31 December 2011

Happy New Year


Here's wishing everyone a
Happy and Prosperous 2012!

Listography : Top 5 Photos of 2011

I'm glad that Kate's Listography this week has eschewed the temptation to ask about our New Year Resolutions — if only because I don't believe NYRs!

No, this week Kate has asked us to choose our five favourite photos of 2011 from amongst those we've taken. This I like! I could easily do a lot more than five. So I decided that I'd give you my five favourite 2011 flower photographs from my Flickr photostream.

1. Crocuses (taken in our garden in February)


[7/52] Crocuses


2. Jonquil (taken in our garden in March)


Jonquil


3. Peony (taken at Kew Gardens in May)


Peony


4. Hebe (taken in our garden in July)


[29/52] Hebe


5. Hollyhock (taken in Chipping Norton in September)


Hollyhock

The Peony and the Crocuses appeared in my photobook (see on the right).

Enjoy!
Have a great 2012!

30 December 2011

Ten Things of 2011: The Summary

Back in January I set out to write ten things each month so that at the end of this year you knew 120 more things about me: things I like and things I dislike. Just for the record, and seeing as it's the end of the year, here is the complete list ...

Things I Like
  1. Sex
  2. Cats
  3. Steam Trains
  4. Koi
  5. Nudity
  6. Roses
  7. Beer
  8. Sunshine
  9. Photography
  10. Tea
  11. Beaujolais Nouveau
  12. Fresh Snow
Things I Won't Do
  1. Play Golf
  2. Sailing
  3. Ballroom Dancing
  4. Bungee Jumping
  5. Wearing DJ/Tuxedo
  6. Wear Jacket and Tie on Holiday
  7. Parachute
  8. Eat Sheep's Eyes or Tripe
  9. Take any more Exams
  10. Halloween
  11. Plumbing
  12. Go Horse Racing

Something I want to do
  1. Visit Japan
  2. Take a Trip on Orient Express
  3. Expand my Family History
  4. Travel Wick/Thurso to Penzence by Train
  5. Have Acupuncture
  6. Have a Nudist Holiday
  7. Visit Scilly Isles
  8. Win £2M
  9. Get Rid of my Depression
  10. Fly on Flightdeck of an Airliner
  11. Visit Norway & Sweden
  12. Write a Book
Blogs I Like
  1. Katyboo
  2. Emily Nagoski :: Sex Nerd
  3. The Magistrates Blog
  4. Art by Ren Adams
  5. Whoopee
  6. Aetiology
  7. Not Exactly Rocket Science
  8. Norn's Notebook
  9. The Loom
  10. Bad Science
  11. Cocktail Party Physics
  12. Postsecret

Books I Like
  1. Anthony Powell; A Dance to the Music of Time
  2. Brad Warner; Sex, Sin & Zen
  3. Mary Roach; Stiff
  4. Lewis Carroll; Alice in Wonderland
  5. Brown, Fergusson, Lawrence & Lees; Tracks & Signs
    of the Birds of Britain & Europe
  6. John Guillim, A Display of Heraldrie
  7. Diary of Samuel Pepys
  8. AN Wilson, After the Victorians
  9. Florence Greenberg; Jewish Cookery
  10. Nick McCamley; Secret Underground Cities
  11. Douglas Adams, Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy
  12. Charles Nicholls; The Reckoning
Music I Like
  1. Pink Floyd, Wish You Were Here
  2. Beatles, Abbey Road
  3. Yes, Close to the Edge
  4. Monteverdi, 1610 Vespers
  5. Caravan, In the Land of Pink & Grey
  6. Carl Orff, Carmina Burana
  7. Amanda Palmer, Map of Tasmania
  8. William Byrd, The Battell
  9. Pink Floyd, Learning to Fly
  10. Moody Blues, Octave
  11. Handel, Messiah
  12. JS Bach, Christmas Oratorio

Food I Like
  1. Curry
  2. Pasta
  3. Sausage
  4. Butter Beans
  5. Whitebait
  6. Avocado
  7. Cheese
  8. Smoked Fish, especially Eel
  9. Chips
  10. Swiss Chard
  11. Pizza
  12. Treacle Tart
Food & Drink I Dislike
  1. Egg Custard
  2. Carrots
  3. Sweetcorn
  4. Pernod
  5. Sheep's Eyes
  6. Green Tea
  7. Tapioca
  8. Absinthe
  9. Marron Glacé
  10. Milk
  11. Sweet Potatoes
  12. Butternut Squash
Words I Like
  1. Cunt
  2. Crenellate
  3. Merkin
  4. Merhari
  5. Amniomancy
  6. Vespiary
  7. Numpty
  8. Halberd
  9. Verisimilitude
  10. Persiflage
  11. Mendicant
  12. Antepenultimate

Quotes I Like
  1. If you don't concern yourself with your wife's cat, you will lose something irretrievable between you. [Haruki Murakami]
  2. When we talk about settling the world's problems, we're barking up the wrong tree. The world is perfect. It's a mess. It has always been a mess. We are not going to change it. Our job is to straighten out our own lives. [Joseph Campbell]
  3. The purpose of our lives is to be happy. [Dalai Lama]
  4. The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it. [Flannery O’Connor]
  5. I like small furry animals — as long as they're tasty. [Lisa Jardine]
  6. The covers of this book are too far apart. [Ambrose Bierce]
  7. It will pass, sir, like other days in the army. [Anthony Powell]
  8. The gap between strategic rhetoric and operational reality remains dangerously wide. [Prof. Gordon Hewitt]
  9. Pro bono publico, nil bloody panico. [Rear-Admiral Sir Morgan Morgan-Giles]
  10. Well, art is art, isn't it? Still, on the other hand, water is water! And East is East and West is West and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste more like prunes than a rhubarb does. Now you tell me what you know? [Groucho Marx]
  11. The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose. [JBS Haldane]
  12. If we don't change our direction we're liable to end up where we're going. [Chinese Proverb]

29 December 2011

Quotes of the Week


This week's mix ...

Mother Parrot's Advice to her Children
Never get up till the sun gets up,
Or the mists will give you a cold,
And a parrot whose lungs have once been touched
Will never live to be old.
Never eat plums that are not quite ripe,
For perhaps they will give you a pain:
And never dispute what the hornbill says,
Or you'll never dispute again.
Never despise the power of speech:
Learn every word as it comes,
For this is the pride of the parrot race,
That it speaks in a thousand tongues.
Never stay up when the sun goes down,
But sleep in your own home bed,
And if you've been good, as a parrot should,
You will dream that your tail is red.

[Ganda, Africa; translated by AK Nyabongo; with thanks to Nick Birns]

In the little moment that
remains to us between
the crisis and the catastrophe
we may as well
drink a glass
of champagne.

[Paul Claudel; with thanks to Nick Birns]

Truth has nothing to do with the number of people it convinces.
[Paul Claudel]

Before using your potato baking dishes make sure that the potatoes you use are clean and ready to cook and that you follow the manufacturers guidelines for cooking potatoes for the cooking method you propose choosing.
['Ere God, you didn't send the manual with my spuds!]

Tweeting by post made me appreciate the online and the offline. Brevity is a good thing, but there’s no reason we should only be brief on Twitter. The internet is a marvellous thing, but so is cheese, so are close friends who know your opinions and respect them, so is a glass of fine English ale. So is getting postcards from interesting people, because it makes your letterbox come alive.
[Giles Turnbull, quoted at The Next Web]

For malt does more than Milton can
To justify God's ways to man.

[AE Housman, A Shropshire Lad]

28 December 2011

Headlines of the Year

'Tis the season for annual round-ups and "best of" series, so who am I not to join the party.

These must be amongst the best (worst?) and most amusing news headlines I've seen during 2011.

Rain causes increasing flood risk
BBC News; 16 January 2011

Men trust people more than women
BBC News(?); 09 May 2011

Children hurt by bouncy castle
BBC News; 29 May 2011

Primate apologises over comments
BBC News; 19 June 2011

Uranus Has a Bright New Spot
American Scientist; 04/11/2011

Custard's Last Stand
The Times; 5 September 2011?

Do headline writers really have no sense of the ridiculous nor re-read what they write?

[52/52] Self-Portrait with Cat

[52/52] Self-Portrait with Cat

This is the final week of my 2011 52 weeks challenge of a photograph a week, and I thought I should end with a self-portrait. So here I am with Harry the Cat enjoying some quality time.

I've now done two years worth of "52 weeks" so it's time to take a break from it and find something else to make me keep taking photos. There is no escape!

Have a happy and prosperous 2012!

27 December 2011

Rose Bowl or Landfill Site?

Has 2011 been a "Rose Bowl Year" or a "Landfill Year"? Well it's certainly been a funny year — but then aren't they all?! All sorts of strange goings on in the world, both good and bad: earthquakes, tsunami, nuclear meltdown, Libyan meltdown, Egyptian boiling but not quite boiling over, Eurotrash banking and government, to name but a few. More than enough has been written about all of these, so here's my rather more personal end of year review. Yes there were good things and there were those which really ought to have been dumped unceremoniously in a landfill site. Overall it's probably a draw.

Let's get rid of the landfill candidates first.


Colonoscopy. As I blogged at the time I had to undergo this back in February, and ended up in hospital for 3 days because of complications. All is OK now, but it wasn't too much fun at the time.

Summer. What summer? Last summer in London was so dismal, wet and not very warm we hardly even sat outside with a drink, let alone sitting out all evening as we often do.

Holiday. Well we didn't get one. Having spent a lot of money on the bathroom (see below) we really couldn't bring ourselves to shell out for a holiday, and in the run up to the Anthony Powell Conference (also see below) we were also struggling with the logistics. Part of the problem is that the holidays we'd really like to do are fairly expensive.

Major Fails. At the beginning of the year I set myself a number of objectives for things I wanted to do during the year: go out for the day at least once a month, get out regularly and do more photography, get the house tidied up, go swimming regularly, do more family history and more cooking. And guess what? I failed at all of them. Why did I fail? Was I too over-ambitious with what I could achieve? Yes, maybe I was over-ambitious. But I can't help feeling the underlying cause was at least in part due to my depression. And of course a large dose of innate laziness.

Depression, Diabetes & Weight. This has mostly been another big fail. Yes my depression is a bit better and I've been able to halve my antidepressants; but I don't really know why this has happened. If anything my diabetes is worse; certainly my blood sugar levels have crept up, which is not good, although my GP doesn't seem especially concerned. I managed to put back on a lot of the weight I lost a couple of years ago. Luckily not all of it and I think I'm beginning to slowly lose a bit again. Maybe there is hope for this in 2012?

So now to the events which are worthy of the Rose Bowl.


Noreen's Retirement. Noreen finally retired in early April. I say finally as it seemed a long time coming despite being some months early. I have to say I've enjoyed having the two of us together so much; I won't pretend it didn't get kind of wearisome at times being at home alone (well except for the cats, and they sleep most of the day). I won't say we've achieved a lot — the house is still a wrecked jumble sale — but at least we've been able to share things more, not have to set the alarm most days and go to bed late without it mattering. Oh, and I've been made lots of mugs of tea! :-)

Anthony Powell Conference. The Anthony Powell Conference has to be the pièce de résistance of the year — as blogged back in September. It took a lot out of me — it took a lot out of both of us — and I certainly needed several weeks to surface again! But it was worth it. It was our best yet and people are still talking about it.

Hypnotherapy. I've been having regular hypnotherapy sessions all year, with the objective of cracking both my weight problem and my depression, which seem inextricably linked. Have we succeeded? No — I'm a hard nut to crack largely because my mind is so analytical and so quick it sees through a lot of what is about to happen when it shouldn't and so doesn't let go easily enough. Have we made progress? Well I think so: the depression, although still present, certainly seems to be less intrusive. And the hypnotherapy has certainly been interesting and enjoyable. Am I hopeful of further success? Definitely, otherwise I wouldn't keep doing it.

Senior Railcard & Bus Pass. Yes, at last I am eligible to get something at a discount! I clocked past 60 last January so I got my Senior Railcard. And then in November I ticked past female retirement age (delayed in the general move to harmonise the retirement age at 65 prior to raising it to 67 or 68). So in November I got my Granny Card which gives me free bus travel and more.

New Bathroom. Noreen having retired we considered whether we wanted to move house, but on balance we decided against the idea. So instead we had the guys in to gut and rebuild our bathroom, which hadn't been touched for over 25 years. The work seemed to take forever — well we would have it done across Easter and a Bank Holiday! — but we now have a great new bathroom; more space; a better shower and a few nice extras like warm towels.

Photobook. Also in September, more or less coincidentally with the Anthony Powell Conference, I published the photobook I've been planning for a while. In a way it grew out of printing our own Christmas cards as postcards of one of my photos. Everyone seems to enjoy these, so I thought to do the book. I enjoyed doing it and basically did it because I wanted to, not because I thought it would sell. I'm delighted by how many people also seem to enjoy it. Interestingly although I had been planning it for a while, I suspect it would never have seen the light of day if I hadn't been energised by the hypnotherapy to take that extra step.

In the next few days I shall be doing a private review of my achievements and disappointments this year and planning where I want to go next year to make 2012 my Best Year Yet. You'll probably find out bits of it as 2012 unfolds.

Cartoon of the Week


Click the image for a larger version

On the Efficacy of Wind

What do you do in England on Christmas Bank Holiday Tuesday? If you're anything like some around here you give your thoughts to power production, and specifically the viability of renewables.

There's an interesting thread on this on Facebook. It's worth reading.

Most there seem to be coming to much the same conclusions, though via a different route, that I did back in October in my consideration of the whole problem of environmental reform. Nuclear really is the least worst option at least in the medium term.

26 December 2011

Word of the Week : Frippet

Frippet.

A frivolous or showy young woman. A flighty young woman prone
to showing off.

[First recorded by the OED has having been used by DH Lawrence
in a letter of 1908.]

25 December 2011

Reasons to be Grateful 6

Experiment, week 6. This week's five things which have made me happy or for which I'm grateful.
  1. Elveden Estate Shop. Not going to say any more about that here as I wrote about it earlier in the week.
  2. Sally Spends Christmas Day Relaxing
  3. Cats. We love our two cats, even when they (threaten) to throw up on the clean bed linen on Christmas morning. Harry has spent a large part of the last few days insisting on inhabiting my desk with me. He was last seen asleep in my grandfather's chair in the dining room. Sally is currently reclining on the back of the sofa over the radiator (see photo). Somehow they always manage to get their priorities right!
  4. Gin. Amongst my presents were two bottles of gin! A bottle of Sipsmith's London Dry Gin: very nice and juniper-y. And a bottle of Martin Miller's Icelandic Gin: still distinctly gin but closer to vodka than the Sipsmith's. Standard Gordon's tastes bland against both of these. So now there are at least three different flavours of gin in the house. This bodes well (or maybe not!).
  5. Fairy Lights on Trees. One of the things I like about Christmas is fairy lights, especially on trees. Christmas trees are good, but even better are fairy lights, lots of fairy lights, on ordinary trees in the street — at any time of the year. Somehow they always make the place look fun and festive.
  6. King's Head at Bawburgh. I'd not eaten pigeon in years until earlier this week when we had lunch in the King's Head at Bawburgh, just outside Norwich. Two breasts made a small starter but they were excellently tasty and gamey — almost like liver. That marks this pub out as something special: gastro-pub food to die for, with many locally sourced ingredients, and at sensible prices. Since my student days they've had a reputation for good beer and good food. If you're anywhere near Norwich, the King's Head is an excellent place to eat: not just for the food but also several good real ales (including the local Adnams); friendly staff; an old building in a small village complete with river and mill; and not over busy on a weekday lunchtime (but busier at weekends).

Advent Calendar 25 : Happy Christmas!

Happy Christmas, Everyone!

[36/52] W8 Postbox

An Advent Calendar of superb and/or amusing photographic images ...
this final image is mine and is our Christmas card this year.
Click the image to see the full size original.

24 December 2011

Game Terrine

This makes a good alternative to that Boxing Day cold turkey or for a quick lunch on Christmas Eve. The quantities below make at least enough to fill a large loaf tin or medium sized casserole (see photo).

I used ...
  • Meat from 2 roast pheasants and a partridge after the breasts had been eaten hot.
  • 5 rashers streaky bacon or equivalent in bacon offcuts
  • About 350 gm belly pork
  • About 350 gm pigs liver
  • 4 plain pork sausages, skinned; or equivalent amount of sausage meat
  • 100 gm bread without crusts
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • Handful of leftover garlic roast potatoes (optional)
  • 3 or 4 cloves of garlic, peeled
  • End of a bottle of Calvados
  • Half a glass of white wine
  • 2 tablespoons garlic purée
  • 1 large egg
  • Pinch of salt and a generous grind of black pepper
  • Two or three generous pinches of dried mixed herbs
  • Olive oil
Game Terrine
My finished product in our 40 year old Le Creuset terrine after having been attacked for Christmas Eve lunch.

This is what I did ...
  1. Bone the meat off the pheasants and partridge and chop up very finely. This is best done by hand as a food processor will just smash it to a pulp. Put this in a large mixing bowl.
  2. Chop the bacon into small pieces, no more than 5mm square. Add to the pheasant mix.
  3. Cut the belly pork into 1-2 cm cubes, removing the skin, bone and any excess fat.
  4. Cut the liver into roughly 2cm cubes.
  5. Put the bread, herbs, salt and pepper, garlic cloves in a food processor and whizz to a crumb.
  6. Add the left-over potatoes, sausage meat, half a glass of calvados and the egg to the food processor and whizz again to a smooth paste. Add this to the meat mix.
  7. Heat a drizzle of olive oil in a frying pan and fry the onion until translucent. Tip this out into the food processor and add the garlic purée.
  8. With a little more oil if needed fry the belly pork until the outside is seared and browning. (Yes it will still be undercooked inside.) Add this to the food processor.
  9. Now fry the liver for a few minutes again until the outside is beginning to brown. (Again it won’t be cooked through, so no tasting the cake mix!) Add this to the food processor.
  10. Deglaze the pan with another half glass of calvados and the white wine. Add this to the food processor and whizz the whole lot to a rough paste. Add this to the meat mix.
  11. Mix the meats together thoroughly; don’t be afraid to use your hands.
  12. Butter the casserole generously or, if using a loaf tin, line it with baking parchment.
  13. Pour the meat mix into the tin/casserole and firm it down well. Cover with foil or a tight fitting lid.
  14. Cook in a Bain Marie in the oven at 170°C for about 1½-2 hours. It is done when a knife stuck in the terrine for a few seconds comes out very hot.
  15. Remove from the oven and if possible weight the terrine to press it. (Use something flat with tins of beans or a brick on it.)
  16. Allow to cool for a couple of hours and then put in the fridge for at least 2 hours more, but preferably overnight, still with the weight.
  17. If you made the terrine in a tin you can now turn it out. If you used a casserole you’ll need to serve it from the dish.
  18. Serve with crusty bread and/or salad.
Notes
  1. This recipe is very forgiving. You can use any mix of game meats you like. And you can vary the proportions according to taste.
  2. Some people like to line the tin/casserole with streaky bacon. This holds the terrine together better if it is turned out as a loaf. Personally I can’t be bothered.
  3. You could use a handful of chopped fresh herbs if they’re available. Sage is especially good. You can even leave out the garlic!
  4. You can also add a few juniper berries. Put them in with the bread when processing it.
  5. You can use any odd ends of leftover veg (root veg, mushroom, tomato, potato; greens don’t work too well) but this is entirely optional.
  6. You can get away without pressing the terrine (as I did) but the result will be more friable and crumbly, and won’t turn out of a tin so well.
  7. Don’t throw out the bird carcases. Put them in a saucepan with some water, a bit of onion, ends of root veg etc., herbs, pepper and any other meat scraps. Simmer gently for a few hours to make stock. When done, strain off the liquid, allow to cool and freeze in useful-sized portions. It’s good for risotto!

Advent Calendar 24

Happy Christmas, Everyone!

An Advent Calendar of superb and/or amusing
photographic images from around the internet.

Click the image to see the full size original.

23 December 2011

Advent Calendar 23

An Advent Calendar of superb and/or amusing
photographic images from around the internet.

Click the image to see the full size original.

22 December 2011

Today

Although we always think of 21 December as being the shortest day and the Winter Solstice, in fact this year both fall today, 22 December. The Solstice was actually at 05:30 UTC (aka. GMT) this morning. And today is the shortest day (time between sunrise and sunset) of the year in London; with just 7 hours 49 minutes 43 seconds of daylights today is just 1 second shorter than yesterday, and 5 seconds shorter than tomorrow.

Almost every culture around the world has a rite (often a festival of rebirth, light or fire) observing "the turning of the year": that time when the days start lengthening and we know Spring is on the way. For most of us in the western world the Roman Saturnalia and the Celtic fire festivals have been admixed by Christianity to make our Christmas.

So we had jam yesterday and although there's no jam today there will be jam again tomorrow.

Quotes of the Week

Thin pickings in terms of thoughtful/amusing quotes this week — everyone must be on Christmas holidays already. But here are the few I have seen.

Fitch has downgraded six of the world's largest banks (Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, Barclays, BNP Paribas, Deutsche Bank, Credit Suisse). Commenting they said the downgrades
reflected challenges faced by the sector as a whole, rather than negative developments in idiosyncratic fundamental creditworthiness.
[BBC News]

We are of course aware that kingdoms are governed and laws upheld primarily by prudence, fortitude, moderation and justice, and the other virtues which rules must strive to cultivate. But there are times when money can speed on sound and wise policies, and smooth out difficulties.
[Richard FitzNigel, Treasurer to King Henry II]

Finally two thoughts of unknown provenance ...

Do not regret growing older. It is a privilege denied to many.

We never really grow up, we only learn how to act in public.

[51/52] Carrots at Elveden

Carrots

Week 51 entry for 52 weeks challenge.

Rainbow carrots for sale yesterday at Elveden Estate Shop, Suffolk (on the A11).

I love Elveden Estate Shop and we try to drop in every time we go to see my mother. The estate is certainly doing it's best to diversify capitalise on it's asses. When we were there yesterday morning it looked as if there was a shoot later in the day as all the beaters were gathering and being fed breakfast! And we dropped in again just before closing time yesterday evening when there was a bus-load of people descending on the place, I guess for carousel rides and a party.

The shop is actually a small complex of shops, but don't expect the usual slightly scruffy farm shop. This is a high class estate shop and truly professional in everything they do. As one might expect they major on food, selling a wide variety of quality groceries (many produced by the Estate) and not always at high prices. There is also a small range of vegetables and some superb meat. Wherever possible the veg and meat is sourced from the Estate or the local area. Sadly on this visit, because we already have our Christmas meat arranged and weren't certain to get to Elveden, we just picked up a couple of pheasants and some veg - so roast pheasant for dinner today followed by game terrine for Christmas! These rainbow carrots are really fresh, straight from the farm, and delightfully tasty.

As well as the "produce" shop there is a great coffee shop/restaurant (the best full English breakfast I think I've ever had), a small range of garden plants and a couple of gift shops. At this time of year there is always a stall or two of crafty things, plus Christmas trees from the Estate. And this year there was a carousel too!

If you're in the area (and that isn't so unlikely with a CentreParcs just down the road) Elveden Estate Shop should be on your "must visit" list, if only for coffee and cake. The shop is well back off the road in what was probably the old stable blocks; there are entrances from the A11 (almost opposite Elveden church) and the B1106. Don't miss it!

More on the shop and the Estate.

Noreen also blogged last year about breakfast at Elveden.

Advent Calendar 22

An Advent Calendar of superb and/or amusing
photographic images from around the internet.

Click the image to see the full size original.

21 December 2011

Advent Calendar 21

An Advent Calendar of superb and/or amusing
photographic images from around the internet.

Click the image to see the full size original.

20 December 2011

Seasonal-ish Cartoon of the Week


Click the image for a larger version

Advent Calendar 20

An Advent Calendar of superb and/or amusing
photographic images from around the internet.

Click the image to see the full size original.

19 December 2011

Listography : Christmas

Kate's Listography this week asks that we write about five things which make Christmas, Christmas for us. So ...

King's College Carols. The traditional service of Nine Lessons and Carols has been broadcast from King's College Chapel, Cambridge on Christmas Eve afternoon since before I was born. There will be very few years when I've not heard it. For me this is the real start of the Christmas festivities and is always associated in my mind with the smell of baking mince pies!
Fairy Lights. There have to be fairy lights. As a very minimum fairy lights on the tree. But these days we usually indulge in a few more, depending on our fancy at the time. And I like to see twinkly lights anywhere and everywhere at Christmas. Somehow they bring out the spirit of happiness.

Royal Institution Lectures. Every year the Royal Institution in London puts on a series of science lectures for children (really aimed at young teenagers) and over the years just about every respected scientist in the UK has presented them. Each year is a different theme, by a single lecturer. And for many years now they have been televised; I remember some very early televised lectures by Prof. Eric Laithwaite on engineering! This year I'm delighted that they are once again being televised by the BBC; although they are now only three lectures (there used to be five or six) hopefully this means they will have been less dumbed down than of recent years when commercial TV has broadcast them.

Carols. I like carols. I always have done. Yes, I like a good sing, but I also have fond memories of singing carols in the choir at school and of carol singing. Christmas wouldn't be Christmas with out some good carol singing.

Opening presents round the fire on Christmas morning. This is a childhood tradition which Noreen and I have kept. Christmas morning sees us sitting round the fire, usually with a large gin & tonic, opening our main presents. Another present tradition from my childhood which we keep is having small (in size and value) presents under the tree which we open after tea on Christmas Day evening.

These are just some of the essential ingredients of my Christmas.

Happy Christmas, Everyone!

Word of the Week : Widdershins

Widdershins
  1. Moving in an anticlockwise direction, contrary to the apparent course of the sun (considered as unlucky or sinister).
  2. In a direction opposite to the usual; the wrong way.
The opposite of deosil or deiseal, in a clockwise or sunwise direction.

Advent Calendar 19

An Advent Calendar of superb and/or amusing
photographic images from around the internet.

Click the image to see the full size original.

18 December 2011

Pig Cheeks in Cider

We discovered on Friday that our local Waitrose were selling Pig Cheeks. Yes, that's meat and it is from the head of a pig, just like it says. Now I've vaguely taken in that they were fashionable amongst chefs and never having tried them I decide we should. Noreen took a little, but not a lot, of persuading. And then I realised they were ridiculously cheap — like £2.99 a kilo! Even cheap sausages cost more than this! So we bought a complete vacuum pack, which weighed just under 400gm and turned out to contain 7 cheeks. We have just eaten them, thus ...

Pig Cheeks Casseroled in Cider

You will need:
2 or 3 Pig Cheeks per person
500ml bottle of dry Cider (more if you're cooking more than about 8 cheeks)
1 large or 2 medium Onions, roughly chopped
As much Garlic as you like, roughly chopped
A few ripe Tomatoes, quartered (optional)
A few Mushrooms (optional)
Worcester Sauce
Plain Flour seasoned with salt, pepper and herbs
Salt, Black Pepper and Dried Herbs
Olive Oil

And this is what you do:
  1. Take a suitably sized casserole, cast iron is best as you can put it on the hob otherwise you'll need a frying pan as well.
  2. Pre-heat the oven to about 180°C.
  3. Fry the onion and garlic in a little olive oil in the casserole (or frying pan).
  4. When the onion is beginning to go translucent, toss the pig cheeks in the seasoned flour and add to the casserole. Sear the meat on both sides.
  5. Add the tomatoes and mushrooms followed by about half the cider, pinch of salt, plenty of pepper, a big pinch or two of dried herbs and a good big dash of Worcester Sauce. Bring it all to boiling point.
  6. If using a frying pan, transfer the meat etc. to the casserole at this stage.
  7. Add the rest of the cider and (if on the hob) bring it to the simmer.
  8. Put the casserole in the oven and cook for about 90 minutes.
  9. Do not throw away any remaining seasoned flour, because ...
  10. Just before the end of the cooking time decant into a small saucepan some of the liquid from the casserole (it will probably be quite thin) to make a gravy/sauce. Thicken this sauce with some of the remaining seasoned flour (a tablespoon or so will be enough) and cook gently for 5 minutes or so to cook the flour.
By now word will have got round the house because it smells so good.

I served mine with roughly mashed potato and parsnip, steamed sprout tops, apple sauce, gravy and a bottle of robust red wine (although obviously cider would be good too). The meat is just so tender it really does melt in the mouth.

And, no, I didn't photograph it — you all know what casserole looks like!

Reasons to be Grateful 5

Experiment, week 5. This week's five things which have made me happy or for which I'm grateful.
  1. Parakeets. Ring-Neck Parakeets to be precise. Not going to write more here as I posted about them earlier in the week.
  2. Pine Cones. I love pine cones; indeed I love pine trees. We always have a basket of pine cones by the fire over Christmas as part of the decorations. But even better ... Some years ago I bought, in different years, a couple of mini-Christmas Trees in pots; one certainly came from M&S. After their Christmas duty they were planted out at the far end of the garden. Both are now well established, one being as high as the house; the other not far behind it. We were delighted this week, in clearing lots of overgrowth, to find that both have a good crop of pine cones. I think the trees are probably Norway Spruce as the cones look like those pictured.
  3. Small Potted Christmas Trees. Last year Waitrose sold small potted Christmas Trees (about 12-15 inches high, plus pot), complete with some decorations attached. I bought one, so now we have yet another to plant out when it's bit bigger — we're getting quite a little copse in our suburban garden, and the birds love it. I wondered if Waitrose would sell these small trees again this year and was thinking I'd not seen them; but on Friday there they were amongst the cut flowers. And not just with decorations, but also with a small set of battery driven LED lights. All for £14.99. A much better investment than something that's hacked off at the ground as after its festive duty it can be planted out with the others — or kept potted and used again next year.
  4. Oxtail. We've not had oxtail in years, but Noreen bought some from our favourite butchers, Hiltons in Pinner, last week. It was casseroled. And our stomachs said it was good.
  5. Biscotti. I've been making batches of biscotti in the last few days. Yes, I like them, but I also like making them 'cos they're quick and easy. And they always seem to be appreciated as presents. My recipe is here.

Advent Calendar 18

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photographic images from around the internet.

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17 December 2011

Anti-Carol

Just for further amusement at this time of great mirth and sadness at the tills, here are two anti-carols, again stolen from friends on Facebook.

O Sing, choirs of children,
Sing in expectation,
Sing all ye shareholders of M&S.
Give to our Family, glory in the Mostest;
O come, let us spend Money,
O come, let us spend Money,
O come, let us spend Money,
Christ I'm Bored.


God rest ye Unitarians, let nothing you dismay,
Remember there's no evidence there was a Christmas Day,
When Christ was born just is not known, no matter what men say.

Glad tidings of reason and fact, reason and fact,
Glad tidings of reason and fact.

There was no star of Bethlehem, there was no angel song,
There could have been no wise men for the journey was too long,
The stories in the Bible are historically wrong.

Glad tidings of reason and fact, reason and fact,
Glad tidings of reason and fact.

Much of our Christmas custom comes from Persia and from Greece,
From solstice celebrations of the ancient middle east,
We know our so-called holiday is but a pagan feast.

Glad tidings of reason and fact, reason and fact,
Glad tidings of reason and fact.

Weekly Links

This week's collection of items you may have missed but which, in the interests of public service, we didn't.

First let's get the boring bit out of the way. CERN's Large Hadron Collider might have spotted the first glimpse of the elusive Higgs Boson. Maybe. Maybe not.

Talking of glimpses, how doctors die shows they have a different approach to their glimpse of the afterlife than the rest of us.

Which may be related to why we invented monsters (aka. dragons).

From something scary to something scary? Why peach fuzz makes it harder for parasites.

And if you're male you can now be really scared. Apparently donating sperm can be scary. Seems like all in a day's work for the average male to me. ;-)

Of course then there are plastic carrier bags.

Everything you ever wanted to know (and more) about ... shoelaces!

And finally just to prove that cat's can't think outside the box.

Happy Christmas, Everyone!

Amusing Meme

One of my Facebook contacts has posted a curious and amusing little meme. It may be an old one, but I've not seen it before. It goes like this ...
  1. Your real name: Keith Marshall
  2. Your detective name (favourite colour and favourite animal): Yellow Cat
  3. Your soap opera name (middle name and street you live on): Cullingworth Ennismore
  4. Your Star Wars name (first 3 letters of last name, first 2 of middle name, first 2 of first, last 3 of last): Marcu Keall
  5. Superhero name (Colour of your shirt and first item to your right): Null Mouse
  6. Goth name (black and name of one of your pets): Black Harry
Well the last three work fairly well; I have reservations about the rest.

Anyone else dare to try this and post the results?

Advent Calendar 17

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photographic images from around the internet.

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16 December 2011

Almond Biscotti

I first posted this recipe at Christmas a couple of years ago, but I'm going to repeat it here as it's a quick way to make someone a last minute Christmas present. Or to just treat yourself!

Biscotti (Italian for biscuit) are those nice little almond morsels one sometimes gets with coffee or with a dessert, especially in continental cafés. They're dead easy and quick to make and much nicer than the commercial ones. I've just made two batches in 90 minutes and wrapped several presents in between times.

Almond Biscotti (makes 25-30)

Ingredients
2 large eggs
175g sugar
50g butter (preferably melted)
200g blanched or flaked almonds (preferably toasted)
250g plain white flour
30g ground almonds
1 teasp baking powder
pinch of salt
2 teasp vanilla essence
2 teasp almond essence

Method
  1. Blend together the eggs and sugar.
  2. Add all the other ingredients except the almonds and blend to make a sticky dough.
  3. Now add the almonds and mix them in.
  4. If you can be bothered let the dough rest in the fridge for an hour; I don't bother.
  5. Cover a couple of baking sheets with baking parchment.
  6. Spread the mixture onto the baking sheets making a long shape about 6-8cm wide and 1cm thick. Don't worry if it is uneven, no-one will even realise and they're supposed to look "rustic".
  7. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 175°C for 25 minutes. (If you have a fan assisted oven, use the fan.)
  8. Remove from the oven and allow to cool on the baking sheet for 10-15 minutes.
  9. Carefully remove the baking parchment and cut with a sharp knife into approx. 1cm slices. Angle the cuts to get the authentic look.
  10. Now return the slices to the baking sheet, with one cut side down, and re-bake at 175°C for 10-15 minutes.
  11. Cool and store in an airtight box.
  12. Serve with coffee or ice-cream desserts; or use as presents.

Notes
  1. You can use a food processor for all the mixing, it's much quicker. But unless you have a large professional machine don’t double up the mixture.
  2. If using a food processor go gently when mixing in the almonds as you don't want them smashed up — which happens to flaked almonds all too easily.
  3. I use flaked almonds because they are kinder to the teeth especially if you're giving them to anyone elderly.
  4. Do not be tempted to over cook or you will get a hard result.
  5. The biscotti will be a bit soft after the first bake so you will need to cut them carefully with a very sharp knife.
  6. How long you make the second bake depends on how crunchy you like the end result. I find 10 minutes is enough: crunchy when cold but not too tough on the teeth.
  7. There are a number of variants on this: some add a small amount of instant coffee, or citrus rind. Or you can leave out the ground almonds (if so add just a small amount more flour), the vanilla essence or almond essence.
  8. For a really rich result you can part dip the biscotti in melted dark chocolate. Personally I think they are scrummy and rich enough without.
  9. The end slices, which may not be good as presents, could be used for that Christmas Day trifle.
Photo by me of the second batch I made this afternoon.

Advent Calendar 16

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15 December 2011

Quotes of the Week

This week's ragbag of amusements masquerading a thoughtful quotes ...

We need to have more Europe.
[German Chancellor Angela Merkel; BBC News, 8 December 2011]

Never has Europe been so necessary. Never has it been in so much danger. Never have so many countries wanted to join Europe. Never has the risk of a disintegration of Europe been so great. Europe is facing an extraordinarily dangerous situation.
[French President Nicolas Sarkosy; BBC News, 8 December 2011]

After which one is forced to agree with Shakespeare ...

Hell is empty and all the Devils are here.

But then again ...

Perhaps imagination is only intelligence having fun.
[George Scialabba]

So are Americans any better than us?

Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.
[John Steinbeck]

Guess it explains some differences in attitude though!

When I was born I was so surprised ... I didn’t talk for a year and a half.
[Thoughts of Angel]

One of the great things about books is sometimes there are some fantastic pictures in them.
[Thoughts of Angel quoting George W Bush]

Which could also explain quite a lot especially when bearing in mind ...

When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion, it is called Religion.
[Robert M Pirsig]

So there is only one solution ...

Don't worry, just breathe. If it's meant to be, it will find its way.

Advent Calendar 15

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14 December 2011

Who ever thought this was a good idea?!?!?!

Seen in Pinner ...
Whoever thought this was a good idea?!?!?!

[50/52] Ring-Neck Parakeet


Ring-Neck Parakeet
Click the image for a larger version

Week 50 entry for 52 weeks challenge.

Ring-Neck Parakeet this afternoon on one of our seed feeders. We seem to have two or three visit several times a day; I've no idea if they are the same birds all the time, but it wouldn't surprise me if they have their own defined feeding territories.

I know a lot of people don't like these birds, but I do. OK they're not native but they are colourful, brash, noisy, intelligent and incredibly comic to watch. Their body isn't a lot bigger than a blackbird, but they'll stand their ground against a magpie, which is noticeably bigger. One bird will be respectful of a magpie but won't give in to it easily. Two birds is more than a match for a single magpie. I've noticed this recently as our magpies have decided to try raiding the seed feeders, which they don't find easy but they're determined birds! Two parakeets on a feeder beats one magpie. One parakeet will give way, but not by a lot!

I also discovered recently that there is a big (like 2500 birds) parakeet roost at Wormwood Scrubs (the open ground and trees just north of HM's hotel), which is only about 5 miles away as the parrot flies. I suspect our birds belong to this roost as we often see them and others flying in that direction around dusk.

Advent Calendar 14

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13 December 2011

Cartoon of the Week


Advent Calendar 13

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12 December 2011

Word of the Week : Callipygian

Callipygian.

Of, pertaining to, or having well-shaped or finely developed
buttocks. A nice bum.

Eating Children is Good

Our friend Katy is having trouble with her children's willingness to eat meals — or rather, their lack of willingness. And having seen said children in action I can quite understand why Katy is losing it with them; I'm only surprised she's stuck it as long as she has. She has my sympathy — for what little that's worth. Beyond that, not being a parent myself, I feel I should have neither an opinion nor a voice. So here's (mostly) my experience of childhood.

I don't remember any fights over food when I was a child. I ate whatever was put in front of me and I was expected to eat adult-style meals. There were, as far as I know, no threats like "Eat it or you go hungry". I maybe knew I wouldn't be given any alternative, so I'd better eat what was there; but if so it was an internal rather than an external decision. At least that is my memory.

Looking back my mother had a bad enough time coping with my father without me making things worse. I was going to say that my parents were semi-vegetarian, but that would be wrong. My father was a wannabe vegetarian; he would eat some meat (sausages and bacon always disappeared) and some fish. He would never eat offal or shellfish on the grounds that they're all scavengers and thus unhealthy. But my mother was more wedded to meat; and it was noticeable that when my father died the vegetarian cookery books went out the house within days! So she would often feed herself and me on meat at lunchtimes, when father was at work, and then provide (semi-)vegetarian regularly in the evenings. (We kept chickens for many years so there were always eggs to be had.) And she always provided good, wholesome, balanced meals. I always enjoyed anything with cheese sauce, and her nut roast was also always good (especially as it usually appeared with a rasher of bacon!). Now how many kids would admit to liking nut roast?

I so much ate everything that my parents were surprised when, in my late teens (I guess) I did start to admit to things I didn't like.

So I ate whatever was put in front of me. And with a few exceptions I stll eat pretty much everything. The exceptions? I can't eat grapefruit (because of my medication; shame as I love pink grapefruit) and honeydew-type melon gives me a sore throat as does pomegranate. I dislike (but can eat if I have to) egg custard, absinthe, Pernod, jellied eels, unadulterated egg white (eg. on fried egg), raw milk and milk puddings, sweetcorn, sweet potatoes, baked apples, rum flavouring and the combination of meat with sweet. I won't eat veal on principle. There are also few things — tripe, oysters, eyes, anything still alive — which I cannot even think of trying. With a lot of these it is a question of texture as much as flavour; with the eggy things and baked apples it is probably down to having had them too much as a kid. I actually like many of the things people generally dislike: liver, kidney, black pudding, haggis, squid, fennel, broccoli, spinach.

So does it matter how you train your children to eat? Insist they eat what's in front of them or cater to their whims? In the short term I suspect the secret is to manage not to let the meal table become a battleground, however you achieve it. In the long term it probably doesn't make a lot of difference what you do. Children's palates have to mature; their tastes do change as they get older, so the trick is probably to get them to at least try everything and then probably repeat the trial every couple of years or so. Many people have to acquire the taste for things like anchovies, olives and beer; and some never will. All adults have a few things they can't eat for whatever reason and a clutch of things they really dislike. Some have bigger no-go areas than others. But ultimately few are really very picky eaters who will tolerate only four different meals the way many kids seem to.

Now remind me why didn't we have children?

Advent Calendar 12

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photographic images from around the internet.

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11 December 2011

Reasons to be Grateful 4

Experiment, week 4. This week's five things which have made me happy or for which I'm grateful:
  1. Frost & Sun. We had our first really frosty night of the winter this week. Lovely Alpine morning. So refreshing.
  2. Good Sausages. Well what can one say. One of those real comfort foods whether with chips, mashed potato or in tomato sauce with pasta.
  3. Friendly Checkout Ladies. There's one particular lady who does the checkouts at our local Waitrose who is always happy and chatty, interested in what she's doing and her customers, as well as very efficient. If she's on duty we will almost always queue a bit extra to be served by her. Much nicer than the average run-of-the-mill checkout operative who basically could give a flying wombat.
  4. Curry. Yet another comfort food. I'll eat almost any curry, but for me lamb is best. And I'll eat it as hot as you care to make it; Vindaloo is a regular round here.
  5. Jerusalem Artichokes. They're a slightly strange vegetable which almost no-one knows. We always grew them when I was a kid and I've loved them ever since. So now we buy them whenever we see them. Fortunately Waitrose usually stock them. They're a root vegetable so in season really from late October to March, although like sprouts and parsnips better for a touch of frost. They look like small, knobbly potatoes which are very soft inside when cooked. Cook them like potatoes (don't even consider peeling them): just scrub them and cut out any damage; leave them whole unless they are unusually large. Boiled or steamed is fine. I can't think mashed or chipped would work. Roast is definitely best as they caramelise slightly. There are a number of varieties around: some redder, some browner; some more, some less knobbly. And they're very easy things to grow; they're tall (up to 6 feet or so) and with a sunflower-like flower.
Oh dear it's been another foodie week. How am I supposed to lose weight with all this good food around?

Advent Calendar 11

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photographic images from around the internet.

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10 December 2011

Quote : Goals

Goals are a form of self-inflicted slavery.

[Scott Adams, Dilbert Cartoon Strip; 10/12/2011]

[49/52] Moon & Birch

[49/52] Moon & Birch
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Week 49 entry for 52 weeks challenge.

December moonrise over our silver birch tree.