As regular readers will know, I’m celebrating my love of the food columns and supplements in The Guardian by trying to cook at least one recipe from each issue of Guardian Feast in 2021. Find out a bit more about that here.
We are dedicated fans of Nigella’s How to be a Domestic Goddess brownies. The gooey, unctuous chocolate squares have starred at countless parties and celebrations. But, with a stonking 500g caster sugar and 375g butter (which makes ‘a maximum of 48’), they’re not low-impact treats.
Of course, brownies are not supposed to be a healthfood, but it’s always nice to stumble on a recipe that suggests taste potential and calorie frugality.
So, Nik Sharma’s date brownies with black pepper in Issue No.171 of Guardian Feast were an intriguing prospect: dates for sugar, a tiddling 60ml of olive oil for butter and a nip of black pepper for zing. Added bonus: Nik touts these as ‘sweet treats for outdoor meets’ and we planned a hike in Northumberland’s Cheviot Hills on the Sunday.
These moist, chocolatey cubes are super easy to create. A one-blender wonder. I’m not sure that the date, bicarb and boiling water mix was any more ‘soft and gloopy’ after its 20 minute sit than it was before, but am happy to accept it was. I worried my batter might be too runny: not a problem – although I left it in the oven for an extra couple of minutes on top of the suggested max of 30 minutes. And, sorry Nik, I’ve not come across ‘unsweetened Dutch cocoa powder’ before, but Morrisons own did the job. I used almonds instead of walnuts because of the eldest daughter’s allergy.
As so often, time ran away from me, and I ended up making the brownies when we returned home from our splendid walk up Yeavering Bell in Northumberland’s Cheviot Hills.
We allowed them to cool as much as our exercise-induced hunger allowed, then sliced ’em and scoffed several each. They were moister and lighter than expected and none of us felt you’d guess dates were a core ingredient unless you knew. The black pepper gives them a slightly exotic edge and a warm finish on the palate – although I should probably be more precise about measuring a teaspoonful rather than just grinding in an approximation!
We’ve been eating them with our coffee breaks since Sunday. On balance, the flavour and texture improve with proper cooling and a little maturation. The best squares are the ones with a good chunk of chocolate nesting within, so definitely worth using all bar chocolate, rather than the mix of block and chips that I used.
Overall verdict: sophisticated flavour, light moist crumb, delivers a halo of virtue without compromising on taste.
We’ve been wrapped in a chilly sea haar here in Berwick-upon-Tweed – atmospheric but a tad galling when most of the country has been basking in sunshine. It’s ironic that as lockdown lifts this stifling fret has closed around us, heightening the sense that anything might unexpectedly emerge to surprise us.
Sometimes, it feels as if our ministers and MPs live in a fog all the time. I was startled to hear Dominic Raab explaining on Talk Radio that, although he understands the ‘sense of frustration and restlessness which is driving the Black Lives Matters movement’, he doesn’t think much of taking a knee – other than for the Queen and his ‘Mrs’. Specifically, Foreign Secretary Mr Raab believes that the action of taking a knee derives from ‘Game of Thrones’. What? Wasn’t there a time when ministers took care to be informed about big issues that affect how we live as a society? This video featuring former San Francisco 49ers’ fullback Colin Kaepernick is a great intro into how and why taking a knee became an act of racial solidarity in sport.
Whatever the weather, walking and exercising have united our family of four during lockdown. Rain or shine we’ve been out for ‘family exercise’. However, as lockdown is lifting, we seem to have become less about going out together and more about heading off solo for, say, a coffee at Northern Edge Coffee, or ‘just popping out for a run/walk – see you later.’ It feels as if our Covid cluster is disintegrating. Which is strangely sad but, I guess, inevitable.
Nevertheless, we came together at the weekend for a socially distanced walk in the Cheviots to celebrate my birthday. Our starting point was an hour’s drive from Berwick through pretty Wooler – the gateway to the Cheviots. Once there, we were guided by two super-patient friends who listened to us bickering for most of the mist-shrouded eight miles. The views were condensed but we had abundant chews: a delicious takeaway picnic from Berwick Café Mule On Rouge
Generational blindspots – from technology to slang – have been recurring sources of confusion and amusement in the household. And we’ve all been upskilling the best we can. The youngest has hooked up to Depop – an online marketplace popular with young people buying and selling secondhand clothes etc. She wants cash to support her forthcoming university career (although with no freshers’ week…). When she made a sale, it turned out that the process of packing a pair of jeans in an envelope and writing an address in the right format was slightly opaque to her. Before she headed to the post office queue, she was anxious: ‘What do I ask for? What do you mean: “Get it weighed?!”‘ As she finally left, she said: ‘That’s Generation Z for you, we can throw a punch (an online boxing ref), we can topple a statue, but we can’t post a letter!’ She can now. We all felt a little ownership of her achievement.
Matt Hancock, Health & Social Care Secretary, declared himself ‘proud’ of footballer Marcus Rashford. He then called Mr Rashford ‘Daniel’ just to prove how much he’d mugged up on the guy who’d pressurised the government to make a U-turn on free vouchers for school meals. Perhaps Mr Rashford mistook the footballer for Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe? After all, the fact that Marcus Rashford spotted a clear need for the voucher scheme to continue through the summer holidays, when Mr Hancock hadn’t noticed it, smacks of a wizardly insight, doesn’t it?
The eldest daughter is working from home and is usually locked to her screen for 10 straight hours a day, often in meetings. Even so, there’s not much that passes her by. When she was little, we called her ‘Flappy’ because she picked up on every conversation we ever had – even if she wasn’t present when it happened. So, yesterday, when the youngest and I sneaked out for a walk without her, she was miffed. Yes, despite our new individual excursions, no one likes to feel left out. Later that same day, there was a discussion about preserved lemons as we ate dinner. I apologised to the youngest – she’s not keen and they lurked in the couscous. ‘I love preserved lemons!’ declared the eldest, smirking and smacking her lips. After a pause, the youngest said: ‘I had two walks with Mum today.’ ‘Two?’ whispered the eldest ‘Two walks?’ her bottom lip quivering.
The Husband often asks how I know about things. ‘By looking in the right places,’ is my usual smug reply. And that’s how come we’ve been dining-in royally these past few Saturday nights, courtesy of JW Catering’s international menus. Yes, as well as the Cheviots, we’ve been to Italy, South Africa and Turkey.
This is also how I know about the many local independent retail outlets reopening, working with and round the daunting new normal. It is exciting to see the high street shaking off the lockdown blues. But it’s also anxiety inducing. Sometimes, it feels as if I dreamt the whole Coronavirus pandemic. So many people are bustling about town without a social-distance care in the world. Me? I’m still feeling Covid-induced too-much-too-soon angst.
That’s how I felt about peeing outdoors when I was little. It seemed like an exciting proposition, but the reality was fraught with anxiety: would you be spotted? Would you pee on your feet/knickers/trousers? These days, peeing al fresco doesn’t worry me. And certainly not somewhere isolated like, say, the Cheviots. After all, you can see for miles to check if anyone’s heading your way, and you hardly ever see anyone anyway. Imagine my surprise at the weekend then, when looking around as I was zipping up, I spotted three people through the mist. ‘Oh! Ooops!’ I said. A voice floated back: ‘It’s alright, we didn’t see anything. We turned our backs as soon as we realised what was happening.’ It was a voice I recognised. And, as one, three friends from Berwick turned to face me.
When we got home, the Husband presented me with a can of Brewdog’s topical new hazy beer brew: Barnard Castle Eye Test. It’s a fair cop.
Is it just me or is there more nature happening this year? More bees, more birds and, yes, more reproduction. I’m having a bit of a love-in with nature at the moment. And, as so often happens during such spells of intense awareness and appreciation, serendipitous encounters contrive to enhance the glow.
At a friend’s house, I happened upon a book by the writer and broadcaster Richard Mabey, “The Perfumier and the Stinkhorn”. The friend was good enough to lend it to me. It turned out to be a library book – which could have been complicated. Thanks to Berwick Library for keeping things simple: our library’s a fabulous resource, please love it and use it. Mabey’s essays are a thoughtful exploration of the harmonies between science and romanticism through nature’s lens and an excellent counterpoint to the idea that science and romanticism must always be at loggerheads.
Richard Mabey’s inspirational book
Having hens at the bottom of our garden means regular sorties to deliver scraps, check for eggs, deal with poo, massage Vaseline into scaly legs and, most recently, a broody hen that stands no chance of raising a brood. This is how we know the crows talk about us. Like the vultures in “Jungle Book” they telegraph along the treetops: “Caw! Here they come! Caw! They’ve got leftover porridge. Caw!” It wouldn’t surprise me to find them wearing bibs and holding knives and forks by the time we reach the hens.
“It wouldn’t surprise me to find the crows wearing bibs and holding knives and forks.”
Bees interpret scent cues across substantial distances, passing on the gen to other bees. According to Mabey lead free petrol residues react with odour molecules messing with the bees’ ability to interpret scent, which may be a factor in their decline. Happily, our raspberry canes have been mesmerisingly and slightly terrifyingly alive with bees this year. For the last four years, The Husband has been building a structure to protect the raspberry canes from birds. Four years! “It needs done!” I cried, avoiding eye contact and shoving him into the humming cauldron. And, hey presto! the berry protection strategy is complete. No bees or husbands were harmed during implementation, the bees pass freely, the birds are largely kept at bay, and I will eventually get to grips with the intricate hook and eye system.
Despite berry deprivation, our garden birds are bursting with natural fulsomeness – families of blue tits, starlings, dunnocks, sparrows, great tits, blackbirds and wrens are all making a go of it just outside our window.
Friends recently guided us on a scenic circuit in the Cheviots – somewhere I really haven’t spent enough time. Mabey describes a moment when, listening to the nightingale’s song, it was as if, “the bird was in my head, and it was me that was singing.” “Yeah right.” I thought. Until the Cheviot walk, that is. Our ramble rolled through scrub and heather where the birdsong was genuinely tumultuous. The skylarks were particularly abundant, dropping like leafy musical notes to their nests. And, yes, the refrain wasn’t only outside, it was somehow also inside me as I walked. Shelley, in To a Skylark says, “Pourest thy full heart/In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.” And there’s the rub. Counter to what Shelley says, nature – birds singing, bees pollenating, animals reproducing – isn’t an accident. All that ‘art’ has a ferocious purpose – attracting, repelling, sounding the alarm, and ultimately being.
The Cheviots: A fabulous place to wander with friends.
I’ve been popping along to Castle Vale Park Viewpoint in Berwick on a Wednesday morning for an hour of free Tai Chi (every week til the end of August 2014). It’s part of park manager Kate Morison’s drive to ensure the newly refurbed park spaces are used for positive purposes. High above the Tweed making its way to the sea, the flowing movements of Tai Chi seem particularly apt. As we shift and sway, nature gets on with doing its stuff around us. No more or less than usual – just noticed more by me.
The view we enjoy whilst doing Tai Chi and, coincidentally and extraordinarily, the one I enjoyed with Colin Firth when he visited Berwick on a recce for the film The Railway Man.