Friday, August 24, 2007

A cornish pastie - in Dorset!

ROAD-TRIP DAY SIX: Home via Dorchester approx 180 miles

I spent some of my formative years in Dorchester and can vaguely recall a few things - like walking around the infants school playground singing: "who... wants... to.... play... football-with-a-stone" on the basis that we weren't allowed to take balls to school. I also recall my mother used to curse me when I arrived home. "That's another new pair of shoes all scuffed up and you've only had them a day. What happened?" She never did find out the secret.
I also recall riding my bike around the Dorchester Town football pitch while my dad watched a Western League game against someone like Welton Rovers or Bridport. I know, too, that I lived at 4 Shaston Crescent, over the road from my best pal Martin. We used to watch the Monkeys on TV, then go out and act like them. I was always Davy Jones, he was always Peter Tork. Don't ask me why, other than he was taller than me and I bagsied Davy first.
On the basis of these flimsy memories I decided we had to pay a visit to the county town of Dorset on our way back to Cardiff.

First, though, we spent a good hour in Poole Park where we watched grown and retired men taking a race between their electric-powered toy yachts extremely seriously. They were marching up and down the side of the lake, urging on their entrant, weaving in and out of each other while an electronic box ordered them about. "60 seconds to start..." said the yacht-dalek and they all jostled for position on the starting grid. Had to admit, though, it looked good fun.
We also saw the little model train which kids, and adults, can ride around the duck pond and admired the two sunk pedalo Swans in the middle of the big lake. It's a lovely spot and if you ever get to Poole it's well worth a look.
From there we drove on to Dorchester, opting to ignore Weymouth as we had seen our fill of seaside towns.
My first reaction to my old homestead was disappointment. The council have been busy, promoting it ruthlessly as Thomas Hardy Country, with everything being renamed Hardy's or Casterbridge. My Dad assures me it could be a bit that way in summer, but to me it now looked a complete tourist trap. To prove the point we visited the Terracota Warriors museum at Wren's request. Parting with £5.50 each we left about 10 minutes later. Rather than getting a feel for the immense Chinese discovery, the museum contained about seven replica warriors, a video of ancient Chinese dynasties - I couldn't help shouting "Ah, Monkey" into the dark room when one of the actors made an elaborate gesture - and cards that repeated themselves, telling of exactly how the warriors were discovered. I'm sorry, but that aint value for money.
The Dorset County Museum was better, with a fascinating exhibition about Hardy and an exact replica of his study, with his actual property still there. It gave me a yearning to read the books which I had dismissed with disdain at senior school, preferring to buy the "cheat" versions before O levels came around and swatting up on a few quotes the teacher had provided us with.
Wren, prompted by her four-hour alarm clock, treated herself to a pastie made in Cornwall, heated up in Dorset, containing spinach, ricotta, potato and pine nuts. Then it was time for a visit to my old house.
I found it quite easily and the memories came flooding back: like the time my four-year-old brother and his neighbour Jenny, who was roughly the same age, took her baby brother for a walk right the way into the centre of town. Both sets of parents were understandably frantic. They were eventually discovered strolling through the local park, having negotiated three busy main roads.
Following that I insisted we take a peek at the Dorchester Town ground as it is now. What a change! It is a proper football ground with stands, floodlights etc, and sits next door to the almost obligatory supermarket.

After that it was off home, via Salisbury.
Wren wanted to look around the Cathedral, and I needed the break, so we made another stop. She had read a fictional book set in Salisbury and I admit the size of the Cathedral is pretty awe inspiring.
More importantly, though, it was tea time. We had a nice meal in the Market Tavern in the centre of town. We started with a plate of Chilli Nachos (massive) and I followed that with plaice stuffed with a prawn and mushroom sauce. Can't for the life of me remember what Wren had.
Back to the car then and an interesting drive home, avoiding the motorways until we hit Malmesbury and Swindon and joined the M4.
When we finally reached the house at around 10.30 we were both pretty bushed. Like my old mum used to say: "It's nice to go away, but it's lovely to come home".
The road trip ended after our return from the Hotel du Pain, or whatever it's called. Final distance travelled: 887 miles. Well done, Basil.
Newsflash: I put a message in Boo's window on Wednesday. "Bargain Buy £100". I sold him the same day. Brill. Hope he's gone to a good home.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Meals fit for a King

YOU may now bow down to me. It turns out I am descended from royalty. My descendants arrived here from Normandy with William the Conqueror, beat up a few Anglo-Saxons and then set about lording it around the British Isles. There is even a Rippers "seat" somewhere in Warwickshire - but I'll get to that later.
I learned all this during our fascinating road trip of Britain. Having arrived in Brighton in the pouring rain, thinking "what on earth are we going to do here?", it turned out to be a splendid little break. As I've mentioned before the owners of the Alvia, who are most likely Scandinavians and perhaps sussed the "Viking" in me, were extremely polite and helpful throughout our stay.
I did worry a bit, though, when we were shown to our four-poster bedroom to find what can only be described as a Black grizzly bear lying on our bed. In the middle of summer, too. I'm sure that is the ideal bed cover in Finland, Denmark or Sweden in Mid winter, but not for Brighton in August - despite the heavy rain.

That night we decided to don coats and hats, put up an umbrella and risk a trip into town. There was nothing much advertised but I had spotted an interesting little bar called Rikki Tik's on the internet earlier.
We had a couple of drinks there while a DJ pumped out some sounds but a wet Tuesday in Brighton hardly encourages the party-goers onto the streets. After that we had a little wander around, then visited a cosy little pub called the Globe for another couple of lagers. I must admit I felt slightly unsteady on my feet after that.
By then Wren, who has a body clock very similar to the Robot in that she simply MUST eat every four hours, was beginning to gnaw on my arm. Nothing for it, we went in pursuit of fast food.
I was amazed to find that she had never experienced the delight of Subway, being rather put off by the smells that eminate from this rather fine establishment. On this occasion she agreed to try it, and indeed was converted. We both noshed our baguettes sitting on a bench near the Royal Pavilion, a marvellous edifice which would be equally at home in India or perhaps Baghdad.

Next day it was still fairly miserable but, as hardy Brit holidaymakers are wont to do, we headed for the pier. What a place! As we looked around the various attractions and amusements the sun began to come out. Wren beat me on the Dolphin Derby, a great little game where you roll balls up a slope and attempt to get them into different value holes (oo er, missus).
I also desperately tried to snare a Zippy doll with one of those grabbing machines, wasting 50p knowing full well the things are rigged and you have no hope of winning. Still, it would have made a good present for Withers, who seems to talk more and more like the character out of Rainbow these days.
After the pier it was time to hit the shops. And there were a great selection of Bohemians boutiques in the Laines area of the town. We also took the chance to eat at a Brazilian restaurant called Bosa Nostra, which was fab. I had the Brazilian national dish, which is called Feijoada and is a stew of beans with various meats thrown in. We also had some Brazilian sausage for starter and Wren had a pancake stuffed with mince and covered with cheese.
We didn't find my favourite-ever shop, though, until the walk home after watching a seagull nearly throttle himself by eating half an apple whole. Reminded me of Shutts at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

The Taj. Even now the name sends shivers down my spine. The Taj is the most wonderful supermarket, stocking everything a cordon blue chef like myself could desire. Every vegetable, every pasta, every rice, every spice and every variation of every spice. I could move to Brighton, just to shop in The Taj alone. It's brilliant. I celebrated by buying a couple of jars of Fenugreek Leaves, particular good for Paneer curries. Wren had to tear me away. Brighton may be a long way but one day I will return and raid that shop. Fantastic.

That night we went to the Pav Tav as trendy Wren, now dressed in some rather swanky new purchases, has taken to calling it. It is a pub that is frequented by student types and recent school leavers and made me feeling quite old.
But it's good. It's good because even on a Wednesday night they showcase new bands.
We had the privilege of watching a band from Horsham called Offside. They were pretty punky, pretty loud and not bad at all. The only problem came when one of their guitarists, obviously fairly new to the game, broke a string. This became a major issue for him. Rather than playing on as best he could he stood with hands on hips, feeling sorry for himself as the other members of the band bravely tried to rescue the number.
There then followed a 10 minute delay while he attached a new string, only to realise that throughout the following numbers his guitar continually went out of tune. Poor Dab. He needs to realise the show must go on, whatever the catastrophe (and there are far worse catastrophes than breaking a string, like your amp catching fire cos your beer has fallen down the back of it, as I can well testify).
Full marks to Offside, though. Good band and highly enjoyable with songs like Tick-Tock, Waster and something that sounded like Boy George. There was a little bit of a reggae beat in there, too, taking me back to '77 yada, yada, yada...
We went Turkish on the way home. Chicken kebabs.

THURSDAY: To Poole via Arundel and Portsmouth, 150 miles.

The following morning we set off fresh on the next leg of our journey. We set off for Portsmouth after a mild rant from me after moving the car around to the front of the hotel to find that some discourteous driver was parking his vehicle in the middle of two spaces. Anyone who knows Brighton will know parking is a problem at the best of times and we had to load up Wren's flat, I mean luggage, in the boot. For this task I was forced to park in the road, all the time glaring at the entirely ignorant driver who had caused this scenario.

First stop on what was supposed to be the Bournemouth leg of the journey was Arundel. Fantastic place. Very medieval with a swanky castle and everything. My real reason for going here was to visit the cricket ground, however. This is the place the MCC play at every year and the Lord's Taverners seem to have made a second home. We drove up to the ground and were lucky enough to gatecrash the Under-14 English Cup final between Leicester and Sheffield.
Standing by the scoreboard to take a picture, the man in situ shouted: "Are you the advanced party? When are the rest of the Army arriving?"
Hadn't a clue what he was on about but smiled politely anyway. Only on returning to the car did I realise I had my England Barmy Army shirt on. Doh!
What an idyllic spot for a cricket ground, though. Breathtaking, I must say.

Driving on we reached the outskirts of Portsmouth. Needing a break I decided we should pop in and see the Victory. We headed for the historic Docklands and though they were charging £16 per adult for full tour tickets it was quite easy to just wander around, see most of the boats and museums, without spending a jot.
I was quite happy to keep my money in my pocket until Wren and I saw a little booth. "Find out the history of your surname", it said. "More than 500,000 names researched". As I told the man in the booth my name I had little hope of it cropping up. But there it was. And what a fantastic history the Rippers dynasty has.
There is Ermine on our family crest, which represents royalty of some description, and there is also a family moto "Virtue for its own sake". Well, everyone knows how virtuous I am so this didn't surprise me much.
The history did, though. Apparently one of my ancestors arrived with William of Conk. Another died fighting a joust in front of the king at Woodstock, and yet another was a soldier who later became a journalist. We have a family "seat" called Amington Hall in Warwickshire. From now on, I expect to be addressed as "Sir" or "His Lordship Mr Rippers". Particularly by that serf Withers.
Wren, too, looked into her family history. She is proudly Anglo-Saxon.
Unlike me. The Normans may have come from France (which perhaps explains my culinary expertise) but they were originally Vikings. Doesn't explain why I get sea sick on the cross channel ferry, though.

That night we arrived in Bournemouth. I used to go there when it was a thriving little holiday town with swanky hotels. My mate Millsy and I used to drive down in his TR6 after finishing work early on a Friday, being spurred on by Dexy's Midnight Runners album Searching for the Young Soul Rebels, park up outside the local church and then proceed into the town to get bladdered and visit the local clubs. On the way back we found a takeaway that served the best mushroom burgers I've ever tasted.
All weekend we would sleep in the car, only to be woken on Sunday morning by the ringing of the church bells and some rather curious looking old ladies staring in through the window as we peered out with bloodshot eyes from under heavy eyelids at the churchgoing folk of the town.
My illusions of great Bournemouth trips were shattered by the current state of the place. It is a typically rundown, unexciting town, in vast contrast to Brighton. The impression wasn't helped when we were shown rooms in three hotels which all appeared down at heel and greatly in need of refurbishment. There was nothing for it but to move on to Poole.
Not much here, either, but they do have a lovely local park and it is quite a posh place for the sailing fraternity to visit. We found a nice hotel, too. The Quarterdeck. The only problem was a dodgy shower but the room and breakfast were splendid.
That night we ate out at an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet called the Real China. The only trouble was that as we started to enjoy it, the staff started closing down and putting stuff away around us. In the end, all-you-can-eat became all-you-can-prevent-the-waiters-packing-away. Still, it was fun.
The final leg of the road trip in the next blog instalment.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Hotel Du Vin Cheltenham

I DON'T look like Julia Roberts. At least I don't think I do. Ok, the pert buttocks aside, but that's the only resemblance.
I now know, however, exactly how her character felt while shopping on Rodeo Drive in that romantic comedy Pretty Woman.
In that movie, Julia plays a prostitute given money by rich businessman Richard Gere to go out and buy herself a dress. But when she turns up in her usual clothes the store assistant is rude, surly and generally nasty to her, believing her not to have the money to pay for any of the items in the shop.
So how does that relate to me, I hear you ask? Let me tell you a story...

Some months ago in my capacity as a rather influential journalist at Wales on Sunday (my interpretation, no one elses) I was invited to spend a rather swish night at the newly opened Hotel Du Vin in Cheltenham through their press relations people. It sounded wonderful and a good idea to tie the visit in with Wren's birthday, which was on Sunday.
The PR people said "no problem" and sent me confirmation that we had been booked in for Saturday night, August 18. Regular readers will also know this is the day that I was going to see the Gas play against Crewe and tied in quite nicely, I thought, because they were supposed to be moving their fixtures this season to Cheltenham. Wrong. That particular game was being played in Bristol.
Never mind, I took Wren to see the game, an entertaining 1-1 draw, then drove up to Cheltenham, arriving at the Hotel just after six.
Turning up in our football-watching gear we felt a little out of place just peering at the hotel from the car and watching all the elegantly clad gentry entering. Never mind. We would be able to change after checking in.
That's when we hit the first problem. The girl on reception said that she couldn't find a record of our being booked in and that she would have to make inquiries. I suggested at this stage that if there was going to be a problem we would turn around and head back to Cardiff.
"Oh no, no... that's the last thing we want you to do," she insisted. "I'm sure it will all be sorted out."
She then asked for my credit card, "just for incidentals" she insisted, and told us we could wait in the bar while our room was sorted. A little while later we were shown to a very elegant room with a deep bath in the bedroom, flat screen TV with Sky Sports, a "necessities" in my book, and beautiful soft sheets. The lap of luxury. The blurb on this particular Hotel chain insisted they were trying to provide luxury without "pretentiousness". Hmm, quite frankly how you can avoid being pretentious when your rooms cost around £150 per night I don't know.
Still, I then got a call from the hotel manager asking me if my name was Stephen Jones and if I worked for the South Wales Echo. He explained that he had a booking from our sister paper, but only for Tuesday. I said it was a different newspaper but he said he would make further inquiries and told me not to worry. Later we had it confirmed that we were booked into the Bistro for dinner.
I must admit I found it rather off-putting and not the least bit amusing that the lady waiting to seat us for dinner told Wren: "Well, you seem to have scrubbed up quite nicely."
A Joke, no doubt, but would she have made the same remark to Victoria Beckham? Somehow, I doubt it.
The meal, however, was nice, and Wren enjoyed two glasses of wine, even though the "special" wine waiters who are there for just such a purpose forgot to deliver a glass of red to our table so that she could enjoy it with the lamb she had ordered.
We accepted this and after the meal went out for a smoke on the verandah. This was when I began to feel that someone had stamped the word Fraudster on my head. I expected the FBI to come racing in at any stage, treating me like the Leonardo de Caprio figure in Catch Me If You Can, the conman pursued around the world by Tom Hanks. This wasn't Tom Hanks, though, rather a heavily perspiring, overweight matre d' type character who asked if we would like to "settle our bill". He looked down his nose at us sniffily as I signed for our dinner, expecting the whole thing to be refunded in the morning.
Not a hope.
Next day the hotel manager was waiting at reception. "I've spoken to our publicity people and they have no record of your booking. Therefore I am going to have to ask you to pay," he said stuffily. No pretentions? F**k off.
I looked at Wren. This was a birthday surprise she certainly hadn't bargained on. With people waiting to check out, I raised my protest in reasonable terms but allowed them to do the deed and debit my credit card. I waited until we were clear of the car park before shouting loudly into the air: "What a bunch of +!*!$". I was fuming.
I'm starting to think it must be me. Remember the £39 bottle of chateau neuf de pap from the Devon sojourn that I thought was free?
I can think of certain people who might have responded to the Hotel Du Vin's manager with the line: "Don't you know who I am" or wouldn't have left the hotel until everything was sorted out.
I'm not one of those journalists. In fact, I feel a bit uneasy when I accept any sort of freebie. This one, certainly, could be justified though, because it would be reviewed in our travel section.
It should make interesting reading.
For the record, I had beef, Wren had lamb and the food was very good.
Neither of us can even bring ourselves to say the word Cheltenham, though. I am writing this blog having fired off the original confirmation letter of our stay to the relevant parties. Hopefully, the compensation will follow swiftly on.

What a contrast with our road trip. Our stay in Brighton was gorgeous, even though the rain on the first day suggested it wouldn't be so good.
And the staff at the Alvia Hotel, Brighton, could certainly teach the Hotel Du Vin's bunch of pompous prigs a thing or two about customer service. The road trip continues in the next entry. I just had to get this one out of my system.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Culinary road trip: Kentucky, Brazil, China

MY girlfriend Wren once spent six months travelling the world: she must have taken her own jumbo jet. I think she managed to pack the entire contents of her flat when deciding what she needed for our British road trip.
Originally we considered a short break abroad to maybe Amsterdam or Barcelona, but money dictated that staying closer to home was a better bet. Indeed, my new car Basil needed a good run and this seemed the ideal opportunity. There were other things to consider, too, like visiting the tennant in my house near Ilford, introducing Wren to the Fat Kid, Vin and the Big Boy, and paying a visit to her parents in Laversham in Suffolk. After that it would be all plain sailing.
I guess the title to this entry is a bit misleading but it should become self-explanatory as we progress.

SUNDAY: 200 miles to Southend-on-Sea
It's fair to say we both like a snack, so we set off for sunny Southend, the pride of the East coast, with a goodie bag containing mixed nuts, cashew nuts, a corned beef pastie, a spicy chorizo pastie of some description and other things too many to mention. By the time we reached my house in Newbury Park, Essex, we had the cashews left. Still, at least we didn't stop for dinner.
Met with Hayley for the first time. She has been my tennant for the last year and a half and had a few little problems that needed sorting. Like Mice and the outrageously outdated colour scheme.
Apparently some criminal Lithuanians have been living next door and there was a drug raid a few weeks back. They carried away bags full of what I can only surmise amounted to the contents of a small pharmacy. Classy area. Doesn't look like anyone's been cutting the grass much lately either.
Moving on, we drove up to the Fat Kid's. Despite having numerous problems with her nutter of an ex, she seems in high spirits and I leave her to "bond" with Wren while nipping out to the local Kentucky for a purchase of a large bargain bucket, two portions of chicken gravy, two portions of coleslaw and plenty of popcorn chicken, which both Vin and the Big Boy wolf down in no time.
The Fat Kid has been working on Wren since I've been away. They are already worringly forming an alliance. When I get back my daughter is creeping around me like a good looking Uriah Heap or Fagan. "I really need a holiday," she pleads, hanging from my neck. "Mikey's parents have given him some money towards one. Wren (name changed to protect the guilty) don't you agree I need a holiday."
It's the worst kind of solidarity. Girls in Arms. Later Wren works on me. "Well, she does need a little time to herself," she argues quite reasonably. I've no chance now.
That night we settle down, tummies full, to watch Hannibal Rising. Pretty abysmal, if you ask me. It all started going wrong when instead of Thomas Harris writing books and them being made into films, he was asked to write sequels just so that films could be made from them. The whole story is unbelievable, particularly the idea that Hannibal would learn the ways of a Samarai from a good-looking Japanese girl. It's not the kind of film you want nursing a stomach full of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

MONDAY: 100 miles to Lavernham
Wren takes on the driving today and gets used to Basil pretty quickly. Soon we are zipping along. But there's a hitch. "My mum won't be in until after 3 so we will have to find somewhere to go first."
She has the ideal solution. It's a designer outlet centre called Freeport Village just outside Braintree. What a lovely coincidence.
Everything goes fine and we start spending some of our hard earned, on the basis that it's pay day for both of us that week. I make a new friend. His name is Ted Baker and I end up walking away from his shop with a new hoodie and T-shirt. Smart. Wren buys a fancy pair of trousers, too. Happy with our purchases we return to the car.
Then it dawns... I have been parted from my mobile phone and car stereo.
This is a disaster... but no great surprise. Only that morning when my daughter was telling Wren of my capacity to lose things, including phones, I had argued vehemently: "I haven't lost a phone for ages."
As panic sets in I throw a small paddy, telling myself I am a total idiot and decrying the loss of the phone, in particular. It contains every phone number of everyone I know. What a pain. Who decided it was a good idea to use phones instead of address books to store numbers.
Wren watches me, perplexed, as I throw a bit of a hissy fit, empty the car boot then refill it. Then I ask her to stay by the car as I march back to the toilets, the Ted Baker shop and finally the security office where they say they will make inquiries. "How can we get in touch with you?" asks the security man. Well, he can hardly ring me on my phone, can he? And I can't remember Wren's number. In the end I take his number and will ring him from Wren's phone later.
When I get back to the car, having got lost around the back of the stores, I explain to Wren I've had no luck. We return to the shopping centre for one final look around.
Our last chance is the Coffee shop we visited first and as soon as I walk in the man behind the counter gives me a knowing "here's the idiot who left his phone and car stereo behind" look. He reaches under the counter and hands them over. I am so relieved I nearly faint.

On to Lavenham then, with piece of mind. It's a picturesque little village, a bit like one of those "Best Kept Villages" that the film Hot Fuzz takes the mickey out of. The trouble is very few people actually live there, it is all rental properties and holiday homes.
We are staying in a little B and B which is comfortable and friendly. That night we meet up with Wren's mum and dad. Dad and Wren spend ages discussing her new laptop and ways of connecting it to the Internet, none of which seem to work, while I find it easy to bond with her mum, who has the same contrary ways as me in the fact that she is determined to smoke even more now that "they" don't want us to. She even calls me her smoking "buddy" when we later eat at the Angel Inn in the town. We have a nice night out and meal before heading back via a "locals" pub called the Greyhound. Wren and I are the only occupants of the lounge. The strange characters in the bar are giving us "You're not from around 'ere, are you?" looks, like something from the League of Gentlemen. After a quick pint its home for an earlyk night in possibly the quietest place I've ever stayed in my life. Spooky.

TUESDAY: To Brighton - 140 miles.
After an enjoyable breakfast we take to the road again, Wren behind the wheel. We drive as far as the M25 and when we reach the Dartford crossing we swap drivers after a quick Burger King meal. Normally I wouldn't be seen dead in one of those, but this is just fuel for the journey.
The weather is awful and when we reach Brighton it looks like a typical, downtrodden British seaside town. The only people around look like druggies or tramps. There are boarded up shop front's on the way down to the pier and seafront. This seems like it might be a big mistake. How wrong you can be.
Hotel Alvia seems nice enough, though, and the girl on the front desk is very welcoming, helping us in with our huge number of bags. Another bonus: Wren can now access the internet so we look up things to do in Brighton on a Tuesday night. Very little. Even if you're gay, which we most definitely are not. Apparently, Brighton is the Gay capital of Britain.
To be continued...

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Gnocchi with bacon, cheese and mushrooms

IT was worth it just to see the moths at last liberated from his wallet. The wonderful one was awarded a promotion on Friday - he's now No 2 on the desk. The boss informed us it was quite ok to congratulate him and that he was sure Withers would buy everyone a drink in The Yard after work.
Withers wasn't so sure. Obviously the Boss doesn't know our scroogelike colleague very well. WoS most miserable man met everyone's congratulations with a humbug answer, declaring: "I may have been promoted but the boss can't tell me what to do after I finish work."
The wonderful one was brilliantly trapped when it came to his round, though. He was sneaking back to the bar when I asked, quite discreetly I thought: "Get us a pint of lager, please, mate."
He nodded disgruntledly. Then the others around the table, around nine at the last count, chimed in with their orders, too.
I couldn't resist following him to the bar and seeing his little face crease up in despair. "Nine pints of lager £22.50... the look on my colleague's face... priceless" as the ad might say.

I spoke too soon about the labradoodle not being a suitable dog for the Prince of Darkness. It does, in fact, have all the hallmarks of a serial killer.
The Prince was recently inundated with baby rabbits after his fluffy pets indulged in the leisure activity for which they are best known. But no sooner had these little ones joined the land of the living than the devil dog pounced, carrying them around in his drooling jowls. Oh dear!
Not only that but this young pup has all the hallmarks of progressing to a life of crime. Apparently it has also taken to stealing the Prince's wife's underwear off the clothes line. Someone, somewhere, is already doing a psychological profile of Caerleon's most wanted animal.

One day to go and then Wren and I are off on holiday. We are indulging in a bit of a road trip - but I'm not sure whether I am Thelma or Louise. First port of call is my house in Newbury Park, just outside Ilford, then it's on to see the Fat Kid in Southend before visiting Wren's parents in sunny Suffolk. From there we are going to have two days in a luxury hotel in Brighton, then return south in time to see the Gas play their first home game of the league season against the mighty Crewe. Finally, it's off to the luxurious Hotel Du Vin in Cheltenham on the basis that I thought the Gas would be playing in the Gloucestershire town at the time I booked.
Wren says it will be lovely to spend such quality time together, but added the rider: "We'll probably be at each others throats by the end of the week!"

Last night I cooked Gnocchi with bacon, cheese and mushrooms. Apologies if I've given you this recipe but it is a good, filling snack which doesn't take too much trouble.
Buy a vacuum pack of Gnocchi, empty into a pan of boiling water and wait for it to rise to the top. Meantime warm the oven on gas mark 4.
When Gnocchi is done put into an oven-proof dish and mix with thick chunks of blue cheese and a small amount of cream. Put into the oven.
Heat a frying pan, add olive oil, then cook chopped bacon and mushrooms until the bacon turns crispy.
Mix the Gnocchi from time to time then after 15 minutes dish up and put the bacon and mushrooms on top. Top with chilli flakes.

Friday, August 10, 2007

brain(wash) food

WE feared we may never see Withers again this week. The wonderful one headed off "oop north" to visit a Bhuddist retreat amid unqualified rumours that it was a kind of Waco Texas, a cult which brainwashed its inhabitants into living among them, advocating free love and such like.
God knows the wonderful one could do with some free love, or even some paid for love for that matter, but being the susceptible type he is there was a good chance that he would be indoctrinated by their beliefs, disowning family and friends (well, I suppose the second one wouldn't make much difference).
Alas, he came back.
On Wednesday night he turned up after a mammoth round trip to the wilds of north Wales, explaining that unfortunately there was no nude chanting in the woods or group sex of any kind. He did, though, have a very enjoyable free vegetarian lunch.
The story of his return was not without drama, however. Driving out of this rural retreat he turned left instead of right, heading up a mountain until it became virtually impossible to turn. As he negotiated this tricky, bendy road, he began to wonder how he would get down again until, finally, he reached a plateau.
The road, by this pointf, was very thin and on either side there was a danger of rolling the company car down a cliff.
So the wonderful one set about attempting a three-point turn.
Did I say three point? It ended up being a 25-point turn, in the manner of Austin Powers on his buggy in one of his early films.
The audience, lucky for the panicking Withers, consisted of mainly mountain goats and sheep.

We quit The Yard for the Hard Rock Cafe this week. A terribly difficult decision to make, but made much easier by the fact that a. There are far more smoking tables available outside and b. They were selling pints of Becks at £2 each in a happy hour that lasted until 7. I bought the first round for myself, the Prince of Darkness and Smashy.
Later Withers turned up. By this time it was Smashy's round and he offered the new arrival a drink.
"Are you sure," asked the Wonderful One, shocked at this generous offer.
"Yep. It will be your round next and by then the prices will have gone up," explained the calculating Smashy.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Grilled chicken with spinach and pea risotto

THERE is a new date on the social calendar. On the basis that the sun has only come out for a couple of days all year, I decided on Monday afternoon that it would be a shame to waste the chance of sitting outside a boozer, soaking up the rays and downing a cold one.
So who should I ask to join me on this departure from the norm? First call went to Withers, then Roberts, and finally Smashy.
Roberts was hesitant. "I'm in the middle of writing some stuff for this World Cup rugby magazine that is supposed to be in by tomorrow."
"Why not write it tomorrow morning then?"
Withers wasn't so easily persuaded. "I'm buying a present for my Dad's birthday at the moment. Mind you, I could be in the pub in half an hour."
Fair enough.
Smashy had an even more interesting response to my impromptu call to "Arms", or perhaps that should be The Yard.
"But it's Monday."
"Yes, but it's sunny."
"OK, see you at 4."
What a tough task to get these creatures of habit to break with the rules.
As for Danny Boy (the poipes, the poipes)... no one has the number for the current bus shelter he is sleeping in.
Anyway, it appears his days of caution-to-the-wind benders may be on the wane. His embarrassing Saturday no-show the other week is still fresh in his mind, I'll wager, not helped by the fact that Smashy keeps saying things like "It's Saturday, Dan, what are you doing up?"

As it was, I later found out that Danny Boy (the poipes, the poipes) was having his Western Mail and Echo Ltd indoctrination session (they call it induction: you say tomayto I say tomato). This is when the new boys and girls are introduced to the wonderful workings of this endearingly archaic establishment.
It's a bit like when Will Smith joins the Men in Black operation and encounters all manner of strange beings. In Danny's case they are Human Resources operatives with names like Agent AJ or "training managers" like Pat "Johnny" English.
As the day winds its way interminably on you learn to bend your knees while picking up boxes and how the Company Intranet is a veritable minefield of information when you can actually access it. This, the newbies are told, can happen at the click of a button.
Wrong, according to Danny Boy (the poipes, the poipes).
"This girl kept clicking on the mouse and nothing happened. So she would do it again and again, thinking that eventually it might work. It didn't".
Welcome to the world of WME IT.
Anyway, because of all this Danny Boy (the poipes, etc, etc) was unable to join us.

The rest of us had a very pleasant afternoon. Roberts spent long hours into the evening debating the merits of Japanese rice crackers with the barman while Withers waffled on about the new housemate who may or may not be joining him -"she works in Spiller's records" (a plus point) and hasn't met Withers yet (a definite plus point).
There was also a long discussion (not involving Withers because it wasn't about politics) about how bad the Wales rugby side were in their World Cup "warm up" against England which they lost by a record 62-5.
But the main item of debate was the new Social Date in the calendar. Someone suggested it should be called Monday Fun Day. But I've heard that one before.
My own preference: More beer Monday. From now on, I decree, it shall take place on every first Monday in August.

Stumbled home and went to sleep still considering this vital point. On Tuesday I kept up my good health kick with a very nice dinner of Grilled chicken with spinach and pea risotto.
Olive oil
Four sliced spring onions
risotto rice (Arborio or something, it's apparently called)
Chicken stock
Chicken breasts - as many as you fancy.
Frozen peas
Bag of spinach
Salt and pepper

Heat the grill
Season the chicken
put a small amount of olive oil in a wok or frying pan
Heat, then add the spring onions and stir around and cook for four or five mins until they soften.
Add the rice (a cup full should be plenty)
Stir around for about a minute then add the stock, a bit at a time, stirring until it is soaked up by the rice.
Add the frozen peas and a bit more stock then cook on low heat, stirring occasionally.
Rinse about half a bag of spinach.

Meanwhile, brush the chicken breasts with olive oil then put under the grill. Cook for 10 minutes, turning until chicken is done.

Back to the risotto. Add the spinach and stir in, then allow to wilt before turning off the heat.
Serve the chicken on a bed of spinach and pea risotto with two chunks of wholemeal bread, covered in margerine.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

sultana bran and a bacon sandwich

GETTING into work today was like playing a starring role on the Krypton Factor. Every way I turned the roads seemed to be cut off.
You see, our loveable council are pedestrianising St Mary's Street, the main thoroughfare through Cardiff, but forgot to tell us that this would involve other streets being closed down - like the one that passes by our office.
Basil, who has continued chirping to his heart's content over the last few days, even when the alarm is supposedly off, was getting in a real tizzy... as was his owner. Turn left and you would meet a sign barring you from entry, turn right and you suddenly found you were heading the wrong way down a street that once encouraged traffic to travel in both directions.
Getting to the office itself was an impossibility. Just when I had mastered all the twists and turns I came across a street blocked by red and white bollards. Drat. Finally I opted to turn the car around, head for home and get the bus back instead.
Others were far more ingenious, though. Nathan, for instance. He just stopped the car in the street, got out, removed the bollards and drove through to the office car park.
I sent Bram a message, too, warning him that he might have some problems. Ten hours later it arrived at his mobile phone, which he turns on about twice a day to preserve the battery.
By then he had been at work for nine hours.

Been following my new health kick and have had sultana bran all week on the basis that my blood test results suggested I was on the verge of a coronary. Frightened, I went out and bought more than £80 of healthy, fat-free food. It really bugged me, as I am a meat-eater at heart.
Then I saw my doctor. "I don't believe this result, I think they've made a mistake at the hospital and accidentally added a digit."
B*ll***s. Now I've got to live like a gerbil for the next month.

The Echo ran a story today about a brilliant website, which is being sponsored by a well-known fast food chain. On it, as long as you have a passport photo-style picture on your computer, you can turn yourself into a character from my favourite TV programme The Simpsons. Having had the treat of seeing the Simpsons film with Wren last Sunday I couldn't wait to try it.
I came out exactly in cartoon form as I have developed in real life. Not even a caricature. Bald head, unkempt look... you get the picture (though its a bit better than the one that Withers put on this blog).
Anyway if you want to have a crack go to: It's brill.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Balti Aubergine Bhartha

SPENT last night dozing in front of the TV and trying to shake off my man flu. While doing so I saw one of the most pointless pieces of television I have ever had the misfortune to witness. It was called Football's Hardest Away Days and featured a woman called Carol travelling with Leeds United fans to Millwall.
The hardest thing that happened to Carol was she got caught short when she needed a pee at the train station. She and her son had to leave the train. The rest of the day passed pretty uneventfully, apart from the ritual abuse she received from home fans, who chanted the question: "Who's the slapper in the white". Now they know.
It did remind me of some of the worst away day trips of my youth with the Gas. On one occasion, waiting for the coach, only six of us turned up and the trip was cancelled, so we all clambered into a mate's Ford Escort and drove to Burnley. On the way back we got as far as Cheltenham before the prop-shaft broke and we ended up paying £25 each for a taxi back to Bristol. And we lost, as usual.
Those were the days.

Mind you, if I have had a pretty uneventful week, pity poor Wathanovski. He went to his local Blockbusters DVD store the other day and decided it was time to encounter his first experience of 24, the thrill-per-minute series featuring Jack Bauer (Keifer Sutherland) which is done in real time.
He and the Teacher got out the first series of 24 episodes which, yes you guessed it, last 24 hours. Trouble is he had to return the set within a week.
Cue Wathanovski and Mrs, crashed on the sofa with matchsticks holding open their eyes, having to watch every minute of the series. "To be honest, it became a bit of an endurance test," said Wathanovsk who, as a man intent on running a half-marathon in the near future, is now fully aware of what the word stamina means.
Scarier, the moment the programme finished in the wee small hours of the morning a helicopter flew low over the Wathanovski household, searchlight beams scouring the fields outside his country retreat. In his heightened frame of paranoia, brought on by this avid DVD watching, who could blame the young man for believing his house was about to be raided by balaclava-wearing, kalachnikov-wielding middle eastern terrorists?

So on to the Aubergine bhartha then. Cut a dutch aubergine lengthways in two, then put under the grill, browning both sides.
Cool in cold water, then skin and chop and mash the flesh with a fork.
Put oil in the Karahi or small frying pan, add a teaspoon of cumin seeds and a chopped clove of garlic.
Wait until it sizzles then add the aubergine, 4ozs of chopped fresh tomatoes, salt, red chilli powder and turmeric.
Simmer for 10 minutes with a lid on.
Add one teaspoon of coriander powder and one teaspoon of cumin and simmer for two minutes. Then add chopped spring onion, two chopped green chillis, a teaspoon of garam masala and six tablespoons of fresh coriander.
Stir, remove from heat and keep covered for five minutes before serving.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Indonesian hot and sour prawn curry

I'M suffering from man flu. It started the moment the bad weather stopped and the sun came out. Typical. I blame it on the walk in the park Wren and I took on Sunday afternoon.
I'm not a great fan of walking in the park on a sunny day. Too many people, too many boisterous kids and too many buzzing insects. All those people spreading their germs. Bah!
It's almost as if it is compulsory to go out when it is a sunny day in this country. Still, I felt it was my duty to follow the herd rather than sit in all afternoon watching the cricket on TV.
It's women who came up with the name for this particular version of the common cold. They claim it is because we men sit around feeling sorry for ourselves and moaning. Apparently, women don't have time to be ill. It's the martyr in them, I guess, and the Fat Kid is quick to emphasise this, saying: "I've got to look after the kids."
What she actually means by that is she can't laze about in bed all day because she has to pack the kids off to school so that she can settle down on the sofa and watch wall-to-wall TV crap like Jeremy Kyle, Trisha, Rikki Lake and Montell Williams. I think we should refer to this as Bird Flu.
Anyway, looking at me on Wednesday night you would be forgiven for thinking that red-nose day had arrived early. My bedroom was like an advert for Andrex, with bits of toilet roll lying everywhere, and I was wondering what I could do to alleviate my misery. On these occasions, I normally opt for a curry.
In one of my Observer food mags I found the ideal recipe, Indonesian hot and sour prawn curry, and decided that the hotter I made it the better the chance of actually tasting it, plus the fact I might be able to sweat the cold out during the night.
The recipe contained six green chillis, sliced with the seeds removed, an operation that I carried out without problem. Unfortunately, I forgot to wash my hands immediately after deseeding the little bundles of heat. Big mistake.
At one stage I felt a sneeze brewing, and quickly put my hands to my nose to prevent myself from blowing the ingredients of said curry all over the kitchen floor.
Aaaaaah! Hot chilli residue and red raw skin don't mix AT ALL. My nose was burning as I ran around the house cussing myself loudly for such a stupid mistake. Still, at least the pain made me forget the sniffles.

The Indonesian hot and sour curry involved a fair bit of work, but was well worth it. The recipe contains ginger and Tamarind juice but I had earlier bought a jar of ginger and Tamarind curry paste which did the trick admirably.
What you need:
12-16 raw king or tiger prawns, peeled and de-veined.
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp chilli power
3 tablespoons groundnut oil.
For the sauce:
3 tbsp oil
one large red onion, chopped (more if you really love onions)
4 cloves of garlic, sliced thinly
1 jar of ginger and tamarind curry paste
2-6 green chillis, deseeded and sliced lengthways
six large, skinned and chopped tomatoes (apparently the best way to skin them is to put them in hot water first, but I didn't realise that until after I had spent wrestling with them for about half an hour)
chopped spring onions and deep fried shallot for garnish.

To do:
Rub the prawns with salt, turmeric and chilli powder, then set aside for 10 minutes.
Heat the groundnut oil. Fry prawns for two minutes, turning, then remove from wok.
Drain them on kitchen paper then replace the oil and heat again.
Add the onions and cook for 10-12 minutes on low heat to colour and soften them.
Add garlic slices and chillies and stir fry for a further minute or so.
Add a teaspoonful of ground coriander and continue cooking for a minute.
Add the tomatoes, tamarind and ginger curry paste and stir and cook on low heat for five minutes.
Add prawns and stir for two minutes to heat through and finish cooking.
In a small frying pan heat oil and then fry the shallots until they turn brown and crispy.
Drain on kitchen paper and turn heat off main dish.
Scatter the shallots and spring onions over the top of the main dish before serving with rice. I also cooked balti aubergine bhartha, and shall provide the recipe on this blog at a later date.
Meanwhile, I'm off to soak my poor, damaged nose in a bucket of cold water...