Tuesday, 30 December 2008

A Nutty Day

After a late start, the Sparkly One and I broke our fast courtesy of Waitrose hot sandwiches (one with bacon, one with Cumberland sausage), then headed into London, where we spent the day eating nothing but nuts.

There were hot sweet nuts from the stall on Westminster Bridge, eaten from the plastic cup. There were pistachios to go with our drinks (a pint of London Pride & a glass of mulled wine) in the Mudlark, won from the shell with strong fingernails. And there were the Japanese peanut snack we call Dinosaur Eggs, eaten on the Bakerloo line, heading homewards.

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Five punctures in four miles

...if we even managed to cycle that far - we were only out for 90 minutes, including puncture fixing time.

In hindsight, our mistake was cycling down the towpath, which runs alongside (the canal!) long-thorned hedge bushes. That have recently been trimmed, causing sharp-thorned debris to fall onto the towpath.

Tis often said that the secret to good comedy is timing, and the punctures came along with perfect timing.

RC got the first puncture, and we all stopped while she stripped the wheel and replaced it with the always-carry-a-spare tube. She had just about finished when the Sparkly One noticed that her front tyre was flatter than it should be.

Chuckling quietly, I set about fixing it and in short order had installed the spare tube. I was just pumping it up when, with a slip of the wrist, I snapped the valve off in the pump - rookie error! The tube was beyond repair, useless. And I had no other spares, no repair kit.

Several moments passed during which all of the most severe curse words were invoked. A small child, passing with his family on their Boxing Day stroll, almost went blind at the language. Two small birds died instantly. The inner tube remained useless.

DB had already spotted the predictable flat in his own rear tyre and begun replacing it. We did a quick swap of tubes - he patched The Sparkly One's original for himself, having been wise enough to bring a patch kit - and I fitted his replacement to her bike.

Finally, when we were all just about ready to set off again, I spotted the flat in my own rear tyre, and set to fixing that.

I told you, comic timing.

At this point, we were agreed that the Stars Were Not Right, and laid a plan to head home by walking our bikes to the nearest road, and cycling straight home. As we set off, DB got the fifth puncture of the day. He fixed it in grim silence.

Repeat after me: always always always carry a spare tube, and a puncture patch kit.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Big Spoon, Little Spoon

I've heard of spooning, of course, where one person cuddles the other, bodies nestling together like two neatly-arranged spoons.

But today was the first time I'd heard of names for the roles; Big Spoon (the spooner) and Little Spoon (the spoonee).

As obvious as they are, they do lend a little frisson (if such is needed) to the Spooning Experience. For example:

"Can I be Little Spoon?"
and also:

"I like being Little Spoon."

You might have your own favourites.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

The future is balls

Well, spheres actually - specifically AirSpheres.

I just watched the world's first (okay, second technically) flight of this Zorb-in-a-chimney concept and it looked, well...wrong.

The concept is deceptively simple: take one eight-foot beach ball, the kind people like to roll down hills, and stuff it inside a vertical wind tunnel. Get a few people to climb inside, crank up the power, and watch as they rattle around at the mercy of the wind, much like...a ball in a vacuum cleaner.

And the entry/exit hole looks like a massive, crimson sphincter. The Freudians are going to have a lot of fun with this.

At first glance it seems like a strange idea. In fact, at second and third glance it stills seems like a strange idea, and by the fourth or fifth it doesn't look much different.

But the people climbing out did have smiles on their faces - albeit slightly wobbly/forced smiles. So perhaps this could be The Next Big Thing.

You heard it here first, friends.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Bodyflying is not skydiving, obviously

"We're here to do a skydive," he said as they presented themselves at the registration desk.

"No," I thought. "You're here to rattle gamely around inside a vertical wind tunnel. It's not a skydive on account of the fact that there's no sky. Or diving."

I guess that's me; a stickler for accuracy. Some might even say pedant.

But really, that guy is going to go home with balls the size of grapefruits, and tell his mates he's done a skydive. He hasn't, any more than standing next to a tank full of pelagic carnivores is "swimming with sharks".

Do not misunderstand me; bodyflying is a huge amount of fun. But to confuse it with skydiving, even in the pub with mates one is taking bragging rights several yards too far.

I guess those savvy marketing people are due a big bonus, though, for coming up with that winning phrase "indoor skydive".

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

"The answer to all your waste disposal dilemmas"

I am as enviromentally-minded as the next person, assuming the next person has their own business dedicated to environmental and sustainability consultancy.

I recycle avidly, and encourage others to do so. I shop locally. I decline plastic bags.

I mention all of this not as an invitation to applaud my eco-credentials, but as a prelude to this statement:

I find it impossible to get excited about a bit of bent plastic designed to hold carrier bags.

Ben the Bin is billed as the answer to all my waste disposal dilemmas, which irritates me straight from the get-go as I don't have any waste disposal dilemmas, I really don't. Does anyone? Surely waste disposal is as easy as putting stuff in the bin. Or bins. Or carry-to-kerb waste-separation-and-pre-recycling-storage solutions. It's so easy a child could do it, as my friend's 2-year old daughter has demonstrated.

But Ben offers so much more. The design boasts handles for increased portability. Which I think means it's quite easy to carry. And it's "easily stackable" when not in use. Brilliant. Why is this not a consideration for other bins? Oh yes, because they're used all the time. They sit in the corner, quietly minding their own business, something we're all quite familiar and comfortable with, I suspect.

Ben is singularly ugly, too, which is particularly offensive as the marketing gushes that "Ben" makes waste separation "glamorous!". I may not be a style guru, but my definition of glamorous does not include a crumpled carrier bag swinging from a scrap of plastic.

"You never need to hang a carrier bag on a door knob ever again." No, you get to stare at it all day long, dangling from the piece of plastic you just spent money on.

Seriously, if this makes it easier for you to recycle then I applaud it. Buy one. Buy two! And recycle away.

But let's be clear about this: Ben is a large piece of plastic (albeit recycled) that serves the same purpose as a hook, or a door knob. Actually less of a purpose; at least a door knob has an additional, primary function.

And let's not even get started on the whole anthropomorphication (or is that anthropomorphization?) of a scrap of plastic.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

A Very Tedious Bond Film

The Sparkly One and I went to watch the new Bond film today, something I was rather looking forward to, being a fan of explosions and car chases and that general silliness that Bond films usually do so very well.

Sitting in the cinema, some way through the film, I idly found myself wondering if there wasn't something better I could be doing with my time. I caught myself sternly. At least give the movie a chance, I thought. Perhaps I'm in the wrong mood for it.

At which point the Sparkly One nudged me and remarked "I'm bored of this film."

We watched the whole film, which is replete with explosions and car chases and Bond silliness. But for me there was something missing.

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Much Ado About Nothing

After all the purchases and preparations, the innoculations and immunisations, Timbuktu will have to wait.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Culinary Genius: Cauliflower and Cheddar Soup

Step aside, dear pumpkin, for I have a new favourite soup.

The New Covent Garden Soup Company's recipe for Cauliflower and Cheddar (in their Soup for All Seasons book) is, simply, puree'ed cauliflower cheese, that staple of Sunday lunches and carveries everywhere.

It's heaven in a bowl.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

I just don't get Strictly Come Dancing

I don't understand the appeal of Strictly Come Dancing, I really don't. It baffles me why people are so eager for it, so fervently drawn to little-known people failing to dance well, week after week. And I really enjoy the film Strictly Ballroom, so I'm not a Dance Fascist.

I've seen scraps of the show for the last couple of weeks, and on the basis of that experience it seems very repetitive; as far as I can make out, I've seen the same people doing the same dances in the same outfits. And just as badly.

I'm also horrified by the length of the show - running for some 16 weeks, it seems, which just seems flagrant, excessive. And there's a results show - absolutely crammed with filler - the day after the main event (I watched it). Apparently there's some sort of update broadcast on a secondary channel every single day.

I mean, what's all that about? Some kind of elitist Big Brother?

Sunday is for playin'

Today, I made an apple pie, finished my book (Pies and Prejudice) and bought a coat.

The Sparkly One made a pumpkin lantern, but that's a whole other story.

Monday, 13 October 2008

De-spectacled in the sauna

Every conversation is a podcast made by anonymous faceless people that sit intimately close to me. If we passed in the street I would not know them.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Rabies, revisited

Today's lavender injection, the second of three, is administered by an eager-to-please medical student, under the nurse's close supervision.

Afterwards, a tiny carnelia flower blooms on my flesh.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Fortune cookie wisdom (2)

Fortune cookie fortune 'Ignorance never settles a question'

Ugly cutlery

Yes, I know that beauty is a subjective measure, and to my eye this cutlery is shockingly, surprisingly, stunningly ugly:

Ugly Cutlery by Muji

The picture doesn't do it justice, by the way; it's actually much uglier in real life - all the worst things about airline cutlery, somehow made more intense, more lumpishly crude. And don't feed me that "cheap and cheerful" line - this cutlery has no cheer whatsoever. It doesn't even have that pitiable cuteness that mawkish things often invoke.

Meaning that it doesn't do anything for my aesthetic. Your mileage, natch, may vary.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Curry for dinner

...and the squeak! of paneer on my teeth.

(This post is partly inspired by Fiona's Stones. You can send her your own stones too.)

Sore arms

The advantage of having two injections at once is getting the whole feeling-rubbish thing over and done with.

The disadvantage is that both arms ache, making carrying a quite-heavy tray of coffees and pastries less fun than it should be.

But still worth it.

I have become Everybloke

...fiddling with my phone in M&S while the women shop.

Friday, 26 September 2008

I've got rabies

...and typhoid, to boot.

The first of my rabies injections was a lurid purple in the syringe, but it was the typhoid injection I actually felt squirt! into my right arm.

And all this in aid of a voyage of exploration: an adventure.

Monday, 22 September 2008

A bracing swim in the ocean

This morning I went for a dip in the sea off the South Devon coast.

Walking into the sea

I splashed around and everything.

Having a little swim in the sea

And then I got out.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Medals versus T-shirts

There's a fine tradition in this country of issuing goody bags after a sporting endeavour, almost (in some cases, at least) as an apology for the outrageously expensive entry fee.

Having completed a triathlon yesterday, I received one such goody bag containing a few items of sports snackery, several adverts for equally-costly future events and a T-shirt.

On arrival back at the Ranch the Sparkly One congratulated me and asked if I had received a medal (the Sparkly One has a lot of medals, on account of being the very best at what she does, and competing in events that reward brilliance with medals).

I did not have a medal. I checked the bag. There was no medal. Dark clouds of disappointment loomed on my personal emotion horizon.

Then I found the T-shirt in the bag, proclaiming me to be a Finisher. Disappointment was immediately replaced by the sunshine of joy. Yay me!

This exchange and discovery prompted me to ponder the relative benefits of T-shirt and medal.

In favour of a T-shirt:

  • Can be worn on any number of occasions after the actual event (it's generally frowned upon to wear a medal day to day, unless one is in the armed services)
  • A practical item, useful.

In favour of a medal:

  • Something a bit special, not something one would buy oneself
  • Does not need laundering after wearing
  • Looks nice hanging from the curtain pole
  • An indulgent item, a frippery

I think that although I would prefer a medal, I would get more mileage out of a T-shirt. A medal is associated with that whole challenge-reward thing; a T-shirt is every day.

A final thought: the word "goody" should be eradicated from the language with extreme prejudice and immediate effect.

The Simple Joy of a Card

Get Well Soon Card: £1.98
First Class Stamp: 36p
Reaching out to someone: Priceless

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Word of the day: Blearious

blearious [bleer-ee-uhs]
That fuzzy, early morning frenzied manic feeling.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Black nose goblins

Yes, I was in London yesterday, with the inevitable result (hence the word inevitable, see?) that the old nose goblins were gritty and black this morning.

But whilst in Town I caught up with The Clanky One, so nose-filth seems inconsequential and easily tolerated - a small price to pay.

To put it another way, dear reader, friends are a Very Good Thing.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

A mahoosive aeroplane

Taxiing after landing at Heathrow tonight, I caught my first glimpse of the Airbus A380, and I have to confess that expletives resulted.

Even in the distance, parked up at one of the gates, it was impressive. A damn big 'plane.

When in Sweden, make like a Swede

"When in Rome, do as the Romans do," the adage runs. Well, the Sparkly One and I were in Sweden, but - undeterred - we applied the precept as best we could. On this occasion, it being a Sunday afternoon, the spirit of Making Like a Swede was given life with a stop at a local home furnishing retailer by the name of IKEA.

You may have heard of this company, as it has received some small mention in the Rainy Isles, and I myself have visited 2 or 3 stores in recent years. I was therefore eager to visit a store in the motherland, and curious to see firsthand how well the concept had travelled to our own shores.

I have to say that the Shopping Experience has not translated very well to the UK. That is to say that it has not been translated so much as transplanted. In short, the whole was largely identical to that in the UK; same store design and layout, same products (with the same idiosyncratic names), same seething tide of humanity on a Sunday afternoon.

After circumnavigating the store as quickly as we could, we stopped, chuckling quietly to ourselves, in the store's restaurang for a quick lunch of köttbullar - Swedish meatballs, served with cranberry sauce, potatoes and gravy (including side salad and a drink - all for a very reasonable price).

All in all, we may as well have stayed at home, but for one small yet significant fact: we were in Sweden, where all this began.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Pronounced "ves-ter-oss"

The town of Västerås, in Sweden's Västmanland, is a beguilingly pleasant place.

The streets are quiet, the buildings attractive, and the whole fairly easy to find one's way around.

We are here for Other Reasons, but I would happily come back here for a longer visit on another occasion.

Friday, 5 September 2008

Signs of elk

When is a moose not a moose? Why, when it's an elk, obviously.

A brief visit to Google reveals that a moose and an elk are one and the same (in Europe, at least - in America, your mileage may vary). This revelation prompts the Naming Dilemma; how shall I refer to the King of the Forest in this ramble?

As amusing as I find the word moose, the Swedish word älg seems closer to "elk" rather than moose, so I shall endeavour to use that word here.

Elk are apparently quite common in Sweden, so the chances of seeing one are not remote. They are, however, seemingly shy (although that didn't stop one elk stealing a bicycle) so I figured that we might just see one, but I wouldn't be holding my breath.

So it was that we drove warily and watchfully through the countryside, eyes keen for signs of the beast. The closest we came, alas, was the road sign warning of the dangers of elk on the road. Even leaning out the window and calling


in encouraging tones didn't seem to have the desired effect of summoning one or more.

On reflection, perhaps shouting would älg have had more success.

In-flight "catering"

The onboard sandwich was - predictably - depressingly awful.

It was a half-and-half "chicken salad" and "ham and mustard". Both were beyond-foul.

Heathrow's T5

...is an airport terminal.

Rather new, rather shiny, but an airport terminal nonetheless.

And that's all I have to say about that.

Terminal 5 Revisited

The first (and, indeed, last) time I visited Heathrow's fifth terminal it was still being constructed, with only parts of the majestic terminal building (rather disappointingly called "T5A") completed.

As I recall, the little bus tour was more publicity exercise than construction site visit, but it was educational in its way, and fired my imagination and enthusiasm for the project. In particular I remember the so-called "angel trusses", used to support the massive roof - T5A is the largest free-standing building in the UK.

So it is that I find myself rather excited about my impending return to the "fully operational" terminal. I am to visit as a fare-paying passenger with British Airways; travelling to Sweden with the Sparkly One for the weekend.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Tomatoes freeze well

But they don't de-frost very well. Not very well at all.

I left some lovely English tomatoes in the fridge at work, and they strayed too close to the freezer compartment. The result was ice-hard tomatoes that could be rapped on the worktop with a pleasingly knocking sound.

They could not, however, be sliced and eaten in a salad. As the cucumber had suffered a similar fate, my lunch was rather smaller than I had planned.

By late afternoon the tomatoes had fully defrosted, releasing most of the watery contents through the skins that had split during the freezing process. I was left with a collection of saggy tomato skins sitting in a puddle of vaguely-tomato-smelling water. Whilst I suspect that some creative genius could conjure a gastronomic treat out of this ingredient, the task is beyond me.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Of crispy snackery

I am not by habit a frequent consumer of crisps, that rich variety of snackery made from derivatives of potato or maize.

But from time to time I do fancy something crispy and crunchy. And on those occasions celery don't cut it, baby.

As you may already have postulated, today was such a day, and on a whim I picked up a bag of Hula Hoops Original ("Potato Rings") and Nik Naks Nice 'n' Spicy, ("Knobbly Freaky Sticks of Corn").

Hands shaking with anticipation, I opened the Nik Naks first - and at first sight knew immediately that they were not what I wanted in my mouth. The lurid orange-coloured, well, knobbly sticks of corn looked flat-out unappetising from the get-go. Nevertheless, I selected one entirely at random and popped it between the old kissing apparatus, only to pull a face of abject dis-satisfaction. The texture was horrible, cloying; and the flavour vile, a kind of broad spectrum "curry powder" taste with no other notes or flavours.

Quietly self-satisfied with the sophistication of my pallette, I put the packet of extruded corn snacks to one side and opened the Hula Hoops.

I have a fondness for Hula Hoops - I particularly enjoy the pleasing crunch they offer. And they were invented in the same year as I was born (the back of the packet informs me), which is a pleasing.

But they have so little flavour; the texture is all reconstituted potato - they make no pretense at being a potato, unlike regular crispies. So other than the crunch, they have nothing appealing about them; the texture after the crunch is horrible, and the flavour all potato starch and oil.

The back of the packets, fact fans, read as follows:

Hula Hoops Potato Rings

Ingredients: Potato (potato starch & dried potato), Sunflower Oil (28%), Rice Flour, Maize Flour, Salt, Potassium Chloride.

Nik Naks Corn Snacks

Ingredients: Maize, Sunflower Oil (25%), Vegetable Oil (13%), Nice 'n' spicy flavour [sugar, salt, acidity regulator: sodium diacetate, dried glucose syrup, lactose, flavour enhancer: monosodium glutamate, dried onion, citric acid, malic acid,, flavourings (contains soya sauce), curry powder (spices, rice flour), dried tomato, colour: paprika extract, spice, malt extract, dried malt vinegar].

I am continually surprised that manufacturers have to list all their unpleasant ingredients, but can get away with the mysteriously vague "spices" when it comes to the flavourings.


Turning into our parents

I'm slowly becoming my parents.

It's not a sudden thing, like flicking a light switch - it's gradual, like ageing, the erosion of youth by time's slow insinuation. We know it's happening but we don't really acknowledge it until we pass a milestone - such as a birthday - that gives us cause to mark our progress.

Over the years, I've heard my father's voice coming out of my mouth from time to time; when I'm talking to children, perhaps, or commenting on another driver's behaviour. Sometimes I stop myself and ask if that's really what I think, or whether it's a habit I learned from him. That's a whole other topic.

Just the other day, though, I spotted a significant event; a quantum leap towards the main event, perhaps. The Sparkly One and I were going away for a week, driving down to South Devon for a few days here and there. As I was packing my clothes and other essentials, I decided to include my own pillow, because I wanted to be as comfortable as possible for those nights that I would be spending away from my own bed.

As I loaded the car, I watched the pile of "essentials" grow higher and higher in the boot - did I really need that many clothes for a few days away? - until I popped the pillow on top and realised that the moment had come and gone.

I'd taken another step closer to becoming my father. He never travelled far without his pillow, for fear of not sleeping that night.

Thankfully, I hadn't included any slippers. Not this time.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

Friday, 22 August 2008

The Elusive Duvet (and a writing competition)

No, not the consequences of a night with a partner who feels the cold more than you do.

Well, not just that at any rate. Despite the wonderful name, it turns out to be a rather prosaic item; a duvet cover with a blockprinted design created in Bagru, an Indian village. See the Traidcraft website for more information.

Competition: Send a short story (500 words or less) with the same title as this post to be considered for a prize. Yes, really.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

"That looks healthy!"

Have you noticed how some people say this as an accusation rather than a compliment?

Monday, 11 August 2008

Caution: HORSES

What's so special about horses, eh? Must they insist on riding about with their species name stencilled on their wagon in huge letters? Prima donnas, the lot of them.

And why is it always in uppercase shouty letters like my mother's text messages? Perhaps they haven't figured out how to use the shift key on their signwriters. Or perhaps they're really dangerous - mortal danger tends to warrant big letters, I would think. Or they're all extremely full of themselves. I don't know about you, but I won't be taking the chance of finding out.

Besides, it's a missed chance for a slogan, a bit of self-promotion. I mean, if you're going to go to the trouble of putting "HORSES" on there, you may as well pop on a few extra words and make a statement about it. Like "Try Riding a Cow" perhaps?

I think in the interests of animal parity we should extend the gesture to all forms of animal transport. Imagine the lorry with the bold slogan "Cows - Great milk, no gimmicks" or even "Pigs - The Gift that Keeps on Giving."

This nomadic life

I'm moving around a lot at the moment, it seems. Not to a wide range of different places, just to the same places with reasonable regularity. Nevertheless, I'm living out of a bag rather more than I would prefer, and spending a lot of time travelling (and not the good kind of travelling, either).

Which means I get to spend less time with my friends than I would prefer (except for Those With And Without Beard, on whom I inflict my company from time to time), and that I have less disposable time available.

Something will have to give.

On making coffee

I generally make coffee using the French press (or cafetiere) method, it being the most transportable, simplest techniques available to me. I even have a fab insulated cafetiere mug that's perfect for camping, and unbreakable to boot.

Of late, though, I have begun to ponder the need for some sort of automated coffee machine that offers the benefit of repeatability. I couldn't say how many cups of coffee I have that I am disappointed with - all made by me, with the same equipment, the same coffee, the same water...but - judging by the different flavour - some aspect of the process slightly, subtly different.

I don't want one of those soulless "pod" type machines, though, where coffee is produced from hideous little thimbles, the UHT-milk cartons of the brew-it-yourself coffee world. I want a machine that takes in beans and water, and delivers - via a wonderful alchemy - fresh, flavoursome dark beverage.

Art, truth, and photography

Digital photography magazines are full of techniques that involve taking a sky from one picture, a foreground from another, and munging the two (or three, or six) things together to create the perfect shot. In short, they seem happy to discard the actual image in pursuit of the ideal image.

I recall watching an interview with Lord Lichfield, an enthusiastic supporter of digital photography, commenting that the technology allowed him to lie more convincingly (or was it more easily?) than film photography.

And so digital photography seems to be about art rather than truth, about telling a good story, regardless of what the reality may (or may not) have been.

Much like this blog, as it goes.

Cast of characters

Jaffle McSnaffle, a blogger

Your humble narrator, Jaffle McSnaffle is blessed with a patchy memory and the gift of invention. Every one of his memories shared here is subject to distortion through the dual lenses of imagination and creation; events are remembered as they should have been, not necessarily as they were.

The Sparkly One

Sometimes McSnaffle is a sidekick to the Sparkly One, and sometimes a superhero.

As her name suggests, the Sparkly One is much-possessed of sparkles.

The Bearded One, man born of water

The Bearded One is at least as comfortable in the water as one Michael Phelps, an Olympian of some reknown. There's a prevailing rumour that he was raised by dolphins, or tuna, but the DNA evidence to prove or refute this claim has been mysteriously lost. We understand that Dan Brown is currently working on a book based on the subject.

The Beardless One, who needs no further sobriquet

For every yin there is a yang, some would have us believe. The Beardless One is seen often in the company of the Bearded One, for she is the yang to his yin, the smooth chin to his befurred one.

The Clanky One, a star

Abraham Van Helsing may once have told Mina Murray-Harker:

"There is darkness in life, and there are lights. And you, Madam Mina, are one of those lights."

So is the Clanky One.

Funky Iron Girl, a triathlete

There are athletes, and there are triathletes - those people who would train for (and indeed compete in) three seperate disciplines in a single event. Funky Iron Girl is one such, and has already completed the UK Ironman 70.3, an event comprising 70.3 miles of multi-sport (a 1.2 mile swim followed by 56 miles of cycling, followed by a 13.1 mile run. That's the same as running a half marathon after from London to Brighton, having done a long swim in the capital beforehand). This event is laughingly (although accurately) called a half-Ironman-distance triathlon. You can do the maths to arrive at the full event.

Funky Iron Girl is planning to do the full distance in 2009. And the acronym for her sobriquet is cool too.

Two cautionary notes

  1. If you recognise yourself in these characters, think yourself fortunate, and do not expect to be mentioned too often. It's my blog, subject to my whims. And my faulty, fun-seeking memory.
  2. If, by contrast, you do not see yourself named in this august list, do not worry. Perhaps your time will come. Or perhaps you would be better not being remembered thus.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Cocktails in the afternoon

After running a number of chores, I arrived back at Chez Sparkly One, and was immediately offered a cocktail.

The "Hunk Martini" is, it would seem, a classic of the locality, comprising vanilla-flavoured vodka, vermouth, and a dash of pineapple juice.

It is, you may care to know, extraordinarily drinkable. Perhaps even too drinkable.

I spent the remainder of the afternoon in Sparkly company; sipping cocktails, watching Sweeney Todd, and assembling my Lego Batmobile.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

The Fat Duck, revisited

I have just had Sunday lunch - on this, the anniversary of my birth - at a little restaurant in Bray, Berkshire.

We elected to enjoy the tasting menu, and the food was truly excellent - if anything, better than the last time I went. Although I was mildly disappointed that the sardine on toast sorbet was no longer on the menu, the snail porridge was particularly good - deep and intensely flavoured - and so was the red cabbage gazpacho. And the truffle toast, oh my!

I particularly enjoyed the spectacle of dinner, the sense of humour throughout. Of course it's fantastically-conceived food, amazingly-executed, richly flavoured. But it's fun too. The hot and iced tea is simply playful, the nitro-scrambled egg and bacon ice cream - prepared at the table side - is pure theatre.

In short, sensational.

Saturday, 2 August 2008

The Innocent Village Fete (no Clanks)

To Regent's Park today for the Innocent Village Fete. It's an attempt by the smoothie company to recreate the feel and flavour of a village fete, complete with duck herding and welly wanging. Only this one's in a London park. And it's a great day out.

I went last year, and had a splendid time drinking in the sunshine with my friends. This year I was keen to see more of the fete stuff, and less of the queue for the beer tent. Consequently (although due more to a sudden rain shower than any real design), I can report that the performance by The Fairey Band was superb, bringing their own brand of "acid brass" to Regent's Park. My favourite was their rendition of the KLF's What Time is Love?

Afterwards, a pleasant ramble through the Park, a few choice morsels from the food vendors, many of them leaving behind Borough Market for the day, and a chance encounter with friends. All in all, a very satisfying day.

Alas, the Clanky One was delayed at work, and we missed the opportunity to meet up. Oh intemperate Fate!

Saturday, 26 July 2008

Beer, cubed

I recently had the pleasingly-cubic experience of drinking a pint of beer in the Barrel O' Beer pub in the rather lovely town of Beer, South Devon.

The pint, for the record, was Otter bitter, brewed locally in Devon, with the excellent slogan "Relax with an Otter", something I've enjoyed elsewhere on a number of occasions. I'm still trying to get hold of a bar towel.

The pub was splendid - friendly, honest, pubbish. The beer was good and the food was excellent (I had homemade rilletes followed by whiting - delicious).

Beer town itself was extremely pleasant. In particular, I enjoyed the beach; fishing boats drawn up on the pebbles in neat lines, each with a cable running to a winch box higher up the beach. To one side, a field of deckchairs, all disappointingly empty by late afternoon. Indeed, except for the family with the shrieking teenagers, wading at the waters edge, we had the beach to ourselves.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

"Ungainly meat."

That's what I thought she said. And I thought: Hang on, you're not that big.

But what she actually said was: "Again we meet."

My bowl of grapes smells like stale wine.

Friday, 27 June 2008

Guerilla composting

I am not a litter lout and I do not like those that are.

It is clear to any right-thinking individual that littering is Bad. Who wouldn't be irritated by the cigarette packet - or chocolate wrapper - flung lazily from a car window? Or the ashtray, emptied onto the roadside whilst waiting at a redlight? Or the countless other petty acts of fly-tipping that are perpetuated on a daily basis by the small-minded?

There is a school of thought, however, that regards a particular variety of littering as both beneficial and desirable - specifically, the discarding of bio-degradable waste in hedgerows and other natural habitats, where it will naturally, and perhaps even productively, decompose. These are not acts of littering, the argument goes, but of guerilla composting - an act with positive consequences for the green environment.

So if you must discard waste of an organic, bio-degradable nature in the shared spaces and places of our environment, don't be a litter lout. Be a guerilla composter.

Update: Funky Iron Girl writes:

"Chucking a banana skin in an English hedgerow is bad; bananas don't grow in England. Surely the only composting should be of native biodegradables? So that'll be apples and pears me old china. And the odd plum..."

She's quite right, you know. So don't throw banana skins in English hedgerows (you might want to chuck them in the road, or use Welsh hedgerows).

If you're not a fan of littering, you may be interested in the Stop the Drop campaign, being run by the Campaign to Protect Rural England.

Thursday, 26 June 2008

All Day Breakfast

...served until 3pm.

Can anyone else see a problem with this statement?

(Seen outside a pub in Bedfordshire)

Friday, 20 June 2008

Terramundi come up trumps

After last week's smashing service, a quick 'phone call, a pleasant chat, and a few days later, my replacement Terramundi money pot has arrived!

It's a nicer shape, the lettering is bigger and bolder, and it's in one piece.

Great work guys, thank you.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

In favour of toe clips

Usually, when I am riding the London to Brighton Bike Ride, I make the effort to remove my clipless pedals (the sort that anchor the bike shoes to the bike, and make riding much more efficient and pleasant) and replace them with flat pedals with toe clips.

I do this because on the L2B the roads and hills in particular are often crowded with the sheer number of riders (around 27,000 every year), some of whom will be bobbing and weaving unsteadily up the hill, and some of whom will be pushing their bikes. In those circumstances, I find it a bit easier to get out of toe clips in a hurry, should I need to - if, for instance, I am bumped by the rider in front me and in danger of tumbling messily to the road.

This year, for the first time, I elected to ride with the clipless pedals I normally use, figuring that I would be just fine - either I would stay out of trouble, or I would unclip my feet at a safe distance, and ride up the hill without the benefit, but without the danger.

And so I did, for the first, oh fifty miles of the ride, until I came to the largest, steepest, longest hill climb of the Ride, from the village of Ditchling up to the Beacon on the very top of the South Downs. (I've geekily built a little Gmaps Pedometer route of the climb. Make sure you switch on the elevation display!)

As can be safely predicted, I quickly found myself accidentally touching the wheel in front of me, losing balance, and struggling to free my feet from my elegant machine.

I went down with an apologetic cry and a heavy thump onto my left knee.

Needless to say, I immediately remounted with gusto, dashed the tears from my brave and shining eyes, and continued with my ascent with increased fevour. And I did not hamper or hinder any other rider as a result of my tumble.

The picture below, taken at the top of the hill with my Blackberry, shows the regrettable, impressive (and somewhat sore) result.

A grazed knee covered in blood

The embarrassment is far greater a wound, however.

Alas, I do not have any pictures of the splendid view from the top of the hill - stretching over the rolling hills down to the sea, very well worth the climb. Nor any of the hundreds of cyclists and several ice creams vans plying their welcome and brisk trade atop the Downs themselves.

Nice white socks though, what?

And I was not alone in my injury. My riding companion, the ever-sprightly Bearded One, was the victim of a wheel-clipping-induced-tumble rather earlier in the ride, resulting in a flat tyre, a hole in his cycling leggings, and an increasingly-claret-coloured leg. With satisfying symmetry, it was the opposing, some would say complementary, patella that was lesioned. Let the record show that - with customary resolve - he stiffened his hirsute upper lip, replaced his inner tube, and ventured bravely on for the remainder of the ride.

Friday, 13 June 2008

T-Bone Steak for a Friday 13th Dinner

This evening, faced with the rare prospect of a night on my own, I pondered my options for the twilight hours. There was, I knew with heady certainty, a decent bottle of red wine at home, awaiting the attention of my eager senses, and I resolved to find a suitable companion to perform the role of dinner for me that evening.

So it was that I found myself in the local butchers, asking for a "nice steak for my supper". When asked what sort I required, I replied briskly, "a t-bone".

Surely a prince among meats, the t-bone is a cut that features, as one might guess, a T-shaped bone to one side of which lies the cut usually known as sirloin - well-marbled and flavoursome, and to the other, fillet - lean and delicious. It's two steaks in one (Take 2 steaks into the kitchen? With T-Bone I just cook and go!).

Alas, there were none to be seen within the bowyer of delights that was the butcher's counter, but quick as a flash he replied, "I'll cut you one."

In a moment, he had fetched from his larder a huge side of meat, which he laid upon the block and adjusted carefully ready for the impending procedure. Meeting my eye with a raised eyebrow, he placed his thumb on the meat to indicate the size of the cut he was intending to make, and I confirmed with a short nod.

A few moments later I was skipping from the establishment, clutching fully 22 ounces (some 600g) of prime beef. Although it's not that clear, the picture below shows the fine, thick slab of meat, atop a 8.5 inch (21.5 cm) plate. The fillet is to the left in this picture; the sirloin to the right, with the wide strip of fat attached.

I cooked it as simply as possible; 2 minutes on a high flame, 10 minutes over a medium flame, in a cast iron griddle. The result was gratifyingly delicious; the fillet buttery and meltingly tender, and the sirloin tasty and rich although perhaps a touch over-cooked for my usually-sanguinary tastes.

I served it with some saute mushrooms and a crisp salad. Perfection.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Great father's day ideas

Stuck for a gift for father's day? Try our new fruit hats. Free delivery for Father's Day!

Right now, I'm getting getting a lot of email like this, all desperate to offer me great gifts for Father's Day, or "solve" my Father's Day "dilemmas" - whatever they might be.

And everyone is getting in on the action, from cigar vendors (possible) to indoor wind tunnels (unlikely) to domain hosting companies ("for your Dad to start his own website" - as if!).

All of which falls on deaf ears: unbeknownst to all of the marketeers, despite this age of ever-present consumer profiling, I ceased to require father's day gift ideas 5 years ago.

The Royal Mail provides a smashing service

Terramundi make rather elegant hand-thrown money pots, with a splendid business model: the pots contain no money-retrieval hole, thus allowing for a one-way deposit-only transaction (they're write-only, if you will). In order to retrieve the savings therein, the pot must be smashed - necessitating the need to buy another pot with (hopefully only some of) the saved money. The website describes this process of fill-smash-replace as "customary". The geek in me sees it as a kind of recursion.

Anyhoo, they're quite lovely, and I recently ordered one for my godson in order to save towards his Misspent Youth Fund, and perhaps provide some kind of fiscal lesson about long-term planning and the psychology of anticipation. Or a nice shelf ornament. At the very least he'll be able to enjoy bludgeoning it to smithereens, perhaps even intentionally.

Here's how it arrived.

A box marked FRAGILE

An open box with a Terramundi card

A box containing a smashed money pot

Broken pieces of a money pot

Pre-enjoyed, one might say, no? Except without the fortune in small change.

I suppose I had a feeling this might be the case when I picked up the box and it rattled in that mocking tinkly-chinkly broken pottery sort of way (you know; the noise that packages make as soon as you've signed to say that they've arrived safely).

Happily, a quick telephone call to the lovely people at Terramundi London, and a replacement is being arranged free of charge. One supposes that this is not the first time the Royal Mail has meddled with the saving process.

I will confess: there is a tiny part of me that kind of hopes it happens again.

Friday, 6 June 2008

Preparing to swim, bike, run

Tomorrow is the Blenheim Triathlon, an event I have long-awaited - as long as last year, when I completed the Team Sprint and enjoyed it so much that I resolved to do the whole event on my lonesome.

Laid out on and around my bed is (almost!) everything that I will need for the day, and I am struck by what a tremendous faff it is to do a triathlon; unlike a run, where one can practically turn up and go, a triathlon needs a certain level of preparation - equipment, tools, stuff, thought, packing, gear, contingency, stuffstuffSTUFF.

This fact has been recurrent throughout my training; the number of towels I've got through would swamp a decent sized hotel, I suspect. And that's before the bike and associated faffery of tools, puncture repair kits, inner tubes and the like.

I mean, I can see why people would go for the longer distance events; if you're going to go to all this effort, you might as well make a bit of a day of it. As it is, I expect to be in the event (somehow I can't bring myself to write "competing") for somewhere up to an hour and a quarter. Hardly seems worth all the bother does it?

But it will be.

Anyone for a glass of juice?

From a carton of Waitrose Pressed Apple & Mango Juice:

"The fruit is pressed at source, pasteurised, then aseptically packed or frozen before transportation to its destination where it is pasteurised or defrosted and pasteurised, packed ready for the consumer."

Mmmm. Doesn't that sound delicious? And so personal.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

With some reservations

After yesterday's excitement:

Today, when I picked up the telephone, I spent 50 minutes dialling and re-dialling before getting through, but only 5 minutes on hold. At which point, I clearly stated my reservation request, and the helpful lady at the other end of the 'phone told me she didn't have a table for 2 available on the day I wanted to book.

So I took the table for 4 that was available.

Monday, 2 June 2008

Of ducks and hooks

One of those days.

A well-known restaurant takes reservations "as far as two calendar months in advance", which is another way of saying that one needs to make a reservation exactly 2 months before the date one wants to dine there.

This fact is the chief (nay, sole) reason I spent 40 minutes this morning dialling and re-dialling (and re-dialling again) the number for the reservations line before I managed to get through, followed by another 6 minutes listening to hold music. At which point, I was connected to a lovely, helpful human being.

The connection to which I have just alluded occurred approximately 1 minute after I realised that I was telephoning a day early, as my birthday is 2 months tomorrow, not 2 months today. Consequently they were, alas, unable to take my reservation.

But I do get to enjoy the process again tomorrow :-)

Later on, I finally got 'round to raising the saddle on Flora, a simple task long overdue. I even took her for a little spin, which turned out longer than anticipated (due to lack of supplies at the first place I visited), and a good deal wetter (due to an unexpected rain shower). Neither of which, I should note, spoiled my enjoyment of the outing.

So it was that I arrived back at McSnaffle Base with a cheery smile on my damp face, and began to return Flora to her special hook - high up on the wall out of weather and harms way but ready for a fixedwheel adventure at a moment's notice.

It was at precisely this point that I realised that the new height of the saddle bumped into the ceiling, and prevented the frame from being secured on the aforementioned hook. A hook which is secured to the wall with anti-theft screws, the kind that can be screwed but not unscrewed.

I believe I allowed myself a chuckle at this point, before putting Flora into the shed - a good deal less accessible, but also a good deal warmer. Lucky girl.

In other McSnaffle News, if you can handle the excitement, I went shopping for jeans today, and discovered that I have gone down a trouser size (measured by waist rather than inside leg). Indeed, I have practically gone down two sizes, being able to wear jeans fully 4 inches smaller than I have been accustomed to for the past ten years. In short, I am now apparently more svelte than I have been in well over a decade.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Into dark water

There are easier ways to spend five pounds.

This morning, the Sparkly One and I arose - a little shakily, a little blearily and not a little reluctantly - at 6am, dashed the sleep from our eyes, and left the house, setting course for Heron Lake. We were off to do some Open Water Swimming in preparation for this year's Blenheim Triathlon.

For me, this was a chance to face my fears and splash about in deep water - something I haven't done since, oh, ever, not including time wearing a buoyancy compensator and some form of self-contained underwater breathing apparatus. Oh, and the 3 nervous minutes I spent in the Pacific Ocean off the Galapagos Islands, and a few minutes in a shark cage off New Zealand.

Basically, being in water deeper than I am tall is a big thing for me. And, not being a big thing myself, this includes quite a lot of water.

The Sparkly One is, by contrast, resolutely at home in the water. She has swum in lakes, rivers, oceans and seas. For her, it was a chance to test out her stroke in the wetsuit she'll be wearing for the tri. And keep an eye on me, no doubt - she is, after all, a Lifesaver.

We arrived a little before 7am, slipping the cold-looking chap at the gate a couple of Lady Godivas (or perhaps that's Ladies Godiva, as per Surgeons General?). The early morning noise of the M25 was already in full swing as we pulled into the car park and nervously got our gear together. Although grey and miserable, the morning was more or less dry, and not too cold - the car reported 15 degrees on the Celsius scale - as we struggled into our wetsuits, caps and goggles.

Then it was down the boardwalk and into the water. The first few steps were gentle enough - easing gingerly down the ramp into water barely knee-deep. And cold! My bare feet knew about it immediately - klaxons and alarms reporting a Cold Water Alert. But higher up the wetsuit was doing its job and based solely on the situation report from my legs, I wouldn't have known I was standing in cold water.

Having taken the first leap, so to speak, I gingerly lowered myself into the water up to the waist and administered the Jaffle McSnaffle Crotch Test of Water Temperature. This is a tried and true method for determing whether a particular spot is temperate enough for bathing: if the body can be lowered into the water up to the waist - completely submerging the crotch - without a resulting "Oooooooooooh!" then the temperature is acceptable. On this occasion, I was pleased to discover that the wetsuit was also doing its job admirably, and the Test was passed.

With that, there was nothing else to do except take the literal plunge into deeper water. And so off I went, splashing and swimming out into the dark water, acclimatising, trying not to think too hard about what I was doing. The little voice at the back of my brain - you know the one - was beginning to warm up with some comments about the depth of the water and the distance from the safety of the shore, and the panic did start to rise briefly. But I was able to ignore it, and before long I realised that I was comfortable in the water and Doing Fine.

When I finally judged the moment right to stop and look back - by way of confirming just how far I was from safety - I was not more than 200 metres from shore, and knew I could make it back with ease. So much so that I was able to swim on a little while, with mounting nonchalance.

And with that, our experiment was largely concluded, and all that was left was for us to head back for the certain welcome of dry land. On the way back, I even stuck my face in the water (Bearded One, please note!) for a stroke or five, and was rewarded with a murky green darkness. How dull. Honestly, I don't see what all the fuss is about.

On reflection I have to say that it was not so very cold. I mean, certainly it was cold - just not so cold as fear and uncertainty would have me imagine. By way of example, I was easily able to find the Old Chap as I dressed, so it really can't have been that cold in the water.

And that was very much that: dried and dressed we sallied forth, heading for warm showers, clean clothes, and large cups of fresh coffee. There may be easier ways to spend five pounds sterling, but this was both satisfying and rewarding. A lift to the confidence, a spring in the step, decent bragging rights ("Guess what I did before breakfast...").

And an unexpected bonus: a flash of blue, a distinctively-shaped streak above the water's surface; a kingfisher finding breakfast. Magic.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

No, it shouldn't be that colour

On Monday, in a moment of more-haste-less-speed, I found myself skirting around a narrow room, betwixt edges of bed and impressive wardrobe. Naturally, I stumbled awkwardly, resulting in an impact between my foot and the aforementioned wardrobe.

I clenched fists and jaw in pain. I swore (lightly, infrequently). I hobbled manfully downstairs and told everyone how horrible it was.

I did not - I repeat not - remove my sock and look at the injury. Because as everyone knows, it's better to discover a missing toe after a supportive nip of something alcoholic. As nothing was to hand, I didn't want to risk it.

Today, though, I did peek at my foot, and this is what I discovered.

Warning: the following pictures are of my feet. You have been warned.

Why on earth you would want to see them is anyone's guess.

Anyhoo, here they are in all their glory. Firstly from above; the toe is swollen and lightly coloured with bruising.

Nice hairs, eh?

The second picture shows the underside of the toe; you can clearly see the bruising here. Ouch!

Perhaps I should mention that I do have the full complement of toes (on both feet, no less) but I'm a very shy chap, and only share them with my very bestest of friends.

No condensed milk in flapjack

Flapjack should not contain condensed milk. No way, no day.

I mention this because over the weekend, fancying a bit of an oaty syrupy snack, I purchased a flapjack, which committed the cardinal sin mentioned above.

It was, frankly, bland; milky, sweet and unpleasant. Certainly not the oaty syrupy delight it could - and should - be.

To this end, I present a simple recipe for flapjack containing just four (or five) simple ingredients. Sorry 'bout the Imperial measurements; I did try it with Metric, but my notes have several measurements on them, and don't indicate clearly which is which. Try it out and see what works for you.

Flapjack (oaty syrupy delight)

4 oz margarine or butter
5 oz oats
1 tablespoon golden syrup
4 oz sugar
2oz flour (see note)

Note: I'm not entirely happy about flour in my flapjack, but it can be terribly sticky without. You could try compensating with more oats or sugar, and go with whatever you prefer.

Melt the butter, syrup and sugar over low heat, stir in the oats and pour into a greased baking tray. Pop in the oven for around 25 minutes at 180 degrees on the Celsius scale, and enjoy.

And not a whisper of condensed milk.

Monday, 26 May 2008

What's in a name?

Today, I lunched at the splendidly-named Jaf Jaf Ristorante (presumably Jaffle Jaffle Ristorante was too much of a mouthful).

The setting is...quite unique, set next to the M1/M62 with views over the motorway, and serves as an out of town restaurant for the lonely or lost, and resident eatery for the Acanthus Golf Club and Driving Range. The restaurant itself is quite lovely, all liveried chairs and elegant decor. Think local trattoria and up the standard a notch.

By contrast, the food is fairly ordinary local trattoria fare: pizza, pasta, chicken, steak, veal. The prices are eye-opening: at £8 or £9 for a pasta dish and upto £18 for a steak, this ain't the cheap end of the market - not in this part of the world, at any rate. And the food doesn't live up to that price bracket. Yes, there was a tremendous amount of minced beef in the spaghetti bolognese (although the dish that arrived was actually linguine bolognese). And yes, the texture of the fettuccine al ragu was pleasantly rough and chunky. The food, overall, was fine. But there was nothing that lifted the dishes that extra couple of quid: the sauces were ordinary, the penne with chicken and spinach was strongly synthetic, faintly unpleasant. The celery in the mixed salad was heavy with stringy bits.

I have already described the setting and views, which brings me to the service: irritatingly-bordering-on-amusingly poor. The constant interruptions from the waitress quickly became wearisome, and her incomprehensible supposed-humour and anecdotes sans point were simply something to be ignored, glossed over, expunged from memory. It wasn't a case of lacking polish, it was a case of of lacking anything to be polished.

Really, I'm genuinely not tremendously fussy. I've eaten at a lot of places of various sorts - restaurants, pubs, cafes and burger vans. I like simple food as much as fancy stuff, and I fully appreciate the principle of getting what one pays for: I do not set my expectations unreasonably high. But this restaurant just seems to be charging for something it doesn't deliver.

Great name, though.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

A Steak and Stilton Pie

I happened to find myself at a Farmer's Market yesterday, and there was, as ever, delight and treasure aplenty. Great bunches of rhubarb, neat little rubberbanded bunches of asparagus, punnets (that wonderful word!) of strawberries - all seasonal and local and freshly picked, hurrah!

Despite this fresh veggie goodness, though, my eye was caught by the earnest-faced man selling pies; neat circular packages that tempted and beguiled with their flaky perfection and suggestive names. I fell upon the stall - metaphorically, not literally - and studied the pieman's wares with a practised eye.

Alas, the rabbit pie - my first choice - had already sold out. Vacillating only briefly, I quickly settled (again, not literally) upon the steak and stilton - that hallmark of a piemaker's skill. How tender would the steak be? How well-balanced the piquant, creamy stilton? How rich the gravy? Ah, the tasty adventure ahead! Be assured, dear reader, that I did not swoon in heady anticipation.

But alas and alack! Yesterday was not the day to discover the answer to these questions, as I departed the office in a hurry, leaving the pastry-encased treasure in the fridge at work. Imagine how hollow my evening fare was, having been promised pie but receiving none.

Today, happily, memory served, and the voyage of discovery was begun.

I can report that the pie was extremely satisfying. The pastry was tasty, if a little soggy from my method of re-heating (oven, rather than microwave, for reasons discussed elsewhere). The filling was ample: tender chunks of steak in thick gravy, not too runny. The stilton was mild, more of a tang than a twang, not overpowering.

In all, a pleasant pie, honestly sized, well-filled and tasty. Just as it should be.

The microwave is dead

...and its passing has not been noticed.

I would estimate - and I must stress that I have no forensic training, not even an episode of C.S.I. - that the deceased must have passed away over a month ago. And that abscence has had little bearing on my life.

Yes, there have been momentary inconveniences - the need to use a pan (the horror!) to heat some beans or tomatoes for an impromptu snack. Indeed, the necessity of any sort of planning; of lifting a meal out of the freezer in the morning rather than scant moments before I want to eat it.

On the whole, though, it has been neither missed nor mourned.

So yesterday I took the Beast down to the local recycling and electrical goods disposal centre (that's the place that used to be called the Tip in the half-forgotten Time Before WEEE) and said a quick farewell.

The resulting space in the kitchen is startling.

The cure for Facebook fatigue

I recently discovered a transforming experience, one that has liberated my mind from many unwelcome distractions and freed more time in my schedule. One that has given me a very satisfactory air of smugness I can enjoy in most social situations.

I have, in short, deactivated my Facebook account.

This deceptively simple act has proven to be emancipating beyond my expectations. I feel energised, enthusiastic, effective once more. I sleep better; I achieve more. Friends have commented on how well I'm looking, how cheerful, how toned and tanned and terrific.

Best of all, in those horrible social situations where Other People begin discussing Facebook or - worse yet - extending a finger and silently poking one another (simply ghastly), I can assume a robustly superior air, and loudly declaim my recent abandonment of the Temple of Timewasting. Their usual reaction is a kind of respectful horror. I can see from their eyes that they're wishing they could do the same, but are trapped by their fear.

Sensing an opportunity, I'm currently working on a personal development/empowerment/self-help book based on my experiences.

A question of balance

Nature finds clever ways of restoring balance.

Take, for instance, the unsustainably large number of shirts in my wardrobe. Take a glass or two of robustly-flavoured red wine. Add the latter to a selection of the former, on any lively social occasion, to create a sizeable stain that will not budge even on the application of many tried and tested techniques.

Result: two stained shirts (including one sourced from Australia, and recently favourably remarked-upon by a kind admirer - oh hubris! Oh terrible pride!). And more room in the wardrobe.

Balance restored.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

A word from our sponsors

You may have noticed that little column on the right, below the "Blogs I like" links. It's captioned "Ads by Google" and has precisely 5 - yes, that's right, five -website advert linkythings beneath it.

It's not there by accident.

The ad links themselves are automatically generated by Google, and are related to the content of my blog entries (which explains why so many of them are food-related). For every one that a reader - that means you - clicks on I get a couple of cents. Wooo.

This is not a sponsored blog, and never will be. I blog because it amuses me, and any costs I bear myself. I was interested, though, to see what sort of response - what sort of payback, I suppose - I would get from the adverts, and intrigued to see how much of a fraud I would feel by doing it.

We're still in the data collection phase of the study. Nevertheless, if there's any advert that interests you, and you feel motivated to click on it, I thought you might be amused to know that a bit of money is going to a good cause. Well, eventually, theoretically. There's a minimal earning level before I get a cheque, or a check, or however money gets changed from American dollars to Great British pounds. And we're a long long way from that.

I do know that I like your comments much better.

Monday, 12 May 2008

Chickpea sandwiches

Falafel for dinner tonight, stuffed into warm pita bread with salad and lemon juice. Tasty and filling in equal measure.

I can't help but wonder how popular they'd be if they didn't have that romantic Arabic name, though. "Deep-fried chickpea and onion sandwiches" - whilst technically accurate - just isn't as romantic, is it?

Saturday, 10 May 2008

Pheasant eggs: the verdict

In honesty summary: slightly disappointing.

I arose this morning with a spring in my step and sashayed brightly into the kitchen, where I knew my treasure awaited: six cute pheasant eggs, nestled in the cool protection of the fridge.

Retrieving the box, I placed it on the countertop, and began the serious business of pondering the most bestest way to enjoy this rare treat: how to savour the full glory of the egg?

In a flash of inspiration, I had my answer: frying and poaching.

Poaching, as any fool knows, is probably the finest method of egg preparation. Done correctly - a trivially simple procedure - the egg emerges with delicately cohesive white and succulently runny yolk. A brief prob with a knife - or, better, fork - and the gold within is released to ooze luxuriously out. Oh!

I set the pan of water on the stove and rummaged for a frying pan.

A fried egg is, of course, a British classic; a staple of the breakfast table. I've not been a great fan of them myself, not until quite recently, when I discovered how to cook them properly. Nowadays my enthusiasm is not, shall we say, unbounded. But I have learned to enjoy a fried egg from time to occasional time. Today was just such an occasion, not least because I rather hoped the small fried eggish circles would resemble some fried quail eggs I saw on sale in a Bangkok market. Oh indeed!

Giggling quietly to myself with suppressed excitement, I found an omlette pan - a pan that I bought to make tiny Spanish tortillas, and now use exclusively for eggy dishes omlettes, scrambled or fried eggs and pancakes (whatever would Larousse have to say about that?!) - and set to.

A little oil, a little heat, a little egg - and a brief stumble. It would seem that the shell of a pheasant egg is unusually tough. A sharp rap on the edge of the pan was not sufficient to crack the shell neatly - and I was in fear of rupturing the yolk. So much so that I resorted to using a knife to breach the container and reveal the delights within.

My first glimpse of the workings of the object was unremarkable. I had read that the yolk is proportionately larger than that of a chicken's egg, but did not discern this fact myself. I watched carefully as it reached the just-hot-enough oil and turned the egg of my wooden spatula to the delicate and necessary task of scooping. I am not fanatical about scooping - the process of moving hot oil and cooking egg white back on itself in order to facilitate cooking, and better shape the final product. Rather, I tend to regard it as an aesthetic endeavour rather than an essential part of the cooking. Today was clearly an artistic day and I spent a little time shaping the setting egg into the most attractive ellipse.

In short order -shorter than you might believe from the length of this narrative - I deemed my little fried wonder to be ready, and slid it with due ceremony on to a waiting plate. After but a moment's reflection, I attacked the whole with a fork, tasting and savouring with an expression as closely similar to that of a Favourite TV Cook as I could approximate.

The first nibble tasted like fried chicken egg, as did the second. The third only confirmed the hypothesis, and the fourth and final morsel suggested nothing more pheasant-like than the previous triplet of tastings. It tasted like chicken egg.

Smacking my lips thoughtfully, I turned to the pan of now-boiling water and selected another egg from the waiting box. A quick application of knife, and once again, delicate eggstuff was dispatched, this time into the waiting swirling roiling water.

As with my method for producing fried eggs, my poaching technique benefits as much from artistic whim as from scientific method. On this occasion I had omitted to include vinegar in the poaching water, choosing instead to swirl furiously - but not too furiously - the water as the egg was added. The result, scant seconds later, was quite satisfactory: a jolly looking little clump of wetly-gleaming egg, perhaps the size of the first joint of my thumb, sitting neatly on the plate and awaiting the hovering fork.

Let us skip to the approaching climax: when fork descended, prongs ready, the egg spilled its golden delights very satisfactorily and I greedily guzzled away. But not so greedily that I did not spend time attempting to extract further pheasantish flavours from the warm little morsel.

Again, I could taste nothing other than chicken egg.

As you may be aware, duck eggs have a distinctly ducky flavour, as indeed do eggs laid by geese. Even turkey eggs have a particular flavour, reminiscent of - you guessed it! - turkey. But pheasant eggs, my dear readers, offer little more than an amusingly pointed tip, a novel colour scheme, and a familiar taste.

And that is all I have to say about that.

Friday, 9 May 2008

I could not be more excited

Eggs, eggs and more eggs!

Whilst wandering through the Friday market this afternoon, I came across a stall selling a variety of eggs: from ducks, chickens, and - wonder of wonders - pheasants!

Pheasant eggs being one of my top three Must Try Eggs (the others, as you must be aware, are Ostrich and Peacock), I immediately bought some and rushed home to find my camera.

The picture shows, for comparison, a duck egg (from Grazed Knuckles's pink and white ducks), a pheasant egg, and a chicken egg (left to right). The rice is short grain brown rice, if you need to know.

The dark-green colour of the pheasant egg hasn't really come out in this picture. You can see the size difference, though, and the sharp pointy top.

Tomorrow I shall conduct a tasting experiment!

Friday, 11 April 2008

A short wishlist

I want sandwiches that taste of something other than limp bread and cold lettuce.

I want to taste all of my food and drink, and have it taste of something other than tapioca starch and emulsifiers and hydrolysed vegetable protein and flavourings.

I want to eat food off real plates, rather than out of plastic-and-cardboard containers that "fold out to form a handy tray!" and out of cups or glasses rather than horrid little plastic tubs. And I want to be sitting down when I eat (and not in a car), rather than dodging my way down the street with half my lunch in my hand.

I want pens that write, first time, without spiralling them 'round an old envelope for five minutes before throwing them, frustrated, in the bin.

I want things that last, rather than disposables that go in the trash after five minutes.

I want clothes that fit me, and are nice to wear, and not made in a sweatshop somewhere in Asia.

I want journalism, considered reporting, rather than five members of the public giving their inane, ill-informed opinions about every event that happens near them.

Oh, and I want a decent summer this year.

Is that so much to ask?

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Too many shirts

I've just done the ironing.

I have so many shirts that my wardrobe is crammed. If I lived in a cartoon, the sides would be bulging comically, much like a tin of surströmming (and I'd have sound effects every time I blinked, or was particularly surprised, or saw a fine-looking woman. But that's not important right now).

The point is that the wardrobe is so full that I've begun to consider using the dry-cleaners as a temporary storage space. I've devised a cunning rotation system: by keeping some of my shirts at the cleaners (and perhaps some at the ironers, and yet more in the laundry basket) perhaps I'll have enough space to fit the remainder in the wardrobe.

Or perhaps it's time to have another Review-Gi-Oh.

Monday, 7 April 2008

Asinine alliteration

What is it about food marketeers that leads them to name food "products" (don't even get me started) with those ridiculous alliterative names?

According to the marketing blurb in the supermarket magazine, Forest Feast dried fruits come with typically idiotic names: Mouthwatering Mango, Scrumptious Sour Cherries, Bountiful Blackcurrants, Sumptuous Strawberries.

I mean, really. Taking just one at random, sumptuous means luxuriously fine, splendid, lavish. Not the first word that springs to mind when describing wizened old fruit, is it?

And the non-alliterative ones are even more asinine: Incredible Cranberries, Unbelievable Blueberries.

I'm pretty sure I do and can believe in cranberries and blueberries. And my palate may be as jaded or uneducated as you fancy, but dried fruit (dried fruit!) is never going to be incredible.

Sunday, 30 March 2008

The smell of fermented fish

Some of you will recall my visit to Sweden last August.

Being an interested traveller, I was eager to try things traditionally Swedish, and I did my best to do so, even if some of them proved to be...not quite to my taste.

One of the things I bought was surströmming, which, as any online contributor-authored encyclopedia will tell you, is a Swedish delicacy based on the concept of preservation without salt. In short, it's fermented fish (specifically Baltic herring), in a can. The fermentation continues after the canning process, with the result that the tins begin to bulge at top and bottom over time.

Surströmming is famous for its smell, which is legendary, and supposedly so terrible that it's been banned from all sorts of places. What I do know is that when I told my Swedish friends that I'd bought it, they banned me from opening it when they were around. If I'm honest, that was part of the attraction for me. I mean, fermented fish. In a can. That smells bad. What's not to like?

All of which happy preamble brings us up to date, because today I decided to open up the surströmming and see what all the fuss was about. Just to be sure, I put on an old pair of jeans, and a tired t-shirt. And I went to the far end of the garden with my can opener and my can of fermented fish.

Now I am not a stupid man. I appreciated that the bulging of the can indicated a certain amount of pressure on the inside, which would quite probably result in an explosive discharge of some sort when I breached the can. So when I placed the can down, and applied the opener, I was prepared for the sudden explosion of fish. I was alert, ready, poised to leap clear.

What I was not prepared for was the single drop of milky liquid that seeped leisurely and languidly from the puncture hole. Anti-climax!

It was then that I made my big mistake; I relaxed. I leaned in a little closer to re-apply the opener.

Which is precisely when the no-longer-expected explosion occured, spraying my face and head with foul-smelling fish liquor.

Let's just take a moment to explore that phrase a little. By "foul-smelling fish liquor", I mean off-the-scale foul-smelling. I mean powerfully awfully horrible. I mean stench rather than aroma. Leave-the-room bad. Look, just trust me on this. It's like nothing else I've ever smelled - and I've smelled some things in my time, let's be honest. But that's not for here.

Drenched, sticky, stinking, I poured off the liquor carefully, and was left with a half a can of slick-looking - alive-looking, actually - fish. My appetite suddenly deserted me - but only momentarily, I was quite certain. I set the can to one side, and went to scrub myself back to my usual aroma.

And that, friends, is all I can remember about that.

Thursday, 27 March 2008

I spy (with my little eye)

...something beginning with 'O'.

And something beginning with 'D (ABOT,A)'.

And something else beginning with 'COL-HC'.

Did you want to play the guessing game? Then stop reading now.

Oh, you're back. Are you all done guessing? Then here are the answers.

I saw:

  • an Owl
  • a Deer (A Bunch Of Them, Actually)
  • and a Couple Of Long-Horned Cattle.

Did you get them right?

And did you guess that I saw all of them on my late afternoon drive from Glorious Gloucestershire to Beautiful Bedfordshire?

Very well done you, then. You little smarty pants.

Friday, 21 March 2008

How to cheat at cooking on television

Honestly, what is going on with that new Delia programme? It is breath-takingly, depressingly, squirmingly awful. The so-called recipes are patronisingly straightforward - more food assembly than cooking - and are so reliant on heavily-processed convenient (excuse me, cheat's) ingredients that I can't imagine how much each "dish" must cost to turn out.

Jamie, Gordon, Heston et al. are making aspirational food that we might one day be cool or sexy enough to make - or at the very least, food that is entertaining to watch being made, food that looks fun and exciting on the plate. By contrast, Delia is making the food we make when we just can't be bothered, when we're too drunk, or too broke to care what it looks like, what it tastes of. It's food we all know how to make, because we all know how to open a packet of frozen potato wedges. I mean, it's so low-brow it's practically Cro-Magnon (yes, I know. Just work with me on this one).

The end product of one of her recipes actually looked like something my dog used to produce. I wish I was joking.

What makes the whole farce even more frightening is that someone, somewhere was pitched the idea for this show, and they actually commissioned it. Someone must have watched the programme before transmission. And they still chose to broadcast it! Any one of a hundred people I can think of right now could present this show with as much competence as Delia, and more charisma. Frankly, an 8 year old child could do the job at least as well - and provide far more entertaining lifestyle inserts for the show (don't get me going on that, it's just too horrible. Why those segments weren't permanently eradicated from history in the editing suite is another of life's great mysteries).

All of which is made possible by the unique way the BBC is funded.

I was thinking of submitting the following recipe for inclusion in the next series, but after the one programme I accidentally watched - pinned to my chair, horrified - I haven't dared watch any more. For all I know, it might already have featured.

Crisp Sandwiches

You will need:
1 bag of crisps (get an adult to open it for you if you need)
2 slices of bread (pre-buttered is best)

To make the dish, place one slice of bread on your worksurface and begin laying the crisps on top of it until it's fairly evenly covered. Once you've done that, place the second slice on top (I like to line up the tops of the slices, so that it looks neat) and press down lightly until the crisps crack a little. Slice at an angle and serve immediately.

Cheat's info:Bread can be bought pretty much anywhere these days, and often comes ready sliced - this is the best sort because you don't have to bother (and you wouldn't do it properly even if you did try). If you can't find pre-buttered bread in your local supermarket or deli, you can order it from Timbuktu, where they make the best bread, and slice it brilliantly, too.

Cheat's tip: Bread keeps well in the freezer. Make sure you slice it before you freeze it, and then you can take out only as much as you need.

Monday, 17 March 2008

An Idle Thought

If I wore it around my neck and told them it was a necklace, would airport staff allow me to take my camera through the security checkpoint?

Thursday, 13 March 2008

That's not all

Okay, so perhaps t'other day's review of Le Manoir Aux Quat' Saisons was not sufficient, did not pique the reader's curiousity, nor do the place justice. Perhaps a little more detail is appropriate.

So, to begin by setting the scene. I approached under the cover of darkness, cleverly missing all the signs to the place, and arriving (like a beggar in the night) through the impressive gate pillars without a clear idea where I was. It was only when I wandered into reception, Friday-weary, replete in jeans, fleece and two days worth of stubble, that I caught sight of the business cards and realised that I must have left my stomach somewhere on the driveway.

My car, by the by, was by far the oldest and dirtiest in the car park. It was considerably older than many in the staff car park, now that I think of it. And because I neglected to proffer my keys for it to be valet parked, it was the first sight to greet every subsequent visitor to the place. This amuses, delights and horrifies me in similar measure.

Nevertheless, my rough appearance was not commented upon, my wild eyes unremarked, and I was shown graciously to my enormous room where I was able to dress more appropriately for dinner. Only slightly more appropriately, I might add, as I had neglected to bring anything smarter than a pair of black jeans. But my shoes were by Loake, my shirt had an understated elegance, and the set of my chin more than enough to deter any comments from more formally attired guests.

I need not have worried. Although the conservatory dining room tends towards the formal rather than the informal, and the dress code and the diners themselves reflected that, I was neither underdressed nor out of place. My dinner companion and I (of which, more later perhaps) were the youngest diners there by a fair stretch, although there were some very small people at breakfast the next morning.

As for the food, we had the 10 course discovery menu, which was generally excellent. The brill - with an oyster, in the lightest wasabi sauce - was outstanding, and the scallops, always amazing, were lifted to another level by the cauliflower puree: rich, deep and tasty.

The bread too was excellent, especially the sour dough variety; it tasted like bread should taste. Full of flavour, doughy, with a good crust.

The napkins, table linen fans, are lovely.

Let's be clear about this: Le Manoir is very, very good. The service is attentive, and apparently sincere, the food superb and the setting just this side of stunning; not quite, but not far off. Scenic in a relaxing - rather than challenging - sort of way. Yes, it's expensive to stay there - but the attention to detail is beyond the ordinary. And yes, the food is comparatively expensive (I would have said that the tasting menu at The Fat Duck offers better value, bang for buck, at just a few pounds more for almost 50% more courses - but the 'Duck offers a completely different experience). But what is delivered - what you get for your money - is nothing short of fabulous.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Cycle commuting in the Cotswolds

Today, I commuted to work on my bicycle. This is remarkable only for the fact that I travelled this morning from the scenic Chalford Hill, travelling the full 16 miles with a keen tailwind.

I saw a dead badger, a dead pigeon, and a blackbird, all reclining on the road's early morning surface.

At lunch time I ran a steady 5 miles.

In the evening, I cycled back to Chalford Hill, with the morning's tailwind become the evening's headwind, blowing steadily in my face all the way. It took me 50% longer to get home, panting and straining and occasionally gasping in frustrated exhaustion.

When I arrived, I was knackered - with hardly enough energy to be triumphant. The final stretch had been singularly dark and disturbing, especially the descent down Cowcombe Hill, and that despite my superb lights. And I had to stop four times on my way up Old Neighbourhood, a hill of rare intensity, particularly at the end of the day.

But I did it :)

Friday, 7 March 2008

Life smells good

My nose has been working overtime over late - both in the aaaaahtissueblessme kind of way, as any number of you fine people can attest - and in the sniffsniffooooooh kind of way. From the packet of Revels I enjoyed in the car, to the bread toasting in the kitchen, things about me suddenly seem to have a finer, deeper, richer aroma. Or my nose is lately more sensitive.

Just t'other night, the mushrooms cooking in the pan in Chalford smelled amazing (as was dinner, so it's mucho thanks to the Beardless One).

Then it was the smell of the tree that was cut down right outside my (other) office window. And the cheeseboard that had hamster cage and mushroom and ammonia and farmyard as I moved my beak around the little cheesey wonders thereon.

Last night, my glass of The Glenlivet 18 Year Old had so much vanilla and chocolate going on that I had to check that it was the same whisky as I remembered (it was). And that the glass was clean (it was).

Friday, 22 February 2008

Bona fide pie

There is, in Reading, a restaurant of sorts called Sweeney & Todds.

It is remarkable for a number of reasons, including the fact that it has changed little in the 15 or so years that I have been aware of it, seemingly remaining under the same ownership, with the same staff, and serving the same things. Yes, the prices have changed (upwards, but not by that much), but the portion sizes have not gone down, and the quality of the food is the same as ever.

Their stock in trade: pies.

And what pies they are! Decently sized, well-pastried in the best kind of flaky way, filled with the right balance of thick and pleasingly-tasty filling. Sensible, uncomplicated, honest pies. And even better; rightly priced.

The daily list of pies is read out at the table for every group, and may contain such delights as Steak and Mushroom, Beef and Horseradish, Five Nations, Vickers (named for the butchers that provides the meat), Game pie, Venison and Wild Boar, Cheese and Vegetable, Steak and Oyster, Chicken Tikka, Chicken and something or other...too many to remember after a pint or two from the bar. Besides, tradition dictates that someone in the group must ask what the third one was, to the endless amusement of the serving staff.

Add some potatoes and a side of vegetables (half and half cauliflower cheese and coleslaw is always a popular choice) and you have a meal fit for a king, queen, tsar, emperor.

The place itself is, simply, unpretentious. The walls are interestingly odd, the seating areas small and tending towards the cramped side of cosy. But no one cares, because the place continues to do what it has always done; serve that basic human need for pie. And how!

Better yet, the pasties and pastries and pies themselves are available to buy cold, to take home, for half the price in the restaurant. Who could ask for more?

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Toilet bread?!

There's a bar of Dove cream bar soap on the bathroom shelf. Idly reading the box whilst cleaning my teeth, as one does, I noticed the several different languages printed on the side.

It seems that the French translation is "pain de toilette", which as anyone could tell you, means "bread of toilet", or "toilet bread". Or even "bread toilet".

Monday, 11 February 2008

Sunday, 10 February 2008

Life gets in the way

...not of life, but of blogging.

I suppose there's a great deal of satisfaction to be taken from the fact that I'm too busy living my life, collecting rich experiences about which to blog, to actually record those experiences in the blog format.

But it's nice to have the reflective time, too, to half-remember my days through the editorial eye, and the filter of self-satisfaction that this format provides.

So here I am, catching up with my memories, updating all those drafts that I began oh-so-long ago, and trying to make them sound at least as funy as they seemed at the time.

Friday, 25 January 2008

Winter magic

It's a beautiful time of year.

Only yesterday, I left the office in sufficient time to see the sunset - or at least the last few golden rays still peeping over the horizon, meaning that I strolled to my car in the pale light, with a smile on m yface and a lift in my step.

This morning, I watched the sunrise in my rear-view, the just-past-full moon in front of me in mottled red-blue cloudy skies.

Winter certainly knows how to get it right.

Monday, 21 January 2008

Grapefruit Soap

There's something very disturbing about the smell of grapefruit soap.

Except for this one detail - and I realise that I do sound like a picky old bugger - the hotel I stayed at last night was pleasant enough, if a little soulless. It's quite new, you see, having opened last August, and whilst clean and well-decorated - in a very nice setting, to boot - it does lack a certain character.

But its target market is probably the conference crowd - it's the only hotel of that sort of size in the area - and it does fit that bill admirably well. And given that a conference of sorts is the chief reason I was there, and also given that I was not paying for my room, then I really am staring into the mouth of an equine present by making the comment above.

It did smell bloody strange, though.

Thursday, 17 January 2008

The Jaffle McSnaffle Leftover 10-Vegetable Soup

Not sure what to do with all those bits and pieces of vegetables left in the bottom of the fridge, or cooked leftovers from the previous night? Try this simple and delicious recipe.

Saute onions, garlic, leek and celery until briefly coloured. Add cubed carrot, butternut squash, celeriac, swede, potatoes, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts. Cook until tender in a mixture of vegetable and chicken stock.

Add cooked vegetables from the previous night (if desired).

Allow to cool and puree or blend until smooth.