Thursday, 31 January 2008

Poorly-sick at home

Today I'm feeling dead sorry for myself, having come down with a cold. The back of my nose and throat are sore, I'm all blocked up and my head hurts. I feel thoroughly miserable.

You'll notice, however, that I've managed to crawl out of bed. Well that was because half an hour ago, when I went to the loo, my back was so stiff and sore I could barely hobble the necessary 5 yards. It was obvious that lying in bed wasn't going to help that, so I had a shower and did a few back exercises to loosen myself up a bit. I still feel lousy, but I'm moving around a bit to keep limber.

Yeah, it's the sympathy vote I'm after.

Wednesday, 30 January 2008

No pleasing some people!

It's never ending, this. Saturday we were in a party of 9 celebrating Jane's birthday in a local restaurant. Sunday was Jane's concert and then she came to dinner. Monday was choir practice, followed by birthday drinks at Jane's. Last night 5 of us went to the contemporary dance at the Cambridge Arts Theatre, of which more anon. Tonight we're eating out with Lorna and Richard in Royston (when Jen gets home, that is, given that her head of department decided an alcoholic celebration of her medal was in order!) Tomorrow she's at a sparkly dinner at Darwin, celebrating something or other (not the medal!), so I'll actually be able to collapse quietly at home.

Truth to tell, I'm loving it, just not enjoying dragging my sorry arse out of bed in the mornings!

So the dance was a mixed pleasure. The first routine was just brilliant, and I absolutely loved it, though some of the movement was on the floor, which I often couldn't see. A woman in front of me, with a large amount of hair, had a tall man in front of her, so kept moving her head from side to side so she could see. Which meant about 1/3 of the stage was effectively blocked for me. But most of the time they were running around and dancing and leaping and all that, and it was exactly what I'd come for. Wonderful! The picture is just stolen from the Cambridge Arts Theatre website.

The second part of the performance seems to have been mostly on the floor. What I could see looked really interesting, but I was so irritated by the bloody woman in front of me I lost all concentration and gave up. I very nearly leant forward and hissed "Will you please sit still!!" in her ear, but just couldn't bring myself to do it. To be fair, it wasn't really her fault. The real problem is that the seating doesn't slope steeply enough.

Anyhow, during the second interval Jenny and I decided to move to the front row, which was almost completely empty. There we had a perfect view of the final routine, in which the dancers strutted their spectacular stuff to the accompaniment of an excellent live jazz quartet. Fan-bloody-tastic!

So next time I'll not book online, I'll use the damn phone and demand front row seats!

Monday, 28 January 2008

Of concerts and dinner

I promised a droolworthy recipe, and I have one for you, but it didn't work out the way I'd expected. It turned out that Jenny already had something in mind, so I didn't scan the cookbooks myself, and in fact barely contributed to the meal at all, being occupied with other things at the critical moment.

The key thing was that the all-female choir that Jane sings with put on a concert yesterday afternoon, and of course, we went, so Jenny started cooking at about midday, left it to stand while we were in Cambridge, then finished it off when we got home.

The choir is called Women of Note, and there are about 15 or 20 of them. I forget the title of the programme, but it could equally have been called Forgotten Carols, and it was thoroughly good entertainment. When we've seen them in the past, they've been conducted by a man, but this time they'd decided it would be fun to conduct themselves, so about half a dozen of them took it in turns to conduct, and it really worked well. A short programme, but quite delightful, and well worth the trip into Cambridge.

OK, the recipe. This is from Tamasin Day-Lewis's book, Good Tempered Food, and it's called Chinese Slow-braised belly of pork.
Soak 8 oz dried butter beans in water overnight with some bicarbonate of soda. I forgot to look how much, sorry.
Slice 3 onions into thin rings and lay half of them in the bottom of a heavy casserole dish. Place the belly of pork, about 1.5 lbs, on top and surround with the beans, the rest of the onions, 6 cloves of garlic, 3 star anise, a cubic inch of ginger, finely chopped, a tablespoon of honey, a tablespoon of molasses sugar and a good grinding of pepper. No salt, as you'll be adding soy sauce later, which is high in salt. Add cold water so everything is covered, then bring slowly to the boil. Put a sheet of greaseproof paper over the top of the casserole, then put the lid on top of that. This helps seal the moisture in. Stick it in the oven at 150C for about 3 hours.

After 3 hours, take a look at it. You might want to scoop out some of the liquid fat, of which there could be quite a bit. Add 4-6 tablespoons of tamari (Japanese soy) sauce, cover again and cook on for a further hour or 2. We served it with mashed potato and boiled savoy cabbage, tossed, Jamie Oliver-style, with olive oil and lemon juice.

And it was soooo yummy! The meat just disintegrating, the sauce rich and bad for you. We'd invited Jane to help us with it, but despite all three of us groaning away from the table, there was still enough left for a single portion, which I shall eat on Thursday when Jenny is at a flash dinner in Darwin College. I'd opened a bottle of Provençal rosé when Jane arrived, and without intending it, that was what we were still drinking when we ate the pork. Rather to my surprise, it suited the dish pretty well, so that was an unexpected bonus.

Jane brought a bottle of most delicious Argentinian Meriterra Malbec, which we demolished in the comfort of the living room, in front of a log file. Bliss.

The only thing I think we'll do next time is to take the lid off towards the end to let the sauce thicken a bit. It was rather liquid.

Friday, 25 January 2008

Burning the candle at both ends

The past few weeks seem to have been just frantic, with no time to relax properly and wind down. We've been having a really great time, but after a while you say to yourself "I just need a quiet evening at home, with nothing much to do, and an early night." Last night might have been that night, except Lorna and Richard had spotted that Kite Runner was on in Letchworth and persuaded us to go with them. Real hard, that was.

We do this on a regular basis, going to the pictures. We never go when a movie is just out, and we almost always go on a Tuesday or Thursday evening. As a result, there are generally only about a dozen people in the cinema. We always eat out beforehand, usually at an Indian restaurant just around the corner, where we know that even though their service is a little slow, we can get a reasonable main course in time to stroll to the cinema for the start of the main programme. If their service was better, I'd identify the restaurant so they'd get a minute bit of publicity.

And Kite Runner is such a good film, really moving, and with some spectacular scenery. I'm not sure how realistic the plot was, but dinner did include a bottle of white, and I was comfortably full, so it was easy to suspend disbelief and just get on and enjoy the film. We're thinking of joining the Amazon DVD library, and will look out for this when we do, as it feels like one of those films you can watch many times.

Now I think I need to be poring over cookbooks to select something to make you drool when I describe it in next week's posting! Have a good weekend!

Monday, 21 January 2008

A weekend's activities

Almost the entire weekend was spent sorting out the office. Fortunately the weather was foul, so we were not tempted to spend any of it gardening, nor did we regret the fact that we were snug inside! On the other hand, it was pretty tedious. We've now gone through most of the hanging folders in both filing cabinets, chucking out stuff which is clearly out of date and archiving stuff there's not really space for but which can't go yet. By archiving, I mean sticking in boxes in the loft. The only snag with that is that we already have a number of full boxes in the loft, so to make space for the latest generation of archiving, we have to get rid of a load of stuff that's already up there. And a lot of it needs to be shredded.

We've already taken about 10 black bin bags of shreddings to the recycling centre and there's another 5 waiting to go. Stuff like 20 years worth of pensions statements, life insurance statements, health insurance from when I had income protection, medical documents from when the company I worked for provided BUPA cover and my back was bad. Each document needs to be assessed and then either binned, shredded, archived or put back. Fabuloso!

As a reward for our diligence, Lorna and Richard fed us the most delicious sea bass on Saturday night, and we had a really lovely evening. Then yesterday we cooked Jamie Oliver's slow-roasted shoulder of lamb and it was simply gorgeous! The butcher could only sell us a rather small half-shoulder, because the rest of the world had also seen the TV programme and they'd got there first, but in the event there was plenty of meat for the two of us.

For those who missed it, you season it and stick it in a roasting dish with a handful of unpeeled garlic cloves, a bunch of rosemary twigs and a drizzle of olive oil, covered with a double layer of foil folded tightly to the edges to seal in the goodness, then roast at about 180C for 4 hours.

When I tried to lift it onto the carving tray the meat just pulled away from the bone. Not really possible to carve it, so I pulled it into bits and piled it onto the plates. The gravy was made from the goodness left in the roasting pan; we picked out the rosemary, poured off the fat, smeared the yummy roasted garlic paste out of the skins, then added flour and hot veg-water to make a wonderful sauce. Served with roughly mashed mixture of potato, carrot and swede and some steamed savoy cabbage, it was succulent and splendid.

To wash it down we had a nice bottle of Cote Rotie and had barely cleared up when Lorna, Richard and Jane arrived. Perfect.

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

TED talk: If I ruled the internet....

If you're feeling at a loose end with nothing to do, take a look at The guy is a poet and very clever and funny. This only takes about 3 minutes to run.

And the TED talks site is a wonderful way to waste time!

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Chicken & Broccoli Bake

This is one of my favourite uses for left-over roast chicken.
Deflesh the chicken and cut the bits into bite-sized chunks. Cut the broccoli into medium-sized florets and steam it until just the crisp side of cooked.

For stodge, we use mashed potato or macaroni, so cook some of that. I'm not going to give too many quantities, because everyone eats different amounts, but if you look at the ingredients and think about how much you eat, you should be able to estimate it reasonably. It's not rocket science, after all, so precise quantities are not the order of the day.

OK, roughly the same amount of chicken as broccoli. Probably much the same of mashed potato or macaroni.

Make a white sauce. I didn't do enough, having only started with about an ounce of butter, so the end result was a bit dry. Go for an ounce and a half if you're using mash, but double that if you're using macaroni.

Having the chicken carcase lying around I stuck it in the pressure cooker with a litre of water, a hacked up onion and ditto carrot, salt, pepper and a couple of bay leaves. Gave it 10 mins at whatever pressure you get, to produce some chicken stock.

The advantage of this was that when I came to make the white sauce, I could use the hot stock to start off the roux, which makes the early stages sooo much easier than using cold water or milk. And the stock seasons the white sauce, too. So my white sauce was probably 50% stock, 50% milk. Probably worth tasting it at this point and adjusting the seasoning.

When the broccoli and mash/macaroni are cooked, layer the chicken with the broccoli in an oven-proof dish. If using mash, pour the white sauce over the chicken and broccoli at this point, then add the mash as a single layer.

If using macaroni, mix that in with the chicken and broccoli first, then pour the white sauce over the lot. Yes, I forgot to take a photograph at this point. Sorry.

Top with breadcrumbs. You could give it a grating of parmesan if you wanted.

Bake in the oven at 200C for half an hour or so, but keep an eye on it, as the time is approximate, just as the quantities are.


Monday, 14 January 2008

Spring is just around the corner

We've been frantically working on the "office" this weekend, but when I went out to top up the bird feeder, I spotted these winter aconites in the garden. I'm not at all depressed about winter, but the sight of these little beauties just lifted my heart. Heh, any day now the swifts will arrive!

(For the benefit of my foreign reader, swifts arrive from Africa in early May and leave in late August, so the "screamers" represent summer to us.)

The office has gone really well, though we do seem to have been working on it for ages. Fully painted, new curtains and carpet, an extra ceiling light shining down on the desk and a couple of new bookshelves.

This weekend has consisted mostly of lugging stuff back in and trying to organise it sensibly. Just grouping the books rationally is time consuming, but the real time-sink is the filing cabinets. Decades ago we came by a four-drawer filing cabinet, into which all sorts of stuff was dumped. Bank statements, utility bills, receipts, you name it. Then about 5 years ago I was working for the Construction Industry Training Board near Kings Lynn, and spotted another four-drawer filing cabinet in a skip. After getting permission, I stuck it in the back of the car and took it home.

This was a mistake. Instead of being forced to rationalise what was in our existing cabinet, I'd simply doubled the amount of available space in which to stash away anything I felt remotely like not chucking out.

Now that we've decided to revert to a single filing cabinet, we're working our way through the whole lot, deciding what has to stay and what can go. It's not just that every piece of paper has to be examined, the real risk is that you come across something from years ago and get distracted into reading it, thinking about it, talking about it.

And since a certain amount of this stuff is going to be archived into boxes in the loft, the boxes need to be checked and rationalised as well. So far we've taken 5 black bin bags full of shredded paper to the recycling centre, and have made good progress on another 5. Yesterday I was shredding bank statements going back 35 years. Thirty-five years, god help us!

One thing that tells you is that Jenny and I are both hoarders. Living in a fair-sized house is bad news, too, since it doesn't put any pressure at all on us to throw stuff away. It's all too easy to stash it away "just in case".

And the photographs are worse. We have dozens of photograph albums, but stopped putting the photos into albums in about 2000. Not an active decision, it just fell out that way. Now we've got many dozen sets of prints, all unlabelled, just stacked in the office. Of course, these days everything we take is digital, so goes on the computer, but the last 5 years' worth of prints are just lurking in limbo. Pick up a set of prints, open it up, take a look at the top picture, "Oh, I'd forgotten about that", riffle slowly through the set. Do the prints have a date stamped on the back? "Jenny, that time we went to West Runton with Lorna and Richard, was that 2004 or 2005?" "Do you remember that restaurant we went to in Sherringham?" "And Lorna found that fossil sea urchin on the beach." And so the hours disappear!

Friday, 11 January 2008

A vacuum is not empty!

We were watching a physicist (Sorry, forgot his name. Come on, a physicist! I'd never heard of him but he was good.) on BBC4 last night, talking about the atom. Fascinating, but that's not the point of this. He told us that when you've pumped out all the atoms from your bottle of air, it's not actually empty, because brazillions of particles and antiparticles are springing into existence and then anihilating each other all the time, so fast it just looks like it's empty. Actually, it's only empty on average. Cool.

But then Jenny said something really smart. It's not empty anyway, 'cos it's got photons shooting through it. So a vacuum contains photons. Wonder what else it contains.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Wierd facts meme

DJ Kirkby has tagged me to do this meme:
Here are the rules: Link to the person that tagged you and post the rules on your blog. Share seven random and/or weird facts about yourself. Tag seven random people at the end of your post, and include links to their blogs. Let each person know they have been tagged by leaving a notification on their blog.

February 14th, 2007 I submitted a Valentine poem to BBC Radio 3 and later that day was amazed to hear it read out live. I didn’t win the competition, but hey!

The slipper comfort of pensioner passion

Still needs the teetering lunacy

Of bright pink high heels,

And fortunately, Valentine,

You’re both!

2. In 1987 Jenny and I took part in an Anglo-Danish expedition to collect fossils in northeast Greenland. 2 people from Copenhagen and 3 from Cambridge. We camped (yes, camped!) about 300 km inside the Arctic Circle for 7 weeks and collected about a tonne of rocks. Jenny’s subsequent career was shaped by this expedition and the material we collected.

3. In
1986 Jenny and I went to Stockholm with her PhD student, Per Ahlberg. He taught me the only Swedish I know: “Min svävere ar ful med ǻl”, which, if I’ve remembered it right means “My hovercraft is full of eels.” Yes, Monty Python.

4. I was born and spent my early years in South Africa. In the summer it was common for us to run around barefoot, and I still love to do so today. Wife and friends think I'm distinctly strange as, wearing a caftan and bare feet, I stride across the rain-soaked street to Lorna and Richard's house of a November night.

5. In the mid-1990s I caught a nasty throat infection while working away from home. The only way I could find to control the pain was to suck soluble aspirin tablets. Even the doctor who eventually gave me antibiotics didn't warn me I was being very stupid. The infection subsided, but the pain got worse, so I could barely sip water. I eventually twigged - saliva is alkaline, but aspirin is salicylic acid. So for a fortnight I'd been keeping my mouth permanently acid. Smart. It took another fortnight to return to normal. Later, I found my gums seemed to have receded more than you'd expect, and the exposed dentine is prone to staining. Almost certainly, I dissolved away a certain amount of tooth material during that fortnight.

6. Having drunk gallons of coffee all my life, starting 10 years or so ago I found myself drinking less and less coffee, particularly because I really didn't like machine coffee. Some years ago it reached it's nadir, when I would drink one coffee a day, and that only because Jenny has coffee after dinner. Fortunately these days I can tolerate it better. I have even had coffee I liked!

7. Although I'm not in the least afraid of flying, I get very stressed out as the time approaches for me to leave home and go to the airport, with an awful knot in my stomach, occasionally feeling physically ill. It eases as soon as I'm in the car and we actually set off, but doesn't go until we're at the check-in. It's not the flying, it's the deadline for leaving in time to actually get there.

8. Added later. Growing up in Cape Town, my friends at school had distinctly Seth Efrican accents, while my parents spoke something much closer to Received Pronunciation. I employed the local accent at school, but was told to "speak properly" at home. This kept me listening closely to the sound of what was being said around me, and when we came to England I quickly picked up a thick Midlands accent, which I used at school, while continuing to speak RP at home. These days I speak a fairly standard RP (I think!) but slide easily into a pastiche (probably not the right word) of the accent of whomever I'm talking to. So when we lived in the north-east of England, I spoke a sort of Geordie, but talking to my late father-in-law it was a pseudo-Lancastrian. The reason this is weird is that most people's accents tend to stabilise around the age of 10 give or take a bit, and not change after that. Mine varies. Or maybe I'm just easily influenced ;-)

Ah, and now I have to tag 7
random people. Does that really mean random? I don't think I'll take it literally, but I'll go in search of some folks more on the periphery of my personal blogosphere. So with apologies in advance, I'm going to tag
1. Trousers whom I normally visit via But Why's blog.
2. Prada Pixie who I found on Trousers' blogroll. On PP's blogroll, I found
3. WakeUpAndSmellTheCoffee who's comments I've seen many times, but whose blog I've not previously visited.
4. Lady MacLoud who seems to live a wonderful and exotic life.
5. Mutterings and Meanderings who is already on my blogroll, so that forms a loop.

Actually, this is hard, not to say time consuming, so I'm going to stop at 5.

Monday, 7 January 2008

Wedding Anniversay

Saturday was our wedding anniversary (28, in case you're interested) and we went to Norwich for a night, staying in the Annesley House Hotel, part of the Best Western chain. We've stayed there before, and thought it OK. It was certainly convenient for the centre of Norwich and also for the Sainsbury art collection, which is housed at the University of East Anglia.

We'd planned to check out the hotel restaurant before deciding where to eat, but when we arrived, found the AA recommended part was closed, and the abridged menu didn't appeal much, so the receptionist booked us into the Loch Fyne Oyster Bar. The Cambridge branch of LFOB is excellent, so we were quite hopeful.

In the end it was rather disappointing. I ordered a quite expensive bottle of white, but when it arrived the waiter apologised that the main fridge was broken and the bottle hadn't had long in the secondary one. He didn't offer to let us choose an alternative, though there was ice in the cooler. Sadly, it wasn't until we got to the last half glass that we had wine which was adequately chilled.

I had let him get away with it because white wine is often seriously over-chilled, but in the event this was pretty close to room temperature. Shame, because it was potentially a really nice wine, and being warm spoiled it rather.

Then the queen scallops were really gritty. Delicious, but gritty. The rest of the meal was OK. Not particularly wonderful, but adequate. And the service was decidedly slow. I didn't complain, but didn't leave a tip.

But still, we were old and in love, and we weren't that bothered. It really didn't seem worth getting exercised about.

On Sunday we walked across Norwich to the cathedral to check out what music was being sung for choral evensong in the afternoon. We were very tempted by the Rose responses and the Effing Wood (Mag & Nunc by Wood in F, of course!), but in the end decided to stop off at Bury St Edmunds instead, as it is about half-way back, so we'd be home earlier.

Then on to the Sainsbury Collection at the UEA. Lord and Lady Sainsbury of Sainsburys fame collected lots of bits of carving and sculpture over the years, with no real theme at all, just stuff they liked. In 1973, when there were about 300 objects, they donated them to the UEA. They have continued to donate to the collection, which now numbers about 1300 objects, though Lord S died in 2000, I think. In the mid-70s the UEA put up a building designed by Norman Foster to house the collection. It looks for all the world like a warehouse, but inside, the sense of space and light are simply perfect. It's warm and calm and still, even with a cafeteria full of families.

Letting myself get slightly out of sequence, when we interrupted our art-fest for lunch in the cafeteria, a jazz trio started to play - keyboard, acoustic bass and sax. It was just a perfect added gloss to a really wonderful day!

It was a bright, sunny day, and we started with coffee in the cafeteria area, then set about looking at the art. I first visited it in 1998, when Jenny was in Greenland collecting fossils and I was at home nursing a slipped disc. My back was so poorly that I could barely hobble round a quarter of the collection before I had to give up. We did try to visit it a few years ago when the choir was singing in Norwich Cathedral, but it was closed for refurbishment, so I've been keen to return for a long time now.

OK, time for some pictures! Once again, there's going to be some guesswork on the layout front!

This is a reliquary from the Fang tribe in Gabon. I think it was used to guard the bones of their ancestors. It looks as though some sort of libation has been poured over it, which is not uncommon. It had a big impact on me when I first saw it in 1998 and I was delighted to remake the acquaintance.

The next pair of photos show a couple of African masks, one with a curiously owl-like face, and accompanying it is a crayon drawing of how the dancer might have looked when dressed up in a grass cape and wearing the mask.

The next photo is of a Cycladic head. This is neolithic art from the Cyclades Islands in the Aegean and you can read a bit about it in wikipedia.

We did look in their modern art gallery, but there wasn't much there, and we weren't too impressed by what we saw. However, looking down from the balcony, we could see a Henry Moore through the glass curtain wall at the end. Lovely.

Finally, we visited the ceramics room. Most of it didn't do much for me, but a fantastic "geological" plate hanging on the wall was exactly our sort of thing! Absolutely brilliant!

It looks rather like wood in this photo, but in reality was much more rock-like.

Leaving it rather late, we tore across country to Bury St Edmunds, magically finding a parking space very close to the cathedral and slipping into the pews at the back just before the choir processed in at 3.30. Actually, there was less urgency than we realised because the services around now are structured slightly differently from normal, so there was some stuff and a hymn before the music started, so I needn't have driven quite so fast!

Choral evensong is the best Anglican service. There's enough music and little else that you can treat it as a free, half-hour choral concert, and some cathedral choirs are excellent. We had the Byrd responses, which they did rather well, Brewer Mag & Nunc in D and a curious Victorian-sounding anthem "Lo the star led chiefs" by Crotch. We weren't sure whether we just chose our seats poorly or whether the choir was having an off day, as some of the singing didn't seem to be all that together. Maybe if we'd gone closer to the front it would have sounded better. And I wonder if it's the same for us when we sing there.