Monthly Archives: May 2012

Love is the food of music

I saw La Traviata yesterday for the second time in three days, and I’d see it again if I could. Typically, the ultra-modern designer had imposed his ideas on the story and the staging, but he couldn’t change the glorious music, and the heart-breaking love story – so much more moving than Romeo and Juliet.

So Natalie Dessay was required to play Violetta as a heavy drinking tart, not the elegant refined courtesan the real Marie Plessis was. On the other hand, the power and the glory of Il Magnifico, the Russian bass-baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, lifted the angry, arrogant, interfering father, the in-advertent villain of the piece, to heights of nobility. There was hardly a woman in the audience or at the New York Met, from which this opera was beamed, who wouldn’t have flung herself at his feet, as the roar from the audience testified. And of course, he’s not just a glorious voice, but also a pretty face – named one of the world’s fifty most beautiful people in a People magazine poll.

But tart or not, Natalie Dessay reduced me to tears with the pathos and beauty of her singing and acting in this part. She looked as ravaged at the end as though she really was dying both of TB and a broken heart..

I hurried home and googled Greta Garbo playing the same role in the film ‘Camille’ in 1936. When I was a teenager, my stepmother asked me to go to a cinema matinee with her. I went from politeness to see this old film from her sentimental  past.

I sat through the matinee with her, and she left to go home. I sat through the next showing, and finally the last showing that evening. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. When I looked at it again yesterday I felt the same. Garbo, at the height of her beauty was utterly ravishing, and the young Robert Taylor was an arrestingly beautiful young man. Garbo played Violetta, or Marguerite, as she was called in this film, with infinite refinement, delicacy and tenderness. Her clothes were exquisite, and even her shoulders emerging from glorious confections of tulle and taffeta, were achingly beautiful. I don’t think there has been another cinema star as beautiful and refined as she was.

The interesting thing was that the real Marie Plessis was just as beautiful and refined. Brought up by an alcoholic father, begging on the streets at ten, sent to be a comfort woman at twelve to an old man, escaping to be a seamstress in Paris, she didn’t earn enough to live on, but found, in conductor Sir Thomas Beecham’s notorious phrase, that she had a gold mine between her legs. By the age of sixteen she had taken up with the young nobleman who was the model for Alfredo in the opera, she had learned to read and write, to ride side-saddle, and acquire all the accomplishments she saw that other women had. She was a fast learner. And by then she had already become a celebrated courtesan.

The country idyll with her young nobleman was broken up by his father just as in the opera, which was based on Alexandre Dumas’ book  ‘La Dame aux Camellias’, expensive camellias being her favourite flower.

She was eventually re-united with the young nobleman, and they married in England, though the marriage was invalid in France. But it gave her a title and respectability. The nobleman faded out of her life, but she continued her amazing career, having an affair with Liszt, who appears to have been the only man she ever really loved, and with Dumas who wrote her story. Her salon in Paris included some of the most eminent men of the age, including Honore de Balzac, Alfred de Musset and Theophile Gautier. And then she died at the age of twenty-three.

I’m humbled at what she achieved in such a short space of time, totally self-educated, never showing any sign of her appalling childhood, but personifying grace, beauty,  “ a great deal of heart, and a great liveliness of spirit” according to her lover, Franz Liszt.. She conquered one of the mostly highly civilised societies in the world. What a woman. What a girl.

Food for Threadbare Gourmets.

When I was a single mother supporting two children on a tiny wage, tins of salmon were a staple in my cupboard. This recipe for fish cakes involves a tin of salmon or tinned herrings, mashed potato, an egg, and mixed dried herbs.

Boil and mash the potatoes with butter but only a dash of milk since you want them to be quite firm. Break up the salmon, or herrings in tomato sauce if you can get them, and mix them into the potatoes, including the tomato sauce. You need to work out the right balance of fish to potato, but I find one tin will make about eight round fishcakes. Add an egg to the potatoes and fish to bind them, plus lots of mixed herbs to taste, salt and pepper. Divide into fishcakes and roll in flour. Fry till both sides are nice and crisp and the inside hot. If you have any left over, they can be re-heated in the oven, and I often made a double quantity so there were plenty the next day. Serve with green vegetables or a salad, and make a tomato sauce with fried tomatoes, olive oil, and a touch of sugar if you feel like it.

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Tale of a Glutton

I found a packet of custard creams at our well-named local grocer, Nosh. This may be of small interest to many people, but not to this foodie, to use a polite word for gourmand. 

I grew up on custard creams as a particular treat in post-war England, and  a delicately dunked custard cream in a nice cup of tea – preferably China tea – takes me back to those distant days of my youth. ( Dunking was also frowned upon in the days of my youth). Whenever friends visit from the UK now, top of my list of please- brings, are the custard creams, closely followed by rich tea biscuits. These are plain and uniquely English – no-one else would bother to look twice at them. But again, they reek of nostalgia for me, the only biscuit to have with an early morning cup of tea in bed, and an infinitely adaptable biscuit, equally at home with morning tea, afternoon tea, or a late night snack.

Neither of these biscuit are available in New Zealand, my home for over forty years, but I still crave for these old fashioned goodies. But now Nosh, to my delight, are suddenly importing one of them. Unfortunately, they haven’t also branched out into another delight which has always been unavailable in this land of milk and manukau honey and lamb and wine. I’m talking about those circular tin boxes, wrapped in stiff and very thick, crinkled, coloured tin foil, containing marrons glacees.  To call them crystallised chestnuts would be to rob them of half their glamour. These too, come tumbling out of visitor’s suit cases on arrival, and it pains me to have to share them in the interests of good manners.

When we first arrived in this country, Mars Bars, the creamy malted bars with a thick layer of caramel, chewy insides, and covered in wavy patterns of milk chocolate, were also unobtainable. To the uninitiated, the words Mars Bars may be puzzling, but even such an authoritative journal as the UK Financial Times once devoted an article to Mars Bars, reaching the conclusion that they were the only commodity surviving since the thirties which is still worth its weight in gold. This fact of course, gives added relish as I sink my teeth into the lovely soft innards of the chocolate .

I was foolish enough to introduce this scarce treat to the children, so then three of us hankered after them, and again,  distant travellers mentioning a trip to the Antipodes were suborned into bringing a few Mars Bars with them, ahead of the list of biscuits.

When my husband was leaving Heath Row after a quick business trip to London, he remembered at the airport, that he had an order for Mars Bars, and was about to buy half a dozen when he thought to himself, well, why not get the box. So he arrived with thirty six Mars Bars. Sadly, between me and the children they only lasted five days.

I think that is probably genuine gluttony. But so delicious.

My recipes tend to be frugal, and the antithesis of gourmet food, but they are the sort of dishes which would see a thread-bare gourmet through hard times. So perhaps that’s what I’ll call them : Recipes for a Thread-bare Gourmet.

Since our chickens come without the giblets these days, which used to be the makings of decent gravy, I’ve given up gravy. Visitors blanch when I tell them I don’t do gravy as I set the roast chicken on the table. But they soon cheer up when I hand them this dish, a recipe given to me by a French friend. I always have to make lots, as it disappears fast. Gently sauté as many mushrooms as you want in some butter and oil, and add finely chopped garlic. I use plenty, as garlic is half the point of this. While they’re still cooking, add cream and a chicken bouillon cube or two. Let the cream boil up and thicken. If it looks as though the mushrooms might get over -cooked, I just fish them out for this stage. When the cream is the consistency you like, return the mushrooms with plenty of chopped parsley, and season with black pepper, salt if you feel it needs it. I serve this with a roast, or it’s also good for a light supper or lunch on thick toasted slices of good bread with a glass of wine.

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No offense meant!

I saw a lovely picture of an English toff, dressed up to the nines, at an English country wedding on Sunday. Black morning coat, grey-black pin-striped trou, grey waistcoat – but you couldn’t see it. Instead there was a grey baby cradle firmly pinned to his chest and looped around his shoulders, holding a very newborn baby.  Instead of a top-hat, he was carrying a blue and white spotted bag holding, presumably, all the disposable nappies, wipes and other paraphernalia a Western baby requires.

 He was actually the English Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, but it was his role as a Dad which looked so impressive, as with broad smile on his face, and without a trace of embarrassment, he strode into the wedding behind his wife who was holding their toddler.

Time was when a man like him wouldn’t have even been seen pushing a pram. It’s a great leap forward for men, and mothers and their children, that men are actually not bashful any more about being seen to be caring sensitive fathers, or even sensitive new age guys ( Snags). So it seemed all the sadder to read another item on the same page about how the National Health Service has banned the use of the word ‘Dad’ in its information pamphlets, using ‘partner’ instead, so as not to offend same sex couples.

As I thought about this, I thought how much of our lives these days is taken up with not offending people – Moslems, lesbians, gays, among others – these are the ones that spring to mind, maybe because they seem to be offended more often. But are they? And do we take the same trouble not to offend Christians, men, children, and animals who all also get their feelings trampled on sometimes too. Do we have a license to be offended these days if we belong to a minority group or even a majority group?

It seems to me that when we allow ourselves to be offended by the innocent use of an archetypal word like father or Dad, we are actually taking it personally, and making everyone else responsible for offending us, which is another way of saying,’ making us angry.’

But life is a lot happier and less stressful if we don’t take offence and take everything personally. In his wonderful book called ‘The Four Agreements’, a book which must have made a lot of people feel happier and more fulfilled, Miguel Ruiz deals with the question of taking things personally, which usually means feeling hurt or offended – ie angry.

The Second Agreement reads “Don’t take anything personally.”

‘Nothing others do is because of you’, he writes. ‘What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be a victim of needless suffering’.

He reminds us that by taking responsibility for our own feelings, and giving up blaming other people for hurting our feelings, we can give up being offended and feel free instead. Maybe instead of writing politically correct pamphlets and destroying the use of words that have been valued for centuries, bureaucrats could instead, give the offended a copy of “The Four Agreements”! And maybe pigs Could fly too!

 In spite of resolving to give up carbohydrates after reading that too many are what cause arthritis, I still have to feed the resident male, which means carbohydrates. But  I found a way of eating my favourite vegetables, parsnips, which I fear are full of carbohydrates and sugar too, without causing too much damage. (I hope)

Roasted of course with the meat, they ‘re par-boiled first. Then drained and thrown around the pot with the lid on to make rough edges on them. Add some flour and bang them round the saucepan again, till they’re covered in flour. Then spoon hot oil or fat over them in a roasting dish. At this point I usually sprinkle them with maple syrup or brown sugar, but found a better way this time. I sprinkled them with stevia powder, the sweet herb which substitutes for sugar. You buy it in health food shops. The taste was sublime! Crunchy sweet parsnips with roast lamb and all the trimmings.

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The Windsor Knot

The world’s greatest love story? Not really. The world’s greatest demonstration of what co-dependency means, more like.

I had gone with the Windsor’s to bed with Anne Sebba’s book “That Woman”. Sebba makes it clear that Wallis didn’t want to marry an ex-King, but was happy to be connected to a King, but she doesn’t resolve the riddle of why Edward, an emotionally stunted middle-aged man (Wallis refers to him as Peter Pan in her letters) became hopelessly besotted with a tough woman who publicly bullied and humiliated him. Yet to untie the Windsor knot it’s only necessary to look at Edward’s childhood.

Sebba makes the point that Wallis was determined to marry a rich man because she’d had a trying childhood with not enough money. Well, there are plenty of us in that boat. But many others would have different goals and don’t all want to marry for status and the entree to the best parties. In some ways, Wallis was a classic Southern belle, having learned to listen and please men, dress to perfection and revel in parties – Scarlett O’Hara to the life.

Sebba also suggests that since many aspects of Wallis’s appearance were so masculine, including the lack of breasts, the broad shoulders, big ugly hands, strong mannish jaw, and an apparent in-ability to have children, she suffered from a form of Dis-order of Sexual Development. This, Sebba felt, would have been the unconscious mainspring behind the desire for what Wallis saw as feminine perfection. Whatever the reason, Wallis’s life seemed to be dominated by the desire for status,with expensive jewels, exquisite clothes, immaculate hair-do’s, the best parties, and liaisons flirtatious or otherwise, with rich fashionable people. And these things were what Edward was able to give her.

He already had all this stuff in spades. What he also had was a much worse childhood than Wallis, who had always been beloved. For the first three years of his life he was cared for by a sadistic dominating nanny. When she took him down to the drawing-room for the normal half an hour with the parents that rich Edwardian children enjoyed, she pinched him till it hurt outside the door, so that he entered the room crying. His un-maternal mother Queen Mary, and irascible father, King George promptly sent him out again, as they didn’t know what to do with a crying toddler.

So Edward’s childhood was dominated by a cold distant mother and by the cruel nanny, who finally had a nervous breakdown when he was three, and it was discovered she had never had a day off in three years. It’s a psychological truism that the experiences with parents or carers before the age of three, shape the relationships that we have with our significant others for the rest of our lives. So Edward was simply replicating his childhood and endlessly trying to please a rather cruel and dominating woman who was just like his nanny. The treadmill of of an unresolved childhood.

In psychological jargon, the Windsors had an interlocking racket, and since neither of them changed in all their years together, neither did the racket change. That, it seems to me is the real story of their marriage, not that it was a great love-story, but an enduring saga of co-dependency.

Last night I went to a seminar on the benefits of juicing. So fired with enthusiasm, I’ve decided to give up carbohydrates (as a foodie this deprivation may not last). But before I do, I’m having one last fling with carbs- a freshly baked loaf. This recipe has No kneading or proving in a warm cupboard. It’s simplicity itself.  Just three cups of self-raising flour, a pinch of salt and a bottle of beer made up to 400mls with water. Mix them all together, put in a greased loaf-tin in a medium to hot oven, and cook for about an hour or until it sounds hollow when you tap it. Delicious hot or cold with lashings of real butter.

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Definitely NOT Birdbrained

Savouring a flat white and a muffin in the coffee-shop court-yard, I turned my head to watch some children peering into the goldfish pond. When I turned back to my coffee a ring of sparrows had silently hopped onto the table and up to the muffin. The clever  things knew that when I turned my head, I couldn’t see them.

I used to feed the little rascals at home. All nine or ten of them. Not actually at home. Under a tree outside the garden where I could watch them from the sitting room window. That way less danger from the cat (now deceased)

I also fed the dozen or so minahs, a little way down from the tree so they wouldn’t frighten off the smaller birds. Moist bread for the minahs, wheat and birdseed, and when I ran out, porridge flakes for the others. They loved it all. They told their friends. Within a couple of weeks I had at least a hundred sparrows, four or five doves, some itinerant blackbirds, the odd chaffinch and an occasional thrush.

They had also worked out where this largesse came from. They waited in the plum tree outside the kitchen window and watched me until I came out with their breakfast. And for a couple of hours they sat and barracked me from the plum tree and the garage roof in the afternoon, until I sallied forth with afternoon tea – theirs.

A great whoosh of wings accompanied me to the tree. Then I had to make sure that the neighbour’s ancient lonely dog was not hovering in hope of a dog biscuit. If she was, I had to return with the bird food, and dig out a biscuit and walk her down the road with it, away from the bird food which she would have gobbled up. Dog distracted, back to the birds.

If I was out, they would be waiting for me at the bottom of the road. They recognised my white car, and swooped from telegraph pole to telegraph pole all the way down the street with the car. They’d then hover round the garage yelling “she’s back, she’s back” till I came out. If I went for a walk, they’d fly down the road with me, and wait on the corner.

Finally the worm turned. There were so many birds I couldn’t keep up with them, and was buying a large sack of wheat from the farmers shop each week, as well as extra bread for the greedy minahs – money I could ill-afford. The garden was becoming white with droppings, and I was back to the chaos of when I’d had a bird table. The sparrows could probably have made a pot of tea themselves, they’d watched me so intently through the kitchen window for so long.

A short holiday in Melbourne solved the problem. They gave up waiting. I felt guilty but relieved. They didn’t need the food out here in the country. It was just my hobby which had got out of hand.

But I now have a hearty respect for the intelligence of bird brains.

Feeling a cold coming on, I shall treat myself to a comforting pick-me-up – a tot of Stone’s ginger wine, the juice of an orange, a spoonful of honey and some hot water. It goes straight to the cockles of the heart, and also warms up the chest, and helps a cough.

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Ladies who lunch

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Lunch is for ladies! Yesterday Friend and I went out for lunch, going first to the new strawberry place run by immigrants from New Caledonia. Friend was saying their drawback was that their English was so poor. “But she speaks French”, I replied. So no sooner had we walked in than Friend greeted her in French, and in a low voice began a conversation in flowing, beautifully modulated French. I had never realised how beguiling French could sound, so courtly and courteous, and also intimate.

Later, at the cafe having Eggs Benedict and a glass of wine, after covering the usual topic – the rigours of caring for frail and elderly husbands, and their growing domestic blindness and latest foibles – we discussed the coarseness of the Windsor men, a propos the latest incident with the Duke of York, and harking back to other incidents with all the Queen’s sons. I introduced Friend to Sir Charles Petrie’s theory about the Hanoverians  – the three types – one, the brutal Duke of Cumberland type, then the extravagant and self-indulgent Prince Regent model, and lastly, the Coburg strain, good and conscientious  –  she was fascinated, and found no difficulty in fitting  the various members of each generation into those categories. We ended lunch by telling each other some of our husband’s jokes. This was a long and laborious process, since neither of us had the gift for timing or even for remembering the punch line, so we struggled with the right words and the sequences, finally muddling our way to the end, and laughing just for the hell of it.

I scored a hit with an ancient joke from the Guardian, some graffiti in a loo, which read: “I love screwing grils”. Someone added the next line: “don’t you mean girls?” and the last line read : “what about us poor grils”, a phrase which has remained in regular use in this family for the last thirty years at least..

The gents stayed home with bread and cheese and chutney and tomatoes. The unkindest cut of all was that we were both so full from our delicious and nutritious lunch that neither of us felt like slaving over a hot stove for them in the evening… They also serve who only stand and wait!.

My man was lucky. There was a chocolate mousse in the fridge left over from yesterday’s lunch for the grandchildren. 

So easy, cheap and nutritious.  Take one egg per person, six squares of black chocolate, a walnut-sized knob of butter, and a teaspoon of orange juide, black coffee, sherry or brandy, depending what flavour you fancy. Slowly melt the butter, chocolate and joices. Separate the eggs. Whip the egg whites till stiff. Stir the yolks into the chocolate mixture until smooth, then gently fold into the egg whites. Pour into glasses – wine glasses  or ramakins, and chill in the fridge.

If I ever felt the meal was rather light on protein, I made these for the children, then at least they’d had an egg. They never complained!

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Goodbye Cat

Today I finally picked up the saucer and washed it. It’s a pretty one, green and pink, the Indian tree pattern, quite a large one, so it held plenty of milk.

It belonged to the cat. She wasn’t allowed to have milk, because it disagreed with her, but after putting herself on a pure diet of fresh chicken and salmon, her delicate digestion appeared to be able to stomach milk. Whatever the vet said, her persistence wore me done, so when I had a cup of tea, she had her milk.

She died two months ago. I still see her sitting outside the french windows on the verandah waiting to be let in. I still hear the rattle of the cat door at night, and expect to feel a soft thud as she lands on the bed, and strides purposefully up to my pillow to stand on it and reach my drink of fresh water on the bed-side table. She had her own, both on the bedside table, and elsewhere, but she always thought my water must be better than hers. And she wouldn’t touch a drop until she’d seen me change her water bowl first thing in the morning. I constantly see the flick of her black tail out of the corner of my eye.

I heard a radio programme about bereaved cat owners. They all say the same thing. The cat stays around. All my dogs loved me devotedly and unconditionally. Why was it different with the cat. Why was I so grateful when she showed she did love me?  Why did I put up with being bossed around? 

After three days of not eating I finally took her to the vet, knowing the cancer had brought us to the end. I came home to have a good weep on the verandah, where she’d been snoozing before I put her in the cat box for her last journey. There had always been a cabbage tree just by the verandah, which from the day we moved here six years ago she had used as a ladder, scrambling up to the top, and leaping from it onto the verandah seat. It was looking old and rotten, and I used to look at it and think I’d have to put up a ladder when it had gone.

As I sat down I realised the tree wasn’t there any more. It had keeled over and fallen while cat and I were at the vet. Some say how spooky. Not for me. The universe had sent a signal. This was indeed the end. Nothing to reproach myself with. The timing was not mine but hers. But it still hurts. Requiescat in pace.

And now I ‘m going to make some supper on a cold winter’s night. Not much in the house, so we’ll have some comfort food with just three ingredients -a simple potato hotpot:

Peel and slice some potatoes, chop some onions, and chop up some bacon – the more you can afford, the better. Make plenty of white sauce, using butter and if you add a little cream, all the better. Then layer the potatoes, onions and bacon in a casserole or oven-proof dish, finishing with a layer of  potatoes. Pour the white sauce over it, letting it seep down through the layers. Cook in a moderate oven for one and a half to two hours, testing to see the potatoes are soft. Eat with some green vegetables or a green salad. Cheap as, delicious, and filling.

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