Sparks

The tap on the door is a regular occurance now. It always brings a little something that lightens the day. A veg box delivery from Vegivores or Geo Cafe. Beer from Loddon, cheese and beer from The Grumpy Goat. Maybe something for TLC’s craft room (she’s playing around with the Cricut she had for her birthday and coming up with wonderful results).

Yesterday, a delivery of herb plants put a smile on my face. Barbeque rosemary, French tarragon, parsley, oregano, sorrel. Planting them in the herb tower I bought last year will be a gentle treat for the weekend. Little sparks of flavour for the summer round the corner.

I have to keep thinking in terms of week versus weekend. Tracking the days, building new routines now I’m furloughed. TLC is working from home, so I’m led by her example. I make tea while she showers, maybe sneaking an extra ten minutes under the covers whle she dresses. An Aeropress coffee each before she hits the desk. Man, I’d forgotten about the simple joys of grinding beans, stirring and watching mindfully as the crema blooms in the brewing chamber. The rush of the good stuff into a favourite mug, hot and rich and fragrant. Another little spark to start the motor of the day.

I’m trying to watch less TV right now. It’s hard enough to steer clear of bad news. The Situation (as TLC and I have taken to stentorially pronounce it) gets into everything as it is. I make one exception–my 10am date with Matt Tebbutt and Jack Monroe for Daily Kitchen Live. As cooking shows go, this is a delight. Even seperated by video link, Jack and Matt have a bright and easy chemistry and are clearly learning loads from each other. It’s educational, entertaining, speaking to the everyday lives of the nation at the moment more truly and precisely than any other show on the air. And you get to learn about the joys of bottled lemon juice or how to make quick and easy pizza. A spark of foodie pleasure. I’m making this tonight.

With time on my hands, there’s room to get back to the projects that went on the shelf earlier in the year. The writing that faded away after Nanowrimo. The half-done short stories. And ever more, my happy place, WROB. It’s an indulgence, sure, and I’m very aware that I am a middle-aged male with time on his hands honking on about his Spotify recommendations. No-one needs to hear that, and frankly I’m not that bothered if they do or not. It feels good and right to me. It’s a spark that shines more brightly with every moment I put into it.

There’s a new edition up where I share the spotlight with my mysterious pal DJ Unknown on the angular joys of Aphex Twin, if you’re interested.

As far as music goes, I’ve been powered by Spotify for as long as I can remember now. Paired with a trio (that’s not mathematically or grammatically possible but I think we’re all beyond that now) of Sonos speakers, we have tunes on tap all through the house. Playlisting is easy and keeps songs rolling all through the day. I do, however, find myself relying on old favourites more often–musical comfort blankets, if you will. Bruce Springsteen, for example, is a constant cue-up these days. We even streamed his 2009 Hyde Park gig through Youtube last week. Three and a bit hours of sheer entertainment.

A new/old find is an album of covers by another old favourite, Matthew Sweet, whose power-pop stylings have long resonated in this household, and his wife.

Yeah, okay, CLANG. Sounds reductive if not downright sexist of me, but I’m holding back for dramatic effect. Come on, give me this one.

The spawny so-and-so is married to Susanna Hoffs. Yes, The Bangles’ Susanna Hoffs. Yes, the Susanna Hoffs who did that side-eye in the video for walk Like An Egyptian and wore that mini-dress in the Eternal Flame video and rocks a black Rickenbacker like no-one else and hey well LOOK–

Proper badass. Power-pop royalty in her own right is what I’m saying, which makes the Sweet/Hoffs pairing all the more special.

Aaanyway, Susanna and Matthew have released a long series of cover versions, and the best of them are complied onto Under The Covers, a cracking set of tunery. Their harmonies are gorgeous throughout. There’s nothing particularly challenging here, but it’s a spark for the soul as far as I’m concerned.

While I’m on Recommendation Road, it would be remiss of me not to mention the podcast run by an X&HTeam-mate and fellow Trekkie, Keith Eyles. Let’s See What’s Out There follows the recently-finished Star Trek: Picard, which I’ve thoroughly enjoyed. You may too, if you’re that way inclined.

Keith and co-host Pete are knowledgable and enthusiastic without indulging in the aggressive geekery that can leak into these sort of exercises. It’s going to some interesting places now season 1 is complete. There is a danger that I may crop up on an episode at some point. Fair warning will be given so you can retreat to a safe distance. Check out an ep featuring another Team-mate, Graham Williams, below. You may find it sparks an interest.

It’s the end of my first week in furlough. There is dark talk of decorating and shelf-building in my near future. For now, I’m enjoying this quiet time, feeling my mind slowly returning to a place where the sparks can fly freely. I hope you’re all finding bright points in the day too, however and wherever you can.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have important things to do. Take it away, boys…

Proof Of Life

Easter Monday. Cooler than the weekend, when we spent most of our time dozing in the sun with a book each. A sharp-edged breeze swirls the candy-floss blossom from next door’s apple tree up into the air. Baby pink against a cloudless blue. We move some tubs and planters around, repot a thyme, do some watering. I trim some of the thyme to put into a tray-bake of vegetables later.

Outside, All Hallows Road is empty. The Easter traffic that’s usual for the home of one of Reading’s major cemeteries during a national holiday is non-existent. The boneyard gates are closed and chained. No fresh flowers on Grandma’s grave. The irony of a shuttered cemetery in the midst of of a global pandemic is almost parody. The blackest of comedies.

We’ve seen little of the mass gatherings that have social media fussbudgets in a conniption. We haven’t been near a park in weeks. But then, we’re lucky to have a garden to flop in when the sun comes out. If I was stuck in a flat with no easy access to green, it’s very likely I’d be heading to the river every day, risking the scolding. For what it’s worth, everyone we’ve seen on our perambulations have been very careful about staying away from each other. Smiles, waves and nods seem to be the norm. People are gentle with each other, as best they can at least.

As an introvert, this whole social distancing lark has come easy. I get on well without needing to socialise. My problem is that I find webcam chats almost as exhausting as the actual face-to-face stuff. If anything, the extra energy you have to put into a Zoom or Skype call to be noticed and heard wrings me out even more quickly than a normal meeting would. I make the effort with group chat though, as much for the other people on the call as myself. It is, as the old BT commercial put it, good to talk.

I’m even calling the parents once a week. Yes, I am a saint. Good of you to notice.

The creativity of the community in isolation has been incredibly inspiring. Art has been pouring out of us in every form imaginable, from drawing and painting to textiles to music to short films and photography. A remarkable and unprecedented flood of joyfulness.

You notice I didn’t mention writing. That’s a sore point. While many of us have lifted the banner of creativity to stave off the black dog, I have stalled. This is frustrating and worrying. I’ve always laboured under the delusion that whatever else happens, I can always write. Now, at the point where I actually have the time to settle down and get some serious word count down, the urge to do so is hiding wide-eyed under the stairs, refusing to come out no matter how much I shake the bag of Dreamies.

Excuses? I have a few. I mean, check the title of the blog. For one, I’ve actually been at work. Part of a skeleton crew that’s taken our usual twenty staff down by seventy-five percent. There’s much less to do, but more than enough for one person. That ends as of tomorrow, when I go onto a rotating furlough pattern. Maybe then the evening brain-fog will lift. Who knows, I might even be able to lure the muse out from her hiding place.

Meanwhile there’s always dinner to be made. We’ve started using local suppliers and embracing their delivery options. Our first veg box from Caversham’s own Geo Cafe contained all manner of goodies and has me tearing up the weekly food plan in favour of something more aubergine-heavy. Loddon Brewery, up the road from us in Dunstan Green, sorted me out with a lovely selection of brews in time for the Easter break. Both have been friendly, chatty and a joy to do business with. We’ll drop an order to the brilliant Grumpy Goat for cheese (and yeah ok maybe some more beer) this week. With two Co-ops a ten minute walk away, we haven’t needed to go near a supermarket in weeks. That trend is probably going to continue after the restrictions finally lift, and we wander out blinking into the summer to finally get that haircut or pop to the pub.

Gods, I miss the pub.

It would be easy to make light of the situation and the last thing I want to do is minimise the struggles that millions of us are facing right now. Look, I am fully aware of how lucky I am. Money is going to be tight, sure. But we have no kids to educate and entertain while trying to hold down a strange home bound working day. We are, for the time being at least, secure. TLC and I, quiet homebodies as we are, are almost perfectly suited to the challenges that The Rony has set us. Even for us, there are broken sleep patterns, times of anxiety and inertia. Gods only know how the rest of you are coping. The fact that you are, and with good humour, creativity and determination, gives me hope for all of us.

Outside, late afternoon light dapples the rough end of the garden. Shadows play over the apple trees we planted a couple of years back, their branches thick with new buds. I’ll be out there tomorrow, doing battle with weeds and overgrown borders. Perhaps the muse will follow me out, green eyes glinting, tail held high. Perhaps she’ll drop an idea into my head that will send me running back indoors for a pen and paper.

Perhaps we are one day closer to the end of this, and the beginning of something new.

Bring On The Winter: Garlic shoulder of lamb with potato boulangère

Doco Dom and The Lady Deming have been visiting old haunts in France, and returned with a gift for lucky old me: a big-ass garlic grappe from Lautrec, the town famous for its stinking roses. I was, of course, deeply appreciative, but I was left with a slight problem. Now I have to do the stuff justice.

Garlic is the friendliest stuff with which to cook. The papery coating is the perfect defence against the heat of the oven, and a roasted head of garlic is a brilliant accompaniment to just about any savoury meal. Simply lop the top off, splash over a little oil, and cook for half an hour in a medium oven. The honey-coloured, mellow-flavoured paste that results when you squeeze out the cloves is a delight.

But we can do better than that. Keeping it French, I decided to snag some lamb shoulder, and put together the ideal slow-cooked meal for a lazy Sunday.

 

I'm a recent convert to the ways of the slow-cooked shoulder of beast. It is, to be fair, a dish that requires time. I could get my act together before leaving for work and pop a cut into the slow cooker, I suppose. But really, this is a weekend dish, designed for a bit of kitchen puttering. Particularly if you're smart, and do the potatoes at the same time.

Preheat your oven to 130C, and get on with the lamb. I had a half-kilo lump which will easily serve TLC and I with leftovers. Season it thoroughly, then get garlicking. Skin a whole head of the lovely stuff (it's easiest to bash it with the flat end of a knife or cleaver–the flesh will pop free from the papery husks) and nick off the hard stem. Then make deep incisions into the lamb with a sharp knife, and stuff the cloves into these pockets. Try to make sure they go all the way in. Don't be shy. Shove 'em in there.

Now to the spuds. Potatoes boulangère is the way forward here: layers of potato and onion, moistened with stock and flavoured with the copious fat from the lamb. You need a mandolin to do this properly. No, not the stringed instrument, you fool, the terrifying cross between a knife and a guillotine that has shortened many a chef's finger. Finely slice a couple of onions and four or five big potatoes. And grab some herbs. Thyme is traditional, but rosemary also works brilliantly.

Now to build. You can use a roasting tin, but I find a good deep casserole works just as well. Butter it well first. Pop a layer of potato in the bottom of the pot, then onion, herbs and a grind of salt and pepper. Then repeat, layering spuds, onion, herbs and seasoning until you've reached the top. If you're using Pyrex, then you get to see the result of your labours at the end. Check out this work of art.

 

Then all you do is slosh over a couple of ladlefuls of good stock, pop your lamb on top of everything and shove it in the oven. Then wait, which is probably the hardest bit. Five hours cooking time, slow and low, letting the fat gently render out of the lamb and into the boulangère, giving the garlic time to mellow and soften. Cook it for long enough and the cloves will actually melt into the meat, although I like the notion of squidging the soft garlic around on the plate.

When that five hours is finally done, let the meat rest for twenty minutes, then shred it. If there's a bone on the joint, it should slide free without complaint. Serve the lamb and potatoes with a simply steamed green veg (we had broccoli). You shouldn't need gravy as the boulangère is still quite sloppy. But don't let me stop you from sloshing a little mint sauce on the side.

The whole thing is is rich, herby, rib-sticking. There's nothing harsh about it. Hell, you don't even have to chew that hard. On the day the clocks went back, it was the perfect way to usher in the cooler months.

 

 

The September Read-easy!

Who doesn’t like a good book? Well, if you don’t, you’re in the wrong place this month!

Rob and Clive share the works of literary merit that have tickled their fancy recently, in a podcast that’s sure to appeal to those of you that enjoy slightly drunken rambling from two opinionated old geezers.

Pop your slippers on, pour yourself a sherry and join us as we crack open a volume or two…

(Clive mentioned The Doctor Who Book Club podcast: you can check that out here.)

The X(&HT)Mas Bonus Speakeasies: Slayride

Merry Santa!

Xmas Bonus- Slayride

As our Xmas gift to you, dearest Listenership, here is the second of our bonus Speakeasies. Clive and I are reading each other’s stories from last year’s Zombie Christmas anthology, The Dead Files Vol. 3 (pick it up at Amazon for the zombie fan in your life). This time around, Clive is reading my story of the best Christmas Day ever: Slayride.