How the day begins. Me standing in the rain waving a forgotten cell phone in the air and shouting unheard sweet nothings while watching the red tail lights of the housemate’s muddy vehicle disappearing into the mist and grey rain. She will be incommunicado for the day.
Even though the first sugar snap peas and mangetouts are appearing at farmers’ markets , the winter drags on, austere and lovely but bone-achingly cold. The house that I think of as so airy and spacious in summer now feels like a draughty creaking barn. The dog Chub has been officially appointed ‘Footwarmer to Sofa-Huddling Humans’.
For supper midweek I am making an old Cape dish called bobotie with curried ground meat (or lentils in a vegetarian version) and a spiced egg custard. There is tamarind soaking in a bowl, freshly picked lemon leaves and a copy of C Louis Leipoldt’s Cape Cookery on the kitchen table. The dish dates back to the early 18th century in southern Africa and the colonial empire known as the Dutch East Indies Company. Many dishes found here in older Cape kitchens originate in Indonesian or Sumatra cuisine with an overlay of Dutch adaptation, savoury custards, and relishes with grated ginger and pounded cardamom, ground coriander, allspice, cumin seeds, cinnamon bark or cassia, nutmeg and mace, cloves from Zanzibar, vanilla pods from Mauritius, handfuls of mint, thyme, sweet basil and marjoram from the herb garden. The instructions given have to do with raking over ashy white beds of live coals in a traditional hearth, warming or chafing dishes, heated salamanders and copper vessels cleaned with a rubbing of white river sand.
My cookery book encourages “the free, almost heroic, use of spices and aromatic flavouring” in recipes. The cookery writer, C Louis Leipoldt, was the son of a Rhenish missionary and grew up in the Cedarberg mountains of the Cape in the 1880s. He was a physician, amateur botanist , poet, closet Buddhist and food lover who recorded many of the old Cape Malay recipes, Cape Huguenot recipes, as well as Dutch and Afrikaner farm cookery traditions. What appetites people had back in the days when they walked for miles each day or rode horses, worked milk churns or pounded maize for hours at a time! In the 21st century I reduce quantities by two-thirds and use far less salt or sugar. But the food is slow-cooked and delicious, still a living tradition out here in the countryside.
The wind whistles down the old chimney in the kitchen, rain splashes against the window panes and I sit with my granite mortar and pestle, pounding spices and refreshing myself with a large pot of mint tea, an entire mint plant with runners pulled up from the garden, rinsed and bruised, crammed into a pot and infused with boiling water and a little honey. As I pound I recite or chant lines of poetry to myself, old sea ballads and Scottish nursery rhymes. The Great Dane thumps his tail to accompany me.
To change topics, I had scarcely put down my copy of City Primeval when i read that Elmore Leonard was dead at 87. Along with great gritty crime fiction like Get Shorty and Hombre, Leonard gave some of the best writing tips I’ve ever read.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.