Sunday, December 21, 2008

Some local colour

Each week, we seem to find a new reason to be delighted with our new home -- or it's location; a great pub, excellent running trails, Waitrose. Today, it was the Otterbourne Mummers. Last weekend, a notice appeared on the tree at the end of the street, notifying us that the Mummers would appear today at 3 p.m. Just before 3, we set off with many other local residents to watch five disguised figures appear, perform a short skit about St George (with contemporary digs at merchant bankers and the credit crunch), sing a song, and then disappear again -- with, hopefully, enough money in their collection tin to buy a couple of rounds at The Otter.

They're part of a local tradition dating back to 1600, although it was suspended after the Great War, in which many of the Mummers died. For more information on the Otterbourne Mummers and their resurrection, take a look here. What a lovely thing to do -- and to watch.

A second good reason to get a Roomba

Of course, I'm not convinced that ours would sit on one -- but it would be fun making them try. And more fun than listening to them chasing and killing a mouse upstairs, which is what I'm doing right now.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Victory is ... orange-flavored alcohol

Our run of success in competitions at The Otter continues. Last night, we attended the 2008 bottle draw, having bought six tickets earlier in the month. We won not one but TWO prizes -- a bottle of Southern Comfort and, after some horse-trading with other winners, a bottle of Cointreau! There were 50 bottles up for grabs and a couple of people won far more prizes than us, so please don't feel that we were being greedy. It does, mean, however, that we've probably broken even at the pub this year -- result!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

When did the cats start reading my blog?

Following my complaint about Shin's leaf-hunting habit last week, she's decided to get her revenge. In the past 24 hours, she's bought in not one, but TWO dead rodents. Rigor mortis had already set in with the first one, which makes me suspect that she didn't actually kill it herself, but found it already dead and decided to take the credit. (Good girl!) The second one, however, was still slightly floppy, so far more recently murdered. On the plus side, our neighbour is delighted; we think they're killing the shrews from his garden, so it's great for him. Just so long as they stick to shrews and don't start dragging in rats or seagulls -- both of which would be far more unpleasant to remove.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

I thought online shopping was meant to be easier than offline?

Panic! Amazon's free super-saver pre-Crimbo delivery is almost at an end! Must buy stuff for family in the next few hours! I am thwarted at every turn. The oh-so-carefully selected gifts turn out to not be in stock or not available for 10-13 days -- far too late! People must have gifts to open on Christmas Day -- it's the law! Back to search, back to finding something that's good enough, rather than perfect. Then, Amazon insists on rechecking my credit card because I'm sending stuff to a new delivery address; yes, one that I chose from my PREVIOUS delivery addresses. Gah!

However, it's not quite as bad as another store I used. I got all the way through the ordering process, didn't face a query even though the billing and shipping addresses were different, and hit send -- only to be told that my goods would be sent out within 28 days. THAT'S NOT ACCEPTABLE! Not in the run-up to Christmas. Which means I now need to go back to Amazon and find something that's small enough not to break the bank but isn't just cheap tat. Panic, panic, panic.

Curses and swear words have been freely used in these hallowed halls. The cats (and PJ) are cowering in a corner. Christmas 2009? Is cancelled.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Tis the season to be jolly!

So we put the first of our decorations up yesterday.

Ho ho ho!

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

First blood

Aw! Shin's made her first kill -- a little vole/shrew that she dragged in the other day and decided to play with on the stairs. I distracted her with the curtain and then removed her victim to its final resting place -- our dustbin. It was a touching moment.

However, since then, Shin has demonstrated that she's adorably stupid. She keeps bringing in dead leaves with long stalks that look remarkably -- and by remarkably, I mean not at all -- like a dead mouse. She's incredibly proud of herself, making lots of noise to announce her hunting success, but has failed to realize that killing a leaf is not much of an accomplishment. Walking through the house is like tramping through an autumnal forest, with dead leaves crackling underfoot. However, I guess it is better than being ankle-deep in dead rodents.

Nin hasn't yet bought in any trophies, but she has learned to knock open packets of kitty crunchies off the shelf and push open the sliding cupboard door to access the Pets R Pricey fish-flavored kitty-crack treats that are her drug of choice. Clever girl!

Monday, December 08, 2008

Recent sunsets

Pretty, aren't they?

TV shows I'm watching

As the days and nights get colder, it's time to skip walking round to the pub -- too dangerous, what with all the ice-filled potholes in our lane -- and to huddle up with the cats in front of the TV. Luckily, there's been plenty on:

1. Escape to the Country: For the days when I finish work early and need some decent house/countryside porn. If only the couples featured on it weren't so terribly bland. And, if only some of them actually bought a house. I know it's supposed to be about helping people clarify their ideas about what and where they want to move to, but the show lacks the big emotional money shot at the end when there's no purchase.

2. Little Dorrit. Ah, BBC/Andrew Davies costume drama at its finest. The first few episodes were a struggle, given the huge number of parts and the rampant overstaffing by the Beeb's favorite actors -- look! It's Alun Armstrong and Amanda Redman from New Tricks! Oh, and Freema Agyeman and Eva Myles from Torchwood! -- but it's all falling into place. I was rather cross when the Beeb postponed last Thursday's episode in favor of a Panorama special about a nasty woman who was extremely nasty to her daughter. It just didn't seem necessary to upset those of us who much prefer fictional nastiness to reality-based nastiness. Anyway, I'm hoping that Arthur and Amy finally get it together this week and will be rather sad to see the end of the show.

3. The Devil's Whore. Another costume drama, this time set in the English Civil War and produced by Channel 4. Now, I studied this period for A Level (20 years ago, admittedly) but I'm totally confused by what's going on. It feels like an in-depth script was produced at some point -- enough for a 20-episode show -- but the channel balked at the time and cost involved and hacked it down to a more manageable 4 shows. Two years pass at a time; characters that previously hadn't met are suddenly greeting each other like old friends; the central character often seems oddly peripheral to most of the action -- and swapped ideological positions pretty damn swiftly, moving from monarchist to Leveller in the blink of an eye; and Oliver Cromwell clearly rode into town on a combine harvester. It's not bad, but it could have been so much better.

4. Combat Chefs. This is my guilty secret. I never thought that a show about the British Army's catering corps -- on Five! -- would be so interesting.

5. Top Gear. Hurrah! It's back again. And with Kevin McCloud -- bliss!

Right, time to make some dinner and plan tonight's viewing.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Crimbo kitties

Hurrah! Tis December 1, which means just one thing -- advent calendars! Although ours is a secular household, I refuse to believe that advent calendars really have anything to do with religion; they're all about the chocolate, just as Blue Peter's advent crowns were all about the potential to set your house on fire. Anyway, this year, we -- okay, I -- got the kitties an advent calendar from Pets R Expensive, our local quality petfood store. They quickly embraced the Christmas spirit, ignoring my detailed explanations of the little doors and Christmas, choosing instead to fight each other (and the box) over the catnip treats contained within. Sibling rivalry at its finest; the next 24 days are going to be such fun!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Ice cream Sunday

Prior to setting off for the North-East, I had acquired a copy of The Perfect Scoop by David Lebovitz. This is chock-full of recipes for gorgeous-sounding ice creams, sauces, mix-ins and serving vessels, and I wasted little time in making use of it. First up was a roasted banana ice-cream with hot fudge sauce and chocolate chip cookies; it's an easy, delicious way to use up those bananas that always seem to linger in the fruit bowl, reproaching you. However, that was soundly beaten by yesterday's cheesecake ice cream. Oh my! This unbelievably simple concoction involved just cream cheese, sour cream, single cream, sugar, lemon zest and salt, and tasted exactly like the best American (not Yorkshire) cheesecakes. As those cheesecakes tend to have a biscuit base, I paired it with chunks of chocolate biscuit cake and it was divine! We had to limit ourselves to one scoop each because, y'know, it's basically just frozen fat, but we will return to the trough tonight for some more.

Next week, sweet potato ice cream.

To Hull and back

Our brief vacation ended with a night in Hull. Before we went, I knew a few things about Hull:

1. The Housemartins were the fifth-best band in Hull.
2. It had its own telephone company pre-privatisation.
3. Er, that's it.

Having visited Hull, I now know that it's also a rather nice city. Our visit did not start auspiciously, what with the rain, the lack of a car park at our hotel, and getting lost (twice!) on the way to the apparently hard-to-miss multistory. However, cheap alkyhol in a local pub and a trip to the cinema to see Quantum of Solace improved our mood. The next day, we discovered that Hull has some lovely buildings, courtesy of its trading/fishing past: the guildhall, customs houses, and riverside warehouses were impressive, and there were many quaint streets and squares scattered throughout. We saw the distinctive cream telephone boxes of Kingston Communications and pavements lined with engraved, fish bricks. Cooplands bakeries abounded, selling pink iced finger buns and Yorkshire curd tarts (yum). And we chanced upon a Chinese supermarket, so stocked up on big bottles of soy and chilli sauce -- a real bonus. It could do without the giant Big Brother-esque TV screen showing 24-hour news in the center of the city and the lorries delivering what sounded like scaffolding at 5 a.m., but apart from that, Hull gets a thumbs-up from me.

However, the highlight of the trip for this bridge geek was the Humber Bridge. This magnificent structure was the world's longest single-span suspension bridge for 17 years. It crosses a massive, muddy tidal estuary and was as impressive as I had imagined it would be. We even managed to pick up some Humber Bridge-related Christmas presents in the local tourist information office; I'm sure their recipients will be as thrilled by them as I was by the bridge itself.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Dracula doesn't live here anymore

And there weren't many Goths around, either, which was somewhat disappointing. I had expected to see clumps of them, drifting around town and sitting among the tombstones, applying makeup to each other and being miserable (just as they used to do by the fountains outside C&A in Norwich). But we did get some sunshine, lovely food at The Moon & Sixpence and The Magpie Cafe, and a great hotel room right on the harbour with excellent breakfasts and cocktails -- highly recommended.

Was he singing about Scarborough?

"Trudging slowly over wet sand
Back to the bench where your clothes were stolen
This is the coastal town
That they forgot to close down
Armageddon - come armageddon!
Come, armageddon! come!

Everyday is like Sunday
Everyday is silent and grey."

Actually, Sunday was windy, cold, and wet. Very wet. And a lot of places in Scarborough were closed down for the winter. But despite that, it had a lot of charm. The bay is beautiful; the amusement arcades and chip shops reminded me of Great Yarmouth, the scene of my childhood seaside outings; and it had a fantastic second-hand book shop. What more can you ask of any town?

Been fish n' chipping

Yes, we finally took our 2008 vacation -- just 6 weeks before the end of the year. Off to the glamorous North-East of England: Scarborough, Whitby, Staithes, Bridlington, Hull -- the names just trip, elegantly, off the tongue. We walked along windswept beaches, got soaked in a torrential downpour while returning to our windmill-based B&B, ate fish, climbed up hilly seaside streets, ate more fish, read books, and finally -- and remarkably -- got fed up with eating fish. Good times!

Monday, November 03, 2008

An intruder calls

Clue no. 1: all the cat crunchies were gone when I came down this morning.
Clue no. 2: a bag of rubbish in the utility room has been ripped apart and, empty packets of cat food tossed across the floor.
Clue no. 3: there's a puddle of urine on one of our chairs.

I'm not a particularly smart feline CSI, so it didn't occur to me that this wasn't our cats misbehaving in an out-of-character way. I just assumed I was being punished for some slight, as yet unknown. However, when the cats started growling at the sofa in the office, it became clear that something was underneath -- and I looked to see a pair of worried eyes looking back. The cats were kicked out into the conservatory, the sofa lifted up -- and out shot the fat tabby that hangs out in the allotments behind us. The poor thing had come in during the night, found that the cat flap was set to "in only" and so couldn't get out -- and he must have been terrified!

However, I hope that he doesn't come back to eat more of our food. And I clearly need to sign Shin and Nin up for some assertiveness classes; they are useless guard cats.

Monday, October 27, 2008


Back in May, shortly after we got our BT Vision box, I recorded The Station Agent. Painting, cats, gardening meant that I didn't get round to watching it until this evening -- only to discover that the recording cut off before the end. Argh! I was really enjoying this and will now need to order it from Amazon to find out what happens!!

I hate recording from the BBC; running late rarely happens on commercial channels -- too many ads to show. Grrr.

Spotted, on the way up to Heathrow

Some contributions to Clive's SCB (stupid corporate branding) series:

Burnt Tree Vehicle Solutions (it's a car hire firm -- why would they use "vehicle solutions"?)
Caring for Tomorrow! (a parcel delivery firm -- don't they know that tomorrow never comes, or is that code for saying that they don't deliver on time?)

But, we did see a great tagline on a biscuit company lorry -- Bite Me! There is hope.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

"Here, have some samples"

Remember: The first taste is always free. It doesn't matter whether you're talking about class A drugs or upmarket pet food, someone, somewhere wants to get you (or your pets) hooked. Our pusher looked nice enough. Sure, he'd given us a lecture on feeding the girls right; he'd warned us against giving them those lesser (read: cheaper) cat foods, as they contained low levels of meat and lots of lovely salt and sugar. Hills was the best stuff, the right stuff. More than 60% meat, low in salt and sugar, lots of vitamins for a shiny coat. If you were a cat, he seemed to imply, you'd want to be eating Hills, too. If we didn't, our girls would be at risk of tooth decay, diabetes, and heart disease -- and we didn't want that, did we?

"Here, have some samples."

So, we gave them the free samples -- they were free, and we're tight-fisted! What harm could it do? Up until that point, they'd been happy with Felix and Waitrose own brand, but they adored Hills! Wolfed it down, leaving shiny clean dishes behind. Nothing to throw out -- great! They were happy, so I was happy. But then they refused to finish up the Waitrose own brand (I gave the rest to Fat Bob); only Shin would eat the Felix, because she's greedy. And then I discovered how much Hills cost. Twice the price of any "bad" cat food and not available in supermarkets! No, you have to go to "specialist" pet stores, like Pets R Pricey. Start them on Hills and you'll find yourself cruising around small industrial parks at 7 p.m., desperately trying to find their next fix. And when you discover a special offer -- such as today, hurrah! -- you start stockpiling boxes. We now have 7 boxes (all that Pets R Pricey had on the shelves), each containing 12 pouches -- that's 84 pouches! Enough to see us through till, oooh, mid-December. After that, it's back to scouring the InterWebs for more special deals while watching our bank balance drop like stocks on Wall Street and cursing the day that we ever accepted those samples.

Hills: Pet owners' ruin.


They just don't care about the credit crunch ...

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Same old, same old

A batch of redirected mail arrives today -- largely from the Netherlands. It contains:
1. A bill from Waternet for 105 euros.
2. A WOZ statement (property tax bill) from the Gemeente Amsterdam for 2008.

As should be perfectly clear by now, we don't own a property in the Netherlands. We haven't done so for 18 months. We de-registered at the Gemeente like good little Dutchies when we left, and we even sent in a statement, complete with land registry certificate, to show that we had sold the property. Of course, none of this trumps the fact that the woman who purchased our flat is primarily based in the UK and has no incentive to register with the Gemeente, which means they think we still own the flat -- despite the fact that the bill itself shows that we sold it last year.

I phone the Gemeente. The woman who answers tells me that if we owned the flat on January 1, 2007 we would owe taxes on it for 2007. I pointed out that the WOZ was for 2008. She said we'd have to submit the statement blah blah blah. I pointed out that we'd done that. "Have you had a reply?" Clearly not. "Oh, well you will have to wait for the assessment." What assessment? What is there to assess? The fact that we clearly do not own the property? I somehow fail to mention that we have moved from our previous UK address -- although we have also filled in a form to tell the Gemeente, who have clearly not processed that either -- and figure that this is probably the last time we'll receive anything, our various forms having disappeared into the morass that is Dutch bureaucracy.*

I phone Waternet. Despite the fact that the only date on the bill is August 2008, it is for the first three months of 2007. I point out that I had already paid a 2007 bill in June. Oh no, that was the "Owner's bill" -- this one is for actual water usage, with an extra charge for January, as apparently we all use far more water in January than in any other month. Must be all those baths we take to keep warm. I tell him I'll pay and then ask him to promise that he won't send me any more bills. He laughs and agrees. I, once again, fail to notify him of our change of UK address. The thought of spelling out Otterbourne is too much. Good luck trying to find us, Waternet! (This is what is known as the "Savage" method of repatriating from NL to the UK -- just disappear and don't tell anyone anything.)

Once again, I give thanks that we are no longer living in the Netherlands. Sorting out the great Winchester versus Eastleigh council tax debate was a doddle compared with trying to convince the Dutch authorities that we have, indeed, sold our flat. The swine.

*Of course, I realize now that we should have sent all the forms to the Gemeente in Amsterdam by registered post -- if such a thing exists for international mail. I am such a dolt!

Monday, October 20, 2008

One helluva book

On returning home, we were greeted by a veritable mountail of mail. In amongst the credit offers and un-redirected mail for the previous occupants was a gem: a copy of "Clint: The Man With No Legs" by this author. I'm not sure what I was most impressed with: the clever and funny cartoons, the professionalism of the publishing, or the canny use of the corporate mailroom to distribute these items to friends and family.

I particularly liked: "At the park, Clint feeds the pigeons ... wisdom."

Thank you!

Reading is glorious!

Actually, that should read "reading is glorious but Reading is ... not so bad." We spent 48 hours there, quite a few of them asleep, and the best thing I could find to take a photo of was the lifts in the John Lewis department store. To whit:

It's a wonderful lift! Look at the curves and chrome!

This is a little unfair. Reading is a perfectly pleasant small city. However, its historic heart has largely been obliterated by a 1990s mall and its recent replacement, The Oracle; this is identical to the new Norwich mall, complete with House of Fraser at one end and a World of Sports (note: no actual sports equipment sold) at the other. There are a few nice streets and buildings -- with a particular shoutout to the quaint Merchant's Arcade and its secondhand bookshop, collectors' store, and brand-new sweet shop -- but you can't get anywhere near the prison, and the abbey ruins are closed. As with most other UK cities, corporate buildings and small apartments are being thrown up, but it remains to be seen whether they're ever occupied. It also has a fiendish one-way system that seemed determined to stop us from reaching our hotel and led to angsty three-point turns.

However, we managed to have a rather nice weekend. Scarily, it was my first night away since we moved into our new home ... back in April! The weather was good, and our parking was free, thanks to NCP's credit card payments system not working on Sunday morning. The kittens got to spend their first nights in a cattery and appear to have survived -- although they've been quite mouthy since getting back from pokey this morning. We had a lovely meal at the Malmaison Brasserie and even managed to find me a winter coat and jacket, courtesy of Ben Sherman (in the aforementioned mall). Best of all, we met up with friends, both for coffee and cake on Saturday afternoon at Picnic, one of the few independent coffee shops near the main shopping area, and then at a noisy, sweaty 40th birthday party at Afroba on Saturday evening. And at the end of the day, that's what really counts -- not buildings.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Barn owls

I make my first, tentative foray into village life, attending the local conservation group's meeting in the village hall. I was approximately half the average age of the other attendees, but no matter. I met several of my neighbours and won a prize in the raffle! We had a very entertaining talk on the recolonisation of the Test Valley with barn owls, complete with some truly stunning photographs. Apparently, barn owls are under threat from lots of things: hurricanes and lightning destroying nesting trees; jackdaws and rooks evicting the owls from their new, human-made nesting boxes; cattle troughs in which the mothers drown; a lack of fence posts for the owls to perch on; and the over-manicuring of riverbanks so that wealthy fishermen don't have to cast their lines out over rank vegetation during their "10 days for 3 grand" fishing extravaganzas on the Test. However, one of the biggest problems is agribusiness: Unless farmers are paid to leave strips of land uncultivated around their fields, there are no insects, no voles, and thus no food for the barn owl -- or many other species.

I blame Thatcher. Obviously.

However, in an example of political correctness gone mad, the conservation group has had to put on hold its plans to take part in a "Tidy Up Britain" campaign -- because it would be required to take out insurance and provide stout gloves
for everyone taking part. And, if we want young offenders to tidy up the local churchyard, we have to pay their travel expenses, as the probation service has run out of money. Unbelievable!

Next stop: the Save the Children coffee morning tomorrow!

Honey fungus

It sounds so pretty, doesn't it? As if it ought to attract bees and have a sweet scent. Only it's a huge, clumpy toadstool that collapses back in on itself in a steaming, sweaty mass -- oh, and kills hedges, too. Not the ivy/bramble evil hedge, of course, but the relatively well-behaved beech hedge. And there's nothing we can do about it, apparently. The spores feed on the deadish tree roots that are only an inch or so under the surface of our lawn, and you can't kill them. You have to wait for the decaying organic matter to fully decay. And even then, the spores might still infect the soil.

But we could put concrete over them . . .

Thursday, October 09, 2008

The lawn is broken, too

All my gardening books and Gardener's World -- now "must-see TV" on Friday evenings -- tell me that I must work with the conditions that exist in my garden, rather than fighting them. There's no point trying to grow acidic-soil-loving plants in chalky soil, and if you have lots of clover in your lawn, have a clover lawn -- helpful stuff like that. Unless, of course, your lawn is made up of 50% moss, 20% ivy, 10% clover, 10% mushrooms, and 10% actual grass/weeds. We have at least three different varieties of fungi in the lawn at the moment, and I've spotted several other specimins during the past month. So while a camomile lawn or a clover lawn or even a daisy-strewn lawn all sound delightfully English, a "fungal" lawn isn't quite so appealing. Worse yet, I can't identify whether the damn things are edible or not, so it's not even as I can use them in a risotto.

To top it all off quite literally, what little grass there is is buried under a 2-inch thick layer of pine needles, courtesy of the large Scots Pine at the bottom of the garden. I keep raking them up and more keep falling, along with hundreds of pine cones. And the tree casts a shadow over the lawn in the winter sun, which means it stays dark and damp -- just right for promoting mushroom growth. Sure, it's a beautiful tree, a feature of the lane even -- but if it weren't here, I wouldn't miss it. In fact, I'd welcome its removal. (Ssh! You're not allowed to say things like that around here.) Perhaps it's time to crack open the BBQ for one final -- and incendiary -- farewell to summer and to the tree ...

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The BT Vision box is broken

We had an electrician in yesterday morning to replace our outdated, non-compliant wire fuse box held together with bits of string with something more 21st century -- it's all gleaming switches encased in shiny plastic with circuit breakers in case the shower pump goes crazy. As a result, the power was off all morning, and when I plugged the BT Vision box back in, the power light on the front just flashed away sadly but didn't actually do anything. After a few frantic emails and texts to Istanbul (PJ's current location), we determined that it wasn't working. I cycled the power, checked the Ethernet cable, and finally discovered an on-screen message that told me to call the BT Vision help desk.

Now, one of the joys of living with a tech geek is that you are never allowed to call a service provider help desk. This is on a par with asking for directions and is seen as a full-frontal assault on his masculinity and technical abilities. Given that he doesn't get back from Istanbul till later today, I was thrown back onto dodgy terrestrial TV -- and we only appear to get BBCs 1 and 2. I'm allergic to BBC1, so was forced to watch Twiggy's Frock Exchange and Britain's Style Genius.

The former reinforced the stereotype that women are grinning Sex and the City-esque idiots who will squeal when shown a pair of Manolo Blahnik shoes -- even ones that are decorated with cheap gold coins, just like the sandals that you buy when holidaying on a Greek island and then consign to the back of the cupboard when you return home and to your senses. The latter was all about how wonderful the British High Street was, despite the fact that most British women clearly can't find anything in it that is well-made, flattering, and well-fitting. Just because Kate Moss looks good in a furry jumper and fringed gold jacket doesn't mean that anyone else will. And why would you want to?

I'm blaming Mary Quant, Biba, and the 1960s in general. Bring back proper tailoring and clothing for proper women! And bring back the service on my BT Vision box -- and quickly!

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

"It's like polenta, only tasty!"

I clearly have a thing for food that you can eat with a spoon: mashed potatoes, soups, soupy stews, rice pudding -- and now sweetcorn polenta. This was another Grauniad weekend magazine recipe, this time courtesy of Yotam Ottolenghi. It is pretty simple, although you do need a food processor.

Take 6 ears of sweetcorn and shave off the kernels. Doing this into a large bowl stops the little blighters from flying everywhere. You need about 560 grams. Then, place them in a saucepan with 500 ml of water and 20 grams of butter. Bring to the boil and simmer for about 12 minutes. Put the kernels and a little bit of the water into a food processor (leave the rest of the water in the pan) and process the hell out of the kernels -- it takes about 3-4 minutes to get them really smooth. You may have to scrape down the sides of the bowl and add a little more water.

Return the paste to the pan with the water and cook on a low heat for about 10-15 minutes, stirring all the time, until it thickens. Then stir in 20 grams of butter, 200 grams of crumbled feta cheese, 1/2 tsp of salt and some black pepper. Keep stirring for another 2 minutes and then serve, preferably with some sort of tomato/veg sauce on top.

Now, I don't mind ordinary polenta but PJ's not so keen -- hence the quote that's the title of this post. But this stuff knocks ordinary polenta into a cocked hat! It's bright yellow summer on a plate -- just right for a cold, dark September evening. Again, no pics; it got eaten far too quickly for that.

As the skies get greyer and the temperatures drop

It's time for some pictures of some of the gorgeous flowers in the allotments behind our house.

We were so lucky with the weather in September; we were able to actually spend some time out in the garden, rather than just watching the sodden lawn and plants from the shelter of the conservatory. In addition, we've found new walks nearby, most notably across a semi-private motorway bridge to the Chamberlayne estate between Otterbourne and Hursley -- which also makes an excellent (and thankfully level) running route. On Sunday, we headed off to the Michaelmas Fair at Weyhill near Andover, and then on for a pub lunch at the Cross Keys at Upper Chute; again, like the Meons the previous weekend, a slice of classic English countryside.

Monday, September 29, 2008

"And it's lovely rice pudding for dinner again!"

Mary Jane was an idiot. Rice pudding is wonderful. What's better, though, is chocolate rice pudding! We had it for dinner last night, courtesy of a Dan Lepard recipe in the Guardian.

Put 50 grams of pudding/risotto rice in a pan with 200 ml milk. Bring to the boil, then remove from the heat, cover with a tight-fitting lid, and leave to soak for an hour.

Add 40 grams of sugar, 15 grams (1 large tablespoon) of cocoa powder, 1/2 tsp vanilla extract, and another 200 ml of milk. Stir into the rice mixture and then heat gently, stirring from time to time to stop it sticking/burning on the bottom. Do this for about 15 minutes until the mixture reduces and thickens.

Remove from the heat again, cover with the lid, and leave for 30-60 minutes. We could only manage to leave it for 30 and then had it with a huge dollop of whipped cream and a couple of those lovely chocolate cigar biscuits. Gorgeous.

Dan suggests thinning the cooled rice pudding with a little cream, decanting it into individual ramekins, sprinkling the top with brown sugar, and having at it with a blowtorch to create a crispy brulee finish. That also sounds fantastic, but we were hungry and I don't have a blowtorch. (As with my desired purchase of a chainsaw, PJ thinks I am not to be trusted with this sort of machinery).

Dan Lepard is a baking god. His bagel recipe is wonderful; I made some exquisite chocolate biscuits from another Guardian recipe; and his bread recipes are top-notch, too. If you like baking, get one of his books.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The very definition of "trepidation"


Off to the countryside

If you only had one day in Hampshire, this is what I'd do. First, head to Loomies at the junction of the A32 and A272; we haven't been inside, but it looks like a classic A-road cafe -- complete with full English breakfasts. Then, drive up to Old Winchester Hill and take the circular walk round to the Iron Age hill fort. You get to see truly stunning countryside as well as a beautiful wood and views down to the Isle of Wight. After two hours, you'll be back at your car and with an appetite. Follow the narrow, winding lanes down to East or West Meon, and stop at one of the quaint pubs in these quintessentially English villages. Enjoy decent pub grub and then take a leisurely drive home, perhaps stopping off to see the gardens at Hinton Ampner en route. Wash the car, make chutney, and let your adorable kittens out into the big wide world for the first time. (Oh wait, the latter part only really applies to me. Still, it was great.)

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Au revoir, Fat Bob

He's gone. To a good home, we think. It was all rather fortuitous: We'd had a lovely day out at Old Winchester Hill (pictures to come), come home, and I'd started washing the car. About halfway through, a very pleasant middle-aged couple from down the road stopped to chat about my Fat Bob poster -- they'd noticed the one I put up by the entrance to the woods and seen the one on my gate post. I did my usual sales pitch, and they both said "Bert would love him!" Bert is their elderly neighbour, whose own cats had died earlier this year. He was feeling rather down in the dumps, and these kindly people figured that Fat Bob would cheer him up. They took our phone number, went off to talk to Bert, and called about 30 minutes later -- Bert was delighted at the prospect of lavishing care and affection on a new cat. Ten minutes after that, they were round with a neighbour's cat carrier and bingo: Fat Bob had a new home. He must have known, as he sauntered into the carrier as if he were expecting it.

Reader: I am overjoyed for Fat Bob, but I must confess there was a tear in my eye as we sat in the garden and had a final cuddle. He's been a real character on the lane, and I've met lots of new people as we've chatted about him. "Oh, you're the lady with Fat Bob!" one woman down the road said as I chatted to her about car washing on Friday. I have gained a local reputation -- and a nice one, at that. Hurrah for Fat Bob; may he live long and prosper with Bert.

In which we find a local fishmonger

Chandler's Ford has a fishmonger! It's only open Wednesday to Saturday and for limited hours only -- I presume they're out fishing the rest of the time -- but it's a proper fishmonger. The sort where they're happy to do all the gutting and scaling and filleting for you and have the types of fish you can't buy in shrink-wrapped plastic trays: red gurnard, sea bass, and huss. We tried out Fishy co for the first time yesterday, purchasing a beautiful silver bream. I had vague recollections of an interesting Indian treatment for bass or bream in the Cinnamon Club cookbook, and was delighted to discover when we got home, fish in hand, that I had all the ingredients for it. Well, except tomato puree (ketchup worked well). And lemon juice (but lime juice worked). And coriander (but PJ hates that anyone, so I usually sub in parsley).

This was the first time that I'd cooked a whole fish that wasn't trout, and it was damn fine. You marinade the fish in a chilli/salt/oil paste, then sear it on both sides till the skin is crispy. Then, smear it with the Parsee-style sweet/sour paste: spices, dried apricot puree, tomato ketchup cooked until jammy. Into the oven for 14 minutes and bingo. Perfectly cooked fish that slid off the bone, with subtly sweet flavorings and sticky bits. I served it with some masala sauteed potatoes, a firm favorite from the same cookbook, and we had orange sorbet to finish. Wonderful. The more I use the Cinnamon Club book, the more I like it. The recipes look enormously complex, largely because of the lengthy ingredient lists, but they're actually not that difficult and work well. If you like Indian food and fancy a bit of a culinary challenge, I'd highly recommend it.

The picture isn't great, but we were too hungry to faff around more.

Hurrah for autumn!

Yes! The summer is over! I can tell, because it's stopped raining. Goodbye grey skies, limp salads, and an overwhelming sense of disappointment. Hello
cold, crisp mornings, fantastic root vegetables, and happiness. I love autumn! I've been picking blackberries from the brambles that dominate the hedgerows round here, and our generous neighbours have been putting out boxes of cooking apples from their trees. Chutney making is on the agenda for today, along with washing the car, a trip to the gym, and yet another ring round of all the animal shelters.

However, I don't like what autumn has brought to my lawn; namely, mushrooms. Hundreds of the things, popping up all over and sneering at my best efforts to destroy them. I am too cowardly to try eating them, so have to content myself with kicking them over and shouting "Get off my lawn!" to the distress of the local birds. Little blighters!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Nice cat, nobody wants him

Fat Bob is still with us. The trip to the vet last week confirmed that he is indeed a Bob, he doesn't have a chip, but he does have slightly dodgy teeth. I've been calling all the local rescue centres and they are either all full or simply ignoring my pleas for help. We're on the waiting lists of St Francis, the RSPCA, and the Blue Cross -- it's worse than getting your kids into Eton! I've even started approaching strangers in the street and asking whether they want him; yes, I am now Fat Bob's pimp. Meanwhile, he continues to sleep in our garage and haunt our doorstep -- but he's not on the list, so he's not getting in.

Fat Bob
Is not my kitty
He's just a cat
Who thinks that I am his mum
But Fat Bob is not my son ...

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Poor Shin

Following a successful post-op checkup at the vet's, Shin managed to pull out one of her stitches. As a result, she's back in her plastic collar -- and most unhappy about it. She staggers around, bashing into chair legs and windows, and is having some difficulty accessing food; she is not comforted by me telling her that it's all for the best in the best of all possible worlds. But that remaining stitch must stay in, so the collar must stay on for another day or two at least.

"Where there is discord, may we bring harmony."

What a day. Awake at 7, up at 8, in Waitrose by 8.45, banana oatmeal muffins made by 10, wandering Winchester by 11.30. Arrived home at 1.30 and decided to do a spot of gardening before settling down to read The Guardian. Which we did, but only after 4 hours of backbreaking work. "A spot of gardening" turned into two trips to the garden centre, as we realized that first three and then 13 bags of plum slate chippings weren't going to adequately cover our front garden. In fact, the second trip to the garden centre turned into two trips in and of itself, as I had forgotten my purse and had to drive home to get it, while PJ sat on the final six sacks of chippings. We pinned down a ground cover sheet; I hefted bags of slates from car to garden; PJ sawed borders while I scattered slates; and finally we filled and moved plant pots — tomorrow, we will actually plant the pots with the autumn-planting bulbs that I bought today (after watching Gardener's World last night).

We are both shattered, but it's been well worth it. The formerly unkempt, overgrown front garden is as tidy and low maintenance as I could wish for. The slate chippings will look lovely when it rains (as it often does), as that's when their vdeep purpliness becomes apparent. And we did it ourselves -- and have the aching backs and arms to prove it.

From this:

To this:

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

My poor babies!

Today was a big day: After depriving them of food for 12 hours, we dropped the kitties off at the vet this morning to be spayed and micro-chipped (no GPS tracking, unfortunately). We picked them up at 4, and they are a sorry sight. Groggy, grumpy, and shaved! Shin keeps giving me the stink-eye, while Nin seems a little more forgiving, but I'm sure that will wear off along with the pain meds. But it does mean that we'll be able to let them go outside in about 10 days time, should the weather improve.

I just hope their fur grows back quickly. They look so ... mangy!

Meet Fat Bob

Fat Bob* is a stray who's taken up residence on our street. We're a soft-hearted bunch of neighbours. He sleeps in a porch two doors up, and the owners have now put out a cosy cat blanket for him; I've fed him a couple of times, and I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one. He's the loveliest cat -- extremely friendly, as well as being extremely greedy. But what to do with him? I've put up a notice in the local pub and called a couple of cat rescue places, and nobody's reported him missing. There are no signs up for him in the area. And, of course, he doesn't have a collar. I'll take him to the vet tomorrow to see if he's been chipped. Keep your fingers crossed that we can reunite him with his family.

* I don't know if Fat Bob is male or female, but the name suits "him".

Monday, September 01, 2008

Exposure is the best form of contraception

We spent the weekend surrounded by children: an 18-month-old on Saturday evening/Sunday morning and then a 36-month-old and a six-year-old on Sunday evening. This was more by accident than design; we are categorically NOT gluttons for such punishment, but events conspired. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth, but once I'd dealt with PJ (ho ho!), the real fun began. I had no idea that there could be so many small child/floor interfaces in such a short space of time. The presence of the cats in the house has meant that we no longer have valuable possessions or furniture that we worry about, but I was slightly nervous as the 18-month-old explored the wonderful banging potential of the telephone against the glass-topped unit. And I know that my ginger biscuits were slightly dry, but I can't believe a Michelin inspector would have rubbed them into the conservatory chairs. Children are harsh critics.

By the end of the weekend, PJ was shell-shocked and retreated to watch some fun zombie action (the remake of Dawn of the Dead). I made like the Victorian maiden that I so closely represent and took to my bed (read: sofa) with my laudanum (a strong cup of tea) and a good book (of sudoku puzzles). As for the cats? I think they are traumatised. They spent most of the weekend either cowering on top of the china cabinet, hiding in the cupboard under the sink, or skulking under the bath. It's good to see that they share our fear of the wee ones.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Cats + downward dog = trouble

A quiet hour of yoga in the conservatory sounded good. I fired up the iPod with a little Supper Club, rolled out the mat, and decided not to kick out the cats, who were dozing peacefully (and shedding many hairs) on the chairs out there. Big mistake. Two minutes into my "warm up" -- lying down with knees bent and eyes shut -- I felt a gentle nibbling at my fingertips.* From then on in, chaos. Cats to the left of me, cats to the right of me, cats under me, and finally, cats mocking my ungainly attempts at bending my spine like a cat. Boo! They spoiled my "me" time! Next time, they'll get the boot.

* Now, I've heard that cats will start eating their owner's dead body after 24 hours if they get trapped in a house with no other source of food -- dogs apparently wait a more dignified 48 hours -- but 2 minutes!? That's just greedy!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

They are SO adorable when they're sleeping

When they're awake? Not so much. Whether it's trying to get them out of PJ's office when we're rushing for a train (can't leave them in there as Shin has learnt to switch off the DVR at the socket, thus requiring a 10-minute reset process) or stopping them from jumping all over my keyboard when I'm editing or even asking them not to nibble the toes of the nice man who came round to design our fitted wardrobes, they seem to aim to cause maximum annoyance. I oscillate wildly between repeatedly uttering "NO!" and putting them out of the room or bribery, in the form of cat treats. Bribery is much easier and much more effective, but I'm a little worried that I'm creating a dependency culture (both in them and me). They're still figuring out how to open the sliding door of the cupboard that contains their treats, but I reckon it's only a matter of days. And at that point, our downfall will be complete and we will welcome our new feline overlords.

Some (Proustian) flashbacks

1. Cycling to Chandler's Ford on Saturday morning. The light drizzle turns into a torrential downpour. My hands are frozen, my jeans are soaked, and my glasses are covered in water, blinding me. It is reminiscent of the ride to work in autumn (or winter, or spring, or, heck, even summer) in Amsterdam. Delightful.

2. Drinking Lirona lemonade, purchased at one of Alresford's delightful delis. This tastes like my childhood holidays in France (just like its Web site promises), although I don't have any recollection of drinking this particular brand. Slightly disconcerting.

3. Wolfing down butterscotch Angel Delight. Another taste of my childhood, although I think we tended to have strawberry or banana more than butterscotch. Just add milk and whip (not that kind)! It is artificial and fluffy and utterly wonderful.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

To have one garden gnome ...

... might be seen as ironically kitsch:

To have two looks like the start of an embarrassing obsession!

Sunday, August 03, 2008


A pleasant evening spent in the depths of Wiltshire, admiring the large and lovely new home of some friends -- fellow escapees from the clutches of urban life. Meeting a dog named Finn, newly adopted from the Dog's Trust, so somewhat shy and nervous. Driving along the very dark, very winding A303 at just before midnight when BAM! Out of nowhere -- okay, the bushes on the other side of the road -- two Rodents of Unusual Size* shot out and across the 303 just in front of my car. Not actually Rodents of Unusual Size but badgers -- HUGE badgers! I thought badgers were cat-sized, but these were more like small bears and -- luckily for them, my car, and my sanity -- extremely nippy. The vast amount of roadkill along the sides of our local country roads demonstrates that some of their peers aren't quite so fast.

*It's a reference to The Princess Bride; if you haven't seen it, go watch it. Now.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Unhappysville: Population -- these two

I put collars on them today. They were NOT happy about it -- as the gash in PJ's hand attests (he was my unwilling assistant/co-conspirator). But if they want to go outside, they have to wear a collar and ID tag.

At least we removed the bells, which were driving them (and us) even madder. Shin is now pointedly ignoring me, and will no doubt continue to do so until she requires feeding again.

Monday, July 28, 2008

What lies beneath

Geraniums. They look quite pretty. The leaves are supposed to be good for scenting blackberry crumbles. They appear harmless ... on the surface. But underneath lurks a fearsome root structure, a series of tenacious tentacles that are resistant to even my death touch. But not, after some considerable effort, to PJ's fork and spade:

Doesn't it look like something that should be guarding Davy Jones' Locker?

We have also uncovered a paving slab and a log, six inches below the surface of the bed. The former occupants really didn't believe in getting rid of anything!

Friday, July 25, 2008

"It's funny because it's TRUE!"

Basking in the sun

If you don't like the kitty photos, Simon, you can always find somewhere else to stay next month. My blog, my cats, my photos! Happy birthday, btw!

"So, how long will it take you to kill these herbs?"

This gardening thing is addictive. I've spent three evenings this week and all of last Sunday in the garden, hacking away at plant life and bagging up rubbish. We've made two trips to the dump, and have more planned. I've even managed to plant some more herbs -- and five days later, they're still alive, which is about three days longer than the last lot lasted. I'm attributing this to the primo organic compost that went into the top of our eco safe -- no more chalky, stone-strewn rubbish for me. A colleague recently told me that he'd been getting keener on gardening as he got older, and wondered whether it was some kind of primal urge to farm taking hold. I think for me it's more about being able to indulge my primal urge to destroy. It's all about the secateurs and the shears and the ripping up of the stranglers -- the ivy, the bindweed, and the inch-thick brambles -- that have taken hold of our garden. It's the satisfaction you get from housework but the results are far more visible and you're pretty sure you won't have to do it all again next week and the week after and so on. Well, I won't if I'm able to get some "hard landscaping" down in certain areas.

Like the Cylons, I think that I've evolved (as a gardener) and I even have a plan. Well, a small one, for the bit of land at the front. We're going to dig it over, take the weeds out, put down a mulching sheet, cover that with plum slate chippings, and then put out big pots of plants. It should look much neater than the geranium-infested, log-covered mess that it was ... and it should be easier to maintain. When my plants (inevitably) die off, I can just put out some new ones. I keep looking through my gardening books, trying to figure out what I want in the pots ... fascinating stuff.

Longer term, I want to move the useless rolltop bath in our bathroom down to that spot, fill it with soil and plants, and then put the head and arms of a shop dummy in it, making it look as if there's a person taking a bath in a sea of plants. Very Dali-esque (if you've ever been to the Dali museum in Figueres, you'll know what I mean). But that will have to wait until we've redone the bathroom, which in turn will (probably) have to wait until we've built an extension out back with a wet room in it. So, most likely, at least a year. But it's a plan.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Got wood?

We haven't! Well, not any more. First thing this morning, we had piles of the stuff. The former owners of our house had clearly had various trees chopped down and decided to hold onto the bits of trunk, just in case they came in useful. Of course, they didn't, and instead were clogging up various bits of garden. For example:

In addition, we had trees. Big trees. Notably, a bay, a Scots pine, a greeny-grey tree (don't know the name), and a long hedge. All of these were in need of some serious TLC. So, we got in a tree surgeon and he turned up today with three strapping young men, and they chopped and hacked and sawed, and fed stuff through a wood chipper -- and confirmed that it takes about 15 seconds to put a human body through -- and ate lots of my chocolate triple-chocolate-chip cookies, and our garden now looks considerably bigger and neater and generally better. Unfortunately, it has also exposed our rampant geranium problem, so it's time for me to start chopping and hacking and (probably not) sawing away. Oh well, beats going to the gym, I guess.

From this ...

to this ...

and from this ...

to this ...

A really nice job by Foster's Tree Surgeons of Southampton. Highly recommended.