It’s been a long, long time and it’s a rainy day in Bristol. It is also my birthday, a mid June day following on from a pretty damn good week weather wise. I am not reading anything personal into the change in the weather, but still.
Russell is in the US, trying to help find a pathway to a good living situation for his parents, whose current one has turned upside down due a a routine operation going wrong. Think domino effect which includes botched operation with side effects that will need another operation, infection, loss of use of one leg, broken foot, pulmonary emobolism. With his brother Scott, Russell is facing the rigid, heartless corporate business that is US healthcare and elder care system. Ours here in the UK may not be, and in fact simply isn’t, perfect, but for the time being it isn’t considered solely a means to make money out of those in need. I miss him, particularly today because he so good at birthdays, but, first blessing is that Russell’s parents, Katherine and Harley, have Russell and Scott to help them navigate this scary path, and that we have enough money/credit to get him there.
I complain (constantly some might say) about my aches, pains, strange growths (new one on middle finger of left hand – really weird) and general misery of ageing. Today I am 55, but am only going to admit to 52. I do have a lot of aches and pains, it is true. The mirror doesn’t reflect the person that I think I look like. My boobs are heading south at a speed I find very shocking. I have baggy knees. I could go on, but hell, you’ve heard it all before. Blessing two is that I am still able to walk, if not run (no bra can facilitate that, let alone these poor old hips), occasionally dance, work, play, use my imagination and best of all still drink quantities of fine wine.
I watched a couple of acceptance speeches at the Glamour awards (no idea these even existed and feel sure I should be on the guest list) today, first by Jennifer Saunders, introduced by Dawn French (natch), and then one by Susan Sarandon. Sweary words, fuck, cunt, and some others, were liberally sprinkled throughout. One could pick apart use of feminine genitals being used as a swear word or insult, but not today. I liked seeing these women, of about my age, looking amazing, taking credit, giving credit, honouring female friendships, being really funny and SO confident in their own skins. Blessing three is these women and all my female friends who give me so much strength, hilarity and warmth.
I spoke to my Mum two days ago. She is in Yorkshire, age 88 (or maybe 89, I lose track, its a lot of years). She is painting a picture currently, using oil paints to paint what sounds like a kind of surreal, collagey, Fauvist style picture. I could be completely wrong about that, and will wait until I see it to confirm either way. I said ‘it sounds fabulous’ to which she responded ‘it would be if I was a good painter’. She is a good painter, could possibly have been great in another life. One of the reasons she is painting in oils is because she can do it as and when she feels like it without danger of it drying out too quickly. Hugely practical approach as always. Mum also carves wood, does tapestry, writes, enjoys concerts, films, travelling, making bread and being at home with her companion, dearest person and late life partner Nancy. Blessing four is my Mum and her good (relatively) health.
Apologies for this sounding like a hallmark card. I’m going to stop with the blessings thing now.
Are you an inny or an outy? I’m an inny for the record. I have my reasons.
I am watching three sparrows paddling in a puddle on my neighbour’s flat roof, splashing and flapping wings, in and out. That just has to be for fun – mesmerising and very sweet.
I am going shopping now, for exotic bath oil, smelly candles and maybe a home electrolysis kit for my incipient beard (pennies to shop with blessing five, marred only slightly by beard issue).
Over and out.
This isn’t going to be one of those love is… you can tell a real friend … load of bollocks that seems to constipates social media these days, I promise.
I came to musing on this subject triggered by re-visiting an office I used to work in in a previous life, at the very fine Better Food Company. That job, answering phones and taking orders for organic veg boxes and morphing into a marketing position over the years, came at a time in my life when my resources, emotionally and financially, were very low following a major bereavement. It was a time for healing, re-thinking, starting over. It coincided with a new beginning for the Better Food Co as well. They had just moved in an enormous shell of a building which occupied three floors, empty and grubby, with us and our phones at one end of the top floor, wholesale on the ground floor and the shop in the street level bit.
The view from our floor was wonderful, very urban and gritty, big, somewhat dirty windows revealing the beating heart of St. Werburghs long before it started its upward social climb. The other end of our floor was still empty and I would go there sometimes, leaving my desk with no explanation, to sit and cry. It’s not often that someone who is grieving has the space, literally as well as with the tacit understanding of others, to do something like that. I was sad when we moved down the dark, dingy office next to the shop on the street level, but the building had started filling up with other tenants, and it started buzzing with industry – it felt alive with promise. The gin palace across the road started doing roaring trade in organic gin, stolen from the shop, along with the bacon butty van and their stolen organic bacon – the area was on the rise and no mistake. The shop carried on, security got a bit tighter, we in the office made some order out of the business of buying and selling organic food, and friendships became sealed.
It was Amy who stood out among them for me. Amy who wore trousers under her skirt way before it was fashionable, refused to shave her legs just to conform with society’s narrow expectations, who wrapped enormous home knitted scarves around her neck and wore fingerless gloves on cold days at the keyboard (and there were many cold days in that unheated little hive of industry). We would sometimes share my enormous duvet coat, until I took it to a dry cleaners where they dyed it purple and shrank to the size of a barbie doll. Amy who came from the heat of Australia to sit and share stories and food at our chilly desks, cobble together ideas and tasks to help this company we worked for and loved to grow, tactfully attempting to reign in some of the more insane ideas from our boss (who was also my brother) who we loved, admired and were exasperated by in equal measure. Amy who was part of the most monumental job of logging every single item in the shop and stores onto an epos system, who laughed and teased Mark about his waste bin full of apple cores and fruit flies (not as picturesque as it sounds) and helped bring the Better Food Company into the 21st Century. Amy with whom I went** on a late, winter evening search for the main post office depot, getting lost more than once, so we could get the Christmas newsletter and order forms for turkeys and trimmings in the last possible post before it would all be too late and Christmas would be ruined and life as we knew it would end.
Then one day Amy said she was leaving. It was around the time that I too was due to leave to start the now *world famous (*people in Canada know of it so it’s technically true) Folk House Cafe. I don’t actually remember who said it first, but I think it was her. She was heading home.
We had a farewell lunch, Amy, me and the boss man. I felt sad but also joyful and hopeful for her and her new life. I also knew the likelihood of ever seeing her again was pretty slim. This was the dark ages, before facebook, when mobile phones were just that so contact was thereafter was spasmodic and via email, and eventually there was silence. I know what you might be thinking at this point. Getting the tissues ready. Well, don’t worry, there is no sad ending to this tale.
With the age of social media and the click of a mouse came news of Amy, in a far away land that isn’t Australia, hanging out with a man in a sarong and with a baby on her hip. We swapped messages but Amy isn’t a prolific fb user so we just keep watch over each other’s lives and that’s a good way to be.
So, there I was, back in that office to pick up keys so I could borrow their van and move a pizza oven, like you do of a Thursday, and there was our corner, not much changed, a bit cleaner maybe, staffed by others now. I sent Amy this:
“Amy Musgrove recognise this place??? Many hours of pain and joy spent here! Xxx”
And she responded:
“In a heartbeat, Betty Boo, how could I ever forget?! Having to go driving in the car with **heated seats and your doona jacket over our knees when our fingers couldn’t type anymore and our breath was clear on the frosty air. Smartened it up a bit since our times!! SO THRILLED it’s survived, and thrived. Enjoy the snippets FB gives me into your world, and LOVE LOVE LOVE Betty bites….more please. Love you. xxxxx”
And so this Betty Bites entry is for you Amy. Love you too!
** yes, my car had heated seats. There is nothing like it on this earth, except maybe an electric blanket. When the car died I asked the garage who bought it’s remains if they could give me the seats, but they seemed to think not. Sad face.
Crikey, it was May, now it’s the end of August. Somewhere between I have carried on doing what I do, and having a pretty good time doing that. I think. I can’t actually remember.
Here are some things that I do remember in no particular order.
I saw my beloved friend Maire who stayed for a weekend and brought sunshine and jollity in to the house as always; Russell and I have hosted many airb&b guests, lots from France plus 2 sets of Kate and James’, consecutively; we also welcomed the lovely George (new associate director at Bristol Old Vic) to stay and he is now practically family; Russell and I went to Edinburgh and saw lots of family, art, theatre and Juliet Binoche, like you do; lovely extended family wedding in Surrey (had forgotten how beautiful that county is); I became a signed up member of the re-hab gym and can now do 45 forward extensions without dying (started at 10 and thought I was going to expire right there);
I had my birthday and Russell had his four days later (we do this every year); we celebrated our third wedding anniversary. Obviously I continued to work etc all the while, yada yada.
I am currently sitting at the kitchen table of the little Pembrokeshire hideaway, recently returned to us by a longish term tenant (and now available to all family and friends who wish to use it).
It is lovely to be back here, and because the café is shut this week for our annual hols (skipadee!) I am here on my own to bash our second and most wonderful Café Cook Book. So I am writing my blog, doing yoga, dusting corners, planning lunch… Truthfully though it is coming together well, and I am happy with progress so far – hopefully it will be done in time for Christmas (shhhh…).
It is raining, of course, with intermittent sunny spells, it is summer after all. I don’t care because I am very busy writing. And picking the beans that the tenant kindly left growing for us and buying eggs from the farm next door (they are really good).
That’s it. Watch out for the book and then BUY IT please. Over and out.
I’d like to say I have been so busy that I simply haven’t had a minute to regale you, my loyal reader, with my doings since March. I will say that vis á vis last post my buns turned out nothing like the picture but we will move swiftly on from there.
I have been working hard as it happens, seeing lovely people, dealing with family life and strife, you know, as you do. Alongside this I have decided to become my own project. We all like a project don’t we? You start with a problem, or situation and make a plan which will take you toward a hoped for outcome.
So, Project Betty.
Age 53 (and 11 months and 341 days)
Physical state – medium to crap
Dodgy back (cronic), dodgy hips, feel 107 on a bad day, 102 on a good day, dodgy left knee, clenched jaw due to stress resulting in fractured tooth, menopausal = desiccating all over, over weight (obese if you believe those BMI chart thingys), ex-thyroid = unstable hormonal balance, energy no where to be found.
Mental state – wobbly
Dealing with best beloved son’s not so straight and narrow pathway into adulthood – best hope is he makes it in one piece (hope, wings and prayers come to mind); unresolved childhood issues (oh, come on, everyone has them); confusion and lethargy; money worries, future stuff like where and how we will live (no pension, nothing, nada).
Life state – middling to really-pretty-good-Betty-get-a-grip
Lovely and comfortable home, business finally moving in right direction, supportive and loving husband, son alive and trying hard to get life together, family of nice and interesting people, good friends about me, good food on my table (possibly a little too much sometimes, but it’s organic, even if it is ice cream, quite often…).
So far I have done:
Therapy, yoga, pilates, acupuncture* and now chiropractic** treatment (chiropracticy?).
Back issues slowly, slowly, slowly being resolved (after much £’s and time I might add)
After chiropractic course I am being sent down into the basement to join the rehab gym. Makes me feel modern to say I am going to rehab. It should be the thing which finally makes my back better, and, if I keep it up, stay that way.
Lose weight. How? Thinking of taking up running and doing a half marathon (I’m not completely stupid and understand that a whole marathon is sadly beyond any abilities I may have now or in the future) in the autumn. Anyone got any thoughts on this? I am not a natural runner, boobs are too big for a start so it can be very painful if right bra not purchased for small fortune. Also, I don’t like it. BUT. I don’t like needles* or cracking bones** and I have managed to get over that.
Anyway, here is recipe for a really utterly delicious Caesar Salad Dressing that will make you thinner.
2 cloves of garlic peeled and smushed
3 anchovy fillets (marinated ones – if you only have salted give them quick rinse first)
2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1 cup low fat plain yoghurt
juice of half a lemon
1 handful grated parmesan cheese
salt & black pepper as you like
Method by hand –
Bash the garlic and anchovies to buggery with a pestle and mortar or sturdy wooden spoon, then mix thoroughly with all other ingredients.
Food processor method –
Whizz all together – boom, job done.
You can add about 2 table spoons of lovely olive oil into the mix if you like (I like), but it won’t help the thinness factor. Also croutons don’t help thinness factor either but I can’t eat Ceasar Salad without croutons, just don’t see the point, hence not being thin. Sigh.
This was inspired by a Jamie Oliver recipe, I admit it, credit where its due.
I’m quite often hot and cross, more often due to the menopause than baking deliciously spiced buns, cakes or fragrant breads for others to eat. However, we have reached the time of year when it is incumbent on me to bake some Hot Cross Buns for our beloved customers (and of course my own beloved), it being close to Easter (wasn’t Christmas only 5 minutes ago?) and that time when we all make traditional food with no idea why the tradition is there since we are all pagans and atheists these days.
Baking these gorgeous cushions of delicious doughiness makes me happy, not cross. Most forms of baking make me happy actually, it is incredibly therapeutic and you get to eat the results. Which obviously means eating baked goods quite a lot when I have been on a roll (s’cuse the pun) at the cafe, and soon thereafter comes promises to self never to eat any more cake/ice cream/chips/mayonnaise and all other things that make life worth living again, ever. It’s a circular thing, I get over it.
Just FYI, the hot cross bun’s story goes back to pagan times and was apparently a tribute to Eostre, the Saxon goddess of light. The buns were baked to ‘mark the return of the dominance of light following the vernal equinox’. Easter clearly led to the Christianised ‘Easter” but was probably derived from the goddess Hausos, of the dawn, who was associated with fertility linked with rabbits and eggs. And so now of course we know which came first. The egg. And the rabbit. The cross on the bun was adopted by the Christians, in that clever way they had, but was actually a Celtic cross with equal length bars representing the intersection of earth (the horizontal line) and Heaven (the vertical line), the human and divine. So it can be all things to all anybodies, and no need to get into a pucker about whether you are going to be hauled into the local parish church and charged with satanism for making your crosses out of icing instead of tasteless pastry either. Apparently some people used to nail them to the walls as well, for luck, or something. Never can tell about people.
This is a recipe I have found by Richard Bertinet, which I think looks perfect, mostly because there is rum involved. I am going to make these little darlings, so if you do too please let me know how you get on. (I found it on a site that also had a bit about Raymond Blancs kitchen secrets – don’t get me started, his biggest secret is how to sell out while still appearing smug and saint like. CANNOT bear him). By the way if you don’t have a mixer, or dough hook if you do have a mixer, don’t panic. Use your hands, the best tools in any cook’s drawer (erm…) as almost said by brother chef Barny, and never mind the speeding up and slowing down thing, mix the ingredients in the bowl and then tip out onto a floured surface and get kneading.
0.5 tsp Mixed spice
80 g (2.8oz) Mixed peel
180 g (6.3oz) Currants or sultanas
250 ml (8.8fl oz) Full-fat milk
3 Large eggs
60 g (2.1oz) Unsalted butter, diced
500 g (17.6oz) Strong bread flour
2 tbsp Caster sugar
20 g (0.7oz) Fresh yeast
0.25 tsp Salt
100 g (3.5oz) Plain flour – for the cross paste
1 Pinch of salt – for the cross paste
1 tsp Vegetable oil – for the cross paste
100 g (3.5oz) Sugar – for the rum sugar syrup glaze
100 ml (3.5fl oz) Water – for the rum sugar syrup glaze
2 tbsp Dark rum – for the rum sugar syrup glaze
1. First make the cross paste. Sift the flour into a bowl. Add the salt and oil, then add 4 tbsp water a little at a time to form a paste that can be piped. Set aside until required.
2. To make the buns, put the mixed spice, mixed peel and currants or sultanas into a bowl and set aside. Tip the milk and 1 egg into a mixer with the dough hook attached. Add the butter, flour, sugar, yeast and salt and mix slow speed for 5 minutes, until the mixture forms a dough. Increase the speed to medium for 6–8 minutes, or until the dough comes cleanly away from the sides of the bowl. Add the spice and fruit mix on a slow speed for 1–2 minutes.
3. Turn the dough out onto a worktop and form it into a ball. Put it back into the mixing bowl, cover with a clean cloth and leave it to rest in a draught-free place for an hour.
4. When the dough has risen and nearly doubled in size, carefully tip it out on to your work surface and divide it into satsuma size balls. Roll each piece into a tight ball and place them on a buttered baking tray, close to each other.
5. Make an egg wash by beating the remaining 2 eggs with a pinch of salt. Brush each bun with a little egg wash and place in a warm place for about 11/2 hours, until risen.
6. Preheat a fan oven to 190°C/375°F/Gas 4.. I f you don’t have a fan oven, adjust the temperature according to your oven manufacturer’s instructions. Brush the buns again with the egg wash and pipe a cross on top of each one, using the cross paste. Bake in the oven for 18–20 minutes. Remove the buns from the oven and transfer them to wire racks to cool.
7. For the rum sugar syrup glaze, mix the sugar and 100ml/31/2fl oz/1/2 cup water in a small saucepan. Bring to the boil for 4 minutes. Add the rum. Brush over the top of the cooled buns. Serve immediately, or store in an airtight container for up to 3 days. Alternatively freeze and defrost at room temperature before serving.
How are you? I’m fine, sitting in my kitchen, granola base slowly toasting in the oven, looking out into the street through a veil of rain/sleet/dirty window.
I use the word fine loosely. I have discovered it’s my ‘go to’ word, whatever the circumstances. My shield if you will, against more questioning. Fine has many meanings, and for the most part doesn’t fit me or my state at all, although I quite like the idea of containing a specified high proportion of pure metal. It can also mean satisfactory or pleasing (how are you? I’m pleasing… hmmm). Anyway, I’m fine, thank you for asking.
I wrote the above paragraphs a week ago. I burned the granola. Today is the 1st of March. Is it the first day of spring? I am assuming so since no one ever mentions March and winter in the same sentence (see what I did there?). This is my view right now, sitting in bed, post Archers omnibus, pre getting up and putting on day time clothes in readiness for, you know, the day time.
Not too shabby. So, I am ‘fine’ today as well. But finer than when toasting granola to charcoal last week.
In the last week I have read one of the best and most thought provoking books I have ever read, Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel (thank you Sarah). Perhaps I am susceptible to the idea of apocalypse and renewal of the world and human species thereafter, because god knows it doesn’t have a lot to recommend it right now, or maybe it’s just a damn good read, but it has got me thinking and pondering and waking up to things that matter and things that don’t. On pondering life before virtual obliteration of humans a character in the book thinks about how he used to put ‘thx’ in an email to say thanks, as though leaving out three letters would save some time for something useful or more important.
It made me think about something I have been thinking about recently (so much thought going on in this head it’s getting very crowded) which is that we, the humans who are awake and not too stupid (ukippers and isis need not bother) should be writing, by hand if possible, more letters. All our communication is on email or text or Facebook, or blog… What if the apocalypse does come and there is no more technology? Those clouds of information, thoughts, questions, agonies will simply dissolve. Does it matter for posterity? Possibly not. But a hand written letter, landing on the door mat with all the junk mail and bills… what excitement, curiosity and feeling of mattering might that engender? Do you scan the postmark with a little frisson of Miss Marple doing detective work running through you? Do you know immediately who it’s from by the handwriting? Do you rip it open hoping for a cheque? Posterity schmosterity, do it for the now.
Writing a letter, even the most banal, requires effort and thought. Remember those thank you letters we had to write as children, and which in vain we tried to get our own to write? They meant something to the recipient. More than a text saying ‘thx’ anyway. I have a bunch of letters that I wrote to my Dad, that he kept. Mostly asking for money (what was I thinking?), but they are like a diary in some ways and clearly meant something to him otherwise why keep them? My adolescent self writ large in ink pen on foolscap.
Remember Basildon Bond writing paper? Then upgrading to the really posh stuff with water marks and ridges? Remember the joy of stationary?
So, I will write a letter today. To my mother because she taught me good manners and right now is very far away when she would much rather be at home in her cosy cottage with Nancy, watching the crocuses emerging from the chilly Yorkshire soil. My mother writes letters, illegible mostly, but proper ones on paper, in an envelope with a stamp on it.
Who will you write to?
Lots of love,
…to be exhausted. Have a cold. Eat too much. Drink too much. Watch too much telly. Sit in bed and think about going for a walk in the lovely crisp, wintery sunshine and not do it. Look at Facebook so long you actually know other people’s Christmases as well as your own.
On the orders of my husband I am in bed today. Anyone who knows Russell knows he doesn’t actually issue orders, and even less likely am I to follow them if he did. However, I am in bed as he suggested I should be today, because it’s a damn good idea and not one I generally ever have the opportunity to follow. I am closed to the world, not in, not ‘at home’ to anyone. It’s very, very nice.
WARNING this post is about my Christmas so if that might bore you close this page now.
If I had access to cinematic equipment I would do a montage, a la a Richard Curtis film – driving through the night on Christmas Eve to the large country pile in deepest Essex, the warm welcoming lights, the laughter and hugging and delicious fish pie, last minute wrapping of presents, a small exodus to midnight mass… cut to Christmas morning, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even… oh, wait, there’s Harper and his drone, oh, no… wait, it’s stuck up a tree. And so begins the battle of the kids vs grown ups (why can’t I open it, please can I open it, I am opening it, yes, I am…) in the present war, and of presents vs kids (no batteries, wrong batteries, faulty mechanisms and stuck up trees tactics were in abundance).
The country pile is Beeleigh Falls, home to Ron, Jasper’s Dad, the lovely Sue (who clearly has the secret of everlasting youth) and Megan, a tiny, scruffy little dog that had been abandoned and ended up at their door one dark and stormy night – there is no luckier dog in the entire universe.
It is a stunning old Edwardian (I think) house, with enormous, welcoming rooms and front door big enough to drive through; the front door key is so big it could easily be used as a cosh for an unsuspecting burglar. It is near Maldon, where the salt comes from, in Essex, a very pretty part of the world, where land meets sea via estuary. Ron’s business is in Mini Mokes, specifically their spare parts. Our dining room was usually his parts store and had been cleared out and transformed into a country house dining room, complete with help yourself breakfast kit at one end.
The rest of the party was made up of Rowena (Sue’s daughter), George (Rowena’s husband and giver of the famous Bulgarian firewater), their two boys Roman and Ollie, Jasper (Ron’s son) and Sophie (my niece), their two children Harper and May, Stormy (Jasper’s and my son), Russell (who takes everything in his generous stride, always) and me. An unusual mix some might say, and that is without adding other historical details because of no time/room/right to share. It works for us. I looked around the gathering at one point and saw a family, happy and at ease with itself, for all the issues and difficulties of the past, present and future, we know, like and love one another and on that basis metaphorical mountains can and will be moved.
I was chief cook, delegating chopping, dicing and slicing to number one (and mine only) son, peeling to George and clearing of debris to Rowena, and so I didn’t have to deal with the war zone apart from ushering it out of the kitchen every now and then. My main job was to stand about looking worried, writing lists which were promptly binned by the keen bean Rowena and poke the fowl with a meat thermometer every now and then.
Before the feasting began we had presents in the sitting room (cut to montage of roaring log fire, champagne in slender glass flutes, enormous packages tied up with ribbons and glittery stuff, paper being ripped and thrown in a mild, joyous frenzy). Russell spoiled me completely and I am still in awe of his thoughtfulness and extravagance. It was the kind of insane fun its meant to be and the children were kept occupied for at least ten minutes with trying to locate where the batteries were meant to go.
The table was laid by beautifully by Sophie and Sue, with pretty candles, ivy and silver stars. Dinner was a triumph of luck over judgement and no one minded that the birds were a bit overdone. Fireworks replaced pudding as no one had any room for any.
Boxing day was all about pyrotechnics, pipe bombs and cannons, abandoning broken drones, figuring out how the robot dog actually works, a walk down memory lane for me to my old alma mater, more glorious food, finally eating Christmas pudding with the most delicious brandy butter ever made and saying goodbye to our Christmas family as we headed off into the rainy night to the Brighton family, colds and sniffles, cosy fire, more delicious food, wine, films, walks and talks.
And so here we are, Wednesday, 31st December 2014, back in Bristol. May your New Years Eve be joyful and fun, but more importantly the New Year one of health, peace, hope, and love. Oh, and prosperity, wouldn’t mind a bit of that too please.
Over and out.