Saturday, 13 September 2014

The Great British Bake-Off

I've been desperately clutching at straws to find an excuse to write about The Great British Bake-Off because, well, it's really all I'm watching at the moment. I love it. I am obsessed by it. And I know I am not alone. I wake up every Wednesday morning already excited about that evening's episode. (I'm sorry, but I have a young child and I take life's small pleasures whenever I can.) Usually, I want to eat everything they make (apart from the lavender meringue), though rarely believe I could attempt anything remotely similar. Nonetheless, I suck up all of Mary Berry's careful baking advice. And I have learned not to let Paul Hollywood's smugness wind me up any more. And while Mel and Sue's banter is getting ever more ridiculous, it's still making me snigger. As does Jo Brand's Extra Slice on a Friday night.
I don't think this sort of thing is allowed

But The Great British Bake-Off didn't really fit in with the required "travel memory" aspect of my blog. For starters, this series the tent has unhelpfully moved location to Welford Park in Berkshire. I have been on a few visits to Berkshire - and while these were generally confined to the M4 or the First Great Western railway, they include six to Windsor and Eton, two to Reading, and even one to Slough, but none to anywhere near Welford Park.

But my grandmother in Grasmere did once make us a Baked Alaska. I remember the day-long build-up to it being much more exciting than the end product. And not long ago, my friend Clare made Ryan's famous Key Lime Pie for Sunday lunch, and it was indeed as divine as Paul and Mary had claimed. But these links were all rather tenuous.

Then finally, last night during European Cakes Week, Sue got drunk on cake in South Jutland, Denmark and I thought, "I did that once at an 18th birthday party" (though the drunkenness in my case was all barbed-wire schnaps and not cake), and I was good to go.

So where were we last night? Bereft of Norman's dourness, we have been left with a mighty six of baking ingenuity: Luis, lovable Manc who always makes simply beautiful food. Martha, who has been on far too many skiing holidays for someone her age and is obviously at some sort of Swiss finishing school run by Betty's of Harrogate. Chetna, who has an annoying manner with a kitchen timer. Nancy, who is as down to earth as they come and dismisses Paul as "the male judge". Richard, who with his pencil still behind his ear is starting to show more typical British builder traits of unreliability. And finally Kate, last week's star baker, with her perfect curls and dreamy air. My husband said right at the start that none of them would be going home.
And what would "the male judge" say about this?

This week, everybody seems to be talking about winging it, even Martha, who is busy revising for exams. Nancy talks about her relevant experience and training - "I've had lots of European holidays, and I've probably eaten lots of cake, but not thought about how they're made or what they're called." Mel and Sue are simply talking in dodgy accents.

First up is a yeast-leavened cake. Lots of gigantic zig-zaggy tins are wielded. Mel says one looks like a piles cushion. German dialectal variation or just badly consistent spelling is in evidence in cake name captions. Nancy decides to bypass Europe entirely and go with a Caribbean theme somewhere along the lines of a Del Boy in Peckham pina colada. Kate is making an Israeli inspired cake, which she thinks is allowed because Israel takes part in Eurovision.

Then the technical challenge. Mary Berry's Swedish Princess Cake. It looks amazing. There is jam, creme patissiere, whipped cream, genoese sponge, more whipped cream, green marzipan, chocolate piping and a dainty rose on top. Thankfully, I've learned today that they serve them in the IKEA cafe, so I will be off to Batley shortly to buy one.

Then the showstopper, a Hungarian dobos torte, which involved dozens of stripey layers of sponge and ganache and ridiculous amounts of caramel artwork on top. Or that is the remit, anyway. Martha uses a mould to make chess pieces. Mary tuts. And Kate, because she felt that a two tiered cake looked too much "like a hat", decides to make an extra tier, which means she only has time to caramelise a few pistachios, which just simply isn't good enough, apparently. Whereas Richard's "bird", cut in inch-thick crude-cut toffee, gives him plenty of caramel, but looks like I'd made it. Meanwhile, Chetna is busy caramelising grapes. And masterful Luis makes a Hungarian style castle cage on a hill and still has about 20 minutes left to spare at the finish. He is shown calmly wiping down his work surface while all frantic hell breaks loose around him. "It's spectacular. It's what I call a showstopper," says Mary about the end result. Too right. "Sorry about destroying it," says Paul, merrily carving straight through with a giant knife.

There is no doubt that Kate and Richard have ballsed up. Richard's is the second cake of the day to be described as "sad". But Mary and the male judge can't decide which of Richard and Kate has ballsed up more. When really they can both be brilliant. I had hoped to see previously unseen footage of this heated debate on An Extra Slice on Friday night. But there was none. Maybe the battle was just too bloody. In any case, all six contestants get to live another day. A pasty day. David Cameron will be excited. Chetna's caramelised grapes leave her crowned star baker, even if she did commit the crime of making a Victoria rather than a Genoese sponge for her showstopper. Which must be up there with a soggy bottom, surely?

The cakes I gorged that day all those years ago in Denmark still linger in my memory. One involved layers of raspberry mousse between delicate slices of sponge, with little Danish flags on top. The other was small rectangles of perfect coconut sponge and with a sticky caramel topping.  So a good hint of the challenges on last night's Bake Off in both. And both absolutely ruined by those shots of Aalborg Akvavit.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Undercover Boss - Carluccio's

I always enjoy Undercover Boss. Its premise is that the managing director of a company goes in disguise on to the shop floor to see the public side of their business which they normally, high up in their ivory tower, never get to see. They are invariably shocked and disappointed and realise just quite how out of the loop they are. I think most of us have some experience of a boss who has no idea what is happening at ground-floor level, which is why the programme is so appealing.

York (always behind on the chain restaurant scene) recently acquired its first Carluccio's as part of the rapid expansion of the business that formed the background to this episode. We haven't actually been, but we have been twice to one of the branches featured on the programme, in the Trinity Centre in Leeds. Our first visit, a midweek lunch during the school holidays, was fairly positive, but the second last weekend was very much less so. The place was too busy to cope, and you could see that the kitchen staff were getting slammed. They had a full row of paper chits hanging above the pass. We had to wait ages for our food, and when it came, my ravioli were raw in the middle. I sent my dish back, only to be served a second that was equally bad, by which point I was so hungry I just ate it. It probably only needed an extra minute in the pan, but it shouldn't have to be my place to point this out. We should have gone to the other Carluccio's on Greek Street, which according to the programme, is absolutely dead on a weekend. Not very good for their business, but maybe better for my tummy.

Properly cooked spinach and ricotta filled pasta, made by me
I have eaten at a few of the original London branches of Carluccio's. Generally, they were excellent, but we are talking about the days when the great Antonio Carluccio still had some sort of hand in the business. He sold up a few years ago. Things have definitely gone downhill since then, despite the illusions about the food that its new managing director Simon Kossoff is under. During our long wait in Leeds, I looked around at what the other customers were eating, barely recognising dishes that I knew I had eaten in the past. A plate of penne with courgette, chilli and deep-fried spinach balls, a truly lovely thing served to me in Kingston-upon-Thames more years ago than I care to remember, looked virtually inedible. The chicken milanese, a staple on their set menu, was burned to a crisp.

And this highlights the trouble with the Undercover Boss programme - do the changes that the boss says he is going to implement really come about? I am not sure when the series was filmed, but by now the promised improvements should be in evidence. Simon Kossoff seems like a decent guy, though I have to say I preferred his goth alter-ego kitchen hand Dan, with his fake tattoo sleeve, who was always tasked with taking the bins out via the most complicated route imaginable. Kossoff is genuinely touched by the dedicated staff that he meets, and at the end offers these few people some nice gifts (books, holidays, cooking lessons with Antonio) for their efforts, but what about the rest of his several hundred restaurant employees, all working long hours on minimum wage for no reward or recognition? Although one of the waitresses in Leeds offered some much longed-for chef training after years of servitude, instantly buggers off to work for someone else. Which a cynic may argue is a good reason for keeping people in their place.

But how can restaurants maintain their high standards across a chain that is so thinly spread? How can there be proper quality control by the powers that be? It's not just Carluccio's - you see this happen time and time again with expanded brands. Gourmet Burger Kitchen, for example, was a great little eatery on Northcote Road in Clapham, but now it has opened branches right across the country. And the last time I ate at the one in York, the fries (cooked in stale oil) were not far short of revolting. Giraffe, where I used to go in Muswell Hill from time to time and which has finally now also come to York, seems to have lost its world-food ethos to American style dining. It's a shame.

I would always much rather support a small local eatery than a global conglomerate, but when you have kids, you do end up relying on chains. This is because you know there will be spaghetti bolognese on the menu, and that they will bring crayons. Thank goodness therefore, for Bishy Road's fabulous family-run Sicilian cafe Trinacria, which may not provide crayons, but is otherwise as child friendly as they come, with its vast array of gelato flavours and biscotti and welcoming staff (and I am not just saying that because one is our next-door neighbour and he has been known to "forget" to charge me for my daughter's ice cream). It has columns of IKEA Antilops and easy-wipe tables. And the food is great. And much cheaper than Carluccio's.

Trinacria also lets me take silly photos

Friday, 5 September 2014

CBeebies Prom

I felt slightly emotional as I watched this with my daughter. The Proms were such a huge part of my life when I lived near to or in London, and it's with regret that I haven't been able to go once since we moved up to York seven years ago. For the best part of 20 years, I never failed to attend at least one concert every season. Sometimes I invested in a seat (or preferably let my dad invest in a seat for me), but often I would get properly into the spirit of things and turn up and queue to prom. I never much cared for standing in the arena as it was too much like hard work in the often sauna-like Royal Albert Hall temperatures, so would usually head upstairs to the gods instead. High in the gallery it was less crowded, and you could lean on the railings or lie down at the back and just let the music swim around you without anyone minding. You could even, on occasion, smuggle in a bottle of wine. It was always an amazing feeling, looking down from that great height, almost touching the vast echo-proof floating bubbles on the ceiling of that beautiful, beautiful building, at some of the best orchestras in the world and knowing you had paid just a few pounds to see them. Three quid to see the Berlin Phil play Beethoven's Seventh - truly one of the greatest experiences of my life.
Photo by Becky Buckley

The Prommers themselves are characters in their own right. Many buy season tickets year after year and have become a close-knit circle of friends. Someone ahead of me in the queue on the opening night one year had brought in a load of seed cuttings that she had promised a fellow prommer on the last night of the year before. They have their own traditions - the shouts of "Heave" from the arena and "Ho!" from the gallery as the lid of the grand piano is lifted, and the quietening down of the audience in the interval so they can chant out a plea for donations to their "musical charities" collections. One time I went there was a delayed start, so the Prommers started playing a game of verbal tennis ("Ping....!" "Pong....!") between the arena and gallery. (It ended with a "You cannot be serious!") Once the piano lid is lifted, whoever plays the A note to for the orchestra to tune to is met with tumultous applause. I'd stay a standing ovation, but most of the audience are on their feet already. Some Prommers have their own personal spot in the arena, which they would probably defend with their lives. They certainly are prepared to queue for hours every day to make sure that they get it.

The Proms have become associated more and more with the Last Night, when in fact there are two full months of concerts before anyone starts waving flags and singing Land Of Hope And Glory. I am not really a fan of these Proms In The Park spin-offs as they just cannot create the same atmosphere of the Albert Hall. They are just a glorified picnic, with everyone ignoring the music until the first bars of Rule Britannia strike up. They just cannot recreate the emotion or exuberance of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, the East Western Divan Orchestra or any top symphony chorus belting out Mahler, Berlioz or Verdi. 

I have always admired the way that Proms schedulers like to premiere crowd-estranging controversial new music alongside more mainstream pieces. Hence you may see Judith Weir or Harrison Birtwhistle on a programme with Brahms or Mozart. But the need for crowd-pleasing and strong ticket sales means that there is a new trend for the Proms to have themed concerts as part of their season - Doctor Who, Sport and now CBeebies. Having seen trailers for it, our daughter was very keen to watch the CBeebies Prom and I have to admit that I was interested to see what they would do with it. I enjoyed lots of children's classical music concerts with my dad when I was little (both in the Royal Festival Hall in London and the less glamorous studio of Harlow Playhouse), and am keen to find similar things to go to with our daughter in the not so distant future, should they still exist. And to be fair, Charlotte sat entranced throughout it, though I am not sure whether she was more taken with all of her favourite characters appearing on stage at once (Gem from Swashbuckle, Mr Bloom and Robert the Robot) than the actual music. (But Henry Wood's Fantasia of British Sea Songs was well chosen in this circumstance.) The presenters were actually very good entertainers, and much less stiff than their on-screen personas, even if Bernard Cribbins (the only television star of my childhood still allowed to appear in public) as story-telling Old Jack now has to read his lines out of a book, bless him. And there was a nice little interactive piece at the end, featuring sounds from around London, like "Stand clear of the doors!" (shouldn't that have been "Mind the gap"?), "Apples and pears!" and the chimes of Big Ben. Though some members of the BBC Philharmonic were spotted boredly flicking through their scores to see how much more they had left to endure until the end.

Nonetheless, whether she cared more about the characters or the chorus, at the end of the concert our daughter insisted I fetch her footstool from the bathroom to use as a podium so she could wave a foam baton to conduct me playing Frere Jacques on an eight-note xylophone. (No notes left for the lower "dang", alas.) So a little seed has been sown. I hope.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Our Zoo

This predictable but nonetheless delightful period drama started last night. Coloured on screen by the same numbered hues as previous BBC1 hit Call The Midwife, Our Zoo tells the story of the founding of Chester Zoo. George Mottershead, unable to function properly in life thanks to war-induced post-traumatic stress disorder, finds his calling when he begins to rescue exotic animals in unlikely circumstances. Whilst on a trip to the Liverpool Docks to buy fruit for his family's grocery business, George follows a limping kangaroo into an office (as you do). This diversion results in him bringing home a parrot and a monkey that had been imported but subsequently abandoned in quarantine by their owners. George figures that life for the monkey in his Victorian terrace back yard privy would be an improvement on the choloroform that the harbourmaster was offering. The monkey (which may or may not be the same one that played Marcel in Friends) certainly seems to see a lot of snogging from his seat on the toilet. Shortly thereafter, once the monkey's condition has improved, his family, unsurprisingly unwilling to arouse the nosey neighbours' ire, pressure him to get rid of it. George tries to pass the monkey on to a travelling circus, only to return home with both the monkey and a lame camel that was about to be fed to the lions. Which also ends up being kept in the back yard. Not so much room for snogging now.

George's family are convinced that he has finally gone insane. His mother, played by Anne Reid, spits out one-liners in the style of Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey, only in a northern accent ("Get shot of those animals and everything will return to normal"). But George has never felt better. He has a dream. He is sick of seeing animals being kept in cages or overworked and abused by their owners. He wants to build a zoo, but a zoo without bars. Before long, he has found an abandoned manor house in the outlying village of Upton, and a bit of posh totty on a horse to encourage him. He convinces a bank manager to lend him enough money to buy the property at auction. ("Let me put a bit of beauty back into the world.") The money isn't enough, as a London property developer also has his eye on the land, but at the last minute, George's father decides to sell the family shop to provide the extra that he needs. By the end of the first episode, they have moved into the dilipated mansion, which Mother grimly observes has subsidence to boot. They figure they can turn the mansion into a tea room as the zoo's "main draw", and will just about survive financially if they can get through winter and open in the spring. Hm. They still have only three animals, one of whom nearly gets shot for stealing eggs from the village shop (no prizes for guessing which). But as George's wife Lizzie's beloved piano has been dropped off the back of a lorry, she will have no excuse but to focus all her attention on the accounting. And they may just pull it off.

Which of course they will. We went to Chester Zoo a couple of years ago, on probably the wettest July day I have ever experienced. We needed a child-friendly stop-off between North Wales and York after a weekend away, and as our daughter was not yet two, it meant she would still be free on a generally very expensive day out. We trudged around in the lashing deluge, trying to find shelter whilst avoiding spending any more money, which ruled in several animal houses (in which the disgruntled, wet animals were also cowering) and ruled out the monorail and food courts. School parties were sat outside eating miserable picnics in the teaming rain. Some of them, sat near the bears, were from a primary school in Liverpool where my mother held her first teaching job in the 1960s. The site is vast, and I am sure we will go back another time in better weather, as we have much left to explore. Although the Yorkshire Wildlife Park in Doncaster is now our nearest zoo. However, they don't have elephants, which Chester does, meaning that George's excited promise to his young, wide-eyed and curly-haired daughter June is - in the end - fulfilled.

Very wet elephants at Chester Zoo, July 2012