Dabbler Heroes – Elizabeth David

Elizabeth David

It’s Boxing Day, and today marks the centenary of the birth of food writer Elizabeth David who, Toby Ash believes, still has more to offer the modern domestic kitchen than all of today’s celebrity chefs put together.

I just can’t imagine Elizabeth David stealing from Tesco. No, not Elizabeth. She was a no-nonsense type, blunt to the point of rudeness, who’d have been too busy regaling the fishmonger about her favourite bouillabaisse recipe rather than trying to filch a stilton and a couple of bottles of plonk.

I confess to having fallen just a little in love with David since I first discovered her books a few years ago. She was wilful, adventurous, determined and uncompromising. But for more than anything, I love her for significantly improving the quality of my life.

Born into a well-to-do family, David was sent off to the Sorbonne in 1930 to study art. It was there, whilst boarding with a French family, that she discovered her vocation:

I realised in what way the family had fulfilled their task of instilling French culture into at least one of their British charges. Forgotten were the Sorbonne professors…what had stuck was the taste of a kind of food quite ideally unlike anything I had known before.

But there was fun to be had first. After the Sorbonne she returned to England where she tried her hand at acting before running off with a married man with whom she sailed in a small boat to Greece. They were nearly trapped by the German invasion of Greece in 1940 but managed to escape to Egypt where they parted. She then ran a library for the British government in Cairo and put up with a brief marriage to a British army officer, before returning to Britain at the war’s end.

David found post-war Britain dull and grey. And, the food, of course, was absolutely terrible:

There was flour and water soup seasoned solely with pepper; bread and gristle rissoles; dehydrated onion and carrots; corned beef toad in the hole. I need not go on.

And so she launched her career as a food writer, introducing to her hungry audiences such exotic ingredients as pasta, parmesan, olive oil, salami, aubergines, peppers and courgettes. Over the course of her long career (she died in 1992) David wrote eight books and countless articles. In the 1960s she even opened a shop in Pimlico selling cooking paraphernalia, opting not to stock garlic presses which she famously (and quite correctly) described as being “utterly useless”.

Now the thing you have to remember is that David’s books are nothing like most of the recipe books that line the shelves of book shops today. They have lots of recipes in them – in fact I’ll wager her French Provincial Cooking has more recipes in it than all of Jamie Oliver’s books combined – but they are so much more than pretty instruction manuals. As Ruth Rogers, Co-Founder of The River Café, told me last year:

You can take any of Elizabeth David’s cookbooks to bed and read them as you would a novel.

David was a beautiful and observant writer. Her books weren’t banged out to coincide with a TV series; they were the product of in-depth, patient and sympathetic research. She was interested in the places she visited and the people she met. She wanted to learn and was able to listen. She could grasp the essence of a region, and food’s place within it.

Here’s an excerpt from her introduction to Provence:

Provence is a country to which I am always returning, next week, next year, any day now, as soon as I can get on to a train. Here in London it is an effort of will to believe in the existence of such a place at all. But now and again the vision of golden tiles on a round southern roof, or of some warm, stony, herb-scented hillside will rise out of my kitchen pots with the smell of a piece of orange peel scenting a beef stew. The picture flickers into focus again.

David opens up a whole new culinary way of life. With la haute cuisine “I am not here concerned”, she states in French Provincial Cooking. Instead, she offers simple food, simply presented; food that demands less time and expense “but if anything a more genuine feeling for cookery and a truer taste”. The book is full of simple, tasty and ingenious dishes that don’t require a mass of expensive ingredients. It’s a quick sauce here, a long simmer there; a dash of this and a handful of that. It’s the melted butter with Dijon mustard and lemon juice that transforms grilled fish. It’s the ground pepper and grated parmesan sprinkled over a bowl of steaming fennel. These are cooking tips that you can use every day to bring out the very best flavours from the food around you.

So did David really transform Britain’s eating habits? Well, she undoubtedly made a massive contribution to culinary life in Britain. But, let’s face it, for as long as we look for culinary inspiration from a four-eyed, bald chef making “the perfect” scrambled eggs by ramming a stick of dynamite up a chicken (or some such nonsense), we probably still have some way to go.

Sicilian Diary

Dabbler Palermo shot
Toby Ash has just enjoyed a long weekend in Palermo. Just don’t mention the M word…

From the moment you land, it’s pretty hard to avoid the mafia in Sicily. Palermo’s Falcone-Borsellino airport is named after two prominent judges slain in the early 1990s for successfully pursing the Cosa Nostra. On the road into the city you actually pass over the spot where Giovanni Falcone, his wife and four police officers were killed, in an explosion so powerful it registered on earthquake monitors.

The local tourist board would like visitors to believe that organised crime is a thing of the past, and it’s true that most of the big name Sicilian mafia bosses – including Toto Riina, responsible for killing Falcone and hundreds more- are behind bars. There is also none of the widespread violence – car bombs, assassinations, gun fights – that blighted Sicily, and Palermo in particular, in the 1980s and 1990s. From being the father of the Italian mafia family, the Sicillian Cosa Nostra is arguably now looking more like a distance cousin to the more powerful – and deadly – ‘Ndrangheta from Calabria and the Camorra, from Naples and the Campania region.

But the mafia still very much part of the fabric of Sicilian life. It’s estimated that about 70 per cent of Sicilian businesses pay pizzo, or protection money. For a small shop, it amounts to about 200 euros a month; for bigger businesses that figure can rise to 30,000 euros. What do they get in return? I suppose their friendly neighbourhood mafiosi will tell them protection from fraudsters, thieves and competitors. But in reality what they are paying is a tax to operate normally –a guarantee that there suppliers won’t suddenly cut them off; that their refuse is collected; that gangs of intimidating yobs won’t hang around outside their door day and night; that the tax office won’t repeatedly investigate their affairs.

Despite the high profile arrests and convictions, it’s still striking how pathetic and complicit the Italian state is allowing this state of affairs to continue. But then it was the absence of a functioning state that essentially gave birth to the mafia in the first place. The true heroes of Sicily are the many individuals who have taken a stand against organised crime. In the 1980s and 1990s, it was the extraordinarily brave investigating judges, priests and uncorrupted police and Carabinieri, many of whom lost their lives. Today, you also have those who diligently catalogue each and every murder at the Anti-Mafia museum we called on in the blighted town of Corleone, and members of Addiopizzo, a community of businesses and consumers who refuse to pay pizzo.  We dined in one Palermo restaurant whose owners had defied death threats by testifying against the mafia for the attempted extortion of 50,000 euros and for trying to force them to purchase solely from mafia-owned suppliers. Three local bosses were subsequently convicted. As we left, we noticed two Carabinieri sitting in their car on the opposite side of the road. There was another patrol car on the street when we passed by the following evening.

Will it ever end? Perhaps the answer lies with globalisation. On the edge of Palermo I noticed a large German supermarket chain had opened a large out-of-town shop. With their vast roster of suppliers, they aren’t reliant on a local supply chain controlled by local bosses. But it seemed to be the exception. For such a large European city like Palermo, there was a noticeable absence of large international retailers. But then would I be brave enough to sell or rent land to foreign businesses that undermined local mafia control? I’m not sure I would.

***

Even swearing in Italian sounds beautiful.

A rainy Sunday lunchtime, and Palermo were playing fellow Serie B promotion hopefuls Latina. I suppose the English football equivalent would be say Burnley against Blackpool, but this being Italy it was just far more glamorous and stylish. The stadium was probably only a third full, with the coach load of Latina fans who had made the long journey (every away fan has to make a long journey to Palermo) locked securely away in a small cage in one corner.

Palermo’s ultras were in fine voice. A few hundred in number, they chanted, sang, jeered, and jumped frenetically up and down without pause.  They also lit bright pink flares and smoke bombs with abandon – something that would land you with a prison sentence here- and the number of loo rolls they lobbed onto the pitch would make a Venezuelan seethe with envy. It was a great spectacle.

Needless to say we were robbed. Having taken an early lead, we conceded two quick goals much to the irritation of my fellow devotees. It looks like we’re facing a tough fight to exit the shame of Serie B, a league no self-respecting Italian city can reside.

On leaving the stadium I passed a kiosk serving snacks and bottles of beer. A large group of Palermo fans were eating chickpea patties (a delicious local delicacy) and drinking water. Now, I bet that wouldn’t happen in Burnley.

***

The final scenes of the Godfather III were shot at Teatro Massimo, Palermo’s fine opera house. The film is very accurate – the ushers do indeed all wear tailcoats and carry big sets of keys to open all the individual boxes. I could almost hear Michael Corleone shout ‘oh god, no, no!’ as I skipped down the steps past the spot where his beloved daughter was shot.

Being a foreigner, I made the laughable and extraordinarily stupid decision to spend ages choosing my tickets on the website, ensuring, or so I naively thought, I booked those with the very best view of a performance of La Traviata. How could I have been so trusting? This is, I now understand, something no right thinking Italian would dream of doing.

As with so much in Italy, there is crisis and chaos but then, almost inexplicably, a solution is found and order is restored. After being escorted to our box, which we were sharing with two charming elderly Sicilian couples, we discovered that the tickets booked had none of the view explicitly promised to me on the website. The fundamental problem lay in the design of the auditorium. Pretty it was, but also pretty damn useless. The boxes are arranged in tiers in a horse shoe shape in front of the stage, meaning that those closest the stage looked directly at the box opposite. Given that all the boxes were partitioned, unless you are in the front row and able to lean over, ones view of proceedings is pretty limited.

Of course, this was not unique to this performance – it happens at every performance! But instead of pre-empting this most pre-emptable of situations, they continue to allocate seats with no consideration as to whether they actually offer a view of the stage. So after the first of the three acts, we joined tens of others in the extraordinary ritual of being escorted by an usher to see the manager and gaining his ascent (a knowing nod) for a seat change. After three lift rides and two botched box raids, we at last found ourselves with a wonderful view of the stage to enjoy the final two acts of a truly wonderful performance.

***

The most notable thing about Palermo’s museum of modern art is the absence of modern art. It has all the look of an institution that had been endowed with generous grants to restore the building, but then forgot it needed to fill it up with something.  I hazard a guess that on opening they launched an island-wide appeal for any old pictures people had in their attics and didn’t much like. With one or two exceptions it was all rather meagre – lots of lonely donkeys on hillsides and huge canvasses where the artist seemed to have become obsessed with the background and forgot to put a subject in.

The cafeteria, however, came strongly recommended, so we ventured there for some late lunch. Although not a vegetarian, after a couple of days of large meaty dinners, I chose the vegetarian lasagne. Not that it particularly bothered me, but half way through I noticed two large chunks of flesh in the dish in front of me. When the sweet waitress came to collect my plate, I pointed them out. She put on a sad face, drew two fingers down her cheeks to indicate tears, thought for a moment ( I was angling for a free espresso) and then exclaimed with a winning smile: “A special bonus!” And off she skipped.

***

A Friday visit to the antique dealers grouped together in a pedestrianized street close to the centre of the city. It was out of season, but most of the shops were open.  I didn’t spot anything to buy, but what did catch my eye were the numerous posters and flyers advertising ‘The biggest antiques market in Southern Italy’ on that very street at the weekend. Wow ,what luck!

So bright and early the next morning I set off, cash in my pocket, for some bargain hunting. But to my dismay, the street looked exactly the same as the day before. Where were all the stands overflowing with beautiful stuff, I wondered?

I enquired with one of the stall holders. The conversation went something like this:

‘Excuse me, but the big antiques fair advertised on the posters, is that here and is it today?’
‘Yes it is here. This is it,’ he answered.
‘But, it’s exactly the same here as it was yesterday.’
‘Yes,’ he said. He smiled and shrugged his shoulders.

***

Twice in my life I have been sat in a vehicle and had to watch the tank being filled up by a petrol attendant holding a lighted cigarette in the same hand as the nozzle – Eastern Turkey in 1990 and Palermo in 2013.

My secret booky nookie

Toby Ash confesses to a secret crush…

For several years now I have posted quite regularly and have enjoyed participating in the wise, lively and good-natured banter that is daily Dabber life.

So I like to think I am part of The Dabbler community; that I am among friends. Right so far? I really hope so.  Anyway, what do friends do? Well, they tell you their secrets. So, my Dabbler friends I am going to tell you one. It’s something that has been eating away inside me for some time and, until now, I have never found it appropriate to share it with anyone else.

Well, I’m not going to beat around the bush about it. I’m going to come straight out and say it. So here goes… I SECRETLY HEART AUTHORS. That’s it, I’ve said it now.

God I’m not feeling as relieved as I’d hoped. In fact, I have started to hyper ventilate. Anyway, no going back now. Let me explain.

There are writers out there who strike a special chord with me. They can be of either sex, but they write in a way – can be fiction or non-fiction – that just makes my heart melt a little. I don’t know what they look like or anything substantive about them, I only know that their writing talks to me in such a way that makes me love them a little. We’re not talking bibliographic porn here, more deep Byronic Platonic affection.

I got to thinking about this after I had an almost violent reaction to someone’s stinging, ill-thought out criticism of the author Tim Parks. Why should I care what they thought of him? Why did I leap to his defence with such vigour and passion? Why oh why did I take it all so personally? And then it dawned on me. I harboured deep – and until that moment unacknowledged – feelings towards this author. I was smitten with his written.

So what links all my booky nookie? Well, I‘ve been thinking about this. Let’s take Mr Parks. Well, it’s not his fiction. Sorry Tim, I know you’ve been shortlisted for the Booker but they are way too dark for me. Nope it’s his non-fiction and in particular the three charming books he wrote chronicling his life in Italy – Italian Neighbours, An Italian Education and A Season with Verona. The first two are about him setting up home in Italy with his wife and family. The last is about the season he spent going to every home and away fixture following his beloved football team Verona.

He brings a wonderful insight into Italy and its people. He’s inquisitive, clever, funny and his descriptions of seemingly mundane everyday things paint a compelling picture of his adopted country and its people. He is kind and generous about the people he meets, and although he exposes the darker side to Italian life, there is a real affection there.  He doesn’t resort to cynicism or ridicule. He is interested in his surroundings and he has a zest for life.

That’s it isn’t it. It’s all about character. I have never understood the attraction of horribleness. The way you see the world and your generosity of spirit – these are what matter in a person. They are, of course, only part of a life-commitment package; looks, good hygiene and genital arrangement being pretty core too.

The more I think about this author love thing, the more questions it raises. Do authors get stalked by people driven crazy with desire after reading one of their books? I have little personal experience to bring to bear to this question. The worthy chapter of a book I once wrote (translated into Dutch) on the Palestinian economy had is plaudits, but there was no underwear in my post. Also, I wonder if authors actually consciously set out to get their readers to fall in love with them.

Anyway, I feel so much better now. I’m an out and proud author lover.  Are you?

Inexplicable in any language – The Museum at Alte

Toby Ash makes an unexpected and bizarre discovery amongst the golf courses and white washed villas of Portugal’s Algarve….

The Algarve is not on most people’s cultural map. Lazing about in the sun, a round of golf, Cliff Richard-spotting perhaps, but it’s not a great place for museums or galleries.

Well, that’s almost true. One day, while seeking something interesting to see in the small hill top town of Alte, I found one of the most extraordinary museums I have ever visited. Declaring itself to be a ‘regional museum’, it was owned and run by Jose Saturnino da Palma, a former shoemaker, and his wife. They looked very unremarkable, much the same as other conservatively dressed pensioners in the town, and neither spoke a word of English. Not that this mattered. Their museum was inexplicable in any language.

After decamping into a back room of their two-storey home, this resourceful couple transformed the rest of it into a visitor attraction. There was no particular theme, just lots and lots of stuff, most of it broken and all of it worthless, carefully arranged and meticulously dusted by the Senhora (see Gallery above; click to enlarge). Some of the items were dated, but almost always incorrectly. And not just by a few years, they were often out by decades and occasionally centuries.

But within this shrine to eccentricity, there was a careful attention to detail. For example, the magazine cut outs sellotaped to the plates that helped you imagine what a plate might be used for if you happened to be unfamiliar with such an object. And why the caged dinosaurs, I pondered. A bold and incisive statement on the predicament of modern man surely. Then there was the juxtaposition of Lady Diana and Madeleine McCann, and the magical collage of saints, lusty ladies and a sodomising hare that first confronted me as I stepped in from the street. It was all very thought provoking. What did it mean? What are you trying to say Jose?

Despite its obvious and multitudinous failings as a museum, Alte’s ‘regional museum’ is worthy of celebration. Jose and his wife are true dabblers in the art of museum curating. It was surprising, funny and left one slightly reeling with bewilderment. How many museums make you feel like that eh? And I’m not sure who Joao da Costa Bernardino is, but I think he might be onto something.

A version of this post appeared on The Dabbler in March 2011.

Magic of Mali

Ali Toure

Mali may be economically impoverished, but as Toby Ash explains, it is musically wonderfully rich…

I have quite an extensive collection of world music, but only recently did I notice that the majority of the African tracks were by Malian artists. Why Mali? To be honest I’m not completely sure. There is certainly a strong and varied local tradition of music making, but added to this is a great enthusiasm for embracing musical influences from other parts of the world. In the 1960s, Cuban music and the blues began to heavily influence a local scene that was flourishing on the back of financial support for music festivals from the first post-independence governments.

Until his death in 2006, Ali Farka Touré was Mali’s preeminent musician. A wonderful bluesman, he won international recognition and is on Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. He was able to blend to perfection the rhythms of traditional Malian music with those of the American blues. Here he is playing the track Savane:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zcmdiS1ahlQ[/youtube]

Guitar playing runs in the family and Ali’s son Vieux is now one of Africa’s most celebrated musicians and performed at the opening ceremony of the 2010 World Cup. This jamming session is a real beauty. I love the fact that he is in a dusty courtyard, playing to a couple of kids.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PvZHlgoYmJM[/youtube]

The Hotel Wassoulou in Bamako, the Malian capital, is owned by the singer Oumou Sangaré (“The Songbird of Wassoulou”) and is a magnet for musicians as well as a performing space for Sangaré herself. Oumou Sangaré is an extraordinary character. Not only a great vocalist and savvy business woman, she is also an outspoken advocate for women’s rights in conservative Mali. There really is something magical about her. Here she is singing her 2009 hit Seya (‘Joy’):

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7pR1z5mST4E[/youtube]

Perhaps the best known Malian musician in Britain is Salif Keita. He performs here regularly, both live and on TV (Jools Holland is a big fan). Keita is particularly recognisable as he is an albino. Although a direct descendant of the founder of the Mandingo Empire, Keita was cast out by his family and shunned by his community because of his albinism which is seen as a symbol of bad luck. Despite all this, he established himself as a musician in Mali before relocating to France in the 1980s, a move which was to propel him to international fame.

Here he is back home, singing Mousooloo from his 2002 album Moffou:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lAuRkiXJP1c[/youtube]

A version of this post originally appeared on The Dabbler in April 2011.

A Musical Mezze

umm kulthum

Toby Ash serves up a mezze of Middle Eastern musical delights…

There is only one starting point to any post on Arab music and that’s Egypt and the ‘Star of the East’ Umm Kulthum, who is widely lauded as the greatest Arab singer of the twentieth century.

Born the daughter of an Imam in the Nile Delta in about 1900, her talent was spotted early and she became member of travelling performing troupe as a child. In 1923 she had moved to Cairo and began working with the leading song writers and composers of the day. However, her heyday really came in the 1950s, when she seemed to personify the vitality and confidence that swept Egypt after the nationalists took power in 1952. The streets were empty during her monthly radio broadcasts and she endeared herself to the masses by performing regularly in public.

The theme of Umm Kulthum’s recitals were usually the three Ls – love, loss and longing – and could go on for many hours. Her voice was remarkably powerful (look how far she stands away from the microphone) and she forged an extraordinary emotional relationship with her audience by repeating lines or tweaking the intensity of certain phrases to create an almost euphoric reaction. Her funeral in 1975 was attended by more than four million people, the second largest funeral in Egyptian history after that of President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OvxNs4GyeUg [/youtube]

The current Grande Dame of Arab music is Fairuz, a Lebanese singer who started performing in the late 1950s and remains one the most widely recognised Arab singers outside of the Middle East. Like Umm Kulthum before her, she has carefully nurtured her popular appeal, famously being banned from Lebanese radio for 6 months for refusing to sing at a private concert for the Algerian president in 1969 saying she would only ever sing to her public and never to an individual.

While Umm Kulthum’s heyday was during a period of optimism in the Arab world, Fairuz’s was in the 1970s and 1980s, in the aftermath of the Arab humiliation in the 1967 war with Israel and during the Lebanese civil war. One of her most famous songs is ‘Le Beirut’ which mourns the loss and destruction in the city of her birth. It is a powerful and emotional lament, especially for those Lebanese who were forced to flee the country.

When I lived in London, there was a wonderful Lebanese restaurant close to my flat that I visited regularly. The owner was a sweet, middle-aged Lebanese Christian whose eyes would well-up every time she heard ‘Le Beirut’. The war had forced her out of the country, and now she was alone in London with only her memories. Of course any mention of Muslims and Palestinians sent her off into a rage (‘it’s all their fault’) and she was also a big supporter of a convicted murderer who stood in the last presidential election (‘he comes from my village’), but apart from all that she was a lovely, gentle soul. Just don’t give her an AK-47.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dIMkIkHae9w&feature=related [/youtube]

Now for something altogether a bit racier. While the Arab street is becoming more conservative, Arab popular music is seemingly heading in the opposite direction. There a number of female pop acts in the region who are now major celebrities and are often clashing with religious authorities over their revealing clothes and suggestive dance moves; none more so than Haifa Wehbe, a Lebanese Shia Muslim and a former Miss South Lebanon. When I hear the words Lebanese Shia on the news, I now prefer to conjure up an image of the lovely Haifa rather than some Katyusha-firing Hezbollah holy warrior.

However, after much deliberation I have opted to serve up this morning a little helping of Nancy Ajram who is, quite simply, the beginning, middle and end of Arab pop raunch. As you will see from the video, this Maronite heart-breaker also has her own very particular take on rural Lebanese life. Do watch out for the dive-bombing chickens.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zgz8ybG6l-U[/youtube]

My final selection is by the Algerian singer-songwriter Khaled. He is the undisputed King of Rai, a combination of Arab, French and Spanish folk music traditions which came out of the Algerian port city of Oran in the 1930s.

Khaled is best known for his 1992 song Didi, which became the first Arab song ever to enter the French top 10. He also sang it during the open ceremony of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. However, today I have opted to share his track Aicha which is sung mostly in French (a single verse is in Arabic) and topped the French chart on its release in 1996. Enjoy the cartwheels and the monkey.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iIyyPsqRweE&feature=related [/youtube]

A version of this post originally appeared on The Dabbler in December 2010.

Looking deeply, not widely

Look deeply

Who says paths are for walking? Toby Ash has taken to stopping and looking.

These words by Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh have been playing on my mind:

To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience. In the world of poetic experience it is depth that counts, not width. A gap in a hedge, a smooth rock surfacing a narrow lane, a view of a woody meadow, the stream at the junction of four small fields – these are as much as a man can fully experience.

By intensely looking and studying the particular, concentrating hard on what is close at hand, Kavanagh believed we can learn universal truths. “Parochialism is universal. It deals with the fundamentals,” he added. “All great civilisations are based on parochialism”.

It’s easier to look widely rather than deeply. To examine a small fragment of what is around us and extrapolate larger truths is far more demanding. This is of course the territory of, amongst others, great landscape writers, who often seek to reveal – or imagine – fundamentals from their surroundings.

On a more personal level, I’ve taken to stopping and looking at the detail of my surroundings rather than just taking in the big views. I have chosen a small slither of nature, where I stop and look. And look again. It’s a short path I walk down maybe three of four times a week in all seasons (see photo above). It has an extraordinary variety of plant and animal life, which I am appreciating more now I’m taking the time to stop and observe. It’s ever changing. If I happen to be away for a couple of weeks, it is in many ways almost unrecognisable from the path I left.

What am I looking for? What universal truth do I hope to find? I’m not sure. But I find a kind of solace in being the sole member of the audience watching this extraordinary performance. Its complexity baffles; its beauty inspires.

Dabbler Diary: Man Love, Mackerel and Middle East Peace – Gangnam Style!


Has anyone else been watching the wonderful Yotam Ottolenghi’s Mediterranean Feast? For those who aren’t familiar with him, Yotam is one half of the excellent Ottolenghi deli/cafés that have popped up in recent years in smarter parts of London. Yotam is Israeli and his business partner, Sami Tamimi, is Palestinian and most of their dishes are inspired by the food of the Middle East and Mediterranean. If you don’t like garlic and lemons you’re going to feel a bit excluded, but I do and found his TV travels to Turkey, Morocco and Tunisia (next week it’s Israel) mouth wateringly inspirational.

But maybe the Ottolenghi enterprise offers more than a recipe for dinner. It seems to be one of the few instances of successful Israeli-Palestinian collaboration and, I humbly suggest, should act as a blueprint for peace in the region. If the Israelis and Palestinians are really serious about making peace, they need to cook more and be more gay (as both Sami and Yotam are). Simple.

***

While we’re on the subject of food, I live about a mile from the Cornish fishing port of Newlyn, the biggest fishing port in England. It supplies a huge variety of fresh fish to destinations across the UK and continental Europe. Next door Penzance has two large out of town supermarkets – Tesco and Morrisons. Last week I visited the fish counters of both. There was not one fish from Newlyn to be found. Not one. The mackerel and crab (landed in abundance just down the road) came from the Outer Hebrides. I kid you not – they sourced it more than 600 miles away.

This is just disgraceful and a blatant two fingers to the local community the supermarkets robotically claim to be a part of. I’m not having a general bleat against the supermarkets – they have revolutionised food supply in this country, bringing extraordinary choice to the consumer. But – unlike France, where supermarkets are often compelled to source locally – I detest their scant interest in genuinely integrating into the communities they serve. I’m sure there is some very complicated supply chain argument as to why mackerel has to be trucked 600 miles to be sold in the largest fishing port in the country, but I’m afraid it just doesn’t wash. It’s quite simple – you empower the store’s fishmonger to go off to Newlyn market and source some of the wonderful fresh fish that is landed and sold there every morning.

***

Who says newspapers are dead? Every Thursday I buy The Cornishman, which seems to be thriving, bucking the national trend. It doesn’t cover the whole county, just the far western tip, but it somehow manages to fill about 50 pages with news and unsubstantiated gossip. My favourite section is ‘Around the Courts’ which details all the crimes and misdemeanours locals have been convicted of in the past seven days. I find it oddly comforting because most of the crimes are petty, non-violent and usually quite pathetic, often along the lines of: ‘In his defence, his solicitor said it was a particularly chilly afternoon and his client was worried that he might become unwell if he remained cold, so in desperation he entered Sports World and stole a sweat shirt, an action that with the benefit of hindsight he sees as wrong and one that he now bitterly regrets’.

However, while most upstanding citizens would hang their head in shame after featuring in the column, I fear its existence might actually be encouraging crime. A couple of weeks back there was an angry letter from a petty felon complaining that his recent conviction for theft at Truro Crown Court had not been mentioned. He then gave an account of his crime – nicking a telly – and details of his fine and community service. You can’t help but laugh. The criminal justice system is just so obviously incapable of deterring these people from constantly reoffending. What will, I wonder.

***

Has anybody else noticed that according to politicians from all parties, we are no longer a country of individuals, citizens or even just people? No, we are country of “families”, usually “hard working families”, so they repeatedly tell us. Being part of a family I don’t know why this irritates me so much, but it does. Every time I hear it spill out of their focus group controlled mouths I just want to scream. It’s just such a transparently pathetic, meaningless and patronising attempt to pluck the heart strings of the electorate.

**

Hearty congratulations to Park Jae-sang (better known as Psy) for his hit song “Gangnam Style” which has become the most watched video on You Tube. God, how I love the internet. Fifteen years ago it would have been unthinkable that a musical skit about a district of Seoul, sung in Korean by a portly man in his 30s, would become a global phenomenon. But here we are. We may live in a world divided by language, race and religion, but at least we can all come together to dance “Gangnam Style”. Go on, you know you want to…

***

Brits abroad – don’t you just luv ‘em. When did we start believing that if we speak in English with a French accent, the French would magically understand us? The latest exponent of this curious affectation is violent footballer Joey Barton, currently on loan to Marseille. Barton defended himself on Twitter, claiming that it was difficult to conduct a press conference to French journalists in Scouse (he’s from Merseyside) so he opted to speak like a character from the 1980s sitcom ‘Allo, ‘Allo!

Ahh, ‘Allo ‘Allo! How can we forget Officer Crabtree, the British spy posing as a French police officer and his terrible grasp of the local lingo…”I was pissing by the door when I heard two shats. You are holding in your hind a smoking goon. You are clearly the guilty potty!” Is there any other people on earth that takes such joy in their collective ineptitude at speaking foreign languages?
[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zGNVU5ZjlgA[/youtube]

Dabbler Diary is brought to you by Glengoyne single malt whisky – the Dabbler’s choice.

The Sound of Gun Fire – Music and The Great War

War? What is it good for? Not quite absolutely nothing…

Throughout the twentieth century, war inspired many musicians and composers. Some glorified it, but many opposed it. The protests against the Vietnam War arguably help mould a style of popular music that came to define a decade. It’s notable that the relatively recent Iraq war inspired so little in the way of a musical response in Britain, despite widespread opposition to it. Why was that, or did I miss something? Neither has there been much of a musical reaction to the current economic woes, come to think about it. Where are today’s Billy Bragg and Red Wedge? Perhaps musicians can’t find any easy answers, or maybe their canny record labels realise that today’s audiences prefer to escape from reality rather than challenge it.

Anyway, I digress. The Great War has inspired many great works of literature and art, but probably less attention is paid to the great variety of musical responses. Today I’d thought I’d share some World War One protests songs – a couple from America composed in the early years of the war itself and two more contemporary tracks by British bands. First off is I Didn’t Raise My Boy To Be a Soldier by the US vocal group The Peerless Quartet. Released in late 1914, it quickly found popularity amongst the large numbers of American who opposed participation in the bloodshed in Europe. The song is the lament of a lonely mother who’s lost her son in the fighting. In addition to being anti-war, it was viewed at the time as feminist because of its claim that:

“They’d be no war today,
If mothers all would say,
“I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier”’.

Former president Theodore Roosevelt remarked at the time that: “foolish people who applaud a song entitled ‘I Didn’t Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier’ are just the people who would also in their hearts applaud a song entitled ‘I Didn’t Raise my Girl To Be A Mother'”. Very Tea Party.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9fhjT93Xa3U[/youtube]

Another American pacifist song from the time was Irving Berlin’s (of There’s No Business Like Show Business fame) track Stay Down Here Where You Belong. Penned in 1914, the lyrics depict a conversation between the devil and his son; the devil exhorting him to “stay down here where you belong” because people on Earth do not know right from wrong.

“To serve their king, they’ve all gone off to war.
And not one of them knows what they’re fighting for.”

Like The Peerless Quartet’s number, it swiftly found popularity in the early years of the war, when the popular mood in the America was very much opposed to joining the fight. However, after the US did enter the conflict, popular sentiment quickly changed. Berlin was soon composing patriotic songs and would have preferred to have forgotten Stay Down Here Where You Belong altogether. However, Groucho Marx took a liking to it, much to the chagrin of Berlin who allegedly offered him money to stop singing it. He didn’t.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9WTkzBRbtZA[/youtube]

The next track is by The Stranglers, one of my favourite bands when I was at school (no one, and I mean no one, could more faithfully reproduce The Stranglers logo on text books than me). North Winds Blowing is from their 1984 album Aural Sculpture. It was never released as a single, although I always rated it was one of the LP’s best tracks. It’s catchy, evocative, with some powerful lyrics:

I saw an orange robe burning
I saw youth on fire
I saw metal machines that were turning
On a generation that hadn’t yet tired

I heard of two generations being murdered
In a Europe that was shrouded in black
I witnessed the birth pains of new nations
When the chosen people finally went back

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fg-QbuMCpGA[/youtube]

“We will remember them,” says Binyon’s Ode of Remembrance. As we approach the war’s centenary, it seems that modern musicians are playing their part. In 2009, Radiohead released a single dedicated to Harry Patch, the last British survivor of the trenches. My final track, however, is Paschendale (sic) from Iron Maiden’s 2003 album Dance of Death. During that year’s world tour, lead singer Bruce Dickinson would sing it track wearing an old trench coat and helmet while the stage would be strewn with barbed wire. One prominent music website described it as “quite easily the ultimate Maiden masterpiece”.

In a foreign field, he lay
Lonely soldier, unknown grave
On his dying words, he prays
Tell the world of Paschendale

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c20-fm_WNew[/youtube]

 

Dabbler Diary: Cake, Caffeine, Cats and Kites

Another day and another depressing article about the obesity epidemic that’s engulfing the nation. Apparently millions are catching this deadly disease every day while innocently sitting on the sofa eating cake. It’s heart breaking – literally. According to this report, shops ran out of the largest sizes of school uniforms as our ever-inflating youngsters prepared to return to school after a summer of slumber.

Now the issue of weight is close to my heart. I myself have suffered taunts and humiliation because of my weight, or lack of it to be more precise. As a boy I was always made painfully aware of the latest famine – the chants of “Cambodian” and “Ethiopian” (extraordinary that a country’s entire identity can be reduced to a waist line measurement) at school and at the local swimming baths still ring in my ears. Once someone shouted as I passed: “Look it’s Mahatma bloody Ghandi”. And I don’t even wear glasses. I jest now, but how it hurt. And before you ask, no amount of snacking made any difference.

Now us thinsters (although I have put on a few pounds, I stay loyal to my tribe) are an endangered species and are feeling a little smug as we watch our fellow citizens roll down the street. Who to blame for this plague of cellulite? Well, there’s The Fat Lobby of course and their high margin, highly processed slop that adorns the racks of the supermarkets. But they’re an easy target. No, I think we need to dig deeper. I blame the old masters – Botticelli, Velazquez and that mob. They’re the ones that started this ‘ok-to-wobble’ craze. But it could all have been so different

***

A visit to the hair dresser. Even when money is tight, I can always justify splashing out on a hair cut. I love the indulgence of it all – the massage chair I recline on while my hair is washed, the peppermint conditioner tenderly massaged into my scalp, the cups of freshly brewed coffee and the perfectly feigned interest shown in my last holiday and general well-being. It’s all about me, me, me, me and worth every penny.

But I’m not so sure about it now. Over the last few years I have become more follically challenged and the sums just don’t really add up. Before long I will be paying about a pound a hair to have it cut. I can also sense this becoming a bit of an issue with the lovely ladies in the salon. A definite look of panic is starting to creep over their faces when I walk in as they work out how to stretch my cut to a respectable forty minutes.

Being in the hair trade I thought I’d ask if they knew of any magical formula to get my hair growing again (and let’s face it they have an interest in keeping me hairy). Apparently German caffeine shampoo is all the rage and very effective in stimulating ones follicles. So, like many millions of mugs before me, I traipsed off to Boots and blew a load of dosh on something that hasn’t a cat in hell’s chance of working.

Being the cautious type, I thought I would check for any side effects on the internet as I know there are some hair loss products out there that have them (apparently Tony Blair started using one, went mad and that’s why we invaded Iraq). I didn’t find anything too troubling though – just lots of suspiciously complimentary comments about it making a real difference once they’d used it for several months. One poor teenage boy did ask (the whole world) whether it would stimulate the growth of more hair ‘down there’. Jeez, that’s one internet door I bet he wished he’d kept firmly shut (‘Oh my dear dear boy, do let me help you in your hour of need. Perhaps would you be so kind as to send me a photo of the area of concern…’).

Anyway two days into my caffeine shampoo regimen and you know what, my hair does feel a bit different, I’m sure it does…just that little bit more… luxuriant.

***

Looks like we will soon be able to beat the living daylights out of intruders. I wonder if the provisions in the new legislation will extend to cats? A neighbour’s keeps intruding into my garden and leaving a turd pile in the same place on my lawn at least twice week. I have tried everything B&Q has to offer but to no avail. He’s also an unfriendly fluffy turd machine. He just sits on the fence glaring at me. Tormenting me. Laughing at me. My patience is running thin.

***

A beautiful sunny Sunday in autumn. Time for a yomp. Since moving to west Cornwall I’ve been determined to head out as often as I can and enjoy the beautiful and varied landscape that surrounds me. I have well-worn ordnance survey map at home where I diligently mark all the paths I have walked and the hills I have ascended.

My favourite hike, and one I probably complete every six weeks or so, is from the pretty village of Ludgvan (about 2 miles inland from the south coast town of Penzance) to the top of Trencrom Hill, which overlooks St Ives Bay on the north coast, and back. In all it’s about eight miles and passes through fields and woodland, rarely meeting a road. The path is St Michael’s Way, one of the ancient pilgrim routes to the Santiago de Compstela in NW Spain. It was also used by traders and travellers wanting to avoid sailing through the treacherous waters around Land’s End.

The top of Trencom is a lovely place for a picnic. I have a favourite spot where I can look at the north Cornish coastline on my left, and the south coast on my right. I’m also able to survey the growing number of wind turbines being erected by local land owners out to make a quick buck. Now I know wind turbines provoke strong emotions and threats of very un-Dabbler like behaviour in some, so, since I quite like my front teeth, I will refrain from commenting on the visual merits or otherwise of them (‘Oh you sweet ballerinas, pirouetting on the blue horizon’) here. But from my vantage point on top of Trencom, I believe the biggest blights on the landscape are the electricity pylons – sharp, vicious shards of grey metal that not only “irrevocably and wholly transform the look and feel of the landscape”, but also kill countless innocent young kite flyers.

But we don’t really talk about electricity pylons. We’ve got used to them and their ugly presence is no longer an issue. In fact, it seems that some Dabblers have come to love them. Will the same be true of wind turbines in a few years time?

Dabbler Diary is brought to you by Glengoyne single malt whisky – the Dabbler’s choice.