Through a small window…

 

This is an exercise in looking at things in extreme close-up. It’s meant to give you a refreshing new perspective, although it’s perfectly possible that you won’t have a clue what I’m on about.

There’s a vivid, yellow landscape in Amsterdam’s magnificent Van Gogh Museum called Wheatfield with Reaper. Its particular pathos comes from the fact that Van Gogh painted it, in all its golden radiance, while staring out of the locked window of his hospital room in St Rémy. As he told his brother, it amused him that he should see something so vibrant ‘through the iron bars of a cell’.

There’s something about seeing a view through a small window that focuses the mind. Poet Paul Verlaine, imprisoned for shooting his lover Arthur Rimbaud, found a mournful, soothing rhythm in the view from his Brussels prison-cell window. It’s hard to reconcile the regretful but calm melancholy of the poem he wrote while staring at the view with his more familiar persona as a drug-addicted, abusive alcoholic – the restraining effect of the window may have had something to do with it, as well as the temporary lack of access to absinthe.

Le ciel est, par-dessous le toit,
Si bleu, si calme!
Un arbre, par-dessus le toit,
Berce sa palme.

La cloche, dans le ciel qu’on voit,
Doucement tinte.
Un oiseau sur l’arbre qu’on voit,
Chante sa plainte.

Mon Dieu, mon Dieu, la vie est là
Simple et tranquille.
Cette paisible rumeur-là
Vient de la ville.

– Qu’as-tu fait, ô toi que voilà
Pleurant sans cesse,
Dis, qu’as-tu fait, toi que voilà
De ta jeunesse?  

A view framed by a window makes the observer look more closely, with more intent. I love the fact that the citizens of Königsberg watched at their windows for Immanuel Kant to walk past at exactly the same moment each day, knowing that they could reset any errant clocks when they saw his hat bob by. (They certainly weren’t waiting at the windows for a chat; a guest once arrived while Kant was eating his breakfast and was asked to leave until the routine slice of toast had been consumed – Kant couldn’t cope with the break in his routine.)

Since today is the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, I feel honour-bound to include him when looking at things in close-up. Examine Shakespeare’s writing minutely and you’ll find a hapax legomenon – the term to define a word that appears only once in an author’s complete works. Shakespeare’s hapax legomenon turns out to be honorificabilitudinitatibus from Love’s Labour’s Lost. I can put my hand on my heart and say with total conviction that my own hapax legomenon is VanGoghHaddockPasty, since I feel sure that it’s never, ever going to arise again. (I’m fairly certain that a VanGoghHaddock-thingey is not just my own hapax legomenon but the entire world’s.) The pictures I’ve forced you to look at in close-up are, in fact, the ingredients for a VanGoghHaddock-youknowwhat.

VANGOGHHADDOCK-ETC.ETC.

This is a variation on a recipe from Sally Clarke’s excellent book 30 Ingredients, one of my favourite cookery books.

  • 600ml milk
  • Fresh thyme
  • 3 bay leaves
  • I teaspoon black peppercorns
  • Some freshly grated nutmeg
  • 600g undyed, smoked haddock
  • 100g butter
  • 2 very finely sliced leeks
  • 2 very finely sliced sticks celery (the thinner stalks)
  • 30g flour
  • 500g puff pastry
  • 1 beaten egg 

Add the bay leaves, thyme and peppercorns to the milk and bring to a gentle simmer. Add the haddock to the pan and poach for around 8 minutes until the fish is cooked. Take off the heat and leave the fish to cool in the pan. While it’s cooling, sauté the celery and leek in 50g of butter until soft but uncoloured. Remove the vegetables and put on one side. Take the cooked fish out of the cooled milk and reserve both. Strain the cooking milk and save. Add the rest of the butter to the pan and and, once melted, stir in the flour. Cook for a minute or so to get rid of the raw flour taste and then slowly add the poaching milk, whisking constantly to avoid lumps forming. Take off the heat and very gently stir the sauce into the fish and vegetable mixture. Adjust the seasoning, finely grate over some nutmeg, and allow the mixture to go cold.

Roll out the puff pastry and cut into squares approximately 15cm square. Divide the cold fish between the squares, brush the edges with beaten egg and seal the parcels together. Brush more egg on top of each pasty and chill in the fridge for an hour or so.

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C and bake for twenty minutes. Turn the oven down to 180 degrees C and cook for a further ten minutes.

PS. The close-up images were: nutmeg, leeks, bay leaves, fresh thyme, and black peppercorns. You probably guessed them all, apart from the bay leaves which look like traffic on the M25 viewed from the International Space Station.
PPS. If you haven’t had enough windows yet, I recommend Ian Patterson’s superlative poem ‘Sixty Windows for Jenny’. He constructed it by finding sixty books each of which mentioned windows on the sixtieth page, and then incorporated each phrase, unaltered, into his poem.

 

Dried Pea Masala: split infinitives and infinite splits

This is a split post: it’s split between India and Manchester, has split and unsplit peas, and argues the case for the split infinitive. There are rules about writing that I’m strict about: the incorrect use of apostrophes, pairing a plural subject with a singular verb (and vice versa), using too many adverbs, and reaching for a cliché just because it happens to be nearest. But there’s one grammatical convention I’ve never worried about breaking and that’s the split infinitive. Where would Star Trek be if we’d never been allowed ‘to boldly go’? And, in any case, just try removing the split infinitive from this: ‘The dough needs to more than double in size before it’s ready for the oven.’ Reconstructing the sentence simply makes it, like the dough, more than double in size.

I’ve just returned from India, where I tried endless variations on dhal, one of my favourite foods. The word itself means ‘split’ and can refer to any kind of lentil, bean or pea, so long as it’s been divided into two halves. So, to use a split infinitive, to eagerly cook a dhal produces an infinite number of splits. A chef I talked to in Udaipur gave me his recipe for tarka dhal, which goes like this:

FOR THE DHAL

  • 200g split yellow mung beans, soaked in cold water for half an hour
  • I finely chopped onion
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
FOR THE TARKA

 

  • 2 tablespoons ghee
  • 2 teaspoons cumin seeds
  • 4 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 5cm piece ginger, peeled and grated
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 teaspoons chopped green chilli
  • 2 medium tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon chilli powder
  • Chopped coriander
Bring the ingredients for the dhal to the boil, reduce to a simmer and cook for around 45 minutes until soft. (The chef added salt at this stage, but I prefer to leave it until the end.) Heat the ghee in a frying pan, add the cumin seeds and cook until they crackle, then add the garlic, ginger and green chilli and sauté for a minute or so. Add the chopped onions and cook on a medium heat until they’re golden brown, then add the chopped tomatoes. Cook for around five minutes and then add the tarka tempering to the lentils. Season to taste and sprinkle with the chopped coriander.

 

 

The word ‘pulses’ doesn’t have much poetry to it. But I’ve just been given some with a name designed to beguile. They’re called Red Foxes and they come from a small producer in Suffolk called Hodmedod’s. (Their other pulses are called Black Badgers and Gog Magogs, names which I like even more.) None of these pulses are split, so they can’t be used for dhal. But they’re perfect for a masala – a dhal with spheres instead of hemispheres.

RED FOX PEA MASALA

 

  • 250g dried peas or chickpeas, soaked in cold water overnight.
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil (I used organic rapeseed oil from Hillfarm Oils)
  • 1 large onion, chopped finely
  • 6 cloves garlic, grated finely
  • 5cm piece of ginger, peeled and grated finely
  • 1 green chilli, seeds removed
  • 2 teaspoons each of ground cumin and ground coriander
  • 2 teaspoons chilli powder
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 250g tomatoes, chopped
  • Salt to taste
  • 2 teaspoons garam masala
  • Coriander leaves
Drain the peas or chickpeas and add to a large pan of unsalted, boiling water. Simmer for an hour and then take off the heat. Heat the oil in a frying pan and fry the onions until golden brown (this takes around ten minutes.) Add the garlic, ginger and green chillies and cook for a couple of minutes, before adding the coriander, cumin, chilli powder and turmeric. Finally, add the peas, tomatoes and around 400ml of their cooking water and simmer for twenty minutes. Finish with the garam masala and sprinkle over the coriander.

This is where my post splits – we’re off to Manchester now. I think I must like dhal so much because I was brought up on the glories of fish and chips with mushy peas. By mushy peas, I absolutely do not mean posh petit pois that have been bashed about a bit and had fresh mint added; to me, they’re an abomination when served with fish and chips. By mushy peas I mean proper dried marrowfat peas that have been soaked, simmered to within an inch of their life, and then doused in brown malt vinegar. When I was a trainee BBC news reporter in Manchester, I lived with my grandpa in his tiny house with its riotous wallpaper. It was the height of the bitter miners’ strike. I couldn’t afford a car, and must have been one of very few news reporters to be driven to picket lines and working collieries by their elderly grandpa in a clapped-out, dark brown Ford Granada estate.  If I was working the late shift, he’d be waiting outside the BBC’s Manchester headquarters at 2am to pick me up, Jim Reeves singing Bimbo on the car’s cassette player.

 

We lived happily on fish, chips and mushy peas with mugs of malt-vinegar coloured tea. Grandpa left school at fourteen and worked down the pits himself, before becoming an apprentice painter and decorator. He was always much happier on days when I was reporting the strike from the point of view of the strikers than he was when I interviewed miners who were continuing to work. I never eat mushy peas, dhal, or chickpea masala without thinking of him and his joie de vivre. The irony is that he would have detested any recipe with spices – he was a man so timid about food that he peeled his tomatoes before eating them – but he would have loved the generosity of spirit that goes with spiced dhal. He always wanted to be an engineer and inventor, but never got the chance. Yet he always retained the ability to keep his eyes on the horizon and to embrace all points of view.

 

 

 

The Private Life of the Diary with hot chocolate

Mise-en-abyme may sound a cumbersome phrase, but when you try to describe what it actually means – the placement of a thing within a larger copy of itself, ad infinitum – its three words  sound downright economical. (One of the most famous mise-en abymes is Van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Wedding, in which the married couple is reflected in miniature in a mirror, in which a miniscule version of itself is endlessly replicated.) Sally Bayley has created a form of mise-en-abyme with her new book The Private Life of the Diary. It’s a history of the diary as an art form, but with its intricate, intercut structure, its intimate tone and its lightness of touch, it acts as a sparkling and highly imaginative journal about journals. She includes entries from the diaries of Pepys, Virginia Woolf, Alan Clark, Sylvia Plath, Henry David Thoreau and the fictional Cassandra Mortmain, marrying each extract with a sharp, insightful analysis of intent. Plath’s adolescent reflection that ‘I am in the mood for Thundery poetry now. I wish I had the experience to write about it’, is, as Sally Bayley points out, ‘a necessary part of her ego development, her egotistical coming-of-age story. At the heart of this story are the thoughts of a girl who longs for omniscience.’

Amongst the most extraordinary diary entries come from Sally Bayley’s own journals. Brought up in a ‘small, stacked-up house’ crammed with sixteen or seventeen people – her mother, aunt, grandmother and scores of siblings and cousins – she longed for privacy. Household shopping lists had entries such as ’20 pints of milk, 10 packets of butter, 8 pounds of minced meat’ and the Extra Sharp Canadian Cheddar had to be bought in blocks ten or twelve pounds at a time, which ‘shamefully required a lady’s shopping trolley to pull back.’ When she was only seven years old, her mother sent her to Switzerland alone, with a small bag, a camera and a diary. Her instructions were to ‘bring all the big events, the sights and the sounds, back home and share them’. As she wryly points out, ‘My adventure, like my diary, was not my own. … From the first, my diary was never private: it belonged to my mother, my aunt, my grandmother, my brothers and cousins. My diary was already public, already owned.’

On a second visit abroad, but still only a child and with the same instructions to gather important information to bring back, she described her daily routine: ‘Every morning, after choc-au-lait, in the kitchen with the high windows and long wooden table, I pulled out my notebook and added more names to the list of pastas Madame Grosjean had taught me.’ There’s a brave but slightly mournful quality to the prose of this explorer-child, gathering up testimony to take back to the tiny house in Sussex filled with expectant relatives waiting to devour her diary. It made me want to make home-made choc-au-lait for just a few rather than for expectant hordes.

CHOC-AU-LAIT WITH CHILLIES AND CINNAMON – NOT FOR SHARING UNLESS YOU WANT TO (THESE QUANTITIES MAKE ENOUGH FOR FOUR, IN FACT)

  • 750ml full cream milk
  • 80g 70% cocoa solids chocolate
  • 50g good milk chocolate
  • 100ml single cream
  • 1 red chilli, deseeded
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • pinch of salt
  • Half teaspoon cinnamon powder

Heat the milk until it’s nearly boiling. Grate the chocolate and stir it into the milk, along with the chilli, sugar, salt, cinnamon and cream. Allow to steep for five minutes and then whisk it. Drink it on your own with your diary.

The Private Life of the Diary ends with instructions on how to keep a diary like Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, James Boswell (‘buy yourself a small but sturdy writing bureau’) and, my favourite, like Cassandra Mortmain. ‘Choose an outlandish position. Perhaps a bath or a sink…. have some Shakespeare close by for reference. I recommend the comedies because things work out best there.’

Sally Bayley has created an erudite, beautifully structured and beguiling book. It’s a life story of the diary that does full credit to its long and complicated existence. It’s often funny, sometimes bleak, always intelligent.

Sally Bayley, The Private Life of the Diary: From Pepys to Tweets (London: Unbound, 2016)

Cioppino – ‘The Whole Mess… Almost’

 

The theory is this: go to California and marvel at the fresh produce, the creative cooking, the inventive combinations. But some theories disappoint; ask the American women persuaded to wear wooden-slat bathing costumes in the 1920s – they could have told you a thing or two about dashed expectations. Aside from marvelling at a plateful of cheddar tapioca in Yosemite – not in a good way – I didn’t encounter anything that struck me as particularly delicious or original. It seemed that eating on the West Coast was more of a rollercoaster than a dead cert.

By the time we reached Los Angeles, we’d schooled ourselves to marvel at the views rather than the plates.

There were, however, two major exceptions: oysters in Marshall, and cioppino in San Francisco. We were introduced to both by a very old friend who now lives in the city and whom I hadn’t seen for more than twenty years.

The rules at The Hog Island Oyster Company in Marshall are charmingly simple: heap oysters on plastic tray, request comical left-handed or right-handed rubber glove, find table, start shucking, eat. Order some more. (There will always be more – a team of workers armed with baseball bats bash away at oyster frames all afternoon, knocking new supplies into trays ready to be tipped into the mouths of greedy customers.)

 

The second exception to the rule of Californian food was a bowlful of cioppino at San Francisco’s McCormick & Kuleto’s seafood restaurant. Suddenly, the city wasn’t just about the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz – it was about the food too.

Cioppino is messy to make and messy to eat, but nothing that a large plastic bib and a relaxed attitude to stain-removal can’t solve. Cioppino is as closely identified with San Francisco as the Beat poets, and both defy convention. As Heraclitus might have said, you can’t eat the same bowl of cioppino twice – it will taste different every time, depending on what you have to hand. Cioppino was the early twentieth-century creation of Italian-American fishermen in San Francisco’s Bay Area, who simply added the trimmings of their daily catch to a pan of tomato and garlic broth.

I like to think that Gregory Corso, the Italian-American Beat poet, would have enjoyed cioppino. Corso had a childhood and adolescence that should have wrung all humour out of him, like water from a dishcloth: abandoned by his mother, lied to by his father, beaten by foster parents, imprisoned several times, abused – and all before the age of twenty one. But, inspired by Shelley, he began writing poetry in his prison cell, and he never lost his sense of life’s comedic qualities. The title of his poem ‘The Whole Mess…Almost’ could so easily describe trying to wade through a giant-sized bowl of cioppino but admitting defeat before the spoon quite hits the bottom. (It’s absolutely nothing to do with cioppino by the way, but I like the association.) In the poem, Corso abandons everything: Truth, God, Love, Faith, Hope, Charity, Beauty, Money, Death – but he holds on to Humour.

‘Went back up those six flights

Went to the money

there was no money to throw out.

The only thing left in the room was Death

hiding behind the kitchen sink:

“I’m not real!” It cried

“I’m just a rumor spread by life…”

Laughing I threw it out, kitchen sink and all

and suddenly realized Humor

was all that was left-

All I could do with Humor was to say:

“Out the window with the window!”

Extract from ‘The Whole Mess…Almost’, Herald of the Autochthonic Spirit, 1981, Gregory Corso

And in his poem ‘Columbia U Poesy Reading -1975′, Corso attributes the Beat poets’ success, in part, to that ‘divine butcher’, humour. You could do worse in life than arm yourself with a bowl of cioppino and a willingness to laugh.

 

’16 years ago, born of ourselves,

ours was a history with a future

And from our Petroniusian view of society

a subterranean poesy of the streets

enhanced by the divine butcher: humor,

did climb the towers of the Big Lie

and boot the ivory apple-cart of tyrannical values

into illusory oblivion

without spilling a drop of blood

…blessed be Revolutionaries of the Spirit!’

Extract from ‘Columbia U Poesy Reading -1975’, Herald of the Autochthonic Spirit, Gregory Corso, 1981

The Beat poets devised two literary devices which, if you’ve read my post about literature and maths, you’ll know are exactly my cup of tea: the cut-up and the fold-in. The cut-up is the process of chopping up poems, either your own or a combination of yours and someone else’s, and then reassembling them to make a different piece of work altogether. The fold-in entails folding two printed pages down the middle, aligning the type, joining the two halves together, and reading across the line. Cioppino is a bit like that: take a little of someone else’s recipe, add a bit of your own, guess, and see what happens. This is my cut-up, folded-in version.

 

Cut-up, folded-in Cioppino for Gregory Corso

Serves 4

  • 2 carrots chopped finely
  • 2 sticks celery chopped finely
  • 1 medium onion chopped finely (no need to get too nerdy about any of this – it’s a fisherman’s stew we’re talking about)
  • 6 cloves garlic – again, it is a fisherman’s stew
  • Large teaspoon fennel seeds ground in a pestle and mortar
  • 300ml white wine
  • 500g fish stock
  • 700g passata
  • 50g tomato puree
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 500g raw firm white fish
  • 500g clams
  • 500g raw tiger prawns
Saute the onion, garlic, celery and carrot in extra virgin olive oil on a medium heat for around ten minutes with a little salt and black pepper. Once the vegetables have taken on a little colour, add the ground fennels seeds. Pour in the white wine and scrape any residue from the bottom of the pan. Simmer gently for around fifteen minutes to reduce the wine. Add the stock, passata, tomato puree and bay leaves and simmer for another ten minutes to reduce the liquid a little. Add all the fish and allow it to cook in the simmering broth – around ten minutes is about right. Just before serving, check the seasoning and add handfuls of torn up basil leaves – the idea is to add an extra hint of aniseed to take the stew back to its Italian roots.

Eat staring out to sea if you can, but really a blank wall and a bit of imagination will do.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reversing Oxymandias

I met a traveller from an antique land

Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed,

And on the pedestal these words appear –

‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s admonitory sonnet ‘Ozymandias’ was published in 1818, the same year as Mary Shelley’s prototype science-fiction novel Frankenstein. Feel free to abide by the warnings of each, that if we over-reach ourselves we’ll be slapped down by the large, podgy hand of retribution. But having just returned from a trip to the Suffolk seaside, via the dilapidation and decay of London’s magnificent Gunnersbury Park, I feel like celebrating the beauty of the rusted sculpture, the decayed building, the half-finished painting and the slightly wonky sandwich.

Aldeburgh’s Martello Tower, built to fend off coastal attack by Napoleon, is a vast, dumpy affair, constructed of more than a million bricks and a huge dose of defiant chutzpah. The chilly waters of the North Sea crash onto the pebbles and stones of the beach below. The sculptor Sir Antony Gormley has just installed a suitably defiant cast iron man to sit atop the tower’s strident form, with the instruction that it and its four siblings should be “catalysts for reflection”. I can only think that if Martello man had been around in Ozymandias’ day he would have told the ‘shattered visage’ and ‘trunkless legs’ to pull themselves together and stop being defeatist.

Just a mile along the Suffolk coastline, I marvelled at Maggi Hambling’s vast sculpture Scallop, its frilled metal edge punctured with words from Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes. As I stood on the beach, my first encounter with the words was like this:

“Voices that will be owned”? I don’t like the idea of that at all. But tramp a little further around the shell and the words are like this:

“I hear those voices that will not be drowned” – that’s more like it. I had driven to Aldeburgh via London’s Gunnersbury, possibly the capital’s least celebrated but most startling ornamental park. Its Palladian buildings are decayed, its ornamental trees marooned and its vegetable garden merely clinging to its old formality. But the park’s Gothic grandeur has a magnificent beauty that lifts the spirits.

Neither Gunnersbury nor Aldeburgh are places for perfectly constructed food, dainty sandwiches or small mouthfuls. You will, by now, know my love for picnics. To Gunnersbury and Aldeburgh I would take my wonky avocado sandwich. In Aldeburgh, as the wild wind compresses face to skull, I would tuck both a wonky sandwich and a flask of hot mulled wine into my pocket. (If I could, I would also take a box of the most delicious garlic fries I’ve just been treated to in San Francisco, at a Giants baseball game – a cardboard tray of plump chips scattered with enough shreds of snipped-up wild garlic leaves to fight off an attack by Ozymandias himself.)

A DEFIANT WONKY SANDWICH

  • Slices of brown spelt bread, toasted – without question, this needs to be the kind of bread which goes into attritional battle with your teeth. You shouldn’t be quite sure who’s going to win until the end.
  • I very ripe avocado for each 2 slices of bread
  • Grated lemon zest and a little juice
  • Handfuls of chopped lemon verbena, chives, mint and oregano
  • Best olive oil
  • A few slices of chilli, if you feel like it
Trickle a little olive oil over the toast and mash the avocado roughly on top. Don’t scatter, so much as carpet, the toast with the herbs, the lemon zest and a little juice, plus the chilli if you’re using it. Wrap the sandwich in a parcel of silver foil, and stick in your pocket, along with a flask of mulled wine. Sit on the beach and, in the absence of a Gormley iron man to look at, use the wonky sandwich as a “catalyst for reflection”. It should produce thoughts which are benign at worst, soaringly jolly at best.

 

 

 

 

What’s Hidden Within

The former American Poet Laureate Billy Collins once played a trick on me. I interviewed him for a BBC Radio 4 books programme about his luminous poetry collection Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes. But one of the poems, ‘Paradelle for Susan’, seemed to occupy the embarrassing territory that sits between the experimental and the disastrous:

‘Paradelle for Susan’

 I remember the quick, nervous bird of your love.

I remember the quick, nervous bird of your love.

Always perched on the thinnest, highest branch.

Always perched on the thinnest, highest branch.

Thinnest love, remember the quick branch.

Always nervous, I perched on your highest bird the.

……………………………………

It is time for me to cross the mountain.

It is time for me to cross the mountain.

And find another shore to darken with my pain.

And find another shore to darken with my pain.

Another pain for me to darken the mountain.

And find the time, cross my shore, to with it is to.

……………………………………..

The weather warm, the handwriting familiar.

The weather warm, the handwriting familiar.

Your letter flies from my hand into the waters below.

Your letter flies from my hand into the waters below.

The familiar waters below my warm hand.

Into handwriting your weather flies you letter the from the.

………………………………………….

I always cross the highest letter, the thinnest bird.

Below the water of my warm familiar pain,

Another hand to remember your handwriting.

The weather perched for me on the shore.

Quick, your nervous branch flew from love.

Darken the mountain, time and find was my into it was with to to.

What kind of poem ends with the words ‘to to’, for goodness sake? Billy explained that the ‘paradelle is one of the more demanding French fixed forms, first appearing in the langue d’oc love poetry of the eleventh century. It is a poem of four six-line stanzas in which the first and second lines, as well as the third and fourth lines of the first three stanzas, must be identical. The fifth and sixth lines, which traditionally resolve these stanzas, must use all the words from the preceding lines and only those words. Similarly, the final stanza must use every word from all the preceding stanzas and only those words.’

So it wasn’t bad poetry, it was fixed form. I was entranced, having never encountered this eleventh-century form before, and launched a poetry competition, asking for the finest paradelles that listeners could create. They sent in their best efforts, some more successful than others, and a winner was chosen. It was only much later that Billy admitted that he’d made the whole thing up. He’d invented the paradelle. But the odd thing is that the paradelle now has a cult following, with poets all over the world challenging themselves to create verse following rules that were invented by an American poet having a laugh. So when I gave a lecture recently about the role that numbers, topology and mathematics play in the creation of literature, Billy Collins’ parodied paradelle had to make an appearance. I admire his creativity and his chutzpah, even if it made me look slightly daft.

My themes for the lecture were demanding ones – and I also planned to ask everyone to write a fixed form poem as part of the experience – so I calculated that biscuits would help. The rules were that everyone would have to write either a sonnet, a villanelle, an acrostic poem, a paradelle, a piece of chain verse or a rondeau redoublé. And their instructions would be found inside a fortune cookie of their choosing. I wrote a list, feeling sorry for the poor person who got saddled with the paradelle.

List of fortunes

You may think that writing literary fortunes, and burying them inside biscuits, is way too complicated for a lecture about poetic form. But it entertained me to do it, and perhaps students who’re fed biscuits containing Mission Impossible instructions may just remember the rules governing a villanelle for a little longer than students for whom the cupboard is bare.

Cut up slips for fortune cookies

And quite aside from all that, I love the idea of a hidden clue, a buried instruction, like the best kind of hand-written diary that contains shreds of secret information only available to some, or perhaps to no-one but the writer. The Private Life of the Diary, by Sally Bayley, being published next year, will celebrate exactly that instinct. It’s what’s hidden within that usually counts, and a diary can often be the place to find it. As Billy Collins so wisely put it: “I think ‘finding your voice’ is a false concept. It leads you to believe that it’s out there somewhere, like it’s behind the sofa cushions. I think your voice is always inside of you, and you find it by releasing things into your work that you have inside.”

Single fortune cookie strip

In the making of my fortune cookies, some cookies were harmed. But so much the better – I got to eat the duds as I went along. As did my daughter, who wasn’t in any way supportive of my plan to teach poetic form via biscuits. She said she’d far rather none of the biscuits left the premises, so she could eat them all herself.

FORTUNE COOKIES

Ingredients – makes about 40 biscuits

  • 3 egg whites
  • 150g caster sugar
  • 100g melted butter, cooled
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 150g flour
  • 3 tablespoons water

Preheat the oven to 190 degrees C, or 170 degrees C fan. Prepare your fortune slips in advance and roll them up into tight bundles.

Fortune cookie message

Whisk the egg whites and sugar in an electric mixer on high speed for a couple of minutes. Slow the mixer down and add the following ingredients, one at a time: butter, vanilla, flour, water.

The next part can be a high-octane production line, or a long, slow relaxed kind of business; it all depends on your mood and your proclivities. I like the high-speed kind of approach, but take your pick. Take two large baking tins and line them with baking parchment. Take a scant dessert spoon of mixture, slop it onto one corner of the baking parchment and, with the back of the spoon, swirl it into a circular shape around 8cm in diameter. I got around six circles onto a large tin. Prepare two tins, but put just one in the oven. Set the timer for six minutes – I use the clock on my ‘phone. They should be golden on top, but with a definite caramel tinge around the edges. Whip the tin out of the oven, stick the second one in to start cooking, reset the timer and start folding your first batch. You will have to work at quite a lick, otherwise you’ll find yourself working with biscuits that are as hard as roof tiles. With a spatula, slide the first biscuit off the paper, stick a bundled-up fortune inside, fold the biscuit in half, and then in half again. They’ll turn rigid inside five seconds flat, so be quick. Repeat the process with the next one and, with any luck, you’ll fold up six and slop another six dollops of mixture onto the tin, before the second batch is ready to remove from the oven. The quantities in the recipe should allow you to make around forty biscuits. But the thing to remember is that some biscuits will shatter before you have time to fold them up – the only remedy is to devour them.

 

* Billy Collins, Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes (London: Picador, 2000)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Vision of Piers Plowman’s Lunch – otherwise known as tartiflette

 

It’s nearly three decades since I studied medieval literature at university. This afternoon I searched out my copies of The Vision of Piers Plowman, Le Morte Arthur and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to give to my son who’s about to go to university to study English literature himself. It’s a sobering reminder of time’s passage. Or, to put it more brutally, a sure way for a mother to feel 103.

You probably wouldn’t thank me for a full analysis of William Langland’s The Vision of Piers Plowman. But, in a game of medieval roulette, I closed my eyes and slapped my forefinger down on a random line in the book, to see if I could still make sense of it:

And Mede is manered after hym, right as [asketh kynde]:

Qualis pater, talis filius. Bona arbor bonum fructum facit

A good tree produces good fruit? Much as I love Piers Plowman, I have to argue, if only in defence of the abominable-looking plum tree in my garden. It’s misshapen, wonky, stunted, ugly and has snapped branches – and yet it’s the producer of the most delicious fruit you could ask for. Even our dog takes a detour round the tree at this time of year to grab a quick snack.

Plum tree with broken branch

Its neighbour, the greengage tree, is twice as tall and is serenely elegant …and the fruit is a disaster. If Langland had ever dropped by and tasted both plums and greengages, Passus II, line 27 of his poem could have been totally different: ‘A bad tree can produce real belters. A good tree can lie through its teeth’.

Langland’s poem argues trenchantly in favour of simplicity and against desire. Which puts me in a tricky position yet again. What would he have made of today’s lunch of tartiflette? It was oh-so simple and yet oh-so desirable. There’s probably some Aristotelean ethical defence for those who indulge in both simplicity and luxury at the same time, but I don’t know what it is.

Tartiflette is a word that could have come straight from a medieval dictionary, although, sadly, it doesn’t. It’s a variation on a French regional word for potatoes and the dish is an extravagant advertisement for reblochon cheese. I’ll give you the classic version here, but it’s just as nice made with other cheeses. Last week I made it with a combination of brie, pecorino and Cheddar and if that’s not an edible argument for the European Union, I don’t know what is.

TARTIFLETTE

  • Half a reblochon cheese – some recipes specify a whole cheese, but it has a very strong flavour. We’re looking for a fortifying breath of hearty, mountain air here, not a full-scale roll in the farmyard
  • 140g Charlotte potatoes – or another waxy variety
  • 200 ml white wine
  • 200g smoked, streaky bacon
  • 2 onions, sliced finely into rounds
  • 200 ml double or heavy cream
  • 200ml vegetable stock
  • 2 bay leaves
  • Handful fresh thyme leaves

Cook the potatoes in salted water until just, only just, cooked. Drain and leave to cool. Snip the bacon into 2 centimetre pieces and fry – there’s no need to add any extra oil – until crisp. (Many recipes suggest that you use lardons, but their plump, squat chewiness seems all wrong to me.) Add the onion slices, thyme leaves and bay leaves and continue to cook until the onions are soft, but not too coloured. Add the white wine and reduce until only a little remains. Take off the heat.

Slice the potatoes into rounds about half a centimetre thick and divide roughly into three piles. Line the casserole dish with one layer of potato, then spoon over half the bacon and onion mixture. Barely trickle some cream over this – only enough for a miser to think it generous. Grind black pepper over and then repeat the potato/bacon/cream routine. (I don’t add salt because it’s so easy to overdo it, but simply add it at the table if necessary.) Finally, put the last layer of potatoes on top and add the last trickle of cream. Pour the stock over the whole lot and add another grind of black pepper.

Take your half-moon shaped slab of reblochon and, instead of cutting downwards, slice it horizontally, so that  your knife is parallel with the work surface. Then, open up the cheese to form a perfect circle. Lay this circle on top of the potatoes, so that the rind is uppermost, and cook in the oven for twenty minutes. Finally, place under the grill for another five. It’s often suggested that a green salad goes well with it, which it does, but I like it just as much with spinach and a little grated lemon zest.

In truth, there’s no place in The Vision of Piers Plowman for tartiflette. But, continuing to pull my old texts from the shelves, I found the perfect customer for my lunch of rich cheese, salty bacon and hearty potatoes: Chaucer’s Wife of Bath:

Bould was hir face, and fair, and reed of hewe.

Bold, hearty, handsome and rosy cheeked – the Wife of Bath and tartiflette could have been made for each other.