Sunday, 29 January 2012

Cormorants in the dead of winter

Nothing like a bleak water scene to remind one of winter. But the birds don't seem to mind. Here are two seagulls and two cormorants on the River Wear (pronounced 'weir', maybe because there is a weir there – actually more than one). In keeping with Spotting Animals, I have also seen salmon leaping up the weir, right here in the centre of Durham.
Cormorants on the weir of the River Wear, Durham
   In Japan cormorants are used to fish for ayu (Plecoglossus altivelis altivelis), a small (ca. 20 cm) freshwater member of the salmon family, using a leash and a ring. They put a ring around the bird's neck to keep it from thoroughly swallowing down any fish, and then pull the bird back to the boat with the leash so it can disgorge the fish. It is a favourite tourist activity to watch the night-time cormorant fishing in Uji and Arashiyama in Kyoto during the traditional ayu fishing season between mid-May and Mid-October.
   I don't know what the cormorants eat here, but in the line of 'invented traditions', maybe this is an area to expand the tourist trade, here in Durham and in London where cormorants frequent the River Thames (pronounded 'tems'). Just have to find the right fishermen fishing for the right fish and get the fishermen to 'tame' the cormorants to do their work for them.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Table Rock blues

Just what you've all been waiting for:

Why, oh why, does the table rock? Makes my food fall off the top.
Coffee spills all over the place, makes me turn all red in the face.

You can moan and you can beg, but they won't fix that table leg.
If the table tips, here's a tip for the boss: you get no tips if the table rocks.

CHORUS: Hey, hey, Mr. Restaurant Man, fix that thing as fast as you can.
   Hey, hey, you big dumb waiter, fix that table or I'll see you later.

One o' those table legs needs proppin' to keep the table top from rockin'.
The table just goes flippity-flop, unless you use a proper prop.

That nice young waitress sure is fine - it seems like she can read my mind:
She brings me toast, she brings me eggs, she brings me napkins to prop that leg.

CHORUS: Hey, hey, Miz Café gal, fix that table and I'll be your pal.
   Hey, hey Mr. Cool Barrista, fix that thing or I'll kick your keister.

I love coffee, I love tea, but not when it's all over me.
I love bacon, I love beans, but not when they're all over my jeans.

A rockin' chair makes my old heart sing, a rockin' table's another thing.
Chitlins, grits and big hamhocks, slide all around when the table rocks.

CHORUS: Hey, hey, gimme those beer mats - I need five more to make the table flat.
   Hey, hey, bring some wooden blocks, to prop those legs when the table rocks.

A lotta folks, they got no brain: when the table rocks, they don't complain.
I'm gettin' tired o' that noisy table, take that durn thing out to the stable.

I think this table needs a brace: it rocks when the house band plays that bass.
The table bangs, the table knocks, don't need a drum when the table rocks.

CHORUS: Hey, hey, I'm spillin' my beer - bring that doorstop over here.
   Glue that thing to the table pole, so the goldurn table won't rock and roll.
CHORUS REPEAT: Readin' the paper, I'm in a rage:
            the table rocks when I turn the page.
            It keeps on rockin' on the floor, so I ain't comin' back no more.

You can read about the context for all this in Restaurant Rant no. 1...

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Restaurant Rant No. 1: rocky tables

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Sessions at two Shakespeare pubs

I've heard "The Swan" is the most popular name for a pub, but there are a lot of Shakespeares around, too. We've just been to a session at The Shakespeare's Head, across from Sadler's Wells Theatre in London. Nice old timey American session populated by seven geezers, two young men, a lad and two beautiful women (myself included, of course...but which category?). Or another way to look at it: 5 guitars, 2 mandolins, 2 fiddles, 2 banjos, 1 mouth harp and spoons. Unfortunately pennywhistles aren't allowed to accompany American old timey – only if an Irish tune is played.

American Old Timey Session at the Shakespeare's Head,
1 Arlington Way, Islington, London
Sessions every Sunday night from 8pm
The session was open and welcoming, both to newcomers and to those with less experience, shall we say. But as I learned from another American session at the Blue Lion pub on Gray's Inn Road, London, last Wednesday (why is it Gray when the English spelling is 'grey'?), the session etiquette is different from an Irish session, as at The Shakespeare Tavern in Durham.

In an American session, the session boss calls out for people to start a tune, or even goes around the circle for different people to start a tune, and they often name it first. At an Irish session, whoever wants just digs in and everyone follows without naming the tune. Again, an American tune is played by itself but several times, whereas Irish tunes are played two or three times in sets of three, usually. In an Irish session, the session boss often calls out the change of tunes, either just by yelling "Change!" or stating the key in which the new tune has to be played; then at the end, they might yell "Out". But in an American session, there is no changing tunes and 'Out' is often indicated by a raised foot – not unknown in Irish/English sessions. Gotta keep a watch out there. Finally, there is more singing in an American session, which raises the problem  of whether one tries to sing with an old timey American accent/voice (some English do it surprisingly well; others don't...).

Irish/English session at The Shakespeare Tavern
63 Saddler Street, Durham
Sessions on 1st & 3rd Wednesdays from about 8.30pm
Not only is the way the session run different but so is the drinking. At the American sessions (on a sample of two), everyone buys their own drinks, no questions asked (this is very American – every man, woman, and child for themself). But in an Irish/English session, a person who wants to renew their drink usually asks around if anyone else wants one, too (or maybe this is just in the north). It can get very expensive, buying rounds, and I know people who have managed their entire music career sloping off when it's their turn to buy a round but always being there to receive a drink. And if you don't drink beer (but only one rum & coke or Baileys rather than three pints a night), it's really hard to participate in buying rounds because of the scorn of the beer drinkers.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Wyvern Street Art

This is not graffiti! It is the logo of the Wyvern Bindery painted on the shop shutters. The only way you will see it is to visit the bindery when it is closed! When open, the shop can be identified by its shop sign exhibiting equivalent talent.

Hand-made sign, hand-painted logo – a real labor of love and entrepeneurship characteristic of old Clerkenwell Road, London. It is here that watchmakers and printers made Clerkenwell famous, and now the area is the "largest media hub in Europe with, arguably, the greatest concentration of architects' and designers' offices in the world", according to Spotlight on Clerkenwell.

I was so curious as to what lay behind this shop shutter that I went in today. Blimey! It was like stepping into the past. Stacks of paper, rolls of leather, patterned inner binding, spools of binding ribbon, bound and unbound books on every surface, and in prime location, three old screw compression book presses. I thought the shop might date from the 1800s, but in fact, it has been in business only 21 years. On the shelf behind the till were rows of reference books, including one on "Japanese Bookbinding" (Weatherhill, 1986). Serious craftspeople, here.

If anyone needs their dissertation bound, they do it in two days. Much more fun to go there to have it done than at austere and sterile Prontaprint or the likes.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Sunday Brunch at St. ALi (now Workshop Coffee)

STOP PRESS! St. ALi has been renamed Workshop Coffee, due to its new management and independence from the Melbourne shop. Far less lyrical, I think...

Now Redundant: St. ALi. No, your eyes do not deceive. There is a full stop (period) after the 'sint'* and the L is capitalized in ALi – at least on their website it is. These are two clues that it is not English: in fact, it is an offspring of a coffeebar of the same name in South Melbourne, Australia, and the name was chosen to honor the Sufi mystic Ali ibn Umar al-Shadhili.

We heard of it through Aussie friends and immediately went out for Sunday brunch. Crowded! The queue didn't let up until 3pm, though we got a table at 2.35 after waiting 10 minutes or so. It calls itself a coffeebar and cafe, having recently opened in April 2011 and only doing business 7am~6pm seven days a week. Apparently they will be starting a dinner service soon.

The central coffee bar at St. ALi, with tables on two floors,
some available for reservation during weekdays

Already St. ALi has been named a runner-up in the Allegra Coffee Symposium awards (2011) as one of the best independent cafes in Europe, despite its Aussie affiliation. The reviews for the Melbourne branch are increasingly disillusioned, but this one, near the intersection of Clerkenwell Road and St John Street, is really flying: listed high in the Independent "Best British Breakfasts", and called "a great day-time cafe" by TimeOut magazine.

We were very impressed with the service: quick and compassionate. The food was imaginative and tasty, and the interior of the cafe was fascinating. In the back stands their own coffee bean roaster, so all the coffee you drink there has been roasted on site, hopefully very recently. The wall behind the roaster has been made into a vertical garden, much like the one I reported on for Edgware Road Station.** This one, however, is inside and includes a water moat and water-loving plants such as ferns. Very lush and supposedly pumping out good oxygen for us.

Despite the change of name noted above, the coffee is still spectacular and the food delicious...

* as discussed in my blog on St Bart's.
** see also the hanging garden in Madrid!

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Rubens as Street Art

Wandering around Farringdon Station in London, as I am wont to do, I was stunned to see a Rubens hanging on the outside wall of a building facing a car park! It certainly caught my eye, which is exactly what the company who put it there intended: The Partners, an award-winning "branding agency". Oh no, I've been taken in by advertising!

Probably to the dismay of companies wanting my business, I assiduously avoid reading advertisements in print, on screen, on billboards. But I am a hunter-gatherer by nature: I shop to see what's available and where everything can be got if needed. The H&G mantra: know your resources.

So, because the Rubens (his painting of Samson & Delilah) wasn't direct advertising, it got my curiosity up and I investigated. This painting was one of many placed around town during the Grand Tour set up by The Partners. It is part of "a collection of priceless paintings from the National Gallery set free around the streets of Britain. Originally on show in London for 12 weeks in 2007, it is now touring other British cities" says the signboard.

Undoubtedly, this was not the real painting from the National Gallery but a copy. Nevertheless, it was an interesting idea for bringing art to the public. And of course, interesting ideas are the mainstay of The Partners advertising business. The building shown happens to be the Smithfield branch of The Partners, in Albion Courtyard. Unfortunately, there was no indication where other paintings might be located. Have you seen one in your city?

Friday, 13 January 2012

Runner beans, are they or are they not?

It's time to think of planting a garden this summer! But what varieties? Above are the "runner beans" planted by my sister in the States. I was there at harvest time and took these pics of the bean pods (left, curved, 5-7 inches in length) with the beans clearly showing, and the black* and white beans that had already been shelled. The beans were productive, but they were not the runner beans I know from England.

English runner beans are long (ca. 10 inches), straight, and bean-less. It's the pods that are eaten: boiled or steamed al dente, the pods are absolutely delicious – one of our most favourite vegetables and available only in the winter after harvest.

Curious about the difference, I first investigated the English runners: I went to Homebase to see what they were selling for planting this spring: runner bean varieties Armstrong, Polestar, Prizewinner, White Lady and Scarlet Emperor. Then I went to the UK Suttons Seeds website and found that their catalog has 41 entries under "runner beans", and most of the pictures look like the English version, whatever the variety.

So why are American runner beans different? What is their variety? All runner beans here and there are of the species Phaseolus coccineus, so the variety is really important. How can the English varieties be bought there? So sad to think that most Americans might not have tasted the most exquisite vegetable of England.

The American Burpee Seed catalog DOES have the runner bean variety Painted Lady in their Heirlooms category, but they market it as an ornamental. If you let the pods mature, it says they have "pinkish-brown streaked beans" – nothing like the blackish and white beans shown above. In the corner of the Suttons Painted Lady marketing picture, you can see a serving suggestion of the cut pods and unformed beans. So Painted Lady must be the best choice for having English runner beans in America. Order from Burpees!

* actually dark lavender with black mottles

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Gog & Magog sculptures and walk

Gog and Magog are names from the Bible, specifically interpreted as a king and his kingdom, respectively. But as Christianity infiltrated Albion (the Isle of Britain), it appears that they became one person Gogmagog, leader of the giants overthrown by Brutus of Troy, according to legend.

Later, it appears the word split to refer to two people: Gog, the giant, and Magog, the Trojan warrior Corineus who killed the giant.  Gog and Magog are now feted as the traditional guardians of the City of London, where their postwar wooden sculptures, in Roman uniform, watch over the Guildhall interior.

Many fascinating legends and details surround these two, but here let's talk about tangible things. First, the original 14-foot guardians of Gog and Magog were made of "wickerwork and pasteboard" which lasted about 400 years before deterioriating. Two rounds of wooden sculptures have replaced them, but in 2006, new 14-foot wicker statues were created to showcase in the Lord Mayor's parade. After one parade three or four years ago, the statues were displayed in the Royal National Hotel lobby; otherwise they are kept at the Guildhall between parades. The wicker statues can next be seen in the Lord Mayor's Procession on Saturday, 10 November 2012.

The wicker-work Gog & Magog statues
for the Lord Mayor's Procession
(Courtesy of the Worshipful Company of Basketmakers)

But a different sort of Gog and Magog exist outside Cambridge. South of the city are the only hills visible for miles (the Urals in one direction!). About 70m in elevation, they tower over the flat fenlands. These are the Gog Magog Hills. It is possible they were named for legendary giants sleeping beneath them.

I recall the Gog Magog Hills now because they were the site of several wonderful walks, one at Christmastime, when living in Cambridge. They provided refuge from the flatness of Cambridge in the wooded uplands, gaining a good view over the plains. So this mountain-loving girl took solace in the Gog Magogs, unnecessary now living in a more topographically interesting place.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Jelly, Jell-o and Jam

So we were talking about sandwiches with friends (have you noticed how many of these blogs focus on food? So much of culture resides in cuisine!*). I was telling them about the good toasted cheese sammys we had at the Northumberland Cheese Farm café on a recent visit (just north of the Newcastle airport for those who want to go). In the States, of course, we call these "grilled cheese sandwiches"; here they are called "toasties".

And then I asked, have you ever tried grilled peanut butter and jelly sandwiches? Their immediate reaction was "yewuuuuuu" because they were thinking jelly = jell-o! Now I admit, a peanut butter and jell-o sandwich would be pretty weird, especially if toasted (runny). (But then think of Kinsey Millhone of Santa Teresa,** who eats peanut butter and pickle sandwiches!)

A doormat produced by the Jell-o company as a pun
on its product name: in different color letters to
represent the flavors of the gelatin dessert
Language lesson:

American "jelly" = jam without the chunky parts

British "jelly" = American jell-o (gelatin)

But isn't there such a thing as jam without the chunky parts in England? Why yes, it's called "jelly" of all things: red current jelly, cranberry jelly, mint jelly, sweet chilli jelly, and bramble jelly (from the Tesco list). It turns out that the first three are considered savoury condiments and used quite differently from jam or American sweet jelly. Bramble jelly is sweet jelly like American jelly; seems it is the only one made as jelly rather than jam because the fruit is so intractable.

American English seems more precise because we have three different terms to differentiate jam, jelly and jell-o, while the English terms jam and jelly have to cover all three products. In both cases though, 'jelly' has to cover two different products: American jelly both sweet and savoury, and British jelly both gelatin and savoury jelly. This explanation rather goes beyond the 3-year-old discussion of these terms on Yahoo Answers, which is difficult to understand anyway because you don't know the nationality of who is answering.

To confuse things further, like American jelly beans (sweet), the English have expanded the term "jelly" to cover jelly babies, snakes, tots and squirms (sweet),  the candies called "jellies" (sweet), and the jelly used in cat food (savoury).

In retrospect, why did my friends immediately think of jell-o in a sandwich rather than bramble jelly, for example? Hmmm, sounds good. In fact, all the savoury jellys sound good. Must try them in peanut butter and jelly toasties...

* As Lévi-Strauss knew when he wrote "The Raw and the Cooked".
** Sue Grafton's private detective in her 'alphabet murder' novels. The story goes that Grafton hated her husband so much on their divorce that she decided to kill him, 26 times through the alphabet in her novels.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Durham coal-train track walks

Gorse blooming in January! It isn't usually
out until March-April.
Finally, the wind has stopped blowing and the sun has come out. Mind you, it's still warm for January (see the gorse), so we took a walk on one of the myriad paths following old railway lines criss-crossing the landscape.

All around Newcastle are villages developed around coal mines (remember the phrase "coals to Newcastle"?). These are called "pit villages" from having a coal pit, and to move the coal to market, small coal trains were used. When Maggie Thatcher broke the coal-miners strike in 1984, most of the pits were abandoned, tracks ripped out, and slag heaps landscaped.

It is difficult to imagine what the area, now green and increasingly wooded, looked like those days: with industrial waste scattered across the hills and mine shaft facilities towering over the villages. Today, one can walk for miles on the old rail tracks along river courses, across farmland and through woods on the Deerness Valley Walk, the Lanchester Valley Walk and the Brandon-Bishop Auckland Walk – all meeting the East Coast rail line between Langley Moor and Durham.

Our walk began at Deerness View Park, and an old map of 1900 on the signboard informed us this park was the site of an old coal mine, now a picnic area. We walked the Deerness Valley, enjoying the change of weather and all the dogs out being walked.

Walking on the Esh Winning rail siding on January 6th

Coal mines were everywhere in this region. When you buy a house in Durham, you have to have it surveyed to see if it's sitting over an abandoned coal shaft. As the University tore down houses last year to construct their new administration building on Stockton Road, they found a mine shaft and had to fill it with rubble before proceeding. Other legacies of the miners are the Durham dialect (not Geordie but "pit-yakking"!), and the numerous council sports facilities that were provided by the government for out-of-work miners.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Lasagne in England & America

English-style lasagne: it might as well be tomato soup!
Why is it that restaurant (Italian or otherwise) lasagne is always soupy? I ordered some recently in an Italian restaurant, hoping that I would get real Italian lasagne, which would stand up instead of swim...I could hardly even find any pasta in this one.

So for comparison, I made lasagne with my mother's recipe (who is Swedish, not Italian), and presto! It stands up all by itself on a plate! It has two layers of pasta, but next time I will make it with three layers. A cinch these days using pasta that doesn't need pre-cooking. 
American-style Italian lasagne that has character and posture

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Tea, Scones and a Film

So, back to normal (except for Scotland where they're still in Hogmanay holiday). Most people are working, but we took advantage of the reinstated "Golden Days" showing at the Gala Cinema in Durham. Since the cinema is run by the County Council, after taking over from a dead useless entertainment company, OAPs are supported in their recreational needs. (OAP stands for Old Age Pensioner – meaning anyone over 60, a politically impolite appellation if I ever saw one.)

Golden Days showings are Tuesdays at 11.30am; this week was "Mission Impossible", just what OAPs want: to be reminded that they are no longer so young and active. But the real draw is, in addition to cheap tickets, free tea or coffee and a scone (sweet or cheese) beforehand.
Sweet scone with raisins on left, cheese scone on right

Scones were unknown to me before coming to England, but we do have baking powder biscuits in America. So what's the difference? Well, I finally found two recipes to compare:

3 cups of flour
3 tsp baking powder (or more)
1/2 tsp salt
1~2 TBSP butter
milk to mix
AND THEN add raisins (optional) and 1/4 cup sugar for sweet scones
OR 4~6 TBSP grated cheddar and 1/4 tsp cayenne for cheese scones

3 cups of flour
4 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
6 TBSP shortening
1 cup of milk

So, scones are just baking powder biscuits with additions to make them sweet or cheesy. The biscuits themselves are savoury, to be eaten with dinner, while scones are a snack. I don't think anyone would eat a baking powder biscuit as a snack unless they were really hard up; they are dinner items.

In any case, it's pretty nice of the Durham County Council to supply scones rather than biscuits – that is British 'biscuits', i.e. 'cookies'. Are you confused now?

Monday, 2 January 2012

The green, green grass of England, and its sheep

Well, it's been a good New Year's holiday: too busy to write. But today, as things wind down and the sun finally comes out, I did some gardening and discovered blooming primroses, forsythia, California poppies, and quince! The bulbs I reported on a month ago are even taller and more populous: crocus, dwarf iris and dwarf daffs are all pushing through the soil. Warm winters are enjoyable, but they won't kill the creepy crawlies that are bound to bug us later in the year.

One of the things that struck me about England upon first arrival was how green it was in January! Back home, at least the grass turns brown in the winter, but here, green fields contrast against bare trees. I knew Ireland was called the Emerald Isle, but I was unprepared for the English greenery, which really lifts the spirits in the dead of winter.

Of course, the reason for the green is that much of the land is pasture for the sheep, so the grass grows luxuriantly. Apparently 2011 was a "bumper year in the sheep industry"says the chairman of the British Wool Marketing Board. But he also says that the higher price of wool has forced manufacturers into blends. It is rather difficult to find clothes of pure new wool, unless one shops at EWM (Edinburgh Woolen Mill) stores. Shopping in the Christmas sales for wool sweaters elsewhere (because EWM has really retrograde designs), I couldn't find a 100% wool sweater. Lots of blends, made in China: what looks like a Fair Isle sweater (jumper) is made of 30% acrylic, 30% cotton, 30% nylon, and 10% wool. According to the chairman above, China has a strong demand for British wool, but look what they do to it in return!