Friday, January 13, 2023
Saturday, December 31, 2022
We have reached the time of the year, I like to refer to as 'Brown Soup'. The weather has changed from deliciously, invigoratingly frosty to damp and sludgy with rain pouring down from skies that are hanging heavy and low over the landscape. A local saying around here suggests that when a particular hill is wearing its hat (i.e. cloud sitting on the top), the day will be wet. Well, dear reader, more than once recently, it hasn't been so much wearing a hat as burrowing itself under a cloud duvet.
But these are the necessary rest days and the weather is doing nothing more than helping us slow down and take stock. They are the days where you can stay in the softest clothes you own, catching up on books, tv shows, music that you'd been meaning to all year, if only you had the time. Well, now you do. Say thank you to the weather.
There are walks, but of the sort that make you scurry home faster than usual. There are gatherings but these have lost the frenetic energy that powers the pre-Christmas ones and we don't mind when someone inevitably dozes off in the corner. There is yoga of the sort that requires lying down rather than pushing through some kind of core workout. These are not the days to push through (unless you're in active labour), but to rest.
These are also the days for clearing out. What no longer serves is being taken out of its habitual hiding place, shaken down and held up to the low winter light for inspection. We have donations for the charity shop, items listed on Freecycle and boxes of memories packed away for the attic: the postcards and birthday cards and ticket stubs and ephemera of life that will have no relevance to anyone but us, but still they remain and we can't quite bring ourselves to throw them out.
Somehow, despite resolutely not buying anything of the kind, we find ourselves with boxes of mince pies, biscuits and chocolates. Not many, but more than we would normally buy in a year. Some have gone to the foodbank, but they appear to have reproduced in the way boxes of that sort do and are part and parcel of the feasting and gluttony we do to shore us up against the cold and bitter days to come.
To counter all this sugar, I make brown soup from leftovers in the fridge. The rain is tapping gently at the window and I can see the thin branches of the acer whipping about in the wind. We haven't seen the fish since November as they've taken themselves down into the warmer depths of the pond. I have a large pan of stock coming to the boil on the stove top and Kirstie Young is talking about her desert island discs in the background. Above me, I can hear the bump-buzz-thunk of the hoover being pushed about the floor.
On the chopping board, leftover roast potatoes, carrots, sprouts, swede and parsnips are neatly (ish - this is not a beauty competition, this is Brown Soup) cubed and waiting to be added to the stock. My phone pings with a message from an old, old friend saying they would be delighted to see us for japes and larks, or, more sensibly, scrabble.
Cheered by the news, I reach back into the fridge for the leftover turkey, pigs in blankets and stuffing. Just a handful or 2, enough to add some protein and some of that gorgeous sagey flavour. The cat flap bangs and seconds later Mabel headbutts my leg vigorously, loudly demanding biscuits. Her fur is cold and damp, thick and fluffy in its winter condition. She's been patrolling her patch, defending the borders against the evil tabby, and her eyes are glowing green with triumph. I feed her.
A quick step into the garden for some lemon thyme. Shake the rain from my hair and pull the leaves from the stems.
Everything in the pot, I leave it all to simmer while I occupy myself watching the weather beat against the house. The black-eyed susans were finally forced into giving up flowering during the cold snap and now the stems that wound so vigorously around the jasmine during the autumn are hanging limply, like so many bored socialites, all limp and jaded greenness. Hanging from them are raindrops like glass beads and, in that delicious betwixt times kind of way, I let my thoughts drift while watching them drip.
The smell of soup, and the silence of the hoover, brings me back to the now and I turn my attention to the tricky business of tipping the contents of the steaming pan into the blender: have I misjudged the amount of stock and it will all overflow? Have I misjudged the angle of the tilt-and-pour and am about to have a counter liberally covered? Luckily the answer is no. Blend, noisily, for 30 seconds. Tip the resulting liquid back into the saucepan and back onto the hob.
Taste, season, add a glug of Worcestershire sauce - the proper stuff. My, this is a brown soup indeed. Thick and rib-sticking, it promises to cure all ills, to coat your bones in a comforting umami hug. It will win no beauty prizes, but it will see you right, cutting through the gluttony, the sugar highs and lows, the hangovers and the hang-unders.
It brings both my boys to the table where we break bread and nourish together, facing the oncoming change of the year.
A note on the image above: I can't find the name or reference for this, although I am getting a hint of Vanessa Bell, maybe? If you know, can you let me know so I can credit properly?
Wednesday, December 21, 2022
Sunday, November 27, 2022
Tuesday, November 22, 2022
When October rolled around, I dug out my battered copy of Dracula for its annual reading and settled down for a few days of feeling slightly jumpy and the right side of being scared (you know that side: a rush of goosebumps when the cat knocks over a plant pot outside - even though the Count would never be that clumsy - or a mild jump when your partner leaves his dressing gown hanging somewhere different and you spot it in the half light of an early dusk). That feeling should only last the duration of the book and a couple of days after before vanishing, never to return...until you read it again the following year.
This year, after putting it down, I gazed across the shelves to decide on my next book. This takes a while as I have about 1000 books, not including N's. He keeps suggesting a 1-in-1-out policy, I keep finding new ways of stacking them so I can pretend I haven't heard that.
This Autumn, it seems I am in the mood for dense, chewy Victoriana, with a side helping of mild Gothic horror. I want a weighted tangled storyline with complex family feuds and backstories that take entire chapters to retell. I want to hear a metaphorical wind howling outside the window, trees thrashing in protest, as a backdrop to the dark matter in my hand. I want to feel the damp chill of a creeping winter dawn.
After Dracula, I settled down to get myself lost in the moors and wilds of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Jane Eyre, settling myself into a warm reading nook while N watched foot-the-ball, and letting the descriptions of wide Yorkshire landscapes take me away from all that. The power balances shifted on the page to the backdrop of feet thunking against wet turf.
Isn't it wonderful how they were able to make the landscape feel so expansive, whilst depicting lives in miniature? And I always find something new when I return to them. Wuthering Heights, for example (read in August). On that reread, I lingered over old Joseph's proselytising, pulpit-raising, style which made me laugh out loud on more than one occasion.
Wildfell and Jane also both contain a supporting cast whose speeches and asides cut through the tension, providing a small moment of comic relief, the brief capering of a jester at times of high tension. I'm more appreciative of those nowadays, and it seems to be a skill we've lost. Now our epic tomes are relentlessly grim and Loaded With Meaning from start to end. You need that lightness to throw the rest of the plot into contrasting shadow.
On honeymoon, I took Lady Audley's Secret, having spotted it on the bookshelves, unread for a few years, and remembering that it included Belgium, which it described as "flat, featureless", a statement I can reveal is partly true. It took up a large part of the suitcase but was forgiven as I, once more, found myself rooting for the Lady Audley as she pivoted and twisted against the confines Victorian society imposed on women, ceaselessly seeking a way out until all routes were closed off.
Back at home, after a couple of misty morning starts, the kind where the air soaks your hair and distant hills appear to be wearing blankets, I reached for Bleak House. It's really the only Dickens I can stand to read without choking on his performative sentimentality and is absolutely perfect for this time of year with its depictions of fog and ceaseless rain, the blackened sooty streets of London. The extraordinary description of the foul Mr. Krook's spontaneous combustion. The icy chill of Lady Deadlock's disdain. Poor confused and persecuted Jo of Tom-all-alone's.
The complete loss of internet at home was a blessing as it allowed me the rare treat of hours of evening time I could give over to reading. But now it's finished, and Esther is happily married, I find myself restlessly scouring the shelves again. It seems that any post-1900 fiction just isn't satisfying right now; thin, sterile things they seem as the weather hurls itself against the windows of the house. A candle is guttering in a draught that reaches me a few seconds later, causing me to wrap the blanket more tightly around my knees. A mug of tea is steaming next to me and there is hot buttered toast for breakfast. It's no good, I can't stop the hand reaching out, fingers extending, grasping until...there!
The Moonstone it is.
Tuesday, November 15, 2022
We’re both fans of the darkly, bitterly funny film, In Bruges with Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell, which also contains one of the finest comedy gangster performances you’re ever likely to see Ralph Fiennes deliver.
So we set ourselves in the direction of the “fahkin’ fairytale” medieval cobbled city at the end of October. I’d booked a medieval (there is a theme in Bruges) cottage right next to the canal and then booked the Eurostar so we could feel all green and smug. A feeling that quickly evaporated when we realised we were seated facing backwards and my sea sickness (so much worse now that the perimenopause has kicked in) took a fierce grip.
**We took precisely 1 selfie because otherwise, how would we prove we’d been there? But there was absolutely no giggling. Serious selfies befitting of our Great Age (personal age, I mean. There is nothing great about this political age).
Monday, October 24, 2022
As you can imagine, there is something about a wedding that gets in the way of allotment time. Apart from flying visits during the day where I'd dash up there, water and chat to the sunflowers, I didn't really linger. Certainly, my habit of taking a coffee up with me and sitting down to watch the insects fell by the wayside.
But now we're in October and there is no big event to plan and make metres and metres of bunting, or stamp seed packets, or sift wildflower seeds, or source vintage jugs, or panic-source tablecloths for, so now I can switch my attention back to the place that brings me most peace.
I'm planting red and white onions that will ripen over the winter. Garlic and broad beans too. The kale is still going, so I'll leave that in situ, but mainly this month is about tidying down.
The courgettes are done, so I dug those up at the weekend. The french beans too, but I'm letting those die back before lifting them as they're good for setting nitrogen in the soil. The potatoes are all out now too. Only the sunflowers really remain, defiant against the dropping temperatures. And I'm reluctant to cut the raspberry canes down just yet as the bees are still bimbling amongst them, finding nectar where I thought it was all gone for the year.
We got to try our first ever home-grown red cabbage. Shredded thinly, served with beetroot and red onion (likewise) with feta and a standard vinaigrette dressing, it was delicious. Red cabbage salad is one of my favourites. Good job really - there are 5 more cabbages in varying stages of readiness up at the plot.
I've wound the hose up for the last time and strimmed all the long grass down with my inadequate strimmer. It's battery only lasts about 5 minutes, so it takes a good 4 trips to get the whole plot done. A little frustrating but a good excuse for short breaks from the desk this week. I've cleaned the tools and managed not to scream at the spider that wanted to know what I was doing, lifting its comfy trowel out of the dark corner.
The plan is to let everything die down and settle down until November when we'll start making plans for the raised beds. the 4th growing area will be going no dig for next year as I just don't have it in me to dig over another large area like that. I always end up damaged and with large physio bills when I do. Instead, we've been gathering cardboard like there's a world shortage and will soon order in the tonnes of topsoil we'll need.
Then it's the simple task of building the beds, getting the topsoil to the plot, lifting it into the beds...I'll stop there. I already feel the need for a lie down.
Luckily my brother-in-law is a gardener for hire, with a van and the quiet winter period looming, so we'll rope him in with promises of tea, sausage sandwiches and a day's pay. I think the latter may be a more convincing bribe. If we can get my sis and her kids involved, it'll be like an Amish barn raising. Without the barn. Or the beards.
Then it'll be time to move our sights to the far end of the plot. By February, I'm hoping to have that cleared of knotweed, fallen tree branches and accumulated nonsense so the polytunnel can go down there. In short, there are plans afoot.
N and I spent a good few hours in the garden on Saturday. It was looking raggedy around the edges with drooping tomato plants, pots piled everywhere and the corpses of plants that didn't make it through the drought standing like little signposts of guilt about the place. 3 hours later, everything dead or about to be cleared, pots washed and piled neatly, mini greenhouse cleaned and scrubbed, a big yup of stuff for the tip gathered, roses and honeysuckle pruned, we toasted our efforts with mugs of tea and a sit down.
I once heard that Sophia Loren's advice for staying youthful was to avoid 'old people noises', those groans and whimpers and oohs and aahs people of a Certain Age make after physical exertion...or just standing up from the armchair. I'm sorry Sophia, but I made all the old person noises on Saturday. Worth it though.
On the way home from the train the other day, I took a shortcut through the dripping allotment grounds, the grass and earth squelching under...
Because there are certain books that can only be read at this time of year. I’ve tried to read The Box is Delights in summer, The Dark is ...
It is hard to resist spring, for all it's wild and woolly weather, waking up to snow flurries, winds to take your ears off and glowering...
As you can imagine, with N's Mum ill, we had some weeks of quietness, panic, worry and bad eating because he certainly wasn’t interested...