Oh, to be in England…

England's green and pleasant land...

England’s green and pleasant land…

When you live abroad the past keeps coming back to haunt you. The old country – the place where you were born and grew up – is brushed with a sentimental tint. Sometimes you miss home so badly it hurts. When I lived in Brazil in the 1990s, I was so desperate to go back to England that I made a list of things I felt I couldn’t live without. Now I’m back living in Brazil, I wonder if they have the same magnetic pull they once had? Let me see…

"Two pints of your best bitter, please!"

“Two pints of your best bitter, please!”

Pubs: there is nothing quite like an English pub – that dark, bitter ale served by a freckled gawky barmaid, the quaint atmosphere, the smell of vinegar, the bonhomie, the English language being shouted and mumbled and, up in the corner, cricket on the telly.

Libraries: those quiet, cosy caves filled to the ceiling with books begging to be taken out for free, the shy grey assistants with their dowdy clothes and packed lunches, the sofa by the window where you can plonk down and drift into a delicious snooze.

Fish and Chips: the haddock, the cod, the batter, the salt and vinegar, the sticky-sweet mushy peas, the hot glass counter…But hang on, it’s not just fish and chips I miss, it’s British bangers and English cheeses, lamb chops, marmite, mint sauce and poppadoms…the list is endless.

Grub made in heaven: fish 'n' chips and mushy peas

Grub made in heaven: fish ‘n’ chips and mushy peas

Newspapers: English newspapers are utterly compelling and irresistible. Thoughtful journalism with a good measure of English irony is the perfect fodder for those like me who want to be enlightened but don’t always have time for a weighty tome. It would be so easy to waste one’s life trawling through them every day while London burns – or while the landlord tries to break the door down in a fruitless search for all that back rent you owe him.

Charity shops: Those Pandora’s boxes of broken toys, grubby clothes, thrice-read paperbacks and Phil Collins records litter the high streets of every town; the wealthier the area, the better quality of junk you find within. It would be no exaggeration to say that my cultural identity was formed by the dog-eared LPs and discarded books I discovered at Oxfam and Cancer Research.

You do come across some funny things in charity shops...

“Now that is a big one! I don’t think it’ll fit through my back door”.

Yes it hurts to remember all these things and makes me want to pack up and go home. But surely there must be a few things I don’t miss. Erm, well, yes…

The weather: Oh dear, what a shower! The weather in England is, well, diabolical mostly. As I write, the UK is enjoying a steaming heatwave, but it won’t last; come late September, the old grey army blanket will descend once again to cover the country for another eight months. Nice.

Angry young men prowl the streets of England looking for a hapless victim

Angry young men prowl the streets of England looking for a hapless victim

Yob culture: England suffers from an acute disease called anti-intellectualism. It begins in school where anyone who actually studies is instantly labelled a “swot” and bullied mercilessly. This “proud to be thick” attitude permeates the whole of society, but is most pernicious in the underclass, where young vandals form gangs with the sole purpose of kicking senseless anyone who crosses their path. Delightful.

Town centres: the town centres of England have had all their character bulldozed away to be replaced by soulless shopping centres and baffling traffic systems. It’s as if they have been specially designed by, and for, morons. Lovely.

Just another town centre in 'Greyland'

Just another town centre in ‘Greyland’

You see, England isn’t London. England is Swindon and Scunthorpe: dull and decaying provincial towns where the pubs are boarded up and the people walk around like zombies with cheese-and-onion breath. The British have become cultureless and cynical after years of cheap consumerism. Forget Shakespeare – think Coronation Street.

My adopted home – Porto Alegre – is no paradise, mind you. But I have my compensations. Sometimes I have to remind myself what they are. Let me see…

The people: Brazilians are easy to get to know. It’s a cliché, but the people here are warm and friendly and everything is done with a smile. Unless you get mugged, of course.

Sunshine: When the sun shines the smiles widen and everything seems more bearable. Humans were never meant to live in cold climates. In England bodies are funny white things that stay covered up until it gets dark and you are under a blanket. In Brazil they are bronzed sensuous things that strut about in the open without anyone giggling.

The sun is always shining in Brazil...well, nearly always

The sun is always shining in Brazil…well, nearly always

Respect: As an Englishman I am treated like royalty, a superior being, a prince among the hoi polloi. And in Brazil, learning is respected – everyone seems to be doing a course or studying for a qualification.

Buzz: At 5.30 on a wet Tuesday when the shops close England is as lifeless as a tramp’s vest. On Sundays the gloom stays all day. In Brazil when you go out and about you feel a buzz. It’s partly the sunshine and the happy disposition of the people. Brazilians are noisy and demonstrative and don’t want to go to bed, so everything stays open.

And yet, no matter how much my heart beats for Brazil, my soul lies somewhere at the bottom of a quarry in Yorkshire. So, should I stay in Brazil or boomerang back to England? If I was a millionaire I would split my time between the two, but for now I will have to remain a split personality.

Categories: Blighty, Brazil, Food | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

What’s that funny smell in the kitchen?

Oh, no! My Cornish pasties have exploded!

Oh, no! My Cornish pasties have exploded!

I love cooking – but even after years of practice I am prone to disasters which leave me in a sulk.  I’m the reckless type – the bloke who guesses everything, mixes this with that and makes a big mess. For sheer effort I am probably a peg or two above the average bloke who sticks to 2 or 3 dishes. Let’s put it this way, I reckon I would just about survive on school dinner duty….as long as spotted dick wasn’t on the menu.

Yes, I’ve learnt a few things in the kitchen after making a basinful of mistakes, so for those who may be interested, here’s a few of my observations.

Evelyn Waugh: "Pass the butter, darling!"

Evelyn Waugh: “Pass the butter, darling!”

For me, the 3 most important things in the kitchen are sharp knives, butter and imagination. If you visit a friend and notice their cutlery drawer contains no decent knives, you can be sure they are not bucking for Cordon Bleu. As for butter, I remember Evelyn Waugh recounting a story about the French chef who would walk around the kitchen tasting soups and sauces and shouting “More butter!” Imagination is probably the most important; it’s what you need every day when you open the fridge and see all those sad-looking leftovers.

Most blokes are very proud of their "spag bog"

Most blokes are very proud of their “spag bog”

Most people can cook a few things well. With blokes it tends to be spaghetti Bolognese. But if you want to find out how serious somebody is about cooking, ask them how often they use flour. Flour is the great divider. Making pastry and baking bread and cakes is a sign that you’ve reached the next grade. Pizza is easy if you buy the base, but it’s the base that makes a good pizza. You have to get your hands sticky with flour, water and yeast. Five years it has taken me to get my pizza base right: that’s 5 years of eating dodgy pizza. I can laugh now, but what a lot of suffering for my art! I almost cut my ear off.

Clement Freud's book is inspirational - and very funny

Clement Freud’s book is inspirational – and very funny

The jump from plain “spag bog” man to decent cook probably starts when you find yourself delving into cook books. One of my first influences was the late Clement Freud whose gem of a book Freud on Food I found in a second-hand shop. A witty, down-to-earth chef, Freud  has a pantry-full of tips to help you solve the daily problems of feeding your family. Here’s an example: season two or three fresh chicken breasts, douse them in flour, then sear them on both sides in a frying pan with a splash of hot oil. Then turn the heat down very low and throw in a nice knob of butter. Cover the pan with a lid and let it simmer very gently for 15 minutes or so. What you get is succulent poached chicken that melts in your mouth and a butter sauce you can dribble over the breasts when serving.

Crispy bacon and pancakes...before the flood of syrup!

Crispy bacon and pancakes…before the flood of syrup!

Cooking a good breakfast is another thing most blokes claim to be good at. It usually means a fry-up with lots of frazzle and grease. My favourite breakfast is crispy bacon and pancakes. My pancakes used to be thin and rubbery, but now I try and make them thick and fluffy – the way they serve them in the USA. I use baking powder and yoghurt (buttermilk is better) and keep the batter quite thick, spooning it onto the hot melted butter in the frying pan. Maple syrup costs as much as uranium in Brazil, so I sometimes squeeze a couple of oranges and a dash of lemon into a little pan with a big spoonful of sugar and reduce it down to a syrup. Pancakes and orange sauce – my version of Crêpes Suzette, I suppose. Yummee!

Go on - get your hands sticky! That's if you want real pizza.

Go on – get your hands sticky! That’s if you want real pizza.

As a Yorkshireman, you’d think I was a dab hand at Yorkshire Puddings. Well, I used to think mine were OK, until I told my mother they didn’t always rise. “You’re using too much flour, and it’s got to be plain flour”, she said. “But how do they rise if it’s not self-raising flour?”, I naively asked. “I don’t know”, she said. Then my brother chipped in with, “you need more fat in the tray as well”. Now my Yorkshires usually perform, but not always.

In the old days, I used to keep my fingers crossed after putting something in the oven. But that didn’t work. So now I say a little prayer. I think somebody up there likes me. Sometimes.

Categories: Food | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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