Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Wonderful Women

Wednesday 24th November

Day 217

It’s hard to type with freezing fingers. My forefinger is blue and numb. I need to warm up as we are going to the late showing of Harry Potter tonight.

Last blog for a week - leaving the house at 5 am on Friday - lovely husband will drive me to the airport. Two dear sisters to meet me at the other end. I’m planning to pack a swimming costume and a cagoule as there are mostly little grey cloud pictures dropping blue rain tears on the internet weather forecast for the Algarve.

Today I’m so grateful for all the wonderful women who share my life - each one a rare and beautiful gift . I feel truly sustained and nourished by their delicious friendship. My life would be thin without them.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010


Tuesday 23rd November

Day 216

My dear friend who I haven’t seen since April - as we now live in cities apart - reminds me that it is possible to taste my life in the same way as I savour my food - appreciating each mouthful. Instead of bolting it down in hurry which has become my habit. She is wise and right about this. We are in a glass restaurant in Salisbury, lingering over plates of baked shell pink trout, sprinkled with capers. Easy to enjoy in good company.

On the way home, waiting for my train at Westbury station I have time to drink in the glory of the sky which is glowing a deep pomegranate pink. Nothing to do except watch it, let it melt into me like waves breaking and sinking into sand. I remember that in a few days time I will be walking on a beach in Portugal where the sunsets are like nightly fires . But this gentle pink one is the gift I can absorb right now.

Being in the precious moment - a new practice. I noticed - too late - how quickly I ate my avocado pear tonight worrying about packing instead of relishing.

I’m so grateful tomorrow is another day - another chance to practise savouring.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Cat's Cradle in the Kitchen

Monday 22nd November

Day 215

Although there are a dozen other things on my to do list today, apart from cooking, I stay in the fug of the kitchen for hours, weaving a cat’s cradle between the sink and the hob, the oven and the fridge, the table and the telephone. Outside the sky hangs heavy above the garden, a leaden grey veil not even stirring the damp clothes on the line next door.

Now I have my day’s work lined up on the counter - twelve jars of Tomatillo and Cape Gooseberry Chutney, a Christmas cake, still warm in it’s tin, wrapped in a tall brown paper collar, a honey glazed Chocolate Banana Cake, ten round plastic tubs of Chickpea and Coconut Curry and Mushroom and Tomato Risotto for my father and a bowl of chopped almonds for tomorrow’s flapjack. And most of the washing up done.

Today I’m forever grateful for our hot water. Thank you to the wonderful man who fitted our new boiler so now I can wash up a whole stack of dirty pots without ranting in frustration when the water runs cold after only a few minutes. And I didn’t have to carry it from a well in the ground either.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Stir Up Sunday

Sunday 21st November

Day 214

Traditionally it is Stir Up Sunday today - the day to make your Christmas pudding when all members of the family, right down to the smallest, take turns stirring the sticky mixture.

For us it’s Stir Up Chutney Sunday. I want to use up all the bowls of unripe allotment produce which have been hanging around in the fridge for far too long - grass green tomatillos, squashy, pale orange cape gooseberries, wrinkly skinned apples, tiny sprouting onions, even smaller bulbs of garlic.

It’s cold, damp, overcast and bleak outside. My husband puts on a CD that we bought in New York - a jazz quartet we watched playing in Central Park on our first warm blue day there. And we start chopping - the chillis and shallots stinging our eyes. Soon we have two pans bubbling on the stove, the smell of vinegar and allspice rippling through the kitchen.

While my husband paints his clay model dragon, I weigh out the dried fruit for the Christmas cake and leave it soaking in several glugs of brandy. I’ll cook it tomorrow - keeping up my own tradition. Only one cake this year - I used to make one for my mother who liked marzipan but not royal icing on hers. I’ll remember her though, when I’m stirring up the sticky mixture.

Today I’m grateful for my store cupboards - stuffed full with packets of raisins and almonds, glace cherries and apricots - and that I have a wonderful family who will share my Christmas.

Saturday, 20 November 2010


Saturday 20th November

Day 213

This morning we don’t get up and go our usual separate morning routine ways. I make tea and we linger in bed and remember last night at the gallery and talk the details of our day.

I relish the delicious feeling of the ordinariness in my day - putting the kitchen back in order, washing the wine glasses and big plates, planning supper, maybe we’ll make the tomatillo chutney this afternoon. No deadlines hurtling towards me. Nothing looming on my horizon to disturb my dreams.

I notice how when I let something loom - an event like last night - or Christmas even - how distracted I am in the present - what a busy bee I am - squishing out pussy cat stroking time, husband listening time, reading and walking time, watching the birds time. Missing the sweetness of my life on the altar of tomorrow.

Now the aroma of roasting carrots and artichokes, potatoes and parsnips is swirling up the stairs telling me it’s time to put the trout in the oven and peel the sprouts. Time to sit down to supper with my lovely husband and linger under the duvet of Saturday night at home.

I’m so grateful for my dictionary - for expanding my language horizon....

To loom: to come into sight indistinctly, in enlarged or distorted or menacing form.

Wild and Wonderful

Friday 19th November

Day 212

It was a wild and stormy night.... Every time someone pushed open the glass door into the brightly lit studio with a dripping umbrella and a wide smile, shaking the rain from their coats, I felt so happy. We’d been waiting for them to arrive and view my husband’s wild and wonderful clay creatures displayed on tall pedestals and white painted brick walls. At 7.30 - opening time - we were still a huddled family group - a drop in the echoey ocean of the gallery, holding our wine glasses, picking at crisps and olives, making small talk.

‘I’ve over-catered,’ I thought looking at the laden table of food I’d been making all day. What will I do with all these plates of smoked salmon triangles, these sesame cheese thins, these chocolate brownies and cranberry flapjacks, if nobody comes?

But in the end they all came - those dear friends, flooding in from the night - and warmed the ocean space with their generous talking and laughing, clinking of glasses and sampling of sandwiches. And even buying some of my husband’s wild and wonderful creatures, leaving a little red dot on a tall white pedestal. And a huge splash of gratitude in my heart.

Jacob's Ladder

Thursday 18th November

Day 211

Let’s go faster,’ says my father.

My brother is steering him in a borrowed wheelchair. We are trundling along Sidmouth seafront. Sometimes my sister and I have to dart ahead and sweep the pebbles out of the way. The waves flung them up and scattered them across the path in Tuesday night’s storm. My brother runs carefully - as if he was in an egg and spoon race on sports day.

When we arrive at the end of the promenade the sun goes in and and the wind blows cold. Should we turn back or venture on to Jacob’s Ladder - round the red cliffs with the sea splashing over the rails and then up that steep winding hill? I look at my father, sitting in the chair with his orange scarf wrapped round his ears and under his cap - the cap he doesn’t like, the cap he wanted to leave behind in the bluebell wood in the spring - his big hands in my gloves, and I think it’s time to find a cafe for lunch.

I want to go on,’ he says.

It may be your last chance to see Jacob’s Ladder,’ says my sister, seizing the day. So we’ll remember this ninety first birthday.

Yes, before I kick the bucket,’ he says.

And we wonder where that phrase comes from as we all three push him slowly up the hill.

Today I’m grateful for my brother and his glorious sense of humour. And that my father has a son as well as three daughters who can do most things for him - except accompany him to the gents in a time of urgent need.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010


Wednesday 17th November

Day 210

‘Gratitude is the memory of the heart’ - Jean Baptiste Massieu.

I think I know what he means. This morning I had several cups of tea and a flapjack with a dear friend in our sitting room, unexpected sunshine - after last nights howling rain - slipping in through the blinds. She reminded me about the practice of gratitude - about how the more you remember to be grateful for all the things in your life, the more grateful you become and so your heart grows lighter. And crowds out thoughts of anger, malice and revenge.

When I was a teacher I had to learn the practice of praising the children - get in the habit of it - instead of telling them off all the time. Much better results. So being grateful is a skill I could learn and get better at. Like writing this blog. I thought I could include it here as a practice - one thing I’m grateful for every day - reminding my heart to be happy.

Tonight as I put my key in the door, instead of being grumpy about having to park the car miles away, I thought how grateful I am to have a front door at all, glowing yellow in the light from the hall. And a lovely husband inside, waiting for me.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010


Tuesday 16th November

Day 209

I’ve done a lot of lugging today. Heavy things in and out of the car. Firstly my husband’s clay creatures carefully padded with bubble wrap in an assortment of cardboard boxes, jig-sawed in the boot. We travel in convoy like a muffled zoo - it’s not far to the gallery but all the way I’m tense and watchful - imagining a long tailed cat, a leafy green-man, a pointy-eared dog, slipping off the seat and smashing into pieces if I have to break hard.

We unpack them at the other end - all toes and finger nails in tact.

Later I heave more lumpy bags into the car boot after my visit to Sainsbury’s and again at Lidl’s. I’m stocking up on refreshments for Friday’s private view - cartons of fruit juice, bottles of wine, crisps, olives and smoked salmon. And a good few bars of dark chocolate - I’m sure I’ll need them for Christmas baking. If they last till then.

Luckily my husband arrives home at the same time and does all the lugging into the house. So I’m free for the strenuous task of putting the kettle on.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Ice Floes

Monday 15th November

Day 208

Early this morning when I slosh warm water over my car windscreen its coating of thin ice shatters and re-freezes like crackled moonlight.

At lunch time, eating our mushroom pilaf my husband says,

I’m finding it hard at the moment.’

Me too. Not hard like waiting for the bailiffs or living with teenagers, or cancer in my bones.

Just that it feels an effort to post my letters, to walk to the library, to make a pot of leek soup, to sort my in-tray. I’m missing the long light of summer. Even on a bright day like today my blood runs slow - clogged with ice floes.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

A Muffin Too Far

Sunday 14th November

Day 207

I fold fat round blueberries into a lumpy cornmeal batter and spoon dollops into the rough cut paper cases lining twelve cups of a bun tin. And hope they will be as light and moist as my memory of their American cousins.

We eat them, re-warmed, as part of a brunch with our dear friends who shared some of our Stateside adventure. Washed down with gallons of Earl Grey tea, mascapone cheese whipped up with maple syrup and summer blackcurrant jam, they seem to pass the test.

But I think there is still room for improvement. And room in the freezer for more breakfast experiments. I know there is a doughnut muffin recipe involving strawberry jam, hot melted butter and granulated sugar - but that might just be a muffin too far....

Sharing Tables

Saturday 13th November

Day 206

Some moments from my day - mostly food on a table shared with lovely people.....

We sit across from my nephew and his girlfriend in a country pub - steam rising from big white plates of lunch in front of us - grilled plaice, hake wrapped in parma ham, fish stew with chorizo, beer battered cod and chips. Dull November light flows in through a wall of glass doors. Their faces are shining though, these young people - bright with New Year plans and nest building.

In fading light my husband and I walk under beech trees following a splashing river. Underfoot the path is mashed up leaves and mud. The cold seeps through the cotton of my new coat - already too flimsy for this season. I’m impatient for 4 o’clock so that we can go and dismantle his ceramics exhibition and go home.

Much later we sit opposite my sister and brother-in-law on the long wooden benches of Wagamamma’s. I fish up the last grains of rice from the bottom of my bowl with chopsticks. Even though I’m still full from lunch, I haven’t yet mastered the knack of leaving food - especially in the warmth of good company.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Cornmeal Muffins

Friday 12th November

Day 205

There are three recipe books open on the kitchen table and three print outs from Google.

I’m researching MUFFINS.

Ever since that first morning in New York when seven of us had an unforgettable brunch at Sarabeth’s - an elegant restaurant overlooking Central Park - I’ve been hankering after the warm tender lightness of a corn meal muffin.

Tonight I made my first foray into the classic world of an American breakfast staple. I read the recipes and then mixed up my own English version - speckled with purple onion, red pepper, parsley and grated oak smoked cheddar cheese.

Although they were nothing like Sarabeth’s, but still savoury and crumbly light, we ate them with poached eggs for supper and remembered the highlights of our holiday.

I’m going to try making blueberry ones next.

Thursday, 11 November 2010


Thursday 11th November

Day 204

The woman with the delicate fairy fingers feels her way into the muscles of my low back.

‘It’s very compressed here,’ she says, ‘very heavy - no movement in your sacrum.’

After she’s gone I wonder what it is that is weighing me down, squashing me like one of those long Italian sandwiches layered up with slices of proscuitto and mozarella and olive tapenade and then clamped down with something heavy - a brick or a cast iron pan so that the sharp oily juices run into the soft spaces of the ciabatta bread.

I guess it is some old burden that I have picked up again - from a long time ago - imagining I have to carry it all by myself.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Ornithological Suffragettes

Wednesday 10th November

Day 203

I didn’t know this till tonight - The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds came into being because a small group of Victorian women started a campaign against the killing of birds for their feathers which were used to adorn hats. I like their tactics - go to church on Sunday, notice the women whose hats were furred and feathered, write them a letter the next day -

Do you realise birds from fifteen different species were killed so that you can wear your hat? And that a brood of babies was deprived of their mother?’

They were the first ornithological suffragettes. Waking us up to the real cost of fashion. I wonder if in 2010 we have gone back to sleep.....

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

What's cooking is......

Tuesday 9th November

Day 202

What’s cooking today?

We sat down to a ‘proper’ lunch - roast vegetables; the Jerusalem artichokes are particularly succulent, fresh grilled dabs from Brixham, bright green neroli cabbage and basil mayonnaise. We both missed breakfast - my husband at the allotment picking cape gooseberries and digging up carrots. I only had time for a cup of tea before the boiler man arrived to cut deep into the hall flooring in his search of gas pipes. So hot lunch soothed the prospect of the coming dust and disruption.

What is also cooking is that I have been felled in my tracks by back pain. Which I’m sure will pass. This afternoon, prone on the sofa with a hot-water bottle, I think about the three people I know who live with daily, nightly pain. Two of them will die because of it. And I wonder at their courage. And how they and the ones who love them can endure it.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Pushing the Brownie Boundaries

Monday 8th November

Day 201

The other day I tasted the ultimate brownie at the beautiful home of a dear friend. The sort of confection that stops the conversation and requires deep concentration to savour each bite of chocolate heaven. The whole point of a brownie - what makes it different from a chocolate sponge cake - is its texture, which comes from the high proportion of sugar in the recipe - and should be very moist and nearly dense but light and rich too.You can ruin a whole tray of them by leaving them in the oven for just a few minutes too long - which I have done more than once.

I suppose the other point of brownies is their ability to induce in you the throwing caution to the wind concept - the invitation to indulge in a chocolate experience. And when you’ve had one it’s almost impossible to resist another.......

I tried to replicate my friend’s recipe at home but changed the flour to semolina and by mistake used more dark chocolate than I intended. So ended up with a heavy flat creation - more of a fudge really - stretching the brownie boundaries into new territory. Tonight I took them to share with two dear women while we sat on deep squashy sofas in front of a blazing wood fire and kept the dark of the night at bay for a few hours.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Proud Kisses

Sunday 7th November

Day 200

I don’t want to but I’m going to have to shift the pussy cat off my knees, and replace him with my laptop which is sitting open and waiting for my words. I was hoping to avoid the call of the garden which needs some attention - some pruning and raking up of leaves. Cold spitting rain gave me the excuse to stay a bit longer in my Sunday bed with a bowl of porridge and Billy Collins poetry.

But now the sun is slanting through the bedroom blinds so I will go in search of that rake. I notice the pussy cat curled up on the duvet looks exactly like one of my husband’s clay models. It usually lives on top of the filing cabinet in his office but today it is relocated in a small town near by, with all his other creatures, in a long white room alongside his classmates creations.

Later I will carry plates of smoked salmon triangles and sesame cheese straws to this private view and toast my very talented husband with a glass of spiced mulled wine - and very proud kisses.

The Curiosity Gene

Saturday 6th November

Day 199

My father dips his chopsticks into the dish of deep fried king prawns swimming in a sauce of such sticky luminous orange that it offends my eyes. At his request, my sister and I are treating him to a day early ninety first birthday lunch at The Bird’s Nest - his favourite Chinese restaurant.

‘What’s the secret of your long life?’ I ask him.

He doesn’t hesitate.

‘Curiosity’, he says, ‘ and being interested in people.’

‘And believing you can change things - and doing something about it,’ I say.

Like planting a Peace Pole - and averting a war when it is uprooted.

I think this curiosity gene passed me by. But luckily I see it is thriving in his grandchildren.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Cake and Fireworks

Friday 5th November

Day 198

Lighting my way with a torch, I carry two stacked bowls of vegetable peelings and egg shells down to the compost bin at the bottom of the garden. The air is Florida warm on my face. The sky is misty with gunpowder smoke - it’s alive with bangs and whistles and raining showers of sparkling stars - blue and green and gold which die seconds later like melting snowflakes at midnight.

Back in the kitchen the scent of birthday cake welcomes me.Two round tins on the cooling tray giving up their warm coconut aroma. I’m not really surprised when they sink in the middle. As I tipped it in I thought the mixture was too batter thin for a sponge. Maybe they’ll be good for a trifle. I’ll need to whisk up something else tomorrow - possibly ginger - my father likes ginger.

It seems the fireworks will crackle and spurt all night. I’ll let the pussy cat stay crouched under our bed - his eyes as round wide as my flat cakes.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

The Buddah

Thursday 4th November

Day 197

Since this morning when I first saw him, probably only a foot high, in the corner of my friend’s flower bed, his image has stayed with me, like a pebble rubbed smooth in my pocket. A robed, standing Buddha, tummy rounded, face crinkled with laughing, arms raised and open wide in unstinting welcome.

How clever to capture that kind of joy in a piece of grey resin.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Aubergine Earplugs

Wednesday 3rd November

Day 196

I forgot how shopping - especially in the loudness of other shoppers - makes my head buzz and drains my sap. I wasn’t sure about the two presents I bought and came back with a box of six drinking glasses that I wasn’t planning to get. I love their wide vase shape and heavy bottoms. I discover they are whisky glasses - but what’s in a name? I’m sure the water won’t mind. Foam earplugs for my father were on the list and I finally found those in B & Q - a small triumph.

At home I pack a roasting tray with chunks of red onions, peppers, courgettes and the last allotment aubergines and toss them around in a mixture of balsamic vinegar, mustard, olive oil and garlic. Their smokey scent fills the kitchen as I eat my late salad lunch watching the light leaving the sky, the wind tugging at the few remaining yellow leaves on the apple tree and a ring dove swinging from the bird feeder.

I’m wondering about the small wood louse that crawled out of the aubergine when I cut the end off, and skittered over the chopping board. How did it stay alive in the fridge for two weeks since we got back from America? Maybe cold doesn’t penetrate deep into aubergine flesh which is as spongey and snug as ear plugs.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Safe as Houses

Tuesday 2nd November

Day 195

The door bell rings at exactly 8.30 am. I knew it would - you can set your watch by our electrician. He shakes hands with me and then with my husband who’s eating toast and strawberry jam at the table. A nice firm handshake - old fashioned, courteous. He’s been sorting out our electrics for seven years.

While he’s fixing the dimmer switch in the kitchen, I lean against the sink with a cup of tea and listen to his stories. He had both his knees operated on four years ago and thought he’d never work again. Yesterday he walked seventeen miles on Dartmoor.

This afternoon when I arrive at my father’s he’s sitting at his round table in front of a chessboard - playing against himself. The room is in disarray with all the furniture pulled away from the walls. There is a man with a screwdriver in one hand and a plug in the other. He’s the handyman for the home and is checking all the electrical appliances comply with regulations - eighteen in my father’s case. While I cut up a melon, change the sheets, make a doctor’s appointment, I listen to his stories. He worked as an ambulance man for twenty five years. Then he fell off a ladder.

I like these men. I’m so grateful to them with their huge mysterious tool boxes and lengths of flex. And all that knowledge in their heads and in their finger tips. Keeping us safe in our houses.

Peaceful Soup

Monday 1st November

Day 194

Writing has slipped away from me today. I feel uninteresting and bored with myself.

If I write about soup maybe I’ll remember who I am.

At lunchtime I have five minutes to eat my bowl of coconutty lentil dhal, enhanced with last night’s left over veggies - broccoli and carrots cooked with crushed garlic - inspired by a mouth watering dish I ate in a restaurant in Boston on our last evening. I notice I don’t savour my soup when in my mind I’m already out of the door and on the way to my appointment. The hot flavours disappear on my tongue without me tasting them. Better to be hungry then and wait for a peaceful time to eat.

At 5.30 my father spoons his soup from a tray on his lap. It looks like Heinz Tomato with a little bowl of deep fried croutons - which he loves. I tuck a tea-towel under his chin to catch any drips.

‘I’m supposed to be an invalid,’ he says cheerfully.

I say he should keep pretending and then he can have supper in his room again tomorrow. Take a break from eating with all the other residents around the table in the dining room which can be an ordeal for him sometimes. All that shouting to be heard and listening to trivia.

Not very peaceful for the digestion.