5th November 2010
I’m sick of boxes! I seem to have spent most of my life these last few weeks either filling boxes, moving boxes or emptying boxes. This last action is the most frustrating of all. We have moved into a smaller home here in the UK and we simply do not have enough room for everything.
Man said to me this morning that he had read many stories of people who keep things because they never know if they might use them in the future. The fact that they haven’t used them in the last 20 years seems to be no barrier to continued guardianship. Man said that it must be a difficult decision whether to keep something or not. I disagreed. It’s getting the right mindset that is the difficult bit. Once you have that all the decisions are easy! I’ve definitely had my “throwing out” head on since we got here…
Getting halal produce in this part of the UK is very challenging. I knew that before we moved here. I also devised a plan before we moved here.
We are only an hour or so from Birmingham where I grew up. Halal meats and other products are easy to come by there, so my plan involves taking the car once every 2 months to stock up. A key element of this plan involves having a large freezer to put all the meat in. I left my old freezer behind in France (it was 12 years old after all) and planned to get a brand new shiny one.
Whilst ordering a freezer is very fast thanks to the internet, it still takes an army of snails to deliver it to my home. I‘ve been told it will arrive next Wednesday. In the meantime we are surviving on an interesting mixture of meat-free dishes. Oh, and a duck which will make its camera debut this weekend.
Apart from the Funked-up Fish Pie we’ve had a vegetarian haggis which I found in the supermarket (surprisingly delicious), vegetarian pizzas, fish and chips (of course!), baked potatoes, and a visit to the local Chinese takeaway. I don’t mind eating fish and vegetables, but I am starting to crave some meat…
Coming back to the UK has already made me go crazy in the supermarkets. I’d forgotten just how many amazing foods I had missed during my almost-8-years in France. Piccalilli, Club biscuits, Kenco coffee, Walker’s crisps, Heinz Baked Beans, Branston Pickle and, my absolute favourite, PICKLED ONIONS! I prefer the crunchy and sharp ones rather than the small and sweet ones, and I never need an excuse to scoff one.
All of these things are part of the great British culinary experience and it isn’t until you learn to do without them that you really come to appreciate them. My kitchen is slowly filling up with brands and tastes that I grew up with. It’s all strangely comforting and really helping us to readjust to life back in the UK.
I am missing the delightful French baguettes and tasty croissants which are piped into every home in France (well, sometimes it seems that way). I’m also missing some of the hard cheeses like Comte or Beaufort or Cantal. I am also missing the fact that my local supermarkets have no halal products AT ALL. I must have a word with the store manager…
12th November 2010
This week’s blog is entitled “A Tale of Two Curries”…
Mum came and spent a few days with us. I picked her up from Birmingham mid-morning and we were Chez Titli in time for lunch. On the evening we decided to go and try out our nearest Indian restaurant – the Saffron in Knighton.
We arrived and were shown to our table. The restaurant was fairly small and busy, but by no means full. We were left with our menus. I picked up my paper serviette and put it on my lap. About 5 minutes later we were asked if we would like to order drinks. My first question these days to such an invitation is, “do you have any alcohol-free beer?”. They did not, so I settled for a Coke. The drinks arrived a few minutes later.
Another 10 minutes passed and we were asked for our order. I quite fancied a prawn bhuna. Mum took a mild curry while Man wanted something SPICEY!!! We ordered some poppadums and pickles to pass the time.
When the poppadums came they carried all the hallmarks of having been prepared several hours before. A freshly-cooked poppadum is crispy, breaks easily and goes “crunch” in your mouth. These poppadums bent before breaking and were slightly chewy. We ate them all the same, drowning them in goodies from the pickle tray. My personal peccadillo is chill pickle, but Mum grabbed the mild mango chutney and proceeded to eat it like it was soup! On reflection, it did look a bit thin and runny.
I was somewhat disappointed with my prawn bhuna. Most Indian restaurants will make a base curry and add extra ingredients at the time of ordering to turn it into a Madras or a Pathia or whatever. My bhuna tasted very… generic. It was pleasant enough, but by no stretch of the imagination would I call it a bhuna. My onion naan was also quite heavy and not what I usually expect from an Indian restaurant equipped with a Tandoor oven. Man’s curry looked remarkably like mine and tasted the same, only spicier. Mum’s curry was bright red in an almost menacing way! I declined to try it for fear of glowing in the dark afterwards.
The service was very casual. Waiters would stand and chat with the “regulars” while we sat there trying to order extra drinks. There was a lack of precision about the way in which things were placed on the table – my knife and fork were practically thrown in front of me and I was left to organise them myself.
I looked around the restaurant and apart from the Asian waiters there was nothing which told you that it was an Indian restaurant. The walls were painted plaster and I think I spotted two pictures, both of which were pastoral scenes.
Verdict: OK for a takeaway perhaps, but I have had nicer sit-down experiences in the area.
On Wednesday evening I stayed overnight in Stevenage, Hertfordshire. This was my first business trip following the move. I decided to visit a place I’ve eaten at many times before – the Taj Mahal on the Old High Street.
I arrived and was shown to a table. The restaurant is quite small, always busy but not full at this time. As I sat down the waiter picked the cloth serviette off the table, flapped it in the air and draped it across my lap. “Can I get you a drink, Madam?” A few minutes later I was enjoying an ice-cold alcohol-free Indian beer (Cobra Zero) to accompany my menu-browsing.
The menu is quite extensive and seems to get larger every time I go there. I ordered prawn sag with an onion naan, and a poppadum to pass the time.
My poppadum came with an assortment of five pickles – chilli, lime, mango, a cachumber salad and some raita. The poppadum itself was still warm and crispy. Before I had crunched my way through the wafer-thin delight a waiter appeared and asked if everything was OK? I ordered a second pop…
At the end of Round One the debris was cleared away and the table prepared for the upcoming main course. Knives, forks and plates were carefully placed in front of me. My food arrived, accompanied by a courteous “Can I get you anything else?” and a side dish of “Enjoy your meal”.
The prawn sag was beautiful, both to taste and to look at. My only criticism was that there was a bit too much salt for my taste, but it tasted so fresh and alive that I scoffed the lot with gusto. My naan was light and not too greasy and that too disappeared completely.
The service throughout was efficient and courteous. Waiters were carefully watching the clientele and trying to anticipate their needs. I didn’t have to empty my glass before a smart young gentleman appeared and asked, “Another drink, Madam?”
I made a point of looking around the restaurant. All around there were visual clues which left you in no doubt that you were in an Indian restaurant. The large wooden vases, the modestly sized classical Indian scene in the ornately-carved wooden frame, and the style of the chairs left you in no doubt where you were!
One waiter stopped a while to ask me where I was from and what I was doing. This kind of chit-chat is not uncommon at this restaurant and is strangely comforting to a woman travelling alone.
Verdict: Attention to detail and a little effort can make a big difference to the dining experience. Is it any wonder I return to this restaurant time and time again?
My freezer has finally arrived! I took the opportunity today on the way back from Stevenage to call into the Indoor Market in Birmingham. I left with 4 chickens, 12 chicken breasts, a whole leg of lamb and 4 kilos of minced beef. That should keep us going for a few weeks!
26th November 2010
The last couple of weeks have been a bit hectic, which is why there was no blog last week. I’ve been trying to catch up with work following the house move and there is a double-dose of bureaucracy to deal with. Leaving one country and arriving in another country requires disconnection from one spider’s web of organisations and the re-spinning of another new web. We all know that spider’s webs are sticky and so it is with organisations in France. They just don’t want you to go! “No, we can’t close your account until you send us your new address and an affidavit that you have really, really left France forever. And by the way, we need one of your kidneys and your first-born child, otherwise we will continue to write to you even in your grave.”
As well as spinning a new web here in the UK I’ve had a mountain of forms to fill in from my employer. EVEN THOUGH I am transferring within the company I have to be treated like a new employee when it comes to form-filling. As I fill in my name, date of birth and employment experience for the third time I start to think “Come on guys! I’ve worked for you for the last 21 years! This information is all in your systems; don’t you remember me?”
In case you are wondering, I hate paperwork.
Last Saturday Man and I had our first meal out alone since coming back to the UK. We went to a very nice restaurant called The Stagg at a little village only 10 minutes drive from our home. The food was very good. I had pan-fried scallops on a parsnip purée, followed by a tasty mushroom, leek and parmesan risotto. Man went for the “soup and a chunk of meat” option. I had a dessert of bread-and-butter pudding which brought back childhood memories.
The service was a joy to experience. Attentive, but not too fussy. We were even asked if we would like our coffees WITH our desserts! This is something I struggled with for over 7 years. Despite many attempts in a variety of French restaurants I could never get them to bring me my coffee with the dessert. Maybe there would have been too much paperwork to fill in if I had changed the established procedure…
Oh, I forgot to tell you the name of the village where this restaurant is. The village is called… Titley.
Man and I took a flying visit to Geneva last Sunday. We went back to the old house to check that everything was OK, then stayed the night with my friend Jen and her family. Her partner Steph rustled up some mighty-fine burritos and a barrel of guacamole. Jen is a California-girl and Steph is a good ol’ JawJa boy and they are always great company. We sat around the dinner table for hours talking, eating and passing the time. This is what life should be about, not microwaved meals for the whole family on trays in front of the TV…
The good news is that on the Monday I signed a “Promise to Sell” for the house. If everything goes according to plan the house in France should be sold, God willing, sometime in February. My financial landscape will then change and all sorts of new possibilities for the future start to appear. Watch this space!
This week I remixed my Christmas recipe videos from last year to change the music and avoid copyright issues. I’ve added imperial weight measures for those who have no idea what a gram is. I also had a request this week for a volumetric conversion chart which converts, for example, grams of flour into fluid ounces. Not so easy, but I guess I might be able to do it for the common ingredients like flour, sugar and butter. I’m surprised that in these days of cheap kitchen scales that people still use volumetric measures for recipes!
My Christmas recipes also caused one or two people to question whether Muslims celebrate Christmas. My response is simple – there are many foods which are associated with this time of year. As far as I am aware the traditional Christmas Pudding, for example, has no religious significance and I see no reason why anyone, whatever their beliefs or disbeliefs, should not enjoy this food. I’ve never met an atheist who refused to eat a mince pie on the grounds that Christmas is a Christian festival!
Smart observers will also notice I chose a background Christmassy tune with no religious theme – Jingle Bells. In fact the story goes that the tune was originally written for Thanksgiving in the US. The song is about some guy who takes a horse-drawn sleigh out for a ride and loses control, crashing into a snow bank. It just proves the point that reckless drivers have been with us for a very long time.
Talking of snow, it’s snowing here today. Thanks be to God that I haven’t got to shovel the snow off that long, steep driveway any more! If you want to see what I mean, take a look at my video for Corned Beef Pie!