Tales Of The Country: Let me eat cake (but not my words)

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The Independent Online

Our excellent mobile cinema, the Flicks in the Sticks, has not passed through our north Herefordshire parish for a while, so I still haven't seen Calendar Girls, the film starring Julie Walters and Helen Mirren, about those doughty members of the Women's Institute who posed naked in aid of leukaemia research. However, I've read the reviews, and have noted that the characters played by Walters and Mirren giggle irreverently during various WI talks, including one thrillingly titled The History of Broccoli.

The revelation that the racier members of the WI habitually take the mickey while some poor soul is droning on about broccoli or some such subject would, a couple of weeks ago, have filled me with amusement; now it fills me with foreboding. For such is the celebrity imparted by this column that I have myself been asked to address the Ludlow branch of the WI, in late January. I wonder whether there might be a Dimbleby Lecture scout lurking at the back, surreptitiously taking notes?

The call came from a charming woman who didn't seem entirely sure who I was. "Er, what will you be talking about?" she asked, having ascertained that I would not be averse to giving a talk. "I suppose," I said, "my life in the country." She seemed underwhelmed, doubtless because everyone round here has a life in the country. "I could talk about our reasons for leaving London, and how we have settled," I added. "Oh," she said, slightly perkier. "Quite a few of our members will relate to that. And what is your fee?"

This stumped me. It would have seemed a trifle pretentious to refer the WI's Ludlow branch secretary to my agent. Apart from which, I haven't got an agent. And going rates on the after-dinner speaking circuit probably did not apply. "What," I said guardedly, "do you normally pay?" She told me that £30 was about the average. "In that case," I said cheerfully, "I'll do it for a cake."

There was a brief, bewildered silence. "A cake?" she said, much as Edith Evans once queried a reference to a handbag.

"Yes," I said, "a cake. I know that the WI is famous for making fantastic cakes."

"There's a bit more to us than that," she said, rather testily.

"Oh, I know," I said hastily, making the split-second decision not to add, even in a tone of obvious light-heartedness, that I knew they also took their kit off. "I didn't mean to sound patronising. It's just ... I just ..." There was, from the other end of the phone, a further heavy silence. "I like cake," I concluded, lamely.

"What sort of cake?" she asked. By now I was regretting not just asking for the 30 quid. "Er, how about chocolate," I said, and tried to move the conversation on by asking how long she would like me to speak for. "About 45 minutes," she replied, which made me think that I should have asked for some meringues as well.

Anyway, she told me that she would write with confirmation, and a few days later a letter duly arrived. "Your request to be paid in cake has been noted," the letter concluded. I don't think I was wrong to discern a whiff of disapproval. I hope I don't get heckled in scones.

Sir Lancelot had nothing on Brian the Brave...

Rather worryingly, I seem to have developed an obsessive-compulsive streak, although it is manifest only when I go blackberry-picking. The blackberries in our garden and in the wood beyond are particularly luscious at the moment, and I find myself unable to pass them without rushing back into the house for a basket, and sometimes even a stepladder. My middle child, Joseph, is in turn developing what might well become a life-long aversion to blackberries. "But daddy," he wails. "You said you'd play football with me." "I know," I say, "and I will, but I've just spotted a really fantastic clump of berries..."

Once I start I can't stop, either. In most respects I have a pain threshold lower than a centipede's kneecaps, but when it comes to blackberry-picking I am fearless, like Sir Lancelot. Thorns and nettles hold no fears for me in the pursuit of the perfect blackberry, for as fellow-pickers will know, there is no gain without pain. And when I get hold of a really fat, ripe one, satisfaction courses through me. It's immensely therapeutic, if a bit pathetic.

I return home, hours later, looking as if I've run into a vengeful Zorro, but with a huge basketful of berries to show for my lacerations and stings. These are placed in bowls of salt water to get rid of grubs, then rinsed, bagged up and stuffed into the freezer, in theory so that we can enjoy blackberry jam, blackberry compote and blackberry muffins throughout the winter, although in all probability they will end up being chucked away in about a year's time, when I have a fresh crop to excite me.

Food, glorious food

The Ludlow Food Festival is upon us again, today, tomorrow and Sunday. It is a marvellous event, held mostly within the walls of the ruined castle, which brings a flavour of olde England to the decidedly new England carry-on of stallholders from Nuneaton trying to entice you with their new range of Ligurian stuffed baby artichokes. The festival is also child-friendly, unlike most food festivals, which as a friend pointed out, are marred for him by his children continually asking when they can go for a Big Mac, and complaining that the cheese smells like poo.