In which I go to the Design Museum, the Chelsea Physic Garden, and the Park Theatre to see Loot

I had a most enjoyable day pottering about in London in the sort of way that tourists and visitors are in the right psychological place for, but those of us who live here so rarely give ourselves permission to be. It left me thinking that I really should make better use of my own city. In my view, this is exactly what time off work is for, rather than going to abroad on holiday (aka – as the Guardian so wisely suggested – an opportunity to maximise the number of likes inspired by one’s performance on social media). But even so, it took a few days’ leave and catching up on my chores, before I felt able to have a genuine day off gratify my curiosity about the new Design Museum and the Chelsea Physic Garden (two places that I had long wanted to visit).

It was also the day of the Parsons Green station bomb. It should not need saying that this did not put me off (once I had ascertained that the circle line was still in operation). Apart from relief that nobody had died, my main preoccupation was whether there was an apostrophe in the name of the station. You let the terrorists win as soon as you end up letting the fear take over; living one’s life in a secure bunker is neither possible nor attractive. So it’s necessary just to get on with things even if it means pretending to oneself that the numpties in Parliament – yes those numpties that are going to commit economic cultural and constitutional suicide in the form of brexit – have this under control.

The Design Museum was really rather a disappointment, although, I suppose, it disappointed in a way that was rather revealing about our contradictory thoughts on design. I guess this is inevitable with such a slippery (if not downright incoherent) concept. For design seems to embrace everything from type face to hoovers, from IT hardware to dinner plates, and to aspire to be simultaneously effective and beautiful, hand-crafted and a major industry, contemporary and timeless, elegantly restrained, and distinctively individual.

As a building, the Museum (apparently the former Commonwealth Institute) was the epitome of modern magnolia minimalism; restrained, tasteful and expensive. I have seen more distinctive chain hotel lobbies. This was all a very conventional mononchrome (literally) vision of design: sensuality, individuality, daring and playfulness were all missing. It was as daunting as a library – with a thousand beautifully coiffed, expensively bespectacled viragones waiting to hiss HUSH – or a carpet so noise-absorbingly thick that you felt you had no right to tread on it. I ignored the special exhibitions – each £18 per ticket – and contented myself with the free stuff.

I started in their shop, which used to contain some interesting stuff that was perfect for Christmas presents, when it resided in Butler’s Wharf. It now looked like an inferior version of the David Mellor shop, with hardly anything that looked as though it hadn’t been personally blessed by Sir Thomas Conran. It was all rather bland, with the exclusiveness that comes from prohibitive price tags: everything seemed to be the kind of thing that you would buy to show off your taste or the size of your bank balance. William Morris would have wept. Design does not have to be a spineless, unthinking endorsement of capitalism. This stuff was neither drop dead gorgeous, nor idiosyncratic, nor even very artisanal. Indeed hard to distinguish from high end Habitat.

The shop still sold the ridiculous – and, so I’m told, impracticable – Philippe Stark lemon squeezer. – albeit on inaccessible top shelves like porn mags in a newsagent – which very much suggests that world of design does not move on very fast grooves. (I guess they are too expensive to sell off cheap, which would, in any case, rather give the game away.) And the stuff on sale did all look very homogenous – as though all of the designers were following the same conventions – whilst being in deep denial about its conventionality, rather like those maverick cops in Hollywood films, who – surprise, surprise – don’t do things by the rule book, have issues with authority, a difficult relationship with their partner, and an attic full of traumatised psychological baggage. The characters may not be box tickers but the script-writers certainly are.

I guess that it’s all about who the design is for. If it’s the manufacturer’s convenience or the the seller’s profit margins, then the result is unlikely to end up in a design museum. But if it’s the designer’s quest for perfection or the user’s delight – form follows function but still has to be beautiful in its own right – then maybe the intention is at least in the right place. Not that it takes much to corrupt a designer’s innocence. Arguably, Apple have not been the same, since they abandoned their beautiful intuitive perfection for an ongoing continuous project development and dedication to maximising profit that has disappointed many of their dedicated users, myself included. I still love my Joseph cooking timer, where the time remaining is shown in a different colour, making it simultaneously gorgeous and very usable. But they don’t seem to be on sale any more.

Upstairs in the free galleries there seemed some evidence that there is more to design than expensive knick knacks. I saw good public design, for example, although the choice of the logo for the London Underground was not exactly adventurous, and had been nominated by the visitors to the gallery. There were also some interesting corpses that no longer had a use but had been wonderful in their time: typewriters and early computers looking very passé now, although beautiful and desirable in their time, like 80 year old blondes. There were also hints – but never any more than hints – about the sheer hard work involved in designing something and the hard graft of craft. But the overall effect of this blandness, was to leave me sympathising with the hipsters – who, I think, would also have hated this place – which is an unusual place for me to be.

A couple of final gripes: the loos were singularly unimpressive – although I took a certain gleeful pleasure in the way they recognised the game was up where stylish but unintelligible sinks and taps were concerned. They actually resorted to helpful words like soap and water and hot air to indicate which buttons to press – in a suitably modish sans serif typeface, naturally.

I was sad to see styrofoam cups in the cafe. I guess if the cups and saucers had been really good, people would never stop nicking them. Maybe if I had actually had one of their exorbitant flat whites, I would have discovered that even styrofoam cups can be perfectly designed instead of being an inadequate substitute for china, but I rather doubt it.

Then it was off to the Chelsea Physic Garden, a little known jewel that is a long walk/short bus ride down to the river from the Royal Court Theatre. It was all very herbaceous border – looking disorganised, haphazard and random in a way that can only be achieved with phenomenal effort and planning. Design that is designed not to look like it has been designed.

It may have been Paradise for horticultural trainspotters, but it was rather intimidating for the rest of us. There was a sense of being overwhelmed by too much detail. Everything was labelled and there was lots of information. Things were lumped into all sorts of arbitrary categories; a salvia walk; poison plants; dyes; healing; or under arbitrary anglocentric geographical categories, with Africa and China lumped together, and Europe and America each having their own mini garden.

It was easier just to wander about aimlessly. I was very much encouraged to go on one of the guided tours, but this was scary as it would have meant being lectured to by one of the very formidable tour guides, who would have bent over backwards to be welcoming and informative, but would have still had me wanting to run away after ten minutes (“What was it that made you think that that might be a fuschia?”). There were also lots of efficient volunteers ferociously gardening, and clearly rather annoyed at the paying visitors for disturbing them.

I made myself sit down on a seat and contemplate a little, but the tranquility was disrupted by astonishingly noisy airplanes – a west London problem I guess – and any sense of calm eluded me. The shop was disappointing – lots of stuff that every garden centre in the world seems to sell, but hardly any plants for sale, when I had been hoping for some suitably recondite herbs, hyssop and comfrey perhaps. But then I guess it was the wrong time of year, as summer has now definitely commenced the sad slide into autumn.

Then, it was a trip to John Lewis to buy a new ipad cover, as I’d managed to break my last one. It was a strange and complicated process: Peter Jones, my first port of call, where I bought the original, told me that they no longer stocked them for my now (barely a year) out of date ipad, as did the Apple Store, although both held out hopes of something on their websites. However, I eventually got one at John Lewis. I also bumped into a former colleague there – it’s so lovely to have that feeling that London is still a village – particularly as I’d also bumped into a mate I used to sing with on Kensington High St.

I also shopped for birthday cards – like buses, birthdays all seem to come at once – and some crystallised ginger and pistachios. These were rather needed after cooking the following, both of which are now favourite recipes.

Spicy tamarind Biscuits

Dan Leppard. Very good. They go extremely well with lemon posset.

125g softened butter

250g caster sugar

25 g tamarind concentrate – or more if you prefer

3 teaspoons ground ginger

1 medium egg

2 teaspoons garam masala or mixed spice

200g chopped glacé ginger

250 g plain flour

3/4 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

Beat butter, sugar, tamarind and egg until smooth.

Beat in spices and glacé ginger.

Stir in the flour and bicarb evenly.

Wrap in greaseproof paper, and store in fridge until needed (for up to a week).

Scoop small balls from the mixture the size of a small unshelled walnut.

Roll in your hands til smooth.

Place on greaseproof paper 5 cm apart.

Bake in oven preheated to 170C for about 15 mins.

Leave to cool on paper.

Pomegranate and pistachio meringues

Thomasina Miers – and an absolute classic. Makes meringues really interesting.

4 egg whites

210g caster sugar preferably golden

3 tbspoons of pomegranate molasses

60g pistachios

1 large pomegranate

400ml double cream

Preheat oven to 100C. Line two baking trays with baking parchment.

In a clean bowl, whisk egg whites with an electric whisk, till you have stiff peaks.

Whisk in sugar little by little, followed by half the pomegranate molasses and a pinch of salt, until the whites are shiny, stiff and voluminous.

Put spoonfuls of the meringue onto the baking sheet. Put the pistachios in a bag and crush with a rolling pin, or finely chop them. Dust the meringues with the pistachios. (You can reserve some for a final garnish.)Bake for 2-3 hours until they are firm and come away easily. Turn off oven and leave the peeled merginues to cool inside with the door ajar.

Extract the seeds from the pomegranate, discarding the shell and the pith. Blitz half in a mini blender and sieve them.

Softly whip cream and stir in the rest of the molasses. It may not need whipping at all.

Just before serving, add half the pomegranate seeds to the cream, and sandwich the meringues together. Toss over remaining seeds and pistachios and splash with the juice.

I’m also sticking this down, which is from the Guardian, courtesy of Anna Jones, as I tried it recently to use up ingredients that had been languishing in the fridge a bit too long.

Anna Jones’s vegetarian spiced eggs

I used frozen sweet corn, added tinned cannellini beans and didn’t bother with the eggs.

4 soft boiled eggs peeled ( optional)

Olive oil

2 teaspoons cumin seeds

1 tablespoon black mustard seeds

2 teaspoons Fennell seeds

1 onion peeled and roughly chopped

A piece of ginger chopped

2 red chillies finely sliced and deseeded

Sweet corn (tinned or frozen) or peas and/or tinned beans or chickpeas

1 heaped teaspoon turmeric

A pinch of cinnamon

3 tablespoons coconut cream

A tin of tomatoes

2 lemons

Fresh coriander

Heat a splash of oil in a large pan, and add cumin and mustard seeds.

When they pop, lower the heat and add the fennel seeds and onion.

Fry til soft and sweet (at least 8 mins).

Add ginger and chillis and cook for 5 mins.

Stir in turmeric, cinnamon, coconut cream and tomatoes. Cook for ten mins.

Add eggs to warm through.

Squeeze over the juice of a lemon and garnish with chilli and coriander.

Then it was off to Borough Market to buy a birthday present. Borough Market is, perhaps, not quite as exciting as it used to be, but still fun. It was wonderful getting there late on a weekday afternoon, when it wasn’t impossibly busy but still open (5pm on a Friday is also perfect for this). It was possible to have ostrich or kangaroo or even crocodile burgers. Grouse, widgeon and goat were all on sale, as well as purple cauliflower, globe artichokes, and samphire.

I picked up a corcicle – a wonderful gadget that keeps your water cold, and your green credibility intact, as you don’t need to keep buying water in plastic bottles. It’s sort of like a miniature flask, but a lot more cool. It would also provide a nicely portable gin and tonic – or some hot soup in cooler weather. A perfect birthday present I reckon.

The really wonderful stall for me was the spice one, where kaffir lime leaves and curry leaves, and different blends of sumac and zatar were available, along with dried lemon grass, turmeric root, and more kinds of chilli – whether dried or ground – than I knew existed. In the end, I was very restrained and only got some black mustard seeds – which seem to be hard to find in my part of south east London – and some raspberry powder. Alas, I forgot fennel seeds. Fruit powders, according to the recipe books, seem to be the next ‘thing’, and provide hugely concentrated flavour. It’s certainly the sort of place where it’s easy to go mad and discover that you are going to be charged twenty three pounds fifty, as happened to the very keen American in front of me in the queue. Indeed, I had a downmarket version of this experience when I popped into Holland and Barrett, where I was relieved of over a tenner for some pistachios and crystallised ginger!

It was sad to see that even the admirable Konditor and Cook has gone down the way of having plastic cutlery and styrofoam. The lowering effect of these on the quality of one’s drinking experience (to use a bit of PR speak) and overall spirits is astonishing. Oddly, I was still given a proper white china plate for my (delicious) carrot citrus cake, which came with fabulous icing

– and superb hot chocolate that would have been even better in the right vessel. This was not fake artisanal but the real deal – so very different from the vile coffee place at Kings Cross that manages to be inferior to Pret A Manger on every level whilst simultaneously pretending to be a cut above a mere chain.

And after all that frantic shopping, it was time to head off to the Park Theatre, a wonderfully civilised place that does splendid and rather original theatre along with nice food and wine. It’s so civilised that people come just for the food and free wifi, although we were very much there for the play.

This was the first outing for the original uncensored version of Joe Orton’s Loot, which I last saw (censored) in 1983 (although you wouldn’t’ve known it), with Leonard Rossiter as Inspector Truscott, who brought a lethal calm to the part which was done this time with a demented and choleric force that was extremely scary as well as ridiculous. It’s fascinating how soon something scandalous – with someone hiding the proceeds from a bank robbery in his mother’s coffin and having to put the corpse in a cupboard, and then swap them about – turns into something that coach parties from the Home Counties will flock to because it has that man from the Cinzano adverts in it. I remember then being very shocked that the audience wasn’t more shocked. It was rather startling to think that passages had been struck out by the arbitrary blue pencil of a court functionary in black knickerbockers, and that this piece was a whole 50 years old.

And meanwhile we sleepwalk into Brexit and will wake up to discover that the Tories have got rid of all our human rights, while poverty increases and we discover that we are a third world country but with even more corruption and human rights abuses. It will make the era of Loot seem like the Enlightenment by comparison. Such a shame that Orton, with his sharp ear for the absurdity of authority figures trying to impose their will on the rest of us, won’t be there to capture it for us. Although, of course, if he were still alive today, he’d no doubt be a venomous dyspeptic old queen writing articles for the Daily Telegraph on why Brexit is a good thing and complaining that decriminalising sex between men and letting them get married has taken all the fun out of it.

This sick subversive shocker ended up providing a thoroughly jolly evening. Which I suppose is progress of a kindI had a most enjoyable day pottering about in London in the sort of way that tourists and visitors are in the right psychological place for, but those of us who live here so rarely give ourselves permission to be. It left me thinking that I really should make better use of my own city. In my view, this is exactly what time off work is for, rather than going to abroad on holiday (aka – as the Guardian so wisely suggested – an opportunity to maximise the number of likes inspired by one’s performance on social media). But even so, it took a few days’ leave and catching up on my chores, before I felt able to have a genuine day off gratify my curiosity about the new Design Museum and the Chelsea Physic Garden (two places that I had long wanted to visit).

It was also the day of the Parsons Green station bomb. It should not need saying that this did not put me off (once I had ascertained that the circle line was still in operation). Apart from relief that nobody had died, my main preoccupation was whether there was an apostrophe in the name of the station. You let the terrorists win as soon as you end up letting the fear take over; living one’s life in a secure bunker is neither possible nor attractive. So it’s necessary just to get on with things even if it means pretending to oneself that the numpties in Parliament – yes those numpties that are going to commit economic cultural and constitutional suicide in the form of brexit – have this under control.

The Design Museum was really rather a disappointment, although, I suppose, it disappointed in a way that was rather revealing about our contradictory thoughts on design. I guess this is inevitable with such a slippery (if not downright incoherent) concept. For design seems to embrace everything from type face to hoovers, from IT hardware to dinner plates, and to aspire to be simultaneously effective and beautiful, hand-crafted and a major industry, contemporary and timeless, elegantly restrained, and distinctively individual.

As a building, the Museum (apparently the former Commonwealth Institute) was the epitome of modern magnolia minimalism; restrained, tasteful and expensive. I have seen more distinctive chain hotel lobbies. This was all a very conventional mononchrome (literally) vision of design: sensuality, individuality, daring and playfulness were all missing. It was as daunting as a library – with a thousand beautifully coiffed, expensively bespectacled viragones waiting to hiss HUSH – or a carpet so noise-absorbingly thick that you felt you had no right to tread on it. I ignored the special exhibitions – each £18 per ticket – and contented myself with the free stuff.

I started in their shop, which used to contain some interesting stuff that was perfect for Christmas presents, when it resided in Butler’s Wharf. It now looked like an inferior version of the David Mellor shop, with hardly anything that looked as though it hadn’t been personally blessed by Sir Thomas Conran. It was all rather bland, with the exclusiveness that comes from prohibitive price tags: everything seemed to be the kind of thing that you would buy to show off your taste or the size of your bank balance. William Morris would have wept. Design does not have to be a spineless, unthinking endorsement of capitalism. This stuff was neither drop dead gorgeous, nor idiosyncratic, nor even very artisanal. Indeed hard to distinguish from high end Habitat.

The shop still sold the ridiculous – and, so I’m told, impracticable – Philippe Stark lemon squeezer. – albeit on inaccessible top shelves like porn mags in a newsagent – which very much suggests that world of design does not move on very fast grooves. (I guess they are too expensive to sell off cheap, which would, in any case, rather give the game away.) And the stuff on sale did all look very homogenous – as though all of the designers were following the same conventions – whilst being in deep denial about its conventionality, rather like those maverick cops in Hollywood films, who – surprise, surprise – don’t do things by the rule book, have issues with authority, a difficult relationship with their partner, and an attic full of traumatised psychological baggage. The characters may not be box tickers but the script-writers certainly are.

I guess that it’s all about who the design is for. If it’s the manufacturer’s convenience or the the seller’s profit margins, then the result is unlikely to end up in a design museum. But if it’s the designer’s quest for perfection or the user’s delight – form follows function but still has to be beautiful in its own right – then maybe the intention is at least in the right place. Not that it takes much to corrupt a designer’s innocence. Arguably, Apple have not been the same, since they abandoned their beautiful intuitive perfection for an ongoing continuous project development and dedication to maximising profit that has disappointed many of their dedicated users, myself included. I still love my Joseph cooking timer, where the time remaining is shown in a different colour, making it simultaneously gorgeous and very usable. But they don’t seem to be on sale any more.

Upstairs in the free galleries there seemed some evidence that there is more to design than expensive knick knacks. I saw good public design, for example, although the choice of the logo for the London Underground was not exactly adventurous, and had been nominated by the visitors to the gallery. There were also some interesting corpses that no longer had a use but had been wonderful in their time: typewriters and early computers looking very passé now, although beautiful and desirable in their time, like 80 year old blondes. There were also hints – but never any more than hints – about the sheer hard work involved in designing something and the hard graft of craft. But the overall effect of this blandness, was to leave me sympathising with the hipsters – who, I think, would also have hated this place – which is an unusual place for me to be.

A couple of final gripes: the loos were singularly unimpressive – although I took a certain gleeful pleasure in the way they recognised the game was up where stylish but unintelligible sinks and taps were concerned. They actually resorted to helpful words like soap and water and hot air to indicate which buttons to press – in a suitably modish sans serif typeface, naturally.

I was sad to see styrofoam cups in the cafe. I guess if the cups and saucers had been really good, people would never stop nicking them. Maybe if I had actually had one of their exorbitant flat whites, I would have discovered that even styrofoam cups can be perfectly designed instead of being an inadequate substitute for china, but I rather doubt it.

Then it was off to the Chelsea Physic Garden, a little known jewel that is a long walk/short bus ride down to the river from the Royal Court Theatre. It was all very herbaceous border – looking disorganised, haphazard and random in a way that can only be achieved with phenomenal effort and planning. Design that is designed not to look like it has been designed.

It may have been Paradise for horticultural trainspotters, but it was rather intimidating for the rest of us. There was a sense of being overwhelmed by too much detail. Everything was labelled and there was lots of information. Things were lumped into all sorts of arbitrary categories; a salvia walk; poison plants; dyes; healing; or under arbitrary anglocentric geographical categories, with Africa and China lumped together, and Europe and America each having their own mini garden.

It was easier just to wander about aimlessly. I was very much encouraged to go on one of the guided tours, but this was scary as it would have meant being lectured to by one of the very formidable tour guides, who would have bent over backwards to be welcoming and informative, but would have still had me wanting to run away after ten minutes (“What was it that made you think that that might be a fuschia?”). There were also lots of efficient volunteers ferociously gardening, and clearly rather annoyed at the paying visitors for disturbing them.

I made myself sit down on a seat and contemplate a little, but the tranquility was disrupted by astonishingly noisy airplanes – a west London problem I guess – and any sense of calm eluded me. The shop was disappointing – lots of stuff that every garden centre in the world seems to sell, but hardly any plants for sale, when I had been hoping for some suitably recondite herbs, hyssop and comfrey perhaps. But then I guess it was the wrong time of year, as summer has now definitely commenced the sad slide into autumn.

Then, it was a trip to John Lewis to buy a new ipad cover, as I’d managed to break my last one. It was a strange and complicated process: Peter Jones, my first port of call, where I bought the original, told me that they no longer stocked them for my now (barely a year) out of date ipad, as did the Apple Store, although both held out hopes of something on their websites. However, I eventually got one at John Lewis. I also bumped into a former colleague there – it’s so lovely to have that feeling that London is still a village – particularly as I’d also bumped into a mate I used to sing with on Kensington High St.

I also shopped for birthday cards – like buses, birthdays all seem to come at once – and some crystallised ginger and pistachios. These were rather needed after cooking the following, both of which are now favourite recipes.

Spicy tamarind Biscuits

Dan Leppard. Very fine indeed. Goes well with lemon posset.

125g softened butter

250g caster sugar

25 g tamarind concentrate – or more if you prefer

3 teaspoons ground ginger

1 medium egg

2 teaspoons garam masala or mixed spice

200g chopped glacé ginger

250 g plain flour

3/4 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

Beat butter, sugar, tamarind and egg until smooth.

Beat in spices and glacé ginger.

Stir in the flour and bicarb evenly.

Wrap in greaseproof paper, and store in fridge until needed (for up to a week).

Scoop small balls from the mixture the size of a small unshelled walnut.

Roll in your hands til smooth.

Place on greaseproof paper 5 cm apart.

Bake in oven preheated to 170C for about 15 mins.

Leave to cool on paper.

Pomegranate and pistachio meringues

Thomasina Miers – and an absolute classic. Makes meringues interesting again.

4 egg whites

210g caster sugar preferably golden

3 tbspoons of pomegranate molasses

60g pistachios

1 large pomegranate

400ml double cream

Preheat oven to 100C. Line two baking trays with baking parchment.

In a clean bowl, whisk egg whites with an electric whisk, till you have stiff peaks.

Whisk in sugar little by little, followed by half the pomegranate molasses and a pinch of salt, until the whites are shiny, stiff and voluminous.

Put spoonfuls of the meringue onto the baking sheet. Put the pistachios in a bag and crush with a rolling pin, or finely chop them. Dust the meringues with the pistachios. (You can reserve some for a final garnish.)Bake for 2-3 hours until they are firm and come away easily. Turn off oven and leave the peeled merginues to cool inside with the door ajar.

Extract the seeds from the pomegranate, discarding the shell and the pith. Blitz half in a mini blender and sieve them.

Softly whip cream and stir in the rest of the molasses. It may not need whipping at all.

Just before serving, add half the pomegranate seeds to the cream, and sandwich the meringues together. Toss over remaining seeds and pistachios and splash with the juice.

I’m also sticking this down, which is from the Guardian, courtesy of Anna Jones, although I have used frozen sweet corn, added tinned cannellini beans, and not bothered with the eggs.

Anna Jones’s vegetarian spiced eggs

4 soft boiled eggs peeled (optional)

Olive oil

2 teaspoons cumin seeds

1 tablespoon black mustard seeds

2 teaspoons Fennell seeds

1 onion peeled and roughly chopped

A piece of ginger chopped

2 red chillies finely sliced and deseeded

Sweet corn (tinned or frozen) or peas and/or tinned beans or chickpeas

1 heaped teaspoon turmeric

A pinch of cinnamon

3 tablespoons coconut cream

A tin of tomatoes

2 lemons

Fresh coriander

Heat a splash of oil in a large pan, and add cumin and mustard seeds.

When they pop, lower the heat and add the fennel seeds and onion.

Fry til soft and sweet (at least 8 mins).

Add ginger and chillis and cook for 5 mins.

Stir in turmeric, cinnamon, coconut cream and tomatoes. Cook for ten mins.

Add eggs to warm through.

Squeeze over the juice of a lemon and garnish with chilli and coriander.

Then it was off to Borough Market to buy a birthday present. Borough Market is, perhaps, not quite as exciting as it used to be, but still fun. It was wonderful getting there late on a weekday afternoon, when it wasn’t impossibly busy but still open (5pm on a Friday is also perfect for this). It was possible to have ostrich or kangaroo or even crocodile burgers. Grouse, widgeon and goat were all on sale, as well as purple cauliflower, globe artichokes, and samphire.

I picked up a corcicle – a wonderful gadget that keeps your water cold, and your green credibility intact, as you don’t need to keep buying water in plastic bottles. It’s sort of like a miniature flask, but a lot more cool. It would also provide a nicely portable gin and tonic – or some hot soup in cooler weather. A perfect birthday present I reckon.

The really wonderful stall for me was the spice one, where kaffir lime leaves and curry leaves, and different blends of sumac and zatar were available, along with dried lemon grass, turmeric root, and more kinds of chilli – whether dried or ground – than I knew existed. In the end, I was very restrained and only got some black mustard seeds – which seem to be hard to find in my part of south east London – and some raspberry powder. Alas, I forgot fennel seeds. Fruit powders, according to the recipe books, seem to be the next ‘thing’, and provide hugely concentrated flavour. It’s certainly the sort of place where it’s easy to go mad and discover that you are going to be charged twenty three pounds fifty, as happened to the very keen American in front of me in the queue. Indeed, I had a downmarket version of this experience when I popped into Holland and Barrett, where I was relieved of over a tenner for some pistachios and crystallised ginger!

It was sad to see that even the admirable Konditor and Cook has gone down the way of having plastic cutlery and styrofoam. The lowering effect of these on the quality of one’s drinking experience (to use a bit of PR speak) and overall spirits is astonishing. Oddly, I was still given a proper white china plate for my (delicious) carrot citrus cake, which came with fabulous icing

– and superb hot chocolate that would have been even better in the right vessel. This was not fake artisanal but the real deal – so very different from the vile coffee place at Kings Cross that manages to be inferior to Pret A Manger on every level whilst simultaneously pretending to be a cut above a mere chain.

And after all that frantic shopping, it was time to head off to the Park Theatre, a wonderfully civilised place that does splendid and rather original theatre along with nice food and wine. It’s so civilised that people come just for the food and free wifi, although we were very much there for the play.

This was the first outing for the original uncensored version of Joe Orton’s Loot, which I last saw (censored) in 1983 (although you wouldn’t’ve known it), with Leonard Rossiter as Inspector Truscott, who brought a lethal calm to the part which was done this time with a demented and choleric force that was extremely scary as well as ridiculous. It’s fascinating how soon something scandalous – with someone hiding the proceeds from a bank robbery in his mother’s coffin and having to put the corpse in a cupboard, and then swap them about – turns into something that coach parties from the Home Counties will flock to because it has that man from the Cinzano adverts in it. I remember then being very shocked that the audience wasn’t more shocked. It was rather startling to think that passages had been struck out by the arbitrary blue pencil of a court functionary in black knickerbockers, and that this piece was a whole 50 years old.

And meanwhile we sleepwalk into Brexit and will wake up to discover that the Tories have got rid of all our human rights, while poverty increases and we discover that we are a third world country but with even more corruption and human rights abuses. It will make the era of Loot seem like the Enlightenment by comparison. Such a shame that Orton, with his sharp ear for the absurdity of authority figures trying to impose their will on the rest of us, won’t be there to capture it for us. Although, of course, if he were still alive today, he’d no doubt be a venomous dyspeptic old queen writing articles for the Daily Telegraph on why Brexit is a good thing and complaining that decriminalising sex between men and letting them get married has taken all the fun out of it.

This sick subversive shocker ended up providing a thoroughly jolly evening. Which I suppose is progress of a kind

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In which I realise that the best is not the enemy of the good

We are frequently told that the best is the enemy of the good. This is one of those lapidary statements of the seeming obvious that becomes more problematic the more you think about it. It (rather smugly in my view) suggests that accepting the good for what it is – rather than insisting on only the best – is verging on a moral failing, and constitutes a character flaw, a kind of a kind of mustn’t complain passivity that is verging on laziness and lack of ambition. 

There are all sorts of retorts that one can make to this guilt tripping and exhausting insistence that we must all be divas. I feel inclined to start by saying that this nonsense is simply self-indulgent consumerism dressed up in moral clothing: it’s all about fuelling capitalism by blaming people for not consuming more, and enabling the obnoxious rich to feel more comfortable about their obnoxiousness and more secure in their illusory sense of superiority. Its motto might be summed up in that ghastly phrase Because You’re Worth It. No, darling. Most of us are not worth what we spend on ourselves. It is even less likely that we are worth what we earn, with the exception of nurses, fire-fighters and other public servants who are honoured by politician’s words but not their deeds, and who are probably worth more than they are paid. 
Alas, today's regrettable orthodoxy is that, if you are prepared to settle for and take pleasure in second best (or even third or fourth) you will be compelled to a lifetime of inferior quality and bad service, which you will richly deserve because of your poor self esteem, and failure to assert yourself. You are supposed to say to yourself “It’s simply not my problem if the hapless waitress is rushed off her feet and I’m clearly not in a hurry anyway. If I want serving instantly, then I must be, because I have PAID for this meal.”
This kind of demanding the best – quite apart from being obnoxious – is almost guaranteed to make for an unhappy life. If you go to as much theatre as I do, or even have a rudimentary grasp of logic, then it soon becomes clear that not everything will be utterly exceptional, stunning or spectacular: some of it may be just good, or even adequate. Offsted ludicrously regards an assessment of satisfactory as not good enough, and requires every school to be exceptional, which, by definition, it cannot be. But even the satisfactory average can be enjoyed, as long as you accept that you don’t have a divine right to the best all the time. If you do insist on the best on the specious ground that you are special and deserve nothing less, life is going to feel horribly disappointing, and you are going to spend your most of your days in a state of frustrated entitlement.
In any case, the difference between the good and the best is often prohibitively expensive, and usually marginal. I remain unconvinced that it is always worth paying top whack, whether you are talking about wine or seats at Covent Garden. I would far rather see something than not see it because the top seats are out of my price range, or drink some decent plonk when I’m in the mood even if it isn't Chateau Lafite.
For things like food that you have three times a day, the best – whatever that is – is particularly unlikely to be affordable or achievable all the time. And having the best all the time would mean that you are no longer going to be able to have a treat. The defining thing about treats is that they have to be occasional: fois gras and caviar would be awfully dull – and most definitely not a treat – if you had them all the time. 
And it’s also important not to confuse the best with the most expensive. The fashionable, scarce, expensive, and celebrity-endorsed is so often worse than the unhyped, easily available, quietly good value that doesn’t feel the need to blow its own trumpet. Price is such a crude way of distinguishing between a number of bewildering options, none of which may actually be entirely satisfactory. And too much choice is not always a good thing. Obvious I know, but not to today’s opinion formers. 
In any case, the best is often shifting, elusive, and unpredictable. It can’t be achieved by mere money or effort. It remains ultimately just out of our control, even if we can increase the probability of its happening. The best is ultimately a gift or a blessing, not something that you can demand as a right, or guarantee by throwing money at it. 
One of the glorious things about theatre is that your expectations are so often wrong. Even when you avoid the obviously terrible and have developed a nose for what might be good, you can get it badly wrong and end up watching a real stinker of a play: but, for every time you are horribly disappointed, there will be several when you are pleasantly surprised. Anyhow, how do you compare a less than great performance of a wonderful play that you desperately want to see – particularly one that’s not performed very often – with a brilliant performance of a script that just isn’t very good. I must admit that, as someone who thinks that the script is king and the play’s the thing, I find the former much more appealing than the latter. And so often, it’s the evenings at the Park Theatre and the Southwark Playhouse that remain in my memory rather than the big star-encrusted event nights at the larger theatres. At the end of the day, you just have to accept that seeing only the best is out of your control – and a fear of encountering the mediocre is the best way of failing to encounter a hidden gem.
Some might argue that, whilst you ought not insist on the best from others, you should still demand it of yourself. After all, it’s a terrible recipe for life aiming no higher than the mediocre if you can get away with it. I agree that you will never achieve your full potential without pushing yourself a little, and should always do your best, not merely what is good enough. Not least, because the time will go far more quickly if you do your best. It’s a horrible cliche, but it does us all good – even me – to get out of our comfort zones now and then. (Even if there are some people who should get out of theirs by learning to shut up and not lecture us about this at every opportunity.) 
Anyhow, even when it’s you doing your best, it’s complicated. Sometimes – especially at work – people need something quickly rather than for it to be perfect. Producing your very best can be about personal vanity and perfectionism and imposing your standards on someone else, rather than meeting their needs. And the Protestant work ethic certainly does not apply to home cooking: I can say from experience that more effort from the host does not necessarily produce happier guests. Impact is not always in direct proportion to effort. A frazzled host who spends all his time in the kitchen slaving over the food will not result in guests who have a good time. The host needs to be relaxed and happy if the guests are to be. And anyway often the artist is not the best person to judge the quality of his or her own work, as objectivity and critical distance are impossible.
It’s always worthwhile and interesting thinking how the merely good could be better and why it isn’t, but this needs to be done with a degree of realism, gentleness and proportion. The strong invective needs to be kept for the actively bad. It is the pretentious, the shoddy, the actively nasty, the overexposed and the trendy that really deserve venom or neglect, not the satisfactory, for which the appropriate response is still, I think, grateful appreciation. 
And taking on the actively bad is not a task for the faint hearted or those wanting an easy option. Often the actively bad will be expensive and highly regarded – and it is in the financial interest of those in power to ensure it retains its elevated status. Understandably many will feel too intimidated to criticise it and propose that the sacred cow should go to the abattoir. Thus Julian Fellowes, and Andrew Lloyd Webber at the height of their popularity got to foist their derivative, shoddy tatt on a public that meekly lapped it up; and even now no-one really dares to challenge the racist, fear-mongering, lying Daily Mail for being a blot on a civilised society. 
In the words of George Bernard Shaw, progress depends on the unreasonable man. We all owe a lot to those who didn't meekly put up with what they were given. And sometimes is right to complain and protest, but it has to be against the things that are actively bad, although these are often highly regarded, and defended by the powerful. It's more easier simply to indulge in autopilot bashing of the second rate. 
I’m writing this exactly 50 years after the royal assent was given to the Sexual Offences Act 1967, which led to the partial decriminalisation of sex between men. It seems monstrous, in a way, to be expected now to be grateful for being given the rights that straight people take for granted – and, of course we haven’t got them all yet – but, the point is that, without the courage and perseverance of many unsung heroes and heroines, we wouldn’t even have that. It is right to salute their courage and foresightedness. 
But we need to use our ammunition carefully. If you treat having to wait five minutes to get served as a violation of your human rights, then what have you got left in your rhetorical arsenal for homophobic assaults or being denied the right to get married? It is also right to celebrate the average ordinary things that can be done easily and meet a need. Here are two basic, good but not outstanding recipes that can be done easily, but are very tasty, which I have recently done and found perfect for the summer, which is the season for a bit of laziness, after all. 

Thomasina Miers' Pomegranate cake 

Thomasina Miers’ new book was a much appreciated birthday present, with some marvellous things in it. This recipe is laughably easy – almost the hardest thing is getting hold of your pomegranate molasses – and makes a splendid change from the nice, but predictable, lemon drizzle cake. And it wouldn’t take much to make it look really snazzy, by adding some supplementary icing (pomegranate juice and icing sugar) to make it bright pink, and then scattering some pomegranate seeds on top. As she says, you can easily make your own pomegranate juice by putting the seeds in a mini blender and sieving them. 
It would also make a posh pudding/deconstructed trifle, with raspberries soaked for a few hours in cassis, and some mascarpone with some elderflower cordial beaten into it. 

150g butter

50g light muscovado

100g caster sugar

3 eggs

2 tbsp pomegranate molasses plus 75ml 

150g plain flour

1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

pinch of salt 

25ml Greek yoghurt and 25 ml milk
Preheat oven at 180C.

Line a 20cm sandwich tin.

Melt butter with sugars, and allow to cool.

Beat in the eggs, one at a time.

Stir in 2 tbsp of pomegranate molasses.

Sift flour with bicarbonate of soda and salt into a bowl.

Pour in the wet mixture. 

Bake for 25-30 mins or until golden and a skewer comes out clean. 

Cool for 5 mins in the tin.

Poke holes all over with a skewer and pour over remaining pomegranate molasses.
If you wish, add icing made with pomegranate juice and scatter some pomegranate seeds on top. 

Pancetta, Spinach and chick peas 

An adaptation of a Nigel Slater, who doesn't bother with pancetta and expects you to soak and cook your own chickpeas. It's again very easy.

2 tins of chickpeas, drained 

2 tblspoons of olive oil

a pack of pancetta

4 red onions peeled and roughly chopped

1 tbspoon of flour

450g of washed spinach

250ml of chicken or vegetable stock 

300g of crème fraiche

a couple of good handfulls fresh parmesan (optional)

a handful of fresh breadcrumbs (optional) 
Preheat oven at 180C.

Warm olive oil in casserole and add pancetta and cook till crisp. 

Add onions, lower heat, and cover, and sweat for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. 

Add flour and stir in.

Add chickpeas, stock and crème fraiche, and stir in. Bring to boil.

Add a third of the spinach, and stir and cover. Repeat with remaining spinach as it boils down. 

If you are using the breadcrumbs and parmesan, mix them together. Transfer spinach and chickpeas to a roasting dish and scatter crumbs on top. Place covered casserole (if you are doing it without the topping) or uncovered roasting dish in oven. Cook for 45 mins.  

However, during this weekend I also encountered some extraordinary food. And frankly I loved it too, without the need to hate the ordinary. Your life can easily accommodate both.

On the Friday, I went to my sister’s for dinner. She did glorious fish and served it with this wonderful Ottolenghi recipe. 

Sweet corn and avocado with sweet chilli and lime sauce.

A marvellous Ottolenghi recipe from the Guardian. It works either as a warm side salad with grilled meat or fish or spooned over rice or quinoa. It is wise to make extra sauce and freeze the excess for another occasion. 

4 corn cobs trimmed (or do what my sister does and use frozen corn)

15g mint leaves roughly shredded 

20g coriander leaves chopped

2 large avocados peeled, cored, and cut into 3 cm pieces

5 spring onions finely sliced on an angle

Salt

For the sauce:

1 small red pepper, cut into large chunks, stalk, core and seeds removed

70g caster sugar

90ml rice vinegar

2 tablespoons fish sauce

2 red chillies, deseeded and finely chopped

5 cm piece of fresh finger, peeled and finely chopped

1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed

Finely grated zest of 1 lime

2 tablespoons of lime juice
Heat oven to 220C.

Put pepper on small tray. Roast til blackened. Place in a bowl and cover until cool. Peel skin. Put in mini food processor and blend til smooth. 

Put sugar, vinegar, and fish sauce in a small saucepan on a medium heat. Bring to boil.Leave to bubble for 5-6 minutes or until the sauce is thick and reduced to about half. Off the heat, stir in chillies, ginger, garlic, and red pepper purée. Leave to cool. When cool, stir in lime zest and juice. 

If using corn cobs, heat a griddle until hot, and char the cobs for 8-10 mins turning regularly until black all over. Then cut off the kernels in large clumps. Otherwise, fry the frozen corn in a little oil in a frying pan for 5-10 mins 

Mix corn in a large bowl with the herbs, avocado and spring onion. Add the chilli sauce, season with salt to taste, and serve at once. 
The next afternoon, my mother and I went to Chichester Theatre, to see The Country Girls, a beautifully effective theatrical rendition of Edna O' Brian's novel. It was fascinating seeing the culture in which my mother grew up depicted on stage. For all that it was banned in Ireland on publication, the play of the book now seems remarkably gentle in the circumstances, more interested in a heroine who achieves liberation than the forces and individuals who hold her back. And the eponymous Country Girls – who are both vulnerable and strong, with a natural ready wit and survival instinct – do have a lot to deal with: a distorted religion at its repressive life-denying worst; drunken Neanderthal inadequates desperately clinging to their patriarchal dividend and using emotional blackmail on their daughters, because women, of course, only exist to service men’s needs; and a succession of exploitative dirty old men who are married, but expect young girls to give them what they want, and are willing to use every manipulative trick, along with their superior experience and financial muscle, to get it.

This depiction of someone coming to terms with who she is feels astonishingly fresh, appealing and free from traditional Irish cliche. Rather than indulging in anger or self pity, the play is wryly humourous, and celebratory of life: if not quite willing to forgive, it is very keen to avoid wasting energy in hate, and in a hurry just to get on with living life to the full. And this is not just a good recipe for living: it’s also a very effective rhetorical strategy, and perhaps explains why the novel was felt to be quite so dangerous and in need of condemnation when it was published, more than 50 years ago. It all seems so reasonable and obvious now. The awfulness of the male sex at its worst is shown but not dwelt on. The play’s subversiveness is far more subtle in its casual refusal to treat the men at their own pompous and over-inflated valuation. At the time, a full-on angry rant – for that it would have been justified – would have been, I suspect, far easier to dismiss as emotionally unbalanced.

This is complex and nuanced play – celebrating the value of female friendship, and the power of education in that it gives people a voice and an escape route. There is a painful irony that, for all England’s catastrophic history of meddling, violence and exploitation in Ireland, it is London that provides a haven for Irish citizens escaping authoritarianism and poverty. If I’m being strictly honest, this wasn’t the finest play I’ve seen in my life, or even this year, but it was still fresh, charming, and very well worth seeing. 

Either side of The Country Girls, my mother and I enjoyed the best of what Chichester had to offer gastronomically. Before the show, at the Pallant House Gallery Restaurant, we had a superb smoked duck salad, the duck freshly cooked and warm, with the juices leaking into a salad of leaves, red chilli, fresh orange and bright pink pickled radishes. It looked and tasted absolutely gorgeous. Light but sustaining, the perfect pre-theatre meal. 

After the show, we went to the Field and Fork, where we had roast lamb belly, with white bean cream, feta, peas and mint. It was beautifully tender and tasty, and its juice had tomatoes, and baby onions lurking in it (along – horror of horrors – with cauliflower, although the rest was so ravishingly gorgeous that I could forgive this). The exceptional and the ordinary can peacefully coexist, and the best and the good can get along just fine. Even if you do find the odd bit of cauliflower in it. 

In which I go to a classic Irish drama and cook some classic Italian stew

Sat 18 Feb 2017
I am back at my mother’s for the weekend. It started very well on the Friday evening, with a delicious trip to the wonderful glorious Sussex Brewery, where we had Duck confit with red cabbage followed by sticky toffee pudding and custard. Bliss.

This morning is about shopping and cooking, as we are entertaining my sister, brother- in-law, and nephew to lunch on Sunday. We buy small elegant chicken thighs at the butcher’s – so different from the massive ones that the supermarkets sell with drumsticks – and perfectly seasonal (the culinary equivalent of á la mode), gorgeous, bright pink, forced rhubarb at the greengrocer’s. All the rhubarb needs is wiping, trimming, cutting, placing in a dish, and tossing in the zest and juice of a lemon, with a little bit of sugar, then covering with foil, and putting in a warm oven until it’s tender. It will be perfect with a crumble topping and custard.
The main course is a gorgeous Italian stew that contains lots of my favourite ingredients – once you have fresh rosemary, whether in the garden or a pot in the kitchen, there is no going back – and is also ridiculously easy.The hardest part- and it really isn’t hard at all – is roasting and skinning the peppers.
Pollo alla Romana

(Rachel Roddy in the Saturday Guardian)

1.5 Kg of chicken joints
60g pancetta

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

A few sprigs of chopped fresh rosemary

Salt and fresh black pepper

150ml dry white wine

2 tins of good chopped tomatoes

6 red peppers

Warm 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy casserole. Fry the pancetta until the fat has rendered. Add the chicken pieces skin side down and cook til golden (about 8 mins) and then turn, and do the other side. Do in batches if necessary.

Add more oil, or pour excess fat away. Add rosemary, salt and pepper and wine.

After a couple of minutes, add the tomatoes. Cover and cook for 5 minutes. Stir and cook for another 5 minutes.

Cook for 45- 60 mins half covered until the tomatoes have reduced and the chicken is tender. Add more water if necessary.

Meanwhile, deseed and quarter  the peppers, sprinkle a little oil and salt and pepper over, and roast at 200C until charred (around 25 mins). Scrape into a bowl, and cover until cool enough to handle. Peel and cut into strips.

Add peppers to pan and cook for 10 mins more. When cool, strip the chicken off the bone, and leave to settle. Reheat to serve
After an afternoon’s light cooking, we go into Havant to make contact with my mother’s Irish heritage, by seeing a classic of twentieth century Irish drama, performed by the local am dram group: Sive (rhymes with Dive). It is put on at Spring – an arts centre that the Tories haven’t cut yet (clearly the knife goes in deepest in the north east, where there are no Tory votes, rather than their Hampshire heartlands).

Sive is one of those intense, dark Irish plays that starts on a note of foreboding, and proceeds, with the implacability and focus of an Exocet missile, to a grimly tragic conclusion, making Thomas Hardy look like a joyful ray of pure optimistic sunshine by comparison. It’s not relieved by any humorous whimsey or much linguistic exuberance. A dirty old man, through a marriage broker, offers a just about managing family £200 to marry the young orphan girl Sive, who is bright and intelligent, but lacks any protections or prospects, as she is illegitimate with a dead mother, and a father who spilt his seed and hoofed it. Her weak uncle – the nearest thing she has to a parent – is unwilling to speak up for her, and his wife dislikes her and is willing to do anything for the security conferred by £200, despite the protests of Sive’s grandmother.

There is a blessed absence of Irish cliche, apart from the tinkers, who act as a lightning rod for this community’s fear of the other. The language used against them is troublingly similar to the Daily Mail’s on scroungers and asylum seekers or whatever their hate object of the week is. However, at the grim but entirely logical ending, it is the tinkers who get to draw the moral. This is an unexpectedly pagan place where all the power (or at least economic muscle) lies in the hands of the marriage broker rather than the priest (who never appears, surely a first in an Irish drama).
There is nowhere in this piece for the performers to hide; they have to be completely convincing right from the word go, and must never let their conviction wobble or falter, for even a moment. And by golly, these amateurs nailed it, even if the accents came and went, and the glossary in the programme was a bit OTT. We can all work out what an eedget is.
It’s by someone called John B Keane – more famous over here for being Fergal’s dad – and I’d never heard of its author, until I googled him and discovered that he wrote that monumentally grim film, The Field, where it almost never stopped raining, and Richard Harris was gradually devoured by his own ham. On that occasion I was left wanting to slit my wrists and drown myself in a bath of Guinness.
I ggogled a snottily condescending review of the play in the New York Times from a few years ago (pre president Trump, pre safeguarding, pre human traffic under scrutiny). It dismissed the play as irrelevant and dated. It now seems eerily prescient, as it explains something that had been puzzling me about brexit.
I had never understood why so many of our rulers – especially the ones who purport to be pro business – had wanted to damage the economy by leaving the EU, and making it all so much harder to make money through trading overseas. This play makes it horribly clear that increasing prosperity for all – despite the spin – is not in the interest of the ruling class, even though is in the interest of the majority. If there are lots of poor, economically desperate people, the underclass will be more compliant, easier to exploit sexually and financially, more willing to do their masters’ bidding and less able to challenge the ruling elite. This play makes it horribly clear that a failing economy actually confers more power for the very wealthiest than a successful one. If everyone can afford a decent standard of living, then there isn’t enough of a sense of superiority to be had by being wealthier than anyone else, and the wealthy have less power because other people can’t be so easily manipulated into doing things for money.
This play presented a sneak preview of the dark age that Tarage and Frump – with the collaboration of Mayhem and Bojo – want to take us back to, an age where default man has taken back control and is raking in the money, while grinding poverty and economic insecurity drive people to sell women’s bodies to dirty old men, and all those pesky human rights have been removed. Horribly depressing. We definitely felt we deserved a whiskey afterwards.
After Church and breakfast with the Andrew Marr show, we prepare lunch. We have roast potatoes and sweet potatoes – naughty carb overload, I know – with the chicken and rhubarb crumble and custard. Life is good – in a way that it wasn’t for Sive and her contemporaries, and in a way that it probably won’t be once brexit happens.

In which I cook two summer Sunday lunches and apply the Twelve Rules For Perfect Canapés

As usual, in the summer, I do a couple of Sunday lunches. And as usual, I manage to hold them in the garden. On each day, the weather starts out slightly ominous – and then ends up glorious, without ever getting excessively hot. Perfect. 
Whenever the weather is good, I start to wonder if this is our summer of 1914 moment – a glorious final flowering before the annihilation of a generation, and the end of a comfortable way of life built on sand. This summer has generally been dull and wet – an ironic deflation following the crass political vandalism of Brexit.The weather has simply refused to play along with any symbolically appropriate agenda – perhaps the smart thing to do. However, on both these Sunday afternoons, it decides with perverse obedience to behave itself perfectly, which suits me just fine. 
The difficult thing I tend to find with lunches is the planning and working out what to cook. The addition of a canapé and a post-walk cake do add something the challenge, but they make it so special that they now feel almost indispensable. So many choices to be selected from an endless range of possibilities, a single bucket drawn from a vast lake of potential. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I play safe and go largely for what I know, bolstered by Ottelenghi’s way with roast chicken that appeared a couple of weeks ago in the Saturday Guardian, although I can’t help tinkering with it. The Carved Angel probably now seems quaintly 80s, the first steps towards that wonderful cuisine, Modern British. But I still love it and it still has impact 
Canapés take a lot of thought this year.  
The perfect canapé is tricky. Indeed, unless you are blessed with a partner, to whom some of the tasks can be delegated, or superhuman planning skills, it is probably best only attempted if it won’t demand a significant degree of your time and attention. Despite having neither partner nor a gift for project management, I do nevertheless find the prospect of providing a canapé all but irresistible. (I usually deal with the absence of a partner by delegating some of these tasks to the hapless first guest that arrives – and I use the same approach to carving. I fear, however, that my guests are starting to become wise to these little tricks.) This desire of mine to make my life unnecessarily difficult is, I suppose, a classic example of human perversity. Particularly, when you reflect that the perfect canapé needs to meet all of the following criteria. 
1. It must be intensely tasty and full of zingy flavour, providing a bit of a wow factor in terms of look and taste – something exciting and original that assures the guests that this is but the first in a sequence of glorious taste sensations, heralding good things to come with a brief but spectacular savoury fanfare of culinary virtuosity. 
2. It needs to be easily grabbed and eaten by your guests and require no thought about how it is to be disposed of. It must not involve any work on their part before consumption – whether in the form of a fancy dipping sauce or peeling shells. Nor should it give rise to questions about what to do with cocktail sticks or paper cases, once eaten, or cause any anxiety about possible spillage. It must be low maintenance for the guests, even if it isn’t for the cook. 
3. It should also be low maintenance for the cook, or at least require a bare minimum of input at that stressful last minute when time is short, and you are starting to panic about the things you have not yet done, or having to concentrate on your guests, hang up their coats, relieve them appreciatively of any wine, flowers, chocolates that they might have kindly brought with them, and get them to sit down and make themselves comfortable, as you pour them a drink. Having to faff around at the last minute shows bad planning, distracts you from your social duty, increases your stress levels, and – worst of all – prevents your guests from relaxing. 
4. It should be freshly prepared – crisp and warm from the oven rather than soggy and looking like it has been hanging around. If it involves spreading something on toast or a biscuit, this needs to be done at the very last minute – ideally just after the guests have arrived.
5 . It must not detract from the main meal whether by delaying it or competing too hard with it or using similar flavours. 
6. It must have been carefully planned and rigorously thought about and prepared, including the presentation and the timing. Otherwise, it will all go wrong, or, at best, the cook will be fractious anxious and preoccupied at the very point when the guests need to put at their ease. 
7. It needs to look spontaneous and casually thrown together at the last minute, almost as an afterthought, the result of uncontrollable excitement generated by the arrival of such wonderful guests. Something casually improvised in a spare moment as a means of using up a few left overs that avoids any whiff of having gone to too much trouble or showing off.
8. Anything too immaculate that looks like it was bought at the supermarket and put in the oven at the last minute with soulless efficiency and calculation will not quite do either. Something gorgeous, perfectly presented and brilliantly a la mode that leaves the cook suspiciously unruffled and ready for the guests’ arrival is likely to create the suspicion that corners have been cut, and that It Is Not All Your Own Work. 
9. It absolutely mustn’t suggest the 1970’s ever. There must be no hint of Fanny Craddock, memorably dismissed at the height of her fame by my grandmother as a fancy pants. There is something depressing about how the daring luxury and acme of sophistication of one era will seem faded, embarrassing and passé to the next. This means that things like vols au vent – or anything with piped mashed potato – should be avoided, unless liberally garnished with knowingly post-modern irony. However, devils on horseback are an exception to this rule and others (see below). Indeed with sufficiently dazzling and fashionable filling, you might even get away with a vol au vent in certain circumstances. 
10. It mustn’t look modish, original or clever-clever. Otherwise people will be despising it in 20 years’ time. It’s important to remember that some canapés – like cocktails – are classics for a reason. Devils on horseback – yes I know these require cocktail sticks – are timeless: put it this way, you will never have any of them left over unless you are entertaining vegans, in which case you deserve everything that you get.  
11. It mustn’t be too filling or too numerous. Leave your guests wanting more – you should sharpen, not dent their appetite.
 12. At the same time, ensure there are plenty, so that, if there is a delay in the next course or the arrival of some of their number there is no need for the guests to feel hungry.
These criteria are – naturally – contradictory and a degree of compromise, adroitness and deftness is necessary when applying them. This is why cooking is an art, not a science. Much will depend on the particular occasion, and on what demands are made by the rest of the meal.
You may be wondering, gentle reader, why I go into such detail over such a small thing as a canapé. But I think it’s a metaphor for life, where we often have elaborate, numerous incompatible and only semi-articulated rules that we barely realise that we have absorbed and somehow have to steer a careful course through if we are to produce anything. Odysseus only had to contend with Scylla and Charybdis, who are a piece of cake by comparison. 
Canapes are small things but I think they are something of a metaphor for life where 

it’s not just about having the right principles but in being able to interpret and apply them. 
Easy canapés – what a harsh spirit would call cheating – do exist, and include the following. As any canapé is an optional extra – and thus an indication that the host has gone to more trouble than strictly necessary – it will be appreciated by your guests, even if it has taken minimal trouble. 
Hummus and crisps – an immense amount can be achieved by putting the hummus in a proper bowl and sprinkling paprika and oil on top. It is worth cultivating the illusion that it is not shop bought, as the eye is easily deceived, even when you know that it came from Sainsbury’s because you bought it there. Of course, the more adventurous can make their own hummus. I am very partial to a hummus of puréed and roast aubergines. 
Manchego cheese in small cubes, with paprika dusted on the top, provides a very tasty and European note.
Really good olives – preferably stuffed with something and not bought from a supermarket. There needs to be a whiff of the artisanal, to get away with them. That said, olives from the deli on a nice wooden tray – especially if supported by manchego as above and good nuts as below – achieve an effect vastly out of proportion to the effort involved. My sister does this to great effect.  
Mini croustades – crisp prebought pastry cases – filled with creme fraiche and smoked salmon trimmings are rather nice. But they can be hard to find in supermarkets, and are easily battered and smashed on the journey home. Quite understandably, the assistants tend not to know what a croustade is, when you ask where they are and whether they have any in stock. Neither did I until I bought one. Not ideal, as they have to be done at the last minute, but a useful standby. 
I don’t really do nuts whether spiced or salted or whatever. The following recipe is good, however, if nuts are required.
Spiced Nuts 

This is a mixture of Nigella and Simon Hopkinson
300 g mixed nuts (e.g. almonds, walnuts, cashews)

2 teaspoons of salt crystals (one flavoured eg celery salt)

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper 

3 teaspoons dark brown sugar

1 teaspoon ground cumin

the leaves from 3 sprigs of rosemary 

3 teaspoons olive oil
Preheat oven to 170C. 

In a coffee/spice grinder, place the salt, sugar, rosemary and spices, and grind until fine.

Put nuts in a large bowl. Add oil and stir with a spatula until thoroughly glossy.

Sprinkle over the spice powder bit by bit, while continuing to mix.

When they are well coated, turn out onto large shallow baking tray that will accommodate them all in one layer. 

Bake in oven for 10 mins. 

Remove and turn over and around with spatula.

Bake for another 10 mins.

Then leave to cool and serve. Store in sealed plastic box 

Pea crostini, or any form of biscuit spread with Nigella’s upmarket mushy peas. For extra impact, garnish with a few pieces of very finely diced red chilli or tomato. To be honest, a biscuit spread at the last minute with anything delicious can be good, although there is a bit of a whiff of the 70s or industrial catering about it. 
Mango wrapped in Parma ham (especially as you can buy mangoes all precubed so that it just becomes a fairly quick assembly job) does very well, even though it requires cocktail sticks.

All of these are useful and commendable but a bit safe. More exciting recipes include the following. 
Fishfingers cut into squares and cooked with a dab of pesto and served with half a roasted cherry tomato on top. This is déclassé but good comfort food: nostalgia stylishly served up with a garnish of irony.
Choux parsnips are good and I did them one New Year’s Eve. But they are not a summer thing. 
Spiced parsnip gougeres

A Saturday Guardian classic. Quite hard work but can be done in advance.
200ml water 

75g unsalted butter

1 and half teaspoons of salt

200g strong white flour

25g Mustard powder

1 teaspoon ground allspice

5 medium eggs

150g peeled and grated parsnips

250g of chedder or stilton broken into small lumps
Put water, butter and salt in a saucepan and bring to the boil. 

Sift and mix the flour, mustard and all spice together, then tip into the water when it starts to boil. 

Beat well until it forms a ball of dough in the pan and starts to come away from the sides. 

Remove from heat and leave to cool for a few minutes.

Beat in the eggs one at a time – this is quite hard, so is best done with a sturdy stand mixer.

Stir in the parsnips and transfer to a container in the fridge where it will keep for a day or so. 
To cook, cover a baking tray with non-stick paper secured in place with a few dabs of the mix. 

Heat the oven to 220C. 

Spoon a quarter of the dough into a bowl, crumble in a quarter of the cheese and stir gently. 

Spoon walnut sized dollops onto the tray and bake for 15 mins til puffed and sizzling.

Repeat with remaining dough and cheese.  
I also decide on pea purée crostini, even though peas make an appearance elsewhere on the menu. I don’t find the right crostino – and have to make do with a vast circular thing that has the right crunch that looks off-puttingly huge but also alluring with small bit of red chilli on top. (I repeat for lunch number 2 with a table water biscuit, which is less crunchy but the right size and with chopped tomato instead of chilli, as Kate is not a fan of the hot thing. This works better.)
I decide to do cheese and banana filos from the Carved Angel, along with some hot mustard and mushroom ones. It’s inevitably a bit stressful to be finishing these off – it’s fiddly work – as the guests arrive, but they go down well as they pile up on a plate sprinkled with fresh basil leaves. An easy but effective garnish. 
Mushroom Pasties 

A recipe from the much missed Sindy (Independent on SundaY). I have fiddled about with, it using filo instead of shortcrust and upping the mustard and cheese
225g button mushrooms

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

50g grated strong cheddar cheese

half a teaspoon of salt

three teaspoons of dry mustard (I like this strong, but the original only has a teaspoon) 

Freshly ground black pepper 

a dash of lemon juice

some chopped fresh herbs 

8 sheets of Filo pastry 

Oil/melted butter 
Wipe and trim mushrooms. Place in a sieve and hold briefly in boiling salted water to blanch. Drain. When they are cool enough to handle, squeeze them dry in your hands. Then dry further on kitchen paper, or put in clean towel and squeeze. Chop. 

Mix in a bowl with the oil, cheese and seasonings.  

Brush a sheet of filo pastry with oil/melted butter. Cut into six vertical strips parallel to the short side. 

Place a small piece of filling in the corner of one strip.

Fold the top corner down to enclose the filling and make a triangle. 

Fold over again, keeping the triangle shape until all the strip is folded up. 

Repeat with filling and filo pastry until all used up. 

Bake in preheated oven for 5 mins at 220C and serve warm
Blue Cheese and Banana Filos

A Carved Angel Classic, these go very well on a plate with the mushroom pasties 
25g blue cheese such as Roquefort (more won’t hurt)

1 firm banana, peeled and finely diced 

freshly ground black pepper

a squeeze of lemon juice

oil/melted butter

filo pastry 
Mix cheese with banana, and season with pepper and lemon juice.

Make triangles and cook as as above. 

I have decided that this year I will go for Pimms. However, I am taking my former head of department’s advice and doing a version that avoids being too sweet: in other words, I add extra gin, and use tonic instead of lemonade. You pour the Pimms into a jug and leave it in the fridge so that the mint and the fruit and the cucumber are left to steep in it – without diluting it with ice or tonic obviously, as these only go in at the last minute. When ready to serve, You add these along with a couple of slugfuls of gin. The result is awfully good, and not lacking sweetness, because, let’s face it, Pimms is rather sweet to start off with, and really doesn’t need more adding to it.
It certainly seems to go down pretty well, with Graeme asking whether this version isn’t just gin and tonic with a bit of fruit added (yes and no) and Alastair eating up pieces of fruit and cucumber from the jug, like a child licking the cake mix out of the bowl. 
I’m a little nervous as I’ve put the chicken in fairly late so I encourage them to make full use of the filos, which I’m pleased to say they do. 
This is followed by Courgette terrine, which is one of those glorious starters that you can do in advance. 
Courgette Terrine

Another Carved Angel classic. Getting it to set is murder, however and I recommend doing individual dishes for this. That said, if it does collapse, just work on the basis that it was intended to look rustic and serve a pile on individual plates surrounded by the tomatoes and no-one will be any the wiser. 

Serves 6

450 g of courgettes

2 teaspoons of salt

25g butter

2 eggs

300ml double cream

A handful chopped fresh herbs (thyme, mint, rosemary, parsley, basil, marjoram)

Fresh spinach (ideally not the baby variety) (optional)

Tomatoes
Grate courgettes and spread out in a colander. Add salt and mix. Leave to drain for 30 mins.

Rinse. Use hands to squeeze out the moisture. Place in a clean tea towel and squeeze out again. This will not leave you with very much. 

Melt the butter in a pan and cook the courgettes very gently for about 5 minutes without browning until they are tender. Leave to cool.

Beat the eggs with the cream. Add the chopped fresh herbs and a generous amount of salt and pepper. Stir in the courgettes. 

If using the spinach leaves, pour boiling water over them, allow them to sit for 10 seconds, then drain and refresh under the cold tap. Then drain again. Grease individual ramekin dishes with butter and line with the spinach leaves. Fill with the courgette mixture. 

Alternatively, line a 2 pint terrine dish with clingfilm and again fill with the mixture. 

In both cases, cover with foil and cook at 140C for 45 mins to an hour for the whole terrine or 20 mins for the moulds until just firm to the touch. I reckon that it needs a lot longer. Allow to stand for 5 mins. Keep cool in the fridge and then turn out just before serving. 

Serve with a tomato salad. Halved cherry tomatoes look very good. 
It’s marvellous having my own garden herbs, which I obtained from a garden centre near my mother’s and planted in my front garden. It means I feel free to add plenty of mint and rosemary and thyme to the courgettes. Although I give it twice as long as the specified time, it still fails to cook inside and disobligingly collapses when I upturn the courgette terrine from its clingfilm lined tin. Fortunately the guests are all outside and don’t hear my gasp of horror. I’m even cool, calm and collected enough not to utter a give-away fortissimo imprecation. I put a dollop of collapsed purée onto each plate and surround it with halved cherry tomatoes. The result looks quite pretty in a rustic sort of way, and no one would ever know. 
As I’m doing two lunches, this gives me the chance to learn from my mistakes second time round. This time, I avoid the problem by lining white soufflé dishes with spinach leaves. The only problem was that only baby spinach was available. As a result, llining the well greased dishes with very small leaves was a surprisingly fiddly and time-consuming task, but the result was undoubtedly more elegant and more successful. They still needed longer than the specified time, but they did at least keep their shape when tipped out. The combination of intense green with sharp red tomatoes and rich eggy creaminess is particularly good, it has to be said. 
By this time, the chicken is done. I’m lazy and, prefer not to carve when it can be avoided. So when doing lunch for lots of people, I tend just to get thighs and drumsticks, which avoids worrying about carving. When I’m retired and eating lunch at home 7 days a week, there will be time for making stock and all of those sort of virtuous activities. I feel slightly guilty that I’ve added spices to the original recipe and realise that I should try it without as the spices muffle the hit of the lemon. 
Ottelenghi roast chicken with preserved lemon

I generally add a few spices to the mix but I think they may dilute the lemon and I need to try it on its own. Very good with the new potatoes with peas and coriander,
70g of unsalted softened butter

3 tablespoons of thyme leaves

Freshly ground cumin and coriander and black mustard seeds with a few chilli flakes (all optional)

Mustard powder (also optional)

1 small preserved lemon, pips discarded, flesh and skin roughly chopped

Finely grated zest of 1 lemon

2 tablespoons of lemon juice

Sea salt and black pepper

A free range chicken (or thighs and drumsticks)
Preheat oven to 190C

Put butter, thyme, spices if used, preserved lemon, lemon zest, salt and pepper in the food processor. Blitz.

Smear over chicken.

Put chicken in roasting dish. Pour over lemon juice. Leave halves of lemon in dish. Sprinkle all over with salt and pepper. 

Roast for about 70 mins basting every 15 mins if using a whole chicken.

Remove from oven when juices run clear not pink and let rest for 10 mins. Then carve and serve.   

With the chicken we have an array of vegetables. 
Sweet potato mash is a joy. It’s remarkable how much lime, angostura, ginger and salt and pepper it takes. I add a few chilli flakes but not when Kate is joining us. It’s good both ways 
Sweet potato mash
Peel sweet potatoes and cut into chunks.

Place in a large saucepan of boiling water. 

When tender, drain and mash. 

Add plenty of salt and pepper, some lime juice, a few shakes of angostura bitters and a couple of stem ginger balls very finely chopped. A few chilli flakes can also be added. Garnish with chopped fresh coriander.
Ottelenghi potato salad proves to be a delight albeit a bit of a faff: well worth it, and something that would be good for a Glyndebourne picnic. It’s frustrating for the first lunch to realise that I could have done the peas for the crostini at the same time, but this how you learn from your mistakes, by making them in the first place. It raises the issue of whether it is permissible to repeat ingredients in the course of a meal. There is part of me that thinks this is not generally a good idea, but that it is a rule that a good cook can probably break on occasion without damage, particularly if the ingredients are given different treatment and aren’t the major point of the dish. 
Again, for the second lunch, I successfully omit the chilli and up the coriander and peas for Kate. It’s wonderful how recipes can be adapted.

 

New potatoes with peas and coriander 

Very good with the roast chicken with preserved lemon. Would also work well for a picnic
300g frozen peas

2 green chillies finely chopped, seeds removed

1 small preserved lemon, pips removed, flesh and skin roughly chopped

Fresh coriander

60 ml of olive oil

Finely grated zest of half a lemon

1 teaspoon of lemon juice

salt and black pepper

750g new potatoes peeled or scraped and halved if large
Bring a pan of water to the boil. Blanch the peas for a minute and drain. 

Set aside a third of the peas.

Put the rest of the peas in a food processor, with the chillies, preserved lemon, coriander, oil, zest, salt and pepper. Blitz to a rough paste. 

Cook potatoes in boiling salted water til soft (about 15 mins)

Drain, transfer to a bowl and roughly crush, leaving some of them whole. 

Add the blitzed peas and the whole peas to the bowl with the lemon juice and more coriander. 
Beans tossed in oil and finely chopped mint – which I’ve used in the Pimms – provide a further note of green. 
The second time I put a few halved cherry tomatoes in to roast with the chicken, for the last ten minutes and they do give it a little zing without being intrusive. Clearly repetition – they also accompanied the courgette – can work. 
Both lunches have Nigella’s lemon curd pavlova, but with fresh raspberries instead of the curd. The lemon zest and juice in the meringue provide a gloriously sharp note. This is such a wonderfully easy pudding, although I realise that I don’t have a large enough dish for it, as it barely fits on the plate. A nice problem to have. 
After we have disposed of the pudding and a surprisingly large amount of prosecco, white wine, desert wine and iced water, we go for a walk. It is lovely to be in the woods. It is warm but not hot, the sensation of sun against skin supremely pleasurable, but not causing sweatiness. The woods are beautifully green – the benefit of such a rainy summer – and surprisingly quiet. We seem to find exactly the right route through them. 
Although our walk was not arduous, it produces the illusion that we have earned our tea and perks up our appetite for cake, in the form of a Piña colada Victoria sponge, and for the second of the lunches a coffee Battenburg. 
Mary Berry’s Coffee and Walnut Battenburg
This is a terrible faff and leaves lots of cake bits that will require using up in a trifle. Guests tend to be very appreciative, but part of me thinks that this is one of those things that is better bought rather than made at home. 
100g soft butter

100g caster sugar

2 large eggs at room temperature

100g self-raising flour

half a teaspoon baking powder

50g ground almonds

vanilla extract

3 teaspoons of milk

1 and a half teaspoons instant coffee granules

25g walnuts chopped 
100g icing sugar

40g softened unsalted butter 

half a teaspoon instant coffee granules 

1 and a half teaspoons milk
225g marzipan
Preheat oven to 160C. 

Line a tin and use baking paper to give you a pleat in the middle.

Put butter, sugar, eggs, flour, baking powder, and ground almonds into a mixing bowl and beat with a wooden spoon for 2-3 minutes until smooth, lighter and glossy.

Spoon half the mixture into another bowl, add the vanilla and one and half teaspoons of milk. Mix well and set aside.

Stir coffee into remaining milk until it has dissolved. Add to remaining mixture along with the walnuts. 

Spoon half the coffee into one half of the tin. And the other mixutre into the other half. 

Level the surface with a knife, and ensure that the pleat is still exactly in the centre. 

Bake until risen and springy and the sides have shrunk slightly from the tin (around 35-40 minutes).

Take out the oven and cool for a few minutes.

Run a knife round to loosen and turn out onto a wire rack. Peel off the paper and leave to cool completely.  

Trim the edges off, and make each bit into two long equal strips with a square cross section.

Make the butter icing, by sifting the icing sugar into a bowl, and adding the butter. Dissolve the coffee in the milk and add to the icing. Beat til soft and smooth.

Lay a vanilla sponge strip and a coffee strip next to each other and use the buttercream to stick them together. Spread more icing over the top.

Stick the remaining pieces together in the same way. Fit the four pieces together to create a check effect. Spread more icing over the top.

Roll out the marzipan onto a worktop dusted with icing sugar so that it is an oblong the length of the cake and four times the width. Lay the iced side of the cake down onto the marzipan at one end so that it fits. Spread the rest of the icing over the remaining three sides of the cake. 

Roll the cake over in the marzipan, pressing to cover it neatly but not squeezing out the icing.

Use water to seal the join and turn over until the join is at the bottom. Try to avoid touching the marzipan with wet fingers. 

Trim the ends of the cake to make smooth and neat.  
After making the Battenburg, the day before, I vow never again, because it is such a nerve-wracking faff. Even with a flash special tin and Mary Berry to provide extra reassurance, it’s jolly tricky having to divide your mix into two, one coffee flavoured and one not. Then when you have baked it and got it out of the tin, you have four irregular shapes of cake to turn into four identically shaped blocks with perfectly square cross sections. It brings back all the nightmares of second form woodwork, and the failure of my badly-sawn dove-tail joints to fit together. I also recall a Paddington Bear story where he tried to reduce the height of a table by sawing a bit off the legs, but, how, every time he reduced the length of one leg, he then cut too much off the others to stop it wobbling, until he was a left with a table six inches high. The vast quantity of cake offcuts feels shockingly wasteful or a good excuse to make tira mi su or trifle.
And then, when you have finally finished getting the pieces of cake to an identical shape, you have to fiddle with buttercream filling, and roll out marzipan. To my suprise this is less difficult than I expected, although I’m almost too traumatised to notice. I vow never to make it again. 
The only trouble is that everyone really rather likes it. And it does taste rather good. So I’m not saying never, just maybe. After all, I’ve learnt a lot through doing it, and it would be a waste not to apply that knowledge. 

In which I spend Easter Day without chocolate

The clocks have sprung forward, and we have lost an hour – another sure sign that spring is on its way. That said, it will be quite a faff, when I get back home, having to go about the house changing the clocks in the bedroom, bathroom and kitchen, not to mention the video, the central heating, and the oven. It will be like Richard Strauss’s Marschallin – who was so distressed at the passing of time that she got up in the middle of the night to turn back all the clocks – but in reverse.

Now that I’m older than the Marschallin, I am more aware than I was of the drawbacks of passing time, both faster – and occasionally slower – than you might wish, and certainly more inexorable. That said, I’m surprised that Strauss’s sharp, strong, intelligent character goes in for a piece of melodramatic, undignified whimsy that is more appropriate for Norma Desmond than Princess Marie Therese Von Wedenberg. I wonder whether the servants had discreetly to reset the clocks afterwards, and whether they were punished for not lighting the fires promptly or being late with Marie Therese’s morning chocolate. Still, unlike poor Norma, at least the Marschsllin retains her self-respect, acts her real age, remains in touch with reality and achieves dignified renunciation rather than going bonkers with a firearm. I suddenly realise that, with sane gun regulation, a lot of American films would end up with endings that were a lot less messy. Perhaps the crazy position of America on firearms is because of their desperate need for closure.

Before Church, I assemble the hot cross buns in a dish with butter. In retrospect, I wish I’d applied marmalade as well as butter, and had added some extra fruit. It would have been even better if I’d looked at the recipe, added nutmeg and rum and used cream instead of milk. But the result is very adequate.

Hot cross bun bread and butter pudding

The marmalade is an addition of my own. Unless your hot cross buns are VERY fruity, it may well be worth adding a handful of dried fruit (soaked in a little hot water and then drained to plump it up)

100g softened butter

Marmalade

4 hot cross buns cut horizontally and then in half

2 eggs

2 egg yolks

50g caster sugar

1 tsp vanilla extract

400ml whipping cream

3 tbs dark rum

whole nutmeg

Grease an oven dish with some of the butter. Spread the buns with the rest of the butter and marmalade, and arrange in the dish, stacked up against each other, cut side uppermost.

Beat eggs, yolks, sugar and vanilla together in a bowl til light and frothy.

Pour in the rum and cream and whisk til smooth.

Pour over the buttered buns and leave for at least 30 mins.

Preheat oven to 180C.

Grate over some fresh nutmeg and sprinkle with some more caster sugar.

Cook for about 30-35 mins and serve warm rather than hot.

We drop the puddings off at my sister’s and then head to Church. Despite the weather forecast, it’s not actually raining. The weather can only be described as striped: bands of clear blue sky and sunshine alternating with dark black clouds and occasional showers. But it’s hard to complain when we have some appropriate Easter sunshine at least some of the time.

As usual, at Easter there is a huge six foot cross, made up of spring flowers, standing outside the Church that we go to in Emsworth. In the sermon, we are told that the Resurrection is a miraculous disruption, an astonishing victory over the forces of sin and death and darkness, and not simply a normal cyclical resurgence – like spring or the chicken following the egg. Yes, the preacher is right about that.

But it’s actually more complicated: except a seed die and be reborn again is also part of how Scripture describes resurrection. Looked at in one way, resurrection is indeed a disruptive miracle, but yet it’s surely also part of the natural order as created by God, in the divine plan from the beginning, and an inevitable result of a God of love who created humanity in his own image, to be born, die and rise again. I see this as a wonderful mystery,  of how letting go of life means that it is given back to us, although I am sure others would see it as Christianity wanting to have it both ways.

When we get back to my sister’s, it all systems go as we prepare lunch. My niece does her glorious aubergine upside down cake to provide herself with a vegetarian alternative and the rest of us with an extra vegetable.

Glorious Aubergine upside down cake

2 large courgettes coarsely grated
2 Aubergines sliced into 1.5 cm thick rounds
60ml olive oil
1 large onion peeled and finely chopped
1 large garlic clove peeled and crushed
5 g marjoram leaves finely chopped
5 g oregano leaves roughly chopped (10g if no marjoram)
50g toasted pine nuts
300g Greek Yoghurt
Finely grated zest of a lemon
50 g finely grated Parmesan
2 eggs separated
50g fresh white breadcrumbs

Heat oven to 220C.
Line a 21cm cake tin with baking paper and brush with oil.

Mix grated courgettes with half a teaspoon of salt, place in a colander, and allow to drain for 20 minutes. Transfer to centre of clean towel or J cloth, draw up the sides, and squeeze out as much moisture as possible. Put squeezed courgettes in a bowl and leave aside.

Mix sliced Aubergines with two tablespoons of oil and salt and pepper. Spread out onto two baking trays lined with baking paper. Roast for 30 mins til golden brown. When cool, arrange in an overlapping spiral to cover the base of the cake tin.

Turn the oven down to 180C. Fry onion in two tablespoons of oil for 7 minutes til soft and starting to turn brown. Add garlic and herbs and fry for another minute. Add to courgettes, along with pine nuts, yoghurt, lemon zest, Parmesan, egg yolks, salt and pepper. Mix well.

Whisk egg whites to stiff peaks, and fold gently into courgettes. Spoon on top of Aubergines. Bake for 45 mins til brown. Set aside to cool down a little.

Release cake from tin and invert onto a plate. Remove baking paper, and serve warm or at room temperature.

With our Easter prosecco, we have pea purée on sourdough. (Bought from Waitrose says my sister, of the sourdough, glowing with pride at her efficiency. And indeed I would do the same. Especially if – like my sister – I had been dancing attendance on my mother in law in Gloucestershire all yesterday: still I suppose I need to acquire a Mr Right before worrying about a mother in law.) The pea purée is from Nigella’s upmarket cod with mushy peas, but it makes for a fabulous crostino. (A brief rant about the correct use of Italian seems appropriate here: a panino, two cappuccini. My nephew – who can out-pedant Sixtus Beckmesser when the mood takes him – can’t see what the problem is: in his view, pannini has simply become an English word that we can do what we like with (compare agenda, data, referendum, use of crescendo for climax). I guess that’s the young for you. I know this rant will achieve nothing, so the only sensible and decent thing to do is to be brief.)

Nigella’s Upmarket Mushy Peas

800g frozen petit pois

100g butter

4 tablespoons of crème fraiche or double cream

some freshly grated parmesan

Salt some boiling water and cook the peas until well done.

Drain, tip into food processor. Add butter and process. Add crème fraiche and process. Add parmesan and process. They can be reheated as wanted.

Also good on crostini

Inevitably, perhaps, at Easter we have roast lamb. The number of potential options here is so huge. Simon Hopkinson’s version with anchovies, garlic, and rosemary, roasted with white wine, is such a perfect combination that it has to be in my top ten recipes of all time. But then I also adore Nigella’s pulled lamb that is cooked for seven hours and served with pomegranate seeds. And it’s practically a crime to serve lamb without cumin.

My sister’s recipe doesn’t do any of these, but it is splendid in its simplicity: just garlic, rosemary, and red wine. This is still a pretty formidable achievement, as she wasn’t around to prepare it yesterday. It’s been long enough in the oven to be tender and no longer red. Just the way I like it. I’m not sure where this red-blooded macho Puritanism about rare chewy meat came from. Why do the wannabe Hannibal Lectors who seem to like the taste of blood and doing damage to their teeth insist on lecturing the rest of us in that holier than thou way. What’s the matter with well-done? Nothing at all when it’s like this.

Then it’s time to assemble the Pavlova. Out come my sister’s fancy egg beaters, big, heavy, sleek and crimson, the colour of tart’s nail polish, a glorious piece of must-have kitchen kit, particularly when they go so well with the kitchen’s colour scheme. Nevertheless, they overbeat the cream slightly and prove less effective – and much more cumbersome – than my ten quid set from Argos.

Because the Pavlova is so huge, there is only one dish that fits it, a fish platter with a vast painted blue trout on it that I bought my sister for her 50th birthday. This leaves the head and tail of the fish poking out from either end of the Pavlova, which makes it all look rather surreal. My mate Andy, on seeing a photo, says it looks like gents’ urinal full of wood shavings (he’s referring to the toasted flaked almonds that Nigella requires you to scatter on top). Although he says he is sure it was delicious.

After lunch, we watch the boat race in a desultory sort of way. I hadn’t even realised it was on, which is I think the appropriate level of interest to display in a sporting event. I don’t really care which boatful of over-fed jocks on steroids gets to the end of the course first, despite having Oxford as my alma mater. My bro in law – who shares my university but is rather more bothered about the outcome of the race – says something awfully knowledgable about Oxford’s washboards. He isn’t referring to their abs – heterosexuals are so wilfully peculiar sometimes – but then he does voluntarily participate in sailing (an activity best described, in my view, as ripping up £50 notes under a cold shower).

A lovely day concludes with the last episode of the Night Manager. Unlike so much TV these days, the  narrative was clear and direct and not  made unnecessarily complicated. Classic BBC at its best. Those evil Tory vandals had better leave it alone.

In which I have a very relaxed Easter Eve

It is Holy Saturday or Easter Eve. Not, kindly please note, Easter Saturday, which will not take place until several days after Easter Day. Although it seems like we’ve been waiting for it for ever, Easter is actually quite early this year. Much to the annoyance of teachers, travel agents and the owners of garden centres, the date of Easter fluctuates by as much as a whole lunar cycle, in a way that can be a decidedly inconvenient interruption to the highest of purpose of humanity, namely making as much money as possible with the minimum effort and outlay.

The way that the date of Easter can’t be fixed and made subject to organisational requirements is somehow rather satisfying, a visible challenge to today’s deification of wealth creation, and an implicit rebuke to capitalism and its assumption that there is nothing more important in life than generating profit and increasing growth. The inconvenience of the timing reminds us that what happened at the first Easter was something beyond human control, and that resurrection is more than learning some new organisationally effective habits. (The way that Christians can’t even agree about the date amongst themselves is also an important – but alas often ignored – corrective to any tendency towards smug complacency on the part of the religiously minded.)

I certainly feel in need of a bit of a break. After the long haul since Christmas, there is always a sense of relief at the prospect of a little bit of restful inactivity – or at least not going to work – that comes with the Easter weekend. Even better, it’s getting warmer and the days are getting longer; and there is, if not actually spring, then at least evidence that it is not far off. The force that through the green fuse drives the flower – in Dylan Thomas’s wonderful phrase – has been switched back on. Even if the sap isn’t actually rising, there is certainly more energy – and the idea of going back to the gym no longer seems hideously masochistic or ridiculously unrealistic. (It still hasn’t happened, however.)

It’s good to be back with the family. I am providing puddings for Sunday lunch, and even have all Saturday to do it. This is the soft option: my sister is doing the main course, despite going to Gloucestershire for the day. My niece – also going to Gloucestershire – is doing her own vegetarian thing, which gives the carnivores an extra vegetable.

As I’ve been having a bit of a bread and butter pudding thing going on, I decide to do another one, but with hot cross buns. I’m too lazy to make these, and so buy them from the local bakery, Heidi’s, an establishment that takes its carbohydrates very seriously and inclines to the solid rather than the delicate. My sister, whose preference is very much for elegant patisserie over Teutonic stodge, majestically dismisses Heidi’s emporium as somewhere that she’s never had much time for. That said, they do incline to the heavy, and one would not be surprised if the eponymous owner were referred to by her partner these days as my little dumpling (and maybe no longer as little).

As well as the hot cross buns, I also buy some lemon curd from Heidi’s for Nigella’s lemon curd pavlova, a ludicrously easy Easter pudding, if you use bought curd. During the afternoon my mother gardens, and I make the pavlova. As there will be only 5 of us, I use only 4 eggs instead of Nigella’s 6. The result is nevertheless huge – I did use extra large eggs – and expands enormously in the oven, leaving me with something of a problem when it comes to finding something large enough to serve it on.

Nigella’s Lemon Curd Pavlova

A gloriously easy pavlova for those occasions when passionfruit are too expensive or unavailable.What’s pleasing about this is how it uses lemon juice instead of the more usual vinegar.Perfect culinary accessorisation.

4 large egg whites

250g caster sugar

2 and a half teaspoons of cornflour

2 unwaxed lemons

50g flaked almonds

300ml double cream

1 x 325g jar of lemon curd

Preheat oven to 180C and line a large lightly oiled baking tray with baking parchment.

Beat egg whites until peaks form. Then beat in sugar, a spoonful at a time, until meringue is stiff and shiny.

Sprinkle cornflour over meringue, and grate over the zest of one lemon finely. (If you do it in larger slivers, they will end up as deliciously chewy lumps, which isn’t necessary a bad thing.). Add two teaspoons of lemon juice.

Gently fold everything together until thoroughly mixed. Mound onto the lined baking tray in a fat circle approximately 23 cm in diameter, smoothing the sides and making the top level. (It will be turned upside down, so there is no point in making a depression in the pavlova for the filling.)

Place in oven. Turn down temperature to 150C and cook for 1 hour.

Remove from oven and leave to cool.

Dry fry almonds in a pan over a heat until they have coloured, shaking the pan regularly. This takes less than a minute. Tip onto a cold plate until ready to serve.

When ready to serve, turn the pavlova upside down onto a serving dish and peel away the baking parchment.

Whip cream gently till thick. Don’t overbeat.

Put curd into a bowl.Beat to loosen and add some lemon zest and a squeeze of juice.

Spread curd on top of meringue base. Top with whipped cream. Sprinkle with more lemon zest and the flaked almonds.

I realise that not providing a chocolate based pudding – or at least a chocolate cake – at Easter is deeply counter-cultural, but I know not all the family is that keen on chocolate, and, after all there will be plenty of other opportunities over the next few days. In any case, not doing the obvious – and avoiding that coals to Newcastle sort of feeling – does rather please me.

My mother and I have roast chicken thighs with roasted vegetables, followed by a lemon cheesecake from Aldi that my mother is fond of for some reason – a very easy dinner.

Neither my mother nor I go to the Easter Vigil – a service much beloved of liturgical anoraks, but rather tedious for everyone else. Instead we watch King’s at Easter. When it’s been shown to work so well for Christmas, it seems rather surprising that it took someone so long to have the idea. But then, the obvious is often overlooked until someone dares to bring it to people’s attention. As it hasn’t been done before, it had a much fresher, less predictable feel to it than the Christmas nine lessons and carols, which doesn’t actually seem to have much room for variation, let alone surprise, these days. I was expecting a lot more renaissance polyphony, but we actually had quite a lot of comparatively recent English material – more Bairstow and Elgar than Tallis and Byrd. I do hope that the BBC and Kings will repeat this experiment until it becomes a tradition.

On Serendipity, Nutella, and Bread and Butter Pudding

Serendipity sounds like the name of a snooty shop in somewhere like Lewes, where the dresses are frumpish but prohibitively expensive and all hand-dyed with organic vegetable matter; or perhaps a self-consciously whacky tea shop that – by trying too hard to be just a little bit different in a non-confrontational kind of way – ends up relentlessly generic. The word comes from a Hugh Walpole story called the Three Princes of Serendip, who made their own luck, which, frankly, doesn’t sound madly difficult if you start – and continue – with all the advantages of having been brought up as a prince.

That said, regular practice in the kitchen does seem to enable you to produce delicious results now and then almost by accident – serendipity, if anything is – even if, like me, your default setting is to follow a recipe. Not that I follow recipes with particular obedience. I often tweak them, whether by adding more of a particular spice I’m fond of – a little extra cumin rarely goes amiss – or by reducing the stipulated amount of sugar, or by not assuming that the stipulated time is necessarily right for my oven. And that’s quite apart from using what I have to hand rather than what the recipe stipulates (frozen peas instead of spinach; whatever I have in the cupboard instead of the latest on trend Ottelenghi ingredient). But I rarely completely do my own thing, without the comfort blanket of someone else’s recipe, unless there are left overs in the fridge, in which case I do tend to rely on serendipity.

However, there is a further paradox here – you can do something awfully clever, only to find that you have come up with a (slightly mangled) version of a already existing recipe. It has been suggested that there is no such thing as a truly original cocktail, merely endless variations of the same classic combinations, and that there are only 7 basic plots. I suspect that much the same is true of food generally, or actually any other skill. It’s about knowing that, at one level, there are a very limited number of options, but that, having chosen one of them, you then have scope for almost limitless variations within that particular framework. It’s all about knowing when to accept restrictions and when to let your creativity off the leash. Serendipity looks (or passes itself off as) accidental – look, it was just a few things I tossed into a pan – but is actually the result of knowledge and experience, whether conscious or not.

And today I did have some left overs. In particular, lots of bread, as I had an all day rehearsal rehearsal with the London Gay Men’s Chorus, which meant that I needed to bring my own food (a couple of bananas and some home made smoked salmon and goat’s cheese sandwiches). As a result, I needed to use up the bread or put it in the freezer, as opportunities for having it are limited, now that I have trained myself not to have it regularly for breakfast, as it’s just too many carbs.

I also had some free range eggs – laid by hens kept by my head of department – with wonderfully fluorescent yolks, which were in danger of losing their freshness if they weren’t eaten soon. My food cupboards contain Nutella, which I have had a thing about, ever since being introduced to hot Nutella – think superior drinking chocolate frothed up – on a very wet but enjoyable summer holiday on Jersey, which included a revelatory visit to a marvellous gay-run and exquisitely designed cafe in St Hellier.

I was tired after rehearsal – no wonder after a day on my feet learning how to dance to Mr Bluesky and Diamonds are a girl’s best friend – and not in a mood to make an effort. I had therefore defrosted some home-made minestrone for my main course. As you will see, this very much the recipe as adaptable template, although I have probably gone far too far for most Italians.

Minestrone

This is an amalgamation of Nigel Slater’s and Nigella Lawson’s versions: the point is to use what you have, or what you need to use up, rather than feeling that you need to follow it exactly, or include everything. You are supposed to add shredded cabbage, but I don’t because I find cabbage disgusting. The pancetta and the tomatoes are inauthentic, but I don’t care, and like it much better with them, even if the result is no longer genuinely minestrone.

50g pancetta, or chopped smoked bacon (Nigella omits this)
20g butter
3 tblspoons of olive oil (it’s good to use both if you have them)
2 large onions, halved and sliced, or some leeks chopped
2 sticks of Celery chopped small (Nigel omits this)
Carrots peeled and diced
Potatoes peeled and diced (It also works with sweet potato)
100g french beans, ends trimmed and cut into short lengths
Diced courgettes may also be added
1 litre vegetable stock or water
500g tomato passata (Nigella omits this)
An old parmesan crust (it really is worth saving them in the fridge just for this)
2 x 250 tins canellini beans or chickpeas
Freshly chopped parsley
small pasta (eg broken spaghetti) (I don’t always bother)
Peas (I don’t always bother)

Fry bacon or pancetta in the butter and oil, and when sizzling add the onions.
When they are soft, add the carrots and the potato and let soften without colouring. Lower the heat as necessary.
Add the French beans and courgettes. Pour in the passata and stock.
Add the parmesan rind and bring to the boil, then turn down to simmer gently.
Cover and let simmer for and hour and a half.
Drain the beans and rinse. Add to the pot along with the parsley and the pasta.
Cook for a further 20 mins and serve with fresh Parmesan and a spoon of pesto.
It can be made in large quantities and then frozen

After that, I needed some sweet stodgy comfort food for pudding.

I have of course long been aware of the existence of chocolate bread and butter pudding. Indeed I’ve eaten it quite a few times. So it wasn’t too surprising that I had the idea of making some. But where the idea of making it with Nutella came from I do not know; hence my giving serendipity the credit.

I can only say the result is marvellous. You end up with eggy custard complimented by intense chocolate bursts. It’s beautifully soft, with the seeds in the bread and the toasted crusts providing a glorious contrast in texture.

Nutella Bread and Butter Pudding

8 slices of granary bread (seeds give an interesting texture)
Nutella
Butter for greasing the dish (without it, it won’t be a bread and butter pudding!)
A token amount of sugar (less than a tablespoon)
A teaspoon of vanilla extract
A pint and a half of milk (it’s delicious even with skimmed, as that’s what I had, but this is surely an occasion for full fat!)
4 eggs

Grease an oven dish with the butter. This is necessary to provide some butter, so that the pudding lives up to its name. It also makes the washing up a lot easier.

Make four sandwiches with the Nutella. Lay it on thick, and out plenty on. More butter is not required. Cut each sandwich into four triangles. Place in dish.

Beat eggs with sugar, vanilla and milk. Pour over Nutella sandwiches.

Place in 180c oven for around 45 minutes.

In which I cook a vegetarian dinner for my niece

Some things in this life are absolutes: they are not subject to qualification, and do not come by degrees, for example, uniqueness, virginity and pregnancy, although, rather confusingly, even here, there is such a thing as extra virgin olive oil. Vegetarians, however, do not appear to come into this category as you can be vegetarian to a degree that varies from slight to extreme.

At one end of the scale, there are the hard-core  fundamentalist vegans – who tend to prompt the response in me that there must be easier ways of making yourself miserable or demonstrating that you hate food.. Intimidating everyone into walking on the vegan equivalent of eggshells in order to accommodate your ideological demands is, in my view, aggression, and not passive but active, and indicates that you hate people rather than that you love animals. At the other end, are the vegetarians who eat fish, or even, somewhat incredibly, white meat, who aren’t really vegetarians, but just not into red meat, which seems more about preference than principle. But, even among real vegetarians, it is not quite as hard and fast a matter as it might appear. Most vegetarians will wobble at the smell of a bacon sandwich, and I remember some veggie friends of my sister, caving in on a physically intense cycling tour of America where alternative sources of protein to beef were virtually non-existent.

It appears that my niece is closer to the vegan end, in that, not only is fish forbidden, but that she has had a lifelong aversion to cheese. I later discover that the dislike of cheese that she had  maintained as a carnivore (something that had definitely been preference rather than principle) has now bitten the dust. This seems an intelligently pragmatic arrangement, as vegetarian options are threadbare indeed if you eliminate cheese, let alone the going the full vegan hog and  throwing out milk, butter, cheese and eggs. However, it turns out that her primary reason is to take a stand against the damage that meat farming is doing to the environment, rather than because she is animal loving.

As I have been commissioned with doing Saturday dinner for the family, including my niece, I decide that I shall do a fully flung vegetarian meal (without fish, and with only minimal cheese) that even a meat-eater would enjoy. After all, how hard can it be? Many a time, I have voluntarily gone for the veggie option in restaurants, although usually eggs or cheese have been involved. However, menu planning proves rather harder than I expected. Finding recipes that are low in cheese isn’t too difficult, but, when there is no meat to define the courses as starter or main, it’s quite a problem deciding which should come first. Should it be the aubergines with lentils or the spinach and chickpeas with sweet potatoes? Part of me is tempted simply to serve everything up at the same time, and leave the hard decision-making to the guests.

Chickpeas and spinach with honeyed sweet potato

For chickpeas

Tin of chickpeas drained and rinsed

2 tbsp olive oil

1 onion finely chopped

1 tsp coriander seeds

1 tsp cumin seeds

1 tbsp tomato puree

400g tinned tomatoes

1 tsp caster sugear

1 and a half tsp ground cumin

100g baby spinach leaves

coriander leaves

Potato

500g sweet potato, peeled and cut into 2.5cm thick slices

700ml water

50g butter

4 tbsp honey

half tsp salt

Sauce:

100g Greek Yoghurt

1 garlic clove crushed

juice and zest of a lemon

3 tbsp olive oil

1 tsp dried mint

  1. Put sweet potatoes in a wide saucepan with the water, butter, honey and salt. Bring to boil. Reduce and simmer for 35-40 mins til tender and most of the liquid has been absorbed. Turn half way through cooking to ensure that they are evenly coloured. Remove from heat and keep warm.
  2. Heat olive oil in a frying pan and add the onion, cumin seeds and coriander seeds. Fry for 8 mins, stirring til golden. Add tomato puree and stir for one minute. Then add tomatoes, sugar and ground cumin. Cook for another 5 mins, and season to taste with salt and pepper.
  3. Stir in the spinach, then the chickpeas. Mix and cook for 5 mins.
  4. Whisk ingredients for yoghurt sauce and season to taste.
  5. Spoon warm chickpeas into a serving dish, arrange potato on top and garnish with coriander. Spoon the sauce over or serve separately.

Lentils with aubergines

2 aubergines

2 tbs good red wine vinegar

200g rinsed puy lentils

3 small carrots peeled

2 sticks celery

3 sprigs fresh thyme

1 bay leaf

half a white onion

3 tbps olive oil

12 cherry tomatoes halved

half a tsp brown sugar

I tbp each roughly chopped parsley, coriander or dill

2 tbsp crème fraiche or yoghurt

salt and pepper

Pierce aubergines with a sharp knife and place on a foil lined tray. Place directly under a hot grill for 1 hour turning a few times. They need to deflate completely and their skin should burn and break. Remove from heat. Cut a slit down the centre. Scoop out the flesh into a colander, avoiding the black skin. Leave to drain for at least 15 minutes and only then season with salt and pepper and half a tablespoon of the vinegar.

Preheat/turn down over to 140C.

While the aubergines are grilling, place lentils in medium saucepan. Add one carrot and celery stick, both cut up into large chunks. Add bay leaf, thyme and onion, cover with plenty of water and bring to boil. Simmer on low heat for up to 25 mins until lentils are tender. Skim off the froth from time to time. When tender, drain in a sieve. Discard the vegetables and the herbs and transfer lentils to a mixing bowl. Add remaining vinegar, 2 tbsp of olive oil and salt and pepper. Stir and keep warm

Cut remaining carrot and celery into 1cm dice and mix with the tomatoes, remaining oil, sugar and some salt. Spread into an ovenproof dish and cook for about 20 mins until carrot is tender but still firm.

Add cooked veg to the warm lentils, followed by the chopped herbs and stir gently. Adjust seasoning as necessary.

Spoon lentils onto plates. Pile aubergine in the centre and top with yoghurt/creme fraiche and finish with trickle of oil.

In the end, I decide to do the aubergines first, as I’ve never cooked them before, and they are the unknown quantity. The sooner the uncertainty of what they taste like is resolved, the less anxious I shall be.

Half of the aubergine recipe is almost like a more difficult and blander tasting version of Simon Hopkinson’s classic creamed aubergines. Alas, without the lemon juice, it’s not quite so exciting: balsamic vinegar, lots of fresh herbs and roast veg are not quite enough to make the lentils interesting. They needed, at the very least, a hint of goats cheese to give them a bit of zing. Not my finest hour. However, my niece takes the left overs – which are, perhaps unsurprisingly, fairly substantial – with her, as it will save her having to cook something ideologically sound whist at my sister’s.

The chickpeas and spinach with sweet potato, however, are much more pleasing. I discover on a subsequent occasion that they are more pleasing still with some feta crumbled over the top, which does nicely, and is easier than the prescribed yoghurt sauce. This is gorgeous and strong flavoured food and goes down much better, probably because the lentils had moderated everyone’s expectations.

One of the other strange things about the meal is that I haven’t paid enough attention to the carbs. It somehow seemed slightly absurd to do a separate dish of potatoes, when everything was vegetables.. I had got some pita bread, which I warmed in the oven and then forgot about. When I remember it and hand it round, it is eagerly and ravenously eaten. How could I have forgotten the carbs? They are so often the heart of the meal.

I was going to do summer fruits steeped in Cassis with coconut mousse but there were gooseberries on sale in the Emsworth Greengrocer’s, and so I decided to do a fruit fool. I haven’t seen gooseberries in supermarkets for years, as they seem to have, unaccountably, become completely unfashionable. Delightful though it is to have mangoes and pomegranates available in the supermarkets, it’s an awful shame if it results in the exclusion of home-grown delights like the gooseberry. In any case, the exotic, colourful – and extremely welcome – visitors to our supermarket shelves have, no doubt, been flown in at the cost of vast damage to the ozone layer (environmentally minded veggies, kindly take note). And there is, of course, no reason – other than the whims of supermarket buyers and the caprices of the Great British Public – why native gooseberries couldn’t also be around to delight us with glorious fools and delectably tart crumbles. And they wouldn’t require a huge mark up – which is perhaps why the supermarkets don’t stock them. It’s a shame because I’m wondering what a gooseberry Pavlova might taste like. Strangely, the ones in the Greengrocer’s aren’t green in the way that I remember from my childhood, but reddish purple – and almost sweet enough to eat raw, although a bit on the bracing side.

As instructed by the wise Jane Grigson in the Fruit Book, I boil them in a little elderflower cordial and a little sugar. She sternly insists on the merest drop of water, but I am not paying proper attention and plonk in a bit too much. The result, even once the gooseberries have been mashed and cooled, and some whipped cream added, is a bit on the sloppy side. It’s also a pink dayglo colour that looks like instant whip and would almost glow in the dark, even though it doesn’t contain any chemicals or E numbers. But, served with some local artisanal lavender-scented biscuits, it does go down rather well.

This attempt at a veggie dinner has some interesting lessons, in particular, the sad truth that as meal entirely without fish or meat is unlikely to be entirely satisfying to the meat-eater. In future, if I’m cooking for vegetarians, I’ll still do something with meat or fish. I’ll make sure that there’s enough interesting stuff to eat without going carnivorous, but I won’t make the meat eaters go without.

In which I do Sunday lunch

July is the time of the year for al fresco dining – especially Sunday lunch, which is, I suppose, my favourite mealtime of all,  because it can be unhurried and relaxed. There is no worrying from your guests about the time of the last train back to London – unless, as often happens on Sunday, there are engineering works. (Evil Network Rail seems to entertain the delusion that no-one travels by train on a Sunday or that it’s only a real journey if it’s for work during the week).

And there is something iconic and resonant about that perfect Sunday lunch in the garden The required sunshine can never be taken for granted – so there is always an element of heart-felt gratitude when the weather has been kind, which helps to gild the experience with thankfulness for summer, good food, friends and all the blessings of this life. Sunday lunch is, I suppose, one of the easiest and most enjoyable ways that human beings can connect with one another.

Where the perfect Sunday lunch is concerned, memory and fantasy operate even more powerfully perhaps than the reality.   Every year I want to try to equal the memory of the previous years, even if I can’t surpass it – a challenge that gets increasingly difficult as the memories become all the more alluring as they start to fade and merge into the great whole of Sunday lunches past, whether at a smart metropolitan restaurant, or a country pub: whether the comfortable, middle class Sunday roast at home, encompassing several generations and the easiest way of feeding a large number; or perhaps the group of like-minded friends relaxing and enjoying one another’s company while eating and drinking and going for a walk together. All of these are ways of having just an ordinary Sunday of the kind  immortalised by Seurat in his paintings and Sondheim in Sunday in the Park with George.

This tradition of Sunday lunch is like a more convivial and participatory version of the Patrick Kavanagh poem Wet Evening in April.

The birds sang in the wet trees

And as I listened to them it was a hundred years from now

And I was dead and someone else was listening to them.

But I was glad I had recorded for him

The Melancholy –

It is humbling – and also thrillingly terrifying – when you realise that Sunday lunch is a tradition in which you are able not simply to participate, but can take on what a certain kind of obnoxious job advertisement would call a significant leadership role, simply by inviting friends to lunch. It is easy to feel intimidated by the iconic nature of Sunday lunch , as well as astonished at fecklessness and presumption required to take on responsibility for implementing an undertaking so fraught with emotional baggage. And then you just get on with it,  and it simply falls into place with a bit of planning, any lack of energy or proper organisation, being compensated for by previous experience, or obscured by pouring another drink.

It is encouraging how all the wiseacres and doom-mongers, who have pronounced the last rites over home cooking, family life and community in general, and Sunday lunch in particular are proved wrong every week, as people still prepare food for their loved ones. Lazy journalists may purse their lips and ruffle through their thesaurus to find synonyms for collapse and decline and fragmentation, arm-twisting their social media acquaintances to provide quotes that can be cited as evidence and shoe-horned into articles decked with clichés about the loss of meaningful connections. But the gastroporn industry still goes from strength to strength –  even if there must be a question about how many of the more labour intensive dishes actually get made  – and people still do actually cook lunch for one another instead of going out. I must admit that, despite the enticements of gastroporn,  I never do anything that is really difficult. Particularly not for Sunday lunch, where even the moderately difficult is best done well in advance.  At Sunday lunch,  relaxed informality is always the note that one should aim to strike.

And, this year,  I find myself I’m doing it twice on consecutive Sunday afternoons, once for three friends and once for five, as it is somehow easier to psych myself up once to do it twice than it is to psych myself up twice to do it once. But there is the agonising question about how much do I repeat myself: easier for planning, if I do, but less interesting in the execution.

On both Sundays I start with hummus, shop bought, but enlivened with paprika for both colour and taste, decorated with a slug of olive oil, and put in a white dish. This is sufficient to transform it, especially with black pepper crisps. I know I have led a sheltered life, but I find it seriously difficult to comprehend how even crack cocaine could be more utterly addictive: I can eat it this until it comes out of my ears. The only way to prevent myself from eating the lot is to serve it to my guests.

My five guests also have some cubes of Manchego dusted in more paprika, another classic for lazy hosts wanting maximum impact for minimum effort. To go with them, we have marmalade vodka cocktails, as Alastair claims that Pimms is something that people only have because they feel they ought to acknowledge the existence of summer rather than because they actually enjoy it.

This may be because Pimms is often served too sweet. A former boss of mine, doubly blessed with both the wisdom of age and the joie de vivre of youth, recommends adding extra gin and using soda water instead of lemonade. I remember once having recourse to something called Whims when my supply of Pimms ran out at a party: equal parts of Dubonet, Cointreau and Gin. Just like the original but an awful lot stronger. Probably no more expensive, but much more dangerous.

The cocktails we have in lieu of Pimms are my own special creation, although I have followed the basic template and taken good advice, so they are reliable rather than original, which is exactly what a good cocktail should be.

A sugar cube soaked in a few drops of orange angostura goes into a champagne flute containing a measure of marmalade vodka, followed by along with an ice-cube tossed in a little Cointreau. It is then topped up with prosecco and served with slice of orange. Counter-intuitively, it’s the ice, on the wise and lovely Simon Hopkinson’s advice, that makes these so good. It seems to keep them gorgeously cold without diluting the taste. These cocktails are really rather lovely, though I say it myself.

The three guests get Ottolenghi’s roast vegetable tart – one of the most delicious things to eat that I know. The roasting and chopping of the veg is less hassle than it looks, but rolling out the pastry and having to get the tarts out of the tins is probably more. But this is not a recipe that you ever regret having done, even if it’s a bit time-consuming and not all the pasty comes out of the tins even when you do small ones. My three guests and I enjoy them as a starter – and, even better,  it gives me two to have for supper later during the week on two rare nights in.

Nevertheless, I decide to try  a different starter for the five guests in the form of roast pepper, aubergine and goat’s cheese terrine.

Red pepper, aubergine and goat’s cheese terrine

2 large aubergines

2 tablespoons of olive oil

coarse salt

6 red peppers

2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

375 mild goat’s cheese at room temperature

50 ml double cream

2 tablespoons of fresh thyme chopped

pinch of freshly grated nutmeg

  1. Preheat oven to 220C. Slice aubergines lengthways into 5mm strips as evenly as possible. Place on well oiled baking sheets (or use foil). Brush with olive oil. Roast in oven for 20 mins until just tender. Set aside to cool
  2. Cut peppers into large chunks and roast for around 45 til black. Place in a deep bowl and cover with a plate so that the condensation will make the skin easier to remove. When cool, remove the skin with a knife or paper towel. Sprinkle with balsamic vinegar and a teaspoon of salt
  3. Mix the goat’s cheese with the cream and one and a half teaspoons of salt, some black pepper and some freshly ground nutmeg. Beat well and mix thoroughly.
  4. Lighly oil a terrine (about 30 x 10 x 7.5cm) and line with cling film with at least 15cm hanging over the edge. Line the bottom and sides (but not the ends) of the terrine with one third of the aubergine strips as neatly as possible, trimming as necessary. Arrange a layer of one quarter of peppers, again trimming neatly, over the base of the aubergines. Spread a quarter of the cheese over the peppers. Repeat this layering process three more times, finishing with a final layer of aubergine.
  5. Fold over the cling film and wrap tightly. Place into a large baking pan. Fill pan with hot water up to three quarters of the way up the terrine. Bake for one hour and fifteen minutes. Cool and refrigerate.
  6. An hour before serving, remove from fridge. Remove cling film from top and invert onto a baking sheet or board. Remove remaining cling film. Allow to come to room temperature.
  7. Slice off messy ends with a very sharp knife and discard. Slice into 1 cm slices and serve two per person.

Although it doesn’t involve pastry, it is a huge faff in other way. Unlike the vegetable tarts,  it doesn’t taste quite as good as it should. Or even as good as basic peppers and goat’s cheese. And this kind of terrine seems very old fashioned/90’s somehow. And it places an overdue strain on my engineering skills – quite apart from the fact that I run out of red pepper, despite using two more than the original recipe said. I also fail to wrap the climfilm over the top, which probably makes it a bit drier than it should. It does taste ok – but not delicious – and it is pretty, but I still don’t think that I shall be doing it again.

The main course for the three guests is a basic chicken with pomegranate recipe – simple and delicious. And, all it needs is Jane Grigson’s classic pink grapefruit and avocado salad, and another salad of quinoa, with chickpeas, feta, peas and freshly chopped coriander.

Chicken with pomegranate

6 chicken thighs and drumsticks

2 lemons

olive oil

herbs

200ml plain yoghurt

half a clove crushed garlic

pinch of dried chilli flakes

the seeds of 1 pomegranate

Put chicken pieces in an oven proof dish. Smear with oil, season with herbs, salt and pepper. Halve one lemon and squeeze over. Put lemon halves in dish with chicken. Roast for 35 mins at 180C.

Mix yoghurt with the juice of the other lemon, garlic, chilli flakes and a tablespoon of olive oil. Season with salt and pepper.

Arrange chicken on a serving dish, spoon over yoghurt and scatter over the pomegranate seeds.

I decide to do something more elaborate for the five guests in the form of Ottolenghi Chicken with saffron and olives and lemon, as I don’t feel like repeating myself.

That said, the salads are fairly typical and low-maintenance to compensate. One is pomegranate, cherry tomato and chickpea with lots of coriander. And the other is Cous cous with herbs and feta, plus some pistaccios, rocket, spring onion and chopped green chilli.

Saffron Chicken with lemon and olives

3 small preserved lemons chopped, pips discarded

12 peeled garlic cloves

2 and a half teaspoons cumin seeds, toasted and lightly crushed

1 and half teaspoons sweet paprika

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

90ml olive oil

6 chicken thighs and and 6 drumsticks

2 large onions peeled and cut into 6

I large lemon cut in half lengthways and finely sliced

half a teaspoon saffron strands soaked in a little water preferably overnight

100g pitted green olives, gently crushed with the flat of a large knife

10g chopped coriander leaves

Put preserved lemon, garlic, cumin, paprika and turmeric in the small bowl of the food processor. Add four tablespoons of oil and teaspoon of salat, and blitz to a paste. Transfer to a large bowl and add all the chicken and use your hands to rub the paste all over. Place in the fridge to marinade for at least 4 hours – preferably overnight.

Use hands to wipe off the excess marinade from the chicken back into the bowl. Heat a tablespoon of oil in a large casserole dish with a lid on a medium high heat. When hot, add the chicken in batches, and sear for around 7 minutes, turning once half way through, so that it is brown and crisp on both sides. Remove from the pan until all the batches are done.

Wipe pan clean and add another tablespoon of oil. Fry the onion for 10 minutes until soft. Return the chicken and the remaining marinade to the pan, with 250 ml cold water, the lemon, saffron and half a teaspoon of salt.

Stir,cover and cook on a low heat for 40 minutes. Add the olives and cook uncovered for another 10 minutes until the chicken is cooked and the sauce is nice and thick. Garnish with chopped coriander and serve.

It’s quite tasty, but  there is something slighltly off-putting about having to apply the marinade and then wipe it off. That said, I suspect it would seem a lot less trouble if made a second time. And it goes down quite well with guests.

Just as I am clearing away the plates, I remember that I had left some asparagus tips roasting in the oven. I inspect them. They are well done but not actually burnt, crispy rather than soft. I taste one. They are sort of more like asparagus chips than roasted asparagus. Almost like crisps in fact, with a crunch that is followed by an unexpected smoky, bitter, but unmistakable note of asparagus. I hate waste, so I pile them into a dish, toss them with fresh lemon juice and salt and pepper and take them out the guests as an amuse bouche. They go down quite well – or maybe I just have polite guests – although they aren’t the sort of thing that anyone wants masses of. Remarkably good damage limitation in the cirumstances.

Pudding is the same both Sundays. The Carved Angel does a classic creamed coconut mousse, which is intended to be served with a winter salad, but I find that it does equally well with a summer one of cherries, raspberries and blueberries in cassis.

Creamed coconut mousse

Serves 4

 I have quadrupled the coconut and you can use all double cream if you prefer.

150ml milk

65 ml single cream

80g creamed coconut grated

20g granulated sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

4g leaf gelatine soaked

lemon juice

150ml double cream

  1. Warm the milk single cream, coconut, sugar and vanilla in a pan, whisking to dissolve the coconut.

  2. Add gelatine and stir until dissolved.

  3. Sharpen with lemon juice and leave to cool in fridge until beginning to set

  4. Whip double cream lightly and fold into coconut cream.

  5. Line four dishes with cling film, add cream and leave to set in the fridge,

  6. Turn out and serve with fruit and a mint leaf on top.

This the point where, if the weather is kind, I usually make my guest go for a walk to Severndroog Castle and through the extensive Oxleas woods – the oldest in London so locals insist, although I’m not sure quite how you measure the age of a wood. Is it  a scientific thing like  carbon dating?  Or more historical involving looking at records and seeing how long there is evidence that there was a wood here. There is certainly an absence of deer and wild boar these days – they are just somewhere for walking the dog and enjoying the rather splendid views, although they do require something of a steep climb. I am deeply privileged to have all this within walking distance. The joy of where I live is that central London is reasonably accessible even though it feels miles away and the pace is comparatively unhurried and there is a feeling of spaciousness that is definitely suburban and almost rural (without any of the drawbacks such as hunting, combine harvesters, tory MPs, no wifi or having to treck miles for the essentials of civilised life such as cinemas, opera houses and quinoa).

These Sunday lunch walks always leave me thinking how nice it would be to settle down with Mr Right and have a dog,  so that I was compelled to  come here more often, and enjoy the hills and forest. Except I think it would feel rather different on a rainy February morning, when there wouldn’t be anything very romantic about arguing about whose turn it was to take the dog out or clear up the poo. So having a dog – like ending up with Mr Right –  is probably something that will remain confined to fantasy, but who knows what might be round the corner?

We are blessed with good weather on both Sundays, although it takes a while for the sun come out for the five guests, and we have to start indoors and move outside half way through the proceedings.

On our return, our walking exertions provide a spurious justification for Nigella’s courgette cake and tea. Strangely, I find that I have less cake left over after three guests – who also manage to drink more – than after five. But two thoroughly enjoyable Sunday lunches to go in the memory bank!

In which I cook dinner for my sister’s birthday

I have been commissioned to cook dinner for the night before my sister’s birthday as (a) she will have been on the Isle of Wight all week helping to contain a group of hyperactive infant schoolchildren and (b) when she gets back, she needs to devote all her energies to presiding at my nephew’s 18th birthday party and barbecue the following day. Strictly speaking, this is an anticipation of the feast by two days, but my sister has tampered with the birthday lectionary so that, thanks to the Bank Holiday Monday, the festivities will not be happening on a school night and thereby endangering delicate A level results.

Cooking for my sister is a difficult assignment: not only will I need to produce something special, celebratory and delicious that is up to my sister’s own formidably high gastronomic standards, but it will need to look fairly effortless in a way that suggests that I haven’t gone to an inappropriate amount of trouble.

After a suitable amount of anxious consideration, I decide to cook a roast vegetable tart. It may be a little time-consuming, but this Ottolenghi recipe is a classic that contains a lot of my favourite food. And it shouldn’t be too difficult, as it will be the second time I have done it and I shall know what I’m doing.

I have shamelessly bought jus roll pastry from the Emsworth Co-op in a bid to save time. I subsequently feel vindicated about this when my sister admits that she does this too and doesn’t see the point of making her own.

Ottolenghi Vegetable Tart

1 red pepper and 1 yellow pepper, seeded and cut into sections

about 100ml of olive oil

1 medium aubergine cut into 4 cm dice

1 small sweet potato peeled and cut in 3 cm dice

1 small courgette cut into 3 cm dice

2 medium onions thinly sliced

2 bay leaves

300g shortcrust pastry

8 thyme sprigs, leaves picked

120 g ricotta

120g feta

7 cherry tomatoes halved

2 medium eggs

200ml double cream

salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 230C

Roasting the veg

Put peppers in an ovenproof dish. Drizzle with oil and place in oven.

Mix aubergine in a bowl with 4 tablespoons of oil and salt and pepper. Spread in a large baking tin and place in oven.

After 12 mins, add the sweet potato to the aubergine and stir. Return to oven for another 12 minutes.

Add courgette, stir and roast for another 10-12 mins. By now the vegetables should all be cooked.

Remove from oven and turn down to 160C. Put a baking sheet in the oven.

Place peppers in a bowl and cover til cool. Then peel and then tear into strips.

While the vegetables are roasting, gently saute the onions in 2 tablespoons of oil with the bay leaves and some salt stirring occasionally until brown and sweet (about 25 mins). Then discard the bay leaves.

Lightly grease a 22cm tart tin. Roll out pastry to a circle 3mm thick and large enough to line the tin with an overhang. Carefully line the tin, pressing into the edges and corners. Line with baking parchment and make sure it covers the bottom and sides. Fill it with baking beans and bake blind for 30 mins. Remove paper and beans and bake for a further 10-15 mins til golden brown. Remove and allow to cool a little.

Scatter the cooked onions over the base and top with the roast vegetables. Scatter half the thyme over. Dot with small chunks of both cheeses and then with the tomatoes cut side up.

Whisk eggs and cream in a small bowl with salt and pepper. Put tart onto the baking sheet on oven shelf and pour into tart. Scatter remaining thyme on top. Bake for 35-40 mins til set and golden. Leave for ten mins at least, before breaking off overhanging pastry, removing from tin and serving.

For the main course, we have salmon with samphire. The latter had not originally been part of The Plan, to use my niece’s somewhat subversive terminology. But the amazing Mr Starr – who is one of the two butchers in Emsworth as well as being the only fishmonger – has samphire on sale as well as salmon, so we feel honour bound to try it. By weight, it’s more expensive than the fish – at £13 a pound – but it’s very light and you don’t need a huge quantity of these alluring bright green twigs that smell saltily of the sea.

The Carved Angel has a marvellous recipe for this.

Salmon with Samphire

4 225g salmon steaks

freshly ground black pepper

A good handful of samphire well wahsed

100ml of dry white wine

150ml double cream

Preheat oven at 140C.

Lay the salmon steaks in a buttered shallow oven dish. Twist some pepper over.

Arrange samphire on top. Pour wine over. Cover with foil and cook for 15 mins or so until fish is just cooked.

Drain juices into a pan and keep fish and samphire hot. Bubble over a high heat til reduced by half. Add cream and reduce til sauce is thick. Taste and adjust seaoning. Skin salmon and serve on a warm dish with samphire and sauce poured around.

At the Greengrocer’s, English Asparagus is in season so we have some of that too, along with some rhubarb, as I have decided to finish things off with a rhubarb pavlova. I know my sister is keen on rhubarb, and I had some in a pavlova at that wonderful Soho restaurant Andrew Edmunds last week for my birthday. (And what a lovely meal that was too, preceded by cocktails at the Friendly Society – where there are gorgeous but deadly raspberry based cocktails (along with ravishing and helpful men behind the bar to serve them)  and dead Barbies on the ceiling.The meal featured pigeon breast with wild garlic, followed by Black Sea bream with olives (matching black, natch)  orange and fennel. All with some Jersey Royal potatoes that had been covered with some irresistible ever so slightly spicy butter.)

The first thing to do is get the meringue sorted out, and get the rhubarb into the oven with some orange zest and juice and a little sugar to soften under some foil until it’s tender. Then it’s time to roast the vegetables and cook the tarts. I decide that I shall make six small ones rather than one big one, as I have the necessary tins. It’s fiddlier, but actually easier, as you aren’t having to cope with a huge quantity of pastry. Or at least it is until I realise that there are no baking beans, and I need to improvise with pudding rice. Even worse, the bottoms of the tins are not detachable, and I have neglected to line them with anything other than rather a lot of butter. Getting the tarts out of their tins is, therefore, interesting, but rather easier than expected, as I had greased them well. I shall definitely put some foil in the bottom next time.

There is even time for a brief pause to put my feet up, during which I get the Guardian Soduku completed and my mother watches the new royal baby – later to be known as Princess Charlotte – emerge from hospital. Presumably the actual emerging from the womb was more protracted and painful  – and rather less stage managed. Charlotte is a resonant name for me, with varied connotations of pudding, ranging from Apple to Russe.

Then it’s time to prepare the wherewithal to mix the cocktails – marmalade vodka, an ice cube with a dab of Cointreau, and an angostura bitters infused sugar lump, topped up with prosecco and a slice of orange. I also start the risotto. Things are going well, our guests arrive and start tucking into the cocktails. then my niece skypes from Liverpool. This is tricky as the risotto cannot be left unsupervised. Even to talk to my niece. Rather like a teenager’s baby, risotto really needs continuous attention from one source, but ends up being reluctantly tended by a succession of people, who are slightly nervous about taking on the responsibility.

Lemon Risotto

Gorgeous on its own, it’s perhaps even better with fish, particularly the salmon with samphire.

2 pints chicken or vegetable stock

55g butter

1 tbspoon olive oil

2 finely chopped shallots or one onion

1 celery stick finely chopped (optional tbh)

285g Arborio rice

Juice and zest of half a lemon (perhaps a whole one)

5 fresh sage leaves finely chopped

A sprig of rosemary stripped and finely chopped

4 tablespoons of grated parmesan

4 tablespoons of double cream

salt and black pepper

Bring stock to boil and keep at a steady simmer while you cook the risotto.

Melt half the butter with olive oil over medium heat and cook shallot/onion and celery until soft but not coloured (about 5 mins).

Add rice and stir til each grain is thoroughly coated with butter and oil. Pour in one ladle of hot stock and stir until the rice has absorbed nearly all the liquid. Ladle in another cupful and continue in this way for around ten minutes.

Stir in the lemon zest and herbs.

Carry on adding the stock a cupful at a time until the rice is al dente. This will take around another ten minutes. Never let the rice dry out, and, if you run out of stock, start adding hot water.

Beat the lemon juice with the parmesan and the cream and plenty of black pepper. Draw the risotto off the heat and add the mixture to the risotto with the rest of the butter.

Cover and let settle for a minute. Adjust seasoning, give a vigourous stir and serve.

I haven’t tried it, but it might also work if you added all the stock at once, brought it to the boil, covered it and cooked it in a preheated oven at 150C for 20-30 mins.

The vegetable tarts go down extremely well, and look good without any soggy bottoms. My sister must be pleased as she asks for the recipe. Rather more problematic is the salmon with samphire, which comes out of the oven at its allowed time, only to be visibly and distressingly undercooked. (In fact, we subsequently discover that this isn’t my fault – or the recipe’s – but  the oven’s, when it repeats this trick and undercooks some chicken breasts the day after.) Fortunately, after another 15 mins, the salmon is ok, although this extra time in the hostess trolley doesn’t do the asparagus or the risotto any favours. The risotto ends up more like a savoury rice pudding, with the grains no longer separate as they are meant to be, but is, nevertheless, pronounced delicious. And the samphire is something of a wow too.

After a brief pause, I whip the cream and assemble the Pavlova. My rhubarb, baked with orange, is more vibrantly flavoursome than that provided by Andrew Edmunds, but their meringue is better. It’s partly because a mountain is a better shape than a basket because it makes for a thicker meringue. I recall my mate Jeff’s advice. He is Australian and knows about puddings created by Antipodeans in honour of Russian ballet dancers’ impersonations of dying swans. He is also a professional chef.  Jeff insists that it’s not a proper Pavlova without cornflour and vinegar: it’s only a meringue. My sister agrees with this, but my nephew supports me in my preference for something a bit chewier. Nevertheless, it wasn’t as good as the restaurant version, so I realise that I am going to need to be more flexible in my approach in future if I am to achieve the desired effect.

This is true of so much in my life at the moment. But I still feel pleased with the overall results of dinner. Despite one or two slightly hairy moments and overfilling the champagne flutes with prosecco at one point, I am relieved to have delivered a reasonably successful birthday meal. Even if I am too tired to stay awake beyond 11.