Friday, December 23, 2016

Avocado fillings and more

Before, and ever since writing The Oldie Cookbook and Cooking in Docklands Past and Present, I have created and developed simple recipes and put them into my computer for an extended cookbook for publication.
But that won’t happen. Cookbooks are now written by the young and/or famous who crave, and must be, on television. So that counts me out.
I have even given up adding my blog recipes to that extensive cookery tome of mine, blogging recipes when I feel like writing them and leaving it at that.
Now, with my weekly turn at cooking, Margreet often says “write it up”. I sometimes do.
We rather like avocados as a first course, filling them with what comes to mind and hand at the time.
Margreet favours recently chopped-up anchovies in oil and vinegar as a filling.
With this in mind, and a form of fishiness in the filling being a nice change, I have been using oyster sauce, mixed with chopped-up cornichons and capers – the latter two supplying the vinegar element. Should you try this, be careful not to overdo the salt content. Margreet may add to the mix some Tabasco sauce and chopped up shallot.
Incidentally, chopped capers and cornichons with oil, vinegar, pepper and salt, makes an excellent dressing for a salad of finely sliced fennel bulb.
Margreet finds that our own Hammersmith red wine is a little too dry as we ferment it right out. So I may use a bottle of it as a marinade for a beef stew when using shin of beef.
For this, cut up the (marbled) shin into small lumps (you will need a sharp knife). Cover the meat with the red wine (any) and leave it for as long as you like (hours to days).
When ready to concoct this rich stew, pour off the wine and keep it handy.
In an iron casserole or like pot, fry chopped onions and garlic in oil until they reach a transparent state.
Coat the meat in flour and add it to the onion/garlic mix. Add pepper and salt and a stock cube (or two). At this stage I like to add a bit of liquid gravy browning. This added colour enhances the dish. Stir the ingredients around for a while.
Now return the wine marinade, adding water to well cover the contents of the pot.
Now for the first of two special ingredients. Add lots of pitted black olives. I de-stone Kalamata olives as those already without stones are not nearly as good.
The next special part is to add lots of small and tight Brussels sprouts. Rinse them first.
Bring the dish to the boil, leaving it on very low heat for a couple of hours – or more.
Serve with mashed potato. 
You may never have enjoyed sprouts as much as these.
As I am writing about cooking matters, here’s a popular breakfast item.
Cut a pitta bread in half. Open up the pocket (I do this with the back of a knife).
Warm the halves in a toaster, but don’t allow the bread to become crisp.
In a shallow pan, on medium heat, melt butter, and on this butter put a dollop of Dijon mustard. Add pepper and salt.
Now break a large egg on to the mix and, with the back of a fork, break up the egg and keep stirring until the right consistency has been obtained (keep it moist).

Slide the egg mix into the pitta’s pockets – and eat in the fingers.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Debunking wine

I think it was when looking at a TV programme on wine that set me off writing again on wine skulduggery.
Th presenters of this television show loved 14% alcohol in red wine because it was “warming” or suchlike. 
14% alcohol I consider to be too much in a wine – the alcohol content usually overriding the natural smells and tastes that should be in the forefront of a good wine. And one can so easily drink too much and negate the pleasures of sensible consumption.
Tavel, that much renowned rosé from the south of France, was once deceptively strong (and may still be). Locals would have a glass and go on to a less alcoholic rosé. Outsiders would swill down the Tavel and suffer, much to the inhabitants’ amusement.
In the those days when 12% alcohol in wine was considered to be high, I took my containers to a wine merchant in Grasse to have them filled up with either 10%, 11% or 12% red. I chose 10% to both enjoy as wine and quench the thirst in the heat of a south of France summer.
In America, and in impecunious circumstances, I decanted and watered down cheap and strong “gallon wine”. My guests loved it, having no idea of its modest origin.
At home I offer red, white and rosé wine, and eyes pop out when I make rosé by putting a little red wine in a glass and topping it up with cold white. And those who like my rosé keep to it. After all, pink Champagne is made in this way. Others are not meant to, but it is the easy way and, well, who knows?
I like to read out loud the blurb on the back label on bottles of red wine – generally to much laughter.
A favourite is that the wine tastes of “berry fruits”. These may be elaborated to contain black currant and/or blackberry tastes. Cassis is black currant and Mure is blackberry. In the days when Burgundy was a robust wine, was it just coincidence that black currants were grown in quantity in the Burgundy region?
Our own Hammersmith wine is fermented out to become a very dry red. Being unsulphured or fine filtered, it is a completely natural wine – but a couple of glasses at one time are enough. So I sometimes, but rarely, blend it with another wine that may have a little too much sweetness to it. This is done in a two-bottle decanter. And what have I been known to add? – those “berry fruits” no less – but only in the smallest of quantities. Too much added turns the wine into a port-like drink. But when my  judgement is correct, the completed wine becomes rather special.
The most common of these “doctorings” is the addition of sugar to bring up the alcohol content in years of bad weather, or perhaps commercial demand. There are rules (routinely broken) for when, or when not, winemakers may add sugar to the vinification. Many have to add it to make good wine and raise the naturally-fermented  alcohol level – like I do. But I don’t add sulphur, which most commercial wine contains to ensure stability and prevent infection. Alcohol is the preservative in Hammersmith wine.

To me, all this blending and mucking about is fun. And many wines are legitimately blended wines anyhow. But as an ex-wine-writer I have seen and heard about much commercial malpractice, and am rarely surprised. After all, dealing in wine is a business, and fortunes may be at stake. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2016



There was a gap in my blog writing.
This was not that I had given up writing a blog, but a connection failure between the old and new worlds of the internet.
I still write with a Windows 95 computer and its 3 ½” floppy disk. This disk I hand on to Margreet when I have written something, who slips it into a gadget that she can connect with her modern Apple computer. Then she can deliver my words to the ether to be read by anyone who cares to do so.
But, as with most computers, hers had a glitch and had to be seen by Apple experts, who not only mended it, but also gave it an upgrade. In doing so, they disconnected its 3 ½” floppy disk route. (The Apple man, when hearing of my antiquated approach to computer technology, referred to me as a “cool dude”.)
Anyhow, that was all rectified, and I can continue to enjoy putting words together, as well as painting.
The painting part of my life has suddenly taken off. Not only do I have my private collectors buying but, through Offer Waterman (that very smart gallery at 17 St George Street, behind Sotheby’s in Bond Street), sales also go apace.
It so happens that in the 1950s I exhibited in the best London galleries and was thus quite well known at the time. I suppose I could have continued with that form of art when I painted what I saw, then putting paint to canvas. But I have an enquiring mind. So around 1959, after the period of “natural” painting, I would select an imaginative theme, then persevere until I had squeezed enough from it, not bothering too consciously about style and content, but letting imagination, nature and experience take its course. Always in my mind I wanted to create interesting paintings to look at, but with my imagination and that of the viewer paramount.
Around 1964 (I say 1964, but that is a general date encompassing 1963 to 1966), I painted a series on the theme of London’s dockland, and in a pretty vigorous manner. I never exhibited them or, I recall, even sold any. Now they seem to be all the rage, with some collectors liking them not only for their style and content, but also because no other artist, certainly with my way of painting, was working in London’s dockland at that time.
Which goes to confirm (I trust, and hope) that good art will always be recognised as such – eventually. 

So this little burst of sales and recognition is rather unexpected. And I am delighted about it.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Robin Training

We are used to having a tame robin in our small London garden.
We train them to have confidence in us and eventually to fly into our shed (a small summerhouse) to eat grated cheese from a feeder that I designed, and then to stand on my knee.
The robins last for a year or more, the length of friendship depending on the extent of their life -–usually terminated by a cat. So we have to train a new one every so often.
Our summer was one without a tame robin – or robin of any sort. But the gap was filled by a wood pigeon.
Training this large bird was minimal as soon as it came to the conclusion that grated Cheddar cheese was not only delicious, but also easily obtainable from the feeder in our shed. So in it would come, hopping on to and over the door’s sill to wander around by our feet. Then it would jump-fly up to the feeder, or fly in directly from outside, making us jump.
So, despite no robins, we did have avian company over the summer months. Our very handsome pigeon became so bold as to walk on or hop over our knees and legs as we sat in the shed in its search for morsels of cheese.
Then, at the onset of autumn, a new robin appeared.
This robin, we think, was a foreigner, a blow-in, perhaps from Scandinavia. It flew around the garden like a wild thing. Slowly it calmed down as it felt more at home in its English surroundings.
Training this wild one was obviously going to be difficult. Our “making friends” regime is simple, but it does take patience and time. Would we have that time between its arrival and the start of winter when it would be too cold for us to sit in the shed with the door open?
The first move is always to show the bird that grated cheese is good to eat. Our new robin was for some time loath to even try it out for taste. But it did, eventually taking the proffered bait that had been placed well away from us in the shed. It liked what it was eating.
Then, day by day, cheese gratings were positioned nearer and nearer to our open shed door – then to the sill and then the floor.
Now the new robin chooses to fly straight into the floor. But despite seeing the pigeon enjoying lovely cheese from the feeder, positioned on top of three boxes of bird food, it has yet to do the same. That should happen very soon, but will it be before the cold winter sets in and we have to abandon the shed and close the door until springtime? 
Being discriminatory, we now ask the pigeon to leave the feeder so that the robin might eat there. Although we still like and admire a wild wood pigeon to be so close and trusting, we would rather have a robin as a garden pet. And we would like it to be an even closer friend before the winter is over and birds think of mates and nest-building once more.

(I am glad to add that the robin has now, in early November, flown into the shed to take cheese from the feeder.)

Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Shed

We have a shed at the end of our small London garden. Well, it’s not really a shed as such but an octagonal summerhouse made of cedar wood with five sides glazed. So when sitting there in our two armed chairs, we can view the garden for about eight months of the year.

     We inhabit it for conversation, for reading, listening to music and cricket commentary, computer business, baby-sitting, drinking, and meals. From it we can see, from beneath an arbour of grapevines, the back of our house, a sculpture of lovers, our flowers, vegetables and wild life. It is lovely.

     Even when the autumn evenings draw in, we can close the door, light three candles and enjoy our “den” in the warmth given out by the two of us and the three candle flames.

     We are not the only ones who make use of this little paradise. Mise like to shelter there when the weather turns cold. And in the summer we have trained robins to fly in to eat grated cheese and stand on my knee.

     Of late, a wood pigeon has befriended us. It either flies in directly or hops in through the door and flies up to the cheese-feeding tray. This large bird also stands on my knee and walks around under our feet. We speak to it as if it was human and it takes us for granted, even turning its back on me as it eats, knowing that I could so easily grab it and turn it into a nice terrine.

     We surround the inside of this small shed with objects that we seem to need. There’s a clock, a torch, three candleholders, a dye marker, a miniature Stirling engine (to demonstrate for children and the incredulous), pencils, pens, India rubber and tooth picks. With these is an Indian, enclosed and vented incense burner (decorated by me in silver , dazzle camouflage), incense sticks of many kinds, spare spectacles, insect repellent, and touch-up nail varnish.

     There is a small table for food and things, a hanging rubbish bag, and two quite large pastels in frames of Aircraft Shadows (ex Mayor Gallery) and a fisherman in a tree landscape, made up of blocks of green and yellow colour. Like most of our pictures, they are changed every so often.

     Inside are also two very heavy wooden, folding chairs, and three large plastic containers for bird food.

     The home-designed, glued, wooden bird-feeder is made of two pieces, one of which slides over the other to reveal the amount of grated Cheddar cheese that we think appropriate at the time.

     Then there are paper kitchen towels, scissors, nail file, secateurs and a gas lighter for candles and the Stirling engine. There’s a fly swat too.

     At one side is a rug and woollen shawl for when it is cold. Beneath the table is a box of garden accoutrements (seed in a tin, wire brush, granular fertiliser, gloves and all sorts). And beneath one chair is a box of sprays, insecticide, rat and mouse poison and so on. Books are on the floor next to several kinds of fertiliser and two pairs of wellingtons.

     And of course there is a screw pull corkscrew and a hook, and a knife to cut away bottle capsules. That knife must be over 100 years old as it was used to scrape eggs when my wounded father had a chicken farm after the First World War.

     From our little paradise, that seems to contain so much, we look out onto a summer garden in complete privacy. Although surrounded by houses, the leaves from our grapevine arbour and general greenery shield us. For much of the year our lovey shed forms a major part of our house and life. 


Friday, August 26, 2016

Clothes Moths

We all know how destructive the clothes moth can be whenever a favourite garment is extracted from cupboard or drawer and found to have been eaten in part by the grubs of this small and obnoxious creature.
Until about six months ago I clouted them in one way or another whenever seen.
After quite a plague of them (a shopkeeper said that there had been such in Chiswick), we adorned the inside of cupboards and drawers with anti-moth devices. These took the form of moth balls, a plethora of different coloured objects designed to kill, and an annual supply of conkers, gathered from beneath a horse chestnut tree in a nearby square.
So I thought that I had got well on the way toward eliminating these pests. Certainly the count of “kills” declined. Not many moths were seen.
Yet still Margreet would find clothes ruined by moths.
So, by chance, we thought we would try a new ploy by setting out Toblerone-shaped traps that contained sticky paper impregnated with moth-attracting pheromones. And low and behold, moths started to fall for the bait and died a sticky death.
I felt that if we could catch all flying moths for a year, we could interfere with their breeding cycle and thus with their resultant clothes-eating grubs.
What we had not noticed was that although we could see and destroy the moths by day, it was at night that they appear, like ordinary moths do, and fly around  mating and having a nice time.
As the first two traps were successful, it was most surprising to discover that in our house were so many of these destructive creatures.
I wondered if by hanging these traps in cupboards was not, in fact, attracting moths toward vulnerable clothes. So we bought refills and left them open and in places that moths might frequent – and well away from where hands or clothes might come into contact.
I laid each on a piece of paper on which I recorded the daily the number of carcasses sticking to the trap. The number was considerable – and mounted by the day.
Instructions coming with these most successful devices state that the adhesive sheets should be changed after three month’s use. Ours seem to last longer. And to increase the length of life for each one, I now fold back half of the protective sheet and pin it back with a paper clip. This then doubles the life of the sticky killer and leaves enough pheromones and sticky surface on the newly-revealed half to catch more moths when the exposed surface becomes too crowded.

From only seeing a few clothes moths six month ago in our small house, and thinking that I was winning my battle with them, I have just been around my traps counting the carcasses – and the number was one hundred and eighteen. I might really be winning. 

Monday, August 08, 2016

Words and Art

Because of the disruptions of war, I missed out on the education that I should have been exposed to at that time.
So I had no idea until later in life that writing was so creative and such fun. And perhaps I would never have got started had I been told that I must understand grammar to be able to write.
When embarking on the business of words, it was to produce five copies of a book on my ideas about early American history when I was in America around 1970.
These books were each illustrated with my own lino-cut prints. But I was not concerned about the artwork but about the punctuation of the text.
So I consulted my life-long friend at Yale, Edmund S. Morgan, who happened to be America’s authority on the subject of the Founding Fathers and author of many key works on that period. Of all people, he should know the answers to my queries on punctuation. “There are no rules,” he said.
So in the early 1980s, when I came to write after a car accident that prevented me from continuing to sculpt large pieces of wood, I used words and sentences as I might see and create shapes in the chunks of trees that had become my chosen material.
That is, I would make words flow as my eye might follow patterns of wood and grain, and then, perhaps, stop to concentrate on detail. I was shaping ideas into words in a fluid kind of way.
The transitions and tangents in my life after flying aeroplanes in wartime, to designing in the theatre, to landscape painting, to sculpture, then writing and back to painting, have all been minimal.
It is ideas that count. And turning ideas into different forms of artistic expression seem to come to me like I breathe.
Those who would read my books, articles and blogs are most probably scornful of my use of language and its presentation. But I don’t care.
I just let ideas flow out in my visual art and writing, and that’s it – good or bad.
Ed Morgan was quite right. “There are no rules”.

Perhaps having had no education because of the war was not such a bad thing after all.W

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Wood pigeons - hated and admired

I have had a lifelong interest in wood pigeons.
In my country days I would admire their extraordinary eyesight and ability to avoid the human kind – keeping at least a fieldsworth apart. But they were mugs for decoys – which I made out of card, paint and, for eyes, those gold-coloured, split pins that held pages of paper together.
I was asked quite often to help protect young cereal crops from the scourge of pigeons – rapaciousness that could do untold damage to succulent growth.
So wood pigeons were my enemy – though the breasts cut off immediately when shot and cooked at home made for fine eating.
This bird is as handsome as they come, with the colour of their feathers flowing or contrasting from greys to white, and with a pinkish breast.
When I came to live in London, I was more than surprised to see these wily birds hobnobbing so close to the inhabitants. And in my small garden a pair would make themselves at home eating the bird food put out for my smaller and more vulnerable avian friends. But worse, they defecated all over the flagstone surface that covers much of the ground – the mess sometimes coming into the house on the soles of shoes.
So these wood pigeons once more became my enemies, yet I was certainly not prepared to turn this London pair into a stew with red wine and carrots.
My next task was to protect the bird feeders and their contents from this greedy couple.
It was no easy task, as although large and seemingly cumbersome, wood pigeons are most agile, not to say very clever as well.
Each of my smart ideas using chicken wire and anti pigeon spikes came to nought. Whatever configuration of spikes and mesh I used was circumvented by these masters of cunning. That was, until I used so much chicken wire that even the small birds were hardly able to reach the food.
Then, one day, when Margreet and I had set out on a walk, we witnessed, only a few metres away and on the road’s surface, a wood pigeon in an all-out fight with a carrion crow that had threatened her nearby eggs or nestlings. We were lost in admiration for her bravery.
Now, for the first time, I respected their courage as well as their intelligence. I had become rather a wood pigeon admirer instead of an enemy.
Our two wood pigeons seemed to recognise this change of attitude immediately, strutting their stuff in front of us in the garden and even entering our shed to walk beneath our legs to seek crumbs of food.
Then, in the shed, and with no encouragement, one of these large birds rose to stand on a bird food tray right next to my knee. There it pecked at the cheese morsels put out for a robin – a robin that each year I have to train, with enormous patience, to come to that feeder.
For a wild creature I suppose this constitutes either brazen courage or extreme trust – or both.
We must now learn to live together – even though the size of a wood pigeon almost squeezes us out of our small garden retreat.

There was a sequel to this: I was reading a newspaper in our garden shed one day when there was a sound from the door sill beneath. Then, because a lump of pink quartz was blocking the landing and feeding spot for birds, a wood pigeon flapped up to land on my knee – just too far away for it to eat the grated cheese offering. So I slowly moved my knee, with pigeon on it, toward the food, where it stepped off to the feeder. Having polished off the cheese it flew off.
Some time later this bird (presumably it was the same) came to sit on our bird bath – where it stayed despite us walking past it. Then it came toward the shed to sit on the arm of a wooden bench very close to us. On the bird bath and bench we could see that it was in distress as it spent most of the time trying to keep awake.
Then a neighbour came with dogs and the bird flew to a nearby arch, where it perched, almost motionless, for several hours.
The food is no longer taken and the bird gone. 

It must have wanted to die in our small garden - next to friends.

Monday, June 20, 2016


Having reached my 10th decade, I expect to have a few aches and pains. I wait. They go. But Margreet can outrun me to catch a bus.
So when something does go wrong, it is quite an occasion for me.
For ten, perhaps fifteen years, I have had a lump on the side of my chest under an arm. It has just been a subcutaneous lump that I have ignored. It didn’t bother me and I didn’t bother it. Then it suddenly became sore and infected. A doctor told me that it was a cyst. I was given an antibiotic. (I have done my best to avoid antibiotics since they were invented to save up for when I really needed them.)
Then nature decided to take over, opening up to rid me of this nuisance.
There was quite a bit of medical interest. I was sent to Accident and Emergency for an operation. After a day’s wait a surgeon decided not to operate because of me taking the blood-thinner, Warfarin. He recommended that I have surgery at another hospital where they specialised in such matters. This was applied for.
And all the time nature was at its gory work with me making up primitive swabs and dressings with salty water, cotton pads and Micropore (my rather primitive approach, I thought, being better for allowing freedom of air flow than the stick-on dressings offered by the medical profession).
After just over two weeks of unpleasantness and manipulation, the cyst had virtually been expelled and the wound healed.
Nature had taken over (with – er – the help, I must admit, of antibiotics) and done its stuff. Surgery will almost certainly no longer be wanted.
I feel fine, and so well that I might now even run faster than Margreet to catch a bus.

Nature works in wondrous ways.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Tooth and Claw

In springtime, either a great or lesser-spotted woodpecker came to our garden, first to  inspect our bird boxes (empty) and then to indulge his or her appetite on my experimental fillings of halved coconut shells.
We were delighted to see such an exotic bird in our small garden, rather forgetting that on a previous year, such a bird came to consume our entire brood of robin nestlings.
Anyhow, it was not only a new visitor but also one thoroughly enjoying my mix of bird food. Robins, great tits, blue tits, long tailed tits, coal tits and even dunnocks have also pecked away at it – the less acrobatic birds with difficulty.
When carrion crows perch on nearby television aerials and croak, they are looking for nestlings to eat. When they have found this food source, the poor youngsters are taken in the beak and flown up to a high perch to be torn apart and eaten. Magpies do the same, but those have been scarcer of late.
With our regular great tits deserting their annual breeding home in our nest box (probably one taken by a cat or succumbed to old age), our attention was drawn to a nearby neighbour’s nest box of blue tits. The young were about to fledge, when a woodpecker (perhaps ours) ate the lot.
How, I wondered, had the miscreant managed to raid the box without enlarging the entrance hole? It was suggested that just by creating noise and beak action near to the hole drew the young up to feed – only to become food themselves.
This, I suppose, is nature’s way of keeping the balance right between predatory creatures and their victims.
After all, if the young of every nestful of garden birds survived, there would probably not be enough territory or food to go around.
My popular bird food is pressed into half coconut shells with holes in them to attach hanging cord. The shell is then filled with the following: lamb’s kidney fat and suet fat (Atora will do) cut up. Heat this slowly in a saucepan until the fat has liquefied and can be poured into a bowl off the solid matter. In a liquidiser turn porridge and bran almost into powder form. Stir this into the warm fat as much as it will take – which is quite a lot. Now, with a wooden spoon, press this mixture into the shells to become cold and hard before hanging them in the garden out of the reach of cats.

Birds take time to become used to anything new. So before they start to enjoy your offering, a little patience might be needed.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Stirling Engines

I am no mechanic, but some aspects of machinery intrigue me. One is the Stirling engine. Why? Well, to me it is almost like perpetual motion, and it is a machine that is virtually silent and non-polluting when in operation. So silent is it that the Swedes and now others use it for submarine stealth under water where it will generate electricity to power the boat – in silence.
There are snags. Powerful machines are heavy, and they work at a constant speed. So for jobs like pumping water, making electricity, or spinning a ventilation fan, they are excellent – though not as efficient as an electric motor or the far more complicated and polluting internal combustion engine (like in a car).
Being an externally powered engine, it is free to use almost any source of heat, like the sun’s rays and from any normally wasted surplus heat (like water-cooling water), right down in scale to a nightlight or electric bulb. (I have seen a very small one work with the heat from a mug of hot coffee.)
So what is this rather odd machine?
For a beta type engine, take an enclosed metal cylinder with an external heat source at one end and vanes or other cooling method at the other. In this cylinder is a loosely-fitting piston on a rod, called a displacer. Heat one end of the cylinder and the air (or other gas) inside will expand, pushing the displacer toward the cold end, where the colder air pressure within the sealed container will shunt it back to the hot end. In the process an internal power piston will move in and out, hinged and connected to an external flywheel via a rod through a seal, also through which the displacer is hinge- connected to a different part of the flywheel’s circumference (actually at 90 degrees on the wheel).
So, apply heat to one end, spin the wheel, and off she goes – hopefully.
The colder the external air temperature the better.
It takes no skill to operate. A farmer, for instance, who lights a fire at the hot end, can pump water with a Stirling engine and go away to work knowing that the pump will work until the fire goes out, with no damage done or attention needed. Simplicity is the engine’s strength.
Ever since Robert Stirling, a Scottish minister, invented and patented his engine in 1816, there have been countless innovations, configurations and variations of the principle. Many patents have been lodged, there being continued interest in its use and development.
Above is the way I understand it, and as a layman in these matters I still sense that a certain amount of magic is also involved.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Clouds and Sky

When I was a boy and living in the country, my father, who was a farmer and a lover of nature, taught us children about wild birds, their eggs, their song, animals, growing things, keeping a grass tennis court absolutely free of weeds and much more. It was nature for us children to live with and appreciate. But I can not recall him telling us about clouds.
Clouds came into my life when I was accepted into the RAF in 1942 for flying training. But as facilities were full, I was told to return to civvy street and wait to be recalled.
I first took a job as a farm labourer, aware that food for our severely rationed population was of paramount importance. Then, hearing of a job as a prop swinger at an airfield (Theale) some five miles away, bicycled over and got it. (The job was swinging the propellers of Tiger Moth biplanes to start their engines.)
There was no meteorology for us then. So an instructor flew a Tiger Moth  upwind for a distance to see what weather was in store for the novice pilots who were learning to fly until reaching their first solo.
Having already been accepted for flying training in the RAF I was sometimes given the dual control trainee’s cockpit behind the pilot, where I learned to fly the aeroplane well enough, with the instructor almost as my passenger.
Clouds were important. For a learner they could be a deadly hazard. So clear skies were essential for all concerned.
We would come back, fly low over the grass airfield, and stick our thumbs up if the oncoming weather was fair. Then flying could begin.
My next meeting with clouds was when flying in America, where the meteorologist said that cumulonimbus clouds (those huge anvil-shaped ones) were very interesting clouds. “Pilots have found them so fascinating that they have flown into them and never come out again”. They are the clouds that form hailstones.
When piloting a Cornell trainer aircraft in Oklahoma, I flew into a cloud to see what it was like and in no time could have sworn that I was climbing dangerously and might spin. Then I popped out of the cloud heading vertically downward. Fortunately I was high enough to recover from the dive. This taught me, very forcefully, that when in clouds your instincts were useless and that relying on the aeroplane’s instruments was essential. - vital.
Now, when I rise each morning early, I scan the sky for some time to ascertain wind direction, birds landing (into wind), blackbirds patrolling their territorial boundaries, and swifts returning in springtime. Are the gulls coming inland from rough waves, or are they making off in a southerly direction toward calm seas? Aircraft condensation trails at altitude tell me wind direction high up and rough destinations of the aircraft creating them. 
Then I watch for cloud types, and their formation in broken or stratified form, and how they change shape and volume as they pass over. I can then have a shot at predicting the possible weather systems to come (stand with your back to the wind and the lower pressure area is always on the left).
I look at the trees, the way they are bending, the early development of catkins and the size and colour of the ensuing leaves.
As much as anything I watch airliners come in to land at Heathrow airport. I try to identify the type (difficult now that so many look rather alike). If they are in cloud and invisible when passing by on their way to runways 27 left or right, the cloud level is below 1800 feet. If still invisible on their final approach and leaving my usual field of vision, the clouds are 800 foot high or lower.

We seldom take time to look at the clouds, the sky, and the objects and creatures that inhabit the vast space above us. It is a vibrant and fascinating part of our world.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Pot au Feu

It was a French chef who said that a Pot au Feu was one of France’s greatest dishes. To me it has been a very nice way to feed plenty of people a dish of boiled meat with plenty of available vegetables. It is certainly not a stew as the clear liquid forms almost the main part of the dish. I suppose that a Pot au Feu is a peasant’s title. The upper class description would be Une Petite Marmite – being a French dish in which all the ingredients are boiled for several hours. Look at a pot of Marmite and you will see an illustration of the proper French pot.


You will need:
Meat in the form of brisket and possibly a bit of ox tail
Vegetables of your choice, like:
Divided cabbage
The white of leeks
Whole shallots
Celery and more of the root variety if available

In an iron casserole place the meat (see above). Now add the vegetables cut up into large bite-size pieces. Add beef stock (cubes are fine) to cover. Salt and pepper it.
Bring the liquid to the boil and turn down the heat to keep the dish cooking for two hours or more depending on the cut of beef. Soon after the liquid reaches boiling point, some scum will appear on the surface. Spoon it off, or, as Mrs Beaton said: “scum it off as anything rises” – or something like that.
If you can make this dish the day before wanted, fat will rise to the surface overnight and can be scraped off and discarded. 
When ready to eat, extract the meat and carve it up for the plates. Then I like to place the Marmite on the table with a ladle for guests to help themselves to cover the meat with the vegetables and liquor.
This is a splendid dish for lots of people, and is, anyhow, best made in quantity.


Thursday, April 21, 2016

Spring 2016

Springtime is always an exciting time for those who love their gardens. Mahonia fruit ripens for our Mrs Blackbird, damson flowers become our cherry blossom, pear and apple buds grow, and the mistletoe bunches on our potted apple tree start to show new life. Will they flower and fruit this year at last? We hope that they will.
Snowdrops are over, but from the centre of two pots of special tulips have sprung elaborate daffodils. I cannot recall having planted them.
Lilies shoot up from the soil in their pots, the Pieris fans out red leaves leaving tired winter ones still on its branches.
The small lemon tree that held on to its few green fruit in the shed over the winter, displays its lemons now as brilliant yellow in the sunshine. These are as bright as any flower.
A Typhoon rose cutting that I have nurtured for a friend turns out to be a Reverend F. Page-Roberts instead. How could I have made such a mistake? At least two Typhoon cuttings put in last autumn seem to be alive. So the recipient will have to wait until this coming winter to get her rose. But I am not really upset about it. The Rev. P-R in its day was the rose. Now it has almost disappeared from view as roses have become stronger and more floriferous.
Impatiens (Busy Lizzies), because of disease, have, I am told, been replaced by New Guinea. So Plants have been bought, but do not look like those they have replaced. Perhaps I am too impatient.
Autumn planted broad beans (Aquadulce) are already in flower. Runner bean seeds have been pushed down into plastic sacks of well-composted soil.
Other than herbs, they are our only vegetables – except for two bucketsworth of Foremost and Charlotte potatoes. Harvesting these is great fun when we turn the buckets upside-down on the garden table and treasure-hunt through earth for the tubers.
Seaweed with trace elements is the new fertiliser, with tomato fertiliser to be applied on alternate weeks. Vines come into bud.

We bought our hardwood bench because of its alluring curves. But it was just a bench. Now, annually, I sandpaper the slats to reveal the timber’s pale ochre colour, and linseed oil their supporting frame to darken it like mahogany. Although made of the same wood, this treatment makes it a rather special object. It is jobs like this that herald the summer, but the bench does now look a bit too smart for our simple garden.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Roast Chicken with Lemon and Pepper

From a Halal butcher I like to buy chickens, cut off their wings and legs with thighs for curries, then cut away the lower carcass to leave the breasts on the bone for roasting and easy carving. Here is an interesting example of a way to roast the breast or a whole chicken.


You will need:
Milled black pepper

Score the skin on a chicken breast in a baking pan and pour over some lemon juice, rubbing it in.
Now shake over some salt and grind over a lot of milled black pepper.
Allow this to marinade overnight. Then scoop up any lemon juice in the baking pan and spoon it over the bird. Add more black pepper (it is surprising how much pepper you can add to the chicken without overpowering the dish).
Roast the bird in the usual way (1 ¼ to 1 ½ hours at around 180), having added to the roasting pan potatoes that have been boiled for 10 minutes, drained, and coated with oil, pepper and salt.
Make gravy with the juices left in the pan by placing it over heat, adding some flour, stirring it around, and adding water, or stock made with a cube dissolved in hot water.
 That’s it. Simple.


Ordinary and Sweet Potato Soup

In market stalls it is the custom now to also be offered bowls of a fruit or vegetable for £1 a time. This was done, I believe, for foreigners not conversant with our currency – just to make it easy for them, and for us. Rather like those supermarket offers of three for the price of two, you find yourself buying more than actually needed. So it was with this dish. I only wanted a few sweet potatoes for an experimental dish and had some left over. As there is usually a supply of ordinary potatoes in the kitchen, and a winter soup finished and one to make, I combined these different types of potato for the dish.


You will need:
Ordinary potatoes
Sweet potatoes
Stock cubes
Salt and pepper

Preferably in a pressure cooker, put a large lump of butter and some chopped onion. Cook the onion slowly until it becomes transparent.
Now add sweet and ordinary potatoes, chopped into smallish pieces, and a chopped clove or two of garlic. Stir. Add pepper and salt and a stock cube or two..
Now add water to make the soup, the amount depending on quantities of vegetables used. Add a splash of vinegar.
Pressure cook the soup (about 15 minutes will do) or boil it until the vegetables are soft. Test for the salt content – the adjustment being vital to success. You might even think of adding another stock cube (I favour beef cubes).
The soup can be eaten in its chunky form, put through a liquidiser, or started chunky and then blended into a smoother, creamy soup.
So it is pretty simple to make.
A note on pressure cookers: They are very safe. Buy a large one. They save cooking time and gas or electricity. In winter they reduce the amount of steam given off when boiling food, thus reducing condensation. And they seem to lock in the taste of the dish. We even had a huge, ribbed one with a dial on the top in the late 1920s. My father cooked cabbage in it so that he could enjoy the resultant liquid. He thought this to be beneficial to his health. I can smell that cabbage water now.


Saturday, February 27, 2016


The doorbell rang, and outside stood a nearby, Chinese neighbour in “all of a twitter”. He was in urgent need of help, and needed me right away. What terrible matter had occurred?
Outside his front door and hiding beneath the drip was a toad – a smallish one and in a state of semi-hibernation. Could I deal with it.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   The neighbour rushed to stand on the other side of the road from his house with his eyes closed behind shielding hands, and stood there until I had taken the toad away.
I have always been fond of toads, ever since we, as children, were friends with one who lived in a hole outside a wood by a path to the Roman walls of Silchester. We took it flies to eat.
I placed the toad on a hand, which must have been very warm to this cold, hibernating creature, and took it to our small garden where there are lots of flower pots resting close to each other on the ground and on oculoni (?) – those hollow, hyporcaust bricks that the Romans used for central heating, and are still available in Italy.
I found it a dark and damp place, out of the reach of predators that might disturb its winter rest.
Toads eat flies, grubs, worms and suchlike. And there are plenty of those in our spring and summer garden. So future food supplies will not be a problem.
Returning to view its resting place an hour or two later, it had gone – gone, I had hoped, to find good cover and safety for the rest of the winter months.
Although not visible, it is lovely to have a wild, ground-living pet in the garden to share with our local birds. But we will now have to be careful where we tread.
Mr or Mrs Toad we don’t know, but it has been christened Bufo – part of its true Latin name. And we will presume it to be male until otherwise indicated.


Tuesday, February 02, 2016

My Uncle Waller

Waldron Smithers married my Aunt Marjory. He was part of a well-known Stock Exchange family. It was thought that his brothers funded him to become an MP (for Orpington, I believe) to keep him out of their city company’s business.
Uncle Waller was a giant of a man. In cricket for the Commons versus the Lords at Lord’s Cricket Ground, he smote a ball high into the pavilion. As a boy I handled his bat and could barely lift it, let alone wield it.
Being made master of the hunt for one day, he sent an athlete at crack of dawn to form an aniseed trail around the Kent countryside. No fox was seen that day, but many remembered it as a magnificent day’s hunting.
As a young boy, he and I would tussle. And because he was so strong and unaware of his strength, I always succumbed – in pain. That was, until I discovered his Achilles heel – or rather his ears. So in a fight I would grab an ear. Then he would become as putty in my hands. At last I had the measure of him. 
Shelleys, where he and my aunt lived, was a cultured house. Artists, musicians and opera singers would stay. Music was important. My brother and I, as young boys, were known by Uncle Waller as “the vile jellies” (Macbeth). We were not musical. But we had a house song. “Out vile jellies, on your bellies, down the road we’ll go (Shelleys was on a hill). On our bellies we’d pass Nelly’s (Nelly was the secretary who had a house nearby), going too and fro”. It was not what you would call a cultured song.
The family were very kind in allowing me to spend time in their house as part of my recuperation from TB when I had been invalided out of the RAF as a young pilot (there was no cure for the disease at that time, rest and being submitted to a large needle between the ribs to allow air to fill a gap between lung and rib cage being the only treatment available). I was friends with the gardener, Smith. Whereas the house had to prepare whatever produce he cared to provide, for me he would fill my little car with vegetables before I would return to London, motoring back to two small Council rooms in Pimlico.
There was a curiosity in the house. This was a “Whorling Spray” prominently on display on a shelf in the bathroom. It was a douche with a black shaft and a red rubber bulb. Was it for pleasure? Was it for bowels? Was it the house method of birth control? I never knew. Nor did I ever ask.
When Uncle Waller needed a rest from politics he would cross the road from Parliament to St Margaret’s Westminster and play the organ there. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue was his speciality, so we always asked him to play it whenever we were with him and he had access to a church organ.
He was a truly altruistic Member of Parliament, stopping his car at any opportunity in his constituency to talk to pedestrians of any political persuasion. So driving with him took time. In town no taxi driver would charge him a fare as he was the motive force in getting cabbies enclosed in their taxis. Before that they were separated from their fares, unprotected, and subjected to the elements.
He was known in the House for asking more questions than any other MP – presumably questions that the Conservatives wanted to answer. He aspired to be The Father of the House, but one MP outlived him.
Knighted, my aunt, her Ladyship, was not changed by her elevation. After some “do” or other, she was known to roll up her sleeves to help clean up in the kitchen. She was that kind of person, gentle, fun, a brilliant mimic, and much loved.

This was an age and a society that I was so lucky to have been part of as a child and then a young man. In looking back it was grand, yet simple, casual, natural, and all very friendly and hospitable.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Champagne Myth

Many years ago I opened a half bottle of old Champagne. The cork had shrunk and was brown. The fizz had nearly disappeared. The wine was yellow. But the taste was sumptuous.
This gave me the idea that even ordinary Champagne of modest provenance would improve if given age.
So now we buy Champagne when it is cheap and lay it down for a couple of years or more before drinking it.
Before the last Christmas, and after, bottles of the stuff have been on offer for only a little more than the now ubiquitous Prosecco.
It has been a good year to buy, presumably because those who make Champagne have over-produced and need room in their cellars for the new harvest. Or is the public coming around to realise that Champagne is disproportionately expensive for what it is, despite the care and attention that its production needs?
We have been conducting an experiment with that famous French beverage.
Now it so happens that at smart “dos”, Champagne is offered as a sign of opulence and generosity. So we accept it gratefully and gracefully. And it does have a certain celebratory connotation attached to it. But would we choose it for preference if other wines are offered at the same time?
Several times recently we have entertained friends for drinks. Before the arrival of those guests we have opened a bottle of Champagne and offered the choice of it or either red or white wine.
Except for me tasting the Champagne when opened, only one of our guests  chose it (and then only one glass) in preference to either red or white wine. I was amazed, amazed and delighted that for days afterwards we were enjoying the aftermath of those parties by drinking Champagne cocktails as an apertif.
An opened bottle of Champagne keeps its sparkle in the refrigerator for a day or two or more with a stopper of some sort resting in the neck.
For the cocktail, put ice in a large wine glass with a measure of Cognac and three shakes of Angostura bitters (some add a little sweetener). The Champagne is then poured on top, a light stir, and that’s it – delicious. Of course you can do the same using sparkling wine instead of Champagne. And I have become aware that using just brandy is no substitute for Cognac.
The strength of this famous cocktail depends on the amount of Cognac used. Ours start as a strong version and get diluted as sparkling wine is added.