In these blurry days between winter and spring it is hard to decide what to cook. In the last four weeks I have made scones imagining cream teas outdoors and huddled over a bowl of mulligatawny for warmth. The latest pie was chicken, olive and preserved lemon, because it struck a balance between the heartiness required by winter and the fresh warmth of Mediterranean flavours. The sun shone, ice melted and I made Marcella Hazan’s minestrina tricolore, a light sort of vichyssoise. The temperature dropped and a pot of bacon and lentil soup with pasta seemed in order.
My mother is in palliative care. Cooking is therapy and perhaps my food choices mirror the oscillations in my mother’s condition. I’m going to go all reckless on you and risk a poetic mash up. For a long time my mother has been more than half in love with easeful death, and longed to go gently into that good night. But that’s not how it works.
Every now and then, less and less frequently, she has a good day. By which I mean she stays awake for almost an hour at a stretch, drinks her juice without prompting and is able to hold the glass herself. Good days are rarely followed by good days, no matter what I do. I know this, but it does not prepare me for the shock of the bad days when she feels awful and is too tired to even talk on the phone to a friend of half a century. In this instance knowledge is not power. In fact, it doesn’t help a bit.
Tomorrow when I leave my mum I will come home to zuppa ci verza alla bergamasca. As I write this I am soaking the chickpeas. I will feel a little better because I made it and the buttermilk bread I will eat with it. It’s something I can do. A little victory, but aren’t they all? I intend to accumulate as many as I can, one spoonful at a time. They are a celebration of the good days and a salve against the bad.
Clare Leighton is famous for her woodcuts, which have a muscular vitality. Her two best known books are The Farmer’s Year and Four Hedges which are both structured around the annual cycle of sowing, growth, harvest, rest and renewal. Reading Four Hedges makes you feel that you are following a friend around her garden. She doesn’t bother with lengthy introductions to herself or any of the other characters, because we’ve all known each other forever. She works with such enthusiasm, you long to be invited to help.
If you are a gardener, you will feel an even closer kinship with her when she talks about the tenderness she feels towards plants she has nurtured over many seasons, and the brave hope that planting bulbs represents. I often think of my last, lost garden and wonder if the new owners are taking proper care of my rhodies and if the crocus and trilliums have naturalized. One last poetical paraphrase: one could do worse than be a sower of scilla.