As with many keepers of young children, the summer has been an all-encompassing time. It’s also been a time for metamorphosis; and whilst I watch the children grow, I’ve taken on such glamourous roles as ‘the human train’ and ‘the human trampoline’. The Mother-in-Law – that all-powerful bringer of change – has decided, after all, that moving is off the menu. Hurrah! We are staying put. For the time being. Inside, I am jumping up and down with joy, as the children jump up and down on my spine.
Not selling the house means that I can happily continue writing about living here. (The idea for my next project, www.notlivingwiththemotherinlaw.com, somehow didn’t quite have the same ring to it, and was bereft of characters.) Sadly for The Husband, it means having to endure more discussions between The Mother-in-Law and I about underwear. (Yes, there have been more. Many more.) Clearly 2014 is the Year of the Bra.
However, all talk about undergarments faded into an acceptable distance when, last night, I briefly joined The Mother-in-Law and her friend in the living room for a colourful discussion about making babies. Specifically, how to make what sort of baby (girl or boy), in what sort of position, and with what sort of, shall we say, crescendo.
It was, actually, a fascinating insight into some of the theories practiced by couples trying to conceive in the 1970s, as promoted by the American biologist, Dr Landrum B. Shettles. It felt like one of those ‘Red Tent‘ oral history – or, rather, ‘herstory’ – moments that the feminist proponents of a return to ‘natural’ birth claim that our patriarchally- and industrially-managed birthing culture has almost succeeded in wiping off the face of our vaginas.
Unbeknown to The Mother-in-Law, her friend and I, The Husband was sitting next door trying to do some work. And by the time his mother mentioned ‘deeper penetration’, it was too late to shut the door.
The living room – now to be known as the birthing room? (and funnily enough, I did give birth to Roo in that very room) – looks out onto the conservatory. From May onwards, this glass-walled place becomes an enchanting indoor Mediterranean woodland (if you ignore the box of smelly wellies and muddy footballs, and the ashtray loaded with fag ends from our occasional cheeky evening snout with The Lodgers), complete with early-flowering jasmine and a gnarled twisting grape vine. Roots firmly grounded in the earth outside, the vine squeezes its way into the conservatory through a whole in the brickwork, before spreading its arms, which are now laden with velveteen bunches of grapes the shape – and I quote my Roo – of “balloons”.
It’s quite something to pluck your own grapes from a room in your home, especially whilst standing precariously on the top rung of a ladder whilst your 2 year-old son holds the bottom and looks up at you with a lobus face. And then, when you descend and taste the first fruits of the year – and your son can’t stop eating them – you realise why the Romans leant with regal delight in all those friezes; a really good grape tastes like heaven.
Don’t get me wrong, grapes are generally fine wherever purchased – and I remember buying box-fulls of delectable jewel-like green Iranian grapes shipped into the Turkish stores of Stoke Newington when we lived in London – but there’s something untouchable about grapes grown at home, with their thick flavourful skins, plump fruity flesh, and little pips. Yes, PIPS: the bane of supermarket buyers and mass-producers of the fine-skinned, seedless, generically boring-flavoured-grape. Did you know pips and thick skins mean tastier fruit? Here at The Mother-in-Law’s, I’ve learnt to either ignore the pips and wash them down with some fantastic cheese, or spit them out like a real, double-hard grape-eater.
We’ve been picking our grapes for the past week – can somebody please tell me what sort they are from this picture? – and today I used some lovely ripe ones in a dish that took minutes to make and serve, and is utterly beautiful in its summery simplicity. Poached in sherry, the grapes are served with ricotta, honey, almonds and chocolate, which together look so elegant that your fellow diners might wonder if you’d sketched the dish out a thousand-and-one times to get it just so when, really, it’s just a blob of creamy cheese with some boozy fruit, and a selection of well-versed toppings.
The semi-sharp, sherry-infused grapes hug the sweet creaminess of the ricotta in a way that the ubiquitous, upmarket and unFrench brie and grape sandwich works. The almond is a faithful companion to the grape too, and if you examine the legacy of the relationship you’ll unearth the Italian biscotti or Jewish mandelbrot (a twice-baked, tooth-breakingly-hard but delicious biscuit made with whole and ground almonds that is traditionally served with sweet, fortified dessert wine), and ajo blanco (Spain’s famous cold almond soup, which has grapes bobbing in its waters like a synchronised team of black- and green-hatted swimmers).
Chocolate too is a great friend to the grape, as explored by My Hero Claudia Roden in her book, ‘The Food of Spain’. In it she published a recipe from the Rioja region – Partridge with Grapes and Chocolate – upon which she writes that the “the amount of chocolate in the sauce should be so small that you hardly detect it”. My inspiration was more ‘chocolate raisins’ but when using good quality dark stuff, its best to err on the side of caution and not channel one’s childhood taste bud memories from the ‘Pick n’ Mix’ aisle at Woolworths.
I handed The Mother-in-Law a plate of this at lunch today and she said she really liked the cherries (CHERRIES!) but admitted she’d rather ice-cream instead of the cheese. I’m not sure what she thought she was eating.
What I like most about this dish is that it celebrates some of the flavours that my family and I will encounter on our imminent backpacking adventures across Europe. Yes, from early September, The Husband and I are packing up the children and taking off for a couple of months.
Our first stop-over is with our Austrian friends, Franz and Petra, who have invited us to help during the grape harvest at their beautiful winery, Weninger, in Hungary. Later on, we will visit Lecce, in Italy, where ricotta forte is produced.
So, it is with grape pleasure (sorry) that I bid you “so long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodbye”.
The Daughter-in-Law on Tour
Serves 4. Takes about 15 minutes to prepare.
200g black grapes (the riper the better, seeds are not a problem)
50ml amontillado sherry
2 tablespoons flaked almonds
About 4-5 tablespoons ricotta
Honey for drizzling
Enough good quality dark chocolate to grate a little on each portion
Wash the grapes. Slice most of them in half, keeping some whole. If they are seeded, remove the seeds. Throw the grapes into a saucepan with the sherry.
Bring the pan to the boil and simmer for a couple of minutes, until the grapes become a little softer and a weeny bit more translucent. Don’t over-cook them – you want them to retain that gorgeous deep red colour.
Take the pan off the heat and transfer the grapes and liquid to a dish to cool.
Now toast your almonds by tossing in a dry pan over a medium-hot heat for a few minutes. Keep a watchful eye and the nuts moving, so as not to burn them.
You’re now ready to serve.
Using an ice-cream scoop – my preferred tool – or a large metal spoon, scoop a dollop of ricotta into a shallow bowl. Spoon the sherry-infused juice around the white island, followed by a healthy scattering of the grapes. Now, using a fork, drizzle some honey over the top.
Top this off with a flurry of toasted almonds and a generous helping of finely grated chocolate.