Sun, sea, sand. The basic requirements for a day at the seaside, if you’re nearly two, or even a bit older.
On Monday, I was in London, i/c William. But at the last moment, Tom got an unexpected day off. The sun was shining – and how- and London was hot and sticky. So we packed buckets and spades, towels, sun cream and sunhats …. and set off for Whitstable.
It’s a picturesque little town with a harbour, fishing boats and a reputation since Roman times for having jolly fine oysters. It had sun. It had sea. What it turned out not to have was sand. Here is the beach.
William didn’t mind. Stones are fun. Paddling’s fun, even when the stones beneath are jagged and a bit uncomfortable. Chasing seagulls is fun. Looking for crabs and tiny fish is fun.
We took a break for lunch. Miraculously, the tide had gone out and a sandy shore line had appeared. More paddling, this time rather more comfortable. More fish, crab and seagull hunting.
Then we went home. Guess who went to sleep in the car?
Wild garlic is the ingredient du jour these days. Good Lord, you can even buy it in the shops. Just as you can buy dandelion leaves in France. It even turned up in my veg. box last week: which was faintly annoying, as I can have as large a haul as I want of the stuff, simply by stepping out of the door and taking a two-minute walk to the woods.
It was fine though, as it made sure I tried this recipe from one of my favourite food bloggers, Linda Duffin, aka Mrs. Portly. A recipe for gnocchi? Good. With wild garlic? Excellent. But fried in butter and oil before serving? Wasn’t that a little odd? No, it wasn’t. It changed those gnocchi from comforting nursery fodder into something altogether more satisfactory to accompany a fine plate of local sausages and some barely cooked purple sprouting broccoli. Don’t tell Linda, by the way, but I steamed my potatoes rather than baking them. It was absolutely fine.
Linda’s asked me to cut and paste her post rather than reblogging it. I hope this won’t dissuade you from exploring her site. You’ll find some recipes you’ll want to try out within moments.
Wild garlic abounds at this time of year … everywhere except in my neighbourhood. I am planting some for next year but in the meantime I have to forage far afield to find it. There are alternatives though if it’s equally elusive where you live.
You can replace it with three-cornered leek, which often grows wild where garlic doesn’t, or steal a few leaves from any domestic garlic bulbs you may have growing in the garden. I haven’t tried it with the green part of spring onions but it’s worth experimenting.
You don’t have to pan-fry the gnocchi (in which case try brown butter, a few fried sage leaves and grated parmesan) but it’s a lovely way to eat them, either as a side dish, or on their own with a good tomato sauce.
We ate them with seared venison fillet and purple sprouting broccoli, steamed and tossed with a mixture of butter, lemon juice and zest and anchovy.
Any leftover gnocchi can be frozen, uncooked, in a single layer. Transfer to a sealable bag and when you want to eat them, cook from frozen, straight into boiling water.
A note on foraging: it’s not illegal to pick flowers, fruit, fungi and foliage in the UK provided it’s for personal rather than commercial use. There are exceptions to this: local by-laws may forbid foraging and for obvious reasons you can’t do it at Sites of Special Scientific Interest.
It is illegal to uproot a plant and it’s sensible to pick a leaf or two from lots of plants rather than to denude one. And bear in mind that while foraging isn’t classed as theft, you may still be committing the civil offence of trespass. If in doubt, ask the landowner.
Bake the potatoes until soft. As soon as they’re cool enough to handle, scoop out the middles and push through a ricer into a bowl. Allow to cool.
Blanch the garlic leaves in boiling water for a minute, drain very thoroughly and chop finely. Add to the potato along with the eggs yolks and stir with a fork to mix.
Season well and add three-quarters of the flour, stirring with the fork again. Form into a dough and add more flour as necessary until you have a soft, pliable but not overly sticky dough. You may not need all the flour. Try not to over-work it or your gnocchi will be tough.
Dust your work surface lightly with rice flour. Divide the dough into four and roll into sausages, about 2cm in diameter. With a sharp knife, cut into 2.5cm sections.
You can either use these as they are, as little cushions, or roll them over a floured fork to make indentations. These ridges are supposed to help sauce adhere but honestly, I don’t think it makes much difference and unless you are deft and experienced, there’s a danger of over-working the dough.
Bring a large pan of salted water to a boil and drop in the gnocchi in batches. Don’t overcrowd the pan. They’re about done when they bob to the surface, around three minutes. Give them another 20 seconds then taste one: it should be cooked through and not floury. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain well.
Heat two tablespoons of olive oil with a good knob of butter in a heavy-based pan and fry the gnocchi on each side until golden brown. Eat straight away.
This is a Bolton week. This is the week for Ellie’s second dose of chemo. As we feared, it’s made her feel very nauseous, despite apparently super-efficient state-of-the-art anti-sickness medication.
So I’m in loco parentis. One of my duties was to take the boys to what Ellie cheerfully calls ‘Grief Club’.
‘Once upon a Smile’ supports bereaved families in all kinds of ways, practical and emotional. The children often have fun together – and appreciate being with other young people who share their unwanted feelings of raw emotion and grief. Yesterday they were at the Trafford Centre, so I had an hour to waste there while the boys got competitive on the bowling alley.
‘Waste’, because shopping is no kind of therapy for me. And the Trafford Centre is a château, a folly, a temple to consumerism. Just look at this. Look at the kitsch statues, the faux gold, the marble, the sweeping staircases and the wannabe classical fountains. And this palace, which dates from as long ago as 1998, is merely a home to the likes of Marks and Spencer, Boots, Next and Paperchase. I got crosser and crosser as I thought of what fun I’d be having if instead I was at a community market, chatting to the locals. And I was cross with myself too, for feeling so holier-than-thou.
Perhaps the Trafford Centre wasn’t built with me in mind. The boys had fun though, which was the entire point of the excursion.
We were in Newcastle last weekend, and we spent much of our time admiring the fine buildings of the city centre, and mooching about the Quayside. That Millennium Bridge! What a perfect match for its surroundings. It links the proud Victorian architecture of Newcastle with contemporary work housed in the Baltic Centre just on the Gateshead bank of the River Tyne. Its clean soaring parabola provides a perfect complement to the more long established city bridges.
‘The bridges over the Tyne between Newcastle and Gateshead are justifiably famous. They are not merely bridges, but icons for the North East. Over the years the single (Georgian) bridge existing in the early Victorian period has been joined by six others. First the High Level Bridge, giving the river its first railway crossing, then the Swing Bridge (replacing the Georgian bridge), and the first Redheugh Bridge, replaced twice, to be followed by the King Edward Bridge and the most famous of them all, the new Tyne Bridge. After many decades came the Queen Elizabeth Metro Bridge and finally, in 2001, the Gateshead Millennium Bridge opened to provide a stunning pedestrian and cycle link between the redeveloped quaysides on either side of the river. In the space of less than a mile seven bridges link Newcastle with Gateshead.’
I was having A Bit Of A Sort Out the other day. This involved my sitting on the floor surrounded by miscellaneous memorabilia which mean nothing to anybody but me.
Here’s something I found. Back in the days when my children were losing their milk teeth on a regular basis, they expected to be visited in the night by the Tooth Fairy, who’d extract the little tooth from under their pillow and leave money in exchange.
This was a problem in itself. Some Tooth Fairies left £1.00. Others left 50 pence. Our tight-fisted old besom left 10 pence. This wasn’t surprising. My goodness she was tetchy. Every time she visited, she left a note written on some scrap of paper little larger than a postage stamp. She was always moaning. Either she had to come too often, or the tooth hadn’t been left handy enough, or the bedroom door was shut, or something. Nothing was ever good enough.
Underneath her crusty exterior however, she was good-hearted. The expected payment was always delivered.
Thirty years later, Daughter of Tooth Fairy started to visit my grandsons. The first time Ben received a cantankerous note from her, he burst into tears. Daughter of Tooth Fairy was summarily sacked. Will an ill-tempered sprite visit William one day, I wonder, or are fractious fairies no longer part of the Tooth Fairy Team?
I only made one New Year’s Resolution this year, which is one more than I usually make. This year, I would not buy any more second-hand books from charity shops – my main sources for all kinds of serendipitous purchases – till I’ve read almost every unread book on our own shelves.
Well, that worked. It’s January 13th and I’ve just spend £3.75 on this little lot, culled from the charity shops of Ramsbottom, just up the road from where Ellie lives.
Ramsbotton is a post-industrial once-upon-a-mill town, a nice little market town with a whiff of artsiness about it. It has a cute little heritage railway: you can catch an East Lancashire steam train on high days and holidays. There are lots of independent shops, great coffee shops and restaurants. As a side-line, it does a fine line in charity shops with book departments that are a cut above the average, and I spent a happy hour or two browsing this afternoon before the boys came home from school.
I’m in Bolton this week because on Monday Ellie had her second operation, her mastectomy. It went well, thanks, and she’s recovering at home. Her dad and I took turns to manage-a-patient and manage-a-dog and manage-the-twins . The worst job is definitely getting the boys up in the morning. They’re just like their mum used to be when she was 11.
Once upon a time, before 1066 and all that became the most famous date in British history, William of Normandy wanted to get his local French barons interested in helping him conquer England. Land was the answer. Vanquish those Anglo-Saxons and English lands would be there for the taking.
A lord called de Courson was one of those who answered that call and came to England, perhaps for the Battle of Hastings, perhaps a little later. He was rewarded by being given many acres in Derbyshire. Over the years, the family name became de Curzun, then Curzon, and the lands at Kedleston which had certainly been claimed by about 1150 have remained with the descendants ever since.
Now it’s one of life’s pleasures to visit the splendid buildings of Kedleston Hall, a classical showcase of fine paintings, sculpture and furniture*, and to stroll round the grounds.
And what grounds! When we arrived there the other day, it was sunny, with rain promised later, so we set off to make a three mile circuit of the so called ‘Long’ or ‘Ladies’ walk’. How natural and timeless the landscape seemed. A charming rustic bridge crosses a serpentine lake. Woodland was just becoming autumnal. Spacious meadows spread before us with grazing sheep. Just as nature intended.
Except it’s all a massive con-trick perpetrated by Robert Adam in 1758. Away with the out-moded formal geometric garden of Charles Bridgeman! He’d been the Royal Gardener, and only dead 20 years, but his work by then seemed suddenly hopelessly out of fashion.
In with the naturalistic ‘picturesque’ style promoted by Capability Brown. Out with the public road along which the village straggled untidily, far too near the Queen Anne redbrick house which has itself been replaced. Village and road were moved. A brook was dammed and excavated to become a lake, a stream, gently splashing weirs. Adam had a ha-ha built – an unseen ditch across which unwanted livestock couldn’t pass: so much more natural-looking than a fence or wall. Temples and other follies were built or planned, pleasure grounds too. Sadly today only the hermitage is still around, and even this thatched hut is currently being restored.
Our three mile walk was crammed with pleasure. There were waterbirds on the lake, Autumn leaves to enjoy, views across the park and surrounding countryside. Where did the grounds end and open countryside begin? We didn’t know and didn’t care. And we hadn’t even seen the house yet. You can get a taster here.
*There’s even a magnificent bedroom which has never been slept in and is currently being restored: designed to be used if ever the king should come to call…