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.


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:


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

  • 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.


  • 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.


  • 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.)


  • 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.


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.