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Friday, 21 November 2014

Days of being a gongoozler

I bet I can guess what you're thinking ....what on earth is a gongoozler?

 Well my dears, it means that I am someone who's interested in canals and canal life , but who doesn't have a canal boat or live on a canal. It's thought that the word was slang used by canal workers to describe an observer standing apparently idle on the towpath.

But I do live very close to Foxton Locks, which in the canal world is quite something. It's a place on the Grand Union Canal in Leicestershire .There's ten locks here two staircases each with five locks, which makes Foxton the largest flight of staircase locks here on the English canal system.
 Staircase locks are used so that a canal can climb a steep hill. Really.

Anyway, Foxton Locks in the summer attracts visitors from miles around. The sun shining on lots of holidaymakers on canal boats, people out for a walk, for a drink, or a meal. I've been coming here since I was a child, usually in summertime. I've brought my own children here, family and friends from all over the world..and in winter too, when wrapped up warmly , it was the ideal place for the children to have an early afternoon walk, to see the swans, ducks, boats and the locks being worked.

But it's only recently I've been coming later in the day. I love it in late autumn and winter when the fading four o clock in the afternoon light brings out the shadows

And a walk on a weekday winter's afternoon means that you have the place to yourself apart from a few other dog walkers.

And a few people living on the canal....

It was cold yesterday afternoon, the sort of cold which you can taste....with a scent of wood smoke in the air

Remember I mentioned staircase locks? Here's what they look like from near their lowest point.....

They are an amazing feat of ingenuity, building and engineering, which were finished in 1814, when coal, wood, materials and feedstuffs were transported on the canals by donkeys or shire horses pulling the boats, when there was a working community along all of our canals. It's no wonder that the Locks are Grade 2 listed.

At the bottom of the locks, there's two pubs which in high summer are packed with people, both inside and outside, spilling out on the decks here at the Foxton Locks Inn and in the pub garden at Bridge 61.

We walked towards the twinkly lights of  Bridge 61, which serves real ales....


which has a timeless quality about it. Originally two large sheds built a hundred years after the locks, it's now a spit and sawdust sort of place, but with a lovely warm fire burning and the type of old cast iron radiators that I used to burn my bottom leaning against at school. Mr Thinking of the Days , Boo and I were the only customers and we had a lovely chat with the owner who's a fount of knowledge about the Locks, having been there for fifty years or so.

And out of the window, we could see across to the well lit Foxton Locks Inn ...and that was also virtually empty

One drink, and it was time to go, but there was a delicious sense of having played hookey on a November day at the bewitching hour between day and night  ....a chance to see the shapes and shadows changing as dusk fell.
On a weekday normally I don't get that chance back is firmly turned away from the windows at the other end of the newsroom at that time...hunched over my computer, headphones on, editing an interview, or furiously writing a cue for a feature on tomorrow's breakfast show. Being busy but missing the atmospheric end of an afternoon . 
And as we headed home, we looked at the lights on the boats and I wondered at those curled up inside who love their life on the waterways. In all my time as a gongoozler, perhaps it's time that I actually got myself on a canal boat, untied the rope and finally set off to find out more......

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Days of an abundance of apples Part 2 -pies versus crumbles

I don't know what camp you're in, but when it comes to apples and puddings, I've always preferred a crumble to a tart or pie.

The soft apples taste virtually the same, but I like the crunchy topping of a crumble. And it's so easy isn't it to make a crumble? If I'm really busy, I will throw in the flour, sugar and butter and sometimes oats into my food processor, press the whizz button, and hey presto , within a minute you have a crumble topping.
At other times, especially if I'm worrying or thinking about something, or I'm cooking in advance, I will mix the ingredients by hand. It can be quite therapeutic, the rhythmic  crumbling the butter into the flour and sugar.

But there's a new apple recipe on the block, for me, anyway. It's one  which is extremely vague to say the least, but it's a keeper. And it's changed my opinion of apple pie.

It's from my friend and colleague Ben Jackson . Ben is an absolute foodie, and on many a Monday morning we talk about what we've cooked and eaten at the weekend. Ben was telling me about his Granny's apple pie and how fabulous it was, how rich, sugary and caramelly it was. Yes I know it's not a proper word so don't get all hoity toity and het up...but it perfectly describes the unctuousness of the pie's topping , so there.....

Ben's Granny is Dr.Eva Shirreffs, and she was one of the first female GPs.., practicing in the Second World War. Apparently she was a much loved family doctor, but I'm loving her recipe that's for sure.
Now there's no written recipe for this, it hasn't even got a proper name ,and I've adapted it slightly,  but here you go.....
Ben's Granny's Apple Pie
 or Dr Eva's Apple pie.......

shortcrust or sweet shortcrust pastry
6 apples
4 tablespoons of water
2 tablespoons sugar
2 or 3 tablespoons of goldren syrup
2 tablespoon Demerara sugar

1.Peel and core apples and slice. Put in an earthenware bowl with the 2 tablespoons of sugar and the water. Cover and microwave for 2 - 3minutes
2.Roll out some shortcrust  or sweet shortcrust pastry and line the bottom of  a pie dish or tart tin.
3.Put the apples on top, sprinkle with merest hint of cinnamon  and cover with pastry.
4. Drizzle the golden syrup over the top of the pastry and sprinkle the Demerara sugar on top's one I prepared earlier..... ready for the oven

5. Cook in the oven at gas mark 4,180 degs Celsius  for about 30 minutes
6. Serve with custard or a good dollop of cream.....I prefer cream.

It's simply gorgeous....sweet, comforting, warming with a crunchy top and a rich golden juice with the apples.

As I said, I adapted it slightly, because I believe Ben and his Granny put the apples into the dish without cooking first, and cooked for about 45 minutes in the oven. You can try either method. I also used puff pastry instead of shortcrust pastry once....but that's only because I took the wrong packet out of the freezer. A word to the wise....don't bother with the puff, just make sure you use shortcrust or even better , sweet shortcrust pastry.

It's been a hit in our house that's for sure......

Saturday, 8 November 2014

days of wondering....

I remember as a child thinking about things. Lots of things. I had questions too, lots of them.

Usually in those moments just after waking up...especially in winter when you didn't want to get out of a nice cosy bed. A bed of cotton sheets and blankets tightly tucked in...the days before duvets.
How did we manage before duvets? That was this morning's thought on opening my eyes.

But back to those moments Those questions usually began with a word beginning with w or h.......

I wonder why, I wonder how, I wonder when, what would happen if....

I'm still asking those questions the mornings as I lie in bed  and stare at the overhead beams in my bedroom, which have been here for four hundred and fifty years.

I think about all the people who have lain here and looked up at those same beams , and wonder about their lives.

Of course I'm always asking questions at's my job. Why did you do that? How do you feel? When were you aware of....? What do you think about...?

The moment I stop asking questions, I'll be in a box six feet under.

But until then, I'll continue. And it's a very important part of my life...those moments as I wake up and wonder and ponder.

Meanwhile, perhaps you can answer another question which I thought of this morning as I logged on here to my blog .

I could see how many people have been reading the blog over the last day....I can see where you come from....The UK, the USA, Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, the Ukraine, The Netherlands...Brazil , South Africa, Germany,and one this morning from Mexico.

Hello, I thought , who in Mexico is reading this,...and how did you find me? It's interesting isn't it?

So, it's not compulsory but I would love to know who you all are ,wherever you live....and perhaps a glimpse of who you are and what you're doing, on  what is here in England, a cold and fairly bright Saturday morning.

Over to you....

First though, here's a song which has been swirling through my head, as I've been writing this post....
I'd always known the version by the Specials, but this is my favourite version, the original by Andy and Joey -and watch the wonderful dancing. on the it.


Saturday, 1 November 2014

days with an abundance of apples part 1

I'm not one to waste food. OK, but let's qualify that. I have got previous (as they say in English cop series) in that I've let some items lurk at the back of the fridge before now and then found they're past their sell by date. And yes, they may have been the odd, old manky courgette or carrot decaying at the bottom of the vegetable basket. But generally speaking, I like to find a use and a tasty recipe for everything that I pick, dig up or buy .

This year, the apples have just kept coming....for the last two months, I've been eating them raw, in Dorset apple cakes, apple crumbles, and there are pounds and pounds of slightly stewed apples in the freezer ready for more warming crumbles to come throughout the rest of autumn and winter.

I find the best way to preserve the apples for the freezer is to slice them and put into an earthenware bowl, dredge with lemon juice and perhaps two tablespoons of sugar, then add four tablespoons of water.

Stir and cover tautly with cling film

Stab the cling film twice, ( a task I always relish, especially when  I'm in  a bad mood) then bung the bowl in the microwave for three minutes.  Remove the cling film , then as soon as the apples have cooled properly put in freezer bags. They will keep for about 9 months.

 But still the apples keep a I've made six or seven pounds of apple and mint jelly. Now this is something I've been making for years, and in good years when the apples are in abundance, I make shedloads. It lasts for a good two years. I think I may have to make another batch pretty soon....if the mint in the courtyard keeps going that is.

Now this is a jelly which goes extremely well with lamb and my lot vastly prefer it to mint sauce. It's also good with roast or poached chicken. So would you like the recipe?

You will need

5 pounds of cooking apples
about 5 large sprigs of mint
2 pints of distilled white vinegar
 another 8 -10 tablespoons of mint; chopped finely
(should make about six pounds of jelly)


1.Roughly chop the apples, cut out the bruised bits , but the good news is you don't have to peel them all!
2. Put the apples in a preserving pan with the sprigs of mint and about 2 pints of water. Bring to the boil, then turn the heat down and simmer for about 40 minutes. Don't let the mixture catch - no sticky bottoms here thank you very much.
3.Add the vinegar and bring to the boil for a further 5 minutes. No longer, because the smell is so intense, I don't want you becoming overcome and falling face first into the preserving pan.
4. Make sure you open the kitchen windows...I hate the smell of boiling vinegar.

5. Spoon the hot apple pulp into a jelly bag which is suspended over a big bowl and leave overnight . When you wake up in the morning , you will have lots of fluid in the bowl..
6. For each pint of extract you have in the bowl, use a pound of sugar, and put everything in a preserving pan.
7.Stir while you heat it gently and make sure all the sugar is dissolved and then boil until setting point is reached...about 15 minutes for me.
8. Don't forget to remove the scum which forms on top .

7.Stir while you heat it gently and make sure all the sugar is dissolved and then boil until setting point is reached...about 15 minutes for me.
8. Don't forget to remove the scum which forms on top .
9.Now throw in the finely chopped mint  and cool.
After 15 minutes put the jelly in to sterilised  jam jars and cover.

I've just got to work out now what I'm going to do with the next batch of apples.....