Tuesday, 29 April 2008

If you turn off the A14...

Hunched up at a crowded desk, cupping a Nescafe, I write from the computer of my host for the night: a B&B owner! Yes, I have succombed to its cosy tug. I couldn't do another night of suppering/talking before spending an evening of just laying still and staring into space (or Gok Wan as the case may be).

Of late the trip has spiralled down a particularly boozy path. I don't even drink that much in London anymore but this tour has all the signs of the first day of a holiday...every single night. Which feels great but which doesn't aid my productivity on paper, so I sought a B&B with wi-fi. The only thing is that the stone walls here are so darn thick that I've had to gravitate towards the radar which brings me in here, crashing on Bev and Tim's cosy night in front of the telly.

So there are many tales to tell from just near Northants. but I'll have to wait until I'm somewhere quieter, where my ears aren't constantly pricking up at the talk behind me of tombolas and cake stalls and Maypoles.

What I can say however, is that today I met two real life witches. Proper, straight-up, bona fide women that ride broomsticks and cast spells.

More soon I promise - even if I do nothing else tomorrow I'm finding a wi-fi zone that likes my laptop.

Supper # 9 - Knowl Hill, Berks.

Fraught and reckless, I rocked out of Asthall after a day of baking. If I could manage my time better I would be on fire. I need to approach time better and not to watch it, aghast, as it falls in between my fingers like oil. I wanted to stay for weeks and catch up with myself; I always want to catch up with myself. The friction made my belly burn.

But off I went and as soon as I was on the open road a calm enveiled me. It is easy, even within the constant newness of the tour, to feel afraid of it; to still want to cling to that which I already know. But on leaving the known I am fine. I take the A40 by storm - Jimmy roaring at 65mph, Desmond Decker singing sweet, pud for the night sat on the passenger seat and nibbling away at the huge bag of green raisins I bought in my efforts to eat better. Because, though I'm eating like a queen most nights, I'm not actually eating any fruit. At all.

THE SET UP: Madeleine was one of the first to stand up and say 'hell yeah!' to having me over for supper. She e-mailed me with all sorts of exciting sounding options and I was hooked. She and her husband bought the house she grew up in. They got married a year ago and live there with a couple of cats. The house reminds me of Jo Carter's, scene of all my early initiation into teen-age parties. It casts the same kind of spell on me from its low ceilings and dark beams and soon enough the wine is really flowing.

They've decided to have an indoor English picnic and have invited two other couples for the event. Everyone is dressed up - if not to the nines then at least with a bit of make-up / fresh shirt. I meanwhile, am still in my tracksuit with my make-up bag too out of reach to bother with. I don't think they care - they're all too excited about the pud and the trip and coming up with ideas. I like them all immediately and really enjoy myself. Madeleine hands me a glass of English wine and then a Pimms. The flow of conversation and wine are at even stevens.

WHO CAME: Madeleine & Dan + two other young couples and I.

WHAT WE ATE: Lots of picnic food without actually going outside (too nippy): tricolore salad, roast chicken with garlic mayo, boiled potatoes, prosciutto, chorizo, ham, chips & dips and bread. Dan is wine mad and keeps pulling bottles from the fridge. Before long a murky, stanky-danky bottle of chilli Absolut turns up. I can't say no. I can never say no. My mouth riots. Then comes some dandelion wine made in the year of my birth. If I was ever going to say no to anything it wouldn't be this; I want to know what 1975 tastes like. It is grassy and bucolic. It is a roll in the hay then a tumble in the hedgerows. It tastes like summer.

DINNER TABLE TOPICS: Chocolate! How much they all like it and what their favourites are. Like most people, none of them know much about chocolate but I humour them when Galaxy's are mentioned. We talk about wormeries, recycling, local dogging spots and Walsall. I want to go there like woah and I get given a contact in Walsall Bus Station: amazing. Reality TV and documentaries - Dawn Does... which I've never heard of. Nor the Red Paper Clip thing, nor the 80 Dates idea. I wonder what the hell I've been watching if not these.

THE PUD: I was told at the last minute that one of the guests is gluten-free. No problem - a sunken chocolate mousse cake is born. Almost like a baked chocolate mousse but with the magic crackle of a brownie on top. The cake gets devoured in moments. They love it. We all love it. Its density and smooth darkness takes us There.

MY BED FOR THE NIGHT: After giving them all a tour of the van/putting on the chimes/turning on the neon lights/playing shop, the guests leave. I've had a few and must get up early for the brewery. I sleep very soundly in the sloping room. I still continue to be amazed at the hospitality I have encountered and I am getting used to sleeping in a different bed every night.

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Supper # 8 - Asthall, Oxfordshire

A gentle rumble along the back lanes from Beckley to Asthall, via Witney and Waitrose...a sunny, wistful, poignant Oxfordshire afternoon - and reminiscent of one of my favourite poems, Adlestrop by Edward Thomas.

Village greens and St Georges flags still blowing. Idly flapping really. Bucket-like valleys containing a jumble of 1950s houses, Cotswold stone cottages, hay bales and farm machinery. I stop at every opportunity to stagger down ditches and into bluebell woods. I want to lie down amongst them and have a lazy time...but I have to be in Witney to meet Annie from the school bus and then on to the magic of Asthall Manor.

THE SET UP: Rosie and her daughters Annie and Dora moved here from Green Island, Jamaica 10 years ago. The house used to belong to the Mitfords and 'Love in a Cold Climate' was written here. It's the kind of place you could imagine writing a book. I say this all the time, I realise, but there is something soft and enveloping about being within those ancient, besieged walls. The rest of the world could fall away, clearing the path for the mind to run wild.

We cooked together around the enormous block of a table in the cavernous kitchen. Rosie threw together a vegetable risotto with bright green pea puree while I pottered about looking for implements to make the chocolate mousse. I found myself surrounded by bottles of liquor - rums and brandies, Pimms and gin...and a dazzling bullet of creme de Cassis. Rosie pounced on it and quickly paired it up with some chilled prosecco - great glugs of this dark and delicious syrup went into each glass and the result had something of the Prohibition era about it. Special.

WHO CAME: Rosie, Annie and moi.

WHAT WE ATE: Glossy tomato salad sprinkled with oregano from the garden, frilly frisee salad, a pea risotto, studded with St. Augur cheese and baked Seabass with lemon - the perfect (almost) summer supper.

THE PUD: I wanted to make something non-dairy because Annie doesn't get on so well with it. This recipe jumped out at me when I was in Waitrose: ginger chocolate mousse I often pick up those cards in the store but never make them. This mousse is good but not sensational. I prefer my mousse to have lots of whipped cream in and, no offense to G&B, next time I'll use a really decent chocolate and add pounded stem ginger separately. The raspberries looked pretty but really didn't taste of much (Waitrose again) and I still struggle with the old fruit + chocolate issue....unless it's banana or orange.

DINNER TABLE TOPICS: Annie went to bed pretty early. She's under the thumb of her A-levels and so, for once it was great to have a proper ole one-to-one: Rosie's sculpture exhibition in the garden, Jamaican-English marriages, quite a lot of personal stuff, confessions, admissions, laughter and tears. A friend of hers turned up with a crashing bore from Hungary, but it didn't matter because she was riveting! We all sat agog as she recounted the tale of the goalie for the Punjabi football team who she chased across India and who has just showed up in England, years later. I tell her I want to meet a miner on my travels and she immediately pulls one out of the bag. Roll on Middlesborough!

MY BED FOR THE NIGHT: I could have spent the entire rest of my trip in there working my way through the bookshelves.

Friday, 25 April 2008

This w/e: Henley-on-Thames/Great Missenden

I'm in Asthall at the moment, staying in a house that looks like the one in Beauty and the Beast. It's magical. No rest for this little piggy though, off in a minute to Maidenhead for a supper and then tomorrow to Lovibonds Brewery.

Milwaukee Jeff made a special delivery to me yesterday of their Henley Dark beer, which I'm putting in the Guinness cupcakes for the occasion. It's going to be a special beer and chocolate matching day - we may even throw some into the malted milkshakes....come on down if you're in the area.

Or....Jimmy heads to his spiritual home-from-home at the Roald Dahl Museum in Great Missenden, Bucks on Sunday.

And then we're off - into the unknown wilderness of Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire where I still don't know where we're going to stay....!

In the shadow of Christchurch College

What a great view I had on Wednesday - looking onto the Oxford college...it's just a shame we were just round the corner from another Oxford institution, the G&D Ice Cream Cafe.

Oh well, it was fun to be there and the customers that I had proved good quality: students, town council members (thanks Kevin!), Japanese tourists, more students...

Thursday, 24 April 2008

No supper - Beckley Park

I used to come here as a child. The house belongs to a cousin of my mum's. My mother has some interesting family members - a clairvoyant/alcoholic aunt who lives in a hotel, peyote gatherers, monks, and one, a dwarf, who worked in a circus and ran off with the strong man, but it is at Beckley that resides the only one I know of who is into trepanning.

Amanda was away in Jamaica but I was looked after immaculately by everyone who works there. Down a winding path is a little wooden house which became my home for the next couple of nights. No heating and little hot water but total peace and tranquility. I relished the chance to just eat crumpets for supper. Both nights. And to read my book and write my journal - and take long walks round the ancient, beautiful garden.

Supper # 7 - Lambourn

I left the Peppercorns in Earnley, having spent a glorious day lounging around in the garden and munching on freshly baked focaccia with chorizo, salad, cheese and pates - my favourite kind of lunch. I had nowhere to go in Hampshire. I know it's time for me to break out and find some real live strangers on the road but....Sunday night before the schools went back just seemed like a strong excuse for delaying on it.

I headed north to Berkshire to find my old friends Mark and Lou and the three kids they've had since we last saw each other. I had no idea they lived right in the midst of horse country. I knew nothing of Lambourn or that it is akin to Newmarket for equine activity. Huge signs announced 'Home of the race horse - kill your speed' (if only this was my problem!) and jockeys gyrated past on great majestic thoroughbreds.

I arrived to find a great pot of chowder on the stove and a freshly baked loaf of tomato bread on a chopping board at the table. We had a fairly kid-chaos dinner then all paraded out to the van for some ice cream. I put on my Mrs Shop Keeper hat and the little guys approached the hatch to place their orders: mint choc crisp, chocolate and strawberry, whilst I was excited to try Lou's homemade plum ice cream.

I slept like a dream in Gus's bed that he'd given up for me and the next morning awoke with a mission: find a random supper invite! I headed into Lambourn whose rough side I'd been warned about. It's funny the way everyone seems to think that I only want to go to the 'nice' places, where foodies abound and farmers' markets flourish. That's not it at all. If someone tells me that a place is a bit dark or a bit freaky then I'm in like Flynn, eyes a-blazing!

In the Lambourn Co-op I met a guy by the custard. "Good afternoooon" he said lasciviously and I had to have a word with myself about how freaky I was prepared to go. Not as far as pursuing wilted old men with custard in their hand and custard down their front I decided. I moved on.

The Malt Shovel was said to be a hot-spot of different characters so I pulled in there. Five p.m and the car park looked busy. I walked in as purposefully as I could. They all seemed half dead. I made my way to the bar, said hi to the barmaid and got nothing back. That really annoys me. "Hi there" I said again in case she hadn't heard me before, a faint arching of the eyebrows and a tilt of the chin was about as much as I was going to get so I left it at that. She stood staring at me intently while I tried desperately to figure out what to drink. Her big, oafish figure bore down on me. I couldn't concentrate - "I don't know what I want yet" I said, i.e. back off so I can have a bit of space to figure this fricking conundrum out. "I'm just standin' here" she said in a broad Northern Irish accent. She said it like she'd happily kill me if she thought no one would notice. I held her stare and ordered defiantly: "Magners and a glass full of ice, please"and that was the end of our happy banter.

I left the pub with half of the bottle and trundled back to base camp. I'd met Lou's parents earlier who'd invited me to supper with all of them and I needed to get back and make some nice warming chocolate rice pudding.

THE SET UP: Lou's folks are farmers. Her dad used to deal in livestock but DEFRA has made it too difficult for him so he now farms corn only. I had only ever known him as 'Get off moi laand', Mark's nickname for him, now shortened to just 'Get off'. He's a massive choc fiend and I don't think Mrs Get off was that thrilled at the prospect of a further assault on his cholesterol levels. This was the first time I felt that I was imposing on a family's dietary regime.

WHAT WE ATE: Usually they don't have a pudding, unless they have guests. But the supper, which was enormous, happens every single night. Proper farmhouse food: roast duck (the classic white kind with the yellow bill, straight from the garden), bubble & squeak, leeks & peas, creamed beetroot, lashings of gravy. I stared at my plate in wonder, as in 'I wonder if I'm going to be able to finish this'. Alarmingly it barely touched the sides and I found further cause for concern at my growing tum.

WHO CAME: Lou, her three boys (Charlie, Gus and Joshie), Lou's folks and me. A stable girl from Lincs. was on hand to look after the kids.

DINNER TABLE TOPICS: Charity fundraisers for the Conservative Club; Lou's dad being charged by a cow "...so I shot the beast dead"; the lack of demand for sheep meat these days; how Barbours aren't really proper hunting gear (Plus-fours and tweed if you're keeping it real); that by 2050 there will be 70 million more mouths to feed on earth and what that's doing to the crop situation.

THE PUD: I took the steaming pot out of the oven and swirled some more chocolate into it. It was classic nursery food and went rather well with the rest of the supper, I thought. It tasted like a warmer, softer version of Coco Pops. The kids enjoyed it and Lou's dad loved it. I know he was longing for a bit more but had to keep it together for the sake of the old C-levels. I develop a soft spot for Lou's dad, even though I can't exactly understand what he's saying all the time.

He and his wife left us to it as soon as everything was put away and retired to the telly room. I found them in there, him with his cigar, her with her crossword puzzle. They may have had guests but there was no may in hell their nightly routine was going to be upset by the grandkids + extras. We walked down the hill to the house and lovely Lou helped me ut the finishing touches to the tour postcard.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Pre-fabs and council houses and Miami-style show homes

South of Chichester is the most beautiful beach - a great, crunchy swathe of shingle hemmed by wooly marshland and shimmering sea.

Then there are the architectural monstrosities...

But I'm always a sucker for anything that smacks of South Beach - especially if it's painted swimming pool tourquoise!


We bought a load of eggs - of all different shapes and sizes - from down the lane: 70p for six! The fox had been in last week and beheaded all of Fanny's hens, and her prized duck. That's the trick apparently - they sidle in, Ozzy-O the birds, then return to feast in peace once they've all stopped their squawking.

Anyway, here are the results of Frieda's beating together of the eggs. I've never made eclairs before and had assumed they'd be a number to deal with but the choux pastry is basically just a pumped up roux. The hard bit is beating the swollen dough - I don't know what the heck has happened to my scooping arm but it had better get into shape soon or things may fall to pieces inside the van come summer.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Oxford tomorrow

We're going to be in Oxford tomorrow - one of my favourite cities. Lovely Kevin Keating at the licensing dept. has found us a spot on the High Street, opposite the Lincoln Library. We'll be there all day so come grab a milkshake, bar of Willie's chocolate or some freshly rolled truffles...

Monday, 21 April 2008

Supper # 6 - Chichester

It drizzled with rain all day on Saturday. Fanny and I went to pick Frieda up from her sleepover and she and her friends poured themselves into the back of the car, variously chatting about teenage stuff. They seem so much younger than I remember feeling when I was sixteen. You think you have all the answers! I think Frieda is a lot less reckless than I was though. I recall many a night spent knocking back Cadbury’s Liqueur, followed by Scrumpy, followed by Malibu and pineapple, followed by unmentionable carnage. Frieda sticks sensibly to Pimms.

We got back to the cottage by the sea and dragged damp logs out of the garden to try and dry so we might make a fire and get a fug up in the chilliness. Boy was it cold. My blood must have thinned living in London and I threw on every warm item I’d packed. Frieda suggested hot chocolate – great. Then the word ‘soy milk’ got banded around and a look of horror took over my face. I declined politely, but when these steaming cups of dark delight paraded out from the kitchen I couldn’t resist a taste: far out – it was perfectly palatable and had I not known about the S-word I’m sure I’d never have guessed.

The hot chocolate triggered the need for more chocolate. We made éclairs. Real live proper éclairs. When the yellow little fingers of warmth and joy emerged from the oven we dunked them into melted chocolate and our eyes rolled back. Mustn’t eat them all! We cried and placed them in a tin for later.

Later was a take-it-to-them supper at Fanny’s friends Chris and Elizabet. We left the world of open fires and rickety old lanes and surged through the driving drizzle to a whole new scenario: leafy, suburban Chichester – and a great big hub of a family.

WHO CAME: Fanny, Frieda, Bea, me, C&E + two daughters - Steph (new mum) and Camille (studying for A-levels). I really adore this family. There is a harmoniousness about them that is kind of unusual. I almost assumed that Chris was a recent addition to the family because of how upbeat and unencumbered he seemed. Isn't that odd? That such a thing should seem unusual? The daughters are beautiful, easy-going girls who carry themselves in the same serene way as their mother.

WHAT WE ATE: The plan was that Fanny would make paella, I would make chocolate soufflés and that we would put the finishing touches to the éclairs as we went along. What transpired was a really great, lemony paella, groaning with plump prawns and bulbous mussels and then a total choc-load of dessert. No one really drank (baby/exams/driving/too young) but Chris, Fanny and I laid in to some nice chilled shez and then a bottle of burgundy.

DINNER TABLE TOPICS: Bananas, mainly. Chris is a major fruit supplier to Sainsbury and I happen to be on the look-out for 2000 of the blighters. I've been asked by Le SportSac to supply them with enough frozen choc-dipped nanas to get the message across to Pitchfork festi-goers that they're doing a collaboration with Stella McCartney. Chris fairly rose to the challenge and started punching numbers and weighing fruit....and then came out with the fascinating fact that bananas are a herb. !. Imagine that. Plus, there's been this gossip knocking around other dinner tables that marrow is just an overgrown zucchini which I just can't accept. And don't even get me started on what I've been hearing about pineapples...

THE PUD: Hot chocolate souffles. Frieda got fully involved and it was great having such a proactive sous chef. There's always such a hullabaloo about souffles - this preciousness and reverence - which I think doesn't help. It puts pressure on the pud to perform and inevitably it falls short. These ones did anyway. Next time I'm taking them out of the oven two mins earlier. However, you could have heard a pin drop whilst everyone was digging in...real, serious, almost eerie quiet.

MY BED FOR THE NIGHT: Chez Peppercorns with two hot waterbottles!!