A-Z challenge part W: This is a mash up of my writing, or perhaps I should think of these words as simmered into something tasty and nourishing?
I have been strolling the fields with Dog. The weather swirls from hot to cold; an assortment of fattened clouds are dumped across the sky, humidity fluctuates from one step to the next, like the dial has broken. It reminds me of when I’m tired and trying to cook. The weather is trying to remember how to knock up a thunderstorm, but keeps putting the cumulonimbus down somewhere in the troposphere, and promptly losing it. Then it forgets the dew point of water. And how much turbulence to add? Tiredness is a great friend to forgetfulness. I’m tired now, and there’s a tired pile of dishes soaking in the kitchen sink. Only the thought of coffee is strong enough to pull me back up the slope of this slippery field, in through the heavy clank of old farmhouse doors, into the kitchen.
On the crumb speckled worktop, over the surf-stickered fridge, is a new red kettle. I forgot we bought a new kettle: it makes me smile, the colour and the discovery of it. An everyday example of amazing, the kettle, but, arguably, I only acknowledge this because of the soup. Before I get to soup making, a stack of sullied dishes needs clearing out of my way, and before I face washing up, I need coffee. The mindset needs preparing for the magic to work. So I twist the tap, fill the device to an appropriate marker, flick a switch and sit.
Sometimes I favour a hob kettle, because it whistles at me when the water boils. My grandmother once told me she used to hard boil eggs in her hob kettle. I tried it; the water held an eggy fragrance we weren’t keen on. Gran picked thrift over taste. My mother is deft with both.
It’s easy to get lost in steam. It sustains the same absorbent energy as gazing at fire, landscapes, wild water. I love to peek inside as the convection current warps, although one should be wary of steam burns. This kettle knows to stop itself, and clicks me back to wakefulness. Somewhere in the fridge is a jar of Vietnamese Weasel. Java Sumatra, Guatemalan Elephant, here are phrases that melt, a rich dark coffee bean melt; Vietnamese Weasel, most revered, is the taste, the scent of my honeymoon.
Opening the jar is first a love hit, then a thump of history. I am picturing sacks of beans on the quayside in a monsoon wind. Plantation workers, who cannot afford the coffee, pluck beans from the droppings of small foraging mammals. Their coffee tastes best of all, becomes an export. Sounds like it started as a practical joke. We can’t afford the real stuff anyway; how we made a honeymoon happen is a fabulous fluke; this flavour is synthesised. The love is real. It must be, I am sharing my coffee. One scoop of Weasel each piles up in the bottom of the jug, and while the grounds brew I will be organised, will drag the washing from the lovely machine that undertook the hard work for me while I slept. It is still preparation for soup, the best preparation. This magic is domestic.
A whirl of wet fabric waits for me to retrieve my scarf from the back of the sofa. Dog in her basket thumps her tail in a slow beat. I turn off the lamp we overlooked last night. On the table, ringed with wine stains, next to an exhausted moth, is a list of stuff to work towards: a new shed, a camper van, a raised vegetable plot. I slip the lid onto the biro, gather up both stemmed glasses. The pen finds a pot, the list is magnetised to the fridge by an effigy of Elvis. The glassware I add to the queue in the kitchen. I observe, in the dirt of the crockery, the little repetitions that mark out our lives. Here, exemplified on this plate, is the history of our week in the medium of turmeric and beetroot. Likewise the washing, as I peg it out, is a confirmation of continuing adventures. Here is the blackberry stain from the last batch of jam making, here is the t-shirt torn in the orchard hedge. Triangled between an orchard, the romance of the moor land and a low rent lies the reason we live here. Item by item, optimistic plastic fastens up the corners. Behind me, occupational debris stuffs up the open sided shed. The morning light strikes a wall of dull car batteries, my shadow slopes on an old door. All this poetry, this junk transformed, comes from the epiphany of soup.
At the kitchen table, my eyes close to focus on the fusion, the notes of coffee, the bituminous musk of smoke and burnt sugar. I wonder about taking Mr up a cup; nah, I’ll let him sleep. I’ll let the scent writhe up the stairs, ask him later what he dreamt of. There’s easily enough Weasel for another jug. I will let him sleep off last night’s wine and I will clean up and make the eponymous soup.
‘Does it really cure everything?’ My husband was dubious, at first, had the face of a child being offered a medicinal sweet. That day, the sky drifted, endlessly blue, and the existence of anything troublesome seemed unlikely. The day before it had rained right through the bathroom roof and a rat run was discovered under the upstairs floorboards.
‘Curing means making better, not taking the bad stuff away, just seeing it differently.’
He nodded. He laid down some rattraps, wandered outside, spent an afternoon making an outdoor table from a splintery pallet.
While I scrub at plates, I think of the breakfast he cooked for us, to eat at the pallet table, and how there was even a tablecloth. It used to be an airline blanket. We had a jug of whatever coffee was on supermarket promotion that week, we had scrambled eggs, bacon, toast and butter. Then we had extra toast, brought out the damson jam from the dark storage cupboard. My belly rumbles; breakfast ought to be part of this morning’s plan. Toast will be easy to slot into the schedule. The toaster will take care of that. Peek in the fridge, leave a bubble fingerprint on the door. There is blackberry jam, from the batch that splotched my shirt.
The roasting tray has been partially cleaned, everything of flavour coaxed from it. The pie dish has soaked over night, which makes the texture of the pastry flakes unpleasantly bloated. Fresh baked, the same pastry dissolved on our tongues, a much more appetising experience. A sigh drifts over the bliss of recent feasting. A tired and rambly mind mulls the ritual of it: because, if you are going to eat an animal it should be important to be respectful about it. Nothing should be wasted. Gravy is a seriously joyous rite, in our home, celebrated for three consecutive days; very much connected to the soup. I search out the pan scourer, listing the delicious rituals.
On the first day, the oven scorches and the meat sputters, vegetables are pared, peelings are dropped to simmer in water. Skins of parsnip, turnip, carrot, onion and potato bounce around in a boiling lather. Steam fills the small kitchen, the windows drip. Onionskin dyes the concoction dark brown. Strained out, the skins are shiny and slippery, slivery like little fishes.
This savoury dark water is held in a pan, to cook the peeled vegetables, to be mixed with the juice and sizzling fat from the roasting tin. Splashes of scolding water and tiny prickles of scorching fat decorate our forearms.
This is the basis for the first batch of gravy, of which some must be saved in a jug, cooled, and hidden in the fridge.
For the second day, the carcass is diligently divided into meat, bone and scraps. Meat is set aside for the purpose of filling a pie. The rest; every bone bar one, skin, entrails, bits of vegetables, any scrap not kindly donated to Dog; is gathered into a broad based pan, covered in water, placed on a low hob heat for hours. Roused stomachs grumble at the luscious smell. Fat recovered from the roasting tray is used to make rich pastry. The meat is carved into bite sizes. The simmered liquid, of which some must be saved in a jug, cooled, and hidden in the fridge, becomes a sauce for tremulously anticipated pie.
On the third day, the finale: Wishbone Soup. The hidden treasure of both gravy batches are unearthed. If we like, these days, we can add rice or noodles to the mix, we can add an assortment of vegetables, choose from a rack of herbs and spices. We sit round the table, giggling; noodles are the best for this given our clumsiness with chopsticks. This description has no depth to it, of course, without the back-story.
Once upon a time there was a cottage, even wonkier than this one; not a right angle to it; with a tiny open fire, a cooker that ran on bottled gas, a distinctive collection of draughts. No other form of heat regulation. Not the coldest house ever lived in, but one of the dampest. A house in which the airing cupboard had to be aired out weekly or the bedding stacked within grew patches of mould. This is all part of the adventure of renting a home, of life’s rich experience. The only thing we were rich in. There was no telephone. The internet was science fiction. TV reception, like the temperature, was largely dependent on the weather. The television was sized a cubic foot, coloured black and white. While I lived in this soggy nook, my family grew, and debt kept food from the shelves. What there was, was counted, was rationed, was difficult. When the gas bottle ran out we cooked on the fire. Once or twice all we had for tea was value range spaghetti and a sauce made from flour, cooking oil and herb flavoured water. That was cooked in the tiny grate, and when the pasta boiled over it nearly put the fire out.
It was also impossibly picturesque; the slate flagged floor, the wooden window shutters, the herbs growing in higgledy pots, so there is no need to feel sorry over it.
Most weeks, we could buy a chicken from the supermarket: one of those low-priced, intensely farmed chickens. I knew it had been kept in crowded filth for a brief cheerless life; its body injected with water, to give an impression of plumpish health under the gloss of cellophane. It was an ambiguous purchase. No wonder I wanted to make something of its death.
On the Sunday, the bird would preside over a tin of potatoes, would be scattered with salt, reverently roasted. On Monday, cheap flour made thick pastry crust, and there was Chicken Pie. By Tuesday, only bones were left. The feasting was considered over. I would boil water, scour out every bit of flavour from the roasting tin, pour it into a pan with the bones. Cheap potatoes, the kind that come in a farm sack, still covered in soil, small as pebbles, that no one else can be bothered to wash and peel, were washed and peeled, the peel popped in the stock. Into the broth, add wild onion, add potatoes. I called it Chicken Soup at first, which caused some disappointment, because there was only stock and the flesh of cheap potatoes, barely a strand of chicken meat.
‘Well, here’s your Bone Soup then.’
The dish itself was warm and nourishing, and the chicken deserved so much better. Soup is supposed to be good for your soul. I think I did feel sorry for myself. And then, the next time I am making stock, in just that one moment, the idea that makes it all work, the magic ingredient is lying in front of me, dumped in the colander as the stock drains through. The wishbone is returned to the soup pan, the soup gets a new name, a new role. It has a wish in it. An actual wish. I am quite serious when I bring it to the table. It works. It makes larkish laughter.
‘Shush,’ I say, ‘wishes cannot be spoken aloud.’
At first as we wish, in spite of mirth, thoughts are fervent, fingers crossed. Lips move silently, but we all know we wish for more. Slowly, the magic simmers, the focus shifts, from the wish, to the laughing, to the being together. We see what we have. We are happy with it.
Wet plates shine in a line on the drainer. The iron casserole pan is reached from a shelf, placed ready on the hob. I can hear Mr stirring from our bed, the curtain rings sliding, and remember that I was going to make toast. Outside, fat clouds have been dumped in a huff; an easy azurite shimmers.