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)