Wednesday, July 07, 2010


Contrary to my previous post, I am still having real problems posting anything on this blog whilst I am in China, and despite valiant attempts to resolve matters it is still not happening. (BTW a friend in the west has posted this on The 3Rs on my behalf)

As a result I have decided to put The 3Rs - Reading, Ranting & Recipes on hold until I am back in the UK, and start a new blog about my time here in China.

Do drop by and tell me what you think, it would be great to have your company and comments.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


I am now resident in Beijing, where to my horror I found that all Blogger/ blogs are blocked - as is Facebook and You Tube.  This was certainly not the case back in 2008 and though I know Google and the PRC powers-that-be had a massive falling out back in mid 2009, I can still get gmail and Google ok. Its just the blogs that are blocked. I have not been able to discover why, so the past fortnight has been horribly frustrating. 
Fortunately the DH and I were invited to a party here in BJ last weekend and lots of young computer geeks from the west were there, they are all working for a big computer manufacturer here in China. I asked them about my problem, and they gave me sound advice about acquiring something called a VPN, and recommended various on-line companies. 

The next day I started on my quest to break through the Great Firewall of China, and with a phone-a-friend helping me, I got a VPN all set up and here I am.  Thank god I know El Tel though as it is not as straightforward as it seems and I am not exactly the most technologically adept person.

It is just so bloody frustrating that they blocked Blogger in the first place.


I've read so many books since I last posted on the blog that I scarcely know where to begin. The book that kept me sane when the final days of packing and moving were driving me demented was a book I first read when I was a teenager, and I discovered a copy amongst my late mother-in-law's things when sorting through boxes that were going to be stored.

Desiree by Austrian writer Annemarie Selinko was originaly published in German in 1951. It was translated into English by Arnold Bender and E.W.Dikes and published by the Reprint Society in 1954
Desiree is a romance, and all the more romantic for being based on a true story, and although it is not exactly what one would describe as a great book, it captures the attention and one learns a huge chunk of European history without really trying.
Bernadine Eugenie Desiree Clary was born in 1777. She was the younger daughter of a prosperous silk merchant in Marseille. When she was 16 or 17, after the death of her father, her older brother was arrested by the local branch of the Revolutionary Government, and the good offices of a young Corsican clerk called Joseph Bonaparte helped to secure his release. As a result, Joseph and his brother Napoleon met the Clary family, and quite soon Joseph married Desiree's sister Julie; Napoleon and Desiree fell for one another and when she turned 18 they became formally engaged. Napoleon then went north to Paris where he met and became involved with the charming and sophisticated widow Josephine de Beauharnais. Josephine's husband had been sent to the guillotine during the Reign of Terror. Napoleon jilted Desiree and married Josephine.

Some years later Desiree married one of Napoleon's fellow generals, Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, and they had a son, Oscar. Napoleon appointed Bernadotte as a Marshal of France, a move he later came to regret. Bernadotte was an inspired military leader, but it meant that he and Desiree spent much of their married lives apart as he was always away on campaign. In 1809 the Swedish parliament offered him the role of heir-presumptive to the Swedish king who was old and childless. He and Desiree renounced their French citizenship and became Crown Prince and Princess of Sweden, though for many years Desiree continued to live in Paris. Eventually when the old King of Sweden died, they became the King and Queen, thus establishing the Royal house of Bernadotte who are the Royal Family of Sweden to this day.

The book which was hugely popular when it came out, was made into a movie starring Marlon Brando and Jean Simmons, which I would now like to track down on DVD. As a teenage girl I just revelled in the romance of it all and paid scant attention to the history, but I found that re-reading the book made me realise how patchy my knowledge of the Napoleonic Empire is, most of what I knew was from a British perspective. As a result I now have a biography of Napoleon and some other books about the period on my 'Must Read' list.



As I am in Beijing and not doing much cooking as yet it seems a bit of a cheek to post a recipe, but I made this for a lunch we had just before we left London. It is always so popular with people who have a sweet tooth. I am told that the concept/recipe originated in a pub in East Sussex called The Hungry Monk back in 1972, though it is so ubiquitous it seems to have been around for ever. I you have some ready-rolled puff pastry in the freezer, and a jar of Dulce de Leche (or a can of condensed milk) you only need a few bananas and some double cream and you can have the whole thing assembled in half an hour.


Serves 6

1 pack (220-250g) ready rolled puff pastry - fresh or frozen
4 or 5 large bananas
1 can/jar of Dulche de Leche (Merchant Gourmet make a good one, and so do Nestles Carnation - look for the tins marked 'Caramel')**
300ml double or whipping cream.
1 teaspoon cocoa powder

Pre-heat the oven to 200C

Lightly grease a 21cm loose bottomed cake tin, press the rolled puff-pastry into the tin so that it comes at least 2cms up the sides, cut off any excess. Prick the base all over with a fork. Line the pastry with some baking parchment or greaseproof paper and fill with baking beans. Bake for about 20 minutes til the pastry is golden and crisp.
Remove from the oven and allow to cool.

When cool, place on a serving dish and spread the whole tine of Dulche de Leche over the base of the pie. Slice the bananas and put a double layer over the caramel. Whip the cream until it forms soft peaks and spread over the bananas, be generous!
Use a small seive to sprinkle the cocoa powder over the cream to garnish. Keep in the fridge until ready to serve.

Now, how easy was that?!

** If you can't find ready-made Dulche de Leche you can make your own quite easily, but you will have to make it the day before you want to make the pie.
 Put an unopened tin of condensed milk ( NOT evaporated milk) into a saucepan and cover with cold water; bring to the boil and then simmer gently for about 1.5 hours, making sure the water doesn't boil dry.  Remove the tin from the pan and allow to cool completely. It can now be kept in a cupboard until you want to use it. It is  always a good idea to make two tins at the same time, then you have one ready at all times, it keeps virtually indefinately.

Thursday, April 29, 2010


But a word or two of explanation is necessary to explain why I have been posting so sporadically. 

Since December I have been having some eye problems which have made life tricky, but the good news is that I am due to have an eye op tomorrow and with any luck that will sort things out. 

My other challenge has been that the DH who had been away in China for 5 weeks, returned to say that at the beginning of June we are moving to live in Beijing. 

We won't be there all the time, but will spend about 9 weeks there, then 6-8 weeks back in the UK, then another 9 weeks or so in China, and so on and so forth - and this will continue for about 2 years. An apartment is being provided for us in Beijing.

The house we have been renting for the past couple of years has a prospective buyer, so we are packing everything up and it will go into store for the duration, and we will just have a small pied-a-terre here in the UK.
So here I am, surrounded by boxes, feverishly packing stuff, planning a huge farewell party for mid-May, and psyching myself up for tomorrow's op.

Friday, March 12, 2010


*Psittacula krameri


Small Wars by Sadie Jones is one of those books which you find yourself thinking about long after you've finished reading it. It is her second novel, her first -The Outcast - won the Costa 1st Novel Award in 2008, but I think that this is by far the better book.
Small Wars is set in Cyprus and England in the mid-1950s, it is both the story of a marriage, and of British foreign policy. Major Hal Treherne  has been posted to the British Colony of Cyprus in during the EOKA Emergency. Hal is a decent man, the only child of a family with a long military history, and after six years  stationed in Germany where there was no action to speak of, he is looking forward to doing the soldiering job for which he has been trained.  He is joined in Cyprus by his wife Clara and their two little daughters. Hal and Clara have a good marriage, they are very much in love, but living in the army base near Limassol they soon find that they are leading parallel lives and this 'small' war strains their marriage almost to breaking point. 
Hal finds he is being expected to ignore incidents of torture, rape and murder by army personnel, and his Colonel, who is a friend of his father, more or less tells him that he must set aside his integrity in the interests of military pragmatism. Suddenly everything he has ever believed in, the army, his country, his honour, his marriage, seems to be crumbling away. For the first time in their marriage Hal and Clara seem unable to communicate their feelings to one another and become more and more distant; she is fearful for her daughters and unable to understand why Hal has become so hard and taciturn, and he cannot begin to express to her the depths of his disillusionment. 
I cannot tell you more about what happens without spoiling the book for those who want to read it, but the ending is both inevitable and yet unexpected.

Since World War Two Britain has been involved in any number of 'small' wars, they are often in places where the job of the army is as much to win 'hearts and minds'  as it is to fight an enemy, and often the 'enemy' is the population of the country they are in. Afghanistan is a case in point, and the issues of how the military should to deal with 'insurgents' are very much the same now as they were for Hal in Cyprus in 1956.

Rated 4*


What in the world was Lori Mason thinking of when she allowed her husband, maverick chef/restauranteur Daniel Angerer to make cheese using her breast milk and then serve it to his customers?
Yuck, yuck, yuck! Human breast milk is for babies, not for over-sophisticated Manhattanites to munch on whilst sipping a glass of Reisling. Presumably Mr Angerer and Ms Mason have an infant otherwise she would not be lactating, so the poor babe must be losing out as some of the milk he/she could be having is being syphoned off (pardon the expression) so that dad can make cheese with it.  Apparently the New York Health Department are not happy about this and are taking steps to prevent this breast milk cheese being made, kept or served at the Klee Brasserie.
Years ago I took my kids to a farm in the Auvergne to see St. Nectaire cheese being made  (the expedition triggered a major family row about 'elf an safety, and EU farming subsidies, but that's another story) and I remember being surprised how much milk is required to make quite a small amount of cheese. With that in mind, Ms Mason would have to be 'milked' several times a day to get the liquid volumes required. I have only two words for her: Silly cow.


Cauliflower is not top of my list of favourite vegetables, it can be so bland and wishy-washy , especially if it has been over cooked. Over the last few years I have learned to appreciate it more, mainly because I have discovered some delicious recipes, and this is one I came across recently. It is from the Ottolenghi cookbook, though I have tweeked it a little. If you like spicy food, and like pakoras, you'll love these fritters.


Serves 4
350g cauliflower  
120g plain flour 
3 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley 
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped 
2 shallots finely chopped 
4 large eggs 
1.5 teaspoons ground cumin 
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon 
0.5 teaspoon ground turmeric 
1.5 teaspoons salt 
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
500ml sunflower oil for frying

First, prepare the batter by mixing the flour, chopped parsley, garlic and shallots together with the spices, salt and pepper in a large bowl. Add the eggs and use a wooden spoon to mix everything together and then beat the mix into a thick batter - make sure that all the flour and spices are well mixed in and that there are no pockets of dry ingredients.

Prepare the cauliflower by cutting off all leaves and the thick central stalk,and then divide it into small florets.  Put the florets into a steaming basket and steam over boiling water for about 20 minutes until very soft. (You can cook the cauliflower in boiling water if you wish but make sure you drain it really well)
Add the warm cauliflower florets to the batter mixture, and mix everything together breaking the florets down as you do so.

Put the sunflower oil into a large frying pan - it should be about 1.5cms deep - and when it is very hot carefully spoon quite large portions of the fritter mixture into the oil, approx 3 tablespoons per fritter. Make sure they are spaced well apart. I find that you can fry four fritters in the pan at the same time. Fry them for about 3-4 minutes each side, take care not to let them burn, if the oil is getting too hot, adjust the heat.
Use a fish slice or slotted spoon to remove them from the pan and drain them on crumpled kitchen paper to remove excess oil.

They are great tucked into pitta bread, with some tomato and cucumber, or served with a dollop of yoghurt or chutney.

Monday, March 01, 2010


Hearts and Minds is the latest book by Amanda Craig, and I think it is her best so far.  
In the last few years there have been several books (The Road Home by Rose Tremain, The Other Hand by Chris Cleave, My Cleaner by Maggie Gee) and one or two films (Dirty Pretty Things, Breaking and Entering) tackling the subject of what life is like for an immigrant/refugee/asylum-seeker living in Britain. In Hearts and Minds Amanda Craig has given the most readable, detailed – and at times depressing – overview of how our society functions only because of the huge underbelly of people from other countries who live and work here.  As I read it I kept thinking that this is the book everyone should read if they want to understand something of London life in the Noughties.

Like many big cities, London is a place of contrasts, and these are unveiled to show everything from the pampered luxury of life in a Hampstead mansion, the comfortable middle-class terraces of Islington, and the squalid apartments in ‘Kill Burn’ and Camden where brothels are called Massage Parlours.

The novel has five points of view: there is Job, the Zimbabwean mini-cab driver who is an illegal immigrant fleeing the horrors of Mugabe’s regime and who hasn’t heard from his wife for nearly a year; Anna, the fifteen year-old girl from Russia, who thinks she is coming to work as a cook or chamber-maid but finds she has been enslaved as a prostitute, her passport seized by the traffickers and without any access to the outside world. Katie, a young American who is escaping from a broken engagement, and is working for a pittance on a temporary visa. Ian is a white South African supply teacher working in a sink school in Hackney, and then there is Polly a divorced mother of two school-aged children who is struggling to advance her career as a human rights lawyer. These seemingly diverse individuals are connected through various chains of events which cross each other and interweave, all beginning when Polly’s Russian au pair, Iryna, vanishes without a word, and later when her body is discovered in a pond on Hampstead Heath.

Whilst I wouldn’t exactly put Craig and Dickens side-by-side in the pantheon of English literature, I certainly felt that the author was a very worthy successor to Dickens’s crusading zeal for depicting London life with all it’s social injustices, and she does so with a page-turning story and real characters who are tragic, frightening, charming, endearing and above all, believable.

Rated 4.5*


I have never been one for using much in the way of make-up, though as I get older there is no doubt that from time to time my complexion needs a little help to look its best. I call myself 'low maintenance' but what that really means is 'lazy'. However I do tend to put on some lipstick before I leave the house - that is if I remember.  For some reason I feel better dressed and more confident if I have applied a quick slick of lippy. 

I don't think I'm alone in this, thousands of women would probably choose  lipstick as their desert island luxury and nearly every handbag (or purse as the Americans  call it) probably has a tube of lipstick lurking somewhere in its depths.  Apparently during economic recessions - and we all know about those don't we? - the sales of lipstick actually rise because they are a small, feel-good purchase; if you can't afford a dress by Dior at least you can buy the lipstick.

As I am not what might be called a fashionista, I have a three lipstick policy, one shade for winter, one shade for summer and one shade for special occasions - I also have a little pot of lipgloss, but that is just an optional extra.  Last week I had to buy myself a new lipstick as my default winter shade was worn down to a nub. It should have been easy, but no, yet again the lipstick I like, the lipstick I want, has been discontinued.  
Instead of  just stopping at the beauty counter to pick up a replacement I ended up faffing around for 20 minutes in a swither of indecision whilst being 'assisted' by a young woman with glossy navy-blue fingernails, a tatoo or two, and at least five facial piercings.   

I am sure the cosmetic companies do this just to irritate me. I don't mind them bringing out new ranges of colours (although they always seem perilously, but not quite, like the previous range) with wacky names like 'Just enough buff', 'Wine with Everything' or 'Toast of New York' but please, please, please don't keep discontinuing the colours I like.



This area of North London has many Greek Cypriot and Turkish grocery shops, and I love some of the products they sell. Recently I bought a large tub of Taramasalata  (for which I have a great fondness) from a shop I use regularly and which always stocks good quality produce.    When I served it up with some hot Pitta bread I was most disappointed, it was artificially pink and bland. On close reading of the listed ingredients  it seemed there was very little cod roe in it, and rather a lot of vegetable oil, water and bread. The pink colour apparently came from beetroot juice! Beetroot juice - what the hell was that doing in taramasalata? 
I decided to make some myself, after consulting various recipes I phoned a Greek friend and she told me what to do - and also told me to leave out potato or bread which some recipes give to pad it out. Likewise any garlic, the flavour of the cod roe doesn't need garlic.  So here is the recipe:

TARAMASALATA - Helen's version

250g smoked cod roe
Juice of half a lemon
250ml olive oil - though you could need a little more
Boiling water

Soak the cod’s roe in a bowl of cold water for several hours or overnight.
Drain and peel off the outer membrane.
Put the roe in a food processor  give it a quick pulse - do not over process it.
Bring the speed up a little and add the lemon juice.
Now, just like making mayonnaise, start adding the olive oil in a thin stream, little by little whilst the processor is running slowly  Keep adding the oil until the mixture begins to look like a puree . The amount of oil needed varies and you will have to keep an eye on it.
Then add boiling water, a tablespoon at a time, until it becomes light and mousse-like.
Scoop into a serving bowl and scatter chopped parsley on the top.
Keeps well in the fridge (cover it tightly)