Friday, 22 May 2009

Bring on the Wurst and the Weißbier

The countdown is almost over. Tomorrow, I'm off to the land of Bratwurst and schnapps.

On our previous visit, it was too early in the year – and far too cold – to sit out. So I'm particularly looking forward to is being able to lounge outside one of the cafés on Unter den Linden, with the Brandenburg Gate in view, sipping Weißbier.

The Berlin version of this is a low-alcohol (2.8%) wheat beer that can taste quite sour, so is often served 'mit Schuss Himbeere' or 'mit Schuss Waldmeister'. These are raspberry or woodruff (a herb) syrups, which turn the beer either red or green. Indeed, you can also order by colour – 'ein Berliner Weißbier, mit grun, bitte' or 'ein Berliner Weißbier, mit rot, bitte'.

It's around seven years since I was last in Berlin, and hard barely really started my journey to foodiedom. So there are plenty of culinary treats in store.

Delightfully, the spargel season is underway – it traditionally runs from mid-May until St John's Day, 24 June. Spargel is white asparagus, which is considered a national delicacy on the Continent, but isn't seen very often in the UK.

I'm hoping to try a famous form of German noodle called Spätzle – a German friend claims that, if a woman can make these well, she'll never lack for a husband.

There will be no shortage of wurst – sausages. But German wurst are made from good meat, not just off-cuts. So tomorrow night could well be bratwurst with salt potatoes, sauerkraut, pickles and sour cream, and good mustard. It might not sound particularly special, but done with good ingredients, it's excellent.

There should be some herring, but Germany's limited coast means that there's more freshwater fish in the national diet, including trout, carp and pike, plus some European perch. Now I already know that I enjoy trout, but have never tried any of the others. Yet.

Germany apparently has more types of bread than any other country in the world, with approximately 6,000 types of bread, plus another 1,200 types of rolls and pastries. And since I've never tried proper pretzels, that's on the list too.

There are, of course, loads of things that I'm looking forward to doing – including attending a concert by the Berliner Philharmoniker, which will include the world premiere of a new work for the orchestra's wind soloists by Siegfried Matthus, plus highlights of Wagner's Götterdämmerung for a burst of fabulously OTT German romanticism.

I may go to the zoo and see Knut, the world famous polar bear. And I want to head out to Potsdam and Sanssouci, the palace (and now the resting place) of Prussian king Frederick the Great. Then there'll have to be a shopping trip to KaDeWe – the largest department store in Europe, which is possibly under threat of being sold and partitioned off as a result of the recession. The food hall at KaDeWe is amazing – foodie heaven.

But I'm most certainly looking forward to enjoying a cuisine that is often overlooked when people discuss European food.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Spilt beans leave a slightly sour aftertaste

Spilling the Beans by Clarissa Dickson Wright

Partly because of my love of food, partly because of my love of English eccentricity, this was a Christmas present from my mother.

Clarissa Dickson Wright is best known as one of TV’s Two Fat Ladies, the culinary duo that travelled the UK on motorbike and sidecar in the 1990s, but she has plenty of other claims to fame.

The youngest female lawyer to be called to the bar, Dickson Wright’s childhood was blighted by her father – a brilliant surgeon, but an alcoholic, brutally violent parent and husband.

But when her beloved mother died, Dickson Wright sank into an alcoholic spiral. She was debarred and ended up broke (having frittered away a lot of money) and homeless.

Getting sober, she helped to build up the London bookshop, Cooks for Books to its present fame, before going on to find TV fame and then becoming an ardent campaigner for the countryside (ie pro-hunting etc).

It’s an interesting book – deceptively light to read given some of the subject matter. But there is a feeling that Dickson Wright rather overdoes it on occasion. There’s no doubting her father’s brutality, but were she and her mother really nursing broken or bruised ribs on the sort of regular basis that she suggests? They’d scarcely have been out of hospital, yet medical treatment is never mentioned.

Having known Tony Blair as a law student, she gets tedious in the extreme over his record as Prime Minister. Castigating Labour voters in general, she claims not to have found anyone who voted “for Tony Blair”, even in Sedgefield. Well no dear, you wouldn’t. Because Westminster politics isn’t like that. Nobody outside of Blair’s constituency could vote for him – they could only vote for candidates in their constituency. And frankly, whether someone is a good constituency MP, representing them in the way that they want to be represented, is higher on many voters' list of priorities than a silly argument about their vote actually being for the party leader.

It’s the sort of disingenuous approach that one finds in rags like the Daily Wail. And from someone who supposedly understands the law, it's crass in the extreme.

And there are other irritants: quite frankly, if any working-class individual described the equivalent of the ‘jolly japes’ that she unapologetically recalls getting up to (or her own friends getting up to), then they’d be regarded as rude and inconsiderate.

Dickson Wright is to be applauded for overcoming many of her demons, and her descriptions of alcoholism and dealing with it, together with her descriptions of fellow alcoholics and their struggles, are informative and, in places, moving. They form the strongest part of this book.

But she’s remarkably quick to dismiss some things in general, such as emotional abuse and bullying. And she seems over keen to blow her own trumpet – yes, of course this is a memoir, but there does seem to be a lot of: ‘I was the first to do this’, ‘I take credit for that’, ‘it’s because of me that’ etc. Perhaps all the demons have not been exorcised – perhaps nobody ever manages that completely.

Dickson Wright has plenty of valid points to make about food, and has embraced the countryside campaigning with the fervour of a true convert.

All in all, interesting. But it doesn’t leave one with a sense of particularly loving the subject of the book.

Monday, 18 May 2009

A goddess amongst food writers

An Omelette and a Glass of Wine by Elizabeth David

Where does one begin? I've got four of Elizabeth David's cookery books, but haven’t really used them much. Yet I knew that I wanted to read this collection of her writings and reviews.

Once in my sweaty palms, I imagined that it would make good bedtime reading – a couple of articles here, a review or two there before dropping off to sleep – but rapidly found that I didn’t want to put it down. And anyway, it didn't really prove to be very effective at sending me to the land of nod.

What makes it so good? Attempting to answer that is to attempt to answer just why David is so revered in the UK. When she rang Books for Cooks one day and spoke to then staffer Clarissa Dickson Wright (of TV’s Two Fat ladies), Dickson Wright was so astonished that she tried to explain to her caller that it was like picking up the phone to God.

There are plenty of myths surrounding David: for instance, that until she introduced the UK to olive oil, you could only buy it in chemists’ shops. Or that pasta was unknown here until she wrote about it.

These are, as mentioned, myths. But the reality is that her writing pointed many more people to go and find and use such products than had done so before, thus increasing their use (and availability) in the UK.

She was an early campaigner for ‘real food’ – her anger at standardised, flavourless tomatoes in this book will ring bells with anyone who has had the misfortune to eat tasteless fruits sold under that name. What is interesting is to realise that such a problem is not something that has only occurred with the dominance of supermarkets within the last 40 years, but pre-dates that. Which begs the question of why the British are prepared to put up with such foodstuffs.

There have been accusations of elitism in her work – primarily that she didn’t write specifically for the working class. But that strikes me as nit-picking. Should every writer of every genre attempt to write for every single social group (however those groups are defined)? Would it even be possible? Wouldn’t it be patronising?

And her approach to food is far from snobbish – she was incensed when one reviewer commented with utter disdain on her positive reports of the Catalan breakfast of bread that’s had garlic rubbed on it. The reviewer in question thought this awful, and in this collection, there is a piece where David berates such an attitude – including noting that such a food has similarities with such British foods as bread and dripping.

Indeed, David was a champion of simple food. Frequently, she upholds simplicity over fashionable, but overdone dishes.

However, what this collection shows, and what is almost certainly the main reason for the way in which she’s lauded, is that she was a brilliant writer – and not just about food, but also about travel and history.

This is full of the sort of evocative writing that can have you sitting outside a simple café in Provence, sipping good wine, reveling in the warmth and enjoying a dish of good olives, or wandering around a French market. You can almost inhale it.

She’s inspirational. You want to try more – to learn more. Very few writers of any genre leave you with quite that feeling.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Into the twilight zone

Philip Larkin put it so eloquently when he said that: "They fuck you up, your mum and dad."

Yesterday was a 'being fucked up again' day, as I visited The Parents.

First, I discovered that my father was to be at home for the entire day. Oops. Bad planning. He usually has some business to conduct, which avoids us having to sit in the same room together for any longer than a bit of polite conversation about football can fill.

However, he went straight back out to walk the dog. During which time, my mother had me explain to her how to switch the subtitles off on a DVD, and also showed me a bit of footage from Saturday's Rugby League Challenge Cup tie between St Helens and Catalans – or at least, the introduction to it. BBC presenter Clare Balding was talking about a new public sculpture in St Helens and my mother wanted to know if I knew anything about said scuplture. She also noted that, on seeing this at the time, my father had been concerned with only one thing: "She's a lesbian". Yes, I could imagine the judgmental tone.

Then he returned, left the dog and went back out for the papers. On getting back once more, he came into the living room and sat down, immediately starting to peruse the Methodist Recorder. My mother took slight umbrage – a guest also being present – to which he launched straight into a rant about how he wanted to see if the publication in question had anything in it about how "the BBC wants to put a Sikh director in charge of Songs of Praise ... it's dumbing down Christianity! ... " etc etc.

I waited until a break in this angry rant, before noting: "Nice weather we're having," which took some tension out of the situation.

Then, a short while later, he observed the book that I'm currently reading and which I had taken with me, Clarissa Dickson Wright's autobiography. He nodded sagely, and commented knowingly: "I like her. I read once that she said that, when he was a student, she thought that Tony Blair looked at the pretty boys a lot."

Oh yes – Blair might have been a warmonger and Dubya lapdog, but the really bad thing about him is that one could intrepret a comment as saying that he was gay.

At which point, I felt the need to slap down this sort of idiocy as quickly as possible.

"Oh for goodness sake: if you can't find something serious to criticise Blair for, other than a gossipy piece of tittle tattle implying that he might be gay or bisexual, then you've got as much of a problem as being more concerned that Clare Balding is a lesbian than that she's the best thing that's happened to BBC coverage of Rugby League for a long time!"

This, fortunately, shut him up. But this has to be done every time at some point. More than once in the last year, he's sat at the dinner table, banging his fist on it and shouting about how: "Brown and Darling are a pair of communists!"

To which there is only one possible answer: "Oh stop talking bollocks, Dad."

Yesterday, after I had established that I wasn't there to listen to his bigoted stupidity, he calmed down and we managed to get along politely until I left.

Indeed, I became useful. After he'd sat in front of the telly, pointing the remote at it to no avail for at least 10 minutes, it was me who had to make the rather obvious suggestion that he call the service provider. In retrospect, it was not entirely surprising when he walked into the room again, his mobile stretched out to me, so that I could do the geek speak with the service centre. And for a second call that had to be made.

Daughters have their uses when you can't even tell which is the DVD player and which is the digibox (after how many years?), but clearly they never know anything about 'morals' or politics and have to be lectured the rest of the time.

I survived.


But when I sat down on the train back to town, it was with the realisation that, even though the day was not a complete torture, I was mentally exhausted.

That Larkin bloke had it right. It's a wonder I have a working brain cell or a shred of intelligence left.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

The school day that went with a bang

If I’d wanted to announce my arrival at my new school any more spectacularly, I’d have had some difficulty.

There I was, nearly 17 and having flunked most of my ‘O’ levels. The exams were taken a couple of months before the family moved from just outside Manchester, which had been our home for eight years, to Lancaster, somewhat further north.

My father, clearly so pissed off with the lack of academic achievement that would allow him to boast about my prowess, mentioned this to our family doctor, who in turn suggested that my exam performance had quite probably been hindered by the impending move after the longest period of stability in my life to that point.

Fortunately, this argument seemed to placate my parents. And the school that I had been intended to enter in order to do my ‘A’ levels took me on anyway – on the proviso that I did my fifth year and my ‘O’ levels all over again.

So I started at LGGS. And somehow – although for the life of me I can’t imagine how – found myself getting attached quite quickly to a circle of girls from various years, all of whom were linked by varying degrees of the sort of eccentricity that teachers at my previous school had so nervously reported to my parents as present in me.

And then, for some reason or other, in my third week at the school, I accepted a dare.

You used to be able to buy little twists of paper that had some powder in them, which would make a very pleasing ‘bang’ when dropped forcefully.

One day, early in the morning, I took three of these things and, using Blu-tac, attached them underneath the pedals of the grand piano in the school hall. Then I let events unfold.

Miss Owen, our headmistress, cut an imposing figure. Tall and rather large, she had permed white hair, wore thick-rimmed spectacles, had a booming voice and absolutely no taste in clothes whatsoever. A familiar ensemble consisted of a dress in wide stripes of pink and purple, with a red cardigan on top. And always, always a string of double pearls. Her geometry lessons were generally considered to be ‘character building’. Fortunately – or perhaps not – I escaped ever having my character subject to such an exercise in construction.

Biggo had a loyal deputy called Mrs Rigby, who was tiny and ran around the school in ‘badger boots' (black footwear with a white stripe down the middle). Riggers (or ‘Rigour Mortis’ as she was also known), usually wore an academic gown, which floated out, Batman-like, as she stalked the corridors hunting for girls whose shoes had heels that were more than the prescribed height.

She had a ruler for that purpose, and when fashion created heels that were deceptively curved, she changed it for a flexible ruler. You didn’t get much past Riggers – who was also renowned for wearing hats to speech day that looked like upturned jelly moulds or unexploded nuclear bombs.

Then there was Mr McKee, the music teacher – and obligatory eccentric conductor of the school choir and orchestra. He and Biggo were arch enemies – although to be fair, pretty much every teacher in the school was an enemy of Biggo: if she achieved nothing else, she united the girls and staff against her. Noel was just rather more obviously so an enemy and everyone knew it.

One of the most dismally flunked of my ‘O’ levels had been in music, but at that point, it was the one course that I absolutely did not want to repeat, having been constantly vilified by my previous teacher for what I later realised were her failings: I’d barely been taught half the course – which Noel went on to do in his spare time, helping me catch up and get my qualification. But that's another story. However, Biggo – possibly thinking that Noel could do with a particularly reluctant student – insisted I retake music.

One of Noel’s particular ways of irritating our esteemed head was to be rather clever with his selection of music to be played as we exited the hall after morning assembly. On one occasion, for instance, he crept behind his curtain and set the record player to blast out the can-can from Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld.

Biggo’s expression was one of horror when her girls gave in to the irresistible urge to grab skirts and kick their legs into the air.

On the day of my dare, Noel was seated at his piano, waiting to play the hymn, as Biggo marched from her office, up the stairs and onto the stage.

“We will now sing,” she intoned, before a single ‘bang’ interrupted her.

She looked around, unable to work out what had happened. In the gallery, one teacher turned to another and said (rather optimistically, I thought): “Someone’s shot Miss Owen!”

Biggo waited and then tried again.

“We will now sing hymn number …”


We did manage to get through assembly. Just.

A few days later, as I was carrying a record player from a classroom to the storeroom for Noel, he turned on me.

“You put snaps on my piano,” he growled. One of those who had dared me had, it appeared, squealed under pressure.

“Yes,” I said simply. Which considerably appeased Noel, who sniffed and said, with a modicum of respect: “Well, at least you’ve got the guts to admit it,” before informing me that, after assembly the following day, I was to join him for a visit to Biggo. It seemed that in the absence of any other culprit, he was in Biggo’s firing line.

The next day, somewhat nervously, I waited silently outside her office for my interview. When the little traffic lights outside eventually turned to green, Noel opened the dark door, ushered me in and, with the words “here’s our explosives expert,” left.

The thing was, if I’d been nervous, that comment left me struggling not to guffaw. I stared at the floor desperately fighting the urge to giggle. Biggo took that for embarrassment – or downright shame.

“I assume that this is the sort of thing that went on in your previous school,” she boomed from behind her desk. Oh if only she’d known – I’d never done anything remotely like that in my life before.

“So I’ll put this on your school record and we shall leave it there.”

I fled gratefully, hoping that it would all die down, and thinking I’d got off really rather lightly.

But in the coming weeks, the story did the rounds of the city. Biggo was a legend – and any such event took on legendary status too. Eventually – inevitably – it found it’s way to my father, who related it over dinner one evening to the full family. And perhaps most surprisingly of all, it turned out that that was one of a very limited number of occasions on which he was actually proud of me.

Break the rules and cause a stir in the city and, apparently, you’re in favour. Perhaps it was one of the few times when I reminded him of how he’d like to see himself?

There are many more stories from my days at LGGS, which were really remarkably like one of those old school books for girls, penned by Angela Brazil or Enid Blyton. But for the time being, suffice it to say that Noel became a good friend, that those eccentric girls became The Rat Pack and that that was far from the last of my encounters with the legendary Biggo.

Monday, 11 May 2009

Office lunches, plotted and potted

The weekend's culinary exertions have paid off! Finally, I have worked out a way to bring in great packed lunches to work, for little effort.

Inspired by reading the section on potted meats and fish pastes in Elizabeth David's An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, I decided to pot myself some fish. Initially, I had the project in mind for easy, midweek suppers, but then it occurred that individual ramekins would make perfect lunches for work.

After coming up blank at my usual two sources of kitchenware, John Lewis and Lakeland Plastics, I finally found muslin for sale at that unlikely source (to my mind), Amazon, and two packs hit the doormat late last week.

Thus on Saturday, my trip to Broadway Market included a lengthier visit than usual to Vicki, the fishmonger. Not only was there my own dinner to cater for that night (The Other Half was on Rugby League duty 'ooop north', so I only had my own tastes to consider), but I also bought dressed crab, smoked haddock and salmon and to pot.

After The Other Half had departed, I took to the kitchen. I'd intended to put some music on, but the peace and quiet, broken only by the sounds of food preparation and the occasional meeped comment from The Queen B, was delightfully soothing.

I've never cooked from one of Mrs David's books before and indeed, some people complain that her recipes are not always easy to follow. But this was incredibly – almost outrageously – simple.

The salmon (cut off the fish in front of me) was placed in a suitable dish, dotted with butter, covered in buttered greaseproof paper and popped in the oven at around 140˚. I'd bought two dressed crabs and took the meat from just over one of them (the rest was for my dinner) and mixed it with paprika (Mrs David used cayenne), lemon juice and black pepper, and pressed it firmly into two small ramekins. Melted butter was then poured over the crab mixture and the little pots were placed in a bain-marie and joined the salmon in the oven. They had around 25 minutes to cook, the salmon about 40.

After that, I drained the salmon and let the potted crab cool. Then the salmon was flaked and mixed with lemon juice, more paprika and some drained green peppercorns (the last one being my idea: capers would do just as well), before packing more of the little dishes. Three and a half dishes, to be precise. The final one was topped up with flaked smoked haddock, which I'd popped into a pan with some boiling water and left (not on any heat) for 10 minutes. The final pot was packed with smoked haddock alone, seasoned only with lemon juice.

All bar the potted crab then had greaseproof paper squares placed over them and were weighted with assorted tins that fitted just inside the ramekins, then placed carefully in the fridge. The potted crab were sealed with clarified butter straight away – the rest were done the next morning.

I used Mrs David's method of clarifying the butter – hence the muslin – and that worked easily too. I'd never realised just how much butter splits.

So now I'm sitting at my desk in the office, with a little pot of salmon, together with a little tub of cherry tomatoes and green olives stuffed with garlic.

My colleagues have declared this is really rather sophisticated. And my editor is contemplating whether such a display of chic gives us an edge in our perennial battle with the press office.

But it took little over an hour to prepare the heart of seven lunches. It will work out as costing less than lunch every day at Pret a Manger (which is just about the best option around the office) and it gives me real quality.

One can only wonder at why so few people do such things.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Rugby League changed my life

I like Rugby League. No, it isn't my favourite sport, but it's one I enjoy – and I've certainly got a lot to be grateful to it for.

It was three years ago Easter just gone that St Helens and Castleford Tigers played their first Super League matches against the then newcomers to the competition, the Catalans Dragons. And since there was barely more than a week between those two visits to the south of France, The Other Half and I decided to arrange our main holiday of the year around the games.

Travel on the Friday, watch the Dragons v Cas in Carcassonne on the Saturday, then travel to Barcelona for a week on the Sunday and back to Perpignan on the Easter Sunday for Saints' visit on the Monday, followed by a TGV journey to Paris and then home 36 hours later via the Eurostar.

It was to be a revelation of a trip – possibly even a trip that was life-changing.

Rugby League is, in essence, a working class sport. It split from 'rugby' in 1895, after the powers that be, based in the south of England, created a by-law to stop northern clubs in working-class districts paying their players 'broken-time' money, to compensate them for the wages that they lost when they took breaks from their jobs in the mills and mines to play.

Outside the north, players came from a different background and didn't suffer financially through playing. Thus was born Rugby League – the other code is Rugby Union, which only became openly professional around 15 years ago. They found plenty of ways to pay players via the back door over the years – thus it was known as 'shamateurism'.

But it's also an illustration, generally, of why amateurism in sport is elistist.

In France, the sport suffered miserably at the hands of the ruling elite – not least during the war years, when the Vichy government actually banned it and stripped clubs of all their assets. The French RL is still campaigning for official recognition of the wrongs done to the sport – and for some sort of compensation.

The introduction of the Dragons into Super League was not without controversy – plenty of fans in England didn't want them. But it was a major chance to help build RL in the part of France that had once been the heartland of the country's game.

And so we made our first trip to southern Europe.

Downside? Having to fly out by Ryan Air. Which I hate. But Perpignan airport is a small one and you have that wonderful experience of walking across the tarmac to the airport buildings themselves. Heat welcomed us, together with the sight of the Pyrenees, rearing up on the horizon.

That night, we joined other fans in a short bus trip to nearby St Esteve. A small town, we'd been invited to visit the Rugby League clubhouse, where a barbeque had been arranged. It was a most convivial evening.

Saturday's match was an evening one, to which we would travel by coach. In the morning, therefore, we joined a minibus to take a tour of the coast. As we headed down the motorway, toward the mountains, the conversation from our fellow explorers was most illuminating.

"We got to the hotel yesterday," said a male Yorkshire voice. "And the receptionist said: 'Bonjour'. And I said: 'Hello'. And she said: 'Bonjour'. And I said: 'Hello'. And eventually she got the idea and said: 'Hello'."

Oh, what a victory for perfidious Albion.

Then one of the women traveling in their little group: "I mean, it's very nice, but it's not a real Rugby League town."

No – it's not in the bleak industrial north of England, where manufacturing is all but dead and the towns are dying dumps.

Our first stop, winding down a hairpin road, was Collioure. We had an hour – and in that time, we were well on the way to falling in love, wandering along the seafront, gaping at the menus of all the restaurants and at the view in general.

Our fellow travelers, it should be noted, didn't bother looking around, but simply headed to the first bar that was open.

Then on to Argelès sur Mer, slightly further back up the coast. We had a little longer and, while the others headed straight for another bar, we ambled to the seafront, dipped our feet in the Mediterranean for the first time and basked in the spring sunshine. A couple of the seafront restaurants were already open for business and, while looking at the menu of one, the waiter drew us in. Not that there was much "in". The tables were set out on a deck, but the canopy overhead had been drawn back and we sat with the sun burnishing our skin and penetrating to cold, northern bones, drinking sangrias that came compliments of the restaurant for being two of the very first customers of the new season.

The Other Half had a spaghetti carbonara. I had huge gambas, shells blackened on the fire and served in warmed olive oil, infused with garlic. Within seconds, I'd given up any remote efforts to be 'ladylike', getting my fingers as greasy as possible as I tore off the shells and relished the firm, tasty meat of the vast prawns, and the flavour of the oil. TV chef Rick Stein, on a culinary trip through France, once commented that, in England, he'd seen people try to eat such food with a knife and fork. You can't. It demands to be handled – and such an earthy approach is wonderfully sensual.

The third and final stop on our little tour was Canet. It took us only a very few moments to decide that we won't bother going back there: an artificial creation of high-rise, concrete hotels and 'trendy' bars, it was far from the sort of place that we like. The others thought it brilliant – and found a bar straight away.

The next day, after a match that had seen Cas lose, we caught a train south. It was a long, slow journey in a very basic train, and by the time we reached Barcelona, it was evening and we didn't feel like venturing far from the hotel.

The next day, however, was a peach, with visits to Sagrada Família and then on to Las Ramblas, where we peeked just inside La Boqueria, one of the most famous markets in the world, and then relished a sumptuous lunch in a restaurant right next to the market. I had deep fried squid to start, followed by bacalao, cooked in a an unbelievable amount of olive oil, with peppers and garlic by the ton, and all served in the pan. Wonderful. And accompanied by a gutsy Tempranillo – The Other Half asked for the house red and the waiter brought a bottle and poured us each a little, with his towel obscuring the label.

"Tempranillo, si?" I managed. He was impressed. The Other Half was even more impressed. It's possibly the only wine in the world that I can recognise. I felt chuffed.

But that gives you an idea of what was to become one of the dominant features of that week – the food. A wonderful restaurant down the road from our hotel, Els Barrils, specialised in Galacian-style fish. I had padron peppers as a starter – lovely little jewels of green peppers, around 4.5cm long; they're fried very quickly and then served with a garnish of course sea salt. You pick them up by the stem to eat, and about one in 10 packs a serious pepper punch. They're delicious. I followed that with my very first lobster, and then a lovely chocolate and orange icecream for dessert.

Moon became a regular late-evening venue after walking off dinner, with good beers and tapas for the really hungry.

There was another restaurant where the young waiter was trying to open our bottle of wine and the cork broke inside the bottle. The maître d came over, and in a dumb show of pure comic genius, rolled his eyes, gave us complimentary tapas as a starter (little black puddings) and then, when he'd produced a new bottle of wine, rolled it slowly and with great drama on our table to help him ease the cork out. Later, he insisted on my having a complimentary dessert too – as though they had anything to apologise for. And the food itself ...

I had bacalao again, but this time in a sauce of honey and pine nuts. Fabulous.

At yet another restaurant – a very smart and modern one – I had the mesclun salad, with strawberries and nuts, followed by caramcitas – baby squid, perfectly cooked, the ivory pockets arranged like a star on my plate, and dressed with warmed olive oil, infused with garlic.

A few days later, in Paris for the first time, I had a wonderful pave of salmon, served with a small ratatouille and new potatoes, and followed by a dreamy crème brûlée that had me oozing 'tres bons' to the waiter.

Just over three years have since that expedition, but I remember those meals as though it were yesterday. I don't have to think hard to recall them or even refer to the diary in which I noted them in detail at the time. In Barcelona in particular, I found the most wonderful food that I had ever eaten.

Food that was full of colour, bursting with freshness and flavour. Perfect ingredients, wonderful simplicity. Meals that were so balanced and perfectly proportioned that even I – who normally can hardly manage two courses in the UK – could eat a full three. Eating had drama about it, and pleasure and pride for those who cooked and served it as well as the pleasure of those who ate.

We've spent a further week in Barcelona since, and visited at least three of those eateries again (Els Barrils twice more, while I ate exactly the same salad and squid at that restaurant as 18 months earlier). And then last year, in desperate need of a total break, we spent 10 days in Collioure. The food, again, was bliss.

We will return this September for a fortnight, staying not in a hotel this time, but in a cottage. I have always derided self-catering – my mother could turn it into a nightmare. But now – now, I am going to be able to shop and to cook in France. I'm already excited.

So no, given my tastes and how they've developed even since then, I don't think it's too much to say that that trip was a life changer.

So thank you Rugby League.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Sources of inspiration for inspirational sauces

A couple of years ago, in an article in the one of the more serious newspapers by someone suggesting that cookery books by TV chefs were all a load of rubbish, and what we all needed to do was bin our tomes of recipes and go and spend a year in France learning to cook properly.

Which is a lovely idea – well, the bit about spending a year in France learning to cook is a lovely idea. Trashing my kitchen library is not.

The central tenet of the writer's case was that we lack proper skills in the kitchen, and celebrity chefs and their books don't actually teach us anything, but end up collecting dust, never to be actually used.

Now of course I'm not cynical enough to suggest that the scribe in question – his name fails me and Google has failed me too on this score – was only trying to sell copies of the book he'd written about his year in France learning to cook, but that entire proposal is codswallop.

My own cookery journey started nine years ago, when I stopped dieting and started to eat without worrying about calorie counts. Over the course of about a year, I started to actually enjoy food. The natural progression saw me starting to take over the kitchen from The Other Half. And the crucial moment came when I went to Spitalfields Market one Sunday morning to return with a very nice piece of organic beef – only to realise that I hadn't a clue what to do with it.

Obviously I knew to put it in the oven and roast it, but at what temperature and for how long per however many grammes?

One course of action was open: I phoned my mother, who went and found a book from her own collection and read me the formula.

That week, I went and bought Delia's Complete Cookery Course. It remains on my shelf, a veritable Bible for exactly that sort of information. And she's got a good method for doing jacket potatoes too – much slower cooking time, and brush them with olive oil and then sea salt before popping them in the oven. I also employ her instructions for potatoes dauphinoise. And jolly good it is too.

There are people who consider Delia Smith to be boring – she inflamed some when publishing her three-part cookery course by including a section on boiling an egg – but Delia is trustworthy.

My next purchase was Jamie Oliver's Return of the Naked Chef. It's rather popular in the UK at present to lambast Oliver, not least for his faux cheeky Cockney persona. But he's made a wonderful contribution by making cooking seem fun. And indeed, I couldn't believe that I could make dishes that were modern, easy – and tasted good!

There are a few dishes I still do from Oliver's books (I added another three over the years): one involves marinading pork chops in olive oil, lemon juice, garlic and rosemary. The instructions tell you to use your hands and massage the marinade into the meat. The first time I made it, I stood there, hands covering in oil and juice and garlic and herbs, grinning like a loon. I was finally the little girl who was allowed to get her hands messy. And there was something so earthy and sensual about it.

Then a slender volume that had been gathering dust for some years came into its own. Gordon Ramsay Pasta Sauces is a 32-page booklet that had come with two pasta bowls and some small bags of dried herbs in a Christmas gift set. It had been a present from The Other Half, frustrated doubtless by my former addiction to boiling a bowl of dried pasta and a bit of frozen veg to buggery as a post-pub repast.

It came at a time when I didn't even know – or care – who Gordon Ramsay was. And besides, the recipes were scarily complicated and looked far too posh for my taste (or lack thereof). The box was emptied, the contents stashed and it was all forgotten.

I did have a couple of cookery books in my pre-cooking days – three Good Housekeeping volumes that my mother didn't want, a Marks and Spencer book of salads, a vegetarian Mexican collection, a Schwartz Spices booklet (free with however many jars of spices) and a notebook in which to note down recipes. Over almost 20 years, it had had around five entries. Which might tell you something.

Then, one day, I decided to try one of Ramsay's pasta dishes. A velouté sauce for scallops (or salmon – the suggested alternative being what I served it with). So began an understanding of sauces – more to the point, of reductions. And the dishes in that little book are delightful: a sauce of very lightly curried shallots and carrot batons, with wilted spinach; mushrooms in a velouté – incredibly intense; another cream-finished sauce with lardons, rosemary, cannellini beans and asparagus (which also taught me that two minutes is sufficient time to cook those wonderful spears of flavour).

Also in my possession from around the same time is Rick Stein's Seafood Odyssey. And although there are not a great many recipes I've done from that book or continue to use, one of the dishes taught me to make and use a beurre manié, a mix of flour and butter that is added at the end of a reduction to thicken a sauce.

The dish in question I do quite often – seared tuna steak (substituted for swordfish), served with a mushroom gravy. It might sound odd, but it works very well.

So between Ramsay and Stein, I've picked up some real basics of sauce making – and not just the mechanics, but some comprehension of why you do certain things and what they achieve. That is the sort of thing that inevitably leads to understanding why stocks are so important and why it's worth making your own. And thence to creating your own sauces.

I find myself using River Café Easy Two frequently, even if just to take inspiration and then adapt things to my own specific needs. The food is easy and light, with some great salads, soups and pasta dishes.

And it also has the best recipe for roast chicken that I've used, stuffing the bird with rosemary and thyme and garlic, cooking it very slowly at a low heat, and then finishing it by adding Vermouth to the dish for a final half hour at a higher temperature, while rubbing butter all over the skin. It's divine – and the carcass makes a fabulous stock.

It should be said that my favourite recipe book remains a tome of French cookery, authored by a team who only got their names mentioned on the inside back cover. And a little book of pasta dishes that I picked up for next to nowt in low-cost supermarket Lidl, which also has no author listed. But I've learnt so many actual skills from books by celebrity chefs – it's errant nonsense to suggest that they have nothing to teach us.

All of those have helped educate and draw me to a point where I can now appreciate the work of the UK's cookery goddess, Elizabeth David.

I have enough reference points and understanding to skills to be able to relish reading her books. And indeed, to be inspired by her work. If those muslin cloths arrive through the post by Saturday morning, I'll be trying out potted fish this weekend – the result of reading, with mouth watering, the section on potted meats and fish pastes in An Omelette and a Glass of Wine.

Whoever that writer was who suggested throwing away books by celebrity chefs because they have no real value – they teach you nothing – he was a fool. And he'd do well to actually try reading a book properly next time before claiming that the recipes in such tomes never work properly.

And I rather hope his own literary effort is languishing on the shelves of those remaindered bookshops. It'll save people having to take his own advice and trash the thing after wasting their money on it.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Cooking for dummies

If ever there was evidence of the need for basic skills in the kitchen, it’s the instructions on pre-packed produce from supermarkets.

Sometimes, they make the Da Vinci Code look straightforward.

A few weeks ago, when marooned at home and unable to get out to the shops in midweek, I ordered some goods online from one of the better-quality supermarkets. Now online shopping is brilliant for cat food and litter, bog roll, kitchen roll and assorted non-food items.

And even for some foodstuffs such as bottles of ordinary olive oil, wine, jars of sauerkraut, large bags of flour etc.

But for fresh food it is not the best way to shop and I do it only in the most exceptional circumstances. In this case, which was exceptional, I had ordered a pack of two pork chops. It’s not that there was any major problem with the meat – although there might have been if I’d followed the instructions on the packet, which suggested something like 16-20 minutes cooking under a grill.

They’d be cremated by that time – and given that pork is notoriously easy to overcook, rendering it dry as a bone, such a cooking time is certainly not being recommended in the interests of producing good nosh.

Perhaps it’s borne out of an increasingly litigious society – the terror of being sued by someone because they were made ill by inadequately cooked meat makes companies cover their asses by giving instructions that go about as far in the other direction as is possible.

But it isn’t just meat. Occasionally, when browsing in a supermarket, I check such instructions. It makes for informative – and horrifying reading.

Asparagus, I have noted more than once, tends to come with a suggestion to cook it for around seven minutes. Now I’m not aware of vegetables giving you salmonella if they haven’t been cooked to death, so what’s going on here? Cook asparagus for seven minutes and even the thickest stems will be rendered utterly limp and devoid of any texture!

Is that why the British have such a dreadful reputation for vegetable cookery – or is such overcooking such a ‘tradition’ that it explains why so many Brits hate their greens? Honestly, two minutes is usually quite enough for asparagus – even with pretty thick stems.

Perhaps we should follow these instructions to the letter – and then sue the supermarkets for food destroyed?

And while we're on the subject of labeling, am I alone in wondering just who the manufacturers of processed foods aim their products at, given the howlingly obvious ‘serving suggestions’ on so many packs?

‘Oh look at this lovely idea for what to do with tinned ravioli: cook the contents of the tin and then put them in a bowl and, err, serve it like that.’ What? No sprig of basil on top as a garnish? What are the other options – how else would you serve tinned ravioli?

Mind, I don't think I'd be alone in rather doubting that that product is "an authentic Italian recipe" – especially since that would imply that Italian pasta dishes probably have high levels of salt and sugar and assorted other additives.

So, are we generally so stupid that we haven’t the first clue how to cook anything and need to be handheld through every stage? Are we so litigious – or is there such a fear of litigation – that companies believe that they have to cover their asses in such a way? Are we so used to grossly overcooked food that these instructions actually reflect the culinary habits and preferences of the great British public as a whole?

I’m really not sure which of those options makes me cringe most.

Monday, 4 May 2009

Broad beans – but no Chianti or liver

The first broad beans of the season were purchased on Good Friday in Borough Market. Well to be accurate, they were Spanish broad beans, imported: I have had no confirmed sightings of British beans yet, but it won't be long. And basking in the glow of the pleasure that the sighting of the first Jersey Royals of the year had created, I bought some anyway.

More were selected from Broadway Market yesterday: I suspect they're also Spanish, but they were in a plain box so I couldn't tell and will thus not reproach myself too much for such an unenvironmental act.

I remember picking fresh broad beans many years ago. It was during one of the peculiar family 'holidays' that we endured at the time. Clergy of my father's denomination were not particularly well paid, and he combined that with a talent for being able to let money trickle through his fingers like sand. Cars and booze accounted for quite a bit, I imagine. But it meant, after my maternal grandfather had died and his widow moved back to share a house with her two sisters in St Helens, we often went without an annual holiday, having no further relatives to stay with.

But on at least three occasions that I can recall, we ended up being loaned the use of a cottage for a fortnight by some well-to-do acquaintance of my father (probably a booze buddy). The idea was, of course, that it was simply essential to "get away". Thus at least one 'holiday' was spent in Todmorden, a small town on the Pennines.

It's bleak and there's bugger all to do there. We were in a cottage right up on the hills. For at least part of the holiday in question, my father did his being-ill routine.

He'd had massive surgery in the 1950s, before I was born. Around 10 years later, he started to become ill – he'd get home at night, from whatever meeting or pastoral visiting he'd been doing, and effectively collapse as soon as he got through the door. My mother would have to haul him up to bed. He'd be flailing around like the most drunken drunk you can imagine, speech slurred to total meaninglessness.

My sister, three years my junior, would lie in her cot and cry. I'd lie in my bed, rigid with something that I cannot find words for. Fear? I don't know that I felt personally threatened by it, but I hated it – it was simply horrible. I'd get up sometimes and attempt to quieten my sister. But it doesn't surprise me, looking back on it, that she later needed a night light to be able to sleep. The darkness was when those awful disturbances would come.

It was some years before doctors eventually worked out what the problem was – all the brain scans, all the tests: and all they eventually needed to do was actually look at his medical history and do a simple blood test. He had pernicious anemia and needs injections once every few weeks.

But while they were still trying to fathom such matters, one imbecile prescribed him barbiturates: Seconal. He got rather fond of it. Black and orange capsules. He'd have them hidden in his study and, when he was out, my mother would have me help her search for them. Then she'd carefully unscrew them, empty the things, replace the drug with sugar and put them back where we'd found them.

Of course, he wasn't refraining from booze at this stage. Or driving. Goodness knows how he didn't smash the car up (more than he did) or do more damage to himself or anyone else. In the end, a prang saw him sent to a different doctor, who worked out what was wrong – the medical history and the blood test did the job.

But on that holiday in Todmorden, he'd obviously got himself some Seconal, was drugged up, was angry and aggressive. We needed food, though, so he was insisting that he'd drive us all into the actual town. My mother had hidden his car keys and told me I'd have to go. He was screaming and threatening, both my mother and me. Ranting and raving.

My little mission was to get the bus and go into the town and get the food my mother needed.

That was Todmorden. On another of these magnificent holidays, we ended up in Ravenglass on the northwest coast. Father heard horror stories from local fishermen (while in the pub) about what they'd fished out of the nearby sea – this wasn't far from Sellafield nuclear power station – and we were banned from going in the water.

I don't recall any particular outbursts from that holiday, but there was a vast kitchen garden, with dead moles hung up on the wire fence around it. We were able to pick and eat what we wanted and that's where I remember picking peas and runner beans and tomatoes – and broad beans.

They're known as fava beans in the US – the sort that Hannibal Lecter might consider an apt accompaniment to human liver, together with a good Chianti, of course. I can't say I've tried them that way ...

They are, apparently, the bean of Jack and his stalk; the bean in 'full of beans' and 'spilling the beans'. And they are darned tasty and an absolute joy in summer. You need to buy about double, because the pods are quite large and weighty.

It's a short summer season and, unfortunately, a lot of Brits don't eat them, so many ordinary greengrocers don't carry them. There was also a day, a few years ago, when I spotted some on a stall in Bethnal Green, but then refused to buy any. I had asked the stallholder for 500g of his lovely broad beans, but he'd refused, saying that he'd only serve people if they asked in old, imperial measurements. He was actually breaking the law, but doubtless considered himself to be one of those pathetic 'metric martyrs'. He didn't get my trade.

I'd have actually had difficulty ordering in anything other than metric. When I started school, we were taught imperial measurement – and then one week we were suddenly taught metric measurement. But the British being the British, we have never actually put a date on stopping using the former, so this crazy duel situation has continued.

Personally, I'd never really needed much in the way of measurements – until I started cooking around eight years ago. Then, needing kitchen scales and opting for a set of old fashioned-styles ones, I had to make a decision – what weights to buy for them: metric or imperial. It seemed ridiculous to opt for anything other than metric – and that's now the only way in which I can think when it comes to weight.

But I'm getting sidetracked again.

Pod your broad beans. Put some boiling water in a pan and, when it's bubbling merrily away, pop the beans in. If they're very small (the size of your thumbnail or smaller) they'll only need three minutes. Give them four or five minutes if the beans are larger or older.

Drain and then let them cool a little. You can eat the skins, but it's worth the slight hassle to remove them. Simply take a bean, nick one end of it between your fingernails, and squeeze gentely. What pops forth is a beautiful little emerald.

There are many ways to use them. They're lovely in salads – brilliant with a good, salty feta or lardons of bacon, fried to a really crispy state. Some years ago, I saw the latter done on the Two Fat Ladies cookery programme. I think it was the late Jennifer Patterson who cooked it: bacon and broad beans, topped with a hard-boiled egg that was pressed through a sieve onto the dish.

Taking that on board, I've just had some. Cooked as above, and then popped out onto a plate with some cooked fine beans, some diced Cantaloupe melon, thinly sliced celery heart and some wonderful Paleta Iberico (a wafer thin Spanish ham, matured for at least 20 months), and all dressed with a light mix of virgin oil, orange juice and black pepper. The Queen B decided that the jamon was good too – indeed, she assumed it was really meant for her and was really quite piqued at being denied.

But whether you eat them with ham or bacon, or feta, don't forget broad beans – they're well worth enjoying for the entirety of their short summer season.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Man Cooking

You can tell it's nearly summer, because The Other Half decided to cook yesterday.

Well ... in a Man Cooking sort of way. Lighting a fire, watching the fire and then putting meat on the fire, while consuming alcohol.

That's perhaps a little unfair, because he also made 'pot bread', a South African speciality, which is cooked on the grill too. It didn't start auspiciously. He made the assumption that when the recipe said "20ml" it actually meant 'two large spoons full'. And the usual pinch of salt became a spoonful. Which would have been two if I hadn't spotted what was happening. So he produced an incredibly light dough.

I made a side salad of courgettes, very, very thinly sliced (a potato peeler does this well), and then tossed in a dressing of lemon and lime juice, lemon zest, virgin oil, honey, salt and pepper.

This is most definitely not South Africa.

The Other Half was born in Yorkshire, but when 12, his parents decided to move to South Africa – to Pietermaritzburg, to be precise; a place which has been rendered beautifully in print in Tom Sharpe's first two novels, Indecent Exposure and Riotous Assembly (he returned as soon as he'd finished his education and earned enough money for the trip home; and refused to visit until apartheid was dead and buried).

Sharpe's books were published in the 1960s, but the town is still recognisable – and I swear I met one of the characters when visiting a few years ago. A member of the police special squad, he was an old school acquaintance of The Other Half, and we managed a pretty instant dislike of each other.

A group of his former school friends, hearing that we were visiting, decided to arrange a braai for us. By the time of the evening in question, we'd already met one of them and his wife and all got on very nicely indeed. At the braai itself, however, I found myself on the receiving end of white South African customs – the women sit quietly at one end of the patio while the men stand around the fire with cans of Castle beer in their hands, jabbering away.

Sorry, but it just wouldn't do. Fortunately, The Other Half's sister, who was also with us, was company and moral support – since my attempts at convivial conversation with the other women fell about as flat as the proverbial pancake. And my jokes went down like a lead balloon. Perhaps it was because I would insist on actually talking to their menfolk too – and drinking beer. Out of a can.

Braais are not examples of healthy eating. Come to that, South African food – let's clarify: white South African food – is a million miles from healthy eating. There's meat – lots of it. Occasionally with some fish – 'turn 'n' surf' – but you'll struggle to find a vegetable. Other than potato. Mixed with bottled (never homemade) mayo to make a potato salad. And nobody eats that anyway – it's just there for show. That's braais for you. In detail.

The rest of the food isn't much better. Saturated fat and sugar are everywhere – it's no wonder there are high levels of heart disease amongst Afrikaners.

In the middle of the trip, we'd stayed at a resort in the mountains for a week (a break was required from The Common Law Mother in Law and the shopping malls of 'Maritzburg). The exchange rate had allowed us to bask in what was luxury for our inexperienced (at that time) traveling tastes. The dining room was amazing – but finding any healthy and light food was a daily adventure in itself.

After internet research, The Other Half went to three different London addresses yesterday morning, in the hope of finding South African produce to put on his fire – in particular, boerewors, a famous form of sausage. Two of the shops were closed, the third didn't have any fresh meat. He returned with biltong by way of compensation (which The Queen B instantly decided was fabulous) and sat down looking peeved. I refrained from noting that I had advised him to ring first – advice that he had considered silly.

So I returned to the farmers' market and bought steaks so that he could still do the Man Cooking thing – he seemed so disappointed.

But South African beer wasn't to be found for love nor money, so I just poured him a chilled glass of rosé from the south of France. And anyway, he'd already topped his bread with dried oregano and sage and declared it to be "fusion cookery".

It's not much of a braai, to be honest: just a very small tin box on legs, with a rack on top, bought locally from one of the Turkish shops. But then again, such things shouldn't be complex (he pours scorn on those creations that employ gas bottles and so on – presumably that's more Boy Cooking than Man Cooking).

The fire had been going for a while – newspaper (several pages of yesterday's sports section – which I hadn't had time to read before they went to their fate), plus charcoal and some wood (dried branches from the bay tree that we'd saved when we hacked it back last year). And then he put vegetables on (asparagus and a skewered, quartered onion).

The pot bread had squished up (no real surprise – too much yeast and liquid to too little flour). But it cooked very well and tasted darned good. I'm wondering whether I should increase the amount of yeast that I use in order to get a lighter dough.

And the rest of it was all jolly good too.

Perhaps I'll have to let him do Man Cooking again – at least a couple of times while the summer lasts!

Friday, 1 May 2009

Plenty to consider as we wait for a reason

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
Theatre Royal Haymarket, London

Samuel Beckett’s play, written between 1948 and ’49, and premiered in Paris in 1953, is considered to be one of the most important plays of the 20th century.

Yet in 1956, the Irish Times critic, Vivian Mercer, famously described it as: “a play in which nothing happens, that yet keeps audiences glued to their seats. What’s more, since the second act is a subtly different reprise of the first, he has written a play in which nothing happens, twice.”

There’s possibly never been another theatrical work that is so open to interpretation; considerable effort has been expended in trying to explain what it’s ‘about’. For that reason, it’s worth starting at the very beginning, and considering what actually happens, before making an attempt to analyse or understand it.

The play opens on a bleak set, with a skeleton of a tree and a bench or large stone.

Vladimir and Estragon, two elderly men, arrive on stage. They are, apparently, waiting for someone called Godot, who they don’t really know and might not recognise easily. They spend the time while they wait in a mixture of philosophical and religious musing, dancing, joking around and contemplating suicide. They appear to be destitute – they’re sleeping rough and Vladimir gives Estragon food from his pockets that, presumably, he has pulled from the fields himself (they have soil on them); a carrot and some turnips.

Two more characters arrive – initially, Vladimir and Estragon think that one of them is Godot. But this is Pozzo, who appears to be well-to-do, and has the second, Lucky, under control by a rope attached to his neck. Lucky carries heavy bags and appears to be some sort of a slave to Pozzo.

Pozzo sits on a small stool, opens a picnic hamper, takes a drink from a bottle and eats some meat, before throwing away the bone. Estragon asks whether he can have the bone. Pozzo tells him that Lucky usually gets it, so he has to ask Lucky. Lucky, however, resolutely refuses to say anything, so Estragon takes that as assent and grabs the bone.

Vladimir and Estragon show sympathy for Lucky and ask why he never puts the bags down. Pozzo tells them that the man is attempting to persuade Pozzo not to sell him at a nearby fair.

In gratitude for being companionable, Pozzo asks if he can do anything for Vladimir and Estragon. The latter asks for money, but Pozzo offers to let them see Lucky dance. Upon order, he dances – a shambling effort. Then they tell him to think – and remove his hat to make him do this. He produces a lengthy, stream-of-consciousness soliloquy that makes no sense at all, and they can only stop him by jamming the hat back on his head.

Lucky and Pozzo leave. A young boy arrives to tell Vladimir and Estragon that Godot will not be coming that evening and they are to be there the next night, when he will come.

Act one closes.

The second act contains much of the same – although the formerly bare tree now has a few leaves on it. However, when Pozzo and Lucky turn up, Pozzo has turned blind. Even given this turn of events, Lucky has stayed with Pozzo and the two go off again, still with Lucky on a rope.

A boy arrives – not the same one as the previous night, he claims – and tells Vladimir and Estragon that Godot will not be coming tonight. They should return tomorrow.

The two consider suicide again, but the rope that they think of using – Estragon’s belt – breaks. They say they’ll get better rope tomorrow.

The end.

So, what does it all mean?

If you take it at face value – that it ‘means’ nothing more than what is described above, then it ‘means’ nothing. But that in itself is a very existentialist comment on life: that life ‘means’ nothing and is as absurd as what unfolds on the stage. The temptation to look for ‘meaning’ in the play is like the apparent human need to look for ‘meaning’ in life itself.

That seems to be the most stripped-back ‘meaning’ of the play.

There have been plenty of more complex interpretations – the Freudian one, the Jungian one, the “interpretation from compassion”, the political interpretation, the religious interpretation …

I first saw Waiting for Godot in 1991, in a production starring comedians Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson. I have no memories of that production or the play itself. I can’t, therefore, even say whether I ‘got’ any of it at that point.

The production I saw last night, then, was completely fresh and it was a considerably different proposition – something that indicates to me personally a degree a personal development in the intervening years.

A number of things occurred to me while watching it and since.

I cannot escape the idea of this play having, in essence, existentialist themes – that’s partly at the stripped-back level I mentioned above, but also in further ways.

If this is a play onto which one places one’s own interpretations, influenced, in part at least, by one’s own subjective life experiences and beliefs, then that itself is existentialist – that life itself has no inherent meaning but that we place meaning on it.

But the play itself also seems to be ‘about’ that very point: life is a process of waiting for death – it is the one certainly we have, that we will all die. One of the few things that we can do that illustrates genuine freedom of choice is to chose when to die – to end our own lives. And Vladimir and Estragon consider exactly that, at the end of both acts, as they tire of the wait, of life.

This is not a depressing play though, and there are ideas about what can provide meaning in life. Vladimir and Estragon are, in many ways, like an elderly married couple. And their relationship forms the core of their own lives – they support each other, physically and emotionally. We might be alone in the universe from a strict existentialist point of view – but we don’t have to be alone. Relationships give our lives meaning.

Interpreting Lucky and Pozzo seems less obvious. But what we know suggests (to me at least) a sense of religious servitude – or of the self-delusional subjugation by people to a religious (or moral or anything else) mythology, by choice. Lucky is physically tied to his ‘master’ (who apparently owns him enough to consider selling him) by a rope. He does what he is told, no matter how menial or humiliating. He never puts the bags (that are full of sand – useless weight) down unless in order to perform a task for Pozzo or when ordered to dance.

When Vladimir and Estragon then remove his hat to let him think, he cannot produce anything coherent – it’s a sort of intellectual-sounding but meaningless garbage, which sends him into an increasingly crazed state. When they stop this by replacing his hat, Lucky collapses. He can only stand on his own again, when the bags have been returned to his hands.

He cannot operate without the meaningless, pointless baggage and the servitude that goes with it. Thinking sends him into a ‘mad’ state.

Godot, of course, never turns up. Is Godot God? A god that torments his creations by demanding things of them but always betrays them by promising to come and then doing so?

The two boys who deliver Godot’s messages to Vladimir and Estragon claim to be a goat herder and a sheep herder respectively. Both animals have symbolic meanings in Christian religious tradition – the goat being the devil and the sheep being Jesus, the lamb of God.

Early in the play, Vladimir talks of salvation and how only one of the four gospels says that one of the thieves crucified with Christ was saved. Vladimir and Estragon as the thieves? Godot as God? Pozzo as Godot? Lucky as the sacrificial lamb of God?

Whatever you conclude – and this is a hugely individual matter (which is rather existentialist in itself) – this is a staggeringly inventive, funny, absurd and challenging play. It seems to be a puzzle within a puzzle within a puzzle. Beckett himself gave out almost no clues and it will keep you thinking for ages.

And this new production, starring Patrick Stewart as Vladimir and Ian McKellen as Estragon, with Simon Callow as Pozzo and Ronald Pickup as Lucky, and directed by Sean Mathias, is superb.

McKellen is a wonderful natural clown, while Stewart has taken to such a performance style with aplomb. And it is a delight to see such great actors clearly relishing every moment.

Utterly fantastic stuff – I very much doubt that I’ll have forgotten this in 18 years.