Updated: Jan 3
A Trip to Northumberland and a Sun-Drenched Shakshuka
Without going too far into “all that David Copperfield kinda crap”, I will give you a small dose of autobiography. I was born in Hexham hospital in Northumberland in 1996. There was a temporary panic as I emerged with the umbilical cord wrapped around my neck, my face exhibiting an alarming and unfortunate shade of blue. A bit of TLC and a delayed first breath and I was a happy, healthy, if a little weird looking child. My parents moved us further south to Rutland just two years later. We visited friends up north a few times throughout my childhood, but only until distance all but dissolved those friendships. Apart from family photos, the Angel of the North, Alan Shearer posters and some of my own invented memories, most of them covered in snow, I do not remember much of Northumberland. Apparently, my sister, who is two years older than me, was just starting to develop a Geordie accent when we left, but before ‘yes’ became ‘why aye' and ‘sandwich’ became ‘stottie’, we made our way down the A1 and settled in Rutland. I hold a certain place in my heart for Northumberland, a longing born out of pictures and family tales which paint my first home with unusual clarity for one I hardly knew. It had been years since I had ventured north of the Humber and it wasn’t until I lived with Rory, the flat's resident Geordie, that a trip ‘home’ arose; one which inadvertently became a journey of gastronomic discovery. In particular, it opened my eyes to the grain, the land and the soil which produces my favourite thing to eat. Bread.
Before that it is time to meet Rory. He is terrifically tall, there may be more important characteristics, but the reality of looking like a delicate mix between a giraffe and a crane is certainly immediate. Long lanky legs hoist him loftily above the canopy of crowds, his head bobbles above the parapet, like the peak tree in a forest. It is surprises me that birds don’t land on his head and set up their nest. Try and picture Hugh Grant after he has been stretched out on a rack and pushed back into society: “I er, well you see, I couldn’t possibly say, but this sourdough really is top of the pops.” Rory holds the rare ability to straddle appearing to be in a state of confusion with the fast-paced world around him and being one of the most intimidatingly clever people I know. His brow furrows, the cogs start moving and then he tells you the Latin root of the word ‘osculate’. Unalterably optimistic and living proudly by the Tolstoyan phrase “whilst there is life there is happiness, and lots more to come”, to capture the essence of Rory we might have to use his full-proof method of categorising people. He claims that you’re either a ‘potato’, ‘a horse’ or ‘a bird’, and he argues emphatically to be ‘a horse’… whatever that means. What I can say with certainty is that he can’t cook, I really mean that he cannot cook. He has a scorched earth policy when it comes to bacon and chops an onion or peels garlic with the unblinking confusion of an inexperienced English student presented with ‘Ulysses’. The man can reel off all the states of America in alphabetical order without taking a breath, but his gastronomic ability goes no further than lobbing a ‘Charlie Bingham’ lasagne into the oven and then burning it. Consequently, when we have people round for dinner Rory sticks to the responsibility of “Drinks and Morale”, a task which involves numerous cups of tea and the deployment of all possible and indispensable cheeriness. Despite his inability to cook, he can eat and has been the faithful and honest evaluator of deliciousness throughout the two years I have lived with and cooked for him. We headed towards his home in Northumberland, a good deal of cooking, reading and cricket was in the offing.
By Wilfred Owen Gibson
Heatherland and bentland,
Black land and white,
God bring me to Northumberland,
The land of my delight.
Land of singing waters,
And words from off the sea,
God bring me to Northumberland,
The land where I would be.
Heatherland and bentland,
And valley rich with corn,
God bring me to Northumberland,
The land where I was born.
It was the tail end of summer and the sun was giving its last dictation of joy. Northumberland, apart from being the birth place of one-hundred percent of our flat, is a county synonymous with that Roman wall which stretches from Humber to Edinburgh. The echoes of battles, of King Edwin, of revolts, of coal mines and of Robson Green, have now been quieted and a predominantly rural county remains. The forecast, fortuitously, was set to be glorious and hopping on the train at King’s Cross cradling an assortment of crisps we looked forward to our trip to and beyond the toon. Rory, normally at his happiest with some potato-based snack in his hands, was not himself, in fact, he was in a state of anguish. His eyes were glazed over, he was even mumbling to himself, “Ah it wasn’t too bad”, “I am overthinking it, aren’t I?” “It will be okay won’t it?” It all seemed very strange and on inquiring what the matter was, it turned out he had been through a cataclysmically awkward goodbye with a work colleague. An interaction which had rendered him incapable of normal human conversation, too horrified to explain the exact details of the goodbye, he eventually admitted the incident made it into the ‘half-handshake, missed-hug, stomach-jab, double-tap-and-release’ category. Despite this trauma, the journey moved on and Tilly, Rory and I found ourselves in the middle of Newcastle on a Friday night. Not yet the bucolic escape we were looking for. Picked up and away from the trebles bars, we headed north towards Corbridge. The world became fantastically dark, the glowing hue of the city faded and the sky above revealed itself with an immense shade of night. “You get the darkest nights in England up here”, Rory’s dad remarked proudly. The road was ruler straight, but oscillated dramatically up and down, the high moorlands curved into abstract shapes and the world became split into two deep shades of Rothko blue. I felt a strange, irrational pride at returning to the land where I was born. Rory nudged me, “Do you think she found it as awkward as me?”
It was late by the time we reached the house and soon enough I was waking up to a window through which only darkness was held the night before. In the morning, the same window framed a cluster of Nordic spruce trees, a piled stone wall and a stream running towards a river whose susurrations could just about be heard – “My river runs to thee”. A thick, glowing mist had risen and dispersed the morning light over fields that rolled down to the river bank. It was the antithesis of a London morning: the immediate rush of humanity outside the front door, the morning light a signal to get up and go, to scoff a piece of toast on the run and swill it down with a still brewing cup of tea. The two mornings have a certain charm, but the extension of the morning and the unimportance of the clock felt particularly comforting that day.
Sometimes breakfast feels incomplete without eggs and, luckily, they were in stock. The eggs were from a local farm, produced by some healthy and well-fed Geordie birds. Perhaps I was taking Rory’s mum's friendly invitation to help myself a little too literally, but I felt I needed some spice to complement the heat of the sun. Knocking my way through the cupboards I found some tinned tomatoes, paprika and jarred roasted peppers. This called for some shakshuka. It you haven’t eaten this dish before, then make today the day. It is an immense, punchy, grown-up cooked breakfast; rich, spiced tomato goodness and soft pillowy eggs, baked and ready to dipped into with a piece of crispy sourdough bread. After pulling the pan out of the oven, I brought it outside to eat. The sun was up, the mist had dissolved. The lark was on the wing, the snail on the thorn and the yolks were perfectly burst. All was right with the world.
The weekend would be remembered for two things which are not usually found residing in the same sentence: Ben Stokes and Wheat. It was a couple of the sunniest days of the summer (mainly due to lack of competition), yet it shamefully involved an almost ridiculous amount of time sitting inside watching cricket. The four days became embedded into the idiosyncratic rhythm of test cricket, a chuntering rhythm probably alien to most, one of unrelenting hope, joy and despair; complete desolation catapulted towards sporting redemption from a position of utter impossibility… but that is enough about cricket. Bread, instead, would be the order of the day.
RECIPE FOR SHAKSHUKA
Ingredients: 1 Onion, 2 Red Peppers, 2 Garlic Cloves, 1tsp Cumin seeds, 1tsp Paprika, 1 400ml Can of Plum Tomatoes, 1 Bunch of Fresh Parsley, 4 Free Range Eggs, 1 tsp Harissa Paste, Natural Yoghurt.
1) Finely chop the onion and garlic, cut peppers into slices and then, using an oven proof pan, fry vegetables until softened in some olive oil. Preheat the oven to 180C.
2) Add in the spices, then the harissa paste and cook for a couple of minutes.
3) Squeeze in the plum tomatoes, then fill up half the tin with water and add to the mixture. Season and then simmer for around 10 minutes, until it has reduced. It shouldn't be too watery, or too dry, so aim for just right.
4) Make 4 pockets for the eggs and drop them in carefully, making sure you don't break the yolks. Pop into the oven and bake for about 6 minutes, until the whites are cooked, but the yolks are runny (Alternatively, you can keep the pan on the hob, cover and simmer for 10 minutes).
5) Bring out the oven, season the eggs, top with a good chopping of parsley, a drizzle of good olive oil, a bowl of yoghurt on the side and some toasted sourdough bread.