Tuesday, 28 June 2011

The holiday count down begins

You could be forgiven for assuming that, with conference safely in the history books, life would return to whatever passes for normal. But that is not the case.

The production timetable is set out in such a way that we have only the week immediately after to get pretty much an entire journal out. Now this makes complete sense – it’s the issue with all the conference reports in, so members need it as soon as possible. But it’s still a busy week.

It was at this stage, four years ago, that I first realised how bone tired I am by now. We hadn’t booked a holiday, but had been thinking of taking a week in Barcelona.

I said to The Other Half: ‘I can’t do it. If I do a city break, I’ll run around with the camera like a total lunatic, wanting to do as much as possible. I need to sit still and do nothing’.

We were incredibly lucky, so late in the season, to get into a hotel in Collioure for 10 days. We’d visited before, but never stayed there.

It was the first time I’d ever had a real beach holiday. I took something like nine books, because I didn’t really think I could just still for all that time, doing nothing. It didn’t take long to discover just how wrong I was.

We will be back on the same beach in a few weeks, after a week making our way there on trains, via Bordeaux, Carcassonne, Foix and Villefranche de Conflent.

My food aims are already taking shape – well, food and drink, since we’re starting in Bordeaux!

It’s totally perverse, of course, to eat cassoulet in the summer, but one has to make sacrifices sometimes, and in a region that prides itself on that dish, I’ll find somewhere to give the real thing a whirl.

But there's a little time left before I get too excited.

The weekend's food plans dissipated in utter sloth. But a sea bass that I'd intended to use on Sunday evening was deployed on Monday – albeit in a different way.

In an à la River Café way, I par-boiled some new potatoes and then sliced them thickly. These went into an oven dish with olive oil and sliced tomatoes, to be seasoned and then topped with the filleted the fish, before a really generous squeeze of fresh lemon was added.

And then it was into a pre-heated (200˚) oven for around 12-15 minutes (check the potatoes with a knife to see when they're completely cooked).

Nice – and far from difficult or time-consuming.

Tuesday's risotto at the top was made in my usual way: sweat finely chopped shallot, celery and garlic in olive oil. Add your risotto rice and let it pick up the rest of the oil.

Give it a slug of Noilly Prat (or vermouth or white wine) and let the rice absorb that too. Then start adding the simmering stock, a ladle at a time. This was a home-made chicken stock, which was brought gently to a simmer with some more of the dried porcini from Lina Stores.

I'd picked up some lovely mushrooms at Sporeboys on Broadway Market on Saturday, so chopped a few of these and sautéed very gently in more olive oil. A little more of the booze and a squeeze of lemon juice were added, and it was left to gently cook through.

Once the rice has taken on the stock, add some chopped parsley and then the mushrooms and stir gently.

At this point, I added some more of the truffle butter I'd used last time and then lidded it, while I heated a little more oil in the pan I'd used to cook the mushrooms – and then fried two thin slices of 'shroom I'd cut off earlier.

Those, together with more fresh parsley, then topped the finished dish.

And not only was that not at all bad, it was very much another instance of cooking as therapy.

Friday, 24 June 2011

And the trophy goes to …

Since I’ve just got back from spending a week in Manchester, working at the UNISON local government and national delegate conferences, it seemed like a good idea to put together a brief list of my ‘bests’ for the past seven days.

Some are serious, some are silly and some are just downright fun – and they are all entirely personal.

So, let's get going!

Most gobsmacking story of the week

Bad stories abounded, but this was left until today and the debate on what’s happening to police staff. That’s the forensics officers, the call centre staff and many, many more civilian workers.

All of whom form a vital part of the police service as a whole.

But it seems that some senior police officers think that the best way to make the cuts that the government is demanding is to sack such staff – and then replace them with police officers who, for whatever reason, cannot do the ‘beat’ stuff anymore.

But it gets better, since these replacement staff are paid, on average, double the rate for the job that the sacked staff got.

Bonkers, bonkers and downright wrong.

Full story here

Costume of the week

Well, setting aside Julian’s Manchester City FA Cup winners socks, it has to be Maureen and her partner at the president’s ‘wild west’ social on Sunday.

Nobody, but nobody else had made even close to such an effort.

Neigh and thrice neigh!!!

Quote of the week

UNISON general secretary “Dave Prentis is not King Kong.

“We do not expect him to climb the Empire State Building and pluck planes out of the sky.

“Dave Prentis is our leader. Dave Prentis is our general and you are our captains.”

I keep trying to put this right out of my mind – but then find myself musing over who would be Dave’s Fay Wray …

Expression of the week

No further comment required – Julie’s face says it all.

Most moving moments of the week

Seeing Kenny and Anne. Both of then are dealing with cancer, but both of then are still concentrating their energies on what they believe – helping others to fight for fairness and justice.

Even if you don't agree with their respective politics, they are heroic human beings.

I wonder if I could be as brave as they are?

Meal of the week

No apologies – it was last Saturday’s visit to Michael Caines @ Abode.

Under executive chef Mark Rossi, this is not cheap, but offers really super food.

I took The Other Half this time and, after a complimentary baby leek terrine, I had almond crusted veal sweetbreads with
poached quail's eggs, gribiche sauce
 and a green bean salad.

The sweetbreads were a first for me – and were lovely. Light and with a slightly gamey taste.

To follow, wild brill with 
crab crushed new potatoes,
baby fennel and sauce vierge.

And for dessert, ‘Tasting of peach’, which meant a lovely dish with a
peach parfait, soup, a peach mousse, elderflower sorbet, glazed peach and roasted almond foam.

I am also delighted to report that, after heavily recommending it and insisting we went, The Other Half enjoyed his meal too.

Best service of the week

Even I make the mistake of forgetting sometimes just how friendly the north is – particularly when compared to London.

Service pretty much everywhere was with a smile and real warmth.

But my own award for service this past week goes to Raymond, the top-hatted doorman at the Midland Hotel, for always being helpful, but also going beyond the call of duty in presenting a down-to-Earth, humorous and warm face to a legendary hotel where one Mr Rolls and Mr Royce put pen to paper on founding a little company.

I rang the hotel a short while ago to thank them and commend him in particular, and was stunned to learn he’s only been in the job two weeks.

I hope the hotel’s management realises just what a gem they have.

Funniest moment

Our conference office was in the hotel and, while we were there, a small but perfectly formed group of ladies from Estée Lauder were also having a conference.

One morning, they were lining either side of a corridor as I walked through, chatting about something or other.

I wished them all a good day – and was tickled pink to see their faces.

Am I really that scary – or was it simply that I wasn’t wearing the right make up?

Best bit of the whole week

In a staggering coincidence, my beloved Manchester City were holding a charity do in the same hotel that we were staying in on Thursday night.

Now the players and coaching staff are still all on their hols, but the FA Cup was brought in to display at the event, and all the staff (including security) were brilliant about letting hotel residents who weren’t attending the event go and gawp at it and photograph it.

For those who don’t know, the FA Cup is the oldest domestic club competition in the football world. And every year, millions tune in around the globe to watch the final.

I was not the only one to get emotional and excited – and indeed, took pictures for a number of other people.

But as a happy coincidence, one of our conference photographers was walking past as I was whispering sweet nothings to this iconic piece of silverware – and took up my camera to picture me with it. So thanks to Steve.

To those who are not football fans – I know it sounds bonkers. But I’m still glowing with the pleasure of that, and I know I’m not alone.

Bloooo Mooon ... You saw me standing alone ...

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Who's got those super duper god powers?

Idiocy is always so refreshing, don’t you find?

Yesterday at conference, I heard (and subsequently reported) that Mansour Osanloo, the leader of the Tehran bus workers’ union has been freed from prison after four years.

Great stuff. Although it’s worth noting that the ‘release’ is conditional. And temporary. A holiday from torture and the denial of basic medical care really.

So what on Earth had he done to have spent four years in the nick? Oh, that’s right: daring to be an official in a trade union.

But we also heard that two of his colleagues, Reza Shahabi and Ebrahim Maddadi, remain in custody. And Mr Shahabi’s lawyer has said that the prosecution is seeking to bring a fresh charge of ‘enmity against God’, which carries the death penalty.

This is confusing. If there’s a god who feels really insulted about something or other, can’t he (or she) be trusted to do the thunderbolt stuff himself? Surely the whole point of being ... well, a god, is that you have super duper hero powers? Stewie Griffin is scarier in Darth Vader mode.

Wouldn’t a god type have rather better technology than a bunch of medieval theocrats? A light sabre, perhaps, so their followers didn’t have to do things like stoning or hanging or beheading or any other of those messy things that get done when people fear that their god has been insulted.

But you live and learn. And it seems that, in some places at least, god is obviously such a doddery old sod that he (or she) needs a helping hand to mete out justice and retribution against those who, a bit like Oliver Twist, dare to ask for something more in life.

To find out more, visit International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.

Away from conference itself, there has been rather less such idiocy – and some good foodie moments.

On Tuesday evening, we discovered a nice restaurant called Beluga in the basement of an impressive old building, a stone’s throw from the Midland Hotel.

It was a small menu and eclectic – unfortunately, they didn’t have the Thai green curry on the night we were there, but the pasta with chicken, chorizo and red onion was seriously enjoyable.

Last night was the team dinner at Italian restaurant Don Giovanni. The evening was great fun, but the food didn’t quite match.

I had a starter of figs and mozzarella: a great flavour combination, although it would have been better if the figs had been riper. And did such a starter really need to be made up of four figs?

Looking at the menu, I’d deliberately opted for what I thought would be a light meal that I wouldn’t feel over faced by. So for my second course, I picked king scallops and courgette.

That turned out to be 12 – yes, a whopping dozen – scallops on three strips of grilled courgette.

Perhaps it was because they were really busy, but the scallops were overcooked for my taste: really quite dry.

But portion size again …

You don’t get this ‘supersize everything’ approach on that there Continental place, mutter, mutter.

Since I am currently sans iPhone, I haven’t been able to snap much food this week, but a big thank you to Marcus, one of our photographers at conference, who took these pics for me on his iPhone, with the aid of Hipstermatic, a neat new app – and it’s a free one too.

On Monday, The Other Half and I had tried the hotel’s Wyvern Restaurant.

We both opted for fresh bread and dips – a nice Balsamico and a very tasty tapenade – followed by fish and chips.

The chips were chunky and handcut. The fish was seriously good and the beer batter was utterly divine. The ‘mushy’ peas were actually very lightly puréed peas with a hint of mint and probably some crème fraïche.

Earlier that day, we’d lunched in the Octogon at the hotel. And I have to say that my salad – a ton of leaves, crumbly Lancashire cheese, walnuts and pear, with a light dressing of lemon and olive oil, really was gorgeous.

The proof of that was in that I actually ate all the leaves – something that I usually find bland, boring, tasteless, limp and pointless beyond padding out a dish.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Me and Bob Dylan and Manchester Day

It's not often that you get to pen such phrases – but Manchester's the sort of sophisticated place that allows me to link my name with that of Mr Zimmerman.

'And why's that?' I hear you ask.

Yesterday, after finishing work, I pottered out with the camera while the sun was shining above. One of my targets was only a few metres from the hotel – the former Free Trade Hall. I say 'former', because it was, a few years ago, converted into another hotel.

It was built on the site of St Peter's Fields, where in August 1819, cavalry charged into a crowd of 60,000–80,000 who had gathered at a meeting to demand reform of parliamentary representation. At least 11 people were killed and 400 injured in what became known as the Peterloo Massacre.

The Free Trade Hall was originally erected in order to mark the repeal of the Corn Laws. As an auditorium, it has played hosted to all manner of acts, from Kathleen Ferrier to the aforementioned Dylan to Pink Floyd to the Sex Pistols.

But back in the 1970s, when I was attending Fairfield High School for Girls, our annual speech day took place there and I, as a member of the choir, would be on stage.

Setting aside memories of the obsessional need, as young ladies, to keep our visible knees together at all times while sitting on the stage, I remember it as a fabulous place – vast and magnificent. It seems nothing more than an act of cultural vandalism to have destroyed everything of it except the facade.

I remember the acoustics as being good. I remember performing Windmills of Your Mind one year.

It doesn't seem inappropriate to muse on such a thing this week, as I listen to debates and pen stories about the human face of the government's austerity plans.

One of today's debates featured the small matter of meat inspectors who work for the Food Standards Agency. Many are being bullied and abused – not just by the big food producers, who want to cut corners in the drive for extra profit, but also by the FSA itself, over which the industry "holds too much sway", as one delegate put it. And these are not, I assure you, timorous types claiming such a thing.

So which is more important? The profits of big agriculture (and the big food retailers) or our health? And if the latter will have no negative impact (or risk of negative impact) on the former, then why the need for any abusive behaviour?

Do we really need to be reminded that BSE – or 'mad cow disease', as it was colloquially known – was a direct result of the food industry doing two things:

• feeding a vegetarian animal the flesh of other animals (sheep);

• asking the government of the day to let it reduce the temperature at which it could 'cook' said sheep remains in order to save costs.

The first was going right against evolution, biology and nature, whatever you want to call it. The second showed where priorities lay. Both were just begging for trouble.

We really shouldn't be having this sort of discussion at all, but the reality is that the government actually wants to get rid of any form of independent regulation – and replace it with self regulation. How many of us really trust that, given the interests involved?

Now just to be clear for anyone who's new to this blog: I am not opposed to profit. I believe in a mixed economy. And I don't think that everyone should be on the same wage.

But when profit is allowed to be the most important factor in a situation, you don't just get BSE, you get Southern Cross and you get Winterbourne View as well.

I find myself, frankly, not so much depressed by the approach of the current government, but by how effective has been the promotion of the idea of profit as the be all and end all of everything, which has been promoted – or not tackled – by successive governments, hand in hand with an entirely ideological belief that private is always better than public.

Fortunately, my mood was lifted by managing to catch the end of the second Manchester Day Parade, with community groups from across the city taking part. Colourful, vibrant, noisy and fun.

The picture at the top of this post is of two participants from the city's Chinese community, who had got together with a number of other groups to form one massive dance and music troupe.

And after showing our faces at one of the first socials of the week, we managed to find decent fodder in Gio, an Italian restaurant barely even a stone's throw away.

It was carpaccio beef with shaved Parmesan and rocket for me, followed by the sort of large prawns that require you to get your fingers messy, and than an indulgently big portion of ice cream – chocolate, vanilla, pistachio and strawberry.

And that was entirely enough to lift the spirits.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

More tripe about Manchester

So here we are, on the way 'oop North'.

In recent days, my mind has turned again to the Lancaster Footlights and a stage production that I saw them do (before I joined them) of Bill Tidy's wonderful strip cartoon, The Fosdyke Saga.

Set in Manchester, it tells of the trials and tribulations of tripe baron Josiah Fosdyke and his family, who are pitted in eternal battle against the dastardly Roger Ditchley.

Alan Plater, who wrote the script, is sadly no longer with us. He was a wonderful writer – particularly about the north of England – with a fabulous CV that, among the serious works such as A Very British Coup, includes the magnificent comedies, Beiderbecke Trilogy, Doggin' Around (please, somebody – release this on DVD!) and The Last of the Blonde Bombshells.

His works that are set in the north have a genuine warmth and self-deprecating quality. He was never mawkishly sentimental, but always had tremendous humanity.

The Fosdyke Saga is, since it's based on a cartoon, a little different, and takes the humour to more farcical extents. I remember it with massive pleasure and still have a copy of the script.

When the Footies did the play, the music – and there's plenty of it – was arranged by Noel McKee, my music teacher at the time. Later, I used one of the pieces from the play as an audition piece for college.

Noel, a Salford boy himself, spent the time to teach me the nuances of the accent, since my own northern tones, when I lapse from my practiced 'posh' into Northern, are actually those of Thameside, which is a little further to east of Manchester proper, edging onto the backbone of England, the Pennine chain.

I'm not sure the piece was fully appreciated by some of the stuffier interviewers – perhaps it lacked a classical touch? Although my other piece was a long speech by Paulina from Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale.

I've never actually eaten tripe – except in France, as andouillette, a tripe sausage, with a course mustard sauce. It was okay – I'd try it again, but I'm not falling over myself to eat tripe and onions, the classic way it used to be eaten in the north of England.

But here, with great a wave to the late, great Mr Plater – and to Noel, who died a couple of years ago, before I ever really got the chance to thank him really introducing me to classical music – is the poem he wrote for the The Fosdyke Saga and which formed half of my audition routine way back at the very beginning of the 1980s.

Sonnet to Manchester

    Leeds hath not anything to show more fair
    Thick as short planks be he who would pass by
    A cloud so noxious in intensity
    Manchester now doth like a string vest wear
    The dankness of the morning: surly folk,
    Pubs, pawnshops, doggy dirt and knackers' yards
    And drunken Irish navvies playing cards
    All dull and spluttering in the acrid smoke
    Never did muck more masochistic crown
    In chocking splendour, never to wash off.
    Never saw I a town so dirty brown,
    Canal so sluggish like a smoker's cough.
    Dear God, the very houses seem to frown
    And all that mighty heart says: Bugger off.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Welcome to Manchester

Since quite a high percentage of the readers of this blog will be decamping to Manchester this coming week for work purposes, it seemed the ideal opportunity to offer up an entirely personal guide to that city.

Anyone coming will, when they get their conference guide, have details of more political outings and events in the city this coming week – so they're not getting repeated here.

First, let's clarify that Coronation Street is a fantasy. And you don’t have to go around saying ‘Ee by gum’ all the time – but if people – male or female – do call you 'love', don't worry: it's a regional term of endearment and not some sort of insult.

What must be stressed – and this is essential for first-time visitors – is that football is pretty much a religion in the city.

And there is only one football team that comes from Manchester: despite misleading names, the 'other' one comes from the Borough of Trafford in the city of Salford.

Now it's only a short time since the end of the season, so don’t be surprised if you find a few conference goers and staff getting together to party, in celebration of City’s FA Cup win. Indeed, after a bit of a drought on the football success front, please excuse us if we're still a bit giddy.

There are two sensible reasons to visit Salford: one is to go to the real Old Trafford, which is the home of Lancashire County Cricket Club, and the other is to visit the Lowry Centre, where you can enjoy its wonderful collection of works by LS Lowry.

If you get the chance, I heartily recommend the latter.

In terms of the former, it’ll probably be raining, so you won’t have the chance. There exists a general view that the reason that Lancs haven’t won cricket’s County Championship for many, many years is because of the rain levels in Salford. Which is also why a certain football ground in the vicinity is sometimes referred to as ‘The Swamp’.

In fact, the region doesn’t actually have the kind of high rainfall that it is notorious for. It has less precipitation, indeed, than Porto in Portugal (1,253.5mm per annum as opposed to Manchester’s 806.6mm), but of course you never hear things like that.

The rainfall was also one of the reasons for the thriving cotton industry, which was the source of the area's industrial wealth. And in spite of the regeneration – some of which is brilliant and some of which is less so – you can still find the architectural signs of that industrial heritage.

Stadium tours at the City of Manchester Stadium will be restarting this weekend after the Take That concerts. More details here.

If you have any spare time, then the Manchester Gallery is just a short stroll from the conference centre on Mosley Street. Entry is free and the works by Adolphe Valette, a French Impressionist who painted Manchester – and also tutored Lowry – are well worth a look, even if the Pre-Raphelites are worth dodging by anyone who dislikes the idea of utterly passive (and even dead) women being some artists' idea of beauty.

The wonderful Central Library is unfortunately closed for refurbishment until 2013. But behind it is Albert Square and Manchester’s town hall – a Victorian mock Gothic affair.

But don't let the picture of Mr Gladstone deceive you – it's not all 'grim up North'!

Manchester is also a party town that has a big reputation for producing bands. These have included the likes of the Fall, the Smiths, the Stone Roses, Joy Division, the Buzzcocks, the Verve, The Chemical Brothers, Oasis and Take That.

Brian and Michael do not count.

If, after a few days, you find yourself automatically adopting a Gallagher brothers swagger, do not worry. There is nothing wrong with this. Although it’s not recommended in high heels.

If you want big time party/clubbing information, then I’m afraid I'm not your woman. You’d be better to rely on the After Dark guide.

Although I will point out that Canal Street – the heart of the city's gay village – can be great fun. Churchills is gloriously loud and brash, pumping out retro disco sounds and staging such quality events as drag karaoke.

Just off Canal Street itself, on Richmond Street, Vanilla is run by the delightful Mary.

There’s music of course, but also absinthe – which may be welcome by the end of a week of political debate and grandstanding.

And I’m delighted to report that, even though the pool table is dinky, this is not a lesbian bar that believes in ‘non-competitive pool’. I was irrevocably scarred by finding such a thing in Amsterdam. How do you try to not pot the bleedin’ balls?

Just off Canal Street is Sackville Gardens, where there's the memorial to Alan Turing, the brilliant mathematician who, after contributing massively to the WWII effort, with his work on the Enigma code, was hounded to his death for his sexuality.

There are no shortage of shopping opportunities in Manchester, from the Arndale Centre – resurrected as a modern cathedral to consumerism after the IRA bombed the previous incarnation – to the likes of Harvey Nicks (they do a nice ploughman's, I'll say that).

Manchester has plenty of cinemas and theatres, with a varied fare.

The Royal Exchange is a great spot, not just for good theatre, but also because it’s an architecturally stunning old building, with a theatre in the round built inside. Currently on is Arthur Miller’s wonderful A View from the Bridge.

And now – because it would hardly be The Voluptuous Manifesto if we didn’t do this – there’s the small matter of food.

Tragically, the fish ‘n’ chippy that used to stand next to the bus station at Piccadilly is no more. And I don’t know of a good chippy in the central area. Which just seems so wrong to me.

But here are the few recommendations that I can make:

The Pizza Express in Piccadilly Gardens is a good one. I have a certain fondness for the ‘American Hot’, with pepperoni and jalapeno peppers, and a much-needed Peroni on the side.

China Buffet on Nicholas Street in Chinatown is a bargain, offering a cracking selection of dishes with an eat-as-much-as-you-can approach.

From Monday to Thursday, it’s £5.50 from 12am-5pm £5.50 and £8.95 from 5pm-11pm.

On Friday and Saturday, it’s £6.95 from 12am-5pm and £8.95 from 5pm-11pm. Sunday is £7.95 from 12am-11pm.

Booking isn't needed.

At the other end of the eating spectrum is Michael Caines @ Abode, which is just a few metres stroll down from Piccadilly Station.

It ain’t cheap, but it’s excellent and inventive food, as you’d expect of something linked to a Michelin-starred chef who’s worked with Raymond Blanc. The grazing menu is super.

Booking is pretty much essential. The number is 0161 247 7744.

Just as cheap doesn’t always mean poor, so expensive doesn’t always recommend something.

Personally, I’m not intending to eat at the Midland Hotel’s main restaurant, The French. It may have two rosettes, but the menu looks clichéd, while the prices – judging on the basis of a Chateaubriand for two being a whopping £69.95 – are OTT, in my opinion. I’ve paid considerably less than £35 for excellent Chateaubriand in Paris (and sitting in the shadow of Napoleon's tomb), so I hope you’ll understand my scepticism.

On the other hand, the hotel’s Wyvern restaurant and bar, which is much more of a brasserie style, looks like it has a decent, modern menu and is far better priced. I'm likely to give it a whirl myself this trip.

For more details on both restaurants at the hotel, click here.

Now I haven't been yet, but the Manchester link in the Gaucho Argentinian steakhouse chain has been recommended. It’s apparently an excellent place to go with a few friends.

The staff are really knowledgeable about the meat and the restaurant does a special platter where a group can have a selection of different cuts cooked in the way that’s appropriate to the cut. Now that sounds like the very best sort of education.

It’s at 2a St Mary Street. Telephone 0161 833 4333 and booking is recommended.

Welcome to our city. Have a great conference and safe journeys to and from Manchester.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Aggression, tempered by a bit of food

It was a day that started in a quite surreal manner.

My first bus of the morning – a little vehicle, which plods through estates until meeting a main road, then plods though more estates before finally the big road to Islington – was, as it usually does, attempting to edge out of the first lot of estates and onto New North Road.

Usually, whatever traffic is around will allow it to do that. This morning, a vast lorry decided not to. The bus edged around the back of the lorry – obviously somebody else allowed way – and then managed to spin around to sit alongside the lorry in the next lane as we now waited together at the lights.

Now I have no idea whether the bus driver made any gesture at the lorry driver. I was sitting directly behind the driver, side on, so once we'd swung around, I was the one person on the bus with a full-on view of lorry and driver.

And the aforementioned driver had direct eye contact with me.

He was at least in his late 40s if not in his 50s. Bull headed and with a mouth that was flapping a tad like one of those stroppy bull terrier-type dogs, he was leaning out of his nice, clean, white lorry (with black, tattoo-like markings) and giving a bi-digital salte to our bus.

I mouthed back: 'Nice'.

He didn't like that, and leant further out of his cab to gesture at the lorry itself.

What? You've got a big vehicle? Is that a substitute for having a dinky dick?

Not, of course, that I was asking anything like this. I merely maintained eye contact and shook my head in a somewhat sorrowful manner.

He started to open the door of his cab and get out. Fortunately, at this point, the lights changed. He shuffled quickly back into his seat, slammed the door shot, and drove off, giving a constant version of the same bi-digital salute as he did so.

For goodness sake – what is it with some people? I imagine he'll have a heart attack shortly and either kick the bucket in almost Darwinesque fashion or sit around for years like more of a vegetable than he clearly already is, expecting to be waited on, hand and foot.

I hate to imagine what any possible partner goes through.

And honestly – would such a person be a loss to the world as a whole?

But let's move on.

My phone issue (or non-phone issue, to be accurate) continued – although I want to say here that Orange were (as always, to be fair) great. There's a reason I stay with them. Transport for London – which runs the general lost property service – were also helpful, but told me to expect no news before Friday at least.

The thing is, I go to Manchester on Saturday for a week-long conference (I'm working), so I need a phone. Amazingly, the company's IT contractor managed to find me a spare Blackberry before the end of the day. Thanks guys! Although an online manual for the model in question runs to over 200 pages, which leaves me feeling a tad queasy.

But I should also thank my immediate colleagues, who were quite wonderful when I got in this morning and relayed the story about the phone and the lorry driver. Indeed, they were, to a man and woman, more horrified than I was. I was simply still shaking my head in bafflement more than anything. Which is where I still am.

However, let's move on. What do you do after that sort of a day?

Okay, well the best thing to do, I think, is to cook.

It was a bit of an invention day. Or put another way – what's in the cupboard/frdge?

I took two big shallots and sliced them. Then four fat bulbs of garlic and half a red jalepeno chili and sliced them all too.

Everything went into an oiled paella pan (a gift from George from a visit to Madrid, so the real deal) and softened over a moderate heat for some time.

Next, add some ordinary rice. Stir. Allow the rice to pick up the rest of the oil.

Add some stock. Then some thickly sliced chestnut mushrooms and some fresh peas.

And then just let everything simmer until it's all cooked. Test to make sure it's all cooked.

It wasn't fancy. It wasn't expensive.

It was tasty. And as it happens, it was probably healthy too.

And frankly, it makes white man van seem even more of a surreal irrelevance than ever!

Monday, 13 June 2011

Fish to console after a loss

How can it be that, after years of having poxy mobile phones that I hated – and even felt were like electronic tagging – the only mobile phone that I've ever managed to break and lose is the one I actually like?

Yes, that's right readers: I have lost my iPhone. Somehow, I managed to respond to a text while in transit – and then, when I thought I was putting the phone back into my handbag, seem instead to have let it slide down the outside of the bag and out of view (I presume).

So what on earth can one do to cheer oneself up?

The answer, as so often, is to get into the kitchen and cook something good.

In this case, it was a planned treat, since on Broadway Market on Saturday, Vicki had some wild salmon.

I'm not sure that I've ever had wild salmon – the only thing I know for certain is that if I have, then it hasn't been for many, many years, but have become used, instead, to farmed salmon.

However, after recently reading Oliver Thring on farmed salmon, I was feeling a tad dubious about that stuff. Charles Fishman also discusses the dismal environmental impact of large scale salmon farming in The Wal-Mart Effect – in Chile, in that case.

My ethical muscle has been convulsing ever since.

So anyway, I decided to indulge and buy two salmon steaks from Vicki.

I must say, I'm glad I did.

The kitchen activity soon saw me getting over the loss of my phone and singing highlights from The Wizard of Oz as I bustled around.

Grilled simply, with just a little olive oil to lubricate and served with a slice of lemon, a very few new potatoes and some fresh peas and asparagus, it's hard to imagine an easier and better seasonal treat.

And yes, it really is different: both in taste and texture.

So, while I will have to deal with the loss of the aforementioned phone tomorrow, at least this evening I have managed to console myself with seriously good fodder.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Memories of things past

At just before 1pm this afternoon, as I was strolling back home from the market, bags over one shoulder and in both hands, a noise stopped me in my tracks.

Looking up, military helicopters flew low in formation overhead.

Ah yes – the Queen’s official birthday: Trooping the Colour and a flypast. I love the flypasts. They go right over our tiny garden, only moments from Buck House.

But while any tight formation flying is impressive – and the Red Arrows never cease to amaze – that’s not what I love seeing most.

Bags now on the floor, iPhone out, I waited. And then you hear it. Not like any of the other planes, but a different sound; less a roar, more a hum.

And coming into sight are the real stars: a Lancaster bomber, flanked by a Hurricane and a Spitfire.

They last flew in anger years before I was born. And yet it seems that I know that sound: that humming as the props whir makes my spine tingles.

It is, I think, a sort of inherited, collective memory.

And if anything about modern warfare could be called romantic, then those planes and the young men who flew them have something of that about them.

In our national memory, ‘The Few’ are still in those tin crates, flying by the seat of their pants; defying odds and performing heroics with an apparent lack of care.

Of course, patriotism, nationalism, the weight of history – and in the case of Britain’s history, the sense of having been on the side of the angels for once – can sometimes obscure a rather salient point: bravery is not the sole preserve of any one side in a conflict.

Brave young men died on both sides in WWII, as in any other war. That, of course, is its tragedy.

Today’s flypast was also a reminder that, yet again, we’re up to our necks in warfaring, still snared in the mess that is Afghanistan and now getting ourselves embroiled in Libya.

At least Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair waited a bit before going to war: on the basis of David Cameron’s excuses for this latest adventure, next stop Syria?

It’s amazing how prime ministers seem to be able to find the money for bombs.

But as I was musing on that idea of inherited memory, it struck me that another collective or inherited memory seems to have been lost.

This week, we learned that Chorleywood bread is 50 years old. The process that meant that factory bread could be churned out by the plastic-shrouded ton is something, according to Gordon Polson, of the British Federation of Bakers, that we “should be very proud of.”

“It is a process we invented … UK bread is around the cheapest in the world.”

Here we go again. The great cheapness-over-quality argument.

But there’s more to it than that, as Andrew Whitley explains in a somewhat disturbing article, What have they done to the grain?.

So why do we keep eating this stuff? It doesn’t seem that we really enjoy it.

According to the BBC article mentioned above, “almost a third of the bread bought in Britain – 680,000 tonnes a year – is thrown away.”

A wholemeal loaf in my local Percy Ingle is £1.57. But like sliced factory bread, it’s produced the Chorleywood way. Indeed, a Percy Ingle white loaf stay soft for days – which you instinctively know just ain’t right.

Brief research shows that a Waitrose own-brand 800g sliced wholemeal loaf is 69p. The majority of factory loaves are around the £1.30-£1.40 mark.

Yet if you factor in that stat on thrown-away bread, then the prices are, in effect, rather higher.

In which case, why don’t we pay a little more for something better in the first place, and then not waste it?

The factory stuff tastes of little and the texture is so dismal that it sticks to the roof of your mouth in a mush.

And I don’t buy that business about it making the best toast or the best sandwiches either.

Now at this point I need to ’fess up to my own laziness over bread. I eat little of the stuff and frequently give in to just picking up a factory loaf – because bread is one of those things that you have to ‘have in’. Like many others, they’re rarely used up: they’re mostly a desperation food.

It seems that we have come to use bread simply as the casing or surface for other things – sandwich fillings or a fried egg, for instance. We don’t expect it to actually be worth eating itself.

Yet any time on the Continent would tell you something quite different.

And so I decided to invest a bit more for a loaf of artisan bread this morning and picked up a six-day sour from one of the stalls for the first time. It was just under £3.

It is not, however, going to last long and certainly not going to go to waste, because it tastes wonderful. It has great texture, a good crust and a lovely, nutty flavour. You want to eat it.

The time has come to root out an email from George that includes an easy recipe for a spelt loaf that doesn’t need much proving. I’m going to try to stop being lazy and make bread in the middle of the week.

Once you have good bread, you can use it differently: to dip in good olive oil and Balsamico, for instance. As an alternative accompaniment to a main course, instead of potatoes – and think of the time that can save!

Indeed, I’m going to go and tear some off in a minute and scoop up some more ripe and runny Saint-Marcellin cheese.

But what fascinates me is how we seem to have lost the memory of just how good bread can be.

The Chorleywood method might have made it cheaper to produce bread on a massive scale, but it also put considerable numbers of real bakers out of business. It saw skills lost and taught us to accept an inferior product that’s crammed with stuff that really has no place in good bread.

A quick look at the ingredients of a typical factory loaf (soft, white, thick sliced Waitrose own brand) reveals that it contains the following:

    Wheat Flour, Water, Yeast, Fermented Wheat Flour, Spirit Vinegar, Rapeseed Oil and Palm Oil, Salt, Soya Flour, Flour Treatment Agent Ascorbic Acid.

Which isn’t bad really, since a ‘Warburtons tasty white’ lists the following ingredients:

    Wheat Flour, Water, Yeast, Vegetable Oil, Salt, Soya Flour, Emulsifiers E471, E481, Preservative Calcium Propionate (added to inhibit mould growth), Flavouring, Flour Treatment Agents Acorbic Acid (Vitamin C), E920.

And neither of those lists, as Mr Whitley explains, includes the ‘additives’ that don’t have to be listed because they’re only used to aid the manufacturing process and thus don’t count as ‘additives’.

Like so much else within our current food and retail cultures, we seem to have been taught to appreciate price over quality; to expect everything to be cheap.

It would be worth remembering why the French had a revolution over bread: because when it’s the real deal, it’s bloody brilliant. And let's face it, Chorleywood isn't about to produce any Proustian moments.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Coping with the insanity of London life

I don’t know whether it’s the time of year, the time of the month or the time of life, but there seems to be a great deal of medium-grade irritation around at present.

Much of it involves my morning journey to work. This, when everything is running properly, involves walking around 100 metres to a bus stop, getting a bus, getting off at the penultimate stop on that route, getting any one of a number of other buses that also stop there and getting off just another 100 metres or so from the office.

Some weeks ago, the final stop in that journey was closed for roadworks. Roadworks, of course, take weeks.

Now that the stop is one more open, the stop I leave my first bus at has closed because of roadworks. And this morning, my first bus stop was closed because of … yes, you guessed it.

Add to that a person on each of today’s buses gabbing into their mobile phones. One is a regular: I’ve hardly ever seen her when she doesn’t have a conversation on the go; the device might well be glued to her head.

Today it involved a few ‘well I’d tell him to fuck offs’ before I could leave the bus – only to have her replaced by a far younger woman having another conversation that seemed to revolve around someone’s else’s troubled relationship.

Really, I do not need to and do not want to know. And a mobile phone is not a megaphone.

Off the bus eventually, I hit a shop and bought custard creams and jaffa cakes as therapy for myself and the whole department.

As a slight aside, the main difference I can see with an office that has a large number of women in it is the cake and biscuit frequency. And in the run up to annual conference, this increases.

But that was today. Yesterday was not helped by a trip to try to find some new clothes for conference later this month. As a hackette reporting such an event, I am expected to look smart. As a woman who has been very slowly losing weight in the last couple of years, some of my more formal clothing is being to look rather baggy – or simply fall off me.

Not wanting to spend a great deal, I went to M&S, which has served me admirably on the clothes front for many years. And I know my dress size according to that shop’s sizes

Or I thought I did. I picked out two pairs of trousers and a jacket and took them to the fitting rooms to try. They were all apparently of the same size – a size that, on the basis of what’s in the wardrobe at present could be expected to be on the generous side.

Nothing fitted. Not only that, but while one pair of the trousers could be fastened, the others didn’t come close. So the sizing isn’t remotely consistent. And the jacket was ridiculously small.

I gave up and, since it was either Marks or Tesco, nipped downstairs to get a couple of food bits.

But that was depressing too. Wall-to-wall, ceiling-to-floor plastic. Everything covered in it, bagged by it. My mother thinks this is a food heaven. Some of the packets even have the sort of security strips on them that you get on CDs, with the addition of a warning to ‘remove before putting in the microwave’.

For want of anything else, I picked up a pack of dab and then left. Fortunately, there was a rather nice chocolate shop nearby and a selection of truffles improved my mood straight away.

The dab was hardly the freshest fish I’d had. It was well within date, but smelled strongly when I opened it later. That’s not a sign of fresh, fresh fish.

It got done à la sole meuniere: so, dredged in seasoned flour and then cooked carefully in butter. When it’s nice and golden, remove to a warm plate.

Turn up the heat and let the butter start to brown if it hasn't already; then add a really good big squeeze of lemon juice and stir. Serve on top of the fish.

Now I'm not a dab hand at fish, really. I wish I was, but it takes more skill than I have to be a really good fish cook, I think. However, this is a great and easy sauce. I served a very small amount of new potatoes with it, together with asparagus tips and fresh peas and voila!

Simples. And enough to improve my mood. Until this morning’s commute, that was!

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Perfect pasta with a Perpignan twist

If you Google ‘spaghetti’, the third result that you get, after ‘spaghetti bolognese’ and straightforward ‘spaghetti’, is for spaghetti carbonara.

It’s one of the most popular pasta dishes there is, but like so many other things in the world of food, there are plenty of different ways in which this dish with bacon and eggs is made.

A 20th-century arrival amongst the pantheon of great pasta dishes, according to Wikipedia, it’s traditionally made with Guanciale, an unsmoked Italian bacon that’s made with pig's jowl or cheeks. But if your local butcher or deli don’t happen to have any in stock, then worry not: pancetta or some generic lardons or some decent streaky bacon will do just fine.

Last night, I settled for some of the pancetta I'd bought at Lina Stores – opening it was a thrill, seeing such a beautiful piece of bacon was yet another cause to celebrate that trek to Soho for food shopping.

It isn’t common to find cream in the Italian version, although that does feature in versions in France, the UK, the US and Spain, amongst the other countries where it’s popular.

Another matter is that of cheese. As regular readers may recall, The Other Half does not like cheese, but he does like a carbonara as long as it is a cheese free zone.

Many recipes suggest adding cheese, not simply grated, as a garnish on top, but as an integral part of the ‘sauce’. In other words, you whisk the eggs and cream together and pop your grated cheese into that.

Which is interesting, since I’ve known The Other Half order a carbonara in a number of places over the years and I don’t recall him having to request that it have no cheese. I suspect that the restaurant norm is to offer cheese as a garnish.

As it happens, Felicity Cloake, writing recently for the Guardian, was exploring the question of just what makes a perfect quiche lorraine.

It shouldn’t have cheese in, which as Cloake muses: “makes the custard rather salty, which in turn detracts from the bacon, and distracts from the more delicate flavour of the egg.”

So presumably, you could apply much the same theory to a carbonara.

But once we get beyond the cheese question, the main technical issue is that of avoiding scrambling the eggs over the pasta.

There’s nowt wrong with scrambled eggs and pasta – it makes great pre-football brunch fodder – but it isn’t a carbonara.

The usual approach is to take that beaten egg and cream and, at the last minute, add to the pasta and meat after they’ve been removed from direct heat.

But there’s another way – one that we experienced at Le Grand Café de la Bourse in Perpignan a few years ago and have raved about ever since.

Take your pancetta and cut into strips or dice. (If you’re using ready-made lardons you have nothing to do; if you’re using streaky bacon, simply cut it into smallish pieces)

Heat a frying pan and pop the meat in. Don’t move it around too soon or you’ll prevent it from caramelising.

And don’t put it on a very high heat, because you want this to take a little time. You shouldn't need to add any fat if the bacon itself has plenty.

Once you know that that’s well on the way, cook your spaghetti.

When the pasta is cooked, drain and return to the pan. Add some cream. Stir.

Toss in the pancetta.

Put onto serving dishes.

Take one egg per person, crack carefully and divide the egg. Put the yolk back into half the shell and serve on top of the pasta.

To eat, simply take the egg yolk and pour onto the past. Stir.

It will be warm enough to stop the egg being raw, but without any risk of scrambling. And it gives the dish a fabulously silky texture.

And that is that.

The best spaghetti carbonara going – and almost ridiculously easy. The only thing that is vital with anything so simple is to keep the ingredients as good as possible – and it’s particularly the case here with the eggs.

And you certainly won’t want to play fusion games, as Delia has with her oven-baked risotto carbonara.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Cucumbers in a pickle

I must be getting old, because the last couple of years have seen me mumbling, with increasing frequency, the words: ‘common’ and ‘sense’ in that order – usually in connection with questions about where it is hiding and accompanied by dramatic rolling of the eyes. Hurrumph.

In case you've missed it, there’s a new and very nasty strain of E coli on the loose in Europe – a development that was met with a crassly hurried announcement that organic Spanish cucumbers were the culprit.

Now while organic cucumbers are not up in arms, Spanish farmers are – and, stiill struggling with the economic woes caused by a recession caused by gambling bankers - they're now rather peeved with Germany, which is at the heart of the outbreak and made that panicked claim. Thus they're also threatening to sue Germany for damages.

Of course such a story never does much for good old common sense, but it gives the media a nice scare story to get excited about. Anyone else remember ebola?

Let’s be clear: it’s a nasty, nasty bug or virus or whatever – I don’t know the technical stuff. I don’t know much about maths either, but German has a population of ticking on for 82 million.

In 2009, the UN calculated the population of Europe as as a whole at 852.4m. In 2008, the combined population of the EU countries was around 499m.

According to a report from the BBC yesterday, there are 11 UK cases. By the end of last week, there had been at least 18 deaths and over 1,800 infections in Germany, Sweden and other countries.

In other words, however nasty it is, this is not an epidemic. Or a pandemic. Or any other kind of demic.

Yet even the Guardian, of which I foolishly expect better, came up with the question: ‘Is it safe to eat salad?’. And one Stephen Vaughan pandered to fears by suggesting (presumably in total seriousness) that: “the most sensible way to wash vegetables at home is to use Milton Sterilising Fluid.”

Processed food sounds ever more convenient when you consider his next comments: “You need to use a double sink method – one bowl with Milton diluted in water (as per the instructions), then put your fruit and vegetables in there for 20 minutes. Fill the other sink with tap water to wash off the chlorine. It leaves no taste and kills the bacteria.”

Or presumably, since the Guardian kindly provided a link, you could go on a food hygiene course that Mr Vaughan runs.

Now don’t get me wrong: food hygiene is extremely important. But since we don’t even know where or how this E coli outbreak began, it seems at least a tad hysterical telling the public to take greater precautions than basic, sensible ones.

But the same article does have some interesting things in it. It notes that in 2007, “an outbreak of salmonella in the UK was traced to imported basil, while an E coli outbreak in the US in 2006 was caused by pre-packed spinach. And in 2008, 145 people in the US were made ill by eating tomatoes infected with a rare strain of salmonella.”

A link, perhaps, in that the products seem to have been mass produced? These outbreaks were clearly not the result of produce grown in your own garden.

And it continues: “In her book Not on the Label, Guardian journalist Felicity Lawrence says that between 1992 and 2000, when bagged salads took off, nearly 6% of food-poisoning outbreaks were associated with prepared vegetables and salads. In 1996 a study of retail samples of bagged salad found 13% contained E coli.”

Not that is a bit of a surprise. How convenient does that bag of prepared carrot batons seem now? I’m not personally immune to the allure of bagged salad leaves – particularly for lamb’s lettuce. But once we get the garden sorted out in the coming months, it’s one of a number of things I’m going to try growing in a pot.

Gad Frankel, who is a professor of molecular pathogenesis at Imperial College London, is far more sensible in tone than Mr Vaughan. He’s quoted as saying: “I don’t think salads are particularly dangerous. The rate of infection is very low, so when it happens it really makes the news because it’s so rare.”

And the article adds that he suggests that “any increase in incidents … may be due to the fact we now eat more salad as we seek to make our diets healthier.”

So I’m not the only one who thinks the response is a bit OTT. Phew!

But as mentioned at the start of this piece, the hysteria has already had a negative impact on Spanish farmers specifically and European farmers as a whole – not least as Russia closes its doors to all vegetable produce from the EU (although you can’t help but feeling that Putin and Co will enjoy doing that anyway as a bit of snook cocking in a westerly direction).

In the UK, there seem to be vague reports from supermarkets that sales of fresh salad ingredients have slipped a little.

Not that we should be surprised. It’s the same kind of panic that has seen the rise of antibacterial cleaners for the home, from ones to use on work surfaces to ones to wash your hands with.

And when sales of those had peaked, someone had the neat idea of selling dispensers for antibacterial soap that you didn’t have to touch, thus obviating the risk of picking up more nasties.

Even though we know that the over-use of antibiotics can reduce their efficacy, we lap up products that could contribute to exactly that. Common sense has been replaced by fear. Producers can make money out of that fear.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not one for conspiracy theories – Occam and his razor every time for me – but I cannot help but imagine that producers of processed foods (those with ‘added value’) will be rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of terrified consumers turning away from fresh fruit and veg and toward processed foods that could be seen to offer more safety.

If there’s a military-industrial complex, as Eisenhower asserted, then how about an agri-industrial complex? The former thrives on war and insecurity and fear. And the second …? Presumably, sales of sterilising fluid will increase, alongside those 'added value' foods.

And I do understand that governments have to act to reassure and/or warn the public. Or at least be seen to do so.

Unfortunately, rapid declarations of the origin of health problems can cause their own problems. In 1989, Stilton cheese was at the centre of a health scare. Supermarkets and customers stopped buying. Government helped persuade producers they would have to pasturise the milk in future if they were to continue producing.

The cheesemakers coughed up for the new machinery. And when Stilton won Protected Designated Origin (PDO) status in 1996, it was legally enshrined as a cheese made from pasturised milk.

But the link with the health scare was never proved. But pasturisation changes the flavour of a cheese. Fortunately, Joe Schneider started making Stichelton with raw milk – and those in the know say it's much more like the 'original' Stilton.

So there are consequences to rapid claims of blame when health scares come around – as European farmers are finding now.

So in other words, where possible, avoid snap conclusions and statements. Let scientists do their work and, when reassuring the public, let them know that the experts are on the case, that it's not an epidemic and that they should continue to take normal hygiene measures with their food.

And then hope you've got a grown-up enough media to act sensibly too.

There is something else too. I have a sense of nostalgia for a past that I personally have never experienced, but one where you could pick a carrot from the ground, rub it with your hands and eat it, there and then. For a world where nobody would stop you scrumping apples because you hadn't washed the fruit after picking it off the tree.

Amid the relative dearth of food memories from my childhood, one stands out: drinking milk that had just come straight from the milking shed. Warm and thick with cream; almost yellow in colour.

I remember it because it was special – because it was unlike any other milk I had tasted before or have tasted since.

How many people would be terrified now of doing that themselves or of letting their children do it?

Chicken and egg: which came first? Such fears or an attitude that sees food only as fuel? I suspect they nurture each other.

But enough of all this: cucumber sandwiches – with or without the crusts?

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Easy peasy

It’s easy to think, when hearing the words ‘processed food’, of the sort of additive-laden ready meals that you can buy and pop into the microwave, to be ready in a matter of moments.

But processed food also has saving graces, from tinned pulses – a magnificent timesaver – to tinned tomatoes. For the latter, we have one August Escoffier to thank.

Frozen vegetables have a role to play too. Is there a freezer anywhere that doesn’t contain at least a packet of frozen peas?

But as good as frozen veg are and as good as frozen peas are in particular, they’re not the same as the fresh version.

Podding peas goes along with scraping new potatoes as two of summer's kitchen jobs that I find thoroughly pleasant. And the aroma that follows that first pop, before you even start flicking the perfect, emerald spheres into the pan, is wonderfully redolent of growth and plant life.

The taste and texture are different too. And as with so much other spring and summer produce, you don’t need to do much with them. Frankly, you won’t want to most of the time.

It’s simply a question of three to four minutes (depending on size) in boiling water and they’re ready. They’re undemanding in other ways too, only needing a bit of seasoning and some good butter.

As such, they demand equally simple ingredients to make a perfect meal: simple, but the best quality possible.

Since there’s nothing wrong, in culinary terms, with the obvious – there’s usually a reason it is – then today’s pan of peas was served with ivory smooth Jersey Royals and lamb chops, with the meat cooked under a hot grill for around six minutes a side, until the skin was crisp and golden.

The potatoes benefit from a slick of butter too, while whatever the French may say, mint is a wonderful accompaniment to lamb cooked this way.

It was a day for such simplicity.

I was late out for the shopping and, by the time I got home, it was hot and sweaty. The realisation that I’d forgotten a vital ingredient for tomorrow saw me spit a hair or two before heading back up the road.

With the street now utterly rammed, it was hopeless to try to rush. Musing that some good water biscuits would also be nice, I revisited La Bouche, leaving not just with biscuits, but also one of a batch of Saint-Marcellin cheeses that had melted so much that Max had had to put them each in a plastic container and, in entrepreneurial fashion, was offering at a cut price. Although even that wasn't enough for many people, who looked with suspicion on them, as though that state of ripeness was indicative of something bad.

A ciabatta was then sourced before I headed back home and began tearing the bread and scooping up the creamy liquid with it. Utterly gorgeous.

It was an afternoon when the flimsiest of clouds rippled across the sky like the sand on a damp beach. My first melon of the season was perfect refreshment. Just plain slices cut from the globe – another wonderful scent – and consumed greedily, as the juice trickles down the chin.

Food really doesn’t have to be complex to be as voluptuous as this.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Let's hear it for the 'shrooms

Last week’s trip to Lina Stores in Soho produced, amongst other things, a bag of dried porcini, the like of which I have never previously known.

Dried mushrooms have become a store cupboard staple in recent years, but none that I have ever purchased in a supermarket have come close to the aroma of these.

I have an idea in my mind of mushrooms as autumnal food, but with the knowledge of having such superior ingredients around in mind, I decided that Tuesday should be a risotto night.

But the aim was to make this mushroom risotto just a little bit special.

So, stock was defrosted as usual and then warmed up with a handful of the new porcini.

Finely chopped shallot, celery and garlic were softened in olive oil, to be joined by Arborio rice.

A glug of white wine followed. Once that was absorbed, the process of adding the now-hot stock, ladle by ladle, began.

In the meantime, organic chestnut mushrooms were sweated down in a tiny amount of olive oil. White wine and lemon juice were added – just a little.

Everything was tasted and seasoned where necessary.

When the rice had absorbed the maximum stock (along with the rehydrated porcini by this time), the chestnut mushrooms were strained and added.

And then the denouement: I’d found a small roll of white truffle butter in the fridge that I’d bought before Easter and then forgotten. So instead of either the classic butter and Parmesan or my own usual crème fraïche, I took the pan off the heat and stirred some through.

And that was not bad at all.

I have, as it happens, just recently got a book on this glorious rice dish – Risotto! Risotto! by Valentina Harris. It’s not so much a question of needing the basics as being curious about all the differently flavoured risottos that she includes recipes for.

That was the result of a browse around Amazon leading me to this out-of-print books, which was available from a private seller.

In the meantime, on the basis of searches and purchases, Amazon seems to have decided that my core interests in terms of reading matter are currently politics/economics, Manchester City, food and Italy.

In terms of the latter, it seems that an interest in Italian food also translates into wanting to read umpteen books about the Cosa Nostra. I don’t.

Still, Amazon more than has its uses. It could be argued that this is a situation where ‘economies of scale’ works rather nicely – and certainly in a way that counters most chain booksellers these days.

Since Amazon can allow the reader to access hundreds of thousands of titles, rather than the more limited numbers in a bookshop – a number that is further limited by most chain bookshops (and other book retailers, such as supermarkets) only opting for the most obvious big sellers – you can end up finding things that you had no idea existed.

I don’t actually like the Amazon search engine much, because you seem to get so many results on an search, but the recommendation programme does produce some nice things.

The latest such discovery is a pair of books by Guardian food writer Matthew Fort, about his travels around Italy and Sicily (the latter a book on its own) on a Vespa. They apparently combine travel, food and history.

Now Fort is not some 20-something feeling all rebellious on his trendy wheels, so I expect something a bit different. I’m looking forward to them.