Saturday, November 15, 2014

Wartime and some experiences

Those who came through WW1 seldom spoke of their experiences, so dreadful were they.

            My father came into this category. So, as children, we knew almost nothing about how he suffered when fighting the Turks in Mesopotamia (now Iraq). It was not until well after his early death that his letters home from the battlefields about his experiences and how he was shot, then found to be alive among the dead bodies, and brought back to England from the Middle East, did we know some details. He never really recovered.

            In my case, WW2 was a much cleaner affair.

            My children, I believe, never enquired about my part in it – until now, when my younger son, Pete, not only asked me about my experiences but wanted a printed account. I think that most of what I now write is in my unpublished autobiography. But here it is in essence, mainly for him.

            A lot of what I did is of little account, so I will tell only of my near contact with the enemy – which wasn’t much.

            Having crossed the Atlantic in The Duchess of Richmond (which was fairly safe as the ship was fast and submarine warfare still not a major force), and reached the USA in 1940 as a refugee, I was anxious to return to join the RAF to fight for my country. So, when old enough, I boarded a Swedish vessel (Axel Yohnson) in New York to sail north to Halifax, in Nova Scotia. There, in 1942, we were assembled as part of a convoy to cross the now far more dangerous Atlantic.

            Convoys are slow – as slow as the slowest ship involved. So, at some 10 knots we set off with a Canadian destroyer as escort. This escort left and we were on our own.

            I awoke one morning to find our few passengers and crew standing by the lifeboats. The convoy had been attacked by U-boats during the night. There were now far fewer ships in the convoy. I had slept through all the excitement as Nazi sub-mariners beneath the waves nearby had been attacking us with considerable success. Although unseen, I had now been a bit too near to the enemy for comfort, and unable to fight back. Eventually a British destroyer appeared to see us into Liverpool.

            I joined up almost immediately on landing. It was 1942.

            Instead of starting my flying training right away I was told to return to civvy street until I could be fitted into the system. As the weather was so bad in England, trainee pilots had to wait for vacancies in airfields abroad where the climate was more conducive to elementary and advanced flying training.

To fill up this waiting time I took a job as a farm labourer. Rationing was strict and food scarce. So it seemed to me that working on the land might, in a small way, help the national effort.

One day I was in the middle of a field hoeing turnips or swedes or something, when I heard the roar of approaching aero engines. And overhead, banking over the field so low that I could see clearly the pilot’s and gunner’s faces, was a German JU 88 hugging the ground contours on its way to bomb the railway yards at Reading nearby. Why the gunner didn’t just pop me off I don’t know. Perhaps being off course he was too worried about navigation to bother. They did bomb Reading, but missed the railway and killed many young people at a school. I later took a job as a prop swinger to be nearer aeroplanes and gain some flying experience.

Now in the system, I was posted to RAF Davidstow Moor in Cornwall to be made aware of what was involved in operational flying. From this high altitude airfield we flew Warwick aircraft in Coastal Command. Slung beneath these rather cumbersome, twin-engined aircraft was a specially-designed lifeboat. Our job was to fly over the Bay of Biscay to drop the lifeboats on their multiple parachutes near to aircrew who had bailed out and needed to be rescued. My job in the second pilot’s seat was solely as another pair of eyes. Whereas others were looking down to the sea, my job was to search the sky for Focke-Wulf Condor aircraft. These fast, four-engined aeroplanes were bristling with cannon (we only had the much smaller 303 Browning machine-guns) and with mines in the bomb bay to attack Allied convoys at sea.

With wonderful eyesight I saw one of these Nazi aircraft in the far distance. We were as mincemeat had any of its crew seen us first. I switched on the intercom and shouted: “Focke-Wulf….” when the communicating wires somehow parted. So the crew had heard the warning call but had no idea of the enemy’s position or distance. So I pointed it out to the Skipper by my side who alerted the rest. There was considerable apprehension in that aircraft. We dived to just above sea level and at full throttle headed back to base. And what was our reward? We were guaranteed a fried egg. And I suppose we were also rewarded with our lives.

Still waiting to go abroad for my pilot’s training I was posted to RAF Skellingthorpe, near Lincoln. It was a bomber airfield of Lancaster aircraft. Evening after evening these magnificent aeroplanes and their crews would fly to bomb Germany – not always entirely with bombs but sometimes with added cargo such as fake ration books, money, and other disrupting matter.

One day a Lancaster was to go on an engine test up to Scotland and back before leaving that night for Germany. As the rear gunner was unavailable, would I like to fly in the rear turret? Would I? You bet I would.

So, fully kitted out, I found that, surprisingly, I had enough room to squeeze into the turret in reasonable comfort. It would have been quite different had I been strapped in there for many hours on end.

I was allowed to be in the turret for take-off. And away we went. Despite my helmet the noise was deafening. I could spin the turret around from side to side and raise and lower my four, fully armed-up Browning 303 machine-guns. So, had an enemy aircraft appeared from over the North Sea, I was fully prepared (with no training, I might add) to have a go at shooting it down. It never happened.

            My only job in the turret was to occasionally, when asked to on the intercom, tell the navigator the drift. For this I lined up the guns on the landscape below and read the number on a drift scale down on the right.

            Returning to Skellingthorpe all crew except the pilot had to leave their allotted stations and gather amidships. The aircraft left as usual that evening. Many did not return. And the rear gunner was the most vulnerable person aboard. It was not unusual to have blood and parts of him hosed out of the rear turret on the aeroplane’s return.

            On leave in London we were in the thick of it. Trains were brought to a standstill in a raid, searchlights swept the sky, sometimes holding an enemy aircraft in their beams. Then anti-aircraft guns would roar. The sound of bombs was commonplace. V1 Buzzbombs would fly over at any hour. If the pulse jet engine was alive when the craft was overhead you were safe. If its sinister and distinctive drumming noise stopped before it reached you, it was a case of diving for any cover available. But I never got out of the bath for any of them, even though one once stopped overhead in Victoria as I was bathing and hit Buckingham Palace nearby.

            The other nasty weapon was the V2 rocket. When still waiting to go to America I was stationed at RAF Hornchurch in Essex. I had volunteered to mend bombed roofs in Plumstead on the other side of the river. I had been given an hour’s training by a roofer and provided with the equipment and a mate. With very poor quality slates we mended several roofs in such a poor district that I remember a pretty girl smile, only for her to reveal a mouth full of rotten teeth. It was when on a roof (the accumulated Victorian slate dust and dirt was choking) when there was an explosion in the distance, followed by a very strange rushing-of-air noise. It was one of the first V2 rockets to hit London.

            At last I was sent to Oklahoma in the USA (in Mauritania and crossing the submarine-infested Atlantic for the third time) where, after primary and advanced training, I was awarded my wings and a commission.

Few commissions were awarded. But after crashing an aircraft (not my fault) and visited in hospital by the Commanding Officer and Adjutant, who thought that I might want to give up this flying business, I had my chance. “No sir,” I said, “I want to get out of this bed and FLY.” I thought I’d overdone it, but the C.O. on leaving the hospital, was heard to say: “That’s just the kind of young man we want in the Air Force.”

I did sustain one war wound. When having my wings pinned to my uniform by a Wing Commander who had one arm in a sling, the pin on the wings penetrated my uniform’s material and drew blood on my chest. I suppose this might be construed as “friendly fire”.

It was the end of the war in Europe. Fortunately we had enough skilled pilots to fly for us in the Pacific Campaign. So I was grounded to become a Photographic Intelligence officer.

            So you see, my part in the war was very minor and of not of great interest.

            I often think that had I been born but a year earlier I would almost certainly have lost my life, probably as a bomber pilot. I was extremely lucky to have timed it so well.



Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Guildhall Art Gallery Tower Exhibition Reopens

The exhibition entitled Tower Bridge. A Celebration of 120 Years, in Guildhall Art Gallery in the centre of the City of London, has reopened and will remain open until 5 January 2015.  Seventeen of my paintings are on view.
            I suppose it was because I have so many paintings in the show that I was asked to give a speech and open the exhibition on the 2nd of June 2014.
            This I managed to do ( to considerable applause, though I rather embarrassingly stumbled at one point and forgot what I wanted to say.
            However, the opening was a great success, and the paintings of Tower Bridge throughout its life, depicted by artists through the decades, are shown beautifully in a lovely gallery. Moreover, helped by the skill of the curator, Julia Dudkiewicz, and the generosity of the City of London, everyone enjoyed themselves immensely.
            At the end of June there was another anniversary “opening”, this time in Tower Bridge itself, taking place within those two upper spans that hold the bridge’s towers together – or apart.
            This time the speech was made by Dan Cruikshank, the eminent historian, again accompanied with generous hospitality.
            The spans were of great interest to me as they were of roughly geodetic construction – the same method that was used during the war in the making of Wellington and Warwick bombers (in which the latter I flew). Only here, the Tower Bridge’s spans were made of hefty steel and rivets instead of light aluminium used for aircraft.
            The cross members that look so thin and elegant from the ground or river are, in fact, substantial and spacious. Both were in use for the party, one holding a live band and many guests for the rather long opening speech.
            Views up and down river from this eerie are excellent and, being now glazed, no longer disturb those who dislike heights. People standing beside the Tower of London below look minute.
            Being run by the City of London, in the heart of the City itself, entrance to Guildhall Art Gallery is free. And now signs in Guildhall Yard outside the gallery entrance guide those who wish to see the exhibition into an impressive interior. Opening times are Monday to Saturday 10 am to 5 pm and Sunday 12 noon to 4 pm.
            Do not miss the chance to look around the Tower Bridge exhibition’s adjoining room where there are some original photographs of the bridge under construction.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Chicken - dream chicken under a blanket

I had a dream one night about a chicken dish, and it went like this: In a greased baking pan I put 5 fresh bay leaves (why 5? It was a dream). On these leaves was placed a well-scored chicken (not too large). The bird was then coated with thick yoghurt into which lots of garlic had been pressed with salt and pepper. Now the white-coated fowl was covered with a thin blanket of suet crust pastry (using any fat with twice its weight of self-raising flour, a little turmeric for colour, salt, and then water to form a ball to roll out). Any surplus blanket was cut away, to which I added grated cheese to form a ball, flattening it out with my fists on to a baking surface and scoring it to make cheese straws (goldfingers). I took the straws out of a medium to hot oven (180 degrees) after half an hour to eat then or later, leaving the chicken to bake for another hour. I had surrounded the uncooked chicken in its blanket with potatoes that had been boiled for 10 minutes and oiled, salted and peppered. That was it. And delicious it all was when the recipe was put into practice and consumed soon after the dream.
            In a pressure cooker, for half an hour, I boiled the leftover blanket and chicken carcass with a chicken stock cube, water, the original 5 bay leaves, and two star aniseeds to make the liquor for a soup. Having strained out the solids from the contents of the pressure cooker and discarded them, I added some milk to form the consistency of the soup required.

CHICKEN - DREAM CHICKEN UNDER A BLANKET (with cheese straws and soup)   

You will need:
Fresh bay leaves
A smallish chicken
Thick yoghurt
Fat, flour and turmeric (as colour) for the blanket
Grated cheese for the goldfingers
Potatoes (optional)
Pepper and salt

For the soup:
Star aniseed
Chicken stock cube
Pepper and salt if necessary

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Tale of a Cat and Fox


It was about 3 o’clock in the morning that I woke up to the sound of a fox in the street outside.

            The noise it made was not like those spine-chilling shrieks of their mating call but a cross somewhat between a bark and a growl. The noise persisted.

            I climbed out of bed, pulled back a section of curtain, and raised slats on a Venetian blind to look out.

            Outside, a fox was directing its gaze at something and making this noise. It was agitated.

            The fox was at the edge of the road pointing at a cat, no more than a metre away from it. I had not even seen this cat, as its colour was (as in camouflage) much the same as the wet pavement on which it sat. I later saw that the animal had white legs.

            The cat sat on its haunches and, as the fox tried to grab it in his jaws, a quick swish of bared claws soon sent Renard in reverse.

            This sparring lasted for some time, until the cat rose from its sitting position and rushed at the fox – which retreated post haste.

            The next phase was the cat chasing the fox and the fox chasing the cat, with no result but with the fox continuing its intimidatory noises.

            When the cat was chasing and threatening the fox, it raised its tail and swished it from side to side.

            Had the cat been frightened of the fox it could so easily have climbed a garden wall or tree and been safe. But it didn’t.

            There could have been no territorial dispute, so it must have been that the fox wanted to kill the cat – for its own or cubs’ food.

            After all these high jinx, the cat ran to beneath a Land Rover car to find superior fighting ground.

            The fox circumnavigated the Land Rover several times, sometimes poking its nose under the chassis – only to withdraw it very smartly.

            Finally, the fox gave up the chase and trotted off down the road – hungry. It had learned something about cats. And so had I.


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Wine Speak

I have written a great deal on wine. And I have never used a word of “wine language” – except once, when winemakers had gone mad on cold fermentation, when I described the general taste of it as being rather like pear drops.
            So now, looking at the descriptions on back labels, gives me great pleasure and much laughter.
            I have only been collecting these comparisons for a month or two and have recorded enough, using only those that I have actually read on the bottles that we have consumed.
            Making wine taste like various fruits predominate. For instance, these include: ripe berry (very popular), strawberries, prunes, cherries, peach, melon, pear, yellow and crisp apple, gooseberries, blueberries, ripe blackcurrants, juicy plum, bulging with ripe black plum, succulent black cherries - but not one, not a single mention of grape.
Other flavours include smoky mocha, chocolate in various forms, liquorice, oak scented, boxwood, rose flower, sweet and silky tannins, subtle spice, violet character, round mouth, brooding, approachable, eucalyptus gum, and two that I love: deft lemon acidity and spicy minerality.
            Should anyone ask you to describe a white wine on offer, you might try one of the last two, and watch for the reaction.
            If I ever do read that a wine tastes of grape, I will jump for joy.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Margreet as Cook

I once wrote in a cookery book that my wife, Margreet, was “not used to cooking”.
            It was true. Having spent her career in the Dutch Foreign Service, there had always been someone to cook for her.
            Then she retired, started to cook, and loved it. Now we cook one week on and one week off.
            She would still like to measure things, but often uses my recipes that mainly decline it.
            She gets better by the week, and is now showing imagination.
            Here are two of her excellent ideas:

When using cooked cold green beans that had grown in foreign parts and almost tasteless, she coated them with a vinaigrette and finely chopped-up anchovies. They became delicious.

Rather in the same vein, she cleverly used up rather nice-looking but not very tasty little sweet corns. Having been boiled, she fried them in butter with garlic. This brought out all their flavour.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Tower Bridge: A Celebration of 120 Years

A telephone call came through from the curator’s office at Guildhall Art Gallery.
            The curator, Julia Dudkiewitz, was forming an exhibition of pictorial depictions of Tower Bridge since its inception and had wanted to show my large 1954 painting of “Tower Bridge from Bermondsey Wall” that happens to be in the National Collection. She discovered that it hangs on a wall in some far-flung Embassy. Thus, it was unobtainable. So could she come around to see if I had anything else that might be suitable to show.
            Margreet and I rummaged around and found a large self-portrait, done in 1965, made up of dockland shapes – the funnel of the Dollar Bay tug, smoke and steam coming from it, wharves, quays, and a marker buoy. In the background, as the distant focal point, is a rather freely painted Tower Bridge.
            The curator looked at it and declared that she had seen many, many paintings in her life, but not one like this.
            There were also one or two later “Landscape Recalled” pastel depictions of the bridge that she liked. As well, records were held somewhere of other bridge paintings by me - ones sold at Christie’s and through Offer Waterman Gallery. These she would try to track down and borrow.
            The exhibition will be held at Guildhall Art Gallery throughout the month of June 2014, and I am to cut the opening ribbon.

That was the blog that I wrote before the exhibition opened.

For this major exhibition, I had rather rashly agreed to give an opening speech before cutting a ribbon. Now it so happens that I have managed throughout my life to avoid speaking in public. So, for my first, and I hope last effort, I decided to speak “off the cuff”, but with practice and without notes. Night and day I practised my piece, altering it, extending it on request, and getting more and more nervous. I longed for the speech to be over and done with. I could then sleep without the words running through my head.
            As for cutting the tape, I planned to hold on to one bit, snip a piece off, and keep it as a souvenir. Then I heard that the tape bit had to be abandoned, due to some “health and safety” aspect. Perhaps they did not trust me with a pair of sharp scissors.
            The evening of the 2nd of June 2014 arrived. I was offered words of assurance by friends as we waited in the grand courtyard. Then inside, a drink, and an opening address given by an important and professionally practised dignatory. My turn came.
            If I got the first few words out, I thought that the rest might follow. And they did. I spoke about my rather vinous experiences of drawing in the 1950s and 1960s dockland, thanks to a wonderful pass given to me by The Port of London Authority. I was now on autopilot, and what I said seemed to make people listen and laugh. Then I stumbled, forgetting what I was to say next. I suppose it made me more human. No one seemed to be concerned – except me.
            Then it was over. And seldom have I enjoyed a drink more than the one thrust into my hand.
            The Exhibition in this splendid Guildhall Art Gallery has turned out to be a wonderful one – full of interest, from sepia photographs of the bridge under construction in 1894 to a work so new that its paint may well have not yet dried.
            My own contribution was well presented by the excellent curator, Julia Dudkiewicz. And it was particularly pleasing to me that those who had liked my painting and had bought directly from me, through Christie’s, or Offer Waterman Gallery, and kindly lent them to the show, were able to see their possessions on view to all.
            The magnificent catalogue, reproducing all the work in colour, is a work of art in itself, a fine memento, and a reference vehicle for those studying the history of one of London’s, and the world’s, iconic structures.


Thursday, May 22, 2014

Three Words

Three words to do with food and drink popped up in our conversation. Margreet, being unfamiliar with any of them, wanted a dictionary definition. Even her smart computer’s dictionaries and my large Concise Collins dictionary were in the least bit helpful.
            Those words were punt, musseau and chabrot – one very English and the others French.
            Starting with punt. In conversation I was referring to the “thief”, “voleur” or indentation at the base of a wine bottle. It took a lot of roundabout questions to the computer before she found definitions. They were mainly of boats and gambling. Although “punt” was not in a dictionary, the definition was found.
There are various reasons for having a punt at the base of a wine bottle, the most common being that it is there for stability and when Champagne bottles need to be turned by hand.
The word musseau, again, did not appear. So I referred her to a recipe in the Oldie Cookbook that I wrote in 1993. There it was, and she had eaten it many times when it had been my turn to cook. It is a wonderful way of consuming leftover meat – especially when served as a main course with hot potatoes.
Slice the meat finely, cutting away any fat. Place the result in a serving dish and cover it with capers, cornichons (gherkins) chopped finely, chopped onion or shallot, pepper, salt, olive oil and vinegar (we make our own cider and wine vinegar in 5 litre jars). Turn the mixture around to marinate. Serve with some fresh herb as garnish.
My own speciality is to add pickled black peppercorns to the musseau’s dressing. Almost fill a jar (having a plastic lid) with black peppercorns. Cover with vinegar. It will take some time for the peppercorns to soften and become ideal for a musseau or other dishes (use sparingly). They will keep indefinitely, but may need a top-up of vinegar over time.
The last word was chabrot. To “faire chabrot” is a French peasant’s custom of pouring red wine into the dregs of his or her soup, swilling it around to blend, warm, and clean the plate, and then drinking the result from the plate’s rim. It may look as peasanty as it is, but delicious. I have found that poorer red wine makes a better chabrot than a good one.

Sunday, May 04, 2014


A boar, who slept on his back with his legs in the air, having been bought by a farmer for a great sum, had failed dismally at his job and was to be sold at a considerable loss to be turned into sausages. He had to escape if possible.
            On the other side of the Downs a sow, who slept with limbs outstretched like a dog, had also been bought for a lot of money. She had not provided the farmer with a single litter and was to go the slaughterhouse to be turned into legs of pork and chops. She, too, had to escape.
            Both sow and boar managed it. And they ran.
            The boar, on his escape route, saw a couple of male acrobats disporting themselves on Downland turf. He watched and thought to himself that he could learn from their antics and become fertile with his newly-found knowledge.
            The sow, also escaping on downland, saw a couple of lady acrobats cavorting on the sloping grass. She, also, thought that she might learn to become fertile by watching them.
            A nasty storm of black clouds, combined with heavy rain, covered the Downland hills.
            When the storm passed and visibility was clear once more, the pigs found themselves together.
            They fell in love and produced some fine piglets.

Dreams are sometimes quite charming..


The slats in our garden bench have been sandpapered to a lovely yellow ochre colour (when dry) – set off by arms and legs oiled to a deep mahogany hue.
            The positions of potted winter plants of mahonia and camellia  have been usurped by pots of burgeoning lilies.
            Sweet peas, grown from seed, have taken the place of tomatoes, which are trouble to grow outside and not much better than those in season bought in the market.
            Of our trees, the damson that took the place of a silver leaf fungussed morello cherry, flourishes. But will I be able to espallier it?
            Pears may be few, like apples. But our planted mistletoe thrives on the potted apple tree. Somehow this parasite has become the rare star of our garden. Everyone is interested in it.
            Daffodils and narcissus lasted well, are dead-headed, and over. But our tulips, that look more like peonies, have lasted well, and light up the garden. We didn’t think we would enjoy tulips so much.
            We have planted the kind of busy lizzie that has survived the disease that killed off most varieties.
            Over-wintered rocket went to seed quickly and has been replanted with sown seed saved from last year. It sprouts almost instantly.
            Agapanthus and flox have risen from their outside winter hibernation, as has the Bolivian begonia that over-wintered on our kitchen windowsill.
            Two spears of asparagus appeared in our large asparagus pot and were eaten raw. But as the crop has declined in vigour over the years, five new plants were grown from seed and been planted as replacements. On their seed packet it declares that a crop of spears may be obtained from their first year’s growth. But I am sure that such salesmanship is vastly over optimistic.
            Our only vegetable this year is runner beans. They climb a bamboo frame and give a constant crop of beans – to be eaten at about 4” long. Some pods are left to grow to a foot long or more in length. These are for next year’s seed and wonderful hors d’oeuvres when boiled and served with garlic, salt, and olive oil.
            The grapevine, in its now reduced span, is coming into leaf – a bit late. Last year’s small vintage lies on its lees and will be bottled soon.
            Our much admired and quite wonderful Typhoon rose flourished as usual. A friend found it to be unobtainable. Just why one of the best roses ever produced should be thus, I have no idea. I will take cuttings of it later in the year.
            The peerless pieris continues to astound us with its changing coloured leaves, flowers and berries. What a wonderful small garden plant  (shrub?) it is.
            A carrion crow has just eaten all the young blackbirds from our resident couple’s first brood. They will start again for sure, as they usually have several families each summer.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Guildhall Art Gallery and Tower Bridge

A telephone call came through from the curator’s office at Guildhall Art Gallery.
            The curator was forming an exhibition of depictions of Tower Bridge since its inception and had wanted to show my large 1954 painting of “Tower Bridge from Bermondsey Wall” that happens to be in the National Collection. She discovered that it hangs on some embassy wall in a far-flung outpost of the British Empire. Thus, it was unobtainable. So could she come around to see if I had anything else that was suitable to show.
            I rummaged around and found a large self-portrait, done in 1965, and made up of dockland shapes – steam from a ship’s boiler, wharves, quays, and a marker buoy. And in the background is a rather freely painted Tower Bridge.
            The curator looked at it and declared that she had seen many paintings in her life, but not one like this.
            There were also one or two later Landscape Recalled pastel depictions of the bridge that she liked. As well, were records of some of my other bridge paintings that had been sold at Christie’s and through Offer Waterman Gallery. These she would try to track down.
            The exhibition will be held at Guildhall Art Gallery through the month of June 2014, and I am to cut the opening ribbon.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Runner Bean Seeds

Runner beans are a wonderful vegetable. You can grow them in almost any garden or allotment, or even in drained containers on a town balcony.
            In well-drained soil and up a bamboo frame they will produce an abundance of beans (best harvested about 4” long) to be topped and tailed and boiled for 5 minutes.
            Serve with melted butter and salt, perhaps adding just a spot of vinegar (enough not to notice it) and a pressed garlic clove or two.
            The plants have more to offer. Their scarlet flowers are a lovely adornment to a garden, and their seeds a gourmet’s delight. The flowers will attract bees, bumblebees and hover flies – thus helping to pollinate all round.
            Harvest the beans with regularity from mid summer to late autumn.
            Some of the beans will hide from view, grow too long, and become too large and stringy to enjoy. Leave these to mature on the vine with some that you will allow to grow to beyond edible size. These large beans (sometimes 1’ or so long) will fatten and dry in warm weather, their skins becoming brittle.
            (When I was a boy the beans were left to become large and stringy. The strings were cut off and the beans sliced diagonally. Then they were either eaten or salted down in jars for the winter.)
            As soon as there are signs of mould, harvest all the large beans and place them on wire racks indoors to dry. Spread them out or they will rot.
            When the skins are dry, pod the beans. Save some for next year’s seed and keep the rest handy for eating in the fingers with drinks.
            For this delight, boil the dried beans until soft enough to eat (the time taken will depend on the dryness of the beans, but test after about half an hour). When the beans are ready to eat, place them in a bowl with some salt (sea salt is good), a little olive oil and a pressed garlic clove. Turn them over well and eat from the hand – having table napkins or kitchen paper handy for oily fingers.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Olives and Wine

Olives go well with wine – for most people.

            For many years I have had a snap-down jar of black Kalamata olives steeping in a certain amount of olive oil. This oil has become darker and tastier over time and imparts extra flavour to the olives. The jar has to be topped up with olives and oil when necessary, and tipped up regularly to coat them with the fragrant and tasty liquid.

            These olives, eaten by our guests, have their stones dropped into a wooden receptacle when eaten inside during wintertime, and thrown with abandon into the garden in summertime.

            Stoned green olives are now available at a reasonable price in certain supermarkets. Being rather dull on their own, having been emasculated as it were, I have been experimenting with taste-enhancing methods.

            With my own ideas, and the advice of a guest who immediately telephoned her Greek/South African sister in Cape Town for advice, I am settling on the system of draining the olives of their brine, adding olive oil, pressed garlic, plenty of lemon juice, crushed coriander seeds and thyme. Marjoram was also good, but I think that thyme is the better.

            Regularly upending the jar over time helps to improve the flavour. The result has been a great success. But kitchen paper towels or table napkins are essential for oily fingers as the use of cocktail sticks, short or long, has turned out to be a bit mean and tedious – though I’m sure that the Health and Safety brigade would disapprove of guests grabbing them from their bowl by hand.

            I have written a lot on wine over the years. In that time I have come across much skulduggery and even more snobbism and pretentiousness.

            Good, drinkable wine can still be obtained at a reasonable price for everyday drinking. But you must look around for it and not be ashamed to offer and drink some of the cheapest. Most wines available are quite drinkable, even in the lower price range, but beware the most advertised.

            I rather favour decanting wine, having a two-bottle decanter in use for red wine, and a litre one, kept in a vacuum container in the door of a refrigerator, for white.

            For the white, I often mix the rather acidic sauvignon blanc with the softer chardonnay. It happens that both of these on my shelves at present are Chilean.

            For the reds, almost any two bottles will blend satisfactorily. When one wine has too high an alcohol content for its own good (14% and more), a softer, less alcoholic one, will complement and enhance it.

            French wines for these blends are no longer of enough interest, being either  too expensive or of poor quality. But wines from South Africa in particular, Australia, Chile and Argentina, are generally more than adequate, and ideal for blending. And it is surprising how well wines from different countries blend.

            Take the nonsense out of wine-speak. In all my writing on the subject I have never used it. Just enjoy the fun of wine – drinking good plonk for most of the time and occasionally something really special. This will make the best seem even better. And if you want to remember tastes and styles of wine, use your own, possibly exaggerated, words – but keep them to yourself.


Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Overpriced wine

I have just had lunch at a tapas restaurant where a bottle of very passable red wine from Piemonte and an equally passable white from Sicily cost £7.50 a bottle. At this price, the patron was still probably making a good profit. Wines from other well-known regions on his wine list were at the usual “restaurant” prices. The owner of the establishment, quite sensibly, realises that many of us want a good and reasonably priced house wine with our meals.

A restaurant where we used to eat now charges £35 for its cheapest red. We no longer eat there.

Restaurateurs are too greedy when it comes to pricing their wine. Over the years we have, like other people, become accustomed to this grasping practice of having to pay well over the odds for a civilised beverage that for many, nowadays, has become an essential part of a restaurant meal.

If I were young and computer-literate, I would start a web site where people could contribute to a list of restaurants around the country where the owners price a house wine without greed.

Should anyone start such a site I would divulge just where we enjoy perfectly good wines with our meal for £7.50 a bottle.

Would someone please set up such a source of vital information to those of us who eat out occasionally and don’t want to feel ripped off by unnecessary avarice.