As they drove through the dark towards the invisible horizon, they munched on raisin bread. Grainger had positioned a big fresh loaf of it in the gap between the front seats, propped up against the gearstick, and they each helped themselves to slice after slice.
'This is good,' he said.
'It's made here,' she said, with a hint of pride.
The Book of Strange New Things, Michel Faber
I came to England in 2009 with a giant backpack and a long list of places I wanted to visit. I thought I would pick up a car somewhere and drive to exciting new places: Greece, Slovenia, Poland, Spain. Inevitably, once I arrived in London, reality set in. There was a shared flat and a job in theatre to be found. Once I had secured both of those, it was a lot harder to pick up and leave. I've taken weekends and odd weeks here and there, to see some of the places on my list, but it's a long way from the dream of a few months with just a backpack for company.
I have been living out of a suitcase for the past nine weeks. What I have realised in this time is that I'm not really the backpacking type. I could live the rest of my life in one pair of shoes and a couple of different dresses, but am hopelessly attached to my mixer. I like my knives and my big navy woollen blanket and my frankly ridiculous collection of cookbooks. The generosity of my extraordinary friends (and aforementioned adopted family) means that I have been thrilled to be staying on sofas and in spare rooms, with clean towels and cups of tea, instead of in hostels, sharing a room with 16 strangers and showering in my flip-flops. But I have been moving around quite a bit, packing and unpacking my bag with alarming regularity. And it's not something I fancy doing again, even though I realise how incredibly lucky I'd be to be able to do it around Europe. The truth is, I like being at home.
The travelling time in these past months (flights, London buses, the longest train journey I've ever taken) have afforded me luxurious hours for reading. When I was starting to feel a little rootless and was longing for my old flat back, I read The Book of Strange New Things. It certainly put my wistful thoughts into perspective. The central character Peter is (quite literally) light years from home and his wife Bea, working with strange aliens and even stranger human colleagues. On a long and unfamiliar drive, Grainger provides him with what must surely be the most comforting food on Earth: bread, still warm from the oven. Faber details the ingredients - some brought from Earth, some found on Oasis - the bicarbonate and egg make it sound like a variation on soda bread.
Best served with a generous scrape of butter, this is simple comfort food (and comfort cooking) at its best. For Peter, so far away from home, and for me, feeling a little bit lost without mine, it was just what was needed.
Makes 1 loaf - 10 or so slices
1 tsp salt
1tsp bicarbonate of soda
1. First, preheat the oven to 210C. Once the oven is hot, you can start with the rest of the recipe. The bread needs to go straight in the oven once it is shaped, so do have it hot first.
2. Pour the flour into the bowl and rub the butter through it until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Sieve the sugar, salt, bicarbonate of soda into the flour and toss through with your hands.
3. Combine the egg and buttermilk in a jug. Pour the flour mixture out onto the bench. Make a well in the centre, then pour the buttermilk in. Using a fork, bring the flour into the liquid and mix until combines. Work quite quickly here, as you want the bread to be in the oven while the bicarbonate is reacting with the buttermilk. Knead the dough very briefly, incorporating the raisins evenly through the dough as you do.
4. Shape the dough into a ball, and place on a lined baking tray. Make a deep cross in the top, cutting down at least half the height of the loaf. Bake for thirty minutes, until the loaf sounds hollow when tapped on the base. Leave it for at least ten minutes (but not much longer) before slicing into it. It won't keep as well as most breads, so do toast it if you're eating it after the first day.