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Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Fit as a butcher's dog. Part One.

I mentioned in the last post that I used to be a butcher and I thought that it might be of interest to my readers to know a little about that period in my life back in the early 1970s to the late 1980s. There are a lot of stories to tell you so I think I shall do it in three parts; the early years, the Dewhurst years and the years leading up to my escape.

Intrigued? Read on. Get the tissues because you won't stop laughing.

I left school with no qualifications and had, to be honest, very little idea of what I wanted to do as a job. I was a young man with his head filled with the Scouts, young women my age and not a lot else apart from a slowly growing love of language and writing. Initially I worked for Royal Crown Derby making bone china Dubloon pattern ashtrays and tea cup handles for dainty cups for dainty ladies. Alas, I broke so many in their biscuit state that, in the modern parlance, they had to ‘let me go’ after two years and many ignored ‘warnings’.

After my release from the world of broken porcelain I drifted for a couple of weeks and at one point got severely dissuaded by my Dad in my then, odd ambitions, to join the Army and work in the Army Catering Corps. Never occurred to me that I may have to go to war to feed the soldiers! Hey, but at least I showed early signs of now being interested in food!

So one day in the early 1970s I spied an advert in the Derby Evening Telegraph newspaper that was asking for an apprentice butcher or a ‘muggin’s’. The position was needed to be filled needed asap.

I applied rather eagerly, and in some desperation, as after two whole weeks of being out of work I was becoming the ‘slacker’ of the family and that wouldn’t do at all. So I went for this job at a butcher’s shop in the small lower Derbyshire village of Little Eaton. The establishment was called Bosworth’s the Butchers, situated just off Alfreton Road and next to the Queen’s Head pub. The shop is now run and owned by Barry Fitch and to my knowledge does very well. Back then I was accepted at a paupers wage and stayed there until 1975.

My work colleagues in the shop were all male. There was a big built fella called Alan who was the manager and looked an archetypal butcher in his blue striped apron and blood bruised white coat. He had arms thicker than my legs and enjoyed a constant moan about there being ‘too many chiefs and not enough Indians’ in the shop. This was a saying that was way beyond my understanding at the time. I don’t think that I had even met an Indian, American or otherwise. As well as Alan there was a ginger haired man with big sideburns. He was called Ted and he came from Bakewell and had a very broad Derbyshire accent. The words ‘home cured bacon’ came out of Ted’s mouth as “Om queue-ed baircon”. It took me months to understand him. Additionally there was a man called Richard and another older man called Jack who lived in the village itself. To my naïve knowledge of the world these gentlemen all seemed very worldly wise and grown up. On a Friday we all used to go to a working man’s café at Chester Green and buy our own dinner and custardy pudding. That my friends, was ultra grown up for me!

Most of the time that I was engaged in work there I would be delivering raw and cooked meat associated products and fresh farm eggs to folk in the village of Little Eaton, including to some businesses like the local pubs. My mode of transport was an ancient old Co-op ‘sit up and beg’ delivery bike with a colour scheme of black and rust. Real rust. It had a deep wicker woven basket in the front to carry the goods and a chain that had been deprived of the pleasure of a good oiling since Dickensian times, if not longer. Every morning except Sunday I would be whizzing around – come hail or shine- on this solid monster of a bike handing out parcels of goodies. The bike had no gears and the brakes were dodgy but I loved it. The company’s own cooked ham was very popular and came in pre-metric quarter pounds, half pounds and pounds and the less calculable element of individual slices’. On Saturday I would be collecting the monies owed for all the goods people had ordered 'on the slate.'

The loose paper-bagged eggs tended to dance about the basket and pre-scramble as I negotiated the various potholes in the roads, country lanes and also the rural train tracks that ran alongside the village brook. I loved cycling about on this old bike and remember an old and closed Paper Mill at the end of the orchard behind Bosworths’ where I used to take the bike and excitedly investigate the interior ramps in my dinner break. It was cool. I used to skid and race about all over the place, often narrowly missing going into the deep brook called Bottle brook.

Aside from my cycling deliveries I would go out in the van with Jack on a Tuesday morning and deliver ordered goods from the butchers to Breadsall Village, Morley Village and even parts of the bigger council estate of Chaddesden. I always enjoyed these day trips out. Jack was like an uncle figure and put up with the sulky teenager that was me as his delivery companion. The days out with Jack seemed adventurous and I can remember sitting in the passenger seat of this red van in my butchery gear and coat and wearing my cycling gloves and Eddy Mercx cycling cap. What must I have looked like!?

When it was cold I took out a tartan-patterned flask of Heinz tomato soup to keep me warm as well as some of me Mum’s best beef dripping and salt sandwiches. My Dad liked them so I had to endure them too as Mum did both ‘pack ups’ together and wasn’t going to mess around making different lots. One day I complained bitterly and from that day on I had to get my own sandwiches at a cost to me outside of the weekly money I gave my Mum for my board or upkeep. All I wanted was cheese salad sandwiches every day! Is that too much to ask?

My main work at Bosworth’s was to clean up after everybody and to help with the weekly routines that formed, amongst other things; the preparation of home-made sausages from the basic ingredients; the gutting of chickens; the cooking of hams and tongues in a big domestic style boiler; the slaughtering of cattle and lambs on a Monday and the washing down afterwards. Additionally I was made to scrub out the fridges on a thrice weekly basis and to clean the shop windows and the insides of the delivery vans. Looking back I was constantly up to my elbows in hot water and soap and surrounded with machinery covered in meat bits like the constantly used mincing machine and other butchery tools such as knifes and saws and cleavers.
I have to say that the abattoir aspect of the job came as a bit of a surprise. I thought that the cows had come for a trot around the orchard and a nibble at the grass not to be bumped off! I certainly have no recall of that being mentioned at the interview with Mrs B. The conversation probably went as such:

Mrs B: Ey up young 'un, do you need a job?

Me: Yes.

Mrs B: I can’t pay much.

Me: Er…

Mrs B: You’ll get some free faggots and sweetbreads and as many free bones for as you want for your dog.

Me: Er… my dog likes bones. What are faggots and sweet …?

Mrs B: I’ve got the kettle on the stove. Can’t stop. Busy. Your mother will have to wash your overalls and apron. OK? So you’ll start on Munday?

Me: Er… Yes.

Mrs B: Good lad. See ya Munday.

One of the less savoury jobs for the dogsbody that was me back then, was pushing wheelbarrow loads of steaming grass-green cow shit up the orchard after a beast had been slaughtered, usually followed by a lot of flies in the Summer. If I wasn’t engaged in this then I would have my right hand up a chicken’s arse in order to remove the guts and lungs and make the fowl less foul for the customer. Customers back in the 1970s were probably more aware of the provenance of their meat products especially in the village and its close historical associations with farm culture back then. However most still wanted to buy the sanitised version of the part or whole of the dead animal. Pre- Christmas the turkeys were all fresh and prepared at the butchers and I recall a special contraption that would yank the sinews out of the tough turkey legs and it was my job to make sure that there was nothing too chewy for the customers to complain about. I did a lot of yanking back then. I was a teenager.

At this stage in my apprenticeship there were still many things that I wasn’t allowed or able to do such as the complex ‘breaking up’ of the larger dead and hung animals. The bigger jobs would be the fore quarters and hind quarters of the steers and cows and the splitting of the pigs and lambs were left to the more experienced butchers at Bosworth’s too. Just before I left they allowed me to bone a leg of beef and I’d also been shown how to make up and string sausages as they pumped out of the skin fed metal tube like sausage toothpaste. Linking the sausages was like knitting with your hands and juggling very slippery sausages in their fresh wet skins. I also remember a lot of products sitting on buckets of brine in the stock fridge.

One of the ‘perks’ of the job was being forced to have lunch with the shop’s owner – the very scary Mrs Brenda Bosworth. She was like a gigantic lump of hairy lard in a shapeless paisley pattern dress with encrusted and stained apron. She always seemed to have rollers in her hair and a fag dangling from her bitter and twisted mouth. Railway Red lipstick graced her livery lips in a fashion that would suggest that she had very recently bitten the head off a terrifed chicken. So far in my teenage life she was the only woman I had seen with a moustache – like Hitler’s.

So anyway, all of us butchers would reluctantly converge in her grubby pre war style kitchen (she lived behind the shop) on a Thursday dinner and she would have cooked a lunch for us. All we had to do was eat it and wash up afterwards. It counted as part of one’s wages. It wasn’t a treat by any means. Usually it was shoulder of lamb, a mound of mashed potatoes and peas. One time the cooked meat had a silvery green tinge to it and smelt off but we still felt obliged to eat it.

Whilst eating, her Airedale dog, Patch, would sit and salivate by our knees and after soaking our shoes and legs in doggy drool the poor creature would be reprimanded by a shrieking Mrs B with an ear splitting “PATCH DOWN!” She was so loud that not only would Patch jump but all us blokes leapt up and the pot duck formation on the wall would move forward a notch. Not exactly a relaxed atmosphere for a meal. Her kitchen reeked of Capstan cigarette smoke and seemed a bit unsavoury with the bowls of congealed dog food by the foot of the gas cooker. The grey meat was a wonderful attraction for a disco of flies dancing about the surface of its contents.

Looking back it all seems to be from another old –fashioned era populated by domineering characters quite cartoon-like in their remembering such as Mrs B and her constant droop of ciggy ash from the glowing cigarette nub threatening to decorate the bacon slicer and condemn the premises as unhygienic. In my daily work I would only see the smoky vision of Mrs Bosworth as she appeared from the hatch of her hovel twice a week to demand a cut of meat from Alan the manager. She also had an odious brother who lived on the High Street who appeared very regularly ‘on the scrounge’ like the poor black sheep of the family. He hung around outside the shop in his filthy farmer’s overalls and wellies and the older members of staff like Jack and Alan were encouraged by Mrs B to keep him well away from the shop front. A bucket of icy cold water thrown in his direction would often suffice. This brother Grim would wear an old tweed jacket and fingerless gloves and a greasy cap even in the height of Summer along with his usual wardrobe of cow dung coloured wellies and overalls. He stunk very much of a fetid urinal on a hot day, with an extra bouquet of ancient sweat, both of the groin and the hairy underarm. Nice. On the plus side he did like Eccles cakes.

On a Friday, Mrs B would hand out the brown paper weekly wages envelopes, often blood stained as the money left her miserly grasp and to this day I have no idea if she calculated the tax or national insurance correctly as there was no wage slip. I think I earned seven pounds a week back then.

When I wasn’t involved in my butchering duties I would be ‘helping out’ by attempting to mow the long grass areas at the back of the shop. Part of this garden area was orchard with apple, plum and damson trees and as I tried to negotiate the rough grassy bits with a wretched and temperamental petrol-powered lawn mower I was constantly calling my co-workers in order for them to fire up the mower for me. I just couldn’t get the thing to operate for me. As part of the obstacle course that was my mowing duty Patch the dog had left a fair few white dog poos for me to skirt or spray myself with. The fresher the better.

I wasn’t learning very much during my years at Bosworths so to their great surprise I upped sticks and got a proper apprenticeship at Dewhurst the Butchers on Sadler Gate in Derby. More adventures in the meat trade will follow in a day or two.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

It's weird but....

It's weird but ... I was going to do a review on the Nottingham Philpott's branch of take away food emporium on Lower Parliament Street in Nottingham. I went there yesterday on a rainy wet Monday morning and sat with my cup of tea watching a few people out on the street pass by in the downpour, their reflections shimmering forward of them on the wet pavement. Although the establishment is quite large I found it strangely uninspiring and empty of character. I so wanted to say something nice about it but essentially it came across as void of character and bland.

Today however, I went to get a simple loaf of bread to eat with a pan of home made chicken soup I had made from the carcase and part remainder meat of a roasted chicken I cooked for a meal yesterday. A pretty normal excursion along the street in my village to Bexon's the bakers turned into quite an adventure of history and food provenance.

Waiting to be served I noticed some polony in the deli section which reminded me of my years as a butcher so I went over to have a look. It was then that I spied a big circle of French brie from Le Maubert in Brittany. Curious about the thistle emblem, I got into a very pleasant conversation with the owner and we ended up discussing the Auld Scottish /French Alliance and the friendship between the people of Gascony and England and all manner of Anglo-French history and it turned out we are both called Philip and both used to be butchers in the past! And that was just from buying a loaf of bread. Life can be very interesting sometimes. We never did find out about the thistle symbol.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Dandelion leaves anyone?

I bought a book today (Grown in Britain Cookbook) published by Dorling Kindersley about British grown/reared foods and in it found the fact that one can eat dandelion leaves as part of a salad. I have plenty of these in my back yard so I thought I would give them a try. It also made me investigate what other herbs (herbes for you France based folk) I have in the small garden space in my rented house and garden. On recommendation I let the leaves soak in some warm water for 15 minutes and they tasted bitter but interesting and they were totally free. They had been in my back yard for years and I had no idea I could eat them.


I also have some rosemary, oregano and thyme as well as two varieties of mint to choose from.

Sometimes it is just great to sniff them in the early evening when their scent seems the most aromatic.

sniff the oregano

What particularly do you love in foods?

Excerpt from Christina Rossetti’s poem Goblin Market.

Morning and Evening
Maids heard the goblins cry:
‘Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy:
Apples and quinces,
Lemons and oranges,
Plump unpecked cherries,
Melons and raspberries,
Bloom-down-cheeked peaches,
Swart-headed mulberries,
Wild free-born cranberries,
Crab-apples, dewberries,
Pine-apples, blackberries,
Apricots, strawberries:-
All ripe together
In summer weather, -
Morns that pass by,
Fair eves that fly:
Come buy, come buy:
Our grapes fresh from the vine,
Pomegranates full and fine,
Dates and sharp bullaces,
Rare pears and greengages,
Damsons and bilberries,
Taste them and try:
Currants and gooseberries,
Bright-fire-like barberries,
Figs to fill your mouth,
Citrons from the South,
Sweet to tongue, and sound to eye,
Come buy, come buy’

Re-reading this classic poem by Christina Rossetti I am inspired today to consider a few of my favourite foods and to share these with you all.

I love most olives, marinated and plain.
I love mozzarella and tomatoes drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and fresh basil leaves.
I love black pudding and roast potatoes in rosemary.
I love the smell and taste of roast chicken.
I love roast leg of lamb and fresh minted new potatoes with garden peas.
I love Yorkshire pudding and Bakewell pudding too.
I love cured sausage from the South of France. That musty smell has me drooling.
I love creamy brie and most other cheeses.
I love the taste of a crisp apple.
I love tarte citron.
I love a fresh salad.
I love vine tomatoes, crisp celery and spring onions, all dipped in salt.

What particularly do you love in foods?

Friday, 24 April 2009

Wolfing down the cat food

No I haven't finally lost it and started a diet of mice, cat food and a bit of grass. I just wanted to explain my absence this week with my regular foodie blogs you all enjoy. I have been cat sitting for my absent neighbours for the last almost two weeks and enjoy their feline company and feeding and fussing them. They live in their own house and I have a key. In terms of their habits the two cats, Harris and Soufie, are reasonably predictable. Except when one goes missing for two days!

Harris had his breakfast on Wednesday morning and then went walk about. He was missing for two days and finally turned up on my garden path at 6am this morning (Friday). All that time he was missing I have been out of my mind with worry what might have happened to him and have hardly slept for two nights never mind thought about blogging or even eating that much myself.

Anyway, I enjoyed seeing his sweet little face again and hearing him chomping away at his bowl of cat food with jelly. Wherever he had been he was very hungry this morning. At one point he turned his head round and looked at me watching him. I had tears of joy rolling down my face. Welcome back Harris and boy that cat food looks good. Move over. Chomp, purr, chomp purr.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Cafe on the corner

I have a cafe/deli literally across the road from me that could have been named after me. I am named Phil Lowe, the deli is called Philo's. It is so close that I rarely go in. I see little point in spending extra money on a posh coffee when I can make a nice mug of (growly voice over) Carte Noire a la maison. But yesterday, I took some time to chill after a very contentious moment or five with the Nottingham County Council and Jobseekers folk and enjoyed some people watching and the simple fact that someone would serve me and I could be valued as a customer and as a person.

Sometimes you just need that. Gradually the tension that had built up in my neck and shoulders evaporated and the coffee was very good. They do some lovely food and business lunches to go but for now all that matters is me having a chance to relax after a stressful morning. No one hassling me and being treated like a human being, that's all I wanted and got Philo's staff got it perfectly right. Merci.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Yesterday I decided to get out of Nottingham and took the London bound train as far as the city of Leicester (pronounced Lester). You are lucky I didn’t go to the town of Loughborough (pronounced Luff burra – not looga ba rooga or lowth bo ruff)!

I wanted to visit the open market and experience the atmosphere of a real shouty market with atmosphere and characters and great fresh vegetables and fruit on offer and who knows – maybe even a fish market and butchers stalls.

Leicester is about half an hour away from Nottingham on the high speed train and I hadn’t been there for about 10 years and hoped and prayed that the market was still in place in the centre of the city. Thankfully for the purpose of telling my story and for the citizens of Leicester, it was.

I arrived in town about 10am and from the railway station I went past the Thomas Cook statue, through an underpass that smelt of stale wee and onwards down Granby Street towards the centre of town. In a previous job I used to come to Leicester quite often and got used to places that I could utilise if I got ‘caught short’ – English expression for needing the toilet. The posh Radisson owned Granby hotel was one of those places and they have nice loos on the ground floor. There are so many folk coming and going in hotels that generally the staff never notice people using their facilities. They have some pretty stained glass windows in there too. Anyway, moving on.

After my diversion at the Granby hotel I went for a look at the impressive new theatre space Leicester now has. The Leicester Haymarket Theatre is now closed and the city has a very modern new theatre called The Curve. Apparently you can see the backstage workings of shows from outside which gives a whole new meaning to the notion of company transparency.

Five minutes walk away in the centre of Leicester was the Leicester Market and after taking a few photos around The Curve area I trotted off to see what I could experience in the real time theatre of the street market on a Saturday morning.

This would have been about 10.30am and the market was hotting up with traders selling their goods. With all this foodie writing I often find myself going back to my childhood memories and this trip was no different. The good natured banter of the stall holders calling out and the smells and the colours of the fruit and vegetables all reminded me of my years as a young boy going round the sadly missed Open Market near Derby Bus Station with my mum and granny in the 1960s. Of course, I was a lot shorter then but from my child’s vantage point I do recall the thrill and bustle of those visits and me mum in her headscarf with horse images on. Bet my dad bought her that, he liked the horse races and a bet at the bookies.

On this occasion I busied myself with taking some sneaky photographs of the stalls and the people traffic and spoke to a young black guy called Ruben who explained to me what the vegetables were on his stand. He had plantain and sweet potatoes and lots of other chunky looking root vegetables.

One my way round I noticed with great glee that Leicester had a real fish market and I quickened my walking pace until I found the entrance near to Market Place South. It was fabulous to discover that there were several stalls selling fish and seafoods and three or four busy butchers’ stalls. There was a tripe stall and one of the fishmongers had a few large portions of dark red/purple venison as well as some wild rabbits on offer with their livers displayed.

I wasn’t going to buy anything because of carrying things around all day and through my efforts to save some money but I was tempted to buy a rabbit for £3.99. I got them to chop it up and bag it up well so that the bloody juices didn’t mess up my bag. I got so excited at the thought of making a rabbit stew with prunes and red wine when I got home that, after taking lots more photos in quick succession around the market and shopping streets, I made my way back to the railway station. I just managed to get the 11.54am train back to Nottingham and I was back home for 1pm. Out came the kitchen knives and vegetables and I was chopping away like a man possessed to make my rabbit stew with prunes. I made enough for at least three meals and got a bit carried away with the red merlot wine. One glass for me, one for the stew. On with some French music and I was in some culinary heaven. Even the sun had come out.

A great day out at the Leicester Market and I can still hear those ungrammatically correct truncated cries of “Two for £1.20 strawberries!” “Fifteen Satsumas a pound!” “Best nanas!” “Two pound a mushrooms a pound” “How ‘bout these? Best bananas!” “Come on now!” “Oy mate, are you tekking photos!? Tek one a me!”

I really wish that we had a market like Leicester’s Award winning market in Nottingham. I might go back for the continental market in early May.

There are some more pictures of my day, wot ah was tekkin’, available here. Enjoy.

By the way, the stall holders seemed very keen to hear about this blog and more than happy for me to take pictures of their produce.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Only spent a pound so far

As a follow up on the last post (Love Food -hate waste) I wanted to report that I have been delighted with my attempts to follow this stringent regime. The only thing I have purchased in the last three days- food wise- is a bag of new potatoes for £1. Otherwise I have been using up things in my cupboards and fridge/freezer.

For one meal I used one of my mackerel defrosted from the freezer and some new potatoes roasted with a sprinkling of fresh rosemary from the garden. The mackerel was flavoured with fresh lemon juice and chopped chillies. I also made a starter from some mozzarella and sliced tomatoes with thin sliced spring onions and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar and olive oil. Both the fish and roast potatoes were cooked in sunflower oil (par boiled the new potatoes first). Lastly i added a few garlic bulbs for the final five minutes of cooking time. just enough to brown them.

For yesterday's evening meal I rescued some items from the fridge and enjoyed a salad of pork salami, prosciutto, wild rocket leaves (rocolla) with green beans and sliced cucumber and tomatoes. Some delicious pungent and melty pieces of Roquefort cheese got sprinkled on top and it all tasted darned good as a light salad.

My breakfasts have been smoked bacon, fried egg and baked beans and one day I made a bulk load of Madeleine cakes which are great to nibble throughout the day and good for breakfast time. I even gave one to the postman as he delivered my letters!

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Love Food hate waste

Last week at an event on Nottingham’s Market Square I picked up some information about the amount of food we all are capable of wasting here in the UK and was disturbed to see that the amount was one third of what we buy. An average household throws away £420 worth of food a year:

This website has got some great tips and recipes to help reduce food waste.

I did an experiment yesterday to see how much food I actually had in my home and how long it would last me. I got an exercise book and wrote everything down as a big list. With a few fresh vegetables and fruit additions I found I had got enough food to feed me at home (I’m single) for more than a month. I am going to make a real effort not to go to the rather convenient supermarket and other village shops until the majority of my food is eaten. I am generally too much in the habit of nipping out for something else from the Co-op supermarket when there is actually food in my cupboards or fridge/freezer just because I fancy something particular. Here’s to me cutting down my own food waste and saving some cash.

Actually, on a lighter note, one thing I don’t do as a divorced man that we used to do when I was married is build up a vast collection of tubes of tomato purée. We seemed to do that every shopping trip we did! We never seemed to remember that there were several in the cupboard already!

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Who are your favourite cooks?

I like Rick Stein for his passions about fish and for promoting British Food heroes; Hugh Fearnley -Whittingstall for his his honesty about the origins of food and for championing organic produce; The two Hairy Bikers for making cooking fun; Nigella for making cookery sexy.

Who are your favourite cooks and why?

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Tea, Green Drops and Moonsquirters at Nottingham Castle

Moonsquirters – does that mean anything to you? Well, before I went up to Nottingham Castle’s ‘Cafe at the Castle’ and for a nose around the museum and galleries there I had no idea either.
This was last Wednesday and I thought I would take advantage of admission being free for Nottingham folk on Wednesdays. It’s a while since I’ve been up to our major tourist attraction and I remembered that they had a tea shop/café to investigate so off I went.

The style of this piece will make sense as you continue to read. Reach for your inner child here. It’s story telling time.

The first person I encountered was Mr Crusty Jobsworth. Mr Jobsworth is one of the guardians of the castle and he likes to dress in a crumpled blue blazer and a dusty hat. He has sly quizzical eyes that slither from side to side as he makes sure everyone has paid to come into his magic kingdom. He would like to be the owner of the magic kingdom with a castle on the hill - but isn’t. The daffodils and nice floral arrangements would have more chance than him and at least they were bright and jolly. Unlike Crusty Jobsworth.

Mr Crusty Jobsworth wanted to know if I was a citizen of Nottingham. I am. He wanted proof. I said “Ey up me duck”. This wasn’t proof enough. I said I liked Robin Hood. Mr Jobsworth looked annoyed. I was a time waster and probably from Derby. He may have to throw me out.
He challenged me to show him proof. I got out my astonishing, money saving, colourful, plastic, cash saver, yellow zone, 28 day Trent Barton bus pass. Mr Jobsworth’s eyes snaked suspiciously over the card. His job was severely at stake here if he let me in and I turned out to be an impostor. Minutes passed by – as did several paying tourists. The air smelt of mown grass. Time stood still.

“This might be a bus pass from outside the walls of fair Nottingham!” he said. “I may have to fetch the Sheriff.” Actually, I lie. He didn’t say those exact words – but the threat was certainly there lingering in the blackened cobwebs of his mind. Thinking back, I do believe that there was a humungous spider inside his hat controlling his movements and whispering dark things to him. Then came the final challenge or I was out the gate, n’er to return.

Like something from the wizard scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Crusty Jobsworth spake thus: “What … is …your… postcode!?” I had a fraction of a second to answer.
I got it right! I was local! I am resident in Nottinghamshire! I had passed the first test. I was in. Crusty Jobsworth was a beaten man. When I looked back on my way up the hill he was gone! Had the spider eaten him alive? No time to think about such things. I needed tea and green drops and Moonsquirters. What?

As I got to the castle museum entrance I saw a big sign advertising a touring exhibition for fans of the children’s writer and illustrator, Lauren Child. Not having kids myself I wasn’t overly aware of her but being the big kid I am I felt compelled to visit the event upstairs situated in three of the side galleries. It was great and all the little tots with their mums and some dads were having a wonderfully creative time with the activities on offer.
I now know all about Charlie and Lola, Clarice Bean, That Pesky Rat and Hubert Horatio Bartie Bobton Trent. According to the flyer you could buy Charlie and Lola books from the souvenir shop too and eat themed delights in the café. As part of the exhibition there was a wall full of imaginative images and words telling you about the writer and her inspirations as well as her own childhood. Totally over excited it was time to grab a cuppa in the cafe.

Well, at the time I was there (about 10.30am) there weren’t many families bothered about the themed delights on offer in the café but I enjoyed my pot of tea as it rained outside. As you can see from the photo above the interior decoration of the café space is stylishly arty and there is generally some good food on offer. The soup of the day was courgette and mint with a crusty bread roll (no relation to Mr Crusty Jobsworth, I imagine) and looking at the menu on the table I was impressed with some of the offerings.

It all seemed reasonably priced with dearest item only being £5. There was a good variety of drinks hot and cold including traditionally fermented drinks botanically brewed from Fentimans. They do Castle Museum Cream teas – a large fruit scone with strawberry jam with clotted cream and a pot of tea for one for four quid.

Brunch dishes included an oven toasted English Muffin served with a choice of smoked back bacon and poached egg; Cumberland sausage with mushrooms and vine ripened tomatoes or poached eggs with mushrooms and vine ripened tomatoes.

Home made light lunches incorporated:

Spring vegetable terrine served with mixed leaves and chunky bread.

Warm mozzarella, tomato and basil with tomato pesto on a puff pastry tart.

Pan seared salmon with crushed sea salt and black pepper crust served with sautéed potatoes and seasonable vegetables.

Homemade meatballs in tomato sauce in pesto mash.

You could also get a variety of organic baguette and ciabatta sandwiches and home made cakes.

It all looked rather nice and thankfully not a Robin Hood burger or Friar Tuck fries in sight. I think I’ll be back.

The museum and gallery spaces were certainly worth a look around and I enjoyed the military uniforms from the Crimean Wars (Nottinghamshire Regiments) and other eras up the present day soldiers uniforms and special equipment. On a more aesthetic level I liked the Wedgewood collection very much, especially these stunning teapots. I can’t really imagine them being used in a practical sense though.

'Green Drops and Moonsquirters - The Utterly imaginative world of Lauren Child.' is on at the Castle Museum in Nottingham until 26th April.

Friday, 10 April 2009

No eels!? A shocking story for Easter

From the queues at the two fishmongers in Nottingham’s Victoria Market Thursday lunchtime I guess that Good Friday is a traditional day for the eating of fish. The people in the queues were 99% Jamaican and red snapper seemed to going especially well. One lady before me bought £25 worth of fishy products! I, on the other hand came away with some pilchards and three lovely mackerels. It wasn’t what I really craved though and my lack of success made me look into fresh fish and shellfish buying in the present day a bit closer.

Being a huge fan of Rick Stein and in particular his French Odyssey programme which I have on dvd and have watched endlessly and never seem to tire of, I wanted to buy some river caught eels (les anguilles) to cook simply sautéed with a persillade. They looked easy to cook and I felt that I would be being a bit adventurous. I must admit I am a bit of a late comer to the delights of shellfish and anything fishy other than cod, haddock or trout to eat. I had crab and cockles as a kid but certainly not of late. As for lobster, I don’t recall ever eating that. I have only recently just got into eating mussels and now I love them.

So, in going to the fishmongers, as described, I just assumed they would have eel amongst their selections on offer. They had conger eel but it wasn’t what I was after. I wanted the slimmer eels that inhabit rivers. I was gutted as I was so keen to be flouring up the eel and cooking them in a frying pan with butter, garlic and flat leafed parsley.

Just before writing this up I checked in the yellow pages for Nottingham, a fair sized city with its environs, and was shocked to see four (yes four!) fishmongers listed and that included the two in the shopping centre. I know the larger supermarkets have selections of the most popular fishes and mussels and scallops and such, but my God. Just four fishmongers. That’s so sad.

Next week I am going to try to get some eel from the Mordue Fishmongers in West Bridgford, failing that try the Farmers Markets. I’ll let you know how I got on.

Have a Happy Easter.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Bruce Lee and Emmanuelle order a beef curry

This is my 100th blog post and to celebrate I am going to write about my experience of the Chinese takeaways in my life. Not Chinese restaurants mind you, just the takeaway sector for now.

My first experience of eating Chinese takeaway food was in the mid to late 1970s when I lived on a large council housing estate near Derby with my Dad and Step-Mum and siblings. I would have been in my late teens, possibly even early twenties. I used to love going to the cinema and walking back home through the estate of an evening. En route, with my head full of Bruce Lee and Emmanuelle films, I got into the habit of calling into the new Chinese takeaway on the shopping precinct for some exotic food to go. Probably did a few high kicks at lamposts along the way too.

By this stage in my life I had been encouraged to cook a bit at home, mainly beans on toast and those dreadful Vesta Curry meals – which I actually liked at the time. I used to be a bit more adventurous when I went camping with the scouts and even got my Camp Cook badge! Yeah, yeah, very funny - Camp Cook – I can hear all the jokes lining up. I know you naughty readers out there. Anyway I digress. You need to know the big deal about me trying Chinese food for the first time. It wasn't easy.

My Dad was not a one for exotic foods in the house and would kick off if anything he would call ‘foreign muck’ came in our household. Try and bring anything spicy or curry based into the back kitchen of my parents’ home and woe betide you. So, here’s what I had to do to get my takeaway curry fix without incurring the wrath of Dad.

As I said, I loved my cinema visits as a working teenager and still lived at home until my mid-twenties. Of course I would get well fed at home but I was a growing lad and called in at the Golden Dragon Chinese takeaway in Chaddesden for my exotic treat. I was probably very predictable as a customer because every time I would order a beef curry and plain boiled rice and perhaps a banana fritter. The takeaway would provide me with a plastic spoon. On leaving the premises I would continue to walk home, about a mile, eating as I went. First I would eat all the rice in the silver tray then, carefully juggling the hot curry dish around I would enthusiastically scoff the beef curry. I remember it being far superior to the ‘Vesta Curry for one’ I would concoct at home! Avant? Yes, really. The beef was very tender and there would be lots of onions in the sauce and dish. The rice was fluffy and glow-in-the-dark white.

I expect some of the meal ended up sloshed on my clothes but I was in curry heaven. I would dispose of the containers on the way home in a rubbish bin on the street. Doubtless I would sound olfactory alarm bells in my Dad’s very hairy nostrils (out bad thought!) and be moaned at for bringing the curry ‘stench’ into our haven of culinary tolerance. Hey we are talking about the 1970s here. All I cared about was Bruce Lee, Sylvia Kristel, Marie Osmond, brooding in my bedroom and collecting film soundtracks.

I expect nowadays the takeaway menus are more sophisticated and have much more choice. I picked up a menu from the Happy Garden Cantonese and Chinese takeaway in my village for a birthday celebration I had with my friends Rick and Janette late February and there are over 160 dishes on offer plus extras. Back in the 1970s I am sure I would not have been offered Satay, Kung Po, Szechuan, Crispy seaweed, Char Siu, or Foo Yung dishes. What fun it would be to go back in time and ask for some straw mushrooms and baby young corn as an extra portion to my Beef Curry and plain boiled rice!

I have to say ‘sorry’ to all my readers based in France as I believe that you don’t have Chinese takeaways or Indian takeaways there. I expect that you are all salivating now. Do say if I’m wrong. On both counts.

To taunt you further, my current faves are chicken and sweet corn soup, beef with green peppers and black bean sauce (or ginger), egg fried rice and yes I still love those banana fritters. I am happy try most things actually. If I am cooking at home I really like Chinese vegetables in a stir fry and roast belly pork studded with cloves. Hmmm. Great.

So, that was my 100th posting and though straying slightly from the café/coffee shop general theme of my blog, it is great to share these food based experiences with you all and I will enjoy hearing about your own experiences and reactions through your comments. By the way, number 100 on the Happy Garden menu is Beef with Oyster sauce. Yummy!

Prawn cracker anyone?

PS: My dear old Dad passed away a few years ago but my step Mum now has a real taste for exotic foods like Chinese dishes and Thai food since my younger brother encouraged her to try some. How times and people change.

PPS: There are still some prawn crackers left – come on, I’m not throwing them all out.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Tea and fruitcake with Lord Byron

No the 'fruitcake' of the title doesn't refer to me. Read on:

Inspired by the blogger, French Fancy, and her recent Byron based post I went off on the Mansfield bound Pronto bus yesterday to Newstead Abbey in order to write about their tea rooms and how it was to have a fun half day out to Lord Byron’s ancestral home.

The journey from the Nottingham city centre Victoria bus station takes about half an hour and the buses come back to Nottingham every fifteen minutes. I was quite amazed at that frequency and thought that I would be stranded for a couple of hours whilst I waited forlornly for a return bus. Once the bus arrived at the main gates I paid my entrance fee to a very chatty young woman and headed off down the main drive (about a mile and a half long) to the actual Abbey and home itself.

The weather was a bit grey looking but it was pleasant enough strolling through the countryside. There were woods and bracken either side of the road and massive rhododendron bushes not yet in flower. The air was filled with the songs and calls of thrushes and wood pigeons, blackbirds and wrens; all chattering delightfully away in the trees. I felt like I was back in the Boy Scouts taking a nice hike in the country, sans Kendal Mint cake, an ordinance survey map and a compass. At one point I thought I saw a distant fox pause in the road and then scarper into the undergrowth. I also stopped further along and stood very still as a grey squirrel dodged about in the crisp fallen leaves. As soon as I moved again it shot up a tree.

I had been to this location before a few times in the past but that was in a car and distances can be deceptive when driving compared to walking the self same distance. So when I eventually did arrive at the West Front of Newstead Abbey I was ready for a brief wander around the formal gardens and my favourite, the Japanese Gardens. The gardens and parkland at Newstead encompasses more than 300 acres. I certainly didn’t intend to cover all of that in half a day and I was keen to return soon for a cuppa with Lord Byron.

I wasn’t alone in my adventures as their were a few families with young children taking part in the Easter Egg hunt and later on a tour bus full of German speaking people arrived all beaming and laden with cameras. The peacocks that are resident at Newstead were letting out their shrill cries periodically but alas not one showed the display of feathers that look so spectacular. I probably spent an hour walking slowly through the gardens and taking photographs and then went back to the house for a cuppa and piece of cake. Just before I went there I stopped at a stone rotunda by the maze and read Byron’s poetic elegy to his Newfoundland dog Boatswain or Bos’un. It was full of praise for the dog’s ceaseless love and faithfulness to man and yet full of distain for humankind for a variety of bad qualities inherent in our nature.

The indoors teashop was modern and pretty full when I arrived but the courtyard outside was empty apart from one member of staff phoning her boyfriend. I ordered myself a pot of Earl Grey and had a nice bit of fruit cake. The cake was sticky and moist and as fruit cakes go – pretty fruity.

As I sat drinking my tea and taking this silly picture, a young boy (about twelve years old) and his mum and dad and another lady in her forties all arrived in the courtyard. The mum to (my name for him) Childe Harold, a precocious little shit if there ever was one, was asking the boy if he wanted a drink. Childe Harold craned his neck towards his mother and spat out an elongated version of the word “No” to her. Like he had told her this a thousand times before and now she was just getting on his nerves.The look on his pale face was one of utter distain for his long suffering mother.

A few minutes later he was asked again whether he was sure he didn’t want a drink. This time the wan Childe Harold turned on his best Margaret Thatcher withering look and actually said (to his mother no-less) “What part of No don’t you understand?” Now I am not a violent man but I would have killed the little f*cker! His mother just went. “OK, I only asked.” Childe Harold went into a dark eyed mardy sulk and sat slumped in his metal garden furniture chair. I finished my tea and went for a tour around the house.

It was very impressive and probably rather spooky in the darkness of night There was even an opportunity to try on some replicas of Lord Byron’s romantic clothes if one wanted. Er, no I didn’t but I did read some poetry in the courtyard.

I didn’t take in a lot about the history but did feel inspired to read further about Byron’s life and that of the Romantics at a future juncture. I was just enjoying the stroll and the opportunity to take some nice photos. You can see my day’s photography efforts on this link - Newstead Abbey

After my tour around the house I went back around some of the gardens and the lake and spent a short while sitting chatting encouragingly to a peacock and hoping it was going to fan out its tail for me and my every ready camera. It didn’t, so I nipped to the loo and made my way slowly back up the long curving drive to the bus stop on Mansfield Road. On the way there was a lovely smell of wood smoke and once again I was transported back to my Scouting days and camping and cooking outdoors on an altar fire at Drum Hill in Derbyshire.

Did I ever see the very rude Childe Harold again? I believe he is now buried alive in a pit full of vipers and red ants. Not saying where. (Evil laugh!)

For a reasonably cheap day out in historical Nottinghamshire I would definitely recommend a visit to Newstead Abbey. I went on a normal Monday but I imagine it can get quite busy at the Weekend. For more info see

Monday, 6 April 2009

Hey! I'm blog of the week!

My friend and fellow blogger Janette has named me her 'blog of the week'. How nice is that?

If you want to read the post itself go to

Janette's blog is a great read in itself as she writes about her self imposed challenge to do 40 adventurous things before she is 40. Thanks again Janette for your glowing report on my blog and me as a person.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

A Sunday treat for you.

It’s a lovely sunny day today and almost time to get the BBQ out of the shed. As well as writing about food, learning about and eating it I can often be found photographing food and drink items at home or whilst out shopping here in the UK or abroad. I just love the flavours, colours and textures and sometimes the tempting aromas.

For a treat today I want to show you all my tempting food photos on my flickr site. Have a look at them HERE A lot of them are things that I love to prepare and eat in my own kitchen. I would to love hear what you think of them all, or any particular ones that appeal to you.

Please be aware that all the photos are copyright © Phil Lowe.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

No time for lunch? Crisp crazy?

'When we are working there isn't always time to stop and have a proper lunch so sometimes a quickly eaten packet of crisps is all I have until the evening.'

How true do you think statment is? Do you eat at work, at your desk? Do you make sandwiches or something nice to eat at lunch to save money or get to eat food you actually like? Do you eat at a staff canteen? How do you cope with the lunchtime craving/need for food? Maybe you don't eat at all and just have a cigarette and more coffee? Do you get a proper lunch hour away from the work envirionment?

In my previous job I did spend a lot of money over the years in the staff canteen and the food was generally of a good standard. I always meant to save money by taking in lunch but rarely did. Due to work stresses I would also go out to a local cafe - like Lee Roseys - and have a cup of Earl Grey tea and one of their nutrious sandwiches and watch the world go by for half an hour.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Get your elbows off the table!

When I was a young child growing up in the 1960 and 70s I would have to share a cramped dinner table at meal times with my Mum, Dad and two sisters and a smaller baby brother.

The table manners we were taught seemed draconian at the time, mainly with Dad acting as if he were in the army still. Whatever we did, especially regarding personal hygiene, there would be a line up type inspection.I wondered if any of you had similar 'rules/orders' you were forced to obey. I must say that it didn't make mealtimes very enjoyable although Mum's food was always nice and plentiful. From the ones that I can remember, here's a list of our family rules at dinner.

  • No-one was allowed to start eating before everyone was seated.
    Always wash your hands before meals and get them inspected.
    Interestingly, I don't recall us saying 'grace' before eating.
    Elbows on the table was a definite no no.
    No eating with your mouth open and exposing the food being chewed.
    You had to eat all your dinner or you didn't get a pudding or sweet.
    No playing with your food - we kids liked to build mashed potato houses.
    No talking at the table except to ask politely for something to be passed.
    No child could leave the table until the others kids had finished eating.
    Washing the pots and pans was called 'doing the chores'. Oh joy!
    The ritual of us kids washing up after meals caused huge family rows.
    We had to eat properly with a knife and fork - rarely the fingers.
    Slurping soup was a heinous crime, punishable by death by moaning.
    If we had bread and butter the butter had to be spread really thinly.
    We could never lick a knife or fork or put a knife in your mouth.
    Weirdly, we weren't allowed to have a drink at the table, just food.
    If peas dropped from your fork on the table or floor you would get told off. Big time.
    A huge fuss was made if you soiled the tablecloth with food or gravy, even if it was just a small splash.
    Farting at the table was only allowed at Christmas with guests around.

    I'm sure that there were more rules and regulations in the parental attempts at teaching us good table manners. Strangers on holidays would always comment on what nice - well behaved children we were. More like terrified of doing anything wrong I think. lol
I would love to hear about your experiences from childhood or those with children nowadays.