Sunday, 26 August 2007

Summer. Again.

So we finally got some decent weather at last. On Thursday I looked out of the window and commented to my boss that it looked like November. Then Friday it was actually quite pleasant, but still damn cold, so I figured Friday it was October. However, yesterday and today have been pretty warm, probably in the mid to high twenties, so we're back to August for a bit. Suits me!

Yesterday, in complete contrast to what we were planning to do, Jenny did a major garage tidy, uncovering numerous items which have now been advertised on Freecycle. And then she cleared all the dead clematis montana stems which had come in under the roof AND THEN vacuumed the whole inside, including getting down decades worth of cobwebs from all the deep dark corners! Amazing! First thing this morning we had to do a major run to the tip to dispose of great piles of junk accumulated over the years.

Last night we barbecued with Lorna and Richard and had a thoroughly good time. They'd marinated some shrimps which were delicious for a small starter. We had lumps of steak and a piece of tuna, while they'd brought foil packages of fish. To varying degrees this was shared out, bearing in mind that Richard is veggie, so didn't partake the steak. All accompanied by green and potato salads. And copious quantities of wine, of course.

The only thing that didn't work well was the barbecued figs with St Agur blue cheese. I've done this before and it's been great, but this time the figs weren't quite ripe enough, due to my having picked them early to avoid bird damage. Mistake. They needed to be sweeter to be any good.

Tonight we're cooking aromatic lamb shank stew with couscous from one of the gorgeous Nigella Lawson's books. We've done it several times before, and it should be delish. While looking for the recipe I spotted her version of slow-roasted shoulder of pork, so we'll be doing that some time soon, too. That one cooks for 24 hours and sounds awesome!

So there's likely to be silence for a week or so, as we'll be out of signal range, as it were. Tell you all about it in due course!

Friday, 24 August 2007

No Service

I just love this!

I'll do a proper post later, but just wanted to get this uploaded.

Thursday, 23 August 2007

Chimney pots and chimney fires

In February we had a chimney fire, which was pretty exciting, but fortunately did more or less no damage, though it did crack the chimney pot. I've been meaning to get it seen to, but kept forgetting. Anyhow, after the sweep had, for the second time, refused to poke his brush all the way up the chimney in case he broke it, I finally contacted a builder I know.

Bill Balsom is father to the gorgeous <name drop>Alison Balsom</name drop>, trumpet player extraordinaire and winner of the Brass Section of the BBC Young Musician of the Year a few years ago. His son Richard, plays euphonium to a high standard too, but instead of going into music as a professional, is one of our local firemen.

So Bill and Richard came around to check out the chimney and give me a quote. To my surprise, they lifted one of the loft velux windows out of its frame and Richard climbed up onto the roof from there! It would never have occurred to me to do that!

Despite the slippery, wet slates, he didn't fall off, but noted that although cracked for its full length, the pot is still sound and solidly fixed in the cement flaunching, so didn't need to be replaced. He took a photo on our camera so we could see it and I'm currently trying to speak to a chimney sweep about it, just to make sure. At any rate, by the sound of it, it will be so cheap to repair that it won't be worth claiming on the house insurance.

I might add the photo to this post when I get home this evening.

Friends and Visitors

I think I must be gradually growing more autistic as I age. (Actually, I did an online autism test the other day which put me smack in the middle of normal, so don't take this too seriously!) Jenny had a visiting Australian colleague come to her department on Tuesday, and in the evening we met up with his wife and the four of us had dinner in Browns in Cambridge.

Now I know John and Heather, having met them in Melbourne in April, and I like them, but found myself coming over all curmudgeonly that they were disrupting my evening. I didn't want to have dinner in Cambridge! Stamp! Whine! I wanted to stick to the usual routine, go home, have dinner and sit in front of a fire, maybe watching some of the 93 TV programmes I'd recorded while Jenny was in Sweden!

So of course we had a really nice dinner, then retired home where we drank far too much and had a generally really good time. Klein (promounced klain, btw, 'cos it's Afrikaans) Constantia Marlbrook, which is an excellent Bordeau blend, followed by some nice Australian red. All in all, an excellent evening. Wierd that I was so resentful at the start. Oh, I need hardly say, I'd got my best smile on by the time I got to Browns.

Then last night we went out with Lorna and Richard, spending the whole time catching up, since they've been away for a month, with only one night back, and that was weeks ago. Afterwards, instead of going home to bed the way they normally do, they came over to ours for more wine. Well, being teachers, they're on holiday, of course, so didn't have to get up at their usual sparrowfart.

It's really lovely to have them back, but unsurprisingly, this morning I wasn't exactly firing on all four cylinders. Rather too many bottles lined up on the kitchen worktop. Again.

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Beer enzymes

But first a childish joke:
Daddy, what are those?
They're blackberries, son.
But Daddy, they're red.
Yes son, that's because they're green.

Sorry about that.

OK, enzymes. When I was in my twenties and thirties, I mostly drank beer, and very little wine. After giving up smoking in my mid-thirties, this gradually changed, until eventually the situation was completely reversed, and I drank mostly wine and no beer.

In the mid-90's I was working in Poole and one night, went to a pub with a few mates. There was live music, which wasn't really my thing, though the mates liked it. I had 3 pints of Tanglefoot, which was nice beer.

I wasn't particularly ratted, so was distressed the next day to have the most appalling hangover, which lasted all day! What was going on? Eventually I worked it out, and my doctor later confirmed it. (I have a brilliant doctor, whom I share with Jenny and Lorna. A complete gem!) Since I'd stopped drinking beer, my liver had stopped producing the enzymes necessary to break down the toxins in the beer. Then when I hit it with a modest quantity, it couldn't respond adequately, and I suffered the next day.

These days I make sure to drink beer on a regular basis. Well, that's my excuse!

Monday, 20 August 2007

le Weekend

Not really much to say, so I'll just rabbit on a bit.

Saturday we cooked the beef I bought from the new village butcher I discovered the other week. It was a 2kg forerib of Hereford, and it was simply divine. Onion gravy, roast potatoes, green beens and carrots from the garden. And we discovered at the last minute that Jane was free, so she came too. What a great evening. We had some Vergelegen red, then some nice Argentinian red that Jane brought, then some Cotes de Beaunes I think. And probably some white, too, though that bit's a little vague. Yes, 3 hangovers yesterday morning!

Sunday it rained most of the day, but we still managed to get to the garden centre for a conifer for the front garden. We dug out a very ratty berberis and stuck the new conifer in its place, but then decided the bare earth all around the new plant needed something, so returned to the garden centre for some winter heathers.

In the evening we ate the smoked gammon joint also from the new butcher, and it, too, was just delicious. New potatoes, carrots and beetroot from the garden, the latter with a sweet and sour white sauce. Yummy!

Jane used the rain as an excuse not to come around for a drink, but I think she just didn't want another hangover this morning! She missed some nice Muscadet and a reasonable Australian red.

Thursday, 16 August 2007

On Getting Wet

Ho ho, we are British, but we still manage to get caught out by the weather, don't we? So last night I had dinner with a friend who lives on the other side of Royston. We agreed to meet in a restaurant in the centre of town, even though the rain was pretty heavy. In fact, I'd had to pull off the road on the way home from work, unable to see well enough to drive. So we had discussed driving, but had decided to go aux pieds so we could both drink. Well, you know, take the big umbrella, etc. Hahahah!

It was only raining lightly when we set off, but within about 50 metres it was really hammering down. I took my shoes off (same toeless slip-ons that let in the glass last week) as they don't like getting drenched, which was fine. What I hadn't expected was for the big umbrella to let the rain through. I was walking up into town thinking "Hang on, I'm under the umbrella and I'm still getting wet!" I kept looking up at it expecting to see holes.

We arrived at the restaurant within a few minutes of each other, looking more or less the same; soaked from mid-thigh downwards, hair soggy, coats covered with water. Lovely!

Edit 'cos as so often, I've thought of something else! I infer that actually umbrellas are not waterPROOF, they're probably just water RESISTANT. Mostly, the combination of that and a shape designed to shed water quickly, is enough to keep you dry. This rain was serious stair-rods, flood-causing rain, and I think probably 5% or 10% of it just went straight through. Thank goodness the restaurant was pretty close. Even so, the clammy trews meant Julia and I didn't idle casually over coffee like the long-time friends we are. We headed home pretty smartly to get into something dry!

Monday, 13 August 2007

Hey, this is really cool! Someone mentioned at work, so I thought I'd take a look over the weekend. I downloaded their player and installed it, but it wouldn't play, so I emailed support. After spending quite a bit of time in the Help system and googling, of course. Today back came the reply "Check settings in tools->options->radio" so I did that, changed one thing and hey presto, the radio works.

I selected Artist from the drop-down list, typed in Emma Kirkby and it immediately played a track of the lovely Emma singing something. Then it played me some Montiverdi, then some Handel, then some Pergolesi. And there's no advertising, no-one talking, no interviews with artists, just continuous music. Perfect.

I've had to ban June Tabor (I think) 'cos I don't think much of her, but from what I understand, will keep a note of what I listen to and work out what I like, then only play that to me. Brilliant! Shame I can't have it on at work!

What me? Cynical?

Q. How can you tell that those Hindu's who's sick sacred bull was slaughtered last week were neither rich nor powerful?

A. They lost.


I don't know whether it's just a function of Jenny's being away, but now I've found this Guardian article. I should have known not to read it at work. It was all I could do not to sob out loud, which is not really the done thing in an open-plan office! The question I'm asking myself is why do I so enjoy this stuff and the feelings it provokes.

On a happier note, I can report that the cassoulet is a cracker! Note *is*. There was enough for 4 enormous portions, so plenty to freeze and I can have some more on Thursday. Sadly, I was unable to persuade Jane, who dropped by for a drink, to have some as she'd only just had dinner with her daughter. Feeble excuse, I say! I decanted a bottle of Gigondas which really was rather good. Jenny doesn't much like Chateauneuf-du-Pape and the Gigondas is sufficiently similar that I generally only open one when she's away.

Tonight I shall cook gem squash stuffed with mince and rice. A gem squash I grew myself, no less! Apparently if there's one food item all ex-pat South Africans crave, it's gem squash. And unlike last night I shall not get (completely) smashed, and I shall watch the light show in the sky, even if I did miss the best night.

And even more on the food front... The fig tree is absolutely loaded with fruit, though only a few ripen at any one time. The figs are just gorgous, but sadly, the local blackbird population is in full agreement, and they're eating the bloody things as fast as they can. I'm having to pick them slightly early just to find undamaged ones. It's a good job blackbirds are too small to be worth eating, or I'd be donning my pie-baking pinnie, I can tell you!

Sunday, 12 August 2007

Blue Linchpin

For a truly heart-rending blog, visit Blue Linchpin. I imagine after a site has been inactive for a while, they must delete it, so I expect it to vanish eventually.

Saturday, 11 August 2007


Well the cassoulet is assembled and just needs an hour and a half in the oven tomorrow to finish it off. There's easily enough for four, so I guess I'll freeze some of it. Sadly, if anything, it's a bit light on the beans, but that's just because I put in too much meat. Smells the biz, so I'm quite looking forward to tomorrow.

For tonight, I'm taking advantage of the fact that the weather is nice, and I'm going to have a barbecue. Barbecue for one. How sad is that? I have a huge piece of Aberdeen Angus rump steak which I'll cut a bit off and freeze the rest. And some Gloucester Old Spot pork sausages. Half a red pepper into which I'm going to put some chopped tomato, garlic, anchovy and olive oil. With a baked potato and something nice and red, I think that'll do me. Ah, now what in the nice and red line should I choose? Tricky. Think I'll take a glass of Argentinian chardonnay into the bath with me and think about that.

Edit: oh bugger, checking to make sure the links work, I find the Gloucester Old Spot is an endangered breed. And I'm eating one tonight!

Planes and cats and stuff

Feeling a bit melancholy, having just taken Jenny to Heathrow. She's going to Uppsala in Sweden for a conference, back on Friday. We were cursing ourselves for having booked on the 11.20 flight, as that required us to leave Royston a 8, when we don't normally surface before 9.30 on a Saturday. Despite having taken it relatively easy last night, neither of us felt exactly brilliant this morning. However, to compensate, the traffic moved freely all the way, and we were at Terminal 1 by 9; well early. Coming back, I noticed that the traffic heading towards LHR was dense and slow-moving in several places on the M25. So next time, which pain do we choose - early start or traffic jams on the M25?

A couple of airport stories
Jenny's been going to the States 3 or 4 times a year for ages, and in the early days used to land back at LHR around 6 or 7 in the morning, which required me to get up at 4.30 or 5 to go and pick her up. One Saturday morning I did this, arriving slightly early. I got a coffee and settled in with my book. The plane landed and eventually folks started straggling through, so I started paying attention, but Jenny was nowhere to be seen. When it finally became clear everyone on the plane had passed through, I went to the Enquiries desk, slightly concerned.

No, she wasn't on the passenger list. Strange. Then the girl looked on the following day's flight. There she was. I'd met the right flight, just on the wrong day! I chuckle about it still.

On one occasion, again quite a few years ago, Jenny flew from Stansted up to Edinburgh, probably to look at some fossils a professional collecter was trying to sell her. On the way back she was reading, and when the plane landed, she just got off and followed everyone else into the terminal. Asking at a desk where she might catch a bus to Cambridge drew a curious look, and it started to dawn on her that maybe she wasn't quite where she thought she was. Sure enough, she was at Leeds. Fortunately she was able to get back on the plane, but I think they had to turn the aircon up to compensate for the added heat being generated by her face!

Question is, can I get some pictures of the cat into the middle of this text.

And the answer seems to be yes, but only by moving them manually, and even then the final layout isn't exactly wonderful. Ah well, it is free.

The official name of That Cat is actually Ruby, according to the Wood Green Animal Shelter whence she came several years ago. We are really glad to be allowed to live in her house, but she does have a couple of strangenesses. Most cats twitch the end of the tail, especially when aggravated. This one swishes the whole tail vigorously from side to side for no obvious reason. Weird.

The other weirdness is that she'll randomly bite you. Not hard, just enough to tell you she doesn't like whatever you're doing. Which might just be stroking her on your lap, for instance. Seems to be happening less often these days, but we still have no idea what provokes it. It can be somewhat embarrassing when she bites a guest.

Friday, 10 August 2007

Of Glass. And mush for brains. Again.

So our good friends and drinking buddies are away in Scotland for THREE WEEKS! Not on, guys! (And entirely different from our going to Australia for 3 weeks at Easter, even a fool can see that.) Anyhow, I went over to feed t'cat or something the other day and found glass all over their conservatory floor.

Now they've not had a lot of luck with their conservatories over the years. Actually, I should rephrase that. I've not had a lot of luck with their conservatories. They used to have an Everest conservatory that let the water in, with a sliding door that continually fell off its rails. We had a flash flood like the one in July last year, their back garden was like a river, and the sliding door just said "Ah, water, come on in!" As they were away at the time, it was I that had to move furniture in case the flood got deeper, and then mop up as it receded. Actually, I was greatly assisted by Henning Blom, a Swede and some time research assistant to Jenny, who was staying with us for some reason.

Anyhow, when the new Zenith conservatory was installed a couple of years ago, they had blinds fitted at vast expense, then went away for a few days. One day I found glass all over the conservatory floor. The inner skin of one of the roof panes had shattered. Zenith reckoned it could have been defective, or the blinds might have been badly fitted, and a screw butted up against the glass. Anyhow, they replaced the pane and all was well.

Then a few months later another one went. Fortunately that time they weren't away, so they had the joy of vacuuming up several square metres of toughend glass fragments. By now it had been established that it was the blinds that were at fault. This being the third pane to smash, I think it's time the blinds people got it properly sorted out! I'm fed up with vacuuming up bits of glass!

So after a cursory clean up the other day, this evening when I got home from work I thought I'd do it properly. Being a barefoot sort of a guy, I figured shoes would be a good plan, so put on some toeless slip-ons. Yeah, OK, just say nothing. A lot of the glass was still up on the offending blind, so I climbed onto a stool and sucked it up with the vacuum cleaner. Yep, dislodging quite a bit as I did so.

I know you'll be amazed to learn this, but as I returned home, I realised I'd got something sharp sticking into one of my big toes. Then I had to spend 10 happy minutes poking around in my flesh, extracting a tiny sliver of glass.

Maybe I killed off all my little grey cells in Wednesday's drinking session.

Thursday, 9 August 2007

Thoughts on food

Wow! Thursday already and I've not posted anything since Saturday! Well, my excuse is that I was on a training course at work Monday and Tuesday, and of course, last night we ate out, as we usually do on a Wednesday. This time with Jane. Hi Jane!

So this post will be about various foodie topics, starting with last Saturday night's barbecue. It was the first warm, dry, sunny Saturday evening for ages when we've actually been free to light the barbie, so of course, we had to do it. Jenny made some burgers (just minced beef seasoned and with some dill seed added, formed into a pattie and served in a sesame bun with garlic butter). We had some sausages, tomatoes, salad and a squirrel.

Sadly, when I marinated the squirrel in red wine with herbs and seasonings, I didn't put any oil in, so the surface of the meat ended up dry and tough, and actually the red wine didn't really suit the flavour all that well. I think we'll do a different marinade next time, and at the very least, put in some oil! So the trap is out, but I've not caught anything yet.

On Tuesday, the course finished at 4.30 and on my way home I passed a village butcher I've not seen before. I stopped to check them out and found they sell locally-grown meats, including rare breeds, particularly pigs.

I bought a fore-rib of Hereford beef, but my local geography is too poor to know exactly where the farm is where it was raised. Also some smoked gammon, but he couldn't tell me which farm it came from. The beef weighs about 2kg, so I'm banned from cooking it for myself on Sunday when Jenny is in Sweden. Damn, I'll have to go shopping again! This will be an interesting experiment, as the farm shop where we normally buy our beef has stopped selling local beef and started sourcing it from Scotland. So they're in my bad books, even if their muntjac is delicious!

I'm not sure what to cook on Sunday. The easy option would be a steak from the new butcher, but I'm more inclined to do something that takes rather longer. A cassoulet appeals, and I'd have some left over to eat during the week. We've got four or five different recipes spread through our cookbooks, so although some of them use rather exotic ingredients which I'm unlikely to be able to find, I should manage to throw together something succulent and worthy of the name.

The real question of course, is what wine to drink with it. Might have to experiment there. A youngish claret should have the edge to cut through the richness of the dish. I've got some decent white Hermitage in the cellar, which might be just as good, but I'm not really sure here. Anybody got any ideas?

Saturday, 4 August 2007


In about 1979 we bought a Zanussi upright freezer, which we've used ever since. It's been completely reliable, with only one irritating quirk. Once you've been ferreting in it and closed the door, it's a while before you can open it again, since the warm air you've let in contracts and sucks the door closed. I've met this in other people's freezers too, so it's not just this model.

This morning it happened again, and I was thinking it would be a good idea if there was a button you could push to let some air in. Then wondered whether I could fit such a device myself. Then realised all I needed to do was lift the seal around the door slightly to break the vacuum.

That was when the lightbulb lit up. I got a small plastic spatula out of the drawer and slid it past the door seal. There was a quiet pffft! and the door opened as easily as ever.

So two university-educated adults, one now a Cambridge professor, lived with this irritation for 28 years before thinking of the solution. Yep, all you need is grey cells. Or something.

Thursday, 2 August 2007

Haoma PebbleHead

If you've visited the Art page of my website, you'll be familiar with this pebblehead which I actually carved last autumn while experimenting for the first time with an electric engraver. I've tidied it up a little and have just made it a wooden base on which to stand, so decided it was time to name it formally.

Haoma is an ancient Persian god of health and strength, rich harvests and sons. He rules over medicinal herbs, is associated with purification of fire and is believed to have the power to provide husbands for unmarried women.

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Food tagging

Well mopsa said "if you feel like picking up this tag, please do" or something like that, and I thought I'd talk about 5 memorable dishes I've had. Why not, I love food and yakking!

1. Last summer (was it really only last summer?), Jenny and I went to the west coast of Ireland where we stayed in a holiday cottage within sight of the sea. The other half of the cottage housed the owners, who were really nice people.

As we emerged from sleep the first morning, our host banged on the front door. He'd been fishing, and would we like some mackerel? Yes please! He wouldn't let me accept fewer than 4. They were beautiful, having been swimming around only an hour or two earlier. Jenny cooked them very simply, just with lemon juice, I think. I don't think I've ever tasted better fish. Later in the week he returned with 4 more, after which we'd reached mackerel-saturation point! An exquisite memory.

2. In the mid-1990s Jenny, my mother and I went to South Africa for a month. It was Jen's first visit and the first time mum and I had been back since we left SA in 1960. After a couple of weeks in Cape Town, we drove up the Garden Route to Knysna, stopping off at a B&B on a farm the first night.

We'd expected there to be a restaurant somewhere near, where we could eat, but this was seriously out in the sticks. While we pondered our predicament, the farmer's wife appeared. They were having friends over for a barbecue (she said "brai" of course) and had slaughtered a lamb. Would we like her to send the maid over with some food when it was ready?

The food duly appeared, and it was simply gorgeous. The farm was in the Little Karoo, which is semi-desert, with more or less no grass, just aromatic shrubs (fynbos) for the sheep to eat. I'm sorry, but it was better than Welsh lamb, better than saltmarsh lamb, better than Scottish lamb, just the best.

3. Our favourite pasta dish is adapted from the first River Café cook book by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers. Their Penne with Aubergine is a brilliant mixture of tomatoes, aubergine, mozarella and parmesan slathered over the penne. Seasoned with garlic, chili and flat-leaved parsley, it's a great meal when you don't want to spend too long cooking. We add crisply-fried smoked pancetta and onions to the original recipe.

4. We found a recipe in the second River Café cookbook for slow roasted shoulder of pork, which we've done several times now. Slash the skin and rub in garlic, salt and fennel seeds, baste with lemon juice and stick it in the oven around 11am at 115 degrees C. Baste every few hours and take it out at 7 or 8 pm. The meat just falls off the bone and it really is seriously bad for you.

5. A couple of years ago I picked up a roadkilled muntjac (see also here and here) and brought it home. It was rather badly mangled and I only recovered one haunch from the carcase. Jenny was rather dubious, but from the first mouthful she was a complete convert, and we now order our muntjac from the local farm shop. We buy a whole carcase which I butcher and we freeze separate joints. If you buy "venison" from a game butcher, you could get fallow, roe or muntjac, but you should specify muntjac. It really is the best of all venison.

These beasties are about the size of a border collie, and seem not to live long enough for their flesh to become at all tough, so they don't need to be hung at all to tenderise them. That means you can eat them fresh, so they're not strongly flavoured, or you can hang them for a bit to develop the flavour if that's your preference.

Treat it like coq au vin for a delicious casserole, but be aware that it's easy to overcook, which is a real shame. Err on the underdone side, at least to start with.

Edit: Critical info left out - local farm shop charges £4 a kilo for the whole carcase, so £25 or so, compared with £22 a kilo for a haunch on the bone. Unfortunately they cut off the neck, which I'd have liked to casserole, but you can't have everything.