Friday, December 22, 2006

Well folks, its only two days to Christmas and I have a huge number of things to do, presents to wrap, mince pies to bake, glasses of bubbly to drink, carols to sing, friends to see, etc etc etc; So I am declaring the next week a blogging free zone, and instead of my usual reading and ranting and whilst filled with the feelings of peace and harmony appropriate to the season I will leave you with this excellent recipe for Smoking Bishop. I always have a big bowl of it ready to drink late on Christmas Eve when family and friends come back from Midnight Mass chilly but happy and needing something very cheering before bed. This had been a tradition of ours for many years, the recipe coming from a great aunt,imagine his surprise when re-reading Dickens' "A Christmas Carol", my DH came across a reference to Smoking Bishop. It comes right at the end of the tale, when Ebenezer Scrooge has seen the error of his ways - "A Merry Christmas, Bob!" said Scrooge with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. "A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you for many a year! I'll raise your salary, and endeavor to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon over a bowl of Smoking Bishop, Bob!"


Makes 12 glasses

2 large unwaxed lemons (or 3 Seville oranges)

8 cloves
1 ½ bottles inexpensive port
50g sugar
550ml water
½ teaspoon mixed spice

Pre-heat oven to 180°C

Stick the cloves into one lemon, place it in a baking dish and roast it in the oven until it is soft, collapsing and starting to go brown – about 30 minutes.
Put the sugar and juice of the other lemon into a large heat-proof glass or ceramic serving bowl.
Pour the port into a large saucepan and bring it almost to the boil. DO NOT LET IT BOIL.
In another saucepan bring the water with the spice to the boil. Add the boiling spicy water to the hot port, and pour the whole lot into the serving bowl. Add the roasted lemon, stir and serve as hot as possible.

I wish you all a very Happy and Peaceful Christmas, and hope to see you again in 2007 !

Monday, December 18, 2006

NOW THAT WE ARE OFFICIALLY THE MOST SPIED ON NATION IN THE WORLD I do hope that someone is watching me and noticing that I really need a week or two of total peace and quiet, preferably in a sunny climate with my every need catered for...otherwise I might become a danger to the public.

Ten Thousand Miles Without a Cloud is the story of a journey of self-discovery and faith written by a friend of ours, Sun Shuyun. Sun grew up in central China during the Cultural Revolution, but her paternal grandmother to whom she was close had never lost her Buddhist faith, and told her the story of Xuanzang a Buddhist monk who was the inspiration for the monk in the Chinese classic 'The Monkey King'. When Sun arrived in Oxford many years later she discovered that Xuanzang had really existed and determined to find out all she could about him. Eventually she decided to retrace his epic journey from Xian in China all the way to India and back - the journey Xuanzang had made to find true Buddhism. Ten Thousand Miles without a Cloud is the story of her travels, through China past and present, to find her own soul. It is an intensely moving and spiritual book, and at the same time a vivid account of the landscapes and people she meets along the way.


Whether you were for or against the war on Iraq (and I was vehemently against for reasons I won’t go into now), it is inexcusable that our military personnel were sent into a theatre of war without the equipment needed. Enhanced Combat Body Armour is a basic protective flak jacket, and is an essential piece of kit for soldiers

It is totally outrageous that the reason the soldiers in Iraq didn’t have the basic equipment was a political decision. Politicians decided to send our troops into conflict, and then decided not to let them have the basic equipment because if they did have it, it might have political implications for them (the politicians). The Secretary of State at the time, Geoff Hoon, delayed the decision to supply the requested equipment for 8 weeks – although it was available – because government advisors didn’t want to make it obvious that Britain was about to go to war. As a result Sergeant Steve Roberts, on active duty in Iraq, was ordered to hand over his ECBA jacket for another soldier to use as there were not enough to go round. This left him unprotected and he was killed by a shot that the jacket would have deflected. I hold our Government totally responsible for his death. It is unforgivable, and my heart goes out to his wife and family.

Millions of Britons will be shocked and appalled by this, and we will NOT forget. Eventually there will be elections, and then we must show them how truly despicable we consider this behaviour by our politicians.


For the past week I have been suffering from the most ghastly fluey cold which has turned into a horrible cough, so Christmas preparations have taken a nose-dive (ha ha). Tomorrow I must get myself going again and I thought I'd start with two prepare ahead recipes. B is for Bread Sauce and Brandy Butter. The Brandy Butter will keep well in the fridge for ages - providing I cover it with clingfilm and put a label on it threatening immediate death to anyone who decides to "test " it. In the past a whole bowl of the stuff has mysteriously disappeared before Christmas Day so I ended up making a fresh batch at the last minute. The Bread Sauce can be made one or two days ahead and kept in the fridge and then reheated on the day with a slurp of cream and knob of butter stirred in at the last moment. I suppose you could freeze it, but I never have.


150g fresh white breadcrumbs
(use day-old loaf of good bread, and do NOT use horrible sliced white bread which tends to go all slimey)
1 large peeled onion

6-7 cloves

1 bayleaf
6-7 peppercorns
2-3 pieces of blade mace

600ml milk

60g butter

3 tablespoons double cream

Salt to taste

Cut the onion in half and stick the cloves in to it. Put the onion, mace, bayleaf and peppercorns into a saucepan and pour the milk over them. Bring to boiling point then remove from the heat, cover the pan and let the milk infuse for a couple of hours at room temperature. When the milk has infused long enough, use a slotted spoon to remove the onion and flavourings from it and put them on one side, and then add the breadcrumbs with half the butter. Give it a good stir and place the pan over a very, very low heat; stir every so often while the breadcrumbs swell up and start thickening the milk - this takes 10-15 minutes. Put the onion back into the sauce, and tip into a bowl . The sauce can now be kept in the fridge until half an hour before you serve the meal. At that time tip the sauce back into a pan, remove the onion, heat gently and beat in the second half of the butter and the double cream. Put into a pre-heated sauce boat to serve.


175g unsalted butter - room temperature

125g icing sugar

2 tablespoons caster sugar

6 tablespoons brandy

Beat the butter and icing sugar together until light and fluffy, stir in the caster sugar, then beat in the brandy little by little. Taste to check there is enough brandy - if not, add more! Put directly into a serving bowl, cover with clingfilm and store in the fridge until needed.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

CHRISTMAS SEEMS TO BE RUSHING TOWARDS US like an express train, and I don't seem to have got a grip on the situation. There are still presents to be bought and everything to be wrapped, cards to be posted, tree to be installed and decorated, mince pies to be made and most importantly, a turkey to be ordered from the butcher.... how did I let myself get burdened with all this stuff? Next year I'm going minimalist, and reining in all the excess and the family can like it or lump it.


In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar is his first book and was short listed for the Booker Prize this year. Set in Libya in 1979 this story is told through the eyes of nine year old Suleiman, but is narrated by his grown-up self, a voice that never quite convinced me and at times seemed downright clumsy and artificial.
Suleiman is the only child of his parents, a businessman father who is often away, and his unhappy mother who has become a secret alcoholic. They are comfortably off and live in a new development of houses in Tripoli. When his mother has been drinking her “medicine” as Suleiman calls the grappa she obtains illicitly, she tells him stories of her childhood. How when she was fourteen she was seen with a group of other adolescents having coffee together after school and reported to her family, resulting in a severe beating, being locked up for a month and then forced to
marry Suleiman’s father who is 13 years her senior, Suleiman was born 9 months later when she was only 15. The relationship between mother and son is extremely fragile, he is adored by her, but is a constant reminder of how the life she had hoped to have was taken away from her.
One day Suleiman sees his father in the centre of Tripoli when he is supposed to be abroad, and cannot understand what he is doing as his father has told them he is abroad on business.
There is a growing swell of resistance to the harsh realities of life under Muammar Ghaddafi, and many students and others are involved in secret attempts to oppose his government. In the summer of 1979 his regime cracks down on anyone suspected of being linked to opposition, and the father of Suleiman’s closest friend is arrested and taken away, and shortly afterwards Suleiman’s own father is also arrested, some of his business trips have been a cover for organising the dissidents. Those who have been arrested and tortured a made to give public confessions on television, public executions are held in Tripoli’s main sports stadium in front of immense crowds of cheering and jeering Libyans. These hangings are also televised in order to frighten and subdue the population. Given his age and the fact that none of the adults in his life explain things to him, Suleiman cannot fathom what is going on, and often misunderstands what he sees and hears. In his confusion he becomes angry and distressed, especially after he sees his friend’s father hanged, and yet his own father, who has been badly beaten and tortured is returned to the family home a broken man.

In totalitarian regimes there is always a price to be paid by the family for the actions of a dissident, and Suleiman pays it by being sent out of harm’s way to stay with friends in Egypt where he grows up, whilst his parents have to remain in Libya. I thought the title was extremely apt; Libya is a nation entirely ruled by one man and his henchmen, and even on a personal level families in Libyan society are totally ruled by the menfolk, and all life revolves around them.
As a piece of writing, this book is very patchy and Matar is far from a mature author, in fact I am surprised it made it onto the Booker short list; however it is worth reading for the portrait it paints of life in a country of which we know relatively little.

Polyglot is one of the words often used to describe London, and I would certainly agree. In the east end Youth Court where I sit regularly we see people who speak many different languages, and if their ability to speak English is poor or non-existant we have a duty under the Human Rights Act to ensure they are provided with a translator. I have often wondered how much this provision must be costing the justice system. Translators are paid around £75 per half day, and frequently the work involved only takes ten or fifteen minutes. some of the languages for which I have recently seen translators provided in our court are Romanian, Turkish, Bengali, Serbo-croat, Lingala, Somali. I presume that the same situation applies in hospitals, surgeries, clinics, local housing departments and so on. It must be costing us a fortune. Now I don't expect everyone who is visiting London, or who has just come to live in London to speak English fluently if at all. What I do get fed up about is the large number of people who have lived here for years, and who may have become British citizens, who have not learnt to speak it. At long last the government is making noises about how much translation services are costing the nation. If there was a requirement for British residents to pass a basic English exam before being granted citizenship and the money used on some of the translation services was spent on intensive compulsory English language classes, I for one would be much happier.

Tonight we're having Bobotie for supper - and for anyone who doesn't know, Bobotie is a Cape Malay dish dating back to the 18th century, and it is practically the national dish of South Africa. You will be served it all over the country in homes and restaurants. I made this yesterday as I am going off to meetings this afternoon and then on to my Bookclub in the evening, so I needed something easy that I could leave for the rest of the family to eat. I know that there must be a zillion recipes for Bobotie in the blogosphere, but this one is excellent, I've made it for umpteen years. BTW Bobotie is pronounced "Boh-boor-tea"


Pre-heat oven to 180° C Serves 6-8

1 Kg minced beef or lamb
25ml oil
12.5ml butter
2 medium onions, chopped finely
3 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
1 tablespoon curry powder
10ml spoon Tumeric
25ml smooth Apricot Jam
3 thickish slices crustless white bread
3 eggs
375ml milk
Juice and rind of 1 lemon
3 Bay leaves (my recipe called for Lime leaves but I don't have them)
Salt + Black Pepper

Flaked almonds (optional)

For the Topping: 2 eggs + 180ml milk

Sauté onions in the oil and butter, add the chopped garlic and grated ginger and cook for a few minutes until the onions are translucent. Stir in the curry powder and turmeric, add the minced meat and brown it, breaking it up with a fork.

Soak the bread in cold water. Beat the eggs with the milk and add the lemon juice and rind. Squeeze all the water from the bread and crumble it into the milk and egg mixture. Once the meat is well browned add the bread and milk mixture together with the apricot jam. Remove from the heat and season with salt and pepper. If you find the curry flavour too mild, stir in 5ml curry paste.

Spoon into a well buttered oven dish and push the bay leaves into the bobotie. Bake at 180°C for 30 mins.

For the topping, beat 2 eggs with 180ml milk and pour over the top of the Bobotie. Bake for a further 30 mins.

Serve with yellow rice, chutney and tomato and onion sambal.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

HOW COME THERE ARE ONLY 24 HOURS in a day, right at the moment I could use an extra 5 or 6. At least we should have the option, don't you think?


The Mitford Girls by Mary S. Lovell

The six Mitford sisters were born into an aristocratic English family between 1904 and 1920. They had an unconventional, some might say eccentric, childhood and adolescence with no formal education of any kind but all grew up to be well known as individuals. Nancy, the eldest, was a highly regarded biographer of Madame de Pompadour and Louis IVX, who spent the later half of her life living in Paris; she also wrote wonderfully sharp and witty novels and articles on English manners and mores, and coined the phrase "U and Non-U".

Pamela the most domesticated of them all, was the sister with whom John Betjeman fell in love. Diana was the elegant beauty, who first married a member of the Guiness family, and then fell in love with and married Sir Oswald Mosley M.P., leader of the British Union of Fascists, she became a figure of hate, imprisoned during WWII for supporting the BUF. The middle daughter, Unity, an unstable young woman who went to Germany in the 1930s, was in love with Hitler and totally obsessed with Nazism. When war was declared she shot herself in the head and survived handicapped for several years. Next in line was Jessica - always known as Decca - who eloped at 19 and went off to fight fascism in the Spanish Civil War where her husband was killed. She then married an American,

became a member of the Communist Party and was active in the Civil Rights movement in the USA; she too, like her sister Nancy, became a writer of some reknown. Finally there was the beautiful Deborah who married the Duke of Devonshire and became chatelaine of Chatsworth, one of the greatest houses in England.

Now widowed, she lives in an old Rectory and is famous for keeping hens amongst other things.

Their lives have been covered partially and individually several times by other writers, but Mary Lovell has managed to write about them in the context of their sisterhood, yet gives a clear picture of each of these rather extraordinary women. An absolutely fascinating read about a fascinating family of women.


What is the problem with the British Transport Police? they seem to have had collective common-sense failure, or maybe they are just being badly trained. Of course it could be that some members of BTP are right little dictators and love the power rush they get from officiously hassling people.
A few weeks ago the Director of the Institute of Engineers,Tom Foulkes -a former Brigadier who used to work at the Ministry of Defence, was arrested when bording Eurostar en route to a business meeting in Paris. His crime? at the bottom of his briefcase was a
Swiss Army Card*.

He was charged with carrying an offensive weapon.

Today, a lawyer who plays cricket as a hobby, was stopped at Belsize Park tube station
by a member of the BTP. His crime, carrying an offensive weapon. What offensive weapon was that? a cricket ball. A CRICKET BALL - for crying in a bucket. Apparently a spokesman for British Transport Police said: "What if the ball was dropped and hit an old lady further down the escalator? “We would advise passengers to be careful, both for themselves and other people at this busy time."

Now I carry a lot of heavy stuff. My handbag, which seems to contain everything bar the kitchen sink, is a prime example. What if I dropped it on the escalator and hit an old lady,

or, scary thought, what if I took leave of my senses and used it as a cosh and smashed some cretin of a BTP officer over the head? My handbag obviously falls within their definition of an offensive weapon - I await my arrest.

* Just in case Santa is reading this blog rant, here's a wee hint - I wouldn't mind one of these in my stocking this year, it would be so useful and I believe it is available in a variety of fashionable colours.


Friends coming for supper tomorrow evening and I have a busy day, so I'm making the starter tonight; as I know them quite well I know they will all eat mushrooms, this is not a recipe to make for non-fungi eaters! When my darling daughter was little she wouldn't touch them, I think the texture put her off; now she has become a real foodie and eats absolutely everything. This is a dish I love, in fact, left to my own devices I could scoff the whole lot! The recipe comes from a famous Jewish cookery writer, the late Evelyn Rose, via her eldest son with whom my DH and I shared a house many years ago.


Serves 6-8

750g mushrooms – choose medium/small closed-cap
3 Tablespoons olive oil
3 Tablespoons sunflower oil
6 Tablespoons water
2 Tablespoons lemon juice
2 Tablespoons wine vinegar, white or red
2 teaspoons tomato purée
2 large cloves garlic, crushed
1 large Bay leaf
15-20 coriander seeds, roughly crushed
12-15 peppercorns, roughly crushed
10 grinds of black pepper
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon fresh thyme leaves or a large pinch of dried thyme

Wipe the mushrooms clean, if very small leave them whole, cut in half if medium sized, and quarter if bigger.

Put all other ingredients into a saucepan, bring to the boil, cover and simmer for 5 minutes. Uncover, put all the mushrooms into the pan and spoon the liquid over them, cover and simmer for 8-10 minutes. The mushrooms will shrink in size and produce a lot of liquid.

Using a slotted spoon, remove the mushrooms from the sauce and place in a serving dish.

Bring the liquid up to the boil over a high heat and cook until it is reduced by ¾ and has become quite thick and syrupy. Pour over the mushrooms and leave overnight to marinate.

Serve as a starter with warm Pitta bread, or as part of a salad buffet.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

MY BLOG TRACKER THINGIE has 25 different flags on it. I know it's childish but I get so excited when I see a new country listed; I only expect my blog to be read by one man/woman and a dog, and in the main I suspect that is a pretty accurate analysis of my readership....but....dear blog reader from Peru, welcome! I'm so delighted to see you here, thank you for popping in.


I keep trying to plug the gaps in my reading experience, catching up with books that are so famous that it is assumed that absolutely everyone has read them - and yet some how you never have. One such book is Peyton Place by Grace Metalious, which was written exactly 50 years ago. Because I was too young to read it when it was first published, and because I grew up in central Africa and had no TV and little access to cinema, I have never seen the film nor the TV series which sprang from the book, so I thought it was just a salacious American best seller of little literary merit. Earlier this year I heard an extract read on Radio 4, and decided that the time had come that I should read it for myself. To my surprise it turned out to be a much better book than I had expected, and a very absorbing read.

Peyton Place is the name of a small (fictitious) New England town in the years just before the Second World War It is a town which looks like the quintessential American community, as wholesome as apple pie, a town like thousands of others all over the USA. Metalious strips away the veneers of respectability to expose the secrets and lies of the inhabitants of Peyton Place.
The story of teenager Allison McKenzie and her mother Constance provide the framework of
the book. Constance has built a life based on a lie; everyone, including her daughter, thinks she is a young widow bringing up her daughter on her own. In reality, Allison is illegitimate and Constance is terrified of the reaction of others if they knew the truth, she is obsessive about protecting her daughter from making the same mistake as she made, and her controlling behaviour is driving a wedge between them. Surrounding Constance and Allison are the other characters who live in the town, and the reader is drawn in to their lives and stories. There is Kenny, the town drunk who goes on a massive six week bender and nearly kills himself; Selena, a girl of Allison’s age but from the wrong side of the tracks, who has been sexually abused and raped by her stepfather – eventually resulting in her pregnancy and an illegal abortion; Rodney Harrison, the spoilt son of the richest man in town who dies when he crashes the sports car given to him by his doting father; the local doctor, Dr Swain who manages to force Selena’s stepfather to leave Peyton Place by threatening to reveal his behaviour to the community. All the various strands are woven together to give the reader a sense of small-town prurience, predjudice and hypocrisy.

When it was first published in 1956, the book became an instant best seller; it touched a nerve in the American reading public, and sold 60,000 copies in the first ten days following publication, eclipsing Gone with the Wind. Peyton Place became a defining book, apart from the follow up novel written by Metalious herself (Return to Peyton Place), various other “sequels” have been written by other people, there was a Hollywood movie, and then a long running TV series. The blockbuster TV series of recent years, Desperate Housewives and Sex in the City are very much descendents of Peyton Place. Sadly, after the book was published Grace Metalious and her family were reviled by her neighbours and fellow citizens in the New England town where they lived. The stress caused by their continual shunning of her turned her to drink, and she died aged 39 of cirrhosis of the liver.


Yesterday Tony Blair made a statement of regret about the practice of slavery, which Britain abolished 200 years ago. Some black pressure groups felt that he should have apologised on behalf of the British people for the fact that slavery had taken place at all. What a load of rubbish, this is gesture politics at its most cynical.

If we all start apologising to one another for wrongs done by our ancestors there will be no end to it. The only person who can genuinely apologise for something, is the person who did the wrong. The people who initiated, enabled, or profited from slavery are long dead, we are living in different times. I am not responsible for slavery, I loathe the idea of slavery - I certainly have nothing to apologise for, and I resent the idea that our Prime Minister should even consider apologising on my behalf and that of my fellow citizens.

There seems to be a deep-seated belief within some sectors of the black population here and in the USA that any current troubles they may have are as a result of slavery hundreds of years ago, and they want financial compensation to be paid to the descendents of slaves. A distorted myth has grown up, which bears no relation to the true facts about slavery. Slavery was a horrible business, and it is a sad fact that the British engaged in it, but apologising will do nothing for anyone, we can’t go back in time. History marches on.

Slavery has existed for thousands of years, and in virtually every culture of humankind. The Chinese, Egyptian, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Persians, Goths, Arabs, and Ottomans have all bought, sold and used slaves. Ancient Britons were taken as slaves by Romans, and owned slaves in their turn. Slavery existed in Africa long before the British or other western nations went to Africa, and it is still going on today, albeit illegally. Some in Africa are still engaged in selling men, women and children into other societies. In South East Asia women and children are kept as virtual slaves to the sex trade. Young girls in Afghanistan and other central Asian countries are sold by their fathers to be “wives” to old men, and they then live lives that are tantamount to slavery. Rather than apologising we should all be doing our best to ensure that a stop is put to slavery as practiced in the world today.



Serves 4

1 Butternut Squash
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil

200g Feta, drained and cubed

1 clove garlic, crushed
50g Pine Nuts, toasted

1 teaspoon dried Oregano
8 rashers of smoked back bacon
350g Farfalle or Penne Pasta

Pre-heat oven to 200° C, Gas Mark 6.

Cut the Butternut in half, scoop out and discard the seeds.

Peel the squash and then cut the flesh into bite-sized chunks and place in a roasting tin.
Drizzle with the olive oil, stir in the garlic and oregano and season with freshly ground black pepper. Roast for 20-25 mins, stirring occasionally, until the squash is golden and tender when pierced with the tip of a sharp knife.

Pre-heat the grill to high, and cook the bacon for 4-5 mins until crisp, then cut into bite-sized pieces. Meanwhile, cook the pasta in a large pan of boiling water until al dente in the usual way, drain well and keep warm in the pan with a lid on.

Add the bacon and feta to the roasted squash and return to the oven for 2-3 mins until the cheese is beginning to soften and melt. Remove from the oven and stir in the drained pasta.

Serve immediately seasoned with freshly ground pepper and the toasted pine nuts scattered over the top.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

WOW, RAIN AND STRONG WINDS, ITS NO WEATHER TO BE OUT IN...but I can't wait to be all cosy in bed while its a howling gale outside.

In Havoc in its third year the author Ronan Bennet has chosen an historical setting to address a range of moral issues. Set in England, in an un-named town and county, but I suspect it is somewhere like Yorkshire. The year is 1630, Charles I is ruling without Parliament and
sectarian discontent is building towards the Civil War. John Brigge,the central character, is a recusant, living in an increasingly fanatically protestant society. He is a landowning farmer who also holds the role of local coroner. A young itinerant woman is accused of infanticide, the locals are sure she is guilty, but his investigation of the case uncovers the growing tensions within the local community. Their leaders capitalise on the fear of crime, fear of immigrants and of those practicing other faiths. All are used by the powers-that-be as reason for ever more restrictive legislation, with harsh punishments for supposed transgressors. The rising paranoia has allowed old rights and entitlements to be leached away thereby placing more and more power in the hands of the governors. The leader of the governors holds the title of Master, and is a man who came as a young idealistic lawyer to challenge and remove the previous corrupt regime (supporters of the previous regime wear a blue ribbon in their hats!). As time has passed the Master has become more and more draconian in his attitudes until there is little difference between his governance and that of the regime he ousted, and anyone who even questions him on any decision is considered an enemy and in the wrong.
Set against this sombre canvas is the detail of Brigge's personal life, and his attempts, as a decent man, to hold true to his beliefs.
It is no easy task for an author who has chosen to write of a particular period in history to find the right style. Modern English would seem too lax but to write it in imagined historic speech can seem arch and I loathe it when a book is written in a style I call "forsoothly". Bennett has managed to find a spareness of language that fits the time perfectly. The book has echoes of Millar's play "The Crucible", with Brigge as John Proctor trying to find a path through the treacherous quicksands of fanaticsm. I think this is an outstanding novel, Bennett has written an extraordinary allegory for our times, and even the most politically disinterested reader cannot fail to grasp the illusions Bennett has drawn between those times and Britain today.


I wish some advertising guru could explain to me the point of putting all the slippery paper inserts into newspapers and magazines - don't they know there is a collective noun for this stuff it is 'Junk Mail' with the emphasis on Junk. Who reads it? do you? - no, I didn't think you did, you probably do what I do, chuck it straight into the recycling bin. Honestly, do these morons think we are all so devoid of excitement in our lives that we go "oh goody, another fascinating offer from Exwhyzed Life Insurance with a free digital alarm clock if we sign up" or "wow, fifty varieties of commonly available garden bedding plants on offer even though its mid-winter I better have some of those" Obviously the newspapers and magazines get money for allowing these insertions so they like having them, but I think the average reader is pissed off with all this crap having to be disposed of. Then of course there is all the junk mail that comes with our post - I shan't go into that, as some seriously experienced ranters have already torched that whole issue, suffice to say you can get that stopped . In this part of north London we are also plagued with letterbox leafleting from various local pizza places. Luridly coloured pizzas which cost less than the paper the leaflet is printed on are offered with a free bottle of some fizzy drink or other as an inducement. Every day we get one or two of these flyers through the door, it drives me mad. And then there are the leaflets from insurance, holidays, household insurance you name it, offered to the "over fifties" (code for geriatrics). I may be une femme d'un certain age but I am not yet in my dotage, and resent all this - in the words of Catherine Tate "how very dare they!"

Tomorrow is what is known as Stir-Up Sunday, the last Sunday before Advent in the Anglican church calendar.
The term comes from the opening words of the collect for the day as set out in the Book of Common Prayer 1549:
Stir-up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
It is customary for the preparations for Christmas to begin on Stir-Up Sunday, in particular the making of the Christmas puddings, which require that all the household should stir the mixture. However,because my family are all over the place, I prepared my puddings a fortnight ago when I knew they would all be coming home for Sunday lunch. I have made this recipe many times over the years since I was married, it is a recipe that has been handed down in my maternal family since 1838 when my Great-great-great Grandmother, Elisabeth Middleton worked as cook/housekeeper to the Duke of Northumberland. In 168 years,it has been made in India, in Canada, in Scotland, Zambia and South Africa, and now I make it in London. My daughter will be the seventh generation when she starts using the recipe in years to come. The one thing to remember about this recipe is that it makes 3 puddings - one to be used this year, and two to keep for following years. The pudding keeps brilliantly in a cool dark place.


Makes 3 puddings; (I have converted the quantities to metric.)

340g fresh white breadcrumbs
250g plain flour
500g of each of the following:
Currants/Raisins/Sultanas/ Citrus Peel/ Brown Sugar/Suet
Juice of two oranges
Rind of two lemons
90g ground almonds
15g chopped nuts
1 nutmeg, completely ground
1 teaspn ground cinnamon
½ teaspn ground ginger
½ teaspn ground allspice
2 good pinches salt
8 eggs
1 wineglass brandy
A little milk

Clean all the dried fruit. Place in a large bowl, pour the brandy over it and leave overnight to soak.

Next day, mix together in a new bowl – Flour/breadcrumbs/ground almonds/nuts/suet/ sugar/spices/ orange juice/ lemon rind.
Beat the eggs and add to the mixture. Mix the fruit into the flour mixture. Stir well – EVERYBODY MAKE A WISH !!
Place in well-buttered pudding bowls, cover with a double sheet of well-buttered greaseproof paper with a central pleat in it. Then cover this with a double layer of pleated aluminium foil. Tie down firmly.

Boil for 6 (six) hours, taking care that the water doesn’t boil dry.
When the puddings are cool, remove the foil and greasproof paper, replace them with a fresh double layer of greaseproof and a square of pudding cloth ( I use old pillowcases). Tie down firmly.
The puddings can now be stored to mature, they keep well for up to 2 years in a cool dry place.

On Christmas day boil or steam the pudding for 2 hours - once again, make sure the water does not boil dry -easily done in the excitement of Christmas day! Turn out onto a heated serving dish and pour flaming brandy over, top with caster sugar and a sprig of holly.

Serve with Brandy Butter.

Monday, November 20, 2006

DON'T COME TOO CLOSE, I'm absolutely streaming with cold and I wouldn't want you to get it. Honest to goodness, if they can put a man on the moon and invent the iPod shuffle you'd think some bright spark would have got the common cold under control by now.


How to waste an hour and a half looking something up.

Like many other people I love almanacs, encyclopaedias and other reference books of that ilk. Yesterday I came across a classical reference in a novel I’m reading. Now I did do Latin until I was about 12, and have read (many moons ago) the Greek myths, but this was not a name that was familiar to me – Pylades – do you know who he/she is? Anyway, when I was having a mug of coffee at my desk, I thought I’d just look him/her up in my copy of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. Big mistake, nearly two hours later I was still browsing through Brewer’s. First I found Pylades, turns out he was bosom friend of Orestes, so they hung out together like David and Jonathan; while I was at it, I thought I’d look up Eagle stones, which lead me to Aetites and then on the next page I spotted St Agatha –the patron saint of volcanoes, and who is depicted in paintings holding a platter with her severed breasts on it. This reminded me of a little Italian village we once visited, called St Agata Due Golfi which is just south of Vesuvius. My DH and I once had a fabulous dinner there at a restaurant called Don Alfonso 1890, which has 3 Michelin stars, and the bill nearly broke the bank.

Then I thought I would quickly look to see what Brewer said about Dick Whittington, because on Highgate Hill (which is nearby), he and his cat heard Bow Bells tell him to turn again – but there was nothing I didn’t already know. Then I started opening the book randomly, and discovered all sorts of fascinating titbits – the name of the Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo (Joseph Hobson Jagger); the smallest pig in a litter of piglets will reputedly follow its owner anywhere, and is known as a Tantony Pig, and a Wapentake is a subdivision of a county similar to the Hundreds or Ridings. Anyway, when the phone rang I suddenly realised how much time had passed and how totally absorbed I had become, what was I thinking of…and on a Monday morning too.

Every home should have a copy of Brewer’s Dictionary; it is an essential household requirement for settling arguments, solving crossword clues and general time wasting.


Time for another rant at the ludicrous use of Health & Safety legislation in this country.

Those of you who have or have had children may know of a famous fictional character called Postman Pat. A cheery chappie, he delivers the mail by driving his little red post van around country lanes, accompanied by his black and white cat Jess. There was a TV series, books, tapes and other toys based on Postman Pat, he is loved by thousands of British children.

For the last six years, a mechanised, coin-operated Postman Pat Post van ride has stood in a shopping precinct in Market Harborough. You know the kind of thing. Your 3 year old sits in the little rocket, car, train or whatever, you pop some coins in the slot, and the machine rocks gently back and forth. It is a welcome distraction when shopping with a young child.

Now the owners of St Mary’s Place Shopping Precinct have said it must go. A spokesman for St Mary's Place said it was targeting "material outside shop boundaries with health and safety implications." Not because the ride itself is considered dangerous – rides already have to comply with stringent H&S guidelines regarding manufacture and maintenance. No, they think it might be a H&S risk for pedestrians. The fact that this particular ride has stood in the same position outside a particular shop for the past six years without one single person walking into it or tripping over it, (in fact there has never been any man, woman or child involved in any sort of incident with the ride) would seem to contradict their views.

So why this sudden anxiety? Well, one of two reasons I suspect. Either the local council’s Health & Safety gaulieters have decided to justify their jobs by scratching around for something to have a go at, and have been all over the owners of St Mary’s Place like a rash OR the owners of St Mary’s Place want some more money from the shop owner who owns the ride, and this is part of a softening up process to get it. Or maybe it’s a bit of both. Whichever it is, Health & Safety is again being cited as the reason. Soon we’ll be fined if we don’t tie our shoelaces to their satisfaction.

Welcome to the house of fun.


How to satisfy a craving for something sweet to eat when there isn't a biscuit in the house, you havn't been to the shops yet and the fruit bowl only contains two rather elderly cooking apples...throw together this little number, it takes no time at all, and hey presto, sweet craving satisfied.


170g self-raising flour
1 large egg

1 teaspoon baking powder
85g caster sugar
6 tablespoons milk

28g melted butter (do this in the microwave)

For the topping

28g melted butter
85g caster sugar
1 level teaspoon cinnamon
500g cooking apples

Pre-heat oven to 200°C

Line rectangular baking tin (28 cms x 18cms) with baking paper.
Sift flour, baking powder together into a bowl, add the sugar and stir in.
In a jug mix the egg, milk and melted butter together.
Mix the sugar and cinnamon for the topping together in a small bowl.
Peel and core and quarter the apples, and cut into slices.
Pour the egg mixture into the flour and using a wooden spoon mix well to form a stiff batter.
Spoon the batter into the prepared tin and spread it evenly – it will seem a very thin layer.
Brush the batter with the melted butter for the topping and then arrange the apple slices neatly over the surface in overlapping rows.
Finally, sprinkle the mixed sugar and cinnamon evenly all over the apple slices.

Bake for approximately 30mins until risen and golden.

Cool, and then cut into squares.

Friday, November 17, 2006

LETS HOPE THE WEEK ENDS ON A BETTER NOTE than it began, I seem to have been out of sorts the whole time, have rowed with my elderly mother (her fault not mine), horribly hurt and offended a dear friend (my fault not hers), and have generally made a mess of things. TGIF.


I have been sifting through my bedroom bookshelves, which mostly have paperbacks, and have become horribly clogged up and muddled -originally I had the books in alphabetic order by author. Anyway, I have come across some old favourites and have started reading them again. One of these was a book I was bowled over by when I first read it.
Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban is a truly extraordinary and brilliant book. Not an easy read, because of the way Hoban has modified the English language, (it helps to read it aloud). When I first read the book in my early twenties, I had no knowledge of the legend of St Eustace, nor of the Green Man mythology, both of which feature in this book. You don't have to know about them to make sense of the story, but it helps.

It is set somewhere in southern England far into the future, when modern life as we would recognise it has vanished following what was presumably some nuclear apocalypse which had occured long before the book even begins. The narrator is Riddley Walker, a twelve year old boy describes life in what is a peasant society living a medeiaval existance. All previous knowledge has been lost, even the events which changed the world have become a faint folk memory.

At the start of the book three important th.ings happen to Riddley. On his naming day (the day he turns twelve) he kills a wild boar, he sees the leader in a pack of dogs is watching him - ever since the nuclear holocaust, dogs have been the sworn enemies of man,- and three days later his father is killed in an accident, leaving Riddley to inherit his father's role in the community.

The book is haunting, unsettling and terrible, but there are instances of humour and the natural spirit of mankind bubbles up all the time.

Re-reading the book I was struck by the fact that it was written in 1980 - many years before text-messaging (SMS) had been invented, yet much of the language Russel Hoban has invented is incredibly like txt talk. I think this might make the book more accessible to young people today who are used to communicating using this type of language.


That is what HMQ said in her speech opening the 2006/07 parliamentary session three days ago. Of course, she didn't write the speech herself, it was written for her by government apparatchiks with input from all the Departments of State. One of the biggest of these departments -if not THE biggest - is the Home Office, the department which is responsible for our police, our prisons, and our justice system.

So they want victims to be at the centre of the criminal justice system do they? Oh yeah? Well in that case, why, in the very same week, did the Home Office decide not to defend the case being brought by a group of drug addicted criminals? A group who were forced to go "cold turkey" when they were imprisoned, and who alleged that their human rights were violated as they did not give consent, and that their negligent treatment amounted to assault.

Withdrawal from using drugs, especially 'hard' ones like 'crack' or heroin, is frequently believed to be more difficult than it actually can be. Whilst quick withdrawal from certain drugs (alcohol, barbiturates and tranquillisers) can be dangerous, withdrawal from heroin may be comparable to a nasty bout of flu. Undesirable, but hardly life threatening. (The real difficulty for most addicts, is not coming off the drugs, it is staying off them). It seems extraordinary that this group was thought to have substantial grounds for making their claim.
The Home Office were supine in failing to defend the case with the utmost vigour, and deciding to make an out-of-court settlement. An out-of-court settlement which will give 197 prisoners a payment of £3500+ each. An out-of-court settlement which comes straight out of the taxpayers' pockets.
These people are in prison because they were found guilty of having committed crimes, what settlement are the victims of their crimes getting?

This whole business is an outrageous nonsense, it beggars belief.
I will have to go and have a lie-down, my blood is boiling.


The nearest I've ever got to Sweden is IKEA in Wembley, but there is a dish from Sweden that I like very much. It goes by the unlikely name of Jansson's Temptation. I first tasted it at a restaurant called Anna's Place in north London many years ago, and eventually I tried making it myself. Basically it is a potato, onion and anchovy gratin, bathed in cream and baked until meltingly soft and unctuous. The name comes from a Swedish opera singer, at the end of the 19th century who liked cooking up a little something for supper after the opera, something with which he could tempt ladies of the chorus, and this was his signature dish. He was called Pelle Janzon, but eventually changed his name to Jansson as he became more successful (I'm not too sure whether his success was as a singer, or as a lothario). It seems to be a dish that the whole of Sweden eats at Christmas time, but I think it is great on a cold winter evening when you want to eat comfort food, but something a little different.


Serves 4

6 medium sized potatoes
2 medium onions
3 tablespoons butter
15 anchovy fillets (a
pprox 2 tins)
75ml single cream
75ml double cream
2-3 tablespoons dry breadcrumbs

Pre-heat oven to 200

Butter a gratin dish generously, using half the butter.

Peel the onions, cut in half and then slice very, very thinly. Melt one tablespoon of butter in a frying pan and gently sauté the onion slices for a few minutes.
Drain the anchovy fillets, rinse and pat dry, then cut each one in half length-wise.
Mix the two creams together in a saucepan over gentle heat, do not let it boil.
Peel and grate the potatoes. You should work quickly now as the potato will discolour quite rapidly.

Put a layer of grated potato in the gratin dish, cover with a layer of the sliced onion, then place a lattice of anchovy over the onion; repeat the layers of potatoes, onion and anchovy, ending with a layer of potatoes. Smooth the top layer, and press down firmly with the palm of your hand.

Pour the warm cream over the potatoes. Sprinkle the dry breadcrumbs over the top and dot with the remaining butter.

Bake in the oven for 1 hour.

Serve with a green salad and a cold beer.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

TODAY IS ARMISTICE DAY, and at 11am I kept the two minute silence, while standing alone in our kitchen. I thought of my Great Grandmother who lost two sons in the First World War, and of my own paternal Grandfather, who was shipwrecked in January 1916. On a life raft with two other men, he was the sole survivor after being adrift for three days in the North Sea.

Thousands of books have been written about war, remembering war, set in a war. As it is Armistice Day I thought, that rather than blog about what I am reading at the moment, I would list some of the books I have read over the years which deal with war and conflict.


All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves
Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
The Good Soldier Schweik
by Jaroslav Hašek
August 1914 by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn
And Quiet Flows the Don by M. A. Sholokov

Spanish Civil War:

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway


The Tenth Man by Graham Greene
Most Secret by Neville Shute
The Bridge over the River Kwai by Pierre Boulle

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr
The Guns of Navarone by Alistair McLean
Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monserrat
That Summer by Andrew Greig
The Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard
The Seige by Helen Dunmore
How Sleep the Brave by H.E. Bates
Enigma by Robert Harris

The Gulf War:

Bravo Two Zero by Andy McNabb


IN FLANDERS FIELDS the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

Yet again a group of PC people are trying to get people to stop wearing red poppies as a sign of remembrance, It makes me livid.
Poppies have been a symbol of death and sleep since the time of the ancient Greeks so it is entirely appropriate that they have become synonymous with remembrance of all the servicemen and women who died in the First World War and all subsequent wars. The poppies are red. They are red because they are a certain type of poppy – popaver rhoeas – which grows naturally in conditions of disturbed earth, and can be found growing all over Western Europe. During the Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century battlefields became fields of blood red poppies growing up around the bodies of fallen soldiers. During the First World War which raged through northern France and Belgium, the heavy shelling and trench warfare ripped open the landscape, and once again large numbers of poppies began to appear. None of them were white.

From time to time some group, or person, tries to say that we should be wearing white poppies for peace. This seems to imply that those who wear red poppies are against peace and are glorifying war. They seem to think they have commanded the moral high ground. What offensive, patronizing rubbish. To wear a poppy does not say that the wearer is either for or against war, just that they remember those who have died in war. In fact I can’t imagine that anyone in their right mind would be in favour of war per se. War brings fear, danger, cruelty, death, destruction and poverty in its wake; The price paid by individuals and families is often very high. To remember the dead, and to honour them, is to remind oneself that as nations we should be extremely wary of threatening , declaring or initiating war, or of becoming embroiled in other people’s wars, If there is a way of maintaining peace that is honourable, just and equitable we should always espouse it.

I , like millions of my fellow citizens, am entirely opposed to this bloody business in Iraq, and am equally opposed to our position in Afghanistan, but nonetheless I will be wearing my poppy and remembering that men and women are dying in war, yet again.

As someone wrote today -"The money from red poppies goes to help ex-servicemen; the money from white poppies goes to subsidise people spouting their opinions. "


Whilst reading the controversy about poppies in the press , wearing a poppy myself, and writing my rather mild little rant above, I suddenly remembered a recipe for muffins I have made a few times and it seemed appropriate to post it here today. They are yummy when still warm accompanied by a mug of really good coffee. Enjoy!


Makes approx 1 dozen

280g plain flour
15 ml baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
200g caster sugar
1 egg
240 ml milk
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon rind
90 ml vegetable oil OR 85 g butter, melted
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons poppy seeds

Preheat oven 190°C

Line a 12 hole muffin tin with paper muffin cases.

In a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder and salt.
Stir in the sugar and poppy seeds.
In a separate bowl, beat egg with a fork. Stir in milk,
followed by grated lemon rind and oil/butter.
Add lemon juice.
Pour all of liquid ingredients into dry mixture. Stir just until
combined. Batter will be lumpy but no dry flour should be visible.

Spoon into muffin cases – they should be ¾ full.

Bake for 20-25 minutes, until tops are
lightly browned and spring back when pressed gently.

If you want to make them extra special and very lemony, you can mix 3 tablespoons of icing sugar with one tablespoon lemon juice to make a glaze, and drizzle it over the tops of the muffins whilst they are still hot.
Cool on rack before serving