In the Botanic Garden

In 1992, in the first months in our new home – the last house in West Croydon – disposable income was, erm, non-existent. We made do with what we had been gifted, inherited, accumulated while renting and borrowed. Working in Croydon, I used to browse the homeware departments of Debenhams and Allders during my lunchbreak and created a mental wish list of the crockery, cutlery, pans and kitchen gadgets I would buy when money became less tight. In the intervening 25 years, despite having purchased more china and ceramic plates, dishes and bowls than you can shake a stick at and owning Le Creuset cookware in three colour ranges, the wish list has grown, not shrunk. How does that even happen?

Sitting for several years in the “most desired” spot at the top of the wish list was Portmeirion Pottery’s Botanic Garden. I fell in love with this range of tableware. Susan Williams-Ellis’ designs were classical and the plant, butterfly, bee and ladybird decorations were full of life and beautifully executed. When the opportunity arose, I bought some. Portmeirion book cover.jpgI also asked for pieces for Christmas and birthdays and had a lovely little collection after a few years. Somewhere in this period, someone, possibly me, possibly my parents or future parents-in-law, bought me the Portmeirion Book of Entertaining, a hardback collection of 140 recipes for both “formal and informal entertaining”. Published in 1990, the book offers recipes, indeed whole menus, for an array of occasions, from weekend brunch parties to afternoon teas by the hearth (how very hygge). The completed dishes are styled and photographed in Portmeirion’s Botanic Garden and Pomona ranges.

I would describe the recipes as “fancy traditional” (and some are fabulously dated): smoked haddock kedgeree; devilled kidneys; smoked salmon mousses; paupiettes de veau; turkey escalopes with plums; champagne syllabub and tropical pavlova. Reviewing the book through the lens of veganism, an overwhelming percentage of the recipes not only include, but have at their heart, meat, or poultry, or fish, or seafood, or dairy, or eggs. This presented me with much more of a challenge to convert to purely planted-based. I got there though.

A butternut squash, put into my Ocado basket at the beginning of the month as it was on special offer and which has been propped in the fruit bowl since (a squash in a fruit bowl; what madness is this?) prompted me to try Portmeirion’s recipe for pumpkin gratin. Pumpkin recipe.jpgAnd thinking of my lovely boy, Will, who is away at uni, and whom I am missing, led me to try the marbled chocolate teabread recipe; Will and I used to make another marbled cake recipe when he was a kid and we used to have fun swirling the light and dark batters together to create the marbling.

Both recipes turned out pretty well. Five of the gratin’s ingredients – olive oil, onion, pumpkin, fresh thyme, ground pepper – are vegan, and it was simple enough to switch the sixth, Parmesan, for vegan “fakesan sheese”. I also mixed some nutritional yeast flakes with the fake cheese for a taste boost; if you haven’t yet tried nutritional yeast, do! My butternut squash came up light, by 300g, on the amount of pumpkin called for in the recipe but fortunately I had half a loaf of stale bread so topped the dish with breadcrumbs for extra ballast. A tasty dinner, served with steamed greens, and enough left over for Steve to have as his meal another evening in the week.Pumpkin gratin.jpg

The marbled chocolate teabread required more adaptation: vegan margarine for butter; egg replacer for the four eggs; vegan plain chocolate for the 75g of chocolate listed in the recipe. The light (non-chocolate) half of the batter was flavoured with orange zest, orange juice and a few drops of orange-blossom water. Taste-wise, the orange and chocolate halves, together, were delicious. Texture-wise, I wish I’d used apple puree to supplement the powdered egg replacer, as the teabread was a bit crumbly. I notice that, bar a few crumbs, it has disappeared from the cake tin while I’ve been working away from home this week, so I conclude the texture didn’t hinder the eating too much.Teabread recipe.jpg

I’ve enjoyed rereading this cookbook and looking at the photographs; the styling looks busy and cluttered compared to contemporary tastes. As I’ve read, I’ve taken great pleasure reminiscing about our early days at the house in Croydon and about how I gradually moved away from the floral decorations of the Botanic Garden range to plainer china. The very large, and very heavy, 13-inch Botanic Garden salad bowl I bought lives on; it has been re-purposed as my cake and pancake mixing bowl. I have also been thinking about how, more recently, the family spent a very special weekend at the whimsically delightful Portmeirion Village; my brother and sister-in-law married there at Easter 2014.

In parting, I share with you a thought that I have been pondering all week: when is a cake a teabread?

Marbled chocolate teabread.jpg

Solitude Standing

In March 1987, I left home for the second time, moving to London to begin a distinguished (-ish) career of public service. Given I hadn’t done well the first time I moved away, not settling at Bath where I dipped my toe into the water(s) of undergraduate university life for just two terms, I was determined to make a better go of it second time round.

Back in the good old days, the Civil Service Commission offered newbies moving to The Smoke a list of approved landlords and landladies. I say an approved list, but thinking about it, the approval part may just be an assumption, or perhaps hope, by me. Anyway, a list arrived in the post and after a phone call or two I rented Emma in Dalkeith Road kitchen.jpg– more accurately, my parents rented for me – the upstairs of a pretty Edwardian house in West Dulwich. It comprised sitting room at the front, bedroom just to the right of the stairs, loo and bathroom (with a detailed and delicate scene of flora and fauna fired into the porcelain of the toilet bowl) next to the bedroom and a kitchen at the rear. Yes, in the spring of 1987, I became a Sarf Landin-er.

Actions to ensure I settled in Dulwich and made a proper go of it “this time” included not dashing back to Wales every weekend – a mistake I had made when I moved to Bath – and taking more of my stuff with me to London so that my digs felt more like home. I took favourite postcards and posters and various little knick-knacks. I also took a bottle of Warnink’s advocaat and Opie’s cocktail cherries, maraschino flavour, obviously; in those days nothing said home to me quite as much as a Snowball. My radio/cassette player and extensive collection (20) of cassette tapes came too.

Some of the cassettes I took were old favourites, others were newer purchases. I took The Jam and Style Council, natch: All Mod Cons; Setting Sons; Sound Affects; Introducing the Style Council; Café Bleu; Our Favourite Shop. Everything But The Girl, of course, came with me: Eden; Love Not Money; Baby, the Stars Shine Bright. EBTG were very much the soundtrack to my Upper Sixth year with its boozy attempts at dinner parties at Sara’s and A-level revision. I saw EBTG live at Chippenham Golddiggers as a Fresher; they had to come with me on the next part of the adventure. I took Alison Moyet’s Alf, primarily because I considered I gave belting renditions of Love Resurrection and Where Hides Sleep, especially after I’d had a couple of Pernod and blacks. Whitney Houston was in there; two school friends, Karen and Liz, and I, had driven to Wembley Arena to see her in concert the year before.

Several U2 albums made the journey to Dulwich: Boy; October; War; Under a Blood Red Sky; The Unforgettable Fire; The Joshua Tree. The latter was released the month I moved to London and I was obsessed with it, particularly Edge’s jingly-jangly guitar. I spent the greater part of my disposable income in my early months in London on tickets to see U2’s Joshua Tree tour. I saw them three times that summer, twice at Wembley Stadium and once, in the July, at the Arms Park. The second time I saw them at Wembley, I did the classic youthful fan thing, getting to the stadium as the doors opened and rushing to the front. I stayed at the front – in what would now be called the mosh pit – all day, without food, drink or comfort break. All that kept me going were 20 Embassy No1 and World Party, Spear of Destiny and The Pretenders banging out their support sets. The crush of bodies pogo-ing as Larry’s drumming signalled Sunday Bloody Sunday caused me to lose a shoe. After the concert I had to get the tube and then the (last) train home to lovely, leafy, middle-class West Dulwich wearing one shoe. Ahh, to be young again… I still have two of my Joshua Tree tour tee-shirts bought from the merch tables; my daughter, Lily, wears them occasionally – vintage, you know?

Today, some 30 years on, hearing tracks from any of these albums still gives me huge pleasure, a big smile and, often, goosebumps. There are three albums, though, purchased at the end of April 1987, with my first London salary, of which just a few faint chords are guaranteed to send me headlong into hiraeth for my (chilly) rooms at the top of that terraced house in Dalkeith Road, SE21. Cassettes amalgam.PNGThey cause me such extreme auditory anamnesis I think I could give Proust and his petite madeleine a run for their money, although far less eloquently.

The Elysian albums in question? Aztec Camera’s High Land, Hard Rain; Billy Bragg’s Talking with the Taxman About Poetry and Suzanne Vega’s Solitude Standing. I’m pretty confident I am still word perfect on all tracks on these albums and, similar to the old Radio 1 quiz, I can name the track within a few seconds of its opening bar. I hear any snippet from Solitude Standing and I am standing in front of the mirror in my Dulwich bedroom – in this room the cassette player sat on a shelf to the left of the chimney breast – putting on my makeup before heading down Rosendale Road to jump on a 68 bus into Croydon for work. Roddy and Aztec Camera used to sing to me while I rustled up food and ate at the little kitchen table, which overlooked the Rosendale Playing Fields, at the back of the house. And Billy Bragg was my companion in the sitting room, furnished with two early 70s teak armchairs from Parker Knoll. Boy, those chairs had itchy upholstery and I sat in them for hours sipping my Snowballs and contemplating the utter brilliance of Levi Stubbs’ Tears and Wishing the Days Away. Can you imagine how ecstatic I was last year when, having delivered a long day’s work programme, I found myself in a Hammersmith hotel wishing (the rest of) the day away; three decades I’d waited for exactly those circumstance to sing those lyrics quietly to myself. Such moments are rare in life and are to be treasured – sod a Snowball, I had a glass of bubbles to celebrate.

At other points in my life, other pop music has formed indelible links to location: Tracy Chapman’s eponymous album to my room in my second London home on the other side of Dulwich village; The Cranberries’ Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We? to an open air market on a family holiday on the Costa Blanca; amusingly, Patrick MacNee and Honor Blackman’s re-release of Kinky Boots in 1990, to wobbling, Weeble-like, around our flat in the Tulse Hill end of West Dulwich, waiting for baby Lily to arrive; and preciously, We Like to Party (aka, the Venga Bus song) to morning car journeys from our cottage into Croydon, to drop the girl at school and the boy at nursery, before Steve and I hopped on trains to commute into Victoria for work.

A tasty gift from 1985

The first cookery book I can remember acquiring was The Colour Book of Vegetarian Cooking, edited by Carole Handslip. I have the 1984 reprint. The Colour Book of Vegetarian Cooking front coverIn Upper Sixth, I turned vegetarian and this little recipe book was bought for me for my 19th birthday by first year uni friends, Jayne and Sarah. (Allow me to clarify. I didn’t have some catastrophic falling out with Jayne and Sarah in first year which meant they weren’t also second and third year uni friends. The rather more prosaic story is that I didn’t last beyond Easter of first year in my initial attempt at university.) I had spotted this cookery book in the remaindered bookshop in Bath and Jayne and Sarah bought it for me.

By today’s standards, it’s a pretty slim volume, with only about a third of recipes accompanied by a photograph of the finished dish. But, in my early years of being “a veggie” I turned to it often and, as a consequence, it is well-thumbed and more than a little grubby. Indeed, the page for gnocchi with tomato sauce and that for corn and asparagus flan – neither of which I have ever made – had quite welded together and I had to separate them with great care; with great care and a serrated knife.

Many of the recipes have egg and dairy as principal ingredients, but there’s a sub-chapter dedicated to nut and pulse dishes, so I headed there. I opted to make the bean and tomato hotpot, Bean and tomato hotpot recipeadapted to account for my lack of a large leek (a shallot, green pepper found idly withering in the crisper drawer, chopped-up stalk of broccoli and additional carrot made for gallant stand-ins) and eschewing of butter. I also doubled the quantity of tinned tomatoes and chucked in a tin of butter beans in addition to the kidney beans (yes, more Amazon Prime inadvertent bulk purchases, thanks for asking). I found a bag of Apache potatoes sprouting nicely in the back of the fridge, so once I’d “de-eyed” them, they were halved for the hotpot topping.

This really was a very easy cook Bean and tomato hotpot ingredients rawand resulted in a tasty dinner which went down well with both vegan, and the non-vegan, diners. It reminded me how much this particular book had been my vegetarian cooking primer for many years. Three pages on from the hotpot recipe I found the one for vegetable curry. I followed this recipe for years and remember well the first time I made it, up in the fifth floor kitchen of our halls of residence in Somerset Place. That first time led to an earth-shattering revelation: turmeric turns cauliflower yellow! A discovery so profound I made a note of it on the page of the book.

To conclude with a blast of pure hiraeth. I’ve lost touch with Jayne and Sarah. I did reconnect with Jayne when Friends Reunited was at its zenith, so about 15 years ago. A that stage she was back living in her beloved Westcliffe-on-Sea while directing her own PR company in London. We tentatively arranged to meet, but it never happened. She told me Sarah had married and emigrated to Australia – or possibly emigrated and married – many years ago. Sarah was the first contemporary I ever knew who had a credit card. Ahh, Sarah and her shiny Access card. I wish I’d kept in touch with her and Jayne.

Finished recipe

I got a heatwave, burning in my heart

It was almost inevitable that the days of hot weather last week, culminating in record-breaking temperatures on 21 June, would trigger rampant hiraeth in me – if hiraeth is capable of being rampant – for the summer of 1976.

As a kid growing up in the 70s, I was blessed to be part of a family with a keen sense of adventure. My parents, my maternal grandparents, my Mum’s sister and her family, as well as various aunties and uncles all had caravans: we were a “carra” family (you need to pronounce “carra” with the hard, South Walian “a” sound). We had tourer caravans, the type that hitch to the back of the car, and later my parents and grandparents graduated to a couple of second-hand static – and bigger – caravans at Dave’s campsite.

I don’t know whether Dave’s campsite had a formal name, I guess it must have done. To us, it was simply Dave’s, or Dave’s over Severn Beach. Do not let the beach part fool you: travel as far south as Weston-super-Mare and the England-side of the Severn Estuary does indeed widen out to allow sandy beaches; up towards Avonmouth and Bristol, our Severn Beach comprised sticky, gooey and, at low tide, huge mud-flats. I know about the sticky and gooey because another summer a few years later, I ventured on to them in my out-of-the-box new, suede sandals. Walking back to the campsite that afternoon in a ruined pair of sandals and knowing how my Mum would (very justifiably) react was one of the scariest moments of anticipation of my life to that point. The scary anticipation scale was subsequently topped by some excellent work on my part, including, placing the iron face-down on the arm of a new sofa and quitting my first degree “cos I didn’t like it” (not on the same day, even I wouldn’t be that foolhardy). Anyhow, Dave’s was where we spent weekends, and several weeks once school had broken-up, of the nine-week, super-summer of 1976.

Our gang of kids, with me and my brother, Ed, and cousins, Michael and Mark, at its core, was supplemented over the summer by numerous friends and other cousins. Paul, Karen, Jackie, Tony, Chrissie, Anthony – the names conjure such vivid memories and because we were there every weekend, we ruled the roost.

Dave’s had a children’s playground comprising swings, slide, seesaw and witch’s hat. Yes, of course they were all set in concrete – have you seen the angle of my nose? Top of the slide misstep meets concrete base: I was fine, and frankly nobody noticed I had a wonky nose until 10 years later. The witch’s hat was our base, and you weren’t allowed on it unless you were part of our gang. It was all very innocent – we didn’t have initiation hazings or anything. On days we weren’t out exploring nearby towns and castles (lots of wonderful castles in my childhood), we would be at the playground from sun-up to sun-down.

Dave’s also had a disused railway line running along one boundary which you could follow to take a short-cut from the campsite into the village. I say disused, perhaps infrequently used would be more accurate as I’m sure I can remember at least one train travelling by. But it must have been very infrequent use as my most powerful memory about Dave’s railway line was that a goat was tethered to it, and occasionally we would happen upon Mrs Dave (I have no idea of her name) milking the goat. She never let us try milking, but she did once let us try the still-very-warm, fresh from the udder, milk (yes, they are called udders on goats too). I really wish I could say, “mmm, it was delicious”. It wasn’t; it was goat-in-heatwave temperature and tasted strange. It may have looked the same as the stuff Ken the Milk delivered each morning at home, but it certainly did not taste the same.

The campsite grass turned first yellow and then brown over that summer. Usually Dave would be out and about cutting the grass on his sit-on mower; he didn’t need to that summer as the grass stopped growing. And we were at Dave’s the days the ladybirds descended. I didn’t mind them: I’m not the biggest fan of flying insects, but I have quite some affection for ladybirds. I remember I was wearing a yellow tee-shirt on one of the ladybird days, and went on an errand to the communal tap to fill a small water container for my grandparents. I stepped into their carra bearing the water, to be told in no uncertain terms by Nana Chris to get out as my tee-shirt was covered in ladybirds who would get into the bedding. I thought me and my ladybird festooned tee-shirt looked lovely.

We drank gallons of Wells Orange Squash out of Tupperware beakers (which grabbed and retained the smell of orange squash like nothing else on earth. Decades later, I was helping Mum clear out some loft items, came across a couple of these beakers and they still held the smell of Wells Orange Squash. But, a bit like the concrete base in the playground, it didn’t seem to do us any lasting harm). We ate rectangles of Wall’s ice cream cut from long blocks and sandwiched between two wafers and, as a special treat, mint choc-chip choc-ices. Mum’s favourite was an orange miffy lolly, though she’s moved up to Magnums these days.

That was the summer Nana Chris – a ladybird-swotting non-driver, whom none of us kids had ever seen operate a mechanised vehicle of any sort – eventually allowed us to nag her into having a go of Michael’s bicycle. Yes, of course it was a Chopper, and God love her, after a bit of a wobbly start, she did ok, which is all the more commendable given the bike’s iconic (high) cross bar and saddle design and that she’d not ridden a bike since she was a girl. “Just like riding a bike”, she said – somewhat redundantly – as she dismounted and lit up a Players No 6 non-filter (which Mrs Dave was very happy to sell us kids from the campsite shop, because she knew “they were for our Nan”). I adored my Nana Chris.

Severn Beach 1976It was also that summer that my grandfather hitched his little trailer to the back of one of the cars, helped us kids clamber in and proceeded to give us the bounciest and giggliest rides around the campsite field. Oh, the achy arms the next day, from holding on for dear life. The discomfort was so worth it! The core gang of four is supplemented by a visitor – undoubtedly a cousin – in the picture above, but I can’t work out which one. You can just see the beloved witch’s hat in playground next to the carra furthest left.

The weather has been much cooler and wetter this week. I do hope we get a return of the heat in July and August even if we don’t manage a full nine-weeks under a hot grill.

By the way, the various aunties and uncles I mentioned above, turned out to be nothing of the sort, at least not by the strict definition of the word. Rather, these were the many second and third cousins and friends of my parents on whom the honorific had been bestowed. When grandparents and great-grandparents had lots of siblings, you are never short of several hundred cousins at varying degrees of “remove”, the older of whom get cast as auntie this or uncle that. Several of them have been profound influences throughout my life, I’m grateful that most of them are still around; I think about them all very often.

(posted on 30 June 2017)