Archive | July, 2013

A plethora of blackcurrants

30 Jul

Out in the garden I have an area used to grow soft fruit. At the moment the big crop is blackcurrants, which have produced big time this year. The currants are big and juicy and there are a lot of them, I estimate about 10 kilos. I have already made two and a half loads of jam – the half load included some raspberries and strawberries. As I received quite a few hits with my homemade / home-grown ratatouille I am going to put up some more ideas and recipies.

Making jam is a way of preserving fruit for those times of year when there is nothing growing in the garden. It is pretty good at preserving much of the vitamin and mineral content of the fruit, but the volume of sugar is a bit of a downer. When you jam fruit you extract the pectin from the fruit. Pectin is a protein found in the pips and skin of the fruit. Some fruits jam more readily than others. Normally blackcurrants are bursting with pectin, but this year it is not jamming nearly so well. You may need to add pectin to the fruit when making the jam. You mix the powdered pectin in with the sugar before adding it to the cooking fruit or buy sugar with pectin already added or use liquid pectin. There is also special preserving sugar, which I do not use as I can’t tell the difference except the crystals are a bit bigger. It is also recommended in some places to use cane rather than beet sugar, but chemically they are identical.

You will need a big, heavy-bottomed pan, a set of scales and a wooden stirring implement, jars to put the jam in – oh, and a saucer.

Recipe for blackcurrant jam

Note: This liquid is very hot, hotter than boiling water, and sticks like napalm. Be very cautious when filling the jars, taking the jars from the oven or handling the hot jam in any way. Wear an apron and keep a damp cloth handy for wiping up any spills.

  1. Pick 1 kg (2.2 lbs) of the fruit, remove the stalks, wash it and leave it some moisture on the surface. Weigh out an equal weight of sugar
  2. Put a little water in the bottom of the pan and bring to a fast boil. Add the fruit, turn the heat down, cover and cook for five minutes.
  3. Add the sugar and bring back to the boil, stirring to prevent burning. Cook on a moderate heat, uncovered, for about an hour, stirring occasionally.
  4. Test the jam by drizzling a little onto the saucer. When the surface forms a skin after a few seconds the jam is ready. Turn the heat off.
  5. Put washed jars into the oven, without the lids;  five or six jars of standard size should be enough. Set the heat to 100 deg. c and leave the jars to warm through for five minutes. This kills any bacteria and stops the glass exploding when the jam is put in!
  6. Take the jars out of the oven and put on a washable surface. Use a jug to pour the jam into the warm jars, leaving a centimetre gap at the top of each jar.
  7. Put the lids onto the jars and tighten. While wearing oven gloves, make sure the seal is tight, then invert the jar briefly to make the seal even better. Put jars right-way up somewhere to cool. This takes some hours and you should notice the jar lids pop as the air inside reduces in volume forming a partial vacuum.

  1. Once cool, put labels on the jars, telling you what it is and giving a date. It will last for years, even maturing a little, but it can go too far!

Delicious on fresh bread – method for making sourdough loaves to follow.

The best soundtrack for this is Michelle Shocked – Strawberry Jam


Home grown ratatouille

25 Jul

For the first time ever I have managed to grow some aubergines (egg plant, brinjal) in the greenhouse. The one on view here is the third full-sized one I have picked.

Also in the greenhouse are tomatoes and peppers (capsicum). In the garden are three courgette plants now producing. Last week I harvested the onions and garlic. All of which means that I can now cook ratatouille made from ingredients I have grown myself.

I also have seven varieties of chilli in the greenhouse, the most exotic of which is this one, called Loco. They are supposed to go red when ripe and are 30,000 – 50,000 on the Scoville scale, which is about the same as a Scotch Bonnet! I also have some mild Italian ones which are quite large and should be really good roasted, then stuffed with cream cheese. Incidentally, someone on the tele was saying that the seeds in chillies are the hottest part. Absolute nonsense! The seeds are almost entirely without taste.

Anyway here is a recipe for ratatouille:

1: Slice the aubergine in half lengthwise after removing the stalk. Slice the fruit into slices of a bit less than 1 cm. Fry the slices on both sides until brown in a heavy pan with a little olive oil. Remove when cooked and set aside. The flesh soaks up the oil at first, then oozes it out when cooked, so don’t use too much oil.

2: Roughly slice a large onion and gently fry in the pan until just taking colour. Add one green and one red pepper (both roughly sliced) and stir with the onions. After a few minutes add two or three sliced courgettes and two or three sliced garlic cloves. Turn down the heat and cover to allow the vegetable to sweat down for about five minutes.

3: Add a good handful of aromatic herbs, such as a mixture oregano, thyme and sage. Add 500g (a pound) of roughly chopped tomatoes and season with salt and a plentiful amount of freshly ground black pepper. Turn the heat up until the mixture is bubbling away. If you are short of the right kind of tomatoes, use a tin of chopped tomatoes or a carton of passata. Add a squeeze of tomato puree to intensify the taste and thicken the sauce. Add the fried aubergines, turn down the heat, cover the pan and cook for an hour.

4; Ladle large portions into bowls and serve with some warm crusty bread.

If you like you can fry off some pancetta, cooking chorizo or sliced streaky bacon at the beginning of the process, until the oils produced can be used to fry the vegetables in. Remove before frying the vegetables, set aside and add at stage 3.

There will be a few foodies out there tutting that the vegetables will be overcooked and that the tomato skins should be removed. My response is this; ratatouille is a peasant stew, a bit rough and ready. Maybe you have time to skin and de-seed the tomatoes, but I do not, nor would your average peasant. The product is a stew, and needs to be cooked thoroughly to meld the flavours. Nearly raw vegetable in this dish are just that, raw. Slow cooking spreads the flavours throughout. Undercooked ratatouille has unblended tastes and an unpleasant texture. Stuff nouvelle cuisine!

Rules of the game

23 Jul

One of the most significant achievements of nineteenth century Britain was to invent rules for various games. These games included Association Football, Rugby Union, Cricket, Rugby League and so on and on. This enabled different groups to play the same game to the same rules, making a level playing field, even if they came from different continents. Of course some games are more international than others. Association football, AKA football, soccer, the beautiful game, is a truly international sport, whereas Gridiron Football is only played at the top level within a single country. The Empire State is probably big and rich enough to allow this. Baseball as a sport falls somewhere between international and local as teams from Cuba and Japan have been known to compete with the US teams. Other examples of local rules are Gaelic and Aussie Rules Football. Incidentally, why is Gridiron called Football when only a nominated member of the team is allowed to kick the ball and why is a touchdown so called when the ball is not touched down? A try in Rugby is called that because by touching the ball down over the line you had the opportunity of a kick at the posts.

When it comes to international sport, diplomatic incidents have been caused by perceived failures to apply the rules evenly. The furore during the Bodyline series in Australia is still talked about today. This happened when the visiting English cricket team under the captaincy of Douglas Jardine adopted the novel tactic of trying to hit the Australian batsmen with a head height cricket ball travelling at ninety miles an hour. The Australians thought that it was just not cricket, and a deliberate attempt to intimidate and/or injure the opposition does sound like an underhand tactic, especially in the days when the only protection was a cricket box®.

Recently the British and Irish Lions Rugby Union team finished a successful tour of Australia. One major talking point in Britain and Ireland was the interpretation of the rules applied by a South African referee. Now Rugby is a bitch of a game to referee with multiple offences occurring at the same time during some passages of play. However the two most basic rules of rugby are these: 1. You can only tackle the person carrying the ball. 2. Once tackled the player carrying the ball has to release it IMMEDIATELY.

The stress on immediate is because the interpretation of that rule appears to have changed in the Southern Hemisphere (except for Argentina). In Australia, New Zealand and South Africa it appears that hanging onto the ball for several seconds after a tackle is quite acceptable. The Lions players who tried to take the ball from the tackled player were penalised FOR STOPPING THE RELEASE OF THE BALL. In this situation the referee should be asking who benefits from the action. You cannot play the game without having the ball. It is of no benefit for the tacklers to allow an isolated tackled opponent to hang grimly and illegally onto the ball, but it is a benefit to the team of the tackled man not to lose control of the ball. For an international game to have multiple refereeing interpretations is unacceptable. This needs to be addressed by the RFU* with some urgency.

® A sort of armoured codpiece designed as a box ‘to protect the family jewels’

*Rugby Football Union

Names for Baby Windsor

23 Jul

Many congratulations to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and their new addition, the Prince of Cambridge. Even before the birth many betting companies were offering odds on what the name of the sprog would be. How boring is that. Prince William’s full name is William Arthur Philip Louis Windsor (or should that be Saxe-Coburg Gotha?). Prince Charles name is Charles Philip Arthur George. The number of options is really limited. Arthur is out because heirs to the throne called Arthur tend to die young. Add Edward James and Richard to that list and you probably have a full set.

It is far more interesting to me to speculate on what the name will NOT be. The odds are stacked against Prince Wayne Darren Judas Delroy as the chosen name must be quite high. Perhaps you can do better than my poor imagination will allow and make your replies. I have set up a poll to find the least likely name with some suggestions but would appreciate others. Incidentally John Wayne’s real name was Marion Morrison, Cary Grant was Archibald Leach, and the wrestler Big Daddy was Shirley Crabtree in real life. What might be the odds on Marion Archibald Shirley?

Being Human

5 Jul

There was an excellent programme on the BBC two nights ago. This was presented by six-month pregnant Prof. Alice Roberts of University of Birmingham, (by old alma mater). She is an anatomist and started by discussing the physiological differences between apes and men. Then there was a most interesting experiment started in the Max Planck Institute in Germany. There were two young chimps in separate cages, separated by a space. A plank was set in front of the cages. At either end of the plank was a loop though which a length of rope was threaded, with one end of the rope given to each chimp. On the plank were two halves of a banana as rewards. The only way the chimps could obtain the reward was by co-operating in pulling on the rope at the same time. This worked in most cases , but if one chimp was slower to pull the rope, the faster would gain her reward and then let go of her end of the rope, meaning the slower could not get the banana.

A similar experiment was carried out on children, except with marbles as token rewards, and the distribution of rewards could be varied by the apparatus. It still required the children to co-operate. When any child found they had a disproportionate reward they would voluntarily and very quickly share the reward equally. It seems that humans are programmed not just to co-operate, but also the share rewards in an equitable way. This behaviour in some way appears to give us an evolutionary advantage. Those that insist on having a greater reward in any society are deviating from this behaviour. It is also suggested that the societies in which most people are happiest are those where the difference between the richest and the poorest is the least, not the overall wealth of the country. Yet we laud and try to emulate the rich, even those who have inherited their wealth. In the words of Gordon Gekko, ‘Greed is good!’ Perhaps we should have an urgent rethink of our position on this. For example, game shows mostly eliminate contestants, either for failing tests or because they are voted out in a political or popularity vote. I can’t call to mind a single game show where co-operation and equitable division of spoils produces the winners. Let’s have some natural justice, just for once.

I passed by his garden and marked with one eye
How the Owl and the Panther were sharing a pie
The Panther had pie-crust and gravy and meat
While the Owl had the dish as his share of the treat.
When the banquet was over, the Owl as a boon
Was kindly permitted to pocket the spoon
While the Panther took knife and fork with a growl
And concluded the banquet by …………..*

* The only words which make sense here are ‘eating the Owl’, a name I have given to a novel I wrote in which the villain wants everything.


Snowdonia Holiday

1 Jul

Well, despite what I might have said in a previous post, I really quite enjoyed the break in north west Wales last week, despite the typical weather. On the day before we left I retrieved the suitcases from the loft, during which adventure I knelt on my right knee – the one which has not been fixed – and did a very slight ooh nasty! Anyhow, I drove up on the Saturday after lunch and arrived at the house in Talsarnau by half past four. We unpacked and I went off to explore the local pub, the Ship Aground, which was only ten yards away.

On Sunday we went to Harlech, mostly the Castle because there is not much else to do there on a Sunday. This is a proper castle, not some castellated stately home, and is in pretty good nick, all sieges considered. Owain Glendower had the town as his capital for a while. There is a protected staircase down the crag to what used to be the harbour, but which has since become quite a way inland, behind a line of sand dunes and a golf links. We also visited the restored home of a Welsh language poet of the late seventeenth century who I had not heard of. This man wrote ‘The Dream of the Bard’ (translation) which sounded a bit pretentious and fey. By the end of the day my knee was hurting some.

On Monday we went to the Isle of Angelsea, over Thomas Telford’s bridge and hung a right to get to Beaumaris, Edward I’s last and uncompleted castle. While in the town we also visited the old courthouse and the prison, both museums and supposed attractions. The sheer inhumanity of Victorian prisons is difficult to describe. It is as though Jeremy Bentham’s idea of the Panopticon was adopted and adapted but with mortification of the flesh being more important than any penitential intent. The isolation and useless labour of the routine being a form of psychological torture. Anyhow, the castle is very impressive, though the top of the curtain walls was never completed. It is both big and impressive, with some nice touches. It would have been very formidable as a statement of intent as well as being cleverly engineered fortress. Two castles down and my knee worse.

Tuesday had been decided as the day for the compulsory visit to Portmerion. This is where ‘The Prisoner’ was filmed and is an Italianate fantasy full of effects to fool the eye. It is one large stage set and is one of the most filmable places I have ever been to. If you can avoid the souvenirs with the penny farthing bicycle embellished with the text, Number 6, the whole experience is very enjoyable. It is very difficult not to take too many photos around the village. The essential good weather makes the place come alive, and it was great to visit it on a sunny day. We went for a walk around the grounds and ended a bit lost around an area described as the Ghost Garden. Ther is a very strange recurrent motif of a bifurcated Mermaid in many places. We drove to Porthmadoc on the way home to find where to park the car and to buy tickets for the Welsh Highland Railway for the next day. By the end of the day my knee was getting quite sore.

Wednesday was the day for The Welsh Highland Railway is a relatively new line, that is newly reopened and extended. It climbs spectacular slopes through a pass close to Snowdon, all the way from Porthmadoc to Caernavon, just over thirty miles. The journey takes nearly two and a half hours. The gauge of the rail is a mere two feet, as the lines were all for moving the slate from the mines. This makes the carriages rock and roll a good deal, even at low speeds. The engines used are the most powerful to be used on a narrow gauge, but have to work hard on the slopes. On the day we went they had a record number of passengers. The morning had low cloud obscuring the tops of the maountains, but this lifted during the afternoon, and the journey back gave better photo opportunities. At Caernavon we visited castle number three. This one is more theatrical and fancy than the other two, and was quite crowded with Spanish students. I liked it less than the others, but is was intended as a royal residence as much as a castle. I was stupid enough to indulge in ice cream during the day, and quickly regretted it when my lactose intolerance kicked in with a vengeance on the return journey. I’d had ice cream at the Hay Festival, but that was made with sheep’s milk, which I have no problem with. The knee was also quite sore.

Thursday was a day when the weather was to break. It drizzled persistently during the morning and pissed down in the afternoon. We went for a walk in the morning, wrapped up in waterproofs, me with a knee support an half high on Ibuprofen as an anti-inflammatory and painkiller. The walk took us along the Welsh Coastal Path and around the ex-island of Inys. At Inys the church has a carved standing stone. The walk around Inys was clocked at three and a half miles, and the walk along the path something over a mile each way. So in total it was about six miles or somewhat over, on mostly level ground. There some fine views of Portmerion across the estuary and of a distant Harlech Castle. I did not take the camera, so these two are from Hazel’s.It makes me think that the size and weight of the DSLR are a positive liability sometimes. My knee was quite sore when I finished the walk and stiffened up badly during the afternoon and evening. We watched tennis in the afternoon and I went round the pub again in the evening. In fact, I only missed going to the pub on Wednesday, as I needed to be near a toilet!

On Friday we went to the nearby station at Talsarnau, about a quarter mile from the house. This is unmanned, and you have to wave your arms at the train if you want it to stop. This is reminiscent of a bus request stop. Hazel enjoyed waving her arm out and I caught the moment on her camera. We purchased tickets on the train, heading south to Barmouth, a resort town. We were there for less than an hour. Hazel asked the girl at the Tourist information what there was to do. She replied that there was a museum, but that did not open until one PM. We might have stayed longer if there had been a nice looking pub on the harbour, but there wasn’t, though the railway viaduct was spectacular. My knee hurt abominably as we traipsed around the town, the pain making me feel a bit ill. We returned to Talsarnu, having informed the ticket collector that we wanted to alight there! We packed the bags ready for departure the next day and went out in the evening to the local motel where we enjoyed a meal in the restaurant. Hazel had slightly pink duck breast while I had the lamb leg steak. We talked to a party of ladies who had been out walking and had got wet. I called in the pub before going back, saying my goodbyes to the welsh-speaking maniacs and the token Englishman.