Chitra Ramaswamy: ‘My stew is the opposite of Nigellisima - Beargryllsisimo, if you like’

IT’S NIGHT time in the ancient heart of the Cairngorms and I’m in a cabin in the woods. Don’t worry, Sam Evil Dead Raimi isn’t directing this column.

You are not about to witness your correspondent being chased through rustling Scots pines in a ridiculously skimpy vest. You are about to see me making a beef stew.

Understand that this is no ordinary stew. I don’t mean it in the sense that Nigella made it, perhaps whilst plucking designer utensils from an overhead rack in her mansion-sized kitchen, eyeing each one suggestively, like a lover not a ladle. In fact, my stew is the exact opposite of Nigellisima – no fridges, frills and fuss, and absolutely no sexual innuendo. This is a stew cooked on a wood-burning stove by candlelight while wearing bobbly thermals in the middle of nowhere. Beargryllsisimo, if you like.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

To me, a wood-burning stove is a place to warm the cockles and toes. A place to gather around and sing songs loudly whilst inebriated. A place to hang a steaming sock after a walk. It is not a place to cook your tea. Yet here I am, on a little wooden stool in my little wooden bothy, bent over a stove the size of a pocket handkerchief, making humble stew. It doesn’t get more hardcore survival challenge than this, well apart from the fact that the beef is from Waitrose.

It’s... all... so... simple... So... slow... My world has reduced down and down, like any stew worth its salt, into a series of pure sensory impressions. The heat of the fire on my cheeks. The woodsmoke puffing out of the chimney like a dedicated smoker, scenting the crisp air of the forest. The meat and veg puttering in the pot. 
The rich smell of red wine.

And so it goes on and on, the very War and Peace of stews. For four hours, this is it. No more, nor less. I sit and stir, throw in an occasional log, stir, drink wine, stir, nip outside to sniff the air, dash back in to stir. When we finally sit down to eat the thing, it seems extraordinary that something that took so long can disappear so fast.

Something strange happens in moments like this. Time stretches like a piece of elastic. It elongates the way summer holidays do when you’re a child with all the time in the world, so much time that you get bored filling it. Then, of course, you go back to school. Grow up. Time gets filled, then overfilled. It speeds up, goes too fast. And then, without getting too maudlin about the whole thing, it stops. No more stew.

As I ponder all this in my little bothy, watching button mushrooms bob on the surface of the stew like boats in a harbour, I make a decision. The kind we all make on a holiday much needed. I am going to take more time. In doing so, I might prolong my own life. Or at least enjoy it more.

Fast forward a few days and I’m back in Leith, cooking dinner on a boring old gas hob. The kettle boils in moments as opposed to taking half an hour. Everything happens conveniently, quickly, too fast. Between stirs, I dash back and forth to the sitting room to check out what Mary Berry is making of the biscuits in The Great British Bake Off. In the kitchen, I combine cooking with listening to the radio, texting, composing a tweet and doing a quick tidy. The cabin in the woods seems far away, in another time altogether.