Christmas in summer

The summer holidays are almost over, the older children have dates for their return to University, school sites have been checked for the start of term and the last of the sunshine is doing its best to warm the river. Down the track, foresters are clearing the fallen chestnut tree robbing the most adventurous local youngsters of this summer’s playground and makeshift bridge across the water. The buzz and whine of a chainsaw is an interruption to the dreamy quiet in our corner of the world, but it’s a change from the all-night harvesting and baling that’s been going on in the surrounding fields for the last couple of weeks.

Not for the first time, I find myself spending the last summer days writing about Christmas food. Today I’m turning my mind to the groaning table, with particular reference to artisan cheeses and their accompaniments. Last year I learnt the word tracklements when I interviewed a local food producer for a Christmas feature – what lies ahead this year? Tomorrow morning, I’ll start an article about the Great British Breakfast before moving on, in the afternoon, to an interview with a Canadian health professional. My list of things to write includes delving into the consequences of a particular heart condition. I’ve yet to find an association between these commissions but they say variety is the spice of life and freelance writing life is nothing if not varied if you want to make it pay.

Lotte’s Country Kitchen

When I was asked if I’d like a review copy of Lotte Duncan’s new cookery book Lotte’s Country Kitchen I jumped at the chance. I’m a good enough cook, not passionate, but passable – but I do love good food and if there are two things I know for sure about Lotte, it’s that she has a penchant for pink and for good honest fare.

The first time I met Lotte was at our local gym – being a food fan takes its toll on one’s waistline and we were both keen to keep fit, if not thin. Our now grown-up children were just babes, and we were busy with their lives. Then I moved away, returning to the neighbourhood several years later, and on reconnecting we realised we had more in common than workouts – food, mostly. I write about it (and other things) and eat it; she writes about it, concocts brilliant recipes and is enthusiastic in sharing her love of it.

Since then, besides interviewing Lotte for Oxfordshire Life, I’ve also followed her blog and kept up with her on Twitter and Facebook. So when she announced online that she was writing a recipe book, I was genuinely delighted, and I’ve been watching her progress. We’re not friends, as such, but on friendly terms.

I don’t actually own that many cookbooks, largely because the very thought of throwing a dinner party leaves me feeling exhausted and whilst I might like to leaf through the pretty pictures, I’m not often inspired by them. My husband equates food with love, and enjoys preparing meals for our family and friends as a result. I equate food with pleasure and so I’m very taken with Lotte’s introduction to this book, in which she says:

“I believe that to enjoy your food, you don’t want to be so tired from cooking that you’re unable to lift a fork to eat it…”

Well, a hearty “hear, hear” to that, and there’s more. In fact, Lotte’s whole approach to food is pragmatic. She doesn’t require you to spend hours in your kitchen, only to emerge red-faced and fuming that everyone else has had a good time while you’ve been slaving over a hot stove, minus a staff of sous chef and pot-washer, and she’s chatty in her writing, littering her recipes with anecdotes and asides. Her style is so engaging she makes you want to run into your kitchen and try out a few of her recipes – which is praise indeed from a lazy cook like me.

Lotte’s Country Kitchen features the kind of dishes that range from the sensible – her sausage and bean casserole, for example – to the frivolous – a very conceited syllabub trifle which is pictured complete with flouncy roses – another of Lotte’s passions. The imagery is superb, with photographs taken by Lara Homes at Lotte’s house and garden, just down the road from here.

Reading it is a pleasure, whether you’re swinging in your hammock just flicking, (something Lotte’s partial to herself) or planning for a dinner party and looking to impress. In fact, anyone who owns and uses this book will feel they have Lotte standing at their elbow, encouraging their endeavours – just as if she’d dropped by for a friendly chat and a glass of rosé with a favourite neighbour.

You can share Lotte’s real kitchen by attending one of her cookery days. Visit her website www.lotteduncan.com for more information. Lotte’s Country Kitchen is available in bookshops and on Amazon.

My vote counts for nothing – is this 1910 or 2010?

WSPU poster, by Hilda Dallas 1909

I’m not a particularly open political animal. Through a habit cultivated as a newspaper journalist, I deliberately leave my political colours un-nailed to any publicly visible mast. It doesn’t help your efforts to be an impartial observer if you’re known to be an active Labour, Tory, Lib-Dem or even Green supporter. That’s not to say I don’t have political preferences, I’m an intelligent woman interested in current affairs. I have children, I pay taxes, I want to know the country is in safe hands, economically, morally and politically, so of course I have views. But these are known only to my husband, a few close friends and the ballot box. Since learning as a teenager that my right to vote was hard fought-for by suffragettes and suffragists and cost women their lives, I’ve wanted to stand up and be counted. Wherever I’ve lived, Tory stronghold, Labour heartland, I’ve voted.

So, all that said, I’m feeling particularly annoyed that by a quirk of peculiarly-drawn boundary lines I live in the Buckingham constituency of the current House of Commons Speaker, John Bercow. The fact that I’ve only been to Buckingham twice, and I actually live half-way between David Lidington’s seat and Boris Johnson’s former seat, now occupied by John Howell, makes very little difference to any preference I might care to exercise. The land around here is as blue as the grass is green. My single vote is a drop in an ocean – whether it’s for or against the Tory tidal wave engulfs it. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to exercise my democratic rights on election day. I like to think that as well as being counted my ballot paper is examined and the party I choose knows where my loyalties lie regardless of whether or not their candidate is returned.

Real choice, however, is something not offered to the electorate of the Speaker’s constituency. Traditionally, thanks to an age-old courtesy, the three main parties don’t contest the Speaker’s seat. This year, though, the ballot paper will have insults and injury to choose from besides my non-choice sitting MP. The UK Independence Party, the British National Party and a couple of independents are planning to stand against John Bercow. As the off-white product of very mixed British, European, Middle-Eastern and Asian heritage, born in Norwich and brought up in Norfolk, (apart from an overseas spell when my father was in the forces) I consider myself British – latterly, since devolution, English-ish. If I’d won anything while representing my country in a sporting event I would have been proud, I’d have blubbed loudly. I DO blub loudly, if ever that rare thing, a British athlete who wins, stands a-top a podium watching the Union flag being hoisted and listening to our rather un-nationalistic National Anthem being played. But I dream and digress.

What does this mean for me as a voter then? Well, I’m not about to reveal my political preferences here, but as you might guess, I’m not going to waste my vote on the xenophobic BNP or the ranting Nigel (I stab people in the front) Farage either, though I reckon I’m as British (I can trace that part of my line here back to the 12th century) as any latter-day ancestor of the Romans, Vikings or Saxons (for which read Italians, Scandinavians and Germans), who settled on this island centuries ago. I consider anyone less white and less recently settled in the same light, no matter where they’ve come from.

I’m resigned to thinking that for as long as John Bercow (who, as it happens, is a very diligent MP with a strong attendance record and cross-party support) is Speaker, my vote counts for nothing unless proportional representation comes into being or the Speaker’s constituency is automatically re-represented by another MP as soon as his appointment is made. I  feel dis-empowered and disenfranchised. I might as well be living in 1910 as 2010.