An unexpected gem – a restaurant review

Argentina: the land of silver, known worldwide for its mercurial economy, iconic footballers, enormous grasses, sexy dances, silky Malbecs and cattle, and best known in Britain for a minor territorial dispute and a musical exhortation for it not to shed any tears for its former first lady.

As world cuisines go, Argentine hadn’t really registered as something I had to try; being famous for beef landed it somewhere near Texan on my radar, and while I like a good steak as much as the next part-time vegetarian, a steak is a steak.  Argentina is a surprisingly big country (eighth in the world, no less) and given the wildly erratic geography and climate – from balmy tropics in the north and lofty, dry mountains in the west to penguin territory in the far south – it is difficult to imagine a coherent national cuisine.  Indeed the country is best known, much as its southern hemisphere rugby cousins are, for barbecued meat, that staple of countries with better climates than ours.

So it was perhaps an unusual choice for a recent meal out when my wife and I descended upon an Argentine restaurant in the lovely town of Guildford, a short commute from London.  We were in the area to complete the takeover of a new enterprise: an online jewellery retailer, which my wife will run, having departed the teaching profession before Easter (and therefore having been able to enjoy the Easter holidays fully for the first time in four years).  The takeover activities taking a full day to complete, we needed no further excuse to get some time away from the kids, and stayed locally before and after.

Guildford is one of those preposterously affluent places that cause northerners to tut and shake their heads in disbelief, that short commute from London combining with its aesthetic qualities to make it exceedingly desirable.  Our hotel was only a five minute walk from the restaurant, in which time we walked past no less than half a dozen estate agents, one in particular populated by young men who looked like City traders, braces and Bluetooth headsets presumably worn primarily to create rapport with their target audience.  We noticed a solitary retail property that was not currently tenanted in the whole of the town centre, with no sign of a Wilkinson’s or a Peacocks or a Primark; a modest breakfast for two each morning returned us shrapnel from £20 in two different cafés, both of which were distinctly average.  We might then have been expecting to pay through the nose for a decent meal, but a quick survey of the town centre restaurants before our visit had suggested the contrary, and having given up trying to book at a Thai due to a distinctly annoying website we instead rocked up at Cau.

Cau have a small chain of restaurants across the south east (five in total, with an additional venue in Amsterdam), and this might once have put me off, but I am gaining the opinion that a small chain can actually be a very positive sign.  A successful one-off can be replicated a few times before it hits a critical mass, and you start to dilute the personality of the founders in the committee necessary to run an enterprise of significant size.  I don’t yet know what that number is, but it’s more than three (I am very fond of Tom Brown’s and siblings) and less than 27 (I loved Brown’s in Oxford when I first came across it, and although the branches in Cambridge and Nottingham are reasonable, it has somewhat lost that edge for me).

Walking into the Guildford chapter, you get an immediate sense of a clean, modern eatery; I am no themed diner, it whispers, I am here to give you serious food.  The décor is possibly stark to some sensibilities but I very much liked the simple black and silver design, and the staff were immediately attentive and friendly but without being either over-familiar or overly pressing.  We went on a Sunday evening and the ground floor (twenty or so tables) was pretty full; they also had a mezzanine level that looked as big again, although that was not open.  Even the staff T-shirts proclaiming them to be Cauboys and Caugirls were somehow classy rather than twee.

And so to the food: it is rare that I can read through a menu and be tempted by over half of it; even at Tom Brown’s I normally immediately dismiss a third and then narrow down my choice to a couple of dishes in each course fairly quickly.  At Cau, however, there was only one dish on the whole menu I would not have happily eaten.  My innate indecisiveness would generally cause this to have presented an enormous problem, as I dither and worry until the waitress bullies me into a decision that I immediately regret, and suffer inevitable envy as someone else’s dinner turns out to have been far more appealing than my own.  However, as I’ve touched upon more than once in the past, there is a simple but brilliant answer to this: tapas.  Cau actively encourage you to take several of their lighter plates, tapa-style, and we happily ceded to their professional judgment.

Argentina’s specialty being steak, a goodly chunk of the menu was devoted to beef dishes.  What I was most surprised at however was the range of options available to vege- and pescetarians.  For such a meat-based cuisine, it was pleasing that the alternatives didn’t feel like just alternatives; non-meat options weren’t just there as something to ensure those accompanying the carnivores didn’t go hungry, as I’ve found in more down-market venues basing themselves on cuisine from the Americas or Antipodes.

I only actually had a single meat dish, and it had to be beef: Yebra-smoked, with soy and wasabi (not sure how authentically Argentine either of those ingredients are, but who cares as long as they work).  This was joined by salt and pepper squid (not rubbery at all), a creamy-soft aubergine lasagne (no pasta), salmon and haddock fishcakes with a lemo mayo so moreish I was eating it off the knife after the fishcakes were gone, a mini swordfish kebab with more soy and wasabi, a rocket and parmesan salad and a plate of the most delicious peas I have ever eaten, cooked with shallot, the merest hint of mint and a dab of chilli.

My only regret was not being able to enjoy a lovely, smooth Malbec, given the importance of the following day’s work; I shall look forward to rectifying that on another occasion as I will certainly be coming back if I return to Guildford in the future.

 

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Wealth hatred

Investment bankers, as we all know, earn a disgusting amount of money.  When you think how many nurses could be employed for the same amount as a top fund manager pulls in, it’s clear that there is a fundamental imbalance in society.  Nobody truly earns that much money; nor could anybody really need that much money.  It is thoroughly unfair.

At least, so goes the popular mantra, and it’s very understandable why.  Nobody was interested in what bankers earned before the credit crunch; but once the rug was pulled from under the economy, we needed someone to blame, a poster boy for the evil that is money (or rather, lack of it), and those pesky bankers filled the role very nicely.  The numbers on their pay slips were sufficiently beyond the comprehension of most of us to be unjustifiable, and thorough reform – at the very least – was demanded loudly and repeatedly by those with a platform from which to so do.

It isn’t just the size of the wage that is beyond most people’s comprehension though; feeding this righteous ire is also a lack of understanding of what investment bankers do.  It has always been the case that money begets money; those with money will always want it to work for them.  This is true of us all however, and is just a question of scale.  Most people with savings will have looked at various alternatives at some point, and the main selling point of any investment is what you get in return – the interest rate.  Countering that is an evaluation of the risk – those who once had Icelandic savings account will understand this more than most.  You want the highest interest possible – the maximum return on your investment – but with the minimum risk, and somewhere in the middle is a balance which satisfies the majority.

In a nutshell, this is what investment bankers do, but on a macro scale, and at a level far removed from most individual savers.  It affects the vast majority of people through their company pensions, ISAs or even child trust funds.  All these investments could be put in a National Savings account, which would make them about as safe as it’s possible to be; but because of that, you’d get very little interest.  So instead you place your trust in a financial institution, who assure you that they can do better for you than that.  And because a savings account that promises us a 6% return is always going to be more attractive than one that offers 4%, the banks do everything they can to make that return as high as possible, without undermining the bank’s ability to trade.  It’s that risk versus return decision again that we all make with our own savings, but on a much larger scale, and with millions of people’s money, not just yours.

It is natural then that you would want someone looking after this money who knows the financial markets well enough to be able to get the most money back for the smallest risk.  Considering that every financial institution is going to want the best fund managers, so they can offer they highest interest rates, they will compete to make sure they get them.  That competition means that the rewards on offer will be high; disgustingly high, to most people.  But ask yourself a question: would you prefer to entrust your money to the best person at the job, or the 10th best, or the 1000th best?  And, if you were among the best in the world at what you do for a living, and another company came along and offered you twice as much to do exactly the same job, would you turn it down?

This same model applies everywhere; the best sales people, the best builders, the best pilots, the best scientists, the best store managers, all of these people will rise up their professions to the level their skills allow, and the thing that drives them up is, fundamentally, money.  They might characterise it in different ways: giving the best opportunities to their children, ensuring they have an early and/or comfortable retirement, having more holidays so they can spend quality time with loved ones.  Ultimately though these things are the result of money.  The only difference in banking is that the returns are so high that the industry is prepared to pay the right people comparatively large amounts.  If you have a billion pounds to invest, the difference between the 10th best fund manager and the 1000th best might mean your investments earn £5 million less in a year, so to a bank it would be worth spending a million more to ensure the top 10 guy works for them rather than the competition.  What is absolutely clear is that there needs to be controls in place to prevent individual bankers taking excessively risky decisions, but paying them less overall isn’t the answer.

Since the start of the credit crunch there has been a worrying and increasing tendency to analyse the salaries of anyone in the public eye.  I say analyse; that suggests a level of inquisitiveness into how those salaries are made up, and why they are at the level they are, which actually is not the case at all.  The trend is more to use them as a stick to stir up what I can only describe as wealth hatred.  It isn’t about class: most Premiership footballers would describe themselves as working class, and they are subject to the same green-tinged commentary on their “obscene” pay packets as the aforementioned bankers.  Newspapers have started suffixing salaries in the same way as ages: instead of “the CEO of Suchandsuch.com, John Smith, 58” we are now seeing “the CEO of Suchandsuch.com, John Smith, who is paid £6m a year” when there is absolutely no relevance to the story.  Even when the article is about something like front-line employee salaries, publishing the salary of the head of the organisation is a misleading ploy: the individual concerned will, in most cases, be in the position they are in due to hard work and talent; their opinion is more valid, not less, as a result of their experience and expertise, for which they are – rightly – well paid.

Ambition and aspiration are fundamental aspects of human nature and development, and we are lucky enough to live in a society and a time that, broadly, reward hard work and aptitude.  While it is right that we should regulate the extremes of the few to avoid placing the good of the many into peril, equally we should not persecute or judge those people who have talents which allow them to bring home more bacon than the rest of us.

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Auf wiedersehen, pet…

Today I ended one of the most tumultuous relationships I’ve ever experienced.  She was a real beauty to behold, a model with a new look; German, pale and sleek, in the full flush of youth, refined, confident, just a little bit flashy, and – unusually – better looking from the front than the rear.  I once thought she would be mine for many years, but I can’t afford to have her around any more; although not what you might consider high maintenance, I just can’t justify keeping her at the moment – there is too much else going on.

Our relationship began in a somewhat unorthodox manner when I drowned her sister on a cold, rainy night in North Yorkshire back in September 2012; perhaps it says something dark about me when I recall that the thing that still hurts most from that evening was the loss of the finest pair of suede boots I’ve ever owned, the bloated and mouldy soles surely an allegory for something or other.  The real surprise is that I got away with it, chalking another one up to Experience, and shortly afterwards hooked up with her twin, identical in every way except one: the warm feeling in my nether regions that she was never able to replicate.

Things were great for a while, and then the first hurdle in our short time together came through my neglect.  She needed a certain attention that I wasn’t used to from previous relationships, and I hadn’t anticipated the impact of not pressing the right buttons.  She ran away; someone saw her go and tipped me off as to her whereabouts, and I found her in a refuge.  She was damaged, but I was relieved to discover I hadn’t hurt her to the same extent as her sister, as I had vowed never to make that mistake again.  Experience claimed another point and after a short period away from me she returned, and we continued as if nothing had happened.

The second drama in our coexistence came, as many traumas do, while we were briefly spending some time at a holiday resort, many miles from home.  The timing was ironic as I had only that day shared with an acquaintance the gory detail of the previous mishap, expressing a concern that things happen in threes; in hindsight I guess it was inevitable that the third should then arrive with such unseemly haste.  Wishing to avoid any repeat of our earlier troubles, I thought I was being extra vigilant; but you cannot affect what is not in your control, and I reeled with horror when I saw her being done – from behind, no less – by a scruffy local.  It would be accurate to suggest he sustained more damage from the incident than she did, and believe me when I tell you that I made him pay in full for his actions.

Since then, things have been relatively untroubled, but the simple truth is that I’ve been inside her rarely over the last couple of months.  I’m no less attracted to her now than I was when I first saw her (or rather, her twin sister) across a crowded room: surrounded by a bevy of other models, she still caught my eye.  But I know that now is the time to focus on getting on with my life.  And, once I’m back in work and able to afford such luxuries again, I’m sure my fundamental needs will prompt me to get back out there and find another model.

When all’s said and done though, she’s just a car.  No point getting sentimental about a lump of metal and leather is there, no matter how attractively assembled.  Maybe when I can afford one again I’ll get one of those Asian models instead.

_________

Footnote: for those who don’t know the stories already, my earlier article will offer some illumination.

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Fancy a spot of role play?

Life is, to varying degrees, hard.  Only a lucky few of us do something we really enjoy and do not have to work at it, and even then there are usually at least occasional challenges that get in the way – relationships, logistics, family, mistakes, accidents, grudges. “Hard” is of course subjective, but you only have your own frame of reference, and there are very few people who do not, from time to time, shout or grab their hair or sob or seethe quietly in frustration at the barriers life throws in the way of just getting along.

So it’s good to escape now and then – immerse yourself in another world, maybe far away, maybe with better weather, maybe bashing a ball around, maybe just between the pages of a book or the episodes of a box set.  We sit with our feet up, forgetting all our responsibilities for a short time, usually with a glass of it’d-be-rude-not-to and a helping of oh-go-on-then, and think how great life would be if we could just do this all the time and not have to return to the hurdle-strewn normality we’re taking a breather from.

An increasing number of us are choosing to escape to faraway worlds (but without moving), imagined worlds (but that we can be a part of), unreal worlds (but populated by real people).  Referred to in the industry as massively multi-player online (MMO) games, these include “traditional” role-playing games like World of Warcraft, Rift and EverQuest but also increasingly other social strategy games such as Farmville and the child-focussed Club Penguin.  Some of them cost to play but an increasing number are free, accessed through social network platforms; all of them are marketed furiously, generating enormous revenue for the makers through either subscriptions or advertising.  Some estimates suggest as many as 400 million people are regular participants, which is 15-20% of the world’s internet users.  In terms of participation, this is more than all but the most popular sports; several times more than golf (60m), tennis (75m) and squash (20m), and comparable with basketball (250450m depending on what you read).

What they all have in common, apart from the reliance on a significant body of regular competitors, is that they attract a certain amount of sneering from people who do not take part.  Sports suffer this to an extent as well, usually between proponents of rival sports, but not to the same extent.  A stereotypical online social gamer would be young, male, socially awkward, a little on the heavy side from too many Pringles, and probably fairly pale from lack of direct sunlight and sleep.  So admitting you play MMOs can be tantamount to suggesting you are unhealthy, have few friends, get laid rarely, and probably smell a little.

This characterisation is grossly inaccurate nowadays.  Studies vary in rigour but some research suggests as many as 40% of participants are female; only 25% are teenaged; over a third are married; and half have full-time jobs.  Many people play with partners or family members, suggesting that women are increasingly following the “if you can’t beat it out of them, join them” route and getting to enjoy increased social interaction with their partners as a result.  Young men are still the majority, but then young men also make up the majority of participants in most sports, so the old stereotype is clearly no longer valid.

But are they good for you in the way that sports clearly are?  Most of these games have some form of development at the heart of them – perhaps developing a character you are playing, or an enterprise such as a farm or a city that you are growing, and the online element of them allows you to play with and against other people, who you may or may not know, rather than against a computer, as was the case before fast broadband became widely available.  Thus you could characterise MMOs as a way of pitting your wits at some sort of challenge against competitors at your own level, since most of these games, either by design or by human nature, cast people together who are at a comparable level.  There is a logical assumption that your mental fitness is being improved in the way that regular sport maintains physical fitness.

Compare MMO participation to joining a sports club, or even just having a regular game against a colleague.  You will normally play against someone of a similar level, or with an advantage given to the less-skilled player, to afford all parties the chance of celebrating some success.  Some games are team games, some you play individually.  You pick up tips from better players, you improve through practice, you put yourself out to attend at given times, and in many cases it becomes a significant commitment in terms at least of time.  Golf can take up four or five hours a weekend before you even hit the bar for the mutual commiserations; MMO average weekly participation is over 20 hours, dedication well beyond the vast majority of amateur sportspeople, although obviously made easier by the ability to play regardless of location (you can’t play football while commuting, lying in bed or waiting for the kettle to boil).

For me, the most positive aspect of MMOs is the total lack of discrimination.  Physical characteristics are hidden online; no-one cares what colour you are, whether you have any bits missing, how long you’ve been on the planet, or whether you have a regional accent.  You share only what you choose to share about yourself, other than the character traits that make you behave in a certain way; and those traits can differ wildly to the ones you exhibit in real life, the protection of the screen affording looser inhibitions.  Of course, where you get people, you will always get conflict, and MMOs have their fair share of cheats, nastiness and rash decisions or comments made in the heat of the moment; but no more than real life, and nowhere else would you get the same demographic diversity, all collaborating for a common purpose – however ethereal, and arguably pointless, that purpose might be.

What might need further study is the impact of MMO participation on local society.  It could be argued that spending such a considerable amount of time staring at a screen prevents, or at least reduces, active participation in your immediate surroundings.  That would certainly be a drawback; but it may just be replacing the time that people would otherwise spend watching TV, and if that results in more interesting programming to entice people back, then everyone wins.

For the record, I am not a fan of RPGs.  I play Scrabble on Facebook, and have been known to spend many an hour playing Risk in the past, but I don’t share the same thrall with acting out a role in an imagined world that others have.  I probably just don’t have the patience; it’s not an antipathy towards games in general.  Give me a Wii controller and a copy of Sports Resorts or FIFA and I’m as likely to waste a few hours as anyone else.

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You say tomato…

Is it a fruit?  Is it a veg?  Knowledge, apparently, is understanding that a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.  The tomato is just the best-known not-vegetable though, and is accompanied by peppers, cucumbers and beans, among others.  Of course, this information is useful only to contestants on quiz shows – cooks don’t care whether it’s a fruit, vegetable, mineral or compressed gas, as long as it makes a dish tastier.

The tomato is very much a divider of opinion, in my experience.  I know plenty of people who dislike raw tomatoes; indeed, I am not a fan of those big slices of beef tomato you often find served with ripped mozzarella and whole basil leaves in lazy Italian appetisers*, or grilled halves of plum tomatoes acting as the healthy component of your typical full English breakfast.  But the smaller the tomato, the sweeter the taste, and the number of cherry or pomodorino tomatoes actually making it into the pan / roasting tray after I’ve prepped them is normally fairly small compared to the number I took out of the bag.

Arguably, there is an entire cuisine which would virtually cease to exist (at least from a savoury perspective) if tomatoes were suddenly banned or went extinct.  Italian food absolutely relies on them: carbonara is the obvious exception in the pasta realm, and as for pizzas, our favoured pizza restaurant chain experimented with a variety that used bechamel instead of tomato purée and quickly removed it from the menu after it was roundly shunned (disappointingly from my perspective, as I found it refreshing and delicious; I can’t be bothered making homemade pizza or I’d try this one).  Generally though, if it’s Italian, it contains some sort of tomato, and if it doesn’t, it probably contains olives (which truly are the small stony fruit of the devil).

But the tomato is far from being the preserve of the Italians, and most cuisines have adopted it to some extent.  I’ve shared many tomato-based dishes in the past which are Indian, and one or two which are Spanish; almost every major cuisine uses them, often as a base for stews or casseroles, as they are a great way of adding moisture to a dish.

What strikes me as a little odd is that, until a few hundred years ago, the tomato was unknown in all of these countries.  The Spanish first introduced it to the world, probably from Peru rather than Mexico despite the Mexican derivation of the English name, in the 16th century, and in the last couple of hundred years it has been embraced almost across the world.

I say “almost” because there is one major cuisine I can think of which seems to have avoided this infatuation with the tomato – Chinese.  They don’t appear as an ingredient anywhere in either of the two Chinese recipe books I have; the only thing they seem to be used for is sweet and sour sauce, which happens to be one of the few things in Chinese cooking that I dislike.  Now this perhaps shouldn’t come as a great surprise – after all, Chinese food doesn’t contain a great amount of that humble spud either, nor do they have much use for cheese.  But here’s the twist: China is the world’s largest producer of tomatoes, growing three times as many as the next country on the list, India.

Creative suggestions around what they do with them all gratefully received… it can’t all be sweet and sour prawn balls.

Having highlighted the lack of Chinese tomato dishes, there can only be one topic for today’s recipe, but this presents something of a challenge, for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, aside from sweet’n’sour, most of the recipes I can find either involve egg, in something akin to an omelette or scrambled egg mix which looks thoroughly unappetising, or a soup, and tomato soup isn’t likely to be top of anyone’s Chinese-themed dinner party menu.

Secondly, vegetarianism is not a popular concept in China, as meat was historically only available to the well-off.  Thus not eating meat is seen as virtually an admission of poverty, and food vendors often sneak hidden meat into ostensibly vegetable-based dishes.  You can of course, as many UK Chinese restaurants do, simply substitute tofu or mixed vegetables such as peppers and baby corn into meat-based recipes, but I felt that would be cheating for the purposes of this article.

I’ve relented and gone for a sweet’n’sourish recipe which contains tomato purée (close enough).  This one is very simple but best if you can get yourself organised to marinade the tofu overnight.

Garlic and pepper tofu (serves 2)

  • 1 packet firm tofu, cut into around 16 pieces
  • 6 tbsp groundnut oil

Marinade:

  • 3 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 2 tsp coriander root, chopped (hard to get hold of so if you’re struggling quickly dry fry and grind up a similar quantity of coriander seeds)
  • 2 tsp light soy sauce
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 4 tbsp groundnut oil
  • 1 tsp sesame oil

Sauce:

  • 150ml veg stock
  • 2 tbsp light soy
  • 1 tbsp tomato purée
  • 1 tbsp rice wine vinegar (or white wine)
  • 1 heaped tsp arrowroot, made into a paste with a little water (you’ll normally find this in the baking section at the supermarket)
  • 1 tsp coarsely ground black pepper
  • 2 tsp sesame oil

Make the marinade by grinding all the ingredients together in a pestle and mortar to form a paste. Place the tofu in a flat dish and cover with the marinade. Leave for at least half an hour, preferably overnight. Heat the oil and fry the drained tofu until golden brown on both sides. Remove from the pan and drain on kitchen paper. Clean out the pan, then put the vegetable stock, soy sauce, tomato purée and vinegar into the pan together with the arrowroot. Bring to the boil, stirring to thicken, and return the tofu to the pan to heat through. Turn off the heat and stir in the black pepper and sesame oil.

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* Here is a rather less lazy version.

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Eye off the ball

I’m currently between jobs.  Before you become concerned for me, let me assure you that I am loving it, and although I know I need to get back into work in the not-too-distant future, for the moment I’m enjoying taking a breather.

My departure from my last position gave me some insight into two clichés from different walks of life that are often considered to be euphemisms: football managers are often reported to have “left by mutual consent”, which is genuinely the case for me; and politicians always seem to be leaving government posts “to spend more time with the family”, which I suspect genuinely is bunkum, but having been able to do just that, I can assert that it is a great additional benefit of having some unplanned time off.  You often don’t realise how much you’re missing because of the “boiling a frog” scenario, with the gradual extension of your working day happening over a lengthy period, so that it is only when you suddenly stop that the scale of the incursion becomes apparent.

It has been well-timed, although not deliberately.  My youngest has just started school and I’ve been able to play the scrummy (school run mummy, although I suppose I am technically a scraddy), which has been infinitely preferable to hurling him straight into wraparound care, although he was actually quite cross when he realised he wouldn’t be going to breakfast club after all.

One of the routines I shall miss when I get back into employment is my walk down to the corner shop to get the i paper.  The walk in itself has been very enjoyable, although as the weather deteriorates I suspect it will become less so; the newspaper is what I’ll miss most though, as I won’t have time during the week to digest it and thus will go back to just getting the Saturday edition.  The i paper is a fantastic concept, being an abridged version of the Independent; they describe themselves, accurately, as the only “concise quality newspaper”.  It is just long enough to give me a good snapshot of the state of the world, and short enough for me to consume in 90 minutes or so.  Other quality newspapers take a whole afternoon to digest properly, and as for the weekend tomes – does anyone actually make full use of the dozen separate volumes that comprise the Sunday Times?

I’ve had a quick skim of this morning’s paper on the way back from the shop, intending to read it more thoroughly over a lazy late breakfast, but my eye was caught by two articles, the juxtaposition of which inflamed my spleen somewhat, which is now in need of a good venting.  The first is yet another article about the ridiculous hullabaloo surrounding Roy Hodgson’s perfectly innocent use of a joke at half time during the England match against Poland on Tuesday, which was subsequently considered to have had racist connotations.  Robin-Scott Elliot’s piece is very well-written and sums up my stance perfectly.  I would urge you to take a moment to read it, and then for God’s sake let’s all move on to something more worthy of our time.

Like, for example, the second article which caught my eye, on the same page.  Paul Ince, former Manchester United midfielder and now manager of Blackpool – a name even those of you who have little interest in football will be likely to recognise – was banned from being present at his side’s next five matches for abusing an official after a recent game.  The detail of that abuse has now been made public, and makes for shocking reading.  The F word is pretty common in football, which in itself says something about the nature of football society, but in combination with the rather more taboo C word and a threat to render the recipient of said abuse unconscious, goes beyond the pale.

This man is a role model to football fans and to his own players.  It is probably unrealistic to suggest that football managers should be beyond reproach, but they need to set an example of appropriate conduct.  This disgraceful outburst at an official is inexcusable, and in most management jobs outside of football Ince would be lucky to escape with his job.  My eldest has recently started playing league football, at the age of 7, and I am constantly disgusted by the vitriole that pours out of the mouths of some of the parents watching who should similarly be setting an example for their children; Ince is no different, but has the privilege of being in a highly-paid position of responsibility and influence, so the ramifications of his rant are far wider.

The main source of my ire is the contrast between the gallons of ink wasted over the preposterous Hodgson story, indeed “not newsworthy” to quote the alleged victim of the supposedly racist remark, and the minimal reporting received by Ince’s horrendous tirade.  We – that is, society – have clearly taken our eye off the ball if we believe that is the right way round.

No recipe today, this was an unscheduled rant so apologies for those of you who dislike football but sat through this hoping for a nice risotto at the end of it!

 

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What a performance

So the old adage goes, you get what you pay for.  That’s why my wife and I tend to pay a bit more when we go out for a meal; we like good food, and prefer to eat out less often and get better quality than eat out all the time but be restricted to Pizza Hut.  It’s why I drive an Audi rather than a Mazda; the doors go #thunk# when you shut them rather than #clang#.  The same applies to my choice of hairdresser (at £25 a session) over barber (normally under a tenner).  If you want quality, you pay generally a little more.  Most people accept that.

Perhaps more grudgingly, most people would also accept that companies will pay extra for better quality staff.  This is easiest where the role attracts a bonus, such as sales; you sell more, you earn more, but it is increasingly normal for people’s pay rises (remember those?) to also reflect their relative ability to do the job.  Of course, high-performing staff will also often be rewarded with career progression, so it could be argued that the best at any job soon leave it for something better-paid anyway.  But for those who remain in the role, surely it is only fair that those who produce the best results, get paid the most.

However, apparently, when it comes to public servants, this basic rule goes out of the window.  Surrounding the third regional teaching strike in recent weeks, there have been numerous quotes from disgruntled staff that having pay linked to performance doesn’t work; Christine Blower (NUT head) made the bold assertion that the idea is becoming increasingly discredited and does nothing to motivate staff even in the private sector.  There was even one quote suggesting that the only logical way to pay people was by linking pay to experience; the longer you’ve been in the job, the higher your salary should be.

This latter suggestion got me very annoyed.  Another old adage says there’s no substitute for experience, but that one could not be more wrong.  There are at least three factors that make someone good at what they do: natural aptitude, or talent if you prefer, is one; good old elbow grease is another; experience is the third.  Having done something in the past, whether the outcome was positive or negative, is certainly a significant factor in determining how well you will do it in the future; it is by no means the only one though, and unless you have the ability to spot what you did wrong or right and then correct it, the experience on its own is of no value.  Experience alone does not make you a good teacher (or any other profession of course, I’m just picking on teachers as they’re in the news).  In fact, observed behaviour suggests that it’s just as likely to make you a bad teacher, as you can become jaundiced and cynical, browbeaten by recalcitrant youths, and giving up on the idea of ever getting promoted.  With a virtually non-existent threat of getting sacked, you could then use your experience to guide you into how best to spend the rest of your career doing the minimum possible.

So in fact, I don’t see that there is any viable alternative to performance-related pay in the teaching profession.  I suspect academies and free schools, released from the constraints of common or garden schools, will adopt PRP en masse, as they seem to be more inclined to follow private sector thinking.  It is the most powerful way you can incentivise staff unless they have ambitions of promotion, which is often not the case in teaching, and is the only way to effectively assess the combination of experience, talent and diligence.

The argument I do have some sympathy with is that PRP can only be applied where appropriate metrics can be defined and accurate measurements can be taken.  The only output that a teacher can be assessed on is the success of the students under their tutelage, and the only way that success can be measured is via independent assessment; you can’t expect blanket objectivity if you allow teachers to submit their own assessed scores, and if there is any exaggeration in the interests of bumping up PRP, that then affects the next teacher who has responsibility for the students in question.

Independent assessments are, of course, controversial themselves.  National SATs are already done at ages 7 and 11, and this is already too much for some, teachers and parents alike, despite the exams for 14-year-olds having been scrapped already.  The only way to accurately set PRP is to externally assess students every year and (in secondary education) in every subject.  Personally, I don’t think that’s such a bad idea; it becomes normal then and should reduce the excessive stress that is apparently caused by the current SAT regime.  Then, teachers can be judged on the delta between what pupils were achieving last year and what they managed this year.  The way this was calculated until recently was known as CVA, or Contextual Value Added, and accounts for differences in local geography and demographic, as well as simply the level of the kids you took on compared to the level they left you.  However, it appears CVA is being removed, so how the performance is to be calculated upon which to base a fair calculation of PRP I have no idea.

Perhaps an alternative to PRP is PRC – performance-related cakes.  I’ve noticed that sweet meats are an increasing presence in many working environments, and no longer restricted to being a Friday treat, so perhaps there should be a sugary incentive – that is bound to improve efficiency.  Here is a great cake to add to the reward scheme; I’m increasingly a fan of coffee cake, and the combination with walnuts is a match made in heaven.

Coffee and walnut cake – serves as few as you can get away with

  • 225g unsalted butter
  • 225g caster sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 50ml strong espresso
  • 225g self-raising flour
  • 75g walnuts

Topping:

  • 125g unsalted butter
  • 200g icing sugar
  • 50ml strong espresso
  • 12 walnut halves

Preheat the oven to 180C.  Beat the butter and sugar together until very light.  Add the eggs one at a time to the butter and sugar mixture, beating each egg in fully before adding the next.

Now add the espresso to the mixture and stir well, then add the flour and walnuts and again stir well to completely combine.  Spoon the cake mixture into two lined and greased 8in cake tins.  Transfer to the oven to bake 25-30 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean and the cake is golden-brown.

Remove the cakes from the oven and allow to cool.  For the butter cream topping, beat the butter and icing sugar together until pale and light.  Add the espresso and mix well.  Spread the cream over the top of each cake, then place one cake on top of the other.

Decorate the top of the cake with the walnut halves and serve in generous slices.

 

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Insert egg-based pun here

I tend towards the Richard Dawkins and Brian Cox view of the origin of life rather than those shared by the Ayatollah Khomeini and Pope Francis I.  While there is no explanation of what caused and/or preceded the Big Bang – thus leaving room for God – those who argue against evolution simply don’t understand the sheer magnitude of the timescales and basic physics involved.  The case for evolution by natural selection is not just beyond reasonable doubt – it is beyond any but the most blinkered of doubts, and there is no converting someone who has their fingers in their ears and is yelling “la la la la laaaaaaa la laaaaaaa” at the top of their voice to the tune of “All things bright and beautiful”.

However, I can at least begin to appreciate how someone could find it so difficult to understand how something as complex as (to use an example often referenced by creationists) the eye “just happened”.  It is hard to extrapolate the simple evolution that we see happening in the context of our own life spans (although, as with all things threatening religious beliefs, fiercely debated) to the complete formation of an organ that interprets electromagnetic waves in a way that allows us to know the location of something we cannot touch.

Although I’m familiar with the explanation of the evolution of the eye most famously published by Dawkins in The Blind Watchmaker, in recent times I have found myself increasingly marvelling at the wondrous miracle that is the egg.  You can almost imagine some deific being sitting down with a pencil and a piece of paper on day 15 million of “Project Creation” and thinking “right, let’s design the perfect ingredient for those people who like mashing together all those bits of life we’ve come up with so far – something that can act as a glue to hold them together, fluffy padding to make them light, an enamel to make them shiny on the outside, an emulsion to hold together plant dust to make a crispy case, or that can just be heated in one of half a dozen different ways and eaten as they are”.  Presumably the being concerned would then wilt in the face of the challenge it had just set itself and instead decide to focus on just inventing enamel, or emulsion.

The egg is an amazing bit of evolutionary happenstance.  There are few foods that can be so simply prepared in so many different but equally tasty ways, and which are a component of such a large subset of human diet.  How can a single ingredient form such a major part of such different creations as meringues and mayonnaise?  It comes in its own biodegradable packaging, doesn’t need to be kept in the fridge, and can even be used raw in a debatable hangover cure.  You couldn’t have designed it any better, even if you were just taking a break between creating the sky and the land.

I’ve been asked in the past what food I could least do without and have (especially since my part-time veggieism commenced) unthinkingly answered “cheese“, but on reflection I would struggle more to cope with the loss of eggs, considering not only the reliance on them for bread, pasta, cakes and ice-cream, but the unbeatable simple pleasures of fried eggs and bacon in a roll, a peppered poached egg on a buttery toasted muffin or Parma ham and scrambled eggs on toasted ciabatta.

There are a couple of reasons that caused me to write about eggs this week.  Firstly of course, it’s nearly Easter, although decorated and/or chocolate eggs are rather more inspired by the pagan festivals that preceded the Christian celebration of the resurrection.  Secondly though we were given some eggs at the weekend by a friend who has some chickens, and made the most marvellous omelette I have ever eaten the very next day, served with a couple of slices of buttered bread.  Oh, go on then, if I must: it was eggs-traordinary…

The best mushroom omelette in the world (probably)

Served 2 big people plus a little one

  • One onion, finely chopped
  • 150g closed cup mushrooms, sliced
  • 50g mixed dried mushrooms, rehydrated and chopped – we used porcini
  • 50g Parmesan, grated
  • 5 medium eggs
  • 50g butter (yes really)
  • Tsp of paprika
  • Splash of olive oil
  • Splash of milk
  • Salt and black pepper

Heat an oven to 200C.  Put the olive oil in an oven-proof frying pan and soften the onions for 5-10 minutes.  Turn the heat up and add the mushrooms, seasoning heavily.  Take off the heat after 2-3 minutes, stir in the butter, and when melted pop in the oven to roast for 7-8 minutes.  Beat the eggs in a jug with the milk, paprika and some more seasoning.  Pop the frying pan back on the hob (remember to use an oven glove now!) and add the egg mixture, stirring quickly and evenly through the mushrooms and then allowing to set.  After five minutes or so, liberally sprinkle the Parmesan over the top and finish for 3 minutes or so under the grill until golden all over.

I think this would have been bettered by a handful of chopped fresh parsley stirred into the egg mixture but we didn’t have any in and it was great anyway.

Posted in eggs, evolution, mushrooms, omelette, Recipe | 3 Comments

Slow learner

Every now and again in life you get one of those moments that make you stop and think about how lucky you are and how things might have been had the Almighty card dealer shuffled the deck slightly differently.  That train you just managed to catch, the wallet returned to you by the people who had the taxi immediately after you, the air ambulance landing on the motorway just up ahead of where you were lamenting having taken the M1 again.

If you are sensible, you take these thing on board and learn from them.  Maybe do something differently to reduce the chances of it happening again with a less fortuitous outcome.  Stop taking the motorway every time and find a different route, more reliable if a little slower.  Don’t take your purse with you if you’re planning on a few sherbets, just take one card and maybe some cash in a pocket (assuming of course you have pockets).  Sometimes it’s impractical to fundamentally change your behaviour, but even just a heightened awareness of your vulnerabilities and environment can make the difference between minor misfortune and complete disaster.

I seem to be a little slow on the uptake with such things.  I was burgled shortly after moving into my current home a few years ago, although the intruders were stumped by an internal door that we’d bolted and made so much noise getting through it that we woke up and disturbed them before they could swipe anything.  Thus warned, we took steps to remove valuable items from downstairs and bolt all the internal doors of a night.  What we should also have done was fit a burglar alarm and install a blind in the kitchen, the previous owner’s never having been replaced.  Having not done so, we left a temptingly easy way in, which our neighbourhood rogues took full advantage of, although having gained entry they were again thwarted by one of those door bolts.  Not wishing to risk being third time unlucky, we finally shelled out for an alarm and a new blind.

I did not, however, learn the more fundamental lesson about general awareness of things that can go wrong.  Safe in the warm, leathery embrace of my driving seat last September, I pointed my car north towards the venue for some interviews I was conducting the following day.  Those of you in the UK might remember the A1 being shut for some 40 miles due to flooding, and I had planned an alternative route.  Having lost arguments with my satnav twice in the preceding few weeks, I then trusted it when it suddenly recalculated my route and took me away from the road I was expecting to use.  I realised this was a monumental mistake when I found myself in a puddle up to my headlights on a back road several miles from the nearest town, my car having effectively drowned.  My good fortune was that I did not join it, having managed to keep the wheels on the tarmac and suffering nothing more than shock a bruised ego.

As with the burglary, I took on board some lessons from this and have become more cautious in my decision-making when driving.  But, as with the burglary, I did not see the wider picture and become more aware of my vulnerability.  Having replaced that car with an identical twin, the incident had passed into amusing anecdote territory.  One completely innocuous morning a couple of weeks ago, I nipped round to a local friend to pick up my eldest, who had overnighted there.  Five minutes after having parked up outside and popped in, a knock on their door preceded the news that my car wasn’t where I had left it, instead having embedded itself into a pedestrian refuge twenty metres or so down the low hill that my friend’s house sits at the top of.  It appeared that I had not deployed the electric handbrake, and passing traffic must have gusted the car into movement.

Now while there is a fundamental design flaw with a car that only sometimes deploys the handbrake automatically and then does not warn you that it is off, I cannot absolve myself of responsibility.  A ton and a half of metal moving without control is an extremely dangerous thing, and I clearly had not recognised the fact that the flawed operation of the handbrake was a significant risk that I needed to prevent becoming an issue by making certain I manually deployed it every time, regardless of whether it had come on automatically.  I have learned that lesson now, but the hard way again, given the likely size of my next insurance quote.

My good fortune is that my freewheeling car did not miss the bollard and hit a car coming the other way, a pedestrian, or one or more vehicles crossing the busy junction further down the hill.  I still feel nauseous thinking about what might have been.  It is not an exaggeration to say that I could very easily have been sharing a cell with Chris Huhne tonight.

My other arguable good fortune is that I have friends who have helped me get over such calamities by heckling me mercilessly.  I was subjected to a torrent of such abuse at the weekend when we had one of our theme nights – this time Italian.  The stars of the menu for me were the simple but incredibly tasty bruschetta toppings which will work equally on crackers or crusty bread as a light lunch.  Two of these are described below – enjoy.

Garlicky cannellini purée

  • Two cloves of garlic, crushed
  • One 400g tin of cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
  • Splash of red wine vinegar
  • Leaves from a couple of sprigs of rosemary
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt and black pepper

Pound the rosemary with a pinch of the salt in a mortar, then add a glug of olive oil and set to one side.  Fry off the garlic briefly in some olive oil until heading towards golden.  Add the beans and stir for about 7-8 minutes, adding seasoning as soon as the beans start breaking down, which will be very quickly.  Put into a bowl, crush into a coarse purée with a fork, and stir in the vinegar.  Serve on your crispy bread product topped with the rosemary oil.

Roasted vegetable purée

  • One courgette
  • One red pepper, seeded
  • One small bulb of fennel
  • Tsp of dried mint or handful of fresh
  • Tsp of dried oregano
  • Glug of white wine vinegar
  • Juice of 1/2 a lemon
  • Salt and black pepper

Chop the vegetables into a roasting tin, then coat with olive oil, salt, pepper, mint and oregano.  Roast for 30 mins at 180C then pop into a blender and pulse until you have a coarse purée.  Stir through some lemon juice and the vinegar then serve.

Posted in bruschetta, burglary, cannellini, cars, Italian, Recipe | 1 Comment

Keep it simple, Baka – a restaurant review

Because we enjoy eating out, we have taken care to ensure our kids have been regularly exposed to eateries of the sort that we like to frequent, i.e. starting at Pizza Express and working up from there.  This hasn’t been without trauma: a particular lowlight being the noisy rebellion of my then two-year-old at one of my wife’s favourite establishments resulting in her spending most of the meal standing outside with him, considering in rapidly diminishing jest whether to throw him into the adjacent ravine.  On the whole though the strategy has been successful, and although they are rarely the quietest patrons in the house, we are able to take our boys to most of the sorts of place we like to eat without attracting the silent disapproval of the other diners.

We have thus been able to eat out fairly regularly this year but it dawned on me recently that as a result we haven’t had a meal out as a couple since we had a few days away in Chester at Easter.  I looked at the calendar and noted with mild horror that Christmas was a mere eight weekends away, the majority of which are scheduled for visits to or by friends and family, meaning our last realistic opportunity to go out as a couple this year was that very Saturday.

Because of the short notice our favourite regular haunts were unavailable, so I booked an earlyish table at the “Asian fusion” restaurant Chino Latino, which I’d had recommended to me on a couple of occasions and whose unusual menu had piqued my interest.  I adore the salt and spice of Oriental food, and this place had the added temptation of serving its cuisine in a tapas style.  As I’ve mentioned before, tapas is a fantastic way of resolving my innate indecisiveness – can’t make your mind up?  Have both! – and somehow makes it acceptable to mix components that you would never normally combine on a single plate.

The last time we got a taxi into Nottingham city centre, for dinner with friends at the lovely World Service, we considered ourselves lucky to have arrived without injury, having been reduced to actually yelling at the feckless driver of the big yellow Peugeot who had, it seemed, not only strikingly poor knowledge of the geography of the city but also a passing acquaintanceship at best with the Highway Code and a total lack of ability to follow basic directions.  So we were somewhat relieved on this occasion to have had a completely uneventful journey into town, and got down to the tricky business of trying to decide what to eat.

Chino Latino is a confusingly-named restaurant attached to the Park Plaza hotel.  I say confusingly because of the complete lack of anything remotely Latino on the menu, and the corny rhyming is at odds with the apparent sophistication of the menu.  In my admittedly limited experience of hotel restaurants they have a tendency to disappoint, which did have the effect of setting my expectations relatively low despite the recommendations.  I was also nervous to find the entrance to the restaurant area being via a bar, suggesting that food might be of secondary importance here, in the style of an All Bar One – pleasant enough, but ultimately not the core revenue generator for the business.

I needn’t have entertained any such concerns.  The enticing aromas surrounding us from the moment we sat down were happily fulfilled by a meal of exceptional quality.  We did struggle somewhat to decide what to order, but only from the point of view of what might work together.  The menu is mostly Japanese and Chinese influenced, but featured ingredients such as lamb which are more normally seen in South Asian cooking rather than East.  A full section of sushi and sashimi were shunned in favour of more warming dishes on what was a chilly evening, but were attractive from what we saw of other diners’ orders.  Wasabi played a supporting role in many of the dishes, including both the scallops and lamb cutlets I ordered.

My wife had somehow managed to reach her late thirties without ever having tried a scallop, and as she has relented on her “nothing with a face” policy to slake her body’s thirst for Omega-3, she managed to snaffle one of my grilled scallops with yuzu (a citrus fruit) aioli and wasabi peas before I was able to wield my fork in defence.  Scallops don’t really have anything we would recognise as a face anyway, but lambs are cute and woolly so my cutlets – nicely brown outside and pink inside – went unpillaged.

What really summed up the restaurant for me were the sides, the simplest dishes we ordered.  I could have eaten a bucket of the Thai rice noodles just on their own – almost squid-like in texture, seasoned with just the right amount of soy.  I only recently discovered the joy of braised lettuce thanks to my fat foodie friend and I assume the bok choi with shaoxing wine and cashews were cooked this way as well as they were very reminiscent.  To be able to deliver such simple food so effectively speaks far more highly for me than the more sophisticated elements of our meal.

The only disappointment was my dessert, an uninspiring ginger sponge with ginger ice-cream, neither of which lived up to the excellent spicing of the previous courses.  However I quickly erased any memory of those – almost literally – by ordering a couple of cocktails, and thus adding probably the only Latino thing I could see on the menu to our bill – a Mojito, enhanced / sullied (delete as appropriate) by the addition of coconut milk.  I quite liked it actually, but they do well enough with the Chino to more than compensate for the lack of Latino.

Posted in Oriental, restaurant review, tapas | Leave a comment