Miscellany and detritus, from the writer of Is This Mutton?com

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Monday, November 29, 2010

Strictly Come Dancing:The voting has gone to pot

Erin Boag was aghast on  Twitter and so was I. Scott Maslen's zombie-like performance, complete with errors, managed to score some nines from the judges. Er, hello? Surely that's like saying "ok Ann, you did all the steps - albeit badly - so let's give you nine points for trying."

I've never seen such a blatant case of favourtism. Compare that to the reception given to Matt Baker's superb dream sequence with the ghostly and ethereal Aliona Vilani. Struggling to find fault, the judges criticised his facial expressions.I couldn't understand, and nor could many on Twitter, why he didn't score any tens.

Frankly if Scott is struggling to manage SCD with EastEnders, then he shouldn't have taken on both. I'm getting tired of the constant references to his exhaustion. Get over it or get out.

I was hoping the petulant Gavin would be shown the door last night but instead Patsy went. And she had been expecting to go right from the start. Gavin seems in constant denial. After telling us all how he hated the jive,  and then performing it as if he hated it, he then accused the judges of under-scoring it. He wasn't sitting where we were. Craig was quite right when he said Gavin was now challenging Ann Widdecombe.

Ann has clearly nailed her colours to the mast (the Titanic's) by saying she intends to make it to the final, and win. Poor Anton is in two minds now. He's always wanted to claim the glitter ball, but with Widdy?

Lest we all think the lady is a soft cuddly marshmallow granny, let me remind you that she denies climate change, opposes abortion, women priests and equal rights for homosexuals.

I'm hoping the final will feature Matt and the divine Pamela, and no doubt Widdy will be there as well. It is, a psychologist opined this week, the public getting their own back at stuffy judges.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

(Another) Amazing Lunch: The Ledbury

The Ledbury is a Michelin two star restaurant in Notting Hill, London. Chef Brett Graham started cooking in a simple fish restaurant in Newcastle, Australia, aged 15.After moving to Sydney for three years, he came to the UK and was Young Chef of the Year in 2002. The Ledbury was awarded a Michelin star in its first year, and the two stars it now has are well deserved.

Quite simply, the food is sublime!

Such amazing textures and depth of flavours. My starter of Ceviche of Hand Dived Scallops with Seaweed and Herb Oil, Kohlrabi and Frozen Horseradish danced and sang in my mouth. There was a wonderful explosion of taste and texture, with the gently thawing horseradish and the delicate aniseed flavour of the seaweed. Quite extraordinary.

Stop the Pigeon
My main course was Poached Breast and Confit Legs of Pigeon with Cevennes Onions, Foie Gras and Liquorice. The confit legs arrived on a separate plate, artfully arranged on twigs.  Now I don't normally eat offal, but the pigeon heart and foie gras, on the skewer, were so melting and delicate I would happily have devoured a flock of pigeons.
The Pigeon's confit legs
We sampled the cheese trolley before the dessert. Excellent selection of cheeses and none of that "washed in wine" nonsense. I navigated around the minefield that is a Goat Alert, although I did partake of the goat with the chef's amuse bouche, but fortunately it was very mild and not too goaty.

My dessert was Brown Sugar Tart with Muscat Grapes and Stem Ginger Ice Cream. The ginger of the ice cream was so piquant against the sweetness of the tart. A marriage made in heaven.

I would happily return to The Ledbury. Superb service, a lady Sommelier, and a beautiful room. What more could you ask for? I would put it on a par with Gidleigh Park (but more experimental), and infinitely better than the over-starred Le Manoir Quat'Saisons.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The story of the rock salt on our roads

Photo: The Salt Association
As we were eating our breakfast today, and I was driving J mad by asking what a tiger would do if it came across Molly (a much smaller and domesticated version of the species), the TV news channel was earnestly talking about salt and how councils are stocking up.

I was distracted from the tiger argument (much to J's relief) by the discovery that salt is bought from Egypt. I then Googled "wheere does road salt come from?" and it became one of those fascinating and immersing topics.

My mum, the Giz, was yesterday pricing bags of salt v grit in her local hardware store.

I discovered that rock salt has formed at various times in the geological past as a result of the drying up of the sea. The evaporating water left behind beds of sea-salt.   In northern Europe, thick deposits of rock salt were lain down during Permian imes (290 million years ago) across a wide area stretching from eastern England, under the North Sea eastwerds to the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and Poland (Poland is famous for its salt mines).

In the UK, salt of Permian age is mined in Cleveland. Younger salt beds, of Triassic age (200-250 million years old) is mined from the Cheshire basin, Cumbria and northern Ireland.

Even more fascinating, rock salt mines have the right conditions to make excellent repositories for archive documents.

And the good news is, according to the Salt Association, we're not likely to run out of salt. The UK's salt mines have about 225km (140 miles) of tunnels - almost as long as the M5 motorway. And that's without turning to countries like Spain and Egypt for supplies. All we have to hope is that our councils have learned from the lessons of earlier this year and stocked up.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

No stirring

Today is Stir Up Sunday, the day for making your own Christmas puddings. Stir Up Sunday is also the informal term for the last Sunday before Advent. Tradition has it that every member of the family should have a stir and make a wish. And the length of time before now and Christmas means the pudding has plenty of time to mellow and mature.

There won't be any stirring in my household, I'm afraid. Nobody seems to like Christmas pudding. I don't mind it because I am an absolute stickler for tradition, but this year I've bought an individual pudding from Lakeland. It isn't the round shape shown in the picture - does anyone ever make them this shape nowadays?

My mum used to occasionally make her own Christmas puddings and Christmas cake. But it was a thankless task because my elder brother didn't like nuts or peel, and the younger brother wasn't keen on marzipan.

I doubt if very many people at all will be stirring up the tradition today. A survey said this week that most of us  have no confidence about cooking, and millions of pounds' worth of home-made meals end up in the bin before they're eaten, including Christmas puddings (which cost an average of £10 to make.)

Will you be making your own pud and how do you like it served? Clotted cream was always the gold stansdard in my Devonian childhood, although I let the side down by wanting "Nestle's cream". I can't stand brandy butter and custard seems to make it a very average delight. I discovered last year you could still get a type of Nestle's cream, so I'm afraid I will be having that with my Lakeland "Billy No Mates" pudding.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Scent of a Woman

How many times have you fallen in love with the idea of something - and then found the reality doesn't deliver?

For me it was a recent experience with a perfume.

I have discovered perfume blogs - and what heaven they are! Such knowledgeable people, writing about top notes and dry downs, and so wittily and well written.

I used to be a mega perfume fan and would eagerly dash off to stores which had the first supplies of hot new releases, among them, I remember, Knowing, which I still love; Boudoir and Cabotine de Gres (pooh!).

Anyway,  most of the perfume blogs have a very good search function so I spent ages happily finding old perfumes I used to wear and reading the reviews.

I'd noticed in a couple of fiction books I was reading that the heroines seemed to be synonymous with a fragrance called Fracas. So I started looking it up.

It's in the top 10 of the world's top perfumes in the exellent book Perfumes: The A-Z guide by Tania Sanchez and Luca Turin.

I saw from blogs and comments that it's very distinctive; you have to be in the mood to wear it; it is extremely sexy. "White flower heaven,"  "class in a bottle" "rich, fragrant, captivating" are a few of the comments.

The perfume, by Robert Piguet, dates from 1948 but is available from some stores including Harrod's.

I was in a frenzy of anticipation to try it and it seemed like an eternity before I could get into Harrod's to try it.

Some of the blogs caution that you should be sparing with Fracas as it can be overpowering. So I made sure I only had a small squirt.

And what a disappointment!

Perfectly pleasant but somewhat insipid. No sign of the punch I was expecting. I recognised the smell instantly: it's hard to describe but you will have smelt it on others. I kept sniffing my wrist hoping the dry down was going to be better, but no, it faded away like a sigh.

But what this exercise did do was re-ignite my interest in perfumes. I am now reading up on the latest trends, which, folks are oud and amber, and look forward to trying new releases for Christmas. And maybe I will start to review them here.

My all-time favourites are Diorella and Knowing, both chypres. I wish Dior would bring back Diorella in eau de parfum formulation! Considering it is also in the world's top 10 fragrances, it's surprising you can only get it in eau de toilette.

I also remember nostalgically other perfumes which were all the rage when I was young, which I didn't wear at the time: Aqua Manda, Kiku (in its round yellow bottles), Anais Anais and In Love by Hartnell.  My mum's neighbour used to wear Coty's L'Aimant and we always knew when Holly our cat had been in her house because she stank of it aftewards!

Here are the perfumes of my life. What are yours?

The perfumes of my life
The first ones - pre-teen and teenage:
Pretty Peach by Avon
Sea Jade by Yardley
Midnight by Dorothy Gray
Charlie by Revlon

In my 20's
Cinnabar by Estee Lauder
L'Eau d'Issey by Issey Miyake
Chanel No 5

Chanel Cristalle
Chanel No 19
Oscar de la Renta

In my 30's
Cabotine de Gres by Gres
Lumiere by Rochas
Byzance by Rochas
Magie Noire by Lancome
Jicky by Guerlain
Violette by Penhaligon's
Diorella by Dior
Boudoir by Vivienne Westwood
Flowerbombe by Viktor & Rolf

In my 40s
Aromatics Elixir by Clinique
Eau Dynamisante by Clarins
Diorissimo by Dior
Knowing by Estee Lauder
Malabah by Penhaligon's

Some perfume blogs to visit:


Monday, November 15, 2010

The Elizabeth Hurley Diet

I am on what I call the Elizabeth Hurley diet. I am not eating the same things as La Hurley, although there has been a fair bit of intelligence about how she keeps her trim figure. A few raisins; tea plates instead of dinner plates, and trips to Holland & Barrett for "detox supplies" is what I have gleaned.

No, what I mean by the Elizabeth Hurley diet is that when I want to be tempted and eat something, I think: "would Elizabeth do that?" The answer is invariably No, because she's always getting in shape for another bikini shoot (even though she says every year she's getting too old).

I find it works a treat!

If you don't empathise with Hurley, you could perhaps try the Kate Moss diet. This centres around her statement: "Nothing tastes as good as thin feels."

Any other tips?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Autumn Walk

We had a quick walk in the forest today to appreciate the colours. For J it was also an opportunity to try his new camera and lens.


Monday, November 08, 2010

A day to remember

J with the red roses
I have wanted to go to Raymond Blanc's Le Manoir Aux Quat' Saisons for a long time, so with a milestone birthday this year I knew I had the perfect opportunity.

It was booked back in April and we finally got there yesterday, day of my birthday.

The attention to detail is second to none. The moment we arrived, staff came out to welcome us and take our cases. We were then shown straight to our room. No nonsense with checking in and presenting credit cards!

Our room, Crystal, was wonderful. We had the celebration package and a table groaned with twelve perfect Grand Prix roses, a bottle of Champagne on ice, a bottle of Madeira, hand-made chocolates and a selection of fruit.

The marbled bathroom had a huge walk-shower, a huge bath with candles and big crystal bottles of unguents plus heavenly scented slabs of soap.

We immediately went for a walk in the gardens to catch the last tentative rays of sunshine. Here is my picture of the lily pond in the Japanese garden.

There are wonderful sculptures everywhere, reclining figures, figures relaxing with books. At this time of year the main vegetables growing in the veg beds were chard, beetroot and cabbage.

After a heavenly scented bath with candles and Strictly Come Dancing (Jimi voted off -a travesty!), we had a pre-dinner apertif and perused the menu. There were three options: the decouverte tasting menu, the classic menu and the a la carte menu of seasonal specialities. We chose the latter.

Now, if I am brutally honest, I must tell you that the food didn't quite live up to expectations. One of the things I love most about haute cuisine is the complex layering of flavours and the unexpected frisson of delight when you sample something unexpected. But reader, I must tell you, the food at Le Manoir was one-dimensional. The menu promised all sorts of exotic capers but in the main one or two flavours dominated and drowned out the rest.

Cauliflower soup
Chef Gary Jones' amuse bouche was a cup and saucer of cauliflower soup, a confident start with a strong garlic truffle oil providing the oomph that cauliflower needs. 

We both chose plancha-seared Cornish lobster with warm Jersey Royal potatoes, Oscietra caviar, cardamom and red pepper jus.

Cornish lobster
My initial reaction was that the heavy hitter in the cauliflower soup was also at play here, drowning out the flavour of the lobster. J said quite spontaneously that the lobster was a little disappointing.

My duck
My main was roasted Gressingham duck breast with braised chicory and confit of yuzu fruit; jasmine tea and raisin sauce. This was ruined by the very thin sauce poured over the duck and a very powerful orange sauce. Although orange isn't mentioned anywhere, I guess yuzu fruit must taste very similar. The duck itself was a little tough and the vegetables actually quite soft.

J's beef
J fared better with sirloin of beef, which isn't shown on the online menu so I can't tell you everything it came with. In typical J fashion, he did note there could have been more potatoes.

We didn't have a dessert but went straight to the cheese board. The trolley was left languishing by our table for about 10 minutes before the waiter said "oh, looks like I'd better do this." Fortunately the cheeses were not too fragrant, otherwise it may have been a little off putting for the couple next to us.

A nice touch was the banana and passion fruit sorbet complete with candle and Happy Birthday motif for me.

Rounded off with "chocolate discovery" for me (hot chocolate) and tea for J in the lounge - which took about 30 minutes to materialise -  a thoroughly lovely experience but somehow making me think the chef has maybe become a little complacent. It was nowhere as good as Gidleigh Park in Devon, which also has two Michelin stars, where I went a few weeks ago.

Waking this morning, tea arrived dead on 8am as scheduled and breakfast was delicious. We plumped for the full English but Le Manoir excels in healthy choices with delicious fruit salads and seeds, fruits and nuts all meticulously labelled with their countries of origin. The sausage was, I am sure, 90% meat with none of that nasty rusk. 

All in all, a fabulous experience but if Le Manoir is to deliver Raymond Blanc's vision of unsurpassed customer service and gastronomy, they need to step up just a gear or two.


Tuesday, November 02, 2010

A Strictly Come Dancing travesty prepares to unfold

I have been very restrained up to now and not mentioned Strictly Come Dancing, or The Apprentice ("what's that?") once.

But now that the glitter has settled on SCD, and we know who's good and who we like and don't like, I couldn't resist adding my two'pennorth.

Strictly Come Dancing, for the benefit of my US chums, is the TV show that led to what you call "Dancing with the Stars." The UK version includes two of the judges who grace your show, Len and Bruno, plus we have the acerbic Craig Revel-Horwood - "in three words, my darling, OMG" - and the foolish former contestant and Muttley impersonator Alesha Dixon - "you was brilliant."

This year the BBC changed the rules and the public decides who goes out each week. You will remember that previously there was a dance-off between the bottom two, and then the judges decided. The hapless John Sergeant managed to survive for quite a while with the public keeping him safe, but eventually quit when he realised there was a chance he might end up in the final.

This year the judges have no decision-making power, and so I am convinced that Ann Widdecombe, the Tory MP, will make, and possibly win, the final.

I don't deny that it is very entertaining seeing the routine that Anton Du Beke creates each week. Highlights have included Ann being lowered to the floor in a harness like a gigantic flapping Dumbo, and on Saturday, in a memorable paso doble, being hurled to the floor and then bouncing  like a scene from The Dam Buster, followed by Anton swinging her around like a sack of potatoes (pictured.)

It is, as Len said on It Takes Two, rather like a motorway crash when you're on the other side of the road but you can't help looking.

I'm sure the BBC changed the rules to encourage more votes to make more money. Many people are obviously keen to keep Ann in, and unlike John Sergeant, she doesn't seem abashed about not being very good.

But we need to remind ourselves this is a dance competition, and there are contestants who are fabulously good, and amaze us with their stunning routines each week. I don't think it will be fair if Widdecombe wins at the expense of Scott Maslen, Jimi Mistry, Pamela Stephenson or Matt Baker, all outstanding in my view. And bravo to Pamela for showing that women over the age of 60 can still be vibrant, sexy and fabulous.
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