My lockdown life started tentatively in early March but in earnest about a week before the official announcement. My artist son Henry who spends his time between his London studio and what he considers his real home in the Black Mountains, Herefordshire (let out regularly to cover its upkeep) was pivotal. He was at Charity Farm on a flying visit with my car when he got wind of a London lockdown. I’d phoned to discuss the return of the car, thinking my chap (The Barrister) and I might escape to a friend’s flat in St Leonards for the weekend. On Wednesday evening (18 March) Henry rang saying he didn’t fancy coming back to London and that we should leave too and come and join him.
And that is what happened. On Thursday 19 March life took an abrupt turn, when on the spur of the moment, The B decided we should take up Henry’s invitation. He was working from home and I was dodging my way around the Chiswick House dog walkers with Red (my lovely lurcher) when I got his call. We hurried back and I manically packed a few (unsuitable) clothes (I hate packing at the best of times) and all the store cupboard food we had plus coffee, fruit, bread, milk, lemons, frozen fish and meat and food for Red. The B did a brilliant job packing his (essentially) two-seater car, the poor dog draped over bags piled behind us. He also stuffed wine into every nook and cranny and off we set, the car rammed to the gunnels and anxiety in our hearts. We sped along quiet motorways, turning off for petrol and sitting in the car park quietly eating our way through 3 M&S sandwiches, sanitizing our hands in the new obsessive way as the boxes were torn open. We arrived late afternoon, the light fading in the breathtakingly beautiful Herefordshire valley, the heavily-pregnant mountain sheep blocking our way on the narrow, winding, pot-holed mountain road. Over the cattle grid and down the steep track, we handed over our supply of bog rolls, unpacked our bags and walked the dog up the track and across a windswept field edged with dark, gnarled trees with fat, very woolly sheep huddled against them. Back ‘home’ we settled into what was to become our isolation refuge for the best part of a month. When you dwell somewhere as isolated as this, it is part of life to keep well-stocked cupboards, so there were plenty of basics and a small freezer crammed with milk, fish and meat. We too brought two chickens, pork mince, chorizo and sausages, so here in lamb country we are incredibly meat-rich. There is a huge sack of potatoes, tins, pasta, cous cous and flour. There is much talk over a glass of wine of food planning and making stock for soup and risotto in particular, so we roast a chicken for dinner, luxuriating in an almost complete set of accompaniments; crusty roast potatoes, sprouts and white wine gravy but no bread sauce as I can’t find any cloves. I assume we can stay here until our food runs out. We watch the news, the increasingly bad news and the first mention of the flight from London to second homes (I squirm; that’s us) and we slink away to bed extremely grateful for our safe haven and good fortune.
Bedrooms here in our remote spot in the Black Mountains are shrouded with heavy, dark velvet curtains so for us who sleep with white Venetian blinds and wake early to first light, we are sleeping long and deep. It is so quiet too, save the occasional distant bleat of sheep and gentle roar of a shepherd’s quad bike as he climbs the steep fields to feed his pregnant flock. When breakfast is over (fruit salad all round, bacon and scrambled egg with chives – more later – for Henry), I’m already thinking lunch. There is a huge amount of ham stock from poaching a gammon joint in the fridge, so that is my first port of call. It’s a bright and sunny morning but very cold here in the shadow of the Cat’s Back (mountain range), so I decide to make a daily soup for lunch. I portion and freeze some of the ham stock and build another stock from the chicken carcass and bones, safely stashing what little is left of the meat in a poly box in the fridge. I make Ham and Leek Soup with carrots and onion, the broth thickened with giant wholewheat cous cous I’d brought with us, adding thyme and rosemary from the garden. It’s one of those nourishing chunky bowlsful and the day is warm enough to enjoy it outside, sitting at a wind-shielded table in direct sunlight, gazing across a patchwork of fields dotted with an army of munching sheep. Henry is preoccupied with on-going building projects, turning a bit of field into a terrace, destined to be his veg garden, the raised beds made with railway sleepers but big enough to grass over for a marquee. He is also building an outside pizza oven from scratch. I should explain that Charity Farm isn’t a farm but was bought as a run-down, two-up-two-down farm cottage in the late sixties by Henry’s dad who turned it into a key-in-the-lock, turn a few switches and bingo, the perfect two-bedroom weekender. It’s a long story how Charity has evolved with many twists and turns (I attempted to write a book in The Fish Store mode but no publisher was interested) but now sleeps 12 surrounded by its own fields. But back to food. I’d brought leftover Skirt and Mushroom Stew with us and decided to turn it into a pie (200g plain flour rubbed with 100g butter and 4 or 5 tbsp water, the pastry glazed with egg) for supper. It’s hard to beat a pie whatever’s inside it and this was one of the best, the egg-glazed pastry melt-in-the-mouth and the filling rich and generous. We ate it with yet more sprouts (turns out both Henry and I had several packs) and more roughed-up roast potatoes.
Extend the remains of yesterday’s soup by starting it again by softening onion and carrot in a little butter and oil, so it becomes Ham, Leek and Carrot Soup with chunks of ham from the gammon and masses of finely snipped chives. We have plenty of leeks, so make a rustic version of Leek Gratin with Prosciutto. I love this combination and make it differently every time but the key points are steaming leeks cut in bite-size chunks, wrapping them in ham or if the ham is thick and not malleable – as it the case in this version – it’s posted next to the leeks. Leeks and ham are covered in a cheesy sauce; this one with chives too, the food cooled them covered with a thick Parmesan and breadcrumb covering that cooks to a glorious crisp. It’s usefully make-ahead and destined to become your favourite; it has been with my family for more years than I care to remember.
Today I make a huge vat of Cauliflower and Lemon Soup, a delicious bobbly textured, pale coloured and subtly flavoured delight served with a lavish shower of chives. There is enough for two days running and we all love it. The kitchen at Charity is an absolute delight to cook in with a beautiful black, glossy Bertazzoni Italian range with a huge oven and six gas burners plus a French plate, wok ring and fearsome small side oven with direct heat. It is blessedly simple to clean and as you cook you look across a croquet lawn, past large, perfectly round stones perched on a dry stone wall towards fields and mountains. The sky changes by the minute, shafts of sunlight through rolling clouds whisk past in the distance lighting up strips of fields in stark contrast to everywhere else. The sheep form patterns as they munch, often moving in unison for no particular reason and running surprisingly deftly in a long line when the farmer brings food. There is bird life to watch and wonder. It is transfixing. The other side of the kitchen has doors and windows opening onto an enclosed walled courtyard. There is a cute little window on the courtyard side installed for easy access to the herb garden and chives in particular. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such big, thick chives growing so luxuriously as they do in this sunny corner of the garden and it informs all my cooking during our stay. Tomorrow I’ll be having a serious fridge, freezer and store cupboard sort out, so I know exactly what we have and the limitations it will impose on my cooking. In the fridge today I find a big pack of belly pork slices and another of Chinese leaves akin to bok choi/pak choy called tatsoi. I found soy and nam pla (Thai fish sauce), so set to making this special old favourite served over noodles and eaten with fork and spoon in front of the fire. Pork ‘n Beans with Soy and Lemonade is subtly compulsive; every time I make it I wonder why I don’t cook it more often.
We’ve only been here for a few days and already a hitherto unlikely routine has taken hold as if it’s always been thus. We sleep in late, breakfast late, lunch late and work is done in between, culminating in a long walk before thoughts of supper at about 7.30pm. So we eat late and go to bed late. The Barrister has set up Chambers in one of the bedrooms (with the same view as the kitchen but direct view of pregnant sheep feeding trough), Henry has become a labourer, out with a digger and railway sleepers and I work perched at the end of a huge new dining table modelled on one commissioned by his great grandfather, Augustus John. Although I am cooking two meals a day and loving cooking in this state of the art kitchen, I am out of sorts and not enjoying writing about what I’m cooking. I decide not to write up My Week In Food (this is written almost a month later). It doesn’t feel right. There are two huge fillets of fish in the fridge – cod and smoked haddock – so I make two fish pies; one for our supper and one for the freezer for Henry when we have gone. The one we have tonight has hard-boiled eggs and masses of chives instead of the more usual flat leaf parsley. I add lemon to the mashed potato topping and scatter breadcrumbs mixed with grated hard cheese to get a crusty finish. We have it with the last of the frozen peas.
I follow several Cornish fishing boats and online suppliers on twitter and for the past few days have picked up on availability of local seafood, in fact desperation to get rid of it. With no restaurant trade there is seafood a plenty. No reply from Trelawney Fish (01736 332043/361793) my Newlyn fishmonger when I’m at the Fish Store in Mousehole, so I ring Paul, the boss of www.fishforthought.co.uk and we place an order for mackerel, cod, haddock and hake. Huge excitement when our delivery arrives. We have grilled mackerel stuffed with rosemary from the garden for lunch. I am fully reconciled to cooking what we have, thinking we will make do as things run out. The first to go is bread and there is very little yeast. I remember the Grant Loaf. I know a lovely big, well-risen loaf can be made with just 1 teaspoon dried yeast, with 1 teaspoon salt and another of sugar. It is such a gratifying recipe, almost as easy as making soda bread which gets its rise from bicarb rather than yeast. You can read more about easy bread making in No Knead Bread Making(in Writings).
Two things we have plenty of are pasta and tinned tomatoes. So the big question is how to combine spaghetti with our lavish new supplies of fish. Fortunately all my cook books are on the book shelves and I have a vague memory of a seafood pasta gratin I unearthed years ago. I find Paraguayan Sole and Tomato Spaghetti Gratin in the Gratin section of The Trifle Bowl and Other Tales. I came across this unlikely sounding dish when The Times asked me to write a week of recipes to complement teams playing in the World Cup. Its actual name is tallarines chalacos and owes its heritage to a time when Italy occupied Paraguay. My contribution is to add chopped tomato, giving a fresh juiciness to the baked spaghetti sandwich of quickly fried white fish with chilli-flecked, slippery-soft red pepper and onion. It is possibly the oddest sounding gratin I’ve come across but I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Today the soup is Cheat’s Minestrone. Big chunky, vegetable-heavy soups like this and thick, creamy soups that suit a lavish garnish are perfect for these gloomy strange days and this version of minestrone is a corker. Use the recipe as a template and resort, like me, to canned beans, leftover pasta and whatever veg and herbs there are available to you and call it minestrone. There is one decent sized fillet of smoked haddock left in the fridge and a bag of young spinach on the right side of passing its prime, so decided on Smoked Haddock Risotto with Spinach for supper. This wonderfully simple recipe doesn’t rely on special stock and is richly flavoured with hints of Dijon mustard and masses of Parmesan. It uses up the last of Henry’s smoked haddock perfectly. I have made various versions over the years – there’s a lovely fish-heavy version in The Fish Store (pg 92) but this version includes spinach because I happened to have some in need of using up and it’s a good addition.
There is no shortage for food in this valley. The local shop, Hopes of Longtown, is one of the best village shops imaginable, selling plenty of local foods and booze from Butty Bach ale to freshly baked bread and eggs, just dug leeks and other veg, potatoes in big sacks plus a bit of just about everything a household might need too. They’re dealing with the Lockdown brilliantly. Customers ring the shop, book a slot then someone walks round the shop with you at the other end of the phone and you shop, discussing the choices between, say local Netherend Farm butter and a cheaper more ordinary one. In the days when I used to come to Charity regularly, the main shop was in the middle of the village and we bought eggs and milk from the porch of the dairy. In those pre-supermarket delivery days, we brought all the food we needed for a visit with us and had a larder full of flour and yeast, pasta, rice etc in big poly boxes, tins and dried food. I introduce myself these days as ‘Henry’s mum’ (like when the boys were at nursery), so when the shop rings for our shop, that’s what they call me. A list is vital, grouping all the dairy together, all the fruit and veg etc, so I am in my element. I love lists. The bill is settled on a card, the food packed in boxes and then it has to be collected from the shop. There is a big sign outside saying ‘if you touch it, you buy it’, the glass door and door handles are regularly wiped with disinfectant but casual shoppers, say a lone walker or cyclist, are discouraged from entering the shop. Even Henry, who usually collects our shop, waits by the car and the boxes are brought out. They take no chances and they are right. This new way of food shopping happens about once a week when we have run out of things we consider crucial, often prompted by Hen’s inability to nuke his tobacco habit. The B and I have discovered Cadbury Daim bars through Henry, now bordering on an obsession. More seriously, though, it’s fresh fruit and veg, salad leaves, milk and eggs that we crave. The B ordered cheese from Neal’s Yard (www.nealsyarddairy.co.uk) and Cheddar, Parmesan, an intriguing blue goat cheese, arrived promptly and beautifully packed. I knew Randolph Hodgson, who started Neal’s Yard Diary all those years ago in 1979, had moved the cheese making operation to nearby Dorstone, but was slightly taken aback when then post office delivery guy congratulated me on choosing a local producer. The next time he delivered to us, he told me he’d mentioned me to Randolph who was intrigued I was nearby and wanted to know where. ‘She interviewed me when we first started’, R had said, so my rating went up several notches. Today I dig into that big bag of potatoes caked in dried mud and make
Potato Soup with Chorizo Chips. This is a cracker of a storecupboard soup, mild and soothing and perked up with slivers of crisp chorizo scraps floated in at the end. It is also good with a separately cooked soft-poached egg, any soft green herbs you care to throw at it or scraps of crisp bacon. Chorizo gets another airing for supper, a gorgeous mess called Sausage, Chorizo and White Bean Stew, a great way of making a few sausages go that bit further.
The weekend is looming and although every day feels like the weekend, we decide we need a special Saturday night supper to celebrate All Clear. All of us, separately, without telling each other, are anxious. Every sniff, sneeze, ache or pain, temperature rise after a hot drink or meal, every bloody thing could be the start of The Dreaded. It all comes out tonight as we digest another bulletin of gloom and despair. But I’m getting ahead of myself. As Henry will be making an Outing to the village shop, we decide to investigate the butcher at Ewyas Harold where Henry always gets his meat. I become Mrs John (easier to use my married name than LB) and order a leg of lamb for Saturday night, Cumberland sausages (so we can have bangers and mash), smoked streaky bacon and eggs (for Henry’s essential scrambled egg and bacon breakfasts) and a chicken. Again it’s paid for with a card and packed for collection. Here, as at the village shop, everyone is so pleasant and obliging. I suppose they need the business as much as we need their wares but it’s salutary. I associate lentil soup with visits to Charity and I’ve brought a packet of red split lentils with us, good for quick lentil soups. Orange Lentil Soup could be called fridge tidy soup because that’s what I’m doing, starting with a bit of this and that; garlic, chilli, carrot and onion, with masses of chives and a haunting back taste of cumin. We have it with garlicky toast. Supper is another old favourite,
Smoked Haddock with Dijon Sauce, Mash and Chives with buttery mashed potato and a chive garnish is a favourite with my family. I find the co-ordination of making this sublime combo is eased by getting ahead with the mash; it can be reheated at the last moment if necessary. Actually, I often get ahead with mash making then bring it back to life with extra milk and butter, heating and stirring, so done in moments. Portions of smoked haddock are poached in watery, seasoned milk flavoured and thickened with flour and Dijon mustard. The gentle onion hit of chives is the perfect garnish.
Henry’s stash of tinned foods are piled in huge plastic boxes by the back door, opposite the washing machine and a mounted ordinance survey map of the entire valley. It’s a place to linger but I’m after a couple of tins of chickpeas; I happen to know there are enough to open a shop because we are mad about chickpeas and use them in legion ways. I have garlic, I have lemon and olive oil, so I’m set to make Hummus Soup. I love making it because all you do is whizz up all the ingredients together and it turns into this foaming liquid hummus, a joy to watch. Flavours are tweaked with salt and more lemon juice and that’s it. We are having it with little chips of chorizo fried to a crisp. Supper is roast lamb, the lamb on a bed of diced onion (a tip from Delia) with rosemary, white wine and lemon, so the gravy will be stupendous. We specially ordered a whole leg, so we have plenty of leftovers for sandwiches (with red currant jelly) and jacket potatoes but best of all, to turn into shepherd’s pie. To go with the lamb I make Pommes Boulangere. This is very thin slices of potato layered up with finely chopped onion mixed with garlic, thyme and bay. It’s scantily covered with boiling water and pats of butter, cooked until the top is very crisp and the layers underneath a luscious, sloppy, aromatic goo. There is never any left.