Monday, January 25, 2010


Blogging about the weather is pretty low hanging fruit but sometimes, when your mind is as atrophied as mine you go for the easy stuff and hope it might trigger some more interesting thoughts out.

Anyway, the UK has just emerged from the longest spell of cold weather and snow that most people can probably remember. This is especially the case in the south east of England where on the few occasions snow falls, it usually fades away within 48 hours. This time it stuck around for two or three weeks.

A consequence of the relative rareness of these events is that we don't really have the machinery in place to deal with a prolonged bout of weather like this. When we get a bit of snow, public transport tends to be unavailable for a day or two, but eventually the roads get salted and things get back to normal pretty quickly. There is the usual clamour from people saying we should be able to cope and why don't we have the resources to deal with things like this? Critics generally then suggest that in somewhere like Canada or Switzerland they get nothing but snow for three months a year and their buses don't stop running.

Of course that is exactly the point. If the UK had a climate like Canada or Switzerland, we would invest in snow ploughs and put spiky tyres on our cars for three months of the year but if you only get a bit of snow once a year, maybe not at all, there's no point in investing millions of pounds in lots of expensive machinery. You just take the hit, deal with a day or two of inconvenience and things get back to normal.

So, you would think that when people were caught out in the recent bad weather, the authorities who were unable to clear the roads and asked the hapless general public to be patient, would be sympathetic to those inconvenienced by it. But no. What happened was many people were out on their cars when the bad weather struck, the locals councils were unprepared or under-resourced to deal with the problem and people ended up having to abandon their cars as the roads were too dangerous or they simply could not move. Many roads were inaccessible for days, maybe weeks because the local council would not clear them as they concentrated on clearing more major routes or they were preserving their resources in case the bad weather lasted for even longer than was initially feared.

What then happened was that the same authorities who were contracted to clear the roads - and did not - in a decidedly unsympathetic manner, chose to fine the people whose cars had been abandoned.

Sometimes you just can't fuckin' win can you!

Tuesday, January 05, 2010


Isn't it nice when a plan finally comes together.

I've always enjoyed cooking but I'm also a touch obsessive-compulsive about my environment and I've always had to make do with less than perfect cooking conditions. Just under two years ago I finally got round to replacing my entire kitchen. This was part of a larger refurbishment of my entire flat which is still ongoing but pretty much complete. The kitchen was always going to be the room I did first. It makes sense because I live in a flat with only one entrance and the kitchen is not accessed via any other room therefore would not be disturbed by any subsequent work. I also did it first because my existing kitchen was the room I disliked the most in my flat - hard to believe if you'd seen my bathroom (which you never will cos that's now also also been replaced). And also because the kitchen is always my favourite room in any dwelling.

I know I'm not going to do this very often so I wasn't going to do it cheaply and regret any decision later. There's nothing worse than tolerating something you don't really like and trying to console yourself that it was cheap but knowing, deep down inside, that if you'd spent a little more money you would have had exactly what you really wanted instead of second best. If you like something you soon forget how much you paid and you'll always get a nice warm feeling every time you use it in the years to come.

I won't go into too many details but some of the decisions I will never regret are -

  • solid wood kitchen units with soft-close doors/drawers
  • a double recessed sink
  • a fancy mixer tap that will never drip (German engineering)
  • a double oven (conventional and fan)
  • a five burner hob with a huge wok burner in the middle
  • lots of very powerful lighting
  • 4.5 metres of solid granite worktops (the best bit by far)

Now I could really start cooking. But having done all this and seeking out all those interesting recipes I wanted to prepare, I found I still wasn't quite as ready to rock as I thought. I needed more stuff. I had to build up that background of core ingredients that a good kitchen should always have in stock. Herbs, spices, dried fruits, six different types of flour (plain, self-raising, strong bread, corn, semolina and whole wheat if you're interested), other dried goods (rice, pasta, oats, yeast), assorted condiments, various tinned essentials. Also I'd been making do with a crummy selection of pots and pans which I've steadily been updating as and when a recipe demanded it (French cast iron Le Creuset casseroles are my favourites here). I got a rice cooker, a hand blender, a good lemon/lime zester.

In short, after nearly two years I'm confident of not only being able to try any recipe I like the look of, I'm also now reasonably confident my kitchen is perfectly tooled up to prepare and present it. The only thing I tend to need to buy are the fresh ingredients and to keep that background selection of essential ingredients stocked up.

I've also still managed to hang on to items I've known with all my life. I acquired a few things from my grandparents house so I'm still using the same cutlery I used as a child. A good mixing bowl will never go out of date and I still use the same one I remember my grandmother using to make cakes. I also got their entire twelve piece dinner service plus quite a lot of silverware they received as a wedding presents in 1936 which I admit I don't actually use but I have it in reserve should I ever entertain twelve people.


I know a good cook can make excellent food on a one-burner camping stove in the middle of a field during a torrential rainstorm (probably at night as well) but I'm not that good. I need the reassurance of the environment being just right as well.

Think of a recipe and I'll try and cook it and send you a picture. You won't get to taste cos I'll have already eaten it by then.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

The Right Stuff

I'm re-reading an excellent book at the moment called Barrow's Boys I won't go into explaining the name but suffice it to say it's about the efforts of the British to explore the as yet unmapped regions of the globe in the early 19th century. This was mainly focused on North Africa and finding the path and source of the Niger river and also the search for the fabled North-West Passage across the top of Canada in an attempt to find a navigable link between the Atlantic and the Pacific.

Various explorers were despatched, and the book is an account of their efforts. Some achieved their goals. Most did not. Quite a few died horribly, mostly through disease. Some went so convinced they knew exactly what they were doing they dismissed previous explorers accounts of their journey and consequently repeated mistakes already made by others and thereby met their doom.

One of my favourites is a chap called Gordon Laing. Arrogant, and quite possibly mad, and if not, then certainly deluded, he set out from Tripoli in order to find the path of the Niger. At one point his party was set upon by Tuareg bandits upon whose lands he had encroached without paying the appropriate protection money. His camel train and entourage were routed and he was left for dead in the desert. He did however manage to pick himself up and continue his journey - strapped to the back of a camel - and describes his injuries thus:

"To begin from the top: I have five sabre cuts on the crown of the head and three on the left temple, all fractures from which much bone has come away; one on my left cheek which fractured the jaw bone and has divided the ear, forming a very unsightly wound; one over the right temple and a dreadful gash on the back of the neck, which slightly grazed the windpipe; a musket ball in the hip, which made its way through my back, slightly grazing the backbone; five sabre cuts on my right arm and hand, three of the fingers broken, the hand cut three-fourths across, and the wrist bones cut through; three cuts on the left arm, the bone of which has been broken but which is again uniting; one slight wound on the right leg and two with one dreadful gash on the left, to say nothing of a cut across the fingers of my left hand, now healed up."

On arrival at his destination he caught the plague and spent nine days "so ill with fever that it was presumed, expected and hoped that I would die." As he lay in his deathbed he was also robbed of pretty much everything he owned. Considering the injuries he describes to his hands it was amazing he could actually write but he does manage to add, at the end of the above account "I am nevertheless doing well." and he pressed on to become the first European to reach Timbuctoo.

He stayed in Timbuctoo for just over five weeks and then set off north, possibly heading for Morocco where he again met more Tuareg bandits. This time they succeeded in killing him. He was throttled by two men hauling on either end of a turban that had been wrapped around his neck. They then cut off his head and left him for the vultures. The only survivor of his party was a servant who had feigned death and then made his way back to Timbuctoo to explain what had happened.

Gordon Laing's journey is one of the more gruesome but certainly not the most unusual account described in the book. It's fantastic.