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I’ve been thinking about scones this week. This is for two reasons. Possibly three. The first is that I am re-reading ‘The Fifth Elephant’ which involves, of course, the Scone of Stone. The second reason is I am generally thinking about scones, especially the ones with jam and cream that are served at The Lizard at the Polpeor Café. Then the third reason is because a fellow Twit, @alysdragon, tweeted a pic of some ‘failed’ scones that looked, to my greedy eye, perfectly edible.

Perfectly is the problem. In a world of cookery shows we are all being forced to think that our bakings and makings need to be ‘Instagrammable’.  They also have to pass the Mary Berry muster and not have a soggy bottom or be of odd sizes.

Except that this is just propaganda and brainwashing folks! This is like Strictly Come Dancing taking all the dance out of the samba and, as Alexei Sayle puts it, making something that is your heart and soul become a tactical manoeuvre.  We need to get a gr20161220_125938ip! What we need to grip is a wooden spoon and when someone tries to tell us that the perfect scone is 6.5cm high with a girth of around 15cm and crumb of precisely 3.14 recurring microns, we need to take that wooden spoon and SLAP THEM ON THE FOREHEAD.

Some of the greatest confections and cakery that have ever been made have been made by mistake. Take Ganache for instance, the unctious, lushly creamy concoction from la belle France.  I recall a Nigella notation which suggested that this came about because a minion in a french kitchen put the cream into the melted chocolate by accident and was soundly shouted at until someone tasted it and thought, ‘The lad has a point, we should slather this over some kind of cake. All kinds of cake. Here, lick this spoon.’

Bakewell pudding. Another apprentice error. This was not what they had planned, the kitchen maid mixed up the wrong bits of this almond paste and eggs with the right bits of that flour and butter and sugar and hey presto an entire Derbyshire town has spent two centuries being inundated with tourists on a pudding prowl. That mistake is an entire industry.

Sally Lunn is more local to me these days.  Solange Luyon, a Huguenot refugee, made up a bun the way they did back home instead of the way she’d been shown in Lilliput Lane. Once again there were cross words in the kitchen but, in the end, the public scoffed them in great quantities and scoff them still some four hundred years later.

Some of my mum’s most delicious custard tarts had the soggiest bottoms. They were the ones that were ‘upside down’, that is the pastry case had still got a small puff of air under it and, in the heat of the oven the air expanded taking the pastry up through the custard filling like a pop up pastry tent. Some people, many in fact, will have taken such a tart from the oven and discarded it.  It’s soggy. It isn’t perfect. It’s a trifle fugly looking. What fools they are. An upside down custard tart has much to offer in the vanilla and nutmeg stakes. Get your chops around the squidgy, custardy fluff at once. Call it Pop-Up Pudding if you like, just don’t throw it away.

For me, food is about love and nourishment, its about me slapping on my pinny and catering for my family. In my wildest cooking fantasy I’m in a castle kitchen and everyone just got home from a really big battle and I have a hog roasted and all manner of potatoes, roasted, mashed and scattered with butter and herbs, glistening lemony carrots. The brussels sprouts are stacked into a Ferrero Rocher pyramid worthy of any despot. There are platters and trenchers and roast fowl. And somewhere, in the belly of the biggest oven is a cake. Some days it is fruit, explosive with golden sultanas and all spice. Other days it is a towering, erm, tower of Eleanor Sponge, the kind we had before Victoria. There is honey and cinnamon.  Wine is by the vat, rich and ruby red.

With the current series of ‘Big Family Cooking Showdown’  and the imminent arrival of the new ‘GBBO’ I can feel the tension in the kitchens of Britain rising like a pressure cooker with a dodgy valve. No, people of Britain, no. It doesn’t matter if Giorgio Locatelli thinks your salmon is ‘overcooked’, can the leftovers be slapped on a sandwich next day? Did the cat lick it? Who wants more rosemary potatoes with the crispy edges? Put down that slide rule, that is not how you approach a flapjack!

Trust me, next time you’re in the kitchen just remember one simple cooking maxim; There is nothing that cannot be disguised or improved by the addition of either gravy or jam. Delete as applicable.

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Frankie Boyle, Esteemed Scottish Gentleman, has been in my thoughts recently for daring to stand up for ‘women only’ swim sessions. As is to be expected, he’s received a lot of flak for the same but hey ho, such is the fight for equal rights, or indeed, any rights at all for the distaff side of humanity.

I shall tell you a story about why these ‘women only’ sessions are so important. It involves me, a rowing machine and a man with a severely shaved head.

I used to, when my kids were in primary school, attend the local leisure centre gym. I enjoyed it, very meditative in a heart pounding daydreaming sort of way. I didn’t much care for the weights room, this was because there was generally a little clique of men who were, quite literally and dangerously, throwing weights around. If there were men in the weights room I didn’t bother.

It didn’t matter. There was a small side room packed with the odd machinery of ‘fitness’, the hellish Stepper, the wild and wonderful Cross Trainers and, best of all in my book, the rowing machines.

I rowed my heart out on the rowing machine, some days quite literally, as I turned my music up high and lost myself in dreams of Grasmere and the black water of Coniston. I vanished from that small sweaty room. It was not about building muscle or increasing reps or any of that bollocks, this was about mental escape, about mindfulness. And I got fit too.

One day, the shaven headed bloke arrived and began to row on the machine beside me. There were no other punters around and I was unaware of him and his exercise regime, my ears filled with Kate Bush. However, the moment that I stepped away from the machine this gentleman also stepped from his and barred my exit.

“What d’you think you’re doing?” was his first question, delivered with a sneer. I was flustered, not sure what this line of questioning was even about.

“I was rowing.” I replied and tried to take a step towards the door. He barred my exit once more.

“What’s a woman like you even doing here…”

“Oh, I just like the rowing machine.” I attempted to make my shaking face smile and step past him. Big mistake. He began a sharp tirade of abuse. It was very unpleasant and so I walked around the machine to get by him and quickly headed into the women’s changing room. What a loon, I thought. What an oddball. I tried to make him seem silly but it didn’t work. He was frightening. I was frightened.

You might be surprised to discover that this gentleman was waiting for me on the stairs to the car park a short while later , I certainly was and not in a good way. He managed to chunner out some further verbal abuse which was only cut short by my running down the stairs and out into the multi storey car park where other gym users were coming from their vehicles.

I was, as you might imagine, pretty shaken. I returned to the gym a day or two later and after seeing that this shaven headed man was in the weights room I found that I couldn’t row on the machine because I was in too much of a panic. I abandoned the session and never went back.

More fool you, you might say. You let him win, you might also say. You’d be right. But it was unpleasant and scary and it spoiled my rowing experience. I ought to have reported him but I felt embarrassed and ashamed, as if I was somehow responsible. I had been annoying, it was all my fault.

Years later, in my forties, I joined a womens only gym which I loved and went almost every day for four years. No one hassled you, you were encouraged and cared for. Just recently I have been considering going back. It was, frankly, bliss, an environment where you could let go of your stress like a helium balloon whilst toning your bingo wings with bicep/tricep curls.  The ethos of the place was to build strength, in your spirit as much as your quadruceps.

I don’t know who the idiot was that complained about the sole hour a week that is put aside for women at Dursley Pool. Possibly he is the same kind of man who wouldn’t turn up to a ‘men only’ session at the pool because of his homophobia.

I imagine the complainant was also keen to trot out the Sexual Equality legislation for the recent golf club contretemps at Muirfield and stand up for women having the right to whack small balls with big sticks. No? Am I wrong? Is that not equality?

To be fair, I rather like the idea of a ‘men only’ golf club.  Don’t faint. I will explain.

I’m not a big golf fan, must be said, chiefly because the game seems to attract the kind of misogynist, sexist, racist, right wing Tory git that I can’t abide. So my view on ‘men only’ golf clubs is to keep them. Stick with me, this is a workable theory. I like the idea of these smug chaps massing in their own oak panelled bar with their whisky and water and their colour blind trouser choices. I think we should lock the doors and keep them all in there, it seems preferable to them wandering the streets, or rather cruising through town in their Rovers, parking on double yellow lines and in disabled spaces.

What with glass ceilings and the crevasse that is the gender pay gap, no wonder we ladies need an hour to ourselves to front crawl and backstroke our way back to sanity.

 

I’ve been growing things. Huge triffids of things are trailing out across the garden. Only yesterday I had to untangle my husband from a tendril or ten,his bicycle bent out of shape, a leaf casting a vast prickling shadow over his frightened Welsh face. Only some of his clothing was saved.

I’ve tried growing things before and I appear to have green fingers when it comes to squash and courgette family type vegetables. There is nothing creamier and more delicious than your own freshly snipped courgette. Do stop sniggering at the back. I love the vast yellow flowers and the umbrella leaves. There is also a magical quality to the speed with which these plants grow. Each morning I emerge into the garden and find that another forest of pumpkin type leaves has sprung up overnight. They sprawl, they cascade.

And I am reminded of a holiday in France where we stayed at a small cottage next door to the owner’s house. Every morning they greeted us with a fresh crop of courgettes and at that point in time I was the only family member who enjoyed eating them. The doorbell would ring and the paternal Roger the Breton would be outside with a broad Gallic smile and some more courgettes.

I fried them. I baked them. I chopped. Sliced. Slivered. Each morning’s delivery also required me to step out in the garden for a few moments with Roger the Breton to discuss the progress of his potatoes and the beauty of his hydrangeas in my Francais Pigeon. He tested me, Roger the Breton, enjoying my linguistic struggles but also being patient and helpful ‘You should hear me speak Breton.’ he quipped with a wry smile.

The couple, his wife Loulou, regarded us with a kindly affection, the young (it was a while ago!) family who had come to nestle for a time beneath their wings. My children loved their poodley french dog Sisou and we were introduced to their grandson. During one conversation my husband informed them that he was a twelve year old submariner and complemented them on the glass of Jus de pomme de terre we had been offered. They exchanged a look and I said  in French of course, ‘He’s Welsh’ which was marginally less confusing than being an underage naval officer. If anything they were slightly too attentive. It was often trying after a tiring day of looking around abandoned cod trawlers in the docks at Lorient, to return and have to conduct a stilted and inaccurate conversation between Roger the Breton and Stephen the Galle. Oh, and of course there were more courgettes.

There were tears when we left, probably of mirth at my archaic French farewell but Loulou wrote to us later to let us know how they were getting on and to tell me of Roger the Breton’s recent operation for piles, a word I had to look up in my huge French dictionary.

We had other holidays in France with our kids, including one that involved Puy du Fou, the French equivalent of…well I don’t know. It is, as Moulin Rouge might have it, Spectacular Spectacular a theme park with an historical bent including a colosseum and fighting gladiators and the raising of a Viking ship from a lake.  This year they are celebrating their 40th anniversary. Did I mention the eagles? The musketeers? The medieval village? I don’t do it justice here, just google it and go there. Allons-y! vikings puy du fou

The French are, of course, different from us in mood. If we think they can be a bit arsey I am quite sure we can be too stuffy and stuck up. They have a better outlook on food and leisure and life in general.  I marvelled at Roger the Breton’s beautiful garden because it was a mess, nothing sculpted or arranged, it was a wild farm of potatoes and pumpkins with some massive blowsy Hortensia looming at the edges like lace on a tablecloth.  The French it seems to me, take time about small things, the details are important.

Thinking about those holidays has made me nostalgic, for the times when our kids were smaller and could be piled into the car for any amount of adventure. They could be dragged up Snowdon or offered the chance to jump in a lake.

More than that, it makes me very uncertain about the future and our impending Brexit. I don’t understand it, I can’t pretend that I do.

I just think about Roger the Breton emerging from his workshop beneath the trailing passionflower, his smiley sun weathered face, his black beret and his overalls, the same softened blue coverups that were worn at all times by my own grandfather in his workshop in Little Hulton , alright, I grant you not as sunkissed but, nevertheless, complete with black felt beret.

Vive. There is no difference.

http://www.puydufou.com/en/accueil

 
 

‘a highly original talent’ – Beryl Bainbridge

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