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.


Thursday, 5 May 2016

Biscuit Blog: Tower Gate Ginger Nuts

Tower Gate Ginger Nuts

These were one of the brands of ginger biscuits that seem to have been hit by the biscuit shortage earlier this year so I was glad to find them back in circulation.  For a discount supermarket these are very good biscuits.  They have what you are looking for in a ginger nut - a good snap, a clean not powdery texture and a good flavour. These have the gingeriness that I am looking for, not as sharp as the Hall ones I tried last month.  I think these are a very good biscuit, though a little small in diameter, you get a lot in a packet as can be seen above.  For me they lacked moreishness but as certainly well above many ginger nuts I have been tasting recently.


Saturday, 30 April 2016

The Books I Read In April

'The One From the Other' by Philip Kerr
For much of this book I feared it would fall prey to many of the difficulties I have found with others in the Bernie Gunther series that I have read recently.  There were scenes in Germany, Palestine and Egypt in 1937 that appeared irrelevant to the rest of the book which is set in Bavaria and Austria in 1949.  I also felt, as with 'Red Gold' by Alan Furst that I read last month, that the cases that Gunther tackles were too episodic.  It was as if we were viewing a number of stories that could have developed into a full book but had been left stunted.  However, fortunately Kerr held back from too much jumping around in time and eventually, almost at the end, the strands came together making the book better than the sum of its parts and finally one of the better of the recent volumes of the Gunther series. It was aided by being shorter than some of them, only 387 pages of narrative in the version I read.  Saying this, so many of his books now overlap in narrating Gunther's life that it can be confusing to determine where you are now reading about him.  In particular in this book he returns to Vienna only a year after he had to leave the city in 'A German Requiem' (1991) which came out 15 years before this book was published.

The main remaining flaw stems from how Kerr has developed Gunther's very world weary, wise-cracking detective.  As reviewers have noted, increasingly he has the style of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, which fits well with action set in the 1930s-50s.  However, for a lot of this book, Gunther seems utterly deluded about what is happening, only regaining his wits toward the very end.  You can put this down to him suffering from grief and ill-health, but it is a wrench in the writing when suddenly he 'wakes up'.  Kerr also continues his annoying habit of insisting that Gunther meets leading members of the Nazi Regime or their allies.  In fact it is something he almost satirises when assassins after Gunther reference him in lots of pictures with such men.  In this book he meets Adolf Eichmann and the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Mohammed Amin al-Husseini.

I wonder if I have read too many of these stories and that it is too much to expect consistency within a novel these days when editors are not even available to leading authors and across novels, when it is over a decade between one and another.  I keep feeling that Kerr is on the verge of an excellent book but a lack of discipline and a lack of tautness in what he is writing keeps frustrating him from achieving that.

'A Quiet Flame' by Philip Kerr
This is the last of the Bernie Gunther novels that I have at present though another has been published and one is due.  As with a number of these that I have read recently I have felt that they were alright but could have been excellent.  Perhaps Kerr needs a stronger editor.  There are certain traits in his Gunther stories which he feels compelled to include but I think weaken what could be excellent stories.  The use of jumping between two periods of time has its uses and in some of these novels, it helps give us background to what is happening in the later set parts of the story.  I think it works best in 'If The Dead Rise Not' (2009) which was published a year after 'A Quiet Flame' but with me tending to read them in the chronology of the stories, I read a couple of years ago.  It is a device which Kerr overuses now and in this story adds little.  He goes between Berlin in 1932 and Buenos Aires in 1950 when Gunther ended up at the close of 'The One From the Other' (2006) which I read earlier this month.  The greater weakness is Kerr's insistence that Gunther meets leading lights of the time.  In this novel he manages to pack in the leading Nazis, Arthur Nebe, Adolf Eichmann, Josef Mengele, Otto Skorzeny and Hans Kammler.  There seems to be no reason for Skorzeny to turn up.  Gunther also meets the dictator of Argentina at the time, Juan Perón and his wife Eva 'Evita' Perón.  As a result as Gunther notes himself, he is assigned far too many overlapping jobs.

Kerr could have written two excellent novels - one set in Berlin in 1932 with a gruesome murder and the rise of the Nazis against the background of the last days of the Weimar Republic.  He could then have written a fast-moving story set in Buenos Aires in 1950, with Gunther uncovering secrets of the Perón regime.  Mixing them together weakens both elements.  In addition, Kerr piles too much on Gunther that is unresolved.  Various women standing as someone else's wife or daughter seems unnecessarily complicated and much of what Gunther is charged with resolving simply peters out.  The climax happens about three-quarters to seven-eighths of the way through the book and the remainder feels as if he has no idea how to finish it.

As always there is excellent historical detail both in the settings, in what is happening and the way people behave.  The trouble is that Kerr too often loses sight of a good story in fulfilling his desire to shine a light of loads of bits of history in the novel.  In this case less would be much more.  Some gritty crime novels set in 1930s Berlin or 1950s South America would be fine.  However, the author strays up far too many side paths that by the end you feel exasperated rather than gripped.

'The Seeds of Time' by John Wyndham
It is now 35 years since I last read a book by Wyndham, 'The Day of the Triffids' (1951) as a result of seeing the 1981 television series.  I did not even know there had been a 2009 television series.  I remember that book being very much of its time, post-war British science fiction of the 'Quatermass' ilk that was only really shaken up in the late 1960s and early 1970s by the more psychedelic influenced science fiction.  This collection published in 1956, fits with that rather twee post-war British science fiction, despite what Wyndham writes about trying to break from the norms of the genre of that era.  It is certainly less engaging and less challenging than the 'The Astounding Science Fiction Anthology' (1952) edited by John W. Campbell, Jr. that I read in 2010:  and suggests that, despite acclaim for Wyndham, he was not on a par with his US counterparts of the time.

There are some highlights in this book, but a number of the stories are twee science fiction romances, notably 'Chronoclasm' (though the title is great) about a woman from a future having a romance with a man. Of course, this line would be used to full effect in 'Terminator' (1984).  Similarly there is 'Opposite Number' with a similar romantic air but making use of parallel worlds.  Such themes are very common these days but might have appeared much fresher and intriguing when the book was written.  Some of the stories do have an edge, such as 'Survival' about cannibalism in a stranded spacecraft; 'Pillar to Post' about two men, an invalid from the present and an effete man from the distant future battling for control of each other's body and 'Dumb Martian' which is a modernised version of colonial administrator in a backwater exploiting the local populations.  'Pawley's Peepholes' is a whimsical story again with time-travel romance, that feels almost Victorian in nature.  'Meteor' - not to be confused with the 1950 William T. Powers short story of the same name is alright looking at aliens seeking to escape destruction of their own planet by coming to Earth and the difficulties they encounter when they land.

The stories were written before the space race and indeed some, it is not clear how many, were even written before the Second World War.  Thus views, such as water and people living on Mars seem painfully dated.  This is exacerbated by the portrayal of women who even when mature are referred to as 'girls' and are expected to be unable to cope with the pressures of space exploration.  Wyndham even seems to expect that the cost of living, rendered in pounds/shillings/pence would not change, though it would be only 15 years after the book was published that Britain would finally decimalise its currency.

Those standing up better to the test of time include 'Time to Rest' about settlers on Mars following the destruction of Earth (very reminiscent of 'The Martian Chronicles' (1950) by Ray Bradbury); 'Compassion Circuit' about a home-help robot - I read  a short story very similar to this in 'The Guardian' newspaper earlier this year and 'Wild Flower' about plant mutations caused by radiation.  Overall, this collection gives you a feel for mid-20th century British science fiction and the establishment of certain tropes which are now in common usage.  However, unlike the 'Astounding' collection, it does not surprise you with forgotten gems.

'Best Secret Service Stories' ed. by John Welcome
This is a collection from 1960.  I do not know why Faber seem to so like these anthologies.  I read their 1993 ‘The Faber Book of Espionage’  back in April 2012:  and I read a similar collection to this one but from Headline, last July:  It is another anthology of short stories and extracts.  It is better than those two collections, though it seems compulsory to include something from Somerset Maugham's 'Ashenden: Or the British Agent' (1928) and 'The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans' (1908) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in all of these things.  The former is very dull; the latter is fine.  There is an extract from 'Live and Let Die' (1954), a James Bond novel by Ian Fleming but the others are unfamiliar to me.

There are two spy stories set in the American Civil War and given how many novels seem to be coming out about that war, I am surprised not to have seen more like this before,  'Parker Anderson, Philosopher' by Ambrose Bierce is rather contorted rather than adventurous; 'High Tide' by John P. Marquand is far better and very engaging.  There is also 'News Out of Spain' by A.E.W. Mason, which is set during the 1580s around the preparations of the Spanish Armada and one could easily imagine a whole set of spy stories in this context, but I have never encountered any.  The other stories are set in the mid-20th century.  'The Hut' by Geoffrey Household could have been far more gripping and ends up with a range of characters wittering on about a killing and so losing any tension.

'The Flaw in the Crystal' by Godfrey Smith is far too convoluted to be entertaining though it does seem to have echoes of George Smiley stories by John Le Carre.  'Dr Lartius' by John Buchan set during the First World War is alright, but it is narrated so lacks the tension too, it is almost as if it is setting out an idea rather than being a developed work of fiction.  This is a little the case with 'The Trial of Marius Derocq' but it manages a little better and bringing the reader into the story.  'Double Double Cross' by Peter Cheyney starts reasonably though the twist ends up being whimsical when it could have been harder in tone and thus better.  'Water on the Brain' by Compton Mackenzie suffers even more from that almost trying to be humorous in approach.   'Espionage' by Dennis Wheatley is probably the best and manages to get tension into a short story.

The book appeared just before the arrival of the gritty spy novels of the 1960s which raised up the genre greatly.  It shows spy writing in a difficult position, perhaps because of the genuine stories from the two world wars being well known to readers.  The daring of the Victorian era had gone and yet the cynicism of the 1960s was not yet in place.  It introduced me to some writers I would not have encountered which I imagine was the purpose of the collection.  More than that it sparked thoughts on why we have not seen more historical spy fiction, even now when we have had over twenty years of medieval detective stories.'

'Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets' by J.K. Rowling
This was the most enjoyable book I have read for quite a while.  Perhaps that says something about my level of literacy given that the edition I had inherited indicated it had won an award for the best book for 9-11 year olds.  I feel that in this book Rowling got into her stride.  The hesitancy of the early sections of 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone' had been worked out and so this book moves along at a cracking and engaging pace.  I still have my qualms about the lionising of the elite public school system; there is even a reference to Eton which does not feature in the movies.  However, fortunately, Rowling begins to counter-balance this a little by the tensions around biological 'racism' in the magical world with people attacking 'mudbloods', i.e. people from non-magical families.  It is a decent primer for children on the basis of biological discrimination and lays the basis for the anti-Fascist message which appears in later books.

If like me, you come to the books after having watched the movies, you will notice that the climactic action part has far less coverage in the book than it does in the movie.  Rowling seems far more concerned with school life and the development of her characters which is a fair approach but may leave some readers wondering when the exciting bit is going to be reached.  I had been told that there are parts of the books which do not appear in the movies and this became more apparent with this second book.  The revelation of what a 'Squib' is, i.e. someone from a magical family with no magical ability themselves; the Deathday party for one of the ghosts with rotten food and the Valentine-letter delivering dwarfs do not appear in the movie.  Ginny Weasley's affection for Harry Potter is much clearer in the book.  The action is stretched over a longer period and Hermione Granger remains a cat-girl for weeks; similarly those petrified are in that state for far longer than in the movie.  The fate of the mandrakes, humanoid plants is a dodgy issue as they are shown as going through different ages coming to maturity at which stage they are presumably killed in adulthood, when it is noted they try to start cohabiting, to make a potion.

Reading this book I can now better understand why the series was so popular as books.  It is a child's book but sensibly Rowling does not shy away from concerns that children will be coming to as they age, even when looking at a fantastical world.

'The Labour Government 1964-70' by Brian Lapping
Lapping was a Labour Party member asked by Penguin in 1971 to analyse the preceding Labour governments, 1964-66 and 1966-70.  These had seen Harold Wilson as prime minister, coming to officer after 13 years of Conservative government which had followed in the wake of the immediate post-war Labour governments.  As Lapping shows, Labour came to power with big ideas, particularly in terms of planning the economy and modernising Britain.  A lot of their plans were immediately undermined by the economic situation.  At the time and enduring into the 1970s, the status of the pound as an international currency and the balance of payments, i.e. the difference between imports and exports were the dominant way the economy was judged, in a way that they are no longer.  The Wilson governments struggled to adjust the imbalance built up over the preceding years without imposing austerity and they also suffered from international financiers speculators weighing in to try to shape government policy in favour of big business.  Thus, in the economic sphere these governments are seen as failures and Lapping is unstinting in his criticism of the governments' inability to counteract these constraints.

As the book progresses, however, other sectors of UK society which tend to get overlooked show that Wilson was a moderniser and he and his ministers worked hard to make Britain a country fit for the 1960s and 1970s rather than clinging tightly to the glories of the past.  As today, such people face blind opposition, but the record is pretty good especially given the economic difficulties that were faced.  This book is a very good reminder that things which are now perhaps taken for granted, such as rules for equality for women and ethnic minorities; attempts to alleviate poverty and even the obligation to consult the public about urban development did not simply appear but had to be legislated for, taking a great deal of concentrated effort.

The most outstanding part of this book is how prescient Lapping was.  In many sections, if you took out the dates, you could think he was talking about Britain in the 2010s.  He was very far sighted on a wide range of issues such as the Britain's desire but lack of money to keep up a world role; challenges facing private tenants; hostility to immigrants; surveillance and keeping of computer records on people; the challenges of urban and transport planning even down to the level of bus companies in towns something that remains a challenge; the formation of unitary local authorities; demands for greater autonomy for Wales and Scotland; the difficulties of paying for social welfare and the National Health Service; the need for social workers; how university staff can be rewarded for their teaching; the fact that all higher education institutions wanted to become universities; the desire to retain grammar schools; the need for more technical and vocational education and so on.  What is fascinating but a little disheartening is that Lapping's analysis of the ills of the UK stand up even forty-five years later and many remain unresolved.  In addition, many of the attitudes used to challenge Wilson and his governments are still being rolled out today.

This is a brief (219 pages) analysis of a particular time in British history.  It explains the complexities of what was going on, especially in the economy, in a very accessible way.  It also reveals Brian Lapping as an acute analyst of Britain who was able to outline its experience in the coming decades.  It is a history book but is almost stronger in showing how the shape of things to come were apparent to those who effectively analysed the situation in the early 1970s.  Yet, like Wilson, they proved incapable of overcoming the robust conservative resistance to change that was necessary for the benefit of the wider UK population.

'The Heath Government 1970-74' ed. by Stuart Ball and Anthony Seldon
This was a logical book to read after the Lapping one.  It is different in style with a series of chapters written by different historians and commentators each taking a different facet of the period in government.  Looking along my 'to read shelf, I realised that this year I have a number of books written by people I have met.  In this case I have only met one of the authors, John Ramsden (1947-2009) who I ran into at the Clacket Lane services on the M25 in the early 2000s; in addition I briefly met Edward Heath himself in 1995.  The book is very thorough in its analysis, but good at presenting complex situations especially over the balance of payments, inflation and wage agreements.  The two editors seem to have had a light touch on the various chapter authors and as a result there is quite a bit of repetition especially in the political and economic chapters; in some cases even the same quotations are used more than once, let alone points that are made.

Edward Heath's government has suffered from attacks both from left-wingers who have condemned him for his confrontations with workers and for trying to restrict free collective bargaining, but also from the Conservative Party, his party itself.  The Thatcherites condemned Heath as representing all the failures of the party and its failed approaches.  Ironically, as is noted on a number of occasions in the book two of the leading Thatcherites, Margaret Thatcher herself and Sir Keith Joseph, were ministers right throughout the Heath government and oversaw two of the largest spending departments in that period, despite their aversion to the public sector and public expenditure.  In addition, many of the leading ministers of the Thatcher administrations worked under Heath.

Heath is not excused in this book.  His aloofness and distance from his party are noted as failings.  His expectation of reasonable behaviour from those he had to deal with whether coal miners, foreign governments and sectarian parties, put him at a disadvantage.  However, the book does rescue Heath from the damnation of the Thatcherites and shows that he was not some kind of pathetic aberration but fitted in the context of the time.  While Heath himself set out to be very different from Wilson, one can actually see them as coming from the same mould.  They were men who had come from ordinary backgrounds and had thrived through hard work rather than privilege.  They were not afraid to be the people they were.  They were also clearly technocrats of that mid-20th century ilk.  Both men sought to improve the British economy and get industry working in a more efficient way and both failed in the face of obstinacy both from workers and from industrialists.  Heath certainly appears in this book very like his European conservative counterparts such as Konrad Adenauer in West Germany and Charles De Gaulle in France, but even like the West German Social Democrat Willy Brandt.  In Britain that modernist, efficiency, technological approach to conservatism, had a very brief existence and was hammered by its opponents from both sides of the political spectrum, to the extent that it has been effectively erased from the memory of the Conservative Party.

The book shows that Heath came into office far better prepared than most other Prime Ministers.  However, he was in a time of high unpredictability and anyone in that position would have struggled whether Wilson or Thatcher or any other possible candidate.  The end of the post-war boom, the oil price 'shock', increasing aspirations and consumerism, the challenges of immigration brought on by regimes such as Idi Amin's and conversely the rise of explicit racism and increasing sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.  Perhaps only in Enoch Powell, the chief rival within the Conservative Party to Heath, do we see a problem specific to Heath; then again Powell would have caused difficulties whoever was in office.

While the book could  have benefited from some tighter editing and discussion between the various chapter authors, perhaps with a baseline chapter outlining events clinically to save on people rehearsing these throughout the book, it is a very thorough and even handed analysis of a period in British history which is often too easily; often deliberately, misunderstood.