Saturday, 30 October 2010

Who says you shouldn't play with your food?

Remember when you were a kid and your Mum would tell you to sit up straight, elbows off the table and "don't play with your food" ('specially when scary Auntie Elsie was over for Sunday lunch)?

Well, I'm afraid I must be a big disappointment to her, cos now that I'm a Mum there is nothing I like more than having fun with food, and getting everyone involved in real 'hands-on' style.

Fun food days have been a big help in preventing our 13-year-old from becoming a fast food addict. Friends of his have loved our 'Hamburgers for Heroes' when we make our own burgers from good fresh ingredients, grill them and then lay them out with all the extras (buns, cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, peppers, relish, etc.) and let the kids to build the burgers of their own choice.

Then we have 'Build A Pizza' evenings where we provide the pizza bases (or rounds of Arabic bread if we're feeling lazy) and a selection of toppings for them to create their own Italian wonder - anything from the simplest Napolitan to the most complex (or disgusting!) combo that the male teenage mind can come up with.

Today, it was 'Taco Time', or Mexican Day. And that meant meant whipping up a pan of Chilli Con Carne for the carnivores (plus a veggy version for weirdo Mum), then providing soft tortillas and various accompaniments like lettuce, tomatoes,

chopped peppers and onions,

fresh guacamole,

grated cheese and yoghurt to wrap up and stuff our faces with.

As you can see, it always go down well...

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Ghoulies and ghosties...

When I was at primary school, we had a wonderful teacher called Mrs. Griffiths (sadly, no longer with us) who – among many other things – taught us the “Hallowe’en Prayer”…

From ghoulies and ghosties,
And long-legged beasties,
And things that go “bump!” in the night.
Good Lord, deliver us.

The rhyme is of Scots origin, but it is forever imprinted on my mind in the musical lilt of the Welsh Valleys that was so apparent in Mrs. Griffiths’ melifluous voice.

I’ve been thinking about the Hallowe’ens of my youth over the past few days as I spot references to dressing up, trick-or-treat, and news reports that the police in the UK will be adopting a “no tolerance” policy towards people making a nuisance of themselves.

At the risk of sounding like an old fart (again), when I was a lass (you have to imagine this in a Northern accent, in the style of the Monty Python '4 Yorkshiremen' sketch), we never had no trick-or-treat. We just had bobbing for apples – if we were lucky.

The whole imported American concept of Hallowe’en has really only taken hold in the UK since I left, so I find it really strange to think of gangs of 12-year-olds roaming the streets dressed as witches, ghosts, vampires… and fairy princesses (aren’t they s’posed to be scarey?) to menace householders unless they dosh out enough goodies to give the kids a sugar rush that will have them bouncing off the walls until the Christmas onslaught.

Back in MY day, it was a far more enigmatic and creepy night. OK, we didn't exactly lock ourselves in the broom cupboard for the night (well, just that once) but I certainly remember hiding my head under the blankets after a Hallowe'en bedtime story.

Hallowe’en is a shortened form of All Hallows’ Eve (Hallows=Saints) as it's the night before All Saints’ Day on November 1. This was supposed to be one of the few times of the year when spirits can make contact with the physical world and when magic is at its most potent. It was the night when all the ghoulies, ghosties, witches and goblins et al would come out to play for one last blast before the goody-goodies from the Saints’ camp took over.

Not surprisingly, it's yet another example of Christianity absorbing a much earlier Pagan festival in order to win followers in the early years of the Church. Hallowe’en origins lie in an ancient Gaelic festival called Samhain, which celebrated the end of the harvest season. It was the time when the ancient pagans used to take stock of supplies and slaughter livestock for their winter stores. The ancient Gaels also believed that it was night when the worlds of the living and the dead overlapped, allowing the deceased to come back and cause havoc by spreading sickness and damaging crops. Costumes and masks were therefore worn in a bid to placate the spirits by mimicking them.

One year, I decided to conduct a Hallowe’en experiment. Tradition has it that if a young virgin peels an apple (symbol of fertility) anticlockwise, keeping the peel in one unbroken coil, in the front of a mirror at midnight on the night of October 31, her husband-to-be will appear to her.

Mum must have wondered why I so enthusiastically offered to peel a couple of pounds of Bramleys for apple crumble during the day (well, I had to practice, didn’t I?) but come midnight, I managed to peel my apple in one intact snake of peel. And sure enough, a male figure appeared from the shadows behind me - but it was no tall, dark stranger from my future, just dear old Dad coming to tell me that it was well past my bed-time and to go to sleep!

Growing up in England in the '70s & '80s, we were still relatively unsophisticated compared to today's children and Hallowe’en held a thrill of fright and anticipation (a bit like watching Dr Who from behind the sofa), but none of the pallaver we see these days.

It was a simple pleasure that came with the season – along with the scent of bonfires in the air as devoted gardeners burned off their garden waste, the joy of wading through fallen leaves in the park in search of conkers, and coming back to the house after a walk with your cheeks burning from the chill. And just around the corner was the promise of lighting up the skies for Bonfire Night.

Maybe I’m just getting nostalgic in my old age?

Oh well, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.
So "Happy Halloween, y'all!"

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Athens Portraits: The Spirit of "Ochi"

The air has cooled, the first rains have rinsed summer’s dust from the city streets, and leaves are starting to change colour… but it’s another thing that really signals the start of autumn for many Athenians.

When every balcony sports the blue and white national flag it can mean one of two things – either Greece has made it to the Final of a major athletic event, or one of the country’s two National Days is around the corner.

This Thursday, just like every autumn, Greeks celebrate a famous refusal. It is one of the few countries to have a National Holiday celebrating a famous "Ochi!" (“No!”) - the blunt refusal was Prime Minister Metaxa’s reply on 28 October 1940 when Mussolini asked him to hand the country over.

Seventy years later, the spirit of that “Ochi!” is marked by a military parade in the city centre - and with less hardware (but more flesh) on display in every neighbourhood.

At local parades, pride of place goes to the dwindling band of Resistance veterans who march proudly, with medals on their chests and tears in their eyes, to the strains of the National Anthem. They’re the ones who knew what that famous act of defiance was all about, and they lived through its consequences.

It’s less certain that its significance is clear to the bands of schoolchildren that follow.

Preening High School girls in tight minis and blouses showing plenty of heaving teen cleavage, and their slouching male classmates with their hands in pockets and feet in brand-name trainers, have been taught the history of the day, but few seem to understand the sacrifice it involved.

And yet, there is no escaping the patriotic flavor of the day. Even the few Greeks that don’t turn out to see their local parade will have a flag hanging from their balcony. TV schedules are dominated by live coverage of the parades and endless patriotic movies celebrating their national belligerence.

“Ochi Day” reminds Greeks how they united to survive as a nation a life-time ago – and perhaps that’s a spirit they need now more than ever.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Pretty... damned good, actually

A Tweet buddy brought this to my attention today and I just had to share it. Click on this post title to watch slam poet Katie Makkai's "Pretty".

Ladies, next time you look in the mirror and start beating yourself about not being pretty enough, remember these words....

(For the record, the Twit buddy in question was the pretty fabulous, pretty creative, pretty wonderful Lucy Pepper, who like me found herself uprooted from England and transplanted in sunnier climes. Unlike me, she ended up in Portugal. But wherever she may be, she's always brilliant - check her out )

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Casting call dilemma

It was a grey and rainy morning as I boarded the train for work. But no matter, I was armed with my brolly and had my iPod set to “Random” to keep me occupied for the hour it would take to get to the office.

As I sat on the train staring out of the window at a rain-washed city that looked like it had been rinsed in acid grey, my eardrums were treated to quite a variety of sounds: Aretha Franklin, Douglas Adams, The Clash, Bach, Beatles, Placebo, vintage Peter Sellers and Tony Hancock, Stones, Handel, Stephen Fry, Jimi Hendrix, Rachmaninov, Mika, Mendelssohn, Moby, Frank Sinatra, Nirvana (hey, variety IS the spice of life)….

As we trundled past some of the more run-down areas, a beautifully simple but melancholy piano solo started playing in my ears. As I watched the world going by, I almost felt like I was in a scene from a movie (OK, probably a bit of a European, art-house type of movie in which nothing exciting actually happens – but a movie nonetheless). And naturally, that got the old grey matter rumbling as I considered who - if anyone - could play me in the movie of MY life.

Now, in the time-honoured tradition of getting much better-looking thespians to play real-life people, I would love to see me played by Uma Thurman (that loud THUNK! you just heard was the sound of those who know me - and what I look like - falling off their chairs en masse before giggling hysterically on the floor).

OK, Uma’s out of the question.

If I’m honest, probably the closest to reality would be someone like Whoopie Goldberg (apart from the small problem that she’s black and I’m - well – not). I’d also love to identify with the likes of Daryl Hannah (too slim and with too much of a glint in her eye), Diane Keaton (too petite, too sassy and generally just too New York ), Bette Midler (too Jewish and WAY too much talent in the vocal chords)… So, who?

I've come up with some of the supporting cast. Bruce Willis (before 'Die Hard', the surgical removal of his sense of humour and baldness) or Micky Rourke (prior to monstrous plastic surgery) could have once be good candidates for the Ovver Arf.

Barbara Hershey IS the screen alter-ego of my weird but wonderful soul sister in Brighton who is always there for me to “vent” to.

And Dame Judi Dench could do my mum a treat (though she’s have to grow her hair a bit).

But 'til I find the perfect leading lady, who is good looking enough to give my ego a boost without being so drop-dead gorgeous that all credibility is lost, the great epic that is my life will not be "Coming to a screen near you" any time soon…

Any suggestions will be gratefully received.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

The Gallery - Better Red Than...

This week, Tara over at has given us a colourful prompt for The Gallery. It's "The Colour Red", which after thinking a little, I realised reflects some of my favourite things...
Like the mind-blowing colours of the skies for an October sunrise, after a night of rain.
The blatant scarlet of a poppy growing through the wires of a suburban fence.

The ruby-fleshed seeds of a promegranate, fresh from the tree.

That Drop Dead Red lipstick you save for 'special occasions'

Autumn berries
Food bubbling away on the hob

and some of the red stuff that go into it.

The gorgeous burgundy of a crab apple tree (?)

Mind-blowing bugs that look like they're decked out to play Roy of the Rovers
Yes, you guessed it - I love red!

Monday, 18 October 2010

Grey day blues

Damp doesn’t suit Athens. It’s all the concrete that’s the problem, I think.

At least when it rains in London, the green gets even greener (and there’s probably more square metres of green space per capita in London than any other city in Europe), and there’s nothing to beat the smell of Regent’s Park after a shower. The thing is, London was built on the premise of its dampness. Just like Stockholm, which is built on a collection of islands in the Baltic Sea, it’s at peace with the liquid element, its natural habitat.

Athens’ natural habitat, however, is not damp. Its element comes from the Attica Sky all right, but not in the form of raindrops, rather in the form of heat from Apollo, the sun god.

So, when it rains in Athens, it is just not right. Everything looks soggy and grey and uninspired. It's almost as if the city is sulking.

Today - following a spectacular thunderstorm overnight that dumped the equivalent of the Aegean Sea on the city - the Attica Sky has been heavy with brooding, dark grey rain clouds.

Athens doesn't handle wet weather well – and nor do its residents. Just one good drenching and the number of cars on the road quadruples, dusty pavements become as slick as skating rinks, traffic grinds to a halt, public services change pace from slow to stop and debris-filled drains overflow with gay abandon. Athenians feel cheated when it rains.

It was against that sad, grey background that I was making my way to the office, when I suddenly spotted something that changed everything in an instant. Standing in the Metro station was a middle-aged man chatting on his phone – like thousands of other commuters that pass through every day. But in his hand he held a simple bunch of bright yellow roses.

It was the kind of sight that makes you wish your eyelid was a camera shutter, that you could capture that single fleeting image for all eternity.

That simple splash of yellow amid the rain-washed grey of Athens was the kind of image that reminds you that even the most overcast of days holds the potential for colour. It was a sight that… ...on the other hand, somebody better stop me before I start to sound like a bad greetings card.

Meanwhile, the rain goes on, and on, and on...

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Cooking with Mother

Are you sitting comfortably? Then, we'll begin...

When your 13-year-old son tells you he wants to start cooking more, believe me, you don't hang about.

You grab the ball and run with it and, if you're lucky, he might have learned how to knock out a passable family meal before his attention is once again claimed by Guitar Hero, Ben 10, Pokemon (just when I thought we were over that particular one!), text messages from his friends, or that cute girl that he insists is 'just a friend'.

First, take one common-or-garden trainee oik.

Then, gather the other ingredients (in this case, filleted chicken thighs, onion, red pepper, fresh tomatoes, a little red whine - sorry wine, some rice and a few strands of saffron).

Next comes the fun part. Putting the two elements of the experiment together.

Teenage boys have phenomenal manual dexterity so long as they are playing PlayStation, strumming their guitars, or zapping out text messages like Mercury the Winged Messenger on speed. But when it comes to chopping veg, they have the skills of an arthritic three-toed sloth.

This is where maternal patience (and courage) comes in.

Gently show the fruit of your loins how to cut the peppers and the onion - then take a deep breath, hand them the knife and step back with your heart pounding.

They may even surprise you and complete the exercise without adding a chunk of their own flesh to the mix.

(Please note our onion chopping technique!)
Then comes the meat.
Now, can anyone tell me how a kid can cheerfully chomp through kilos of meat every year, play gory computer games and delight in blood-thirsty macho-crap movies, and yet be too squeamish to cut a chicken fillet in two?
Oh no, that job is handed back to Mum - the non meat-eater of the family.

Preparation done, you can allow yourself to breathe a sigh of relief. Congratulations - your offspring has come this far without amputating any vital body parts.

Now for the next challenge - heat.
Carefully guide teen to the pots & pans cupboard, and patiently explain the difference between a saucepan, a frying pan and a colander ("That's the one with holes in, darling. Not so good for cooking sauce").

Place saucepan on hob, turn on the heat (kinda vital at this stage), dribble in some olive oil ("I said dribble THE OIL, sunshine!"), and wait til it heats up. Add the onions and sautee them gently, then throw in the red peppers, and stir some more ("You can't possibly be exhausted already. And no, your arm will NOT fall off.")

Add the chicken pieces - if necessary at arms' length, for the faint-hearted - and sautee gently on both sides til the flesh turns white.

Throw in a splash of wine ("Just a splash, sweetheart! That's Mummy's stash!") and let the ingredients drink it up. Then add a couple of roughly chopped tomatoes and stir them into the mix. Let it all boil for a little, then add a carton of tomato puree. Add salt and pepper ("A-choo!"), then stir some more.

Cover the pot, turn down the heat and permit exhausted teen to go and flump in front of the TV as the mix simmers for the next 40-60 minutes.

Once fully cooked through, show teen how to taste sauce to check for seasoning ("Blow on it first! I said.... Yes, I know. That's why I said blow first - and yes, you WILL be able to feel your tongue again, I promise"), then simmer a little more.

Boil some rice, with a little saffron, and summon the fruit of your loins to witness the serving up of their masterpiece. Ta da!

It usually helps to have a doting grandparent handy, ready to sample the fare and heap praise on said youngster, in the vague hope that we might have Greece's answer to Jamie Oliver on our hands.

And for afters?
Well, here's something he prepared earlier.
It's not much. Just a simple orange zest and vanilla sponge cake, but it's a start - it's definitely a start.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Men: Nature's way of keeping you humble

I can always rely on ‘my boys’ to come out with something to boost my ego – NOT.

One of the many instances of them bringing me back down to earth with a shuddering thud when I'm in danger of getting too big an idea of myself came one day when I was feeling very down about my rather ‘womanly’ hips and thighs. Seeing me down in the dumps, my Other Half tried to cheer me up with the following immortal words of comfort - “Don’t feel bad, Mandi. You’re not fat - you’re deformed!”

Well, I guess he meant well. I think. I hope.

And it's not just him. A good friend of ours, in all good faith, blithely told me "You don't count as a woman" this summer. Now, I know that he meant that I don't have a classic stereoptyped female response to most things (having orgasms over the prospect of a shopping trip, wearing pink, screaming at the sight of spiders, collecting shoes and handbags, playing the helpless maiden, reading sappy romances, etc. are just not my bag), but REALLY, couldn't he have phrased it a little more delicately?

Another time, my Beloved (widely considered to be the diplomat in our relationship - ha!) kept up that noble tradition. I had decided escew my usual trousers and top for work and wear a frock instead - a rather sweeping black long-sleeved jersey maxi-dress which fits in the right places and skims over the bits I want to ignore. So, on it went, with black tights and ankle boots.

Being tallish at 5 foot 10 (about 1.78 metres) I felt that I struck rather a striking figure, and I was feeling pretty OK about myself. Until…..

…..until the Ovver Arf took one bleary eyed look at me and then turned to Kidling Grand and said: “With her red hair, and dressed like that, doesn’t Mum look like a witch?” [N.B.: In Greece, the traditonal image of a witch has red hair]

Bloody charming! If I had my broomstick handy I would have given him a whack over the head. Oh well, move over McGonagall!

And darling, if you're reading this, be careful..... Hallowe'en is just around the corner.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

My first badge from Oui Chef!

Have you joined the Oui Chef! Challenge @Beckicklesie -

I have - and that's why my blog has been so very food-orientated lately, thanks to the lovely Becca and her man, Cheffy Daddy. Not good for the diet, but good for the soul, so that's something.

Part of the fun and games of Oui Chef! is the sharing of food experiences, favourite recipes, special memories that favourite dish sums up, and much more. It's all about interaction, so join us.

Bon appetit!

Confession time

I’m going to take you into my confidence and admit that… I’m not the ideal daughter-in-law.
There, I’ve said it.
And it felt good.

Really, I’m nobody’s idea of the perfect 'nikokyra' (neat & tidy housewife). I’m a mouthy, bolshy scruff-bag whose dress size leaves much to be desired.

And no matter how much I love my husband and my son – and believe me I do – they are NOT my raison d’être.

Modesty does not feature heavily in my character, and I do demand recognition in my own right (‘Selfish cow’ I hear my critics mutter). And worse still, I consider myself to be better at some things than my man (‘shock, horror!’).

Hey, this Confession business feels good!
I grew up with the lackadaisical Sunday School/church choir/afternoon tea tradition (otherwise known as the Church of England), so I’ve never really had the chance to purge my soul.

Watch out, the floodgates could be about to burst!

Now, what else can I confess?

Oh yes. I hate ironing. With a passion! I know it’s a necessary evil, but I refuse to go with the Greek flow of ironing towels, underwear and socks. If I can get away with it, the iron won’t touch it. Fortunately the Other Half doesn’t mind – just as well as he never lifts the iron ’cos he “never learned how to do it” (‘yeah, and I’ve got an Honours Degree in it, haven’t I sunshine?’).

Don’t get me wrong, I will dutifully – though not beautifully – iron his shirts (I can already hear my feminist sensitivities screaming in the background), but I don’t pretend to get any kind of pride, pleasure or satisfaction from it.

And I LOVE to go barefoot (‘get thee behind me, slippers’).
I believe that according to accepted Greek wisdom, this IS actually one of the Seven Deadly Sins, leading to all manner of evils including painful periods, athlete’s foot, the current state of the Greek economy, infertility – probably the Black Death too. I’ll probably go straight to you-know-where for that alone.

Hey, I’m really working up a head of steam on this confession thing!

But, hang on a mo… something just occurred to me.
For confession to count, you’re supposed to repent aren’t you? Problem is, I don’t. This is who I am. Take it or leave it. Like it or lump it. What you see is what you get.

Luckily, I have a family (including the in-laws - most of the time) and friends who do take me for what I am, so it looks like I am saved – at least in this lifetime.

Not sure about the next one though…

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Enter the Soup Dragon!

In our family, we say that if you leave anything edible in the kitchen for long enough without it getting up and moving around on its own, Mum will make soup with it.

Leftover Christmas turkey scraps, the carcass from Sunday's roast chicken, bones from the beef hotpot the other day - none of them were saved from the soup pot. Add a few chopped veg, boil it into submission, blend to a smooth thick paste, pour into bowls and serve with hunks of fresh bread and wedges of delicious, grainy Farmhouse Cheddar. A perfect Saturday lunch or midweek supper.

So, it should come as no surprise that I'm a bit of Soupster myself. But sadly, it goes unappreciated - the Ovver Arf and Kidling Grand have grown up in Greece on Mediterranean fare and they tend to turn their noses up at the thick nourishing soups that made me the woman I am today. Their idea of soup is either a broth with a creamy egg & lemon sauce added or invalid's chicken soup (though I can occasionally tempt them with a serious Minestrone).

But the Soup Dragon lives on - especially on days when the boys demand meat on their plates and I have to come up with something quick, easy and cheap for the weirdo semi-veggy Brit bird who cooks and cleans (OK, I cook) for them.

I get a strange satisfaction from peeling and chopping veg for soups, usually whilst plugged into my iPod listening to podcasts of Radio 4 programmes (yes, I AM that old fogey - and yes, I DO listen to The Archers).

In go the veg, sweating gently in a slick of olive oil at the bottom of the pan - onions, celery, garlic, leeks, carrots, spuds, sweet potatoes, squash, peppers, broccoli.... take you pick according to what soup you're aiming for (or just make it up as you go along). Once it has all started to soften, throw in a good dose of stock (again, the stock you use depends on what you're aiming for), bring to the boil, let it seethe for a while, liquidise and enjoy (or freeze for future use).

This week, I treated myself to a quick and easy leek and potato soup - just right as the first chilly notes of autumn start to nip the air. I sweated thinly sliced leeks, added a couple of diced spuds, and sweated some more (both me and the veg). Then in went some vegetable stock (you can use chicken if you prefer) and I brought it all to the boil, throwing in a few sprigs of fresh sage. As it simmered, I added some salt, pepper and nutmeg, and when it was done, I zapped it in the blender and served with a little grated cheese sprinkled on top.... yum.

Tasty, and it's guilt-free too - virtually fat free and bereft of cholesterol.

I've got a few cheat's soups that can be whipped up in a matter of minutes too, and they're a great last-minute stand-by.

Summer tomato caprese soup:
chop 4-5 toms roughly, boil with a clove of garlic in a little vegetable stock - just enough to cover them - for about 5-10 minutes, add a little seasoning, then chuck it in the blender with a good glug of olive oil, some fresh basil and spoonful of mascapone or other soft white cheese to make it nice and creamy.
Pea and mint soup:
throw 4-5 handfuls of frozen (or even better, fresh) peas in a saucepan with a clove of garlic and a little vegetable stock, add a sprig or two of fresh mint, throw in salt & pepper, plus a smidge of sugar, and boil for about 5-10 minutes. Then throw it all into the blender with a glug of olive oil and some raw fresh mint leaves and eat.
It's ridiculously green - the Ovver Arf says it looks like toxic waste - but it tastes divine.

But don't take my word for it - awake your inner Soup Dragon and get chopping!
Apologies for all this excessive foodiness lately. It's all the fault of Becca and Cheffy Daddy who have launched their "Oui Chef!" project over at Check it out!

Monday, 4 October 2010

The ultimate summer cooler

Here in Greece, we tend to stick to fruit that is local, and in season. And these days, of course, that earns us double-Brownie points on the sustainability scale.

But have you ever thought why certain fruits are in season at certain times? Nature knows, you know.

Take watermelon, for instance. From July through to September, it features on our weekly shopping list, to be bought whole like a huge green striped bowling ball just begging to be sliced open to reveal the juicy red flesh within. It's sweetness itself, even though it's something like 90% water - just the ticket for the long hot summer days. It's the perfect way to polish off a meal and clean your palate.

But what I didn't know until this year was just delish it is as a juice - and for an added bit of pep, throw in a few sprigs of fresh mint or spearmint, add some crushed ice and you've got the ultimate summer cooler.

Just cut 4-5 good slices of watermelon, remove the skin, pick out the pips (or leave them it you can't be bothered, just sieve the juice afterwards), and zap it in the blender. About halfway through, throw in a couple of generous sprigs of mint (you can use dried, but fresh is MUCH better), add ice, then pour into long tall glasses with a sprig of mint delicately balanced on the rim.

Roll on summer...

Pie: A kind of homecoming

Picture the scene. It's 1977. I'm 12 years old, and I've just got back from two weeks away at International Camp in the wilds of Loughborough University campus grounds.

Unlike the previous summer when we had to water the veg with our bathwater, it has NOT been a scorcher. August dumped three years' worth of rain on us, as we gathered in a pathetic ring of soggy tents round a sulky camp fire, sipping scorched cocoa in a bid to get warm and convince ourselves that we were having a marvellous time (which we were, actually).

I'm filthy, my hair is matted with twigs from the final night's bivouac (rain miraculously held off for that one) and, for the first time in my life, my fingernails have grown (couldn't bring myself to bite them after digging the camp toilet). I look like the unmentionable cousin of Stig of the Dump.

But now I'm home. Back in the bosom of my family. In the warmth and security of suburban formica and three-piece suites.

I walk through the back door, drop my rucksack, and breathe deeeply.
I grin across the kitchen through the mud caking my face and say "You made my favourite. Thanks Mum!"

After being bustled off to the bathroom for a thorough soak (changing the bath water three times before it stopped looking like weak coffee), I emerge - scrubbed and glowing - to be guided to the dining table.

In front of me is a steaming plate of steak and kidney pie, oozing with rich brown gravy and topped with a crisp golden crust. To the side are new potatoes, with mint and butter, and runner beans - all fresh from our garden of course.

I'm in heaven. I've survived my first big adventure - and now I'm getting my reward for making it home in one piece. A condemned man eating his last meal couldn't have relished it more. After a fortnight of cold porridge, charred bangers and scalded tinned beans, it tastes like the best food in the world. And at that moment, it is. No super chef or exotic ingredient could produce anything better than my Mum's homecoming feast.

It's much more than a good tasty meal. It's confirmation that I matter, that I'm loved, and that I have a place - and always will have - at this dinner table. It's what being part of a family is all about.

And if I could possibly have any doubts about that, they are soon dispelled when pudding appears with a flourish of the oven glove: blackberry and apple crumble, with custard...

This post was inspired by 'Oui Chef" over at who gave us the prompt "Mum's Cooking".

Thanks to the lovely Becca and Cheffy Daddy for transporting me back to some of the best food memories of my childhood... ...but be warned, food played a bit part in our family (and still does), so there could be more to come.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Oh yes, you are!

Those who know me best are familiar with The Look. The chin drops, eyebrows shoot skywards, eyes roll. I may even tut, groan or sigh heavily.

No, I'm not having a funny turn. It's just my "You've GOT to be bloody kidding me" face.

The Ovver Arf knows it all too well and, being the diplomatic social schmoozer in our relationship, has been known to give me a swift kick in the shins when he sees it start to wash across my features.

If you want to see it for yourself, there's one sure-fire way. Just start a conversation with "I'm not sexist/racist/homophobic/a facist bastard, but...." before launching into some remark so utterly bigoted that it would have Humpty Dumpty falling off his wall in shock and disbelief.

Do that, and I can pretty much guarantee that The Look will come hurtling to the surface with the speed of a snorkeller who miscalculated how much air was left in their lungs.

Every atom of my being will be screaming to shout "Oh yes, you are!". There are more than a few times when I have done just that - usually moments before well-meaning friends who know me oh-so-well drag me away in the hope of avoiding a long, boring rant about hypocrisy and bigotry.

Other times, I try to play it cool and diplomatic, saying nothing. But - judging from the nervous (sometimes down-right terrified) looks my companions shoot in my direction - I fail. Miserably.

God only knows what my face must have been up to when interviewing politicians on the campaign trail back in my days a local hack.

I guess it's hard for any of us to admit to our failings - and even more so our prejudices (which we ALL have, in one form or another, by the way). But does no-one realise that saying "I'm not a bigot, but..." is like sounding a fanfare announcing that you are about as tolerant as the love child of Nick Griffin and the Grand Master of the Klu Klux Klan?

Self-knowledge is hard, virtually impossible if we're honest about it. That's why we have the phenomenon of "I'm independently-minded, you're eccentric, he's off his bloody rocker". Variations include:
"I'm all-woman, you're curvy, she's so big she has her own post code"
"I'm in my prime, you're aging nicely, he's older than God"
"I believe in traditional values, you support the status quo, she's somewhere to the right of the Third Reich"
(If you have any others, let me know - I collect 'em).

I'm a great believer in saying what you mean, and meaning what you say, without being mealy-mouthed or using pre-emptive apologies and exemptions.

If I have an opinion about something, you will hear it, fear not. But there's no need for me to tell you what I am, or am not, beforehand. You'll soon work it out for yourself...

...and when I have, you are more than welcome to give me YOUR Look.