We were away last week. We went on holiday over a long weekend, and ate gorgeous food, and coveted beautiful houses, and met brilliant people, and saw more paintings of 17th century militia than I previously thought possible. We get home late on Monday evening, and put the washing in the machine and slippers on our feet, and I move through my kitchen, touching things. Things that ground me. My chopping boards. My tea towels. My measuring cups. The little things that make our home, well, our home. And then I pick up a tin and a mixing bowl, and choose a knife. And I make cornbread.
This is a tale of two books, and one pot of soup.
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.
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 love autumn, but my immune system does not.
Throughout hot summer months, I long for chill, brisk walks, and occasional torrential rain, and the arrival of the hot chestnut sellers on the approach to St Paul’s. But then they appear, and without fail, I am poorly. If I’m lucky, it’s just a cold, that drags on interminably, slogging its way alongside me through the months.
When I was little, my mother read to me every night.
One of the last books she read to me – before I began Reading On My Own – was What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge. The book was a gift from my mother: it was a one-volume Katy trilogy. It was a very big book for a very little girl. The book was fat and the pages were wafer thin, with no pictures at all breaking up the long prose: aged seven, it felt Very Grown Up indeed. I adored it. I’ve written before about my life being punctuated by books; memories of people I love, and loved, are hidden in their pages. I will always hear What Katy Did read in my mummy’s voice; I still quake at the thought of her finding out that I occasionally leave the house with wet hair.
I know what you’re thinking, dear reader, but you’re wrong. Unexpectedly, gloriously, this vindaloo is honestly, truly the perfect hot summer night dish.
Before my mother died, she would regularly send me parcels in the post. Sometimes she would send gifts (‘love treats’, she called them), sometimes practical items (once a set of snow shoe grips without explanation, which took me a long time to identify; another time, a dressing gown enclosing a clipped-out article on the perils of dehydration); sometimes, it would just be a card.
My mother never taught me how to make a white sauce. I recognise that in the grand scheme of grief and mourning and the death of a parent, this does not at first sight appear to be a problem worth griping about, but bear with me.
I know, I know. There are two problems with this ‘recipe’:
1. It is a salad. At Christmas. And I’m going to tell you that this will fill you with sparkle and festive spirit. I know; and
2. It is a salad. A recipe for a salad. I have the temerity, the GALL to give you a recipe for a salad. I know.
But here’s why neither of those things are a problem: