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)