Monthly Archives: September 2015

War and Peace

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I stumbled on a quote from Winston Churchill at the beginning of the chapter of a book I was reading. He was talking to the boys of Harrow, his old school, just after the Battle of Britain… the leader of the free world with his back against the wall, found time to talk to schoolboys in the middle of a World War when his capital city was being pounded in the Blitz…

He said: “Do not let us speak of darker days, let us rather speak of sterner days. These are not dark days; these are the greatest days our country has ever lived.” (I can just hear him growling through his speech impediment and his false teeth)
Those words made me think of those sterner days, and what stern days we have all lived through since the end of the long peace from Waterloo to the First World War.
My ancestors lived peaceful lives between the downfall of one warlord – Napoleon in 1815, and the attack of another warlord – the Kaiser in 1914.

But things changed for them then, as for everyone, and my family would be a microcosm of that change. My grandfather fought at Gallipoli of tragic memories, my great- uncle was one of eight hundred men who ‘went down, “as my grandmother would say – in the Vanguard, when it exploded and sank in 1917.

My step-grandfather was one of the 60,000 men killed or wounded on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in June 1916, when he was shot as he stepped out in the first line after the whistle blew to advance in the early morning sunshine. Unlike that heart-stopping last scene in ‘Blackadder goes forth’, they didn’t run, but stepped out to a measured pace, and were mown down by machine guns raking along the long lines of men moving across the grass as they walked into the ‘jaws of death’….

These were peaceful men, called up from their homes and villages to fight for their country and for peace – they thought – unlike the highly trained aggressive army of martial men which faced them. They had actually thought that the Battle of the Somme would end the carnage.

The next generation faced the sterner days of another warlord, Hitler. My father escaped from France a fortnight after Dunkirk, and then spent the rest of the war as a famed Desert Rat, escaping from the siege of Tobruk, fighting across North Africa and then up through Italy. After the war he was stationed at Belsen, the concentration camp where I joined him to live with him for the first time since he had left when I was ten months old.

His brother served with the Long Range Desert Group which fought behind the German lines in North Africa waging guerrilla war. Captured, and ending up in prisoner of war camp in Italy, he escaped and hid and starved in the mountains, until rejoining the Allied Armies as they fought their way up Italy. My only other uncle manned anti –invasion posts around England before becoming part of the liberation forces in Europe. He listened in horror as they drove away to the sound of gun-shots after handing over Russian PoW’s back to the Soviets, who shot them all, there and then. My former father- in- law, a padre, landed on the beaches of Normandy and was so badly wounded that he lived with the after- effects for the rest of his life.

My first memory was of watching the Battle of Britain – not that I knew it was – I just saw white crosses diving across the sky and puffs of white. I was looking for dogs, since I heard the adults saying there’s another dog-fight. That summer has remained in the memory of those who lived through it – even me at two – as being one of unforgettable beauty. Historian Sir Arthur Bryant wrote of England then: “The light that beat down on her meadows, shining with emerald loveliness, was scarcely of this world… the streets of her cities, soon to be torn and shattered, were bathed in a calm serene sunshine…”

Later, I cowered in bed hearing the dreadful wail of the air- raid sirens, trailed downstairs in my night clothes to crouch in the air-raid shelter, listened for the planes overheard, saw with terror the flames in the red sky, and the next morning gathered up shrapnel in the garden and once, stood on the edge of a huge bomb crater, marvelling. And finally traversed bombed- out Germany on the train to Belsen.

I spent much of the rest of my childhood living in army camps around the world, hearing the sound of reveille across the fields where the soldiers lived in barracks, and drifting off to sleep to the haunting strains of the Last Post.

Inevitably I joined the army, as did both my brothers, who saw service in Aden, Borneo, Germany, Cyprus, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar… and as my first child was born, my army husband was posted at twenty four hours notice to a sudden outbreak of warfare in Cyprus. I came out of the labour ward to find a telegram: “Gone to Cyprus”. So my daughter felt the effects of war as soon as she came into this world and didn’t meet her father until she was six months old. Later her father served in Hong Kong and Germany and Northern Ireland.

My grandchildren are the fifth generation and the first not to feel the effects of war. They‘re aware of violence – who could not be after the world-wide shock at the attacks on the World Trade Centre. But like other children of the West, they seem to see their future and their challenges differently. Unlike the children of Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, my fortunate grandchildren have known only peace, and tucked away in the farthest corner of the globe, they have optimism. They do not see these days as stern ones, though the children in war-torn Middle East must do. They do not see the anxieties that older people agonise over, pollution, dwindling food supplies, over-population, melting ice-caps, ravaged oceans…

They see instead the solutions. One grandson, having gained a degree in philosophy, transferred his search for truth to science, and from first deciding to tackle world hunger by experimenting with growing food from the spores of mushrooms ( I’m sure I’ve hopelessly oversimplified that ) he’s now embarked on a project to discover new forms of anti-biotics, and combat disease.

The other youngsters all have a serene belief that science, and creative understanding will solve the problems that loom so large for older generations. They’re not worried! I find that’s magic. Is this because they live in this peaceful place in the Antipodes, or do all young people have this calm belief in the future?

A friend told us that she had always loudly proclaimed at home that it is selfish and self-indulgent to have a child and bring another soul into this troubled world. She told us with great joy, that her fifteen year old grandson said he didn’t agree. “Life is a gift” this wonderful boy told her. Hearing that wisdom was a gift to us oldies.

Hearing that made me feel too, we can all rest easy. Young people know where they’re going, and know what they can do. Though we hear of mayhem and misery every day, if we oldies step back from it, avoid reading the stuff that make us sad (young people don’t seem to read newspapers! ), we can remember to be as positive and imaginative as that young generation.

And maybe too, to bowdlerise Churchill’s words – these are the greatest days our world has ever lived, when consciousness takes the leap into other dimensions of unity and peace. Christopher Fry wrote that: “Affairs are now soul size,” and that we are ready to:” take the longest stride of soul men ever took.”

This is what we can feel in the hearts of this generation that does not want war and dissension –  the domain of the grey tired thinking of politicians of old. Young people want peace and hope and they deserve it as they face the new challenges that baffle older people. “Young people”, as a friend once wrote in Latin, in a card to me, “are the hope and salvation of the world”. And they need all our loving support and belief in them, as they take that long stride of soul into a future we oldies cannot even imagine.

Food for threadbare gourmets
I had some dainty ham sandwiches left over from a little gathering. Rather than waste them I had them for supper. I whipped up an egg with salt and pepper and a soupcon of milk, and poured it onto a plate. I dipped the sandwiches in on both sides, and the egg mixture glued them together. Fried in a little butter, they were delicious. And no waste!

Food for thought
Close your eyes and you will see the truth,
Be still and you will move forward on the tide of the spirit,
Be gentle and you will need no strength,
Be patient and you will achieve all things,
Be humble and you will remain entire.
Taoist meditation

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Snakes alive !

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Mrs Tiggywinkle, her rounded figure enveloped in her apron, sweet face framed by a ruff of prickles and a frilly white bonnet, quizzical grey eyes gazing kindly out on the world, catching up with her ironing and piles of laundry is one of those childhood images that remain with most children who have encountered her.
Thanks to the genius of Beatrix Potter this little creature who has snuffled around the planet for thirty million years or so, is one of the most beloved of small animals. Fluffy little red Squirrel Nutkin isn’t far behind in the beloved stakes either, another creature with a pedigree going back fifty to thirty million years. Their images, once impregnated in the memory in early childhood ensured their imperishable hold on the imagination and affection of anyone who encountered them.

But there’s another even older species, a hundred million years old, which enjoys none of this fondness and protection. Instead, in the western world, it is reviled and seen as an object of evil. Thanks to the Old Testament – a late Bronze Age work of literature as some see it, or the words of God according to others – and the legend of Adam and Eve and the Temptation, snakes have had a bad time through the ages… through no fault of their own. The sin of the original apocryphal snake has been visited upon them for millennia.

Even as a child I felt sorry for the snake… that he got the blame, as well as Eve, for wanting to know… since I always wanted to know I couldn’t see what the problem was…

Many who’ve never touched a snake assume that it’s slimy… but it isn’t…its skin is dry and supple, and when it loses its skin this has become a metaphor for spiritual transformation for those who can accept the snake as an innocent creature who only bites when attacked, and for the most part lies curled up in beautiful sinuous folds and curves. Different species have exquisite markings and colours which is not surprising since they are a part of the glorious beauty of creation, and it’s not logical to exclude them on the strength of the ancient and apocryphal story.

Other cultures untouched by Judaic snake prejudices have seen the snake as a healing symbol both in ancient Egypt and in Greece, where it was used as a symbol of healing, twined around the staff of Aesculapius, the god of medicine. Even the unprejudiced talk about our reptilian brain -the earliest part of our evolutionary growth – as having a rather unlovable set of qualities – the word reptilian evokes thoughts of coldness, calculation, and lack of emotion…

My dearest friend had a garter snake as a pet as a child. It lived in a terrarium, with stones and branches to give the snake a feeling of home from home. The lid was perforated with holes. My friend hadn’t realised that the snake was pregnant and it quickly gave birth to lots of small four inch long baby snakes. The mother snake then did the most extraordinary thing.

She coiled herself around the branch, so that the top of her body and head reached the roof, making a bridge across the gap from the branch to the roof. Her babies then slithered up the branch and then up their mother’s body out into freedom and fresh air.

There was nothing reptilian about this amazing behaviour, it was pure unconditional mother love, combined with incredible intelligence and imagination. She knew that freedom for her children lay beyond the roof of her prison, and she worked out the way for them all to escape. They all disappeared before my friend had time to prevent their exodus from the snake pit or catch any.

I used to think that eels were a branch of snake species, but they are actually fish. When my grandsons were seven and eight, a river ran past the bottom of our garden, and one day they announced they wanted to go fishing. I found some bamboo poles, and string, and we tied some scraps of bacon on the end of the string, and off they went.

They came back shortly after, bursting with excitement … a couple of eels had come and eaten the bacon. So they wanted more of course. We tied a chicken carcase to the string, thinking it would last them forever. But to their delight, not one, not two, but thirteen eels appeared from beneath stones and rocks and the over- hanging river bank.

Every time the children went down to the river with their fish food supplies (my bacon bill soared during their stay) the eels appeared as if from no-where. They were all sizes from eighteen inches to more than four feet. How did they know… how did the message pass downstream or upstream that the goodies were on offer again.

Eels are still one of nature’s unsolved mysteries… after fourteen or more years, depending on whether they are male or female, the full- grown New Zealand eels return to their breeding grounds, there to spawn and die. No-one knows where these breeding grounds are, though they think it may be near New Caledonia. Having spawned, the eels die, and their progeny, armed with their inherited memory or instinct, set off on the long journey back to where their parents came from. They begin life as larvae, then grow into tiny glass eels, which finally mature into elvers – young eels. These young eels are capable of making their way up waterfalls to reach their ancestral homes. And there they stay until they hear the call to go back to their spawning ground and pass on new life.

My grandsons were so entranced by our eels, that when I found an extraordinary story about a German eel, I made one of those grandmotherly illustrated letters telling them the tale. A German father caught an eel, and brought it home alive, intending to kill it and serve it up as fresh eel. But his children raised such a clamour, that he put off the evil day and popped it in the bath over-night. And there it stayed, for 25 years until someone dobbed them in with the local animal protection society.  He was called Elie.

When anyone wanted a bath, they simply put a bucket in the water and Elie would swim into it and lie coiled up until he was lowered back into the bath and could swim out again. By the time he was discovered, the children had long gone, but there can be no doubt that he must have felt loved, by that peculiar osmosis that other creatures have and we can only guess at.( You’d have to love him to live with an eel in your bath for twenty five years !) I never heard the end of the story – whether he had been separated from the people he knew and loved, and sent off to swim in strange cold waters or not….

The most unbelievable and beautiful story about an eel and love is contained in this one minute video below:
http://www.wimp.com/befriendeel/#comments

If this isn’t love, then as Shakespeare wrote:
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Food for threadbare gourmets
One of my closest friends and neighbours is a Frenchwoman, and we spend long satisfying hours talking about food. We both love making soups out of nothing, having kept in the fridge all the stock our vegetables were boiled in.

I made such a soup last night. I had a big dollop of cauliflower cheese left over, not enough for another meal, so I thought it would be a good start for one of these soups… I gently fried in butter some chopped onions, a stick of chopped celery, the heads of the green leaves from two leeks, a grated carrot and a couple of garlic cloves.

When they were soft, I added the cauliflower cheese, the stock, a chicken bouillon cube, salt and pepper, and gently brought it to the boil. When it was soft I whizzed it with the whizz stick, but still left plenty of texture. With some good bread I made croutons in olive oil and with a sprinkling of parmesan, and a dash of cream it was a light satisfying supper.
Food for thought
Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgement, self-abuse and regret.      Miguel Ruiz

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Following your bliss

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Follow your bliss, urged the great Joseph Campbell – this used to sound like heaven. Just doing everything you wanted!

Later – just slightly wiser- I supposed this heaven was probably self-actualization – which always sounded like one step below enlightenment, both impossible goals for the likes of me. But then I discovered that self-actualisation was not quite the Everest I had thought.

It was the need to be good, to be fully alive and to find meaning in life – according to Abraham Maslow, one of the grandfathers of personal growth. And yet according to him, all other needs like food, love etc had to be fulfilled before achieving the nirvana of being a free person – another ringing phrase of personal growth.

Research suggests that when people live lives which are different from their true nature and capabilities, they are less likely to be happy than those whose goals and lives match. So pursuing the elusive goal of this self-realisation means we feel more creative and happier, more ‘fully alive’, and ‘find meaning in life’.

And yet it seems to me that happiness isn’t the whole story, and fulfilling our needs isn’t either. Great souls like Nelson Mandela and Victor Frankl have been called self-actualising, and yet their needs can hardly be said to have been met in prison or concentration camp. But their capacity for living, love and forgiveness, wisdom and insight seem more saintly and more profound than the stories of many saints.

They both, like other so- called self-actualisers, had accepted who they were and where they were, and made the best of it, in giant, heroic terms. But self- actualising isn’t just for the heroic and the saintly, I discover, but can be for all of us. Maslow described the fulfilment of following such a path and as I understand it, his description of life as a fully- realised person would be something like this:
We would experience life like a child, with full absorption and concentration and joy and we’d try new things instead of sticking to safe paths; we’d listen to our feelings and inner voice instead being victim to habit and the voice of tradition, authority or the majority.

We’d dare to be ourselves – authentic, in Maslow’s word- and avoid pretence (‘game playing’). And we’d have the courage be unpopular if we didn’t agree with the views of the majority.

We’d take responsibility and work hard; and try to identify our ego defences and be brave enough to give them up, meaning to be honest with ourselves. This also means being vulnerable, which I don’t think Maslow mentions, but this to me, means having the courage to be tender and open hearted and to develop the capacity to feel deeply.

Apart from knowing that we are following our spiritual destiny in becoming the whole person we can be, the rewards seem to be a deeper enjoyment and engagement in life, a profound appreciation of the goodness of life, and therefore less stress and anxiety, and a genuine trust, in Mother Julian’s words, that all will be well.

It sounds like something we could all do, though when we have commitments to children, those duties have to be honoured first … otherwise becoming self – realised can seem more like self-centredness! Hindus recognise this stage of life as ‘householder’, before seeking their own ‘liberation’.

Those making this pilgrimage towards wholeness and authenticity often find that the path to freedom is not an easy one. That road less travelled may be pitted with puddles and pain-filled treks. And the person who’s throwing off the shackles of duty and listening to their inner voice may often be misunderstood or misinterpreted.

The stars that kept me on track as I have tried to walk this way were actually words from the sages and poets – and I have clung to them. From Ibsen’s belief in our ‘sacred duty’ to ourselves, to T.S. Eliot’s dictum that it is not our business what other people think of us, the words of literature – the logbook of the human race as one writer put it – pointed the way.

Trying to become a free person, letting go old self-defeating patterns of doubt and distrust, old fears – those critical inner voices that don’t serve us – means changing many things in our lives and in ourselves … and it’s not always obvious where this is taking us. Werner Erhard once said confusion led to a higher state of consciousness, a belief I have clung to, hoping it to be true!

These transitions take trust and courage and a belief in the goodness of Life. And I am learning that we have to listen to the voice of life and not be tempted by the easy way out – and never settle for less. To reach the end of our days and to realise that we had settled for less, for the sake of pleasing others or making life easier for ourselves, would be the ultimate betrayal of the gift of life.

Loyal, loving friends support us – where would we be without our friends? But in those dark moments which we all have to endure alone when we try to walk this path, the words of Oriah Mountain Dreamer can sustain us.

She wrote: “I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself. If you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your own soul. If you can be faithless and therefore trustworthy.” (Warning : this hurts !) One friend said to me: “I feel stripped”, as she picked her painful way along the path. And it’s only by staying fully conscious and hanging on to all our reserves of courage that we can reach the end of this road victoriously.

When we strike out, off the beaten track, it can push the buttons of others, living safe conventional lives, sticking to conservative values, and maybe not wanting to tread any but the known way – and maybe feeling uncomfortable when confronted with uncertainty or risk.

But to be free is to stride fearlessly into and through a cloud of unknowing – as the beautiful, extraordinary and self – actualised Helen Keller amazingly said: ‘If life is not an adventure then it is nothing at all’. So like so many others, I have had to step out of my constricted and uncomfortable comfort zone in order to be free. And just as Eliot said it’s not our business what others think of us, so he might also have said that we cannot expect to be understood either.

The words of another poet, Montrose, encourage travellers to find the courage to take what seem like huge steps into the unknown with his words:
He either fears his fate too much,
Or his deserts are small,
That puts it not unto the touch
To win or lose it all…

And so though while we are in process, we may think we have lost all to win all – or maybe in the words of the Spanish proverb – have taken what we wanted and paid for it – freedom is worth the price. It’s freedom from self-limiting beliefs and doubts and from compromising with our own truth and inner knowing. It’s daring to open our hearts, do the unthinkable, find new ways of being, connect with the beating heart of the world and know that when we take these terrible risks, somehow the universe supports us.

So yes, such a life is an adventure, and also laughter and love and truth and beauty, friends and fun. And now I think this is what Joseph Campbell may have meant when he said follow your bliss.

Food for threadbare gourmets

I’ve sometimes thought I could/should write a cookery book called a million ways with chicken – an exaggeration perhaps – but not far off!
I love chicken recipes, and this one I acquired over forty years ago from Clement Freud (yes, Sigmund’s grandson) when he was in his heyday.
It’s a cold mousse, and you need eight ounces of cooked, chopped chicken, two ounces of butter, three eggs, three ounces of fresh white breadcrumbs, three table spoons of dry sherry, quarter of a pint of single cream, salt and nutmeg.
Melt the butter in a large basin over a pan of boiling water. Pour in the cream and breadcrumbs, salt and a good pinch of nutmeg and stir for about five minutes until the mixture thickens. Beat the eggs and sherry together, and add to the basin, followed by the chopped chicken.
Pour this mixture into a buttered soufflé dish, cover with foil and bake in a moderate oven until firm – about half an hour. Let it cool before serving. Freud recommends serving it with a slightly garlicky mayonnaise with mashed avocado added, and for a really creamy texture stirring in a stiffly beaten egg-white.
It’s all rather delicate and delicious.

 

Food for thought

“Nobody can give you the meaning of your life.
It is your life, the meaning has also to be yours.
Nobody except you can come upon it.
It is your life and it is only accessible to you.
Only in living will the mystery be revealed to you.”
-Rajneesh

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The world – our village

100_0841 - CopyWhenever we hear the sound of a helicopter circling overhead, we know that someone is in trouble in our little village. The helicopter lands on the school playing field, and the one in need is whisked away to hospital.

Last year it rescued an elderly resident who’d slipped down a cliff, the year before, a village teenager with broken legs and arms after coming off his new motor cycle.

This time it was a profound tragedy when a young mother was suddenly rushed to hospital with a killer illness that struck out of the blue, and who only lived for another two hours. Everyone wants to surround the family and the small children with love and care and food and anything that would assuage the grief that can never be assuaged.

That’s how a village works. When I had a car accident many years ago, the family were swamped with food and help both while I was in hospital and afterwards. My daughter- in- law has the beautiful knack of creating a village wherever she lives or works, whether it’s a block of flats and her work place in London, or her suburban street and her children’s school here in New Zealand.

I’ve often wondered how she does it… I think it’s a mixture of care, interest in everyone around her, a willingness to become involved with their lives, and a sense of responsibility to the world and to her neighbours, however you define neighbour. And tolerance.

I think of other villages where those were the things that not only defined the village but made them unique, and two spring to mind immediately.
At a time when France allowed over 80,000 Jewish men, women and children to be deported to concentration camps, the community of Le Chambon- sur- Lignon in France hid some thousands throughout the war. This tiny community of only several thousand themselves, took Jewish children and families into their homes, and though most were poor, and hard put to feed themselves, they fed and protected their charges throughout the years of Nazi occupation.

No-one was ever turned away. The Germans knew this was happening and several times tried to intimidate the villagers and their leader, Pastor Andre Trocme, arriving with buses to take the Jews away. Whenever the Germans came, the villagers hid their refugees in the forest, and when the Germans had left the villagers would go into the forest, and sing a song. The Jews would then emerge from their hiding place and go back to their homes in the village.

Later one of the villagers said: “We didn’t protect the Jews because it was moral or heroic, but because it was the human thing to do”.

One other village in Occupied Europe also did this human thing. In the tiny village of Nieuwlande in the Netherlands, every one of the one hundred and seventeen villagers took a Jewish person or family into their home and kept them safe throughout the Nazi occupation. The pastor’s son, Arnold Douwe was the moving force behind this act of compassion and unbelievable courage.

The people in both villages showed incredible moral and heroic fortitude, not just for a day or a week or a year, but for years, never knowing how long their ordeal would last. Philosophers may argue about whether altruism exists, but as far as this naive human being is concerned, this was altruism of the highest order.

These apparently ordinary people put themselves and their families in mortal danger, and coped with daily drudgery too – would you want the inconvenience of sharing your home with strangers indefinitely? They did this for no reward except for knowing they had done their best for other human beings, and in doing so were themselves truly human.

Such generosity and compassion in a community can still happen. We all saw on the news the loving welcome the people of Germany offered to the tragic human beings who arrived on their doorstep in the last few days, after their months of unfathomable misery and un-imaginable hardship.

The heart-rending picture of one small boy lying dead on a sunny beach has reached the hearts of most people in the world, and shown us once again that we really are a village. The actions of western governments and power plays of western nations have destroyed these decent, ordinary people’s lives and countries, their towns and their villages. So now perhaps it’s time for the world to remember that it is a global village, and to show with action the loving compassion of village life in societies all over the world.

Maybe every village in the western world could pledge to share their peace and plenty with a refugee family…

And maybe, like Cecil the Lion, whose cruel and untimely death raised the consciousness of the world about the value and nobility of animals, these terrible scenes of refugees struggling to find safety and peace for their children, will raise the consciousness of the world too. These lines of exhausted refugees, and frail boats filled with desperate families, sinking in the sea, are reminding us of our common humanity.

They are reminding us of all that we have in common – love for our families, a love of peace, a longing for freedom, enough food, and education for our children – blurring the lines of division, whether race, religion, nationality or gender.
These strange times could be a turning point in the history of the world if we could use this crisis as an opportunity to bury our differences, and work for a common cause… which is peace on earth and goodwill to all men, women and children.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

One of my favourite dishes is risotto, and I have lots of variations. This one is a very subtle version, using leeks instead of onions. Rinse and chop two medium leeks very finely and gently cook them in butter. Don’t let them brown, as they will turn bitter. When soft stir in a cup of risotto rice, I use arborio, and then a glass of white wine or Noilly Prat.
Let it boil up until the alcohol has evaporated, and then add the hot chicken stock in the usual way. When cooked, stir in a knob of butter and four tablespoons of grated parmesan.
Meanwhile grill six rashers of streaky bacon or pancetta if you have it, cut it into small pieces, and when the rice is cooked, stir them into the mix, and serve with more parmesan.

 

Food for thought

Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible. Dalai Lama

 

 

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