Monday, 5 November 2012

New Series Of MasterChef, The Professionals (or We're All Eating Ready Meals And Watching Food Porn)

M. For MasterChef. No P for Professionals. Who took the P?
"On the hunt for the next culinary superstar - a professional with the talent to cut it in the world's top kitchens."  So says the opening voiceover for this new series of MasterChef The Professionals.  I still hanker for India "I am about to orgasm" Fisher doing the voiceover, but it's not her, it's Sean Pertwee (son of Jon "Worzel Gummidge" Pertwee - I wonder if Sean can swap his heads over?) trying to be her.  Which is peculiar and disconcerting.  We've got our old favourite angry boiled potato Gregg "Greggggg" Wallace though.  But, as usual on Professionals, no John Torode - so no foghorn competitions in the "COOKING DOESN'T GET TOUGHER THAN THIS" stakes.  Which I'll miss, if I'm honest.

First, the soundbite smuggery round-up where they all do the "I will win" shouting much-beloved by programmes such as The Apprentice and X Factor.  It's basically the part where the programme can edit in any bit of a particularly boastful candidate which will embarrass them later on in the show when they cook an upside-down cake the right way up or something (horrors!).  For this first episode, where we don't know the contestants, they just go for out-and-out epic statement braying, such as, "Cooking is my life." No, son, eating is your life. If you just cook and don't eat, you won't get very far. Think on.

As ever, Professional MasterChef is about finding some "serious, serious talent". They want to discover the next "cookery genius".  It's cooking, folks, not brain surgery.  But, anyway, let's suspend our disbelief that anyone gets this earnest about putting ingredients together and applying heat to some of them in different ways and watch them sweat and pant and stress and chop things and drop things and swear under their breaths and generally splice beetroot with fudge sauce and bodge blackcurrants into mackerel.

Unlike A-levels, every year, this competition apparently gets harder, says Monica Galetti (who I like to think of as "not-Michel").

So, what are the would-be chefs doing?  Their invention challenge sees them use ingredients such as gurnard, apples and vanilla to make - well, apple and vanilla gurnard, I guess (there's a reason I'm blogging this, not competing).  Other ingredients include squid, basil, chillies and raisins.  They definitely all go together - I do hope they each use everything #rubshands

The first contestant, James, is a personal chef.  He hunts it, shoots it, fishes it and cooks it. Let's hope he doesn't fuck it (up) too.  He can pluck a pigeon, he can butcher an animal, he wants to take it all the way.  I hope he's not talking about the pigeon still #shudder

The next contestant is Danish-born Fife-dweller Morten. Calm down, ladies, he's not Mr Harket.  And, yes, he probably has had that comparison in the past.  He says, "If you just play safe, you won't go anywhere."  Can you tell what it is yet?  #wobbleboard  Hmm, it's creamed vanilla apples with fish.  Er, yum?

He's making a bowl of green stuff (I suspect basil plays a part in this - I am good at this ingredient Sherlocking - oh, and they said "basil" too and I listened. It's chilli and basil salsa).  And potato gnocchi.  But no raisins.  Why no raisins, Morten?  What did raisins do to you?  Why you eschew the raisins?!

Waitress turned chef and insurance accounts girl Anna is desperate to spend more time in the kitchen. I don't think this is sexist though.  She's making custard (because she's heard it's Greggggg's favourite - the giant jam roly-poly that he is), stacking up raising and apples in a big ol' pudding and will spin some sugar, if there's time, a la James Martin.

The next chap, Matt, looks like a Pillsbury Doughboy.  He's from a really small village in Wales too.  He's the only Doughboy in the village, I believe.  He's making a chilli basil rosti, which we see sizzling oilily (that should be a word) in a big greasy pan several times.  And searing the fish.  Gregg asks him "how on the edge is your food?" to which the obvious reply is, "It's in the middle, Gregg, it falls off the plates otherwise, you fool!".  But Matt says he's done lettuce milkshake before, which sounds revolting, frankly - so maybe that was more the answer Gregggg was looking for (another reason I'm not in this competition - too flippant.  And flippant's only good for pancakes.  Ba-doom-tss).

Rob's dad's a chef, so cooking's in his blood (let's hope it isn't the greasy rosti sort of Doughboy Matt, or he's headed for a coronary before the end of the episode).  He wants to be the best at cooking. Good job he's in a cooking competition, really.  He's a sous chef and runs the kitchen (is that how it works, hierarchy-wise? I'm not convinced...).

Long-necked 20yo Andy is creative with flavours as evinced by his basil beurre blanc with vanilla and fish with apple puree and Gregggg and not-Michel aren't sure it'll work.

Karl is a traditional chef.  He knows what works.  He wants to win (strange, don't think any of the others does).  He's head chef in a pub - he does burgers, fish and chips and sausage and mash - proper haute cuisine then.  He's making chilli squid with apples and sultanas (they're raisins, Karl, you plum!).  Squid crumble?  Again, er, yum?

Craig has done a couple of local competitions and come runner-up twice.  He doesn't say whether they were cookery competitions or not #mindboggles  He's had classic cookery chef training.  He, rather ambitiously, wants to get past the first round.  But you can tell he thinks he's better than that.  He's making green mash, a guaranteed winner with the judges.

Stefani makes imaginative food.  She works in a posh cafe in a cookery school as head chef (head, not sous - there's a definite difference there - anyone?).  She's thinking about making a shaved apple salad (er, hang on, I don't want to eat hairy apples - who would?!).

Mark is completely self-taught, so he's the underdog, according to him, where cookery skills are concerned - but he's head chef in his own restaurant, having been a joiner till three years ago.  He's making a caramelised onion and basil tart.  If he makes great pastry today, he may win (if only chilli vanilli had realised this was the way forward!).

How did they do?

Matt the Doughboy has made a too-salty basil leaf (like the Indian Ocean, Greggggg says) with an enormous stodgy rosti.  I don't fancy him much (or his chances in this competition, fnar).

Morten has made gnocchi and vanilla and apple and gurnard and chilli basil salsa.  Everything good except the chilli is too hot for the apple and vanilla.  His questionable palate is a quandary for Gregggg and not-Michel.

Anna's made a pudding and did find time to spin sugar.  Hurrah!  And it's a very well-done plate.  Greggggg is delighted to have a nice pud (you wouldn't know it to look at him, would you?).  She had him hooked on the custard (frankly, if you can hook someone on your custard, it's probably got too thick a skin, don't you think?).  Anna, giggling, is happy to have had smiles from the judges.

Rob's pan-fried gurnard is served with crispy squid and apple salad with basil oil.  Greggggg doesn't like the salad.  He calls it "unpleasant".  Apple juice spilling into oil and lemon juice.  Monica says it's all too sharp.  The squid and the gurnard are well cooked, but - unpleasant isn't the best way to begin a competition, is it?

Andy has also pan-fried his gurnard.  Well, of course he has.  What else do we fry things in?  Shoes?  Top hats?  For heaven's sake!  His sauce is like a pudding that doesn't go with fish.  And pudding doesn't go with fish, ever. Andy says he feels he's let himself down a bit today.  Well, yes, yes, you have.  AND US, ANDY!  Think on, again, Mr Cooking Is My Life.

James's fish and squid are cooked perfectly.  Not-Michel loves it - it's the kind of plate she has been waiting to see (round, white, flattish, you know).  Greggggg also has no criticism.  He uses the word "punter" to describe himself, just so that we know he still has the common touch and is still a greengrocer at heart (we hadn't forgotten, Gregg - the last "g" in your name reminds us every time - GregGreengrocer. See?).

Karl has made wonderful potatoes, his fish is cooked and seasoned wonderfully.  The squid salad is a letdown for Monica, she says it tastes of nothing.  Tsk.  But Gregggg really likes the salad, but not with hot fish and potatoes in the middle.  Like finding a surprise steaming turd in the middle of sorbet, from his face.

Craig has made a LOT of mash - even Gregggg doesn't like that much mash.  And it's basil-green too - er, nice?  The fish is cooked well (he fried it in a cat litter tray. Just kidding, he used a pan - the traditionalist), but the vanilla beurre blanc ruins the dish.  It's positively seething with black dots of vanilla, like bedbugs in a cheap motel.

Stefani has lyonnaise-style potatoes and a load of old other stuff including fish, with a lemon dressing.  But her fish is overcooked and she's got a clash of styles on her plate.  Fgs, will these people never learn (mind you, if they keep it simple, they get criticised for not being adventurous enough - it's a balance, guys, remember that!).

Mark has made a caramelised onion, chilli and basil tart with a chilli and basil vinaigrette.  Monica loves it.  Greggg likes tarts (so I've heard).  Yep, soft, slippery onions too - mmm, slippery onions, Greggg.  Your favourite!

And that's the end of round one.  Gregggg says there were some exciting dishes there.  No winners or losers today though - there's another instalment tomorrow.  So that's the end of the programme.  Over far too quickly - should've been an hour!

Off they jolly well go, till tomorrow...

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Boys, Bunting and Baking (or The Great British Bake Off FINAL!)

The Great British Bake Off finalists
Baking. It's not just for girls.
It's the final of The Great British Bake Off.  We kick things off with a short precis of the finalists' credentials.

  • James - he's an innovator, keen on the scientific aspect of baking.
  • Brendan - he's precise, nostalgic, with a '70s feel to his perfect bakes.
  • John - he's passionate about baking.

So, it's all boys in the final. Sue says the musk of testosterone and icing sugar in the tent is heady.  All together now - bleurgh.

First, the Signature Challenge.  They have to perfect a rough puff pastry for a Pithivier.  John has been practising his puff for some time.  James learnt to bake as a boy with his grandmother, at home in Shetland.  He's studying medicine now.  And he lives with a girl called Fenella.

John's family are supportive and encouraging - "he's never won anything before" and "he's got a 33.33% chance of winning.  And if he does, we can be really proud of him.  For the first time ever."  Charming.

They fold and roll and chill and rest and then they do the same thing with their pastry.

John's drying his roasted veg filling with kitchen roll to avoid a soggy bottom.  Not sure what he's doing about ensuring his Pithivier isn't damp-based though.

Brendan's partner, Jason, shown on a VT, says he's there to keep Brendan grounded.  And he cleans out the piping bags (so to speak).

So, the boys construct their Pithiviers, heaping veg in the centre of the bottom pastry disc and covering with a larger one, to create the domed effect.  Brendan's is a work of sunburst art.  James uses a biscuit cutter to trim the edge of his.  John folds foil over his to stop it catching, like tucking in Baby Jesus in the manger (I imagine).

Brendan's has a "great base" (phew, no soggy bottom).  It's lovely, Paul says.  Praise indeed!

John's Italian Sausage and Roasted Vegetable Pithivier...has it got a soggy bottom?  NO!  Hurrah!  And a very good flavour.  Mary particularly likes John's "lovely sausage" and was seemingly keen on the Pithivier too.

Horrors!  James's has a soggy bottom and is a little bit underdone.  It's seasoned well and the chicken is perfectly done.  But the pastry is soggy, which "has prevented the flake".  Head & Shoulders should take note.

Brendan is his usual meek, mild and unassuming self - he gives himself ten out of ten.

On to the Technical Challenge.  The judges have to leave as it is judged blind.  Sue Perkins asks Mary Berry to trot on.  And, a surprise to everyone, she actually does trot out of the marquee.  I'm not sure I'll ever get over seeing it, in fact.

So, what is the Technical Challenge?  Fondant Fancies!  25 perfect squares of sponge, marzipanned, buttercreamed, apricot jammed, fondanted, chocolate drizzled - all in two and a half hours.

Familiar territory for Brendan, he says - I probably don't want to think about Brendan fancying fondant regularly, so I shan't, if that's OK.  You can if you want though.  No, thought not.  Moving on...

Buttercream needs to be smoooooth and soft, so it doesn't break the squares when they are iced.

Marzipan is added to the top of the fondant fancies (does Mr Kipling do this? I can't remember, even if I think exceedingly hard), before they all try different ways to coat them with fondant.

Sue likens Brendan's efforts at coating his fancies to the Generation Game, which is harsh but very fair.  They're a mess.  As are they all, to be strictly accurate.  Splodges of messy fondant and smears of drizzled chocolate coat their glass cake stands as they present them to the judges.

Paul and Mary laugh as they see the finished products - always a pleasing result, to make the judges "Pithivier" themselves laughing.

Brendan's - the application of the buttercream isn't sharp.  Quite a nice bake though.

John's - tiny.  Too small.  Just titchy.  Chocolate OK.  BUT WHY SO SMALL, JOHN?!  And after the success of his sausage, too.  Mary looks very disappointed.

James - fondant thicker than the others, but still too thin.  Nice sponge.  Pungent with rosewater.

The results for the Technical Challenge are in.

Joint last are Brendan and John.  So the winner is James.  Just.  But Mr Kipling would be very disappointed.

Paul Hollywood tells the boys to consider themselves chastised (brief moment to imagine being chastised by Paul Hollywood - do I hear a rargh, ladies?  I think I do).

And it makes tomorrow all the more important.  Who can win?  Well, any of them.  We're back to the 33.33% chance again.

The Showstopper Challenge is for the perfect chiffon cake - to be served at the village fete with "limp bunting and torrential rain".  Nice.  And it has to be THEMED.

Oil and eggwhite-based batter for this cake.  It's vulnerable to sinking and often too light to support a tiered cake design.  Sounds straightforward - what could possibly go wrong?

Brendan's theme is family reunion, because he's brought together two different strands of his family.  An almond-coated raspberry chiffon, with another one on top (he didn't get the memo).

John's theme is heaven and hell, a mirror-smooth chocolate base cake and white lemony cloud cakes on top.

James is making five chiffon cakes, four using Turkish delight, pistachios, blueberries and raspberries and one bringing all those flavours together, to unite them.  His theme is "nation".  Or it could be "horrendous" - depends if he can sort that flavour balance!

James has dropped an unbaked cake.  Oh, dear.  Brendan, sympathetically and helpfully, says, "It's the one thing you dread happening."

Look!  It's all the people who left Bake Off, coming back for the village fete!  They all say positive things about the finalists and try not to look really fucking envious.

The cakes are baked.  And they look OK, hurrah!

So they ice them and balance things on them and it all gets a bit exciting and James has to substitute raspberries for Turkish delight.

James thinks his shows less skill than the others, but great baking.  We'll let Paul and Mary be the judge(s) of that.  Obviously.

Brendan gets emotional as he talks about what he's achieved with his baking over the decades - against the odds (not sure what the odds were, but anyway, he gets quite teary about it all).

So, this is it - the final judging of The Great British Bake Off.

John's heaven and hell themed cake has turned out as planned - a mirror-smooth chocolate and orange sponge base, with the white cakes perched on top injected with lemon curd.  It looks superb - glossy brown chocolate contrasting "hell" cake with the fluffy white of the "heaven" cakes.

Brendan's family reunion cake is raspberry and almond, with a gingerbread man dancing round the base.  The cake is a tall, multi-layered delight, a nice bake all the way through it.  The sponge is like a cloud, says Paul - all poetic like.  Mary's just impressed Brendan made his own jelly.

James brings his five cakes over on a colossal board.  Mary applauds James for being the main contributor to village fete, but Paul is concerned - the brief was "a cake" and James has made five.  The overachiever.  Anyway, they decide to judge the middle one, with the Union Jack on it.  Or is it the Union Flag, given that it's not at sea, it's on a cake?  I can never remember (partly because I've never tried to remember, I suspect).  Anyway...  Horrors - it's too cakey.  It's dry.  So they try another one.  It's still a bit cakey.  Overall, they're not impressed.  Although I'm not sure "too cakey" is necessarily a good criticism of what is, when it boils down to it, a cake.

Has James blown it?

Has Brendan done enough?

Is John the last-minute dark horse?

It's decision time for Paul and Mary.

James smiled even when went things went wrong.  Good, good.

John lost his mojo halfway through the series.  Not good, not good.

Brendan was good at things he could rehearse at home.  And he has amazing knowledge.

Who is it?  Paul and Mary agreed in their discussions, by saying the same name at the same time.  Spooooooky.

The finalists and the previous contestants huddle together in the summer drizzle for the results.  And...

And what a surprise!  John's won!  His heaven and hell cake nailed it for him.  And the best thing for him?  He's made his mum proud.  All together now - ahhh!  And he got a First in his law degree too.  Well done him!

Want to be on the next series, to try your hand at cooking eggs, flour, sugar and other guest ingredients in interesting and creative ways?  What are you waiting for?

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Minimalist, brutalist... Grand Designs goes chintz-less

Is this the building site or the finished house? Read on...
Grand Designs this evening focuses on another crazy couple with more money than taste, The Beard and Ringlet Sunglasses, who are aiming to build their minimalist vision in a Victorian street in south London.

They've knocked down a garage to build this uncluttered fantasy home in the garden of the Victorian house they own (along with a minimalist barn in Norfolk, more of that later).

Ringlet Sunglasses wants a beacon of light, which will appear like a light box.  Always popular with the neighbours, this.  And moths.

The Beard wants it to be a sustainable, shimmering glass, carbon-neutral house.  It'll fit right into the neighbourhood, then, because one thing the Victorians were good at was minimalism.

The plan of the house itself looks like a staircase, three levels of box.  Made of concrete with some glass on top.  Given that their current Norfolk barn is mostly made of concrete and furnished with immaculate chipboard, I think it likely that they will manage to make some more concrete into a box in which to live.

Brilliantly, and unusually for Grand Designs(!), the couple aren't sure that they have the budget to build this house.  Kevin rubs his hands with barely-disguised glee at the corner-cutting The Beard is employing - the groundworks are being done by general builders, not extra-special super-duper chaps.  Maybe the house will...fall over...or something.  As it is, they've possibly put the bolts for the meccano in the wrong place so maybe the house won't fit.  Still, they'll find out whether they've made a complete balls-up of it when the concrete sets, which is the wrong side of solid to do much about it.

Ringlet Sunglasses thinks their budget being "small" is fine, because they love baked beans and they hate holidays.  So that's OK then.

They go back to the bolts again - the ones the house is meant to fit onto.  And the bolts are all pointing in different directions.  I wonder if a Big Hammer will be used.  They spray them with WD40 a bit.  But they're 55mm out, which is a door frame (although, being minimalists, perhaps they won't have door frames, just holes).  Still, WD40 is bound to fix it.  Kevin uses such non-emotive language as "wobbly" and "botch job" and "screw up" and the builders who are putting the steel on the base plate come and make extra holes for it.

Kevin calls The Beard "heroic" for trying to build an uncompromising minimalist house on such a small budget (in Grand Designs world, where £320,000 is "small").  This is only slightly colossally patronising.

Ringlet Sunglasses takes her sunglasses off and talks about freeing her mind when not surrounded by clutter.  Kevin calls her a Japanese monk, which is kind.

The steelwork goes up a treat, with a crane that takes up the whole road for some hours, causing parking restrictions and traffic diversions and tree breakages and flood, famine and depravity (maybe), further endearing The Beard and Ringlet Sunglasses to the neighbours.

Ringlet Sunglasses says they are very realistic.  She knows projects take longer, are more expensive and more hassle than you'll ever imagine.  I think this may be the Grand Designs' strapline.

Anyway, it costs too much, so they sell their chipboard and concrete palace in Norfolk.  Fortunately, having chucked out all their chintz (IKEA would be proud), packing takes precisely three seconds and they get all their possessions in the back of an Austin Maestro.

Big fat industrial glass that lights up is going to wrap their new building up like a big flashing Christmas present, and, sensibly, The Beard has decided that he will employ Some Experts to install them, rather than shinning up a telegraph pole and using some Copydex to stick them on.

Kevin stands at the bottom of the building, watching them going up, and saying things like, "Artful! Woof!" which presumably means something in design terms.  Or he may just be losing his marbles.

The Beard's brother is a professional builder and site manager, which is very handy.  But unfortunately, some dreadful hooligan tossers have nicked £6,000 or more of tools from the site, so there is much upset and the build stops for a bit.  Well, for adverts.

And...we're back in the room.

Eight months into the build, and the afternoon after the tools went missing, there was a call from the police. They've got two-thirds of the tools back, hurrah!

In other excellent news, the solar panels will give them free electricity, an eco win!

But the triple-glazed windows are being made in Latvia and transported, an eco fail!

"If you go the exacting route of the bespoke, you need to go the extra 1,500 miles" says Kevin, catchily.  I think I may live my life by this rule.  As it is, it means that The Beard and Ringlet Sunglasses are in Latvia, talking about screw heads and exact specifications of windows.  He's going to paint them white, so that they look like, well, uPVC, so well worth the 1,500-mile journey.

Hand-winching the windows up takes half a day of "punishing" work and they manage to get one window in.  Hurrah again!

It's taken a year and it's up, and The Beard is talking about hiding junctions behind skirting boards in traditionally-built houses.  But they don't want to hide the junctions in this minimalist sugar cube, they want them to disappear.  Perhaps a magic wand may be a good plan?  Or if they get some Blu-Tack and roll it into a long, thin sausage and then squash it along the join between wall and floor?  I don't think they use Blu-Tack enough in Grand Designs, do you?

Effortless simplicity isn't effortless, nor cheap.  The minimalist finishing detail for the kitchen, the roof garden and the rest is costing The Beard £35,000 (think how much Blu-Tack you could buy for that!).

Kevin does an earnest bit to camera, whispering, "It's all smoke and mirrors!" which I think is code for, "This is bullshit" but I could be wrong.

He gets all superlative-spewing again as he says the finished building looks like it's been hewn out of a glacier.  Well, it's glass.  Which glaciers aren't made from.  But OK.

Ringlet Sunglasses says over-materialising freaks her out, quite overlooking the fact that her earnest minimalist striving probably freaks people out too.

Inside, there is revolving (not revolting, though it ain't pretty) furniture.  Kevin calls them "beautiful plywood pods" as one spins to reveal a bedroom you wouldn't sleep in if you were paid to.

The Beard wants a bath store, you know, the kind of thing that sits across the bath, thus:

But Ringlet Sunglasses is horrified at the idea.

And now there are books out on shelves, The Beard has actual books with spines on show. Eek!  I begin to wonder just who is the driving force behind the endless quest for minimalism - perhaps The Beard dreams of wearing a slouchy cardigan with leather patches on the elbows, marmalade and toast crumbs on the lapels and sitting in a cosy armchair, idly leafing through a copy of Cluttered Home Weekly.

"In my house, it would look like a piece of crud," says Kevin.  He's talking about the finish on the plywood.  I think "crud" is a design term.

The eco news is in - it's one from the top of the super special sustainable house ranking lists, so not quite carbon neutral, but not bad.

And what of their budget?  £320,000, if you remember.  Well, they spent £550,000.  Ringlet Sunglasses seems to have hocked her sunglasses to cover the deficit, which is nice.

And we're left with another statement by which to live our lives, "You don't win gold medals for strolling along the road."

No.  No.  You don't.  Well spotted, that Ringlet.

The finished building looks like three portacabins, stacked haphazardly on top of one another.  With some mesh across the windows, like it's in a war zone.  Which, if the neighbours are still pissed off about the tree snappage, it may very well be.  Give me chintz over minimalism any day.  At least you get cushions then.  #reclines

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

The Most Fun You Can Have Watching Television (or Why I Like Baking And Houses)

Kevin McCloud would be proud
I watch television, as I'm sure many of you do too.  If you don't, you should.  Just a bit.  Go on.  Try it, you might like it.


One of my very favourite programmes at the moment is The Great British Bake Off.

If you haven't seen it, a bunch of amateur bakers bake a variety of different, er, baked goods every week.  They have a Signature Challenge, a Showstopper Challenge and a Technical Challenge. Presented by Mel & Sue (famous for being amusing in the 1990s and called Mel & Sue all the time), there are also famous judges (Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry) from the world of baking who judge the baking (I honestly don't know how they dream these things up! Baker judges judging bakers - it's CRAZINESS in a tin).

Anyway again.

And I must apologise, for I fear I have led you up the garden path somewhat, by making it sound like I'm going to be All Serious about baking.  I'm not.  C'mon, chaps, do you know me At All?!

Whilst the programme is, of course, fabulous, with its quintessentially English settings (complete with bunting), earnest and inventive ingredient combinations and will-it-won't-it rise/set/cut properly cliffhangers, there is a game you can play alongside watching the programme, which can turn it from dainty lady-type watching to belly laugh hur-hur-ing in an instant.

Interested?  Read on.

It's very simple.  All you do is replace the word "bake" (in all its forms, bake, baker, baking, baked, etc) with the word "fuck".

Come with me a moment.  You'll have the Great British Fuck Off.  And Paul Hollywood saying, "Good fuck on this." And Mel & Sue questioning people as to how long they have been fucking.  And where did they learn to fuck?  Do they like watching other people fucking?  What's the most challenging thing about fucking?

And my very favourite, "When I'd go to my grandmother's house, you could smell the fucking as soon as she opened the front door."

I know, I know.  Yes, it's puerile.  But I defy you not to do it and laugh.

I'm not done though.

Grand Designs returns this month for a new season.  Hurrah!  Kevin McCloud playing schadenfreude with plebs with more money than taste!  Watch as he rubs his hands gleefully as Norris and Antoine don't get the roof on their house before the rains come down in November.  Delight in his gentle scoffing at sky-high sums of cash being spent on mixer taps on springs, enormous windows and painstaking mosaics crafted by blind nuns out of flattened hedgehog spines.

But, most of all, listen out for the tone of voice he uses when he faux-gingerly asks at the end how much the whole build has cost.  " much...did it the end?"

And then, when you watch the reveal of each lavish room, with Kevin being shown around by the owner-builders, imagine that he's using the same tone of voice to ask, " you...fucked in here?"

Because they will have done.  Hur-hur.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Asterisk the Gaul (Asterix the Gall?) #pedantbanter

Sometimes, when I am not saying "Oh, FGS" about Legoland or Deal Or No Deal or homeopathy or Procter & Gamble (that last one is a lie, I am always channelling my inner "Oh, FGS" at P&G), I like to relax and take time out by nitpicking grammar and generally being a pedantic geek.  I would like to share a small piece of that with you now, in the first of an occasional series I shall call #pedantbanter.

Here goes.

This is an asterisk *  (shown here actual size: *)

This is Asterix

This is an obelisk

And this is Obelix

This post is me being dogmatic.

And this is Dogmatix

(I’ll stop now. For now.)

Monday, 25 June 2012

Facebook - A Public Service Announcement

Recently, I've noticed various people in my Facebook feed who have seemingly decided to make their posts public.  However, when I've messaged them to let them know, they've all been horrified and immediately amended their settings to keep their posts friends only or some other custom setting.

How does it happen?  Why does Facebook suddenly start making your updates public?

Read on, and find out how you can stop yourself from making potentially embarrassing social media faux pas...

When you update your Facebook status on a computer, you will do it in a box that looks like this:

Next to the button where it says "Post", you'll see a drop-down arrow.  Clicking on it brings up a range of options, like this:

Most people choose to share their status updates with their friends on Facebook (perhaps unsurprisingly!), but you can customise your settings still further so that you can share specific things with certain people and not others (useful for all sorts of reasons...).

What you might not know is that if you change your settings once, it keeps them like that for the next post you make, and the next (including photos, videos, etc you may choose to share).  So whilst you may want to broadcast to the world that you've had a lovely meal at a certain restaurant, you may not want everyone to know that you've just fallen over the dog.

Where many people seem to come unstuck is using Facebook from their phone, because if you don't let your settings load properly (and sometimes it'll take several tries, especially if you're in an area with poor signal), the Facebook app automatically posts as "Public".  And then, even if you use Facebook from a computer next time, it will still be making your posts public unless you amend your settings again.  You can do this very easily by just posting another status update with the settings changed.

Have a look down your feed - have you got friends who may be sharing more than they think with the outside world?  You'll see the icon for Public, Friends or Custom under each post - if you see a lot of globe icons, point them in the direction of this blog post.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Everywhere you always take the weather with you (or FGS, it is JUNE)

Great British weather. All of these. Every day.
Apart from stiff upper lips, a penchant for pomp and a greater-than-average tolerance for "celebrity" (c'mon, guys, Fearne Cotton?!), one thing we Brits are famous for is blathering endlessly about the weather.  Today, I would like to share with you my theory as to why and blather endlessly myself about the unseasonably damp spell we've been having recently.

Everywhere you go in the UK, you'll hear, "Cold, isn't it?" or "Hot enough for you?" or "Lovely weather for ducks!" type remarks.  Some people complain, and other people complain about the people who complain, saying such insightful things as, "It's never right for some, is it?!"

So, why are we famous for banging on so incessantly about the weather?  Well, I'm not a meteorologist, fgs, so don't shoot me if this is a load of baloney, but I think it's because we have "weather" rather than "a climate".  So we don't have a traditionally rainy season (well, we do, it's called "summer" - ba-dum-tss!), a season where it is markedly hot-without-precipitation, a couple of months of guaranteed snow, etc.

Instead, we have the kind of year-round unpredictability that means that every day is pretty much a series of unforeseen shocks, meterologically-speaking.  We simply have weather that takes the weather forecasters by surprise (don't it, Michael Fish?)...

On the bright side, our changeable weather that means that we are never short of a small-talk conversation starter, however tedious the ensuing chat may be.  But think about what it would be like if we had the kind of weather that was:

  • hot, damn hot in summer
  • snow in winter
  • damp in autumn
  • bit blowy and rainy in spring, but quite bright
And then imagine it's like that every year.  No unseasonably warm spells in the middle of November.  No snow in June.  You wake up, the weather's exactly what you expect it will be, according to the calendar.  You put on the clothes you've decided you'll wear the night before (heck, the week before, the YEAR before) and you go about your day, not giving a second thought to any of it.

Wouldn't we get a lot more done if it were like that?  No, "Ooh, it looks like rain, shall I take a brolly with me?  A sou'wester?" or "I've got a thin raincoat, but it's not very warm, perhaps I'll need my thicker coat" or "Well, I know it's July, but it might get a bit nippy this evening, I'd better put a thin sweater in my bag" - IMAGINE not having to plan for all elemental eventualities!  We would probably have found time to have cured cancer, invented something considerably better than the wheel AND written a far more plausible ending to Lost than the one they limped tortuously towards for 1,407 series #stillbitter

In fact, we wouldn't be called "Great Britain" - we would be called "Superb Britain".  And we'd win Eurovision every year too.


On to the weather this "summer".  For inverted commas are indeed needed to describe the shower of showers, gales, hail and other such unseasonable shite the heavens have seen fit to throw at us thus far this year.  Apparently, factfans, it is because the jet stream is further south than usual.

But I can't help feeling that I would like to complain to whoever is in charge, please.  Because that's what we do, in Great Britain, isn't it?  Complain and seek compensation.  You can do it with your Oyster card if your London Underground tube train is delayed for more than 15 minutes, after all, so surely you must be able to complain about your summer being delayed for well over a month. I'd quite like some vouchers.  Maybe they could be for a trip to a place where you can set your watch by the seasons?

Or maybe for some galoshes.  Funny, you never hear anyone speak of one "galosh", do you?  Why is that, I wonder?  And, just like that, I prove why we will remain "Great Britain" - we are too easily-diverted by weather-related trivia.  And, if "summer" continues on current form, we must be careful we don't enter next year's Eurovision as "Mediocre Britain"...

Friday, 8 June 2012

Homeopathy (or There's A Little Of Me In All Of You)

Pilules, little pilules, and they're all made out of hokum
Today, I have been mostly ranting about homeopathy.  To myself (and anyone who'll listen, but I live with people who don't really pay much attention to my bangings on any more - I really must get a cat for Proper Ranting Audience purposes, but until then, you're stuck with me).


Homeopathy, for those of you what haven't heard of it (ALTHOUGH - no, hang on, will define it first), literally means "like sickness" and is the theory that giving patients highly diluted preparations of substances that are believed to cause similar symptoms to the ailments they are intended to treat will cure them.  HOWEVER, the mere fact of this existing as a definition must homeopathically mean that you are aware of it.

Because the whole thing is bunk, surely, as Jennings or perhaps the Famous Five would have said.  Bunk as in "rot" or "poppycock" or "load of ol' shite" (all phrases you'll find in the Buckeridge and Blyton novels).

So, homeopathy works on the principle that you take little pilules of stuff that contains something that once was a first cousin three times removed of the thing that you might have.  Only it isn't the thing you might have, it's something like it.  Clear?

The problem with this being SO dilute thing is that, for instance, the water we drink has been through numerous kidneys before we drink it (I was told 11 times when I was a child, which was in nineteen-hundred-and-frozen-to-death, so it must surely be many more times by now).  Does this mean that it has essence of contraceptive, eau de chemotherapy and whiff of beta-blocker about it?  Actually, the Daily Mail, which can always be relied upon to be level-headed and non-reactionary, says that, indeed, fish are all female these days and men soon will be ladies if they keep on drinking water, because of the homeopathic contraceptive effect (I may be paraphrasing wildly).

So, what does this mean for us?

I'm thinking of launching a new range of homeopathic lifestyle solutions.  These include:

  • the homeopathic diet, which means that because someone else near you is eating celery, you will lose weight.  Huzzah!
  • the homeopathic birthday card, which means that because someone else sent one, you did too.  Never feel guilty for missing a birthday again!
  • the homeopathic pay packet, very useful for employers, who will be able to claim that paying £1 is exactly the same as paying £1k, because that £1 has TOUCHED other money in the course of its history.  You're rich, beyond your wildest dreams!
  • the homeopathic buffet, which consists of one sausage roll and one cocktail stick cheese/pineapple combo, from which you must imagine a whole "Mum's Gone To Iceland" spread of beige processed semi-digestible comestibles and entire cheese/pineapple hedgehog.  Tuck in!
And some others, which I have already thought of, homeopathically, and which you have already found funny, homeopathically.

In fact, my husband told me some Interesting Facts about Charles Dickens earlier, so I am now, homeopathically speaking, a famous novelist.  And so are you, because you've read this.  Well done.  Well done, you.

I have a horrible feeling that I will be stabbed to death by a homeopath for posting this.

Well, I say stabbed to death.  They might make me look at a photograph of a knife.  Because that'll learn me, won't it?

Corwumph, Jennings!

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

#ladyflat (or A Place To Call My Own)

I live with two male children and a man.  And, you know what?  Sometimes, I crave lady space.  Surroundings with clear surfaces, expanses of pale oatmeal-carpeted floor not strewn with Bakugan and Transformers and Lego.  Somewhere that crystal vases can be placed on glass tables, with fresh-cut flowers, safe from footballs (NOT indoors, how many times?!) and random small boy boisterousness.

I mentioned this hankering to several friends of mine, all of whom have young children.  The resounding response was, "Oh, YES!" and soon photos started appearing in my Facebook feed, where I'd been tagged in pictures of beautiful places worthy of the #ladyflat tag.

So, I thought I'd share some here, in a blog post which I will update from time to time.

#ladyflat drawing room

#ladyflat bathroom

#ladyflat bedroom

#ladyflat #ladygarden (yes, yes, fnar, etc)

#ladyflat staircase-cum-slide (means "with", filthmeisters)

#ladyflat #ladystudy for writing blog posts
and charming letters on pretty stationery

Monday, 4 June 2012

Hi-Ho, Hi-Ho, tis off to Legoland we go (or That's 12 Hours Of My Life I Won't See Again)

On Friday 1st June, the boys' school had an INSET day, so, together with a friend and her two children, we headed to Legoland for our semi-regular annual jaunt.  We try never to go in your actual school holidays, because it is busy enough at the best of times, let alone when everybody can travel freely and without incurring the wrath of the unauthorised absence fairy.
And, as we meandered our way through the brightly-coloured plastic brick strewn landscape, it occurred to me that I could probably put together some kind of Top Ten Tips For Surviving Legoland blog post.

So, in a rough chronological order, here they are.

1. Don't pay full price.  Only a dick would spend north of £100 taking two children to Legoland.  Instead, use Tesco Clubcard vouchers, Nectar points, or you can sometimes find deals on Groupon or other voucher websites, or even booking in advance through Legoland's own website - basically, there'll be a deal somewhere.  Use it.  My friend used Tesco Clubcard vouchers (which require a degree of planning and forethought that I seldom display, since you have to send away for them in advance) and I used Nectar points (which only requires a quick swipe of one's Nectar card at the till.  You can pay in multiples of £5.00 for tickets, which meant that I spent £110-worth of points and paid the extortionate additional sum of £1.60 in actual cash).  You will also be charged £2 for the car park, but we needn't have done, because there was nobody checking tickets on the way out (NB I am not suggesting you don't pay it, because the Legoland Police may well be out in force on the day you go and you may be thrown into Legoland Jail for not paying it).

2. Get there early.  There will be a queue to park.  There will be a queue to get into the park.  There will be queues to get into queues if you don't get there early enough.  You will want to eat your own face off with boredom by the time you're through the gates if you don't get there early.  So get there early.  The park opens at 10am and, on the day we were there, it shut at 5pm (though in truth, we didn't leave till - oh, well, I won't spoil the ending for you - you'll just have to read on!).

3. Take a buggy with you.  We had two eight-year-old boys (one my friend's, one mine), a six-year-old boy (mine) and a five-year-old girl (my friend's) between us, none of which has used a pushchair in anger for some time, but we took one with us.  And we piled it high with drinks bottles, cool bags for the picnic, towels and swimmers for the Waterworks, a cuddly toy, a fondue set and three cabbages.  Crackerjack!  Or was it The Generation Game?  We may never care.  You can dump the pushchair before you go on the rides and it will be there when you come back (just don't leave valuables on it, kids).

4. Plan your route.  Preferably, do this in advance, using the interactive Explore Legoland map.  Or, do as we did - wrestle with children who are determined to look at the map upside-down, then all run off in different directions.  One way or the other, you'll settle on your first thing - do this quickly, because the queues (did I tell you of the queues?) will build up swiftly.  Perhaps here I should mention the Q-Bot, a small, hand-held device which you can program to queue for you.  Since it costs between £15 and £70 extra per person, and neither of us had had the foresight to marry or become millionaires, we opted to queue for ourselves.  Take a moment to consider that, had we decided to plump for the £70 per person option, we would have spent a further £420 between us, simply to get on stuff more quickly.  Coo.

We decided that our first thing would be the Spinning Spider, and queued for approximately 20 minutes to get on it.  This ride is a version of Waltzers and a relatively large number of people can ride it at once, meaning the queue tends to move pretty quickly.

Six-year-old boy on Dragon roller coaster
Happy 6yo
The next thing on our list was The Dragon, a roller coaster (relatively tame, no loop-the-loop or anything).  My eight-year-old was determined not to go on it, but I persuaded him to trust me, for I knew he would enjoy it.  Only one of our children was tall enough to ride without an adult with them, my friend's eight-year-old.  Handily, Legoland realises that, having queued once, the last thing you'll want to do is queue again with your other too-short-to-ride-solo child, so lets you stay on and ride with the other child without queuing.  And, yes, my eight-year-old loved it.  As did my six-year-old.

5. Decide what NOT to do.  Don't do the sodding Fire Academy.  You spend an eternity in a queue before getting onto the fire engine, where you then have to work a lever like a crazy person to move the appliance along a track towards a "burning" building, before leaping up and down pressing another lever so your child can aim piss-weak streams of water into the cut-out of a house, then it's back to the fire engine to hammer-and-tongs it back to the start line (which has now become the finish line).  Your children won't be strong enough to help all that much, one or all will complain they haven't had a turn doing some portion of the tedious task and you will start wondering why you didn't have the foresight to bring a hip flask with you.

In the same vein, if you've seen fish before, don't queue for Atlantis Sub Store.  Last year, I spent about two hours queuing for this unutterably dull "voyage" to the bottom of a puddle to look at fish you can see in any local aquarium.  I think there may be a code of silence regarding this "attraction" being not all that attractive in reality and I am expecting the Legoland Police to pounce upon me for mentioning that this is really a pretty crummy experience.

But do go and see the Pirates Of Skeleton Bay Stunt Show though, because it includes the opportunity for your children to spray the performing adults with water, which they will find hilarious.  And stunt pirates tumbling off a lighthouse, which is always good fun, I'm sure you'll agree.  It's on several times a day - we saw the 4pm showing, which was jam-packed.  And do make time for a mooch round Miniland for it is a wonderful spectacle of the astonishingly versatile nature of what are essentially little bits of plastic (does that spoil the magic?  Sorry).

6. Take diversionary activities with you.  Some of the queues (I do apologise, I say "queue" a lot in this blog post.  There's a reason for that - can you guess?) have things to do for children in them, but it is worth taking something to do with you as well, so that you can occupy them.  I must remember this, should I ever go anywhere where queuing is such a large part of the day again.  For this time, I forgot it and I spent a large portion of the day channelling Joyce Grenfell, saying, "Don't climb on that.  Please get down.  Oh, fgs, get off that.  You will fall and hurt yourself.  Yes, I know you want to look in the moat to see the dirty Lego fish, but it is A Long Drop from these crenellations.  Ooh, look at that wizard's cloak made from Lego."  Gingerbread men went down a treat, but you can't feed children biscuits for several hours of the day, because it will mean they get wedged in the fleeting ride at the end of the queue and the fire brigade may need calling.  The best queue was for the Boating School, where you steer a boat through a safari landscape of Lego elephants and polar bears (wearing sunglasses, for some reason).  This was because it had several stations where you could build Lego into towers (though, as a sign somewhat bizarrely warned, not too tall, for health and safety reasons.  I'm unaware of someone being fatally felled by a too-tall Lego tower, but maybe I'm just reading the wrong news stories).
Eight-year-old boy driving Lego car
He's eight. Promise.

7. Get your story straight.  Your children will be asked how old they are by Legoland staff if you take them on the Driving School.  They need to be six, so either make sure they can lie convincingly (and  also ensure that the older ones won't grass up their younger siblings) when they're asked, or take them on the one for little kids next to the big one.  Discretion prevents me from recounting what we did with the five-year-old in our midst.  I will tell you that I went on the Legoland Driving School in Copenhagen Legoland when I was 15.  And the age limit is 13.  Oh, the shame.

8. Take your own drinks.  There are all manner of stalls selling things throughout the park.  You can, for £6, purchase a vat that you can have refilled with fizzy pop as many times as you like at any stall selling drinks, but we went for the cheaper option of bringing water with us, which had the added bonus of ensuring the children weren't off their tits on sugary fizz as we made our way round the park.

9. Eat before you leave.  One child per paying adult eats free in selected restaurants across Legoland after 4pm.  Since it will take you another eon to leave the car park, in nose-to-tail traffic, it is a good idea to wedge your children as full as possible on pizza before you go, to avoid having to either pack a picnic tea as well as lunch, stop en route home or feed them when you get in.  We opted for the pizza/pasta/salad buffet, which was eerily like a Pizza Hut eat-all-you-can experience.  At what worked out at a fiver a head once the free child meals were taken into account, this was very good value indeed, we felt.

10. Buy ice cream last.  You don't have to do this, of course.  You can move swiftly past the kiosk on the way to the car park, to sit in traffic for another hour before you leave Legoland behind.  Or you can eke out the pleasure experience for another 45 minutes by queuing to buy an ice cream, then eating it perched next to sweaty strangers on one of the not-enough benches before trudging back to the car (which will be considerably easier to find than in a crowded car park, because almost everyone will have left by the time you've eaten your Cornetto).  This approach also handily means you can tell the children they can have an ice cream on the way out, so you don't have children eating ice cream in the hottest, waspiest part of the day.  And they won't fill themselves up with it mid-afternoon, meaning they'll still eat their dinner.  Result.

So, there you have it.  My Top Ten Tips For Surviving Legoland.  A quick recap:

1. Don't pay full price.
2. Get there early.
3. Take a buggy with you.
4. Plan your route.
5. Decide what NOT to do.
6. Take diversionary activities with you.
7. Get your story straight.
8. Take drinks with you.
9. Eat before you leave.
10. Buy ice cream last.

I spent £1.60 on entry (using approximately one squillion Nectar points as well), £2 on the car park (which I needn't have done), £3.20 on a bucket of Coke to try to stave off a headache that I developed in the queue for The Dragon (something to do with repeatedly dragging the six-year-old off the ramparts), £15.30 on dinner and £8.40 on ice cream.  Just shy of £30 on a day at Legoland for one adult and two children isn't bad, I don't think.  I can think of things I'd rather have spent it on, but that would be Very Selfish of me.  And the boys had fun, so that's all that matters, right?  Oh, and painkillers finally eased the headache, thanks.

NB - we actually left Legoland at 7.20pm, more than two hours after it officially closes.  We weren't the last to leave by any means.  Approximately an hour of that was queuing for and munching ice cream, and persuading recalcitrant children that their bladders would burst if they didn't visit the lavatory before we got in the car to go home.

Legoland Windsor logo