Posts Tagged With: English food

Like a rolling stone…

"See the world before you get hitched, young man!"

‘Hitch around the world before you get hitched, young man!’ Yes, grandad.

I don’t believe in forever. Forever only happens in fairy tales and my life is not a fairy tale, at least when I’m sober. Nothing lasts forever – not even love. When the vicar reads the marriage vows and seals the happy couple’s fate by making them repeat the words ’till death us do part’ I always feel a sense of wonder at the naivety of such a sentiment. The romantic part about romantic love is precisely that it doesn’t last forever: that’s what makes it tragic and yet irresistible. Time – that old chestnut – does not allow us to keep other people as our ‘possessions’; we are all essentially free-spirits.

Are you sure, kiddies, that you'll still feel the same 40 years from now?

Are you sure, kiddies, that you’ll still feel the same 40 years from now?

Not that I have been to many weddings. The shocking truth is that I have never been to one in my life, unless, that is, you count my own. You see, I was in my 20s in the 1970s at a time when youngsters prided themselves on being unconventional. Lovers were things that came and went like the seasons, part of the emotional journey from adolescence to adulthood. Getting married was seriously square. The important lesson I learned from promiscuity (yikes! – even the word sounds daring these days) is that finding your one-and-only precious ‘soul mate’ is a myth. We all have many soul mates dotted around the world; the tragedy is that we never get to meet them, especially if we tie ourselves to one person from the off.

These days we seem to have reverted to a kind of 1950s-style conventionality, when the aim of your early 20s is to find Mr or Mrs Right, get hitched and start planning babies. I have noticed that many of my former students in England, still in their early 20s, are proudly posting their marriage commitments on Facebook. Here in Porto Alegre, if anything, it’s even worse. Couples meet in the school yard and stay glued together until they march down the aisle 10 years later: ‘one life, one love’ seems to be their motto.

Hey - your soul mate is waiting for you in Buenos Aires...

Hey – your soul mate is waiting for you in Buenos Aires…

Whatever happened to the brilliant idea of seeing the world before you settle down? Surely your 20s are the decade for getting as much life experience as possible, for being a rolling stone that gathers no moss. This learning curve naturally includes having a number of relationships as you navigate your way around the globe, finding love but eventually moving on. Travel adventures are just that: adventures – the very definition of the word implies something that doesn’t last.

Hence, From Bradford to Brazil is, was and always has been an adventure, not a permanent state of affairs – that would have taken all the fun out of it. The glorious state of Rio Grande do Sul is perfect for Gauchos, with their extended families, beach houses and rowdy barbecues. Anybody else here feels like an alien, especially foreigners like me. I don’t fit in because there is nowhere to fit me in. In fact, I can think of only three reasons for staying in Porto Alegre indefinitely: 1) having a prestigious, highly-paid job (salaried in a foreign currency); 2) being part of one of those extended families, instantly adopted by having married one of the locals; or 3) being too scared to go back and face the rat race at home.

Eat English cheese with a bottle of good claret and die happy

Eat English cheese with a bottle of good claret and die happy

Inevitably, people ask me why I am contemplating a return to you-know-where.  Of course, I could take the question seriously and answer in a very measured way. I could say, for example, free healthcare, personal safety, established infrastructures, clean fresh-water systems, low cost of living, and so on. I could be boring. But the truth is, it’s the little things that pull me back like a fridge magnet: English sausages, English cheeses, pie and peas with mint sauce, watching Bradford City at Valley Parade and having a mucky curry afterwards, public libraries, record shops, charity shops, The Guardian, BBC Radio 4central heating (yes, you heard me right)…the list goes on.

Best view in the world! Bradford seen from the Kop at Valley Parade

Best view in the world? Bradford seen from the Spion Kop at Valley Parade

Unfortunately, back in Blighty, I will have to put up with English people who don’t hug and kiss like Brazilians. That will be tough. And I’ll probably have to change the name of the blog – From Bradford to Brazil will have to become something like From Porto Alegre to Pontefract. As for my new life, like the blog itself, I will just have to make it up as I go along. But then life is a series of wondrous adventures – you never know who or what is round the corner on the B 69 to Dewsbury. As they warn me every day on the local radio news channel here in Porto Alegre, “Em vinte minutos, tudo pode mudar” (in 20 minutes, everything can change). Watch this space.

Categories: Blighty, Brazil, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

From Brazil to Bradford…and back again

The City Vaults, Bradford - best pint of Black Sheep in Christendom

The City Vaults, Bradford – best pint of Black Sheep in Christendom

Friends, followers, workers of the world – a thousand pardons for my long absence. A man’s best friend – his laptop – was unable to accompany me on my glorious trip back to Blighty. What a journey, what fun, what larks! A Yorkshire bloke returns to London (“the smoke”) and Bradford (“the muck”) after years of hanging out in Rio Grande do Sul? So, what was it like?

Imagine a pudgy white gringo in shorts and flip-flops arriving at the airport wrapped in an old overcoat. You see, it’s baking hot summer in Brazil and freezing foggy winter in little England, so I was torn between the two (the story of my life?). England should be re-named ‘Greyland’, the land of dark clouds, wind and rain. The sun? Forget it. The sun has given up trying to come out in protest against George Osborne, the Tory chancellor who has made Robin Hood spin in his grave so fast that Sherwood Forest almost caught fire.

And so to London. First impression on the tube was a reminder of how smug and superior Londoners can be, as I watched two young bucks with their legs stretched out across the carriage, talking and dissing loudly as if they owned the train. Then on to rich rich Richmond-upon-Thames where I was staying. It’s a very civilized place, lovely really, but the people take absolutely everything for granted as they swish around Waitrose in suede shoes with a trolley full of ready-made meals and bottles of burgundy. Richmond is a cocoon of wealth and privilege. But what hurts most is that I can’t afford to live there!

Mayfair, where they use £50 notes to snort cocaine and the laundryman doesn't wash clothes

Mayfair, where they use £50 notes to snort cocaine and the laundryman doesn’t wash clothes

But Mayfair tops it all. I was sent there by the Brazilian Consulate to get some papers authenticated at vast expense. What I found was a movie set for a Hollywood film about London, complete with Georgian mansions, butlers and supermodels getting into their Bentleys. Absolutely breathtaking. It’s just that there is another side of the glittering coin: you can’t have all this luxury without poverty somewhere else. It was the English imperialist will that exploited the world to bring back the spoils and the evidence is still with us today in Mayfair. Who actually lives there apart from Nigella Lawson, high-class hookers and one or two dodgy bankers?

The Yorkshire Penny Bank in Bradford is now a real ale palace

The Yorkshire Penny Bank in Bradford is now a real ale palace

That’s enough of trendy London – let’s trudge up north for a reality check. Bradford! What a place! What a dump, some might say, but not me. For I had the best pint of bitter (Black Sheep) for years at The City Vaults in the town centre, getting tanked up for the Bradford City game against Swindon. Seriously, you meet a better class of people in the pub on match days. And someone has had the wherewithal to convert the Yorkshire Penny Bank into an alehouse with a glorious high ceiling and huge windows. It was full of Bradford folk supping, laughing and jabbering in that flat, comical, northern twang. I looked at one bloke and thought – that used to be me. But now I’m so far removed that Bradford exists only in inverted commas and everything is shrouded in irony, as if I am watching from behind a screen. Perhaps it’s better that way.

An afternoon jaunt on the last day of the year took us to Hebden Bridge, or “Rizla Country” as some Bradfordians have labelled it. That’s because it was once teeming with ageing hippies (Rizla is a brand of cigarette paper used to roll joints). Now it’s been gentrified; the locals stroll around in oilskin coats, hiking shoes and little round spectacles, greeting each other with hearty guffaws. One of them asked another: “Where’s the action tonight, Rupert?” in a BBC accent. But all in all, Hebden has a cozy, bohemian atmosphere with its street cafes, quaint pubs and bonhomie. Now I’m beginning to sound like a travel brochure. Wonder if there’s any money in travel writing…

Yorkshire's answer to Montparnasse: Hebden Bridge

Yorkshire’s answer to Montparnasse: Hebden Bridge

So here comes the big question: what did I miss about Brazil while propping up the bar in The Shoulder of Mutton? Sunshine for a start. Sunshine that’s actually warm. And my humble little apartment in Porto Alegre filled with old records and speakers, with my cramped jerry-built home cinema and kitchen so small that I sometimes put the Yorkshire puddings in the fridge instead of the oven. What else? Buffet lunches with a vast array of mouth-watering fruits, salads and gooey puddings – all for about £4 ($6.50). Hearing Portuguese and having to rise to the challenge every day of surviving in an alien culture. Not forgetting my lovely Gaucho students who have to put up with my endless monologues about World War I and Bradford City FC.

Ben Darnton and me at Ben's Record Shop in Guildford - a goldmine for vinyl junkies

Ben Darnton and me at Ben’s Record Shop in Guildford – a goldmine for vinyl junkies

Now I’m back in Brazil, what do I miss about old England? Ale, of course. In fact, put me in the Hill Top in Thornton and give me a pint of Wainwrights bitter and I’ll name you as chief benefactor in my will. And food: curries, chapatis, houmous, taramasalata, English mustard, Cheddar cheese, Tesco Finest sausages and mince pies. Also the culture of second-hand and the thrill of digging for gold in record shops and charity shops. Cars travelling at civilised speeds and stopping for you politely at zebra crossings. And all those endless lush green fields that stretch into the distance and make a man like me want to be a romantic poet.

It’s so sad being torn between two countries. I really need to cry. I nearly did listening to a record I brought back with me – Vera Lynn singing I’ll Be Seeing You, which goes like this: ‘I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places that this heart of mine embraces all day through…’ But the tears just wouldn’t come. Now I have a better idea. I’m going to look at my bank statement to see how much dosh I blew on holiday…I’ll soon be blubbering like a monkey with no nuts.

Categories: Blighty, Brazil, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

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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