Almost seven, my niece sits with me, reading. I hold her close. She holds a postcard sent from Australia: "We have arrived at a small town famed for its statue of a dog on a tucker box" Her eyes are so perfectly blue, they seem like crystal. Her concentration is absolute - she is unblinkingly in the moment. No worries about the cat or the milkman, death or taxes. Just 5x3 inches of card from halfway round the world, and a small child, at perfect ease in my arms, at the dawn of experience.
Incredibly quick to make, this simple recipe can be eaten as either a satisfying main course or as a lunchtime snack.
INGREDIENTS, per portion
100gm Ligurian trofie from Carluccio's or Camisa, Soho
60gm smoked salmon
tablespoon of crème fraîche
quarter of a leek
quarter of a red pepper
tablespoon of frozen peas
freshly ground black peppper
Finely chop the vegetables, cut the salmon into strips.
Cook the trofie for 15mins, adding the leeks after about 4mins, then the pepper, and finally the peas after about 12mins.
Drain and toss in a little olive oil. Stir in the crème fraîche and the salmon; season with freshly ground black pepper.
The Thames at night. Dark outlines of tall trees on the bank side. It is a magical summer evening. In the moonlight, the engine of the little boat putt-putts gently, its prow pushing through a layer of eerily beautiful river mist that rests on the water, but does not obscure our view ahead. We are on our way home after a good pub dinner. On the walk back to the boat we passed Shiplake church, where tiny glow-worms shone brightly in the darkness. We met a retired schoolmaster who was conducting a glow-worm census. He described the few weeks when the females "recline as if on a deck-chair" in the long grass, illuminating their tails in the hope of attracting a mate.
For 12 years I've had a share in a wooden boat, chosen in the yard at Peter Freebody's where the consummate salesman told his daughter 'these two nice young men are deciding which of these two lovely boats they are going to buy'. We named him Cuthbert, not after the Lindisfarne saint called the "wonder-worker of England" but because the name jumped out of a list at random. Just 13' long, built by Freebody's in the fifties. An inboard 1.5hp Stuart Turner R3M engine, made in Henley like the thousands ordered by Butlins for their hire boats, with glamorous teak Riva decking and a dark blue hull set off with a line of fine gold.
Cuthbert always turns heads, often in admiration, but sometimes in sympathy, since the Stuart Turner has a reputation for cantankerousness. Before shelling out for a professional re-build we even attempted an engine overhaul ourselves, hand-cutting seals, and cleaning out decades of gunk, referring to the original manual with its alarmingly complex diagrams and wonderfully mysterious line 'a spare jet is always a convenience'. From being a complete novice I have been initiated into the frequently infuriating idiosyncracies of Stuart Turner engines. We have uncovered a world of specialist experts, beavering away in their intriguing workshops: engine restorers, cover cutters, tiller turners and master boat-builders for whom 20 coats of varnish is the norm.
The adventures we've had! Admittedly most because the engine failed, or we set out too late on a trip that took longer than expected, or because we simply forgot to put petrol in. The locks we've worked by hand late at night, the weirs we've drifted perilously close to and the money we've spent! Trips to the regatta, hanging on to the boom in mid-river as fireworks exploded all around us, the water a mass of dazzling reflections. The rudder we somehow lost in a lock. I was bereft. I even contemplated sending down a diver, but someone was found who could make a replacement, even better than the original. Twice vandals loosed Cuthbert from his mooring, scattering cushions (we found them being looked after by a bemused swan) and leaving him drifting. He (or was it she? - I could never decide, as boats are always female) was even in a car accident, after his trailer bearing failed.
A complete professional re-build of the entire engine, extensive work on the hull, much re-painting and re-fettling inside and out. Family picnics and late-night trystings, an epic journey to the tidal Thames, and even a wedding, when the newly married couple travelled to their reception beneath a flower-bedecked bower. A Sun-trained photographer bawled 'over here darling!' as the bride boarded. Toffs on gin-palaces toasted them in champagne and swimming boys spontaneously roared their approval.
At least three relationships bloomed because of trips on Cuthbert. Two friends were introduced to each other and taken out for evening trips on Cuthbert several times before one of them shyly confessed 'we thought we might go out together - only without you, this time, I hope you don't mind!'.
But now, after all the excitement, the traumas and the adventures, we are finally selling.
On our last trip I caught sight of a sudden flash of brilliant blue. I watched as a kingfisher dipped and rose through the air just ahead of us, leading us back to the mooring and to four lives without one very special boat called Cuthbert.
Not so much a recipe, more a 'pudding idea'
I can't imagine not planting a pear tree in the community orchard we are creating locally. Earlier today a neighbour kindly brought round a big bag of Williams pears. Even if you're not fortunate enough to be given them, there are bargains to be had in the shops where under-appreciated English pears are often priced at less than apples.
Whilst Comice is certainly one of the finest eating varieties, Williams' Bon Chretien is superb for cooking. It is described in The Fruit Manual of 1860 as "melting, with a rich, sugary, and delicious flavour, and powerful musky aroma". Best picked when green and ripened indoors.
Peel, core and chop four large pears and add three pieces of very finely sliced Chinese stem ginger in syrup (available from Waitrose and elsewhere). Pour over a couple of dessert spoons of the syrup and microwave in a covered glass dish for around 4 minutes, stir and cook for a further couple of minutes as needed. Delicious with a good vanilla ice cream.
Our quince tree had a particularly good year. Quinces have such a special flavour, unlike anything else I know. This pudding has a wonderfully fragrant richness about it.
Peel and chop four large quince; microwave in a closed dish for 8 minutes. Purée the quince and stir in three tablespoons of crème fraîche. Add one to two tablespoons of Limoncello*. Sweeten with flakes of jaggery**. Serve chilled in small glass dishes with a little lemon zest decoration.
*Limoncello is the 30% proof liqueur made from lemons grown on the Amalfi coast – and if you’ve never tried it, it’s delicious chilled.
**Jaggery is raw palm sugar with a rich toffee-like taste. It’s sold in blocks and is used in Indian cooking.