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Finding joy on a very wet day

"Some people walk in the rain. Others just get wet" Roger Miller

This the view from the window behind my computer. Well more or less. I actually went outside to take it so it's not quite from the same vantage point. But you get the idea. It's been raining since yesterday, without a stop and with varying intensity, leading to scenes like the above and a pretty sleepless night. At one point the intensity was such that I had to get up and see if we were flooding. Happily not.

So pretty dismal and not conducive to outside activity. Add to this the sad news of the sudden death one of my fellow Italian language students, and a hand that is still naggingly sore and aching, and there is every excuse to feel very depressed. And I confess I felt somewhat down as I got up to face the day, which I knew was due to bring yet more rain.

And yet. As I turned the page of my new Family diary there was this picture of a young girl, smiling on the beach in St. Jean de Luz in the south of France on, one assumes a sunny day, in 1959, when I would have been just a little bit older than the girl in the picture. And possibly I was in France at the same time. It's described as 'Found photograph'. Does that mean that Julian Barnes - curator of the diary - found it in his own collection? Is she maybe his sister? Is that him in the water behind? Are we looking at joy, or just happiness? Maybe only pleasure. Not that any of these emotions are to be trivialised. We/I shall never know, but I can say that this simple, obviously not professional photograph, a family snap, was incredibly soothing somehow. It's a true frozen moment in time, and really not all photos of this kind are. Who is she smiling at? Why is her hand behind her back?...

Then I turned over the picture on my Met desk calendar to find this detail from a drawing by Degas called Bather Drying Herself. I'm not quite sure whether I really like it, but I could not help marvelling at how her body shone, how a feeling of strength as well as beauty was conveyed - and all with just charcoal, pastel and white chalk on paper. Almost unbelievable and a glimpse of what can be achieved by the gifted few. Another moment in time captured forever.

Water in the sea, water on the body and water outside my window. The rain is stuttering to a probably temporary halt ... And even in this most dismal of landscapes there is a strange kind of beauty in that dampness. I have always loved the haziness of mist and rain. Vibrant colours like those of the blue agapanthus and the green of the leaves on the grapevine, are beacons of brightness in the grey-green.

So in a more cheerful mood I turned to an old Guardian newsletter for inspiration for today's post and found this summery and very colourful Last of the summer paella from Tom Hunt. It's so cheerful it almost screams "make me, make me, and you will find joy." But it's not the end of summer and there is no glut of tomatoes. Besides I made a kind of paella last week and I have added paella to my Ideas list for later. So not today. Even though it is the very antithesis of the scene outside and the hiccupping raindrops.

Further down the Guardian newsletter was an article from Rachel Cooke talking about getting stuck in a recipe rut and her vow to make something new every fortnight. Great vow. I try to do it once a week - and mostly do (I have more free time) - and find it supremely satisfying even when the end result is disappointing. If it's disappointing you can always blame it on the recipe writer rather than your kitchen skills.

Take last night for example. I had been given quite a few zucchini and a mass of basil from my friend Monika, so decided, after a brief search, to make this Courgette and ciabatta frittata from Ottolenghi's book, Simple. It was especially attractive to me because we also had half, a now stale, white loaf that needed using up, not to mention the milk and cream nearing their Use By dates. An added bonus was that it ticked the vegetarian box too. The result was rather tastier than I had expected - I had almost expected bland. But the tiny touch of cumin and garlic in the mix, not to mention the basil leaves - and the cheese - lifted it a notch. I don't think I would describe it as a frittata however. It was more of a savoury bread and butter pudding. Also if you are thinking of having a go, I used half the amount of bread he suggested and it was enough. David gave it 3 1/2 stars which I think was appropriate, but I just got an unreasonable amount of joy from using up all of those things so interestingly, and also being able to say that I had ticked my self-prescribed boxes of new and vegetarian to boot.

There are other kinds of joy to be had from food as well - the kind that transports you to other times, other places:

"This is how I happened to come home from the fishmonger the other day with a bag of clams in my arms – I’d gone in for a piece of tuna – though with shellfish, you hardly need a recipe. Garlic, a splash of wine, a hot pan with a tight lid: that’ll do it. I like clams at the best of times (they’re so intensely sweet), but what I loved about this unexpected Friday night was how daring it made me feel, and how glamorous – as if I lived, not in north London, but in Brest or Biarritz." Rachel Cooke

Perhaps that's why the Danes put the flowers on the table before the food. Maybe I should put this lovely vase of coriander gone to flowers, that Monika also gave me, on the table tonight. (Apologies for the poor photo.) Flowers on the table are not an everyday thing here, so it might well make the meal just little bit special.

It's not just the rain that can drag us down. Life throws all manner of disappointments, sadnesses and just everyday boredom at us and food, dining, cooking can bring joy to combat those feelings in so many ways. It's not just flowers on the table, a nostalgic meal, or a delicious dish that do the trick.

"one of the great things about food is that you can use it to spark joy at relatively low cost. A new winter coat may be far out of reach, or that holiday you are hankering after. But the pleasure to be gained from a small piece of smoked salmon or ham, some good bread, or some-flashier-than usual olives is wildly disproportionate to the outlay." Rachel Cooke

I vow to use the gourmet treats my son and his ex gave me for Christmas - and also to buy some of my own every now and then. And it's not just the occasional extravagance either. As I have said there is enormous satisfaction, even a sneaky kind of joy to be gained from using up leftovers, or a glut in an interesting way, whether it be of my own invention or from somebody else's recipe. Not to mention the minor sense of achievement in ticking off my -imposed resolutions.

So tonight I am making Rachel Khoo's Chaussons au jambon et légumes for dinner from leftovers. I cannot find the recipe online, but really it's just the idea I shall be using here - Puff pastry enclosing a mix of vegetables, ham and cheese. In this case the vegetables that accompanied my pesto salmon, plus some carrots and cheese. I might even make a pillow pie (two sheets of pastry enclosing the filling like a pillow), rather than pasties. But looking at the picture maybe it might make me think of a picnic - maybe even on the beach at St. Jean de Luz.

It's still sputtering wth rain. But this is Melbourne. For the next three days we are promised 27°C and very little rain. On Friday 33°C and none. We'lll probably complain about that too!

"Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather." John Ruskin


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