Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Summer has begun ...and soon will end

In ancient English folklore, the appearance of flowering elderflower signifies the start of Summer. When the flowers turn to fruit, Autumn has begun. Today in Oxfordshire:

Photo copyright SvD.

Seaweed amongst the fossils on Charmouth Beach, Dorset.

Photographed as I found them. Photos copyright SvD.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Soggy, mystical, ancient Britain

I've just returned from a holiday on the Jurassic Coast- six hours driving back with a two hour detour at Stonehenge. As you can see from the photos, sun was in scarce supply and fossil hunting in the pouring cold rain takes grit and determination, not to mention a strong constitution. What a wonderful time I had though! Simply extraordinary. I learned things I didn't know and found a 190 million year-old fossil on Charmouth beach- more of which I will share later in a separate post. The story of how I found the fossil is fascinating. Even more strange is sharing a table in a restaurant with a paleontologist who was on a hot date with his new girlfriend but patiently went through all my finds and explained what they were- more on that later too...but consider this, what exactly are the odds of finding a paleontologist when you need one?

I LOVE this country in all its soggy glory. A stodgy pasty never tastes as good as when eaten in the rain while staring at a grey, foamy sea.

Stonehenge was interesting but the hordes of tourists ruined it for me. Any chance of connecting with some ancient mysticism wasn't going to happen while little Charlie was screeching about wanting a wee. The English Heritage staff were all surly and unfriendly and frankly I could have saved the £17.50 entrance fee by ignoring the signs and driving past along a side road. I would have seen Stonehenge in the distance only but I would have been spared the interminable wait to buy a ticket then once inside, another wait for a shuttle bus to deliver us at the stones and then back again. Security was extremely tight and my bag was searched and I was scanned on arrival. PS It is estimated that 100 men would have had enough strength to move each of the stones below.

Stonehenge. Photo copyright SvD.

Charmouth Beach, Dorset. Photo copyright SvD. This beach is rated as one of the best places to find fossils. Do wear comfortable, heavy soled shoes as there are rocks (not stones or pebbles) on this beach. You might want to throw your shoes away afterwards as the tarry black rock sediment is impossible to clean off. You can keep what you find but it is forbidden to dig for fossils. A museum full of fossils and things you didn't even know existed is on the beach. A really GREAT experience.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Hake..and then there was none

I alternate meat and fish days but admit to liking both in equal measure. When I was a child, my favourite dish was my mother's baked fish with a white sauce, boiled potatoes and boiled vegetables. If there was a blander meal on the planet I would have liked that too. It was many, many years later that I discovered the difference between bland, unappetising food for frankly, invalids, and the joys of French flair in cooking.

This dish is again, relatively simple as is all my repertoire (I work long hours!). I love the tail of a fish- it is somehow 'sweeter' to eat.

Squeeze half a lemon over the hake and add salt and pepper (sea salt and a good grinding of coarse black pepper). Lay the fish in a baking tray with a splash of olive oil. Add a pinch of thyme, a finely diced clove of garlic, a splash of dry white wine and a good handful of chopped spring onions- white and green parts. Dot with butter. Leave the fish to marinate for 15 minutes max.

Meanwhile, blanch a handful of cherry tomatoes in boiling water. Remove with a slotted spoon and peel the skins off. Add the tomatoes to the fish. Cover the fish with foil and place in a pre-heated oven at 230 degrees C. Cook for twenty minutes. Reduce the heat to 200 degrees C and cook for ten minutes more.

Uncover the fish and cook for a further ten minutes at 230 degrees C. By now all the vegetables including the tomatoes will have amalgamated into a thick sauce. Remove the fish carefully and set aside. Keep warm.

Cook the sauce over a medium heat for round five minutes. Add 1/2cup of double cream and simmer gently. Taste for seasoning. Add more cream if liked.

The sauce should be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Add finely chopped parsley to the sauce and remove from the heat.

Fillet the fish. Drape the sauce over the fillets.

Serve the fish with roast potatoes or boiled potatoes and a steamed vegetable of your choice.

Any white fish will do if you can't get hake- cod or haddock or halibut work well. The secret is in the sauce...:)

Photos copyright SvD.

Monday, 15 May 2017

What hungry people eat after a walk in the countryside

This weekend I covered ten miles all together in the countryside. Brilliant sunshine but not hot at all, a wonderful 15-18 degrees Celsius. These days I have to walk on my own as my darling doggie can't anymore. Walking makes you hungry! I marinated pork ribs on Friday night in my secret marinade- and slow cooked them on Saturday. Tear-apart softness, moist and fragrant! Accompaniments were boiled potatoes and sautéed leeks with white wine. Just scrummy!

Photo copyright SvD.

Monday, 8 May 2017

Keep looking and you'll find forever...

Walked for five miles on Saturday. This was part of my route. Isn't that feeling of seeing forever so wonderful?

Of course, I opened the gate....

Photo copyright SvD.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Did Towns Civilise Humans

When we consider the recent terror attacks, the scourge of gang-related knife crime and the higher than average proportion of homelessness in major cities, one has to wonder if urbanisation did indeed civilise humans. There is a theory that the creation of towns, densely populated areas of human interaction by way of trade and skills, was the harbinger of civilisation. Where people of varied backgrounds and cultures came together, a certain liberty also emerged which encouraged the development of trade, religion, philosophy and invention. Those from different tribes found themselves living in harmony within the loosely defined structure of an evolving society.

I agree wholeheartedly with the premise that towns were fuelling demand for all sorts of goods and services and the interaction of people from outside of their micro societies allowed humans to evolve. My argument, as we watch the conflict that urbanisation has created, is if the word 'civilised' is appropriate. The other question I would like to ask is whether agriculture has had a greater impact than urbanisation on civilisation.

I live in the country and therefore am biased against towns. I often long to go to the theatre in London or  just sit at a café in Victoria Station observing all of humanity pass by. But then I go for a walk in the countryside and can think of no place better on earth. In terms of agriculture versus urbanisation, I have been fortunate to observe our village farmer in recent months. This week, for example, the lambs were sent to slaughter. The same lambs I had seen gambol with unrestrained delight in the fields where they lolled about with their mums without a care in the world. In the morning, I would hear the lambs and ewes call out to the farmer as they spied him descending the long hill in his jeep laden with their prepared feed, a supplement to the sweet-tasting Spring grass. The bleating sheep, barking collies together with the incessant sounding of the jeep horn as the farmer attempted not to run over his own animals was the morning cacophony just after my porridge and right before my coffee. As I would walk the dogs I could see in the distance the white dots against the emerald green fields, and now, suddenly, there are fewer dots.

A few weeks ago, the dairy cows were sent out from their winter stables to the open fields. Watching the cows skip along the grass, some hundred of them left me gawping in open-mouthed awe more so as the earth literally did move. One hundred cows weigh one hundred tons so imagine that bouldering past you. I've learned that the best patch of a field to play ball on with the terrier is where the cows have trodden- they helpfully munch the grass right down and flatten the ground with their hooves so the ball bounces a lot better. I'm grateful that the farmer has moved the cows out of their stables as the smell of mucking out would waft straight onto my freshly bathed, perfumed and blow-dried person leaving me with a whiff of eau-de-cow-pat. As a former townie, I have sufficiently made a fool of myself by asking the farmer if the dairy cows were girls. There is also an unwritten rule around here to wear battered clothes when dog-walking and shiny, new, expensive brands are frowned upon. In essence, people in the country don't think like people in towns. Yet the milk and lambs are destined to enter into the sophisticated system of distribution which supports those living in towns.

Is a city such as London still evolving? Is urbanisation a work in progress? Now that we have so much more than our ancestors and access to everything our hearts desire, has the apex of 'development' been reached and are we truly civilised? Our village farmer allows residents to roam on his land with their dogs. His late father on the other hand, used to lie in wait, gun in hand and threaten to shoot the offending 'trespassers'. Have times changed or is the son more civilised than his father?

When country folk think of a big city like London they almost always cringe at the noisiness, the busy-ness, the loudness of a huge mass of heaving bodies all sharing the same air. Yet the act of  writing was developed partly due to trading in a densely populated area around 3200BC as disparate groups needed to find a common way to communicate and keep track of animals and goods. If it wasn't for the growth of towns and cities, we would not have the need for numbers or for the written word. From one perspective, we owe our civilised condition, away from the loin cloth and caves, to urbanisation. From a more abstract perspective, we remain anything but civilised.

Obesity, fuelled by inactivity, is a peculiarly urban illness. It is not unusual to hear a farmer say that he has never had a holiday in his life as he cannot leave his animals. (I admit to being in complete shock at the idea.) A morbidly obese farmer would have difficulty with the dawn-to-dusk demands of the job. The idea therefore that in a city one has everything one could possibly need and then some, does not necessarily result in fulfilment or happiness in greater levels. Just as an 'embarras de richesses' can lead to a destitute spirit, when one has very little the soul is forced to soar. Perhaps the soaring soul is the true mark of being civilised. Just food for thought.

Photo copyright SvD.