To Absent Friends

It is Halloween this weekend. With all the carved pumpkins, witch costumes, zombie face paintings and spooky sweets, it is hard to get back to the essence of this feast of the start of winter. To honour the dead. To create light in darkness. To be reminded that life goes on with our children.

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The ritual of children carrying a lantern, going around singing and being rewarded with sweets must go back to an old pagan ritual, which found it’s way into modern societies in different forms. In Spain it is connected to Epiphany on the 6th of January, and children go around dressed up as the three wise men. When I grew up in the Netherlands we went around on st Martins day, the 11th of November, using a sugarbeet as a lantern, because they were widely available. I wouldn’t  be surprised that lighting candles, singing at Christmas and getting presents go back to same tradition. And now this practice has found its form as trick or treating on Halloween.
Parading children, singing lively and carrying the light must be a reminder that in this period of slumbering bleakness these children are our future.

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But as much as it is about the promise of a future, it is also time to look back at the past. In the Catholic Church the 1st of November is the day of the dead. In Mexico it is a very important festival. People visit the graves of their loved ones, bringing offerings to comfort the departed. Feeding the dead, so they won’t come back and feed on us. In Elizabeth Luard’s ‘Spiritual Food’ I read that  this is important to many cultutes, from Celtic to Chinese, to make sure you are at peace with your ancestors.

In modern society where the future is bright, and everything has to be new and better, we are not caring anymore what our ancestors would make of this. We stand in awe at the fireworks at Bonfire night, forgetting that the bangs should scare unhappy ghosts of the past. On the 11th of November we commemorate those who made the ultimate offer to our country, but what are we offering them? We treat them with silence.

To make peace with your lost ones might be a decisive step in accepting who you are, where you have come from, the relationships with the departed which have formed you. Before you have done that, it might be difficult to move on to the future.

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Food plays an important part in all this. Nothing brings you back to your childhood like the taste or smell of something. That is why I am hosting 2 dinners with an Absent Friend theme this weekend. It is important toast to them, so that they are happy with us.  We eat aromatic spiced soul cake, to evoke fond memories. And rosemary, which scent brings me back to the paradise allotment of my Italian neighbour in Utrecht, 20 years ago. To Franco.

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I love you too

Gwyl Arall menu
Broadbean and Dill Hummus
Caws Rhydydelyn and Purslane Salad
Terrine with Pickled Cammomile Peaches

Rice Bowl with Beef or Tofu
and Strawberry Ketchup,  Russian Kale,  Coffee Beets, Creamed Rosemary Courgette

Gooseberry  Pie

Often I get asked what my speciality/favourite cuisine is. And always I forget to answer: the joys of June. The soft whites and pinks of May, the month of expectancy, have made way for the blood red fruits of love. My heart skips a beat when I spot the first real sun ripened strawberries, raspberries and cherries. For me, it is as with these fruits  nature is saying ‘I love you  too’.
Its is the sparkling burst of abundance which I so love about these last weeks. The vegetable boxes which my local farm has started again are overflowing with green leafs and crisp new carrots, potatoes and onions. Tasting a freshly picked cucumber you realise how much flavour is lost with wrapping it in plastic and transporting it.

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June is the month for haying. The smell of freshly cut grass is loved by so many people I think because it makes them feel right in the middle of summer, when the sunshine is still sparkling. Strawberries in Ginger Ale Jelly are the optimal foodification of this sparkling sunshine in a glass. You could use champagne but I like the extra zing of ginger.

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Gorfennaf is the Welsh for July, and it means the end of summer. That’s a bit premature I hear you say, are summers in Wales that short? But it harbours a grain of truth. Nights are shortening. From now on summer is ripening, drying out. The next few months are all about harvesting, and conserving the crops for winter. Not long before combines almost cowlike graze the fields of golden grain, and digest it, seperating the wheat from the chaff.
The revitalising sparkle has left summer. It is about maturing now. That is why I like pickles so much. The vinegar adds the bit of zing which got lost. Recipes for the peaches and coffee beets on this weeks menu I found in the very inspiring ‘Smoke and Pickles’ by Edward Lee.

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Preparing for next weeks Welsh cultural festival Gwyl Arall I talked to Carwyn Jones, who set himself the challenge to live of the land and the sea for a year. While I am jubilating the abundance of vegetable and fruit produce, for Carwyn these are difficult months. There is not much to hunt and fish for. He’s trying hard to catch that shyest of fishes, sea trout. Although there is an element of sport, achieving the catch, it is mostly about becoming one with nature, feeling almost what the trout is doing, and simulating with your ‘fly’ the movement of small fish it is hungry for.

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If you eat it, you have to be able to kill it, is Carwyns  motto. When you kill an animal for meat, it should be done with respect. That is the word which ressonates with me most. Cooking is not an art, sport or nutritional necessarily action, but paying respect to what nature is giving you. Your way of saying ‘I love you too ‘ to the earth and all what it is providing you with.

The Flavour of Life

A Dutch farm menu this week.
Dutch  Farm Salad with Cheese and/or Cured Sausage and Buttermilk Dressing
Dutch Beef Burger with Fried Liver Sausage and Mustard
White Asparagus with Egg and Lime Tree Blossom Sauce
served with Sautéed New Potatoes, Broad Beans and Aniseed Carrots.
Dutch style Semolina Pudding with Camomile Cream and Stewed Strawberries

June is my favourite month. Spring is over. Woken up after winter, all its detoxing fresh green leafs were like a refreshing morning shower. All its flowers and blossoms were a dawn chorus of better things to come. But it is in June that these promises are kept, as it is the month of real first harvesting. Ah, the taste of freshly dug up new potatoes, planted at Easter, with some butter and mustard. Strawberries, rose blossoms turned into a sweet juicy fruit of love. Cherries, gooseberries, currants, peas, broad beans.

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It is the month of my birthday, and sometimes it feels like the whole month is a birthday, being given all this fresh fruit and veg. And as on the morning of a birthday, there is the almost exhilarating anticipation of more things to come. Went for the hills on this early summer day, a lark singing high in the sky, surrounded by heather and llus bushes (bilberry). Couldn’t help but checking how many berries there are on the bushes, hoping the sheep will leave them alone, and that I will be able to pick my fair share in a month or so. Looking out below me I noticed the wheat is already starting to turn into fields of gold, and I could already almost smell a freshly baked bread.

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A friend of mine lost his farming father earlier this year. Living in the city himself he told me that he felt he lost more then his father. He missed the connection with the land, his father came from a way of life which is gone now. I guess he felt that the rhytm of his life has changed. For centuries food, and producing food, gave structure to our existence. Nowadays it seems more and more that food is just something nutritious. Instead of seeing it as a way of connecting, we separate  it by wrapping it in as much plastic as possible. In restaurants the distance is created  by turning food into some kind of art.

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I feel blessed that I can see golden fields and wild bilberries growing where I live. The importance of food as the flavour of life is also shown in the brilliant novel I recently read by Manon Steffan Ros: the Seasoning. It tells the story of Peggy, living in a village in the Welsh hills.  Each chapter centers around a different person and starts with a recipe of food they enjoyed together. It is the food that gives her memories some extra spice.
I applaud the concept of this book. I wish everybody the excitement of baking a cake, picking homegrown strawberries or the waiting for the right moment to pick wild blackberries. You can feel natures pulse through it, and that makes life so much tastier.

Fragments of Spring

Next week I am collaborating with a local artist. Her work evolves the fragments of household ware that are on the steep slope behind her home.  The earth is churning up the contents of a waste tip which was used by the inhabitants of her cottage about a century ago. The rain has washed down broken china, shoes, perfume bottles and complete earthenware jam jars.

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At first I marvelled at how beautiful these reminiscences of a past hard life are. Then I realised that the true beauty for me is the earth bringing it all up again. And giving it a new life as it id used as part of an artwork.

That is the essence of spring to me. The earth breaking up and providing us with a new life. I do feel particularly revived by spring this year. When I was walking about at Easter I noticed how abundant nature already is.
Shaded woods offer plenty of wild garlic to make a pesto. I use hazelnuts and any hard cheese in mine.
Tender dandelion leafs are sprouting up everywhere, and are good in a potato salad with toasted pumpkin seed oil, which is a memory of Austria for me.
Heavenly scented bright yellow gorse flowers make good wine or a cordial. Just soak them overnight in a taken of the boil syrup.

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Nettles are just right at the moment. Tingling more then stinging when you pick them without gloves, like I did. Use them as spinach, in a pie for instance. Or with butter toasted oats in a soup.
Always think spring is one big egg with all these white and yellow flowers around. So many of them are edible. Daisies are a favourite of mine. Tiny sunshaped hearts which open themselves to the sun. The turn a dish into a smiling plate of food.

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The knife is the symbol of modern cooking. It is all about fragmenting food, slicing it, breaking it up, grinding  or blending it.
But in the end it is the becoming one when we eat all these fragments what matters.