Friday, July 25, 2008

George W. Bush (had anyone suggested that they couldn't?)


Last week I celebrated my birthday (no, I am not going to tell you which one, but it wasn’t a decade or particularly significant, but it is in double figures) and I was given some wonderful books as birthday gifts.

Among these was The Bolter by Frances Osborne, which is a biography of her great-grandmother Lady Idina Sackville.

Idina Sackville was born in 1893 to very rich aristocratic parents. Whilst still a child her father, the 8th Earl De La Ware (after whose family the city of Delaware in the USA is named) ran off with a can-can dancer (or two) and his independently wealthy wife took the extraordinary step of divorcing him. In Victorian society divorces were rare and very much disapproved of. This in part seems to have started the pattern for Idina’s own life, as she married and divorced no less than five times, and had innumerable lovers, before during and after her marriages. She scandalised 1920’s society, was estranged from her three children, and was the inspiration for Nancy Mitford’s character ‘the Bolter’ in ‘The Pursuit of Love’.

It is hard to comprehend just how laissez-faire upper-class sexual morals were, provided one was married, as the pictures we see of the men and women of the time are very starchy and proper. But Idina’s behaviour went way beyond the accepted norm, and at the end of the First World War, when her first husband Euan Wallace (the author’s grandfather) divorced her; she set off with husband number two – leaving her two small sons behind -

to make a new life farming in British East Africa, soon to be re-named Kenya. Of course, she didn’t really make a ‘new’ life, but continued as before, having affairs with other men, and after only two or three years, getting divorced again and returning to England. There she met the 21 year old Josslyn Hay, grandson of the Earl of Erroll, and despite the difference in their ages – she was nine years his senior – married him and swept off to Kenya once more. There they bought a farm and built a house, and both of them began to have affairs with all and sundry. Here she had her third child, a daughter, about whose parentage there were many rumours. This marriage also ended in divorce, and yet again Idina returned to England where she met and married husband number four, a very wealthy American, to whom, despite resuming her usual behaviour with other men, she managed to remain married to for eight years – a record for Idina!

Idina was the lynchpin of the so called ‘Happy Valley’ set whose bed-hopping, wife-swapping behaviour in Kenya gave rise to the joke doing the rounds in upper-crust English society “Are you married, or do you live in Kenya?”. Happy Valley came to international prominence in 1941 when Idina’s third ex-husband and father of her daughter, Jossyln Earl of Erroll, was found shot dead in his car and the husband of his current mistress, Sir Jock Delves Broughton was tried for the murder. The whole scandal, and the lives of the Happy Valley set were documented in the book ‘White Mischief’ by James Fox, which was later turned into a box-office success starring Greta Sciacci. In fact Idina was portrayed in several films, the most notable being when Greta Garbo played the character based on her in ‘A Woman of Affairs’.

Selfish, sexually voracious and dissolute, Idina comes across as a thoroughly unpleasant woman, even though she must have had a great deal of charisma. Far from being committed to a life in Africa, she treated it as her personal playground, and other people and her own children as toys which could be dispensed with when she didn’t want them any more. She appeared to lack any concept of loyalty or duty.

Latterly she tried to establish contact with her by now adult children, but this was only partially successful. Indeed the author’s own mother – Idina’s granddaughter – deliberately blanked her out of the family history until a newspaper article made it necessary for her to tell her own children who Idina was.

As a slice of social history and as the portrait of completely amoral woman, The Bolter makes eye-popping reading.

Rated 4*


There is a new craze slowly beginning here in the UK (and in Germany too) if the press is to be believed, it is the Cuddle Party. These are events which have a ‘facilitator’, which you pay to attend (£30 is the going rate in London I’m informed), and which is:

A structured, safe workshop on boundaries, communication, intimacy and affection. A drug and alcohol-free way to meet fascinating people in a relaxing environment. A laboratory where you can experiment with what makes you feel safe and feel good.”

Yep, you pay money to meet a bunch of strangers and cuddle them. Bletch!!! What a weird, creepy idea.

This ‘concept’ was dreamed up by two Californians – need I say more?

Not that I think all Californians are doolally, I’m just saying that some Californian practices seem rather off-the-wall to non-Californians.

If any of my family and friends read this, and feel that they are in need of a cuddle, come right on over and I’ll give you one for free – with a glass of wine or a Gin & Tonic thrown in as a bonus.

Cherries are one of my top ten favourite fruits, but most of the cherries sold in the UK come from Turkey, France or the USA, and though they are delicious it is a great shame because England used to have some of the best cherry orchards in the world. There is a move to try and get more English cherries into the supermarkets and greengrocers, and if you want to save the wonderful varieties of English cherry click on CherryAid. As last Saturday was National Cherry Day, I decided to do my bit by buying some English cherries and making a cake.


Serves 6-8

500g cherries (stoned)
150g soft brown sugar
75g butter
3 large eggs, lightly beaten together
150g self-raising flour
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Pre-heat oven to 180°C

Butter and flour a 20cm cake tin, and line the base with baking parchment.
Arrange the cherries over the bottom of the tin, and sprinkle 50g of the sugar over them.
Beat the butter and remaining sugar together until pale and fluffy then add some of the egg, beating it in well before adding some of the flour and more egg and continue beating. Add the remaining flour and egg alternately beating each addition in well before adding the next; add the vanilla essence with the last addition of egg.
Pour the cake mixture over the cherries and sugar, and smooth it level with a spatula if necessary.
Bake in oven for 25-30 minutes until risen and golden and just beginning to come away from the sides of the tin. It may not need quite as long if it is in a fan oven.
Remove from the oven and allow to cool for a couple of minutes.
Place a large serving plate over the tin, and carefully invert it.

Serve warm or at room temperature with crème fraiche or with whipped cream.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Nelson Mandela is 90 years old today.


When I read on the Orange Prize short list that The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam by Lauren Liebenberg was set in Rhodesia in the late 1970s, I knew I had to read it. Books set in central Africa are few and far between, and as I spent all my early childhood there I try to read anything and everything that is published.

The book is narrated by Nyree O’Callohan who is almost nine years old; she lives on a farm in the Vumba Mountains (to the east of Rhodesia, near the Moçambique border) which has been in her family for three generations. The Rhodesian ‘Bush War’ is on-going and Nyree’s father comes and goes as he is is mostly away with the ‘Troopies’ (Rhodesian armed forces) fighting the ‘Terrs’.

Nyree, her six year old sister Cia, her mother and her paternal grandfather, Oupa, remain on the farm together with the farm workers, domestic servants and all their families. The whole farm is surrounded, as most Rhodesian farms were in those days, by high security fences to protect them from the ‘Terrs’, and the fence is the boundary of the girls’ world.

In term time, they attend a small local school for children from all the farms in the area, but during the holidays they can roam freely all over the farm, hunting for fairies, observing Sangoma rituals, watching Chongololos curling up when poked with a stick, feeding ants to ant-lions, putting chameleons on to brightly coloured rugs to see if they will turn scarlet or orange, and generally enjoying all the pleasures of a bush childhood.

One day Ronin, the 14 year old illegitimate son of a great-uncle arrives to live with them, and their lives slowly begin to change. Ronin is a nasty bit of work, the two girls dislike him and are wary of him, and with good reason as he is sneaky and spiteful hiding and breaking their toys whilst sucking up to their mother and Oupa. Oupa is a difficult old man, constantly bemoaning the fact that his son only has daughters to inherit the farm, he is an unreconstructed racist of the worst sort; never-the-less, he sees through Ronin and his wily ways and acts as a buffer between him and the girls until his age and dwindling mental abilities make him a problem himself.

Slowly the Bush War comes to an end as does the family’s time on the farm, and with a dark twist to their lives, and violent birth pangs, Zimbabwe is born.

It is not a happy tale, but it does accurately convey the time and place. The descriptions of the flora and fauna of Rhodesia are beautifully written, and reading the book there were moments when I was really emotional remembering my own childhood in the bush. Liebenberg uses very authentic language and has her characters use the terms ‘munt’, ‘Afs’, ‘kaffirs’ etc just as some white Rhodesians would have done at the time - which could offend some readers, however I thought it added to the very real way she creates the atmosphere of those times. The book also made me think long and hard about what ALL the people of Zimbabwe have lost in the past 25 years, and that too made me feel like weeping.

Rated 5*


Whilst parking my car the other day I noticed a 'rough-sleeper' lying on cardboard with some clothing rolled up under his head as a pillow. Next to him was a tiny pile of his belongings. He had chosen to sleep (mid-afternoon on a hot sunny day) at the top of
a flight of four or five steps leading to the padlocked entrance doors of a disused office block. On the pavement next to me as I parked were two teenage girls in school uniform (I think I know which school they attend), both neatly dressed and chatting away non-stop as teenage girls are wont to do. Suddenly, to my amazement, one of the girls broke off the conversation and tiptoed up the steps to the rough sleeper, picked up his packet of cigarettes, and tiptoed back down to join her friend. I leant through my car window and yelled at them whereupon they scarpered. Little b*tches.
It all happened so quickly that I couldn't get out of the car fast enough to chase them.
What kind of person steals from a down-and-out? Those girls had mobile phones and were sporting smart shoes, why would they even consider stealing from someone who had so little? Not of course that they should steal from anyone, rich or poor, but this really was the lowest of the low. What word describes girls like that?
It ages me to say this, but I can't imagine it happening when I was young.


If you have to provide food for a picnic, this recipe, given to me years ago by my sister, is absolutely ideal. It slices into wedges that can be held in the hand, no need for cutlery, and tastes wonderful with salads if the sun is shining, or with a mug of hot soup if it is cold and wet.
Perfect padkos. You can play around with the herbs you use, and with the number of spring onions; the only thing to watch is that you don't over bake it, as it can dry out somewhat. I made it recently for a picnic lunch with my DD's soon-to-be in-laws; lying on the grass by the River Cam, accompanied by a glass of chilled Chablis, it went down a treat.


1 quantity shortcrust pastry made with 350g flour/125g shortening

1kg raw chicken meat – I use a mixture of breast and thigh
500g good quality sausage meat
1 teaspoon mace
6 spring onions
Rind and juice of ½ lemon
1 teaspoon fresh thyme
1 tablespoon fresh sage – chopped small
2 tablespoons cream
Salt & Pepper

Beaten egg to glaze

Pre-heat oven to 200°C

Line a 9in pie dish with half the pastry.

Cut the chicken meat into strips and sprinkle with the mace and salt and pepper – set aside.

In a food processor whiz together the sausagemeat, herbs, spring onions, lemon rind, half the lemon juice and the cream.

Fill the pie with a layer of the sausage mix, then a layer of chicken, layer of sausage mix etc alternating and ending with a layer of the sausage mix. Sprinkle each chicken layer with some of the remaining lemon juice. Dome up well.

Cover with the remaining pastry, seal and crimp the edges of the pie, cut a hole in the centre of the lid, and glaze with beaten egg.

Bake at 200°C for 30 minutes, then lower the oven temperature to 170°C and bake for a further 1 - 1¼ hours until golden brown.

Allow to go completely cold before cutting and serving.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

2 Ys U R
2 Ys U B
2 Ys 4 Me
Written in my Autograph Book in 1959 -years before TXT/SMS messages; whatever happened to autograph books?


James Lee Burke is a much acclaimed American crime writer. His most famous creation is the maverick detective Dave Robicheaux who left the New Orleans Police Department to work for the police in New Iberia a smaller town some miles away from the Big Sleazy as New Orleans is called.

The Tin Roof Blowdown is the 16th book featuring Robicheaux, and I suspect it is the one which will be most remembered. The action all takes place in New Orleans and its surrounding areas before, during and after Hurricane Katrina hit the city on 29th August 2005. In the ensuing chaos, with over 80% of the city flooded, Robicheaux is tasked with investigating the shooting of two looters, and tracking down a third. It would seem that they are also being hunted by the local mafia boss whose house they had inadvertently ransacked.

This tale of ruthless greed and cruelty would be quite enough for most crime novels, but to my mind the real story is that of the violent wasteland that New Orleans became in the aftermath of the hurricane. James Lee Burke is a native Louisianan and he lives in New Iberia, so his knowledge of what happened during Hurricane Katrina and the weeks that followed is close-up and personal. The scenes of devastating destruction and the terrifying breakdown of law and order are more powerful than anything a mere novelist could dream up.

Burke does not pull any punches in describing the political chicanery and the failure of local and national government in either preparing the city for such a calamity, or dealing with it after the event. His descriptions of what happened to the people of New Orleans who were unable or unwilling to evacuate are absolutely horrifying – and this in the USA, the richest, most powerful nation in the world - 1836 people dead, and $115 billion in damage to homes, businesses and infrastructure.

The Tin Roof Blowdown is much more than the crime novel it purports to be, it is the story of an apocalypse, and a piece of reportage which conveys what happened to New Orleans better than any journalist could have done.

Rated 4.5*


I have decided to instigate a new award. This will be given, from time to time, to the individual or group who gets my goat* – therefore it will be known as The Gets Herschelian’s Goat Award.

The very first recipient of this dubious new honour is none other than our Prime Minister Gordon “Clunking Fist” Brown.

He deserves this award for his condescending and patronising attitude in telling us how we could help the economy by not wasting food. Moreover, (and this makes him exceptionally deserving) by lecturing us all on this and then partaking of the following delights on a single day whilst on a G8 jolly to Japan, d’you think he scurried round to the kitchens after it all to make sure that no left-overs were wasted – I suspect not.

Who does he think he is? Mrs Beeton? Can we now expect Gordon Brown’s Book of Household Management with a special recipe section on using potato peelings and onion skins?

*get(s) my/our/your goat is an idiomatic expression used in English meaning to be cheesed off** or to be very annoyed.

** to be cheesed off is an idiomatic expression used in English meaning
to be fed up*** or to be very annoyed.

*** to be fed up is an idiomatic expression used in English ….
oh for goodness sake, this is getting ridiculous, just look it up…


In Morocco we enjoyed some fabulous meals; sometimes the dishes were very sophisticated, but at other times they were very simple and homely. This was a dish I ate in three different places, Fès, Chefchaouen and Meknès. Each time it was more or less the same, and yet subtly different as each cook varied their spicing slightly.
I came back to London laden with little bags of spices bought in Souk Atriya, the food and spice market in Meknès, and at last have used one of the spice mixtures in my version of Kefte Mkaouara. Although I have mixed beef and lamb mince together (because that was what I had available in the freezer) you could use just lamb or just beef, I don't think it would make much difference.

KEFTA MKAOUARA (Moroccan Meatball Tagine with egg)

Serves 6


500g lamb mince
500g beef mince
3 tablespoons finely chopped coriander
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
3 teaspoons ground cumin
Salt & pepper
Olive oil for frying


2 onions finely chopped
2 fat cloves garlic finely chopped
3 teaspoons mixed Tagine spice or
1.5 teaspoon hot paprika
1 teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 tins chopped tomatoes or 500ml tomato passata
Salt & pepper

3-4 fresh medium sized eggs

Pre-heat the oven to 180°C

Put all the ingredients for the meatballs into a bowl, using your hands work them together so that everything is well combined.
Shape the mixture into small balls about 2.5cm wide. You may find it easier to do this if you wet your hands first.
Heat a small amount of olive oil in a large sauté pan and brown the meatballs. Set aside.

In the same pan, gently sauté the chopped onion and garlic, adding a little more oil if needed. When soft and starting to colour slightly, add the spice mixture and cook for a few moments stirring well before adding the chopped tomatoes. Stir to mix all together.

Place the meatballs into a tagine or other lidded ovenproof dish, pour the sauce mixture over them. Cover the dish and bake in the oven for about 30 mins.
Remove from the oven, and carefully break the eggs into the top of the sauce, keeping them separate.
Return to the oven for 15 minutes or until the whites of the eggs are set.

Garnish with chopped coriander and serve with buttered couscous, rice or crusty bread.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

John F. Kennedy


I’m a reader, I’ll read anything and everything; fiction, non-fiction, biography, graphic books, classics, chick-lit, true crime - whatever. But I must admit I read more fiction than anything else. The husband of a dear friend of mine is very disparaging about fiction, he says that it is tantamount to reading kids’ comics. I totally disagree, a novel can teach you as much if not more than some factual book - more about a place, a time, a situation, it can inspire you to find out about something you didn’t know.

The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak is just such a book. Now that I’ve finished it I am keen to read and learn more about the relationship between Turks and Armenians, and the historical background to the ousting of Armenians from Turkey at the beginning of the 20th century.

Asya Kazanci is the bastard referred to in the title. A rebellious 19 year old, she lives in Istanbul with her mother (who she calls Auntie), her three aunts, and her grandmother and great-grandmother. She has no idea who her father is/was. The women in this all female household are an extraordinarily diverse bunch; her mother runs a tattoo parlour and wears mini-skirts and high heels, one aunt is a devout Muslim and a clairvoyant, another is a obsessive hypochondriac, whilst Petite-Ma, the great-grandmother, has Alzheimer's. The last male member of the family, Anoush’s uncle Mustapha left Istanbul before she was born, and now lives in Arizona with his American wife and her daughter.

Mustapha’s American wife, Rose whose first husband was an Armenian. He now lives in San Francisco, they divorced when their daughter Armanoush was a baby, and the girl has grown up shuttling between her parents. When in SF with her father and his mother and sisters, she is endlessly indoctrinated in what it means to be Armenian; but when in Arizona with her mother she is treated as a regular American girl. Confused by her divided loyalties to two different heritages, she eventually decides on a bold plan. Without telling either parent she will travel to Turkey and try to trace her Armenian roots and set them in context; to do this she invites herself to stay with her step-father’s estranged family in Istanbul . Her mother thinks she is spending time in San Francisco with her father, and her father thinks she is spending time in Arizona.

Her arrival into Asya’s slightly crazy family, causes a stir. Questions about the past, and long-forgotten secrets start bubbling up. These make both Armanoush and Asya re-evaluate themselves and their families and consider how much they should let old tragedies influence the course of their own lives. The book ends with a double twist - one strand of which seems very likely, though the other stretches credulity somewhat even though it ties everything together neatly for the reader.

The Bastard of Istanbul caused Elif Shafak to be put on trial in Turkey for “denigrating Turkishness” under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code and if found guilty she would have faced a three year prison sentence. The charges brought against her were because of some of the words spoken by Armenian characters in the novel. Thank goodness the charges were eventually dropped. I cannot understand how Turkey, which considers itself to be a civilised modern state, and is desperate to join the European Union, can have such oppressive legislation on its statute books. Any country which seeks to quell the freedom of its novelists is living in the middle ages as far as I am concerned.

Rated 4*


One of the lessons I recall from my schooldays was that one should always avoid the use of jargon in speech and writing, and I have always tried to do so. However, some words have jumped from being jargon into the general vocabulary and very useful they are too.

One such word is ‘brainstorming’ – I’m sure you know exactly what it means, a group of people getting together to gather ideas on a particular topic. The word was first coined by an advertising executive called Alex Osborn in the 1930s and it has been in regular use ever since.

However, the local Council in Tunbridge Wells has decided that the term is potentially offensive to people who suffer from epilepsy and other mental illnesses, and they have banned it from use. They want the term ‘thought showers’ to be used instead……..I am not making this up.

I think the dunderheads on the council who came up with this need to have a brainstorming session/ full frontal lobotomy/ total cranial transplant (choose which you prefer).

If I didn’t live in London I’d be writing to The Times signing myself off as: Disgusted, Tunbridge Wells.


Summer is here at last, and summer always means entertaining in the garden. Since I got back from my trip we have had no less than two Sunday lunch parties, and both days we had fabulous weather. A cold buffet is the easiest option for me to produce, everything prepped in advance so I can relax and chat to people - not to mention enjoy a glass or two of wine. This year I have rustled up my own variation on the old Coronation Chicken theme, and I think I will stick with this version from now on as it was so popular. As you will see, it is all a bit of a cheat, in that I already had the Chilli & Coriander Jam which I'd made some months ago, and I didn't make my own mayonnaise - life is too short. You could subsitute a good quality commercial chilli jam if you don't want to make it yourself. I also cheated by buying two

rotisseried chickens from the supermarket so I didn't have the hassle of roasting or poaching them myself, which was much quicker and easier


Serves 16-20 on a buffet

2 cooked chickens
1 jar Sweet & Spicy Chilli & Coriander Jam*
Equal quantity good quality mayonnaise (eg Hellman’s)
1 bunch fresh coriander
1 large red chilli
1 dozen quail eggs

Bring approx 8cms water to boil in a large saucepan, when boiling add the quail eggs and boil for exactly 4 minutes. Remove eggs with a slotted spoon and plunge into cold water immediately. Gently crack the shell of each egg while it is in the water to make shelling the eggs easier. When cool shell each egg. This can be done 24 hours in advance and the shelled eggs can be kept in cold salt water in a container in the fridge until needed.

Remove all the meat from the chickens and cut or pull into bite-sized pieces. The carcasses, skin and bones can be used to make chicken stock.

Mix together the jar of Chilli Jam and an equal quantity of mayonnaise to make a cold spicy dressing.

Gently fold the chicken meat into the spicy dressing.

Roughly chop the fresh coriander, leaves and stalks, and fold into the chicken mixture.

Serve on a bed of lettuce leaves and garnish with the halved quail eggs and sliced, de-seeded chilli, plus an extra scattering of chopped coriander.

* see separate recipe given in the blog on 1st April 2008