Bit of a Pickle

Grandma never wasted anything.  She turned fruits and vegetables into jams, jellies, chutneys, and latterly wines.  We foraged for brambles together; and friends and neighbours were quick to give her their extra harvest of anything in return for whatever she turned it into.  Even Mr Hoare, who owned a mobile grocery van which visited once a week, was known to return at the end of the evening to ask her if she wanted a tray of this or that which wouldn’t last to be sold the next morning.  But what I hated most about chutney season was the smell of boiling vinegar which permeated the whole house.  Even Papa was known to join in and I remember him pickling walnuts.  They tasted good, but that smell was disgusting. This gene of Grandma’s escaped me somewhat.  We don’t eat much jam, and nor do we eat much chutney.  Usually whatever chutneys we are given at Christmas last until the following year.  I have made lemon curd in the past, and during a particular Earth Mother phase bottled vegetables in oil, home-made cheeses in oil, prunes in brandy, and made lemon curd.  They were all successful, but inevitably a jar got forgotten and that is why there is a large Kilner jar with killer prunes in it, sitting in one of the cupboards.  Those prunes have been sitting in the brandy for ten years and only one will knock you out for the rest of the evening! I do enjoy making elderflower cordial and fruit alcohols – they’re easy and they taste good.  The basic recipe for fruit alcohol is 1 pint (20 fl oz) of vodka or gin, plus one pound of fruit (if using plums or sloes, prick the skins so that the juice can escape.  Tradition says that they should be pricked with the thorn of their tree), plus 1lb of sugar (I sometimes use less, say 12 oz, if the fruit is very sweet).  Mix them all together in a container with a lid.  Shake over several days until all the sugar has dissolved.  Put in a dark place for at least three months.  Strain and bottle.  If you look in the garden, on the left hand side, halfway down, there is a damson tree.  The fruit from that tree makes a lovely gin. The reason I’m a bit stumped with this blog though is that George and Jess have started making chutneys and he wanted some recipes, and I don’t have any!  I looked through Auntie Chrissie’s recipe book and she has several, one of which seems to be an Indian recipe.  It’s quite difficult to read, because it’s been written on air mail paper (google it, ye children of the email!).


However, here we go with Cauliflower Pickle – I have transcribed exactly what Auntie Chrissie wrote, so any ambiguities are hers.  George, please let me know how it tastes.

Cauliflower Pickle


  • 1 small garlic
  • 2 tablespoonsful olive oil
  • 1 dessert spoonful ground ginger
  • 3 ozs preserved ginger
  • 1 medium sized cauliflower
  • Cayenne to taste
  • 2 tablespoonsful sugar
  • 2 tablespoonsful curry powder

Method Steam the cauliflower after removing the outer leaves, till fairly soft.  Then break up into pieces on a dish and add sufficient salt to taste.  Leave for one night.  Heat the olive oil with the cloves of garlic till the garlic is brown.  Add all of the other ingredients, cover with vinegar and cook for 5 to 8 minutes. Enjoy!

Girls in Their Summer Clothes

New York is heaving with visitors at the moment.  The students have left and have been replaced by summer school students and the first wave of the summer tourists.  A couple of days ago, the weather was sunny and people were dressed accordingly – colours had replaced the NYC working woman’s all black uniform, and it was all rather lovely.  This last couple of days have been less summery but the temperatures are due to rise again tomorrow.

Our family summer holidays were always spent in Scotland.  Grandma and Papa wanted to go home, and they wanted to see their families.  So every summer until 1972 (when Gran and Pop moved to Northallerton), the car was packed and we drove up.  There were no radios in cars then, the roads were slow, and the journey was long.  It was the only time we were officially allowed to chew gum.  And chew we did as we tried to look at registrations and every year we would try to spot all the year identifiers issued up to then.  Each year Papa warned us as we drove north that the first letter (A, of course) had been issued mainly in the south and that we’d been jolly lucky to see one.  Every year we found one and duly considered ourselves exceedingly fortunate.  As a result of this game I am still more likely to notice a registration plate than notice even the colour of a car.

I can just remember having to time the trip to catch the car ferry from Queensferry to Fife.  Papa didn’t want to get there too late and so get caught with the people commuting from Edinburgh.  I remember very clearly being poked in the arm by Grandma and told to look up.  Above me was the almost completed Forth Road Bridge.  “Next time, we come up, we’ll be going over the bridge”, I was told.  I have never lost the excitement of going over that bridge.  When there was still a toll (2/6d), Papa tried very hard not to actually stop the car when he was paying the toll.  Generally he succeeded.

I don’t remember Gran and Pop’s first home, Craiglyn, where Uncle Johnnie, Grandma, Vi, Suzy, Alastair, Kenneth and Alan were born.  Kenneth and Alan are two of my cousins.  Gran and Pop sold it when they returned from New Zealand in 1961 after being away for a year.  Craiglyn and its gardens had become too much for Pop.  I do remember the first trip to 24 Spencer Place, their new home.  I loved visiting that house.  The back garden had a lawn, and then sloped sharply downwards to the Dysart road.  Alan and I made dens down there and spent ages playing amongst the trees.  We even created a burglar trap which I’m sure would have been hugely successful if any burglar had decided to climb the slope by that route.


Alan and I in the garden of 24 Spencer Place, before we were old enough to build traps for burglars

Spencer Place was very near to the Ravenscraig Park, and Grandma used to wake up early, wake me up and we would walk through the park, past the mynah bird who yelled “aye” in a broad Fife accent or whistled the opening notes to Laurel and Hardy, and onto the beach.  It wasn’t a beautiful beach, but there was a lot of sea coal which is great for skimming.   Skimming stones is one of those pastimes which is absolutely absorbing and, even if you’re not that good, you might be, and so you continue.  Back to Spencer Place and breakfast.  Afternoons, if the weather was good, were spent on nicer beaches, generally Lower Largo where the main dangers were the cold of the sea (and no it doesn’t get warmer when you get your shoulders under the water), and the rocks which I always seemed to tread on.


Playing on the beach at St Andrews

But what I most looked forward to when staying with Gran and Pop was Gran’s baking.  Gran baked the best gingerbread I have ever tasted.  It was a moist, dark, rich cake which really was neither a cake nor gingerbread, but it was so delicious.  I have a passion for ginger in all its forms – fresh, powdered, preserved, pickled – it doesn’t matter to me.  My mouth is watering at the thought of a slab of Gran’s gingerbread spread with unsalted butter.  After Gran died, we all wanted the gingerbread recipe from her recipe book.  You have no idea how sad we were to discover that she used cups mixed with imperial measures.  No-one knew which cup she had used.  My cousin, Carole, thinks that she has worked it out, but I haven’t tasted her gingerbread yet.  So you might have an idea of how delighted I was to find in Edinburgh a recipe for gingerbread written in Gran’s handwriting, and totally in imperial – no untraceable cups!   So here it is.  I haven’t converted to metric.  Gran used lard, according to this recipe, but I will probably substitute butter.

Gran’s Gingerbread


  • 6 ozs plain flour
  • 2 ozs sugar
  • 1 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 tsp mixed spice
  • 1 level tsp baking soda
  • 2 tbp treacle *
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 ozs lard
  • fruit and nuts


Melt treacle and lard slowly.  Sieve dry ingredients and beat eggs.  Stir eggs and treacle into dry mixture.  Bake in greased and lined tin in moderate oven** for 1-1.25 hours.

* Treacle = Black treacle in England or molasses

** A moderate oven is 180-190 C / 350-375 F


Goodbye, Dear Friend

Isabella Mary King was born on 24th December, 1919 into abject poverty near Kings Cross, London.  She had club feet and was the eldest of three.  Her father had fought in the trenches during World War I and contracted tuberculosis, returning home and sadly infecting his wife.  In a wealthier family, her mother would have been sent abroad to cleaner air and maybe would have lived longer, but Belle’s mother died when she was young.  Belle’s few memories of her mother were of being made to promise to take care of George and Doris, her younger brother and sister; waving to her mother through the window of the hospital; and watching her funeral cortege take her coffin away.  Belle didn’t even have a photo of her mother until about five years ago.

Her Granny King was determined that the children wouldn’t be split up and they all moved in with her.  She taught them strong values, values that would last to the end of Belle’s days.  Despite the handicap of needing special shoes and walking with sticks, her grandmother told her she was as capable as the next.  Her father remarried, and Belle was introduced to her stepmother after the wedding with the words ‘This is your new mother’.  It wasn’t an easy relationship for any of them, with half-siblings being born, and Belle’s father eventually dying during the Second World War.

A tour of London with Belle was always interesting.  She would point out the site where her relatives had been killed by a direct hit from a German bomb – ‘poor lambs’.  She talked of how St Pancras Hospital used to be the workhouse and how she remembered the shame for families who had no choice but to go in there.  She told me that the genders were segregated with the younger children staying with their mothers, and she would watch as families were separated.   Years later, in 2007, after a stroke, she was horrified to be admitted to St Pancras Hospital.  In her head, she was in the workhouse, the building her Granny King had worked so hard to keep them from.   She used to watch the ‘posh ladies and gentlemen’ arrive at the St Pancras Hotel in their carriages (later in their cars) and dreamt of going in there and seeing ‘what all the fuss was about’.

Belle became a very able secretary.  She was very proud of her shorthand and typing skills, and specialised as a legal secretary.  She worked for various people in different firms until eventually she worked in the office of the Treasury Solicitor.  All these years on, she could still remember conversations, cases and titbits from that time, and she was still amazed that someone ‘from my background’ could have ended up with such a prestigious job.

Belle married Jack Johanson when she was 45, but she was widowed by the time we met in 1993.  I never really knew what Jack did, but I know that it was something to do with woodwork.  Jack and Belle were two of the original occupants of Mary Green, one of the council tower blocks on the St John’s Wood borders.  They were on the 19th (top) floor, and she used to jokingly refer to her home as her St John’s Wood penthouse.  The views were certainly stunning, and she enjoyed pointing out the buildings that had appeared since she first moved in.  Belle was a Londoner through and through.  She loved her native city, and enjoyed visiting new attractions, organising trips to visit Shakespeare’s Globe and Tate Modern.  She was vastly amused by the Wobbly Bridge (Millennium Bridge) and used to wonder at how many millions had to be spent to correct ‘something that the Romans knew, you know’.  And, at the last count, I believe she had been on the London Eye 8 times – she never tired of those views.

After retirement, Belle stayed busy, being an active member of the tenants’ association, St Mary’s Church (where she joined the PCC), and attending many activities at the Abbey Community Centre.  I met her at the church, after the service,  when we all gathered in the then church hall.  As I became more involved in the church, I used to go on outings with the Friendship Group and would push one of the wheelchairs, usually Belle or Ivy, and they both became friends to me.  I used to drive them in whichever Land Rover we had at the time, and it really breaks the ice when you have to push someone upwards so that they can get in!

Belle and I talked about everything and nothing, and at difficult times in my life she would listen, perhaps make a comment, then lean forward, pat my hand and say ‘It’ll be all right, Duck’.  Happily, she was always right.  We enjoyed each other’s company, and for two people who could talk for Britain, we listened and learned a lot.  We discussed such elevated subjects as the future of the Anglican Church; same-sex marriage; UK politics; and the changing shades of Britain.  Belle, of course, remembered the Windrush arriving in Britain after the War, and could judge the varying problems around the world by the nationalities who were being housed by the council in Mary Green.

After the refurbishment of Windsor Castle, Belle, Joan (her closest friend) and I went to look around the castle, and surprisingly, to me, it was Belle who knew the best pub for lunch.  For a non-drinker, she always knew where to go, and I didn’t learn this for a while.  After Joan had to go into a home, I used to make a point of visiting Belle more often, not because I’m a wonderful, selfless person, but because I really liked seeing her.  It was rare to find her on her own though.  Belle had a wide group of friends and family who visited her regularly.  She was a skilled needlewoman and used to host classes in her flat – samples of her work were framed and on the wall.

Belle was mugged more than anyone else I’ve met.  I suspect that muggers saw the cane and club feet, and saw an easy target.  The last time, she was attacked and brought to the floor in the lift lobby of her building.  She fought and fought, holding on tight to her handbag, but then looked at her mugger.  She realised the boy was about 12, and stopped struggling.  When I asked why, she said that realised that his life was over already and he was so young.  She gave him her bag, he ran off, and she managed to get up.

One of her cousins decided to give away her money before she died and gave Belle a sum with the instructions to ‘spend it on herself’.  We talked about this a great deal.  Belle found it very hard to spend such a sum on herself, but her cousin had said that she wanted to know how Belle spent it, so she had to comply.  Eventually Belle confided that she had always wanted an Aquascutum raincoat, so would I mind going to Regent Street with her?  I have to admit that it went against every fibre of her being to spend so much on a raincoat, but she was very mindful of her cousin’s instruction.  She loved trying on the different coats, eventually choosing one that needed an alteration which could be done in a couple of hours.  So we went to a pub she knew for lunch (of course) and laughed and talked as always.  She had also said that she wanted to buy a new gold chain for a locket that Jack had given to her, but on several occasions when I mentioned sorting that out she always had a good excuse for not doing it.  I suspect she gave some of the money away, and I know that she paid for her funeral in full using that money.  She felt quite pleased that she had done something useful but yet complied with her cousin’s wishes.  I sometimes wonder how long it took her to think of that – something that ultimately helped her family, but was technically for her?  Still she wore that coat with joy, and it saddened me as she was losing weight in the past two or three years that the coat was falling off her.

When we moved to New York City, I knew that it was very unlikely that she would still be around when we moved back to London.  I made Fr Andrew promise to keep me up to date with regard to her health, and saw her almost every time I went back.  We tried to Skype but it wasn’t very successful even though Andrew tried to sort it out for her.  Sometimes I would call but she didn’t hear very well.  We had started a tradition of seeing her on Christmas Eve, and celebrating her birthday together.  For Christmas 2011, when she was still relatively mobile, Andrew, Hallie and I took her to a restaurant in the St Pancras Hotel.  It had been renovated and she was thrilled to finally see what was inside.  It was a delight to see her face as we walked in.  She even allowed herself to be sung to as the waiter brought her a birthday dessert, but sometimes she was still that little girl who wasn’t sure that she should be in such places.

Belle’s health started to deteriorate after a stroke at the end of 2006.  She was supposed to have been on a train to Birmingham to visit her sister, but never arrived.  Poor Fr Andrew had to get in to her flat where he found her lying on the bathroom floor, where she’d been for 24 hours.  She had kept her spirits up by singing hymns, even though she couldn’t move.  Her recovery from that stroke was not fast enough for her.  When gently reminded that she was no longer 21, she became quite grumpy with me, and called me a ‘cheeky cat’.  I had to stifle my laughter because she really was most put out with me.  Her brother, George, died before I met her, and her sister, Doris, died in about 2010.  Belle worried that she hadn’t kept her promise to her mother, that she was still alive but George and Doris weren’t.  I said that since they had both reached more than the average age, I thought she really had kept her promise, but I’m not sure Belle was convinced..

I last saw her on her 95th birthday, Christmas Eve 2014.  She was definitely looking frailer but her brain and wit were as entertaining as ever.  In the past year, every time I’ve seen her, I’ve said a particular goodbye to her in my head, thinking that it might be the last time, and this was no different.  Belle always told me that she loved me, and that she missed me.  I knew from Fr Andrew that her health had worsened after Christmas, but I had still hoped that I’d see her at Easter.  However, Belle died on 5th March.  She had had a massive stroke nine days before and was given the Last Rites almost immediately.  Tough as she was, she lived on till the 5th, dying very peacefully while holding her sister, Margaret’s, hand.

Since then, I’ve thought of Belle a lot and what I learned from her and how grateful I am to have known her.  Because of the intent of this blog, I’ve also been trying to think of a fitting recipe to honour Belle, but when I think of food and Belle, I think of roast dinners; Cadbury’s Dairy Milk (because that was what she always took to the Friendship Group for the raffle); and tinned vegetables (because ‘they’re easier, Duck, when you’re on your own’).  Belle loved and cooked traditional British food, using up leftovers and never wasting anything.  Growing up in poverty and living through the war created a mentality that we will never understand.  She enjoyed baking and made a marvellous bread pudding, but that recipe is in London.  So I am just going to tell you how I roast a side of salmon.  I always try to cook a light meal on Christmas Eve, but something special, and I know I cooked this for Belle for one of her birthday dinners.  She had rarely had fresh salmon and we discussed how salmon had been very expensive till relatively recently, but the advent of fish farming had made it available to everyone.  95 years old – fish farming was undoubtedly the least of the changes she saw in her lifetime.  I’m not sure any recipe is a fitting tribute to Belle, but there has to be a tribute.  Thank you, Belle, for listening to me and telling me it would be alright.  It was.  And it is.

Roast Salmon

  • Side of fresh salmon with skin on – remove any bones
  • multi-coloured peppercorns

Pre-heat the oven to its hottest setting.

Line a roasting pan with foil.  Place the salmon on the foil, skin side down.

Grind pepper all over – make it look pretty.

Put in the oven.  Turn the oven off after 5 mins and leave the salmon in for another 10 mins.  Remove.



I am a bit late in writing this blog.  Life has been complicated recently by Auntie Aileen in Edinburgh, and Suzy and I have spent a lot of time worrying how it will pan out, and doing whatever is necessary.  It now appears that events are overtaking Suzy and me, and that Auntie Aileen will be moving permanently into a home, undoubtably a home that neither Suzy nor I will have had the chance to look over first.  When you weigh this against the situation Auntie Aileen finds herself in – extremely lonely and unable to leave her flat – it is obvious which is more important.  So as Suzy and I comfort ourselves with the fact that we will find another home if it doesn’t work out, please forgive my tardiness.

I always looked forward to Shrove Tuesday as a child.  Not for the eating of the pancakes per se but for the annual attempts by various people to toss the pancakes.  There were always tremendous cheers as someone succeeded or groans at failures.  Despite this fun, I have never been a huge fan of the traditional English pancake with lemon juice and sugar, and so it was wonderful when I realised that you could put other things on them, like bacon, and cheese, and more bacon if necessary.

I wanted to make pancakes on Tuesday but I didn’t want the traditional wheat flour ones.  For some reason I wanted oatmeal pancakes.  Maybe it was because I had so enjoyed making and eating the oatcakes?  I don’t know but nothing else would do.  As before, I opened The Scots Kitchen by F Marian McNeill where I was disconcerted to find a recipe which began ‘Boil a chopin of milk and blend it in a mutchkin of the flour of the oatmeal thus …’  Even notes which explained that a chopin equals a quart and a mutchkin a pint didn’t inspire me with confidence, and that was before I realised that this would make far more pancakes than I could eat on my own.  So I did some calculations and this is the recipe I made – not quite as F Marian McNeill describes but oh my they tasted good.

Oatmeal Pancakes – Ingredients

Makes 4

  • 180 g rolled oats
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 300 ml milk
  • 1 egg, at room temperature
  • 1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • nutmeg
  • grated rind of half a lemon


Heat the milk, and add to the oatmeal a little at a time until it is thick.  Add the salt.  Set aside.  Beat the egg with a pinch of nutmeg and the lemon rind.

When the oat mix is cool, add the bicarb.  Stir well.  Add the egg mixture.  Leave to stand for at least two hours.

Lightly butter a flat griddle pan, and ladle four equal amounts onto it.  Cook over a medium heat.


Just before I turned them

I ate them with a bit of unsalted butter – I had wanted honey but we didn’t have any, and I wanted something more British than maple syrup.  F Marian McNeill suggests beating together butter, sugar and orange for the top which sounds scrummy.


Just before I transferred the pancakes to the plate.




Needs Must When The De’il Drives

I am the first to admit, and I know I’ve written before, that I often found it difficult cooking for you boys when you were young and awkward.  (Though, in fairness to Andrew, I have to say that he was never as difficult as a child as the rest of you.)  There was no fun in creating something that I thought was delicious and tempting, only for it to be pushed away, mouths closed determinedly and heads shaken in disgust.  It was particularly irritating when this happened with a dish that had been enjoyed on a previous occasion.  We reached a sort of modus operandi when I agreed not to try and poison you with things you truly hated and you agreed to properly try what I’d made.  From my point of view, though, life improved quite dramatically when you started going on play dates.  It seems that peer pressure is what pushed you all into eating a wider choice of food.

The quid pro quo of you going on play dates was that we had your friends coming to the house.  Some of them were nothing like as willing to try my cooking as you were prepared to try their mothers’ food, and there were also some rather demanding mothers.   I will never forget those who couldn’t eat anything without it being smothered in ketchup, and the mother who blamed me for not having any; the mothers who wanted their children to only have organic food; and the boy who only ate plain boiled rice in Wagamama’s – these are particular standouts.  I was never as bothered by friends who had genuine food requirements – varying levels of Kosher adherence; nut allergies; or genuine dislikes of which I was forewarned.

The final turning point in your eating habits was a proposed trip to Hong Kong in 1999.  We were all invited to Uncle Steve’s 40th birthday bash, but Dad and I explained to you that one of the great joys of Hong Kong was the food, and that we just weren’t comfortable taking you when you were quite restricted in your choices.  The carrot of a trip to Hong Kong turned it all around, and I don’t honestly think we have looked back since.  I have always known that no-one eats absolutely everything, but my hope was that we would be able to travel and go into any restaurant and find something that any one of you would eat and enjoy.  I believe we’ve achieved that.

Now as I get older, I find increasingly that it is rare to have people to dinner who don’t have some kind of food request.  Some of these are medical requirements, some religious, some feel better for avoiding something, some are pescatarian or vegetarian.  Unless there are many varying requirements at the same meal, I must say that I quite enjoy the challenge.  Last Sunday, we had friends over, one of whom cannot tolerate wheat, not just the gluten, all wheat.  The starter was simple, spicy tomato soup; the main course was a roast; and for dessert we decided on cheese (because Dad tries to avoid carbs …).  I wanted to serve oat cakes with the cheese, but Whole Foods didn’t have any.  So I decided to make them.  I haven’t done this for some years, but I knew it wasn’t difficult.  I knew that my trusty The Scots Kitchen by F Marian McNeill would have the recipe, as indeed it did.  However, that recipe was imprecise even for me, the queen of imprecise recipes.  I remembered that there had only been five ingredients – oats, salt, fat/butter, baking soda and water – but I didn’t remember the proportions.   Much searching of the internet, and much rejection of recipes that I felt were too complicated or inauthentic, but eventually I combined a couple and made the following.  I thought they tasted good.  They could perhaps have been cooked for slightly longer in the oven so that they were dryer and browned, but all in all I was pleased.

Oatcakes – Ingredients

Makes 20

  • 125 g / 4 oz rolled oats
  • 125 g / 4 oz pinhead oatmeal (steel cut oats in the US)
  • 125 g / 4 oz oat flour (which I didn’t have so I blended 125 g of rolled oats until it looked flour-like) plus extra for rolling
  • 60 g / 2 oz butter (I used unsalted as I always do), melted
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 tsp / 5 mg baking soda
  • hot water


Heat the oven to 150 C / 300 F.

I used a mixer for this once I had mixed the oats.


Rolled oats

Mix the oats, salt and baking powder in a mixing bowl.  Add the butter and mix well.  Add 4 tbsp of hot water and mix well.  The aim is to have a mixture which is not too wet and which sticks together as a lump, so add more hot water, a tablespoonful at a time, until you have the desired consistency.

Sprinkle some of the oat flour on the counter, and roll until it is about 5 mm / 1/4 inch thick.  All the recipes I read warned about the mixture sticking to the rolling pin, but this didn’t happen.  I suspect that my mixture was slightly too dry.  The cutter I used was about 6 cm in diameter.


Cutting out


I then placed them on my pizza stone, put them in the oven and cooked for about 40 minutes which is way longer than any of the recipes said.  Nor did they brown particularly.


Just about to go into the oven


An alternative is to cook on a flat griddle.  I thought about this, since it is more traditional, but decided against because we have a very sensitive smoke alarm!


Ready to be served

If you want to add herbs, only use dried herbs because fresh will burn.  Hard cheese such as Cheddar or Parmesan can also be added.

I will definitely be making these again.  I was really pleased with the result.



Beef Up

I have many friends who are vegetarian or pescatarian, and I respect their views.  There have been phases in my life where I haven’t eaten meat.  I thought that a non-meat diet was healthier and I worried about the future of the planet.  My problem is that I enjoy the taste of meat, and I cannot imagine a permanent future without smoked back bacon.  Over time, however, for health and planetary reasons, I have cut down the amount of red meat that I eat, and I prefer to eat organic meat, if possible.

There was a time not so long ago when every restaurant in London had lamb shanks on the menu – slowly cooked meat that fell from the bone, with a gravy enriched by the marrow.   They were almost always delicious, but I never cooked them at home.  However, I recently saw beef shanks for sale in Whole Foods.  Now obviously cattle have much larger feet than sheep and so the shanks had been sawn into slices.   They were very reasonably priced and so I bought three.   I cooked them last Sunday, and Dad and I differ about our views as to how successful they were.  We both enjoyed eating them, but I felt that they were a lot of effort for the taste; Dad felt that though they were reasonably priced, boneless short ribs of beef are the same price and again much less effort to prepare.  We are undecided as to whether we would make them again, because we were hampered by not having a large enough pan.  When we moved here, we only bought what we thought we would need to prepare food for the two of us and occasional visitors.  Hence we simply don’t have very large casseroles.  Beef shanks are big, and I struggled to fit them into my Le Creuset skillet.  Anyway, if you feel like doing something different, make sure that you start the process 24 hours beforehand and get your timing right!  I was inspired by a recipe by Michael Mina which I found online.

Braised Beef Shanks

(Served 3)


  • A bottle of rich red wine – I used a Bordeaux because I wanted a really big red, and because we had a bottle in the apartment
  • 3 beef shanks
  • 4 cloves of Elephant Garlic, crushed – 8-10 cloves of ordinary garlic
  • 2 celery stick, sliced
  • 2 carrots, peeled and sliced
  • 1 medium onion, sliced
  • 3 sprigs of rosemary
  • 5 bay leaves – I used some dried bay leaves which I bought in the Caribbean.  They have a slightly aniseed flavour and are much smaller than usual.  I used them because I didn’t have any others.  I would use two ordinary bay leaves
  • Oil
  • 2 tbsps tomato paste
  • Beef stock
  • Salt and pepper


Put all the ingredients except for the tomato, paste oil and stock into a large bowl.  Mix well, cover and put in the fridge for 24 hours.


Waiting to go into the fridge.

Pre-heat the oven to 150 C / 300 F.

Remove the bowl from the fridge and remove the shanks.  Pat them dry, and season generously with salt and pepper.  Strain the liquid and leave the vegetables in the colander or sieve so that as much liquid comes from them as possible.

Heat half the oil and brown the shanks for about 10 minutes on either side.  Put into a lidded casserole/skillet.

Heat the remainder of the oil and soften the vegetables.  Do not allow to brown.  Add the tomato paste and cook for a further two mins.  Put the vegetables on top of the beef shanks.

Pour the wine from the marinade on top, and add as much beef stock as you have room for (this was my problem).  Bring to the boil.  Put on the lid, and put into the oven.

Cook for 2.5 hours.  Remove the lid and continue to cook for a further 30 mins.

This is the part that I honestly don’t think was worth it.  If I cook beef shanks again, I will simply remove the shanks to heated dish, and then bring the remaining liquid to the boil and reduce to about half.  Skim off the fat (of which there is a lot).  I would have preferred to use a richer beef stock, like the Knorr Stock Pots I mentioned a couple of recipes ago.

What the recipe said to do was to put the liquid through a sieve, pushing through as many of the vegetables as you can.  Bring to the boil and reduce by half.  Skim off the fat.  Adjust the seasoning if necessary.  Serve.

I felt that the dish was very brown and I would have preferred some colour.  We served them with roast Brussels Sprouts (toss the Brussels Sprouts in salt and olive oil – put into a pan and then roast – simple and so tasty) but the effect was still a bit dull for me.


As served with the gorgeous roast Brussels Sprouts



Feeling Flat

I’m in New York City, it’s January, and it is of course cold.  The Accuweather app on my phone tells me that it is going to start snowing in 12 mins which seems astonishly accurate (which is, I suppose, why it’s called Accuweather – hang around and I’ll tell you if it’s right).  I was in Edinburgh last week where it was a balmy 8º C.  Since it had been well and truly in the minuses over here, I felt quite warm.  Some of you know that I was there to visit my aunt, Aileen, who had a stroke in October and has now returned home.  She will be there until Suzy and I have sorted out everything necessary for her to move into a home.  She’s lived in her flat since she was 7 – 81 years.  It will undoubtedly be a wrench for her to leave her home, where her mother too was brought up from the age of 2.

The stories about that flat are legion.  As you enter the door and walk up to the flat, you’ll notice that there are brass nodules set into the bannister.  These were put in by my great-grandfather, John Mackay, to stop my grandmother from sliding down the bannister.  Since there is a drop of two stories to stone slabs, Nana was braver than I, I tell you.  Nana used to be able to throw a ball over the building (three stories) from the street onto the grass behind, much to the irritation of her twin brother, Angus, and Albert, my grandfather, who could never do it.  Dad swore to me that he saw her do this once, in 1938 when Angus had returned from South Africa for a visit.  The flat was bought in the late 1880s by John Mackay (Grandpa Mackay) and, apart from a period when it was commercially let after Grandpa moved to Friockheim in Angus, and Nana and my Papa were living in Arbroath, it was essentially occupied by Nana, Papa, my Dad and Auntie Aileen.  Various other family members came and went, but Auntie Aileen was always there after 1933.

Nana’s mother died when she was two, and she and her elder sister, Peggy, and Angus were brought up by two spinster aunts, Auntie Katie and Auntie Aggie, sisters of Grandpa Mackay.  Nana met my Papa not long after the Moyes family went to Edinburgh from India, I believe at college, and they wrote to each other during World War I when he was stationed in France.  Papa enlisted in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders but when it was discovered that he spoke fluent Urdu, he was sent for officers’ training.  The war, of course, ended in November 1918, and Papa immediately applied to be demobbed.  He was back in Edinburgh by the beginning of 1919.  He felt he was too old to go back to school, but sat the Civil Service exams.  Auntie Aileen told me proudly last week that thousands of people sat these exams, but that only the top ones were accepted into the Inland Revenue.  Papa went to work for the Inland Revenue.  He married Nana in 1922 and they lived in Arbroath until 1933 when he was posted to Edinburgh, and they returned to Nana’s childhood home.  Initially, renting it from Grandpa Mackay, but after his death in 1949, they bought out Nana’s other siblings’ interests and it was truly their home.

Auntie Aileen told me that she has always slept in the small bedroom.  She was supposed to share the front bedroom with my Dad, but she was scared because she was too far away from her parents.  She said that people have asked her why she doesn’t move into the large back bedroom, but says she could never sleep in her parents’ room.  (By the way, it hasn’t started snowing – should I delete the app?)  During the war, Dad slept in the box room/junk room (always called the Glory Hole).  Even though Suzy and I sorted out some of the stuff last year, there certainly isn’t room for a single bed in there any more.  Auntie Aileen also told me that there used to be a quarter-sized billiard table in the dining room – a proper slate one – and that the family hid beneath this during bombings.  I know that my Papa offered that billiard table to my Dad (after Dad had moved to England) and Dad told me that he’d always wished that they’d had room to take it.

My memories inevitably include food and I was thinking of the milk lollies that Nana used to make ( and of her plastic strawberry.  I was also remembering a lunch in Edinburgh where we all sat around the dining table, and Auntie Aileen gave us each our own cruet set.  Mine was a couple of squirrels, and was definitely my favourite.  Some years ago, Auntie Aileen gave me that cruet set and I was thrilled to pieces.  The thing I didn’t remember correctly though was the size of the table – I truly believed that it was a 12-seater.  When we cleared all the bags and stuff, there was a very ordinary 6-8 seater.  I must have been much smaller then.  We all have memories of playing Rocket Ship, a bagatelle game that took the place of a television.  I can honestly say that I don’t miss having a television when I’m there, but golly this time I missed wifi.  Every time I go, I find a new and interesting book that I haven’t seen before, and the china cabinet contains such treasures as decorations from Grandma and your Papa’s wedding cake, African bead work and Indian silver.

And now the flat is going to be sold.  Doubtless it will be described as being full of period detail, a doer-upper, and in need of some attention.  Suzy and I will have to sort out the contents.  We will have to open those cupboards, drawers and presses that we ignored during the big clear out of last year.  I know there will be some tears, a lot of laughs and probably some astonishment that Auntie Aileen has hung onto something for so long.  What can’t be taken away are our memories.  So if anyone of my family would like to come up to Edinburgh to help with this mammoth task, we can guarantee some good food, some whisky and a heap of ‘Oh my goodnesses’ and ‘Oh heavens, I remembers’, let me know.  Suzy and I will supply the tissues.

As I said, it’s cold, I’m clearly feeling sad, so what did I cook the other day?  Soup, I hear you chorus.  Indeed – you know me well.  I found a head of something called Elephant Garlic in the fridge and see below for why it is called this.  Does what it says on the tin!  I also had a basil plant, some rosemary and a tin of tomatoes so I created Basil and Rosemary Tomato Soup.  I was very pleased with it – Dad was very complimentary and it will be made again.

Two elephant garlic cloves alongside a whole head of normal garlic

Basil and Rosemary Tomato Soup

(Serves 4)


  • Oil – I used ordinary olive oil
  • A medium onion, sliced
  • One clove of elephant garlic, crushed and sliced – probably two cloves of ordinary garlic
  • Two stick of celery sliced with the celery leaves
  • One large tin of tomatoes (approx. 800 g)
  • 10 fresh basil leaves, shredded
  • Two sprigs of rosemary with the leaves taken off and chopped
  • Vegetable stock

The ingredients, except for the tomatoes, of course!


Heat the oil over a medium heat in a saucepan.  Add the garlic.  Do not allow to burn.  Add the onion and the celery, and soften.

Add the tomatoes and the herbs.  Add about 450 ml / 20 fl oz of vegetable stock.  Bring to the boil.  Cover and simmer.

After about 20 minutes, blend or liquidise the soup.  Check the seasoning.  Serve with a couple of basil leaves.