When we left pre-lockdown London on 19 March for the Black Mountains to stay with my son Henry, I had no idea how long we might stay. I hadn’t really thought very far ahead. Quite quickly The B and I slotted into a very attractive but quite alien working lifestyle. There was no reason to get up early (usually 7.30am, sometimes earlier) in fact there was a lot to be said for killing time, so our life was like an extended weekend. Well, it was, but it wasn’t. Our Easter plans evaporated – a weekend in Paris had already been cancelled and a trip taking in Madrid and then Morocco – and did a lot of navel gazing instead. Gradually we stepped back from an obsessive need to know the latest Covid 19 news, not wanting to know the latest lockdown news. Like everyone, particularly those of us lucky enough to be in rural lockdown, we alternated between wondering if Covid 19 had been exaggerated and being terrified of its power. Boxes of work papers continued to arrive daily from Chambers for The B struggled on in his faux study (spare bedroom overlooking fields of sheep about to give birth) but increasingly needed a printer to work his cases successfully. There was also the looming deadline of various meds running out and a gnawing guilt about family in London, some of which didn’t realise he wasn’t. We were both incredibly grateful to Henry for inviting us here and while he carried on carrying on with his building projects and The B did His Best with his work, I was chief cook and bottle washer and increasingly alienated from my writing. I continued to file recipes on line – which, I’m happy to say, have been much appreciated – but both of us felt removed from our own reality, and guilty about feeling guilty that we weren’t in London. So, with mixed feelings we decide to leave after Easter. Here, finally, are those final days before we packed the car and sneaked back to London.
Sun 29 March
Today I receive a long message from my best friend Tessa in Sydney. She lives alone but always keeps herself busy and in contact with friends all over the world, so has become quite an expert on lockdown life around the globe. She lives in an apartment above one of the best food shops in Sydney’s Kings X, so like us, in a completely different way, is very well placed and getting on with a busily, productive (making a patchwork bedspread amongst other things) lockdown. Food here at Charity is possibly even more important than ever, so even though I’ve just had breakfast, my thoughts turn to lunch. We have a lot of leftover roast lamb, delicious juicy mountain lamb, so we have some of it for lunch with a crisp green salad and diamond jacket potatoes (see Lamb Chops, Diamond Jackets and Minted Pea Puree for this favourite way of making jacket potatoes). I am craving a soothing, easy fork supper for later and settle on Caponata, a great dish to remember if you have a couple of aubergine (as we do) languishing unloved in the fridge. Kebab-size chunks are fried until meltingly soft then cooked in a thick tomato sauce with creamy green olives and sharp tangy capers which give tension to this lovely sweet/sour dish. We have it with pasta but caponata goes with gnocchi or polenta and makes a good change with roast chicken or lamb.
Mon 30 march
There’s a break in the weather, the sun is out, leaves are starting to show on the bare trees and the sheep in the fields around us are starting to shed their load, so everywhere we see adorable little lambs shaking their tails as they tuck into their mums. We are lucky to have several mackerel in our Cornish fish delivery (email@example.com) and rather than grill them whole, I decide to bone 4 of them to make Franco Taruschio’s Mackerel with Peas in Wine and Tomato. The recipe, which I’ve made several times, calls for pin-boning the mackerel and rolling the fillets, held in position with a toothpick. The fish is then cooked in a previously made spicy tomato sauce with peas. I have tinned tomatoes and frozen peas, so it was doable. The filleting job turned into a nightmare without my super-sharp filleting knife and no fish tweezers, so rather than attempt pin-boning the double row of little bones that run down the middle of the fillets, I cut them out, so ending up with 2 strips of fish per fillet. This nasty job took the best part of the morning with a lot of cursing. I cover and chill the wooden skewers and make the spicy tomato sauce the fish will be cooked in. In the end, I lost the will to live with the recipe and grilled the fish, turning it into a Grilled Mackerel (or Tinned Sardine) Salad for lunch. It was a huge success, the slivers of just-cooked fish piled over mustard spread toast topped with a crisp green salad. During our Llanveynoe lockdown I’m doing more cooking than writing and after the obligatory hour long walk round the valley, I decide to kill off the last of the weekend’s roast lamb by making an Old Fashioned Shepherd’s Pie with Lemon Mash. My mum made this often when we had roast lamb for Sunday lunch (always roast Sunday lunch in my childhood), a much better option than her attempt at a curry (with currants) that promised much more than it ever delivered.
Tues 31 march
The village shop in Longtown has been our lifeline for replenishments of fresh fruit and vegetables. It sells big bags of particularly good young spinach and I can’t get enough of it. It prompts a really lovely Spinach and Pea Soup, thick and voluptuous, richly flavoured and silky smooth thanks to leeks. We have it for lunch with separately soft-poached eggs and toast rubbed with garlic and crushed anchovy fillets (of which there are many tins in Henry’s emergency supplies). For supper we have a gratin with more spinach, chunks of leeks and scraps of snowy white goat cheese with roast home salt-cured hake. Frozen fish often defrosts very watery, so a good way to firm it up is to dust the flesh with salt and leave it for about 30 minutes. It will be noticeably perkier but don’t forget to rinse and pat dry the fish before cooking. Left any longer than 30 minutes and you’re heading towards bacalhau.
Wed April 1
April Fool’s Day seems particularly poignantly named this year. It’s my turn to sink down into the glums today. How on earth will we get out of this unfathomable mess the world finds itself in? It’s a rhetorical question. I take solace in cooking, roasting butternut squash with red onions and garlic to make Roast Butternut Soup. It’s one of those mindless soup recipes; you just roast everything together then liquidize it with stock, tweaking the seasoning with salt and lemon. We happen to have a small amount of mince pork that I defrost and turn into mini meatballs flavoured Greek-style with marjoram from the garden. Pork and Marjoram Meatballs go very well with the soup, portion controlled into shallow bowls then drowned in soup. It looks very pretty and is a big hit. Supper is risotto; a good way of turning a few sausages and the rest of the bag of spinach into a generous feast. Sausage and Spinach or Wild Garlic Risotto is definitely something I’ll be making again and really recommend it.
There are leftovers from the roast hake and I turn it into a salad inspired by something similar served to me way back in the eighties by Anton Mosimann when he was head chef at The Dorchester. In those days I was Time Out’s restaurant critic and it was an honour to be invited to lunch in the chef’s office. The salad is very simple and as pretty and healthy as it looks. Roast Hake Salad is special enough to make from scratch rather than with leftovers. It’s basically crisp lettuce and cucumber with chunks of fish in a mayo-led vinaigrette and chive garnish.
We have plenty of flour but are low on yeast so the necessary bread making has me knocking out a Grant Loaf after breakfast for lunch. It is such an undemanding recipe and comes up trumps every time whatever flour is used although a mix of wholemeal and strong white gives the best results. While my loaf proves, I make a Cauliflower Cheese Soup. It really is like a bobbly liquid cauli cheese and a very good use for a cauliflower that isn’t quite large enough to make a gratin for three.
Oh how we love So Simple Leek and Potato Soup. It really is a wonderful recipe, so simple, so delicious and quite different every time it’s made. Texture and flavour alters depending on the age and type of the potato and time of year. I used the wonderful local potatoes, plucked from the big sack and soaked for ages to remove the huge clods of mud. Supper was equally simple, fish and oven chips. No recipe necessary. Fillets of cod from Cornwall roasted with a splash of lemon juice, salt and olive oil for the last 10 minutes of roast potato chips. The chips were make-ahead. First, peel the pots and slice into thick chips and drop them, rinses first, into a pan of boiling, salted water. Boil for a couple of minutes, drain and cool and then toss them with a little oil in a mixing bowl before spreading out on a heavy-duty roasting tin. Cook whenever you are ready, they won’t spoil but probably best kept on hold covered, when cool, with clingfilm in a cool place.
Today it is very hot, t-shirt and shorts weather (neither of which any of us have) and The B has an urgent letter to post. We don’t want to attempt going to the post office (in the out-of-bounds village shop at the far end of the village) but I remember there is a post box at the start of the Mountain Road, the turn off out of Longtown that circles past Charity Farm. It might be a 5 mile trek, it is definitely a demanding one with several steep hills. We decide to walk and I make a little pic-nic of egg mayo sandwiches, cherry tomatoes and a couple of slabs of Henry’s Cadbury’s Daim chocolate with a Satsuma to share for pudding. Are you old enough to remember the Dime bar? I used to love it, so very happy to rediscover it under the Cadbury umbrella with its ‘new’ Daim name. Apparently it was originally called a Dajm bar when it was lunched in Sweden in the fifties and renamed Dime bar for the British market where it survived until 2005. It’s now universally known as Daim. Who’d have known. We take water for us and for Red and off we set. We estimate it would be a 4-hour round trip and we weren’t far wrong. The post box set in the wall of the house by the turn off turned out to be decorative now rather than active but by fluke I had the village shop number on my phone and was able to find out that there was a working post box in the middle of the village. We were starving, hot and anxious and without thinking it through, decided to have our little pic-nic on a bench on the green behind the post box. Those sandwiches could never have been more appreciated but in eerily quiet lockdown Longtown we couldn’t linger over them. I felt eyes boring into us and couldn’t wait to get back on the Mountain Road with the track to Charity in our sights. We saw less than a handful of people as we retraced our steps and once we had turned back down the Mountain Road, the only traffic up and down the narrow, steep and winding road was the odd tractor and a surprisingly regular zoom past of delivery vans. White van man has never had it so good.
It is still sunny and hot, so I make what my dear friend Jeremy Lee (Quo Vadis chef) calls a cut salad. Mine has tomatoes, quickly pickled cucumber with hard-boiled eggs and Greek Feta cheese, eaten with garlic-rubbed toast spread with mashed anchovy. I am forever craving ‘fresh’ and make the cut into plated salads, decorating them with lavish snips from the flourishing chive garden. We have Spaghetti alla Puttanesca again for supper, this time without guinea fowl on the side.
We are heading towards the Easter weekend and I’m tidying up the food supplies, using up the end of packets and making do, planning our last few meals here in this glorious Llanveynoe Valley lockdown. The fag end of a packet of red split lentils and a scrounge round the fridge for veg in need of finishing evolves into a chunky, spicily flavoured Moroccan Red Lentil Soup. There is an ancient jar of ras al hanout in the spice drawer, and it gives a mega flavour boost and hint of the casbah to this collection of quite ordinary vegetables, the lentils merging into a lovely slop. It’s meatballs for supper and they’re made with cous cous rather than breadcrumbs to soften the texture. I also add a hint of bicarbonate of soda as we are out of eggs and it has a similar effect on the meatball mixture, helping it blend and stick. I make the meatballs smaller than usual and call them by their Italian name, hence Leek and Lemon Lamb Polpette.
Ash Wed 8
Years ago, when I was in the early days of writing my Dinner Tonight column for The Times, I gave a meaty recipe on Ash Wednesday and it prompted a few letters. Since then, I’ve made a point of sticking to a no-meat menu and today is no exception. Mushrooms, saffron, a hint of chilli, lemon zest and juice with leeks and cous cous proved to be a magic combination when whizzed up into Mushroom Saffron Soup. I urge you to give it a try, a real hit in terms of texture and flavour. Roast Hake with Lentils looks like something you might be served in a trendy restaurant but is very, very easy to make. The recipe could be adapted with chickpeas or white beans, in fact I’ve done both. Lentils, chickpeas or beans from a jar or tin are added to quickly fried onion and garlic, with or without a hint of chilli and canned or fresh chopped tomato, all cooked up with a slug of red wine if you have it and stock to make a luscious goo in which to perch roasted or pan steamed fish. I like to perch the fish on top of the lentils, skin-side up, then steam it (so pan covered) for about 10 minutes until just done.
Maunday Thursday 9
Leftover hake for another Roast Hake Salad this time edged with hard-boiled eggs. Maundy Thursday is the real beginning of the Bible story of Easter, traditionally requiring a roast lamb dinner eaten with bread and washed down with red wine. This was the food served at The Last Supper in the tradition of the Jewish Passover, the bread and wine eventually becoming a symbol of the body and blood of Jesus Christ. We have roast chicken with white wine gravy, the bird cooked in the ‘wet’ style with half a bottle of white wine and lemon juice. With it we had carrots, peas and crusty roast pots with a vaguely successful version of bread sauce made with ground cloves that probably date back years.
Good Friday 10
Supplies are very low but we have plenty of potatoes and a couple of parsnips so I decide to make what turned out to be a very good variation on Jane Grigson’s Curried Parsnip Soup. The limitations of supplies meant the soup was made with double the weight of potato to parsnips, an onion and a couple of cloves of garlic. I used chicken stock and seasoned the soup with lemon juice and salt, adding a little milk to soften the flavour of what I’m calling Curried Parsnip and Potato Soup with Lemon. More comfort food for supper, So Simple Fish Pie. It truly is and so delicious.
Salad for lunch with a final can of tuna and final jar of white beans. I made it look pretty, piling chunky pieces of tuna over and around the pale, creamy beans with plenty of finely snipped chives over the top and triangles of toast spread with tapenade/black olive paste. Dinner was bangers and mash; big meaty butcher’s Cumberland sausages (Mailes of Ewyas Harold tel 01981 240234) roasted with whole, unpeeled small onions alongside. The onions almost always steal the show; soft, cream and unbelievably gooey and succulent cooked thus although a bit of fiddle to extricate from their hard skins.
Sunday Easter Day 12
Our last day, so spent most of it clearing up, packing and wondering. Had a fridge clear out and made One of Everything Soup. Everything was carrot, red onion, leek, spinach, tomato with garlic, ginger and chilli in the broth. It was really good, a painter’s palette of colours and flavours so rather appropriate for our last lunch with my darling artist son. He is in charge of dinner, the Easter Day dinner of lamb. Henry is without doubt a pyromaniac. He loves fire and loves cooking over it, preferably out in the open. At Charity he has two self-built double barbecues, both with the potential to be an oven. He has a fire pit (which he also built himself) with wires for suspending huge joints of meat above or burying food cooked over hot stones below. While we have been in lockdown with him, one of his on-going projects is building a pizza/beehive oven from scratch. We bought a joint of lamb locally and though disappointingly small, he decides to cook it hanging style as learnt from his hero Frances Mallmann, the master of cooking outdoors over fire. Henry introduced me to this intelligent chef, born in Argentina and a specialist on Patagonian cuisine. I too own his books Seven Fires and Mallmann on Fire and once spent a several days staying with Henry here in the Black Mountains and we cooked entirely from Mallmann come rain or shine. I adapted some of the recipes for my Dinner Tonight column in the Times which I’m pleased to say drew much interest and I hope sold lots of Mallmann books. I am now sometimes referred to as Mallmum by my sons. So, two fires are tended. One feeds the other and the oiled and seasoned lamb is hung above the fire at white ash stage and left to cook. Meanwhile, I scrounge what mint I can find and make the best possible attempt at mint sauce and get Pommes Boulangere in the oven. These are the potatoes that have been a family favourite since I discovered the recipe when they boys were little and I was writing In Praise of the Potato. Very thinly sliced potatoes sandwich two layers of finely chopped onion, thyme, bay and garlic, cooked slowly in a buttered dish topped up with stock or water that soaks clean away into the potatoes. The top is always crusty, below deliciously gooey. To say the cooking smells are amazing is an understatement. We have our supper in the barn with a huge fire burning in the wood burning stove in the corner, the smell of paraffin lamps just obvious, the long and very old burgundy velvet drapes drawn so we can admire Henry’s handiwork with the digger to create a new lawn, new terrace (later these windows will become doors) with a terraced vegetable garden towards the imposing mountain backdrop. Gosh we will miss it here. We stay up very late, drink an awful lot of red wine and I dance for hours to the Rolling Stones while Red and Arrow stare dolefully on. Cheers and thank you Henry.