I write this sitting under the kitchen table, a piece of pie in one fist and a pen in the other. I’ll type it out later, but a fat pen feels about right for now, Heaney-ish. Heaney is the right sort of poet for a thunderstorm, not just the storm-poems (“Space is a salvo/we are bombarded with the empty air,/ strange, it is a huge nothing that we fear”), but all of them. The right steadiness of the land and the sky and the earth and the sea and loss and fear and love. The sky outside is almost purple; Tall Man is frying sausages; there is a low-level static crackle in the air, and everything feels pulled very taut. A car-alarm is going off. Another bite of pie.
I have finished my year of college, and everything is stretched very thin just now. I am shaking so much that my handwriting is a sort of indecipherable scrawl across the page. I can read it. Nobody else has to. Another bite of pie. I have been thinking about these pies for a long time: cheese and apple and almonds and oats. A sort of ploughman’s lunch, if you like. Heaney again. Maybe. A slow roll of distant thunder; a scud of blue coming up under the purple cloud. A ploughman’s for a thunderstorm. A thunder ploughman. Do you remember the story about the man who ploughed his fields with horses from the sea? It’s the second story here, although reading it again it’s not quite the story I remembered: I’m thinking, I think, of a man who ploughed the clouds, driving them along, scoring the lines right down the whole vast length of a mackerel sky. The wind is moving the storm along. It’s August.
I have finished my year. I should feel something other than tension, but I don’t: the sky and I are perfectly aligned in not knowing how to feel.
It’s August. I have finished my year. I am hiding under the kitchen table, writing about pies. I don’t know how to feel. I don’t know how to feel. I have nothing to do for three weeks but cook. I don’t know how to be. I am going to learn just to be.
Take your scales; take your bowl; come out from under the table. begin. Let’s learn to feel. Let’s learn to be. Let’s make apple pies in a thunderstorm in August, and read Heaney, and old stories, and be.
Be all mine, while we peel potatoes (there’s Heaney again, paraphrased. It’s a beautiful one, one to his mother. It makes me cry.), and we’ll have sausage (done long and low) and mash to start, and then we’ll have apple pie, and a glug of good cream, and perhaps while we’re doing it, one of us will remember the story about the man who ploughed the sky, and we can sit at the kitchen table in our shirt-sleeves while the pie is cooling, and tell it.
The Thunder Ploughman’s Almond Crumble Pies
Serves 4 greedy persons; twenty minutes prep.; ten minutes’ baking; ten minutes’ washing up.
Six green apples: Bramleys are best, Granny Smiths will do.
Six Amaretti biscuits
Two tablespoons of mild olive oil.
One heaped tablespoon of rolled oats
One flat tablespoon of brown sugar
One flat tablespoon of plain white flour
Two generous teaspoons of ground almonds
4 oz. plain white flour
2 1/2 oz. good cheddar
2 1/2 oz. unsalted butter.
A food mixer; a pair of small pie-dishes with removable bottoms; a sharp knife; a chopping board; saucepan; a cold large plate; a hammer, or other heavy implement.
Peel your apples. If you can get the peel off in one long spiral, you are supposed to throw it over your shoulder, for finding out your true love’s name. I have never been able to do this, but fortunately I am pretty sure I know my true love, and I think it is beyond the capabilities of an apple peel to spell. Rather a lot of spiky letters in “T-A-L-L-M-A-N”; one imagines that the true loves determined by apple peels are mainly Cs and Gs and Os and other curly letters.
Peel your apples, and chop them into pieces about the size of your thumb-nail. Not much bigger, not much smaller, but it doesn’t matter too much. Pack them into a saucepan, and set the pan over a low heat. Add a tablespoon of cold water. No more water. No. Absolutely no more water. I know, I know, you think it needs it. I promise you, it doesn’t. (My granny taught me this trick. She is, or was the last time I saw her, the queen of apple pies. She puts your name in pastry letters on the top.)
Let the apples simmer down, and plug in the mixer. This is the most efficient way of making pastry I’ve ever come across- my other granny taught it to me- and I’m still sort of marvelling at it. Weigh out your butter and your flour directly in to the mixer itself- don’t, don’t forget the actual blade bit. I do this every time, and it’s terribly dull. Grate your cheese moderately finely, and add that, too.
~A Small Note On Cheese~
I used the strongest cheddar I could possibly find. I think this was a mistake; Tall Man thinks it was genius. The thing to remember, I think, is that whatever cheese you choose, that is what your pastry will taste of. That exactly. It won’t be diluted, or made less. It will just be That Cheese. Take a bit of the cheese you want to use, take a cracker, take a slice of apple. Does it work? If no, pick another cheese, repeat. If yes, alors. On we go.
~The End Of The Note About Cheese~
Put the lid on your mixer, and blitz. It’s completely brilliant. It does everything, and keeps it cold: you should have a gorgeous, golden dough in approximately ninety seconds. And essentially no clearing up, either. Isn’t that amazing? It really is.
Stir your apples. You are looking for a really particular texture: when about half of the apples have broken down into apple sauce, and are coating some still-pretty-solid pieces of apple, that’s about right, and you take your cold plate, and you spoon the whole lot across the plate and sit it on the side to cool. It’s really important to let it cool, so as to keep the pastry cold, and flaky.
(Pre-heat your oven to 180 degrees.)
Now, you’re going to need your icecubes. One in each hand. Fidget with your ice-cubes. I tend to press them onto my wrists a bit, because I have a half-cocked theory that that way they cool the blood, or something? Anyway, we’re cooling our hands, essentially. Dry your hands, and with your newly cold fingers, Ice Queen, take approximately half your pastry, and thumb it into one of the tins. Just like that. Take a lump of dough, and use your cool cool fingers to shape it into the tin. You want it to be about as thick all round as, say, the Puffin paperback of The Children Of Green Knowe. A little thinner than your little finger, but not by much. It’s a very flaky, flimsy pastry, and it needs to be sturdy.
Repeat the whole process, including ice-cubes, for the second pastry tin.
~An Optional Step~
Here is the part where, if you have such a thing as parchment paper and baking beans, you can part-bake your pastry cases. They will come out flakier, and nicer, if you do this, but I am rarely organised enough to do so. If you are: cut your parchment paper (baking paper, or something) into a disc just big enough to line the tin, over the pastry. (I use a saucer, when I do this.) Fill the paper-covered-pastry-covered-tins with baking beans, or dry rice. Bake in a hot oven for ten or so minutes; take out carefully; have a big pot ready for pouring the beans into; let the cases cool a little.
~The End Of The Optional Step~
Sprinkle your pastry cases with a generous teaspoon of ground almonds each, patting it in dry to the pastry. Let them sit a minute.
Take your amaretti (if you have no amaretti, I suggest you use Hobnobs, and go hardcore crumble). Then take your hammer. I have a surprising number of recipes that call for hammering things: I am, I suppose, quite a cross little person, and hitting dinner is surprisingly satisfying. Hammer your amaretti until they are a sort of fine dust; tip them into a mug. Add your oats, and your brown sugar, your flour, and your olive oil. Stir. It should make a sort of crumble-type topping (you could, obviously, sub in butter for the olive oil: I got used to making it like this when I couldn’t have dairy, and it is really so good I don’t want to go back.).
Spoon your cool apples into your almonded pastry-cases, pressing in firmly; top with the crumble-stuff; bake for about fifteen minutes, although Your Oven May Vary.
A spoon of cream. An unseasonal blanket. Some more Heaney.
“here is a space
again, the scone rising
to the tick of two clocks.
And here is love
like a tinsmith’s scoop
sunk past its gleam
in the meal-bin.”
And here is love. And here’s a storm. We’ll be alright. We’ll be alright. We’ve got a pie.