Titli’s Weekly Blog – July 2011
1st July 2011
Today I am officially “Employee Without Portfolio”. My team have been split up and now work for different bosses and I have no official function any more. It seems that I have no responsibilities whatsoever for the remaining 2 months that I will be employed. Cool!
Actually it’s not so cool. This week has been quite emotional both for me and for a few members of my team. Some of them asked me to do their mid-year performance appraisal before the end of the month, however my boss’s galaxy-size ego had led him to revoke my access to certain systems a couple of weeks ago, most notably the system which is used to document performance reviews! Not that he had bothered to tell anyone… I sent quite a strong note (copy HR Director) pointing out that it wasn’t 1st July yet. A grovelling apology of sorts came back which laid the blame for this “error” firmly at the door of anyone and everyone else. Access was reinstated for only half my staff. Oh the games that people play.
There have been a few tears and some very lovely messages after the official organisation notice went out. Sharon from Pakistan phoned me and asked me not to go, while I had a really nice message from the Receptionist in the Istanbul office. Sevim is one of the most professional and nicest people I think I have ever met. She is late 40s (I guess!) with a lovely singing way of speaking that many Turkish women seem to have. I always made time to stop and chat with her whenever I was in Istanbul. It’s people like Sevim that I’ll miss.
They are small, round, black and to be quite honest I am sick of the sight of them! I seem to have spent a large amount of time these last two weeks either picking them, cleaning them, freezing them, or cooking with them. I’ve made jam, sorbet, cordial and smoothies. I’ve even combined them with raspberries and redcurrants to make a Summer Pudding (which was rather delicious – watch out for the video!). I’m talking of course about blackcurrants.
We take blackcurrants for granted in the UK and certain parts of Europe, and they were once popular in the United States as well. In the early 1900s blackcurrant farming was banned in the US as they were thought to be a threat to the logging industry. Blackcurrants can transmit a disease which affects pine trees, but in the 1960s this federal ban was changed to allow States to decide for themselves whether to allow blackcurrant farming. A small number of States now allow the little black blighters to be grown.
Here ends today’s history lesson. Never let it be said that Titli’s blog is not educational.
The weather here last weekend was just beautiful and Man and I took the opportunity to visit the annual Food and Drink Fair at a nearby village called Shobdon. There were plenty of craft stalls, as well as stalls selling local produce – cheeses, jams, meats, fish, honey, … all the usual stuff. There was a bouncy castle for the kids and a cooking demo by a local chef in a tent, but he looked as hot and bothered as the rest of the audience sitting in the stuffy tent! I couldn’t see if he had the essential kitchen tools of chainsaw and hammer.
As we were wandering around a man stopped us and asked if we would like to try his Gözleme. Gözleme? Man and I looked at one another and then at what he was offering. The nearest thing I can liken it to was a squashed panini where a thin, flat bread was used instead of a baguette-type bread. The filling was tomato and feta cheese and I have to confess I found it rather tasty. I looked at the man and clocked him as Turkish. I then noticed his van behind him… He was selling Kumpir!
I first came across Kumpir a couple of years ago in Istanbul. Ümit was desperate to take me to the Ortaköy district in Istanbul to show me the Kumpir. After a winding descent down a hillside to the banks of the Bosphorus we parked the car and Ümit dragged me excitedly to the Kumpir. There, in front of me, was stall after stall selling baked potatoes with a variety of fillings. I wasn’t hungry enough at that point, which was a pity because all the stalls had brightly coloured fillings on offer to add to the baked potato – assorted pickles, vegetables, sausages and salads. It did provide a visual appetiser though as Ümit and I made our way to the little ferry to cross to Galatasaray Island for dinner.
Anyway, back to last Sunday. I glanced at his menu board and noticed that his food was halal. I asked him where he got his meat from and he gave me a source which is a lot nearer than my usual outlet in the centre of Birmingham. Brilliant! Finding halal meat in this part of the UK is not a trivial exercise. We are in a very agricultural area with lots of fruit, veg, dairy and sheep farming. Apart from a number of young Polish workers you can hardly describe this area as cosmopolitan. The nearest mosque is at least an hour’s drive away. I thanked him for his information with a confidently spoken “Teşekkür” (Thanks), and he replied with “Bir şey degil” (You are welcome). Win!
To show our gratitude (and because we were hungry) we ordered a couple of Gözleme. I went for the minced meat option. I feel compelled to try making these as they are quite tasty and very filling.
Well my NextUp entry for YouTube didn’t make the next round round of judging. C’est la vie!
10th July 2011
In some ways it’s been a very quiet week this week. In other ways it hasn’t…
On Saturday night Man and I decided we would go out for dinner. There is a recently-opened restaurant in Leominster called Farzana’s and we thought we would try it out.
When we got there it was empty – I always worry when we go into a restaurant at 8pm on a Saturday night and we are the only people in there! The décor is quite striking with white walls and red-and-black furnishings, but I couldn’t help feeling that a picture or two here and there to break up the walls would not go amiss.
We went for our usual formula – no starter, curry with naan for me and rice for Man. My king prawn bhuna was nicely spiced and very tasty, and Man’s “Chicken Bengal” from the Specials menu was… huge! I’ve never seen so much meat on a plate since I carved an entire goose in one go. The name for the dish is slightly strange since the menu says that the dish is cooked with “Kashmiri paste”, whatever that is. I’m unclear of the link between Kashmiri spices and Bangladesh but maybe I need to do a bit more research on this. Nonetheless Man informed me that his taste buds were definitely titillated by this dish and the nariyal (coconut) rice complemented it beautifully.
Leominster is a small town and not really known for it’s night life. I am surprised that it can sustain four Desi restaurants but I do hope that Farzana’s survives. We will return!
Normally I deal with 30 or 40 emails from work every day. This week? One or two. Normally I find myself sitting at my desk in my study working and spending time on the phone. This week? Yeah, right! As I explained last week I am “Employee without portfolio” until the end of August and I am just beginning to understand what this really means. I am finding myself with a lot more flexibility and freedom than I am used to. This means that I can devote much more time to developing Titli’s Busy Kitchen and I have been working quite hard this week on a pipeline of video recipes. I’ve also uncovered amongst my files a small number of recipes that I recorded but never worked up into a video. It’s amazing what you find when you have the time to look!
This new-found flexibility has it’s advantages. On Tuesday I went and collected Mum and she will be here with us until next Tuesday. On Wednesday afternoon I went for afternoon tea at a neighbour’s house. Brenda and Ted are a retired couple and it seems that every time I see Brenda she leaves with a box of fruit from my garden. Keen to return the favour she had baked scones, fruit cake and a sort of glazed flapjack to accompany the tea. It was very pleasant to spend an hour chatting with them and I was well fed in the process. We talked about their recent cruise, their garden, their house, their heating, their disabled ramp that they had removed and their doors that don’t close properly. Chez Titli next time…
Then on Friday afternoon I found myself taking afternoon tea at DeGrey’s in Ludlow with someone I had not seen in over 20 years. The last time we had had any contact it was somewhat acrimonious, but the passage of time softens the memories; the good times shared take more prominence than the few bad times. It was clear that we have both grown older and wiser. We talked about our families, our lives, and touched on the past very little. Helen had hardly changed at all – maybe a wrinkle or two here and there but otherwise I could have believed that I was transported back in time. Conversation flowed easily and time slid by, restricted only by the two hours I had paid for on the parking meter. I was beginning to wish I had put more money in the meter!
For the last day or so I have found myself reflecting on the conversation. The older I get the more I find myself conscious of how my actions can and have impacted the lives of others. Is it my religion that dictates this? Or is it simply that our own life experiences help us to empathise with the totality of emotions in a situation rather than just our own? I know that I have done things in my life which have had adverse effects on other people. I can never undo the wrong I did, but inshaAllah I will be given more opportunities to replace old, unpleasant memories with newer, more pleasant ones. But as the old saying goes… It takes two to Tango.
17th July 2011
Donuts, or doughnuts as I prefer to spell them, are a very personal experience. Some people prefer the ring shape, some prefer filled doughnuts. Some people like them covered in sugar while others prefer some kind of sweet glaze. A few of my North American viewers commented that my doughnuts looked too small, but there is a reason for that…When I bake I usually bake for a purpose. I might bake a dessert which I expect to be eaten over the course of several days. If I’m baking biscuits/cookies/etc. it’s often to share with others and for a light nibble to take with a morning coffee or afternoon tea. I just want a bite-sized snack! But the comments on doughnut size transported me back to meetings in the USA.
When I was a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Arizona we used to have monthly seminars for our small department. Of prime importance was who’s turn it was to buy the doughnuts and which doughnuts to buy. There was a Dunkin’ Donuts just around the corner and that month’s Donut Monitor would go around the team collecting orders. Invariably the Monitor would come back with a dozen doughnuts for the six of us – the unit cost per doughnut was less that way and therefore represented “better value for money” (but not the cheaper option).
A couple of the team would turn up with freshly brewed coffee from the lab. As an non-native I always found this an amazing sight – people with doughnuts large enough to feed a family of three in one hand, and a jug of coffee large enough to drown a cat in the other! The person at the front who was presenting their latest results from the lab would have to contend with coffee slurps, munching noises and the almost constant rustling of the paper in the box of doughnuts. This was back in the late 1980′s.
In the early 2000′s I found myself back in the USA sitting around a table with about a dozen other American colleagues. Once again the doughnuts took centre stage. When were they coming? How many boxes had been ordered? Had certain doughnuts been included or excluded from the order? When the doughnuts finally arrived they were just as huge and numerous as I remembered them from earlier times. And just as before, the doughnuts were washed down with individual pint jugs of coffee.
Which brings me on to my next point. Coffee. If it’s one thing I’ve learned from all my travels it’s that coffee is a very cultural experience. The American version of coffee is quite a weak affair. It has to be to enable them to drink such large quantities. Back in the lab at the U of A we used to brew our own filter coffee and this was always a matter of great contention. My boss would always try to be first in the lab in the morning so that he could add the right amount of ground coffee into the percolator and brew the coffee to his taste. The nightmare scenario was that either my Chinese colleague or I got into the lab first. We liked our coffee to taste a bit more like coffee and a bit less like dish-water so we would use almost double the amount of ground coffee. This did not go down well with our American colleagues who would often dilute the resulting coffee with hot water.
At the other extreme we have the Italians who are without doubt the most serious coffee drinkers on this planet. For the Italians, coffee is less of a drink and more of an art-form. Indeed ordering coffee in Italy is an art-form. From the infeasibly strong thimble-full of coffee known as a Caffè Ristretto (or Stretto) to the deceptively named Caffè Lungo (long coffee) which is slightly larger in volume than an Espresso. You can order a Caffè Americano which is usually a shot of espresso diluted with hot water and served in a modestly-sized cup.
I used to get quite frustrated on my trips to Italy. Arriving at the office after a long journey I was always ready for a nice cup of coffee. My colleague and I would go to the cafeteria (pronounced Ka-Fe-Te-REE-Ah) and order coffee. I would invariably have a cappuccino as it was the most voluminous coffee available (but still quite small) and by the time my coffee had arrived my colleague would have downed her coffee in one single gulp. I obliged by chugging my coffee so that we could return back to the office as quickly as possible. I found the whole experience neither refreshing nor social.
The further east you go the more interesting the coffee becomes. Turkish coffee has a reputation for being very strong and impossible to drink without sugar. Yes, it is very strong but I find it more palatable without sugar. I once had a Lebanese coffee whilst on a business trip to Dubai. It reminded me of Turkish coffee with a distinct taste of cardamom.
Possibly my most memorable coffee was in Belgrade, Serbia – so much so that I felt compelled to take a photograph of it. On arrival at the office I was asked if I would like a traditional Serbian coffee. Of course! When it arrived it looked like a UK-sized cup of black coffee. I sipped it… quite strong. I let it cool a bit before taking a gulp. It quickly became apparent that there was an enormous quantity of sludge at the bottom of the coffee. Drinking it was like drinking mud, or at least how I imagine mud would taste if you drank it. I don’t want you to get the idea that I’m one of these mud-drinkers. There is a common saying that coffee is so strong that you can stand your spoon up in it. With Serbian coffee this is not just a saying!
In the UK I feel that we have a balanced approach to coffee. Not too strong, not too weak, and of a size that allows for the coffee to be a social occasion without incurring caffeine poisoning or frequent trips to the toilet. But then I am probably a bit biased…
25th July 2011
Last week was, I believe, my final business trip with DuPont – the company that has been my home for 23 years.
My flight to Geneva was early evening out of Luton on Monday. After a drive of over 3 hours from home there was just enough time to grab a meal before boarding. I opted for fish and chips at the Real Food cafeteria in the departure lounge. The food wasn’t too bad at all, even if the fish did seem to have a claw. Reasonably priced (for an airport) and cutely presented with the chips in “newspaper”. This fish meal set the tone for the week…
Most of Tuesday was spent discussing my ex-team with their new boss. I had no notes with me – I didn’t need them. I know every one of my ex-team (all 40 of them) and their working environments so well that it’s easy to regurgitate whatever information is needed. I hope their new boss takes as much care and interest in them as I tried to do. People like it when they see you care.
The real highlight of the day was dinner in the evening. I’d asked my Systems lady Yannick to organise a farewell dinner for us and her team. And so it was that Stefanie, Marisa, Yannick and I ended up in the Port Gitana auberge in Bellevue, Geneva. The weather was pretty rubbish for July so we were denied the opportunity to sit on the terrace and soak in the views of the lake. The terrace may have been damp, but our spirits were not! Naturally we all opted for the local speciality of restaurants around Lake Geneva – Filets de Perche (Perch fillets, or yet more fish and chips in my case).
The ladies each took a dessert of strawberries and cream, but I went for the “Tube of Cream with Strawberries” which turned out to be exactly that!
It has always been a delight for me to sit down with diverse groups of people and this evening was no exception. We talked a lot about places we would love to visit in future, which in Yannick’s case is an ever-shrinking list. She is one of the most well-travelled and well-rounded people I know. If she ever wrote a book I’d certainly make sure it was on my bookshelf! She is, however, French and was accused of being “typically French” by Stefanie who commented on Yannick insisting on having a small jug of wine with her meal and a small coffee to finish. I should point out that typically-German Stefanie is both tall and blond. We also talked a lot about typically-Spanish (short with dark hair) Marisa’s impending move to Hungary with her boyfriend. Like so many Europeans she speaks her native language plus English plus at least one other language, but now she has the new challenge of learning Hungarian. There aren’t too many countries in the world that speak Hungarian, and there aren’t too many languages that are similar to Hungarian either. Good luck, Marisa!
Towards the end of the evening they each produced from thin air (or so it seemed) some beautifully wrapped gifts. I tried to be typically-British and keep a stiff upper lip but I couldn’t stop my eyes from filling up. Yannick and Stefanie gave me cookbooks with typical recipes from their home countries. Marisa couldn’t find a Spanish cookbook with recipes that she agreed with (Marisa likes cooking too), so instead she gave me a wonderful book full of Middle-Eastern recipes.
There were no tears at the end of the evening, just hugs. God willing I’ll see them at least one more time when I go and collect my car from Geneva and bring it back home. Thank you, ladies, for your company and your thoughtful gifts. But most of all thank you for some lovely memories!
Wednesday morning included more official duties, but in the afternoon I went into the centre of Geneva to take the opportunity to meet up with my one-time sushi partner Jen for a quick coffee. She was running late so I did some window shopping and took a short bit of video of the famous “Jet”. I always think it looks more interesting in video than just a photograph. You can see just how dynamic it is.
The flight back to Luton was late-evening and it gave me a chance to have dinner at the airport. I decided to go for the fish option at the Asian Grill – stir-fried prawns with a spicy Thai basil sauce. The Swiss Franc is very strong at the moment against both the Euro and the Pound, so this simple dish cost over £20. Take note those of you who are intending to go skiing in Switzerland this coming winter!
On Thursday morning I popped into the office in Stevenage. I took the opportunity to complete this year’s online mandatory DuPont Code of Conduct training modules. Given my imminent departure this was of no benefit to either DuPont or to me, but it does benefit those people who demand ticks in boxes and can proudly announce to their bosses that all boxes are ticked. Whatever. I handed back my laptop; I wiped my BlackBerry of all its data and gave it back. My ex-team members (Alison, Teresa, Keith) and I went out for lunch (scampi and chips for me) and after paying for said lunch I gave back my Corporate Amex card.
The drive home was uneventful. It was dinner time by the time I got back and Man suggested getting a Chinese takeaway. I just couldn’t face any more fruits of the sea so I reached into the freezer and pulled out two pieces of MASSIVE lasagne to defrost. MEAT AT LAST!
It feels slightly strange after all this time to have none of the corporate “toolkit”. My desk no longer vibrates when the pocket devil picks up a message. My purse is minus one piece of plastic. There is no hideous brick which calls itself a “portable computer” cluttering up my study. Praise be to God!