I have just returned from Provence where one of the great pleasures for me is the range and quality of locally produced fish, meat, fruit and vegetables.I bought bundles of the large male courgette flowers from one of the ladies who has a morning stall in the main square in Vence and, with the help of others, stuffed them with farce from the local butchers and roasted them in olive oil in the oven. I fried slices of noix de veau with mushrooms and served them with fresh green beans and the litte rattes potatoes. I filleted 30 little Mediterranean sardines by hand, butterflied them, tossed them in seasoned flour and fried them. Another of our party poached wild scottish salmon one day and roasted on another day some loup de mer (not sea bass in this case but a filet of an Atlantic monster called the wolffish). We had stewed apricots, bowls of peaches, wonderful pates. I might have roasted a chicken: the butchers all have the pricey but very tasty poulet fermier.But nothing can quite compare with one of these wonderful birds cooked on a rotisserie. Vence has a small, specialist chicken roasting shop from which I bought the largest available top quality bird at the eye watering price of €25. The chicken came with a jug of sauce from the rotisserie and no chicken ,however cooked, by whichever world renowned chef, could have tasted any better. I bought a good helping of diced potatoes roasted with girolles mushrooms to go with the chicken bringing the bill for five people to €40+. Not cheap but unbeatable. To balance the budget, 30 little sardines cost just €6. One evening the conversation turned to the subject of cookery programmes. Surely, I was told, I must love them as I have such an interest in food. There was surprise when I said I hardly ever looked at them. In fact I found them very boring. Two of our party who cook very little themselves said how much they loved them and rattled off a long list of chefs and titles that they followed, chiefly on TV in North America. The fact that they never cooked any of the meals they saw being prepared did not strike them as odd. They were not out for instruction, they were simply watching a performance. I thought about this and it occurred to me that there is something quite surreal about a cookery programme. The appearance of food on a plate can be attractive. But to know if a dish is to your liking or not you have to be able to smell it and taste it. But you cannot taste or smell a meal prepared on your TV screen. The very essence of the experience is denied you. Back in London I noticed the former restaurant chef Simon Hopkinson had a new programme in which he demonstrates recipes that you can easily cook at home. My interest stimulated by our debate about cookery programmes I tuned in. He made a baked pasta dish with porcini mushrooms and pancetta. As he cooked Simon said what wonderful smells there were in his kitchen and how every ingredient, one or two of which he popped into his mouth, was delicious. But if you have never before cooked with porcini ( they have a very strong, almost meaty flavour ) you would have no idea what he was on about. So too with pancetta which looks like bacon but is much, much strong and saltier in flavour. Hopkinson also made a white butter sauce to go with scallops. It is basically melted butter flavoured with a reduction of white wine and white wine vinegar mixed with shallots. The scallops were simply singed on either side. I suppose you could guess what that would taste like if you have eaten scallops before. Another dish was the French traditional classic coq au vin. Hopkinson made it with chicken legs bought from a supermarket. He used a whole bottle of red wine, but did not say which. The method was more or less the same as for boeuf bourgingnon: a rich sauce made with the wine and vegetables, pieces of meat floured and fried before adding to the sauce and mushrooms and little onions added later when the whole lot is cooked. I used to make coq au vin when you could by boiling fowl which were old egg-laying birds that were too tough and stringy to roast. I am sure Hopkinson's dish tasted fine but I would never cook chicken like this, without the carcass bones for flavour. There are so many better ways to bring out the flavours of a good chicken. It occurred to me that the real oddity of cookery programmes like this is that the chef continually compliments himself on his own creations. He pronounces everything he cooks as "deliciious" and we have to take his word for it. What other art form allows the creator to make such unverifiable judgements on their own work? It really is ridiculous. Imagine a pianist, say, at the end of a concert saying to the audience: " That was brilliant!". A musical programme equivalent to the tasteless, odourless cookery programme would be silent. On the screen you would have the pianist grinning and hitting the keys mutely with perhaps the score running along the bottom of frame. At the finish the performer could grin and give a big thumbs up.
While I was sitting with friends in the garden of their north London home at the weekend a wren began to sing. I could not see it but the song is so loud and so distinctive there was no doubt what it was. For me, that is. When I stopped the conversation to say: " Listen!" there was a kind of blank silence. " Do you know what that is?" I asked. Nobody did. Why is it that so many people in a nation that prides itself on loving wildlife simply do not hear birdsong. Where i live in north London blackbirds sing beautifully all summer. The robins can be heard all day and sometimes all night. The little wren has the most piercing call and is more often heard than seen. wren The song of the wren is so penetrating that you would think it would make people stop and listen. But somehow most people seem to be deaf to it. Is it because they do not expect to encounter wild birds in London? Would they take more notice if they heard the song in the countryside? It is the same with the swifts which now whizz round the rooftops in the evening screaming excitedly swifts (see my earlier blog). All the recordings are taken from the BBC website http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/science/birdsong.shtml
I doubt if anyone in the 1930s who protested about the pylons going up across the countryside to form the first National Grid imagined that the same battles would be fought more than 80 years later. Opposition to the first pylons was, in fact, quite muted. Electricity was then still a novelty for a large part of the population and it was the grid which would make it both cheaper and more widely dispersed. If you wanted electricity in your neck of the woods than you had to put up with pylons. They were a novelty then, too, symbolising what the poet Stephen Spender called "the quick perspective of the future." Some saw in them a kind of grandeur. When, in 1929, there was huge controversy about the prospect of electricity pylons scarring the Sussex landscape the artist Eric Gill sent a letter to the Times: "I write not only as an artist but as a Sussex man–born and bred–to whom love of the South Downs is as natural as it is enthusiastic. Anyone who has see the aqueducts striding, almost galloping, across the Roman Campagna must have been struck by the inexorable majesty of them, and the need of Rome for water is analogous to the modern world's need for power. In France I have seen these great electric standards striding across the country–delayed by nothing. In England, in Buckinghamshire, on a small scale the same thing may be seen. Are we to suppose that beauty is only to be found in certain recognised 'styles' of architecture? Is the Forth Bridge ugly because it is not built of stone? Is the Tower Bridge beautiful because the citizens of London, remembering the proximity of the Tower, saw fit to clothe its iron work in machine-made Gothic? Such an attachment to 'Nature' which goes with a refusal to see beauty in engineering, while making use of engineering and making money by it, is fundamentally sentimental and romantic and hypocritical. Let the modern world abandon such attachment, or let it abandon its use of electric power." The distinguished architect, Sir Reginald Blomfield, irritated by the constantly repeated view that he was the designer of the pylons that were causing so much controversy, also sent a letter to the Times in 1929: "The masts were not designed by any architect, 'eminent' or otherwise and the plain facts are these:–The masts were designed by the very competent engineers of the Central Electricity Board, and when the designs were completed the Board consulted me as to their general form and colour. For colour I advised green; in regard to form I suggested an alteration in outline which was impracticable on account of the costs, but another modification proposed by me was adopted by the Board.......... All who know Sussex and are interested in it, as I am myself, would sincerely regret any injury to the scenery of that beautiful country, unless there are compelling practical reasons, but I would suggest in the first place that such reasons may exist, and that this is a point which can only be decided by expert opinion and secondly that the overhead method of transmission has been generally adopted all over the Continent, and anyone who has seen these strange great masts and lines striding across the country, ignoring all obstacles in their strenuous march, can realise without a great effort of imagination that these masts have an element of romance of their own. The wise man does not tilt at windmills – one may not like it, but the world moves on."
Congratulations to Jim Harris, my nephew who is an artist living and working in Amsterdam on the commendation he has received from a major Dutch newspaper. In a review of an Art Fair the influential newspaper de Telegraaf had this to say about one of his paintings of the interior of an old church which he has visited and painted many times: "..if one had to choose which work would then remain the most memorable, that would have to be 'de oude kerk', a painting of the interior of Amsterdam's oldest church by Jim Harris ( exhibited at Roger Katwijk). Harris has surpassed himself. A beautifully harmonious use of lines and sense of light, in nine panels....hopefully this painting will be preserved for the city".
Just a year ago our male cat Perkins crawled down into one of his favourite hiding places in the cellar and purred his last. He was eighteen, a good age, and just a little younger than our son Tom who grew up with him. We knew Perkins was in trouble when he stopped eating. He was taken to the vet who ordered a few hundred pounds worth of blood tests which confirmed what we already knew. We wondered if it would be best to have him put down or just to allow him to die at home. Tom argued that Perkins did not seem to be in pain so why put him through the trauma of another trip to the vet. We watched him over several days. One night he stayed by the television and did not move. I said: " If he is there in the morning I am taking him to the vet to be put down." But Perkins had disappeared. It took a while to find him. He was still alive and we were all out that morning. Tom's mother had gone to France to stay with friends, I had a meeting and Tom was at college. When I got in I could see there were still signs of life so I checked on Perkins every half hour or so. By mid-afternoon I was sure Perkins was dead and put his limp body into a long rectangular wine box to lie in State for when Tom got home. We both shed a few tears and then set about the burial which we had planned. Our little back garden is mostly paved over. We would lift one of these slabs, dig down as far as we could go, put Perkins in, cover him with earth and put the slab back. That way none of the foxes that visit the gardens would be able to dig him up. We had the paving stone up and were digging away when the thought occurred to me that neighbours might be wondering what we were up to and that they had not seen Tom's Mum for a few days. We had a bit of laugh about that. It was hard going with the grave and we gave up when we were barely two feet down. Tom wrapped Perkins in a top the cat used to like to sleep on and lowered him carefully into the hole. Then the slab went down to form a gravestone on which we put a geranium in a pot. Two evenings after the burial we had visitors. One looking out into the garden exclaimed: " Look at all the mice!" We looked and mice were running everywhere as if they were celebrating the news that Perkins was no longer. The mice were there for weeks and they began to invade the house. I had to block holes, put down poison and traps. It took a long time to get rid of them. Was Perkins a great "mouser" then? I doubt it as we did not see any mice until two years before he died. They began to appear when the house next door was gutted and renovated. Perkins, and his sister Mitzy who died not long before, caught any mice that came in to the house. Generally they left the little mangled bundles of fur lying around but on one occasion Perkins swallowed his catch whole. But there were never many mice. Why then the infestation after the burial? I mentioned the strange happening to Sean who runs our local wine merchants highburyvintners who mentioned it to his father who knows a thing or two about these things as he has a farm in Ireland. He had no doubt that we had not buried Perkins deep enough and that the mice had smelled him, as the foxes would have done too. Fortunately the paving stone prevented any exhumation and Perkins now lies in peace with no rodents left to dance on his grave.