dimanche 26 juin 2011

Remember Midsummer

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It lay forgotten at the back of the closet underneath the pile of heavy jumpers but as soon as I put on the blue cagoule, I found myself instantly transported back to Northumberland two years ago, the day spent in Seahouses visiting the Farn Islands when our boat was tossed by the waves and in spite of the grey skies and heavy showers everyone queued for ice cream. I bought the jacket at the National Trust shop along with a puffin (cuddly not real) and a small book on baking. When I returned to Seahouses last sumer, I spent a long moment standing on the jetty trying to engrave the smell of the sea in my memory so that I would always have the experience of being there but it faded almost as soon as the footprints left behind on the beach. It's difficult to explain why but just recently I've been lacking inspiration, feeling my heart yearn for other landscapes. It's always worse on days full of greyness and rain which take me back to my hotel room in Venice last autumn with its richly coloured wallpaper and dusty Murano glass chandeliers where I spent my time reading a book on Canaletto and a biography of Peggy Guggenheim. As strange as it seems, overcast skies and cool breezes are what I find most romantic.

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Yet there have been some wonderful moments this past week to open my eyes to the loveliness of Berlin; my friend Kat had her book launch for the exceptional Berliner Chic (review to follow here shortly, promise) at St. George's bookshop in Prenzlauer Berg. Arriving soaked to the skin with shoes full of water after walking through a downpour, it was lovely to be greeted by Kat in her beautiful electric blue dress and sip a glass of wine. The next evening, my friend Gabi kindly took me out for dinner at a wonderful Korean restaurant called Ixthys which is Greek for fish (please don't ask me to explain the name). It's perhaps one of the strangest places I've eaten in, with passages from the Bible written in German on all the walls and also in the menu and a tiny interior with no toilets where you have to share a table with other diners. But the food was exceptional, all prepared fresh and a generous portion of Bim Bam Bap, one of the best meals I've had in Berlin. My only regret was not taking my camera along. Next time though...

Tomorrow then I'll board the plane for Birmingham to spend the summer in England with its showers and sunshine so dear to my heart. There will undoubtadly be strawberries and cream, days spent watching Wimbledon addictively, eating dinner in the garden and reading Tove Jansson's the Summer Book and Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger in the shade of the apple tree.


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Brunch at Clärchens Ballhaus

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Coffee with Christine in Mitte

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My summer breakfast of porridge with strawberries

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My friend Sasa made an amazing rhubarb fool with brown sugar which you simply must try if you can still find the pink stuff

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On Alexanderplatz

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On Karl-Marx-Allee

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The great man himself...

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....and a few communist protesters

The other day while wandering around the stands at the tiny market near where I live, my eyes lit up when I spotted the first blackcurrants of the season, all rich and gleamingly luscious so I decided to try out a recipe for crumble squares with them because to me, nothing is more summery than the crunch of buttery streusel with the sharp juices of fresh fruit. They also freeze amazingly well so you might want to have these ready in advance for when the heatwave arrives. I made some changes to the original recipe though, exchanging white flour for spelt, white sugar for brown decreased the amount of butter and took buttermilk instead of ordinary milk.

Blackcurrant crumble squares (adapted from BBC Good Food 101 Cakes and Bakes)

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115g butter, softened
100g natural cane sugar
1 egg
250g spelt flour
1 tsp aluminium free baking powder
125ml buttermilk
200g fresh blackcurrants, destalked

For the crumble

50g natural cane sugar
40g spelt flour
25g cold butter

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C. Grease and line a 23cm square baking tin.
2. Cream the butter and sugar together by hand or with an electric mixer until soft and fluffy. Add the egg then carefully blend in the flour and baking powder, followed by the buttermilk until you have a smooth mixture.
3. Pour the mixture into the tin and smooth out until even. Sprinkle the blackcurrants on top.
4. In another bowl, combine the sugar and flour then rub in the butter until you have large flakes of crumble. Spoon over the blackcurrants and place the tin in the oven for 45 minutes or until the fruit has burst through. Remove from the oven and allow to cool in the tin before cutting into squares.

jeudi 9 juin 2011

Dinner for one

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I had a Proustian moment recently when Denise talked about watching the films Reality Bites and Singles on her exquisite blog and I found myself transported back to the early nineties, the times of Friends and Frasier, watching ER and Northern Exposure secretly when I should have been asleep, of wearing Kickers shoes and having permed hair. During the unending summer holidays I would spend afternoons at friends' houses or invite them over to mine and probably spent most time with C. who lived just down the road from the school. She had Asian eyes and very long hair, often worn back in a plait but sometimes loose and crimped. I generally turned up at her house late morning to watch the tennis from Wimbledon and later we walked up to the nearest town to grab a bite from an exotically named place called the Deli. Sometimes though we rented films from the local store and watched them at my house, one of which was Singles. C's mother had warned us against seeing it but I was still keen, especially knowing how much her mother disliked me for being rude whenever I asked for another drink at dinnertime. C. found it stupid, I loved it and ended watching most of it by myself. I dreamed of living in a complex with people like that who you could always hang out with or ask for advice, of being able to dry my laundry in the courtyard and meet guys at rock concerts or at the newstand.

16 years later, I put the DVD into my computer and could remember almost everything, as if time had stood still; Nancy's earrings, the garage door opener, the salad Bridget Fonda makes for herself and her sneezes, Cliff installing the car stereo. I also started thinking about the single life which I've now been living for a year and a half. At the beginning of every new English course, I normally invite my students to ask me questions and dread the almost inevitable "Are you married?" and "Do you have children?". I register their looks or surprise or disappointment and wonder why I let this bother me. Do I look so old that everyone assumes I must have a family? Is there really no other way to live? Do my male colleagues get asked the same things? Being single then is still considered a little desperate or to be pitied as I was reminded one day over lunch with my brother and his wife who pointed out that I shouldn't lose any time settling down since I was almost thirty then argued that I was still too young to know what I wanted when I replied that I didn't want to have a family.

Apart from one long relationship, all my others were short lived so I have often been single. Sometimes I used to worry about being alone, wondering if I should try online dating or imagining how I would meet The One on the journey to work, sitting next to each other at the latest Woody Allen film or reaching for the same volume of French literature in the library. Yet solitude has always been a part of who I am; I grew up almost as an only child since my other half siblings lived elsewhere or had already moved out, I was a loner at school and as I've said before, I need time both with and away from others. A student of mine described how she went from her parents' house straight into her marriage and couldn't imagine spending even one night without her family and looked horrified when I told her about my four days alone in Venice. In the shared flat in Charlottenburg, I dreamed of escaping to my own place amidst all the noise and chaos of my flatmate and her boyfriend but had an image in in my mind of a lonely person spending night after night eating a spaghetti dinner and watching a movie. Wouldn't I miss that interaction and wouldn't living on my own make me more aware of what was missing in my life? Almost a year later, I know neither of those things to be true; I have plenty of friends to spend time with and cook for. Even if I often watch DVDs alone, there's something deeply satisfying about preparing myself good food, not having to care about other people's tastes as I sit in my kitchen savouring the special moment that dinner represents for me. I wouldn't want you to think that my life is perfect; I still have plenty of meltdown moments, wondering which direction to take for the future and getting nervous if everything goes too well. Sometimes I miss cooking for others on a regular basis, of having someone to share things with but I wouldn't want to just be in a relationship in order not to be alone either and know there's nothing sad or pathetic about dinner for one.

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My flat, seen from the neighbour's balcony. The kitchen is on the left, the bathroom in the middle and the bedroom on the right.

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In Volkspark Friedrichshain

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Haus der Statistik, still there awaiting demolition

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This sounds a total contradiction but I rarely make one portion meals or desserts, preferring to freeze the leftovers or share with my friends and students. Last week, I finally took the plunge and made Kim Boyce's Olive Oil cake with chocolate chips and fresh rosemary from her book Good to the Grain. All through measuring out the ingredients and mixing, I was sceptical about whether this would be the cake for me. But it truly is as amazing as everyone says and I urge you to try it for yourselves before the hot weather makes it impossible to switch on the oven. I'd even go so far as to say it was one of the best cakes I've ever tasted.

Olive Oil Cake (from Good to the Grain, Luisa posted the recipe here a while back)

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