Thursday, 30 April 2009

A Bloomsbury lunch

The Norfolk Arms is an old Bloomsbury gin palace, sitting on a street corner, just up from a hidden Lutheran church, and slap bang opposite the secondhand book shop that served as the Black Books shopfront of TV comedy fame.

Indeed, the exterior of the Norfolk Arms itself was seen in a couple of episodes.

It was a fairly run-down pub in those days. A few years earlier, when I had lived around the corner, it had been one of the few local boozers that I had felt no inclination to try.

But it has subsequently been reinvented as a gastro-pub, and now provides a quite regular lunch venue near work.

They’ve stripped back the walls and the floor, and gone for rather minimalist furnishing – old, cream-painted tables and the sort of chairs that probably once occupied a church somewhere, with a little shelf on the back for your hymnal.

The old bar remains in the centre of the space and food is delivered via a dumb waiter.

Today’s waiter isn’t dumb, although the service can be a tad slow sometimes – but why rush a meal? I can’t think of anywhere else, though, where I’m served by someone in hipster jeans – fortunately, the pinstripe boxers beneath appear to be in pristine condition. But Batyr is attentive without being pushy – and also sports some very nifty tattooing on his right arm.

The clientele is mixed – not quite Bohemian these days, but reflective of an area that is home to a lot of non-governmental organisations as well as more 'conventional' businesses.

Unfortunately, they’ve now scrapped the blissfully good-value two-course set lunch for a tenner deal, but it’s still better than anything else in the area – and worth paying more occasionally.

Today, I started with chicken liver paté, toast and an aubergine chutney.

The paté was excellent – beautiful texture and heaving with garlic. It made me wonder why my own efforts at paté have been too garlicky (if that’s possible). The recipe I’ve used is a Delia one and calls for raw garlic to be incorporated. But for some reason or other I found that too much. I wonder if the garlic in today’s paté has been cooked first?

Bread here is always good and the toast was no exception, while the chutney gave a nice sweetness to the course.

For my main course, I had grilled swordfish steak, accompanied by a mix of butter beans, diced carrot, mushrooms and saffron. Very pleasant, although the swordfish was close to the cusp of being overcooked.

And all washed down with a glass of nice, fruity Tempranillo.

It was a very pleasant lunch – and, as always when I eat out nowadays, I find that I learn things and can appreciate the food and the cooking more than I ever did in days of yore.

And gastro pubs are the saving grace of eating out in London these days – in many cases, providing much better value for money, and just as good a dining experience as supposedly very good restaurants.

Long live the reborn Norfolk Arms.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Farewell to a golden girl

Bea Arthur left us a few days ago. The star of stage and screen died at the age of 86.

She led a fascinating life, even volunteering and serving as one of the first female active-duty US marines in WWII, but her place in cultural history has been secured by her work on stage and TV – a career that brought her a host of awards and nominations, including two Emmys and a Tony.

Arthur's stage work included musicals – she was in the cast of the first Broadway production of Brecht and Weill's Threepenny Opera, alongside the legendary Lotte Lenya, Weill's wife, who had originally created the role of Jenny.

She made her TV name in Maude, a sit-com that dared to tackle social issues that others stayed well away from – for instance, abortion, at a time when it remained illegal in many US states. before Roe v Wade.

But for me personally, although I loved her performance in Mame, I mainly think of Arthur as Dorothy Zbornak in The Golden Girls.

It’s a show I love – and not least because it was that rarest of things: it was about women, and not women who fitted a simplistic aesthetic or behavioural stereotype, particularly in terms of their age. Indeed – goodness – The Golden Girls was about older women who didn’t just hide away and die!

Arthur’s performance was a delight – and utilised superbly the things for which she was so well known: her deep, ‘masculine’ voice, her tallness and her acid-like delivery.

It always managed to stay just this side of mawkishness. As Dorothy said in one episode, just as she was in danger of getting sentimental during a rare close moment with her vindictive mother: “Call the schmaltz cops!”

We actually had our own British version of The Golden Girls, Brighton Belles, but despite having a wonderful cast (Sheila Hancock, Wendy Craig, Sheila Gish, and Jean Boht), it was pretty dire and could never match the US version.

It never ceases to amaze me that, during a period which has seen feminism bring about so much progress for women – particularly in the West – we’ve seen a decline in the way women are represented on film (in Hollywood in particular).

Where once there were many female Hollywood film stars, who opened films, who didn’t always look remotely conventional or live conventional lives, now there are so few. It’s a nightmare for female actors over ‘a certain age’ to get decent roles, while their younger counterparts seem to spend a lot of time playing ever more stereotypical and one-dimensional characters.

Perhaps that partly because, since the end of the 1970s, so much Hollywood output has been geared up for a youth audience and for a geeky male youth audience in particular?

But whatever the reason, The Golden Girls remains a refreshing delight.

And thank you Bea, for all the pleasure you gave us.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

My green and salad days

What is it with the English and salad? You could be forgiven that believing that a salad could be one of the very easiest dishes to concoct, and yet, in a nation that is obsessed with obesity and unhealthy eating, we are dismal at making salads?

For my mother, salad was a confection made from various slight variations of a limited number of ingredients. I remember lettuce, watercress, mustard and cress (which my father terms “grass” and hates), celery, cucumber, radishes, beetroot (pickled) and grated carrot. Some combination of this would be accompanied by boiled eggs or cold meat – I don’t remember fish coming into the equation. In the summer, new potatoes might be served on the side.

There were no onions and no herbs, and Heinz Salad Cream was the dressing of choice, sitting alongside the salt and pepper on the table, ready to see if you could whack the base of the bottle just enough to get some – but not too much – out.

If food was primarily fuel, then salad was the health-conscious version of this – but bland enough to risk any sensual pleasure. It was the ultimate puritan at the feast.

Later, during my athletic phase, I developed a liking for a dish that I discovered in a running magazine – ‘munchy pasta salad’. It included pasta (good old complex carbs for energy on your run), plus celery, apple, walnuts, raisins, orange segments and a dressing made from low-fat yogurt, orange juice and black pepper.

Such an exotic creation introduced me to a whole world of ideas, since only one of those ingredients was familiar salad fodder to me before then.

And then I discovered cucumber – okay, not cucumber per se, but organic cucumber. It was the 1980s and it was Lancaster. A new shop had opened near my then workplace, selling organic produce – a word I was totally uninformed about at the time. Eventually, out of curiosity, I ventured in. And for some reason or other, I picked up a cucumber – even though it was more gnarled and smaller and less regular than the supermarket ones, I decided to give it a go.

When I got home and took a knife to it, the shock was massive: it had an aroma, for goodness sake! And it had taste too.

The lesson was not fully learnt, since it was to be some years before I actually discovered I could enjoy food, in both the preparation and consumption. But now I wouldn’t dream of buying non-organic cucumber – it’s a total waste of money. And good cucumber means that even cucumber sandwiches are worth making and eating.

Perhaps only at such moments do you realise that so much of the food that we consume in the UK has been mass-produced to such complete tastelessness that cardboard would be an entirely adequate substitute.

I had a lovely salad on Sunday afternoon. Some lamb’s lettuce, a few small tomatoes, halved, and some goat’s cheese. A light dressing of lemon juice and virgin oil. Nothing else required – but it relied on really good ingredients.

Eating out in the UK, if you expect a decent salad, then be prepared for disappointment. Insipid lettuce, tasteless tomatoes, watery cucumber …

The deli bar at work is a perfect case in point. They always tell us that the ingredients at the salad bar are fresh. I’ve no doubt that this is right – but they’re also all rubbish, the cheapest possible products and lacking in any flavour at all. For goodness sake – the pickled beetroot is devoid of a taste, even of vinegar!

Is it really too much to ask for a little salad to be fresh, crisp and full of flavour? How do the French do it – because they do? I remember having a salad for lunch in Perpignan three years ago. We were due to get a train early in the afternoon and needed something quick to eat. A small café nearby clearly served pre-made salads for workers.

I can’t remember the price, but it was far from expensive. I picked a huge plate of leaves, tomatoes, olive, raisins, nuts and cheeses (three types), with dressing on the side. The man serving me peeled away the cling film as he handed it to me over the counter. And do you know what – it was smashing. Not complicated, but fresh and actually full of taste.

So can it really be such a difficult thing to make an acceptable salad? Elizabeth David railed against dismal salads more than once. Unfortunately, while we’ve come a long way in some areas of our culinary life, I suspect she’d still be mortified at what is so often passed off as salad in the UK.

The salad, it seems, it more an art form in the UK than one might expect.


So, here are a trio of personal favourites.

• In the tomato season only – sliced Mozzarella with sliced tomatoes, a few leaves of basil and seasoning. It doesn’t need olive oil, because that could swamp the flavours.

• Chuck some lamb’s lettuce on a plate. Toast some raw walnut halves. Halve, core and then slice a pear and lay it on the leaves. Crumble some goat’s cheese on top. Dress with a mix of fresh lemon juice to good virgin oil (about one to three parts).

• Scoop some melon balls out of a nice, ripe melon. Add some really good Serrano or Parma ham and some black olives. Take some cannellini or borlotti beans (this is where tinned stuff comes into its own), pulse briefly, pop in a saucepan with a squeeze of lemon juice and a little olive oil, and warm through. Drizzle a little – and it really does only need to be a little – good quality Balsamic vinegar over the salad (it’s gorgeous with the melon). And serve the bean purée on the side.

Monday, 27 April 2009

The red hot crucible of culinary creativity

After all the excitement of Friday night, it proved a most relaxing weekend, with some valuable time spent in the kitchen.

And a culinary project that I’ve spent years mulling is finally coming to fruition. The final thing is not there quite yet, but it’s moved a lot nearer.

It must be at least four years ago that I first had the idea. A close friend of mine, with whom I share the passion for food and cooking (he’s helped enormously with my culinary education, incidentally), had been making a pepper jelly, which went particularly superbly with pork sausages.

It brought back memories of the crab apple jelly that my mother – and her mother before her – used to make, and which we used in the same way. I’ve made efforts to get hold of some crab apples, but to no avail thus far. Another traditional English crop that is disappearing.

However, partly with that in mind, I’ve long had the feeling that a rhubarb jelly would work in the same way – cutting through sweet meat or fish. And that some chilli in it would work really well.

Finally, after years of saying this – and even being laughed at by a young couple when discussing the idea with the aforementioned friend during a bus journey – I have finally put such words into action.

I had done little reading, but knew that I had to add approximately the same weight of sugar as fruit and that lemons contain pectin.

So I chopped up my rhubarb, popped it in a pan with the sugar, a chilli and some lemon juice and cooked it, before eventually decanting into a sterilised jar and waiting. It refused to set.

Attempt two saw me try again, but adding the whole of three chopped lemons – pips, pith and all. It refused to set.

At this juncture, I tried a bit more reading. Memo to self: research never goes amiss.

Attempt three came on Saturday, after I’d sat up in bed that morning with a coffee and Jane Grigson’s English Food, trying to see if she dispensed any clues in the section on preserves.

And sure enough, the final preserves recipe (an early one from her daughter, Sophie) was a pepper jelly – and gave me the most vital clue. For some reason or other, pectin is negated by peppers, including chillies.

Once you know that, you can deal with it. I’d picked up preserving sugar a few days earlier – it has added pectin – and deployed that. Plus a whole lemon and a whole apple.

But what I’d also learnt was that my single-cook efforts were not enough and that I hadn’t realised just how much preserves really need to boil. Not simmer – boil.

This time, I started with all the fruit – and the chilli – and cooked briskly for around 20 minutes, then left it to strain for over three hours.

After that, I added sugar and seriously boiled it (losing some over the edge of the pan in the process). And I deployed the old technique of chilling a saucer and then seeing if a drop of the mixture sets on contact with it.

It took around 40 minutes, but it worked. And, decanted into a jar, this time, it actually set!

I tasted a little yesterday. It’s a decent taste, but with not enough chilli. I want more heat to come through (chillies fascinate me, as the heat isn’t the first thing you taste; it develops). I know now that, if I can get hold of some liquid pectin, I can adjust the taste – adding some lemon juice, more chilli and cutting back a bit on the sugar.

But what’s in that jar is good enough to serve – and will be available tonight with some poached salmon (alongside garlic-roasted and roughly chopped new potatoes, and asparagus).

The first victory in my first real culinary experiment has been won.

Sunday, 26 April 2009


A few months ago, in another little corner of cyberspace, a poster suggested that we have a writing competition. They posted a number of poems, and invited anyone who was interested to write a short story inspired by one of the poems.

Well, I read the poems, and the following one got my brain ticking:

Lost by (no author given)

Hollow footsteps, cloaked by night
Of sadness known through tortured sight;
The willow weeps for solitude
As Owl moans a gloomy interlude.
- Reflection in the glossy lake
"If I should die before I wake..."
A tear shatters the silent face
That seeks solace in this deserted place.
Wind whispers through the willow's leaves,
And Owl, perched high, silently grieves.
The glow from city lights afar
Swallow whole a falling star.
A wish upon the trembling lips
For peace. A raven gently sips
The water near his honored guest,
But soon flies to his hidden nest.
Weary beneath the flowing cloak,
The traveller rests against an oak
And fights the lure of heavenly sleep
-"I pray the Lord my soul to keep..."

Forever lost, each journey taken
Plagues the mind; the nights awaken
Troubled visions, thoughts of yesterdays,
That seem like beacons - lives away.
Random comforts cannot ease this soul,
For knowledge takes its weary toll
'Pon one who suffers with each breath,
Who slept once in peace, then awoke in death.

The following story was the result. And it occurred to me that it wouldn't be a bad idea (or perhaps it is!) to give it a home here. It was an intriguing experience writing it, because it's light years from anything that I'd written before or since. See what you think.


Evening dips its toes into the incoming dark, feeling the cool pull of unstoppable night. One world dies as another comes to life. Street lights flicker awake. The breeze is negligible but cooling after the heat of day.

Beneath the bruised sky a woman hides in the shadows and scuttles with care between patches of covering gloom as the dusk descends and people stride purposefully past to pick up their lives elsewhere.

The minutes pass. Unobserved, weary beneath the flowing coat, she rests against a wall and sighs. But exhaustion is mingled with excitement and her heart pounds as she bides her time. The glow from city lights could dwarf a star, yet in her corner she remains unseen. A sparrow in the narrow alleyway gently sips the water near his guest, but soon flies to his hidden nest, leaving her to seek solace in this deserted place.

The minutes pass. She watches as the shops close; as shutters glide down, as doors are locked, as ‘open’ signs are spun to say otherwise: and then – half envious half chivvying them away – as the shop assistants leave for the day, chatting and gossiping amongst themselves and into mobile phones, their laughter spreading out as the emptying streets echo with departing life.

The minutes pass and still she waits to be sure that she is alone. A cat slinks past, brushing against her and, with an insouciant flick of its luxuriant tail, disappears into the gloom in search of mice. She listens to the beat of her heart, the whisper of her breath; feels the pulse near the surface of her skin; feels safe in the dark, in the silence. And finally, certain at last that no one else is in sight, that nobody will see her, she steps out into the deserted street.

Neon reflected in a glossy puddle proclaims all the pleasures that can be bought from the shops around her. She gazes into vast windows, mesmerised by plastic flesh, pristine and faultless, draped in creations of exuberant colour and texture. Vacant eyes stare over her shoulder, ignoring her – as she knows everyone ignores her. How odd that being so large should make her feel so small.

Silk scarves of almost impossible delicacy drape from long, thin fingers, unmoving. Unattainable elegance scorns her gauche clumsiness and yet she stares with longing; with a belief that this could – should – be possible for her too.

Gods, plastic gods; to be worshipped and adored: looked up to as they preside over vast cathedrals of glitz and glamour, of beauty and perfection. Praise them and pass the concealing stick. Beacons, these unthinking dummies – many lives away from hers: a perpetual, impossible challenge to her own body, which she hides forever beneath formless grey that promises never to reveal her secret curves.

And she buries herself deeper, deep in the dark shadows, staying away from people, saving them the sight of her grossness. Only the gods can see her failings when she comes to them.

Fortune has been kind to her – parents who left her wealthy enough that she never has to leave the house for work each day; no mixing with those who are more beautiful that she is; no mixing with anyone, then.

The money grows of its own accord, without effort, while the internet – blessedly impersonal – takes care of basic needs: but they’re animal comforts that never ease her soul.

Unused credit cards sing siren songs from an unopened purse, urging her to give them air; to flash them brazenly at sales assistants and spend, spend, spend. To enjoy life. To experience life.

There’s so much money waiting to be spent that she could buy anything she wanted: but what she wants, money can’t buy.

Threadbare emotions, worn through by lack of care, lay bare a throbbing pain, as prodigious as her fecund bank accounts.

And still she gazes at the mannequins with their alabaster skin and curveless figures, longing to look like them because, when she does – if she could – then everything will be different; everything will be alright.

She turns from the windows that comfort and torture, and trudges through the city, back to her twilight existence on the edge of life.

Hollow footsteps, cloaked by night, sound on the naked wood. In dusky rooms, damp with the disappointment of decades, the mirrors tease her; like fairground gimmicks, they warp her before her own eyes. It’s a sadness known through tortured sight. A tear shatters her silent face.

Interred in the kitchen, she mixes ingredients with unexpected ferocity into every variety of cake imaginable. But she never eats – not even a lick from the wooden spoon – muttering instead an obsessive mantra that reminds her that, if only she can lose enough weight, if only she can cut enough calories, her life can start.

But she cannot stop wanting, cannot stop thinking about food. So she bakes the dark hours away, throwing flour and salt and eggs and cream and spices and milk into bowls and moulds; mixing and stirring and creating; the vast oven a surrogate womb, dispensing the fruits of her lust onto racks to cool as the night moves to day and she tries to beat past the need for food; for comfort.

Under bruised skies once more she scurries outside to a nearby home for the infirm, leaving cakes on the doorstep and running away again before anyone can see her.

Exhausted; gothic pale, she hides from the sun in her lair, heavy curtains blotting out the light. After the night’s work, she slumps into a chair in front of the muted TV, defeated once more, lonely and miserable, stuffing her face with chocolates, lips tinted brown like one of those store mannequins she envies so much.

She sleeps, but barely in peace, then awakes to a living death as the sky darkens once more; as a willow weeps in solitude and a nearby owl moans a gloomy interlude. There’s a wish upon her trembling lips for peace, but knowledge takes its weary toll and each journey taken plagues her mind, while the nights awaken troubled visions and thoughts of yesterdays. With nothing to follow but more of the same.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

Mine for life

Never mind a thin wall, this was a wall of sound; not just exploding around, but inside. Deep inside – bone deep, opening up an entirely new and different space.

The lighting, blues and purples dominating, was so rich and intense it was so hyper-real.

This is the HMV Apollo Hammersmith (to give it its full current title) and this is 24 April 2009 and this is Ultravox. It's taken me almost 30 years to get here – to be at a live gig with Midge Ure, Billy Currie, Chris Cross and Warren Cann playing live.

Tickets for this reunion tour went on sale last autumn. I dived in straight away to buy one – this is not The Other Half's cup of tea, so I was always going to be on my own. And in so many ways, that makes it even more perfect. If I dance too wildly or sing too loudly, there will be nobody anywhere near to remind me about it the day after.

It's a tour that I never thought would happen – they haven't played together since Live Aid – and I thought I'd missed the chance.

There was an extent to which I didn't quite appreciate how much this band and their music had become part of my life. Only the announcement of the tour and the purchase of a ticket made me realise how excited I was. And only as the date itself finally emerged from the long tunnel of the winter months did my excitement start to mount to a fever pitch; a level of anticipation I cannot recall for any other comparable event.

Midge doesn't bother to spend much time chatting to the audience – this is for the serious business of the music.

And how different and fresh it is to hear all those familiar songs played live.

They open with Astradyne, the seven-minute instrumental that opened the first album that this seminal line-up of the band recorded, Vienna.

And it's Ultravox all over – perhaps as I love them best. Derided by many and an acquired taste (isn't all taste acquired?), they were often labelled as 'New Romantics'. But as Midge has put it more than once, there were no frilly shirts anywhere. What they did – as Astradyne so magnificently shows – was take the influence of electro pioneers Kraftwerk and give it some twists.

They combined a New Wave sound with electonic instruments and arrangements, and with rock and, later, pop. But here, as they play through their greatest hits – and there are a lot for what was, in essence, a four-album band – the rock element is at the fore.

Warren's work on drums is fantastic. Never having seen them live before, I hadn't fully appreciated Midge's work on guitar – but Billy's forays from keyboard to electric violin – each one greeted by huge cheers – is as remembered and as expected.

Visions in Blue has long been a favourite and it's great here.

Vienna is magnificent. As the unmissable intro begins, I raise eyes upward, punch the air, give a silent cheer and think to myself – not for the first time in the evening – that I've waited close to 30 years for this moment.

If it's not the climax, it marks, at around two thirds of the way through the gig, a raising of the tempo. Now, even in the circle, people start to stand – and stay standing. Then they start to dance. Having sat through the first part unable to keep still – head bobbing, hands moving, feet tapping incessantly – the arrival at this delicious point allows free reign to instinct. Okay, I don't dance 'well' (whatever that means), but I dance because I want to let myself go; to move with the music.

We go through Reap the Wild Wind (one of the poppier tracks), Hymn (which I always thought was a bit 'blasphemous' and therefore never played anywhere near the parents, unless wearing headphones), Dancing With Tears in My Eyes (still my least favourite single) and All Stood Still, which works so well as an anthemic live piece, while Warren gets to do another Kraftwerk-influenced work, Mr X (also recorded as Herr X) and Your Name (Has Slipped My Mind Again) is a melancholic beauty.

Passing Strangers and Sleepwalk are fabulous.

They finish with The Voice, but done as I have never heard it: the song (as recorded) finishes, but an electro theme continues, while three techies arrive to place three small (snare-sized) electronic drums at the front of the stage. Chris, Midge and Billy then join Warren in a four-way drum finale, that, if the house was standing by that time, it isn't after – even with a predominantly middle-aged audience going wild.

I emerge into the west London night, dazed, my ears ringing, my body shaking and my voice a tad hoarse. Making my way home, I'm exhausted and elated.

I've been to gigs before, of course – quite a number over the years. But when I try to work out why this was so special, it slowly dawns that it was the first time I'd been to see a band whose catalogue, as a whole, I knew so well as to know the lyrics – and the riffs – to pretty much every song on the playlist. This was a connection with something that I have known and enjoyed for years – not simply a curiosity or an artist that I know one or two singles from. It was utterly different.

The nearest I've come before to such a sense of letting-off-steam and catharsis previously was at the Lovebox Weekender in Victoria Park a few years ago, when I boggied so madly to 90 minutes of Jamiroquai that my legs and ass were stiff for days after.

When it had burst angrily on the scene in the late 1970s, I had avoided punk. It had offered no appeal: or rather, it had nothing that I could understand. Absorbed at the time in music studies, learning to adore Beethoven, I lived in an atmosphere where it was barely possible to imagine rebellion. Perhaps that's a little unfair – perhaps we all just 'rebel' in different ways. I clung to the stage, despite parental disapproval – and downright discouragement on occasion. It was what kept me sane (whatever that is).

Looking back, for a drama student with a history of studying music and art, Ultravox was perhaps almost inevitable. The single covers were always elegant and really rather grown up. The use of an electronic violin appealed to the student of classical music. There was a campness – but without those frilly shirts and very heavy eye make-up – and a bit of the sort of theatrical pomp that I enjoy.

And there was, as there has always been for me with electronic music, a sense of the future. In my mind's eye, it was pristine, gleaming modern buildings against azure blue skies; light and bright and full of a promise. Perhaps that was the beginning of my affinity – only explored really in the last few years via photography – with modern architecture?

But the promise – that brightness, that clarity, that pristine quality – is still there in the music. And I love it. Is it just nostalgia? Nostalgia is there, of course, but not on its own – because I was only ever be on the periphery of such things at the time. So personally, this isn’t just about memories of youth, but about something completely new and previously unexperienced.

And is it too much to say that it was worth the wait? No. No ... it isn't.

Friday, 24 April 2009

This means nothing to me

On Wednesday night, I bundled three white tops and a couple of pairs of knickers into the washing machine, which had already been part filled by The Other Half. Then I set it on a delayed start, to finish at 7am yesterday morning. We’re having beautiful weather at present, so the clothing could be put on the line to dry all day.

At around 7am, all prepped for the day, I pulled out the clean washing and went to hang it out. Argh!!! All the white tops were looking distinctly off colour – while the lacy one of the three (worn only once previously and destined for tonight’s big night) had developed a sort of murky brown highlighting on the entire lace design.

And sure enough, there amidst the laundry was the culprit – a rather sorry-looking black leather glove.

"It was an accident," pleaded its owner plaintively.

Well of course it was. If I thought for one moment that it was deliberate ...

The trouble is, as is the way with these things, this is not the first such episode. Pens are regular visitors to our washing machine. His pill box has been there at least once too, clattering mournfully at the door as the cycle continued, early escape impossible. And items of paper, from pay slips to scribbled notes to hankies to money, inevitably end their days as wet confetti, clinging to everything.

I have t-shirts (always white ones, of course) that have ink stains on them – but this was the worst such incident. And it’s worth pointing out that his clothes never seem to be affected.

I am now left to wonder whether I can find some white restorer tomorrow when shopping and whether that will actually work – or whether, as a last resort, I’ll have to deploy the bleach. An effort will be made, though. Because it’s a nice top.

Not, I suspect, that The Other Half is unique in this capacity. Or in such other dark male arts as Making a Mess in the Bathroom – which has, in his case, even involved the extraordinary feat of getting toothpaste on a mirror that is at least 40cm away from the basin and at a height several centimeters beyond that of him himself.

Missing the Toilet is beyond cliché, Never Managing to Wash Pans Out properly is the norm and Making a Mess in General is a given.

Anyway, I was piqued. To say the least. And thus I spent the first part of this morning engaged in a semi-frantic quest to put together an outfit that would be okay for work, but might just look a bit rock and roll for this evening.

I decided against jeans – they never look quite right on me – and opted for soft pants, black with a fine pinstripe, smart and very comfortable to wear; a white vest t-shirt, with a large white, granddad-collared linen shirt over it, studded leather cuff, black and silver earrings, a couple of good statement rings and a very large, chunky chain pendant, plus white leather flip-flops with silver buckle detail and my slightly battered black Tula handbag.

I was also sporting a short string of black beads, but they broke in the ladies at work. I will not believe that I am jinxed.

Slap will be applied later. But all in all, not bad, though I say so myself, and even if it doesn't count as a vision in blue.

It’s almost 4pm now. I am almost reaching a frenzy of excite-ment. Another hour or so and I shall be off to the west of London, with my biggest hope being that I am not disappointed.

For tonight is the Hammersmith leg of the Ultravox reunion tour and, having missed them in their heyday, I finally get to see them live, 30 years after starting to listen to their music.

Frankly, I can’t recall quite such a level of excitement for any other comparable event.

Please, Billy, Midge, Chris and Warren – don’t fail me now.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Happy birthday

Bill Shakespeare – 444 today (or he would have been if still alive!).

It is, of course, also St George's Day – not just in England, but in a number of other countries around the world. And he's also supposed to be the patron saint of syphilitics and those suffering from a number of other sexually transmitted diseases. He was, by all accounts, a religious fundamentalist.

So when I want to celebrate the best of England and Englishness, I'll think of something else instead – something actually English would be a start.

It does a raise a number of interesting questions, though:

  • the nature of patriotism and nationalism;

  • whether one can celebrate the best of one's country, remaining realistic about the worst of it, without falling into nationalistic attitudes;

  • whether choosing not to – or rather, if one disdains those who do want to celebrate, you drive them to more extremist attitudes and into the hands of extremists;

  • whether one should actively use occasions such as this to promote the best things – tolerance etc. Whether, indeed, to reclaim such a day from extremists (if it needs reclaiming).

Whatever – I'll raise a glass this evening to Bill – our national poet, the greatest and most influential playwright ever, and an export of which we can justifiably be happy.

So, to anyone else who wants to celebrate – happy St George's Day. And to those who don't – have a good day too.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Melly's Navy lark is a rum read

Rum, Bum and Concertina by George Melly

George Melly was one of that great tradition of English eccentrics – unconventional in so many ways, and worthy of national treasure status for that alone.

Rum, Bum and Concertina is the second volume of his memoirs, and with its title evoking the author's version of 'wine, women and song', it covers the years of his national service in the Navy, a service he joined because he thought that the bellbottom trousers that sailors wore were more becoming than other uniforms.

There isn't a huge amount of concertina here – but there's no shortage of rum and bum.

The book relates some of his many sexual experiences, from Melly's initially considering himself 100% gay to his first introduction to straight pleasures, thanks to the wife of a very liberally-minded couple (and her husband, who was entirely accepting and encouraging of the arrangement).

The book is peopled, as one would expect, with extraordinary characters – although it begins in the later stages of WWII, the world it portrays could hardly be further from that stiff upper-lipped ideal of Englishness, as conveyed by so many films both of the era itself and later.

And when the anarchist surrealist Naval rating started visiting London regularly, it was to a Bohemian world that included Fitzrovia, the corner of London where Bloomsbury meets Soho, which was thus christened by MP Tom Driberg, and where Melly encountered, amongst others, a drunken Dylan Thomas and England’s stately homo, Quentin Crisp.

And even the Navy, given the time, seems to have been remarkably tolerant of homosexuality, which going on these memoirs, seems to have been quite prevalent, even though it would be more than 20 years before decriminalisation.

The book also includes a fascinating explanation of the term: 'shake a leg'. Apparently, the Navy had, in earlier years, allowed women to spend the night on board. When the call went up in the morning to rise, any sailor with a woman in his hammock would be allowed an extra hour there. And to check this, the call would go up: 'Shake a leg!' At which any women present would pop a leg over the edge of the hammock, thus revealing the presence of a female of the species. Although this was rendered slightly more complicated when some sailors took to shaving their legs in an effort to gain their extra hour kip without requiring a female companion.

Jazz, of course, features. But mostly in terms of Melly reporting that he and some shipmate listened to some records. Only rarely are there hints of his future career, when he describes having given very rare (at the time) singing performances.

Huge fun – very funny – and as fascinating an evocation of an era as Scouse Mouse, the first volume, is of that period.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

A feast for the eyes and the mind

Babette's Feast (1987 Denmark)

In 19th century Denmark, a refugee arrives from the violence in France.

Babette has been sent to the bleak, windswept Jutland coast by a friend, to ask two elderly sisters if she can stay with them, offering to keep house and cook for them in return.

They accept, and instruct her in the cooking that they’re used to and that they also prepare for the poor of their small community. It’s joyless food – mere fuel. The sisters are pious Christians, upholding the legacy of their late father, a pastor, who had founded their strict sect.

In their youth, both Martina and Filippa had turned down suitors or the chance to embark on a singing career, preferring instead to stay with their father.

Then, as their anniversary of his birth approaches, Babette’s ticket comes up in the lottery – her one remaining link with France. And she asks the sisters if she can prepare them and their little congregation a meal for the event.

Director Gabriel Axel’s 1987 award-winning film, from Karen Blixen’s book, is an unmitigated delight, somehow remaining as light as soufflé, even given the subject matter.

Here we have, yet again, a look at the conflict between sensuality and religion. The fear of Babette’s guests as they realise the treat that they are being given is funny – but utterly tragic and wasteful too. They vow, before the meal, to ignore what they will eat; to not contemplate. Only the old soldier, the unsuccessful suitor of Martina decades before and now returning to visit, appreciates the magnificent fare.

How can one be so afraid of pleasure? Why is sensuality so threatening? Why is life itself so threatening? For those who believe, how can locking away of oneself from vast areas of the creation that they believe is God’s be anything less than an insult to that god? Is their god really so cruel as to demand that they ignore his own creation, that he put in place merely to tempt and torment them? Or is Satan a creator too – in his case, of all sensual pleasure and the means to gain those pleasures?

The austere Jutland coast, which matches so well the Puritanism of the sisters and their fellow congregants, is beautifully photographed.

And Stéphane Audran is wonderful as Babette – a delightfully subtle and warm performance.

In some ways, Babette’s Feast is an incredibly simple story. But told like this, it is an exquisite paean to the pleasures of food, and of life itself.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Not quite 'average'

I'm feeling rather pleased with myself – well, sort of. I'm not "average", you see! It's also a tad depressing though. Apparently, the "average" Briton can cook 10 dishes by heart, without recourse to a cookery book.

The same "average" Brit owns an "average" of five cookery books.

The survey, for UKTV Food (a food channel and website) revealed that people make an average of four home-cooked meals per week.

Only 16% of those aged under 25 cook every day. while 45% of those aged 56 and over did so.

And on the basis of what people claim to be able to cook without using a recipe, it would seem that our favourite dishes are:

  • Spaghetti bolognese

  • Roast dinner

  • Chilli con carne

  • Lasagne

  • Cottage or shepherd's pie

  • Meat or fish stir fry

  • Beef casserole

  • Macaroni cheese

  • Toad in the hole

  • Meat, fish or vegetable curry

It's really not a very pretty picture. You could be forgiven, for instance, for not realising that we're actually an island nation, surrounded by incredibly productive seas, filled with an extraordinary variety of wonderful seafood. The only fish on there is apparently thrown into stir fries or curries. Whatever happened to that British classic, the fish pie? Never mind using fish really simply. At this time of year, you don't need to do much at all with it – how about poaching a little bit of salmon in some cider with green peppercorns or capers? You could even use cider and the capers for a sauce if you wanted (and that would easily comply with the survey's criteria of four individual ingredients in order to qualify).

And what about other British classics such as Lancashire hot pot? Or pea and ham soup (there are versions of this wonderful warmer all over northern Europe)? And where are the salads, for goodness sake?

And one of the comments from readers of the article was most revealing: "Those surveyed admitted they made an average of just four home-cooked meals per week." Just?! Er, people have lives. We don't all have the time to cook from scratch every night of the week."

You have to eat – many, many dishes can be made in 30 minutes or less (so the same sort of time that it'll take to put a ready meal into the oven to warm through). From scratch. From fresh ingredients. But the reason that people don't is through both an ignorance of the subject (the basic skills and knowledge required) and a lack of interest in food – a belief that food is simply fuel, to be bought as cheaply as possible and prepared with as little effort as possible, and often shovelled down while watching the telly.

What an utterly deformed and deprived idea – not just because it misses the sheer pleasure of food, but because it removes the social engagement that comes with eating. Is a family that sits in front of the box while they eat really getting the same out of life as a family that sits around a table and takes meal times as an opportunity to talk, to share, to laugh?

Why has this culture developed? It isn't the fault of supermarket chains – they've merely profited from it, as Brits have realised that they could pile the car up with food, once a week, stick it in the freezer and fridge, and just whack it in the oven when they got home in an evening.

And that's without even mentioning the health benefits of freshly prepared food over microwaved or take-away stuff, at a time when obesity has become such a national obsession that it's virtually legitimised bullying.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with recipe books. I confess to having rather more than five of them myself. And there are many things that I can cook without recourse to a book except to check the oven temperature. The only one I can ever remember is for Lancashire hot pot, because my Lancashire cookery book just has the irritatingly imprecise "moderate oven".

I use cookery books all the time – not just for precise recipes, but also as inspiration. Thus I can cook and prepare food that I've never even seen a recipe for – or eaten before, because you start to learn; to pick up ideas so that you formulate your own ideas. And there are writers like Elizabeth David, whose work crosses the boundaries of food writing and travel writing – and goodness knows what else – but you read such writers not simply to learn, but for the pleasure of the reading itself.

We've come a long way since the redoubtable Ms David started writing – a time when you could only buy olive oil at the chemist and the mere thought of garlic would make many Britons recoil – but with the advent of the microwave and the boom in ready meals and a take-away culture, it seems that we've taken a huge step back. When I think about it, it's really rather a shame that I'm not indicative of the "average".

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Entertaining at home

I'm entertaining tonight. It's not quite a first – but as good as, since it's the first time I've really cooked for someone else since I started ... well, cooking.

My niece – 21 next month and studying fine arts up north – is paying a visit. So, young and a student, but also with a certain artistic bent.

Eek!! What to cook?

It was relatively short notice, but not too short to create a state of minor panic. Amazingly, given a standard reluctance to make any culinary suggestion requiring more than a grunt, The Other Half came up one half of the menu suggestion – meatballs.

It's 3.20pm and they're already prepped. I bought 200g each of pork and beef mince from the market this morning, and have mixed that with two slices of wholemeal bread, crumbed, a load of flat leaf parsley, some paprika and four cloves of crushed garlic. Usually I'd make such things straight before cooking them, but I've made up the balls (quick tip – keep your hands moist for rolling meatballs) and placed them on greaseproof paper on a baking tray, covered very lightly by foil and now sitting in the fridge.

I've skinned and de-seeded a load of good tomatoes. All I need to do later is brown the meatballs in olive oil, then remove from the pan; chop an onion and a couple of stalks of celery, and soften in oil. Stir in a little plain flour, add the tomatoes and some tomato purée, plus some more paprika and some white wine, then return the meatballs to the pan and cover. It'll take around 20 minutes to cook, leaving me plenty of time to pop some spaghetti into another pan of salted water.

And for dessert, I had some sweet tart pastry in the fridge, so a chocolate tart – also made earlier – will complete the meal.

Meatballs and pasta, followed by chocolate. Not too posy for a student, but still proper home cooking.

Some housework has also been done. Personally, I rather like Quentin's Crisp's ethos on the matter – after four years, no more dust accumulates. But there comes a time when you have to yield. And the bathroom demanded a rather rapid yielding today. So up to my elbows in yellow Marigolds, I hauled out half a dozen neglected bottles of cleaner and set to work.

The trouble is, that once you start, you realise how much there is that you could do. I start feeling as though I should have begun this task six months ago – five months and three weeks before I invited my niece to dinner. Which would, however, have been another signal that it is the fate of daughters to turn into their mothers.

Oh well – it'll have to do. Until I start with the duster an hour later.

I can barely believe that my niece is almost 21: it seems impossible – and certainly not 'that long' since she was a child. Now she's the easiest member of my family to get on with and probably the one I feel that I have most in common with. We can, for starters, discuss art and photography. And in the meantime, trying not to fuss or fret, I shall sit and indulge in some more Elizabeth David – and wonder what she would make of such a menu, with it's somewhat free mix of Italian, Spanish and French cuisines.

Of course, all this is well and good. Indeed, it's very well and good – because the young people are late. Somehow, you just knew that this wouldn't go smoothly. The best laid plans etc.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Bennett revival is a gem to enjoy

Enjoy by Alan Bennett
Geilgud Theatre, London

Alan Bennett is apparently known, by some, as ‘the teddy bear playwright’. Perhaps it’s a reference to the idea that Bennett, when talking, sounds a little like one imagines Winnie the Pooh would. Or Eeyore.

But such a nickname completely belies the darkness and prophetic qualities of this ‘national treasure’, and it perhaps no great surprise that the current revival of his 1980 play, Enjoy, has upset some who cling to the safe, cuddly idea of Bennett.

Set in Leeds, in one of the last back-to-backs, this is the story of Connie and Wilf, an elderly married couple.

She is suffering from Alzheimer's, barely able to remember anything for more than a minute or two, other than songs by Noel Gay and Ivor Novello. He can move little after a road accident, is obsessed with sex and desperate to be moved into a smart new council maisonette.

But then the council sends them a letter explaining that an ‘observer’ will be coming to visit them, to watch their ordinary lives and record their day-to-day existence before it is wiped out for ever.

Add into this mix the couple’s daughter and a mysterious, absent son, apparently gay, whom his father pretends has never existed, and you have a combustible mix.

The play not only looks at dysfunctional family relationships, including a marriage that, if it ever was based on love, has degenerated into mere habit and tetchy tolerance, but Bennett’s predictive powers are extraordinary.

Just a year into the Thatcher era, it predicts the destruction of communities – the destruction, indeed, of a class as it had existed. It raises the question of how we care for the elderly (and the vulnerable). Then it predicts the advent of the heritage industry, reality TV and the surveillance society, and the commoditisation of so much of life.

Sharp and bitter, Enjoy is both absolutely hilarious and painful, as the tragedy – and that is what it is – unfolds. It is deeply political, without ever mentioning politics.

David Troughton as Wilf is magnificent: bullying, bluff and frightened all at once. But Alison Steadman turns in a masterclasses as Connie – and absolutely fantastic performance to light up a really excellent and massively underestimated work by Bennett. This is not theatre for anyone who wants to curl up with a teddy bear for comfort.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

As pleasing and complex as a really good truffle

Chocolat by Joanne Harris

The wind has changed direction, and it blows Vianne Rocher and her six-year-old daughter Anouk into the insular French village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, just in time for the start of Lent.

But when Vianne opens a chocolaterie, bringing sensual treats to the townspeople, she finds herself in conflict with the curate, Reynaud.

And as he struggles with his 40 days of penance and denial, Vianne’s influence over his flock grows.

A very enjoyable novel – and a deceptively light one – that takes the classic ideas of the pure and the profane and gives them a few tweaks.

Joanne Harris writes with real zest of the joys of good food (not just chocolate) and company. In many ways, it’s a gospel of pleasure and of living; a hymn to the senses. And it is extraordinarily evocative.

You do need to suspend your disbelief over certain issues – the timeframe of the story doesn’t bear too great an analysis, but it does suit the subject and can be forgiven for that reason.

Reynaud’s form of his religion is obsessively about denial and control – and he fully intends to foist these on his parishoners (and those who are not amongst their number). His is a censorious and patronising concern for their wellbeing, nourished by his own agonising guilt; he looks down on them and has set himself up as being responsible for them, seeking his own redemption in them. And in attempting this, he loses sight of their humanity.

But there are reasons for Reynaud’s attitudes – just as there are for Vianne’s approach to life. And Harris’s strength as a writer is that she never opts for the most simplistic approach.

Chocolat is not simply concerned with the battle between pleasure and denial, but also with mortality and the question of how you live life – including how you die.

It’s about love and laughter, friendship and joy. About loss and longing, pain and fear, and the need to stop running. There is a belief in magic here – the magic of life and living.

Harris has created a really delightful – and remarkably provocative book. My religious mother disliked it quite intensely, although she won’t talk about it other than to state that simple fact.

And finally, there is Armande, based on Harris’s own grandmother. No spoilers here – but perhaps the real question that the book leaves you with is whether you could, or would, follow Armande’s lead. It is a challenge for anyone who has been brought up to view conformity as the only possible option. Live, says this book: live!

Monday, 13 April 2009

Take just a few ingredients ...

You've got 15 minutes and you want to make something decent for lunch.

Stick some salad leaves on a plate, top with a few anchovies (not the tinned ones, but proper ones, available these days in delis and even in the better supermarkets), a few black olives, some fine beans you've cooked for around seven minutes, and an egg that you've boiled for around the same time.

Squeeze some fresh lemon into a jug, whisk in some mustard and some virgin oil. Drizzle on your salad.

And you have an-almost-but-not-quite salade Niçoise, missing only tuna, tomatoes and potatoes.

Actually, what you've got is a half-way house between a Niçoise and a Collioure salad of anchovies, roasted red pepper, black olives and the egg (with leaves) and anyway, there's much debate about what constitutes a 'true' Niçoise.

But the real point is the sheer simplicity of such dining. And the more I read Elizabeth David, the more I find myself agreeing with her that this kind of food is the best there is.

In one of the collected articles in An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, she talks of the whole idea of the store cupboard basics – rejecting the idea of cupboards and cupboards stacked with tins of un-appetising and processed excuses for real food, and particularly when one keeps these things for 'emergencies', if unexpected guests turn up needing fodder. Why, she asks, would it be acceptable to give guests such food when you wouldn't eat it yourself on a daily basis?

Her own store cupboard basics were, according to the book, were very much a result of living on the Ægean coast during the war: "bread, olive oil, olives, salt white fish, hard cheese, dried figs, tomato paste, rice, dried beans, sugar, coffee and wine."

And I find, much to my delight, that I have started, without ever planning it, to develop a rather more Davidian approach to my cupboards and fridge. A cannot now do without olives and olive oil, red chillies, lemons, cheese, eggs, good butter and onions and shallots (the last are mentioned by US chef Anthony Bourdain as indicating real cooks). There's also always flour in my cupboards, dried mushrooms and beans (tinned, I must say, for the sheer convenience), pasta and rice (two varieties – Arborio for risotto, plus Basmati), and quite a few vinegars and spices. There is also, of course, always wine around too.

It's really not a very English cupboard, but it is amazing just what you can do with such things.

Perhaps the thing that surprise me most is that I've reached a point (only really rather recently) where I can rustle up things like today's lunch without thinking much about it and without it in any way being a strain. In other words, I've reached a point where a body of knowledge and some basic skills have actually sunk in. I'm not sure whether the eight or so years since I actually started cooking is a particularly long time and indicative of a slow brain or not.

But it is probably fair to say that now, finally, the last debris of a puritanical upbringing (at least in regard to food) has been swept away. And that store cupboard is as good a body of evidence as any.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

A little bit rock 'n' roll

I was late up this morning, putting off rising for a while to sit up in bed with a book and some very good fresh coffee.

So breakfast was equally late. It was around midday when I took a couple of soft-boiled eggs and sat down in front of the telly.

On UKTV Food, which I switch to often for inspiration and education, was a programme called The Ace of Cakes. 'Ah', I thought. 'Baking. Since I'm going to do some baking in a little while, I'll watch this while I eat my eggs.'

It was about a company called Charm City Cakes in Baltimore, which is run by one Duff Goldman, who looks more like a member of Motorhead than a chef (hence the show title). He and his staff have taken cake decoration to new heights, and thus the programme is a cookery show meets American Chopper, although Goldman, for all his metal look, couldn't hope to compete with the real deal, Paul Teutul Sr.

And of course, the soundtrack to the fast and mobile camerawork was a bit metally too.

So, thus inspired and motivated, I descended on the kitchen, donned my apron and popped Alice Cooper's Billion Dollar Babies on the deck.

I can be a bit rock 'n' roll too.

I don't know whether Cooper really goes with a classic French apple tart, but who cares?

And if the tart might itself seem too conventional to be really 'rock 'n' roll', then baking is not yet a convention for me. So there. Put that into your blender and purée it.

The pastry is a sweet shortcrust with vanilla, as previously. Then, while that's resting, I make crème pâtissière for the first time. Take caster sugar and egg yolks and beat until they're wonderfully smooth and a pale yellow. Then add a little plain flour and some cornflour and beat that in. Then heat milk and more sugar with vanilla (seeds scraped out, but the pod in the milk too). When that's just about to boil, strain gradually onto the egg, sugar and flour mix, stirring in. Return to a clean pan and keep stirring until it stiffens, and then for a minute or so more. Take a small amount of butter and stir in. Leave to cool.

I blind bake the pastry case and then fill it with the crème pâtissière, before topping, in a fan pattern, with thin sliced of cored dessert apples. And then into the oven for 30 minutes. Later, when it's cooled completely, I'll melt some top-quality (French) apricot jam and glaze the apples.

A glance at the clock says that the afternoon is shooting past. Manchester City are on telly at 4pm, so dinner has to be started before then. I'm doing chicken – a recipe from the River Café Two Easy book. I take the bird and remove the bagged giblets (not forgetting that I actually don't want to throw them away just yet, because they can go in the stock pot later), then stuff the cavity with handfuls of sage and rosemary and thyme, plus half a dozen cloves of garlic and half a lemon (the thyme and the half lemon are my additions to the recipe, but I had them in and they'll go perfectly). Then the bird goes in a dish – the tightest fir possible – with 200ml of water. And then into the oven at a very low 80˚. It'll get an hour before being turned over, then another hour before being turned again and then another hour after another turn. After that, the heat goes right up, butter will be rubbed into the skin and vermouth added to the roasting dish. I tell you, it's melt-in-the-mouth gorgeous.

And there'll be the apple tart to follow.

Now just how much more rock 'n' roll can you get?

Saturday, 11 April 2009

A busy day in the court of The Queen B

The Queen B is having to do some quite serious resting now, after what seems to have been a really very exciting and tiring day in her court.

As if the spring chorus of birds twittering isn't enough to make her nearly distracted, including one small bird actually landing half way down the Pyracantha inside the garden to tease her (it just escaped), she had the extra special thrill today of seeing a squirrel pottering around in her domain.

As far as we know, this is a first: there are plenty of squirrels nearby, but this is the first time we've ever seen one right on our patio, although I suspect it's the same one that I saw a couple of weeks ago, climbing onto the first floor balcony of one of our neighbour's flats in order to get at the bird feeder that was hanging there. Convenience food for squirrels.

Boudicca's reaction was an initial double take: standing in the middle of the living room, staring out of the closed patio doors; a sort of shake of the head and dramatic blinking.

Then she hurled herself at the window, muttering something about there only being "one bushy tail allowed around here!"

At this, the squirrel spotted her and, suitably chastised, took flight over the fence.

She ran through to the bedroom to check from that window, and then back to the living room.

She's not much bigger than a squirrel, but size isn't much object in The Queen B's world. Perhaps it's a result of naming her after the legendary English warrior queen who gave the Romans a spanking, but she's quite happy to take on bigger critters than herself.

A case in point is Basil.

Basil lives in a little block next to ours. One female human constitutes his entire staff, and she's pretty dismal at the job too, leaving him outside for long periods of time.

Basil is rather large – and very soft. He stands in the carpark behind our garden and cries. And indeed, there is something about him that makes me want to give in and call him, using my best Prunella Scales as Sybil voice from Fawlty Towers. He only wants attention, food and slightly better staff. Occasionally, he feels so desperately in need of this that he'll struggle over a couple of fences to come into our garden and sit in front of the window, hoping to be allowed in.

Boudicca goes beserk. And if she has the opportunity, loves nothing better than to chase this cat, almost twice her size, right back over the fences. Remarkably, Basil's memory seems to be rather short term, since he never seems to recall the last time his furry ass got clawed as he scrambled for safety.

So, all in all, it was an exciting day. One can quite understand why she needs to put her paws up now.

Friday, 10 April 2009

A pilgrimage across the Thames

It's a gray and damp day in London town, but the sight of the first Jersey Royals this morning put the springiest spring imaginable in my step. These lovely new potatoes are heaven-sent bites of gorgeousness from the soil of Jersey – and there is no surer sign that spring really is here.

Since it isn't a working day, I went down to Borough Market, just over the Thames from the City. Spread out between an old Victorian ironwork covered market and the railway bridge, sitting comfortably next to Southwark Cathedral, it's a delightful pilgrimage for a gourmet.

This remarkable market – now twinned with the legendary La Boqueria of Barcelona – is a statement of the best that British food can offer: it's a cathedral, if you will, to what is sometimes called 'the food movement'.

Artisan bakers and cheesemakers and chocolatiers are crammed into wonderfully anarchic spaces – just one of the reasons that Borough is a fabulous antidote to the sanitised, industrialised experience of supermarket shopping. There's fabulous wet fish, and game and an incredible variety of meats, plus a wonderful Spanish deli and ... well, so much more.

There are disadvantages – it was absolutely heaving. And a substantial percentage of the crowd isn't there to buy food, but because it's become a stop on the tourist trail, so there are times that you find yourself fighting for space at a stall with a camera-touting individual, pointing excitedly to something novel, such as a stick of celery.

They probably don't realise just what a fascinating area the market stands in. Borough itself was, at the end of the 19th century, like something straight out of Dickens (probably Oliver Twist). An estimated 50,000 lived in the vicinity (it's around 5,000 nowadays), and it was a complete police no-go area.

Today, it's a food heaven – so arguably a bit trendy and middle class – and part of the tourist trail. Times have changed a great deal.

I found real Spanish anchovies (not the tinned ones) and padron peppers at Brindisi, the Spanish deli, and springbok steaks for Monday at another shop (which also had crocodile meat available). I bought salmon for tomorrow and scallops for myself tonight (The Other Half is away 'Ooop North' watching Rugby League again), plus a great wedge of 77% cocoa chocolate for cooking with.

There were beautiful red chillies, with skins shining as though they'd been individually polished, and the first broad beans of the season (already consumed with goat's cheese, toasted walnuts, green olives and good bread for lunch). And those Jersey Royals – those fabulous harbingers of the warmth and sun to come. I'll keep them for Sunday to serve with a slow-roasted chicken.

The scallops will be seared fleetingly on both sides, in oil that will have been heated slowly with chillies and garlic. They'll be served with lime, and with lamb's lettuce and borlotti beans, which will be puréed and heated gently with lemon juice and a little virgin oil. A bottle of French chardonnay grenache is chilling in the fridge.

And a ginger cake is in the oven, as the first evidence of my promise to bake again this weekend. It's an old recipe from my mother, and is in a notebook in which I'd jotted a grand total of four recipes over 25 years ago, when about to leave for college.

The measurements are imperial – which sent me straight to a conversion chart to make sense of them: at school, we were taught imperial measurements one week, before switching to metric the next. Or that's what it seemed like. So I never got the hang of weights and measures – well, I never really needed them either.

And then, when I started cooking, I was buying a set of scales – the old-fashioned type, with individuals weights to add as required. And I was faced with a choice: I could buy the imperial weights – or the metric ones. I went metric. Looking at that old recipe was like looking at an ancient code.

That done, I decided to adjust the ingredients. The original called for margarine and ordinary sugar. I substituted unsalted butter and a good, golden sugar. The only other things are ground ginger (there was a bag of organic, fair trade stuff in the cupboard), self-raising flour (oops! Not enough and out-of-date – run around to the corner shop to get some more), a little milk, a single beaten egg and quite a lot of golden syrup.

Melt the butter, sugar and syrup. Pop the flour, ginger and a pinch of salt into a mixing bowl, then add the milk and the beaten egg, then the melted butter, sugar and syrup.

Grease a cake tin, pour in the mixture and pop on the lowest shelf of the oven for 45 minutes at 170˚. That really isn't difficult cake making – which is probably why it was in that notebook in the first place. The smell alone is divine.

And staying rather thematic, I'm nearly at the end of Joanne Harris's Chocolat, and have also been reading bits of the wonderful Elizabeth David's An Omelette and a Glass of Wine.

But more of all that another time. If you'll excuse me now, a ginger cake is crying out to be tasted.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Guilt and the Spanish egg dish

Guilt, it has to be said, can be utterly stupid.

Yesterday, after finishing work, I really didn't feel like doing very much – and I hadn't planned anything for an evening meal either.

When The Other Half got home, we sat outside briefly with a cup of tea before I realised that, with time ticking on, I probably should make some sort of effort. I had to eat, after all.

So I sliced a couple of onions, shredded a leek and chopped a courgette, before cooking them all very gently in a sauté pan with a little olive oil.

Once they were pretty much done, I whisked up some eggs and poured the seasoned mix over, letting it gently over the vegetables for around 15 minutes, before popping the pan under the grill until it had browned nicely.

So, that'll be a frittata.

And I realised that I felt guilty about it – as though it wasn't a 'proper' meal; as though I should have spent longer planning and preparing something.

How utterly and completely crazy is that? Three stops short of Upminster!

Okay, maybe it's appropriate for Holy Week, but come on ... a frittata is real food: it's a proper dish.

It's extraordinary how many times I find myself doing guilt. At least these days it isn't because I've just enjoyed lecherous thoughts about someone; now it's about the stupidest things. Like behaving as though frittata isn't a proper meal to serve as dinner in midweek. Guilt must have seen my liberation coming and sneaked away from the part of my brain concerned with sex to the other bit – that's right, the tiny section in the corner over there: that's where it's hiding.

I feel guilty sometimes about not 'doing things' on a day off. I've been known to feel guilt about leaving the office 'early' – when I was in early and have easily worked more than my actual hours. This is the Protestant work ethic meets good old fashioned religious guilt and having a party.

How long will it last? Will I be having to shake myself (metaphorically, you understand) every time I become aware of this guilt for the rest of my days?

Oh well – it's a better situation than it used to be. Perhaps what we're indoctrinated with as children never completely goes away: we're hard-wired with it. Or perhaps it will fade?

One thing's for certain – it won't have much chance to crop up this weekend, at least not in terms of any culinary slacking. I have a big, big food day planned tomorrow, with more baking and cooking to follow over the course of the weekend. And I absolutely am not going to start doing guilt over the delights I have planned – including (probably) a first effort at making my own chocolates.

So take that, guilt!

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Blurring reality with this cruel circus

In the US, people have been bombarded in recent weeks with stories about the mother of octuplets – the so-called ‘Octomom’ – a single (and by the sound of it, rather troubled) young woman who conceived after IVF treatment, while already mother to six more children by the same method.

In the UK, if we want a reality TV soap opera, we’ve had the strange case of Jade Goody for the last couple of months. And it shows no signs of going away just yet.

For those of you who don’t know, Goody rose to national attention in 2002, when she was a contestant on Big Brother. She became infamous for her apparent stupidity and was vilified by the tabloid press, which described her, amongst other things, as: “A slapper with a face like a pig” and “the most hated woman in Britain”.

But it was the start of a career as a celebrity that saw her launch a beauty salon (not very successfully), a perfume, an exercise DVD and goodness knows what else. She was barely out of the tabloids and gossip rags before an appearance on Celebrity Big Brother in 2007 brought her downfall, when she was accused of bullying and using racist abuse to fellow contestant, Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty.

Following eviction from that show and countless apologies, she eventually cropped up on Big Boss, the Indian version of the reality show, in summer 2008. And it was during that that she was told that she had cervical cancer.

Treatment was too late though. And earlier this year, it was announced that the cancer had spread and she was dying.

Cue a new media circus, with her wedding to boyfriend Jack Tweed (a convicted criminal who is due to be sentenced for yet another assault) attracting wide media coverage – and money.

She stayed in the public eye as long as possible and sold the rights to everything she could, with the stated aim of raising money for her two young sons. But at 27 years of age, on 22 March (Mother’s Day), she died. The timing was quite good, since it stopped Ok! magazine’s ‘memorial issue’ appearing quite as presumptive as it had.

Her funeral followed just last Saturday, with the intervening period providing time for the tabloids – those same publications that had once vilified her – now holding her up as some form of secular saint; a Princess Di for the plebs.

Just yesterday, veteran TV presenter Sir Michael Parkinson dared to lambast the entire circus. But today, self-appointed bishop of his own church, Jonathan Blake, got all upset because Parky had spoken out.

The point is not that it’s not tragic that a young woman has died and that two young boys are now without their mother. Of course it is. The point is not that the cause of her death has sent many women to get smear tests – yes, some good has come out of it.

The question is, what does the entire thing say about modern Britain? It seems to raise a number of issues:
  • that the tabloids (the overwhelming majority of which are right wing) could so vilify someone in their pages, without any comeback – and so many people continue to read these rags;

  • that the same people could later raise up Goody as some sort of saint ‘people’s saint’ – and sell even more papers;

  • that we have a culture of mass hysteria (really seen after the death of Diana) whereby people who had never known her went to the funeral, laid flowers outside her home etc etc – and spent money buying souvenir editions of the rags mentioned above);

  • that we have a culture where people can become – and aspire to become – a celebrity, even though they have absolutely no talent;
  • that on the one hand we have a whole sub-culture where stupidity and a lack of education is considered something to be proud of, and on the other, people who are not particularly intelligent or educated are turned into freak shows for the public to vent their spleens on and feel superior over (shows such as Jerry Springer and Jeremy Kyle are similar);

  • that we seem to have developed (or perhaps redeveloped) a culture of cruelty – not just visible in situations like this, and the daytime shows mention in the last point, but also in a great deal of comedy today;

  • that the exploitation of Goody was simply one of those extreme examples of how many people are exploited by elements in the media in order to sell more of their rags (the case of Max Mosely last year was the same).

  • that we seem to have a reached a point whereby, if you criticise the whole mawkish, tasteless affair, it is taken by some people to be offensive and even insulting to Goody herself or disrespectful of her. Offence is increasingly becoming a way to deflect or even stop criticism of any number of things.

  • I don’t know whether it’s better or worse in the UK than elsewhere, but it’s the sort of situation that leaves me close to despair sometimes.

    And what does make it worse here is that we have no real intelligentsia to help inform public discourse on this or any other subject – primarily because we, as a nation, distrust intellectualism and intellectuals so much.

    As I said, the circus hasn’t stopped. On Monday, the Sun – one of the gutter-scraping rags in the forefront of this voyeuristic farce – had as its front page headline something along the lines of: ‘Let her rest in peace’. Below was a strap advertising 12 pages of coverage of the funeral. Some peace.

    It’s probably only a matter of time until the Daily Mail offers readers the chance to collect tokens for a Jade Goody memorial rose bush or a Jade Goody commemorative porcelain plate (or is that only for Diana or the Queen Mum?).

    A decade or so ago, you could avoid it. But now, with 24/7 TV and news coverage, with free rags handed out to commuters every night in London and other cities, filled with nothing but gossip and other crap, with whole newsagents’ shelves filled by gossip and scandal sheets, it’s more difficult. It creeps into more and more peoples lives, whether they want it or not.

    But it’s easy to slag off the media (and as a media worker myself, I’m more than capable of highlighting the worst excesses of my trade). But is it really just the media to blame – or the people who buy into all this? If people stopped buying such stuff, they’d stop publishing it. Yet that commemorative edition of Ok! apparently sold many, many more copies than it usually does. Classic chicken and egg.

    I don’t know how one cannot but feel for Goody (and others like her – and there are many). They’re the victims of a new kind of freak show or the visit to Bedlam to gawp at the mentally ill. Nothing, but nothing is achieved by raising up – or knocking down – people like her. It is, in part at least, a chance for some in the media to savage the working class – particularly the lumpen proletariat (or 'chavs' as they're colloquially known in the UK these days) and then to indulge in mawkish, sentimental twaddle about them.

    Is it the new “opiate of the people”? Does it matter? Well, I think it does. I have no great solutions to offer right now, but it does need to be raised from this perspective and discussed.

    And Parky managed, for once, to make a touch of Yorkshire ‘plain speaking’ most welcome.

    Monday, 6 April 2009

    How to live or how not to live – that is the question

    Buenas Noches Buenos Aries by Gilbert Adair

    When Gideon leaves England to start work at the Berlitz language school in Paris, he’s a shy and introverted young man with little experience, who has only just managed to come out to himself.

    So the male staff room at the school, where he finds himself surrounded by largely gay colleagues, provides an intoxicating atmosphere.

    But while everyone around him seems to be having fabulous sex lives, Gideon’s – despite his perpetual horniness – is one disaster after another.

    And then, into their carefree lives, comes word of a new “gay cancer” and so the Aids era begins.

    Gilbert Adair has created an extraordinary novel here. It’s short, but it packs an enormous punch.

    And he pulls off a remarkable feat – of making you comprehend why someone would continue to deliberately and quite consciously put themselves at risk of contracting HIV/Aids – a situation that has occurred in real life. Indeed, some gay men have deliberately sought sexual partners with HIV in order to contract the virus themselves.

    That seems completely absurd – insane, even – so it makes Adair’s achievement all the more praiseworthy.

    Yet the book is not about death. Rather, the story – a memoir by Gideon himself – is a song to life and to learning to live. Perhaps a pre-condition of learning to live is an understanding – an acceptance – of one’s own mortality?

    But this is also about community and the need to belong. For Gideon, even his immediate family had been distant and rather cool. His first sense of belonging is in the staff room.

    We all need to feel that we belong somewhere. For some of us, this is obvious and we probably never even have to think about it. For others, it’s a question of choosing our tribe, of having to find our place in the world.

    Gideon’s tribe is that of homosexual men. And when the tribe is threatened, as it is by Aids and by the homophobia that that brings to the surface, he faces a decision: whether to turn inward again or to walk into the storm, with his community, and with his head held high. Whether to hide away or whether to live as fully as possible, on his own terms.

    And that choice, of courses, gives this a sense of romantic authority.

    Adair’s prose is very good – light as a feather and full of wit. And as the plot unfolds, he has created some passages of real power, moving from fear to celebration.

    It’s not a book for the faint-hearted, for the judgmental or for prudes – there are some graphic descriptions of gay sex, plus innumerable penises, some tumescent, some not.

    But if you fall outside those categories, then Adair has written a very, very good book indeed. And arguably a very brave one.

    Sunday, 5 April 2009

    It might as well be spring

    It wasn’t even 10am, but while there was still a spring morning nip in the air, it was glorious; a clear, blue canopy above and the symphony of birdsong all around.

    Sitting outside with a good coffee (single estate from somewhere or other, via the local French deli), I tried to see everything, smell everything, hear everything. Tried to process it all in the mind, putting words to everything so that I might hope to hold on to it.

    A church bell tolled from the Anglican convent just across the small park that sits behind; not a peel of bells, but a steady, monotonous call to worship – the sort of sound, in fact, that makes the advertised act seem so much less of a joyful one than sitting outside and drinking in the beauty of the morning.

    Life is an ephemeral thing, and yet people go and sit inside gloomy churches rather then relish the glory of the world that they claim their god created. How perverse, when everything around you – particularly at this time of year – screams of creation and life. The sap is rising, blossom, flowers and leaves are bursting their bonds and flooding the world with colour and scent.

    I might not, any longer, be able to fathom the churchgoing (although perhaps I never could, but merely went along with it unthinkingly), but I did manage to discipline myself into a brief spot of spring cleaning, washing down windows and sills in the kitchen, and clearing out a cupboard where there was an infestation of tiny bugs that seem to thrive on flour.

    They’re flour weevils apparently, and seem to have been breeding in a bag of their favourite snack that was hidden from my vertically challenged view at the back of the top shelf. I only found it with the aid of the ladder.

    As part of my efforts to keep them at bay – or better yet, get rid of them altogether – I’ve got an order of storage cans and tubs arriving on Tuesday. The flours can all go in stainless steel canisters, while the plastic tubs will be useful for storing – and organising – a whole range of things, including bags of nuts and dried mushrooms. Old 200g instant coffee jars do very nicely for storing assorted sugars.

    It’s one of the things about enjoying cooking – no matter your initial antipathy to cleaning up, you start to get more and more committed to it. I do more washing up these days than I’ve ever done in my life, but it doesn’t feel more onerous. Now I simply understand it as a necessary part of the process, and I want my utensils as clean as possible.

    And then armed with the satisfaction of such cleanliness and organisation, I went to sit outside, sporting a sleeveless t-shirt and squinting at the pages of a book as the warmth started to seep through to my bones.

    By the time the clouds drifted into view, I didn’t even feel too great a resentment and, with thoughts of lunch drifting from my stomach to my brain, donned a baggy old cotton sweater against the cool and headed for the kitchen.

    In River Café Two Easy, Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers present a series of soups, explaining that Italian soup is usually very rustic and chunky – not pureed within an inch of its life. Knowing I still had an odd courgette around the place, I thought I’d try and courgette and pea soup.

    Talk about easy. Chop garlic and soften in olive oil, before adding chopped courgette. After a few minutes, tip in some peas (frozen ones are fine) and then a little stock. Let it simmer until the peas are cooked, then pop into a blender and pulse briefly – it needs to retain plenty of texture, not become smooth. Reheat with some basil leaves in it. Serve with grated parmesan.

    I made some minor adjustments, adding a few fine because I had some left over and because it ensured that lunch would supply me with three portions of my fruit and veg.

    The cupboard was bare when it came to basil, but I used the cheese as directed – and added a garnish of toasted pine kernels.

    And the result? Lovely.

    The big question in my mind now, though, is Easter. What am I going to cook? I’d scarcely given it a minute’s thought until yesterday, when it suddenly dawned on me that it was almost upon us.

    I do want to try to make my own hot cross buns for the first time, but I’m struggling at present to think what else to cook.

    Chocolate has to be involved somewhere.

    It’s too early for the first lamb of the year (that’s actually best in August anyway). But possibly I’ll consider a leg of lamb anyway. If I can get decent quality, then I might do it with garlic and rosemary – or even dried lavender.

    I gave up thinking about it after a while. I’ve done a basic order of core ingredients online, but I’ll give other things a few days to ferment, as it were.

    So I’m left with this evening’s meal. Okay. We return to the River Café book. I got a dressed crab from Broadway Market yesterday. I’ll cook it gently with chili flakes and lime juice (and possibly some fennel), and serve with pasta.

    Simple – and great flavours.

    It’s been a good day thus far. The Other Half’s team won (it’s a cup weekend, so this is knock-out Rugby League) and Les Catalans won too (we both have a very large soft spot for the French side). And whilst my football team lost yesterday, my RL team won today, against the other strongest team in the country. So I'm reasonably happy. And Granddad would be proud.

    Just occasionally, I wish that the whole idea of heaven and eternal life were true – not because I dream of eternal purgatory for nasty people, but because I wish that, somewhere, my grandfather was still around – even if only in the ether. But then again, what always brings me back down to Earth is the realisation that if that were the case, and if it were as the churches proclaim it to be, there would be no place for my grandfather. Or me. We'd be destined to meet in the nether regions of eternity.

    And I look out at the dusk, and I see such life as spring takes control. And on this Palm Sunday, would I really like to be with Christ in Paradise?

    I’ll leave you to consider the answer to that.

    Friday, 3 April 2009

    First memories of France

    Memory is extraordinary – the least obvious thing can trigger something unexpected and long forgotten, with a clarity that seems to concertina time itself.

    Thus it happened this morning.

    It was a chilly, grey start to the day. At around 9pm, I was wondering what on Earth to have for breakfast.

    Breakfast is my least easy meal of the day – particularly when I’m at home. I rarely actually feel hungry first thing and whereas by the time I get into the office if I’m working there, I’m ready to go up to the deli and find something, at home I have to force myself to eat before 10am – or it’ll be almost lunchtime and I still won’t have broken my fast.

    So there I was, on this chilly, grey morning, wondering what caught my imagination. I felt in need of something warm – and something meaty. I don’t eat meat every day by a long chalk, but sometimes the body wants a particular foodstuff and you have to listen.

    I’ve got plain pork sausages in, but they’re for tonight. Rooting around in various cupboards, the answer eventually presented itself. On a pre-Christmas shopping trip to Lille last December, I’d bought an outrageously cheap stack of small tins of terrine and paté. Fourteen for – if memory serves – around €24. So I fished around, making the effort to read the French labels, and pulled out a pork liver and Armagnac one, put some bread under the grill to toast, and then enjoyed a really rather indulgent and luxurious repast.

    And so my mind turned to that Lille trip – and then to my very first visit to France, in early 1983 – probably almost exactly 26 years ago.

    That was a grey and chilly day too.

    I was at college in Leicester and a friend had decided to take a day trip to Dieppe. Since she lived in Milton Keynes, we drove there the night before, then set off for the port at Newhaven early the next day. This was in the times when you could take a couple of photo booth snaps with you and get a temporary passport at the point of departure. No planning required.

    It was a four-hour ferry trip. I stood on deck, po-faced and ridiculously serious, staring back at the fading coast of Albion with something approaching melancholy, as though I were a scouting party for my little-Englander family; the first one to depart this green and sceptred isle and unlikely ever to return.

    I even remember what I was wearing. After a nasty back injury had left me with a lot of back pain (it eventually saw me chucked off the course), I’d bought an old British Army battlejacket – the sort of heavy top with a thick belt at just the right level to support my aching lumber region. I had that on and sported a rather large grey cord cap with it.

    If anything could ever illustrate my extreme gaucheness at being abroad for the first time, it was perhaps my amazement to find that Dieppe was, well … so French. For some reason or other, it didn’t seem to have occurred to me that there really would be picturebook narrow streets with their narrow houses and long, painted shutters at the windows.

    And the cobbled square, where a large church – St Jacques, I think – towered, a vast Gothic edifice, dark and brooding, and unlike anything I’d ever seen outside of films and books. If it was chilly outside, icy fingers seemed to caress me as I entered the gloom, my mind playing images of the Maid of Orleans.

    There were a few stalls outside the church. I remember the pungent smell of cheese, which seemed so much stronger then than it now, to my more experienced nose. And then the bakeries, with the aroma of fresh-basked bread wafting invitingly out into the street.

    I found a little post office and bought a couple of postcards. The elderly woman at the counter (and the queue behind me) waited with remarkable patience while I managed to dredge up enough pidgin French to ask for stamps. My change included a note with a picture of the composer Berlioz on it – since a shared birthday has enhanced somewhat my liking for old Hector, I still have that note somewhere.

    When I met my friend again, ready to depart for home – it was just a few hours stop over – she realised that she’d left her camera in a shop. For some reason or other, I was sent back to get it, something achieved almost exclusively with mime, since my smattering of the lingo didn’t go remotely that far. And besides, I was a drama student.

    I don’t remember anything about the journey back, except that I watched a few minutes of a grotty X-rated old horror movie on the ferry.

    But I’d done it. I’d been to furrin land. And had returned.

    Memory, as I said, is extraordinary.

    And I went home without the slightest inkling that, over 20 years later, I’d return and find all those things that had astonished me in Dieppe to be amongst the things that made me fall in love with France.