Tales from Home: in a Rural Kitchen or, at most, Pottering about the Garden

Natasha Hughes gave up the exciting city life of Fulham to downshift to a market town in South Wales. Her thoughts on Christmas came after spending some time staring at a field.

This year, for novelty and simplicity, Christmas pudding will be represented by shop-bought icecream. As a nod to the festive season, however, it will be artisan’s orange & cinnamon icecream, lovingly drizzled with handmade fruitcake compôte sourced from a farmers’ market.

That’s what I boldly announced to the family. In defence of this decision (I continued, again with boldness), I have experimented with cooking Christmas dinners from scratch; with not cooking them from scratch; and with buying stuff in. And my conclusion is, that to insist upon handmaking everything is ridiculous. It’s not like the French bother (which explains all the pâtisseries).

We are a small family, and some members are not yet in Big School, which limits their debating skills. So I thought I’d got them cornered. But then my mother, who will be spending the Big Day with us this year, chipped in with, ‘Oh, lovely. And afterwards we’ll have the Christmas cake, and then the pudding in brandy.’

Hardly demoralised at all, I went on, not taking any nonsense, with the bald statement that we are not having sprouts because everyone hates them. But, it turns out, we are having them. Not only that, but we are having them with chestnuts, and obviously the dish wouldn’t be complete without sage’n’bacon twists and a sprinkling of cranberry croutons.

I wanted a few root vegetables roasted neatly together beneath a goose. She wants (on top of all that) pigs in blankets, figs in Parma ham, cauliflower cheese and more bloody stuff covered in chestnuts. And bread sauce; apparently it’s not Christmas without bread sauce; and a special type of stuffing only she can make (I have already bought two types of stuffing).

We are now up to a minimum of three days’ back-breaking prep, rather than the couple of relaxed hours on Christmas morning I was aiming for.

She is making the gravy, so my jar of port & cranberry jelly has been hurled sniffily to the back of the cupboard. (I didn’t even buy it, it was a gift, alright?) We have agreed on the starter — prawns and smoked salmon — and the reason that agreement has been reached so happily is that she is going do all the fun decorative bits, while I deal with the salad drudgery.

I don’t have to take this, you know.

I am a grown woman with children of my own. I have held down a job, lived abroad, dived off the top board and had proper grown-up conversations with scary people like dentists and mayors.

I have made a builder finish a job properly, the way he said he would.
. . . None of this is going to make the slightest difference, is it?

Christmas 2013

Natasha’s thoughts on keeping cool, in our Summer 2014 issue, come after a mild case of sunstroke

Ice cubes are the new culinary fad in our house. Gitchyour ice cubes ere, laydeez and gennelmen, while they’re freezing! I got coloured cubes, striped cubes, cubes with a slice of lemon frozen inside, cubes for Pimm’s (containing mint leaves) and Ice Cube Originals™ (genuine cottage-industry tap water) — to you, madam, a mere 80 pence per cube . . .

Ruthless entrepreneurial daydreams aside, I’ve been spending an unusual amount of time rummaging around in the freezer, now that the kitchen has transformed into a greenhouse. (Sorry if this isn’t a consideration in your area; British weather, don’t you love it.) Rationally, I know that leaving the freezer door open is counterproductive — apparently, the heat released at the back cancels out the refreshing blast in front — but it feels as if it’s working. Plus, I end up sorting out the food and eating everything in a timely fashion, the way you’re supposed to. Nothing in my freezer is more than a few months old.

I’ve noticed the older generation takes a slightly different approach to freezers. My mother’s American kitchen giant is a final, possibly eternal, resting place for various of its contents. And that’s quite apart from the bulging chest freezer in the garage, which can never be defrosted because it contains far too much food to fit into freezer bags and bathtubs.

Aha, I hear you cry. Why not eat some of the food first, then defrost it?

I did once spend a few weeks chiselling ancient chickens out of the upper layers. This merely sent my mother into a wartime rationing-related panic, which saw her buying two chickens and a duck for every fowl that was excavated, so the attempt was abandoned.

The last time I returned home there were choice cuts of frozen pterodactyl at the back of one of the lower shelves, three mammoth steaks and a tub of Coronation Dodo. And a clutch of ammonites, that I’m certain would be of great scientific interest if only we could prise them out of the blue ice strata. Oh, and the garage was full of paleontologists standing around discussing core samples.

(Well, it could have been.)

It makes me think my ice cube fad is perfectly sane, in comparison. Even if the occasional error does lead to startled guests discovering unidentified bits of shrubbery defrosting in their G&T

Natasha’s thoughts for our Spring 2014 issue, on wildlife in the British countryside, come after spending some time sitting on a tuffet

If I had thought about the animal kingdom at all, I’d imagined it would be restricted to the normal rural idyll — nothing more challenging than a few sheep gazing over the back garden fence, maybe the odd hedgehog trundling up to see what the sheep were finding so interesting, that sort of thing. The day a tiny child lurched into the house, happily shrieking, ‘Sheeps! Sheeps!’ while a woolly head watched interestedly on, was nothing short of lovely. Baa-ings and the cries of hysterically excited toddlers resounded across the garden, to the fields and beyond, and all our life decisions suddenly seemed to be justified.

But with fields, come field spiders. Great big ones.

Obviously I don’t mind spiders. All part of the circle of life and so on.

They’re fond of bathrooms. This morning, in the shower, a large-ish specimen was spinning oddly on a thread near the taps. Being a conscientous David Attenborough fan, I took care not to splash it or disturb its little world. Then I realised the spider was not spinning idly. The reason it was swinging about was that it had a small beetle pinioned between its legs, from which it was rapturously sucking the life juices.

It was a bit quease-making, to be honest, so I cut the shower short.

As I leaned over the sink to brush my teeth, two more eight-leggers popped (quite literally) out of the woodwork. The smaller of the two entered into a Dance Of Death with the larger — a prospective mate, it seemed; but not a very enthusiastic one. She lunged; he jumped a startling distance backwards (to be fair, so did I). She appeared to enter a trance. He advanced again; I swear there was an audible snap as her mandibles closed on the air he had vacated a split second before.

I closed the bathroom door with the uncomfortable suspicion that, freed from the restraining effects of a human witness, scenes of undreamt-of savagery would be erupting in a dark arachnid world of horror.

I wasn’t driven out of the bathroom by spiders. I want to make that clear. That would be ridiculous in a bona fide country-dweller like me, as opposed to some citified weakling.

What has this to do with food? Nothing. Breakfast was cereal again. I didn’t fancy frying any fat, juicy, grublike sausages, or black pudding. (I see now that the crumbly bits look exactly like disintegrating bluebottle.)

Aaaaaaanyway. You must excuse me, while I return to the bathroom where a little job awaits. A part of the natural rhythms that we country folk accept as part of the cycles of life.

I have to wash Madame Wincy’s silk-wrapped, mummified ex-suitor out of the soap dish

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