Thursday, 4 February 2016

How far away is Hell?

The concept of hell is synonymous with an afterlife but it is also a final destination. The last hurrah, as it were from where there is no turning back. Christianity evokes a huge guilt factor- if we have sinned, we go to hell, an exclusion zone for 'bad' people and crucially, one where there is a permanent  separation from God. Jean-Paul Sartre famously described hell as 'other people'. (Given that Sartre was a nihilist, who by definition doubt the existence of God or an afterlife, one could argue how obvious an observation this actually is.)

The etymology of 'hell' refers to a world reserved solely for the dead. One could only experience hell after life and in many faiths and cultures, this other dimension signifies torment and endless punishment in perpetuity (that is, if time applies there).

I recently re-read Milton's famous poem, Paradise Lost, and the penny dropped superbly as it often does with great writing.
'Which way I fly is hell, myself am hell.'

Is there not too a type of hell on earth? A friend recently remarked that she hates her aging body- the sagging skin, the lack of vitality, the wrinkles and seeing her looks fade is tantamount to a cruel punishment. 'I once used to be beautiful!', she wailed.

Others may rue the challenges and bad luck they have often faced and many will know first-hand that nothing ever comes easily in life and certainly not without a heavy cost. What about the images of refugees, lifeless on an otherwise idyllic beach, the outcome of escaping war and persecution- is theirs not the worst fate to have to choose?

We are already consumed by hell; some have been forced into it and others have chosen it willingly.

When appearance is everything, there are those desperate to stop time in its tracks- the veneers, the face lifts- or to embellish their appearance- breast augmentation, nose jobs. This perpetual search for the elixir of youth poses several questions. By forcing time to stand still are we not just delaying the inevitable? And in so doing, are we not creating our own misery? When the anaesthetic wears off, we had better like the surgeon's handwork. There is also an element of self-loathing, or as it were, living in a hell of our own making because we cannot accept ourselves as we are. A recent survey concluded that one in two British women hate the way they look. This too is the Achilles Heel of the human condition: to want to be someone else, somewhere else or something else that is more perfect that our present reality.

The opposite of hell is heaven (real or imagined)  otherwise put, the perfection we seemingly yearn for. Whilst we associate hell with punishment, suffering and cruelty, heaven is a place of repose, peacefulness and endless joy. A type of nirvana filled with bliss-on-tap but without the mind-altering drugs. Many of us would find it difficult to make the transition from stressed-out to blissed-out and would probably also find the experience somewhat comical. I would argue that we choose hell willingly over its arch-enemy, contentment and because we have gotten too used to the demands of daily living. Letting go and giving in to the universe don't fit it in with our expectations of life anymore. We prefer to be popular, well-off, attractive and most importantly, to have everything we want. Yet we still perceive that if we have been 'good', 'bad' things should never happen to us.

So we choose hell but in many ways, we need to. By making mistakes, wrong decisions and failing, we learn to recognise the difference between what we need to do in order to be happier and what we can live without. Regret, recriminations and in some ways, tragedy, are the spurs which propel us towards a better future. Without experiencing hell on earth, we would not have the courage to find inner peace nor be able to create a happier life for ourselves. In order to be happy, one must learn to overcome unhappiness. Ironically, one is not born happy but every one of us without exception, is forced to earn it.

An unhappy life is a living hell but it does not have to be. We can choose to turn sad tears into rivers of joy. And I guarantee even the devil himself would be impressed.

Photo copyright SvD.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

A very excellent ragoût

Saturday was my birthday and I overindulged somewhat on the food and booze front. Sunday was a recovery day and I made a simple and very tasty ragoût. I invent these recipes as I go along- all cooking follows certain principles and like any artist, I add my interpretation of the rules to the pot. I have one golden rule which I never veer from: do not over-season food and stick to salt, pepper, bouquet garni and wine/vinegar, if at all possible. The ingredients should sing their own melody and we should know what we're eating. For this reason I dislike spicy food.

This ragoût (and I use the term only to describe the cooking method and type of ingredients) is a combination of lamb chops, pork sausages, haricot beans and red lentils. The flavour is out of this world and it is nourishing- the most important criterion of all. The red lentils create a thick, unctuous sauce which along with the haricot beans, add a robust, heartiness to the stew. This is warming food ideal for getting the blood flowing.

I've written the recipe below without any measurements- see if you can take the idea and try it out on your own terms- then you'll be a real cook!

In a large pan, heat a splash of olive oil over medium high heat. Brown the sausages lightly- around five minutes. Remove from the pan. Add a knob of butter to the pan and as it begins to foam, add the lamb chops - season lightly with salt and pepper. Do not move the chops for at least two minutes then turn them over and sear the other side. Season again with salt and pepper. (A note on salt: please ditch iodised salt and switch to sea salt only. The flavour is far superior.)

Once the lamb chops are nicely seared- just a light caramel colour and the fat tinged at the edges (please leave the fat on as it adds flavour. In order not to gain weight: eat just enough, throw out the TV and exercise. Not rocket science.). Remove the chops from the pan and keep covered. Add a handful of lardons to the pan. Once some of the fat is rendered, add two medium finely chopped onions to the pan. Toss around until the onions have browned - again, a light caramel colour not charcoal :). Now add as much finely chopped garlic as you like- I tend to use four or five cloves as garlic is very good for the heart and digestion not to mention it staves off infection. (PS A good digestive system means you won't reek of garlic).

Return the sausages and lamb to the pan. Deglaze the pan with a splash of wine- more than a third of a cup is plain unnecessary. Allow the wine to evaporate. Add the lentils and beans (canned, organic haricot beans and dry red lentils). If you're feeling virtuous, soak dried haricot beans overnight and cook in a pressure cooker- without salt as it hardens the beans. If however you'd like to eat within one hour of starting to cook, use the canned beans.

Place a bouquet garni  in the mix along with a good grinding of pepper. Add enough water to just cover the contents of the pan. Bring to the boil and simmer (covered) for 30 minutes by which time the red lentils will be cooked and will have turned into a thick sauce. Stir the stew and check for catching (sticking) at the bottom of the pan. You may need to add more liquid to the pan as the lentils will have absorbed a great deal. Now add the salt to taste- go easy and stick to one teaspoon only. You can always add more salt at the table. Cover and leave for twenty more minutes. Just before serving, add a knob of butter and stir into the stew- this gives it a sheen (and is rather delicious).

Sprinkle the dish with chopped parsley and serve at once. I accompany the ragoût with steamed green beans tossed in olive oil and balsamic vinegar. After a bowl of the ragoût, a light cheese and two squares of chocolate is all I need!

PS I make a ton of this and freeze it- that way when I come home shattered from work I do not have to cook.

PPS Beef, chicken, pork, anything really, all work well with this dish. The secret is to brown the meat and onions and to deglaze with red wine.

PPPS Forget about using stock when cooking- if a dish is well executed, it won't need it. I only ever use fish stock when making sauces for fish simply because the depth of flavour can be lacking with white fish in particular.

Photo copyright SvD.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

How to make an elegant dish for one out of very little

I am the Queen of fast, easy and nutritious food. My work schedule means that I don't have hours to prepare an evening meal and despite having a hectic life, I cook every single day. This quick and simple dish is elegant enough for a dinner party and is not expensive at all. Why anyone would buy ready-made tomato sauce when the real thing is so easy to make, is one of the great mysteries of the universe- please give it a try.

Ingredients for one person:

One tin of chopped tomatoes, 100 grams of spaghetti, four cloves of garlic (crushed), a splash of olive oil, a small tin of anchovies, one bay leaf, 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme, 50 grams of unsalted butter and a good grinding of pepper.

Heat the olive in a small pan over medium heat. When the oil is very hot, add half the butter and the garlic. Toss for twenty seconds or so until the garlic is lightly browned. Remember that garlic burns quickly and when it does becomes bitter (which will ruin the dish).

Add the chopped tomatoes to the pan, the thyme, bay leaf and the black pepper. Bring to a simmer and cover the pan. Leave to cook for around twenty minutes until the sauce has thickened and small crater-like bubbles appear on the surface.

While the sauce is simmering, boil enough water to cook the pasta according to the package instructions.  I like my pasta softer than al dente so usually add two or three minutes to the recommended cooking time. Once the pasta is cooked, drain and keep covered. Mash the remaining butter with the anchovies. Add to the hot pasta and toss until coated in the anchovy butter.

Serve the spaghetti draped in the tomato sauce and with a good grating of Parmesan cheese. Accompany with a robust red wine and a salad. My supper last night!

For a dinner party, I would add a first course of seafood such as smoked prawns or small bowls of moules mariniere and to follow the main pasta dish, salad, a cheese platter and a very light dessert such as strawberries with an orange sabayon. All very easy and inexpensive to make.

Happy eating!

Photo copyright SvD.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

RIP David Bowie

I was not a huge David Bowie fan but I have to admit that he was a pretty unforgettable kind of guy. He was devastatingly good-looking, lived a hedonistic lifestyle, was matter of fact about his bisexuality and created music that struck a chord with millions around the world. If he had passed you in the street you would have had to stop and gawp.

In an age of fabricated stardom- think silly reality TV shows where wannabes shout, sorry, sing covers in front of live audiences- a man like David Bowie was a rare thing. That sheer honesty of conducting one's life on one's terms is the sign of a person who knows themselves enough to ultimately only care about what they think. Don't confuse "I don't give a shit about what others think," with narcissistic, self-absorbed, ego centric selfishness. Those who live life on their terms however outlandish or colourful those terms may be, are fearless in their belief of themselves. They're the sort who possess and display an inordinate amount of courage. They're least likely to appear doe-eyed on your doorstep and beg for your approbation. They will probably never ask your opinion at all. What they will be though, is exceedingly charming and probably the life of the party. And they most definitely will have a disconcerting ability to see through the haze of bullshit that constitutes the average person.

There are few people in this world who have the courage to be themselves and to discover the life that was intended for them. We often hear about destiny being set in the stars but I do believe there are those, like David Bowie, who wrestle the sword of destiny and carve out the life they exactly want. It is possible but few will have the guts in their lifetime.

Reading the comments in various media on the death of Mr Bowie, the recurring praise is one of admiration for a great talent and how unique his music was. He stands out amongst the crowd because quite simply he was beyond ordinary.. He challenged himself and pushed the boundaries further away. He revolted against the norm and invented his own prototype. He purposefully went so far out into the (metaphorical) desert that he was forced to find the genius within himself. His music was inspired by anxiety, apprehension and loneliness. Artists can never create out of thrilling bliss; angst and sadness give rise to their opposites which the artist searches for and craves through creative expression. Miserable people leave a priceless legacy behind for happy people to stare blithely at.

All of us share a similarity with David Bowie- we too could take the chance to become extraordinary. It is worth remembering always: Tota vita nihil aliud quam ad mortem iter est. The whole of life is nothing but a journey to death. - Seneca.

Photo copyright SvD.

Friday, 1 January 2016

2016- New beginnings

We Brits live for chattering about the weather. We've had a very warm Winter thus far with temperatures in the teens and constant rain. Today on my walk in the countryside, it was minus 1, the ground was frozen underfoot and the frost was biting through my thermal socks. Every fellow walker I came upon said the same thing: "At last! Proper Winter!" Ours is an evergreen optimism which in spite of everything, never fades. A winter should be cold not some halfway soggy, warm imposter. And despite the grey skies we remain eternally optimistic.

Optimism, that great word which conjures up hopeless and hapless individuals endowed with little else or one who merely sees hope as a type of blessing. We were hoping for a real winter and so when it arrives, we are very grateful. We were hoping that things should be as they are meant to be. We are used to the cycle of nature and the seasons which symbolise beginnings and endings.

A New Year is upon us- what type of year do you wish for? One of beginnings or endings? Many will start the year grasping at resolutions and convictions soon to be abandoned into the slush pile of living. (Resolutions, like diets, don't work because our stamina and resolve eventually collapse.) Others will carry on as normal, or rather, will continue to live their version of the truth, a type of reality they have created for themselves, which they use as a shield because they simply do not want to face who and what they have become. Many more will stay in miserable relationships or in jobs they hate and will flee from their reflection in the mirror. I know quite a few people who have voluntarily become mentally comatose because they do not have the courage to face their reality.

Spring, that other new beginning, will soon follow winter. An acorn does not require courage to germinate into a sapling or even to grow into a mighty oak. Humans, on the other hand, require an inordinate amount of bravery to merely survive. Strength to overcome obstacles, bravery in our beliefs and values which are our own and not just the latest trend, courage to accept the things we cannot change. It takes remarkable fortitude to say: "This is who I am. I know who I am and I will not be swayed."

In a world where at the touch of a finger we can have access to  the latest news or gossip, it is very easy to become addicted to the lust for more. More. More. We mistake vacuous celebrities as trendsetters and innovators. even politicians behave like Hollywood actors these days, heroes in their own scripts. We live in an age where it is nigh impossible at times to distinguish truth from fiction. And we're not supposed to go a little nuts? Yes, we can be forgiven for losing our way- that is also the human condition.

Along comes a new year with all its promise of new starts, new hope. The human spirit is designed to triumph in adversity. If we call upon our bravery we can become indomitable and invincible. Brave enough to make the right decisions, strong enough to find out who we are. Today begins the journey of a lifetime.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Photo copyright SvD.

Sunday, 27 December 2015

Less tackiness please, we're British.

This Christmas I hardly made a fuss- I ate frugally and spent a lot of time lying in bed- mostly because I had a terrible cold/flu and didn't have much energy. On Christmas Day I dragged myself to mass and was amazed to see how some parishioners had chosen to dress: leggings and a tight jumper stopping helpfully at the waist so that the gaze rested on a country-sized derriere. Mini skirts, fishnet tights and diving decolletages replete with overflowing embonpoint- if you fancied a bit of South Pole exploration, some of those necklines were certainly headed in the right direction. I always feel sorry for the priest when he gives communion to ...a pair of breasts. It used to be that attending mass on big occasions like Christmas, Easter, Advent etc which are all profound events in the christian calender, one would be sure to look demure and dignified. The thought of flashing skin and flesh was completely frowned upon. Nowadays anything goes in the way of dressing and behaving- a couple  flirted madly last Sunday in church; they arrived separately and left that way too but the temptation of  making doe eyes at each other while clutching a rosary clearly proved too much.

Tackiness is so widespread and prevalent in all walks of life from the lower working class all the way up to the highest echelons in society. I blame Charles and Diana who famously went public with their very personal problems. Since then the Great British Resolve to 'never complain and never explain' and to maintain a very stiff upper lip at all times seem to have all but disappeared from our daily lives. It is now completely acceptable to whinge ad nauseum, be rude and obnoxious and to show a complete lack of disrespect and consideration- cue to dressing like one is going to a nightclub when attending mass or worse yet, looking like one has literally rolled out of bed.

The mantra of so-called busy people who in fact are too rude and selfish to find time for others has become the norm. We all have that so-called friend who hasn't bothered to be in touch for months but rings up blithely on Christmas Eve, oblivious to the fact that their behaviour is wrong. I have now gotten to the point in my life where there are no words- once I fall silent the relationship is stone, cold dead. No amount of coaxing will bring it back to life. All we have is the present moment and if we allow others to treat us as if they can make up for their roughshod disregard in some distant future and one that most certainly will only suit them, then we should not complain about our hurt emotions.

Tackiness is not just the way you dress, it's also the way you think. Over Christmas I decided to watch TV- something I never, ever do but the house where I was staying had a gigantic TV in the living room and I thought I would vegetate in front of it. Now you have to understand that I never sit idly still as I am always doing something: writing, reading, walking, cooking, working, housework (which I enjoy). The instances in my life where I do nothing at all are few and far between and usually occur like this holiday season when I was too ill to do much else. I don't own a TV having thrown it out many years ago. This Christmas I remembered why I had: television is a mind fuck. The quality of the programmes is such low level nonsense designed for cretins. Listening to mindless, dumbed-down drivel aimed at those who clearly are grammatically and phonetically challenged filled me with such revulsion that afterwards my head actually ached. I can think of no worse torture than to be forced to watch television day in, day out. To see these so-called celebrities who do not have any real talent now passing themselves off as role models who teenage girls all want to emulate, fills me with a terrible dread. Would a show on philosophy or the meaning of life have an audience at all? Does anyone ask themselves BIG questions anymore?

We should all be concerned when we live in an age of mind-blowing stupidity and ignorance. Despite our wealth and the convenience which fools us into believing anything is possible, the soul life is what makes us want to become better people- kinder, more thoughtful, more concerned for our fellow human beings and most importantly, more interested in the world.

Britain used to be great- in a sense it was austerity, deprivation and simplicity that spawned great minds and made us masters of ingenuity and innovation. Could it be that we have too much now to see those glory days again?

Photo copyright SvD.