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Glorious Apples and autumn faggots

Tuesday, November 14th, 2006

This is something we did a few weeks ago, but today I’m cooking with apples, so I thought I take the opportunity to talk about them, and some other glorious autumn foods.

When thinking of apples, I’m thinking of England, and more specifically the orchards which surround my in-laws house in Kent. Of course, apples are also associated with American pies and childhood memories of Germany, but dare I say, nowhere are more varieties found than in the UK. The climate in England specifically is the best in the world for apples. In the West Dean Estate in Sussex alone, over a hundred varieties are grown.

West Dean Garden Appletree

I’ve always thought that so many varieties of a particular food points to a native crop, but the same is true for spuds, and what it rather points to is the rich horticultural history of this country. The kitchen garden was at the heart of any Victorian estate and the head gardener’s proudest achievement. In West Dean Gardens, an astonishing variety of fruit and vegetables are on display at this time of year, mainly left to rot on the plant. I must confess that I had itchy fingers, but it would be a pity to take away from this bounty and spoil the enjoyment of other visitors.

Gourds and figs grow against sunny brick walls. In front of others, staggering arrays of tomatoes are heavy with fruit—the heat reflecting back at them helps to produce a crop which could have come straight from the Mediterranean. There are lush cabbages, beans and onions in dense, green rows, and leeks as thick as my arm. An entire greenhouse is devoted to chillis, the plants lining the walkway with a gaudy array of green, red, purple and yellow—even black. In other greenhouses, bulging peppers, aubergines and even avocados are produced, the latter on trees that stretch to the roof. It was a matter of pride for the Victorian kitchen gardener to grow pineapples in heated greenhouses. Nor did any of the crop go to waste: storage cellars ensured an even temperature of around eight degrees.

West Dean Entrance to Kitchen Garden

But back to the apples. They didn’t originate in central Europe. In fact apples originate in the Tien Shan ‘Mountains of Heaven’ in Krygyztan. Their astonishing variety is due to the ability of every pip to produce a different kind, in theory (only a few will produce edible apples at all). Two new varieties which I tasted during the West Dean Garden ‘Apple Affair’ last month—’Golden Blush’ and ‘Falstaff’—are not yet available to the public. No doubt, next year there will be others.

Apple tree closeup

In the crudest sense, apples divide into ‘eaters’ (dessert apples) and ‘cookers’. Then of course there are the many idiosyncratic varieties employed in cider and scrumpy making, which ensures that no two farms down the road in Devon or Somerset produce the same kind, and there aren’t enough names to label them all. Neither is the division between ‘eaters’ and ‘cookers’ absolute, because of course ‘cookers’ are used in desserts (they make the fluffiest baked apples, as they tend to disintegrate) and they say that the best apple sauce contains a mixture of both. I can’t attest to that. In our household, apple sauce is mainly used to complement roast pork or red cabbage, and for both, Bramleys are the apples of choice.

Apple orchard display

Which brings me back to the cooking thing. I’ve already posted a recipe for red cabbage. It is usually eaten with rich stews, particularly game, and I always make it with the Christmas goose. Today, I’m having it with faggots.

Apple display

The faggots which our newly-found Newbury butcher (think home-made free-range Scotch Eggs!) provides, look nothing like the frozen variety I’ve seen before. For one, they are wrapped in caul fat. This means, they have to be roasted first. They are then served with swede and potato mash and onion gravy. For the mash, use 1/3 to 1/2 swede and add the zest of one orange to bring out the flavour. Fastidious cooks also reduce some orange juice. For the onion gravy, finely slice a lot of red onions, place them in dripping and slowly braise them, covered, for two hours. Take the lid off for the last twenty minutes to allow the liquid to evaporate, then fry them off. Red wine or stout is often added, and a good beef stock. I’m adding thyme- and garlic-fried mushrooms, carrot and celery and place the faggots and onions in the gravy to heat through, treating the whole thing more like a stew.

Those Pesky Accents

Sunday, November 12th, 2006

This is a cross-posting from my LJ writer’s blog

You may have noted that I tend to write ‘café’, rather than
‘cafe’. Writing HTML or TeX documents with accents or umlaute is a
pain, but there’s a handy list of special characters
and you’ll find that it’s amazingly easy, once you get used to it.

But some people don’t see why they should get used to it.

I can see the point with regard to fully anglicised words. A
coffeeshop is now known as a cafe, and why should it have a French
accent? But I still write ‘café’, maybe because my own
language has taught me the use of proper accents and umlaute.

However, this isn’t all. There are increasing cases of outright
language fascism where words are written without the right
spelling—which can change their meaning and does change the way they
sound. Recently, a member of the rasfic group asked for a
German translation of a word and then ranted that she never bothers
with umlaute. Charles Stross has written at least one book (‘The
Iron Sunrise’) which omits umlaute for his deliciously OTT
‘Über’ villains—a book, which I presume has passed across the
desk of an editor, and which I’m almost certain will be translated
into German. Not that editors are immune from language fascism or
that ignorance is a valid excuse. The editor of the 2004 ‘Waitrose
Food Illustrated’ Christmas edition (which is part of my foodie
magazine collection) clearly struggled with his conscience before
deciding to allow the ‘ø’ into ‘Stykkishølmur’ in a
feature about the Icelandic town. He dedicated his entire editorial
to it (‘…where the hell do you find it on the keyboard? I have to admit that I was flummoxed and called for Technical Support.’ Oh, purleeze. Is it a wonder nobody wants to man
the helpdesks?) Not satisfied with that, he continued to rant that
he didn’t have a clue about how to pronounce it. Is it helpful if I
say that ø sound a little but like ö?

Out with language fascism. It should be a requirement for all
English speakers to learn at least one foreign language from
primary school
. Perhaps, that way they would also learn respect
for other languages

(Only 877 words yesterday, but on the Zaurus on a crowded train!)

Autumn Colours

Thursday, November 9th, 2006

My sister is visiting today. It means I won’t get anything written, but it doesn’t matter. This morning, we had glorious sunshine (now it’s 4 pm and already getting dark) and we went for a walk in the woods.

Here are some of the colours.

Fern in Autumn Forest

Fungus on branch

Green and autumn shrubs

Looming Flu Pandemic?

Wednesday, November 8th, 2006

I feel a rant coming on. A potential spanner has been thrown into my travel plans/emigration dreams, similar to the one that had me worried about my trip to SE Asia last year.

This is the time of year that, invariably, Bird Flu gets talked up in the press. It’s not in the news as much as last autumn, but lest we grow complacent, yesterday ‘Horizon’ featured a movie-length episode about the course and consequence of a pandemic caused by a ‘humanised’ H5N1 virus (will that still be haemaglutinin 5-neuroamidase 1, or are we talking a different subtype?)

Don’t get me wrong: the risk is very real and the consequences are dire.

What rubs me up the wrong way is how such an event is dealt with.

For starters, too much hope is placed on Tamiflu and similar drugs—to the delight of the companies who hold the patents, no doubt. Tamiflu is not ‘to viruses what antibiotics are [used to be] to bacteria’. It’s efficacy against H-whatever-N1 isn’t clear. So far, it does not seem to have made much difference to those who actually got sick.

But even if the drugs protect us from infection, we will run out of stockpiles and then the fun starts. Horizon got that right.

The next thing that bothers me is that at long last it has filtered into the medical group mind that fatalities are primarily due to an overreaction by the immune system, as was the case for the 1918 influenza pandemic: it was the young and fit who tended to die. Now they’ve even given it a buzzword. The H5N1 virus appears to cause a ‘cytokine storm’, a phenomenon recently made famous by the TGN1412 scandal.

“Once that happens”, the docs were quoted as saying, “there is nothing we can do.” Wrong. There is plenty they can do, but medics are notoriously uncomfortable with thinking out of the box. I was just looking up the basic scientific leads which I myself have on this sort of thing (and which I would be applying for grants to look into if I still had a lab, although it would be a bit of a long shot) when—bugger me, I see that people have already been working on this for years (the link offers just one example, plenty of smaller biotech companies are sniffing the air). Yes, it is a long way from mice to humans, but apparently, some treatments for the cytokine release syndrome are already available. Treating the syndrome is just not recommended by the WHO which still pimps antivirals that don’t have much of a beneficial effect at this stage.

However, it doesn’t help when sensationalist, self promoting crackpots get involved. The woman may actually have something to say, but she is addressing the wrong people. This sort of thing tends to cause the people who issue treatment recommendations to sneer.

The final part of my rant concerns vaccines. Yes, it will be a while before they become available, many months in fact, and part of the reason is the use of outmoded technology in vaccine production. But, say that in the end we have a working vaccine—even with flat-out, problem-free (ha!) production, there will only be enough for a fraction of the population. Even worse, comparatively high doses of H5N1 antigen are required when compared to ordinary flu jabs (H5N1 has to serve for trials since we—fortunately—don’t have the ‘humanised’ strain, yet).

Unless, that is, you add an adjuvant. But would you believe it? There was initial resistance against this, until eventually the widely-used alum adjuvant was trialled, with mixed results. Squabbling has already delayed the research effort and pharmaceutical companies entering the trial races with their ‘top-secret, non-disclosure’ formulations are doing nothing to help the human race prepare for the onslaught. They don’t even have the capacity to roll out enough product, should they come up trumps. But at least, new trials are in progress. Good that the pandemic hasn’t hit yet, because two years ago, we weren’t as prepared as we are now. We’re not prepared now, either.

People say we’re living in the 21st century—why has so little progress been made? They won’t accept that there could be a plague in this day and age. Alas, the scientific research effort tends to be reactionary. Since auditors and shareholders got excited about the economic consequences/benefits of a world-wide pandemic, a lot of progress has been (is being) made. Just not by basic science ‘blue sky’ academics who lack the means, funded by governments who lack the will. I hope that in future, that will change (with Labour in power, apparently things have much improved in the UK, but I wouldn’t know. My last job was funded by industry).

What does all this have to do with travel? It is us—travellers—who will spread this disease across the globe in a matter of weeks. When it hits, stay at home.

Surveillance Society

Thursday, November 2nd, 2006

Britain is `sleep walking into a surveillance society’. We now have a CCTV camera for every 14 inhabitants. We also have creeping surveillance on every level. We’re in the bottom five of a 36-nation survey on privacy protection, along with China and Malaysia.

Nice one.

I just had to comment on that on the BBC ‘have your say’ website . Too many people have the ‘I’m innocent, so I have nothing to hide/fear’ attitude—which is just staggering in its naïvity.

Look back a little on this blog, under ‘Tadley Times’, and you might come across the odd entry about demonstrations at our Friendly Neighbourhood Atomic Weapons Establishment (which quietly works on replacing Britain’s ageing Trident system—non-proliferation treaty or not. Such things make it hard to speak out against nations such as North Korea and Iran who have similar ambitions).

Attending peace marches and similar activities can be covered by anti-terror legislation.

We all have something to fear. They will come for you, one day, if we let them.

Incidentally, I had to give my full name and town (fair enough), email and phone number before I could place my comment. Hands up anyone who reckons that this comment won’t appear on the site, because I used a spamgourmet address ;). Yep, thought so. Another comment I made (as an ex-user of Seroxat) also never appeared.


Look over here for continued NaNoWriMo madness. I hope to eventually get back to moderating. For now, the story’s under control, but in the mornings, writing takes precedence because just looking at the boards would mean I won’t get back to it in a hurry. If it wasn’t for the brilliant Free Dictionary, I wouldn’t even dial in.