Monday, 31 January 2011

Comforting winter soup

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

I realised that I have not done a recipe for ages, and it is the time for soup, so the omission must be remedied. It is a drear old day, and my heating is on the blink, so I am huddled up in three jumpers, two pairs of socks, and a huge swaddling scarf (most attractive). The only answer was to get cooking.

All the root vegetables were on special offer in the shop, and they are local and seasonal and all those good things, so I decided it would a perfect festival of roots. I just invented this today, so play around with it as you will.

First, make up a litre of whatever chicken or vegetable stock you favour. If you have a bird, and some time, I would make the stock from scratch. Today, I only had breasts, so I used my adored Marigold Bouillon powder, which runs the real thing a very close second.

Then: finely chop a couple of onions and sweat them in a glug of olive oil for about ten minutes over a low heat. I know I do not need to teach your grandmothers to suck eggs, but do make sure they do not brown or burn. You want them golden and translucent.

Take your root vegetables. This is a matter of taste. I used: two fat carrots, a parsnip, and half a neep (also known as swede, or rutabaga). I did consider a small turnip, but thought it might add a jarring note of bitterness, so decided against. I did not use any potatoes either, but a good waxy one with a firm yellow flesh would not go amiss.

Chop them all up into small cubes. This takes a bit of time, but it is worth it; you do not want great vulgar lumps.

Add a pinch of saffron and a pinch of dried chillies to the onions; stir about a bit; then throw in all the vegetables. Add the stock. Cook over a medium heat for about half an hour to forty minutes. You want everything nice and nursery soft, but not annihilated.

If you have cooked your chicken from scratch for the stock, just strip the meat off and add as much as you want at the end. If not, poach a couple of breasts, very gently, for about fifteen minutes. I did this in Marigold, to add extra flavour, with a bay leaf. Tear the flesh and add to the soup. The tearing is quite important; it gives a much better texture than chopping, for some reason.

Finally, and this is very important, add a good handful of very finely chopped parsley. This is partly for aesthetics - the flecks of green look so pretty - and partly to add a little fresh flavour. It makes a disproportionate difference to the finished article. I am a huge believer that the secret to good home cooking is not immaculate technique, or abstruse French knowledge from the Escoffier school, but the insistent taking of pains. Thought and care, thought and care, I recite to myself. The parsley epitomises this, for me.

Check for seasoning. It may need some sea salt, but no pepper, because you have the mild heat from the chillies.

And there you are. Wonderful, comforting winter soup, with almost all the food groups represented.

A final note: for those of you who went, like I did, to those kind of educational establishments where they boiled and boiled and boiled the neeps until they were the colour of old boots, and then mashed them into a horrid mush with lumps, and who are still haunted by the memory of it, I do recommend giving them another try. Cooked with love, as in this soup, they are a fine vegetable, unfairly traduced by generations of ruthless school cooks. I do admit this is a bit rich, coming from me, since I still cannot look even the most tender piece of calves' liver in the eye, due to the memory of grey, gritty school liver, with its horrid tubes and hideous, grainy texture. But I have learned to love the neep again, which is a tiny step forwards.

Pictures of the day are not awfully good, on account of the dullness of the weather, and the fact that I seem to have slightly mislaid my ability to focus. But still. Nobody's perfect.

Tree trunks:

31st Jan 1

With added lichen:

31st Jan 5


31st Jan 3

31st Jan 4

Slightly pointless branch:

31st Jan 8

More trees:

31st Jan 9


Compulsory blurry action shots, which I cannot resist, on account of the ears and tails sticking straight up in the air:

31st Jan 11

31st Jan 12

More ready for close-up:

31st Jan 6

31st Jan 6-1

Little beech:

31st Jan 14

Evening sky:

31st Jan 7

I can never make skies come out awfully well. We get some tremendous Turneresque cloud action here, most especially at sunset, and I stand and gawp with my mouth open, but when I get home and look at the pictures they always look mundane and generic.

Finally, today's hill, slightly out of focus, against a relentless blank sky:

31st Jan 2

Thank you so much for yesterday's incredibly kind birthday wishes. I felt quite invigorated today, after so much niceness, and filled with resolve for my 45th year. (It will not last, but I am making the most of it while it does.)

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Unexpected Loveliness

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

When people are not wondering whether social networks can bring down dictatorships, they are mostly grousing about how Facebook and Twitter are undermining the very fabric of society. It's virtual, see, not real; no one can really have five thousand friends; the whole shower is one big vanity exercise, la di dah. People are just spewing vanity out into the ether, and it is no good to man or beast.

Today is my birthday. It's forty-four, a rather blah number, neither flesh, fowl, nor good red herring. I do not especially get cross about getting older, but neither do I see huge cause for celebration. Yet today turned out to be rather wonderful, both in the real and virtual worlds. There was an enchanting family lunch. My sister made slow-cooked lamb in the Greek fashion; my brother-in-law broke out the good claret; there were jokes and excellent presents. But most surprising of all was the absolute delight I took in my Facebook page. There, quite unexpectedly, I found screeds of happy birthday messages, from godchildren, cousins, old friends. My lovely friend Stephen even wrote a POEM, right up there for everyone to see. Oddly, it was even better than getting cards.

I don't know why it made me smile so much, but it did. The thought of people taking time to send little bulletins of love out through the internets was inordinately touching.

I'm not sure if Facebook and Twitter will ever change the world. Just as in actual life, there is an awful lot of detritus and dullness and pointless whimsy. For the self-employed like me, they both carry the very real danger of high-level time wastage. Those of you who read this blog regularly will know that I am currently quite obsessed with the small things that make life worth living. The sending of a birthday wish is a tiny thing, when the streets of Cairo are in turmoil. But for all that, it made me want to sing and dance.

Tired now, so just a couple of pictures today, of the other things that make me want to dance and sing - dogs, and hill:




So, thank you, lovely Facebook people. And thanks too to the dear readers of this small blog, for your kind comments, your extraordinary fondness of the dogs, and your continuing support as I navigate my way through this interesting new medium.

Saturday, 29 January 2011


Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Extraordinary events are unfolding in Egypt. Things are moving so fast that the BBC is actually live-blogging. The contagion is spreading to Yemen, which people are not much talking about yet, but will. I thought at first it might be two days of protest and then everything would go back to business as usual, as it did in Iran. Now I am not so sure.

There are so many extraordinary things about this. It may be one of those weeks that people look back on, when the world shifted.

But maybe the most outlandish thing of all is the Daily Mail. I know I should not be surprised by this, yet I am. Every single news outlet online today had Egypt as its huge number one story. This morning, the Mail website's headline was: Just how do they afford those gypsy weddings?

I know that this is the question everyone in the nation is asking. Just how do they? Good Britons everywhere must be scratching their heads in bafflement. We must be told.

For good measure, there was the standard scare story about the ten families who are costing us ONE MILLION pounds a year in housing benefits. I scrolled down and down, past stories about a mum who was addicted to cherry cola, Paris Hilton 'flaunting' a fuller figure, and Vanessa Feltz making a girl cry. Finally, in a small box titled World News, there was a a single line: Egyptian President sacks entire cabinet. So there is a newspaper that really has its priorities straight.

Luckily, the dear old Beeb has sent in John Simpson, which is how the nation always knows that something really important is happening.

I went to Cairo, about fifteen years ago. It was one of the most fascinating cities I have ever visited, with the nicest, most friendly people. One of my most vivid memories was of a group of motley children running up to us in the street. I wondered if they were going to ask for money, and was fumbling in my pocket for coins. They stopped, grinned, asked if we were from England. Yes, we said. They asked if they could practise their English on us. 'English, English,' they cried, with delight, as if it were the most thrilling thing in the world. They wanted nothing from us but the gift of language.

A few pictures for you, of stone and trees and tulips and dogs:

29th Jan 3

29th Jan 4

29th Jan 8

28th Jan 10

29th January 1

29th Jan 2

29th Jan 12


And the hill:

29th Jan 11-1

A gentleman on the news has just said: 'The sun is rising over the Nile. A new Egypt is being born.'

I hope he is right.

Friday, 28 January 2011


Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Five zero two six is my number of the day. That is how many words of book I have written this week. HOT DAMN. I do not want to sound like bragging but I must put this number out, because I had been lingering in a shallow trough all last week. I had too much shame about it to admit: the old voice saying furiously but you are supposed to be a professional, what the hell is wrong with you. Now that there is some achievement I may confess to my fallow period.

The writing mojo is such a mysterious creature that I still cannot quite understand it. In some ways, I should not believe that it exists at all. You can't go all mystical and wait for heavenly inspiration, not if you want to eat. You have to do as one great writer said and make sure you are inspired at nine o'clock sharp each morning. You cannot give in to whim or fancy. You may be haunted by the ghosts of F Scott and the Bohemians in Paris in the thirties, but the writing life cannot all be cabin trunks and parties at the Murphys and red wine in the afternoon. No, no, no; it is a serious job, like any other. There must be order and rigour.

For all that, there are aspects of it that I shall never fully understand. I do not quite understand why some days my head is filled with mud, and on others it is filled with thought. I am not sure I shall ever know what happens between the head and the hand. There is the perfect Platonic paragraph that exists in the brain, but the moment you start to type, its crystal clarity dissipates, and something vital is lost. Someone much cleverer than I once said that after page one it is all damage limitation. He, and I remember it was a he, meant that the ideal book that lives in the mind never quite makes it to the page.

It's probably the truest thing I ever heard about writing. It's why all writers who aspire to anything wander about with a faint look of baffled disappointment on their faces. It is also where the obsession lives; it is the driver that hurls one onwards, because the secret thought is that one day, one day, you will capture that beautiful, perfect thing that shimmers, just out of reach, in your right temporal lobe.

It's a little Quixotic, but I do not mind tilting at windmills, once in a while. No, I do not mind that at all.

In other news, the sun came out. I had grown quite resigned to a week of dreich. The forecast just said cloud, cloud, murk, cloud. But today it was as if the weather got bored of brown and grey, and decided to put on her pomp. There was glittering hoar frost and raging sunshine and skies the colour of sapphires. I ran into my brother-in-law on my morning walk and we talked of family and life and death, three of my favourite subjects. I am sitting now at my desk, looking out over trees dappled with sunlight, listening to Mick Jagger singing you take it, or leave it, it's just my life. I started the week grumpy and Januaryish, baffled by tax and lost pieces of paper, sans energy, sans inspiration, sans everything. There was dark news on the economy and the events in Egypt, where they are beating people in the streets. Everything felt gloomy and drained of light.

I end the week in sunshine, literal and metaphorical. I feel there is a small lesson in there somewhere, but, as usual, I am not sure what it is.

I hope you are having a good Friday, wherever you are.

Photographs of the day are a festival of light and frost and dogs, with extra dogs thrown in, because it is coming up to the weekend, and why not?

The amazing colours of the trees. I do not remember a winter when the trees kept their autumnal tint in this way. Perhaps it is just because I have the miraculous new camera, and I am looking more closely:

28th Jan 1

28th Jan 2

28th Jan 3

28th Jan 4

The light to the south:

28th Jan 5

28th Jan 6-1

28th Jan 7

28th Jan 6

And to the north:

28th Jan 7-1

28th Jan 10

And in the woods:

28th Jan 12

28th Jan 11

28th Jan 16

One perfect frosted leaf:

28th Jan 15

And speaking of perfect, brace yourselves for FAR TOO MANY dog pictures (cat people - look away now).

Busy, busy, busy; places to go, people to meet:

28th Jan 9-1

Duchess in frost:

28th Jan 17

Pigeon with absolutely enormous stick:

28th Jan 12-1

Statutory blurry action shot which I cannot resist:

28th Jan 9

(Look at her, running like Secretariat in the Preakness.)

And excuse me, I am so beautiful I do not actually know what my name is:

28th Jan 13

If I gaze at you long enough, might you just turn into a huge BISCUIT? It's either that, or she is doing her Grace Kelly impersonation again. Hard to tell:

28th Jan 14

And the hill, shimmering and glimmering like the Queen of Sheba:

28th Jan 16-1

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Esprit d'escalier

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

You know how you leave a room and think, too late, of the perfect thing you should have said? The snappy comeback, the witty riposte, the definitive, clinching argument: all arrive half an hour too late.

Sometimes, I think that I have a sort of reverse esprit d'escalier on this blog. Here is how it goes:

I wake up in the morning, and, as I clean my teeth, my brain revs into gear, like a growly old diesel engine. As I wash my face, I compose a glorious, pithy, intellectually startling piece of prose. (I cannot tell you how brilliant I am in the privacy of my own head. Sadly, the brilliance remains trapped there, for all time.) Then, I walk the dogs. An entire other subject presents itself, and I parse that. Then there is breakfast, a bit of standard pottering, possibly a visit to my old mum, a trip to the village, a telephone call, some daily errands. (Today I wrote thank you letters, went to the post office, and actually managed to retrieve and fax a Vital Document, much to the amazed delight of my patient accountant.)

Then I do my work. Today, it was 1264 words, in the polemical style. I have got to that stage of the book. I half made my argument, but was keenly conscious that I have not nailed it, and that I am veering off on tangents where I should be sticking ruthlessly to the point. But still: it was 1264 words, and I can bash it into shape in the second draft.

Then I think: time for the blog. But by this point I have had far too much coffee, and have thought far too many thoughts, and my brain has switched into a muddy, fugue state. It hurls itself onto the sofa and lies there like a moody teenager, refusing to produce one more coherent thing.

You see, I was going to do a whole thing on sexism. (How your hearts leap at the very notion.) Someone has written a cross article about the ladies, and I insist on right of reply. Then I was going to something about the Judaeo-Christian tradition and the law, because there was a Moral Maze on that last night and it drove me nuts. But now, all I can think of is my butcher.

I KNOW. How did I get from feminism and religion to the butcher?

I think it is because when I get beyond the stage of marshalling an argument, I revert to the domestic. I do not have to make an ideological point about that. I do not have to see both sides and thread my way through the thickets of politics and morality. I can merely recount a moment of pure, ordinary pleasure.

So: I went to get my mother a steak pie, and myself some beef. I told the butchers (there are five of them, all experts in their field) that I needed the iron, because the book was killing me. 'I must be like POPEYE,' I said, flexing my arms like a weight-lifter, to their slight amazement.

Anyway, I watched them cut the meat for me, with unerring strokes of the knife, and made a few jokes, and admired their skills, and we all had a lovely time. I thought: this is the point of the small village butcher. Not only do they hang the Aberdeen Angus for three weeks, unlike the supermarkets, but one gets smiles and laughter and human interaction. As they carved away the excess fat, I asked if I could take it for the dogs. Of course, of course, nothing could be easier.

As I walked away, I heard a shout behind me. One of the butchers had run down the street after me, spruce in his striped apron.

'Wait, wait,' he cried, holding out a tiny package. He pressed it into my hand, his face wreathed in smiles, as if this were the most delightful thing he was going to do this day.

'Fat for the dogs,' he said. 'You forgot it.'

I was quite overcome. 'Oh, oh,' I said. 'You are kind. I feel quite teary.' And we laughed some more and I went home.

None of this matters a whit, in the big old world, where there are serious arguments to be mounted, and people are having revolutions and taking to the streets. But it felt oddly profound to me. I think it has something to do with the world feeling rather mad at the moment. When that happens, I tend to concentrate very hard on the small things. And this was a very small, but very lovely thing.

Talking of little things, I am rather obsessed with the minute growing things in my garden.

The ornamental cherry, with its tiny little buds:

27th Jan 1

The dear little box, which bravely survived all the snow and the frost:

27th Jan 9-1

The tips of the blueberry bush:

27th Jan 3

Bulbs, starting to poke hopefully through the black earth:

27th Jan 2

The viburnum:

27th Jan 3-1

27th Jan 4

The ladyships, rather serene and contemplative today:

27th Jan 5

27th Jan 6

My naughty friend the Man of Letters called a couple of days ago and remarked that he thought the dogs were looking a bit old. He has not seen them for a while. I was most indignant. They do, like Yeats' heroine, have grey in their hair, but they are seventy-seven in human years, and I defy you to find a seventy-seven year old who looks this good, AND can still jump over a cattle grid. So there.

Actually, talking of Yeats, let's have him. There has not been enough poetry on this blog lately.

From the first stanza of Broken Dreams:

There is grey in your hair.
Young men no longer suddenly catch their breath
When you are passing;
But maybe some old gaffer mutters a blessing
Because it was your prayer
Recovered him upon the bed of death.
For your sole sake - that all heart's ache have known,
And given to others all heart's ache,
From meagre girlhood's putting on
Burdensome beauty - for your sole sake
Heaven has put away the stroke of her doom,
So great her portion in that peace you make
By merely walking in a room.

And finally the hill, which is the kind of thing WB would have appreciated, glimmering in the morning light:

27th Jan 8


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