To be honest, the idea of a best friend troubles me a little but that's quite likely because I've never been one nor had one myself. When people I know talk about a best friend, I wonder what it is that makes the difference to the others around them, that special openness they must have together which I've never been able to achieve. I guess though I've always been a bit of a loner and growing up, I was cripplingly shy, although no-one today believes me. To get to school in the morning, I caught the bus which left from the bottom of the drive. It was the first stop and I took my place at the front with the few other passengers from my village. From my other posts, you probably realise that I wasn't the most popular girl in my class but the older kids would always stop and ask me if I was alright. I try to imagine how small and lost I must have looked back then. Always the last to be picked for the sports team, people found me strange and there was also the fear I had in the pit of my stomach whenever I needed to talk to others, a fear that made me spend ages going over every sentence in my mind first. So instead, I became the quiet one who sat in the corner. There were the nerds I hung out with, the class stars but somehow I felt they didn't really take me seriously.
Instead the books I read became my friends and I relied on my over-active imagination to fill the times alone. In my family, everyone else was much older; my father's children had already left home to study by the time I was born and my mother's lived with their father. Their visits were always a highlight for me and I felt a rush of excitement whenever the car appeared to drop them off. Lying in bed at night, I could hear them playing snooker downstairs and there were the non-stop cricket matches in the garden and the games together in the sunshine. Yet sometimes there was also jealousy; my youngest half-brother was the opposite of me. Even as a teenager, he was amazingly popular, charming, good looking, funny, the type of person who tans easily and makes friends without even trying. I wondered how we could be so different. In many ways though, I felt like an only child and sometimes regret not having the complicity of someone my own age growing up with whom I could share so many memories.
At university it became easier to make friends. You simply took a seat next to others in the large lecture hall and talked to them. Everyone was new, a little lost and not concerned about your appearence. Yet whenever I had to go into a room of strangers, the question rushing through my mind was whether people would like me or not. Like with my friend D. whom I once wrote about, friendship for me was about liking the same things, thinking the same way, someone who could finsih your sentences and intuitively knew what you were thinking before you even did yourself. I started giving those I liked books that meant a lot to me; Stendhal's Le rouge et le noir, Laclos' Les Liasons Dangereuses, L'étranger by Camus, novels by Paul Auster and Fitzgerald, as well as lending them my favourite films by Antonioni, Malle, Kieslowski, Bergman and Truffaut. If they could respond to them in the same way, surely that was sign we were meant to be great friends. Not surprisingly, my high expectations were often disappointed.
When I started teaching though, my beliefs crumbled away. The students I had weren't necessarily interested in literature or arthouse cinema, but I found a natural rapport with them. Even if we didn't have the same tastes, I realised it doesn't always matter.
I'm not the kind of person who minds spending time alone; there's the freedom to do what you like, whenever you want, you can immerse yourself in the velvety darkness of a cinema without worrying if the other person will think you're silly for crying, I need those moments to read, reflect and know who I am. Yet, baking and cooking are for me sociable things and I also know that I need to share that with those around me. I'm lucky to know them even if I may not be their best friend.
Last week, I had beans on toast for the first time in years. It brought back good memories of my childhood when I'd return from swimming club starving and often had this for tea.
Italian hazelnut cake
If you'd told me before I'd be this crazy about a hazelnut cake, I wouldn't have believed you. Between you and me, food with nuts gets on my nerves, all that crunching and then the bits stuck between your teeth. Yet toasted, ground in a food processer, they take on a delicate flavour in a cake which I found irresistable.
2oog hazelnuts, shelled
125g butter, unsalted
100g caster sugar
4 eggs, separated
150g plain flour
1 heaped tsp baking powder
1. Pre-heat the oven to 180°C and toast the hazelnuts on a lined baking sheet, being careful not to burn them
2. With a knife, carefully peel off as much of the outer layer as possible (it doesn't always work but personally, I didn't find the bits of sheel as all noticeable in the final cake). Tip them into a food processor and grind them with the sharpest blade as finely as possible.
3. Cream the butter, sugar and eggs yolks together until light and fluffy. Pour in the flour and baking powder, followed by the ground hazelnuts.
4. In a clean separate bowl, beat the egg whites until you have stiff peaks then gently fold them into the cake mixture. Pour the batter into a lined and greased Springform tin and bake at 170°C for about 30-40 mins.