There’s just a hint of blue sky (enough to make a pair of sailor’s trousers) over the Rec, and mist over the moors, and the village is very, very quiet. Everything is very quiet: the children are in school, the grown-ups are in work, god’s in his heaven, and all’s right with the world. Everything has an order, here; everything has a place. In London everything is a little bit disjointed; in London it feels perfectly alright to write in one’s pyjamas until supper-time. Here one bathes and one dresses and one begins, properly and firmly on the dot of nine.
I think that’s why I’m thinking today about two books I read over the summer, because both of them, really, are about exactly this. Both of them are about chaos and order; one of them is about London, and one of them is about leaving London, and I loved them both. You have read in your life the kind of book that you finish and immediately press into people’s hands, like an evangelical at a train station. These are two books of that kind.
The first book is by Sarah Perry, and it’s called After Me Comes The Flood. It’s about a man making a decision, and mental health, and family, and water, and poems, and greenhouses, and birds. A man goes out of the city in a car, and everything is different afterwards. I don’t want to tell you, really, much more, other than that it’s utterly beautiful, and made me weep, partly from sympathy, and partly from recognition. There is nobody in this book who isn’t absolutely human; there is nobody in this book whom it is easy to wholly condemn or wholly support. It’s a book about being alive, and learning to be alive, I think.
I read both of these books with no idea of what was going to happen, and they were infinitely the better for it.
The second book is by Janina Matthewson, and it is called Of Things Gone Astray. There is a certain amount of relief in recommending this book to you; there is a similar amount of tension in the whole fraught business of friends-writing-novels. Janina is one of the liveliest and loveliest people I know: fortunately, her book is, too. It’s also really, really beautifully structured. I am a sucker for unconventionally structured novels, and this one is like a lot of little short stories, or a bundle of letters tied up in ribbon. All connected, but not connected, but how connected, and things going missing. It’s a long and lovely hymn to the art of losing, and all through I thought of Elizabeth Bishop, and how I felt when I lost people and cities and countries, and how absolutely this book couldn’t have been written by anyone who wasn’t a little bit, at heart, lost. I think I am a little bit lost when I’m in London, and it felt like this book let me be just as lost as I liked, and that was okay.
Both books , actually, could have taken the Elizabeth Bishop poem (below) for an epigraph, and it not been out of place. I liked that. I liked reading them both together, and most of all I liked rereading them sprawled on the lawn below the greenhouse under the apple tree and the grey sky and feeling intensely comforted, that these made-up people were losing things, and learning things, and loving things too. Neither book is entirely happy, but then, life isn’t. Two books about life. I loved them.
And then I went inside and cooked things, because that’s what I do when I am happy (and when I’m sad, and all the feelings in between). This was going to be a summer pudding before the wind came and blew my little bit of blue sky away; autumn is tumbling in fast, and there are blackberries growing recklessly and with abandon over the drystone walls. So it is a kind of bread-and-butter pudding, I think. It’s not that these books have a lot of puddings in them, but in my internal library (of snacks and words) it sits quite happily between them, a little nostalgic, a little sharp, a little peculiar, entirely wonderful. Besides, it struck me as something that Hester might make, and that pleased me.
Two Books Elderberry Pudding
A kind of bread-and-butter pudding with apples, plums and berries.
Serves two; 30 mins. prep; 30 mins. baking time
Half a mug of blackberries (which is to say, as many as a person can pick on her tiptoes over the Rec wall in twenty minutes)
Half a mug of elderberries*
Two middling cooking apples
A flat tablespoon of Demerara sugar
A shot-ish of sloe gin (feel free to sub in another another fruit-y spirit)
(*If in town, substitute anything you can get hold of; if in the country, this is to say elderberries that have been stripped from their stems.)
Plain white cob loaf (450g)
Two teaspoons powdered all-spice
Two tablespoons soft dark sugar
Two tablespoons unsalted butter (you know my feelings on measuring butter)
Three fresh eggs
250ml whole milk
One tablespoon sugar
A sturdy oven-proof dish; a bowl; a spoon; a fork; sharp knife; chopping board.
Peel and chop your apples into pieces about the size of your finger-nail; strip your elderberries from the stems (this is very easily done by combing the stalks with a fork); stone and quarter the plums. Plums are almost impossible to stone, and this is by far the longest job of any in this pudding. Stone them anyway, and treat it as meditation.
Put all of that, plus your blackberries, into a middling saucepan over a middling heat. Don’t add any water, or any sugar, or anything like that. There will be quite enough sugar in everything else, and enough water in the plums and the shot of gin. Add the gin now. Stir.
Slice your cob loaf into thick slices; reserve the two crust bits for making toast. I had about seven slices. Cut the crusts off (crust-haters, rejoice!) with a pair of sharp scissors, and cut each slice in half. Butter your dish- run, quickly, and stir your fruit before it sticks- come back and tessellate half your bread across the base of the dish.
Take your butter, brown sugar and all spice, and beat it together with a fork to make a thick and heavy-scented paste. Spread about half of this paste on the bread already in the dish, as you would ordinarily on toast; repeat with the bread without the dish. Stir your fruit again, which should be done by now. It’s absolutely important that the elderberries should be cooked through, because they are poisonous otherwise, and they should be soft and oozing dark dark juice. Elderberry juice will stain everything purple, but it will dye the apples a gorgeous true crimson.
Take your crimson fruits and tip the whole lot into the dish on top of the bread. Working quickly, lie the rest of the buttered-bread over the fruit, tearing off corners to tessellate as necessary, butter side up.
Have a little break here to wash up your fork, bowl and saucepan- even in a big and well-stocked kitchen, I can’t shake the habit of washing up these things as I go.
Pour your milk and cream into the saucepan, and warm over a medium heat. Break the eggs into the bowl; add the sugar, and beat thoroughly. Tip this mixture into the hot milk-cream, and whisk thoroughly, to make a custard. It will be a bit thicker than cream, and don’t worry too much if it starts to seem a bit scrambly at the bottom- just take it immediately off the heat, and tip it over the bread and fruit in the dish. It will seem like a lot. The bread can take it, I promise.
Sprinkle over any leftover sugar, and put straightaway into a hot oven- I suspect about 180 degrees. Do your washing up; whip some cream, or fetch some ice-cream. Twenty minutes should do it- like with a crumble, it will be ready when the berry juice starts to seethe happily around the golden edges.
It’s a nostalgia pudding, really: one that tastes of back-to-school, and new pencils, and long evenings with the long note of the lawnmower next door, and a tiny corner of a blue sky, and a smart breeze, and good books.
Here are some places you can buy Janina’s book, and here is where you can buy Sarah’s, and I recommend you do both, and read them with your feet tucked under you and a big bowl of pudding-and-cream by your side.
(I read After Me Comes The Flood on Kindle, which is why there are not many pictures of it here.)