Permutations

trumpetWe’re all so different in our view of the world. I might say to you that I love trumpets, old black and white films, macaroons and cycling downhill. My number one book is Remains of the Day and my favourite bird is the flamingo. I despise Jaffa cakes, loathe fantasy movies, have no patience with flutes and simply refuse to cycle uphill. You might reply that you “couldn’t agree more” with all of that.

But I’m pretty sure that you won’t.

I played a game with a friend the other day. It was about well-known people. I kicked off with Terry Wogan. “I can’t stand him”, I said. “But he’s great”, my friend argued. “I really miss his radio show”. “Bryan Ferry” I replied, thinking of his leather trousers and the louche way he caresses his microphone. “Oh, no”, was all my friend had to say about that. We worked our way through a miscellaneous collection of celebrities and had to agree to differ. But there was a select group with whom we had no quibbles… Meryl Streep, Sandi Toksvig, David Attenborough and The Queen.

I developed a fascination with these complex webs of taste when I wrote a list of things I want to do. I’d got the idea from reading about a librarian who came up with sixty experiences that she wanted to have in the year before her sixtieth birthday. I had no trouble scribbling down my own more leisurely list and then I realised that there was no point of intersection between the librarian’s longings and my own. Hers included holding a tarantula, sending an email to Test Match Special, having a bell-ringing lesson and driving a fork-lift truck. None of those are on my list, but then she probably wouldn’t be wowed by any of mine either. Ask a hundred people, even a thousand, and they’ll all have a completely different set of choices.

A bit more pondering led me to wonder why I’d chosen the things on my list. The obvious answer was that I wanted to do them, but I thought I could learn more about myself by delving into why these particular things appeal. A few remain mystifying even to me, but mostly they fall into four groups. For some, it’s about pleasant associations and wanting to recapture their essence. Watching all of Billy Wilder’s films is one of these. They take me back to rainy childhood Saturday afternoons by the fire. A couple are about sharing something with a special person. I love Edinburgh’s austere elegance and wanted to take my younger daughter, Molly, so I could see it through her eyes. Others such as riding, have challenged me to learn new skills and to broaden my sense of who I am.

However, the greatest number of treats on my list have been about feeding my curiosity. There are things that I’ve missed out on and which make me feel cut off. It’s like that radio programme ‘I’ve Never Seen Star Wars’. My version is that I’d never seen Brideshead Revisited even though it’s a cultural landmark, and I’d never been to New York. I’ve now done both of those things and so when these subjects come up I can relate to them. I’ve learned to identify some bird songs, too, and time outdoors is now more pleasurable. These kinds of things are about becoming more connected with the world. I enjoy learning new things and know that the more I find out about topics, the more I get out of them. Escalating this to a greater scale than my own small adventures I can even see that there’s an evolutionary advantage for mankind in being curious. It leads to the solution of problems that help us adapt to our environment. The pleasure we get from learning is the reward that compels us to keep on doing it.

There are a few treats, though, that haven’t been what I thought they’d be. I’d expected to like all of them, or they wouldn’t have made it to the list. But a couple have helped me find out what I don’t like. It’s felt odd to be doing this kind of self-exploration in middle life. Surely I should know these things about myself already? I realised recently that one of the problems is that I get distracted by wanting to be like people I admire. Annoyingly often. And so it was with my patchwork treat. I was filled full of romantic notions by the quilts in the American Museum in Bath. There’s a room full of them. Many were stitched by the early settlers and I imagined them at sewing bees, gossiping companionably by candlelight whilst producing something beautiful and functional. I was realistic enough to know that a quilt would be too ambitious, but a patchwork cushion seemed like it could be achievable so I put it on my list. I was inspired, too, by the exquisite creations of a friend. However, the bit I forgot is that she’s calmer and more patient than me. And she’s also much more visually astute. I also conveniently forgot that I’ve never liked sewing and am never likely to.

When the time came to have this treat, I got myself all set up with Radio 4 in the background and a large cafetière of coffee in the foreground. For several hours I cut, tacked and stitched away enthusiastically, although from time to time, I did have a niggling doubt about the wisdom of my colour juxtapositions. My machining looked a bit wobbly, too. But I tried to stay positive and keep my thoughts focused on the end product and how lovely it was going to be. After all, it was meant to be a treat and self-doubt is part of the creative process.

Self-deception is never a good idea, though, and by the end of the afternoon the truth was unavoidable as Molly came into the kitchen bringing an air of the Emperor’s New Clothes with her. As always, she wanted to know what I’d been up to and was keen to offer encouragement. I watched as she examined my efforts closely. Then she wrinkled her nose. “Perhaps you could give it to someone you don’t like very much”, she said kindly.

 flamingo

And for anyone who’s been following Fish Mondays I’m pleased to report that the monkfish and tuna experiments were successful. The recipes for all my fish encounters are now on the ‘fish recipes’ page above. I’ll add to them as I go along. But don’t expect any recipes for herring. Did I forget to say? I can’t stand fish with small bones.

Fish Mondays

fish

I’m in a funny state of mind at the moment. Much of my time is spent thinking about the films of Billy Wilder, the novels of Jane Austen, and fish. This is both absorbing and frustrating. However, the ins and outs of Hollywood masterpieces and Regency love triangles will have to wait for future posts. For now, I’m going to focus on the fishy situation.

I’m trying to cook ten different varieties of fish and to end up with a recipe for each that I feel has been a complete success. The essential test is whether I would be happy to serve it to friends. This all sounds quite straightforward but I’m having to negotiate some unexpected hurdles along the way to seafood bliss.

Before going into the details of my fishy travails, I’d better explain why I’m doing this. It’s all part of my list of 60 things I want to do before my next big birthday. I started this nearly four years ago, and have already done 38 of them. There have been some splendid highs – Glastonbury, River Café chocolate cake, riding and Berlin. And a few lows where things just didn’t work out as I’d hoped. But that’s life and I’ve learned something useful from each. And I’ve had a huge amount of fun with them. These ‘treats’ have helped me to learn more about who I am in this potentially shapeless post-children phase of life. They’ve also helped me through some challenging life events.

So… back to the fish. I put this treat on my list because although I love cooking, I’ve not got much confidence with fish. I’ve always been put off by the bones and the scary warnings in recipes not to overcook it. And then of course there’s the cost. If you’re buying for a family of six, as I usually was, you would need to regularly re-mortgage your house. I want to demystify the process and broaden my culinary horizons.

When I first told my daughter Molly, then aged fourteen, about my fish project, she looked impressed. “Are you going to catch it yourself?’ she asked. Since then I’ve had such problems sourcing what I need, that I’ve begun to wonder whether her suggestion might have been easier.

I decided to start with plaice. Something familiar and therefore not too daunting. A peruse along my extensive cookery book shelf led to the plan of stuffing it with prawns, garlic, lemon and parsley. Mmmm. I set off optimistically to the supermarket with my list. Two whole plaice, prawns, garlic, two lemons and a bunch of flat-leaf parsley. But as a fish-buying virgin I hadn’t bargained on the fact that late on a Monday afternoon, two whole plaice would be so hard to find. I wandered around disconsolately and that night we had mushroom risotto.

The first day of the working week seems to be turning into fish Monday in my house, so the following one I turned my attention to skate. I’ve had this with black butter in restaurants several times, and like it very much. Again I identified a likely-looking recipe and again I needed lemon and parsley. Also capers, butter, white wine vinegar and two skate wings. I set off purposefully in my lunch hour to track them down. At the large branch of Sainsbury’s I ticked off nearly everything on my list and then joined the queue at the fish counter. The man who was serving there looked professional in his white coat and boater. I placed all my confidence in him. But I was misguided. “Oh, no”, he said. “We don’t stock skate”. “Try Asda”. Now, I only moved to this area a few months ago and am still finding my way round the city. But my knowledge was enough to be aware that this is a fifteen minute drive away and my lunch hour was rapidly disappearing. I thanked him, swore politely under my breath and paid for the fish-related things in my basket.

Back in the car and on my way to Asda, I spotted a branch of Waitrose. I was sure that they wouldn’t let me down so pulled into the car park. “Do you have a fish counter”, I asked an assistant, ever so slightly urgently. She smiled reassuringly and pointed towards the back of the store. There, lay a beautiful array of fish, all pink, white and grey with the odd bit of parsley scattered around for some visual satisfaction. And to my relief I counted six skate wings lying there enticingly. There were four people in the queue ahead of me so I resolved to wait patiently and try not to worry about the fact that I’d already used half of my lunch hour. Salmon for the first customer. Cod for the second. Scallops and monkfish for the third. And five skate wings for the fourth. Yes. Five skate wings.

I’ve rarely disliked anyone as much as this customer, and glowered at her as the assistant packed the fish into a bag and handed them over. Then it was my turn. “I need two skate wings”, I said looking sadly at the singleton on the slab. “Do you have any more?” The young assistant went off to check. She was only gone for three minutes but this was a significant proportion of my remaining lunch hour. No luck. I toyed with the idea of sharing one wing between two of us, but that seemed a waste of effort so I did a bit more swearing under my breath and set off for Asda.

Another fish counter that looked inviting. And I counted four skate wings. There were three people in the queue so I fidgeted and glared suspiciously as each one was served. Smoked haddock, prawns and cod were dispensed efficiently and then it was my turn. “Two skate wings” I panted, waiting for the hitch. But there was none, and the nice lady assistant popped them into a bag, and then sealed and weighed it. She started making pleasant conversation but I was in a hurry and not in the mood for small talk. I tried not to look rude whilst grabbing the bag and dashing to a vacant checkout. I put it on the conveyor belt and once again was faced with a chatty assistant. As I got my purse out to pay for my one item, she smiled. ‘That was a nice easy shop’, she said innocently.

I rushed back and arrived ten minutes late. That evening I chopped and stirred and the kitchen was full of a wonderful smell that took me back to various pubs I remember from my teenage years by the coast in Devon.  The skate with black butter was delicious.

This Monday it was seared scallops with a light dressing made of garlic, olive oil, finely chopped vine tomatoes and herbes de Provence. Rick Stein’s recipe didn’t let me down. And nor did Asda. I got what I wanted straightaway and even had time for a sandwich. Things in the world of fish are looking up.