Friday, April 25, 2008



Families, can’t live with them, can’t live without them” as the apocryphal saying goes, and that could well be the subtitle for Charlotte Mendelson’s latest book When We Were Bad.

The Rubins are an Anglo-Jewish family living in north London. Claudia, the mother is a celebrity female Rabbi, her husband Norman is a quiet man who lets his wife take centre stage in everything. Their four children are Frances, an intelligent, nervous young woman unhappily married to a widower with two little girls; she has a baby called Max and fears she does not love him as she ought to. Leo her brother, a young barrister just beginning to make his way in the legal profession, is well educated, charming and dutiful; and the two younger siblings, Simeon and Emily, both of whom still live at home in their twenties, are spoilt, demanding and lazy.

Collectively they are seen by the community as the perfect family, and indeed they regard themselves as such.

The book begins on Leo’s wedding day. He is to marry Naomi, a suitable Jewish girl, and the planned ceremony and celebrations are elaborate and expensive. Just as the bride arrives at his side in the synagogue, he announces he cannot go through with it, and bolts, taking with him Helene, wife of the officiating Rabbi, with whom he has been having an affair. The ensuing scandal and chaos are just the start of the whole Rubin family going into meltdown over the following weeks.

The secret desires and ambitions of all members of the family rise to the surface to the horror of Claudia who has spent her whole adult life constructing an edifice that she thought would keep them all safe, but her iron grip on her children has begun to crumble and they are thinking and acting independently at last. Claudia tries to pull everything back together with an over the top Passover seder but it is too late, the family has changed forever. In his poem 'This be the verse' Philip Larkin wrote:

They fuck you up your mum and dad
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you up with faults they had
And add some extra, just for you

and Charlotte Mendelson has managed to sum up exactly how this has happened to the Rubin children in When We Were Bad. By turns kind to or angry with the various characters, her observations are so acute that they seemed so real to me that I kept thinking they must be based on people I know.

This is a very funny, sharp look at the life of a family where the balance between being nurtured and being stifled was out of kilter. I read the book in one sitting, sometimes laughing, sometimes cringing; I am the parent of adult children myself and some of the expectations and anxieties of the Rubin family seemed rather close to home.

Charlotte Mendelson has written two other novels, and I am really looking forward to reading them.

Rated 5*


You would have had to be living on Mars to avoid the press coverage of the Pope’s recent visit to the USA – he certainly eclipsed our PM Gordon Brown who was on an official visit there at the same time.

Normally I don’t give much thought to speeches by the Pope, however he made a major speech in Washington DC which really annoyed me.

Addressing the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, he expressed shame and sorrow for the crisis of child abuse within the Catholic priesthood in America over the past few years, and he berated the bishops for their handling of the whole ghastly mess; but then he went on to say that secular society was also culpable for it having happened.

What the hell is he talking about? How is secular society to blame for Catholic priests abusing Catholic children in their pastoral care?

On virtually all sexual matters the attitude of the Catholic church strikes me as misogynistic, paternalistic, antedeluvian and downright hypocritical, and this statement is yet another example of that attitude.

Child abuse is a CRIME, Bishops who have shielded abusers should be removed from their positions. A firm message should go out from the Vatican that any member of the church who abuses children will be handed over to the authorities immediately.

Do that Pope Benedict, and stop trying to blame American society in general.


Last Saturday evening was the first night of Pesach or Passover, and a very dear Jewish friend of ours invited the DH and I to join with her family and friends for the Passover seder. Not being Jewish I was not very sure what happens on such an occasion, but I did know that it was a special meal, so we felt very honoured to have been asked. I also knew that when Christ celebrated the Last Supper, that was actually a Passover seder, and that no food containing yeast or any other leavening could be in the house, served or eaten for eight days.

There are lots of websites where you can learn all about this Jewish festival, suffice to say that for thousands of years Jews have celebrated the exodus from slavery in Egypt, and the seder is a way of remembering it. I was slightly concerned, when, having asked our hostess if there was anything I could bring for the meal, she asked me to make Potato Kugel and supplied me with some Matzo meal. I had never eaten or made it before, but Potato Kugel is a dish that every Jewish family in the world seems to have their own recipe for, and they consider their family's version to be the "best" and absolutely definative. What would my friend's other guests (who included Germans, Israelis, French and English Jews) make of my amateur attempt at a classic Ashkenazi dish? In the event I need not have worried, it was simplicity itself and turned out fine - everyone was very complimentary. (By the way you can buy Matzo meal in the Kosher section of most supermarkets, I checked afterwards.)


1kg potatoes
1 large onion
2 large eggs
2 Tablespoons plain flour (or matzo meal)
2 Tablespoons oil (corn, sunflower or vegetable)
Salt & pepper

Extra oil for cooking.

Pre-heat oven to 190°C

Peel the potatoes and the onion and grate them coarsely in a food processor. Place the grated potatoes and onion in a sieve or colander for a few minutes to drain off the excess liquid that will be produced.

Take handfuls of the grated potato and onion and squeeze out as much liquid as possible then place them in a large bowl.

Take a large shallow ovenproof dish and pour about 4 tablespoons of oil into it before placing it in the oven for the oil to get hot.

Mix the eggs, oil, and matzo meal/flour together. The consistency should be pourable but not too runny. Season the potato and onion mix well (potatoes need a fair bit of salt) and then add the egg mixture. Mix everything together with a wooden spoon.

Take the dish from the oven and carefully spoon the kugel mixture into it, pressing it gently but evenly into the corners and making the surface as level as possible.

Bake in the oven for 40minutes until the surface is golden brown and crispy.

Can be made in advance as it reheats really, really well.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

60 YEARS OF MARRIAGE DESERVES CELEBRATING - I've been doing just that with family and friends who came from all over the UK, and from Canada, New Orleans, Milan and France, to join my parents for a three day extravaganza celebrating their anniversary.
The Queen even sent them a congratulatory card!
It was exhausting but wonderful.


As you may have noticed, most of the books I read are fiction – but every so often I read other things; Black Diamonds by Catherine Bailey is non-fiction, and is sub-titled ‘The Rise and Fall of an English Dynasty’. The story it tells is so engrossing, contains so many fascinating characters and is written in such a compelling way that I could not put it down. I had to keep reminding myself that it was not fiction; it was history that I was reading.

This is the story of one of England’s great aristocratic families, the Fitzwilliams of Yorkshire and their grand country mansion Wentworth; how they rose to prominence and how they declined; it is also a history of the coal mining which enriched them, the growth of the miners’ unions, and the changes in society which saw their fame and fortune fade.

Calling Wentworth House a grand country mansion doesn’t really do it justice. Wentworth was - and is - the largest privately owned house in Britain; it is absolutely enormous, an estate agent would probably have an orgasm trying to describe its 400 rooms and its five miles of corridor. Guests who stayed there were given little silver caskets of different coloured confetti so they could lay a trail in order to find their way back to their bedrooms after dinner.

Opening with the funeral of the 6th Earl Fitzwilliam in 1902, and the succession of his grandson ‘Billy Fitzbilly’ the reader is immediately plunged into a bitter family row over the inheritance, mental illness, and the rumours that the new 7th Earl was a ‘spurious child’, a changeling.

No novel is more extraordinary than this, for the next 70 years the family packs in illicit love affairs, chorus girls on the make, forbidden love, war heroes and violent death – including the tragic relationship they had with the Kennedy family.

Entwined with all this, is the story of the miners and their families who worked the Fitzwilliam mines for centuries, the dangers, squalor and poverty that was their lot. Finally it is the story of class war and a way of life gone for ever.

Catherine Bailey has done an impressive job in researching and writing Black Diamonds; I learned a great deal of early 20th century political history from the book, and have gained real understanding of the growth of the union movement in Britain.

Wentworth House still stands, no longer owned by the Fitzwilliam family it is shuttered up and closed to the public, but there is a public footpath which passes close to the magnificent main façade – I am determined, one day, to go to Yorkshire and see it.

Rated 5*


I’ll bet that you have at least one garment made from wool, most people do. Where did the wool come from? Why, from sheep of course. A sheep shearer removed the fleece from the sheep so that it could be processed into wool, the sheep was not harmed, and grew a new fleecy coat which could be sheared off a year later.

Mankind has been shearing sheep for thousands of years, in Europe, north and south America, Asia, India, Australia….everywhere that there are sheep to be shorn.

For many years, Kent County Show here in England, has had a demonstration of sheep shearing, and it has always been a popular event at the Show. This year however it has been banned – animal rights activists have demanded the ban. One of them is quoted as saying Sheep have rights too. I thought it was cruel, so complained.”

What a completely loony attitude.
The thing that makes me really annoyed however, is that Kent County Show has knuckled under to their demands and scrapped the demonstration.

Millions of us now live in big cities with very limited knowledge of farming or country life – we’ve all heard the jokes about kids who thought spaghetti grew on trees, or that peas were manufactured and came in plastic bags automatically. Jamie Oliver – all power to his elbow – has tried to teach school children about where food comes from, what different vegetables are and how chickens should be farmed. People ought to know where the wool they wear comes from too, and how it is obtained. A demonstration of sheep shearing at a county agricultural show seems a small but appropriate way of doing just that.

Perhaps if some of these animal rights activists had actually lived on a farm, or had seen sheep being sheared when they were children they wouldn’t adopt such stupid and extreme views and then try to force them on the rest of us.


Last weekend there was a big lunch party to celebrate my Aged Parents' Diamond Wedding Anniversary and the chef made Croquembouche as the dessert. Croquembouche means 'crunch in the mouth', and is a big cone of choux pastry profiteroles, filled with cream or creme patisserie, which have been dipped in caramelised sugar and then piled up into a big cone studded with fresh fruit or flowers and with a topping of spun sugar . This dessert is often served at French weddings, christenings and other family celebrations.

Assembling a Croquembouche is quite a palaver, and making spun sugar is definitely not part of my culinary repertoire, but the profiteroles are a doddle to make. Although they have become a bit of a food cliche, they are always popular, particularly with men and children - so here is my recipe for them.


Pre-heat oven to 200°C – it is really essential you do this as the oven must be up to temperature before you put the pastries in to bake or they will just go soggy.

Line two baking sheets with non-stick paper.

350ml water
150g butter

200g flour
4 large eggs

Beat the eggs together in a jug and set aside.
Sieve the flour into a bowl and set aside.
Put the water and butter into a sauce pan and heat gently until the butter has dissolved, then bring to the boil.

Tip all the flour into the boiling butter/water whilst still on the heat and beat vigorously with a wooden spoon until everything is well combined and forms a ball coming away from the sides of the pan.

Remove from the heat and allow to cool for five minutes.

Then beat the egg mixture into the dough bit by bit, using an electric hand mixer. Make sure each addition of egg is well incorporated before adding more. The pastry should be able to hold its shape, but not too runny.

Using two spoons which have been dipped in water, spoon balls of the pastry on to the prepared baking trays, they should be 5 cms apart to allow for expansion in the oven. Any pointy bits of dough can be pressed down with a dampened finger.

Bake in the centre of the pre-heated oven for 20 minutes. DO NOT OPEN THE OVEN DOOR DURING THIS TIME. Then switch the oven off but leave the profiteroles in the oven for a further 10 minutes until golden brown and crisp.

Remove from oven and cool on a wire rack.

They can be filled with Crème Patisserie or whipped cream, and served with chocolate sauce; or they can be filled with a savoury mixture of seafood in a white sauce, or cream cheese and herbs.

They freeze well unfilled.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Lewis Carroll - Through The Looking Glass


Twilight by William Gay is the first Southern Gothic novel I’ve ever read, and to tell the truth I didn’t even know such a genre existed in American literature but now that I do I am keen to read more, so any and all recommendations for authors/titles would be gratefully received.

Set in Tennessee, Twilight tells the story of Corrie and Kenneth Tyler, whose dead father had been the local bootlegger.

Corrie thinks that the local undertaker Fenton Breece has cheated them over the lead lining they’d ordered for their father’s coffin, and she gets Kenneth to help her dig up the grave and open the coffin so she can check.

What they discover shocks them both, and they start digging up other recent graves and find that not only are many others being cheated by Fenton Breece, but also that many of the bodies have been desecrated with obscene mutilations.

Corrie is determined to get compensation for their father’s burial, and when Kenneth finds a cache of incriminating photographs in Breece’s car they decide to blackmail him into paying them a large sum of money.

Breece is not so easily squeezed however, and he enlists the services of a local villain to get the photos back and silence the siblings. Sutter is a vile creature, completely amoral and psychopathic, he has murdered, tortured and terrorised men women children and animals indiscriminately in the past.

He starts hunting them down and eventually the story evolves into a chase, with Sutter relentlessly pursuing Kenneth through a dangerous area of wilderness called the Harrikin

Although primarily the story of a man-hunt, this is also a bildungsroman, as Kenneth grows from teenager to man in the course of the chase, each incident changing him in emotional maturity.

There are moments of horribly black humour, and moments of terror in the book. William Gay captures the Tennessee landscape and makes it vivid with extraordinary, unforgettable characters – including a dog with pierced ears.

Necrophilia, death and revenge, what more could you want in a gothic novel?

Rated 4.5*


I am frigging fed up with fornicating foxes.*

In the past week our sleep has been broken in the early hours of the morning no less than three nights running, by the screaming and whimpering of a pair of foxes who have chosen the little green in front of our house for their own personal sex pad. Two minutes away is the vast space around Alexandra Palace where they could hump to their hearts content and not bother anyone.

I don't know whether you've ever heard a fox scream, but it is a horrible noise and sounds exactly like a woman being attacked by Jack the Ripper. Every time they start up I wake up with a start, my two terriers go absolutely ballistic and I lie in bed fuming, and wishing I had a shotgun. I am not good when I have not had enough sleep, I can turn very, very nasty.

*This could be a new tongue twister don't you think?


Some like it hot, as the saying goes, and my DS is one of them. He has always been partial to chilli sauces and so when I found this recipe I decided to use him as my guinea pig. I've now made two batches, and the jars vanished from my store cupboard as various friends sampled it. It is dead easy to make and has many many uses besides the obvious one of serving as a condiment with grilled meats and fish. Mixed half and half with decent quality mayonnaise, it makes the most fabulous dressing for cold chicken - a more interesting and spicier variation on the famous Coronation Chicken. Fantastic spread on toast, covered with sliced cheese and browned under the grill. You can spread it on white fish fillets and then bake them in the oven for 10-15 minutes for a quick supper....the list is almost endless.

Oh yes, in case you're wondering, my guinea pig pronounced it fantastic!


Makes approx 1.5 litres (5 jars)

176 kJ (41 calories) per tablespoon

2kg large ripe tomatoes, cored
160ml olive oil
10 cloves garlic, peeled
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
10 small fresh red Thai chillies (remove stems)
2 tablespoons cumin seeds
2 tablespoons black mustard seeds
180ml red wine vinegar
60ml fish sauce (Nam Pla)
335g soft light brown sugar
1 tablespoon ground turmeric
1 cup chopped coriander, leaves, stems and roots

Rub the tomatoes with olive oil and place in a roasting pan. Bake in the oven for approx 30 minutes until soft but NOT coloured.

Blend the garlic, ginger, chillies and seeds together in a food processor until well combined into a coarse paste.

Transfer the mixture into a large heavy-bottomed pan, add the vinegar, tomatoes, fish sauce, sugar and turmeric and simmer, uncovered for about 2 hours until thick.

Blend in batches until combined but still textured.

Return to the heat for five minutes and when really hot, stir in the coriander.

Spoon into hot, sterilised jars and seal whilst still hot.

Keep in a cool dry place for up to 6 months.
Refrigerate after opening.