She was frying some potatoes, and he was eating rice pudding. It was a busy night and he'd be needed in the bar before long.
La Belle Sauvage, Philip Pullman
I first stood in a queue for a book in 2003. Friends of mine talked at school of camping out overnight for tickets to see their favourite band, but it was Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix I was desperate to get my hands on. Just as the clock struck midnight here in England, Brisbane bookshops unlocked their doors and welcomed us in – it was 9am, and we had the whole day ahead of us to read. My sister and I had travelled into town early, and stood in a line on the street, dressed in makeshift Hogwarts uniforms. It was brilliant fun (and something we repeated again for the final two Potter novels), but I was jealous of those on the other side of the world, who didn’t have to get up at 6am, and who had been playing games at parties for hours, before receiving their books at midnight.
I thought, as a 30-year-old woman, that perhaps the midnight launch parties had passed me by. But last month, to my delight, I finally had an opportunity to attend one. Underneath Tottenham Court Road, I made chocolatl and spice cake for a room full of excited 20- and 30-somethings, who grew up with Lyra and Will in His Dark Materials. Seventeen years after the publication of Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass, we have a brand new trilogy to enjoy. I can’t wait to devour The Book of Dust over the next couple of years.
La Belle Sauvage (the first in the new trilogy) is filled with adventure and intrigue. The story takes place ten years before Lyra’s Oxford, the one we first came to know in Northern Lights. We see the world through the eyes of eleven-year-old Malcolm, clever, resourceful, and with a strong sense of what is right. Like all children in fiction who chase around the edge of - and then dive head first into - adventure, Malcolm soon discovers that security, safety, and comfort can't always be relied upon.
Pullman spend the first part of the book offering us a very real sense of what Malcolm has to behind: nights in bed reading Agatha Christie (she exists in this Oxford too - or at least The Body in the Library does), trips in his boat to visit the nuns and baby Lyra in Godstow Priory, lessons in carpentry, and evenings spent helping his mum and dad. The book serves up a veritable smörgåsbord when it come to comfort food too: rhubarb tarts made by a nun, a cheese sandwich and a pale ale, mugs of steaming hot chocolatl.
It is the early chapters, the nights spent in Malcolm's parents' inn, the Trout, that I connected with immediately. We find him often in the kitchen, enjoying roast dinner and Yorkshire puddings, sausages and mash, baked apples, lamb stew. I could have made any of the meals from the Trout here, but it is a bowl of rice pudding that most immediately suggested comfort and warmth, and that Malcolm was eating as he thought about his mother’s ‘endless, effortless, generous food’:
The steamy, noisy kitchen was the safest place in the world, it seemed to Malcolm. Safety had never been anything to think about before; it was something you took for granted, like his mother's endless, effortless, generous food, and the fact that there would always be hot plates ready to serve it on.
These cold November days are perfect for it, a slow, lazy pudding, one which sits quietly in the oven for an hour or so, while you get on with some reading. Rice pudding is divisive, but as someone who never ate a claggy school dinner version, it's a dessert I've always loved. My dear friend Liv is a fan too, and it's a dish I associate strongly with her. So (with her permission), the recipe below is mostly hers. It's not a particularly pretty or photogenic dish, but I challenge anyone not to feel comforted with a big pot of it in front of them.
Makes 4 generous servings
50g salted butter
70g light brown sugar
140g pudding rice or short grain rice
5 bay leaves
3 crushed cardamom pods
800ml whole milk
200ml double cream
An ovenproof dish or pan (ideally one that works on your hob too)
1. Preheat the oven to 140C. Melt half the butter over a low heat until foaming. Add the sugar and stir until dissolved, then tip in the rice, and stir until it is coated in the sugary butter. Stir in the whole bay leaves, cardamom pods, and salt.
2. Pour in the milk and cream, and stir slowly for a couple of minutes, ensuring the rice doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan. Bring the milk to a simmer, dot the remaining butter around the top of the milk, and then transfer the pot to the oven.
3. Bake for an hour, until golden brown on top. Allow to cool for fifteen minutes, and then take the pot to the table, allowing everyone to help themselves to generous spoons full of pudding.