Friday, December 19, 2008

Pheasant meat in general

In winter, when the pheasant shooting season is in full swing, so many of the birds are shot that sometimes they cannot even be given away. And I have heard that unwanted carcasses are sometimes even buried, having provided the “guns” with their sport. It is then the time to buy several pheasants at a good price – often at a Farmers’ Market. At this time, pheasant becomes a reasonably-priced meat. Where I buy them, the birds are offered in prime condition, fresh from the shoot, plucked and trussed, and presented in cling film wrap.
Buy some, take them home, and slice off the breast meat and as much as you can cut from the thigh. The leg is very sinewy and best left untouched. Feel for shot in the meat and extract any (they are now usually No. 7 shot and very small), freeze the breast in pairs, and bag up and freeze the thigh meat for a future casserole or terrine.
Break up the carcasses and turn them into delicious game stock by putting them into a pressure cooker with some salt and pepper and just a little extra flavouring, like two cloves, two cardamoms and a bay leaf. Pressure cook for 45 minutes. Strain, and allow the stock to cool in a bowl before taking the fat off the surface with a spoon.
The stock is excellent if used as the liquid for a leek and potato soup.
When roasting the breast meat, wrap it in bacon.
When cooking breast meat with chopped up green cabbage, in which you have used your hands to coat the greens with olive oil, white wine, pepper and salt, place the meat just below the surface of the cut cabbage. Put peeled potatoes above and oven-cook for an hour or two.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Amsterdam Restaurants 2008

Our choice of places to eat and drink in Amsterdam come from past experience, “nosing out”, and the advice of locals. Here are some, in haphazard order.

The most amusing place where we had a drink (one was enough) was outside a bar on the Singel Canal, not far from Centraal Station.

In front of us was a pissoire with perforated ironwork at the occupant’s eye level. It was so popular that one man would often be waiting for another to finish. Next to our bar was a glass-fronted, red and blue lit basement for two ladies – one dressed skimpily and the other in part leather gear. The latter offered, via a notice in the window, S&M services.

Hardly a pedestrian walked by without a glance or two at the ladies. And from the pissoire it was possible to penetrate the perforations with the eye for a good view of the goods on offer. What entertainment it was. Theatre for free.

To really eat a “Dutch “ lunch, you could hardly beat enjoying a raw herring, or shared one, standing at the raw herring stall on the bridge at the start of the Singel Canal near to Centraal Station, and then to cross the road to the Kobalt Cafe. Inside this old warehouse (where presumably they once stored cobalt) are huge and impressive floor-supporting beams that rest upon granite feet. The wooden beams were hued for industrial support rather than for visual finesse.

To choose uitsmijter from the menu would be right and proper. Its fried eggs rest on ham, which rests on slices of plain bread, and all covered with a cheese sauce. Drink beer.

In the Haarlemmerstraat, close by, are two places we would recommend. Stout, on the left, is modern, with modern food, and with fashionable diners.

Beyond Stout on the other side of the road, stands Dulac. Should you think that the interiors of Dutch houses are small, this will surprise you with its large size and minimum use of it. A pink cloth pool table is the focal point. This is surrounded by a theatrical collection of strange structures and objects. Separated at a distance from one another are tables for clients. We dined well off four tapas dishes and a bottle of South African red wine from Franschhoek.

The above places are on the edge of the Jordaan district, which is now smart and fashionable. But when I worked on coasters some 60 years ago it was a slum area where lived the family of the stuurman of our vessel. I remember that we sat on the stairs to peel the skin off smoked eels and to eat the flesh from the bone like sweet corn. We slept on the floor, possibly listening to Johnny Jordaan, who was the popular singer in those days. Times have changed somewhat.

A bar that is light, and where one might read the newspaper, is the aforementioned Kobalt Café. Another is farther away in Spui (pronounced Spow) Centraal. It is Café Hoppe. This ancient bar, that purveyed jenever and much else, is divided into two. You could drink and possibly have a snack under cover outside (bitterballen here is good), or enter the atmospheric darkness inside (the corner one especially) to experience a Holland of the past.

Move to the red-light district, to the left as you leave the Centraal Station, to see a vibrant, exciting and architecturally delightful part of old Amsterdam.

Warmoesstraat runs through its heart and is the most popular, we hear, with gays. But all around are ladies for short rent in gaudily lit windows. They display much of what they have to offer, and might tap on the window to beckon you in.

On the street is an entrance to the “new” Heffer bar. It is an object lesson in clever bar design – colour, lighting and decoration. And to move customers on, it is uncomfortable.

In the same street, at the station end, is a very Dutch restaurant whose chefs specialise in cheese fondue. You can choose from several blends of cheese. The place is called Karbeel, and an excellent and civilised place for lunch or dinner it is, set among some rather seedy establishments.

Returning to central Amsterdam and the Damrak (main street), you will pass the other (old) Heffer bar, just behind the “new” one. This is housed within a defunct customs building. It is not as theatrical as its compatriot nearby, but more comfortable and more “established”. It is a good place for food. But be careful. You might be propositioned by a lady, house relation, who will try to tell you your fortune by numbers. She is persistent. I think I frightened her.

Behind Centraal Station are the landing stages for ferries to the other side of the wide IJ (pronounced Eye) river. And on that other side are two fine places in which to eat – after a nice river crossing – and the ferry crossings are for free.

Take the one that will state on the back of the ferry and on the illuminated sign in front of the landing – NDSM Werf. The trip down river toward the North Sea Canal will pass docks, ships loading and unloading, possibly a liner, a disused submarine and lots of shipping going about its business. This will give you an appetite for a meal or snack at the Kantine, a spacious, light and happy place, at the bottom of what looks like a dull block of flats. You can eat and drink there, watching shipping on the river through high and wide windows. You might well take sunglasses on a sunny day.

When taking the ferry back to the Centraal Station dock, choose the modern variety. There is an older, smaller ferry that simply crosses back and forth across the river, finally depositing you back by the Kantine, from where you set off.

If you take the IJ Plein ferry to cross the river, turn right immediately after disembarking to walk along the riverbank until coming to an orange-coloured building that is the Wilhelmina Dok restaurant. It perches out over the river, putting you right among the shipping. Have your drinks and food outside in summer and inside in winter. It is our favourite restaurant in Amsterdam.

Above are the places where we have enjoyed food and drink. There are not many, but we recommend them.

Friday, November 14, 2008


In one’s reflective mind it is usually the large objects that define a foreign country – the Eiffel Tower, the Chrysler Building, the Bank of China Building, the Taj Mahal, Hilversum Town Hall and all the rest. But when abroad it is often the small objects, scenes, smells, food, drink and customs that make the country a foreign one. The following observations come in random order.

I have just been to Holland twice (October and November 2008) to think about it.

On the Eurostar train, through the Tunnel and into France and Belgium, I saw, in the middle of a ploughed field, a small patch of possibly a dozen or so orange pumpkins. I was in a foreign country all right.

In Brussels Midi Station, the escalator appeared not to be working. But on approach, off it went.

One hears nothing but complaint about public transport in England – though not having to use it in rush hours I approve of it. In foreign Holland, however, they have always had the reputation of running a reliable and wonderful public transport system – no longer. The actual trains worked well and were clean and comfortable. But to pay for a rail journey was often confusing, with either a long queue for buying a ticket or a time-consuming struggle with an automatic, touch-screen ticket machine. Having bought our tickets, confusion reigned. For a one-change journey from the countryside back to Amsterdam we were diverted, for an undisclosed reason, and had to change trains three times. For another journey we were directed to one platform and then, with the other hopeful passengers were told that the train would leave from another. This involved an arduous climb up stairs with our heavy luggage. The long-distance train then arrived at the platform to collect its passengers half an hour late, and finally stopped three stations short of its destination, with instructions for passengers to change platforms and continue aboard a local train – involving another climb up and down stairs with luggage.

Public transport does a lot from country to country. In Holland, where the tram and bus services continue to be excellent, a “strippen card” is needed for both busses and trams. This involves buying a strip of numbers, folding it at the needed number of tickets required for your journey, and then poking the strip into a machine on board, that stamps it with a “ping”. It is difficult for the stranger to know how many tickets to offer the machine. At tram stops this can be worked out (with difficulty) from a map. But it is easier to go to the train station and buy the required demarcated map. Locals know, but foreigners don’t. The validation is for one hour, presumably for more journeys within your ticket’s stamped compass. I understand that a pre-paid card, like the English Oyster Card, will be introduced in the near future.

International hotels give no indication of foreignness. They are “anywhere” places. The design of their rooms and bathrooms, though, can cause confusion for all. Plumbing is often the main problem to solve. Without the arm length of an orang-utan, to close the bath’s “plug” needed a climb into the bath. Then, with two large, chromed wall knobs for the control of water heat, bath water flow and shower, it came as no surprise to have an arm soaked from above.

The size of beer glasses and how much is in them determines the country you are in. The Germans may favour litres and half litres, we pints, the French hardly a half pint, and the Dutch, where one orders a “pilsje” (small beer), a few decent swigs beneath an inch or more of foam may come your way. A repeat order might contain more or less beer. An ordered pilsje sometimes comes as a vaasje (slightly more). Or one can order ½ pint or a pint (groot). All are served with a variable size head of foam. I find Holland to be a country of dehydration, which is an excuse, I suppose, to drink more beer.

I have noticed a distinct change in the drinking habits of the Dutch since I was there as a supernumerary on a Dutch coaster in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Then the sailors had a taste for sweet liqueurs. And people drank jenever. Now I only saw one person drink jenever, most drinking beer or wine. And the wine drinkers chose mostly white wine. This is now much more in line with the rest of Europe, except that they also drink milk with their meals.

In France the bill for drinks is put on to your table, so you can leave when you feel like it, having left the money with the bill. In Holland you wait until ready to leave, try to catch the eye of the waiter or waitress, and then pay before leaving.

Which brings me to tipping. At last (I suppose with the advent of the EU and Euro), tipping on top of the bill is unnecessary – certainly in France, Belgium and The Netherlands. A little “rounding up” is an option, and one usually leaves any small copper coins that come with the change. For excellent and pleasant service one could add 10%, but no more. Many do add this in Holland. In England you have to scrutinise the bill to see if service has been added or not. When added, it is often on the high side and includes the full service percentage on the cost of the wine, which a waiter has only had to withdraw a cork or twist off the screw-top. This does seem greedy to me – especially as the wine has usually been overpriced in the first place. But in England it is sometimes the case that the tip is the main form of income for the often-underpaid foreign waiters or waitresses. It is difficult to know exactly where the tip ends up without engaging in that controversial conversation. The system is more professional on the continent where waiting can be seen as a vocation.

And in what country might you see a man with a long pole, mop head and hose pipe, cleaning the blank side of an ordinary brick-built house? Holland, of course – in the centre of Delft.

In Delft I wanted to take a canal boat trip, especially to see from where Vermeer painted his landscape of the city. But four passengers would be the minimum number acceptable before the voyage could begin. I returned twice on the appointed hour. Eventually I was taken – alone. But the businessman pilot of our shallow draught vessel, said that if tourists saw our boat in operation they might think of taking the trip. And true enough, on our return quite a few people were waiting to board.

The sights of Delft from its canals are of a perilously leaning church tower, and splendid houses, mainly from the 17th century vintage. Very Dutch, and so very foreign, the houses are beautifully proportioned, and exhibit the wealth derived from naval and commercial power related to East India trading. West India trading (slaves) is much less mentioned. We were not the only baddies. Many of the greater houses were also built by the brewers of beer, Delft once being the centre of that industry – until the canal water used became so foul that no one would drink the end product. Today no breweries exist.

Do not hope to take the canal trip in Delft after the university students’ graduation romps. Far too much junk is thrown into the canals to make navigation a safe exercise.

One canal boat does ply its trade of keeping the narrow canals clean. A plodding boat, with a solitary man aboard, is provided with a scoop and an enlarged butterfly net at the end of a long pole. The pilot’s autumn catch seemed to be of leaves only.

You would not imagine that staircases define a country. But they do in Holland. Space has always been at a premium, especially in the cities of the 17th century. Staircases then took up unnecessary room where money might be made. So they were constructed to be steep, confined, precipitous – and dangerous. Large objects were lifted up on pulleys attached to a strong beam projecting from the upper part of the gable. These gables are straight, stepped, bell/neck shaped or elaborate/flamboyant. They were designed originally to hide unsightly roofs.

Rain is treated differently abroad. In Holland, for instance, umbrellas are used, yet many people seem to rather ignore the precipitation. In England I don’t believe that I have ever seen a cyclist riding beneath an umbrella. But in Holland it is commonplace. Many of their bicycles have back-pedal brakes, operating only on the rear wheel. This braking method frees up both hands – one to hold the umbrella.

Which brings me to a small but cumulatively large, unique and astounding sight. It is the thousands upon thousands of bicycles, parked, day and night, outside railway stations. If mothers know their babies, owners their dogs, so the Dutch must know their bikes. To the outsider they look much alike – saddle, wheels, handlebars, frame, and nearly all black. Cyclists there can do no wrong. At any accident scene the cyclist is right. So they ride like maniacs, both ways on the cycle paths that edge every street, and sometimes not on their rightful tracks at all. It is hazardous for pedestrians to cross any street, or even alter direction. Every vehicle or person gives way to bicycle riders.

The herringbone brick-on-end, bronze-coloured pavements and sometimes roads in Holland are a delight – except when it rains. The attractive undulations then create puddles, before the water seeps down into the sand below. These lovely bricks, however, seem often to be being dug up and re-laid. French pavements have too much dog mess on them for safety or pleasure when viewing anything above pavement height. England is becoming better in that respect.

In passing through Belgium and Holland it is very noticeable that graffiti lives – and in a big way. This disfigurement of the townscape seems, mercifully, to have declined in England. It lives and thrives elsewhere.

A charm of Dutch cities is to hear the joyful chuckle of jackdaws. Just why they do so well in their cities and not in English ones is a puzzle.

Another puzzle concerns eating in the quite splendidly simple Fat Kee Chinese restaurant in The Hague. They offer a dish called chicken, pepper and salt. What arrives at your table is a huge pile of very crisply coated morsels containing pink chicken meat and bones. The puzzle is to deal with what is inside the coating. What is chicken meat? What shape are the bones? What is coating and what is bone? This offering seems to be the speciality of the house, and great fun. Many foreign dishes are poorly adapted by the Dutch to please their own taste. Kip, peper en zout, if Chinese in origin, is splendidly Dutch. At the Nam Kee Chinese restaurant in Amsterdam I tried the same, out of curiosity. It was pale, not nearly as good – but without bones.

In France one may enjoy several courses, none too large or filling. At Simonis in Scheveningen (a seaside suburb of The Hague), set in a warehouse among others right next to a dune and the sea, you will enter, queue past the menu and food on offer (I ordered plaice), pay, receive a number, sit down and wait for that number to come up on a large screen. What came for me was a huge plate of chips and one excellent large fried plaice, on top of yet another. The Dutch have hearty appetites.

During my two quick stays in Holland I was looking for small items that differentiate one country from another. So it was really not my intention to remark on the largest thing visible – the sky. The sky and clouds in Holland – seen near to and never too far from the North Sea coast – have a distinctive look and colour to them, that is, when it is not raining. The windy sea air is crystal clear, often dotted with one shape or other of scudding cumulus clouds and, in the evening, with lovely sky colours in the background – very much as seen and depicted by the Dutch masters of old.

French restaurants do not get going until at least seven o’clock in the evening, with people often turning up to eat much later. All customers will have had an aperitif around six o’clock, when the bars are full. It seems that there is a national pattern to it. For office people it appears to be much the same in Holland.

In England, if invited for drinks, the start time is usually 6 to 6.30, leaving the guests to eat out or at home by 7.30 to 8 o’clock – which is about the time invitations are made for dinner. The English drinks party is an ideal way to meet, exchange information and views, and then leave. This can all be done with the minimum of trouble to the hosts by simply producing a few “bites” and plenty of white and red wine. But not everyone knows the “rules” about leaving.

The Dutch seem to close up shop early, and eat early. A party at a friend’s place might start at 5 o’clock in the afternoon with coffee and cake, going on to wine and food. Guests stay a long time, with plenty to say. To bid farewell takes an age, with handshakes for men and three kisses for women, with each parting in need of the politeness of a small conversation. The English might even leave quietly and unnoticed, without giving offence (filet à l' Anglaise).

The foreignness of a country is also determined by what one brings home from it. From France we take home mostly wine (usually from other countries than France), cheese, paper tissues, smoked chicken and lavatory paper.

From Holland we return with toothpaste (9 tubes from Hema for the same price as one glass of excellent de Koninck beer), my winter socks (Hema, Ski), young white goats’ cheese, cut from a wheel, and Hema’s famous smoked sausage (rookworst). I’m pro Hema.

In England and France I have never thought of meat and vegetables tasting other than they should. But in Holland there seems to be an underlying blandness in the flavour of food. Coatings and sauces offer flavour, but beneath them there is lack of taste. Is this, I wonder, because being a small country and also a highly productive one in vegetables, dairy products and meat, many of their products are forced – often out of their natural season (tomatoes for one). In my mind I see greenhouses, North Sea gas heat and hydroponics in use. But perhaps I am alone with those thoughts. Margreet says that products lack salt because too much is considered bad for the health.

I needed to buy butter in Holland, a country famed for its dairy produce. It seems that after the war when the nation needed as much foreign currency as possible, they exported most of their butter, providing substitutes for it, like margarine. The habit has continued. On the “butter” shelves in a supermarket were so many of these “spreads”, many flavoured, that I was lucky to have chosen the real thing from the many lookalikes on offer.

Approach to ice-cream is another item that defines foreignness. In France it can be good, and varied, in Belgium, splendid. But in Holland, restaurants rarely provide any flavour other than vanilla, sometimes with a smidgen of chocolate sauce when ordered as a dame blanche – and this from a specialist dairy country.

The English eat quite a lot of bread, usually in the form of sandwiches. The French eat sticks of bread, freshly baked, and throughout the day. The Dutch eat an enormous amount of bread, mainly for breakfast and especially for lunch, when dishes are often mostly bread (often in large hunks) with some tasty bits added. I counted 18 types of bread in one bakery shop.

The Dutch eat cheese for breakfast, the French and English don’t.

In the roof girders of The Hague’s art deco railway station, Holland Spoor, two pairs of crows croaked and flew menacingly to maintain their territorial rights.

In Holland those in charge of public conveniences demand 50 cents for entry.

In the autumn countryside, large fields of leeks decorate the ground with the blue of their leaves – far more impressive than the colour from fields of brassicas.

Despite the attentions of plough and harrow, some maize stalks were refusing to be buried beneath the autumn-tilled black soil.

In Holland and Belgium important and expensive houses are actually built right next to railway lines, by choice, when one might have expected them to be positioned farther away.

These staccato impressions of foreignness are from only two short stays in Holland.

Saturday, October 18, 2008


I am engaged in a series of paintings of aircraft shadows and am presently working on the penultimate one of a Warwick aeroplane dropping a lifeboat suspended beneath parachutes.

I am taking the shape of ingredients from memory during the time when I flew during the war in these – not very good – and sometimes dangerous machines.

I had reached to ten preliminary A4 paintings (pastels) when I realised that the undersides of these particular aeroplanes must have been white, not camouflaged green and brown.

So I was about to visit a library in the splendid RAF museum, Hendon, to do some research into parachute numbers for the under slung lifeboats that we were prepared to drop, camouflaged patterns, general colours and shapes, etc., when Margreet said she’d look it all up for me on the internet. I bet her 10 P that google hadn’t even heard of a Warwick. I lost. There was a mass of information.

The person who runs a museum on the airfield from which I flew in Cornwall became an internet “contact”. So I thought I’d be of help to his archive and supplied him with the following email:

Dear Rod,

In the course of my training to become a pilot I was posted to RAF Davidstow Moor from 15.03.1944 to 15.05.1944.

As part of my flying experience, I was taken up in Warwicks as an observer next to the pilot.

I did 20 hours in the aircraft, once doing a nine hours sortie over the Bay of Biscay with a lifeboat beneath.

The only excitement that I can recall was that, with others looking downwards, my job was to look skywards.

I was fortunate to see a German Focke-Wulf Condor before any on that aircraft saw us.

I got on to the intercom to tell all aboard (the noise in those aircrafts was enormous) but the communication broke almost as soon as I spoke.

Pointing out the German aircraft to the pilot, we dropped down to sea level (being vulnerable from an attack from below) and headed back (at full throttle I image) to Davidstow.

Another point I remember and tell to incredulous ears is that back in the mess (canteen) we were guaranteed an egg.

Another incident, this time on the ground at Davidstow, is that I inadvertently entered a ladies’ lavatory and was delighted with its cleanliness, when I heard a lady cough nearby. To be found in a ladies’ convenience would have been (probably) a court marshal offence.

I left like a rocket and (most thankfully) no one saw me leave.

This is not much, but small vignettes like this help to build up a picture of the time.

With best wishes,

Jim Page-Roberts

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Soap Reclamation

I do it every few months, and think nothing of it - except that the whole process is a rather satisfying one.

Soap (cakes of it, that is) is much wasted. Hotels provide small tablets of usually inferior soap, which may be used once or twice and then thrown away. At home, when we have come at last to pieces so small that they are useless, we, too, throw them away. I don’t, and have not done so for years.

In my bathroom is a drawstring, net bag, at one time used, possibly, for something like Chinese garlic bulbs. Into it go the odds and ends of used soap – all to be enjoyed again later in a much larger, blended form.

Here is what you do.

Save meshed, plastic bags – the kind used for shallots, garlic, plums and much else.

It is wise to coat the surface on which the following operation takes place with a few layers of newspaper.

Take your used pieces of soap from the (bathroom) storage bag, and put them, higgledy-piggledy, in a meshed bag, cutting large pieces, if any (they might be cakes of soap that you did not like particularly and have become dried and cracked), into smaller pieces. Tie a knot in the bag, or close it with a freezer bag wire tie, to keep the pieces as close together as possible.

You will need a press of some sort. I use a squeezer for half oranges – which is ideal. You could use the like, or a deep bowl, or perhaps a section of tubing – like plastic drainpipe. In the case of something like a bowl or pipe it will be necessary to have a disk that you will press down on to the soap when it has been softened by steam. A potato masher would do.

You will also need a plastic bag, like a freezer storage bag. This will stop any very soft soap from escaping the press.

Now put an inch or two of water in an appropriately sized saucepan (i.e. a deep one to prevent soapy water from bubbling out over the saucepan and on to the stove). On the saucepan place a metal colander. Put the tied bag of soap bits in the colander and heat the water beneath to a low, tick-over boil.

To concentrate the resulting steam, rising from the water and passing up through the colander holes to the bag of soap pieces, place a saucepan lid over the bag to fit the inside of the colander.

Prod the soap pieces every so often (with the point of a knife or skewer) until they become soft (some will be softer than others, with some transparent varieties sadly melting into the water below).

When you think that all the bits of soap will cling together (some may still be fairly firm), lift out the bag of softened soap and drop it into the freezer bag (rolling down the sides of the bag beforehand to facilitate the operation). Be extra careful in doing this as the soap will now be very hot and can cling and scald.

Do not tie up the freezer bag, as air must be allowed to escape from it.

Now press or squeeze the meshed bag within the freezer bag until the bits of soap unite and take the form of your press and future cake of blended soap.

Allow the bagged soap to cool for a few minutes. Then extract the meshed soap from the freezer bag.

Using scissors, cut away the mesh bag from the pressed soap, and put the hot cake of soap on to a plate.

There will be rough joins and crevices in the new cake of blended soap. Bits of soft soap will cling to the bag mesh.

Prise away the soft soap bits remaining in the bag’s mesh and use it to fill the cracks and holes in the large cake. Again, be careful of the hot soap. Do not worry about any final odd protrusions or unevenness. These will disappear with use.

Allow the soap to cool. Keep it for several days, or longer, before using it.

The chances are that you will now have a large lump of lovely soap that you will use and enjoy - luxuriantly.

Washing up afterwards is easy. Everything used is soapy.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

FUSKER THE CAT (continued)

I use an old, updated (to ’97) computer that is unconnected with the ether. It is quick, simple, has few knobs to press, is unconcerned with viruses, and has a good memory. I do not have to tear out my hair over it, or have a day ruined by glitches.

So when I write a blog, it goes from my computer on to a 3 ½” floppy disk, and then into an attachment on Margreet’s latest machine to be blogged, if that is more or less the correct expression.

In her computer is a very clever system whereby she can tell when there are “hits” on the blog, about which blog, the key word, and from where the hits originate. These hits come from all over the world.

One of the popular requests is for people to read the piece I wrote on my fight (and victory) with Fusker the cat.

Bloggers have wanted to know the current position of our relationship. Even Fusker, himself, wrote to apologise, being grateful that I did not choose to have recourse to the law over the matter (I do not reply to animals).

For those who would like to know, Fusker has accepted that I am “Boss Cat”. He skulks away when our paths cross, and hides, usually, beneath a car.

However, although he knows full well that he is in uninvited territory, my garden is a haven for birds, and Fusker sees birds as his natural and rightful prey.

So when I saw a black shape disappear from the end of my garden (it is only 4 x 14 paces in size) and the flagstones of its surface coated in wood pigeon feathers, I guessed who might have been responsible (no corpse was to be seen).

So I blocked off his approach and escape route with my secret solution, and expected there to be no more cat-intrusions. My small family of wild birds should then have been safe.

So it was a great surprise to both of us when, about to leave the house and lock the glazed back door to the garden, I saw Fusker just outside, clawing at a cornered wood pigeon.

On seeing me he scampered off.

I was left with a feathered garden and a wood pigeon that had had enough of its wing feathers extracted to make flight impossible.

A decision had to be made. Obviously I could not leave the wounded bird to be subjected to further torture. So I had to return to my old country ways and dispatch it.

But I suppose that Fusker had done me a good turn. Wood pigeons are a nuisance in my garden. They foul the flagstones with their not inconsiderable droppings, needing the mess to be swept clean, or, if missed and trodden on, being brought into the house on the soles of shoes. Now, at least, there are two fewer wood pigeons. For that, thank you, Fusker.

Monday, September 29, 2008


Although this piece is to do with growing vegetables in pots, allow me first to picture my London walled garden. It measures 4 paces by 14 paces. So by most people’s standards it is a very small garden.

The ground surface is paved with concrete flagstones, except for a narrow strip of soil at the north side of its length.

At one end of the garden is a small, two-seat summerhouse, known as “the shed”. In it, summer and part winter, we spend a lot of time. Blackbirds enter to eat crumbled Scottish oatcake on the carpet floor, and robins fly in to eat cheese bits from either our hands, from my knee or from the top of some birdseed boxes next to where I sit. A dunnock likes small cheese bits thrown out to it. Goldfinches (who seem to be the only birds that eat niger/nyger seeds, but drop a lot for mice and the creation of seedlings galore), great tits, blue tits, green finches, wrens and dreaded wood pigeons all visit the garden for food and drink. Rare visitors have been parakeets and a great spotted woodpecker, the latter robbing our robin’s nest of young.

On the house wall at the other end (west end) of the garden is wall box accommodation for swifts, sparrows, house martins, flycatchers, wagtails, blue tits, great tits, robins, bats, butterflies, bumblebees and other bees. Not many are used, but they are there – in case. All are hand painted to roughly match the London stock bricks behind them. Beneath these potential summer homes is a large tank for collecting rainwater from the roof.

VINES. When I left living in the country some 19 years ago (1989) I brought with me several varieties of vine from my experimental vineyard. The experimental part was to find disease-free or certainly disease-resistant vines – and other tests, mostly regarding fertiliser, methods of pruning and vinification. So there had to be a place made for the transported vines.

I found a blacksmith who made for me arches, made of 1” (2.5 cm) reinforcing rod that were attached to the north and south walls of the garden to form an arbour. These arches were braced diagonally with fencing wire that was also used to form intermediate arches.

Having once designed scenery for the theatre, I created this arched arbour in perspective – making the near arches (to the house) higher than the far ones and positioning the far ones closer together than the near ones. The intermediate wire arches, the bracing wires, and the rod arches themselves, were then painted with black mastic paint for preservation.

There are now several disease-free vines covering the arbour and trailing along wires on walls. The white grape grown is Seyval Blanc, and the main red one, Triomphe d’Alsace. The white is there for the pleasure of seeing its lovely bunches and making a little white or rosé wine. And the red one (Triomphe d’Alsace, which now runs for 73 metres (say 220 feet) over and around the garden can produce from a dozen or so to a maximum 88 bottles of excellent wine each year. Birds love the red grapes, and are a constant threat to a good harvest. They leave the white ones until last. I am unable to net the vines, so have to rush out to rattle a bamboo on hard surfaces to deter the birds. They are quick in learning to be careful, but love to glide in quietly and deceive me.

ROSES. Grown along the strip of soil beneath the north wall are roses (one Reverend F. Page Roberts and, in my opinion, the best of all roses, Typhoon).

SCULPTURE. A 4’ 6” (137 cm) high elm sculpture of lovers stands beneath the arbour. It is inclined to split in the summer and close up in the winter. That is the way of elm wood. Done by me in 1981 (as discovered from the sculpture link in my blog), it is sprayed occasionally to combat rot and woodworm. Few people are brave enough to get on their knees to look beneath after I have told them of the generously carved action details that I added after creating it.

FLOWERS. In pots of various colours, shapes and capacity, are flowers, grown on moveable brickwork, organised at different heights to form of a peninsular, almost dividing the paved garden. This configuration is altered throughout the year.
The flowers grown are two kinds of fuchsia, three large pots of impatiens (for a constant blaze of summer colour), hibiscus, Bolivian begonia, hydrangea, mahonia, pieris, geraniums (pelagoniums), potentilla, cyclamen, lilies, camellia, tulips, foxgloves (gratefully, as digitalis once saved my life) and calendula.

TREES. From the soil exposed by extracting a flagstone beneath the south wall grows a morello cherry, trained in espalier fashion on wires. The cherries are harvested in late summer for céries eau de vie, to be enjoyed at Christmas time.

The trees grown in pots are two bay trees (one given to us as a cutting by a dying religious lady, now trained to point to heaven), an apple and a pear (both more decorative than productive). A fig tree and ivy share a pot. A horizontal, pot-growing juniper, rises to cover the surfaces of both apple and pear pots.

Cuttings of Triomphe d’Alsace grapevines are grown, not in pots but in a corner of the garden as gifts to those locals who want to collect them in early December each year.

HERBS. Since coming to London I have had a collection of herbs in pots – some being more successful than others – depending on soil, light and shade, and the weather conditions during the year – not to mention neglect when on holiday. In these pots I grow parsley (from the supermarket), rosemary, chives, French tarragon, and thyme. I have had trouble in growing sage, but having obtained one with variegated leaf, it has done well. But the leaves are not as strongly flavoured as “vulgaris”. Initial coriander growing was a disappointment. I should have known better, having written on the subject for the Financial Times in November 1988. Sometimes rocket, grown in a corner of the garden, has done splendidly. It did not do well this year. But I saved some seedpods, from which I obtained summer-dried seeds to plant in a pot in September - for autumn harvesting. Mint, grown in a large, sunken pot to keep it within bounds, does well each year. But this year, many of its late leaves were eaten by some bug or other – probably flea beetle. I should have harvested them earlier and turned them into mint sauce for winter use.

Inside, on the kitchen window sill, I grow a new lot of sweet basil each year (obtained in a pot from the supermarket, thinned and replanted in good compost), a small “tree” of chillies (they turned out to be jalapino this year – and very successful), and an aloe vera. I give branches of this spiky and fleshy plant to a West Indian lady, who uses it in cooking and for healing purposes.

SOFT FRUIT. To grow strawberries seemed a real possibility when I saw a special earthenware pot for them, made with an open top and holes at the side. Several varieties were planted, working from the bottom up, keeping their potted roots in place and sticking the foliage out of the holes as the pot was filled with compost. The outcome was disappointing despite plenty of watering and fertiliser. What runners developed were pushed into already-occupied holes. We await better results next year. The pot looks quite decorative – and fun. The gift of a blueberry bush has produced fruit – mainly for the birds. We expect brilliantly coloured leaves on it in the autumn.

VEGETABLES. It was in 2007 that my sister, June, thought about giving up part of her allotment and growing vegetables in pots in her little London garden. It was about this time that people were becoming more conscious about using some of their town gardens for growing vegetables – sensing that the financial pinch was on its way, seeing that self-sufficiency was becoming popular and fashionable, and wanting to reduce the import of foodstuffs. Her initial experiments with carrots were a great success, as they were with her mixed lettuces.

For me, growing vegetables in pots started in the spring of 2008 with, of all things, ASPARAGUS. I was given a very large flowerpot by a near neighbour and did not know where it might go in the garden and what to plant in it. Asparagus came to mind, not as a large crop for future degustation, but to be able to eat one or two spikes and enjoy the sight of its ferns and autumn berries. So into the big pot went a lot of composty soil and two bought asparagus crowns, claimed to be two years old.

In spaces around the crowns I planted seed, with considerable expectation, having once established a large asparagus bed, all from a packet or two of seeds. The rest of the seeds were planted in a small pot.

The crowns produced one thin spear each. The seeds planted near to them grew and subsided quickly. But the seeds in the small pot did splendidly. Their little crowns will augment the larger crowns in the big pot, and the rest, I think, be put in the soil beneath the cherry tree, where a short row of mini daffodils flower each spring.

I wanted a globe ARTICHOKE for its foliage and possibly a fine flower or two. Given an off-cut with a little root, it started well, died away, but has now (almost October) started to produce new leaves. Not all is lost.

CARROTS were an obvious choice. My gardening sister told of the delicious thinnings to be enjoyed before the main crop could be harvested. Our thinnings were very small, but delicious. And those left to grow fatter never became much larger. I will experiment with other varieties, as hers were far better than mine.

BEETROOT made a decorative pot, and the leaves were used in salads and omelettes. But the bulbs were never large enough to count as beetroot.

FENNEL, grown as a single plant from a garden centre pot, provided fronds as wanted in the kitchen and a good crop of fresh seeds. In a way it was a success.

DWARF FRENCH BEANS. These did well, but I did not plant them thickly enough in their pot.

CLIMBING FRENCH BEANS (Blue Lake) provided several dishes, but as the garden is not really large enough to grow them, despite a “cat’s cradle” of string for them in a corner. I will grow more dwarf French beans on a high shelf next year, and add a few climbers to them see if they will trail.

BROAD BEANS. I grew two buckets-full in a darkish corner. They grew well, but produced no more than half a dozen pods. I intend to persevere, planting a dwarf variety very soon (autumn).

SORREL, from seed, has been a success. We have harvested the leaves several times for omelettes.

TOMATOES have usually been most productive, beside being a decorative and delicious crop. All went well this year, until I came into the garden one morning to find that blight was spoiling the entire lot. The leaves had shrivelled and patches of rot had appeared on the tomatoes. It was a disheartening and disgusting sight. But I will persevere.

COURGETTES (zucchini) were both a success and failure. We harvested quite a few courgettes and they were delicious to eat. But the failure was mine, in not realising that the plants would crowd us out of our small garden. They will not be tried again – due only to lack of space.

GARLIC has already been autumn planted in the area where rocket grew. Rocket has now been consigned to a pot.

SHALLOTS have been planted with the garlic. Both are from magnificent French “seed”, sold for culinary purposes in the Dieppe market.

LAMB’S LETTUCE will be planted in a pot as soon as I buy some seed.

MIXED LETTUCE will be planted in the spring.

SPINACH will also be tested.

That is as far as my London garden experiments have got. I recommend anyone to join me for the fun and upward learning curve.

Friday, September 26, 2008

AVRO LANCASTER (drift scale)

Jim's latest art work (A1 size) Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Rising costs in France? September 2008

We had heard from friends returning to London from Paris about how much more it now costs to stay in that lovely city. Is this the case in other parts of that country? We were about to spend a week in Dieppe. So I would try to find out.

I foresaw difficulty in putting together my modest survey, as being almost enumerate was not going to help. But I had Margreet at my side.

On descending from the ferry in Dieppe I heard a lady complain that £1.50 for a tea bag and some hot water from the bar on board was extortionate.

Margreet’s first cup of tea in Dieppe cost nearly £2 and her second nearly £3 (more than the price of my beer). But the profit made from serving tea anywhere has always been excessive. Although this did not convey much in the way of rising prices, it was an interesting start to my modest little survey about whether costs in France have rocketed in the same way that they have in England.

It seems that one of our first purchases in France is for a good cake of soap to use instead of hotel soap. But not remembering how much we had paid for it in the past gave no indication of any rise (or fall) in prices. So that wasn’t much help.

In Dieppe we found that it was still possible to obtain an excellent three-course meal (the menu) for around £10 a head. I had an excellent three courses at the Restaurant New Haven, and Margreet chose, for £15, Choucroute de la Mer (Grandmother’s recipe) for about £15. She said that, with its cumin and cream in the choucroute, this was one of the best dishes she had ever eaten. We had enjoyed a wonderful bottle of Crozes-Hermitage in the past there, so we had one again. I need hardly add that, except for carafe (pichet) wine in France (usually quite adequate and not pricey), good wine is expensive. It cost twice as much as our food. But we were on holiday and splashing out, and it was worth it.

Our breakfast “buns” (super cookies) from La Mie Câline bakery were no more expensive than in the past, nor was the grande crème coffee more costly at the Globe bar nearby.

We used to lunch at the Victoire with some regularity. It was a typical French red-checked-tablecloth café/restaurant, overseen by the appropriately French-casual dressed patron. It closed down, much to our disappointment.

Now it had re-opened beyond the Pollet “island” where the Michelin-starred La Mélie once served small portions of expensive food.

The patron must have bought out the Mélie’s fixtures and fittings, but now, dressing as he did before, in much smarter surroundings, nothing seemed to fit. Gone was the busy café atmosphere, the regular clientele, check tablecloths and intimate repartee. But with the patron’s wife in charge of the kitchen, the food was just as good as before, and the three course menu only marginally more expensive. But with the café feeling and cramped conditions had gone all the fun. However, for about £13 for the menu of moules, fried plaice and chocolate mousse, the meal could hardly have been bettered for the price. And the sparkling cider was quite up to scratch. It had been great value, as before, but now, sadly, in dreary surroundings.

One of the great pleasures in staying in a foreign seaside venue is to walk a lot in bracing air. Our visit had coincided by chance with the biennial Kite Festival (Cerf Volants). There has always been masses to see as you walk around the town and sea front, but now, kites of every description, shape and colour, flew in the salty wind either under human control or tethered to the ground by bags of gravel. The seaside sky was alive with movement and colour – a feast for the eyes.

So international was the festival that it seemed every country on the globe had a booth where the staff sold their national designs of kite and talked about their art. An English couple at our hotel did not fly kites, but went over to Dieppe in September every two years just to watch the magnificent display. And as for wind, it is usually windy in Dieppe.

So what with a visit to the well-organised Castle Museum, where an astoundingly good Van Dongen looked quite out of place among the collection of Braque prints and dark Sickert paintings, we found ourselves to be walking around 8 kilometres a day (measured by Margreet’s electronic pedometer).

At one time we sheltered from a storm beneath an awning outside Restaurant Heidi. There we saw that a three-course menu was obtainable for about £8 – including a ¼ litre carafe of wine. So, as this piece is about prices past and present, we thought that we must try it. But it was a menu for accredited kite-flyers only.

So we settled for an evening meal at the Sully (an old, comfortable and well-run favourite), ordering a £10 salade Nicoise for Margreet and £10 worth of two courses (whitebait and ice cream) for me. All was excellent value, with prices probably much the same as in the past. But with a splendid bottle of Vacqueyras the meal came to £20 a head – which by present-day standards must be pretty good value – especially in such a nice place.

We often stop at the Café de la Paix, situated at the centre of movement and life in Dieppe. From it one can see all that goes to and from the town, and from glazed-in comfort. There I chose Chimay, a Trappist Belgian beer that is hoppy, dry (bitter) and strong. It is a sipping rather than a swilling beer. For a (possibly) 1/3 litre glass, the cost was about £3. Not having drunk this beer before I could not relate its price to past experience.

Had the price of a meal at a favourite lunch place (the Bar Rouen) risen since we were there some six months before? No. For £13 a head we enjoyed 3 excellent courses and (in pichets) the equivalent of a bottle of wine. The place was just the same - same family – same ambience – same clientele (office workers and police) – same friendliness – same noisy landlord and quiet landlady – same cost - same everything. It was by chance that when clearing out junk in London on our return to England that Margreet found some four-year-old Bar Rouen meal bills. Prices had not changed at all.

And the Saturday market? We bought huge strings of two kinds of garlic – Rose du Tarn and Violettes, with enough shallots to see us through the winter. But did we pay about £21 the last time we bought such a supply? I have no idea. But about a third of the quantity of our string of Tarn garlic costs £5 in Chiswick. So French garlic is probably a little cheaper in France. But I think that prices both here and there have probably risen.

We had read about a bar just beyond the Pollet “island” that had a complete mix of mostly local customers. It’s name was Mieux Ici Qu’en Face (better here than the other side). And it was better than many a place across the Marina on the smarter side. Not only was it a most convivial bar but half the price of “over the water”. Their pression beer was very cold, and the coffee excellent (£3.50 together, £5 over the water) – a great find in every respect, and, moreover, with wifi (internet café) available.

At the Restaurant o’DKLE, at 10 Quai du Carénage, on the Pollet “island”, where we ate adequately one evening, it would have been possible to have had two courses at lunchtime for £8.

Nearby we lunched at Le Turbot. Good it was, but expensive because we ate (turbot obviously), and drank well. Margreet plans to return, to order what she saw being eaten at another table - the Assiette Danoise (a variety of mostly smoked fish.

Before we ate there we sat in sheltered sunshine on the harbour wall watching fish (bream) galore being hoiked from the harbour and sea, along with the occasional sea bass. These must have filled many a freezer for winter eating.

Our evening snack at the Tout Va Bien Brasserie of salads with a dessert of Dame Noir and a Trou Normand (calvados with apple ice sorbet) would have compared reasonably with prices of the past. And the pichet of ordinary white wine was modestly priced.

In the course of one afternoon we found what we already knew about, yet had never discovered, as it lay within an ochre-coloured sort of “town hall” building. It was a quite beautiful little early 19th century theatre, devoted now to a memorial monument/museum of tragedy and valour, concerning mostly Canadian soldiers, involved in the 1942 wartime raid on Dieppe. The Canadian troops and ours were slaughtered through the gross ineptitude of our military and naval commanders.

The museum itself is of considerable interest, with a unique film recording the disaster, its aftermath, and implications. But the theatre in which it is all housed (built in 1826 and given to the Duchesse du Berry who promoted if not initiated sea-bathing in Dieppe) is the unsung jewel of the town.

As a small and intimate theatre, with proscenium arch and much plaster removed to reveal its wooden construction, I thought it to be quite the most charmingly beautiful theatre I had ever seen – and French to the last cherub.

The modest fee for viewing a tragedy within a small palace of delight can not have changed much since it was opened as a memorial museum in 2002.

To find this building it is best to first locate a medieval gateway (les Tourelles) to the town that leads to and from the sea front near to and beneath the castle. Behind the gate is the fairly ordinary-looking building (with no hint of a theatre inside) coloured in yellow ochre. Inside an ordinary door, with little or no advertisement to indicate what lies inside, is all that I have described above, and more.

After a 100 mile drive through Normandy roads, lanes and tracks, and over hills and across deep valleys containing sometimes enormous fields, we reached Londinières, where lunch was recommended at the Relais Lion d’Or (but we were too early). So we had coffee and beer nearby at half the price for the same in Dieppe. So prices in the countryside are certainly cheaper than in town.

I wanted to discover how much hotel prices had risen in France over the last six months or a year. Charming Christine, who runs the Aguado Hotel, where we stay in Dieppe, told me that they review prices in March each year, and last March (it was now September) they raised prices by no more than 2 Euros (£1.60) a room, and for some rooms not at all. This indicates that the price of hotel rooms, in Normandy anyway, have hardly increased at all.

That great illustrator and artist of the “retro”, Frank Martin, had a house near to Dieppe for most of his life. In one of his delightfully illustrated books on Dieppe and its environs, he mentioned one of his favourite restaurants on the outskirts of Envermeu, some 10 miles away from the port. The Restaurant de la Gare (closed Mondays) is run by Jean-Marc and Françoise, and caters for everyone – smart, white-collared, and plasterers and their like. We had to try it.

From our 3 course (£8) menu we chose mixed sliced sausage, minced raw beef (steak tartare, and at least twice or three times the cost of our entire menu if ordered in Paris) and apple tart. So, with beer, a bottle of sparkling Normandy cider, the menu and coffee, the entire cost of this grand repas for the two of us came to about £28.

Oh, if we could only eat like that and in such congenial surroundings in England for so little it would be marvellous. And this was in “expensive” France. Well, it was Normandy.

How, then, might the cost of an evening picnic in our hotel room compare with a restaurant meal?

For the same average price of a meal (less wine) for one person, we bought a bottle of 2006 La Croix St Louis, Lalande de Pomerol, a coeur of local Neufchâtel cheese, a thick stick of bread and half a kilo of plums. The wine we finished (excellent), and half of the rest remained uneaten when we had had our fill. We picnicked splendidly, overlooking the black- and red-roofed landscape in evening mist, and watched starling families learning to fly together in preparation for their winter careerings about the sky in their thousands – a sight that should be witnessed by all (and it happens in Dieppe in the winter).

Petrol was more expensive in France. And as it seems to have been the cost of oil that has been the crux of the increase in living costs everywhere, so prices in France should have be rising. So far we had not found this to be so – in that part of Normandy anyway.

To enjoy shellfish in wonderful circumstances in Dieppe, there is one place to go – well, many, but this one in particular.

Seen in the distance from on high at the back of the Aguado hotel, beyond badlands of desolate and not yet redeveloped scrub land, stands, almost isolated, with two other interesting-looking eating places, the Comptoir à Huîtres. It lies on the Cours de Dakar, Quai de Norwège.

You could drive or walk there, and would find, in its unprepossessing environs, a charming Edwardian-style restaurant of the highest order.

As you enter you might see, as we did, a gourmet sitting alone in front of a layered, mountain of tinwork on which rested two dozen huge oysters on crushed ice – oysters, obviously, being a speciality of the place.

Even the prices for their menu were reasonable. And the white Edelzwicker, en carafe, was as good a white wine as you could possibly encounter for the price (well it was when we were there).

For the rest of the shellfish, shelled, charcoal grilled and sprinkled with sea salt and resting on miniature dark lentils, you could find no better.

And there was no need to change to red wine for the three-cheeses and salad course. The Edelzwicker complimented them just as well.

So what can be concluded about the present-day (September 2008) cost of living in France?

For Normandy anyhow, the price of accommodation, food, carafe wine and cider seem hardly to have risen since we were there some six months, or even a year, before.

So for good value and good food, Normandy beckons.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Reverend F. Page-Roberts

Although I hardly knew my paternal grandfather, as one who is interested in most horticultural matters, I am very proud of him.
Educated at St. John’s college, Cambridge with a brother who became Dean of Salisbury, he chose to live as a horticultural country vicar. There were quite a few in his time. He was the parson at Schole, Norfolk (around 1875), Halstead, Kent, and finally, until 1927 when he died, at Strathfieldsaye, in Hampshire.
Although his brother was more famous than he was in their day, except for the stained glass window in Salisbury Cathedral and some books on religion, it is the Reverend F. Page-Robert’s name that lives on.
I knew grandfather’s gardener, Arthur Keep, and stayed with this lovely old boy, who smelled of smoky beehives, in his retirement cottage when I was painting landscape in the vicinity during the early 1950s.
With the advent of the motor car, Keep (as he was called in those stratified days), was offered the post of gardener/chauffeur. But when given the car to handle, he took it to the end of the drive and got out, saying that such a new-fangled contraption was not for him – gardening was.
When I stayed with his daughter, Doris, also when painting, she told me that one of her jobs as a small girl, at the end of the 19th century, was to follow the Reverend as he budded briar roses. These he had paid his parishioners to recover for him from the hedgerows thereabouts.
He would bud a thousand to two thousand a year, with Doris Keep following behind to tie in the buds with sticky string.
The Reverend was, indeed, a rose specialist, becoming President of the National Rose Society (now Royal) and Dean Hole Memorial Medallist.
Doris told me of when grandfather was walking with a friend in the country, they came across a body lying in a ditch. The Reverend was for walking past, when his companion suggested that they stop, which they did. Grandfather poked the parishioner with his stick, saying with a laugh: “you see, drunk again”, and on they went.
His name lives on in several ways. Cant’s, of Colchester, named a handsome yellow-flushed-with-red rose after him, which was very popular at the time, and was used for hybridising in Israel. It still exists, though hard to find.
His stately, bearded figure was much illustrated in rose books, which he often edited, in magazines like Gardeners’ Magazine (1898), where he is pictured in his rose garden with my father as a child, and in The English Flower Garden (1901 edition), standing, flat-capped, beneath towering Eremurus robustus flowers. In writing on this plant with authority, he must have been quite knowledgeable about it.
And what should pop up in Which? Gardening’s September 2008 issue but a picture of Sidalcea “Reverend Page Roberts” – again, I suppose, available. So he must have had some strong connection with that flower.
He was already dead when, in 1935, the Duchess of Marlborough sued the writer of an article in an American magazine, called Hooey, for a “foul libel”. It was suggested in this piece that the Rev. H. Robertson Page and the Duchess of Marlborough share the same bed. The Reverend F. Page Roberts and the Duchess of Marlborough were, at that time, both well-known and popular roses.
McGill, that great saucy-seaside-postcard artist, cashed in on this national joke, using the Reverend Page Roberts’s name (he being deceased) and, for fear of being involved in another libel case by raising the Duchess’s ire, changing her name to “Queenie Robinson”. How grandfather would have loved all that.
Why the discrepancies in the seemingly arbitrary use of the hyphen in our name? It seems that grandfather’s brother, the Dean, who married a titled lady in the latter part of the 19th century, paid to have the hyphen added between the surname and the last Christian name given to all members of his family. With it he added a coat of arms, crest and motto. But grandfather initially declined to use it, thinking it to be too ostentatious, but later he seems to have done so. I have chosen to include it in my correspondence and books, but not on my paintings. It is a sort of compromise that both churchmen might have approved of – clergymen’s compromise, perhaps?

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Scents, smells and body cream

For mostly better, and sometimes worse, I have always had a very acute sense of smell.
Had I been aware of this natural ability early in life I might have made my way in the scent trade instead of plying my way through a myriad of other endeavours. But anyway, the war intervened and made all of us who participated in it see and think things differently. I became a medical student.

As an example of my olfactory attributes, some 30 years after leaving a preparatory school, a man passed me as I was sitting in a London bus, and I knew exactly who he was by his smell.
That I always knew when I was near to a woman enduring her menstrual period is a sensitivity that I am glad to have lost in my later years.

After I had broken my wrist as a sculptor and been unable to complete a large exhibition of objects/creatures out of elm wood (soon after the disease had infected and killed England’s large elm trees), to enter the wine trade seemed a natural change of direction for me. As a writer on wine (several books and lots of articles) my ability to distinguish and separate smells was a great asset when determining grape varieties and districts, etc.

Throughout the 1960s I could discern each Bordeaux year accurately, and sometimes the district from whence came the wine. But in those days good claret was every-day wine – delicious and moderately priced. So the English drank a lot of it. I even imported Bordeaux in cask and bottled it in London – but that is another and longer story.

What I am leading up to is Body Cream.

Women of my knowledge love to use body cream. After a bath or shower and then drying off surface water, they like to apply body cream to their skin.

So, being the loving husband that I hope to be, I once bought a fancy pot of body cream that was perfumed with one of my wife’s favourite scents. It cost so much that I thought it to be unfair.

There is an inexpensive substance available called cold cream. The white bulk of the expensively scented creams must, I thought, be this cold cream. And there it was, obtainable in every chemist, not as cold cream but as aqueous cream (although the chemist believes both creams to be comparable in many ways) – and very cheap it turned out to be.

So I thought that all I now needed to do was to buy aqueous cream, add scent to it and, hey presto, I would have made body cream.

Those of us who buy scent for wives and girl friends know that when buying some expensive (they all are) scent, sample phials of perfume, usually made by the same house, are given away as samples to test. If these are not offered, it is wise to ask for them.

May I digress a second to tell you that during a friendship with the mistress of a French scent baron (who gave her samples which she sprayed on ants to keep them at bay), I learned that nearly all scents are made in chemical laboratories (he kept a factory in Grasse only as an advertising medium for tourists). And on later consideration, I thought that many a powerful perfume must be dirt cheap to make when you consider that lavatory deodorants, often pleasant, and always strong, are available at a modest price – as are near identical copies of famous marques of scent obtainable, for instance, in Greece.

So take these small sample phials, given away with a scent purchase and, with a dessert spoon, stir their contents into a 50-gram pot of aqueous cream. Decant the result, if wanted, into smaller and smarter jars as gifts. And out of it all have a happy mate at minimum expense - well, certainly a lesser expense than normal.

Monday, August 18, 2008

A day out at Lord's Cricket Ground

Many aspects concerning Lord’s Cricket Ground are both unique and very English. (Although many a Lord will have been a member of M.C.C., the name derives from a Thomas Lord, who originally owned the ground.)

There has just been a one-day final match there between the teams of Essex and Kent.

Lord’s, on such an occasion, is a microcosm of true Englishness. All ages, from all walks of life (on this occasion there would hardly have been a non-Englishman among them), are there to enjoy a day’s outing, cheering on their respective teams, lauding their heroes, and directing their wishes of ill fortune toward their opponents.

I am seldom partisan, going just to watch good cricket, and prone to agree with the catch phrase of the pundits, namely that “cricket is the winner”.

The ground, too, is a winner, with its lofty, almost tented Mound Stand (very cleverly expanded by resting a large tier of seats and boxes, held elegantly aloft above the original stand on six slender columns). There is its sedate, Victorian, red brick pavilion, peopled by gentlemen who have waited many years to become members (so they are inclined to be old – and some older still). Then there is the new grandstand, with its roof suspended beneath a length of steel latticework with wires attaching it high up to either side of a central flag pole. Finally, for me, there is a gentleman’s convenience at the so-called Nursery End of the ground. Why do I even mention such a place?

With the club’s new expansion plans, this gem may well be lost to not only those who want to let the beer flow through, but to people like me who see it as an Edwardian, porcelain, sculpture park. It consists of many rows of Shanks stalls with their chinaware cisterns above that rest on columns to supply flushing water. The stalls in the middle stand back to back (or face to face), so, when urinating, you might be looking eye to eye with someone close to and directly opposite with the same intent. I suppose they represent an age when personal privacy was considered less important than it is now. I not only hope that this “Gents” will be retained, but brought to the notice of those who plan, and would hopefully appreciate a treasure of architectural grandeur. Surely it should be a listed building.

Cricket on the day in question was a close enough contest to be interesting throughout. But in between the overs and intervals there were other fascinating sights on view.

To someone like me, to whom meteorology was a life-saving study when flying in the war, a constantly cloud-changing sky was on view. Patches of sunlight broke through a variety of clouds that moved swiftly overhead. Sometimes a thicker layer than most brought relative semi-darkness to the ground. But seen above, and throughout the day, were fine examples of alto stratus, alto cumulus (beautiful), fracto cumulus, straightforward cumulus, and even a lenticular cumulus (if I remember the names correctly).

And because the clouds were high and the air clean, aircraft flight patterns in and out of London’s Heathrow Airport were clear to see.

In the morning, aeroplanes took off in an easterly direction – roughly over Lord’s. After leaving the circuit and using our part of the sky, they could be seen to set course for northern Europe, Scandinavia, over the pole to California, or to the western side of America. Those on long haul, and heavy with passengers and fuel, struggled to gain altitude under full throttle.

Then, in mid-afternoon, aeroplanes took off and landed in the other direction – toward the west. So now they appeared from all directions to join the flight path, either directly into the airport or heading east to turn around and take their turn to join the final, westerly approach. These were quieter aeroplanes than those leaving heavily laden. Their engines were throttled back. Flaps and wheels had not yet been lowered.

Usually sitting among friends, after a day's play, spectators return home to their families exhausted. Those at home can not understand that sitting down for most of the day watching cricket is a very exhausting process. But it is. Concentration on every ball and the many aspects of this most complicated of games, results in sapping, mental strain - and, in my case, with the added concentration on clouds and aeroplanes.

That is the way of it. And it all goes to make up a lovely day.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

A day at the horse races

I have never particularly liked horses. As a boy in the country I took them lightly (except for our cart horse), falling off and laughing, much to the annoyance of my sister, who felt that to ride and be fond of horses somehow raised the quality of one’s life to a higher plane.
I don’t like the smell of them, and they kick. Moreover, as they can not be house-trained, as it were, they leave their droppings where they feel like it.
As for catching a horse when it is loose in a field, I seem to remember that it was not easy. So we had to wait for the nag to pass water. Then one of us would dash toward it with a bridle (or some such) in hand, knowing that during this relieving process it would not move an inch.
My cousin, Fred, is a horsy/racing man, and is a member of that rather elite club, called Goodwood. And once a year he invites Margreet and me to the Goodwood races.
It is a lovely day out for us, but we have instructions to dress for the part. This means respectable – a jacket and tie for me, and something smart for Margreet.
This year we had the invitation to join him on Glorious Goodwood’s Ladies’ Day, which meant more dressing up than usual.
So off we set, with Margreet adorned in gold and amber colours, with a hat that wouldn’t blow off in the usual downland wind, long antique amber necklace, diaphanous long dress of warm colours, with woven golden shoes and matching handbag.
With my grey jacket, houndstooth pattern trousers (a bit like a chef), bright bow tie and suede shoes, we looked the part – a bit racing and a bit racy.
We were to transfer to Fred’s member-placarded car at the car park of a Chichester hotel.
On our arrival there it was clear what a different-from-usual day it was, when, in the car park there was a “limmo” that looked like half a dozen large shoe boxes glued together, with blacked out windows and wheels at either end. Behind it, at tables of drink, was a gaggle of gaudily-dressed and hatted young giggling ladies. Were they the "staff” of a London night club perhaps?
We transferred to Fred’s car and made our way slowly along the narrow roads toward the racecourse, with our genial host (late 80s) complaining of overtakers, large vehicles, and any hold-up for any reason. We were enjoying ourselves already.
With not only a member’s badge but an invalid driver’s badge as well, we were ushered into a field car park near to the winning post and important stands.
Then we were each lent a member’s badge. Badges are important in the world of horse racing. Ours allowed us to enter or pass through members’ enclosures. Stewards slightly dipped their heads as we passed. In the distance helicopters were landing (nine at my first count) to disgorge their cargoes of jockeys, potentates and owners.
Soon we were drinking Champagne and eating gravedlax and large prawns in a tented dining space. Toward the end of our meal a short cripple (a “character”, as many are at the races) came to sit at our table. He was a real racing man, having visited each racecourse in the United Kingdom. As there had recently been much publicity in newspapers and on television about the skulduggery involved in racing, (jockeys and their colleagues betting on dead-cert winners to lose), I asked him if he knew any of the crooks. “Two of them,” he replied. I had a feeling that he knew more.
Around us paraded a complete social mix of the elite and far-from-elite, dressed to the nines, Panama hatted, well bellied, short skirted, exposed bosomed, gaudily coloured and colourfully hatted – with no two outfits alike. It was strange that some of the shortest skirts barely covered some of the more formidable legs. We were told that in many cases the most outlandish costumes sported by the ladies were designed primarily to catch the eyes of television cameramen.
With the help of newspaper pundits, and before the racing had even started, Margreet and I placed our each-way Tote bets on the certain winners of each race.
Goodwood racecourse is considered by many to be the most beautiful of any. And I am sure it is. The view from every position is over rolling downland to where the start of every race, short or long, can be seen by all, and then followed, either through binoculars or on a large screen, until the finish.
The enormous fields within our panoramic vision were mostly yellow ochre in colour. Their grain was about to be harvested. Each field contained a patch of green maize as cover and food for pheasants, birds that would later be the targets for guns of winter shoots.
Below, and over the heads of a fascinating collection of animated colour, and the bright umbrellas above the bookies’ stands, I was delighted to see my choice for the first race romp past the winning post a clear winner. Such masterful equine selection was not to last, although I almost broke even on the day.
But win or lose, the results were immaterial when the occasion was the star reason for enjoying a lovely day at the races. Thank you, Fred.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008


It was an odd day that started with one man accusing another of racial abuse in public, and then with me buying a drawing.
Near to where I live is the home of an artist. He is moustached, walks rather like a panther about to pounce, and is of distinguished demeanour.
We have known each other for almost twenty years, buying our daily newspaper early each morning from a local Indian-run shop.
For a long time I was unable to discover what he did in life. Being of retirement age, he would, unpaid, help the ailing lady owner of the shop to move the heavy pile of papers each day. Even she was unaware of his profession. Then one day I discovered that he was an artist. So we could then talk about current exhibitions, about all of which he visited.
At one time he even told me his name – which I forgot – even though no forename was attached to it.
Refusing all invitations to come to my place for social drinks, he actually agreed to a visit, but only to look at my eclectic mix of pictures. This allowed me to go to his place to look at his works of art – only his, as he said that he had never had the money spare to buy other people’s work.
What I saw in his house was a most wondrous collection of 1950s drawings, and walls full of his abstract paintings – colourful, delicate and delightful. They were quite obviously of a highly professional standard.
I dearly wanted to acquire something of his – anything, for both friendship and artistic reasons. But, no.
The man was quite obviously a recluse, a hermit – creative hermit. And he was also quite obviously ill at ease with the company of fellow humans. He lived in an artistic envelope – sealed to the outside world.
Slowly I got to know a little of his past.
He mentioned that in the 1950s, when the angry young men of the theatre were much in vogue, a journalist on The Daily Telegraph dubbed him “the angry young artist”. So he must, at one time, have been well known.
He related that he had indeed been a contrary kind of person, an early attitude to life and art that he had come to regret. I learned more.
Offered a place at the Slade School of Art, he didn’t like his interviewers and declined to attend. They begged him to paint there, but to no avail.
Although exhibiting at the Zwemmer Gallery, The London Group, Gallery 1 and others, he declined to have a one-man show at the prestigious Rowland, Browse and Delbanco Gallery, in Cork Street. “Cold feet”, he said.
Now, in his 70s he wishes that he had not fought, but embraced the artistic establishment in his rebellious youth.
And at last I discovered his Greek name – LAOUTARIS. He was born in Egypt.
Well, we met once more at a Hammersmith bus stop, where the afore- mentioned abuse took place. We were unable to board the 27 bus as a passenger was blocking the entry and, on his mobile telephone, was trying to interest the police in taking action against the bus driver who had racially abused him. The interesting part of this contretemps was that both aggrieved passenger and driver were black.
So Laoutaris and I talked once more, the outcome being that he invited me into his house to choose a drawing. There were many framed drawings lining the walls of his staircase, one of which I could buy, but with his right of veto. I suggested one of three and he told which one I could have. Money changed hands and I made off with my prize.
I was delighted with the drawing and wanted, as is my custom for those who might acquire the work in years to come, to write on the back of the frame a little about the artist and his life. I roughed out something and put it through his door for amendment.
It had been a wonderful day for me, but that was not the end of it.
Margreet and I decided to hang the drawing where another was hanging close to a rack of wine bottles – one lying on top of the other. In unhooking the incumbent drawing in its frame, my elbow, or some part of me, nudged a bottle beneath others. The bottles, being of slightly different shapes began to slide. And down came one to smash on the tiled floor beneath, and then another – and so forth.
The floor beneath became awash with wine and covered with shards of broken glass. But both the old drawing and the new one by Laoutaris remained dry, safe, and with glass unbroken.
Laoutaris amended my little history of him and this was stuck to the back of the frame.
Now he had actually sold something and been paid for it. It was, in a way, just a little recognition. But surely much greater, and public, recognition should come his way in his lifetime. And what if he died unrecognised for his years of insular creation? His executors might have difficulty in dealing satisfactorily with his considerable artistic estate. He should be a part of the history of English (and Greek) 20th to 21st century art.
I put these ideas to Laoutaris. Reluctantly, I felt, he agreed, and I managed to get a Christie’s man to appraise the paintings. The expert on English 20th century art’s reaction was like mine, so he offered part of a Christie’s sale catalogue with history, description and paintings, or even one single painting for sale, to get his name known and on record.
But there was a snag. Laoutaris’s daughter refuses to allow her father to sell anything. She was furious that a drawing had been sold to me.
So that is where the matter rests.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

a Summer/Winter Stew

This simple to make and quite delicious dish can be prepared with light summer ingredients or richer, fuller winter ones. It can also be cooked in the oven for an hour when all its parts are cut into smallish pieces. Or slow cooked in a slow cooker when the pieces can be larger. Buy whole olives and stone them. Those already without stones will have lost much of their taste. But you may find the stoning process (with some designs of garlic press) to be too tedious. Then buy stoned ones.


You will need:
Olive oil
A red meat for winter or a white meat for summer
Plenty of rosemary for winter, or less mint and/or thyme for summer
Black olives for winter or green ones for summer
Robust red wine for winter or white for summer.
Milled black pepper (plenty) for winter or white ground pepper for summer

Into a flat cooking pan place the meat on a wiping of olive oil - in one piece, small pieces or a piece per person.
Cover it with potatoes, onions, garlic, olives, the herb, pepper and salt.
Sprinkle wine over all.
Cook as mentioned above.

Monday, June 16, 2008

An old school friend in Paris, 2008

Our room was at the top of a hotel (6th floor and the lift broke down), in the heart of Paris’s Latin Quarter. It was much beamed (real, and half-timbered, too), decorated in plum-coloured wallpaper depicting bucolic 18th century scenes, spacious, quiet, with a small internal balcony with semicircular steps leading to it, and with a modern bathroom adorned with lovely light brick-coloured marble with thin white lines running through it.

We settled in, and had an aperitif at Conti, in the Place Buci, where crowds of the monde and demi-monde passed by. And then we ate at the Orestias, two doors from our hotel, for the princely sum of £28 (three courses and a bottle of Greek wine). Here the waiter could only speak at a shout, and had probably done so ever since I first ate there soon after the Second World War.

That is a way of Paris, and that is the way of this unchanging small part of the 6th Arrondissement where the rue de Seine, rue de Buci, Mazarine, St André des Arts, Dauphine, Ancienne Comédie and Grégoire de Tours more or less converge. All are artistically and boutiquely inviting streets, holding many a bar and interesting restaurant.

The occupants of this quarter, shop at the market stalls, flower shop and supermarket, and rest from their exertions by taking a glass or cup of something while gaping at the goings-on in front of and around them.

A glamorous film star lady, with long legs and short skirt, was being followed by a director, 4 cameramen, 2 soundmen and other hangers-on. She wandered, entered cafés, and generally acted the part of a famous and much-fêted star.

Her lady companion was plainer by far.

Above a café opposite, the outside of which being much photographed, was a banner saying “Entrée des Joueurs”. She and her companion entered for a while. We imagined that she could have been the first prize, but not her companion.

The objectives of these film people was clearly to paint a background picture of Latin Quarter life for, later, we saw one of the photographers directing his lens at a local, characterful worthy. This ancient and bebobble-capped gentleman was bent over his pastis in contemplation, perhaps, of the current ideas of some French, left-wing philosopher.

There was an objective to our Paris visit. An American Taft School friend, from my early war years in that country before I was old enough to return to England to become an RAF pilot, was to be in Paris with his French wife of 60 years. We were to meet at last after several times of trying, and failing to co-ordinate a rendezvous in France. This was one reason why we had chosen to stay in the Latin Quarter (at the Grand Hotel de l’Univers, no less), an area frequented and enjoyed by both of us in the past.

One of the windows in our room overlooked an almost cubist depiction of roofs, chimneys and balconies – all zinc and cream surfaces.

As I was doing one of my postcard drawings of the scene (Paris is not as crumbly as it used to be), an animated little scene took place on an exposed and distant roof terrace. And who should the participants be but the girl and film crew seen from our seats in the café. And what were they doing on this exposed terrace?

Well, the cameramen and soundmen were now directing all of their attention to the prettier girl. Several times she rehearsed a scene where she had to prance (dance?) around, take off all of her clothes, and throw them to the floor in either anger or disgust. Between takes she wrapped herself in a white towel to keep warm, as the springtime Parisian late afternoon air was decidedly chilly.

We then dined at the Polidor restaurant, a favourite of old in the rue Monsieur le Prince, before walking off the effects of it and getting lost in an area that I should have known better. But we did pass a nice looking little eating place in the rue Jacob, where one of the first courses, written on the menu in English and displayed in the window, was - six nails.

My old school friend of 67 years ago, Ted Mason, and his wife, Ginny, take a small apartment each year near to the Eiffel Tower. We went to see them there, opening first, as so many people have to in Paris, those huge and formidable doors that lead from the street to accommodation beyond. Behind them was a quiet courtyard, in this case with the focal point of a large, potted olive tree, pruned to look like a Bonsai.

Our instructions were then to ring a certain doorbell, admitting us into a hallway from which we entered the smallest lift imaginable. Inside it there was room for two – just – or an adult and a dog.

On the 5th floor, the third barrier door to unwanted entry (one thinks of the French Revolution) was their apartment door.

Once inside the apartment, decorated as if frozen in time, we were able to meet my old pal (being absolutely in demeanour the intelligence, policy-making Lieutenant Colonel he had become in the army) and his charming French wife, whose accent had retained a very strong affinity to her roots. It was a great occasion.

We lunched well at a local brasserie, and parted as the good friends he and I had once been, and now with them both as a devoted pair.

It is almost obligatory when visiting Paris to enter the Galleries Lafayette for, if nothing else, to marvel at the ornate interior of its enormous Belle Epoque dome of plaster, gilt, bronze and stained glass. And the shopping to be done on its seven floors around the dome is many a woman’s dream.

Not far, along Boulevard Haussman, by the Grands Boulevards Metro Station, is a street to the left, called rue du Faubourg Montmartre. Here, shortly on the left-hand side, at the far end of a small courtyard, is Chartier.

Here one eats in a vast, Victorian, working man’s restaurant. The menu can hardly have changed since the restaurant’s inception, and the food is served sometimes by waiters almost as old as the place itself.

Created in 1896 to serve traditional bouillon to customers at marble tables, hats (bowler or top) and coats are accommodated on brass racks and hooks above where you sit. You are put to share tables with strangers. The restaurant still retains numbered drawers for customers’ napkins.

Do not omit to finish your meal with a Mont Blanc (cream on top of a purée of chestnuts) – even if it is not on the menu.

To give an idea of this restaurant’s success, they serve over 1,200 meals a day. And excellent they are – reasonable, too.

So well will you have eaten that it is quite possible to leave and forget to take with you the bags of Lafayette shopping that you have placed on the racks above.

There was a Vlaminck exhibition on at the Musée du Luxembourg. Although one of my favourite artists, as with any large show of someone’s work, one tends to make comparisons, to see repetition, derivation and influences, whereas, just one single work (almost any in this case), if seen alone, would be quite enough to astound and please the senses.

We ended our stay in France’s capital city with a stroll on the gravelly sand of the Luxembourg Gardens. In sunshine, and in shade beneath trees, we passed many chess players, hunched over the park’s chess boards, either in solitary combat or beneath the admiring gaze of a ring of spectators.

Around the pond behind the Palace, crowds of people were relaxing in the Saturday afternoon sunshine, picnicking, herding happy or fractious children, or running around the pond with sticks to re-direct their hired model sailing boats. And of course, being Paris, there were lovers, staring vacantly into each other’s eyes as lovers do.

It was a Seurat scene, one we had to leave, but will keep in the memory.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Another Dutch Wedding 2008

Simon J. Sluis is an 87 year old Dutchman about to marry a younger (72 years old) Lidy Klees (my wife’s cousin). We were invited to their wedding in Laren, a small and select township to the east of Amsterdam.
Simon (pronounced Seemon) is all that a prosperous Dutchman should be – with a name translated as sluice (plenty in Holland), of patrician stature, a plant and seedsman of world renown, and congenial.
He and I had spoken of plants several times before. I remember him telling me that most modern climbing French beans have Blue Lake in their ancestry. So I continue to plant Blue Lake in England, and with confidence (not buying his seeds – though perhaps so initially – but saving my own, as it is not an F1 Hybrid).
It has been our custom to either go by air or car to Holland. This time, we did not intend to return laden with foreign goodies, and chose to travel by rail – Eurostar from London to Brussels and then Thalys train on to Amsterdam.
The Singel Hotel, on a canal and fairly near to Amsterdam’s Central Station, has at times been a convenient base for us when visiting that magical city – one where only to turn one’s head never fails to reveal yet further architectural gems. But the hotel’s rooms have been a bit on the seedy side. Learning that these had now been refurbished, we chose to book in once more.
The contrasts on our rail trip to Amsterdam were considerable.
At Eurostar, St Pancras, we were funnelled into a large and light basement where we refreshed ourselves, sitting on comfortable chairs, surrounded by a plethora of Victorian cast iron columns that still continue to hold up the railway platforms above.
So clean and tidy was it that the hot chocolate that I bought to help while away the time was whisked from a table top by an over-enthusiastic cleaner when my back was turned.
With sunshine outside we made our way to the Eurostar platform above, where the fine span of the old St Pancras iron-arched covering was gleaming in its fresh coat of paint and cleaned glass.
To change trains in a rather dreary and rainy station in Brussels was not as easy to master. A café snack there took such an age to acquire that it was a close run thing to board the Thalys train to Amsterdam on time.
From the dirty carriage windows the flat and rainy landscape of Belgium led inexorably to the flat and wet landscape of Holland. The train, designed for speed but going at a normal train’s pace, passed through small townships and over countless level crossings. At least the seating, though shabby, gave us more legroom than Eurostar, and had the edge over the latter by having a water supply for basins and lavatories – which is more than could be said for Eurostar. For luggage space, Eurostar was the better.
The strange part about going to Holland is that although our two countries have much in common and with many historical ties, it is a very foreign place. Even Margreet, who had not lived there for some 40 years, finds it so each time she returns.
You can walk along a most respectable canal street in Amsterdam and suddenly see an almost naked lady sitting in a floodlit window hoping for custom.
There are plenty of cannabis shops, selling a selection of seeds and all the accoutrements necessary for ingesting the several parts of that plant. The perfume of pot pervades the pavement air.
One wonders at the speed of cyclists on their designated paths who ride like the clappers and never collide with pedestrians, or one another.
And then you might pass Coffeeshops to see youths, drugged up to the eyebrows, reclining languidly in the windows.
As for the food on offer, the Dutch grub is, by tradition, substantial, filling, warming and, let’s be plain about it – plain.
So, to provide sophisticated cuisine to the now sophisticated Dutch, the cuisine from foreign parts is used and adapted to the Dutch idea of food (satay, for instance is made with lumps of meat, and schnitzels are thick).
At a “Dutch” restaurant recommended to us, we were offered an Italian type first course and a Thai style one for the main course.
And then, in a café afterwards, we ate a brownie and ice cream, the brownie bearing no resemblance whatsoever to the kind invented by the Americans, but was semi-toffee-liquid, with walnuts and a smidgen of normal brownie mix. It was delicious, yet one wouldn’t want to eat it again too often. (“Brownies”, incidentally, are also eaten – not to assuage hunger - in coffeeshops.)
Our hotel room was also uniquely Dutch. It was situated at the very top of a typical 17th century canal-side house, and approached via the hotel’s lift and an outside alleyway between a wall and tiled roof. Situated directly beneath a roof of dark tiles, the room’s inside consisted of a plethora of angles and planes that twisted and rose and fell in all directions. It was a bit like being inside a small diamond on which a cack-handed Amsterdam apprentice diamond-cutter had been having instruction. A small window at the side allowed a bit of light and air to enter, but a dormer window on one side would have offered a fine view of the Singel canal. I imagine that stringent building regulations prevented it – and probably rightly so.
So “Dutch” was this room that one felt very much as Amsterdam people must have felt for over three or four hundred years in a city where space in their prosperous community has always been at a premium.
The Dutch Reformed church for the wedding in Laren was unadorned and without an alter.
We arrived in the nick of time as the café waitresses nearby, where we had ordered drinks three times and they had failed to produce the goods, forced us to cancel. Being only just in time at the church, and with all pews seemingly packed tight, we were directed to the few seats in the very front of the congregation – when we would rather have been at the back.
The service was a long one, with the “vicar” having a great deal to say, taking relish in both his voice and the words he used. Understanding nothing (a position with which I am accustomed in Holland) I tried to look interested throughout (a tiring business).
The order of service had the music to hymns printed with the text.
The elderly groom and his bride were obviously in love, holding hands when they were able, kneeling centre stage toward a raised pulpit (unused during the service but surrounded by a very local choir).
Then came the reception at the nearby Ateliercafé Mauve, named after a famous artist from Laren (where all this took place).
We drank (well, I did) copiously, and ate bitterballen, one of the most delicious of Dutch snack/delicacies, consisting of crisp and crunchy balls containing a palate-burning mixture of creamy meat (horse, thought to be one of the best, but veal the most common) and eaten dipped in mustard.
As we were waiting for dinner, we continued to drink whatever we chose from waiters’ trays, under the efficient command of Yvette, the bride’s daughter-in-law.
It was during this dormant period of drinks between the reception and dinner that something delightful (to me) took place.
On our table, beneath the trees outside on a balmy late afternoon, was a round, blue vase containing campanula plants. I noticed a honeybee taking nectar from its blue flowers. Never before had I seen honeybees enjoying flowers in a vase. Word clearly got back to the hive that the nectar from our campanulas was tasty. So the bee’s fellow workers joined in to take advantage of what was on offer.
It was almost as if this was a gesture of celebration on the part of the hive, as our groom had made his fortune in horticulture, where bees had been the vital instruments for his pollinations.
Besides the charm of an elderly bride and groom, and the stylishness of their many guests, the red wine at the dinner was a Château Rocher Calon, merlot, from Montagne Saint-Emillion, the very same hamlet in the Bordeaux region where we had so recently enjoyed another lovely wedding.
That a single grape variety should be produced in Saint-Emillion was quite new to me, and very successful it was.
Kind relations, Dick and Reina, escorted us to the Hilversum railway station where a train soon transported us back to Amsterdam Central Station, where we made our way by foot to the nearby Singel Hotel.
If you are of the opinion that the Dutch railways are always highly efficient, think again.
On the following day we needed once more to return to Amsterdam Central from Hilversum, the station and surrounds of which were in a state of reconstruction.
To obtain a ticket it was necessary to use a machine – needing a credit card and a local’s considerable computer expertise.
We knew that the train would leave from platform 5, needing a double descent of stairs and one to climb – difficult for Margreet with one foot in a temporary surgical boot.
Having descended, we found that our intended platform had been taped off, in the way that a murder scene is taped off. Margreet, by now, was quite willing to commit some violence that might well have warranted a taping-off.
As there had been no indication whatsoever, in a notice or official’s guidance, that trains would not be leaving for Amsterdam from Hilversum at that time, we had to retrace our steps. We then learned that passengers for Amsterdam would have to take a local, stopping bus to Weesp, a station nearer to our destination. We were obliged to take it.
So, a normal 20 minute journey took over an hour, and we had had to descend and climb countless stairs pointlessly in the course of it.
It had been a most upsetting experience for Margreet, with a stress fracture in her foot.
On the advice of Tobias at the Dutch Embassy in London, we made our way to the rear of the Central Station in Amsterdam to the de Ruijterkade where (free) ferries leave for the far side of the very wide IJ (pronounced eye) river.
The one to take is for the destination IJ plein. This name will be marked up on an electronic signboard and on the back of the ferry.
From the ferry dock at IJ plein, you turn right to walk along the IJ riverbank to the Wilhelmina-Dok (sic), which is also called Caffé Tazza d’Oro. Here, on a sunny day or warm evening, you can sit (almost on the river) to drink and eat.
It is a lovely experience there to watch the commercial and private shipping pass by from a table in the open or under giant orange umbrellas – umbrellas that stand out so clearly, from both sides of the river, amid a setting of fairly drab utilitarian buildings.
On our final day in Amsterdam, we bought three kinds of cheese (brokkel oud, young white goat cheese from a cartwheel, and komijne), all unique to Holland, and headed back to England with our food gifts and having enjoyed such a pleasant and interesting visit.