Wednesday, February 28, 2007

USE IT UP, WEAR IT OUT, MAKE IT DO, OR DO WITHOUT... I'm tightening my belt in March.

You and I ,
dear blog reader, are very fortunate, we have our sight so we are able to read the printed word - indeed you are reading this post. In the past three years I have had some serious problems with my left eye resulting in several operations which have saved my sight and for that I am very, very grateful. To be unable to read is one of the things I most dread, so when I came upon this piece written on Dovegreyreader's blog it went straight to my heart:

My name is Clare Gailans. I am totally blind and have used braille as my means of literacy since starting school at five, that's to say for over 40 years. I have always told people what a wonderful system braille is, and had imagined it would always be offered to those who need to use it to read. Technology makes it very much quicker to produce now, and the Disability Discrimination Act requires information to be produced in it if it is the most appropriate format for the recipient.
This is all very well for us adults, but it is becoming clear that shortages of qualified personnel, money, or perhaps just plain arrogance, are creating a situation in many mainstream schools where blind children are not taught braille, and those with useful sight are often denied it until their sight has further deteriorated. By this time many of them already hate reading, which is a huge extra strain on them throughout the school day - a stressful time for many children at the best of times.
Apart from the people close to me, books are my first love and I came to them through braille. Books can be listened to with enjoyment, but this is not literacy. I could not have enjoyed sharing my love of books with others through email, or made virtual friends with so many lovers of books such as Lynne, without being able to write, spell and punctuate. Listening to voices as a poor second to literacy would not have taught me these things.
Without first learning to read words I could not have mastered music through braille notation, which has been the key to my employment for the past 25 years, and my obtaining a degree in music from Cambridge before that. Braille has also been the difference for my husband and me, through such activities as music and chess, between being merely tolerated in the sighted community and being fully accepted, indeed sometimes looked up to, for our contributions.
It has helped me in a variety of voluntary activities, and to instil a love of reading in our two sighted children. I could not run our household efficiently witout it, in every department from cooking to labelling the many reams of paper which have to be filed, and which without braille would all feel identical."
There is an online petitionto ask the government to make the teaching of braille available for all blind and partially sighted people which I have signed - it can be signed by any UK citizens and I sincerely hope you will consider doing so. As tomorrow is World Book Day it seemed particularly appropriate to consider how much the ability to read means to me, rather than to talk about a particular book.

No music on a summers evening at Kenwood this year. Well I can’t say I mind too much, over the past few years the summer concerts have become just big noisy overblown events that we no longer attend.

For 55 years there have been outdoor musical concerts by the lake at Kenwood House, a beautiful neo-classical house on the northern slopes of Hampstead Heath in north London. As we live fairly close by, my DH and I, our children, friends and neighbours used to go to one or two concerts each season; we’d pack a picnic, several bottles of wine, some rugs, cushions, and black bin liners (in case the weather turned wet) and troop off to lie on the grass with other north Londoners and enjoy the music which was always of a very high standard. One or two of the concerts each year would end with a firework display.

Then, some years ago, English Heritage took over the management of Kenwood House and its grounds. Tents selling various overpriced drinks started appearing on either side of the grassy slope where most people sat and picnicked. The ticket prices went up steeply. The concerts started to have fireworks more frequently. From being concerts of classical or chamber music with the occasional foray into opera or jazz, they became more populist. Last season had, amongst other delights, Art Garfunkel and His Band, Sinatra Under The Stars, The Time of Your Life – The Music of Dirty Dancing, The Four Seasons, Dancing in the Streets - The Music of Motown. Corporate Hospitality tents sprang up to enable businesses to entertain their clients at the concerts. As if that were not enough, the concerts started being advertised very widely, and coach loads of visitors came from as far afield as Guildford and Milton Keynes. In the past few years English Heritage has been selling 10,000 tickets for every concert. Ten thousand people at Kenwood – it was getting ridiculous - far, far too many; they usually came by car, and the streets on all sides of the Heath were clogged with traffic and people trying to park. To match the expectations of audiences paying the higher ticket prices, and coming from far and wide, the music started to be amplified with special hi-tech equipment, so that it could be heard by everyone who lived in the vicinity and some distance away too. Local residents finally had enough and complaints to the local council started to snowball. Finally, Camden Council have ruled that they will only grant English Heritage a license for eight concerts this year, not ten, and they must cut the ticket numbers to 8,000 per concert. English Heritage grumpily says that is not economically viable, so they will not put on any concerts at all.

They have killed what used to be a wonderful summer tradition through sheer greed.

Who says you can’t teach an old ‘dog’ new tricks? A dear friend was celebrating his 60th last weekend, and I was asked to make the birthday cake – specifically a carrot cake. Well, I have made more carrot cakes than I’ve had hot…well, maybe not QUITE that many, but a fair few over the years. I have always used the same tried and trusted carrot cake recipe and I’ve never had any complaints. However, for some perverse reason I decided to abandon my usual recipe and instead to use the recipe I'd read on another blog. Some months ago, Reluctant Nomad posted his carrot cake recipe on his blog, and so I tried it out. All I can say is, it is the BEST. When you read through it, it seems much like any other carrot cake recipe in terms of ingredients etc, but somehow it turns out to be the Űber Carrot Cake of all time. Which is a long-winded way of saying that I am not posting a carrot cake recipe, click on the side bar link to find Reluctant Nomad's blog and check his archive for November 7th 2006 to find his recipe.
But I am posting a recipe for the icing which a birthday cake demands!


175g cream cheese
175g softened butter
250g icing sugar (sieved)
½ teaspoon vanilla essence

Put all the ingredients into a bowl or food processor and beat/whiz together until smooth and creamy.
Spread over the top of the cake - et voila!

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

UNBROKEN HAPPINESS IS A BORE, it should have ups and downs.(Molière)
Think about it.


The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell was our book club choice to read for this month. It is O’Farrell’s third book, and though I enjoyed her first one the next two left me fairly indifferent, so I was not expecting to enjoy reading this book as much as I did. The writing is very evocative, and it is a fascinating story so I was completely absorbed from the very start.

Esme Lennox is the second child of Scottish parents who live in colonial India just after the first World War. When she is a small girl her baby brother dies of typhoid and eventually the family move back to live in Edinburgh. As a child growing up in central Africa, my sister and I were taken on a trip back to visit my grandparents who lived near Glasgow, and when I read “Esme and Kitty curled round each other in a big bed, their teeth chattering. Esme could have sworn that even her hair was feeling the cold” it seemed to me to be describing my own memories of that visit and how alien an environment Scotland was for me, so I could really imagine how strange life in Edinburgh must have seemed to Esme.

Always a feisty girl with a stubborn streak of independent thought, Esmé finds it hard to adjust to the rigid social expectations of upper middle class life, unlike her pretty older sister Kitty. Even as a very young child she always irked her mother, who finds her irritating and troubling, and this gets worse as she gets older. Things go really awry when the suitable young man who has been earmarked for Kitty shows a decided preference for Esme, and when she is found trying on her mother’s clothes all hell breaks loose.

The book is told in flash backs, beginning in the present when a young woman called Iris receives a phone call to say that her great aunt, Esme Lennox, is to be released, after 60 years, from the mental institution in which she has been kept. The institution is closing down and Iris is thought to be responsible for her – the problem is that Iris didn’t even know she had a great aunt, she thought her grandmother Kitty was an only child. Kitty is still alive, but in a home as she is suffering from Alzheimer’s. There are three distinct voices in the book: Esme, Iris and Kitty, and through their thoughts the reader slowly learns long buried family secrets. Esme seems remarkably sane for someone who has been institutionalised for so long. She had, as a child developed a mental trick of distancing her mind from the situations she found herself in, vanishing in effect. At the end of the book Esme and Kitty meet again which leads to a startling denoument.

As I read the book, I became both sad and angry when I realised how easily a young woman could be locked away under the powers of the Mental Deficiency Act 1913 (which included people, who were deemed to be ‘Moral Defectives’) just on the say so of a father or a doctor.

I found the book had particular resonances for me as some aspects of Esme’s story were similar to my mother’s early life. Like Esme, my mother was born in India in the years between the two great wars, and when she was a small girl her younger sister died suddenly too – as children often did in those days. My grandmother was grief stricken, and for a long time my mother seemed to remind her of her dead daughter. The relationship between my mother and her parents was never an easy one after that, and she was sent away to boarding school in England where she remained on her own for several years, during which time my grandparents had two more children before finally returning to settle back in Scotland.


HIV/Aids is a truly ghastly disease, but thanks to the tireless efforts of medical researchers it is now much more controllable than it was ten, fifteen or twenty years ago. How the disease can be passed from person to person is now understood, and with some relatively simple behavioural changes people can seriously reduce their risk of catching the virus. In much of the ‘western’ world, the number of people suffering from HIV/Aids has remained fairly low, but in other parts of the world, Africa in particular, the virus is still rampant. Thousands upon thousands of men, women and children have died in South Africa, Zambia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Angola and other sub-Saharan countries. Aids Charities, NGOs and government health services are all doing their best to bring this disease under control, but it is not easy. I have spent time in villages in KwaZulu-Natal where the entire middle, income-earning, generation has been wiped out, leaving only the elderly and the very young children to fend for themselves. Many of those children are themselves HIV positive and facing an uncertain future. It could break your heart.

The last thing that the people of Africa need is some nutter like the President of The Gambia, Yahya Jammeh, telling his fellow citizens and the world that he has invented a three day herbal cure for HIV/Aids. At the moment he is getting a good deal of publicity, splashing liquid over supposed sufferers, or rubbing ointment onto their bodies – liquid and ointment both being of dubious provenance - and giving them mysterious concoctions to drink. This “treatment” is being seen on TV by millions of Africans who may believe that it is all true. Many of the individuals he is supposedly “treating” may really have HIV/Aids and think they are being cured, which is unforgivable.

The various governments who provide foreign aid on which The Gambia relies so heavily, the WHO and the UN, should tell President Jammeh in no uncertain terms that this is a load of dangerous nonsense and he must stop immediately or there will be serious consequences. The international TV news organisations should be far more rigorous in their reportage, and ensure that no-one watching their coverage could possibly think his cure was genuine.

Only last year the Minister of Health in South Africa, Ms Manto Tshabalala-Msimang made a similarly ludicrous statement, urging HIV sufferers to cure themselves by eating beetroot, garlic, lemon peel and African potato which aroused such mirth abroad that an embarrassed President Thabo Mbeki was forced to issue a rebuttal (and he has not been exactly sound on the treatment of the disease) However this mad claim by Jammeh is much more serious and much more likely to cause harm to people.

The west is very pusillanimous in its treatment of African leaders, it does not call them to account when they behave in dangerous ways and continues to dole out money to the countries they rule, money which frequently makes its way into the Swiss bank accounts of those leaders.

Last week we did a lot of entertaining, and one of the desserts I made used the delicious new season's forced pink rhubarb. These jellies have such a glorious colour, and taste so good that even people who say they don't like rhubarb will be converted. The added bonus is that you can make it a day or two in advance. It is ideal after a rich main course.


Serves 6

500g rhubarb
1½ teaspoons fresh ginger root, finely grated
60g caster sugar
15g gelatine powder (one sachet)
3 tablespoons orange juice ( I use OJ from the carton of ready squeezed we have at breakfast)
2x 275 bottles of Ginger Beer – (use the best you can buy, I use Fentimans)
2-3 pieces stem ginger chopped
200 ml carton crème fraiche

You can cheat by using 1 x 135g packet of Hartleys orange jelly instead of the gelatine and OJ.

Wash the rhubarb and cut it into pieces. Put it into a saucepan together with the grated ginger and the sugar and heat very gently until the sugar is dissolved and it stews in its own juices. It takes about 20 mins. Stir from time to time to prevent it burning. The pieces of rhubarb will fall apart but that doesn’t matter. Remove from the heat and set aside.
Prepare the jelly mixture by putting the orange juice into a microwaveable jug and sprinkling the gelatine over it. Leave for five minutes to allow it to ‘sponge’. (If you are using the orange jelly method, cut the jelly into cubes and put into a microwaveable jug with 3 tablespoons of water.) Place the jug in the microwave and heat on full power for about 1 minute for the gelatine(jelly) to dissolve completely. Stir well. Make the quantity of liquid in the jug up to 520mls with the ginger beer. (You can drink any that is left over!)
Mix the poached rhubarb and its juices together with the liquid mixture and stir well. Pour or ladle the combined mixture into six 200ml wine glasses or similar, and put them in the fridge to set – preferably overnight, but for at least 6-8 hours.

Before serving them, top each one with a dollop of crème fraiche and scatter a few pieces of chopped stem ginger on top.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

NEVER DO ANYTHING STANDING THAT YOU CAN DO SITTING,or anything sitting that you can do lying down. (Chinese proverb)
Now thats a proverb I really like....I'm off to bed!


Sometimes it seems to me that my choice of reading is governed by coincidences;
last week I went to the cinema with a friend of mine, and we were talking about the book I was reading - The Curry Mile – which I wrote about on 9th February- and about what it is like to live according to the dictates of a particular religion. This led on to a discussion about the various groups of orthodox Jews who live in Britain ( my friend is Jewish, but not orthodox). Imagine my amazement when the very next book I borrowed from the library, purely on the basis of its rather pretty cover – yes, I am that shallow – Disobedience by Naomi Alderman turned out to be set in the orthodox Jewish community who live in Hendon, north London, and won the Orange Prizefor New Writers last year.

The book begins with the death of a much revered Rabbi who is a renowned scholar. The Rabbi, a widower for many years, has one child, Ronit, a daughter who has been estranged from her father for a long time, and who now works and lives a secular life in New York. When notified by her father’s assistant of his death, she returns to Hendon ostensibly to collect some items of family property. In doing so she reopens emotions not just of her own, but of her once best friend. Esti, with whom she had an intense teenage relationship is now married to Dovid her father’s assistant, the likely successor to his position as Rabbi. Ronit is a lesbian, she is not prepared to compromise her sexuality, and the various conversations which take place in the community when she returns from New York illustrate the painfully intractable problem of being part of a fundamentalist religious community and being gay. The expectations of the role of women in a community like this, or in the Muslim community as featured in The Curry Mile, present real difficulties in our society where women are equal in law and opportunity. These groups feel their very existence is threatened by members of the younger generation who do not conform, and they expel them. This was also true in another book I posted about, A Complicated Kindness, which featured the fundamentalist Mennonite Christians. It is hard for me to comprehend what it must be like as a female to be regarded in such a subservient role in a society, and I am often angry when I see how various religious groups treat women.

When I travel to court in the East End of London, I pass through Stamford Hill, an area with a large population of Hassidic Jews. I have always wondered about the way they live as they seem almost oblivious to everyone who is not part of their world. This book helped me to understand a little more about them, the rules which govern their lives, and the constraints it places on their interaction with the rest of London


Like pretty well everyone I know I have to travel by plane from time to time, and my kids, parents, family and friends always seem to be catching a flight to somewhere or other. So I am really keen that we keep air travel as safe as possible, and these days that includes keeping it safe from terrorist attack. I am happy to be searched, to have my luggage X-rayed, and to answer any questions put to me by the security personnel before boarding. However some of the new rules brought in by airports and airlines seem truly daft, with no real relevance to security. These new rules have been brought in since the big alert at Heathrow last year, and are being interpreted in some really odd ways. A suspicion crosses my mind that some of these rules are not really designed to prevent a terrorist attack, but to make money for the airports.

At the weekend, my daughter and friends were flying back to London from Geneva after a skiing holiday; she had bought some rather special cheeses at a fromagerie just before leaving and was bringing them home to enjoy (and maybe for us to enjoy too). The Swiss security man at the airport told her that Reblochon would be considered as a liquid or a gel, and therefore could be dangerous and had to be confiscated and destroyed. It was patently obvious what it was – the

smell alone would have confirmed it, and the idea of a ripe cheese being a potential ingredient in an explosive mix seems far fetched to say the least. The security man said with a happy smile that over the Christmas/New Year period he and his colleagues had confiscated ‘tons and tons’ of cheese that travellers had bought as gifts. Of course, it suits the airport authorities that the minute she is cleared through security she is in the duty-free area where she can buy cheeses, but not necessarily of such good quality, and at quite high prices, thus making a profit for the airport shops.

Those who have travelled by air recently may have noticed that just before the security check area waste bins are provided and are overflowing with bottles of mineral water that passengers have had to jettison. And immediately after the security checks the airport shops have crate-loads of…..bottles of mineral water; what a fabulous marketing opportunity.

The irony is that if you travel business or first class – or are upgraded to either of those classes – you will probably be served any drinks in a container made of that potentially dangerous material called glass. It is the work of moments to smash a glass against a hard surface during the flight and have a lethal weapon in your hand. Some of the victims of pub brawls are testament to this. But lets keep the skies safe by confiscating tweezers and cheeses.


Chinese New Year - or as they call it, Spring Festival is coming up this weekend. The new year will be the Year of the Pig, and not just any old Pig year either, the Year of the Golden Pig. My DH will be 60 this year, so he is a Golden Pig - need I say more! I don't make many Chinese dishes, but these dumplings are a family favourite, and as they are customarily eaten at Spring Festival you might like to make some too. Although the recipe sounds fiddly it is actually very straight forward and they are really delicious.

(Chinese Pot Sticker Dumplings)

275g plain flour
250ml very hot water

100g minced fatty pork
85g chinese cabbage finely chopped
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh ginger
1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine (or dry sherry)
1½ tablespoons soy sauce
Black pepper
1½ tablespoons finely chopped spring onions

1 teaspoon sesame oil
½ teaspoon sugar
1-2 tablespoons cooking oil
75ml water

First make the dough for the dumplings by putting the flour into a large bowl and stir the hot water gradually into it, mixing it all the time with a fork until most of the water is incorporated. Add more hot water if the mixture seems dry. Remove the mixture from the bowl and knead it with your hands , dusting the dough with a little flour to stop it sticking. Continue kneading until the dough is smooth and silky. It will take about 5-10 minutes – very therapeutic exercise!

Put the dough back into the bowl, cover with a clean, damp tea towel and let it rest for about half an hour whilst you prepare the stuffing.

Put all the stuffing ingredients into a bowl and mix them together very thoroughly – if the mixture seems too coarse, place it in a food processor and give it a quick whizz.

Once the dough has rested, remove it from the bowl and knead it again for about 5 minutes, dusting with a little flour if it is sticky. Once the dough is smooth, form it into a roll approx
23cms (9ins) long and about 2½ cms (1 inch) in diameter. Take a knife and cut the roll into 18 equal slices. Roll each slice into a small ball, then with a rolling pin, roll each ball out on a floured surface to form a small round flat “pancake” about 6cms (2½ ins) in diameter. Arrange the dough discs on a lightly floured tray and cover them with a damp kitchen towel to prevent them from drying out until you are ready to use them.

Put about 2 teaspoons of the filling in the centre of each dough wrapper, and moisten the edges with water, then fold in half and pinch together with your fingers. Pleat the dough round the edge as you go, pinching it to seal well. The dumpling should look like a small Cornish Pasty, with a flat base and rounded upper side so that it has a slight crescent shape. Put the finished dumpling back on the floured tray and keep covered with the damp towel until you have stuffed them all.

(At this point you can freeze the dumplings, if you wish, for cooking at a later date.)

To cook the dumplings, heat a large frying pan – preferably non-stick – until it is very hot, add
1 -2 tablespoons of oil and then place the dumplings flat-side down into the pan, turn the heat down and cook for 3-4 minutes until the base of each dumpling is lightly browned. Then add the water, cover the pan tightly with foil and simmer gently for about 12 minutes or until most of the water has been absorbed. (Check the water half-way through and add a little more if necessary)
Uncover the pan and continue to cook for a further 2 minutes. Remove the dumplings to a warm dish and serve immediately.

The dumpling should be served with a choice of Chinese Shaanxi vinegar, chilli sauce, and soy sauce for dipping.

Friday, February 09, 2007

IF MOSES SUPPOSES HIS TOESES ARE ROSES, then Moses supposes erroneously;

For nobody's toeses are posies of roses, as Moses supposes his toeses to be.*
Well, I don't know about poor old Moses, but MY toeses are roses - I've just had a pedicure!

*(old English tongue twister)


The Curry Mile is a first novel by Zahid Hussain. For non UK readers of this blog, I should explain that Wilmslow Road in Rusholme, a suburb of Manchester, has more Asian restaurants than anywhere else in Britain, and is known as the Curry Mile . All the time I was reading this I kept wanting to rush out to the nearest ‘Indian’ restaurant and order a lamb pasanda, tarka dall, and sag paneer, together with a peshwari naan, and some somosas on the side.

Hussain has written a behind-the-scenes view of the cut-throat competition between the restaurant owners in this famous street, and a family story of the conflicting demands faced by the children of migrant parents.

The two main characters are Ajmal Butt, known as ‘The Curry King’, the aging head of a successful restaurant business that is going through hard times, and his twenty-something daughter Sorayah who has become estranged from her family as a result of moving to London and having a relationship with a young man. When she returns to Manchester for the wedding of her best friend Yasmeen, daughter of her father’s arch rival, her father tries to bully her into coming back and working for him but she insists on going her own way. Ajmal has been locked in a feud with another local Muslim restauranter for many years, and both he and his enemy expect their offspring to continue the feud into the next generation, as would have been done in Pakistan.

Hussain dishes up a tale of contemporary British Asian life that is just as spicy as the dishes served in an Indian restaurant, and I found it entertaining and informative – I feel sure that there is a sequel on the way, and that we haven’t heard the last of Sorayah Butt.

I do have one small niggle about the book. In what I am sure is a very accurate representation of the way many British Asians speak, Hussain has included many Pakistani, Urdu, and Arabic words, and a glossary would have been very useful. Publishers take note!


I am just about due for a check up at my dentist, and I hope to goodness I am not faced with these. When reading Charon QC's blog today, I discovered that Colgate have had loads of these face masks printed and are supplying dentists with them. Are they mad? the last thing I want when my mouth is being approached by a man wielding an electric drill is that he be sporting bloody silly cartoon grin.


Amongst the jars of pickles, pesto, peppadews and anchovies in the fridge I found a jar of mincemeat left over from Christmas mince pies- ok, I realise I wouldn't win the housewife of the year award for leaving it there for so long, but what the heck. I used it up in this recipe which I usually make with dates or dried apricots. Everybody liked them, and they vanished in a flash.


100g wholemeal flour
125g plain flour
100g porridge oats
75g brown sugar
150g butter, melted

350g Dates or dried apricots or figs, chopped fairly small
90ml water
Grated rind of ½ lemon
OR: ¾ jar of mincemeat

Two tablespoons icing sugar

Grease and line a baking tin (27cms x 18cms) with baking paper.

Pre-heat oven to 200°C

Prepare the filling, by placing the chopped dried fruit, water and lemon rind into a saucepan. Heat gently, stirring occasionally until the mixture is soft. If using mincemeat you don’t have to do anything to it.

Combine the other ingredients and mix well together. Sprinkle half this mixture into the tin, spread out and press down well. Spread the dried fruit mix or mincemeat over the base, then sprinkle the remaining oat mix evenly over the filling and press down firmly.

Bake in the oven at 200°C for 20 minutes, until golden brown.
Leave to cool in the tin, when cool sift a little icing sugar over the top, turn out from the tin and cut into slices.

Makes 16 slices

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: " noi non potemo aver perfetta vita senza amici" Dante Algihieri
which loosely translated means : "A perfect life needs friends"


Always on the lookout for a new crime author – new to me I should say, I spotted this in the HLSI library and pounced on it with glee. The Messengers of Death is by Pierre Magnan and is translated from the French by Patricia Clancy. I’ve read little French detective/crime fiction, so this was an ideal opportunity to try a novel by one of France’s most popular authors. M. Magnan is from Provence and this book is set there, in the department of Haut Provence to be exact. It is a convoluted tale of murder, greed and suspense within the closely knit communities of this stark mountain region. The book begins with a retired postman Emile Pencenat, busy in the local cemetery where he is designing and building his own tomb. He notices an envelope addressed to Mlle Véronique Champourcieux has been placed in the disused postbox on the cemetery gate, and decides it is his duty to buy a stamp and post it properly. To local consternation, the body of Mlle Véronique is discovered not long afterwards pinned to her piano by a bayonet attached to an antique rifle. After several further bizarre deaths in the locality, retired detective Commissaire Laviolette is persuaded to investigate. He uncovers a dark tale of avarice and vengeance stretching back over 100 years.

The style of writing reminded me of the novels of Marcel Pagnol – ‘Jean de Florette’ and ‘Manon des Sources’ - though maybe that was just because they too are set in the peasant communities of Provence. I did enjoy Magnan’s evocative descriptions of the countryside, the dark brooding forests, the mountains and the extremes of weather in the region, with violent storms, baking heat and freezing fogs, which gave a strong sense of place. However I didn’t really engage with the characters, and found the plot tortuously convoluted. Apparently this is the latest of his crime novels, so maybe I will try one of his earlier ones before deciding he is not going on my must read list.


Remind me not to travel with British Airways again if I have any reasonable choice – that is assuming the Save Our Environment fanatics will let us continue flying anywhere anyway.

British Airways are changing their baggage limit policies, and changing them in such a way it will make the whole business of travel more difficult and complicated for me and thousands of other potential customers. If I travel by BA World Traveller class (Economy/Steerage to you and me) I will now be allowed to check in ONE piece of luggage weighing 23kg (51lbs). I will also be allowed ONE item of sporting equipment (skis, snowboard, bag of golf clubs etc). If I take TWO items of luggage to check in, I will be charged excess baggage on the second item even if the total weight of the two pieces comes to less than 23kg. For example, If I go to Edinburgh for a long weekend – which I am doing later this month – and I take two smaller bags each weighing 8kg, I will be charged £30 excess on one bag on the journey to Edinburgh, and £30 on the return journey – a total of £60 to add to the airfare, and on a long haul flight the cost is exhorbitant.

Why, I hear you ask, don’t you just take one big bag? Well, I am not as able as I once was, and it is easier for me to pull two lighter bags on and off tubes and buses, wheel them around in the airport, and remove them from the luggage carrousel than one large heavy bag. I know I am not alone, there must be hundreds of disabled or elderly passengers who are just like me, why is British Airways going to penalise us in this way? What advantage does it give them? My daughter and friends, all fit, young twenty-somethings flew off to Geneva last week to go ski-ing, each had a bag or rucksack and either skis/snowboard. Under the new BA policy they won’t be penalised for having two items. This strikes me as blatant discrimination against the aged and infirm, and I think it stinks.

You have been warned.

At the weekend my DH defrosted the freezer in our cellar (a job I loathe but it does have to be done every 6 months or so) and I found a frozen Gressingham duck
which I had bought on special offer a month or so ago. So for dinner on Sunday it was roast duck, but roast duck with a difference. Ever so easy to do, it fed four generously and there was enough meat left for some rather exotic sandwiches the next day. BTW,
If you have a good Chinese supermarket nearby you can buy a jar of Kung Pao sauce and use that instead of making the basting sauce.


1 medium/large duck
4 fat cloves garlic
Large piece of ginger, peeled
2 star anise

½ large stick cinnamon
2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 tablespoons Shaoshing wine (or you can use dry sherry)
Salt and Pepper

Basting sauce:
2 tablespoons soy sauce
3 tablespoons chilli sauce
1½ tablespoons rice vinegar
1½ tablespoons sugar
3 teaspoons cornflour

5 tablespoons water.

Remove any giblets from inside the duck, and cut away excess fat from inside the body
cavity. Put the duck in a large colander or sieve, pour a kettleful of boiling water over it, turning the duck so that the boiling water reaches every bit of skin, and then pat it dry. Prick the skin all over with a skewer and rub with salt and pepper (you could use Chinese Five Spice seasoning if you have some instead of S&P).

Put the garlic, ginger, soy sauce and wine together into a blender and whiz into a coarse paste. Rub the paste over the inside of the duck, place the star anise and the cinnamon stick into the body cavity, secure the opening with a skewer.
Rub the remaining garlic paste all over the duck and leave to marinate for at least one hour.

Make the basting sauce by whisking all the ingredients together in a small saucepan, and heat gently until it thickens, stirring all the time.

Preheat oven to 180°C.

Place the duck on a wire rack in a roasting pan, and pour 1-2 cups of water into the pan.
Bake in the oven for 30minutes, then use a pastry brush to baste the bird bake for another 30
minutes; using two wooden spoons turn the duck over and baste again, continue baking for another 20-30 minutes.
Put the duck on a platter and leave to cool for a
few minutes before serving.

This is great with fried rice, or plain steamed rice, and stir-fried pak choi which can be tossed in some oyster sauce or finely sliced garlic.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Not this year it doesn't, this is the mildest winter I remember since I came here from Africa umpteen years ago; thought provoking, worrying, what IS my carbon footprint?


So Many Ways to Begin by Jon McGregor was listed for the Booker Prize in 2006. I read and enjoyed his first novel and I think that this, his second book, is even better.

This is the story of a life, of a marriage, and of beginnings. It starts with David as a small boy growing up in Coventry in the late 40s and 50s, he is fascinated by found objects, and spends hours grubbing things up from bomb-sites which he keeps in his carefully arranged collection. He loves museums, the smell of them, the idea of keeping things which provide people with a link to the past, and he is determined to work in a museum when he grows up, but is determined that “his” museum will have no replicas, nothing “made-up”, as he says that you cannot learn history from anything made up as it isn’t true, it’s a lie.

And sure enough, he becomes a curator in the first museum in Coventry. On a trip to a museum in Aberdeen he meets Eleanor, and whilst courting her he inadvertently discovers that he is not the natural child of his parents, he is adopted. However, the adoption was never official, and indeed his late 'father' had always assumed David was his child, the only people who knew otherwise were his adoptive mother and an old family friend. This information rocks him to the core. His life has been based on a lie, he is not who he thought he was. He takes out his anger and distress on his mother, refusing to speak to her for many weeks and causing her great unhappiness. Eleanor abandons her family in Scotland, she and David marry and settle in Coventry, where she become increasingly depressed; David discovers that her beginnings are not ideal either; she had a very difficult childhood, suffering constant maternal abuse, both mental and physical. Eleanor begins to suffer from severe depression which dogs her off and on all her life. Time passes and they have a daughter in whom they both delight, but David’s desire to know about his birth and his true beginnings eats away at him. The lack of knowledge of who he really is comes to the fore when his daughter Kate has to do a family tree as a school project. After their daughter leaves home David decides to make a serious attempt to trace his birth family, and through the internet he makes contact with a woman who thinks she maybe his half-sister. He and Eleanor go to Ireland to meet this woman, and to meet her mother who is now an old woman. To the sadness of both he is not the son she gave up, and she is not the mother he is seeking.

Perhaps the beginning is not what he thought it was, perhaps his beginning was when his adoptive mother, took him in her arms. McGregor is marvellous at making the reader look at the minutiae of life, and ponder on how small chains of events can have large personal consequences. Cause and effect. The same idea was explored in the film “Sliding Doors” with Gwyneth Paltrow. We can all look back at our lives in that way…if I hadn’t missed that bus I wouldn’t have met… because I was on a business trip I discovered…and so…two minutes later and I’d have been in that motorway pile-up…one could go on and on, after all, there are so many ways to begin.


Her Majesty’s Government, Gordon Brown in particular, don’t think that the airlines are doing their bit for the environment, and to help reduce CO2 emissions caused by burning fossil fuels. So what have they done, they have increased the Air Passenger Duty as of yesterday. Who pays APD? Not the airlines that’s for sure, it would reduce their profits; no, no it is each and every passenger who will pay. The airlines will just act as glorified Tax Collectors for the Treasury

The various Government spokespersons can go on TV and radio as much as they like making self-righteous speeches about this being part of the Government’s environmental strategy to help stop global warming, and trying to make us feel all warm green and fuzzy about them, but it won’t wash, at least not with me. This is yet ANOTHER stealth tax

Why does our Government not take a lead and make the airlines pay tax on the fuels they use, that would focus their minds on the environment. This increase in the APD merely taxes individuals (who are already paying several sets of taxes in order to take a flight), and puts money into the Treasury’s big pot. They might use it for environmental causes, but then again they might not, the money is not being specifically ring fenced.


I've been in court all day - Family Proceedings; emotionally very draining, so it's lucky I prepared dinner yesterday evening as my darling daughter and her squeeze are with us tonight en route to skiing/snowboarding in Avoriaz - is there enough snow what with this mild winter?


Serves 6

Pre- heat oven to 140°C

1 Kg lean pork, cubed
250g chorizo, peeled and cut into chunks (do NOT use pre-sliced chorizo, ask for cooking chorizo)
2 medium red onions peeled and thickly sliced
3 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
400g tin of chopped tomatoes or tomato passatta
1 tin (420g) chickpeas, drained
300g roasted red peppers in brine or oil, drained (I buy these in a local Greek Cypriot greengrocers)
250ml white wine
12-18 pitted black olives
5-6 sprigs fresh thyme
Saffron, generous pinch of strands
2 Tablespoons wine vinegar
Salt and Pepper
1 Tablespoon olive oil.

Put the cubed pork, chorizo, red onion, and garlic into a large flame proof casserole. Cut the drained red pepper into large pieces and add them, together with the wine, passatta, olives, and chickpeas. Put the strands of saffron into a pestle and mortar (or a cup) and grind to make a powder, pour the vinegar onto the saffron, stir, and add the mixture to the casserole. Drizzle the olive oil over everything, season well with salt and pepper and stir the whole lot together with a wooden spoon. Place over a medium heat and bring up to simmering point. Transfer the casserole to the pre-heated oven and cook for 1½ -2 hours until the pork is tender and everything has amalgamated. Can be kept for 24 hours if needed before heating again and serving.

Serve with rice and/or crusty bread with a green salad – and a large glass of Rioja!