Wednesday, February 18, 2009

THE BUSH FIRES WHICH RAGED THROUGH SOUTHERN AUSTRALIA HAVE CLAIMED MANY LIVES, my heart goes out to all who have lost loved ones, friends and colleagues as well as their homes, pets, livestock and possessions. There is so little we in the UK can do to help, but this is a step in that direction: Victorian Bushfire Appeal


I am fascinated by local history and although I have never lived in the East End of London, for many years I sat as a magistrate in Bow, and like thousands of others I have flown in and out of London City Airport several times, so the area is not completely unfamiliar to me, but my knowledge was patchy to say the least.

Recently a friend recommended I read Silvertown: An East End Family Memoir by Melanie McGrath, and what a wonderful book it turned out to be.

Written almost as though it were a novel, the author documents the lives of her maternal grandparents, particularly her grandmother Jenny Page, who lived and worked in Poplar and Silvertown from the start of the 20th century. The reader is transported to a way of life now gone, to a part of London that has changed so much that it is virtually unrecognisable. That part of east London was dominated by the huge docks along the northern edge of the Thames. In those days London was one of the greatest shipping ports in the world. Cargoes and people arrived from every part of the British Empire and beyond; manufactured goods were sent down to London and exported to all points of the compass. The area was a hive of activity, with a vibrant cockney culture, and the story of Jenny and Len Page covers the heyday, decline and eventual extinction of the docklands community.

I became totally absorbed by their life and times: the horror of Jenny having all her teeth pulled out by a local butcher when she was 17 to avoid future dental expenses; the terror of the Blitz when night after night the East End was pounded with bombs and incendiaries, and thousands were killed; and the seemingly bizarre medical treatment of TB which was a common disease in those days. All the life of the East End flows through the pages of the book, the crime, the scams, the unthinking xenophobia and anti-semitism, nights out at the dog tracks, the hunger in childhood and during the two wars, and the struggle to keep up appearances.

Jenny Page’s life began when women wore corsets, horses pulled hackney carriages, and most streets were unlit. To be an East Ender then was to be among the lowest of London’s poor, and yet she never thought of herself as low. She died aged 91, a tiny woman with no teeth who had borne two children but had never seen a naked man; a woman who had been born in London but had never visited the Tower or St.Paul’s. An unlikely heroine, very ordinary and yet totally compelling. A true Londoner.

Rated 5*


Babies have been hitting the headlines in no uncertain terms just recently, and none of the headlines have been doing my blood pressure any good.
The photograph, prominently published in all the newspapers, of the 13 year old boy beside the baby he has apparently fathered (and I have my doubts about whether he is in fact the father and so have others) has triggered some very extreme reactions from the British Public. Some think that the lad should be arrested by the Police charged with statutory rape and severely punished (in Britain it is a criminal offence to have sex with a girl who is under sixteen), some feel that this proves that the whole country is going to hell in a handbasket, and others seem to think that with supporting parents' support it will all be okay in the end. I hope it is, but I am not holding my breath.
My first reaction when I saw the photographs was to feel very sad for the baby who may well end up in care, and sad for the boy and girl neither of whom seem to realise the magnitude of bringing a child into the world.
The sadness was then overwhelmed with anger; anger at the parents of both boy and girl - who had let this whole thing happen by not exercising proper parental care and control of their children and then sold the story to the tabloid press; anger at The Sun newspaper for cynically using two vulnerable youngsters in the most sensationalist way in order to boost circulation figures; anger at the wishy-washy attitude to proper and appropriate sex education in this country which could help prevent such situations, and finally, anger that yet again we taxpayers will have to pick up the costs.

How on earth do we start explaining to children why they should wait until they are grown up before they have children of their own? There is a wonderful children's book called Flour Babies by Anne Fine. It is about a class of 10 year old boys who take part in a science project. They are each given a 3Kg bag of flour and are told that for the next three weeks they must treat it exactly as if it were a real live baby. They are given a set of rules:

1) The flour babies must be kept clean and dry at all times. All fraying, staining and leakage of stuffing will be taken very seriously indeed.

2) Flour babies will be put on the official scales twice a week to check for any weight loss that might indicate casual neglect or maltreatment, or any weight gain that might indicate tampering or damp.

3) No flour baby may be left unattended at any time, night or day. If you must be out of sight of your flour baby, even for a short time, a responsible babysitter must be arranged.

4) You must keep a Baby Book, and write in it daily. Each entry should be no shorter than three full sentences, and no longer than five pages.

5) Certain persons (who shall not be named until the experiment is over) shall make it their business to check on the welfare of the flour babies and the keeping of the above rules. These people may be parents, other pupils, or members of the staff or the public.

The boys quickly learn just how much hard work it is looking after a baby, and how being responsible for one changes your life, you are no longer free to do as you please.

What a pity that coupled with some basic sex education, all children are not made to look after a flour baby.

And as for that woman in California who, with no income of her own and six children under the age of seven, deliberately goes and has eight embryos, conceived by IVF, implanted....don't get me started, I might explode.


Every year I make something edible to give people as a Christmas gift, and last year it was these crunchy cucumber pickles. They proved so popular I have had several requests for more, so yesterday I set about making another batch. In these financially straightened times, a simple Ploughman's Lunch is an inexpensive way of feeding guests on a Saturday, and these add a touch of class when served in place of the commercially produced brown pickles or dubious chutneys. For those who don't live in the UK, I should explain that a Ploughman's (as it is usually called) is a platter of fresh bread or a crusty roll, a lump of cheese - usually Stilton or Cheddar - some chutney or pickle, and an apple, washed down with a mug of beer. It is served in pubs up and down the land, and the quality is VERY variable They are also delicious in sandwiches and with hamburgers, and are simplicity itself to make.


This will make about 1.5kg

Prepare several glass jars by washing in hot soapy water, rinsing in hot water and drying in the oven at 100

900g small cucumbers

2 smallish onions
50g salt
350ml cider vinegar
350g granulated sugar
2 tablespoons yellow mustard seeds
2 teaspoons celery seeds

teaspoon ground turmeric
½ teaspoon black peppercorns

Cut the cucumbers into 5mm slices.
Halve and finely slice the onions.
Place the cucumber slices and onion into a large bowl.
Add the salt and mix well so that all the vegetables are covered with salt.
Place a plate inside the bowl, pressing down on the cucumber mixture (I weigh the plate down with another bowl containing two or three tins of food) so that it is really compressed. Leave it for 3 hours.
After that time there will be a lot of liquid in the bowl. Drain it off, and rinse the cucumber and onions under cold running water, drain again.
Put the vinegar, sugar, mustard seeds, celery seeds, turmeric and peppercorns into a large saucepan or casserole (do not use aluminium or copper pans for this recipe).
Bring to the boil, stirring with a wooden spoon to help dissolve the sugar.
Add the drained cucumber and onions; as soon as the mixture comes to the boil again, r
remove the pan from the heat.
Spoon the pickle into the warm, prepared jars, making sure the vegetables are covered with the liquid.
Cover with airtight, vinegar-proof lids and store for at least 1 month before using.

Saturday, February 07, 2009



Nicole Mones is an American who lived and worked in the textile business in China for 18 years, and she really knows the country and all its contradictions very well indeed. In her latest book, The Last Chinese Chef, she has entwined a modern love story with the story of China’s culinary culture.

Maggie McEllroy is an American food writer approaching her fortieth birthday when her husband is tragically killed. For many months she is overwhelmed by grief and unable to function properly, and when she is contacted by the law firm for whom her husband had worked to say that a paternity case has been lodged against his estate, on behalf of a five year old child in China, she is even more devastated. She is asked to go to Beijing to sort things out. The editor of the gourmet food magazine for whom she writes urges her to go, and commissions a series of articles on food in modern China.

The Beijing Olympics are looming, and the authorities in China have decided to hold a competition to choose the very best chefs to be part of the national cooking team over the Olympic celebrations. Thus it is that Maggie meets Sam Liang a Chinese/American chef who is last in a family line of famous chefs dating back to the days of the Imperial Court. His father had fled China during the Cultural Revolution and ended up in the USA.

Over a few weeks Maggie and Sam fall in love; and as Sam prepares to cook for the banquet of a lifetime, both Maggie and the reader learn about the place food holds in China’s history, its gastronomic philosophy, and how fine cuisine can be elevated to an art form.

To do this, the author has used the device of a book-within-a-book. Each chapter starts with a quotation from 'The Last Chinese Chef' purportedly published in 1925 by Liang Wei, Sam's grandfather - the opening chapter begins with:

"Apprentices have asked me, what is the most exalted peak of cuisine? Is it the freshest ingredients, the most complex flavours? Is it the rustic, or the rare? The peak is neither eating nor cooking, but the giving and sharing of food. Great food should never be taken alone. What pleasure can a man take in fine cuisine unless he invites cherished friends, counts the days until the banquet, and composes an anticipatory poem for his letter of invitation?"

Over the years I have eaten many meals in China, but it was only from reading this book that I began to grasp some of the ancient thinking behind the various styles of cooking and the choice of foods that I have been served.

The book is a must for anyone who enjoys Chinese food, or is interested in China.

Rated: 5*


I can't remember how old I was when I first learnt the old sea shanty "What Shall we do with the Drunken Sailor?" though I do remember singing it at primary school in Africa. It was also in the family repetoire of songs that we sang to relieve the boredom of long dusty car journeys. However, some dim spark at Bookstart the UK charity which "aims to provide a free pack of books to every baby in the UK, to inspire, stimulate and create a love of reading that will give children a flying start in life", has decided that the song is not suitable for children.

In addition to supplying books, they also organise Bookstart
Rhymetimes at local venues such as libraries. These are regular get-togethers for parents, babies and toddlers to sing songs and rhymes. In the Bookstart song sheet, the words "Drunken Sailor" have been replaced with the words "Grumpy Pirate" - removing any references to alcohol, presumably because the idea of a drunken sailor is just too inappropriate whereas grumpy pirates - like the murderous Somalis who have been terrorising the coast of east Africa, capturing oil tankers, container ships and the like - are considered acceptable. Of course, once you remove drunken sailors from the song you have to remove all the follow-on lines . "Put him in the brig until he's sober...Give him a hair of the dog that bit him...Hoist him to the yardarm with a running bowline" and my favourite, "Shave his belly with a rusty razor" are all too violent for the little darlings to lisp.

Therefore they have been replaced with lines such as "Tickle him till he starts to giggle" and "Do a little jig and make him smile". What the hell is this bowdlerised rubbish?
Sea shanties are part of the heritage of a maritime nation, we will be a nation of lily-livered wimps if this sort of PC nonsense continues.

I'd like to get the Bookstart censor then I'd Shiver his Timbers.

Heave Ho and up he rises,
Heave Ho and up he rises Heave Ho and up he rises Early in the morning! Scratch his back with a Cat-o'-nine-tails Early in the morning!


After reading Nicole Mones book (see above) I felt I should make something Chinese,
but with the cold snowy weather we're having I fancied something a little more substantial than a quick stir fry. This dish is a classic in China, I should think every household has their own variant of the recipe, in fact I have at least four versions , this one is taken from Fuchsia Dunlop's book Sichuan Cookery, slightly tweeked by me. It is a particularly apposite dish to make at the moment, as the sainted Jamie Oliver is on TV these days banging on about eating British pork and particularly encouraging people to use the cheaper cuts such as belly.

HONG SHAO ROU - Red Braised Pork

Serves 2 as a main course, or 4 with two or three other dishes as
part of a Chinese meal.
This re-heats very well on the second or third day, so can be made in advance.

500g streaky belly pork with skin on
Large piece of fresh ginger, unpeeled

2 spring onions

3 tablespoons sunflower oil or similar (NOT olive oil)

500ml chicken or vegetable stock

1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine (if you don't have this you can substitute dry sherry)

Half teaspoon salt

3 heaped tablespoons soft brown sugar
1 whole star anise

1 piece cassia bark (or use half a cinnamon stick)

Bring a large pan of water to the boil; when boiling, put the pork belly in and cook for 3-4 minutes then remove to a chopping board.
After a minute or two, when cool enough to handle, cut the pork into 3-4cm chunks making sure that each piece has a layer of skin and a mixture of meat and fat. Use something heavy to slightly crush the piece of ginger, then cut the spring onions into 3 or 4 pieces. In a flameproof casserole, heat the oil until it is almost smoking and then add the pork chunks (take care to stand back as you do this as the hot oil tends to spit out at you) and stir fry them for a few moments before adding the stock, sugar, soy sauce, wine, salt and spices. Stir together and bring to the boil. Simmer, half-covered, over very low heat for about two hours, stirring now and then to prevent it sticking. The meat should become a reddish brown and very tender, and the sauce reduce by half and be dark and glossy.
Serve with plain steamed or boiled rice, and garnish with finely chopped spring onion.