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.


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.


  • 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.

Chablis and Pelargoniums for Mrs Dalloway

Study­ing the nov­els of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre at uni­ver­sity, I inves­ted in a packet of Gitanes and listened to Juli­ette Greco on vinyl; mov­ing on to James Joyce, I took up Guin­ness and spoke in impossibly dense sen­tences. D. H. Lawrence was out of fash­ion then, or who knows where that could have led. And then came Vir­ginia Woolf. Obvi­ously, I clumped about in sturdy brogues for a while; I also developed a new-found interest in flowers. I can still remem­ber read­ing Mrs Dal­lo­way on a sunny park bench in London’s Regent’s Park and being deeply impressed by Sally Seton’s icon­o­clastic approach to flower-arranging. (When will I ever get the chance to com­bine icon­o­clasm and flor­istry in a single sen­tence again?)

  • Sally’s power was amaz­ing, her gift, her per­son­al­ity. There was her way with flowers, for instance. At Bour­ton they always had stiff little vases all the way down the table. Sally went out, picked hol­ly­hocks, dah­lias — all sorts of flowers that had never been seen together — cut their heads off, and made them swim on the top of water in bowls. The effect was extraordin­ary — com­ing in to din­ner in the sunset.

I thought of Sally Seton and her cava­lier scis­sors, snip­ping wildly at never-before seen com­bin­a­tions of flowers, when I walked round my very clever friend’s newly-emergent wild­flower meadow today. If some gar­dens are in train­ing to be muni­cipal round­abouts, my friend’s garden is limber­ing up to be a Garden of Eden trib­ute act. As I trailed from one bil­low­ing mound of flowers to another, it was rain­ing that very Brit­ish kind of rain that stealth­ily adorns everything in a glossy mist, while every­one says brightly that “it’s hardly wet at all.”

Sally Seton would have had a field day with her scis­sors in that meadow. And both she and Vir­ginia Woolf would have loved the rose-scented cake, filled with whipped cream and Chab­lis and lemon jelly that I made after­wards. The extra­vag­ance and lux­uri­ous­ness of Chab­lis is included for Vir­ginia Woolf, whose poor rations inspired her to write A Room of One’s Own. The cake, infused with leaves from the Attar of Roses pelar­gonium or geranium, is for Sally Seton.

Leaves from the Attar of Roses pelar­gonium smell as good as any rose, per­haps even bet­ter, because their fra­grance is more sub­stan­tial, less eph­em­eral. George Eliot under­stood the rose pelargonium’s worth and made it a meta­phor for unselfish­ness in Scenes of Cler­ical Life:

  • But the sweet spring came to Milby not­with­stand­ing: the elm-tops were red with buds; the church­yard was starred with dais­ies; the lark showered his love-music on the flat fields; the rain­bows hung over the dingy town, cloth­ing the very roofs and chim­neys in a strange trans­fig­ur­ing beauty. And so it was with the human life there, which at first seemed a dis­mal mix­ture of grip­ing world­li­ness, van­ity, ostrich feath­ers, and the fumes of brandy: look­ing closer, you found some pur­ity, gen­tle­ness, and unselfish­ness, as you may have observed a scen­ted geranium giv­ing forth its whole­some odours amidst blas­phemy and gin in a noisy pot-house.

Tuck­ing a few rose pelar­gonium leaves into the tins, when mak­ing a sponge, infuses the cake with a floral fla­vour so subtle that it’s hard to know where it’s come from or if it’s really there at all. Adding the round, rich, but­tery fla­vour of Chab­lis to the lemon jelly makes it the ideal match for the cream.


  • 2 lem­ons — peel and juice
  • 95g caster sugar
  • 10g sheet gelatine
  • 275ml Chab­lis
  • 450ml water

Pare the rind thinly from the lem­ons — in one piece if you’re com­pet­it­ive, but it really doesn’t mat­ter — and place in a pan with the water, wine and the sugar. Heat gently until the liquid starts to sim­mer. Remove the pan from the heat and add the juice from both lem­ons. Allow to infuse. Soak the gelat­ine sheets in a bowl of cold water for five minutes. When the time is up, squeeze the sheets out as though ringing-out a dish­cloth and whisk them into the water, wine, sugar and lemon until dis­solved. Strain the liquid into a bowl. Cover with cling­film and place in the fridge. It will take around four hours to set. The con­sist­ency you’re look­ing for is that free­style, slightly unhinged wobble that looks as though it won’t be enough to keep the con­tents of the bowl under con­trol, until, at the last minute, its nat­ural sense of decorum reins it back in again — just. There will be more than enough for the cake, so save the rest to eat later with some fresh berries.


  • 8–10 fresh leaves from the Attar of Roses pelargonium
  • 230g plain flour
  • 4 tea­spoons bak­ing powder
  • pinch of salt
  • 230g caster sugar
  • 230g softened unsalted butter
  • 4 medium eggs
  • 150ml double cream for the filling
  • 2x20cm cake tins, greased with but­ter and lined at the bot­tom with bak­ing parchment

Pre­heat the oven to 180 degrees C.

Arrange four or five leaves on the base of each of the two greased and papered cake tins. Com­bine the flour, sugar, salt, bak­ing powder, but­ter and eggs, either by hand or in a mixer at a slow speed. Divide the mix­ture between the two cake tins, pour­ing it over the leaves. Bake for 25–30 minutes until golden brown. When cool, remove the sponges from the tins and peel the leaves off the base of each. Whip the cream. Spread the Chab­lis jelly on one half and top with the whipped cream. Place the second half of sponge on the top and dust with lib­eral amounts of icing sugar.

The Chab­lis, lemon and rose pelar­gonium cake has the beguil­ing fla­vours of Turk­ish Delight, the charm of a wild­flower meadow. Eat it out­side on a Brit­ish summer’s day and you won’t notice the rain. If there are wild­flowers to look at while you eat, so much the better.

The Tripartite Tri-Pie-Tart

Garden­ers, writers and artists have always under­stood the value of the num­ber three: less bor­ingly sym­met­rical than two, more com­plex than one. Where would Flaubert, Chek­hov or Con­stance Spry be without it? And scriptwriter Steven Mof­fat, whom I admire hugely, clearly loves it; he named one of his Doc­tor Who epis­odes ‘The Power of Three’ and one of his Sher­lock Holmes epis­odes ‘The Sign of Three’.

I’ve been afflic­ted by insom­nia again this week. Count­ing the hours until morn­ing is, apart from being exhaust­ing, extremely bor­ing. At times like these, the BBC World Ser­vice and Radio 4 are vital com­pan­ions. But when I even­tu­ally fall asleep and wake again, after what feels like only minutes, I find I’ve acquired very odd scraps of inform­a­tion from half-heard radio pro­grammes. (I woke recently with the crazy idea that there was a dead cow out­side, only to dis­cover that it wasn’t the leg­acy of a weird middle-of-the-night radio drama, but was in fact true. But that’s a story I’ll tell another time.)

One morn­ing this week I awoke with a com­pletely unfa­mil­iar word rack­et­ing around my brain. All I can remem­ber is hav­ing the radio on for most of the night and hear­ing someone, some­where say­ing ‘sizzi-jee’ and spelling it out very care­fully — ‘s-y-z-y-g-y’ — just as I finally dozed off. A three-syllable word com­pletely lack­ing in vow­els is worth look­ing up in the dic­tion­ary, if only for its Scrabble potential.

  • Syzygy: a straight-line con­fig­ur­a­tion of three celes­tial bod­ies, such as the Sun, Earth and Moon, in a grav­it­a­tional system.

And, as so often, a frag­ment­ary idea, in this case about three celes­tial bod­ies, led me towards some­thing to cook. I’ve wanted to write about my tri­part­ite tri-pie-tart for a while, mainly because the name makes me laugh. The tri­part­ite tri-pie-tart is a pie that I thought-up dur­ing another bout of insom­nia. But I had to wait until the Eng­lish asparagus sea­son before I could make it. And now, of course, I can.

The tri-pie-tart is a three-part pie that com­bines my son’s, my daughter’s and my favour­ite tart ingredi­ents. My son prefers asparagus, my daugh­ter likes leeks and I love spin­ach. So this is the tri-pie-tart that com­bines them all. And, as with syzygy, if you line up three celes­tial ingredi­ents — in this case, asparagus, spin­ach and leeks — you’ll find there’s a grav­it­a­tional pull towards the kit­chen table.


For the pastry:

  • 225g plain flour
  • 125g but­ter
  • 2 eggs yolks
  • 25cm loose-bottomed pie tin

Wrestle with it by hand if you prefer, but I use a mixer. Cut the cold but­ter into cubes and com­bine with the flour and a pinch of salt. Mix until you have a dry, crumbly tex­ture. Add three table­spoons of cold water to the egg yolks and whisk with a fork until com­bined. Pour half the egg mix­ture into the flour and con­tinue to add until the pastry forms a ball. Try to do this as quickly as pos­sible and don’t feel the need to use all of the eggs, if it doesn’t need it. Remove the ball, wrap in cling-film, flat­ten it down with the palm of your hand (it’s easier to roll later if it doesn’t emerge from the fridge as a massive, chilly globe) and place in the fridge for at least an hour. By the way, I’ve tried rolling pastry out straight­away, without rest­ing it, just to see what hap­pens. I ended up with a soft, string-vest of a thing that would no-more hold a pie filling than a sieve would. So now you know.

After at least an hour, roll the pastry out thinly. This is a nifty tip, if you dread man-handling your pastry into the tin. Roll it out onto the same piece of cling-film you used to wrap it in. That way, you won’t have to flour the sur­face on which you roll it which only adds a whole load of extra flour to the pastry which you don’t need or want. The added bene­fit of the cling-film method is that you can then pick up the cling-film, with its pastry disc attached and then just turn it upside down into the pie tin. None of that wrap­ping it round the rolling-pin and then unrolling it over the tin, which always sounds so much easier than it really is. Press the pastry into the edges of the tin and care­fully peel away the cling-film.

Place a circle of tin-foil over the pastry in the tin, fill with bak­ing beans, and bake in the oven at 200 degrees C for ten minutes. Remove the beans and foil and bake for a fur­ther seven minutes until the pastry case is golden in col­our and dry in tex­ture. If, when it emerges, there are any cracks, paint a little beaten egg over the cracks while the pastry is still hot and it will seal them. Lower the oven tem­per­at­ure to 140 degrees C.


  • 200g spin­ach
  • 2 leeks
  • 250g slim-ish asparagus
  • 2 eggs and an extra 3 yolks
  • 125g Mas­car­pone
  • 150ml double cream
  • 125g Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated. It doesn’t need to be that fine — you’re not aim­ing for cheese dust here

Cut the leeks finely, dis­card­ing the tougher dark green ends. Cook gently in a little but­ter for five minutes or so, until soft but not browned. Tip into a bowl, and, using the same pan, wilt the spin­ach briefly, adding a little more but­ter if neces­sary. Put the spin­ach in a second bowl. Finally, blanch the asparagus so that it is just, only just, cooked. Remove from the pan and run cold water over the asparagus to stop it cook­ing. All three of your celes­tial ingredi­ents should still be a bright green hue, rather than sid­ling off into the khaki or olive-green end of the paintbox.

Mix together the mas­car­pone, cream and eggs, whisk­ing in plenty of air. Spoon a quarter of the mix­ture over the tart base and spread it around. Layer on a quarter of the grated parmesan, fol­lowed by all the spin­ach, another layer of eggs and cream, a second layer of cheese, all the leeks, a third layer of eggs and cream, a third layer of cheese, the asparagus in a sun-burst effect and a final layer of eggs and cream. Bake in the oven, which should now be at 140 degrees C, for around twenty-five minutes, until the tri-pie-tart is a rich golden brown. Remove from the oven, sprinkle with extra Parmesan and a fine trickle of olive oil to give it some shine. Cast over some chive flowers if you like and eat the tri-pie-tart hot,cold or luke-warm. The syzygy is in the eating.

The Alumnae’s Lunch

Eat­ing with a book is one of the great pleas­ures. Eat­ing while talk­ing about books is another, and second to that comes talk­ing about books that have eat­ing in them. I once gave a lec­ture at Newn­ham Col­lege, Cam­bridge about Vir­ginia Woolf. Newnham was the venue for Woolf’s talks about women and fic­tion which formed the basis for A Room of One’s Own. In it, she con­trasts the grim, gravy soup that stu­dents at women’s col­leges sur­vived on and the plump part­ridge and sole that fuelled the men.

The lunch at Newn­ham on the day of my lec­ture bore no rela­tion to Woolf’s brown broth. I’d half-expected the kit­chen staff to tip a know­ing wink at A Room of One’s Own and give me a bowl of gravy. (I admit that I was in para­noid mood that day, hav­ing just been to the launch party for a new knit­ting book and been given blue-dyed spa­ghetti with bread-stick ‘needles’ poked in.) But the meal was as plen­ti­ful as it was deli­cious and I couldn’t help think­ing how pleased Vir­ginia Woolf would have been that the status of women, as meas­ured by our lunches at least, had soared.

I thought of Woolf, Newn­ham and brown soup today as I sat down to lunch with three female friends with whom I share a par­tic­u­lar bond. All four of us star­ted PhDs at the same time. Between us, we pro­duced doc­toral theses on Con­rad, Shakespeare, Vic­torian fem­in­ist poetry and con­tem­por­ary fic­tion. (One of the enter­tain­ments when doing a PhD is to mar­vel at the appar­ent insan­ity of every­one else’s choice of sub­ject; my favour­ite is still ‘the motif of decay­ing flesh in the works of J. M. Coet­zee.’) If there’d been a med­ical emer­gency in the res­taur­ant and someone had shouted out “Is there a doc­tor in the house?” we could have yelled back “Yes, four”.

Our lunch was a mil­lion miles from the parsi­mo­ni­ous meals of Vir­ginia Woolf’s exper­i­ence; the food wasn’t par­tic­u­larly spe­cial but we had more laughs than I’ve had all year. Laughter is a vital com­pon­ent of the PhD exper­i­ence, given that so much of it is gruelling, sol­it­ary, hard-dentistry and that it goes on for so, so long. Per­haps it was a lack of laughs that added to Woolf’s misery about her soup. Much as I love Woolf, her work is as thin on com­edy as her Cam­bridge meal was thin on part­ridge. If she’d had three good com­pan­ions to share her grue­some gravy with, she might not have noticed the food at all.

Permutations, Swapping Chairs and Beetroot

It can be use­ful to sit in someone else’s chair every now and again, if only to scuttle back with relief to your own.

I’ve been sit­ting in B. S. Johnson’s seat this week, ima­gin­ing his frus­tra­tion at hav­ing his exper­i­mental nov­els widely praised but rarely bought. Johnson’s finest work, The Unfor­tu­nates, pub­lished in 1969, involves per­muta­tions — so many of them, in fact, that it took me a whole after­noon to work out the number.

The Unfor­tu­nates has only twenty-seven short chapters, one of them a mere para­graph long. And yet it’s impossible to read the full ver­sion in a life­time, how­ever pre­co­ciously early you start. The reason is that, apart from the first and the last chapters, the other twenty-five can be read in any order. This loose-leaved exper­i­ment was Johnson’s attempt to escape the lin­ear restric­tions of the con­ven­tional novel. Instead of being trapped inside a glued-on cover, The Unfor­tu­nates comes heaped-up in a box, with the disin­genu­ous instruc­tion that ‘if read­ers prefer not to accept the ran­dom order in which they receive the novel, then they may re-arrange the sec­tions into any other ran­dom order before read­ing’. I’ve cal­cu­lated all the pos­sible per­muta­tions of those twenty five inter­change­able chapters and the num­ber I’m left with is:


which is oth­er­wise known as fif­teen sep­til­lion, five hun­dred and eleven sex­til­lion, two hun­dred and ten quin­til­lion, forty three quad­ril­lion, three hun­dred and thirty tril­lion, nine hun­dred and eighty five bil­lion, nine hun­dred and eighty four mil­lion dif­fer­ent pos­sib­il­it­ies. You can never hope to read them all and it’s pos­sible that the ver­sion you do read will be unique.

Johnson’s attempt to look at things from a dif­fer­ent angle stemmed from his belief that we should try to ‘under­stand without gen­er­al­isa­tion, to see each piece of received truth, or gen­er­al­isa­tion, as true only if is true for me’. To gen­er­al­ise, he argued, is ‘to tell lies’. So, newly enthu­si­astic about avoid­ing gen­er­al­isa­tions while embra­cing the extraordin­ary pos­sib­il­it­ies thrown up by per­muta­tions, I planned my lunch.

My Great Auntie Susie ate exactly the same thing for lunch every single day of the week: pickled beet­root in vin­egar, crumbly Lan­cashire cheese, a slice of brown bread spread with but­ter so thick that she could take an impres­sion of her teeth from the indent­a­tions they left, and a mug of tea the col­our of an old penny. By cal­cu­lat­ing the per­muta­tions, I made a beet­root salad for lunch today that is both spe­cific­ally Great Auntie Susie’s, but is also a vari­ation on her theme.


  • Bunch of smallish raw beet­root (big­ger than snooker, smal­ler than hockey), leaves still attached — around one per person
  • Goat’s curd or very young goat’s cheese
  • Small salad leaves
  • Chopped chives
  • Hand­ful of walnuts
  • Extra vir­gin olive oil
  • Lemon juice
  • Maple syrup

Cut the leaves and roots off the beet­root. Save the leaves for later. Wash the beet­root, but don’t peel them. Wrap them in a tight silver-foil par­cel and bake in the oven at 170 F for around two hours. When they’re tender, take them out and peel them. Slice the beet­root and arrange on a plate with spoon­fuls of goat’s curd. Wash and dry the raw beet­root leaves and scat­ter them on a plate, along with some other small salad leaves, the wal­nuts and a scat­ter­ing of chives. Make a dress­ing from the olive oil, lemon juice and maple syrup — four parts oil, two parts lemon, one part syrup. Sea­son to taste and trickle over the salad.

Eat the salad out­side, sit­ting in someone’s else’s seat and star­ing at someone else’s view.

I ima­gine that B. S. John­son would have been a good lunch com­pan­ion. Sadly, he lost heart, gave up on his ignored exper­i­ments and com­mit­ted sui­cide at the age of forty. I would like to have told him that not only did I buy his book, but that I treas­ure it too.

The Unjustified Quince

My praise for the sooth­ing, reg­u­lar, oblong qual­it­ies of jus­ti­fied text in my last post, The Jus­ti­fied Green­gage, pro­voked some people to ques­tion my san­ity and judge­ment. Appar­ently, only jus­ti­fied left, raggedy right, will do. In my defence, I’m teach­ing myself the art of let­ter­press on my dad’s Vic­torian print­ing press, so it’s only in blog posts that I like slabs of type to look like Swedish crispbread.

If you were hor­ri­fied by my taste for uni­form lines, this post is for you. Its raggedy, ram­shackle right-hand edge will, I hope, soothe your raggedy nerves. If your nerves are still raggedy, jus­ti­fied text not­with­stand­ing, the glor­i­ous, per­fumed qual­it­ies of the quince will help no end. In my case, cre­at­ing sorbets, cor­di­als and jel­lies from my har­vest of quince, came at the end of a week in which I saw Ibsen’s Ghosts, Marlowe’s Edward II and Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. For three nights in a row, I wal­lowed in hypo­crisy, tor­ment, murder, tyranny and pints and pints of blood. (I’d always thought that Titus Andronicus was un-performable, but Michael Fentiman’s pro­duc­tion at the RSC proved me wrong. It was start­lingly, shock­ingly funny and very, very messy.)

I’ve writ­ten before about the truc­u­lence of the quince, but over time I’ve come to think of it as hav­ing Pollyanna-like qual­it­ies, des­pite its unyield­ing, concrete-like flesh. Once cajoled out of its raw state, the quince’s perky eagerness-to-please puts it in a cat­egory all of its own. The fruit looks beau­ti­ful on the tree, per­fumes the house when it’s brought inside, yields gen­er­ous amounts of cor­dial while it cooks and, hav­ing done that, it’s still there, at the ready, to be turned into some­thing else. This year, hav­ing grown over one hun­dred fruit, I’ve made jelly, mem­brillo, quince brandy, cor­dial and, per­haps my favour­ite of all, sorbet. Like Mrs Beeton’s instruc­tion, when mak­ing pie, to ‘first catch your rab­bit’, to make sorbet, first make your cor­dial. Like this:


  • 12 quince, whole and unpeeled
  • 850 ml water
  • 350g caster sugar

I’ve writ­ten the recipe for this before, but to make life easier, here it is again. Pre­heat the oven to 150 degrees C. Wash the fruit, rub­bing off its fluff with your fin­gers. Pack the quince snugly into a bak­ing dish that is approx­im­ately the same height as the fruit. Tip in the sugar and water and place a piece of sil­ver foil over the top, tuck­ing it in around the fruit. Bake in the oven for three hours and then remove and allow to cool before pour­ing the liquid into a jug. (Reserve the fruit and I will tell you how to use it for mem­brillo.) The amount of cor­dial you will get var­ies from between 500 to 700 ml, depend­ing on the size of the fruit. I freeze mine in small bottles, to pluck out, slightly show­ily, dur­ing the year. Serve it topped up with spark­ling water or pro­secco. Or, move onto phase 2.…. sorbet.


  • Home-made quince cordial
  • Finely grated parmesan

The point of com­bin­ing the sorbet with parmesan is to drag it in the dir­ec­tion of the savoury. But if you wish to nudge it back into the safe con­fines of a famil­iar har­bour, match it with mango and black­cur­rant sorbet instead.

Pour the cooled, undi­luted cor­dial straight into an ice-cream maker and churn until frozen. It will turn a rather soppy Ger­moline pink, but has its charms. To make the parmesan cups, heap mounds of grated cheese on bak­ing parch­ment — about two table­spoons for each cup — and bake in the oven for two to three minutes. When melted into golden discs, remove and shape them over the bot­tom of an espresso cup imme­di­ately. Allow to cool and then assemble.


Next, the com­pli­ant quince is ready for phase three — mem­brillo.

  • Cooked quince left over from the cor­dial experiment
  • Caster sugar

Like the cor­dial and the sorbet, this recipe is ridicu­lously easy. Squish the cooked fruit through a sieve. It’s easier to do this one at a time, dis­card­ing the pips and skin from the sieve and then mov­ing on to the next fruit. Weigh the pulp and add it, with an identical quant­ity of caster sugar, to a pan. Bring the mix­ture to the boil and then allow to sim­mer very gently for around one and a half hours. It will become a dark, rich red and is ready when you can draw a wooden spoon across the bot­tom of the pan, leav­ing the two sides to stand huffily apart from each other, before reluct­antly creep­ing back over the pan to reunite.

Serve with a hard, salty cheese and crisp­bread. For those of us who’ve aban­doned beau­ti­fully uni­form jus­ti­fied text for the sake of other people, use nice, sooth­ingly oblong, reg­u­lar, plank-shaped crisp­bread, to calm those raggedy nerves. My favour­ite sour­dough crisp­bread from Peter’s Yard is cir­cu­lar, not oblong. So I’ll cut my cheese into oblongs instead.