I occasionally get out for a social meal along with a few photography chums, but you would hardly believe how difficult it can be to arrange a date that five people can make.
So, a while ago I introduced the group to Doodle and its eponymous Doodle Poll. It’s a bit easier to make arrangements now, although still tricky even on the rare occasion that everyone actually completes the poll!
Why am I telling you this? Well, I recently reminded the others of a poll that needed to be completed.
Not that it helped, and I’m still waiting, but someone did at least respond, saying: “We should call you “Phil the Poll” which, given my (literal) Bohemian background, led to this:
When I read it, I thought “What the heck? The lad’s got a really brass neck And turned into a troll ‘Cos he called me a Poll When he knows it’s not Polish – IT’S CZECH!
I’m quite pleased to see the back of 2016, but for what it’s worth here are some pics for my ‘best of’ compendium for the year …
Best new experience of the year:
A bread-making course at ‘Bread Ahead’ (Borough Market, London). Just me and a bunch of Chelsea girls loafing around …
Best ice-cream of the year:
Beating Zanoni’s of Vienna by a short head was the first ice-cream pit stop of the year.
Best blog idea of the year:
A limerick a week. How else can one show one’s proficiency at celebrating #TeamDemelza in verse with an anapestic meter and strict rhyme scheme?
Best cycle ride of the year:
Finally, at the age of 24, Firstborn scraped her knee whilst participating in a physical outdoor activity. Her mother was so proud 🙂
Best health tip of the year:
… and from the Graun: Bike rides and hot baths – a fitness match made in heaven and it’s official!
Best impression of a marine mammal of the year:
Management performing dolphinarium tricks (we’d boycotted Marineland Mallorca whilst on holiday) with Firstborn as the ‘trainer’.
Best meal of the year:
The most hotly contested category of all. It could easily have been the baked brie at the Crofters Bistro, Rosemarkie, or the scallops at the Applecross Inn or the mega-breakfast at the Hatton Locks café or the liver and bacon at the Tigh an Eilean Hotel, Shieldaig. But by a country mile, ‘hats off’ please to the Gasthaus Ubl in Vienna for keeping traditional Austrian cuisine alive and at its best. Roast pork, sauerkraut and dumplings like my Grandma used to make. Großartig!
Best sausage of the year:
Another Viennese delight – mit brot und senf, of course
As sensitive bio-indicators of atmospheric pollution, these lichens growing on a wooden bench seat next to the main road through Lochcarron attest to the freshness of its air. Unusually for Scotland the air was still on the day this picture was taken, making it the best fresh air of the year!
Best concert of the year:
No real competition here. Bellowhead on a Saturday night at the London Palladium during the band’s farewell tour. Simply awesome.
One of the more depressing issues highlighted in this week’s news was about young people drinking the equivalent of a bathtub full of sugary drinks each year. The BBC News website reported the Cancer Research UK’s survey results as:
Pre-school children drink the equivalent of nearly 70 cans of fizzy cola
Children aged four to 10 drink the equivalent of 110 cans a year (nearly half a bathtub)
Teenagers drink more than the equivalent of 234 cans each a year (a bathtub)
Pretty horrendous figures by any stretch, but defended by the soft drink lobbyists with the sort of weasel words and tendentious arguments that were mooted by apologists of the tobacco companies decades ago.
Jacques Peretti wrote a compelling piece in the Graun a while back pointing out that we are, on average, 3 stones heavier now than in the mid-1960s. If you don’t believe that then simply gauge the average shape of teenagers walking down high streets today and compare them with the audience seen in the many TV repeats of Top of the Pops from the 1970s; your eyes won’t deceive you!
Given the potential for harm through the increased incidence of heart disease and diabetes, and don’t forget tooth decay, it’s hard to see why governments don’t take a harder line with the drink manufacturers. They seem to be in thrall to the drinks industry and agri-businesses rather than the promoters of a nation’s health (no surprise there!).
Not something to be made fun of, but I am in need of a topical limerick, so here goes:
A problem that’s facing our nation Is a young person’s choice of libation. ‘Cos a bathtub of sugar Is really a bu**er And leads to their health’s ruination
I’d like to think that only classy items will be given a home in Priscilla the campervan. However, I wasn’t sure that the words ‘classy’ and ‘egg cup’ could ever go together until I saw these little buckets; just had to buy a couple …
I once tried to persuade Management and the rest of the tribe to adopt the same colour scheme for our front room. They just laughed 🙁
Meantime, an egg joke …
A couple of days ago I found a heron’s nest and smashed all the eggs in it, but I’ve no egrets now!
Sammy Cahn’s lyrics to a well-known Sinatra song let us know that love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage. Well. that’s as may be, but what really goes well together is a ride out on a road bike and decent cafe stop for coffee and cake. Unfortunately, for the modestly overweight recreational cyclist they sometime go together too well, especially if one is planning to lose a few kilos in preparation for an assault on the Bealach na Bà (Pass of the Cattle) in Wester Ross. I’m hoping to ride it later in the summer, but avoiding either of the sportives that include it in their routes.
The statistics are impressive for a hill climb in the UK, a 626 metre ascent over 9.1 kilometres with an average gradient of 7% and a maximum of 20% (did I say lose “a few” kilos; make that many!). The route is about 45 miles in all, so maybe it is best to ‘do’ the hill early on. I’m hoping to get some hill-climbing miles in my legs by training on our own local climb on the Cairn o’ Mount road near Banchory. The Cairn route from the Banchory side is slightly longer than the Bealach na Bà, and some think that it is just as testing, so I will see how it goes and whether I need to invest in a more forgiving set of gear ratios!
The problem with training over the Cairn o’ Mount (apart from the obvious one of it comprising a long, steep hill) is that the downhill return leads you into Banchory and its coffee shops; less than helpful to a chap’s weight loss regimen. One in particular caters well for the cyclist: Tease even has its own Strava group to keep tabs on its members’ biking efforts. I’m not a member or a Strava-naut and although the coffee and cakes are a tad expensive they are rather fine.
I have yet to visit Tease this year, but have something of a confession to make. On a recent visit to the family’s matriarch in Kendal I was determined (and I mean absolutely determined) not to visit nearby Grasmere. I really don’t like the Lake District honey-pot towns of which Grasmere is one, but two things keeps drawing me back (by car, not bike). The first is the ludicrously-named Faeryland tea shack by the waterside, set in an implausibly-beautiful location and, at its best, capable of producing one of the finest cups of tea in old Albion; the second is the opportunity to stock up on gingerbread at Sarah Nelson’s Grasmere Gingerbread shop.
Well, my determination to give it a miss failed and the lure of tea and gingerbread won. On this occasion the tea wasn’t so good, but despite the best of intentions to lose a few kilos I took consolation in a couple of packs of gingerbread and, do you know what, it’s gone already; shared of course with friends and colleagues (well, some of it was)!
It seems that I was wrong to suggest that the winning entrant to our recent ‘Geordie Traybake of the Month’ competition (Newcastle Brown Ale brownies) had been illegally aided by his partner’s suggestion that his oven temperature was too high (275°C instead of 275°F – see posts passim). Seemingly, no such help was given as at that time our victorious baker was highly stressed and, as his partner casually put it: “… not really receptive to any suggestions!” (what a great line; I think we know what it means😄).
After the event the ‘leftover’ winning brownies were clearly coveted by the victor’s partner who returned them to their home only to lose them to the low cunning of their family dog who, apparently, tucked into them clingfilm and all. Her observation that it was an interesting experience as it passed through their pet’s system did, however, make me think. Just imagine if separate portions of dog food and clingfilm could be consumed and gastrically engineered in such a way that, on passing through its innards, the clingfilm enveloped any waste to be pooped out pre-wrapped for disposal in a doggy bin. Classic!
Finally, it should not have been a surprise for their pet to think the brownies were hers and hers alone. The English northeast vernacular for a pint of Newcastle Brown Ale (the essential ingredient in these brownies) is a ‘bottle of dog’. So, really, they were not Newcastle Brown Ale brownies at all, but dog brownies. Clever of the mutt to realise that!
Synonyms:ineptitude, ineptness, inability, lack of ability, incapability, incapacity, lack of skill, lack of proficiency, amateurishness, inexpertness, clumsiness, ineffectiveness, inadequacy, deficiency, inefficiency, ineffectuality, ineffectualness, insufficiency.
Well, that pretty much sums up our attempts to deliver a longstanding colleague into a splendid retirement by providing him with some home-baked memories of his youth; a competitive bake-off that was themed on his Geordie roots. We had borrowed the idea from an earlier attempt to broaden the social horizons within our workplace. The highlight of our previous gatherings was a ‘Traybake of the Month’ competition in which anyone could offer-up their version of a particular pastry which was then tasted and judged by all. The entries were usually terrific with only an occasional misfire, but that was then.
This is now …
Boss: “We could have a Geordie-themed bake-off before his retirement lunch. And he can be the judge!”
So that was that, a one-off ‘Geordie Traybake of the Month’ competition was conceived. We hit an immediate barrier. Despite trawling the internet and contacting various Geordie’s that we knew, we could only come up with two non-savoury home-bakes that were specifically linked to England’s northeast: Stottie cake (a kind of loaf) and singin’ hinnies (a sort of griddle scone). I ‘bagged’ the singin’ hinnies for my entry and left the others to their own devices and what ingenuity they showed.
The Hairy Bikers’ chocolate cake was a half-good idea, but only half-good insofar as one of the biker duo actually hails from England’s northwest (Cumbria in fact, like me) and couldn’t possibly be considered a Geordie. I thought about submitting a protest and seeking the cake’s disqualification as ‘not entirely Newcastle’, but suspected that it would be in vain as my boss was cunning enough to present only half the cake anyway, and she could always argue that she had brought along the Newcastle fraction and not the Cumbrian bit which she considered worthy only to be trashed. In truth, the cake had apparently self-destructed after being filled with a poorly conceived butter icing and only half could be salvaged.
The next entry was a straightforward iced sponge cake; its northeast credentials satisfied by a customised rice-paper photograph of Cheryl Cole as a topping. I thought a trick was missed by using the topper to make a Geordie cake; representing it as a Geordie tart would have been funnier, but the cake certainly had more taste than the muse that inspired its decoration. Nevertheless, it also had its problems. That the topper wished its recipient ‘Happy Birthday’ rather than ‘Happy Retirement’ could be overlooked, but the teensiest issue remained – it was not baked by one of us, but by a ‘ringer’; a surrogate maître pâtissier. If it had won then a protest would have been inevitable.
An engaging bit of lateral thinking led to the third competitor’s entry. Nixed by the lack of native Geordie traybakes, he had discovered a chocolate brownie recipe that included Newcastle Brown Ale as an ingredient. Inspirational stuff! Nevertheless, if one considers a published and tested recipe to comprise a sort of standard operating procedure to produce traybakes, then, as the experienced and professional quality assurance expert that he is, how could he confuse degrees Fahrenheit with degrees Celsius and bake his brownies at 275°C? And why did they not burn to a cinder? It turns out that his day may have been saved by his partner’s suggestion that his oven temperature was a tad high. So, I ask myself, where is the fairness in our traybake competition when someone making chocolate brownies gets outside help, and not just any outside help, but assistance from a person that coincidentally just happens to be a chocolate brownie expert herself? Sadly for my hopes of victory they tasted particularly fine and included a dob of caramel within them; sweet and gooey is always a winning combination.
Finally, my singin’ hinnies. Twenty minutes to prepare and twenty minutes to cook. I could make double the dough and use half of it for a practice run and the other half to knock out a dozen expertly-crafted Geordie-based griddle scones to secure a sweet victory. If only. Several hours later my singing hinnies comprised a soloist not a choir. A single, solitary artiste. The rest had been under-cooked, over-cooked, unevenly cooked or simply crumbled to nothing on the griddle. (I’m still struggling to understand what kind of recipe includes lard as half of the fat in the dough and then calls for the heated griddle to be smeared with even more lard to cook the damn things). At the tasting, ‘Boss’ thought the flavour of my sole surviving hinny evoked bubble and squeak, an easy mistake to make as ‘bubble’ is fried in pure lard and my hinny tasted of nothing else either. (I should add a mea culpa – when the first of my hinnies crumbled on the griddle, I thought it wise to add a bit more lard to the remaining dough to make it bind better!). Clearly I was not going to be a contender, but if a chap is going to fail, he may as well fail magnificently.
The Brown Ale Brownies won and rightly so, but I like to think the hilarity invoked by the taste of my singing hinny and the story-telling of the ineptitude of all our bakers was the real prize and one that was shared across the board. Self-detonating chocolate cakes, surrogate bakers, appalling quality control and lard. Oh god, the lard!
Postscript: Singin’ hinnies are so named because of the squealing sound that they are supposed to make when being cooked on the griddle. None of mine ‘sang’ which should have set the alarm bells ringing, but the experience did inspire a limerick which will be added to my ‘Little Book of Bollocks’, so not all was lost:
I was hoping I’d be able to bring A traybake that was fit for a king. ‘Cos it’s not every day That a chum goes away, But my hinnies? They just wouldn’t sing!