Make mine a double-double

Waiting for Tim Hortons to open

We took the kids to Tim Hortons this weekend. Put them in touch with their Canadian heritage again. It’s a new experience – the shop only opened Tuesday, and it’s just the second stand-alone Tim Hortons shop in the UK (first was in Glasgow a few months ago). I had heard rumours of Tim Hortons material available in Southampton several years ago. And about three years ago, I was in Belfast doing some fieldwork and happened upon Tim Hortons coffee canisters and sell0-wrapped baked goods in a corner of the Spar. It seemed hidden, abortive, and not necessarily very good.

The opening of the Cardiff Timmies, by contrast, was full of hoopla. It was advertised at its storefront for a couple of months beforehand (picture above is us back in September, sad not to already be eating donuts). When we told the kids, they were surprisingly sophisticated in their response. Having just been to Canada in August, my middle child reflected that if the things that are special over there are available over here, they don’t become as special, somehow. Globalisation summarised by my nine-year-old.Coffee date à deux

They got over any reticence by this weekend and were just happy to go have a donut. The boys put on their Toronto Blue Jays ball caps (I know), and my daughter swapped her Canada 150 lapel pin from her backpack to her jumper so she could prove her national bona fides. They were a litle miffed that we got the jump on them, having made time in the mid-afternoon for a coffee-donut date à deux.

The irony in all of this is, of course, that Tim Hortons is not my favourite coffee. Nothing like. (And if Macleans’s highly unscientific poll is to be believed, that holds true for many Canadians.) When Cardiffians ask me if it’s as good as their Canadian contacts make it out to be, I have to let them down gently. They answer that, by the standards of British coffee, even bog-standard is a cut above. Fair point. Continue reading

Competitive Baking

Do you care about the Great British Bake Off? If you don’t, feel free to ignore this post. It is highly inconsequential and mostly about smug backwards-reading prognostication. If you do care – if you’ve been watching and gasping, squealing, oohing and ahhing, then you’ve probably cultivated your own favourites. And I hope, if you’re like me, your favourites are still going strong after passing yesterday’s quarter-final.

It’s not sensible that I should actually like the programme as I do. I had a long, slow disengagement with TV that started when I was still in high school. By the time I had graduated, all I watched was the news, CFL football, and reruns of Northern Exposure on A&E. When I got my own place in the second year of my undergraduate degree, my roommate and I agreed that cooking and playing music were much more important than the screen, and I’ve been without a TV ever since. My wife, fortunately, shared this sensibility.

Despite not watching it, I’ve been pretty comfortable in scorning it, in a lofty, high-culture sort of way. And my biggest sneers have been reserved for reality TV, though since the “reality” of such TV has been so thoroughly debunked, broadcasters have had to come up with alternate categories such as “factual entertainment.” More fabricated than factual, if you ask me, and the competition shows brought out the worst, it seemed. These instant-singer-sensation shows really pissed me off, as an aspiring songwriter and performer. But I could treat it as water off a duck’s back: know it for what it is, accept it for the profit-generating mechanism the broken industry requires, and know that it is inconsequential for what I want to do.

Then we moved to Britain. Then we discovered the BBC iPlayer. Then we relaxed after working, parenting, and studying by choosing quality from among the dross and watching it more or less on our time rather than the canalised settings of terrestrial television. Continue reading

Blackberries Revisited

I felt that same thrill—like I was getting away with something . . . —last summer when I discovered that the wall of our shared back garden was covered with blackberry bushes. Despite receiving no sunlight and poor drainage, the bush was full, and no one else was picking them.

-Michael Munnik, ‘Blackberries’
The Messy Table, 21 October 2013

So long as I’m poaching blog posts from my wife’s online column, this one also resurfaced for me in this move. The guinea pigs are about what we left. The blackberries are about what we have arrived to. When I wrote this post, nearly two years ago, I was grieving a particular loss and trying to make sense of neighbours and neighbourliness. The blackberries in our Marchmont back garden epitomised what infuriates me about the place. The blackberries on Easedale are emblematic of abundant generosity and good company.

Easedale, however, is a small island in the Inner Hebrides, a significant journey from our front door and not, therefore, an emblem we could appreciate with any regularity. Less so now that we are in Cardiff. Right coast, way wrong degree of latitude.

But it matters not: among the many virtues of the house we have moved into is a cluster of blackberries right in the back garden! My daughter was the first to spot it, and we got out with gusto to plunder what was already ripe and beautiful and black. Of course, it is only the beginning of August, so although the stock is small compared to our erstwhile Scottish riches, there are many berries yet to come. I have to chase my youngest away from them, and when we’re all picking, the elder two are good at monitoring him and reminding him that they go in the bowl, not in his gob. Best of all, as my daughter is proud to say, no one can tell us to cut them down.

Pear and blackberry pie, first fruits of our new home.My wife mixed them with pears and baked them in a pie. It was a wonderful completion to our first made meal in our lovely, sunny kitchen. And there will be more pies. This truly redeems what was broken.

Blutorange, or The Best Thing to Eat

Blood Orange GranitaI have been staking out my local greengrocer all winter long, and it is only now, halfway through spring, that I am finally rewarded. In fairness, this is Edinburgh, and today’s weather was particularly wintry, so perhaps the globalised food provision and transport industry was fooled. Regardless – I am, as I say, rewarded.

It was last winter that I passed said greengrocer and saw a box of blood oranges for cheap. This place is a fruit and veg wholesaler: pallets of their produce come and go without ever gracing the stock shelves. But some stuff is reserved, and whatever is soon to go or looking a bit bruisy goes out front for ridiculous-good prices. It’s the place to which I pointed a visiting student friend who wanted to make a mass veg curry for her temporary flatmates and various musicians she had met on the Meadows. Sometimes it means you spend your evening dicing mushrooms; cooking them with butter, cream, and sherry; and then scooping them into little bags for the freezer because if you don’t they will seriously be a mass of green fur tomorrow. But if you don’t make it, well, it cost you 50 pence, so what, truly, is lost?

I digress. Continue reading

A Heartwarming Christmas Story from the Miners’ Strike

So, I did my Superman bit today. I’ve been donating platelets for over a year, now, because I fit their bill. It’s a sort of blood donation amped up: they take less stuff out of you, so you can do it more frequently, and as a result, you’re in every month rather than every three months; also, the period of the donation is about an hour and a half altogether, about 55 minutes of which is being hooked up to the machine with blood cycling in and out, rather than the 20-30 minutes for a standard pint of your finest A-negative. When they gave me the brief on how it all worked, I was most impressed to learn that, should they need platelets, they spin that standard pint to separate it, and they get about a quarter of a useful unit. Four donations are therefore needed to do one job at the hospital. When you give platelets, they usually take two units, but it is possible to give “a triple,” which would mean you’re really doing the work of 12 human beings over the space of half an afternoon.

Punch line: today I did my first triple.

I’d tried before, but it hadn’t worked out for whatever reasons. They have computers and such that work out of it’s going to go ahead or not, and despite my willingness, conditions were not right. Until today.

Give a little extra at Christmas, sez I. Chatting about Christmas with one of the nurses as she unhooks me, and somehow it gets round to one from the past. “You weren’t here in ’84, were you?” she says. Charitably, I just say, “No.” I don’t need to add that I was five.

“Well, that was the time of the miners’ strike, and my husband was a miner.” Tough times, and they had a bairn, too. She knew it would be long, and she knew that Christmas would be tight. But she put aside her coppers–her ones and twos; she couldn’t stow five-pences in the jar, because they were too precious, too useful in the day to day. Because every day was tight, not just Christmas. Continue reading

Make mine a short one

The author at the Chandos, Trafalgar Square, with a junior

Pubs: good for beer, craic, arranging wooden farm animals, and playing Go Fish with your children

Don’t quite know how I missed this news–okay, I do know: I am living a third of the world away from BC right now–but the BC provincial government has endorsed recommendations to liberalise its liquor laws, including new freedoms for children to enter pubs. About time, says I. The law seemed incredibly fussy and highly inconvenient for me personally on more than one occasion.

I’m no legal historian, but I can imagine the laws were set up to protect the morality of kids–keep them out of the path of alcohol that leads to sin and dissolution. Away from the example of sad alcoholics tottering over their pint glasses, falling off their stools, shouting embarrassing things. So what–keep them in restaurants, where you can’t see that sort of thing? Except your Boston Pizza can serve the kids a cartful of pizza and Mum and Dad are welcome to order a beer alongside. If limits are to be enforced, your server can and should tell you you’ve had enough regardless of where you are. Continue reading

Hands Off My Irn-Bru

Irn Bru ad - snog

Watch out, Canadian Food Inspection Agency!

This story hit my inbox at the right time: lunchtime on a Friday. So I could devote unnecessary amounts of time to it. A colleague who had lived in Montreal for a time passed me the BBC report that Tony Badger of Brit Foods in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan had been told to remove an assortment of British food products from his shelves, including Scots soda Irn-Bru.

I took to Twitter, and I am not the only one. Continue reading

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Seville oranges ready for marmalade

Perhaps I exaggerate, but I do like January for marmalade-making time. Sevilles have a short window, and it is now.

My mother-in-law always grumbled (pleasantly grumbling, mind you) about the injustice of having Seville season at the same time as Burns Night. So that when she was supposed to be slicing bitter peel and pressing pith in a muslin bag, she was busy boiling sheep liver and oats in preparation for the requisite haggis. (I’m sure all Scots emigres, but especially those in Canada, can empathise.) She managed, anyhow. Continue reading

I’m Idaho, or Practice these before Giving them as Gifts

Over the past year, I’ve been working through a cookbook my wife bought me for Christmas – a very dangerous cookbook called the DIY Cookbook from America’s Test Kitchen. I’ve reviewed it in stages here on this blog. But I want here to zero in on one recipe: chocolate sandwich cookies.

One promise the book makes is to replicate all the brand-name preservative-laden junk Americans buy at the supermarket, using simple ingredients. I say ‘junk’ as though these people condemned the stuff, but quite obviously they don’t. From ketchup to peanut butter to American cheese slices, they glory in the contents of the stereotypical suburban larder. And one place where I met their enthusiasm is the Oreo cookie. Continue reading

The Ones that Got Away

After yakking about the recipes I made from the DIY Cookbook, here’s a tip of the hat to some of the ones I didn’t make.

Almost: Sugar Cones. I really wanted to do this one, and I had the ingredients ready to go before my folks arrived in July. The cones were to contain the homemade ice cream (from a Waitrose recipe) using fresh peach and the candied ginger referenced above. In the end, it was one homemade thing too many amidst a new baby and getting ready for visitors. And I had doubts about my ability to execute it technically with our limited resources. Another time, another time.

Tempting…: Duck Prosciutto. Because Duck Prosciutto. I don’t know what my Italian neighbours around the corner would think, but if I am able to make some in 2014, perhaps they could try some and I could find out. Seriously, though, this one – like many of the preserved meats – seems to require more than our dinky flat strewn with baby things and kid things in a moist Scottish climate can offer in terms of infrastructure. I think duck prosciutto will be one of those hobbies I take up once the kids have moved away. Perhaps it will coax them back home once in a while.

Whut?: Cold-Brewed Coffee. Yes, we make coffee. I failed to see the sense in this one. It allegedly tastes better, but you would have to drink it cold. Plus it takes longer to brew. This eradicates two good virtues of the coffee we already make.

Nose-Wrinkle: Seville Orange Marmalade. I’ve been marmalading for several years, and I think I make it well. It’s a bit runnier than my Scottish mother-in-law’s, but I like that about it. I like its colour, its flavour, and its jellied texture. I’ve tried it with pink grapefruit (thank you Avoca Cookbook) and with whisky added in. The instructions in the DIY Cookbook seem arcane and unnecessarily different, boiling the whole fruit for a while, then resting overnight, then coming back to it. First, I tend to make marmalade in the evening after the kids have gone to bed, so we’re letting 24 hours elapse. And the big virtue of following their method seems to be that it makes the chopping easier. But you still have to chop, and finely, too, so by this time, I think you’re not saving much effort. An assiduous, rigorous reviewer would make it their way anyway to try it out, but the annual window on Sevilles is brief (i.e. right now and not for much longer!) and this stuff is to last me till the next batch. Why chance something I’ve already got good?