Monday, 30 June 2008

Ra-dish of the day

I am new to this gardening lark so the progress of the veggie patch has rendered me awestruck over the past few weeks. The tiny seeds that we planted back in April seemed to take forever to become seedlings and force their way through the earth. I checked them three or four times a day hoping to see a mini shoot parting the softly compacted compost filling the little trays in which we had planted everything. I’ve never been particularly patient so this whole ‘slow-lane’ life was something I would have to get used to, and quickly. If that makes any sense.

Eventually, they began to peep through, each little green shoot seemingly identical – only a series of hastily written labels informing us what was what. By the time they were ready to be planted into the ground, the soil had been warmed by the early May sun and a healthy amount of compost dug into the beds. They suddenly looked small and vulnerable, like they were toddlers about to have their first day at playschool and I wondered whether they would survive the harsh realities of life outside of a plastic greenhouse.

But survive they did and soon it was possible to tell them apart. The peas grew thin pasta like feelers with which to grab onto the bamboo canes we had planted them next to. The kale began to take on a dark purple tinge. The salads started to grow leafy and full, their soft plumes of green filling the bed and offering a seemingly endless supply of tasty lettuce. And the courgettes attempted to undertake some sort of bid for freedom, like some aggressive floral lebensraum.

By my reckoning they are expanding by a couple of square metres every day. They seem to double in size whenever my back is turned, expansive leaves encroaching onto the lawn, hiding the dark green fruits underneath. At this rate they will reach the coast in about a month. Nestled in between the courgettes and the leaves are the familiar pale yellow flowers which are delicious raw in salads as well as stuffed with spinach and ricotta before being deep fried.

But not all of the veggies have been a success. The radishes were, quite frankly, pathetic. Visually, they were amusing – a rag tag collection of Laurel and Hardy comedy roots, some swollen and distinctly radish like, others pathetically thin and whispy as if they had been stretched out of all recognition. The taste was disappointing too. I like a radish to have a bit of bite. I want to know about it when I pop one in my mouth. It should clear your sinuses, send a rush of pain up your nose and leave your eyes watering as if someone has just scraped your retina with a scalpel. The full frontal facial assault I was expecting did not materialise. it was more of a tickle than a barrage. Although the leaves, when tossed in a sharp vinaigrette, do make a pleasant enough salad.

But this is just part of the learning process, merely the beginning and there are plenty more where they came from. Luridly coloured rainbow chard, beetroot, potatoes, broad beans, butternut squash and purple broccoli are still yet to offer up their wares. Little red fruits are appearing on the cherry tree in the front garden and the herbs, sitting happily in small pots, send the occasional wave of fragrance towards the open kitchen door. This is summer.

Thursday, 26 June 2008

Cone, but not forgotten

South of Gamla Stan, across one of the city’s many bridges, lies Stockholm’s vibrant beating heart. Södermalm is achingly, effortlessly and unselfconsciously cool in the way only certain places can be. This is the city’s Soho where artists, musicians and writers pack into small and over-priced flats to compose their masterpieces. The shops are independent and boutique. The restaurants are ethnic and exotic. Cafés line the streets and music pours from open doorways – deep bass lines melding together and converging into a heavy morass that soundtracks your journey.

There is no pretence. There is no agenda. ‘Live and let live’ appears to be the philosophy that exudes from every corner. Closed doors tantalise with their potential secrets – you get the impression that the best nights are to be had in basements that do not advertise their wares. This is the sort of place where you have to be resident to truly appreciate it and we were merely visitors. And hungry ones at that.

Our desire to be as ‘free-range’ as possible when we travel cuts down our need to rely on guidebooks but sometimes it is impossible to ignore the lure of the Lonely Planet and that is exactly how we found ourselves in a Thai restaurant in the middle of Sweden’s capital.

Kho Phangan manages to skirt so very close to the realm of kitsch that it is amazing it doesn’t fall into a vast chasm of tackiness. This heavily decorated restaurant comes complete with a bamboo bar, UV lighting and even a table in a tuk tuk and yet somehow manages to maintain its dignity. It could be that tongue remains firmly in cheek and there is a nod of self-awareness. It might be because it is one of a kind and not part of a highly stylised chain of similar outlets. Or perhaps it is because the food is very, very good.

A half hour wait passed quickly at the well stocked bar which, in addition to three or four Thai beers, served the famous buckets of Mekong whisky and Red Bull, although at over forty pounds each we made do with a lager. As the minutes passed it became increasingly easy to forget that we were still in Scandinavia and not in an Asian beach hut and the level of detail aided this thought – the lighting, the drinks and even the sounds were reminiscent of Thailand and by the time our table was ready we were certainly ready to sample the food.

A complimentary salad, with a zingy lime juice and chilli dressing, served as an excellent appetiser while we perused the menu. One doesn’t go to a Thai restaurant to be surprised and, as expected, all the usual suspects were present including green and red curry and Pad Thai. Feeling as if I had probably consumed enough meat for at least a week (in the form of yet more hot dogs, and a steak the previous night), I went for a vegetable stir-fry with chilli and basil while the birthday girl chose a chicken curry. Both were delicious – capturing classical Thai flavours like lemongrass and ginger and delivering a hefty spice kick, enough to bring a few beads of sweat to the forehead. The vegetables were fabulously fresh and had been cooked for only a short amount of time, retaining a satisfying crunch. Delicately steamed plain white rice accompanied both dishes.

Knowing that a decadently tempting ice cream parlour lay in wait for us on the way back, we declined dessert, paid the bill and blinked our way back into the bright reality of early summer Sweden – the combination of strong Oriental beer, spicy food and UV lighting ensuring a few moments of confusion before we could head on our merry way.


I, like many others, have formed an inextricable link between holidays and ice cream. It is a foodstuff that I adore but doesn’t often appear on my radar and consequently makes only rare appearances in the freezer. But holidays provoke some sort of Pavlovian reaction within me and I begin to salivate at the merest thought of the good stuff.

Since day one we had been intrigued by a technique we had seen whereby an entire ice cream, complete with the top half inch of the cone, was dipped into warm, molten chocolate. On contact with the cold ice cream, the chocolate quickly hardened creating a crisp choco layer around the soft vanilla ice cream underneath. If it tasted half as good as it looked, it was bound to be achingly delicious. Coupled with this, the shop we chose made the enormous waffle cones fresh each day: a Heath Robinson style contraption in the window dribbled the mixture onto a hot plate which was then closed shut to cook the waffle. When it was ready and cool enough to handle whilst still being pliable, it was curled into a cone shape ready to be filled with soft vanilla ice cream.

When faced with such delicacies, it would be rude to merely dabble. Rather, the only course of action is to dive in headfirst and think about it later. It was this philosophy that saw me ordering two of the largest ice creams I have ever seen. Each one could easily have satisfied two people. They were dipped into the chocolate which, as expected, formed a dark brown shell around the light, white ice cream within.

We sat outside the shop, perched on the windowsill in front of the waffle maker and tucked into the behemoth frozen treats in our childlike hands. They were as tasty as they looked; soft ice cream with the unmistakeable taste of manufactured vanilla, a crisp cone with a faintly sweet note and a gentle bitterness from the dark chocolate. It was one of the great ice creams, a truly legendary dessert.

My steadfast determination to finish it saw me through to the end leaving me reeling like a child at Easter who has eaten too much chocolate before breakfast. I licked the final smudges of chocolate from my lips, tossed my napkin into the bin and rested a hand on my sore belly while my girlfriend, clutching the final quarter of a cone still filled with ice cream, admitted defeat. Even after all that I considered whether it would be foolhardy to do the gentlemanly thing and finish it for her. An audible groan from my stomach gave me my answer. We binned the remains before I could change my mind and ambled into the quickly cooling evening happy and sated.

Friday, 20 June 2008

Lunch is just around the corner...

Being so relatively compact, Stockholm is a gloriously walkable place. It is quite possible to go from one side of the city to the other within about an hour without having to break a sweat. The realisation that you’ve forgotten your camera/guidebook/lip balm/ear muffs/intercontinental ballistic missile back at the apartment doesn’t quite result in the same level of frustration and you are never too far from where you want to be.

It also encourages you to see much more of the city, take in the feel and ambience of the place without having to zip from one tourist hot spot to another, avoiding everything in between. The pace is more sedate but it genuinely feels like you have done more. Especially when massaging your tired feet at the end of the day before falling asleep at eight thirty thanks to sheer exhaustion.

Conversely, because it feels so compact it is easy to kid oneself into thinking a destination is much closer than it really is. A glance at the map can easily result in the mistaken assumption that that little place you saw yesterday – you know the one, where the food looked so good – is a mere stroll away. The cold hard reality of the situation, that it is still four miles away, only becomes scathingly apparent when hunger begins to cripple you, slowing your progress even further.

But at least you arrive hungry. And that is exactly how we arrived at Östermalms Saluhall, Stockholm’s foremost food market. Dating from 1888, this incredible indoor hall is a true temple to gastronomy – the sort of place that I can only dream about spending all eternity in when I shuffle off this mortal coil. The quality and range of the produce on offer was staggering and in between the fishmongers, grocers and butchers were four or five eateries offering some of the finest traditional Swedish food in the city.

I left the final decision as to where we ate up to the birthday girl but we had to wander round a couple of times, open mouthed, desperate not to miss anything, before we finally chose Lisa Elmqvist.

Lisa Elmqvist has been selling fish in Stockholm since the 1920s and from a single stall on the harbour front, the ‘empire’ quickly grew to include a restaurant, fishmonger and deli all housed in one corner of the Saluhall. Although it comes highly recommended, the restaurant looked a touch starched, especially for a couple of tourists how had trekked slightly too far to still appear as effortlessly cool as was necessary, judging by the clientele already eating there. Less formal, and less expensive, than the restaurant is the delicatessen offering similar wares without the pretence, table service or starched tablecloths.

Here it is possible to eat a light lunch for about ten pounds, including a beer and as much rye bread and knackerbröd as you can comfortably consume whilst still maintaining the requisite level of sophistication. We ordered at the bar and took a seat at a high table, balanced precariously atop tall stools. Two beers provided some much needed liquid refreshment and we nibbled on some of the delicious crispbread as a surrogate starter whilst we waited for our order to be called out.

We didn’t have to wait long. A shout rang out from the counter and informed us that they were ready for collection. My herring plate consisted of four different types of the cured fish complete with cheese and a hard-boiled egg garnished with tiny jewel like salmon roe. As a youngster I couldn’t abide the intensity of cured herring, nor could I understand the appeal. But, as with coffee and whiskey and a whole host of other foods, time has altered my palate and I can’t get enough of this northern European staple.

The selection in front of me was delicious, although when I tasted my girlfriend’s skagen I was in two minds as to whether I had made the right choice. Tiny crayfish tails, stirred into a light sauce of mayonnaise and crème fraîche and flavoured with dill, skagen is a real taste of summer and one that is worth replicating at home, especially as midsummer is just around the corner.

We both finished our plates, mopping up any remaining sauce with a thin slice of dense black bread and decided on how to spend the rest of the day - ‘There’s that great little gallery we went past yesterday, I’m sure it’s only a short walk away.’

Cutting costs - free food

To be perfectly honest, it would be a lie for me to say that we are feeling the pinch. This is the first time either of us have had to worry properly about things like bills, food shopping, mortgage payments and the price of oil so we have no point of reference. Having just bought a house and under no illusions as to the amount of money I could make from writing, we were prepared for some serious belt tightening, credit crunch or no credit crunch. For all we know it would have been this way even if the world’s economy were still sitting prettily atop the crest of a tempestuous wave of credit.

In addition to this, neither of us has ever been particularly extravagant. Aside from having to curb an enthusiastic album buying habit which took hold with a disturbing voracity towards the end of last year, I’ve not really noticed any major upheavals.

In fact, there have been a few of unexpected bonuses – we eat healthier food (less meat, for a start), we drink less alcohol, we can read the hundreds of books that sit as yet unread on our bookshelf and we can power through a series of great DVD box sets that were bought frivolously some months ago and remain unwatched.

On the food front, things got even more interesting with the arrival of a pocket-sized book called ‘Food for Free’ by Richard Mabey. This wonderful little tome, originally published in 1972 offers a wealth of information on over 100 edible plants, berries, fungi, seaweed and shellfish that can be found in the British Isles.

Eager to try out our new guide, improve our foraging skills and attempt to eat for nothing we headed out last night for a walk; gloves, scissors and bags in hand ready to be filled with nature’s finest bounty. Or at least that was the plan.

Things began well when we came across an abundance of low-lying nettles, still a long way off flowering therefore still perfectly viable eating. I gathered half a bagful with the intention to make a nettle soup. We moved on and almost immediately saw a long line of elders complete with bunches and bunches of their recognisable tiny white flowers. I turned to page 66 in my little pocket book.

‘Elderflowers can be munched straight off the branch on a hot summer’s day, and taste as frothy as a glass of ice cream soda.’

Woah, this was good news. I love ice cream soda and I was starting to get a little parched from all that walking. What better way to slake my thirst than with some fresh elderflower? I snipped off a small cluster, took a tentative sniff and bit off a sizeable clump.

After a brief chew my mouth was awash with a bitterly unpleasant taste. I realised that I had been drastically mis-informed as to the deliciousness of raw elderflowers and my girlfriend failed to stifle a hearty giggle as I spat and attempted to clean my tongue with the back of my hand. After a few moments there was a mildly discernable hint of the taste I recognise as elderflower, but it certainly didn’t have the frothiness of a glass of ice cream soda. This Mabey chap should have his tongue looked at.

There was a flurry of excitement further down the track as we identified what we thought was chamomile and then sorrel. Sadly our woodland powers aren’t quite strong enough yet and a little nibble suggested that neither was what we thought.

Still, we had gathered enough nettles for a hearty and healthy soup and a bagful of flowers – enough to make a decent quantity of elderflower cordial or maybe even wine. And none of it had cost us a penny. Satisfaction indeed.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Punching above their weight

One of the first things we said that we would do when we moved to the countryside was buy chickens. Real live clucking, pecking, laying chickens so that we could have the freshest organic eggs possible. Unfortunately, these have gradually slipped down the shopping list to make way for more essential items such as a sofa or bookcases to house the many hundreds of books we’ve collected over the years. And to be perfectly honest, I can barely look after courgettes and kale so it is probably best that I get used to tending plants before I’m entrusted with something that breathes and craps.

The benefit of living the rural life though is that we don’t have to go very far to get our eggs even though we haven’t invested in any hens ourselves as yet. A mere four houses down the road is the extent of the distance we have to travel to buy eggs laid by happy birds free to see the sky above or peck at worms and bugs below.

We usually go for plain old hens’ eggs, occasionally stretching to duck eggs if we are feeling indulgent – the yolks are larger and richer and they poach beautifully thanks to their freshness. But in addition to these conventional ova, quail and bantam eggs are also on sale.

Now, I’ve never really been able to see the point of quail eggs. They make a relatively good garnish. If you are crafting a selection of canapés, for example, then a fried quail’s egg sitting proudly atop a morsel of toasted truffle brioche is a delicious mouthful but they have little everyday application.

I was also unfamiliar with the bantam breed until quite recently. These are about half the size of a traditional brown hen with eggs proportionally smaller which is why we’ve never really bothered with them before. It would seem that we aren’t the only ones and our egg people struggle to sell them, instead they gave us a box for free on Saturday morning for which we were truly grateful and curiously intrigued.

They are an absolute revelation. On cracking one into a hot pan, I was surprised by how much egg managed to fit into such a small shell. The yolk was a deep yellow and larger than any supermarket yolk I’ve ever seen. It took less than a minute to cook and, once done, I slid it onto a waiting slice of home-baked bread, lightly toasted and generously buttered so that a little of the butter dribbled over the side. Topped with no more than black pepper and a few flakes of sea salt, this was comfort food at its delicious and simplistic best – guaranteed to force and smile and convince me that these bantams pack a serious punch.

I couldn’t write a post about chickens without mentioning the fantastic ‘Chicken Out’ campaign for a free-range future. Sign up here.

Monday, 16 June 2008

Apricot & Ginger Tarte Tatin

Every month over at the Leftover Queen there is a challenge to create a brand new dish from three specified ingredients. Apart from that one caveat, the imagination is free to run wild. This is my first entry so please be kind!

I had one of those great moments when I first saw the list of three ingredients for this month's Royal Foodie Joust. Usually, when presented with a task like this one I will be wracked with indecision and spend days agonising over the potential dishes, day and night.

If it is something really serious, like when I was auditioning for Masterchef, I cannot sleep and even when I close my eyes my busy mind refuses to stop cooking. It is like a demon chef projectionist is playing a fast moving series of images into my head. Think 'A Clockwork Orange' but with more risotto.

But not this time. Instead of being teased with indecision, the words 'tarte tatin' immediately burst into my head when I read that this months creation should contain apricots, ginger and butter.

My usual take on this classic French dish was inspired by a trip to Midsummer House and involves the addition of cinnamon, star anise and bay leaf. I've done this a couple of times before so I knew that spices worked and managed to cut through the rich sweetness of the pastry and caramel. Why not with apricots too?

These delicious little bites of juicy fruitiness are great on their own and maybe it is because they look a little like the sun but I can't eat one without thinking of a warm summer's evening, no matter what the weather outside. They are also great to cook with...

Apricot and Ginger Tarte Tatin
To serve two. Don't let the simplicity fool you - it belies a warm, summery and strangely complex burst of flavour.

4 apricots, skinned and halved
a small piece of ginger, about the size of the top half of your thumb, peeled
50g of caster sugar
50g of unsalted butter, cubed
200g puff pastry, rolled to about 1cm thickness

Preheat the oven to 200c. To peel the apricots, cut a small cross in the skin at the base of each one. Drop them into boiling water for 10-15 seconds then remove and run them under cold running water - you don't want them to cook, at least not yet. When cool the skins should peel off easily.

Melt the sugar in a heavy based, oven proof frying pan (or tarte tatin pan, if you have one) until it begins to brown. Add the butter and stir to make a caramel. Use a fine grater - a microplane is ideal - to grate the ginger into the mixture. Give it a good stir. The warm, spicy notes of the ginger should hit your nose straight away.

Place the apricot halves into the pan, flat side down and return to a medium heat. Cook them for about 3-4 minutes then turn them over and cook for a further 2-3 minutes. Be careful because the caramel is freaking hot and from personal experience I can say that if you get it on your fingers, you know about it.

Remove the pan from the heat and lay the pastry over the top. It should be slightly too large for the pan meaning that the edges can be bunched up and tucked down the sides so that the fruit and caramel is neatly sealed in. Cook it for about 20 minutes until the pastry starts to brown. Turn it out onto an eagerly waiting plate (again, watch out for molten sugar trying to escape and singe your little pinkies) and serve with plain yoghurt if you're feeling healthy, or vanilla ice cream if you're feeling decadent.

To size up the competition or take part, visit the site

Everyone loves 'apply endings

My computer broke. And when I say it broke, it really did it in spectacular fashion. I took it into the Apple store and they told me that it needed a brand new hard drive. Hearing this is hard enough at the best of times but it was coupled with a sickening sucker punch.

When they told me that they couldn't access the information on it at all, it took a few seconds for the cold reality of this to penetrate my psyche. Five years' worth of photographs. 300 music albums. All my documents - every page of notes, every essay, every recipe, every blog entry. All wiped out, somehow disappearing into that incomprehensible Valhalla where documents go to when their host dies. I tried to convince myself that there was a positive side to this but failed miserably. My girlfriend told me that she has never seen me look so ill and she has see me wrestling with the tenacious grip of food- poisoning.

I realised that it was deeply foolish not to have backed anything up, ever, but there I was, ashen faced and feeling sick while all around me gleaming iPods and Macbooks filled the store with their lurid graphics and jolly music.

And then something wondrous happened and whichever god is the god of lost data smiled down upon me. My little iMac, which in computer terms should be drawing a pension round about now, somehow managed to rise, Lazarus like, from the seemingly incurable terminal state in which it had found itself. Not a single lost song, photograph or note.

Which leaves me here sitting in front of freshly formatted computer, almost virginal in its purity, complete with all necessary things which were stored deep within its whirring cogs. And ever so ready to get back on the blogging horse. Oh, and everything is backed up, just in case.

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Breakfast. Swedish style.

I have a theory. Like the best theories, it is simple and concise and able to spark much debate as to its veracity and plausibility. Perhaps it is little more than the ramblings of a self-confessed gastronome attempting to add a modicum of legitimacy to a burgeoning obsession but I shall, nevertheless, share it with you now as a stimulus to further discussion.

I am willing to hear counter arguments and even consider the possibility that it might be nothing more than utter bunkum, but I have a feeling that a great many of you will agree.

It runs thus: the very best way to begin the process of understanding a new country or culture is not through examining their social structure, rituals, rites of passage or sexual practices. It is by looking at the food that they eat.

I firmly believe that by consuming three meals you can gain a more immediate and precise understanding of wherever you are than by reading any number of guidebooks. Only by sampling the local foods and flavours can you start to scratch the cultural surface and begin to delve deeper into the social miasma that a mere few mouthfuls ago felt so alien.

As a result whenever I find myself somewhere new, it is not the art galleries, museums, guided tours or buildings I am interested in – it is the local food. In the spirit of adventure I try not to be constrained by pre-conceptions or my own short-sighted cultural relativity. Granted there are some things that I would only eat if faced with the possibility of a long, slow and painful death from starvation, but they are few and far between (and for an entirely different post altogether). Now is the time to discover the food of my ancestral land – and what better place to begin than at breakfast.

Breakfast is the cornerstone of cuisine. It sets the day in motion and creates a springboard for whatever follows (usually lunch). It is usually a hurried affair, a far cry from the glory days of breakfast when an aristocratic diner could idle over tea and toast and eggs and bacon all served by the staff from silver platters. A freshly ironed copy of The London Times provided an excuse to avoid conversation aside from a muted commentary on the affairs of the day.

Sadly, I don’t live in an episode of Jeeves and Wooster so have to make do with toast and a large espresso with a glass of juice as a concession to health. But on holiday it is possible to linger over the first meal of the day a little longer, as if you are living in a world of perpetual Sundays (how I wish that were the case).

For some reason that remains elusive to me at this moment, I’d become convinced that the Swedes enjoyed a breakfast consisting mainly of coffee and pastries and so on our first morning – which also happened to be my girlfriends birthday – I confidently marched into a café ready to show off my knowledge of Swedish breakfast practices.

My request for two coffees was met with an approving nod from the chap behind the counter. So far so Scandinavian. My supplementary request for three pastries of his choice was met with a look of mild confusion and a glance at his watch before he shrugged his shoulders and removed a selection of tasty but totally unbreakfast-like items from the huge display. We were presented with a slab of chocolate cake, a glazed raspberry tart and a warm cinnamon roll. The first two were unexpected and came with a frightening amount of whipped cream. The third was more what I had in mind but I was willing to be proved wrong and we merrily tucked into this selection of Swedish breakfast treats.

The cinnamon roll was perfect with strong black coffee (the Swedes are the second biggest coffee consumers in the world, only the Finns neck more of the stuff), warming and steadying . I thought it would be an ideal hangover breakfast, like an edible hug. The others, although tasty, were just wrong at half nine in the morning and left me feeling a little sluggish while my poor digestive system struggled to deal with the cream.

I analysed this breakfast in conjunction with my theory. What did this tell me about the country I was in? Swedes are greedy, have a sweet tooth, aren’t particularly health conscious and most probably skirting a fine line between obesity and morbid obesity. Something was clearly amiss because not one of these conclusions appeared to be true.

I relayed this story to my Swedish mother. ‘Why on earth did you have cake for breakfast?’ she said.
‘Because that’s what they do over there. Isn’t it?’ I replied meekly
‘No, what gave you that idea? If people have cake at all, they wait until about three o’clock. Maybe late morning on a Sunday. And even then it is usually retired women who only do it as an excuse to gossip. Breakfast is usually yoghurt with cereal and fruit.’

This explained a lot. My disappointment at being wrong was offset by my delight that my theory still held water. And that we’d got to eat cake for breakfast, something I recommend everyone try at least once.

Monday, 9 June 2008

A gaggle of googlys

It would seem that occasionally the bowler of life feels that it is necessary to send an unpredictable shower of googlys down one's crease just to keep you on your toes (for those of you who do not understand a word of that think of a bowler as a pitcher and a googly as a curveball). Whilst unpleasant, it certainly makes everything a little more interesting. frustrating, but interesting.

My own googly (such a great word to say, two delicious syllables the second of which is an unexpected sound that races out of the mouth after the unctuous first half of the word, almost onomatopoeic. Googly.) arrived full pelt at me last week when my poor iMac finally died after spluttering, coughing and wheezing its way through the last couple of months. It was one of those things that skirted onto the 'to-do' list but was quickly replaced by the unceasing list of domestic tasks that consistently usurped it in importance. Fix computer. No, mow lawn. Fix computer. No, mend the boiler so we can shower. Fix computer. Nope, buy new pane of glass for window that I broke when trying to open it with my shoulder. Fix computer. No, alphabetise book shelf. You get the idea. Anyway, last week it finally breathed its final breath and resolutely refused to turn on, hence the lack of posting and other web based activity.

After having the illogic board and mothership dongle replaced six months ago, it needs to undergo surgery again apparently to put in a new mega quaver or hyper wibble processor. Or something. So, in the mean time my girlfriend's laptop is providing adequate means of getting opnline but I have no access to my precious photos or documents or Photoshop or music or anything that enables me to craft my usual musings or engage in other electronic frivolity.

Normal service will be resumed forthwith. Assuming the frogget drive path can be fixed, of course. In the mean time, have a go at this, it's great.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Stockholm is where the heart is

There are no ugly people in Sweden. Nobody is overweight and no-one is badly dressed. Swedes seem to exude an understated grace and style with an effortless and genteel humility not present in cities that are equally modish. Rome immediately springs to mind, which somehow manages to offset its intrinsic panache with a self-congratulatory air. In the formal side of the city, the men all look as if they have been dressed by Ralph Lauren with narrow cut suits and perfectly folded pocket squares. Clean cuts and jutting jaw lines make way for quirky plastic sunglasses and leggings in Södermalm, the beating Boho heart of the city just south of the old town. I imagine it is what the inside of Agyness Deyn’s head looks like, it really is that cool. In between, there is a beautiful clean city with an abnormally low crime rate, few homeless (official figures estimate that there are about two but I managed to count at least six) and a bracing freshness from the clean sea on which the Stockholm archipelago sits. To give you an idea of just how clean this water is, anyone can pitch up with their fishing rod – no licence required – and catch salmon and sea trout which they are free to take home and eat. There are areas of peaceful greenery (over 2/3 of the city is greenbelt and there are a massive 38 parks) where Stockholmites take a lunchtime respite from the buzz of the workplace, there are over 100 museums and art galleries and countless bars. Restaurants serve food from all the far flung corners of the world, hardly surprising considering that the Swedish culinary heritage is somewhat limited, delicious but limited, thanks to the harsh long winters and the inability of the frozen land to yield substantial crops for a vast proportion of the year. It is a liberal, easy-going city where recent immigrants seem to exist happily alongside the Nordic residents.

Can any city be so absolutely utopian? Of course not. All this glorious perfection comes at a price. A painfully, almost prohibitively expensive price. Everything is about 25 per cent more expensive than we would perhaps be used to. It’s like the entire country is a branch of Waitrose. Every time you are presented with a bill there is a frisson of surprise, a thought they may have got it wrong then a realisation of where you actually are resulting in a shrugging of the shoulders and peeling off another wodge of bank notes from a rapidly decreasing stack. But with such effortlessly beautiful people around you begin not to care and almost feel obliged to pay over the odds to compensate for your own inadequacy: ‘sorry for sullying your country, have some more krona.’ Don’t get me wrong, the Swedes are friendly and welcoming but being surrounded by so much blonde hair and well-fitting clothes is certain to bring on a slight self-consciousness in anyone. And I’m even half Swedish so I dread to think how the average Iowan or Japanese tourist must feel.

There will be more of the food later, I just think it is important to contextualise and create a sense of mise en place before launching headfirst into herring and knäckerbröd so this is little more than a gentle introduction and brief summary of our first meal in this Hythlodayian paradise. We had hot dogs. In fact we had four hot dogs. The first was good (a kokt korv – boiled sausage) but lasted approximately four seconds so we had another of those before moving on and venturing towards the old town where we passed another street vendor selling similar wares. For reasons of comparison we chose the grilled variety this time which proved to be far superior. Just to make sure, we had another to galvanize our opinion. I should also add that we had not eaten a thing since 6am that morning and as it was fast approaching 6pm we felt justified in indulging in some vaguely gluttonous behaviour. Somehow, I think the Swedes may not have approved.

Monday, 2 June 2008

Rocket Powered Pesto

There are two minor problems facing those who grow their own. The first is the issue that presents itself when faced with a glut. A failure to plan correctly can often leave the hapless gardener with a plethora of peas or a surfeit of strawberries which must then be eaten with every meal resulting in palate fatigue or preserved in some way. This is where pickling, freezing, jamming, smoking, salting and the like come in to their own and allow us to enjoy the fruits (or vegetables, for that matter) of our labour during the months when they are out of season. The second problem that we are discovering is how to look after ones plants whilst you are away for any length of time. After the many hours of care lavished upon them during their short existence, the prospect of returning from holiday to find a parched vegetable garden with the dried and rotting remains of what once were lush, green plants is somewhat depressing. I know that there are intricate irrigation systems involving timers and piping but sadly our budget barely stretches to buying seeds so that was out. I also know that it is possible to ask neighbours but having only recently moved to the area we felt it would be a little presumptive to begin a conversation with the words: ‘lovely to meet you, would you mind awfully watering our vegetable patch twice a day whilst we swan off around a distant European capital city. Thanks.’

As a result we were left with the unproven ‘soak and hope’ strategy for the vegetables that are yet to grace us with produce and the slightly less risky ‘use as much as possible’ strategy for the plants that were currently edible and would fail to survive four days of enforced neglect. Fortunately, this amounted to little more than the rocket, which, after a slow start had grown with a fervent vigour normally only seen with unwelcome and tenacious weeds. There was too much to make a simple salad and so we drew inspiration from a great Italian deli called Limoncello where they stock a tasty selection of pesto.

The plants yielded enough tasty green leaves for four or five generous handfuls which would hopefully make a happy bowlful of fresh green pesto to be dipped into and poured generously over pasta and pizzas for the next couple of days. In addition I grabbed a small handful of Greek basil from a plant that sits on our windowsill (the harsh East Anglian climate appears to be too fickle for the plant to survive outside) to add a hint of that classic taste. Since my first pesto making experience (which can be found here), I’ve insisted that the best way to do it is by hand so I set to work turning the pile of leaves into a finely chopped mass of deliciousness.

Once the rocket and basil were sufficiently decimated and the pile rendered down to about a tenth of its original size I added two cloves of garlic and a scant handful of pine nuts before getting to work with the knife again. By the time they had been incorporated, my wrist was beginning to feel the strain and a deep burn was manifesting itself at the base of my thumb, I guessed that this was a good sign and that it was now time for the parmesan which was grated over in fine, gentle curls – melting into the mass with a soft enthusiasm. With a pesto, the olive oil acts like a glue, bringing the disparate components together as well as adding a tone of its own. It is like a mutual friend at an awkward party that manages to bring out the best in each of the guests, whose presence contributes more than it should. It allows the pesto to transcend its ingredients and take on a completely new characteristic. In short, it is essential and once added, the resultant sauce was a total success: subtle enough to be eaten solely with fresh bread but punchy enough to be stirred into fresh pasta or fried mushrooms at the last minute and served on toasted sourdough which is how I had it for lunch the following day. Definitely one to try again.

This post was written for the June Grow Your Own blogging event, details of which can be found here.
For Limoncello, Cambridge click here (they do mail order)