Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Wat leuk!

How to test if your rain jacket is still waterproof.

1. Put on rain jacket.
2. Cycle to yoga in the pouring rain.
3. Get very wet.

To be fair, it didn't start raining until I was halfway there. And it's the first torrential downpour I've experienced this autumn. And I'd anticipated it, so was wearing my rainpants (still waterproof!) instead of a skirt. However, my tights were soaked and I couldn't face putting them on again after yoga, so had to wear my white sports socks with my LK Bennett kitten-heel shoes and my rainpants -- which made me look like a well-prepared yet sartorially deluded member of the Rocky Horror Picture Show cast. Wat leuk indeed.

Monday, October 30, 2006

It's the great pumpkin, Norfolk Dumpling

Well, it didn't appear from so much a pumpkin patch as a patch of pumpkin-filled pavement on the way back from dinner with Toby, but they're cute, aren't they!

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Entertaining Holly Flanagan

Take a baby to an Amsterdam cafe and watch the grannies and gay men swoon.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Stoke 5: Norwich 0

I don't want to talk about it. Just leave me alone: I wish to wallow in my misery on my own.

That's quite enough architectural whinging

Let's talk about food instead. Thursday's book club meeting centered on The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf, so lots of discussion about cosmetic surgery (50% of attendees had had some form of it), body image, class, and patriarchal conspiracy theories. It turned out, once again, that differences between the US and UK were clear, particularly when it came to our experiences at university. I was quite unusual in knowing of only one girl with an eating disorder -- a girl who lived on the same staircase as me in my first year and covered up the scent of her purging with Chanel No. 5. But the lives of my friends revolved around food; in many ways, it was our drug of choice. Be it Thanksgiving dinner parties for 30, tabasco-drinking contests at home, Oxfam lunches, post-tutorial excursions to Ben's Cookies, or just selecting rooms that were close to good kitchens, we consumed with joy. And while I've thankfully blotted out the recipe for beansprout and kidney bean pizza from my memory, I frequently make Julia's chocolate brownies.

These are, quite simply, the best damn chocolate brownies in the world -- ever. Now, I know what you're thinking but you're wrong. Your grandmother's recipe doesn't even come close, and neither does the one from Cook's Illustrated -- I've tried it. Once you have tasted these, you will never use another recipe or buy a brownie from a shop or cafe. I promise. They're not quite as coronary-inducing as the chocolate ganache cake that Julia and I would make for dinner parties; one lucky recipient declared that he could see his life flashing before his eyes with every bite. But, they're incredibly simple: Even kitchen-phobes can make these.

Melt together 6 oz (150 gm) of butter and 6 oz (150 gm) dark chocolate in a large saucepan over a medium heat. Take off the heat and add 12 oz (300 gm) sugar -- it doesn't really matter if it's caster or granulated, white or brown. Leave to cool for about 5 minutes or until you can comfortably dip a finger in. One at a time, beat in 3 eggs. Finally, stir in 6 oz (150 gm) of plain/all-purpose flour, 1/2 tsp baking powder and 1/2 tsp salt. Mix well so that there are no streaks of flour. Pour into a tin measuring 28cm x 11cm, lined with baking paper. Bake in a preheated oven at 350F/180C/Gas 4 for 30 minutes. The brownie will be crusty on top, squidgy underneath. If necessary, you can leave it for another 5 minutes and it will be slightly drier. Longer than that, and you will have the typical brownie they sell over here -- dry as dust and better suited as cavity wall insulation.

But wait! There's more!

Turns out that merely ironing wasn't enough: I'm not done yet with Norwich's city planners, apparently. The focus of my ire? The riverside development.

Imagine that you have an extremely large plot of land on the edge of the centre of a city, next to one of the most desirable surburbs in the county. It's close to the railway centre and the football stadium. A river runs through it. Nothing occupies it other than a long-abandoned factory. You can do with it what you will. Think of the possibilities: Shall it be developed as a cultural centre, with theatres, concert halls, cinemas, and studios? Or perhaps a fabulously landscaped housing development, mixing low-income and yuppie townhouses and apartments, complete with a primary school, doctor's surgeries, and small local shops? Maybe a sports area, with playing fields, a decent swimming pool, gyms, and sports halls? Even -- radical thought, this -- putting the town's bus/coach station across from the railway station, thus creating an integrated transport network? What fun we could have!

If you're Norwich's town planners, you come up with this:
1. Vast warehouse stores in an unappealing shade of grey: Morrison's, The Big W, etc.
2. A giant car park that mixes wood cladding and brick to ill effect.
3. Large brick "super clubs" and bars, with faux cobbles to soak up the ensuing vomit and ensure that young ladies in towering white stilettos fall over.
4. A handful of apartment buildings, close to the bars for added noise -- all unrelieved by any form of open space or greenery.

Not only do you waste the greatest building opportunity since the cathedral was developed in the 11th century, but you then give permission for the moronic Norfolk builders to throw up blocks of "luxury" apartments between the football ground and the river. These are squeezed in so tightly that many of the flats have no view, and the flats are tiny and badly designed: Forget about storage space or indeed room for a double bed! Not only does form not follow function, but they are completely lacking in any kind of function -- or form. But hey, it's not like the environment influences the behaviour of those within it. People aren't going to have an utter disregard for the places in which they live, work and play if the people who built them didn't, right?

In fact, the Chapelfield Mall and the riverside area are merely symbolic of the British economy as a whole: Dancing on the ruins of manufacturing, they've bypassed the service economy -- now the preserve of Bangalore -- and jumped straight to one based on shopping, inflated property prices, and vast amounts of consumer debt. And if you can't afford to shop or buy a home? Well, screw you -- you don't deserve to be part of this brave new world.

Badly done, Norwich; badly done.

However, it's not all Roman ruins and medieval lanes

Of course, I'm not claiming that Norwich is perfect. In fact, the past five years have seen the erection of some of the most ghastly buildings imaginable. In two cases, it's not the buildings themselves so much as the locations in which they're positioned. For example:

Ah yes, Norwich's "Forum" -- the replacement for the old library, which burned down quite spectacularly . This example of early 21st century brick and glass monumentalism might work if it were positioned in the middle of a large plot, surrounded by imaginative landscaping and space -- as at the Sainsbury Centre up at UEA, which is just gorgeous. However, the Forum, clearly more exciting than a mere library, is crammed into a tiny area between City Hall, the Theatre Royal, and St Peter Mancroft. The glass front and "piazza" look out over nothing more exciting than the back of Next and the BBC shop, and function solely as a cut-through between the market and Chapelfield Mall and as a place for Norwich's new generation of teen goths to hang out on. The expansiveness that it needs to make it work simply doesn't -- indeed cannot -- exist in this location. It also suffers by comparison with City Hall, its vast expanse of similar brick relieved by many windows and graceful carved figures. When did the decoration of building become an unpopular concept?

My next example: the aforementioned Chapelfield Mall. This is built on the site of the old Rowntree's chocolate factory. Again, this is a building that doesn't work with its environment; rather, it imposes itself onto it. Take a look at one of the main paths leading to it:

That's right: It cuts straight through a churchyard, past the graves of people who've lain there in peace for years -- only to now act as the repository for fast food detritus. Was this really necessary? In fact, was the mall really necesary? Norwich already had the Castle Mall, which now looks like a model of sympathetically restrained design. As expected, units there are now empty as retailers shifted to the new mall, and St Stephen's, previously Norwich's main shopping street, is full of temporary, bargain basement shops advertising permanent sales. It's a mess and it makes my blood boil when I think what could have been done with this site, such as a concert hall, something that Norwich desperately needs. I simply don't understand how a city council with 9 Green councillors and just Tory ones could have approved this. (If it had been Norfolk County Council, that would be a different matter. That Tory-dominated council has always been stuffed full of builders, concrete-happy idiots who dish out contracts and permits to each other with gay abandon.) But these are the same twits intent on reclassifying the quaint medieval streets as The Lanes, no doubt hoping that people will suddenly confuse Norwich with Brighton. Morons.

Gah! It makes me so mad!!! Must go and do some ironing to cool off.

Friday, October 27, 2006

It is a fine city; it says so on a sign on the A40!

Weekends in Norfolk don't just involve tramping around Roman ruins in fields; there's the medieval joys of Norwich's center to appreciate, too. Last weekend, we broke the habit of the past year and skipped Loch Fyne in favor of a trip down memory lane -- or to be more precise, Elm Hill. I attended a ballet school for several years as a young child before discovering that my inate lack of grace and rhythm meant I was better suited to drama classes. However, before that soul-shattering realization, I would visit the Britton Arms coffee house before each class accompanied by partner in crime Sally-Ann. We'd share a hot lemon squash before running back up the hill to the dance studio; to a couple of six-year-olds, this seemed like the height of sophistication. This time, however, we had a rather nice lunch in the small garden that the owners have opened up at the back of building, overlooking St Andrew's Hall. I can highly recommend the hot apple juice: autumn in a glass.

I also revisited the topic of one of my high school projects: Norwich's Guildhall. Proving the value of history in the curriculum, I can't remember a damn thing that I wrote -- but it's still a beautiful building, and only enhanced by having a decent cafe (with excellent toilets) inside now. They also sell fab local chocolate, Caley's. Try it.

Finally, much more modern but just as impressive in its own way is City Hall, home to the largest number of Green councillors in the UK. My friend Lucy got to work here in our gap year, while I set up a bridges database at the stunning example of 1960s brutalist architecture, County Hall. She got all the advantages of working close to cafes and the M&S food hall, while I had to make do with the (admittedly excellent) sausage rolls at Norfolk County Council. But I digress: You've not seen civic pride until you've witnessed thousands of people cheering a giant inflatable canary on top of City Hall.

I'll swipe a quote from Wikipedia to sum up my feelings for this city:

"A fine old city, perhaps the most curious specimen at present extant of the genuine old English Town. ..There it spreads from north to south, with its venerable houses, its numerous gardens, its thrice twelve churches, its mighty mound....There is an old grey castle on top of that mighty mound: and yonder
rising three hundred feet above the soil, from amongst those noble forest trees,
behold that old Norman master-work, that cloud-enriched cathedral spire ... Now who can wonder that the children of that fine old city are proud, and offer up prayers for her prosperity?"

George Borrow, Lavengro (1851)


Somebody somewhere in our apartment building is cooking steak -- and it smells fantastic! Not what a semi-vegetarian of more than 3 years' standing needs to encounter when she returns, hungry, from the gym.

Like I said, bastards!

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Nights in black satin

Today's PSA: Don't make bread while you're waiting for your freshly painted toenails to dry. A light sprinkling of flour on top of Chanel's Black Satin polish does not make for fashion-forward tootsies.

Right, move along now; nothing to see here, folks.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Abnormal in Norfolk

As children, my siblings and I were often forced to walk around the ramparts of various French towns, most notably St Malo. My father clearly thought we imbibed the history from the stones or some such nonsense. Twenty-five years on, and nothing has changed. A wet and windy Sunday morning? Just right for a brisk walk around the Roman "ruins" -- i.e., bits of wall and a few ridges in a field -- of Venta Icenorum, former capital of Norfolk and stamping ground of one tough Norfolk lass, Boudica. Trying to capture a spontaneous, unposed portrait of Family Dumpling proved impossible, thanks to Miss Katie's unerring ability to scent a camera at 20 paces and strike a pose accordingly. Will she never stop gurning?

I rather like Vince's windswept position atop the Roman ramparts though -- very fetching!

Cinema City

Yeah, yeah -- I'm a bad blogger. A lousy dial-up connection and all communication stops. I'll try to make up for it over the next few days, although our broadband connection in Dumpling Towers is equally erratic.

So, home to Norwich, which was lovely -- and it is home. One example: We went to the Norwich Playhouse, currently subbing for under-reconstruction (and former Dumpling employer) Cinema City, to see The Black Dahlia (don't bother: it's a DVD rental at best and Scarlett Johansson is atrocious). Prior to the film, I went into the cafe to buy some drinks and it felt extraordinarily familiar -- even though I've never been there before. But the people in there were your typical friendly Norwich lefties; the decor was scruffily comfortable with twinkly lights; and it just felt right. I wanted to stay there, get a job behind the bar, or reclaim my old role as volunteer usher for Cinema City. This is where I fit in!

No wonder so few Norfolk dumplings ever leave. Even to go to Suffolk.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

. . . and straight on for Norwich

The 30-minute flight from Amsterdam to Norwich is, on a cost-per-mile basis, the most expensive airline route in the world. However, it's worth it just to hear the soothing Aussie tones of the pilot over the intercom saying: "Ladies and gentlemen, we've just turned left and are now pointing in the direction of Norwich. We'll shortly be heading over Great Yarmouth, passing over the Acle Straits, with Wroxham Broad on our right. Landing at Norwich in just under 20 minutes." On a clear day, I can follow the River Yare from Yarmouth, through Acle, Blofield, and Brundall, along past Thorpe St Andrew to Carrow Road. County Hall, site of my first full-time job, is in the distance, the castle and cathedral also visible. 20 minutes after landing, I'm back home, chez Dumpling, with a cup of tea in my hand. This is how travel should be: easy, familiar, expensable.

Norwich 1: Cardiff 0

The second win this week and the second win under our new manager. Long may this victorious streak continue.

FYI: I'm in Norwich for a long weekend, enjoying the company of my people and feeling thin among the increasingly obese burghers of Norwich. The one fly in the ointment? Dial-up Internet access. So no photos and probably relatively few posts. You'll just have to wait until I get back to the 'Dam on Tuesday.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Gek op bloemen!

There's a scary ad on TV at the moment. It features a gaggle of women meeting a friend at a railway station. One has a bunch of flowers. As we watch them laughing and hugging, a voice shrieks loudly over the top "GEK! Op bloemen!" (Crazy about flowers). The end. It doesn't appear to be an ad for any particular florist, so I'm guessing it was paid for by the IFNLC (Insane Florists of the Netherlands Committee). Terrifying stuff.

However, the Dutch do know and love their flowers. Take these as an example. I headed round to our local florist, asked for a bouquet in pink for friend Jo who's had a baby girl (mother and daughter both doing well), told him how much I wanted to spend, and this was the result. Just gorgeous.

For want of a decent photo blogging service ...

Because Blogger's photo uploading service wasn't working properly Monday evening, I had to post pictures from work yesterday afternoon.

Because it still wasn't working properly yesterday afternoon, I could only post 4 pictures -- slowly.

Because I could only post pictures slowly, I was late shutting down my machine.

Because I was late shutting down my machine, I rushed off to yoga, forgetting that I was working from home the following morning.

Because I forgot that I was working from home the following morning, I forgot to take my laptop with me.

Because I forgot to take my laptop with me, I had to go back to the office, thinking "Shit, shit, shit! Going to miss yoga!"

Because I was panicking, I cycled incredibly quickly and made it to yoga with minutes to spare.

Because I cycled incredibly quickly and made it to yoga, I now ache today.

I'm blaming Google. Here is the final photo of the 7 (or should that be 6) layer cookie bars.

Actually, there should have been one more. But the photo uploading is on the fritz again, and I just can't face aching again tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Extremely sweet and incredibly good

I've lost weight over the past few weeks. I don't know how or why, and I guess I shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth, but I am curious. I've done maybe a little less exercise due to all the weekends away; I've cooked slightly fewer batches of cookies; and I'm drinking large amounts of green tea -- which is said to speed up your metabolism. Or it could just be the colder weather making me burn more calories to stay warm at nights. Anyway, to celebrate, I decided to make these 7-Layer Cookie Bars. Although, I could only count 6 layers. To whit:

Layers 1-3: digestive biscuit base with chocolate chips and butterscotch chips.

Layer 4: as above, with the addition of grated coconut.

Layer 5: as above, with the addition of chopped nuts.

Layer 6: as above, with the addition of a can of condensed milk. Okay, not a whole can -- I saved two tablespoons to eat and make toffee nut clusters with.

The whole sugary mass was then baked in the oven for 30 minutes, before emerging as a delectable brown, sticky, bubbling confection. I could feel my teeth rotting just by looking at it. Another trip to the dentist clearly beckons.

Autumnal trees in the Vondelpark

Time to dig out the gloves, hat, and scarf. My hands were numb at the end of the ride in to work.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Sir? Would you please stop doing that, sir?

A blessedly empty pool this morning, just me and another woman ploughing our lonely furrow up and down its length. In the jacuzzi area, however, was a middle-aged man indulging in the extremely high-powered waterfall fountain. He'd positioned himself so that the stream of water was falling right down the front of his swimming trunks onto a particularly sensitive spot -- for about 5 minutes. Lovely.

Of course, he could have been a top-flight footballer, hoping to speed up his recovery from a groin strain, but given his age and general paunchiness, it seems unlikely. Just another pervert at the pool.

The road to hell (or Brighton) is paved with good intentions

Back on May 2, 2006, I posted a list of cities I wanted to visit this year as part of a series of mini-breaks. Aberdeen, Milan, Venice, Florence, Berlin, Oslo, and
Rekyjavik featured. So, where have I been since then?


Hmm, not as impressive as I'd hoped. Still, there's a chance we might make it to Madrid in November and the Cotswolds in December, so all is not yet lost.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

That's why you'll always find me in the kitchen at parties

As predicted, our social life has started to pick up -- just as we're switching our minds back to returning to the UK. This was our first old-fashioned, "sitting on the floor drinking and criticizing the US" type of party in a long time, and one of our first parties not related to work. And very pleasant it was too. It can't be said that we greatly extended our social network, preferring instead to hang out with the three people (other than the hostess) that we already knew (although I did get to pet the very cute dog that had been invited), but again, it felt like we engaged with the city -- something that is, apparently, quite important to me.

Mind you, we felt a little fragile this morning. Must have been the rice at the Chinese restaurant we went to beforehand. Oh yes.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

. . . and dustcart bully boy tactics

On my way home from the fish shop, I saw another middle-aged Dutch woman standing her ground (if that's possible on a bike) against an impatient and rather large dust cart. There's a tricky corner on the Prinsengracht/Brouwersgracht (by Tabac, for you Amsterdam natives) with lots of bikes, tourists, and the odd, ill-advised car trying to get round on market day. Today, said dust cart tore round the corner at speed, had to slam on its brakes to avoid a number of cyclists, and then swerved round them and sped off again -- only to be brought up short by our middle-aged cyclist. Much squealing of brakes ensued, but mevrouw did not speed up or pull over to the side of the road; she just kept cycling at her own pace, causing the dust cart to repeatedly slam on its brakes and toot its horn. All to no avail. I could hear the alternate squeal/toot continuing all the way up to the Harlemmerstraat, much to the driver's annoyance, no doubt.

Hurrah for echte Jordaanse vrouwen!

Fish shop dynamics . . .

Off to our local vishandel to pick up some trout fillets for dinner tomorrow; there's a recipe from my new cookbook, The Great British Menu, that I want to try out. Annoyingly, I arrive at the fish shop at peak herring bap time. The queue extends out the door, so I join the end after a middle-aged Dutch woman and, shortly after, a gentleman in a motorized wheelchair takes his place behind me. And we wait. And wait. After about 10 minutes, a middle-aged man wanders along, cuts through the queue to look at the baked fish in the window, and cuts back through the queue and hovers alongside middle-aged Dutch woman. I stare at him, willing him to recognize that he's not at the back of the queue or for someone else (preferably Dutch) to say something to him. Nothing.

Then, chaos ensues. Several people inside have now got their herring baps and exit the shop, causing the queue to break up as people move inside. Crafty middle-aged gent takes advantage and heads to the far end of the store, clearly keen to suggest that he's further ahead than he was. This time, however, middle-aged Dutch woman and a younger man both spot this and start berating him loudly as a sneaky -- yes, they actually used that word -- queue-jumper (SQJ). SQJ protests, claiming that he only wants a bit of baked fish. "We all only want some baked fish but it's not your turn!" cries middle-aged Dutch woman, my new heroine. SQJ slumps back, defeated. Order is restored. I get my trout (although not filleted) and leave, satisfied that queues sometimes work here.

Friday, October 13, 2006

My two friends were management consultants -- which says it all, really

The Privium guide to top cities of the world has this to say about Madrid:

Unless you want to be written of as a cultural barbarian when you get home, you shouldn't miss highlights like the Museo del Prado ... Don't try to do the Prado in one day though, just limit yourself to remarkable works like the portraits by El Greco or Goya's bloody battle scenes.

The last time I visited the Prado was in 1997, along with two friends from Oxford. We managed 5 minutes before deciding it was time to check out the cafe. And then some tapas bars. We never made it to the Goyas or El Grecos. Cultural barbarians indeed.

Let's get serious (for a moment)

I was pleased to see that the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Muhammad Yumas and the Grameen Bank -- I had feared that the appalling Bono might receive it for services to Apple (okay, the Red campaign). BBC World had the usual slightly downbeat approach to the announcement, asking how much it cost to service these micro-debts and when they'd be paid back. As someone who sponsors a child in El Salvador, I was wondering if anyone combines that "personalized" sponsorship with microcredit? I can't imagine I'd be the only Guardian-reading liberal who'd be more than happy to provide funding/long-term "loans" to a microcredit bank, in return for information about one of the projects thus funded. I mean, I'm happy to be supporting little Walter-Hernan -- Real Madrid supporter and David Beckham fan (now that's brand reach!) -- but I'd be equally happy to be providing a generator and a mobile phone to a women's textile cooperative in Bangladesh.

Readers, do you know of any such projects? If not, how would one go about setting one up? Or is this not how microcredit works?

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Worst. Own Goal. Ever.

The Dutch commentator just said that it's the sort of thing that could happen to even the best keepers, but I'm not convinced. Losing 1-0 to Croatia was bad enough, but compounding that with the most bizarre goal I've ever seen is just atrocious. I'm guessing that's probably enough to send my pregnant friend Jo (Crystal Palace supporter) into labour.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Brighton rock(s)

So, Brighton. Despite all the problems, a good weekend. First impressions? The filth and the fury on exiting the station -- kebab shops, crisp packets, loud bars. Very, very windy: I've never had my back ache just from leaning into the wind during a short walk. Cash points everywhere. Large gaggles of drunk teenage boys and drunker, shrieking teenage girls being "sexy" in front of taxis -- and then unleashing torrents of abuse as they got beeped. Policemen escorting said drunk boys home to their parents with grim resignation. Spray from enormous waves coming up through the boards of the pier. Hotel bars that shut at 4 am. Loud, camp, young men "performing" at 2 am when asked politely to shut the f*** up. "Oooh! Get him! Why don't you come over here and suck this, big boy! What do you mean I need to be quiet -- you're the one making all the noise!" Lots of dogs. Custard-colored Regency terraces. Drunks in the gardens outside custard-colored Regency terraces. Fish and chips everywhere. The 3 Jolly Butchers -- the perfect pub for a Saturday lunchtime. Vegetarian shoe shops. And the sea -- which makes even the noise vaguely bearable.

Stanmore Grannies rule

When I was an enthusiastic young thing, I was a keen member of the Stanmore Tennis Club. There, I leapt about the courts with unusual grace and athleticism -- singles or doubles, just happy to be thwacking a ball about with vim and vigour. Club nights, however, were always a bit of a spirit-dampening affair. My fellow teenagers and I would be fired up, keen to show off our Lendl-esque backhands down the line, only to be thwarted by the might of the Stanmore Grannies. These more mature club members would stand in the middle of the court, barely moving the zimmerframe, but always hitting the ball back over the net -- plop plop plop. No tricks, no flashy play, no sprinting was involved, but after a while, you'd find yourself exhausted and 4-1 down.

Reader, today I played Stanmore Granny table-tennis. After being thrashed in the first game of a ladder match by an experienced young buck, I dug deep into my memory banks, slowed down, and started just hitting every ball flat back over the net. No spin, no chopping, no slicing, no outrageous cross-table smashes, just plop plop plop. And it almost worked; the second match was considerably closer than the first as I forced my opponent into multiple mistakes. Revenge will be mine in the return match, oh yes!

I now feel very old. Stanmore Granny old.

Monday, October 09, 2006

History, schmistory

London is not a city that wears its history lightly. Walk into any bookshop and you'll find a whole section of books devoted to biographies of London -- although few can top Peter Ackroyd's original (best read with an A-Z of London to hand). And the streets themselves reveal their past, clad as they are in hundreds of plaques and signs, all designed to commemorate and educate. As both an avid reader and enthusiastic walker who has discovered through painful experience that it is not possible to do both at the same time, I applaud the spirit of those who have provided me with snippets of reading material on my perambulatory commute. Here is but a short selection of the many I passed as I walked to work last week from Notting Hill to Marble Arch.

A discreet piece of royalist sucking-up on a surprisingly light and airy late Victorian building.

No surprise that this caught my eye.

A self-fulfilling prophecy or the far-sighted wisdom of a religious leader?

300 paces east is Marble Arch, one of London's busiest traffic junctions. I have therefore been unable to check the veracity of this plaque and the stone commemorating the infamous gallows.

I can't work out whether the Dutch don't feel the same need to put engrave their history on the side of buildings or that I simply don't notice because I'm a) cycling past at speed or b) not attracted to reading things that are in Dutch. I know that they put lots of pictures on their buildings -- carved doves, Moorish heads, bags of gold, boats etc -- to indicate who once lived there, but not words. Perhaps there's a visual bent to the Dutch that I've not previously appreciated? Do you think I could get a grant to study it? Beats working for a living!

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Bad things come in threes

1. PJ's hard drive died on Tuesday evening. No warning; no explanation. Just dead.

2. PJ lost his wallet on Friday evening. It could have been lifted in Victoria Station or, more likely, it was left in the Cornish Pasty shop there. Either way, major pain in the ass. Friday evening in Brighton was spent cancelling cards with various Dutch and UK call centers. We couldn't cancel his Dutch pin pass because they can't do that without the number -- even if it's been stolen. Where was the number stored? On the hard drive that died.

Inevitably, therefore, we were a little nervous about Sunday. And what happened?

3. We missed our flight back from Gatwick to Amsterdam. This is the first time either of us has missed a flight -- and we take plenty every year. So, what went wrong? First off, the 30-minute rail service from Brighton to Gatwick was replaced by a bus service to Haywards Heath -- and the lying British Rail man told me it would take 20 minutes. In fact, it was 40 minutes and then another 20 waiting for the train to depart. Result? Instead of arriving at LGW with an hour and 50 minutes to spare, we got there an hour before departure. And needed to get to North Terminal. And missed the transit by seconds. Resulting in another 10 minute delay. We then ask the BA staff at the self-service terminals if we could check in there, given the credit card used to book the tickets was no longer in our possession. No, we had to join the extremely long queue for muppet check-in. Another 20 minutes passes. We get to the check-in desk, only to be told that because we don't have the card, we need to go to the Ticket Sales desk, where they will "unlock" our booking. This takes a further 10 minutes. By the time we get back to the check-in desk (pushing in, despite our essential Englishness), they tell us it's too late to get our luggage on to the plane, and because we have 2 pieces each, we can't go through security. Result? We're offloaded from the plane. And then PJ got very authoritative and business-like with the BA staff, while I alternately cursed and cried. So they transferred us onto the next flight, just to get rid of us (okay, me), I think.

We finally arrived home at 10.30, exhausted, having missed Bones and feeling exceptionally bitter about the weekend. In retrospect, of course, we had a lovely weekend -- photos and anecdotes to follow shortly.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Oh fudge!

In my youth, a finger of fudge was just enough to give your kids a treat. Maybe it's just my advancing years, but I'm not sure that this delightful (and innuendo-laden) marketing message is strictly true: Fingers of fudge are much smaller than I remember! But still, very tasty and good value at 15p. Mmmm, fudge.

I miss English sweets. All liquorice all the time just isn't the same.

Who ate all the pies?

We did. And very nice they were too. If you're ever in the Charlotte Street area, ignore the over-priced "joys" of Roku and Bertorelli's, and head through Percy Passage to Rathbone Street and the Newman Arms. This tiny pub was once the favored drinking spot of George Orwell, but it's real attraction is the pie room upstairs.

Check out this little beauty: I think this was Clive's chicken and gammon pie; I'd dived into my veggie pie before remembering to take a picture. Yes, they're THAT good.

And the prices are very good, too. Eighty quid got us 4 pies, some dessert, two bottles of wine, 3 pints of Stella, and two vodka, lime and sodas. Bargain.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

London fields

I'm not the greatest fan of public transport, particularly when it involves diversions and lots of money. So, Monday evening I walked "home" from work; Tuesday morning I walked to Marble Arch and then took the bus along Oxford Street (give me a break -- it's a long way, the shops look awfully tempting, and I'm trying not to spend too much). Part of the journey involved walking through Hyde Park, and it was beautiful. It's one of the largest of the London parks, is well-maintained, has horsies and dogs in it, and it was a lovely autumnal morning: blue skies, sunshine, but with a crisp bite to the air. The buildings of Bayswater are also impressive, so I've included a few of them below.

Definitely more enjoyable than taking the bus or -- horror! -- the tube.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Bye bye Nigel

So, a 4-1 defeat to Burnley and it's all over for Nigel. Not surprising really -- that's an atrocious result that had me head in hands as my taxi driver told me it on Sunday. Six and a half years is a long time to spend at any club these days, and we clearly need somebody new to put some passion and discipline back into the boys. Bryan Robson appears to be interested, and that would be a very interesting move. Big name, big boost for the boys? He might just be a little too expensive for Norwich though.

We clearly need to borrow Beenie from "Psycho" Pearce though -- or get a little stuffed canary equivalent. That'll do the trick!

Notting Hill

One of the great things about staying in a house belonging to friends is not only the joy of having your own kitchen rather than extortionately priced room service, but that you can check out new ideas for your next residence. And if you're going to do this, it's particularly helpful if you can stay in a rather gorgeous 4-bedroomed house in Notting Hill whose owner is a professional interior designer. It's a bit like staying in your very own boutique hotel, only cheaper and less intimidating (mostly). This is what I've come up with so far:

I like:
Wooden floors but with carpet inserts around the bed. Much toastier under the toes, but also very clean and simple.
Spotlights at ankle level in the hallway to the kitchen.
A conservatory-style kitchen.
Gas fires -- these are especially fabulous when you can't figure out how to put the central heating on and the cashmere blanket just isn't enough to keep you warm when you're reading The River Cafe cookbook.
Giant showerheads.
Libraries with properly designed shelves and ladders.

I don't like:
Metal countertops in the kitchen. I keep worrying about leaving fingerprints all over them, and dulling kitchen knives on the surface. Or scratching the surface. (Marble isn't much better: It's incredibly porous and soaks up stains pretty quickly. My friend Julia cut up some oranges on the marble worktop of her Italian host family, leaving orange marks all over and resulting in them having to have the top ground down. Expensive business, marble.)
Wooden basins in the bathroom. They look wonderful, but it's disconcerting seeing all your teeth-brushing rinsing water complete with toothpaste-y backwash highlighted against the dark grain.
Not being able to figure out the central heating or how to switch the lights on in the kitchen. The latter makes creating evening meals something of a perilous affair.
Lots of windows: After five years in a flat in Amsterdam with windows only at two points in the house and nobody overlooking those, I find it strange to be in a house with many windows -- most of which look directly into other houses. So if I can see them, presumably they can see me. Including when I'm on the toilet or dressing after a shower. It feels odd to have to shut doors (and even lock them, depending on how paranoid I'm feeling) when I'm in a house on my own. I also keep catching glimpses of people walking past the house out of the corner of my eye -- which is particularly disconcerting when you're cooking a meal in a darkened kitchen on your own.
Kettles designed for a gas hob. Electric ones are quicker, switch off automatically, and don't lead to you inadvertently setting fire to yourself while sleepily making a cup of coffee in the morning.
Cleaners/builders. I tried making myself a cup of tea this morning, only to discover the cleaner (or possibly the builders) had finished up the PG Tips. I had to have coffee, which is not the same thing at all.

All of these things I will need to avoid in the next iteration of Dumpling Mansions.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Equal opportunity complaining

I'm in London this week, so opportunities for blogging are limited. I will point out, however, that the route of the 94 bus from Notting Hill to Oxford Circus is insane! Why would you take a detour around Queensway/Bayswater that involves tortuously narrow streets and thus inevitable delays and which adds 15 minutes to the journey, only to end up about 100 meters further along the road at Lancaster Gate? Why? It makes NO sense.

And how come they've put the bus prices up by 50p since my last bus journey in London? That's a 50% increase in one fell swoop. Thanks Ken -- way to encourage people to take public transport.

Oh, it's good to be back temporarily in the UK.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

And here's something I made earlier

At weekends, we now have a minimum of three computers in the flat -- three that are plugged in and working, I mean. This is making it extremely difficult to remember where I filed photos and whether I can blog with them. So, when I uploaded my Dutch crunch bread pics, I discovered my photos of Danish fish cakes and a cauliflower cheese souffle that I made last month. Why should my technological confusion deprive my cyber-mates of the evidence of culinary prowess, I thought?

1. Danish fish cakes, frying in the pan. It was difficult not getting grease on the lens, but I do like the buttery bubbles.

2. Danish fish cakes, cooked. They were delicious and incredibly easy. Finely chop raw cod and an onion, mix with flour, eggs, milk, and seasoning. Fry for 5 minutes on each side.

3. Cauliflower cheese souffle -- notable not only for it's impressive height, but for the fact that finding this recipe made me realise that Google is not the be all and end all of search. In fact, it gave me no helpful recipes at all, whereas MSN came up with this one. I didn't bother with the twice-baked stuff and I think mine looks rather better than the original, but it was lovely.

Flour + water + salt + yeast = ?

Regardless of how often I make bread, I'm still amazed each time at how it works. It's just a simple combination of ingredients, mixed together, left in a warm place, and then baked, but there are so many variations and it (nearly) always tastes good. And just watching dough grow, transforming itself from a tight floury ball to a springy, elastic mass, is fascinating.

Yesterday, I made Dutch Crunch Bread. Now, I've lived over here for more than 5 years, but have never come across it. Perhaps I'm shopping in the wrong places. But the pictures looked lovely and I have a bag of rice flour that I'm trying to use up, so it seemed extremely fortuitous when I found this recipe. How did I get on?

First up, the dough. Gorgeous.

Then came shaping the rolls and spreading them with this odd yeast/rice flour topping. I might have used a bit too much.

However, this didn't affect the end result. Light bread rolls with an intensely savoury, crispy topping. The Dutch just might be on to something with this.

Next time, I'll make smaller, rounder rolls, coat them with less topping -- I'll bake the rest separately for PJ to nibble on -- and I might try striping the mix so that they look more like the rolls in the picture. But definitely a recipe to add to the growing collection.

Top tips from the Dumpling's kitchen

I would just like to point out that dipping the remains of last night's Yorkshire pudding into cold onion gravy is absolutely fabulous -- a culinary experience worthy of 3 Michelin stars. Try it!