An Old Friend

It is a damp, blustery day here in York and I could have sat all day in my dressing gown drinking tea and eating cake. Fate intervened however as I had a place booked at a local group of ‘Ladies Who Lunch’ and a smoked haddock cassoulet awaiting my arrival. During our meal my companions and I found ourselves discussing home cookery and the lack of confidence some of our friends held when it came to cooking for themselves. For those of us who cook regularly, indeed would feel lost without this daily ritual, it seems incredulous that anyone could perceive a dish such as beef chilli to as intimidating.

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This conversation had me pondering on my own relationship with food and how, when I lack confidence in so many other areas of my life I can approach the cooker like an old friend. Why is it that when I open the morning curtains to pouring rain and battering winds my mind turns straight to kale, shin of beef stew and steamed ginger puddings?

If you are a regular either here or on my Facebook page then you will be aware of my transplant story and the important role which cookery and a passion for food played in my recovery. What you may not appreciate is that I showed no interest in cooking until I was in my early twenties. School home economics lessons were uninspiring, teenage priorities got in the way. Thanks to my mum I grew up with good home cooked food so appreciated it’s value, and with maturity came a developing curiosity in the black art of producing a tasty meal.

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So we come to the crux of the matter. I love to eat, oh I love to eat. I am also driven by an intense state of curiosity, and once I get a bee in my bonnet, can’t stop. What does it taste like? Where is it from? What is it’s history? how can I eat it? Internet searches, recipe swaps and of course a fabulous array of cookbooks with their styled photographs, mouthwatering descriptions and tactile wrap around covers inform my development. A display of autumn vegetables at the market makes my heart jump: my soul lets out a little song as I stride towards my local butchers thinking of pork shoulder, oxtail or maybe a seasonal rabbit.

A Sense of Purpose aims to encourage people to embrace their creativity and see it as an important way of staying healthy in both body and mind. I focus on food as a creative process because it is indeed my muse. I meet incredibly creative individuals who consider cookery to be nothing more than a mundane task to be endured in the name of getting the fuel they require for life. If you don’t cook because it bores you then fair enough, we can’t all share the same passion in life. But if you find yourself eating friend’s food wishing that you could do the same, without a clue where to start, let me whisper in your ear. There is no secret, no special ingredient. All you need is a little curiosity and a working cooker. Have a go, and you may find yourself building a friendship that will last forever.

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Nan’s Double Ginger Cake

There is an amusing little story in my family involving my Nan and a rather pricey bottle of whisky. It is usually told by my Uncle J, owner of the said whisky and older brother to my Mum. My uncle was single at the time and Nan would drop round to help out with bits of housework and ironing.

One day Mam complemented me on the bottle of sherry in the cupboard under the sink. I was confused as I didn’t drink sherry and as far as I knew there was none in the house. When I looked in the cupboard I realised that your Nanna had been drinking the bottle of whisky friends had given me for Christmas.

It turned out that Nan had been swigging back the booze whilst she was doing his ironing in the kitchen and had made her way through half the bottle before they realised her mistake. It’s a wonder his clothes didn’t end up covered in scorch marks.

The story surfaced recently as after four years of dementia and deteriorating health, my Nan died two days ago. At first I seemed to be managing my grief and accepting of this natural order of things, but today hasn’t been quite so straightforward. So, in true Sense of Purpose style I turned to my edible creativity as a distraction. Nan had a wonderfully sweet tooth and in addition to whisky was very fond of anything ginger. My sadness won’t allow me to take part in such a celebratory activity as baking, but I couldn’t hold back the urge to do something, anything to help me think about Nan in happier times.

As someone who literally eats, sleeps and breathes food, in times of stress all roads lead down a culinary route. If I wasn’t going to get up and do then the next best thing is to sit down and think. We have a tradition of turning to the BeRo baking book for standard recipes and we have always been particularly fond of their Gingerbread recipe. If you are a Yorkshire lass like me, gingerbread is a cake very much associated with the arrival of October and Bonfire Night. So I have decided to adapt the BeRo recipe and create a luxury cake of my own as a fitting tribute to my Nan, her love of and ginger and a little story of whisky fuelled ironing sessions. And just because she would always make sure there was plenty to go round, this cake is the right size for a family party.

Beryl’s Double Ginger Cake

450g Plain flour

pinch of salt

4 tsp ground ginger

2 tsp mixed spice

2 tsp bicarbonate of soda

75g soft brown sugar

200g butter

450g golden syrup

250ml milk

50 ml whisky

4 medium eggs, beaten

4-5 balls preserved stem ginger, roughly chopped

1. Heat the oven to 150C / Gas mark 2. Grease a large, square cake tin and set aside.

2. Sieve together flour, salt, ginger, mixed spice and bicarbonate of soda. Stir in the sugar.

3. Melt butter and syrup gently. Allow to cool then beat in milk and whisky.

4. Add the beaten eggs and chopped stem ginger. Stir the syrup mixture into the dry ingredients and pour into the prepared cake tin. Bake for one and a half hours or until a skewer comes out clean.

To finish the cake I plan to top it with an icing of 100g icing sugar, 1 tbsp whisky and a scattering of crystallized ginger. It will be served with a generous dose of humour, a twinkle of mischief and a glass of Bristol cream. There will be music, stories and, of course, love.

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For the love of Claire

At the end of July I was lucky enough to participate in a photography project with Todd and Moore Photography. The aim of the study was to take an honest look at the effects of transplant and medication on the female form. But lovely ladies Jill and Julia produced so much more than I could ever have imagined.

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2014 is the 5th anniversary of my heart transplant and this seemed the perfect way to capture how far I had moved on. What I never imagined was that, looking at the images for the first time, I would actually feel proud. I expected to view them very clinically, choosing those which best showed the scars, raised awareness of the challenges of transplant.

ToddandMoore-Claire D-1Lost somewhere under the weight of chronic illness, exhaustion, surgery and toxic medications my I saw myself as a wreckage of life, broken and irrevocably changed by the war waged with heart failure for 20 years. I was still here, still fighting, but in my eyes the ugliness of battle had tattooed itself on my physical form for all to see.

ToddandMoore-Claire D-7 Imagine my shock as I viewed the photographs for the first time. I look happy, healthy, normal. When I analyse them closely I can see the roundness of form triggered by my steroids. My surgery scars. A world of experience in the eyes. But, I came to realise as I flicked through them, these were imperfections that I regularly admired in other women.

ToddandMoore-Claire D-41The whole experience has left me feeling much more reflective about my current place in recovery and finding my way through this new life of mine. I’m much more forgiving of myself in the moments of sadness and crippling self doubt that come with my PTSD, an ironic little gift left behind by my previous illness. Bit by bit I’m putting the body armour down, letting go of the anger. I’m no longer the warrior, braced for the next challenge coming my way. I’m a survivor, learning to relax into life, embrace my wonderful network of friends and, most of all, learning to love Claire again.

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