Wednesday, December 27

Things I Have Learned This Christmas

The road to a peaceful Christmas does not involve going to Waitrose. It does involve going to Midnight Mass. And singing.

Picking up your turkey from the butcher on Christmas Eve saves a lot of hassle and a considerable amount of fridge room.

Having your veg delivered saves time and energy fighting over the last parsnip in the shop.

Sprouts are best cooked slightly under, chilled rapidly, then zapped in the microwave with a little stock or butter when needed.

Having double cream and decent chicken or turkey stock on hand makes so many dishes just a bit more special.

If you do it properly, a three-course Christmas dinner will mean you do not get hungry for at least twenty-four hours after. (Or was I a bit greedy?)

A juicer is for life, not just Christmas. (Though actually that was a birthday present, ten days before Christmas). A glass of freshly made carrot and pear juice with ginger on Boxing day sets you up for the second round of the festivities like nothing I know.

And something I already knew, but it bears repeating….

There Is No Such Thing As Too Many Cookbooks.

Sunday, December 24

Chim Chim Cheree

In the days of open fires it was considered lucky to have a chimney sweep attend your wedding. In these days of radiators, chimney sweeps are somewhat difficult to come by. The lady phantom and I went one better at our wedding – we had a road sweeper. He didn’t just attend the wedding, he performed the service!

A little background would help here. Imagine the early to mid ‘Eighties – Thatcher is getting into her swing, local authorities are reeling from competitive tendering and round after round of spending cuts are hitting home.

The Phantom is yet to don his cape and tights. He works as a Home Help, shopping and cleaning for mostly elderly clients. His fellow Home Helps are mostly women, all poorly paid. The Phantom decides to try and make things better, and becomes a Shop Steward in the National Union of Public Employees.

One day, over a long oak committee room table, he spies the woman who is to become his wife. She is a shop steward at a local swimming pool. After the meeting, on a bus home, he gives her his phone number. She rings, arranges a date, and the rest is our history.

One of our fellow activists was a road sweeper. But he had a big secret. He was also a worker priest. He was a good friend of ours, so when we decided to marry, he seemed to be the natural choice to perform the service. There were surprised looks upon the faces of some of the wedding guests when they saw their mate the sweep standing up on the altar in full priestly regalia. It gave the local paper an interesting story too…

We hadn’t seen him for a few years. Then, a couple of weeks ago, I was walking past a building society at lunchtime and almost bumped into him. As luck would have it he was only down for the day, but I got his new address, up in Tyneside, his native area. Our last few Christmas cards had never got to him. We posted one to his new address right away.

If you are reading this, John, we’ll be raising a glass to you on Christmas Day.

We would both like to wish all our friends a very happy Christmas. Once the madness has settled down I’m sure we’ll have some interesting leftover recipes to post!

Thursday, December 14

Food For Thought

I would like to point my reader to this extremely interesting …article on food politics in the current issue of The Economist. Forgiving myself the pun, there is a lot of food for thought contained in it.

I do have one objection though. The article quotes from a DEFRA report which says “It turns out to be better for the environment to truck in tomatoes from Spain during the winter, for example, than to grow them in heated greenhouses in Britain.” Surely this is approaching the argument from totally the wrong angle. It must be better for the environment to only grow tomatoes in season, in the summer. We don’t need to grow tomatoes in the winter. That’s what tins and jars are for, and they taste better in season too.

It is a very interesting article nevertheless. Do read it. I look forward to any comments.

Tuesday, December 12

Die, Lady, Die

An article in today’s Guardian
gives more information of Princes Harry and Wills’ plans for a tenth anniversary celebration commemoration of Lady Diana’s death next summer. Their will be a concert which will take place the day after a church service…

"We want [the anniversary commemoration] to represent exactly what our mother would have wanted; how she was and all that sort of thing," said William. "So therefore the church service alone isn't enough.”

…”how she was and all that sort of thing”… Like Diana, expect all the artistes to have to undergo virginity checks before performing… The stage will be set with a grand staircase which will allow star turns of the calibre of Elton John and Duran Duran to throw themselves down it in a bid to attract attention. Acts will then gorge on food, and vomit over the audience, grabbing the hands of land-mine victims suffering from AIDS and singing “We Are The World”. Oh, hang on, that last bit was Michael Jackson…

The concert is on 1st July 2007. (If Wembley Stadium is finished by then of course.) Tickets go on sale tomorrow at this website.

Wednesday, December 6

Chocolate Pecan Pie

As promised. The recipe seems a bit lengthy, but comes together pretty quickly. The result is definitely worth the effort. The recipe is from Anton Mosimann's "Naturally", (Ebury Press 1991.) Curiously both the Legal Eagle and the Phantom have the book in their collections.Serves 8

OVEN: Moderately hot, 200 C/ 400 F/ Gas 6, then moderate, 180 C/ 350 F/ Gas 4

1 quantity Sweet Pastry (see below)

Roll out the pastry, and use to line a 20cm (8in) tart tin. Line with foil, fill with baking beans, then bake blind in the preheated oven for 10 minutes. Remove the beans and foil and bake the flan case for another 6-7 minutes. Cool.

Reduce the temperature of the oven.

The Filling:

Melt together over a pan of hot water

120g (4 ½ oz) plain chocolate, chopped into small pieces

50g (2 oz) unsalted butter

Whisk together

4 eggs
230 ml (7 ½ fl oz) maple syrup
a few drops of vanilla essence

Then blend the melted chocolate into the egg and syrup mixture. Mix well.

Stir In

250g (9 oz) shelled pecan nuts

Stir in, then pour the mixture into the pastry case. Bake in the moderate oven for about 30 minutes until the tart has puffed slightly in the centre, and has just set.

Icing sugar
Whipped cream

Serve warm with a dusting of icing sugar and some whipped cream.

For The Sweet Pastry

150 g (5 oz) plain flour, sifted
100 g (4 oz) unsalted butter, cut into cubes,
30 g (1 ¼ oz) icing sugar, sifted
1 egg yolk
finely grated rind of ½ lemon

Place the flour in a mound on a clean work surface, and make a well in the centre.
Add the butter, sugar, egg yolk and rind, and work together with the fingertips, gradually incorporating the flour, to a smooth paste.

Roll into a ball and rest for at least 20 – 30 minutes in the refrigerator.

Roll out and use to line a greased 20 cm (8 in) tart tin. Leave in a cool place to rest for 30 minutes.

Culture Corner, or, On The Way Home From Work Tonight - a true poem

He got on my bus,
The Poet, John Hegley,
And sitting
Quite close
His hand brushed my legley.

Sunday, December 3

Old Friends

We had the Legal Eagle and her partner around for a meal last weekend. As usual too many months had passed since we last met, and we couldn’t remember the last time we had them round for dinner.

I did the main course, my feathered friend the dessert.
(The Eagle has always had cold hands, which may be a discomfort as the weather grows more wintry, but has decided advantages when it comes to making pastry).

Now, I wouldn’t say that the Eagle is always late. She was on time for our wedding (as a guest, that is!). But in the ensuing nineteen years shall we say she has been tardy more often than punctual. To the extent that I either cook something that can stand without spoiling, or something so quick I can put it on when she arrives! I guess having to be on time for court appearances during the week produces a reverse tendency at the weekend. This time was no exception. At the appointed hour the phone rang. The pudding had just gone into the oven. They would be over as soon as possible.

Ladies and Gentlemen, it was worth the wait. My aquiline dinner guest arrived within the hour, bearing a Chocolate Pecan Pie. The smell of butter and chocolate filled the room as soon as it was unveiled, born aloft on a wooden board, looking somehow mediaeval and rather grand. (the Pie, not the Guest).

We managed to get a photo before it was too late...

Unfortunately you can’t taste the lemony pastry or the rich eggy chocolate filling.

I will post the recipe soon.

Wednesday, November 22

Winter Draws On

According to figures in a recent Guardian article “Since January 2004, average household energy bills have risen by 69% or £407.” We all need to try and cut our energy consumption.

We recently had thermostatic valves put on to the individual radiators in our house. Prior to this we were controlling the heat by turning the main thermostat in the hall up or down as required.

Take a tip from us. If you get the chance, make sure you get the main thermostat sited in the living room, not in the hall. Nobody stays in the hall, you only ever pass through it. It is absolutely crazy allowing the ouput of your central heating system to be governed by the ambient temperature in a room that nobody ever uses. In our case the biggest rad in the house was bang opposite the thermostat. Net result being the thermostat got lovely and warm and switched the heating off. Downstairs on the hard concrete floor we were slowly freezing.

Thankfully we can now adjust the individual rads, and get the heat just right in each room. We have actually managed to turn the main thermostat down by six degrees and still feel warmer. Our bank balances should feel healthier too, especially as gas has gone up in price so many times recently.

We all need to make more efforts to save on energy consumption (and I don’t mean get up later). Just switching off unneeded electrical items will save a considerable amount. I was talking to the senior I.T. technician at my college this morning. His department have worked out that by just shutting down all the PCs in the college at night and at weekends they will make a saving of £15,000 a month on the energy bill.
That’s enough to buy an awful lot of books for the students.

Tuesday, November 21

Ferry Good News?

As someone who has suffered more than his share of rough channel crossings, the Guardian of Monday week had good news. A Dutch court case may mean that we can import goods from France over the internet without paying U.K. Duty. The days of the “Booze Cruise” may well be numbered.

We used to go over on coach trips to Calais organised by our union, the late and much lamented N.U.P.E. They would normally be about now, late November. Getting to Calais and back via coach and cross-channel ferry meant a start at about 6.00 am, getting home around seventeen hours later. (On one never-to-be-lived-down occasion the Phantom literally missed the boat, arriving home about three hours later than everyone else. In the Doghouse wasn’t in it. I was wishing I was allowed near the Doghouse).

Recently we haven’t bothered. The relaxation of the rules over personal consumption had lead to people going over with vans and the atmosphere on the ferries has become grim, professional and obnoxious. To be honest, we mostly went over for the food anyway – Boudins Blanc and Noir, Duck Confit, Lardon pork, and the cheeses. Camembert, Brie, Roquefort…. Not to mention jars and bottles of fish soup and rouille…. Lovely reminders of how good food should be.

Mind you, if we can end up buying bottles of Gewurtztraminer for £4.00 each, we’ll be on the internet ordering a couple of cases before you can say V.A.T.

Liver and Bacon

My good friend the Welsh Dog is on a diet. Not unusually he is practically unable to think about anything other than food. I do hope he will forgive me for posting the photo below. We both have a great love of "wet" food, - stews, soups and casseroles.

Liver and bacon casserole, with Kabocha squash mash and stir fried kale and mushrooms.

Hope the diet is going well Mate!

By the way, it tasted Lovely!

Wednesday, November 15

The Roast Beef of Old England

One of the joys of doing a roast at the weekend is having leftovers to play with later on in the week.

Cold roast pork we normally eat as it is. I think pork actually has a better flavour cold. Lamb is more tricky. The amount of fat, especially on a shoulder, indicates that it needs to be served hot. (Serving it cold means spending a considerable amount of time going over the meat removing the excess fat before it can be served).

With beef, however, we have the best of both worlds. Delicious hot and cold, even the fat is tasty. It also lends itself to one of the great leftover meals, cottage pie.

There is very little more comforting on a wet and dreary night than knowing that there is a cottage pie waiting to be popped in the oven, emerging golden brown and bubbling in just about the time it takes to drink a couple of glasses of wine and unwind a bit.

Cottage pie should be simple to make. Take cold leftover beef, mince finely, then add to fried onions, carrot and celery, fry briefly, then add stock, Worcestershire sauce, a small amount of tomato, and simmer till thickened and volcanically erupting. Top with mash, whack into oven and heat at gas 5 till bubbling. Finish off if necessary under the grill.

Hang on though – “mince finely”??

How many people actually have a mincer any more? In the kitchens of our parents and grandparents a mincer would have been a standard item of equipment. Now they are so unusual the spellchecker thinks the word should be “mince” or “miner”.

Not so long ago the name SPONG was proudly displayed in kitchens across the land! You can use a food processor to chop the leftover beef, but it can easily over work the meat. The beauty of the mincer is that it guarantees to break any meat fibres up into manageable pieces, especially if you run the meat through the mincer twice.

It’s not uncommon to find these lovely metal and wood mincers in second hand shops. If you do see one, give it a good home. I can assure you your cottage pies will taste all the better for it!

Sunday, November 12

Souperman Replies

My old friend Welsh Dog, now resident in Australia, posted this reply to my most recent post on his own blog. I felt I should reply in the same way. (Please forgive what may read like a mutual flattery sesssion. Normal cynicism will resume shortly).

Welsh Dog! Many thanks for your compliments. I am humbled. I always had great respect for your culinary talents. I remember thinking that I didn’t like parsnips until I tasted your roasted ones!

Mrs P. remembers your good lady saying she only ate for fuel many years ago. It must be soul destroying!

I have to say though that I only cook because I love to eat. If you are going to eat, you should eat as well as you can. And if you want to eat as well as you can, you need to cook.

I grew up eating simple food, simply cooked. My mother always says she wouldn’t let me anywhere near the kitchen when I was growing up. I certainly don’t remember ever being involved in cooking when I was at home.

Even when I moved in with a girlfriend it took a while to find where the kitchen was. I distinctly remember that one of our standard meals was frozen beefburgers served with boiled (frozen) diced peppers and dried noodles!

I wouldn’t worry about your youngsters and their food fussiness. Just serve them tasty food made with love. It might not happen ‘til they leave home for uni, but they will remember your cooking, remember how good it was, and start trying for themselves. If they are eating home made burgers, grilled or roast chicken and steaks you are doing fine. Sounds like good, tasty food.

Don't let the high carbohydrate diet get you down either. Any diet that encourages you to eat macaroni cheese can't be bad!

Friday, November 10


I felt terribly guilty at lunchtime. I was in the staffroom. As usual the discussion centred around the canteen food, and how awful it was. (I was tucking into a bowl of home-made soup).

“This soup is terribly salty” my colleague finally announced, looking at the Styrofoam cup half full of red glop that had cost him nearly two pounds.

“In fact all I can taste is salt.”

The consensus was that the soup had probably come out of a packet. In that case though, why was it so expensive?

The Phantom’s First Law of Catering was formulated at this point.

This states “You can have quick or you can have good.”

That packet soup had probably been made in about 30 minutes, assuming it wasn’t a cup-a-soup type instant job. The soup I was consuming had been considerably longer in the making.

I started off with a roast shoulder of British lamb on Sunday. On Monday evening I made stock by simmering the left over shoulder (still on the bone), with onions, leek, carrot and celery. I left this to cool overnight. The next day the fat had risen to the surface and solidified. This was taken off to leave a fat free stock. Next I took the remaining meat off the bone and put most of it aside. (Tigger, the Visiting Cat had the rest!)

Fresh organic leek, onion, carrot and potato were added to the stock and simmered until cooked. The meat was put back, and I thickened the soup with some pearl barley that I had cooked separately. (I often find barley catches and burns, so I don’t risk destroying a soup or stew by cooking the two together).

The lamb broth had been in the making for three days, had cost very little per portion, and it was delicious.

My colleague was not so happy.

His last words as he left the staffroom, hungry and feeling ripped-off?

“I can’t feel my mouth any more”!

Wednesday, November 8

Blog On Log On

Working in a modern college library means working with computers. Lots of them. And working with computers means passwords and log-ins. I thought today I would actually keep a running tally of how many times I had to enter a password or log in.

I was only doing 9-5, nothing unusual.

Half an hour after lunch and I was already up to 18 times.

By “close of play” I had typed my security details 34 times.

The sooner they introduce iris recognition software the better!

Sunday, November 5

No One Expects the Spanish Inquisition.

This blog normally and quite happily avoids comment on religious matters. However, as I have already referred to religious intolerance in Iraq, I couldn’t resist drawing your attention to an example closer to home. Please see this article in today’s Guardian which my wife spotted.

Note that the group in question was formed by a disgruntled catholic barrister. He must be one of the few catholic barristers who isn’t in the current Labour government. No wonder he is unhappy.

Then again, my maternal grandfather was a druid, so maybe I’m biased.

Saturday, November 4

Fear and Loathing in Iraq

News is filtering through that Iraq is being locked down in anticipation of a death sentence being passed upon Saddam Hussein, ex mad butcher of Persia.

According to the BBC "their are fears of outbreaks of violence..."

Ahem! Excuse me but hasn't there been nothing but death and destruction for the last couple of years?

The ridiculous internecine murdering between sunni and shia muslim factions has been going on since shortly after the death of Muhammed. It makes the divisions of Northern Ireland look like a minor family dispute.

The only peaceful future for Iraq is a secular one, and that isn't likely to happen any time soon.

Monday, October 30

A Stern Warning

One of the highlights of the few days off work I had last week was a walk with my other half over Hampstead Heath and through Kenwood.

One of the things that was most noticeable was the russet shades of the autumn leaves. There weren't any. Everything was still green.

The mild weather we have had recently had even fooled the spring crocuses into weak and leggy premature flowering.

Adding to the confusion, the female holly bushes on the fringes of Kenwood were heavy with berries. Very early, and, traditionally, a pre-cursor of a heavy winter to come.

The weather we are having at the moment is certainly eccentric. Can we afford to assume that it isn't global warming?

Saturday, October 28

Mightier Than The Sword

In the ‘seventies I used to wear a badge that said

“Well meaning Guardian readers against the bomb”.

(in fact I may still have it.)

Nowadays Guardian readers are more associated with knitting muesli and driving electric cars (thank you Mr Clarkson.)

The food writing in that esteemed organ has always been first class. (They have Hugh Fearlessly-Eatsitall as their Weekend food writer at the moment; in the past they have had Colin Spencer, Mathew Fort, and my personal favourite, Richard Ehrlich). One of their less well known writers is Dan Lepard.

In honour of the English apple season, I direct your attention to his apple cake recipe. It is simple to make, and a delight to eat.

Wednesday, October 25

Taking Stock

No, not a recipe this time…

It’s half term in the college library. Normally this would be when we would have a good tidy, do some book prep, and recharge our batteries.

Not this time. After the catalogue of IT disasters we are still behind. One of the summer jobs is the annual stocktake. This didn’t happen for various reasons.

First the hand-held scanners we had bought the year before were found to be dead as doornails. (The manufacturers gently pointed out that they had to be kept charged up between uses. Thanks for telling us AFTER they died).

Replacements were purchased, at further expense. Then the finest brains in our IT section couldn’t get the software and the hardware to communicate.

So, for the last two days we have been taking books off the shelves, scanning the barcodes, then putting them back. Yesterday I scanned the entire 500’s section in Dewey. Nearly 2000 books. I was practically seeing barcodes in my sleep last night

I have the rest of this week off. Well earned I say.

Mind you, the bookcase in our living room could do with a tidy….

Friday, October 20

Core Values

Around the country at the moment events are being held to celebrate the start of the English apple season. It is about time.

Apple growing in England is declining; orchards are being grubbed-up daily in favour of planting subsidised crops that benefit no-one except the farmers grabbing the subsidies. The government plans for the expansion of the area around the Eurotunnel at Ashford are hitting at the heart of the English apple growing area.

Worse than this, pressure (from the supermarket buyers) for uniformity of size and shape, and long shelf life, has led to a dramatic decrease in the number of varieties of apple grown in this country.

When I was at primary school I remember the local fruit and veg shop giving away promotional packs of playing cards. Each card had a picture of a different variety of apple on it. Fifty-two different varieties, plus the joker. Now the Greengrocers is a block of flats and you are lucky to find more than about six varieties on sale at your “local” supermarket. Most of what you can find will be from New Zealand or France, even in the middle of the English apple season.

So, if you feel like helping to support a part of a great English tradition, buy a few home-grown apples this weekend. From a greengrocer. If you can find one.

Saturday, October 14

Something Furry in the Veg Box

Just to give you an idea of the size of the box we get...

Mr T. is modelling the re-usable waxed cardboard Medium Veg Box...

Friday, October 13

Thinking Outside the (Veg) Box

There is already quite a community building up around the Riverford Veg Boxes. I recommend that interested readers drop in to Veg Box Diaries where Gastropunk and Maths Chick have ideas and inspiration for all matters vegetal.

Thursday, October 12

The Green Spiky Thing...

It was handsome. Architectural. Somehow it reminded me of Thailand, pagodas and temples. Fractal images growing on a screen saver. It was in last Friday's Veg box...

Ladeez and gennlmen, I give you the mighty, undefeated Romanesco!!!

Such a lovely looking vegetable, a variety of late summer cauliflower, deserved to be cooked whole. It was duly washed, trimmed and popped in a steamer for twenty-five minutes or so.

It became part of a veg box extravaganza, served with cooked red chard, roast potatoes and roasted red squash.

The grilled Gilt-head Bream only just made it onto the plate!

It was lovely, nuttier than a normal cauli, and less watery.

Tomorrow we get another box. Not knowing what you will get is half the fun!

Wednesday, October 11

It's Not Easy Being Green, But it Can Be.

For ages the Phantomette and I have been saying “we really ought to eat more vegetables”, looking at each other, and then going and opening a tin of beans. (Or Farrows Marrowfat Peas, one of my childhood comfort foods, green (too green) , plump and floury.)

Our vegetable consumption declined still further when our local greengrocer closed after a period of decline involving increasingly manky vegetables and decreasing customers.

A few months ago we decided that the best way of eating more vegetables was by having the veg delivered to us. We had seen Abel and Cole vans around our area quite frequently, butI didn’t fancy going with them. They looked quite pricy. Also I had heard that they air-freight quite a bit of foreign produce, and they also have a liking for plastic packaging.

Fate is a strange thing though. The good lady Phantom has a sister living down in Devon. When we were down there last we discovered an organic food shop attached to Riverford Farm, just down the road from where we were staying. A few months later we were checking them out on the web when we saw that the same family also ran a veg box delivery scheme.

At the time Riverford weren’t delivering in Sunny Islington. They did put us on a waiting list though. By September we got the good news that deliveries were starting in our area. We haven’t looked back!

There is a real sense of anticipation on Thursday night, wondering what new and interesting produce will be delivered the next day. I love discovering the different flavours and textures. The veg box also helps keep us in touch with the seasons, the golden sweetcorn of late summer giving way to the rich reds of the autumn squashes.

We are certainly eating more vegetables. Tomorrow I will tell of what Mrs P described as “A Green, Spiky Thing”. And no, it wasn’t a globe artichoke. Or even a kohl rabi!

Wednesday, October 4

Blooming Lovely!

Mrs Phantom works for the local Social Services Department. As I have mentioned before, the job is often thankless and unrewarding.

Sometimes though, a little "Thank You" comes along and makes it all worthwhile. A couple of days ago, (with a lot of help from her daughter), one of Mrs P.'s clients picked some rosebuds from her garden.

In the heat of our busy kitchen they have bloomed beautifully. They really are appreciated too.

Tuesday, October 3

Getting in a Bit of a Pickle

As the nights are drawing in fast I can’t help looking forward to Christmas. One of the joys of Autumn is gathering goodies to transform into edible presents. A trip to the local greengrocers last week yielded tiny silverskin onions. While they are divine just plainly pickled in cider vinegar and a few mustard seeds, they really come into their own as an ingredient in piccalilli.

The Ingredients Before...

This has got to be one of the great pickles, sweet, crunchy, mildly mustardy with just the right amount of moisture to set off a hunk of mature Cheddar and some homemade wholemeal bread, or slices of cold roast pork or chicken.

Unlike chutney, piccalilli is relatively quick to make. The ingredients are cheap at this time of year and the glow of the full jars almost lights up the larder. The most difficult bit is waiting three months for the pickle to mature.

...And After...

Actually, the most difficult bit is writing the labels for the jars. I never seem to spell piccalilli the same way twice!

I always follow Delia Smith’s old recipe, from her original Cookery Course book. You can find it here, (it’s the first one given). If you search Delia’s own website you will find a revised version which I haven’t made yet.

Pickle Now, Enjoy Later!!

Friday, September 29

Back To School (Part Two)

The pencils are now blunted, shirts smeared with Quink,
The staff in the Sixth Form near driven to drink,
What could go wrong has, I.T. in a mess,
No printing, no log-ons, and yet I confess,
Throughout all the chaos and tearing of hair

I quite enjoyed the chaos really. The last week has been mad at work. Computer Problems. Computer Booking System problems, Printing Problems, Student Log-in Problems… If I could play blues guitar I would be set up for life…

I think what I really like about my job is helping people, and when this many things go pear-shaped I get plenty of practice. Throw in a quick chest infection and some home pickling and you have my last 2 weeks in a nutshell. Or a pickle jar.

Of matters acetic, I will write more soon.

Monday, September 18


Or, of course, the torn-off fragment of an envelope printed with a John Bull printing kit could be a an MI5 plot to smear Islamic fanatics......

What's that Harry?....


Saturday, September 16

John Bull Returns

The item below was found this afternoon attached to a bus stop in Rock Street, Finsbury Park. About 100 metres from the mosque at which Abu Hamza used to "preach".

A great contribution to religeous tolerance methinks...

Wednesday, September 13

Another Opening, Another Show…

Traffic is getting heavier in the mornings. WH Smith has bogoffs on cartridge pen refills. Young parents curse as the needle stabs them for the third time, blood shedding on the Cash’s Name Tape.

It is “Back to School” time, with or without exclamation marks.

In my Sixth Form College the quiet rhythmn of the summer months has slowly speeded up. Course guidance, followed by enrolements. More enrolements, Emergency frantic Late Enrolements. Finally, today, Timetable De-clashing.

This is, at its simplest, twenty tutors locked in a room with 200 students until someone gives in and solves the problem of needing to be in two different places at the same time for different courses. Unlike an infinite number of monkeys, the tutors have never reproduced the works of Shakespeare, but they always get the timetable sorted out in the end.

In the library we have been quietly moving, sorting, polishing and laminating. Lots of laminating. (Though not quite as much as the Great Laminating Fever of A Few Years Ago. This epidemic of en-plasticisation was brought on by an imminent OFSTED Inspection. In an effort to impress, any piece of paper larger than bog roll was laminated. When the sun shone whole corridors glinted. Eskimo glare shields were hastily improvised. Those of us in charge of Stationery started dealing in Laminate Futures. It is believed one of the older members of staff was laminated where they stood…)

We are ready for tomorrow, when our new students arrive. This year’s cycle is about to begin again.

Stay tuned for more on this channel…

Sunday, September 10

Hunting Up-date 2

I suppose this could be termed "Nature red in tooth and paw". Shortly after Mr T. bagged the pigeon yesterday he turned up on our patio with pink on his paws and a distinct smear of blood on his innocent little face.

"Pigeon? What Pigeon??"

If You Go Down to the Woods Today...

We are currently slap bang in the middle of Organic Food Fortnight. As part of the celebration Gillespie Park Nature Reserve played host to a Green Festival. Like at many of these events the majority of the people at the festival appeared to be white, middle-class, muesli-knitting cyclists of the vegetarian persuasion.

There was much Tofu to be had, and most of the sausages on sale were "sausages", the quotation marks holding together a paste of lentils and chickpeas.

My wife and I were prepared for this.

But Not THIS...

Yes. Morris Men. Alive and Whacking Their Sticks Together!

Surely the future of Organic Food in England is Safe in Their Hands...

Saturday, September 9

Hunting up-date

A kerfuffle of magpies and crows in the garden let us know that Tigger was indeed on the hunt.

A squeal of "UUUR, he's got a bird!!!"

from our next door neighbour's daughter confirmed that Mr T. had struck again.

A squab pigeon had obviously ventured too far from home. We are hoping Mr T. finishes it off fairly soon, before the little girl next door revises her opinion about how cute cats are.

Jam Today!

The "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness" is almost upon us. The leaves on our overshadowing lime trees are rustling audibly, making us think it is raining when there is just a gentle breeze.

"Fruitfulness" today is provided by three carrier bags full of Damsons, freshly picked by The Phantom's Phantom-Sister-In-Law from darkest Stoke Newington. Added to the apples plucked from the tree overhanging my mum's garden (Tufnell Park), and we have an afternoon of jam making to enjoy.

The sun is shining, our Communal Cat is hunting in the undergrowth. Time to start preserving for the short days and long nights to come...

Thursday, August 31

Dining on Ithaca

True colours will out, and this blog is slowly veering towards the foodie side of life. I have already written about the restaurant Ta Kalamia. But of all the meals we had in Greece, for me the one that sticks out was the lunch we had on the island of Ithaca.

It wasn’t just the food, which was fine, but the associations, and a pleasant sense of a circle being completed.

Ithaca is the home of Odysseus in Homer’s tale The Odyssey. In fact the whole story is Odysseus’s attempt to get back home to Ithaca, and the problems that present themselves on his journey. It is a theme that has been repeated from Lord of the Rings to Die Hard, via Blade Runner and the Wizard of Oz.

For me, too, dining on Ithaca was completing a circle.

I had an unorthodox education, leaving my rather posh grammar school at the age of thirteen. Although I grew up in the inner city, my first school was almost like a village primary. All the children were local, we all knew each other and lived the same sort of lives. My grammar school was something else. We were the cream. In my primary school year of thirty-five children, only two were selected to go there. (We still had the “Eleven Plus”, an exam we all had to take which determined who would be “academic” and who would sweep the streets). The grammar school was all mortar boards, gowns and House Songs.

“Elysians, Elysians, Elysians are We,

The Red, The Green, The Buff, The Blue,

Sons of the Old Oak Tree”…

They played Cricket and Rugger. They wore blazers and ties that would guarantee victimisation by Comprehensive School children. They could just have printed targets on the back….

Not for me.I started missing lessons. I used the excuse of getting lost on the adjoining Hampstead Heath. After a while I just didn’t go back at all…

Eventually the Education Authority realised I was slipping through the net. I spent a couple of years going to a private tutor. She was a pleasantly eccentric Scotswoman with a cut glass English accent who lived in a genuine cottage in Hampstead Garden Suburb. We got on well. She provoked me. I provoked her. Out of contrariness I became the youngest person to pass English “O Level” in London that year, just to show my old school I could.

At fifteen She suggested I might prefer the atmosphere at Kingsway College. This was a Further Education College in Kings Cross. Leafy Hampstead it wasn’t.

It suited me down to the ground. The whole place was full of misfits. John Lydon (“Johnny Rotten”) and Poly Styrene, both leading punk rockers, pierced their first curled lips at the college.

The place seemed to specialise in the slightly rebellious offspring of famous (and rebellious) writers. I was friendly with the children of Arnold Wesker, Fay Wheldon and Alan Sillitoe.

And this makes the circle. The first class I ever took where I felt alive, treated as an individual, and respected, was at Kingsway. “Greek Myths and Legends”. It was an “Extension” course. In other words it was taught to round-out the student. No exams, no hassle. Each week I would turn up and hear Steve Haskell, the tutor, telling stories. Old stories. For the love of words and language. Steve started with The Odyssey. I was gripped….

Thirty years on. I am working at a Further Education college myself. Some of the students can be a bit difficult, but then I remember what I was like at that age.

And just a few weeks ago, on Odysseus’ Island, I felt I had come home. The circle was complete.

Dining on Ithaca.

Sunday, August 27

Ta Kalamia, Nidri, Lefkas.

We found the restaurant on our first afternoon in Nidri. We noticed a few clues from the outside. This was one of the few restaurants on the main road that had turned its back on the traffic – there were a couple of small tables for watching the world go by but most of the tables were inside. The waiter was wearing a long black apron down to his shoes, reminiscent of a Greek priest’s robes. The specials board was the clincher, fresh fish, prawns with basil, and squid stuffed with herbs and cheese. Real cooking. We decided then and there that we would come back that night.

We were not disappointed. The waiter we had seen earlier welcomed us in. The kitchen was semi-open, and led out into a charming and slightly eccentrically decorated garden area where the tables were. At the far end a wooden building glowed with candles and oil lamps. Bottles of oil, preserved fruits and bunches of herbs were visible inside.

The tables, of varied size and design, were covered with paper. Not the standard plastic-backed thin white stuff, but heavy cartridge paper, stiff like damask, grey, with the restaurant name printed through the middle.

At the end, two chairs like thrones dared you to sit at them.

The waiter, who we came to know as Anders, took our drinks order.

“The Chef will be along to take your food order…”

Alarm bells started to ring. Would we be forgotten? Would our order fall between two stools?

We worried needlessly. Along came the chef, also enrobed. We ordered.

“The squid will take twenty minutes, we make it fresh, then cook on the grill…”

Music to a foodie’s ears.

We made our acquaintance with the local wine, nibbling on bread anointed with a fresh cheese paste.

The squid arrived, side fins gently singed and crunchy, milky soft flesh holding a stuffing of peppers, feta cheese and fresh herbs. They were devine.

Over the next few days we returned frequently. The chef was cooking with a whole range of fresh herbs - basil, dill, mint, and rosemary all featured, all used judiciously but with great effect. One evening we saw an Italian almost cry with joy when he sampled the marinated anchovies, bathed in olive oil with just enough garlic and lemon to raise them to a sublime level.

If you ever find yourself in Nidri, don’t fail to eat at Ta Kalamia. The atmosphere and the food are both a cut above anything else in the resort.

By the way, that shed I mentioned sells the oils and herbs, plus a range of jewelry hand-made by the dusky French lady who helps serve when they are busy. You can shop for souvenirs after you’ve eaten. There’s an indefinable sixties vibe to the place, even down to bean bags by the bar for relaxing in after dinner.

Do stop and sign the visitors book too, good cooking like this needs all the encouragement we can give it….

Greek cuisine – Finding it’s feet at last?

Anyone who has holidayed in Greece over the last decades will be familiar with the sinking feeling that the evening brings. You have showered (solar hot water system permitting), survived walking across tiled floors that are so slippy Torville and Dean would have problems, and have managed to dry your not inconsiderable bulk on a towel the size of a postage stamp.

Changed, and Mozzie-proofed, hopefully sitting on your balcony with a chilled glass of something, you contemplate your evening meal.

Twenty years ago even getting an evening meal often proved problematic; waiters with poor English made every order a challenge, and the concept of starter followed by main course hadn’t quite permeated the eating-out culture. Nowadays we find practically everyone speaks the language, and we have picked up some Greek.

The sinking feeling normally comes when you try and decide where you are going to eat. Try as they might, most Greek restaurants and tavernas in holiday resorts seem to find it difficult to raise themselves out of the mediocre standards of souvlaki (shish kebab) and moussaka, both accompanied by “French” fries or easy-cook rice. Non-Greek alternatives that have caught on are pizzas and pasta. When you are on holiday for 14 nights it does not take long to exhaust this basic repertoire. At this point dining out becomes a chore, rather than a pleasure.

Well, I am pleased to say that we have found a resort, Nidri, on the island of Lefkas, where cooking seems to be improving. Nidri, part of the Ionian group, is a fairly large resort which has still clung on to its soul. It was notable how many Greeks ate out in the restaurants. This probably had the effect of keeping standards higher than they otherwise would be in a tourist resort.

We didn’t have a really bad meal anywhere, and we had some really good ones. One of the joys of being on the Greek islands is eating fresh fish. Unfortunately overfishing has normally meant that fish is an expensive dish. Lefkas has worked around this by the simple expedient of fish-farming. The net result (pardon the pun) is that fresh Grey Mullet and Sea Bream are available widely and very reasonably priced. I see from my food log that I had fish for dinner six times in two weeks. (Yes, I know, a food log is a bit sad, but I was keeping one years before Nigel Slater!).

There was one simply outstanding place to eat in Nidri. Tomorrow I will tell you all about Ta Kalamia.

Tuesday, August 22

To tell or not to tell, that is the question…

(Apologies to W.S.)

Well Reader, I married her many years ago, but I don’t recall if I promised to Always Tell Her Everything. I kept quiet.

My decision was based on the following reasoning:

1. The reviews I read may have been biased.

2. If I told my wife SHE would have been biased and viewed the place in a negative manner regardless.

3. We were already booked into the accommodation anyway. At least we were prepared (or I was), and we wouldn’t be able to actually do anything until we got there.

As it turned out, the place wasn’t too bad. It certainly wasn’t as bad as the reviews, but they obviously had some foundation in reality.

I guess there are two morals.

First, prepare for the worst, but hope for the best.

Second, remember that very few people will tell you about a fantastic place to stay, but everyone will tell you what a lousy time they may have had.

We had a brilliant time, and tomorrow I will describe the culinary delights. We have been travelling to Greece for twenty-odd years and we had the best food ever.

Monday, August 21

A little knowledge...

... Is certainly a worrying thing.

About three days before flying to Greece for our recent holiday I was surfing the net.

I typed in the name of the resort and the apartments we were booked to stay at. I didn't really expect to get any hits at all. I certainly didn't expect to find four. The hits were all reviews from previous "guests" of our apartments. The first one I read was equivocal, the rooms were a "good base" if you spent most of your time on the beach. The rest of the reviews got steadily worse. The words "filthy", "squalid" and "insect-ridden" leapt out. The worst review finished along the lines of "Never,ever,ever stay at the ****** studios."

You can image that my gently growing feeling of anticipation for our departure took a severe knock at this point.

Of course, the worst thing was that only I knew. My wife didn't have a clue...

In case you ever find yourselves in the same position in the future, I will tell you what I did tomorrow.

Would you tell your other half what you read, or would you keep quiet and see what it was like in real life?

Thursday, August 17

Hello, Hello, It's good to be back...

Blimey its cold too. My wife and I have just got back from a fortnight on the green and lovely Greek island of Lefkas.

Of course the current "security" alert had an impact. We were sitting in a taverna when a tourist on the adjacent table read out from a text he had just received;

"23 arrested, blow up planes... nothing in or out of London..."

Knowing we had to fly back to England three days later certainly got us thinking...

We flew into Gatwick on Sunday and the airport was already littered with piles of suitcases. It was quite clear that BAA were losing control of the situation. Anyone could have grabbed any suitcase or pack they fancied. We have only ever packed low-value items in our luggage - in future we will be treating our hold luggage as disposable and packing accordingly!

Thursday, July 20

Computer Aid

Can you remember your first computer? The first one I ever owned was a green screen Amstrad PCW8256. It had two floppy disc drives and a bundled dot-matrix printer that made more noise than a version of The St. Valentine's Day Massacre directed by Quentin Tarantino.
I am now on my third computer(or fourth if you include the laptop). I have been using the things for twenty-one years now. It's difficult to remember how big and primitive the early (mainframe, not p.c.) models were. Now I am writing this sitting in a park during my lunch hour on a Palm pda the size of a packet of fags.
(remember cigarettes?)
I already take the technology for granted. My students don't know of anything else. For them it's mp3s (I remember playing 78s). They have digital video (anyone remember laser disc players and coffee-table sized Betamax video tape recorders?).
In my lifetime technological change has been considerable, but incremental. Babbage designed a workable computer in the century before last. During the last century computers got smaller and faster, but essentially worked in the same way, just better, smaller and quicker.
I really think that things are changing significantly now.Technological change is happening so fast, the technology of twenty one years from now is almost impossible to imagine.
One thing is certain though. The computers we are using now are already out of date, and we will find ourselves pushed into upgrading them sooner rather than later.
If anyone reading this has an old PC they no longer need please don't just dump it or take it to a charity shop. Instead, try contacting Computeraid. Based just up the road from me in the Nag's Head, they are a truly international charity. They specialize in supplying refurbished computers to educational and charitable groups in the less developed world. If you work for an organisation that is changing a number of PCs they can probably arrange to collect them from you. No need to worry about confidentiality or data protection either - they guarantee to wipe the hard drives to military secrecy standards.
Computeraid are an almost ideal solution to feeling guilty about getting rid of a computer that works perfectly but is out of date. It's a solution that is both green and truly global.
I gave them our old PC. Its a really good feeling knowing that it is still in use and helping people on the other side of the world.

Tuesday, July 18

I Have a Bream

Since Midsummer Day the only resolution I have kept faithfully has been the one about visiting an independent fishmonger once a week.

Over the last fortnight I have tried various types of bream, a fish new to me. Black headed bream was good, meaty and easy to eat with no nasty fine bones.

Next came Gilt head bream, known in the south of France as daurade. The gilt head was another class up, creamy, beautifully flavoured and obligingly easy to fillet.
Both types of fish are good value, wth an excellent meat-to-bone ratio.

I have an affection for the bream family. They are one of the fish that appear frequently in Psarotavernas (fish restaurants) in Greece. I understand that they are having some success in farming bream there. If the supply increases this can only be a good thing.

We had them plainly grilled. Try slashing the flesh around the thickest part of the sides and marinading for an hour or so in a little olive oil and the juice of a lemon or two.

They would be wonderful barbecued.

Monday, July 10

Pondering, and a Vegetable Voyeur...

Last week we went to our second RHS Flower Show of the summer. After scorching hot weather all week Wednesday was overcast. The Met. Office were promising (threatening?) torrential rain and thunderstorms. Luckily all we had was a couple of heavy showers.

The Hampton Court show is literally a breath of fresh air in comparison to Chelsea. The show takes place on a huge site next to the Thames, and the extra space means that the entire experience is more enjoyable. You can enter a lot of the show gardens, whilst at Chelsea you are always on the outside looking in.

One of the other bonuses of the larger site is that H.C. can include water gardens. We spent a good while investigating what was on offer, and checking out planting possibilities for our pond-to-be. There was plenty of inspiration…

Try getting that into Chelsea Flower Show!

Another plus point for Hampton Court is that a lot of exhibitors bring along plants to sell there and then. (Chelsea only ever sells ex-display plants, and then only on the last day). My good lady Phantomette and I returned with a scented rose, a second, rambling, one, an orchid for our bedroom and a young Acer, a slow-growing Japanese tree.

I managed to resist buying any more seeds. I never got round to planting the last lot I bought, and I have some Acer seeds from 2003 which I really must pop into some soil. There were some chillies that caught my eye, but I will save my pennies for now. As usual, Medwyn's, the Welsh show vegetable display, was enough to make your average allotment holder weep at the sight....

I like a leek as much as anyone, but even I draw the line at videoing vegetables…

Monday, July 3

Sunday, July 2

An interesting fish recipe

Can be found on the appropriately named Adhesive Fish blog. If there is something the Phantom likes more than fish, it is something fishy and soupy.

Support your Local Fishmonger: Week Two

Yesterday’s trip to Steve Hatt’s shop made up for the slight extravagance of last week.

I returned with a mackerel and a trout, both bright in the eyes and firm of flesh. (With mackerel in particular a really fresh specimen is practically rigid. You can hold it by the tip of the tail and it will barely bend at all).

The fish came to just over a fiver. The trout was farmed, the mackerel wild and line-caught. It was interesting to compare the tail fins of both fish. The trout’s fins were rounded and frayed from rubbing against the cage or net that contained them. The tail fins of the mackerel were sharp and angular, a sure sign it was sea-caught.

In this heat you don’t want to spend long in the kitchen. I used my trusty pressure cooker to cook some new potatoes, steamed some fresh spinach, and microwaved some left-over (homemade) chickpea curry. Grilling the fish, we had a meal on the table in less than fifteen minutes.

Wednesday, June 28

Testing Times

A Level exams end tomorrow. In a few weeks time the newspapers and phone-ins will resume the annual debate over whether the exams have got easier over the years.

Working in a sixth form college I think I can identify a few points which may explain some of the rise in good results.

1. A Level exams are now divided into separate AS and A2 exams. Students who do not do well in the initial AS stage may then be “weeded out” and not entered for the more advanced A2 exams, keeping the overall grades higher.

2. Teaching materials are far more exam-focussed. As well as the standard textbooks, most subjects have revision guides specifically aimed at telling the students what the examiners will be looking for.

3. Marking schemes for examiners have become incredibly detailed, laying out where points can be assigned to candidates. In many cases a student can get a question wrong, but still get points for layout, use of examples or mentioning relevant theories. There is an emphasis on the process used in the argument, not just a mark for the conclusion. This means that less able candidates will still score points.

4. As a result of all the above, students seem to be less stressed. I remember waiting to go into an exam, silent, nervous and convinced I was about to demonstrate my total ignorance of the subject. Our students are relaxed, chatty, and generally confident. They have been well prepared and they know what is expected of them.

Good Luck to them all.

Tuesday, June 27

Sole Music

A lunch-time trip to fishmonger Steve Hatt in Essex Road is always worthwhile. Steve has a network of suppliers across the world who will go to extremes to send him the best of the best.

The man himself is a bit of a superstar in the British foodie world. Enter his shop and you stand a good chance of bumping into Nigel Slater or Rick Stein.

But it is the quality of his seafood that stands out. It will always be freshly caught and the prices will be high but fair. As ever when buying fish, never go to Steve's shop with a fixed idea of what fish you want. Go with open eyes and an open mind. Seasonality is all, and prices vary as the market responds to changes in availability. Find a fish that there is a glut of and you will find a bargain.

I started my plan of buying from a fishmonger at least once a week. I visited Steve’s on Thursday. Had I been watching the pennies I would have bought some of the mackerel, irridescent and rigid with freshness. Instead I went for a fine pair of lemon sole. They weren’t cheap as the pair weighed over a kilo, but they were worth every penny.

I had the ever-willing staff gut the flat fish and skin just the dark side. Cooking them couldn’t have been simpler. I just painted the skinned side with melted butter, added pepper, and put the fish on a greased baking sheet under the grill for about ten minutes. There is no need to turn the fish as the heat of the baking sheet helps cook the underside. Served with some Jersey new potatoes and some oven-roasted tomatoes and courgettes it was a simple feast. A great way to start off my summer resolutions.

Wednesday, June 21

Summer Solstice Part Two

Anyone wishing to spread the summer cheer can find a nice E-Card on the Beeb.

Summer Solstice

Today is the longest day of the year. As usual, someone in the office pointed out that the nights would be getting longer from tomorrow and winter was coming. Humbug! Summer starts today.

So. Three summer resolutions:

1. We go on holiday at the end of July. This gives me five weeks or so to lose a stone in weight. Normal weight loss programmes advise 2lb a week, but I find I lose the pounds much more quickly when I start to eat properly and take some exercise.

2. We have been talking about building a pond in our garden for ages. Now is the time to actually start, that way we will have everything in place for next spring. After all, we have a couple of frogs resident in our garden with no pond at all. Think how many we would have with access to permanent water. And they would all eat our slugs.

3. I love eating fish. I work about ten minutes walk from one of the best fishmongers in London. There are two fishmongers at the Nags Head. Yet most of the time I end up buying my fish from Waitrose. Now, excellent as the fish is, (I don’t want Kevin the fishmonger after me!), it is still very limited in the range available. Trout, Cod, Salmon, Tuna and the smoked mackerel and herring are pretty much the entire range. Lovely, but limited. So, my third resolution is to buy seafood once a week from an independent fishmonger. I should count myself lucky to have three to choose from.

Stay tuned to find out if the road to Hell really is paved with good intentions.

Saturday, June 17

My new friends in India

Some things get better as they get bigger. Salaries, for instance. Other things worsen. Companies rarely improve as they grow, and by the time they get to be multi-nationals you can pretty much rely on customer service being a high priority in the advertising and abysmal in real life.

About ten days ago I received a letter from Tiscali, my internet supplier, saying that they and British Telecom would be upgrading our network last Wednesday and that we "might" lose our internet connection for a couple of hours on that day.

Being off work that day I powered up the PC at around eleven a.m. No Connection. I checked the phone. Dead as a dodo. It still wasn't working by five in the afternoon.

I rang BT. Dialling their local rate number I was finally connected to a call centre in India. They tested the line and said it was working perfectly. I am not sure what strange sense of the word "working" they were using. I then rang Tiscali.

Tiscali also had their call centre in India. It may even have been the same one.

"You will have to get B.T. to test the line"

I told him they had, and nothing was wrong apart from the fact that it wasn't working.

"We will ask B.T. to check the line again. Wait until tomorrow and if it isn't working, ring us then".

Tommorrow found us still cut off from from the phone and the interweb.

Ticali "We have checked and there is a fault. We will have start a new broadband connection for you. This will take up to five working days."

I pointed out that there wasn't a fault until they caused it. I asked about a refund of my line connection fee for the time I was cut off.

"You will need to contact our billing department for that"

I did not dare ask which continent the billing department was on. It may even be manned by extra-terrestrials.

On the evening of the second day (oops, a bit biblical there) I checked the phone again. Still dead. I got my mobile and phoned myself. (I should point out that this is something which I do not usually do. Though I have been known to send myself emails as reminders.)

I phoned myself. And somebody answered. Considering that they had been getting all of our calls for the last day and a half they were very friendly. Mind you, they had plenty of time to answer because nobody who rang them on their number was able to get through.

They seem to have had quite a good time talking to total strangers. A strange sort of blitz spirit thing. My Mum spent quite a while talking to them.

It turns out they too were both BT and Tiscali customers.

I rang BT again.

"You will need to test your equipment. If we send an engineer round and the fault is with your equipment you will have to pay £65.00"

I got him to try and ring our number rather than test it. I dare say he had a lovely time talking to our patient and understanding fellow customers. He rang back afterwards and apologised.

We finally got everything working at lunchtime today.

Goodness knows if either company will give us a refund on the rental.

At least now I know what "a two hour break in service" really means.

And I did get to speak to some very nice people.

Sunday, June 11

Looks like summer has arrived.

Our visiting cat is basking in the sun, resting from his exertions chasing bees, flies, moths, squirrels and frogs in our garden. A few weeks ago I wrote about our worries that he might be a stray. I am glad to say that after a few discrete enquiries we have established that he does indeed have a home, only five houses further along from us.

We have named him Tigger, but our informant tells us his original given name is in fact Humphrey! What’s more, Humphrey has a brother, named Bernard! (His owner is obviously a fan of the eighties T.V. comedy “Yes Minister”.)

They now both come round regularly, with Humphrey the more regular visitor. They share many of the same looks and behaviours, though Bernard is heavier looking and slightly more pushy.

Bernard not being Pushy.

Apparently both of them are absolute floozies, charming their way into most of the houses between their home and ours. (Humphrey is called “Tom” by our next door neighbours. He must have more identities than an M.I. 5 agent.)

They do appreciate comfort, as you can see below.

TiggerTomHumphrey is pussy non grata with our next door neighbours at the moment. This may have something to do with the three dead birds he has deposited outside their window as a seasonal gift. The young girl of the house naturally found this most distressing, and has insisted on the corpses being buried at the end of the garden, with “appropriate words” being said and twigs pushed into the ground as markers.

They are both consummate hunters. There will be more twigs in the ground before this summer is over.

Monday, June 5

Another Week Older and Deeper in Debt

I will start off by apologising once again to my loyal readership – (you have to believe that someone out there occasionally finds your messages washed up on the shore along with the other thousand million bottles.)

Excuses for not posting? To be honest I just haven’t made the time. Life has done its usual routine of creeping up quietly and then hitting me on the back of the head.
We were hoping to go away for the latter part of last week, a little city break. Barcelona maybe. Then everything started to slide.

First our washing machine broke down. A minor problem, but annoying for my wife and I and absolutely devastating for my mother-in-law. She lives with us, but really she Lives To Launder. She will seek out stuff to wash. She is an addict. We actually let the washing machine detergent run out every so often just to see her twitch when the withdrawal symptoms start. We ordered a new machine as the other one had been run into the ground. That was going to take a week to arrive.

Then Transco stepped onto the scene, in the form of a gas engineer sent to replace our venerable gas meter. Friday afternoon he turns up, changes the meter, tests it, and condemns our entire gas installation as Immediately Dangerous. Switches the gas off at the meter and runs for his van before we get a chance to say “Wha…?”

So we now have no washing machine, no hot water, no central heating, and only an electric oven and a microwave to cook on. And the weather was unseasonably cold.

Then over the weekend my Mother (over eighty, like my mother-in-law) announces that her only companion, her dog, is on its last legs. Cue instant guilt feelings from her only borne child.

By last Monday it became obvious that Barcelona was going to have to wait.

The majority of last week was spent tidying up and sorting things in the attic ready for the gas fitters to come in. This is a process akin to playing Tetris, the game where you have to move small blocks so that you can make room to put others in their place. The local charity shops received an unexpected windfall, and I suspect the Bin Men will be muttering about us for weeks to come.

This afternoon the fitter finished. All we need do now is put back everything that we moved out of his way. We’ll have a heck of a job with the widescreen T.V.

Oh, that reminds me. The Video broke down last week too…..

Tuesday, May 23

Tiptoe Through The Tulips.

The weather over the last few days has been awful in London. Cold, high winds, dark and either drizzly or torrential rain. It tends to be like this each May, the second or third week. The reason? I suspect it is because of Chelsea Flower Show.

The show, which opens today to R.H.S. members, is almost always cursed by inclement weather. I remember last year the folk selling Pimms looked downhearted most of the day and the Ice Cream sellers looked positively suicidal. The only people doing a good trade were the girls handing out rain capes sponsored by an insurance company.

We will be going tomorrow, with sandwiches and flasks of tea to be consumed perched on a folding chair near the bandstand. We will probably play our usual game of celebrity spotting. Last year we got all the usual suspects, Dairmuid Gavin, Monty Don, Carole Klein, Alan Titchmarsh and Linda Barker.

Watch this space for news and photos…

Ooops. Where did that week go?

Ouch! All of a sudden a blog-free week has shot past.
My apologies. The weekends have just shot past without stopping to say “hello”, and the weeknights just don’t seem to be long enough.
My good lady wife is working late three nights a week at the moment. By the time I have got home from work its time to get dinner ready. Then bedtime arrives! It’s been busy at work too, so no chance there to pre-write a blog for posting later.

I thought I was going to have time to write last night, then foolishly thought I would start by upgrading the anti-virus software on our laptop. Silly me. After I downloaded and installed the software (and Paid for it too I may add), I started getting a persistent error message I had never had before. Up it popped every time I clicked on anything. Download six emails, up it popped, six times. Thank you Norton Antivirus! I ended up having to uninstall the programme, locate and rename a hidden file, then install the antivirus all over again. All in all I must have restarted the laptop about eight times and spent about three hours working on it. The Norton help files were useless. It was good luck that I found a fix by Googling the error message, even better luck that the first fix I found worked first time.

That’s computers all over, higher maintenance than a fashion model and just as unpredictable.

Monday, May 15

Another one bites the dust...

And no, I’m not talking about a Spurs fan’s hopes..

Only a few short weeks after I blogged about the rich diversity of shops in the Nags Head and our oldest Greengrocer, Gibber of Holloway has closed down for good.

This end of the Seven Sisters road isn’t exactly short of fruit and veg emporia. But at its best, Gibbers was something else. It had real personality.

John, the shop manager, was a real character. He worked the shop like a Maitre’D in a restaurant, welcoming people, keeping two conversations going at once. He would ask you about the cricket and sell you six boxes of jam strawberries at the same time. If anything on the show looked a little less than perfect you just had to ask John and you would be escorted to one of the massive coldrooms at the back and invited to pick your choice from the freshest of the fresh.

I even remember one year, around Christmas time, when he gave my wife and I a bottle of wine! I think the majority of their business came from supplying the restaurant trade, including some rather posh West End kitchens. This meant that anything could be found for you, you just had to ask. And as always, there is nothing a food seller likes better than an enthusiastic customer.

Sadly, years of hefting heavy sacks around took their toll on John.(I remember swapping hernia stories with him) and a crushed wrist bone caused him problems for quite a while. Finally his wife became seriously ill, and John retired to look after her. Thing started to go downhill for Gibbers at that point.

You know when standards start to slip in a greengrocers. The quality of the veg goes down. Beetroots and Swedes sit in corners going soft and wrinkled like an old boxer down on his luck. I went in their a few weeks back and they had a whole box of broccoli on the show that was practically yellow with age, blousy and loose instead of vibrant and green. The old Greek ladies in their widow’s black started going elsewhere, and I must confess I followed them. I popped in now and then, half out of loyalty, half hoping things would get better. They never did. On a Saturday in the past Gibbers would have two or three extra staff serving and shifting. Recently they have only had one girl on the till, and she wasn’t busy.

This stretch of Seven Sisters Road now has two prime double shop sites empty and practically next door to each other. (The other is one of the two decent butchers in the area which shut just before Christmas). We can only hope that the planners don’t let the sites get turned into yet another kebab shop or general “grocers” selling exactly the same as all the others.

This area is fast turning into a shopping wasteland. I feel a letter to my Councillors coming on. Feel free to join me.

Sunday, May 14

Only In Islington.... Part Two of an occasional series...

I won’t go on about the term “old folks”; irritating as it is. It is a newspaper placard, space is important. “older persons” is clumsy, and longer.

No. What gets me is the “pub sing songs” bit.

It automatically conjures up images of good ‘ole cockney types in caps and mufflers, drawing deeply on Capstan Full Strength as they quaff ale and sing Roll Out The Barrel and Knees Up Mother Brown.

“Never mind the bombs falling Duck, get another drink in and we’ll sing Roll Me Over In The Clover”

But hang on a minute. Let us define “Old Folks” as those of 75 years of age. That means they were born in 1931. Now, say for the purpose of argument that one’s musical tastes are formed by the music you grow up with, what were the contemporary hits of 1953, when these wrinklies were 22 years of age?

Guy Mitchell “She wears red feathers.” (13 March 1953)

Lita Roza “How much is that doggie in the window?” (17 April 1953)

Frankie Laine “I Believe” (Various times for something like 18 weeks in total).

Now pardon me, but I have never heard a pub full of old timers belting out “How much is that doggie” before trashing the place and steaming down Upper Street in their mobility carts.

And as for “I Believe”, well anyone who can sing

“I believe for every drop of rain that falls, a flower grows”

In these drought-ridden times deserves to be bought a drink, not banned from the pub.

Monday, May 8

We Was Nobbled!!

When I married my good lady wife nearly twenty years ago, I also married into a family of ardent Arsenal supporters. I have never regretted marrying my wife. But sometimes having Gooners as in-laws can prove to be a test of character in the face of adversity. Yesterday was one such time.

If I have to hear "Spurs did really well this year" said with a smiling irony akin to talking down to the village idiot (who has just crossed the road without being run over) I will simply implode.

But to suffer all this, all the "It ain't over till its over" smugness, the "just you wait" cockiness, all this, and to be beaten by a lasagne?

Life really isn't fair.

Oscar Wilde got it right:

"Football is all very well. A good game for rough girls, but not for delicate boys."

Wednesday, May 3

Overheard Today at the Health Food Shop.

Beard One: "What you need is one of my crystal essences."

Beard Two: "how d'you make them then?"

Beard One: "well, I make them during the summer. I get spring water, and I put the crystal in it. Leave it in the sun, see. Then the sun energises the crystal, and the water catches the energy."

Beard Two: "yeah? Then what?"

Beard One: "Then I get organic brandy, mix that with the water, and bottle it for later."

At this point I was turning blue with the effort of keeping my face straight.

It makes homeopathy sound scientific.

Tuesday, May 2

Post-Modernism to your Collection Point Please.

Piped Music must be one of the greatest irritations of modern life. Enduring the Customer Non-Service of your average Argos Store comes a close second. Piped music in an Argos Store should therefore be insufferable.

Yet today, whilst I dutifully waited for ten minutes before being told I was in the wrong place, something magical happened. A little glint of humanity caught my eye. Or rather, ear.

Some subversive soul in head office had added a Kinks track to the piped music.

Which one?

"Tired of Waiting."!!!

".... you keep-a me waiting
All of the time
What can I do?
It’s your life
And you can do what you want
Do what you like
But please don’t keep-a me waiting
Please don’t keep-a me waiting’
cause I’m so tired
Tired of waiting
Tired of waiting for you..."

Corporate Irony No Less!

Thursday, April 27

Don't Tell Steven Spielberg.

Today found me attending a training course on the fifth floor of one of our older buildings. When our college took over we installed lifts to make the building more accessible. I've used the lift probably ten or twelve times in the last couple of years. Never noticed the manufacturer's nameplate before today though.


That's right, its Schindler's Lift!

Tuesday, April 25

Dictionary Corner.

As regular readers will know, I work in a Library. Today I spent some time re-labelling the quick reference section. One of the books I was working on was an English-Albanian Dictionary. Browsing (as one does) idly, my eye fell on the entry for the word "dick". Delightfully, the Albanian word for dick is -

"Detektive" !!!

It gives the phrase "helping the police with their enquiries" a whole new meaning.

Oddly the Dictionary also provides the Albanian for the English phrase "kitchen police". The mind boggles...

Saturday, April 22

Keeping the peace.

As the Phantomette is a dyed-in-the-wool Arsenal supporter and I support Spurs there was only one thing to do this lunchtime. Stay away from the T.V. and the radio and avoid strangling each other.

It has been quite a few years since we went down to Borough Market, so we thought we would give it a try. It was interesting to see how things have changed down there.

Borough Market in 1999 was a foodies dream. Small producers travelling with a few cool boxes full of meat, cheese or sausages. If you got there much after twelve noon all you would get would be crumbs.

Six years on and the Market has turned into another stop on the London Tourist Trail. The place is crowded. Queues for venison burgers or falafel wraps snake round the stalls. I saw one stall where the line went full circle and came round on itself. Some of the stalls which have been there since the beginning have now got walk-in fridges and refrigerated display cabinets. There seem to be fewer of the small individual artisan food producers and more spin-off stalls from commercial businesses in the area surrounding the market.

There is still plenty of great food to be had. We bought some amazingly creamy, sweet Gorgonzola, and rich, nutty Comte cheese. Some smoked Mackerel went into our bag, and plum tomatoes on the vine and smelling heavenly. We added some French new potatoes and chose a couple of fistfuls of salad leaves, rocket, mizuna and oak leaf. Sold loose for us to mix and match, enough for two salads came to .90p. A soggy supermarket pillow pack would have been twice the price and half the quality.

We stopped for a sandwich and a cuppa before getting the bus home. I couldn’t resist checking the score on my phone. Nil –One to Spurs with fifteen minutes to go.

By the time we got to the bus stop the game was over, a one-one draw. But for ten minutes or so it felt like a dream had come true.

And at least we could eat our lunch without strangling each other….

Friday, April 21

How about a Day Orff Ma'am?

Never let it be said that I ignore an obvious subject for a blog post. Yes, today’s subject is the Royal Birthday (Curtsey, Bow, Doff Headgear Walk Out Backwards).

Unlike The Guardian I will not go so far as to demand the abolition of the Monarchy when the current one gives up either the ghost or the crown.

Nor will I Fawn and Simper, as the Daily Mail will no doubt do enough of that for most of the population of Great Britain and the Channel Isles.

But My Fragrant Phantomette made a very good point the other day.

In Canada there is a thriving anti-monarchist movement, but the Canadians get the day off on the Queen’s Birthday.

The Anti-Royal feeling in Australia is probably even greater, yet they get the Queen’s Birthday off too.

They even get the day off in Fiji, where the Queen ceased to be the head of state in 1987, following a coup!

So why don’t we get the day off in England? Even if we have to put up with the National Anthem being played on the radio all day it would be worth it….

…. And that’s another thing, if you are instantly depressed as the opening bars drone out, this site is for you.

Thursday, April 20

Don't Forget To Wear An Apron In The Front Row.

I have commented already on the sad state of British Musicals. (March 14 2006).

However, this week's issue of The Stage has an exclusive on a new production that threatens to lower standards still further.

The Stage reveals that Tony McHale, Executive Producer of medical drama Holby City is working on, yes, you guessed it, a Musical!!

The show is due to hit the West End this year. And the title?...

Bloodbath - The Musical.

Really. This extravaganza of gore...

"will tell the story of a serial killer called the Waterman, who attacks young girls".

Sounds like a laugh-a-minute evening out for all the family.

I fear that the rot may not stop there. Look out for Moors Murderers The Musical, or "If I Had A Hammer", the Yorkshire Ripper Story.

Does no one have any taste left?

Wednesday, April 19

A Tale of Two Kitties

We are in a quandary. Our visiting cat (as mentioned in my post of March 20) is becoming a regular guest in our garden. He is even wangling his way into our kitchen, which leads on to the garden.

We still can’t work out if he owns anyone in particular. Sometimes we don’t see him all day, then he turns up in the evening and looks cheesed off that we haven’t been playing with him.

We thought at first that he had a home – he looks fit and healthy – but now we aren’t so sure. It could be that he is just very good at scrounging food from humans. He has got his paws in under the table of our next door neighbours as well.

Our confidence in his wellbeing was given a serious dent a couple of nights ago, around midnight. We had just put out the lights and were drifting off to sleep when we heard him. A sad, lonely “I’m here” mewing downstairs, outside the patio doors.

As much out of guilt as anything we have started to give him some food last thing at night, plus a bowl of water. We leave it near the box we have lined for him and left outside under shelter.

Last night we heard him outside the patio doors. We opened them and he came in. Then he came in again. Or rather a slightly older looking version. His mother? Before we knew it “our” cat was investigating behind the fridge and his feline friend was heading into the dishwasher! (they both have the investigating prowess of H.M. Customs and Excise.) Unusually he didn’t miaow for food, so we just ushered them both out into the night.

Which may explain why we were woken by the sound of “our” cat mewing plaintively outside at six-fifteen this morning.

I think it is trying to train us.

Do we adopt him? Is he adopting us?

Any advice would be gratefully received!

Friday, April 14

A Flash in the Pan?

O.K. O.K. I may not be the most with-it of people. I have never set a trend. I leave fashion to find its own destiny. (I am safe in my conviction that the current Hip-Hop fashion for jeans and tracksuit bottoms with the crotch at knee height or below will die a natural death. Have you ever watched a group of these fashion victims? They look like unwilling participants in a sack race. I have seen dozens of them dragged to their deaths by bendy-buses. They try to board but can’t raise their legs high enough and stumble to their doom).

However, even I have realised that poker has become trendy. Victoria Coren writes a column about it in the Guardian. It’s on Television. That national thermometer of the nation’s health The Archers has a character addicted to it and slowly going under, playing live and online, and losing at both.

Until I heard the adverts on the radio this morning though, I was unaware that an entire magazine had been published about the game. I did a Google search and discovered that the publication launched back in November of last year.

Now I am sure magazine titles don’t just get thought up in lunch breaks. They do research on these things don’t they? Think Tanks and Focus Groups. So what did they call this hard-hitting publication? Something redolent of whiskey and Cigars, stubble and steel-hard eyes?

No. They called it

Flush Magazine.

Yup. Flush.

I hope the magazine gets a right panning. It sounds like it certainly plumbs the depths. And you will not believe that it covers Craps as well. I love the quote from Barry Hearn on the website:

“The feeling when you sit down to play poker is like that when you climb off your stool”

Er. Yes. Still, mustn’t pooh-pooh it when I haven’t read it yet...

Thursday, April 13

Trains, Planes and a Cattle-Truck...

...Were the modes of transport most in our minds today. (O.K. the cattle-Truck was a bendy-bus but you get my drift).

One of the delights of living in the Finsbury Park area is how easy it is to get out of it. Travelcards in hand, a quick bus ride from the end of our road to Camden Road British Rail (Silverlink Metro) and we were on our way to Kew for the Royal Botanic Gardens. The train ride is only half an hour, with services every 20 minutes or so.

(The planes are one of the less attractive features of the day out. The proximity to Heathrow airport means that any day in the Richmond or Kew area vibrates to the rhythmn of heavy jets coming in to land every 30 seconds.)

The day was blustery, but sunshine broke through enough to re-assure that spring really is underway. At this time of year the bulbs are the most notable of the plants, with crocus, tulips, daffodils and fritillaries all showing well.

One other bulb that featured in our afternoon was the wild garlic. A couple of stems made a delicious savoury relish to the cheese and ham sandwiches we had brought along.

My catering plans went quite smoothly, apart from discovering that I had neglected to pack the plastic bottle of milk to put in our flask of tea. The mishap necessitated a tactical visit to one of the cafes to stock up on little cartons of milk. As my wife ordered a Latte and I ordered a black coffee any observant member of the waiting staff would have rumbled us immediately when we headed for the milk. Luckily our little act of larceny went unnoticed, and we departed with our pockets full of semi-skimmed.

Following on from my last post I am pleased (and somewhat surprised ) to be able to say that whilst in the café we shared what has to be the best commercially produced scone we have ever tasted. The size of Frank Bruno’s fist, and pleasantly rough-hewn, the scone was simply first class. (And relatively good value at £1.40). Sad foodie that I am, after I had cut it into quarters I instantly regretted not taking a photograph of its majestic presence. My English reserve prevented me from going back to the counter and photographing the others. This blog is not likely to turn into Egg Bacon Chips and Beans.

In the words of Wallace we had “A Grand Day Out”. A day of filling our lungs with fresh air and our eyes with nature’s glories. We headed back to the station with the coarse cackling of Ring-Necked Parakeets and the laughter of Green Woodpeckers in our ears.

Monday, April 10

Give us this day...

Yesterday was a satisfying day. Normally The Phantomette and myself run the tea bar at our local church on the first Sunday of each month. As regular readers will know I wasn’t well enough to do it last week. However there was nobody to do the honours this Sunday so my wife and I stepped in.

When we started our monthly stint many moons ago I baked fruit loaf, a fresh cream sponge and scones. I must admit to being slightly surprised by the fact that I had loaf and sponge left over, but the scones vanished like the proverbial hot cakes. I figured the scones would sell the slowest, as they were the least “fancy” of any of the things on offer, and the easiest for anyone to make. Practically everyone said the same thing. They were “so much better than the ones you can buy”.

Now I just make the scones, and somehow never seem to have enough.

It isn’t just nostalgia. The scones taste home-made. They taste real. Shop bought ones are flabby and chewy, closer in texture to a bun than a scone. A home-made one has a crusty, crisp top, a soft crumb inside, and practically splits itself. It deserves nothing less than real butter.

Selling those scones yesterday was deeply rewarding. Not for the thanks or the praise we received. What was so satisfying was knowing that in our own little way we were fighting a corner for real food. Making sure that some people at least will know the difference and reject the doughy monstrosities the supermarkets sell. And if as a result anyone is tempted to make their own, the world will be a little bit better as a result.

(By the way, I sell “Sconns”. But if anyone asks for a “Scoan” I forgive them quietly and serve them anyway).

Saturday, April 8

Professional Fowl.

According to a article in today’s football GuardianChelsea Manager Jose Mourinho is un-phased by Manchester United’s slow but sure game of catch up. He is more concerned with the fate of british birdlife now that the bird flu virus has been found in this country.

“A swan with bird flu, for me, that is the drama of the last two days.”

The Phantom shares his concern. Despite Tottenham beating Manchester City 2-1 at White Hart Lane this afternoon (and going five points clear of Arsenal yet again) we are still vulnerable. Arsenal now have two games in hand.

Worse still, Spurs may be subject to a movement ban by DEFRA if the bird flu spreads. As the only premiership team symbolised by a chicken we are in grave danger. If the worst comes to the worst the Spurs Cockerel will have to be culled. To be replaced by what? A deep frozen Turkey Twizzler from the Brazilian rainforests probably.

Mind you, this West Brom mascot doesn't look too chirpy...

(Images courtesy of

Thursday, April 6

A hot crisp soup for a cold crisp day

Mrs P. was on annual leave today. When, like today, it is dry, sunny and crisply cold, she hears the call of the garden. Today was the first real day of spring pottering for her. A chance to start tidying, cutting, nurturing and generally getting back on speaking terms with the garden and its contents.

A lazy bedroom morning gave way to the donning of sweatshirts and sensible shoes, secateurs were brandished, and the day’s work began.

I kept busy in the kitchen, doing small, comforting things like taking the leftover meat off a chicken carcase and making chicken stock. I thought about making a thick, rustic orangey-coloured soup (Parsnip? Red lentil? Carrot? Butternut Squash?).

But the brightness of the day demanded something clearer, something with some green and crunch. I already had some bean sprouts in the fridge, so Chinese soup it was…

Mr King’s Chinese Supermarket in Hornsey Road closed a couple of months ago, so I had to go further afield for my ingredients. All the way to Michael’s Greengrocers just before the Nag’s Head. Michael is happy to sell Chinese veg loose so I could pick just a couple of small crispy bok choi and a sprig of Chinese mustard greens. A bunch of spring onions went into my basket, and a handful of both sugar snap peas and tiny button chestnut mushrooms completed the foray. Fresh garden peas would have been lovely, but as it’s still a little early frozen ones will have to suffice.

The soup barely has a recipe. Like most oriental dishes the preparation is all. Take off the green leaves of the Bok Choi, roll them up and shred them to the width of tagliatelle. Cut the rest of the bok choi, the sugar snaps and mustard greens across on the bias in generous pieces. Top and tail the spring onions and slice them likewise. Halve the button mushrooms. Take a handful of peas from the freezer. Find some choice morsels of leftover chicken that your wife has not already snaffled for a sandwich. Open the bag of bean sprouts. Warm a couple of soup bowls. Bring the chicken stock to the boil.

To Cook: Throw the frozen peas and chicken bits into the boiling stock, and wait till it comes back to the boil. When it does, add the spring onions and the mushrooms. Give them a minute then lob in the sugar snaps. Another minute and the bok choi leaves and stems can go in, along with the mustard greens. After a couple of minutes switch off the pot! Put a handful of bean sprouts into each warm bowl, and ladle out the soup, making sure you get all the chickeny bits. A generous splash of Thai fish sauce really makes this dish.

And that was it. Our first lunch in the garden this year.