Can you remember what your view of the world was like; what your fears were; and what you looked forward to in the future when you were seven years old? Many of us might have recollections if something particularly traumatic or triumphant happened to us at that age, but for most of us it would be a matter of guesswork and conjecture. But one small group of people are blessed (or cursed!) with a perfect record of what their views on the world were when they were seven years old. In 1964, Canadian director Paul Almond made what was meant to be a one-off programme called 7 UP in which he interviewed a range of British 7-year-olds from a variety of social and economic backgrounds about their lives and views, to give us a glimpse of what the potential movers and shakers of the year 2000 were like at age 7. It was an interesting premise – but became even more so when Michael Apted took over as director and decided to continue following this group of children through their lives, filming another segment every seven years. In this vein, the remarkable series has continued and the most recent instalment in 2019 was 63 UP, which I have been watching recently.
It is an absorbing but very bittersweet watch – there is optimism and despair; success and failure; ambitions thwarted but also expectations exceeded; and it has made me think a lot about aspirations – the things you look forward to as a child or young adult; the things you dread; and how your view on these two extremes changes over the years. I have always said that nobody imagines their own death as being the mundane affair that most deaths are. We imagine dying in a dramatic plane crash, or being pulverised by an asteroid, or falling off Mount Everest when in reality it is far more likely that we will be hit by a bus as we cross the road, or suffer an unglamorous heart attack at rush hour in Kings Cross station. By the same token, when we imagine our future, most of us imagine things gradually improving – a better job, a bigger house, more leisure time, a better relationship. Almost nobody I know would respond to the question “where do you want to be in 5 years time?” by saying they “I hope I am living alone with my cat, seeing nobody socially, and never travelling or going out to eat”. And yet, that is how many of us have lived for large chunks of the past year – including me. Call it extreme solo living if you will (thanks, Covid…).
Living alone is a peculiar thing. It is something very few people really aspire to, and there are reams written about how bad or how hard it is. We are constantly told about the epidemic of one-person households in the world and what a negative impact this has on people’s social skills and mental health, and I agree that for some people, living alone can push a fragile mental state to breaking point. But for most of the rest of us, it is a quirky and unexpected combination of the good, the bad and the eccentric (and for a few of us, it can be Zen-like bliss). Like most people, I did not really aspire to being and living alone a this stage of my life, but having only lived alone very briefly before (and even then, next door to my best friend) I was also curious to see how I might deal with it.
For the most part, I was surprised by the subtle joys that living alone brought that nobody really talks about. Everything stays exactly where I put it!! Nothing is moved to “a safe place” without my knowledge and whatever crazy system I have for keeping track of my own possessions is never disrupted. Along the same lines, everything gets put back where it belongs so I very seldom have to search for anything – oh happy day – and if I leave the house clean, I come back and it is still clean! Everything in the fridge belongs to me alone – nobody snacks on the leftovers I was saving for my lunch; or uses the good wine to make a stew, or slices the cheese The Wrong Way. ALL the wardrobe space and ALL the bathroom cabinet space is mine. When I want there to be music in the house, I play music; or when I want to watch a TV show, I turn on the TV. But the rest of the time there is silence – nobody else’s TV programme forms the background noise of my every waking hour. I can choose to sing along to ABBA every night as I cook without anybody ever judging my taste in music (or singing abilities!). Learning to do new things out of necessity can be frustrating, but the satisfaction of knowing that you can bleed your own radiators, make your own braai/barbecue or put together your own IKEA furniture is immense. Everything in the house is here because I chose it: no hand-me-downs or compromise purchases or other people’s hideous family heirlooms, and if I want to paint the lounge purple with gold stars on the ceiling, I don’t have to canvas anybody’s opinion. And if I want to have ice-cream for dinner on a Tuesday, sticky toffee pudding instead of lunch on Friday, and a roast ham for breakfast on a Sunday, it’s nobody else’s business but mine.
Unsurprisingly, I found some things about living alone hard. Feeling ill is made considerably worse by the fact that there is nobody to make you as much as a cup of tea or bring you a paracetamol in bed. If you fall in the shower or choke on an apple there is nobody to call the ambulance or administer the Heimlich maneuver. You never, ever get to sneak out of having to do the chores – there is zero possibility of arriving home to a meal already cooked for you, or to a stack of clean dishes, or a freshly mowed lawn. If I don’t cook, do the dishes, mow the lawn, make the bed, feed the cat etc, nobody else is going to. Not having anybody to talk to about the interesting passage you just read in your book, the movie or TV show you just watched, or just to celebrate your daily victories or bemoan your daily frustrations with. Having the same mortgage payments and almost the same utility bills as two people, but having to pay for everything yourself. Having no choice but to deal with things you really really don’t want to, like blocked drains; or a mouse peering at you from halfway up the curtains; or the live wood pigeon brought to your bedroom by the cat (yes, really – ditto the live teenage rat he released in my kitchen…), or late night spiders scuttling across your lounge floor.
One of the dire predictions that people did make to me about living alone and that I remain mystified by is the idea that when you live alone, there is no point to making fancy meals for yourself. The generally accepted view is that cooking is something done to show off to other people, and when you live alone you subsist on a diet of baked beans on toast, microwave meals and pot noodles. I can’t speak for others, but this is patently untrue in my case. And it’s not just because I am a food blogger – when I lived on my own back in 2001 when Nick was in the UK and I was not, I cooked ambitiously for myself, hauling out the recipe books every week and choosing exotic dishes that took my fancy prepared 100% by me, 100% for me. There is something almost meditative about prepping ingredients and following a recipe and I have always found it relaxing rather than stressful or a chore, and there is something thrillingly self-indulgent about cooking a special meal and opening a special wine purely for your own pleasure. But as somebody who loves getting gold stars, the one thing I do miss is having people around to try the food I have made – I do miss seeing the pleasure that people derive from a good meal and the social aspects of a meal shared with friends and loved ones. If you are lucky enough to be living with a partner or a friend, cherish the opportunity that you have every day to gather around table, cook for each other and share a meal.
Potted meat or fish is a very English tradition and started as a way of preserving food in the days before domestic fridges were commonplace. The basic idea is to cook the meat or fish, shred or mash it into a container and then cover it fully with a layer of clarified butter. Once the butter hardens, it forms a seal which can keep the food from spoiling if it is kept in a cool place. This recipe for potted hot-smoked salmon with a quick apple pickle slaw is from Delicious magazine and as you can see by the tinsel, it was the starter that I made for Christmas. But it struck me that with its pretty pink hues and touch of luxury, it is also the perfect Valentine’s meal starter and while we are still in our interminable lockdown here in London, there will probably be a lot more home cooking than usual going on! The recipe uses hot-smoked salmon that is easily available at supermarkets and features a really pretty quick pickle slaw of apple and red onion – don’t be tempted to skip the faff of making the slaw as it really does elevate the dish. I did not have the dill that the original recipe called for, so I used finely chopped spring onions and that worked well too. The best thing about it though is that you can make it ahead and chill overnight, ready to impress tomorrow. And if you make a double batch, you can keep some in the fridge for a couple of days… to keep all for yourself 😉
If you love smoked salmon, why not try…
- Asparagus and smoked salmon pasta
- Smoked salmon and avocado stacks
- Smoked salmon, vodka and pea pasta
- Individual smoked salmon terrines
Impress your guests with this easy potted smoked salmon recipe, using hot-smoked salmon and a zingy pink quick pickle slaw. Best of all, you can make it ahead and chill overnight!
- 500 g hot-smoked salmon
- 1 lemon, juiced
- 1/2 lemon, zested
- 1 tsp coriander seeds
- 1 tsp ground black pepper
- 1 small bunch fresh dill, chopped (or substitute 3 finely chopped spring onions)
- 1/5 small bunch fresh coriander/cilantro leaves, chopped
- 180 g unsalted butter (melted and white solids discarded)
- 1/2 lemon, juiced
- 2 Tbsp red wine vinegar
- 2 Tbsp caster sugar
- 1/2 red onion, very finely sliced
- 1 Granny Smith apple, skin on, cut into matchsticks
- pinch of salt
Over medium heat, toast the coriander seeds in a dry pan until fragrant and popping, then crush to a fine powder using a pestle and mortar. set aside.
Finely flake the fish using two forks, them nix the salmon, lemon zest and juice, pepper, coriander seeds and chopped herbs well. Divide the mixture among the ramekins and pack down well.
Pour the melted butter over each ramekin, ensuring there are no gaps. Chill in the fridge for 2 hours or until the butter is hard, but remove from the fridge 30 mins before serving.
For the pickle, mix the lemon juice, vinegar and sugar in bowl, then add the apple and salt. Toss well to coat (I massaged the liquid into the onions a but as well - but don't break the apple matchsticks!). Leave for at least 15 mins (I left mine in the fridge overnight).
Drain the liquid from the slaw before serving and serve the potted salmon with toast points or crackers and the pickle slaw on the side.
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