Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Hello again

More people than I anticipated have been asking me what has happened to the blog… I’ve been pretty busy never seem to get round to posting. Anyhow, the backlog is below… at last…

September 21st…

Back in the UK. There is a gaping hole on my blog where the last few months should be. Well I was in the field for much of the time, somewhere near the border of Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda. Not a bad place to be if I’m honest, it wasn’t too hot and I’ve certainly worked in rougher parts of the world. The food was unremarkable, which is a shame as I was eating out a lot.

Kigali had more riches to offer, a few decent curry places, a slightly odd Thai, a Greek, Italians (proper pizza ovens too) and an Ethiopian place, which probably provided me with my most interesting food experience of the trip as I’d never tried Ethiopian food before. I guess Injera and Doro Wat is not to everyone’s taste, but I’ll be hunting some of that down over the coming months when I return to the South of England and the rat race.

I won’t dwell on the various food experiences of Rwanda, far better to flirt with pretentiousness and refer to them casually in future blogs. I’m back in Wales now, and was completely blown away by the mega-planet sized Tesco that has been built outside Bangor. Its one of those huge stores that sell just about everything under the sun. Now I’m not advocating shopping at Tescos in preference to anywhere else, and although I am a loyalty-card holder, those who’ve heard me hold forth on the key sustainability issues facing modern Britain today will know of my hypocrisy – I would love to see the Tesco (and Wal Mart, Morrisons, and Sainsbury) empire crumble. Town centres would be reclaimed by market traders, local producers, real life butchers and fishmongers, a bakery in every village, happy people riding bicycles, etc…

Anyhow, back to my point, this shop sold just about everything I could think of eating. So, in Bangor, North Wales, which – respectfully – is not exactly the most cosmopolitan neck of the woods, you can go to a big shop, buy Miso soup, Spanish membrillo, about 100 different types of cheese, and about 200 different types of Houmous (which, after nearly three months in Central Africa, I succumbed guiltily to a little plastic pot of organic houmous, despite there being perfectly good tahini in the cupboard at home…). So next time one of our continental cousins looks down their nose at the British lack of interest and sophistication as far as food is concerned, I would direct them to the Tesco store in Bangor…

Anyhow, my mother and I decided to go traditional and bought a bottle of full fat and all the trimmings milk to go in a rice pudding. Its in the oven as a write…


The rice pudding hits all the right notes, although could’ve been a bit thicker. Perhaps I could have used a higher temperature in the oven.

Anyhow, Mum is off out for a curry with the people from work, so Dad and I stay in, crack open a few beers and I offer to make a curry recipe that is part stolen, part improvised, and still in need of tweaking a bit before I put it up on experimental jifflings. Its as close as I can get to the Karahi currys sold in the caffs in the Northern Quarter in Manchester, although with a few extras like mushrooms thrown in

I decide to go for lamb, and pop up the road to the rather scruffy butchers shop. The butcher is a genial sort of fellow and I think he mistakes me for a tourist. He dices some lamb shoulder for me and makes a point, just as I’m leaving, of saying that the meat is ‘local saltmarsh lamb’. Of course it is local saltmarsh lamb’, what else is it going to be in Anglesey? If I wanted crap lamb I would go to Tesco (I was too kind to them in the last blog entry I think). The other butcher in the village even has ‘local saltmarsh lamb’ painted in his window. I guess the clued up cookery programme watching holiday-makers have been asking for it specially.

I wonder if I can get hold of some goat meat anywhere..? I think I might do a bit more asian food this winter (when I finally get a place down south with my own kitchen). I’d like to do a few currys, maybe some more Thai food as well.

I can’t believe the butcher thought I was a tourist. Botheration. Next time I go in there I’m going to address him in Welsh.

Fruits of the earth

Did I mention my Mum’s tomatoes? There has been some serious greenhouse action going on over the summer and possibly the biggest tomato crop yet - all shapes and sizes from cherry upwards, and even a decent crop of sweet yellow toms. There are also green and red peppers, and flavoursome chillies with a kick that could stun a horse. The cucumber crop seems to be about ready now, and we’re talking proper cucumbers here, that taste, smell and look like cucumbers, not these weird things that we get in the supermarkets here. I’m convinced that there is some sort of conspiracy going on with these suspicious-looking cumbers.

I’m looking forward to what the veg plot will bring at Christmas time. There are stands of sprouts, although they look like they’re having a hard time from the local creepy-crawlies, and my Dad is struggling to maintain his organic credentials against this invasion. I think he’d rather like to make chemical warfare against them, but that would defeat the object. I really hope that on Christmas morning, nursing a hangover and clutching a glass of Liebfraumilch, we can enjoy the pleasure of picking our own organic veg for dinner. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful way to celebrate?

The Pilot Boat

The last time I ate at the Pilot Boat in Dulas, Anglesey, was in the summer of 1996 with a particularly gobby girlfriend from South Wales. As I remember (and it was ten years ago, TEN YEARS? Bloody hell that must mean I’m pushing thirty…) the food was typical of the standard in Welsh pubs in 1996, in that it was some sort of slice of meat, pie, or deep fried item, accompanied by chips and ‘peasorsalad’. I remember the peas especially, as there was a bit of pea overkill in the kitchen. ‘Peas’ was simply peas, whereas ‘salad’ was iceberg lettuce with cold peas. We had some fun flicking the surplus peas around in the beer garden.

So ten years on, British pub food in general has come on quite a bit (although unlike our continental brothers and sisters, we are still obliged to pay through the nose for the privilege), and it appears that the revolution has reached Dulas, and the Pilot Boat. The table menu is a fairly straightforward and unremarkable pub affair, so 3s, H and I go straight for the specials board. The Goose and Pheasant pie catches my eye, while the others opt for a salad of ‘locally smoked Scottish salmon and prawns’. There is indeed a smokehouse up the road from the pub, but quite why Scottish salmon has to come all the way to Anglesey to be smoked is beyond me. Anyhow, full marks for using the local facilities. Locally caught and smoked mackerel might be more of a story though.

The salad looks fine, and H and T seem to be enjoying it, although perhaps wincing slightly at paying through the nose. The smoked salmon certainly looks good, and the smell even cuts through the cigarette smoke of the pub.

Although still expensive, my pie looks slightly better value, being about the size of a Harry Potter paperback, and coming with mixed veg (cooked just right) and a side bowl of chips. The barman remarks that I should watch out in case there is any lead shot still in the pheasant meat. Nice patter. Anyhow, I guess this is the first game of the season, it seems a bit early actually since the shooting season doesn’t start until 1st October. Perhaps it was roadkill. Anyhow, there isn’t much pheasant in my slice, which is heavy on goose, with a hint of pheasant. Probably a good thing as I sometimes feel that pheasant can be a quite overwhelming flavour (I’m trying to get used to it again after a drunken Christmas party in Norwich in 1998 in which a pheasant ‘au vin’ spent barely and hour in my stomach before seeing daylight once again). The pastry has a pleasant texture, and the chips are, well, chips.

Not a bad spot of food then, although given the general scruffiness of the pub, I would imagine that during the tourist-free winter months standards might fall a bit, as they seem to in most places round here. The chef at least has a bit of sense in sourcing some of the food locally, he knows this idea will sell to tourists and locals alike, and that in general it can be safely considered to be a good thing.

15th October

This weekend I have mostly been knackered. Since returning from Rwanda I’ve spent time in Hemel Hempstead (Twice), Manchester (twice), Anglesey (Twice) and Warwick (Once). I’m pretty tired of trains on the whole… during which time I’ve managed to finish my thesis, start a new job, find a new flat, move in, and furnish it.

Its been pretty stressful, and I probably would have been in deep depression had it not been for some good home cooking. After submitting my thesis (The catchily titled: ‘Land Fragmentation and Consolidation in Rwanda: A Study of Musanze District) in Manchester, I made sure I got a few drinks down me as you might imagine, before an early train down to Hemel Hempstead to start work the following morning.

Now I’ve moved into my new place in the Old Town of Hemel Hempstead. A Listed building with oak beams no less… Most of the furniture is in place, and the kitchen is ready to go. After weeks of sandwiches in trainstations, and cold suppers in B&Bs I’ve finally stocked the cupboard.

Last night was a pleasure – dinner with six good friends at the Mogul (70 seconds walk from my front door). Much as I think Hemel is a bit uninspiring, I have some great friends in the vicinity, which makes all the difference. At the Mogul, the manager, Ujay, makes a fuss of us all ‘Hi John, great to see you’. Its like I haven’t been away…

I haven’t had the ‘Mogul Surprise’ for a long time. It used to be my regular, with on the bone chicken cooked in beef mince and spices. It arrives slightly drier and hotter than usual, but still tastes great.

This afternoon I’m waiting for my landlord (still a bit of fixing etc to do, but he’s a good guy), so get on with roasting my first chicken in quite a few months. Its an Asda bird, so not exactly amazing, but not awful either. New potatoes get roasted and stir fried julienne carrots with ginger and garlic add veg interest. The old routine of picking the carcass (and preparing tomorrows lunchtime salad) and making a stock is soothing and takes my mind off the last couple of weeks of effort.

My office was destroyed by the Buncefield Oil Depot explosion in December, and the temporary premises are within walking distance of the only Butchers in Hemel Hempstead. There is a green grocer next door and a slightly dodgy bakery as well, so I’m determined to make the effort to shop at these places during my lunch hour at work. I’m missing the ease of living so close to Chinatown, great fruit and veg stalls and a good fishmong. There is a Deli down the road from my flat that everyone raves about, but I suspect it is because it’s the only place of its kind in town. I don’t get the feeling that they are really passionate about food there.