Thursday, September 30

If something’s worth doing

Flickin’ through the television channels, a couple of nights ago, I came across one of those American cable shows featuring yet another ‘celebrity’ chef who, beyond the confines of his immediate family and commissioning-editor brother-in-law, is a complete nonentity. This guy was demonstrating his definitive version of the world’s best chilli, but was so inept, the naivety of his recipe so basic, it forced me to break out the pots and pans. Chilli in the UK has come a long way since those 1970s’ con-carne variants so beloved of landlords’ wives. Whilst for much of the 1980s I lived on Wick Fowler’s 2-Alarm Chili (they say chili, we say chilli), suitcases of which accompanied me back from regular US trips, the dish became something of a religion. Whole weekends were spent concocting and taste-testing ever more elaborate experiments ... chilli-con- just-about-everything, from antelope to zebra. The pinnacle came during the 1990s when my chilli developed a distinctive North African flavour; by then it had meandered through most of the world’s cuisines. Though chilli lacks the sophistication of curry, attention to detail makes a difference. Most recipes call for the ubiquitous mince but I prefer chopped beef (round trip of 25 miles, to a butcher that sells decent skirt); it needs to be browned in batches. Mince your onion and garlic and sweat it down slowly. Dry roast the cumin and peppercorn before grinding them. I’m usually more successful with dried chillies than fresh, but they too need roasting, and rehydrating, before use. On this occasion I used what was in the cupboard: a mix of Aji Limon, Ancho Poblano, Morita Chipotle and Guajillo chillies, reinforced with a reliable powdered variant and a fair helping of Spanish smoked paprika. Once it’s gets going, thicken with flour. Tradition then leads me to add a half bottle of flat beer prior to the stock (which on this occasion was the concentrated liquor from last week’s boiled brisket) and a carton of passata. Throw in some dried oregano and a couple of bay leaves, and slow simmer for two or more hours. It bears no relation to the stuff you buy from the Quik-E-Mart, whatever the manufacturer’s claims to authenticity. It’s certainly better than anything that dipstick from the TV contrives.

Tuesday, September 28

Redundant

Autumn ploughing is well in hand and even the barn has acquired a sodden, earthy aroma. Hobbits and byres spring to mind. And yes, after much lobbying by yours truly, our heating has been switched on. The swallows finally departed for South Africa, though their absence is compensated by a herd of deer that have taken up residence. The owls too have returned in numbers. Between the farm cats and raptors, rodent life has become increasingly precarious – our sparrow hawk is particularly active, and yesterday I followed three young kestrels at work. They were driven off by a band of marauding crows. Out on t’moor it looks to be roundup time for the woolies, the shepherds working from horseback rather than quad bikes. Pony keepers have also been rounding up stock for the market. I’m led to believe some 900-odd ponies are being sorted, the hardiest (best able to withstand the winter) being returned to the moor. Dispensing with tradition and in an effort to encourage sales to people who probably shouldn’t be buying ponies, prices (at the sales) will be quoted in pounds rather than guineas. Those that aren’t sold are presumably culled. Sixty plus years ago (prior to the Ford Transit) there was a herd of 30,000 Dartmoor ponies employed as pack animals. Now-a-days, thanks to cuts in make-work public services and the withdrawal of incapacity benefit...

Sunday, September 26

Lemon curd

As everyone who knows Gudgeon appreciates: I’ll eat most anything. Most anything ... one of my previous red lines was lemon curd. I tried it as a kid and decided the custard like gloop tasted like (what I imagined to be) congealed, excessively sweetened puke, and have been unable to eat any since. Until this week that is. It surfaced amongst the latest batch of Mrs G’s jelly, jams and exotics; and to-die-for doesn’t do it justice – on toast, scones, stirred into yoghurt, as a cake filling. Tonight’s savouries include barbequed lamb with roast beetroot and butternut squash – followed by more lemon curd, and a tumbler of malt. It’s been a weary afternoon, out walking.

O to be a swing voter

David Cameron, this past week, reassured anxious middle class voters he would cut taxes and allow voters to keep more of their own, hard-earned money. Likewise, Ed Miliband’s initial declaration, on being elected leader of the Labour Party, has been to defend that most nebulous of constructs: ‘squeezed’ middle-England. Labour might have swopped the tartan taliban for a bowl of metropolitan muesli but it’s the Finchley and Golders Greens that remain in the driving seat. Like most people I’m unsure what to make of Ed Miliband. He looks a familiar type of bland individual, the sort that populates most middle-management ranks; until, that is, he hugs his brother and tells the world how much he loves him ... and almost immediately you picture Michael Corleone, kissing Fredo. If I was David Miliband I’d make sure my mother remains in good health.

Saturday, September 25

Miliband of Brothers

Last night’s tongue-in-cheek take on the two Miliband brothers would have been a chuckle if it hadn’t been for the likes of Kinnock and Benn reminding us there was an element of reality to the farce. Who amongst us can rail at the undeserving poor when taxpayers have lavished so much on such a gilded pair? An Oxbridge education and well paid sinecure in public life should be available to all. Don’t mind me, it’s only jealousy.

Friday, September 24

Beer of the week

Hat’s off to Quik-E-Mart’s special of the week: £5 for 3 x 620ml bottles of Cusqueña, a none-too-shabby premium beer from a couple of German lads in the Andes. As I’ve been drinking Thai and Czech beers for the past month (previous specials) this South American lager is a welcome change, especially as it opens up a whole new cuisine. Well perhaps not so new: Peru boasts 200 species of potato – 99% of all the world’s spuds are descended from the region, ergo it’s chips with everything. Unfortunately we’ve been unable to source guinea pigs for this evening’s supper, and as the neighbour would probably shoot me if I made a move against his alpaca, a couple of stunted rabbits will have to suffice – drenched in a hot pepper sauce and accompanied by a cucumber, tomato and onion salad. Apart from Nobby Solano’s salsa band Peruvian culture appears thin on the ground this side of the pond, but I’m sure I can come up with something to dance to.

Thursday, September 23

Vengeance is mine

I continue with my quest: making inroads into that list of a 1,000 righteous novels we’re all supposed to read before turning our toes up. Tolstoy (along with Solzhenitsyn, Dostoevsky, et al) is one of those authors everyone latches onto during our teenage years in the fond hope it anoints us with a sprinkling of intellectual capital. At the time, having accomplished the necessary, I concluded such books were tedious bollocks and proceeded rather smartly to Ian Fleming, Louis L’Amour and large quantities of Bacardi & Coke, consoling myself with the promise that one day I’d return for a second look. Accordingly ... This past week’s worthy has been the 817 page pinnacle of realist fiction Anna Karenina. Something of a Jane Austen for boys, albeit surprisingly contemporary and, in its contrast of city and country living, more relevant than I’d expected. The story in a nutshell: Russian bird cheats on husband before jumping in front of the 4:35 from Paddington, whilst lots of guys hang out together, drink large quantities of booze, play cards and bet on the horses. Fairly predictable Eastenders stuff, you’d think, but it’s not a bad read. The novel is of course a morality tale, and thanks to the OU I could dash off a couple of thousand words on the subject. Leopard and spots, however: there’s the new John le Carré waiting.

Wednesday, September 22

It ain’t so bad

We were out walking on the hills this morning – amongst the livestock, small mixed herds of cattle, sheep and ponies. Nervous calves, not so nervous foals. Large sections of bracken are being cleared from the grazing areas by a man on a tractor. Hedge cutting is also in full swing, releasing a sweet-tobacco scent across the moor. On the ground, caterpillars and devil’s coach-horse beetles; above the fast running water the last of our dragonflies and fritillaries. Blackbirds and thrushes flit from haws to sloes, crows make wing to the rooky wood – a score or so playing above South Down, mock fighting for the fun of it. Who would choose to be imprisoned in an office on days like these? There’s barbeque and beer on tonight’s menu (Thai chicken and chilli pork-ribs) to help me recover from the £800 cost of an oil change and four new tyres. That’s the real reason most people work.

Makes for a dull boy

What is this life if full of care/We have no time to stop and stare? In his speech to the conference Nick Clegg told us that ‘Work is essential to a person’s sense of self worth, their identity.’ Spending our lives harnessed to the plough, paying taxes, allows us to feel good when we look in the mirror? Patronising little tosser, this son of a merchant banker. ‘British Isles – worst place to live in Europe’ proclaims this morning’s headline. Whereas most other countries work to live, we, apparently (according to the latest league table of 10 leading European economies) live to work, putting in more hours and retiring much later than our European counterparts, with rubbish pensions to boot. Throw in the UK’s lack of sunshine, the cost of diesel and our crappier public services, and you wonder what it’s all for. Only Ireland is worse; it’s no wonder young Cowen takes a snifter before going on air. Whilst Clegg’s boys have decided, quite understandably, that bankers and bond traders will serve as a suitable Aunt Sally, the rhetoric at times seems faintly reminiscent of 1930s Germany and Jewish moneylenders. Whilst I too would vote for a spot of tar and feathering, I wouldn’t want to kill the golden goose, at least not before Christmas. Let’s not be distracted from apportioning blame by focusing on bankers; they behaved the way they did because governments, particularly McPlonker, encouraged and endorsed their activities.

Saturday, September 18

The big society

‘Villages are dying as services are lost’ declares this morning’s Western Morning News. It’s the usual bleat about our losing village pubs, shops and schools, along with the premise that all could be saved if only ‘they’ would build affordable homes. Last week the local newspaper headlined with community outrage at plans to build 800 homes in the area! You’d have to be deranged to volunteer for the local planning committee. Mention affordable homes to many village residents and an image of welfare dependants hoves into view. As for corner shops ... I suspect they would have died out everywhere years ago if it wasn’t for Asian immigrants willing to work twelve hour shifts: and I don’t see the residents of Shadwell relocating to St. Mary Mead any time soon. Likewise for pubs ... £4.50 for a pint of bitter and a soda water isn’t for the faint hearted, neither are the twelve-quid entrées (yesterday’s pub lunch) – but that’s what it takes pay the wages. Am afraid the halcyon days of après-work drinking sessions en route home, the mainstay of many a pub income, are long gone.

Thursday, September 16

Go figure

England might resemble a third-world country but we’re ranked an unbelievable 6th by FIFA. And whilst Cardinal Kasper’s boys are 3rd, that’s also thanks in part to the multiracial content of the German team. France – the exemplar of rainbow footy and whose recent record must surely be a demonstration of auld alliance rapport – has fallen to 27th? Shit, if the answer was simple Graham Taylor would still be in charge.

Friday, September 10

Bottles and jars

You can’t knock this time of year. An abundance of root vegetables aside, kitchen worktops lie buried beneath baskets of fruit. Plums, damsons and crab apples look to be this week’s favourite; vats of Braeburn and date chutney are bubbling away on the stove. Unfortunately it takes three months maturation before reaching the table, just in time for the Christmas ham, cold turkey and goose, assorted cheeses... The Boss is also checking her supply of yuletide puddings – the result of last year’s production line, whilst magically transforming a final batch of hedgerow blackberries into tubs of ice cream. Mrs G. has taken our experience of being marooned during last winter’s snow to heart, is intent on stocking the pantry, the cellar, the shed... Vitamin B may have stopped my brain shrinking but the heart relies on its stomach. A duck dinner is my sole contribution to the day’s food fest. Do not attempt this dish with shop-bought duck, they’re inedible and cost a small fortune – farmyard produce only.

Thursday, September 9

Oversight

As a former subcontractor to both BP and Transocean it is interesting to follow the Deepwater Horizon fallout. One of the things I admired about American organizations, back in the early days, was their enthusiastic retention of old sweats – guys who understood the nuts and bolts, that had waltzed around the block a couple of times and knew where the bodies were buried. In a sticky situation you could always find someone who’d been there, done that, came prepared and equipped for Murphy’s Law. Unfortunately – and in common with much of the private and public sectors – operators seem to have spent a good part of the last two decades divesting themselves of in-house, hands-on experience. Whilst innovations such as turnkey drilling services have been a boon, I bet Svanberg wishes his predecessor hadn’t cut quite so much dead wood.

Monday, September 6

Autumn arrives in the mists of early morning

Along with old maids on bicycles. Almost unnoticed the leaves have turned; the yard is punctuated with gnawed windfalls, clumps of fungus and greasy yellow slugs. Neighbours have begun exercising their guns.

Sunday, September 5

Grass always seems greener...

Reading Martin Amis’s novel Money is a blast from the past. The 80s attracts bad press, most often from people that weren’t there or who found themselves on the wrong side of the tribal divide. Whilst John Self caricatures the excesses of those times, they were as inevitable as they were exuberant. The decade witnessed an unprecedented rise in white collar employment and social mobility – what Simon Jenkins refers to as bourgeois ascendancy, and who could forget Bananarama and Samantha Fox. Times change, however. In much the same way a recalcitrant would rail against Thatcher, juvenile myth feeds an increasingly boorish baby boomer narrative. It seems that, having trashed the world and gorged ourselves on its finite resources, yours truly and the boys have consigned Generation Y to a life of penury. What they really mean to say is that social mobility appears alive and well but it turns out to be a two-way street. As for our free university education, one of their principal bugbears, I seem to recall a figure of 7% making the jump to fulltime higher education when I left school in the mid-60s, for 93% there was no free anything other than a legacy of NHS orange juice and rotten teeth. The definition of baby boomer is of course somewhat elastic and can also include those individuals born between 1961-64 – the ones that left school around 1980, the poor schmucks who struggled through the recessions in the early 80s and 90s, 19% of whom never managed to find employment (the first generation to be hit by the growth of flexible labour markets and the decline in manufacturing), the ones who had to settle for part time work, whose periods of employment were more likely to be measured in months rather than years ... They were the ones born to hair shirts. I’m not sure current contingent even knows they’re born.

Friday, September 3

Laying in supplies

This burst of sunshine has galvanised the tractor brigade, everyone is cutting and baling. Its significance, the timing, isn’t lost on me. Life – the weeks – fly past. I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t resent it. If there was a god I’d give him the finger, or maybe Hawking’s to blame? Our supply of vegetable boxes continues ... the neighbour’s bees have produced 90lbs of honey. Weeping eyes and a cauterized nose was yesterday’s defining feature: Mrs G. has been bottling her annual supply of runner bean chutney, along with a fresh batch of spiced, Masala poached prunes. Pretty soon she’ll be wrapping the surplus apples in back copies of Ferreters Weekly and storing them in barrels. An egret – the first I’ve witnessed hereabouts – has joined the grey heron and kingfishers down on the river. And in amongst the yard’s sparrows and dunnocks there’s a spotted flycatcher – sometimes called a wall plat locally, due to its preferred nesting site. A plat is a flat beam lying on top of a wall (elsewhere the bird is also referred to as a rafter or beam bird). A congregation of swallows jink and swoop above, readying themselves for their African adventure. Everything on the wing or ground is gorging in anticipation of leaner times.

Thursday, September 2

Like what I wrote

At least you know the lad wrote it himself. Getting your retaliation in first is a sound enough maxim and one that obviously appealed to Blair. McPlonker is probably of the opinion that Faustian bargains aren’t what they used to be. History is littered with successful partnerships: Batman and Robin, Morecambe and Wise, Hale and Pace, Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton. OK so the last example also ended in tears, but in reality the goal scoring duo is far more the norm than the likelihood of a happy-ever-after paradigm. Like many people my best work was most often a partnership of complimentary talents. Successful as these were, mutual suspicion and innate rivalry always sank them. The best you could hope for was an extended truce built on mutual benefit. My loss ... Wish I could do it again and learn to bite my lip.

Wednesday, September 1

Sod’s law

Despair no more – and no apologies for my weather fixation, it dictates so much and its memory is all that sustains during the long winter months – that big yellow thing in the sky has reappeared and everyone has reverted to shirtsleeve order. Not before time, you say – albeit just as the kids trudge back to school. Unfair isn’t it. You pay through the nose for a family break and it pours down each and every sodding day. Bank holiday ends, the price of everything falls by 30%, and suddenly it’s Costa del bloody Sol.