How’s your Easter week-end going? Chances are it’s been more relaxing than mine, I hope. If you’d like to find out, here’s a test: if you close your eyes, can you see bindweed roots? I can. I would have dreamt about them too, if I wasn’t so exhausted from all the digging (seriously, who knew digging was so hard? and why didn’t they tell me? I was woefully underprepared!) and the raking, too. I had no idea I had muscles in those places, but apparently I do, and they are making their presence felt.
On the plus side: I have a new haircut which will allow me to wear lots of eyeliner while pretending I’m Mary Quant (I flatter myself not at all), the sun is out (!), and I have a near-perfect butterzopf stashed in the freezer ready to finish off its baking in time for tomorrow’s breakfast. Perhaps life is not so hard after all.
Butterzopf is one of those things that I ate all the time (quite literally – when you see the ingredients, you’ll realise what a marvel it is that I fitted on the plane back home) while I lived in Switzerland, and miss terribly now I’m back in England – along with dried mango, and M-Budget chocolate. While I am fairly sure I don’t stand the faintest chance of either finding a) mangoes ripe enough to dry and b) some sun in which to dry them, or of setting up as a chocolatier in the utility room, making some bread – that should be a doddle, right? Right?
My garden is mostly escapee herbs: mint grows through the gravel path by the front door, I have to fight through huge clouds of oregano to hang the washing out, and lemon balm has colonised the remainder of the poor excuse for a lawn. I think I have found horseradish, as well, colonising the scrappy bit by the hydrangea, but I’m trying quite hard not to think about that – where would my wildflower meadow go then, I ask you? Certainly not at the end of the garden, where a solitary clump of chives vies for land with whatever those yellow buttercuppy flowers are (well, my horticultural knowledge does only extend so far).
Of course, this is all very pleasing in summer, when we can waft sunnily past the herbs and pretend we are somewhere on a Mediterranean hillside, but half-dead craggy broken stems poking through the front path do not look quite so picturesque in March. Certainly not in the snow. Nor the sleet, nor even the never-ending grey that some thoughtless weather god has seen fit to grace my corner of England with for the last hundred years (yes, literally).
However! It must be spring – the oregano is struggling back to life, underneath the manky bits I still haven’t quite got round to chopping back (I am pretending that they are ‘ladybird hotels’. This seems to be working so far – either that, or John is resigned to my idleness), which means, of course, that it is time to eat peppers! and aubergines! and tomatoes! again. No?
Back in my (sigh) student days, I used to occasionally find myself impressing John’s housemates with my really quite average culinary skills. Admittedly this didn’t happen very often, largely because – apparently – not everyone agrees that noodles with soy sauce and kale counts as a Proper Meal, and this is in any case not a combination guaranteed to appeal to a twenty-something boy who eats mostly cornflakes. Getting back late from the pub, however, and having a batch of freshly baked cookies on the counter in less than half an hour without having to consult a recipe: that usually did the trick.
Just in case you’re worrying that this ability suggests a worrying level of crazy, let me reassure you that I did not mis-spend my youth staying up late studying recipe books and memorising recipes. No no no! Instead, I went to bed at ten, finished all my essays on time, was generally a model citizen, and definitely did not spend most of my time in pubs (when I wasn’t sunning myself in parks or my friend’s
greenhouse “conservatory”). It’s just that this particular recipe is so simple that it’s more difficult to forget than to remember: eight ounces of flour, four each of butter and sugar, two of chocolate chips and an egg.
Sometimes this kind of emergency cookie is exactly what you need to get you through the kind of very difficult situation where there are no biscuits in the house and all the shops are closed (frankly, I find it appalling that these two events are allowed to coincide, this far into the 21st century. Should somebody not do something?) – but other times, what’s needed is the kind of cookie that may require a little more effort, and a few more ingredients, but which is as a result of this effort almost certainly the best cookie you’ve ever had the good fortune to put in your mouth.
Normally, I do try not to give people the impression that I am some kind of fruit-obsessed dipsomaniac. I realise that posting a recipe for rhubarb schnapps right after one for a blood orange gin cocktail will probably not help my case very much, but if I wait a suitable period of time before I tell you about the schnapps it will be too late for you to make some too, and that would not do.
You see, the recipe calls for early pink rhubarb, and there is only so much ‘early’ (how is it March already? What happened?) left in the year. I suppose you could make this with ordinary, bog-standard rhubarb, but it would not glow nearly as alluringly sat on the kitchen windowsill: this is by far the prettiest drink in my house, even in a booze cupboard which includes violet liqueur. I can give it no higher recommendation. Well, apart from the fact that it’s also quite delicious – but look at it! do you even care what it tastes like?
I have bought three new recipe books in the last week. This is an issue, as we have run out of shelf, and John stubbornly refuses to throw away any of his recipe books to make way for mine: very unreasonable, I’m sure you will agree. No? We will probably be able to find a small corner of our
library lounge to stack them in, somewhere, but I should have known better than to pick up a copy of Polpo in a bookshop last weekend. It flopped open, obligingly (it opens flat! the excitement!), on a recipe for blood orange and Campari cake. Of course, now I have to have it. I knew this would happen.
I’d not tried Campari before – it is not widely ordered at pubs in Bath, after all, and looks just a little alarming to the uninitiated – but I kept coming across references to it (along with its milder cousin Aperol) written by people whose taste has yet to fail me, and so I finally plucked up the courage to order a Negroni a couple of weeks ago. Now I am hooked. The first taste was a little alarming – Campari is a bitters, after all, and I’ve not found very many mentions of it that don’t also include the word ‘medicinal’ – but I am easily sold on a gin-based cocktail, and after the first sip the palate adjusts and the bitterness of the Campari is tempered nicely by the sweetness of the Martini. That’s what I think, anyway, but the faces of the few people who’ve had a sip of what I’m drinking might persuade you otherwise.
I am keeping an eagle eye on the weather, now that it is March. One of the most eagerly awaited events of my culinary year is the first meal eaten out of doors, and I would not want the sunshine to sneak up unexpected and catch me unawares in a jumper and wellies with a four-hour curry on the hob and jacket potatoes in the oven. I need to be prepared, with summery, speedy things in the fridge – crab! wine! salad! – and preferably a sundress on, so that I can rush outside at the first sign of sunshine and install myself at the garden table, basking in the rays. (Or something like that, at least, given that the English weather gods are somewhat unhelpful with regards to the ‘basking’ part).
Luckily, there are far more committed diarists than I, who pay attention to these things and write them down, so that the rest of us can cruise through February serene in the knowledge that it will be too a) rainy, b) cold and c) downright depressing to eat our lunches outside (what do you mean, you knew that already?). Nigel Slater is one such (although the diary format has its pitfalls – I can’t read more than a month ahead in his Kitchen Diaries without suffering crippling strawberry / asparagus / broad bean envy, which as you can imagine severely limits my reading abilities) and somewhere among the entries advocating cheese as a perfectly acceptable dinner, March 19th is noted as the first day suitable for an outside supper. We are nearly there, everyone – man the vineyards!
Is it rhubarb season yet? I have been asking myself this for almost three months now, ever since I stumbled across the most irresistible-sounding recipe for rhubarb and pink grapefruit jam, and yet the greengrocer’s shelves have remained stubbornly bare of muddy pink stems. To add insult to injury, up in Yorkshire there seemed to be an abundance of the most gorgeously bright, tiny stalks. Perhaps none of them were allowed out of the county? The English tourist board can’t have had much to work with recently except bribery, I suppose.
Luckily, a trip to the greengrocer last weekend proved much more… I hesitate to say fruitful, but that’s exactly what it was (and besides, I want to). I popped out for some eggs, and came back laden with grapefruits the size of an infant’s head, yet more blood oranges, and – finally! – armfuls of rhubarb. Also a bunch of the most gorgeous irises, but that doesn’t fit in so well with my fruitful theme, so we won’t talk about those any more here.
I had been hoping to replicate a tiny rhubarb jelly that John ordered in a restaurant this time last year – delicately, translucently pink, beautifully perfumed, and most of all rhubarby, but with none of the mouth-scouring astringency that I’d previously associated with the fruit – and so as soon as I saw a recipe for rhubarb jam, there was no chance I’d be able to resist. I have never prided myself on my strength of will, after all.