Occasionally, in my youth, I would go out in the evening, to some throbbing venue slick with other people’s sweat where the music was too loud and the lighting just the right level of dimness to enable middle-aged men to sidle up to you and ‘helpfully’ put their hands on your waist as they squeezed past. I’d dress up. There would be bright colours, sparkly jewellery and painful shoes. Sometimes I would even wear false eyelashes. Once they came unstuck mid-evening, and I spent a couple of hours chatting to people, glass of wine in hand, enveloped in the aura of my own sophistication and blissfully unaware that my spidery plastic eyelashes were hanging away from my eyelids by a strip of congealed glue. I’d drink a bit too much and end up crying on boys I fancied, then try to rectify the situation by offering the excuse that I was ‘on medication’. My girlfriends and I would go to the toilet together and gossip. I’d go to get a drink at the bar of Wetherspoons, step away to go back to my table and find my feet removed from my shoes, which were still stuck fast to the floor. There would be silly photos on Facebook the next morning, always featuring the same core components: a bottle of wine, my wide-eyed leering face next to those of my friends, too much cleavage from all of the girls involved, a wisp of fake tan here and there, a stray false eyelash or two, and probably some poor token male who had been hijacked for the purpose.
Until a couple of years ago, I’d been convinced that I’d just been doing ‘going out’ wrong – that if I pursued this noble enterprise correctly, I’d finally have fun and understand what the fuss is all about. Everyone else loves it, I told myself – look at the Facebook photos. Normal people enjoy going to dingy venues where they can’t hear themselves speak and gyrating in time to rhythmic white noise, all the while slurping sugary liquids from jam jars in an attempt to have even more fun than they already are. Normal people don’t make excuses to go to the toilet (alone), just so they can get a few minutes’ respite from the incessant noise and the incredible FUN going on all around. This is normal. You are not. Keep at it, I told myself. Soon you’ll crack it.
So Halloween of my first year as a PhD student saw me throwing some shapes on a revolving dancefloor in the stickiest, sweatiest, dingiest club in York, while wearing nothing but a bright green leotard, a pair of high heels and newly-dyed red hair. I kept stopping every five minutes or so to ask myself, ‘Are you having fun yet? Do you think you’ve got the hang of it?’ I didn’t realize back then that ‘fun’ is rather like passionate unconditional love, or the female orgasm: if you have to ask, you clearly haven’t had it.
I ended up slapping a boy because he attempted to touch my face. Someone spilled a pint of beer down my leotard, leaving me shivering in the utterly miserable rainy Yorkshire night. My newly-dyed hair was as dry as a haystack and sticking up at strange angles, because I’d forgotten to use the sachet of conditioner supplied in the dye kit. Touching it felt a bit like touching talcum powder. It seemed to suck all the moisture out of my fingers, like a hairy, scarlet vacuum. I don’t remember how the night ended - not because I’d been drinking, but because it was clearly so boring and tedious that I’ve blocked it from my memory.
There’s a reason a boyfriend of mine found it absolutely hilarious to hijack my Facebook when I wasn’t looking and ‘Like’ a page devoted to ‘Partying’, so that my network of nearest and dearest would be joyfully informed in their news feed that ‘Elly McCausland likes Partying’. I have a lot of likes, loves and hobbies, and ‘partying’ (note my disdainful scare quotes) is basically the polar opposite of all of them.
Sleep? Not really compatible with partying. Cooking? Nah, the die-hard party-goer simply subsists on kebabs from vans with dubious hygiene records. Reading? Can’t do that in a club, it’s too dark, and I hear that Kindles with book-lights attached aren’t the most hip accessories for ‘partying’. Involved conversations with friends? Sure, but only if they can be delivered in shouty monosyllables over the perennial background drum & bass. Being comfortable? Partying involves ‘making an effort’ sartorially, whatever that means. I just want to wear fleecy tracksuit bottoms and a T-shirt all the time. My favourite part of a night out is coming home, uncoiling my hair, washing off all my make-up and getting into my pyjamas. I recently saw a mug in a shop window in Whitby that bore the slogan, ‘I like to party. And by party, I mean sleep’. This is basically my life. I might get it tattooed on me somewhere. Except I won’t, because tattoos are usually the preserve of people who like to ‘go out’.
I’m so glad I’ve now come to terms with the fact that this ‘going out’ lark is not for me. Instead of feeling a sense of envy or FOMO when I know friends of mine are gallivanting around the town, I snuggle blissfully into my duvet or nurse my cup of chamomile tea with a sense of deep calm and relief. I can’t think of anything worse than pretending to have a good time surrounded by noisy people, alcohol and sweat. These days, I don’t even care that my favourite things are those staples of middle-age: gardening, cooking, preserving, home improvements and crafts. I genuinely don’t. I get excited about trips to the garden centre, and enjoy ‘upcycling’. I find talking to elderly people quite interesting, and I get a thrill out of buying a new bird feeder or attachment for my garden hose. Yes, I’ve proclaimed it on the internet for all to see. Can you feel my lack of shame, radiating from the computer?
The sense of satisfaction I got last week when I harvested a whole bowl full of gooseberries from the bushes in my garden probably outweighed the entire hedonistic joy emanating from Glastonbury Festival, in full swing at the same time as me putting on my Crocs to go out to the vegetable patch. No legal or illegal high can match the sheer ecstasy of the home-grower, whose hard work has literally come to fruition in a blaze of jade-green, furry glory.
This is a celebration of my first full harvest of home-grown gooseberries. I planted the bushes last year, and was fairly convinced they’d died over the winter, but they emerged radiant and florid from the Yorkshire chill, dangling little baubles of sour, mouth-puckering goodness. The berries are simmered with a little elderflower cordial to sweeten and perfume them, then stirred into a simple ‘custard’ made by whisking crème fraiche, cornflour, honey (Yorkshire of course), almond and vanilla extract. This is poured onto the easiest pastry crust ever – basically a biscuit dough that takes seconds to make and you just press into the tin and blind bake. It’s like a fancy French crème patisserie tart, but far easier and just as delicious. No tedious whisking or rolling pastry. The filling is thick and creamy, the pastry crunchy and biscuity, and those gooseberries strew their sharpness through every mouthful. A gorgeous, simple homage to the gooseberry. I see it as my way of congratulating them for surviving in the – frequently neglected - wilderness that is my garden.
This pretty tart filled with the fruits of one’s gardening labour: this, people, is where life’s real joy lies. You just haven’t realized it yet. One day you, too, will strip off the false eyelashes, put down the mojito in a jam jar and embrace life’s quieter, simpler pleasures. I’m sure of it.
Gooseberry, elderflower and almond custard tart (makes one 8 or 9 inch tart):
For the pastry:
- 115g unsalted butter, melted
- 40g light muscovado sugar
- ¼ tsp almond extract
- ¼ tsp vanilla extract
- ½ tsp salt
- 180g spelt flour
- 2 tbsp blanched almonds
For the filling:
- 270g gooseberries
- 2 tbsp elderflower cordial
- 200g half-fat crème fraiche
- 1 large egg
- ½ tsp vanilla extract
- ½ tsp almond extract
- 2 tbsp good quality fragrant honey
- 1.5 tbsp cornflour
- 2 tbsp demerara sugar
First, prepare the gooseberries. Top and tail them with scissors, then put in a small pan with the elderflower cordial. Heat gently until they start to bubble, then put on a lid and cook for 5 minutes until the berries have softened and released a little liquid, then take the lid off and cook for another couple of minutes, but don’t let them turn to mush. Set aside to cool.
Pre-heat the oven to 180C. In a large bowl, whisk together the butter and sugar. Add the extracts, salt and flour and mix until you get a soft dough. Grease an 8 or 9 inch loose-bottomed tart tin, then press the dough into the base and sides of the tin with the back of a spoon to form an even layer. Bake for 15 minutes, until golden.
In a small food processor, blitz the almonds to fine crumbs. Scatter across the base of the tart case once it’s baked. In a bowl, whisk together the crème fraiche, egg, vanilla, almond extract, honey and cornflour. Pour into the pastry case. Dollop the cooked gooseberries, and a little of their juice, evenly over the filling. Scatter with the demerara sugar, then bake for 45-50 minutes, until the filling has set and is starting to turn golden. Remove and leave to cool before serving, dusted with icing sugar. If you have any gooseberry cooking juice left, you can serve this alongside the tart.