“Too busy” seems to be a modern malaise. Too busy, an endless motor of the million tasks and self improvements we feel we ought to accomplish every day.
For the moment, I am working a lot. A lot a lot. I get home after work less than eight hours before I have to get up and go again. It means a few choices – more sleep or a drink with friends? a quick run or a lovingly prepared meal? It can be oddly freeing to choose only the people and things that I love most and let go of guilt for the rest.
Eventually after the holidays and the fifty million Christmas logs we have to bake, everything will calm down. Until then I am calling on a bank of favours and having others cook me dinner. The other week I turned up, sleepy, with a bag of oranges, for lunch with a friend. He made me green tea with vanilla and let me yawn as he chopped vegetables and squeezed lemons.
We had an orange-themed meal, shades of sun and baked earth on a grey Paris day. He steamed a sweet-potato and served it halved, a swirl of this year’s green olive oil and a dash of cinnamon on one side, lemon and salt on the other. Then a turmeric, pumpkin and mushroom stew with cardamom rice. It was nourishing, calming food, full of warmth and spice.
Because I couldn’t face any more baked goods, my dessert was an old favourite from my Granny. I sliced a few oranges, with care, into starry rounds and piled them over thick mascarpone. A couple of handfuls of sugar went into a saucepan, left to go brown, the colour of steeped tea. When the caramel smelled as if it might be on the edge of burning, I poured it quickly over the two bowls of oranges and watched it crack hard on the cool fruit. The combination was just right – heavy, juicy winter oranges against thick cream and almost-burnt sugar set into shards. We chipped the caramel off the bowls with our spoons and finished the meal content.
When I get to feeling too busy, I take a breath and remember that lunch, those kind of lunches, and remind myself of the snippet of poem on my bedroom wall:
I do not mind living like this. I cannot bear living like this. Oh, everything's true at different times in the capacious day, just as I don't forget and always forget half the people in the world are dispossessed. -Stephen Dunn
I am lucky to be busy with work, to pay my rent. I can choose to be calm or stressed. And the capacious day includes time for work and oranges and friends.
Granny’s oranges with caramel
serves two tired people
100g caster sugar
Choose large, juicy oranges. They should feel heavy in your hands, like a good grapefruit does, and not polystyrene-light. Slice off the top and bottom and cut off the peel on the sides, careful to follow the round shape to take off all the white pith and not the fruit. Slice cross-ways to get those bicycle-spokes patterns.
Scoop mascarpone into two bowls and pile with orange slices. Throw the sugar into a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan (this is important, for it will let the sugar melt evenly and not just burn on one side) and heat on high. Watch it carefully as it melt into a clear syrup, then starts to bubble and go brown. Do not stir, but you can swirl the pan gently if one side is cooking faster than the other. Have your oranges ready. When it really smells like caramel – like creme brulee – tilt the pan and note the colour of the syrup at the thinnest part. It should be brown as mahogany. (I like my caramel to taste a little burnt.) Tip directly, and quickly onto the oranges. Done.
It should take less time and effort to make the caramel than it did to read that paragraph. If it were to go wrong, just soak the pan in water and try again.
(Nothing to be afraid of, Rachel!)