Thursday, December 20, 2007

PJ's Christmas present

Yes, a stalk of sprouts. For some reason, he actually likes these little works of Satan. I will merely point out that when Heston cooked his perfect Christmas dinner last night, he used leather odours, myrhh, and reindeer milk -- but no sprouts.

I rest my case.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007


Gross stupidity on my part yesterday morning. I'd ordered a book last week from the UK's largest online retailer of books, one that I needed to write an essay for my course. As it hadn't dispatched, I went into the site, checked my order, and checked back to the original entry -- which said that it was available to ship in two to three weeks. Curses! I hopped over to Alibris, found a second-hand copy that would ship in the next two to five days and ordered it. I then went back to "the other store" to cancel my order, only to find that it was being prepped for dispatch and I couldn't cancel it. Which means I now have two copies turning up. Curses and swear words!

Hmm, time to regift. I'm sure one of my family members will be delighted to receive a copy in their Christmas stocking.

Nuts to you, too

I think the birds in our neighbourhood have been spoiled. They have been ignoring our generous offering of a bag of nuts ever since we hung it up a couple of months ago. It's close to my "office" window, and I was hoping that it would act as a lure and provide me with entertaining activities on the part of our little feathered friends. No such luck. The bag remains untouched.

However, I had better luck today with a nub end of bread. The male half of the blackbird partnership that nested outside our kitchen window over the summer appeared to wolf down some of it. Success!

Of course, this was no ordinary bread. [Cue Groove Armada music]. This was middle-class, handcrafted, organic bread, with a mix of hemp, linseed, and sunflower seeds. This is Norfolk Dumpling bread.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

So there ARE some things that are better in the Netherlands!

Speaking of house prices, we're trying to buy a house at the moment. I say trying, because it is. Very trying. And it goes something like this.

1. See house, like it, put in offer.
2. Bit of back/forwards, offer accepted.
3. Wait to see if vendor will get the house they want to buy.
4. Hurrah! It's all going ahead.
5. Survey done and mortgage arranged within a week. Environmental search comes back, house not going to fall into a big hole. Hurrah! We're on course.
6. Wait for water search. Get hassling phone calls from the estate agent. "Is everything going ahead? Vendor is ready to exchange tomorrow!" Explain we are waiting for water search.
7. And waiting.
8. More phone calls from estate agent.
9. Still waiting on water search. Inquire with vendor/estate agent re: possible exchange date. Will they want to move before Christmas?
10. Silence.
11. Vendor is NOT actually ready to exchange "tomorrow." Vendor now has problems with access to their proposed purchase. May not, indeed, be ready to exchange before Christmas, let alone complete.
12. Meanwhile, still waiting on the water search.

So, we're 2.5k down (searches, solicitor's fees, survey, gas boiler check) and have no guarantee that we'll even get to buy the damn place. Am rapidly going off the idea of moving.

I am shocked. Shocked!

According to my favorite rag, The Daily Mail, hedgehogs aren't hibernating properly and are being injured as a result. This heartbreakingly adorable photo accompanied the story (online, at least). Surprisingly, the Mail blamed the problem on climate change, rather than the usual gypsies and immigrants, and failed to mention the undoubtedly catastrophic impact on house prices that this will have.

We live in disturbing times.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Crunchie bar heaven

Hurrah -- another cookbook has just arrived. This is the Canon Street Cookbook, though, a local charity effort, involving recipes donated by the residents of the street around the corner, as well as some local history. It's fantastic! This is my favorite recipe so far:

Take 6 oz of Crunchie bars and crush to crumbs. Whip up 1/2 pint double cream in one bowl, and whisk 1 egg white to a soft peak in another. Fold the egg white into the cream, mix in the Crunchie bar crumbs, and 1 tbs alcohol -- the author recommends whisky, but I'm thinking something chocolatey. Serve.

There is not a single thing wrong with this recipe, and I think I will have it instead of Christmas pudding this year. Yum!

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Colors for autumn

Beautiful colors on trees and plants, all part of my favorite season. And wonderful veg: swede and two types of pumpkin. We had beetroot, too, in our veggie box last week, but those went into a rather nice dish of potato gnocchi with roasted beets and a beet-red wine reduction, courtesy of The Artful Vegan. Tonight is a lentil and mushroom salad over grilled radiccio, and then we get the first parsnips in tomorrow's box. I [heart] root veg.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

I wish it could be Bonfire Night every night

Hurrah! Autumn! Root vegetables, frosty mornings, and new-season television, beamed "directly" from the US! Best of all, though, is Bonfire Night. We failed miserably in years past to make it to the expat bonfire party in Amsterdam, but headed out into the surprisingly mild evening yesterday to join thousands of Winchesterites watching things burn and explode. First up was a rather impressive torchlit procession from the Guildhall to the field behind the leisure centre. It was rather like being part of an angry mob from an old horror movie, albeit rather more middle-class than peasant: fewer pitchforks and cries of "burn the witch!"; more pushchairs and discussions of house prices.

Then, the bonfire and fireworks display. No Guy on the 650-pallet-strong bonfire; I guess celebrating the demise of Catholic traitors is no longer de rigeur -- clearly political correctness gone mad! Despite that lack, the bonfire was excellent. Huge flames soaring into the night air, sending showers of sparks and clouds of smoke across the playing field.

As for the fireworks, well, we've been spoiled by the New Year's Eve celebrations in Amsterdam -- an hour-long fireworks frenzy. But these were fun, colorful, with some particularly good specimens at the end. Oohing and aahing ensued.

The one problem with the evening (apart from the announcer's insistence on playing Elton John)? No doughnut vendors. You could buy all sorts of fried meat products but no doughnuts. Which was a shame, as we were pretty hungry by the time the fireworks had finished. No matter: we had this little beauty waiting for us in the oven when we got back -- a soft gloopy mix of bread, cheese, onions, and kale. Enjoyed with a couple of episodes of Heroes, it was the perfect end to an extremely enjoyably English evening.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

All movies all the time

There are two problems with starting a course in film studies: 1) I simply haven't watched that many films in recent years, due to sojourns in Spain and the Netherlands; and 2) I can't remember the many films I watched in my teenage years, due to that being 20 years ago. I'm having to make up for these by watching lots of films now. So, recent weeks have seen me plough through The Third Man, Mildred Pierce, Brighton Rock, Hell Drivers, My Darling Clementine, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Maltese Falcon, A Canterbury Tale, I Know Where I'm Going!, The Lady From Shanghai, The Letter, Dark Victory and, in a return to the 21st century, Layer Cake and The Libertine. All entertaining films (although I am finding it hard to enjoy Westerns). And last night we headed for the bright lights of Southampton to see Eastern Promises, David Cronenberg's new film. This is my first Cronenberg -- as you can see from the list above, I am not a huge fan of modern/violent/horror films; I prefer my fight sequences to be shot in black and white and involve guns, not big knives and razor blades. I spent several parts of the film with my eyes firmly shut, feeling PJ wince beside me. But still, an interesting look at a London I know nothing about --even if I now know never to go to Finsbury Public Baths. Back to the safer world of High Noon and Calamity Jane tonight!

Worst. Season. Ever.

A 2-0 defeat to West Brom leaves us at the bottom of the Championship; relegation appears inevitable. We're in good company at least, with 3 points fewer than Crystal Palace and QPR, also former luminaries of the Premiership. The Championship is the toughest division in football -- the desperate scrabble for the glittering prizes of promotion and the fear of the drop. I am trying to take some comfort from Leeds' impressive turnaround in fortures in Division 1 this season; perhaps we can find our own Dennis Wise and rise, phoenix-like, next season.

Friday, October 26, 2007

They call me Student Dumpling

It's true. After 8 years after my last incursion into academia, I've re-entered the fray. An MA in Film Studies at the university up the road. Part-time of course; I don't want to be a poverty-stricken student again (and PJ won't let me off my half of the rent). It's been interestingly challenging so far, and with us halfway through a 12-week whistlestop tour of critical theory: classic Marxism, Althusserian Marxism, realism, mise-en-scene, son et lumiere -- with feminism, Freudian psychoanalysis, auterism and cognitive poetics still to come. History was much easier -- just one damn thing after the other and rarely questioning the nature of reality. And we had proper titles for our essays; today's task was applying one of the critical approaches we've studied to a film of our choice (British/American, 1940-60), and in just 1000 words. A terrifying experience; despite my day-to-day job and occasional bursts of effort on this blog, I do very little actual writing -- and certainly none of the high-falutin' pretentious nonsense that is academic debate ... sorry, discourse. But it's done. It needs to be revised, of course, arguments tightened and structure changed. And then I need to prepare a seminar presentation on genre for Tuesday. And maybe at that point I'll stop dreaming about writing essays and lecturing on how to read the Western.

About five years ago I had the option to acquire an MA from my alma mater -- for just 10 quid. I turned it down -- perhaps misguidedly. We'll see.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

HOW much!?!?

Off to London for a couple of days, the first time in many weeks. It's still noisy, expensive, and dirty -- you're better off in Winchester, the best place to live in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland and second only to Edinburgh in the UK. Anyway, we were up in town for a fun event, The Economist Innovation Awards, with a lovely dinner at the Science Museum. Great food, fun exhibits to look at, and interesting people to chat to -- there was a Nobel prize winner at our table; I didn't tell him that physics made me cry at O level and that I only got a C in it. All in all, an impressive evening that made me realize just how little I contribute to the world. I'm not sure that "does little harm" is really good enough.

However, the hotel we stayed in was something else. Very large, comfortable rooms; friendly staff and great service; beautiful public spaces. But. The rack rate for our room was 480 English pounds. Let me spell that out for you, in the manner of unbelievable football scores on Grandstand. FOUR HUNDRED AND EIGHTY POUNDS.* Not only did it not have an external window that you could open, resulting in a bizarre microclimate that left you both cold and lacking any form of moisture in your body, but you didn't get:

1. An iron and ironing board.
2. A hairdryer, other than the fixed one on the bathroom wall -- that sort that wheezes over you like an asthmatic badger.
3. Tea and cofffe-making facilities.

In fairness, the hotel staff sent up the first two to our room on request, albeit a particularly useless iron that emitted little heat and removed few crumples. But still -- it's a city centre hotel, presumably full of reasonably well-dressed people who want to have clothes that look somewhat less crumpled after a journey. An iron and ironing board in each room does not seem like an unreasonable request. But my particular bugbear is the lack of a kettle and assorted sachets for making hot drinks. This is England! We drink tea! We like -- nay, need -- to have a cup of tea when we wake up in the morning, and charging several quid to send one up to your room on top of the FOUR HUNDRED AND EIGHTY POUNDS rack rate is outrageous!

I wish I had an adequate form of protest, but given that we weren't paying and will certainly never stay at that sort of hotel under our own steam, my options are somewhat limited.

*Of course, the people who paid for the room almost certainly got a much better rate, but still. That's a lot of money.

March of the sinister ducks

We stayed at Forda, a small "resort" of A-frame lodges and converted farm buildings deep in the Cornish countryside. A games room allowed me to thrash PJ at table tennis, while a swimming pool and visiting beauty therapist provided rather more relaxing alternatives (for him). Best of all, though, were the grounds. Three fishing ponds were great places to sit and read the (out-of-date) newspaper, while listening to the sounds of nature and basking in the sunshine. And then there were the ducks. A flock? A swarm? A murder? Perhaps, more accurately, a pester of ducks -- 20 or so of the things, very friendly, very unafraid. Each morning, they would do the rounds of the different visitors, hoping for bits of bread. They'd lurk on the patio, quacking loudly, persistent in their requests. And then, just as Bauhaus and Alan Moore sang, they would march on, sinisterly, to their next victim.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Cats of Clovelly

Does exactly what it says on the tin.

West Country Dumpling

Off on our hols -- the first since Latvia last year. Not quite so exotic this year; inspired by all the Brit porn on BBC2, we opted for a week in Cornwall. And glorious it was, despite (or perhaps because of) no access to the Internet or mobile phones. Who knew that there were still places in Western Europe that had, TV channels other than the original four, and no mobile reception! So, we read, we watched films, we devoured the second season of Life on Mars, and we even tried some cycling -- and discovered that the hills around Winchester have nothing on the hills round Bude. As a result, we took the car out to visit both childhood haunts (Trevone) and expensive private villages (Clovelly), admiring the dramatic scenery. The only slight downside was a lack of decent restaurants; great farm shops, reasonable pubs, and a pretty good pizza one night, but apart from that it was self-catering all the way. However, we had glorious weather for the first week of October and it was all rather relaxing, what with complete silence (other than the site's large gang of ducks) and no demands on our time. I'm not waiting another year for a holiday.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Tangerine clouds and (pink grapefruit) marmalade skies

The veggie box doesn't just throw up challenges like beets, kohl rabi, or bag upon bag of spinach. This week's fruit/veggie box contained grapefruit and plums, neither of which we particularly like. Once again, it was time to get creative. Many of my favorite blogs have recently been extolling the joys of canning and preserves, it being that time of year. While I often watched my mother make jams when I was younger, it's nothing something I've tackled on my own; pots of boiling sugar make me nervous. However, I came across a simple recipe for pink grapefruit marmalade, I bought a kilo bag of sugar, and started boiling away like a latter-day Willy Wonka.

The result? Two jars of some lovely marmalade, the overly tart nature of the grapefruit beaten into submission by the refined white sugar. It's probably a little too stiff to be perfect, but we weren't sure how much the jam was meant to wrinkle on the plate, so boiled it for an additional 5 minutes. We'll know better next time.

Up next was a Delia recipe for plum crumble slices -- a simple oaty mix with sliced, spiced plums in the center. What a revelation! The plums become jam-like and intensely fruity, with an oaty, squidgy wrapping. I've devoured several slabs on this already today, and am resisting the temptation to buy some double cream to slather on top of some more.

The more traditional elements of the veggie box are also proving invaluable. We're eating lots of salads, a much wider variety of vegetables and dishes than ever before, and I'm reading through my vast collection of cookbooks to find interesting recipes in which to showcase their flavors. I can't recommend this scheme highly enough. We're off to the main farm in a couple of weeks time to do a farm tour and have an apparently excellent lunch (according to The Guardian). I can't wait!

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Wolves 2: Norwich 0

This, on top of a 2-0 defeat to Charlton midweek (TWO penalties in the last 5 minutes!), leave Norwich 19th in the Championship and should leave me in a state of despair. However, I've just had a couple of Southern Comfort and lemonades at The Old Vine and am feeling very little, other than shame at being such a lightweight. The full horror will no doubt hit later on.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The end of the season

Despite the rapidly dropping temperatures and the grey skies, I set off for tennis this evening -- in a tracksuit, not a tennis skirt, mind. I got to the club to find it was deserted. Mix-in evenings are clearly over for the year, but how did everyone else know? There was no email, no general announcement. Is instinctively knowing the end of the season something that comes once you've played there for 20 years, along with how many balls there should be on the court at all times (four), when to stay at the net (haven't a clue -- and it shows), and who's really in charge (Margaret)?

However, the end of the tennis season signals the start of my favorite season -- autumn. And what better way to kick it off than with a bowl of autumnal-colored soup. This one is beetroot and carrot, with a hefty helping of fresh coriander and some lime juice to cut through the earthiness. Glorious.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

For Beth

I just spent 5 days in Amsterdam -- and a further 5 hours in Schiphol, waiting for my Flybe -- or Maybe, as a fellow passenger called it -- flight home. Amsterdam was fun; it was lovely to see nearly all our friends, hit up Simon Levelt for our favorite ground coffee, and get sushi from Sushime. But, my irritation levels soon started to rise: endless queues in Albert Heijn and Etos; it kept raining when I was on my bike; and my God, the Dutch really can't cycle well at all! Within 24 hours, I was freely cursing the muppets who wobbled across cycle paths, and pulled over without indicating. Grrr!

Most of all, however, I missed the countryside. The previous weekend, we'd cycled out to Easton -- no more than 5 km from our house. If you cycle for 5 km -- or even 50 -- around Amsterdam, you're still in an urban landscape. Beth came over all nostalgic for the Swiss vistas they enjoyed on holiday. Well, these aren't mountains, but these views sure are purty.

1. The River Itchen, on its way to the watermeadows.

2. The view from Kingsgate Tennis Club, at 9.30 this morning. Perfection.

3. Twyford, while house-hunting.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Subliminal messaging works (read my blog)

Since we returned to the UK, our TV screens have been filled with countryside porn. Coast, Mountain, The UK's Favourite View -- BBC and ITV have been extolling the glories of the UK with lingering shots of stunning vistas, bathed in sunshine. I don't know whether this was all planned last year, during the heat wave and the airport security upheaval, resulting in us all being exhorted to stay at home rather than flying abroad; all I know is that it worked. Two weekends ago, I found myself in Millets buying a pair of mountain boots -- my first pair since I was a wee 11-year-old, heading off on a miserably cold and wet school trip to Snowdonia. My new pair are surprisingly comfortable, ready-waterproofed, and thus not needing hours of softening with dubbin. They are a rather fetching grey and, after breaking them in on a trip to Subway at lunchtime, I now feel ready to tackle Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike, or work on an IT help desk. Their first real use will come in about a month's time, when we head off to Cornwall for a week -- our first proper holiday this year. Told you the constant pro-UK messaging worked.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Foraging for food

A half-decent Sunday, so we decided to set off on a bike ride. Out along the busy streets of Winchester, through Kings Worthy, and on to the pretty (and expensive) village of Easton; a place where former Post Office and dairy buildings cost upwards of 600k (pounds) and Aston Martin Vanquishes are parked on the verges.

After a refreshing pint at The Cricketers Inn, we made our way along deserted and uphill roads -- and stopped for a spot of impromptu blackberrying, using an old blue plastic bag that I carry around to protect my saddle from the rain. Now, if the people round the corner put out some more of their windfall apples, I will have the ingredients for a free blackberry and apple crumble. Bliss!

Norwich 1: Cardiff 2

A stupid last-minute winner from the Welsh boys; given my heritage, I could choose to support them instead -- and may well do if Norwich don't pull their socks up.

Let them eat cake ... or bread

There's a certain satisfaction to be gained from using the right tools for a job. On Friday, I finally found the 9", solid-based cake tin of my dreams and was finally able to make a cake that was the right size. I've been using a 10" one till now, resulting in large, thin cakes that just didn't look right. This chocolate and courgette cake is a winner, though.

On the same note, I've had a couple of attempts at baking breads without using a tin -- according to the recipe, this rye and apricot bread should have been shaped into a sausage and placed on a baking sheet, but the first attempt resulted in an inch-high, mile wide loaf -- not very aesthetically pleasing. Confining it in an 8" tin forced it up high, helping to develop a more open texture. It's a doddle to make, tastes fantastic, and keeps really well for several days -- if you can stop people from eating it in the middle of late-night video-gaming sessions.

Separation anxiety

Poor Emmy. Bereft, waiting for her master to return.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Finding your G-Plan

We've seen more than 10 houses in our search for a permanent base, but nothing's really grabbed us. Nothing, that is, apart from a lovely G-Plan dining table, chairs, and sideboard, and three 60s plastic bucket chairs that we spotted on one of our tours of duty. So, we dropped a note to the seller of the house, asking him to contact us if he was thinking of selling any of it. And he did, so we bought it (for a good price -- and more than he wanted for it), and, best of all, it all fitted into the back of the Golf. At different times, obviously, but still: that sideboard's not small. Or light.

Best. Commute. Ever

I'm pretty sure you're not supposed to have this much fun traveling to work in London. A seat on the open deck at the back of a Thames Clipper, sun glinting off the Thames, and the greatest view of the bank-side buildings. Best of all, no sweaty armpits pressing against your nose. It's almost enough to make me want to live in Canary Wharf.