Blood, Sweat & Tears

We very rarely think about how some things got to be the way they are, because for some of us they have always been there. However, some things we today take completely for granted are only there through the work and sacrifice of hundreds of unknown men and women in the past, and sometimes it is good to be reminded of that – if only to marvel at their cumulative achievements.

For example, the Lovely Wife and I were on one of our regular rambles through the Hertfordshire countryside and were crossing a bridge over the railway line that leads from London to the East Midlands. It is a huge thing, not so much the number of tracks, rather the embankments or cuttings through which it runs. These are massive constructions that run for miles, through all sorts of different terrain and cutting through hat must have seemed impenetrable obstacles. Today of course, this would have all been assisted by machine, but this construction was for the much part by hand, assisted only by horses. Hundreds of men, leaving homes, working long hours, throwing up the Nation’s railways. Cutting tunnels, building bridges. I find it quite mindboggling and just a little humbling, as many of these men died during the construction due to the poor conditions and lack of anything that approaches Health & Safety. And largely, we have forgotten them and what they did (certainly the only tribute I have found is the wonderful ‘Driving the Last Spike’, all 10 minutes of so of it, on the 1989 Genesis album ‘We can’t Dance’).

The Lovely Wife and I were reminded again of the people who did the work that today we use and admire when visiting Beer Quarry Caves in Devon this last week. Just outside the village of Beer (I’m putting that in for my International friends as a clarification that this is not some strange subterranean brewery) they are not caves but the underground workings where over about a thousand years people have been digging out Beer Stone. The Stone has the advantage of being relatively easy to carve when first dug out, but when weathered it turns very hard and pales in colour, making it ideal for decorative detailing on high status buildings, especially churches and cathedrals and large public buildings. The Romans started the mining in earnest and the work continued well into this century. Through that period thousands of quarry men worked mostly in darkness to dig out the stuff, and many of them died in the process through accidents or later respiratory problems from the dust – and were paid a pittance for their pains. While the conditions were equally unpleasant and dangerous, coal miners at the same period were at least paid well for what they dug out. In later medieval times onwards the otherwise mostly illiterate quarry men signed their names in charcoal and many examples survive, so, unlike the men that dug the railways we still know who some of them were and even some of their stories. It is a sober reminder for me when I feel moved to complain about something in my life what a contrast it is to these people. Also, next time you look at some fine window tracery and admire the work of the master masons, we should also think about the men who hacked the stuff out with a pick in order to feed their family.

Do visit the caves if you are in the area – they are massive in scale and impressive and interesting in what they represent and the stories they tell.

Eat local?

A canelé is a small French pastry flavoured with rum and vanilla with a soft and tender custard centre and a dark, thick caramelized crust. It takes the shape of a small, striated cylinder up to five centimetres in height with a depression at the top.

Well, that is how Wikipedia describes the local delicacy in Bordeaux. I would describe it as a small, slightly sweet, slightly rubbery, nodule. We had the pleasure of a long weekend in the city recently and you could not move for the things, shops selling them seemed to be on every corner, so it looked as though it was more of a challenge not to buy some then to actually get hold of a pack of the things. I’m sorry to say, moreover, that while there is much to enjoy about Bordeaux – not least the wine, but beyond that it is an interesting and pretty city, well worth visiting – eating canelés is not going to be one of my highest recommendations.

I was not really that impressed, and nor was the Lovely Wife, which when it comes to the subject of cake means it really was not doing well when even she did not think much of it.

I’m sure that lots of people love them, and that is just fine. I’m not having a go at anyone’s favourite sweet snack.

However, I do find it funny that quite often local ‘delicacies’ fall a little short of expectations. So much so that I immediately get a little suspicious now if someone insists ‘oh, you must have [Insert name of proposed food nirvana] if you are going to [Insert origin of proposed heavenly morsel]’. Because, it is going to be disappointing. At best. At least that is my experience most of the time. Except possibly eating Leitao (suckling pig, apologies to the non-meat eaters) in Portugal, which was indeed delicious, but maybe the exception proves the rule.

Living up to expectations does seem to be a struggle, but perhaps the problem is that anything that is truly unique to a region or city is almost certainly by definition and acquired taste. If I had grown up with canelés as part of my diet I would probably love them, and even more, miss them terribly when living away. I know that on the occasions I have lived abroad for any length of time what I miss are things I think of as very British; good ale and cider, marmite, prawn cocktail crisps etc.

Or rather perhaps I get nostalgic about such things as actually I always feel like immersing myself in the food culture of anywhere I go so it is more about the idea of things I cannot get rather than salivating at the thought as I’m chomping through my noodles.

Maybe it is an unconscious protective mechanism. After all, if I had fallen in love with the canelé last weekend then it would have been a source of some disruption if the only place I could get the things would be Bordeaux (although I am sure that one of those ubiquitous little shops would have been happy to ship them to feed my new-found addiction to rum flavoured French pastries). So, I’m setting myself up to go ‘yeah, glad a I tried one, but probably never again’. Because I will try anything (food wise) once, having been brought up in the ‘at least try it’ tradition by my dear parents. Well, Mum at least, who was always keen to try new things, while Dad would look on in horror, bless him. His answer when asked what he wanted for dinner would inevitably be ‘steak and chips’ – which might have been a running joke, but he also meant it.

I do not think he would have thought much of the canelé. But I did have some nice duck in Bordeaux too, and at least he would have approved of that.

Eat Local?

A canelé is a small French pastry flavoured with rum and vanilla with a soft and tender custard centre and a dark, thick caramelized crust. It takes the shape of a small, striated cylinder up to five centimetres in height with a depression at the top.

Well, that is how Wikipedia describes the local delicacy in Bordeaux. I would describe it as a small, slightly sweet, slightly rubbery, nodule. We had the pleasure of a long weekend in the city recently and you could not move for the things, shops selling them seemed to be on every corner, so it looked as though it was more of a challenge not to buy some then to actually get hold of a pack of the things. I’m sorry to say, moreover, that while there is much to enjoy about Bordeaux – not least the wine, but beyond that it is an interesting and pretty city, well worth visiting – eating canelés is not going to be one of my highest recommendations.

I was not really that impressed, and nor was the Lovely Wife, which when it comes to the subject of cake means it really was not doing well when even she did not think much of it.

I’m sure that lots of people love them, and that is just fine. I’m not having a go at anyone’s favourite sweet snack.

However, I do find it funny that quite often local ‘delicacies’ fall a little short of expectations. So much so that I immediately get a little suspicious now if someone insists ‘oh, you must have [Insert name of proposed food nirvana] if you are going to [Insert origin of proposed heavenly morsel]’. Because, it is going to be disappointing. At best. At least that is my experience most of the time. Except possibly eating Leitao (suckling pig, apologies to the non-meat eaters) in Portugal, which was indeed delicious, but maybe the exception proves the rule.

Living up to expectations does seem to be a struggle, but perhaps the problem is that anything that is truly unique to a region or city is almost certainly by definition and acquired taste. If I had grown up with canelés as part of my diet I would probably love them, and even more, miss them terribly when living away. I know that on the occasions I have lived abroad for any length of time what I miss are things I think of as very British; good ale and cider, marmite, prawn cocktail crisps etc.

Or rather perhaps I get nostalgic about such things as actually I always feel like immersing myself in the food culture of anywhere I go so it is more about the idea of things I cannot get rather than salivating at the thought as I’m chomping through my noodles.

Maybe it is an unconscious protective mechanism. After all, if I had fallen in love with the canelé last weekend then it would have been a source of some disruption if the only place I could get the things would be Bordeaux (although I am sure that one of those ubiquitous little shops would have been happy to ship them to feed my new-found addiction to rum flavoured French pastries). So, I’m setting myself up to go ‘yeah, glad a I tried one, but probably never again’. Because I will try anything (food wise) once, having been brought up in the ‘at least try it’ tradition by my dear parents. Well, Mum at least, who was always keen to try new things, while Dad would look on in horror, bless him. His answer when asked what he wanted for dinner would inevitably be ‘steak and chips’ – which might have been a running joke, but he also meant it.

I do not think he would have thought much of the canelé. But I did have some nice duck in Bordeaux too, and at least he would have approved of that.

Coping Mechanisms

Mother’s Day is always a bit difficult for me these days. It never used to be, providing I remembered in time to get my dear Mum some flowers and a card – ideally with some sugared almonds, that vied with chocolate covered Brazil nuts as her favourite sweet.  I would be in real trouble if I forgot. Not that Mum would get angry. Nor would she say anything to me about it, or even hint. No. That was not how she worked. Instead, it would be the next day, when it was too late to do anything that might save the situation (or at least mitigate the gaff), and it would be via Dad. Who would quietly say that Mum was disappointed with me missing ‘her’ day. Thankfully, I do consider myself reasonable organised and as a natural gift giver this was not a common occurrence. That said, though, I did screw up many years later when the parental Christmas card was from a pack of twelve rather than obviously tracked down especially in a card shop. The kind of card that was needed says, ‘to Mum and Dad at Christmas’, and has extensive verses of schmaltz. That was what they wanted, and we never made the mistake again. Over the top cliched expressions of love were what Mum (and Dad) loved, and that was what they got.

Mum passed away in 2009. Mother’s Day suddenly became, for me, irrelevant (let us put aside the lovely mother of the Lovely Wife, who is very much a key part of our lives, but my understanding is that this was never a ‘thing’ in her household). Worse, it became a source of upset, not only because of who was no longer there, but also because we were childless (as I have written in this blog before).

Handling this, at least from my side, has been through a mixture of coping strategies. For the loss of my Mum, it perhaps inevitably turns to happier memories and a better understanding of all that she did for me, including the many sacrifices – including, to some extent, her own health, as the treatment that helped bring me into the world was also partly responsible for the health issues she had from that point onwards. So, Mother’s Day becomes less of an opportunity to buy flowers and more a celebration for me of my Mother and her life.

Secondly, it is hard for me not to delight in the happiness of others and the lovely children they are bringing up, and especially the ones that I have had the privilege to have some contact and impact with in their lives (of which there are many). It is hard not to take pleasure in a new life.

I was sitting our favourite pub this weekend when one of the Landlords turned up with his month old baby on his first outing to greet the general public – an event that immediately reduced most of the male, burly, rugby supporting clientele to cooing over the child in a way that was simultaneously hilarious and heart-warming. The new Dad joked that he was going to leave the child with me (we have been regulars for years now) and run off – perhaps he would not have done had he known I have considered stealing several friends’ adorable children over the years (I am, of course, joking).

Everyone has to cope with loss and changes of circumstances in their own way. This is my personal way, and it may not always work even for me. But I hope that those of you with Mum’s you can still love took the opportunity, and even better, wait a couple of weeks and send them some flowers. Just because you can. I guarantee they will receive a good reception.

Deer, Oh Deer

Well, what with the Brexit thing being quite such a train crash in slow motion, the Lovely Wife and I took to the woods this weekend and butchered a deer.

 

We all need to get into practice, after all.

 

Of course, the current farce that is British ‘politics’ at the moment is completely coincidental to taking a (very) sharp knife to an ex Fallow Deer.

 

This was a day course on deer butchery with a group of pleasant lunatics that run a business in a tree house in a wood in Sussex getting involved with the joys of foraging and sustainable eating. Fifteen of us had paid to spend the day with a couple of fresh carcases, learning how to skin, dismember, joint and prepare venison – and then eating a fair amount of it afterwards. Not, as they were keen to point out, a course for vegetarians, although they were at pains to point of out the providence of the deer that are legally and carefully culled – a point a lot of people seem to miss as they moan about ow cruel it is to knock off a few Bambi. We killed off all their natural predators so not to carefully cull is not an option. And it is meat that is lean, healthy and actually very cheap, if you know where to get it from. I was quite shocked to be told that, Waitrose aside, most venison sold in UK supermarkets has until recently come from New Zealand, which is almost shameful.

As an aside, on the subject of Bambi (and Thumper as well, I love a good piece of local bunny) it reminds me of an anecdote that a few of us shared some years ago when on a long weekend in Gravelines in Northern France. Eating in a group at the hotel, we were managing perfectly well to negotiate the (not entirely unfairly) entire in French menu but became stuck on one particular dish. The helpful waitress thought for a moment and then, with a look of triumph, cheerfully explained that the meat dish concerned was ‘Bambi!’. Needless to say, for this alone, several of us felt committed to order our dishes of ‘Bambi!’ that evening. And very nice it was too, as I recall.

As was our more recent Sussex venison, although I am not sure I will ever forget just how wonderful was the wild garlic pesto that compromised one of the trimmings.

So, what did I learn? Mainly, a reminder that patience and taking care to know what the crucial parts of the operation are is the key to success. If I was honest, the skinning, dismembering and jointing is a relatively straightforward process, but like so many things there are certain areas where the amount of care taken becomes crucial in the gap between success and a botched job. Needless to say, myself and my fellow rabid carnivores paid strict attention to where and where not to put the knife it order not to embarrass ourselves – and as a result I think we all did a pretty good job, and left clutching various parts of the animal to supplement freezers, including a large amount of venison mince, as aside from the various cuts we had extracted, pretty much everything else goes into the mincer. This, you see, is something that is very much driven by the ‘you make use of it all’ philosophy, and in these days where we still waste so much (and I am as guilty as any of falling short of my own ideals in this area) it was fun to take part in an activity that extolled that and left you with a number of delicious dinners to look forward to.

Quiet Corners

Sometimes you come across little gems that you never knew existed. London is particularly good for this where most corners can lead to something interesting. The Lovely Wife and I stumbled across one such recently when on a day out in London. The ‘main event’ of the day was a tour of the closed underground station at Aldwych, which closed in the 1990s and, as expected, proved a fascinating thing to be shown around and learn about its eventful history as both transport hub, war shelter and museum storage facility and now film location. But that only took a couple of hours, and these days the cost of trains into London somewhat suggest that finding multiple things to do is better value for money.

So, after a little looking about I came up with another tour, this time something quite different. We set off across London via Holborn Circus to find the little gem that is Charterhouse.

Although I had spent quite a lot of time in the area – including the hidden away joy that is the Old Mitre off Ely Place – I somehow had managed to miss the large set of medieval buildings just around the corner.

The place started as a memorial chapel over a thirteenth century plague pit, which is admittedly not the most auspicious of starts. Later it became a Carthusian monastery (an interesting order where the monks spent most of their time living as virtual hermits in separate cells around a large cloister), and then like many foundations at the dissolution became a Tudor manor house. Where Charterhouse diverges from many other sites is after this and due to one man, Thomas Sutton in the early seventeenth century. He was a very shrewd and very rich man and set about turning the existing buildings into an institution that would look after people at both ends of life – one half a school, and the other accommodation for the elderly and needy. When set up, the charity was one of the richest in the country and both parts were to prove a big success. The school became internationally famous and now has moved out to Surrey, but the other part of the charity remains and is still going strong. They have about 40 incumbents, known as ‘Brothers’ as a nod to the original use of the buildings. Historically, these were male only, but they have several lady ‘Brothers’ now, although the poor ladies are still heavily outnumbered.

You can have a guided tour of most of the extensive complex – other parts, where the Brothers live – are naturally private. We were lucky as in all there were only 5 of us on our tour, which always leaves more time for questions and a more intimate experience of a very nearly private tour for us. Maybe that was partly what made it so enjoyable, but some of the stories connected with the site and institution were fascinating and it is just a joy being able to walk around a mix of building styles with so much history, still performing much of their initial function and missed by most who pass by every day. It is not expensive, so if you are in the right part of London with a few hours to spare, you can do worse to find some peace and hidden history.

Spring & Shows

Well, we seem to be heading into an (albeit today, a damp and windy) Spring. The signs are all around, with the Lesser celandine beginning to flower on the disused railway near to home. I have seen a number of birds flying around with suspicious cargo (otherwise known as nesting material). Our garden is a daily battleground for the Blackbirds (although the Robin we have seems to have taken the normal territorial posturing to ridiculous lengths with a pathological hatred – and violent repulsing – of pretty much anything that moves). The Gadwalls (a duck which until recently I was unaware was nicknamed ‘Coot muggers’ as, well, they mug Coots to steal food of them) and the Pochards are gathering to migrate, the Shovellers having already left. Finally, the garden pond has been a hotbed of amphibian sex over the last few days, the resulting gelatinous mass of spawn being the result for now.

It is quite a contrast from last year’s icy start to March, although you will not find me complaining as the were some hairy moments last year in all the traveling we had to do to spend as much time with my Dad as possible in his final days. We were very blessed to spend so much time traveling long distances in poor weather with relatively few major problems. Although I will miss a lot of things from last year, that at least will not be one of them.

Instead, this year has been relatively quiet, so we are now back into focusing on what we need to do to get life back on track, both in terms of personal health and in terms of getting our house back into some kind of shape after a year of neglect and incursions of stuff from the North. We’re getting there, slowly.

At the same time there is always the usual work commitments and opportunities for fun. We have managed some interesting gigs and shows recently. The production of Shakespeare’s Richard II at the wonderful San Wanamaker Playhouse (a small, intimate inside space at the Globe theatre) was spellbinding, with added interest being a cast entirely made up of women of colour. But while that might seem like a gimmick, it was also wonderfully acted and informed by the heritage of some of the players in a way that can make a somewhat dry play come alive. At the opposite end of the scale in terms of venue was the Agatha Christie play ‘Witness for the Prosecution’ which was gloriously staged in a ‘courtroom setting’, actually a good use of the old council chamber for the Greater London Council in County Hall on the South bank in London. The play itself is nonsense, but it’s a lot of fun and the location really gives it some marvellous staging opportunities that it delivers on with aplomb.

The one thing we have seen recently that I am still not sure about was ‘The Band’, a musical based around the songs of Take That, about a group of girls who we first see in their teens and then are reunited 25 years later. The Lovely Wife and I saw it at the theatre at Milton Keynes, and it felt a little like a production that is still evolving; that said, it has a quite deliberate ‘British comedy’ feel along the lines of The Full Monty, Calendar Girls or Brassed Off, where there are plenty of laughs but a core sadness/sad event that cannot be ignored – but just has to be faced and managed. For me, it just about got away with it, but considering some slightly surreal elements of the staging I do feel it would make a better film. But catch it – unless you are an absolute hater of the Take That boys in which case give a wide, wide berth…