Saturday, 28 April 2012

Soup and salt cod

With Belgium hoving into view on the horizon, there was little shopping to do on Broadway Market this morning.

But while I’m looking forward to visiting another northern European country for the first time, there are still a couple of days to go before we head to the land of chocolate, beer and chips with mayonnaise.

Two pieces of cod fillet had been salting for a couple of weeks, and on Wednesday, I started softening them in water. The intention was to try a Sicilian dish on Friday, but The Other Half wrinkled his nose when shown the recipe and, to be frank, by close of play yesterday, I really wasn’t in the mood to deal with any such response.

Having started our break by having my hair done – Belgium deserves to see me looking neat and tidy, instead of as the rather shaggy specimen of recent weeks – I headed to a nearby Waitrose and picked up lamb chops from the south west, plus Jersey Royals.

The meat was grilled, the potatoes boiled and buttered, and some frozen peas served up too, together with mint jelly.

Innovative cooking it might not have been, but who needs innovation when you have decent, seasonal ingredients?

Today, however, was a leap into the realms of experimentation (for me, at least).

Just after noon, I chopped a banana shallot and started cooking it gently in olive oil.

It was followed into the pan by chopped celery, cauliflower and asparagus. None of these had been bought today, but really did need using up.

After a softening in the oil, everything was then cooked in chicken stock.

And here we have a little diversion.

In the last couple of years, I’ve been using Knorr’s bottled liquid stock for when I don’t have any homemade, when I only need a little or when I’m doing something unplanned and haven’t had time to thaw some  of my own out.

But when I looked at one of the bottles a few weeks ago, I was stunned to see the ingredient list.

Today, I happened to pick up a box of organic Kallo stock cubes to check the ingredients. It was replaced when I saw that the second ingredient listed was palm oil.

And Marigold stock contains the same.

The production of this stuff is a major problem in terms of killing off the natural habitats of orangutans.

I’m not claiming any sort of ‘green’ saint, but I’m not going to help kill off more of our cousins if I can help it.

Does anyone know of any organic – or even non-organic – stock cubes or powder that isn’t stock full (sorry) of crap or has palm oil in it?

Anyway, back to today’s fodder.

Once the veg were cooked, the solids were decanted into my mini processor and blitzed, then placed into a clean pan with the strained liquid.

After a little more gentle cooking, seasoning (it needed a fair bit) and double cream were added.

It was served with (for me) garnishes of some dried chili, dried mint and grated Pecorino, and was very enjoyable.

Soup really is humble food – but such a joy once you get a handle on it. Cheap and good for using stuff up too.

Later, the salt cod was drained and then dried before being placed in a pan with ordinary olive oil to cover, brought gently to a bubble (just over 100˚C) and left to cook for around 15 minutes.

It was served with basmati rice and the warmed contents of a tin of Italian tomato ‘fillets’, to which had been added some salt and some chili flakes.

The rice was probably overcooked for some tastes, but the fish was very pleasing.

It was interesting to cook something like this without a specific recipe, and I was reasonably pleased with the results.

I doubt, though, that it will be the sort of thing we eat next week.

Chocolate-flavoured beer or grass-flavoured chocolate, anyone?

And at least one of those really does exist.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

A tale of two delis

Back on 3 August 2007, L Terroni & Sons, a large Italian deli on Clerkenwell Road, ceased trading.

It was a bolt out of the blue, to customers and staff alike, and to an Italian community that has been in the area for more than a century and a half.

In the middle of the 19th century, around 2,000 Italian immigrants had settled in that area of London – a particularly poor one – where they worked in a variety of jobs, from street musicians to makes of scientific instruments.

At around that time, a Roman Catholic priest, St Vincent Pallotti, thought of building a church for the Italians.

Designed by Irish architect, Sir John Miller-Bryson, St Peter the Italian Church was modeled on the church of the Basilica of San Crisogono in Rome, although by the time it was consecrated in 1863, it was rather smaller than the initially ambitious plans of holding a congregation of nearly 3,500.

Terroni & Sons opened its own doors a decade and a half later.

No explanation was ever given for its closure in 2007, but foodies lamented its passing, dreading that the site would be turned into yet another 'express' supermarket or a fast food joint.

But the green shutters stayed in place and the only thing that moved in was dust and rust.

Perhaps that was the result of the financial crisis, but what is certain is that Terroni & Sons is now open for business once more.

In the days when I'd actually been working in that part of town, I hadn't had enough interest or experience to bother visiting.

Indeed, I'd only just bought my second cookery book - Jamie Oliver's The Return of the Naked Chef and hadn't progressed from supermarket shopping.

By the time it closed, I was working elsewhere.

So it was with a burst of pleasure that I realised only a few weeks ago, as I made a rare journey down Clerkenwell Road, that it was open once more.

The following week, I walked over after work to explore this revived Aladdin's cave. And it was well worth the effort.

It's not as large as the original and the range of foods is perhaps not quite as large as at Lina Stores in Soho (perhaps that will develop), but it is still a very welcome addition - or re-addition - to the London food map.

There's a large selection of Italian wines (left) and a brilliant range of dried pasta - the picture below shows just a very small sample.

The cheese and meat selections are decent - indeed, the fennel sausages looked so voluptuously, moistly lovely that I liberated half a dozen and changed my plans for that evening's meal.

A nice piece of Pecorino also found it's way into my basket, together with coffee and biscuits, a slab of lardo and a jar of plumptious capers.

In a massive coincidence - or perhaps not really that much of one - I was just a couple of days into my attempt to learn Italian.

The charming young lady who served me was not 100% fluent in English, so by the time I left, I'd already used a word or two of my very embryonic new language skills.

And it proved to be just the first visit.

This afternoon, after work, I wended my way in that direction again.

This time, I stopped off first at Veneticus, another Italian deli, café and gelateria, just a few doors away on the other side of the road.

It's very spacious and light inside, but while there are some good things on offer - I did pick up a jar of chopped chili - it doesn't have the selection that Terroni has.

Oddly, perhaps, you don't hear the same number of Italian voices either. Which may say something.

I pottered away and went to look in the Italian Church - finding a little piece of Italy right in London.

And then it was on to Terroni again, where I enjoyed an espresso (real wake-up juice) outside in the unexpected sunshine.

It came served with a piece of panettone: light and rich at the same time, and shot through with the sweetest imaginable fruit.

More biscuits, pasta from the huge selection, Italian espresso coffee, more Pecorino and some Parmigiano Reggiano, plus some mini chili salamis to take to work for lunch one day.

And then six luscious sausages: a pair each of the fennel, mild Italian and spicy Italian, which were subsequently grilled and served with some tiny Jersey Royals and some sautéed, mixed baby Italian mushrooms.

It's impossible to imagine that this will not become a regular port of call. And in the meantime, the joys of social media mean that I can even follow news from the shop at @_terroni.

Which element of modernity would not, I suspect, have happened in the old days.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Rupert Murdoch, a dumbed-down press and trolls

It’s been a funny couple of days on the old mass meeja front. Setting aside the appearances of James Murdoch, and his father, Howling Mad, at the Leveson inquiry into press standards in the UK – which is the best soap opera ever, bar none – there has been another little spat to grapple with.

Mary Beard, the erudite classicist, is currently to be seen on BBC2 presenting her new series, Meet the Romans.

It’s a fascinating series that, as she explained in last night's episode, looks beyond the ‘friends, Romans and countrymen’ speechifying of white toga-clad politicians and philosophers in the Forum, to what ancient Rome would have been like for its rather more ordinary denizens.

Beard’s knowledge of her subject is beyond doubt and her enthusiasm is infectious. It's top stuff.

Her ‘problem’, so it seems, is in not being a supermodel. Well, that’s according to AA Gill, TV reviewer for The Times, who, in essence, said that she was too ugly to be on the goggle box.

Still, it meant that he didn’t actually have to review the programme. Beard does not wear make up or dye her hair: in other words: she doesn’t kow-tow to certain conventions.

As her own riposte in the Daily Mail made clear, she’s comfortable as she is.

And she make some excellent points about confidence and ‘inner beauty’ too.

Although she did very nearly chuck a spanner into the works at the end by throwing in a caustic remark about Gill not having been to university. Not all us have been to university – but we don’t all go around being terrified of and offensive about those who did.

This must have been quite hard to swallow for the Mail, which is on a permanent trip to make women feel insecure about their looks and their bodies.

On the same day it launched itself into self-flagellatory mode with a piece on 'life for a month without my beauty regime'.

Regular readers here might remember my own admissions on the pots and potions, but reading this, it rapidly becomes clear that Anna Pursglove's beauty regime is probably not what most women would think of as a beauty ‘routine’.

A brief sample will make the point. “Among my favourite monthly treatments,” she writes, “are microdermabrasion (where the skin is treated with exfoliant crystals to remove dead cells), Keratin (long-lasting) blow-drying, Shellac (long-lasting) manicures, eyebrow threading and eyelash tinting, plus waxing (legs and/or bikini line, depending on the amount of flesh I plan to show that month).

“Then there’s the ‘occasionals’ list including chemical peels, laser thread-vein removal on my face, spray tans, semi-permanent eyelash extensions and teeth whitening.”

Blimey. I know that this is all fab in the service-based economy in which we live – girls: get out and have your legs waxed for the sake of the economy – but I very much doubt it’s what the majority of women will think of as their basic routine.

Now I love an occasional massage and I love having my hair done – both are wonderfully relaxing – but that’s the limit of what I’ve ever had as treatments (although being a reasonably sensible individual, I’m not going to fall into the ‘never say never’ trap).

But let’s get back to Gill and the Times.

This latest nastiness comes just a couple of years after his “dyke on a bike” comment about openly out presenter Clare Balding, which was also in what was supposed to be a review of a TV programme in which she was touring parts of the UK on a bike.

Nor is it the first time he's had a serious dig at Beard for her looks.

Yet only today, in his appearance at Leveson, Howling Mad claimed that Margaret Thatcher didn’t understand the threat from trades unions and costs to that “iconic” title.

Things have come to a pretty pass when what was once the nation’s paper of record has been taken to such a Murdochian low as to countenance regular bouts of infantile bullying within its pages.

But then, this is a proprietor whose answer to the supposed ‘elitism’ that he has railed against is to make a substantial contribution to the dumbing down of public discourse in the UK.

Yes, people can easily avoid buying his titles or the books he publishes, or watching his TV channels. But the impact of that general dumbing down – and Murdoch is not alone in shouldering blame – is felt even by those who directly avoid his works.

The dumbing down has also been boosted by the growth of communications technology and 24-hour TV. The development of 24/7 news leaves printed news media needing to fill pages with things other than stories that are hours late.

One option is opinion. Sensation is another, cheap tactic to gain readers (and advertising).

The Mail is expert at it, even to the extent of publishing such outlandish, tear-your-hair-out articles that gets social media in a tizzy and thousands more people clicking on link to read the madness. This is usually written by a shrill woman in such a way as to demean women in general and any woman who dares describe herself as 'a feminist' in particular, and it generates massive traffic and more advertising.

Clever, eh?

The Guardian plays a different game, giving a regular platform to a particular kind of female writer who confuses feminism with misandry, nurses attitudes that are close to US right-wing Christian fundamentalists – and an utter intolerance and contempt for any woman (particularly) who disagrees.

So the Times is not unique in this sensationalist approach – its particular tragedy is, as mentioned above, that it used to be the newspaper of record.

However, while I’m not remotely interested in calling for Gill sans his head, there is the question of response.

Like all trolls, he has the capacity to get under the skin simply by being nasty. And he’s probably loving every minute of having created this latest little shitstorm. So should one just ignore him, denying him what he craves – the oxygen of publicity?

Or should one challenge such behaviour, which is, frankly, no different to that of a playground bully?

‘Sticks and stone may break my bones’ and all that rather misses the point that words can hurt very deeply indeed.

Personally, I found the burst of confidence that hit me around 12 years ago was a big help. 

Before then, I’d been called names in the street simply for, like Beard, not looking like Claudia Schiffer. You’d barely believe the lack of self awareness of some of those doing the name calling. The only oil paintings they’d have come out would have been the nightmarish visions of Hieronymous Bosch.

I’ve also been on the receiving end in print. In spring 1998, on the basis that I was the sports editor of a national daily at the time – and the only woman in such a position – I was interviewed for the Observer by a young, fellow female hackette.

But there was to be no sense of sisterly solidarity.

Unfortunately, I no longer have the printed article, but it was bang out of order. Not only did it put words in my mouth – perhaps I hadn’t been remotely interesting enough – but her main issue seemed to be with how I looked.

And I recall one comment suggesting that, once you’d reached such a career pinnacle, perhaps one didn’t actually have to bother.

It was cheap, to say the least. Unprofessional and unethical are other words that spring to mind.

In subsequent years, I’ve developed a rather thicker skin. It’s particularly important online.

Only a couple of weeks ago, responding innocuously to a comment on the website of a particular news publication, I was lambasted for my looks. I’d signed in using my Facebook identity and it showed the picture that I currently have there as an avatar.

I responded simply by pointing out that the individual in question was a typical coward, hiding behind anonymity and no avatar to provoke comparisons with, say, George Clooney.

The thing is, though, that if you don’t respond in some way, you leave them thinking they’ve ‘won’.

They’re pitiful, but perhaps ignoring them and letting them think that they’ve successfully upset you is the real oxygen they seek.

Thankfully, I’m comfortable enough in my own skin these days not to be upset.

Sometimes I wear make up – sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I dress in a more feminine fashion – sometimes I don’t.

It doesn’t depend on how I think other people think I should dress, but on how I feel and, to an extent, social conventions about where I’ll be working and who, if anyone, I’ll be meeting in the course of that work.

My own revenge over the Observer article has not occurred yet. But they say that it’s a dish best eaten cold. It’s in the freezer even as I write.

Monday, 23 April 2012

St George's Day and Englishness: a few thoughts

In case you hadn’t noticed, it’s 23 April. Which means it’s Bill Shakespeare’s birthday – and St George’s Day too.

In the case of the latter, that means celebrations of some sort for the people of many countries, since he is the patron saint of more than one nation – and plenty of other things besides, including archers and sufferers of syphilis.

But national days have little to do with the historic reality behind the saint in question.

In this case, there seems to be some confusion as to where he even came from, although there is support for his having been a Roman soldier from Syria Palæstina.

The Catholic Encyclopedia is of the opinion that, while there seems to be no ground for doubting the historical existence of St George, that doesn’t mean that we should believe some of the more fanciful tales.

Which conclusion struck me as showing a certain lack of self awareness.

But the mythical nature of St George seems rather apt in many ways.

You could start with the very nature of nationalism: anyone who really thinks that the country they hail from is better than any other is daft – just as daft as anyone thinking the reverse.

My parents were very much in the camp of thinking that England was absolutely finer than absolutely anywhere else on planet Earth. ‘God is an Englishman’, they commented more than once – presumably, given their devoutly held religious beliefs, without entirely meaning it.

So convinced of this innate superiority are they that they have been rendered incapable of actually seeing the satire in things such as Flanders and Swann’s Song of Patriotic Prejudice – or even some of what WS Gilbert wrote – and treat such songs with utterly gleeful relish.

Which rather means that the joke is on them – even if they can’t understand this.

My mother used to comment loudly – and god, how embarrassing it would be – when people left the cinema before the national anthem was played. We obviously had to wait – and stand for it.

Yet in spite of growing up in such an atmosphere, I could never understand what it was I was actually supposed to feel.

I mean – why be ‘proud’ of where you’re from? Why would you take pride in something over which you have had not an iota of control or influence?

It’s as daft as being ashamed of where one comes from.

They really are the two sides of a single coin.

It took me years to work out what my own Englishness meant – and it has more in common with that Flanders and Swann or Gilbertian strand of disguised satire.

Like much English humour, they seemed to be either of the Establishment or at least rather tame, yet the reality was more complex.

They were observers, sitting slightly apart and recording the quirks of the English, often with a slightly surreal edge.

The same could be said of a vast number of talents, from Joyce Grenfell to Eddie Izzard and Alan Bennett to Victoria Wood.

Equally, I doubt my mother, for all her liking Shakespeare, is aware of many aspects of the Bard’s writing.

Take A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for instance. It’s long struck me as more than a tad amusing that it’s the first Shakespeare play that children are introduced to.

It’s about sex. An Elizabethan audience would have understood that Puck transforms Bottom into an ass because the ass has a whopping big penis. That’s what it is that attracts Titania when she sees him.

But there are plenty of other myths about England and Englishness.

The likes of John Betjeman and JRR Tolkien both helped popularise a particular mythology during the 20th century.

For both of them, England was the countryside: not the dramatic, romantic scenery of the Lake District, for instance, but something far gentler: rolling downs and pretty woods.

You see this chocolate box idea in much of Betjeman’s poetry. And it’s no coincidence that Tolkien labeled the part of Middle Earth that was under threat and needed defending as The Shire.

There was no place for industry or the inner cities – and they both pretty much wrote them out of their visions of what constituted an ideal England.

You could also mention St Mary Meade, home of Miss Jane Marple. But since Agatha Christie’s sharp-minded old lady was always solving murders rather than sitting in the garden, drinking tea from a bone china cup and doing the Times crossword, it was hardly an idyll – however far geographically from the encroaching obscenity of modern, urban life.

On the other hand, Hercule Poirot most definitely disliked the countryside – although perhaps that’s because he was furrin?

It’s an England that did – or does – most certainly exist, and it has a powerful hold on the collective imagination of many; perhaps particularly those of ‘a certain age’ and a certain social background.

In a speech to the Conservative Group for Europe, on (note the date) 22 April 1993, the then Prime Minister John Major said: “Fifty years on from now, Britain will still be the country of long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and, as George Orwell said: ‘Old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist’ and, if we get our way, Shakespeare will still be read even in school.”

It’s quite obvious that a lot of this is connected to class.

Grubby, grimy, dirty industry was what the hoi polloi in the cities and grim, industrial northern towns did.

The middle classes built “invincible” suburbia to live as far as possible from the inner city, if they couldn’t avoid working there.

Only very recently has this trend started changing: now, living in the city so trendy that the rising cost of even old council flats is driving out the people who once were the only residents.

There is a truth to the vision of Betjeman and Tolkien et al, and there is something quite intoxicating about the picture that Major conjured up.

But it is only one part of that truth; only one part of what constitutes England – and a smallish part at that.

When I travel to Bournemouth later this year for work, I’ll enjoy some of the sort of scenery that Betjeman eulogised. But my own Englishness also incorporates the landscapes of Lowry – and there, in a nutshell, may be the reason that he was so shamefully treated by the country’s art Establishment: he recorded a world that they didn’t want to see; that did not conform to ideas of what was ‘nice’ and acceptable: that could not be Art.

Betjeman was a snob. Oh, he’s an enjoyable snob to read – his use of rhyme and rhythm makes his work readily accessible – but there is poetry in the industrial and in the north too: witness the work of the sublime Alan Plater and, as mentioned earlier, Bennett.

And of course, that doesn't even touch on just what those grubby working types actually contributed to the country, which such snobs so conveniently forget.

But going back to English humour, perhaps at our best, there’s a determination to prick pomposity.

Think of Will Hay, playing a double agent and being allowed to make repeated v signs to a picture of Hitler in 1942’s The Goose Steps Out as he ‘educates’ would-be spies about English ways of showing respect.

But it's equally part of the greater picture that Hay's screen persona was that of a buffoon. He was hardly some heroic figure. And indeed, you see the same thing repeated in English culture, from George Formby to Norman Wisdom.

That example came to mind again last week, when English Defence League founder Tommy Robinson responded to a picture of the Taj Mahal on the Twitter homepage with the following: “welcome to twitter homepage has a picture of a mosque. what a joke #creepingsharia”.

Major wasn’t entirely wrong when he also said: “Only in Britain could it be thought a defect to be ‘too clever by half’. The probability is that too many people are too stupid by three-quarters”.

But quite apart from pointing out that the Taj Mahal is not a mosque, the Twittersphere had enormous fun taking Robinson’s hashtag and sending it up mercilessly.

To give a flavour, tweets included: “My nan goes to Mecca bingo. Coincidence? #CreepingSharia” by Robbie Gibbo.

It was the perfect riposte. And it was deliciously English.

It is the same approach that produces Private Eye.

Although the downside of this is that, in general, we also notoriously distrust intellectualism. Public discourse suffers as a result – little wonder we therefore have political (and other) ‘elites’ and that we canonise the thick.

See Jade Goody – a troubled individual, exploited by the media and a voyeuristic public, who became a celebrity for her stupidity, before being vilified for the same thing and then hailed as a saint as she died in the public glare, desperate that the financial benefit that that would bring would benefit her children.

England at its best; England at its worst.

But you can’t have everything.

On a rather more down-to-earth level, I’m afraid today’s food hasn’t been particularly English – with The Other Half away, I’m on an Italian kick involving seafood and cheese and dishes he would not want to eat.

But it could hardly have been more English on Saturday evening – well, British – with English lamb chops, English asparagus and Jersey Royals from, err, Jersey.

However, that’s not to say there wasn’t a little something to do to mark today.

Just over a week ago, while wandering along Columbia Road, we were both handed what appeared to be a rather knobbly, red business card.

In fact, it turned out to be an invitation from the mayor of London to a St George’s Day festival this weekend just gone.

But the little cards themselves could be soaked overnight in water and then planted in soil, since they contained seeds for English wild flowers.

Which was an entirely nice idea – and I therefore saved them to soak and planted them late this afternoon.

And that’s exactly what I did.

Dressed in jogging pants, a football shirt and a tweed cap (made in the UK), with a mug of Earl Gray on the side, while another April shower pit-pattered down and, between the steady growl of the city’s traffic, bird song filled the air, I sowed a little bit of one England in a little corner of another England.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Italian food and an English garden

With each passing year, it seems as though my senses sharpen; as though, when we emerge from each winter, I'm raising my face ever more to the sun and snuffle, trying to scent the season itself, like Mole.

The weather forecast for today had predicted good weather early on – and then rain from around noon.

Awake by 7am, I headed down to Columbia Road earlier than in recent weeks. Haggerston Park behind us was almost empty, except for a couple of dog walkers.

Walking through, the low sun lit the horse chestnuts, their little towers of cream blossom; delicate, pink blossom contrasted wonderfully with the blue above, and birdsong filled their air.

It was simply glorious.

The market traders were still setting up. I was far from the only shopper – the tourists and families were absent, though: this early on a Sunday morning was when you could spot the rather more serious gardeners.

There was vivid colour everywhere, but insanely, I couldn't find any nasturtiums.

The stall where I'd bought two pots from around three weeks ago didn't have any, and everybody else gave me cause to believe that it was a act of plain daftness to be looking for such a plant at this point in the year.

In the end, I bought three packets of seeds for different types of nasturtium: tall, Empress and Tom Thumb.

Two more cape daisies (or river daisies, as they were labeled) were irresistible, along with another large pot of the daisy-like flowers I have already potted – in a plain, deep purple this time.

These latter daisies were intended for a tallish pot alongside the two mints and the rosemary.

All of them add wonderful colour, but daisy-type flowers also apparently encourage the 'right type' of insect visitors.

Three pots were sown with nasturtiums. And three more small plugs of catnip were potted with the one that had survived the attentions of Basil, Reggie and The Cat With No Name. This was no gamble, though.

Les from Halifax, who runs a gardening shop just off Columbia Road itself, had managed to find me two plastic cloches. With air vents at the top, they just fit over the catnip and rosemary pots.

So there - drug-nicking visitor cats and rosemary-chomping metallic beetles!

There had been a pot with grass in it next to the mints, but I wanted to move that over to be in catnip corner: the cats have been nibbling it (which was part of the reason for putting it in in the first place) but I didn't want it next to the mint, which needed spraying after starting to attract greenfly.

Amazingly, everything was potted, sorted and tidied by well before noon, even as the weather showed little inclination to do as the Met Office had decreed. The sky stayed blue, the sun stayed warm and the rain stayed away.

With The Other Half leaving in late afternoon for few days' work in Brighton, I'd planned an early lunch.

In this case, pasta with a sauce of dried porcini, sage (from the garden), garlic, chili, lemon and cream, with Parmesan to taste – in other words, for me. It was from the River Café Classic Italian Cookbook and it was yummy.

I had been hoping to make squid with courgette and spaghetti in the evening, but neither Vikki nor Fin & Founder had any: the seas have been too churny for squid in the last couple of weeks.

After a slight near panic, I pulled myself together, went back to Vikki and opted for the biggest lemon sole she had. And, keeping uo the culinary theme for the day, it went under a hot grill, brushed only with good olive oil and served simply with a sprinkle of fleur de sel and a spritz of fresh lemon juice.

Indeed, in something close to a properly structured Italian-style meal, I had simple (English) asparagus with a drizzle of my best oil and a few shavings of pecorino to start.

Such insanely easy food - it almost feels like cheating to call it 'cooking'. But trust me – it was magnifique!

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Life is bursting out all over

‘March winds and April showers bring forth May flowers.’

I’m not sure there was much wind in March, but there have been plenty of showers this month – even if the odd one has turned into hail or a downpour or an actual, full-blown storm with thunder and lightening.

Not, of course, that that means that we are not still in the midst of a drought.

One of the water companies, Thames, has at least had the decency to admit that it’s easier to impose a hosepipe ban than to repair the leaks that see vast amounts of water wasted.

This is the same company that, just before the hosepipe ban began at the start of the month, ratcheted up its prices to domestic customers by 6.7%.

And it would be remiss of me not to point out that, when water was flogged off to private companies 20 years ago, it was done so at a low price on the understanding that investment would be needed in the infrastructure.

Well, that was a top plan, wasn’t it?

Mind, I’ve had no need to fill the watering can this week – even to water in my latest plants.

But however inclement the weather of recent days might have been – perfect for National Gardening Week – it has hardly been disrupting the cycle of life that is now becoming more obviously visible in my own little patch.

It’s one thing to know something in theory, but it’s quite another to see it in practice.

Take the impact of really serious pruning. I might have known, in a rather abstract fashion, that cutting stuff back doesn’t kill it but is good for growth, but seeing it is entirely different.

After Ian had cleared and paved the garden last autumn, it didn’t simply feel twice as large as before, but it felt incredibly bare. The rose, which had grown wildly for years, was lacking anything remotely green.

The same could be said of the jasmine and the honeysuckle, while the pyracantha looked as though it would take years to grow enough again to really fill in the trellis and give us the greatest amount of privacy.

It was the pyracantha that first showed its mettle, producing shoots quickly. When it flowers, there will be more creamy white than I could have imagined possible five months ago.

The rose has since followed its lead and grown back at an astonishing rate. The others are on the way too. What seemed to be simply dead, dry wood is suddenly sprouting tiny, red pinpricks of life that are rapidly growing into shoots and leaves. The bay tree too is responding well.

It is astonishing to see this life force asserting itself.

Things won't be left in such a fashion again. I've bought a guide to pruning, plus good secateurs for all jobs.

Earlier, a bee was hovering around the lithodoro diffusa – a glorious mass of small, bell-like blue flowers – thrusting its face into one flower after another.

Other striped insects gathered pollen from the purple and blue daisy-like flowers nearby.

 There was even a pair of flies engaged in rampant, doggy-fashion rumpy pumpy on a saxifraga leaf.

And yesterday, there was the sight of the first seedling popping it’s tiny, seedling leaves up toward the light – a baby radish.

I bought more pots this morning and, between showers, have done the weekend’s necessary dead-heading and waggling of my slug-detecting piece of bamboo under every pot that requires it.

Those perched on plastic domes should be pretty safe – which is good thing, since those are mostly the very heaviest pots.

Considerable amounts of nasturtiums will be bought tomorrow and potted up – although the spray does seem to be doing its job and reducing the whitefly. But the mint will have to be spritzed tomorrow too, since greenfly have now arrived on that.

And then I shall sit back for the rest of the day as my garden grows, and in the hope that May will, after the fashion of that little bit of doggrel, produce yet more flowers.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Pleasant news on a grey day

This morning, with rain piddling down over London, the day was instantly brightened by two snippets of news.

First, that former home secretary Jack Straw is being sued over – allegedly – allowing rendition and second, that Tesco’s profits are down.

My main problem with the first is: why not Tony Blair?

On the second, let’s be quite clear – Tesco is still making shed loads of money; it’s just a slightly smaller shed.

But perhaps the way in which it was reported at great length, and the reactions to it, tells us most.

From the Telegraph on the political right to the Guardian on the left, readers were leaving detrimental comments by the bucket load. That was perhaps even more extraordinary given the quite frankly advertorial nature of the Telegraph piece.

Now obviously all these comments can’t be dismissed as some sort of ‘usual suspects’ who hate any profitable, successful company. Many – in particular at the Telegraph – were lauding Waitrose, which is part of John Lewis and thus part of its partnership model, where all staff are effectively the shareholders.

It isn’t a hatred of business or profits in general or even of capitalism at large. What it is is a serious dislike of what Tesco has done and is perceived to be continuing to do – riding roughshod over local people in what seems like a drive to have a Tesco on every single street in the country; bullying and ripping off suppliers and producers, and in ripping off customers too.

Some of those in-store offers are, apparently, nowhere near as good as they claim to be. And that’s before mentioning the myriad negative comments about staff, which are hardly surprising if they’re treated as poorly as various people have heard and even as I myself have heard from a long-term Tesco employee.

If you want to defend big business, then this is not the model you want to be defending.

Fortunately these days, I no longer have to choose between shopping at a Tesco or a Sainsbury’s. And my own shopping experience these days is infinitely preferable to those days.

Perhaps if Tesco doesn’t want its domestic profits to simply keep on falling, then it might want to reconsider its approach to business – and not least as it seems to have been well and truly rumbled by large numbers of the great British public.

But in the meantime, two thing struck me.

First, it was a great pleasure to realise that I am far from being alone in my detestation of Tesco – and that it is something that crosses the political spectrum.

And second, that it is still clear that for many of the British public, the central issue when they're buying food is that it should be as cheap as possible – and most certainly cheaper than it is in Tesco.

The widening dislike of Tesco and its methods is positive – but we have a long way to go, methinks.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Snails, druggy cats and urban garden warfare

Today is just the second day of National Gardening Week and it’s official. I am now at war. And not just me, but The Girls too.

The first attack came when Basil or Reginald or The Cat With No Name – or perhaps it was all three of them in a druggy feline orgy – crept into the garden under cover of dark and raided the newly-planted pot of catnip. Two of the three plants were pretty much destroyed.

And Otto in particular was very, very unimpressed.

The second attack was discovered on Friday evening, when I found a snail in the pot of Moroccan mint.

What the bloody hell was it doing in that pot – and perhaps more annoyingly, how had it got in there in the first place? I mean, honestly: the pot is on pot feet, on a patio, a couple of metres form even the merest hint of a traditional flower bed!

Those questions remain unanswered, but it was hoisted out pretty sharpish to end its days crashing onto the carpark where it hopefully provided nutrition to some local bird.

It was a mark of my increasing irritation that the two snails that I subsequently found at the weekend, attached to a bag of compost, were picked off and thrown into the carpark by hand: the first time I have ever touched a snail.

On Friday evening, slumped in front of the telly, The Other Half switched channels and landed on the start of Gardeners’ World, not a programme I have ever watched. This time, I did – albeit with a sense that while it might be interesting, there would be nothing in it for me.

I was wrong.

Monty Don mentioned such regular tasks as checking under pots to ensure that snails or slugs aren’t climbing into them from below.

The following day, I checked every pot. With the heaviest ones, I ran a length of bamboo underneath to see if anything slimy needed dislodging.

I also made a point of checking under leaves and around plants.

The other attack has come by air. A couple of weeks ago, I’d spotted whitefly on the underside of my sorrel leaves and spritzed them with the organic bug killer I’d picked up at B&Q.

But at the weekend, I found loads on the strawberry plants. The bug spray was called back into action – and I sprayed the next door strawberries too as a preventative measure.

I feel a touch of the Blitz spirit coming on. Mind, I am (almost) in ‘cor blimey guv’ land, where such a spirit must almost still be leaking out of the bricks.

An article I read suggested that another approach is to buy insects that will predate on pests – so ladybirds to feast on your aphids, for instance.

Apparently, you can spray something on the ladybirds to stop them clearing off – for some reason or other, the first thing that sprang to mind was a dilute solution of apricot jam on their tiny insect feet, thus ensuring they continue yomping around your leaves and don’t fly away home.

Would this count as biological warfare?

A Royal Horticultural Society guide to dealing with pests is on the way, while I’ve also read something about companion planting being of help. In the case of protecting strawberries and tomatoes from pesky whitefly, apparently nasturtiums help.

So on Sunday, I’ll be back down to Columbia Road to get more small pots and loads more nasturtiums to place around the berries and toms.

It does beg the question: ‘is it worth it?’ By which I mean simply that, given I have little space in the first place, is it worth such a fuss fighting pests for what can only ever be small crops?

Well, I sowed my first seeds at the weekend too – spring onions and radishes. By the time I get some more salad leaves in, we should be able to keep ourselves in salad basics through the summer.

It’ll be cheaper, less wasteful, fresher and probably tastier. The same can be said of the herbs.

Okay, the strawberries are perhaps rather more of a luxury, but why not? Seasonal, fresh strawberries, eaten straight after picking, could be amazing.

Other things may follow – although I don’t want to cram the garden too full and leave us with no space to move.

But the thought that, in the middle of a city, I could grow things to eat – and to look and smell wonderful – is something that will improve my life and benefit the environment in general, it seems fair to suggest.