Category Archives: save the planet

Girls of Slender Means

Muriel Spark is a Scottish writer best known for her ‘Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’, a fabulously ironic take on Edinburgh, 1950s education, art, class and politics. The lead role in the film version is lavished on us by Maggie Smith, only one excellent reason for watching it all over again.

Image result for images 2ww food rationing ukI’ve just finished Spark’s 1963 novel ‘The Girls of Slender Means’, only 117 pages long in the Polygon edition, and loved every comma of it. The story is set in a sort of young ladies’ boarding house, in the summer of 1945 – just at the end of the war and with London bombed to bits, and shortages of every kind set to continue for years to come. Spark sets the scene on page 2 with a view from the top storey of the boarding house down onto the street far below – little dots of people pushing little dots of prams, carrying little dots of shopping bags and this – “Everyone carried a shopping bag in case they should be lucky enough to pass a shop that had a sudden stock of something off the rations.”Image result for images 2ww food rationing uk

All of this resonates with me considerably. My mother had strong memories of wartime rationing and frequently referred back to it when she was bringing us up in the 60s. The real lived experience of shortages and hunger had got into her bones, and she passed this on to us in case we were ever foolish enough to act as if money grew on trees, or food arrived on the plate from thin air. Food historians acknowledge the UK’s rationing arrangements as a major success, with rich as well as poor forced to get by on a restricted diet –  and many people being in better health at the end of the war than at the beginning. It seems this ‘war on the home front’ was also a factor in the UK’s ability to support the war till its end.

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Also resonating with me from Spark’s novel is the boarding house. For my first year at university, aged 18, I stayed in a YWCA hostel in Glasgow, presided over by two lady wardens who might have been as old then as I am now, and whom we saw as utterly ancient. It was a very old-fashioned arrangement and there were lots of large and small covert subversions of the rules. In Spark’s boarding house there was an eccentrically varied collection of personalities with life pouring out through every pore of their being. It makes me think I didn’t pay enough attention to the other girls in the YWCA; but then, actually being young and living the life took up all your energy. It was a fabulous time of my life. The YWCA’s soggy potatoes and stringy stew just went down the hatch; it was fuel for the rest of life.

Image result for images love food hate wasteOver recent decades, across the developed world, food shortages have become a resounding reality for far too many people. All this in the world’s most developed economies. The latest UK figures on Food Bank usage were released the other week: 1.6million food bank parcels were given out in the year April ’18 to March ’19. The national campaign Love Food Hate Waste has addressed this on the domestic front, and for anyone listening, there are excellent suggestions for how to eke out today’s food ration. Yes of course it’s a disgrace that politicians across the world have allowed this to happen. For myself I will try to address this through the democratic process, but it all seems very remote. It’s much more immediately meaningful to adopt good waste-free kitchen habits.

There is a beautifully understated passage in Spark’s book about a seduction scene, in which the most beautiful of the boarding house girls wakes up in a handsome young airman’s bed. She wants to know what’s for breakfast, and he brings out his rations. Selina, we are told, ‘was accustomed to men who got food from the black market.’ That’s all that’s said; it tells us volumes about the whole ethical approach to obtaining food; her carelessness and his care. She’s just biding her time till she finds a rich husband. He is the one with the greater needs of the community at heart.

I wish I knew how to feed the world. Maybe reading and writing is as good a way as any. I applaud Muriel Spark’s thrifty way with words: no waste here.

 

Wild Garlic and Preserved Lemons

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It’s that time of year again. Hardly anything homegrown in the shops yet, so we’re still dependent on stuff we have stored away, or foreign imports. I’ve been given some lovely little foodie gifts while I’ve been stuck in with my sore foot – smoked salmon, shortbread, oatcakes, homemade sauerkraut – and last week, a gorgeous jar of pesto, using the wild garlic which grows abundantly round here. So, not to be left out entirely, we set off yesterday to Ingin Brae, and the Troubadour got us our own nice supply while I sat in the car with the window open and breathed in the aromatic pungency.

Last night I used the gifted, prepared pesto in a recipe which Mary Berry demonstrated on TV last week. I don’t often watch her programmes but I’m always on the lookout for a veggie sausage roll, and she had what looked like a good one. So I adapted it, and really you don’t need a detailed recipe. Just mix some chopped, roasted red peppers with a few tablespoons of ricotta cheese and a little less of a strong hard cheese like parmesan. At this point, Mary Berry added basil – I used the pesto instead. Give it a good mix. You don’t want it too soft. Meantime you will have heated your oven to HOT and rolled out a packet of ready-made puff pastry. Cut your pastry into long 4″ wide strips, and pipe or spoon the pepper/cheese mixture down the length of the strips. Beat an egg and paint one edge of the pastry strips. Roll over and seal in the mixture, and pinch the edges to keep it from leaking. Paint the tops with the rest of the beaten egg, chill for 25 mins and bake for same. They were very good indeed and were scoffed before I remembered to take their photo – sorry!

Image result for images preserved lemonsLast year I preserved some lemons (in a Kilner jar with loads of sea salt, extremely straightforward) but I hadn’t used them as I wasn’t sure how to. Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall came to my rescue as usual with a recipe for a spicy potato soup. This involved onions and potatoes, garlic, chilli, coriander and cumin, smoked paprika, and a spoonful of preserved lemon. In other words, a brilliant austerity recipe and it tastes fantastic. The preserved lemon imparts a salty, bitter flavour and melds beautifully with the spices. Just the usual method – chop the onions and sweat them for a while then add everything else, including a litre or so of water. HFW recommends cutting the potatoes into large chunks for the cooking, and removing them before blending the soup – because blenders maLamb and dates and lemonske cooked potatoes go gluey. Then mash or rice them and stir back into the soup. Delicious. HFW also has a delightful-looking recipe for roast lamb breast rolled around a stuffing featuring preserved lemons – sort of middle-eastern in its inspiration, and perfect for Easter – not sure if I’m going to be able to get hold of the right cut of lamb but will try, in honour of the Wunderkind and his lovely fiancé coming home for the weekend.

I haven’t, in the past, made much use of roasted red peppers in a jar, but have decided Recipe photo: Spicy roasted red pepper houmousthey are probably a good buy. So I have half a jar left from my veggie ‘sausage’ rolls, and am going to use them to make Roasted Red Pepper Hummus – follow the link for the full recipe. Interesting to see that there is no oil in the recipe, just an optional drizzle at time of serving. I’m not one for cutting out all fats from an otherwise healthy diet, but will be intrigued to see how this works out. I’m guessing the flavour and moisture of the peppers substitutes for the unctuosity (!) of the oil.

Finally – I have won second prize in a national competition for the first draft of my foodie memoir ‘A Life in Mouthfuls’ – so am busily editing and looking into printing costs, cover design etc. Hopefully will be looking to publish later in the year. Exciting!

 

Early Spring

ruta bagaI had an operation on my foot recently (a million thank yous to our brilliant NHS and to the staff of the Golden Jubilee National Hospital, Clydebank, in particular.) So I’m wearing a giant black foam and Velcro shoe-thing, and getting around on elbow crutches. The Troubadour will testify that I’m not the most patient patient in the world; but I have to say it’s been (mainly) lovely to lie back and relax. Doctor’s orders! Toes above nose is the advice, ie foot elevated at all times. I decided not to gross you out with a photo of my foot but instead offer you this delightful rutabaga, which bears a striking resemblance.

Anyway, by week three I was looking for some simple foodie distraction and, needs must, ordered a Tesco delivery which arrived on Saturday morning. I can hirple a little, and squat somewhat; and pivot between the sink, cooker and fridge for short periods. So my little Tesco stash has saved me from frustration meltdown.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s ‘Fruit’ book has been inspiring. There’s nothing seasonal in the fruit line at this time of year in Scotland; but of course there are certain staples which never grow here at all, so if I have to spend food miles, that’s the way to spenImage result for images mangoesd them. I’d always recognised this for citrus fruits and bananas; but of course mangos also count.

When I did my volunteer stint in Zanzibar we arrived in the fresh mango season. We were advised not to eat fresh fruit (you can imagine my dismay) because of the risk of malaria and various other tropical diseases. Soon enough I decided my natural immunities would have built up a bit, and gave them a try. Fabulous! That almost sherbetty, tart edge to the voluptuous sweetness! The street vendors sold them ready prepared, so you didn’t have to wrestle with the awkward stones; and they offered you an optional sprinkle of a reddish powder which I eventually managed to understand was a mix of chilli and salt. It was sublime.

HFW recommends the Mango Lassi – Indian in origin although the mango is optional. So I followed his instructions, apart from using ready-prepared mangoes instead of the fresh whole fruit. My justification is that at the best of times, those pesky stones drive me nuts – it’s so hard to separate them from the clinging fruit. Just now, with my crutches, the wisdom of wielding sharp knives on recalcitrant objects is obvious even to me, the original (and clumsy) Health and Safety Refusenik.

Ready-prepared mangoes are brilliant. Neat juicy cubes. But they do bring with them a regrettable amount of plastic. So when I’m up and running again I’ll have to find some nifty tool or whatever. Online I found a blog by Elise Bauer, which suggests canned mango pulp or frozen mango as alternatives. However she goes on to say the canned version is probably sweetened and I definitely want mine salty. I’ll look out for frozen mango, which no doubt also arrives robed in plastic, but probably less so. I find frozen fruit and veg very good in terms of avoiding food waste, so I can compromise with the plastic.

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Put a packet of mango cubes in a liquidiser goblet; add 3 large tablespoons of natural yoghurt, along with a little less iced water. Add a good pinch of salt, and the bashed seeds from 2-3 cardamom pods. Whizz. Job done. Pour into two glasses and enjoy with a friend if you haven’t got a Troubadour.

 

HFW gives specific amounts but it’s pretty obvious you just have to adjust to your liking. Also I discovered that a food processor doesn’t work; I’d assumed they do much the same thing – but you need a liquidiser to – er – make it liquid! Funny how that little gem of knowledge has eluded me all these years. Slainte, everyone! Now I’m away for a wee lie doon.

 

You say tomato. Me too.

Heilroom Tomatoes

This gorgeous collection of tomatoes comes from website ‘The Spruce’, with an excellent article on how to grow tomatoes from seed. I wish I could say they were the well-deserved fruits of my labour, but that would be to pre-empt all kinds of things. After all, this will be my first year of growing tomatoes and I don’t think beginners’ luck comes into it. Instead, I’m relying on the good advice and little gifts of plantlets from my many talented gardening friends. And the Troubadour’s gift of remembering to water and feed. Actually when I write it all down, it doesn’t seem like I personally have much to offer in the tomato-growing field. But hey, I’m keen and will shower them with love and affection, and take lots of nice photos of them as they develop. And serve them with pride.

So why am I planning to grow tomatoes this year; and why am I even thinking about it right now, in the depth of a Scottish so-called winter?

Two reasons: Firstly, let’s get it over with, eeek B****t. Who knows how our food supplies will be affected? It’s all a bit chaotic out there.

Secondly – you can hardly find a home-grown tomato in the shops these days.

There’s a full and fascinating account of the fall of the Scots tomato industry here, by Gordon Davidson in the List – 10 years ago! He finishes by saying ‘if there’s ever going to be a Scottish tomato revival, I doubt I’ll be here to see it.’ How bleak; and prescient.

Various attempts have been made since then and it’s not all doom and gloom. Scotty Brand have set up in Hawick in the Borders, with some success in a range of veggies, including tomatoes. I have actually tasted their tomatoes, weirdly perhaps, through a vodka experiment at the Borders Distillery, also in Hawick. Most laudably, this recently-opened distillery is trying out local produce in combination with their fine new-make spirit. The link above tells the Scotty Brand story in which the sadly recently departed Andrew Fairlie takes a leading role. Rest in peace, Andrew; your legacy lives on.

So for 2019 – I’m going toIMG_0557.JPG avoid Dutch and Spanish tomatoes if I can. Not just because they might stop sending them to us after 29th March! But because, frankly, there’s not much flavour to them. I’m hoping to do better. So I’m spending a lot of time doing this (left) just now – blethering, sorry researching, scribbling things on the back of envelopes and bemusing seasoned tomato growers with the most glaikit of questions. And I’ve bought a frame thingie for the back garden to keep my tomatoes sheltered against the wash-house wall. And I’ve been out there hoeing away the weeds in our freak early spring which we know won’t last. It’s been lovely but I gather it’s not really a good thing. I was charmed to find the ladybirds already out and about among my greenFruit and Vegetables for Scotland: What to Grow and How to Grow It (New Edition)ery, but then chilled to read that this will likely be their undoing, when the normal frosts return.

Finally as usual, I have been reading: I bought a great book which addresses itself to the growing of fruit and veg in our climate – it’s brilliantly detailed without going all techy and nerdy and I’m loving it. [I’ve also bought a much simpler, more basic book called ‘How to Grow Stuff‘ – this one urges everyone with space on a window ledge to get on with it and see how easy it is. I’m reserving judgement on this – being easily distracted, I’ve started many gardening projects in my life with enthusiasm and then forgotten about them so that everything shrivels up and dies for lack of love. It’ll be different this year because the Troubadour and others will help. That’s the plan.

And nothing at all to do with tomatoes, but I was at a postcard fair in Kinross a couple of weekends ago and found this lovely card – below. I believe it is thanking British air crew who dropped food parcels on the Netherlands at the end of the second world war, when thousands were starving during the last bitter months. This I know because I used to cook for a former airman of the bomber command, and he told me about his involvement in these food drops. He was visiting Amsterdam on holiday 40 years later when a woman in the street stopped him, with tears in her eyes, to thank him. And look at the performance of the Dutch veg industry now, notwithstanding my rejection of their tasteless tomatoes! I guess we all need each other.

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Waxing lyrical

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Recently I mentioned that I wanted to cut down on my use of plastic, especially clingfilm, in the kitchen. I was nervous that it would be impossible because the alternatives might not be great. Well as is often the case, as soon as you dig around a bit you discover a well-trodden path which somehow has eluded you up till now.

It turned out that all I had to do was turn right from my own close and walk a hundred yards down the street – Minerva Blue Crafts was in the middle of setting up workshops to show people how to make beeswax wraps. So I signed up, paying the princely sum of £15. While waiting for the event I had a look around and found beeswax wraps for sale in Lakeland – at a staggering £19.99 for three! I love Lakeland, and if I’m looking to treat myself, that’s often where I go. But it has to be said, sometimes their goods are on the pricey side.

So, come the day of the workshop and I discovered I’d got the date wrong and was working – driving a minibus to Hawick (the new Borders Distillery) and back no less, more of that in my next post – and the next date (yesterday) was already fully booked, so popular are these workshops proving to be. So I’ve booked again, but meantime, to satisfy my curiosity, I dropped in with my camera; here are some shots of Newburgh Women Saving the Planet!

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I haven’t got the proper knowledge yet of how it’s done, but will report back in a future post on exactly how you create these handy wee cloots. They can be used to cover a bowl of leftovers in the fridge, or to wrap up a sandwich to take to work – or, no doubt, lots of other things. I overheard a conversation about wrapping one’s husband up in one; the main attraction being that it takes warm hands to make it fit properly … but maybe that’s an advanced class!

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More detail on all of this at a future date. Meantime, for those of you who follow my blog, let me just announce that I finished my 50,000 word NaNoWriMo challenge on Friday night and posted it in at 5 to midnight! So that’s me with the first draft of a novella in my eager little clutches, and after I’ve recovered from November’s bad posture cramps, eye strain and weight gain, will be trying to figure out what to do with it. Hurrah!