Biscuits on the beach
It must have taken me a couple of days to notice that the cicadas had fallen silent. They have moved into the next stage of their lifecycle and we won’t hear from them again for another ten months. Swallowtails and Hummingbird Hawkmoths visit our bougainvillea regularly. Our juvenile Red-rumped Swallows go on longer and longer flying trips, but still come home to the nest and demand to be fed, and if we are in the way – leaving our home by the front door, for example – we will experience flying passes at our noses from the parents until we drop out of view.
It was neighbour Maria’s birthday and I wanted to make her something sweet. I settled on madeleines, so easy to make, especially when butter can be creamed within ten minutes of being taken out of the fridge. First time round we got the date wrong. We turned up at their house with madeleines in a makeshift box and were met by puzzlement. Amusement swiftly replaced the puzzlement.
‘Does this look like the face of someone who likes cakes?’ Maria circled a stout finger around the circumference of her broad features as she asked. She has a face that, besides suggesting a love of cake, looks for amusement. I often see her features working themselves up to tell an entertaining story. Husband has to be around to understand the story fully, mind you. I still lag far behind in comprehension.
On the correct birthday, we turned up with another lot of madeleines.
‘Again?’ said Maria, looking pleased enough.
So it seemed like nothing at all that I should offer to make a load of biscuit dough for cooking up at the beach in a solar oven, the dimensions and capacity of which I knew nothing about. It was part of our next planned protest action, something for kids, to show them clean energy alternatives and have fun. (At least we dropped the idea of making human letters in the sand; that took a bit of the load off.)
I say ‘offer’ but it’s the sort of volunteering you do when an idea is proposed, left hanging in the air, and several pairs of wide eyes look at you expectantly.
I decided the best kind of biscuit dough to manipulate in unfavourable, sandy conditions would be the sort you roll into a sausage-shape and then simply slice. I settled upon pinwheel biscuits as an attractive option. I worked out quantities and made lists of ingredients and thought of all the tools I might possibly need at the beach. In short, I was making a meal of everything, all over again.
The capacity of butter to melt at room temperature within minutes began to be less of a bonus as I mixed, then rolled and cut eight mathematically exact oblongs of chocolate and vanilla dough. I made four stacks and rolled each one up, every piece of the equation that wasn’t in immediate use being put straight back in the fridge to firm up again. Next day I packed an insulated bag with rolls of newspaper, as though making a fire, and stashed every ice pack I could find inside. The chilled rolls of biscuit dough went in there. I filled another bag with Opinel knife, baking trays, palette knife, reusable foil, cooling rack, temperature gauge, tea towels . . .
The solar oven turned out to be a marvellous, well-loved piece of kit, like a Victorian display case with an angled, silvered flap hinged to its base. The newspaper-stuffed ice-bag did its job well; the biscuit sausages didn’t descend into the oily, softening mass I had feared. They sliced up perfectly like pieces of jewellery, appropriate for their display case. Then it was just a case of monitoring the temperature – thank goodness for that gauge I brought – while the solar oven’s maker/owner judged the angle of the sun and periodically moved the device around for maximum exposure. Whenever we opened the glass front to extract or insert food, the temperature dropped speedily. It crept back up again only slowly. Altogether at peak heat it reached 99°C, if I remember rightly. The cookies made by A turned out to have been a much better idea. They didn’t look as glamorous as my pinwheel biscuits but they achieved the right texture: soft and chewy. The pinwheel biscuits dried rather more than they cooked; they were edible but lacked crispness.
Next to me an ativista was cooking pancakes with great panache on a parabolic solar cooker. The solar cooking attracted so much attention that before long the trestle table on which petitions were signed was moved out of its customary shaded position and into the sun alongside the ‘kitchen’ to maximise the collection of signatures.
The pancake-maker-with-panache showed two boys of nine or ten how they could wave their hands under the pan suspended in the parabola and feel the heat that was magically there. She began to explain to them about clean energies and the need for them.
‘No, don’t talk to me about climate change!’ said one of the boys. ‘It makes me scared. I get goosepimples if I think about it.’
Ah, well, there you have it.
Tuesday’s (today, as I write) Público has an anti-oil piece by prominent Portuguese novelist and writer Lídia Jorge, who comes originally from the Algarve. She writes beautifully. This is my very rough translation of some of her affecting words:
. . . just when the realm of black gold is being shaken by the galloping development of renewable energies, just when everything is heading towards liberation from the dictatorship of crude, [Portugal] has handed its territory over for hydrocarbon exploitation . . . The oil companies are sweeping up the last of the fossil fuels from the backyards of the weakest. The concessions signed with Portugal can only be humiliating, blinkered, a compromise to be borne by the next three generations . . . The population is told that the wealth will be returned to the regions and to the country, but people travel and they talk to each other, and they know that the purse that holds the oil money will be kept far away from the hand that does the work. We are not a dramatic country, we are a lyrical one. Here there will not be blood. Here everything ends in saltwater . . .