Sunday, 18 December 2011

Blimey, it's nearly Christmas!

Christmas! Yes, you noticed.

Let me guess - for the next few days you are going to leap out of bed early, check your emials, the blogs you keep up with, facebook pages, and then you're off out to do last minute shopping and ring Great Aunt Maud to make sure she's not going to be on her own for Christmas. Oh dear. She is. Someone will have to pick her up; the children will complain that the bathroom smells of Imperial Leather; you will want to spend all day by the fire while she tells stories.

Christmas Day. The children are screeching before seven. The turkey is stuffed and in the oven. You have three hours before the neighbours come round for wine and mince pies. Time to check your emails? Read a blog or two? Or fall over on the sofa with coffee and mend little Johnny's car that has somehow broken already?

You'll have time on Boxing Day? Everyone sleeps late. You can crawl down to your laptop catch up with facebook then. Or you can turn over, mumble something about how it would be wonderful if someone brought you breakfast in bed just this once.

There is a hiatus between Christmas and New Year. Every year you promise to spend this time reading, writing, making up for lost Christmas time. Except the children are tetchy; the days are cold; and you've run out of coffee.

Don't get me wrong. This is a precious time. I hope you have friends and family who love you. You will eat and drink and laugh together. It is laughter that will, briefly, frighten away these darkest days of winter; fill them instead with candles and frivolity and the smell of cooking.

I too have friends and family who love me. Just as you have little time for reading, I have little time for writing. Or for blogging.

And - as I write that - I know that there will be some who live alone (as I do) and for whom these festive days stretch in terrifying isolation. I'm sorry, I won't even be able to offer you a blogpost to cheer you up for the next couple of weeks. But I shall raise a glass to you - I do know just how lucky I am.

So - until the New Year, my very best wishes to you all. And thank you all for your support in 2011.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Eating my way round the world.

Looking back, most of the meals I had while I was travelling are a bit of a blur. They are all recorded in my diaries, but there is a limit to how exciting yet another menu and meal alone can be.

(I wasn't always alone - a couple of friends joined me for a while, and I met people along the way to eat with. But many evenings were spent alone.)

I am, now, undaunted by the whole restaurant-on-my-own thing. I always have my diary, and a book to read. Which means I can listen to conversations going on around me and writing them down or, if that is too boring, read my own book. But I scanned too many menus to be surprised any more. I ate fish fresh from the sea in Australia, curries in the backwaters of Kerala, nasi lemak in Malaysia - there was joy in discovering new cuisine but eating out on my own, every evening, became a challenge.

(Could I not cook for myself? Yes, in Australia and New Zealand, when I was in hostels or campsites. But once in Nepal and India I was in hotels, where cooking for myself was impossible.)

However, a few experiences stand out.

One day, in Nepal, Tika (my guide) suggested that his wife, Shobha, walk with us. She was a slight woman with gentle eyes, and endlessly curious about me. I must have passed some sort of test, because she invited me to eat with them that evening. I arrived to find her hunched over an open stove on her rooftop, frying pieces of fish, to go with the rice and spinach and dal. (To think I make a fuss about cooking when people come round - and I have a fridge, and cooker, and a dishwasher.)

We talked about our families, as women do. And suddenly she turned and asked, 'Are you lonely?' 

I was so taken aback I could only answer honestly. 'Sometimes I'm lonely, and sometimes I like having my own way all the time.'

'In that case,' she said, 'you will eat here every night you are in Pokhara.' And I did; she hunched over her little rooftop stove and I ate like a queen.

Shobha is one of the reasons I'm going back to Nepal next year.

Further south, when I stayed in a guesthouse just outside Cochin, in India, I was presented with my own cook. (No, I don't know quite how that happened.) I was given a menu, asked to choose - he would make me anything, he said. Until I suggested samosas.

'They take a ... very ... long time, madam,' he said, with a huge sigh. He stretched the word 'very' is if to illustrate how long.

We settled on pakoras.

And for supper? 'I hear the fish curries are good here?'

'There may be no fish in the market, madam.'

I soon learned my place in this food-dance. I suggested he find what was good in the market, and I would eat it. The result - the best food of my trip. He was truly talented. And - just once - he allowed me into his kitchen. Not to touch anything, but to smell it. So I stood by the stove and inhaled - ginger, and cinnamon, and coconut milk. Curry will never be the same again.

Who surprised you with wonderful food, at that moment when you needed it most?

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Tales from the Fridge.

I have been asked to blog about food. Yes, I'm amazed too.

Already my daughters are spluttering - of all the people least qualified to write about food it must be me. Don't get me wrong - I love eating. I savour the finer points of fish as much as the next man or woman. I'll drool over a chocolate mousse. No-one would dare leave me with a plate of strawberries and expect any left.

It's just that I'm, well, a rubbish cook.

There, I've said it. But - in my defence - my daughters did not starve. I'm not the only mother whose capacity for creative cooking runs to fish fingers after a day at work. If there was time at weekends I might throw something a bit more exciting in the oven; it wasn't always incinerated. Everything was balanced, more or less. And there were no food-arguments, which - in retrospect, given how many rows some families seem to have about food, seems like an achievement.

And I did try. When they were little I took them to the farm (my brother is a farmer) during harvest; he let them climb on the combine harvester, run their hands through dusty grains. I took them to the mill where we watched the miracle of the transformation of wheat into flour. I even bought a bag, to make my own bread.

Not even the birds would eat the bread.

Cakes - I used to make cakes. I even, in a moment of rashness when my brain was totally disconnected from my mouth, offered to make a layer of wedding cake when a daughter got married. (I have many wonderful friends, one of whom recognised this as a cake emergency).

Now, living alone, the challenge of feeding myself has a different meaning. It's hard to get excited about it - which is probably why I ended up commenting on someone's food blog that I wanted to live in her house. She had menus for the week, including vegetables and sauces and sometimes even puddings. While I live on rice, or pasta, and whatever is in the fridge.

But - it's not so bad. I still don't starve. I buy my vegetables at the Saturday market. Pesto, Thai curry sauces, chillies - all liven things up enough to ensure that not every meal tastes the same. I make sure some protein is thrown in somewhere. Somewhere lives a yoghurt-god.

But when my daughters come - they suggest we eat out. I really don't blame them.

And surely it's okay to admit to being rubbish at something? Even in these positive, affirmation-drive times when we are meant to be positive about our achievements and talents and all that stuff?

(Next time I'll blog about travelling food. That's a completely different challenge.)