Monday, November 30, 2009



I should start by confessing that maths was never my strong point at school, I struggled with algebra, logarithms, etc and although I wasn't too bad at geometry I admit to a sigh of relief on leaving school, knowing that double maths lessons would never blight my life again.
It has therefore been something of a surprise to me how much I loved reading 'The Housekeeper & The Professor' by Yoko Ogawa (translated by Stephen Snyder). This is a perfect little jewel of a book, and I read it at one sitting.

The housekeeper of the title is a young unmarried mother with a ten-year-old son who is employed to look after an ageing Professor of
Mathematics. This brilliant man has a problem, he received a serious head injury in a car accident seventeen years previously and since that time has lived with an eighty minute short term memory. Every morning when the housekeeper arrives for work, she has to re-introduce herself to the Professor as he lives in the moment, and anything which happened more than eighty minutes ago is wiped from his mind. He has tried to develop a method of coping with this by writing little notes to himself which he attaches to the suit he wears each day. The most important of these notes reads "my memory only lasts 80 minutes". His suit is absolutely covered with these aide-memoires. Despite this handicap, his passion for mathematics is still very much alive and his mental world is composed of equations, numbers, and mathematical problems from the past.
When the Professor realises that his housekeeper has a son who is home alone after school each day, he insists that the boy come to join his mother at the Professor's house. He immediately
nicknames the boy Root, as he says the boy has a flat head which looks like the square root symbol, and with clever mathematical riddles he slowly builds a delicate relationship with the mother and son. The housekeeper who (much like myself) has not thought about maths since she was a schoolgirl, is drawn in to the mysterious beauty of pure mathematics and soon she is beginning to learn about prime numbers, triangular numbers, amicable numbers, perfect numbers, the concept of zero and complex formulae and theorems.
Root has a passion for baseball, which is the most popular sport in Japan, and he supports a team called the Hanshin Tigers. He discovers that the Professor also loves the game and is a huge fan of a famous, long retired, player called Enatsu who played for the same team - but of course the Professor does not remember that the man has retired, and Root attempts to shield him from knowing this as it might upset him.
Over time, these three rather lost souls become like a family, a family that each of them had needed in different ways.
Their story is really charming, and very touching - and guess what, I even learned some maths!

Rated 5*


In October the government's Vetting and Barring Scheme (VBS) became law. The scheme was devised as a result of the national panic following the horrible murders of two schoolgirls in Soham in 2002.

Right from the outset I have been very dubious as to how effective it would be in keeping children safer than they were previously. The government has ignored all criticisms of the scheme, and now it is
firmly in place and will become mandatory from next year. For those who do not know what the VBS is, or how it works, basically it means that anyone who works or applies to work with children or vulnerable adults - either in a paid or voluntary capacity will have to apply for clearance (and unless they are volunteers) will have to pay £64 pounds for doing so. Their background will be checked for any criminal records, and non-conviction information from different sources when building a view of an individuals suitability (ie heresay or local gossip) for clearance. The scheme will be administered by a new body, to wit the Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA)

This new scheme covers a huge range of people such as teachers, private tutors and sports coaches but also people such as doctors and nurses, opticians and dentists and taxi drivers who regularly take children to school. It will also cover librarians, parents who help out at their children's school on a regular basis, Brownie, Guide and Scouts leaders, and anyone who takes groups of children to such clubs or to ballet lessons, football matches etc. It will cover any parents who host an exchange student for a couple of weeks. It will cover staff in children's clothes or shoe shops, Sunday School teachers and anyone who assists them, I could list more but you get the picture. In fact, earlier this week a primary school in Cambridgeshire announced that when the entire school makes the ten minute walk to the local church for its annual carol service, escorted by the police and teachers, any parent who accompanies them will have to apply for clearance. I kid you not.

In all it is thought that nearly 11 million British adults will have to go through this scheme.

Many charities are worried that they will loose volunteers who do not want to go through the hassle of this process, and school language teachers are concerned that the foreign language exchange schemes will fizzle out because of it.

The ISA has taken on 200 employees and has been set up with offices in a marginal Labour constituency which has a high level of unemployment (and there is a general election coming up in six months or so - hmm, call me cynical but....). With one in four British adults needing to go through the scheme, it will produce shed-loads of money for the government, how handy is that when the national finances need all the help they can get.

The danger with this sort of legislation is that once in place, more and more organisations seek to use it either because they are paranoid, or to cover their backs, or because it is a form of control and empire building.

The example of this purpose-creep ( I don't know if that phrase exists, but you get my meaning) which has me frothing at the mouth today, is that OFSTED (which stands for the Office of Standards in Education - yet another government body) has announced that the parents of home-schooled children will have to go through the VBS and be cleared by the ISA.

What? a parent will be checked to see if it would be a danger for them to school their own child, not from an educational perspective, but in case they are not suitable? This is crazy. What if they are not granted clearance. The child might then have to attend a local school where the staff have been cleared, but at the end of the school day they would return home to be cared for by the 'unsuitable' parents. I think OFSTED are off their heads.

But above all, I think that treating all adults as potential paedophiles or abusers is a very bad thing to do, a society where so many of its citizens are not trusted is a very damaged society, and what is more it is unlikely to achieve its aims. Of course I want children to be safe, -there are nasty people around and each of us has to be vigilant, but this legislation won't keep anyone any safer
Do you think the ISA has checked to see if Santa is registered and been cleared?


Did you know that the term Vegetarian was only coined in the 19th century? before that people who did not eat meat or fish called themselves Pythagoreans. Although I, and all my family are what can only be described as greedy omnivores - we love meat and fish - we do eat a great many non-meat meals. Recently there has been quite a bit of comment in the press about how we could stop global warming if we didn't eat meat. Hmm, I'm more than a bit skeptical. But just to show my intentions are good, here is a wonderful recipe from a book I love called 'The Greens Cookbook' by Deborah Madison; you can enjoy this dish and feel virtuous at the same time!


2 Tablespns olive oil

½ onion, finely chopped

1 large clove garlic, finely chopped

¼ teaspoon dried thyme or leaves from 4-6 stalks fresh thyme

1 bayleaf

Salt & pepper

120ml dry white wine

½ teaspoon paprika (or ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper)

450g tomatoes, fresh or tinned, peeled and chopped

1½ teaspoons sugar (if necessary)

1 butternut squash weighing approx 1.3 – 1.5 kg

Olive oil for frying

120g Gruyère cheese, sliced

Fresh herbs, parsley, marjoram, thyme etc, finely chopped.

Heat the olive oil in a saucepan and add the chopped onion, garlic, thyme and bay leaf, and a little salt. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently until onion is soft, but don’t let it brown; then add the wine and let it reduce by half. Add the chopped tomatoes and the paprika and cook gently for about 20-25 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is quite thick. Taste, add sugar if it is too tart and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Whilst the tomato sauce is cooking prepare the squash by peeling, removing all seeds and stringy bits, and then cutting into slices approx 7.5cms long and 5mm thick ( 3ins x ¼ in).

Heat enough oil in a large frying pan and fry the butternut slices on both sides so it is lightly browned and just tender. Remove slices from the pan and drain on paper towel to remove excess oil. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper.

Pre-heat the oven to 190°C

Assemble the gratin by covering the bottom of a large shallow oven-proof dish with the tomato sauce. Lay the slices of butternut on top of the sauce in overlapping layers interspersed with slices of cheese.

Bake in the oven for about 15-20 minutes, until the cheese is melted and the gratin is hot. Serve with the fresh herbs scattered over the top, a green salad and crusty bread.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

I read this recently - and am ashamed to say it is true in my case.


Asylum seekers seem to be in the news all the time these days, what with the French clearing out the squalid camp on the outskirts of Calais and our own Attorney General being fined for employing someone who had no right live and work in Britain.
Harare North by Brian Chikwava paints a picture of what it is like to be an asylum seeker living below the official radar in Britain today - and it is pretty grim . Harare North is the nickname for London - along with Johannesburg (Harare South) it is one of the destinations of choice for ex-patriot Zimbabweans.

" I disappoint them immigration people because when I step forward to hand my passport to gum-chewing man sitting behind desk, I mouth the magic word -'Asylum'- and flash toothy grin of friendly African native. They detain me."

This young man whose name we are never told, is released after 8 days, and a cousin and his wife who already live in London grudgingly take him in. Some weeks later he drifts to Brixton where he re-connects with an old childhood friend called Shingi. Shingi is living in a squat with various other Zimbabweans who are all struggling to find a way of earning a living wage when they are illegal or semi-legal, and have none of the official paperwork employers demand.
The squat is run by Aleck who works as a BBC (British Buttock Cleaner) ie in a residential care home, which is one of the better paid jobs available - presumably because no native Britons wish to do such work. One of the other squatters is a teenage Zimbabwean girl called Tsitsi who has a small baby.
"Tsitsi have start to bring in small money by going out to the salon; MaiMusindo and them other women is helping she rent out the baby to other women that want to apply for council flats as single mothers. For £50 any woman can take Tsitsi's baby to the Lambeth Housing Department and play out to be single mother, fill them forms and take baby back to salon as she have been interview."

The language used is quirky, often ungrammatical and misspelled, and frequently relies on phonetics, and this gives the tale a flippant, almost casual tone which belies the life our nameless narrator has lead and is now leading.
At times I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

The Zimbabweans living in the UK are often fleeing from the violent political situation back in their own country, and the news from home gets worse and worse as time goes by. However we learn that our narrator, an extremely self-centred young man, was a member of one of Mugabe's notorious youth squads 'The Green Bombers' who used to mete out 'forgiveness' (beatings) to anyone who has fallen foul of Mugabe's regime, and he has come to Britain reluctantly to try and get hold of $5000 to pay a bribe after having beaten someone to death. He refuses to acknowledge the atrocities being committed by the regime, and does not let his fellow ex-pats know of his history. Although the narrator is actually a rather unpleasant individual he has a very engaging way of expressing himself, and the reader is won over by his unflagging attempts to raise money one way or another. Working illegally at a succession of short-term, poorly paid jobs he manages to amass a little cash, most of which he starts spending on liquor and skunk. Slowly but surely he begins a downward slide into paranoia as the strains of living in Harare North start to tell on him.

I actually picked this book up because of the title, as I have a deep affection for Zimbabwe,
and had no idea I was going to be learning about one aspect of life in my own city. London exists on a raft of illegal immigrants who do much of the city's dirty work, and yet their plight is rarely written about. Brian Chikwava is a great new voice in African writing, and I look forward to reading future books by him.

Rated 4*


When you were seven years old,
what did you want to be when you grew up? - yes, I realise its a long time ago, but work with me on this.
I seem to remember wanting to be an artist or a synchronised swimmer - not that I knew what scantily clad girls who fooled around in a swimming pool were called - but splashing about for hours on end seemed highly desirable. My son and his best friend decided they would have a chicken farm ( presumably for a constant supply of eggs and chicken nuggets) with an attached diamond mine. Mind you it was a close thing as the lure of joining the A-Team was fairly enticing.

Our esteemed overlords, in the person of the Secretary of State for Education Mr Ed Balls (and that is an unfortunate surname for a politician don't you think?) have decided that primary school children as young as seven can't have these sorts of foolish ideas, and they should now get careers advice. Careers advice for heaven's sake, it'll be pensions advice next.
These are children, let them BE children.

It seems ironic that Ed Balls is introducing another loony government initiative in education when we still have too high a proportion of children who are unable to read by the time they leave primary school aged eleven. Surely basic literacy and numeracy is where any extra effort should be concentrated.
And who is going to deliver this advice to the nation's little darlings? our already overburdened teachers? or will a whole new strata of educational advisors, specially trained at vast public expense, be created to talk little Johnny, Sarah or Mohammed through their options. Hmm, should they be considering the legal profession, horticulture, or joining a scaffolding firm...or perhaps something in the meedja.

Thank god my kids are all grown up, but for the sake of my as yet unborn grandchildren I hope this stupid idea dies a death before too long.

What a shame no-one took the newly graduated Ed Balls aside and whispered in his ear just one word "Plastics" , that might have steered him away from a career in politics, to the benefit of the nation.


We have had the most gorgeous Indian Summer for the past month, but the evenings are definitely beginning to feel quite cold, and so my thoughts have turned to serving what I call 'winter' food. At the weekend I looked out an old Joseline Dimbleby recipe (I mean the recipe is old, not JD!) which I have not made for years, and jolly good it was too.
Use the cheapest piece of bacon you can find for this pot roast.

BACON IN BEER (aka Gammon in Guinness)
Serves 6

1.3 - 1.8kg bacon joint - preferably on the bone

3 onions, sliced
250g carrots, scraped and cut into largish chunks
1 can of peeled tomatoes (approx 400g)
330ml bottle of stout (I used Guinness)
6 cloves
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
2 teaspoons soft brown sugar
Ground black pepper
1 tablespoon cornflour

Soak the bacon joint in cold water for several hours - overnight if possible - changing the water once or twice.
Put the bacon into a large saucepan, cover with water, bring to the boil and then simmer gently for 15-20 mins. Drain, rinse with cold water and then slit the thick skin and peel it and most of the fat off.

Pre-heat the oven to 150C.
Put the joint into a casserole dish with the onions, carrots, cloves, caraway seeds and sugar. Pour in the tomatoes from the tin and the stout and season with pepper. Do not add salt.
Bring the casserole to simmering point on top of the stove and then transfer it to the oven and cook for 2-3 hours, basting the bacon with the juices now and again, until the meat is very tender and falling off the bone.

Remove the joint to a carving board and put the casserole on top of the stove . Mix the cornflour with a little cold water, add to the vegetable and juices, bring to the boil and allow it to bubble for 2-3 minutes.

Serve the bacon with the vegetables and juices accompanied with boiled or mashed potatoes and a green vegetable.

Saturday, October 03, 2009



Alone in Berlin
* by
Hans Fallada is the most remarkable book I have read for a long time, certainly the best book I have read this year. The author's real name was Rudolf Ditzen, and he wrote the book in 24 days and died just a few weeks before it was published in 1947. It has taken 62 years to get it published in English. Michael Hoffman the translator has done a magnificent job.

The novel is set in Berlin between 1940 and 1942-3. 55 Jablonski Strasse is an old-fashioned apartment block and the reader is introduced to various residents, the elderly retired Judge, old Frau Rosenthal whose husband was seized by the Gestapo a fortnight previously, the ghastly Persicke family who are Nazi toadies, Emil Borkhausen a petty criminal whose wife Evie has a sideline as a prostitute, and most importantly we meet Otto and Anna Quangel.

Otto is the foreman in a woodworking factory which made fine furniture in peacetime but now produces large crates for the German war effort. He and his wife Anna are self-contained, conservative and thrifty to the point of being miserly. Otto is fiercely private and independent and has so far managed to avoid joining the National Socialist party as he resents the fact that he would have to give a contribution from his wages to the Party coffers. This refusal has meant that he is regarded with suspicion, gets a lower wage and is passed over for promotion.

When Otto and Anna's only son Ottochen is killed fighting in France, they embark on a scheme of small scale domestic resistance to the regime. Otto starts producing anonymous postcards criticising the Nazi party, and they deposit these all over the city. The first of these postcards reads:
'Mother! The Fuhrer has murdered my son. Mother! The Fuhrer will murder your sons too, he will not stop till he has brought sorrow to every home in the world.'
Another reads:
'Pass this card on so that many people read it! - Don't give to the Winter Relief Fund! - work as slowly as you can! - Put sand in the machines! - every stroke of work not done will shorten the war!'
This is a perilous scheme, the postcards come to the attention of the Gestapo almost immediately, and one of their most successful officers, Inspector Escherich, is ordered to unearth the writer of the cards. Then a cat-and-mouse game begins between Escherich and the Hobgoblin , as he refers to the unknown postcard writer. Esterich has a big advantage in that of the 267 cards produced by the Quangels, all but 18 are handed in to the authorities straight away, so plotting where they have been dropped and thus where the writer might be based is fairly straightforward.
Whilst all this is going on, the other residents of the apartment building are surviving in the twisted world that is now German civilian life. Some are crushed by the regime, others rise as a result of having made dubious moral choices, and overshadowing everything is an all pervading fear of the SS, the Nazi party, and a lack of trust or faith in their fellow Berliners.

Eventually Inspector Escherich himself falls foul of the monstrous Gestapo, which is like some huge juggernaut being driven by a crazy drunkard.

Finally, inevitably, Otto and Anna meet their fate.

I found this book an emotionally exhausting read, but it is so well written that it is impossible to put it down once you have started reading it. By the end I was weeping.
Apparently Ditzen based the Quangels on a real-life couple, Otto and Elise Hample, who carried out just such a postcard campaign in Berlin in the early 1940s. Their lives stand as an example of how the common man can be obdurate in the facing of great evil even when it
will cost everything.

Primo Levi, who was a prisoner in Auschwitz, must have read this book in German when it was originally published for he called it "The greatest book ever written about German
resistance to the Nazis".
There are many, many books about World War Two, but nothing quite like this. It has such veracity, and made me ponder how I would have behaved in such circumstances. I think everyone should read it.

* In the USA the book title is Every Man dies Alone

Rated 5*


Cycling England, an organisation which is an off-shoot of the Department of Transport, has come up with the proposal that if there is an accident involving a bicycle and a motorised vehicle be it car, lorry or bus, the driver would be held legally responsible under civil law even if it was the cyclist who was the cause of the accident and they would be liable to pay compensation. If that happened the driver's insurance premium would go up which would be yet another penalty they would suffer when they might have done nothing wrong.
I think drivers will be up in arms when the reality of this plan sinks in.

My DD cycles everywhere (for several years she used to cycle back and forth across central London in the rush-hour, which certainly gave me some grey hairs) and her new husband cycles everywhere too, so I am very cautious about cyclists on the road when I am driving but I fail to see why, if I am obeying the highway code, observing the rules of the road and driving with due care and attention for all other road users, it should be presumed in law that I am to blame in any accident.

Apparently Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands have all adopted this type of legislation, and I would love to hear from anyone from those countries who can tell me how it works and how the public feel about it.
A few nights ago I was driving along a major road and through a big junction when a cyclist, dressed in dark clothing and with no bike lights whatsoever happily rode through the red traffic light and across my way. I slammed on the brakes, and missed hitting him by the skin of my teeth, and fortunately the woman in the car behind me managed to brake fast enough not to hit the back of my car, but it was a very close run thing. I confess that the language I used was not fit for public hearing. The stupid sod carried on his merry way either oblivious to, or uncaring that he had almost caused a three car pile up. Under this proposed legislation he
would get away scot free, whereas we drivers would have had a huge insurance imbroglio. In our increasingly litigatious culture this seems an open invitation for drivers to be sued for compensation by any of the crazy Lycra Louts who think they can do as they please on the highway just because they are on a bike

Cycling England seems to be putting out the message two wheels good, four wheels bad - which I resent.


I was recently given the present of a recipe book from South Africa called Cakes to Celebrate Life and Love. It is entirely devoted to the most divine looking cakes and cupcakes, and I can feel myself gaining weight as I turn the pages. The other day I noticed that there were some bananas in the fruit bowl that were a
tad too ripe for my taste, but perfect for cooking with, so I got out the new book and lo and behold there was just the recipe I needed. It is one of those recipes where you bake the cake, and whilst it is in the oven you make a hot sauce, in this case butterscotch, and when the hot cake comes out of the oven you pour the sauce over it and it soaks in.

The quantities given make 2 cakes, so one went to the DD & SIL and the other lasted all of 12 hours as the DH and son decided to keep sampling it "Just to see if we prefer it to your old Banana bread recipe..." Oh yes?
It is a lovely moist cake, and I think it would keep well if you stood guard over it!


3 eggs

400g sugar
330ml corn oil
3 ripe bananas, mashed
80ml buttermilk (or use sour cream)
1 Tablespoon vanilla essence
420g plain flour
1 teaspoon Baking Powder
Pinch of salt
30g dessicated coconut
60g walnut pieces roughly chopped (plus a few extra for the top)

Pre-heat oven to 180°C. Grease and base line two medium sized loaf tins (approx 2kg size).
In a large bowl whisk together the eggs, sugar, oil, mashed bananas, buttermilk and vanilla. Sift the flour, baking powder and salt into another bowl. Add this to the banana mixture, beat together and stir in the coconut and walnut pieces. Pour the batter into the two prepared tins and bake in the centre of the oven for 40-50 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean. Whilst the cakes are baking prepare the butterscotch sauce.

100g soft light brown sugar
70g butter - preferably unsalted

60ml cream

Place all ingredients in a small saucepan and heat gently whilst stirring until all the sugar has dissolved and the mixture is bubbling. Let it boil for a moment or two and then remove from the heat. When the cakes are done, take them out of the oven and pierce them all over with a skewer, then pour the hot butterscotch sauce over them and leave to cool in the tins.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Margaret Thatcher


After I finished reading Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin, I found myself telling friends that they MUST read it. It is a really delightful book, warm, charming, moving and funny.

It is set in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, a few years after the terrible genocide. Mrs Angel Tungaraza and her husband Pius have moved there from their native Tanzania together with their five orphaned grandchildren. Pius,a man of retirement age, has been appointed as Special Consultant to KIST a new university which has been established in the city. They are living in a compound of flats where the other residents are also ex-pats employed by aid agencies and non-governmental organizations. As Angel says “You know how it is when a war is over, dollars begin to fall like rain from the sky and everyone from outside rushes in to collect them.”

Angel loves cooking and baking, and decides to set up a cake baking business. She turns out cakes to celebrate anniversaries, weddings, christenings, a homecoming, an engagement, an escape, an inspiration, and a rising up. With each cake, the reader learns more about life in Rwanda, about the life of the person who has ordered the cake, and at the same time about the diversity of Africa and its people.

Priding herself on her professionalism as a businesswoman, Angel copes with raising her grandchildren, ethical dilemmas with her clients, and the indignities of the menopause. Slowly Angel’s own family life is revealed, and how the scourge of AIDs has devastated African society.

At first glance this book might seem to be of the same genre as Alexander McCall Smith’s books about Mma Ramotswe and her 1st Ladies Detective Agency, but Gaile Parkin has created an endearing heroine and yet doesn’t shy away from depicting the problems besetting the continent, poverty, female circumcision, HIV/Aids and corruption, but these are all handled with delicacy and woven into the lives of real people in a way that makes it possible for the reader to enjoy the book as an entertainment whilst at the same time being made to think.

If you like eating cake, feisty women and anything about Africa this is a book for you, and it has just become available in paperback (the cover differs from my one).

Rated 5*


Do we know what propaganda this Government is disseminating in our schools? I think not. This week it has come to light that a fairly new Government department - the Equalities Office established in 2007 under the leadership of Harriet Harman - has produced a "fact" sheet for schools ( which we taxpayers have funded) entitled 'Women In Power: Milestones'. It also features on their website. It has got me absolutely outraged, and wondering what else is being twisted to fit a Labour-view of history.

Whatever your view of her may be, you must agree that Margaret Thatcher (Maggie to those who love to hate her) has been a seminal figure in British Politics....the first woman to lead a political party, the first woman Prime Minister, winner of no less than three general elections and the longest serving prime minister of the 20th Century. So it is really appalling that she is not named in this government fact sheet; on the other hand Shreela Flather (who she??) gets two entries. In 300 years time which of these women will be featured in history books? no prizes for the correct answer.

The other glaring omission from the Women in Power list is Shirley Williams, a highly respected politician who was one of the four founders (and only woman) of the SDP - the first new political party in the UK for nearly 100 years. The media cover stories about the airbrushing of cellulite off Kate Winslet's thighs or the enhancing of Keira Knightley's mosquito-bite boobs, but this is the sort of airbrushing and distortion they should really be going for as it is far more damaging, and WE are paying for it.

I never thought I'd be doing this, but find myself chanting
Maggie, Maggie, Maggie - In, In, In.
and I urge you all to join me.


Last night two girlfriends and I went to see the movie 'Julie & Julia' starring Meryl Streep as Julia Childs, and we thoroughly enjoyed it. Mind you with food featuring so much on screen we all came out of the cinema ravenously hungry and promptly dived into a nearby restaurant where we wolfed down risotto! Tomorrow I have 10 for dinner, and thinking of the rich French cooking that Julia Childs promoted I have decided to make some pre-dinner canapes which are in that style as a little homage to the great lady. A friend gave me the recipe a year or so ago after I had them at a dinner she gave, they are utterly delicious , have a certain Wow' factor. and they always go down a bomb. The secret to this recipe is that the whole thing is really a cheat (which the fabled Julia Childs would thoroughly disapprove of), as it is merely a question of assembling the ingredients rather than spending hours slaving away beating and stirring.

First of all you have to go shopping and buy the following items which will all keep for ages in your store cupboard
A packet of Rahms Mini Croustades - stocked at Waitrose, Sainsburys and most good food shops.
A jar of good quality ready-made Hollandaise Sauce - I tend to buy Maille but you can use any brand.A jar of red or black Swedish lumpfish roe available in supermarkets, fishmongers and at IKEA! You also need 1-2 dozen Quail's eggs, depending on how many canapes you wish to make. Allow for two per person.

Ten minutes before your guests arrive pre-heat the oven to 180 C.
Set the mini croustades out on a baking tray and break one quail's egg into each one. Top each with a tiny blob of Hollandaise and bake in the oven for approximately 4 minutes (check that the egg white has cooked).
Put another small blob of Hollandaise on each canape and then a blob of lumpfish roe to garnish.
Serve whilst still warm. Yum.

Monday, August 31, 2009


This past two months seem to have gone by in a flash - the wedding has come and gone, all the Australian, South African and American guests have departed these shores, all the loose ends have now been cleared up, our living room is back to normal and no longer like an event management warehouse, and to top it all the bride has just got her PhD.

As so many of you dear blog readers have asked about the wedding I decided that this post would give you a flavour of the event and then from next week I will revert to my normal 3Rs.

English summer weather is never predictable, but we were so lucky, the day before the wedding it bucketed down, but on the day we had blue sky, sunshine and puffy white clouds and the countryside looked lush.
The wedding was in Cambridge, and the reception was in Granchester Meadows made famous by the poet Rupert Brooke and by Pink Floyd,

I'm biased I know, but I thought my darling daughter looked absolutely beautiful in her 88 year old wedding dress. It was first worn by my grandmother in 1921, then remodelled and worn by my mother in 1948. My daughter had some minor alterations done so that she could be the third family bride to wear it. She and her bridesmaid carried bouquets from a very famous London florist, who had made my grandmother's, my mother's and my own wedding bouquets... four generations, so that too seems to have become something of a family tradition.

The guests who were at the ceremony travelled to the reception by punt, and I supplied each punt with a large basket of champagne, flutes, smoked salmon sandwiches and mini-madeleines. The sun was quite hot by then so the ladies in the punts had paper parasols to shade their complexions! At the Meadows other guests gathered on the river bank, and the bridal party was greeted with a blizzard of rose petal and lavender confetti when their punt arrived.

Eventually everyone took their places in the marquee for a supper of Roast Pork - a local butcher had supplied an organic Hog Roast, the pig in question was a
Large White sow from a farmer in the village of Somersham,
and a selection of fabulous salads from the Shelford Delicatessen. Drew, the chef/proprietor had done us proud, with spicy cous cous, roasted mediterranean vegetables, green salad, new potato, yoghurt, dill and fetta salad, baby cherry tomato salad in a fresh tomato and chili salsa.

The groom's father had supplied the most superb champagne and wines, and copious amounts were consumed as you can imagine. For those who don't drink alcohol there was the quintessentially English beverage Elderflower Cordial (made by my pal Mrs Dart) diluted with sparkling water - it was both delicious and refreshing.

Balzanos, who are THE Italian bakers in Cambridge supplied wonderful breads, and we had an all British cheese board consisting of Colston Bassett the reknowned Stilton, Lincolnshire Poacher a delicious hard cheddar type cheese with gruyere overtones, and Clava a soft brie-type cheese from Invernesshire in the north of Scotland. Clava has won several awards at international cheese festivals, beating the French at their own game! it really deserves to be better known in the UK - I urge you to try it.

After that there were strawberries and cream (12 kilos of berries lovingly hulled by us the previous evening) and we had a traditional 'Stop Me And Buy One' ice cream bicycle serving a variety of flavours of ice creams and sorbets.

And of course there was the Wedding Cake - or should I say wedding cakes, there were six of them - and it was a triumph. Made specially by JF, a friend of the DD's who is a superb and innovative cakemaker. Moist orange and almond cake layered with orange and lavender curd, wrapped in a honeycomb of white chocolate, topped with gilded caramelised orange peel and decorated with sprigs of
lavender, it was utterly delicious.

There were the usual speeches, much laughter, some tears, many toasts and then the dancing began with a disco of Sixties music - well, what can I say, OUR generation had all the best tunes!

Then as a surprise for the Bride and Groom a Brasilian Funk band arrived, beating drums, shaking xequeres, blowing trombones. Saravah Soul are a fantastic band and their music is absolutely compelling, within moments there wasn't an inch of space on the dance floor as everyone from three to 83 was giving it their all.

The festivities continued with the guests lighting nearly 100 Chinese air lanterns which drifted up into the night sky and probably causing some locals to think there was an invasion of UFOs

By midnight I was absolutely exhausted and my face ached from smiling so much, and so to bed, having had a wonderfully happy day and acquired a son-in-law.

Saturday, June 20, 2009


being Mother-of-the-Bride (aka Wedding Planner) seems to be taking every waking moment. The big event is four weeks today, after the hoo-ha has all died down, normal service will be resumed.

A month before the wedding I checked my lists and see

Twelve dozen chairs

Eleven kilos strawberries

Ten dozen canapes

Nine cases Champers

Eight flavours of ice cream

Seven waiters waiting

Six punts a-punting

Five tiers of cake

Four mobile loos

Three types of cheese*

Two gorgeous bouquets


One very large marquee!

Not to mention one organic Hog Roast, eight litres dried flower petals for confetti, 17 bottles of Mrs
Dart's Excellent Elderflower Cordial, one firkin of ale, two djs, seven dozen quail's eggs, a truckload of salads, 4 sides of smoked salmon; and last but by no means least, 150 meters of wedding bunting made by my own fair hand - for which I expect to get The Best Mother in the World Award.

* Colston Bassett Stilton, Clava, Lincolnshire Poacher

Tuesday, May 12, 2009




TROUBLE. HE DO NOT SPEAK ENGLISH are the first words, written on a card, which introduce the reader to Inspector Jian in the novel Bad Traffic by Simon Lewis.

Jian is a
hard-bitten Chinese cop whose arrival in Britain to search for his missing daughter Wei Wei throws him into a totally foreign environment - the English countryside. Unable to speak the language he finds himself rapidly becoming embroiled in a dangerous situation when he falls foul of the Snakeheads who traffic peasants from China into the UK where they are forced to work as virtual slaves. These peasants have often paid huge sums to the Snakeheads in China because they believe they are being brought to "Gold Mountain", a country where they will earn a fortune which can then support their impoverished families back home. Ding Ming, one such illegal migrant arrived a few days earlier together with his wife. He has fallen out with his gangmaster as the couple have been split up, and Ding Ming does not know where his wife has been taken. He and Jian find themselves thrown together in a deadly battle against violent criminals. After various twists and turns, and with an ever mounting body count, Jian and Ding Ming

Simon Lewis
knows the Chinese well, and speaks Mandarin, having helped write The Rough Guide to China and his descriptions of modern Britain as seen through Chinese eyes is enthralling.
Set against the background of human traffiking Bad Traffic is a roller-coaster read, and Inspector Jian is a character I hope we will meet again in further books.


I realise this may seem very petty and trivial (and a little vulgar), given that the media seem to think many of us are in danger of immenent death from Swine Flu, and the House of Commons is drowning in a sea of corruption, but I am going to have a mini rantette about something that really, really irritates me.

It is an absolute rule in this household that when the loo roll runs out, the person there at the time MUST replace it at once so nobody gets caught short, rushes to the loo and then finds there is no paper. That rule seems to work pretty well, but some members of the family put the paper on the holder The Wrong Way Round, so that the loose end dangles down the back of the roll, when as everyone with any modicum of sense and intelligence knows it should dangle down the front of the roll.

When it comes to loo paper (or 'toilet paper' in non-U speak) I am not a particularly fussy person, the plain bog-standard - hah hah! - white is fine by me; the stuff with puppy-dogs and flowers printed on it is a ludicrous waste of money and resources, and no, I don't need my paper quilted or enhanced with moisturising aloe vera. However I am not such a throw-back as to yearn for the horrible hard Bronco sheets that I had at boarding school, nor do I want to cut up squares of newspaper and hang them on a hook , but neither am I ready to go totally green and save the planet by buying into this method of bum cleansing

Yet again this morning I have had to wast precious nano-seconds changing the loo paper in the bathroom so that it unrolls the right way.

Why should this be? the DH and I have been married for over 30 years, you would think by now I would have cured him of this irritating habit - he says that my way is not necessarily the right way and that lots of people don't give a monkey's which way the loo paper is presented.
This cannot be true, can it? I appeal to you dear reader to give me your views on the correct method of alignment.


As if I didn't have enough to do organising the DD's wedding, which is now a mere 11 weeks away, last week I was persuaded to hold a Saturday lunch party for 26 Chinese visitors, most of whom had not been to the UK before. The suggestion was that a buffet of "typically" British food should be served. So I racked my brains and my cook books to find dishes that I thought would appeal to Chinese tastes and yet represent British cooking. One of the first dishes I decided on was a pressed Ham Hock Terrine. This had several points in its favour. It is inexpensive to make, it is a meat the Chinese love, it is set in a jellied stock and the Chinese love the texture of jelly, and last but by no means least, it is very pretty to look at.

It takes some time to make but can be done in stages, and once made it will happily sit in the fridge for 4-5 days until you want to serve it. You will probably have to order your ham hocks from the butcher a few days in advance, as they seldom have them to hand.


Makes a 1kg terrine which will serve 10-12 portions.

2 ham hocks (each approx 1.25kg)

1 large onion, peeled and chopped in quarters
2 carrots, peeled and cut into large pieces
2 sticks celery, cut into large pieces
2 bay leaves
2 star anise
Large sprig of fresh rosemary
2-3 sprigs of fresh thyme
Handful of flat leafed parsley, stalks and all
2 teaspoons black peppercorns
2 tablespoons medium dry sherry

½ a sachet of gelatine crystals (or 2 sheets of gelatine)

3 tablespoons capers,
4 heaped tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley.

Firstly, to ensure the meat is not too salty, put the hocks in a large bowl or pan and soak them in cold water for several hours or overnight. Do this once more.
Drain the hocks and put in a large pot, cover with cold water, add the vegetables, the peppercorns, star anise and the herbs, bring to the boil and then simmer for 2
½-3 hours until the meat is tender and you can wiggle the bone. Remove from the liquor.

Skin the hocks and pull the meat into long thin shreds, stripping away as much fat and sinew as possible. Press the pieces of ham flat between your thumb and fingers as you do this.
You should end up with approx 750g of meat.

Strain off 600mls of the liquor (any remaining liquor can be used in soups) and chill it so that the fat congeals on the top and can be removed easily . Return this stock to the boil, remove from the heat then add the sherry.

Place two tablespoons of cold water in a cup and sprinkle on the gelatine, allow it to become spongy, then stir it into the hot stock until it has dissolved. Allow the stock to cool until it is starting to set.
Line a 1kg loaf tin with a double layer of cling film, allowing enough to fold back over the top of the tin.
Mix the shredded ham, chopped parsley and capers in a bowl, then pour in about half the cool stock and mix well. Layer the mixture into the lined tin, making sure the meat fibres run lengthways. With the flat of your hand press the mixture down firmly so it is level, then pour in more stock, tapping the tin to remove an
y air pockets. You may not need much more of the stock. Fold the clingfilm back over the top of the terrine, and cover with another piece of film and top with a piece of card cut to fit the tin. Weight it down (I use cans of beans) and place in the fridge for 8 hours, after which you can remove the weights.

Unmold it onto a serving dish and peel away the cling film. Serve in thick slices with some home-made Piccalilli.