Monday, 15 January 2018


I made waffles this lunchtime.  Or rather, I spent nearly half the morning making waffles, and we ate some for lunch.  I am very fond of waffles, also pancakes, and flatbreads (and indeed Yorkshire pudding).  There is something about batter, and the fact that you can make a bread that puffs up into a hollow pouch from a flat disc of dough.  Ever since I saw someone on a Claudia Roden TV programme years ago pour a thin spiral stream of batter on to a large hot metal disc, where it magically turned into a flatbread, I have been curious about the liminal area of cookery where pancakes meet bread.

The Systems Administrator gave me an electric waffle iron a few birthdays back.  It was not even ironic, I had asked for a waffle iron, but the first waffles made with pancake batter aerated with baking powder as per the recipes in the instruction booklet were sad and flabby affairs.  Later the SA gave me a copy of Ruth Van Waerebeek's The Taste of Belgium, which I think I dropped brick sized hints about, and I discovered a whole section of yeast based waffle recipes and no mention of baking powder.  Yeast raised batters are much better, producing fatter, fluffier, fuller tasting, more substantial waffles.  The ones made with baking powder are more like pancakes that have got slightly above themselves.

The only trouble is that they are not quick to make.  You need melted butter, warmed milk, beaten egg whites, plus sugar and flour.  The resulting washing up came to one saucepan, four small basins, one covered in melted butter, a large basin, a big mixing bowl, the steel bowl from the whisk and the whisk balloon, a hand whisk because the flour went a bit lumpy in the batter, a sieve, a knife for the butter, a metal spoon, a wooden spoon, and a teaspoon.  I haven't washed up the plates of the iron yet because they were cooling down.  It is a bit of a faff getting the electric whisk in and out of the cupboard where it normally lives behind the multiple recycling bins.

The recipe in the book must make a quite enormous number of waffles.  I halved it, in case dividing it by three should be too stingy if I messed up the first attempt, and it still made many more than two people could eat for lunch, even if they'd done anything all morning, which we hadn't.  The books says they keep well in the fridge and reheat OK, or can be frozen, and that the author's mother always said it wasn't worth heating up the iron just to make six or eight waffles.

The Systems Administrator appeared in the kitchen before I'd finished cooking the last one, and asked how you knew how much batter to put in the iron.  The instruction booklet doesn't really give any guidance on that.  If you don't put enough then the waffle won't rise to fill the space inside the iron and the top won't touch the lid and won't brown nicely.  If you put too much in the surplus will ooze out over the kitchen worktop and later you will spend a long time trying to clean the body of the machine.  That is how you know how much to put in.  In practice you want the raised bumps in the base of the iron to be covered by batter, but only just.  The machine takes several minutes to reach working temperature, when a green light will come on, although the thin layer of sunflower oil you applied before switching it on will have started smoking a couple of minutes previously.  The booklet doesn't tell you that bit either.

It is a great toy, and fresh waffles are a treat on a cold day for anybody who is not yet on a low carb or gluten free diet.  They are not a good choice for anybody in a hurry.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Roman remains

Nicholas Crane has quite a lot to say about Colchester in The Making of the British Landscape, because it was the first Roman centre and as such the first British town.  Pre Boudicca it had no Roman walls: they came after.  Bettany Hughes in her recent series on key events in the history of the Roman empire devoted an episode to Boudicca, complete with computer graphics of what the main public buildings would have looked like, before the Iceni burned them down.

It set me thinking that Colchester should have a Roman city app.  With it loaded on our phones curious locals and tourists alike could see when we were walking along the lines of Roman streets, and trace the locations of the Roman buildings.  The one in Bettany Hughes' programme was huge.  It works for Pokemon so why not for ruins?  I fancy standing outside Fenwick, phone in hand, able to see the lines of a giant Roman temple superimposed on the modern day High Street.

Colchester has not really done very well with its Roman past.  The quiet lane that ran alongside one of the largest remaining visible stretches of Roman wall even as early as the start of the last century is now a dual carriageway.  A second length of wall borders a municipal car park.  At least the council has recently refurbished the car park and a new wooden barrier keeps cars back from the base of the wall, so you can see along the length of it and try and mentally block out the line of parked vehicles.  There are the remains of a chariot racing track somewhere on the other side of town, but you wouldn't know it from a visit to the town centre.  I've seen the odd article in the local paper, without ever quite being moved to go and look.

Firstsite has a Roman mosaic.  It is displayed in a glass covered pit in the floor, which gives a more realistic impression of what it would have looked like as a floor than if it were mounted vertically.  The trouble is, the glass floor had got dusty from people's feet, and also sticky, perhaps from classes of visiting primary school children being made to sit on the floor the way children always are in galleries, and has also picked up a few scratches.  Honestly, you do not get a very good view of the mosaic.  I think it might be better on a wall.  Or on a low plinth, roped off so that people wouldn't walk on it.

I believe there is an excavation of something Roman in the Dutch quarter, which I vaguely remember having peered at through some viewing window at some time in the distant past.  I can't remember what it was, and there are no signs in the High Street to encourage me to go and look at it again.

The most interactive Roman relict is the arch in the wall, opposite the multi-storey car park, which you can walk through.  You would think that the prospect of walking through an arch a couple of thousand years old that actual, real Romans had used would be at least vaguely entertaining, but I have never seen anybody else bother, even though it is freely accessible and not cordoned off.  You just have to be prepared to deviate a couple of yards from your desire line into the centre of town or back to your car, and walk on setts instead of asphalt for a couple of paces.  Nicholas Crane gives it a mention in the book and says it was always a pedestrian arch, to the side of the main gate.  There is a risk if you take the arch that you will look as though you are deliberately avoiding the Big Issue seller who always stands on the other side of the pavement at that point.

It doesn't add up to a lot, but still a great deal more than you would see of actual Viking remains in York.  I suppose the trouble is that York has the Minster, one of the great Mediaeval cathedrals of Europe.  Colchester has Britain's largest ever Norman castle keep.  But it also has terrible, terrible traffic.  And York has the national railway museum.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

a reading day

I walked to the postbox, since I had a couple of letters that needed to catch today's post (Saturday's collection is at the earlier time of 10.30 am, a trap for the unwary).  It was enough to make me think I'd better give gardening a miss for another day, as my not-developed-into-a-cold but not-gone-away-yet snivelliness and incipient sore throat felt worse in the raw air.  A waste, since it was not raining or freezing.

Still, what is the point of being given a pile of books for Christmas and not making the time to read them?  Reading in the daytime, when you could be doing something else, is different to picking up a book for an hour in the evening after a busy day, when you are already tired from whatever it is you were doing all day.  Since Christmas I have finished The Wars of the Roses and Alison Weir's biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine, which usefully goes over events already covered in The Plantagenets in more detail.

I think I could now list from memory all the kings and queens of England from the Norman conquest to the present day.  I have not got them quite off pat, since I get slightly hazy around Edward IV, and a lot of the dates are still plus or minus a decade or two, apart from the battle of Bosworth field and for some reason the death of King John.  It's a shame that learning lists of monarchs has been so out of favour for so long.  We certainly weren't taught them when I was at school.  I have a feeling that Michael Gove might have wanted to reinstate them when he had the cabinet brief for schools, but that didn't last long.  It's not just that Mediaeval power politics and skullduggery have so many modern day parallels, but that the list of monarchs makes a useful framework on which to hang other facets of history.  Visited an interesting building, heard some music, read how a whole town disappeared into the sea, listened to a Radio 4 documentary about the development of cutlery?  With a rough internal timeline you can catalogue everything in chronological order and have some idea what was happening at the same time, and what came two centuries before or afterwards. It doesn't stop you from imagining what it would have felt like to be a woman on one of the Crusades as well, if you want to, but you are less likely to end up with a steampunk mashup of history in which the Peasants' Revolt sweeps past Nelson's column.

After Eleanor I toured the North Sea in Tom Blass' fascinating The Naked Shore, and ambled around England with Matthew Engel in Engel's England, an amiable and only slightly cricket infused tour of thirty-nine counties.  He seemed to quite like Essex, despite having retreated to Herefordshire about a quarter of a century ago.  And after that I leaped back twelve centuries to the point when the British Isles emerged from the last Ice Age, with Nicholas Crane's The Making of the British Landscape.  You can see another facet of my historical investigations emerging, which is that I wait for them to come out in paperback.

Friday, 12 January 2018

volunteer treasurer

My plan to set up the spreadsheets for the garden club accounts came to nought a few days ago, when I discovered I did not have a copy of last year's income and expenditure and balance sheet, as presented at the AGM, at which I'd been present.  To limit costs and cut down on waste paper the organisers had limited copies to one per table rather than one each, but I'm pretty sure I did leave the annual supper with one in my handbag.  What I did with it after that is a mystery, and there wasn't one in the folder the outgoing treasurer gave to me.

Never mind.  The chairman made a copy and gave it to me at the lecture, and so this morning I sat down again at the kitchen table, prepared to Get to Grips with it all.  I was a little worried about how I would fill in the gap between the end of the last financial year and the committee meeting held two weeks into the current one, when I took custody of the box containing the club's entire financial records since inception, plus a roll of white banqueting fabric, and box containing a cruet set with some pieces missing.

The outgoing treasurer had forwarded me the bank statements which were still being sent to her house, even though we called at the bank in mid November to complete the paperwork to change the contact details and signatory.  The statements ran from mid month to mid month, while the club's financial year ended on the last day of October, but it was soon obvious that the bank balance on 31 October plus the £41.16 I'd signed for in cash did not remotely equal the year end balance at cash and bank.  I remembered there was a deposit account.  Any sensible club booking paid speakers in advance makes sure it keeps some funds aside for a rainy day.  Only I had not seen a deposit account statement when I read through the folder on Monday.  Probably the bank only sends them out quarterly, or every six months.  I went and looked in the other folders in the box in the spare bedroom, but couldn't find any statement for the deposit account there either.

I turned my attention to the current account statements, and began checking off the payments that had gone through since the year end against the stubs in the cheque book.  Several related to cheques written before the year end, and I realised that there were no creditors shown on the balance sheet as presented at the AGM.  Presumably they were netted off the year end cash, otherwise the balance sheet wouldn't have balanced.  I couldn't ask the person who prepared the accounts, because they are currently on holiday.  Whale watching, in New Zealand.  I looked hopefully at the gigantic blue ledger in which past income and expenditure were meticulously recorded in biro with red auditors ticks against them, but couldn't find anything that obviously looked like the balance of the year end cash.

I decided that there were too many unknowns, and that I had better wait for the whale watcher to return and then ask politely how it was done.  I know how to maintain accurate records my way, and present them as income and expenditure at the end of the year.  I even know that the club assets at the end of the current year have to equal the total of last year's assets and this year's surplus or deficit, a concept that eluded the new treasurer of one club my mother was involved in.  Determined to accomplish something, and reassure myself that I hadn't made a mistake, yet, I set up a sheet for the petty cash, entered everything I'd received and paid out at my first meeting, and filed the receipts and dockets in my new folder.  To my slight relief the total physical cash as of this morning reconciled with the total of the £41.16 I started off with and the transactions I thought I'd made at the meeting.  Then I ordered myself a cash box from Amazon.  Having in the course of the evening been given money for future visits, paid out for expenses to do with the hall, and had to find the small change in my own purse to reimburse a volunteer for refreshments, I could see that if I didn't keep a very beady eye on the cash I was soon going to get in a complete muddle, and that stuffing envelopes of money and cheques into my handbag at intervals wasn't going to be enough.

The club is affiliated to the RHS, and I got the renewal form off in good time, so I think that so far I have done everything I was supposed to do.  I still don't understand the opening balance sheet, but I have months to work that out.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

a remarkable woman

The lecture at this month's meeting of The Arts Society, Colchester (not to be confused with Colchester Art Society) was about the wartime photography of Lee Miller, and to give it an added frisson the lecturer was her son.  I first heard of Lee Miller when I saw a strange and visually arresting photograph of a strikingly beautiful woman in profile at an exhibition of Man Ray's work at the National Portrait Gallery.  The caption said that the model was called Lee Miller, Man Ray's muse and surrealist collaborator, and that the strange appearance of the photograph was due to a process called solarisation, caused by exposing the photograph to light during the development process.  The effect had been known about for years without anyone doing anything much with it.  The idea that Man Ray could exploit it to do something interesting came from Lee Miller.

After that I might not have thought much more about Lee Miller, if the Imperial War Museum hadn't put on an exhibition of her war photography a couple of years ago.  The Systems Administrator and I went, and discovered that while the photographs were good, the life of Lee Miller was riveting.  She reinvented herself many times in her life, as a model in New York, surrealist artist in pre-war Paris, a fashion photographer for Vogue, an accredited war photographer attached to the US army in the aftermath of D-Day, wife, mother, and finally gourmet cook.  Friend of Picasso and Miro, she suffered from years of depression leading to alcohol abuse after what she had witnessed in the war, dragging herself back to sanity and sobriety in her later years, described by her son as her finest achievement.  She was a truly remarkable woman.

You couldn't get through all that in one lecture, and today's talk focused on her photographic work during the war, which started on the home front with pictures of women's war work and utility fashion, and ended with Lee Miller bathing in Hitler's bath and arriving to document some of the Nazi death camps within hours of their being liberated.  She was a good photographer, besides being brave, determined, and bloody-minded.  At one point she and her fellow American Life correspondent David E Scherman were three miles ahead of the advancing US army.  Her former home is now a museum, her son one of the custodians of her archive, and he spoke well and movingly.  It is a matter of public record that in her post-war, depressed, drinking years she was not an easy mother.

After the IWM exhibition I couldn't understand why nobody had made a film of her life.  Apparently one is now afoot, with plans for Kate Winslet to play Lee Miller.  That would be worth seeing, if it comes to fruition.  Her son said that it should be on our screens in 2019 or 2020.  Something has started happening because he had photographs of Kate Winslet at the old family home and studying the archive.  But when I checked on Kate Winslet's IMDb entry there was no mention of it as being in pre-production or filming, so I'd better not get too excited quite yet.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

a brief glory

The first flowering of the amaryllis was just the warm-up act.  The second flowering stem rose to twice the height of the first, so tall that if it had grown another inch the tips of the closed buds would have been bumping against the top of the window.  There were six flowers, compared to a measly two on the first stem, of which four opened together and then the last pair a couple of days later.  The great pink head was so wide that I had to move the pot from the window sill to the kitchen table, because otherwise the outward facing trumpets were pressed against the glass.  You didn't notice so much from inside, but from outside it looked bizarre, like a face squashed up against a window pane.

Alas, the glory was short-lived.  Coming downstairs yesterday morning I found the monstrous bloom hanging over the edge of the table, the stem having buckled.  I staked it with a thin cane, but the hollow stalk had split at the bottom, and now the flowers are beginning to fade.  There again, the first stem didn't last very long either.

I saw the bulb merchant who'd donated it to the garden club raffle at the last club meeting.  He seemed puzzled by my surprise and enthusiasm that the amaryllis had flowered.  I suppose, when you are a bulb merchant, that is what amaryllis are meant to do.  Apparently any high potash fertiliser will suit it, then in September I should stop watering and let it dry out for ten weeks before starting the whole cycle off again.  Although he didn't say so, I suspect he was thinking that alternatively I could buy a new one.

I don't know if the Systems Administrator will want an amaryllis living permanently on the kitchen window sill.  One of my orchids died, so there is a space.  Although I did rather fancy a new orchid.  The trouble with the amaryllis is that while it is spectacular in flower, there are going to be a lot of weeks in the year when it is not doing anything much.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

the winter tidy continues

I have been spreading home made compost along the edge of one bed I never managed to get to last year.  The nice, dark brown, level layer looks so neat, almost edible, that it comes as a jolt to remember that left like that it would be a fabulous seedbed to every weed going.  It won't look nearly so glamorous once I've spread Strulch on it, since the Strulch looks like nothing so much as grass clippings after they've gone brown, while the home made compost looks like dark chocolate.  The Strulch does stop the weeds, though, or at least most of them.  Fergus Garrett talked about scraping holes in their mulch to give desired self-seeders a chance, but in our garden what with the blackbirds and the cats there always seem to be some gaps left for more Verbena bonariensis to pop up.

I think one of the tree lupins has died.  I haven't examined it closely, since I am working my way down the slope and haven't got to that bit of the bed yet, but viewed from the edge there don't seem to be any live branches left.  It will probably have left me some potential replacements, since tree lupins self seed prolifically given half a chance, so I should be able to choose one that's put itself in a sensible place.  What colour it will be is another matter.  My original plant had yellow flowers, but in recent years they've come up with yellow and pink two-tone spikes.  It have not been so dramatic I have rushed to tell Thompson and Morgan in case they wanted to introduce it as a new lupin colour break, but it has been quite pretty.

A Cistus seems to be on its last legs as well.  I blame old age rather than the cold, since another Cistus right next to it is fine.  Perhaps it will have left me a replacement too.  They do self seed occasionally, sometimes at a considerable distance from any parent plant, and I have a feeling that they grow better sown in situ than transplanted out of pots.  Most Cistus don't seem naturally long lived, though I have one monster of incredible age and size in the meadow, and if you have the space and can tolerate the lack of control I think one of the best ways to grow them and tree lupins is as part of a shifting, self-seeding community of slightly ephemeral plants.  If you like tidiness in your borders, with a place for everything and everything in its place, then you will be annoyed each time one of them dies.