I’ve always been a book lover, ever since I finally had the words to read ‘Old Dog Tom’ one of the epics of the reading scheme at my 1970s primary school. No, it was not written on parchment or etched in stone. It was colourful though, I remember lovely ochre and chestnut tones and there was always something about the rhythm of the title ‘Old Dog Tom’ 3,3,3. Literary magic. Could not tell you now what that story was about but the feeling of it, the colours, the sound of it lodged in my mental geology like mica.
I read and re-read Ladybird books. I mowed my way through Enid Blyton and Sue Barton District Nurse. My mum was adept at leaving books idly on stairs and upturned on tables and in this way I found ‘The Pigman’ by Paul Zindel, Jean Plaidy’s young queens historical books and Alan Garner’s ‘Owl Service’. I roared through Alan Garner, Elidor settling into the old geology like Lewisian Gneiss.
Harriet the Spy was another geological deposit, a book I still have, yellowed and creased to glory. It is no lie to admit that many of my writing skills come from the way that book made me think about people and about their stories and their secret inner lives.
Another totally immersive book for me was The Adventures of James Bond Junior 0031/2 written by the mysterious R D Mascott. At the time I had no idea it was by a mystery author, some thought it was Dahl, others that it might be Amis. I just thought it was brilliant. I borrowed it over and over and over again from my primary school library, a small corner room at the top end of the hall that was a haven of hidden stories. These are the proper libraries, the ones that are quiet with secrets not brash with the council’s corporate hype. A library should be dusty and hidden, the shelves should be tall so that readers can scuttle between them undisturbed. There should be paperbacks and bookworms not protocol.
This book might seem an unlikely choice for a ten year old girl but believe me, I thought this book was the Bible. I liked the adventure of it, the gripping writing style and the fact that this boy just wandered around the countryside finding out secrets and solving a mystery and then, at last, not being given credit for it. It was not a sop of a book. One of my vivid recollections of its storytelling was when he ends up in the river trying to get away from the bad guys and gets his leg broken. I can’t tell you how that book imposed itself into my head. It was a wonderful place to run around in.
That’s the key. It’s what is in your head, the secret places, the hidden dreams and desires, and stories need to reach those places. We all love different stories because we are all different but we connect as tribes through those stories. I like witchcraft and the supernatural, you might like horror or crime.
You find your tribe. You build your hut. You read.
I love Autumn despite the fact that the dawning of September gives me panicked flashbacks to my schooldays. Riffling images of black polyester blazer, mustard coloured Hush Puppies and the crack of Tracey’s nose after Karen hit her with the hockey stick that time. Her nose swelled like a vast purple balloon, an image that has stayed with me. Purple. Yes. Imperially so.
Autumn has the best colours and I love the cooling weather plus there is something lush about the name ‘October’. It might be the ‘ber’ at the end, reminiscent of bears and other predatory wildlife that roam the fictional forest that fills my skull. Oct, too has a sharp clicking sound to it and probably accounts for the fact that one of my favourite aquatic creatures is ‘octopus’. November is good because it has a ‘v’ in the middle and also the word ‘ember’ which reminds us that we can light fires in the crisp Autumn darkness to chase away the less welcome spirits or invite others in.
I was at the gym the other day listening to a boring woman drone on about bad weather. She hates bad weather because when it rains ‘You are stuck in the house.’ to which I replied ‘Why? Don’t you have a coat?’, which comment went down like a lead balloon but I was in that sort of mood. What sort of a sop doesn’t like bad weather? As Billy Connolly tells us ‘there is no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothing’. Cold? Put a jumper on. Anyone who won’t venture out into the rain is a hopeless write off, especially in this country with its daily meteorological smorgasbord. Seriously folks, the weather here is a breeze compared to the monsoons of Asia and the wild hurricanes of Tornado Alley in the US. Get your boots on. Knit a scarf. Get out there.
I visited California on my honeymoon and it was relentlessly sunny. After about five days my husband (Welsh) and myself (Northern) began to crave some clouds. Just a few puffy ones, possibly a bit of cirrus streaked across the unending blue. Then, after a week of sweat and squinting, even with sunglasses, we needed a fix of cumulo nimbus, a great towering thunderhead and possibly a bit of a chilly breeze, maybe a spot or two of rain. It was torture. I am not of a sunny disposition it has to be confessed. I don’t roast or bake on the nearest beach; when I’m on a beach I like to build a sandcastle, which is no small embarrassment to my now grown up children.
Eventually the skies opened and we were treated to a vast and monsoon like downpour just as we decided to visit the La Brea Tarpits. It was one of my favourite moments of the generally wonderful honeymoon, the rain trickling down my neck from the collar of my cagoule as I looked at the black gloop and its cargo of concealed mammoth.
So here we are at October with its recent harvest of pumpkins. When I was a girl the only pumpkin I had ever seen was in my Ladybird ‘Cinderella’ fairytale book. Pumpkins were the fruit of myth until I visited the east coast of the US and was assailed by the pumpkin stands and general pumpkin bounty.
In more recent years the pumpkin has had a comeback in this country and I love their brightness and their fairytale aspect. The flavour isn’t half bad either, whether in a pumpkin pie or roasted with some walnuts and blue cheese. In case you were questioning my sanity I also love brussels sprouts and find it difficult to relate to those who don’t like them. What’s not to like? Green and tasty and like a fairy sized cabbage!
Autumn has all the best colours too, the vivid reds and umbers, burning oranges and the light held within the yellow ochres. There is the soundscape of the wind, of rustling leaves on branches and underfoot. You can’t beat it.
Flip over to the October page of the calendar, you’ll probably find it’s a squirrel or a dormouse armed with a hazelnut or dangling from an ear of wheat, although that’s probably a harvest mouse.
Harvest. Another lovely Autumn word. See, you just have to squint a bit at the season and you’ll be fine.
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 grip! 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.