Tuesday, August 28, 2007


A silly bit of doggerel I found written inside the cover of an old book from my school days which I am chucking out in the pre-move declutter.


I must be mad, here I am trying to de-clutter the house prior to moving in five weeks time, and what do I do, I come home with MORE books! I went into the local Oxfam Bookshop to give them three boxes of books, and as I was leaving I spotted Animal’s People by Indra Sinha on one of the shelves and promptly bought it.

Animal’s People is on the Booker long list this year, and the snippet I’d read about it intrigued me. It was very different from what I expected, and at first I found it hard to get going, the language is lively, coarse to the point of crudity, and seems a jumble of English, Hindi and pidgin phrases (namispond-jamispond = spying, because "name is Bond - James Bond") which took time to get my head round, but suddenly the story gripped me and I couldn’t put the book down.

Set in the fictitious town of Khaufpur in southern India (a very loosely disguised Bhopal) the narrator is a 19 year old orphan called Animal because he walks on all fours, severely crippled by his twisted spine. He is, needless to say, a beggar, a scrounger, a scavenger, seeking scraps of food from the waste bins of restaurants and houses, competing for such scraps with stray dogs.

By the time the book begins, years have passed since the terrible night when the big factory on the edge of the city - owned by an American chemical company (the Kampani) – had a massive industrial accident and the soil, water and air of Khaufpur were poisoned. An American woman doctor Elli Barber comes to the city and sets up a free clinic for the local people; but they are suspicious that she is doing dirty work for the Kampani who have spent years, and millions of dollars, avoiding any responsibility for the accident, and are still not paying proper compensation to the victims. A local pressure group to which Animal has become attached, leads a boycott of the clinic and this has huge repercussions through the whole community.

Animal is a young man who is growing up longing for a good life, education, sex, and marriage - even wishing Elli could ‘cure’ him. His fierce affection for “his” people shines through everything he does – and he does some hair-brained things – and the love he shows to the old French nun who looked after him as an infant and who refuses to return to the mother convent in France, is extremely moving.

Despite the fact that I thought this book was extraordinary, and a powerful portrait of people living lives of abject poverty, and though I was completely engaged with Animal and all his people I would be surprised if this won the Booker Prize.

After I finished the book, I googled Bhopal, and was horrified that much of the appalling behaviour of the Kampani in Animal’s People mirrors the behaviour of the real American companies who owned, maintained and profited from the factory in that city. If such a ghastly accident had occurred in Britain, Europe or the USA how different it would have been.

Rated: 3.5*


TV Celebrity Chefs - please no more! been there, watched that, bought the recipe book.

Jamie did his bit for school food and that was genuinely interesting, but after the dust has settled, anything much changed? Gordon Ramsay made us all realise we don’t ever, ever want to work in a restaurant kitchen when he is in charge; Gary Rhodes was too precious for words, John Burton-Race told us all far too much about his marriage and his family – and now he has walked out on them; Anthony Worrall Thompson irritates me and I keep wanting to smack him ….and now Marco Pierre White is strutting his stuff. He hasn’t cooked in any restaurant for eight (8!) years… is this meant to be a specialist reality show? Because it sure as hell isn’t about cooking.

These guys (and some gals) should feel the heat of the TV studio and get out and go back to the kitchen. TV loves them, partly I suspect because they are cheap TV, it doesn’t cost a fortune to make a chef show, whereas a documentary which has been well researched is difficult and costly, and as for TV drama, that is an expensive option, but what is the point of them? You and I are not likely to be opening a restaurant any time soon, so we have just been cast in the role of kitchen vôyeurs.

As well as the celeb restaurant chefs, there are also the other TV cooks, Nigella, Delia, Nigel Slater et al. Delia and Nigel pass my test for ‘proper’ cooks who can really teach the rest of us something, and they were writing about cooking long before they were wooed by the small screen. Nigella though, I harbour deep suspicions about her. She was a journalist, not a cook, and her so-called home cooking is no better than many of my friends who have not been given a contract by some TV company. Mind you, she is able to pay for recipes, and for folk to cook them for her, and then she does it all on camera in red satin with suggestive fingers in the mouth….

And whilst this whole foodie-fest with chefs galore continues on TV, Joe Public is overweight, eats junk food, and can hardly warm up the pizza he eats whilst glued to the TV cookery progs, so the programmes are next to useless in helping those who need to learn basic skills. Let’s clear the slate and get rid of all those overheated egos.


How often do you cook chicken for a family meal? fairly often I'll bet. Sometimes it seems difficult to find a recipe for chicken that is just a bit out of the ordinary, and so when my dear friend EJ served this for a post-theatre supper I begged the recipe from her. I don't make it regularly, but every time I do, I wonder why I don't make it more often as it is simply delicious.


100g creamed coconut (block)
2 medium onions, halved and thinly sliced
Large bunch parsley, finely chopped to give at least 6 Tablespoons
1.250Kg boneless, skinless, chicken breast fillets or thighs
4 Tablespoons plain flour
2 Tablespoons ground coriander
2 Tablespoons ground tumeric
2 Tablespoons ground cumin
60g salted cashew nuts
Salt & Pepper
50g butter
4 Tablespoons lemon juice
500ml chicken/vegetable stock
Sunflower oil for frying

Mix together the flour, spices and seasoning in a large bowl. Dissolve the creamed coconut in 150ml boiling water, stirring until it forms a smooth cream. Trim the chicken of all fat and sinew and either cut each fillet into two pieces lengthwise, or cut each thigh into three pieces. Dip each piece of chicken into the flour/spice mix, so that all the pieces are well coated, shake off any surplus..

Heat 4 tablespoons of sunflower oil and the butter in a large pan and when hot, fry the chicken pieces, in batches, removing them as they turn golden brown and set aside. Add the onion and 50g of the cashew nuts to the pan with a little extra oil if necessary, saute until golden brown stirring frequently. Then stir in all the remaining flour/spice mix together with the coconut cream, stock, 5 tablespoons of the parsley and the lemon juice. Mix everything together and then return the chicken pieces to the pan. Bring to the boil, cover, and simmer gently for approx 20 minutes until the chicken is quite tender and the sauce has thickened, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking.

Just before serving stir in the remaining parsley and cashew nuts.

This needs plenty of rice to soak up all the delicious sauce. It can be made a day in advance, cooled and kept in the fridge, just re-heat and finish off when you want to serve it.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

DEATH, DIVORCE AND MOVING HOUSE ARE SAID TO BE THE THREE MOST STRESSFUL SITUATIONS IN LIFE. So what on earth made me think I would be immune to the stresses of selling our house and moving to a new place? Forgive me if the blogging is somewhat patchy over the next month or so - I've just realised I'm not Superwoman after all.


Romance, sex, la dolce vita, culinary comedy, all combined to make a delicious tale, what more could you ask for in a book? The Food of Love by Anthony Capella is as frothy a concoction as zabaglione and just as sweet and insubstantial.

The plot is light, a variation on Cyrano de Bergerac, where Tommaso, a waiter in a top restaurant in Rome and an inveterate lady-killer, wants to bed Laura, a pretty young American spending a year in Rome studying art history and culture. Laura is fed up with men who make passes, and declares she will only go out with a man who can cook. Enter Bruno, Tommaso’s best friend, a shy commis chef at a Michelin starred restaurant who is passionate about food and cooking. Bruno agrees to assist Tommaso with his plan to seduce Laura by pretending that he is a brilliant chef who will cook for her. In reality Bruno will do the cooking and Tommaso will pass it off as his own. The plan works a treat, and soon Laura falls into Tommaso’s bed. However, life is never that simple, Bruno falls in love with Laura himself, and everything gets very, very complicated as the path of unrequited love never does run smooth.

The atmosphere of backstreet Rome is on every page, and there are some wonderful passages describing the Italian take on life, love, and food:

“In a country where fervent Catholicism was only a generation away, everyone knew there were as many grades of virginity in girls as there were in olive oil –which, of course is divided into extra-virgin (first cold pressing), extra-virgin (second pressing), superfine virgin, extrafine virgin, and so on, down through a dozen or more layers of virginity and near virginity, before finally reaching a level of promiscuity so unthinkable that it is labelled merely as ‘pure’, and thus is fit only for export or lighting fires.”

By the time I finished the book I was desperate to book a flight to Rome ASAP, or else to book a table at a really good Italian restaurant here in London.

So far I have done neither, but I will - I will do both!

Rated: 4*


I’ve come to the conclusion that this country is absolutely overrun with Jobsworths, and they are costing us a pretty penny, not to mention damaging the quality of national life. The thousands and thousands of rules and regulations which have been drawn up over the past twenty years, no doubt with the best of intentions originally, are being implemented to a ludicrous extent by petty officials who wield power over every aspect of society.

A classic example is the 79 year old widow who loves gardening and for the past 8 years has tended a roadside flowerbed in the pretty little village of Urchfont in rural Wiltshire. She has made it so attractive that it has helped the village win the title of Best Kept Village in Wiltshire two years ago.

She is not paid to do it, she does it as a labour of love and civic pride. Now the clodhopping local council, who recently woke up and noticed what she has been doing, have said that as the Urchfont Parish Council don’t have something called a Section 96 license to allow her to do gardening on a public site, she must stop at once. Tending the flowerbed can only be done if a licence has been obtained, and if the following criteria are met:

1. The flowerbed must be properly checked for hidden wires pipes or cables (none have come to light in the past 8 years but no matter…)
2. TWO people must be working on the flowerbed at any time because one must act as a lookout.
3. The gardener and a lookout must wear special clothing, specifically day-glo safety jackets.

4. Warning notices must be placed on the road in all directions to inform motorists that work is being done.

The gardener, who has been working on the flowerbed for eight years, said she would ignore the council's demands.

"I couldn't believe what they were saying I had to do, I come and work on the flowerbed at the drop of a hat, when the weather is fine and I have some time to spare. I can't drag around three great metal signs and have someone standing by in case I might want to do a bit of work on it. I have paid hundreds of pounds to plant the flowers myself and the compost every spring and autumn has been paid out of my pension. I work there until the gardening is done. I love doing it. It is my bit to keep the village tidy. It is a lovely little village. I don't care what they do to me. I will continue working on the flowerbed."

I am amazed that anyone volunteers to do anything at all these days, when they get this kind of treatment. Who needs the hassle. I suppose the local County Council would be happy to let that roadside flowerbed return to a litter-strewn patch of weeds….because then no little old ladies would be breaking the rules.

This is probably one of the most useful recipes in my entire repetoire, it is dead easy, very adaptable and everyone loves the result, perfect for Sunday lunch, a buffet, or a dinner party
In the past fortnight I have made this tart no less than three times - each time with a
different fruit and alcohol, and once using Saxby's puff pastry rather than shortcrust which I had made myself. I could probably make it in my sleep. In winter I usually make it with apples but in summer I use whatever berries I happen to have available.
It has the great advantage that it travels well, so when I have take a contribution to a meal this is a good option. Last weekend I took the one with blueberries down to Dorset. The first picture shows the tart made with blueberries and the other is with cherries.


200g shortcrust pastry made in the usual way .

75g butter
75g caster sugar
1 egg, beaten
75g ground almonds
1½ tablespoons plain flour
1½ tablespoons brandy/Kirsch/Rum
1 ½ kilos ripe cherries, stoned
or strawberries, raspberries or blueberries
or 3/4 apples or pears peeled cored and sliced
or 3/4 nectarines sliced

Pre-heat oven to 200°C

Roll out the pastry and line a 23cm loose bottomed flan tin. Trim the edges.
Place a square of greaseproof paper or baking paper over the pastry and fill the tart with baking beans. Bake blind in the pre-heated oven for 12-15 mins. Then remove from oven and allow to cool slightly before filling.

To make the filling, cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy, beat in the egg and then fold in the ground almonds, flour and alcohol. Fill the pastry shell with the almond cream, spreading it evenly.

Arrange the chosen fruit over the top of the cream, press down slightly.

Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce the heat to 180°and continue baking for a further 10-15 minutes until the top is golden brown and has puffed up.

Remove from the oven and take off the flan tin, sprinkle the top with sieved icing sugar. Serve hot or cold, with cream/crème fraiche or icecream if desired.

Friday, August 10, 2007



Recently I had the good fortune to receive a copy of The Lying Tongue by Andrew Wilson from Susan Hill the acclaimed author and playwrite. She had mentioned on her blog (of which I am a regular reader) that she had six copies to give away and I was one of the lucky recipients.

Set in Venice and Dorset, this is a tale told by a young man who has recently left university with a degree in Art History called Adam Woods. He arrives in Venice and finds himself working as private assistant to a famous but reclusive English writer, Gordon Crace. Crace lives in a crumbling old palazzo, thick with dirt and neglect, surrounded by his superb art collection. He has not written anything for many years following his bestselling novel and Woods, who has ambitions to be a writer himself, eventually determines to write Crace’s biography but without telling his employer what he intends. Early on the reader becomes aware that dark secrets lurk in Crace’s past, and as Adam is a young man completely lacking in moral probity, things get very unpleasant indeed. Adam goes back and forth between Venice and Dorset whilst trying to gather background material on Crace and at the same time trying to get rid of a well established writer who also wishes to write the official biography of Gordon Crace. The reader is never sure quite what is happening as the shifting sands of corruption on which the protagonists are standing make this psychological thriller – which has homoerotic overtones – continuously murky. At the end of the book there is a brilliant, horrific and completely unexpected twist.

This is Andrew Wilson’s debut novel, although he has previously written the biography of one of the greatest crime writers, Patricia Highsmith. I feel sure that the film rights to The Lying Tongue will be snapped up, if they haven’t been already, and I can’t wait to read his next book.


In some totalitarian states the power-that-be have locked dissidents and other so-called trouble makers in mental institutions, claiming that they are mad. Now it seems that some of our own citizens are in danger of having the same thing done to them.

When Mark Davies, who is a keen and experienced swimmer, went for a swim down the River Severn, someone summoned the police and his little dip turned into a major event whereby three fire engines 25 firefighters and two rescue boats were called to try to “save” him; it culminated when he got out of the water and was promptly detained under Section 136 of the Mental Health Act 1983. Fortunately for him, the police doctor who examined him declared that he was perfectly sane and they had to release him after 2 hours.

Why was the Mental Health Act used against him in the first place one asks? There is no law prohibiting swimming in the Severn. There is no local bye-law prohibiting swimming in the river – hence the police had no grounds for arresting him for law breaking. He was not creating a Breach of the Peace, he wasn’t offending anyone, he was not naked, he was not creating a public disturbance…..all he was doing was quietly enjoying a swim.

The police should not be allowed to use the Mental Health Act against citizens who are doing something lawful that they disapprove of, unless there is real concern for the safety of the public.

Personally I think what he was doing was daft. I wouldn’t swim down any river if you paid me, nor would I climb Ben Nevis, or go whitewater rafting, but people do, and as far as I know they are not considered mentally ill. Things have reached a pretty pass when the Boys in Blue misuse the Mental Health Act to detain a citizen who is engaged in a peaceable and lawful activity.

What on earth would the late great John Betjeman make of it I wonder, in his famous poem ‘A Shropshire Lad’ he wrote about Captain Webb, the first man to swim the English Channel:

‘Swimming along -
Swimming along -
Swimming along from Severn,
And paying a call at Dawley Bank while swimming along to Heaven.’


Another recipe that is as good in summer as it is in winter, and it combines two of my favourite things, cumin and chickpeas. I usually make it with Haddock, and last night when suddenly faced with another couple here for supper I used the frozen fillets which are sold in packs of 5/6 by M&S, Tesco, Waitrose and probably every other supermarket - a really useful standby to keep in the freezer.


4 firm white fish fillets (skinless/boneless)
2 heaped teaspoons ground cumin

2 heaped teaspoons ground turmeric

2 heaped teaspoons ground cardamom
2 red peppers (capsicums) deseeded and sliced into strips
2 tins (410g each) chick peas, drained
Juice of ½ lemon

½ cup finely chopped fresh coriander
450ml hot chicken or vegetable stock
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

300g couscous
1 tablespoon olive oil
5-6 spring onions, finely chopped
½ cup finely chopped fresh coriander
450ml boiling water

Mix together the cumin, turmeric and cardamom and put on a flat plate.

Pat the fish fillets dry with kitchen paper and then turn them in the spice mix so they are completely coated. Put enough olive oil in a large frying pan over medium heat, and cook the fish gently on both sides until golden brown. Remove from the pan and set aside but keep warm.

Add a little more olive oil to the pan, and when hot, add the pepper strips and the chickpeas, fry gently for a few minutes then add the hot stock, chopped coriander and lemon juice. Cover the pan and simmer gently for about ten minutes until the peppers are soft and the liquid has reduced and thickened.

Put the couscous in a large heat-proof bowl, stir in the olive oil, chopped coriander and spring onions and pour on the boiling water, stir again and then leave for 10 minutes for the couscous to absorb the water and fluff up. When all the water has been absorbed, stir again, season to taste, then tip the couscous onto a large shallow serving dish.

Carefully place the fish fillets over the couscous and pour the chickpea and pepper mix over the fish. Garnish with some chopped coriander before serving.

A crisp green salad on the side is probably not traditional but goes very well with this dish.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

P.D. James


Born on a Blue Day by Daniel Tammet is subtitled A Memoir of Asperger’s and an Extraordinary Mind, and an extraordinary mind is certainly what Tammet has.

A few years ago I watched a TV documentary, Brainman, about Daniel's phenomenal numerical abilities, and how he learned to speak fluent Icelandic in a single week; so I was really intrigued to read his own account of his life and of how he thinks his mind works.

Daniel has Asperger’s Syndrome, as well as synaesthesia, and he is a Savant. Asperger’s, as you may know, is at the high functioning end of the Autistic spectrum, and synaethesia is when two or more bodily senses routinely come together instead of operating independently. The most common form of synaesthesia is when an individual “sees” numbers, letters or words as colours, hence the title of this book.

“I was born on 31 January 1979 – a Wednesday. I know it was a Wednesday because the date is blue in my mind and Wednesdays are always blue, like the number 9 or the sound of loud voices arguing.”

More than merely experiencing numbers as colours, for Daniel they also have a shape, a texture, a motion, and sometimes an emotional tone. This makes his particular group of neurological syndromes particularly rare. What is also rare is his ability to describe it all to people who do not have his condition.

Much of the book details Daniel’s early childhood and schooldays and how "The sense of never feeling quite comfortable or secure, of always being somehow apart and separate weighed heavily on me". These chapters while interesting, are somewhat repetitive as he gives long explanations of the numerical games he played by himself –though I feel mean saying that because Daniel’s Asperger’s means that he is best able to cope when doing things in a very structured and repetitive manner, so of course he writes like that too. To this day he manages his life by having everything fit certain patterns and becomes extremely anxious and distressed when the unexpected occurs. For example he has to eat exactly 45g of porridge every morning, no more and no less. He describes his inability to connect statements made to him and come up with an appropriate response

"It is like joining the dots in a children’s colouring book and seeing every dot but not what they create when joined together. I find it almost impossible to read between the lines."

Reading Born on a Blue Day gave me a much better understanding of both Asperger’s and of synaesthesia. The human mind and how it works fascinates me, Daniel’s account of how he sees himself, his condition and the world confirmed for me that there is still a huge amount we do not know about our own brains.

Rated: 3*


When will the idiots who work for some of our local authorities realise that Political Correctness is OVER, out-of-fashion, so last century? They keep coming up with really stupid things which get people really confused and irritated. Political Correctness as a concept was bad enough, but when ill-educated twits try to apply it, it becomes nothing short of farcical. Last week I read about this situation in Durham which made me laugh but also made me mad.

A chap called Eddie Fung is about to open a £1.3million restaurant in Durham which will employ 60 local people; he already has another restaurant by the same name in Belfast. They are Chinese restaurants and they are called 'Fat Buddha'. The council's Head of Cultural Services, Tracy Ingle, has written to him to say he must change the name because it is provocative and racist and might give offense to Buddhists, fat being an offensive description, and because the restaurant doesn't serve exclusively vegetarian foods which is what Buddhists eat. Mr Fung is bemused. Firstly, he is Chinese, and a Buddhist himself; secondly, as anyone who has any knowledge of the east could confirm the 'Fat Buddha' is a famous symbol of health, happiness and contentment and is widely used to signal such feelings - what could be more appropriate for a Chinese restaurant? Thirdly, Ms Ingle seems to be under the mistaken impression that Buddha is a deity, which of course he was not, he was a teacher. The Buddhist Society has confirmed that there is no problem calling a restaurant by this name....but no, no, Durham City Council's Cultural Services department (who probably have at least one GCSE in how to make pot noodles they are so culturally aware) think they know much better than anyone else and are trying to insist on the name being dropped. Middle class council apparatchiks should not be meddling in what local businesses call themselves.

By the by, no Buddhists in Belfast seem to have been offended by having a Fat Buddha restaurant, and the local council there has minded its own business. Which is as it should be.


The other day my dear friend Joy presented me with rhubarb, salad leaves and potatoes which she had grown on her allotment. I immediately decided that we would have one of my favourite Spanish dishes for supper. Patatas Bravas (Brave potatoes?) are often served as one of a selection of tapas dishes, but by adding some chorizo sausage and having a large mixed salad on the side it made a wonderful meal.


1kg new potatoes
Olive oil for frying

2 cloves of garlic, finely minced or pushed through a garlic press

6 tablespoons olive oil
1½ tablespoons tomato puree/paste
1½ tablespoons wine vinegar
1 heaped teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon chilli powder or cayenne pepper ( or Tabasco sauce)

Put the potatoes in a large pan of cold, salted water and bring to the boil. Boil until just tender, not quite ready to eat. Drain them and let them cool for a bit before peeling off the skins and cutting them into quarters or thirds.

Meanwhile mix all the sauce ingredients together in a small bowl and whisk well.

Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan and add the potatoes and the garlic. Shallow fry whilst stirring continuously to prevent the garlic from burning . When the potatoes are crisp and golden brown, remove to a serving dish and pour the sauce over them, mixing gently with a wooden spoon so that all the potatoes are slightly coated. Serve hot or warm.

To make this into a complete supper dish, add thick slices of chorizo to the frying pan when sautéing the potatoes.