On Food: The Secret Pudding Club

It’s a quarter past seven on a Thursday evening, and I’m driving down dark country lanes towards Edge Hill, in the very north of Oxfordshire. I’m jittery with excitement and nerves – I’m to meet my friend Shiny Gems, and to join the Secret Pudding Club at the Castle Inn.

All day long, I’ve been bumping into people who tell me how fortunate I am to have a ticket, ‘they go in five seconds flat, darling’. Waiting for the school bus, the Mistress of The Horse roars up in her jeep.

‘Pudding club tonight, Carles? You lucky, lucky thing. Hope you’ve skipped lunch.’

Yep. And now, walking down the steps to the Castle’s bar, the tower soaring above me, I’m ravenously hungry. I walk through a low door and see a reserved sign, with ‘Pudding Club’ scrawled beneath. I feel a visceral squeeze of anticipation.Photo

I’m early, so I slide through to the door to the bar, thinking I’d have a lemonade and a chatter with whoever I find. The bar is octagonal, with a huge log fire and bits of battle regalia on the walls – a breast plate here, a pike there. Not a pub to come with warring couples. I accidentally order a gin and tonic, and sit down with my notepad, unashamedly eavesdropping on the conversations around me. There are three men at the bar, all mud-encrusted and horny-handed – a million miles away from the Barbour Brigade. I try to understand their conversation, but it mostly seems made of odd hand gestures and low grumbling ‘aah’s, like rams exchanging tupping notes.

I’m just zoning in to the conversation on my left, when I hear loud laughter from the other side of the bar. It’s Shiny Gems, with lots of other tall girls, all knocking back pink bubbles and waving at new arrivals. I pick up my gin and go through.

‘Carles!’ cries Gems, and introduces me to everyone. ‘And you remember Sue-‘ I nod and grin, and stand very slightly on my tiptoes. The gin has flushed my cheeks and seen off my nerves.

‘Lovely puds tonight,’ someone says, rubbing her hands. ‘Where do we sit?’Photo

We end up on a very long table with boxed starched-linen tablecloths that are impossible to force your knees beneath. I perch sideways, trying to remember everyone’s names, and not knock all of my cutlery flying. Blimey. There’s a lot of cutlery. The tables are pristine, and on each place is a bag of petite-fours, tied with a navy grosgrain ribbon. I slide mine into my sac magique, to take home to the children.

The room is filling up now, with perhaps thirty women – ten of which belong to Gems.

‘Sorry,’ says Gems in my ear. ‘Everyone’s very horsey.’

‘Not all-‘ I begin to say, but then a pretty brunette opposite launches into a story about a horse with a broken jaw. ‘Just snapped it off!’ she bellows, to a woman up to my left. ‘It was just dangling off-‘

I feel myself blanche.

Fortunately, a man rings a tinkling bell, cutting the story short. ‘I’d like to introduce you to your chef,’ he says. ‘Scotty-‘

And we all clap for a merry-eyed bearded man in chef’s whites. He welcomes us and tells us about his menu, and his puddings. We all ooh and aah, and then Jo, directly opposite me, calls for Prosecco. It arrives to much applause in two huge silver ice buckets.

We dispatch the savoury first course, and launch into the first of the puddings, which is flavoured with lavender.

‘Um,’ says Kerry, thoughtfully licking her spoon. ‘Tastes like my grandmother’s drawers.’ We all collapse with laughter.

‘Yum,’ though, says my neighbour.

The wine’s kicking in now, and the volume is climbing. Conversation moves onto War Horse, and how much better the theatre production was than the film. ‘I mean,’ snorts Jo in disgust. ‘They used over ten different horses for Joey alone. And the barbed wire wounds were in no way realistic.’

Anxious in case of more horsey blood-and-guts stories, I ask her opinion on the dessert wine. ‘Very good,’ she replies, and we both drain our glasses.

My immediate neighbour disappears for a cigarette break, and I scooch along to chat to the other end of the table. I meet Jo’s daughter, Holly, who has a waterfall of pale blonde hair and a beaming white smile. Her mum keeps pinching her phone to read her text messages, and making her blush.

I tell her I embarrass my daughters just as much, and that it’s our job as mothers. She starts telling me all about her new job, promoting a top-end car.

‘Ooh,’ I say. ‘What?’

She shows us all her phone, with an impossibly shiny Nissan GT3 on it.

‘It’s a Nismo GTR,’ she tells us. ‘And is a 3.8 Litre V6.’

‘Golly,’ I say, thinking my husband would adore her. She mentions how she makes Bannoffee Pie for her office mates, and conversation moves onto baking.

The other end of the table is in uproar. Gems and Sue are playing an Elf animation on Sue’s i-Pad. The last dessert arrives, and I’m feeling very stuffed. Scotty promises one lucky lady will find a strawberry in her pud, to win a meal for two. We pick up our final spoons in readiness.

‘I never win,’ says the lady next to Jo. Her spoon hits the strawberry and she whoops in excitement. More drinks and drunk, and the music from the Elf Ainmation plays again and again.

‘I really must go,’ I say, staggering to my feet. I’ve had just one gin and a tiny sip of dessert wine; sober me doesn’t last long on nights out. ‘So sorry to be the first to bail-‘ I start inching out, waving, crying nice-to-meet-you’s, take-care, take-care.

Outside, the air is sharply cold, and wakes me from my sugar fug.   I stretch and shake my hair from my face, looking at the star spangles, feeling my waist band bite my stomach. Oh, but it was good. I had fun and ate and ate and ate.

I walk up to the road, cross to the car park. I know tomorrow at the school bus, the others’ll say, ‘Well? How was it? Was it good? What did you have?’

And I’ll grin, give a little shrug. ‘It’s a secret,’ I’ll say. ‘What goes on in the Pudding Club, stays in the Pudding Club. You’ll have to join to find out.’

On Food: The Grouse Sunday Dinner

Before I cooked them:

On Friday, I whizz up to the farmshop for sausages, and find grouse in the outside cabinet. Hellishly expensive, and quite obviously not with the stomach-filling capacities of sixteen Lincolnshire’s. As if in a dream (the one where I’m dressed in tweed, and my husband’s a laird with muscled knees), I put them on the counter.

I ask Mark the butcher how to cook them, and he looks sheepish.

‘Not had them?’

‘No,’ he says. ‘Well…no. Roast them, maybe?’

I take them home and put them in the fridge; they look incongruous next to the Frubes, the cucumber heels and the revolting plastic ham my eldest daughter adores. They look like a supper that might be destined for people other than the Lee’s.

It’s Saturday night now, the Night of the Grouse. But I’m whey-faced, feeble. Knackered. My lovely, lovely husband trundles off to collect an Indian, and feeds me chunks of sag aloo.

So now it’s Sunday, and the Grouse must be eaten. I apply myself to Google, to find out how to do them. I don’t learn an awful lot – the recipes I find involve breasts, rather than whole birds, or else basically, just roast them, because their favour needs no messing. And add some game chips and bread sauce.

These cooks and chefs and foodie types have obviously never had to feed two fussy daughters and a ravenous Roast-Dinner expecting husband.

Crisps ain’t gonna cut it.

Right. I keep reading that the meat can be very dry, owing to the lack of fat in the bird, and that the taste is very gamey. Every recipe I read uses a bacon carapace during cooking, and then advises a quick pan de-glaze job and making a thin  jus. Oh God. I’m doing mine with mashed potato – can you imagine their faces on seeing jus? The Bisto would be out of the cupboard before I’d even sat down.

So anyway…I’m off.

How I Cooked Them

Photo

Ingredients

Two fat chicken legs (with skin)

Two grouse

Hot beef stock

Smoked bacon (back, because I have no streaky)

Hot water (as in, from a kettle)

Vermouth

Juniper

Salt and pepper

Garlic

Plain flour

Cranberry sauce

Method (not including veg instructions)

Oven on at 180, chicken legs in a pot roast jobbie that would fit them and the grouse. I slice a garlic clove and put the shards under the skin of the chicken. Slosh in few slugs of vermouth, and hot water up to half an inch of so. Five juniper berries, because I love them . Tin foil over jobbie; oven.

Grouse inspected for anything nasty (feathers, shot, bits of guts…not all our game meat comes from a butcher, so habit). Grouse turned upside down and its back draped in bacon (did not season – our bacon quite salty).

Chicken legs extracted from oven after 15min. Grouse tucked in between, breast-side down, bacon upper-most, foil back on. Back in oven for 30 minutes. Foil taken off towards last 10 min of cooking.

Out of oven, whole lot transferred to hot plate to rest for 10 min whilst gravy made. Liquid from pan poured off into cup, leaving two or three table spoons. One  table spoon flour into the pan, scrubbed altogether with wooden spoon. Wait until pan really quite bloody hot. Splash in hot beef stock. Stir until flour has made it all into a gravy. Add 1 teaspoon of cranberry and check seasoning. Pour into hot gravy boat.

Put bacon from birds in a frying pan with olive oil, when hot again, put in fine beans and mini sweetcorns (again, bending to will of obstinate daughter). Stir fry.

Serve chicken onto children’s plates, put Grouse on a wooden chopping board to be carved at table between me and him.

Put beans, mini sweetcorns and huge Mash Mountain in hot serving bowl, take to the table with chopping board of grouse.

Oh my Lord. Smells incredible. Eat it.

And What We Thought About It

‘Mummy it tastes like red salmon’

‘What? It’s a bird.’

‘Red salmon. The one you do with the yellow sauce.’

Bloody weird child.

Stephen has given me the breast of the smaller grouse, and from my first mouthful, I know I won’t manage both fillets. The meat is incredibly dense, and close textured. I’ve cooked them medium rare, and the pinker bits melt in my mouth, but the whole thing reminds me of metal, like sucking a copper coin. I’m not sure I like it yet, but I want to like it, the way I used to want to like whisky, and sweetbreads (I’ve never made it with the sweetbreads).

The gravy is incredible – the nicest we’ve ever made with no red wine involved.

Stephen likes the grouse, but not as much as a steak, and we both agree that we’d probably like it more processed, with different flavours. Sliced thinly in a winter salad say, with  pomegranate seeds, or in a game pie, the hot-and-sloppy sort, with a thick crust.

I poke at the carcasses thoughtfully. Stock. Grouse soup. With sour dough and cheddar as cheese-on-toast.

Yum.

Photo
Grouse Sunday Dinner

On Walking: Monday 18th November

There is cattle (cattle!) in Emma’s Bottom Meadow, and I don’t notice until I’m through the gate. I look up and there they are; tiny-eyed. Frisky.

I reverse, sharpish. We go further up the Wroxton Lane, and go in a field I look at almost every day, but hardly ever set foot in. We call it the Ash Field, on account of the whacking ash tree in what used to be the middle. When the children were little, they’d always insist on touching the tree before turning for home. There’s usually cattle in here too, but I’m guessing they’ve been moved for a final munch on longer grass. The grass in here is pocked with dark mud, cropped short. Badgers have been ravaging the cow splats.

The field is on the Wroxton side of the village; the Scout Woods are up on my left,  the Sor boarders my right. Across the valley is Bramshill, and our favourite walk. For a moment, I feel discombobulated, as if I’d stepped into my own postcard. I wish I could walk, straight from here, straight to there.

Photo

Instead, I whistle the dogs, wade through the bog, and head to the ash. I look up at the hawthorns banding the Scout Woods, and the sky is sat down low upon the Scouts’ firs, so grey and sullen. It’s only about two o’clock, but the light is odd; yellows and oranges are made almost fluorescent. The Sor is loud, rushing, swollen with rain.

We reach the ash and I touch the bark, thinking of the toddler daughters with their bright woollen mittens. Most of the leaves have fallen now, and lie on the bleaching grass, like twists of wet black ribbons.

We slog on up the field, climbing the steep slope to the edge of  the hawthorn bank. The hawthorns are bare, their jigsaw leaves filling the hoof prints left from the cattle. I turn and look again to Bramshill, over the Carp Ponds that feed the stream. Almost directly opposite is the glass face of Bramshill Manor, and I imagine what they must see – a little figure in a blue, stripy hat and wellies. I straighten up, to avoid looking dumpy.

There are brown and white striped feathers in a circle to my left – a hen pheasant, efficiently disposed of.  I wonder what ate its feet. The dogs have vanished into the bramble thickets beyond the hawthorn, and I walk on, slow in the mud. There are bright green crab apples scattered around, a legacy from the vanished railway.

Half way along the bank, I see the cart track that fascinates us. The bank is just wide enough for a car, or a very small tractor, and there are always the indents of wheels for fifty yards or so. But we can’t figure out what it is that drives here, nor why – nor how you never see their tracks going up and down, only across. It’s a mystery.

I follow the track back towards the Wroxton Lane, looking at Horley, higgledy-piggledy up the hill. It’s starting to rain, and I put my face up, almost tripping into one of the huge rabbit scrapes.

Suddenly, three pheasants burst out above my head, shocking in their outrage. Pants shoots out of the brambles, eyes rolling white with fear, Dora a lightening streak behind him. I don’t even turn, don’t even look. I’m running down that hill after them with my biggest galumphing strides, fast as I can; faster, pell-mell towards the gate and home. I don’t care if anyone’s watching from the Manor, nor from anywhere else – fight or flight has kicked in, and I don’t want to be as thoroughly dealt with as that poor pheasant.

I’m walking again by the time I’m on the lane, and feel like an idiot. Of course there’s no monster, no ghosts. What is wrong with my silly brain? We pass the cows, in the Bottom Meadow and I pause a moment, eyeing them up.

Maybe tomorrow.

On Food! Possibly The Most Revolting Venison Dish Ever

It starts badly, when I realise I’ve defrosted a socking lump of venison, rather than the beef stewing steak I’d intended to. Venison in our house is for treats; birthdays, friends for dinner…Friday-nights-with-a-bottle-of-wine at least. It’s not for hurried stuff-it-down Tuesdays, when the children have theatre class and Stephen has poker.

But here it is. Twenty minutes before the school bus (and the flight to the Spiceball), I am searing my (Oh God! Loin!) and praying that pot-roasting at 150 won’t be too awful. I am slicing a Spanish onion as fast as I can, with my last two cloves of fat, local garlic. I have no other veg other than the Value carrots bought for the pony, but I peel them and chop them, and in they go, along with the last few shrunken mushrooms and a snatched handful of rosemary.

So far, so typical of a Tuesday – using odds and ends before the shopping arrives tomorrow. I’ve no bones to chuck in the pot, so I add a frozen brick of beef stock, and I whiz to the drinks cabinet to grab the port.

No port. Seven minutes until the bus.

And I’m under the stairs, rifling Stephen’s red wine, wondering exactly how cross he’ll be if I pinch a 2011 Tempranillo. The ones with the red label, that he was so chuffed to find.

My nerve fails me, and I tear back to the drinks cabinet. Vodka, gin…Galliano. No, no. Chartreuse? Why why why did you drink the bloody port? I’m about to grab the Vermouth (as always), when I see something the Pees bought us back from one of their French forays. ‘Creme de cassis de Bourgogne’. Perfect for poshing up cheap fizz. It has a pretty blue label featuring glossy black currants. Which are almost like blackberries. And blackberries and venison might work.

The worst thing to cook with venison

I’m back in the kitchen and I’m sloshing it in, then the whole thing’s boiling and smelling promising, and it’s in the oven and I’m off, out the door and up the road, cheeks pink, mind racing, onto the next thing, and the next.

*

We sit down to eat past six. The children are tired and stroppy; Stephen’s white with exhaustion beneath the soot. I’ve totally forgotten how I made dinner (was it really only three or so hours ago?), although it smells good – outside it’s raining, inside there’s pot-roast. El prods suspiciously at her sausages (Not eating Bambi, Mummy) and I bustle, serving the rice (sadly no potatoes) and the inevitable petite pois.

I’m the first to begin. The sauce is a lovely colour – very rich and glossy. I remember I forgot to check the seasonong, but hey-ho.

Oh God. I freeze, fork mid-air. It’s terrible; sweet, syrupy, fruity. As revolting as if I’d cooked it in Ribena. I whimper.

Stephen takes a forkful, and looks confused. He takes another, then looks at me nervously (I’m sensitive about my cooking).

‘Darling…’

I groan, and the children guess something’s up. They both taste some, and crow with delight.

‘What happened?’ says Stephen. ‘It looked so nice.’ He gazes into the casserole dish, as if I’d tricked him, and that’s not what it tastes like at all.

I explain, and they laugh. ‘What about brandy? Would that’ve worked?’

I drop my head onto my arms, thinking of the quarter of cream in the fridge. Of course that would’ve worked. And we have no less than four bottles of brandy. I’m gutted.

Jess and Stephen manage to eat quite a bit, helped by ketchup and Parmesan.

‘It’s quite nice, Mummy,’ says Jess. ‘If you can just swallow it quickly.’

I decide to smile.

‘Yes,’ says Stephen, after a while. ‘At least it’s not as bad as the chocolate chilli – do you remember? With all the cinnamon and…’ he catches my eye. And grins.

On Animals: Dora The Clever Jack-Rat

Here’s a photo for all of Dora’s fans (you funny lot). I’m trying to write notes for a proper walking blog, but Dora keeps bugging me.

Clever dogs are definitely more work than thick ones.
Clever dogs are definitely more work than thick ones.

She’s determined to knock the phone out of my hand and make me keep on walking, and she keeps jumping to the top bar of the stile and bashing my elbow. When I tell her to get down, she does a great flying leap, then sits, waiting for all of five seconds before trying again.

Bad little Bag.

On Walking: Wednesday 6th November

There’s a certain twisted pride to be had, in wet-weather walking. A grim-faced relish  in stumping across lethal, greasy fields, and through sodden, thigh-high grasses.

Today we are walking through Dave’s bottom fields, and it is raining in a drizzled, irritable way, as if the clouds just can’t be arsed. The sky is the dirty white of an old sheep’s fleece, and the wind is blowing the rain sideways. Upwards, too, it feels like. Up beneath my Oxford Shooting cap, or down (horribly)  my neck, making short work of my flowered green scarf.

The dogs and I forge on, sticking to the margins of the fields to avoid the worst of the mud. Pants is his normal loopy self, but Dora is close by my heels. Too close – I occasionally catch her chin with my heel.

Peachy November grass
Peachy November grass

The rain pushes me deeper into my thoughts, which is good, because instead of mooning at trees, I’m thinking about European politics, and whether the Common Purpose people are goodies or baddies, and will they sue me if I use them in fiction? I think about it for the whole length of the Dryer field, then again in the next, the one before Emma’s Bottom Meadow.

At the far corner, I stop for a moment, surprised. The chlorophyll in the grasses has dropped to such a level, that in the rain-dim light, the grasses appear a peachy-pink coral. I’ve never noticed it before, and it’s particularly strange when set against the dead Angelica – its seed-heads black with rot. I frown at it for a moment, distracted from my plot. Why’ve I never noticed this before? Is it because grass is so rarely left uncut?

I thrash onwards, my jeans soaked to the hem of my jacket. Even Pants has become more subdued now, and he’s covered in reddish mud. There’s a fat Springer in Emma’s Bottom Meadow, and the dogs are so dispirited, they don’t even bother to go and say hello.

Cheer up, I tell them. I scrape uselessly at my knackered Hunters, pushing cold mud through the holes and onto my feet. I add such discomfort to my shield of rain-martyrdom.

Jolly up, dogs, I say, hauling them along. At home there’s a fire, and dry towels, and a biscuit. Come on, lickety-split. Let’s march. I thrill to the spiteful squall that hurls wet leaves in my face. Weather. I am a country housewife. Thou shalt not defeat me.

Bonfire Night! Tuesday, 5th November

Every year, we whiz down the Warwick Road to Warmington, for Warmington’s Bonfire Night. It’s always on the actual 5th, and the bonfire is always a whopper.

Warmington Bonfire, Warwks, 05.11.13
Jess’ earmuffs!

This year, we’re off with our chums, the Always-Sprightlies, and it’s half past five, and we’re eating a vast tea of jacket potatoes and Bolognaise with buckets of grated cheddar to keep us going. The children are already screechy with excitement, and are winding up the dogs, which worries me.

‘But will he be okay?’ I say, for the hundredth time. It’s the Pants’ first experience of fireworks, and he’s already tried to wee on the stairs. Dora is in her cage, grumbling away like an old kettle.

Just as we’re agreeing that wouldn’t it be lovely to have a glass of that red, someone notices it’s almost six, and then we’re all swirled into activity – grown ups clearing the table, children all crammed in the hall wellying up, me turning on the television and RadioTwo full blast.

‘What’re you doing?’ asks Stephen in horror.’I suppose you’re going to leave all the bloody lights on, as well?’

‘Yes,’ I hiss. ‘And where the hell is Merlin?’

We open the front door to all pour out, and the missing cat streaks in, straight upstairs to hide beneath a bed. I can hear Pants whining, and I hesitate on the doorstep. Dora joins in with her clockwork bark, and feeling horribly guilty, I pull the front door closed and run to the van in the darkness.

The Sprightlies beat us there, and save us the last  space in the lay-by above the village. We’re all pleased, because it’s the best get-away spot and crammed with cars from Horley and Hornton. We all get out and discover we’ve two working torches between eight.

‘Gosh,’ says S, when Stephen puts the Maglite in her hands. ‘What a whopper,’

We skirt St Michael’s (which is beautiful, incidentally – but more grey-in-the-stone than our lovely St E’s), stumbling only slightly in the starlight. ‘Come on,’ say the children, and drag us down the hill into Warmington proper.

Oh, but it’s pretty, even in the dark. Warmington can trace its roots back to the Mesolithic age, and it spills gently down a hill like a tipped treasure chest. The houses are grouped round two generous greens – the top one has a big pond, and I always think that if I could draw my perfect village, I would definitely steal bits from this one. We pass the pub – The Plough – all yellow-lit and heaving with handsome farm-types in checked shirts.

Village children are rushing around coat-less, brandishing light-sticks, and we can smell sparklers and hot dogs and onions, and behind all that, the hot, crackling smoke of the mighty fire.

‘Can we go, can we go, can we go?’ say our children. The men slide off to ‘bring you hot drinks, darling,’ and S and I are left to peer through the darkness, trying to identify the flame-licked silhouettes of local buddies.

‘I’m sure that’s Tasha’s hat,’ I say. ‘Or not. Oh, I’ll wave anyway…’

The men come back empty handed – no tea! – and the children are racing about playing It in the crowd. S and I natter on, as is our way.

Just as I’m starting to shiver (no tea!), the fireworks crack and vhisp into extraordinary, pointless life, lighting all the faces around, eliciting oohs and aahs, as parents try to jolly surprised young children

‘Too loud, Mummy!’ wails a boy in the crowd. Our four are transfixed, and Stephen pulls me against him, sheltering me from the wind. He keeps pretending to jump at the bangs, and I slide my hand to horse-pinch his thigh: hard. This is the first year I’ve not had to hold Jess – she was always petrified of the rockets and anything that does that crackle thing. I look at her profile now – eyes wide-open, mouth laughing and chattering. She’s wearing enormous grey furry earmuffs, and I smile, privately, and wonder if they’re boosting this new-found bravery.

Warmington Village Bonfire Nov 2013
Sorry for rubbish camera, but you can just see the reflection in the pond…

The fireworks last the perfect amount of time for me with no tea.

‘Can’t we stay?’ say the children, as we call them to us. ‘Please, please?’

‘No,’ we say. ‘School tomorrow.’

We start walking back up the hill to the layby, sharing bags of Haloween Haribo to keep us going.

We’re full of plans for next year, what we’ll do.

‘And whatever else,’ I say, navigating the cars. ‘We’ll bring some tea in a flask.’

‘And hot chocolate,’ says Ellie.

‘Yes,’ I say. ‘And hot chocolate. More torches. More flasks. It’ll be excellent.’