Friday, January 25, 2008



If prizes were handed out for the most unusual book-titles of the year, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday would certainly be on the short list. This is a book you may well have seen piled up in bookstores over the past twelve months as it was one of the Richard & Judy bookclub Summer Reads for 2007. I admit I had seen it but for some reason had never bothered to pick it up.

This last fortnight I have been laid low with a horrendous flu-like virus which seems to have been doing the rounds, and a friend dropped a copy of SFinTY round to distract me and stop me feeling so sorry for myself! It was the perfect tonic, and I am so glad it did not pass me by.

Dr Alfred Jones is a fisheries scientist employed by a government department. He is married, without children, to a very bossy, high-handed woman who earns more than he does and patronises him in every possible way. Out of the blue, Dr Jones is approached to do a feasibility study for a project to create a salmon river in the Yemen, something he initially dismisses out of hand as a completely daft idea. However, the scheme has come to the notice of various politicians who want the project to go ahead for a variety of self-serving political reasons. Dr Jones ends up being forced to take on the scheme, and to try to figure out how to get 10,000 salmon out to the Yemen, and how to get water in a Yemeni wadi to meet the conditions necessary for their survival.

The whole crazy plan changes Dr Jones in more ways than he could have envisaged and the reader becomes as anxious as he does that the scheme should succeed.

The book is written as a series of letters, emails, diary entries and answers to a Parliamentary Inquiry, and apart from telling a hilarious tale, satirises the bureaucratic nonsense that often passes for governance in Britain today, and the horrible culture of “spin” which has been adopted by our politicians.

A light but most enjoyable book – I think GPs should prescribe books like this for people with flu, combined with paracetamol it was ideal medication.

Rated 4.5*


I am in an absolutely foul humour, having just spent the entire morning on the telephone to the DVLA, and various credit card companies. Two days ago my purse was nicked from my handbag whilst I was in the local library. The LIBRARY, I ask you, is nothing sacred, who expects pickpockets and thieves to be operating in a library? If I had been at Camden Lock or in Petticoat Lane I would have been very much on my guard, but in the library I was completely absorbed in browsing the shelves and totally oblivious to anyone else.

Of course, like just about anyone in this venal world I have a policy with a cardsafe company whereby I just phone them up, and they cancel all my cards, and notify all the appropriate organisations; as I noticed the theft very quickly, I was able to get that underway immediately so whatever little toerag took my purse will find the cards which were in it are useless. There was virtually no money in the purse, just a few coins, so they didn't gain much there either. For me however the hassle was just beginning. New cards have started arriving promptly, but all require activation which means phoning the card suppliers and then they demand passwords, birth date, postcodes, inside leg measurements, name of the first dog I owned, food allergies and all manner of other information before the card is ready for use

Worst of all, my photo Driving License was in the purse, and that is really useful for anyone who wants to commit ID theft. I have, on the advice of my cardsafe company, registered with CIFAS, and have taken out some rather costly ID fraud protection insurance.

The purse also held my library cards (to three different libraries), my blood donor card, some drycleaning tickets for items I had taken into be cleaned half an hour earlier and various other cards that have no intrinsic value but replacing them will take time. Pissed off doesn't even begin to describe how I feel right now.

I am beginning to think that boiling in oil would not be too severe a punishment for this type of theft.


There is nothing nicer in the morning than a mug of coffee or tea, a couple of rusks and a quiet fifteen minutes with the newspaper. Rusks are very much a South African institution, whether homemade or commercially produced; needless to say, I think homemade rusks are far superior. It was probably the Dutch trekboers who first used rusks as a quick breakfast, as the double baking means that they keep well for ages. I have tried a variety of rusk recipes over the years, but this is the one I make over and over again. The quantities given make a lot of rusks - I have just made a batch, and half of them went to the DD and DDBF, as she loves them too.


1 Kg Self raising flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
250g firm margarine (eg Stork)
1½ cups caster sugar
500g buttermilk
175 mls sunflower/corn oil
2 large eggs
2 cups sunflower seeds, chopped nuts, candied peel, raisins and/or other dried fruits. Use your own preferred combination from the above – or just put one cup of raisins and one cup of All Bran.

Pre-heat oven to 180°C

Grease and line the base and sides of two large shallow baking tins (each approx 30cms by 20cms)

Sift the flour, salt and baking powder together into a large bowl.
Melt the margarine and stir it in – it will seem lumpy at this stage.
Stir in the sugar.
Beat the oil, eggs and buttermilk together and stir the liquid mixture into the dry ingredients.
Lastly stir in the seeds, fruits, nuts etc.
Spread the mixture evenly into the two tins and press down so there are no gaps.
Bake in the oven for 45mins to 1 hour. It will rise slightly and be golden brown.
Remove from the oven onto a baking rack and allow to cool in the tins.

When cold, remove from the tins, and with a serrated knife cut into pieces.
(There will be lots of crumbs – feed them to the birds!) Stack the cut pieces back into the tins at an angle to each other – so air can pass between them.
Set the oven to very, very low heat - 50°C, and put the tins of rusks back in the oven and leave there overnight to dry out completely.

Store in an airtight tin or tupperware box.

Thursday, January 17, 2008


so wrote the poet Robert Browning, and it is my message to the DH on our 32nd wedding anniversary today.


If I hadn’t heard Melissa Bank reading from her first novel at a local bookshop some years ago, I might well have assumed she was a chick-lit writer, and that she is not. Her second book The Wonder Spot covers similar territory to The Girl’s Guide to Hunting & Fishing, and uses the same distinctive format, a series of loosely linked stories about one individual.

The Wonder Spot covers twenty years in the life of Sophie Applebaum, from schoolgirl to maturity. Sophie has a deep sense of inadequacy which is only slightly diluted by the passing of time. She lives in New York, although I feel that the word ‘lives’ is not really the right one, she clings to existence in New York would be nearer the mark, anxiously seeking a life, a career, love and friendship. Somehow she misjudges people all the time, the wrong men, the wrong friendships. As she says of herself at one point, at drinks parties she feels like a solid trying to do a liquid’s job.

Banks is a very controlled writer and a wonderful turn of phrase which makes these stories very real and very poignant, but the book doesn’t quite come together as a novel, and yet it is not a collection of short stories in the usual way. That left me as a reader feeling rather incomplete.

Rated 3.5*


I was a schoolgirl in Cape Town when Dr Christiaan Barnard made medical history with the first heart transplant on a man called Louis Washansky. The newspapers were full of it, and when driving past Groote Schuur Hospital, I remember thinking how amazing and marvellous it was to live in an age where the heart of someone who had died could be used to keep another person alive.

Over the many years since then I have continued to be interested in such medical advances, and I am a regular blood donor, both here and in South Africa. I am not a luddite, nor a religious fundamentalist, or Jehovah's Witness nor do I belong any of the other groups who all set their faces firmly against blood transfusions or organ transplants for a variety of emotional and quasi-biblical reasons. If I or a member of my family needed a life-saving transplant I hope it would be possible.

Even so, I do have my sticking points. And first and foremost of these is that I consider that my body belongs to ME and to me alone. If I want to donate my liver, kidneys, corneas, skin, heart, lungs or any other bits and bobs to be used for those who might need them that is entirely up to me.

It is not up to Gordon Brown, our fuhrer, who this week said that unless people positively said otherwise, their organs should be available for transplant. The state does not own the bodies of its citizens, it cannot harvest them at will, just as it cannot haul people in off the streets and take blood from them, even when as regularly occurs there is a shortage of blood for emergency use.

I do realise that there is a shortage of organs for transplant, and that the Organ Donor Card scheme does not cover all the population. It must seem very frustrating for transplant teams to know that often, perfectly "useable" organs are buried or cremated because the deceased person had not agreed to donation; never-the-less, I think it would be very wrong to shift the legal position from an opt-in to donation scheme to an opt-out scheme. Why should the onus be on an individual to say what should be done with his or her own body or else the state will just take it. If the government are so concerned about the paucity of organs suitable for transplant, it would be better if they were to mount a really active campaign to persuade people to carry donor cards, and/or to have them asked if they would agree to be put on a donor register when they pay a visit to their GP.


I came across a strata recipe some years ago in a book on American baking, since then I have discovered that this dish has numerous variations and there are loads of different ways you can ring the changes. It seems to be served regularly at brunches and lunches in the USA, and for many families it is traditional to have it on Christmas morning for breakfast. No wonder, it is so accommodating, you prep the whole thing the night before and then just shove it in the oven next day. Everyone I've served it to loves it, and it is cheap, filling, and easy enough for a student to make. The one stipulation is you MUST use decent bread. Nothing pre-sliced or out of a packet. The local baker's white tin loaf is ideal.


Serves 8

10 thick slices good white bread, crusts removed
200g bacon or lardons
200g mushrooms, halved then sliced

1 medium large onion, peeled and chopped
8 large eggs
200g grated cheddar or similar cheese
300ml single cream
Salt and black pepper

Oil and butter for cooking

Grease a large, shallow oven-proof dish.
Cut the bread into even cubes.
In a frying pan, sauté the lardons until crisp and browning. Add the chopped onion to the pan and fry them in the fat from the lardons, adding a little oil if needed.
Remove the lardons and onion from the pan, then add a knob of butter and dash of oil to it before sautéing the mushroom pieces.

Cover the base of the oven-proof dish with a layer of bread cubes. Sprinkle half the lardons, onions and mushrooms over them. Cover them with half the grated cheese and then add another layer of bread cubes. Cover them with the remaining lardons, onions, mushrooms and cheese.

Break the eggs into a bowl, add salt and pepper and the cream. Beat them together thoroughly – an electric whisk is best for this.

Pour the egg/cream mixture evenly over the bread etc. Cover tightly with clingfilm. Then very gently push down on the mixture in the dish so that all the bread is submerged in the eggy mix. Place in the fridge and leave overnight or longer if necessary.

In the morning pre-heat the oven to 175°C. Remove the clingfilm from the strata and place in the centre of the oven to bake for 40minutes – 1 hour until puffed up and golden brown.

Remove from the oven and allow to rest for 10-15 minutes before serving.

Great as part of a buffet, and with a green salad. Teenage boys may want to have ketchup and HP sauce with it!

Wednesday, January 09, 2008



When I saw The Bethlehem Murders by Matt Rees on the new books shelf in the library I vaguely remembered reading a positive review of it in the Economist, and because the title seemed so appropriate in the week before Christmas I added it to my pile of reading material.

The first thing to say about the book is that it is far from festive reading, life in modern day Bethlehem is bleak, hard and dangerous. In this difficult environment Omar Yussef, a middle aged history teacher who works in a UN run school in a Palestinian refugee camp just outside the city, takes it upon himself to solve the murder of one of his former pupils. He has to contend with the various lawless Palestinian factions dodging both their wrath, and Israeli fire in equal measure, but he is determined to get at the truth. Yussef is a great new addition to the long list of memorable detectives such as Morse, Marlow, and Rebus.

In addition to being a cracking crime story, the book told me more about the situation within the occupied territories of the West Bank than I could have learned from reading any number of serious articles in the news media.

Many years ago we visited Bethlehem, and I have clear memories of the town as it was then, thronging with tourists, and relatively easily accessible from Israel proper. How different it is today; reading The Bethlehem Murders I felt I was IN Bethlehem, walking the hot, dusty, rubble strewn streets. I could sense the fear and feel the overwhelming hopelessness that now pervades the people who live there, particularly the young people.

Matt Rees, who lives in Jerusalem, was Time magazine’s bureau chief in that city from 2000-2006 and Middle East correspondent for The Scotsman and Newsweek, so he knows the area very well indeed. This is his first novel, though he has written a highly regarded non fiction book about Palestinian-Israeli divisions. His next book featuring Omar Yussef The Saladin Murders is to be published in February and it is already on my Must Read list.

For some reason the titles of Matt Rees’s books are different in the USA and the UK – I really can’t understand the need for publishers to do this:

The Bethlehem Murders (UK) is titled The Collaborator of Bethlehem (USA) and his new book The Saladin Murders (UK) is titled A Grave in Gaza (USA).

Rated 4.5*


What kind of society are we becoming? I felt really horrified and angry when I heard about Ama Sumani being taken from a hospital bed to be sent back to Ghana. I know she has broken the UK visa regulations, and she has failed to communicate with the immigration authorities, so in strictly legal terms her removal from the country is justified.

But this woman is very, very ill. She has malignant myeloma which has fatally damaged her kidneys. If she were entitled to NHS treatment she would have been given a bone marrow transplant to treat the cancer; as she is not entitled to such treatment she has been kept alive by having kidney dialysis three times a week. If she is sent back to Ghana this grievously ill woman will not be able to have regular dialysis and the doctors at the University Hospital of Wales where she was being treated say that without it she will die within weeks.

In effect, our immigration bureaucrats, by sticking strictly to the regulations, are condemning her to death.

What happened to compassion, to pity, to care and concern for a fellow human being? Making an exception in Ama Sumani's case would not open the floodgates for other visa violators, it would merely demonstrate that we are a civilised and humane society.

Or are we?


The excesses of the whole Christmas/New Year season are well behind us now and I, for one, am glad to be eating simpler meals. This year I am determined to try a new recipe or two every month and this is the first of what I hope will be many successful experiments. As a weeknight supper dish it has several advantages; firstly it is a 'one dish' dish so there is minimal washing-up, secondly Halloumi keeps for ages and ages so buy some, put it in the fridge and then you can rustle this up when you have to provide a vegetarian meal. The DH and son both gave it the seal of approval two nights ago and I think it will become an old favourite very soon.


Serves 4

1 butternut squash
4 potatoes
2 red peppers (The Romano variety are best for this dish)
2 red onions
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
250g block Halloumi cheese, cut into chunks
Handful of pine nuts
Fresh basil leaves to garnish

Pre-heat oven to 200°C

Put the pine nuts on a small baking tray and place in the oven to toast – it will take 4-5 minutes. Set your oven timer to remind you as they burn ever so quickly! Remove from the oven when lightly toasted and set aside.

Peel the butternut and remove the seeds and stringy material. Cut into chunks and place in large roasting tin.
Peel the potatoes and cut into quarters. Place them in the roasting tin with the squash.
Cut the stalks off the red peppers and remove the seeds, cut the flesh into large pieces and add to the squash and potatoes.
Peel the onions, halve them and cut each half into 3 wedges, add to the roasting tin.
Drizzle the olive oil over all the vegetables, and season with a little salt and plenty of freshly ground black pepper; mix to ensure all the vegetables are well coated.
Roast in the oven for 30-35 minutes until the veggies are becoming slightly charred at the edges, remove from the oven.

Sprinkle the balsamic vinegar over the vegetables, and scatter the chunks of Halloumi cheese over the top.
Return to the oven for 15-20 minutes until the Halloumi is golden and beginning to brown.

Scatter with the toasted pine nuts and shredded basil leaves, and serve piping hot with crusty bread.