Enhanced Eating

brandenburg gate

In a previous post, The Old Man and the Pea, I mentioned that a 95-year old gentleman named Frank has recently moved into my house. It’s quite a change in lifestyle for him, and also for me. But so far things are going well. He seems to have no regrets, and nor do I.

However, it was sobering to realise recently that he has reached a stage of life where he has no plans. For him life is in the moment and small pleasures have to suffice. He can’t see or hear well enough to go out alone but he enjoys family life, sitting in the garden, trips to the pub, and listening to tapes about British history. He never turns down a biscuit or a gin and tonic and he generally eats whatever we put in front of him, quite cheerfully. We try to remember to tell him what it is but in the flurry of getting everyone’s food on the table this sometimes gets overlooked. There have been many times when he’s got to the end of a meal and said that he has no idea what it was, but it ‘tasted nice’.

frank gin and tonic

In contrast, I’m still at the stage of life where I’m able to have a head full of plans for the places I want to go and the things I want to do. I love my list and one of my favourite treats so far has been a visit to Berlin two summers ago with Mike and my two youngest children, Henry and Molly. I expected it to be both vibrant and affecting, and so it was. I was impressed by the candour with which Berlin’s terrible history is recounted. And it was fascinating to see the remains of the Wall and to read stories of the people who were affected by it. But those are tales for another day as recently I’ve been remembering the holiday for a different reason. Our trip to a dark restaurant.

The first dark restaurant opened in Zurich in 1999 and there are now a number scattered throughout the world. The concept behind it is to take away your sense of sight so that your other senses are heightened. Some of these restaurants provide blindfolds to their customers but most create a dark environment. The one that we visited makes the enterprising claim that it is 32% darker than all other dark restaurants.berlin skyline

We went at the end of a busy day of sightseeing and were shown into a dimly lit bar where we ordered drinks. The barman gave us menus and told us to choose between five options; beef, poultry, fish, vegetarian and surprise. Mike chose vegetarian, Henry and Molly opted for fish and my choice was poultry. We could see from the printed menus that we would be having four courses but there was no clue what the food would be. Mike’s starter was described as ‘a taste of Aztecan masculinity on wavy green and voluptuous red bedding’, and I was already looking forward to my dessert which promised ‘a dark beauty, illuminated by the delicate seduction and admiration of her rosy companions’.

Our blind waiter, Ben, came and introduced himself and told us the two basic rules. We were not to move around the restaurant without a guide, and we must carry no light source of any kind including lighters, mobile phones and watches. Then he instructed us to form a conga line with him in front and he led us round a corner until the outside world was left behind and everything went black. He took us to our table and explained where the chairs were. I couldn’t tell if I was standing in front of the chair or behind and had to ask.

berlin black

I shall never forget the next two hours. Ben arrived periodically with a tray and talked to us carefully as he gave us our food. ‘Now Mike, I am passing the soup to you. Pass it on to Henry’. ‘Imagine that your place setting is a clock. Your spoons are at twelve o’clock.’ At first we were quiet as we ate. The food was delicious but perplexing and it required concentration. We sought clues in the texture and smell as well as the flavour. I could tell that my starter included satay sauce, but other ingredients were elusive. Then we started offering one another samples and debating what they might be. We could hear other people talking but they seemed to be some distance away. At one point a bottle smashed to the ground.

black square

There was a longish break between the first and second course and to pass the time, I started a game. I asked everyone to name a place that they love and to say why. Molly’s was Chatsworth which we’d recently visited together, Henry’s was New York because of the jazz and the bustle, Mike chose Johannesburg for its vibrant modern African culture and mine was Monterey in California. I have memories of sitting in an oceanside shack restaurant at Fisherman’s Wharf. As I ate clam chowder I watched pelicans bobbing on the water and sea otters and dolphins playing in the distance. When we’d all had our turn we had another couple of rounds with music and films. I learned new things about my companions and realised that I was listening wholeheartedly whereas normally my attention would be diluted by looking at people around me. Their clothes, what they were eating, how they were relating to one another…

At the end when we went back into the light I saw a big red stain down the front of my dress. The ‘rosy companions’ were clearly some kind of red fruit. We did find out what we’d been eating before we left but I won’t spoil the surprise in case you ever decide to go. I highly recommend it. You can find details by clicking here.

We really enjoyed the food even though we didn’t know what it was. Nor did we know what our surroundings looked like. They could have been anywhere on a scale from opulent to minimalist. We had to be accepting of what was provided to us. And without distractions we focused on the moment with nothing to anchor us other than the people around us. I’ve thought a lot about this experience recently. I wonder if it gives a bit of insight into how mealtimes feel for my 95-year old future father-in-law.

plate

Crimson lake

claire - still life

In June 1936, Salvador Dali appeared on stage in London at the International Surrealist Exhibition. He wore a deep-sea diving helmet, and held a billiard cue in one hand. In his other hand was a leash. This had a pair of Afghan hounds attached to it. Speaking in Catalan, he launched into a lecture about a philosophy student who survived for a month by eating his way through a mirror-fronted wardrobe. Unfortunately, a few minutes into the address some of his audience noticed that he was turning puce and slowly suffocating. A poet was dispatched to find a spanner but in the meantime a quick-thinking member of the audience managed to prise open the window of his helmet. He took a few deep breaths and then carried on with his lecture. It was reported that some of the slides were upside down, but whether this was because of discomfiture or surrealist contrariness, history does not recount. It does record, though, that the audience loved what they saw and thought that it was all a well-rehearsed act.

dali

I want to produce a piece of art. Not performance art. What I want is something tangible. Call me mundane but I want something I can frame and hang on the wall. The problem is that I can’t draw. Or perhaps the problem is that I believe I can’t draw. That’s the message I got from my parents and teachers from when I was small. But despite this I loved messing about with my little tin paintbox with the thin dimpled lid. The names of the colours were mystifying but also exotic and fascinating. Crimson lake…burnt sienna… ultramarine…I want to play with these again and to challenge my view of myself as a non-artist.

paintbox

The good news is that according to research carried out by psychologists at University College, London, then anyone can learn to draw. But most people don’t practise enough. Like me, they’re put off by being told that their early attempts don’t look anything like they’re ‘supposed to’. It’s true that some lucky people are blessed with a better visual memory than others. This makes it easier to remember the relationship between lines and angles and to transfer them to the page, authentically. The research also says that it’s important to be able to ignore the surroundings and to focus on the detail.

Each of my sixty treats has had its moment and recently I’ve been pondering how I’m going to make this art one come to life. Then, just as happened with my crossword treat, I realise that I’ve found what I need. A friend who can help me, and who in spending time with me will turn it from an activity into a true treat. Claire.

Not only does Claire paint portraits and still lifes, but she’s also an experienced art teacher. And luckily for me, she’s got a special interest in helping people who don’t think they can draw or paint. She gets them to think of vivid childhood memories and when they try to capture them on paper, they forget their inhibitions. I ask if she could help me to do my project and am thrilled when she agrees. We’ve fixed a date in August when I’m going to go and stay for a couple of days. In the meantime she’s given me a smart hardback notebook and instructions to think about childhood memories and to gather relevant images but not to start drawing anything yet. So I’m immersed at the moment in recollections of my childhood where the river met the sea in Devon. Of slipping about on the seaweedy steps that led from the embankment to the water where I’d catch tiddlers in my stiff little nylon fishing net. Of the smuts and sulphurous coal smoke as the steam train puffed by full of lobster-red tourists. And of the ferry that crossed the river with a cormorant sitting motionless on the prow. So much is coming back to me that I haven’t thought of for years…

dartmouth smaller

The Clock Struck One

clock

In the last post, Riding on Branch Lines, I said that unexpected things often happen when I’m immersed in a ‘treat’. My fish project has been no exception. This treat has involved cooking ten different fish and was prompted by my lack of confidence with seafood. I’ve always been put off by the bones, strange appearance, and fierce warnings about overcooking.

In Fish Mondays, I described how I had problems in sourcing the ingredients at the beginning but that once I discovered the seafood section at my local Asda, this got easier. Last week was the penultimate fish and we had sea bass. However, this week, for the final flourish, things got a bit tricky. I’d exhausted all the unfamiliar species at the supermarket counter and had to look further afield. I decided that my best bet was the Wednesday market fish stall in the nearby town of Winchester. This was also a good opportunity to visit the specialist clock shop in the town centre and get some advice about my large oak mantel clock which is incapable of keeping the correct time.

I arrived early at the market with my clock in a plastic carrier bag and sure enough there was an enticing display of fish, many of which I now recognised. I deliberated over the huss but eventually opted for turbot. These are large, heavy flat fish and I bought one to share between two. I also bought some new season asparagus at the neighbouring vegetable stall.

Whilst in town I thought I’d try to solve another problem that’s been bothering me for a while. My bedroom overlooks the neighbours’ garden and when I’m getting dressed we regularly surprise one another. Although I’ve managed to avoid net curtains for most of my life, I decided recently that the time has come to give in to modesty, so when I passed a fabric shop, I went in and bought a couple of metres of the plainest muslin available.

By this time I was a bit weighed down and the bags were banging against my legs. The clock clanged as I walked and every now and again it made a half-hearted attempt at a chime. Then, as I was making my discordant progress through the town centre I spotted Winchester Cathedral and it occurred to me that I could soak up a bit of history before going home. Within a couple of minutes I was at the main door and as I stepped inside, the clock chimed one o’clock which was both embarrassing and inaccurate. “I’d love to look around” I said to the man at the ticket desk, “but I’ve got a lot to carry. Could you possibly look after this?” I handed him my clock and as I did so it attempted to strike again. “Could you take this, too?” I asked handing him a large flat parcel. “What is it?” he said suspiciously. “A turbot” I replied. “A what?” “A turbot”. “Oh, and I’ve got this” I said handing him the muslin curtain. I paid for my ticket and was just about to join the guided tour when I noticed the bunch of asparagus sticking out of my bag. “I suppose you want to leave that too?” he said, taking the words from my mouth.

asparagus

The next hour was absorbing and delightful. I stood on Jane Austen’s gravestone in the nave and squinted up at the window dedicated to her memory. A pane at the top depicts St Augustine from whose name, Austen is derived. I walked across decorative floor tiles dating from the 13th Century, and then as I turned a corner towards the high altar my mouth dropped open at the enormous, ornate stone screen. I also learned about the hero who saved the cathedral. There was a great deal of structural movement at the start of the 20th century as the building was erected on a wooden raft over a peat bog. At first, the engineers tried pumping the water out but this made the subsidence worse, so in 1905 they brought in William Walker. He was a Royal Navy diver who worked every weekday for five and a half years. He would dive into the water under the cathedral and pull out the peat with his bare hands, replacing it with concrete and bricks. Each day he spent half an hour getting into his diving suit and would then work two three-hour shifts, emerging after the first one to smoke his pipe and eat a mutton pie. He obviously did a thorough job as the cathedral has only moved one millimetre during the past century.

diving helmet

The tour ended in the crypt where the Anthony Gormley statue, Sound II, stands beneath the arches. The sculptor models all his statues on his own body so it’s eerily lifelike. The crypt was dry when I visited, but in the winter it floods and so the figure is often up to its knees in water. I also learned a new word, which is something that always cheers me up. The monks used to attend eight services a day as well as High Mass. They weren’t allowed to sit down but they did have a kind of bottom rest that they could lean against. This is called a misericord.

With my ecclesiastical diversion over, I returned to the desk. “Please could I have my clock, asparagus, net curtain and turbot?” The obliging attendant looked relieved to see the back of me and my bags, and I was pleased to have spoken a sentence that I’ve almost certainly never said before. In fact I have to wonder whether anyone has ever spoken that particular combination of words.

Getting back to the fish project, it’s been interesting to discover that in common with many of the thirty-seven preceding treats, it has changed me. I now have many new dishes in my repertoire. And something surprising happened half-way through. With the first few fish I was cautious, perusing cookery books for instructions and following them carefully. But by the time I got to the fifth one, I realised that fish really is very easy to cook and this gave me the confidence to experiment. The details are on the Fish Recipes page.

Next…vegetables.

sound II

And following on from the last post there are now a number of new lists on the Treats Collection page. Thank you to everyone who has contributed so far.

Riding on branch lines

steam train

I think the time has come to broaden this out a bit. You’ve heard about some of the treats on my list. Now I want to hear about yours. As I said in Permutations, the chances are that many of my treats won’t appeal to you – and I probably won’t like some of yours. But it’s always intriguing to see what people come up with when they give free rein to their imagination.

Taking the time to think about what you really want to do and committing it to a list has benefits that aren’t immediately apparent. At first it might seem self-indulgent and even a little narcissistic. But all I can say is that these mini-projects have brightened my life immeasurably over the past few years. They’ve propped me up, filled in gaps and offered unexpected experiences.

Knowing what’s on someone’s wish list tells you a lot about them. Are they thrill-seeking, contemplative or a mixture?  Who has influenced and inspired them? What have they done, or missed out on, that makes these dreams special to them? You learn surprising things about people – even those you think you know well. Try asking friends and family and see what you discover-  (it helps with present-giving too, particularly for ‘got everything’ kind of people).

Some of my friends and family have lists and I’ve posted these on The Treats Collection page. They range from
‘visiting all the churches in Oranges and Lemons’ and ‘taking a friend on a barge holiday’, to being an extra in a film and going to Oktoberfest. If you have some ideas you want to share then I can add them to the page. I use the model of `60 treats before I’m 60’ and fully intend if I live long enough to reward myself with 70 new ones on my next major birthday to soften the blow. You might be less greedy than me, and have only a few. But however many you have, I’d love to hear about them. You can email me on 60treatsandmore@gmail.com

We also might differ in how we approach them. My project has evolved with time, and now it works very well for what I want. It’s guided by just a few principles. The first is that I don’t plan treats very far ahead. If I had rigid dates in my diary or head, for when they should happen then they’d become a burden. Instead, I try to allow things to unfold when the time is right – it’s amazing how opportunities present themselves. When my concentration was shot to pieces a couple of years ago, my riding treat was just what I needed. For that hour each week I had to put my grief on one side and simply focus on not falling off. But I didn’t know when I wrote my list that this was how my horsey encounters would work out. Then at other times treats have fallen into place because I’ve suddenly had a bit of time to fill – or a special person I’ve wanted to spend time with. Perusing the list and pondering which to pick next is like choosing from a very classy box of chocolates.

Beyond the essentials, then I’ve not planned the treats themselves a great deal. For nearly four years now, I’ve been having adventures by darting down absorbing little alleys and riding along branch lines. Many are too good to ignore. When I start out, I never know where they’ll take me. A highlight of my make-up project was discovering a rich crimson Russian cafe, and a trip to Greenwich Market included an unexpected criminal encounter.

branch line

The second of my guiding principles has been that once written, the list is non-negotiable. When I told my friend Esther about this, she said pragmatically “but you can change it as you go through, can’t you?” “No”, I said, feeling panicky at the very thought. There’s a good reason for that. For years I had no way of holding on to the things I longed to do. Ideas popped into my head but when confronted with other priorities, they popped straight out again. It’s only been by making a list and committing it to paper, that I’ve started to feel that these things are possible. If I keep changing the list, then I am forever on shifting sands.

For most of my adult life there has been some member of the family needing me to do something for them. Sometimes they’ve all wanted things at the same time. I recall one unusually orderly occasion when all four children formed a queue as they waited to speak to me. One wanted me to sign a school trip form and write a cheque; another burst into tears and needed a hug. I can’t remember what the other two wanted, but I do know that when Will’s issue had been dealt with, he went straight to the back of the queue and lined up again. Being a mother has affected most of what I’ve done for twenty-seven years. My sister has four children, too, and it’s been the same for her. She once turned up at a hospital appointment and was mortified to be shown a letter that she’d written to the consultant and signed ‘love Mum’.

The third of my guiding principles is to believe that each treat will happen. That somewhere an opportunity will present itself. Somehow in the next three years, nine months and eleven days I have to get to Japan. I’m not sure when or how I’m going to manage it, but I remain steadfastly optimistic.

bullet train

*****

And once again the final word concerns fish. Fish Mondays have continued, so I’ve added hake and swordfish to the Fish Recipes page.

Cruciverbal Thursdays

 crossword start   biscuits

Words are such a source of pleasure and fascination. It improves my life no end, to know for example, that pantophobia is not a fear of lingerie but is instead a fear of everything, and that a gongoozler is someone who stands and stares idly at canal boats and locks. And I probably spend more time than I should, puzzling idly over the fact that I’ve never heard anyone say that they’re gruntled, and wondering why I’ve been both overwhelmed and underwhelmed, but never knowingly, whelmed.

Then there are the words that are intriguing because they’re counterintuitive. If someone says that they’re a peripatetic teacher, my reflex reaction is to commiserate. Bucolic sounds more belligerent than idyllic and for years I could not remember what colour vermillion is. Somehow it just doesn’t sound like red. Do choirboys wear hassocks or cassocks? I’m never quite sure. And which man would be brave enough to flatter his wife by telling her she is ‘truly pulchritudinous’?

However, despite having a largely happy relationship with words, I’ve never been able to get on with cryptic crosswords. Although I can do the simple crossword adequately, its wittier sibling stumps me. The clues make no sense at all, and leave me fretting that I’m not intelligent enough. But I’m trying to connect with the world better, and so a desire to join the select, knowing club of crossword enthusiasts led me to put ‘learn about cryptic crosswords’ on my list of sixty things to do.

Like all the other ‘treats’ it was entered onto the list enthusiastically but it stayed there ignored, while I enjoyed some of the easier things.  One of the problems was knowing where to start. I tried looking at the solutions and working back from there, but most of the time I was no wiser for knowing the answers. Then I thought I’d try a book. There are many which promise to cast light on cryptic mysteries but even though I gave it my best efforts, and had a few enlightening and satisfying moments, it was frankly tedious. Not for the first time, I reminded myself that treats aren’t meant to be hard work. I did learn, though, that the crossword was invented in the US in 1913. It was called a word-cross at first, but within just a few weeks it had settled into its familiar name due to a typesetting error.

Perhaps there might be a course or seminar I could attend? I searched the internet optimistically but there was nothing. This gave me a clue, though as I realised that what I’d been missing is having other people to learn with. Books always look exciting and I set out with good intentions, but then I lose confidence and concentration. When you’re learning with other people you can ask questions, have a bit of distracting chat, and a laugh, and then get back to the issue in question.

Then suddenly one morning, the answer popped into my head and I thought of my friend, Caroline. I remembered how when life was tricky, several years ago, I would sit in her pretty garden as she plied me with tea and homemade cake, handed out tissues, and made kind noises. I remembered, too, that she completes The Daily Telegraph crossword every day.

“Could you give me six Cryptic Crossword Masterclasses?” I asked when we next met for lunch in town. She looked a bit surprised to be cast as an expert in this way, but quickly agreed and we settled on fortnightly Thursday morning sessions at her house.

I looked forward to our first meet-up, and it didn’t disappoint. We started with coffee, biscuits and family news and then I stepped into a world where a flower can be a river and butter can mean a ram or a goat. Caroline had done her preparation well and had a stock of crosswords for us to work through.

She started with anagrams. If a clue includes words like otherwise, different, reformed, inside out, and brew this will often denote that there’s an anagram in the vicinity. She pointed out that in ‘I leave guy floundering in a prestigious academic group’ (3, 6), the word ‘floundering’ was telling us that the solution is an anagram. And so I rearranged the words ‘I leave guy’ and there like magic was the answer; ’Ivy League’.

Gradually I learned all kinds of tricks and we filled in more of the solutions. Caroline taught me to look at words in a different way. In the clue ‘A well-oiled lock’ (5), she steered me away from keys, grease and latches. “Think of another kind of lock” she said, and so eventually we got to hair, and the solution, which is ‘quiff’. Next she covered some of the common conventions. The letter ‘t’ can be signalled literally by ‘tip of the tongue’; ‘learner’ often indicates ‘L’ because of L-plates, and more often than not, the word ‘artist’ in a clue suggests the letters ‘RA’  (from Royal Academician). Using that tip, Caroline guided me through ‘They support British artists’ (4) to the solution of ‘bras’. I liked that one. Solving a clue brings a rush of pleasure. After an hour and a half we’d had lots of chat, eaten through a plate of biscuits and drunk a whole pot of coffee. We’d also completed a crossword and I was on a high. We arranged another session in two weeks and Caroline handed me a grid to do in the meantime.

The next day I sat down to solve the clues. But I searched in vain for all the conventions I’d learned, and saw none. I solved one anagram, got a short-lived high from that, and then sat disconsolately for half an hour. I owned up to Caroline at our next session, a couple of weeks later but she was cheerful and explained that there are hundreds of conventions to learn. Over the next couple of months I jotted down many of these in my pink notebook and gradually managed to solve more clues.

Part-way through this process I set off on the train to Leicester to visit friends for the weekend, taking my pink notebook and a newspaper with me. As usual the crossword looked impenetrable at first, and this time there was no Caroline to coax me through. But a train journey was just what I needed. The luxury of uninterrupted time when I could worry away at the clues. By the time I arrived I’d solved a third of them. The next morning I remembered that my hosts are cryptic fans, so I fished out my crossword and together we sat in the garden and finished it. Then they produced their favoured puzzle, the Saturday Guardian. This was quite different from the Telegraph, and notably lewd. All weekend in between doing lots of other fun things we returned to the crossword. Each solution brought a little moment of happiness and I realised then that this initially solitary pursuit had become surprisingly sociable.

I got a lot out of my cryptic crossword immersion and one of the pleasures was discovering some of the clues which are so witty that they’ve become legendary. These are three of my favourites. The answers are at the end.

  • Of of of of of of of of of of (10)
  • Gegs? (9,4)
  • HIJKLMNO (5)

And while I’m on the subject of words I want to say something about ‘treat’. It’s the word I’ve used to describe the sixty things I’m trying to do. It was fine when I started, but it’s not completely accurate anymore. It’s become inadequate to describe what these things are doing for me. I’ve tried to think of a more apposite word but can’t come up with anything that sounds right. ‘Goals’ is too worthy, ‘challenges’ too exhausting, ‘pleasures’ sounds a bit dodgy, and ‘experiences’ is both dull and passive. Other ideas I’ve had are pretentious or just plain silly.

There is a definite problem, though, in that ‘treat’ conjures up the image of something lightweight and fluffy. It’s true that some of them have a light froth on the surface, but as they become real they grow roots that anchor my life and stop me from being washed around. They’re not about self-indulgence. They’re helping me recover from challenging life events and to stay passably sane. In the absence of anything better, I’ll have to stick with ‘treat’, at least for the time being. Perhaps from now on when I say the word, I should toss my head and roll my eyes with post-modern irony.

 crosswordend

Answers

  • Oftentimes
  • Scrambled eggs
  • Water (think….H to O)

And here’s one I prepared earlier:

OK, so the auditory apparatus is inside out, and it’s caught between the tips of two tongues… it’s still pretty special. (5)

And a final word ...Fish Mondays have continued. Lemon sole and sea bream are now on the fish recipes page.

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.