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Walking again…

Our friend Romaine was here for a few days and took her daily short walk up the road with Meredith.

“Robin not walking anymore?”

“Seems not at the moment….”

This comment was duly reported back to the sometime walker who was busy watching others exert themselves impressively in the World Athletic Championships–enjoyable.

No immediate reaction then from the “no-longer” walker.

The comment, however, left its mark–like a nagging truth one’s been trying to ignore.

At supper last night prompted by Ben, our sleek, fleet of foot, black cat–mercury on the move–agitating for a postprandial forage, the subject came up again.

“You’ve given up walking?”

“Uhm…”

I had just eaten–I say it myself–a delicious plate of Mellanzane Parmigiana (aubergine in tomato sauce with parmesan)* and simple tomato salad–and was feeling benign–not like walking exactly, at that moment you understand, but positive towards the idea of walking again.

I heard myself saying:

“I should walk at 6am at this time of year–before the sun gets up and it gets too hot.”

My relationship with the sun changed a few years ago, after a small operation to remove a squamous cell carcinoma close to my nose.

The fiery beast has become like a friend you’ve fallen out with–and cross the road to avoid.

I spend my time dodging the ultra-violet.

Sad paranoia.

Silly too, as I have hats–effective ones–and sunblock.

The former I enjoy, the latter I don’t.

The remark at dinner was well-timed and I resolved to get up at 6am and walk.

I didn’t commit to this publicly at the time, which meant that this morning it was with a glow of virtuousness that I delivered Meredith her hot drink at 7.30.

“You went for a walk?!”

Yes–and as I left the “precincts,” I saw a small figure approaching out of the darkness, as surprised to see me as I was to see him.

Beau takes his duties seriously

Our head cat–Beau–was out on his early morning walk–patrolling the perimeter.

We greeted–and went our ways….

Beau, night work completed, takes a break.

 

  • see page 176 of my book Mediterranean Cooking for Diabetics

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s the 14th July–Bastille Day.

Anniversary of the storming of the Bastille Prison in 1789–the start of the French Revolution.

In Paris, the Presidents of France and the US are also commemorating another momentous event–America’s entry into the First World War in 1917.

There’ll be military parades and firework displays all over France; there were fireworks in Lautrec last night.

It’s busy, busy–out there.

Here in a quieter corner of Southwest France, it’s simply summer and the living is easy; the mornings are cool and the cats are lying around.

The first figs–les figues fleurs–are dropping and making a mess in the courtyard.

Time to slow down and count one’s blessings.

Time to plan a lunch for the Garlic Festival–in the first week of August.

Time to consult the multitude of cookbooks on the shelves in the larder.

Cookbooks are perched on tables and chairs and falling off dressers.

Experiments are under way in the kitchen–and food is spilling out of the fridge.

Some cookery books one buys on a whim and after the initial thumb-through, sit unused, gathering dust.

Until moments of calm like this–when a glance at the shelves finds books that I had forgotten were there.

Honey from a Weed is one such.

Written in the 1980s by Patience Gray, it is one of those “old fashioned” cookbooks–no photos, just beautiful sketches telling everyday stories–discursive, setting the recipes against a backdrop of place and personal experience.

This wonderful book is the story of the artist/writer’s life in three Mediterranean locations over years living with her “mystery” partner, simply referred to as “The Sculptor“.

The locations are all in places where marble is quarried.

In Catalonia, in Spain, on the Greek island of Naxos and most famously in Carrarra in Tuscany–where Michelangelo once quarried his stone.

I am reading her cookbook with relish this summer.

For me, here’s a perfect example of how to write a recipe.

In a few lines it manages to tell us the what and the how–and finish nicely describing the natural emergence of a sauce that makes the mouth water.

(Ask the fishmonger to do the middle paragraph!).

 

 

 

 

 

 

We are having Aubergine Tortino for lunch.

Grilled aubergine slices baked in a tomato sauce, parmesan cheese and egg base.

A savory cake.

A small salad would cut the richness–but alas, there is no lettuce in the fridge.

However there is an overload of parsley.

I bought a ridiculous amount last Saturday anticipating making lots of green sauce for the chicken at the Independence Day lunch party. It’s still fresh in the fridge. I have a eureka moment…!

Parsley Salad!

Check the Internet for hints–but the Internet is down–as it often is in rural France.

Check my cookbook library and–BINGO! Riverford Farm’s second cookbook delivers.

Here’s my version:

In a pretty bowl mix:

  • 50gms flat leaf parsley–roughly chopped (i.e. left a bit leafy)
  • 50gms red onion–chopped finely
  • 6 anchovy fillets–roughly chopped
  • 2 tbs capers–left whole
  • 1 tomato–skinned, seeded and chopped

 

For the vinaigrette:

  • 1 tbs red wine vinegar,
  • 4tbs olive oil
  • a pinch of black pepper
  • (no salt–as I’m using the anchovies, which are already salty; try feta if you don’t like anchovies)

Just before you eat:

With two forks and a light hand mix the contents of the bowl together.

The aim is to keep the delicate salad from getting soggy.

At the last moment add three spoonfuls of the vinaigrette to the bowl and again lightly fluff up the contents of the salad.

(Should you need more dressing, you have extra to hand.)

A Winston moment…

On my way down to breakfast this morning, I happened to glance at this photo of Winston and me on the bookshelf.

“Winston!” I thought–there he is; there we are–smiling at the camera–a moment in time.

Winston Graham–a person of great significance in my life!

In the snapshot we are on our back patio in north London, sometime in the early nineties; maybe he’s come to dinner.

It was a brief moment of remembrance.

Days are made up of them. This was a Winston moment.

Late this afternoon, Meredith comes into the kitchen here and says,

“You know it’s Winston Graham’s birthday today? Maybe you should write something…”

I didn’t say, “Winston’s already tipped me the wink!”

Today is his 109th birthday!

Born in 1908 in Manchester, he moved with his family to Perranporth in Cornwall in 1925 after his father died prematurely at 53.

There he married Jean Williamson–whom he’d first met when she was 13 (Demelza’s age when she first met Ross at the fair!). He was just 18. They lived in Cornwall for the next 25 years, bringing up their two children, Andrew and Rosamund.

Winston steeped himself in Cornish history and customs. He wrote the first book of the saga–Ross Poldark--in 1945.

Eleven more books followed. The last in the saga– Bella Poldarkwritten when he was 92!

London Films, the company founded by Alexander Korda, bought the film rights, but–luckily for me and all us Poldarkians–they never managed to make a movie of it.

Instead they teamed up with the Beeb to make the first series in 1975.

And here we are forty years on and the second adaptation is thrilling a new generation of fans.

Bonne Anniversaire, Winston!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Searching for Dad

We have come to Falcon Field, in Mesa, 20 miles east of Phoenix, Arizona, in search of my father, Anthony Gerald Ellis.

Dad trained to be a fighter pilot for the Royal Air Force (RAF) here in 1944 under a scheme started in 1941 to help shore-up the war effort in Europe.

Many young British pilots had perished in The Battle of Britain in 1940.

Falcon Field was one of several airfields in the USA where members of the RAF—in my father’s case, a flight technician–could train in safety, get their wings and return to the war in Europe.

Dad is standing on the far left under the numeral 2 on the fuselage.

The story of Dad’s American odyssey had long been a part of our family mythology.

His almost permanent tan marked him out as someone who had spent many months in the notorious heat of southwestern United States.

I remember looking in awe at the colour photos in the magazine, Arizona Highways, that would arrive monthly all through the fifties.

Tony, as he was called, was “adopted”—as were all the young fliers—by a family in Phoenix for the duration of his stay.

In his case it was the Smith family whose mission was to make him feel at home at weekends and American holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas–far from his wife (my mother) and me (a two-year-old) back home in war-weary Britain.

(We would love to locate that family–but their name was Smith! They had a daughter named Polly who might be alive still and remember Tony Ellis.)

Meredith and I and our friend Katie Solon arrive at the museum at 9am and the two volunteer receptionists greet us warmly.

When they hear WHY we have come—to find evidence of my father’s time at Falcon Field–they are immediately interested.

“We need to find Dennis Lemon” they agree, “He’s your man—Dennis knows everything there is to know about Falcon Field and its past.”

A promising start, I am thinking, with a rising feeling of hope and expectancy.

For the next two hours that feeling does not evaporate in the intense heat—already 100 degrees! Rather it grows in strength, thanks to the skills of Mr. Dennis Lemon.

Dennis is a senior docent or tour guide at the air museum–and imparts his encyclopedic knowledge of the airfield and its exhibits with charm, humor and authority–and a light touch. He does not rush.

I explain our mission and he is fully engaged–and promises a visit to the archives before the morning ends.

As we start our tour in the first of the two huge hangars that house the museum, a small plane—an F4F Wildcat–taxis out, its propellers spluttering into life with deafening effect.

Dennis explains that it is owned by the pilot who regularly takes it out occasionally for a “run” .

The noise intensifies as the pilot gives us a wave and goes on his way towards the runway.

We spend the morning here in Mesa fascinated by the range of aviation history on show.

There are flying machines from the First World War so flimsy looking that the thought of taking off in one–let alone sparring with the enemy from the cockpit–gives me the shivers.

At the other end of aviation history there is the sinister presence of a Soviet MIG fighter flown here by a Hungarian pilot and gifted to the museum.

In between, airplanes large and small and middling–lovingly cared for–and in some cases prepared for take-off–by a small army of veterans and enthusiasts dedicated to maintaining and growing this remarkable museum as a living and working reminder of the story of war in the air.

Dennis takes us inside the fuselage of a World War 2 Bomber.

With our friend Katie inside the bomber

It is cramped, claustrophobic and unbearably HOT.

The difficult conditions experienced by bomber crews flying into a combat zones suddenly become vividly clear.

We feel humbled–and relieved to get our feet back on the ground.

Poignantly for me, Dennis points out three small aircraft similar to the ones in which my father would have done his training.

One I recognize from a war photo on a wall at home.

A second was involved in a story he used to tell his impressionable sons about his time at Falcon Field.

One morning he took off with others on a training flight going north in the direction of the Grand Canyon.

At a certain point the pilots were instructed to turn RIGHT (east)–and return to Falcon Field.

Dad’s mantra for life was Don’t rock the boat!-but he always maintained that he ignored the order, turned LEFT and flew over the Grand Canyon!

Dennis has an amused look when I relate the story–but confirms that this is plausible.

Dad could well have done it!

HOORAY!

Consequences? He never admitted what happened AFTER he returned to the airfield….

Perhaps the Powers-that-Be let him off with a reprimand—recognising that a sense of initiative in a young pilot should be encouraged in times of war. Or maybe that’s wishful thinking.

At the end of our tour, Dennis shows us the small plane in which a newly-qualified pilot would have celebrated earning his wings.

Not Dad–but looks a lot like him.

I am moved– imagining my father’s sense of pride and achievement as he flew off with his wings on his lapel.

And I feel regret–that I hadn’t questioned him more closely about one of the great adventures of his life.

Now for the archives,” says Dennis and leads us into a nondescript room at the back of the second hangar.

He disappears behind a line of filing cabinets and after a couple of minutes emerges with a pile of cardboard boxes filled with leather-bound notebooks.

We spend the next few minutes examining the files–turning over the pages filled with beautifully-calligraphed names dating back to 1941.

Will we find Dad’?

In the last book– on almost the last page–at the very bottom of the list: THERE HE IS!

A thrilling moment! ELLIS, Anthony G.

He got his wings on April 1st, 1945, age 29 –relatively old for a pilot.

The war in Europe ended on May 8, 1945–which is why he survived when many of the pilots who trained here had KIA after their names: Killed In Action.

Dad had spent 33 weeks at Falcon Field–and developed an enduring attachment to the United States.

I only spent two hours, but it was a joy and a privilege, thanks to Dennis Lemon and the volunteers who keep this museum alive.

The museum is special—full of these gleaming beasts of war, glowing with restored life and looked after lovingly by an army of volunteers.

It was a chastening experience too, spending time close up and personal with them–for this lucky boy born into a war, followed–thanks to the deeds of our fathers and grandfathers–by a long period of relative peace in Europe.

I would recommend a visit–even if you are not on a mission to find your Dad!

P.S. Two days later Meredith and I took off in a small fixed-wing plane–similar to Dad’s–and flew through the Grand Canyon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Country living

On my way to market a small deer skipped away from the roadside, in search of cover and safety.

Coming back a kestrel, missing the car by inches, swooped in pursuit of a sparrow, who shot low between the hedges to escape the car and the hawk.

A hare popped onto the road, looked up and scrambled back up the steep banking.

Yesterday a single egret–small, white heron-like bird–must have heard on the telegraph wires that the cows were due back in the meadow behind our house.

Cows are an endless source of nourishment for the egret.

“Pickin’s for all–all the gnats you can consume–come on down!”

Among the new green of the grass, a thin shaft of white with a head looking round forlornly–searching the field for absent friends.

“I spy no cows!”

Clearly someone was spreading fake news!

No cows or egrets appeared that afternoon.

Then there’s Sybil, the donkey from next door.

She’s chocolaty brown and small–contrasting with the herd of Blonde d’Aquitaine–creamy, pale and BIG.

I read that donkeys are kept with cows and calves as guards to chase off predators–a private security deployment.

Sybil spends her days munching on the fringes of the herd–ears pricked ready for action–the lonely life of a security donkey.

Small–certainly, but when she voices an opinion from just below the terrace–it’s deafening and demanding.

She opens her mouth and all her frustrations come pouring out:

E-E-E-E-E-A-A-W-W-W-W-W.

It’s enough to scare any would-be predator to death!

In fact, this morning it’s a fair bet that what she’s after is an apple.

She knows Meredith is a soft touch for apples.

Beau–Head Cat and private security agent–establishes contact with one similarly employed.

She wants one of them apples–and she wants it NOW.

“Alright, alright, Sybil–we hear you, dear.”

AND we have a kestrel family nesting in the oeil de boeuf of the attic.

Meredith and our neighbor, Florence, crept upstairs when they were sure the mother kestrel had flown off for food and spied three eggs.

The ways of the countrysidenot for me!–was how I felt for years.

I remember a weekend in upstate New York when the din of chattering chipmunks drove us mad and prematurely back to the relative quiet of the big Apple.

It bothered me not a jot that there were no kestrels in the Garden Suburb, nor deer on Hampstead Heath; no cows grazing on the Heath Extension.

I didn’t give it a second thought that hares were rare and donkeys unknown–though the milk cart of my youth was pulled by an old nag whose droppings ended up on the vegetable patch.

We did have a fox living in the garden behind us and that felt weird.

The country was where you went for holidays–or in my case on weekends for Sunday roast before scurrying back to the Big Smoke.

It looked beautiful, of course, but the only excitement it seemed to poor, ignorant me was the game of cricket, played out on the village green.

Times change; stuff happens…we get older!

I don’t feel that way at all now–and not even Sybil’s loudest shout would drive me back to the Big Smoke.

 

How silly of me–I left out the hedge hogs…!

 

 

 

On our way to the USA soon–and I have two public book events. Come along and say hello, if you’re in the neighborhood!

First in Providence, Rhode Island on Saturday, May 6th 2pm at the Brown University Bookstore:

 

The second is in Evanston, Illinois (a suburb north of Chicago) on Wednesday, May 10, organized by the bookstore, Bookends & Beginnings, as part of the Evanston Literary Festival.

 

Tickets info for the Evanston event: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2891728