Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Spanish Cookery

This morning I went to a workshop in Spanish cookery, run by Brewhouse Workshops in Standon, north Herts.    I knew that Carmen, a native Spaniard, would be cooking squid in ink and baked fish in a salt crust, and that we'd have lunch at the end, but beyond that, had little idea what to expect.
There were a dozen or so of us attending and we were made very welcome by Judi and Debs, who run the place, given coffee and cake, and when all had arrived, introduced to Carmen.
Carmen proceeded to cook no fewer than eight different dishes, from a simple cold tomato soup - salmorejo - to chicken with roasted red peppers, via the salt-baked sea bass and squid, as well as hake in a green sauce.
Many of the dishes took some time to cook, and it was fascinating to watch her keeping an eye on a Spanish omelette on the left ring, while doing something else on the right.
All through this, she kept up a constant stream of little tips, such as when frying the hake, if you agitate the pan somewhat, the skin of the fish gives off something that thickens the resulting sauce, so there's no need to add flour.
At one o'clock, when the workshop drew to a close, we tucked into the food Carmen had cooked during the preceding three hours and it was simply delicious.  The sea bass stood out for me as simply divine, but nothing was anything other than brilliant.  If the thought of attending one of these workshops appeals to you, don't hesitate!

Friday, 24 February 2012

Lacerated hands and arms

 Yesterday at Fowlmere we were clearing an area of hawthorn scrub to form a meadow.  This is another of those "no public access" areas where what we're doing is entirely for the benefit of the wildlife.  These are before and after photographs, though in fact, there's more to be done at the far end.

 It was a fabulous day and we were quickly down to tee-shirts, but it was a painful experience, because however careful you are, hawthorn is vicious stuff and even my wonderful RHS leather gloves are not enough to keep the thorns out.  Hands, forearms and even legs suffered.

Until lunchtime, Doug was away working somewhere else, so we were cutting everything down with bow-saws and dismembering it with loppers, but after lunch, Doug appeared with his chainsaw and made short work of the stumps we'd left and quite a few extra trees.

Thick logs we stacked to one side as firewood, though it'll have to be seasoned for a year before it's usable.  It'll burn OK even now, but unseasoned wood gives off resins which coat the inside of your chimney which then needs to be swept more often.  The rest we just burned on the spot.

Notable wildlife sightings were a brimstone butterfly (in Feburary!!!), a buzzard, a sparrowhawk and a male kestrel displaying, which is not bad, considering we were heads down working all day.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Prester John, by John Buchan

I inherited this little book from my mother, but didn't pick it up until the other day, when my interest was immediately tickled by the fact that it's set in South Africa.

It was a most interesting read.  First, it's a great, boys' adventure story, very well written and exciting to read in classic H Rider Haggard fashion, and I tore through it in short order.  (It's pretty short, so that's no great achievement!)  Second, it was first published in 1910 and set only a few years before that, so exhibits the typical imperialistic racism of the day.  The 'kaffirs' are seen as most definitely a lower order, incapable of planning more than a step or two into the future, and would definitely benefit from being colonised and Christianised.  A Portuguese (referred to throughout the book as 'Portugoose') is 'shifty and furtive-looking', with the implication that all Portuguese are thus.

As I encountered all this, I half expected to feel revulsion, but in fact, just dismissed it as typical of its day, and ignored it.  I did wonder whether it would be better to exclude it from a list of children's books, and am still unsure about that.   The choice of words and the sentence structure is sufficiently different from the way we speak today as to emphasise its antiquity, which may be enough for even those without my long perspective on the world to see it as an excellent page-turner to be enjoyed in its own right.  It would be a shame for political correctness to deprive the world of such a great afternoon's read.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Another good book

Another book I've read recently, and have just added to the Some Good Reads list on the right, is Born in Africa, by Martin Meredith.  This one was not among the Winton Prize list, as it was only published last year, but who knows, it might be on this years list.  Unless it gets shortlisted, we'll never know, as Jenny's not one of the judges.

This book deals with the evolution of man in a really interesting way.  The first two-thirds or so of the book covers the history of the discovery of our evolution, from the very early days when most people still believed in Adam and Eve, through the Piltdown Man hoax, the Leakeys in Kenya and Ethiopia, right up to the most recent advances, including all the in-fighting and back-stabbing that went on.  Much nastier than the world of palaeontology!

The last third is a succinct summary of how we understand human evolution actually took place.  It's a great way to present the information, first the sequence of discoveries, then the timeline that actually lead to us.  Great book!  Read it!

Physics of the Piano


What an irritating little book this is!  I don't really know who it's aimed at, but it certainly wasn't me - it drove me nuts as I fought my way through it.

Jenny was given it as one of the books to select from for the Winton Prize last autumn, and I've finally read it.  I'm not planning to read all 136 books, but there are a dozen or so I liked the look of, and I've been slowly working my way through them.

The most irritating aspect of the book is that at the start of each chapter, there's a section discussing what will be covered in that chapter, and at the end is a short section summarising what's been covered.  Oh for goodness sake, what do I need that for?  Eventually I realised I could just skip those bits altogether.  Worst was a paragraph that started off by saying "In the last paragraph ..."  Jeez, give me a break!  Maybe it was just that it's already such a slim volume, if he threw away the dross there'd be rather little left.

The other niggle is that he's obviously in love with Steinways, which he regards as the best pianos in the world.  He might be right, I have no way of knowing, but the product placement that liberally bespatters the book was distracting and I could have done without it.

The reason I stuck with it, despite the numerous expletives issuing forth from my mouth, was that actually, there was quite a bit of really interesting stuff about the history and physics of music generally, and the piano in particular.

The first pianos were built by Bartolomeo Cristofoi in the early 18th century.  Musicians were crying out for something like a piano because of the limitations of the harpsichord and clavichord.  In the harpsichord the string is plucked, so there's no real control over the loudness of the resulting note.  In the clavichord, the action actually raises one end of the string on a rising bridge, but that only creates a very quiet sound.  (Guitarists will know that you can hammer down on a string with a finger of your left hand, the string will sound, even though you've not actually plucked it with your right hand.  This is how Jimmy Hendrix used to 'play' his guitar with his teeth!)

There are clear explanations of how the mechanism works and some of the ways in which it evolved over time, with some useful diagrams.  Also good explanations of how and why the tuning of the piano drifts away from what one might imagine the perfect physics of sound would predict.    I'd like him to have included a diagram of the action in an upright piano, because, as he explains in the text, you can't use gravity in the way you can in a grand piano, but there's no diagram, so I still don't know how an upright piano works.

So, oddly enough, if you're interested in knowing about how and why modern pianos are the way they are, I would recommend you read this book.  It won't take long.  You can buy it from Amazon.

Monday, 20 February 2012

I'm going to want to see this movie!

This is a trailer for a movie that hasn't yet been finished, but I know I'm going to want to see it!

An Honest Liar - Work-in-Progress trailer from Justin Weinstein on Vimeo.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Baroness Warsi - completely wrong!

Today I finally made time to read Baroness Warsi's diatribe in Monday's Telegraph and it'll come as no surprise to you that I think she's completely wrong on almost every count.  The argument is much more succinctly put by Ed Brayton here, so I'll just quote her once:
When we look at the deep distrust between some communities today, there is no doubt that faith has a key role to play in bridging these divides.
Actually, when we look at the deep distrust between some communities today, there is no doubt that faith has had a key role to play in bringing about that distrust and preventing its healing.  Think only of Northern Ireland, the gulf between India and Pakistan, the horrors of 9/11. 

I'm deeply worried by our government's funding and encouraging of faith schools, which seems to me guaranteed to just fuel further social division.  Far from bridging divides, religion is fundamental to creating and reinforcing them.

So many of the freedoms we now enjoy were won in the face of strenuous religious opposition.  The more secular society we have, the better I'll like it, and the better people's lives will be.

Reed buntings at Fowlmere

Reed buntings are relatively common at Fowlmere, and I've been seeing them most times I go there to watch birds, but over the past week or so the numbers have been enormously inflated by what we take to be an influx of European birds.  A regular birder there has been counting them as they fly in to roost in the afternoons, and he reports seeing over 1000 birds.  They spend the days feeding on a couple of local farms where the farmers have grown bird-friendly plants over the winter, and then roost in the reed beds at the reserve, flying in in small groups of up to about 20 birds at a time.

I went there on Wednesday afternoon, as soon as I'd heard about them, but didn't know where to stand.  I was also rather late getting there, so only spent 45 minutes counting.  Even so, my total was not bad - counting for a short time, standing in the wrong place, I still saw 65 birds.

Doug, the warden, was featured for about 10 seconds of a 40 second slot about them on Look East.  Apparently he was involved in the feature for about 6 hours to create that 10 seconds-worth of TV!

I stole the picture of male and female from Birds of Britain. The male is the one with the black head.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

The slowly-melting head

It was relatively warm for a day or two at the beginning of the week, so my snow head started to melt and sag, but then the temperature plummeted, so it's just sitting there.  It looks much more characterful than it did when I'd first made it!

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

An amazing flurry of avian activity

Today I was hoping to join Doug for some more bird ringing, but woke up with a raging sore throat.  Obviously hanging around in circum-zero temperatures would not be a good idea, so I've spent the whole day indoors with the heating on, sucking Strepsils and every now and then gazing out of the window!

I may have mentioned that I take part in the British Trust for Ornithology's Garden Bird Watch, in which we report the maximum number of each species of bird we see in the garden each week.  It doesn't take much time and it's a useful way of keeping track of the animals that use your garden.

Sunday's count of 12 blackbirds remains the peak for them, but my species count is well up on the usual 10 or 12 that I'd been logging for several months.  Last week I logged 15 species, and so far this week I'm up to 20.  Most of these are just the usual birds you'd expect to see in a suburban back garden - blue, great and long-tailed tits, house sparrows, dunnock, robins, doves and pigeons, for instance.

But Sunday's fieldfare was a first for the garden, the goldfinches, blackcap and greenfinch have been back, and today's high point was a visit by about 15 redwings.  Last time I saw a redwing in our garden was the winter of 2009.

Monday, 6 February 2012

An Unexpected Pleasure

With the plethora of birds in our back garden right now (eg 12 blackbirds this morning and a fieldfare yesterday) I decided to take a walk around Fowlmere nature reserve this afternoon to see what I could see.  I texted Doug, as I usually do, in case he wanted to come along and scout out future volunteering projects, but hadn't heard anything by the time I set out.

Walking around the reserve, not 20 minutes after I'd arrived, his message arrived: "Am ringing at the office.  Do come over."  After momentary confusion, I realised this meant he was ringing birds, so I shot straight off to join him.  I've not been involved in ringing before, so this was a first and I was keen to see how it's done.

I've known for years that ringing involves crimping a light aluminium ring around the bird's lower leg, such that it can't come off, but is still loose enough not to cause the bird any discomfort.  The rings are pre-stamped with identification numbers, so if a ringed bird is found later, it's easy to find out where it was ringed.  Since we currently have large numbers of continental birds here, driven over by the extreme weather (-32°C in Ukraine) we hoped to catch birds previously ringed somewhere far away, but it was not to be.

He had a couple of mist nets up, and as I arrived, we walked towards the larger one, which already had six birds caught.  Each was carefully disentangled from the net before being placed in a soft fabric bag to be taken back to the office for measuring and ringing.  Sadly, of the six, one managed to break free by itself, and another made its break for freedom just as Doug was changing his grip on it, and he lost it.

However, we had two fieldfares and a blackbird.  The fourth bird was a blue tit which Doug had ringed only this morning, so he let that go immediately.

Back in the office, each bird was sexed and its age estimated, then wing length measured and it was weighed.  Doug also estimated its muscle and fat ratios, and all this, along with the processing time, was recorded in his ringing book, before the bird was released.  Oh, and I took a few photographs, like the one above.  Just in case you're not familiar with them, it's a fieldfare.

As soon as we'd released the last bird, we went straight back to the net, where we found  two blackbirds and a blue tit.  The same blue tit.  Obviously a slow learner!

With those ones processed, back we went, and this time found a field fare, a blackbird and yes, the same blue tit.  At this point Doug started wondering about taking that net down, as it's not fair to keep catching the same bird, even it it is chronically stupid!  Fortunately, we didn't catch it again.  In fact, the birds seem to have cottoned on that there was a hazard there, as we only caught one more fieldfare in the rest of the afternoon.

If it's not too windy tomorrow, we'll be back there for more of the same, but the forecast is not too promising. Fingers crossed!

Snow Sculpture

For the past three winters, when we've had a decent fall of snow, I've made a snow sculpture in our front driveway.  The first was in December 2009.  We'd celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary by treating ourselves to a holiday in the Galapagos Islands, and the evening we got back it snowed.  It seemed fitting that I make a snow iguana, and the people walking by seemed to like it.

Last year I made a cat, and when I heard the forecast for snow on Saturday night, I started wondering what I might do.  In the morning we found 10cm snow on the ground, and I made a giant head, basing the design loosely on central and west African tribal masks, though the end result does look rather Egyptian, mostly because of the hair-do, I think.  The edges are softening, as the air temperature is above zero.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

New Jewellery for Jenny

A couple of years ago I made Jenny a silver pendant with a garnet in the middle, and she was pretty pleased with it, but then a while later, asked if I could make her some matching earrings.  I was a bit reluctant to do this, as I'd struggled somewhat with the pendant, and even though I knew I could compromise on the design, I thought I was likely to struggle with the earrings.  Didn't I just!  Here they are.

Any number of things went wrong, and the evidence is there to see, but fortunately, few people actually look closely at the jewellery other people are wearing, so the chances are, no-one else will notice!

I started them yesterday afternoon, and have spent the whole of this afternoon finishing them.  It seemed as though each time something went wrong, it wasn't just that what I was trying to do didn't work, it then left solder squidged over what was supposed to be a shiny, polished surface.  So that had to be filed and sanded off, then the surface repolished, before I could have another go.  It was frustrating, and I'm very glad to have actually finished them.  There was a time when I thought I'd have to come back to them on Friday.

Fortunately, in jewellery terms, Jenny is easy to please, so I'm confident the flaws won't bother her.