When I was a teenager, I spent a lot of time in the attic room over the garage at my best friend’s house. Her parents both worked so we went to her place where we were free to do whatever we wanted without any actual parental intervention. The attic was set up with an old TV and a couple of couches. And a record player. We didn’t have cell phones, Netflix, or computers. We didn’t even think about drugs or alcohol. There was no social media as a constant distraction. Time stretched out in front of us in the most luxurious way – a way that doesn’t seem to exist anymore.
We spent hour after hour talking and listening to a stack of albums – the old vinyl kind. It was the days of Lulu singing To Sir With Love. Don McLean and Gordon Lightfoot. Carly Simon, Cat Stevens, the Carpenters, Crosby Stills Nash & Young. Fleetwood Mac. The Eagles, John Denver, Rita Coolidge, and James Taylor. Our favourite album was Carole King’s album, Tapestry. We’d belt out the lyrics, “I felt the earth move under my feet,” at full volume, as if the words were written for us. The Carpenters were also a perennial favourite. We loved the same music and we knew the words inside out and backwards to every single song on every record in the collection.
Sometimes we lit candles and lay on our backs in the flickering light sharing a million dreams about our futures. She wanted to travel the world. I wanted to be a hippy and live in the country with an old Aga wood stove and bake my own bread and do a bunch of arty stuff – pottery, knitting, painting, spinning. In the end I traveled the world and she lived on the shores of the ocean in Prince Edward Island growing everlasting flowers and painting. We lived each other’s dreams.
We both loved to cook so inevitably we’d end up in the kitchen. Our favourite thing was making shrimp cocktails. And because her family came from Prince Edward Island and had a summer-house there they brought back tins and tins of lobster and crab from the cannery, which we made into lobster rolls and warm crab dip. Despite our taste for seafood we usually washed our feasts down with cans of Susan’s mother’s TAB (a horrible diet soft drink). At least, that’s what I drank. Susan, I think, was more sensible.
She was my first Canadian friend. I met her at Brownies when I was six years old. She went to a different school, and she didn’t live in my neighbourhood, so for a long time while I was really young, I only ever saw Susan once a week, for two hours on Tuesday nights when our Brownie Pack met. I lived each week for those two hours and that I’m pretty sure Susan was the sole reason I loved Brownies.
In those early days, Susan had long auburn brown hair that fell way below her waist. She was covered in freckles. She was tiny and beautiful in the most natural way. She was also the sweetest, kindest, and the most fun person I’d ever known. To begin with, and for the longest time, I don’t think we even knew each other’s names. I was six and I’d never had a friend before. Somehow we managed to connect and we never let go.
Our Brown Owl, who was quite old and seriously overweight, had absolutely no control over the large group of girls. For the first half hour of each meeting – she quite literally let us run wild presumably to run off steam. Susan and I ran around the gymnasium full tilt – screaming and laughing hysterically at the top of our lungs, hand in hand, her long auburn flying behind her, my equally long blond hair flying behind me. Nobody had ever let me behave like that.
It was exhilarating. And the most liberating, amazing fun I’d ever had in my young life. I loved it and I loved Susan too.
When we were in high school and I was a bit of a lost brat – Susan stood by me. When we graduated, me first, her the following year, we didn’t go to our graduations but went away together instead, cycling around Prince Edward Island and hiking through the high peaks of the Adirondack Mountains. We went off to different universities. Susan became a landscape architect. I did an interdisciplinary environmental studies degree. I eloped with my university boyfriend and moved to Australia. She got married and moved to Prince Edward Island. We kept in touch across the continents but throughout the years as things changed in our lives, our contact became increasingly sporadic. Once, we spent a magical week together at her oceanfront house in PEI. Susan was beautiful with my daughters. We bought fresh lobsters and had lobster races on her kitchen floor before we put the poor old lobsters into a pan of boiling salt water straight from the sea. We bought pounds and pounds of mussels and cooked them on the beach – pouring an entire bottle of white wine into the stock.
Then a decade ago, Susan phoned me on my birthday and told me that she had cancer. She said that she was going to fight it with everything she had. I was crying silently as I listened, shocked. I visited her once while she was sick but I didn’t make it back across the country to attend her memorial service. I should have but I didn’t. I was returning to live in Australia and I had a seriously ill daughter.
I miss Susan. I always will. She was my longest term friend. She was gentle and kind and utterly beautiful. I love my memories of her. It’s because of her that I understand the value of friendship. I think of her every time I hear any of that old music and I have every last song we knew together on my iPod.
I was thinking about Susan when I made this roasted grape and brie flatbread. I was taking it to lunch at a friend’s house. A friend I don’t know all that well but who comes from Yorkshire, the place I also came from and so every time I hear her voice, it’s like a journey home. There I was, in my kitchen, remembering Susan and I in the kitchen together, making lunch for another friend, and thinking about how food plays into all the important relationships in our lives.
This roasted grape and brie flatbread is a little bit different. The crust is thin. The flavours are delicate. You might think pizza but it’s not a pizza. It’s far more subtle. I think it would be beautiful made with a creamy blue – like gorgonzola or feta (skip the parmesan) or a goat’s milk chevre and I’ll do that next time. This time I made it with slices of brie and a salty very finely, grated Parmesan. The roasted grapes are sweet, juicy, flavourful, and unexpected. The cheese is alternately creamy and salty. Serve this with a good green salad. I served it with a tomato, cucumber, red onion, and avocado salad but I think it’s more suited to arugula with cranberries and nuts in a balsamic vinaigrette. Either way – this is the food of love – it takes a bit of time and effort – it’s flavours are gentle, creamy. slightly tangy. Simultaneously salty and sweet. A little bit complex – like a lasting friendship. Serve it with sparkling water or Prosecco.
Roasted Grape and Brie Flatbread
For the dough:
- 3/4 cup lukewarm water
- 1 1/4 tsp. yeast
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 tsp sugar
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
For the toppings:
- 1 1/4 cups seedless red grapes, washed, dried and cut in halves
- 4 0z brie and 1 oz of finely grated parmesan (or skip these two and just use 4-5 ounces of gorgonzola or chevre)
- 2 tbsp of fresh rosemary, washed, dried, and chopped finely
- 2 tbsp olive oil
Using olive oil, gently grease a large baking sheet with sides.
Begin by mixing the yeast, salt, and sugar into the lukewarm water. Let stand for five minutes. Add the olive oil. Mix in the flour. Adjust if necessary by adding either a tablespoon of water or a tablespoon of flour at a time until the dough hangs together properly. Turn onto a lightly floured board and knead for 3-4 minutes before covering and setting to rise in a warm place for approximately one hour. (Or just use your bread machine on the dough setting.)
Once the dough has approximately doubled in size, either roll it out or gently stretch and pat it out until it is approximately the size of your baking sheet. Transfer gently to the greased sheet and begin my pressing the grapes, cut side down, gently into the dough. Then add the cheese and rosemary and drizzle the whole thing lightly with olive oil.
Turn the oven to 400 deg F. and allow the flatbread to rise a second time while the oven comes up to temperature. Place the tray in the oven and set the timer for ten minutes. When the timer goes off, rotate the tray and adjust the temperature to 375 deg F. Cook for another 8-10 minutes or until the crust is golden and the cheese is melted and lightly browned.