I’m on the hunt for now-ness or the glories of the present tense. It’s a transporting concept, expressed magnificently by the playwright Dennis Potter in his final interview. He was already grievously ill and as he laboured to finish writing Cold Lazarus and Karaoke, he glimpsed the plum tree outside his window.
‘…it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be, and I can see it. Things are both more trivial than they ever were, and more important than they ever were, and the difference between the trivial and the important doesn’t seem to matter. But the nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous.’
I’ve experienced nowness twice this week. One was important, the other perhaps trivial; but as Dennis Potter said ‘the difference between the trivial and the important doesn’t seem to matter.’ Last night I attended the Oxford Chamber Music Festival spring concert. Priya Mitchell, Lars Anders Tomter and David Cohen performed Bach’s Goldberg Variations arranged for string trio. Played on violin, viola and cello instead of the customary harpsichord, it’s a work of exquisite fragility and delicacy. The setting was an Oxfordshire barn, its rickety walls literally lined with history in the form of reclaimed wood panelling from Glyndbourne Opera. It was cold, it was drafty, but the nowness was exquisite — the perfect present tense. And it was ‘absolutely wondrous’.
Earlier this week I prepared the easiest, quickest supper. The only remotely complicated part was making fresh pitta. Much like my DIY Miso Soup, it’s a meal to assemble at the table. Perhaps because the recipe evolves as you eat it, we experienced a perfect moment of living in the minute.
Roast a chicken — my standard method is to stuff it with a lemon I’ve pierced several times with a fork, cram masses of fresh tarragon and thyme under the skin, sprinkle with plenty of salt and black pepper and brush with a generous amount of extra virgin olive oil.
Prepare a variety of raw vegetables to stuff the pitta with. I prefer carrot, radish, pea shoots, avocado, spring onion and sweet red peppers. I also opt for a good dollop of mayonnaise, but my children prefer hummus. Either is good, but not both. A finishing flourish which is also excellent is a whole baked head of garlic. You can add this to the chicken tray for the last thirty minutes of cooking. The soft garlic spread into the pitta is delicious.
For the pitta bread — makes 10–12
1 heaped teaspoon quick action dried yeast
1 heaped teaspoon caster sugar
300ml warm water
450g plain white flour
1 tablespoon finely ground sea salt
1 tablespoon extra virgin oilive oil
Combine the yeast, sugar and water in a large bowl and leave for a few minutes to form bubbles. Add the flour, salt and oil and knead the mixture together in the bowl for ten minutes. Cover the bowl with a damp cloth and leave it to rise in a warm place for about two hours.
Preheat the oven to its highest setting which will be around 240 degrees C. It sounds alarmingly hot, but you need that level of heat to get the pitta to rise sufficiently to make an air pocket inside while crisping up at the same time.
After the dough has sat happily for two hours, punch it down and knead it for another couple of minutes. Divide it into ten to twelve equal-sized balls, cover them with the cloth and put to one side for ten minutes. Roll each piece to form oval shapes around about 5–6 mm thick. Lightly flour a tin or sheet and line up the pittas — make sure they’re not touching. Bake for just 6–7 minutes and they will puff up deliciously.
Tip the pitta onto the table, slit them open as you go and stuff each one with whichever combination of chicken, salad, hummus or mayonnaise you fancy.
The meal was certainly unimpressive, it was possibly trivial, but in its humble, unassuming way it was as good a way of experiencing nowness as Bach’s Goldberg Variations for string trio.
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