Thursday, February 21, 2008



Allegra Goodman’s book Intuition is set firmly in the world of biological science, and explores the relationships, ambitions, and ethical standards of a group of biologists working in a research institute at Harvard in Cambridge Massachusetts. The Philpott Institute, which relies on public grants for its funding, is headed by Marion Mendelssohn, a pure scientist, and Sandy Glass an ebullient and charismatic oncologist. Under them is a team of Post Docs (scientists who have done their PhDs and are no longer students), researchers and technicians. Various trials are ongoing in the search for cancer cures. Cliff, a young, good-looking, and very ambitious Post Doc, seems to have discovered that the cancerous tumours in mice can be reduced by injecting them with R-7 virus.

Sandy Glass is jubilant and pushes for fast-track publication of the results as this will bring kudos to the Institute and secure further, much needed, funding. Marion is more cautious and feels it is too early to go public, but Sandy prevails. Robin, a senior Post Doc who is both colleague and ex-girlfriend of Cliff’s, is dubious about some of his results. She takes her concerns to Marion and Sandy but they do not take her seriously. Eventually, not able to cope with the pressure of having to work with Cliff on his project, and unable to continue her own line of research, she quits the Institute, and conveys her niggling doubts about the R-7 virus results to ORIS, the Office for Research Integrity in Science. She has lit the touch paper to a real brush-fire. The politics of scientific research on both a micro and macro level come under the spotlight of media attention, with unforeseen consequences for those at the Philpott and for Robin herself.

One is never quite sure of Robin or of Cliff. Were Robin’s motives in going to ORIS driven by unacknowledged jealousy of Cliff’s apparent success? Was Cliff so sure that he was on the right track with his research that he massaged the data to give favourable results? What IS truth in scientific terms?

What I really liked about the book was the sense that the researchers at the institute constituted a family, with Marion as mother and Sandy as father. They might squabble and bicker amongst themselves, but when faced with outside criticism they immediately presented a defensive united front.

Outside the genre of Sci-Fi – which may have many for all I know - it is rather surprising that there haven’t been many novels featuring science and scientists. Off hand I can only think of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, and Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis, and more recently The Andromeda Strain and Prey by Michael Crichton. As we move into the 21st Century, I predict that there will be many more books set in the fascinating world of scientific research.

A word of warning for any anti-vivisectionists reading this post – this book will have you baying for blood (so to speak) as the descriptions of the mice used in the experiments and what is done to them is fairly graphic.

Rated 4.5*


No ranting right now, I have been having the most wonderful time catching up with old friends. Going back to the school you left 40 years previously and sitting in the dining hall with the same people you sat with all those years ago certainly unlocks the memory vaults. Sights, sounds and smells came rushing back to mind.

Over the past four days we have had a full programme of cocktail parties, a church service, a lunch with speeches, a fantastic dinner which lasted until 2am, and finally, on a glorious hot day, a fabulous lunch on the terrace of one of South Africa's premier wine farms which is home to one of our classmates. As might be expected, there has been much laughter, a few tears, endless chatter, and an atmosphere of genuine affection for one another.


Before I left for South Africa we had friends round for dinner, and as the starter and main course were influenced by Thai and Indian cooking, I thought I should keep up the fusion food theme with the pudding, and I wanted something I could prepare in advance. This hit the spot, and everyone raved about it. A simple twist on an old faithful.

I'm afraid my photo seems to have vanished, I will try to get it back when I get home.

Serves 8

1 cup granulated or caster sugar
cup water
1 can (400ml) coconut milk

½ cup cream
6 large eggs
½ teaspoon vanilla
Pinch of ground cardamom (optional)

½ cup dark brown sugar – firmly packed

Toasted coconut and finely grated lime zest to garnish

Pre-heat the oven to 160°C

Set out 8 oven-proof ramekins.

Combine the granulated sugar and water in a small non-stick saucepan, heat gently, stirring all the time until the sugar is dissolved. Increase the heat and bring up to the boil. Boil without stirring until the syrup turns an even golden brown colour. It takes 5-8 mins, and you must watch it carefully as once it starts to colour it can overcook very quickly.

Remove pan from the heat and quickly pour some of the caramel in to the base of each ramekin, swirling it round to cover the base completely. Place them in a large baking tin with space between each and put to one side to set.

Whisk the eggs together in a large bowl, add the coconut milk, cream, vanilla, brown sugar and cardamom (if using). Beat together until well combined.
Carefully pour this mixture into each ramekin. Pour boiling water into the baking tin so that it reaches halfway up the side of each ramekin. Set the baking tin in the centre of the pre-heated oven and bake for 30 minutes or so, until the custards are just set. Remove from the baking tin and set to cool on a wire rack. When cool cover each ramekin with clingfilm and put in the fridge for 4-5 hours or overnight.

When ready to serve, run a knife round the side of each ramekin and carefully turn out onto serving plate. Sprinkle with grated lime zest and toasted coconut.
Delicious on it’s own or with a tropical fruit salad.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

THIS TIME TOMORROW I WILL BE WINGING MY WAY TO SOUTH AFRICA FOR MY 40TH MATRIC REUNION, AND TO CATCH UP WITH DEAR FRIENDS - so there may be a bit of a hiatus in my blog posting for a week or two.


People of the Book is the latest novel by Geraldine Brooks who wrote March (which won the Pulitzer Prize) and a wonderful first novel, A Year of Wonders.

This novel is a book about a book, a very special book known as the Sarajevo Haggedah. In 1996 a young Australian woman, Hanna Heath, who is a rare book conservator specialising in the repair and restoration of incunabula ( books produced before 1501 AD), is appointed by the UN to go to Sarajevo to examine a book which has been kept hidden during the Bosnian War. The book turns out to be the renowned Sarajevo Haggadah, a lavishly illustrated Mediaeval Hebrew manuscript which was made at a time when Jewish belief was very much against illustrations of any kind. This was because the Jews of the Middle Ages still adhered to the command given in Exodus that “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image or likeness of anything”.

On close examination, Hanna finds that the book contains some tiny clues as to its earlier life – an insect wing, wine stains, some salt crystals and a white hair. Following these clues she attempts to unravel the history of this remarkable book,

Geraldine Brooks has inserted tales of the various times and places which have featured in the life of the book into the story of Hanna Heath and her investigations and how they impact on both her professional and private life, cleverly marrying fiction with what is actually known about the book.

Moving backwards through time the reader discovers what happened to the Haggedah during the 2nd World War when a Muslim librarian saved the book from the Nazis; through Vienna at the turn of the 19th Century when anti-Semitism was on the rise, and the book became a pawn in a deadly game; back through the Inquisition in Venice where the Haggadah was saved from being burnt by a Catholic priest. Finally we learn of the book’s early history in Spain where it was originally produced in 1480 AD to be a wedding gift, and why it was illustrated in the way it was.

The author has based her novel on a true story, but has written her own version of the people that were involved with this remarkable book. What is particularly remarkable is that on two occasions Muslim librarians risked their lives to save a single book that was testament to the endurance of a faith which was not their own.

I learnt a great deal from reading this book - about 15th Century Spain, about the conservation of rare books, about Judaecia, about the Hapsburg Empire at the fin-du-siecle, and above all, about how special librarians are.

This book has a great story, and is an informative read, I really recommend it to you.

Rated 5*


Thank the lord I shall be out of the country on Valentine’s Day as I am heartily (geddit?) sick of the overpriced commercial tat that is everywhere. And I do mean everywhere, shops, supermarkets, hairdressers, petrol stations….(would YOU want a love token purchased from a garage forecourt?)

How does it get to the point where a rather quaint old-fashioned tradition turns into a mega-marketing opportunity so that the whole thing has become a nauseously unromantic parody of what the day originally represented.

Every restaurant is fully booked for that evening, I suspect they could be serving mildewed tripe on toast and still make a huge profit, service will be abominable as they pack in too many punters. As far as I’m concerned it is the one night of the year where it is best to avoid restaurants like the plague. I’m slightly surprised that MacDonald's hasn’t jumped on the bandwagon with a heart-shaped Big Mac.

For days beforehand the cost of flowers rockets upwards, and if my DH ever thought of buying me any of the exorbitantly priced, scent free, red roses that the florists are stocking in bulk (which he won’t be doing as we will be about 8000 miles apart) I would probably bash him over the head with them for wasting his money.

Many of the Valentine’s cards on sale have lavatorial jokes, or sexually crude messages that would make a stripper blush – who would want to receive one of those from their paramour?

As far as I’m concerned you can take all the sickly pink heart-shaped marshmallows, cheap milk chocolate heart-shaped lollipops, heart-shaped helium balloons etc and dump them in some land-fill site.

Big business has targeted the day, and managed to shoot Cupid in the process.


We have two friends who have Coeliac disease which means that they cannot tolerate any gluten in their diet. When I have either of them to dinner I have to plan the menu carefully because it is amazing how often a recipe calls for a spoonful of flour here or there. I came across this marvellous, completely gluten free recipe on a food blog I often read, Kalyn's Kitchen (to visit her blog click HERE), and I tweaked it a bit to fit what ingredients I had in store. This is one recipe I will be making regularly, and not just for those who have Coeliac disease.


Serves 4

3 large skinless and boneless chicken breasts,

3 Tablespoons mayonnaise
3 Tablespoons Dijon mustard
Tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Tablespoons water
1 large clove of garlic, pushed through a garlic press

¾ teaspoons seasoning of your choice - I used Tesco's Hot Spicy Rub

3 Tablespoons freshly grated parmesan cheese

1½ cups ground almonds
½ teaspoons seasoning
salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste

Slice the chicken breasts crosswise into 1½ cm wide strips – each breast should make 6-7 pieces.

Whisk the mayonnaise, mustard, balsamic vinegar, water, garlic and seasoning together in a bowl, and then add the chicken pieces, stirring well so they are completely coated in the marinade. Cover with clingfilm and marinate for at least 3-4 hours (you can make it in the morning or even the night before).

Pre-heat the oven to 220°C

Use non-stick baking spray to coat a large baking tray (or grease it lightly with vegetable oil).

Remove the chicken and marinade from the fridge and allow to come to room temperature.

Mix the grated parmesan, ground almonds and seasoning together in a large shallow bowl.

Shake excess marinade off each piece of chicken and toss in the coating mixture until well covered, lay the pieces in a single layer, not touching, on the greased baking tray.

Bake in the oven for 10 minutes, then take out, and using a metal spatula gently turn each piece over before returning to the oven for a further 8-10 minutes. The pieces should be a golden brown.

Serve with a crisp green salad.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Answers on a postcard please.


Amongst other books I was given for Christmas were two slim volumes from a new series, Great Journeys, published by Penguin Books. There are twenty books in the series, each consisting of an extract from a larger work by renowned writers from Herodotus and Mas’Ūdī to George Orwell and Ryszard Kapuściński and covering journeys on every continent.

The two books I was given were #11 In the Heart of the Amazon Forest by Walter Henry Bates, and #14 Adventures in the Rocky Mountains by Isabella Bird.

Bates was one of the major zoologists of the Victorian era, and spent eleven years living on the Amazon where he gathered 15000 specimens, mostly insects. This extract, from his book The Naturalist on the River Amazon, tells of his time staying at a place where the various river systems of the Amazon all meet. He describes the lives of the various tribes of Amazonian Indians who live there, how they use blow-pipes for hunting, what they eat and drink, and how they have interacted with the colonials who are spreading slowly through the forests. His descriptions of the wildlife he encounters are so vivid, I could really SEE the various ants, jaguars, turtles, alligators and birds that he writes about.

Isabella Bird was also a Victorian traveller although she was not a zoologist. She was the daughter of an English clergyman and was sent off to Hawaii and America to improve her poor health – given that this was in 1854 it seems a rather drastic remedy, but seemingly it did the trick, after she had climbed the worlds highest volcano (as one does) she set off, in 1873, for Colorado - which in those days was untamed territory, still occupied by Red Indians (or Native Americans as they prefer to be called now) and outside the boundaries of the fledgling union of States which has become the USA.

The book consists of a collection of some of the letters she wrote to her sister Henrietta who was back in England, describing the incredible beauty of the country she was riding through, the magnificence of the Rocky Mountains and the wild pioneers who are settling the land. She tells of encounters with a grizzly bear, beavers, elk, a half-crazed settler who had become a cannibal, and describes the the trees and plants which grow in abundance and are all strange to her. A formidable woman in every sense of the word!

I found these books absolutely enthralling, and because of their size I was able to tuck them into my handbag, so passing tedious time standing in queues at the supermarket and post office, mentally transported to north and south America. When I announced that I intended to collect the entire series, my DD and her BF were delighted, as there are 18 more, and that should solve the perennial question of what to give Mum for her birthday and Christmas for some years to come!

Rated 5*


I have only dialled 999 on three occasions, once when a neighbour’s teenage daughter inadvertently set fire to her bedroom when her mum was out, once to call for an ambulance when a motorcyclist was hit by a car in front of me, and once, at 3 a.m. when I was woken by the sound of breaking glass and saw two men breaking into the house opposite. On every occasion the appropriate service arrived fairly quickly (fire speedily doused, motorcyclist scooped up and blue-lighted to A&E to be treated, burglars escaped but were arrested two weeks later).

In each case I was confident that dialing 999 was the correct thing to do. You dial 999 when there is an emergency. That is an E.M.E.R.G.E.N.C.Y. not when you have a problem. I thought everyone knew that, come on, its basic knowledge isn’t it? Apparently not. South Wales Police have just announce that they are changing the words they use when answering 999 calls. Up to now you would have heard “How can I help you?” from now on they will be saying “What is your emergency?”. They have decided to do this because they are getting so many time-wasting calls such as the woman who dialed 999 and said "My husband has the TV remote and won't let me watch EastEnders”, and the man who called to say "Can you come round and take my mother-in-law away? She has been here for 18 days".

Pound to a penny this sort of ridiculous behaviour is happening all over the country and not just in South Wales, and every time some moron makes a call like that, the rest of us who might really need the emergency services are put in jeopardy if we can’t get through because the lines are busy.

I am not a great one for demanding new legislation, but modern telephony makes it possible for calls to be traced, and anyone who makes one of these utterly stupid calls should be hauled over the coals and given a hefty fine


In the 70s when I was newly married and just beginning to flex my muscles in the kitchen, Beef Stroganoff was often on menus, but I couldn't afford the fillet steak that the recipe usually demanded and so made a version of the recipe using pork. Of course it is not the 'classic' dish which was apparently created in the 1890s by the chef of a Russian aristocrat, Count Pavel Alexandrovich Stroganov*, but it was jolly tasty anyway, and the other night I suddenly had the urge to make it once more. This recipe is more or less the same as the original one I used all those years ago, but with one addition which I took from the recipe given by those fantastic cooks, The Two Fat Ladies, namely some gin to flavour the pork.


Serves 4

500g pork tenderloin (fillet)
200g mushrooms
Dash of sunflower oil
2 tablespoons butter
2 medium onions

1 teaspoon Paprika
6 tablespoons gin
150mls sour cream or crème fraiche
Salt and pepper

Handful of parsley, finely chopped for garnishing.

Cut the pork tenderloin across the grain into 1cm wide discs.
Finely slice the mushrooms.
Peel the onions and cut in half from top to bottom and then slice in the same direction to make fine slices. (This makes long slivers of onion rather than half-moon shaped slices)

Heat the oil and butter in a large frying pan and sauté the pork slices in batches turning regularly so they are slightly browned. As they are done remove them from the pan and keep warm. When all the pork is done, add a little more oil to the pan and then sauté the onions until quite soft and just beginning to colour then add the mushroom slices and continue cooking until they are soft.
Remove the onions and mushrooms from the pan.
Return all the pork to the pan, together with any juices, add the gin and heat gently for a few minutes. Then use a long match to set light to the gin, and whilst it is flaming baste the pork with it. Season with salt and pepper, and then stir in the paprika.
Lastly, stir the crème fraiche into the pan and continue cooking for a few minutes until it is bubbling gently.

Serve, sprinkled with parsley, on a bed of noodles or with creamy mashed potatoes

*BTW I've just discovered another recipe which takes Count Stroganoff's name - a cocktail of vodka, white creme de cacao, and lime juice - sounds yummy, I intend to try it sometime.