A Month in The Countryside

This month, Helen Walmsley-Johnson chows down on last year’s turkey and quaffs a mealworm. Country life is all about making do…

Photo by Mohylek, via Wikimedia Commons.

Photo by Mohylek, shared under CC-by-SA-3.0 licence, via Wikimedia Commons.

Last week I ate a mealworm. Not a whole one and not on purpose. Nibbling on what I thought was an escaped pumpkin seed from my morning toast, I made the unwelcome discovery that it, er… wasn’t. I suppose that was an inevitable consequence of filling the bird feeder on the table where I eat my breakfast.

Then, while I watched the garden birds shovel down mealworms by the yard, it began to dawn on me that my lifelong disdain for sell-by dates and persistence with slightly dodgy food experimentation has begun to get out of control.

Month Countryside 3A quick assessment of current food stores in Chateau HWJ reveals a variety of tinned goods (roughly 50 per cent of which are out of date by some years), a jar of MI5 apricot jam (use by 2007 and courtesy of HM Secret Service – don’t ask), assorted dried goods in unopened packets (dates anywhere between 2004 and 2014) and some delicately furred sultanas. In the freezer there is a pack of year-old bacon, two bags of breadcrumbs predating my Rutland move and the remains of last year’s Christmas turkey.

I told the youngest Tattooed Daughter (works in catering) about the turkey – which was revealed to be with stuffing, once I’d chipped the ice crystals off it – and how I’d added it to my solo Christmas menu for 2015. She went visibly pale. But once thawed the turkey looked OK and smelled OK and saved me 30 quid off my festive food bill. I call that a result. My Christmas dinner was delicious and I spent the holidays bathed in the smug glow of someone who doesn’t have a wheelie bin-sized carcass in the fridge boring a giant hole in her home management self-esteem.

Speaking of cooking, when I was previously a Rutland resident I owned a formidable batterie de cuisine but over the course of my London years in a tiny furnished flat that had been whittled down to a few good saucepans and a stick blender. Now I’m back in Rutland, and with a whole kitchen at my disposal, I’ve been busily replacing baking tins, knives, ladles and so on and have begun polishing up my rusty baking skills.

The first time I made scones – that’s the first time in 20-odd years – I suffered a Proustian rush so profound I had to sit down and stare at the wall for a bit until it passed. Since then I’ve managed an edible St Clement’s cake and a completely inedible carrot cake (I tried to eat it but honestly, some things aren’t worth the E. coli).

“The thing is, when you have achieved the larder of your dreams and all the shelves are double and triple stacked with stuff you’re convinced you could never live without, it’s quite hard to see what you actually have in there.”

I’ve very much enjoyed making savoury things, although the curried parsnip soup with apple was a hard one to love. If you could get past the colour (the kind of mustardy yellow often seen in hospital biohazard bins) and the smell, it did actually taste very lovely although, as is the way with homemade curry things, my stick blender and half a dozen wooden spoons now look distinctly jaundiced.

I think stockpiling and then not eating what I’ve stockpiled originates from two places in my past. The first is my experience of severe winters up here on Rutland’s roof and knowing that it’s perfectly possible to get snowed in, cut off and isolated and that Mr Pushkin Cat cannot, under any circumstances, be left to go without.

Month Countryside 4 croppedThe second, I am sure, is from the 2013 experience of not being able to afford food so the comfort gained from seeing a cupboard full of jars, tins and packets and a freezer full of saved odds and ends is not to be underestimated, although clearly I need to get a grip and actually eat some of it or it will be wasted. And I do hate waste – actually, I think that might be a third cause for my squirrelling.

The thing is, when you have achieved the larder of your dreams and all the shelves are double and triple stacked with stuff you’re convinced you could never live without (a tin of Périgord goose liver pâté– use by 06/09/2010, for example) it’s quite hard to see what you actually have in there. And thereby hangs a cautionary tale…

In that other house, on the other side of the valley, I was enjoying my first morning coffee in a silent house, having completed the school run when I noticed that the bird table was empty. There is very little that can provoke massive guilt quite as efficiently as a desolate row of fluffed up blue tits, metaphorically checking their watches and wondering where breakfast is.

Without further ado I went to the larder (yes, a whole room for food!) to retrieve the bird food, only it was on the top shelf under something else. I hopped up onto the stone thrall, bent down with a big bag of mealworms, had a funny turn and came off the shelf backwards onto the stone floor, breaking my arm and giving myself mild concussion. I couldn’t drive. I had to call someone to come and take me to hospital.

And thinking about that, I wonder if my aversion to mealworms might have a more prosaic basis. In which case, perhaps I might risk a very small deep-fried locust…

Helen’s book, The Invisible Woman: Taking on the Vintage Years, is out now.
Read all of her Rutland tales here.


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Written by Helen Walmsley-Johnson

Helen Walmsley-Johnson is a journalist and author who writes as the Invisible Woman. She has a weekly style column for older women which she writes for the Guardian. Her first book, The Invisible Woman: Taking on the Vintage Years, is out now. @TheVintageYear