Archive for October, 2009

Why I Learned to Concasser Tomatoes

October 29, 2009

I did not know how to concasser tomatoes.


I can slice them. Dice them. Even strip them of impossibly thin skins.

But concasser?

I am referenced to an earlier page in my 500 Recipes for Vegetables and Salads (which is very old fashioned for its inclusion of a Carrot Ring Mould circa 1972, and supremely optimistic given that here in the Outpost I possibly encounter just 5, which includes, obviously, for I must learn to concasser them, tomatoes).

And so – as directed – I turn to page 63 which describes concasséed (and the accent persuades me I am dealing with something eminently grander than usual Outpost fare) tomatoes as skinned, quartered and de-seeded.

And I consider – as I begin to gather my ingredients together – whether the regular focus on something new to cook, to eat, will concentrate whatever loneliness I might feel, reduce it and boil it away to nothingness? Elizabeth Gilbert sought herself in her book, Eat, Pray, Love. Italy. Indonesia. India. The places she visited, all beginning with the letter I, and so she pondered, appropriate given that she was on a voyage of self discovery. I.

But I’m not. I don’t need to find myself. (I have always dismissed the notion as mildly self indulgent – well, it’d have to be, wouldn’t it?). But I need to discover some old facet of me and polish it to a new and enduring brightness.

Why not cooking? Can a failed domestic goddess emerge as an aspirant one?

In an effort to avoid insanity born of loneliness and a fractured identity and the flailing lack of direction that comes with the losing of direction and maps, why not food?

Mashed potato with butter and salt. Soul Food.

Words. Food for the Soul. Always.

Can I – then – not expect the marriage of the two to be a happy one?

The effort will prove challenging on two fronts.

I am not naturally an aspirant Domestic Goddess (despite eternal admiration of those who are) and the Outpost does not lend itself easily to domestic divinity.

You can’t get mascarpone cream here.

Or feta.

So I shall need to improvise.

To muddle along.

Which I have grown good at. I muddle a lot in the Outpost.

But I don’t need to muddle the tomatoes for I know, now, how to concasser.


Carrot, Tomato and Date Salad.

A handful of carrots, a couple of tomatoes and a few fat dates – I am not one to follow recipes closely, I have a greedy family: if a chocolate cake recipe suggests it’ll feed 8, it won’t, not in my house, so I manipulate measurements as much as I am forced to ingredients.

And a good slug of olive oil, a similar amount of vinegar, a pinch of salt, some black pepper generously ground and a few sprigs of basil (which grows – in my case – in the hollowed out bowl of a discarded canoe which I salvaged from the shores of the dam and which is valiantly battling the drought).

Grate the carrots, concasser the tomatoes, separate and save the seeds, chop the dates. Bung all that into a bowl. Then tip the seeds, the oil and vinegar, the salt and pepper and some shredded basil (never chop it, always shred it with your fingers, though I do not know why) into a small saucepan and stick all that on a low flame and bring to a slow simmer.

The kitchen will be filled with the delicate scent of basil and your eyes with well as they are stung by the piquancy of the vinegar. When it’s reduced a little, tip it through a sieve to get rid of the flotsam and jetsam and then pour the resultant dressing, which should be honeyed pink, onto your salad so that it can marinade in the warmth and the sharpness of the vinegar be slowly mellowed by the sweetness of dates.

Pop it in the fridge until supper time when it’ll be prettily glazed with the chill and striking for the psychedelic combination of never-wear-together red and orange of tomatoes and carrots, and bedecked with ebony shards of date.

We ate it with fillet steak and big floury boiled in their jacket potatoes. Hat and husband were very kind, which means they will get it again which mightn’t have been what they meant.

And I made a dent in my longlonelyoutpost day and felt a mild sense of something like achievement, a small, warm glow of happy satisfaction.

Shirley Conran, who wrote Superwoman in 1975 claimed ‘life’s too short to stuff a mushroom’.

But then she didnt’ live in the Outpost where stuffing a mushroom or for that matter, concassering a tomato might be all that stands between you and the madness wrought of isolation and redudancy.

I wonder if I can find one here …




Empty Promises. Emptier Ponds

October 25, 2009


April 09



The lawn (and I use the term loosely, so loosely as to be almost completely untied from the truth) is popdom crack dry.

And the termite tunnels, like a busily woven subway engineered for – by – a population of insects which, when the rains comes, will take energetic flight only to die upon a damp morning or be eaten by the cats, are meringue fragile beneath my bare feet.

And the succulents shrivel and atrophy. I thought that was the whole point of cacti: that they could survive the fiercest heat, the meanest drought.

Unless they’ve had the misfortune to be planted in the Outpost.


Showers are short and furious and quick. I grapple for the tap to rinse the soap from my eyes. And I curse.

And every morning I wake to high, high blue skies unsullied by even the tiniest smudge of a cloud. Bugger it, I say. (For I am more polite than Alice de Janze).

The water department comes to lay a new pipeline. Because the old one, the one this particular house has depended upon since the days of colonial administration, has died a death. Given up the ghost of whatever faint promise of water it once held. And occasionally, very occasionally, twice or (when you were really lucky) thrice a week and for 25 minutes at a time, delivered on.

So the water department digs an untidy trench (when they are not leaning on jembes and smoking cigarettes) across the desert that masquerades as my garden and they lay a line which they optimistically fit with taps. And a meter. To measure the gushing torrent that they swear will come surging through.

They tell us the price of the water (Christ! Says husband, you could wash in petrol) which, they assure us, will arrive on Sunday morning. At 6am. Not a minute later.

Husband and Hat and I lay elaborately drenched plans.

We will fill the pond where the guppies are gasping and the lilies dying.

We will fill the pool which is low and green and swimming with boatmen and scorpions.

I will do three loads of laundry, in flagrant twofingersup to my usual once-a-week and please-wear-your-shorts-for-more-than-a-single-day regime.

We will give the succulents and the portulaca and the spinach a long, cool drink at sundown.

We will have recklessly lengthy, hot showers and the shampoo will not sting my eyes for I will rinse long and luxuriously without turning the taps off once in between. Not until I’ve well and truly finished and am squeaky clean.

At 6am on Sunday morning 17 drops of water fall feebly from the newly laid line into our cavernously empty tank.

Drip. Drip. Drip. I can hear the applause at the bottom as they hit the concrete depths.

And then silence.

We have tipped the guppies into the pool, to join the boatmen and scorpions (what will they eat, Hat asks? I promise her there is sufficient fish food in the flora and fauna that thrives in the unseen aquarium green). We closed our eyes to a garden wilted beyond rescue. And I mine to a laundry basket suppurating gluttonous and overfed across the bathroom floor.

The succulents and the portulaca and the spinach won’t get their evening drink.

But I will. A long, cold beer.

Which I will sip from a sweat-beaded bottle as I gaze across a lawn baked to the colour of biscuits and a sky shot with all the peachy radiance of an unblemished sunset so that you know tomorrow will be just as high white hot as today.



Shortening Shadows

October 16, 2009


The flamboyant drips red into the pool below. Like blood.

I’m glad it’s in flower. Full fat flameflared flower. It bore only a few shy blooms last year.

And then the tree next door fell down and, as if to make up for the loss, or just because it no longer had competitive, crowing, colourful audience, it has come into glorious hot blossom.

Stark redblooded contrast to the dead baked biscuit grass.

We have been home for two weeks. Hat and I.

Our feet barely touched the ground, our suitcases barely opened and we were off again.  Sometimes Outpost life is so slow moving you can barely hear it breath. And sometimes it whizzes past in a blur of bags and trying to remember to pack your toothpaste this time.

My middlefordiddle is ensconced in her Home Counties boarding school and braving her first imminent winter and I am trying to distract myself from long shadows. It feels all wrong that she is not here: a gap where we should be five. A full house five.


Long Shadows for blog


But eldest is home for halfterm. And I have a writing gig.

It meant four days in the glorious bush bound seclusion of Katavi, in Tanzania’s Wild – wildest – West.

Where the sun is high and shadows are shorter.


blog wild wild west


So from England’s autumnal winter and ever thickening woollies, it was to still, steaming afternoons which melted in the broiling heat; you could hear the hiss of cicadas, like too many insistent pressure cookers on the agitated boil.   Sometimes the breeze gave an impatient sigh. But that was all.   One tiny, tired puff.


blog somnolent lions


Lions lay somnolent in the deep shade of Tamarind trees; hippos hunkered as low as they could in chocolate mousse mud and crocodiles’ smiles grew wider as they lay inert, hideous, jaundiced mouths ajar.


smiling crocodile


‘Is that so that they can catch a passing bird?’ asked Hat.

‘No’, I said, fanning myself with a road map, ‘that’s so they can keep cool’.

‘I think they look mean’, observed Hat, and she began to sing, never smile at a crocodile …

She missed three days of school. She learned to tell the difference between a male and a female hippo; she spotted a python in a tree, an owl on a dust spangled evening game drive, four lionesses crossing a river (hop, hoppity hop they went: cats on a hot tin roof, or over a murky water way where they could not see crocodiles lurking log like and treacherous in the shallows).


blog python


She lay in her tent at night and listened to the soft tug and pull as passing elephants grazed close to where she was trying to sleep. She wasn’t scared.  ‘Isn’t it funny’, she observed at breakfast the next morning, ‘such big animals and you can’t hear them unless they’re eating’. Cushioned pads pillow their footfall and muffle the sound to softest silence.  

Three weeks ago she was listening to the rush of London traffic, the beat of feet on fast city streets, the reverential hush of the National Gallery, the entertainers in Covent Garden …


blog london's quickening feet


And now we really are back. No more safaris on our immediate horizons. Just a powder blue sky which yawns to white hot as I scan optimistically for scudding clouds: it’s that time of year. It’s the ‘when’s it going to rain’ time of year.

And Hat is doing maths homework.

And I have finally finished unpacking.

And the flamboyant is dipping her scarlet painted fingers in the pool and tracing a crimson pattern.


red fingered flamboyant