Closing 2018

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Gilets Jaunes, Yellow Vests…garments to symbolise power to the people?

The on-going action in France to protest about the increasing taxes on vehicle fuel have made an impact which perhaps politicians failed to foresee.

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Plastic pumpkins for a plastic planet


Halloween and all that; visiting the supermarket today, the depressing sight of rows and rows of “pumpkins” manufactured out of plastic…useless unnecessary junk to create more polluting waste.  One might wonder exactly how many shoppers will buy one and put it away carefully for next year after its one night stand?

The way this festival has been promoted and pushed by all those wishing to sell more junk is utterly depressing; the traditional celebration slipped away many generations ago when all things modern seemed preferable to ancient traditions.  It’s pretty clear that the development of China as manufacturer of ultra-cheap consumer throwaways helped resurrect a wide range of commercial opportunities to “celebrate”.

Fun dressing up from the “dressing up box”,  party games and a few sweet treats kept the festival in low key for decades; accessible to all who chose by simply being an impromptu event; no special sweet-collecting receptacles required.  The extent of Halloween now is nonsensical in the light of a world drowning in plastic waste and junk destined for landfill and where plastic fibres are ingested in our seafood and in the air we breathe.

How many of those plastic pumpkins will end up in the ocean?

Legislation is the only answer as consumers will continue to choose what’s on offer, specially when it’s so cheap; with schools holding spooky discos for primary-age children and our Environment Minister still debating banning of plastic-stemmed cotton buds, it’s clear that little will happen until the threat to human life is as bloodied and bruised as those zombie characters appear to be.

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Anniversary Deaths…

800 years since the death of Al-Malik ab-Adil/Saphadin/Saif al-Din, brother of Saladin*,  in 1218

And my poetry book informs me it’s 330 years since the death of John Bunyan.

Henry Moore died exactly 32 years ago in 1986.

21 years since the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

Why the obsession with death? And what does it matter?

Put simply, it’s where we’re all heading…but who will remember us when we’re gone and merely held, captured in photographs and fast-fading memory?


Some months of emotional family matters (not deaths thank goodness) and an acute awareness of the fragility of life…

Looking back over previous August blog posts the reader will note no blackberries this year!

I’ve been far too busy, although a couple of weeks ago I picked a dozen and pressed them on my tongue; that evocative taste sent me on a time traveller’s journey!

The garden apples await their partner so I’d better get on and allocate some weekend time to gather summer’s bounty.  To say good bye to August and not experience blackberry and apple is surely sinful?

Part 2.

* Saladin’s brother: I don’t recall much about the bro but do have memory of learning the name Saladin in the “Ladybird Years”, that is when my primary school reading selection was drawn from that famous book series.  I’m certain it was the one about the Richard the Lionheart and the Crusades; from memory, Richard was taken ill and Saladin nursed him and gave him “sherbet” to drink.

That “sherbet” was, in fact, the sugar which the returning Crusaders brought back with them as a precious “spice”.  That first sugar was also considered a medicinal materia medica for many generations….sweetness hid the bitterness of poison and poisonous plants which sometimes possessed therapeutic claims, and often scientific medicine before it was formerly identified as such.

In the period of Saladin Arab medicine was far superior to anything Europe could offer.  My Ladybird book was clear in that Richard was cured by Saladin’s doctors.  That surely is sufficient proof that the book was worth reading?

As I type I’m reminded of another link to that same school; we listened to John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” via the BBC School’s Radio broadcast.  Memory is telling me that we did our sewing at the same time.  Knowing what I do about education and classroom management, that seems quite enlightened for a C of E primary in 1970.  As religious input, it never affected me the way my enforced Roman Catholicism did which had been compulsory from age 8 in the army schools system.  I recall that the voice delivering the story was gentle despite the horrors of “The Slough of Despond”!

My encounter with Henry Moore was much later when I discovered that the design studio where my father had worked at the age of 18 had also offered work to this famous artist, as well Jean Cocteau and Matisse, although I’m not sure if the two Frenchmen ever actually entered that Bond Street establishment!

As for Diana, Princess of Wales….they say everyone knows where they were when they heard the news of her death.  Yes, I can picture our home above the laundrette and recall the shock of the news and its tragic waste; I recall my sadness for her two young sons.  The public expression of grief at the time was a turning point for many, although some of us believe there should be the same sense of outrage for the suffering of the living.

Hopefully, experiencing the death of a loved one teaches us to value life and all it might offer, from the simplest pleasures to great moments of achievement and even meetings with great people.  Value the moment when the rose blooms and sends its scent, when  blackberries ripen and stain, when that piece of work is completed, or when standing in the crushing crowd enjoying an exhilarating gig…or listening to a brilliant speaker.  The moment is precious; it is life itself.























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Happy 99th birthday Mr Levi!

“Monsters exist, but they are too few in numbers to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are…the functionaries ready to believe and act without asking questions.” Primo Levi

Today would have been the 99th birthday of Primo Levi.

Sadly he died on 11 April 1987…a date I recall because it was the first time I felt and saw my unborn child kick me whilst I was sitting in the bath as a shape poked and pushed my abdomen; I can see this moment play inside my head; an auspicious day to feel new life!

Two years ago BBC Radio 4 broadcast Levi’s “The Periodic Table”…an amazingly entertaining and informing listen which I long to hear again and, very much hope they will re-broadcast for his 100th anniversary next year.

For now I’ll study this quote and know that the monsters of today are just as dangerous as those Mr Levi faced as a young man….and that there are too many “monster-followers”.

What to do about monsters? Mythology recommends chopping their heads off!





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Lettuce shortage…how do they manage in hot climates?

“UK heatwave: Lettuce growers warn of imminent shortage”

Today’s BBC headline could be the counter-balance to the winter ones where “the beast from the east” caused havoc in every aspect of life and shopping; shortages of every basic foodstuff and, according to business analysts many months later, sales in every store affected by the extreme cold weather. So now the heat is stopping lettuces from growing.

Having lived and travelled in desert lands I do wonder how those citizens managed to feed themselves whilst surviving burning days. If lettuce cannot grow in this heat then perhaps cooks need to search out alternatives? Does salad need lettuce?

Return to the history books to discover alternative non-lettuce salads; there are numerous lettuce-free summer meals to make.

Second thought is that very little weather is “normal”; it can be freezing one minute then hit sweltering highs [who is to decide what is "normal" and acceptable for these caravan dwellers?]





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The meeting of flora and fauna

Digging into a mound of soil to pot up some of my plant babies I noticed a slight movement; thinking it was simply the disturbed soil shifting I carried on…several more trowelsful and my eye caught it again. Then the large green shape plopped into full view; the khaki green frog had been sheltering under some large terracotta plant plates, making its home in the damp soil.

Now I ask myself , was it a frog or a toad?  There’s work to do to sort out the identifying process.


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Wardrobe reorganisation with seasonal disorganisation; a confused month

Spring sunshine always reveals the dust of winter forcing the urge to get everything outside into warm air, winter-wear pullovers are shaken before careful hand-washing whilst heavy coats must be prepared for storage; the sudden change in weather mid-month resulted in a huge leap from woollen gloves to summer vests almost overnight. the various cast-off garments were soon jumbled as I had numerous outings where nice clothes could be worn. How strange to see a pair of grey wool gloves in my handbag whilst I prepared for a day out, braving London without a coat…one step outside warned me I would roast even if I selected the lightweight version, so spotting those gloves lurking with all my handbag essentials was bizarre!

Thus all the winter wear was cleaned and stored, the summer layers selected and warm days enjoyed with sun cream applied. Now the month is closing with a nasty reminder that winter only hid behind the curtains for a second.

As I tackle my garden to invite spring and new life I think how confused the plants must be with these temperature fevers, where sudden dry summer sensations are swamped by water-logged chilled days and nights; plants and flowers which had been fooled into bursting out of the safety of their buds are again at the mercy of torrential downpours and fierce storms.  Once the Easter rains had stopped I had tried to tackle the mess of an ice-ravaged garden where the mushed leaves delivered nothing but images of decay; hard to imagine there had ever been any colourful joy in those pots and semi-controlled patches.

Thus the confusion is both indoors and out; I will dig into my wardrobe and drawers to find layers to keep myself warm and dry but I’ll select shades to reflect the label of spring; my plants will have to suffer whatever is thrown at them…I’m amazed that they take such a battering but eventually return. At the moment I’m still waiting to be reassured that my Passionflower has survived the February snows when I wasn’t there to protect it. However, I’m rather glad that it wasn’t coaxed by the false heat when I wore summer dresses; perhaps its tender new growth sensed the false start and forced itself to ignore the mini-heatwave mid-month? Passionflowers carry an exotic air with their complex flowers; worth waiting for, they remind me that luscious intricate beauty can lurk behind dried stalks. I will be thankful to see my Passionflower return from the dead…

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The Beast from the East….Blizzards require bread but beware processed foods!

With days of official meteorological advance warning the bad weather was expected so the rush was on to buy up bread stocks…bread-buying made a headline news item! Always a good idea to have a reasonable larder of long-life foods to draw upon in an emergency and the freezer is critical to sensible everyday shopping as well as for pizzas and ice cream; frozen vegetables offer high levels of nutrients as they are “processed” very quickly in factories very close to the production. Now I write this as earlier in the month a French scientific report claimed that “processed foods cause cancer”, with “frozen food” cited amongst the offenders. Anyone reading this might have noted that this blanket claim offered no explanation as to the scientists’ definition of “processed food”.

Surely many healthy foods are “processed” by the very fact that they have gone through various chemical processes to alter their original state? Natural organic yoghurt must head the “good list” but it’s the product of a chemical process so it can be labelled a processed food!

I’ve just watched a BBC report claiming to be from a dietician; she advised consumers to check the label and avoid the loaf if there were ingredients listed that they couldn’t pronounce. So is that the way to search out “processed food”?

Basic bread should simply contain flour, yeast, salt and water; but what about fats and emulsifiers? If consumers are not baking their own bread they will be susceptible to the vagaries of their supermarket. Perhaps the wisest advice is to work towards a wide range of foods and critically to teach children from a young age to eat a wide variety of foodstuffs; a learning process which is as critical as all the “first steps” everyone wants to record for posterity.  It worries me to see these Groupon offers for “cake bashing” birthday photographic sessions to mark the child’s first birthday; is cake for bashing? What looks like fun for an adult looking for easy pleasure must surely create confusion for babies?

Perhaps a practical cooking session learning the realities of food and producing a loaf would make more sense once the child possesses sufficient logic?

The debates about healthy eating and the growing obesity problem requires a full-frontal approach from the start; understanding what food is, the importance of eating a wide variety and how it’s produced is the framework which needs to be established; scientists researching and publishing vague reports surely serves no one?

The blizzards may keep many indoors; they will need to delve into their food stores including canned and frozen foods; people need to learn basic food science and cooking skills to be able to make a balanced meal; it’s not impossible but the knowledge and skills need to be taught to the young. Cookery lessons sound old-fashioned when part of a school curriculum but why does healthy eating and having the skills to knock up a reasonable meal on a budget not deserve a place alongside being able to perform mathematical equations?


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When Nutella Riots spread across France…

Are the French really so desperate for cheap food?

From my first recollections of food and cooking, I was aware that the food we had at home wasn’t like that of my school friends; we were a bit different; I grew up knowing that a salad arrived at the table hidden in a deep wooden bowl and dressed in vinaigrette; it wasn’t until staying with a class mate one half term when at boarding school that I discovered the meaning of “salad” created in a British kitchen.

In general terms the theory went that anything culinary could be guaranteed if it was French…and this notion of superiority was reinforced on a daily basis by my mother.

I grew up absolutely fascinated by cooking, wanting to be able to produce meals and dishes and baking…I pored over recipe leaflets and the limited cookbooks available at home. The start of formal cookery lessons at my convent school signalled for me the opening of the drawbridge, although I was always helping my mother in the kitchen and could bake a cake independently; cookery with Mrs Harrison was always the highlight of my week from September 1974.  Through her I believe I learnt to think more independently about food; once she had demonstrated the principle demanded by her syllabus we could choose how to use that skill. An example was mastering both Bechamel white sauce and pastry and then being encouraged by her to create a vegetarian savoury tart, at some point having already expressed my interest in what was then a somewhat alternative dietary lifestyle, associated with hippies. However, despite her severe manner and apparent preference for a rather conservative selection of dishes to demonstrate, she never once tried to discourage my off-beat thoughts and desires in the kitchen.  This was some distance away from the attitudes at home.  Of course I learnt to prepare many classic dishes by sight and could take over a meal prep as long as I knew to do it the way my mother wanted.  I also throughly enjoyed meal planning, having been completely fascinated by food values and “balanced meals” via Mrs Harrison’s classes in that scary first year of senior school. In the Sixth form we were treated to cookery again; a compulsory plan which had been put into place to prevent convent girls leaving school unable to feed themselves healthily…the cookery room had by then been relocated to much larger premises, with its fittings carefully designed by Mrs H.  After years teaching in a rickety attic space perched above the convent laundry her time had finally come; I recall her looking far more relaxed, although she was just as strict, which didn’t bother me at all; as far as I was concerned cooking was a serious business.

Although my plan had only been a vague one with no date attached, I ditched the meat in the summer of 1979, and thus began to really learn how to cook for myself, free to experiment with various pulses and vegetables because I no longer lived at home under my mother’s distinctive culinary demands.   The following year I was back in France after not seeing my French aunt since age 14; politely informing her of my meat-free life she promptly began the “omelette and white sauce challenge” and was both amused and irritated when I turned down a salad of pis-au lit dressed with bacon lardons and its fat…she told me it wasn’t meat! Add on another 4 years and I was back again; it was Round Two of the omelette and white sauce-dressed dishes; mid-way through the ten-day stay I knew I seriously could not face another egg and requested just the veg plain….perhaps that was the final straw for her?  By now my mother had come to accept more meat-free meals , understanding that I was able to serve up some tasty dishes which even impressed my father.  Clearly puzzled by my rejection of the eggs, my aunt asked me what I cooked….her look of bemusement when I described a vegetarian “Bourguignon” of potatoes, carrots and mushrooms was underlined by a brisk “never heard of it!”

When, many years later, at the start of a new century I ventured back into France, it was clear that the notion of meat-free meals was certainly a generation behind Britain; despite the gorgeous variety of vegetables heaped up on colourful market stalls, eating out was impossible unless it was a pizza restaurant, or a brasserie with omelette on the menu.

What I did notice was how French citizens were just as gripped by supermarket shopping as the British, the aisles stuffed with pre-packaged meals, plastic pots of highly-sweetened yoghurt and fromage frais, hundreds of garish cakes and greasy pastries balanced by ready-grated carrots and tinned Brussel sprouts. The day we discovered the latter delivered us an enormous unstoppable laughter; the joys of these highly-nutritious “boules” must surely be limited to their being freshly-cooked and existing free from the confines of a metallic container?

From then on nothing ever surprised me including one long journey down the entire length of France with nothing to eat because not one of the motorway services we stopped at had any meat-free sandwiches on sale; it was clear the factory must have had a glut of jambon because nothing appeared ham-free either! I had always self-catered for journeys but had been reassured it wouldn’t be necessary as we’d get a meal en-route…as they say “live and learn!”

Now things have improved in the land which is part of my heritage, but anyone with glorious images of French folk cooking from scratch every day really are existing in fantasy-land! French supermarkets are the life-blood for most cooks and consumers; of course there are still the massive cheese and meat counters, and fresh fruit, vegetables and piles of lettuce, but their fridges and freezers carry as wide a range of chilled and frozen ready-made meals as any other country, their boulangerie section heaves with pastries, ready-made pies and tarts and industrial plastic-wrapped bread. In fact receipts will itemise all foods and any bread items sold wrapped in bags will show up labelled “industrial”….ideal as a base for the palm-fat sweetness of Nutella!

So what about Nutella? Why the riots?

Quite simply, a famous supermarket chain decided to offer a substantial discount on large jars of the famous spread; the hungry crowds were not polite with each other and fought to grab their share. The gendarmes were called in to restore order…thus was created the main French news headline for that day. Was it all a PR stunt? Or were the “Nutella riots” a cover-up to distract the world from something more sinister?

I hope Nutella wasn’t misused to smother bad news; my gut feeling accepts this madness as real…perhaps the supermarket should have insisted that each purchaser also grab a tin of choux de Brussel at the same time, an offer akin to a “meal deal”?




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