Friday, 28 December 2007

Save Mr Splashy Pants

If, like me, you think that Mr Splashy Pants is a screamingly funny name for a humpback whale, you might want to see what all the fuss is about.

I am not the King of DIY

The Universe has a number of ways of ensuring we keep our feet firmly on the ground. One of the most popular, as I'm sure you're already aware, is gravity - "it's not just a good idea, it's the law". Only slightly less well known is what is often referred to as a Kick in the Teeth. Usually delivered in response to some small pride, or minor hubris, it's a way of reminding us not to get too big for our proverbial boots.

Let's be clear about one thing right now. I am not the King of DIY. I'm not even a resident of the kingdom. Even if I knew where it was, I wouldn't be able to find my way there, or get over the well-made hand-built fence to get in.

I'm patently rubbish at DIY. My dear old dad did his best, teaching me everything he knew about hammering screws into bits of wood; it just didn't stick. These days, even the most trivial DIY jobs require a full weekend of my time. They also need three or more increasingly desperate trips to the local DIY stores to buy the tools that are necessary for the job, or to buy whatever is needed to bodge-fix the errors I make, or the things I break whilst attempting to do the usually-laughably-simple job.

The past few days have seen something of a sea change. Only yesterday I was disproportionately pleased with a relatively minor bicycle maintenance success. Today, I've been wrestling with the hot tap in the bathroom, which has not been leaking for quite some time. Quite the opposite in fact, to the extent that even with the tap fully open, there was barely a trickle of water coming from the faucet. Every visitor to the house has commented on this, with some helpful hint about the cause (low pressure, or a furred-up tap) but with no offer to resolve the problem.

Earlier this morning, I succeeded in fixing this very problem, and it only took a scant few hours. And with only a single trip to a DIY store (to purchase an excellent tool called a Boa Constrictor multi-purpose strap wrench - you'll have to google it; their home page is knackered. I thoroughly recommend it; I'll doubtless be buying another one, when I attempt the next job that requires one, and I can't find the one I bought today). But the happy news is that the tap now gushes on demand, after a swift and easy turn of the tap.

I spent some time this morning turning it on and off, waiting for it to break, or leak or something. I even left my tools out for an hour or so in case the tap was waiting to break when I wasn't looking.

The second time I tripped over them, I put them away. Or started to, until I remembered another unstarted project: the Curtain Pole Job.

Last winter, in the height of the cold, I had decided that my kitchen needed a draft-excluder curtain and so, after several weeks dithering and deciding, a suitable one had been sourced and left on the back of a chair, where it would be most in the way whilst it waited to be put up. Some months later, it had been moved into a cupboard, where it could be conveniently forgotten about and nothing more said about the matter. But in that time a secondhand curtain pole had also been acquired; this had spent the remainder of the year leaning against the wall by the back door.

Today, though, the King of DIY was in the house. Today was surely the most auspicious day to attempt to hang the curtain.

And so it was, slightly dizzy with previous success, that I decided to tackle the Curtain Pole Job.

I assembled my tools, laid out my mismatched screws, and began my symphonic attack on the engineering block walls with my trusty hammer drill.

I will spare you the details of the process. Suffice to say that I successfully hung the curtain pole, and curtain, at the correct height, without further incident or injury, without breakage or bleeding or damage.

It was beginning to look as if the King of DIY was resident in the house.

I put all my tools away, tidied up after myself, and admired my handiwork. Yes, it's only a curtain hanging over a door, but I don't mind admitting that there was a happy little smile playing about my lips.

Flushed with success, I lifted a fresh pint of orange juice out of the fridge for a victory toast. Looking around for a glass, I spotted the frying pan I'd used for my lunch time double-fried egg sandwich, cleaned and drying on the draining board. In the spirit of tidying up, I responsibly put it away, stretching to hang it in its place on the ceiling mounted pan rack (helpfully installed by the previous owner of the house, naturally).

Twisting to reach the high hook, I felt my left elbow nudge something and knew instantly that I'd knocked the orange juice over. A quick glance over my shoulder was sufficient to confirm the truth. I watched helpless as the bottle hit the ground in that slow motion that often accompanies such incidents.

I even had time to think that cleaning up broken glass was hardly fair punishment for my mild successes.

But it did not shatter. Instead, I watched it tumble, spilling its contents onto the floor, and fall onto its side.

Now I had a dilemma; which was the more urgent task? Should I abandon the pan in order to pick the bottle up before more spilled? Or should I accept the inevitable, and calmly replace the pan before turning to the bottle?

Pondering the matter, I continued with the hanging of the pan, and lost in my thoughts, fumbled it so badly that by the time I had turned back to the spilled orange nectar, the bottle had emptied itself fully over the floor. Fully, that is, except for a mockingly small amount trapped by the neck of the bottle.

I wish I could say that I allowed myself a small sigh. I think I may actually have said a naughty word or two. But I hung my head and accepted the punishment for my hubris.

Now, cleaning up a nearly-full pint of orange juice from the floor, the plinth under the cooker, and the cupboard doors in one thing. But one of the cupboard doors is currently missing, the result - you guessed it! - of a failed bit of DIY seven or eight months ago. So it was that the front contents of the corner cupboard (also known as the Tupperware Graveyard) were splashed extravagrantly with sticky orange juice. To whit: two stainless steel steamer inserts (and lid), one Le Creuset casserole and lid, one further pan lid, three assorted bowls (two of stainless steel), a Pyrex jug, and countless tupperware reusable containers.

It dawned on me that the Universe had realised that gravity was not sufficient, and had given me a nudge. Not quite foot-dental contact, but in that area.

To what I hope is my credit, I believe I smiled.

I am not the King of DIY. But I do have a decent hot tap in the bathroom, and a draft-excluder curtain in the kitchen.

And that orange juice was past its date.

Thursday, 27 December 2007

Pimpin' my girl

I've just spent a satisfying few minutes restoring Flora to glory.

Although we all know it wasn't a few minutes (because I am not the king of bicycle maintenance).

Nevertheless, she now has the bullhorn aero-bar handlebars with reverse action brake levers that I have craved for years, and a lovely mottled purple cork tape, to go with her frame. And I replaced the brake cables as well, all by myself.

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

The Conservation of Mass

Have you ever noticed that whenever you lose weight, someone else gains it? Or - more often - that someone has managed to lose weight at the precise time that you have found it?

These observations lead naturally to the theory of conservation of mass, which states that there is only so much bodyweight in the world, and as someone loses bodyweight, so someone else must gain it.

Word of the day: disfigurement

disfigurement [dis-fig-er-muhnt]

See dyscalculia.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

The Steak and Ale Pastry Sandwich

Today I discovered a completely new species of pie.

I dined this evening in the Greyhound pub in the village of Siddington, Gloucestershire, where I ordered - with a certain amount of anticipation, and not a little drool - the steak and 6X pie (for this is an establishment selling the fine ales of the Wadworth brewery).

Having not eaten pie for a seemingly long time, my expectations of the imminent feast were quite high, if a little guarded. One can never completely predict the nature of a pie in an unfamiliar establishment, as has been noted elsewhere.

In short time, the plate arrived resplendent with what can only be described as a pastry sandwich. Indeed, at first I mistook it for a baguette, and was about to summon the waiter briskly back to the table with a tart complaint about the wrong order.

My rebuff died on my lips as I fully beheld the construction before me. A piece of puff pastry - a sizeable piece, one would generously allow - had been baked in the oven until tall and crisply robust. It had then been sliced in a plane parallel to the plate, as one would a croissant, perhaps, or a curly roll.

The so-called filling of tasty steak and Wadworth's Finest had subsequently been sandwiched - there is simply no other word - between the pastry pieces. By which I mean it had been poured over the lower piece, and the other piece had been perched with some ceremony and gravitas atop.

The whole was presented with a reasonable portion of chips, peas and a generous quantity of gravy - the latter due in no small part to the fact that two pieces of pastry with flat edges will not contain stew for any length of time, however thick the gravy sauce.

I was quite surprised, a little put out, but fundamentally undaunted (and rather peckish). So I tucked into the thing with as much relish and gusto as could be summoned.

It was, on balance, rather pleasant. For my money, the filling could have been a little more peppery, a little more spicy. The steak itself leaned towards wholesome rather than tender. And the gravy could have been richer. But seeing as it wasn't my money that was paying for this feast, I smacked my lips and cleaned my plate.

It wasn't a True Pie, though.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Consistently cold

Consistency is good. Except where sub-zero temperatures are concerned.
Unless you're polar bear, I suppose.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

How cold?!

Taken when I got in the car this morning. Before setting off, obviously. Be safe out there, folks.

Friday, 7 December 2007

A Short Review of Unusual Candy

Nutter Butter (by Nabisco)
"Peanut Butter Sandwich COOKIES"

The exciting thing about these little chaps - apart from the name, natch - is that they're shaped like a peanut. A peanut that has, cartoon-style, being placed under a steam-roller, and emerged basically the same shape, but considerably flatter than before. They are, as their descriptor suggests, two layers of biscuit between which a peanut butter-filling has been inserted. The biscuit is on the powdery side of crunchy, and the peanut butter is typically claggy in the mouth. But these are tasty, cheerful little cookies, and commendably easy to eat.

Wonka Runts
"Artificially flavored CANDY"

One has to love a candy that is so proud of the fact that it's artificially flavoured that it's displayed prominently on the box. These little chaps also contain two new flavours - pineapple and mango - in addition to the "ordinary" strawberry, banana and orange. Amusingly, the candy is shaped like the fruit it tastes of - presumably in case you can't tell that yourself.

And let's be clear about this; your tastebuds are in for a rare experience. The moment one of these little chaps hit my tongue, I felt my mouth explode with horror at the aggressive sweetness and chemically-enhanced flavours. They are astonishing in their falseness, impressive.

Suffice to say that I did not manage to swallow any of them.

Butterfinger (by Nestle)
"Crispety Crunchety peanut-buttery"

The Americans do seem to enjoy their peanut butter candy, and this is apparently a giant of the genre. The milk chocolate hides brittle layers of peanutty flavour that crunch between the teeth. I think this one takes a little getting used to - as much as any peanut butter "candy" does for the British palate. But there's something compelling about it, the brittle textures and mildly buttery flavour.

Goobers (by Nestle)
"Nestle Milk Chocolate - Fresh Roasted Peanuts"

Peanuts in chocolate. I guess there's something tantalisingly simple about that, so much so that even the mighty Nestle can't come up with a tagline that does more than state what they are, rather than one of those funkety-rhymety little catchphrases employed by some of the other products reviewed here. But then, with a name like "Goobers", perhaps they need to describe what they are, because you really wouldn't guess.

And the point of this candy, despite the Poppets-style novelty of the cardboard box, is its simplicity. Peanuts. In chocolate. You really can't find fault with that.

Milk Duds (by Hershey's)
"Made with Chocolate and Caramel"

No need for fancy packaging or a funky marketing message for Hershey's. And why indeed with these great clumps of treacly caramel toffee in milk chocolate. Surprisingly hard to eat, they stick to the teeth and are satisfyingly chewy in the mouth. Not something to eat lots of in one session, though, as the old jaw quickly tires from the powerful chewing needed to devour them. Perhaps with sufficient training...

Nerds Rainbow of Flavors (by Wonka)
"Tiny, tangy, crunchy candy"

Another one from the Wonka label, Nerds look like the many-coloured gravel you used to see in the bottom of fish tanks. Much like the Runts, these are aggressively sweet - they taste like multi-coloured sugar - but make no claims about the flavour they may be.

I'm afraid I didn't manage to swallow any of these.

Stepping stones

I went out for a stroll this morning, after the winds had eased and the sun was peeping out between the vanishing clouds. But given the amount of rain that we'd so recently enjoyed, I was armed (or footed, I suppose) with my hiking boots (by Merrell, with Gore-Tex) so that I would be able to wander hither and thither, on and off road as the mood struck me.

So it was that towards the end of my stroll I decided to wander down the unpaved (unlaid) track of the bridleway and into the field, just because I could.

Or so I thought. As I made my way down the bridepath, the extent of the flooding meant that the drainage channel on one side of the path had filled, overflowed, and had run deeply over the path at one particular point.

I stood there a moment, faintly disappointed, but only faintly. After all, this was but a whim, and easily put aside.

But then there stirred in me a desire to push on, to explore, to see the other side of the puddle. So I cast about for a solution.

And a solution presented itself.

To one side of the path, a tree was leaning across the path, and had been cut by some passing woodcutter or sawsman, then sectioned into neat logs, perhaps 20 or 25 cm in diameter with cleancut flat edges. As I looked between them and the puddle, the kernel of an idea began to make itself known to me.

And so it was that a few moments later I skipped across my own stepping stones, splashing safely down on the other side of Lake Puddle, and striding cheerfully into the field that was at the end of my quest.

Sometimes - just sometimes, but actually more often than we let ourselves believe - some things are just meant to happen.

Monday, 3 December 2007

Cat sitting and star gazing

All this week, I've been lucky enough to wake in the Cotswolds, as friends have let me stay in their house in exchange for some light duties including cat feeding whilst they are away. They have a lovely house in a semi-rural hilly setting, and the location could not be more different than my own house.

Where I live, on the far outskirts of London, near a train line, and under the flight path for Heathrow, there is a constant buzz from one form of transport or another: planes, trains and automobiles indeed.

Here, there is far less traffic and much less noise.

I was sitting out this evening, listening to cows lowing across the valley, and staring at the stars. There are more stars visible here than I saw in the Red Center of Australia, where there are far fewer lights. Oh, there was the occasional plane, for sure, dragging itself slowly and blinkingly across the sky. But in the main it was sky and stars.

Then I glimpsed a shooting star.

If that's not the icing on the cake, then I just don't know anything about sweet, baked, breadlike foods often found hanging around birthday parties.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Strangers in the night

Cycling home this evening, through the gloom and sometimes-mist, and fine rain, my small-but-bright light illuminating the way, and causing cars to dip their headlights when they see it, I spotted another lone light on the opposite side of the road, making its sure and steady way towards me.

As we converged, I could make out the rhythmic flashes from the reflectors on his pedal, up and down, and I knew that here was a fellow cycle commuter making his way home in the dark and damp.

As we passed, he called out with a cheery note:


I replied similarly, and finished the remainder of the short journey with a big smile.

Monday, 26 November 2007

The lifecycle of a pumpkin

From this chirpy perky smiley chap:

Chirpy pumpkin

To this incandescent horror (just one week later):

Pumpkin aflame

To this poor deflated thing (another week later):

Deflated pumpkin

I rather think the final one is my favourite.

Monday, 19 November 2007

What not to say the person lying in your bed when you've just got up rather early in the morning and dressed in the dark.
"Looks like it's going to be a beautiful dawn, darling! Can I make you a coffee?"

I suspect it doesn't help if you whisper, and try not to sound too cheerful .

Friday, 16 November 2007

Are you sure?

Seems like I'm getting asked this question a lot lately.

It usually goes like this:

I'll be in a store, buying something small and trivial (like a carton of juice, or a Cranks sandwich) and the ever-helpful checkout operator will automatically reach for a carrier bag.

"Hold on," I'll say cheerfully. "I'm alright without a bag."

Or perhaps:

"Don't worry about a bag."

Or even:

"I don't need a bag. Thank you."

Whatever the format, I usually manage to deliver the statement with a cheery smile. The response is depressingly predictable, delivered in a slightly disbelieving tone.

"Are you sure?"

Well, yes. I'm quite certain, as it goes.

It's not a difficult concept to grasp, surely? A customer declining a shabby scrap of plastic that will serve its intended purpose for a few minutes before retiring to clutter up the house for months, and then some landfill site for the rest of the century. Or just loiter about in a tree forever.

My response is generally less cheery, delivered through teeth gritted in resignation or suppressed rage.

"Yes, I'm quite sure."

One day this question will be a thing of the past, a distant memory. Perhaps when we've got away from this habitual, helpful, value-add attitude and got into the habit of carrying our own bags. Or just using our hands to Carry Things.

Radical stuff, eh?

Friday, 2 November 2007

Tastes like chicken

...but it isn't chicken, not really.

The conditions that intensively farmed indoor chickens experience during their short, miserable existences have been widely documented for some time. And for a number of years, it has been my decision to choose free range birds whenever I buy chicken. Yes, there is a small price difference. But there is also a significant taste difference, and a massive ethical difference. If I eat chicken a little less often as a consequence, the result it that I savour it even more, and make the most out of every scrap.

The Chicken Out! campaign aims to raise standards for chickens, and for those of us that eat them. Why not pop over to the Chicken Out! website and remind yourself of the issues? You might even want to register your support for the campaign.

I have. After all, to use a well-worn phrase, I'm worth it.

(More on the abuse of poultry)

Thursday, 1 November 2007

And finally: my carbon footprint

Well, I offset my flights to, from - and indeed in - Australia.

Now, I know that offsetting doesn't actually wipe out the emissions resulting from the flight (hence the name, one might observe). It doesn't get me off the proverbial Carbon Hook, or solve the larger problems of climate change.

The particular scheme, operated by Qantas, and approved by the Australian Government, supports carbon sequestration through tree planting. I know it's a token gesture.

But it is a positive step. It is action, rather than inaction. I did consider the issue. I made a choice. And - most importantly - I took action. That definitely counts for something.

If you need more, see

Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Back in Blighty

Home, England.

After 29 days, a ridiculously large number of miles, and - most recently - 12 hours on an aeroplane, I arrived back in England a little after six o'clock this morning.

I'd like to say that my eyes were bright and my step was jaunty as I sashayed through customs and onto British soil. But the truth of the matter is that I was tired and jaded - I slept through take-off! - and full of twinges.

I was, however, very happy to have had a wonderful time away. And very happy to be home.

Vegetarians don't eat spinach for breakfast

Somewhere over Europe.

I watched wistfully as the person in the seat next to me was given their non-vegetarian breakfast. Perched on top of the expanded-polystyrene egg was a pallid slither of bacon that looked very tempting to my weary eyes. And there, the tomato, the mushroom, the glossy pile of spinach.

But my vegetarian meal was about to arrive; what need did I have for lustful thoughts for bacon? A forkful or two of limp spinach would soon restore my equilibrium. I suspect I was licking my lips as I peeled away the foil lid of the breakfast tray.

Wonder of wonders! There was - naturally - no bacon. There was my egg, thicker than plaster of paris and as spongy as foam. And there my tomato, and mushroom.

But no spinach. Oh no, not for the vegetarians, no sir. Vegetarians do not, after all, eat spinach for breakfast, do they? No no no. Keep that for the meat eaters.

Vegetarians eat broccoli for breakfast.

Well, obviously.

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

The Royal Palace, Bangkok

The Royal Palace in Bangkok is jammed with beautiful paintings, amazing statues, awe-inspiring architecture, and buckets of history.

So I'm sharing this photograph, which shows none of the aforementioned wonders.

It is a pretty flower, though.

Sunday, 28 October 2007

48 Hours in Bangkok

Well, alright then, call it 50. But we only expected to be there for 48 hours. Or 49.

Having landed just about 23h00 hours on the 28th, our departing flight is at 00h20 on the 31st. Little did we know that it would be delayed a little bit, so we had an extra hour or so in Thailand. Bonus!

Of course, we spent that additional free-to-you-sir time in an aeroplane, so we might as well have been anywhere. And I slept through it. In fact, I slept through take-off. But I'm getting ahead of myself. When we left our brave friends, they'd just landed in Bangkok, tired from the longish flight, and the smallest bit grumpy that they'd left Australia, which had been so much fun.

But they were full of hope, too, because here was yet another wonderful new destination, begging to be explored and examined and enjoyed. So that's what we did in the little time available to us.

In short: Arrive. Hotel. Chinatown. Hotel. Thai dancing. Sleep. Royal Palace. Hotel. Depart.

In long:
I really liked Bangkok, the crazy heady rush and whirl of it; I would suddenly find myself smiling delightedly at the madness of it. But as a friend of mine said:

"The reasons you'll love Bangkok are the reasons you'll hate it."

I think I know what he means.

Friday, 26 October 2007

More sisters

Back to the Blue Mountains today, and what a change! Today there was thunder and lightning and - yes - rain over the National Park.

We arrived just in time to watch a massive downpour from the dubious comfort of the car before venturing forth once it had abated.

The view from Point Echo was rather different from the last time I visited, with the clouds rising from the forest as the rain stopped. And my camera at a strange angle, judging by the horizon in the image above!

In the distance, lightning flashed and forked over the mountains, and I irritated onlookers attempting to capture it by using the continuous shooting feature of my camera. My memory card filled before the lightning came again!

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

I slept through 36 kangaroos

That's sightings, not splatterings.

The drive from Yulara resort to Kings Canyon is long, and departs early in the morning. So early that it's really the late-middle of the night. As a consequence, I found myself dozing off more often than I might have liked.

(In honesty, I found myself waking up rather than dozing off. I admit I don't recall the falling asleep part of the cycle whatsoever.)

Anyhoo, I would have preferred to be awake, because the coach driver had warned us that there might be wildlife straying onto the road and I was eager to catch my first bleary-eyed glimpses of Australian wildlife in the Wild. Kangaroo-caught-in-the-headlights, if you will.

So it was with a quiet regret that I awoke on one occasion to hear the bus driver announcing:

"There's another three kangaroos, ladies and gentlemen, which I think makes it 39 that we've seen so far. Plus a dingo, a brumby, and seventeen willow-tongued blimbutts."

I did, happily, see a couple of kangaroos and camels.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

The question of a hyphen

Is that rainbow-bee eaters, or rainbow bee-eaters?

The moon on a stick?

Taken in on the Kata Tjuta walk. The sky was like this pretty much all the time. Beautiful.

Uluru again

Yes, it really does meet expectations. Just go there.

No steps at Uluru

Be under no illusions: there are no steps cut into Uluru.

When people talk about "the climb", I suspect they really mean "the haul".

The thin silver line you can see snaking up the Rock in the pic above is a low hand rail, which you'd need both to drag yourself upwards, and to arrest your too-speedy descent. You'll note it doesn't start at the bottom of the Rock, either, so the preamble would be a scramble and the postscript a slither.

People regularly die on this climb - by falling off - and if it's too windy or too hot, the Park Rangers close the climb. Which is what they did today (because of the winds on the top) - you can see the little red gate and no entry sign, which seems strangely genteel, given the setting.

I hadn't been planning to climb anyway, but having seen this, I was more than happy with my decision.


An early start today, whilst the sky is still dark, and the stars still clear in the sky. And this in aid of Seeing the Rock at Sunrise, a recurrent pass-time in this part of the world.

There's a lot written, and spoken, and rumoured, about Uluru at sunrise; the way the rock glows and changes colour. I think it depends on the type of dawn; the clouds can change the colour of the sky, and presumably the rock too. For me, it was a tremendously pleasant experience, and I'm glad I just stood there and took it in, rather than trying to capture it photographically. A short time afterwards, though, I did indulge myself and take this:

This is one of my favourite pictures of Uluru. I took it just after dawn, having stood in pretty much that spot and watched the rock change colour as the sun dragged itself above the dusty, sandy horizon behind me.

I could trim it down, but I rather like the fact that you can see the photographer (that's me, folks) - you can see how early it is by the length of my shadow. And I haven't done any other work on the picture, either; it's exactly as my camera recorded it. I love the paleness in the sky, as the sun is still rising. I love the colours and shadows on the rock. You can make out the dark stain of a water channel in the middle of that deep shadow on the left, and the distinctive face of the Mala man, killed by Kirpan whilst protecting his people.

I love the ground too, which becomes stoney rather than sandy just to the left of the viewpoint, and had gathered some water in little puddles from the rain the evening before. I tried to take an arty shot of the reflection of the rock in the water, but couldn't quite get it right. I don't mind.

Sunrise at Uluru is special - Uluru is special. I suspect the definition of that will differ wildly between most visitors.

But, damn, it's worth the trip.

A good start to the day

Some days start earlier than others, and today started particularly early. Equally, some days start better than others, and today was especially good.

As I stood, shivering, beneath a sky still black and rich with stars, gazing up at the familiar and unfamiliar consellations above me, I saw a shooting star flashing through the sky over the Southern Cross.

And still to come: sunrise at Uluru.

Monday, 22 October 2007

Eat your heart out, David Copperfield

Forget that thing with the Statue of Liberty. Mother Nature just worked the most amazing vanishing act, disappearing - and reappearing - the massive monolith that is Uluru from the horizon as I watched, alarmed.

I arrived at Yulara, the Ayers Rock Resort, hungry for Uluru. I had spent the entire flight with my face pressed to the window, drinking in the view as we passed over ground that was coloured the most fantastic colours - from purples, to mustard-yellows, here pale and near-white and there dark, brown-red. I was enthralled the entire time.

But this was all but a prelude to the main act. We all knew why we were there. And, as we began our descent, the fidgeting and fussing on board grew to new levels, everyone craning their necks for the first sight. Not for me. Sitting on the right hand side of the 'plane, I did not glimpse Uluru as we landed, nor on the short ride (courtesy bus, not camel) to the hotel.

So it was that by the time I was finally There, by the time I had actually Arrived, I was desperate to see the Rock. Desperate not to be disappointed, too. But eager for it nonetheless.

I scurried out to the nearest lookout, scuffing my feet through the red sandy earth gleefully, watching my sandalled toes getting grubbier and grubbier, and smiling all the while. But also rushing to see the monolith. And rushing because I was racing both sunset and the clouds that were gathering all about.

As I crested the low rise - the highest thing around, little more than a molehill, yet still an ideal vantage to see the famous rock, I stared eagerly ahead to see -

(dramatic pause)

Absolutely nothing!

Like those visits to the high mountains - the Andes, perhaps - where the clouds cheat the viewer of the postcard view, there was no Rock. There was simply a wall of clouds, grey and disappointing.

At that moment, I was fairly close to being gutted, I don't mind telling you.

But then the thunder came, and the lightning. And I realised that I was in for a spectacle not enjoyed by every other visitor, on every other day of the year. I was in for a somewhat rarer treat.

It was raining in the desert.

Again the thunder came. Thunder and more lightning. And then a rainbow somewhere over the vanished monolith.

And finally - glory of glories! - the clouds parted the smallest amount, to reveal - faintly - water, running off the face of the Rock.

Which, on the whole, was pretty special. Not the sunset I had dreamed about, but something rarer yet. Apparently, there had not been rain like that for six months, not here.

Red sand beneath my toes and rain on my face. I think I'm going to like it here.

Sometimes, I pretend I'm a vegetarian

On Qantas flight QF728 from Sydney to Ayers Rock (Uluru), we were given a turkey and cranberry sandwich.

The front of the packet identifies the ingredients as "Panini, Turkey (28%), Cranberry Sauce (10%), Cucumber, Lettuce".

The back of the packet, however, is a whole other story. The panini - that's a kind of bread, by the way, which can be simply and deliciously made with just flour, water, salt and yeast - contains 14 ingredients that I couldn't be bothered to write down. They had names like "flour treatment agents", whatever that means, and some of them were just numbers.

The "turkey", by contrast, contains 20 ingredients.

Twenty! And some of those are truly eye-watering. Here's the full list:

Turkey Breast, Water, Acidity Regulators 326, 262, Salt, Rice Flour, Tapioca Starch, Potato Starch, Sugar, Sucrose, Mineral Salts 451, 450, Vegetable Gum 407, Dextrose, Maple Syrup, Hydrolysed Vegetable Protein, Preservative 223, Vegetable Oil, Flavours, Colours (1500)

Now I don't know about you (that's the way this whole author/reader thing works! Unless of course I do know you, in which case: Hi!) but I really can't understand why acidity regulators have a place in a turkey slice. I've never found turkey to be that acidic, have you? And what's going on with the maple syrup? On a pancake, sure! In the suitcase of a first-time visitor to Canada, why not? But in a turkey sandwich?! And that's only one of four types of sugar that are in there.

And whilst we're on some kind of rant about it (which apparently at least one of us is), what's with the rice flour, tapioca starch and potato starch?! Surely I'm getting enough starch from the bread, wouldn't you agree? But no. Obviously I need more, and for convenience sake I need it injected into my turkey, so I don't have to worry about getting hold of it myself. And while you're at it, could you squeeze some water in there, too? I'm not feeling very hydrated today.

But the one that takes the Jaffle McSnaffle Golden Biscuit is that one ingredient listed second to last: "flavours". Presumably by the time you've squeezed all that other crap into the turkey, it doesn't really taste very turkeylike. It needs a bit of a boost - an artificial boost! - to make sure it tastes like turkey. Which it probably did before someone starting messing around, injecting sugar and starch and tapioca into it.

The cranberry sauce, by the by, "only" contains 3 ingredients: water, cranberries, and sucrose, making it - strangely - the simplest major ingredient. And arguably, therefore, the most wholesome.

And that, ladies and gentlemen of the blogjury, is why I sometimes ask for a vegetarian meal on a flight. Or, more specifically - and to use the airline lingo - an ovo-lacto vegetarian meal.

On this particular flight, I wish that I had.

Saturday, 20 October 2007

Wardrobe Fatigue and The Tim Tam Slam

Sydney, New South Wales.

I have packed rather sparingly for this adventure. The advantages of which are many, including a lighter bag, and a smug satisfaction. The consequences, however, include the need for more frequent laundry than might be optimal. And today, I discovered a new malaise: wardrobe fatigue.

As I have such a limited range of - dare I say it? - "outfits", I find myself simply bored of my clothing options. I have worn them all repeatedly, and now yearn for some difference, some variety, some change.

So this morning I found myself at Bondi Junction, pacing the soulless mall in search of something particular. Happily, I found the very thing: a long-sleeved linen shirt, perfect for a daywalk in the desert, only days ahead of me.

In order to celebrate, I acquired a packet of Tim Tams, which I took home and prepared a mug of coffee in order to enact the ritual of the Tim Tam Slam.

This, as anyone will tell you, involves nibbling the diagonally-opposed corners off the chocolatey-sandwich biscuits, and using them as a kind of straw to drink the attendant warm (but not hot) beverage - black coffee in my case. The biscuit quickly becomes saturated with the coffee and deliciously gooey and soft. It's a kind of faffy way of dunking, without the crumbs, and with a bit more ceremony.


Thursday, 18 October 2007

Night Noodles and Thai Pie

Here's one for the fusion food fanatics: Thai Pie.

Imagine, if you will, a yellow chicken curry - Massaman Kaeng Gai, perhaps - lovingly encased in deliciously flaky pastry and served hot. Biting through the satisfyingly home-grown pastry reveals a mouthful of spicy exotic flavours. What a combination!

This evening, I went along to the Night Noodle Market, part of the Sydney Morning Herald's Good Food Month. All week, in Hyde Park, a bunch of stalls from the many local restaurants were dispensing excellent Asianesque food to the lucky picnickers.

This was where I had the very good fortune to sample the genius of pie-fusion. Although, in truth, the concept was better than the realisation: the filling was disappointingly dry and stodgy, rather than light and piquant. But think of the possibilities! Where will it end?

And I fulfilled a lifelong ambition to eat noodles out of a box, using chopsticks. Sometimes it really is the simple things that matter.

Sydney's Opera House and Harbour Bridge

Yep, it really is as good as it looks.

I took this picture from the very edge of the Botanic Gardens, having yomped all the way 'round until the House and Bridge lined up.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

A Nearly... kind of day

An early start to skydive is met with an empty DZ; the upper winds are reported to be gusting to 48 knots (the maximum limit is 25 knots here). Consequently, all and sundry have been sent away for the day.

Despite that, it's another hot one today, a real dry heat with a heavy, hot wind. Perhaps there will be thunder later.

Blowing birthday kisses

Today is birthday day for my youngest niece Ana, as well as for my lover.

I blew kisses to both, trusting that tradewinds and time differences would bring them to the right people in good time.

Sunday, 14 October 2007

Saturday, 13 October 2007

Blue Mountains Fashion Advice

It's interesting to note what passes for mountainwear amongst visitors to the Three Sisters, in the Blue Mountains National Park.

I was in stout activity sandals, shorts and a sensible yet stylish tee - although it was infrequently momentarily a touch too cold, perhaps. Others - I'm thinking of one lady in particular -wore leather knee boots, tights, a short summery dress, denim jacket and black leather gloves.

Which I found refreshing, if surprising. One could almost call that feeling surpreshing. Or refrising.

Equally surpreshing was the sight of the elderly couple, picnicing at a nearby table with enough Tupperware containers to repel a battatlion of invaders, assuming one was into Tupperware warfare. But it was the rather fetching tablecloth spread on the tabletop that particularly caught my attention. How's that for home-from-home comforts?

The Blue Mountains, by the by, are simply stunning: rainforest stretching to the horizon. And hilly mountainous rocky things. Glorious.

Three Sisters

The Three Sisters, seen from Echo Point, at Katoomba, in the Blue Mountains National Park. The vast eucalyptus forests of the BMNP visible in the background.

This is such a postcard shot, it's everywhere in Australia.

Water falling down under

Near Wentworth Falls, Blue Mountains National Park, New South Wales, Australia. Not a postal address, but why not, eh?

Simply put: beautiful.

Friday, 12 October 2007

Thunder under clear skies

Sydney, New South Wales.

Just after 1pm - at 13h03 by my timepiece - there was a large and resounding clap of thunder in the not-very-cloudy skies above the Botanic Gardens in Sydney.

Within a very few moments, the sky was clouded over with more ominous clouds.

After just ten minutes - by which time I was happily seated at the Sidewalk cafe under the Sydney Opera House, sipping coffee and eating a salad with prawns - the rain came down heavily and dramatically.

But this is a sunny land, and 'though the rain put on a brave face, and stuck it out for nearly an hour in fits and starts, well before 15h30, there was more than enough blue sky to make a sailor's uniform.

On the subject of facial hair trimming (or clipping)

Sydney, New South Wales.

I don't know if you've ever trimmed your beard with scissors, but if you have perhaps you've found it - like me - to be a little tedious but fundamentally All Right. Particularly if you have - like me - used those small, fine scissors usually reserved for nails. The sort that can often be found in a woman's vanity kit or washbag.

Today though, as I believe I have already mentioned, I am away from the McSnaffle house without access to such familiar tools. Instead, I have access to a pair of Wiltshire Kitchen Scissors.

Now, I don't know if you've ever trimmed your beard with a pair of Wiltshire Kitchen Scissors, but if you have perhaps you've found it - like me - to be simply terrifying.

Let me say at once that I suspect the terror is not limited to the Wiltshire brand - I imagine that it is similar to the task with any brand of kitchen scissors. They are, as a rule, fairly large and hefty - ideal for opening packets of bacon, or removing the skin from chicken. They're also ideal at present-wrapping time, for tackling particularly large pieces of paper. Or even, preparing olives and sundried tomatoes for a tuna-gnocchi-cream bake (a la SzB). In short, they are robust and practical tools for the kitchen and not something you would choose to be waving around near your face. Especially not near your lips, or those sensitive bits of nose around your nostrils.

So it is that I have just trimmed (or clipped) my facial tangle in the most careful, most attentive manner - the slowest, clumsiest manner ever. My beard is tattered, my skin covered with nicks and near misses, and my heart is racing.

Most of all, my appreciation for the easy genius of clippers (or trimmers) is greatly magnified.

Thursday, 11 October 2007

A Surfboard on a Bicycle

Manly Beach, Sydney.

Being carried, not ridden.

I had previously seen an odd contraption on the side of a parked bicycle, all mysterious frame and straps, and the McSnaffle Mind had boggled trying to determine its purpose.

It was only later, strolling cheerfully along Manly Beach - the sounds of the NAB Beachley Classic receeding behind me - that I saw a young woman cycling along with her surfboard attached to the side of the bicycle with what were basically enormous stretchy bungees, that the pieces fell into place.

The mind is an ingenious device, if a little hard to look at.

Life begins early in Sydney

Sydney, New South Wales.

The sun is rising around 5 or 5:30 (in the morning!) these days, and the trains and cars thunder and rumble and rush their way past the apartment from about that time.

By 6:30, work is underway on the building site next to the house, hammering and clanging of concrete reinforcements.

So by 7:00, when I am up from my repose, and dressed in a manner befitting the day, sipping coffee, the world is in swing: a constant buzz-bumm of noise in the sunshine, under blue skies.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

The Sydney Fish Market

Sydney, New South Wales.

Despite the joys of the Sydney Fish Market, which I visited this morning, I find myself chomping tiredly through a dreary salad of mozarella and tomato; none of the fishy, shellfishy delights for my lunch plate.

A Short Review of Unusual Chocolates

Unusual, that is, unless you happen to live in Australia. Or indeed any other locality where they are readily available.

So I guess that "unusual" in this context means "unusual to me". Meaning that I don't see them when I go past a confectionery establishment.

Anyway, enough of the chatter. Quiet in the back. Here we go.

Cadbury's Flake Dark

"The crumbliest Cadbury OLD GOLD dark chocolate."
Soft, sticks to the teeth. Tastes like cheap dark chocolate.

Cadbury's Flake Mint

"Crumbly Mint Flavoured Confectionery covered in Cadbury DAIRY MILK Milk Chocolate."
Chemically aggressive and not very minty. Extremely unpleasant synthetic mint flavour.

Violet Crumble

"Delicious shattering choc coated honeycomb."
Does not crumble, so much as snap. Like a fine-grained Crunchie. Tastes like cinder coffee covered in chocolate.

Kit Kat Strawberry Chocolate Flavour
"Crunchy wafer finger covered in strawberry flavour chocolate."

Intense, syrupy strawberry flavour reminiscent of ripple-type ice creams. Wafer flavour strong, too. Chocolate somewhat overpowered.

Kit Kat Cooke Dough

"Cookie dough and carmel layer over crunchy wafer finger covered in smooth milk chocolate."
Chewy caramel, some cookie dough undertones.

It's a contest between the mint flake and the Kit Kat Cookie Dough for the most wordy description. The KKCD has more words (13 words, 5 adjectives) but the MF has a shorter name and more adjectives (11 words, of which 6 are adjectives).

Flake by Cadbury, others by Nestle. All made in Australia.

Living the dream

Someone actually said "No worries" to me today.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Monday, 8 October 2007

A Day at the Zoo

Sydney, Australia.

Ah, the zoo.

Taronga Zoo is wonderful on many counts. There is the setting - which, like most of Sydney, is bright and pleasant. Then there is the ferry ride to get there, followed by the happy joy of a cable car ride over the animal enclosures, to begin one's happy ramble down the hill and through the zoo.

And then there are the animals themselves, of course.

Animals indigenous to Australia have the most remarkable names. I spent many happy hours wandering amongst exhibits describing the brumby, the honey-dipped sugar glider, the soft-centred billarabbee. Remembering a friend's fascination with Bota's Pocket Gopher, I found myself inventing new names for the fauna, and wondering if I might ever glimpse the mysteriously beautiful, frequently-elusive Grisham's Bilge Weasel. Or the Sherbert Dib Dab.

I would scarcely have been happier if I had been able to see all of the animals so glowingly described on the informative notes. As it was, many of them were in the nocturnal section of the zoo. But I happily wandered from one dark window to the next, watching the faces of children as they imagined they spotted some big-eyed furry cute thing peeking back at them from the darkness.

Condors, by the by, are the most impressive bird I have ever seen. Their wingspan really has to be witnessed to be believed.

Spinal Tap now installing kitchens?


The heat dial on the hob here goes up to 11.

Sunday, 7 October 2007

A Pie Down Under

Sydney, New South Wales.

Harry's Cafe de Wheels deserves more mention than "pie cart". But in many ways, that is precisely what it is. And what pies they are.

I ate there - or, more specifically, thereabouts, a-fastening the nosebag in the vicinity of a railway sleeper on the nearby wharf - on my first full day in Sydney. Perusing the short, simple menu, I choose the "Tiger". Despite the Australian reputation for a straightforward approach to the Naming of Things, no massive feline was delivered to me.

Instead, and rather more sensibly in my estimation, the dish involves a meat pie - fully pastry-enclosed, please note! This is fully a True Pie! - and a full complement of accompanients.

Before one's eager eyes, the pie is lovingly placed on a serving plate, then the top is breached, and covered with a layer of mashed potato, itself subsequently covered with mushy peas. Finally, a well is made in that uppermost green layer, and gravy poured in, over and around.

The whole is then presented to the enthusiastic diner with a plastic fork and - sometimes - a smile. Eaten perched on a wooden sleeper, looking out over Finger Wharf, it is an excellent pie, spicy and rich. Mine lasted no time at all, as you might imagine.

What a splendid place this is.

Welcome to Australia, mate

Sydney, New South Wales.

In summary:
  • We're here!
  • The vegetarian food on Qantas is miserable. I spent the journey bloated and uncomfortable, unable to find necessary relief in the form of a series of farts
  • A "Tiger" pie from Harry's Cafe de Wheels does not, happily, contain any tiger. In fact, the Tiger refers to the mashed potato, mushy peas, and gravy piled on top of the meat and potato pie itself. Regular readers will be glad to know that the pie was a two-crust, True Pie. Yay!
  • By the end of the day, I have lived the Antipodean dream, barbecuing kangaroo and beefsteak on the terrace.

Saturday, 6 October 2007

Boats, Birds and Bamboo

Last night's harbour cruise was faintly disappointing. Once the amusement at would-be photographers attempting to capture glowing buildings at night from the rolling deck of a moving boat - using the flashes of their cameras! - had worn off, and been replaced with that sort of smug irritation that comes from knowing better, I settled into a comfortable rhythm of unimpressedness.

Oh, I'm sure that Hong Kong is a lovely harbour, I just feel that my expectations may have been set a notch or two higher than could be met. I rather think it's more pleasant by daylight.

On the plus side, the park in the city contains gorgeous flamingoes, including a deliciously-grey stubby-winged juvenile.

Flamingoes in Hong Kong park

Baby flamingo in Hong Kong park

From the park, I could see bamboo scaffolding climbing twenty floors up a multi-storey hotel in a gleaming towerblock, contrasting modern and traditional - a contrast Hong Kong has in spades.

Beware of Electric Carts

Well, yes.

Taken in Hong Kong International Airport, on a Sony Ericsson mobile phone.

Friday, 5 October 2007

Fines, Flowers and a Funeral (but no skate-biking)

A stroll around the small part of Hong Kong in the immediate vicinity of the hotel offered the following sights:

  • Flowers being braided into huge arching hoops at streetside florists, huddled under the overhang of the mighty banking and hotel empires
  • A small funeral party pacing quietly along the street, many of their number dressed in the white of mourning.

On the MTR, Hong Kong's take on London's Tube there are a surprising number of public-spirited signs, and a great many prohibitive ones. And many of the prohibitions are helpfully indicated by signs whose diagrammatic delight was a joy to behold.

No skate-biking sign

Between the signs for the suicide prevention hotline, or those encouraging readers to report corruption or cover their germy coughs with face masks. Or even "Show you have a loving heart; give up your seat to anyone who needs it." Between all of these are the fine notices and admonishments:

  • No spitting
  • No smoking (fine $1500)
  • No skate-biking (glorious!)
  • No eating or drinking in paid areas.

Even the bins are signed - a $1500 fine for putting anything other than cigarettes in the ashtray. Or for placing ones non-recyclable rubbish in a recycling container - or vice versa.

The MTR, by the way, doesn't really bear comparison with the Tube; it's far more designed than the gloriously organic sprawl of the Tube. It's also a great deal cleaner, more air-conditioned, more helpfully bi-lingual in signs and announcements and advice. And just a tiny bit soulless as a result.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Pork, Peak, Parasol

Hong Kong.

After a troubled (meaning restless-lack-of-sleep, rather than dark-night-of-the-soul) night and a heavy breakfast, courtesy of the multi-continent buffet breakfast at the hotel (of which, more later), I found myself strolling without aim along the King's Road.

(This profusion of familiar names is of great amusement to me. Here I am - here we all are, indeed - 6000 miles from home, in a different country, where they speak a different language and everything, and the roads have got the same names. Brilliant!)

Along the way, I passed a great many shops and market stalls selling all variety of every day items, many of which I regarded with a tourist's fascination and easy disdain. One particularly interesting one - a butcher - had a range of pork cuts displayed on hooks about the stall, while the men worked at reducing the larger pieces of once-pig to their more culinarily-practical component parts.

Hanging on one of the hooks, the complete pluck including the identifiable liver, kidneys, lights and even intestine.

Meanwhile, shoppers were poking and prodding away as they made their choice, and although I did not myself investigate in similarly haptic fashion, my impression was of that sort of jellied consistency that comes of particularly fresh meat.


Thence, by circuitous routes, to Victoria Peak, by foot and tram, and many long minutes of hot queuing in the humidity of the late morning.

The view from the Peak would have been breath-taking had it not been for the haze of smog drifting into the basin of the city. Luckily, the short climb was sufficiently steep to rob some of the party of their breath in any event.

And so to parasols; the simple and expedient solution to the problem of shielding oneself from the powerful and intimidating glare of the sun. There are a huge number here, carried by members of most of the generations, from the teen-a-like to the aged.

This culture presents many contrasts to the one with which I am most familiar. But for some reason, it's the parasols that really bring home the fact that I'm in a foreign country.

Signs in Hong Kong

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Some of our floors are missing

Hong Kong.

The highest floor of the Harbour Plaza North Point hotel is number 32, and there are 419 steps to it from the 2nd floor. There are only 275 steps to my floor, which is given the numeral identifier "25".

But here's the thing. Although my floor might be called 25, it is not the 25th floor; there are not 24 floors below mine. There is no 4th, 13th, 14th or 24th floor. Well I suppose there are, if you count them properly. But there are no floors assigned those numbers. The numbering scheme - and indeed the lift system - simply strolls on, whistling innocently, pretending not to have noticed.

But we uncommon minds need to know what's happened to them! Were they skillfully omitted by cunning builders cutting corners? Were they spirited away by implacable aliens in the deep of the night? Or is it merely a collision of superstitions from disparate belief systems? We may never know.

There is a floor called B1, though, and one called M, which is situated between floors 3 and 5, as well as - and this is the really clever bit - between floors 5 and 3. It doesn't have a button in any of the lifts, though, and I tried looking on the floor in case it had fallen off, but couldn't see one anywhere. The only way I could find to reach it was using the staircases. Staircase 4 was my preference, but I also used staircases 3 and 5 (I didn't find staircases 1 and 2, and don't even get me started on that).

M for mystery, eh?

Oh, and the floor called 22, which is a smoking floor, really does reek of cigarette smoke.

Vegetarians eat spinach for breakfast

Hong Kong.

A strange kind of day, culinarily speaking.

The vegetarian breakfast served on board the British Airways flight this morning comprised a scrambled egg lump with a texture not dissimilar to expanded polystyrene - and marginally less flavour. It was accompanied by two things that may once have been hash browns, one tomato, and - insert your own drum roll - a green pile of spinach. As unsurprised as I was by the former, I was significantly more surprised by the latter. I've never had the pleasure of spinach for breakfast before. Quite strange.

But rather pleasant. If this is what vegetarians habitually have for breakfast, I'll definitely be considering signing up.

By stark contrast, this evening - in the spirit of culinary adventure - I ordered marinated duck's tongues, thinking they might provide an amusing and tasty morsel or two, as well as the opportunity to upset or terrify my dinner companions. Having never had them before, I fancied I might receive perhaps three or four tongues, richly brown and cheerfully flavoured with soy sauce or some other dark, possibly sticky, sauce.

What arrived at the table some moments later was a huge mound of greyish slugs that I at first mistook for someone else's dinner. Indeed, I was already chuckling at their poor choice, when the waiter's words, and a glimmer of recognition told me that this was in fact my own dish.

I stared at the huge mound of tongues, each as long and thick as my little finger, and resembling nothing more than a sickly slug. My witty observation died on my lips. There must have been fully two score of the things, maybe more. I couldn't actually focus well enough to count them all.
But my dinner companions were watching - staring, actually. And if I was to terrify them as I had planned, I had better get on with the deed. I seized my chopsticks, selected one of the choicest-looking morsels from the top of the pile, and popped it into my mouth.

From the first taste I knew that I would not finish the dish. The marinade was, alas, not to my taste, with an unidentifiable flavour - perhaps the very flavour of duck tongue - that set my teeth on edge and my gorge rising. Gamely I chewed thoughtfully, trying to make a meal out of something I very much wanted to spit straight onto the floor.

The texture was equally - or quite possibly, even more - vile. There was a gristly kind of chewy sponginess to it, and I seem to recall something popping under my teeth with a quiet noise that made me think - without basis - of tendons or ligaments or something unplesantly fleshy.

With an effort, I swallowed, wiped a tear from the corner of my eye, and forced a weak smile.

"Delicious." I declared with what I hoped was a confident, insouciant air. I pushed the dish towards someone - anyone, the main attempt being to remove it from my eating zone. "Try some!"

For the record, only one of my companions took me up on the offer. And found the experience to be remarkably similar to my own.

Honestly, if that's what ducks are tasting all the time, it's no wonder they're quacking all the bloody time.

Happily, the dumplings with pork and hairy crab were delicious - unctuous and flavoursome.

And the snake with asparagus was very pleasant - light and pleasingly textured with a flavour that was not overpowering. It was, I can report with some confidence, reminiscent of chicken.

When there is a fire

Hong Kong.

There's a charming kind of fatalism exhibited at the Harbour Plaza North Point, where the signs on the lifts declare

"When there is a fire, do not use the lift."

Surely that should be "if".

Monday, 1 October 2007

A new home for an old friend

Fiona Robyn's Creative Living blog has a new name and a new home.

It's now called Love the Questions, and lives at It's still written by Fiona, and is still full of the same good stuff.

I've updated the link in my blog list (on the right).

Thursday, 20 September 2007

How I make sloe gin

Once again, it's that time of year where the beautiful berries of the blackthorn can be seen cheekily gleaming from the hedgerows, and I sally forth with my crumpled carrier bag to pluck and harvest a few to make my habitual ode to seasonality: sloe gin.
For the last couple of years, I've gone a-picking on September 1st. But this year, the fruit looked so fresh and full and swollen that I couldn't wait that long, and went out mid-August. I use both sloes and damsons, whatever I can find in the hedgerows and passages of my corner of the world.

Every year a number of people ask me how to make sloe gin, and I find myself repeating the instructions. This year, as a public service, I share with you, the Jaffle McSnaffle Secret Recipe for Sloe Gin. It's not secret. It's so simple a barely a recipe. But it's how I do it.

What You'll Need

  • Gin, as much as you fancy. It generally comes in bottles

  • Sloes, about equal in volume to your gin

  • Some sugar (see below)

  • A tight-sealable jar about twice the volume of your gin

  • A pointy thing, such as a cocktail stick (I use a wooden one).

What To Do

  • Pick

  • Prick

  • Pour

  • Pause

  • Partake

Having picked and washed a quantity of sloes broadly equal in volume to a 70cl bottle of gin, I take a two-litre Kilner jar. Any kind of tight-sealable container will do, but it will need to be about twice the capacity of the gin you've got (because you've got a similar volume of fruit, see?). I'm not precious about the quantity, I just go a-picking and stop when I have what seems to be about enough.

Next, prick each sloe a number of times with the pointy thing and dump it (the sloe, not the pointy thing) in the jar. This helps the juicy berry goodness to infuse in the gin, which is the whole point of the exercise. It's a tedious job, especially if you've gone crazy and picked lots and lots of teeny tiny little sloes. But it's essential, so wind your lower lip in and get on with it. If it helps to alleviate the tedium, just imagine making all those holes in a teabag yourself. Blimey.

Next, pour some sugar into the jar until it completely covers the sloes, shaking the jar so that the sugar fills all the gaps between the berries. Sloeberries are more than a little bit bitter, so you'll need a fair bit of sugar; don't be shy with it. I use Fairtrade Golden Granulated, but you'll doubtless choose sugar appropriate to your personal ethics and tastes.

Finally, glug in the gin. Seal the jar tight and you're done with all the hard work!

Now all you have to do is wait. Give the jar a bit of a shake once a week or so to help the sugar dissolve. After a while, it'll have magically vanished into the by-now deep-purple liquid.

It'll take a fair while for the flavours to infuse properly, and you should expect to leave it three, four, or even six months before you strain off the fruit and begin sampling. Slurp!

Other Stuff

You might have noticed that this isn't one of those recipes that requires exact quantities and measurements. And that's half the fun of the process; just lumping together the ingredients and letting nature take its course.

I'm not religious, and even if I was, I wouldn't be religious about the leave-four-to-six-months-before-straining thing. Indeed, I often leave the fruit in whilst I take my drink, or even don't touch the gin for a whole year, until I need to empty out the jar for the next season's crop of sloeberries. This time I've got some pretty bottles for the decanting, though I'll probably have mislaid them by decanting time.

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

A sweater kind of day

It's one of those days where the wind is cold, and strong. The overwhelming urge is to switch on the heating, close the doors, and snuggle up on the sofa.

Instead, I have to pull on a sweater, and get on with Things of Import.

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

The least pleasant way to gain 370 calories?

Tesco's Knotted Seeded Roll with Egg Mayonnaise and Prawns. And icy lettuce.


Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Vindaloo ice cream

Last night I had the pleasure of the tasting menu at Bell's Diner in Bristol.

This seven-course foray in the fun of food included an egg poached for 90 minutes (at 55 degrees Celsius, mark you) and culminated in vindaloo ice cream.

At first bite, this dish seemed like it could be a splendidly good idea. At second bite, the impression faded, and by the third bite, I had had enough. Not even the amusing poppadom cornet, and mango chutney sauce could convince me otherwise.

Overall, however, this is an accomplished menu is an unprepossessing setting, at a sensible price. Definitely one to visit again and again.

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

My definition of pie

Almost anyone can open a dictionary, or browse to a website, to find a definition.

I mean, young children generally can't, given that they generally lack the motor skills and inclination. And someone without access to a computer would have a pretty tricky time browsing the web. But given these fairly basic premises, my point is that it's a pretty straightforward thing to do a bit of research about what other people mean by pie.

I've been doing just that, and have formulated my own conclusions. Because I can.

So, let's see what we have.

Firstly, let's think about what we mean by a pie, in terms as general as possible. For me, it's like a covered bowl, a shell that encloses and contains a secret, tasty filling. What forms that container is, however, the nub of the matter.

Obviously, there are cottage pies and shepherd pies (and the many variations on the theme), where the container is made of stoneware, and the lid is formed of mashed potato. As delicious as they are - and they often are - they're not what I crave when I fancy pie. If you promise me pie, and deliver me mashed potato, I'm afraid I'm going to be disappointed. I'll still love you, but my face will fall a bit. It's not you, it's me. That's just the way I am.

So we come to the pastry pie, which may be one-crust, where the lid alone is pastry, and a dish or a bowl forms the remainder of the shell (I have previously referred to this style of pie as the opposite of quiche). Alternatively, there is the tart (sometimes known as a quiche), where the pastry forms the container, but comes without a lid (or crust).

Again, as delicious as these pies-with-bits-missing may be, I do not consider them True Pies. They may aspire to pieness (they may indeed have had pieness thrust upon them), but they do not achieve it. Again, if I'm expecting pie, and I get one of these faux pies - Pie Lites, if you will - then there's going to be a certain amount of disappointment on my behalf. If you're going to serve a tart (or, daringly, a quiche), then by all means call it by its proper name. But let us not pretend that it is a pie.

For me, a pie must be two-crust, meaning that the pastry forms both the basin and the lid, completely enclosing the filling in pastry goodness (alas, too often, pastry badness is served). I can understand the reasons for the other variations and indeed enjoy them from time to time. But they lack that essential Pieness that I demand.

Pies, as I have observed before, are presents wrapped in pastry. When it's as simple as that, why change a thing?

Monday, 3 September 2007

Variations on the theme of pie

The steak and ale pie I had this weekend, at the Betsey Wynne in Swanbourne, was yet another variation on the broad theme of Pie. It was, essentially a stew served with a kind of puff pastry biscuit.

The stew itself was delicious; the steak was extraordinarily tender, in a thick, peppery gravy. The consistency was rich and thick. The puff pastry lozenge laid on top was buttery and perfectly crisp - an advantage of it being cooked separately from the "filling".

Despite all of this tasty goodness, I felt somewhat...disappointed. For me, part of the joy of a pie is the unwrapping, the broaching of the covering, the digging around inside for the rich rewards to be found. This particular "pie" (and I am even less sure of the meaning of the word now) offered none of those delights. From the start, it was laid bare, a pie that revealed its inner workings. If it was a pie at all. Oh deceptive food!

It struck me that this is yet another example of the kind of deconstructed style of cooking that has been a feature of the menus of the top-of-the-pile restaurants for sometime, and is beginning to filter down into the mainstream. It is playful, for sure, and when the food tastes as good as it did at the Betsey, who am I to argue?

But I would like to see the essential characteristic of the food being retained. For me, this was outside the definition of pie.

Damn tasty though.

Friday, 31 August 2007

My favourite jacket

...seemed loose and baggy today.

I've been wearing my new suit on and off over the past few days and it would seem that I have quickly got used to the cut and fit of something actually made to fit me.

Does this mean that everything else I own will now seem shapeless or ill-sized? I hope not! This could get really expensive. But I am re-examining my definition of clothes that fit, and the findings are surprising.

The sound of the sea

In her creative living blog, Fiona writes that traffic noise can sound like the sea.

I'm sitting in my office enjoying that exact revelation, with the noise of the A329(M) Ocean drifting across the fields and through the open window.

Wine that rewards attention

There are wines that can be glugged, whilst chatting with friends, as a second thought, an accompaniment to conversation. They might be bold wines that jump up and smack you in the taste buds, so that you can taste them without thinking about it, and be sure that they're there. Or they might be cheaper wines - table wines, perhaps - that you don't expect to deliver too much, and so don't need to wring pleasure from every drop.

And then there are those wines that must be focused on, demanding attention and rewarding it. I had one such last night, a Rasteau by Chapoutier. It's the kind of wine that has a bit of subtlety to it that I find easy to miss if I'm not paying attention, the kind of depth that responds to a bit of attention, and unfolds when noticed. Not coincidentally, it's also a bit more expensive than I might ordinarily choose.

Which suits me rather well at the moment, as I've been trying very hard to live in the moment; to do one thing at a time, and savour it, rather than four things at once and missing the point and joy of all of them. So I've been eating my food slowly, without staring at the TV, and sitting down to have my lunch, chewing slowly and deliberately. Tasting.

And noticing the wine in the glass rather than just chugging it down as my mind wanders about the day-just-past.

A present wrapped in pastry

I rather fond of pies, a fact I've mentioned before.

Indeed, I like the very concept of pies, adore their whole chirpy-cute simplicity.

Those individual, sized-for-one pies are the best, because they're like little presents, pastry-wrapped, just for me.

Thursday, 30 August 2007

Tintern Abbey, rich in history

Ah yes, Tintern Abbey, the Cistercian abbey founded in 1131 in the Wye valley.

Now one of the most spectacular ruins in the country, in its long history it has been visited by a King, inspired the Wordsworth poem of the same name, and many a Turner painting to boot.

Interestingly, it's also the place where t'Internet was invented.

Cobnuts and greengauges

...are my seasonal treat today, bought from the local farm shop after a business meeting in their cafe.

I cracked the cobnuts this evening - many of the shells disappointingly empty - to pluck out the plump, creamy kernels. They're quite different to hazelnuts, with a softer, wetter texture and a green slightly bitter flavour.

The greengauges are for another day.

Wednesday, 29 August 2007

A late August harvest

Returning from my run this morning, I noticed that the pear tree in the garden is bearing lots of fruit. I picked a couple of pears - rock hard - for later, and wandered back to the house.

As I passed the potato patch, I found myself idly wondering if there were any tubers to be found beneath the withered plants.

Tugging away at the stems, imagine my delight (if you can!) when I found several beautifully purple potatoes hiding not far beneath the surface. I scratched and dug away with my bare fingers to uncover a generous feast - including one that was particularly amusingly shaped.

In the spirit of harvest, this afternoon I indulged myself and took my after-lunch stroll past the blackthorn bushes near the office, where the blueish sloe berries are ready for picking. So much so that they practically fell into my basket - by which I mean re-sealable container - on their way to my sloe gin jars.

Which reminds me that I noticed what I think are quinces on the tree I run past, and a squirrel eating walnuts, and cobnuts in the shops.

Is it Harvest time already?

Friday, 24 August 2007

Word of the day: Slydive

slydive [slahy-dahyv]
- noun
The cheeky skydive you fit in after leaving work early.

Thursday, 23 August 2007

Facebook Fatigue

The social utility that connects you with the people around you has become - for me, at least - LifeSuck 2007. It consumes my time - that most precious commodity - at a rapid, alarming and unprecedented rate.

First there was the acquisitive phase. I collected friends ravenously and indiscriminately, simply to increase the numbers, like picking pebbles from the beach. The vast majority of whom I have not contacted since.

Right now I'm in a read-only phase. I spend my hours checking for friend's updates, rather than writing, rarely originating content. I click around the addictive little acquisition games that serve no purpose except to consume my time, and require no skill or judgement whatsoever.

Facebook does, however, definitely succeed in connecting me with the people around me. When we do speak, we talk about our facebook status, or our progress in the games (what level pirate are you?), the number of friends we have. Friends - real friends - telephone in a flap, concerned about the latest status update.

Maybe this is what the creators of Facebook intended.

Or maybe not.

On the bright side, as an Internet Fad, it won't last for long. Not for me, at any rate.

Running out of teaspoons

One of life's little reminders that it's time to do the washing-up.

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Simply the best venison I have ever tasted

I ate at Maggie Jones's last night, in Kensington. I can say without reservation that the Haunch of Venison was the finest venison I have ever tasted.

I asked for the meat cooked "as rare as you like" - my usual defence against getting rare that's rather closer to burnt than I prefer. It arrived perfectly so, and the sauce was delicious.

Of course, at nearly £18 for a plate of meat in (rich, deep, flavour-full) sauce, you would hope that the kitchen knows what they're doing and delivers on it. But I did enjoy it very much, and I told the kitchen so.

What's that in the sky?

There's a ghostly ball of light in the sky this morning, glowing orange-yellow through the clouds.

Could it be? Is it?

Is this the fabled Sun?!

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Finding adventure in a tube

Today, I am mostly

  • Eating Kalles Kaviar paste ("Original") with rice crackers and salad. Yum!
  • Wearing my new suit, with my super-cool personalised cuff-links. Fwoar!
  • Brushing bits of rice cracker and Kalles off my new suit. Oops.
Because sometimes you just have to.

I collected my suit

My new suit. My made-to-my-measurements bespoke suit.

I love it. I love the look of it (except for the lining, which I dislike), the fit of it, the feel of it. I love that it is mine; that it fits me.

Two things have happened with the suit - the first being the number of people that ask me if I've lost weight. I suspect it's not so much about weight loss as about having clothes that fit in the right way. Which brings me to the second thing.

It's strange wearing clothes that fit. They feel oddly wrong because I've got so used to wearing my regular clothes, which - it turns out - don't actually fit all that well. But they feel really comfortable, and it's striking that something I would normally have regarded as stuffy and formal and awkward is actually really lovely and easy to wear.

I really want another one.

Saturday, 18 August 2007

A boy, a girl, a lobster: A short(ish) story

One evening, a young(ish) man, attempting to impress his dinner companion, seized the lobster's foreclaw and twisted it away from its body. In his exhuberant - and, alas, largely sober - state, he failed to take sufficient notice of the spines that ran along the claw, and promptly ripped a long(ish) shallow furrow in his forefinger.

Needless to say, the blood that resulted was not particularly impressive to the young(ish) woman across the table from him.

The End.

So, I ate at Eat Fish in Berkhamsted last night, which has the distinction of being the only restaurant I was ever motivated to right a review about. I was previously - and again last night - impressed by the friendliness and enthusiasm of the staff, and their apparently genuine
interest in the food they were serving.

If you like fish, and are in the Berkhamsted area, you might want to give it a try. Watch out for the lobster, though.

Friday, 17 August 2007

Stepping out with Flora

Today, I had some business in town, so Flora and I pottered and tottered off down there, and a jolly nice time I had of it too. Everywhere I went, I left Flora, unguarded and unrestrained, leaning against the racks or the front of the shops as I went about my business.

When I returned, there she was. Unmolested and unremarked. For the most part, unnoticed too, which was a bit of a shame - I think she probably would have liked someone to comment on her. All in all, something of a happy victory, given that one of my motivations for getting her was to be able to pop down the shops without fear of theftery.

But there is no question about who is in charge. When I went out with her the other day, cycling to the swimming pool in the early hours, she left her mark on me in two ways. The first - minor and hardly significant - a blister on my finger from her handlebars. A reminder that she is not a gentle mistress.

The second, more lasting, is the realisation that stopping pedalling is simply not an option. Once I have started her off, she will go on whether I want to stop my legs or no. I forgot this on a few occasions, and barely managed to save myself from a tumble.

Luckily, I am a fast learner. And I am still whole.

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Safety on board

In case of an aircraft emergency, make sure you destroy all aliens with your laser eyes before opening the aircraft door.

This may be a little trickier if the window is smaller. Be careful not to hurt any innocent citizens. It may help to lean back from the window a bit.

Scandinavian Skydiving

So for the past few days, I've been at the third and final meet in the ISSA 2007 World Cup of Speed Skydiving (not slydiving, which is something else entirely). Held at Stockholms Fallskärmsklubb in Gryttjom, about an hour north of Stockholm, in Sweden, it was a whole lot of fun.

I was invited to attend in a technical capacity, by the current holder of the women's world record. Which is another way of saying she wanted someone to peer at the computers whilst she competed ;-) Besides, I needed to learn how to do it in order to help with the British Nationals in Speed Skydiving, in two weeks time. Yoikes.

I had a ball. The people were lovely - really, genuinely surprisingly lovely. The dropzone is owned and run by the club members - it's a whole co-operative type arrangement, and the result is a very relaxed, welcoming, family-friendly feel. There's a trampoline at the dropzone, pretty much permanently occupied by the dropzone kids below a certain age. And the dropzone has what is claimed to be the largest sauna on a dropzone in Sweden.

Just let that sink in for a moment: the dropzone has a sauna. And it's possibly the largest dropzone sauna in Sweden. Yowser.

Not to labour the point, but the dropzone has a lot of facilities that make it a great place to stay. There's a bunk house, which is pretty much what it says on the tin, and a huge kitchen where visitors and skydivers alike are practically encouraged to cook for themselves. If that's not your bag, the dropzone's diner-restaurant does a lunch and dinner every day - substantial food at a sensible price.

There's two permanent aircraft: a Twin Otter, and an AN-28. And did I mention that the people are lovely?

One of the most curious things about the DZ is that the weekend opening hours are shorter than in the week - what's that about? The other is that - in common with much of that part of the world, I'm told - the showers (and indeed the sauna) are open-plan, co-educational. Mixed. And there's no shower curtain.

Well okay, there's one shower cubicle with a curtain - it might as well have a Union Jack design on it - in the rest of the open-plan curtainless wetroom. With access to the outside via a permanently-open door.

Which I guess is just peachy-fine if you're from Scandinavian stock, and have a relaxed attitude to nudity. You're probably quite happy with your own naked body, and the public nudity of others. If, on the other hand, you're a native of the Rainy Isles, and somewhat more reserved about the unclothed human form, it does mean that showers become hasty first-thing-in-the-morning affairs, conducted in a scurrying-hurrying fashion before anyone else is awake or around.

And because the changing area is also co-educational, most of your post-shower routine is going to be conducted with your face to the wall, and your head bowed, continually repeated to yourself: Don't look 'round. Don't look 'round. Don't look 'round.

Once - and once only - I was lured into so diverting a conversation that I actually put my glasses on, turned around, and addressed the other party for a couple of sentences before I realised what I had done, and my eyes started to drift, and I felt the blush spread over - well, pretty much everywhere.

Let's just say that I didn't have the opportunity to try the sauna.

A great dropzone, though. Give it a try somtime.

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

Enjoying asking questions

A few days ago, I mentioned that I'd bought Fiona's book, A Year of Questions. I've been dipping into it regularly over the past few days, and I'm really enjoying it.

Fiona writes humourously, and authoritatively, with a personal touch.

I thoroughly recommend it.

Monday, 13 August 2007

What twisted, criminal mind

...came up with the idea of licorice ice cream?!

Strolling along the picturesque Stockholm harbourside today, I was filled with the joys of sunshine and travel. Spying a conveniently-located ice cream vendor, I ambled over and asked the grumpy kiosk lady for an ice cream called "Pepe". On the picture it looks like it's a waffle cone filled with vanilla ice cream and some tasty crunchy bits, all covered with a really dark shell that suggests fine chocolate, or perhaps some blackberry-flavoured chocolatey delight.

Remembering the Swedish fondness for exotic-sounding berries, I chose it in a moment. I'd never seen the like before, and - filled with the spirit of travel and adventure - I was determined to try something new.

With trembling fingers I tore open the packet - carefully disposing of it in the waste receptacle provided - and set the sweet treat free into the world.

Imagine my surprise and horror when, on biting into the perfectly-crunchy coating, I realised - too late! - that it was neither dark chocolate nor blackberry, but licorice.

Yes friends, an ice cream with a crunchy salt licorice shell. It is, not putting too fine a point on it, fecking disgusting. Sick-makingly awful. Vomit-inducingly terrible. Especially so if you don't like licorice, and weren't expecting it on your tastebuds.

In my involuntary gagging disgust, I'm ashamed to say that I reflexively spat the foul stuff out onto the pavement - not my shirt, thankfully! - before I realised how rude that must seem. So, taking scant refuge in the fact that I must seem like an ignorant tourist, I began to strip the remainder of the licorice coating from the ice cream and surreptitiously toss it into the harbour, or "accidentally" drop it onto the floor. Oh, there goes another piece. Oops, silly me.

Finally, having stripped the majority of it away, I was able to force myself to eat the ice cream, and remove the rank taste from my mouth. The emotional scars, I am afraid, run far deeper, and will doubtless trouble me for some time.

For the wary traveller, there's a picture on the GB Glace website.

Of course, if you actually like licorice, you might enjoy it. Freak.