Monday, August 27, 2007

Feeling much better, thank you

What a difference a weekend makes. Especially when taken with nightly doses of Night Nurse, the miracle drug. I have stopped snivelling, mostly, but am cultivating an impressive hacking cough which should keep contaminating fellow passengers at bay long enough to get truly over this thing.

I am upset that I managed to miss International Kitchen Garden Day though. Damn. Next year for sure.

Anyway, I nursed myself with healing foods, like kheer with cardamom, pistachios and golden raisins, and freshly stewed plums that I bought during a spin round Marylebone Farmers' Market on a sunny Sunday.

Marylebone remains one of my favourite areas in the whole world. A charity shop that looks more like a Bond Street boutique. A lovely, lovely Waitrose. The world's very best bookshop, Daunt's. The world's very best charity bookshop which even has poetry readings, Oxfam. Valerie's Patisserie for good carb ogling. A Ginger Pig for heaven's sake: how wonderful is that? Very, very, is my answer, remembering the most fabulous ham we bought from their Borough Market outlet years ago. I saved a lustful browse through the Conran Shop for a rainy day and spent instead a calm half hour with other Sunday paper readers under the canopy of plane trees in Paddington Gardens. Even the pigeons were napping in the grass.

Monday was a holiday and so I made a late start and then had another amble up Edgware Road. Definite changes top to bottom. Arabic script even in Argos of all places. Shiny, glittery pharmacies every ten steps, mostly doing more than one thing: I thought the pharmacy plus internet cafe was a particularly ingenious idea; just the thing for RSI sufferers. The 7-11 farther up, by the enduringly tatty Church Street market, has become the Sindbad Shop.

Then on into the fringes of St. John's Wood, but was lured down a path to Regent's Canal, which was a perfect walking place on a warm sunny day.

The occasional canal boat chugged by; people were sitting out on their decks at the houseboat community at Little Venice; cyclists and walkers and peace and quiet.

Then I emerged near Regent's Park and hopped a bus up Finchley Road to visit some of my old haunts. I had an extremely nice time in the Natural Natural shop, which is, naturally, a Japanese/Asian treasure trove. Here are a couple of photos to make you weep, Andy, Donghyun, Amy...

Then into the bosom of Waitrose, which is very obviously under construction as it expands into a neighbouring shopfront. I can't help myself. I am deeply besotted, profoundly in love with this store. This relationship has lasted for decades now; I remember outraging a Hampstead Heath dweller by saying I was happier living with Waitrose at the top of my street than the Heath, and I'd say it again, given my druthers. And my love has been tested, not just by five years in another country. During my week in London I've endured furtive visits to rival supermarket chains, closer to where I'm staying - Somerfields, Sainsbury's, Tesco - but they are shabby and pitiful by comparison to the lovely Waitrose, which I'd willingly cross town to visit. It's partly familiarity, I suppose: the enduring product lines, the sensible arrangement, the luscious recipe cards. But also the happy staff, the organic range, the recycled paper products, all of that.

Well. I wrenched myself away and ambled over Primrose Hill, pebbled with peeps all blissed out in the sunshine, and landed in the land of Leah and Howard who fed me very well on food and conversation and off I went to find a bus. Everything went well until I reached Marble Arch where I realised I had decided to return home just as everyone from the Notting Hill Carnival had decided likewise. Luckily I squeezed on the second bus - too full to fall over, as we say.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Snivelling in splendid sunshine

A partly lost week, thanks to a very special welcome home gift from the population of London from whom I have evidently been receiving toxic spores for the past seven days: something so special the Brits give it its own special name: I have a dreaded lurgy. Commonfolk might dismiss it as a cold, but it descended in the form of what I know from raw experience as the London Throat, a harsh and beastly ailment that quickly morphs into other unsociable symptoms - sneezing, hacking and snivelling - and inspires cravings for revolting cures such as Cold Powders and the vile green goo called Night Nurse.

I am, as well, equipped with a box of Sainsbury's Ultrabalm Tissues, and a comforting leaflet written in typeface too small to read with the red, naked eye of the sufferer, which assures me I have made a wise purchase; these tissues are made from fibres farmed "from well-managed forests and controlled sources." I would feel happier if the authors of this leaflet had felt able to use the words "sustainable" and "recycled", but I am not sure they mean the same thing to all of us, and in any case I am dribbling pitifully and will use this box with apologies and contrition, not to mention pain and suffering.

So, feeling this sorry for myself, it was two days prone and unproductive, doing nothing more taxing than making toast and taramasalata, drinking pots of lemon & ginger tea, spooning canned mandarin segments into my insensible mouth, napping, and reading mysteries and thrillers of varying vintages (Peter Robinson to Robert Harris to Dorothy L. Sayers).

And so this morning dawned the third day, when the throat was subsiding and I had a brief illusory sense of well-being which drew me out into the brilliant and even seasonably warm sunshine shining down on London,

entering its charmingly named Late Summer Bank Holiday Weekend. I went on an errand of mercy (mine) to the Oxfam bookshop in Turnham Green, where I found three treasures: Not On The Label by Felicity Lawrence; Kitchen Essays by Agnes Jekyll (a beautiful re-issue from Persephone Books); and Headlong by Michael Frayn. After a restful afternoon sipping watercress soup with the ever entertaining and delightful Meli in the sunny, flower-lined courtyard of Carvosso's Wine Bar and Eating House, and a stroll and people-watching interval on Acton Green, I returned to another bowl of mandarin slices and a nice shot of Night Nurse which should find me rested and recovered by morning. Or so I can hope.

Some relaxed West Londoners, well out of the sun of course, having that pasty English skin, but happy to see it from the shade.

By dusk, the party ships come out to play...

And as night falls, a dinner ship sails into a perfect London sunset.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Cloudy with sunny periods and a chance of rain

Sunday was blustery and grey, with madmen sailing up and down the Thames all afternoon, as they were again today.

Later Sunday afternoon, I hopped a bus towards Mayfair and found a perch right at the front upstairs, my favourite place to sit even now I'm no longer a tourist. It gave me a great view of the wet windy streets as we sailed up Vauxhall Bridge Road, and then pulled up at Victoria station, where we paused. There seemed to be some cars stopped in front of us, and I watched a couple of them u-turn up a taxi lane and drive off; a fender-bender between the two in front, I supposed, until I saw the bare feet, the curled form of a young woman who must have been hit by a car just before we arrived. Given the absent-mindedness and trust of the pedestrians wandering around the station - not to mention the proliferation of iPods - it's surprising there aren't more incidents like this, or maybe they're so common they don't warrant a mention any more. It took 10 minutes or so until the police arrived, and we were diverted off on a different route with the sirens drawing closer. I'll never know...

I got off at Hyde Park Corner and scurried beneath Park Lane to the Curzon Mayfair, one of London's most comfortable cinemas, where it is possible to take a gin and tonic and box of popcorn into the show with you. We saw The Walker, which was a nice bit of mannered fluff, and my first movie in 10 months! --and then parked ourselves at a table in the Shepherd Market branch of Sofra, which was heaving with custom, to enjoy some lentil soup and delectable Turkish mezze, succinctly served on a snappy glass platter.

Monday morning I found my way to the offices of Sustain, a cheery band of food activists, representing about 100 different organisations, and squeezed into the select crew that makes up London Food Link. The building wasn't easy to find, since in true London form, the street number I was looking for, 94, is not between numbers 95 and 93 as you might expect, but around a corner and slightly behind number 93. After a day crunching words for the delightfully named and highly readable quarterly newsletter, The Jellied Eel, I emerged from the bowels of the Underground to find there was at last a big chunk o' blue opening up over London.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Grey becomes us

So, I've been two days in London, which has been grey, damp and deliciously cool.

Leaving Parma scorching in its 32 degrees, I arrived to a 22 degree Friday afternoon and hopped the bus that all the Ryanair passengers were not taking because they'd bought the more expensive "cheaper than airport prices" bus tickets on a different service. So five of us enjoyed a roomy and peaceful ride through green countryside, occasionally lit dramatically by shafts of English sunlight, steered by Tony the driver who'd showed us two emergency exits to the bus and assured us we wouldn't need them. Our route took us down Finchley Road, my old stomping grounds, and I was happy to see many landmarks still where I left them, on past the Wellington Hospital where I had my knee operation years and years ago, down Oxford Street, past Hyde Park looking lush and stately, and finally I was released into the modest zoo of Victoria Coach station. My host was waiting for me and after a quick drink and a tour of my new temporary home, departed for deepest Berkshire, generously leaving me an Evening Standard, a pint of milk and a loaf of bread to settle in with.

Saturday morning I did some larder-stocking. My first thought, as it often is when arriving in London, was for the dark aromatic coffee I buy from Markus Coffee, a little operation on Connaught Street that has valiantly, serenely and deservedly survived its proximity to a Starbuck's that opened on Edgware Road seven or eight years ago. Walking there from the bus stop I crossed Connaught Square and passed parallel rows of traffic cones preventing parking in front of one of the homes (a pricey neighbourhood, this, where I imagine house prices vaulted the million pound mark a good decade ago); two other curious features about it suggested a story. One was the hand-written sign affixed to the wall, reading "No Reporters" and the other was a policeman cradling a machine gun and glaring at me as I passed; ditto his two colleagues who were pacing up and down the street. I wondered at first if it was a crime scene, but my friendly coffee dealer told me it was only the Blairs, who were not around much these days anyway. I picked up my package of heaven and wandered up Edgeware Road, wafting dark coffee fumes everwhere I went. A little preliminary shopping and a dolma stop at my favourite Lebanese grocery, The Green Valley, and I was headed back home.

Saturday afternoon brought a welcome last minute invitation to join Nancy and Mike at the How We Are: Photographing Britain exhibition at the Tate Britain. I was buffetted by grey winds on my way but got there to find a blue pixie dancing on the steps in welcome

and we spent a happy, somewhat overwhelming couple of hours exploring British photography of all kinds by all sorts of photographers (Lewis Carroll, Julia Margaret Cameron, Martin Parr) from all points in photography's history. There was even a visual explanation of where the term "blue print" comes from which was a bit of a revelation, as were three photographs of the Horn Dance of Abbott's Bromley, ancestral home of my mother's family. Afterwards we enjoyed a couple of pints and some fairly stale crisps in a nearby pub, blissfully smoke-free since the smoking ban came into force here last month.

Then we thought we'd catch a bus to Islington -- only the bus stop had a big yellow sign on it

advising us that due to an accident on August 7, the stop was closed for as long as they jolly well said so. As the wind now had damp substance in it, we were disinclined to do as the sign suggested and walk over the bridge to the Vauxhall bus station, and while we were dithering, a bus pulled up, so we got on, victorious over signage.

Then, carefully avoiding low trees,

we made it to the Afghan Kitchen

where we managed to come away with Lavand-e-Murgh (chicken in yogurt), Qurma -e- Gosht - kachalo (lamb with potatoes), Qurma Suzhi Gosht (lamb with spinach), Bajnon Borani (aubergines with yogurt) and Sarah's (a vegetarian concoction of kidney beans, chick peas and potatoes in yogurt) and off we went to Cross Street where we cleaned the plates as best we could. Delicious welcome to London.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Penultimate Parma

Well if the shops and restaurants are closed, my classmates have left, the larder is bare, the river is dry and the nutria have fled, I guess it's time I thought about moving on as well.

Here's how the optimistically named Torrente Parma looks today, as it has for weeks:

I guess that goes some way to explaining why we haven't been attacked by mosquitoes as we were led to believe we would. Though others not so close to the 'river' have had it worse.

It's going to reach 34 in Parma today, and will only manage a grey 20 in London, with more of the same in the near future, so I'll be packing my brolly and leaving the sunblock behind. Watch this space for endless whingeing about English weather over the next couple of months...

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Everybody's gone away...

A final lunch yesterday at Sorelle Picchi, which afterwards closed for the holidays. One more bowl of cappelletti in brodo for me and tortelli di zucca for Kathy. Yum, we did it.

And here's how the rest of the neighbourhood's looking:

Andy whipped up another wonderful Taiwanese dinner last night; then on the way home Jenn, Tim and I paused for a K2 conetto. Mine was passion fruit (sooooo goooood!) and peach.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Leftovers in an empty town

I am in that expat no-man's land of oddly categorised flours, strange leavening agents, unfamiliar baking pans and an oversized toaster oven to bake in, so I try to forgive myself the many baking failures I've experienced this year, even as I challenge myself to empty those cupboards before next weekend's departure date for London. A good conjunction of contents and necessities as the restaurants and shops that aren't closed now are likely to be next week. The price we pay for not living in a tourist town.

And even more prices to pay for sending mail through dear confusing Poste Italiane. Today I learned that:
  • it is cheaper to send packages to Canada than to England by surface mail
  • it is cheaper to send packages by expedited delivery to England than by surface mail
  • there is no book rate
  • there is a book rate, only it's not called a book rate, it's called M-Bag. There is a picture of an M-Bag on the information page about this service, but the bag isn't something you need to buy in order to use the service. Or that's today's information anyway.
  • it says on their website that Poste Italiane offers a customs clearance service for non EU inbound parcels at 5,16 euro per item (blogger's note: this 'service' delivers the package to the customs office, and is in addition to any duty that may or may not be charged by Italian customs, which presumably is an extra service to the grateful customer)(maybe the generous interpretation is that the word 'service' simply doesn't translate easily into Italian?)
Stay tuned, it's likely to get sillier still before I'm done.

I don't recall exactly what led me back to Anne Carson's amazing poem sequence, The Glass Essay, but I was thrilled to discover the whole thing on the (bless the living memory of Ruth Lilly) Poetry Foundation website. A gift and a half for a poet who lives halfway round the world from her own personal poetry library. If you can't face reading the whole thing at one sitting (and I find it hard to stop once I start), check out HERO. Stunning.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Meat and cheese

Today when the UK is again struggling with Foot & Mouth disease, I have retreated to the couch where I have been reading a terrific book, Last Chance to Eat, by a Canadian (via England) food writer, Gina Mallet.

Although it's full of interesting facts, figures, anecdotes and recipes, I've found (thanks to this year's education) two factual errors. One of the errors - that sent me running for my cheese technology notes - has to do with Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, which she says can only, according to the rules of the "Dominazione di Origine Controllata... be made only between 15 April and 11 November, when the cattle - producers of a quality milk called Pezzato Rosso - are grazing on fresh grass rather than eating silage."

What is wrong with this statement is: there is no date restriction on production of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (it's made year round); and the cattle are not allowed to eat silage or to graze on fresh grass because of the risk they might eat wet grass that has the same fermentative effect as silage. Fermented feed puts the milk at risk of developing heat-resistant bacteria, butyric clostridia, which causes cracks and holes in the cheese paste, making the cheese unsaleable as Parmigiano-Reggiano. (The cows producing milk for Parmigiano-Reggiano are, for this reason, not free range; they spend their lives in cow sheds.)

The regulations actually specify no silage, to preserve the safety of the cheese, the reliability of the ripening process, and the purity of the flavour. The rules are laid out and administered by the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano.

The Pezzata Rossa she mentions is a traditional breed of cow once widely used for Parmigiano-Reggiano production, and is still used for a more exclusive product, Parmigiano-Reggiano delle Vacche Rosse. But since there is no restriction on the type of cow used for Parmigiano-Reggiano, dairies use higher yield breeds like Friesians.

The other error I came upon is to do with BSE, mad cow disease and its human incarnation, variant CJD, which Mallet attributes to 109 sufferers identified in 1993 having eaten more veal than others. But I remembered it being reported that the 10 sufferers identified in 1996 had eaten more beef (except for the one case who was vegetarian, presumably) - the highly processed kind, found in pre-fab meat pies, frozen burgers and the like, where presumably there is more animal byproduct than you'd normally be consuming.

And according to a WHO fact sheet on the subject, "infectivity is mainly found in the brain and spinal cord of clinically ill animals over two years of age."

Anyway, the latest statistics for world-wide infection show that there have been a world-wide total of 201 infected through to July 2007. So I'm not sure where the figure of 109 UK cases came from; perhaps there was some early confusion between sporadic CJD and variant CJD.

Anyway it led me into some interesting reading around veal, including a piece by the rather fierce Guardian food writer, Joanna Blythman, which is a good summary of the 'why to eat more veal' argument - which hinges on the biological fact of dairy, namely that cows must get pregnant and give birth in order to lactate and give us milk and dairy products, resulting in a living byproduct, namely veal. Which is a point most of us, in our blissful detachment from the source of our food, have never considered, in our haste to condemn veal crates, which are banned in Europe from this year in any case.

An amusing animation about dairy farming in the US...

And finally, if you liked The Matrix, you'll love The Meatrix.

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Friday, August 03, 2007

Friday in Parma

Happy to say the weather has continued to be bearable - verging on glorious. Amazing what a couple of weeks of devastating heat can do to your standards of what is 'hot'. It does help not to have to get on a sweltering bus twice a day as well, of course.

It's been a week of catching up - on sleep, on correspondence, and cleaning and packing up ready for what lies ahead. We are all heading towards our internships: a couple of months of assorted projects. Some will go to Slow Food, others to Eataly, another to the Barcelona markets; others will be slinging curds at Murray's Cheese or bopping round Bordeaux Quay. Me, I'll be back in London, and working at London Food Link.

Meanwhile, a couple of lost friends reappeared in various guises: like Aileen Downey, a fabulous voiceover actress whose history has included a role as a rabble-rousing Russian revolutionary at the ill-fated London MOMI, as well as time spent slaving over database entries. (Some of you will be able to guess which of those career highlights converged with mine.)

I filled in my registration form for the Food & Morality conference in Oxford, and looked over the offerings at the Bristol Poetry Festival. I'm doing a reading in Bath in September and sniffing round for others, though it's probably too late to set anything more up at this point.

Cousin Tina sent me to this article about losing your parents in adulthood, which I share now with my fellow orphans. I liked this bit:
While the fact of your parents’ death ceases, with time, to be your first waking thought, the map of grief has many roads which, I suspect, one travels in some form or another for the rest of one’s life.