A Charlie Bigham Banquet

We had big excitement this week, when Husband discovered there was a Charlie Bigham Banquet happening.

I will explain: On Wednesdays, when I have my Mandarin lesson, Husband kindly cooks dinner. I hugely appreciate it, so I need to be careful what I write here, but he is not really what you would call an accomplished chef. In fact, his cooking doesn’t go much beyond opening the oven door and placing things inside for a specified amount of time—but he does that bit very well.

I therefore have been looking for meals that involve this amount of cooking, and I discovered Charlie Bigham meals. Have you seen them? They are very expensive, but rather delicious, and when you add chips, and peas in the microwave, it makes a complete meal—one that doesn’t feel as unhealthy as most ready-meals.

We were therefore very interested when we discovered there was a Charlie Bigham Banquet. It was in aid of the Wells Food Week (I didn’t know there was such a thing) and the idea was that you signed up online, bought the list of ingredients they sent, and then on Saturday, log into an online cookery class, where renowned chefs would show you how to turn the ingredients into a banquet. The money raised supported a charity that send chefs into school kitchens, so a worthy cause. What could possibly go wrong?

Husband sent me the list of ingredients, and I bought the ones we didn’t have in the cupboard. I improvised on some (I mean, who has fingers strong enough to grate parmesan cheese when you can buy it ready-grated??) and didn’t buy the things that I don’t like to eat (seemed reasonable to me). Husband audited my shopping, and went to buy the things I had got wrong. We invited another couple for the evening, and I figured that at worse I could get quietly drunk and let Husband lead the cooking—after all, it was his idea.

A package arrived, addressed to Husband. It contained an apron, a tea towel, and a small booklet of instructions. I glanced at it to check there was no equipment that might surprise me, and threw the tea towel into the washing machine. It came out slightly pinker than before (possibly due to the red towel I washed at the same time) but at least it was clean.

On the day of the banquet, we had some things to prepare during the morning. A printed sheet told us to core and peel the apples, cut them into chunks, and dry them out in the oven for 3 hours. But what size chunks? We were not sent entire recipes, all would be revealed later, which partly made it fun and partly was rather difficult as we had to guess things. We also needed to roast the beetroot—but should we peel and chop it first? I guessed from the timings given that whole beetroots wouldn’t work, so we cut them, but someone with no cooking experience could easily have gone wrong at this point. Perhaps there was a minimum level of cooking experience expected—I hoped it wouldn’t be very high.

The kitchen filled with wonderful smells, as the venison marinated in garlic and rosemary, the beetroots roasted (with a few added potatoes because I know the appetite of real people, and half a beetroot as the entire carb was not going to be filling anyone up!)

At the specified time we set up the computer and watched a couple of men—not quite Ant and Dec but they were trying—as they chatted about wine and introduced the chefs. I felt slightly bored, with a sense of foreboding as I waited for what I assumed would be a school cookery lesson. I was wrong.

The evening was tremendous fun—the best evening I’ve had in ages! The chefs were in their own homes, and did a little chat, then cooked a course of the meal. They cooked it very quickly, explaining almost nothing, and we raced to keep up. It was like trying to complete one of those escape rooms—four adults scurrying to solve the task. There was no recipe, so we had to watch intently to see what was being added. Sometimes they went off-piste and added things we didn’t have, like a sudden side-salad made from garden flowers and herbs. (I only have a few late dahlias and dead sunflowers in my garden, so they would be less good.)

There was a lot of shouting as we spotted things. The first course involved raw salmon, put briefly into a brine to pickle it. Some of us worried about the safety of eating raw salmon and shoved it into the microwave. We had a mishap with the brine as the person watching the screen was calling out the ingredients, I was mixing, and brown sugar was mentioned. I added it, but that was for the pears, so we tipped it away and started again. There was a topping of sourdough crumbs and hazelnuts—ours was somewhat darker brown than the chef’s. We placed it all on the plates, and sat at the table feeling somewhat shellshocked, then took a mouthful. It was delicious. Really, the flavours all combined perfectly, it was like eating fine cuisine in an expensive restaurant and suddenly I realised what made these chefs special. They couldn’t teach, but wow! they could cook.

Then there was a chef making a starter with mushrooms and pancetta. He stood in his kitchen with a glass of wine and chatted about mushrooms. Was he drunk? He chatted for a long time. We saw the Ant-and-Dec men pass each other post-it notes, they clearly wondered if he was drunk too! Eventually he started cooking, we raced to keep up, the food was delicious.

Next was smoked haddock. Would that be raw too? It was placed over spinach, covered in sour cream and parmesan (luckily ours was already grated) dotted with tabasco sauce and placed under a hot grill. Served with bread: delicious.

The main course was venison. The chef showed us her kitchen, and chatted, while next to her an empty frying pan smoked on the hob. Had she forgotten it was there? The fire alarm sounded, she rushed off, the camera cut to another chef, who struggled to take over her slot but he forgot bits and plated it up wrongly. We made a paste from liquidised almonds and pine nuts and burnt onions and garlic. The venison was sliced on top, and surrounded with roasted beets. It was wonderful.

The pudding was sticky apple cake with toffee sauce. I made the sauce, which had a whole pack of brown sugar, enough cream for the whole of Christmas and a month’s worth of butter. The chef multi-tasked and made the cake batter, so someone else made that, grabbing my mixer to try and keep up. When would he add the apple soaked in tea? Would he drain them first? Had he added the sultanas? We watched, he was holding a bowl—what was in it? In it went—quick! Add the sultanas! Then the apples—not drained, tip in the cold tea too… We had been told to prepare muffin trays, so I had laid out 8 paper cases in the tray. We made enough mixture for about 150, so abandoned the muffin tins and poured it into loaf tins instead.

My kitchen was full of shouting and laughing and rushing to grab ingredients and throwing away rubbish and washing equipment so it could be reused. As I said, it was like trying to solve a very complicated puzzle within a time limit. But the food we produced was far superior to anything I have ever cooked before. Those chefs knew how to create wonderful dishes. A few things were a bit ‘amateur,’ such as the fire alarm going off, the complete lack of teaching, the (possibly) drunk chef. But to be honest, it added to the charm of the event, and trying to keep up was so exciting!

By the end, we were completely full of fat and sugar, and the kitchen looked as if a bomb had exploded. We thanked out guests, and went to bed. Such a fun evening.

Anne E. Thompson
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Diary of a Lunch Club

As you know (if you follow my blog) I help with a senior’s lunch every week, and as we only have two cooks, I have to cook on alternate weeks. There are usually some disasters (not always my fault). I thought I’d write a diary for you this week. I can’t include photos of the other workers, as most are ‘vulnerable adults’ (or else shy!)

When I was at school, one of our lessons – Food and Nutrition – involved writing a time-plan each week. We had to start at the end (serve dinner) and work backwards, working out timings. It wasn’t a favourite activity, but I still do it today whenever I’m planning an event or big meal. To be honest, I really hate cooking dinners, but don’t tell anyone that, because it seems to be one of the main things I have to do.

In case you ever are called upon to cook lunch for 40 people, here is the diary, complete with quantities, which you might find helpful. The main thing to remember is that although cooking times are the same whatever the quantity, heating times are longer. So, for example, mashed potatoes need to be boiled for twenty minutes (unchanged whether one or fifty) but heating a big saucepan of 5kg of potatoes will take at least 30 minutes before it begins to boil, and peeling them will take another 30 minutes. Here is the diary for this week:

Roast Gammon followed by Ginger Sponge and custard.
Quantities for 40 people.

Wednesday: Shopping.
I try to arrive at the supermarket early, so there are plenty of easy parking spaces that will allow access to the boot of the car, because my bags will be heavy. I am fairly rubbish at parking, even in an empty car park, so this is bit of a stressful event.

I enter the supermarket at 8:45. Realise I have left all my shopping bags in the boot, so go back for them. Reenter supermarket at 8:50.

Buy everything on list (see end of blog). Pay, and remember to put receipt safely in purse (this is another very difficult thing – which causes Husband some stress when yet again, I have lost it).

When home, transfer things to fridge and freezer, and try to remember where they are so I don’t leave them there on Friday (it happens).

Thursday: Cook puddings.

I use my super-efficient Kenwood Chef mixer, which is the one piece of kitchen equipment I could not manage without. I make the sponges in two lots, each batch making 4 loaf-tin cakes (which are then easy to transport in a container). Being very old, I work in pounds and ounces.

Put dog outside (she mutters about this) and wipe all surfaces to avoid cross-contaminations with allergens (I use nuts in my kitchen). Tie back hair, put on apron, wash hands. (Because although this is my kitchen, I am cooking for the public, so need to raise the hygiene levels a little.)

Put 1lb butter and 1lb caster sugar into bowl and mix on high speed. Add 8 eggs, one at a time, cracking into a cup first to ensure no shell/bad eggs. Beat very hard. Add 1lb self-raising flour and 28g ginger, mix, stir, mix. Put into 4 lined loaf tins, bake on 170º for about 35 minutes. While cooking, make the next lot.

I set an alarm on the phone, but got it wrong, so they almost burnt. This happens more often than you might think.

Put on cooling racks until cold, then pack into air-tight containers. Cut off the end of one sponge and ate it (to test it wasn’t too burnt. Plus they smelt really nice, and I was hungry). Put into car so I don’t forget to take them tomorrow (this also happens fairly often).

Thursday afternoon: H phones to let me know that the boiler at church has broken, so there won’t be any hot water. Super. The plumber/engineer is coming to mend the boiler in a couple of weeks. Double super.

Friday: Visit washroom 23 times and pray a lot – which is normal for someone who gets anxious about leaving the house. Mainly pray that I won’t poison anyone. Leave home 8:30am.
Remember to take: My hat, sausages and 6 gammons and milk and butter from the fridge. Puddings. Sweetcorn from freezer. Food bags. Church keys. Marker pen (to write date on any new sauces that we open)

9:00 arrive, unload, put freezer stuff in freezer.
Say hello to D and R, the ‘advance team’ who arrive. They are busy, returning the tablecloths from last week, which have been washed and ironed, setting up the tables and chairs. They also chat about growing up in the 1950s and make me laugh. D has brought his meat-slicer, which means I won’t have to hack the gammons into pieces when they’re cooked. He isn’t meant to, in fact, I’m not sure he’s meant to be there at all as he has a major heart operation next week; but I am hugely grateful.

We have a checklist for when we arrive, so I start to go through it: I wipe surfaces and bleach sinks. The church kitchen is used by a variety of groups during the week, so we assume the worst and clean everything. I fling all the tea-towels into the laundry pile (because although they look clean, someone might have blown their nose on one). I turn on the dishwasher and water heater, preheat the ovens to 180℃. I throw away old sauces (check dates) and put dates on new sauces. Then I clean the microwave, check fridge temp etc.

Get out 6 saucepans (because the saucepan cupboard is under the sink, and when S arrives I don’t want to keep asking her to move). Plates and jugs and dishes are put in hot cupboard, switched on, temperature set to 65º.

D puts out ‘sign-up’ sheet for next week, so we’ll know roughly how many dinners to cook.

I start to peel potatoes. We have coloured chopping boards, to avoid cross-contamination, so they are cut on the brown one. S arrives, and starts to peel the carrots. We only have one sharp knife, which she uses. (S comes every week to help us. She suffers from autism, so likes to do the same jobs, in the same place, with the same equipment each week; and any changes need to be discussed in advance. She also works very hard, and we miss her when she’s away.) We cut the carrots into sticks, because they go further than when cut into rounds (don’t ask me why).

I prepare the cauliflower.

9:45 Rinse meat, boil, wrap in foil.

10: 05 Put the potatoes onto the stove to boil (2 saucepans)
S grates the cheese.

10:15 T&H arrive, and set up the cafe in the front of the church. People begin to arrive for coffee. I can hear lots of laughing and chatting (loud chatting).

10:30 Meat into ovens.

At some point F arrives and washes his hands and says hello. F helps to set the tables with bowls, glasses and jugs of water. F also has ‘special needs’, but he takes more care over the setting of the tables than anyone else would. He is also in charge of the music, and has a preference for marching bands. The rest of the cooking is done to the sound of military music.

10:34 Tins of oil into oven to heat.
10:35 Strain potatoes, shake flour and salt and pepper over them, shake, put into tins of hot oil, into oven.
S puts the custard into jugs, covers with cling film, leaves ready to be microwaved. S then goes for a coffee break.

10:50 Water on hob for cauliflower.
S appears in the kitchen, to tell me the lights aren’t working in the washroom. I investigate, and find there is no electricity anywhere, and all the ovens are off. Not sure what to do, then electricity comes back on. Carry on cooking.
11:00 Put carrots onto hob. Salt all pans. Turn potatoes and move them around the ovens, because some ovens work better than others. Ovens seem a bit cool.

I check the ovens, and realise that although the electricity is back on, the ovens have set themselves to ‘automatic timer’ and are not working. I cannot remember how to override the automatic setting and spend 5 minutes pressing random buttons. Eventually they come back to life. I shove the dials to the hottest setting and swear a little.

I start to make the cheese sauce. T appears in the kitchen and begins to explain, in great detail, what is wrong with the boiler. I am not terribly interested at this point, and find it difficult to remain polite, especially as he is standing between me and the fridge and I need the milk.

11:10 Cauliflower into boiling water.
11:30 Sausages in oven (sausages are an alternative for people who don’t like gammon).
Prepare peas in microwave (because we have one person who will only eat peas). I also use the meat thermometer to check temperatures. The gammons are over 75º, which means they’re cooked. Phew.
11:30 D cuts the meat. I remember to check carrots. The cauliflower is cooked, so I strain it, and pour over the sauce. More people are arriving in the kitchen, washing up and chatting. I mostly ignore them (otherwise I will make a mistake).
11:32 Sweetcorn into boiling water.
11:35 Check/turn/move the roast potatoes again.
11:45 Make gravy. I’m not sure that anyone actually eats gravy. C arrives, and says that the person who always used to like gravy, even when there’s a sauce, died a year ago. I decide the baseline stipulation for people we cater for needs to be that they are not dead, so I only make one jug of gravy.

I move all the food to the hot-trolley, which keeps it warm while people come and sit down and grace is said. There are bowls on the tables, and everyone puts in £3:50 (which I have to remember to take home and give to Husband with the receipts from shopping).

I put the puddings into ovens (switched off) to warm slightly. I microwave the custard.

I serve the meals onto plates, the servers take them to the people sitting at the tables. I serve 35 dinners, plus 3 people ask for an extra dinner to take home for someone who is housebound/ill.

All the leftovers are put on the serving hatch, and people take them home in empty containers to eat in the week.

Rev.P gives a short talk while I put the puddings into bowls.

The servers collect all the dirty plates and serve the puddings.

The washing-up team start to clean up, L takes home the tablecloths to wash.

I take off my apron and drive Mum to her house, then go home.

I feed the cats and ducks, and give the cauliflower leaves to the chickens, then go inside for a sandwich. Am knackered.

Shopping List:
For 40 People

3 large cauliflowers (or 2 1/2 kg broccoli)
4kg carrots
10kg potatoes
6x750g gammon joints
1 packet sausages

4 pints milk
8oz butter (plus 2lb for puddings)
450g cheese
onion gravy mix
tin foil
dettox spray
2kg bag sweetcorn
small plain flour

Custard 7x400g (the large tins) or ice cream
2lb butter
2lb SR flour
grd ginger
16 eggs
2lb golden caster sugar
tinned fruit (as an alternative)


Thanks for reading. Hope you have a good week with no disasters.


Anne E. Thompson has written several novels. They are available from bookshops and Amazon.
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Diary of a Day

Today was just a normal day. I will tell you about it (because spying on other people is kinda fun, isn’t it!)

Got up, and sorted the ducks and chickens and fed the outside cats. Lots of signs of nest building, but no actual eggs, so either rats got there first or the hens are just pretending.

Had coffee, cake, and Bible time. My favourite bit of the day. (I make a very complicated cake which is made with sour cream, so it isn’t too sweet, and has a crushed pecan and maple syrup stuffing. It takes ages to make, so I hide it in the larder, and never share it, and only ever eat it – one slice – on my special Portmerion plate with the fuschia pattern – at coffee time.)

Shopping order arrived. It’s my turn to cook at Lunch Club, and usually I would shop in Morrisons, because it’s cheap, but this week has been hectic, plus I keep having chest pains, so I decided to keep things simple. It costs more, but there will be a dinner at the end and I might survive. This week I decided to make Shepherd’s Pie. I use the term loosely, as it is made with beef mince, not lamb mince, so really should be called ‘Cottage Pie’. Plus, I am too lazy to actually make it into pies, (you should ask my family about my picnics sometime – they epitomise my lazy cooking style). So, really, it will be heaps of mince on plates with heaps of mashed potato. But Shepherd’s Pie sounds better. I put the frozen veg into the freezer (keeping things simple, remember?) and made a start on the mince.

The mince recipe is modified from a Nigella Lawson recipe, because I like her food, even if I don’t manage the flirty eyes when I cook. It is a brilliant recipe as it involves putting lots of veg through a processor so it forms a mush, then adding it to mince. So children (and elderly members of lunch club) eat lots of tasty vegetables without realising it.

Due to a recent decrease in numbers (none for good reasons) I decided to cook for 35 people. I began to peel onions and mush them with bacon, and add them to the mince to fry. Onions for 35 people makes you cry.

Then peeled carrots, feeling slightly guilty. Every week, we have a young woman who is autistic, who comes to help us prepare the veg and wash up. She always peels and chops the carrots. She works really hard, and never complains (except the week when my sister came to help, but that’s another story). However, she does not like things to change, and she always peels the carrots. But I needed to mush them and add them to the mince, so this week I did them. This might cause angst tomorrow. I will worry about it then.

Added whiskey, Worcestershire sauce, tomatoes, allspice, cloves, and other stuff. Left to simmer for about an hour while I washed up. When it was cooked, I transferred the mince to plastic containers. This is one of the difficult bits – when you are cooking for lots of people, you must ensure that everything is cooled down and refrigerated within two hours (otherwise it has to be thrown away, which is something of a waste). Cooling down heaps of mince is not as easy as it sounds. Finally was cool enough to go into fridge.

Washed up. Cooked ginger sponges (will reheat them tomorrow with custard for pudding). Washed up.

Packed car with rest of stuff, then allowed dog back into kitchen (she is banished when I cook, in case a stray hair floats upwards and contaminates the food).

Considered whether chest pains were better or worse. Have a slight nagging thought that heart problems begin with chest pains. But I feel I have already had a brain tumour (rare) and that to also have heart problems (also rare) is simply too unlikely. Decided chest pains are more likely due to lugging crates of water around for the ducks, and took an aspirin.

Rest of day spent walking dog, doing washing, clearing up cat sick (old decrepit cat who lives in the utility room) and reading. Got a dinner out of freezer for our own meal – after a day cooking mince, I cannot face making something else for us to eat.

Thank you for reading. By the way, have you read a copy of CLARA yet? It’s getting some good reviews already, which is very exciting. Take a look at the Amazon link, to see what other people are saying.

Anne x

Letter to a Sister – Lunch Club

How was your week? I cooked at Lunch Club. Usually I make a syrup sponge, but I thought I’d try something different this week, so I used tinned pears instead of syrup and added some ginger to the sponge mixture. I was a bit worried about cooking tinned pears – they might have turned to mush in the oven. It was okay. I thought it was a bit lacking in taste, tinned pears are a bit bland, but it wasn’t horrible, which is the main thing. I might try marmalade next week.

I cannot tell you how much I dislike cooking dinners for large numbers of people. However, Lunch Club is something special, and I always come home happier than when I went, even though it’s also really hard work (as you know – I believe you told me that if you ever agree to help again I should shoot you!) This week the ‘kitchen team’ were mainly men, ranging in age from about 65 to almost 80. That says it all really!

Each week we produce a healthy meal for forty people, and they pay £3:50. Some weeks we are an efficient productive team. Other weeks I feel like I have wandered on to the set of a Dad’s Army film.

I am by far the most stressed member of the team. Maybe when you have lived through a war and survived, it seems less important if the potatoes don’t cook on time. I am also the bossiest. The kitchen is inspected regularly for hygiene, so we have check lists of things to do. I am always nagging people to wash their hands ( even if they have just washed them when they used the loo, they have to wash them again when they reenter the kitchen.) They now tell me whenever I see them, “Yes Anne, I washed my hands.”

Whoever is cooking buys the food, then arrives at the church early to start preparing. Gradually the rest of the team arrive, some by bus, some via ‘Dial-a-Ride’ and some walk or drive. Everyone is pleased to see each other, so it’s quite a social time. It’s also the time when we hear about ailments. The team are mostly not young, so it’s not coughs and colds – they will quite casually mention that they “had a minor stroke in the week” or “had bit of a heart attack so had to call an ambulance.” I am always amazed how they seem to take in their stride, to carry on with life as soon as they feel well enough.

They also laugh a lot. At some point, before the ‘oldies’ arrive (who are actually no older than the team some weeks) we have a quick prayer. This is always more enthusiastic when I am the cook (need all the help we can get!)  When I got there this week, one of the team had rolled up his trousers to show some injury, which led to a general discussion of scars until I called them to order and suggested that we should get on with praying. Slightly worried as to where the conversation might lead. Like I said, I am the bossy one.

This week one of the church members popped in with his little boy. The oldies love to see children. They are, I have noticed, quite competitive with how many great-grandchildren they have. I can’t really chat to them when I’m cooking (too busy trying to not burn anything.) But when I’m not the actual cook, I love listening to them, they have so many tales about growing up during the war, living in a world that has changed so much.

I love how enthusiastic they still are, how they will arrive excited that dog-racing has started in the next town, or there’s a new club they can join, or even a new knitting pattern has arrived. Their obvious enjoyment of life makes me realise that growing old doesn’t have to be scary, there are still deep friendships and loud laughter. Especially laughter. Friday lunch times are always some of the happiest, and most exhausting, hours of my week.

Take care,
Love, Anne x

PS. Going on a trip to Poland. Never been there before.

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Thank you for reading.




Letters to a Sister : 41

Thanks for your letter. You are very lucky that one of your boys cooks. I wish someone in my family did. I hate cooking dinners, really hate it. It is a pressure every day, trying to decide what to eat in the evening. Part of the problem is that although I hate cooking, I do like eating decent food. So ready-meals just don’t do it for me. None of family really cooks though, unless it’s Mother’s Day or something.

Actually, that’s not quite true. When I was in labour with Son 1, Husband did cook pizza for two year old daughter. I told him he just had to take it out the freezer and put it in the oven. Which he did. Literally. It wasn’t until daughter complained there was “white stuff stuck to it” that we discovered the polystyrene base had also gone straight from oven to freezer. I think that’s the last ‘dinner’ he has ever cooked. I blame his mother.

My sons also aren’t great communicators when they’re at uni. I send them emails and texts, letting them know what’s happening, but they rarely reply. Every so often I send an, “Are you dead?” text. To which they usually reply, “Yes, murdered horribly while in pub.” So I know they’re basically alright.

You can then, imagine my concern a few weeks ago when I arrived home to find a message on the answer phone saying, “please call me,” and a text saying the same and three missed calls on my mobile. Heart in mouth I dialed his mobile, hoping that he would pick up, wondering who I should call if he didn’t. He did.

“Oh, Mum, where have you been?” he said, “I need to know how you make soup.”

We discussed the whole idea of beginning messages with “it’s not an emergency.” Then I told him how to make soup.

You have to read my book when it’s published. It is not optional for sisters. It won’t scare you, you’ll be fine. Actually, I have nearly finished the main part, the bit about the psychopath. Which I’m quite relieved about because she’s not very nice.

I did lots of reading, read some papers by neuro scientists and got some of their books. I also watched some clips on YouTube, so I could try and imitate the speech patterns of how known psychopaths talk. It was all very interesting actually. The thing I found most disturbing was how likeable the psychopaths were. I think of myself as a good judge of character, but these people, who had sometimes murdered dozens of people, came over as very nice people. They were the sort of person you enjoy being with, the people who you invite round for dinner.

They were also very believable. Even though I knew, from my background reading, what the true situation was, when you heard someone telling you that they came from a “loving Christian family” you tended to believe them. It was all very interesting. Husband did get a bit fed up with it though. He would come home from work and I would begin a sentence, “Did you know….” and he would instantly say, “Is this about psychopaths?”

Your writers’ group sounds fun. I would love to be able to talk lots about my book. I wouldn’t want feedback though, that would be way too scary. You can be my writer’s group when you come over. I can talk for many weeks about psychopaths – how long are you staying for?

I might even bake you a cake. I like making cakes, it’s only dinners I find emotionally difficult. I will make it during Lent, then it will count towards one of those ‘random acts of kindness’ that we’re all supposed to be doing every day. I have a feeling that might turn out to be even more stressful than having to cook a dinner every day.

Take care,
Love, Anne xx

PS. Bring your wellies. It hasn’t stopped raining since you were here last time.

PPS. Happy Chinese New Year. It’s the year of the Monkey!

This letter is a reply.
You can read my sister’s letter at:


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Letters to a Sister : 29

Do you think this is healthy? Every day when he gets home from work, Husband drinks a mug of tea (300ml) and adds 6 teaspoonfuls of sugar.

Now, I am not a dietician but this seems to me to be an unhealthy amount of sugar to be drinking every day. What do you think? Actually, I have mislead you slightly – he actually drinks the same sized glass of orange juice and doesn’t add any extra sugar. That much juice contains all that sugar as it is. I was REALLY surprised when he pointed this out to me. It doesn’t seem to matter if it’s the cheap ‘store own’ brand or something you actually enjoy drinking, like Tropicana. That is a lot of sugar. For someone who doesn’t use up a lot of energy doing physical work or a sport, I think it’s too much. Not sure I was popular when I told him this. Discussions continue……

Another discussion point was his annual stressful event at work. No, not a performance appraisal but his need to bake something for the ‘Team Baking Competition’. The competition has rounds, so it’s quite a knack to find something that meets both his competitive need to not fail miserably but also not good enough to win and go through to the next round.

I absolutely refuse to do the cooking for him (I tell him it wouldn’t be morally right but actually I just don’t want to get lumbered with it every year.) This year he made flapjacks. I wrote out a ‘fool-proof’ recipe, the sort of thing I used to write for the children when they were very small. It was almost foolproof.

Small children (who I have trained) know things like “do not hold the cat when cooking, however much he mews for attention it is unhygienic.” Or, “if you weigh the syrup on one work surface and then carry the spoon to the saucepan on the cooker, you will leave a sticky trail on the floor.” Even the basics, like “wash your hands before you start” seemed to be a new idea. Though of course, if cooking while holding a cat there does seem very little point.

However, kitchen survived and I am hoping that cooking the flapjack will have killed all the germs (plus I will never meet the people who devised this activity in the first place) so I am hoping it’s all good. Husband informs me that ‘international business executives’ do not need to know how to bake flapjacks. Except clearly they do.

It is actually quite hard for husband to be careful about what he eats. His job often involves dinners : dinners with clients to improve relations, dinners with staff to show that he cares, dinners with partners from overseas to be a good host, etc. Last week he told me that he had four dinners arranged. I was disappointed, thinking that was four evenings when I would eat alone. Then he checked and told me that they were all scheduled for the same night. That’s good, I thought, he’ll only have to go to one of them. But no. Apparently it is possible to attend four dinners on the same night – starter at one, main course at the other. Reminded me of the ‘Vicar of Dibley’. Not quite sure which character he would be………

Take care,
Anne xx


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Letters to a Sister :20

I finished writing my novel. This is big and very scary. It is actually my second one. The first I wrote years ago but was too scared to do anything with it so I put it in a filing cabinet. I found it again a year ago, read it, decided it was good and tried to get it published. This is when I discovered that trying to get a first book published when you are a normal, non-famous person, is rather hard. It is, I assume, like trying to be an actress or singer. The ability seems to be a minor factor, who you know (nobody in my case) and your ability to ‘sell’ seems much more important.

No publishers in the UK will take manuscripts from new writers, so first you have to find an agent. The initial approach is a covering letter. This involves a lot of sweat, tears, many rewrites while you try to adopt a casually witty style. I clearly never got it right because my first book remains in the filing cabinet. I was something of a literary snob. I felt that if my work was good enough, someone would pay me to publish it, there was no way I would self-publish. I am less of a snob now, I just want my book to be read. If no one likes my covering letter (and it does seem to be this rather than the actual book that is important) then I shall publish it myself. I will let you know how I get on.

On a completely unrelated topic, have you ever cooked with quinoa? I keep seeing it on tele but have never actually tried it. Am thinking of having a try. This fills my family with dread. I do tend to have passions for things in the kitchen. There was the time my mother-in-law gave me a rather nifty garlic press, the sort where you don’t do any peeling or chopping, you just squeeze the bulb through the grill. Immensely satisfying. We had garlic, a lot of it, with everything for a while. That phase did not get too many complaints. The next one did.

I discovered couscous. It was when I was teaching, had three children at different schools, was stressed and exhausted. The thought of a carbohydrate that required no peeling of potatoes or straining of rice was wonderful. There is after all a limit to how many frozen chips you can serve in a week. So I started adding couscous to most meals. The family complained, but they tend to complain a lot, so I ignored them. Looking back, I did perhaps over do it a bit.

The real low point was when it overlapped with my chilli phase. I grew little red chillies from seeds on my kitchen window sill. They were very pretty and I felt rather trendy adding them to dishes. Again, I did perhaps overdo it. Anyway, the meal which has gone down in family history was a chicken casserole, cooked on a day that had gone particularly badly. Teaching had been stressful, collecting the family from their respective schools had been a hassle, I was tired, had reports to write, just wanted dinner to be cooked, eaten and forgotten. It has never been forgotten.

I added too much chilli to the casserole, it was completely inedible. Never mind, I thought, I will add some couscous, that might dilute it a bit. It did not, it was now just burning hot and thick. My next brainwave, one that I really ought to copyright, was to add milk. Please don’t ask me why, but I had this idea that adding milk would neutralise the chilli. I think I was getting in a muddle with adding it to tomato sauce to neutralise the acid (which DOES work.) Anyway, I served the family a sort of hot chilli porridge. They say they can still remember the moment, my angry eyes flashing, them all trying to not say or do anything wrong and being faced with a plate of hot (in the spicy sense) porridge. As I said, a real low point in my culinary experience.

Of course, when I sat down and tried it I realised it was ghastly, impossible to eat and announced we were throwing it all away. Much to the relief of my children. I cannot remember now what we did eat that night but I don’t think any of them will ever forget that dish. I bet Mary Berry has never tried it. Maybe I will write a recipe book next.

Take care,
Anne x