Thursday, 27 August 2009

Zola takes on the delights of a female heaven

The Ladies’ Paradise by Émile Zola, translated by Brian Nelson

Au Bonheur des Dames or The Ladies’ Paradise is the eleventh novel in Émile Zola’s massive Rougon-Macquart cycle, and first appeared in 1883.

Generally lighter in tone than many of the rest of the series, the story focuses on retail entrepreneur Octave Mouret and shop assistant Denise Bandu.

Mouret has been changing the face of shopping in Paris with his rapidly expanding Ladies’ Paradise, a vast department store. As it (and other like it) expands, it helps to sweep away the dark and mildewed shops that had existed before, and it creates both opportunities and problems for women.

On the one hand, it provides respectable work and housing for many women, and a public place that others can feel is theirs – is safe – without male chaperones or the threat to a reputation. But on the other, shopaholics bankrupt families and theft develops too.

Zola describes this change in retail with great attention to detail, creating an extraordinary sense of the store itself as a vast, modern machine – almost alive and full of energy and light.

It’s partly based on the development of department stores in Paris at the time – indeed, my copy has as the cover a detail from a painting of Le Bon Marché, which is still in business, and which apparently influenced the book greatly.

The social detail is interesting – the store as a public space for women, plus attitudes toward working women – and of course, Zola’s open treatment of sexual relationships always strikes one when compared with British authors of the same period.

A light and enjoyable read.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

From liked to loathed?

It seems that we've gone from being everyone's favourite second club (ie we weren't really a threat to anyone) to being 'loathed'. Well, that's Noel Gallagher's take on the matter. On the other hand, perhaps that's just his mate Russell Brand, a West ham fan.

Personally, I've found that people are intrigued by what is going on and want to know how on Earth Mark Hughes is planning on keeping all those strikers happy. I haven't met any frothing loathing. Yet.

If it's out there, then it's primarily a dislike of the nouveau riche – or as Noel put it, a rather British dislike of anything successful (and we haven't even had any success yet!).

But whether you like it or not, football has never been a level playing field – or we'd have records of Arsenal and Accrington Stanley playing on a par – and money has always been part of that equation. Okay, it's increasingly so. But then again, Liverpool used to buy players just to keep their opponents from signing them.

It just so happens that now it's us that has the dosh. Fortunately, as a new video interview on the club's website with chairman, Khaldoon Al Mubarak, showed, the fans are at the centre of what's going on. And the thing is, that's what we actually feel. This is light aware from – dare I mention it – the bloody awful Peter Swales era or even that of Francis Lee after he started interfering in the team.

Saturday was fun – although I ended the day hoarse from groaning every time we missed an absolute sitter. And boy, did we miss enough of them.

On the journey up, the conductor stopped to tell me, at length and as an Arsenal fan, just how good Kolo Touré is. Another City fan, making the same pilgrimage, wanted my prediction on the score. Well, since I openly sport my club colours ...

Manchester was basking in sunshine. Blue skies welcomed us back home. Fortunately, I'd remembered in advance that my seat gets the afternoon sun, and I'd possibly want my sunglasses – I needed them.

But first, with plenty of time to spare, I enjoyed an amble around the stadium. The owners had promised to make further efforts to make it feel ever more like home – like ours. Last season, they'd had banners wrapped around the eight spiral stairwells that are such a feature of the stadium. Each one has the motto, 'Pride in battle', on it, together with the club badge. And the mosaic in the background is made up of the names of every season ticket holder. On Saturday, I finally found my name. There. On the stadium.

And with samba weather to revel in, we enjoyed some samba soccer. Okay, perhaps not as much as we'd have liked, but some delightful moves, some delicious flicks and then some real hustling. The latter was particularly true of new City darling Carlos Tevez, who chased down the Wolves goalkeeper, putting pressure on him, far more than we've seen from any player for years. And it was Tevez too who beautifully set up Emmanuel Adebayor's goal in the 17th minute. Which turned out to be the winner.

But even the lack of further concrete reward – and almost letting Wolves back in the game – still saw us record our second successive Premier League clean sheet – a third in eight days if we include the midweek Barcelona friendly, which had clearly taken a toll on Stephen Ireland for one.

All of which made the journey home an easy one – helped by the massive works in the midlands finally having been completed: this time last year, the journey would have been around five hours each way. Now it takes just over two.

I'll be away for the next few games, keeping tabs from the Continent.

And while I dread the idea of plastic fans and bandwagon jumpers, if the price of some success is less popularity with other fans, then frankly, after what Gallagher N described as "30 years of sheer pain", it's a sacrifice I'm prepared to make.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

The shape of things to come?

Who'd have thunk it? Manchester City 1 Barcelona 0 at the Nou Camp in front of a crowd of 94,000 – and we bring home the Joan Gamper Trophy, the first English side to do so – and, on the same night, Manchester United lose 1-0 to Burnley!

It's difficult to imagine how good that is.

Okay, the Barça match was a friendly, but it's still a big test. And in the second half, with stars like Messi and Alves on the pitch for the Catalan side, we actually kept them out, even after changes of our own saw two of our best defenders replaced by less experienced ones.

That comes just days after a 2-0 opening day victory at Ewood Park – Blackburn are never an easy side to play, Sam Allerdyce is a boringly defensive manager (I remember a day when City entertained his Bolton side and they kept all 11 men behind the ball).

It's certainly not a match we'd have expected to win in the past – last season, we scraped a 2-2 draw with moments remaining and that was good for us. Indeed, last term, we only managed two away wins all season – at Sunderland and Everton.

And the clean sheet was every bit as important as the two goals.

I'll be going up for the first home game of the season on Saturday – against top flight new boys Wolverhampton Wanderers.

I can hardly wait.

Cricket used to occupy my summer sports watching. Let's face it, for most of the last three decades, City have been pretty depressing. The close season was a time to stop being depressed – not continue thinking about a string of defeats (and, far too often, relegation).

It would take me a month or so to get into a new season.

But not this time – the excitement got to me weeks ago.

Monday, 17 August 2009


It's quite possible that nobody in London actually knows Taffy's real name.

'Taffy' is a bit like 'Jock' for a Scot or 'Paddy' for an Irishman. But that's what he tells people to call him.

Unsurprisingly, Taffy was born and brought in Wales, in 'The Valleys'. At school, he was repeatedly rapped across the knuckles with a ruler by the teacher – because he was left-handed.

After school, he followed his father into the mine. And he worked there until the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher's government closed down the mining industry and threw hundreds of thousands onto the scrapheap of unemployment without considering or caring about the consequences.

Taffy went into the construction industry. Now his body is close to breaking. His doctors say he needs surgery or he'll be in a wheelchair within a few years. But the casualisation of construction in the past few decades means that, if he does that, he'll have little chance of getting a job after long recuperation. He has no private pension. So he's ploughing on regardless.

His wife still lives in Wales. The work he can get keeps him away from home during the week. If he's working in London, he stays in a room above a pub in the east of the city. He has a couple of pints at night, often sitting at the bar looking utterly weary, and then quietly departs to get some rest.

This is modern, civilised Britain.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

I should know to trust Rick

Rick Stein, that is. One of my favourite celebrity chefs.

On Thursday, I hit a point; a point of feeble concentration at work. Or rather, a point where I had to work very, very hard indeed to maintain concentration.

That day, two colleagues had set off for Argeles-sur-mer, just north of Collioure, where I'll be in ... oh, just a day under three weeks! They had set off from St Pancras, on the Eurostar, just a five minute walk from the office I was sitting in, struggling to concentrate. I could have looked out of the window of my office and seen their train pull out, an hour after I'd got to work.

Anyway, in a mood of heightened longing-for-the-Mediterranean, I had found myself planning a weekend menu of varied dishes from the region. Things started on Friday evening with ratatouille – southern French vegetable stew of tomatoes, aubergine, courgettes, peppers, onion and basil, garnished with a mixture of crushed garlic and chopped flat-leaf parsley. And served, of course, with good bread.

Well, that was a decent start. Tasty and most certainly healthy.

With Vicki my fishmonger away for a wedding on Saturday, I had a choice. I could either have a meaty weekend or I could try the new fish shop at the top end of the market.

Now, I'd already, the week before, had a look in that shop. Since Vicki didn't have any cod, I'd wondered if they had, since I wanted to salt it for bacalao. We didn't get off to a good start. First, supposedly specialist fishmonger doesn't know what bacalao is. And then, receiving something akin to a lecture about sustainable fishing and cod.

Yes. I know about the issues with sustainable cod fishing. Vicki and I have discussed it at length. It's why I know that there are no problems with certain stocks of cod. And, unlike a lot of my fellow Brits, I can think beyond cod.

But most of all, I don't take kindly to such patronising lectures. So at least there will be no temptation to betray Vicki by going into their shop again. And even then, they shouldn't have said shop, since Spirit, a trader on street for years, was very wrongly ousted from his shop (where he sold fish) by our very dodgy local council in their very dodgy dealings with a local property developer.

Meat it was, therefore.

So on Saturday, we had roast chicken, done my favourite way, as in River Café Easy Two.

Heat the oven to 80˚C. Take your bird. Remove any inards and stuff with a good handful of rosemary, a handful of sage and some chopped garlic. (I chucked in a half lemon that was sitting in the fridge looking forlorn)

Pop it into roasting dish that it fits quite tightly. Pour 200ml of water into the dish. Pop in the oven and cook for an hour.

Remove. Turn the bird the other way up. Pop back in the oven and cook for another hour. Turn again and cook for a third hour. Remove from the oven. Turn the heat up to 200˚C. Take some butter and massage it all over the skin of the bird (great, messy fun). Season well. And then pour 100ml of Vermouth (Pernod would work too) into the dish. Put it back in the oven and give it half an hour.

Bingo! Superb chicken. And after you've had your dinner, superb chicken needs using properly. So after stripping the remaining meat, I took the carcass, plus an onion, additional herbs, three sticks of celery, a carrot, some peppercorns and a very large amount of water, cooked it all for around two hours and then strained it through muslin to give myself around three litres of stock for the freezer.

But what of Sunday's efforts?

Well, a couple of years ago, I was asked to review a cookery book – Rick Stein's Mediterranean Escapes. In an incredibly brief period between getting my paws on the tome itself and filing my copy, I had time to test out one recipe – a dish with sausages and lemon. Perfectly tasty. I wrote my concise 200 words, put the book on the shelf and pretty much forgot about it.

Fast forward to last week. Mulling over what to do for midweek meals, I picked it up and started reading rather more seriously. And realised that there were many more options than I had previously realised.

One that sprung to my attention was kleftiko, a Greek lamb dish.

Apparently, it was known as 'thieves' roast' and allegedly used to be made by the criminal classes in the Greek countryside. They would nick a lamb, put it in a hole in the ground with hot embers, seal it with earth so that no smoke could give it away, and then go about their nefarious business during the day, returning in the evening to their slow-cooked meat.

And that lovely bit of colour was thanks to m'friend George – not Mr Stein.

Anyway. I've never had it and indeed, have had a low idea of Greek food since a poor meal in a Greek restaurant in Amsterdam in 2000, where the salad was washed out and devoid of taste.

And I've never cooked a dish like that – slow-cooking a big piece of meat in such a way. But I grasped the nettle and was encouraged by the interest displayed by The Other Half, who mused that, in the days before I had emerged on his scene, he used to quite regularly eat it in a Greek restaurant around Clerkenwell. He was also able to advise that the meat needs to be really falling away from the bone.

Okay. So I bought a should of lamb and got the butcher to quarter it for me (the easiest way to portion it for two people). A couple of online recipes talked of putting greaseproof paper at the bottom of the dish to stop the ingredients sticking, but Rick didn't mention this, so after some consideration, I stuck with Mr Stein.

Heat the oven to around 190˚C. Peel and dice some maincrop potatoes. Take a whole bulb of garlic and pull off the papery cover. Then cut the whole bulb in half. Pop the meat, potatoes and garlic in a big casserole.

Add the juice of two lemons, two teaspoons of salt and lots of ground black pepper, a tablespoon of dried oregano and two tablespoons of fresh oregano (or marjoram), six bay leaves and then 100ml of water. Cover the ingredients with kitchen foil, pop on the lid and then put it in the oven. After two hours, check it hasn't dried out and needs more water. Then give it at least another hour.

In the event, I needed to give it around 45 minutes more before the meat, as The Other Half had described, was really starting to fall away from the bone. But there had been no worry about potato sticking to the pan – the water sees to that. It really is a great flavour – and reheated, it'll do at least one (and probably two) more meals.

I should know to trust Rick.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Watching the Watchmen from a distance

Watchmen US 2009

This is one of those films that is so long-awaited that it became an Event. First published in 12 parts between 1986 and ’87, writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen is a seminal graphic novel – proof, were it needed by then, that comics were not just a juvenile medium.

And then there was the wait for the film. Moore refused to script it, and then refused to have his name anywhere near the final production – just as with V for Vendetta and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, although in the latter case, you can quite understand why.

The story is set in an alternative history. Superheroes – the Watchmen – helped the US win in Vietnam, Watergate was averted and Nixon has been president for some time. But with the Soviets moving in on Afghanistan, nuclear war is edging closer.

Of the superheroes, most are now retired after they were outlawed. A couple still work for the government, including Dr Manhatten, a physicist who was transformed into a superbeing in a nuclear accident some years earlier.

And then, someone murders one of the surviving Watchmen.

Moore’s book is about a number of things, including morality, vigilantism, individualism and the question of who exactly is watching those who enforce law and those who make it.

Director Zack Snyder has made a really good fist of this. Which is even more of a miracle when you consider that his previous effort was 300.

The core plot is intact and it looks superb. The realisation of Dr Manhatten is super – as is Rorschach’s mask. This is CGI doing what it should – serving a movie and not being the reason for that movie.

The use of music is interesting – a leaf out of Tarantino’s book – and works well. The opening titles and first scene are brilliant.

However, while it kept me entertained for two and half hours, it didn’t draw me in. I felt absolutely nothing about any of the characters. Which cannot be said for the film version of V for Vendetta, which moves me in a number of scenes and has done so on several viewings. I really don’t care about any of the characters here, though.

It’s difficult to know why that is. Okay, they’re not all particularly sympathetic – but then again, but it was difficult to be even mildly moved to distaste.

Lack of rehearsal time? A cast that wasn’t strong enough?

I’m not sure. But while there’s much to applaud this, I was ultimately left with a sense of: ‘so what?’

Monday, 3 August 2009

When you don't know what you want to eat

One of the things that seems to happen at this time of year is that I get bored with food.

No, actually, that's not quite right. I just find it difficult to know what I want to eat. And my appetite seems to go belly up, if you will, so that eating becomes an effort on many occasions – particularly when we hit August and it can traditionally get quite humid in the UK.

Fortunately, a few years ago, a friend and fellow gourmet gave some good pointers and now, even when I feel least like eating, they guide my thoughts back to some good stuff.

George has given me loads of recipes over the years – and taught me things like how to tell if a melon or a Camembert is ripe – but a few years ago, when I was suffering one of those periods of no appetite and little motivation, he introduced me to gazpacho.

This Spanish tomato-based soup, which is served very chilled and needs to be made from the very freshest ingredients, is incredibly refreshing and tasty – and healthy too. Which can’t be a bad combination. He was prepared to share his mother-in-law’s recipe – and it’s easy and very, very good.

And then there is a gem of a herring salad too, using matjes or sweet herring fillets, mixed with some sour cream or crème fraîche, and some thinly sliced apples and/or some diced beetroot. Again, really, really fresh and refreshing.

But I do occasionally find some little gems from elsewhere – and last week was one such occasion.

Some people don’t like Tamasin Day-Lewis, but she was already in my good books for her formula for cooking steak, which makes it a doddle:

if you want it done rare, cook for a minute, turn over and cook for another minute, then rest in a warm place for eight minutes.

If you want it medium rare, cook for two minutes, turn and cook for a further two minutes and then rest in a warm place for six minutes.

If you want it medium, cook for three minutes each side and rest for four.

If you want it well done, cook for four minutes a side and rest for just two.

And if you want it cremated, cook for five minutes a side and serve.

Brilliant – this makes it easy to do several steaks at once to different states.

However, browsing the other week on, I came across a stunning simple summer dish from the lady.

Heat some olive oil in a frying pan until it’s good and hot. Thinly slice some courgettes. Pop them in the pan and cook briefly. You want them to caramelise a bit at least.

Turn them over. Add some slivers of garlic, plus some lemon juice and some pine nuts. Cook for another few minutes. Season with good salt and pepper and serve.

Lovely tastes – the lemon juice just keeps it really fresh.

Because I wanted a bigger lunch (and two portions of my fruit and veg for the day), I added a couple of halved artichoke hearts. And the next time I did it, I toasted the pine nuts and garnished the dish with them at the very end. But it’s a corking idea.

So thanks for that idea, Tamasin. And thanks, as always, to George too.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Longing for the sun

Eleven minutes past three in the afternoon. It's a Saturday and I still haven't reached the point of sitting down and just ... well, just stopping.

I've shopped, then had a little lunch, then prepared a marinade for tomorrow's dinner, then done the spuds for tonight's meal.

And it's gone three. And I'm looking for things to 'do' instead of simply down with a book.

Indeed, here I am now, writing this.

Is it a general thing or does my puritanical background make it harder? I think it's at least partly cultural. In France, they don't live to work, but work to live. Brits, in general, seem to do absolutely the opposite.

It's the first day of August and I feel knackered. Long-term, deep-down knackered. I felt like this exactly a year ago, so at least the symptoms are not unknown. The beach did the trick – a first ever beach holiday, where I was astonished to realise that I really could just stop for 10 whole days. Stop. And sit. And think – or not. And rest.

Twenty seven days to go until that time arrives again.

It doesn't help that the weather this summer has been poor. Well, downright unseasonal, in terms of English seasons. We had a decent June, but then there's been so much wind since, and torrential rain. Not proper, old-fashioned English summer days with showers, but tropical downpours, with dark grey clouds obscuring the tops of buildings.

So, I'm starting to compile my summer holiday book list. I took eight books last year, convinced that, on the basis of the pace that I was reading at the time, I'd race through them. But I read just three. I'm still going to take a few this time around, but nothing too heavy. No Nabakov this year. And I'm foregoing the previously intended Proust.

There'll be some Maigret – I've been using ebay to bolster my collection – Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence and Hot Sun, Cool Shadow: Savouring the Food, History and Mystery of the Languedoc, which seems to be a sort of Languedoc version of the Mayles by Angela Murrills and Peter Matthews, plus Elizabeth David's French Provincial Cooking and, quite possibly, Emma Brockes's What Would Barbra Do? How Musicals Changed My Life, which looks a camp, bitchy hoot and has just been ordered.

My other main preparation is intended to be spending most of the month sans booze, with cuts to my caffeine consumption too. Try and get myself part of the way to relaxation and general well being before I set foot in the Languedoc. Oh, and I'm trying to push ahead with a podcast language course – but I'm really struggling with it, because German has finally taken root in my head and I keep wanting to say things in German rather than French.

So we get the podcast tutor asking something like: "And what is 'I am' in French?" To which my instant reaction is "Ich bin". I suppose Mrs John, my German teacher at school, who must have despaired of her linguistically challenged pupil (I managed 4% in my final exam), would be impressed. My French teacher would probably be astonished that I'm even trying.

Crap at foreign languages and incapable of relaxing. How English can you get?

There is going to be slightly more to the holiday than just sitting on a beach. Snorkeling, which I discovered last year. And I've promised myself that I'm going to actually try one of the big kayaks that you can rent at the beach. They don't look too difficult. And, if he's not stopped for the season, we'll take a couple of trips on the sailing boat that goes out from the little harbour.

I had some of my photographs turned into calendars last year for friends and clients. This month's picture is Collioure. I can hardly wait.

Now. I really am going to make an effort to go and sit down. With a book.

Update: here we are at 5.17pm. I did sit down. And read a page. Then I decided that tonight's tuna steaks would benefit from a marinade. Not that it's difficult. Not that it's a bad idea. But it's as though I'm an over-wound watch spring that can't actually stop.