Garlicky herby creamed aubergine

A way of cooking aubergines I invented — although it’s pretty similar to various middle-eastern dishes that already exist.

This recipe starts by roasting and mashing three large aubergines (eggplants). So if you’ve never done that: basically just chuck the whole aubergines into a hot oven for maybe 45 minutes. They visibly collapse in on themselves. Scoop out the cooked interior and chop it in a colander to drain off some liquid, then mash it up with a fork or something.

That’s the base of the dish.

I fried three cloves of crushed garlic and a finely chopped shallot — you don’t have to cook them too hard, you just don’t want them to be raw — and mixed that in with the aubergine purée, plus a few spoonfuls of yoghurt and a bit of salt. Then heated it through, and stirred in chopped parsley, coriander (cilantro) and chives — perhaps a handful of each. And it was very nice.

My new vegetarian lasagne recipe

I don’t see veggie lasagne on menus as much as I used to — the chefs getting more sophisticated with their vegetarian options, I guess — but it used to be an absolute staple.

I was never very keen on it, though: the most common recipe was made with roasted vegetables, and to my taste it was just too sweet. It didn’t have the rich, savoury, earthy quality of a good meat lasagne. Too much treble, not enough bass. I have the same problem with a lot of meat lasagnes, incidentally: too sweet and tomatoey.

So for ages I’ve had the idea at the back of my head to try and come up with a better recipe for a vegetarian lasagne. The starting point was mushrooms, which are an obvious way of getting that savoury, umami, ‘meaty’ quality. Particularly if you’re generous with the dried porcini.

And the other thing I discovered recently was that spinach works surprisingly well in a tomato sauce or a meat sauce. I’m not keen on cooked spinach on its own, but if you chop it and incorporate it into a tomato sauce or a meat sauce, it really adds something.

So that’s the basic concept: a mushroom, tomato and spinach sauce to replace the meat part of the lasagne; layered with pasta sheets, bechamel and cheese in the normal way. And it was really nice. It had some sweetness, but not too much, and loads of rich savoury flavour.

The specifics were as follows:

Pour boiling water over some dried porcini and leave to soak for an hour (I used maybe 15g of porcini in a cup or two of water), then squeeze them out and save the soaking water.

Fry a couple of finely shopped shallots in a saucepan with chopped fresh thyme and rosemary for a few minutes.

Add chopped fresh mushrooms (I think it was a 300g box?), the chopped porcini, and a couple of cloves of chopped garlic, and cook them down a bit.

Add a tin of tomatoes, the porcini soaking water, and half a glass of red wine. Simmer away for maybe 45 minutes to thicken it and give the flavours a chance to meld together.

Cook the spinach (I got a couple of bags of pre-washed supermarket spinach and cooked them in the microwave), drain it, chop it, and mix into the sauce.

And then you’re ready to layer it up with the white sauce and the pasta and stick it in the oven.

Bird of the Year 2013: best performances in a supporting role

Even later than usual, but I thought I should at least get the first post out in time for the Oscars.

Best Plant

I spent quite a lot of time last year looking at flowers and butterflies. The names alone are a joy: sainfoin, silverweed, sanicle, harebell, yellow rattle, round-headed rampion, devil’s bit scabious, horseshoe vetch.

I saw at least eight orchid species: fragrant, common-spotted, pyramidal, and man orchid; twayblade, white helleborine, green-flowered helleborine (though not fully open, sadly), and tiny but charming, Autumn Lady’s Tresses:

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There were actually hundreds of them at Rye Harbour, and I tried to get a picture with a cluster, but my iPhone’s autofocus just couldn’t cope.

It was nice to see sundew for the first time in a while; there’s something deeply fascinating about carnivorous plants:

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And perhaps the instinct to choose something a bit rare or unusual is a bad one; for sheer pleasure, it’s hard to beat the green glow of the sun shining through young beech leaves, or a sweep of bright gold coconut-smelling gorse flowers.

But my stand-out plant of the year is a curious flower called Grass Vetchling, one I’d never heard of before I saw it. What’s fascinating about it is that it really does look incredibly like a piece of grass… except with a gorgeous little magenta flower on it.

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That photo is © –Tico– and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence. You can get a clearer idea of just how much the plant looks like grass from the photo is this blog post (click for a larger version). It almost looks like an example of bio-mimicry, but it’s hard to imagine the evolutionary advantage of looking like grass.

Best Insect

Last summer I made a particular effort to look for butterflies, sometimes with my father, who is keen on them; specifically, I made it a bit of a project for us to see a Purple Emperor,  the UK’s most glamorous butterfly. And after a slightly miserable wet spring, the summer was properly hot and it turned out to be a particularly good year for butterflies. There were some amazing numbers of Purple Emperor being seen in a wood in Northamptonshire, so we made the pilgrimage up there, and sure enough we saw dozens in flight and several sitting on the ground flashing their purple at us.

I also got several other firsts this year: amazing iridescent Adonis Blues, in their hundredson Malling Down although, it being a cool day, all sitting on the ground; the much less spectacular Silver-studded Blue in huge numbers on Chobham Common, Brown Argus, Silver-spotted Skipper and Dark Green Fritillary, plus Grayling and Wall, which I’m sure I’ve seen before but possible not in the UK. It was also a good year for Clouded Yellow, and I saw quite a few of those fluttering around the north Kent saltmarshes. In total, I saw 35 species of butterfly in the UK last year, which is surely a personal record.

Also a few non-butterfly insects of note: the amazing iridescent green Rose Chafer beetle and its less exciting relative the Garden Chafer; a couple of longhorn beetles, Rutpela maculata and Agapanthia villosoviridescens, and a longhorn moth, Adela croesella. The striking Golden-ringed Dragonfly, and the Ruddy Darter, which I’ve no doubt seen before but now know how to distinguish from its commoner relatives. And best of all, the fabulous Beautiful Demoiselle.

It involved a long trip to a slightly dingy bit of woodland after several failed attempts elsewhere, and was therefore just a tiny bit more stressful than butterfly-hunting should be, but I think I have to award Insect Of The Year to Purple Emperor. Because it really was the fulfilment of a lifetime ambition. For me and my father.

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The photo is © Paul Ritchie and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

Best Invertebrate (other)

I actually had a non-insect invertebrate as a target species last summer: the Wasp Spider. But despite several attempts, I couldn’t find one.

So the winner is the edible snail, Helix pomatia. And yes, it is the big fat one commonly eaten with garlic sauce. Known as Roman Snail, because it was introduced to the UK by the Romans — presumably as a foodstuff — and there are still a few in the south of England.

Best Reptile

I saw an adder briefly as it disappeared into a bush. So that was good.

Best Fish

Can’t think of anything for this category.

Best Amphibian

There was masses of toadspawn in the pond this year, and the toadlets were very cute, so I guess toad is the winner by default.

Best Mammal

Otters have made a comeback over the past few decades, but you never actually see them. But I was in the Lee Valley during the January cold spell, and I saw something walking over the ice, and for a moment I thought perhaps the extreme weather had forced one out into the open during the day… and of course it was an [introduced, American] mink. Still, it was an exciting moment and an attractive animal in its own right.

Best Ecosystem

Biodiversity is a marvellous concept burdened with a terrible bureaucratic name. It’s not difficult to explain intellectually, but people don’t have an instinctive emotional connection to it.

And it’s not always very obvious, even when you’re in the middle of it. Even in the most famously biodiverse habitat, tropical rainforest: a casual visitor walking through it will often be a bit disappointed, because what you mainly see is lots and lots of very similar-looking trees. The birds and butterflies and snakes and monkeys and frogs and beetles are all out there, but you often have to work a bit to find them.

But anyone can see the difference between a wildflower meadow and pasture which has been ‘improved’ by agriculture. The improved version is attractive enough: a thick pillow of lush green grass, unbroken by anything except perhaps the occasional hardy thistle. That deep vibrant green in spring is a joy to see after the grey of winter, and it seems so full of life; it has become our idea of what the English countryside should look like. But it’s all just grass. It has the ‘bio’ part — it’s producing a lot of biomass — but it’s completely lacking in diversity.

Whereas the unimproved meadow is immediately, obviously completely different. It will be covered in flowers, pink ones, white ones, yellow, blue; some hugging close to the ground, others holding their blooms up above the grass, flowers in spikes and disks and whorls. And crawling and buzzing and fluttering, there will be caterpillars, hoverflies, beetles, wasps, and most obviously, butterflies. And you don’t need to be able to identify any of them: you can see the variety. Anyone can see the stark contrast between the lush but boring improved pasture and the messy, rich, complicated wildflower meadow.

And if you do learn to identify the flowers and insects, the diversity becomes even more apparent, because the mix will vary from meadow to meadow, depending on the soil, the exposure, the amount of grazing and the time of year.

A green sweep of ‘improved’ pasture can make for a beautiful landscape, but the wildflower meadow invites you to stop and pay attention to your immediate surroundings, to take pleasure in the details. The harder you look, the more there is to see.

My Country, Africa: Autobiography of the Black Pasionaria by Andrée Blouin

I read this for the Read The World challenge as my book from the Central African Republic, which is where Andrée Blouin was born — although she didn’t actually live there for very long.

Her father, Pierre Gerbillat, was a French businessman with a transport company in what was then French Equatorial Africa. He saw Andrée’s mother, Josephine Wouassimba, dancing in a local village and decided he wanted to marry her. Although she was already promised to somebody else, he offered such a large dowry that her parents were persuaded.

He was forty; she was thirteen. And although they were married according to local custom, they were not actually married under French law — not only that, he was already engaged to a Belgian woman, who he married very soon. And after briefly juggling two wives, he left Josephine and sent Andrée to an orphanage for mixed-race children run by nuns in Brazzaville. She was at the orphanage from the age of three until she was seventeen, when she managed to escape, literally by climbing over the wall.

Then she worked as a dressmaker, and had a sequence of relationships with white men, before getting involved in the campaign for independence, first in Guinea and then the Belgian Congo, where she was Chief of Protocol for the newly independent Republic of the Congo for the very brief period before Mobutu overthrew the government and she had to flee the country, and move to France.

So she’s an interesting subject. Although the stuff which is most obviously notable about her — the politics — was not actually the most engaging part of the book, for me. The most powerful section is about severity of the orphanage, and the sheer cruelty of the nuns; and throughout the book the racial dynamics are particularly thought-provoking.

She was a mixed-race child at a time when they were so rare that they were shipped of to special orphanages and coerced to marry each other, to reduce their disruptive impact on society. And it made her even more of an outsider that she was cut off from normal African society for her entire childhood.

Then as an adult, she was a beautiful mixed-race woman who, despite having suffered at the hands of white institutions and individuals, was apparently only drawn to relationships with white men; one of whom she lived with, and had a child with, even though he was so racist that he would not allow her mother into their house.

And I don’t think she makes any comment herself about whether her partial whiteness made it easier or harder for her to be a woman taking a prominent role in the politics of independence, but it must have been relevant one way or another.

So there’s plenty of interesting material here. And it’s well written, for which the credit may go to Jean McKellar, who is credited as a ‘collaborator’; I don’t know exactly what that means in this case. It’s also out of print, though, and unless it sounds like it’s particularly relevant to your interests, I don’t think it’s so amazing that you need to seek it out.

RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch 2014

I got 19 species this year, which equals my previous best.

blue tit × 4
great tit × 3
long-tailed tit × 2
coal tit × 1

chaffinch × 3
greenfinch × 1

dunnock × 2
robin × 3
nuthatch × 1

blackbird × 2
redwing × 1
song thrush × 1

ring-necked parakeet × 3
great-spotted woodpecker × 1
magpie × 2
carrion crow × 2

pigeon × 7
woodpigeon × 1

sparrowhawk × 1

It’s the first time I’ve seen redwing during the count; on the other hand no goldfinch(!) or goldcrest, wren, siskin, starling.

Epitaph of a Small Winner* by Machado de Assis

I’ve already read a book from Brazil for the Read The World challenge, but I really enjoyed this so I thought I’d add it to the blog-pile.

I can’t remember why I picked this up, but I *really* enjoyed it. It’s a C19th novel which is ‘surprisingly modern’ — in scare quotes because that seems to be the default description and I don’t disagree, but I’m slightly uneasy about using ‘modern’ as a term of praise or even description.

It’s ‘modern’ because it’s written from the perspective of a dead man who makes lots of authorial asides, in a generally light tone, broken up into very short chapters (mostly less than a page), with self-referential stuff and intertextual commentary. In other words, it plays with form more than most C19th novels. But rather than comparing it to the modernists and post-modernists, it seems just as natural to refer back; not just to the inevitable Tristram Shandy, but things like Tom Jones and Byron’s Don Juan, which both have ‘authorial’ asides and interjections.

Anyway, that kind of quibbling aside: the application of the style to a very solidly C19th plot, about the lives and loves of the upper-middle classes, worked brilliantly for me. It was apparently just what I needed.

*A note on the title: in Portuguese it’s actually called Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas, and some English translations give it the same title: The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas. I can’t really see why they felt the need to change it for this translation†, and it’s also bloody annoying when you’re shopping for a copy until you realise that it’s all the same novel, but there you go.

†A 1950s one by William S Grossman, incidentally.

21 Immortals by Rozlan Mohd Noor and Ripples by Shih-Li Kow

These are a couple of books from Malaysia which I read for the Read The World challenge, both picked because I thought they would make a change compared to some of what I read for the challenge. For a start, they’re both contemporary works, rather than the 20, 30, 40 year old books I often end up reading. And 21 Immortals: Inspector Mislan and the Yee Sang Murders is a crime novel, while Ripples and other stories is, obviously, a books of short stories.

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21 Immortals was a silly choice, really. Not because of the book itself, which is fine I guess, but because I have never understood the appeal of crime fiction (or indeed the even more depressing genre, ‘true crime’). I’m just not very interested in the grisly murders themselves or the police procedural/CSI stuff. The Malaysian setting gave it some novelty value, but otherwise it was a pretty standard example of the genre and so it largely left me cold.

Ripples is more my usual thing: more ‘literary’, anyway. The stories are interlinked, each picking up some detail or character from the story before, and they are surprisingly varied in style: some are low key stories about the details of everyday life, others have more overtly dramatic subjects or are fantastical tales. Not all of them are equally successful, but there was plenty here to keep me reading, at least. At least with short stories, if you don’t like one much, there’s always another one along in a minute. And if this review seems a bit vague and non-commital: well, the truth is that it has been a few days since I finished Ripples; and although I quite liked it while I was reading it, it didn’t leave a profound impression.

So, slightly underwhelming choices for Malaysia, but hey-ho, on to the next thing.

» ‘Summer Storm over Kuala Lumpur’ is © Trey Ratcliff and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

London Film Festival debrief, 2013

So, I saw five films this year. Some quick notes:

Story of my Death [Història de la meva mort].

The LFF said:

Albert Serra’s teasing period-piece sees Casanova and Dracula meeting as Enlightenment reason gives way to the dangerous passions of the Romantic era.

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Which sounded like it might be fun, if perhaps a bit silly. Maybe a trifle camp. In fact it was surprisingly boring.

I like the fact that artier films can allow themselves to be a bit slow-paced, and a use longer takes and longer shots: if nothing else it makes a change from the freneticness of commercial cinema. But allowing yourself to be leisurely, and give the characters room to breathe, doesn’t mean that every scene has to be like that, that every shot has to carry on for several seconds longer than necessary. And if you are going to make a film like that, and it ends up being nearly two and a half hours long, it starts to feel a little bit self-indulgent.

The director said in the Q&A afterwards that he’d never seen any genre films because he wasn’t interested in them, which explained why his handling of the Dracula scenes was so artless; artless mainly in a bad way.

On the positive side: it often looked good, and among the completely amateur Catalan cast, Casanova in particular was excellent.

Portrait of Jason

The LFF said:

Shirley Clarke’s cinéma-vérité masterpiece about a gay African-American cabaret performer and prostitute revealingly restored.

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This is a black and white documentary from 1967; Jason Holliday is interviewed in his apartment about his life as a house boy, prostitute, hustler and would-be cabaret performer as he gets steadily drunk and stoned. He is the only person we see; he replies to questions from off-camera and spins yarns which may or may not be strictly true. It’s very rough-looking; the restorer spent years looking for a good quality print before finding that what was marked as out-takes in the archive was in fact the edited film, which is complete with conversations between the director and the cameraman, moments when the screen goes black, shots out of focus and so on. But apparently there are pages and pages of editing notes to prove that this is a very carefully crafted version of roughness.

I enjoyed it, Jason is a fascinating, charming and rather tragic figure, and the style is interesting too.

My Fathers, My Mother and Me

Paul-Julien Robert’s quietly devastating documentary revisits the former residents of the experimental 1970s free-love commune in which he grew up.

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Paul-Julien Robert didn’t know who his biological father was until he was 12, in 1991, when the Friedrichshof commune was dissolved and as part of the fall-out the various children were given blood tests to determine paternity. In this documentary, he talks to his mother, to the various men who were potential fathers, and to the other children who lived there with him. It is fascinating stuff, especially because the leader of the commune, Otto Muehl, was obsessed with documenting the life there, so the interviews are intercut with lots and lots of footage of the commune in action.

It starts out seeming fun and quirky; slightly bonkers, but free-spirited, well-meaning and optimistic as well. But it gets steadily darker, as it gradually becomes clear that a free-love commune built on the eradication of the nuclear family is not in fact a great environment for raising children. Not, at least, if it is being run by a controlling egomaniac.

It’s fascinating on all sorts of levels, not least the disconnect between the adults’ experience of the commune and the children’s. Apparently it was only really when making the film that he felt able to talk openly about his childhood, and there are some particularly painful conversations with his mother.

Grigris

A Chadian street photographer’s romantic interest in a would-be model lands him in a murky criminal underworld in this smart thriller.

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To be pedantic about it, he’s not actually a ‘street photographer’ as I would understand it; he’s not taking candid shots of urban life. He takes photos for ID cards and the like. He’s also a nightclub dancer with a withered leg.

The thriller-y bits could have been edited a bit more snappily, perhaps, but basically I enjoyed this. It usually looks good, it has plenty of plot, which is sometimes a bit lacking at the kind of films I tend to go to at the festival, and the central performances are good. And a pretty girl and some good dance sequences.

The Eternal Return of Antonis Paraskevas [Η Αιώνια Επιστροφή Του Αντώνη Παρασκευά]

A dark satire on current Greek woes that sees a failing TV personality stage his own kidnapping, only to start to unravel as he holds himself hostage.

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This is an almost silent film. Paraskevas is holed up in an empty hotel alone while the world thinks he has been kidnapped, and for most of the film the only dialogue is from the TV news and videos he is watching. He is already perhaps a little unstable to have thought this was a good idea, but the solitude pushes him further over the edge and the initially comic tone turns darker.

It’s genuinely funny in the funny bits, and the turn to the dark works as well. There are perhaps a couple of mis-steps along the way, but generally I really liked it. Christos Stergioglou is great in the central role; there’s an almost Buster Keaton quality to the way he manages to be silently expressive with a mournful and impassive face.

Slavery by Another Name by Douglas A. Blackmon

This is a grim but fascinating book. Obviously I knew that black people in the southern states of the US had a pretty rough time of it in the period between the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement, what with disenfranchisement and segregation and lynching. But I didn’t appreciate that slavery re-emerged and continued right up to the 1940s.

How it worked was this: a black man would be arrested and charged with some minor offence like vagrancy or carrying a concealed weapon, and ordered to pay a fine plus costs, which would be more than they could afford. Their debt would then be paid off by a company or an individual, and the black man would be sent to work off the money he ‘owed’.

And even that legal process was a complete sham, so the effect was that any black man could, at any time, be picked up off the streets and sold into forced labour on plantations or in coal mines or whatever, where they would be shackled, kept in appalling conditions, thrashed regularly, and if they tried to escape they would be hunted down with dogs. And if they had nominally worked off the debt they owed, their ‘masters’ could always claim they had incurred costs and extend their time at will — not that anyone seems to have been checking the paperwork anyway.

I suppose what I found so shocking is that this isn’t just analogous to slavery: it’s the full slavery experience. There’s even an argument that these men were treated even worse than antebellum slaves, because at least those slaves were valuable assets that their owners could sell or use as collateral for loans. The debt slaves were effectively rented rather than owned, and it was no particular financial loss to their renters if they died. And die they did, particularly in the mines, by their dozens.

There were many thousands of African Americans living in these kinds of explicit forced labour; and that is on top of the much larger number living as sharecroppers and similar exploitative arrangements.

It makes for interesting, depressing reading. And it provokes all kinds of thoughts about power and race and America and so on, but one broad conclusion I would pick out is this: major societal change is hard and slow. Perhaps the situation could have changed faster, with more political will from the North and the federal government, but there was no enthusiasm for another huge internal conflict on the subject of race, and the one serious attempt to crack down on forced labour petered out as the scale of the problem became clear.

But even with all the political will in the world, it would surely have taken decades to normalise the situation of black people in the south as full citizens. Which is something we should bear in mind when we blithely talk about intervening in other countries with enormously entrenched social problems.

Another thought that occurs to me: it’s kind of interesting that Washington DC has a holocaust museum rather than a slavery museum. There’s nothing wrong with a holocaust museum — they could have both! — but it does seem like it might be easier to confront the horrors of a a great sin and a great tragedy when they happen in another country rather than your own.

And that in turn provokes a line of thought about my own country’s history, and to what extent the British have come to terms with the murkier implications of having been an empire. But that will have to wait for another day, I think.