25 April 2020

A Bunch of Flowers

Spring is Sprung!

When we went into 'lock down' the spring was still in its infancy.  Bare trees stood out above harrowed fields....

This country's 'Prime Minister' was unwell, and might have died had not immigrants risked their lives to save him (memo to self: campaign to bring an end to immigration - sic. Joke?)

But the world turned, the clocks went forward, the sun came out, and spring began to spring (surely there's another word? sprout? spurt? skip? caper? gambol?..... take your pick.....)

Now we wander through woods perfumed with the blue smoke rising from the carpet....  I sniff to ensure that my sense of smell isn't impaired - then wonder if I have hay fever?

I catch an intruder sucking at the syrup of spring, nectar of the gods..... Possibly newly awakened from hibernation (oh how I envy that possibility)

Small Tortoiseshell

While nearby I find an embattled Peacock  Butterfly who, like me, has seen better days....

The Hedgerows are brilliant with flower burst.  I have to remind myself of the difference between Blackthorn and Whitethorn.  Sloe to catch on, it May be harder in April now that global warming is here?

Hawthorn (May) blooming in April

Another panorama of perfection....

Where I find Yellow Archangel mingling with the bluebells - everything seems to be early this year.  Is it my mistake?  I thought the archangels followed the bells?

Yellow Archangel

In the meadows I find Red Campion

Red Campion

Mixing with the Cowslips


While the Dandelions are beginning to tell the time.....

There are riots on the banks beside the paths,

Garlic Mustard - Jack by the Hedge

Stitchwort goes in for numbers


And successions of colours dazzle

Green Alkanet

But everything is vying for light

Common Comfrey

Or for water, as at Redbournbury Mill,

Marsh Marigold - Kingcups

On common ground another yellow catches at us.....


Furze was regularly gathered for firing in the last century (the 19th - Ed.) from Harpenden Common.  To quote a 90-year-old man I interviewed: "We gathered it carefully, not haphazardly, remembering there was a tomorrow." [Richard Mabey - Flora Britannica]

And everywhere the trees, earlier so reticent, have burst into flame

Ornamental Cherries take some beating....

Though the wild trees are really fine....

And when all is said and done the Horse Chestnut takes the biscuit.....

So, time moves on and Spring will eventually turn into summer, and then autumn, and then.....  The world turns, and nature takes its course.  This wonderful spring will soon be a memory, as the trees unfurl their leaves and hide their branches, the scent of bluebells fades and the trampled leaves shrivel.....  

Let's hope this intemperate malady also dies and becomes a memory, and is then forgotten.


Spring is sprung
The grass is ris
I wonder where the birdies is?

They say the bird is on the wing
But that's absurd
The wing is on the bird!

Greater Periwinkle

Where's the Scarlet Pimpernel when you need him?

All pictures taken with FujiFilm X100V within a relatively short distance of our home in Hertfordshire during this recent period of 'lock down' while we have been exercising.....

23 April 2020

Food for thought

Invitation to a Virtual Supper Party

Not that I want to compete with Jamie or Nigella....  Just that there isn't much else to do these days but eat and sleep....  

So come to supper with me.  Just a few things Italian that I have learned to live with, starting with Bruschetta (bruise - ketta, not brooshetta!) al pomodoro:

From a personal point of view, as a retired grouch, sitting at home rewatching The Sopranos (and sundry westerns) and listening to The St John Passion and John Prine, reading P G Wodehouse and other books I never got round to before (or rereading those I remember I liked)....  Yeah, from a personal point of view, this lock down is possibly just an advanced copy of life in the departure lounge.... nothing to get excited about.  

You know, if I had some hand cut prosciutto and fresh figs I'd be in seventh heaven.....

But, for almost everyone, it's a trial, I do understand.  And I understand because I am not alone.  Meadow (the cat) 

is oblivious to the situation out there....  And so is Amanda, 

my little wife.  So I have to cater/care/look out for her too, which is the cross I must bear....

So, what about food at these trying times?  It's not that there isn't any (yet), but we are all constrained to manage at home, and so sharing a few favourites may not go amiss?

The ideas below are, of course, not original.  They are also flexible. They are also multipliable, as I generally cook for one, giving a tiny portion to Amanda to go with her staple tortellini with frozen peas and cream....

So, here goes:

The first thing is don't be a slave to any recipe - if you don't have some (exotic) ingredient, don't fret.

The second thing is realise that cooking isn't rocket science.  If you can't eat it raw, then it needs to be cooked (i.e. processed with heat).....

Why?  Because heat helps break things down to make them digestible, and it helps bind flavours.  Raw pasta, for example, is not a great treat.  Pasta cooked al dente with a nicely heated tomato sauce with basil, however, is a feast.....  But then overcooked pasta with a burnt tomato mush, isn't worth talking about.....

And speaking of pasta, one of my favourite dishes is Pasta all Norcina.  Norcia is a small town in a fold between the mountains of central Italy, where Saint Benedict was born.  It has a tradition of great food, partly because centuries ago the monks there found that flowing water doesn't freeze, so they set up rice fields with constantly moving water and produced three harvests of rice a year.  Which then meant they had plenty to feed the pigs on....

So Pasta alla Norcina is basically a pork sausage dressing for pasta.  Traditionally short, tubular pasta, like rigatoni, is used, and coarse pure pork sausages are best (one per person is plenty) but you can use any.  All you need to do is melt an onion in some olive oil (or butter) and then crumble in the sausage meat.  Let this heat, then add a little white wine and cook for a while.  Then add some cream (double for preference) and ground black pepper, and keep warm while you boil the pasta in a large pan of salted water.  100g per person is about right, and follow the time indicated on the packet.  

When the pasta is done (and not overdone!) mix it all up and grate some cheese (preferably parmesan, but any hard cheese will do) over each serving......

For an alternative, without meat, we are having Penne con Pomodoro e Ricotta.  All you need for this is tomato sauce (warm up some garlic in oil, then add chopped tomatoes or passata and a little salt) then when the pasta is cooked stir in about 100g (per person) of ricotta and the tomato sauce and sprinkle with parmesan....

A third easy pasta I like - possibly the first I learnt to make - is Pasta al Tonno (pasta with tuna).  This again is best with short pasta, like penne or tortiglioni or sedani rigati, conchiglie or fusilli....  But it works with pretty much any pasta you may have.

Start, as often, with a chopped onion heated in oil, with garlic too, if you like (or just garlic and no onion will do as well).  Add some dry chilli flakes (or fresh chilli) here if you like it a little spicy.  Then add a tin of (drained) tuna -  a little tin for one, a bigger tin for two or three, and so on.  Let this heat through and then add tomato.  For a rich sauce start with a squeeze of tomato paste, then stir in some tinned chopped tomatoes - about 150g for one and so on up...  Add salt and pepper to taste and bring to a good heat.  Cook the pasta, drain and mix.  Add some fresh parsley if you have it, but no cheese. 

I have cooked this for myself, and frozen some of the sauce for another day, but I have also cooked it for twenty or more, and if the atmosphere is right, and there's some light red wine to go with, it pleases most people.....

Now for the contorni - side dishes.  I have three today: Zucchini al pomodoro


and Caponata in agrodolce.....

The first of these is quite straightforward - slice the zucchini (courgettes) and stew in oil with chopped garlic for a little while.  Then, adding salt and pepper, turn the heat up and fry until golden, at which point add chopped tomatoes, a little more salt and pepper to taste, and heat through for a few minutes.

I steam beans, but boiled is fine. Then when cooked al dente I add salt, a little balsamic vinegar and the best olive oil I have to hand.

The caponata in agrodolce is a little more complex. Start by cutting a Melanzana (aubergine) into cubes and leaving slightly salted in a colander for a while.  Then rinse and dry and fry in oil with a sliced onion and chopped celery.  When these are soft, add some chopped tomatoes, a spoonful of sugar, a slug of white wine vinegar and stew for a little. Then, when this is hot and amalgamated, add some pine nuts, some green olives (preferably without stones) a few capers, some soaked sultanas and salt and pepper.  When you think it's ready, top it with a few basil leaves if you have any and serve, or leave to cool and serve tepid.

By the way.  Don't forget, the cook may need a glass of something....

For dessert I have prepared two options.  A lemon ricotta tart:

And a lemon cheesecake.

I am not really a dessert person, so I won't describe the cooking processes - suffice it to say that I looked up recipes and made these, adapting to the ingredients I had to hand. 

I much prefer to conclude a meal with some cheese, like this pecorino with fig jam, although I also like any hard salty cheese with good honey drizzled over it.

And then, almost inevitably, there needs to be a small coffee and a little shot of digestivo - grappa, brandy, amaro - whatever.....

I love eating Italian, and am grieving for all the wonderful restaurants that are currently closed and which in some cases may never open again.  At least I am blessed with memories of trattorie all over Italy which have given me pleasure.....  Let's hope there is a future!

Anyway, it has been a pleasure dining with you.  Thank you for being with me, and let's meet up again soon....


9 April 2020

The Key to the Pictures

A Picture Quiz - The Key

As seen in my last post, the pictures below all feature in my blogs - or at least, pictures similar to them, either taken at the same time or in a similar place, have featured in some of my past blog pieces.....  

Congratulations to Ben, who was the first to respond.  Unfortunately he didn't get any of them right,  but he wins a meal out (for when we are at liberty again....!) for effort.  Also congrats to Hilsides, who got 14 right, and  she deserves a leisurely lunch on Primrose Hill, or in Kendal, if ever we get the chance....

These are the pictures with captions.

1 Segesta, Sicily, the unfinished Temple 

2 The lake of the Great St Bernard Pass (Italian side)

3 Yorkshire Dales (Malhamdale, Gordale Scar)  Sixth Form geography field trip 1967(?) We stayed at the Red Lion Inn, Horton in Ribblesdale, and the chap with his trews stuffed in his socks was Phil Bailey.

4 Wells Cathedral, the scissors arches in the crossing

5 Isles of Scilly - looking across from Tresco to Bryher

6 Liège-Guillemins railway station (architect Santiago Calatrava)

Magritte Museum,
Musées royaux de Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels

8 The Lennon Wall, Velkopřevorské náměstí, 100 00 Praha 1, Czechia

9 The Company Shed, Mersea Island, Essex, one of the best seafood restaurants in the country

10 St John's Church, Little Gidding, Huntingdon, PE28 5RJ

11 Pulteney Bridge, over the river Avon, Bath

12 Grand Hotel Amrâth,  Scheepvaarthuis (The Shipping House), Amsterdam

13 Portmeirion, Gwynned, North Wales, setting of The Prisoner

14 The tidal swimming pool at Margate, from the shelter where 
T S Eliot composed some of The Waste Land

15 The Robert Burns Mausoleum, Dumfries 

16 Lancaster 1971(?) when student demonstrations were the thing (during the Craig affair)

17 The Royal Hospital Chelsea, just before Jeff Beck took the stage

18 The Øresund Bridge (between Denmark and Sweden)

19 The Vasa (in the Vasamuseet, Stockholm)

20 The medieval church and Roman fort at Reculver, Herne Bay, Kent

21 Clevedon Pier, Somerset, with Wales across the Severn Estuary

22 Bracciano Castle, Lazio, Italy

23 St Stephen's Cathedral, Vienna

24 De Hef, the old railway lifting bridge, Rotterdam

25 Hotel BULL Reina Isabel & SPA, 
Las Palmas de Gran Canaria

26 Pen y Fan, the highest peak in south Wales, situated in the Brecon Beacons National Park

27 Gannets on The Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth

28 The Black Cuillins, Skye

29 RRS Discovery and the V & A, Dundee

30 Kedelstone Hall, in Derbyshire, designed by Robert Adam  (and not, as previous listed, Mussolini's erstwhile pad in Roma) - apologies.....

31 The Broadway Cinema, Letchworth, Hertfordshire

32 Stokesay Castle, Shropshire

33 An abandoned gazebo and fountain in the Villa Ada, Rome

34 Notre Dame, Paris

35 Marvin Gaye's apartment, Residentie Jane, 77 Zeedijk, Ostend, Belgium

There you go!