Warm woollen mittens

Despite the title, I do not bear much love for any form of hand-sheath – despite some of my ancestors making their living from glove making (the “g” is, to the best of my knowledge, not silent: though late Georgian Chester may have been a hotbed of licentiousness…).  I would prefer a world in which gloves and mittens could be completely replaced by the firm stuffing of my hands into my pockets: which, as a man, I can reliably anticipate having available, unless sailing rather closer to nudity than is generally considered acceptable in a public space.  Sadly, there are occasions when I need to use my hands – and I suppose my even older ancestors did embrace bipedalism, at least in part, to free their hands and may not appreciate my attempts to turn back the evolutionary clock when its a bit nippy out.  My greatest need to use the glove maker’s art is when cycling, as I am not one of the cool kids who can operate a bicycle ‘hands-free’, but need to have both hands firmly on their bars where wind chill further reduces the temperatures being experienced by my out-of-pocket fingers.

No, I am alluding to the librettical output of Oscar Hammerstein II (“This Time Its Lyrical) but popularised by Julie Andrews during a thunderstorm.  What I had failed to realise, until researching this post, is that old Oscar had a rather fine collection of middle names: between the “Oscar” and the “Hammerstein” his parents managed to fit the words “Greeley Clendenning Ritter von“: which may have been partial compensation for otherwise having named him as a sequel to his grandfather.  The mittens were just one of a rather eclectic litany of favourite things which Maria seems to have accumulated during her time at the convent but I thought “doorbells” might be too obscure a reference, even for me!  To be fair, I’m not sure it was Oscar’s finest hour poetically but it did have a catchy tune…

Having finally dealt with the important business of the introductory remarks, we can now move, safely and smoothly, into the main body of the symposium…

This blog, despite my somewhat erratic commitment to its continued growth, exists thanks to a return to a favourite thing from the early 90s: the writing of mildly amusing skits using pointlessly obscure vocabulary and references.  In those halcyon days, I was applying my muse to the minutes of team meetings and spoof eulogies for departing colleagues: now, of course, no topic is out of bounds.  This post also marks a return to a favourite thing from my past (from much the same era): baking.  In the distant days of the late 80s and early 90s, I would bake for birthdays and attempted moderately complex icing regimes.  I was also briefly paid (at cost) by a colleague to make bread pudding for her.

I realise baking has become rather popular of late, as a result of many folk spending their evenings staring at the haunted goldfish bowl to watch other people doing it in a tent (by “it” I mean baking – well I assume I do, I’ve not watched the show).  This televisual pimping, to the best of my knowledge, had nothing to do with my own return to the form.  Instead, as with so many activities, my return was sparked by an alcohol and Thai-curry fuelled conversation in the Guide Dog.  This blog has already mentioned the development of curried porridge which continues to be a regular staple of my breakfast table.

Anyway, it was while reporting back on the success of this culinary enterprise to the chap who bears significant responsibility for its existence as co-author for the original idea (and many of the other more foolish ideas generated in like manner) that the idea of creating hot flapjack arose.  I seem to recall he was somewhat sceptical about my porridge but felt that flapjack would be the more natural marriage bed for oats and chilli to consummate their long-standing, if until recently unrequited, love.  Never one to reject a foolish idea without putting it to the test, I spent some time researching flapjack recipes which I felt could form the basis for my new creation.  Given its origins in the Americas, I decided to marry the chilli with chocolate to honour the Maya and added in some dried cherries to provide a thin veneer of “health” to my creation: it was also, entirely accidentally, vegan.  I have to say that chilli, chocolate flapjack has proven a huge success and I am now onto the fourth generation product.  As well as chilli flakes, I have experimented with chilli chocolate (which I’m afraid lacked the necessary cocoa content and was purged in generation three) and chilli-infused olive oil to create triple-chilli flapjack.

While the flapjacks have been a taste sensation, they have been a little lacking in the structural integrity department.  Generation four was the most friable, indicating that the problem was the need for a wetter (rather than a drier) mix for improved cohesion: the base recipe was rather unclear on the addition of water.  This slightly crumbly nature is not normally an issue except that in the conversation that led to its creation, the flapjack was supposed to act as the tasty, load-bearing substrate for some 38 candles to mark my friend’s impending natal day.

I was clearly in need of a Plan B and so decided to make a birthday cake which would more reliably provide the necessary load-bearing structure.  I then began to worry about the ability of a single cake to safely bear 38 candles without the cake, audience and venue being destroyed in an almighty conflagration.  So, I decided to make two birthday cakes to spread the fire hazard and vitiate the need to have a bucket of wet sand on hand.  As it was boring to make two of the same cake, I ended up making two different cakes, though both retaining the Mayan theme of dark chocolate and chilli: a chocolate brownie cake and a dark chocolate mousse cake.  I had a grand time spending an otherwise dreary Sunday morning baking away in my tiny kitchen creating cakes from recipes I had never used before and which I was adapting (a) to include chilli and (b) to use ingredients I had to hand and was looking to use up (rather than attempt to fit yet more one-off ingredients into my tiny larder).

I was then left with the challenge of how to store and then transport, on foot, two cakes (plus a box of hot flapjack: I am never knowingly under-catered) to the Guide Dog to celebrate the milestone birthday.  I came up with a complex system involving cake tins, very old paper plates, slings of baking parchment, a fair amount of tin foil and a rucksack which worked surprisingly well.

Come the fateful day, I transported my cakes and enough candles to burn down much of Bevois Valley to the Guide Dog: which seemed to be tempting fate in a location named after a chap famed for dealing with a dragon.  As it was the evening of the Swing Steady Session, I did feel some pressure to participate and justify my presence with quite so much non-musical luggage.  So I attempted to play a piece entitled Joseph, Joseph on the house guitar.  On the plus side the song only uses five chords, though I did only know 40% of them at the start of the piece.  It also required some use of swing in my strumming while madly attempting to encourage the recalcitrant fingers of my left hand to form unfamiliar shapes across the frets of the guitar.  I believe I can report that it wasn’t a total debacle: there were no fatalities and I am unaware of anyone embarking on a new course of therapy as a result of my playing.

At the interval, I inserted the candles into their little mounts – from which they indolently lolled rather than standing proudly to attention as I recall the candles of my childhood doing.  A whole team of people then attempted to light them and it became clear that that my instinct not to place all 38 candles onto a single cake was wise.  Even spread across two cakes, there was quite a decent blaze going and I did wonder whether I should have found a little wicker figurine to sacrifice: maybe just a tiny wicker heart to keep a rather disturbing Mayan vibe going.  We settled for extinguishing the inferno fairly rapidly to avoid reducing one of the world’s finest pubs (it may be the finest, but I have yet to try them all and I’d hate to be premature) to a fine ash.

Burn baby burn

Danger illustrated…

We could then tuck into the cakes to discover if they were edible and whether my chilli dosing had been broadly appropriate.  I believe the cakes were something of a success: I certainly enjoyed the leftovers over the next few days and no-one has reported any ill effects from their consumption…

So much fun did I have, that in today’s less than lovely weather – I think even the ducks are starting to mutter that they’ve had enough rain now – I’ve returned to baking the chocolate mousse cake to enjoy at home: without the fig leaf of a celebration to cover the gentleman’s agreement of my hedonism.

Given my desire to support my entire body weight in various improbable configurations using at most two hands, I shall have to keep this restored habit of baking for self-consumption to a relatively infrequent pleasure: maybe once per lunar month.  While I was rather lazy today, not having the desire to get drenched acquiring ingredients not currently in stock, I think I may create a plan to bake at least one new (perhaps experimental) cake per month.  I could be persuaded to share the results of my applied chemistry, but you will have to come to me…

Describing veg

The supermarkets of this land seem to be under the impression that we will not purchase their vegetables unless they have been given some serious adjectival pimping.  I have talked before of the abomination that is ‘baby’ leaves – showing a woeful lack of botanical understanding in the nation’s grocers – and so will merely re-iterate that these leaves are merely young or small and try and leave it at that.

Waitrose is particularly keen to make its fresh herbs seems exciting.  My mint is described as ‘cool cool’ (so cool they described it twice, apparently) and my curly leaf parsley (or ‘parsley’ as we used to call it) is described as ‘versatile, vigorous and vibrant’ – something more appropriate in a date (and I’m not talking deglet noor) than a little garnish.  I would use some rather different descriptors for herbs, with basil being identified as their titular monarch with a taste for huntin’ and shootin’ and fishin’ while sage would be identified as ‘not very happy, in fact in a rage’.  However, this may say more about my childhood viewing of a stop-motion animation series called The Herbs than it does about my suitability as a costermonger’s marketing assistant.  Talking of The Herbs, it did introduce some really rather obscure leaves to my youthful mind: herbs which I have never encountered since, e.g. Good King Henry and Miss Jessop,  and are even a challenge to find using the full power of internet search, e.g. pashana bedi.

However, we are not here to discuss Waitrose’ need to paint their herbs with adjectival rouge.  My lunch today included some frozen peas: a store cupboard staple that is also a boon in the case of bruise or sprain.  These were not just any old frozen peas, oh no, they were described as ‘garden peas’.  I strongly suspect that this was not the case and that they had, in fact, come from a farm.  I’m pretty sure that ‘garden pea’ is not a Linnaean classification and so presume it must be to contrast it with a ‘forest pea’, ‘deep sea pea’ or GD Pea (probably not to avoid confusion with the ‘sweet pea’ which is grown for its decorative and often scented flora, but is rarely frozen).

This contrasts with the treatment of rocket: the cruciform vegetable rather than the means of accessing Earth orbit.  This is, almost invariably, described as ‘wild’.  My imagination is strangely torn between Rowan Atkinson in a gorilla suit and the idea of machete-wielding workers gathering the rocket from its bosky lair.  As with the peas, I’d be surprised if it had not started its journey to plastic-packed display on some sort of farm.  Is there perhaps a tame rocket that we never see?  Or was it too trusting around humans and has been hunted to extinction like the dodo?

A recent packet of mixed chillies – which I’ll admit are technically fruit, but it would take a braver man than I to place them in a fruit salad – merely carries the legend ‘pizzas, soups and noodles’.  I assume this is an uncredited serving suggestion – or perhaps Lynne Truss’ next great work on grammar?  Fascinatingly, a mere 100g of these chillies (roughly eight) would provide 1% of my daily energy needs – so I need only consume 800 for all my calorific requirements to be met (though I would rather overshoot my optimal protein intake).  A strong argument there for a balanced diet!

Of course, it was these same supermarkets that revealed the tomato as a vine fruit – though I’ve yet to find any tomato wine (presumably it would be red?).  I find my plums are now described as ‘tree-ripened’.  The world has reached a pretty pass when allowing nature to take its course has to be remarked upon as a selling point for fruit.

As so often, research via the medium of Wikipedia slightly weakens my case and does suggest some very vague logic around the naming of the peas and rocket.  Apparently, there exists something called the ‘field pea’ – but this is only available dried and I can never recall seeing it for sale.  I feel it would be unexpected indeed should some shopper purchase ‘frozen peas’ and then be disappointed that these were not field peas.  Similarly, there are two types of rocket: one from genus Diplotaxis and one from Eruca.  Sadly, both – especially when ‘babies’ – are sold as rocket.  I think in both cases, the grocers are garnishing the name for marketing rather than purely taxonomic purposes: peas need to appear friendly and harmless (no doubt to overcome their otherwise terrifying aspect) while rocket must carry an aura of danger and excitement (like the 15:17 to Cleethorpes – if you should doubt me, just ask the ISIRTA team).

Fire and Ice

I have headed north in the hope of free education and prescriptions and, given my advanced years, to enjoy the free care we elderly receive in the more boreal portions of the UK.  Yes, dear reader, I am in Scotland spending a week in the Athens (or, at this time of year, Islington) of the North for the famous International and Fringe (or Bangs for our US readers) Festivals.

The weather has been mild and I have seen the sun (and quite a lot of rain – but less, I think, than home which is what matters!), but one does not generally visit Scotland to enjoy the sultry heat.  I was therefore puzzled to find at the Pleasance (one of the main Fringe venues) that all the beverages on offer were “extra cold” – the stout, cider and bitter were all branded as “extra cold” and the lager is always offered heavily chilled.

Why?

I can’t imagine that over-heating is such a huge problem in the Scottish climate that the serving of tepid, or merely cool, drinks should be so thoroughly interdicted.  I will admit that some of the venues can become quite toasty (not to say sweaty) when packed with punters, but there has been no need for salt tablets to be issued – and the offering of a few cold drinks within a wide range of beverages would be more than sufficient to cover any concerns.

Luckily, today I shall be amused at the Gilded Balloon (or that’s my plan – one I hope is shared by the comics whose work I shall be sampling) – which on past form, is willing to offer bitter that has neither been nitro-kegged nor chilled well beyond the point of potability.  So, clearly it can be done – let’s start a campaign to make drinking at the Pleasance more pleasant!

Yesterday, I also visited the Queen’s Hall (she wasn’t there) to enjoy Ravel, Chin and Schubert (or at least some of their chamber works).  This was a late morning session, but it still counted as classical music and so, as part of my plan to support the arts in these difficult times, I was required to partake of an over-priced pot of artisan ice cream in the interval.  I was offered – and tried – a flavour I had never encountered before – Scotch Bonnet ice cream.  A Scotch Bonnet – as well as a piece of millinery – is a particularly fiery strain of chilli pepper and so might be seen as an unusual partner for ice cream. However, the combination was a marvel – the wonderful admixture of fire and ice in a single mouthful was a delight (and made a baked alaska seem a very pedestrian offering).  I think chilli could usefully be added to other flavours of ice cream (not just the basic iced-cream flavour): I already like chilli-flavoured dark chocolate, so that would be an obvious option but I think it would also augment the experience when consuming strawberry, honey and ginger or vanilla ices.

I’m now also wondering if I should introduce chilli into my bakery – chilli icing (as well as a pleasing word-pairing) could definitely be a viable option.  Upon my return to Fish Towers, it will back down to the crypt for some experimentation..