Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Edwardian experience in Edgware Road station, London

The Edgware Road station of the Bakerloo Line takes one back in time to the early 1900s. It has the iconic facade of several of the London underground stations: arched entryways faced in red tiles, designed by Leslie Green. While Londoners and visitors are well acquainted with these outer facades, I was astonished recently to pay my first visit to Edgware Road station and find that the interior of this one is virtually unchanged from its inception in 1907.

Tile-surround ticket windows of the Edgware Road station,
Bakerloo Line
The ticket windows are surrounded by moulded curved green tiles, complementing the red exterior. Since Green was responsible for the outer appearances of the original stations, and since Russell Square station still retains his geometric tile pattern on the platform walls, I assume the Edgware windows are of his conception as well. The overhanging ticket booth lights follow the curvatures of the windows and give the station an elegance unseen in modernized ticket halls.

Edgware Road station wall, Bakerloo Line, London
(colours saturated for effect)
The Edgware Road station used to be buttressed by a series of shops to the south, but these were destroyed to build the Marylebone Flyover. With nothing on its south side now but an empty space, landscape artists have taken a hand in adding value and decoration to a corner of the urban jungle. The station wall now sports a vertical garden of many different climbing plants, softening the racket of the passing traffic.

One of the reasons traffic is so bad in London (despite the Congestion Charge areas) is that more elevated highways are not allowed. When one visits this corner of Edgware Road and the Marylebone Flyover, sympathy flows for this decision. We will continue to drive gratefully along the city streets, taking two hours sometimes to get out of London, as we remember this corner and that decision.

Monday, 26 December 2011

It's Boxing Day in England!

When I first heard of Boxing Day, I thought, gee is it like the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day – a game on the holiday? A boxing match?? Who would want to watch?

But no, apparently it's the day all good little English children would put their new Christmas gifts back in their boxes ready for storage throughout the new year. Maybe this is why antique auctions can bring in so much moola for original boxed toys.

I always feel sorry for my American compatriots who have to go back to work the day after Christmas. At least here in England, we have a day to recover. And this year we have two days! Yes, two holidays on Monday and Tuesday to make up for Christmas being on Sunday. Sadly we don't get an extra day off on January 2nd, except for this year again on Monday because New Year's is on Sunday. I see from my filofax, though, that the Scots get an extra day on Tuesday the 3rd, so it looks like Hogmanay is going to last for at least five days this year.

Well, you can imagine what these holidays do to work patterns. Almost everyone who can get away with it takes off the entire time between Christmas Eve and January 2nd. The worst Christmas I ever had, ever, anywhere, was my first in England. Alone, I was in my first house when the boiler went out about December 23rd. Absolutely no tradesperson was available to come fix it until early January. So I suffered in one room with a gas fire in snowy weather for ten days; and I couldn't even go out because zilch was open: no shops, no cinema, no library.

These days I must admit it has gotten better. The shops are open as much as possible to make a quid, and the cinemas are open if you want to see a kids' movie. But we are conversely happy to hibernate throughout the week. How about you?

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Brussels sprouts tree for Christmas

Without a Christmas tree this year, we thought we'd splurge on a Brussels sprouts tree (£1.00). Yes, that's what Sainsbury's calls it. Not really a tree though, just a very hefty stalk for growing all those little sprouts (stalk more than an inch in diameter according to the ruler, ahem 'straight edge'). You didn't know they grew that way? Neither did we until Christmas in England.

Every Christmas, the supermarkets bring on their sprouts for that special turkey dinner. And of course, they have to be something special themselves, hence the stalks. The Guardian Weekend yesterday featured a UK farm that produces 210 million sprouts a year, and that's just a 250-acre farm. So we can assume a people eat a lot of them.

I like mine steamed with flaked almonds and then seasoned with balsamic vinegar dressing. Someone else suggested cooking them with leeks, or with walnuts. I didn't know you could eat them raw, too; but then, they're just little cabbages. But whatever you do, don't overcook them, says Yasmin.

Yasmin, head of quality control (or "chief sprout taster") on said farm, says they grow twelve different varieties and her favourite is Maximus. This is all well and good, but if the variety name is not on the supermarket package, then how can we choose the small & sweet ones, or the dark & nutty ones?

One comment on the name, too. Is it Brussels or Brussel? Google gives 1.64 million returns for Brussels plural, 1.47 million for Brussel singular (but this includes a lot of plural references). Both Wikipedia and the BBC have mixed entries, the BBC calling them singular in one place but plural in another, while Wikipedia entitles their entry sprout singular. Since Belgium was the hub of production for Europe in premodern times, the name Brussels is most likely correct, but I usually say Brusselsprouts (one word) myself.

Thirty years ago sprouts and winter greens were the only non-root vegetables you could get in England in the winter. How the world has changed since then...but the English still like their sprouts! Happy Christmas!

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Hyde Park Christmas Fair and Market

A huge facade for a pirates' den, complete with Jaws
suspended outside at Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park, London
Going under the title "Winter Wonderland", this is apparently the fifth year the fair and market have been held in Hyde Park. I must admit that the South Bank Christmas Market, which I wrote on last week, can't hold a candle to this one. But it depends on what you want out of your visit.

We went again in late afternoon, hoping to miss the major daytime and nighttime crowds. Successful in this and able to view the lights coming on through the waning light, it was fun to see the place grow alive. The advertising for tickets to Winter Wonderland, is misleading. The rides and horror houses for kids, ice rink and cirque need ticketing, but you can walk freely around the food stalls and market. I wonder how many people have been put off thinking they had to buy tickets to the Wonderland.

Roller Coaster in Hyde Park for Winter Wonderland
The scale dwarfs that of South Bank, mainly because of the large rides such as ferris wheel and roller coaster installed. But the architecture for the stalls is impressive, too! Compared to the tiny 'beach changing hut' nature of the South Bank stalls, these are full store size in many cases and even a two-storey Bavarian beer hall. Some effort has gone to erecting these, but since the fair lasts from November 18 to January 3rd, I guess they earn their keep.

Bavarian beer hall built just for Winter Wonderland
in Hyde Park, London
The food stalls are almost exclusively Alps products: German sausages by the metre and lots of Bavarian specialties, including buffalo and ostrich burgers (!). We were able to find my favourite: Hog Roast (pulled pork in a bap, or a bun in America speak, with sage stuffing and applesauce – the usual sweet stuff, not homemade). While eating our pork sandwich, we listened to a superb rock duo on a tiny stage playing amplified acoustic guitar and electric bass with drum foot pedal. They had a great, full sound for two people and even got the audience singing with them. Wonder who they were???

The market is an extension of the fair and goes under the name Angels Christmas Market. Again the stalls are all unified wooden structures, indicating central planning and control. But the contents were not impressive: some Christmas decorations, lots of eared animal hats and jewelry shops. I think here the South Bank had better offerings.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Steeleye Span at the Barbican!

The announcer said it was the wish of a lifetime: to see Steeleye Span at the Barbican. And we did it. Great stuff – Maddy Prior can still belt it out! And prance around the stage!

Steeleye Span playing at the Barbican, London
We first encountered the rock-folk band Steeleye Span in the early '80s – used to play their songs all the time while we were redecorating our first house. And now when I hear the songs, I smell paint!

The songs on December 19th, however, were mostly unfamiliar to me (so no paint), but they did sing their "signature songs" for a double encore. I yelled for "King Henry" ("more meat, more meat...") but to no avail; we got only "All Around My Hat" and "Gaudete".

Maddy was joined by Peter Knight (incredible fiddle) and Rick Kemp (incredible bass) from the nearly-original group from around 1970, with two other long-standing on&off members, Liam Genocky on drums and Pete Zorn on most everything. Julian Litman, the youngster in the ensemble, was on electric guitar. All of them sang at times. Between "halves", the Acoustic Strawbs provided a weirder set.

In the second half, SS were joined for a few pieces by Martin Carthy (possibly the single greatest name in British folk, and a founder-ish member of SS) on voice, guitar and five-string banjo, and Jon Spiers (of Bellowhead and Spiers & Boden, a famous name in current British Nu-Folk) on voice and melodeon - but they could hardly be heard and might as well not have been there. Pity. (They're in the photo, though.)

This was the end concert but one in a month-long tour of performances. Maddy is also holding a special weekend of "Stepping Stones Festival", billed as "Maddy's House Party" on May 5th and 6th, 2012.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

London's South Bank Christmas Market

South Bank's Festival Hall and Christmas Market in London
Towns around Britain are holding Christmas Markets, as I previously reported for Durham. London now has two! These are the traditional Christmas Market along the South Bank outside Festival Hall and the Angels Christmas Market in Hyde Park.

South Bank looked absolutely spectacular at dusk the other day as a canopy of lights draped over the market stalls. The stalls themselves have changed from years past: from DIY tented stalls to wooden huts there for year-round use. The huts have oodles of goods and munchies for sale, but sadly, the crowds at 4.30 in the afternoon were sparse – all the better for actually doing some shopping, and viewing the Thames at night is always a fantastic treat.

Good shopping densities at South Bank
I'm not sure whether the lack of people at the South Bank was because I visited between the daytime crowds and the nighttime crowds. But it is also possible that the Angels Christmas Market in Hyde Park is drawing off custom. We'll see when we visit on a weekday next week!

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Tinned pumpkin at Waitrose!!!

Look what I have found at Waitrose in London: tinned (canned) pumpkin for pie filling! I bought both existing cans off the shelf, and their "best before" date is October 2014, which means I can make pumpkin pies for Thanksgiving for the next two years!

Libby's is a Nestlé brand, sold throughout the United States and imported and distributed to England by GFT Retail (UK) Ltd. Their address is PO Box 477, Walton on Thames, KT12 5XE, but if you want to "correspond", they guide you to Nestlé's Consumer Services at PO Box 207, York YO91 1XY. Perhaps if the tinned pumpkin isn't sold in your area, you could convince one of these companies to send you a care package.

Since the English traditionally eat turkey at Christmas (not having anything to be thankful for in November), perhaps pumpkin pie could be instituted as a third choice dessert alongside the cloying Christmas pudding and Christmas cake (heavy with dried fruit, icing or sauce and liquor). For those who don't like fruitcake, the pie might be a light option.

The can label has the pie recipe modified for English measures and oven temperatures. Inside the label are three more recipes: for pecan pumpkin sauce, good morning pumpkin pancakes, and pumpkin apple streusel muffins. Perhaps worth experimenting...but only if you have a good supply of pumpkin! See

Monday, 12 December 2011

Hammam experience at Casa Spa, London

Casa Spa reception

My friend and I have just completed a Groupon introduction to a hammam in London. Located at a small shopfront on Edgware Road, the Casa Spa is unexpectedly small, taking up one of the old terraced houses along the street. But enter into Moroccan luxury: textiles and ornaments bedeck the place, while candles provide the ambient light and aromas and soft music are pleasantly unobtrusive.

Reviews of Casa Spa are polarized: people either love it or hate it. I suspect those in the latter category are among the urban young who have never been exposed to camping, a public swimming pool, or a third world country. The former are more easy-going sorts who have either no expectations or understand how to place the experience in world terms. Having enjoyed other hammams in London, Paris, Istanbul and Taroudannt (Morocco), we were quite pleased with the experience.

Entering the reception, we stored our coats and visited the loo. Then down the candlelit stairway to the basement, which was entirely tiled over, floors and walls. The area was open-plan with a large room having two American king-size beds facing each other, and a massage table in the other half of the space through an archway. This second room was a wet room with floor drainage; off it was the steam room and two others we didn't see but might have been a pool and sauna as shown in the website pictures.

Yes, the changing area was small and insufficient, but the curtain did its duty and we finally found a locker with a working key (don't count on this if you go; leave valuables at home). We hadn't been warned to bring swimsuit and towel, so they were provided (a bikini one or two sizes too small on loan, and a big, fluffy, clean towel for £2.50).

First stop was the steam room, where we were left to acclimatize for awhile; then a hard-working woman who was taking care of several people at once, came in and threw cold water from a bucket on us. Left again to acclimatize, with steam enough not to be able to see well but not so much as to obstruct breathing, we waited for the next round: lathering with olive soap – an oily black mixture. After a spell, the woman came again and scrubbed us down with a rough (but not as rough as the Taroudannt version) loofah. Once rinsed, mud was applied and we were left to absorb the minerals.

A shower followed (bar of soap provided), then, wrapped in towels, we were invited to lie on one of the beds which eventually held four of us in a row. We were given time to cool down and relax before being offered fresh fruit cocktail. Then our feet were wrapped up to keep us warm until the Polish lady came to give us a foot reflexology massage (with a course certificate enabling her to work in Britain). It was strong but not intolerable – unlike one reflexology massage I had in Japan once that nearly put me through the roof. After more relaxing, a Turkish sweet cake and mint tea arrived.

Throughout, we were never rushed and were given plenty of time to relax and enjoy ourselves. Despite being very busy, the staff let us make up our own minds as to when we were ready to leave. All in all, it was very relaxing experience and we enjoyed it. Would I go again? Yes, if I felt like spending my cash that way – but I probably don't, without a major discount as this time.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Roots & Branches with Boys of the Lough

Alistair Anderson and Annie Whitehead
on the cover programme for "Roots & Branches"
Alistair Anderson, former head of Folkworks in Newcastle and Gateshead, created a weekend of folk music at the outstanding newish music venue in London, King's Place. We had already been to see The Shee and Monster Ceilidh Band during the Foot-Stompin' Folk night on September 10th at King's Place, so we were ready for their predecessors, the Boys of the Lough – playing together for 40 years now. It was a great night, attended mostly by diehard fans from the '70s.

As Alistair explained, the Boys of the Lough represented the "roots" of the folk tradition, and they were billed as playing "straight from the shoulder – no frills, no modern additions" (though the acoustic guitar was amplified). The "roots" then produced "branches": younger singer-songwriters such as Emily Smith and Christi Andropolis or story-tellers such as Emily Portman. Alistair himself played with jazz trombonist Annie Whitehead to explore the "jazz/folk interface." He told us that since we liked his piece "Dog Leap Stairs" (named after a steep stone stairway in Newcastle) – which we do like – the tunes of the interface would appeal.

The Boys of the Lough (Irish 'lough' pronounced like Scottish 'loch') were five: four old-timers and one youngster. Fiddler Kevin Henderson, from the Shetland Islands, takes the place of Aly Bain, the original fiddler from the Shetlands; the butt of many ageist jokes (being the youngest), Kevin brought great playing to the group. On the other hand, Brendan Begley from County Kerry, playing the button accordion, got all the size jokes, being the biggest member of the band. The Irish flute and whistle-player par excellence, Cathal McConnell, was his usual garrulous self, having to be restrained by the other members (a recurring theme during their 40 years together). He played a mean solo two-whistle set at the request of Rose in the audience; it's a mystery how one whistle could play in the high octave and one in the low octave with the same breath! Dave Richardson, from Northumbria, was main narrator and played the mandolin and concertina, while Garry O'Brian was on the guitar and piano and the only member who did not speak.

This concert was slated as a "rare UK appearance" for the Boys of the Lough, and we are sure glad not to have missed it, especially since Dave Richardson says this is his last month with the band. More changes of personnel in future for this seminal English-Scottish-Irish band as we all get older...

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Revisiting City of London bollards

My very first post was on the bollards of the City of London. Since then, I have found even more varieties that do not mark curbs but direct traffic! Specialist bollards that have cast-in places for road signs. These include one-way signs, and signs marking lanes for motorcycle and bicycle use. But don't you think the number used here is a bit overkill?

Traffic-directing bollards in the City of London

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Christmas Lights and Dinner at Hotel Russell

Hotel Russell with Christmas Lights

Hotel Russell is a grand old Victorian building at the northeast corner of Russell Square in London. Every year they put on a good show of Christmas lights on the frontage. I always like the bows especially. But this year, instead of each floor having its repeated strip of decoration, only the lowest floor is so ornamented. Must be a sign of austerity.

The Russell is a 4-star hotel, but to stay in its rooms was previously a Victorian experience. Small, with paint, wallpaper and plumbing problems, it was not the lap of luxury but the lap of history that provided the ambience. After a £20 million refurbishment programme, however, it competes with the nearby 5-star St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, where all the rooms have also been completely refurbished and modernised. But then, who has £200-£350 to spend on a hotel room per night at either of these places?

To experience these grand hotels, it is fun instead to visit their public facilities. Dinner in Hotel Russell's ballroom, where we ate last night at the Japan Society Annual Dinner was a formal affair with delicious food not always achievable with 170 guests to serve. The sea bass was exquisitely flavoured; I'd like to know the recipe! And the three-chocolate dessert was heaven.

At the annual dinner, the Japan Society presents awards to one Japanese and one Brit who have made extraordinary contributions to Anglo-Japanese relations in the UK. This year, both awardees were musicians: Dr. David Hughes and Dr. Ayako Hotta-Lister. Both have worked tirelessly to promote Japanese music within Britain: Hughes, an ethnomusicologist, promoting folk music particularly of Okinawa and Tohoku but also traditional classical musics of Japan, while Hotta-Lister, a historian, is a koto player and teacher. Each was given a footed crystal bowl inscribed with their award by the Queen's engraver. Great times had by all.

Hotel Russell in the gloaming. Imagine every floor decorated
with bows and wreaths in times past.
So if you want to experience some of the grand buildings of London without staying in them, join a club or society or attend lectures that makes use of these facilities. The IoD (Institute of Directors), the Oriental Club and the Royal Society are just some of the venues where such activities are held.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

British Museum Members' Christmas Party

For Friends of the British Museum, several "parties" and "member's evenings" are scheduled throughout the year. We have now been to one each, having activated membership only this year to take advantage of these offerings. I took a friend who works at a different museum to see what the "party" would offer.

First off, free coat check (saved £3); the dress code seemed to be whatever people were wearing from work. Then, a cash bar (£2 for softs, £4 for wine) and tapas (£3 per plate).  The tapas were good: olives, artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, capers on a stem and roasted bell peppers – all straight out of (the oil in) the jar. You could get this vegetarian dish alone or with shrimp with lemon or thinly sliced prosciutto. Delicious: you can make up one for yourself at home.

The party was held in the Egyptian gallery off the Great Court. High pedestal tables were scattered around for drinkers to rest their glasses on while eating. A foursome could fit around one. So we took our drinks and tapas to a table and stood there the rest of the evening engrossed in our conversation. One other person at our "table" offered comments on the National Gallery Leonardo da Vinci exhibition we were talking about, and we kept our eyes out for people we knew. My friend, in the museum business, did not see a single known face, and although I did, I soon lost them in the crowd.

Actually it was not too crowded and later a jazz trio provided nice background music. So my friend and I passed good time together at what turned out to be a cocktail party without a host/hostess to make introductions. The English – like the Japanese – don't mix well without being introduced. So the lesson for the future is: be sure to go with someone you know and will enjoy talking with together for the evening (usually not your partner!). A member can take in a guest for £5.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Durham Christmas Fair

You used to have to go to the continent to enjoy Christmas Markets, but now many towns across Britain have one. Durham's has the ambience of a craft fair in a huge double marquee, though with none of the fun food stalls common to the continent (I remember eating a Hungarian cheesed sausage in a crepe cone at the Viennese fair – out of this world). This year Durham's double marquee had a café set up inside by the University caterer YUM (or not so yum).

Steve as the original Green Man, owner of the Green Man
Pottery, Brancepeth Castle, Durham
People who save their Christmas shopping for the fair must be in seventh heaven. Most anything you can think of is on sale, such as these Medieval Green Man ceramic creations. Steve, the potter, paid £250 for the privilege of marketing his wares here. That's an awfully lot of Green Man plaques and mugs needing selling just to break even with the stall fee.

Did I buy anything? You bet I did: four bars of exotic chocolates with flavours such as Aztec Spice, Hot Chilli, Lavender...not something you can find in the shops. And I sent them off immediately from the Post Office to relatives in the States for Christmas.

Hurry, you have two days left to visit Durham's Christmas fair! Mind, this year they have instituted entrance fees on the weekend for crowd control. Mark next year's Friday free opening on your calendar now!

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Bulbs already sprouting in December!

Bulbs* sprouting in December
My spring bulbs are pushing up through the ground! Most are only an inch high, but two daffodil bulbs have leaves 7 and 5 inches high. What will happen to them through the hard winter we are supposed to have?

Caught out by deep snow in the past two years, we finally bought a snow shovel (less back-breaking than using a short coal shovel to do the walks). But we noticed here that few people ever do shovel their walks. Maybe because snow has been so uncommon in the past? Maybe because this is not as a litigious society as America? Maybe because with the NHS, people don't have to worry about Health Insurance paying for broken legs?

The growing bulbs go along with the idea that the global temperature is in a warming trend. Scientifically, this in indisputable, and I'm glad to see that one of the foremost Climate Change skeptics – Richard Muller, Professor of Physics at University of California Berkeley – has redone the analyses of temperature and found that they are indeed correct. So he is not a skeptic anymore but a convert. How many others do we need to follow suit before some action is taken?

Meanwhile, enjoy our see-saw weather!

*The patch of grass in the photo is stuff from the bird feeders strung above: probably rye grass and sunflowers, needing clearing out periodically.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Turner Prize nominations: art at the BALTIC, Gateshead

It is only the second time that the exhibition of works for the Turner Prize artist nominations has been held outside London: this year in Gateshead – across the Tyne River from Newcastle in northeastern England. The venue is the BALTIC, a converted flour mill silo (which deserves another blog on its own). A friend and I went to view the work of the four nominated artists; the exhibition runs from 21 October 2011 to 8 January 2012, but the Prize will be announced next Monday, December 5th, so we were glad to be able to form our own opinions before being told what is best!

Each artist had one exhibit room for their installation. We wrote off two after puzzling over the work:  Hilary Lloyd's non-sensical video presentations which made me feel seasick, and Karen Black's crumpled paper and plastic bag creations in pastel colours (though I must admit that walking behind the crumpled paper "waterfall", as I interpreted it, was kind of neat).

We disagreed on who should win the Prize. My friend went for Martin Boyce's sculpture installation which included a ceiling of vertical plastic fins representing tree leaves, with oiled paper leaf cutouts scattered across the floor; a wall-mounted panel of seemingly poured concrete with the wood-grain mould pattern overlaid by scattered alphabet-like letters; half a library table top carved with similar letters and mounted on a metal frame of odd angles that was twice as big as the wood table top; wall heating vents that used patterns resembling the letters in their grills; and an obliquely tilted red rubbish bin with torn flannel liner. All these things were interesting in themselves, but a BALTIC Crew member had to explain how they hung together: representing a park with indoor items (the table) placed outside. Fine, but when I have to have a work explained to me, I feel that the artist hasn't got his message across very successfully.

I chose the paintings of George Shaw, all small (ca. 30x40cm) and mounted in traditional form around the room walls. These were done with enamel paints, more often used on model cars, and many were somber bordering on dark. His topics were the mundane aspects of his childhood neighbourhood, both remembered, recreated, and in transition to their current state. None included people, but the manner of painting – flat, fairly solid colours – reminded me of Edward Hopper's work and some were equally "bleak", a word Shaw himself used in his interview video. What struck me was the differential effort put into the detail of the pictures: in the painting "New Houses", a row of orangey coloured tract houses on the horizon were backed by indistinct trees, but the entire foreground was a field fenced off for further development. While the houses were painted without architectural detail, great attention was paid to the field's mudpuddles and drying clay, diverting our focus to things we would probably overlook and discount in our daily life.

So, we await the announcement of the Turner Prize on December 5th with hope and trepidation! Go see, to make your own choices...

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Corn, Beans & Squash: a vegetarian Thanksgiving

Yesterday (Saturday) saw us celebrating Thanksgiving; since Thursday is not a holiday here in England, the dinner usually happens on the weekend. And since we invited vegetarian friends, we had to think up a menu that didn't include turkey. What's Thanksgiving without a turkey, you might ask? Well, how about the original pilgrim menu...

As I heard it in my youth, after many years and months trying to get to the Americas, the pilgrims finally landed on our eastern shores just in time for winter. Not having been able to farm and hunt beforehand to build up winter stocks, they were starving! Native Americans came to the rescue with their staples of corn, beans & squash, and a couple of wild turkeys thrown in for good measure. Ever since, the turkey has overshadowed the triumvirate of good complementary vegetable proteins.

Corn, of course, is the native English word for grain and includes wheat, barley, rye, oats – cereals that can be ground for flour. This is why many English towns have a Corn Exchange building where grains were once brought to market. So when the pilgrims saw Zea mays (named after the Taino Indian word, mahiz or maisí), they must have thought, Oh, this is American corn. While in England, if one wants to be perfectly clear you are talking about Zea mays, you should use the word "maize" rather than "corn", although the Brits do refer to corn-on-the-cob as "sweet corn".
Sorry, I'd eaten most of my cornbread when I decided to
take this picture!

In any case, our menu included both corn-on-the-cob (boiled in water for 20 minutes, eaten with butter and salt), and cornbread. Now the latter was a problem because coarse-ground cornmeal is not normally sold in England. They have "corn flour", which is our "corn starch", and they also unaccountably stock masa harina – fine-ground maize for making corn tortillas. I say unaccountably because the El Paso brand of ready prepared Mexican foodstuffs is very popular here, so why is anyone making corn tortillas from scratch? The American cornbread has definitely not caught on here – I wonder why not since it's soooo good served warm, lathered with butter.
To complement the corn, I made vegetarian Boston Baked Beans (what could be more tasty with its infusions of maple syrup, spiced rum and molasses?). Navy beans not being sold here, I used cannellini beans, which are way bigger than navy beans though they are both Phaseolus vulgaris L.; next time I will try haricot beans, another P. vulgaris variety. For dessert, pumpkin pie, classified as a "sweet pie" and served a la mode of course. The latter also caused problems because, not being a pastry chef, I prefer to buy frozen pie shells, but there were none to be had in the supermarkets. So I thought, graham cracker crust is a good substitute, but graham crackers aren't sold here either. Finally I found a recipe that substituted ginger snaps! These they do have here but are called "ginger nuts" or "ginger crinkles". To compensate, I left out the ginger from the pie filling recipe, and the combination of pumpkin and ginger snaps was really good!

Our English dinner guests very much liked the offerings to the extent that the cornbread recipe was shared and taken home. I hope they can find coarse-ground cornmeal somewhere down the line as it makes a lighter, more crumbly bread than the dense masa harina product.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Pie: meat or sweet?

The menu said "pie and salad", which didn't strike a chord with me. If it had said "salad and pie", then I would have thought lunch and dessert. But in fact, the word "pie" in England refers mainly to meat pie, like pork pies, steak & kidney pies, while fruit pies are usually called "tarts" and are rarely as big as American pies.

So I was very surprised to see, in my local coffee shop this afternoon, both kinds of pies being offered:  corned beef pie and steak pie next to apple pie and cherry pie – all so labeled. The "sweet pies", as the lady behind the counter called them, were as large and luscious looking as real American double-crust pies (but no ice cream was offered).
Pies were an East/Southeast London staple the last two centuries. We were first introduced to them at Goddards in Greenwich, the oldest pie & mash business in England. Jellied eel was one of the first dishes created (eat at your own risk), with other meats added as the population became better off. Individual pies were the order of the day, with one or two on a plate accompanied by mashed potatoes (mash) and parsley sauce (liquor). So few of these shops remain that they are being documented (for example, in the blog on Spitalfields Life).

These days, there is even a chain called Square Pie that serves decent meat pies (at least to my tastebuds); but the chain's upmarket furnishings are a far cry from the tiled walls, stone floors, and utilitarian chairs and tables of traditional pie & mash shops. Lastly, both individual and large meat pies can be bought at the supermarket deli, the latter sold by slice as well. We like the turkey and cranberry pie – Ach! Should have had one yesterday for Thanksgiving but never thought of it...At least they're available all year 'round.

Brits are so unacquainted with fruit pies ("sweet pies" rather than tarts) that I had to insist that a group I was on tour with in Arizona made a special stop at a quaint log-built roadside restaurant that advertised thirteen kinds of pie (with ice cream). The group's choices were interesting: tending more to berry fillings (like the fruit tarts they are acquainted with here), and few actually ordered pie a la mode (i.e. with ice cream). But us two Americans in the group knew how to do it and filled up on our favourites with loads of you-know-what on the side!

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Observations on English Houses

One thing about the English landscape that is so distinctive is its rows of terraced houses snaking up and over hills, through valleys, in wiggly patterns so unlike gridded streets and house lots of America. There are three kinds of houses in England: the vast majority are terraced houses (row houses), a substantial number are semi-detached houses or "semis" (what we would call duplexes back home except these are usually two-storied), and a minor number of fully detached houses (what we consider a normal house in America) on its own lot. These last do not include "bungalows" which are indeed detached but much smaller in dimension and therefore don't rank with the wealthy detached houses. So in fact, there are four main kinds of houses, in addition to which, many people refer to flats (apartments) as "houses": friends who say "We're in the process of buying a house" often mean they are buying a flat.
Typical semis (this word always reminds me of semi-articulated trucks [lorries], not houses) 
Terraced houses are quite a diverse lot. I tend to dislike them because they often open up directly onto the street, with no front garden at all, and many front doors open directly into the living room with no hall/entry-way. These aspects gives you a sense that terraced houses are quite (very) small and rather dumpy inside. However, do not be misled! Terraced houses can be immense: four or five floors, with the lower below street-line and accessed by an outside staircase (many of these have been turned into hotels/B&Bs in London). These are the older Victorian buildings constructed with basements – a feature that few if any modern houses have.

Old or modern, one defining feature of English houses is that they usually have their plumbing on the outside walls of the house rather than running internally. This is unsightly but functional: in the days before central heating and combination boilers (pre-1980), despite winters not getting very cold here, pipes and holding tanks would often freeze up in the few cold snaps. One could get into the loft (attic) to unthaw the pipes and tank with a hair dryer (personal experience speaking here). Same with the outside pipes: they are accessible without having to rip the walls apart.

Outside drainage pipes normally do not lead directly into under-ground sewers but discharge into open drains, much like eaves-pipes in America. The fact that there is a space between pipe and drain causes two problems: a minor inconvenience is that the drains are always filling up with leaves and need periodic cleaning out;  but worse is that spiders can climb up the drain pipes into sinks and baths, and they do regularly! A normal feature of English houses in wintertime is large (2–2.5" diameter) house spiders appearing overnight into one's bathtub...

The final thing about houses is that their relative economic values are not confined to certain neighborhoods (neighbourhoods). When house-buying, it is necessary to check out each individual street rather than rely on quality of neighbourhoods. Large detatched houses can sit next to or across from a row of terraces. And modern housing estates are often created from a mixture of the two to appeal to both income levels.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Unintentional Street Art in London

Several roads around London are being repaved at the height of the leaf-drop season. What you get, then, is unintended street art where autumn leaves have been pressed into the new tarmac/asphalt/macadam (but not pavement – which is a sidewalk) by traffic or even by the street paving roller. These are unexpected and beautiful additions to the capital's streets, but how long will they last?
   In the above photo, you can see three leaves in the lower lefthand corner which have fallen since re-paving. They will be crushed and dispersed soon by the traffic, wind and rain. But let's see how long the impressed patterns last. This photo was taken on Marchmont Street, Bloomsbury – near the North Sea Fish Restaurant. I have seen other leaf impressions on the Strand near Aldwich, with the impressed patterns standing in stark contrast to older grey tarmac. Where else, anybody?

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Bill Frisell at the South Bank

Tonight we caught the last installment of the London Jazz Festival this year: Bill Frisell with his string quartet playing to a packed audience at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank. It was quite (very)* stupendous though off on a rocky start: with troubles in the sound system, it was difficult to recognize when various pluckings became the first piece rather than noise.

I am not a jazz aficionado and know little about the genre, but I do know what I like and that is not noisy, disjointed jazz. Frisell plays more melodic tunes on the electric guitar, tonight tending towards minimalism with much repetition and 'variations on a theme'. His compositions are very playful and exploit the unusual sound-making aspects of classical stringed instruments. I particularly liked the plucking and strumming of the violin, viola and cello – so unexpected to a classically oriented ear. His pieces aren't as lyrical as, for example Chet Atkins in his "Sails" album, but they are interesting listening and keep you on your toes. At least one of Frisell's pieces drew on a folk song, while an encore piece was an arrangement of "Strawberry Fields Forever", supposedly a tribute to us here in London from Denverite Bill.

If I had two gripes, one is that Bill's electric guitar, which had the potential to overshadow the other strings, almost acted as a underlying support for the tunes. It didn't soar (like 70s rock, my favourite), and the virtuosity attributed to his playing (as done with Béla Fleck) was not really apparent tonight. The second gripe is the structure of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, with the sound desk right in the middle of the seating (photo). So next time, I'll not choose seats in rows AA to about JJ in the middle of the Rear Stalls: even top price tickets give a bad view here.

Still, it was a great night out and the first of the London Jazz Festival I have been able to attend over many years. And the honey nut tarts sold at the Hall kiosk were amazingly close to the taste of pecan pie!

NeWt, the band fronting Bill Frisell, barely visible over the sound desk in the middle of Queen Elizabeth Hall.

* It was only after a year of marking student papers "quite good" that I discovered that meant "not good enough" in British English. Here I use it in the American sense of "very good".

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Deplaning Etiquette

I've been travelling (traveling) recently and have pondered the etiquette of how to empty a plane of passengers. In the United States, it seems that there is a self-imposed etiquette of deplaning by rows: everyone in the aisles waits for a row to empty before the next row empties, and so on down the plane. However, in Europe (including Britain, including England), it seems there is an unstated process of deplaning by columns: first everyone in the aisle seats stands up and gets their luggage out, and as soon as the plane doors open, the aisle empties, allowing people in the middle seats to stand up and get their luggage out, and finally the window seat occupants.

To me, the European option seems to be much more efficient because those ready to deplane can depart while others not yet ready prepare themselves. The American option wastes a lot of time because all those in the aisle ready to deplane must wait for all those unprepared people ahead of them.

I ran this scenario by one of my English informants, and he disagreed. He thought it was a free-for-all with no patterning. So I throw these thoughts out to you all to see if you have noticed any pattern, and if so, which do you think best?

Awaiting your comments,
Yours (truly), gleeb

Monday, 14 November 2011

Make a Pumpkin Pie!

What to do with that old Halloween pumpkin? Make pumpkin pie, of course! It’s one of the seasonal, sentimental foods that Americans really miss in England. And since they don’t routinely sell tinned (canned) pumpkin pie filling in the supermarkets, that means you have to make your own filling.

This was a cooking pumpkin: walls 3" thick!
Hardest part is actually cutting up the pumpkin. I used a whole pumpkin (not with a funny face) that is particularly bred for pie – like Bramley apples are specifically cooking apples that are great in apple pie. It was really a tough pumpkin, three inches thick in places. I had to use a hatchet to break it open. And you can see from the picture that I made two half-hearted attempts with the hatchet that only sliced off conchoidal disks from the surface. The third try went straight in.

After cutting up the pumpkin and scooping out the seeds, separate the seeds as much as possible from the fibers. Spread the seeds for roasting on a flat baking tray and coat with salad oil. Bake the pumpkin pieces in the oven at 350° for 1.5 hours. The seeds can be started with the pumpkin, but they must be stirred occasionally and not allowed to burn, taking much less time to roast than the pumpkin.

Once baked, the pulp can easily be scooped from the skin (peeling a pumpkin beforehand with a vegetable peeler is a thankless and usually unsuccessful task). Use at least an 8-inch diameter pumpkin for 1.5 to 2 8-oz cups of pulp. The following recipe is in American measures:

Take 2 cups baked pumpkin pulp and mash with a potato masher; if it's stringy, then puree it in a blender or food processor. Put the puree in a strainer and squeeze out most of the moisture or stir it in saucepan at medium heat to evaporate as much liquid as possible.

Combine and blend dry ingredients:
½ cup sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger powder

Add to the dry ingredients:
3 eggs, well beaten
The reduced pumpkin pulp
1 cup milk

Pour mixture into an unbaked pie shell and
Bake at 350°F for about 40–50 minutes

Top with whipped cream before serving, or serve with vanilla ice cream!

Friday, 11 November 2011

Making music at the Elm Tree

I wrote earlier about the Durham University Folk Society getting together on Wednesday nights at the Market Tavern to play music out of their tunebooks. An equally fun group to play with is the Tuesday night group at the Elm Tree pub, which I introduced earlier.

The Elm Tree Tuesday group is small and jams without sheet music, unlike the Folk Society playing at the Market Tavern. Anyone who brings an instrument can join in if they know the tunes. The regulars include a bodhrán and spoons player, a flutist, a fiddler, a mandolinist/guitarist, a penny-whistler, a melodeon and whistle player, a piper, and a strummer of a real Greek bouzouki. 

The bouzouki has been taken into Irish music as has the guitar, but it is rare to see the real thing rather than the flat-backed adaptation. The bouzouki has a rounded back, much like the traditional mandolin. But our mandolin player, quoting a famous phrase, said his mandolin was shaped like a boat, but his stomach was not shaped like a harbour, so he recently traded his punkin’seed mandolin in for a flat-backed. (More about pumpkins and seeds to come....)

If you’re a beginner, like me, the trick to playing with a group is to start the piece yourself, setting the pace. This is a hard and scary thing to do, but at least the rest of the players join in at a speed you can play at. Believe me, if the fiddler in our group sets the pace, I can hardly keep up, and the worse thing you can do is lose the rhythm. They always say that you shouldn’t play a tune unless you know it. But even if you know it in your head, your fingers might not follow, so practice is essential both with and without the group.

There are many great slow tunes (think of the Titanic soundtrack) that are wonderfully lyrical. For some reason, these are not often played in sessions, with everyone concentrating on the fast jigs and hornpipes, reels and polkas. On Tuesdays at the Elm Tree, we can get the group to play slow tunes and stick generally to a repertoire we know. This is more fun than when we attended an Irish session in London and only recognized 4 out of maybe 20 tunes, with that group focussing on the little known and obscure tunes.

So find yourself a session you like, with good people, knowable tunes, and the right mix of instruments. The website lists over 2000 sessions around the world, one of which may be on your doorstep. Treat yourself to a fun evening of listening and even participation in live music while knocking back a few pints.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Hot Springs not in England

No sooner have the leaves fallen from the trees that it began to snow. Big fluffy flakes, wet and heavy. What better time to go sit in one of Colorado’s several hot springs. This is great family time: soaking and talking for the adults, kids playing quietly in the shallows. One even rolled big snowballs at the side of the pool in her bathing suit to make a snowman.

Trimble Hot Springs, Durango, Colorado on Guy Fawkes Day
No, this blog is not about how to have fun in England. It is about the fun in the States or several other places that we miss in England. They don’t even have the words “hot springs” there – only “spa’ or “sauna”. Yes, there are plenty of places to go sit in indoor facilities: a jacuzzi or a dry/wet sauna, but there is none of the enticement of lazing away a couple of hours with friends or family. The spas in London are generally unisex and clothesless, with Ladies’ Days and Men’s Days. Health clubs around the country have the same, but at least they are duosex and everyone everywhere must wear swimsuits. It seems most English spas make their money from add-on massages, etc., rather than providing interesting bathing experiences in and of themselves. 

Harrogate is one place that has a duosex Victorian spa (Harrogate Turkish Baths and Health Spa), renovated in the last few years to rid it of the musty smell and peeling paint it had been afflicted by. People going there have very mixed reactions; if they don't know what to expect, they tend to like the three hot rooms with showers inbetween, plus steam room and cold plunge pool. But if they are experienced, or if the place is crowded, the visit can be really frustrating. Despite its name, it is not really like a Turkish bath where all soaps and oils are provided, as well as a skin-removing rub down with a rough loofah. And compared to other facilities, the offerings are slim. 

But the places we really like to go are The Netherlands, with their wonderful duosex, clothesless, 30-station saunas that take at least two hours to make the rounds of each station with a comfortable bar and lounge area to take a break and have a drink among cattle-hide upholstered furniture and thick towels. And Japan, which has a few remaining duosex, clothesless spas tucked into the countryside. Unfortunately, the American Occupation Forces in Japan decreed men and women should no longer bathe together, so since the late 40s, all public bath houses and most hot springs are segregated; and in those segregated places, bathing is without clothes. The best hot springs in Japan have outdoor pools or even river rock pools to soak in.

The mix and match in these countries between morals (signified by clothes or no clothes), segregated or all together, indoors or outdoors is quite interesting but not always the best of fun. We just wish England could take a page from some other countries and get a nice hot springs economy up and running. We’d be the first to jump in.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Tea: Food or Drink?

A confusing aspect of English culture for Americans is how to interpret the meaning of “tea”. A drink, yes? But no, tea can also be a meal. And then there are teatimes with food as well.

Biscuit tin advertisement: "Morning Tea with no biscuit is not satisfactory"
Let’s start with teatimes with food. There are tea and biscuits, which can happen even as a wake-up call in the morning (photo), or more normally in the afternoon. Then there is cream tea, which is not tea with cream in it (no, never!). Cream tea is tea with at least scones, butter and jam; but if you’re really lucky, it’s together with scones, clotted cream and jam (clotted cream is like frothy butter and just as rich). Or if you are in southwestern England, it is tea with scones, clotted cream, jam and cake (preferably a large piece of death-by-chocolate-cake).

Finally there is High Tea, which is tea with scones, clotted cream, jam, cake AND cucumber sandwiches (with the crusts cut off, of course). High Tea is usually around 4 or 5 pm, to hold you over until dinner at 7 or 8. So what if you are invited to tea at 5 pm. Will it be High Tea or a meal? Tea at 5.00 is children’s supper. No tea drink is served. So you will often hear parents say that they have to get the kid’s tea ready, or have them eat their tea early so the parents can go out for the evening. But we were invited to tea once at 5 pm and got supper with no children present, no tea drink, and most disappointingly, no scones, clotted cream, jam, cake or cucumber sandwiches. Just a nice supper. Very confusing indeed.

I think one solution to the problem of whether tea means a meal or teatime with food is to follow the English custom of elevenses. Coffee time in England is 11 am (to last you until lunch at 1.00 pm [note that the British do not use a colon for time designations]). So coffee and a snack are called ‘elevenses’. Now, why can’t we have ‘fourses’ for the 4.00 pm tea and snack? If four o’clock teatime was called fourses, then ‘tea’ could be reserved for ‘supper’. Perfectly logical, eh?

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Opening Doors

This blog is not about networking or creating opportunities. It is about opening doors! One of the inscrutable things about living in England for Americans is that almost all doors open inwards. In the States, doors on public and commercial buildings open outwards by law, so that in case of fire, people don’t pile up behind those trying to get the door open.

If you see Americans struggling to get a door open in England, one of two things might be wrong. After years of training to pull open a door, one has to remember to push instead. But second, not all doors are unlocked. This is extremely confusing, especially since often only one door of two is unlocked but you can never tell which one. Why can’t there be some system to either have the left door open (drive on the left?) or the right door open (walk against traffic?). But these analogies are useless, actually; when you try to walk down a crowded street, there is no consensus whether to walk on the left or on the right. Anyway, going in a double door, if the left one is open, coming out it will be the right one. Why not just open both doors? Is it really that hard to unlock two doors rather than just one?

Of course, houses are different, and most front doors to houses open inwards even in the States. But what about interior doors? In every house/flat we have lived in in England, we have had to either take the doors off or rehang them on the other side – because frustratingly, the doors open into the centre (center) of the room (or even worse, directly across a hallway) rather than against the wall, where they would not be in the way. So we end up having rehung doors opening against the lightswitch. If anyone knows a good reason why English doors open into the centre of a room, I would be really interested in hearing it.

The outward-opening door of an American public building. The solution to the problem is on the left side: double-opening sliding doors that open neither inwards nor outwards.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Halloween or Guy Fawkes?

When we first moved to England, Halloween was not a celebrated holiday. Our American customs were just beginning to get known to the British, which resulted in some confusion. You see, only five days after Halloween is the one native British holiday: Guy Fawkes Day on November 5th (though you don't get off work to celebrate).

Guy Fawkes is renowned as a participant of the Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament in 1605 in an attempt to return English rule to Catholicism. His capture on November 5th and later death are what's celebrated on Guy Fawkes Day. Traditionally, English children have made effigies of Guy and sat themselves with their Guys on the street, begging "A penny for the Guy" in the lead up to November 5th. On the day itself, at least in our early years in England, the Guys were paraded through the streets in a contest for the best Guy, then later added to a large bonfire structure which was lit in the evening along with a fireworks display.

Well, the advent of Halloween in Britain encouraged some children to start canvassing neighborhoods (neighbourhoods) two weeks in advance to collect sweets (candy), like collecting pennies for the Guy. With no sense that households may not have bought their goodies to hand out yet, the kids were turned away with nothing. Moreover, they had no idea of what the phrase "Trick or Treat" really meant: when we asked for a trick, they were dumbfounded.

With the cross-over of traditions in England, I was therefore surprised on a recent visit to the States to find that effigies are a big thing these days. So this 'Guy' sitting on the pumpkin could well have been taken onto the streets for collecting pennies -- though I think the real Guy, who called himself Guido while fighting for Spanish causes in the nether-lands, was a bit more sophisticated than the straw might imply.

So, Happy Halloween, and Happy Guy Fawkes Day -- the one English celebration that is not high church or purely commercial.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Autumn Colours

Cottonwood in full colour
In my “Northumbrian Voices” blog, I mentioned daydreaming under a cottonwood tree in my youth. Cottonwoods are glorious in the autumn, turning bright gold against the azure sky. These are the colors (colours) I grew up with.

When talking to an English friend recently how wonderful the fall colors are in the States, I couldn't believe it when he said “They're too bright; they hurt my eyes”!! Indeed, I once had a roll of film in my camera (those were the days), half of which I'd taken in Cambridge and half on an excursion to the Shetland Islands. Everyone talks about how the colours are brighter in the Shetlands, but I was amazed when I developed the film to find the first half in muted grey-greens and blue-grays and the second half in bright blues and clear yellows (it was autumn then, too). The gold colours of cottonwoods and aspens are as unlike the tarnished brassy colours of the horse chestnut as you can get. I used to deplore autumn in Cambridge when the leaves just turned brown and fell off the trees.

Rather than hurting my eyes, the golden colours of autumn trees inflitrate my body to the core, pull it apart and scatter it among the leaves. I am there among the twinkling aspen, and the cottonwoods fill my horizon. And the sweet small of wet fallen leaves is wonderful. The same experience can be had among the cherry trees of Japan, when one is enveloped by a cloud of pink. The best place is along Philosopher's Way (Tetsugaku-no-michi) in Kyoto, where cherries line a canal. Walking the canal path at the height of the season, one can only see pink. I suppose my friend would say it would be like being enveloped in candy floss (cotton candy) and equally undesireable. Maybe this is why everyone in London wears black and neutrals ("grey is the new black") -- no colour, no sense of colour, no sense of the fantastic energizing quality of colour. I love colour, I live colour and pity those without colour in their lives.

Note the tire swing in the cottonwood: great place to play!

Friday, 28 October 2011

A Trip to the Seaside

When I heard we were going to Gibraltar Point last weekend, I thought it was an awfully long way to go for a two-night stay. But it turned out not to be Gibraltar itself in the Mediterranean. Gibraltar Point (arrow on map) is in Lincolnshire, just south of Skegness  – one of the many coastal recreational towns in Britain. Usually these towns have a beach faced by B&B accommodation; a main street with common pinball-type entertainment shops, lots of small eateries and sweet shops; possibly a pier with more entertainment / refreshment facilities perched at its end; and sometimes a small circus area with rides for kids. I always find these towns rather 1930s in feel and somewhat forlorn – maybe because I don’t have the memories of having great fun there as a child.

A fifteen-minute taxi ride south of Skegness brings you to Gibraltar Point, a National Nature Reserve, and its old coastguard station which has been turned into a Visitor Centre and Wash Study Centre. These kinds of study centres, which host a variety of naturalist and school groups for day-trips or longer, are an exceptionally valuable feature of English life. While we were there, we encountered a group of schoolkids doing nature studies on the beach, a group of geography students with measuring poles and clipboards practicing surveying techniques, and of course, us birders. But the dunes along the coast brought many local people, their kids and dogs for walks on a last glorious sunny autumn day. The Study Centre also hosted an exhibition for UK Apple Day and a quiz walk through their heritage orchard.

The Point faces The Wash, an embayment of the North Sea that takes the outflow of three major rivers, the Great Ouse discharging near King’s Lynn in the southwest corner of The Wash being the most famous. Looking out from the Point to the east the first day, I saw land and thought, wow! France! But no, it was only Norfolk. The Wash & North Norfolk Coast is a Special Area of Conservation and European Marine Site: a great place to see seals and many sea and shore birds (and we were lucky to see the Chinese water deer, too). Many people also sail The Wash, as can be seen by the presence of the Skegness Yacht Club with yachts tied up in the ‘marina’ formed by a small tributary into The Wash. Well, I guess there are yacht clubs and there are yacht clubs....but it all goes with quaintness of a British seaside resort.

Skegness Yacht Club marina
Skegness Yacht Club & warning
not to bring in animals from abroad

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Spotting Wild Animals

Speaking of animal-spotting, we had an extraordinary encounter with a Chinese water deer at a nature reserve in Lincolnshire last weekend. It was supposed to be an RSPB birding trip, but one of the first things we saw was this animal streaking through the coastal scrub straight towards us, then veering off and jumping down into a river. The thing looked like a barrel on short legs, scrambling through the brush like a rabbit more than a deer. You could see its fangs (unique to water deer), which made its snout kind of stubby-looking, like a pig. Someone said it was probably pregnant, it was so rotund.

The fauna book in the nature reserve library said it was an escapee ornamental import, only present in two counties when the book was published in 1964. But since then, it has obviously spread wider across the country. Interestingly, the next deer named in the book was the muntjac, also a Chinese import. I saw one once in a Cambridge college garden, fading into the hedge. The Chinese water deer is only 60cm high at the shoulder, and the muntjac is even smaller. What interesting wildlife can be seen in England if you're lucky.
A Frontier Airlines wood-duck tail

Then recently I passed through Denver (Colorado, not Denver of the Denver sluice in Norfolk), the hub for Frontier Airlines. Taking a page from the book I reported on earlier (Animal London: a Spotter's Guide), I spotted wild animals in art form. Frontier has painted a different animal on each of its airplanes' tails.

An exhibition in the Denver International Airport (DIA) terminal bridge just happened to have a presentation on the creativity of Denver and Colorado, allegedly the 5th most creative place in the US. Well, Frontier shows this spirit. I like the animals because they are humorous, unpretentious, and entertaining -- not like the pompous logos of many other airlines. Also, they bring the wild into daily life, reminding us that we are not alone in the world but there are others we must take care of.

More Frontier tails: from left, raccoon, bobcat, mountain lion and ?ermine

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Make Applesauce!!

If the UK has so many apple varieties that they want to save but are not supermarketable, then why not make applesauce out of them? I’ve never understood why applesauce is sold in such tiny jars in England. In the States, a typical jar of applesauce (pictured) is 25 ounces / 1 lb 9 oz / 708 grams or about 1 quart’s worth (that’s not imperial quarts, mind). The large jar weighs 50 oz / 3 bl 2 oz / 1.41 kg. And it’s not eaten by the spoonful as a condiment but by the bowl full like real fruit.

So in England, if you want to eat applesauce by the bowlful, then make your own. You don’t have to use Bramley apples but any kind will do, and it’s dead easy. And if you want all the healthy stuff in them (eating an apple a day is now scientifically proven to be healthwise), leave the skins on.

• core and cut up four larger apples into bitesize pieces
• boil them in an inch of water in a saucepan until soft, about 10 minutes (or longer if quite runny in order to boil off some of the fluid)
• remove from heat and mash up with a potato masher
• stir in ¼ cup of sugar and cinnamon to taste

Voila! You have made applesauce! Now, if everyone used UK apples in all their knobbly, blemished varieties to make applesauce, we would really be helping to keep our apple diversity alive. Then if the companies would follow suit and made larger jars of UK applesauce, we would really be on a roll.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Apple Day in the UK

I didn't know it until Saturday, but October 21st is National Apple Day in the UK. And well should UK apples be celebrated. Among 7500 varieties worldwide, there are over 300+ varieties of apples grown in the UK, but very few of them reach the national marketplaces. They are judged to be too unsightly or too varying in size by the supermarkets who peddle perfectly sized and shaped – and often tasteless – apples from France and New Zealand instead: the usual run of the mill Gala, Red Delicious, etc.
The Cox apple is the most popular of UK apples, the Bramley is the only specialized cooking apple: too tart to be eaten on its own. All Bramleys come from cuttings of a single tree, still alive in Southwell, Nottingshire after 200 years. See the original Bramley tree on BBC! National Apple Day aims to get local apples more widely known and appreciated, before this particular aspect of biodiversity disappears from the UK. Do your bit: now that it's autumn, buy British apples! And if you don't like their looks, make applesauce from them!