Hawksmoor Air St

‘Well’, I sighed to my housemate, ‘it looks like I’m about to drive a tank through any reputation I had as a frugal foodie blogger.  How do I write about going to Hawksmoor without sounding like a terrible person who burns £20 notes in front of beggars?’

‘But you are a terrible person’ he observed, unhelpfully.

‘Why would you call me terrible?’ I said, knowing he didn’t mean it, because otherwise he wouldn’t carry on living with me and making me coffee when I am hungover and bringing home ridiculous alien invasion movie DVDs for us to watch because he knows I like them.

‘Because I didn’t get to go’ he sniggered, and walked off.  He was right.

Published in: on March 25, 2013 at 11:30 pm  Leave a Comment  

Is It Still Not Spring Beetroot/Walnut/Cheese Salad and Celeriac Soup

It’s still February, and you know what that means. Root veg, each claggy with mud, boiled and mashed and turning up everywhere, even salads. Salt, fatty pork, as sausages or bacon or cubes of pancetta, and the bitter twist of brassicas in your mouth. A seeming need to put cheese on everything. Really now, how much longer can winter last? Isn’t it bud and sun time yet?


There is some new green about, though. My winter leaves out in the garden – mizuna, spinach, chard – are bigger than ever, and last week we got the first fresh salad bag of the year in our weekly veg from Chingford. They got put to use when thrown together with baked beetroots, walnuts and crumbly Cheshire cheese, in a recipe I’ve bastardised from somewhere (possibly Nigel Slater?).


Wash three beetroots carefully and wrap each one in tinfoil, then bake in a medium oven for about an hour and a half. When they come out and have cooled, rub the skins off with your fingers. Don’t go touching any white curtains or cushions after: instead, find a child (or, in a pinch, a drunk adult), wave your sticky pink fingers at them and go ‘wooo-ooo’. They will probably be unimpressed. Slice the beetroot into forkable chunks and wash your hands. On top, crumble one third of a normal supermarket-size packet of Cheshire cheese, and finally a handful of broken walnut halves. Empty the washed salad leaves on top and leave the salad in layers, pink, white, brown and green, til you want to serve it, and then toss the whole lot together. I dressed it with a vinaigrette made of lemon juice, olive oil, half a crushed garlic clove, salt, pepper and half a teaspoon of grain mustard.


One celeriac is a good sized thing to include in your mashed potato, camouflaged as it is by being approximately the same colour and texture when mashed (although it never loses a little rootliness). This gives a vaguely sharp, herbal undercurrent to your potato cushion and makes it go well with a salty, fatty meat thing sitting on top. Two celeriacs is too much though. You cannot hide two celeriacs, even in a baby’s buggy or behind a curtain. Two celeriacs have to be soup.


Celeriac looks a little bit like someone crossed a swede with a squid. They are wrinkled, tentacley, vaguely sentient-looking. They might be a scarecrow’s brain, or the giant dimpled molecule of an element from another planet. Once you cut away their wrinkly skin, though, and slice up the white flesh underneath, they are innocuous enough, although their herbal smell sticks to your hands. Fry some onions with cumin seeds, ginger and garlic, and then stir in the diced celeriac and a couple of peeled, diced potatoes when the onions are soft, topping up with stock. Cook until everything is tender, then throw in washed garden leaves for a little green to break up the flavour: buzz it with a stick blender until the soup is creamy rather than chunky. Let it cool a little. Swirl in yoghurt, and crispy cooked bacon, broken up into fragments. Clutch the warm bowl in your hands, spoon the thick, savoury soup into your mouth, dream of spring.

Published in: on February 27, 2013 at 7:14 pm  Leave a Comment  

Cook the Veg Bag, Round 3: Cabaret Dumplings

It has been cold here. Not touch-of-chill, almost March cold, not a cold that can be dispelled with a cup of tea and a shrug. I mean needle cold, cold that makes you huff into your scarf and swear a little and hurry because the faster you move the better a chance you have of outpacing it. Cold, man. As I left the house the other morning, tiny white flakes spun down in front of me, so sparse and delicate I actually looked at the tree behind me to see if it was shedding early blossom. It wasn’t, it was just the tightening sky warning us off looking forward to spring just yet, without giving the satisfaction of real snow.

I went to the cabaret that night with friends, and wore some fishnets underneath my sober black library skirt, because who can resist trying to dress a little bit in keeping with the action on the stage? Cabaret always feels like a conspiracy of coolness to me, knowing that you at a table sipping and watching in respectful quiet (as the sign on the door says: ‘Please respect our perfomers and SHUT THE FUCK UP!’) could be called on to be a stammering prop to the performers. I once went with a cabaret novice to a particularly rowdy night in north London, where within twenty minutes she had been hit by a flying glitter heel, inadvertently kicked off by the house drag queen. I wouldn’t presume to glitter heels or cigarette holders, but fishnet stockings don’t raise too many eyebrows in the reading rooms. They’re fun for a saucy hit of not-quite coverage, defining the shape of your leg and making it so you’re not quite unclothed. They are functionally useless for keeping out the cold, though, and the surface of my skin stung with the chill. After the show, I walked brisk and huddled with my friend to the bus stop, and boarded a bus home and, friends, do not tell the weird twin double act or the woman who threaded medical pipes through her nose or the amazing striptease artist who pretended to do her whole act drunk, wobbling with artless artfulness on six inch platforms, do not tell them I got distracted from them immediately by the late hour and the damn cold, and that by the time I was on the bus all I was thinking of was cabbage dumplings.

I had some large Savoy cabbage leaves, you may recall, and a good few onions and the previous night I cooked them up with a very old bag of sushi rice left over from times of previous conceit, and most of a tub of cottage cheese. I started off by setting the rice to steam, and slicing the onions into bows and frying them in a cast iron frying pan til they were brown and pliant. Once they were both cooked, I put the rice in the pan along with salt, pepper, and cottage cheese and stirred until the rice was shot through with savoury threads of onion, and so filling and good I had to stop myself eating it by the pillowy tablespoon.


Rice and onion

I picked out some of the small fragments of porcini mushroom from an open packet, and poured boiling water over to rehydrate them. After letting them soak for 10 minutes or so, I put the mushroom fragments in with the rice mix and added powdered Marigold bouillon to the liquid. With the cabbage leaces clean and unfurled, I spooned the rice mixture (helpfully clinging to itself) into each one, forcing a good amount in before folding the cabbage leaf around it. Here are the cabbage babies, plump and snugly tucked up:
I didn’t have any toothpicks or similar to seal them with, so they stayed open-ended where not packed in tight. Over these, I poured the hot mushroom stock from the porcini, so that it covered the dumplings with a little room to spare. They went into the oven for 45 minutes and came out sturdy, salty and perfect for a cold winter evening with a slash or two of chilli sauce.


I ate two bowlsful and there was still enough left over when I walked in off the night bus, legs slightly blue under my fishnets, to warm my hungry late night self.

That concludes the veg box cooking for last week. I put the potatoes to one side, because I’ll always find a use for potatoes before they go off. That left only the purple sprouting broccoli. As tempting as it is to boast that I did something exciting with that, it would be untrue: I steamed it all and ate it with two boiled eggs, half a can of anchovies and two slices of bread and butter, and it was perfect.

Published in: on February 25, 2013 at 7:16 pm  Leave a Comment  

Cook The Veg Bag, Round 2: pickled turnips and savoury cabbage

My veg bag last week had a turnip in.  Turnips confound me, a bit.  Root vegetables which you cannot boil, mash and eat with butter on top?  White radishy things you cannot slice, raw, into a salad? All wrong.  If I had £400,000, it is safe to say that I would not buy my dream turnip (more…)

Published in: on February 20, 2013 at 5:59 pm  Comments (4)  

Cook the Veg Bag, Round 1: Stuffed Peppers and Cheesy Leeks

Hang on a pepper-stuffing minute.  What’s all this with the capsicums?  Capsican’t, more like.  Since when did peppers appear in your hearty cool-weather English veg bag, all full of roots and brassicas?  Well, they didn’t.  But come on, have a heart, I don’t live by vegbag alone or I would never get to eat bananas and who would begrudge anyone a banana?  I haven’t gone full Barbara Kingsolver, not yet.  So in between buying cheese elsewhere and getting my veg, I got a bowlful of red peppers from the market on the corner.

There was some beef mince – or at least it was called beef mince, oo-er – in the fridge which housemate had been intending to make chilli “or something” with.  Instead, we fried it with one large finely diced onion, a thumb of peeled, chopped root ginger, half a bulb of garlic and two handfuls of mushrooms, seasoning it heavily.  At the same time, we boiled half a mugful of pearl barley until it was soft, then drained it and mixed it in with the seasoned mince, creating a mealy, savoury mixture that, housemate noted with approval, looked a lot like haggis.  This, we filled the beheaded peppers with and stuck them in the oven. 

You need something fresh and green with a pepper full of barley beef, though, something a little bit squeaky and slithery on the teeth.  But it was cold and we had been drinking beer all afternoon, so it seemed like cheese was necessary too.  I washed the leeks and then sliced them and then washed them again, and rinsed them (goddamit leeks, you filthy green bastards) and fried them in a sparse dab of olive oil til they were softened but still squeaky-crisp.  Then I took them out of the pan and made a slow little roux with butter and flour, adding milk gradually til it just covered the pan bottom.  It was hopelessly lumpy but let’s pretend that didn’t happen.  Once there was a liquid base, I scattered in cheap grated cheese til it thickened, then stirred the whole thing into the leeks, sitting in an ovenproof dish. On a whim, I added some cloves of pickled garlic from a jar, which was an excellent idea – they were crunchy and sharp and alleviated the heaviness of the cheese.   There was more leek than cheese, but you wouldn’t call it health food.  This went in the oven alongside the peppers.

Those were some pretty cheesy leeks after all.  Take a closer look, at them and my unclean oven door:


The peppers came out great: the fluffy barley absorbed both the greasiness of the mince and all the warm, bright flavours (ginger, garlic, a bit of chilli) we had thrown in it, and sweet pepper communed happily with salty, alliumy, tangy leek.  I’d make either dish again by themselves, or with something lighter.

Ingredients from veg bag: onions, mushrooms, leeks.

Ingredients not from veg bag: barley, mince, red peppers, garlic, ginger, white sauce and cheese.

Verdict: YUM.


Published in: on February 19, 2013 at 1:41 pm  Leave a Comment  

Cook the Veg Bag

As I mentioned in the previous post, I am lucky enough to live in the distribution area of a good,. cheap organic vegetable provider, namely OrganicLea, who do many overlapping things supporting community food production and healthy eating.  One of these things is a weekly organic veg bag, which subscribers pay for every month and collect from pickup points around Waltham Forest.  For about £11 a week, I get a bag of veg slightly too big to comfortably carry, all grown organically within a shortish distance – Essex and Norfolk rather than, say, Tanzania, and a fair proportion from Chingford, too.

The Organiclea bag comes as-is, without the consumer placing an order about what they specifically want.  There is a ‘no-potato’ option, although why you wouldn’t want weekly potatoes I have no idea.  Sine the ones we dug up in the garden ran out, we never have enough and get through them really quickly.  This results in two things I like: constant surprises and a challenge every week to cook the veg in interesting ways.  Sometimes there’s veg I don’t care for, and my housemate eats it.  Sometimes there’s leftover veg that gets eaten by bacteria before it can get eaten by us, and it goes in the compost.  (Sometimes I actually truly can’t be bothered scrubbing the mud off all the little kinky bits in curly kale before it wilts).  However it works, though, there’s a lot less wastage and transport and packaging costs than there would be in a larger operation which relied on every carrot being cosmetically perfect and every potato pre-scrubbed.

Here’s the contents of my veg bag from last week, laid out and given a bit of a scrub.  Ain’t it pretty?


There you have: potatoes, carrots, onions, half a cabbage, a violet turnip, leeks, mushrooms and purple sprouting broccoli. I’m afraid this photo is out of date, though, because this veg has been demolished: the mushrooms, carrots, turnip, leeks and onions are no more.  The cabbage is starting to look nervous.  The potatoes are hiding behind their dirt, conscious that they very well could be next.

So what happened to the veg?  Stay tuned to find out.

Published in: on February 19, 2013 at 1:11 pm  Leave a Comment  

This post has been shown to contain over 60% rant, or, why blaming the poor for eating bad food is nastier than a horseburger

Let me tell you what I had for dinner last night. No, really, it’s important. I made potato wedges with the organic purple Cara potatoes from my veg bag, rolled around in olive oil and herbs and chili flakes and roasted, with diced red pepper and crumbly curd cheese thrown in at the last minute. I ate it with leftover cauliflower cheese from the night before. I’d walked ten minutes up the road to pick up my weekly veg bag, and it contained a cauliflower bigger than my head, so I invited my friend round and steamed the cauliflower in the electric steamer, made a cheese sauce with plenty of cheddar and mustard, and then combined the two and put them in the oven to get crisp on top and gooey inside. We ate it with steamed greens and grated carrot and beetroot and slices of homemade oat bread, which I’d taken out of the breadmaker that morning. This evening, I’m planning to pick up some white wine vinegar so I can pickle the rest of the beetroots, doing the golden ones first so their bright sunshine-yellow doesn’t get drowned out by the pink of the others, and while the oven’s on to cook the beets and sterilise the jars, I’ll probably heat up the cheese, leek and onion pie I made earlier this week and have it with garlic-fried cabbage and the rest of the potato wedges.

Let me tell you some of the reasons why I do this, this endless cooking. There are lots of reasons, but here are few. I have a lot of control over my own time. I work the hours I want to, and I don’t work very many of them because fortunately, the hourly rate for the things I do is now quite high. No-one depends on me to get fed or bathed or put to bed or helped with their homework, so I can spend a whole evening cooking and preserving and talking to my friend, and no-one thinks less of me for it.

I know that there will be £45 in my bank account at the start of every month, to pay for my organic veg, not to mention the rest of my groceries. I can pick the bag up once a week from the pickup point ten minutes’ walk away, and not have to think about choosing or paying for different vegetables or where to get them from. I don’t have to get a bus, or two buses, or drive a car, or get a lift, to go to an adequate shop. On my way home I can stop and pick up extra things – bananas, red peppers, apples, avocados, nectarines – from one of the four pound-a-bowl stalls within ten minutes of my house, where they are sold much more cheaply than in the supermarkets. Often they throw in a little extra, a couple of plums or an apple or two, as a little thank-you for buying from them. Yesterday, the guy on the corner gave me an extra bowl of bananas (green ones, admittedly).

At home, I have an electric steamer and a breadmaker and a big freezer and a liquidiser and a gas hob and my rent includes the price of the utilities I use, so I’m not worried about keeping the oven on for an hour and a half. My housemate’s often away just now, so I invite my friend round because you may as well cook for two as for one, and if it were just me I’d probably eat oven chips and a fried egg.

Lastly, I just love food. I do. I think about it all the time. I’m good at cooking and I like doing it because people tend to like doing things that they’re good at, and I had a lot of free time in my twenties to learn how to do it well. I like supporting local organic agriculture, because birds and bees and soil quality are important, and most of all I like eating things from my own garden (or your garden), whose impact can be measured in food metres. The best kind of food is that which comes out of the ground and is washed and messed with for a few minutes and goes right on my plate. Every now and then – about every three weeks – I buy some food that used to be a living animal, but not very often because there is no good butcher near me and supermarket meat is pumped so full of water and hormones that it’s actually difficult to cook with, sometimes.

Do you know what makes me sadder and more annoyed than supermarket meat, though, sadder and more annoyed than individual plastic packets of cut-up fruit or pallid city eggs or beef so full of water that it leaches grey claggy liquid into my stir-fry and ruins it? It’s people who assume that everyone can do what I do, and if they don’t, then their choices about food are morally dubious, or stupid, or lazy, or just icky. Just nasty. And if they find out that their food has been contaminated with something else, then what did they expect? The problem is not the contamination or the industrial processes and lack of oversight that enabled it, it’s the fact that people don’t mind eating mechanically reclaimed meat from disgusting parts of an animal anyway. Because seriously, what’s in there is barely recognisable as cow anyway, and already disgusting. ‘Burger shown to contain ground up animal, eh? Shocking’. To which I want to say, fuck you, have you ever been poor?

I remember when a Findus Crispy Pancake was a fucking treat. It was an exotic thing, advertised on TV (which you spend a lot of time watching, if you can’t afford to do anything else, or you live somewhere where there is nothing to do) and it came in a brightly coloured box which was definitely more exciting than the potatoes in the shed or the cabbage at the bottom of the fridge. You wouldn’t want to live on them, but if you were a harried, tired mother who wasn’t actually interested in cooking but did want to give the kids an evening meal which they wouldn’t complain about, they were pretty ace – once in a while, because they were a bit expensive compared to vegetable soups or pasta with sauce. Know what else is good for that? “Beef” burgers. Potato waffles. Things you can buy in the little local shop, where the vegetables are old and manky and way overpriced, and keep in the freezer and not have to think about. Things that, at the end of a week’s careful budgeting, at the end of a day’s work, make it easy for you to choose them and store them in your tiny kitchen (where there probably isn’t room for a big fruit bowl or some extra jars for beetroot or a cauliflower the size of your head) and then cook them without spending a fortune on electricity (which might be supplied from a coin-op meter, and be in danger of running out just when you happen to have no 50ps on you and neither does anyone else) or gas (which, if you live in a tower block, you probably don’t have at all).

Oh, so it would be better, if people somehow feel they have the God-given right to eat meat, if they bought ‘cheap cuts’ which are much tastier if you know how to cook them right, and better for you and probably contain no risk of horse? Great. First, allocate everyone a good cookbook with guidance on how to safely cook meat, and how to take advantage of different cuts – or failing that, reliable internet access and a directory of useful sites. Then give them nearby shops where they can buy the rest of the ingredients to make that meal, affordably, at a time of day when they’re not working (How many people in the UK live in a ‘food desert’, with miles between them, and the nearest supermarket, and the streets or country around them denuded of shops where you can buy healthy food?). Then grant them an extra two hours to braise that lamb neck or simmer that oxtail down, and a clean, tidy kitchen to do it in. Get them to break the habit of eating what their parents gave them. Pay for the extra gas and leccy they’ll use, and then finally, convince their kids to eat it. Oh, and while you’re at it, tell them to enjoy themselves.

I think it’s this last point which gets to me. Clearly, not everyone has an electric steamer and a breadmaker and so on, like me, and not everyone lives in an urban area near lots of places to buy fresh fruit and veg very cheaply, but also, it’s very clear that not everyone likes cooking as much as I do. Not everyone cares as much about eating good food, either. However, if you’ve got money and you don’t like, or have time, to cook, there are a lot of options. You can pay for takeaway, or go out for dinner instead, or buy one of those lovely Waitrose ready meals, and even if people (by which I mean me) will judge you a little bit, this is not held up as evidence of a moral failing. Not everyone likes to cook! That is okay! Some people are fairly indifferent to food, and prioritise meals which are simple and quick, rather than complex and time-consuming. But if you’re poor and uninterested, and you actually would rather not spend your evening frying calves’ liver (very cheap) or mashing celeriac because you’re not much bothered, and you eat a frozen lasagne instead, somehow that is disgusting.

I don’t think it is the food that repels people but the wider ‘ugh!’ reaction that we have to the bodies and lives of the poor. We cannot actually deride people for poverty or lack of education, so we mock their doorknocker earrings, and sportswear and inconvenient children: we mock their prams (oh, the temerity not to have a car) and their lazy, unhealthy and frankly disgusting food choices. So who cares if unsafely slaughtered animals, loaded down with drugs ruled unsafe for consumption in humans, find their way into a burger? Let them eat horse.

Published in: on February 10, 2013 at 6:47 pm  Comments (31)  

Banana to the rescue

I try to sleep sensibly the night before teaching. I almost always fail. There is always some last little bit of reading to do, and before it can be done there is the whole breadth of the internet to explore. On good weeks I annotate the key points from the texts in tidy blue rows marching down the page, marshalled by dashes and dots, and continue with a plan for the seminars. It almost feels like writing out a framework for what should be sitting in my student’s heads when they leave, but built and furnished with their own thoughts. On bad weeks I frame my lesson plan while listening to the lecture immediately before it, sending mental support to my colleague as he projects up to a hundred students on rising tiers of seats, explaining, summarising, indicating where else to read. Some weeks I don’t even have the energy for that.

Last week was not a good week.

The night before a teaching day, so late that only snoring is heard from upstairs, I patter around the kitchen part-assembling my breakfast. Coffee and water go in the little espresso maker – you know the kind, the aluminium one with the crook handle that gets more pitted and scorched with age, and produces steadily better coffee – and it goes on the stove ready for a fire to click into life under it. If there is food that can be lunch, it gets decanted into a box or a bag. I set the measuring jug and my thermos next to the hot water boiler. In the morning, on a good week, I will remember to make the tea in the measuring jug and pour it into the thermos, and so soothe my talking-weary voice during that tricky third seminar.

On a not-good week, I make for the tube station without time for porridge and find the Underground standing still for someone else’s misfortune at another station. On a not-good week, I sit with itchy eyes in a narrow seat, crabbit and overcome with sleepiness. On a not-good week, some students seem to need spoonfeeding while others are already leaping ahead, demanding challenges. The dismal beating silence between contributions expands, and I am too dry-throated and dust-brained and tired to exhort more discussion.

I meet my fellow tutor on our way out. ‘How d’you find it today?’ ‘Ach, kinda grim, but that might be because I’m worried about other stuff’. ‘Aye, mine too. And me too. Money’s kinda tight. I’d say we should go to the pub, but I’m honestly too hard up’

We grin in morbid understanding for a moment and say cheery-despite-it-all goodbyes on our way home to finally eat lunch. (It being a not-good week financially, too, I’m also too hard up to buy a canteen meal). He heads out the door, then comes back in. ‘I’ll stand you a half. Come on’.

Across the road from the pub, there is a pound-a-bowl stand outside a shop. I count out the coins in my wallet. ‘I’m going to get some bananas or I’ll fucking well keel over’. Twenty, twenty, twenty, ten ten ten, five five. Just enough for seven jolly-coloured fruit, and four pence left to me. I hand him one and peel one for myself and we eat them so fast we barely break our stride through the pub door as we throw the skins in the bin outside.

Published in: on January 30, 2012 at 1:09 am  Comments (1)  

Skeggy in December

I didn’t really know about Skegness. Do you? I just thought of it as the place where the grim people in the Adrian Mole books go on holiday, in caravans. Like Blackpool but without a pleasure beach or a pier. Somewhere in England, where all the towns are crowded together tight and it’s hard to pick them apart from each other.

Skegness has lights, everywhere, and primary-coloured plastic signs which say FUN and GAMBLING, but using different words. Sometimes a word will do for both of these things, like AMUSEMENTS. I was staying in the Butlins with two friends, and the AMUSEMENTS we derived from out stay there were equally split between pleasure in each other’s company, bemusement at being in a Butlins and genuine enjoyment of the possibilities for old-fashioned relaxation and enjoyment. It is pointless and cruel to be ironic about Butlins. It is what it is: a joy factory, an extremely effective machine for wringing pound coins out of the pockets of parents and a place of healthy indulgence. Or not very healthy, if you eat the food. We self-catered, and took turns cooking. Cheap and simple accommodation is one thing: cheap and unpleasant food is inimical to enjoyment. In the main enclosure there was a hot dog stand that did not smell of hot dogs. It had lavish colour pictures and a simple but nicely printed menu, but the smell around it was the same whiff of all the buildings: chlorine and a whisper of mildew from the crevices of the big-top style roof. I mistrust a hot dog stand that does not smell of hot dogs, especially since, canonically, the best thing about hot dogs is the smell.

Skegness’s beach is bigger than the whole town. It is bigger than your eyes. You can look in any direction and out of the corner of each eye there is just more beach. It is so big, and so brown, and so empty, that I think they built a town full of lights and arcades and fish and chips and low brick buildings with small grubby windows just so there could be a sense of huddling together, to make up for the vastness of the beach. The sand is clean and a moderate English tan, with little brown baby scallop shells sprinkled along it, and a wind farm on an opposite bank, all turbines at slightly different angles so that some catch the wind and spin while others rest. On the December weekend I was there, there were other walkers on the promenade every half hour or so. One man had three pretty spaniels who sat and watched me intently as I approached, while he leaned against the railing and looked out to sea. There were two teenagers on bikes, and a little flock of oystercatchers. I wrote a haiku about the bigness and sparseness and sent it to a man who likes silence, I thought it might go

Waves sigh onto sand
Horizon divides blue from blue
On my mind, your eyes.

But I substituted the soppy last line and wrote instead.

Waves sigh onto sand
Horizon divides blue from blue
One seagull, and me.

I thought my demonstrated affinity for aloneness might bring us together.

The promenade in December is full of things that aren’t there. There are signs warning not to stop in a turning circle for a train that is, presumably, packed up in a shed. There is an empty trailer claiming to host a show called Skeggy’s Got Talent, but whose microphones are silent. There are lots of fish and chip places and bars that claim to do karaoke, but they are almost all closed. There is one bar, quite far up the beach, which has a fake brown creosoted ship with a lady figurehead and a Union Jack flying from it, sitting almost on the sand. You can sit in the fake ship while you drink. The flag looked cheery, but no-one was sitting outside in the wind, drinking.

When I have been walking for two miles or more, I almost always want a cup of tea and a srupag. Chapel St Leonards is the kind of place where someone will sell you a nice cup of tea and a srupag (although they will not call it that) and probably call you ‘ducks’, I thought. And they did. In a bakery, two women with bleached-might-be-grey-underneath hair and snap-on coveralls sold me a nice cup of tea and a mince pie. This wasn’t a too-rich, too-soft supermarket mince pie, either. This was a no-fooling homemade pie that was mostly a cloudy, bland burst of homemade pastry and a thin slice of sweet mincemeat between. It was just the right size to go with a mug of tea. I sat down in a row of three tables along the wall opposite the counter. A little trompe-l’oiel cabinet opened its doors onto a mirror, and next to it a set of shelves held fancy goods for sale: toiletry sets, and novelty cruets: lighthouses, beach huts, boats.

Three holidaymakers on my left ate fluffy round baps folded over very flat bacon. At the next table over, three elderly women passed the afternoon. They wore smart coats in pastel colours, and two little dogs sat under their chairs. Their conversation stretched out to include the ladies working in the bakery as they passed by the table. A young man came through the door and the nearest lady stood up and hugged him. She stayed standing, like she wanted to hug him again. He dabbed at his eyes.

‘It’s just…’ he said. ‘It’s just…I don’t know’. His voice had a stone wall in it, like the words he needed were at the bottom of a stream and to get them out he would have to dive in and be soaked in grief. ‘I’m going over to the hospital tomorrow and. I don’t know. It’ll just…’ and he tailed off. The lady hugged him round his middle again like someone who wants to deliver all the love they can by using their whole surface area, pressed against someeone who is hurting too hard to feel it. The young man left and the old women sighed. The woman from behind the counter came over and set down an old, clean square margarine box on their table. It had small bits of something in. What do they get from the bakery that non-regulars don’t get? I thought, not quite awful enough to be jealous. ‘You’ve had some bad news, then’ she said quietly.

‘The baby’s not going to survive’ said one of the women.
‘Oh. Oh, how awful’ said another and they sat for a minute. I finished my tea and they talked on, quietly. ‘That baby were doomed from six weeks into the pregnancy’ said one, dark and quiet.

I got up to go on out back to the beach, with sympathetic solemnity on my face. I wondered what the young man was to the baby who wouldn’t survive, and I sent some love back after him like the lady’s hug, that was more about her doing what she could than him feeling anything. And I looked in the square margarine box on their table. It was dog biscuits. Just biscuits for the dogs.

Published in: on January 27, 2012 at 12:54 am  Leave a Comment  

First Meals of Dead Romance

I have never had trouble remembering the first meal that I ate with a lover, until now.  Usually, I would daydream about it and plan each flavour to please them.  The nerves of the day of that first date would go into a mental tickover of purchasing, timing, expertise needed and results hoped for.  

I would not cook always to dazzle, but certainly to impress.  Like the little black dress that draws attention to the woman wearing it by its well-cut unobtrusiveness, the first meal of a courtship should linger at the edges of the memory.  Dinner should be well-executed enough to speak of your competence and flair – to sing of it, even – but it should neither take all the attention away from the spark between the two of you nor be so large and heavy that you have no appetite for anything more. 

For one long-haired academic, twitching always with thinking-energy, not overly concerned with the subtleties of palate but appreciative of a solid meal, I put together home-made hamburgers.  He had called almost by accident asking for a couch to stay on in my city, post-seminar, that same evening.  In the open air of the eastbound platforms at Whitechapel, I assented down the phone and looked at myself, smart-clad from a meeting I’d been attending.  Dinner would need to be thrown together, form a decent backdrop to a promising evening.  When I got home I rolled up the sleeves of my chic little cardigan and, earrings bobbing and glass of wine at hand, conjured up the burgers.  Like my mother used to do when we were children, I squeezed ground beef through my fingers and added finely chopped onion and as many fresh herbs as the mix would bear.  The squat, fat patties went on some tinfoil under the grill and I sliced tomato, red onion and avocado.  ‘I don’t think I’ve ever had home-made hamburgers before’ said my friend, in his handsome little Cambridge accent.  The first bottle of wine accompanied the burgers – just as badly, but enjoyably, as my friend and I accompanied each other, as it turned out.  The second bottle came with no such excuse, but was only opened to loosen the words from our mouths.


For one girl, smooth-haired and round-nosed, I purloined the expensive smoked scallops my flatmates had bought for Christmas before they went off to visit family.  They were almost out of date anyway, I reasoned.  The pumpkin and chorizo soup I followed them with was less impressive: I choose to remember, instead, the way she slipped each translucent, sea-perfumed slice of muscle into her mouth, chasing it with a sip of single malt.  I remember also the way she sat on my bed as I stood, a little blustering and overwhelmed, and how she spread her skirt out enough for me to see two black stripes of stocking top, two touchable sweeps of thigh and, dead centre, knickers in so cheery and bright a pattern, I couldn’t be intimidated.  Dumbstruck, yes, but not intimidated.  Later, we propped ourselves up on my old pink eiderdown, drinking sloe gin from little brandy snifters and fancying ourselves 1920s heroines of some silent film. 


One man took me to Rules.  He requested the table which would give me the fullest view of their mural of Margaret Thatcher.  I rewarded this only with a raised eyebrow.  He had grouse, I had pigeon.  The vegetable sides came as purees, served in tiny silver salvers.  At his flat, we discovered in a fit of giggles that my maroon evening dress blended perfectly into the colour of his bedsheets, so it looked as though my torso were camouflaged with only my head and shoulders emerging.


For one man, I cooked lamb chops in a mushroom broth on my sad, solid-state cooker ring for four hours until the meat fell off the bones and he fell into my bed.  But that is a less good story than the second meal I made for him: determined to outdo myself, determined to give us a meal worth talking about, I raided the grand Victorian cemetery near my house for nettles.  It was spring, about this time three years ago, and the nettle tops were sweet and tender with a sting that was easily massaged away (rather like me, in fact!  If you plunge me into boiling water for a minute, I lose all my harshness.)  Cashews from the food co-op, pecorino brought by a friend visiting from Rome and a great long slurp of olive oil, then half a patient hour at the blender, and I had nettle pesto fit to feed a king.  I steamed some chicken thighs and arrayed them over lovely, peely-skinned Jersey new potatoes, and dolloped my pesto on top in pale green stripes.  ‘This meal is made from the phosphates of dead people’ I told him, rather ghoulishly.  Maybe I will make him nettle pesto again this year.  It’s our third not-our-anniversary as loving, injoke-getting, favour-doing, beer-sharing exes.   


Yet the one man I cannot remember cooking for is the one who liked food most, and with whom I spoke most about food.  I cannot recall what it was I made for him, at first.  I can tell you that last night we ate steamed salmon fillets,  crushed potatoes and leeks made interesting with caramelised onions, sunflower seeds, cream cheese and white wine.  I can tell you that we went upstairs with a bottle of wine and had an affectionate, sensible discussion of how much easier it would be to just be friends.  I can tell you that we parted smiling, with plans to go eat crispy duck sometime soon, and I walked him to the bus stop and watched his bus out of sight.  But from round the corner, so he wouldn’t notice me doing so.

Published in: on January 24, 2012 at 12:45 am  Leave a Comment