Friday, 30 May 2014

Going up!

Mmm, strawberries.  The supermarkets have them on the shelves, Pinterest is full of recipes for them and no doubt the BBC will start showing trailers for Wimbledon soon.

In my experience the best way to taste a strawberry is to pick it on a sunny day and pop it straight in your mouth. That gentle warmth brings out all the glory of the flavour, and every last bit of the sweetness is there because it was picked mere seconds ago.

This is not how I generally experience strawberries.  In fact, before now I've been lucky to get more than about 10 fruit what with predation by birds, escaped hens, slugs and woodlice.  This is an unsatisfactory state of affairs.  Indeed, as Miss B complained to me a few months back when choosing which jam jar to open, "Why do you make every jam and jelly except my favourite? Why won't you make strawberry jam?"

Never one to shirk a challenge, I had a good think. What were the impediments to having a decent strawberry crop?
  1. Not having a large patch with space for loads of plants
  2. The ground being too wet so they get mouldy
  3. Insects eating them
  4. Birds eating them
I remembered visiting Canal Gardens many years ago and seeing a tall pillar of impatiens.  They were planted in holes drilled around a massive pipe stood on its end.  That could solve all my problems, I thought. Growing vertically means less square footage, makes them less accessible to slugs and woodlice, means fruit aren't sitting on soggy straw. If we secure the pipe to the fence to keep it stable we could drape netting across to keep the birds off and chickens out.

That's so crazy it just might work.

So off to the plumbing supply shop Mark toddled, with a list.  Mark loves a building project.  This is very fortunate, as I love having new things built.  I generally avoid power tools myself; since I sliced the end of my finger off in woodshop in Grade 9, I regard all power tools with great suspicion.  Hell, it took 3 years for the feeling to come back. 

Here we are. getting ready to make 4 towers - two 3m lengths of soil pipe, some plastic overflow pipe and some compost. We also needed 4 2l pop bottles, twine, weed blanket/garden membrane and strawberry plantlets. And Duct tape. Duct tape is very important to Mark.

First, Mark cut off the end bit of the soil pipes - the bit that's like a wider cuff.  I kept them for using with grow bags in the polytunnel later on. Next he sawed the 3m lengths into 1.5m pieces.  Then, using a 2 inch drill bit, he and I took turns drilling holes in the side of the pipe.
(Yes, I did use a power tool despite what I just said! I was determined to take part properly because it had been my idea. I was scared at first but it was kind of cool.)
We drilled 5 holes at regular intervals, leaving 20cm at the top and bottom to allow for the reservoir and room for the plants to trail down.

Then we rotated the pipe about 100 degrees and drilled a second lot of 5 holes, offset from the first.

This allowed us 10 plants per tower.  We'd be fastening them to the fence on the east side of the garden, and of course we want the plants to get as much sunlight as possible so drilled the holes allowing us to plant to the south and west faces of the tower.  If we'd had a north wall, we'd have drilled 3 sets of holes for east, west and south.

Next, the irrigation system.  Watering from the top would make it likely the lower plants would dry out, so I wanted a way to get water all the way down. We used overflow pipe (because it was the cheapest) cut slightly shorter than the soil pipe. That would allow space at the top for the funnel/resevoir to be fitted.  I drilled little holes right through the irrigation pipe from one side, then rotated it 90 degrees and drilled through again.
See the first line of holes? I'm drilling the second line here
To stop the water just running into the soil underneath the towers and skipping the plants entirely,  we blocked off the bottom end of the irrigation pipe. Use whatever you have - we had some fat plastic screws from an old play house we duct taped into place, but we could have done the same with a wine screwcap or similar.  Duct tape was inevitable.

Now, it is quite important that the end you block off is the end you sawed down to size. The other end is slightly beveled, which will be useful later
Don't block off this beveled end
With one end closed, the beveled end free and holes criss-crossing the pipe, the irrigation system is nearly ready. To stop soil or compost clogging those watering holes, I wrapped the irrigation [pipe in a strip of weed blanket and secured it with garden twine wound around it. I didn't want it getting dislodged while I filled the planter with dirt.
Cut a thin strip of the membrane to go around the pipe
A length of overflow pipe is about the same width as the mouth of a pop bottle. To make filling the pipe easy once in situ, cut the top off a 2l pop bottle to make a funnel and attach it to the irrigation pipe. Dip the bottle top in a mug of hot water to soften it if it's stiff going onto the pipe. Remember that slight bevel to the edge? This is why it's useful.   The beveled edge is much easier to jam the funnel onto than the cut edge. 
As is practically The Law in DIY projects, secure it with a bit of duct tape.

Here is one of the towers secured to the fence with the irrigation/funnel only partially in place:
If you want a large reservoir, make your funnel deeper. I didn't because a) I'm not that tall and the whole contraption was about as high up as I can lift a watering can b) I wanted to be about to plant quite high up the tower, which isn't possible if that space is filled with reservoir and not compost and c) I didn't want the naff pop bottle plastic showing above the top of the tower.  Because black plastic plumbing pipe is this season's look, doncha know! 
4 towers against the fence, wires in front to support netting

Here comes the tricky bit. I wish I'd done it differently...
Filling the tower. Oops.

My first plan had been for the irrigation tube to go down the back go the tower, so filling would have been pretty easy. But Mark's idea for the funnel/reservoir meant the irrigation tube went pretty much down the middle and I needed to fill in around it. Quite a hassle.  What with air pockets, not finding it easy to tamp the compost down and then overfilling so I could barely get the plants in, here's what I would do if starting again.
(Remember way back in the in August '13 when I mentioned this blog would include ways I fail so you don't have to? This is one of those times.)

First, I'd make a tamping tool. Maybe several layers of cardboard cut into a C shape that would fit inside the tower (so about 9cm diameter and able to slot around the irrigation tube. I'd tape two bamboo canes to it so I could reach it right down into the tower.

Second, I'd tip some compost in the tower and tamp it down, and repeat until I was at the level of the first planting hole. I'd slot the irrigation pipe in the centre of the tower - it will stick up about 6 to 12 inches at the top for continuing to fill the tower.  Slot the first plant in the planting hole and continue
to fill it the tower, tamping down and planting as the compost gets level to a planting hole.
Once the last plant it is in, I'd go back to what I actually did.

This is the point I stood on a chair and shoved the irrigation tube REALLY hard to get it as far down the tower as possible. Then Mark whacked it with a sledgehammer (with a block of wood to protect the funnel) until it was level.

The Way Not To Do It - 
I don't recommend tipping as much dirt in the towers as you can around the irrigation tube, paffing it down with a broom handle as best you can, tipping more in, paff paff paff with that broom handle until you're up to the top, whack the reservoir in place and then planting through the side holes.
This is a ridiculous way of doing it, I assure you.
For a start, a broom handle isn't broad enough to do satisfactory tamping. there are loads of air holes left that you need to get rid of if you want the plants to survive, and trying to add more soil by shoving it through the side holes with your fingers is a pretty inefficient way of doing it.

I'm sure none of us know anyone daft enough to do it that way, obviously.

Anyway, once the little strawberry runner were planted into the towers, the fruit netting tacked in place at the top of the fence and pegged down at the bottom to keep blackbirds and naughty chickens away, it was completed.

I give you...   STRAWBOPOLIS!  High rise des res accommodation for strawberry plants.

Strawbpolis after 2 weeks

Strawbopolis this week - Look, flowers and tiny fruits! Woohoo!

Monday, 26 May 2014

When pedestrian is anything but

Friday was one of those remarkable days when exploring the city on foot pays dividends. I walked 6km around the city centre and an area of Leeds I don't know at all - Armley.

Armley for me meant two things - the Victorian gaol that glowers down at the big roundabout and Mike's Carpets, the former Methodist church that's been a cheap carpet shop for about 30 years.  I knew nothing more about it than that. No longer needing a cut price roll end of carpet for a bedsit, nor knowing anyone at the prison I'd had no reason to visit it.

As part of my radio homework for my mentor, I needed to get out to an area I didn't know or feel at home in, and find someone to interview on a more news-y story. I thought of a couple if possible things to investigate further and off I set.

First I had a couple of things to do in the city centre itself. It was a beautiful sunny day and walking about was a pleasure. I chatted to a few of the market traders I like - Joe and Liam, my two favourite fishmongers, Sue at the wonderful B&M Fabric stall - and got some of the market gossip. It's a hotbed of friendships and rivalries, and always interesting.

I met Liam when getting an interview about the affect of the market car park closure on local trade the other week and liked him immediately. He's so passionate and enthusiastic about what he does... pretty much my favourite things. He'd worked for a big fishmonger on the corner, struck out on his own with a weekly oyster bar, and planned for months his perfect fishmonger's stall.
It is a thing of beauty. Big mirrors at the side of his shop create the illusion it's much bigger than it is. Standing near the carefully arrange display you see beautiful fish and shellfish stretching out to infinity between the reflections. The tiles are a glossy black rectangles laid like bricks - it's very 1930s chic. The giant refrigerator units behind the stall are covered in chalkboard, with all the fish and shellfish listed. It's classy, it's attractive and it makes me want to sip champagne and eat oysters. I settled for some samphire to go with the evening's mackerel.

After a bit more pottering in town, I took the bus to Armley Town Street. I had it in mind to visit the Pay As You Feel Cafe on the corner of Chapel Street - even bag an interview if I could.

It's a fabulous idea - taking waste food from supermarkets, restaurants, and the Leeds Market and making meals from it. Slightly wrinkled peppers are still delicious when roasted, and being beyond a sell-by date doesn't stop an apple tasting great in a pie. The Cafe takes makes its dishes from the donated, discarded food and just asks people to donate whatever they feel like. It's a beautiful concept.

As it is run mostly by volunteers and on a shoe-string, it is closed some days its opening hours say it will be open. The nature of the enterprise, I guess, but very frustrating when I arrived to find a closed door and no information. I'd asked ahead of time on Facebook and Twitter whether they would be open as usual but got no reply until the following evening. Ah well.

I had also read of a study by Professor David Dunstan of Queen Mary University of London, saying the best way to get rid of snails was to remove them to wasteland about 20m away. With the RHS publishing a recent survey that 20% of gardeners admit to throwing snails over the fence to their neighbours' gardens, I thought I might be able to visit the Armley allotments and get some comments.

That didn't work out either.  No one was working on the allotments at the time, despite the glorious day.

Hmm, my bid to find some audio for Andrew wasn't going very well.

I went to the library/one stop shop to browse the notices and posters in the hope of finding something newsworthy. I got advice from a lady there for a good cafe to visit for lunch and headed that way. I really enjoyed my stroll along the main street - I hadn't realised what a huge Eastern European community lived in Armley. Many overheard conversations were in what I assume to be Polish, as they were between the shoppers and staff in the many Polish shops. It felt wonderfully multicultural. Browsing the food shelves was brilliant -I picked up some packet foods to try with the kids - chocolate drink, toffee pudding - and promised myself I'd bring my Very Excellent Mate Rach's 8 year old daughter Delilah for a poke around the shops. She's teaching herself Polish and is very keen.

The recommended cafe looked packed so I walked along to the lovely Nurture Cafe run for St George's Crypt.  The Crypt is a Leeds charity for the homeless and has been doing great work for many years. The cafe is part of that - it provides cheap and delicious food at a small profit - my sandwich was wonderful - and also feeds homeless people with a St George's Crypt voucher a free hot meal.

I love those vouchers and have bought them in the past. They are £5 for a book of 5. Each one entitles the bearer to a hot bath or shower at the Crypt and a hot meal in one of their 3 cafes. Rather than giving small change to someone asking in the street, you can give them the voucher and know they can get a proper dinner. I think it's such a smart way of helping people.

I had a quick chat with the women at the cafe about how it works, but they were too busy for a quick interview when it wouldn't be going on air to promote the Crypt's work. I don't blame them at all, but I couldn't spent 3 more hours in Armley just to pop back for a 2 minute chat. I'll save it for another day.

I did chat to a lovely bloke in one of the Polish shops about how the communities integrated, but he was too shy to speak into a microphone. He had very positive things to say, though.  This encouraged me as 2 octogenarian ladies I got talking to in the cafe had been vociferous in their anger and distrust of "foreigners taking over the place," and I had felt rather discouraged.

Still, I had no audio so I needed to get on with things.

Exploring some side streets I cam upon an unusual sight - what appeared to be a building site with a series of wedding marquees across half of the plot. I investigated further and met the very passionate Mr Khatana.  He was leader of the mosque that was now walls and rubble.  In order to have space for men and women to worship separately, they needed to expand. They were removing the roof and building a second storey on the existing building. However, this meant they had no mosque for 3 months.

Not a man to let such things get in his way, Mr Khatana ordered a several whopping great wedding marquees be erected to make a temporary mosque. It had interconnecting rooms, heaters, carpeted floors, a small study and a chandelier. The sides were drawn back on this hot sunny day, but could be laced up tight and were weather-proof for rainy days. A porta-cabin to the side housed toilets.  I loved it - such invention in the face of an obstacle, and such huge pride and enthusiasm from Mr Khatana for his mosque.  I had the grand tour, got my interview and was pressed very earnestly to come back and see the newly finished mosque later in the summer.

Woohoo! Audio! And a very pleasant experience as well.  I may not be happy with rules saying men and women must be segregated, but heck, what business is it of mine how the good folk of the mosque wish to worship? I love their spirit. Enthusiasm is one of my favourite things in people. I can't help but get swept along with their positivity. Mr Khatana had even pressed his phone number upon me so I could ring and find out when the new mosque was ready and have a tour then too.

Waiting for a bus back into town, I saw a bloke waiting in a car that had a UKIP poster on the window.  I asked if I could chat to him about the changes he's seen in Armley and how he felt about them.

Terry was a man with a lot of anger and frustration. He lived all his life in Armley, except for military service posted in Germany where he met and married his German wife. He learnt German, she learnt English. It was expected of her to adopt the culture of her new country.  Terry, as a white working class bloke, was in the majority, knew this place was his place.

Now, at age 63, he feels ousted from his home. He doesn't recognise the religion, traditions, language or food of many people who share Armley with him. Where many see the changing population of Leeds as bringing richness, depth and value to the city, Terry sees strangeness and feels alienation.

He said to me "I've become more of a racist." That shocked me, hearing him acknowledge and name it; I've only ever heard people say "I'm not racist but..."
He told me Friday was a no-go area where we were standing because of (Mr. Khatana's) mosque. That "them muslims" just abandon their cars all over the place when going to the mosque and that Terry "paid road tax."  I asked him if better parking facilities would sort out his concerns - not pointing out that the mosque attendees presumably paid their road tax too - and he said yes, parking would help but look at all the foreign shops and foreign people spending money there! It's bound to be benefit money they're spending. Look at this ghetto!

As the area was full of well-maintained terraced houses with tidy gardens, I did query what he meant exactly - it wasn't a graffiti covered dump, it looked nice here. He admitted that yes, it did look nice, but it was a ghetto in the sense that only muslims lived here now, and East Europeans had taken over the other bit.

"We've lost our voice. We use to have free speech but now all that's racist, or homophobic, or religion-phobic." He wanted the borders closed, and an agreement that people who came here did so with the intention of taking part in what he thought of as "our" culture, and spoke "our" language.

I've lived a sheltered little white, liberal life. I haven't had my home feel less mine, and I like people. I moved about a bit when I was young and I settled permanently in Leeds when I was 22. I feel the city is more mine each year, as I get to know it and its people better.
Terry had the opposite experience. He had a home, he felt it belonged to him and people like him. It altered over the years and he didn't alter with it. Now he's stuck in a mindset of distrust and resentment - wanting things to be as they were, finding petty reasons like parking or shop signs to hang his frustration on.  He can't get the home of his childhood back and he can't accept Armley as it  is now.

Views like Terry's disgust me when I see them in the paper, or hear them shouted by politicians aiming to stir up division for their own ambition. But I didn't dislike Terry. He was friendly and open towards me. I suspect if he were my neighbour he'd be the kind to loan me tools and put my bin out if I was away.

No, I'm saddened by the way our political discourse failed us so blokes like Terry can't find a way back. The two voices shout "close the borders" and "don't be a racist."  How does that help? We aren't going to - and shouldn't - close our borders. Heck, if we did, what about Terry's wife?  And yelling "Don't be racist," only vilifies people rather than engaging with them.
I think Terry'd be far happier if he really knew his new neighbours.  I expect if he actually met Mr Khatana in neutral circumstances they would get on - they both have a lot of pride in what they do and enjoy a good natter.

I'm glad I spent the day on foot in Armley. I learnt a lot more than I expected to.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Bath time for Snowy

Amongst our many pets are three guinea pigs. In inclement weather they live in a 2 storey hutch in the shed. When the ground is dry, they have a moveable playpen on the lawn with a little shelter in it, and a sturdy roof to protect them from predators (or over-friendly small children.)

The guineas are about 2 1/2 year old girls called Snowy, Pippin and Tosh (short for Mackintosh). Their mothers were part of a group of 9 guinea pigs found abandoned under a shed and taken in by the now-defunct Bramley Cavies Rescue. As that was a mixed group, all the females were pregnant. (Rodents; such notorious breeders. What can you do?)  The sows were in a bad way and once their babies were born it took a long time to get them in suitably robust health to be rehomed.

These days those babies are fat healthy guinea pigs. However, a winter more inside than out had left them with long nails in need of trimming. Snowy was not terribly snow-like; she was more the colour of grubby slush. Her habit of flipping the outside shelter upside down, having a wee then flipping it back over herself had done nothing positive to her aroma either. It was definitely time for a bath.

NB - I only bath them on really warm sunny days so they won't catch chills as they dry off. As you can see from the cloudless sky in the photos, we had some truly spectacular weather so I took the opportunity.  I was game but my pets were considerably less so.

Have you ever bathed a small animal that wasn't keen? By which I mean very, very un-keen indeed? It's a wriggly, slippery process that involves nearly as much water on the person as on the pet. Having a number of bath-averse pets, I've learnt to do it on scruffy old clothes with m hair tied back before having a shower myself.

I tend to wash guineas in a very deep bucket (so the pig can't hop out) with only a little water in the bottom. Judging by the fuss they make, my pets prefer water only a little more than lukewarm. This can be a challenge, as I get everything set up outside before catching the bath-bound beastie and if the bath-ee proves elusive, I can end up with water cooler than planned. To offset that I usually have a jug of very hot water I can top up with, but it's still a little hit and miss.

I dilute some small animal shampoo in water and pour it in small amounts over the animal while rubbing it in gently. Then I use an old measuring cup to rinse her in clean water before scooping her up in a scruffy old towel to be dried as thoroughly as I can.

While she's in the towel I bring one foot out at a time and clip the nails carefully. The front nails can grow a bit spirally and it's important to keep them in a decent state.

As pet care goes, guinea pigs are pretty darned easy. You don't have to walk them, their food isn't smelly or disgusting, their run is pretty easy to clean out in about 10 minutes. They make lovely little noises chatting to one another and they are very sweet natured.

The downside is they are very shy and generally prefer to be left alone rather than played with. However, bold Snowy will tussle with a chicken over a dandelion leaf and win. Not one of the three is intimidated by our cats as they pretend to be fierce predators.  Secure in their roofed playground, the guineas know Ferris Mewler and Isaac Mewton are all mouth and no trousers. That metal mesh roof is pretty darned sturdy.

Update - In the gap between writing and posting this blog, Toshi died. I have no idea why. She'd been running about as usual the day before, seemed healthy and was behaving normally. Whether moving the hutch outside for the summer followed by a massive thunderstorm that scared her to heart attack or it was the fox coming to have a look - or some undetected illness - we just don't know.  Poor wee Toshi. Snowy, Pippin and the rest of us will miss her.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

A Snack For Europe

Ah,  the Eurovision Song Contest. Possibly the most confirmedly bonkers night in the TV schedules.  Masses of countries, many of which aren't even in Europe, competing to be chosen through arcane rules and cronyism as winners of a Song For Europe. Sometimes a pop song, sometimes an easy listening song, occasionally something truly demented. Scandinavian Death Metal band Lordi, I'm looking at you, lads.

When I first moved to the UK I was 16. I sat in the lounge of my Auntie Doh's house, utterly mystified by the relish with which she anticipated an over-long evening of crimes against music and taste. I was appalled. But sort of fascinated.

Within 4 years I loved it - sitting in Mark's student digs while housemate Dave wielded the Mop Of Shame. He was sitting in an armchair a mop's reach from the cheap second hand telly, mopping the screen whenever we wanted to banish a contestant. Many, many beers were consumed.

We never manage to pick winners, Mark and I. We tend to favour the madder-than-a-box-of-frogs entries, the crazy showboaters with a sense of fun.  France and Germany take turns being mentalists most years although Iceland does its share.

Anyway, because I had Very Important Work to do which demanded some truly momentous procrastination, I decided this year to make snack food from as many of the finalist countries as I could manage in 5 hours. You know, for fun.

I am clearly batty.  I know NOTHING about the cuisine of most of the finalists. Azerbaijiani and Armenian snacks are not amongst my repertoire. It was one of those "Google is my best friend" moments.

So here we go - our Snack For Europe menu:

First up, Ukraine. Their song was Tick Tock, which required a man flollop about in a giant hamster wheel for no discernible purpose. The item I cooked was Deruny: a grated potato and onion cake. I followed the recipe except I didn't peel the potatoes. I think a lot of the goodness is in the skin.

Next, Cheesecake from Belarus. Regrettably not the delicious dessert but instead a really awful song about wanting to be some girl's 'cheesecake.'  It included the line "I'm not Patrick Swayze and you're no Jennifer Grey." I think that much was obvious to us all, Mr Belarus.

Then Azerbaijian - Lass in a red dress accompanied by a woman on a trapeze. Or, in our house, a fresh cheese made from yogurt and dill. It's called Shuyudlu Suzme and I confess I reduced the raw garlic by two thirds. I quite liked it, especially spread on the potato cakes, but the others weren't sure.

One of my own highlights of the evening came next - Iceland. As I mentioned, they are often good fun (or off their heads mental. Which amounts to the same thing) and they didn't disappoint. This year they sent a bunch who had raided The Wiggles' wardrobes. In fairness, they sang better than The Wiggles; more akin to Imagination Movers, I think. Bright and daft and entirely fitting to children's TV. It was called No Prejudice and had the line "Perhaps you're thinner, Or someone who likes his dinner..."
I laughed and I nominate them for a guest appearance on Sesame Street.

Musically, quite a lull now. Norway fielded a bloke wearing Morten Harket's leather wrist straps from the mid 80s, but he was too husky for them and looked like they were cutting off the circulation to his hands while he sang a tedious dirge.
Romania sang something louder and with a faster tempo but all I can recall is a circular keyboard the male of the pair pretended (badly) to play (probably also badly).

Incidentally, it only hit me at 7:12pm that our friends were arriving from 7:30 and I hadn't got any bread for all these dips. A somewhat frantic recipe search brought me Armenia's entry: lavash, an unleavened flatbread cooked in the frying pan (because I don't have a tandoor). It was so quick and delicious I'll make it in future. Flour, salt and water can make wonderful things. Sadly, Armenia's song was utterly dire and so forgettable I could barely recall it even while their lounge lizard bloke was still singing it.
From this
To loads of this in under 15 minutes

Little Montenegro at least had the courage of its convictions and submitted a song in its native language. Bloke singing about something or other  - probably love or loss but it could have been about Torville and Dean - while a woman on roller blades dressed as an ice skater swooped around him. The floor lighting effects were cool - lighting up where she skated like Fantasia's Waltz of the Flowers - but the song was not.

 Poland decided to have some buxom woman in an undone peasant blouse "churning butter" and "washing clothes" into the camera while similarly clad women sang about shaking what their mama gave them,
 I'd say she was doing it suggestively, but that implies far more subtlety than the the 'here are my knockers, let this Pole rub your pole" soft porn approach she was taking. It was like a Benny Hill sketch from the 70s. Three of the six fellas watching it in my living room gave it top marks. The other 3 are related to me, so through being decent feminist types, prudes or just wisely knowing which side their bread is buttered, they roundly condemned it. Good lads. Miss B liked their skirts bought thought they should do their tops up.
I rather regretted buying Polish crisps and pretzels. because, y'know, ewww.

Greece was the family favourite, hummus. Ah, hummus. We can never make enough of it. Then, because it goes so nicely with hummus, I made baba ganoush. 
I know, I know,  I was going off piste a little but it's my party and I'll dip if I want to.

Incidentally, Greece's song was a boy band with a trampolinist behind them. No one is sure why.

Then came Austria - bearded drag queen singing a Bond theme was their musical entry; no food from me as it's either meat based or a complicated dessert. No time to spare for Sachertorte and the like, it's a procrastination too far. 
Germany - big cheer form the sofa as Z is studying German and is off there in October while his pal Tom got them in the sweepstake. Blonde lass with a quiff, accordion. I rather liked it, but I was a minority. Again, bad wine and too many sausage based foodstuffs so I skipped over them. Germany seems no place for a wine-drinking pescatarian.

Sweden - tipped as the favourite, this was a lovely ginger and cardamom cake from my Nordic Bakery book.  I mean, it was a dull ballad thing in true Eurovision tradition. A millions of ABBA fans cried out in anguish and were suddenly silenced. Or it could have been terror.

I just likened Euroviosion to the Death Star, didn't I. Hmm, does that make Terry Wogan Grand Moff Tarkin? Is Graham Norton a camp Vader leprechaun? Disturbing images...

Back to the food. 

Some chèvre flew the flag for France, except I forgot to put it out on the table so I had a lovely goat's cheese omelette for lunch the next day. Win!
In retaliation, a pack of lunatic Frenchmen capered about singing of their earnest desire to grow a moustache. Full points for insanity, null points for musicality.

Russia - pfft. Can't be bothered investigating recipes from Russia. Not in the current political climate.  They sent a poor pair conjoined twins - the first case recorded of twins being joined at the ponytail. Very odd. 

Italy - yay! Salad! I did a quick caprese salad of mozzarella, baby plum tomatoes and home grown basil with olive oil. It was a nice accompaniment to all the dips and flatbreads. 

I enjoyed the Italian entry's commitment to white leather, metal embellishments and over the top 80s styling. Just demented.

No dishes for the next lot - Slovenia (jazz-flute woman); Finland (indie pop boy band, I rather liked it. I was slightly embarrassed by this fact); Spain (Good lord, someone we actually knew! Ruth from the only series of X Factor we ever watched. Still rubbish); Switzerland (he whistles! he has a bloke on banjo! His lyrics are a bit sex-pest!); Hungary (cripes. Song about being a victim of child sex abuse. That was unexpected.)

Malta was a challenge. All the recipes I found on assorted Maltese or ex-pat websites were recipes I associate with different countries. I realise this is true of many countries - food doesn't respect political borders - but I had still hoped to find at least one thing I didn't already associate with somewhere else, even if I didn't actually cook it.
In the end I made "Black Olive Pate" which was really tapenade. Looks sludgy because it's made from black and grey and green things whizzed together, but as an olive-loving soul I enjoyed it very much.

Denmark flew the flag with a 2 minute blue cheese spread - just Danish Blue let down with some soured cream until more spreadable. In retrospect I'd have made it thinner still and dipped veg or crisps in it.  Truly AWFUL song called Cliche Love Song. It wanted to be Axis of Awesome's How to Write a Love Song but wasn't.

Then things got better. THE NETHERLANDS! Yay! An actually tuneful country song performed by  a competent duo without howling, whistling nor grandstanding.  It came as a relief after the previous noise. 
The Netherlands won our Eurovision Food Competition too, as the new dish of the night with top marks from Mark and Russell. It was Bruine Bonen Salade (brown bean salad). The beans were tossed in a dressing of minced red onion, mustard, red wine vinegar, oil, parsley and tarragon. I took down the tarragon amount by half and would have reduced it still further for my own taste as I don't like aniseed, so I bumped up the flat parsley.  I love flat parsley.

The kids, obviously, voted "crisps" as the winner. I'm ignoring them.

The final two songs were something forgettable from San Marino - a place I couldn't even start to find on a map - and the UK's entry with the cringingly awful title Children Of The Universe. It was like watching a less energetic Shakira.  I'd decided that should we require food from Britain we could open the pack of custard creams. The kids were too busy eating crisps to care.

All in all, it was a great night. Mates, chatting, bad music to disparage, funny things to applaud, masses of new things to try.
The final score, the one that would count the most the next morning, was this:

Number of garlic cloves used to prepare the food: 9

I apologise to anyone who came into contact with us on Sunday.

Friday, 9 May 2014


You like chocolate, right? I mean, you do properly like it, not like those odd souls who prefer crisps (lovely in their own way) or liquorice (never ever acceptable). And more chocolate in your chocolate, less veg fat and rubbish, yes? Me too. Which is why my mother-in-law's birthday gift to me of a chocolate tasting morning was so awesome:
over two hours tasting chocolates at Hotel Chocolat
(It's OK to turn green with envy)

We started with a cup of coffee and a chat, fellow taster Lucille and I, while Dan the Chocolatier got things ready.  Lucille is a lovely woman with two small sons. When she was young she had a job as a magician's assistant.  Here is her best TA DA!

 We went upstairs to be greeting with a pretty array of chocolate in its original form - cacao pods and beans.  Choccy Dan talked to us about the way cacao is farmed. The pods contain a fleshy pulp that animals eat, leaving the seeds behind. Apparently cacao pulp is now A Thing, and you can taste sorbets and cocktails made from it.

So much happiness from 1 tiny bean
As Choccy Dan explained the harvesting, fermenting, drying, roasting and conching (grinding the cacao for ages- if it were wheat it would be milling) he brought out pairs of chocolate for us to compare. Some of the chocolate pairs were from different countries, some highlighted the difference between single origin and blends, some were nearly the same except for roasting and conching times. It was fascinating to taste the differences in each pair.

Now, obviously we were tasting a LOT of chocolate - 18 in all. We needed something to cleanse our palates between chocolates. Choccy Dan had just the thing: prosecco. It was 10:30 in the morning, so I demurred initially. Lucille tucked right in.
By 11:15 I decided the sun was over whatever arbitrary point was necessary for me to cave in, and fizzy wine appeared. It was very nice fizzy wine, and I decided I might be a bit in love with Choccy Dan for suggesting such decadence. 

I don't care that it's still morning. 
After 15 batons or shards of dark, milk, single origin, blended and otherwise compare-and-contrast chocolates, Dan brought us some filled chocolates to try. By then, having happily munched 85% cocoa solids chocolate these more conventional truffles seemed incredibly sweet. However, Lucille and I struggled womanfully on. The white and yellow truffles were filled with a creamy lemon curd - probably the nicest fruit flavoured chocolate I'd had. I wasn't entirely convinced by the very boozy champagne truffle - too heavy handed with the liquid, overpowering any chocolatey taste but the billionaire's shortbread truffles were lovely. They were squares of chocolate with a layer of caramel, a layer of very nice praline sand topped with little balls of shortbread. Yum.

Dan gave us the OK to snaffle the rest for our kids (honest, guvnor) and handed us each a bag full of chocolates to take home as well.  He even made sure our personal favourites were included. Mine was a 70% milk chocolate from Venezuela - smooth, rich and delicious.

The downside of that blissful half day? My Dairy Milk just doesn't taste the same anymore.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Ringing the dinner bell

Mmm, dinner. I love dinner. I especially like new dinners - a change from eating the same handful of familiar meals. I particularly especially like new dinners that my kids eat without complaining.
(OK, that didn't quite happen. But nearly)

I got the very marvellous Ms Jack Monroe's cook book for my birthday a few weeks ago. There are some things she and I will not ever agree on - tinned fruit in dinner! No! - but she cooks many simple things: tasty, affordable things that I could knock up in not much time. Reading her book reminded me that I can like making food for my family after all.

I dread cooking meals for my kids. My eldest was an extremely picky eater from infancy. Which particular meal he would approve for a year at time would change - homemade cauliflower cheese with diced boiled egg, spaghetti, fish fingers and potato smiles, veggie burgers and margarita pizza have all taken their turn as Sole Acceptable Meal over the years - but the pattern was exhausting. No fruit, no veg, no rice, nor meat, nor pulses nor even chips. I went wrong somewhere and never quite got back on track. (Yes, you can judge me. Go ahead. It won't be anything worse than I've thought myself. Even CAMHS said we'd tried everything they would suggest and let's just hope he grows out of it.)

My youngest is playing monkey see, monkey do with the eldest and my middle child - formerly an enthusiastic eater of anything - has decided to object to some of the few foods the other two will actually eat. There are nearly no meals they all like. Home made macaroni cheese is the only reliable one.

And that's why I hate cooking for them. At best, at least one of them will push the food around glumly and not eat. At worst two of them will moan and strop, making enjoying a meal together hard going. To save my sanity by reducing the emotional investment I have in the success of a dinner, I never spend more than 25 minutes of prep on a meal for them. Otherwise I am a ball of seething resentment when no one eats it, which is fair to no one. They didn't ask me to spend 90 minutes on a fancy dinner they won't eat.

So, knowing I was really experimenting for my own enjoyment, I had a browse through Jack Monroe's book. I made the red kidney bean burgers for Mark and I for lunch one day - delicious! Then I looked at the carrot and coriander felafel recipe and had an idea.

Mark, Z and I love felafel. Miss B loves hummus. She and Z also love assembling their food. Luke likes wraps, although only if they contain melted cheese. A "build your own wrap" meal could work.

I shredded some lettuce, sliced cucumbers and cherry tomatoes, peeled ribbons of carrots. I knocked up a quick bowl of hummus, made the felafel's according to Jack's recipe and set everything on the table.  But what to offer Luke? I had a ball of cheap mozzarella in the fridge, so I tore that into fat chunks, dipped them in flour, beaten egg and flour again (because I meant to use matzo meal and realised we hadn't got any - oops) and dropped them in the pan of oil with the felafel. There was a plate of warm pitta and wraps in the centre of the table and a small plate for each person to assemble their own dinner.

It was a big success. Announcing she didn't like vegetables, Miss B promptly ate most of the cucumber and a fair few carrot ribbons before stuffing herself with a mound of hummus. Luke liked the daft mozzarella melts in his wrap - ok, not a healthy food, but at least we were all eating together  - and Zach made a gargantuan wrap filled with loads of everything. For him, the felafel were the stars of the meal. He had an extra portion later that evening when he came home from Scouts. Mark and I loved it too.

So a big Thank You to Jack Monroe for inspiring me to try something new for the kids, and a huge thumbs up for her book. Get a copy if you can.

Oh, and if you buy hummus rather than make it, I recommend having a go at home made. Much cheaper and easy to adapt to your taste.

1 tin chickpeas
1 clove garlic
1 tablespoon (ish) of tahini. Peanut butter will do at a pinch
lemon juice
olive oil
salt and pepper

Drain the chickpea water into a cup. Tip the chickpeas, garlic and tahini in a blender. Add enough lemon juice, chickpea water and olive oil to the blender to allow it to be just wet enough to whizz the chickpeas up. My guess is 2 parts chick pea water, 2 parts oil oil to 1 part lemon juice. Add the liquid sparingly and taste as you go so you can tell if it is too thick, too tangy (add more olive oil) or too bland (add lemon juice). Put in a generous pinch of salt and a grind of pepper to taste.

That's it.

Seriously, that's hummus. Tip a few things in a blender, whizz them up, taste it, whizz again until smooth and Bob's your oyster. See why I never bother buying it?

PS - You can add all sorts of things - fresh coriander, ground cumin, roasted peppers - but I still like it best as it is.