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

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Friday, May 27, 2011

Getting ready for Greece

Now....are  you a last minute holiday booker, or do you book a long time in advance?
I am very much in the latter camp. The summer holiday is always booked in January, when it's a bit flat after Christmas, and I then have several months to get ready. And progressively more excited. Preparation includes losing a few pounds (I buy clothes in a smaller size to make sure I do it) and accumulating various items and clothes. 

Top of the list:
- a new basket. It goes to the pool or beach with me along with a towel, ipod, earphones, sun lotions, comb, Kindle, etc. This year's basket  (left) was bought on a visit to my Mum's in Plymouth and was produced by the RHS.

- a new set of matching sponge bag and cosmetic and make-up bags
- At least 12 books: I usually read one a day on holiday. Thank goodness for the Kindle. It was no fun carrying 12 books.

- new flip flops and silver sandals.

- three new Saress(es) with a matching hat and hat band  (yes I know.....) These are  a great invention and ideal for wearing from pool to lunch. Unlike pareos or sarongs, these are very easy to put on and always look nice.

This year's wash bag

- sun lotions when they are two for the price of one, or half price. They're a complete rip off when you buy them abroad.

Once at the resort the first thing we buy is a lilo.  It gets left behind at the end of the holiday for someone else to enjoy.   I wonder what this year's lilo trend is?

I did a last minute holiday once, when I was living in Munich. A friend and I went to the airport and bought a holiday to Crete which was departing in three days. It was very cheap and the view from the room was the air conditoning plant. After that I resolved I would always try to book early when you have lots of choice. What's your approach?


Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Sublime dining at Dinner by Heston

A new entry in the Gail Top Ten Restaurants is Dinner by Heston - straight in at number two. Quite surprising when you consider that I am no lover of molecular dining. But this isn't Heston Blumenthal's normal gig. I've been to the Fat Duck, his Michelin two starred restaurant at Bray, and while the tasting menu is a fascinating experience, I will not, on Death Row, ask for smokey bacon ice-cream or snail porridge as my final repast.

What's different about Dinner, his new venture at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in London, is that he has lovingly recreated old English recipes; giving thrilling twists to some and simply enhancing others, while using the best produce.

What makes the restaurant so special is the combination of wonderful food with a beautiful room; a fantastic view of Hyde Park, and the most passionate and knowledgeable staff I've ever encountered.

So many fine dining restaurants are spoilt for me by pretentious legions of snooty waiters. At Le Gavroche, for example, you have a whole flotilla of people serving you: someone for the bread, the water, the wine, the food. Woe betide you if you ask the bread waiter for water. Meanwhile, at the other scale, there are restaurants where you are left languishing. Where, for example, the next course arrives before the plates have been cleared away. None of that at Dinner.

For starters, I should have chosen what's quickly become the star of the menu -Meat Fruit (left), circa 1500, which contains mandarin and chicken liver parfait. How stunning it looks (and tastes, I was assured) - this mandarin shaped feast of smooth parfait. Instead I chose marrowbone, circa 1720, accompanied by parsley, anchovy and mace and pickled vegetables (right).

I was evidently so carried away with the main course I forgot to photograph it! I had a recipe dating from 1830 of roast turbot with cockle ketchup and chicory. And chips. Because here you are allowed to have chips and it's not a disgrace: also butter. I was recently at another place where the waiter snootily informed me they didn't provide butter "for health reasons." Unbelievably pompous given that a lot of people (myself included) only indulge in butter when we're in a restaurant.

Anyway, I digress. For pudding it had to be the baked lemon suet pudding, circa 1630, (left), with lemon, caramel and Jersey cream. To be honest, this was the most disappointing course. I remembered suet puddings from childhood being quite light. This had more the texture of pastry than sponge. I wished I'd perhaps had tipsy cake or summer tart instead.

With pudding we had a delicious rosebud tea. Instead of the usual menu of dessert wines and coffees, we were offered a tea menu. It reminded me of the challenge on The Apprentice where they had to source camomile flower tea and were offered a crate of it for £900. To the credit of the Dinner waitress, she explained that the most expensive tea was quite smokey and a definitely acquired taste. Such honesty is rare in the pursuit of filthy lucre. The rose tea, fat with rosebuds, was wonderfully delicate, and they refill the pot with hot water as many times as you like.

So - Dinner with Heston. So good I will go back with J, very soon. Or as soon as we can get a reservation. It  is booked solid for months.

Gail's Top 10 Restaurants (with links to my blog where I reviewed them)
1. Gidleigh Park, Devon
2. Dinner by Heston
3. Scott's
4. Caldesi in Campagna, Bray
5. TheWolseley
6. Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons
7. The Orrery
8. Benares
9. Hix Oyster & Chop House
10. E4

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Some flotsam and jetsam

Hoorah for Princess Beatrice!
Showing the judgment and humour that has sadly eluded her parents all their life, Princess Beatrice has sold her much maligned RW hat on eBay, to raise money for charity. Could it be that Beatrice is going to show common sense and realism, in spite of her parents? Only a few days ago, Sarah, Duchess of York, was still spouting incomprehensible psycho-babble. "If I had a brand identity, it would be as a global mother." ??? Beatrice said she hoped whoever bought the hat would have as much fun with it as she had.

And hoorah for Twitter while we're about it
So many amusing tweets about the Premiership footballer and his affair with a Big Brother wannabe. There was talk that Ryan Giggs' solicitors were going to sue the 30,000 people on Twitter who had breached the Super Injunction (yep, that includes me). Another wag wrote that Ryan Giggs appears to be the only celebrity not being sued by the "mystery Premiership footballer".

I can't imagine the US owners of Twitter are quaking in their boots knowing that a few plummy English lawyers are apoplectic about their new cash cow, the Super Injunction, being proved worthless.  What can they actually do? They can hardly force the closure of Twitter. I for one am laughing at the way we, the good old British public, is having a laugh at the foibles of a foolish man who tried to cover up his folly by splashing the cash.

The unpredictable nature of cosmetic surgery
No wonder Sarah Jessica Parker has said she won't have cosmetic surgery because she doesn't want to end up looking mad. This week's photos of Marie Helvin, who has always maintained she's had nothing done (yeah, right) show her starting to look somewhat deranged. You'd think that with access to the best plastic surgeons that California has to offer, some of the maturing filmstars wouldn't look quite so dreadful. Faye Dunaway, for example, or Melanie Griffith  (although thankfully she is a little more restrained these days). It seems a bit of a lottery. You can either look wonderful, like Jane Fonda, Sharon Stone or Demi Moore, or rather weird, like Madonna, Cher, the Bride of Wildenstein and Ivana Trump. It's a pity they don't have a ratings system, like guest houses or Trip Advisor. Maybe that's a great idea for a new website.

Friday, May 20, 2011

From Vanda to Valderma

I was whiling away an hour, not drunkenly like Morrissey, but playing a favourite game which is: Googling nostalgic names from childhood.

It usually starts with long forgotten beauty products that dimly ring a bell. For example: Anne French cleansing lotion, which was the first cleanser I ever used. You can still buy it and it's cheap as chips. That got me thinking about Anne French Glow 5, a face mask. And then a luxury brand that disappeared in the early 80s, Charles of the Ritz.  My first ever eye cream, bought in Exmouth, was a Charles of the Ritz.

Then I looked up Vanda Beauty Counselor. (One L, it's American). Goodness knows how I remember this, but when I was about seven, I heard my mum saying that one of the neighbours was a rep for Vanda Beauty Counselor. I have Googled them previously and it was as if it was a figment of my imagination. But they must have got Internet savvy fairly recently because I found them! (Very poor website by the way and unlike Avon they don't sell online: you still have to see the rep).

Next up was old perfumes - discontinued ones. I'm obsessed. My mum's favourite was Memoire Cherie by Elizabeth Arden. Then they come in rapid succession: Yardley Prelude (I bought her a Prelude talc from the local chemist when I was about 10), Helena Rubinstein Apple Blossom, Avon Elusive, Moonwind and Occur!  (I just loved the exclamation mark).

From scent to soap, and I was thrilled to find you can still buy Valderma and Cidal soaps, which I tried as a teenager to get rid of spots. But not Albion Milk of Sulphur Soap. Lemon Delph cleanser has long since disappeared, as has Linco Beer shampoo (do you remember, it came in a barrel?).

I mentioned all this to my mum - we're frequently texting - and she challenged me to find a drink that my Gran was very partial to. "Odds on Cocktail."  I found an ad for it. It's always a bit of a eureka moment, isn't it? Whatever did we do without the Internet?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

In search of a grubbing mattock

A "before" shot
When we bought our house six years ago, the back garden didn't need too much attention. The previous owners obviously knew their stuff and had created a wide border with a few trees and shrubs to shelter the garden, a decking area and a small lawn.

Gradually though the trees had become too big - particularly two awful leylandii - and part of the garden was subsequently always in shade. Ivy was rampant, no matter how much we tried to hack it back. So we decided to rip everything out.

Quite a shock when it finally happened. It's amazing how much bigger the garden looks. But also very bare and unwelcoming. The fence in particular is suddenly exposed, without its ivy coat, and looks ghastly.

The plan is to keep it fallow for a year, except for planting two trees in the autumn. Two small trees: I'm thinking an apple tree and a medlar.

In the meantime we'll be building up the soil and removing the ivy as it reappears. Which requires a special implement. Today J was on a mission: he wanted to get a grubbing mattock  (which I was mistakenly calling a grubbing matlock, as in Glen Matlock from the Sex Pistols). We visited B&Q, Homebase and Focus, but no such tool to be found. It eventually turned up in Wickes. Resembling a pickaxe, it was used by the professionals when they removed the roots.

Rose "Scepter'd Isle" from front garden
I'd love to create an English cottage garden, with delphiniums, lupins, hollyhocks, stocks, Sweet William, lobelia at the front. I'm also very taken with Monty Don's "jewel garden." And for me, you can never have too many roses. Our front border is looking splendid with the rose bushes groaning with blooms. Example on the left. Those roses are all pink, but in memory of my dad Stamps, I would like to acquire an old rose he loved, a red rose called "Ena Harkness," and plant it at the back.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Leave Eugenie and Beatrice alone

Will it ever stop? The endless jokes and tittle tattle about Princesses Eugenie and Beatrice, ever since they wore slightly less than flattering outfits (Eugenie) and headgear (Beatrice) at the Royal Wedding last week.

Today hatter Philip Treacy justifies the title "mad as...." by defending Beatrice's titfer.

The wretched hat has several Facebook sites.

Jibes about the hat are more or less fairly benign and humorous. But I imagine the girls - both very young - are hurt by the comments about their oufits and everything else that has been coming under attack. They both wore sensational outfits at the party following the wedding. Eugenie in particular looked stunning in a corseted black Vivienne Westwood number.

Eugenie in another shocker
Remember we've all made style faux pas, particularly in our 20s. I've shared photos of mine on this very blog. So give the girls a break. The last thing we want is that they get lumbered with hideous complexes as their poor mother was. My only advice to the girls would be to find another milliner. One with their best interests at heart.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Fletcherising and fossils

The Internet has been an absolute gift to me as an inveterate searcher of trivia and facts. I'm able to satisfy any cravings for knowledge at the click of a mouse, and with my trusty smartphone, can even do it in the middle of the night as has been known.

Last night, for some reason, I remembered an elderly man I once interviewed when I was working as a gauche young reporter at BBC Radio Devon. His name was Edwin Beer and he was over 100. His great age, and the secrets of longevity, was the reason for the interview.

He was the first to use the disabled lift at our newish Exeter headquarters and was a fantastic raconteur. He told me that the secret to his longevity - and he was the second oldest man in Britain when he died at age 107 in 1986 - was Fletcherising.

This is the practice of chewing your food 32 times before swallowing, made popular in the early 1930s by Horace Fletcher.

Well, having remembered Edwin Beer, I began feverishly searching the web to see what I could learn about him. To start with I wasan't doing very well. There was a famous urologist called Edwin Beer and a famous sculptor called Edwin Beer Fishley. But recalling that he had told me he was involved with the invention of the fake silk, rayon, I broadened my search and found a reference to him at the Devon county council website, where it named a book he wrote in 1968, The Beginning of Rayon: Corrigenda and Supplement.

Knowing now that his full name was Edwin John Beer, formerly of Paignton, I discovered an article from an issue of Geology Today in 1989 which described the Edwin Beer Collection.

Leicester University had become the lucky recipient of a large collection of geological specimens. The collection was formed over a long period by Edwin Beer (1879 - 1986) and was donated by his widow Phoebe. "Beer had led an active and eventful life. He was by profession a chemist and was a pioneer in perfecting the process for making artificial fibres."

Searching Leicester University turned up no additional clues. My search on Edwin Beer's remarkable life seems to have ended for the time, with no photographs gleaned. Stay tooned for the next instalment.

I've just bought the book for £6.50 on ebay!

Sunday, May 01, 2011

The story behind our bank holidays

As we prepare for another bank holiday tomorrow, I was musing on the history of bank holidays. 

May Day may have its roots in ancient pagan rites of spring, but its place in the calendar as a bank holiday is fairly modern. It was the creation of Michael Foot in 1978. Britain was one of the last countries in Europe to celebrate May Day. It's a big deal in other countries. When I lived in Munich, I enjoyed the May Day revels in a town called Wolfratshauzen. Everyone dressed in leiderhausen and a good number of steins were consumed.

Bavaria has some of the most elaborate maypole traditions. Trees are cut down a day or two before the festival, stripped of bark and polished. Sometimes soap is added to make them extra slick. Men then race up these 40-foot poles to retrieve pretzels and sausages hanging from the top. The climbers can only apply ash, pinesap or tar to their hands to get a better grip.
Bavarian villagers also try to steal another town's maypole while protecting their own. If a maypole is stolen, it is held for ransom until the victimized village offers kegs of beer for its safe return.

Read more: Maypole Traditions in Germany | eHow.com http://www.ehow.com/about_5445553_maypole-traditions-germany.html#ixzz1L5C0e8XX
Each village has its own community maypole which is decorated with icons signifying the history and main occupation of the region - for example brewing. The poles are fierecely guarded because if a neighbouring village "steals" your flagpole, the penalty is having to buy everyone a drink.

The future of our own May Day is looking doubtful. The government is considering scrapping the May Day Bank Holiday and creating a new public holiday in April or October.

The second bank holiday in May, now referred to as "Spring bank holiday", always used to be known as Whitsun when I was a child.
Whitsun, old English for "White Sunday", is the forty-ninth day (seventh Sunday) after Easter Sunday. In the Christian calendar, it is also known as Pentecost -commemorating the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples.

A little-known fact about bank holidays is that there is a fixed number of them - six  in England plus the public holidays of Christmas and Boxing Day - and we don't have an automatic right to paid leave on these days. Any right to time off or extra pay for working on a bank holiday depends on the terms of your contract of employment. That's why small businesses tend to get quite annoyed when "new" bank holidays are granted, like the one on Friday for the Royal; Wedding, and everyone assumes it's another day off.

When the usual date of a bank or public holiday falls on a Saturday or Sunday, a 'substitute day' is given, normally the following Monday. For example in 2009, Boxing Day was on Saturday, 26 December, so there was a substitute bank holiday on Monday, 28 December. This doesn't always happen in other countries. In Germany, they often have a bad year for public holidays when they all fall at the weekend. They don't then get a day off in lieu. Unusually bad organisation for the Germans!
Next year the late May bank holiday will be moved to Monday 4 June 2012 and an additional Jubilee bank holiday will be on Tuesday 5 June 2012.
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