Thursday, December 28, 2006

A Christmas Meal

My written blogs are generally about travel and recipes. Others record daily happenings. This one is both a daily happening and how to make a Christmas meal less of the ordeal than many people seem to make of it. The key, I think, is timing – in the form of a kitchen alarm clock – and making a list of jobs to be done, and when to do them.
One or two items can be dealt with the day before to reduce hassle on Christmas day. I had, for instance, prepared breadcrumbs (for other occasions) from two slightly stale, white sandwich loaves, turning the crusts into breadcrumbs by baking them in the oven and crushing them in a pestle and mortar (no machinery, but helped by Margreet).
And I had made the cranberry sauce by boiling the cranberries in just a little water for 10 minutes. Thinking that orange goes well with cranberries, I had added chopped marmalade – to give them the orange taste and some sweetness. This did not really work. So I had to add the zest from the skin of a large orange and some sugar to get it right (and a little on the sour side to counteract the fatty richness of the goose). It was ready to serve - from a rather nice pot that had held the gift of an orchid.
Stock for gravy had been prepared by boiling up all the giblets in a pressure cooker. (The liver was turned into a small paté for future eating.)
Stuffing for the goose had also been prepared the day before by frying onion in olive oil, adding pounded sage leaves, a gift of prepared chestnuts, pepper and salt. Beaten egg, as binding, would be added before stuffing the bird on Christmas day.
Lastly, the brandy butter was made with butter and icing sugar, worked together with the fingers before the brandy was added. Actually, I experimented with calvados butter and rum butter as well – each served in small earthenware pots marked with garden labels. The outcome was that there was very little difference in taste between them. But into the refrigerator they went.
All these jobs had been done at my leisure and when I felt like doing them.
My timing list was made. Christmas day arrived.
I rose early, only to prick the goose and rub salt all over it – then back to bed.
The idea (and it worked beautifully) was to do the first job at the time prescribed, consult my list when the next one should be put into operation, and set the kitchen alarm for that time.
10 o’clock: Extract the fat from inside the rear of the goose and place it over the breast. Add beaten egg to stuffing, stuff goose, first with large chunks of Bramley Seedling apples (to fill the front cavity) and then sage and onion. Pin up the ends with wooden skewers.
10.45: Shove the bird on to a rack in the oven, with the pan destined for roast potatoes beneath it to catch the dripping fat. Position an oven tray beneath that, and a layer of foil beneath all – to catch fat and protect the oven. Turn the oven up high.
Peel and boil the spuds for 10 minutes (see later).
11 o’clock: Turn down the oven heat to its normal working temperature (for me that is a knob pointing upwards).
Trim and boil sprouts for 10 minutes, and at the same time fry small bits of back bacon until crisp, then adding pressed garlic. Add drained sprouts to the garlic and bacon, and keep an eye on them until they start to brown a bit. Heat it up once more before offering them at the table in a bowl.
Keep an eye on the fat in the pan and keep decanting it into a large bowl to be put into jars and distributed as gifts to friends.
11.20: The spuds are ready to be drained of water and added to the spud pan beneath the dripping goose (but I over-boiled them, or they were the disintegrating kind). Remember to salt and pepper them.
Make bread sauce by frying chopped onion in butter until transparent, adding milk and half an onion stuck with 6 cloves. Keep at the very lowest heat for a while to stop it curdling. Add pre-prepared breadcrumbs until the right consistency has been reached (it will thicken up a bit later) and turn off the heat until shortly before wanted at the table. Make plenty and have a bowl ready for it. It will need quite a bit of pepper and salt.
Make gravy with butter and flour, adding the stock that was made from pressure-cooking the giblets the day before. It might want a very little Worcester sauce, possibly a stock cube, and a touch of vinegar. Add pepper and salt. A little gravy browning added will improve its colour. Taste to get it right. Re-heat and put into a jug before serving.
12 o’clock: Start to heat the water around the supermarket Christmas pudding bowl on its trivet. Brush brandy over the goose’s breast.
12.30: Take the rum, calvados and brandy butter out of the refrigerator to soften.
Keep pouring off fat, now mainly from the potatoes in their tray.
Margreet will by now have made the first course of mozzarella slices between tomato slices with a garlicky vinaigrette, and cocktail sticks, each speared with a green olive, morsel of anchovy, and a quail’s egg. The latter will be for pre-lunch drinks.
1.30 or about: Guests will have arrived, consumed the said quail egg tapas morsels and be ready to eat from a very Christmassy, wipeable table covering, bought for £1 at a shop called Tiger.

A failure on my part was to make a mess of the par-boiled potatoes. The result was that they had partly disintegrated before being put into the pan beneath the goose. They turned out to be delicious, if not exactly potato-shape.
My timings list and kitchen alarm clock made everything go smoothly, but when reading what I have just written it does sound to be quite an ordeal – which it wasn’t at all. But there is quite a lot to think about and do for a Christmas meal, however efficiently, or otherwise, it has been conducted by the cook.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Another (and very popular) "bites for drinks"

Before I embark on lovely winter stews and casseroles, there is one other "bite" stand-by that has been a huge success with guests in my house.

This is garlic sausage (usually bought cheaply in France, or almost any other available sausage), coated in a vinaigrette of olive oil, vinegar, pepper, salt, pressed garlic and dried dill.

Make this coating in a serving dish, mixing it together with the fingers.

Cut the sausage lengthwise and place each on the flat service of a board. Cut these half sausages into two millimetre slices.

Coat all slices in the vinaigrette mix.

Decorate with a sage leaf or two - or sweet basil leaves.

To make these bites takes very little time. They are very garlicky, but people love them.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Saleroom Experiences - Chelsea Football Ground Shed End

It was when living in the country in 1988 that my first marriage came to an end. I decided to move back to London in 1989, buy a small house, and rid myself of all the impedimenta that had accumulated over years of life in larger establishments. So a selling-up of objects was planned.
In a division of things marital I had already parted with a valuable painting from my collection and, for its security and cost of insurance, was glad to be no longer responsible for it. I was getting a taste for what I think is now called “downsizing”. The prospect of ridding myself of items for cash became quite a seductive one.
So, when waiting for an expert valuer to appear at the desk of a London saleroom to look at some pieces that I thought might fetch something, I glanced at the catalogue for a forthcoming sale of oriental porcelain and objects d’art. And there, illustrated in colour, was a jar, not unlike the one in which I had kept my paint brushes for the past forty years or more. Should it be of worth, I resolved to sell it, and use an old honey pot instead.
So the next time I was in town, I visited Christie’s saleroom with my jar – having extracted the brushes, scraped off the incrustations of decades of paint, and given it a good scrub in soapy water. I had never seen it looking so glowingly well as I eased it from the wine box used for its transportation to London.
The authority for this kind of thing arrived from behind the scenes, gave it a quick glance and, in lofty tones, pronounced it to have been crudely decorated. My high hopes for making a fortune were cruelly dashed.
“Late Ming, of course,” she continued.
What would come next? If she said five to fifty pounds I would take it home and continue to use it as a brush pot – or even for flowers. Now that I knew more about my pot, I was becoming even fonder of it – for its bulbous shape, and even the “crudity” of its decoration.
“I think we should put a low reserve on it”, she said. I nodded.
“Let’s say £180 and hope for more”.
I made out that I, too, had hoped for more. But as there was a wine tasting I was about to attend, and was reluctant to leave a late Ming pot, however crudely decorated, among the wet raincoats of fellow wine writers, I agreed to the sale. It disappeared into the depths of their storage rooms.
A month or two later the sale catalogue came through my letterbox. They had thought my crudely painted pot to be worthy of a black-and-white photograph. Paintings that I have had to sell in the past, and which warranted a photograph in the catalogue, had the extra cost of photography deducted from the proceeds, but only after my consent. On this occasion there had been no request.
From the expert’s estimate of £180, the “suggested” settling price in the catalogue had been placed at £200-£300.
The day of the sale came and went. I was unable to attend.
Just after the sale date, and too late to have any influence, an article in the Times announced that high prices were being taken for Mings in Hong Kong. I waited for my cheque.
When the statement came it read: Lot 207 sold £580; Commission £58 (VAT at 15%); Charges: Insurance £5.80 (VAT at 15%); Illustration charges £35 (VAT at 15%); VAT at 15% on £98.80 - £14.82; Net proceeds £466.38.
We were all happy. The buyer had the Ming pot. I had more money out of it than expected. Christie’s had done pretty well. An insurance company had gained on the transaction. Even the uninvited photographer, who probably contributed to its higher-than-expected price, got in on the act for just clicking the shutter.
And all this was for an old paint brush jar.

A more spectacular auction was to come many years later, in 2006, when one of my paintings (a 1954, 2’x 4’, scene that included The Shed at Chelsea Football Ground) came up for sale.
The Christie’s recommended guidelines were for a price of £1,000 to £1,500 – which seemed to me to be more than satisfactory should I obtain it.
So along I went, with several of my family and friends, to see the fun.
I had had some previous information that it would sell when someone telephoned me from out of the blue (traced through the net) to say that he wanted to buy the picture at auction, would go to £2,000, and that he would like to reproduce it and sell the prints, possibly with my signature attached. So it looked as if it would be sold. Moreover, my hopes rose even higher when I heard that there would be telephone bidders. In the small print in Christie’s catalogue it stated that bidders by telephone would only be accepted if they were willing to pay the minimum price of £2,000. So these pre-auction omens were good ones. And my family would not be witnessing my disappointment - and almost disgrace - should it fail to reach the reserve, meaning that I would have to take it back.
The saleroom at the auction house was surprisingly small, but well attended.
After what seemed to be an over-long wait for the action to begin, the lady auctioneer came to the rostrum. But her microphone was not working. “We can’t hear you,” shouted a customer from the rear. The fault was rectified, and the sale began
During the sale of early lots there was a constant stream of porters passing through the room with furniture.
Lots came and went as porters held up the paintings and drawings for them to be bought with the clout of a gavel and stacked against a wall. Two paintings fell from these stacks, making a considerable noise. Thankfully, mine was in a stout frame and unglazed.
It seemed to take an age to reach my lot, number 122.
The lady auctioneer started by saying that there was a lot of interest in my lot and that she would start the bidding at £1,600. I had sold it. What a relief.
With five telephone bidders and bids coming from various quarters of the crowd, my brain became a little numb. And being somewhat enumerate I became a bit lost by the speed of it all.
Bidding went up by £50 a time until it reached £2,000 – then by 100s until £5,000. After that landmark they rose by 500 a go until the bidding reached £10,000. From that figure they gathered speed at 1,000 a go until reaching £20,000. Now the bids were raised by £2,000 a time until the under bidder gave up at £28,000. Down came the gavel.
Our happy band congregated at the rear of the saleroom, hardly believing what had just happened.
The press statement I was given afterwards stated that my painting was the “top lot” (which seemed to have some importance), and that the successful bidder was a private bidder who would have to pay £33,600 – being the hammer price plus buyer’s premium. I was led to believe that the under bidder was a dealer.
It was a quite astounding result. What with that Ming vase, and now this, I do seem to have some luck in the auction room.

Friday, December 08, 2006


The latest news is that the 1954 Chelsea Football Ground painting was sold at Christies on 7th December for £28,000 (Top Lot).

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Three kinds of bites

Guests are coming to eat with you. Or, perhaps, a crowd are coming for celebratory drinks. You must give them some "bites" to accompany the wine, beer or whatever.

Supermarkets supply such as you might need, but they will have supplied others. So should you have bought some, your guests will know that, as a host, you have not bothered too much. So do the job yourself at a fraction of the price - and in the process gain masses of kudos.

Here are three easy and economical ways of pleasing your friends.

The first is a garlic pancake cut into bite-size pieces.

There may be children coming, and children like pancakes. As for the garlic, you will be surprised how much they will enjoy these bites - even by those who claim not to like garlic.

You will need self-raising white flour, salt, pepper, oil or oil and butter, grated cheese (Cheddar is as good as any), milk, beaten egg, Dijon mustard and pressed garlic.

In a large bowl put the flour, salt, pepper, Dijon mustard and beaten egg. Adding milk, whisk this into a batter to form the consistency of thick cream. Stir in the grated cheese.

As you are preparing the batter, in a frying pan cook the pressed garlic in oil or oil/butter mix, until it becomes brown. On it pour the batter. Cover the pan. Turn the heat down low.

In a while you will see that the sides of the pancake are browning and drying and that the batter surface is bubbling.

Lift an edge of the pancake with a spatula. If the bottom is golden brown, toss the pancake or turn it over with the spatula.

Pierce the brown upper surface of the pancake to allow trapped internal moisture to escape.

When the underside is brown, slide the pancake on to a wooden serving board and cut it into bite-size pieces. Serve hot - or cold.

The proportions used are up to you, but too much cheese will make the pancake greasy.
If the party is a large one, make plenty of pancake mix so that as you are serving one, you can start another.


The next lot of bites involve the use of goat's cheese (but I am sure any other cheese will do).

You will need sliced bread (white or brown), olive oil, goat's cheese (in a small log-shape), salt, pepper, and paprika.

Cut the sliced bread into bite-size pieces. If the goat's cheese is old, cut off the rind. Slice it into discs.

In olive oil fry one side of the bread pieces. Lay them, browned side upwards, on a board. On each place a slice of goat's cheese. Return them to the olive oiled pan and fry the undersides until brown and crisp. You will notice that the cheese is starting to melt.

Place the bites on kitchen paper so that excess oil can be absorbed. Over them all sprinkle salt, and on each put a little paprika for decorative purposes.

Serve on a nice platter, hot or cold.


The last kind of bite is probably the easiest to contrive.

You will need sliced bread (brown or white), grated Cheddar cheese, Dijon mustard, onion or shallot, salt and pepper.

Make a sandwich of grated cheese, smearing Dijon mustard over the inner surfaces of the bread slices, adding salt and pepper, and finely grated or chopped onion or shallot. (A hint of chilli powder will add zest.)

Fry the sandwiches on both sides in olive oil until browned. Allow them to cool on kitchen paper.

When quite cold, cut them into bite-size pieces, discarding the crusts if you will.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Dieppe No.3. People (Part 2)

Dieppe is full of shops for women - with, it seems to me, a predominance of underwear vendors.

Now, most of the underwear on display is pretty fancy, delicate and daring - the kind that a flighty girl might employ to good effect. And yet, without I hope giving too much offence to French women, they are, if stylish, on the plain side and rather dumpy. Are all these non-beauties wearing this fancy kit beneath their dowdy exteriors? They must be.

We ate in the centre of town. This place, a restaurant/hotel, was once a fairly murky establishment when I once stayed there many years ago, taking demi-pension.

The place went up-market slowly, then burned down. Now rebuilt, it has turned out to be comfortable and well-appointed. We approve of it.

Around us as we dined was a motley crew. There was a distinguished, red-faced English gentleman with old-fashioned spectacles perched on the end of his large nose. He wore a yellow sweater, a checked shirt in the pattern of a horseblanket and a scarf tied around his neck inside his shirt. His companion looked like a retired all-in wrestler, bald, smart gold watch, and large pristeen white trainers. He ate with his knife and fork in the air.

When a man, who Margreet described as stunning-looking, arrived to join a party, this male couple forgot their food and were transfixed for several minutes by what they saw.

Next to us was about the plainest, middle-aged woman imaginable with a young, good-looking man in tow. On the other side of us sat a couple who, despite their diminutive size (she was nearly a dwarf), ate like giants. Nearby was a Dutch couple (her body had sunk) who were ruddy of countenance. They ate with the manners of peasants.

Then, beside the area designated for mostly single pensionairs, was a crowd of middle-aged Englishmen who must have had something in common (possibly sailing). They were in a jolly mood, enjoying each other's company, and consuming food and wine to the full.

Our meal, with wine available in carafe, was exemplary, and served by a most hard-working pair of waiters who exercised considerable professionalism.

Eating later at a harbourside café, it was appropriate that I chose maqueraux marinée as it was the season for catching them.

Along the length of the harbour/groin/pier/breakwater were some hundred fishermen either casting their weighted lines or reeling in fish. Their bending rods, swishing fore and aft, made a fine and animated spectacle. One fisherman, leaning over the quayside, was exposing a generous amount of nether cleavage.

The bait for mackerel was feather lures, not needing to be replaced after each cast. For a small brown fish, also caught in quantity, hooks were baited with worms.

Mackerel were often beheaded, tailed, and gutted on the spot, with the unwanted pieces returned immediately to the sea. When buckets were full of mackerel in their entire form, heads down, their tails stood aloft like many a modern youth's haircut.

It was a great architectural mistake when extending the harbour wall, not to have included sanitary arrangements for the fishermen and -women. So the combination of defecation and urination in the alcoves at the extremity of the pier, provided the veritable sight and smell of "Old France".

But the pavements of Dieppe seemed to be less cluttered then before with dog mess, though I saw no one bagging it up as is now the general custom in England.

It was when taking our coats to hang them up at the far corner of a restaurant that I passed a family of five sitting at a table. One of the diners was a white dog. As far as I could make out, his table manners were impeccable.

As is often the case, we find that it does not take long to overeat on our brief trips to France.
So, in the evening, after a little shopping and an aperitif, we might retire to our room for a picnic - in comfort and with the huge panoramic landscape before us - sometimes added to by clouds of starlings on their roosting flights.

A typical picnic might consist of baguette with Brittany butter, red wine, fromage tete for me, duck paté for Margreet, and montagne/Pyrenée for us both. Often, our picnics are shared by a large herring gull that stands outside the window waiting for scraps. If it is the same bird each time, it has become, for us, a Dieppe personality. It is an extremely handsome bird, unlike the patronne/waitress at a restaurant tried for the first time, who, despite the excellence of her food, was such a harridan that we will not return.

Gulls are not the only objects flying in the coastal wind. At a kite festival, on the green sward between town and sea, an Indian kite-enthusiast gentleman set up his little kite of a wasp with spinning and buzzing wings, and flew it through kites of all sizes and shapes from around the world - as if to sting each one. His swift-flying kite was so small that possibly only he knew and approved of what he was up to.

Our return journey was once shared with a crowd of Arsenal football supporters. Some of these kept up an incessant flow of hooligan chanting, using often recognisable tunes with recognisably coarse words. Their voices were out of tune and conducted in a slurred, intoxicated way.

The older of the supporters were not chanters, but sat in the ship's saloon pouring endless pints of beer down their throats and into their universally large bellies.

But the supporters' songs were of no avail. Arsenal had lost (2 - 1) to Barcelona the previous evening. God knows what the noise would have been like had Arsenal won.

The journey home is not always straightforward. We have had to go north to Calais by car because of rough weather or ship breakdown. On one occasion, having kissed Christine goodbye at our hotel, we sailed through seas so rough that our ferry was diverted in mid-channel to dock at Portsmouth instead of Newhaven.

But whatever occurs, we enjoy a lovely break in Dieppe, eating, drinking, and watching its people, and returning home well wined and dined, with a car-full of wine and good things to eat, not to mention a fashionable item or two.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Dieppe No.3. People (Part 1)

Written without prejudice, this is about the people we meet on our various sojourns in Dieppe. They are mostly regular acquaintances - hotel owners, restaurant proprietors and the like. We meet them regularly and are friends enough to, at one time, take presents of Christmas puddings to some of them. They were not used to the treatment of clients bearing gifts, and did not quite know how to respond. Anyhow, my modest "restaurant French" gave me a chance to have my piece ready about how the 'sauce' was made from a mixture (a mélange as far as I know) of butter, powdered sugar and Cognac. Margreet, who speaks the lingo pretty well, listened to my efforts "maternally".

Our boat was once late to dock on an early winter's afternoon, so, having left our luggage in the car, we went straight to one of our favourite restaurants for a late lunch, with pudding under arm. The patron was 'désolé' that his wife, below in the kitchen, had finished cooking for the rest of their half day. We retreated (avec pudding). Christine, who is now taking over the hotel where we stay, is the third generation patronne. Her grandfather was building the place when I first visited it in the late 1940s soon after the war. Then his son took over. This man, once hale and hearty, suffered first from an exploding boiler and then from a brain tumour. He became a shadow of his normal self - grey of hair and demeanour, quiet and slow. But he lives.

Madame, his wife, whose hair is curled hat-like on top like a can-can dancer from the Follies Bergère of the Belle Epoque, and must have looked much like one in her youth, was unhappy that this time we had booked our room through the internet. It meant that she owed the internet company a good sum for each day of our stay. We assured her that it would not happen again, and that we would book directly with the hotel.

Christine, her daughter, is bouncy, elegant, pretty, all eyes and teeth, dresses just a bit tartilly, and usually ties her blond hair into an unsuccessful and scruffy knot at the back of her head. We are delighted that she will take over as soon as both of her parents have retired. We hope that the young man, who now works with her, is more than just a friend. So we put the luggage in our room, presented our Christmas pudding to the proprietress and ate a fine lunch at a recently refurbished brasserie.

This establishment has changed a lot since the 'old days', when it was scruffier, busier, noisier, and my boys could pass quite a bit of the day happily playing with the pinball machines there. With upgrading, the machines have gone.

A statuesque waitress, dressed in the almost obligatory white top and black skirt, served us on sturdy legs, shod with sensible shoes that seem somewhat too large to go with the rest of her body. Her legs were ideally suited to serving her many customers with speed and efficiency. She was a pretty girl, with fair hair, tied at the back in a manner resembling the vane part of a weathervane.

Madame, on the other hand, stockier of build and with close-cropped hair was dressed in a military-brown tunic and trousers, and looked more like a Belsen warder than a restaurant proprietress. And she acted accordingly, with overseeing eye and authoratative demeanour, making sure that her place was run as it should be - with considerable efficiency. She was much slower of foot than the waitress. When reaching our table she was pleasant enough when taking our order.

To have found good food in clean and pleasant surroundings on a Monday in Dieppe was fortunate - though the excellent choucroute Alsacienne of the past had now been replaced by choucroute de la mere.

With other favourite places to eat still closed, we returned to madame's brasserie for an evening snack. I remarked to her that she had changed the colour of her blouse since the morning. She had done it because of the cold. It was a warmer top.

Breakfast in bed at the hotel is always so good that we are unable to do justice to lunch after it. So we buy a tart or croissant in a bakery to take to a nearby bar/tabac to eat with our grande crème coffee.

The black-moustached waiter of old at this bar/tabac had some altercation or other with the then landlord, left, and graduated to a smarter place (where the bier de Noël was excellent. The old boss, too, had left, to be replaced by an unsmiling, middle aged couple, who, without style, serve drink and take money for papers and cigarettes in a businesslike fashion. But the coffee is good, so we favour the place as our breakfast venue.

At another favourite restaurant, where we always eat at least once, the patron was delighted with our gift of a Christmas pudding, as was madame.

Madame, whose greying hair is cropped at the sides and curly on top, slides around the restaurant doing most of the waitressing, unobtrusively, charmingly, and slowly. It is not a restaurant where one would eat in a hurry. But the food is always excellent - plain, traditional French. Margreet finished her meal with an apple ice covered with calvados. We are now experimenting at home in England with this light, yet formidable dessert.

On leaving, we were presented with a bag of a Bordeaux speciality - little raised sweet tarts, sticky, and tasting of almonds. This was, presumably, in thanks for our gift of a Christmas pudding.

At a warehouse on the outskirts of Dieppe, where you can have your bottles or barrels filled from tanks of 12 percent wine from various regions of France, we enquired if they still sold a wine of our choice, bought at an earlier date. The bespectacled youth in charge, who did not deign to raise his eyes from the computer or his head above the high counter unless he thinks you are about to buy, assured us that we were mistaken in thinking that the wine was sold by him (he was correct). But we did buy six bottles of cheap red from the Tarn, on the assumption that as most of his wines for sale were choice and expensive ones, the Tarn, too, might be good (it was only fair).

Two prominent wine shops in Dieppe had closed since our last visit. Could this be a manifestation of the decline of wine-drinking in France?

In wanting a choucroute in the evening at a corner brasserie, the patronne was apologetic that no food was served in the evening, but if we wanted to eat locally, not to patronise the first six restaurants opposite along the Quay Henri IV.
Their kitchens, she said, were not hygienic, as she rubbed her tummy and made a sour face. But we had already eaten at the first one without ill effects.

We returned to the now open first choice restaurant, a favourite place for plaice and Coquille St Jacques. Our pudding gift was gratefully received by monsieur, whose back is now straightened from bent. Dressed in jeans and a pink striped shirt, he comes from somewhere in France where 'merci' is pronounced as 'meerci', and 'pardon' as 'paardon'.

We have never seen madame, who stays below stairs in the kitchen, receives shouted commands, and cooks each dish as it is ordered. This is another restaurant where one is expected to take time over a meal - and get each dish in perfect condition.

An excellent bistro on the Pollet island, in the middle of town, was started by two gays, who rather dominated the place. Under new ownership the restaurant is more sedate, but just as good. The slightly rotund waitress has been employed there since the restaurant's inception and has a charm and wonderful knack of making you feel very much at ease and at home.

There we eat our favourite Coquille St Jacques, the season for them starting on the 4th of October and ending on the 15th of May.

Soon after we had taken our seats just inside the window of another restaurant, an old cyclist appeared, dressed in Tour de France gear, wearing a brightly coloured cap with upturned peak. He looked not only rather rediculous in it, but also somewhat tramplike.

We, and the patron of the restaurant, watched as he took a long time to chain his bicycle to some boxes of petuneas that were attached to the front of the establishment. He used a rusty iron-link chain, usually seen attached to old-fashioned lavatory systems.

The proprietor looked on aghast at this potential customer whose presence, in or out, might discourage smarter-class clientèle from entering.

But in came the cyclist, who was thoughtfully offered a table in the window next to us - so that he could keep an eye on his bike.

The old codger ordered well, in a squeakily high voice, in French, well accented in English.

Beore we left, we engaged in conversation with him. He had been in public service in England, was retired, 69 years old, and cycled daily for distances from 80 to 100 miles. Cycling was his life - his entire life.

I asked if he had ever ridden in the Tour de France. No, but he followed it each year, cycling with it. When the contestants rested at night, he would cycle on ahead to witness the following leg of the race.

He was a cheery, red-faced man, who had obviously been involved in a dreadful accident, as part of his face had been crushed and his teath did not fit the usual space in his mouth.

He had written much on his sport for journals, but no longer had the time to do so or write a book on his cycling experiences. Being so old and so active would not, he thought, give him the ability or time. He rather wanted do die in his saddle.

End of Part 1

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Dieppe No.2. Eating

I do not believe that you can eat cheaply in France, but it is for certain that you can eat very well cheaply. And all the talk about the decline of gastronomy in France is idle talk.

We continue to eat very well in Dieppe because we know where to go.

A few restaurants of old have closed, some have opened (unlike the clothes shops that have burgeoned and upgraded).

For the most part, our favourite eating places remain, with children taking over from parents - as it should be in France and as is the case with our hotel, where the grandfather of the present granddaughter, who runs it, was the first of his family to greet me when the place was being built shortly after the war.

Our favourite eating haunts are decidedly downmarket. One caters for, it seems, old friends and an occasional passer-by. The other, which, thankfuly, has a young son to take over, has as its lunchtime clientèle, teachers, office workers and policemen.

Here the noisy patron greets you from the kitchen or bar with his loud voice and hearty handshake. His wife, charming and mouselike, goes about her business in her own time, eventually taking your order, then eventually delivering the ordered drinks (when one is now very thirsty), and finally coming with the excellent fare - by which time much of the drink has disappeared down the gullet. I suppose that the Americans would call that good business practice, but it is her natural way and the leasurely style of the place.

The nice part about both of these favourite places of ours is that the food is absolutely traditional French. There is no pretence of originality or innovation. You know pretty well what will be on the menu and know what the food that you have ordered will be like.

One hears that places like these are becoming harder to find elsewhere in France - I hope not.

When rumour had it that one of these two restaurants was to close we were crestfallen. But it was only rumour, an unfounded rumour at that.

At one of these two places we eat plaice that has been dusted in the lightest of batter (if you can dust batter) and served with pommes frites. We would be foolish to eat all these delicious chips, for it ruins our apetite for further food. As the first course I choose macqueraux mariné of a mackeral soused, or cooked slowly in a vinagary solution, with a few onion and carrot slices.

Madame's very chocolatey mousse rounds off the meal beautifully. For drinks, the Alsace white and Cotes du Rhone red in pichets are both excellent, but there have been changes in the marques of cider. For years it was akin to champagne, if not better. Then the supplier went out of business and the patron made do with a much inferior brand. Now things are better, but the new variety of this regional and sparkling draught is not quite as good as the original one. So items do change over the years, but not much.

We eat at a much smarter place because we have known the family who have run the restaurant for years, and we like them.

The cuisine went downhill for a while, but a new chef has restored the quality of food once more.

In French restaurants we seldom drink anything but carafe or pichet wine because the mark-up with wine in bottle, though not quite as exhorbitant as in England, is too great, and the wine sometimes not as good as anticipated.

One enormous advantage when eating in France is that tax and tip are included in the bill, with only small change being left as a gesture. This does make paying far less troublesome.

For part 3 of Dieppe I will write (possibly in two sections) on its people.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Dieppe No.1. The Place

We have been to Dieppe - again. This seaside town in Normandy has been my favourite foreign destination for years.

Shortly after the war, in the late 1940s, when we were severely rationed at home, and when we were allowed a mere 20 Pounds to take abroad, it was the nearest, easiest and cheapest way of finding plentiful food and winter warmth.

At Victoria Station stood the boat train waiting for passengers, bound mostly for Paris. Then it was one to the main ways for people to reach France's capital city.

The steam engine hissed away, oozing the industrial revolution smells of steam, burning coal, and lubricating oil.

The platform at Newhaven and the dock for the French cross-channel ferries was the same. So we all descended from the carriages and crossed through a shed of customs and passport control to the dock and boat at the ready.

Food aboard was excellent, and lavish compared from that allowed us by ration in war-torn Britain.

This availability of plenty continued in France as if the war had never been.

Most of our passengers disembarked immediately on arrival in the centre of Dieppe, should the crane driver, putting the gangway in place, be sober or not at lunch. The French train would be waiting to take the majority on to Paris. I walked for five minutes to reach my hotel.

To enjoy Dieppe it is best to be a little aware of its history.

When the Vikings arrived they found a gap between high cliffs with the land behind guarded by an enormous barrier of round stones. Through these stones, draining the hinterland, flowed the fast Arques river, navigable with difficulty, except at high tide.

Behind the stones was a quiet haven where their ships could be pulled ashore, mended and provisioned. No doubt a bit of rape and pillage took place, but they, like us today, were customers for the local produce, which must have been sold on market days as it has been ever since.

In the 14th century, a fine castle was built on the cliff at one side of the pebbled shore. The structure remains more or less intact today.

In 1694, the town was razed to the ground by a combined fleet of English and Dutch men-of-war - though no one seems to record just why.

Dieppe then became one of the busiest and largest ports in France, with a fishing fleet, mainly for shellfish, and docks for the import of goods, especially African fruit and vegetables.

In Edwardian days, when seabathing had become popular (it had actually started in the late 1820s), it was the pleasure place of kings and queens, then artists.

The Germans fortified Dieppe in the war and, in 1942, slaughtered a mainly Canadian force from the gun emplacements that are still there to be seen.

The town with its inhabitants recovered quickly from the war and, as a gateway to Paris, it bacame the Dieppe that I visited and have revisited many times since.

Dieppe is a seaside town (with sand only seen at the lowest of tides) that has remained essentially the same over the last 50 or so years - the main changes being the destruction of concrete sheds used as a station, to be replaced by a wide vista of polished granite and stainless steel at the quay for a marina of boats large and small.

The ferry, now a car ferry, docks in the outer harbour, so that to reach the town it is now a five minute drive instead of a few minutes walk.

And one side of the harbour entrance has been extended out to sea, making a sort of pier.

In Part 2, I will describe the town and its food, then its people.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Recipe 1

As the author of two cookery books, I am sometimes asked for a quick and simple recipe that can be cooked on the stove that produces a delicious result. I sometimes offer CHICKEN AND LEMON RICE.

The dish takes but a few minutes to prepare, uses leftover chicken and can be made well before needed. And it only takes 20 minutes to cook.

Chicken and lemon rice has the great advantage of being cooked on the stove during the first course when family or guests have come to the table.

You will need: chicken pieces (leftover, or cooked for 15 minutes in water that will become part of the stock needed), stock, rice, a lemon, onions (and garlic if wanted), olive oil, pepper and salt.

In a saucepan cook finely chopped up onions and garlic in olive oil until they are just turning brown.

On them pour a measure of rice (cup, mug, half pint measure, or other container) over the onion and stir for a further minute or so. Turn off the heat if you are to serve the dish sometime later.

Add pepper and salt, the grated rind from a lemon, and half its juice.

Now add chicken pieces and twice the rice volume of stock (i.e. two measures). The stock can be made of a stock cube dissolved in hot water.

Right away, or later, bring all to the boil and, turning down the heat, cook it slowly (covered) for 20 minutes. That's it.

The dish is excellent when using peeled prawns instead of chicken. If they are added at the beginning - like the chicken - they will be firm to eat, if added shortly before serving, they will be softer.

Aim for fish stock if making this dish with any kind of seafood, though, using a beef or chicken stock cube will do perfectly well.

Use any kind of rice.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Around The Hague, 2006, Part 3

Delft is only a number 1 tram ride away from The Hague.

I get out at the second stop beyond the windmill to have breakfast of coffee and 'appelgebak' (a tart of pastry filled with apple chunks and sultanas) at an ancient (17th Century) merchants' hall where a huge balance decided such as the number of sheep skins to be swapped for wheels of cheese.

After breakfast I head out of the main market square with its tall church of multi-chiming bells to a shopping street where there is a wonderful hardware shop. It is small, but crammed with goodies, many of which I would like to have.

Delft, being one of the favourite haunts of Duch painters through their civilised ages, seems to present a charming vista at every turn. Many an ally way, if peopled by maidens in 17th century costume, could be a familiar Vermeer scene.

Dominating, and forbodingly, is a church, with an enormous clock-decorated belltower that leans over a canal as if to fall. It contains a great bell that is struck at the death of a royal personage. When their last prince died, it was feared that a toll of the bell would be the death of the tower, but is was rung, and the tower remains standing. But, for myself, I do not choose to stand beneath it.

So I filled some of my plain postcards with drawings of buildings (both vertical and leaning), bridges, and canals leading to dark watery tunnels.

Market days, either taking place in the main square or on either side of a canal are a delight. People from Delft and the surrounding countryside crowd the ally ways between stalls to bargain, buy or eat.

The tram route to and from Delft passes by T-shaped streets that constitute the red light district.

I thought that these would be an interesting subject for my pen and postcards.

Why I am reminded of butchers' shops when passing the 100 or so windows of scantily-clad girls, I do not know. Perhaps the display in the windows of butchers' shops are only of interest if you are there to buy meat.

Expecting a hostile reception should I draw openly and brazingly, I stood well away to record men ogling, contemplating, bargaining, or just standing around on guard.

With Delft on the inland side of The Hague, Scheveningen is on the other side - the seaside.

I had never entered to walk out to sea on its elaborate pier, that somehow resembles a gheko's leg and feet. On one of its several 'toes', a tall tower and crane provide the means for bungee-jumping.

But the interior of the covered, and lower floor of the pier, is dull, with a few souvenir shops doing (in winter) next to no business.

But below the pier, on the extensive swath of sands, a golf course had been set up, with greens of matting laid down. So, except for the initial drive from each tee, every shot toward the green became a bunker shot (what lovely practice).

I thought that I had come to the end of my pack of now drawn-on postcards. But there was one left to record a foursome trying to shield themselves from the wind and rain with a large black umbrella while waiting their turn to tee off.

Margreet's conference over, it was time to drive home, this time breaking our journey back to England at Oostende.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Around The Hague, 2006. Part 2

When in The Hague I buy an English newspaper. I don't know quite why, when it is printed on the mainland, has less in it, and costs almost four times as much as it does in England.

I buy it at the station. Outside the station stand a thousand or more bicycles. They make a fine sight, and a subject for my eye, pencil and paper.

One wonders how people can locate their bikes. Well, on close inspection, most, although superficially looking alike, are different. The saddles vary, as do the heights of them, as do handlebars, bells, mudguards and chain guards. And their locking-up devices vairy. One person painted his bell pink. It stood out. And then people do remember roughly where their bikes have been parked.

One matter bothered me. Why did there seem to be so many bikes parked at night when the cyclists should have ridden them home after work? I can only conclude that, being commuter bikes, they are ridden in pairs - one to reach the suburban station where they are parked, and one at the destination station on which to ride to work.

Holland (or I should say The Netherlands, as Holland is only part of that country) is a neat and tidy place - well ordered and well disciplined. And in a country that seems to have no tramps or sordid life (like New Zealand when I was once there) needs a visible balance of good and bad to reflect real life.

So whenever I visit the neat and tidy Hague, I visit a sex shop - and this one really balances the clean and tidy with the thoroughly sordid.

Inside the shop door is the usual mix of items for sale, like dildos of every shape and colour, and DVDs of most sexual acts.

A small fee is paid to a rather sinister-looking gentleman at a desk, and you enter a dark passage via a doorway draped with heavy black material.

On the left side of this dark passageway are rooms where it is possible to watch your chosen video in private or, if so inclined, to leave the door open in the hope that a partner might enter to share whatever. At the end on the left is a small room showing sado-masochistic films.

On the right hand side are two equally dark rooms with slightly raised and partly enclosed balconies at the rear that have a medieval-theatrical look about them. They are for semi-privacy.

Both rooms are furnished with side benches, hard chairs, rickety-plastic armchairs and a few tables - for cigarette ashtrays - many of the clients being smokers.

Through a black curtain and in the first room is a fairly small television screen showing continuous films of heterosexual acts with the participants of various colours doing much the same as heterosexuals do at home, but showing absolutely no imagination. This room is barely populated, with customers entering through the curtained doorway and leaving quite quickly.

In the other room, and again through a heavy black curtain, are continuous homosexual films, mainly of three men at a time pleasuring each other.

This is a crowded room with spectators sizeing each other up, or openly pleasing themselves.

And that's it - low, sordid life in the dark. It is too dark for drawing there, and to do so might put me in some danger.

I am fascinated to see that this life should exist, do not spend much time there, retreat to order a Leffe beer in a café, and wash my hands thoroughly before I quenche my thirst.

In Part 3, I go to Delft and Scheveningen.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Around The Hague, 2006. Part 1

Margreet, being summoned to a conference in The Hague gave me a chance to tag along and to amuse myself while she listened to power point presentations.

So, with our car, we slid through the Channel Tunnel and drove over the flat and barely-interesting countryside of France, to bear left after Belgium to reach The Hague, in Holland.

It was arranged through her work that we would stay in a five star hotel. I expected a lot - probably never having slept in such a grand establishment before. But the furnishings of our room were dun-coloured, there was no chair and mirror for ladies to do their make-up, it was impossible to spit into the basin when cleaning our teeth because a shelf intervened, and the brown-tinted window glass allowed only brown-tinted light to reach the room. It was not a particularly pleasant place.

Before leaving London I packed my usual writing notebooks and, this time, a packet of plain postcards and a handful of crayons. Now, with Margreet at work, I was free to roam.

The Hague is a duller place by far than Amsterdam. But it does have the huge advantage of being near to Scheveningen by the seaside, and Delft inland. Both are easily accessible by the number 1 tram, and paid for by folding and inserting into the tram's red box one ticket from a 'strippenkaart' per zone. The red box stamps the date and time, allowing the passenger to travel through the chosen zone(s) for the following hour.

But, first of all, when in The Hague, I walk through the smart shopping streets to find my favourite venue - the Panorama Mesdag.

In 1881 Hendrik Willem Mesdag, with his wife and helpers, was commissioned to paint a 360 degree panorama from a sanddune by the sea in Scheveningen.

Although the panorama was painted where it now stands in The Hague, Mesdag stood beneath a sort of bandstand on his sanddune, poked his head into a cylinder of, I suppose mica, and on the inside traced the landscape that he saw all around. This gave him the correct dimensions.

It was a major undertaking, the panorama canvas being 14 meters high and a 120 meters around.

To view it, you enter through a rather dreary and ordinary museum building, pass through grey galleries, enter a dark passage, and climb some wooden steps into the middle of a bandstand perched on a fake "dune" of real sand.

And there, all around you, with the "dune" marrying imperceptively with the painted scene, is exactly what you would have seen there in 1881. You are there, really there.

Outside light reaches the scene through unseen glass above the bandstand. So, as scudding clouds pass overhead, the changing light from the sky passes over the painted scene.

Below are fishing smacks lying on the sand, floating in the foreshore water, or out at sea. Along the coast on sanddunes to the south is a church, lighthouse and domed building. Inland, beyond more sand, is The Hague in the distance. A canal abruptly ends beneath the dunes. The small town, with a pavilion of delight belonging to a Prince of Orange, leads the eye back to the shore again, where ladies dip their toes into the water from bathing machines, and a troop of cavalry, with gun carriages, ride over the sands for exercise.

This panorama in The Hague gave its citizens a chance to be beside the seaside in days of poverty and poor transport.

It was one of some 300 panoramas around the world, most to be abandoned with the advent of photography. This one is not only one of the very few remaining (the others often having a religious or military scene), but remains in the very spot where it was painted.

To give you an example how "real" the scene is, I saw a viewer take out his binoculars to look at something in the distance, when "the distance" was only fourteen paces away from him on canvas.

Out came my packet of blank postcards so that I could record people as they stood to be taken in by this magical illusion.

In later blogs I'll tell you about Scheveningen (the real one this time), a sordid sexshop, Delft, a redlight district, and Dutch food.

Friday, October 20, 2006

potted history

Without prejudice

A blog, however useful a medium to replace letter-writing and as a vehicle for parting with ideas, has come at just the wrong time for me. Let me explain why through a potted history.

I suppose from schooldays and before I have been a painter.

From the wartime years of flying in the RAF (obtaining my wings at the very end of the war) to recuperating from TB, to medical student, art student, theatre design student, and then on to designing in the theatre (given up as I was not gay or had influence), I now, at last, became a full-time painter.

After one-man exhibitions in London's Cork Street, Bond Street, Japan and elsewhere, with pieces of sculpture creeping into my shows to make my point, I was becoming, and became, a full-time sculptor - working in wood, sometimes very large pieces of it.

Then I broke my wrist in a car accident, could no longer sculpt, and turned to writing.

This I did for some 27 years writing over 700 articles for newpapers and magazines, and 14 books - on subjects as diverse as gardening, vine-growing and vinification, travel, the London Docks, cooking and wine, etc. In my computer (really word processor) is an on-going 250.000 words autobiography and a third (130.000 words) cookery book.

Now it so happens that I admire the paintings of Matthew Smith. I had a lovely example that went with my ex-wife. So I wanted another (wife and painting). A pastel came up for sale at Christie's salerooms. My new and lovely wife and I decided to go halves and put in a bid for it. A buyer paid four times more than our offer.

I was so upset that I decided to use pastel colour to create four tributes to Matthew Smith, using my own modest skills and Matthew Smith's favourite still-life objects. And to make sure they would never be mistaken for the genuine article, boldly writing on them "Homage to Matthew Smith". Because of this I had suddenly become a painter once more (after the break of 27 years).

Whereas as a writer I would have welcomed the blog and had time for it, I now have the taste for painting. And, as a man, I am really only able to concentrate on one thing at a time.

Already, in 2006, I have "painted" in pastel, eight A1 startlingly colourful geometric views of my garden. But I will add to the blog when I feel like it. And the cycle has come around once more to confirm that I really am a painter, with a two foot by four foot painting that I did on the spot of Chelsea Football Ground in 1954, coming up for sale at Christie's salerooms, South Kensington, on 7th December 2006 at 10.30 am. It is described in their catalogue as:

The Shed, Chelsea Football Ground
signed with initials 'P.R.' (lower right), signed again and inscribed 'NEIGHBOURS ON SATURDAYS/JAMES PAGE-ROBERTS (on a label attached to the reverse) and with studio stamp (on the reverse) oil on canvas laid down on board 24 x 48 in. (60.9 x 121.9 cm).
Painted in 1954.
London, New Burlington Galleries, Daily Express Young Artists' Exhibition, April - May 1955, as 'Neighbours on Saturdays'.

The present work was painted in the season which led to Chelsea's first major trophy success - the league championship. The early 1930s saw the construction of the southern part of the ground with a roof that covered around a fifth of the stand. This was eventually to be known as the "Shed End" - the home of Chelsea's most loyal and vocal supporters.

Page-Roberts, an artist who, among others, frequently exhibited at The Redfern Gallery and Leicester Galleries in the 1950s painted this work on the terraces.

Anthony Eyton, R.A. comments, 'This work is an historic document and a brilliantly conceived picture. An essential piece of Chelsea Football Club History' (private correspondence, 14th October 2006).