Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Omelette Exploration 5: The 'Lyon Housewife' Method

I am no fan of Michael Portillo (born 1953) either as a politician or a television presenter.  However, this approach to omelettes came as a result of me channel surfing and ending up watching the final episode of Series 3 of 'Great Continental Railway Journeys'.  It was first broadcast in late 2014, but has been repeated since.  Portillo, the presenter, was in the French city of Lyon, somewhere I would like to visit, talking about the traditional, homely 'housewife' style of cooking which is apparently favoured in the city, even among chefs.  This is in contrast to much of the restaurant cooking in France these days.  Even in small places in backwaters the cooking is heavily influenced by nouvelle cuisine approaches which is clearly the prime method taught by chefs and catering schools these days.  The Lyon chef Portillo was speaking to used the example of omelette making to outline the Lyon approach and, this being an interest of mine, I took on board what was said and tried it out myself.

Apparently the Lyon approach is to put coarse sea salt into the egg liquid before cooking.  Once the liquid is in the pan rather than moving it so that the liquid is spread evenly, instead you cover the pan and then draw the cooking egg incessantly into the centre, with the gaps left behind filling with remaining uncooked egg liquid until the omelette is cooked right through.  Of course you use butter for the cooking.  As it is, French butter tends to be very salty.  Typically you come across two types of butter - doux meaning 'sweet' which is unsalted; and demi-sel meaning 'half salt' which has 3% salt content, but tastes as if it has much more.  I would only ever use a doux butter if I had to use French butter.

I do not really see the benefits of this approach.  You end up with very much a 'gathered in' omelette almost looking like a rosette.  Without the flat surfaces you do not get the golden brown coating that I personally favour.  There is also a risk as when you over fill an omelette, that it will break up and you get something resembling scrambled egg rather than an omelette, not bad in itself, but not what you are seeking in this case.  There is a challenge with fillings if they are put in at the cooking stage because they have a different consistency than the egg liquid and can get 'left behind' in the gathering in so leading to a maldistribution of filling in the finished omelette.

I know it is a question of taste, but the sea salt was overbearing, despite me only grinding a pinch of it into the egg liquid, giving the omelette a dry, thirst instilling taste.  I suppose that counters the moistness of omelettes.  However, if using the Lyon approach be aware of the impact that it will have on your fillings; the flavour of a mild cheese or ham will disappear, you would have to use a blue cheese and a strong-flavoured ham to appear beyond the salt, ending up with an 'arid' omelette with a forceful flavour which might make an interesting change but probably too much for the ordinary British consumer.

Perhaps I need to practice more with this approach.  However, for me it produced an omelette very different from one with the attributes I aim for.  I would be interested to hear from others who have given this method a shot or use it habitually to hear more about the benefits of it.  Maybe it simply stems from a dislike of strongly salted dishes in contrast to some people I know.

Sunday, 31 July 2016

The Books I Read In July

Fiction
'Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire'
As I have noted before, I come to read the Harry Potter series from watching the movies more than once each.  This book marks a jump in length from its predecessors; my edition had 636 pages.  As with the previous volumes I have read, the story largely focuses on Harry's life at school.  The adventure element forms a smaller part than in the movies.

The book introduces characters that do not feature in the movie, including magical creatures, additional house elves and members of the Ministry of Magic and of the Weasley family.  There is also a sub-plot about Hermione Granger campaigning for the rights of house elves, an enslaved species in the magic world.  The gaps between the three trials that Harry has to undertake are longer but the portrayal of the challenges themselves, especially the first one, are far shorter than how they are shown in the movie.  This is a shame especially as little Quidditch features in this book.  It also includes lengthy exposition especially towards the end.

I like the book because it has these various sub-plots and the reappearance of teachers who largely disappear in the movie.  It is also good at seeing the qualms in Harry's mind, both standard teenage concerns and the risks of facing his nemesis, Lord Voldemort who experiences a leap forward in strength in this book.  Overall it is not a bad book, but I wanted more of the adventure and less of the vacillations of Potter, but then I guess it is aimed at someone who is 14 and not 48.  As yet, however, I have not been put off completing the series.

'Rumpole's Return' by John Mortimer
Though, as I noted last month, Horace Rumpole, unlike the characters around him, never seems to age, in this book he has retired.  He has gone to live in Florida where his son is an academic.  Interestingly his daughter-in-law is pregnant but continues to smoke.  Rumpole soon tires of life in Florida and returns to his old chambers when called upon by a former colleague.  The story is pretty much a murder mystery with Rumpole and his son gathering evidence on both sides of the Atlantic to help Horace make a defence in a murder case.  The story is alright but is a little unsatisfactory in the comings and goings of Rumpole and the question whether he could really retire and then return.  He has not sold his London flat and his wife comes back from Florida after him too.  By the end of the book the status quo ante has been re-established.  I accept that some of this stems from the fact that these are stories based on what was proving to be a successful television series and so the drivers are those of broadcasting than how an author might work a novel or series of short stories.  The notable change especially from the first book in the series, is the lack of humour, the only funny bit is a repeat of a joke told in an earlier book.  It passes the time to see Rumpole and the quirky characters around him with the addition of interesting aspects of English law and forensic science, but it lacks the engagement of the first book and I do wonder if it is a case of diminishing returns.

'Flight of A Witch' by Ellis Peters
This is another of Peters's books featuring members of the Felse family.  This one was published in 1964 and so George Felse has just been promoted from Detective Sergeant to Detective Inspector and his son Dominic is a sixth former.  Both appear in this book, but as is common for Peters, they are supporting rather than leading characters.  As in many of her books set in England it is based in the border region with Wales, but unlike in 'City of Gold and Shadows' (1973) by which time George is a Detective Chief Inspector, the region is portrayed very bleakly.  The story is centred on an 18-year old girl (the age of majority until 1970 was 21 so people below that age were still considered children though they could have sex at 16, they could not vote), called Annet [sic] Beck.  One difference from the mid-1960s compared to today when more people have children in their 40s than their 20s in Britain, a child of a couple who had turned 40, as Annet is, was expected to be 'wrong' in some way.  Annet disappears for five days and is connected to a crime committed in Birmingham.  The bulk of the story is about finding out what happened to her during those five days and who was the man with her involved with the crime.  There are a range of suspects and George Felse aided by Dominic and a friend of his, plus one of Dominic's teachers, Tom Kenyon, seek to eliminate the suspects and force the actual man involved out of cover.

Ellis does jump around between points of view but less often than in some of her other Felse books.  The steady investigation and the elimination of a number of seemingly likely suspects is handled well.  The main problem is how bleak the book is.  This is not simply a result of the dreary setting, but also because so much of the story is seen through the eyes of Tom Kenyon, foolishly besotted with Annet who is the daughter of his landlord and bitter throughout as a result.  He comes across as a very pathetic character able to contribute much to developments and in fact spends the bulk of the climax a dumb, incapacitated spectator.  The trouble is that you often identify even if only distantly with the perspective of the one showing the story.  Looking through the eyes of George or Dominic consistently would have been alright.  However, seeing so much through Tom's eyes makes you feel dirty.  Unlike Annet he has no form of redemption or even like the criminal, of release.  He ends being humiliated by one of his pupils and has any potential for affection spured.  As a result you feel that his life is pointless.  That is no way to be engaged with a novel.

'Stars and Stripes Forever' by Harry Harrison
I know there is a current tendency for many authors to write 'what if?' novels which accentuate the greatness of the USA or show how it would have benefited from having more of the attitudes of the Confederate States in its make-up.  This book published in 1998 can certainly be seen as one of the first such alternate history books.  It starts well, looking at the real incident of the stopping of the British ship, the 'Trent', in 1861 which was carrying two representatives of the Confederate States to address Queen Victoria and Emperor Napoleon III, by a Union naval ship.  This was violation of Britain's neutrality in the American Civil War and added to British support for the CSA.  Due to its military failings, Britain never formally recognised the Confederate States but did build warships for their navy.  In this alternative, Queen Victoria is angered and her husband Prince Albert is weakened by the illness that was killing him, slightly earlier than in our world.  As a result a strongly worded ultimatum goes to President Lincoln and this leads to Britain entering the war on the side of the Confederates.  So far, so feasible.  These elements take you to almost half way through the book.

Of course, some people argue that no 'what if?' book is feasible, because it is not what happened.  This is despite the fact that in real history it is the least likely thing that happens.  In this book, one British naval party makes a mistake in bad weather and so assaults Biloxi, a Confederate town rather than Deer Island which is occupied by Union troops.  The British forces go on the rampage for some reason through the town looting and raping.  This is seen as sufficient to immediately encourage the Confederate forces to call for a ceasefire from the Union.  Within a day of the British mistake, Union and Confederate troops are fighting side-by-side against the British both in the Mississippi and then in New York state.  Very quickly President Lincoln meets with Jefferson Davis, President of the CSA and they agree on joint action against the British in 1862, setting aside the two years of civil war and the issues that provoked it, very speedily.  The combined forces not only go on to eject the British from the USA, but provoke the French-speaking Lower Canada to break from Britain, then seize the remainder of British territories in North America bar Newfoundland and easily capture all the British Caribbean islands.  A Francophone uprising against British rule is probably the most feasible of those steps, there having been one in 1837-38 which had to be put down by the military.  Setting that aside, at the same time the CSA Congress agrees to the ending of slavery and then abolishes itself effectively returning all the seceded states to the Union by 1863.

There seems so much which is rushed through in this alternative.  Yes, Lincoln wanted to end the war but would not do so at any cost.  He did not recognise the CSA as a legitimate state or Jefferson as a proper President.  Meeting him in the way he does in this book would suggest to many that the CSA was being treated as a sovereign country.  In our history, even after the CSA had been soundly beaten in 1865, many found ways around abolition of slavery and did not roll over easily.  Harrison points out that at the end of the war in 1865, combined, the USA and CSA had an army larger than any European country and he believes that this army could have defeated all those armies fighting in unison, let alone just the British armed forces.  This overlooks the fact that it took the Union Army until 1865 to defeat the Confederates, even with a comprehensive blockade.  Furthermore it overestimates the strength of the Confederate forces, dependent on poor equipment, to fight British regulars and win easily.  Somehow, overnight the two sides of the bitter conflict set aside their differences and they are empowered, especially the Confederate troops, with a new vigour and indeed skill.

The other thing is that the British keep making mistakes and the Americans make none.  In addition, new equipment and weapons are pressed into service with minimal difficulty and are used appropriately throughout; the ships needed are always in the right place at the right time and do not malfunction when needed for victory.  The British, in contrast, cling to old ways.  The war portrayed is largely a re-run of the War of 1812, which is a fair estimate of what might have happened.  However, everything that could go wrong does so for the British and even the civilian population of Washington D.C. prove to better, more committed fighters than British regulars.  The Confederates are shown largely, with a few notable exceptions, as being happy in an instant to stop fighting the very men who drove them to leave the Union and throw over their hard-won allies, the British immediately, making no use of them to leverage any concessions from Lincoln; they simply swallow return to the Union as it was and abolition of slavery just because John Stuart Mill says it is the right thing to do.

Overall the book suggests somehow that the American Civil War was simply an error and the two sides were only fighting half-heartedly for what they believed in, despite their differences being so severe to lead to war in the first place.  To Harrison it only needed a rather feeble invasion in a couple of points to overcome these differences in a matter of days and set the USA to be able to severely damage the largest empire of the day with a handful of iron-clad ships, almost always in perfect working order.  This book starts well, but then Harrison slips into a jingoist fantasy.  He could have reached a similar conclusion much more feasibly, especially given that this is the first book in a trilogy.  Yet, for some reason he feels compelled to rush it all through making it highly unrealistic.  I can only think this comes from a great deal of arrogance as he writes at the end of the book: 'Events, as depicted in this book, would have happened just as they are written here.'  Even an author of a novel about true historical events cannot claim that.  In this case many historians and authors would argue that the path this book lays out is far from having been likely even with the British error.  This could have been a far better book, but for a fan of alternate history books it will be very frustrating to read.

Non Fiction
'The Economic Impact of the Cold War' by James L. Clayton
This book was published in 1970 so only covers the first half of the Cold War and it is primarily focused on the impact on the US economy.  It starts by looking at a range of economic/political perspectives on what defence spending does to an economy.  However, its central focus is a very astute analysis of the so-called military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower identified in 1961, i.e. the intimate connections between government departments, especially the Department of Defense and big companies particularly in aeronautics, ordnance and engineering.  It shows that despite the USA portraying itself as the home of free enterprise, in fact the billions of dollars in defence contracts from 1941 onwards led to a large chunk of the US economy really being a complicit cartel, a kind of corporatist economy more familiar in Fascist states than democratic ones.

The book draws on a wide range of contemporary sources, putting both sides of the case, both broadly, e.g. on whether defence spending boosted or drained the economy and on specifics such as the Vietnam War and ABMs (Anti-Ballistic Missiles) both of which were controversial at the time.  The book is very interesting on how uneven defence spending has been across the USA and shows that the current day prosperity of California and Texas was promoted by vast defence-related spending in these states in the post-war period.  It reminds of schemes that have long been forgotten and highlights the waste and poor quality often produced from such expenditure.  Thus, the analysis is of the kind which could be applied to governmental spending today as we are familiar with similar stories for example in software developed for the health service and air traffic control.  It is also the only book that I have read that presents a negative view of the US efforts to put a man on the Moon and how the money spent on the missions provided little benefit for the country and could have been better spent.

While the book looks at a single country over a particular period of its history, the way it analyses the situation and provides frameworks for this analysis, it is an engaging book which can be taken forward to use as a basis for analysis of state-commercial relations especially on vast schemes the output of which is difficult to measure in tangible terms of success.

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.



Friday, 15 July 2016

Biscuit Blog: Co-operative Truly Irresistible Fruit and Oat Cookies

Co-operative Truly Irresistible Fruit and Oat Cookies


These biscuits highlight some of the trends that I have noted in passing in recent months in terms of biscuits.  As you see the Co-op is using the term 'cookie' in the same way that Tesco is, i.e. to signify a thicker biscuit containing something and again, in this case, a soft biscuit rather than one with a snap.  These are also in a vertical cardboard box rather than a horizontally orientated plastic packet.  This format apparently designates better quality, emphasised by the 'Truly Irresistible' tag you can see at the top left.  You do wonder if they have a 'I can take them or leave them' range which is that bit cheaper.

Co-op has had a good reputation for baked goods in recent years and their biscuits are sound.  These seemed to have less fruit in them than indicated in the photograph which seems to show genuinely homemade biscuits.  They are soft, almost to the extent on verging on being cakes, but not crumbly in the way shown in the picture.  That was no problem for me as I do not want to lose chunks of my biscuit as I bite into it.  They had a reasonably fruity flavour and the 'fruit', i.e. raisins were not tiny dried specks but had some moistness about them.  I could not detect oats particularly within these biscuits, from them I would have expected a chewier even snappier biscuit.  These had a good level of moreishness, but I was felt that with a little more effort, i.e. more snap and some other fruit like orange zest, they could have been excellent.  I mark them down a little for seeming to lack the oat input promised on the box.

Rating:
*****

By the way, in the UK, the way, legally, that a biscuit is distinguished from a cake is that a biscuit goes soft when it is stale whereas a cake goes hard when stale.  This is why Jaffa Cakes are cakes, even though they look like biscuits, if you leave them, they will go harder than when at purchase, rather than softer.  I did not try the staleness test on these to see if they had crossed the biscuit/cake line.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Biscuit Blog: Tower Gate Fruit Shortcake

Tower Gate Fruit Shortcake



Back in March, I discussed before the difference between 'shortbread' and 'shortcake' biscuits:

http://rooksmoor.blogspot.co.uk/2016/03/biscuit-blog-crawfords-shortcake.html

However, it was only recently that I found out that the 'short' is a lump of fat used in the cooking process.  Fruit shortcake biscuits are different from the standard shortcake biscuits you will find in our supermarkets, what I used to term 'tractor biscuits' due to the distinctive diagonal patterning around the edges.  Fruit shortcake biscuits are circular rather than rectangular and are usually around a third of the thickness of a standard shortcake biscuit.  They lack the diagonal pattern but instead have small holes on the upper side, a crimped edge and a kind of 'weave' pattern on the underside; the one pictured is of a classic design in this respect.  They can often have white sugar sprinkled across the upper side.

As mentioned before Tower Gate are a Lidl provided brand notably for biscuits.  Thus, they are aiming at the cheaper end of the market.  These fit the standard pattern, but were a little thin. The biscuit did not have a distinct flavour and the fruit which was present in about the right quantity did not really bring the sweetness I expected.  They had a sightly limp snap on being bitten.  Thus, they were alright but not fruity enough really to mark them out from a standard shortcake biscuit and lacked the creaminess of some fruit shortcakes to allow them to compete against rich tea biscuits.  They get slightly marked up for value.

Rating:
*****

Thursday, 30 June 2016

The Books I Read In June

Fiction
'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 fiancĂ© 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.

Non-Fiction
'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.