Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Royal treatment for the boobies

The time is coming when I must pay a visit to Rigby & Peller. It's around five years since I last went – in the days when walking into such a 'posh' shop, in posh Mayfair, was still an intimidatory experience.

Rigby & Peller are no less than the royal corsetieres. The company, founded by a Mrs Rigby and a Mrs Peller in 1939, received its royal warrant in 1960.

They're famed for their quality, to be sure, but they're perhaps best known for the fact that they do not measure customers with a tape, but judge size simply by looking.

It's impossible not to wonder how this process came about – perhaps because the royal boobies must not be touched?

My boobies, on the other hand, have been touched many times by supposedly trained staff, in Selfridges and John Lewis in particular, in my eternal search for a bra that managed to combine comfort and support.

There is nothing worse than an uncomfortable bra. Okay – ill-fitting shoes are bad too. And I utterly loathe underwiring, but received wisdom always seems to be that the larger bosom requires such scaffolding.

I have vague memories of that awful experience that every girl undergoes as a sort of rite of physical passage: the trip to buy the first 'training' bra. I didn't have much to train at the time and found the whole thing embarrassing – followed by the realization that the discomfort of being strapped into something that felt simply restrictive was going to be a life sentence.

As my boobs grew, so did the embarrassment. In my early twenties, I did a bit of running, and tried to restrict it to night time so that I could decrease the number of 'be careful – you don't give yourself a black eye!' comments from passing motorists. I hated them – not the motorists, but my own tits. I very seriously considered trying to get a reduction done.

When I was playing scheming, predatory tart Janey Jenkins in Walter Greenwood’s wonderful Lancashire comedy, The Cure for Love, our director (a former regimental sergeant major) found himself having to regularly boom at me: "If you've got it, flaunt it!” Such an attitude was not second nature for me.

Later, he used to say that that production was his greatest achievement: getting a Methodist minister's daughter and a male nurse to present reasonable facsimiles of a tart and a soldier.

It's a mystery why, in those days, I was cast so often in strumpetty roles. Another memorable occasion saw me play Constanze, Mozart's wife, in an award-winning production of Peter Schaffer's Amadeus. Every night, after being strapped into a corset that took my cleavage to new heights, I faced a scene where I attempted to win work for hubby by offering myself to the court’s favourite composer, Salieri. I sat on a chair, untied the ribbons at the top of my low-cut dress, and spread my legs suggestively.

Salieri nearly gives in to temptation, then refuses. Constanze leaps up and goes to slap his face, only to be pushed away, falling to the floor, where she stays, stock still, while he addresses the audience.

Only after the production ended was I told that, every night, without fail, I fell out of that corset. And then, when I got to my feet, fell back in – hence my never realising what was happening. But a photograph, taken at dress rehearsal, proved quite clearly that nobody was kidding me. The audience never laughed either – I’m proud to say that the scene was far too dramatically intense for that.

My father's objections to my theatrical ambitions were primarily because he was convinced that 'actress' was a synonym for 'whore'. My mother was less against the idea, but would ask, with a worried expression, as if I were contemplating crime: "What would you do if you were asked to do ... nudity?" After all, is there anything worse?

Well, Mother – unconsciously perhaps, but been there, done that, got the t-shirt. Well, got the picture at any rate.

Mind, my mother’s ideas about nudity mean that she finds it astonishing that I can quite comfortably go into a communal shower in the altogether – even in women-only environments – without being struck down by total mortification. It’s an example of the total illogicality of the obsessive British fear of the human body.

But I digress: back to the subject of the purchase of over-the-shoulder-boulder-holders.

I tried the lingerie departments in both Selfridges and John Lewis a number of times over the years. If you want mortification, that was it. Snooty, unpleasant women poking and pulling at you and then instructing you in what you required. I wonder if the attitude was jealousy?

I spent a small fortune trying to find something that offered support AND comfort. To little avail. And then, at one point when I was reasonably in funds, I remembered Rigby & Peller from a programme I’d seen at some point.

I swallowed hard, summoned up some courage, and headed to Mayfair.

It was a revelatory experience. First, it was relaxed and friendly (does one do “relaxed and friendly” with the Queen when one’s fitting her for a brassiere, I wonder?). It’s strange to be ‘measured’ by a visual assessment alone – but goodness, it worked.

And after you reach a certain size, the whole underwired thing ceases to have any great impact.

I ended up with bras that were comfortable, actually gave me superb support and looked good.

It wasn’t cheap. But at almost five years since that visit, the four bras that have given me brilliant service have worked out as far better value for money than those that were purchased over the years – and then thrown out because the underwiring snapped or because they were just uncomfortable.

The fear that I might require something so vast that I couldn’t wear low-cut tops was also misplaced. Now I can do some serious décolletage – and love the impact.

Only a short while after that first purchase, I was striding confidently down a street, wearing a rather low-cut top, as a man on a bike cycled toward me. Women have better peripheral vision than men, apparently. It certainly makes unseen lechery rather easier. This cyclist couldn’t take his eyes off my chest, head swiveling as his angle of sight changed.

I was tickled pink. Thank goodness I never gave in and had surgery!

Some years ago, TV makeover duo, Trinny and Susannah (who are generally pretty unbearable) took on comic Jo Brand for charity. The first thing they did was cart her to Rigby & Peller.

Since I went there, I’ve met other women who have ‘given in’ (which is how it feels initially) and tried them. Not one has regretted becoming an R&P woman. And a return visit will be a pleasure in itself.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Letting the dark in

The nights are pulling in and the temperature is dropping. After almost six years of never dreaming of doing such, Boudicca has started clambering into bed for brief snuggles, and is also clearly stocking up on food for the winter to come.

In just over a week, we’ll hit Halloween, with Guy Fawkes shortly after on 5 November.

I may put on Mussorgsky’s Night on a Bare Mountain or the fifth movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique – the deliciously evocative Songe d'une nuit de sabbat (Dream of a witches’ Sabbath.

Or perhaps it’s time to pull down MR James’s ghost stories or some Stephen King – or even scour my DVD collection for something to make the spine tingle pleasantly.

Winter days might be shorter, but autumn nights seem to be the darkest in other ways.

I always loved autumn. It was the time when the football season started again, when the new school term finally ended lonely summer holidays and when the darkening, cooling days made it easier to hide beneath layers of clothing.

Brought up, as I was, in a religious environment, it almost goes without saying that we had no Halloween celebrations. Indeed, for many years, I really believed in witches. One summer, holidaying in Cornwall, the entire family visited the Boscastle witch museum. I remember finding the atmosphere dreadful. My father gave me his little olive wood cross to hold – because I was threatening not to go much further than the threshold and my entrance fee had been handed over.

Not, of course, that there were any spectacularly horrible exhibits or anything particularly sensational that I can recall. The sensation that day was my being allowed to have a half pint of scrumpy – proper Cornish cider – with my lunch after our visit.

It was a childhood – in theory at least – dedicated to keeping us in the light and away from the shadows. The dark was the devil, witchcraft – sin. But the dark, as the last decade has revealed to me, can be fun. And without the dark, the light becomes unrelenting and boring.

Come to think of it, ‘sin’ is rather fun too.

After spending so long trying to keep the dark at bay, I embraced it. Sometimes it can be a forbidding place inside me; even a little disturbing – but that is, as much as anything, I think, the result of that process of thinking. And when there was nothing but trying to keep the dark at bay, I hardly thought at all.

But often it’s a velvety darkness. The pleasure of ‘unconventional’ desire, say. Of wanting to whip or be whipped. Of wanting to hide in the shadows and watch.

And autumn seems to bring an itch for that. Or rather, the darkening seems to increase the itch that is always there.

I want to dip my toes in the darkness. No. I want to dive into it. And every time I do, I swim further and further from the shore that was my parents’ idea of light and dark, sin and goodness. And in doing so, the guilt of years spent in fear of not being good enough is washed further away.

Welcome autumn. Welcome the dark.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Epic and true to the spirit of Brecht

Mother Courage and her Children by Bertolt Brecht

National Theatre, London

The Thirty Years War might not sound like the perfect setting for a night’s entertainment, but Bertolt Brecht’s 1939 play, Mother Courage and her Children rises to the challenge.

It tells the story of Anna Fierling – Mother Courage – a businesswoman who, with her cart, travels around the battlefields of the 17th-century conflagration with her sons Eilif and Swiss Cheese, and her mute daughter Katrin, acting as a merchant to the various armies.

But in her desperate desire to make money from the war, Mother Courage loses all her children as it drags on and on. The prospect of peace is not one that this one-woman military-industrial complex relishes: there is no commercial promise beyond war.

It’s too easy to simply describe the play – which was written on the eve of WWII – as an anti-war one. One of the few uplifting moments comes when a moment of self-sacrifice warns a sleeping town that is about to be attacked, and the townspeople rise.

But Brecht was very sure about the commercial benefits of war and his protagonists all wearily and cynically reflect that belief.

The play is superbly served here in Deborah Warner’s new production. Using Tony Kushner’s 2006 translation, Warner restores the life to Brecht.

The writer himself, before a 1956 production of the play in London by the Berliner Ensemble, warned his company of two things: first, that very few in the British audience would understand German and second, that “there is in England a long-standing fear that German art (literature, painting, music) must be terribly heavy, slow, laborious and pedestrian.”

Indeed, in Theatre in Britain (1984), influential critic Harold Hobson noted that “the poverty of British productions of Brecht, heavy, sententious, and void of life, was exposed by the Berliner Ensemble when it came to one of Peter Daubney’s World Theatre Seasons and played The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui with verve, vigour, and regard for theatrical effect as well as doctrinal orthodoxy.

“To the Berliner Ensemble had been revealed a truth hidden from their British rivals, namely, that Brecht and entertainment are synonymous.”

I first saw Mother Courage way back in 1990. It was at the now sadly departed Mermaid Theatre and starred Glenda Jackson, in her final stage appearance before going off to become a Member of Parliament.

Little of that production has stuck in the mind – apart from the iconic final moments as the eponymous heroine drags her cart around after her, and that it was long and ‘traditionally’ costumed.

It would be easy to say that there is nothing remotely traditional in Warner’s production – but that would be wrong. The staging is pure Brecht; stripped back as far as possible, with stage crew visible and subtitles, hand painted on white sheets that are lowered at various times from above.

But from Mother Courage’s opening entry, atop the cart, vast skirt ballooning around her, helmet on her head and microphone in hand, there’s something thoroughly rock and roll about this production.

A new score, written by Northern Irish indie songster Duke Special sees most songs sung by him, together with various members of the cast. He weaves in and out of the action, looking for all the world like a lost little drummer boy with dreadlocks (which is, admittedly, how the Duke looks all the time). His choirboy voice provides a marked contrast with the violence around him.

The script crackles, the laughter comes, the energy carries the audience through three hours plus without ever flagging. And at the centre of it all is Fiona Shaw, a magnificent Courage. Pragmatic to the last, keeping her emotions just beneath the surface – although only barely – she deals with each new disaster by wrapping herself in the belief that she has to carry on, that commerce demands it.

And at the end, as she pulls her cart singlehandedly into an everlasting night, you realise that, for all the laughter, the knife has been well and truly twisted, and your heart is breaking.

As noted above, Brecht wrote this in 1939, and it’s been said many times that WWII is comparable in many ways to the Thirty Years War.

But recent history leaves the audience with other points of reference – the Balkans and Iraq in particular. And whilst the religious aspect of the Thirty Years War might not have been Brecht’s dominant idea when he was writing, here it comes into greater focus in terms of modern conflicts.

There’s a nice touch in the subtitles being read out when they descend: by Gore Vidal, the US writer and political commentator. Quoted in the programme, Vidal notes: “Why do governments pursue wars? Loot. They want to balance the budget.”

One could, thinking of Halliburton in particular, note that they also like to give themselves and their mates a share of the loot too.

This is truly epic theatre. And it is magnificent.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

It takes the biscuit

Today was the first time this autumn that the cool permeated the flat. The weather forecast was for bright skies – and temperatures as low as 6˚C by as late as 10 o'clock this morning.

There's been a little more cloud, so it might have been warmer than that, but a chill was still evident.

I had a moment yesterday when I suddenly wanted to bake. It started with a random thought about biscuits: there I was, ready to make a cup of tea and wishing suddenly that I'd bought some biscuits when shopping earlier in the day. From that it was an easy step to: 'why don't I make some?' followed by a musing on the notion (read or heard somewhere recently) that biscuits are often the first thing that children learn to make.

I had no such experience, but pulled out Nigella Lawson's How to be a Domestic Goddess from the shelf instead and sat down to educate myself.

To be honest, I'm not much of a Nigella fan – my tolerance of her took a major dent when she presented a whole programme about cooking beetroot, while wearing a white denim trouser suit, for goodness sake.

Anyhow, the book in question gave me no major suggestions – and certainly there was nothing to be found that I had all the ingredients in the house for. So I left it.

But then earlier today, The Other Half mentioned ginger biscuits. Aware that I have some very good quality ground ginger in a cupboard, I surfed for a recipe and, in short order, found one for which everything was available to hand.

So off I went to bake.

The instructions started with creaming together equal measures of soft brown sugar and margarine (125g each). Now, I draw the line at the latter, so replaced it with decent butter. What on Earth is the point of making indulgent food if you cut quality corners with artificial rubbish?

Then beat in an egg yolk and a tablespoon of Golden Syrup. A bit of indulgence really is good for the soul.

Then sift the ground ginger (a good teaspoon at least) and some flour (180g) into the mix. Combine gently (or it'll get hard, apparently) and if it doesn't hold together, add a very little milk.

Then put walnut-sized dollops onto a lightly-floured baking tray, pat them flat with the floured back of a spoon and pop the tray into an oven that's been pre-heated to 180˚C.

And at that precise moment, I had a thought.

'What flour have I just used?'

Yes. Plain flour. I'd simply reached in and grabbed the most generic flour I have in.

And the recipe said self-raising flour.


But the more that I thought about, the more I found myself wondering just why you'd use self-raising flour to make biscuits anyway. After all, you want them fairly flat – not blown up and fluffy; more like a cake.

They had 12 minutes before I checked, then about another four or five until nicely golden and getting a little crisp around the edges.

Then, after a brief rest, they were carefully transferred to a cooling rack.

I might have made a clumsy error in terms of reading the recipe – but I promise, there's nothing whatsoever wrong with this first effort at biscuits. And they're not going to last very long either!

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Taking stock of autumn menus

Back to the weekend and back to Broadway Market.

List-making – or put another way, creating menus – seems to get easier. I'd pretty much sorted out my ideas by last night, even with a little after-work Friday inebriation.

But that's not to say that I didn't spend my usual time sitting up in bed with a coffee and various cookbooks. Soup remained a question for the day – what was I going to make? I settled on an idea from River Café Easy: an artichoke and potato soup.

Now buying fresh artichokes – even if it were the season – would not be considered. Like soaking and boiling beans for hours, life is just too short for some things, so I bought artichoke hearts.

Cut them up and then cook gently in a little oil. Add some chili flakes, chopped flat leaf parsley and some garlic, then some chicken stock. This was a first – the first time I've used some of my own home-made stock in a soup. Cook for around 15 minutes and then add a diced potato and some more stock. Cook until the potato is cooked, then mash a little with a potato masher and serve, drizzled with virgin oil and topped with crostini – toasted slices of ciabatta, rubbed with garlic and drizzled with more oil.

I was completely wowed, but it was certainly okay and made a change.

Tonight gave me the chance to use yet more chicken stock in a way I haven't before – this time, as part of a sauce for salmon. This is a dish of my own creation and I'm rather proud of it, even though its getting refined every time I do it.

Chop a couple of shallots and a couple of sticks of celery and soften them in some olive oil. The add some very good quality cider and reduce. Add around the same amount of chicken stock and reduce further. Strain. Make up some beurre manié (half and half of plain flour and softened butter, mixed together). Drain and rinse some green peppercorns, and then crush them a little. Add to the strained sauce. Whisk in the beurre manié to thicken.

In the meantime, poach salmon fillet in more cider. Serve the salmon with the sauce.

To accompany this, I boiled some swede, celeriac and carrots together, then pureed them, mixed in a little butter and added plenty of black pepper. I also served some mixed mushrooms that had been very gently cooked in a little olive oil, with a squeeze of lemon juice.

Great, earthy tastes – perfect autumn fodder. Very comforting and also pretty healthy: oily fish and three portions of fruit & veg.

A little update on the Hate Mail story

A brief update on yesterday's events, inspired by the delightful Jan Moir and the Hate Mail.

It appears that the Press Complaints Commission site actually broke for a time. Around 1,000 complaints have reportedly been received.

Over 1,000 comments follow the story on the Mail's own website – the overwhelming majority of them condemnatory.

It's made the news in most papers today (certainly the serious ones) and Moir is being described as having her career in tatters.

The Hate Mail itself took the unprecedented decision to publish a comment last night – with Moir claiming that it wasn't fair and she was being terribly misunderstood in a campaign led by ... well, a load of gay people.

Yes, Jan. Right.

We believe you.


If you've been that misunderstood, dear, then you seriously need to take some lessons in how to put your real point across coherently so that nobody (inside or outside the gay community) can ever misunderstand you again.

It's also deliciously poetic justice – the Hate Mail has spent years stirring up shitstorms against anything it doesn't like – the BBC for screening Jerry Springer: the Opera and the BBC (again), together with Russell Brand and Jonathon Ross for some prank phonecalls are just two examples – so it's impossible not to feel that this serves them damned well right.

But I doubt that's the last we'll hear of this little story.

Friday, 16 October 2009

The Hate Mail oversteps the mark (again)

I was going to post a review today, but then, by accident, I happened to see this article.

There are reasons to hate the Daily Mail. Plenty of the them. It’s a nasty piece of rubbish that is xenophobic and misogynistic – the latter has a tragic irony, since it claims to be very much a woman’s paper and does, indeed, have a very large female readership.

It has a basic editorial policy of trying to give its readers a ‘daily hate’ – a diet of scandal and shock. Yet it is dangerous because it is perceived to be a ‘serious’ voice of ‘Middle England’ – politicians remain terrified of it.

I avoid it wherever possible, having grown up with the rag. But earlier this year, my new editor made the point that we should ‘know our enemy’, so to speak.

If ever there was an example of a really vile piece of bile, masquerading as journalism, then this is it. This is a new low even by the Mail’s very low, low standards.

Its author, Jan Moir, snidely suggests a number of things:

  • that Boyzone star Stephen Gately and his partner were having sex with other people;

  • that all gay men are promiscuous and have relationships like that;

  • that such behaviour is “sordid” and “sleazy”;

  • that that proves that civil partnerships in general are doomed and 'false';

  • that in some way, Gately got what he deserved, as it was an inevitable outcome of his sexuality.

The use of the word “natural” here has nothing to do with its real meaning in the phrase “natural causes”. Quite apart from the (obviously inconvenient) fact that the coroner has ruled that Gately did die of natural causes, it’s about suggesting that homosexuality is not “natural” and that gay relationships – in particular, civil partnerships – are not “natural”.

Even if – and this is not remotely certain – Gately and/or his partner had sex with the friend they took home – so what? It’s nobody else’s business; they were all consenting adults. And sex did not cause Gately’s death.

But even if they did, to extrapolate from that that civil partnerships are somehow doomed or wrong, is staggering. Moir has penned no comparable article suggesting that, because some people in heterosexual marriages have sex with other people outside that marriage – sometimes together with their spouse – then the institution of marriage itself is doomed or false.

Facts are noticeable from this piece only by their absence. For instance, unfortunately, seemingly healthy young men do die suddenly.

Gately did not die from smoking cannabis – although this is something else that the article implies (along with the suggestion that drugs are part of that gay lifestyle that is not “natural”). He didn’t die because of sex, because of sexuality or because he might have had the temerity to have been enjoying himself.

This is, quite simply, a piece of utter bigotry.

And only yesterday, a report elsewhere described a recent homophobic hate crime in the centre of London that has left a man dead, after “police warned that homophobic crimes in the capital are on the increase. They have gone up by almost 14% – an extra 39 offences – since April in the Metropolitan police area, and there has been an increase nationally.”

Particularly in that context, such an article, which seeks to demonise gay men and gay relationships, is even more irresponsible and reprehensible, giving succour and a false, grasped-at sense of justification – as these things always do – to the writer’s fellow bigots.

If there is anything positive to be gleaned from this, it’s that the overwhelming majority of those responding to the article online have done so in terms of disgust at what the Moir has written.

But there are things that people can do. We can, of course, complain to the Mail. We can complain to the Press Complaints Commission And best of all, we can absolutely refuse to buy this despicable rag.

• 4.45pm update: In the last few hours, most of the advertisements on the page have disappeared. A Facebook group has been started to target advertisers and point out that any connection with the rag could damage them.

The headline of the piece has also been changed, from "Why there was nothing 'natural' about Stephen Gately's death" to "A strange, lonely and troubling death."

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Cutting food flights to fight climate change

Today is Blog Action Day 2009. Over 8,000 bloggers in 146 countries, with an estimated readership of almost 12 million people, have pledged to take part, as a way of sparking discussion on the chosen subject.

And this year, the organisers told participants that: "We encourage you to write about climate change in the context of how it relates to the topic of your blog."

Now I looked at that and thought: 'what is the theme of my blog?'

Well, the pleasureable things in life. And food is writ large in this.

But how do you combine that with the question of climate change?

Actually, it's quite easy.

Amongst the dafter things I've seen in UK shops have been herbs from Israel, watercress from the US, haricot vert from Kenya, courgettes from Zimbabwe and asparagus from Peru.

The first two are particularly absurd, since watercress and the herbs in question are all grown easily in this country. The others are seasonal.

But such foodstuffs are coming thousands and thousands of miles – by air. And that, if we accept that air travel produces climate-affecting emissions, is an issue in terms of the environmental cost – the carbon footprint of such food, if you will.

There are, of course, other questions.

• Are such foodstuffs 'natural' to the countries they're being grown in – and could indigenous foodstuffs be grown there instead to support local populations? According to the UN, global hunger is worsening. Not in the industrialised world, though. There are massive problems in many areas of Africa – including in Kenya where those haricot vert are grown for export. And plenty of problems in Zimbabwe, too. Peru, where out-of-season asparagus is grown for export, has serious food shortages.

• Then there's the matter of fair trade. Are local people being paid a fair price for what they produce for consumers in the developed world? It's not too difficult to buy the likes of coffee, tea and cocoa products that are fair trade – or exotic fruits such as bananas. Even wines from places such as South Africa that have been produced by co-operatives. And none of these need to be flown half way around the world.

Consumer power can have an impact on environmental issues. In the 1980s, one of the prime movers behind companies replacing CFCs from many products was the shift of consumers to products that didn't use CFCs.

Within the last few days I've noticed that Cadbury's, one of the biggest names in UK chocolate snacks, is now advertising that it's got a fair trade badge (okay, it's products hardly contain any actual chocolate, but that's not the point here). In other words, such a move is now seen as good for business.

But the consumer – you and I – doesn't have to suffer by making climate-informed choices about food.

Part of the key is simply seasonality. Asparagus in December in the UK really is nowhere near as good as it is in its short, natural season in the UK. Why? Well not least because it has to be as fresh as possible when eaten: the longer it's in transit, the more the taste decays.

And strawberries just don't have the same zing in February as they do in June.

So why bother?

Try to think locally – or at least regionally. And try to think seasonally. It's a joy to have parsnips in October. It's a joy to have the first asparagus at the end of May. And part of the joy is that you don't have them all year round – you don't take them for granted. Few people would dream of wanting beef bourguignon in the middle of summer – so why would you want strawberries at Christmas?

Not that air travel is the only form of transport that can contribute to the gases that many scientists believe are creating (in part at least) global warming.

Bottled water is another case in point.

Last year, public service union UNISON illustrated the insanity of transporting bottled water across the globe. For people in the UK (and most of the rest of Europe), tap water is perfectly good to drink. And it's perfectly easy and cheap to get a water filter jug for the fridge if you want.

Yet we still import bottled water from vast distances, with huge concomitant transport and environmental costs.

For instance, in the capital, you can buy Latitude 40 degrees, which has come from Tasmania to London = 17,396km.

Or FIJI water from Fiji = 16,300km.

Or VOSS water from Norway = 1,155km.

That's a lot of fuel to transport water to countries with plenty of water – and never mind the cost in terms of plastics for bottling.

We, as consumers and food lovers, can make a big contribution to cutting emissions by cutting out unnecessary food flights and journeys.

And we don't need to let our taste buds suffer one iota.

• To read more about Blog Action Day, visit

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

It's all in the lunchbox

There are times I wonder about the speed – or lack thereof – with which ideas actually take root in my brain.

The paucity of the lunch situation where I work has been mentioned more than once on this blog, along with my efforts to improve the situation by bringing in lunch.

But those efforts are erratic. And that’s largely because I get myself fenced in to a lack of variety – doing the same thing over and over again – and then don’t make a habit of prepping something quick and easy the night before.

The other week, I bought Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s latest book, River Cottage Everyday, precisely because it promised a chapter on lunches – including the packed variety.

So far, I haven’t actually prepared any of the specific ideas that he mentions, but it made me think the really rather obvious: ‘this doesn’t have to be difficult’.

Leftovers are a good starting point. After roasting a chicken on Sunday, I popped some meat into a tub yesterday morning, added a few olives, stuffed with garlic, quickly chopped a couple of sticks of celery and chucked in some sultanas. Then dressed it with a little plain yogurt, thinned with cider vinegar.

I made today’s lunch last night – a sliced apple, some walnut halves, more sultanas and celery, plus olives stuffed with anchovies, and then the same sort of dressing.

It can’t have taken even 10 minutes, and it works out as healthy, tasty – and far cheaper than anything I could buy near the office.

And there are so many other ingredients that would be just as easy to combine: cheese and pulses spring to mind for starters. The latter is one area where I go for convenience – life is too short to have to soak and boil beans for hours, as I found when I had a macrobiotic phase more than a decade ago.

Adapting one of Hugh’s recipes, I’ll get some little German Nürnberger grilling sausages when I can and cook them in advance. Then, chopped a little, they can go in a pot with some new potatoes, a handful of cherry tomatoes and a dressing of mustard and yogurt for a slightly more substantial lunch.

I make no promises on keeping up this trend (been there before and not carried on), but when it’s this easy, you wonder why you haven’t made the effort consistently before.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Changing the way I see Collioure (and art)

Erotic Theory of the Collioure Bell Tower by Marc-André 2 Fugueres

I bought this last year, in Perpignan airport, in a fit of amusement that someone had written such a thing.

And after all, how could something encompassing art, sex and Collioure possibly be bad?

A very slender volume, it then sat on the shelf, forgotten, for the best part of a year, until I started compiling my reading list for this September’s holiday. And then it seemed an obvious thing to take; to read it in the shadow of the iconic bell tower itself.

This was actually just one section of Marc-André 2 Fugueres’s doctoral thesis, but it’s been published in this format in three languages – French, Catalan and English – since it deals with such a well-known building.

A Collioure-born artist, 2 Fugueres’s starting point is that the bell tower is so obviously phallic. But the theme that he develops is that Collioure itself is hermaphroditic in a number of ways, but including geographically.

Taking a map of the town and contrasting it with a Leonardo da Vinci drawing of a woman, he develops an idea of the double harbours being vaginal – indeed, they lead to a ‘canal’, under a bridge, that is the only way to approach the castle directly from the water – and it’s just below the window of the queen’s bedchamber, where she’d have been able to see, directly ahead, the tower.

Beyond the topography of the village, there is the hermaphroditic nature of Collioure itself – neither French nor Spanish, but a combination of the two, making something different: Catalan.

There were times when I found myself chuckling at the strain of the author to make his idea work. But something still struck me.

In working out this idea, 2 Fugueres effectively creates an artistic work – the working through of the idea and the explanation of it to readers becomes a piece of art itself.

2 Fugueres is responsible for a series of frames that are displayed on stands at various vantage points around the village: all of them guide the eye to the bell tower, and are loved by tourists who not only picture the tower through these frames, but also each other – plus holding up babies and small dogs to be similarly pictured.

And thus they all make a new piece of art out of 2 Fugueres’s work.

And with this book, he ensures that every time you see the village and consider it, then your ideas become yet another, new piece of art.

So what seems on the surface to be really quite preposterous, turns out to be quite interestingly provocative.

And I’ll never be able to see Collioure in quite the same way again.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Say cheese!

Apples. Little globes of infinite variety; deep red, mottled, orange, green; speckled or streaked; a solid mass of powerful colour. Dusky skins to be polished to a sheen with a sleeve.

Cut into firm, juicy flesh and find sweetness or tartness. Pips like tiny teak tears fall out.

And what do you eat these gems of autumn with? There's little better culinary companion than a chunk of cheese.

Apples are wonderful.

Cheese is just magnificent.

I have a problem. The Other Half doesn't like cheese. So I cannot use it in cooking for both of us. Imagine – he doesn't like cheese!

After my recent week in Brighton, when I didn't have any cheese for days, I've gone rather potty on return, unable to resist buying the stuff at various opportunities.

Currently in the house are the remainder of a wedge of Taleggio, a semi-soft Italian cheese (this is the first time I've tried it), plus some Comte and some Tombe Brebis from France.

But much as I love French cheeses in particular (plus good, properly aged Dutch Gouda and Swiss Gruyere, Spain's Manchego, Feta from Greece – a perfect match for new season broad beans in the spring – and Italian cheeses such as Mozzarella), the English have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to cheese counter. Well, at least they do if you can get past much of the rather plastic stuff that is sold in supermarkets.

Take Lancashire cheese as a prime example. I was introduced to this when living in Lancaster, in the north of the county. You'd go to the old Victorian indoor market and have the choice of three Lancashire cheeses: mild, medium – and 'tasty'.

Supermarkets, in their quest to find lowest denominators that have better profit margins, have taken the mildest of these and packaged it in plastic (heaven help!) and stocked it in the chiller cabinets with a flavour rating of two out of five (with five being the strongest).

Lancashire cheese, at its very best, should crumble wonderfully and should tingle on the roof of the mouth. It cooks well too. My mother used to occasionally take a small, round enamel dish, put a little milk in it, a slice of bread and some Lancashire cheese – the 'tasty' variety – on top, then pop it in the oven. The cheese would melt to a wonderfully stringy texture on the bread and over the sides into the milk.

Wonderful comfort food. Although of course, today, as with so many other things, cheese has an aura of luxury about it – a high-calorie, high-fat treat that shouldn't be indulged in too often. But then again , in our diet-obsessed age, when apparently over 90% of UK women are dieting at any one time, it's also worth noting that, when we give up dairy produce, considering it an unhealthy indulgence, we give up serious nutritional value too. It's no coincidence that dieting women have a lower bone density level than those not dieting – in cutting dairy produce, we cut calcium. Bring on the osteoporosis.

There's also the taste factor. Marketed for years as a low-fat cheese, the generic Edam you find lacks much flavour.

Flavour and fat have, in many foods, a strong link. Chicken is another good illustration: thighs are so much tastier than breast meat. They're cheaper too, as breast sells better – not least because it is perceived as 'healthier'. So what if you have to take the most flavourless foods and drench them in sauces, pastes and so forth to give them a taste.

Chicken thighs have the added 'complexity' of of mostly coming complete with skin and bone – but it's a doddle to rip the skin off before cooking (if you want) and it doesn't require a qualification in butchery to remove the bone if you want to do that too. A good pair of kitchen scissors make light work of that task.

But back to cheese. Goat's cheeses – little gems of tangy taste and texture – were just made for salads. And they work particularly well at this time of year.

Chuck some leaves on a plate. Take an apple or a pear, slice it and pop it on the leaves (you can make a pretty pattern with it if you want). Mix up a bit of simple dressing – virgin oil and fresh lemon juice with seasoning – and drizzle over at this point so that the fruit won't discolour.

Toast some walnut halves, slice up your goat's cheese and pop both of these on the salad. It doesn't get much easier – and the tastes are wonderful.

Do something similar with a good Stilton – it crumbles well for the job. Cheshire cheese, if you can get it, has a good crumbly texture too – it's a wonderful compliment to eating simply with an apple.

And then, of course, there is Cheddar. Over the years, I've decided that my favourite Cheddar is Davidstow. Indeed, if there's one foodstuff that, merely thinking about my mouth starts to water, it's cheese. I'm dribbling on the keyboard even now. And Cheddar doesn't sit around for long before it's opened. And then I'll nip into the kitchen for a surreptitious sliver every now and again, the tangy taste twisting my taste buds into a frenzy of pleasure.

So, even if I can't make hot dishes with cheese very often, there are still plenty of wonderful ways to enjoy this food of the gods, at any time of the day.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Back to the comfort of soup

Soup, soup, glorious soup!

There really is nothing like a good soup for comfort eating – and it’s a deeply satisfying dish to make, too.

As a chill has crept in during the week, I set off for Broadway market this morning with firm plans for making leek and potato soup. This is no Vichyssoise, the chilled soup (which was probably not actually created in France at all, but by one Louis Diat, a chef who hailed from Vichy and worked in the Ritz-Carlton in a New York), but a rather different beast.

First, because it’s served hot, and second, because The Other Half doesn’t really like pureed soups, preferring them on the chunky side (apart from tomato. And any other exception that he suddenly decides on).

So for my version – which is really more of a potage parisien (the hot, pureed version is a potage parmentier, after Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, the Frenchman who promoted potatoes in that country) – take a couple of leeks and slice them finely. Chop an onion and a couple of sticks of celery, plus a few cloves of garlic.

Pop it all into a large saucepan with some melted butter and soften gently. This can take anything up to 30 minutes, but you don’t want to rush. You can add a little olive oil to help ensure the butter doesn’t burn, if you want.

Once that’s done, add a large peeled and diced potato, and chicken stock to cover. And simmer gently until the potato is completely cooked. Take a potato masher to the mix carefully and just break up things a bit.

Season with salt and lashings of freshly ground black pepper and then, after it’s been off the heat for a few minutes, stir in some double cream – around half a cup for this sort of amount. Then reheat gently and serve. Scrummy.

I started making soups a few years ago – or to be more accurate, I started making French onion soup. It has only been in the last three years that I began to try other soups.

It won’t be long now before it’s cold enough to cook up an erwtensoep – a Dutch pea soup, that includes pork, smoked sausage, dried green peas, leek, celeriac and carrot. Fabulously warming, I had the pleasure of tasting the real thing in freezing Amsterdam at new year, where you frequently find it sold with a glass of glühwein to chase away the cold.

There are plenty of other versions of pea soups around the world.

My mother never made soup – it was something that was decanted from a tin and simply warmed gently in a pan. But one of my favourites was pea and ham, a British classic.

It’s fascinating to discover different versions of dishes from other countries – in Germany, the equivalent of pea and ham soup is Erbsensuppe, while there are also slightly different versions throughout Scandinavia.

Pea soups have been around since antiquity – there’s even a mention of the dish in Aristophanes’s The Birds.

But wherever they come from and wherever they’re cooked, such soups – like soup in general – is a universal comforter. And perfect for the cooling, darkening days of autumn.

Friday, 9 October 2009

A coat for the season

Yesterday was an historic day. After years of refusing, putting it off, not considering it worthwhile, I gave in and bought a winter coat. A good one, that is – not just a £15 imitation sheepskin from a market stall that sheds blobs of fluff all over your inner clothing.

It was an unplanned purchase in many ways: I looked out of the window yesterday to see a bright and beautiful morning and, in my excitement, forgot what that actually means in October in the UK.

Donning a dress but thinking that I could get away without tights, I strode out into the invigorating air, breathed deeply – and found it bloody chilly.

I'm barely over the south of France yet! I've adjusted to the idea of autumn, but I wasn't ready for the actual temperature. Today, I could even see my breath while waiting for the bus.

So there I was, at lunchtime, sitting outside having a coffee, trying to wrap my lightweight yellow coat around me and still almost shivering. What happened to the northern lass who used to wander around the snowy school playing fields at lunchtime in a nothing thicker than a school blouse, tie and scarf? I've become a right southern jessie, that's what!

A coat – that's what was needed. So after work, I ventured into the West End. A little online research had given me some good pointers: John Lewis was the place to start, with next door's House of Fraser a next stop if unsatisfied. Actually, I've never been in the latter – and still haven't. John Lewis did the trick with consummate ease.

I'd seen a Windsmoor coat online (how did we ever cope in the days before the interweb?) and had targeted that. Thigh length in navy wool, brass button detail gives it the military look, which is a recurring trend that I really like. Having no waist and with a gentle flare, it's an ideal shape for a rather round figure like mine. The sleeves were supposedly three-quarter length, but with me being a short arse, they're just right.

Not cheap, but then a good winter coat is an investment. Taking deep breaths, I paid and watched as it was carefully packed into a bag.

I browsed the nearby shoe section: possibly fortunately, a pair of Dune knee-length, black patent boots with a spur detail in gold-coloured metal were not available in anything close to my size, so I made my way down to the food hall, attempting to look like an experienced and sophisticated shopper, while planning on buying those most basic of foodstuffs, bread and milk. I stopped for a short while to indulge in a glass of bubbly and a small dish of salty pretzel snacks at the new wine bar, and feel rather 'ladies who lunch' – even though it was considerably beyond lunchtime.

The last winter coat I had was as a teenager, bought by my mother as she attempted, with an increasing sense of despair, to mould me into the sort of respectable young lady that she obviously considered my birthright. It was full length and camel. And while I always liked it, it never felt like anything to do with me – I couldn't wear anything so classy and smart. Not least because I had nothing to wear it with – I could never imagine teaming it with jeans and a lumberjack shirt.

I'm learning these days. I was right that what I'd seen online, in terms of shape, would work for me. And the military look also allows me to be able to be a bit creative with other parts of an outfit.

If there's one thing I am deeply uncomfortable with, it's the increasing realisation that I probably look at my best in some fairly classic clothes. But I'm not that woman – I'm not a middle-aged frump inside! For goodness sake, having only managed to start anything like an adolescence at around 36, I'm not remotely ready to look or feel 'middle-aged' just yet. It brings feelings of mortality too close – and time has been so condensed by that late development.

So I have to learn how to do things – how to make myself feel good – by using my creativity and imagination, and combining those with what does work well. I'm getting there. My new coat is another step in the right direction. It's smart and good quality; I'll be able to wear it in a variety of ways – I'll enjoy creating ways to present myself in it; almost a form of performance.

And buying it felt so very glamorous!

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

There's no situation that a Hammerstein song can't improve

What Would Barbra Do? by Emma Brockes

Anything with a subtitle of: “How musicals can change your life” was always going to attract my attention, and after an article about The Wizard of Oz by Emma Brockes concluded with a footnote mentioning this very book, I ordered it quickly from Amazon.

The initial idea was that it would form part of my holiday reading list. Fortunately, when it arrived I dipped straight in – and then couldn’t wrench myself away. I say “fortunately”, because it would have been a tad embarrassing to be sitting on a French beach, trying to look sophisticated and bursting into hysterical laughter every few minutes. And this – particularly at the beginning – is laugh-out-loud funny.

For Brockes, one of her most dominant early musical memories is of her mother, standing at the garden gate and singing her over the road to a house where she went babysitting, voice ringing out in a less-than-perfect homage to Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music.

But where Brockes found it cringeworthy at the time, it didn’t put her off musicals.

And Andrews is at the heart of another story early in the piece, when the author was sent to interview her for the Guardian.

Having planned to ask lots of searching questions about the actress’s allegedly difficult marriage to director Blake Edwards, she suddenly found herself thinking: ‘But this is the woman who saved the Banks family and beat the Nazis!’ So what she actually found herself doing was conveying a generalised message to Andrews, from countless of her own friends and acquaintances: ‘We love you!’ to which the star thanked her with a hug.

On return to her office, she conveyed this fact to her colleagues – setting off a string of people arriving from throughout the building to try to get a little of the “Julie dust”.

No less hilarious is her encounter with Lemmy of heavy metal giants Motorhead, and his reaction to her admission of her musical tastes.

Light as a feather to read, but with some more penetrating points – so a bit like much musical theatre – this is perfect stuff for anyone who loves shows. And I admit to being utterly delighted to read that she, like me, detests Andrew Lloyd Webber and loves Stephen Sondheim.

Brockes makes the point that musicals have a history of raising subjects, in a popular format, that otherwise could scarcely be discussed. Having written about this years ago, it was good to see that the argument has more currency than just my own comments.

Consider: Show Boat, which is generally understood to be the first modern musical, dealt with racism in a way that other popular culture of the day (1927) would have run a million miles from. And alcoholism and broken relationships too. And it was also the first racially integrated cast in a Broadway show.

Fast forward to Rogers & Hammerstein: racism, ageism, imperialism, jingoism, poverty, rape, domestic violence … the list of subjects in their shows is extraordinary, particularly when we apply the context of so much other popular culture (and that's without thinking about The Sound of Music).

Kander & Ebb gave us a show about the rise of Nazism (and Cabaret is one of those musicals that even the people who dislike musicals can appreciate) and then Chicago, which was penned in the 1970s, but could have been written to reflect the utter amorality of our celebrity-obsessed culture and the ability of the rich and famous to buy ‘justice’ (see OJ as just one example).

And how fabulous too, that Brockes thinks that my beloved Music Man is better (or at least far more fun) than West Side Story, which is very much of the same period. As a slight aside, it’s fun to note the power of musicals – The Music Man was actually banned in a few parts of the US because it’s gentle digs at small-town attitudes didn’t sit well with some local authorities.

As Brockes says, there is no situation that cannot be improved by a burst of a song by Oscar Hammerstein. For her mother, when dying, such songs remained important. And as someone who, when feeling low, puts on a playlist of favourite show songs and always feels spirits being lifted, it’s difficult to disagree.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Haunted by the past

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Sarah Waters’s latest novel, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, is a simple tale – at least on first inspection.

Set in rural Warwickshire just after WWII, it charts the apparent haunting of the Ayres family in their dilapidated home, Hundreds Hall, as narrated by local GP Dr Faraday.

From being the leading family in the area, with a fine Georgian house and estate, staffed by a multitude of servants, we meet the final three members of the line, mother, son and daughter, rattling around in the dusty, musty decaying remains of their grand past.

And into this diminishing world comes a series of inexplicable events – all with tragic consequences.

But this is no conventional ghost story. Waters has used the genre to examine the seismic shifts that happened in post-war Britain, as the landed gentry started losing their authority and land, and working people took huge steps forward.

Health is a subtle thread that runs throughout the book; several times in this pre-NHS time, Faraday visits people living in appalling, sick-making conditions, and fretting over whether they can afford essential care and medicines.

And health – of the mental variety – links arms with haunting, as the Ayres fate becomes clearer: what is real and what is not? Are the Ayres – and their class – haunted by something other than ghosts?

Class is central here: the Ayres, so used to servants and to seeing – and presenting – themselves as ‘examples’ to those around (an attitude that my own parents always held of the roles of myself and my sister as part of a clergy family), are finding themselves out of time, haunted by that past and unable to move on.

They can’t attract servants, and they cannot themselves do the work in the house and on the estate. Everything is falling into ruin as the truth of the matter – that they always had to rely on others and that those others now no longer need them – comes home to roost.

The Little Stranger is a gently-written novel that develops slowly. But Waters – partly as a result of her painstaking descriptions of the decaying Hundreds Hall – ratchets up the tension with consummate skill.

Her characters are not particularly loveable, but in their fragility and their failings, Waters makes them human and believable, and leads us to feel compassion to all of them.

Waters is particularly well known for her first three novels – lesbian romps – including Tipping the Velvet. But this is a very different book. Conventional on the surface – but with the ghosts of myriad themes only just beneath. And very good indeed.

Monday, 5 October 2009

A riot for the senses

When I was growing up, one of my favourite parts of the autumn was harvest festival. In terms of low-church Christianity, there's not really a lot of colour and celebration in the course of the year; no equivalent to Catholicism's embracing of Mardi Gras and many similar festivals – chances to let off steam with licence.

But harvest offered a riot of colour; even the hymns seemed more unapologetically joyous. With hindsight, it seems rather obvious that it was so enjoyable. Not just the colour and smells, but the sense of fecundity and sensuality. Indeed, it was really rather more pagan than evangelical Christianity with links to Puritanism.

And autumn seduces in a culinary sense too, with the chance to indulge in the sort of comfort food that, if you're worried about calories, is simply sinful.

Over the weekend, I placed an online order with a supermarket. I do it about every two or three months; stocking up on kitchen paper, loo roll, cat food and other store cupboard essentials. But since I had today to myself at home, it seemed appropriate to give myself a little treat. The first crumpets of the colder months. With plenty of butter to melt into the toasted dough.

Messy food to leave greasy fingers – and a very contented belly.

Almost as soon as all the bags were in the kitchen, Boudicca came sniffing around and instantly decided that I'd been a well-trained servant who had purchased just the right trays of meat for her: she then sat pertly by her meat bowl and waited for a fresh serving. She's also in the mood for comfort eating, it seems.

Bovril was also on the shopping list. A reminder of frozen afternoons beside a football pitch up in the Pennines. Comfort and nostalgia.

Not that autumn is all a million miles from health food. Broadway Market has now been with us in this part of Hackney for around five and half years. Until then, I don't think I'd realised just how many different apples there are in this country: and what I can buy on a Saturday now is only a tiny selection of all the types that are grown in the UK.

It takes time and a sort of mental training, too, to stop grimacing at fruit that isn't 'perfect': "perfect", that is, in the way that supermarkets demand – just so when it comes to shape and colour, with never a mark to be seen. You could be forgiven for not realising that apples do actually grow on trees and do actually fall down at this time of year, with the inevitable consequences.

Coincidentally, last week at the Labour Party conference, I overheard a group of small shopkeepers talking to Ed Milliband, the secretary of state for energy and climate change, about how the major supermarket chains are now opening small 'metro' shops all over the place. By opening small stores, it avoids some of the planning questions that larger stores would attract. And of course, it's impacting on independent – local businesses.

I've heard the argument, time and time again, that supermarkets bring choice that shoppers never previously had.

Well, for some things, yes: if you need two whole aisles of crisps, then they're brilliant. If you want out-of-season asparagus that's been flown from peru or watercress (for goodness sake!) that's been flown from the US, then they're brilliant. But if you want a variety of British apples to choose from, forget it. And I've yet to find a really decent wet fish counter in a supermarket, where they struggle to offer more than the most limited range of what Brits will eat.

I'm not opposed to supermarkets per se – as should be evident from my earlier comments about using them. But I do object to the rampant spread of them, at the expense of small, independent shops, with the boost that this gives to the homogenisation of our streets and towns as well as our diets.

On the subject of 'real food'. a new cookery tome arrived on my doorstep this morning: Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage Everyday. I like what I've seen of his stuff in the Guardian magazine every Saturday, so took up that publication on a special offer to get the new book. It came signed – the first signed cookery volume on my shelves! But the reason was that it's apparently full of ideas for midweek – and that always stumps me. I want good food – but without hours of labour every evening after work.

I'm looking forward to curling up with a cup of tea (or Bovril) and seeing just what he suggests: that's a comfort occupation for the season.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Back down to Earth with some comfort cooking

Autumn is with us. The days are, by and large, sunny still. But last week, after a blazing weekend and start to the week, it changed. Almost imperceptible; the quiet creep of velvety darkness and colour.

I travelled down to Brighton for work a week ago yesterday. The journey by trains takes a fraction over an hour and passes through some beautiful countryside. It was a glorious day. And on Thursday morning, returning, it was just as glorious. But this time, there was just a hint more russet, gold and bronze in the trees. Just a little extra nip in the air. Just that little scent that tells you that the season has changed.

Sniff the air: you can't describe what you smell. But it's different to what you could inhale just 24 hours before.

Brighton was madness: surreal days campaigning amongst government ministers: airport level security, "the fightback conference", 12-hour working days and little time for food.

Food it was, on my return, that brought me back to reality, back down to Earth.

Finally free of the adrenalin-pumping excitement of the week, I soothed my soul with Fauré's Requiem and then some Chopin as the countryside sped past. By the time the four-carriage train was leaving East Croydon, starting to resemble a sardine tin on rails, I was musing over possible lunches.

With no desire to go out again once I'd got myself back in the flat, I managed to get myself around the Marks & Sparks at Victoria Station. The change of season was already impacting – I wanted to make leek and potato soup for myself. But as luck would have it, M&S had no leeks. I picked up courgettes instead, plus double cream, bread and pork sausages for the evening.

My priority, once through the door and after greeting and being greeted by the Queen B, was cooking. The unpacking could wait. I heated olive oil and butter, sliced the courgettes and the remains of a bundle of asparagus that The Other Half had rather naughtily bought for himself while I'd been away ('naughty', as they're out of season in Europe now and will have been flown half way around the world from somewhere such as Peru). They were getting a little past it, but soup was the perfect way to use them.

Soften, add some vegetable stock (yes, it was out of a bottle in this situation) and leave for a while. Then purée it and leave it to cool just a little. Season to taste and add some cream. Reheat very gently and consume, with bread.

Normality attained in short order.

But it was the first time that I'd realised just how much food and cooking have become part of my normality – of what makes me tick and what makes me feel good. And what could be more comforting than homemade soup?

Sausages that night followed, with boiled spuds and loads of gently fried onions. On Friday – a day off in lieu of all the overtime I'd done in the preceding days – I did some chicken thighs, with more onions, tomatoes (decent tinned Italian ones) and a little curry paste.

Then yesterday gave me the sanity of Broadway Market. First up was some fish: salmon, poached and then served with jacket potatoes and steamed courgettes, with parsley and garlic butter.

Then today, I've been trying to recapture the south of France again, with a dish of beef, cooked very slowly with black olives. That's still on the go and will be for some time yet. It's a traditional recipe from the Camargue region of France, where they produce lauded beef.

Take your beef – Elizabeth David suggests some top rump – and dice in pieces no bigger than an inch square. Sauté in a mixture of olive oil and butter until brown.

Cribbing from a second version of the dish, I then removed the meat, added a diced onion to the pan and softened that.

Then, return the meat to the pan. Heat a ladle of brandy, pour it on the meat and set fire to it. Shake the pan until the alcohol has burnt off and the flames gone out. The divine Mrs D explains that this adds flavour – and burns off some of the fat on the meat.

Add bouquet garni, a little seasoning, a glass of decent red wine and a strip of orange peel to the pan. Bring briefly to the boil. Cover with at least one layer of greaseproof paper of kitchen foil and then a lid, and turn down to the lowest possible heat on your hob. Leave for around three and half hours. Ten minutes before it's ready, chuck a good handful of stoned, black olives into the pan and continue cooking.

Serve with croutons, rice, potatoes or even noodles.

I'm ready for the autumn now. And nothing seems to reflect that as much as the desire for such food.