Sunday, 24 July 2016

Omelette Exploration 4: The 'Bliny' Omelette

If you are not familiar with 'bliny', they are pancakes, with savoury or sweet fillings, originating in Eastern Europe.  The singular is 'blin'.  They are also popular in the USA, largely as a result of their use in Jewish cooking.  A bliny pan is a frying pan about the size of your palm.  Naturally it can also be used for making omelettes.  All the rules I have outlined in previous Omelette Exploration postings, i.e. that you need butter for the cooking, good free-range eggs and should avoid an excessive amount of filling, still apply.  The question of the filling is even more important with the 'bliny' omelette than the standard, larger omelettes that I have written about so far.

Heat is also a vital factor.  This is something that people often get wrong and there is nothing wondering about clouds of butter smoke pouring from your pan and yet, you tend to want a golden colour to your omelette.  People tend to forget that the pan itself gets hot, it is not simply about the flame or electrical glow beneath it.  Indeed if making a number of omelettes as you will tend to do with the 'bliny' approach, by the end you will find you can do quite a bit of cooking actually lifting the pan away from the heat source and using the heat retained in the metal of the pan to finish them.

Cooking bliny omelettes is a fast process and you will need to make sure everything is in place, including the people who are going to eat them.  The quantity of egg liquid you pour into the pan each time will probably be equivalent to the contents of a third to half an egg.  Be sure that you can pour your egg liquid in with care and not just dollop in too much that will prove difficult with the small plan usually ending up with egg liquid wasted all over your cooker.  Keep the filling to no more than what you might hold between three fingers.  It tends to go into the centre of the omelette rather than being evenly distributed as with standard omelettes.  Indeed you may fold the bliny omelette over in half to effectively make an omelette 'sandwich' of the contents.

The bliny approach allows you to vary the fillings from omelette to omelette so catering to a range of tastes at your table.  I did this approach with four people none of whom liked the fillings favoured by the others.  As before, cheese is a good ingredient for sticking together; herbs are not problem, but make sure that heavier fillings like ham or bacon are cut into small pieces, smaller even than with a standard omelette, otherwise they will break the structure.  You can then easily end up rather than a perfect sunshine disc of omelette with simply lumps of omelette adhering to bits of filling.

As with the mille-feuille omelette, there is something aesthetic about the bliny omelette.  With the former you are looking for the layers when you cut through it.  The bliny omelette is about a row of discs of omelette.  I suggest a minimum of four per person's plate, lined up, slightly overlapping each other; perhaps with a different filling in each.  Unlike with a standard omelette, however, they are not at the centre of the dish, they are the accompaniment.  Thus, you might want to keep to vegetable fillings, e.g. finally chopped onions, especially red onions or spring onions, or mushrooms, maybe even fresh chunks of tomato, rather than meat.  Your main item on the plate may be slices or ham or even cold fish, a piece of peppered mackerel will go well with a set of bliny omelettes.  I tend to do this approach with my diners ready to eat straight from the pan.  However, there is nothing to say that you cannot produce a range of bliny omelettes and then store them to eat later, especially at a picnic.

Cooking four to sixteen bliny omelettes in the same pan is going to mean it is hot.  By the end you will find that the egg liquid will cook on contact with the pan surface.  For this reason you may want to leave plain/unfilled bliny omelettes in your set to last.  Of course, there is something elegant about a whole set of unfilled omelettes anyway, well, in my view.  What you will find unless they are being coloured by blackened butter in your pan, is that you will not get to the golden brown shade on the outside that you will find with standard omelettes.  They will be the yellow or (hopefully if you are using good eggs) orange shade of the egg liquid.  This is fine.  As they are thin and small, they are certain to be cooked right through, a great phobia still of British people eating omelettes.  In addition, the trick with some olive oil, that I have mentioned before, can help give them a golden tinge.

The bliny approach is different to the typical one of going in with big omelettes jammed full of stuff.  They allow you to produce omelettes for a range of tastes around a single table and to provide what I feel are an attractive food especially for going with summer dishes.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

The Books I Read In June

'Rumpole of the Bailey' by John Mortimer
This is a collection of short stories, though there are linking threads and ongoing characters connecting them.  They are adapted from the television series broadcast in 1978. They are presented as a memoir of Horace Rumpole, a fictional defence barrister, working on cases mainly in the late 1970s, though with regular references to ones in the 1960s and even before that.  Rumpole is a quirky character who is more at home mixing with his criminal defendants than with the pompous lawyers and judges he works with.  He has very fixed habits including working on crosswords, quoting poetry and drinking claret in Fleet Street.  Mortimer has succeeded in drawing up a very rich character who is avuncular and likable even when cranky and does not always win.  Through the eyes of Rumpole he is very adept at drawing sketches of all of those he encounters, based on views of the time, but with the Rumpole feel for humanity mixed in.

You might think it is a challenge to write funny stories about criminal court cases (there is also a divorce case), but Mortimer has succeeded and I found myself laughing out loud at a book for the first time in ages.  At the same time, you learn a great deal about the British legal system, at least how it function in the mid to late 20th century.  There have been many changes, but I am sure modern lawyers would still recognise a lot of what Mortimer writes about.  That may not be the case in the future.  I particularly noted the reference to Legal Aid, which is now largely dead.  It shows how difficult the defence barrister's role is, especially when faced with fixed attitudes from the police and judiciary; often the jury as well.  It shows how hard it can be working with a defendant who has an agendum which is different for simply being found not guilty.  I came away from the book pleased that Britain has a jury system.  I know the German legal system better as a consequence of my crime novels and the use of just a judge even if there are two assessors assisting, seems to fix in stone establishment attitudes.  Yes, juries can be bigoted, but there are times when they see beyond the mechanical assumptions of the legal machine.  Though dated, this was a surprisingly enjoyable book.  I have three other books from Mortimer to read and am now looking forward to them.

'The Trials of Rumpole' by John Mortimer
This book follows on directly from 'Rumpole of the Bailey' and was published a year later and are set in the late 1970s. As others have noted, while the characters in Rumpole's chambers and indeed in the courts, seem to progress and we see one couple go from courting to marriage and having their first child, Horace Rumpole seems never to alter being around 70 forever more.  This book has another sequence of cases, which are engaging but lack the laugh out loud humour of the first book.  At times the plots against Rumpole, to get him to retire and to emigrate to the USA to live with his son and insufferable daughter-in-law are irritating.  The book travels along reasonably pleasantly, but these cases are often more serious, two involving sexual aspects that you cannot treat with a light tone.  Revenge also appears as common motive in these stories.  Thus, the stories are of interest and indeed of entertainment, but overall have a different, darker tone to those of the preceding book.  I have 'The Return of Rumpole' to follow and am not put off reading it.

'Death to the Landlords!' by Ellis Peters
I had not realised how many novels featuring the Felse family Peters wrote.  The were 13 published 1951-78 and featured George Felse and other members of his family, including his son Dominic Felse who appears in this novel.  This one was published in 1972 and sees Dominic return to India that he first visited in 'Mourning Raga' (1969) which I read last month.  However, it turns out there is 'The Knocker on Death's Door' (1970) between the two books, which I do not have a copy of.  I was suspicious that I had missed out part of the ongoing story because Theodosia Barber, Dominic Felse's girlfriend, a leading instigator of action in the two Felse books I had read so far, does not appear in this novel.  She only gets a couple of mentions towards the end.  There are three novels between the first of this series I read, 'The Piper on the Mountain' (1966) and 'Mourning Raga' but I do not know which characters they featured, as the jump between those two books was far less apparent.

Anyway, it is clear in 'Death to the Landlords!' that though Peters had been publishing under various names since 1937, by the early 1970s, she had polished her skills in writing the Felse stories.  There is still the challenge of her switching point of view through a number of characters, but this happens less frequently and less abruptly than in the previous two Felse books I had read.  This makes the book progress more smoothly.  Peters certainly has a skill in these stories in involving amateurs in crime situations and making it feasible for them to be there and drawn in.  She is excellent in providing a rich context with very well observed details on the locations where the action takes.  This story moves Felse from Delhi down to Kerala and Tamil Nadu in southern India but she describes each place so well, you can really envisage it.  This goes for the people too.

For a western writer, at times Peters rather overdoes the 'dignified local', in this book even more than in 'Mourning Raga', but she does create a cast of credible Indian characters that appear to avoid stereotype.  Peters also seems alert to the social, sectarian, ethnic and regional divisions of India at the time.  This novel features Naxalite terrorists who remain active in India to the present day.  Conversely she seems to have no time for westerners bumming around India seeking themselves.  Even her 'hero' Dominic Felse who has returned to India after graduating from University of Oxford (Theodosia in the year below him is still there), to work in agricultural development, is shown as a little careless and directionless in his engagement with India.

I found the novel surprisingly engaging when I expected to find it dated and adopting a Eurocentric perspective.  The thing is that, with the wonderful portrayals of Indian locations, some of which, yes, are from a tourist perspective, though not all, and with the cast of interesting Indian characters, Dominic Felse almost disappears.  If she had written the book in the 1990s, perhaps she would not have felt the need for a Western protagonist or maybe even then she was alert to possible accusations of cultural appropriation.  It seems apparent Peters had Indian friends.  Felse is not at all necessary to the plot, not really even as a binding thread between the action in different locations and you wonder why he is needed. He is almost a spectral figure in the plot, overshadowed by everyone else whether Indian or European.  He even misses out on the climax of the story which has a satisfyingly messy battle, that adds to the realism of the book.

Despite this unusual approach, while I have enjoyed the Cadfael books, these have revealed a different side to Peters.  Though there are flaws in these books, notably the shift in point of view, but there is a surprising realism about them.  I could easily see the stories being brought up to date for television in the style of the BBC dramatisation of 'The Night Manager' (2016) with no need to alter the stories much and certainly no fear that the portrayal of Indians (and indeed Slovaks) appeared inappropriate for the 21st century.

On the surface this book may seem a 'comfortable' murder mystery of the classic Agatha Christie style, but in fact engages much more with the grittiness of murder, especially using bombs, and provides credible characters that drive the book as much as the plot itself.  Certainly if I stumble across another Felse book, especially from the latter period, I would take it up and I have not been able to say that about many series.

'City of Gold and Shadows' by Ellis Peters
Well, clearly I was overly optimistic.  This is the 12th book in the Felse family series.  It features Dominic Felse's father, Detective Chief Inspector George Felse.  Dominic and Theodosia Barber are mentioned in passing.  This book was published in 1973 and so their story has advanced.  Theodosia has graduated, trained as a nurse (not a graduate profession at the time) and gone to work with her fiancé Dominic aiding the Swami's agricultural programme in India.  This book lack all of the engaging elements of 'Death to the Landlords!' and is much more a 'cosy' murder mystery story set in rural England; in the fictitious county of Midshire.  It is interesting that in her books set in Czechoslovakia and India she makes great use of real places.  In this novel she conjures up an essence of an English county on the border with Wales and refers to a fictitious Roman settlement; to me it sounded very much like what I had seen at St. Albans, though it is supposed to be on a large scale, a 'pleasure city' on the Roman frontier.  I am not sure such things existed; I never saw 'Time Team' dig up one.  The story involves rather disconnectedly the disappearance of Charlotte Rossignol's great uncle and strange happenings around the Roman ruins.  A school boy is killed.  Overall the story is very much like an episode of 'Midsomer Murders' (18 series broadcast so far since 1997) with a restricted number of suspects, people involved with the site and police officers.

To me the book marked rather a step backwards for Peters, but maybe she found that these more 'Miss Marple' type stories sold better than ones about people gallivanting around Indian locations that most British readers were unfamiliar with.  There is rather a confused situation with the sexual politics of the time (early 1970s).  As I noted before the engaged couple have a chaste relationship, though in this book, there is a young woman married to an older man in a sexless relationship and attempts at seduction by her and a young man, Augustus, are rather awkward as if Peters felt they needed to be included but not how to handle them.  Another problem I have noted before is that Peters creates ensembles of people well, but then we are not clear who the lead character is supposed to be.  It starts of seeming to be Charlotte and at times it is Augustus or George.  She does less of the jumping in terms of point of view, but we do seem to flit from one character to another in a rather erratic manner which rather takes the drive out of the novel.  She is good at jeopardy, dealing with people fighting for their lives, as in previous books, but because we are uncertain who we are rooting for, there is far less engagement than there should have been.  Overall a pretty mediocre book which is a let down after the last one of Peters's that I read.

'Chocky' by John Wyndham
As I noted when reviewing Wyndham's 'The Seeds of Time' last month, one challenge of reading some old science fiction, this book dates from 1968, from a 1963 short story, some of the edge is taken off the story.  This is because what might have been puzzling or startling back then, by now has entered the mainstream consciousness that immediately when you begin the story you have a clear idea of what is going on.  That is the case with 'Chocky' told through the eyes of David Gore, father of Matthew who has an alien intelligence benignly sharing his mind.  Unlike people of the past we do not ponder what is happening, the clues are very clear to us.  However, despite the lack of a mystery about what is going on this still stands up as a robust story and I am not surprised it has been repeatedly dramatised - on radio in 1968, 1975 and 1998, as a television series in 1984 and with speculation on a possible movie in 2008.  The strength of the book is really in the interaction between Matthew, aged 12, his father and his mother Mary.  It comes over as convincing and echoes stories about families coping with a child's terminal illness or kidnapping and indeed more mundane discussions about the future path for any child and the phases they go through on the way.

In this book Wyndham avoids being twee or indeed even sentimental about childhood.  The dialogue is convincing and the shifting perceptions of the two parents and the boy himself are credible.  Though there are some references that place this in a particular time - prices in shillings, people smoking indoors and comparatively ordinary men dining in clubs, this is less fixed to a time than the short stories I read last month.  It much better demonstrates Wyndham's skills as a writer and reminds us why his stories do remain chilling even when read beyond the time they were written.  Whilst he is a science fiction writer, his strength lies in his ability to acutely portray ordinary humans dealing with the extraordinary situations that they are presented with.

'What Difference Did the War Make?' ed. by Brian Brivati and Harriet Jones
As I have mentioned before a number of books I have on my 'to read' shelf for this year are by people I have met.  In this case I met both the authors.  I encountered Harriet Jones at an underground station in 1999, she was taking her son to see 'My Favourite Martian' (1999).  Though an American she has written extensively on British history.  She was effectively trapped in the UK because the British father of her son would not let her take him from the country.  I imagined he passed 18 sometime in the 2000s so I doubt this is still the case.  Like me, Jones lived in East London, but unlike me in one of those Georgian squares where the houses look like No. 10 Downing Street.  Brian Brivati I met a year or so later in Kingston.  We got to discussing holidays.  While I was always seeking somewhere different to go, he said that he and his family always went back to the same resort each year, I believe in Italy; he asked why, if you enjoy somewhere, would you want to turn your back on it?  He also gave me some useful advice on CV writing which was still important in those days, but it came too late and it meant that I certainly (rather than possibly) missed out on a job that would have changed my life.

The book is a collection of ten academic papers which came out of a conference in 1991 by the Institute of Contemporary British History Summer School, basically answering the question in the title, with each historian (ironically not including Brivati and Jones themselves) taking a different facet of political, economic or social history, bracketed by 1929-59, though some see longer term trends.  Especially in earlier chapters there is a clear sense that they have come from oral presentations, the opening chapter by Peter Hennessy in particular has a colloquial tone.  As the book progresses it settles down into them being more like standard academic articles.  Hennessy, Eric Hobsbawm (who I met on two occasions but lacked anything to say) and Geoffrey Warner cover pretty standard views of the post-war era, showing the constraints and false assumptions the British government operated under.  Warner is good, however, in tracking the progress of Ernest Bevin's views on foreign policy. Malcolm Smith of changing post-war public views of what the British state involved is reasonable.  The one by David Morgan and Mary Evans fails convincingly to make the link between the writing and George Orwell and post-war 'citizenship' but it is good in reminding us not to simply accept standard portrayals of the inter-war period.

Nicholas Owen gives a very comprehensive outline of the challenges that face Britain in handling India in particular, unlike so much writing, through teasing out the rifts among different Indian political groups and divisions within them.  Mark Cornwall looking at Britain's relationship with Czechoslovakia is probably most revelatory on the 1930-38 period rather than post-war, clearly showing the derogatory attitude to Czechoslovakia and its people that gained strength rapidly in British government in those years, adding a very important context to British involvement in the Munich Agreement.  E.G.H. Pedaliu in looking at relations with Italy brings the book full circle to showing how restricted Britain's options were by the expense of the war.

For me the best two papers are by Penny Summerfield on the impact on women and Bill Osbergy on  perceptions of youth.  Summerfield makes use of extensive data to show that there was a change for women as a result of the war but it is different to that commonly accepted.  Instead of a vast change in the employment of women (it rose by only 20% above the pre-war level) it was in the nature of the industries they worked in and increasingly the nature of women with a great rise in older, married women in the workplace and women marrying younger and often leaving the workforce (even if temporarily) as a result.  Osbergy shows how while we may best know the 1950s concerns about delinquent juveniles, this simply repeated trends going back at least to the 1880s.  He shows regular peaks of prosperity of young people as a result of shifts in the economy, then matched by an outcry about their dress, culture and behaviour.  He also usefully highlights how the teenager was effectively a working class phenomenon until the late 1950s - mid-1960s when the expansion of further and higher education led middle class young people into seeking a culture distinct from their parents.

Overall a wide mixture of approaches, but ones which in large part seek to shake up views of the post-war era in Britain and the wider world and remind us of many aspects which have been smoothed over in the simplification of the story of the times.

'The Welfare State in Britain since 1945' by Rodney Lowe
Rather than been a historical approach Lowe works more on a social science basis.  It is a very workerlike book in that largely unemotionally he first takes the theories that have been applied to welfare provision and then looks at all the different facets, e.g. education, housing, health, personal social services, etc. in turn.  Eschewing strict chronology he is able to draw appropriate examples from throughout their periods he focuses upon.  He also makes suitable comparisons with the USA, France and West Germany.  Furthermore, Lowe is adept at highlighting the political pressures that ministers and indeed opposition parties faced that show that welfare policy is not, as often seems to be how it is portrayed, developed in its own world, but in reference to other political trends.  Similarly he charts the adoption and then failure of Keynesianism followed by the rise of monetarism and its dire consequences.

The book (I was reading the 1999 edition) is best on what Lowe calls the 'classic' welfare state, from 1945-75, though referencing examples from outside that period when it is beneficial.  The aspect on 1976-97 is far weaker and is very rushed.  He does summarise what the Thatcherites did and why and also, as he does throughout the book, explodes common myths about the period.  However, the book is imbalanced with this section about a seventh of the overall rather than approaching even pro-rata equivalence to the first half.  Lowe is excellent in writing plainly (though he overuses brackets to a huge extent) and making telling points.  This is a very good book if you wish to know about the first thirty years of welfare in Britain.  It highlights things that though considered earlier would only later be adopted, such as working and family tax credits and suggestions for a minimum wage and even a guaranteed income as is being tried in some continental locations now.  Living in the 21st century, however, the book would be improved by an update given all that the Thatcherites and the Blairites wrought on the welfare systems.

Friday, 24 June 2016

Omelette Exploration 3: The Mille-Feuille Approach

'Mille-feuille' literally means 'thousand leaves' and is a type of cake, sometimes known as a custard slice, though these days you can see a variety of flavours.  On the savoury side there is also the salmon millefeuille which consists of layers of smoked salmon between bread, crackers or pastry with cream and other ingredients involved.  The leaves refer to multiple layers though there will always be much fewer than a thousand.

Mille-feuille is also an approach to making an omelette and one that received attention at the time of the salmonella in UK eggs scare of 1988, when people were warned that 'runny' eggs could contain the contamination and the British took to cooking all their eggs very thoroughly.  My mother adopted the approach of grilling her omelettes after cooking them in a pan and continues to do so today even 28 years later.  Grilling an omelette can help crisp out the outer layer and give it the golden brown colour.  However, if you are using decent quality eggs as outlined in my previous omelette posting and you put a splash of olive oil in with your cooking butter in the pan, then you should get this anyway.

The concern to cook every egg thoroughly and not have uncooked beaten egg liquid in the centre of your omelette leads to mille-feuille.  It also works well if you are cooking an omelette for a lot of people who want the same filling or no filling.  You are replacing breadth for depth.  You make one large omelette and then simply slice it.  This will look odd to some people but is the easiest way when cooking using this approach.  I have done it with nine eggs in the liquid (I saw 'liquid' rather than 'mixture' because as I noted in the first posting of this series there should be nothing in there that was not in the egg, i.e. milk), without difficulty.

Rather than drawing the egg into the middle as it cooks and filling the emptied space of the pan with more egg mixture or using a large pan simply allowing the omelette to rise, instead you keep folding.  Once you have covered the whole pan once, you fold a half of the cooked egg over and then fill the remaining half with egg liquid.  Once this new half is well on the way to cooking you fold over the first half into it.  This exposes the other half of the pan and you fill this with more egg mixture.  Once this is on its way to cooking, you bring the now fatter half back over on to it.

You can repeat this halving and turning for as long as you have egg liquid.  Typically I will do the process three or four times.  When you cut into the omelette you will see that there are a number of layers, perhaps six or eight, maybe more.  Thus, it tastes different on the tongue to a 'standard omelette'.  In fact you are eating a series of nested omelettes.  The important thing for the British is that each layer is thin, not thick as if you had poured all the egg liquid in at once.  This means it will be cooked through.  There is an additional benefit if you are looking to include fillings.

One of the greatest errors with omelette fillings is to put too much in.  I heard on Radio 1 recently a DJ had tweeted to the world to ask what he was doing wrong with his omelettes.  The renowned chef Tom Kerridge tweeted back that his filling to egg liquid mixture was too high.  People stuff their omelettes and then break up the structure far too much.  They wonder why they end up with a 'mess' but this is always going to be the case if they overload.  The thing to remember is that whilst the omelette looks big and robust, in fact it is the weakest element.  Ham and mushrooms, even some herbs are heavier than even the cooked omelette and can easily tear through the omelette structure.  Cheese, as I have noted before, is different and can work as a bond between components of the omelette.

Now, when using the mille-feuille approach to omelettes this is no warrant to go mad with your fillings.  However, because of the layering, if you get them in early in the folding process, even if they fragment the inner layers, there will be the outer ones coming along to seal over any gaps and package up the whole thing.  With mille-feuille do not leave fillings until too late, start getting them in on the first or second layer.  You can put cheese into the outer layers without risk and if you are making a particularly thick omelette then this can help you.

The main challenge with the mille-feuille approach to omelettes is getting the halves over neatly without breaking up the omelette structure.  You need good tools for this and something which is firm not a flimsy plastic turner but something rigid and broad enough to carry the bulk of the omelette even when it has grown.  I have done it with a flat knife and a fork, but something broader is better, even a fish slice!  The other thing is to watch the heat.  People forget that even if the electricity or gas is kept at a steady level, the pan you are using is getting hotter and hotter.  Thus, as you get into the middle and outer layers, take the heat down; gas is better for this than electricity, but remember even lifting the pan off the heat, the omelette will keep cooking from the heat that is already in the metal.  There is nothing worse than a burnt outer layer.  For the reason also keep butter standing by in case there is a need to stop the liquid adhering to the pan as you continue.

This is a straight forward approach to large omelettes or ones with a good deal of fillings to be contained in them or for people who are squeamish about getting any drop of uncooked egg in their omelette.

Friday, 3 June 2016

Biscuit Blog: McVitie's Ginger Nuts

McVitie's Ginger Nuts

McVitie's was the brand most hit by the flooding in Cumbria which caused biscuit shortages in the early part of this year.  However, supplies are now back to normal.  As regular readers know I tend to shop in discount supermarkets and buy own brands.  This does not stop others bringing brand named products into the house or as in this case giving them to me directly.  These ginger nuts are reasonable.  However, they lack the snap that I look for in this kind of biscuit.  They are almost soft to the bite, though not to the extent that the Tesco's ones I sampled earlier this year were; these are certainly not powdery.  The upfront taste has a lemony tang and you only get a real ginger bite in the aftertaste.  They serve their purpose without being outstanding.


Tuesday, 31 May 2016

The Books I Read In May

'The Man Who Would Be King and Other Stories' by Rudyard Kipling
In many ways I should not have been surprised by this book.  I know Kipling as an author of stories set in British-ruled India; it was published first in 1888.  Though I have not read any of his books before, I have seen movies of 'Kim' (novel 1901; movie 1950) and the movie of the main story in this book released in 1975; I have seen extracts of the cartoon version of 'The Jungle Book' (stories 1894-5; movie 1967 and 2016).  Perhaps, as a result I expected more action and even humour from this collection of short stories.  The humour that is tried seems very contorted and specific to a very particular time and place. I could imagine it would not have gone down well even with readers of the time who were not associated with colonial rule in India or with the military.  Overall in the first part of the book in particular, you get a very narrow focus and a great deal of repetition.

Many of the settings in Simla, the hill town that British officials, officers and their families would retreat to when the plains of India became too hot.  They are largely set in the 1880s and the first third of the book features stories primarily about extra-marital affairs rendered in similar ways. They are largely tedious and made inaccessible for a modern reader by a combination of Victorian grammar and slang mixing both English and pseudo-Hindi terms.  As the book progresses there is a move to ghost stories which is an improvement, though the first of these, 'The Phantom 'Rickshaw' itself stems from an extra-marital affair.

There is the eponymous story but it is presented very differently to the movie in that we only hear it third hand with one of the heroes recounting it to a British journalist in central India.  It has all the elements but so far removed from the action lacks a sense of tension and conversely is rushed.  There are three stories about various adventures, misadventures and poor treatment of small boys which may have been Kipling reflecting on his own childhood and probably was an element of him preparing for 'Kim' and 'The Jungle Book Stories' but lacking the charm of those; the confused battle involving two drummer boys, 'The Drums of the Fore and Aft' takes this another step.

You do learn quite a bit about this very small slice of British society abroad and even the geography of Simla and the surrounding area.  However, the short stories, even when trying to be humorous say very little.  I can contrast them sharply with the short stories of Herman Charles Bosman, best known for 'Mafeking Road and Other Stories' (1947) that my girlfriend is currently reading to me.  Now, these were published sixty years after Kipling's collection.  However, by focusing on rural Transvaal in the 1900s they provide a similar context of a small society in the latter phase of British imperialism, with a mixture of specific slang, in this case old Afrikaans words.  Yet the quality of Bosman's short stories put Kipling's in the shade.  Bosman is able to take the small incidents that appear in the restricted context and turn out both humorous and wistful stories that are excellently crafted.  Having both books on the go at the same time has shown me the poor quality of this particular collection of Kipling's.

'The Piper on the Mountain' by Ellis Peters
This was one of six novels written by Peters not featuring the 12th century monk Brother Cadfael.  The book was published in 1966 and sort of centres on the amateur detective, Dominic Felse.  In this story he is a 2nd Year undergraduate English Literature student at the University of Oxford.  He gets drawn into the investigation by 1st Year student Theodosia Barber (affectionately known as 'Tossa'!) into the death of her former step-father while walking in the Lower Tatra Mountains of Slovakia, at the time in Communist Czechoslovakia.  Though the Cold War was in full flow when the book was written Peters seemed to expect growing detente.  The story, while in London and Oxford is perfunctory, there is nothing to really show you the time or the place and it could be any one of a hundred novels of this era.  It becomes far better when Dominic and Tossa go on a touring holiday with other students, female/male twins.  Peters really conjures up the setting of that area of Slovakia; its wildlife and people, while avoiding stereotypes.  She seems far better informed about this rural region than she does about towns in Britain.

Though there is a death and a murder, this is really more like a spy adventure featuring bright young things, charging around.  The story effectively becomes a modernised Dornford Yates (1885-1960; published 1914-56) book, especially the Richard Chandos stories (published 1927-49) which were often in Central Europe.  Peters does well to produce a sense of jeopardy, which shows how people writing short (it is only 162 pages), adventure stories can do this, something lacking in spy stories I have read recently.  The twist is pretty good.  In many ways it was an old fashioned story even at the time it was written, but if you are willing to accept it, that is fine.

The main flaw in the early part of the book is that Peters jumps between a number of points of view, sometimes even on a single page.  It is only after the halfway point that Felse becomes the clear hero, that this situation settles down.  I am surprised an editor did not pick this up at the time.  It is not a bad book and the scenes where the heroes are pinned down by a sniper are handled notably well.  I do not expect to be stretched by the other five books, but I certainly will not throw them away at this stage.

'Mourning Raga' by Ellis Peters
This is another book by Peters featuring Dominic Felse and Theodosia Barber who are now girlfriend/boyfriend and a further year on at University of Oxford.  Being in the mid-sixties (the book was published in 1969, which being three years after the first book they would have finished their studies by now if it was contemporaneous) they do not sleep together.  Peters is able to produce a sound reason for sending them to New Delhi to accompany the 14-year old half-American/half-Indian daughter of a movie star back to her father in India.  The girl, Anjli, is kidnapped and the bulk of the story is about recovering her.  There are numerous big male Indian characters whose personalities dominate the book and push Felse and Barber into the background, it is far less their story than 'The Piper on the Mountain' though perhaps that was intentional to have Indian characters in the lead.  While Peters does draw characteristics of different types of Indians, notably contrasting Punjabis and Bengalis, she does seem intent to show India as a modern country.  As in the previous novel she clearly knows her location well and gives immense detail of New Dehli, not simply the tourist sites but how it was growing and developing in the 1960s.  It is a twisty plot and at times the number of characters can be a little overwhelming.  This is not aided by her repeating the tendency from the previous book of abruptly switching points of view often on the same page and you can be uncertain whose eyes you are seeing through, further adding to the two 'lead' characters seeming to be pushed into second place.

Despite the references to fashion of the late 1960s, this feels like a modern book which you could present as a television drama now.  I admire the effort Peters puts into the panoply of characters and her largely avoiding taking a Western-tinted view on India.  However, this would have been a more pleasant read if she had kept tighter rein on the perspective.  I know it can be useful when trying to put twists in the plot, but by the closing chapter you are left rather breathlessly bewildered.  I suppose for a mystery writer that is not too bad a thing, but as a reader despite this being a short book (159 pages in my edition) you have to really pay attention.

'Nine Tomorrows' by Isaac Asimov
I have not read any books by Asimov before even though he published tens of them.  I think I was put off by expecting them to be very much 'hard' science fiction about pondering the vastness of space in dreary spaceships.  This is a collection of short stories originally published 1956-58.  They compare favourably with the John Wyndham collection of roughly the same era that I read last month.  On occasion there is a feeling that they are dated, especially in referring to miniature film and taped books, though these would have seemed feasible even just twenty years ago.  Indeed the development of computers on to molecular processing still seems ahead of its time.

Some of the concepts Asimov covers have become very common in writing since he explored them, but I think it is his skill as an author that keeps them seeming fresh in how he looks at them.  He does ponder big issues but without the stories becoming ponderous in the way I feared.  'Profession' looks at young people in a society in which your profession is decided, a theme taken up in many dystopias and indeed had featured in 'Brave New World' (1931) well before this story.  Yet Asimov shows the challenges of this approach and what a society might need.  'The Feeling of Power' could easily be produced today and actually echoes something I have experienced in the past two years.  With a long-running interplanetary battle reaching stalemate, the humans come up with a new 'invention' that rather than relying on computers to calculate everything humans can be trained to do it, so introducing elements to thwart their opponents and at a cheaper price. A couple of years ago, I was challenged to do some cubed numbers in my head and did them faster than a colleague could type them into their phone, so this kind of issue remains current.

There are a couple of almost science fiction detective mysteries.  'The Dying Night' is clever in that the murderer is detected as a result of the behaviour they exhibit resulting from the planet in the solar system they have been based on.  'I'm in Marsport without Hilda' feels more dated really in the way it shows the investigator having an extra-marital affair rather than how he decides which of the three businessmen is a drugs smuggler.  I wonder if there are other such detective/SF crossovers; I can only really think of 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?' (1968).

'The Gentle Vultures' with its obsession with nuclear war might seem dated, but it does provide an interesting alien view of Earth, different to those who simply come in peace or those who just want to conquer and is good at getting the alien mindset across.  'The Troubles of the World' turns out to be cleverer than you might first expect.  It seems to combine aspects of what would had featured two years before in 'The Minority Report' (short story 1956; movie 2002) with something like the computers in '2001: A Space Odyssey' (novel and movie, 1968) and 'Dark Star' (movie, 1974).  'Spell My Name with an 'S'' again shows its age because of Cold War references but also establishes tropes that now often feature in science fiction about how destined we are to live a certain life, whether out future is predictable and if a small change can bring about a very different outcome; the 'Back to the Future' movie trilogy (1985-90) is just one among many that build on those questions.

'The Last Question' is a bit more of what I expected - big questions about the universe across millennia and a rather trite ending.  'The Ugly Little Boy' about snatching people and objects from the past to study them in the present is another theme which is now common but fresher when this story was written.  Towards the end you might expect the outcome but it has a welcome humanity about it.

Overall I was presently surprised by this collection.  It was not as heavy or gloomy as I had anticipated and Asimov shows off a skill in short story writing that maybe contributes a great deal to that.  Even though the collection is now so old, it still has a lot to say to many of the issues we are facing today as all the best science fiction does.  I certainly am more likely to pick up an Isaac Asimov book if I come across one in the future, especially if it has short stories rather than a full novel.

'My Legendary Girlfriend' by Mike Gayle
This book published in 1998 was billed as a male version of 'Bridget Jones's Diary' (1996),  There are similarities.  One is that it is broken up in chronological chunks, though unlike Helen Fielding's book covering months, Gayle's does it over a matter hours stretching from a Friday afternoon through a weekend to a Monday morning. This is part of the problem with the book and makes it unattractive.  It is horribly claustrophobic.  The lead character, Will Kelly spends a lot of his time in a shabby flat which he takes no care of, with brief journeys to convenience stores and a pub in the Archway area of London and to Highgate Cemetery with unpleasant or desultory interactions with almost everyone.

A lot of the book, as the title suggests is about relationships.  He has lengthy telephone conversations with a range of people, not many of whom are sympathetic characters.  The lack of other social media dates the book.  Kelly obsesses over the girlfriend who dumped him three years earlier, after three years together; the anniversary of the relationship is on his birthday, the Sunday of the weekend.  Though it is a short book (215 pages in the edition I had which has very small type), it drags terribly.  You become angry with Will Kelly for being such a slob and being so lazy with his life.  Unlike with Bridget Jones, there is very little humour in the situation.  Perhaps, Gayle, being a former agony uncle felt unable to raise humour from problems facing many young people in London, notably appalling accommodation at expensive rents and the loneliness especially in Britain in which people are so busy 'networking' that they have no time to be with their 'friends'.

The ending is rushed and has a resolution which seems incongruous given how gloomy the rest of the book has been.  You may say I would have enjoyed it more if I had read it when in my 20s, but I think it would have been impossible then to face up to this story which echoed so much of the problems of my own life and without the happy ending that Kelly gets.

'Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban' by J.K. Rowling
By the third book in the Harry Potter series you feel that Rowling has really got into her stride in writing novels and this is very polished, especially if set alongside the first book.  For those, like me, who know the Potter stories best from the movies, this one diverges even more than the previous two.  The broad outline of events are the same, but many of the details are very different.  In some ways I think the movie line is less jerky and makes better use of the time travel aspect.  The climax with Harry, Ron and Hermione finding out who is lying is much messier in the book and leaves you rather confused; it is clearer in the movie.  The Divination teacher, Sybil Trelawney, gets a far bigger role in the book than the movie and she predicts many things accurately, to some degree putting Hermione in a dimmer light than she otherwise has.  Her classroom is also very otherworldly in the books.

Overall, the flavour of this book is darker than the movie version.  This gets you ready for the aspects which become increasingly apparent as the book persists.  The complexity of adult relationships, notably friendships, is not skirted over.  The dark flavour is added to by the fact that the humour of the movie is rather overshadowed in the book and as before, Harry's treatment by the Dursleys, however much light is made of it, still grates as abuse.  I suppose this is somewhat of a plot device to make Harry happy to spend more time at his boarding school, even during the holidays.  As before in the books, the working of the school seems to be Rowling's central focus, much more than is apparent in the movies.  In particular in this story where the climax is a revelation rather than battling a monster, what is the focus on action on screen, is only a small piece of the book and indeed the aftermath continues well after this climax is concluded.  I enjoyed the book but am increasingly conscious that I am reading what is primarily a school novel rather than a fantasy novel.

'The Knight and the Merchant' by Grant Uden
In my childhood in the 1970s school libraries often had many books written in the 1950s and 1960s which featured great people and great events of history.  Some would have a fictional story involving children encountering these people or being present at the events.  With an eagerness for history I was often directed to read such books.  I remember 'The Grey Apple Tree' by Vera Cumberlege (1965) about the Battle of Hastings and the work of Geoffrey Trease, unsurprising given that he published 113 books in a career stretching from 1934-97.  Also numerous were books which lacked the fictional element and were a biography of some famous person's life.  However, even in these, the language was often very descriptive and at sometimes bombastic and even a little jingoistic, in a way referencing the sense of 'New Elizabethan' Britain of the 1950s and 1960s, proud of its history but looking to the future too.

My copy of 'The Knight and the Merchant' (1965) certainly fits the latter pattern.  I see that it comes from a library and has been cancelled.  Where I got it from, I have no idea, perhaps from a jumble sale at a school.  The book narrates in rich terms, the lives of Anthony Woodville, 2nd Earl Rivers (1440-83) and William Caxton (1421-91).  Woodville was very much involved in the Wars of the Roses and became brother-in-law to King Edward IV (1442-83; ruled 1461-70 and 1471-83).  Both men had very interesting careers which is presumably why they were selected.  The Woodville family rose from being poor knights to serving the king directly.  Anthony was involved in battles of the Wars of the Roses, but was also a keen jouster and later a vigorous pilgrim.  Caxton was a successful cloth merchant who lived in Bruges for much of his adult life and became the leading representative of British merchants in the Low Countries.  He attracted the attention of the court of the Duke of Burgundy and through this of Anthony Woodville.  Caxton changed career at the age of 50, setting himself up as a printer in London and some of his early work was commissioned through Woodville.

Various incidents from the lives of the two men, especially when their paths crossed.  Through it we learn a lot about the Wars of the Roses and life among the merchant and noble classes of 15th century England and the near Continent.  It does not pull its punches in terms of death and execution.  However, it is written in a style that really carries you along.  It is reinforced through quotations taken from texts of the time.  As a popular history book, despite its age, it works well and very effectively highlighted some facets of late medieval history that I was not overly familiar with.  I certainly feel I have a better grasp of the Wars of the Roses and indeed of early printing in England and I guess that was the point of the book.

'The Fire and the Rose' by Arthur Bryant
This is a digest of chapters from a number of history books written by Bryant in the 1960s.  This edition published in 1972 was offered as part of a promotion by Shell petrol stations, March-May 1972.  It may have come from my grandfather who enjoyed popular history books and getting deals from petrol stations; I still use plates he got through petrol station promotions in the 1980s.  Bryant like Uden is part of that mid-20th century tendency to try to interest the general public in history through presenting it as dramatic narrative.  Bryant takes less of a patriotic approach than the Shell packaging and seems influenced at least to some extent by the 'everyday history' approach which reached its zenith in the UK in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Despite all the chapters being written by the same man, they vary considerably in quality and interest.  The chapter on the escape from Dunkirk by the British and French forces in 1940 is the weakest, saying very little about what happened or why, just going on about the psychological impact which Bryant sees as the basis of the Allied victory.  The chapter on the Battle of Crécy and the one on the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 are both good in concisely giving the background, in the first in military developments in the second in terms of socio-economic ones, that allow a good understanding of why the outcome was as it turned out.  The narrative carries you along without being melodramatic. The same can be said for the chapter on the 1842 northern uprising a less well known element of British history, but here giving the context of deprivation in factory towns it is comprehensible and the changes Bryant shows it initiated might be unexpected.

The chapter on the escape of King Charles II could have been engaging but really becomes a list of locales he visited.  It is interesting to see how far he ranged.  The blind obedience to him by Royalists and his minimal concern about the fate they might have faced for aiding him is galling for a modern reader.  The fact that he let them kiss his hand as a supposedly fine reward, sums it up.  The chapter on the Great Fire of London from Samuel Pepys perspective is alright, though really tells us more about Pepys the philanderer than the course of the fire, though it shows the impact clearly.  The Retreat to Corunna chapter is the longest.  It raised the perception of the commander Sir John Moore in my eyes.  It is highly disparaging of the Spanish and Portuguese being overly obsessed on martial spirit.  It portrays the very bleak circumstances of the country and the retreat but detached from how people behaved as a result.  The chapter on the Battle of Waterloo is reasonable and brings out how close the British, if not the Prussians, came to losing.

Overall a curious book that would not be produced nowadays and certainly would not be promoted by petrol stations, whether patriotic or not.  There is some good historical writing here but on occasion too many of Bryant's hang-ups intrude and weaken significantly chapters that could have been far better.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Omelette Exploration 2: Good Eggs

You can make omelettes out of almost everything that is a liquid.  I have known people who have made coffee omelettes when all they had in their house was instant coffee and butter.  I have heard stories from the Second World War of people short of food making omelettes from the blood of livestock.  I have never tried anything beyond the use of eggs.  However, strictly omeletting is as much an approach to cooking as what goes into it.  Thus, it is almost entirely free in how you interpret it, hence my exploration of at least some of the paths you go down with omelettes.

Today I am going to expound my views on the basic ingredient that almost all of us will encounter with omelettes and that is eggs.  There have been campaigns against battery farmed eggs for at least the past three decades.  However, it is not only the cruelty to the chickens, obviously if you have ever encountered a crippled rescue chicken, which is a bad effect of such an approach but also the quality of the egg itself.  I am not a vegetarian and I see good quality livestock products going hand-in-hand with good treatment of the animal providing them.  In terms of egg quality, barn bred hens, i.e. those free to move around but not go outside are not good enough either.

If you have owned chickens you know that often they are not the way people assume.  Many people think they are herbivores.  Many farmers simply feed them corn and/or layer's mash pellets.  In fact chickens are omnivores.  They like fresh vegetables, they like grass but they also love beetles, worms and frogs.  Chickens will fight over eating a frog.  The importance of the meat in a chicken's diet is that it puts Omega 3 into their eggs.  In the UK Omega 3 began to disappear from chicken eggs from the 1970s onwards, so eliminating an important source of this nutrient.  It is easier to get it from your egg consumption than from a tablet, especially if you are not keen on fish.

Picking up an egg you can tell a great deal about the chicken's life.  If the egg is pale in colour then, except with some breeds, it has not eaten grass.  You will expect browner eggs in the summer to those layed in the winter, but certainly you are looking at least for a tan colour to show you a chicken which has run free and eaten what it wants.  If the shell is stippled like the surface of a tiny, tiny golfball, then the chicken was stressed.  In worse cases they will lay small, constrained eggs.  However, if you see this small, hardened pattern the chicken may have been scared, perhaps from a fox attack or from seeing chickens around it stressed.  Thus, this can be a conflicting signal as it might show the chicken is out and about or among other stressed chickens.

Shaking an egg will help you learn more about what the chicken has eaten.  You want the contents to feel 'gloopy' and not watery.  This indicates a chicken that has eaten meat.  Once you open it, you are looking for a bright but dark orange yolk, rather than the yellow too often portrayed in the media.  The more watery and the paler the contents of the egg, the poorer the quality.  A proper free range egg is hard to work with.  It will need to be folded for twice as long as a barn raised chicken's egg.  However, using proper free range eggs you will understand how artists like Vincent Van Gogh used them on paintings.  If  you put a poor quality supermarket egg on a painting if would run off.  A free-range egg dries to a hard texture like Polyfilla.  You can stick things together with it and if you do not soak your plates and bowls quickly you will find you need a knife to really scrape it off.  For cooking and especially adding fillings, this works far better for you when making omelettes (or indeed scrambled, poached or fried eggs) that something sloppy sliding all over the place and lacking both the flavour and the nutrients you need.

Free range eggs are more easily available than ever.  Lidl sells them.  Also look around your area as many people are keeping chickens (though in back gardens rather than on balconies of flats as they do in Belgium) and you can typically buy from them at a very good price; recycle your egg boxes with these people and even get to know the ladies who are providing your basic omelette ingredient.

Next I will be looking at some of the different ways I have experimented with in making omelettes from the Lyons housewife approach to the mille-feuille method to mini-omelettes in a row.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Biscuit Blog: Oreo Chocolate Creme

Oreo Chocolate Creme

I am not the only person who brings biscuits into my house.  As a biscuit connoisseur, however, I am interested to try other people's selections especially ones I would not normally sample myself.  I know Oreos are a very successful US biscuit brand, to the extent that you can even get Oreo ice cream in supermarkets and fast food outlets.  I found these biscuits too harsh.  Perhaps if they were the ones with the vanilla filling they would have been better because the chocolate is very dark and so adds to the bitterness of the overall flavour.  I have failed to show it clearly in the picture, but it is a 'sandwich' biscuit, two discs with a filling. The biscuit discs are firm with a good snap and they look to be of quality.  However, the flavour of the of the biscuit element is also very bitter, meaning that combined with the filling you get something that tastes more like a digestif to aid digestion after a meal, rather than a sweet biscuit.  Yes, it might do alright sitting on the side of a strong coffee or an alcoholic aperitif, but as a day-to-day biscuit, the flavour is far too strong.