cucumbers - bottoms swollen like gourds.

Nine tomatoes - striped orange and yellow like tiger skins.

Six peppers - snappy as green crocodile teeth.

Two aubergines - bulbous hearts, streaked white on purple.

A bag of borlotti beans - long, bumpy pods, pink paint splashed.

A handful of Swiss chard - crinkled green fans, springing from rainbow stems.

A lettuce - floppy wiggly edged leaves.

Two courgettes - one yellow, one pale green, like shiny fat fingers.

Two cabbages - pointy heads, heavy as stones.

A bunch of sweet peas - tendril entwined, luminous mauves, purples and pinks, throwing their perfume above the bed of neroli cabbage, clouded with white fly.

I leave them till last - the Victoria plums - which are bending their branches almost to the ground. I drag a moss stained plastic chair under the tree and reach up as far as I can, plucking each one from its stem. They are all ripe soft, saffron-gold, blushed with misty pink, smooth and heavy as Buddleigh pebbles, so large I can only hold three in my palm at a time. Not a wasp sting in sight.

I strip the whole tree clean - except for one clinging to the highest branch - like a glowing ruby star on a Christmas fir. I’m sure a blackbird will enjoy it - as will our friends and neighbours. I feel this bounty doesn’t belong to us anyway - such plump music was made to be shared. Thank you, sweet husband.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010


Wednesday 25th August

Day 126

I’m greeted by the smell of perfumed plums and fading sweet peas when I come home this evening. And drying bed sheets on the radiators. I carry a bowl of plum stones, bits of bad flesh and their resident grubs, old tea bags, discarded lettuce leaves and potato peelings, down to the bottom of the garden where the compost bin lives. I pass the two bird baths full to the brim with rainwater, and avoid stepping on several musty apples wearing patchy coats of brown bubbling mould.

No sound of children playing in next door’s garden. I duck under long waving branches straddling the path, a few dripping loganberries clinging to the ends like painted finger nails. When I lift the lid of the compost bin the huddle of brindling worms sheltering under the rim, shiver and slip to the ground with a soft plop.

The end of summer whispering in the wings. At least this downpour today only flooded our lawn. It didn’t steal away my home or my crops or my loved ones. It’s just chance - not my turn to live in Pakistan this time round. For which I feel deeply grateful.

Wild Seeds

Tuesday 24th August

Day 125

After our picnic and the rainstorm, we follow spacious grass paths between swathes of silver birch trees planted in circles and couplets, quartets and avenues. Nearly forty years ago a man travelled the world in search of wild birch tree seeds. He carried them back to a triangular field on the edge of Dartmoor - and created The Mythic Garden.

Under the shade of the trees’ tiny filigree leaves and peeling skin bark - creamy white, bronze and rose gold - artists have placed their sculptures of rounded stone figures, giant pots, chickens and owls, toads and feathers cast in steel or clay. Each one at home, at peace, in this magical space where the breeze blows between them and spiders climb their curves.

This arboretum, these sculptures all started from someone's wild seed imagination. A gift to us who walked there today.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Plum Crazy

Monday August 23rd

Day 124

Eleven jars of plum jam are lined up on the kitchen counter - long pale ovals of fruit suspended in a glistening rose pink sunset - waiting for their labels. In the oven two trays of stoned and halved plums are roasting in honey, speckled with the scraped seeds of vanilla pods, black as ants.

All afternoon Beethoven’s symphonies swirl through the kitchen and out into the garden where sun and wind, dark clouds and blue sky perform an unpredictable dance routine. I’m in a race to slice and cook this bounty of Victoria plums before they ripen too far and the tiny fruit flies start to hover.

Much later, when my feet want to sit down, my husband comes back from the allotment with a delicate bunch of sweet peas, scarlet dahlias and open faced marigolds, some tomatoes - red this time - and a handful of green beans. And a bulging bag of plums. Maybe this is a race I can’t win tonight.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Double Good

Saturday 21st August and Sunday 22nd August

Day 122 & 123

When our visitors have driven away in their seven seater car, the pussy cat creeps out from under our bed where he has been hiding for the last three days. On his own retreat from little running feet on the stairs, tickled squeals, shrieks of laughter, water pistol fights and banging drums.

I sweep up under the table - scatterings of croissant flakes, blobs of cold porridge, last night’s garlic bread crumbs, a cube of roasted courgette, a pink felt tip pen.

We didn’t have children, didn’t do sticky fingered family meals, mop up spilt juice, tears or bloodied knees. Day after day, on and on through the nights for all those years.

Instead we get the chance to be aunt and uncle when it’s always summer or Christmas in their lives.

So when I ask the littlest one who is six years old, after our trip to the theme park and the whooshing water slides,

What was the best thing about today?’

and she says,

The ice cream and helping you make the tomato tart,

I stick my two thumbs up in the air like she does when she really, really likes something. She calls it double good.

Then I remember that this temporary tiredness can be swept away like sticky crumbs under the table but being an aunty is forever double good.

Friday, 20 August 2010

A kind of Loving

Friday 20th August

Day 121

Green tomatoes, plums, blueberries - and now two little children in my kitchen - a curly haired nephew and niece. They all need a different kind of attention - a kind of loving that brings out the best in them. My turn will come later when the house is echoey empty again.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Victoria Plums

Thursday August 19th

Day 120

The green tomato invasion has been replaced by a Victoria plum cornucopia. Every kitchen surface holds a tray or a bowl of them.

They are rosy pink and lime green gold with a misty white bloom on their skins.

Some are big firm pebbles. Some are leaking amber glue bubbles. Some are stung by wasps with small telltale holes in their sides.

Some look so soft and ripe you can’t resist taking a bite. That’s when you find the tiny wriggly worm making its gritty brown groove all the way to the stone in the centre, waving its head in the unexpected light - exposed. Rendering your perfect plum inedible.

For a while I feel deceived by the beauty of these plums, harbouring a canker inside. Then I take a knife and slice off the good pieces - rescuing what I can - leaving the worms and their feasting for the compost.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Picnic Pondering

Wednesday August 18th

Day 119

My father keeps his eyes on the pebbles at his feet. His sticks slip between the round smoothness of them. It’s a slow walk to the shore where the river meets the sea in swirling currents.

‘It doesn’t matter if I fall,’ he says, ‘you and your brother can hoick me up again.’

I remind him that the last time he fell - backwards into the soft springy grass on Dartmoor - that we were all laughing so hard my sister and I had to enlist the help of a passerby.

We reach the car just as the sun disappears behind steely black clouds and the wind gets fierce. We picnic on cheese and leek pastries and bite into whole tomatoes, small crunchy courgettes and celery sticks, and squash pale avocado flesh onto oatcakes. Our cups of hot soup steam up the windscreen.

While we munch on blueberries my father says he has been pondering on the purpose of his life. We talk about the importance of thinking about things, weighing them up. I notice how I pack my days tightly with no space for reflecting. I wonder if this writing counts as pondering.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Blueberry Gold

Tuesday August 17th

Day 118

The door bell rings. My smiling brother is standing there - his suitcase in one hand and in the other an enormous white plastic bucket - three quarters full of blueberries. He picked them yesterday morning in the rain, in a field in Holland, where he had strict instructions from two Dutch ladies -

strip a whole bush before you move on to the next one - no cherry picking of the biggest and best’.

They all look perfect to me. I think of the small flat containers of blueberries I sometimes buy in Tesco’s - a hundred grams for £3.50. There must be four kilos here at least. I feel as if I’ve been showered in gold.

I sprinkle a handful into the pineapple and mango fruit salad we have for supper - they shine like fat black buttons in a choppy yellow sea.

Closed Doors

Monday August 16th

Day 117

I lose myself in hunting dust balls under my desk, cleaning my study into a bedroom for a special guest - my brother coming to stay from across the sea. I close the door to keep the pussy cat from jumping on the freshly made bed.

Very late, when my two other special guests have gone home, and my husband is waiting in bed, I realise I forgot to write a line. As if I shut that door in my mind too.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Tomato Tart for a Crowd

Sunday August 15th

Day 116

‘Bring lunch to share’. We are fourteen friends standing round my sister’s dining room table, draped in sunshine yellow. Each different bowl and dish and plate full of someone’s thought and time and skill and love - carried in a car to be part of the whole. Some of us walked five miles first to anticipate this lunch.

I didn’t - my toes are still not ready for boots. But my tomato tart - I could take anywhere.

This is the version I cooked this morning in my cool, quiet kitchen while my husband slept and the pussy cat cleaned his whiskers. It’s a very quick tart.

Roll out a slab of puff pastry - made with butter is best - as thinly as possible, and line a shallow roasting tray.

Smear the base with tomato puree or a jar of pesto. Today I used some roasted aubergines, red peppers, onions and garlic instead.

Sprinkle with a thick layer of grated cheese - Cheddar or Gruyere or Cheshire.

Place rows of sliced tomatoes on top - about eight large ones will do.

Finish with a scattering of parmesan, a scrunch of sea salt and some grinds of black pepper. Tuck a few torn basil leaves between the tomatoes.

Bake in a very hot oven for about half an hour till the pastry is crisp round the edges and the cheese is browning and the tomatoes are shrinking.

And it smells like a street cafe in Florence.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Writing the Jar

Saturday August 14th

Day 115

We wake to the sound of rain and so abort our outdoor plans.

Instead we spend too much at Sainsbury’s and come home to a late breakfast of hot croissant and a pot of Earl Grey tea. I open a jar of jam. I have removed its round cloth bonnet, printed with strawberries and tied in place with a red and green ribbon. I love this particular jar and I know it well. It is a gift from my sweet writing niece and has passed between us, sat on our kitchen tables, many times. Together we are weaving its history.

I know it started its life on a shelf in Italy. The writing on the lid says ‘Quattro Stagionie’, and there is a line drawing of a country scene - a beehive, a butterfly. This same design is etched in relief on the side of the glass. It is squat and weighty in my hand - this time it's a deep red jewel.

Over the years it has been full of peaches and plums - hers; marmalade - mine; strawberries - hers and mine. She wrote the story of this jar in her very fist blog - more than one hundred days ago - touching my heart. Like me, she is still writing, still making magic in her kitchen.

We’ll have this to treasure when the jar - and the jam - are long gone.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Apples Too Soon

Friday August 13th

Day 114

An apple thuds onto the grass. I pick it up. Not a rotten one. Not a small hard green one. A half red apple from the top of the tree with a bruised dent in its side and a split in the skin. Juice beads, like dewdrops follow the line of the wound. It smells like my grandmother's September garden.

Ripe apples mean autumn. It can’t be that time. I haven’t worn my summer dress yet - the one with African heat sewn into its hem.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Cleaning Mirrors

Thursday August 12th

Day 113

I’m cleaning big mirrors. I stand on a stool to reach into the highest corners with a soft cloth, especially made for glass polishing.

I admire my effort from all angles. Still smeary.

All day my husband has been a mirror for me. Everything I don’t want to see in me shines in his face, in his words, in his worries.

While I keep polishing him my glass is ever more streaky.

I could use a different cloth - soaked in kindness - for us both.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Chocolate Washing Up

Wednesday August 11th

Day 112

Today I notice that my chocolate snobbery - dark 72% only - has feet of clay.

After lunch, including sweet, sticky, roast green tomatoes, I tackle the washing up - yesterday’s dirty pans and plates and cutlery. Usually my lovely husband takes on this task but today he has escaped into the clean air of Dartmoor, his hands in modeling clay - not bubbles.

I decide it would ease the load if I nibbled on chocolate while I washed up - but no slim, dark, foil-wrapped slab can be found lounging in the cupboard. I unearth something else - half a Terry’s Chocolate Orange (dark - 40%) in its squat bright box - left over from decorating the top of my nephew’s birthday cake last month.

I eat a segment or two, snapping them from their crumbly central post. The washing up takes a long time. After a while I notice my head aches and the box is empty.

I think we need a dish washer.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Coffee Break

Tuesday August 10th

Day 111

Early for an appointment I step into a cafe, escaping fine drizzle.

On the counter I read that the coffee beans are grown on a single estate in Ecuador. The milk is organic. The pastry is a Portuguese speciality - a wobbly egg custard tart in a glazed buttery case.

I could be in Lisbon or Rome but I’m in a small market town in Devon. I feel so lucky that the world has travellled to my doorstep.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Green Tomato Invasion

Monday August 9th

Day 110

I feel besieged in the kitchen today - by an invasion of green tomatoes. Kilos and kilos of them - rescued from blighted plants by my husband. He says,

“We need to cook them now.”

He fears they may infect each other if we don’t. I Google what to do with green tomatoes and make a cauldron of chutney - sweet and sour with vinegar and brown sugar, chopped apricots and ginger. I roast a panful with red onions and garlic and slice and fry a handful with chilli and soy sauce for lunch. Like marrows and nettles it’s what you cook green tomatoes with which inject them with any flavour.

I can smell my husband’s version of the chutney floating upstairs - stinging my nostrils with extra red chilli and garlic, ginger and some kind of alcohol. This year’s Christmas stocking fillers.

There are still three bowls of tomatoes, all shapes and sizes, sitting on the counter. Their grassy greenness taunts me. I feel the loss of their redness, their warm skinned sweetness, like a blight on a summer that never arrived.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Sunday Blues

Sunday August 8th

Day 109

This evening it’s my head not my toes which ache.

The garden is still, breathless, under a parachute of grey silk clouds.

My sweet sister and niece, who brought the gifts of old memories and new stories of their journey to Zambia into my weekend, have gone home.

My husband is at the allotment, mourning blight on his tomatoes.

I rummage through plastic bags in the fridge and find fat pea pods, wilted Swiss chard leaves, purple basil, small stripey courgettes and carrots sprouting root fingers. Supper takes shape in my mind, dissolving Sunday night blues. But not and the prospect of mountains of green tomatoes which my husband will bring through the door any minute now - a chutney challenge on my hands.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Dancing Balloons

Saturday August 7th

Day 108

My still cocooned toes are throbbing now - like music trapped in a drum. Too much dancing at the party under a ceiling of dangling helium balloons - rainbow coloured bubbles waiting to fly off into the black velvet sky where planets are lining up into the shape of a cross. An auspicious constellation which hasn’t happened for thousands of years - or maybe ever before. I wonder what it means.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Out To Sea

Friday 6th August

Day 107

I’m eating yesterday’s lunch out of a plastic box on the sea-front at Sidmouth. The wind whips through the place where there should be a pane of glass in the brick shelter. My fingers turn blue gripping my fork but I’m transfixed by the pair of paraglider surfers speeding through the waves in front of us.

One of them, tethered to her black and white crescent moon sail, is suddenly lifted into the air by a rush of wind and flies above the sea, for a few brief seconds, like prey in the talons of an eagle. Then she skids back into the water, tumbling off her board into the surf.

I wish it was me, strong enough to hold that cord into the sky, willing to lean back into that wave, brave enough to let the wind fill my sail and take me to shore. Or out to sea.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Birthday Mezze

Thursday August 5th

Day 106

Scattered on the table - ten little dishes of Middle Eastern inspired Mezze. I go off piste, culturally, and add a fat disc of foccacia and some giant orange tomatoes I bought in the market this morning.The bread turns out to be perfect to dip into the humous and smokey babaganoush and soak up the garlicky oil in the roasted peppers.

We are three around the table - my sister and I celebrating our dear friend’s birthday - which we have done for the last seven years. Today we remembered that first time - the summer my husband and I moved in, when the floor boards were still stained black, the cabinets were painted sea green and there were no glass doors opening onto the garden.

The kitchen has changed but we’ll keep on with our ritual round the table - dipping in and out of each other’s lives like our forks and our fingers deep in another little dish of something delicious.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010


Wednesday 4th August

Day 105

The wind in the kitchen this afternoon is a mischievous street urchin - snatching the tea towels from their rail, swiveling the Buddleia stems in the vase on the counter, wafting the smokey scent of blistering aubergines up the stairs, and whisking the doors shut.

When I realise the clouds have blown away and the sun is blazing, unexpectedly, I sit on the patio step - the garden chair seats are still rain-sodden. I turn my face to the sky and feel the heat, hot as fire, on my cheeks. I can steal these few minutes of summer - I know my aubergine skins need to burn a bit longer under the grill to impart their charcoal flavour into the creamy flesh beneath - the secret of a good Babganoush. That, and lots of garlic.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Japanese Exchange

Tuesday 3rd August

Day 104

Our Japanese friend, who visits us every year, says that she shows photos she has taken of our garden to her university students to illustrate what a terraced house is like. A foreign concept in Japan. I love it - that our small summer garden with its apple tree and hanging baskets of begonias has found its way to the other side of the world - a teaching tool.

She also says that my Teriyaki salmon lunch is better than ones she has eaten in Tokyo. She brings me Japanese biscuits and a delicate bookmark with dangling cherry blossom flowers woven in silk. I give her two jars - allotment strawberry jam and my husband’s garlic and apple chutney.

We met because my father, finding her alone at a church meeting, singled her out to talk to. Discovering she was studying in Exeter he said,

‘Oh, one of my daughters lives in Exeter. She will invite you to supper and we will play scrabble to improve your English vocabulary.’

I’m so glad he did. Although her English is perfect.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Blackberry Dreams

Monday 2nd August

Day 103

Last night’s dream filters into my morning like slow dripping coffee - one image after another. I find myself in a ruined house that we want to buy. It has tall windows and huge rooms full of crouched sofas and a low wall through which the sea seeps in the winter. I say to the vendor who sits at a round table pouring over plans,

‘The trouble is we only have a single sofa. How will we fill these rooms?’

He doesn’t answer - just traces his hand over the wet wall.

Before breakfast I cook the blackberries I picked at the allotment on Saturday. They are an American variety - longer and fatter than our English ones with thorn-less bramble branches. Their juice runs the colour of deep claret wine in the saucepan. Still hot and syrupy I tip them into a glass bowl - lumpy rubies, both tart and sweet - and musty like autumn.

I’ll serve them at lunch tomorrow - ice-cold dark pools swirled into a mound of silky yogurt and scattered with crushed meringues. I think our Japanese friend will approve.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Rice and Roses

Sunday 1st August

Day 102

The rice dish I’m concocting for the birthday party lunch is one I’ve been making for thirty years. I learnt it when I was a cook at Cranks in Dartington. It was on the menu every day, alongside a bowl of green leaves and a third seasonal salad. They called it Macro Rice.

I often fall back on it when inspiration and time are running out. And I can rely on having the ingredients - cooled, cooked brown rice, fried sliced onions, chopped springy parsley all mixed up with a few glugs of tamari soya sauce.

Today I’m tempted to turn it into a jewelled Persian version with cardamon and chopped apricots, cumin and pomegranate seeds. But the clock ticks so I compromise with fresh coriander and a mound of roasted, oiled cashews and almonds in the centre.

Before I leave I cut three borrowed red roses to lay on the white snow dusted lemon cake, with not quite sixty candles round the edges. But I know the dearly loved birthday girl won’t be counting - just making a wish when she cuts the first slice.