Thursday, 18 August 2011

Mackerel, gooseberries, and nostalgia

This dish will always hold a special place in my heart. Not because mackerel is my favourite fish and I'm rather fond of gooseberries, though this is true, but because it was the last dish I ever cooked in my Oxford kitchen.

Those who ever spent time with me in said kitchen will know that it was the subject of numerous rants and tirades. There was the perpetual problem of people using my utensils and not washing them up. There was the horrible fridge that every now and then decided to leak stagnant water. There was the housemate who left the freezer open overnight and lost me my hoard of prized ingredients. There was the cleaner who threw out my silicon baking parchment. There was the issue of having only two square feet of worktop space in the entire kitchen. There was the inexplicable locked filing cabinet in the corner taking up potential worktop space.

Yet despite all that, I became attached to that kitchen. Unfortunately, as so often in life, I didn't realise quite how much until I had to leave.

When I think back, I don't remember the open freezer or the stagnant fridge. Well, except I obviously do, as I mentioned them above. But what stands out in my mind far more than the minor issues are all the times I spent huddled around the horrible grey plastic table with all of my friends. Friends who often had to sit on upturned bins because of the lack of chairs. Friends who would hold washing up contests once dinner was over, which invariably made the washing up take three times as long but were worth it for the sheer amusement value. Friends who would usually bring far too much wine. Friends who, when the fridge did have one of its tantrums, helped me bail out the pools of stagnant water in the bottom using a mug. Friends who would always act as if me cooking for them was some kind of immense sacrifice, as if I saw myself as some kind of kitchen martyr, when really I felt like they were doing me a favour by allowing me to use them as guinea pigs for my culinary experiments.

Friends who I miss more than I can possibly say right now.

I don't usually go in for sentimental blog posts. In fact, they're one of my pet hates - food blogs should be about food. But right now the alternative to writing one is sitting on my bedroom floor nursing a long-cold cup of tea that I've been too busy sobbing to finish, while listening to Adele on repeat, curled up in a foetal position hugging a cushion.

I always knew it was going to be difficult, finally moving out after four years at university in Oxford. I've come home for the holidays, but I've always known I'd be going back for another term or another year. This time, I was leaving for good. Without funding it would be ridiculous to stay on for a PhD. I'd been escaping those terrifying thoughts about my future by just doing another degree, and the prospect of them all catching up with me was not one I relished. I lingered in Oxford for as long as I could after handing in my dissertation, saying multiple goodbyes as all my friends gradually dwindled away and there was no one left to cook for. I knew then that it was finally time to leave, and had a truly awful day of packing up the entire material contents of my life into bin bags and boxes, punctuated with frequent bouts of weeping at mundane objects and a bewilderment at how I'd managed to accumulate so much stuff.

For the last few weeks it's been nice to have a bit of a break, although I feel like I haven't actually had a break at all, instead running manically around London trying in vain to kick-start my career as a food writer, or teaching creative writing to GCSE and A-level students. I've been so busy that I haven't really had time to think about the lack of Oxford in my life, instead occupying myself with finally unpacking the last of my belongings and finding a place for them in my (much smaller) bedroom in Cambridge.

So I don't know why I suddenly feel completely engulfed by a crushing sense of loneliness.

I miss Oxford. Horribly. Not so much the beautiful surroundings, as I'm fairly spoilt by those too here in Cambridge. I miss all the good restaurants and the markets - you just can't compare Cambridge's humble offerings; its fishmonger is more expensive and it only has one butcher instead of four. I miss the iconic Radcliffe Camera and the musty Lower Reading Room of the Bodleian Library that always smelled inexplicably of cumin. I miss walking in the beautiful Christ Church meadows in all weathers, my favourite time being spring when the snowdrops start to appear followed closely by tiny little ducklings. I miss donning my sweeping black gown and striding across the streets for dinner, sleeves billowing in the wind making me feel like batwoman. I miss sitting on the stone table at Merton surveying the acres of meadow and garden surrounding me and feeling a pleasant sense of detached contentment. I miss my short-cut through the famous Turf Tavern, with its chalkboard sign appearing during exam season reading "FINALISTS: PLEASE REMOVE ALL GLITTER, FLOUR ETC. BEFORE ENTERING". I even miss the rotten eggs and mouldering sardines stuck between the cobbles on Magpie Lane that meant trashing time was in full swing, and I never thought I'd hear myself say that.

I miss my lovely room which, again, I used to complain about all the time (no natural light right underneath noisy housemate on ground floor so people can break in ethernet socket in the wrong place tiny windows grrrrr) but I secretly loved and cherished, having made it my own with the numerous accoutrements I brought back from the Middle East; a place where I felt truly at home and content, a place which was all mine and which I loved sharing with everyone I knew, a place with its own bathroom and power shower that I don't think I ever fully appreciated, seeing as I took most of my showers at the swimming pool or gym, but which many people were envious of (en suites are rare enough, but an en suite with a shower instead of a bath is like the Holy Grail of student accommodation).

But more than anything, I miss having all my friends no more than a fifteen-minute walk away. I miss being able to send round endless Facebook messages simply entitled "Dinner?" to a handful of people who I'd then spend a manic afternoon and evening cooking for. I miss going for tea and scones at the Rose with the girls from my Dickens course. I miss dinner and Disney evenings with some of my Navy friends. I miss garden parties on the lawns at Merton with the friends I've known since my very first few weeks in Oxford, most of whom fled abroad during their third years and left me initially rather desolate. I miss receiving texts simply saying "Pub?" and five minutes later being surrounded by my friends and wine. I miss formal hall in college, gossiping over bowls of generic "Merton soup" and slightly shrivelled-looking dinners. I miss the company of all my friends in the University Royal Naval Unit; the tedious-but-fun drill nights, the stupidly cheap bar, challenging but amusing weekends on HMS Tracker, the raucous and wine-filled mess dinners, the countless gatherings over food at my house, usually culminating in cups of tea on the floor of my room (we know how to party). I miss all the new friends I've made since I started at Oxford, and the old friends who I went to school with and who also ended up at Oxford.

Because this is me, a lot of these memories are articulated through food. I remember the disastrous evening where I cooked pasta with cheese followed by cheesecake to a friend who only afterwards admitted she didn't like cheese. I remember the gorgeous, enormous joint of beef topside that I had such high hopes for and that my mad oven frazzled to a well-done crisp, leaving me almost in tears, but which all my friends reassured me was delicious and thereby prevented an outbreak of chef-meltdown. I remember the homemade Middle Eastern cheese that a friend described as "rotted bovine lactation". I remember the confit garlic bread that I had to smack people's hands away from until the accompanying main course was ready (I knew I shouldn't have put it on the table). I remember my attempts to make a chocolate sauce by adding hot water to chocolate, and the resulting mess that a friend of mine somehow managed to salvage by stirring it continuously until it turned into crunchy nuggets of sugary goodness that then adorned some delicious chocolate and pear pancakes.

I remember the heart-shaped pavlova that was shared with friends in an attempt to cheer myself up during my boyfriend's absence on Valentine's Day. The chai tea ice cream that no one could guess the flavour of. The ragu of hare that boiled over while I was in the gym leaving a bloody mess all over my induction hob and a highly stressed cook. The trip to Moya where a friend of mine ordered a fishcake starter instead of a dessert, much to our (and the waitress's) amusement. My twenty-second birthday, where a friend of mine proudly presented me with a whole tray of chocolate brownie, with candles on and everything. The vat of beef goulash I made to feed many hungry Navy mouths and which went down a treat compared to the usual drill night fare of flaccid burgers and anaemic oven chips. The testing and often hilarious time spent catering for said Navy mouths for two weeks on HMS Tracker as we broke down in various locations along the coast from Portugal to Dartmouth (carbonara a highlight, rather rubbery pear and chocolate pudding a low point). The numerous texts inviting friends over for yet another freshly-baked banana cake because I'd carelessly let the bananas in my fruit bowl turn black. The phase where anyone invited for dinner would get nothing but variations on lamb tagine and mounds of couscous. The time my friend was sick after her starter at Christ Church formal hall, which pretty much summed up the quality of the food there, and - conversely - the amazing dinners I've had at many other colleges courtesy of my friends there.

I consider myself incredibly lucky to have made so many wonderful friends during my time at university. I'm finding it very hard, if I'm honest, being back here in Cambridge, without the ability to summon them all to my house for dinner at the click of a mouse. Getting everyone together in one place is proving tricky, and I feel a bit like I'm wasting away, pining into nothingness without the constant flow of social interaction that used to characterise my time in Oxford. I worry that I will lose touch with people that I don't want to lose touch with, that everyone will go their separate ways and it will be years before we all meet up again, if ever. I guess this is only natural, this is how everyone feels after leaving university, that horrible sense of being completely lost and adrift on the sea of "adult life", and the hideous loneliness that invariably accompanies it. But it doesn't make it any easier.

As always, when something is amiss in my life, I try to distract myself with cooking. It's just not quite as rewarding without such great people to share it with. This mackerel recipe is a pretty good one to represent everything that's going on in my head right now. Its deliciousness lies in the sauce, a beautiful harmony of the bitter and the sweet. I imagine it is exactly what nostalgia would taste like.

Thank you to all of my wonderful, wonderful friends. I miss you more than even the many words of this unusually sentimental blog post can say.

Mackerel with gooseberries (serves 2):

Two mackerel, filleted
250g gooseberries, topped and tailed
2 tsp creamed horseradish
Caster sugar
Salt and pepper
Olive oil

First, make the gooseberry sauce. Place the gooseberries in a pan with a splash of water and heat until the skins burst and they start to break down. Bubble away until you have a fairly thick sauce (but add a little more water if it dries out), then season and stir in the horseradish and some caster sugar, a teaspoon at a time - keep tasting until you have a sauce that is still fairly tart but not unpleasantly so.

Slash the mackerel fillets three or four times on the skin side and season well with salt and pepper. Heat a little oil in a non-stick frying pan and fry the fillets, skin side first, for a couple of minutes on each side until the flesh is opaque and flakes easily and the skin is nicely crispy.

Serve with the gooseberry sauce and some new potatoes or wild rice.

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  1. Your mackreel dish looks wonderfull.I love it smoked;)
    Ah we all make friends we than miss for a while and some of them cross our pads when we least expect it;)

  2. Beautiful post Elly. Once again I'm amazed that you could fit so much into your days what with classes, studying, gym, swimming, cooking and seeing all your friends! Did you manage to sleep at all? I guess what I'm saying is that I'm bloody impressed! I know it's not much comfort right now but all the memories will stay with you forever no matter what, no matter where you go from now on or who you cook for and nothing will take that away from you. x

  3. oh and also, something really random but looks like your room was pretty big!

  4. It was pretty big, for a student room. I loved it. I miss it :(

    I did actually sleep quite a lot. I had quite a boring existence to be honest, it sounds much more exciting when you say it! x


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