Wednesday, January 21, 2015

On cooking, baking - and custard creams

I've been thinking about food. Or, to be more accurate, I've been thinking about cooking and baking and how I feel about these activities - and about the fact that this morning I spent about an hour reading a recipe book. (I was given a pile of wonderful Ottolenghi books for Christmas; they're already full of paper markers and a list to tell me where exciting-looking things are.) It is perhaps a clue to my attitude that I then felt compelled to clean the bath - for a small inner voice told me that I'd been wasting time, sitting in my cosy living-room looking at the birds on the snowy feeder and reading about food. And cooking.

I love food. I'm what you would well call fussy, in that I like interesting and well-cooked food, and that there are things I body-swerve with increasing dedication: cream, fatty foods, shellfish, anything that will lie weightily in my digestive system long after I'd prefer to have forgotten about it. My mother, and now my sister, have long mocked my preference for green tea. But because I love good food, I try to produce same - and on the whole I would say I succeed. The creation on the right is one I recently enjoyed - venison fillet accompanied by freekeh pilaff and garlic yogurt - and I usually say that no-one who likes eating should be incapable of producing a decent meal.

But even after almost 44 years of being responsible for making the meals in my own home, I still feel it's not really me. I have the sense that I'm a sort of dilettante cook, playing at it without having acquired the basic skills or even the right equipment. Baking is even worse. My closest pal throws pastry together without a thought and uses it to entertain my grandchildren; she may never know (unless she reads this) how much awe I hold her in for this simple act. My Christmas cake is the best I've ever eaten, but since I stopped making children's birthday cakes it's the only cake I ever make - and more or less the only cake I eat, come to that.

So when I refer to myself as a Domestic Goddess, you should know that I do so in the spirit of deepest irony. Cooking - and the odd bit of baking - gets fitted in round the rest of my life even if the results are totally toothsome, and there's always this feeling that I'm in the same boat as the monkeys writing a Shakespeare play. Or something. My attitude to eating, I've decided, has hardened over the years. I shall never again, for example, eat a pizza - because you have to climb a Munro to use up the resulting calories. And I shall leave you with one final, devastating truth:

Life is too short to eat a custard cream.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

A kind of madness ...

It's a sort of madness, I suppose. This need to be out of doors, preferably away from streets and cars and - if I'm honest - other people. This compulsion to walk fast enough, far enough, or maybe high enough to be tired, to warm up, to feel hungry.

Yesterday was not one in which I could accomplish this - a trip over the water to an appointment in Greenock and a subsequently late lunch meant that daylight had almost gone, and the rain was battering down once more. But today?

Not as promising as you might think. We drove out of Dunoon into a blizzard; the hill where we planned to walk couldn't be seen. But there was a glimmer further west, the merest hint of blue in the sky. I felt all would be well. And it was. Actually, we had one or two fierce snow showers in our faces as we walked, and an arboretum wasn't exactly a sensible place to start in the aftermath of a gale. There were branches and twigs all over the track; four conifers had fallen in a straight line, each one miraculously not hitting any of the trees among which they toppled; one huge eucalyptus was down while another swayed at a crazy angle. We could hear the wind roaring through the tree-tops, and there were alarming creaks all around. There were two daunting moments when we had to duck under half-fallen trees on the track. (One, two, three ... Why? What will that do? ... Make sure we have no survivor guilt.) But then we reached the lookout point, and the sun was out. It was quite sheltered, and the tall deciduous conifers to the left of the picture were swaying in unison as if conducted. My shadow, and that of the lone tree beside me, were clear on the far side of a small gorge - you can tell how far by the tiny figure beside the tree, which is yours truly.

By the time we got home it was 2.30pm. We'd eaten nothing since 9am. I felt legless with hunger. But I felt so much better than I have for days. It's a sort of madness, but it's my madness.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Snuffing out the candles

 We are in the season of Epiphany. Today I took down the (moulting) tree, put the decorations back in the loft, looked out at the rain, noted that the gloom of early morning had moved imperceptibly into the gloom of early evening, and reflected. I reflected on the past fortnight or so, in which the raging energy brought on by the pronouncement of the Bishops (read back - the links are all there) had been dissipated in singing beautiful music and soothed by the magic of Christmas.

And I have been consolidating something I've known for a long time. It's a long time since I stopped thinking that the gospel accounts of the Nativity are literal truth, half a century or more since I realised that in fact the gospels are full of what a student of literature recognises as the hallmarks of a fictional account. (Think of all that direct speech, for starters). And over the years I've heard sermons that have, in their way, dealt with that - pointed out relevance, invited us to think. And I've thought.

Now, as the rain batters on my study window, I can see clearly what it does, all this magic. I don't care that the stories of the shepherds, the angels, the Magi (and Eliot's wonderful poem about them) - I don't care that they can't possibly be true in the way that it's true that I was born in Glasgow. I don't want them changed in any way, for they are perfect. They are perfect poems that contain a truth that inspires, and they are best absorbed as poems, enhanced by art and music and beauty.

And what does this truth inspire me to? I suppose in one way you could say that it inspired me to become a damned nuisance. It certainly knocked me off a comfortable path and set me climbing the spiritual equivalent of the Aonach Eagach, on a ridge walk that I'm still clambering along more than forty years later. It's exciting, it's bound only by trust and love and balance, and that's how I want it to remain.

What does not inspire is a set of rules. Dogma and authoritarianism aren't very thrilling either. Dry politicking within ecclesiastical structures leaves me cold, and people - men, usually - telling me what can and cannot be done because of history and prejudice will tend to set me off on yet another mountain, to sustain the metaphor.

So what about all the beauty and mystery and the stories that tell us of Love incarnate and inspire us to love justice and truth and our neighbours as ourselves? I can't imagine that our bishops, for example, haven't had a bit of that for themselves this Christmas. None of them, after all, is as old as I am - surely they're not blasé about the mysteries they dispense? Does none of it do something to rekindle the fire that, presumably, used to burn in them?

Because in the end, that 's what it does, this season we've just had. It rekindles a fire. Dangerous element, fire - but warming and wonderful. Gives you courage. Gives you passion. I have heard at least one of our bishops preach with passion - but a new image has just presented itself to me, and it seems horribly apt.

Bishop's mitre as candle snuffer.

Icon, anyone?