January: Soup of the Moment


(Mark Sampson) #1

The 2nd January was a very different kind of day this year. Last year, my mother's funeral was blessed with a clear blue sky, but jings! was it cold. Inside the little country church, a small congregation shivered in unison. Later, in the car park of the oldest tea room in Romsey, where we had a brief restrained wake, I mimed a swan landing on a frozen lake as my legs almost went from under me on the black ice.


This year, the temperature was autumnal and the rain was constant. My brother, my two sisters and I guided our fragile father along the muddy track through the church yard to our mother's grave. It was the first time I'd seen the headstone. An elegant unpretentious stone slab with a classic stone cutter's font that bears the legend Peace at last. The older of my two sisters and I wanted the rather more wry and ambiguous Free at last! (with exclamation mark).


I'd left my wife and daughter to their own post-Christmas symbiotic devices to nip over to the UK – by airplane for once, rather than by interminable road or rail – to spend a bit of time with the Aging P and to celebrate New Year at my sister's annual party. The marking of my mother's death was incidental but felicitous. I don't intend to make a habit of it, but I figured that the first anniversary has a symbolic importance.


As it happened, my sister Jo caught a humdinger of a cold. Unable to face the food preparation involved, the event was called off and New Year came not with the pop of prosecco corks (seemingly the drink of choice for the Waitrose sorority) but with the damp squib of an early night. Snug in my sofa bed, I couldn't even be bothered to watch Jools Holland. And while I enjoyed the bells of the abbey, I didn't get up to watch the fireworks over Romsey.


Bah! Humbug. I hate New Year anyway. I'm not the sort to jump into a fountain and frolic with fellow revellers. It's just the passing of another damn year, and another reminder of all that I failed to achieve during it. On top of which, it's one year nearer the day when my account will be closed and signed off with a dismissive Could have done better. File under 'Dilettantes'.


So any 'celebration' as such took place on a mild wet Saturday. My younger sister, Gina, brought a potted plant to lay at the graveside, Jo sprinkled wild flower seeds around and my brother laid a single arum lily at the foot of the headstone. I read another of my mother's poems: a delightful childhood memory of a trip across north London to see a distant aunt with the disquieting habit of weeping at the drop of a lace hanky. Written in the vein of Stevie Smith and Sir John Betjeman, she called it 'Aqua Erratica'. When I've finished digitalising her verse, I shall send a sample to Faber & Co.


After this ad hoc ceremony, we betook ourselves to a public house for some muffled chatter and a spot of luncheon. The Little House at Home, or something of that nature, with its thatched roof and a door for 16th century dwarves, is my father's favourite pub in Romsey. He can just about totter there on the arm of a sister with a stick passed down via my former father-in-law to drink a pint of London Pride or Stella, his favourite lager as it bears the name of his wife of 60-odd years.


They reserved a table for five by one of the leaded windows, where we could eat, drink and be a little merry without disturbing the other diners. When he's not seriously depressed or seriously drunk, my brother has a quick wit and a comic's timing and we had fun with the language in which the menu is written. It's good, simple food described in the kind of flowery prose that's de rigueur since TV chefs became the new rock stars.


Wondering about 'Soup of the moment', I volunteered to go to the bar to find out what it was at that precise time. The woman described a roast butternut squash and pumpkin concoction. Sounded good, but I couldn't resist asking her whether it was liable to change. 'Oh no no; it's the same soup all day.' Well, I thought it was funny, but I went back to the table feeling slightly ashamed for flaunting my sarcasm.


The soup when it came was delicious. As was the main course and the dessert. It was all unpretentious, attractively 'plated' and copious without being intimidating. And it was, too, I felt, rather better than I might have found in an equivalent kind of hostelry in France, supposedly the home of fine cuisine. Whether it's due to TV stars or Michelin stars or both, we seem to have become obsessed with the look of our food. It's rarely good enough now, for example, to serve well-cooked vegetables. We have to froth, drizzle and de-construct them. If we worried half as much about the source of our food, we might not be in quite the mess that humanity finds itself in at the moment.


Last Thursday night, the three of us went to see a documentary film called Demain (or Tomorrow in English currency): the laudable project of a group of young French film makers who wanted to show the global disaster scenario in a more positive light by focusing on some uplifting attempts to pull back from the precipice. In general it showed the French to be earnest, the Americans to be awesomely enthusiastic, the British to be more than a little barking and the Scandinavians to be the most enlightened people in the world.


The cinema at Vayrac was packed and there was hesitant, desultory applause at the end of the film, which suggested that the message had struck a chord. I'm not quite sure how we or they are going to contribute meaningfully to saving the world. I can't alas see how boiling less water in kettles or even banishing Nutella from our collective kitchens will preserve what's left of Indonesia's natural world, but the film at least showed that there are pockets of humanity determined to demonstrate another way of doing things.


I'm particularly fascinated by the post-apocalyptic case study of Detroit: the way that the city effectively died with the old automotive industry and how it has attracted a new breed of pioneers who are helping to green the desolate city by planting market gardens everywhere, which will soon produce enough vegetables to feed its citizens. As a couple of old former assembly line workers said, it's hard work – but it's life-enhancing.


My father's comfortable first-floor flat has a little balcony. He likes his new residence so much that he draped some blinking lights around his balcony this Christmas. My mother, unlike the rest of her family, had no time for Christmas and my father's more festive inclinations have re-surfaced after decades of repression. It would be nice to think that, now that the lights have come down, he would plant tomatoes, basil and courgettes on his balcony and help to turn Romsey, Hants. into a kind of Todmorden, West Yorks. (where residents with the backing of an enlightened council, have planted every public and private space imaginable).


But Romsey is far too cosy and privileged and my father, God love him, is far too indolent. After our lunch, we steered him slowly along The Hundred, as the main street is so quaintly named, towards his home of less than a year. We bumped into a couple of his fellow residents, a pair of widowed women of a certain age who have already succumbed to his charm. One of them introduced herself to me as his drinking partner. Cue much merriment...


Back in his flat, we hung around for an hour or so and reminisced about childish affairs. The following day, I flew back to Limoges from Southampton and helped to take our jolie sapin de Noel down for another year.


My sisters go in, separately, almost every day to check on our father. He's happy enough and quite enjoying his solitary routine. At six every day, he pours himself – and sometimes perhaps his drinking partner – a stiff dry Martini and sits down to watch BBC News highlights of the soup of the moment on his huge flat-screen telly. Growing harder and harder of hearing, he plans to buy some Sensaround speakers this year. They will be linked by wi-fi to his laptop in the next room, where his playlist performs from morn till night for subliminal company.


With the end in sight, my father has turned consumer with a vengeance. Next Christmas, I could buy him a virtual reality headset.


(Mark Sampson) #2

Hi Jane. Nice to hear from you again. I'm glad to hear that you have some good solid and inventive restaurants near you. Actually, we do all right here with Martel as our nearest 'town'. There are one or two quite good restaurants, but I do find generally that the standard has gone down from what it used to be when we started coming to France over 20 years ago. But then maybe we're looking at the past through rose-tinted glasses - or maybe it's simply that the standard in the UK has improved (and perhaps thanks to all these Fancy Dan TV chefs). Have a nice weekend!


(Jane Williamson) #3

Mark, sorry I have just read this post, there have been some strange titles recently about your taste in music, which is not mine and I thought this was in the same vein!
However, yesterday I decided we should go out to lunch to a place not far from us which had recently changed hands. I heard the waiter saying that the present chef had worked for the previous proprietor and then gone to work for the Michelin starred restaurant in Charollles and then returned to the place he has now taken over. You can see the results of his stay in Charolles, but not in the prices.
I have to report that the pumpkin soup was unctous and wonderfully deep tasting and was on the menu du jour for 18 euros.
We now have two good restaurants near us which are not expensive and produce excellent food. One of them took over a place which was failing and does wonders with cheaper ingredients, only 15 euros for menu du jour here, 25 for dinner and excellent and inexpensive wine.
We must count ourselves lucky as there are still too many places where boeuf bourginon rules in the winter (and sometimes in summer too).
It was one of the great disappointments of coming to France to find that the inventive lunchtime menu had become almost a thing of the past.
As we are getting on we much to eat at lunchtime and I feel safe to go out when I feel the need for a bit of pampering.
It is roast chicken with a puree of root vegetables, broccoli and roast potatoes today.