FINE DINING

FINE DINING

We have been on holiday in our caravan for the past fortnight in Suffolk and Essex. There was a great variety of weather – from glorious heart-warming late summer sunshine, to pre-equinoxial gales, but none of the heavier weather happened when we needed fine, and we were warm and snug in our caravan.

We were in the beautiful town of Lavenham one day and decided to have lunch. We ended up in a ‘fine dining’ establishment (simply because we chose the nicest looking restaurant on the square.) I was reflecting on other ‘fine dining’ experiences I have had – in London, in Sandusky, Ohio, in Normandie in France, and came to the conclusion that I do not like FINE DINING.

I like Good Food of course and a nice wine and efficient service but I remind myself that although we are privileged to enjoying this luxury, other people do not have enough to eat.

There were nice things about the restaurant. It had an elegant dining room with comfortable chairs.

It’s menu was interesting. My small glass of Sauvignon Blanc was very good. When we dined in Normandie, the Maitre D’ was all that you would wish but the waitress was very forward; here the waitresses were lovely, with formal but smiling service and kind and sensitive to the needs of disabled customers and the mothers of babies. Whereas the maitre d’ who was comparatively young seemed mostly preoccupied with preserving his dignity. He did not appear to do anything except issue orders and hamper other people in their work.

I had soup which came in a soup bowl which had a few pieces of chicken and vegetables artfully arranged in it, over which she poured, from a jug the creamy liquid of the soup. Was this really necessary I found myself thinking. Then I had sea-bream on a bed of vegetables, and finally I chose a chocolate dessert which consisted of teaspoonfuls of ice-cream, gateau, sauce and other tiny pieces. I found myself regarding it with distaste and wondering how clean were the hands of the person who had fiddled with my dessert. We also had an amuse-bouche and a small portion of another tiny pudding. It was ALL very good but I found myself irritated at its pretentiousness and thinking I would prefer my food to look more like its original state.

Meanwhile there had arrived a young couple with an 8 month old baby boy, It was obviously a celebration, perhaps of the mother’s birthday. She was a pretty woman wearing a glamorous dress. The Boy was dressed in his finest too. He was a lovely child. His parents still had that look about them that first time parents have: triumph, delight – and shock at how much more difficult it all was than they had ever imagined. The boy was delighted to be out, and set about, from his high chair, of engaging with every party in the room. An elderly couple where the man sat in gloomy silence, listening to his wife’s constant flow of mostly malicious gossip about people of their acquaintance, just sighing at the end of some scurrilous tale but no more inclined to take action than a cat facing a crocodile. (I had privately named them as the Bishop and Mrs Proudie.)

When the boy indicated that he would actually be careful and stick to his pram and be a good buy, the ‘Bishop’ (while sufficiently savvy – he was a worldly bishop )– was not deceived.. The mother fed the boy his lunch while they waited for theirs to come. But at this point the child revealed that he wasn’t all sweetness and light. The waitress came with a basket full of bread rolls, giving one to each of the parents but not to the boy. He shouted at her; in his rage the sounds were almost like words. Then he bellowed at his mother for not fixing the problem to his satisfaction. He cried (mumphed to himself really) and then fell asleep in his pram leaving his parents a brief period of calm in which to enjoy their lunch.

He could have told you all about Fine Dining!

WHA’s LIKE US?

SCOTS WHA HAE…

My eldest daughter Joanna is working as the Night Manager in a prominent Glasgow hotel, of a well known hotel group. She enjoys the job.

Of course in a city like Glasgow, it is impossible to escape forever some contact with violent drunks, but we have always felt that the majority of Glaswegians, from all walks of life being kind, friendly and helpful – gentlemen in the truest sense of the word – more than compensates for this problem. Glasgow men do not lack courage and initiative either. They dealt with terrorists at Glasgow Airport some years ago with deadly despatch before ever the police etc had arrived.

Joanna arrives on the scene with the incident in full happening and has to deal with it unaided and on the spot. She believes that generally the fact that she is a woman (and not one easily intimidated) is helpful because even a Glasgow villain would hesitate to attack a woman, certainly not in a public place. This man however is so drunk and so vicious and abusive in what he shouts at her, coming right up to her and yelling obscenities in her face that for a moment or two her courage fails her and she feels wobbly. She thinks, if he touches me, or if he reaches for a weapon, I will shout for someone to call the police. But in general she hopes to see the drunks off, either safe in their room if they are resident (often they are very big spenders with only occasional lapses) or out of the hotel if they are not resident. If the police are called, they come with all guns blazing, (metaphorically!) and the noise and disturbance upsets the other guests.

Somewhat to her surprise however she feels the offender hesitate, and he ceases abusing her, and just occasionally mumbles some protest sotto voce. He is not a resident, and he grudgingly agrees that she may call a taxi for him. Still feeling quite shaky, and thankful for the mystery of his swift capitulation, she turns round to get someone to summon a taxi.

Standing behind her is every male member of staff who is on duty, from the banqueting manager, the bar staff, the concierge, the night porter. Chefs are present in their white coats, one or two with the kitchen knives they were working with still in their hands. Other men are hastening towards them. They are standing, a dozen or so strong, quite silent, with their arms folded across their chests, in much the same way as the administration of the Scottish parliament received Cameron when he was foolish enough to go there. They are an intimidating sight. No wonder her drunk thought better of his treatment of her.

You could certainly ask of Glasgow men, Wha’s like us? (The answer being, Gey few, and they’re a’ deid – which isn’t exactly encouraging!) I’m married to a Glaswegian so I know all about this.

I’ve never been a daughter of the city of Glasgow though I’m fond of the city, and would be proud to be reckoned as one of that august body. I do not know if Joanna would count herself one of them either – she grew up in Sussex after all. However, the ladies of the City of Glasgow should be dealt with using extreme caution. If anything, they are more deadly than the males.

A MERE TRIFLE?

A MERE TRIFLE?

James, my youngest grandson, is at the stage where he speaks a few words but understands many more.

We went up for the weekend recently and I took as my contribution to the occasion a trifle that I had made. It is not a standard trifle and we cannot remember whose recipe it was. In our house we call it ‘Elisabeth’s trifle’ which would suggest that she first tasted it at the house of one of her friends, made by the mother of the household perhaps; so if you recognise this as your recipe, do get in touch and I will give you the credit for it. John’s birthday is on Boxing Day, and he is inordinately fond of trifle, so when she lived at home, Elisabeth would make ‘her’ trifle on his birthday. I make it every year but Elisabeth was in America this Christmas so did not partake of it.

As it is a ‘drunken’ pudding we debated giving the children a yoghurt but then decided we would give them a small portion of the upper layers of the dessert, making sure they got none of the alcoholic base.

It was quite evident that both boys enjoyed their pudding, but for James it was obviously a culinary high spot, never to be forgotten. His mother said to him, Do you like the trifle, James? Nod if you do! He nodded his head repeatedly like a Chinese mandarin. He likes to feed himself, and is normally resistant to any assistance, but to my surprise he handed me his spoon, while rather anxiously retaining hold of his bowl. Would you like me to gather up the bits left over, I enquired. He nodded with enthusiasm. I gathered up as  much as I could and he gobbled the lot. I said it was ‘All Done’ and he nodded sadly but held on to his bowl and when I next looked at him he had it balanced on his up-turned nose and was licking the inside. Goodness knows how he would have reacted if we had given him the base!

In case any of you wish to try it, here is the recipe.

ELISABETH’S TRIFLE.

Take a large glass bowl and place 8 trifle sponges in the bottom of it. Pour over a sherry glass (about 6 fl oz) of alcohol (whatever you have or prefer: I used brandy). Fork the sponges so that the alcohol is absorbed into them, and add orange juice, generally twice the amount of alcohol and make sure it is absorbed through the sponges. Take one or two punnets of raspberries and scatter them on top of the sponge mixture; then chop up two bananas and add them. Separate the whites and yolks of 2 eggs. Whip the whites until stiff. Put 250g of mascarpone cheese in a bowl and mix in the egg yolks plus 2 oz of sugar. Beat until smooth; add egg whites; mix to a smooth consistency. Pour over sponges and fruit. Beat half a pint of double cream until thick and pour over trifle. Leave to rest in fridge for several hours. Just prior to serving, scatter the seeds from 2 passion fruit over the surface. (This is optional: they are not always obtainable.)

NB We have eaten this often with no ill effect, but you would have to bear in mind that not everyone can eat uncooked eggs.

A SCOTTISH WEAKNESS

A SCOTTISH WEAKNESS

It is a well-known source of jokes that the Scots ‘enjoy’ a very unhealthy diet, full of such delights as macaroon (not the dainty French variety, but a sweet made originally it is said from potatoes and sugar); deep fried Mars bars; Tunnocks tea cakes, meals never sullied by vegetables, and all liberally washed down with whisky and Irn Bru(a kind of brown lemonade, advertised as Made in Scotland, from girders.) Whereas there is very good food to be found in Scotland, there is as always a grain of truth behind these exaggerations. We do tend to have a very sweet tooth.

A Scottish delicacy, not available commercially and therefore highly sought after at school fetes and other fund raising events, is Scottish Tablet. This is a kind of hard fudge, not as soft as fudge. It should be crisp and dry as you bite into it, and then dissolve in your mouth. It is highly addictive, almost pure sugar, and extremely bad for you. It is also difficult to make. My mother made it occasionally. She had very few failures.

You need sugar, condensed milk, full cream milk, butter and vanilla essence. There are many variations on the recipe, but generally you heat the milk, sugar and butter. Then you add the condensed milk and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring all the time. You then take it off the heat and add the vanilla essence, when it boils up dangerously in the pan, and then you beat it for 20 minutes.

In addition to being time consuming and tiring, the potential for it going wrong is infinite.

It can be cooked too fast, and just taste and have the texture of boiled sugar. It can very easily burn. It can fail to set sufficiently, in any number of degrees from being a viscous gloop that you can put your finger in and suck, to being set and tasting OK but being too ‘wet’ and not crisp enough.

Once in a blue moon, (perhaps every few years) I get overcome by sugar lust and decide to make some. I have long since ceased to be able to beat for 20 minutes, so I have not attempted any batches since there were children at home to help with the beating. (They were always more than willing.)

But now I have the thermomix. Would it make tablet, I wondered. I looked it up on the internet and to my surprise, found several (quite different) recipes there. I picked one that vaguely resembled what I recalled of my mother’s and gingerly began. There were some additional hazards with the thermomix. If it boiled over when I added the vanilla, it would jam the works. If it set too fast, it would be like a concrete mixer where the contents have set in it.

In the event none of these disasters happened. It took almost 2 hours by thermomix. It tasted good. It set, and the pieces could be marked out. But it was one degree as it were off being crisp enough. Probably I should get a sugar thermometer. I think I should have cooked it for longer and to a higher temperature.

We ate the last pieces yesterday. As I said, it’s very bad for you.

VORSPRUNG DURCH TECHNIK?

VORSPRUNG DURCH TECHNIK?

 

We decided recently – or rather, John generously decided – that for our 40th wedding anniversary later this year, we’d give ourselves what we call The Machine, but what its German manufacturers have named Thermomix.

This machine, which is slightly bigger than a Kenwood mixer, does every component part of cooking, except that it does not bake. You cannot buy it (in the UK anyway) over the counter. You have to attend a demonstration. My friend Anne had attended the wedding of her cousin in Australia and had come across this machine and she arranged for a few of us to see it. I was impressed.

Initially (for someone as useless with technology as I am) it is quite daunting, but John painstakingly went through the (long) manual, and I began tentatively to try it out. You receive a cookbook as part of your package, and I decided I would work my way through all the recipes as a way of learning the techniques. You can follow a preprogrammed recipe which will tell you step by step what to do, but this doesn’t suit me at all and I aim to understand the processes and proceed with matters under my own control.

You can get in a rut with your cooking, though I hope I am not as bad as what a newspaper article I recently read proclaimed as the average – ie nine dishes which the cook repeated. I fine that hard to believe, but then I found it hard to believe that some people had a seven day repeating menu – so if it was Thursday it would be macaroni. You’d die of boredom, if not of malnutrition.

The machine can cook an entire meal within its own resources – so I have experimented and made fish with potatoes, vegetables and hollandaise sauce, steaming the fish and vegetables, and it worked quite well although personally I do not like the taste of steamed vegetables.

Now that I am familiar with it, I enjoy using it. I have made hollandaise sauce, bechamel sauce and caramel. It makes quite difficult puddings (and great favourites of mine) zabaglione, and ills flottant, a doddle. You just put the ingredients in, set it for time, heat and speed, and then you come back in nine minutes and it’s ready. Its tirami su is so good that even I, who have disliked all coffee flavoured puddings since my flatmate in London used to make wagonloads of bread pudding made with coffee instead milk, have been converted to a devotee. John was feeling queasy the other day and fancied fish cakes, which of course I didn’t have, so I made them; and they were good. It also makes refreshing smoothies and a kind of squashy sorbet (which would become an ice if you froze it, but we always eat it first.) Recently I’ve made some cleaning creams and hand creams using only natural products. Another advantage is that we know exactly what we are eating,

I find we waste less fruit and vegetables, because fruit can become a smoothie, and you can quickly pop in vegetables that need using, chop them small, boil then, and return them to the Thermomix to chop again until it’s a smooth tasty soup. You can very easily rustle up some bread to enjoy with the soup.

The few disadvantages are that it is quite heavy to hold in one hand while spooning out the contents with the other, and if you get the timing wrong, out by just a few seconds, your fricassee of vegetables has degenerated into mush.

I bought an extra jug, which is extremely handy.

I would recommend it. There’s no doubt it’s prodigiously expensive, but since I’ve got it, I use it several times a day,

So, a lovely present for our 4oth. You can keep your rubies. What use are they anyway?

BURNING BLACK

BAKING BLACK

My previous cooker gave up the ghost a week or so before last Christmas, its oven ceasing to function in the middle of my cooking roast lamb and potatoes for a meal with Rory and Sarah. The food was nearly ready and Rory salvaged the situation by heating the lamb on top of the stove and frying the potatoes.

Subsequently, we had to choose a new model. It had to fit the existing space – I was not about to remodel my kitchen. I wanted a gas hob, and I thought I would manage with a gas oven as well. I didn’t want anything fancy – no timers to put it on when I was out. The deceased model offered all these services and I had never got the hang of them. I wanted four hob spaces, a grill, and an oven – just a cooker that cooked, basically,

I was astounded at what you could pay for a cooker, but we found a Hotpoint (I’m not a brand snob but I would like a name that I’ve heard before and can pronounce). It was black, but it met all my requirements and was a modest enough price. John said we’d need to replace the (white) extractor fan; I thought it would do, but it turned out he was right.

We ordered the cooker before Christmas, for delivery on 5 January, checking that if they reduced it n the sales we would be refunded the difference. John kept an eye on the website, and in due course it was reduced by £50, with a further £25 off orders on a particular day. So on that day we returned to the store and spoke with the manager (a charmless oaf, as it happened.)

I had expected there might be a bit of negotiation, perhaps an elegant bout of fencing, but it turned out to be more of a brutal   how-to-shoot-somebody-who-outdrew-ya exchange. No, said the oaf, we couldn’t have the £50 off; we had bought prior to the sale; and we couldn’t have the £25 off because we weren’t buying on that day. John turned to me. Could I tolerate it if he cancelled this order and we bought the cooker elsewhere? I smilingly agreed. At this point the hobgoblin we were dealing with suddenly remembered some extenuating circumstances which made it possible for him to give us the full £75 off the original price – just this once only, mind! We became agreeable and thanked him for his kind help and consideration.

Anyway, on the due date, two men arrived, who removed the defunct cooker with surprising speed and installed the new one. It’s amazing how attached to one’s (old) cooker one discovers one was.

However so far I have made Onion soup, potatoes and croutons mince and potatoes, mince and pasta, an oatmeal apple crumble, and John has made a loaf of bread. All have turned out just as you would hope.

It looks very smart; black and shiny with chrome handles.

My washing machine will no longer wash woollens reliably – it cooks them. So I wash them by hand, rinsing and spinning in the machine. It’s no big deal. It’s not that difficult. But today I find myself looking at it and wondering, Do they make those in black?

SUGAR SWEET

SUGAR SWEET

One of the most difficult symptoms of Parkinson’s disease as it affects me (everyone is different) is the sudden periods of violent, uncontrolled movements that can occur. These are tiring and become painful. They prevent you doing anything. They disturb your balance and you have to be careful not to fall. They are socially embarrassing and though I have to say people are very kind and tolerant, if these happen in, say, a lecture hall, I get very stressed at being a source of distraction and irritation to everyone, which only makes the problem worse. It can last for 10 minutes or several hours and I never have any idea why it ceases.

Since these bouts do not invariably occur, it would be useful to discover what caused them in order to avoid them or minimise their effect. No-one has been able to shed any light on this or suggest any preventative measures. Some people feel it is a nervous reaction and suggest tranquilisers, but I do not feel that I am invariably nervous when it occurs (though stress will obviously make anything worse.) It appears to be more likely in the evening when one is tired. Being in a noisy environment can set it off. And it appears to have some connection with food. Too long a gap between meals, eating meals that are too large or rich, not eating enough in the day – these can all be triggers. Drinking some of a glass of wine before eating food causes an almost immediate bad reaction. It’s a complex business.

Over the last few days I’ve been following recipes from Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s new cook book, Light and Easy (£25, but on sale at W H Smith’s for £6). He’s avoiding sugar and dairy produce. I noticed that my twitching phase, while still present, was much shorter. Then the other day Anne came at fairly short notice for lunch, and I made Eve’s Pudding to liven up an otherwise dull meal. Two tablespoonsful of sugar went into the apples, and four ounces into the sponge topping. Over the day I had two large helpings,so I estimate I consumed about 2 oz of extra sugar. Twitching was much worse than on the previous days.

Could it be that it is sugar that causes this reaction to worsen? Although I confess I do like cake and sweet things, to be free of these periods of excessive mobility, or even to reduce their time length would be sufficient of an incentive to cut back drastically. I think I’ll follow Hugh F-W’s book for a few months, because even if there is no improvement with this particular problem, I think the diet would be a good one. I find if you stop eating sugar, you don’t want it so much.

Life is still sweet but maybe it shouldn’t be sugary!