Sunday 29 August 2010

Quiet day

I was reading Elizabeth's evocative post this morning, and was struck by her phrase "the silence which was not silence". I started to think, and to listen. A plane high overhead. Distant traffic sounds. A cat, washing itself  (wetly, noisily, so has to be Hamish). The wind. The ping of an incoming email. Little else; it is Sunday, and the weather isn't tempting anyone to linger outdoors. It's not silent, but for a city street, it is quiet.

My house is often quiet. Cats and dog sleep for hours, I potter, and read, and sometimes forget to speak even to the animals. It's an atmosphere of calm and tranquillity that I cultivate, knowing that this is what I myself need, and they respond. If disturbed, they blink sleepily at me and stretch, then tuck their noses into their bedding or under their tails. They may go outside, to sit on yard walls or under the bench, their attention taken by a fluttering leaf or an ant. Nothing much may happen for hours in their little lives, at least until dinnertime.

Today it is slightly different. It's windy, in that gusty, unsettling way, with occasional squally showers that beat urgently on the window panes. It sprang up suddenly, causing huge clattering rushes of cats through the cat flap, indignant that they should be made wet with such force, and with so little warning. A wet cat (Lottie) is a friendly cat, wanting up onto my knee, tapping me with an outstretched paw.

Then all settles down.

No one calls, no one phones; it's a Bank Holiday weekend. My whole family is abroad, my brother living in America, my sister still in Greece, my son in Cambodia (he texts from Angkor Wat; says he's all templed out). I stop reading (Chris Mullin's oddly-engrossing political diaries) and bake some cheese and herb scones - I have just enough Cheddar and parmesan in the fridge to make a batch.

Only after they have been stamped out into squares (I have a friend whose auntie always maintained that savoury scones should be square, and sweet or plain ones round) do I realise that I have left out the butter - how could I have forgotten the first step, the rubbing-in of fat into flour?

Never mind, too late now; they are baked, and heavy. Edible, I suppose, but hardly up to scratch. Leaving them in the oven for a while helps them to dry out a little, but does nothing for their looks. Before they have cooled, Roger and Tim, home from Mull, call in with gifts: handmade soaps, an assortment of tiny sweet tomatoes, some almost dark brown, and plums from their tree. They oblige me by eating two of my scones.

Later, the dog and I go out for a walk, in a biting wind. It feels autumnal, but not in a mellow, kind way, more of a hint of harsher days to come. I contemplate buying a new winter coat soon.

The house is quiet again, but with the added muffled roar of the central heating boiler. Time to put the kettle on, time to settle in for the evening. A quiet Sunday, almost over.

Friday 27 August 2010


Good word, isn't it, 'blogmeet'? Sounds ancient, meaningful, Old English, like 'wapentake'...

But in reality, yesterday at least, it means getting in the car, driving to a nearby pretty little market town, Morpeth of the terrible floods of 2008, and meeting up with blogger Anne of frayed at the edge, and her sister-in-law Jennifer. I was hopeful, as my previous experience of meetings with fellow bloggers had been most enjoyable.

And it was most enjoyable this time too. The sun shone, the sky was blue, we chatted over a pot of tea, then walked through the park along the river, looping back into town to have a very good pizza and more conversation. And we popped in to M & S's sale - well, of course we did.

I didn't get a parking ticket despite overstaying my time, and we parted company saying we should like to do it all again some time. I was treated to both the tea and my lunch, although, frankly, I deserved neither.

Anne had brought me a gift, a bag containing a mug and some sachets of drinking chocolate:

Isn't that little bag just lovely? Made by Anne. Made properly, too, beautifully lined and finished. Why can't I sew like that?

But to my shame, and despite best intentions, I arrived empty-handed. I had left home and was just that mile or three too far along the A1 to turn back before remembering that the box of choc/mocha cupcakes, baked for Anne last night, remained in the fridge at home. I'd been distracted by checking that I had parking money, telling the dog I wouldn't be long ((the magic phrase that settles her into her armchair) and left the house forgetting all about them. Bad forgetful blogmeeter, I am!

So I sent her a photo later on of what she should have had as a gift from me:

I'm sure she wasn't much comforted.

And then I ate some, as a severe penance for myself, you understand.

But it's a good excuse to meet up again - my treat next time, with real cake alongside too.

If you haven't tried blogmeeting, give it a go, do!

Thursday 26 August 2010

Parental doubt

(Warning: not for the squeamish)

There are times when the Lovely Son gives me cause to think "Did I really produce that person?  How could he really be mine?"

Such a moment occurred this morning when I got up to find his latest text, sent from Cambodia.

"It's not every day you stuff a mouthful of roughly chopped and fried but still very giant black ants into your mouth to help wash down a crunchy whole quail's head. Much rum afterwards for forgetting. Plus occasional anty burps. Love it here."

Travel broadens the mind and the palate.

I think I may miss breakfast today. Perhaps just a little rum for forgetting....

Monday 23 August 2010

The Joy of Forgetfulness

You want to prepare food that is not too complicated and that will turn out successfully. And isn't this because you want to please the people you are cooking for?

Ginette Mathiot

I used to be a fairly keen cook. But recently, I realised that I've been cooking increasingly badly - as in repetitively and unimaginatively - as I got older; same old staples: soups, stews, pasta, omelettes, roasts. Looking in my old faithful cookery books, I could find nothing to inspire me, or their exotic signature dishes weren't to my taste, or I was defeated by the length of the ingredients lists.

I began to worry if I was going to turn into an old lady who ate little else but toast , salmon steaks and shepherd's pie.... My fridge is often zingy with colour, full of vegetables, salads, herbs and sometimes meat or chicken; I have a weekly order of superb free range eggs from a family friend, but I would often struggle to produce much that was interesting. Surely I could find dishes that captured the wonderful simplicity and depth of flavour that my mother and grandmother never failed to produce? Both were excellent cooks, yet nothing was 'cheffy' or overdressed; real home cooking, deceptively plain and unadorned, with good ingredients, and a great joy in feeding people, had been their trademarks. I have no memory of either of them ever consulting a cookery book.

At some point very recently, I seem to have done something about it. I ordered a book that, judging from its reviews, would recapture those dishes from childhood, would re-light the interest in food and cooking that had been fading dully for years. And then I forgot totally, utterly, that I had done so.

A parcel came today, and a very large heavy parcel at that. Mystified, I opened it, convinced that I had ordered nothing, that no one was likely to be sending me a gift (that's not a hint, by the way!) and found, to my jolted memory's delight, this 1932 classic Je Sais Cuisiner, now in English:

And it's a big fatty.

With lovely illustrations:

And tempting photographs. Dishes that take me back in time: cassoulet, potage bonne femme, apple fritters (oh, my mother's apple fritters!), stuffed cabbage (that my grandmother tied with stout cotton thread).....

and thankfully, a simple recipe for Swiss chard, becoming abundant on the allotment.

I'm pleased that I forgot about ordering this book; it was the nicest surprise on this cold rainy day.

So much to choose from, although I don't know where to start! Maybe by shopping.....

Sunday 22 August 2010

LS Phone Home

A welcome phone call this morning from the Lovely Son, made from one of these phone booths:

From inside Saigon Central Post Office, built by Gustave Eiffel. 'Uncle Ho' looks down, perhaps benevolently.

The LS and his travelling companion (girlfriend? not girlfriend? I don't ask) are having a great time, and thousands of photos are promised.

Not all is rosy, however; there was a harrowing visit to the War Remnants (formerly War Crimes) Museum, lots of rain, and some angst over a dish of something that didn't quite taste of rabbit, and is now being fretted over in case it was dog. The Lovely Son, an adventurous carnivore, loves dogs, but not in his dinner....

I shan't tell Tosca that bit.

Me, I'm having a less adventurous day, sleeping, slobbing about in dressing gown till disgracefully late, and reading this Hanoi blog, kindly sent to me by Jill who doesn't have a blog of her own. I love a bit of vicarious travel; no need for typhoid jabs or malaria tablets, or stepping out into terrifyingly chaotic traffic.

But I still wish I could be there...

I'll have salad for lunch, thank you; I may share it with the dog.

Saturday 21 August 2010

Word from afar

Xin chao...

These were the opening words of the Lovely Son's text that arrived a few minutes ago. At first, I thought it was a place name, and tried to find it on a map, then found that it meant "Hello" in Vietnamese. We should have tried harder with that Vietnamese for Beginners CD....

He went on: "Saigon a madhouse, people lovely" and as predicted, finds the food very much to his taste. He will ring tomorrow, he says, before visiting Cambodia, via the mighty Mekong River.

He is a very long way away, and to a mother's heart, it feels it. If you see what I mean.

On the home front, yesterday's viewers were time wasters, nice though they were. Today's were, I suspect, student landlords, cold-bloodedly eyeing up my house in terms of room size and potential for another bathroom, with no interest in anything else. Dispiriting.

Feeling melancholy, I wandered down to the allotment, and picked some peas. Then I cooked them lightly, and ate them, on their own, with a little butter. The dog helped; like many Yorkshire terriers, she loves peas.

Comfort eating.

Friday 20 August 2010

Vietnam in brief

The Lovely Son texted on arrival in Ho Chi Minh City yesterday:

"Hello. Here. Bags in Kuwait but hey. This place like Blade Runner but more mental...." (then a little loving message for his slightly-envious mum).

The lack of bad words, the "but hey" and the reference to a favourite film suggest to me that he's going to love it. Travel without luggage is becoming a family trait.

View halloo

Back on the viewing trail again. I'd put a ! in there, but I'm being calm and sensible about this malarkey now.

A torrentially rainy day, the house unnaturally tidy, but with some cardboard boxes thrown in to the mix for added effect. Everywhere looked gloomy.

There were tell-tale smells of furniture polish and brass cleaner, flowers and - no, not baking bread or fresh coffee, d'you think I'm Sarah Beeny? -  to balance it a little, a teeny hint of that lovely sandalwood spray that I bought in Amsterdam years ago and am eking out very carefully. Although I loathe most room sprays, I adore the smell of sandalwood, and wish I could find this particular make again.

The yard was dark and dripping. Snail territory.

Anyway.... a delightful young woman came round today, with fat jolly baby and silent smiley husband, and fell in love with the house, the colours, the pictures, the objects, the layout, everything but the price, really, which they admitted was beyond their budget. But they couldn't resist coming to look, as the house had looked so nice in the brochure, and said they could happily live here for 28 years as I have done.

Just the sort of family I would love to sell to, but it's very unlikely. Another viewing tomorrow, and another booked for next week.

The day brightened while they were here, and they left in fleeting sunshine.

I'm not going to ask anyone to cross their fingers again; too burdensome, and not good for typing or making dinner. But I'm cheered to find that the market isn't dead after all, that not everyone is on holiday, and that I can still whizz round and make things presentable at short notice. Clearly things didn't go to the dogs completely while I was having my moment of disappointment.

But you can wish for a delightful young couple with a delightfully accommodating budget, if you like.

Wednesday 18 August 2010


Out for a tootle with friend Annie this afternoon, into the Northumberland countryside. The sun shone, despite the forecast for rain, and we could see for miles. Few photos, as my camera battery was low, but it was the most glorious day, in beautiful rolling farmland.

Wheelbirks Farm used to be a place where you left your money in the honesty box in the farmhouse porch, collected your wonderful Jersey cream from the fridge, and drove off. It's expanded since then, and has opened an ice cream parlour. We thought we should test it out.

Annie had imagined that it would be quiet, tucked away and undiscovered, but the well-filled car park hinted at its popularity.

The production line was frantically busy.

Indoors, generous portions of very fine ice cream were served, and wolfed without the thought occurring to either of us that a photograph would be nice. By the time we remembered - oops, too late.

But the setting was delightful; each table had its own personal attendant.

Suddenly it was closing time, and the place emptied.

But no one seemed in a hurry to chase children out of the play area orchard.

The old tractor was popular.

And the chickens unperturbed.

In this smart little coop a mother hen clucked and fussed over her babies.... baby pheasants.

The notice inside, handwritten by a child, read:

These pheasant chicks are 2 (weeks?) are daddy found the eggs in a field and brought them home. We put the eggs under are broody hen and they hatched 3 days later.

After a stroll round, we got into are car and drove home. A delightful little visit, to be repeated.
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