Friday, 28 March 2008

Smoked Fish Pie

So no sooner have I posted an apology for not blogging than I find myself with 5 mins!

Last night as I drove home from work I decided it was time I cooked dinner, rather than let Jenny do it. I was thinking about smoked haddock, and by the time I hit Tesco I'd settled on fish pie. I bought some traditional undyed smoked haddock, but then my eye settled on a couple of salmon fillets. Yumm! Along with twice as much fish as I needed, I also picked up a head of broccoli before heading for home. (I froze half the fish, of course.)

I actually did it in the wrong order, but in the right order, here's what we did. Peel and boil some potatoes; break the broccoli into chunky florets and steam it. Skin and microwave the fish in a splash of milk, then break into largeish flakes. Use the fishy milk to make a white sauce, adding more milk as necessary, then flavour the sauce with cheese. I used cheddar, but then Jen suggested adding some left-over brie.

When all was ready, Jen mashed the potatoes while I started final assembly. Into an ovenproof glass dish I put the broccoli, then distributed the fish over it, poured in the white sauce and Jen spread the mash over the top. A quick grate of parmesan on top of that, followed by 20 mins in the oven flat out. This is really just to crisp up the top and make sure everything is properly hot all the way through, rather than cook anything further.

As we served it, my heart sank, for the smell of the brie was really powerful, and not what I wanted at all. Fortunately, the taste was nowhere near as strong as the smell, and it really was, though I say it myself, rather good.

Interestingly, when I described the recipe at work today there were almost as many opinions as people present. Everyone seems to have his own preferences when it comes to fish pie! Reminded me of a recent Cook's Tour of Spain programme we watched. Tommi Miers was cooking traditional Spanish fare in the fields and serving it to the workers, in this case saffron pickers, but she's done serveral of these. No-one wants to let her do the recipe her way; it's got to be done just so, "because that's the way my grandmother showed me, and that's the right way!"

Thursday, 27 March 2008

So Little Time

I just wanted to post this as an apology to everyone who's blog I normally visit and who visit mine, as I've been frantically busy at work and have had very little time at home either, to either post or visit blogs. Normally at work I get a bit of time each day when I can blog, but over the past several weeks there's been much less than usual, and then last week, when I had a slack period, we had no internet access for most of the week.

That started a few weeks ago when some sympathetic souls stole several hundred metres of copper cable from underneath a street somewhere near work, thereby depriving our ISP of all communications. Which somehow threw an unacceptable load on a computer within our building, causing sulks lasting weeks. This week, for the first time in several, we have normal internet access, but this week I'm back to frantic. Of course.

And at home there has been an absurd number of meals out (yes, last time I weighed myself I was 4lbs up!) as well as theatre visits and all sorts of other stuff. And I think next week we start extra rehearsals for the (other choir) visit to Venice in May, so it'll get busier yet!

This week's excitement was the Birmingham Rep's production of She Stoops to Conquer at the Cambridge Arts Theatre, which was simply brilliant. I seem to recall that they're touring the country, so if you get the chance to go, I really recommend it. Colin Baker and Liza Goddard you expect to be great, but actually, the whole cast are superb. Definitely worth the effort.

Sunday, 23 March 2008

The saga of the silver

I was going to reply to Sparx's comment, but then decided there was probably enough of a tale here to justify a new post, so here goes.

It all started over 20 years ago. Jenny had not long finished her PhD, studying a Carboniferous fossil beastie which was largely aquatic, with short legs and a flattened, newt-like tail, though it was rather bigger, at about 3m long. For her birthday I wanted to find a way to give her a pair of earrings in the form of her fossil, so spoke to several jewellers in Cambridge. One said "If you carve the shape you want from this piece of wax, I can get it cast in silver for you." So that's what I did. I couldn't carve it small enough for earrings, so I made a bigger one, maybe 4 or 5 cm long, which eventually became a pendant.

The next few pieces I formed using plasticine on a piece of glass, Jenny poured silicone rubber over that to form a mould used to make the wax original, which we gave to the man. He encouraged us to buy a few tools and start doing some of the finishing ourselves, and so we came by some tiny files, a jeweller's saw, a few pairs of specialised pliers, jeweller's snips and finally a bench grinder, on which I replaced one of the grindstones with a polishing mop. Oh yes, and a simple gas blow-torch for soldering.

Somewhere down the line Jenny discovered a couple near Chelmsford who ran residential weekend courses, and we started going twice a year, which was always brilliant. And exhausting! We've done a little at home inbetween ever since, but silver is too expensive to keep much here. I tend to buy as little as we need for whatever we're doing, and fortunately the dealer in London, Blundell's (no website as far as I can tell) has no minimum order.

The blowtorch (basically just a nozzle attached to a handle, to which you screwed a 1 litre replaceable cannister of gas) was pretty cumbersome to use for soldering, so I bought a bottle of propane (red cylinder about 50cm high you might see at a camping and caravaning store - blue is butane which I don't think is hot enough), some orange rubber gas pipe and a couple of torches, with 3 sizes of exchangeable nozzle. I seem to recall I just paid a deposit on the bottle and paid for the gas, but I'm still using that first supply of gas. There can't be too much left in the cylinder now! The bottle has to live outside, in case there's a leak. Propane is heavier than air and would puddle in the cellar where we work, so would be incredibly dangerous.

Most items are made by cutting up bits of sheet and wire and soldering them together, smoothing down and then polishing up bright. This highlights an entertaining little facet of silver. The solder comes in several grades, which melt at increasingly high temperatures - 680° C, 730° C, 770° C (which is why you have to use a torch - an ordinary electrical soldering iron does not get nearly hot enough.) Sterling silver itself melts at about 890° C, which is worryingly close when you're soldering.

Unlike iron, which goes soft gradually as you near its melting point, silver goes from solid to liquid over a very narrow temperature range, and it's common for students to melt their work accidentally. Not usually the whole thing, just some critical part. The only answer is to chuck it in the scrap bin and start again. Even now, after 20 years, I still melt pieces occasionally. You see the solder go shiny and flow, and you wonder if it's gone all the way through the joint, so you heat it a little more just to be sure, and then the whole thing collapses! And the air turns blue!

At one point we tried to turn it into a small business, making jewellery in the form of fossils, but we quickly found it stopped being fun when we did that, so we stopped. In order to sell our jewellery, we had to have it hallmarked, so while we still thought it might be a goer, I registered my maker's mark and had a punch made up by the Goldsmiths' Company in London. If I ever want stuff hallmarked, I post it off to them, but mostly we don't bother. If you're not going to sell it, what's the point?

This hallmark has the maker's mark (not mine as I have no photo) LAO, a lion rampant, indicating sterling silver, 925 also showing sterling silver (parts per thousand), a leopard's head which is the London Assay Office mark, and the letter C which indicates the year. The year mark changes through the alphabet each year, changing case and having a different background shape, so with the right reference book, you can find when and where anything was hallmarked.
This picture shows some silver in the ladle, not quite ready to pour, since it still has lumps in. The lilac colour is misleading. In real life the ladle bowl is glowing a dull read, so I don't know why it's gone purple in the photo. I'm not good enough at image manipulation to fix it.

Monday, 17 March 2008

The Up-side of lousy weekend weather

Despite a few spring-like days last week, it turned filthy for the weekend (natch!) so the jungle will have to wait until next weekend before being tamed. We descended into the cellar, where we did silversmithing.

Jenny is struggling with an amber necklace which came apart a while ago, and which I made worse when I tried to fix it. She's now replacing sundry bits with silver, but it's not going smoothly, not least because she needs to drill lots of 1mm diameter holes, and all my tiny drills seem to be completely blunt. It's a well-maintained workshop, oh yes!

I, on the other hand, had considerable success, as the pics demonstrate.

The 'face' tie slide is loosely based on a mask made by the Fang people of central Africa, places like Cameroon, Gabon and the Congo, I think. Here's a link to some pictures of African masks.

The other one is supposed to be Acanthostega, a beast whose fossils we brought back from our expedition to Greenland in 1987 and on which most of Jenny's subsequent career has been based. It's a brooch with a safety chain. Jenny has lost enough brooches that I've made her, that these days I generally add a short length of fine chain with a hand-made safety pin on the end.

The reason I'm so pleased with myself is that I've finally cracked a technique for casting silver at home, and that's real progress. It has its idiosyncracies, but they'll get easier to deal with as I gain experience.

It's called cuttlebone casting, so you raid the local pet store for cuttlebones, then you saw one in half lengthways to make 2 thin sheets. Carve the shape you want to cast into the cut surface of one sheet, cut a funnel shape to pour the silver in and then put the 2 halves back together and bind them with thin wire. Balance it upright in a dish of wet sand (in case you spill the molten silver) then pour the silver into the funnel and hope it's OK.

The first picture to the left is a couple of cuttlebones, as I'm sure you've seen them in pet stores. The other picture is of 2 bits which show something of how the process works. The lower one was a failure. The silver wasn't properly molten, and a lump fell in and blocked the funnel, so you can still see where I carved away the cuttlebone. You can also tell that the cuttlebone is only just man enough for the job, and after one pour, it's scrap.

What I'd had difficulty with before was what to melt the silver in. Years ago I spent proper money on a high-tech ceramic crucible, but it was too tall and narrow for the flame to get to the bottom and I never succeeded in melting the metal properly. And it was difficult to manipulate when hot, lacking a handle. The other weekend at Bringsty Art Studio, Ian Buckley showed me what he uses - a simple stainless steel kitchen ladle. So Jenny bought me one, and it's a dream. The silver just melts under the flame and the handle stays cool enough that I can hold it in a gloved hand to pour. So simple, it's just great!

The hardest part is carving the shape you want to cast, because, of course, that has to be in negative, which is a difficult art to master. As you can probably guess, since neither casting above is all that close to how I intended it. But a big plus is that the cuttlebone has striations laid down when the animal was growing, and these appear in the final casting. The striped texture on both pieces is entirely down to the nature of the cuttlebone, and adds an interesting random dimension to the end result. I guess the skill is in learning how to exploit that to better effect.

Oh yes, and make sure the ventilation is good, otherwise the house is filled with the stink of burned cuttlebone. Lovely!

Saturday, 15 March 2008

Great night out, despite a senior moment!

For my birthday, Jenny got us tickets to see the New York City Ballet at the Colliseum last night, and, despite somewhat mixed fortunes, it was a brilliant night out.

I used to work in London, but was really pleased to stop doing so getting on 20 years ago, and these days probably go less than once a year. Over the years I've developed something of an antipathy towards it, and even though I knew I would enjoy the ballet, truthfully I was not looking forward to catching the train up to town. Recognising what was going on, I decided that the answer is to go to London much more often, so that's the plan - art galleries, shows, concerts. Can't see Jenny having any kind of a problem with that!

Arriving at Royston station I realised I didn't have an A to Z or any kind of streetplan, and only the vaguest idea of where the Colliseum actually is, but we've been before, so thought we could find our way by smell, or some such. And on the tube, the notice said that you could avoid Covent Garden and just follow signs from Leicester Square or Holborn, so we imagined we could do that.

Wrong. Lots of signs for the Royal Opera House and various other places of interest, but not one for the Colliseum. We walked in one direction which looked vaguely familiar, but when we asked a taxi driver, he sent us back the way we came, and we quickly achieved a circle.

I bought an A to Z which didn't have it marked. Another taxi driver nearly sent us in completely the wrong direction, then realised his mistake and corrected himself, after which we found it pretty easily. I thought these taxi drivers were supposed to know everything!

So, nothing like setting out completely unprepared then! At least I'd brought the tickets!

The ballet consisted of 3 unconnected sets, the first of which was based on a ballet class, and I found it rather bland, though Jenny said she was familiar with many of the steps. The second was to music by Stravinsky and was fantastic. Much more toward contemporary dance than classical ballet, and I loved it. It was worth the trip just for that set. The third was also excellent, and we had a thoroughly good time. I don't think NYC Ballet is as good as the Royal (quite a few places where they really weren't well coordinated enough), but still well worth seeing. Considering the outrageous price Jenny paid for the tickets, it was no great surprise the place was not full.

The train got us home just before midnight and we sat up with a nightcap just letting it run through our heads for a bit. Very nice.

Thursday, 13 March 2008

An utterly stupid piece of design

A few years ago, we had our bathroom completely stripped out and refitted, at considerable expense. We've never regretted it, though there was some bullet-biting when it came time to pay. From time to time, however, we stumble across bits that seem to be less than perfect, and I've just encountered one of those.

This light fitting is just a simple recessed spotlight using a GU10 quartz halogen bulb, the sort of thing you see all over the place. We wanted incandescent bulbs because there's a dimmer switch, so when, as previously mentioned, we lie soaking and steaming with a glass of something cold and white, we can have the lights turned low as well. Low energy equivalents can't be dimmed. Well, you can get a dimmable low energy one, but it's about £15 a pop, so I'll manage without, thanks.

The other day a bulb blew, and tonight I finally got around to fishing out a spare and climbing up the ladder to replace it. And I really struggled, eventually clambering into the roof void to examine the fitting from above so I could work out how to swap bulbs.

And the answer, I kid you not, is to pull the entire fitting downwards into the room, at which it all becomes very simple. The unit is held in place by a couple of spring-loaded levers which clip it onto the plasterboard of the ceiling, so of course, the first thing that happens is you get a mouse-trap strength SMACK on your fingers as the unit emerges from the ceiling. I confess, that's the real reason for the title of this post. Pain makes me indiscreet.

The second thing to emerge from the ceiling is large quantities of crud of the sort that just naturally accumulates above the ceiling. Bits of plaster, dead spiders, odd screws and bits of cable the electrician just dropped where he was working. And in this case, a couple of dozen dead wasps, which had obviously got lost last summer, and died up there. I was initially astonished at the number of wasps, but then realised they'd have been attracted to the light, so there won't be one dead wasp per 3 sq cm of roof void.

So now, job done, I shall retire downstairs to nurse my injured fingers with alcohol, applied internally, of course!
Have a nice day now!

Sunday, 9 March 2008

How cute is that?

This weekend I found myself having to do a bit of overtime, which is a pretty rare occurrence. I haven't had to work at a weekend for years, but we got a bit behind last week, and putting in a day over the weekend was the sensible option.

I brought the necessary kit home and set it up in my 'office', but sadly, one of the cables I had planned to use was not right, and I couldn't set everything up the way I'd hoped. It was a simple mismatch, but I needed a cable with a male connector on each end and the one I had was male-female and therefore useless.

To get things to go, I needed an extra mouse, and I was on the scrounge from Richard in no time at all. And what Richard came up with was a little beauty. Looks just like an ordinary mouse, doesn't it?
But when you turn it over, you see there's a slide-out bit, which turns out to be the diddiest of base stations, and which you plug into a usb port. It's not just that it's minute compared with the base station I normally use, it's the fact that it docks onto the underside of the mouse when not in use, so you can carry the whole shebang around with you. Neato.

Of course, it could be that I'm so behind the times you've all known about this cool meesicle forever, but it was new to me, and I was impressed!

Sunday, 2 March 2008

Circumzenithal arc!

Having stopped gardening for a spot of lunch, we were indulging in a post-prandial cup of tea in the conservatory when I looked up and was completely astonished to see this rainbow smile in the sky. Yes, folks, a circumzenithal arc directly over Royston at 3pm on Sunday, 2nd March, 2008! I have never seen anything like this, and had never imagined I might. I don't know whether it was brighter before I saw it, but by the time I had fetched my camera it was fading. This was looking more or less directly upwards, with a slight southerly slant. Thanks to whoever set up the Atmospheric Optics website, I was able to look it up instantly.

Well all I can say is Wow! Some birthday presie!

The birthday continues!

The birthday celebrations have continued into the weekend, which is proving a lot of fun. No idea why it seems more celebratory than usual, particularly as it's not a birthday with a zero, but there you go. Last night Jenny cooked me a splendid birthday meal and I suppose I ought to start thinking about tailing the revelry off a bit now.

So after a day in the garden, we got the initial preparations of the dinner out of the way, then cracked a bottle of Chapel Down Pinot Reserve, which is a really terrific, sparkling white English wine. Once we'd reached a sensible break-point in the preparations, we took our glasses of cooks' perk up to a deep, hot bath. There's something seriously decadent about a glass of something really nice while you laze in the bath!

And so to the meal. Fillet of organic, grass-fed Aberdeen Angus en croute, with roast potatoes, cauliflower with white sauce, swede and carrot mash. This latter was originally going to be just mashed swede until we were clearing the veg patch and found some left-over carrots from last year. The beef was exquisite, and the whole course just delicious. Accompanied by a bottle of Meerlust Rubicon, which is a super Bordeau blend from South Africa. Followed by a really good, home-made orange sorbet. I had a tiny glass of Marsala, and Jenny had ditto of a nice sweet sherry, both of which went rather well with the sorbet.

Am I a lucky bugger or what, to have such good care taken of me?

Afterwards we watched an Attenborough dvd Jenny had bought me for my birthday. This one is called Tribal Eye and was transmitted in the mid-70s. I don't think Jenny really knew what it was about, just bought it because we're determined to accumulate the complete collection. Well the episode we watched last night was mostly about African masks, with some really spectacular footage of the masks and costumes in use. Just brilliant, and a perfect present for me, with my current interest in African masks!

The gardening was really good, too. After months of miserable, cold, dark weather, we finally had bright sunshine and reasonable temperatures, so quickly got out there into the garden, and had at the vegetable patch. We started growing a few veg last year after seeing a TV programme which reignited our enthusiasm, so yesterday we cleared the left-over plants and all the weeds, chucked a load of compost on and added several bags of commercial farmyard manure.

Once nice aspect of the way we've organised things is that we decided last year, not to walk on the growing areas at all, and this meant the soil was loose and soft, which made preparing it this year really easy. Hopefully the plants find it nice, too. Today we'll be extending the area by about 50%. Still nowhere near self-sufficiency, but it's good to have fresh stuff we can pick from time to time. Salad leaves, tomatoes, beans, carrots, beetroot, etc.

While sitting in the conservatory drinking our coffee after breakfast this morning, we noticed a male sparrow attacking the window. A year or two ago we had a metallised plastic film laid on the roof and south-face of the conservatory to reduce the amount of heat getting in during high summer. We were suffering temperatures up to 50C, and that's been completely sorted out, but one side-effect has been that there's an increased mirroring from outside. This poor sparrow sees his own reflection, and is attacking that.

We've tried sticking one of those hawk silhouettes on the window, but that's had no effect. Not sure what else we can do. Last year there was a similar event up on the patio. We installed a fake gateway through the patio wall - a big mirror with a faked-up door frame around it and an old, wrought-iron gate hanging there. Quite convincing the first time you glance at it.

Unfortunately, the local small bird population (males only, of course) thought their territories were being invaded by the competition, so attacked the mirror. I ended up covering it up with an old sheet for a few weeks until they'd got their hierarchies sorted out, and when I took it off again, they were no longer bothered. I don't think I'm going to cover the conservatory up!

Saturday, 1 March 2008

I can do silver, too!

Just to prove that I can do silver stuff too, here are a couple of photos of rings I've made for Jenny. The triple garnet one I started in Worcester and finished off the other night. The settings are not the best I've ever done, but I do understand what I did wrong, so hopefully next time I'll do better. The other one I started about 3 weeks ago when we were starting to prepare for the Worcester weekend, and then finished a couple of weeks ago. It has its own, different set of faults, but again, I think I know how to avoid them in future.

On my birthday a small bunch of us went to the King William IV in Heydon, which is a small village not far from Royston. (I'm much less impressed by the website than I am by the food!) We had great food and a lovely time. Julia and Peter, who kindly drove, dropped us off afterwards at home but didn't come in. Jane did, and Lorna and Richard, who'd been unable to join us earlier in the evening, came over for a glass of wine. It was a great evening, even if the latter stages have disappeared into a blur. Fortunately my boss is away, so the fact that I was rather late arriving at work didn't actually register with anyone.