Friday, 23 December 2011

Christmas Already

I'm really sorry for my abysmal posting record this month - I have 3 or 4 half-written posts that only need (usually) a photo or a few more words to finish them off.

Ho hum. And now Christmas is upon us. I'm off to London first thing tomorrow, but I promise when I get back there'll be lots more posting. Can't wait, can ya?

I wish youse all a fab Christmas and a splendid 2012, despite what crap the money-obsessed 'financiers' try to pull next.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Elephants. Not

I love Tiger, I really really do. They sell silly stuff, hobby stuff, party stuff and herbs and spices. Most items cost 1 or 2 Euros. I doubt they have anything over €10. But it's nothing like a £1 shop in the UK - shopping in Tiger doesn't make you feel like a loser. If you don't have one near you - go to their website and complain like a complainy thing. Because then you'll be able to get some of this...

Yes, I kid you not. Elefantsnot! Just amazing.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Trains, Planes, Automobiles, Car Ferries and a Jelly Tot

We've known for about six months that one of the clan would be celebrating his 50th birthday in the Netherlands in mid-October. But did anybody book any flights when they were cheap? Nooooo, of course not. So we ended up organising the most bizarrely impractical itinerary for the weekend just gone.

We had basically given up on the idea of the Holland trip because we had no money and the fares between Madrid and Amsterdam had just become insane. But then one of the bruvvers said he would be driving from Surrey to the Netherlands via a car ferry from Dover to Dunkerque. So if we could get to Dunkerque, he could take us to Holland. A bit of research quickly revealed that to be a non-starter (based on flying to Paris CDG, TGV to Lille and local train to Dunkerque, we'd be looking at €350 each, each way). But then he had a brainwave-ette, and we checked fares from Madrid to Gatwick. Not too bad, actually, for the outbound sector. Coming back on Monday was pretty nasty though. MamaDuck needed an earlyish flight because she had classes from about 1330 on Monday. But we bit the bullet and got her a direct ticket from Schiphol to Barajas, while I opted to return to London in the car, stay overnight with the Offspring, and grab a €34 flight back from Gatwick on Tuesday evening.

As you can imagine, getting to nearly-Amsterdam was going to be somewhat circuitous, but we didn't mind because
1) We weren't driving
2) We'd have a couple of hours on the ferry, and that might be fun
3) It makes a total change from flying everywhere

MamaDuck was working late on Friday, so we'd booked an early flight on Saturday, along with a minibus to take us to the airport. I am totally paranoid about missing flights and stuff, and when they say you need to be there 2 hours before departure, that is what I do. So we were up at 0430, in the van at 0515, at the airport 10 minutes later. The formalities were completed in no time at all, and we spent a couple of boring hours waiting for the flight. When it was all boarded we waited half an hour on the tarmac because the Air Traffic Control computer had crashed (that's really not a word you want to hear your pilot using) and so they couldn't issue the aircraft with a flight plan. Smart-ass passengers thought things like 'go North', but it's apparently a bit more complex than that.

At Gatwick we found our driver after a fair bit of exploration of the various car parks. We headed down to Dover, and arrived in plenty of time for the ferry. It was a pleasant surprise to find that security consisted of nothing more than a quick look in the boot.

I haven't been on a ferry for decades, but I remember loving the fact that you could wander around the public bits of the boat and weren't restricted to one tiny seat. We had a good, reasonably-priced lunch, served by jovial staff, and before we knew it we were pulling into Dunkerque.

We thought the drive up to nearly-Amsterdam would take about 3.5 hours. It actually took more like 5 because we got lost around Antwerp. We stopped for a coffee somewhere in Belgium, and didn't know whether to order in French or Flemish (as if!), but the girl spoke perfect English anyway.

The weather was lovely - sunny and warm - there were hot air balloons and lots and lots of wind turbines. Once we'd recovered from our undesired tour of Antwerp's ring road, we made good time and were around the outskirts of Amsterdam at dusk. We had GPS on one of the phones, but hadn't used it much because of astronomical data roaming charges. We did use it when we were lost in the little residential streets around our destination, and you really had to be there to hear the English GPS voice try to pronounce 'Wijkermeerstraat'.

The Dutch make a big deal out of 50th birthdays - blokes of this age become 'Abrahams' and ladies are 'Sarahs'. Abraham is a wise and reverend old man who 'knows where the mustard comes from'. Don't ask. Anyway, our Abraham's wife (who still has a few years to go before becoming a Sarah) had hired a local bar/restaurant, decorated it with the traditional Abraham stuff, and invited half the neighbourhood. A great time was had by all, and we staggered home about 2am, having been up for 22 hours.

Sunday was a pretty lazy day. Abraham cooked a full English breakfast, his two boys were delivered by his mother-in-law, and we all went to a nearby patch of woodland with a couple of lakes in it. The kidz had a great time, and we finished up having some nibbles and drinks at a futuristic restaurant built out over the lake.

We returned home, and then went back to the restaurant where the party had been and had dinner. Being accustomed to Spanish mealtimes, the idea of booking a table for dinner at 1830 just seemed plain weird.

Monday was the parting of the ways: we set off at 0800, dropped MamaDuck off at Schiphol ('just catching the plane to work, dahling, see you later xx'), and then headed back to Dunkerque, from where we were booked on the 1400 sailing. The weather was a bit foggy, but not dangerously so, but we really had no idea how long the trip would take because we were likely to get stuck in morning rush-hour congestion around Rotterdam and Breda. As it happened, there was no serious congestion, we didn't get lost, and by 1115 it looked possible that we could make the 1200 sailing. So we went a lil bit faster. What we'd forgotten, of course, was that the Ferry Terminal is about 10kms south of Dunkerque town, and the last 5kms are on windy little local roads with lots of roundabouts. We got into the Terminal at 1150, but UK Border Agency were a bit dubious about Driver's passport picture (and I don't blame them - it's 9 years old and looks a lot more like Abraham than Driver), and the ferry was pulling out as we parked up. Entering the Terminal building, we realised we'd made a terrible mistake. It was nothing more than a big room containing a play area, some tables and chairs, some vending machines, and a determinedly shut café. Pretty grim place to spend the next 90 minutes.

The crossing and the drive that followed were unremarkable, and around 1800 I was dropped off at Woking railway station. The ticket office was closed, and the ticket machine was too dumb to tell me why it kept rejecting the €20 note that I was trying to feed it with. I finally noticed my mistake and hurried off to a bank to withdraw some BritDosh™.

The plan for the evening was to meet Offspring and Old Mate From When We Lived In Dubai, and have a beer or two. Offspring had found a completely amazing, hidden-down-an-alley pub called Ye Olde Mitre, and it's really worth a look if you're ever in that part of London. Old Mate toddled off about 2130, and we weren't far behind. We toddled off to Offspring's new flat in St Reatham, made a plan for the following day, and had an early night.

So, the plan was that Offspring would get off work a bit early, and we would meet in a pub near London Bridge Station at 1630. I would have to leave between 1730 & 1800 to get a train to Gatwick in plenty of time for my flight.

I got to the pub half an hour early, so I went into the station to get me a ticket to Gatwick. As I was waiting in the queue, I pulled out my boarding card just to quadruple-check the departure time. I was beyond surprised to see it was a little over one hour from now. Instant panic ensued, and a quite unbelievable problem materialised out of thin air.

See, I'd bought Offspring a belated Graduation Present. I can't tell you what it is, because he hasn't got it yet. But it's definitely something you cannot take onto an aeroplane in your hand baggage; for the sake of brevity we'll say it's a 101g Jelly Tot. I rushed around London Bridge station, found the Information Desk and asked if there was a Post Office or Left Luggage facility. Nope, they had neither, but Waterloo station had both. No good. I phoned Offspring, told him what had happened, got a ticket and was at Gatwick Airport in about half an hour.

A helpful lady there said no, there wasn't a Post Office, but there were some postboxes. In my addled state, I didn't know what she meant, and I asked her to explain. She happened to be standing beside one. A tall red tube-like thing with a slot that you put letters into. Ah. No, thanks. Left luggage? Yes, in the Arrivals Hall.

I ran to this place and deposited the Jelly Tot. The chap explained it would be £8 per day or part thereof, and I said I would get someone to collect it tomorrow. Fine, said the chap, just make sure they bring the original receipt. Another part of my world crumbled. I explained I was on my way to Spain - surely I could fax them a copy or scan it and email it? Nope, guv, has to be the original, guv, I don't make the rules, etc, guv. Grrr.

No point in arguing further, and I had a plane to catch. I mentioned Gatwick's marvellous new security system in this post, and was thrilled that it worked pretty quickly even when there were quite a few passengers - I think I got through in 7 minutes, and then pelted down the corridor to the gate, stamping on small children, leaping over carelessly positioned wheelie-bags and pushing aside other obstacles in a willy-nilly fashion. They had just opened the gate when I arrived, and quite a few stragglers joined the queue after me - some of them looked like they had recently been roughed up by a small tornado or a high-speed maniac. A couple of them looked at me with very slitty eyes indeed.

I was home by about 2130 Tuesday, twitching mightily as I retold the story to MamaDuck. Even now, I haven't the slightest idea how I managed such a monumental screw-up. And now we have the problem of getting the Jelly Tot to its rightful owner. Just to complicate things a bit more, OffSpring is off to Scotland today for a week. So Driver is going to retrieve it: I've sent him the receipt by Registered Post. He should get it Friday morning. He's driving past Gatwick anyway on his way down to Dover (to get a ferry and then drive to the South of France where he mostly lives). He will then have to try to post it before attempting to board the ferry with it.

But the good news is, after all this stressiosity, I didn't reward myself with a smoke.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Smoking No More

I hesitate to say, out loud and in public 'I quit', because I will then look like a weak and feeble arse when next I pick up a cigarette, set fire to it, and suck its evil contents down into the fetid depths of what remains of my lungs.

So what I will say is, it's been 4-5 days since I last smoked a cigarette. And you know what? Quitting isn't killing me. Sure, I get the little craving monster, probably timed to the minute to coincide with the times when I would previously be lighting up a smoke. But now, I think I've smoked all the ciggies I need, thank you, and I can make the craving go away in about ten seconds.

I can't really remember the last time I tried to quit smoking, and what that was like. But I can remember finally giving in to the ceaseless, never-ending desire to fill my guts with smoke. I guess the craving then had been much worse than it is now.

To tell you the truth, I've been wanting to quit since, like, forever. But I was scared. I knew it would hurt. I'd tried before and failed, and I don't need any more failure in my life. Etcetera. Well, I finally screwed up the courage to do it on the evening of October 5th, 2011. The day that Steve Jobs died. Now, I'm not saying that there's any particular significance in the date. but his untimely passing had put me in a thoughtful mood (and I doubt that Steve was killed by smoking - it was just dodgy genes wot done it), and by early evening I was able to put my baccy, skins and lighter in a drawer and leave them there.

And the next day I had some breakfast at about 9am, and some lunch at about 1pm and I ate all my dinner that evening. And you're thinking 'so what?' Well, one of the gazillion side effects of smoking is that it suppresses your appetite. I really didn't eat much when I was smoking, and there would always be something left on the plate. And that's a bit embarrassing when you've spent however long it is actually cooking the stuff: even more embarrassing when someone else has cooked it for you.

And the next day, I ran up a few steps. Danced a bit maybe. Hugged my missus. Actually felt more alive than I have done for years. Fingers crossed eh?

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

An Astonishingly Good Read

I rarely post on here about books I'm reading / have read / have hurled into the street below because the author just can't effing write. But I really have to share a little rave-ette with you, having just finished reading David Mitchell's extraordinary 2004 novel, Cloud Atlas for the second time. Why it took me 7 years to come across this book, I'll never know. I was talking to a writer-friend a few months ago, and he asked me if I'd read it. I confessed I'd never heard of it, and a week or two later he presented me with a copy at our flatwarming soiree. I wasn't sure if it was a gift or a loan, but after I'd finished it the first time I told him he'd have to fight me if he wanted it back. I won't spoil it for you by telling you anything about it, except that its interlinked episodes hurtle through the past and the future, and the author slips with apparent ease between various genres and styles of writing in a supremely impressive and entertaining way.

It seems a motion picture is going to be made of it, starring Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant and many other big names. But don't wait for the film - read the book!

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Them Molecules Again

I actually made a Molecular Gastronomy recipe today that I was quite proud of. It's Agar Agar Tomato Soup Spaghetti, invented by Ferran Adría of El Bulli.

There are two essential bits of kit needed for this recipe - a big chunky syringe, and lengths of plastic tubing. The tubing has to fit very tightly over the nozzle of the syringe, otherwise all your efforts are doomed to failure. After quite an extensive search, I found tubing of the right size (about 4mm internal diameter) in the gardening department of El Corte Inglés - it's intended to be part of an irrigation system.

So, here's what you do. Make some tomato soup (or even open a can if you're not that bothered about what it tastes like). When ready, whizz it in a blender and then strain through a tamis or bit of cheesecloth. Return to the heat and add about 5g of powdered agar agar. Remove from heat when the agar agar has dissolved.

Now the fun part. Cut a length of tubing about 2 metres long. Coil it up a bit and secure the coil with a couple of bits of sticky tape (you don't have to do this, but it makes things easier later in the process). Fill your syringe with tomato soup - you'll need about 45ml to fill your 2m tube. Fit one end of the tubing over the syringe nozzle, and carefully inject the soup into the tubing. When a bit comes out of the other end, you're done. Remove the tube from the nozzle and pop it into a bowl of iced water. If you intend to make more than one spaghetto, repeat this paragraph.

Now the magic part. Agar agar is a gelling agent, and it sets at room temperature. Once the soup and agar mix has set in the tubing, fill your syringe with air, attach the tubing, and press the plunger on the syringe. You don't want to use too much force at this stage because once the frictional resistance of the spaghetto has been overcome it will emerge pretty fast and you need to avoid it hitting walls, ceilings, floors, cats or houseplants.

You can dribble your spaghetto randomly on a plate, or arrange it in an arty-farty spiral, although they are a little delicate and prone to breaking. You can serve the spaghetti cold or warm them over a pan of boiling water - be careful though, because they will melt at about 70°C.

And you can make them from virtually any liquid you fancy, as long as it's smooth enough to be injected into the tube. I think my next attempt will be with gazpacho.

Oh, and the reason I was proud of this is that the tutorials I'd read warned about the difficulty of using the syringe to extract the spaghetto, and recommended a nitrous oxide cream whipper to blow it out, but I suspect this was because they didn't have a tight-enough fit between their tubing and syringe nozzle. Or maybe they just like playing with laughing gas.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

English Airport Procedures - Compare and Contrast

I've been to England twice in the last two months, the first time flying into & out of Stansted, and the second, Gatwick.

Up till now, if I've had to go to London, Stansted has been my airport of choice. Luton is too much like a municipal bus station, while Heathrow and Gatwick are a national disgrace (well, two national disgraces, or six if you count each terminal separately). But for the most recent 2-day trip for the Offspring's graduation, timing was critical, and the most suitable times could only be got by using Gatwick.

So, Stansted. Arrival was modestly painless, involving a mere fifteen minute wait in a snaky, sweaty queue for my passport to be waved through by an Immigration Officer (or possibly a Border Agent). Departure was farcical. The hall was crammed with people and the slow-moving queues were being harangued by stern-sounding people and recorded messages telling us that all liquids, gels and creams must be in a clear resealable bag. Now, I was under the impression that this foolish, pointless and downright inconvenient knee-jerk process had been stopped (certainly nobody at any Spanish airports limits the amount of toothpaste you can take on board). But I was wrong, of course. All I had was half a tube of toothpaste and a big pot (more than 100ml) of skin cream that I'd bought while I was there. I hadn't bothered to get a special bag, so I showed the lady what I had - it was in a semi-transparent Boots bag that could only be 'sealed' if you tied a knot in it. She had a look inside, and told me I couldn't take it on board, because it was in the wrong kind of bag. And you can't argue with these people because they'll have you labelled as aggressive and tasered within seconds.

Moving on.

Gatwick is a building site at the moment - BAA claims to be spending 1 billion quid on refurbishing it. The Immigration hall seems to be finished. When we arrived, we were asked if we had chips in our passports. Yes we did, so we were directed to a self-service machine with slightly odd instructions. It tells you to place your passport details page on a scanner, go through the gate, stand on the feet and wait for it to take a photo and open the second gate. 'Stand on the feet' seemed a bit illiterate, but all becomes clear when you get through the first barrier - there's a sticker on the floor with a couple of feet on it.

So that was quite impressive, and queue-less, but I didn't know what to expect for the return journey and was fretting somewhat because the train we had tickets for wouldn't get us there in time to deal with a long wait for security (in fact we ended up not using those tickets, and bought tickets for a different operator that would get us there half an hour earlier).

I don't know if it was the time of day, or just a super-efficient new system, but the immigration hall was virtually devoid of passengers. We were greeted by a friendly, chatty bloke who had a look at our gels and liquids and then sent us to a gate where you scan your boarding pass. And then we're into the x-ray section where, once again, the staff were friendly and helpful and we were through that in about 3 minutes flat without once being made to feel like criminals. I really couldn't believe it.

Looks like I'll be using Gatwick more in the future.

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Moving House & Pie Stuff

Those of you who read my drivel on Facebook will have an idea of the bizzyness I've been going through for the last couple of months. I've really had no time to blog at all. The thing that was driving me nuts was trying to move house. We actually found a place we liked last October, but our landlady said we could only move when the lease has expired (I'm still not convinced this is actually true) unless we find a new tenant or pay all the rent that would be due until the end of April. So that flat didn't happen - we had actually paid a month's rent to hold it, and fortunately the landlord paid it back. We bided our time (not very happily, it must be said - we were desperate for more space) and during April we found an utterly amazing apartment. It's twice the size of the old one, has 2 bedrooms, 2 terraces (one of which is glazed-in and only useful for utility stuff, but the other one is for full-on sunbathing/barbecuing/growing planty things), a well-equipped kitchen and, best of all, an astonishingly low rent.

There was a little catch, though. The owner insisted on using a County Council scheme called Plan Alquila. This is an admirable thing that encourages landlords to rent out their empty property by insuring the tenant's rent. So there's no risk of the property owner not being paid. But, this being Government, there are many hoops to jump through, and nothing happens when it should. We had to apply to Plan Alquila for approval, and the process that they said would take 2 weeks ended up taking 7 very very long weeks. I have no idea why it took so long, but finally the contract got signed and we moved in towards the end of May, having extended our previous lease by 2 months.

Just to complicate things a bit, in the background to the move was a long-standing order for 103 pies for a friend's 40th birthday party. So we got the keys on Wednesday, hired a truck and 2 Romanians on Thursday, got everything moved in by about noon, and then I set up my prep table in the bedroom and started making pies (I couldn't put it in the kitchen because that would involve removing a narrow worktop and we hadn't got permission to do that from the owner at this point). But the bedroom was okay - it has AC and didn't have a bed.

I finished making the pies on Friday, and MamaDuck made a trip to IKEA in the evening to buy us a bed. This cost an astonishing amount of money, and was promised for delivery the following afternoon - the day of the party. I managed to get my pies made, collected and delivered by about 2pm, but the IKEA guys didn't arrive with the bed until about 5pm.

Then we rushed off to Moncloa Bus Station to get up to the party. Our friend had rented a house in the country for the occasion, and all his family from Liverpool and Ireland were there. A fair amount of drink had been taken by the time we arrived, and when I was introduced as the pieman there was a liberal amount of hugging, kissing and handshaking.

The party coincided with the Champions League Final between Barcelona and Man United, and our mate had hired a TV projector and big screen so we wouldn't miss it.

All in all, a terrific day.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

The Long Egg-speriment

This post is about Gala Pies and Long Eggs. If you don't know what either of these, I will now elucidate. A Gala Pie is a long version of a pork pie, typically baked in a bread tin and about the size, shape and weight as a brick. But far more tasty, unless of course, you're a troll. Gala Pies have a boiled egg running through the centre and are designed to be served in slices. Magically*, no matter where you cut the pie, you always get the full amount of egg yolk and egg white.

This is where the Long Egg comes in. Long hens became extinct aeons ago (possibly from exhaustion during the never-ending egg-laying), so these days we have to resort to magic technology to replicate their efforts. It seems that every commercial Gala Pie-maker considers the provenance of the Long Egg to be a trade secret, but my trawling of the Interwebz came up with solutions involving tubes of different diameters and the separate poaching of the yolks and the whites.

I rummaged around the kitchen and came up with a squeezy sauce bottle that seemed to be about the right diameter for the outer tube, so I cut the top off. The inner tube was more problematic, but I found some phallic pet feeder things that were only a little too big for the inner tube (I figured that was okay - more yolk, less white - only doctors like egg white anyway) in the local Chino.

I poured my yolks into one of the blue tubes, but was unable to seal the top so I had to rig up something with toothpicks and wire to keep the tube vertical while the yolks set. When it was done, I placed the long yolk into the wider tube, poured albumen around it and popped it back into the pan until it set. Getting the complete long egg out of the tube was a bit of a disaster, however. I hadn't thought to use any lubricant, and the egg white had become quite firmly attached to the polythene. So I had to cut it out with a knife and ended up with a somewhat mis-shapen long egg.

I had my pastry, jelly and pork filling all ready, and no time (or eggs) to make another long egg, so I chucked it in and baked it.

So the egg didn't look great, but the whole pie tasted fantastic.

That was a couple of weeks ago. I made another long egg this morning, using food-grade polythene tubes that I made myself using my heat-sealer. This one seems to have turned out pretty well, so I'll make another gala pie tomorrow. Wish me luck.

*Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
- Arthur C. Clarke, 1961

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Disingenuous Smirking - Again

Last night I went out to watch the second leg of the Champions League semi-final between Real Madrid and Barcelona. The pub we went to was nearly empty - I guess none of the regulars expected to have anything to celebrate, so they stayed at home with a cup of cocoa.

Personally, I was expecting a goal-fest for Barca, but it was not to be. In the absence of the loudmouthed José Mourinho (currently RM's manager, banished from the stadium for this game because of disgraceful behaviour in the previous one), Real Madrid seemed to be off the leash and able to play as much attacking footie as Barcelona let them. Indeed, they scored the first goal of the game, but the ref disallowed it for reasons that are still somewhat unclear.

Both teams plodded on in the pouring rain, and the sight of RM's sub Adeboyar literally leaping onto the backs of Barcelona players rather than attempting to play the ball in the normal manner was not a gratifying one, especially as it went unpunished (and therefore we must conclude this type of behaviour is approved of by those corrupt old bastards at FIFA).

The more I watch modern football, the less I like it. There can be moments of brilliance, sequences of passing and sometimes scoring that almost bring tears to the eyes. But more often than not, it's brutality, shameless diving and writhing, and an over-abundance of hair-gel. The fans pay huge amounts of money to watch this drivel (I could have watched last week's instalment at the Bernabéu, had I been prepared to pay €100 for a ticket with a face value of €230). The fans deserve better.

I'm rambling. The game finished at 1-1, meaning Barcelona go through to the final at Wembley against Man U on 28th May. That is not a match to miss.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Crap Football

After last night's 2-0 loss to Barcelona in the Champion's League Semi-Final 1st leg, über-brat and crap actor Cristiano Ronaldo had this to say in a press conference:

"Messi?" he replied, when asked about the Argentinian's two goals. "It's easier against 10 men. I would like to play against 10 men too, like he does. It is no excuse but they always play against ten men.
"I don't understand why this always happens. I couldn't talk to the referee because if I had I would have got a card for sure. The ref sent off Pepe: what more can I say? Every year is the same.
"I feel bad for us and for Mourinho – because it always happens to him. Barcelona are a great team but these guys have a lot of power off the pitch too. Chelsea, Inter, Arsenal. It's always the same. Is that a coincidence?"

Well, Cristiano, it might be that your team always gets a player sent off because you are dirty cheating bastards. Had I been the referee, I'd have sent many more Real Madrid players off in that game. You yourself would always be sent off within the first five minutes for disingenuous smirking.

Seriously, modern futbol is a crock of shite - grossly overpaid dudes trying to fool the referee into thinking they are dying because an opposing player got within a foot of them, counterbalanced by behaviour that would be considered common assault if it wasn't happening on a footie pitch.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

An Interesting Discovery

Having lived in the Middle East, I'm a big fan of hummus, which is pretty much a staple of the diet there. In case you don't know, it's a puree of chick peas (garbanzos) and tahini and a little bit of garlic, lemon juice and olive oil. I have bought hummus once or twice since we moved to Spain, but not been impressed. And I've made it once or twice, but the price of tahini here is incredible - €6 - €8 for a half-litre pot.

I don't know why, but today I had the urge to find out whether tahini was something I could make myself. I'd always thought it was made by some mysterious fermentation process, but a quick trawl of the interwebz proved me (happily) wrong. It is nothing more than ground-up sesame seeds and a bit of olive oil.

I got me a bag of sesame seeds today, so guess what I'm going to make tomorrow!

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Moving [Eventually]

They do say that moving house is up there with divorce and the death of a loved one in the stress stakes. And they're not wrong. We've moved twice in Madrid, and now we're onto our third one. Or maybe not. I'd mentioned to my mate the property rental guy that we would be looking to move to a bigger place - at the very least we wanted 2 bedrooms so we could have guests. This was back in September, I think, and almost immediately he came up with an attractive place, not very far from where we are now. Lots of space, 2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, and more or less the same rent we're paying now. We paid one month's rent as a holding deposit, and gave our current landlady one month's notice. She refused to accept the notice, brandishing our original contract which she interprets as meaning 'you can only leave at the end of each complete year'. I personally think this is wrong, but don't have the money, time or inclination to hire a lawyer.

So we were obliged to stay put until the end on March, when the second year was up (had we been able to find anyone to take over the lease, that would have been fine, but winter is less than great in the rental market). Towards the end of March, I spoke to my buddy about moving, and he went kinda pale - he said there were short-term tenants in the new place until the end of June, but was sure there wouldn't be a problem for us to extend our current lease until then. Well, of course there wouldn't, except we really, really don't want to. We are desperate for that extra space. Long story short, he tried to move the tenants of the new place somewhere else, and it didn't work.

So, end of March approaching, we need to move, and we need our 'holding' deposit back.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Sneak Preview

One week today is St Patrick's Day. I've had this date rattling round in my brain for at least the last month, because, obviously, a special pie will be required for it. And I've thought about what this pie should be, but never actually got round to doing anything about it.

What I thought was, it should be a steak and Guinness pie. Irish stew would have been nice, but the traditional version of that is pretty damn runny and just wouldn't work in a pie - the pastry would dissolve before you got a chance to eat it. No, the good ole steak 'n' Guinness, but with a green pastry shamrock on the top (pretty much the whole planet agrees that a whole pie made out of green pastry would be somewhat unpalatable).

Food colouring is fairly hard to come by in Madrid - the only colour stocked in supermarkets is orange - tartrazine, the stuff that makes kids hyperactive. So I thought I would make my own by boiling up some spinach and peas and freeze-thaw gelatine-filtering it. This takes several days, and when I looked at the result it looked like the wee-wee of someone who isn't very well. I made up some pastry with it anyway, but the result just looked mouldy. Grr.

A trip into town was required, to Manuel Riesgo, the chemicals shop. I got the colouring and a couple of other things to play with in my molecular adventures. When I got home, I opened the container and was fairly disappointed to see this tub of brown powder. I chucked a load into a glass of water, and *kshing!* it was green. Oh boy, how green was it? Greener than all the valleys on the planet, I reckon.

I made up some pastry with it, rolled it very thin and froze it, and then cut out shamrock shapes. Here's the result:

Pretty good, methinks.

Saturday, 5 March 2011


I've had a growing discomfort in the tooth department for a few weeks now, but tried to ignore it in the hope that it would just go away. Of course, it didn't, and by last Wednesday it had reached the point where lots of Novocaine and some attention from a dentist would be required. I haven't actually been to a dentist in Madrid (*hangs head in shame*), but I remembered a mate telling me he knew a good one out in the burbs who didn't get his pricing policy from Somali pirates.

I called my mate, and he called his dentist and made me an appointment for the following morning. He sent me an email with very clear directions on how to find him ('get the 512 or 513 bus to Móstoles, the fare is €1.50'). I wasn't too perturbed when the bus driver said he didn't go to Móstoles - he told me which buses did, and the alarm bells still didn't go off when the Móstoles bus driver wanted €2 to take me there.

My friend had told to get off at the Mercadona supermarket, and across the road I would see a sign for the dentist, but had to walk round the corner to find the entrance. This I did, and I was feeling quite proud that I was only five minutes late - that's actually early by Spanish standards. But the lady in reception denied all knowledge of me, my appointment, and the dentist I was supposed to see. I wandered round for a bit, and phoned the dentist, whose English is much better than my Spanish. He was confused and told me to go back to the main road and look for Calle Sevilla. I did that, and still couldn't find it, so I pulled out my phone and searched for it on Google maps. It suggested Calle Sevillas in Madrid and Alcorcón. Hmmm. So I called the dentist back and he asked me what was the name of the main street I was on. 'Avenida Alcalde de Móstoles', I said.

I could hear the centimo drop. The dentist told me I should be in Alcorcón where he was and not Móstoles.


So, I jumped on the next bus that came along, asked for a ticket to Madrid and was a little puzzled that it only cost €1. The reason eventually became apparent when we reached the terminus at the far end of Móstoles and everybody got off. The driver told me I now had to go to that bus stop over there to get back to Madrid. And pay another €2, of course.

Ho hum. Finally I was back in Madrid, got the correct bus, and found the dentist who thought it was pretty funny and managed to fit me in pretty quickly. He took one look at the offending tooth and said he wouldn't mess about with trying to rebuild it, he'd just extract it. I wasn't too unhappy with that - it's a molar near the back of the mouth so it wouldn't leave a visibly gaping hole, and I think several dentists over the years have attempted to fix it without lasting success.

I had to have two shots of anaesthetic, but once it was properly numb the tooth came out with a wiggle and a tug (I had expected much much worse). He gave me a handful of cotton swabs to place on the wound every half hour until the bleeding stopped. I paid the surprisingly reasonable bill (€36 if you're interested) and made my way back to Madrid, feeling very self-conscious at my bloody teeth and total inability to talk, eat or drink properly, but ever so relieved that the pain had magically gone.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Jazztel: tonto or what?

I had a huge amount of buggeration with an ISP called Jazztel after we moved to our new flat almost two years ago. This was because they had been supplying internet ADSL to our previous flat in Chueca, and refused to accept that we would no longer be needing their service once we'd moved. I actually paid them for about three months' worth of service that I never used, and had one hell of a time getting them to stop pretending I was still their client. In the circumstances, I think I was more than generous. And they were just stupid, arrogant SOBs, to the extent that, once we moved to our new place, we would get at least one phone call a day from their sales folks imploring us to switch to them. I don't have the Spanish to say 'I would only sign up with Jazztel again if I was the last person left alive on Earth', and so I would just say 'no thank you' and slam the phone down as hard as I could. I know, I know, most telecoms companies are like this - they all probably make significant amounts of money from ex-customers because those wanting-to-be-ex-customers didn't resign properly (I believe the only acceptable way of terminating a contract with Jazztel is to write 'I quit' on the left-hand side of a Tibetan mule between 1158 and 0002 on the 30th February and posting said mule to Jazztel HQ (somewhere on Planet Jazztel), supplying enough postage so that it arrives no later than midnight on the 30th February the previous year).

Friday, 4 February 2011


As if Mubarak's refusal to just go away, and the murder of several protesters yesterday weren't enough, the Egyptian 'government' has ordered mobile phone operators in the country to send this message to all of their subscribers: “The Armed Forces urge Egypt’s loyal men to confront the traitors and the criminals and to protect our families, our honor and our precious Egypt.”

Traitors? Criminals? Come on guys, get a life, will you. Outside of politics would be good, and definitely not in PR. Morons.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

The Great Juniper Hunt

A friend of mine is going through a phase of liking gin and tonics - the more exotic, the better. He is enthused by G & Ts served with cucumber, strawberry, and whatever else the creative barperson can think of. But the definitive additive is juniper berries. He'd discovered this before Christmas and (as a dude who knows his way around food shops and markets), I promised to get him some. Well, it wasn't unlike the experience of trying to buy a goose - blank looks, shrugged shoulders, etc. We discovered that the bars that had the berries had been given them by their gin suppliers. So I asked my son to get some in London and smuggle them through Customs. He drew a blank too.

And so the matter was quietly laid to rest, until yesterday. I'd delivered the final batch of pies to The Lock Inn for their Burn's Night Pie Night (a stonking success, by the way), and had a couple of hours to kill before the event started. I got myself a haircut, and then wandered up and down Calle Fuencarral in Malasaña, possibly by most favourite street in Madrid. And I happened upon a newly-opened shop called Tiger. I think this is a Scandiwegian chain, but I've never come across it before. I was enchanted. They have lots of really stupid little stuff, but it's all quite well designed and very cheap (a combination of two of my favourite things). They have toys, gifts, cosmetics and bathroom stuff, toys for geeks, general household stuff and KITCHEN STUFF! I got myself a stupid little battery-operated 'milk foamer' which I think will be good for beating eggs and milk for my pie glaze, and then I saw the rack of herbs and spices. And would you believe it, bags of juniper berries. Only €2!

So my mate finally got his Christmas present.

Friday, 21 January 2011

That Chain Letter Thing

Seabee nominated me to do this. Apparently half the world's population will die* if I don't.

*Timescale not specified.

1. If you blog anonymously, are you happy with this? If you aren't anonymous, do you wish you started out anonymously so that you could be anonymous now?
I began blogging in Dubai at about the same time as Secret Dubai Diary, and also with a bit of a critical edge. I had no illusions that anonymity would offer me any kind of protection if anyone really wanted to track me down, but I was never convinced that free speech was allowed (actually it *is* allowed, as long as it doesn't offend anybody important). Here in Spain, there is much more freedom, and I think my identity is quite well-known. I know it might be sensible to try to hide my identity, given that some of my business clients and associates might be worried by some of my scribblings (although I make it a rule NEVER to write about anybody who puts food on my table), but it's probably too late now.

2. Describe an incident that describes your stubborn side.
I don't think I have a stubborn side, except for doing things that I know are bad for me.

3. What do you see when you really look at yourself in the mirror?
Bits of  bristly chin that I missed with the razor. Frequently very bad hair.

4. What is your favourite summer cold drink?

5. When you take time for yourself, what do you do?

6. Is there something that you still want to accomplish in your life?
Make enough money so I could retire if I felt like it.

7. When you attended school, were you the class clown, the class overachiever, the shy person or always ditching?
I was the brainy kid who could spell 'encyclopaedia'. What's 'ditching'?

8. If you close your eyes and want to visualize a very poignant moment in your life, what do you see.
I don't need to close my eyes, but there are certain places around Madrid that I associate with my Daddy-In-Law that we visited together before he passed away.

9. Is it easy for you to share your true self in your blog, or are you more comfortable writing posts about other people and events?
There's an awful lot of me in my blog - it amazes me that anybody could be interested in reading it.

10. If you had the choice to sit down and read a book or talk on the phone, which would you do and why?
Read a book. I actually hate talking on the phone. It always feels like such an intrusion. And I have an old-school attitude instilled in the days when phone calls were very expensive and companies I worked for wanted to keep the bills down - so if you couldn't say what you needed to say in 3 minutes or less, you were in trouble.

Now I have to nominate 3 other folks, so let's have Jayne With A Why, Sandlander and LeftBanker

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Cooking With Molecules

I've mentioned my brief forays into Molecular Gastronomy, but haven't posted any of my stunning successes yet. Mainly because there haven't been any. If you read the blogs of people who dabble in this stuff, it seems the first thing everyone wants to try is Spherification, and I'm no exception. The basic idea is to create blobs of intensely-flavoured liquid encapsulated in a gel skin that melts when you eat it, leaving a 'taste explosion' in your mouth. The classic example of this technique is Ferran Adriá's olive. It looks like an olive, but tastes more olivey than any real olive ever could. It's also possible to make small spheres of your liquid, and they look like caviar.

The basic idea is to add a gelling agent (sodium alginate) to your strongly-flavoured liquid, and then carefully drop spoonfuls or droplets from a syringe into a bath of calcium carbonate dissolved in water. When the alginate meets the CC, it sets into a gel. So a skin is instantly formed on the outside, leaving the inside liquid, well, liquid. You only leave your blobs in the CC for 1-3 minutes (depending on their size) and then you take them out, rinse in cold water, dry on a paper towel and serve (or throw in the bin, in my case).

We had a load of apples and pears left over from Christmas, so I pulped them and then made a consommé of them using the gelatine freeze-thaw method. This technique requires you to melt some bloomed gelatine into your liquid and then freeze it overnight. When it's frozen, you place it in a filter paper (or cheesecloth) inside a strainer over a bowl and leave it in the fridge for 2-3 days until the liquid has melted and dripped through the filter. The gelatine forms a kind of web that grabs hold of all the solids, while allowing the liquid to drip through into the bowl. The resulting liquid is perfectly clear, with all the flavour and colour of the original goop.

I made some 'caviar' of apples and pears, and also some bigger drops, a bit like small grapes. I showed one to MamaDuck, who freaked out a bit and said she would never eat it (so no apple sauce gel blobs for her tonight!). Some of the early attempts looked like tiny fetuses, most of the bigger blobs were malformed with extra mini-blobs or tails stuck to them, but the caviar looked good.

The main problem I have with spherification is getting the right proportion of chemicals in the solutions. The quantities required are quite tiny (like 1.5 grams), and I have no way of accurately measuring such tiny amounts. My digital scales claim to be able to weigh increments of 1g, but really, they don't. So I need to get hold of some scientific scales, but haven't been able to find any yet.

On a related note, I've been getting a fed up with the unreliability of gelatine for the jelly in my pork pies. Sometimes it's difficult to inject enough jelly into the pies, and sometimes the bloody stuff just won't set. I tried an experiment a few months ago where I poured liquid jelly into the pie case before baking, but it just soaked into the pastry and the meat.

So I've been looking at Agar Agar. This substance is extracted from seaweed (so it's suitable for veggies), and has some interesting properties. The ones I'm interested in are the gelling point and the melting point. For a 2% solution of agar agar, these are 38 and 89 degrees C. And the temperature at which minced pork can be declared cooked is 71C, so in theory I could wrap the meat in a sheet of set agar agar jelly and bake it without it melting. Now that would be a super-terrific thing if I could do it. If it worked, I could also put a blob of set jelly inside my albondigas (meatballs) to reduce their density and give a zing of something different in the middle - it doesn't have to be meat-flavoured, even, it could be apple-flavoured. Nom nom.

I'm rambling. Today I went off in search of agar agar. I know I could get this from Manuel Riesgo behind Gran Vía, but I didn't want to go into the centre. I found some powdered agar agar in a local health-food shop, but at €6 a spoonful I thought it was a bit overpriced. But I did notice it came from China and that gave me an idea. There's a street in our barrio that's like a mini Chinatown, so I went up there. The first shop I went to is so jam-packed with stock that there's no room for customers, but I asked them about it and they pointed me at HP Sauce and cans of corned beef (obviously as a gweilo-guiri, what else could I want?). The next one I tried was much better. It was actually big enough to accommodate the massive range of stuff they sell and still leave room for customers. Nice. They did have agar agar, but only in 1-kilo packs about the size of a cushion. I asked them if they had smaller packs, and the guy disappeared upstairs and came back with a 42g pack for €1.40. Marvellous. It's a terrific shop, actually, packed full of mysterious stuff. They have a section at the back that has everything you need to set up a Chinese restaurant - woks by the million, crockery, sizzler plates, cook's clothes, cleavers, knives, chopsticks. And I also noticed they had 1-kilo jars of whole black peppercorns for €6, and stuff like Schezuan pepper salt and other exotica at insanely-low prices. I'll definitely be back there next week.

Anyway, gotta dash, got to play with my agar agar.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Christmas and That

First of all, Happy New Year to you all: let's hope it's a good 'un, despite all evidence to the contrary. And apologies for the lack of posting - the pie biz went insane in December (I must have sold 400-500 mince pies!), and then it was Christmas, and now the web biz has gone crazy. Moan, moan, whinge, whinge.

Our Christmas kicked off about a week early when we had our traditional mince pies, mulled wine and carol singing bash. 30-40 people crammed themselves into our little flat, and a great time was had by all.

The Offspring visited us for a lovely week. His departure from Heathrow on the 22nd was touch and go right until the plane's wheels left the tarmac (you may remember Heathrow Airport's astonishment and total failure to cope with a bit of snow and ice since the previous Saturday).

I treated Offspring to a tour of all the local supermarkets, trying to find Brussels sprouts, but picking up several tons of other stuff on the way. Because he's young and fit, I made him carry all the stuff, and he began eyeing old ladies' shopping trolleys with envy. I said I was willing to buy one (and I really do need one now, with the amount of flour and meat I buy now for the pies), as long as it was tartan-free. Don't get me wrong: tartan looks great on kilts and bagpipes, but for God's sake, why do shopping trolley manufacturers think it looks good on their products? Anyway, we managed to find a plain one in a funky purple, and so it was purchased.

On Christmas Eve we went to the movies to see Little Fockers. I'm not thrilled by the Focker movies - I find the humour a little too crude for my refined and snobbish tastes, but MamaDuck and the Offspring enjoyed it, so that was okay.

Parsnips are pretty much like Unobtainium in Madrid (I have seen them as part of a cocido vegetable mix at Lidl, but that involves, like, going into Lidl). Brussels sprouts were pretty thin on the ground too - a tour of five local supermarkets produced one packet of frozen ones, but then I spotted fresh ones in a fruit and veg shop nearby, so I got some of those too. I don't normally go a bundle on sprouts, but this year I did this recipe from Gordon Ramsay, and they were very good indeed.

I fancied having a goose for Christmas dinner this (last, 2010) year, but it was not to be. Enquiries at poultry stalls in the local market had me wondering if 'oca' meant 'stoat' or 'raccoon', rather than 'goose' as my dictionary told me, such was the bewildered response from the stallholders. Even having a friend enquire of the poulterer he's used for 20 years (and who did once manage to get my friend a goose, although it turns out it was 10 years ago now) drew a blank. So, no goose for us, and I didn't fancy cochinillo (suckling pig), so it was the ever-reliable turkey.

The one I got turned out to be a bit too big for our oven, so I ended up having to roast it without its legs and parson's nose. But the seven of us enjoyed it, and we've been eating the leftovers for the past week. All gone now, thankfully.

As a surprise, I'd bought us all tickets for a circus on Boxing Day. It was the first show of the day, 12 noon. Imagine my joy when I awoke at 5 to 12. I was all for forgetting about it, but MamaDuck woke like a shot, forced tea down us in record time, got us into a taxi and had us strolling into the big top at 12.15, just as the show was starting. And it was very, very good. It's owned by Teresa Rabal - not a name I'd ever heard of, but speaking to a Spanish friend the other day, she's what kids of several generations grew up on (possibly the singing equivalent of John Noakes and Valerie Singleton to Brit kids). A bit of a legend, in other words.

The Offspring left on the 28th, and after we'd seen him off at the airport we got the new 24-hour airport bus service and finished up at Cibeles. We had lunch at the James Joyce pub and when we came out I noticed that the queue for the Belén (Nativity scene) at Nuestra Señora de Communiciones (formerly the main Post Office, now the Municipality HQ) was very short. We joined it, and we were inside in about ten minutes. I'd suspected that this year's Belén would be a small and disappointing affair, what with Spain being bankrupt and that, but it wasn't. It was enormous and splendid - the best I've ever seen. After that we went for a wander in Retiro Park, where we saw a red squirrel wandering around a lawn, and as the sun set we went to look at the marvellous Christmas lights on Calle Serrano.

We had an elaborate plan for New Year's Eve. We were going to wander up to the Plaza de Castilla, from where we might be able to see some fireworks. But at about 11.30 we decided not to do that. So we stayed home and watched it on the telly. I picked out the best 24 grapes that we had (silly Spanish tradition - eat one grape for each bong of the midnight bells and you'll have good luck for the next year), and dug out the cava flutes. One of MamaDuck's brothers Skyped us from the UK at ten to midnight, and stayed with us until New Year arrived in the Canaries (and the UK, of course) an hour later. Great fun, and an unexpected pleasure. We stayed up for an hour or two after that, watching old clips of Spanish stars doing their stuff - one of them was a young Teresa Rabal!

In the following days I tried to do some work, but my heart wasn't in it. The Christmas season in Spain doesn't end until the Magic Kings have been - they come on the evening of 5th Jan and the kids wake up to get their presents on the 6th. We toyed with the idea of taking the stepladder and watching the main parade on the Paseo de la Castellana, but MamaDuck came home from wherever she'd been with the idea that there would be a Cabalgata de los Reyes Magos on Calle Bravo Murillo, a very short walk from where we live. So we went to that one instead (I hadn't realised before, but many of the outlying barrios of Madrid have their own parades) - it was a much smaller affair, but it did mean we actually got some of the sweets that they throw from the floats, and we got to see Teresa Rabal yet again on the Circus's float.

So there ya go. Another magical Madrid festive season, only slightly ruined by the introduction of a smoking ban in all bars and restaurants. Sales of outdoor heaters are rocketing, apparently.

¡Feliz Año a todos!