The Quiet Desire for a Boiled Egg

The Quiet Desire for a Boiled Egg

Everyone else in my autograph book was related to me or lived within walking distance but the highlights were shyly proffering it to Morecambe and Wise after the pantomime and Frankie Vaughan (you may well ask) when he opened the youth club. The smack of their living and breathing reality was a shock after the safe distance of the black and white TV screen. Their autographs were hot currency. Even adults wanted to look.

Back in the dark ages when an autograph book was something a child might have each adult was expected to have ready a little witticism or pebble of wisdom to add, in addition to a signature. Neighbours and relatives signed in copperplate Quink ink. The coalman, the milkman or the window cleaner for whom I had lain in wait behind the garage, visited from the exotic reaches of the outside world where you were allowed to sign in loopy biro. And so I accrued what passed for wisdom. ‘Look before you leap’, ‘Pride comes before a fall’, ‘A change is as good as a rest’ and other ‘I-told-you-so’ s. I got the picture even if I didn’t like it. The meanings were transparent.

But there were a couple of sayings that had me stumped. ‘Be good, sweet maid and let who will be clever’ was the injunction from the great aunt who had given me the book and kicked off the first page. This little homily defeated me at seven. ‘Let who will ...’ what did that mean? She had signed the page Elizabeth Hand as if she had forgotten her name was Aunty Cis. I didn’t know any maids except the ones in Upstairs Downstairs (forerunner of Downton Abbey). The whole thing was a mystery. and I was sure I was supposed to understand it so it never occurred to me to ask. When I eventually penetrated the grammar a few years later and the meaning was revealed I felt uneasy and then cross. I felt someone I had trusted was having a go. From the safe haven of old age my relative was sniping at youthful voyagers who might fall foul of Scylla and Charybdis or wanting to be right and wanting to impress. 

‘Enough is as good as a feast’ was another one that left me blank. As a young person with unlimited appetite and, of course, the incomparable bounty of being immortal, it was a conundrum. Back then there was nothing like enough of things I wanted, let alone a feast. Things look different now. These particular sayings, the ones I couldn’t make head or tail of were (of course!) the very ones with something to teach me.

I am not a girl for holding back or abstinence even today as you will have observed, but the quiet and urgent desire for a boiled egg is creeping up on me after the feasting of Christmas and God help us it is only Boxing Day. (NB ‘Enough is as good as a feast’ does not claim that enough is better than feast.) A spot of brown bread and butter and a boiled egg would be just as good as the several more days of feasting to come, beginning tomorrow and stretching ahead to New Year’s Eve.

Next year, no really, I will plan it differently and serve some plainer food in the days leading up to Christmas. Fewer cakes might be a kindness. Fewer bottles of wine. Start later in the season and finish a little earlier maybe? Enough is as good as a feast but what is enough for a feast? Maybe that’s the tricky bit.

Meanwhile … I am recycling my Christmas tips because I’ve just benefitted all over again from implementing them.

Christmas Tips from a pro.

  1. Hire an extra fridge if you can find an undercover spot outside to house it.
  2. Hire a hot cupboard if you have room.
  3. Make the gravy ahead of time and freeze it. This is a new one. It has changed my Christmas dinner experience from frantic to festive.

The peace of mind that comes from knowing you are not going poison anyone with left-overs that have gone off for want of fridge space is well worth the price of an extra turkey which is what 4 days’ hire of the fridge cost me. The hot cupboard gives you much more leeway with cooking times and similarly relieves the brain. The gravy is a no-brainer but it has taken me forty years to get it.

Julia Child

Not a good time to start delving into traditional classic French cookery when you’re up to your eyes in a war over mince pies.  (Buy? make? make from scratch? use bought pastry? Me and my super ego are having a head to head over this.) Thing is I found I hadn’t yet got to grips with Julia Child’s cookbooks that I was given last Christmas and shame overwhelmed me. More presents coming my way any day now and I haven’t … oh you know. Fill in the gaps. So I read her autobiography in the Autumn and now I am delightfully sucked into the two volume Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Julia Child, an American living in France just after the war made it her life’s work to translate into a working English-language cookbook all she learned at the Cordon Bleu school and much more besides. Here are the master recipes for the whole of French cuisine and if you feel like it you can still see her demonstrate on Youtube.

I started simple. I was certain that using these books, bursting with French culinary wisdom of centuries, I could learn to cook poached eggs which I adore. I have wasted the labours of countless hens by failing to cook them well and I was sure, this time it would be different! With Julia’s help I failed once more but in a time-consuming way. Brilliant. And still not a mince pie in sight and it’s the 20th December. I mean, come on! But nil desperandum . I am now in the grip of French cuisine and I moved on to Julia’s matchless instructions for a remoulade of celeriac in an eye-watering mustard sauce-cum-mayonnaise – one of my favourite dishes as a student in Paris when it often constituted dinner along with a stick of French bread. It was staggeringly satisfying.

But we’re not done yet.  Tonight Julia really comes into her own : an absolute triumph of a Blanc de Poulet. Well it’s chicken in a white sauce to you and me but if you do it properly I can tell you every pan and spoon in the kitchen is employed; the tiny onions added at the end are poached in their own special stock with their own bouquet garni for heaven’s sake. Vermouth, cream, egg yolks and a decent slug of Cognac are also in the frame. And by gosh what a difference they make! As food has improved beyond measure in England and France has suffered from the spread of universal cuisine the gap between them has shrunk. I had in fact forgotten what France used to taste like and now here it is nestling in a big casserole waiting for me to arrange it on some rice (white rice, thank you, none of your self-flagellating will this ever cook brown) with a few slim whole carrots and maybe a little chard. It brings back to me early trips to France when the flavours and textures were such as simply did not exist back home.

Now I can’t eat like this every day with impunity so I shall soon be back on the fruit salad and white fish but it is fun to read recipes that have no shortcuts, no alternative ingredients, just clear and imperious instructions. Salad dressing? Don’t even think about shaking stuff in a jar a la Jamie, get out your special sized whisk and beat the oil into the vinegar, lemon juice, salt and mustard one drop at a time. It actually makes an entirely different fluid, a true emulsion that coats each leaf as a dressing should.

If you don’t feel like cooking you can always watch the peerless Meryl Streep playing Julia in the film Julie and Julia. Or maybe, unlike me, you can poach yourself an egg.

 

5,4,3,2,1 Don’t Panic

5,4,3,2,1 Don’t Panic

I have started flying again after an airline free 15 years or so as I have learned to manage my fear response which was before overwhelming. I wanted to share one of the remarkable techniques for doing this I have learned from Captain Tom Bunn’s book Soar and from a session with Captain Tom himself. The technique is good for all situations where you may panic, not just flying.

The 5,4,3,2,1 technique is an easy-to-learn and easy-to-do exercise which can be used in any situation where you can feel fear getting the better of your body no matter what your mind does. This simple process brings you right into the present moment and interrupts the production of adrenaline and the general unhelpful kicking off of the amygdala. It is the part of the brain called the amygdala which produces all those unpleasant physical symptoms – racing heart, sweating, churning stomach, breathlessness, hot and cold – which accompany extreme anxiety and can lead to a complete panic attack as they overload the body.

If you would like to understand all the physiology I can’t recommend Captain Tom’s book highly enough. Here I’m going to concentrate on how to do the exercise. The 5,4,3,2,1 technique interrupts the production of adrenaline so that there is no build-up. It can be used effectively whenever there is anticipatory anxiety that your mind cannot quell. It works just as well for a trip to the dentist or a big exam as it does for flying. Any event or imagined event which frightens you can cause that build up and that feeling of dread in the stomach. Mostly we try to distract ourselves but when we can’t, a panic attack can result. And if your fear is about an imagined heart attack (for example) all that adrenaline will be very difficult to distinguish from the real thing. Heart attacks and plane crashes do happen but rarely and by and large we will get through the day without either. We just need to teach the amygdala to calm down.

And here’s how. Sit or stand and focus your eyes on an object in front of you. Now name five things you can see out of the corner of your eye. Next name five things you can hear. Then name five things you can feel. Now repeat by naming four things you can see, four things you can hear, four things you can feel. Then repeat with three, with two and with one. By the time you have finished your body has dealt with the adrenaline that was making you panic. If it starts up again, repeat the exercise again immediately. Repeat the exercise as often as you feel the panic start. Each time your body and mind will have a brief holiday from the panic and it will be scaling down rather than building up.

A word about the naming : you can repeat things as needed if you are short of things to name. Make the things you can feel things like feeling your feet on the floor or the wind on your face. Do not include the internal body feelings right now. You may need to do this exercise every two minutes when you begin but gradually you can spread the incidences apart as your body learns there is no emergency. As you get good at it you will be able to do it walking in a busy street or invisibly at the dinner table with your family. It really works.

As I’ve had cause to say before, it is hard to trust that something easy and free that we can do for ourselves can really help us with overwhelmingly horrible feelings like terror. The feelings feel too important for that. But I am here to tell you it can and the secret is, it is the only thing that can.

Long Time No See

Long Time No See

Oh my gosh, where has the time gone? I can only apologise for the long silence but such a lot has been happening. So for now just a little catch up on this summer.

Over the summer I was enjoying the beach in Italy and the Venice Film Festival where I caught Some Like It Hot on the big screen. There was a trip to Sicily and !!FLASHING LIGHTS!! the temples at Agrigento. Do not die without going to Agrigento. In fact, go now! This is one of the most blessed spots in the world. I have been there three times : at twenty something, at forty something and now at sixty something. Maybe the next visit needs to be a little sooner … So I lingered in the baking heat with the setting sun turning the temples bright gold and lizards hanging out under the olive trees and the sea as blue as a promise in the distance. I clambered over stones that were trodden by those ancient Greeks who very sensibly made their home in Sicily. In 1980 there was no fence around the temples, no ticketing system, no nothing, just the temples themselves standing neglected in the valley half an hour’s walk from the town. I went at daybreak and at sunset, entranced by the ancient stones and the freedom with which I was allowed to walk, sit and climb on them. A few German tourists came and went but mostly you could pretend you were a few thousand years ago. All that changed and it got very tacky with tickets and barbed wire. Now it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and as you would expect it has been done with no expense spared and extremely tastefully. Shady paths wind between the temples and discreet wooden barriers prevent the hordes (for there are now hordes) climbing on the temples themselves. They have planted a wonderful orange and lemon grove down near the river where they grow bergamot lemons and sell marmalade of the same. The combination of taste and perfume is intoxicating.

Sicily has roads that haven’t been mended since the last little earthquake so it was an interesting drive around the island with quite a lot of reversing out of impassable situations and a certain amount of bickering between driver and map reader. But the food was out of this world. We had the best ever breakfasts in a fabulous little B & B Raffo (agriturismo) about forty minutes outside Agrigento. The owner drove to the local town each morning to buy croissants and tiny, deep-fried envelopes of pastry filled with sweetened ricotta and blitzed pistacchio nuts. They were so fresh they practically shook hands. Ricotta and pistacchio nuts are BIG in Sicily and we never got tired of them.

In Taormina with a huge silvery moon gazing down on our little table by the sea we ate the delicately flavoured pasta with pistacchio pesto and prawns that had been mooching about in the sea earlier in the day. Further along the coast in Menfi at Da Vittorio’s we ate an indecent amount of astonishing pasta with seafood and spices as we watched the sea lapping nearby. Near Menfi we stayed at a rather grand winery called La Foresteria where the food was delicious and the wine had travelled all the way from the vineyard outside. As you see, the theme that’s emerging is local food. Local food is such a buzz term now but in Italy it is just what they eat. Some of it was grand. Some of it was very unassuming. It was all melt in the mouth and yes, I came back two sizes larger.

But a major thing has happened this summer which I tell you about in due course – I have begun to fly again, having had a gap of many years. It has been a big journey and one with psychological implications well worth the telling. For now, mix yourself a Campari Spritz, enjoy the photos of Agrigento and remember the hot hot summer.

IMG_1691IMG_1719

Goodness me.

Goodness me.

When we start being kinder to ourselves a virtuous circle is created. We begin to feel our own goodness just as we are … and that makes it easier to be kind … and that makes us feel good. Being good to yourself makes you feel good and it makes you feel much less aggravated by other people too.

Letting yourself alone, just appreciating yourself as you are without trying to change a thing allows you to sense your own goodness. In not trying to change a thing, space arises for change to happen naturally.* The more we nag at ourselves the more we rebel. Try easing off and see what happens.

*I’m not talking about those of us in a place where we need specialist help with an addiction or an eating disorder that is harming our health. Today I’m just talking to the averagely dissatisfied amongst us.

Italy is a great place for learning this lesson as Italians seem to have a natural gift for appreciating their own beautiful country and the huge pleasure of being alive. The photo above is of a large campo in Venice called Santa Maria Formosa and this is the church. In the photo below you see a lovely scene unfolding opposite the church one Italian morning. A young man is stripping off like Michelangelo’s David. He has come with all his kit to mend the pavement  but that doesn’t stop him giving directions to the tourists that ask him for help or performing a little for the ladies shopping at the vegetable stall. He is Italian after all. He wasn’t actually singing Mozart as well but it was touch and go.

stall

Beneath this photo again is a breakfast I prepared recently for a bunch of young people staying with us. They were such fun to feed, so full of life and enthusiasm, such beautiful creatures to have around and they devoured this spread with vigour. I think the goodness of the food, most of it raw local fruit, fresh bread and cheese can be seen from the photo. The little black grapes are called fragole because they taste of strawberries.

fruitbread and cheesecaponataIn this last photo you can just see next to the local sheep’s cheese a dish of caponata and this is the recipe I’d like to share today. Quite like a French ratatouille, the Italian caponata has the added sweet and sour agrodolce taste that speaks of a multicultural heritage.

 

Caponata

2 x aubergines cut into small cubes

2 sticks celery cut into small cubes

2 small onions, finely sliced

1 large red pepper, deseeded and cubed

A bottle of good passata or fresh tomato sauce

balsamic vinegar

red wine vinegar

2 tsps sugar

salt and pepper

olive oil

10 black olives, stoned

a handful of capers (ideally the ones that come salted)

 

Cutting the vegetables into cubes is worth doing carefully so that they are reasonably small and of a uniform size. It makes a better finished product.

First salt the aubergine cubes in a colander and leave to drain for at least half an hour. Wash and pat dry before frying in a good plug of olive oil in a large frying pan. Fry until the water is all gone (the sizzling stops) and the aubergine cubes have browned. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Add more oil to the pan and add the celery, pepper and onions. Cook over a low heat until they have softened (quicker with a lid) and then add the passata. and simmer for 15 minutes. Put the aubergines back in. Add the two vinegars , the sugar, the capers and the olives. Start with a tablespoon of each vinegar and 2 tsps of sugar and then taste. See whether it needs more acid (lemon juice or vinegar) or more sugar. A drop of red wine might not go amiss. It will need salt and pepper as well. Cook another ten minutes and then cool. Serve at room temperature.

I made a large quantity of this and served it one evening on tiny bruschetta before dinner, then in this breakfast buffet and finally (when the guests had gone) on pasta with some good Parmesan. A dish with sufficient flavour for a vegetarian main course. It is also fabulous with anchovies on the side but the is very little, I find, that isn’t improved by a few anchovies.

Loving What Is

Loving What Is

People who come to psychotherapy largely fall into two groups. They are people in crisis who have finally decided that some outside help would not go amiss or they are people who are interested in growth and discovering more about themselves. People in crisis are, of course, much easier to help because things can only get better for them. This is where listening really is the most helpful thing to do. Just being there and giving permission whilst they let the confusion or the grief or the rage pour out seems to make a difference. Eventually we both come up for air and see what the world looks like now.

Sometimes, once people are over the worst they begin to get interested in the process itself, just like the second group. Then it all gets more complicated.  So often these are great people, fascinating people, intelligent and kind people and all they need to do is relax and enjoy being themselves and that is just what they are unable to do. The urge to improve oneself, to make the planet a better place tends to get in the way. What is more it can lead to all kinds of plans for improving others too. Often my work with them is all about killing the urge to improve. Lie down until it passes, is my advice.

When I first went into therapy myself I was diagnosed as a picture-straightener and that was pretty fair comment at the time. My eye goes straight to the place where a little tweak would make everything just that bit tidier and boy, is that an unrestful experience.  Today I have learned to relax a little and I have stumbled upon a simple truth. Our work here on earth is to love what is at a very deep level. Love is the medium of change and the more we can surround ourselves with it, the more a natural unfolding can happen. This is a million miles away from that mean little voice which criticises us and tells us we should be in the gym when we’re walking on the beach or on the beach when we’re in the gym. (Have you noticed it is literally never content with us?)

The Buddhists talk about ‘accepting what is’ and ‘gratitude’ is also a big seller but for me, even acceptance and gratitude come with a big, unattractive ‘should’ attached. Immediately I feel negative and ungrateful. Loving what is feels different and more possible. Let’s be clear, it doesn’t mean we have to like what is. Loving life is a very different ball-game from liking the details. When we think about eating more healthily or reading more or taking up swimming or volunteering with sick animals, we can do it from a place of love or we can do it from a place of ‘trying to be a better person’. I bring you a shocking thought which will change your life today. What if you don’t need to be a better person? What if you’re fine just as you are?

The sunshine breakfast in the picture is a shining example of how easy it is to love things. You can make a smiley face with yours. You can arrange your fruit on porridge or you can stew it and eat it with ice-cream and biscuits. IT’S ALL GOOD. You can do it your way and won’t that be great?