When I am fretful, I run away to sea.
I was born by the sea, and grew up by the sea. I am from South Shields, a small coastal town in between Newcastle and Sunderland, that sits at the mouth of the Tyne, with a coastline of pigeon-grey cliffs. If you are born in South Shields, you’re not a Geordie, or a Mackem: you’re something different, all of its own: you are a Sand Dancer. I am a sand dancer. I am a beach baby. There is salt and vinegar in my blood. Lighthouses make my heart soar. My spirits can be revived by a single pickled egg.
I’m going to make some wild assertions on love and romance, and then I’m going to tell you to cheat. And I’m going to finish it all off with a chocolate and caramel tart that would make the angels weep. Happy Valentine’s Day.
January has been hard this year. January is always hard, I suppose. But this year felt more brutal, more raw than previous ones. Perhaps that is always the case. But now January is over. And I am celebrating with scotch pancakes.
My mother’s kitchen smelt of leeks, frying gently in butter. So when I seek succour, I fry leeks, gently, in butter.
Earlier this month, I sat at a big farmhouse table, in a house none of us live in, drinking wine with my aunt and my sister and we talk of how my mum smelt. To my sister, she will always smell of Chanel Chance, the perfume she wore as we got older. To me it is Chance mixed with the Clarins facewash she used and the Silk Cut cigarettes she smoked.
It may seem churlish to find a problem with cranachan; as if I’m trawling perfectly acceptable British classics, and picking holes in them. But I promise you this isn’t change for change’s sake.
This isn’t desconstructing a crumble or reconstructing an eton mess or, god forbid, spiralising sprouts for your Christmas lunch. Really, it is enabling cranachan consumption. I will come clean: I am a cranachan enabler. This recipe simply provides a buttery, crumbly vehicle to enable you to eat more cranachan, quicker.
I am, in truth, an incurable showoff: disgustingly competitive and wanting nothing more than to bathe in the adoration of others. Which is why I was irritated this week, when the home baking I’d poured blood, sweat and golden syrup into looked, well…home baked.
I have become obsessed with tiny kitchen miracles: little, unassuming, simple recipes, that for whatever reason become so much greater than the sum of their parts. A paltry number of ingredients that give way to deliciousness or complexity that almost defies reason. This shortbread is a tiny kitchen miracle.
Learning to cook will, for me, always be bound up with two other things: grieving for my mother, and my relationship with Sam. One death, one birth, both preceding my first foray into the kitchen by such a small margin that I struggle to unpick the different strands of my own narrative.
It was around this time of year, and it seems appropriate that, as I celebrate one and remember the other, I cook a dish that connotes limbo. Sadness and joy. Patience, and quiet triumphs. That dish is Shakshuka.
I’m going to keep this short, because if you have flung yourself into the festivities, or simply survived them, and are now sizing up piles of leftovers wearily and warily, the last thing you want to do is read a blog post. If that’s not the case, please feel free to trawl my archives and fill your boots. But it’s important not to waste valuable Quality-Street-eating or telly-gazing time on blog-based mirth. So know this: this Leftovers Pie will save your Boxing Day.
I wish I were someone who was organised and neat, someone who excelled at making organised and neat lists, and then methodically ticking off each item on completion. But that will never be me.
And that is why, despite my best efforts, I found myself in Newcastle on a rainy Northumberland Street on 22nd December trying to decide whether I should spend £15 on a jar of pork scratchings, or just scratch my own eyes out and be done with it.