Monday, 28 July 2008

Yeasty Madrid

There was a time when getting a site indexed on a major search engine was seriously hard - I used to derive a major part of my income from doing just that. At the time, the major search engine was Yahoo!, and their largely hand-edited directory was drowning under the number of submissions. After a while they thought they could monetize the operation by charging for 'express' listing. But you were still looking at an index that was only updated every one or two months. Then Google came along and changed everything. It indexes pretty much everything that gets published on the web. And pretty quickly too.

The reason I'm writing this wibble is that I just Googled 'bread yeast Madrid', and was seriously, I mean seriously surprised to find a link to my previous story in the number one position. I only posted it half an hour ago! This is just utterly, gob-smackingly amazing.

A couple of years ago, on my Dubai blog, I had a try at 'Google-bombing': this is a game where you try to get top rankings for a particular phrase. I chose the phrase 'disingenuous tosh.' Actually, it chose itself, given some of the garbage spouted by UAE government officials. But guess what: it's still number one!

Let There Be Bread

We have a friend who is seriously into cooking. We had a beer with her yesterday, and she asked me if I'd received the 'pie-making machine' yet. I told her I had, and she was drooling over the steak-and-kidney and chicken-and-ham pies that I've made so far.

'What about bread?' she asked, 'You do make your own bread, don't you? And not in a bread-making machine?'

I told her, I have been known to make my own bread, I'm not impressed by bread-making machines. I like to knead the dough by hand, stick all kinds of seedy, grainy things in it, and generally produce a fairly interesting loaf. We then had a long chat about the general crapness of Spanish bread: baguettes and chapattas that are good while they are fresh, but go rock-hard within about two hours; 'pan de molde' or 'Bimbo' that tastes of nothing and goes moudly in a couple of days; etcetera.

And then she explained her theory. She highly doubts that Spanish bakers use yeast to make their dough rise. Baking powder is suspected. Now this might be true, because both yeast and baking powder are apparently known as 'levadura' in Spanish. And while I've seen plenty of baking powder in the shops, I've never actually seen yeast.

The hunt is on.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

There is a Pie

Long-time followers of this blog and my Dubai blog, will be aware of my fondness for 'proper' steak and kidney pies, big hunks of roasted meat and incidentals like Yorkshire Pudding and roast potatoes.

You need an oven for all of these things, and our mini-kitchen does not include one. We used to have a combi-oven (microwave, grill and convection oven) that we shipped from Dubai at great expense. But it stopped working about a week before Christmas. I couldn't figure out any way to get it fixed, and so everything I've cooked since then has been boiled or fried.

I've had a couple of attempts to get a steak and kidney pie in Madrid: once at the only 'British' chip shop in central Madrid, where they had microwaved it (this is an extremely bad thing), and once in an Irish bar where it was actually described as a 'meat pie' (unnamed meat, of course, and I still haven't worked out what animal it came from). The unnamed meat pie came without pastry. It was just some cubes of unpleasant-tasting meat, covered in mashed potato, mushy peas and gravy. Crap. Absolute crap.

I have searched in vain for a combi-oven in Madrid. There are plenty of microwaves kicking around, many of them with grills. And lots of DeLonghi Italian free-standing ovens. But no combis. Actually I did find some combis in an El Corte Inglés a few weeks ago, but the cheapest was 325 Euros.

But there is Good News! Yesterday, I took delivery of a brand-new combi oven, courtesy of UK Shopping in Spain. They will buy/order stuff from shops in the UK and arrange for it to be shipped to Spain. So the combi that I chose came from Curry's. The cost of the oven and the shipping was about 180 Euros, and it took about 11 days to get here. Once I'd unpacked it to check that nothing was broken, I rushed off to the shops to get some steak, and some kidneys, and some frozen pastry. Unfortunately we had a vegetarian buddy coming round for dinner last night, so the pie was delayed. But I did use the new toy to grill some goat cheese with cinnamon and brown sugar, and that was grand.

Monday, 21 July 2008


I'm talking about media, by which I mean devices to store music and videos on: wax cylinders, vinyl discs, tapes, CD/DVDs, memory chips, etc.

A week ago, our upstairs neighbour loaned me a DVD ('I'm Alan Partridge', if you must know: this character is one that we completely missed during our 12-year sojourn in Dubai, although I had read a few things about him). I slapped it into the portable DVD player with 7" screen that I had bought for MamaDuck last Christmas. Wouldn't play. Tried a few other DVDs that we know have previously worked on this machine. Nada. It's buggered. But still under warranty if we can find the correct bits of paper. Never mind, our laptops can play DVDs. Well, mine just read the DVD, said it was region 2 & 4 (Spain is in region 2 and that is what my drive is set for), and then refused to play it: no reason given. Never mind, we'll try MamaDuck's lappie. The DVD player software supplied with it was a 3-month trial, and it had just expired. Fecking hell.

I was in FNAC a few days later, and had a look at DVD players. The cheapest is about 60 Euros, but I was kind of interested in some combi-jobbies that are VHS video players and DVD players in the same box. But at around 300 Euros, they're not in this month's budget.

DVD regionalisation, by the way, really, really, really, gets on my tits. If ever there was an utterly pointless bit of technology, this is it. Hollywood moguls, pay attention.

I've been thinking recently about the increasing commoditisation of recorded stuff like music and video. Time was, when an LP (Long-Playing record) was a thing to treasure. Certainly, they cost a lot of money, but they came in a 12-inch sleeve, and the artwork of these sleeves was something to admire. In some cases they became very elaborate: gatefolds, posters, lyric books and photo albums were all part of the package. And then came Musicassettes (TM: Crap Names, Inc). These were very much smaller, and the attempts of the sleeve designers to include some of the excitement of LP sleeves were all a bit meaningless in the smaller format available. Then we got CDs: a bit bigger than a cassette, but still, the Golden Age of album art was clearly long gone. Now we have MP3 files. There's no wrapper whatsoever. And so the music is just a few gazillion binary blips on a bit of silicon. The concept of the album (or even the concept of the concept album) has lost its meaning. When you can download individual tracks, you lose the artistry involved in the assembly of an album with its peaks and troughs, excitements and relaxations. It's like just having the good bits from a symphony: you miss the foreplay that makes the crescendos so much more powerful.

I got hugely nostalgic a few weekends ago when we went to Plaza de Dos de Mayo. There were stalls selling second-hand LPs. I saw Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, an early Police Album, a lot of Rolling Stones and even something by String Driven Thing (sunk without trace, but I used to like them). Problem is, we no longer have a turntable, but I know they can be got.

Last night MamaDuck put a cassette on the machine. It stopped after about 20 minutes, and I thought 'I'm sure there's more songs in that album.' Then I remembered: you have to turn it over.

Also over the weekend, MamaDuck was having a good old clearout of the trastero (our store-room, under the stairs on the landing). You'll never guess what she found, so I'll just save a bit of time and tell you. She found a VCR and a DVD player. I guess I had erased these from my memory because we had no TV. But now we do have a TV, and so we can use them again.

At least, we could use them if we had the right cables. The VCR is fine, but the DVD is a problem. I can get the video to work, using an S-VIDEO cable, but the audio used to be pumped out through a 5:1 bunch of speakers that we donated to a starving Pakistani trader back in Dubai. There's no possibility of installing 6 speakers in our micro-piso, and so I've just been down to Calle de Barquillo, which is Madrid's answer to London's Tottenham Court Road. I came back confused. Most of the stuff I saw was seriously expensive: 35 Euros and upwards, so I wanted to be totally sure that I was buying the right thing.

It looks like my options are:
Fibre-optic audio cable - but I've only seen these bundled with S-VIDEO cables.
5:1 to SCART. I think this is what I'll go for. I'm going out now, first of all to check a couple of Chino's, because they sometimes have the most esoteric stuff for one or two Euros. Failing that, it'll be the gold-plated stuff from Barquillo.

Wish me luck.


Bought a 4 RCA : 1 SCART for 2.50 Euros. Doesn't work. Off to Barquillo now.


Bought a fibre-optic audio cable for 11.50 Euros. Fits into the back of the DVD player. Doesn't fit in the TV. Bollox.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Summer in the City

Throughout July and August, Madrid organises a marvellous thing called 'Veranos en la Villa'. It's a series of (mostly) free concerts at various venues around town. We caught one of them last year when we had just arrived: a concert by Daniel Barenboim and orchestra.

Last Sunday, we went to Retiro Park, and stumbled upon a concert by the Banda Sinfonia Municipal de Madrid. The program was entirely Spanish, the second half entirely pasos dobles to which quite a few people were dancing on the gravel. The band are performing every Sunday at midday through the summer, so today we got there early enough to be able to get one of the thousand or so folding chairs that the band provides.

Today's program included Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, but no cannons. 'Banda' is possibly a misleading term - it makes them sound like a Yorkshire pit brass band, but actually it's very nearly a full symphony orchestra, lacking only the violins. These guys can play, and the atmosphere at these gigs is just tremendous.

So if you want to find us on any Sunday afternoon, we'll be in the park, near the bandstand.


Mamaduck has a little theory about why people keep trying to rob us in Madrid. It's because I look a bit like Richard Branson, who is known the world over as not being short of a bob or two. But the idea that he might be found travelling on Madrid's wonderful Metro, or anywhere else without a huge entourage, stretches the imagination somewhat. Actually, maybe I can sue Branson and get him to stop lookin like me...

We have not been succesfully robbed for a few months now. We can spot the potential perps and see them off, or at least get a long way away from them.

But today I had an entirely new almost-robbery experience. I was at a cash-machine in Lavapiés. Lavapiés is not an area that I feel entirely comfortable in: it's populated by lots of Africans and Asians (you racist bastard Keefie), and while I love it to bits, I do seem to stand out as a rich white man (I wish). So I'm always very careful when I'm in that area.

I needed to get some cash, so I popped my bank card into the machine, gave it my PIN, and was just about to tell it that I wanted forty Euros, when a seemingly drug-crazed kid appeared out of nowhere, hit the screen and then retreated a bit. I immediately hit the 'cancel' button and retrieved my card. Because of the stupid location of this machine, in direct sunlight with no kind of shade, it was extremely difficult to see what the screen was saying, but I knew from the vibration of my phone in my pocket that a transaction of more than fifty Euros had been attempted.

I needed to check what the machine was saying, but this kid kept getting in the way. I pushed him away, I told him to fuck off, I even kicked his arse. Sadly I was only wearing espadrilles, so it barely registered with him. And then a bloke came up and whacked him one in the face. The kid staggered away. MamDuck returned from whatever it was she had been doing. She'd noticed the kid, and registered that he seemed to be hurting.


I checked the message on my phone. It said I had just withdrawn 300 Euros.


I put my card back into the machine and asked it for a mini-statement. The balance was 300 Euros less than it should have been.


I was shaking like a shaky-thing. No idea what to do. In the end we just got on the Metro and left Lavapiés. This was such a weird situation: I had been attacked, and possibly robbed. I didn't know whether the guy who smacked the kid had been his accomplice, or whether there had been a third party who had taken the money while I was distracted. I didn't even know whether the money had actually been dispensed. I thought it hadn't, but when you are in situations like this, it's very hard to tell what's going on.

Anyhoo, you'll be pleased to know, I've just checked my account on the Interweb. I still have that 300 Euros.

And I still lurve Madrid.

Friday, 18 July 2008


Our gardening flurry is almost at an end for the summer. The three tomato plants each produced one tomato: one of them blighted in some way. The pepper plant/bush/tree produced six little pimientos. The rosemary and mint are flourishing, and we have a stack of cilantro (coriander) seeds. The parsley's a bit weak, and the basil is devastated - because we keep ripping its leaves off and eating them. Lemon tree: nada. The allium that I grew from a sprouted onion looks promising.

It's not going to keep us fed for very long, but boy does it look good!

Corner Shop

In the UK, most 'corner shops' are owned by Indians or Pakistanis. There was great resentment when these hard-working and enterprising immigrants arrived in the UK, bought these properties and worked their grollies off in them for at least twelve hours a day, six or seven days a week. 'Corner shop' is a catch-all phrase for a small grocery/general store. The idea that these immigrants were 'taking our jobs' is complete rubbish, of course. Very few Brits were prepared to put in the hours that the Asians did.

In Spain, the corner shop is called an 'alimentacion' - basically, a food shop. But because they are mostly owned and run by Chinese, they are also known as 'chino's'. I'm in no position to judge how the Spanish feel about these places: all I know is that they can usually sell you an onion (or pretty much anything else) at midnight. It will be a pricey onion, mind, because a) they don't have the buying power of big supermarket chains, and b) they understand supply and demand.

The reason I'm wibbling on about this now is that I've just witnessed a fairly unpleasant incident at my local Dia supermarket. Dia is owned by Carrefour, and their prices are similar to Lidl or Aldi. It's a no-frills establishment. Ever since I've been shopping at Dia (I avoid their meat, and they don't do fish), I've noticed that whenever I was in a hurry to get in and get out (which is nearly always: I can't stand the place), there would be one or two Chinese with one or two trolleys stacked to the gunwhales with stuff. Not the kind of shopping you do for a household: more the kind you do for your corner shop - 48 x 2 litre bottles of Coca Cola, 6 cases of Heineken, etc. Basically, they were using the place as a wholesaler. This might be ok, but because it's a budget operation, Dia usually doesn't have the staff to operate more than one checkout at a time, and so everyone gets held up while these vast quantities of stuff are being processed.

So, today I was in the usual quite long queue and I could hear shouting at the front of the store. As I got closer to the checkout, I could see a Chinese woman with a trolley being denied entrance by the quite-well-built manageress. I don't know if this signals a new policy by Dia, or if the manageress was just feeling vindictive against this particular woman. But neither of them was giving any ground, and when my modest pile of shopping was halfway through being checked-out, the cashier suddenly locked up the till and she and half of the queue rushed to surround the manageress and the Chinese woman, because they were on the edge of beating each other to a pulp (that's a lie, actually, the Chinese woman would have been slaughtered). Things calmed down a little, the cashier came back, I paid for my stuff, and then had to walk past the combatants. The Chinese woman had started up her yelling once more, and as I passed her I invited her to 'fuck off', and to 'shut the fuck up'. She had no idea what I was saying, but the manageress did.

I might be up for a free bar of chocolate next time I go there.

Sunday, 13 July 2008


We were wandering around Malasaña yesterday, and happened upon an Arabic restaurant round the corner from Plaze de Dos de Mayo. It looked very pleasant, so in we went. The lack of customers should have sent us a signal - this was three o'clock on a sunny Saturday afternoon, so the place should have been busy.

We ordered hummus, tabbouleh, lamb tagine and lamb couscous. Waiting for the food to arrive, I began to feel a bit nostalgic for our Middle East days. But the food soon cured that. The hummus had cumin in it, but it was ok. The tabbouleh was 80% burghul with a few flecks of parsley and mint, the reverse of the quantities that I'm used to. Never mind, I thought, maybe that's how they do it in Morocco. I imagined they'd definitely be able to do an authentic tagine - a rich, spicy, zingy, meaty stew.

So I almost fell off my chair when the waiter removed the conical ceramic lid from my dish. There was a small lamb shank, surrounded by chips. No vegetables, no sauce, no spice and definitely no zing. It was just unbelievable.

However, it's inspired me to go hunting for the ingredients of hummus and tabbouleh so I can make my own - in Dubai I would usually have a bowl of one or the other in the fridge: it's good healthy stuff, has a reasonable fridge-life, and goes with more or less anything.

Friday, 11 July 2008


It's four or five days since Gay Pride week finished, and my head is nearly back to nomal. Our property renting buddy has told us that we could rent out our apartment for the week for an insane amount of money. I think we'll take him up on it if we are still here next year: it'll be worth the hassle of removing our personal stuff just to get some peace and quiet.

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Orgullo 08: Almost Done

Today is the last day of the Gay Pride Festival, and I must say I'll be very glad when the last gut-wrenching, window-rattling, bleeding-ear-inducing synthesised drumbeat has been played. The first two nights were OK - we had interesting live acts, followed by tedious 'dance' 'music' until 1.30am. The last two nights have been solid DJs from 8pm until 3am. Call me a grumpy old git, but I prefer the days when all a DJ had to do was play records that the audience liked, and remember to play a smoochy one at the end. Simple, no? Now they blast out a bass & drum track and mix snippets of songs over that. I'm sure if I was twenty years younger and out of my head on some exotic cocktail of booze and pills, I might think it was something marvellous. But, sorry, I'm not and I don't.

We did watch the big parade yesterday. We were positioned right at the start, near Puerta de Alcala, and it took two and a half hours for all the floats to pass. And would you believe that neither MamaDuck nor I took a camera? Well, we didn't. Sorry.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Orgullo 08: Terry Bull's Brother

Terry Bull's gay brother has come to stay. Looks very fetching in his glossy rainbow mosaic, Village People hat and boots, and big brass earring, don't you think? Only trouble is, we don't know what his name is. Any ideas?

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Orgullo 08 - Gay Pride Week

You may or may not be aware that we live on Plaza de Chueca, and that Chueca is the gay district of Madrid. Once a year it goes crazier than usual and hosts Gay Pride Week. It started this afternoon.

In the Plaza itself there is a monster stage that takes up about a quarter of the available space. There's been a couple of acts on so far - a couple of drag queens and a rock/punk band. As you can see from the pics below, this is quite a popular event. There are other stages set up around the barrio, and we are planning to venture out shortly for a looksee. We may not be able to get back into our building before midnight: wish us luck!

UPDATE: The live entertainment finished at about 10pm, and a DJ appeared. He slapped up the volume and did his thing until 0030. The crowd loved it, but this Boring Old Fart decided to preserve what's left of his eardrums and went to a pub in another barrio. Ho hum.

Telefonica? Wonderful?

I wrote a post a few weeks ago called 'The Wonderful Telefonica.' We all make mistakes. Despite what I had been promised, no engineer turned up to test the line. So the phone still didn't work, but the Internet did.

Until yesterday afternoon, when a computer flicked a switch and instantly cut off my livelihood. I cried for a bit, and then called Telefonica. I got an English-speaking lady this time, and she told me that I had two outstanding bills - one from April and one from last month. I don't know why they don't just apply any money I give them to the oldest bill, but they don't. And it took this lady quite a bit of searching to find the unpaid bills.

Anyhoo, she said if I paid the April bill at a Post Office, I'd be re-connected in 4-24 hours. I sobbed some more down the phone, declined to even listen to the sales shpiel for more hyper-expensive Telefonica services, went to the bank, the Post Office and the pub. And then home. I'd just booted up the computer when the phone rang. It was a computer telling me that the service had been restored. This was actually only about one hour after I'd paid the bill, but I'm refusing to admit to being impressed or even grateful.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Waiting For The Bus

Los Campeones returned to Madrid last night, and of course we had to go to see it. We had no idea what was going to happen, all we knew was that it would be a good idea to be at Plaza de Colón by about 8pm. As it happened, we were there at 7.30, along with a sizeable crowd, a big stage, big video screens and a perfectly adequate sound system.

We were entertained by several bands that we'd never heard of, and an enterprising dude was doing good business painting Spanish flags on peoples' faces - although it did look like he was using acrylic paint, which is a bugger to get off.

The team's plane touched down at 8pm, and after about fifteen minutes they set off on the slowest-ever bus trip from the airport - it took over an hour for them to reach Colón, but everyone was quite pleased when they did. The National Library of Spain sits on a corner of the Plaza, and these security guys on the roof got a pretty good view.

A few minutes before the actual arrival, the Spanish Air Force Aerobatics Team flew over our heads trailing yellow and red smoke.

Then finally, the bus arrived. In the photo below, do you see the yellow blob to the left of the kid in the blue t-shirt? That's the Cup! (Actually it might be Luis Aragones, but it's hard to tell from this distance).

Once again, a bloody fantastic experience: thank you Madrid, thank you Spain!

And I promise you, a complete change of topic tomorrow.