Monthly Archives: October 2015

Le chauffeur est terminée

We were in a holiday home in France, the owners only spoke French, we only spoke English. But that hardly seemed to matter. It was a beautiful house with a wonderful garden and the owners, who lived in the house next door, seemed very friendly.

We didn’t have a situation, at all. The situation, that we didn’t have, was that both sides wanted to be sophisticated without the necessary, as the French would say, je ne sais quois.

I was on the trip with two people who actually can speak fluent French, but both of them are shy. I, however, know just enough French to be truly dangerous. I found myself going to the bakery every morning and ordering the bread for the day. After a few days the ladies in the bakery would shout, in French, “he’s here”. So everyone could come and listen while I butchered their beautiful language. To be fair, as everyone kept saying, at least I was trying. Something that would only encourage me into the situation that I am about to describe.

We were invited to afternoon tea by the house’s owners. They obviously thought that this was the appropriate thing to do for English guests. We walked in to the host’s house and it had a barrel of beer on tap. This was mentioned specifically to me.

We were asked about drinks we might like. I remembered the beer barrel that had just been mentioned (it stuck in my mind somehow). I was the first person to be asked the question, I felt that things were on my side, but no. Everyone else settled for cups of tea or water.

Once people had sat down, we discovered there was cake and macarons to go with our drinks, and the scene was set. We had two fluent French speakers on our side, and me who can just about remember some things from when I learned French at 12 and my mum and my daughter who know about the same amount of French as each other (although my mum has been trying to improve since this incident).

The owner’s entourage spoke only in French, the conversation stalled.

Now, it’s fair to say, that I found the conversation (or lack of it) uncomfortable. This social embarrassment is, to me, the epitome of British character flaws. I found the embarrassment of sitting quietly and potentially not being polite by not making idle chit chat more embarrassing than the only thing I had to offer as an alternative, a story told in French by somebody who can’t really speak French.

For the sake of all that is holy, I will try and explain my fairly ambitious story in English and you will have to imagine how complicated it would be to explain in broken French. Here it is…

I started by explaining that I had been doing a lot of driving on the way there which is unusual for me (pas de typical!). And that I had taken to saying, “le chauffeur est terminée” when we arrived at our destination.

But Katherine corrected me. “Chauffeur” is not the correct French word for driver, it is the word for fireman, but specifically a fireman who keeps a train full of coal, not a fireman who puts out fires which is what we call a fireman.

(Note: Yes, I am trying to explain idiomatic French in French without any way of helping them understand the vagaries of what I’m talking about. Just think how many different contexts of the word fireman, which is two different words in French, they had to follow along with in the previous paragraph.) I continued…

Oddly enough the correct name for a driver of a car, the equivalent of our word chauffeur, not your word fireman, but our word chauffeur, in French is conducteur, which we use in English for a person who collects tickets on a train or bus.

At this point one of the French people in the room said, in perfect English, “that is an excellent story, and I must say that only an English person would have carried on with such a ridiculous story in the face of such obvious obstacles”.

“You can speak English,” I asked?
“Yes,” he replied, “I lived in Portsmouth for 20 years”.

Linguine, cabbage and pancetta

Not all of my recipes feature linguine and pancetta, it just so happens that my first two do.

This recipe is similarly quick to the other one and is just as tasty and surely the cabbage is good for you?

Ingredients for 2 people
A glug extra virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic
Half a head of cabbage
Some cubed pancetta (70g or whatever one of those small packs are)
120g Linguine
Quite a bit of Parmesan
Chilli flakes
Black Pepper
Half a lemon

If you compare this to the other recipe ,you will notice the only difference is cabbage for tomatoes and the addition of a lemon.

Mainly this is the same method as the previous recipe but obviously with chopping a half a head of cabbage into small bits instead of chopping tomatoes in half.

Put half a pan of water on to boil. The pasta is going to go in the bottom of this pan with the cabbage on top in a steamer. If that isn’t going to work from a size point of view, put two pans of water on.

The pasta normally takes about 10-12 minutes (but do whatever the packet tells you) with six minutes to go, pop the steamer on top with your cabbage in it.

Put your oil into a wok or frying pan and add the pancetta, garlic, black pepper and chilli flakes. And cook for about 4 minutes. Once everything is ready, pour the pasta water through the cabbage in the steamer using it as a colander. This adds to the taste and saves on the washing up at the same time. Now mix the cabbage and linguine into the wok with the pancetta and oil. Squeeze in the lemon and mix (try to avoid getting the pips in). And then grate Parmesan on top. I find it’s significantly better to add the lemon and mix first.

And serve.

Monkey goes to school

Monkey and his Mummy are on their way to school. It’s Monkey’s very first day at school and he’s nervous and a bit worried.

“Don’t worry,” says Mummy, “everyone will be very friendly in there, I promise”.

Monkey didn’t say anything, he really wasn’t sure about school today, maybe he’d just start school tomorrow? He was about to suggest this when they arrived at a door and Mummy opened it. In the room, there was one big desk at the end and six little desks.

Sitting at the first little desk was a cow and on the top of the desk was some grass.

Sitting at the second little desk was a rabbit and on the top of the desk was a carrot.

Sitting at the third little desk was a horse and on the top of the desk was some sugar lumps.

Sitting at the fourth little desk was a chicken and on the top of the desk was some grain.

Sitting at the fifth little desk was a dog and on the top of the desk was a sausage.

Nobody was sitting at the sixth little desk but on the top of the desk was a banana.

“That’s my desk,” said Monkey. He looked up to check with his Mummy who smiled and encouraged him.

Monkey ran over to his desk and sat down just in time for the teacher to arrive.

The end.

The nights are drawing in

You know that guy, the guy who says, right after the longest day, “Well, the nights are drawing in again”. Party pooper. Git.

I am not that guy, thankfully. I am, however, a pedant and what I would like to point out to that guy is that the summer nights are not actually drawing in. In fact, sunset will continue to get later until the middle of August but the mornings are instead drawing in, and at a faster rate than the evenings are getting later, so yes the days are getting shorter but sunset is getting later. I usually restrain myself because the pedant is just another type of party pooper.

I was explaining this to a friend recently and they asked me the perfectly reasonable question, “Why?”.

The answer is pretty straight forward. Noon is getting later in the day.

Ok, I’ll try again. Basically noon is when the sun is directly above you. And this is because that’s how time used to work, we didn’t care about globally consistent time keeping. We needed a way to keep our clock set correctly. And so what you would do previously was every day at noon you would set your clock to noon and then you’d hopefully be right for the next 24 hours – or right enough. The problem is that noon changes all the time, as does the sun rise and sunset time, but we don’t reset our clocks any more, which is why we experience this drift. Now noon on the clock is exactly 24 hours after the last time it was noon, rather than related directly to what the sun is doing.

Long time readers of this blog will know that I have been attempting to convince the world that it is time for a new calendar. But clocks could easily have been quite different too. There was a rival clock system in place which could have been chosen (you can still see one of the last surviving working version in Florence). The alternative idea was that actually noon is a bit tricky to measure. When is the sun directly overhead? You use a stick and a shadow, but what if you don’t have a stick? Sunset (or in theory sunrise) is much easier to measure. When you can’t see the sun anymore, that’s sunset. This alternative version was mainly used by farmers who presumably didn’t have sticks to hand or were using them for something else. The problem with this system was two-fold, one that midday was way more accurate than sunset to measure (what if there was a mountain in the way), and there were actually two forms of this sunset clock – one that was based on sunset, and the other that was based on “half an hour after sunset” which is a bit trickier to be accurate with when you don’t have an accurate clock.

The point is this, it is pretty much random that noon is 12 o’clock and that it happens to be when it’s mainly midday. We could have used the Italian system and had 24 o’clock be at sunset which would make noon around 17 o’clock. To us it seems crazy, but there is no natural order to this system. In fact, we are abstracting from the natural order of what we had. Why is new year in Europe in January? Why is new year in Asia in Spring? Surely if we think about it rationally, the Asian version makes more sense than the European version. The world is new in Spring and that’s when the year begins. In Britain, we used to celebrate new year that way, that’s why our tax year still starts in April for example.

But the French and then Pope Gregory wanted to fix time and the calendar, and so all of this changed in the 1500s.

But if they could fix the calendar and time itself, why can’t we? More of this shortly…

Wedding Party

I was about to start by saying, “I’ve been to a lot of weddings”. But then I realised that I have absolutely no grounds for saying this. I have been to more than 20 that I can remember off the top of my head. Is that a lot? I don’t know. They have varied in style quite considerably: I’ve been to humanist weddings, registry office weddings, high church weddings, low church weddings. I’ve been to a Quaker wedding, a wedding of somebody named Baker, and if you know any candlestick makers, tell them I’m happy to attend.

Some of the weddings I have been to have been surprising depersonalised. They seem to be perfectly lovely affairs where all the flowers have been great, the room has been decorated to look like it is out of a magazine, which I suppose it is, and the reality of the day has been almost airbrushed out. Sometimes, even with these more stuffy affairs, a bit of personality will leak out. In my experience, this is often if the couple have known the priest / vicar for a long time. I suppose that this is because they do weddings day in and day out, and otherwise there would be nothing that surprising for them, and they would rather take the captive audience they have and expand their minds.

The best of these are priests who don’t just talk about scripture, and don’t just automatically do the feast at Cana and all that jazz. The best talk about what is actually happening at the wedding, and it’s an interesting concept. The Christian bible talks about marriage (Ephiesians 5, 22-33) and husbands and wives being subject to one another. It, like all areas of the bible, is massively open to interpretation and has been used to suggest husbands should command or even own their wives, despite it clearly saying that they should serve each other.

But what I actually think it is driving at is that in marriage you are making a new thing, a new team which you are both members of. And you are both saying, the team is more important than either of us.

Something you can decide without ever getting married.

Sometimes it’s the priest, sometimes it’s a speech, sometimes it’s the party, sometimes it’s despite all of these things, but sometimes you get the feeling that something is being created at that moment: a new team.

Fish in Latin

When I was 12, we went to the south of France for our summer holidays. It was an important holiday, or at the very least it was hugely memorable. It might have been the 25-hour journey caused by the French farmers’ blockades, which meant we had to travel through every country on the east of France just to get there. It might have been that this was the holiday that coincided with my learning to read voraciously. I read through every one of those countries and had to be forced to look out of the window at all the lovely countryside we were driving through. There was also the amazing library of books at the place we were staying in which kept me going all the way through the holiday. But there is a moment from that holiday that keeps coming back to me.

One day, Dad and I went to the market to get some food. There was a fish stall where Dad hoped to pick something nice for dinner. Now my father can speak English and Dutch and understand Russian, and he can “sort of” deal with French at a market. At the time, I was learning French at school and so when the fishmonger asked him a particularly difficult question, my father turned to me for help. Did I know the answer? And for that limited moment in time, I did know the answer to the question. The fishmonger was impressed. He asked which languages I was studying, only French? No I said, in French, I was also learning to speak Latin. “Speak Latin”, he was surprised at this, “I only heard of people reading and writing Latin. You must be very smart if you can speak it too.” I laughed and my father asked for a translation. The fishmonger, while I was explaining, got an extra bit of monkfish and wrapped it and gave it to me “to support this excellent brain”.

Unfortunately for me, my French has really suffered, I don’t know the French for Latin or brain anymore. Although when I try and use it I can just about get by. But now I have to pay for my own fish.

Linguine with little tomatoes and pancetta

I can make this dish in 12 minutes, and you could too. This isn’t some kind of Jamie Oliver style full-on over-the-top mad rush dish. All I’m saying is that you can, if you want to, and can devote your full attention, make it that quickly. But probably doing it that fast is more tiring than doing it in an acceptable 15 to 20 minutes.

A lot of Italian cooking can be super fast like this. It relies on simple fresh ingredients so doesn’t really need a lot of finesse or involvement to get right. When Katherine has taken Nina up to bed, and it looks likely that Nina might drop off quickly, this is an ideal standby as we almost always have all of the ingredients in the cupboard. You might not have a regular supply of little tomatoes in the house, but Nina devours them so we always do.

Serves 2

Ingredients

A glug extra virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic
Half a punnet of little tomatoes
Some cubed pancetta (70g or whatever one of those small packs are)
120g Linguine
Quite a bit of Parmesan
Chilli flakes
Black Pepper

Katherine and I have been favouring having only 60 grams of linguine per person for a while. But I think some people have more. But if you don’t cook it then you can’t accidentally eat it – this meal is moreish and you will probably find yourself eating all of it. I believe that pasta was invented to help people fill up on cheap starch, but now it is possible to fill up on the non-starchy stuff, which is probably better for you (if you can afford it).

You don’t actually have to make this dish in 12 minutes if you don’t want to rush. The thing that takes the longest is the pasta, so remember to put the water on to boil first. If you really are trying to beat the clock, the fastest way to get a pan up to boil is to put a small amount of water in the pan with the lid on, and boil a kettle to get the rest. This means the pan is up to temperature when the boiling water goes in.

While the pan is getting up to temperature, wash and halve the tomatoes and put them in a bowl (just use one of the bowls you are going to serve up in, it doesn’t matter). At some point while you are chopping this you should have achieved the grandiose feat of having boiling water in a pan. Once this happens, put in some salt into the water (if you like that kind of thing) and then put the pasta in too. Now count down the rest of this recipe by setting the timer to whatever the pasta says it wants to cook for. I tend to find that if the pasta mentions a range and you have added salt you can use the smaller number. If you haven’t, then use the bigger number on the pack.

Carry on chopping the tomatoes and then peel the garlic, finely slice it and stick it in the bowl with the tomatoes. Now put some olive oil on the tomatoes and garlic and mix them up a bit. Now add some chilli flakes (a pinch) and some pepper.

Get a frying pan (or ideally a flat bottomed wok) out and put a little bit of oil in the pan and the cubed pancetta in there (don’t turn it on yet).

At 6 minutes to go on the timer, turn on the pancetta and remember to stir your pasta.

At 3 minutes to go on the timer, stir the pancetta and add the tomatoes and garlic mix.

Grate the parmesan into the other person’s empty bowl (you don’t want the oil on it yet) and grate a good amount of pepper into the parmesan. I know this recipe has two points where you are putting pepper in, this is on purpose. I think the first round of pepper is for the cooking, the second is for the serving. If people want to add pepper at the table, miss this round of pepper out.

When the timer is done, drain the pasta, but don’t shake it up in the colander, leave some of the water on it and stick it straight into the pan with the tomatoes. Stir it all together and then throw the parmesan on top, stir again and serve up into the bowls.

Elephant loses his banana

Once upon a time Elephant, Gwen and Nina were all playing when Elephant realised that he was quite hungry.

“Maybe you should eat a banana,” said Gwen.
“I thought I had one around here somewhere,” said Elephant, “but it seems to have gone missing.”
“Maybe you’ve put it in one of your pockets,” said Nina.
“I thought that,” said Elephant, “but I’ve checked and it’s gone.”
“Maybe,” said Nina, “it just walked off by itself.”
“That’s impossible, isn’t it?” said Gwen, “Bananas don’t have legs.”
“But this one does because it’s special,” said Nina.
“Was it a special banana,” asked Gwen?
“Yes it was,” said Elephant, “it was special to me, it was going to be my lunch.”
“Well then,” said Gwen, “we’ll have to look for it.”

So Gwen, Elephant and Nina decided to go and look for this special banana.
“Can you remember where you last saw it?” asked Gwen.
“It might be in the fruit bowl,” said Nina, but it wasn’t there, there were only three apples in there, and elephants don’t like
apples, at least this one doesn’t.
“Actually, the last place I saw the banana was in the shop,” said Elephant.
“What? You didn’t actually buy it?” said Nina.
“I don’t remember,” said Elephant.
“Maybe you bought it,” said Gwen, “but left it on the counter.”
“I think,” said Nina, “that he might have actually forgotten to buy it, popped it in his pocket, then it dropped out on the
pavement so it will be really mucky now. Oh, Elephant, you are so forgetful sometimes.”
“I am,” said Elephant, “but don’t worry about it being mucky if it’s on the floor, because you don’t eat banana skins, so it’s got
its own wrapper.”
“That’s true,” said Nina, “shall we go and look for it?”
“Yes,” said Elephant, “I’m still really hungry.”

Sure enough, as they were walking down the road they suddenly saw, lying on the pavement, a single banana. Elephant went running
over and was about to peel it and pop it in his mouth when Gwen said, “Stop! Didn’t Nina say you might have forgotten to buy that?
If you haven’t bought it then you shouldn’t eat it yet. Let’s go in to the shop and check, it’s only over there.”

So they went in to the shop, and the shopkeeper was very surprised to see Elephant again. “Hello, back again Elephant, you can’t
have eaten all of those bananas that you bought already, can you?”
“Oh,” said Elephant, “did I buy more than one?”
“Yes,” said the shopkeeper, “you bought a whole bunch. I saw you eating them as you left the shop. You were in such a rush I
wouldn’t be surprised if you hadn’t dropped some as you were peeling them so quickly.”
“Ah,” said Gwen, “that must have been how you dropped your last banana.”

And that was the whole true story. The friends all went back home really quickly, so they would be in time for lunch, and Mummy
made them a lovely lunch of tuna sandwiches for everyone, except Elephant who had another bunch of bananas!

The end.

Looking up the undertaker

We were the first people we knew to get satellite television. There were a number of things that my brother and I were exposed to earlier than the other kids because of this: The Simpsons, ‘infotainment’ and what was called back then the Worldwide Wrestling Federation.

Because we were two brothers, we had to pick different favourites so when we watched we could root for opposing wrestlers and play out our sibling rivalries by proxy. My brother was first to wrestling so he, logically I suppose, decided to side with the good guys leaving me to go for the anti-heroes when I had the chance to pick. I believe my brother’s favourite was the Ultimate Warrior, which, as names go, is pretty much the Ronseal of wrestling. Or rather you hope it is if you are backing him. Imagine the scene down at the betting shop: “Which of these wrestlers shall I bet on, hmmm ‘Sad Henry’, ‘Weak Jim’ or ‘Tired Larry’, or I suppose I could go for the ‘Ultimate Warrior’. Yeah he sounds good”.

I ended up picking the Undertaker and this worked out quite well for me. In 1991, the storyline was that the Ultimate Warrior and the Undertaker were bitter rivals, so I assume that was what solidified it for me, but I have to admit that I was never a very assiduous supporter. I remember distinctly that after not having seen any wrestling for a while, I caught a match featuring the Undertaker in the mid ’90s which suddenly piqued my interest. After a few minutes, I realised something was wrong – it wasn’t the same man playing the Undertaker – wait what? I knew that WWF wrestling was staged, but I hadn’t thought they would just replace people. My understanding had been that what you were watching was a stage performance, but Hulk Hogan was always going to be Hulk Hogan.

That was when I officially stopped paying attention to wrestling. But I never can completely ignore one of my prior interests forever. Every so often the fact that the Undertaker was two people will float up to the surface of my mind and frustrate me, and I will inevitably have to look it up. And wikipedia always tells me that the bloke who played the Undertaker, Mark William Calaway, is the longest serving wrestler in WWF/WWE history, he’s still going at 50, and actually was taking a 7 month sabbatical to heal his back during the time I happened to watch it and see this other guy. And most importantly they weren’t trying to pretend that this other guy really was the undertaker. A character in the plot was, but nobody believed him, he was even referred to by some as the Underfaker. It was all about making a huge entrance when the real Undertaker came back.

So I have misremembered this fact for 20 years, and here’s the odd thing: I think I have looked up this information every couple of years during those 20 and I never remember the correct information. It just won’t stick in my mind. Maybe, finally, by writing this article I will remember it. But who knows?

Say that again

I was on the phone, cancelling my car insurance.

I was having a lovely conversation with a nice Welsh lad and it was all going well.

At the end of the call he said, “My name’s Dan, for your reference” and I replied, “Thanks very much, Dan for your reference”.

I just couldn’t help myself.

He said, “Oh I see what you’ve done there, very clever”.

I apologised and he said, “not to worry” and told me to have a nice day.