Friday 19 November 2010

Climate of Fear

Kitchen Cabinet review of threats

1) The climate is going to collapse if I drive over to see my mum, so I'd better stay indoors and eat turnips for the rest of my life, except when going out to pay tax.

2) Terrorism. We'd better not say by whom, or how this particular source is a competitor ideology got up in the garments of a religion. Even though it has been documented for the last thirty years at least.

3) Banking Crisis. There's no money and there won't be for at least the next 150 years. That's not a threat - it has already happened.

4) Health scares. Did you know fat is contagious?

So pfft to any measly threat of invasion. Don't I realize that eco-famine, unpredictable violence and the Dreaded Lurgi, plus the country being flat-broke, are going to get me long before the police can suicide me for being insufficiently obsequious or out after curfew without offering them a blow-job?

I was going to suggest knitting something for comfort, but having looked at my last attempt, another suggestion might be better.

One thing restores a sense of control over the immediate threatening chaos. Soup. That is why witches make it in a cauldron. The cauldron represents the world so if you've got control over the cauldron, that's one tiny model of the world back in working order.

However, a freezing river fog has descended and if anybody thinks I'm mucking about trying to light twigs in air as wet as a haddock's handbag, they are very much mistaken. Soup will be indoors and a level of abstraction will be used to liken ordinary pans to ritual vessels.

Vegetable soup is the simplest, according to what you have laying around. I happened to have a butternut squash, four small onions and a lonely cooking apple.

The easiest way is to roast everything before it goes in the soup as this intensifies the flavour. Cut the squash in half, scoop out the seeds, then lay it flat-side down in a little oil on a roasting tray. Surround with roughly-chopped onions. Roast for about 15 minutes on a high heat; remove the onions to the soup cauldron before they frazzle. Check how cooked the squash is. The chances are it will need another ten minutes, turned over on to its round side. Add the peeled apple slices at his point. Apple roasts very quickly.

When the squash and the apple are done, scoop out the soft flesh and add them to the onions, along with any oil which might be hanging around in the roasting pan. To turn them in to soup all that is needed is water, seasonings and spices to your satisfaction. You might want to add vegetable stock, depending on your tastes. (I like it).

Now, as squash can be fibrous it is preferable to liquidize the soup with a stick blender. This matters less with starchy vegetables such as carrots and potatoes which will settle for being mashed. If you use a stick blender it is important to add cold water to the veg because hot soup .... well, I'm sure some clever-clogs already worked out how hot liquid affects plastic-sleeve blenders.

You now also have a pile of squash seeds. You can have a go at planting them next spring or roast them as a snack. Wash them and pat them dry, turn them in oil and roast on a high heat for 15 minutes until about half have popped. They aren't too bad, but I can't see them challenging other snack foods. Too husky.

The purpose of the soup ritual is to provide a breathing space against the onslaught of the times. Perhaps it is an illusion, but often it seems that something, or somebody, is trying to scare us out of our wits in order to gain our acquiescence to any number of repressive measures.

Monday 15 November 2010

Yasmin Ahlbi-Back: Our most precious possession

I was at a Hollywood party with my very good friend Kate Winslet and was expounding the finer points of how to deliver a line from Hardy with the suitable regional accent.

I explained that it is all about imagining one has a mouthful of bumpkin, like a country pumpkin, and all the doors and windows are open so it is a bit chilly.

"Oooh Arrh Mr Frodo"
like that, as if the nipples are standing up, which is what we thespians call the finer points.

This is what a famous professor of linguistics told me, although I already knew it because this was how I did it when I was a drama student, but I turned down the place at RADA in favour of becoming the only non-white columnist in the whole of the British Empire. It is very lucky for everyone I did this as otherwise William Paxton would have wasted his time inventing greenhouses to throw stones in and movable Twitterer.

Unfortunately, like many silly white women who can't keep a husband, Kate has let herself go. I've given her diet tips, a copy of my exercise DVD and some of my tamarind gravy which makes an excellent facial toner. But I've warned my son - he's a barrister you know - against painted Jezebels, even Kate's.

Speaking of barristers I've decided not to mention the subject of gay barristers such as Gareth Compton and stoning any more,

Reluctantly, I have instructed my police force not to take matters any further but a rather thick officer said 'Well, m'arm, that's for the CPS to decide whether there is a realistic prospect of a conviction under ­section 127 (1a) of the Communications Act 2003' as apparently it is not up to me at all! This is ridiculous. We'll have people complaining about being arrested for no reason except being a Tory next, as if that wasn't reason enough.

What a disappointment that the youth of today are unable to stand up to wicked dictators like I was when I bravely ran away from Uganda. Fortunately we respect freedom of speech over at my column, which is why the editor has decided twice now to delete all the comments as their support for me was embarrassingly overwhelming.

Sunday 14 November 2010


The price they paid was very great.

But then look how beautiful their children are.

It is time now that only those who served or are serving can lay wreaths on our behalf. I’d rather be represented by them. For some years there was a justification that the politicians themselves had taken some measure of risk, but that no longer applies.

No more grandstanding for pols; they get to stand at the back quietly while better men and women step forward.

Friday 12 November 2010

Yazzer Ahlbi-Back - A memoir part 1

1972. Standing on the grass airstrip of my farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong hills, my honest native bearer, Moma Akawimbe, knelt with the tears rolling down her good-natured black face. "Massa don't go" she begged, terrified that she would be left without my secret recipe for Spicy Ackee dumplin's.

Alas, I had to leave as I had received a proposal of marriage from the Heir to the Throne and had to tell him personally that it could never be. He was too white, too male, too everything for me to seriously consider it.

He would just have to get over my musky dusky beauty and satisfy himself with some pale neurotic shicksa (so my Jewish best friends told me). But he could never forget me.

Alas, my true love Vincent Cable was, unbeknownst to me, in the arms of my arch-rival, the twinkle-toed Olympia Rebelo. Her with her nursing qualification and PhD in Music (she played the bassoon and it was rumoured all round Kenya that she could hold her breath for three minutes) she had the insubstantial attractions which shallow white men are often overly-impressed by.

Once he saw my advanced qualifications in literature and lapped my coconut dhals I was confident there would be no more talk of all this foxtrotting and the military two-step. But first, I had to fulfil my destiny to become The Only Non-White Columnist in Britain.

And except for all the others, dear reader, I did.

Monday 8 November 2010

Down at the old Bullen Bush: Sloe Gin

This is a bullen bush. You have only a few days left to find one - usually on the edge of a park or wasteland - and harvest the berries. They've had all the sun they are going to get and now have the maximum sweetness a sloe achieves, which isn't very much. The frosts should have encouraged the interior cells to burst, which is quicker than mucking about with a fork. When the berries are perfectly ripe they will slide off the branch between the wicked thorns, which saves having to pick out their little stalks. As the wind has combed the leaves off the bushes now it is easier to see where the knife-thorns are.

Take care when gathering the them; blackthorn is notorious for spikes which easily turn septic. It is not a suitable job for children. Always promise the bush that you'll plant a few of its cherries in a new hedge and wash hands very carefully when you get back. I'm surprised it isn't more widely used as a security plant as it is graceful and doesn't go dropping dead every five minutes. When the leaves are off it is easy to see its Gothic architecture and it would be a simple matter to prune it in to shape. The dry twigs are said to burn with a bright smokeless fire.

Wash the berries, discard any remaining stalks or leaves, and either freeze them in 8-ounce portions or get ready with a lotta bottles. 8oz is approximately the volume of 40cl. It is the interstices between the berries which determines the amount of sugar you can cram in. This is chosen purely because the bottles I'm using happen to be 70cl.

For the next trick you will require two 70cl gin bottles; one full, one empty, and a calibrated jug as this recipe works by volume. As you are going to add berries and sugar the most basic safe supermarket spirit is suitable. A funnel will help enormously with getting the sugar in to the bottles; use a paper cone if someone has run off with yours.

Having either set about the berries with a fork or open-frozen them to burst the cells, post 40cl or 8oz of berries in to the empty bottle, pour over 35cl of gin and top up with sugar, then replace the caps carefully to be quite sure they don't dribble. Visit the bottles every few days to give them a shake and help the sugar dissolve. They'll be ready for the New Year party or can be laid down for a year.

As I had a pair of 75cl jars I made a thicker syrup and buried a cinnamon stick in. This will be suitable as base for other recipes where a fruity spiced syrup is required e.g. punches, pudding sauces, or to sweeten oil and vinegar dressings. The proportions here are 40cl berries, 35cl gin, one cinnamon stick and a great deal of sugar to fill up the space. Some people like other flavourings such as cloves.

The berries should steep until the New Year, but they can be tested at Christmas. It is best used, in my opinion, as a spritzer base as the berries and the sugar are a sure recipe for a terrible headache if drunk to excess. Sloe gin can be laid down for a year and many authorities think it should be, while others think the best thing to do is ignore the sloes and use damsons or make blackberry vodka instead. Maximum keeping time is 3 years.

Approximate proportions:
A shade more than half the volume of the bottle should be filled with berries, then covered by a more precise half-bottle of gin. The amount of sugar is determined by the displaced space between the berries and is roughly one-third of the total volume.

For anyone who has not handled the berries before: do not attempt to eat them as they have a gravelly stone. No matter what you might have heard they are not suitable for eating. Yes, I have done the experiments. If the gin comes out very thick, sieve it through a tea-strainer. If it comes out fairly thin, consider running it through a coffee filter paper to clarify it. The sugar may look like a lot, but it is the sugar which draws out the sloe flavouring in to the gin.

This preparation uses very little time beyond the collecting of the berries, and that counts as exercise. It produces sloe gin at roughly two-thirds the cost of a commerical bottle.