‘It is raining, and not especially warm. Neither am I feeling at my best. Time for a solitary, soothing supper. Something mild and gently flavoured. Perhaps even a little bit extravagant. Who says food cannot heal?’ Nigel Slater, Kitchen Diaries
Healing is what we need at the moment.
I queue patiently, the line of us separated by our two metre markers snakes right round the car park but it moves, slowly. I left it a little late today but simply couldn’t face it any earlier so here I am. The cupboards are empty and someone had to come and that someone is me. It’s not raining but it is windy, very windy, and not ‘especially warm’. The wind gusts up from the sea like a wild thing and has been rasping its breath against the windowpanes all day, throwing the black bamboo against the glass which thrashes its angry fingernails, ‘Let me in’, it shouts, wails, into the night and on into the morning. I think of Catherine Earnshaw from Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights every time I hear it, the terror of her fingernails clawing desperately at the glass from beyond life, wanting to be brought back, desperate to live again. This is how we are all feeling right now. The outside has felt so distant for weeks now, we travel towards the future with hope (some days) but mostly I’ve found myself staring at it, as though becalmed on some great ocean, the future no more than a sliver of land just out of my reach. We are almost there but not quite. Where can a writer find retreat these days, where can any of us find retreat?
The old saying ‘Ne’er cast a clout till May be out’ feels apt today. In use since at least the 18th century, I’ve always taken it to apply not to the month but clothing, ‘clout’ being an old word for a piece of clothing. But May is contrary, cold one minute and warm the next. There is one more meaning to this saying – it refers to the May flower or hawthorn which flowers in May and until it is out ie. gone, keep your sweaters on!
On colder days like this I reach for recipe books, reading them to calm me, thinking about things I can cook to bring solace. I always did this, and now I have hope that this small thing will make a difference. I want to make a meal I’ve not made in twenty five years, gathering the herbs and spices around me, sweet and sour things and it feels extravagant because it will take hours to prepare and cook and chop and grind and while I do this I will think of nothing else. Maybe the radio will be on, music probably, Radio 6 Music for the weekend, Radio 3 in the week, music heals as much as food.
It’s been comforting at times over these past ten weeks, using stuff up, making do with whatever was in the cupboard, refusing to join the crush of panic buying and then being surprised by what we found. As a child I loved Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows especially the bit where Rat and Mole come across Mole’s long neglected home in the cold of a December night which he has been unable to locate, Mole’s excitement at finding himself at home, hurling himself through the door only to be greeted by ‘dust lying thick on everything, [and] the cheerless, deserted look of the long-neglected house, and its narrow, meagre dimensions, its worn and shabby contents’. His first thought is food, there is nothing to eat he laments as he collapses into despair. In the cupboard the ever resourceful Rat finds ‘a tin of sardines—a box of captain’s biscuits, nearly full—and a German sausage encased in silver paper’ such a feast that their humour is restored and suddenly all seems right with the world. Whenever I am heart sore I think of this little scene. It’s not just the food but the trudge through the snow and the wild wood to get there, the reward at the end.
Journeys, food, nature, the wild world around us which keeps on growing as we retreat inside.
Another day and the sun burns so bright it seems to have forgotten that it is still Spring and not yet summer but we are grateful for it.
The wind has died down, I take this picture of my apple tree from beneath the branches looking up, the sky a startling blue behind it. The elderflower is out, creamy white and perfect and I have a plan to go out and pick some for cordial. I think back to the old saying again and remember that you should never bring May blossoms into the house and I’m wondering – does this mean elderflower too? Bringing haw blossom into the house brings bad luck they say. Siobhan Campbell’s wonderful poem ‘Quickthorn’ reminds us of this, an extract:
‘ Don’t bring haw into the house at night
or in any month with a red fruit in season
or when starlings bank against the light,
don’t bring haw in.’
So don’t take your warm clothes off until the May blossom is out because cold weather can return during the spring months and don’t, ever, bring hawthorn in. I long to bring elderflower in though and carry armfuls back from our walk, the smell pungent and grassy as earth, I will take the risk and look for memories of better times in its blooms as Seamus Heaney wrote of elderflower in his Glanmore Sonnets:
‘I love its blooms like saucers brimmed with meal,
Its berries a swart caviar of shot,
A buoyant spawn, a light bruised out of purple.’
He likens the elderflower to a ‘snapping memory as I get older’ and I will take comfort from it. I add lemon and orange peel, then the juice, and sugar. The memory snaps at me, the scent of the elderflower a remembrance…
My recipe for Elderflower Cordial*:
25 elderflower heads
Finely grated zest of 3 unwaxed lemons and I orange, plus their juice (about 150ml)
I kg sugar
Inspect elderflower for insects and remove them. Place flower heads in a large bowl with the orange and lemon zest. Bring 1.5 litres of water to boil and pour over the flowers and zest. Cover and leave overnight.
Strain the liquid through a jelly bag or piece of muslin and pour into a saucepan. Add the sugar, lemon and orange juice. Heat gently to dissolve the sugar then bring to a simmer for a few minutes.
Use a funnel to pout hot syrup into sterilised bottles. Seal the bottles.
*Taken from Preserves by Pam Corbin, River Cottage Handbook No 2