Monday, 29 March 2010

Moving east

We woke on Friday morning to find ourselves in Basel – behind schedule, after an 'incident' the night before in France had delayed the train.

But it certainly had its advantages – allowing a far greater state of wakefulness when we'd passed beneath Zurich in a lengthy tunnel to find first a rather large lake – and then the Alps themselves beyond.

Here are a first few pictures – all taken from the train.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Almost ready for the off

It's Wednesday evening – and my ability to concentrate coherently waned ages ago.

This is ridiculous: I'm more obviously excited than I've been about a trip for – well, years.

I have most of my packing done – and have complied a list of 'things to do' and 'things to pack'. The Other Half laughs at such lists, but they do help to be a tad better in the organisation stakes. And hopefully, they also help to avoid my near legendary ability to forget to pack something or other.

I'm also getting close to incapable of eating anything much, although The Other Half made it quite clear this morning that the idea of omelettes or a frittata tonight were not his idea of a proper meal. So I picked up some sausages after work and may well let him do something with them. To be honest, I don't know what I fancy – I'd struggle to eat at present.

Then there will be the small matter of sleep. I'll struggle. My mind will buzz non-stop; I know exactly what I'm like.

And there is still so much to do – or at least it certainly feels that way.

This is exactly what I hate about travel – the near panic beforehand.

6.51pm: The Other Half is practicing doing up his bow tie while we wait for our cat sitter to call.

He went to collect his suit yesterday and then, once at home in the evening, tried it on – only to find that neither the evening shirt nor evening waistcoat had had 'button' holes put in for the studs. He had to take it back this morning and then go and collect it late this afternoon. But that's sorted now.

Quite a lot more done – but plenty more to do.

I feel as though I'm not going to get everything sorted in time.

20.42pm: finally I'm beginning to feel a bit more relaxed.

Ivan, our cat sitter, called and everything is sorted on that front. Boudicca, who usually runs away when anyone visits, actually came to say 'hello' to him, while the kittens seemed singularly unbothered by the presence of someone 'new' in their home. Indeed, Loki jumped onto the back of the chair he sat in to have a cuppa and sniffed his hair very carefully and closely.

I've managed to eat – and all I have to do now (I think) is polish my boots for tomorrow. Oh, and then have one of those lovely long baths that starts with fiddly jobs such as having a shave.

Who knows – I might even get some sleep tonight. There'll be no trouble rising tomorrow – the moment the light comes up, the furry alarm clocks will be busy trying to rouse us, and me in particular.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

This isn't going to be 'my Venice movie'

Well, that was close to two hours of my life I won’t get back.

With Venice just over the horizon, a colleague had insisted that we should watch the 1973 film, Don’t Look Now before travelling. Quite coincidentally, it was scheduled for the early hours of Monday morning – so we recorded it and sat down to watch last night.

Now given that the colleague in question is part time – and spends the rest of his working life as a film critic, up to and including being on the juries of assorted film festivals, I was expecting something good.

But as you might already gather, I emerged with a sense of having wasted my time.

For those of you who, like me until last night, don’t know the story, it features a couple, Laura and John Baxter (Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland) whose daughter has recently drowned.

They’re in Venice for his work as a church restorer, when Laura meets a couple of elderly English sisters, one of whom is blind and claims to be psychic – and able to see their dead daughter.

John is concerned by what he sees as his wife’s irrational fascination with the sisters – and what he increasingly thinks is their control over her. But he’s also starting to have strange experiences himself.

Now, it’s all very interestingly shot – this is Venice in the winter; grey and gloomy, almost completely deserted and full of echoes.

That is eerie and well done. But the plot, to my mind, is poor.

Even with genres that deal with the fantastical – and I’d include ghost stories and horror movies in that – you need a certain logic to apply. This film lacks that, to my mind.

What is director Nicolas Roeg trying to say? That John’s fate comes about because he doesn’t pay attention to his psychic side?

But then again, he is saved from a potentially fatal accident when in a church – so perhaps conventional Catholicism would be his salvation?

And Laura – what of her? Isn’t her belief in the psychic sister the root of the problem – if she hadn’t been so taken by it, perhaps John wouldn’t have started ‘seeing things’.

And as for the red dwarf – well where does she come from and what is her relationship to the rest of the events in the film? It took me a bit of Googling this morning to find out what some viewers believe to be the answer to that – but there are no hints in the film to make it remotely clear. And I think it’s fair to say that I’m not an illiterate viewer in terms of films.

I don’t have a problem with ghost stories or horror movies or even things more generally to do with the supernatural. But they still need logic within their own parameters – and a sound and consistent plot. This seemed lacking on several fronts.

So, whatever my colleague might think, this is not going to be ‘my Venice movie’.

I hope.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Getting a bit demob happy

After a fairly manic week at work, I’m now starting to feel distinctly demob happy.

I spent a rather large portion of the weekend scouring the Time Out guide to Venice and pouring over pictures of the city in another book and online.

As the date for departure nears, it seems ever more of a fairytale place; not quite of this world. And it is increasingly – rather than decreasingly – difficult for me to imagine myself there.

I’m rather surprised at the size of the place – or the lack of it. According to the maps, it’s actually far smaller than I’d ever realised – although you can bet your bottom dollar it’ll still take some time to get use to navigating around.

I am almost ready – well at least I’ve now got everything together for my evening attire on the Orient Express itself.

To complement the £15 M&S dress – long, black, sleeveless and simple – I got a bolero shrug in black lace from ebay for £16 and some Van Dal slingback courts with kitten heels in black patent leather. Then a pair of knot gold earrings and a Swarovski ring to go with the cuff I got a few weeks ago.

I am now of the opinion that nobody – but nobody – will notice the dress itself at all: they’ll simply be blinded by all the bling. I could almost be hypnotised myself by the ring – it catches the light beautifully. The Other Half looked at it, rolled his eyes, and made some snide comment about bling. But who cares? If you look at the sort of things that Tiffany produces, it's just very expensive bling, with actual jewels instead of crystals. The use of 'bling' in a derisive tone is simply snobbery.

The hair has been chopped right back, coloured a rich teaky sort of shade (which also covers all the grey) and styled. I have – miracle of miracles – persuaded The Other Half to actually got to a proper hairdresser tomorrow instead of his usual £6 barber (who does a decent enough job – but never seems to get the crown right).

He has taken to saying things in Italian, making the very most of really rolling every ‘r’.

He will collect his suit tomorrow – and our cat sitter is popping round to collect the keys and meet Otto and Loki on Wednesday evening.

Actually, that’s my biggest concern – how they’ll do with us disappearing for a week. Fortunately, they’ve seen both of us come and go individually for anything from a night to a week since their arrival. And when we’re away, I will miss the cats.

Amazingly, Boudicca is spending more and more time playing with the kittens – although she’s giving off some extraordinarily confused signals: she seems to think that hissing and growling are part of play as well as being genuinely cross.

But she’s now chasing with Otto as well as Loki – and has also been seen to do that sort of high five jumping in the air with each of the kittens.

So they should be able to cope – at least she won’t now be on her own for any length of time. She might still grumble about the kittens, but the lack of boredom behaviour for the last few months is evidence, were any needed, that she really did need some feline interaction.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

A gourmet weekend in the offing

It's only Wednesday, but I'm already busily making my plans for a rather foody weekend.

The Other Half is off to Perpignan, in the south of France, to see his Rugby League team take on the Catalans Dragons. He'll set of early on Friday and take the day to travel south by train – and spend Sunday doing the same thing in reverse, with Saturday set aside for the match and (hopefully) a little food shopping.

In the meantime, having worked last Sunday (my first ever studio photo shoot), I'm going to take Friday as time off in lieu.

So – what to do, what to do? Or more importantly: what to eat?

Everything on that score will be centred around a Friday morning trip to Borough Market, where I know that, amongst other things, the range of seafood that I'll be able to get will be higher than Broadway Market the following day.

So, I'm starting from a point of trying to work out what dishes I want to eat.

Let's see: top of the list is scallops – to be pan seared and served with cannellini beans heated with chili and garlic, and some salad leaf.

After that, possibly some crab with spaghetti – I've done this a few times with dressed crab, but fancy trying with meat that's still in rather larger pieces. Once you've got the meat out, you simply warm it gently in olive oil, with a little red chili and garlic (yes, I know there's a bit of theme developing here).

I'd also like to have some sea bass – a whole fish, stuffed with fennel tops and baked in a coat of packed sea salt (no chili, note).

So, three days to cater for and three meals decided thus far.

Brindisa, the wonderful Spanish deli at Borough should enable me to find padron peppers – one bag will do me twice as a starter.

These are beautiful little things: you fry them in a smallish amount of ht olive oil, hopefully getting some of the skins slightly charred. Then serve with a garnish of course sea salt – and eat with your fingers, picking up by the stalks and biting off the fruit. Around one in 10 is hot. All are glorious.

It seems that we're well on the way to very simple food – Italian and Spanish influences – and a bit of heat to get the old endorphins going.

Ahhh ... endorphins. Those lovely little things that go through the roof when we've having good sex.

Anyway, back to the food.

I also quite fancy having a big dish of spaghetti with roasted tomatoes, red peppers and ... errr ... red chilies, pulsed with toasted ground almonds and a little virgin oil.

So that's four meals. What about some meat, though?

I am wondering about trying a couple of little quail, splitting and flattening them, and then cooking them on the griddle pan with a bit of course salt and some ... you guessed it: red chili. The weekend is in danger of becoming a culinary homage to the late Rose Gray, River Cafe co-founder.

But that is just coincidence – it's simply the perfect opportunity to stuff myself with the sort of nosh that I adore and that The Other Half is less enthused by.

So, where are we: Ah yes – three days to plan for and five meals provisionally planned (plus a couple of starters). One more meal to go, as I attempt not to waste this opportunity.

Ummm. Perhaps I'll leave that final choice until I see what's on display.

Not that I'm just going to be cooking and noshing for three days.

I may take in a gallery – I fancy a very relaxed stroll around the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, having not been for years – or I may try to think of some personal photographic project (perhaps I'll just photograph my food) or I may even try my hand at making some artisan chocolates.

And then I want to re-watch Visconti's film of Death in Venice and David Lean's Summertime to get myself even more in the mood for our forthcoming trip.

But now, after the snow, the Catalans have warned that the match may not go ahead.

I've told The Other Half in no uncertain terms that he's going anyway – he can't get a refund on his train tickets! And I have plans!

Friday, 5 March 2010

The fur (almost) flies as the days lengthen

The season has changed. We’ve reached a tipping point and it’s winter no longer.

It's been pleasant all week – and gorgeous today – but it was on Monday night, after dusk had fallen, that I knew. Standing in the garden briefly, I could feel it – smell it. It was a clear sky and chilly – well, not “chilly”; not chill-you-to-your-bones cold, but fresh: different.

And not only has the air changed, the light has changed too. As my bus passed the park this morning, the first crocuses, purple and white, were visible in the early frost.

Spring might not fully have sprung, but it’s on the way. It doesn’t mean that the bad weather is over – apart from anything else, the domestic cricket season hasn’t started yet and we always get snow around then, as if the weather is making some sort of a sarcastic comment on the sport itself.

But there is a difference and it's almost beyond welcome.

For the kittens, of course, it's a first – as are many things at present.

The mornings seem to have lightened considerably – and almost overnight. So of course the furry alarm clocks are starting their morning ministrations earlier with every passing day.

Loki likes to come up on the bed and attempt to suckle our ears. Otto comes up to me for pillow cuddles and fuss. You could be forgiven for thinking that the latter is the biggest softy in our household, but while he's as soft as the proverbial with me, there are signs of a rather tougher and more calculating feline beneath the fur. For instance, while Loki gets batted regularly by Boudi for running into her accidently or similar such infringements (like being in her presence), Otto has now taken to sitting quite deliberately in situations where he is above the Queen B. And then looking down at her.

This is an offence to Her Majesty, who eventually flips and tries to smack him. He remains completely unperturbed – and does it again. This is teasing par excellence – and way beyond that traditional kitten trick (which Boudi herself used to do to poor old Trickie – karma, eh?) of standing on your back paws and waving your front paws at a bigger cat – trying to look bigger and scarier yourself.

Bismarck would be proud – and Boudi's going to have her paws full before long, if she doesn't feel that already.

Born right at the end of last October, they haven't felt a lot of sun on their bodies before – and now that there are moments when we can start to feel it, they must be able to feel it too.

They're enjoying being occasionally let into our tiny garden now – only under supervision – although Boudicca is less than impressed at yet another part of her realm no longer being safe from kittenish invasion. The other week, on one of their first such spells outside, we had a visit from neighbouring moggy Basil.

Basil (left) is bonkers. He lives in the small block of flats next to ours, with a woman who, frankly, hasn't a clue. She thinks that he's better spending time outside – but half the time, he clearly wants to be inside, warm and comfortable. Instead, he sits in our gated carpark and mewls for attention.

And he gets it from many of the residents. In the summer, if someone has a barbeque outside in the carpark, he'll always be guaranteed titbits. Even Lisa, a neighbour who says that she hates cats, bought a box of something called 'cat gravy' for him once. It's not the best diet, though, and he's really rather large.

He's convinced, though, that however she may react, Boudi would really like to be his special friend. Before the arrival of Otto and Loki, she'd dive into the garden and attempt to reach under the fence to bat Boris if he was near enough. He must have a strange idea of friendship.

It was clearly something of a shock to him the other day to discover that the fence that he stands on the other side of, moaning, now has extra cats behind it. Loki hissed at him through a knothole. But never let it be said that such things put Basil off in his quest for feline companionship.

A few mornings ago, he hauled his fat furry body over the fence and into our garden, going to sit in front of the patio doors and mewl.

Boudi went predicatably mad, scrabbling at the door to be let out so that she could chase him off; even though she's physically smaller, it's an unfair match: she's chased him right up the fence before now, all four paws spinning like some sort of cartoon cat on speed.

Loki stood in front of the window, head on one side, watching curiously. I was taking the day off and was still sitting in bed, sipping camomile tea, looking at cookery books and planning the weekend food with Otto's help – he wasn't remotely interested in the stranger outside.

I went through to the living room and rattled the door handle, which sent Basil off as fast as he could go, scrabbling madly to get back over the fence. Far kinder than letting Boudi at him.

Who knows whether he's tried his luck since when we've been at work. I've told Boudi not to let him in. There are no obvious signs that she's ignored me or that she's had the chance to give him a serious seeing-to.

I'm looking forward to seeing how the kittens react when it gets really warm. There would always be a day, in years now past, when Mack would emerge into the garden, as though from hibernation, and roll in the sun-warmed dust of the patio. Like crocuses and roadworks and lengthening days, it was a sign that spring was on the way. And it never ceased to warm the cockles of my heart.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Here's a how-de-do!

The operas of Gilbert and Sullivan were one of a very limited number of things that, following introduction by my parents, I have retained with me throughout my life.

It was back in the 1970s, when we lived near Manchester, that my sister and I were first taken to see the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company at the old Opera House in Manchester itself: not once, but twice within a season that the company played there.

I can’t for the life of me remember the order in which I saw various of the operas, but the four I saw with my parents were The Mikado, Iolanthe, Ruddigore and The Gondoliers.

During the same period, a schoolfriend’s parents took me with them to sit in a box and watch Patience for her birthday treat one year.

Whichever one came first, I was instantly besotted. This was all in the second half of the ’70s, by which time I was studying for a music ‘O’ level and dreaming endlessly of a life on the stage. Given a half-decent singing voice, that rather quickly developed into a desire to join D’Oyly Carte.

Even then, aware that I was probably never going to be tall and (tit) willowy, my ambitions extended toward the female comic roles – Lady Jane in Patience, the Fairy Queen in Iolanthe and Katisha in The Mikado. All were traditionally played by fuller-figured women – perhaps it was a sort of apprenticeship for a later desire (still with me) to be given the excuse of an invite to a fancy dress party so that I can go as a Wagnerian diva; Brunhilda in wingéd helmet, with something akin to a chain mail corset containing some of my best assets?

But I digress – as explained elsewhere, my Wagnerian stage was still some years in the distance.

Not that the female comic roles were the best in the operas. Oh no, the best roles were the male comic leads – the baritone with the fabulous, famous patter songs. But at least the female comic lead got to do plenty of scenes with her male opposite number.

When I first saw D’Oyly Carte, the male comic lead was John Reed (left, as Ko-Ko) – a legend by then, having played the roles from 1959.

He retired from the company in 1979 – the last of the great comic leads, going back to Peter Pratt, who he succeeded, Martyn Green, Henry Lytton and George Grossmith, who first created so many of the roles under the direction of WS Gilbert.

When he left the company in 1979, Reed himself was succeeded by James Conroy-Ward, who I coincidentally ended up working with at a telesales company just off Baker Street, shortly after I’d arrived in the metropolis. James took great pleasure in finally having a colleague who actually knew what he’d done – understood what it was about and loved all that. It was as near as I came to working with D’Oyly Carte.

This morning, via a link to something completely unrelated, I discovered that John Reed had died a couple of weeks ago. He was 94, so he’d certainly enjoyed ‘a good innings’.

Only a couple of weeks ago, I’d watched The Mikado after finding that it was on DVD. It was the company’s stage production of 1966. The transfer to DVD is clumsy – it’s been done on the cheap, when a re-mastering would have done wonders for it. But there is John Reed – absolutely magnificent as Ko-Ko.

And only last weekend, I watched Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy again – his version of the creation of The Mikado. A wonderful cast – and the singing of Martin Savage as Grossmith instantly bringing Reed to mind.

I met him fleetingly twice. A small man, dapper and with the same high-pitched delivery off stage as on; charming and friendly and completely without any airs of 'stardom'.

It should be difficult to really feel sad about the death of someone that you only briefly met twice and who was, after all, 94, but someone who has been a constant source of joy in my life for 30 odd years has gone.

John – thank you for all the pleasure you gave and will continue to give, thanks to recordings and film.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Food to welcome spring – and bid farewell to winter

A sudden cold, with the overnight addition of a stomach upset, has left me at home today. Nobody likes having colleagues who are running to the loo every five minutes and coughing and sneezing the rest of the time.

In fact, the first day of March has brought lovely weather with it: so welcome after what seems to have been weeks or grey cloud and streaming rain.

I don’t want to wish the year away – I was irritated to see Easter cakes in the chain baker on Broadway Market on Saturday. I wanted to tell them: ‘Stop it! It’s a month until Easter!’ But to be fair, the supermarkets start selling Cabury’s Crème Eggs almost as soon as they’ve cleared the last of the Christmas fare from their shelves.

But that aside, I am ready for spring. We’ve already had the first signs, as with unerring predictability, the year’s first roadworks popped up a week or so ago. And the snowdrops too have been showing their faces.

Right now, there’s blue sky visible and the sun has some real warmth in it.

It’ll be the kittens’ first spring; the first time they’ll have felt the sun on their bodies. They’ve been allowed out into our tiny garden a couple of times now – and get giddy with excitement. Loki has already realised he can climb the fences and the bay tree.

I’m sitting on the sofa with my laptop and Loki, who is busy washing himself. When the sub’s out, you can feel the warmth here.

It was a bit of a foody weekend: The Other Half was off up to Yorkshire for Rugby League again, so eschewing the Easter fondants (small cup cakes with grated ‘chocolate’ nests and a trio of mini eggs on top) I got myself some squid for Saturday evening.

The meal was a doddle. Take a courgette and grate on the coarsest grater you’ve got. Pop in a colander and salt. Leave for around half an hour. Rinse and pat dry with kitchen paper.

Heat some olive oil. Add chopped or dried red chili to taste, plus smashed garlic cloves. Then add the grated courgette and the sliced squid.

It takes no more then five minutes.

In the meantime, cook some pasta – linguine or spaghetti are ideal.

Grate some lemon zest into the squid mixture and serve with the pasta.


Indeed, it came out of River Café Easy Two, the first of the River Café books I got and something of a personal food Bible.

Tonight, indeed, I’m adapting a risotto from the book’s predecessor – porcini, sage and orange – to make it a main course rather than a starter. But it’s still the basic flavours from the first River Café ‘Easy” book, which I added to my library last year.

And so it was with some sadness this morning that I read that Rose Gray, the co-founder of River Café, has died after a lengthy battle with cancer.

Given how recently I actually came to the River Café books, it seems perhaps a little odd to say Rose and her co-founder Ruth Rodgers have influenced my own culinary development so much. But they have – not just directly, but indirectly too – specifically via former employee Jamie Oliver, whose cooking was massively important for me in the earliest years of my food rebirth: simple dishes that produced amazingly sexy results.

So thank you, Rose. And Ruth.

Yesterday was a tiome for simple food too – but it could hardly have been more different. The growth of the ‘slow food movement’ is helping to see a number of revivals.

Now, mutton – for so long almost impossible to get – is becoming available. I can’t remember ever having had it before – never mind actually cooking it, so for a first opportunity, I went down as traditional an English route as possible: I boiled it.

I put around 2kgs of shoulder and popped that in a big pot, with water up about ¾ of the way. Then I added a couple of chopped sticks of celery, a chopped carrot, a roughly sliced onion, some rosemary, a few peppercorns and a bay leaf or three.

Bring to the boil, skim , cover and simmer for around two hours. You can probe the meat quite easily to check that it’s properly tender.

When it’s nearly done, make a white roux with plain flour and butter. Then start adding stock from the pan with the meat. When you’ve reached a consistency you like, add some capers that you’ve rinsed and drained. Check the seasoning and adjust according to taste.

Serve with plain boiled potatoes. I did some carrots on the side too, but it was traditionally served just with the meat, potatoes and sauce.

That came from Rick Stein’s Food Heroes, where he raves about having it while sitting opposite Kingsley Amis in The Garrick. Setting aside the question of anyone actually being excited by being near Amis, and you get half of the point. You can imagine Dickens eating this in Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street – or Mr Pickwick. It’s utterly traditional food – and it’s good food.

The mutton was lovely - flaky and full of flavour; a little like a slightly gamey lamb. The sauce was a revelation.

And hopefully, that was a fitting culinary farewell to what has been a long winter. I’m ready for the sun.