30 Mar 2012

A baguette with Hannibal (that's Lecter not H of the elephants)

Probably the best baguette in the world.


And that comes from someone who lived in France for 4 years. And yes, I had some of the best bread ever during that time but I would have never been offered a hot demi-baguette packed with shredded roast pork and sage and onion stuffing. I know, even the thought of it makes you go weak at the knees doesn’t it? Sunday lunch in a sandwich.

Repeating the baguette experience is a short hop for me right now as I’m home in Port Talbot, Wales. 'Baguettes To Go' is in Taibach, home of Anthony Hopkins. This baguette would convert Hannibal Lecter.

The best baguette in the world (probably) needs to be accompanied by the best coffee in the world. And Tambini’s near the Tollgate Park in Margam presses the probably button too, even in a polystyrene cup. Milky, sweet, hot and no foam.



The take-away approach is essential in the heat-wave that’s cosseting the whole country this week. It’s weather that makes us want to hold up our pasty winter skin to the sun and say ‘(h)eat me’. We are glad to be alive. A condition that’s brought into stark relief in the graveyard at Margam Abbey.

What is it about old graveyards that attracts us? I think it’s the stories here, the ones you read behind the lines of the inscriptions. How do people survive the death of three young children in the space of 5 years? Who are the people whose names have worn away from the 16th and 17th century stones that have been laid to make paths between the graves? There’s the remnant of a date here, an initial there. The rest we have to fill in for ourselves.

I eat my baguette outside the abbey wall in front of the war memorial. More stories. And evidence of qualities I am not sure I possess. But I can write about them. Maybe that helps in some way to keep them alive.


Hungry Writing Prompts
  1. Write about what's good for you right now.
  2. Write about heat.
  3. Write about takeway food.
  4. Write about a grave.
  5. Write about the qualities you don't possess.



22 Mar 2012

Good reads and cake

Those of you who are linked to me via Facebook will know of my conversion to Kindle. Not just any old conversion, but a real evangelical clapping in the aisles Hallelujah! conversion. I’m not going to try and persuade any hardline ‘I’m sticking to books’ people among you about the delights of being a Kindle owner. I will only say: I once was like you are now : )

Every day there’s a Kindle deal, usually a 99p download for a novel, or reference book or autobiography/biography. I've bought about one a week so far and  I've recently stockpiled three for my month long beach and bookshop retreat in South Florida in May:

The Sacrifical Man, Ruth Dugdall
Cham, Jonathon Trigell

I nice cross-section of theme and tone there, I think.

I also bought Aric Davis’s Nickel Plated but after reading the first chapter I just had to carry on reading to the end. It’s supposed to be a teen novel – the main protagonist is only twelve - although the principal theme of paedophilia is pretty heavy, and scary in places too. I found that I had to suspend disbelief about Nickel’s age and if this is ever made into a movie (it should be) a slightly older actor would probably carry it more effectively. And the ease with which he trawls the internet for sensitive information is perhaps a little exaggerated. But it’s still a snappy and sharply written story. I hope there’s a sequel.

What warms me even more to Nickel is that the kid knows how to eat. Okay, he eats a bunch of fast food too – pizza rolls, chicken dippers, PB&J sandwiches – but he knows they’re rubbish. He'd rather go out and have Thai food or top quality steak but his circumstances (I won’t give away anything in case you decide to read it) make that a little tricky.

I’m off to Wales for two weeks next Monday. Gravestones, swans, an old WW2 tank and Michael Sheen are on the menu. I also need to make some welshcakes as I was driving between Wales and England on 1st March and missed my annual bake-up.

But I did make cakes last week. Cake that works for dessert as well as standard ‘slice of with a coffee’ eating. I think the original recipe is Nigella’s but I fiddle with it depending on what I have and don’t have.

Clementine Cake

375 grams of whole clementines (I’ve used as much as 400 grams)
250 grams of ground almonds (last time I was short 70 grams so I topped up with fine oatmeal)
225 grams of sugar (white or golden or light brown)
a heaped teaspoon of baking powder (once, I forgot to put it in)
6 eggs

You probably get the mix and match picture now. 

Cover the clementines with water, bring to the boil and simmer for 2 hours making sure they don’t boil dry. When they’ve cooled, take out any stalky bits and pips and puree what’s left, skin and all.

Beat the 6 eggs, mix in the almonds, sugar and baking powder and then add the clementine puree. It will be sloppy – don’t worry.

I’ve used a big 9” spring-form tin and I’ve used a smaller 7½” tin and I’ve made little cupcakes. But whichever you choose you MUST line the tins with paper or use paper cases. The quantity of sugar in the cake makes it susceptible to burning and the paper forms a barrier.

The mixture also doesn’t rise that much so you can fill the little paper cases quite close to the rim.

Cook at Gas no.5 or 190° electric for up to an hour but check after 40 minutes.

Crème fraiche is a good choice. Or Grand Marnier flavoured buttercream icing is pretty lush too.

And it forms part of your 5-a-day. In my book.

Hungry Writer Prompts
Write about reading on holiday.
Write about changing beliefs.
Write about being twelve years old.
Write visiting a grave.
Write about fiddling.  

16 Mar 2012

What blokes say, dodgy chicken, and a shotgun

As if we didn’t have enough of DIY and house renovation during 4 years in France, Tony has recently changed a couple of cupboards in the kitchen here to two large pan drawers. We had these deep wide drawers in the French kitchen and they remove that ‘kneeling down and clattering around in the back of the cupboard for a saucepan lid’ activity. I’m not saying I couldn’t have lived without them but Tony was up for doing it.
It wasn’t quite as straightforward as you might imagine because our yellow kitchen has been discontinued by B&Q so while he could buy the drawer units it was a case of having to make the drawer fronts out of MDF then matching the colour with matt paint and varnish.

Job done : )


‘I can’t fit all the same stuff back in,’ I said aloud, more to myself than anything else. The drawers aren’t as deep as the cupboard shelves and I was left with a couple of baking trays and a saucepan after I’d put in as much as I could.
Tony looked over my shoulder. ‘Do you need all that stuff?’ he said.
I looked at him. ‘Only a bloke would say that,’ I said.
‘What do you mean?’ he said.
I rest my case.

I haven’t been doing much cooking. And the one meal I did cook a week ago ended in disaster. The new potatoes cooked to a mush. The carrots boiled dry and burnt. And the free-range corn fed chicken had a strange red and fatty patch of meat in the breast. After looking at it and poking it, to make sure it didn’t move, we decided that the chicken might have been bruised while it was alive. We ate mashed new potatoes with the other half of the chicken breast and green beans, logically aware that it was okay, but not really enjoying it. Not one of my more successful meals and probably down to my total immersion in writing up sections for Real Port Talbot around the prep for dinner.
We decided not to risk another lapse of attention last weekend and went out in the car driving aimlessly around the east Kent countryside until Tony saw a sign for Ringlestone.
‘All my friends used to talk about the Ringlestone Inn in the 1960s,’ he said. ‘It was run by a couple of women with a shotgun.’
So, of course, we went.

It’s 16th century. It’s pretty, architecturally full of character. I love the uneven flagstones that track the footsteps of centuries across the bar floor. The wood-burner in the inglenook is gorgeous too. There were two women sitting on either side of it when we arrived and after 10 minutes they got up and swapped chairs so they could toast the other side of their bodies.

Maybe it was the woman who came up to us at the bar just as we were ordering drinks and asked us, with as much charm as a medieval innkeeper whose prize pig had just been poached, to move our car as she was expecting a delivery of calor gas. It was Sunday. There wasn’t a ‘No Parking’ sign next to the fence.

While Tony nipped out to shift it I ordered a bottle of cider for him and a sherry for me. Why the sherry, I’m not quite sure. I think I had an attack of ‘oldy worldy English pub syndrome’. So maybe it was that. I’d have liked something dry – a fino, a pale amontillado – but all they had was Harvey’s Bristol Cream and I was stuck on the sherry road now.
‘Would you like a double?’ the bargirl asked and I declined.
But when she brought the little balloon glass over there was barely a lick of sherry at the bottom.
Blimey,’ I said, laughing, ‘I think I’d better have that double!’
She shuffled over to the bottle again with her head down. The couple next to me waiting to be served coughed and looked around anxiously. I remembered I was in the Home Counties. Spontaneous expressions of emotion are frowned upon.
‘That’ll be £9.90’, the bargirl said.

Holy crap! A cider and a sherry, a tenner?! Have I been in France that long?
Remembering what Tony had said about the shotgun I didn’t complain, though I needn’t have worried. The mother and daughter, Flo (Ma) and Dora Gasking, have long gone. They gave up the pub, according to the two badly framed newspaper articles on the wall, when it was auctioned in the late 1960s but the stories about the shotgun appear to be true. Something that started with ousting a bunch of unruly bikers became a trademark eccentric reputation and people flocked there to be part of it.

We decide not to eat at the Ringlestone where I’m sure the food is fine but eating out isn’t just about that, is it? It’s about the welcome, the service too. And character. And I don’t mean old bricks and beams. The Ringlestone is supposed to be haunted. I hope it’s Ma Gasking. The place needs a bit of spunk.


Hungry Writing Prompts
Write about emptying a cupboard.
Write about a colour.
Write about the kinds of silences you can have during a meal.
Write about something old.
Write about the places you would haunt.





9 Mar 2012

When the world moved at 33 and 45 rpm

I bought my first ‘music centre’ in 1980. Those of you old enough will remember that music centres were large, rectangular constructions incorporating the turntable, a tape deck and radio. Bang & Olufsen was the dream brand – I remember the glossy magazine shots of those streamlined beasts that took up the same amount of space as a small dining room table.

My music centre was the first ‘upright’ one on the market, produced by National Panasonic. It had its own wood effect and glass door cabinet: the music centre sat on top and I kept my LP’s in the cabinet below. I brought it with me to Kent in 1985 and it's been with me ever since. The cabinet has long gone, I don’t have tapes anymore and I hadn’t bothered replacing the batteries for the radio station memory in years but every now and then I’d pull out an LP from its cardboard sleeve, cue the arm of the record deck and listen to Carole King’s 'Tapestry', or Fleetwood Mac’s 'Rumours', or Meatloaf’s 'Bat Out of Hell' on vinyl. 


LPs, tapes, record sleeves, deck, arm, vinyl: it’s another language.

I even took it to France when we moved there in 2008, and it came back with me last October but I only got around to setting up the speakers and auxiliary CD player yesterday.

ERR wasn’t a good start on the CD player’s digital read-out: it must have received an irreparable clunk in the move. When Carole King kept repeating the same phrase from ‘You’ve got a friend’, over and over again, I first thought ‘dust on the stylus’ (Note to self: add 'stylus' to Language Library of Nostalgia), or even a scratch on the record. But no, the motorised record arm was sticking an inch or so into play and the only thing that would budge it was a sharp tap which kind of defeated the whole point of playing the record.
The music centre cost an exorbitant £500 in 1980 – the days before hi-fi (Language Library of Nostalgia??) became a relatively cheap commodity – and I think I’ve had my money’s worth over 32 years. But it still feels a little sad tossing it in the back of the trailer to take to the metal tip. I know I shouldn’t need ‘things’ to remind me of good times, eventful times, life-changing times even, but it’s difficult to snip all threads. 

CBS, EMI, Atlantic, Mercury, Pye, Polydor  – there’s even music in the litany of record labels. 

And there’s another thing that will be for ever confined to dusty romance-tinged recollection: how sweetly singles fitted into a shoebox.



Language Library of Nostalgia
single, noun: a grooved circle of plastic with the power to transport you to a different plane.

Hungry Writing Prompts
  1. Write a list of songs that are memorable for you.
  2. Write about your first ‘big’ purchase.
  3. Write about being stuck.
  4. Write about cutting a thread.
  5. Write a list of things that have meaning for you that you could fit into a shoebox.