Friday, 29 July 2011

Foix, and all that jazz

Arriving in Foix provided an instant hit of pleasure on seeing in real life the vast chateau towering over the town that we'd seen so so many times in pictures since we started planning this trip.

It rises out of a vast plug of rock, with it's three towers (none original) standing like short, irregular cricket stumps with no bails.

After dropping off our bags at the former coaching inn where were we staying, right on the side of the Ariege, we headed straight into the town itself, through a tiny square with half-timbered buildings and a delightfully decrepit (but still working) fountain.

The streets are narrow and utterly irregular. This really is a medieval city that grew up around the castle's foot.

There was no way, though, that we were going to attempt it that day.

Instead, we found a delightful, old bar - Auberge Miranda - and sat to relax with Leffe blondes, a Belgian white beer that seems enormously popular in the area and is indeed very refreshing.

A further wander and a further beer at another bar, Henri IV, filled our afternoon entirely pleasantly and we headed back to the hotel to freshen up.

The hotel has a restaurant - as do many hotels, of course - but this one has a terrace that overlooks the river; heavy wrought iron, with red geraniums everywhere. The restaurant, according to a guidebook, also has a decent reputation for it's food. So we had decided to to dine there.

The setting is delightful and was worth it. The food was over rated. Okay, it wasn't dismal, but it had pretensions beyond it's capabilities.

They make nods to silver service, but it really isn't up to that.

However, seeking to further explore regional food, I had a gizzards salad, which was vast, but also a tad dry, followed by local wild trout, a treat I'd been dreaming of for some time, but which was also a bit dry, and over swamped in the almonds I'd assumed would be less a retro touch and more something quite  authentic for the area.

The next day, were pared ourselves for the climb - and surprised ourselves by finding it easier than expected, much helped by taking it very slowly.

Wandering around the castle, which had been the home of the counts of Foix from around 1000, when it is first documented, was a pleasure.

At one point, The Other Half spotted a huge bird gliding around not far from us. We caught a flash of brown on it's belly, but the clearest way to identify it was by the tail fathers, which form a sort of fan shape. It was a Lammergeier, or the bearded vulture - the rarest vulture in Europe. And what a magnificent figure it cut!

After lunching at Henry IV (where I had a very pleasant four cheese pizza) we ambled some more and then opted for a rest back at the hotel.

Later, we sat outside the first bar we'd find with another beer, listening to a delightful Old Orleans quintet playing in the street, which seemed to be a key fixture in the town's jazz festival.

We'd briefly heard them the previous evening, when they burst into the title song from Hello Dolly, which had me singing straight away - and then again later in the shower.

After this aperitif, we dined at a small restaurant that we'd spotted called Le Jeu de l'Oie.

In my case, that started with six - yes, SIX!! - slices of local foie gras and toast; and boy, it was very, very good; followed by sautéed rabbit in a sauce based on hypocras, a sugar-sweetened wine, and accompanied by duck fat-fried chips. It was super - the best rabbit I've had, and the sauce was lovely too, and the chips were hardly slouches.

I finished with a coffee gourmand, as I revelled in the novelty of drinking coffee after a meal without it upsetting my stomach: the key is simply to let it cool.

And with that, it was time to waddle back to the hotel and get some well-earned kip before the next stage in our little tour.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Onwards and upwards

Stage four of the tour de France saw us leave Carcassonne in far easier and more relaxed style than that in which we'd arrived.

In other words, after a brief wander around in vastly improved weather, we actually got a cab from the hotel to the station - a move that made the distance between not only seem much shorter, but also seemed to reveal the part of the town we'd traipsed through on Monday evening as being far pleasanter than we recalled.

Knowing that we'd have to get across platforms without any lifts or escalators, but having time on our side, made that job easier too.

And then, as indicated by that very nifty little French device of an on-platform computer display of a train, showing you where to go on the platform for your particular carriage, we moved into sunshine and sat down to wait for the train back to Toulouse.

The train itself was 10 minutes late, but it's amazing how mellow you can stay when you're lapping up the sunshine.

And once we'd pulled out of Carcassonne, the driver made up that lost time, getting us there in a mere 40 minutes.

At Toulouse, we again hauled the bags between platforms without any modern aids, but again without it being quite so infuriating or stressful.

Then it was onto a small, local train for the chug into the Pyrenees, stopping at a dozen stations on the way.

The bulk of the journey seemed flat, being across a plain. Which was frustrating. Where were the mountains? We were supposed to be heading into the mountains, so where were they?

We'd passed plenty of farm land; some with sunflowers, but less than previously, and intermittent industry - a lot of which seemed to do with gravel. Leaving Pamiers behind, we had less than 10 minutes scheduled journey time left, but still seemed only to have barely arrived at the very edge of hillier country.

And yet within five minutes, as we pulled into our penultimate stop, we were surrounded by hills.

And five minutes beyond that, those hills were soaring above us.

There was a big exodus from the train at Foix. At least being such a small station, there were no mass of platforms to navigate. We walked off the train, straight through the ticket hall and out into a different world.

There was even a taxi waiting, which took us the almost embarrassingly short hop to our hotel, which backed right onto the Aude, with it's entrance in a tiny square that included more than one half-timbered building.

And you didn't have to move far to see at least one of the towers of the chateau rising high above the town.

With almost ridiculous ease after the trials of the previous stages, we had arrived at the heart of the Ariege.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Lost in time in a city that still breathes

It's difficult to know what you expect of a place like Carcassonne: a sort of Disneyworld for grown-ups, cotton wooled for all time so that visitors can 'oooh' and 'ahhh' over eternally recreated scenes of medieval life?

That, of course, would mean that the old city itself had found itself in some sort of time vacuum at the end of the medieval era and stopped changing and developing.

But the truth is that La Cité didn't stop growing and developing, inside the walls, until very recently, as even a brief wander shows.

We didn't reach it on Monday night. Stage three of our journey had only concluded in mid evening and in gloomy weather. And the moment that I was able to sit down and remove my walking sandals and plasters, there was the evidence of what I knew had happened in the course of that yomp from station to hotel: I had three blisters.

There was only one thing to do - try some German engineering. I pulled out my Birkenstocks - a pair that has only been worn once - and decided to give them a shot.

I have notoriously difficult feet: small, but with a wide fitting, with hereditary hammer toes and bone spurs on my heels. Buying shoes is the nightmare of decades. Or rather, wearing shoes in is the nightmare. I carry plasters as a matter of routine.

Two years ago, in Potsdam in Germany, I finally found a pair of Birkenstocks that would fit. After getting used to toe posts, I have almost worn them into the ground. So this year, I managed to order more directly from the company, thus bypassing the apparent refusal of British importers to stock a European size 35.

On Monday night, even without plasters, I was able to stroll comfortably over the bridge that spans the Aude and into the town that surrounds the base of the plateau that La Cité stands on. When we found nowhere open for dinner, I was able to comfortably wander back to the hotel.

We're not great ones for eating in hotels, but there seemed little choice. As it happened, this was a very good restaurant indeed - hardly hampered by being on the fourth floor, with a panoramic view over the river to the walled city. As dark descended, we were able to watch it slowly light up while we ate.

And eat we did. Expecting more seasonal weather, it had occurred to me that we might not really want to try something as filling and wintery as a cassoulet on this trip. But nothing about Monday had made us feel such a thing and we both ordered this regional speciality.

As is the way with such things, there are probably as many different ways to make a cassoulet as there are people who have ever done so. Add to that the local rivalries and arguments about, for instance, whether a layer of bread crumbs should go on the top, and you have something where it's difficult to know exactly what an authentique version will be like.

It came in a lovely old earthenware dish, with sausage, confited duck legs and pork, swimming in unctuous fat, with masses of ivory haricots. Perfect food for hungry travellers.

It' a remarkably subtle dish - and an enormously comforting one too. Generally speaking, I 'cheat' on beans and use tinned ones, but this made me think that there might be a value to doing it the traditional way: presumably, they are much better able to soak up the flavours of the dish without falling apart.

The following morning dawned grey. We'd decided to set out straight for La Cité and have some form of breakfast there.

I opted for the Birkenstocks again, with t-shirt and shorts but jacket - it was far too humid to be so bulked up - and we set off. Within a short while, as we started an ascent up the side of the plateau, it was raining. Drizzle turned to something heavier. I had no umbrella either, since everything was geared to the camera that hung around my neck. I hate feeling cluttered.

We missed the entrance recommended by the guide book we had with us, and carried on alongside the towering old walls, dodging puddles and getting very damp indeed, even though The Other Half was trying to cover us both with his brolly.

Eventually, we found the main entrance, with its little bridge over the old moat and then the short hop between the outer and inner walls and so to the city gate itself.

Heaving with tourists and with the rain now pouring down, we fled up a tiny side street and into the first cafe we came to, deciding to hide out the worst of the shower while we had coffee and croissants.

Having done that - and after I'd splashed €9 on a brolly - we started to wander, only for the rain to increase again a short while later. This time, we found a small bar and ordered Cokes, as The Police played in the background: an incongruous juxtaposition of place and music.

The weather was playing games. Every time it seemed to have lessened and we left cover, it came on again. There were limits to how much we wanted to look around the shops selling apparently endless souvenirs, including large amounts of toy knights (plus damsels, distressed or otherwise, dragons and siege engines) and assorted plastic swords, shields and helmets.

Finding ourselves drawn to a gateway in the inner walls, a gust of wind swirled up and attacked my brolly, reversing it and pretty much dealing it a death blow there and then.

We gave up and went in search of lunch in the first possible place. Moderate duck confit, with piles of fries and beer filled more time as well as stomachs. And then we decided that that was enough, and headed back down the hill.

At the bottom, with time to kill, we slumped into chairs under cover outside a delightfully Bohemian cafe and ordered beers, while a classical radio station played the sort of music that added to the soothing effect.

And while we sat, the sun came out.

Back at the hotel a short time later, the priority was soaking feet and a change into dry clothes. By then, it seemed as though the rain was holding off.

We made our way back over the Aude and, taking an easier road route that we'd finally spotted, re-entered La Cité in the sun.

Even the shops seemed nicer. I found one that sold proper, locally made earthenware pots for cassoulet, and then couldn't resist a real gourmet's shop that sold pastis mustard and Camargue salt. The woman in the shop knew a good customer when one appeared, and after sniffing assorted truffle products in near orgasmic fashion, a pot of truffle salt was added to the bag. Earlier, I'd picked a box of salt in a small shop down in the town, which the woman had only half joked was a 'grand cru' among salts. The lesson of that salt in Bordeaux had been learnt, but it was to occur again when we finally found a restaurant for dinner.

Before that, we found a bar with a garden and sat for a slow beer. Gardens in this walled city were a revelation: my expectation had simply been crowded streets, but not only had they made space for public spaces, there were plenty of gardens too, with some now being used as places to eat and drink.

The restaurant if Saint Jean, which catered for locals as well a tourists, also allowed us to sit out, right next to ramparts and towers, with only a hedge between our table and the moat.

The menu was short, but with obvious differences from the more 'tourist' eateries elsewhere within the walls.

For the first time this trip, we opted for a starter. The Other Half had eggs cocottes and I plumped for beef marrowbone on toast, having never eaten it before - well, with the exception of a tiny bit as a garnish on Bruno Loubet's hare royale last December.

It arrived as four pieces of bone on individual toasted slices of baguette. You break the 'seal' with your knife and push or pull it onto the toast; spread and garnish with the good salt that arrived with it.

This is nature's ready made pâté.
What can I say? It was utterly divine: sweet and yet light at the same time; gloriously fatty and messy. Heaven on a plate or a piece of toast. So much a dish of this meaty area - and another illustration of a philosophy of nose-to-tail eating.

I had a very nice piece of monkfish in orange to follow (indicative of the nears of Carcassonne to the coast) and finished with a raspberry tiramisu. Well, I say "finished", because our waiter charmingly brought us a shot glass each of a delightfully smooth brandy-based digestif, which had a lovely almond taste.

Our wine for the meal - recommended by the waiter - was a Borie de Maurel Minervois 2010, which was a jolly fine recommendation, being not at all expensive and very enjoyably fruity.

We ambled back through La Cité, enjoying the quietness, with most of the crowds having departed. Suddenly, you had a different sense of the place.

But although its main business is tourism, the walled city of Carcassonne is not a museum, but a living, breathing little city. And for all that there is a part of me that would rather like to see it devoid of (other) tourists, I am ultimately far happier that is lives like this - even if it does mean having to dodge endless children with pretending to be knights.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Stage 3: Bordeaux to Carcassonne

If Sunday was punctuated by showers, Monday opted for all-out dampness, with the cloud bedding in for lazy day of going nowhere fast.

After being given a guided tour of the house by our host - and fascinating and beautiful it was too - we whiled away the rest of our stay with wandering back to the shops so that I could sort out a technical issue with internet reception, and then ambled back the long way around, stopping first outside the cathedral for a pleasant coffee, and then heading to the river front where we sat watching the drizzle, but under cover, supping Pelforth brown beer, a very pleasant brew.

And then it was off to the station for our train to Carcassonne.

Even in the grey and the damp, it was an intriguing journey, moving remarkably rapidly, more than once, from hilly country to flat plains.

Early on, there were endless fields of vines, with the occasional chateau.

Later, we started to run alongside the Midi Canal, which had been intended to provide a passage from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean.

We did a complex dance with the river Garonne, crossing it again and again, once even in tandem with the canal on a strutting viaduct. We seemed locked into an almost-embrace as we carved up the countryside between us.

Sheep and goats hugged inclines. Fields of sunflowers bobbed their bright faces in frank defiance of the grey.

Provence is so often illustrated by fields of vivid lavender - an image that Roussillon seems to want to purloin for itself sometimes, judging by postcards. But perhaps this is it's own version: field upon field not of purple, but of gold.

When all you have ever seen of sunflowers is the odd one in a vase or shop, or a van Gogh canvas, then seeing them like this is a shock to the system.

Their faces seem to be constantly turned toward us. At the end of a field, when you can judge their height, the faces bowed in our direction, just a little; like a vast chorus of actors accepting their due applause with a hint of condescension.

The towns we passed though varied in size and in suggestions of industry (or lack thereof), until we slowed into Toulouse, where the Airbus is built.

Then it was the final stage of the journey to the ancient walled city of Carcassonne, in the Cathar country that is deep in a history of blood and stone.

And where the cassoulet is not simply a stew, but a dish of significant regional pride - and great local rivalry.

The station was nearly empty and seemed to be channelling a cool wind, as we descended from the train. There was also a lack of lifts or escalators, making hauling bags a pain.

How can my case be so heavy? What have I packed that was not necessary?

Waiting outside the station, it became apparent that, while there might be a space for taxis to pull up, there weren't any taxis. Using the 'sat nav' on The Other Half's phone, we were left to walk the mile to the hotel, we me descending to greater grumpiness as I struggled with my case on rickety and too-narrow pavements.

We eventually rounded a corner to find the hotel, alongside the river. Suddenly, all irritation was gone: over the water, on a vast plug of rock, rising above the trees, was La Cité, as though straight out of a fairy tale.

It was enough to take my remaining breath away.

Monday, 25 July 2011

A beautiful city for carnivores and gourmands

It's probably true to say that France is not a paradise for vegetarians. Okay, if you're around the coastal regions, you'll be alright if you fall into the pescetarian category and, if you're on the Mediterranean, there'll be olives and tomatoes to die for, but in many places, even if you ask for a mushroom omelette, then this being France, it could well arrive with a 'garnish' of lardons.

But if a carnivorousness is true of the country in general, then it is even more so in the south west. This is, after all, the home of the Perigord, where the very best foie gras hails from.

And the area as a whole is, more than any other, at the very heart of the French paradox.

A mere one and a half days in Bordeaux was entirely enough to reinforce this sense of a meat-eating culture. Steak and duck don't simply form clichéd menus for the tourists, but they're at the centre of the restaurants where the locals eat too.

Take Entrecôte. It's 40 years old and serves the same three-course menu that it has in all that time. There is no choice. What you get is a walnut salad, followed by steak and frites and then profiteroles, with wine.

There are no reservations and people queue to eat there - which goes some way to explaining how they manage to serve 900 covers a day.

We didn't join them - the queues always seemed too long when we were nearby and in need of food.

But that this is one if the foodie heartlands of the country was emphasised by our host's first questions when we arrived at the 18th century townhouse where we had booked to stay in one if the two guest rooms that help to pay for it's upkeep.

First question: 'what time would you like breakfast tomorrow?'

Second question: 'where were you thinking of eating while you're here?'

Our host recommended Entrecôte, because of it's reputation and because it's open on a Sunday, when one's dining opportunities are a little more limited.

However, after an amble around the city centre on Saturday evening - already feeling relaxed even after such a long journey - we found ourselves a brasserie called Grenadine, on a side street of the tourist trail and sat down at a small table outside for some much-needed dinner.

A house cocktail was followed by a 2009 La Croix Saint-Roc Lussac Saint-Emilion; a pleasingly smooth red, which in both our cases provided sound liquid accompaniment to magret de canard, The Other Half's stuffed with mushrooms and mine with pâté foie gras, with ice cream for dessert.

And that was Saturday, a long day that saw us dead to the world the moment our heads hit plump pillows in our antique bed. I wouldn't claim it was the sleep of the righteous, but it was certainly the sleep of the satisfied.

Sunday was punctuated by showers of varied lengths and intensity. But after a fortifying breakfast in a gallery with chandeliers, our host suggested we stroll down to the riverside and visit the weekly farmers' market, where he went to buy most of his fruit and veg.

With such an eminently sensible suggestion, there really was only one thing to do.

Bordeaux is a delightful city to stroll around; sandstone grandeur in everything from civic buildings to tall rows of town houses. You walk around a corner and find a new delight - but not just a solitary building, the whole of a small square that makes you feel you've stepped back in time a century plus.

France's third city, it has a long history as an important Atlantic port. In the 17th century, the river front was transformed to reflect that power and importance, a point that is still architecturally evident today, not least in the magnificent arc of the Bourse that takes centre stage.

But by way of contrasts, there are soaring gothic spires, with their miraculous stone work, and Sir Richard Rogers's radical court building, with its wooden funnel court rooms held in metal frames, which echo aspects of his Welsh Assembly building in Cardiff.

We found the market eventually, after originally wandering the wrong way along the river front. Not that it was a problem.

The market itself was, as markets on the Continent always are, a real pleasure, with fabulous fruit and vegetables, plus some wonderful cheeses and a surfeit of oysters, which are a local speciality.

After a stop for coffee, it was back toward the centre with the idea of lunch beginning to prey on our minds.

We stopped in a restaurant-crowded square at a modern brasserie called Chez Jean, which had a menu that pepped up the standard fare with a few creative ideas.

Feeling a need for something a little less meaty, I ordered a 'salade sexy', which was a large heap of leaves, with sheep's cheese, little roasted red peppers, some dried ham and a light balsamic ceasing, with shot glass-sized pots of a chilled vegetable soup (like a gazpacho without the garlic) and a black cherry jam on the side.

It was indeed 'sexy' - great combinations of flavour, using very good ingredients.

We had a demi of Chateau La Madronière haut medoc 2008. Very pleasant that was too, with a taste of raspberries and a decent length.

After more wandering, and a visit to a museum of decorative arts, which was housed in another town house built by the architect who had designed the one that we were staying in, we headed back to base. My feet were on the point of murdering me: the shabby weather forecast had led me to pack the only walked-in pair of boots that I currently own, and they were not designed for such perambulations.

A good soak was followed by the judicious application of plasters, before we headed back out for dinner.

Again after ample wandering, we found ourselves at a place called Brasserie L'Orleans, which catered for a mixed clientele of both locals and visitors.

It was a simple menu - utterly dominated by meat and, in particular, steak. I decided to try the veal liver ancien - in other words, with a garlic and parsley butter. On the side were a few mange touts and a tomato, with three quenelles of puréed potato. It's rare that you'd mention salt in such a situation, but there was a tub from the Camargue on the table and it was glorious with the potato, course and bursting with flavour.

As for the veal liver ... well, what can I say? An absolutely superb piece of meat, superbly cooked. Light as a feather and moist, with a magnificent flavour that was wonderfully complimented by the garlic and parsley butter.

We'd decided to try a white Bordeaux, and I eventually picked a 2009 grand cru classé de graves Chateau Carbonnieux from nearby Pessac-Léognan. Not dirt cheap, but it had real flavour (nettles and herbs, we eventually decided) and revealed that most whites we've had in the past have been fairly generic - well, certainly since an excellent Dr Loosen Riesling in Berlin two years ago.

It was a short stay in the city, but Bordeaux impressed us both. The writer Stendhal described it as "the most beautiful town in France", and who am I to quibble?

But setting aside even the beauty of the place, one thing is for certain: it's a meat eater's paradise on Earth.

Stage 2: Lille to Bordeaux

We had a little over an hour in Lille, before departing from a nearby station for Bordeaux. It was far too soon after breakfast to be eating lunch, but we had to think about the issue nevertheless.

Since I'd decided not to make and bring a picnic, and we knew just how poor French train food is, The Other Half had suggested that we make our way between the stations via a substantial shopping centre, where there'd be bound to be some sort of food shop.

We found a Carrefour - one of France's main supermarket chains - and leaving The Other Half to look after the bags, I set off in search of appropriate vittals.

The place was vast - i've only been in smaller ones. Two things struck me.

First, the amount of separate counters selling deli products - and likewise, the enormous wet fish counter. Second, neither the supermarket nor the rest of the centre were rammed, as you'd probably expect at noon on a Saturday in the UK.

I bought a small baguette each, packs of mortadella and saussicon, a box of grapes and two little fruit desserts. And that was another thing - the amount of the fruit and veg that was from France itself was beyond what you'd expect in a similar store back across the Channel.

Lilles Flandres - as opposed to Lille Europe, which was built especially for the Eurostar - was just nearby.

We picked up bottled water - and sophisticated French reading matter for me -and waited until the platform was announced, just beating the rain as we made it to our TGV carriage and settled in for the five-hour journey to Bordeaux.

Or put another way, what should have been a five-hour journey. Because after a short while, the train had slowed right down. I couldn't quite catch the reason, but by the time we had arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport, we were an hour behind time.

Still, what can you do? Get the food out, pop the headphones in and sit back and watch a movie. In this case, it was To Catch a Thief, with Cary Grant at his most sauve.

Finally, we pulled beyond Paris and starting getting up a head of steam, as the clouds started to break up, leaving a hint of the hoped for blue.

Flat, flat farm land passed by; fields of pale gold and dusty green; forests of white wind turbines on the horizon, sunlit against a still grey sky. This was new territory.

When the scenery changes, it's to gently rolling, wooded hills, with red-brown cows grazing contentedly.

We cross the Loire not far from Tours: geekery has it's advantages - or perhaps it's more a case of geekish toys having their advantages. I can use the satellite maps location utility on my mobile phone to work out exactly where I am.

The changing scenery is one of the things that makes train travel so enjoyable. The physical changes - low, flat land or hills - are accompanied in a country that still grows so much by signs of changing crops. Bright yellow fields now add an occasional touch to the patchwork.

I never cease to be fascinated by the journey down the other side of the country, where there is such an obvious demarcation between 'The North' and 'The South' - not simply of one country, but of the continent, revealed within that country.

After the northernness of the Rhône Valley, it's all change at Lyon. The language of the land changes. The colours change too, and the architecture.

So travelling south on the opposite side of the country, I wonder what we will see; if the change will be as dramatic as that to the east.

France is also the first country, outside the UK, that I have travelled this widely in, and it gives you an increasingly complex picture and sense of a place.

In fact, you start to see the change a little way before Poitiers. It's not as in-your-face, nearing-the-Mediterranean as on that other route, but it's the nonetheless.

The colours all seem a little more saturated. The buildings have changed; many now have pale walls and red, tiled roofs.

And beyond Poitiers, by the time we hit Angouléme, south west of Cognac - yes, there really is such a place - it is quite definitely the south. And for us, as we near the day's destination, an increasing sense of Intrigue as to just what Bordeaux will be like.

Friday, 22 July 2011

The Voluptuous Manifesto's tour de France

Stage 1: London to Lille

The start of the tour was a chaotic shambles involving several climbs.

First, with a dedication to reminding us just why we won't miss London that would do anyone justice, whoever plans roadworks had decided that, between travelling to work yesterday and travelling to St Pancras International this morning by the exact same route, new roadworks would be put in place.

This would cause a serious diversion that would mean, when we got off our bus at what had seemed a logical stop, it was only to find that that was closed. Romping up the road, we realised how far the diversion went - and all of it up hill. With big bags. At the first possible opportunity, we hopped a cab.

Once at the station, having lost valuable time, we realised the joys early on the morning of the first day of the school holidays, with our check in coinciding with that of the Disney Express. I was not in the mood for excitable individuals of all ages running around in mouse ears.

Shoved to the front of one queue and then another, we finally made it aboard the Eurostar with just a few minutes to spare - and having run up the very steep travellator onto the platform, leaving me distinctly short of breath.

Not much longer

It would be entirely true to say that I have been looking forward to our holiday for some time, but the countdown proper is now well underway.

It has been a ropey few days as a nasty cold hit me square on the jaw on Sunday, leaving me with a debilitating cough, an all-over ache and a feeling of being so completely exhausted that I spent more time in bed over the following two days than at any point since childhood bouts of chicken pox or measles.

Having decided to sweat it out rather than risk simply delaying things with standard cold medication, I actually reached the point on Wednesday of spending much of the day slumped in front of the TV watching continuous episodes of Murder She Wrote.

The redoubtable Jessica Fletcher seemed to do the trick. I woke yesterday with a sniffle to be sure, but feeling infinitely brighter than I had for what felt felt like a very, very long time.

Work was productive and followed by my holiday haircut - just make it short and neat, Ian: I want it to be totally easy to deal with.

There's no knowing whether it's the humid weather or simply the thought of the food to come once we're on the other side of the Channel, but fodder from the canteen or even the nearby cafés around work didn't feel very enticing for either me or The Other Half yesterday.

Personally, I've felt it's been a struggle to think what to eat in the evenings for a while. But in around just over 24 hours, that problem will, I think, be resolved.

In the meantime, preparations are gathering apace.

There's enough suntan lotion to cover a small army, plus the usual sort of medical basics.

And now my book selection is in place, a rather Catholic assortment coming to terms with odd shelf fellows.

On the fiction front, there's Johann Grimmelshausen's Simplicissimus, a picaresque tale of the Thirty Years War, first published in 1668, and The Belly of Paris, the third in Émile Zola's Rougon-Macquart cycle.

From the food section comes Matthew Fort's Eating Up Italy, together with The Man Who Ate Everything by Jeffrey Steingarten.

Finally, from politics comes Alan Clark: A life in his own words, the edited diaries.

At the point of writing, it's only just gone 6am, but I can't sleep – a complete reversal of the beginning of the week. This is almost childlike excitement at a sense of impending liberation.

Now all I have to do is a day's work, pack, convince myself to eat a few times, rethink the book selection (of course!) and give as much fuss as possible to The Girls, who I will miss.

But in 24 hours time ...

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

A family affair

Here is an honest admission. I don't get families. Now obviously I understand what a family is, in straightforward cultural terms. What I don't get is close families.

I have a colleague who is constantly in touch with her wider - and widening - family. I cannot imagine how irritated I'd be myself if either of my parents thought it was a good idea to pester me on a daily basis, involving themselves in huge amounts of the detail of my everyday life.

Ours was hardly the most dysfunctional family on planet Earth and certainly not the only one: as I told my father grimly a year or so ago, if it's good enough for the Windsors ...

But we have generally learned to rub along in a sort of way, avoiding too much friction by avoiding each other for much of the time.

A few weeks ago, my mother turned 80. Some time before, I'd promised to take her, and my father, for a really good meal to mark the occasion. I already had Bistrot Bruno Loubet in mind, and had done some research on cab fares to make sure that they would be able to get back to their home, near Croydon, in the easiest way possible.

And then as the actual birthday arrived, I felt snowed under and suggested we put it off until early autumn.

But something else cropped up. My niece has just become the first member of my immediate family to get a degree - in fine arts - and although she'd studied in Leeds, her degree show was being staged in trendy East London.

Both my parents and The Other Half and I had been invited to the private viewing on 14 July.

A number of things fell into place. I called Bistrot Bruno Loubet and was lucky enough to get us in - even though it was Bastille Day with a special menu, which point had piqued my own appetite, but with also presented a number of challenges in family terms.

It was all arranged quite late, so I didn't have much time to panic.

The panic started nagging on the morning itself, building to a crescendo by 5pm. Since we didn't have to be at the gallery until around 7pm, we attended a leaving do after work, with The Other Half telling me to calm down as I knocked back three glasses of white wine in rapid succession.

I'd been asking myself what on Earth I'd done - as I realised that I was taking this family with whom I find myself sketching out a sort of distant and oddly formal dance into something that I would view as very much my own world.

My mother, looking much smaller and more hollow than I'd noticed before (but then she was out of her normal context for me) had already nearly been embarrassing at the exhibition, noting in her best stage whisper, that she dislikes tattoos, as she pointed out a man with major arm work. Fortunately, he didn't hear, but I felt that familiar cringe factor.

I remember, years ago, having to stand at the end of a film for the national anthem, and wanting to hide as she cast scorn in the direction of the majority, who were leaving.

If respectability was an Olympic event, she'd have been a multiple gold medalist.

The exhibition was fascinating. It seemed appropriate that my niece's work was about memory; about the traces of ourselves that we leave where we have lived. I thought it fascinating - as was the work of many of her fellow graduates.

My father was fairly quiet as they wandered around the exhibition, looking at work that was both beyond their experience and beyond their comprehension. My mother, as my niece put it to me later, was "curious" and asked questions, even if none of the answers really made anything any clearer for her.

After a short break, we piled into a taxi and headed for Clerkenwell through heaving traffic.

The limited menu was, as I expected, a challenge. Each of the four courses had only three options. The first trio was moules marinière with a salt cod brandade, Aberdeen Angus steak tartare with summer truffles, and a salad of quail with foie gras ballotine.

It took an age to sort out what we were having - even what we were drinking. My parents don't drink red wine, so I selected a very nice Languedoc white, which remarkably did the five of us for the entire meal.

My father went with my suggestion of the quail, but my mother couldn't bring herself to contemplate foie gras, so she took a big leap into her personal unknown with the tartare.

My father had already managed to shock me by saying just how good the bread was.

I had the tartare too - and very pleasant it was. My mother 'wasn't sure', but ate a reasonable amount, and my niece happily finished what she couldn't.

There was a moment of Raymond Blanc horror, as both parents automatically picked up salt to shake over their food, before even tasting it, but I quashed a desire to squeal, and thanked whatever gods there are that we were far enough from the kitchen to avoid the embarrassment of having Bruno himself, who was busy there, spot such a culinary faux pas.

Then it was on to either roast scallops and black pudding, Hereford snails or sautéed frogs' legs.

Now, I had never had the chance to try the latter, so that was easy. My father joined The Other Half in considering the scallops to be an obvious choice. My niece elected to try the frogs' legs too. For my mother, despite not particularly liking black pudding, there was but one option.

The frogs' legs, served on a bed of "mousseline potato", with a divinely subtle jus of parsley and garlic, were excellent, and my niece felt the same.

My father enjoyed his scallops; my mother was less enthused.

Sat at the head of the table, trying the unusual role of hostess, I found myself becoming less nervous as time wore on, but not exactly at my most relaxed. This was the biggest family gathering in ... well, in a very long time. Was it going well?

The main course offered either steamed stone bass, lamb "epigram", and three birds in a bird.

Enquiry revealed that the "epigram" was a cheffy way of saying that it was dish involving three different ways of cooking three different cuts of lamb: a cutlet, a shank and some belly.

The birds in a bird were a quail within a poussin, within a grouse, within an organic chicken, roasted and then sliced.

The Other Half opted for the lamb, while the rest of us went for the seriously stuffed bird.

This, being Bruno, was delightful, but very rich.

My mother had decided quite early that she wasn't going to be able to manage it all (the staff were fabulously un-snobby about finding a box to pack the leftovers in so that shed could take them home for the family dog) - as she absolutely had to leave room for dessert.

The choices were crêpes suzette with an orange and cardamom ice cream, cheeses or fresh strawberries, with apricot sorbet and a "dash of champagne".

The Other Half and my mother opted for the crêpes, while the rest of us went for the strawberries.

This took some time to arrive - a fact that my mother was quite open about observing. But when it arrived, we found out why it had taken time.

Her plate had had a birthday greeting beautifully piped in chocolate around the edge - and was then followed with the offer of a glass of champagne, which she readily accepted. It was the moment at which her face lit up.

The restaurant ordered a cab for my parents and my niece, who was going back with them. And as coffee was ordered, I quaffed a glass of fortified wine with a hint of walnut. Much needed.

It was a success. Well, in an our family sort of a way. It was also a very strange evening. A sense that the baton was passed some time ago.

My niece is far more grown up than ever I was at her age. I look at her with envy, regretting that I had not known or understood at that age what she does now.

I have been late in picking up that baton. And now it's as if I have finally picked it up, but only in tandem with my niece.

I watched and tried to play host for my mother in particular last week, and found it a very strange experience. And thinking of all the anti-sensual messages that she and my father conveyed to me over the years, my father's appreciation of the food in general and the bread in particular, coupled with her face when the crêpes arrived and she was offered an unexpected champagne, made for a very strange experience; a juxtaposition of 'what I say and what I do'.

It made me almost feel like Satan in disguise; as a temptress. It even brought to mind that wonderful film, Babette's Feast.

There is a sense of dread that I have had for some time now, since reading Camus's The Outsider, that when the inevitable happens, I will not be able to play the role that some will expect.

But last week at least, I could take real pleasure in seeing my mother come to life at the sight of the generosity and expertise of Bruno Loubet and his staff.

It felt, however fleetingly, that she had had a real insight into my own life and understood what she saw. And that made my own fretting before the event worth while.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Bread. And circuses

Yesterday, I picked up a wholemeal loaf in our local Percy Ingle. It was £1.67 which, if memory serves me completely correctly, is a rise of around 15-20p in less than a year.

In today's Observer Food Monthly, John Vidal examines the global issue of rising food prices.

This isn't something that most of us don't know, but it seems that food prices are rising particularly fast in the UK.

According to one Paul Donovan, who's the deputy head of global economics at UBS, the biggest Swiss bank, this is because Britain's supermarkets dominate the grocery market with an 80% share, and rely on commodity prices and a general expectation of inflation to get away with it.

Indeed, this was detailed in a UBS report earlier this year.

The supermarkets' representatives, it should be said, deny that they're handing on more of the rise in basic ingredients that they need to to the customer. Of course not. But it does make you wonder how those grocers on the Continent and even in the US manage without hiking prices to the same extent.

Not that we should simply knock the supermarkets. As "middle class lefties" were warned in a rather snooty recent article here, Tesco and the rest provide "decent, affordable food", which is "an old socialist goal" that is "to be applauded, not opposed".

Which clearly helps to prove the claim, mentioned earlier, that the supermarkets are not using grain shortages, commodity prices and inflation expectation to ratchet up prices more than they need to cover their costs. Supermarkets provide "affordable" food. And it's "decent" too.

A lot of the time, it's neither.

To be fair, those responding to the article take the anonymous author to task, but it reeks of the very worst snobbery of New Labour: 'let the plebs eat processed, over-priced junk'.

Not that New Labour were unique in something close to contempt for what used to be known as 'the working class'. It's simply that, since that is precisely who the Labour Party was founded to represent, it is somewhat more irritatingly hypocritical.

There's a fair old amount of snobbery around at present about the News of the World hacking affair, with some liking to finger point about how it's only the same plebs who need Tesco who read such trash. This is totally untrue – as various surveys for all the red tops have shown. Which is why some quite prestigious companies advertise in them.

That in turn creates a delightful circle where some begin to see it as a badge of identity to eat junk and read junk: their aspirations to try anything better bucking under the snobbery of those who wouldn't dream of shopping in Tesco, who only ever hid their News of the World in the pages of the something worthier and who only watch trashy 'reality' TV so that they can stand around the water cooler in the office the following day and condemn.

In the meantime, however, we see the continuing unravelling of affairs News International, with Rupert Murdoch and son James to appear before a Commons committee on Tuesday. The fragrant Rebekah Brooks, who finally was pushed – sorry, fell – on her sword late last week has been excused this ordeal by today's opportune arrest, leaving some to ponder whether this was deliberate.

I hate conspiracy theories – Occam's Razor for me every time – but given all the talk of evidence being shredded, of calls to data storage centres in India to ask for evidence to be dumped, one is entitled to a certain cynicism, methinks, with the police seemingly up to their necks in matters – or certainly facing a raft of questions over their links to News International.

It is a tangled web some people weave.

The hacking affair has become fascinating and far wider in its reach than many had probably seriously imagined. But it remains odd, in that the anger seems to be about the method and not the final product.

In other words, invasions of privacy were entirely acceptable – unless they're achieved by illegal methods. Nobody objected when the NOTW printed stories that it could only have got from Milly Dowler's phone – which they could only have got via illegal means – at the time. So it's not even just celebrities that people want to read detail about.

Some in the media squeal about 'freedom of the press' and 'freedom of speech', without ever explaining why nobody has a right to privacy.

But the reality is that some people's privacy is protected. When did you really hear stories about Murdoch and his family? Or about other press barons? Or bankers and financiers? Or the head of vast corporations?

Even in the immediate aftermath of the financial crash of 2008, you didn't get such personal detail about those responsible. And barely six months later, it was the same press that such remarkable self control there, which helped create the myth that public sector workers and their 'gold-plated pensions' were to blame.

Elements of the media provide a very useful service in feeding a voracious public with titillation. It seems particularly effective when it's celebrities and footballers – people who have done well for themselves. Many people – including those who don't personally read the tabloids – seem to think that, when you earn a certain amount of money by being in the public eye, you 'deserve' no privacy.

This is utterly illogical. How much money – or how much fame – do you have to have before your private life becomes public property? And how much of that private life at what income level?

Earning £X means that Jo and Joanna Public have the right to know whether you wank? A pay packet of £XXX means that they have the right to know which hand you wank with and who you're thinking about when you do?

Why? Why is this remotely in 'the public interest'? It's simple. It isn't.

But given the rise of inequality in the last 30 years in the UK, it could perhaps be argued that these make nice sacrificial victims for those who I mentioned earlier: those who remain hidden, but who control increasing amounts of our lives; who are not elected and are not accountable to the general public, but who have enjoyed a vast amount of influence over politicians of both major parties for over 30 years.

It's chicken and egg when you start discussing scandal in the press, but as the last 30 years have passed, everything has become increasingly commoditised. Part of the problem is that news itself has become a commodity. So has private life – and mostly, of course, the private lives of others. Which is rather wryly amusing really, given what most people would claim they thought of the Stasi and similar police organisations.

But let's go back to food for a minute. One of the other reasons for shortages is the increasing amount of land that is given over to growing bio-fuels. Why not start by tackling the over-reliance on cars etc? Or would that involve taking on the motor industry?

We see something similar with the energy companies, which are pushing prices for domestic customers through the roof. Privatisation has worked so well for the British public. Many in the press – and Murdoch's media has always pushed this line – claim that 'private is best'.

You need the press when you're going to do something that they might not really think was for the best, from privatisation to going to war.

Indeed, given the competition for circulation, advertising and sales, links between the likes of News International and supermarkets are hardly surprising.

Reports that Tony Blair tried to warn off Tom Watson MP from pursuing the issue of News of the World raise questions – not least of how much that was a direct response to Murdoch's support for Iraq.

According to the article linked to at the top of this post, "government has argued strongly that it expects food prices to remain low and that cheap imports and the global trading system will best serve people's needs."

This is clearly nonsense. We need to have policies for our food security that involve seriously thinking about our own food growth, for the sake of our food security – not whether the supermarkets can exploit some developing world farmer to grown asparagus for even less than they'd pay over here (see Joanna Blythman's Shopped: the shocking power of Britain's supermarkets and The Wal-Mart Effect by Charles Fishman).

The Murdoch debacle has raised the issue in some minds of monopolies and the damage that they can do. Let's please go further and start to look at the damage that other monopolies and near monopolies exact, and stop being blinded by bread and circuses.

Monday, 11 July 2011

You say tomato, I say risotto

It might seem somewhat perverse, after my regaling you all with tales of The Great Train Croissant Scandal, to claim that, in reality, it was actually a bit of foodie weekend.

But such is the strangeness of life. It started on Friday night, with a very different version of that dish that regular readers will know I love – a risotto.

Having finally got around to ordering a copy of the shamefully out-of-print Risotto! Risotto! by Valentina Harris, I found myself fascinated to read of versions of this essentially simple dish, the like of which I’d never imagined.

One such example was a tomato and basil one.

Now as it happened, I’d found some decent-looking (and smelling) tomatoes the previous weekend – a beautifully varied selection, which instantly brought to mind Collioure.

The original recipe called for pine nuts to be toasted in a little oil at the base of the risotto, but The Other Half grimaced at this, so I adjusted for the sake of a quiet life.

First, take your tomatoes and skin, halve and deseed them. I always lie them on some kitchen paper for a while after that to drain properly. Chop roughly. Pop into a pan with a drop of olive oil, a crushed clove of garlic and some shredded basil, and gently cook down. Taste and season.

Since we’d done away with the pine nuts base, I chopped shallots and some garlic and sweated that in olive oil. Add the risotto rice and let that absorb the remaining oil.

Add a slug of white wine. Enjoy the aroma. Let the rice absorb that. Then, a ladle at a time, start adding vegetable stock (a chopped onion, carrot, some celery and some garlic, water, bay and thyme, simmered for 20-30 minutes).

About half way through – so after around 10 minutes – add the tomatoes. Carry on adding stock and stirring for around 10 minutes more.

Serve with more basil.

Not bad at all – really fresh and light. I was really chuffed with that.

The next day, as you already know, saw me traveling north to Leeds for business. But after a lengthy meeting, we adjourned to a restaurant in the city called Sous Le Nez.

There, gazing at the menu while the service created an almost painfully slow orbit around us, yet rarely coming close enough to have attention grabbed, the idea of a 'foie gras crème brûlée' attracted table-wide attention.

Never being one to fight shy of such challenges, I decided that that was going to inform anything else I ate that night.

It was exceptional. A very light foie gras mousse, with a lightly caramelised top, served with elderflowers & red wine jelly and melba toast.

It was a definite food orgasm moment.

Me being me, I opted for a second starter for my next course. In this case, ballottine of pigeon breast with apricots, wrapped in Bayonne ham and with an orange and beetroot salad.

Nice – albeit possibly a bit dry. Though the pigeon breast itself was beautifully cooked.

I served myself a few vegetables from our table’s selection, but these were a let down – another kitchen that doesn’t understand that al denté is not a synonym for ‘raw’.

The restaurant has an extensive wine list, and we had very light and pleasant Sancerre rosé, plus one of our group also suggested an Albarino, which is a white wine from Galicia that he’s familiar with. Very pleasant it was too, with a quite different flavour.

Dessert was simple for me – vanilla and white chocolate ice cream. Which was perfectly pleasant and nicely presented, but nothing to write home about.

So while not a perfect meal, one with some very enjoyable moments.

And the memory of that foie gras crème brûlée will stay with me for some time.

The next morning, I made sure I ate enough at the hotel for breakfast so that I could comfortably ignore the filled croissants on the train journey home, concentrating instead on filling myself with bitter coffee, while blubbing over The Sound of Music (not an easy film to watch on public transport, since I desperately want to join in).

Once back in town, with The Other Half not due to return until late evening, I nipped up to the tiny market in the nearby London Fields Primary School playground, and found a couple of bits including, joy of joys, some wonderful Bath Soft Cheese.

A small piece of cod fillet was sourced at Fin & Founder on Broadway Market and that was that.

I salted the cod for around half an hour, rinsed and poached it, ready to be served with a large dollop of homemade aioli.

Complicated food can be good. But food doesn’t have to be complicated in order to be good.

And then, after a week of seeing the sulphurous workings of News International revealed ever more clearly, I sat and watched The Sound of Music all over again, bathing in Julie dust to make the badness go away.

And that, as my boss said a day later, merely confirmed to her that I am actually a gay man in disguise.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Hardly a transport of delight

Saturday morning. And it's another train journey, to oop north. This time, for a meeting in Leeds.

The journey offers the chance to muse a little, while enjoying the English countryside. It also offers the chance to enjoy the most solid 'croissant' in history; a confection filled with slices of tomato and plastic cheese that were both distinctly knackered by the time they faced the challenge of my palate. The sole consolation was that it was complimentary.

The French, I want to say in a tone that would reek of hurrumphing, would revolt if faced with such fare - but that's not the case. French train food is dismal too, which is why so many travellers in that country simply take their own fodder with them.

So there's probably a lesson here: don't expect pre-packed food to be any good and don't grumble when it isn't - take your own.

Actually, I have to admit to something close to a food fetish when it comes to train travel in the UK: prawn sandwiches. Yes, I know they're not great: yes, I know the mayo isn't real mayo, that the prawns will have been frozen and that the bread is Chorleywood slabs of factory mush, but they have become so much my default selection when I need to grab food before embarking, that it has now almost become a culinary St Christopher medal.

Like settling for a pint of 'cooking lager' in one of the millions of pubs that have never even known that we have a wonderful brewing heritage, you do it because you know what you're going to get.

Two weeks hence, we'll be starting the great French trip. The first stage on Eurostar is heartening from a food point of view: a perfectly acceptable breakfast as we leave perfidious Albion behind and head across countryside that still shows, if you look closely, the faded scars of war.

We will change at Lille, heading on foot the short distance from the station that was built especially for the brave new era of a rail link between Britain and the rest of Europe, to the more stately building on the edge of the old city.

The big question is whether to nip into the shopping centre that we will pass on that brief jaunt. In order to pick up food for the afternoon as we head on a TGV to Bordeaux - or whether I do a quick shop the night before and make a picnic.

Sometimes it doesn't take much to amuse me - and the idea of constructing a coals-to-Newcastle style food bag of French produce to take back to France (including wine, of course) tickles my fancy. But I suspect much will expend on how tired I am by that Friday evening - and how much needs doing before we depart the next day.

But whichever option we take, there will be no croissants of the variety that I could barely face this morning.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

The return of the lard arse

It's not easy being a convert to the joys of lard. Indeed, such has been the demonisation of this lovely fat that one might find it easier these days to defend the reputation of Rebekah Brooks and suggest that she's newspapers' answer to Maria von Trapp.

While uses of Lardo di Colonnata might lend a certain sophistication to the issue, simply by virtue of its being Italian, the English stuff is a rather humbler affair.

But in the middle of a week of stormy weather and storms over Wapping, food still demanded some consideration.

Last weekend, I'd bought a couple of gammon steaks on the market: lovely looking things - none of those pristinely-trimmed half moons of pink, but very much as they came.

Now, what to do with these beauties? My original plan had involved grilling them – with special care taken to avoid a problem I seem to have of overcooking bacon. I don’t put the grill on high enough, thus cooking the rashers for too long in order to get the rind to crisp up, and ending up with rather dry meat.

Heat remains something that I can be tentative in using. I suspect I’m not alone, but the issue of a lack of basic cooking skills and knowledge in this country is not the subject of this post.

Alongside the meat, the meal was going to include the delights of simple boiled new potatoes and fresh peas. Good, simple, seasonal fodder.

But on Tuesday evening, as I was in the slow process of hauling my sorry arse out of a chair and into the kitchen, a chat with The Other Half saw alternative ideas forming – a very English idea of serving the gammon with fried eggs and chips.

A quick trip to the corner shop followed for a hulking main crop potato to chip. But while I was doing that, a thought struck: it's over six months since I've made chips – and the last time was before I had discovered lard.

It was time to combine the two.

That meant a diversion up to Broadway Market to raid Tony’s store, where I lifted all four remaining blocks of lard out of the chiller cabinet and into my basket.

Because I haven’t got a chip pan and have nowhere to store such lard after it’s been used, this ended up being the most expensive aspect of the entire meal.

Once back home, it was a question of peeling and cutting up the potato, then popping the pieces into a pan of cold water for half an hour.

At that point, drain fully and then dry on a clean tea towel or kitchen paper.

The blocks of lard all went into a large pan and were slowly melted while the grill was heated.

In my excitement, I forgot to test the heat of the fat with a small piece of torn off bread, and simply dumped the chips in. A blinding panic was alleviated by whacking the heat on the hob right up. In the event, the fat bubbled quickly and no harm was done.

The steaks took around four minutes a side – and I kept checking to make sure they didn’t get over done and dry out.

The chips had around four to five minutes – and were then removed and drained. Once the fat was back to bubbling, they went back in for a further two minutes.

That was enough time to fry a couple of eggs (in vegetable oil, I’m afraid, having run out of lard ordinaire by this point) and open a tin of pineapple chunks – yes, it really was that retro a meal!

Gammon steaks are sometimes regarded as rather passé, but when they’re good, they’re very good. These were lightly smoked – and the pineapple is a cliché for a sound reason, because it makes a good combination. The eggs were fine.

But then we come to the chips. I seriously did not realise just what a difference frying them in lard would make – I tried it out, because I wanted to know – but I’d hadn’t been prepared for the outcome.

These were beautiful. The best chips by far that I’ve ever made. Thick cut (so reducing the fat to potato ratio, if you’re worried about that); fluffy in the middle and with a fabulous crispness on the outside.

It struck me straight away that the crispness was reminiscent of the fish and chips we had in Scarborough just after Easter. The fish, with it’s filigree crispness, was a joy. These chips had a similar texture.

Chips, done properly, are a real treat, but too often they’re turned simply into filling. And cooking chips in lard is now going to be my standard.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Stop the Dirty Digger benefitting even more from the dirt he digs

There are times when you have to put pleasure into the background - yes, even at The Voluptuous Manifesto.

But right at the moment, there's a scrap going on in the UK - a really big and important one, and I feel that it's essential that I raise it here too.

We've known for some time that The News of the World  was guilty of hacking the phones of celebrities and politicians for the sake of selling copies.

For many people, fame apparently removes the right to a private life – even when there is no legitimate public interest argument for publishing something about them. So we have seen a sort of mixed response to this – as illustrated by the recent case involving Ryan Giggs.

But what has now become clear is that, for the The News of the World at least, celebrity gossip was never the sole target. It seems that the paper also hacked the phone of murder victim Milly Dowler in the days when she was missing, before her body was found. Not just that, but operatives for the paper actually deleted messages from her mobile phone's inbox.

In other words, they removed and changed possible evidence – they intervened in the investigative and judicial process. One of the effects of that was to give her family and friends hope that she was still alive – that she was herself deleting the messages.

Not just that: it now seems that the police have visited the families of the Soham murder victims, after stories emerged about their phones being tapped.

It's difficult to know what say about this in a controlled manner. Not only did these actions break the law, they illustrated a total disrespect for the families and for human dignity: the only thing that was important was the 'story', which could make money.

I'm well aware that the trade of which I am a member is not a saintly one. Indeed, in many ways, thank goodness it isn't. We should never, as journalists, aim to be members of some elite or seek some sort of 'respectability'. Let's aim to be as unrespectable as possible – but in the right way, if you will.

However, let's move on. News International – run by Rupert Murdoch (or the 'Dirty Digger', as Private Eye so aptly named him some years ago) is on the verge of getting to take over even more of the British media than he already owns.

Unfortunately, British politicians of all mainstream parties are terrified of Mr Murdoch. He has a reputation as a king maker politically – and there also seem to be suggestions that his publications have threatened plenty of individuals if they've dared to suggest that they might ask awkward questions about the practices of his companies.

In that way alone, News International and Mr Murdoch are a danger not simply to an independent and free press, but to the democratic life of this country.

So I would respectfully ask everyone to sign the petition against his being granted permission to take over BSkyB. We can make a difference. And we have a little time left to act, pointing out that, on the basis of what some of his employees appear to have done on their watch (or not known about – which makes them simply incompetent) that he is not a fit or proper person to hold such sway in the British media.

Indeed, nobody is – and nobody should have such media clout in one country.

Please sign the petition.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Let it burn. let it burn, let it burn

It's difficult to imagine any form of cooking that is so inherently masculine - in terms of gender stereotypes at least - as the barbecue. Or the braai, as we know it at the home of The Voluptuous Manifesto, where The Other Half spent a decade of his youth in South Africa.

But cooking over a real fire goes far beyond the masculine. It goes into something far deeper, and something that is part of a much more universal cultural heritage.

And I suspect that that is why, when we smell a certain type of cooking, it calls to us so deeply.

If you've ever walked past a take away (which most of you will have, regularly) you'll know what I mean: it's attractive even when you wouldn't actually dream of trying the fodder because you know that:

a) it'll be full of crap;

b) the taste will never, ever live up to the expectation created by the smell.

The latter is, of course, sometimes true of perfectly good food and drink. Does coffee ever taste quite as good as it smells, for instance? It's a question that always makes me think of Arthur Miller's wonderful A View From the Bridge, where Eddie Carbone tells how unloading coffee sacks is one of the joys of a longshoreman's working life.

Bacon is another such smell, and I blame it for luring me away from vegetarians - years before I became a foodie. Although I am hardly unique in succumbing to meat again under such temptation.

I remember too, the bonfires of my youth: 5 November, just outside Manchester, when we'd go as a family to one or other of my father's churches. There'd be potatoes, wrapped in foil and cooked in the fire itself, to be eaten with meat and potato pies and black peas. I remember them with relish - not least for the excitement of eating food so fresh from something as basic and unconquered as the flames.

But that's rather by the by. The reality is that The Other Half does this cooking rather well – and it's improved because I don't see it (and neither does he, to be fair) as an excuse to use poor produce.

A week ago, I'd spotted boar steaks on Andy's game stall on Broadway Market. Since the date was for 6 July, and since game improves with keeping anyway, I bought them them then and there.

Opening them up, they were very lean. The Other Half wondered about cooking them, but got on with the job. We added venison sausages, since I'd decided to make this our first serious game braai.

So, first of all, he lit the fire.

Don't be fooled. It's excitable to start, but you need to wait a bit. Even if you have to blow it a little to really get it going.

To start with, make the fire from some twists of paper (the Saturday Guardian, which works perfectly well, and the Morning Star, which is also perfectly adequate. Has anyone ever previously suggested such a perfectly left-wing braai?

Then add some wood if you have it and some charcoal. Then light.

But whatever else you do, let the fire burn down. The biggest British mistake is to assume that you have to cook over actual flames.

What you want is the hot coals.

This is the stage at which you might seriously be contemplating putting the food on the rack.

The salad was chopped, pickled beetroot with segements of fresh orange – a great compliment to the richness of the game and incredibly easy.

You can garnish it with a dollop of créme frïche and a shower of cut chives, but it's also perfectly good on its own, for exactly the reasons mentioned above. The original recipe I spotted called for raw beets, that you then had too cook and cool. But however unsophisticated it might be, I like pickled baby beets – and it works beautifully here..

The point is not to allow yourself to do something you don't like.

But what is also clear, is that we shouldn't imagine that the most earthy cooking that we can do is bad just because it carries echoes of our unsophisticated ancestors.

I many not know very much about food, but I know that what The Other Hal;f cooked tonight was very good indeed – and that wasn't just because I'd bought good meat in the first place.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

A melon and some very nice breasts

Sad to say, I can barely even think of food at present. Well, not much. Which may say something about the tiredness I reported earlier this week.

After a pleasant lunch at a local cafe, which was also very relaxing, we simply snacked for the second evening running last night.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. We had picked up bread on Thursday, along with some pâté, some sliced German sausage and some salad leaves (the live, still-growing type), tomatoes and radishes.

I had most of the weekend's food already plotted out - and the shopping was over and done with ease and really quite quickly.

We had a minor gardening binge too, with The Other Half cutting back the pyracantha that had got rather out of hand and was obscuring my sun.

So then it was time to sit outside. It's been warm without being muggy, and bright - albeit with cloud now doing what the pyracantha had done.

This has been my first attempt at writing on my iPad, using a free Moleskine app. It's practise for our forthcoming foray to France, when I hope to be able to post regularly, but without the need to lug a massive amount of kit around. In the meantime, it's worth working out just what I can do with this.

Tonight's food was simple.

I scraped and boiled new spuds, and when they were about half way through cooking, heated a small amount of good rapeseed oil in a frying pan and then added pigeon breasts and gave them plenty of heat.

They need about two and a half minutes per side, so I timed it to allow four minutes for a pan of freshly podded peas to boil.

This was all served simply with good butter for the vegetables and some hawthorn jelly, which has been sitting in a cupboard, unopened, for a good year.

The best-before date was last December. But best before dates are just that - not a dangerous after date. I opened the jar and found it in perfectly acceptable condition. Since I hadn't got any other jellies around that would compliment game, it as worth trying.

As it happens, the jelly was a perfectly good compliment to the meat, which is incredibly dense and very, very tasty.

I feel that I'm getting better at cooking pigeon breast. It's readily available on Broadway Market, is not expensive and can be prepared in a variety of ways. As I've mentioned before, it goes beautifully as the centrepiece of a warm salad.

But that has meant that I've been practising. And practise, if not having yet made perfect, certainly helps - not least as it builds confidence.

The oil that I used was Cullisse Highland Rapeseed Oil, cold-pressed by Robert Mackenzie in Ross-Shire. You can find out more at I was introduced to Robert a few weeks ago by Andy, whose game stall is now selling the oil.

The hawthorn jelly was from Heavenly Hedgerows. To read more, visit

I also found an absolutely gorgeous melon at La Bouche - Max was laughing as I pressed it to my nose and inhaled the glorious perfume in a state approaching ecstasy. But that's when you realise just how good such fruits can really be. And it's the sort of thing that, even in my tiredness, excites me.