Paul Dundon’s Weblog

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A little cheese and a little whine

a mind wanders

The taxi driver’s phone rings. He doesn’t answer, choosing instead to concentrate on driving me to my destination. At least, I assume that is how he thinks. Perhaps, though, he just doesn’t want to answer the call, it is someone he doesn’t want to speak to. I cannot tell. I wonder who it might be. I know nothing of his friends, of his family. What is his life like? How is it different from mine? Does he have children? Was he born here? Does he live with a wife, a mother? It seems absurd; we are sitting just a few feet apart and yet the courses of our lives are almost entirely separate. But for the few minutes of this journey, we stand apart completely. And even these few minutes are governed by silence, not uncomfortable, but part of the form. We might make conversation, of course, but it seems that neither of use would take any great pleasure in it. A transaction, a game in which we are not fully present as people. And a game in which I have the upper hand. Throughout the ages, the customer exploits the artisan. How long have there been taxi drivers? A hundred and fifty years maybe. And in another twenty, perhaps there will be no more. Perhaps they will be replaced by robots, or perhaps society will fall apart, and there will be no cars, no easy journeys. We are playing a game located in a specific place in history. A particular set of economic conditions that mean I sit in silence in the back of a car, part of a tradition that will soon pass away. This is how people of a certain class move from one place to another in my lifetime, in his lifetime, at this point in the story of humanity. Moving from place to place because our world is articulated, broken apart by function. To do this we must be there. So we travel, we move about, we traipse from place to place. And time, too, is articulated: if we want to do this we must do it then. And there is a multitude of thens, a multitude of journeys, taxi drivers for a century carrying me there to do this because it is then. And before that there are other places, other journeys, because that is how the universe is built. Time is what stops everything from happening at once, as Einstein said; and space, I suppose, stops everything from being in the same place. Space makes individuals possible, means that you are not me, that I am not the taxi driver. Space necessitates motion, and motion only makes sense if there is space. Motion, location, neither comprehensible without the other. Here is not there because I have to move from here to get there; I can move to there because there is not here. Two complementary ideas, each dependent on the other for meaning. Or is there some more fundamental thought, some concept that might underpin them both, explaining them, and perhaps illuminating something more profound?

The phone stops ringing.

Filed under: Uncategorized

The Age of the Troll

Flame war (n): a lengthy exchange of angry or abusive messages between users of an online forum or other discussion area.

Troll (n): One who posts a deliberately provocative message to a newsgroup or message board with the intention of causing maximum disruption and argument

Iain Duncan Smith has done Remainers a huge favour with these remarks reported in the Express. It’s a favour because it enables articles like this one. IDS, we are to believe, is an idiot, a man fundamentally misinformed and so caught up in Europhobic zealotry that he is willing to tear up the constitution if it gets him what he wants, a man with no respect for the country’s traditions, a man who cannot be trusted. By implication, the whole Leave camp is similarly ignorant, similarly ill-informed, similarly driven by emotion rather than reason. We woz right all along: Brexit was a mistake, a deception, a moment of madness, and must be stopped.

And we are again a step further away from building consensus, from having a rational exchange of views and concerns, from healing the division in the country and pulling together the best of our nature and abilities to find a way forwards.

The picture that has emerged since the referendum is that Leave voters (and I’m sure the same is true of Remain, although I don’t know of any evidence) had much more nuanced, reasonable and well-informed opinions than the Leave campaign itself. People were motivated by very reasonable concerns and took time to inform themselves about the issue. The Leave campaign, for example, spoke of extra money for the NHS; this didn’t fool Remain voters – but it didn’t really fool Leave voters either.

Yet it isn’t the reasonable case for Leave, the case that had decent, rational, well-informed people across the country convinced, that Remainers heard. I’m pretty sure that the converse is also true; the appellation “Project Fear” doesn’t attach to my reasons for voting Remain, but might be an apt description of the way the Remain campaign was heard in the Leave camp. Instead, we heard a shifting chimera of misinformation and jingoism which hardly amounted to an argument, let alone one worth answering.

This latest spat over IDS is more of the same.

IDS could, of course, have kept his mouth shut. But equally, the Express had no particular journalistic duty to report his remarks. He isn’t a cabinet minister. He has no role in the Brexit process and presumably no particular influence in it. He is not an expert on the constitution nor, one would think, particularly influential as an MP. In short, it doesn’t really matter what he thinks in the great scheme of things.

So we must ask, why do the press keep pouring oil on the fire? If I wanted to play my hand here, I might argue that the right-wing interests behind the mainstream press have no interest in a reasoned conversation about Brexit lest the Leave camp come to their senses and change their minds. This would be unfair, however: I’m sure there are just as many cynical interests on the Remain side who are equally worried that, given a real conversation between real people, support for derailing the Brexit process would wane.

There is in fact a much simpler explanation: as one social media expert put it, angry people click. People buy papers that make them feel part of the drama. No-one wants to read tedious articles about the UK constitution. If IDS had said “Naturally we are frustrated by this delay but accept the lawful intervention of the court, in line with statute and legal precedent” it wouldn’t sell a single copy. In short, it is in the interests of the media to perpetuate the flame war, to reduce us to caricatures of our reasonable selves, and to have us hurl abuse rather than take one another seriously.

The public are caught in the middle of a flame war with media on all sides playing the trolls. Mainstream and independent media are, I think, equally complicit, but the real villains are people like you and me. Every click that’s preceded by a sigh and a “for goodness’ sake!” is another bone thrown to the trolls and another splash of oil on the fire.

This state of affairs is, I think, the natural product of a world in which there is more news media than we can possibly consume, but it serves powerful interests superbly well. Busy trading insults, we forget who the real villains are: rapacious businesses mistreating their employees, construction companies assuring that the housing ladder is missing the bottom few rungs, a banking sector that does little for the real economy, an incompetent government intent on dismantling social security and the welfare state, and a press controlled by too few people and too strapped for cash to do real journalism.

We have to find it in ourselves to rise above our simpler instincts. We must all be better men and women, and take pause before we bang our heads on the walls of our echo chambers. We shout at the press for being biased, for getting their facts wrong, for inflating and conflating the issues; but the truth is that we are the ones paying them to do so. There’s no harm in a little drama and no reason why one shouldn’t read things that confirm ones beliefs; but we have to stop shouting, and start listening, if we’re going to come together as a nation and find a way through the challenges ahead.

Filed under: Uncategorized

Oh, das Rheingold!

To the tune of “My Darling Clementine”

In a cavern, in a canyon
By the mighty river Rhein
Dwelt a race of dwarfs a-workin’
In a hot and fiery mine

One amongst ’em went a-swimming
And, enticed by maidens three
Tried to goose them and seduce them
But was spurned for all to see

He grew angry and frustrated
He was furious, he was sick
And the maids he then berated
And his name was Alberich

Thus rejected, and dejected,
He abjured all earthly love
And he stole the sisters’ gold there
Glistening in the sun above

Now that gold, it was enchanted
And such mighty power did bring
That the dwarf all love recanted
And he made a magic ring

Oh das Rheingold, oh das Rheingold
Oh das Rheingold is divine!
But we needed something shorter;
Dreadful sorry, Clementine.

Meanwhile Wotan was a-gloatin’
O’er his castle in the sky
Which he’d had two giants build him
For a promise and a lie

His wife Fricka had a sister
And he’d promised in his pride
That the ones who built the castle
Would then have her as their bride

Poor old Freia, ‘tdid dismay her
To be used as payment thus
And it made old Fricka bicker
With her spouse and curse and cuss

Wotan, calmer, tried to calm her
Then his plan he did reveal
He had asked the trickster Loge
To find a way to break the deal

Enter Loge: quite the rogue, a
God who’d been around the earth
To discover from the lover
What they deemed of equal worth

East and West and worst and best and
Rich and poor and young and old
There was but one thing that men would
Trade for love, and that was gold

He told Wotan, sugar-coatin’
This bad news with an appeal
That the gods restore the treasure
That old Alberich did steal

Loge shared it, Wotan heard it
And it came into his head
That the treasure of the maidens
Might be used to pay instead

Both the giants, they agreed it
Though of Freia they took hold
Giving Wotan until sunset
To deliver Alberich’s gold

Oh das Rheingold, oh das Rheingold,
Oh das Rheingold is on tour
We began the show at lunchtime
And we won’t be done by four

Follow fire and follow anvils
Follow smoke and follow grime
Go through mountain, cave and cavern
And you come to Nibelheim

There is Alberich, who with magic
Has enslaved the Nibelung all
And has forged a magic helmet
Making him invisi-ball

All the Nibelung work for Alberich
Mining gold for all they’re worth
And the treasure, ‘tis his pleasure
For he hopes to rule the earth

Enter Loge, enter Wotan
And they start to hatch their plot
They must get the gold from Alberich
Whether he agrees or not

Wotan chatters, Loge flatters
Of the helmet they enquire
And the dwarf boasts of his treasure
And the fear he can inspire

Loge praises Alberich’s helmet
But he’s playing now for keeps
So he asks how he’d prevent that
Someone steals it while he sleeps

Alberich quickly dons the helmet
(Such a terrible mistake)
And he shows how it allows him
To become a giant snake

“But could you be something smaller?”
Loge asks him in a goad
And to demonstrate his power
Alberich turns into a toad

In an instant Loge, Wotan
They both pounce upon the dwarf
Bind him up in chains and shackles
And then drag the poor dear orf.

Oh das Rheingold, oh das Rheingold
Oh the scoring is a hit
But it takes a dozen porters to get the
Anvils in the pit

Poor old Alberich, held to ransom
Must relinquish all his loot
For the gods they want the treasure
And the helmet charmed to boot

He surrenders all the Rheingold
But the ring he still retains
But the gods insist on adding it to
Their ill-gotten gains

Wotan rips it from his finger
Alberich swears and shouts; and worse
Lays on those who own the ring a
Truly terrifying curse

Our two giants come to Wotan
All their payment for to find
And the god he puts before them
All the gold that Alberich’s mined

So the question then arises
How much gold is Freia worth?
And the giants have the answer:
Make a pile of Freia’s girth

Oh das Rheingold, oh das Rheingold
Costs a fortune if it’s staged
But there’s usually concessions
For the students and unwaged

So the goddess Freia stands there
By this process much abused
And to satisfy the giants
Every piece of gold is used

But the giants find a chink through
Which the goddess might be scanned
And the only gold that’s left now
Is the ring on Wotan’s hand

They can’t stand it, and demand it’s
Added to their sordid fee
But the god, he starts a-shouting
“No, the ring belongs to me!”

Hark! a voice comes from the rafters
Telling Wotan to desist
And he scans the gods around him
Wondering what it is he’s missed

For ’twas Erda, and we heard her
Sing a story of the deep
For the waters hold her daughters
And the gold is theirs to keep

Good ol’ Wotan starts emotin’
‘bout the power of the ring
But our Erda cries blue murder
And berates the greedy king

Wotan hears her, and he fears her
So the ring he will release
His compliance leads the giants
To depart the gods in peace

But the giants start to quarrel
And to squabble and to scold
And the one he kills the other
And then leaves with all the gold

Oh das Rheingold, oh das Rheingold
Oh das Rheingold is a thrill
We’ve been here two solid hours
And the music’s playing still

Wotan’s happy with his castle
Having beaten all the odds
And he calls its name Valhalla
As a home for all the gods

Dear ol’ Freia, slightly greyer
Can return to tend her tree
Giving all her golden apples
And their immortality

Cousin Donner smiled upon ‘er
And a storm he quickly sowed
Giving thunder for a fanfare
And a rainbow for a road

See the gods, they cross the rainbow
Leaving Loge feeling vexed
He will not go to Valhalla
‘Cos he knows what happens next…

Oh das Rheingold, Oh das Rheingold
Take it from the horse’s mouth
How four dozen simple verses
Save you visiting Bayreuth!

Filed under: Humour

Some Thoughts on the Economics of Brexit

I have no special expertise in economics, but my reasons for voting Remain were economic ones, so I thought it was worth setting them out in the unlikely event that anyone cares about why I voted as I did.

Letting the Dust Settle

Once Article 50 is invoked, two processes begin. The EU decides on what basis they are willing to relate to us moving forward, and the ROW (Rest Of the World) starts positioning itself to do the same. The ROW can’t really decide what to do until the EU has spoken, but some groundwork can be done. At the end of these processes, we have a new trade agreement with the EU and new trade agreements with ROW.

How long will all this take? Trade agreements typically take about eight years to negotiate and there’s a general expectation that Article 50 takes two years to run. Let’s think optimistically, then: let’s say we wrap up Article 50 in one year, and the ROW negotiations go quickly and take just four years, and can start at the same time as Article 50, so we have a four year period of negotiation in total.

Pessimistically, after two years of Article 50 we still don’t have a deal we can live with so we hang in for another year, and the ins-and-outs of those negotiations constantly undermine our negotiations with ROW, so the clock on ROW negotiations doesn’t start until those three years are up, and then it takes the full eight years to negotiate new trade agreements. That gives a pessimistic figure of twelve years before the new set of agreements are in place.

Let’s split the difference and say eight years. No; let’s err on the side of optimism and say six. Now, once the new agreements are in place, businesses have to figure out how to take advantage of them before they really contribute to the economy. That’s probably going to take a year or two, but again, let’s be optimistic and say that this happens right away.

Investor Confidence

Over those six years, British businesses represent a greater investment risk than they did before the vote. An investment isn’t risky because you think it will fail; it’s risky because you don’t know if it will fail or not. Once Article 50 is served, investors will look at British businesses and think “I don’t know if this is a safe place to put my money, and I can’t know until these negotiations are concluded.” Now, I’m not saying that suddenly British businesses are going to become toxic – there will still be people happy to invest in them, but even in the optimistic case, British businesses will become a riskier proposition than they are at present, and remain a riskier proposition for six years.

Now, investors have a choice of where they put their money, and basically there are four relevant options: commodities (eg gold, oil); foreign businesses; British businesses; and government bonds. If British businesses become riskier, then the others, by comparison, become less risky, so money will move away from British businesses to the other three.

British businesses do not have to stand by helpless, of course. What they have to do to get money flowing back is to increase their profitability. The more the potential profits, the greater the risk investors will tolerate, so if you suddenly find you’re a riskier investment, the thing to do is to improve your margins.

How do businesses do this? The easiest thing to do is cut costs, because you have much more control over costs than income; and the easiest cost to cut is labour, because that’s the one you have most control over. So, you lay off staff and you cut wages; you defer recruitment; you demand that your staff work harder. In short, unemployment rises, wages fall, and working conditions get worse. Businesses can, of course, increase their prices; this leads to inflation, with everyone able to afford less. Living standards generally go down and the value of savings is eroded.

As unemployment rises, and wages fall, people have less free cash so the domestic market for goods and services starts to shrink. Businesses lose revenue, and the uncertainty about long term trading prospects makes it difficult for them to compensate for that by exploiting foreign markets (there are no new trade agreements in place at this point, remember). There is a risk, then, that we get caught in a vicious cycle, with rising unemployment leading to falling sales leading to rising unemployment, against a background of increasing prices.

Economic Growth

Thinking optimistically, we might be able to cause just enough unemployment to retain investment without the economy flat out collapsing. If we’re pessimistic, then even retaining a small amount of investment will pull us into recession. Let’s split the difference, and say that the economy flatlines – no recession, but no growth.

No; let’s be optimistic again. Over the last couple of years, UK GPD has grown by about 0.6% every quarter. Let’s assume that, instead of recession, or even flatlining, the reduction in investment just causes a bit of a slowdown and the economy continues to grow at half that rate. We’ve established a period of six years for the dust to settle, that is, before we see the benefit of new trade agreements. Over this time we would see the economy grow by 7%. This compares to it growing by 15% if we continued growing at our current rate. That is, Brexit halves our prospects of economic growth over the next six years, even thinking optimistically.

This is all crystal ball stuff, of course. But, it’s hard to see how there won’t be a reduction in investment in British businesses, given that they become a riskier proposition; and it’s hard to see how that doesn’t cause some reduction in economic growth; so the question is how much reduction it causes. Saying we avoid recession is pretty optimistic; saying we retain a reasonable level of growth, as I have done here, is even more so.

Recovery

Let’s try to stay positive though; Brexit, we might say, wasn’t meant to be a quick fix. Let’s say this is a ten year project, so we need to allow ourselves four more years to recover that loss. We’ve had six years of higher unemployment, lower wages and worse working conditions, but let’s say we can stomach another four. The end of uncertainty, let’s say, restores investor confidence and money flows back into British businesses. Left to its own devices, GDP growth would return to 0.6% per quarter. If we’d had a steady 0.6% growth over those ten years, the economy would have grown by 27%. To get the same overall growth after six years of limited growth, GDP would have to grow by 1.05% per quarter for those four recovery years.

That growth would have to come from improved trade, ie, selling our goods abroad (because that’s the only positive economic change Brexit gives us). Again, let’s be optimistic and assume we can do this right away – businesses don’t have to spend time marketing, establishing their brand, setting up operations etc. At the end of those six years, GDP would be within a gnat’s of £3tn, compared to the £3.2tn we would expect without those six limited years. Over those four recovery years, we’d expect GDP to total just shy of £12tn, compared to £12.9tn without the limited growth. So, over those four years, increased trade has to pull in a little under £900bn, or about £222bn per year, to compensate for our loss.

Let’s again be optimistic and assume that our trade with Europe remains the same, so all we have to do is boost ROW exports by £222bn (we don’t have to make up any lost trade with Europe). In 2015, our exports to ROW totalled £171bn. In other words, to make up for lost growth, we would have to significantly more than double our exports to ROW. If this doesn’t seem unrealistic, try to consider what it means in terms of individual sales, of actual business people finding actual customers. Imagine you’re a salesperson, and your boss comes to you and says “I need you to sell more than twice as much as you sold last year, and all your additional sales have to come from outside Europe.” With the best will in the world, how do you rise to that challenge?

So, thinking optimistically, with everything going smoothly and no catastrophes, we are looking at six years of increased unemployment, lower wages and worsened working conditions, and even in ten years, we will still be suffering the loss. We’re not talking the end of civilisation here; I don’t expect to see Westminster Bridge in flames or the Four Horsemen galloping across it. But even in the best case, the worst off in this country are going to be even worse off than they are now, for at least ten years. That seems an awfully high price to pay for any other benefits Brexit might bring us.

Filed under: Uncategorized

Beating the EU Bogeyman

When a child tells us they can’t sleep because they are afraid of the bogeyman, it is tempting to hear “blah blah blah bogeyman” and launch into a long explanation about how the bogeyman isn’t real. This, of course, accomplishes nothing, because what we really need to hear is “I’m afraid”: afraid of the terror of my nightmares, afraid of the wild animals which might lurk in the darkness at the end of the bed, afraid that when I wake up, you won’t be here. Only when we hear this, and take it seriously, can we make the bogeyman disappear.

The debate on EU membership has focused on three issues: cost, immigration, and sovereignty. For remainers, these are non-issues: the cost is just a membership fee for a club which brings many benefits; immigration is a way to add human capital to an economy which isn’t always successful at producing it locally; and there are sufficient constitutional safeguards in place to mean we still have effective control of our own laws. The assumption, then, is that leavers just don’t understand the facts (a view reinforced by the distortion of facts by leave leaders) and that if things were just explained properly, leavers would change their minds. The bogeyman isn’t real.

This, of course, accomplishes nothing. What we need to hear in “I’m afraid of immigration” is not “blah blah blah immigration” but, of course, “I’m afraid.” Afraid I will lose my job or remain unemployed; that my children will spend their lives chasing one zero-hour contract after another; afraid that the world is becoming a place I don’t understand, and cannot navigate; afraid that the people who make the laws that govern me don’t know what matters to me, don’t have my interests at heart, and hide behind so much bureaucracy that I have no way to hold them to account.

These fears are quite understandable. While levels of employment are high, the terms of employment are, for many people, increasingly unfavourable: Mike Ashley is the tip of the iceberg in a world where people who rely on tips to make ends meet see their employers take a cut out of them. Equality legislation has created a fairer society but an unfamiliar one (even though I’ve been campaigning for LGBT rights since my teens, I still get disorientated when my gay friends talk about their children). Technology has connected people in new ways, but by that very process has created new modes of exclusion. The right’s inability to distinguish racism from nationalism has made us queasy at the thought of taking pride a national identity, and the papers read by the people who run the country spend a lot of time extolling the virtues of living in another one.

This isn’t to say that every leaver is motivated by ill-targeted anxiety; there are those for whom there are clear and well-reasoned arguments for leaving, but they are not typical. The success of UKIP at the last election should have made it clear that there was a significant proportion of the population whose concerns were not being addressed by the mainstream parties. The mainstream parties – giddy with an unanticipated success on one side, torn apart by the reality of defeat on the other – ignored this. Thinking of Farage as a rabble-rouser implicitly characterises his supporters as rabble: people, perhaps, to be brought around by a superior rhetoric (the bogeyman isn’t real) but not people whose needs, and values, and fears had to be taken seriously. Not merely an oversight, but an arrogant one, and one for which the country may pay the price in a few days.

It is hard to know how these fears may be put to rest, but in the time that remains between now and the referendum, there is perhaps the chance to listen to them, not at the institutional level, to be sure, but at the personal one. There is a slim opportunity for remainers to reach out to the leavers they know and try at least to take them seriously, not in blaming the EU for their worries, but in what those worries really are, and what can really be done about them. The bogeyman may or may not be real, but the anxiety is both real and well-founded, and we owe it to our future to take it seriously.

 

Filed under: Politics

That Birthday Dinner Party in Full

Rose Biscuits

These, like many of the evening’s dishes, were obtained from the Good Food Network. GFN have lots of good stuff and are great to deal with – it’s well worth checking out their site.

Watercress Soup with Rosemary Sourdough and Homemade Butter

The soup was broadly based on this recipe but I used about half the quantity of peas, potato and onion and omitted the cream. Crucially, instead of vegetable stock I used the stock from poaching two ham hocks on a previous occasion.

The bread was sourdough made by my usual method, adding two teaspoons of rosemary. TBH I don’t think the rosemary added much but double the quantity might have made a more definite impression.

I made the butter using guidance from this article. I don’t own butter bats so had to wash and dry the butter by hand. This was an absolute nightmare; I think butter is one of those things best made in a factory, unless you happen to have a source of particularly good cream.

Beech Smoked Mackerel

This was another acquisition from GFN. The salad was just a mixed leaf salad, dressed in the oil from the mackerel mixed with a little tomato puree.

Goat’s Cheese and Walnut Tart with Avocado and Lime Caviar

The pastry for this was a high-fat shortcrust pastry, using 2:1.2 flour to fat, with the fat made up of 3:1 butter to lard. I blended everything in a food processor and added 1 egg yolk (for about 130g flour) and enough water to just bring it together as a dough. I’ve been experimenting with pastry recently, including using the traditional French “fraiser” technique, and I have to say the dough I got using the food processor was just as good.

I lined the tart cases with the pastry and left them in the fridge for an hour before trimming them and baking them blind for 10 minutes at 200C.

The lower layer of the filling was a crème patisserie made with 25g flour, 2 egg yolks, 250ml milk and 100g of ground walnut, seasoned with a little salt and pepper (and, of course, no sugar). I would have used 4 egg yolks but ran out of eggs!

The upper layer was goat’s cheese blended with just enough cream to make it flexible enough to pipe using a piping bag, and a little (1 part in 20, roughly) parmesan for a bit more flavour.

The tarts were baked for about 20 minutes at 200C, until the cheese browned.

The avocados were just ripe; I didn’t do anything other than peel and slice them.

To make the lime caviar, I put a bottle of vegetable oil in the freezer for a couple of hours. Then, I mixed 80ml of lime juice with 1tsp of glucose and 1g agar-agar, and brought the mixture to the boil. I let this cool for about 10 minutes, then filled a tall half-litre glass with the oil and used a pipette to drop droplets of the lime juice mixture into it.

This process is very sensitive to the temperature of the oil and the size of the droplets. If the oil is too cold, the droplets don’t sink; if it’s too warm, they don’t solidify properly and stick together at the bottom of the glass. If the droplets are too small, they don’t sink; if they are too big, they don’t solidify properly on the inside so they don’t stick but are prone to bursting. If you have problems with the droplets sinking, a little nudge with the back of the pipette will usually get them moving.

This is really a matter of trial and error, but on the plus side, if the lime mixture solidifies while you’re buggering about, gentle reheating will bring it back to a liquid state. Also, if you’ve got the lime mixture right, it should solidify when you let it reach room temperature (because that’s essentially what you want the droplets to do).

The droplets will hold in the oil for a few hours (if need be). After this, tip the mixture into a sieve and gently rinse the caviar with cold water. You should find that the individual “pearls” will separate reasonably well, but too much poking around or exposure to water might reduce the lot to a limey slush.

Tarelli Biscuits with Chilli Garlic

These were just two acquisitions from GFN served together.

Salmon with Pesto and Peccorino with Polenta

This was a Delia recipe. The polenta was made with 1L water and 300g cornmeal, 0.5tsp salt and a little garlic olive oil. I find it easiest to make polenta by putting the cornmeal in the pan with the salt and adding cold water; this means no lumps form. I then bring the mixture to the boil, stirring constantly once it gets above about 40C. Once it thickens, I keep it at a medium temperature for five minutes, stirring constantly. This takes a lot of effort, as the mixture is very stiff, but it gives a good result if you’re after something which will set and stay set when reheated.

The cooked polenta was allowed to set in a baking dish then covered in garlic olive oil and baked at 200C for about 30 minutes.

Figs in Chocolate

Another GFN purchase

Violet Ice Cream with Crème de Banane

There is some consensus that this was a bit of a triumph, but the recipe is actually very simple. The ice-cream was made with 500ml custard (3 eggs, 400ml milk, 100ml cream, 2tsp cornflour) and 200ml Moulin de Valdonne Violette Sirop, available from French Click. I also added 4g of ice cream stabiliser which gives a smoother, softer ice cream.

The violet cordial is a beautiful intense purple, and has the look (when diluted in water) of particularly attractive stained glass. I was hoping this would carry through to the ice-cream, but this instead turned out a sort of baby blue / aquamarine.

I served each individual ice cream bombe with a couple of teaspoons of crème de banane and some crystallised violet petals to give a little crunch without adding the saltiness of a biscuit.

Filed under: Uncategorized

Sourdough

Over the last eighteen months I’ve been trying to bake sourdough bread. I think I’ve finally cracked it. The approach I use is inspired by a talk by Aiden Chapman at the Cake and Bake Show, but I’m not sure he’d approve of where I’ve ended up.

Every sourdough needs a starter, and I have a 2 litre container of starter in the fridge. This was built up over time from a starter I bought from another Cake and Bake Show exhibitor. There’s no shortage of places you can get a starter, or you can make your own; I don’t know if there’s anything to choose between these options.

Having a large volume of starter means that the acids which give sourdough its characteristic flavour get a chance to build up between bakes. With a new starter, it takes a few weeks to get the flavours going.

I bake a loaf most weeks, but if I don’t, I feed the starter on Tuesday evening, replacing 240ml of the mix with 120ml of water and 120ml of flour. Starters naturally decrease in volume over time so occasionally I will add an extra spoon of flour if the volume looks low; this probably amounts to 30ml of flour every six weeks.

If I’m baking a loaf then on Tuesday evening I add 120ml of water and 120ml of flour to the starter and leave it in the kitchen overnight. On Wednesday morning I make a sponge using 240ml of the starter (which then goes back in the fridge), topped up to 440ml with lukewarm water. I add 60ml of flour to this, and let it sit in a whichever room of the flat is warmest until it’s frothy. This usually takes about four to six hours. If in doubt I use a longer time rather than a shorter one.

I then make a dough using 500g strong white flour, the sponge, 30ml of olive oil, 1.5tsp salt and 1tsp ascorbic acid. I use white flour because I prefer the resulting flavour and texture, but I’ve tried various mixtures of plain, strong and stoneground and they all work pretty well. The ascorbic acid aids gluten development and helps the bread develop an open crumb. You can get ascorbic acid on eBay.

I make the dough in a bread machine using the dough cycle, but take it out as soon as it’s finished kneading. I’m pretty much convinced that kneading bread is the sort of thing machines were invented for, but hand kneading would probably work just as well.

The dough then sits in the fridge from Wednesday afternoon until Friday morning. I usually put it in a plastic food back and then in a bowl to support it. On Friday morning, I tip it into a banneton and cover it in cling film. This is a fairly dry dough so it has a tendency to develop a bit of a crust if it’s allowed to dry out. I leave the banneton in the warmest room until the dough doubles in volume; this is usually about six hours.

I sometimes laminate the dough, but I’m not sure how much this helps. To do this, when I take it out of the fridge, instead of tipping it into the banneton, I tip it out onto a silicone baking sheet and cover it with the banneton, and then leave it for about half an hour. During this time, the stiff ball of dough from the fridge will relax a little and spread out over the surface of the baking sheet. I then fold the dough in half and cover it again. After half an hour, I do another fold and then tip it into the banneton and continue as before. The result is that the dough has air trapped within it, which gives it a more open texture. Using the baking sheet means that I don’t need to add any flour during this process (which controls the hydration of the dough) and letting it spread out means that I can fold it very gently, without knocking out any of the CO2.

I bake the dough in a fan oven, but TBH I don’t think it’s a very good one and most things I cook in it I use the instructions for a standard oven rather than a fan one. I preheat the oven to 250C, with a baking tray inside. Once the oven has reached temperature, I dust a silicone baking sheet with flour and tip the dough onto it. I then slash the dough and dust it with flour. Then, I take the baking tray out of the oven and slide the baking sheet (with the dough) onto it. I cover the dough with an old metal casserole dish which acts as a cloche.

I bake the dough for 15 minutes at 250C, then reduce the temperature to 200C and bake for a further 25 minutes. Then, I remove the cloche and bake for 10 more minutes at 220. This three-phase procedure is one I developed to give the best balance of crust development, browning and moisture.

This gives a very tasty sourdough with a good crumb and a good crust. I usually leave it for about two hours to cool, then cut it in half and put half in the freezer and leave half in a plastic food bag for use over the next couple of days. It is a little dryer than some other sourdoughs, so goes stale more quickly, but I personally prefer this over the alternative. A shorter time on the second baking phase yields a moister loaf.

Filed under: Uncategorized

507

Overwhelmed by meaning
I sit located
In a plethora of networks
Symbols surround me
Gateways and connections
To every lived experience
I feel I could reach out and touch
Humanity itself
I feel inspired
A thousand ties
Connect me to eternity
Destiny and history
Well up within me
But I find I am the puppet,
Not the master
The very cords that raise my eyes
Bind my hands.

Filed under: Writing

The Old Shamen

All he does now is watch.
The young men no longer seek
His counsel; the women will not bear
The children that he could not feed
His mind is lively still but now his
Body will betray him, every step
That falters symbol of his impotence.
The young chief watches, surrounded by his kin
The jealous younger shamen near his side,
Counting, like the sage, the days until
The great god comes and takes him
Prevented only by Old Ways
From putting a more preemptory
End to his irrelevance.
He sees their faces: he has touched them all,
But only for a moment – his engagement
Fleeting, transitory, just a word, a charm
Enough to mend the problem, set the course
And then move on; he is present only
Where there is pain he can relieve
And now he can do nothing
And they no longer see him.
Only the gods whose will he sought
Await him now.

Filed under: Writing

Molecular Gastronomy Dinner Party

Recipes and Equipment

Most of the recipes were from this book. Despite the relative “wow” factor and novelty of the dishes, this was actually a pretty straightforward menu, with only 3.5 hours prep before the event and probably ¾ hour during the meal. The most difficult dish, in fact, was the chocolate bowl, as this involved the complicated business of tempering the chocolate (which, as it happens, I didn’t get right).

The whipper (used for the velouté and the porto cheddar) came from here.

The salt slabs came from here.

Most of the specialist ingredients are available on eBay or Amazon, but there is a selection of kits by Kalys (also available on eBay / Amazon) which contain smaller, ready-measured amounts of most of the ingredients you’ll need to experiment with this sort of recipe. You’ll also need a good set of scales which can weigh to about 0.1g accuracy. These can be expensive, but I found these which worked perfectly well.

Foamed Carrot Velouté

This was my own recipe, inspired by a visit to the James Martin restaurant on Deansgate. I haven’t found a precise way to make this one, but the procedure is roughly as follows:

  1. Roast 1kg of carrots with a little oil to help them brown. You can add half an onion too for a bit more flavour
  2. Puree the roast vegetables with enough liquid to make up 1 litre. I’ve used vegetable stock, chicken stock and water at different times and all work quite well. The liquid needs to be as smooth as you can get it – I use the liquidiser of a food processor running for about four minutes.
  3. Make a roux with 75g flour and 75g butter, and gradually stir in the liquid
  4. You now want to thin this out a little to get the right consistency. It should be possible to pour the mixture, but it should need a little encouragement, a bit like the stage whipping cream reaches just before it starts to form peaks. If the mixture is too thin, it won’t foam well, but if it’s too thick, it will stick to the inside of the whipper and not assimilate the gas. If you’re uncertain, err on the side of too thin, but stop short of the mixture being actually runny.
  5. Warm your serving bowls. The process of getting the veloute into the whipper and foaming and serving it is quite time consuming and the veloute will start to cool down, and having the serving bowls hot makes this less of a problem.
  6. Put about 750ml of the mixture into a one litre whipper, and charge with two cylinders of gas. You’ll need to handle the whipper with oven gloves as the heat from the veloute will make it hot to handle. Shake vigorously for 20-30s.
  7. Carry the whipper to the sink, turn it upside down and discharge it very briefly – there is likely to be a big bubble of gas between you and the soup.
  8. To serve, invert the whipper with the nozzle about ¾” from the bottom of the bowl and dispense enough soup to cover the bottom of the bowl (this only takes about 1/2s). Then put the nozzle under the surface of the soup and discharge again until you have the portion size you want

The quantities for this recipe will provide about six modest portions (about 250ml each).

Bell Pepper Spheres

This was made using a technique called reverse frozen spherification. Spherification is a gelling technique in which the gel requires two chemicals, sodium alginate and a calcium salt (in this case, calcium lactate). On its own, sodium alginate will thicken liquids, but not gellify them. The calcium in the calcium salt helps the molecules of sodium alginate bond with each other, forming a gel.
In basic spherification, sodium alginate is mixed with the liquid to be gellified and dropped into a bath of calcium lactate. In reverse spherification, the calcium lactate is mixed with the liquid to be gellified and dropped into a bath of sodium alginate. The aim is to produce a flavoured gel sphere or other shape with a liquid centre which produces a burst of flavour in the mouth.

There are some differences between the two processes:

    1. Because sodium alginate is itself a thickening agent, a concentrated sodium alginate bath can be quite viscous, so when liquid is dropped into it, it might hover on the surface rather than drop into the bath
    2. If the liquid to be gellified is milk-based, the calcium in the milk will form a gel if mixed with sodium alginate, so reverse spherification has to be used
    3. The gel formed in basic spherification is likely to pick up excess calcium ions from the bath, which continue to penetrate into the core of the gellified sphere after it is removed from the bath. This makes it difficult to stop the gellification process, whereas the process of reverse spherification can be halted by removing the gels from the sodium alginate and rinsing off any alginate on the surface

In reverse frozen spherification, the liquid to be gellified is first frozen. This allows greater control over the shape of the finished product. For the bell pepper spheres, I used a silicone mould for this.

Tomato Cannelloni with Balsamic Vinegar Pearls

This recipe used two gels – a tomato juice gel for the “cannelloni” and a balsamic vinegar gel for the beads. Both were made by combining the flavoured liquid with agar-agar, a gelling agent derived from algae. It produces a firm, slightly brittle gel with a soft mouth feel. I made the cannelloni too thick, which meant it wasn’t possible to roll it around the cheese filling; it needs to be about 1/8” thick rather than 1/4″.

The recipe didn’t call for any seasoning in the tomato juice; I added a little salt and cayenne pepper, and was concerned that this would affect the chemistry. In fact, salt can affect some gelling agents, but doesn’t affect agar-agar, and those it does affect it only affects in high concentrations. The pH of the mixture is also important, and can affect the choice of gelling agent for a recipe.

Both gels were made by heating the flavour base with agar agar and cooking for a few minutes, then cooling, but the cooling process was different for the two. The cannelloni was allowed to cool briefly at room temperature and then put in the fridge (it set after about 15 minutes) while the balsamic vinegar mix was dropped into a tall glass of chilled vegetable oil using a pipette. The droplets cooled rapidly as they fell down the glass so that they were solid by the time they reached the bottom.

Carpaccio with Horseradish Foam

The horseradish foam was made by whipping a mixture of horseradish and water with soy lecithin, using a hand blender to incorporate air into the mixture. Soy lecithin molecules have three “arms”, two of which are hydrophobic (repelled from water) and one of which is hydrophilic (attracted to water). As air bubbles form, the two hydrophobic arms are pulled into the bubbles and the hydrophilic arm pulled outside. This forms a protective shell around the bubble, stabilising it and trapping it in the liquid. The resulting foam can be scooped off and lasts for about 30 minutes.

Monkfish Cooked on Salt Slabs

The salt slabs had been in the oven on its highest setting for about an hour. They can also be heated over a naked flame or on a barbeque; using them on a barbeque would probably help maintain their temperature and capacity to cook. The monkfish wasn’t prepared in any way – all the flavour came from the fish itself and the slabs.

Porto Cheddar

This was a port jelly with a whipped cheese and cream topping. The recipe for the port jelly called for cold soluble gelatine, which I wasn’t able to find a supplier for. I used ordinary powdered gelatine instead, heating the port just enough to allow this to dissolve. Gelatine based gels, unlike the other gels we tried, melt in the mouth, giving this dish a different feel to the others.

The whipped cheese layer was produced using the cream whipper (like the velouté) but was a bit trickier. The cheese was melted and mixed with cream and this produced a mixture which was much more viscous cold than hot. Once cold, in fact, the liquid was too viscous to foam effectively because it stuck to the sides of the whipper when shaken. So, the mixture has to be added to the whipper hot, shaken to incorporate the gas, and then allowed to cool. For the quantities given in the book, a half litre whipper would produce better results than a one litre.

Strawberries with Wine Vinegar

These were simply hulled strawberries filled with a white wine vinegar gel. The gel was produced using kappa carrageenan, another algae-derived gelling agent. This makes a firmer, clearer gel than agar-agar but is in many respects very similar.

Chocolate Desert Bowl

This one has been doing the rounds of the internet; one of many recipes is given here.

The recipes doing the rounds don’t mention this, but it’s really important to temper the chocolate, or the bowl is likely to break, and won’t look as attractive as the ones in the photos. Tempering is a tricky business which involves heating and cooling the chocolate over a precise temperature range. There is lots of advice on how to do this on the net, but as I haven’t yet mastered it I can’t say which is best to go with.

If you try this recipe, it helps if you use a narrow bowl so that there’s as little as possible of the balloon below the rim of the bowl. Otherwise, chocolate will run down the balloon over the edge of the bowl making it difficult to remove the chocolate and ruining the spiky effect.

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My Bookshelf

The Golden Bough
The Value of Nothing
The Fire
A Wolf at the Table
Devil Bones

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